Ali & George Foreman: “The silent hulking brute becomes America’s sweetheart”

This is Part 2 of a fascinating discussion between sports commentator Dave Zirin and sportswriter Robert Lipstye on the proud socio-cultural legacy of Muhammad Ali. Check out Part 1 here.

The below originally aired on Zirin’s Edge of Sports show.

Zirin: You ever think about this? You talked about it being Shakespearean and whatnot. Ever notice how George Foreman, Frazier, Larry Holmes, these were not big talkers, but they became big talkers in retirement. While Ali loses his speech, almost like his powers were sent to the people he vanquished, or that they vanquished him. I always found that to be almost too cinematic for words as well.

I don’t know — I just thought I’d throw that out there to you.

Robert Lipsyte: It’s a beautiful thought.

Dave Zirin: You’ve met Larry Holmes a million times, he’s the funniest guy in any rooms he’s in, and he certainly wasn’t that when he was a boxer.

Robert Lipsyte: Yeah, and think of George Foreman.

Dave Zirin: Oh my God, that’s the ultimate one. The silent hulking brute becomes America’s sweetheart.

You know it's true.
                   You know it’s true.

Robert Lipsyte: Yeah. One thing is George, it was the end of an interview. He had been very warm and open. I said, “How did he feel that he was an accomplice in the physical destruction of Muhammad Ali?” Of what he was now.

He said, “I think about the great war heroes and how we honor them and see them take out their glass eye or remove their prosthetic arm, and we can only be grateful that they sacrificed so much for us. That’s the way I feel about Muhammad Ali.” I go, “Whoa, where did that come from?” I mean, maybe your idea of Ali transferring his energy and poetics to those he had beaten is part of that.

Dave Zirin: I gotta say, my favorite George Foreman moment is I interviewed him and I said, “What did you think the first time you learned who Muhammad Ali was?” He said, “We were terrified in my poor neighborhood in Houston because the heavyweight champ was a black Muslim.” I said, “Oh, you didn’t like Muslims?” He said, “No, we didn’t know what Muslims were. We were terrified he was calling himself black. We were Negroes!”

Robert Lipsyte: (laughs) That’s wonderful.

Dave Zirin: What was the experience like the first time you ever saw Muhammad Ali? Or I should say Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. — what was your impression?

Robert Lipsyte: I did not see him alone, as you know. The reason I had been sent to cover that first Liston fight was that at the time most everybody thought that he would be knocked out in the first round and they didn’t want to waste the time of a real reporter, so send a kid — that was me. I had yet to meet him.

I went up to the 5th street gym at the same time that The Beatles showed up for a photo op. Ali, Cassius Clay, had not yet arrived so the five of us were shoved in a deserted dressing room and the door was locked. I was the fifth beetle for that 15 minutes. They were very angry. They were really not quite The Beatles yet. They were very angry at being trapped like this. They banged on the walls and cursed.

I interviewed them and I asked them what they thought of the fight. They said, “Oh, that wanker’s going to be knocked out in the first round.” They banged and cursed and kicked at the door. Then suddenly the door burst open and the five of us in unison gasped, because there before us was the most beautiful creature we had ever seen, and probably would ever see.

He was big, he was broad, he was glowing, he was laughing. He was just gorgeous. We fell silent and he stuck his head in the room and he said, “Come on, Beatles, let’s go make some money.” Then he led them out to the ring.

…Tell your listeners to go to YouTube, type in Cassius Clay and The Beatles and you’ll see these pictures. He led them into the ring, they lined up, he tapped the first one, they all went down like dominoes. They leaped up, they formed a pyramid so that they could reach up and pretend to hit his jaw. If I hadn’t known that they had never met before I would’ve thought it was all choreographed. For five or 10 minutes it was this thrilling little play of the 5 most famous people on the planet. Then it was over.

Continue reading Ali & George Foreman: “The silent hulking brute becomes America’s sweetheart”

Golden State’s Greatest Team of All-Time Hopes are on Life Support

Golden State has much on the line when it faces Cleveland on the road in Game 6 of the 2016 NBA Finals. Still ahead in the series, a loss won’t cost Golden State its season. But it will extinguish any lingering hope the team’s fans have of laying claim to Greatest of All-Time status over the ‘96 Bulls. The Cavs are 2-point favorites on Thursday night, according to online NBA sportsbook odds, but they can likely keep M.J.’s Bulls safe by simply not losing by more than 25 points.

Read on to see how.

 

Prologue 

At its core, matching great NBA teams across eras against each other is a quixotic task. Important rules change, leading the way to an evolution of the game itself. For instance, the game which the Chicago Bulls dominated in the mid-90s was a more physical one where defenders could hand, forearm and body-check their opponents. In that time, a zone defense was an illegal one. You had to either guard your man straight up or double the man with the ball.

All this changed in the early to mid 2000s with new rules that forbade all the rough defensive tactics as well as eliminating the “illegal defense” rule itself, allowing only a defensive three-second violation to remain. Essentially, this meant that zone defense was now allowed everywhere except in the paint. These rules led to such profound shifts in the fabric of the NBA game that it’s best to divide the “modern era” of basketball into separate epochs: pre-zone and zone.

Stu Jackson, former executive vice president of basketball operations for the NBA, and other leaders wanted to create more free-flowing offenses. Looking back in 2009, he told NBA.com “With the rule and interpretation changes, it has become more difficult for defenders to defend penetration, cover the entire floor on defensive rotations and recover to shooters.”

