Here we go …

Remember me? The runner? Yeah, well I'm older and much slower than I used to be, but at least we're gearing up for another stab at it.

That's right, on Nov. 10 I'm running the Harrisburg Marathon. Since I'm in the masters class now, the goal is to try and win as the fastest old guy. The problem is there are a lot more fast old guys and I'm not sure I'm one of them.

We'll see, though. I figure if Joan Benoit Samuelson can run 2:50 at Boston at age 56, I ought to be able to do it, too.

Right?

Anyway, as the weeks progress I will update the training progress. Mostly I'm doing it for myself because I like writing and reading other training blogs. I don't suspect others do, but whatever. Hopefully, it will be interesting to the other running-type geeks out there.

And since I travel often and take a camera with me on rare occasions, maybe I'll spice it up with different things I come across on the roads. Since I started the training again I've run in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Indianapolis; Chicago; Dallas; Houston; New Orleans; Boston; Florida; Atlanta; Philadelphia; Valley Forge; State College and probably a few other places I forget. I also have trips planned to Colorado and Detroit where I'm excited about getting out and running around. 

Anyway, here's the first week of serious training:

Tuesday, June 4 (morning)

7.1 miles
Not the start I wanted, but it worked.

Tuesday, June 4 (evening)

3.2 miles
Nothing gets a runner in shape quicker than doubles. I think it's a metabolism thing. Whatever it is, it's fun. No, it often doesn't feel like fun when you try to push yourself out the door. But once you get going the low-key easy ones are fun because they pay off.

Wednesday, June 5

10 miles
Didn't get out until after work and then ran in South Philly through the Navy Yard. What a treat that was … empty roads of a near-deserted city as well as the remnants of American industrial and military muscle. The old Naval parts were bloated, tired, rusting and abandoned. Sprinkled in is new office space for the new American corporate and technological muscle.

And everyone had gone home so I had the roads to myself. Fun.

Thursday, June 6

10.1 miles
Consistent mile splits through the neighborhood. The pace was solid even when running on grass for a couple of miles.

Friday, June 7

4 miles
Dark and rainy. Ran on a crappy indoor track and a treadmill at the YMCA and hated it. It's not the YMCA's fault (well, the crappy track is). I just don't like running inside.


SaturdaySaturday, June 8

12.1 miles
Ran nine miles of hills in Lancaster County Park. I had hoped to go 14-plus, but the hills were pretty tough and by the 10th and 11th miles I was shuffling a bit. Otherwise, it was a lot of fun. The County Park is slowly becoming a favorite place to run.

Check out the elevation … it's not altitude, but there were some climbs.

Sunday, June 9

10.1 miles
Easy 10 through the neighborhood and some of the neighbors were out to chat a bit. Otherwise, the run was a lot like Thursday … consistent and steady. Nothing to get excited about.

Total: 57 miles

It's a start.

Week 1: Solid

Ideally there has to be a goal, some sort of endgame. As
that goes my plan had always been to run a bunch of marathons and if I was
ready for it, the ultra marathon national championships in Boalsburg, Pa. at
the end of the October. 

Hey, when the speed is gone, the endurance prevails.

Regardless, I’m not interested in running marathons if
I’m not fit. Yeah, I can probably go out tomorrow and hammer out 26.2 miles. It
would be slow and I might be out of commission for a couple of days after it,
but what would be the point? The idea this time around is to be fit enough to
bounce back quickly and jump into the next run or race.

And so we get to the base building, that steady
accumulation of miles and miles of running every day. Because I’ve been off for
so long, racking up the miles is tedious. Likewise, the changes to the body as
well as results from the workouts come oh so slowly.

But maybe that’s the fun part. There is absolutely no
stress on putting in the work. There are no workouts to hit just perfectly and
no races looming. It’s just the miles and nothing more.

At least that’s what I’m telling myself…

Anyway, the first week of the new year is in the bag and
it went rather solidly. I wouldn’t say strong, but instead it was solidly
solid. It was pretty decent and almost good.

Here’s how it went:

January 1

11 miles

Ran to the Susquehanna River. I was sluggish in the
beginning but felt good after getting loose. This is a tough run … not a whole
lot of flat stretches.

Might not be able to tell from the picture, but just look at these hills:

Hilly

 

January 2

10 miles

Easy does it. Got out later than I would have liked and
ended up running most of it in the dark. For some reason I don’t run very fast
in the dark. Even when I feel like I’m moving, my watch always shows a slower
pace.

Oh well.

 

January 3

10 miles

 Ran after some hills. Felt good and did some work.

 

January 4

10 miles

Same exact run as the day before. Hills might make you go
slow but they clean up the form.

 

January 5

13.25 miles

Ran all over the place. Weaved around the neighborhood,
hit some rails-trails park, dipped into the city for a stretch and added a hill
or three for fun. By far the best run of the week.

 

January 6

6.25 miles

Woke up with my quads feeling like crap. Took some extra
coaxing to get my quads and hamstrings ready to move. They hurt, man! Must be
the hills. Thankfully I only scheduled an easy one for today.

61 miles for the week. Solid.

Dope on dope on dope …

Tyler-hamilton-lance-armstrongCoincidentally, the reports that Lance Armstrong is
mulling a confession for a career-long and systematic doping regimen that
helped him win the Tour de France seven times as well as an Olympic medal and
plenty of other races, comes just as I finished reading teammate Tyler
Hamilton’s
book chronicling those years.

Obviously, Armstrong’s admission is too little, too late.
But, with anything involving Armstrong one has to look for a Machiavellian plan
at work. What is the endgame for a guy who spent two decades attempting to
destroy any one who told the truth? It can’t be that he simply wants to race
triathlons or marathons again, could it? He can do that any time or anywhere.

Does he really need attention that badly?

An admission is a bit surprising because there are so
many obstacles for Armstrong to leap over. For instance, if he admits to doping
all those years, he’s wide open to an array of lawsuits. Over the years
Armstrong successfully sued or received settlements from entities that claimed
he doped. If it comes out that he actually did everything as reported by the
likes of Hamilton and Floyd Landis, there’s going to be a long line of folks
trying to get some money.

Armstrong also would be open to federal perjury charges
in Landis’ whistle-blower suit against the US Postal racing team. In other
words, in order to admit to doping, Armstrong would have to be reassured that
he would not lose all of his money nor spend time in jail.

Continue reading

Once again …

Everything still hurts and that's good. It means after a few years away, I still know how to do it right.

So after five months of the so-called "comeback," it seems like a pretty good idea to turn this little site back into one chronicling adventures in running, racing and whatnot. The Sixers stuff will still be over at CSNPhilly.com and of course there is Beerleaguer.com, too, but this here is all about running.

You can dig into the archives and see the sort of stuff posted about training and racing from the last go at it, culminating with the Pocono Mountain Marathon in May of 2008. This time around the updates will be similar, however, since I'm old and not as fast any more, it's time to tackle ultramarathons.

Anyway, this is it. There won't be a comeback after this one so maybe we can make it last.

 

Kibosh!

The powers that be (you know, the ones that pay me) shut down this little site. As it stands, I cannot write the off-beat stuff here anymore, but I am allowed to write a book. Therefore, the plan is to use this site as the inspiration as some sort of epic tome about sports, silliness and, of course, love.

You know, the usual stuff.

In the meantime,check back for updates and stuff like that. 

xoxoxox,

jrf

Game 20

2012-01-28_17-33-21_721

Saturday, January 28, 2012
Game 20: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 95, Pistons 74

PHILADELPHIA — When I was in the eighth grade, the only thing I wanted to do was play basketball. Sometimes I would leave for school early so I could spend time on the school yard shooting before we had to go to class.

At recess and gym I played ball as much as possible and when the school day ended, I was on the way home to play some more. It didn’t matter what the weather was like outside, I was firing up shot after shot for as long as possible.

Once I went to the gym to wait for practice for our CYO team only to find out it had been canceled without warning. Something had come up with the coach and he couldn’t make it, but for whatever reason I didn’t get the notice until I was getting dressed on the sidelines and getting fired up to go. I remember it felt like a tease—here I was in the gym and I couldn’t play.

Continue reading

Game 19

Game_19

 

Friday, January 27, 2012
Game 19: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 89, Bobcats 72

PHILADELPHIA — Recently, there was a small controversy in Los Angeles because Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the only NBA player to win the MVP Award six times, did not have a statue of his likeness outside of the Lakers' arena, the Staples Center. As far as controversies go, it was pretty tame, but there was a point…

If Kareem can't get a statue, who can?

One of the problems in the whole thing that it was Kareem doing the complaining. Even if the guy deserves a statue, a bobblehead doll or fat head poster, you don't go around complaining when one isn't there. That's just gauche.

In Philadelphia there is nothing to worry about as far as public artworks around the arena. In fact, there is just one statue of any former Philadelphia athlete and it's the biggest and bestest of them all.

Indeed, Wilt Chamberlain, the Overbrook High graduate and Hall of Famer who played for both the Warriors and the 76ers, has some sort of avant statue on the south side of the Wells Fargo Center. Sculpted by Omri Amrany and unveiled in 2004 (five years after Wilt's death), the statue shows two images of the man. One is a bust of Wilt's head and the other is of him rising with the basketball as if to throw one down. The part that seems odd — aside from the two faces of the man — is the whisps flowing from the ball and Wilt's body as if to show motion and flight.

It's odd because there is no need to show the motion with such graphic detail. If there is a picture of a man holding a ball above his head while his eyes are focused on something in the distance, movement is assumed.

Anyway, Amrany seems to have cornered the market on sports stadium sculptures in the U.S. He is also the artist behind statues of guys like Michael Jordan at the United Center, Pat Tillman in Arizona, as well as several statues of Washington baseball greats at Nationals Park. Those, just like the one of Wilt, also show those waves of motion.

Interestingly, Philadelphia was once the city with the most public art outside of Paris, but of all the statues, sculptures and murals, sports figures are barely represented at the complex in South Philly. Aside from Wilt, there was a statue of Julius Erving outside of the Spectrum. However, since the Spectrum has been torn down, the statue of Dr. J has been removed. One can assume that Doc will find a new home, but for now we're still waiting.

The Phillies seem to have done a pretty good job with the artworks celebrating the greats of their franchise. Outside of the ballpark, there is a statue of Mike Schmidt, Robin Roberts, and Steve Carlton, which is aptly out past left field. Inside the stadium, a young and speedy Richie Ashburn is shown running the bases from a perch in center field, while his old broadcast partner, Harry Kalas, has a home on the concourse close to the restaurant that bears his name.

Otherwise, the only controversy seems to be that the statue of Wilt doesn't do justice to arguably the greatest basketball player who ever lived. For his time Wilt was an athlete beyond reproach. He was a track star, a volleyball pro and even dabbled in boxing. The only thing Wilt couldn't do well was shoot foul shots.

But if the Wells Fargo Center is going to be around for a while, maybe there ought to be some more artwork around the building. The arena is set on the former spot of JFK Stadium, which hosted 42 Army-Navy games, Live Aid and the famous Jack Dempsey and Gene Tunney fight for the heavyweight championship of the world in 1926. Tunney won the fight with a 10-round decision, setting the stage for the rematch at Soldier Field in Chicago. That one turned out to be the famous "Long Count" fight in which Dempsey knocked down Tunney, but because he would not move to a neutral corner, the referee delayed his 10-count. Tunney had plenty of time to rest, regroup and take the fight from Dempsey in a unanimous decision.

Maybe a Bobby Clarke statue or one of Bernie Parent celebrating the Flyers' last championship in 1975 would look good outside of the building? Or how about one of Charles Barkley rising for a two-handed tomahawk slam? Either way, there is plenty of concrete and open space down there just waiting to be accessorized. 

Game 18

Game-18

Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Game 18: Wells Fargo Center
Nets 97, Sixers 90 OT

PHILADELPHIA — For one reason or another, people like to invite Ian MacKaye to sporting events. The so-called iconoclast/punk hero must give off the vibe that he would not like checking out a ballgame or something, as if so-called iconoclasts/punk heroes don't have time to kick back and relax.

So it comes as a surprise to some folks when MacKaye reveals that he often takes up offers to go to games. For instance, back in 2000 when the Lakers faced the Pacers in the NBA Finals, a friend flew MacKaye to Indianapolis where he sat near Larry Bird, Phil Jackson and Jack Nicholson.

There's more, of course, like the standing offer from his uncle-in-law to see the Phillies the next time they make it to the World Series. Or the fascination with former Red Sox and Expos lefty pitcher Bill Lee, who attended a premier of a documentary a friend made about The Space Man in San Francisco and put on a show of sorts sitting in the audience as well as on the screen.

Better yet, MacKaye remembered going to RFK Stadium to see his hometown Washington Senators before they moved to Texas after the 1971 season. Like everyone else, MacKaye was excited to see slugger Frank Howard, who was known for blasting rockets into the upper deck for Ted Williams's Senators.

“I remember it being a big deal at the time,” MacKaye said about the trip to RFK.

So what's the point? The guy gets out a bit, big deal? Lots of people go to a lot of games. Who cares if some punk rock dude gets invited to places?

Truth be told, I just wanted to write about a phone chat with Ian MacKaye.

Yeah, those are good questions. But it was during that conversation with MacKaye that the topic of the athlete and his role in society came up. My contention was that a lot of athletes did not realize that they were part of a show—that they were, in essence, entertainers. The way I saw it, pro athletes were competing against Hollywood and television for the entertainment dollar. The thing is, I said, most athletes didn’t sign up to be entertainers. They just wanted to play ball.

Which brings us to Kris Humphries, the power forward for the New Jersey Nets…

When he was in high school, Humphries was an All-American, which helped him get a scholarship to the University of Minnesota where he spent one year. In 2004, Humphries was drafted by the Utah Jazz with the No. 14 overall pick. Since entering the NBA, Humphries has played for four different teams and earned nearly $17 million in salary. At age 26, Humphries is just coming into his prime as a ballplayer and his 19 rebounds against the Sixers on Wednesday night was a season-high.

