It Ain’t Over

The Triple-A playoffs start tonight. To get in the mood, my friend and press-box neighbor Adam Sobsey wrote a nice piece for the Paris Review about the most exciting game he’s ever attended.

I don’t claim to be Adam’s equal as a story teller, but I thought I’d join in on the fun.

I’ve seen four MLB All Star Games, one World Series (2006, in Detroit). I was at the NLDS game at Shea Stadium on October 4, 2006, when Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca tagged out two Dodgers runners at the plate on the same play. Two weeks later, I saw the Mets beat the Cardinals to even the NLCS, and heard manager Willie Randolph announce at the post-game press conference, “Game Seven starts now.”

I’ve seen two no-hitters and two triple plays. I’ve seen one bench-clearing brawl, when then-Phillies closer Ricky Bottalico plunked Barry Bonds.  Perhaps acting out some rage of unknown origin, Barry charged the mound and literally beat bumps on Ricky Bo’s head.

Last year’s Jayson Werth walk-off to lead the Nats past the Cards in Game Four of the NLDS is a candidate. So was Schilling vs. Maddux on April 10, 1998. The two had met five days earlier in Atlanta and combined for 21 strikeouts in 17 innings as the Phillies won 2-1 in 2:07. Sequels are rarely better than the original, but as I watched from field level at the Vet (this game was worth the upgrade from the 700 level) Schil and Maddux combined to allow just 8 baserunners in 17 innings. Schilling fanned 10 and got the complete-game 1-0 shutout win in two hours even.

But my most-exciting game ever goes back to the last time I covered a playoff team (and, up until now, the ONLY time I’ve covered one at the professional level—baseball or football):  The 2006 Rochester Red Wings.

Their manager was a young-at-heart southern boy from Mississippi named Stan Cliburn. His identical twin brother Stew was pitching coach, leading to national attention, since the Wings were the Triple-A farm club for the Minnesota Twins.

Stan liked fishin’ drinkin’ and women, not necessarily in that order, and not as much as he liked attention. He once bragged to beat writers that he’d hit both of his MLB home runs “off Hall of Fame pitchers,” apparently not aware that the internet made it possible to check that. Neither Jerry Koosman nor Ross Grimsley ever made it to Cooperstown. Stan seemed offended that we wouldn’t just take him at his word.

Stan once started a post-game press conference with, “Sparky Anderson once said that a manager wins five games a year for his team. Tonight was one of ‘em.” (I can’t find a record of Sparky ever saying this, by the way.)

The local weekly Red Wings show interviewed Stan for a preseason feature on the team, and he showed up wearing a full-length white fur coat. It wasn’t the only fur-lined item in his wardrobe.

fur coat

Stan once went golfing at Rochester’s Oak Hill country club with Twins roving instructor and Hall of Fame player Paul Molitor. The Oak Hill people asked Paul to sign their Wall of Fame, then had to do some fast talking to prevent Stan from signing it too.

On August 7, Rochester was in the final month of a season that would end in the Governor’s Cup finals when they hosted Pawtucket. I was in my first season working for MLB Advanced Media, on their Gameday pitch-by-pitch tracking system.

The Wings were clinging to a one-game lead over Scranton, and they jumped out to a 4-0 lead on the Paw Sox. Pawtucket scored two in the seventh, however, and five in the eighth, courtesy of an error, passed ball and two walks, among other carnage.

Willie Harris homered in the top of the ninth to give Pawtucket an 8-4 lead.

Then things got crazy. Rochester had two runners on and two outs in the bottom of the ninth. Scranton had already won, and Rochester appeared headed for a first-place tie when right fielder Andres Torres hit a slow roller to second. Alejandro Machado fielded it and tossed to first, beating Torres by about five steps. The Pawtucket players jogged off the field and began congratulating each other.

When I went to my MLB AM training prior to the season, they spent a great deal of time explaining how to fix errors if the wrong data got entered into the system. “What if we accidentally end the game early?” I asked. The trainers exchanged blank looks and answered, “That shouldn’t happen.”

As the beat writers got ready to run to the clubhouse and I entered final data to close the book on the game, the home plate umpire pointed frantically at the spot the catcher had just left.

Prior to Torres’ weak grounder that appeared to end the game, Pawtucket catcher Alberto Concepcion hit the bat with his mitt. Catcher’s interference was the call, which automatically awarded Torres first base.  Bases loaded, two outs, tying run at the plate.

I set about trying to un-end the game in the system, while explaining to the MLB folks in Manhattan what had happened.

“Hopefully, this last guy will make an out and we can just make the change later on,” my support person said. At the same time, Rochester third baseman Terry Tiffee hit a 2-0 pitch to deep right for a game-tying grand slam, three pitches after everyone in the ballpark, except the home plate ump, thought the game was over.