“This has provided more time for shooters to ready themselves for quality shots. With more dribble penetration, ball handlers are getting more opportunities at the rim. Additionally, teams now realize the 3-point shot is a great competitive equalizer, so they are taking more.”

By far, the best team of the zone epoch has been this season’s Golden State Warriors, a team which has exemplified the three-point evolution to which Jackson referred better than any other.  This year the Warriors shattered multiple offensive efficiency records, won 73 games in the regular season — most all-time — and are ahead 3-2 against Cleveland in the 2016 NBA Finals.

But are they better than the best pre-zone team — the ‘96 Bulls?

Continue reading Golden State’s Greatest Team of All-Time Hopes are on Life Support

Muhammad Ali: “not a countercultural hero sprung from the loins of Jesus”

And other insights from renowned journalist Robert Lipsyte, who knew Ali for 55 years.

 

Of all the obituaries which have run this week about the singular life of Muhammad Ali, perhaps the greatest belongs to a New York Times writer who knew Ali for decades.

Below is an interview between that writer, Robert Lipsyte, and preeminent sports commentator Dave Zirin on Edge of Sports. The below, Part 1 of 2, is lightly edited and condensed.

…You’ve been associated with Muhammad Ali, I was thinking about this, for 55 years almost. What have the days since his passing been like for you?

Robert Lipsyte: You know what’s interesting, Dave, I’ve gotten hundreds of emails since the obit ran and I would say the overwhelming number of them are offering consolation for my grieving process, and mentioning that they had spotted him once in an elevator, he had given them a hug from across the room. It’s so hard to separate the symbolic political figure that’s powerful shaper, in a sense, of our times, from this glowing human being who made these incredible little connections with almost everybody that he ever came in contact with.

Dave Zirin: Wow. What was your reaction when you heard he passed?

Robert Lipsyte: It’s been a bizarre period because it’s been so many years since we’ve really heard him and since he’s been Ali, that at first his death felt like a formality. But the grief has been so overpowering and the remembrances, it really was like the world stopped. You’re right, but it was a combination. On the one hand as far as I’m concerned, he’s not dead. The memories, the photographs, the legacy. He’s all still there.

On the other hand, whatever grieving process there was, that was over a few years ago. He hasn’t been Muhammad Ali for some time. Coming to grips with the incredible Greek tragedy, Shakespearean, I don’t know what would you call it, irony, of this most noble and loquacious man on the planet suddenly struck dumb and twisted into an immobile hulk. It’s terrible to even think about it.

That, of course, began to be quite evident 20 years ago at the ’96 Olympics where with that shaking hand he lit the torch. The hot wax flowed back, burnt him. He never winced or showed that.

We’ve seen for some time his retreat from the camera and from the public view, until he just became invisible to so many. I hadn’t seen him for several years. Even then, it was remarkable. I would try to ask him a question, he would put his mouth to my ear and mumble something that was absolutely incomprehensible, and his wife from across the room would speak for 5 minutes and tell me what he had just said.

She really became the curator of that legend. Not to make fun of that, because I thought that’s a very well structured paragraph that he could not have written at his zenith attacking Donald Trump for Trump’s suggestion that the government keep all the Muslims out was wonderful.

Dave Zirin: Can I ask you, we talk about this idea of Greek tragedy for me. I know I’m projecting my own politics onto the tragedy here, but this idea of someone who spoke so eloquently against war, finds himself unable to speak, his face an expressionless mask, being led to George W Bush who puts a medal around his neck.

This idea of does Muhammad Ali, A — Does he know what’s happening right now? B — Does he agree with what’s happening right now? And C — is there an issue of consent here in terms of him being in the White House and getting this medal from George Bush?

Robert Lipsyte: That’s a wonderful question. Also maybe goes to the heart of something you and I have talked about so many times about Muhammad Ali as this magnetic slate on which we can put our wishes, hopes, bumper stickers, on.

Who really knows? Who really knows what went on inside. Even from the very beginning, his closest biographer Tom Hauser, spend an awful lot of time with him. Probably more concentrated time than anybody in the ’90s when he was writing that big oral biography.

I always felt that Ali was stunted emotionally, that he probably had reached the level of a 12 year old. So much of what he did and said was the quick study of a somewhat innocent mind, a child-like mind. He was capable of things that we would interpret, but exactly what did they mean?

Continue reading Muhammad Ali: “not a countercultural hero sprung from the loins of Jesus”

Comparing Steph Curry’s OT Masterpiece to Best in NBA & NCAA History

Curry’s 17-point detonation was one for all-time … and all-places.

After missing a potential winner at the end of regulation in Game 4 of the Golden State-Portland series, Steph Curry became visibly frustrated. On the bench, he slammed his hands together, clearing irked he’d missed a 10-foot running bank shot down the right side.

A game-winning shot there would have added some gleam to Curry’s already historic season. Instead, because he missed it, Curry ended up burnishing his legacy while strengthening his case for the greatest offensive season in basketball history far more than he could have with a mere game winner.

In his first game back from nearly three weeks off with injury, Curry filleted the Trail blazers to the tune of 17 overtime points — a perfect prelude to the announcement today that he is the first unanimous MVP in NBA history. A late, clinching stepback three-pointer left Portland owner Paul Allen doing this:

As you can see below, Curry’s performance set an NBA record for points scored in a single overtime:

Most points in OT, NBA history

Steph Curry 17 2016 vs. Portland
Gilbert Arenas 16 2006 vs. L.A. Lakers
Earl Boykins 15 2005 vs. Seattle
Butch Carter 14 1984 vs. Boston
Dirk Nowitzki 14 2009 vs. Chicago

via CSNBayarea.com

NB: The previous scoring record for a postseason overtime was 13 by Clyde Drexler.