So it would seem that Humphries has everything going for him. He has money and a successful career in which he is finally coming into his own.

Now all he needs is to meet that someone special to settle down with…

Game 17

Game 17

Monday, January 23, 2012
Game 17: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 103, Wizards 83

PHILADELPHIA — A few years back before the Phillies had won a championship and became the darlings of the city, I was chatting with a player when suddenly realized it was time to go.

“You guys have a ceremony to get ready for,” I told the player.

“Really? What’s this one for… the 10th anniversary of the 12th anniversary?”

It’s pretty funny when one remembers how the Phillies used to be. The team seemingly had a special event every other weekend to celebrate its handful of trips to the World Series as well as its lone championship. It was a running joke that the Phillies would do anything to celebrate their shitty history without actually acknowledging they were the losingest franchise in the history of North American professional sports.

And here’s Ben Chapman… the man who tried to prevent Jackie Robinson from breaking Major League Baseball’s color line!

The Phillies don’t do much of the rehashing of old times with ceremonies and parades of former players because they have to anymore. The not-so secret is that good teams and good players pack the stands and since the Phillies are winning, they don’t need to bring back Mike Schmidt or Steve Carlton as much anymore.

In Philadelphia, the Flyers are the team that re-lives its history at every chance and like the Phillies, th Flyers are still celebrating a long ago championship that most folks can’t recollect. It’s been 37 years since the Flyers last won a championship and it doesn’t appear as if the team is any closer to winning one anytime soon.

The Sixers, on the other hand, don’t go the sentimental route all that much. Oh sure, the team brought back Allen Iverson to play for a bit when it was clear there was no other way to get fans to the games, but that act got old quickly.

As far as the Sixers go, there was a celebration for the 25th anniversary of the 1983 championship team, a nice ceremony for the last game played in the Spectrum and a retired number fete for Charles Barkley. Otherwise, the Sixers haven’t dipped into that well all too much over the past decade.

Part of that has to do with unresolved grudges between players and former ownership, and another factor is that the Sixers have not been too great for long stretches of time. In fact, the Sixers’ history includes a team that many argue was the greatest ever (1966-67) as well as the team that set NBA record for futility (1972-73).

Regardless, Philadelphia has a strong basketball tradition. When the BAA began in 1947, the Philadelphia Warriors won the championship. The Warriors lost to the Baltimore Bullets in the second year of the league and in 1950, when the league changed its name to the NBA, the Syracuse Nationals (later to become the Philadelphia 76ers) made it to the championship round in their first season.

A team from Philadelphia has been to the NBA Finals nine times in the history of the league. 

The lost art of the triple-double

Spencer+Hawes+Chicago+Bulls+v+Philadelphia+fI5TGCFYL5ulMIAMI – In an age of advanced metrics and heightened statistical analysis, the triple-double still stands alone. Often it is the pinnacle of all basketball accomplishments. To get double-digits in points, assists and rebounds, or even blocks or steals, is the mark that a ballplayer had a really good game.

Actually, a triple-double is a true indicator of the all-around player. Typically, players don’t get them by accident. In other words, all of a sudden a player isn’t going to “get hot” and mess around to get a triple-double.

If it could be labeled as such, the triple-double is the most organic of all statistical phenomenons, yet they never sneak up on anyone. If someone is an assist or a rebound or two away from a triple-double, everyone in the gym knows it and they keep track. A triple-double is like a hand grenade, in that when it is about to blow, it makes some noise. That's the way it seemed when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson used to get them. 

And yet heading into Sunday’s action, there has been just one triple-double in the NBA this year. It came from the Celtics’ Rajon Rondo on Jan. 1, when he put 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists on the Washington Wizards. 

Yes, even though the season has reached the quarter pole, the triple-double has become more elusive than ever.

Maybe it’s just a lost art?

“I don’t know if it’s a lost art, it’s just always been rare,” said Andre Iguodala, a player who is known for filling out the stat sheet. “You have your guys from different eras who always got them starting with Oscar Robertson and Magic and Larry did it a bit. I remember one year M.J had about 11 or maybe more. Then you have Jason Kidd, LeBron is up there, Rondo is up there and Chris Paul gets them every now and again, so you have your select few guys.”

Actually, the select club has trimmed down its members this year. Perhaps it’s because players are a bit behind offensively because of the lockout or maybe the scouting and the defenses have gotten so good that the triple-double has begun to disappear from the game like the mid-range jump shooter.

“You have to be a unique guy physically to get that just because you have to rebound or get assists, that’s tough,” said Sixers’ coach Doug Collins, who as one of those mid-range jump shooters back in the day, never got a triple-double.

Oh, but he’s coached a few unique players, including Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in Chicago and Grant Hill in Detroit. He also has Iguodala in Philadelphia who has seven career triple-doubles.

“There are a lot of guys who are on that cusp,” Collins said. “If you’re a smaller player, to get 10 rebounds is a lot and if you’re a bigger player to get 10 assists is a lot. So you have to be that hybrid guy who plays on the perimeter, who handles the ball, who has the size – Grant Hill had the size, Magic Johnson had the size, Jason Kidd had the size. If you look at the triple-double guys, you have to have the size to get the rebounds and the assists.”

But as Iguodala explains it, there really is no trick to getting a triple-double. A self-professed gunner in his younger days, Iguodala says he never really learned to be a good passer until he got to the University of Arizona and learned from the son of one of the best-passing big men ever to play.

“Luke Walton taught me how to get triple-doubles. I had one in high school, but in college, Luke Walton really taught me how to get them,” Iguodala explained. “He used to kill me every day at practice during my first year. He was the slowest guy, couldn’t jump off the ground – a slow white dude and how is he beating me? He’s beating me with the pass and everything, but he taught me how to pass and how to keep it simple.”

Keep it simple, as in don’t get caught up in it, is a pretty good way to go about it says Sixers’ ball-friendly big man, Spencer Hawes, who missed one on opening night in Portland by an assist. In that game Hawes said he kept his mind on the game, unlike the time when he was playing for Sacramento against the Sixers and came an assist shy of the triple-double.

“In the Portland game I don’t think at any point that I was forcing it. It was just the flow of the game, we were moving the ball and guys were finishing shots for me and it happened for me once before in my second year against the Sixers,” Hawes said. “I remember being a lot more caught up in it and I had the assists count in my head. I got the rebounds and the points early and then I started on the assist count and I got too caught up in it. A guy missed a layup and a guy missed a three-pointer, and I was thinking, ‘No!’ This time I just let it flow.”

Hawes has gotten close, but not all the way there. Interestingly, though, he remembered a game in high school when he nearly got a quadruple-double until his coach benched him.

“I started taunting the crowd and the coach pulled me out,” Hawes said.

Wait… what?

“I air balled a free throw and the crowd started chanting, ‘air ball’ at me,” he said. “I made the next one and I turned and started chanting, ‘scoreboard’ and then he yanked me. I think I was two blocks and three assists away from a quadruple-double.”

Still, though Rondo is the only guy to get a triple-double this season, there have been a handful of near misses. Six players have come within one assist of getting it, including Iguodala last Wednesday night and Hawes in the season opener in Portland. Sixers’ guard Evan Turner also missed a triple-double by two assists in a game last week, and boy did he know it. After the game when he returned to the locker room, his phone was filled with text messages from friends.

“I’m saving my first triple-double for later,” Turner joked. “When I get one everyone is going to know it.”

Turner isn’t much of a threat to catch Kidd, who, with 107 triple-doubles, is the active leader. Meanwhile, Robertson, famously, averaged a triple-double during the 1961-62 season for the Cincinnati Royals before folks even knew what it was he was doing. That season Robertson averaged 30.8 points, 11.4 assists and 12.5 rebounds per game, making him the only player ever to pull off the feat. He almost did it during his rookie season, too, going for 30.5 points, 10.1 boards and 9.7 assists per game in 1960-61 and again in 1962-63 when The Big O came seven rebounds away from the triple-double average.

Magic Johnson came 29 rebounds and 37 assists away from doing it in 1981-82 and 107 rebounds away from pulling it off in 1982-83.

For the Sixers, Iguodala had three triple-doubles last season, which is the most in franchise history since Charles Barkley got three of them during the 1986-87 season. Then again, the records are incomplete and it wasn’t until later when some players realized what they were doing. For instance, the Sixers have the only double triple-double in NBA history when Wilt Chamberlain got 22 points, 25 rebounds and 21 assists against Detroit at the Spectrum in 1968. Chamberlain also got a quadruple-double, but because steals and blocks were not an official stat in the NBA until the 1973 season, he doesn’t have credit for it.

In the meantime,
if there is one statistical anomaly all players pay attention to, it’s those triple-doubles.

“I always keep in touch with how I am with active players,” Iguodala said. “I think I’m like sixth or seventh, so I’m coming up.”

He’s getting there, but so far hasn’t climbed the charts this year.

Game 16

Game 16

Saturday, January 21, 2012
Game 16: American Airlines Arena
Heat 113, Sixers 92

MIAMI — Every once in a while it’s the little things that amaze me. For instance, a few years ago I was covering the 2009 NLDS in Denver where snow and sub-freezing temperatures made for delays and bad baseball. It was so miserable and cold that on the day Game 3 was snowed out, I spent the afternoon shopping for winter gear.

But when the series ended, we climbed into a flying tube and were transported to Los Angeles where it was nearly unbearably hot.

I spent the off day shopping for summer clothes.

Anyway, I was better prepared for traveling from the snow and sleet in the northeast to the 80-degree climes of Biscayne Bay because my trip to Miami lasted less than 17 hours. Essentially, I flew in to watch a basketball game, wrote about what I saw and flew home.

It was as if I wasn’t even there.

And maybe in a sense the same thing goes for the 76ers. Though the team has been playing shorthanded without starting center Spencer Hawes for some time, nowhere was that exposed more than against the Miami Heat. In the game, the Sixers made just 9 of 20 shots at the rim and were 6 for 15 on shots from 3-to-9 feet, according to HoopData.com.

Meanwhile, the Heat were 18 for 32 on those same shots and simply hammered the Sixers on the boards. When rookie Nik Vucevic went out of the game with what was later revealed to be a hyper-extended knee, the Sixers had no chance.

Why are the Heat so good? Obviously, the quick answer is because they have LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh—three of the best players on the planet. You know, duh.

 

Game 16aBut what really makes the Heat tick is that they have Joel Anthony and Udonis Haslem on the frontcourt and veteran Shane Battier as a defensive stopper on the perimeter. Certainly Anthony’s and Haslem’s contributions can be measured with rebounds, blocked shots and steals. Moreover, there are advanced metrics that can be used to also quantify the contributions of the frontcourt mates.

Much has been made of how advanced statistical analysis has changed baseball, but when it comes to the advanced metrics revolution in sports, basketball comes the closest to truly measuring the value of a player. Actually, when compared to baseball it’s not even close. After games in the NBA, coaches and players pour over the stat sheet, looking for nuggets of information that might offer an insight to performance. With the Sixers, Doug Collins lives by points off turnovers and second-chance points. He also talks about forcing the opposition to take shots “in the yard,” which is to say, no three-pointers and no shots in the paint.

Going old school, during my high school days at McCaskey in Lancaster, Pa., we determined a player had a decent game if he scored more points than shots attempted. I’m not sure that figures into the world of advanced metrics, but in terms of stats having a value, it worked for us.

However, Battier is one of those players that defies categorization and unlike the cultish reactionaries that subscribe to all mathematical data as a way to truly define a baseball player, even the devotees to basketball metrics look at Battier and just shrug. In fact, Battier must be seen to be believed. Against the Sixers, Battier had seven points and three rebounds in 30 minutes—not exactly eye-popping stats.

But Battier was often guarding the Sixers’ swingman Andre Iguodala and held him to just four points. During extended periods during the second half of the game, Iguodala rarely even touched the ball because Battier was hounding him so much.

If there were a number to go with guarding your guy so tightly that he can’t even catch the ball, then Battier would be an All-Star every year.

“I have the ultimate respect for Shane Battier. I think when you put him on your team, you’re automatically better.”

So if there is one reason why the Heat are better this season than last year, it’s because they have Battier, the guy who makes statistics nothing more than silly little designs on a piece of paper.

 

Game 15

Game 15

Friday, January 20, 2012
Game 15: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 90, Hawks 76

PHILADELPHIA — Let’s say, for instance, you are a really good painter. In fact, you’re such a great painter that galleries fight to hang your work and critics can’t get enough of it.

And yet even though you are a terrific painter, people still get on you because you are a lousy sculptor. You’re going to say that doesn’t make sense, right?

Yeah, well, welcome to Andre Iguodala’s world.

When it comes to playing defense in basketball, there are very few people on the planet as good as Andre Iguodala. Truth is, Iguodala is such a good defender that he very well may earn a spot on the U.S. Olympic team set to defend its gold medal in London this summer.

“If you would talk to the best scorers in the league that he’s guarded and say who is one of the toughest guys you have to go against, they would say, Andre Iguodala,” Sixers’ coach Doug Collins said.

“From a coaching standpoint, you understand what he brings. I love what Andre does for us.”

Yet for some reason the biggest criticism of Iguodala is that he is an inconsistent offensive player.

How does that make sense?

There is perception and then there is the reality when it comes to Iguodala and his weird relationship with certain segments of the fandom. The problem with that is the perception is usually the part that gets the most fanfare.

Often, Iguodala is criticized because his salary is “excessive,” yet it barely cracks the top 40 of all NBA players. Meanwhile, it seems as if Iguodala’s perceived unpopularity comes from his personality. He’s neither boisterous nor zany. He’s not one to suffer fools as evidenced in the 2006 Dunk Contest where he pulled off the most impressive and nuanced dunk of the show only to lose to Nate Robertson because he’s short and a better story. Rather than grin-and-bear it, Iguodala hasn’t appeared in another competition figuring there are better ways to have one’s time wasted.

