LeBron James’ signing with Miami Heat has seemingly polarized the NBA Nation. Most hate everything about it, especially the way the whole thing went down. No need to provide another rundown of all the bad actors in this play. In the end, James was a “free agent,” which, as the name indicates, meant he earned the right to take his services wherever he desired.
The marriage between James and Dan Gilbert was dysfunctional and clearly beyond repair. Surely both sides could have handled everything better, but that didn’t happen. What happens next is anyone’s guess, although most people believe NBA rings are in the Heat’s future. What about the economic impact? Miami Heat troika of stars might be financial windfall that is felt beyond the Heat – and could positively impact the looming CBA negotiations.
Michael Jordan was a money-making machine – and he was universally revered. James was beloved as a Cleveland Cavalier. That changed July 8, 2010 at approximately 9:30pm, when James instantly became the NBA’s version of the Iron Shiek, a reviled WWE character. Miami fans will love him, especially if the Heat win NBA rings. But, to everyone else, the Heat is the new team everyone passionately loves to hate.
My most recent Basketball Times article focuses on Coach Wooden's legacy and Sam Gilbert:
Wooden must be remembered as teacher-coach – not for Sam Gilbert
Everyone agreed following John Wooden’s death at age 99 that he was a true American icon. A common refrain to characterize what Wooden did was that “he coached basketball but he taught life.”
Several years ago, the National Association of Basketball Coaches passed a resolution that its members be referred to as “teacher-coach.” It was an admirable gesture, but just like the term “student-athlete,” it’s something that should be earned, not bestowed. Wooden, without question, set the measurement for what a teacher-coach should be.
Wooden would illustrate his true purpose by invoking legendary University of Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg. After an exceptionally good season, Stagg was asked whether he thought it had been one of his most successful years in coaching. Famously committed to the idea that sports should build character, Stagg replied, “I won’t know for another 25 years or so.”
The 10 NCAA championships are an amazing feat, but the success of Wooden’s former players is extraordinary. They are doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers and coaches by trade, but more important, there are good people cut from Wooden’s mold.
Since Wooden’s passing, there have been countless tributes. Most focus on his inspiring life and his mind-boggling accomplishments. A few have invoked Sam Gilbert – the infamous UCLA booster who was alleged to have provided benefits to Wooden’s players – in order to provide additional context to Wooden’s life. It’s one thing to mention Gilbert in Wooden’s obituaries, but I think it’s absurd to theorize that UCLA’s championships are tainted by Gilbert.
"Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are." --John Wooden
The day before the NCAA sanctions against USC were released, the Los Angeles Times went into its Way-back Machine (we now know it as google) to give us yet another story on Sam Gilbert and his role in UCLA/Wooden basketball dynasty. I have no problem when people speak ill of the dead, if they must, but, goodness gracious, so much for letting Coach Wooden rest in peace.
If the Gilbert/Wooden story has legs, as they say, then bring it on. Give us new information or a new wrinkle to this 40-year old story that gets trotted out whenever someone wants to take shots at Wooden's legacy.
I have no doubt Sam Gilbert broke NCAA rules. Does that tarnish UCLA's basketball dynasty? If you want it to, I suppose. Or it's just sour grapes.
There's cheating in big time college sports. Shocking. Jerry Tarkanian, former Long Beach State and UNLV coach, used to say, “In major college basketball, nine out of 10 teams break the rules. The other one is in last place.”
Tark liked to jab NCAA by suggesting the organization would never go after UCLA or Wooden. Tark didn't offer a legitimate defense of the NCAA's allegations against him, but it was (and still is) a great punchline delivered with a profound truth: Yes, UNLV may cheat, but everybody cheats.
There have been so many wonderful tributes to Coach Wooden since he left us. Eventually, I will write my own. In the meantime, here are 10 of my favorite things I've read and watched on Coach's inspiring life.
Coach gets a deserving honor: He's on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated.
For Coach, a photo is worth 10,000 words. 39 rare photos of Coach. My alltime favorite: John Wooden at Purdue. Chiseled physique. Intense focus. Calculating. John Wooden, the basketball player just looks like someone who was quick...but did not hurry.
Art Spander on Coach. Art first met Coach in 1956 when Art was a UCLA freshman and covered sports for the Daily Bruin.
"The discipline is about to begin up in heaven. St. Peter will learn how to wear his socks and tie his shoes. Or else...On this day, with John Wooden gone, the rest of us [have tears]. Better watch those shoe laces, St. Peter."