This feat is amazing enough on its own. Even more amazing, though, is that the record would stand at the NCAA basketball level, too, where so many more players have had a chance to do better in so many more games. Roughly four times* as many Division I games as NBA games are played per season, according to research provided by basketball-reference.com.

Since the 1995-96 season, there have been 109,667 college basketball games and an estimated 26,000-27,000 regular season and postseason NBA games.

According to official NCAA records, the Division I record for points in an overtime period is shared by two players:

  1. Howard’s Ron Williams, who scored 17 points in the first OT of a win against Norfolk State in 2003
  2. Temple’s David Hawkins, who scored 17 points in the second OT against Massachusetts in 2004.

Essentially, scoring 17 or more points in a single overtime is really, really, really hard. The NCAA has had five-minute overtime periods since 1908, and yet it’s only been done twice before.

That Steph Curry could achieve this against a defense roughly four times more imposing than anything Norfolk State or UMass could summon, in the thick of a pressure-packed road playoff game, after recovering from an ankle injury, doesn’t seem human.

It’s possible that Curry is simply stretching the bounds of what we as fans imagine should be possible on a basketball court. Where he goes, others will eventually follow, right?

That’s not a given. The one player in the NBA who probably comes closest to Steph Curry’s long-range shooting abilities and handle — Damian Lillard — looks to be as much en fuego Curry’s match as Clyde Drexler was en fuego Jordan’s equal. Maybe a much better version of Lillard will ascend through the pipeline in the coming years, but I doubt it. The more I watch Curry, the more he appears to be a transcendental type of talent that may not come around but once a century at best.

Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain were these kinds of talents, too. It’s been nearly 60 years since they burst onto the national scene, and we have yet to see two other big men who can as thoroughly dominate their opposition.
No little man has come close to destroying opponents in the myriad, potent ways Curry can. If anyone doubted this heading into last night’s game, their silence is deafening now.

 

Season-By-Season Comparison Of History’s Greatest College Basketball Players

From Cleveland’s Kevin Love to Houston’s Trevor Ariza to Oklahoma State’s Russell Westbrook, UCLA has no shortage of alumni playing important minutes for competitive teams in the NBA this season. The NBA fans who closely follow the game, whether by watching, fantasy sports or online betting, know there’s a good chance Bruins will play roles on some of the teams making the deepest runs in this year’s playoffs.

When it comes to deep postseason runs, no Bruins, however, have ever stood as tall as Bill Walton and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. That’s certainly the case in the NBA playoffs, as the 7’1″ Walton bagged the NBA Finals MVP en route to leading Portland to the 1977 title. And who can forget what Abdul-Jabbar did on the biggest stage? Twice the 7’2″ center won the NBA Finals MVP (in 1971 and 1985) while winning six championships overall.

As great as Walton and Abdul-Jabbar were in the pros, they were even more impressive while playing college ball for UCLA. Both won the NCAA player of the year award in each of the three seasons they were eligible for it. Walton won two of three NCAA Championships in those years, while Abdul-Jabbar won an NCAA Championship in all three seasons he played varsity (freshmen were ineligible in the 1960s-early 1970s).

In men’s NCAA basketball, few players can touch Walton and Abdul-Jabbar when it comes to a combination of titles and statistical dominance. In fact, to get appropriate comparisons, we must go to women’s basketball. Here we find players who won Player of  the Year just as many times as Abdul-Jabbar (Cheryl Miller) and a superstar who has won more NCAA Championships (Breanna Stewart).

But how do all these all-timers stack up mano-a-(wo)mano? Let’s break out the spreadsheet, folks, and see. Below are the stats for the all-timers’ first season*.

COMPARING COLLEGE BASKETBALL’s BEST OF THE BEST (OFFENSE)

Year One

Player Season PPG FG% FT% 3PT%
Lew Alcindor 1967 26.4 66.70% 65.00%
Sheryl Swooped 1992 21.6 50.30% 80.80%
Cheryl Miller 1983 20.4 55.10% 73.70%
Bill Walton 1972 20.3 64.00% 70.40%
Lisa Leslie 1991 19.4 47.80% 67.60%
Brittney Griner 2010 18.4 50.36% 68.44%
Maya Moore 2008 17.8 54.30% 74.30% 42.00%
Chamique Holdsclaw 1996 16.2 46.80% 71.30% 23.30%
Breanna Stewart 2013 13.8 50.80% 77.70% 33.30%
Diana Taurasi 2001 10.9 44.40% 87.80% 38.60%

*In all the cases above this means freshman year except for Abdul-Jabbar and Walton (where it’s sophomore) and Sheryl Swoopes (junior year since she was a junior college transfer).