Iguodala is all nuance and professionalism. There are all the things we can see like the fact that heading into last year he had missed just six games in six seasons and played in 252 regular-season games in a row. He’s led the league not only in games by playing in all 82 in five of his seven seasons, but also minutes played and average minutes per game. The dude plays the game and he's rare in that he's a ridiculously talented athlete with instatiable hard-nosed/blue-collar chops, too. He's the best of both worlds and he shows up and goes to work.

He earns his pay.

Last year he played the final two months of the season with tendonitis in his knees. Actually, his condition was similar to the injury that forced Phillies second baseman Chase Utley to miss the first two months of last season, yet Iguodala is rarely talked about as a gritty and scrappy player the way Utley is.

Ah, so maybe there’s a personality issue or something.

Iguodala is a bit of a rarity in sports in that he is a truth teller. He’s immune to cliché (well, as much as possible) and actually answers questions. Want an answer? Iguodala has one. And though it could be off the mark like some of his long-range jumpers, he’s always provocative. For instance, last year Iguodala and the team's top draft choice, Evan Turner, clashed a bit. It wasn't anything serious, just two guys from diffrent perspectives trying to figure each ither out. So, when asked about it, Iguodala presented a thoughtful, honest answer.

“Evan and I have had a pretty interesting year together — good and bad,” Iguodala said. “We’ve always tried to lean on each other. Over the past week we really bonded and I was happy to see him be in position to do something good and follow through with it.

“I’ve been saying all year that he’s a confidence guy and when his confidence is high, he plays really well. When his confidence is down, he has a lot of self doubt and he doesn’t believe in himself,” Iguodala explained. “But we all know he can play ball and we’ve had many arguments throughout the year in regard to talents and he’s going to prove a lot of people wrong.

“We had a chance to sit down and we had dinner together and were together for about three hours. We just reflected on the whole year and things that happened and what could have changed and things that made us better people or held us back a little bit. It was a good chat.”

When do athletes ever talk like that? It’s kind of like when asked a simple question about whether he will return to the Sixers next year and instead chooses to discuss the legacy he hopes to build.

“I always think about that, keep climbing the charts with some of the greatest basketball players ever — Dr. J, Maurice Cheeks, Bobby Jones, Hal Greer, Wilt Chamberlain. The franchise has been here forever. And just for my name to be brought up for the guy with the most steals in team history is something I've always thought about,” Iguodala said. “I want to continue to climb the charts and take the team to the next level.”

No, Iguodala is not like most of the athletes that have come through town. He seems to be a strange mix of Charles Barkley, Donovan McNabb and Scott Rolen. At different times all three of those guys were the most beloved or loathed athletes in town. Iguodala is just different. He's the guy a lot of folks just can't accept for who he is.

Game 14

Game 14

Wednesday, January 18, 2012
Game 14: Wells Fargo Center
Nuggets 108, Sixers 104 OT

PHILADELPHIA — It’s not unreasonable to believe that David Stern is the greatest commissioner in the history of American major league sports. A lawyer by trade with a background in marketing, Stern took over the NBA from Larry O’Brien—the James Buchanan of commissioners—and ushered the game into a new era.

Actually, Stern had plenty of help. It just so happened that Stern became the commissioner just when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were coming into their primes, plus, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, Hakeem Olajuwon and John Stockton entered the NBA during Stern’s first year as commissioner.

But give the guy credit for not sitting idly by. Under Stern’s watch, the NBA went from being a league that only serious basketball fans followed to an American-based Premier league of sorts. Internationally, the two most popular team sports are soccer and basketball and that comes in no small part from Stern’s ability to market his league.

That doesn’t mean the league is not without its flaws. After all, since Stern took over the NBA, labor peace has been virtually non-existent. In fact, there have been four player lockouts, including one in 1999 that left the league with a 50-game regular season and this year’s lockout that has teams playing 66 games in four months.

So when Stern turned up in Philly for a media session before the game against the Nuggets, one of the biggest topics was the condensed season and players’ health.

“I can tell you that we had the same short training camps in the last lockout, so I don’t think that’s the problem,” Stern said during the press conference. “As for the injuries, I reserve the right to see how things play out over the next few weeks before I draw any conclusions. I will take a look at the data and then I’ll call you.”

The idea when creating the condensed schedule was to come as close to representing a full, 82-game season without playing 82 games. When the league had its 50-game season, it was too short.

“When we got together with the player representatives and made the deal, I knew that if we got it done that (Thanksgiving) weekend, we could start on Christmas and we could play 16 games every 28 days, rather than 14 games every 28 days,” Stern said. “To us, the two extra games, to get in as much as we could of the season was important, so people wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, it isn’t a representative season.’”

Stern says fans love the condensed schedule. Coaches must hate it because of all the injuries and beat up players left in the wake, but this NBA season feels like a baseball season in that there is a decent game on every night. In fact, Sixers’ coach Doug Collins told us before the game in New York that he felt like a baseball manager with all the travel and games, but so little practice time.

“You win and you lose,. People say, ‘You have too many games,’ or, if you go to 50 games, as we did before, then you get told that you are not having enough,” Stern said. “We thought the 66 games were do-able. It seems to be doing OK. We’re pretty pleased with it. From the fans’ perspective, I’ve had people telling me, it’s great, you go home and there are all these games on League Pass, and so our fans are loving it.”

From a journalists’ perspective, the season is a blast. There is tons of action and when we get home from the arena, the west coast games are burning up the TV.

However, it’s no fun writing about injuries and it’s also not much fun to see ballplayers gimp around in the locker room before and after games. Sometimes, a players’ health dominates the news end of things and we get stuck writing speculative stories about when someone will return.

Injuries are also a drag on the quality of play, too. At its best, basketball is unlike any other sport. Sometimes a basketball game is a prize fight, a ballet and a chess match all rolled into one and when players are injured, it takes some of the fun out of it. 

Game 13

Game 13

Monday, January 16, 2012
Game 13: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 94, Bucks 82

PHILADELPHIA — Everyone knows by now that the NBA schedule is a little different this season. Because of the lockout, the season did not begin until Christmas day and rather than just pick up the schedule where it would have been, the league and the NBPA agreed to a 66-game season squeezed into four months.

It also means that instead of 15 or 16 games a month, there will be 18 games a month complete with piles of back-to-backs as well as two back-back-to-backs per team.

In other words, the season went from being a grind to a goddamn war.

Another quirk of the 76ers’ schedule is that there are just two day games. What makes this nice is that those who regularly attend NBA games can get into a routine. For a 7 p.m. game, the shoot around typical starts at 10 a.m. and lasts for an hour. After that, the players get in an afternoon nap, maybe some daytime TV and then head back to the arena around 3ish for the game.

A day game, however, is a monkey wrench in the operation. There is no shoot around or afternoon nap. And since most day games are on the weekend, it can put a crimp into a young players’ style a bit.

Case and point: Last year several players on the 76ers went to a concert at the Wells Fargo Center. Normally that’s no big deal except for the fact that the players had to be back at the arena the next morning for a noontime tipoff against the Sacramento Kings. Instead of a victory over a inferior team, the Sixers lost in overtime and didn’t look particularly good in doing so.

But what is one of the best aspects of this team is that the players stepped up and admitted they needed to be more responsible. Better yet, coach Doug Collins told the players that it was up to them to police themselves in that instance. After all, why should the coach have to tell grown men with multi-million dollar salaries when to go to bed?

And that’s the question, isn’t it? How much motivation to well-paid professional athletes need? Considering that they are in a performance driven business, it seems as if motivation would be innate. In fact, motivation should be what separates the top players from the rest. Every player in the NBA is talented and the skill set of the best and the worst players really aren’t too far apart. What divides the likes of Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant from the 12th man on the bench is some intangible that can’t be measure.

Hell, it can’t even be described.

Anyway, the Sixers dropped the Bucks in the first of two day games this season. The next one is on March 10 at Madison Square Garden, which should heighten the magnitude of the game even more.  Maybe instead of patrolling Manhattan the night before a noontime tip, the Sixers will remember last year’s game against the Kings.

Game 12

 

Game 14

 

Saturday, January 14, 2012
Game 12: Verizon Center
Sixers 103, Wizards 90

WASHINGTON — The first time I went to an NBA game was in March of 1980 in a late-season game between the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion Washington Bullets and the lowly Detroit Pistons. The game was played at the Bullets’ arena in Landover, Md., called the Capitol Centre.

As far as suburban arenas go, there was nothing too unique about the Cap Centre aside from the fact that there were no levels in the seating area. It was like a high-school gym with bleachers ringing the playing surface.

Granted, it would have been a pretty big high-school gym since the Cap Centre had a capacity for more than 18,000 people, but a high-school gym nonetheless.

There wasn’t anywhere close to 18,000 folks in the Cap Centre on a sunny Sunday in March of 1980. In fact, I got the sense that my dad wasn’t too excited about going to see the Bullets’ game even with the free tickets. I was insistent, though. I always was when it came to going to games.

Anyway, we saw a few Hall of Famers that afternoon. Elvin Hayes, the Bullets’ high-scoring forward was 34 and winding down his NBA career and Wes Unseld, the rebounding machine, was in his next-to-last season in the league. The Bullets also had All-Stars Bobby Dandridge and Phil Chenier, as well as standouts like Kevin Grevey, Greg Ballard, Mitch Kupchak and a guy called “Super” John Williamson.

Detroit had Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo and had just fired a little-known coach named Dick Vitale. When the gig with the Pistons didn’t work out, Vitale gave broadcasting a try.

With all that talent on the floor, it was the smallest dude out there that stole the show.

Point guard Kevin Porter had 24 assists that afternoon, which at the time was the fourth-most in a game in NBA history. In a game two years earlier, Porter got the record of 29 assists in a game, which he held until the 1990-91 season when Scott Skiles got 30.

In all the years and all the games that followed, I never saw anyone come anywhere close to matching Porter’s 24-assists game. And I have seen a lot of games. Hell, I was even at the game where Willie Burton scored 53 points to set the single-game scoring record at the Spectrum, but no one ever has come close to emulating Porter in that very first game I attended. Actually, 24 assists in a game has been surpassed just nine times by seven players in the 32 years since my first game and the last of those came in 1996.

Chances are I saw something I’ll never see again that day at the Cap Centre.

Game 11

Game 11

Friday, January 13, 2012
Game 11: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 120, Wizards 89

PHILADELPHIA — There is nothing as intoxicating as promise. Better yet, there was nothing as great as the unknown. Nearly 20 years ago basketball fans were drunk off the idea of a Eastern European basketball player plying his trade in the NBA with the best players in the game. In fact, the thought of this great unknown playing on the same team as Michael Jordan was like the formation of some sort of super team.

But for every Robert Altman ensemble piece, there is an Ishtar lurking stage right. To that regard, Toni Kukoc wasn’t exactly an NBA flop, but he wasn’t the Jordan of Europe, either. No, Kukoc was a decent NBA player… nothing more or nothing less.

In 13 NBA seasons, Kukoc averaged 11.6 points per game. At 6-foot-10 he became the stereotype for the Euro-styled basketball player. He was tall, but rarely went down to the low post. Instead, he worked out on the perimeter where he could be a playmaker—he was the quintessential point forward.

After earning three rings as the second scorer on those epic Bulls teams, Kukoc landed in Philadelphia in a three-way trade involving the Sixers, Bulls and Warriors and names like John Starks, Bruce Bowen, Larry Hughes and Billy Owens. It was a pretty exciting time for Sixers’ fans because coach Larry Brown was turning things around and Kukoc seemed to be ready to encore his act as the other scoring option with Allen Iverson.

The thing is, however, Iverson always preferred to work alone.

Kukoc lasted just 90 games with the Sixers (including the playoffs) and was dealt away to Atlanta for Dikembe Mutombo. In other words, Kukoc was integral in helping the Sixers win the Eastern Conference in 2001.

More than that, Kukoc could be the last of the great unknowns. Because of the proliferation of the media, players like Kukoc, Arvydas Sabonis, Oscar Schmidt, Sarunas Marciulionis, etc. are no longer unknowns.

Game 10

Game 10

 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012
Game 10: Madison Square Garden
Knicks 85, Sixers 79

NEW YORK — In 12 years of serious sports writing, I had never been to Madison Square Garden for work. Oh sure, I’d been there plenty of times if you count the basement of the building where Penn Station is located. But as far as working as an accredited member of the sporting press, I had never been to The Garden.

That’s weird because it’s called, “the world’s most famous arena.” It’s quite an ironic title, too, that actually might be a bit of an understatement. See, New Yorkers really like the things they have and often go so far as to tell folks in other cities how much better their stuff is than everyone else’s. Sometimes that idea is correct, but like anything else, consider the source.

Still, I like to rate an stadium or a building on how excited the performers get when they go there. For instance, with baseball players the reviews are mixed on old shrines like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. Though they are fun places to play a game, the amenities are substandard and ancient by anyone’s standards. The underbelly of Wrigley Field makes even the rattiest high school gym look like the Taj Mahal.

But Madison Square Garden is universally viewed as the place to go. No, I’m not going to list all the famous events that went down at The Garden, but just know that most athletes and performers feel as if they have made it when they get to play MSG.

In my first working role at The Garden—or newest new Garden since it is being torn apart and remodeled—I took home no souvenirs. Sure, I lingered on the hardwood and tried to soak up the views, the shimmering lights and the theatrical darkness that shrouds the seating area, while searching out celebrities and for me that was enough.

After all, I already had a souvenir from Madison Square Garden in the form of a scar on my right knee.

In 1991, my friend John and his pals from college decided to drive to NYC from Vermont to see a Grateful Dead show at The Garden. Though not the biggest of Dead fans out there, I usually was up for any type of adventure so when John asked if I wanted to meet him at The Garden, he didn’t have to ask twice.

Truth be told, it was a pretty good show. Branford Marsalis played a few numbers with the band and Bruce Hornsby played the piano for the entire gig that opened with the well-known, “Touch of Grey.” It was pretty cool even though I watched from the right side of the stage with blood streaming down my leg.