During the rally, Cliburn had sent in a pinch runner for lead-footed catcher Shawn Wooten. The only other catcher on the roster was Heintz, who was currently playing DH. He took the field, meaning that the Wings lost their DH for the rest of the game.

After Pawtucket opened the tenth with a single, Cliburn came out to change pitchers. Managers in leagues with a DH rarely get to do a double switch, and Stan was going to make the most of the opportunity. He sent players scurrying into the dugout to get new gloves as they moved positions to make room or the new defensive player. After the dust cleared, the reliever got an inning ending double play.

In the bottom of the tenth, former Duke cornerback and former Durham Bull Quinton McCracken hit a walk-off, pinch-hit  double to keep the Wings in first. And 20 minutes later, working with the MLB folks in Manhattan, we finally had a box score that accurately reflected what had taken place that evening.

That meant I missed Stan’s post-game press conference. He invited the media into his office, looked at the beat writer from the local paper and opened his remarks with, “How ‘bout that double switch, huh?”

The Gentleman Caller

The Durham Bulls play at 5:05 on Sundays instead of the normal 7:05 first pitch time they use for the other six days of the week. That’s a good thing:  Otherwise I’d have missed last night’s home invasion.

It was just before 10:00. I was flipping between the VMAs and an old Rams’ preseason game. Former Blue Devils safety Matt Daniels (the sole reason I was watching a Rams preseason game to begin with) had just missed a diving tackle when the front door of my apartment opened.

I was home alone, and not expecting company—plus, most of my potential company tends to knock before just walking in. So this was a troubling development.

I listened for footsteps (which would have been worrisome) or a shout of “maintenance” (which would have been even more worrisome since it would have clearly been a lie. I couldn’t even get maintenance to come when my air conditioning broke down and the temperature in my apartment hit 91.)

My mind raced. Clearly, I’d forgotten to lock my front door. That’s not surprising. I usually have my hands full when I enter my apartment and just assume I’ll remember to check and lock up before bed.

I don’t, always, which is why this wasn’t even the first time this has happened to me.  When I lived in Arlington, Texas, I chose my apartment based on proximity to the ballpark (My real estate tip for the day: Don’t do that.)  One night, a noise woke me up, and when I sat up to investigate, I saw the silhouette of the person who had just entered my apartment, slowly approaching my bed.

I was just out of college, so I thought I was young, rich and invincible. Without thinking, I leapt out of bed and charged at the intruder. It turned out to be a woman who reacted to an argument with her boyfriend by taking a handful of sleeping pills, chasing him into the parking lot, getting disoriented, and returning home to the wrong building.

Needless to say, she’d had a rough night, and when she returned to what she thought was home, she was greeted by a shadowy figure leaping out of bed and charging at her. She returned to the parking lot, screaming, and the police eventually arrived to sort out the entire matter.

This time, like any aging pro, I decided to rely on my off-speed stuff instead of charging forward with the heat. I said, “hello?” in what I hoped was a calm, but slightly annoyed voice, then got up from the couch and crept to the wall bordering the entry hall.

I looked around for a weapon, but I’d just left the lamp, the tile-topped coffee table, and several large books, all of which were near the couch.

After a pause that seemed a little too lengthy for my comfort level, the intruder said, “Oh. I guess I … live next door.”

That should have been followed by the door opening and closing again, but instead, there was no sound at all.

He might have been waiting for me to say, “That’s okay.”  I didn’t. First of all, it really wasn’t. It’s not that hard to remember where you live. There are numbers on the doors. Secondly, I didn’t want him to know where I was. On the off chance that he was a violent criminal, hoping to lull me into a false sense of security, I wanted the jump on him. From my spot on the wall, I would see him first, especially if he was looking at the couch, where he’d heard me speak initially.

“I live next door,” he repeated. “I guess I opened the wrong door.”  Still, he didn’t leave.

I hurriedly decided on a game plan. If he came any further into my apartment, after he was clearly aware that he was trespassing, he would emerge from the entry hall, and I would drop him with a wheel kick.

I waited … and worried. I’d thrown plenty of wheel kicks, usually into a heavy bag, occasionally over the heads of my daughters as they giggled, and, earlier in the day, over the heads of a friend’s daughters. They also giggled—the friend, not so much. This, however, would be my first kick to an actual human skull.

I positioned my feet and took a deep breath. I could do this. If the roundhouse kick wasn’t lethal, I’d be in position to throw a couple left hooks to the liver. If that didn’t stop him, I was probably doomed.

I bounced on the balls of my feet and ran the lyrics to hard rock songs through my head. It was about to be on.

The standoff was broken by Zoe, my pet cat. She stretched, lazily, and trotted past me, tail in the air, to greet our new visitor. Perhaps he had food. She turned the corner and disappeared into the entry hall, meowing.

I was concerned for Zoe’s safety. I wondered how I’d explain to my daughters that I’d let someone break in and steal the cat. I worried that the intruder might tell the landlord I had an animal in the apartment.