Year Two

Sheryl Swoopes 1993 28.1 54.60% 86.80%
Lew Alcindor 1968 26.4 61.30% 61.60%
Brittney Griner 2011 23.03 54.32% 77.67% 50%
Cheryl Miller 1984 22 57.00% 75.20%
Chamique Holdsclaw 1997 20.6 49.80% 66.70% 34.00%
Lisa Leslie 1992 20.4 55.00% 69.70%
Bill Walton 1973 20.3 65.00% 56.90%
Breanna Stewart 2014 19.4 49.70% 77.40% 34.30%
Maya Moore 2009 19.3 52.10% 78.00% 39.80%
Diana Taurasi 2002 14.6 49.40% 82.80% 44.00%

Year Three 

Player Season PPG FG% FT% 3PT%
Cheryl Miller 1985 26.8 52.80% 69.60%
Lew Alcindor 1969 26.4 63.50% 61.20%
Chamique Holdsclaw 1998 23.5 54.60% 76.50% 22.00%
Brittney Griner 2012 23.23 60.88% 80% 50%
Bill Walton 1974 20.3 66.50% 58.00%
Maya Moore 2010 18.9 51.50% 79.00% 41.70%
Lisa Leslie 1993 18.7 55.80% 73.50%
Diana Taurasi 2003 17.9 47.60% 81.50% 35.00%
Breanna Stewart 2015 17.6 53.90% 80.50% 31.30%

Year Four 

Player Season PPG FG% FT% 3PT%
Cheryl Miller 1986 25.4 60.90% 75.30%
Brittney Griner 2013 23.83 60.68% 71.15% 0%
Maya Moore 2011 22.8 52.40% 84.30% 38.40%
Lisa Leslie 1994 21.9 55.80% 68.70%
Chamique Holdsclaw 1999 21.3 51.90% 70.70% 14.30%
Breanna Stewart 2016* 19.4 57.90% 83.60% 42.60%
Diana Taurasi 2004 16.2 45.60% 79.50% 39.00%

*Through first 37 games. 

From an offensive standpoint, players like Cheryl Miller and Abdul-Jabbar on different planets than the likes of Breanna Stewart. This  disparity is so vast I believe it destroys Stewart’s argument for G.O.A.T. despite her team’s unprecedented four-year run.

Now let’s see how these players stack up rebounding, passing and more defensive stats.

Year One

Player RPG APG BPG SPG Team’s Win % Games Played
Bill Walton 15.7 0.00 0.00 0.00 100.00% 30
Lew Alcindor 15.5 0.00 N/A 0.00 100.00% 30
Lisa Leslie 10 0.67 2.60 1.43 60.00% 30
Cheryl Miller 9.7 3.48 2.39 3.48 93.94% 33
Chamique Holdsclaw 9.1 2.08 0.58 0.94 88.89% 36
Sheryl Swoopes 8.9 4.75 1.00 3.44 84.38% 32
Brittney Griner 8.49 1 6.37 0.51 72.97% 37
Maya Moore 7.6 3.05 0.00 1.66 94.74% 38
Breanna Stewart 6.36 0.97 2.06 1.14 89.74% 36
Diana Taurasi 3.2 3.30 0.88 1.18 91.43% 33

Continue reading Season-By-Season Comparison Of History’s Greatest College Basketball Players

Biggest Disparities Between Men’s & Women’s NCAA Basketball Programs

When it comes to dual success at the highest levels of men’s and women’s college basketball, the Connecticut Huskies are in a class of their own. The university’s two programs have combined for a total of 166 NCAA Tournament wins, higher than the totals from the men’s and women’s teams of any other university. Still, though, the disparity between these two powerhouses is larger than many would expect.

The Connecticut men have won four national titles and been to seven Elite Eights since 1999. That’s really good, but it’s nowhere near good enough to keep pace with coach Geno Auriemma’s juggernaut. Since 2000, the women Huskies have won nine national titles and made 15 or 16 Elite Eights. This kind of extraterrestrial success translates into the fourth-largest disparity in Division I NCAA when it comes to women’s program success relative to their male counterparts.

The highlighted column in the below chart shows the difference between the Connecticut men’s NCAA tourney all-time total in wins (58) and women’s all-time total (107) is 48. In terms of gender success gap, that trails only Stanford (57), Louisiana Tech (61) and Tennessee (104)

sports seer 2

*Above data, drawn from NCAA.org, is current through April 1, 2016.

If you’re interested in parity, it appears no major college program does the Title IX thing better than the Maryland. The men Terrapins have an all-time NCAA Tournament record of 41-25 while the women clock in at 42-23. Both have exactly one national title.

So, what about the men-dominant programs?

Good question, arbitrarily inserted headline.

It’s no surprise that the blueboods of college basketball are at the top of the list when it comes to men’s program-to-women’s program win disparity. Much of this is a function of the fact that the men’s NCAA Tournament started in 1939 while the women’s version started in 1982. A four-decades-long head start in winning usually builds pretty large gaps.

So we see a situation in which some very good women’s programs like Duke and North Carolina are still in the Top 7 in terms of disparity because of the strength of their counterparts.

Biggest Gaps Between Successful Men’s Programs and their Female Counterparts

Sports Seer Graph

It may surprise some fans that so many of these men’s juggernauts have not yet been able to find a way to cultivate more success for their female counterparts. Some female programs, like Kentucky’s, have made strides in recent years but it’s hard to close the gap when

a) the men’s program’s even higher levels of success widens it year by year

b) In the 1980s, much smaller programs like Louisiana Tech and Old Dominion took up a disproportionate share of the available NCAA Tournament wins

c) Since then, Tennessee, Stanford and Connecticut have swallowed up a much larger share of all available tourney wins. That trio of programs has been far more successful than any men’s trio over the same amount of time.

In essence, the women’s teams at the top of my first chart play a big role in making it so hard for almost all other women’s teams to develop serious momentum.


