Friday, April 18, 2014

Howard Cosell: Often Imitated, Never Duplicated

Only Howard Cosell could summarize a man as complex and multifaceted as Howard Cosell: "Arrogant, pompous, obnoxious, vain, cruel, verbose, a showoff. I have been called all of these. Of course, I am." Cosell was also something else: "a transcendent figure in sports journalism." That sentence sounds like something Cosell would have said about himself but it actually appears as the subheading for William Nack's 1995 Howard Cosell obituary.

When I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, Cosell was the most famous and most controversial sports broadcaster in the world. He was often imitated--everyone tried to parody his distinctive delivery: "This is Howard Cosell, Speaking of Sports"--but never duplicated; nearly two decades after his passing, no national sports media figure has come close to matching Cosell's depth of knowledge or his passion for speaking truth to power about unpopular athletes and unpopular causes. Nack describes Cosell as "the gaudiest, smartest and most entertaining and unforgettable television broadcaster in the history of sports--a superb reporter who worked harder and asked better questions than anyone else who'd ever worn earphones."

Many people remember how Cosell's voice sounded but how many people remember what he stood for and what he said? Nack reminds anyone who may have forgotten just how outspoken Cosell was:

Unlike his buttoned-down peers, who ducked social issues and lied at the first whiff of controversy, Cosell waded into every major battle of his time, cutting his way against the grain. He allied himself with Curt Flood in the player's challenge to baseball's hoary reserve clause, and he championed Muhammad Ali in his fight against the draft, setting fire to the national shirt by insisting on calling Ali by his Muslim name. Many of his pen pals remained anonymous when they addressed him "You nigger-loving Jew bastard...."

Few sportswriters and sportscasters are blessed to have the national platform that Cosell did and even fewer have used that platform as a force for good instead of just a means of self-aggrandizement. The prominent TV networks, magazines and websites that cover pro basketball have elevated many commentators and so-called experts to national prominence but who among those well-paid commentators and so-called experts lobbied for the Hall of Fame candidacies of forgotten ABA players like Artis Gilmore, Mel Daniels and Roger Brown? Ted Green struggled to get funding for his heartfelt Roger Brown documentary. ESPN's 30 for 30 series is outstanding but why did the network not want to touch the Roger Brown story? Might doing so have offended the NBA? Howard Cosell never cared who he offended; he just spoke the truth.

Cosell wrote and spoke eloquently and he did not shy away from controversy; no individual or organization has stepped up to fill the void created by Cosell's absence. Even Sports Illustrated, one of the few mainstream outlets where top notch sports journalism can still occasionally be found, often features forgettable, lazily constructed articles; the magazine sometimes includes first rate writing but one has to wade through a lot of chaff to find the wheat--and SI is better than any of its competitors. I will read anything written by the outstanding Gary Smith but his work only appears in print sporadically; during Cosell's prime, he was writing and/or talking on a daily basis, offering intelligent commentary about a wide range of subjects. Rick Reilly has the necessary writing chops to be a powerful influence--and he has penned some incredibly moving articles--but now he seems too comfortable cashing ESPN's checks to focus on producing a steady stream of great writing.

Cosell was far from perfect, as he noted in the self-assessment cited above. He often spoke bluntly (though truthfully) about the shortcomings of some of his co-workers. He drank a lot and could be unpleasant when he was inebriated; Nack begins his piece by recounting one such occasion, noting that Cosell's wife Emmy settled him down by declaring, "Howard, shut up! Nobody cares."

Nack concludes:

Cosell was too much of an original to leave heirs, and the landscape of broadcast journalism that he left on Sunday looks much the way he found it 35 years ago. Once again the waves are filled with talking heads and apologists, with hometown cheerleaders and mindless drones. No one is asking the questions that he asked. And Emmy was right--nobody cares.

***************************************

Here is a 1991 ESPN special featuring Cosell being interviewed by Robert Lipsyte:

Howard Cosell: His Life and Times

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Comparing the Greatest Sports Dynasties

The December 9, 2013 issue of Autoweek contains an article by Al Pearce titled "No End in Sight" (an abridged version can be found here); Jimmie Johnson had just claimed his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title in his 12th full season on the circuit, placing him one behind record holders Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Petty considers Johnson a lock to win at least eight crowns and would not be surprised if Johnson pushes the standard to 10. Although Johnson receives most of the glory, racing is a team sport and the success of Rick Hendrick Motorsports with Johnson behind the wheel and Chad Knaus serving as crew chief raises an intriguing question: where does this accomplishment rank in the pantheon of great sports dynasties?