Andy Hill, a reserve on the 1970-72 championship teams on Coach:
“You hear from every guy who played for him how he taught us about life as he taught us about basketball. But I don’t know that any of us had any idea that it was happening at the time. It’s like you read a Salinger story, then you took a class and learned about all the hidden symbolism. There was a whole level of teaching going on that none of us could see.”
Andy Hill sent this link along with this poignant note:
"I have had an emotional week, but everyone who loved Coach is happy to see him move on to a better place. There have been some fabulous columns and shows about Coach…this one is one of the best I’ve heard. The first interview starts around 4:20…and goes on for about 16 minutes. My guess is you’ll want to listen to the whole thing after hearing Eric Neel from ESPN talk about his experiences with Coach. You will also hear a level of emotional connection that I never hear from folks in the media, because they’ve never met anyone like John Wooden. Personally, I burned through a few tissues…so be quick…but don’t hurry!"
5) On Monday night Prime Ticket re-aired "Scully & Wooden...For the Kids.” I hope you Tivo'd it because it may never air again. I know T.J. Simers' snarkiness irks some people, but Coach was a wonderful needler. Or as we say today, trash talker.
6) THE UCLA DYNASTY re-airs on HBO on Friday, June 11 (7:30-8:30 p.m. ET/PT).
Debbie and I were fortunate to see the Premiere at the Bruin Theater in Westwood in the presence of Coach. An amazing documentary. The best moment was an impromptu talk by Coach. Coach thanked everyone for giving him more love than he ever felt he deserved. Coach used the word "love" at lot in recent years--and actually regretted that he did not include that word on his Pyramid of Success.
7) Over the years, I've posted several of my recent encounters with Coach, along with a lengthy contribution by Bill Bennett, who worked closely with Coach through the years. Also, I got to visit Coach the day before my wedding. Now, that's priceless.
"Five times during that season the Bruins scored more than 100 points; only six times did they win by five or fewer...The 1963--64 title team stands as both a summation of everything he had learned to that time and a grand experiment in the coaching arts that he would apply to win nine more championships. Precept after precept was tonged and tempered in the crucible of that season: The game rewards quickness above all, victory begins with defense and, perhaps most important of all, it's what you learn after you know it all that counts."
9) Up Close with Roy Firestone....And, better than all the tributes, is just to sit and listen to Coach...his beautiful mind, his common-sense solutions, his Midwestern values and that sly twinkle in his eye. Roy Firestone posted some of his great interviews with Coach.
10) (And last and definitely least) The Sam Gilbert Dilemma
"There's as much crookedness as you want to find. There was something Abraham Lincoln said — he'd rather trust and be disappointed than distrust and be miserable all the time.
"Maybe I trusted too much."
Coach lives on, not just in memory, but in every lesson we were ever taught by our greatest teacher. As my friend Andy Hill said, "Coach won't die."
Coach, we love you.
UPDATES: I will add more articles that I think are worthwhile...
* John Akers, my editor at Basketball Times, wrote a great story on Coach in 2005. The piece took 2nd place in United States Writers Basketball Assn. best-writing contest for magazine-length stories.
Wooden addresses his concerns about Sam Gilbert. Wooden concludes:
“I know I never used him. My conscience is clear. When some say the program is tainted, that doesn’t bother me a bit.”
* Former Dodger GM Fred Claire writes about Coach's love of baseball
"[Wooden] loved to talk baseball, and in one of our first visits he pulled a newspaper clipping out of his pocket that told the story of Pittsburgh general manager Joe Brown offering him an opportunity to manage the Pirates. Said Wooden: 'Joe offered me the job and I turned it down by telling him, 'Who do you think they'd fire first, you or me? If I were the owner, I'd fire you first for hiring me. Then I'd fire me.' The chances are great that Wooden would have been successful as a Major League manager. He was a talented player as a youngster and later coached baseball at both the high school level and at Indiana State before taking the basketball job at UCLA."
March Madness is mostly just great basketball. This season was no exception, capped off with a championship game for the ages. March Madness also stirs the never-ending debate about the often-strange mixture of athletics, amateurism, academics and capitalism.
Many, including me, lament the inevitable expansion of the NCAA Tournament from 65 teams to 96. It’s going to kill interest in bracketology. It rewards mediocrity. It diminishes the regular season and conference tournaments. Too much missed class time. College basketball’s end of season is as close to perfection (as opposed to college football). As I’ve written in this column before, the NCAA runs the risk of oversaturating the market with product and ultimately damaging the golden March Madness brand. Scarcity works. And, if I am wrong, I wasted a lot of time and money getting my MBA.