“I’ll tell you how far you can go” – Geno Auriemma

Perhaps that begins to change this weekend. The Syracuse women’s team has made it the Final Four. This marks the first time that an historically sub .500 NCAA Tournament program (e.g. Indiana, Michigan, Arizona, Villanova, Cincinnati) has made it this far. To win the title, though, the Syracuse women would likely have to beat Connecticut in the championship round. That’s a very tall order, but doing so may create enough shock waves and recruiting momentum to help start closing the chasm between the Syracuse men’s and women’s teams.

Unless, of course, the Syracuse men steal said thunder and win it all this year, too.


 

For more about the juggernaut Huskies, check out my BestOfArkansasSports.com piece on the first Arkansan to receiver a scholarship offer from Auriemma’s program. 

How Will Arkansas-Little Rock Handle Purdue’s Size?

The biggest question heading into today’s Arkansas-Little Rock–Purdue matchup is a question of bigs: How will the Trojans, whose starting center is 6’11” and 210 pounds, will handle a powerful Purdue front line that goes 6’9″, 7’0″ and 7’2″? How quickly both sides’ bigs get into foul trouble will play a large role in deciding this NCAA Tournament first-round game in which almost every online college basketball sportsbook lists Purdue as a favorite.

“We’re going to have to double team some,” Trojans head coach Chris Beard told Dan Dakich this week. “We’re going to have to take some chances with some single guards. We do have two big kids on our roster. Lis Shoshi is our starting center. He’s a junior college transfer, he’s a good player. He had an offer from Minnesota and Texas Tech, so we beat some big schools on him.”

Beard added, “Then we’ve got a big fifth year transfer, Daniel Green, who played at Wake Forest for four years. Daniel’s about 6’10” so we’ve got 2 guys that I think can match up decently, but other than that, now we’re starting to play 6’4″, 6’5″ undersized guys … so we’re going to really try to help our guys in coaching and game planning.”

For perspective from the Boilermakers’ corner, check out these excerpts from Purdue beat reporter Nathan Baird. Baird spoke with Trey Schapp of the Buzz 103.7 FM earlier this week:

Q: If there is a recipe for Little Rock to try to beat Purdue, what should they try?

Nathan Baird:“[Purdue] came into the season I think with some cautiously high expectations. They had a lot of talent back from last year and added a really good power forward freshman in Caleb Swanigan, who was a national recruit for that mix. I think that this season played out about how I expected. I thought that they would be about a 26-, 27-win team, and that’s right in the ballpark they’re at. Some of the things that you would traditionally associate with Purdue basketball in terms of a blue-collar work ethic, tough man-to-man defense, those sort of things — at least here in the Big 10 sometimes that’s kind of what they’re known for.

What they’ve sort of flipped the script with is adding that power forward in. They play a traditionally big lineup. They’ve got two 7-foot centers. They’re kind of interchangeable. One’s better than the other, but the backup is pretty good, too, and  Swanigan next to that as power forward. That’s a really tough combo for a lot of teams to try to match up with. That’s the really big thing going into a tournament like this is how are these other teams … Very few teams are going to have that kind of size and skill combination in the front court. How are teams going to try to match up with that?”

Q:Nathan, with all that length, do they have much athleticism?

Nathan Baird: A little bit. They’re not a very fast team and they’ve gotten in trouble a couple times against teams that are throwing zone press or something out there. They’ve got a couple guys that have some athleticism. Their starting point guard, or most of their point guards are probably two of the more athletic guys they have – P.J. Thompson and Johnny Hill.

They’ve got a guy named Vince Edward who’s the “3” 6’8″ forward. He played the “4” last year as a freshman and has moved over this year. They’ve got some of that athleticism, but they’re not an essentially quick team. They pick their spots as far as transition. They like to get out and attack and be opportunistic that way. But they don’t really necessarily push the tempo as a matter of their identity.

At the same time, the 7-footers they have aren’t stiffs. A.J. Hammons was a first team All Big 10 player. He’s the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year. Really athletic around the basket, has really become a lot more skilled, has a lot of post moves there, has even pulled the team out more toward the perimeter this year for the first time.

His backup is a sophomore who’s 7’2″, 285 pounds — a kid named Isaac Haas from Alabama. As [Purdue coach] Matt Painter said the other night, if I played him 35 minutes a game, he’d be first team All Big 10. Unfortunately, he can’t play that much. He’s probably a 16-18 minute player at the most, usually, because Hammons gets the bulk of those duties just because he’s such a defensive player, especially in the second half. It’s not necessarily that they’re especially athletic, but they’re pretty skilled and they do a lot of little things right.

Q: How deep is Matt Painter’s bench and how do you think the Denver altitude might affect the game?

Nathan Baird: They go about nine deep and they’ve really got multiple options at each position. Again, they are a bigger team. They rely on those big guys to play a lot of minutes. What’s an interesting angle here is some of those guys I’ve already mentioned – Vince Edward, who’s a 6’8″ guy, Caleb Swanigan, the 6’9″, 250 power forward, and Isaac Haas, the behemoth that they have as a backup center – all of those guys played in Colorado Springs last year in various camps, Swanigan and Edwards with USA Basketball and Haas as part of the PanAm Games tryouts.

Some of their biggest guys, ones who would be maybe the most vulnerable to the altitude, you would expect, all have some experience playing at altitudes. Even if it’s just limited experience. I think that’s going to help them a little bit this week.

