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.