What happened was I walked into a utility pole on 34th Street. Actually, it wasn’t too far from the spot where the photo from the media room was snapped. See, while we were waiting for the doors of the arena to open up, John, his friends and I walked around The Garden just checking out the pre-gig festival. We had bought big bottles of water, bananas and sandwiches from a nearby bodega and were just doing our best to have a fun time.

But while eating a sandwich and walking all while imitating Chevy Chase in the movie Vacation when he flirts with Christie Brinkley, my knee banged into a utility pole that I never saw. Worse, it was a utility pole that looked as if it had been severed with a chain saw or a bus accident, leaving behind a gnarled mess of steel with jagged edges.

Even worse than that, the pole was severed at knee level for a 6-foot-1, 20-year-old dude goofing around with a sandwich before a Grateful Dead gig at The Garden.

There was nothing sold at the concessions that could ever last as long as the souvenir I got more than 20 years ago.

Game 6

Game 6

Friday, January 6, 2012
Game 6: Wells Fargo Center
Sixers 96, Pistons 73

PHILADELPHIA — Call it a throwback night. Or better yet, a way back night. In opening the home schedule for the 2011-12 season, the brand-new owners of the Philadelphia 76ers decided to call on some of the heroes from the franchise’s best era of extended glory.

More specifically, it was the players from the 1983 NBA Championship team that were summoned to a building that none of them ever played in. Earl Cureton, the bench player whose job was to give the MVP frontline players a break and to grab a few rebounds, was there. So too was Bobby Jones, the reed thin forward who was known for his ability to play defense and fill the lanes on the fast break.

In fact, Jones was so good a defender that he was nicknamed, “The Secretary of Defense.” In the early 1980s, the shoe company Nike put out posters of Jones that depicted him behind a big, oak desk as if he were some sort of military giant. It was an interesting look for Jones, knowing that he was (and is) a devout Christian.

Moses Malone and Julius Erving made it back, too. Frankly, the Sixers can’t reasonably have a reunion of former players without the inclusion of Moses and Doc. What would be the point? Not only were they the catalysts behind the championship team, but unarguably the two most popular players, too.

Certainly there isn’t very much we can add here to further the legends of Moses and Doc.

No, the real legend in the building that night chose not to participate in the public celebration of the championship, though he was shown on the video board above the arena.

Indeed, Andrew Toney had finally returned to the basketball arena in South Philly.

Reportedly back at a Sixers game for the first time since his playing career ended prematurely because of a foot injury, Toney seemingly has buried the decades long grudge against the organization that was spurred on by the poor treatment he reportedly received from former owner Harold Katz.

Toney had it all. He was a shooting guard, but built like a forward. He played with a mean streak and was fearless with the basketball in his hands. It didn’t matter who was guarding him because Toney wasn’t going to back down.

To the folks who were too young to see Toney play, I described him as Allen Iverson with a jumper and the ability to play in a team structure. He could pass it almost as well as he could shoot it…

And boy could he shoot it.

In his first five seasons with the Sixers, Toney averaged more than 20 points per game, made two all-star teams, got to the Eastern Conference Finals three times and the NBA Finals twice. He was rewarded with a big contract (for the time) before his sixth season because it would have been stupid not to keep him in town. Not only was Toney good, but also he was popular. Ask any kid born in the early 1970s who their favorite Sixers player was and undoubtedly the answer would be Andrew Toney.

I know he was my favorite Sixers player ever. Living so close to Franklin & Marshall College where the team held its preseason training camp, I was lucky enough to see Toney play from close up. Better yet, as the resident gym rat of F&M’s Mayser Center, I often rebounded shots for Toney when he remained after practice to shoot jumpers. The farther he went out on the court, the softer the ball seemed to float as it would nestle itself into the net only to be returned and fired up there again.

Truth is I saw Toney’s shooting technique so much from so close that his method became mine. Going up against the competition in the CYO league, my jumper started with a half step of my right foot before rising up to let it fly.

Believe it or not, the result didn’t change all that much from idol to fan.

For those lucky enough to have seen Toney in his prime, they know that he was The Truth. Called the Boston Strangler for the way he wrecked the Celtics during the postseason as well as the Silent Assassin, Toney was on the way to a Hall of Fame career until the injuries came. He was the second-leading scorer on the Sixers the year they won the championship, but the most-feared player on the team.

Larry Bird said Toney was the best clutch player he had ever seen and Charles Barkley claimed he was the best teammate he ever had.

Malone doesn’t disagree, either.

“Andrew was tough, man,” Moses said. “He had a way to get it done. He played with a lot of heart and he loved the game. If you’re like that you’ll be the best.”

But Toney’s career ended abruptly and with controversy that no man should endure. After he got that big contract, Toney appeared in just six games during the 1985-86 season because of stress fractures in his foot. The problem never got much better and Toney played two more abbreviated seasons before he packed it in at age 30.

Before that he was derided and belittled by the owner Katz, who aside from being cheap when it came to running his ballclub, didn’t believe Toney was really injured. Katz forced Toney to take drug tests and questioned his fortitude in public because he couldn’t take the floor. Reportedly, Katz even went so far as to hire private investigators to find out if his well-paid but injured All-Star had a nefarious side.

So when his playing days in Philadelphia ended, Toney never looked back and never stepped foot at another Sixers’ game…

Until Friday night home opener.

Toney did not take part in the brief, pregame ceremony, nor did he show up for the media availability with his old teammates, either. But Toney, who these days works as an elementary school teacher in suburban Atlanta, was introduced to the crowd during the second quarter of the game.

Obviously, the crowd went crazy.

“Andrew finally made his mind that he had to come back and see the fans,” Malone said. “He knows they love him.”

And the elusive great one finally returned, too. If you blinked, though, you missed it…

Kind of like Andrew Toney’s entire career. 

Changes… again

As you can see, this site looks different again. Chances are, the content on these pages is going to be a little different, too.

Since there is ample space for the baseball and other sports writing on the CSNPhilly site, there is no real need to use this space for the overflow or the ol’ shaking out the notebook jawn. Instead, this will be a more traditional, “blog.” Call it a catch all for whatever comes down the pike.

You know, for fun… you’ll see.

Albert the Great

Pujols Technically speaking, Albert Pujols is having the worst season of his career. Though he leads the National League with 36 home runs, he also leads it in grounded in double plays. Worse, Pujols is only batting .300 with a .371 on-base percentage and a .921 OPS—all the worst totals of his career.

In fact, a quick glance at the numbers Pujols has produced this season proves that he soon will drop to the status of a mere mortal. Of all the years to lead the league with only 36 homers and a subpar .300 batting average, Pujols picked the worse one.

See, Pujols is playing out the last year of his eight-year contract signed before the 2004 season. His salary is $16 million for 2011 and speculation is that it could climb as much as twice that rate in the future. Whether the Cardinals can afford Pujols no matter what the price tag remains up in the air, so it’s understandable that the team is making some contingency plans.

Nevertheless, if the Cardinals lose Pujols there likely will be some fallout in St. Louis. That only makes sense considering Pujols not only is a pillar of the community in his hometown, but also is the best hitter of this generation.

Actually, when all is said and done, Pujols could go down as the greatest right-handed hitter to ever play. He could be the yin to Ted Williams’ yang, or perhaps more apt, the right-handed Stan Musial.

Fact is fact… Albert Pujols is the best hitter I have ever seen.

I only caught the tail end of Rod Carew’s career and I remember seeing him play a few times on NBC’s Saturday afternoon Game of the Week with Tony Kubek and Joe Garagiola doing the call in the late ‘70s. Carew had that big old chaw in his right cheek and that crazy batting stance of his. When my friends and I would play ball in the courtyard behind our home in Washington, some one would always imitate Rod Carew or Lee May, who was the DH and star for the Orioles before Eddie Murray came into his own.

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The forgotten hero of the champion Cubs & Columbia, Pa.

Jimmy_sheckard Back when the Continental Congress was figuring out where to locate the permanent capital, a little town in Pennsylvania called Wright’s Ferry decided to lobby for the gig. Figuring its location along the banks of the mighty Susquehanna River that separates York and Lancaster counties was perfectly located and easy for delegates from the other colonies, Wright’s Ferry challenged for the privilege to be capital.

First things first…

Wright’s Ferry had to do something about its name. It needed something catchy or something that befit a burgeoning nation. Therefore, in 1789 Wright’s Ferry changed its name to Columbia. Perfect, huh? With a name like Columbia, how could the little town on the western edge of Lancaster County go wrong?

Location? Check.

Infrastructure? Check.

People of influence on its side like George Washington? Check.

Name? Done, done, done and done.

Nevertheless, southern states Maryland and Virginia carved out a rectangle of unwanted swamp land along the Anacostia and Potomac rivers not too far from the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. Next thing the folks in Columbia, Pa. knew the District of Columbia had edged it out by one vote and the rest is history.

Some influence that George Washington had, huh?

Anyway, since it had the name and the location, Columbia attempted to become the capital of Pennsylvania. Again, it had the location, the name but maybe not the influential supporters. Instead, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania went with the more centrally located Harrisburg to be the seat of its government.

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The annual, rambling essay on Jim Thome (and why the Phillies should get him)

Thome

It usually comes around once per baseball season that I will find a reason to write something about Jim Thome. Sometimes it's actually newsworthy, like if he had just joined a team ready to play the Phillies in the playoffs. But mostly it just has to do with the occasion of him showing up in town or appearing on the cover of a magazine.

See, it's easy to write about Jim Thome. It's easy because he's so likable and genuine. He's one of those guys that if you ask him a question, he's going to try as hard as he can to give you a good answer.

Case in point:

We were at Shea for a day game in 2003, which was Thome's first season with the Phillies. It was kind of an odd time in team history because the Phillies were supposed to be really good with guys like Pat Burrell and Bobby Abreu coming into their primes along with players like Placido Polanco and Jimmy Rollins solidifying their standings as top-shelf talent. Mix in Thome and Kevin Millwood and the sky was the limit.

The problem was the Phillies didn't quite know how to be good. Worse, the manager, Larry Bowa, liked to talk about "winning" as if it were a character trait. He seemed to believe that abrasive behavior and misplaced anger was synonymous with being a leader. He was the exact opposite of Thome because Bowa could never get out of the way of his own ego. Thome was the biggest slugger in the game during the 2003 season and he was practically ego-less. Thome thought mutual respect and a positive attitude were synonymous with being a leader and always seemed to have dozens of teammates following his every move.

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The Hall of Fame career that Matt Stairs could have had …

Nlcs PHILADELPHIA — Once upon a time, back in the late 1980s when you were much younger, thinner and had your whole future in front of you, the Montreal Expos had a base-stealing third/second baseman named Matt Stairs. He was a hockey player from St. John, New Brunswick who left high school for Canada’s National Baseball Institute in Vancouver, not exactly a hot bed for baseball talent, but it was a chance for Stairs to travel around the globe and play ball.

By 1988, Stairs was a member of the Canadian Olympic team and then signed as an undrafted free agent with the Expos. Twenty-three years later, in Washington, D.C., Stairs’ baseball life has seemingly come full circle. The Washington Nationals, the latest incarnation of the Montreal Expos, designated Stairs for assignment. At age 43 after playing for 13 different major league teams, Stairs could be at the end of his playing career.

That’s a big could, of course. This past April Stairs said he wants to keep on playing until the phone stops ringing and teams no longer call. After that, he wants to keep on coaching hockey in Bangor, Maine and maybe even coach or manage in the big leagues.

But that’s only if no team wants a power hitting lefty for the bench.

Certainly Stairs catching on with some team remains a possibility, but in the meantime there are a few things to think about when putting his career in perspective. For instance:

  • What if Stairs would have come up in a proper position rather than as a second baseman?

Yeah, that's right… Stairs was a second baseman who swiped bases in the minor-league system for the Expos. In fact, during the 1991 season when he was playing for Double A Harrisburg, Stairs was the Eastern League MVP when he hit 30 doubles, 10 triples, 13 homers and 23 stolen bases.

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Reliving Hall of Fame weekend

HOF COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — There was so much that happened during the Hall of Fame induction weekend that it was impossible for a guy to write about all of it. What also makes it difficult for one guy is that my train of thought is to encapsulate each event instead of simply reporting what happens. For instance, when Bert Blyleven talked about his curve ball, well, that was a 1,000-word story and not something to summarize.

Hey, some people think about weird things like that.

Nevertheless, with the benefit of this little site and a lazy day at home, here's the best of what I saw at the Hall of Fame induction weekend…

The point of the trip was to cover Pat Gillick's induction into the Hall. Gillick, of course, was the Phillies' general manager from 2006 to 2008 where he put together the start of the greatest era of the franchise's existence. The Phillies were founded in 1883 and since then have lost more games than any professional sports franchise on earth. That's not hyperbole, that's the truth.

The Phillies' history is crowded with bad moves, bad thinking, bad players and bad losses. The Phillies were the last franchise in the National League to integrate its roster and needed 97 years to win its first championship. Don't think for a second that those two elements do not go together. Almost 10 years to the day after Jackie Robinson broke destroyed segregation in Major League Baseball, the Phillies got a guy named John Irvin Kennedy, who played in five big league games in 1957 and then that was it. Kennedy got to the plate twice, struck out once and scored a run as a pinch runner.

Kennedy stuck around with the Phillies until May 3 before toiling away for the next five years in the team's farm system, mostly in the south, which must have been a lonely existence for him. For the Phillies, though, it wasn't until a trade with Brooklyn brought aboard a shortstop named Chico Fernandez that they fielded a black ballplayer in the regular lineup. Fernandez, however, was from Cuba and it wasn't until Dick Allen came along in 1964 until the Phillies had a significant African-American player.

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Hall of Fame weekend: Greed is good

2011-07-23_15-24-53_781 COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — The fellows in the Cooperstown Rotary Club are pretty crafty. Knowing that the induction weekend is the largest collection of Hall of Famers in one spot anywhere under the sun, the Rotarians have commemorative miniature baseball bats made with each inductee’s superlatives.