Hendrick has actually won 11 Sprint Cup Series titles overall--with Jeff Gordon serving as the driver for four of them and Terry Labonte capturing the other one--and a sidebar to Pearce's article (not included in the online version) notes that Hendrick is tied with the NHL's Detroit Red Wings and MLB's St. Louis Cardinals for the seventh most championships won by a professional sports organization. The leaders are the New York Yankees (27 World Series championships), the Montreal Canadiens (24 Stanley Cups), the Boston Celtics (17 NBA titles), the Los Angeles Lakers (16 NBA titles), the Toronto Maple Leafs (13 Stanley Cups) and the Green Bay Packers (13 NFL titles).

Autoweek notes that Hendrick has captured 11 championships in 30 seasons, a .367 winning percentage that is the best in American sports history, ahead of the Celtics (17/67, a .254 winning percentage), the Canadiens (24/95, a .253 winning percentage) and the Yankees (27/113, a .239 winning percentage). Hendrick has been incredibly dominant in the past two decades, winning 11 of 19 championships (.579).

Autoweek lists some of the "Best of the Best" sports dynasties without ranking them:
 
Boston Celtics of the late 1950s/early 1960s (nine NBA championships in a 10 year span), Michael Schumacher (five straight Formula I titles and a record seven titles overall), Los Angeles Lakers (five NBA championships in the 1980s), Chicago Bulls (six NBA championships in eight years during the 1990s), Pittsburgh Steelers (four Super Bowl wins in a six season span during the 1970s), John Force (16 NHRA Top Fuel championships in 24 years as a driver, 18 NHRA championships as a team owner), New York Yankees of the late 1940s/early 1950s (six World Series wins in seven years), Montreal Canadiens (five straight Stanley Cup wins in the 1950s), UCLA (10 NCAA basketball championships in a 12 year span in the 1960s/1970s), Jack Nicklaus (18 pro golf major wins), Tiger Woods (14 pro golf major wins), Dario Franchitti (four IndyCar titles in five seasons), Sebastien Vettel (four straight Formula I titles, 2010-13), Sebastien Loeb (nine consecutive World Rally Championships, 2004-12), A.J. Foyt (seven IndyCar titles, the most all-time), Richard Petty/Dale Earnhardt (seven NASCAR titles each).

Considering the source, it is not surprising that eight of the 17 dynasties involve some form of auto racing but overall that list is a good one. If individual athletes like Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods are going to be mentioned, though, then Bjorn Borg deserves consideration; when Borg retired he held the records for most Wimbledon wins (five), most consecutive Wimbledon wins (five), most French Open wins (six) and most consecutive years with at least one Grand Slam win (eight). Borg still holds the record for best Grand Slam winning percentage (.407, 11 wins in 27 appearances). Even though some of Borg's records have been surpassed by various players, no player in tennis history has been dominant enough to hold all of those records at the same time the way that Borg did.

Objectively ranking the aforementioned dynasties is an impossible task; it is difficult enough to rank the greatest players of all-time in one sport, let alone compare athletes and teams from various generations and vastly different sports. I agree with Pearce, though, that the best of the best have a special quality about them:

Elite competitors, like newly minted six-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson, have it. They always have, and they always will. No worthy champion achieves anything without it.

Michael Jordan had it during those magical years with the Chicago Bulls. Tiger Woods had it before foolishly throwing it away. The Boston Celtics and Arnold Palmer and "Mr. October" Reggie Jackson had it. "I am the greatest" Muhammad Ali had it. So did Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky. And, don't laugh, but Terry Bradshaw had it, too.

It's an indefinable gene that carries the day and elevates an athlete. It separates truly great ones from those who think they're great or merely think about being great.