Almost immediately, the door opened and closed again, and I heard footsteps outside, retreating from my door.  Zoe returned and gave me a withering look.

“You couldn’t throw a wheel kick to save your life,” she seemed to be saying.

I left my spot on the ambush wall and went to get her a cat treat. Then I decided I should probably lock the door.

The Sanctity of Marriage

Last weekend was a crowded one on the Triangle sports calendar: Duke, Carolina, and State football training camps are in full swing. The Panthers played their first preseason game at home. court 1And the Durham Bulls were finishing their last long homestand of the season, looking to shake off a late-season tailspin as they close in on a division title.

What better time to leave town?

My baby sister, Courtney, called me two weeks earlier to let me know that a. she was getting married in Wisconsin in “a small ceremony that we’re throwing together quickly” and b. no, she was not pregnant.

She’d been planning to elope in Las Vegas in October. She let me know about a month ago, so I’d have time to book a flight to get there, giving me some very serious concerns about whether she truly understood the definition of “elope”. The Wisconsin plan was at least closer to the true spirit of the word.

My family always gets very involved in family weddings. My father made the veil for my other sister, Wendy’s wedding, and Wendy made the cake for my wedding. My father also recorded himself singing “Daddy’s Little Girl” to play for the father/daughter dance at both of my sisters’ weddings (Clearly, we’re also big on crying uncontrollably at family weddings.)  So when Courtney asked me to officiate, I immediately went online to get myself ordained.

I was worried that two weeks wouldn’t be enough time to complete the Universal Life Church’s rigorous ordination process, but it doesn’t take all that long to type in my name and email address and click “enter”.

The plan hit photo(54)a snag when we discovered a Wisconsin law requiring anyone conducting a wedding to be a resident of the state. There was a loophole, however. An out-of-state minister could officiate if they received a letter of support from an in-state minister from the same religion. So we went back to Universal Life’s website to ordain an in-state relative who could vouch for me.

 

The next crisis occurred about a week later:  The “small ceremony” had grown to include relatives from as far away as New York and California, as well as most of the groom’s hometown. A tent was being rented. Caterers were brought in. When the dust cleared, I’d be performing my first wedding in front of about 80 people.  And Courtney and Pat weren’t planning on writing their own vows—or any other part of the ceremony. That was all part of the minister’s job.

Despite my standing as a legally recognized minister in the state of Wisconsin, quoting the Holy Bible felt a bit sacrilegious. So instead, I chose readings from the book of Albert Einstein (“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity”) and the Velveteen Rabbit

I sent Courtney and Pat a script for the ceremony, and they signed off on it. Then I drove 1,000 miles, which gave me time to think.

I hadn’t included my own thoughts and words for my sister and her new husband, which, while part of a minister’s job, was something I’d struggled with. My own marriage ended recently, and the idea of giving advice on the topic seemed troubling. As one of my own daughters said in the weeks leading up to the big day, “Are Aunt Nene and Pat going to get divorced? Because if they are, then what’s the point?” I explained to her that life experiences are important, regardless of how they end, but the words seemed empty and hollow—a sportswriter’s words, not a clergyman’s.

photo(56)On the ride north, in between speeding tickets and rainstorms, an idea started to germinate. I knew enough to leave it alone, and let it finish on its own. A few hours before the ceremony, I scribbled it down on the back of one of the pages of the ceremony script.

The first time I said it out loud was with Courtney and Pat standing in front of me, and 80 people looking on.

“Every little girl dreams of her wedding day, and Pat, maybe some little boys do too. They imagine what they’ll wear, who will be there, what they’ll carry. They want it to be big, fancy, romantic, and perfect. They want it to be the best day of their life.”

“My wish for you today is that this is not the best day of your life. I hope that when you’re older, you’ll look back at your life together and have trouble picking out a best day. I hope it will be like looking at the nighttime sky and trying to pick out the brightest in a canopy of shining stars.”

“And just like a nighttime sky, the stars can best be appreciated when it’s darkest out. I hope that when the dark times come for you both, it gives the brilliance of your love to shine its brightest.”

By the power vested in me by the state of Wisconsin, and the Universal Life Church …

court 3

Lots can change between kickoffs

There’s a sign over the entrance to the Grandover Resort, “Welcome to a new era of ACC Football”.

photo(49)

A lot has changed for the ACC since they were here a year ago. They’re not the only ones.

Before leaving for Grandover, I tweeted,

 

I sent the same tweet last July. Since then, I’ve been fired twice, divorced & dumped.

That’s not entirely true. The one was kind of mutual, and that’s all actually happened since the Orange Bowl.  It’s been a long offseason.

sev let

So welcome back, football.  I sent last year’s tweet, then said goodbye to my family and left the house for the drive to Greensboro.  This year, I told my cat not to claw the couch, then left my apartment.