All four of these teams are going to have to adjust to it. I don’t know how much of an advantage it’s going to give anybody. The fact that those three guys in particular, for themselves, know how to adjust to it… I was talking to them after the game yesterday and basically said, ‘That first day, you’re out there running, and man it burns. It hurts. You can definitely feel it.’ It’s going to be a matter of just playing through that and not letting it affect you, getting it out of your mind. That could be an advantage for Purdue, just because those guys know what they’re feeling, know how to get through that.

Some of your big guys can shoot the ball a little bit, and that can be an advantage. If you can take those seven-footers and Swanigan and pull them away from the basket by being able to make shots from the perimeter, teams have done that and won.

Iowa was a tough matchup with Purdue that way. They beat them twice. The first loss of the year was at Illinois and Illinois did some of those same things. Some other teams have done that. If you can take one of those 6’9″, 6’10”, 6’11” kind of guys and those guys can hit shots from the perimeter and make Purdue’s seven-footers come out, it opens things up for the whole offense, because now you don’t have that guy protecting the rim and you can get in there other ways, too. You don’t have to score just from the perimeter that way.

That would be one way. The other way is Purdue has been susceptible to high turnovers. It’s not necessarily just one thing, it’s they’ll have travels and a moving screen and then just throw a ball out of bounds… Teams have not only turned them over, but then created offense off of those turnovers. If Purdue wants to make a run in the tournament,  against most teams, they’ll be the first ones to tell you, they’ve got to take care of the ball better than they have in some of their other big games this year.

Q: What was Matt Painter’s reaction to the 5 seed and going up against a 12 in a team like Little Rock?

Nathan Baird: He was pretty nonchalant about it. He’s a really pragmatic coach. He’s not the guy who’s usually very demonstrative. There’s times where we’ll ask about something that’s going on in college basketball and he’s very quick a lot of times to say, ‘Well, I haven’t studied that myself. I don’t want to say something.’ I give him credit for that. Here’s part of his reasoning: If we were a few spots higher up on the seed list, then maybe you could swap us and Iowa State and then we’d still be the 4. There’s not really a difference there.

He and a lot of other people, and obviously up here we’re going to say this, but they think the Big 10 as a whole was underseeded. In fact, Painter said, ‘I think Indiana should have been a 3 instead of a 4.’ I had to say, ‘Actually, they were a 5.’ He was like, ‘Oh, really? Wow.’

Then he really got bummed out. Everyone thought Michigan State was going to be a 1 and they ended up a 2. Again, it’s razor-thin between a 4 and a 5 on the seed list. I think sometimes fans don’t necessarily look at that.”

Groupies, Drugs & Unbending Love: London Crawford’s Story

Former Razorback receiver London Crawford recently gave one of the more open and raw interviews I have ever heard with a Hog. The 29-year-old didn’t shy away from a single hardball question sports radio host Carter Bryant lobbed his way. Take the following exchange, for example:

Q: You are a handsome guy. Were the girls all over you in college?

 Yeah, sort of. I did my thing when I was in college, man, and you know it was fun. I’m glad I got it out of my system. Now I’m at the point where I need to to be focused on trying to find marriage. That’s what I’m looking for now. In college I did my share of bad things and rip and ran, and went to parties and hung out with girls — like, with a lot girls. I carried myself well so I was liked a lot, but thank God I made it out of there the right way.

Q: What’s it like having groupies?

Man, in that state of mind when I was in college, it was great to have woman all over you — women to love you or women to want to be with you or do whatever but as you grow mentally you think, “Is this worth it? What are you really benefiting from it? What are they giving you that’s going to make you really care or think about them beyond that time?”

Q : I feel bad, London, because I do radio and when people see me they’re like, “Oh my god, you look like this?!” Though I have a lot of listeners, I don’t have groupies man. What do I need to do to step my game up?

It’s not about how you look man, it’s about how you carry yourself. You carry yourself high, you carry yourself with confidence and you dress well, you smell well, you live well, you live clean. A lot of woman are drawn to the mind frame now. It’s not the old days where they’re drawn to how you look or what you got at the time because back in the day it was about, like “Oh, he got this amount of money.” But now it’s like what is his brain like? What kind of mind frame does he have? They want that longevity… They want the guys with the degree, the guy with the secure job, so things changed man.

Bryant also catches up with how Crawford is doing these days as a professional arena league football player. They talk about his young son — “he’s a very smart, handsome guy, love sports, loves video games” — and how grateful Crawford feels to have the opportunity to mentor him, to be the involved dad he did not have at the same age.  Crawford’s childhood was far from stable, but he nonetheless credits the early gang-related activity and street temptations as a source of strength. “Growing up in that tough environment, and growing up going through the drugs, and the fighting, and all of that stuff, it made me a better person. It made me a better man today.” He adds:

I’m happy my father has gotten himself to be able to be the dad in my life that I needed him to be and he’s a great grandfather in his grandson’s life. My mother she’s still having her struggles but I’m not ashamed of her struggles. The drugs are strong man, they take over people, and it’s hard for some people to come back from it… crack addiction is tough and I’ve watched it my whole life within my mother. She had bouts where she gets off of it but she relapses. I know it’s her because she’s asked me for help and I’ve tried, and she just relapses. It’s just something that is hard to control. A lot of people don’t have a strong mind frame like I have. A lot of people can’t overcome a lot of things. With that being said, regardless of what she does, she birthed me. I wouldn’t care if she goes through it for the rest of her life and I would love my mother like she’s always been in my life.

Q: Did it make you want to do drugs? Did you do drugs in high school?