"It" is a powerful combination of talent, work ethic, confidence and will power. Someone once said of Jack Nicklaus that he knew he was the best, his opponents knew that he was the best and he knew that they knew. Ranking the great sports dynasties is impossible but it is clear that they all had that type of dominance, an expectation of victory that inspired them and that inspired fear/resignation in even the staunchest opponents.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Anand Shows That He is not the Retiring Kind

After Viswanathan Anand lost his World Chess Championship title to Magnus Carlsen, some commentators speculated that Anand might retire from top level chess. The 44 year old Anand had slipped to eighth in the world chess rankings and it seemed like he did not have the necessary energy and/or motivation to seriously challenge the 23 year old Carlsen. Anand's tournament record in the past few years has been less than stellar and prior to losing to Carlsen he had only narrowly fought off past his prime World Championship challenger Boris Gelfand. Levon Aronian, the 31 year old second ranked player in the world, seemed poised to emerge from the eight player Candidates Tournament to battle against Carlsen.

However, a funny thing has happened on the road to Anand's retirement/Aronian's coronation: Anand has turned back the clock to produce three sizzling victories, a 6.5 score and a 2883 performance rating after 10 rounds in the Candidates Tournament, while Aronian is in second place with a 5.5 score. Anand scored 1.5/2 in his head to head encounters with Aronian and there are just four rounds left in the double round robin event, so--barring a total collapse--Anand will surprise the chess world and earn the right to reclaim the World Chess Championship.

Anand is not be as consistently dominant in tournaments as he used to be but he is a crafty veteran of World Championship play--winning the title in more different formats than any other player--and it is inspiring to watch an "older" player rise to the occasion against the world's elite. If Anand finishes off the Candidates Tournament in style and gets a second opportunity face Carlsen in the World Chess Championship it will be fascinating to see how Anand adjusts his approach; the first time around, it seemed like Anand failed in at least three regards: (1) his opening preparation did not yield much, (2) he lacked the confidence to go for the kill on the rare occasions when he had a potential opportunity to do so and (3) during long games he clearly suffered from mental and/or physical fatigue, resulting in disastrous blunders. During the Candidates Tournament, Anand has demonstrated that he can still get the best of top notch players like Aronian and former World Champions Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov--but can Anand defeat a much younger foe who seems to enjoy psychological and physical advantages against him?

Carlsen is not only the World Chess Champion and the highest rated chess player in the world but he is also the highest rated chess player ever. Just qualifying to challenge Carlsen will be quite a feat for Anand but if Anand dethrones the man who at least some people believe to be the greatest chess player of all time that will be the biggest achievement of his already highly decorated career. Anand would be a heavy underdog against Carlsen--and he did not manage to post even one win in their previous match--but he was not considered a serious contender in the Candidates Tournament until he raced out into the lead and never looked back.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Marv Levy: Champion Without a Ring

It is a paradoxical reality of the sports universe that if one never makes it to the big game one can still be perceived as a winner but if one makes it to the big game repeatedly without winning it then one is generally perceived as a loser. Coach Marv Levy led the Buffalo Bills to an unprecedented four straight Super Bowls (1991-94) and if the Bills had won just one of those games then history would view Levy much more kindly--but the Bills lost all four, including three blowouts plus one game decided on a last second field goal missed by Buffalo kicker Scott Norwood, and thus it is unlikely that Levy will ever get the full credit that he is due.

Rick Telander, a narrative non-fiction master, realized that there is much more to Levy than those four Super Bowl losses; in an October 17, 1994 Sports Illustrated article titled No Joke, Telander explained why Levy is not only a great coach but also a well-rounded human being. Levy possesses the intelligence and determination to succeed in just about any field but the Harvard history major fell in love with football, a decision that did not meet with the immediate approval of his father. When he told Sam Levy what he planned to do, the elder Levy considered the matter in silence before saying simply, "Be a good one."

The stereotypical football coach breathes fire and instills fear but Marv Levy rejected that approach: "I hear sometimes that to be a good coach you have to be mean. I disagree, because the essential quality of a coach is to be a good teacher. Just because my personality is different from, say, Mike Ditka's doesn't mean a thing. What I always say is, 'Plan your work and work your plan.' If you have everything prepared, the rest takes care of itself.'"