At $5 to $7 a pop, it’s a pretty nice bit of cash to be made in a weekend.

But also understanding the mind of the collector, the guys in the Cooperstown Rotary know that there probably won’t be much of a market for certain keepsake bats. For instance, there were piles of Jim Bunning bats from when the former Phillies and Tigers pitcher was inducted in 1996. There were plenty of Eddie Murray bats too.

Could it be because Bunning has created a reputation for being a creep?

However, don’t go looking for a keepsake bat with umpire Doug Harvey’s name on it. There was a run on those last year when Harvey’s family and friends bought them all up.

“We made 50 of them for Doug Harvey and when they walked up and down Main Street and found out there wasn’t anything with his name on it, they snapped them all up,” a Rotarian said.

So thinking there would be a repeat of the run on Harvey mementoes, they made a limited number of Pat Gillick bats, who will be inducted to the Hall of Fame on Sunday afternoon along with Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven. After all, Gillick is kind of like an umpire in that he wasn’t known as a player. Plus, there are nine umpires enshrined in the gallery at the Hall of Fame and Gillick will be just the fourth general manager. Better yet, when Nolan Ryan was inducted in 1999, it took 12 years to sell all 300 bats.

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Len Bias: 25 years later

Bias Note: This was written five years ago and it seems like a good idea to rework it again given it has been exactly a quarter century since Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose.  Twenty-five years …

Twenty-five years.

Think about all that can happen in the space of 25 years. Friends come and go, and milestones are recognized and passed. Sometimes, even, lifetimes are lived, and always it seems like everything had happened in just a fleeting moment. Blink and it’s gone.

Time marches on. It always does.

In sports, 25 years is more than a lifetime and longer than an era. It’s forever and the number of players that every franchise in every sport has seen make through multiple decades of service can be counted on one hand.

It’s been exactly 25 years since Len Bias died of a cocaine overdose (June 19, 1986) less than two days after he had been selected by the Boston Celtics as the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft. Bias was the great college basketball player from the University of Maryland, but more than that he was billed as the next great Boston Celtics All-Star. He had once-in-a-lifetime talent and was headed for a team that had Hall of Famers like Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Dennis Johnson as well as Robert Parish and Danny Ainge, so clearly Bias had the world by the tail.

Only he didn’t.

Bias’ death was at the time, according to Celtics great Larry Bird, “The cruelest thing ever.”

It certainly seemed that way at the time. With the aid of time and distance we learned that Bias and his university had a several other significant problems and the cocaine abuse was just the tip of the iceberg. Bias had been flunking out of school and was known to keep company with a few unsavory characters, including Brian Tribble, the convicted cocaine dealer who is said to have supplied the dose that killed him.

Ultimately, Tribble was cleared of any wrongdoing in Bias’ death, but Maryland coach Lefty Driesell’s reputation remains sullied in the aftermath of his star players’ death. Meanwhile, we’ve learned that Bias wasn’t exactly a novice cocaine user either. It as Bias’ leased sports car undercover cops saw cruising a notorious drug neighborhood on Montana Avenue in Washington, D.C. Later, Tribble admitted that he and Bias were recreational cocaine users, but no one knew.

How could we? Bias was in that rarefied air of the greatest players to come through a new era of basketball. His contemporary, Michael Jordan, had just won the rookie of the year award and seemed poised to renew a rivalry with Bias for years to come.

It was perfect. The story was already written.

Actually, in 25 years there has been a lot more damage and disgrace than growth, but that’s the way it goes when a star is extinguished long before his time.

And “star” is the only way to describe Bias. He was to be the next great star of the NBA – not like Karl Malone or Charles Barkley, who were also on the way up at the time – but instead like the guys who only needed one name.

Michael, Magic, Larry…

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This is where the real LeBron needs to show up

Lebron Contrary to popular, knee-jerk opinion, no legacies have been defined. It takes a much longer body of work to create things like epitaphs, legacies or whatever else it is we sports fans like to drone on about. These are complicated things that take depth to speak about with any type of substance.

In other words, don't cry for LeBron James—not that anyone was or will. He's just 26-years old and largely viewed as the most talented basketball player on the planet. He's also teamed with Dwyane Wade, another one of the most talented ballplayers in the world, so one would assume his best days are in the future.

So if LeBron is the type to think about such things as legacies and his place in the pantheon of NBA greats, he has to know that it's how a player comes back that proves his mettle.

It’s the Buddhist proverb that goes: fall down seven times stand up eight. LeBron just has to stand up once.

That's the tricky part. After the Dallas Mavericks sent the Miami Heat and LeBron into a summer sure to be filled with second-guessing, Magic Johnson came on TV to talk about how he dedicated himself to the game after his Lakers lost the Celtics in seven games during the 1984 Finals. Even though Magic had won an NCAA national title and two NBA titles in less than five years, it wasn't until he lost that he says he, "got it." In losing Magic knew what it took to win.

From Jackie McMullen's, When the Game was Ours:

“It was the worst night of my life,” Magic said. “I told myself, ‘Don't ever forget how this feels.’”

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Finally coming clean

Lance_floyd NEW YORK — Let’s just get it out of the way at the top… Lance Armstrong is going down and he is going down hard. It’s not unreasonable to believe that jail time could be involved for the seven-time Tour de France champion when the government concludes its investigation.

See, the United States federal government does not like it when a person lies to them. It is quirky that way.

But the thing the government dislikes the most is when it doesn’t get a cut of what it believes it has coming. You know, it wants to wet its beak with a tiny bit of the proceeds as tribute for signing off on that whole Bill of Rights thing. Freedom isn’t free, as they say. It costs a mandated percentage of your yearly income unless you make so much money that you can pay an accountant to talk them down.

Think about it… when Michael Vick went to jail for nearly two years it wasn’t so much as for the dog fighting ring he was operating as it was because he didn’t pay a royalty. He served 21 months in prison for felony conspiracy in interstate commerce, which is a fancy way of saying he didn’t cut the government a slice.

What does this have to do with Lance Armstrong? Well, everything, of course. If the guy was riding for a team sponsored by the United States Postal Service, a government agency, and used the equipment supplied to him to sell for performance-enhancing drugs, well, that’s trouble. In fact, it was alleged last year by his former wing man, Floyd Landis, that Team USPS funded its drug habit by selling its equipment. This was realized, according to the accusations, when Landis wanted a training bike and couldn’t get one.

That training bike was injected as EPO.

Regardless, that’s not what this is all about. When word came out that Armstrong’s closest teammates, George Hincappie and Tyler Hamilton, testified for the federal grand jury it was pretty damning. It meant that the United States feels it had been defrauded.

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The game that wasn’t

Wilson Note: Here's what happened… to anticipate the end of a game, we writerly types work ahead. That's how newspaper guys beat their deadlines and how us web dudes get stories online seconds after the final pitch. Needless to say, this practice can often create headaches if an unforeseen rally or comeback occurs.

In those situations it's not unusual to hear someone shout across the press box, "REWRITE!" That's actually old-timey talk, but it has a better ring to it than, "Highlight, delete!"

So on Wednesday night I had been working ahead and put together a skeleton of a story to fo as soon as the Phillies-Reds game was to end in the 10th inning. The plan was to send the story, gather some quotes and sprinkle them in while changing around some of the details that reflect the mood of the team or the scene in the clubhouse.

Since the Phillies' clubhouse is typically a ghost town after games, that leaves us with cobbling together a quote or two.

Anyway, before Ryan Howard belted a solo home run to tie the game in the 10th before it went to 19 innings and the wee hours of the morning, I came up with this story — compare it to the one I filed after 3 a.m.

This one is about the game that never really happened.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

By John R. Finger
CSNPhilly.com

If there is one thing the Phillies’ pitchers learned about the first three games of the four-game set is that when Jay Bruce strolls to the plate, they should run and hide.

Just run and hide.

For the second night in a row, Bruce came up in a key spot with the game on the line only to deliver a crushing base hit. Actually, in Wednesday night’s 4-3 victory over the Phillies, Bruce had two clutch hits in the late innings.

One to tie and one to win.

The game-winner was a solo homer off reliever Antonio Bastardo that barely cleared the chain-linked fence above the out-of-town scoreboard. That shot—Bruce’s 13th of the season and second of the series—was the one that sent most of the sellout crowd at the Bank scurrying for the exits.

Regardless, it was Bruce’s other big hit on Wednesday night that did the most damage.

It was a situation that Roy Halladay has been through a few times since joining the Phillies, yet always seemed to come out alright on the other side.

image from fingerfood.typepad.com With one out with the bases loaded in a two-run game and the heart of the Reds’ order due up in Wednesday night’s tilt at the Bank, Halladay was in a precarious spot, but not one that had too many folks worried. After all, this was Roy Halladay on the mound. Who cared if the Reds had already bashed out 10 hits in the seventh inning?

So after putting away cleanup hitter Scott Rolen on four pitches, Halladay got ahead quickly on Jay Bruce with three fastballs. The end was one pitch away for Halladay and the Phillies. No way was Halladay going to give up a two-run lead with two outs and two strikes on a hitter.

But Bruce wasn’t just some ordinary hitter. In fact, he may be the hottest hitter going these days. Not only did he have 13 hits and nine RBIs in his last 26 at-bats heading into that showdown against Halladay, but also clubbed a bases-loaded double with two outs in the ninth inning of a tie game just the night before.

Bruce got out in front of the two-strike changeup ever-so slightly — just enough to bounce the ball away from the grasp of second baseman Wilson Valdez and into right field for the game-tying single.

That shows just how good Bruce has been. If he can wrst away a two-run lead from Halladay, with the way he has been pitching, then maybe that run and hide advice isn't too far off.

Up next: The Phillies close out the four-game series with the Reds, as well as the nine-game homestand, on Thursday afternoon with a 1:05 p.m. start. Cliff Lee (3-4, 3.38) will take the mound against righthander Homer Bailey (3-1, 2.08).

Lee is coming off his first win in more than a month where he spun a five-hitter with 10 strikeouts in a 2-0 victory over the Texas Rangers. In eight career starts against the Reds, lee is 4-2 with a 4.69 ERA, however, last June the lefty tossed a complete-game shutout while pitching for the Mariners.

Andre Iguodala eats his vegetables… and you should, too

image from fingerfood.typepad.com MIAMI — There is an interesting interview with Andre Iguodala in a recent edition of the magazine, Food Republic, a slick-looking periodical about epicurean pursuits. It seems to be for those types who use the term, “foodie,” without irony and look to Anthony Bourdain as some sort of righteous hipster.

In other words, it’s a magazine not found at the corner newsstand.

Anyway, it’s not often that pro athletes from Philadelphia talk to slick-looking magazines about their personal chefs or healthy eating habits. Even though it’s not uncommon for non-baseball athletes to be progressive in the training room and training table, it’s decidedly a non-Philadelphian thing. Certainly the folks who shell out ridiculous amounts of cash for the tickets aren’t used to turning over the daily menu to the in-home chef.

Still, the interesting part of the interview wasn’t that Iguodala employs a personal chef or knew early on in his NBA career that his diet and performance were linked. That’s just smart and if anything, “smart” is a pretty good adjective to use when describing Iguodala. No, the interesting part was when Iguodala revealed he liked vegetables when he was a kid.

Really… a kid who liked vegetables?

Well, I was weird as a child. I would eat broccoli raw. I would eat cauliflower raw. I also used to love salads. So, yeah, I’ve always liked vegetables.

Maybe that’s not as weird as it sounds. After all, some kids actually like vegetables. In fact, I remember asking for and wanting to eat spinach specifically because of what it did for Popeye. However, I was quite upset to learn that spinach was not sold at the supermarket in cans and I couldn’t squeeze the middle of one, pop the top and have the spinach fly into my mouth as I wreaked havoc in the neighborhood.

Nope, things are never how they look on TV.

Thing is, kids rarely admit to liking vegetables even when they are all grown up. That is, as Iguodala explained, weird.

Then again, it doesn’t take a long time spent around the Philadelphia 76ers do understand that Iguodala is different. Actually, check out the picture on the right… if there was ever a photo that perfectly revealed the man, there it is. He’s serious, put together perfectly with a Burberry tie knotted just so, with the blue blazer revealing the proper amount of cuff from his shirt. No wrinkles, nothing rumpled and the creases exactly where they should be. Serious, professional, to the point.

That’s Iguodala.

And maybe that’s why after an excellent season of gritty, nuanced basketball, folks still haven’t warmed up to the Sixers’ best player. Even though he’s played for seven seasons with the Sixers after being drafted with the ninth-overall pick in 2004, he’s still an enigma—inscrutable even. Though he comes from Springfield, Ill. just like scruffy and popular ex-Phillies outfielder, Jayson Werth, he’s more akin to fellow Illinoisan, Donovan McNabb. At least it seems that way in how he’s perceived.

Case in point came during the postgame press conference at American Airlines Arena on Wednesday night after the Sixers had been eliminated by the Heat. When asked, point blank, if he wanted to return to the Sixers for the 2011-12 season, Iguodala gave a rather McNabbian response:

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Only as good as your last shot

Alcindor There is nothing as sad or depraved than a man in the depths of a shooting slump. Sometimes it feels like locking your keys in the car or repeatedly punching yourself in the face… by accident. Eventually, it becomes so frustrating that each missed shot or rebound that turns to a change of possession is like a free fall where a ripcord is just a millimeter out of reach.

Yes, a shooting slump is like falling from the sky. Shots that might have splashed through the net with that sonorous, swish! are replaced with soft deflections off the rim that barely sail far enough for a long rebound. After the ball nicks the iron, that’s it. No more chances.

But that’s not where it gets frustrating. Through no discernible reason, sometimes the ball doesn’t go where it’s supposed to. Even though the form is the same, the touch and rotation is no different than any other shot, but for some stupid reason something is off.