Same car—although it’s taken a beating in the last year. Haven’t we all. The windshield is cracked, the transmission makes a funny sound at red lights, and every once in awhile, every warning light on the dashboard goes off. I’m assuming it’s probably nothing, though.

It’s still going, though, against all probability. Again, aren’t we all.

Last year’s message was my first tweet was sent on my first day as a CBSSports.com ACC blogger/beat writer. My last day with them came while I was sitting in the Cameron media room, waiting for a press conference to start.  I quietly packed my things, closed the Carolina Panthers’ wrap-up story I was writing for CBS (without saving), and walked to my car. I didn’t cry then, but I would.

This year, I’m covering the ACC for The Devil’s Den (some things never change), the Sanford Herald, and probably a dozen other outlets before the Orange Bowl starts another offseason that will hopefully go a little smoother than the last.

I realize I’m not the only one who’s had to deal with any of this. I’ve said hi to at least three people this morning who have lost their jobs in the last year, and that number is so low only because I’ve been sitting here writing this instead of mingling.

It also hasn’t been all negative. Adversity shows you who your friends are, and two of the first people I’ve told about all my personal setbacks are people I’d barely spoken to at this time last year. I’ve gotten tips, leads, and words of support from colleagues, friends, and strangers on Twitter. I’ve received “welcome back” messages from several of the SIDs I’ve written, to set up credentials for the upcoming season.

I’ve also had an SID pull my credential within 24 hours of me getting the call from CBS.

In a couple hours, I’ll talk to some of the key players for the upcoming ACC season … er … era. They’ll give all the sports clichés about not giving up, and fighting through adversity, and beating the odds. And it turns out they’re all true.

But they’ll all be optimistic. It’s the start of a new season. Everyone’s undefeated, and this is the year that they all break through, and make a bowl, or win a title, or avoid injury.

Then I’ll get back in my old, beat-up car, and head back to see what my cat has done to my couch. And I’ll send out some more feelers and make some more pitches—on both fronts.

photo(50)

Let’s do this.

Generation Gap

Some of you may have seen the story in the April issue of “Basketball Times” about the ACC media – but probably not many of you.

The Times isn’t available online and is proud of that fact.  In the “From the Publisher” column at the front of the issue, they proclaim:

“You may have noticed that we’re old school.  We have no digital version of the magazine, though we had one once and might have one again if we can figure out how a better way [SIC] of going about it this time.  But our core audience remains the crowd that still like the feel of a magazine or a newspaper in their hands, and we are committed to delivering the printed page to all who prefer it.”

“We’re not slick, either, in any context that the word implies.  This isn’t a glossy magazine, like Sports Illustrated, nor is it driven by designer, like ESPN the Magazine.”

They aren’t kidding about “old school” either:  The issue has an article about the 1963 Loyola team and 1983’s Phi Slamma Jamma.

But this isn’t meant to be an attack on the Times.  I actually look forward to getting my issue each month.  They have an all-star team of columnists, including Bob Ryan, Dick Vitale, Dick Weiss and Al Featherston.  This issue has a ranking of the top 115 coaches in college hoops and the top 90 assistants.  It was written prior to the NCAA tournament, and Gregg Marshall and Andy Enfield both score highly.

And the ACC media article is actually not a bad read.  With the recent retirements of ACC legends Bill Cole, Lenox Rawlings, and Caulton Tudor, it seems an appropriate time to look back at what the media corps is losing.  Each of them are unique and talented, and they can’t be replaced.

There’s a difference, however, between celebrating their contributions to the conference and the statement made in the article’s header:

“The Atlantic Coast Conference tournament drew a generation of journalists to their profession, but a cultural change within the league and the profession seems likely to leave the region without a similar group to replace them.”

As I said on Twitter when I first read that, “Thanks, jerks.”

As some of my more experienced colleagues pointed out, that might not be the most eloquent response, but hey, each of us is allowed to fly off the handle and lose their heads once in awhile, right?

I consider most of the people quoted in the piece friends, and I remember reading them when I was in school, wishing that I’d be able to do that someday.  Whenever I see Barry Jacobs in the media room, I still fight the urge to tell him, “I always wanted to BE you,” and get him to sign all my old ACC Handbooks (which I still have).  When Al and Jim Sumner get to telling stories, I always try to eavesdrop (even when they’re about Yankees baseball instead of the ACC).  I never worked up the nerve to introduce myself to Caulton.  I shook Dan Collins’ hand this season, and I sat across from David Teel in the media room at the NCAA games in Philly.

All of them have been very accommodating and supportive of the current generation of beat writers and columnists.  Bill Cole makes a point of saying “hello” to me every game we cover, which is something I can’t say I do for all of my colleagues.

I like and respect them all, and I feel confident that the vast majority of them would disagree whole-heartedly with the article’s header.