To be honest with you man, I had a time where I went through where I wanted to sell it but for me to use it, to watch my mom go through the things that she went through and to watch me not have the things that other kinds had, to see my mom how bad she was looking when she was on that stuff … Man, I steered away from that.

Carter Bryant also spoke with Crawford about a white couple who essentially adopted him in high school and college. More insight about this unique  situation, often compared to Michael Oher and Lee Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side, is provided in an accompany Fox Sports Arkansas piece.

Q: Janice Givens and her wonderful husband Bryan Givens took you in. They’re white, you are black – was there racism? Was there pressure with them to take you in? 

… They treated me as if God never gave any human a color, he gave us a name, that’s how they treated me. They treated me exactly like they treated their two kids, Jonathon Givens and Thomas Given, if not sometimes better to be honest. Anything I needed, they were there. Every football game in high school, once they got in my life, every football game in college after they dropped everything — their jobs, everything to move to Arkansas because they felt like I needed someone to be there for me, they were there. Anytime I needed to talk to them about anything, advice wise, family wise. When I didn’t want to forgive my dad they told me “Look, we love you regardless of what you do. Your mother is your mother, your father is your father. You have to forgive in order to forget.” And I forgave.

janice givens Q: I guess I should rephrase the question. Did they face racism? Were people chirping about them?

Oh man! When I was in high school, there was a lot of people asking “Why is she trying to help him? What is she trying to get out of this?” A lot of doubters man. I’m talking about people that was close to me doubting. And when I got to college it was like, “Okay, they see that he’s a great athlete. They trying to get this, they trying to get this and that, doing this for a payoff for when he goes to the NFL…” Ya-da-ya-da-ya-da. Okay, I went to the NFL. I got hurt. That hindered me. I’m here now, living a wonderful life. I’m happy and they’re in my life everyday now. Where’s the payoff? They’re still the same people they were. It’s not this. They love me more now than they did then. So, no. They faced a lot, a lot of ups and downs. I’m talking about through the media, through social networks, everything. They faced a lot, man, but the love that they had for me never showed that it bothered them, ever. They always told me no matter what goes on them, that “We love you and we’re going to always be here for you.”


Like these “Where Are They Now” type articles with former Razorbacks? I write plenty more at my main site BestOfArkansasSports.com. Sign up for my once-a-week newsletter and never miss another new post:

Dallas Super Bowlers vs. Houston Super Bowlers: Kickoff and Punt Return Edition

 

Here is a list of all-time Super Bowlers who attended a high schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth and Houston areas, broken down by position. Make sure to check out my upcoming piece in the Dallas Observer to see how each metro area’s all-time Super Bowlers stack up against each other.

DFW High School Super Bowlin’ Kickoff Returners

Super Bowl W/L SB Year Team Player Kick (Yds) Kick (Rt) Kick (Y/Rt) Kick (TD) City of High School Name of High School
XVIII (18) Loser 1984 Washington Redskins Alvin Garrett 100 5 20 0 Mineral Wells Mineral Wells
XXVIII (28) Winner 1994 Dallas Cowboys Kevin Williams 50 1 50 0 Dallas Franklin D. Roosevelt
XI (11) Winner 1977 Oakland Raiders Carl Garrett 47 2 23.5 0 Denton Fred Moore
XVII (17) Winner 1983 Washington Redskins Mike Nelms 44 2 22 0 Fort Worth O.D. Wyatt
XXX (30) Winner 1996 Dallas Cowboys Kevin Williams 24 2 12 0 Dallas Franklin D. Roosevelt
II (2) Winner 1968 Green Bay Packers Tommy Crutcher 7 1 7 0 McKinney McKinney
II (2) Winner 1968 Green Bay Packers Doug Hart 0 0 0 0 Fort Worth Handley
XXXVII (37) Winner 2003 Tampa Bay Buccaneers Karl Williams 0 0 0 0 Garland Garland

In the Super Bowl punt return category, three Dallas Super Bowlers are in the books. Mike Nelms stands atop this knoll with 52 yards on six returns. Next up is former Buccaneer Karl Williams, of Garland High School, who returned a single punt for 25 yards in Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl XXXVII win.

The Cowboys’ Kevin Williams also returned one, for a meager five yards.

Houston Metro Super Bowlin’ Kickoff Returners

Super Bowl W/L SB Year Team Player Kick (Yds) Kick (Rt) Kick (Y/Rt) Kick (TD) City of High School Name of High School
I (1) Loser 1967 Kansas City Chiefs Bert Coan 87 4 21.75 0 Pasadena Pasadena
XLIX (49) Winner 2015 New England Patriots Danny Amendola 44 2 22 0 The Woodlands The Woodlands
XVIII (18) Winner 1984 Los Angeles Raiders Greg Pruitt 17 1 17 0 Houston Elmore

In the punt return department, two Houstonians have done it on the Big Stage. In Super Bowl XVIII, former Raider Greg Pruitt returned one eight yards in Los Angeles’ win over Washington. On the other side of the ball, speedster Darrell Green returned one for 34 yards in the Redskins’ loss. He returned another one four years later for a goose egg in Washington’s XXII win.