Could it be the humidity? Maybe someone opened a door to get into the gym and a breeze knocked the ball off its target?

Whatever the reason, a shooting slump sucks. It sucks to watch and it sucks to go through. Don’t believe me, get ready for a couple of stories. One comes from a high-school hot shot who once believed he was the best shooter walking the earth, and the other is about a budding NBA star that once filled it up for 54 to set the single-game scoring record for Kentucky.

First things first, though. A shooter in basketball is a special breed. They aren’t like the big men that coaches and the media go crazy for because of the gift of height and build. Everyone loves the big man, because they can be taught to do things no one else can do. See, it’s not like a pitching coach like Rich Dubee for the Phillies who’s main job, essentially, is to shut up, stay out of the way and make sure his ace pitchers know what time the bus leaves for the ballpark. For instance, do you think Kareem was given that sky hook when he was Lew Alcindor or was he taught it because he was so much bigger than the other kids at school?

Think anyone else at young Lew’s school was taught a sky hook?

Anyway, a shooter has to work constantly. A shot is built from trial and error and then honed trough maddening, psychotic repetition. And then, the shooter has to figure out a way to get off the shots. That’s because even on the schoolyard, the shooter is identified and singled out. Shooters, after all, are the home run hitters. They are the ninjas of the game, typically blending in until sides are chosen and the first attempts at the hoop are up. See, a shooter is like a black belt in karate who gets into a back alley brawl in that he must identify himself. It’s only fair for some poor sap to know what he’s up against and if it’s a black belt standing across from him, last-minute negotiation might be in order.

A shooter can carve your eyes out if he isn’t identified early, so the sporting thing is to get the word out.

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Manny being Manny was always predictable

Manny-Ramirez So, are we supposed to be surprised by Manny Ramirez at this point? After all, that whole Manny being Manny bit was passé at least two teams ago.

Indeed, if Manny being Manny, he’s predictable.

Yawn!

Really, how could anyone be surprised with the way in which Manny finally met his demise, and for those who believe it came on Friday with his sudden retirement and an apparent second drug-test violation. The truth is Manny was exposed not by his first failed drug test, but by his stat ledger. When he returned from his 50-game ban in 2009, it turned out that Ramirez was just a good hitter.

He wasn’t anything more than that—good, not great.

“Might have been running out of bullets,” said Ramirez’s former batting coach, Charlie Manuel. “Father Time was catching up to him.”

Yeah, Father Time can be a real pain in the ass. He’s one of those miserable old dudes that needs punched in the face daily just to be kept in line. But even then Father Time doesn’t take the hint and eventually has his way. Even Jamie Moyer, the one ballplayer who seemed to organically fight back for the most extraordinarily, finally caught the haymaker that put him down. Though Moyer says he’s going to rehab from Tommy John surgery and try and catch on somewhere in 2012, it’s safe to say that he will be the first 49-year old in sports history to make a comeback after reconstructive surgery.

Chances are Moyer might gain a few ticks on the ol’ fastball after the surgery.

Not Manny, though. He won’t be coming back ever again without first serving the time of his suspension as outlined in the collective bargaining agreement. Actually, based on some of the reporting from the first time Ramirez drew a suspension for PEDs, the info seemed to suggest that he was a serial abuser. Here’s what we wrote the first time Manny went down in May of 2009:

A new report by ESPN’s Mark Fainaru-Wada and T.J. Quinn that Ramirez had a testosterone to epitestosterone ratio between 4:1 and 10:1. That leads some experts to suggest that he was using synthetic testosterone, a conclusion reached when one considers that people naturally produce testosterone and epitestosterone, typically at a ratio of 1:1. Anything at 4:1 and above is flagged by MLB.

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The Shot Doctor is in

Herb Word spread around the camp like a brush fire. As soon as one kid at the Wally Walker basketball camp at Millersville University heard the news, it was all the true believers could do to contain themselves. After all, they had seen it before. They had seen the magic and knew that it was real.

Incredibly real.

This guy can stand all the way on the other side of the court and take a normal shot and it will go in. He bounces it in! He takes a shot and it bounces in!

Truth is I couldn’t quite wrap my head around it. How could a guy shoot a shot from the opposite foul line and bounce it in? No, not bank shot, but a bounce shot. From 80-feet away.

But who was the guy? Some coach? Some coach we had never heard of because in our little world of kids off at sleepaway basketball camp in the early 1980s, we thought only of the big time. It was Wally Walker’s camp and he already had two NBA championship rings with Portland and Seattle, was MVP of the ACC Tournament for the University of Virginia, a top five overall draft pick, and was washed up all before the age of 30.

So we waited for Marc Iavaroni from the world champion 76ers and watched demonstrations on how to best score points. Wally Walker ran an offense camp for us junior high kids, probably because everyone likes scoring and shooting. No, not everyone can score or shoot—even some of the best players out there struggle from time to time, but what we were about to see was someone who really liked to shoot and probably could do it better than any person on the planet.

Herb Magee was the best shooter I had ever seen hold a basketball. That’s the way it was when I was in sixth grade and I imagine Herb can still stick them from any spot on the floor. In fact, I’ll be willing to wager that Herb Magee, the coach for Philadelphia University with more wins than any college coach who ever lived, can bounce one in from the opposite foul line.

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Dennis Rodman could have been better

Rodman It’s kind of ironic to note that Dennis Rodman was a second-round pick of the 1986 NBA Draft. The fascinating part about this that in the most doomed draft in history, some unknown dude from some college called Southeastern Oklahoma State University would go on to have the best NBA career.

To look at the 1986 NBA Draft in the moment was to see the deepest and most talented collection of players assembled at one specific time and place. And yet between the death, personal destruction, addiction and the misplaced expectation, the entire group seems linked as if some sort of perverse Shakespearean tragedy.

How could so much go so wrong for so many people?

Just look at the list of names of young men who were headed for the NBA during June of 1986. At the top of the list were Brad Daugherty and Len Bias. Daugherty, of course, was supposed to be drafted by the 76ers, but, as the legend goes, former team owner Harold Katz had the No. 1 pick over to house to play some hoops on his indoor court and thought he was, “soft.” Because of that, Katz traded the rights to Daugherty, Moses Malone and Terry Catledge, the draft picks that turned out to be Georgetown/UNLV product Anthony Jones and Harvey Grant, only to get back Roy Hinson, Jeff Ruland and Cliff Robinson.

It very easily was the worst day of trading by the Sixers, ever, and that’s before we figure in the fact that Daugherty averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds a game for his entire career.

The story of Bias, of course, we all know all too well. Of course the one part of Bias’ death that is often overlooked in the long form pieces and documentaries is that without him, the Celtics were in disarray for a solid decade. Moreover, his death also sacrificed significant chunks of the careers of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, whose declines came much quicker than if they had Bias to lean on.  

There were others, too. The No. 3 pick, Chris Washburn, lasted just 72 NBA games over three seasons and struggled with addiction for more than a decade. Big East superstars Pearl Washington and Walter Berry turned out to be casualties of the east-coast hype machine, while top 10 selections Kenny Walker, Roy Tarpley, Brad Sellers and Johnny Dawkins, had middling careers in the league, at best.

Even some of the players drafted behind Rodman were met with tragedy. Drazen Petrovic was killed in a car accident on the Autobahn nearly a decade before his posthumous induction into the Hall of Fame. Three years ago, Portland’s big man Kevin Duckworth died of congestive heart failure at age 44.

The 1986 Draft was so bizarre that one of its best standouts, Arvydas Sabonis, had to wait for Glasnost in order to make his way to America almost 10 years after he was taken as the last pick of the first round. By the time he got to the league he was already at the end of his prime and had many wondering what might have been.

But then that’s the overreaching theme of the entire mix from ’86.

So this was the backdrop from which Dennis Rodman entered the league. Moreover, given the demons he battled off the court it’s amazing that the one player from that draft to play a complete career and then gain induction to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is The Worm, Dennis Rodman.

According to reports as well as Rodman himself, the 6-foot-7 defensive and rebounding specialist got the votes needed amongst the 12 finalists to gain enshrinement. Word is Tex Winter also will be a Hall of Famer, along with Chris Mullin and former Sixers player and coach, Maurice Cheeks. Philadelphia University head coach and shooting guru, Herb Magee, was one of the 12 finalists. Considering Magee has more wins in NCAA basketball than any coach in history, he has a pretty strong shot to get in, too.

The official announcement is scheduled for noon on Monday.

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Iguodala’s pep talk was the turning point

image from fingerfood.typepad.com Always the optimist, Doug Collins says he never got down when the Sixers struggled to a 3-13 start the first month of the season. Still, even the half-full view often left the coach with some doubts.

Whatever doubts Collins might have had disappeared for good on Friday night when his club clinched a playoff spot with a 25-point win over the New Jersey Nets at the Center. From 3-13 to 40-36 in a little more than four months takes a lot of believe insomething.

Belief and stubbornness, Collins said.

“I wasn’t sure,” Collins said after the 115-90 victory, “but I hadn’t given up hope. We weren’t going to change what we were doing because we believed in what we were doing. I believe that if you do things that are worth doing that good things will happen. We weren’t going to change.”

Still, there was a moment early on when everything just sort of came together. Part light bulb and part pep talk, the turning point of the season came after a tough loss in Miami the day after Thanksgiving when Andre Iguodala got the team together and gave them a very simple message…

“We’re close,” he told his teammates. “Let’s stick together.”

From that point, the Sixers have gone 37-23 and are the one team in the Eastern Conference that the heavyweights want to avoid in the first round of the playoffs.

Still, did Iguodala realize then that his words would resonate so profoundly? 

“With some of the personalities we have it’s all about confidence,” Iguodala said. “Some of the guys play well based off if the ball is going in the hole for them or not. If the ball is not going in the hole the guy’s confidence can get shot. We had just lost to Miami and we played well, so I felt I had to reiterate to the guys that if we continue to play at that level we’ll beat the majority of the teams in the league and we’ll be alright. Since then, we’ve been doing that.”

What Iguodala’s words did was show the younger guys on the team that just because they were 3-13 that the season wasn’t over. Though it seemed as if the Sixers couldn’t wait for the year to end last season when they only won 27 games with a coach in Eddie Jordan that just didn’t mesh well with the ballclub, it would have been easy for a poor start to demoralize the team.

However, with an active roster comprised of six players with three or fewer years of experience and just five guys over the age of 24, Iguodala’s speech and Elton Brand to support was gigantic.

“For the guys to know that I was 100 percent on board and trying and Andre was on board and trying, it showed that we weren’t giving up on the season even though we were 3-13,” Brand said. 

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Long suffering Elton Brand finally gets second chance at playoffs

Brand_doug There aren’t a whole lot of details that Elton Brand remembers from his last trip to the NBA playoffs except for one important one…

“It was too short,” Brand said.

Five years ago with the Los Angeles Clippers, Brand carried his team to the seventh game of the Western Conference semifinals against the Phoenix Suns where his 36-point performance just wasn’t enough to advance. In fact, with Brand averaging 31 points, 10 rebounds and more than 45 minutes per game in the series, there wasn’t much more he could have done for his Clippers.

Had Brand and the Clippers won Game 7, he certainly would have been the toast of Tinseltown since the Lakers had already lost to the Suns in the previous round. Still, his best memory of his lone playoff appearance is quite pure and it has to do with the basics of why people play the game.

“The excitement and how hard everybody plays – it’s amazing,” Brand said. “Then to win a series and put another team down, that’s what I’ll remember.”

But as fate would have it, Brand hasn’t been back to the playoffs since. More notably, who would have guessed that in 11 NBA seasons headed into the 2010-11 campaign that the 2005-06 Clippers would be the only winning team Brand played for.

Until now, that is.

Wednesday night’s 108-97 victory over the Houston Rockets at the Center all but sewed up a spot for the 76ers in the postseason. The worst the team can do is tie for the No. 8 seed, but of course the Sixers would have to lose the last seven games of the season and the Charlotte Bobcats would have to win out. The chances of that happening are less than one percent.

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Sixers stand with their closer

Iguodala There was a moment during the 2009 baseball season when the easy move for manager Charlie Manuel would have simply been for him to sit down Brad Lidge as his closer. In fact, it was set up perfectly for Manuel to pull the plug on Lidge after a late-September game in Miami where the closer gave up two runs on three hits and a walk to give one away.

But Manuel would not bail on his guy despite the 11 blown saves and an ERA closing in on 8. Why would he?

“These are our guys. We’ll stick with him,” Manuel said before a game in Milwaukee that year. “Lidge has to do it. Between him and [Ryan] Madson, they’ve got to get it done.  … We’ve just got to get better.”

Of course Manuel said he wasn’t going to depose Lidge as the closer even though he used him just four times over the final 11 games and pushed Madson into the two save chances the team had down the stretch. In other words, Lidge was the closer even though Madson was pitching the ninth inning. That’s what is called “managing” and Manuel had been around long enough to know that if he lost Lidge in late 2009, he might not ever get him back.

Apparently loyalty is a character flaw in the eyes of most sports fans.

Just look at how folks are up in arms about Sixers’ coach Doug Collins putting the ball in Andre Iguodala’s hands at the end of tight game. To steal some baseball jargon, Iguodala is the Sixers’ closer and in a tied game with the clock winding down, it’s up to him to get the team some points any way possible.

“The ball’s going to be in his hands,” Collins said after Sunday’s 114-111 overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings.

Iguodala had the ball with seven seconds left in Sunday’s game and the Sixers trailing by two points. Viewed as the team’s best “playmaker,” this made perfect sense. Iguodala could penetrate, look for an open man, pull up for a jumper or drive to the hoop. It’s nothing new and since Allen Iverson left town, Iguodala has been the closer and succeeded at a better rate than the other A.I.

Actually, according to the advanced metrics that measure such things, Iguodala is 16th in the NBA since 2006 in “clutch” points, which account for performance with five minutes to go in the fourth quarter or overtime when neither team ahead by more than five points. Interestingly, Iguodala rated better than All-Stars Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Vince Carter.