Granted, ACC expansion has changed the culture of the league, as has the change in the way news is delivered to the public.  But are those changes any more significant than television, cable television, ESPN, or the introduction of African-American players to the ACC?  The “old days” weren’t a picture of stability and tranquility either.

And, if anything, the article seems to offer the conclusion that the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Some of the best anecdotes are about Coach K giving Bill Brill a hard time in his post-game press conference, and media members staying up late drinking in hotel rooms on tournament weekend.

I shouldn’t even begin listing names, because I’ll leave out someone very talented, but Keeley, Streezy, Schramm, Smith, Gutmann, Wiseman, and Brownlow are just the ones I remember from one day of work in Indy.

The current crew of media members works—and plays—just as hard.  I think all of us have a hearty respect for the history of the league it’s our privilege to cover and for the pioneers who paved the way for us in the industry.

I think most of us would be able to tell you who jumped center against Wilt Chamberlain in the 1957 title game, what years Billy Packer played, when South Carolina left the league and when Georgia Tech joined it.

We may pound Franzia instead of whiskey.  Some of us follow Game Trackers instead of writing down plays on a legal pad.  We might retweet a player or Facebook message him instead of dropping by his hotel room.

Our job isn’t easier or harder, just different.  I don’t know if Basketball Times will be around to talk about us when we’re done, but I’m sure the concern that we’re leaving behind a talent-devoid wasteland to cover the games will be just as untrue.

(5’11” Tommy Kearns, 1959 to 62, 1971, 1979)

Shine on, One Shining Moment

The college basketball season ended on Monday night as it always does—with me covered in sap and man tears after watching CBS’s highlight video of the tournament:  One Shining Moment.

Shots of fans, cheerleaders, and players dancing and crying are all staples of any highlights package, and the song is pop treacle with cheesy lyrics that would make Bon Jovi (“I want to be just as close as the Holy Ghost is”) blush.  But when you put the two together, magic happens.  Like any good team, they raise each other to a higher level.

As I watched, blubbering, on Monday night, I began to wonder what other highlights could be set to One Shining Moment.  There’s really only one choice:

The Shining.

I’m not sure why a movie about a writer’s slow descent into madness would appeal to me, but it’s one of the few films I drop everything to watch.

Like the song, the Shining has more than its fair share of cheese, from the overly long, 70s-style establishing shots to the club-you-over-the-head musical score (maybe if we play one note, as loud as possible, for 15 seconds, people will understand that something shocking has happened).   And while Jack Nicholson is spectacularly over-the-top, the scenery chewing by Shelley Duvall and the boy who plays Danny is off-putting.

However, just like the tournament highlights, putting scenes from the Shining to the OSM soundtrack can lift it up, and produce goosebumps.  Let’s take a look at a shot-by-shot breakdown of how the video might look:

Song opening:  The musical intro is usually accompanied by shots of the cheerleaders, band, and players dancing in a huddle before the game. The closest The Shining can come to cheerleaders are these girls:

shining 15

There are a few nice party scenes that can replace the band shots. I’d go with a clip of Jack drinking in the bar during the ghost party, followed by the balloons in the hall.

shining 19shining 18

As the horns crescendo for the first time, we get the dead party guest saying “Great party!”

shining 16

More instrumental intro:  Danny talking to his finger would make a good pregame dance:

Next we see a clip of Jack typing with a maniacal look: shining 6

And as the horns reach their final crescendo, Danny looks scared after seeing the girls while riding his Big Wheel.

shining 14

Then the lyrics start:

“The ball is tipped…”

Jack obsessively bounces a racquetball

 

“and there you are…”

shining 20 Danny raises his finger in the mirror while in a trancelike state

 

“You’re running for your life”


Crazy Jack chases his family through the hedge maze, and cut to

//giphy.com/embed/8d5TpB3ZynIKA

via GIPHY

terrified Shelley Duvall

 

“You’re a shoot-ing star”

//giphy.com/embed/YJDKRQN76wdt6

via GIPHY

 

“And all the years…”

shining 17The zoom in on the old party photo, with Jack in it, that ends the movie

“no one knows…”

//giphy.com/embed/k3ysanIoI6Yx2

via GIPHY

“just how hard you worked”

Shelley Duvall finds pages of “all work and no play”

 

“”but now it shows…in ONE SHINING MOMENT, IT’S ALL ON THE LINE…”

Heeeere’s Johnny!