At this year’s Final Four, the debate escalated at an NCAA news conference when John Feinstein, despite repeated attempts, could not get Greg Shaheen to admit that most “student-athletes” participating in the second week of the tournament would not step foot in the classroom. It was a near-perfect setup, after the NCAA began the conference with a presentation on the great strides athletes are making in the classroom. Graduation rates are increasing. Therefore, the critics are wrong. Of course, Feinstein just wanted the NCAA to admit the painfully obvious fact that players on teams who play in the second week of the tournament will not be spending much time in the classroom. In Shaheen’s defense, he was there to discuss the business of college basketball – and he, no doubt, did not want to get into the strained argument that March Madness has anything to do with school.
Shaheen remembered his talking points when he later told SI.com: “The point is, it isn’t about the money raised. It’s about what’s done with the money. That’s why our goal has been to grow and diversify the revenue stream. If you call us greedy, you clearly don’t understand what we do with the money. That’s why we have that new wave of PSAs: ‘Look: Here’s where the money goes.’” Of course, the NCAA doesn’t mention that a good portion of the money also funds excesses in college sports.
I am all for college basketball generating more revenue, but let’s not forget that this is being done on the backs of a small percentage of student-athletes.
Last month, I wrote an op-ed piece in U.S. News & World Report on whether teams who do not graduate at least 40 percent of its athletes should be banned from the NCAA Tournament, as proposed by US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
My view: Duncan’s proposal might sound like a good idea, especially on paper. But first, it would punish the wrong people: the current players, rather than the coaches and administrators who brought in these long-gone titular student-athletes. As I have argued many times before, schools should do their level best to increase graduation rates, but they must do so without gaming the system (e.g. steering athletes to easier majors, “over” tutoring, etc.). As we learned from the NCAA’s APR, the most well-heeled athletic programs did the best job of making the “cut rate” in order to avoid losing scholarships.
On the subject of kids not spending enough time in the classroom: The Wall Street Journal article “The Case for Saturday School,” showed that “Kids in China already attend school 41 days a year more than students in the U.S. Now, schools across the country are cutting back to four-day weeks.” It also pointed to a recent study by University of Maryland researcher Dave Marcotte that “shows that even the loss of a few instructional days can erode academic performance.”
The article pointed to a disturbing trend in our educational system: “In the face of budget shortfalls, school districts in many parts of the United States today are moving toward four-day weeks. This is despite evidence that longer school weeks and years can improve academic performance.” There’s a parallel here with college sports, especially men’s basketball. Teams are playing more games during the school week with later starting times and more travel. Graduation rates are going up, but some athletes are missing more class than ever. Something has to give, right?
The NCAA constantly talks about striking a proper balance between academics and athletics, which, I agree, there needs to be. I also applaud the NCAA and its efforts to stress academics. But, at a certain point, it does need to walk the talk.
T.J. Simers, the longtime LA TImes sportswriter known for unmercifully needling more than a few sports figures, does a wonderful "where is he now" piece on the artist who will forever be known as one of the biggest NFL busts of alltime, Ryan Leaf. Ryan gives his mea culpa. Obviously, these are just words, but I give Leaf a lot of credit for coming honing up to his mistakes. There's no guarantee that even if he was a model citizen, he would have succeed on the field. But, no doubt his poor attitude and lousy work ethic contributed to his demise.
A few quotes from Ryan in T.J's column:
Even though Leaf was one of the biggest alltime draft busts, it could have been worse...
"I dodged a bullet. A strong case can be made that Peyton Manning is the greatest quarterback since Unitas. It's bad enough as it is, but just imagine if I had been picked ahead of Peyton.''
"I was a phony person for so long, it's so freeing now to tell the truth.''
"It's all on me and no one else. I take full responsibility for not succeeding."
A cautionary tale for young athletes...
"It was total self-destruction. My mom has old tapes. I listened to one recently and cringed. That kid was a punk. That's my fault for leaving college early and not having someone around me to help. And if I did, as stubborn and bullheaded as I was, I probably would not have listened. I was 22, but I was 16 probably as far as maturity goes.''
On seeking help...
"I was tired of being beat up by the media. I was just so exhausted. I thought I could just walk away, not talk about it and it would all go away, but that's the not the way the world works.''
"I realized one night I was taking drugs for emotional and not physical pain, but it had such a hold on me. I couldn't ask for help -- I didn't want to appear weak.''