After that fourth Super Bowl loss, Levy offered a defiant response when asked if the Bills could make a fifth straight trip to the Super Bowl: "Is our goal to win? No! Our goal is to develop our team, to earn what we get, to learn, to develop unselfish attitudes. If we achieve that, the result is that we'll win."

Those words may sound trite but coaches who have won multiple championships--including Phil Jackson and John Wooden--said very similar things: competing in sports at the highest level is about the process, about doing your work the right way and about having the proper mindset: those things do not guarantee championships but they guarantee that you can look in the mirror and know that you, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, filled "the unforgiving minute/With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run."

Monday, March 10, 2014

Peter Svidler on the "Mystical Quality" of Chess

Seven-time Russian chess champion Peter Svidler recently was interviewed by Rustam Kasimdzhanov, the 2004 FIDE World Chess Champion; in Part I, Svidler offers a very candid appraisal of his chess career:

I still think I'm primarily a chess player, but the question can perhaps be phrased: "Have I been as much of a chess player as I should have been over the course of my career?" And I think to that the answer is no. But once again, by now that's probably unfixable and I'm probably more of a chess player right now than I was three years ago--so I'm trying to do something about it. 

I have been somewhat...relaxed towards my chess career in general over the past decade or so. Who knows what could have happened...but the whole, "what would have happened with him if he'd worked on chess for 12 hours a day," is completely pointless, because I don't see myself working 12 hours a day whatever I do. It's a non-starter. I know of some people who do that, but I can't imagine changes in my life which would lead me to that.

It is fascinating that even someone as accomplished as Svidler believes that he does not have the work ethic or focus possessed by the very greatest chess players. Svidler both recognizes this shortcoming and accepts that it is fruitless to wonder what might have been had he taken a different approach; he knows that it is just not in his nature to have the monomaniacal devotion to the sport displayed by Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen, three World Champions who have each permanently inscribed their names very prominently in chess history. Svidler is well aware that he never came close to reaching their level: "...I will be listed as a bit-player in the era of Kramnik. Maybe not exactly a bit-player, but still--there are people out there who shaped the chess world to a certain degree. I don't see myself as one of those, but I'm a decent player."

Although Svidler failed to establish himself as an all-time chess great, in Part II he explains why chess captivates him (and millions of other people who are spellbound by the beauty, wonder, mystery and horror of chess):

I think it's an incredibly beautiful game. It can bring you a lot of joy if you study it and begin to understand it. You do need to put in some work because the "problem" with chess is that you do need to get past a certain level to begin appreciating just how beautiful it can be...

It has a somewhat mystical quality for me. In its best aspects it's like music or literature. It can create a feeling of wonder and beauty--obviously not every day, but it can. That's the reason I'm still happy I'm playing it because every now and then you create something which makes you think, yeah, that really was something which will remain. It's more than a game--at least I like to think so...

Success and recognition and all those things are important, clearly--who doesn't want those?--but this feeling that you get every now and then that you're completely in control of what you're doing over the board and the pieces listen to you and do what you say… For me that's absolutely fantastic and what I'm searching for--what I'm playing for.  

Svidler nailed it: chess provides both a means to express oneself artistically and a way to at least have the illusion of exercising control in a world that often seems very chaotic and unpredictable.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Garry Kasparov Plans Many Moves Ahead, On and Off of the Chess Board

Ron Rosenbaum's Smithsonian article What is Garry Kasparov's Next Move? discusses Kasparov's perspectives on international politics, Magnus Carlsen's victory in the World Chess Championship and the way that powerful chess engines have permanently changed tournament chess. Kasparov's take on Vladimir Putin is particularly interesting:

Kasparov’s animus toward Putin led me to ask the philosophical question "Do you believe in evil?"

"Everyone has an evil component within," he tells me. "It's matter of circumstance whether it emerges. Whether he becomes 'the right man in the right place at the right time' for evil to emerge. Stalin had it, all the components in place."

"How would you assess Putin?" I ask.

"Evil," Kasparov replies. "Pure evil."

"Evil from the beginning?" I ask.

"Yeah, it’s just the..." he pauses, trying to find a way to describe it, "evil from the very beginning, but eventually he was brought into power and eventually he discovered himself...." Again he pauses and then comes out with it. "He discovered himself in the center of this universe with unlimited powers with enormous luck!"