 

“ONE SHINING MOMENT, THERE FROZEN IN TIME”
Dead, frozen Jack
“But time is short…”
//giphy.com/embed/RfbaWLVMpio7K

via GIPHY

 

“and the road is long…”

shining 10 The car driving through the mountains during the opening credits  cut to Danny riding Big Wheel
“in the blinking of an eye …”

Danny covers his eyes to hide
“that moment’s gone…”

shining 21Jack snaps his finger while talking about breaking Danny’s arm

“And when it’s done, win or lose …”

//giphy.com/embed/jUUGS57i5zer6

via GIPHY

“you always did your best …”

//giphy.com/embed/dB7zQXCLSoE2A

via GIPHY

“cuz inside you knew…”

//giphy.com/embed/H9aNqTSxmbR16

via GIPHY

(that) ONE SHINING MOMENT, YOU REACHED DEEP INSIDE

//giphy.com/embed/f908mBtQHFgti

via GIPHY

Shelley hits Jack with the bat & knocks him down stairs

 

“ONE SHINING MOMENT, YOU KNEW YOU WERE ALIVE …”

//giphy.com/embed/DtMVkMgSkD0Mo

via GIPHY

//giphy.com/embed/dUEYxs93gaQM0

via GIPHY

Feel the beat of your heart

 

feel the wind in your face …”
//giphy.com/embed/adMxhTD8EUXkY

via GIPHY

it’s more than a contest it’s more than a race…

shining 22 Shelley drags Jack to the freezer
ONE SHINING MOMENT, YOU REACHED FOR THE SKY

 

ONE SHINING MOMENT, YOU KNEW … ONE SHINING MOMENT….”

Kevin Ware … and thoughts on not knowing

“You don’t get to know that.”

As much as we pride ourselves on being insiders, times like Sunday night remind us that we’re just as much on the outside as everyone else who sits and watches a sporting event.

With Louisville leading Duke 21-20 in the first half of yesterday’s regional final, Tyler Thornton hit a three pointer. Louisville’s Kevin Ware jumped to defend it, landed awkwardly, and broke his leg.

Ware suffered a compound fracture. The bone protruded through the skin. His teammates and coaches cried. Reportedly, some got sick on the Louisville bench.

Some of us wearing media credentials saw it happen.  I followed the ball and missed the injury, but I saw the immediate aftermath.  Thornton staggered to the Duke bench after seeing it happen.  The Louisville bench players piled on top of each other as they recoiled in horror.  Three Cardinals players laid down on the court.

My first thought was that there might have been some type of nerve gas attack. Then the tweets started pouring in from people who had seen it in person or on television, and my second thought was simple.

“You don’t get to know that.”

When terrible things happen, people tend to shift into movie mode.  It will all be made right, eventually.  The terrible injury leads to a dramatic comeback, or it serves as an inspiration to lift teammates higher than they thought possible.

That’s not how it works, and I learned that on September 9, 2007.  

The Buffalo Bills opened their season at home against the Denver Broncos.  On the second-half kickoff of what had been a clean but hard-hitting game, Bills reserve tight end Kevin Everett delivered a lick to kick returner Domenik Hixon, a solid blow, but not the hardest that had been seen in the opening 30 minutes and change. Still, it was hard enough to stop Hixon in his tracks.  He went reeling backward and two other Bills special teamers hit him on the way down.  All three got up quickly.

Everett didn’t.  He fell face first to the turf and didn’t move.  He suffered a life-threatening fracture dislocation of his neck vertebrae that nearly severed his spinal cord.  

Members of both teams gathered at midfield and prayed as medical personnel fought to save Everett’s life on the field.

The game resumed, eventually, and the Bills lost on a Broncos field goal as time expired, which no game story referred to as “heartbreaking”. 

Both locker rooms were shell-shocked after the game and into the next week

“It wasn’t anything that remotely resembles what’s after just a normal football game,” head coach Dick Jauron said. “I don’t know how long it will stay that way.”

Starting quarterback JP Losman wore a hat pulled low over his eyes, and spoke in a voice on the verge of cracking.

“I saw a kid who as battling for his life,” Losman said. “I was spooked. I’ve got some younger brothers and cousins that are playing football right now … you ask yourself is it worth it?”

That’s when Jauron set the ground rules for the media … rules that I’ve continued to follow, for the Blair Holliday story last summer, and Kevin Ware Sunday night.

When reporters asked Jauron about the team’s reaction, and what he told them on the field, and how they felt, Jauron met them with steely determination in his eyes.

“You don’t get to know that,” he said.  “Our reaction, our feelings … that’s ours.  Not yours.”

We got everything we needed to do our job.  Information on Everett’s condition was made available on an hourly basis, then daily, and then periodically.  Players met with the media and spoke about visiting Everett, and about moving on as a team.  But they were allowed to grieve in private.

Eventually, some players addressed the elephant in the room—the fact that what happened to Everett … or Ware … could happen to anyone—and tried to explain how they lived with that knowledge.

“It can happen any time,” tight end Robert Royal said. “You can’t think about it.”

Tyler Thornton said the same thing, almost word-for-word last night. “You have to keep playing in the moment. You never know when it’s going to be your last game.”

 “You just keep moving, and we do what we do,” Jauron said. “This is the profession we chose, and by God, we love it.”