This season Iguodala’s scoring average in clutch time has dipped nearly 20 points with Lou Williams leading the club with 28.4 points in clutch time. However, based on other advanced stats, Iguodala is still the man to have the ball when it’s on the line. A look at turnovers, shooting percentage and the inscrutable plus-minus, Collins is right to give the ball to Iguodala. Failing that, Elton Brand is the next-best option.

Reality and statistics seldom mesh, though[1]. That’s when perception takes over and often that does nothing more than unfairly marginalize a player. In this area, perception might as well be Iguodala’s middle name.

In some circles, Iguodala is a poor player because he has a “superstar salary” and not a superstar game. The reality is that notion is just plain stupid. Iguodala barely cracks the top 40 in the NBA in annual salary and isn’t even the highest paid player on the Sixers. Is he one of the top 40 players in the league? Yeah, probably. Is he the best player on the team?

Do we have to answer that?

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Long-range forecast: Could Greg Oden land in Philly?

Greg_oden From time to time we like to offer a suggestion or two regarding player personnel to the pro sports teams in the city. No, it’s never a major undertaking because, frankly, it’s neither our place nor money on the line. In fact, some might believe it’s a little untoward for folks like me to offer such suggestions unsolicited.

But aside from their standing as privately held corporations, pro sports clubs are also a public trust. Because of that I don’t feel particularly guilty about inserting my two cents where no one asked.

Hey, just because it’s a sports team that doesn’t make it OK to be rude.

Anyway, in the past we suggested it might be one of those trendy low-risk/high-reward moves for the Phillies to make a move for Barry Bonds, Jim Thome, Roy Oswalt and Pedro Martinez. We also suggested at one point or another that trading away Cole Hamels or Jayson Werth was worth investigating, too. Of those offerings, we were the first to broach the ideas on grabbing Pedro, Thome and Bonds and dealing Werth, while the others (Oswalt and Hamels) came from within the organization.

So, honk! Honk!

Apropos of nothing, we think it would be a good idea to bring back Pedro if for no other reason than to give the press someone interesting to shoot the breeze with. Not only was Pedro a genius on the mound and the veritable right-handed Koufax, but he also was a top-notch storyteller and a fun guy to have around. Better yet, his Louis Vuitton man-purse was truly fashion forward.

Additionally, we rightly suggested to the 76ers that it would be a really good idea to draft Evan Turner with the No. 2 overall pick last June instead of trading away the selection for Jeff Ruland. So, yes, you’re welcome for that one.

The point? Oh yeah, that…

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Thad Young gets back to basics

Thad Thaddeus Young was struggling. One look at the game-by-game logs revealed as much. Though his scoring average had steadily been climbing from month-to-month, Young didn’t make a shot in 20 minutes during the ugly loss in Milwaukee on March 12. 

Sixers’ coach Doug Collins noticed Young was missing something during the games against Utah and the Clippers, using him for just 13 minutes during the game in Los Angeles. The fear, says Collins, was that Young was getting run down.

“Thad went through a two or three game period where I was worried that he was tired,” Collins said.

So rather than bury Young on the bench until he regained his snap, Collins had a better idea. On an off day in Sacramento, the coach got a gym and sent Young and a handful of his teammates out to play 3-on-3. No pressure, no whistles, no scrimmages or anything resembling a regular basketball game—the task was for Young to play pickup hoops with some of his friends.

Guess what? It worked.

“Actually, the [assistant coach] Michael Curry and the coaches took Thad and some guys out to just play some up-and-down basketball and they wanted Thad to handle the ball and finish shots during the games,” Collins explained. “So they went over and played and [Curry] came back and said, ‘Thad had a great day, he was in a great rhythm.’ Then he finished that trip very strong.”

After that day in Sacramento, Young’s play improved and so did his energy level. In 23 minutes against the Kings he grabbed 10 rebounds and scored nine points despite shooting just 4-for-12. However, with Andre Iguodala on the bench for the game against Portland last Saturday night, Young scored 19 points on 9-for-11 shooting with six rebounds in 27 minutes.

Apparently all it took was breaking the game down to the basics for Young to find what he’d been missing. It makes sense, too, if you think about it. Though this is his fourth season in the NBA, Young is still just 22 and if he had stayed at Georgia Tech to play all four seasons, he’d be a rookie in the league this year.

Instead, basketball had been a job for Young when he was still a teenager and though he may be a veteran in the league in terms of experience, every once in a while he still needs to strip the game down to its essence and just play.

“We went to the gym—me, Marreese [Speights], Evan Turner,Craig Brackins, Coach Curry and Coach McKie—and we got in there and just played,” Young said. “We played 3-on-3 just to get me back in the groove. Sometimes that’s what you need to get a feel for the ball and to get you a feel for the court and the gym to get you back in a rhythm.”

In Wednesday night’s victory over the Hawks, Young was the best player on the floor. As the first player off the bench, Young scored 16 points on 12 shots, blocked a couple of shots and caused all sorts of trouble for the Hawks in the paint. Most telling was the fact that Collins kept Young in the game for all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter. 

Better yet, Collins said Young was an instant shot of energy when he was in the game, especially after stoppages in play. With the Hawks holding a lead throughout Wednesday’s game, which they built to 11 points in the fourth quarter, Young and fellow reserve Lou Williams proved to be the catalysts of the Sixers’ 11-0 run to start the final quarter.

“He gives us a speed and a quickness advantage,” Collins said, noting that Young would likely be a starter on another team. “We came out of three or four timeouts [on Wednesday night against the Hawks] where he scored every time. … As a coach it makes you feel so good when you can score coming out of a timeout.”

So maybe Collins’ plan worked?

“Any time you have a day off you want to do something,” Young said. “The other guys went to lift and the six of us went to the gym to play some 3-on-3 to get ourselves back in rhythm.”

Meanwhile, with Andre Iguodala again questionable with right knee tendonitis for Friday’s game in Miami, Collins will need Young to be the spark.

Collins winning without a championship

Collins_card It’s not often that one is in the presence of a first-person witness to a truly historical moment. Your grandfather might have been there for D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge, however, not only are the numbers of members of the “Greatest Generation” dwindling, but also those guys weren’t always keen on taking about what they saw.

Otherwise, your parents (like most of us) saw historical moments from in front of the television where it was safe and there were beverages nearby. Maybe in the modern day folks follow flashpoints of time on a mobile device with a Twitter app where they can dig through the information as it is reported. That just might be the highest point of historical participation these days.

But Doug Collins, the coach of the 76ers, has seen some things. In fact, when Collins was just 21 in 1972, before he had been drafted as the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA by the Sixers and in the ABA by both the Nuggets and Nets, he was in the Olympic Village in Munich when an Arab terrorist group known as Black September, captured Israeli athletes and ultimately massacred them.

Two days after the massacre, Collins and his U.S. teammates played Italy in semifinal round of the Olympic tournament, which set up the gold medal game against the Soviets a few days later.

Imagine being 21-years old with a year of college left and having to play in the gold medal Olympic basketball game for your country not even a week after a terrorist group stormed the compound where you were living and killed the members of the Israeli contingent… now imagine being that guy and playing in the most infamous basketball game of all-time—a game in which it appeared you had scored the game-winning points on two foul shots with three seconds left.

Doug Collins knows about that. He lived it. He was there.

We talked about 1972 very briefly with Collins on Monday afternoon following the Sixers practice at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, but the subject was brought up only after something the coach said about his current ballclub and how it might be the best coaching experience of his career. Considering Collins coached Michael Jordan in his third season in the league and then again for his final two seasons in Washington. But as far as championships go, Collins was the predecessor to the run the Bulls had with Phil Jackson and took over Detroit when the Bad Boys had been broken up.

Collins, as he pointed out, had never won a championship.

“I’m a guy who always loved being around young players because I always enjoyed the teaching aspect and there is nothing I get more fulfillment from than watching young players grow up and get better and go on to have really great careers,” Collins said. “I get as much satisfaction out of that than some guys do lifting up a championship trophy. I think there are different levels of success and I’ve never been a champion. I’ve always felt like I’ve been a winner, but I’ve never stood up as the last guy and held up the trophy. But somewhere along the line I’ve helped some guys to be able to do that and that’s what I try to do.”

He was right. In 1977, Collins and Julius Erving carried the scoring load as the Sixers took a 2-0 lead over Portland in the NBA Finals. Collins scored 30 in Game 1, but then had to get stitches in Game 2 after Darryl Dawkins’ punch meant for Bob Gross caught Collins’ face. From there the Sixers proceeded to lose four in a row.

The Sixers didn’t make it back to the Finals until 1980, but by then Collins’ career was owned by injuries and he didn’t appear in the playoffs and he decided to retire after just 12 games in the 1980-81 season.

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Bimbo misses out

Burrell Merchandise keeps us in line

Common sense says it's by design

-          Traditional

If the television program Mad Men has taught us anything, it’s that sometimes selling out can be artistic too. That starving artist bit… bah! It takes a real craftsman to take something utterly useless and turn it into something that everyone must have.

Take the plate appearances by Single-A minor league outfielder Bryce Harper of the Hagerstown Suns, for instance. Whenever the slugging high school dropout steps to the plate for the Washington Nationals’ affiliate, the P.A. announcer at Suns games will read a prepared statement:

“Now batting, Bryce Harper, brought to you by Miss Utility, reminding you to call 811 before you dig…”

Look, if you’re going to dig a hole, no matter what the circumstance, it’s a good idea to make a call or two. After all, there are zoning laws in most communities designed to keep folks away from trouble. Say you’re out in the yard digging a hole, just having a day out, and then all of a sudden a water pipe bursts, or underground wires are disturbed, or worse, a time capsule is disturbed long before it’s to be unearthed.

We can’t have that.

Nevertheless, we understand that the folks at Miss Utility are looking out for the people in Hagerstown, Md., and if they can make a buck or two off your potential hole-digging excursions, all the better. But it takes money to make money — or something like that. Besides, this isn’t about Miss Utility or the trench at the property line. No, this is about Bryce Harper and commerce and forward thinking.

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Holy Moses

Moses_malone

If you were lucky enough to watch Moses Malone play on a regular basis, there was nothing about it that looked easy. He wasn’t what anyone would label graceful and because he had relatively small hands for a 6-foot-10 guy, Moses always seemed to be clinging to the ball with extra might.

Add in the fact that Moses was covered with a drenching sweat seconds after the opening tip and it added to the image of a guy busting it out there. He was no force of nature like many NBA superstars we have seen, but he brought a rare championship to Philadelphia and became one of the NBA’s all-time 50 greatest players through force of will.

More than anything, Moses was a rebounder. He’d park himself on the low block and run a tip drill when a ball came off the rim. If the ball didn’t go in after one of his tips, he’d get it again… and again until the play was finished. Considering he broke in with the Utah Stars straight out of Petersburg, Va. high school in 1974 and didn’t retire until 1995 just illustrates the point.

Maybe the best explanation how Moses acquired his style for no-fluff and tenacious basketball comes from the fact that as a high school kid he often was allowed to play pickup games with the inmates at the nearby prison. If that doesn’t teach a guy how to be tough…

Kevin Love, the big man for the Minnesota Timberwolves, has a knack for rebounding just like Moses. He learned his craft a little differently, though. The son of NBA/ABA player, Stan Love, and nephew of Beach Boys singer, Mike Love, the younger Love didn’t hone his game playing against prisoners. Instead, he went to UCLA for one season and spent last summer with Team USA in the World Championships. In Moses’ day, only college players could be on international teams and since he grew up in poverty in a single-parent home, the goal was to get some money.

Nevertheless, with a league-leading 15.5 rebounds per game to go with nearly 21 points per game, Love’s numbers mirror some of those posted by Moses during his career with the 76ers. Of course those pertain only to the regular season because Love hasn’t been to the playoffs yet. That means he hasn’t made any boasts like Moses in predicting three straight sweeps like he did with “fo’, fo’, fo’,” during the Sixers’ run in 1983.

However, like Moses in 1978-79, Love is piling up some ridiculous feats. Back then for the Houston Rockets, Moses notched at least 10 points and 10 rebounds in 50 straight games to set the (modern day) all-time record for such a thing. Wilt Chamberlain registered 227 straight double-doubles during the NBA's statistical dark ages. That was back when a guy like Wilt could average 50.4 points per game (1962) and lead the league in assists another season (1968). Better yet, Wilt is the only player in NBA history to get a double triple-double when he got 24 points, 26 rebounds and 21 assists in a game for the Sixers in the 1968 season,

In other words, we're counting Moses' 50 straight double-doubles as the modern day record.

So, during the '78-'79 season, Moses got nearly 25 points and 18 rebounds per game during the regular season and then 24.5 points and 20 rebounds during the playoffs to win his first of three MVP awards.

Think about 50 straight double-doubles for a second… that means no nights off, no mailing it in and no resting on a back-to-back or even a stretch where the Rockets spent a weekend with games in Phoenix, Portland and Seattle on three straight nights. Better yet, Moses pulled off the feat despite playing on the same team as noted ball hogs Rick Barry and Calvin Murphy.

Love got his 49th straight double-double in the 111-100 loss in Philadelphia on Friday night, finishing the game with 21 points and 23 boards on the heels of a 20-20 effort two nights prior. He will attempt to tie Moses’ record on Saturday in Washington against one of his dad’s old teams and where the Hall-of-Famer he gets his middle name from, Wesley Unseld.

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Despite numbers, Iguodala may be having best year

Andre-iguodala To put it mildly, it really has been an interesting season for Sixers’ forward, Andre Iguodala. He has missed games with an injury, struggled with his shot from time to time, and been a consistent source of fuel for the rumor mill.

In fact, most close observers of the 76ers fall on the side of trade/no-trade argument with very little middle ground when it comes to Iguodala, often citing the remaining years and money on his current deal as the grounds for moving and/or keeping him.