Now we go to the folks who so politely provide all those returns:

All-time Super Bowler Kickers & Punters, a la DFW

Super Bowl W/L Team Player XPM XPA FGM FGA City of HS Name of HS
XXXV (35) Winner Baltimore Ravens Matt Stover 4 4 2 3 Dallas Lake Highlands
XLIV (44) Loser Indianapolis Colts Matt Stover 2 2 1 2 Dallas Lake Highlands
XXII (22) Winner Washington Redskins Ali Haji-Sheikh 6 6 0 1 Arlington Arlington
XLIV (44) Winner New Orleans Saints Garrett Hartley 2 2 3 3 Southlake Southlake Carroll
XIX (19) Loser Miami Dolphins Uwe von Schamann 1 1 3 3 Fort Worth Eastern Hills
XVII (17) Loser Miami Dolphins Uwe von Schamann 2 2 1 1 Fort Worth Eastern Hills
XX (20) Loser New England Patriots Tony Franklin 1 1 1 1 Fort Worth Arlington Heights
XV (15) Loser Philadelphia Eagles Tony Franklin 1 1 1 2 Fort Worth Arlington Heights

Dallas’ sole punter representative is Curley Johnson, a Woodrow Wilson alum who kicked it at the University of Houston before heading to the NFL where he played for the New York Jets in Super Bowl III. He knocked out four of ’em at nearly 40 yards per pedi-pop.

Oh, and “Greater” Houston? Pssshh. This metro has only produced one Super Bowl field goal kicker. That would be Curt Knight, of Mineral Wells, who missed his only FG attempt for Washington in a losing Super Bowl VII effort.

All-Time SB Houston Metro Punters

Super Bowl W/L Team Player Yds/Punt Punts Yds City of HS Name of HS
XXIII (23) Loser Cincinnati Bengals Lee Johnson 44.2 5 221 The Woodlands McCullough
XXXVII (37) Loser Oakland Raiders Shane Lechler 39 5 195 Sealy East Bernard
XLIV (44) Winner New Orleans Saints Thomas Morstead 44 2 88 Pearland Pearland

For more DFW vs. Houston rankings, check out my BestOArkansasSports.com* post where I rank both areas’ all-time Super Bowler rushers and receivers.

If you really dig this kind of thing, make sure to sign up for my Texas sports stats email newsletter below. You’ll get all my future Texas-related posts. Sign up now and in your first blast I’ll send you something very similar to the above, except it will include all-time Super Bowl Texans regardless of native city.

 

 *OK, so I ventured a little out of state topically. So soooie me.

Best Regular Season Games In NBA History

The “biggest” regular season NBA games are often the result of flux. Sometimes, it’s the reappearance of a superstar returning to the court after a long time away (e.g. M.J. returning from retirements in 1995 and 2000), or the pro debut of a long-awaited phenom (think LeBron’s first game for Cleveland in 2003) or the return of a superstar to his former team’s home court (Miami Heat Shaq going back to Los Angeles, or Heat LeBron going back to Cleveland).

Very rarely, though, does a regular season NBA generate hype because of continuity and stability. Those aren’t exactly the kind of words which drive ticket sales and storylines. In 2016, though, Golden State and San Antonio are forcing precedence takes a backseat to excellence. Both franchises feature star players who have been on the team for at least four seasons and have created distinct cultures based principles of teamwork, unselfishness, high basketball IQ and highly versatile skill sets. Both teams spread minutes and shot attempts to “non-star” bench players like few if any teams in NBA history.

As they head into their first matchup on January 25, 2016, never before have two teams this good met at midseason.

Below is a list of midseason* games involving teams with at least 75% win rate previous to the game:

Year Combined Win % Home Team Visitors Home Team Wins Home Team Losses Visitors’ Wins Visitors’ Losses Home Team Win % Visitors’ Win % Home Team Score Visitors’ Score Home Team’s Final Wins # Home Team’s Postseason Status Visitors’ Final Wins # Visitors’ Postseason Status
2016 88.6% Golden State Warriors San Antonio Spurs 40 4 38 6 90.9% 86.4%
1993 87.8% Seattle Supersonics Houston Rockets 20 3 23 3 87.0% 88.5% 112 97 63 Lost First Round 58 Won NBA Finals
1972 85.9% Milwaukee Bucks Los Angeles Lakers 35 8 38 4 81.4% 90.5% 120 104 63 Lost NBA Finals 69 World Champions
1966 85.3% Philadephia 76ers Boston Celtics 33 3 25 7 91.7% 78.1% 113 108 68 NBA Champions 60 Lost East Finals
1972 83.2% Los Angeles Lakers Milwaukee Bucks 44 7 45 11 86.3% 80.4% 118 105 69 World Champions 63 Lost NBA Finals
1967 80.7% Boston Celtics Philadephia 76ers 44 14 52 9 75.9% 85.2% 113 112 60 Lost East Finals 68 Won NBA Finals
2009 80.5% Los Angeles Lakers Cleveland Cavaliers 31 8 31 7 79.5% 81.6% 105 88 65 World Champions 66 Lost East Finals
1986 80.5% Boston Celtics Los Angeles Lakers 30 8 32 7 78.9% 82.1% 110 95 67 World Champions 62 Lost West Finals

I expect the Warriors to win tonight. They are simply too good at home, Tim Duncan isn’t playing and Spurs Gregg Popovich famously undervalues regular season games. Even if the Spurs lose, though, it will be fascinating to see if they can maintain their current rate of success and continue to push Golden State toward a projected 74-win season. These teams will play another three times by early April.

Heading into those remaining three games, do you think they will maintain their current stratospheric all-time rankings — as seen below — on both sides of the ball?

***

The below metric, adjusted offensive rating, takes a team’s offensive production and measures it against the league average:

Same recipe as above, but on the defensive side:

In case you missed it, here’s a good piece by Dan Favale elaborating on the historic number above. And here is my piece for SLAMOnline about the game.