Mike Krzyzewski said something similar to his Duke team as play resumed.  “He said we came here to play,” Thornton recalled.  “When stuff like that happens, we can’t let that affect what we’re doing.”  

Like Jauron, Rick Pitino had to find a way to focus his team on the job at hand, when its insignificance was made brutally apparent in front of them.  We don’t know exactly what he told his team as he wiped tears from his eyes. We never will.

We don’t get to know that, not from where we sit and watch. 

And we should be fine with that.  

Triangle and Two: Three random thoughts … and then two more 3/28/13

tritu

1. The son also rises: Duke assistant Chris Collins accepted the head coaching job at Northwestern on Wednesday.  As a junior, Collins suffered through the worst Duke season in a generation, going 13-18.  In the 17 years since then, Northwestern has had a record as bad or worse nine times. They also had nine straight years in the late 80s with worse records, and 12 out of 13 years from 1969 to 1982.

Collins’ much-deserved head coaching opportunity means that Harvard (Tommy Amaker), Stanford (Johnny Dawkins), and Northwestern all have former Blue Devils at the helm. Notre Dame, coached by former Krzyzewski assistant Mike Brey, gives the Coach K tree a stranglehold on basketball at elite private universities.

Given that pattern, where can we expect the other two veterans of Coach K’s current staff to end up?  After coaching Oklahoma, it’s doubtful that Jeff Capel would consider any Ivy job or Vanderbilt—when it comes open—a step up.  Villanova or Georgetown would be good fits.

As for Steve Wojciechowski, what private school could use a fiery leader with more than a decade’s experience on ACC sidelines?  You guessed it:  Wake Forest.

 

2. Barth haters: If you didn’t see Brett Friedlander’s outstanding column on UNC kicker Casey Barth’s debacle of a pro day, you should read it immediately.  Barth was relegated to a separate field and was completely ignored by NFL scouts most of the day, before one scout finally gave him a look on one kick, which Barth missed.

Granted, the scouts could have been more respectful, but, playing devil’s advocate for a second, let’s remember that Barth is a kicker.  He was off on his own, separate from everyone else, and no one paid any attention to him.  That sounds like every kicker at every NFL minicamp, training camp and midseason practice I’ve ever attended.

And scouts have plenty of game film to tell them all they need to know about Barth’s leg. What they need to learn about is his head. He might stand around all afternoon in the cold, swirling wind in Green Bay, only to be asked to perform on one kick, at the end of the day, with everything on the line.

On a kind of chilly day in Chapel Hill, Barth stood around all afternoon, and then was asked to perform on one kick, at the end of the day. He pulled it left.  As Barth would tell you, that’s the life of a kicker.  Sometimes you don’t get a second chance.

 

3. One and done:  Thanks to the double-bonus rule, this is kind of a minor statistical point, but, shouldn’t a player who misses the front end of a one-and-one get charged with TWO missed free throws, since he lost the chance to take a second one with his miss?

Mason Plumlee led Duke with six misses on front-ends this season.  If he got tagged with six more misses to account for lost free-throw opportunities, his shooting percentage at the line would drop from .672 to .664.  As a team, Duke missed 17 front-ends, enough to cause a 10-point drop in the Blue Devils’ .732 percentage. Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton missed three each.  Seth Curry and Amile Jefferson each missed two, and Quinn Cook missed one.

 

4.  Shut my mouth: In the old days, sportswriters would occasionally have to deal with athletes who were upset about something they’d written. And the vast majority of the time, a friend or relative had told the athlete about how “that guy was killing you”. Anyone who’s been in that situation knows that the first question you ask an angry athlete is, “Did you read it yourself?” and offer to go through it with them to see what they found offensive.

Now, with the explosion of social media, the friends and relatives can just cut out the middle man and call you out themselves, as I learned when I decided to bring up the whole “bedtime/grandma” controversy again while whining about Duke’s late start time last weekend.

Now, I don’t know if I could call the right play in a time out to beat coach Rick Lewis, who happens to be Tyler’s dad, but he was able to come into my field of expertise and beat me in the funny-line game.

@krestduketba We have given permission and Tyler can now stay up to midnight. Thanks for the concern 🙂

— Rick Lewis (@Coach_Rick57) March 27, 2013

The other saying we used to have in the old days is that, when it came to having words with an athlete, the guy with the pen always has the last word.  Again, in social media, that’s not the case.

Kudos to coach Rick.  I’ll be ready for you next time.

 

5. Pro tips: Lorenzo Brown declaring for the NBA Draft was no surprise. Coach Mark Gottfried saying that he was expected to go late first round was a little more of a jolt. Brown always seemed like a player who would be a better fit for the pro game. At 6’5”, I like his chances of running the point in the league, even though it’ll likely be in the second quarter, as a backup. If Gottfried’s estimates are correct, lottery teams will take 6’0” PG Trey Burke and 6’3” SG CJ McCollum, while a successful team will grab Brown at the end of the first, and all of them will end up drafting in similar positions the following year. Rumors abound that UNC SG P.J. Hairston is leaning toward declaring for the draft. @ProBasketballDraft said Thursday that it was “likely” and SB Nation’s Phoenix Suns blog said it was “a forgone conclusion he will bolt for the NBA.”