Shoot, to hear Iguodala describe it, his season has been nothing but a struggle. This season, he has missed 12 of the Sixers’ 60 games after missing a grand total of six games and playing in 252 consecutive games in his first six seasons in the league. His shooting percentage dipped last season and has remained low, while his foul-shooting percentage is at a career low. Most noticeable, of course, is the scoring average, which has dipped three whole points per game from 17.1 last season (and a high of 19.9 in 2008) to 14.1 this season.

“It’s been up and down, but I really just try to look at it from a team standpoint,” Iguodala explained after Thursday’s practice at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. “We started slow when we were trying to find what our niche was and different roles. Then, we started to win and we continued that trend of playing good basketball.”

But there’s a lot more to Iguodala than that. In the realm of advanced metrics, Iguodala is charting the best Win Shares per 48 minutes, assist percentage, the best defensive rating and best rate of turnovers given in a season for his career. 

As head coach Doug Collins explains it, Iguodala just might be having the best season of his career.

“I think Andre with his defense and his leadership has been terrific,” Collins said. “He’s averaging about 15 [points] a game, but he had two of the best defensive plays that I’ve seen all year long the other night against Dallas. Unfortunately, we did not convert, but Andre is a playmaker for us. He’s a rebounder, he’s a defender and I think he’s been terrific. 

“I never judge a guy like that based on his statistics. I judge him by the value to his team and how well he plays and if he gives you a chance to win. When we were 3-13 it was his voice that did the most. He said, ‘Guys, hang in there. We’re close.’ That voice helped us battle through that and get us through to where we are today.”

More than anything else, it has been Iguodala’s defense that has sparked the Sixers’ turnaround. Whether it’s conscious or not, Iguodala has taken fewer shots – especially from behind the three-point arc – ceding some to up-and-comers like Jodie MeeksJrue Holiday and Lou Williams

Offensively, Iguodala has put aside his contract and ego in order to get the kids involved more.

“I’ve been trying to be a leader and do what I can to make some of the guys become better,” Iguodala said.

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Triple trouble

Kidd Typically, I do not believe that a person can judge an athlete or a performance in a game based on just stats. Games are much more complicated than what mere numbers can reveal, and no one can deny that.

Besides, it’s the stories and the nuance of the games that makes them great—not the numbers.

However, if there is one statistic that fascinates me is the triple-double. After all, the triple-double, often, is the pinnacle of all basketball accomplishments. To get double-digits in points, assists and rebounds, or even blocks or steals, is the mark that a ballplayer had a really good game.

Besides, only a certain type of player can notch a triple-double. For instance, Karl Malone was not going to get a triple-double. The same goes for Kobe Bryant, though Kobe certainly has a few under his belt. Some players don’t like to pass the ball, while others don’t pass the ball well.

Regardless, a triple-double is a true indicator of the all-around player. Typically, players don’t get them by accident. In other words, all of a sudden a player isn’t going to “get hot” and mess around to get a triple-double.

If it could be labeled as such, the triple-double is the most organic of all statistical phenomenons, yet they never sneak up on anyone. If someone is an assist or a rebound or two away from a triple-double, everyone in the gym knows it and they keep track. A triple-double is like a hand grenade in that when it is about to blow, it makes some noise. That's the way it seemed when Larry Bird and Magic Johnson used to get them.

Nevertheless, if there ever was a quiet triple-double that quietly slipped by a few folks, it happened on Tuesday night at the Center. That’s where Jason Kidd—Mr. Triple-Double himself—notched another one on the final shot and rebound of the game. Truth is there were a handful of folks sitting on press row who had to look at the stat sheet twice after the game before asking, “Wait… Jason Kidd had a triple-double?”

Call Kidd the triple-double ninja.

Kidd had 13 points with 13 assists and 10 rebounds in the Mavericks’ 101-93 victory over the 76ers despite sitting on the bench for a chunk of the second half. Closing in on his 38th birthday, Mavs’ coach Rick Carlisle smartly allows Kidd to pace himself because even though he might not be as spry as he once was, he still is a threat when the game is on the line. A savvy point guard is one thing, but a point guard like Kidd who is experienced, smart and able to notch a triple-double without much notice is something else altogether.

“When I used to announce, I said I always felt he played with a rear view mirror,” Sixers’ coach Doug Collins said about Kidd. “He not only saw what was going on in front of him, he also saw what was going on behind him. He’s not afraid to make a mistake with the ball. He reminds me a bit of Brett Favre. He’ll throw it in there. Sometimes he’ll turn it over, but he’s not afraid to do that.”

Against the Sixers, Kidd had those 13 assists against zero turnovers. He had eight assists in the first quarter and 12 of them after three quarters. Kidd went into double-digits in scoring during the final quarter, too, but piled on in the scoring column with a clutch three-pointer with 2:59 left in the game, followed by a couple of foul shots with 40 seconds remaining to help salt the game away. When Andre Iguodala missed a long jumper in the waning seconds, Kidd was right on the spot for an easy rebound.

It just might have been the stealthiest triple-double of his career. Either that or he just has a knack for filling out the stat sheet.

Now in his 18th season in the league, Kidd has 107 career triple-doubles. Heading into this season that averaged out to a little more than 6.1 of them per year, which doesn’t include the playoffs, where he has notched 11. He only has two triple-doubles this season (the seventh of his career against the Sixers), which leads one to believe that Kidd will finish his career with the third-most of all time, ranking behind Oscar Robertson (181) and Magic Johnson (138). Amongst active players, Lebron James is behind Kidd with 31. Johnson, of course, was one of the greatest two-way guards ever. At 6-foot-9, Magic ran the point and posted up on the low block, where smaller guards had no hope of stopping him.

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Best trades ever: Sixers get Wilt

Wilt Believe it or not, there are some solid advanced metrics to measure the effectiveness of basketball players. In fact, some of the stats are similar to those used by sabremetrics devotees with baseball, only with basketball the folks who tout the movement aren’t as militant.

Look, the math is still way too difficult and there is no formula to measure the way a basketball player can cut off the baseline from an opponent, but hey, basketball stat heads don’t act like Glenn Beck in front of the chalkboard the way baseball stat heads do often.

Nevertheless, with the NBA trade deadline slipping past quietly in Philadelphia, it’s worth noting that the 76ers (not the Warriors) have pulled off some of the best midseason trades in NBA history. According to the good folks at Basketball-Reference, the Sixers were the benefactors of  receiving the best player in a midseason trade in NBA history.

They worked out the math and everything.

That player, of course, was Wilt Chamberlain, who was traded from the San Francisco Warriors to the Sixers for Connie Dierking, Paul Neumann, Lee Shaffer and cash (try putting that one in the trade machine). Wilt was averaging 38.9 points and 23.5 rebounds in the first 38 games of the 1964-65 season for the Warriors, which came to a 19.1 three-year weighted win share.

No, there were no bonus points for the fact that it was Wilt Chamberlain.

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Can the Phillies afford Albert Pujols?

image from www.csnphilly.com Albert Pujols watched “The Decision,” the Lebron James made-for-TV show on ESPN in which the self-proclaimed “King” picked the Miami Heat as his free-agent destination over his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers. More than anything, Pujols took the show as a cautionary tale of what not to do.

“I’m Albert Pujols and he’s LeBron James. He thinks different and I think differently too. I would never do anything like that,” Pujols said referring to the ESPN show.

But then, Pujols said …

“Actually, let’s do a reality show!”

He was joking, of course. But then again, what if Pujols decided to turn the cameras on himself the way Barry Bondsfor ESPN during the 2006 season? Besides being the most boring reality show in history (yes, we appreciate the irony of using the terms, “boring” and “reality show”), there is only one bit of insight we’d like see in a Pujols reality gig.

Just how did Pujols react when he heard the news that his off-season workout partner, Ryan Howard, got a five-year, $125 million contract extension last April. Of course, Pujols’ interactions with Cardinals’ hitting coach Mark McGwireand manager Tony La Russa could be compelling, too, but not as much as when he learned Howard was going to get an average of $25 million per season until 2016.

Look, we don’t believe for a second that Pujols is motivated by the money. Considering he is owed $16 million for the 2011 season and took home $100 million over the last seven seasons, Pujols and his family are not going to be out on the streets anytime soon. Moreover, Pujols grew up Missouri in Independence, he is as local to St. Louis as Akron native Lebron was to Cleveland. More than anything, it should motivate the Cardinals to negotiate with Pujols in good faith.

A greedy athlete is one thing sports fans can’t stand, but a greedy beer corporation that owns the team really gets people angry—at least it should.

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The great, underrated Stan The Man

MUSIAL For whatever reason, the elevator specifically earmarked for use for the media took forever to reach our floor. In a rush to get to the clubhouse level at Busch Stadium during the 2009 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, patience was wearing thin.

After all, myself and a bunch of other media types had to get from the press box high above the ballpark to the basement level in order to hear what Roy Halladay had to say. Sure, Halladay had been the starting pitcher for the American League in the 2009 Midsummer Classic, but it was assumed his days of pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays were quickly coming to an end. Philadelphia, Boston or New York seemed like the logical places for him to land, but in order to hear his thoughts on his future we had to get downstairs.

Instead, we waited.

Finally, after the shifting from one foot to the other more than outlived its novelty, the elevator door opened and with it our collective impatience and frustration melted away as if it were a block of ice beneath a blow torch.

There on the elevator was The Man himself, Stan Musial, sitting quietly in a wheelchair in the corner. Guiding the contraption was Musial’s wife of 69 years, Lillian, who was chatting away with her fellow passengers as we boarded for the short trip down. Mrs. Musial was as noisy as her husband was tired and quiet, busily making sure everyone had received the card she was handing out.

“Hi. Hello. Did you get one of these? Make sure everyone gets one.”

It wasn’t until I got off the elevator that I realized that I had been handed a postcard with a color photo of Musial in his Cardinals uniform on the front with a biography and list of career highlights on the back. There was something else on the front, too. With blue marker, the autograph “Stan Musial” was written across the card.

Yeah, that’s right… Stan Musial, via his wife, gave me his autograph. Call it pre-emptive autographing. Climb aboard an elevator and be handed a postcard bearing the signature of not only one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, but also, as of today, a Presidential Medal of Freedom winner.

Musial, the 90-year-old, sweet-swinging lefty and the best player out of Donora, Pa. (Ken Griffey Jr. is second), received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama, Tuesday. Also receiving the honor was Bill Russell, the famous Celtics center/humanitarian as well as Maya Angelou, Jasper Johns, congressman John Lewis, Warren Buffett, Yo-Yo Ma and former president George H.W. Bush.

Musial and Russell join Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Henry Aaron and Buck O'Neil as the only athletes to receive the Medal of Freedom.

Regardless, even though Musial was as well regarded and revered in St. Louis, as a ballplayer he is underrated.

Yep, Stan Musial, the great Stan The Man, was the most underrated player in Major League Baseball history. That’s right.

Sure, it’s tough to slip under the radar with 3,630 hits, 475 homers and a .331 lifetime batting average, but that’s where we’re going with this. Until Pete Rose came along, Musial had the record for most hits in the National League. Better yet, he was deemed worthy of several pages in Roger Kahn’s quintessential baseball masterpiece, The Boys of Summer, as the most perfect hitter to step foot inside of Ebbets Field. To read Kahn’s prose on Musial is to view the ballplayer as an artist.

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The Podcast of Awesomeness Vol. 2, No. 6

Caveman lawyer We all contemplate a career change… a life’s change if you will. For most of us, the path wasn’t really chosen for us as much as there was only one thing we could do. It’s a calling, like being a priest or a prospector.

But our pal Lee Russakoff, the editor and columnist for the good people at Comcast.net, has made the big leap between two divergent occupations. Once a lawyer in a big firm, Lee jumped to writing about sports… on the Internet, no less.

So with a background as varied as his, it stands to reason that Lee would be the wisest (or dumbest) guy in the room for the latest edition of The Podcast of Awesomeness. Of course that’s always a toss up whenever Sarah Baicker and her advanced degree enter the room, so take it for what it’s worth.

Better yet, give a listen:

 

 

Podcast 2.6

 

 

Lots going on around these parts with the surging 76ers and Flyers in action and the Phillies’ training camp just opened in Clearwater, Fla. We talk about all these things and the prospect that Charlie Manuel’s contract issue could be a problem for the Phillies.

Contracts with Charlie

image from www.csnphilly.com Charlie Manuel has been in this position before. Oh yes, after two straight 90-win seasons and a division crown, Manuel felt as if he had earned a contract extension with the Indians. It made sense considering the Indians were going to rebuild around sluggers Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner as well as pitchers CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.

Who better to guide the team than the wildly popular hitting coach and budding manager who returned from cancer treatment to run the team with a colostomy bag tucked under his jacket?

However, Indians general manager Mark Shapiro wasn’t ready to commit to Manuel and when Big Chuck forced the issue, there was only one move the club could make…

Sorry Charlie.

“'I wanted some answers,” Manuel told The Associated Press after his firing in 2002. “I didn't want to be in limbo.”

Shapiro saw it differently. The 90-win seasons and the trip to the playoffs didn’t matter much to the GM when he saw a few years of rebuilding in the post-Jim Thome era. Sure, Shapiro wanted Charlie to stay, but during the off-season he was going to have to campaign for his job.

“I wasn't ready, in that environment, to make that commitment to Charlie,” Shapiro said in 2002. “But I feel very strongly that I wanted him to be our manager for the rest of this year and I wanted to consider him to be our long-term manager in the off-season.”

Charlie, as they say, had hand. A couple of days before he was fired, Manuel hung with then-Yankees manager Joe Torre as a coach on the American League All-Star team and was his usual, fun-loving self. If he knew he was going to push Shapiro into firing him, Manuel sure didn’t act like it.

“For a guy who was going to a meeting and probably knew what the outcome was going to be, I think Charlie felt very secure with himself those three days in Milwaukee,” Torre said in 2002. “You can only do what you do. You're confident in your own ability, and after that, it's out of your hands.”

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