On the the lessons learned...
"I don't know what could be more powerful than me standing in front of young athletes telling my story. I'm no role model, just someone with a story of struggle. And maybe triumph.''
There's no do-overs in life, but certainly Ryan Leaf provides a great lesson for young athletes on what not to do. You can only root for Ryan, going forward, to find success and happiness.
[This originally ran in my April 2010 Basketball Times column.]
In its Feb. 22 issue, Sports Illustrated ran an excellent piece on the Seattle basketball scene, examining the hotbed of talent that has come from the 206 area code.
There are problems with basketball development in our country, but I always come back to the fact that kids want to learn to play the game the right way and get better. If the system is screwed up, there’s plenty of blame to go around, but it is definitely not the players’ fault.
When I first started covering basketball issues over 10 years ago, I met Albert Hall and Jim Marsh from Friends of Hoop, a group featured prominently in the article. Jim Marsh is an incredible human being – he still runs FoH, which was originally founded and funded by George Karl. Hall and Marsh remain good friends.
The article is a must-read.
Two statistics stick out:
1) “In the first 30 years of the McDonald’s High School All-Star Game Washington had only three participants: Kim Stewart of Seattle’s Ballard High in 1974 (when the game was called the Capital Classic), Quin Snyder of Mercer Island in 1985 and Luke Ridnour of Blaine in 2000. But since 2004, there have been nine McDonald’s All-Americans from the Seattle metro area alone, including (Josh) Smith, who will play in the game this year.”
2) “The Seattle area has 13 players in the NBA, tied for fifth among the country’s metro areas even though it's only 15th in population.”
Why has Seattle enjoyed such a cluster of success? Clearly, this incredible level of success is by design, rather than by accident. My take: The Seattle basketball community wants its own to succeed. If you’re a basketball player from the 206 area code, you belong to a special fraternity no matter what school you go to or what team you play for, from high school to college to the pros. Seattle is a great model for others to follow, especially at the youth level.
Step one: Read the Sports Illustrated article. Twice. Step two: Talk to Jim Marsh and his current and former players. They are a great model for others to follow. And listen. Step three: Help your basketball brothers, even if you compete against them.
I'd like to think the whole article is worth reading, but here's a quick summary: This may sound like a good idea, especially paper. First, it would punish the wrong people...current players, rather than coaches and administrators who brought in these titular student-athletes who are now long gone. As I have argued many times before, schools should do their level best to increase graduation rates, but it must do so without gaming the system (e.g. steering athletes to easier majors, "over" tutoring, etc.). As we learned from the NCAA's APR, it turned out that most well-heeled athletic programs did the best job making the "cut rate" in order to avoid losing scholarships.
I also address the 410,000 student-athlete ruse, which often muddies the argument. Yes, the vast majority of college athletes are amateurs. They play for the love the game--and they uphold the amateur ideal. Just as important, for these athletes, athletic programs strike a healthy balance between academics and athletics. Then there's basketball and football, where the vast percentage of economic incentives supports winning at just about any cost. These players are hardly amateurs in any sense of that made-up term.
I do think that basketball and football players deserve to be paid. That does not mean they should be rolling in dough. Maybe $4,000-5,000 a year stipend so they can focus on school and sports, rather then worry about money.
Walter Lamkin commented that "many of these kids, especially at Division I football and basketball powerhouses are recruited off the mean streets of America's cities. They arrive often in an idyllic setting foreign to them, trying to blend into the overall student body. It sounds good, but how do some of them go out for a pizza on Friday night? How can they take a friend to the movies? Or even get home for Thanksgiving? I don't defend repugnant behavior, legal or otherwise, but I can understand the frustration of college athletes who don't have even a subsistence level for daily life. They collectively bring in billions of dollars to their respective instituions and a mere pittance, crumbs as it were, are tossed their way. I suggest that each athlete be means-tested each year, much the same as those applying for financial aid, and at certain levels they should receive a stipend in order to had a chance at a 'normal' student life."
Hey, paying athletes might also slow down the basketball underground, which I often cite when describing how the basketball economy works. I also think there should be a fund set aside from marketing revenue generated by football and basketball. This fund can be an incentive to graduate: If you graduate within a reasonable window (say 8 years), they'll be a pot of gold waiting for you. Everybody wins. Not enough money to fund this? Keep spinning.