Hairston had a strong final month of the season, and his shot has become much more dependable, but he’s still not NBA ready.  Coach Roy Williams joked about his lack of toughness as recently as the ACC Tournament, when he called Hairston “a pansy.” His wide shoulders give him more of an NBA look than Austin Rivers had at this time last year, but, like Rivers, it’s tough to envision him holding up physically for 82 games at this point.

One guy, wrong cup: One Shining Moment of brand protection

There’s something about walking out of the tunnel and onto a playing surface in a sports arena.  I try to do it every time I arrive at a new arena to cover a game.

The stands are usually empty when I make my entrance – although an early-arriving kid leaned over the railing to give me five last year in Greensboro, adding an extra dose of verisimilitude to my athlete fantasy—but the experience is still a moving one.

I did it on Thursday, shortly after picking up my credential at the Wells-Fargo Center in Philadelphia.  I stepped out and gaped up at the scoreboard, high above the court, feeling my breath catch a bit as I did.  I tried to find my old seat, a few rows from the top of the arena in section 207—in what used to be six-dollar seats for the Sixers.

I took another step out, so the tunnel fell away and the seating bowl opened into my field of vision, dwarfing me.

I took one more step out, intending to at last turn my attention to the court, where in a few short hours, eight teams with dreams of cutting down the nets would soon …

“Sir.”

A gruff arena employee (there are no other kinds in Philly) stepped in front of me, eclipsing my first view of the 2013 NCAA Tournament.  Instinctively, I reached to my chest and flipped my credential around, assuming he needed to check to make sure I belonged there.  I was wrong.

“Sir, I can’t let you bring that out here,” he said.  “Not in that cup.”

A man has to have his priorities straight, and before stepping out to take in my first view of the court, I’d stopped off at the media workroom and taken a cup of coffee.  I used the cups that were available next to the coffee machine, about 20 yards from the tunnel, but those cups were provided by the arena, not the NCAA.

The Wells Fargo Center is a Pepsi building. If you order a Coke at the concession stands, referring to the generic term many Northeasterners use for soda, the employees will as you, “Is Pepsi okay?” If you’re into root beer, you can get Mug, not Barqs, and Sierra Mist, not Sprite, if you would be caught dead drinking either of those.

The NCAA, in case you haven’t seen the signage, is on Team Coke.  When the Florida Gators take the court next weekend against Florida Gulf Coast, they won’t be able to have the sport drink named after their mascot—or at least they’ll have to hide the fact that they’re drinking it—because Powerade is the official sport drink of the NCAA.

And if you wanted to bring any liquids into the seating bowl, they needed to be housed in a cup bearing the logos of the NCAA and Powerade.

photo(30)

Even the non-denominational polka-dot pattern on the coffee cup I was holding didn’t pass muster.

Coke pays an estimated $50 million a year for the opportunity to evict their chief competitor from arenas across the country during March Madness, and it’s a right that the NCAA and their corporate partner take seriously.

The Greensboro Coliseum spent an estimated $15,000 cleansing the arena of all traces of Pepsico last year before the second and third rounds began, an effort that included placing NCAA stickers over all 11,000 drink holders in the arena, to cover the tiny Pepsi logo each one bore.  The stickers were then removed when the NCAA left town before the next event the building hosted.

In Philadelphia, black curtains were the concealment method of choice, housing any Pepsi signage under a burqa that would satisfy even the most orthodox follower of the religion of corporate synergy.

Here then, are some of the highlights of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament – One Shining Moment of brand protection.

photo(34)

Here’s a Pepsi machine whose internal glow was too strong to be contained by the NCAA’s black fabric of oppression.

photo(32)

A soda machine in the media room. Just like in the seating bowl, it’s okay to see the competing product, just not the name.

photo(31)

In addition to Gatorade, Pepsico also owns Frito Lay. So any vending machines containing Pepsi-affiliated snack chips had to be covered as well.

photo(33)

In a clear violation of NCAA-Coca Cola mandate, the curtain draping the Pepsi taps in the main media room was folded under, so we could see which product we were dispensing into our approved drinkware.

photo(35)

Upstairs, in the media overflow box, we were not as fortunate and had to go YOLO when getting soda.

* * *

By the way, I eventually got to take my first look at the Wells Fargo Center court.  I stood under one basket and took in the entire arena, looking at the black curtains, artfully draped over many of the advertising signs in the arena.

And over the next four days, six of the eight teams on site would have their championship dreams pop, like a bubble in a non-denominational carbonated beverage, in a Powerade cup.