There's something Faustian to this characterization, this vision of Grandmaster Putin suddenly finding himself like Milton's Satan, realizing it's better to "reign in hell, than serve in heaven." He's found himself in a universe he can reign over with godlike abandon. No one in the world, not any of the leaders of the other countries, has powers so unlimited. Few in history have had it--and fewer still have been able to keep it.

But Kasparov will not grant Putin grandmaster strategist status.

"He got lucky from other factors: high price of oil, 9/11 attack, general weakness of the West, complacency, muddy waters in the global politics, apathy of Russian people--the combination [of all that]." And Kasparov also feels there are limits to the effects of Putin’s evil. "It's unimaginable to think he could cause as much damage as Hitler. It's [different], 21st century from the 20th century. I always say that Hitler used tanks, Putin's using banks. But the damage Putin has caused to the integrity of Western financial, political system has yet to be measured."

Returning to Ukraine and Putin’s Gambit, "This is an amazing moment in history, wouldn’t you say?" I ask him.

"Yes," he replies, "I think this [is] an amazing time. The collapse of the Soviet Union was the beginning of the big change. But it was a mistake to think the end of the cold war was the end of history."

Kasparov's reference is to the title of a once-fashionable geopolitical book, The End of History and the Last Man, published in 1992 by Francis Fukuyama, and to its thesis that after the collapse of the Soviet Union the world was on an uninterruptable path to global liberal democracy.

Kasparov believes that both Bill Clinton and George Bush, Sr. missed golden opportunities in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Kasparov has strong opinions about the policies that the United States should have implemented at that time:

"First of all, you don’t say 'That’s the end of the game.' Because the game is endless. It's the human race. Nobody had a plan that could go for four years, six years, ten years. That was an opportunity to make plans like the Truman administration did in late-1940s."

"And now?" I ask.

"Everybody's complaining that today things are so difficult, the Obama administration is facing [so many] enemies, it's difficult to confront China and radical Islam and Putin is...someone told me that Vladimir Putin is more dangerous than Joseph Stalin in 1948. Are you serious? That insults my sense of history. It's just politicians trying to cover up a lack of ideas, inability to strategize, and unwillingness to break a status quo, desperate attempts to cling to the power by [emphasizing] the magnitude of the global challenges."

Kasparov supports making chess an integral part of the school environment:

Kasparov is already thinking several moves ahead: beyond just reforming the insular, scandal-plagued world of 64 squares to make chess a vehicle for worldwide intelligence enhancement. "Everybody talks about the shortcomings of education. And I have plenty of experience traveling around the world and talking to education authorities, from the very top to the very bottom of the social ladder."

"We have plenty of evidence that at early age chess helps kids to learn about legal frameworks, to understand logic and patterns, to see the big picture, to structure minds. We need to start reforming education, and chess is a very useful tool."

Kasparov has a very measured answer to the question of whether prime Kasparov could beat prime Carlsen: "I always resist the question of comparing people. We live at different times, so Garry Kasparov in ’85 was once the champion, but my knowledge of chess was way, way less. It was 25 years ago."

Friday, February 21, 2014

Rick Reilly's Heartfelt Tribute to Jim Murray

Rick Reilly, who has won the National Sportswriter of the Year award 11 times, could not have picked a better role model than Jim Murray, who captured that honor a record 14 times--including 12 straight from 1966-77. After Murray passed away in August 1998, Reilly penned a touching obituary that displayed Reilly's talent while also explaining the qualities that made Murray so special. I encourage you to read the entire piece; here is an excerpt to whet your appetite:

I once asked Jim Murray if he kept a few extra columns in the bank for days when he had the flu or a tee time or an incurably blank computer screen. "Of course not!" he yowled. "What if I die one ahead?"

On Sunday, Jim Murray, the greatest sportswriter who ever lived, kissed his gorgeous wife, started to put on his pajamas, said, "Linda, something's wrong," and collapsed. The doctor was there in five minutes, but it was too late. Jim had died of a heart attack. He was 78.

He got his wish, though. He didn't have any columns saved up. Too bad. We could use a few laughs right now.