Walker invested $10 million in Chicago real estate with a "old friend named Fred Billings." Walker admits he did not really know much about Billings, even though he knew him for 10 years. Said Walker, "We spent a lotta time together. Hanging out. He was kinda like a part of the crew...It cost me not going out there and handling it myself."
According to Schwarz's reporting: "Billings did not pay mortgages, hired untrained workers to make illegal repairs and is awaiting trial in Cook County for his alleged involvement in a mortgage scam. He has been charged with 13 felony counts of fraud, forgery and theft."
Unfortunately, Walker faces serious charges that he was a slumlord.
Walker now recognizes that real estate is a serious business, not something you completely entrust to others: "I probably should not have ventured into businesss until I got out of my [basketball] career."
Walker on his lifestyle and helping others
"I am not going to sugarcoat it. I lived a very expensive lifestyle. I took care of my family. I was very generous to my family and my friends...In the beginning of my career I kind of thought it was my obligation. I thought it was kind of my calling. 'OK, I make this amount of money. My job is to give back.'"
On "helping" friends and family It was very hard for me to say 'no' to people when they come ask me for something," Walker said. "A lot of friends I grew up with would have a business venture and hit me with a sob story and I would say 'yes,' and I got burned a lot of times that way. People say 'I need to borrow $200,000 for this deal and I'll give it back to you,' and then I never hear from them."
Margaret Johnson, former girlfriend and mother of one of Walker's children
"He has a big heart. He became addicted to gambling and he ran through millions taking care of more than 50 people who are nowhere to be found now that he needs the help.
Kenny Anderson on family
"Family can be your worst enemy. Family was mine. Not going to say no to mine...You know you got a 5-6 year deal and you think this thing is going to last forever. It just snowballs. Everybody's asking; everybody's taking. You got to find a way to say no."
Pitino in 1999 on Walker
Rick Pitino, who coached Walker at UK and the Celtics, made this unprophetic remark when Walker signed a maximum six-year, $71 million deal with Boston in 1999: "[Antoine Walker] will never have to worry about money again in his life."
Pitino today on Walker
"I didn't factor in poor investments. I didn't factor in gambling. I didn't factor in recklessness of spending."
Pitino's advice: "All the cars need to be sold. The houses need to be sold. Liquidate everything. Don't try and live a foolish way and hold on to them. It's over. That lifestyle is over."
Watch the feature. Twice if you're a pro athlete.
Let's hope Antoine can get out of this mountain of debt, although the avalanche of lawsuits will make it difficult. Walker rates a mention in the next edition of Money Players, in the chapter on "A trip down (bad) memory lane." This chapter is unfortunately getting longer.
While Mr. Haywood had some great seasons on the court, his greatest contribution to NBA players was in the court. Mr. Haywood entered the League after sophomore season. Back then you didn't "declare" for the NBA Draft. You stayed in school for four years. Mr. Haywood sued the NBA over the fundamental right to be employed as a professional basketball player. And won. This is a big deal, especially to me. Not only did I feature Mr. Haywood in my book, Money Players, but I also dedicated the book to Mr. Haywood (and to Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Henry Aaron, Curt Flood and Marvin Miller).
Here's what I wrote in Money Players:
Youths take to the courts
I want to thank Spencer Haywood…for leading the way. Without Spencer Haywood there would be no Bill Willoughby, Darryl Dawkins, Moses Malone or myself.
—Kevin Garnett, after being named 2003-04 NBA MVP
In addition to suppressing wages though the reserve clause, owners united to control the minimum age at which players could enter their leagues. That way, the NBA and NFL could take advantage of a free farm system—college sports—without fear of any team undercutting the system by drafting a player below the minimum age.
Spencer Haywood left the University of Detroit in 1969 after two seasons. At the time, the NBA had a strict policy against drafting or signing a player until he was four years out of high school. Haywood played one season for the Denver Rockets of the ABA, was named MVP, then was signed by the Seattle SuperSonics. The NBA sued Haywood and Sonics owner Sam Schulman to keep Haywood out of the league.
At his first NBA game, lawyers served Haywood with an injunction ordering him to leave the arena. The public-address announcer reportedly said, “Ladies and gentlemen, we have an illegal player on the floor.” Haywood endured racial slurs from fans. Even other NBA players turned their backs on him, thinking that by entering the league too young he had not played by the rules.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that because Haywood was the only wage earner capable of taking care of his family, and therefore a “hardship case,” he should be permitted to earn a living in the NBA.
Haywood’s case paved the way for young players to declare themselves eligible for the NBA Draft, even right out of high school.