Thursday, April 16, 2009

John Madden: Style and Substance

John Madden is retiring after 30 stellar years as an NFL commentator for four networks. He started out at CBS in 1979, staying there until that network lost its NFL contract in 1994. He then moved to Fox. In 2002, Madden joined Al Michaels in ABC's Monday Night Football booth and since 2006 he and Michaels have done Sunday Night Football games for NBC.

Depending on your age/predilections, your most vivid image of Madden could be as a Super Bowl winning coach, as a highly animated TV commentator yelling "Boom!" and talking about "turduckens," as the name behind a hugely popular NFL video game--or even as a fixture in Miller Lite commercials:

As a kid, I got a big kick out of those Miller Lite ads. Isn't it something how back then writers knew how to be funny without being crass? Those Miller Lite spots are 100 times funnier than most of the "avant garde" ads from recent years.

I am not quite old enough to remember John Madden's coaching career, though as a student of the game I became quite familiar with it; my earliest recollections of Madden are of him teaming up with Pat Summerall on CBS: it always seemed like they broadcast the biggest games, first featuring the Dallas Cowboys and later featuring teams like the 49ers, Redskins, Bears and Giants. It was a treat listening to Madden talk about what made a young Bill Parcells a good coach or why Walter Payton was so special. Although Madden was always very energetic and enthusiastic during telecasts, if you paid attention to what he was saying you could learn something about the game: he had a keen, quick eye for what was happening on the field and his folksy way of expressing himself should not delude you into forgetting just how much he knows about the sport's strategies.

Madden also understood the human element of the game. Whenever he did Super Bowl telecasts, at the end of the game he would always say something to the effect that for the winning coach this was the greatest feeling in the world, something that no one could ever take away from him.

It was always hilarious to hear Madden carrying on during the annual Thanksgiving game about the "turducken." I first thought that he had just made the whole thing up but there actually is such a thing as a de-boned turkey stuffed with a de-boned duck stuffed with a de-boned chicken. Madden obviously had a lot of fun during the broadcasts but I respect the fact that he did his homework thoroughly before games, meeting with the coaches and key players so that he knew exactly what to expect from a strategic standpoint.

The All-Madden teams honored players who Madden felt played the game the right way and it was always interesting to hear his take about that.

It is very important to not let Madden's outsized persona make you forget that he was a great, Super Bowl-winning Hall of Famer who became the Oakland Raiders head coach at just 33 years of age in 1969. He posted a 103-32-7 regular season record and guided the Raiders to seven conference championship game appearances in 10 seasons, including 1976 when the Raiders went 13-1 in the regular season before drilling the Vikings 32-14 in Super Bowl XI. Madden's Raiders won seven division titles, never had a losing season and never finished lower than second in their division.

The Raiders have always been infamous for welcoming all kinds of characters onto their roster but Madden shaped and molded people who others might have considered misfits into winners. Madden often explained that he only required three things of his players:

1) Be on time.
2) Pay attention.
3) Play like hell on Sunday.

Gus Alfieri, the point guard on St. John's 1959 NIT Championship team, once told me that his Hall of Fame basketball Coach Joe Lapchick did not believe in having a lot of rules for his players; Lapchick thought that if he made too many rules then he would paint himself into a corner in terms of having to punish players and thus lose the flexibility to handle situations on a case by case basis. Alfieri noted that Bobby Knight has great respect for Lapchick and that Knight used a similar approach in that regard during his Hall of Fame coaching career (though the mild mannered Lapchick and the foul mouthed Knight had completely opposite demeanors in terms of how they interacted with people). Many coaches get so caught up in regulating minutiae that they lose sight of the fact that their job is not to control every waking moment of their players' lives but simply to lead and inspire their teams to maximize their potential.

John Madden was a winner on the football field and during his three decades as a TV commentator he added immensely to my enjoyment and understanding of pro football. I hope that he has a long and happy retirement.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

College Basketball's Ten Greatest Dunkers

I just watched a program called "College Basketball's Ten Greatest Dunkers"; it actually originally aired during last year's March Madness but I think that the list is interesting and still timely, so I have reproduced it below, along with a few comments:

1) Darrell Griffith (Louisville): Known as "Dr. Dunkenstein" (like Darryl Dawkins' "Chocolate Thunder" and "Lovetron" references, this nickname has its origins with the Parliament Funkadelic band--in this instance, George Clinton's "Dr. Funkenstein" alias), Griffith had incredible hops that enabled him to do just about any kind of dunk imaginable even though he could not palm the basketball. He was listed as 6-4, but a December 1980 Sports Illustrated article insists that he was actually 6-3.

Griffith averaged 16.2 ppg during an 11 year NBA career spent entirely with the Utah Jazz, transforming himself from a high flyer to a mad bomber who twice led the league in three pointers made (1984, 1985) and once led the league in three point field goal percentage (1984). Griffith earned the 1980 Wooden Award while leading Louisville to the national title and he won the 1981 Rookie of the Year award after averaging 20.6 ppg.

2) Clyde Drexler (Houston): Clyde "the Glide" Drexler was a charter member of "Phi Slama Jama," Houston's high flying fraternity that nearly led the Cougars to a national title. In his prime, he truly did seem to be gliding through the air but even though he made his flights of fancy look easy, the exciting end results were actually the products of a lot of hard work. I have previously written, "Success at any form of competition is based on several factors: mastery of fundamental techniques, supreme focus on the task at hand and maintaining a state of calm in the heat of battle." Specifically, research has shown that 10,000 hours of "effortful study" is required to attain mastery in most fields. Drexler says, "Every dunk is like a custom made suit. It truly is tailored. It can't be duplicated. It wasn't thought out ahead of time. It was just tailored to that moment. Only after playing six, seven hours a day can you begin to even think like that. People think that it's genetic: 'You're a natural.' Sure--after seven hours a day for about 10 years in a row."

Drexler went on to win an NBA championship in 1995 as a Houston Rocket while playing alongside former Cougar teammate Hakeem Olajuwon. Drexler is a member of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players List and a Hall of Famer.

3) Vince Carter (North Carolina): "Half Man, Half Amazing" astounded crowds in the NCAA, the NBA and even the Olympics--who can ever forget when he literally jumped over the head of the 7-2 Frederic Weis?

Carter, the 1999 Rookie of the Year and an eight-time All-Star, put on arguably the best dunking exhibition ever while winning the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest.

4) Dominique Wilkins (Georgia): "The Human Highlight Film" specialized in two footed takeoffs that resulted in powerful finishes, plus tip dunks of errant shots. Vince Carter admiringly says that Wilkins did dunks that no one else could do.

Wilkins won the NBA Slam Dunk Contest in 1985 and 1990 but many fans still think that he was robbed in 1988 in Chicago when home favorite Michael Jordan edged him out with a perfect score on his final dunk. A nine-time All-Star, Wilkins became a Hall of Famer in 2006.

5) Steve Francis (Maryland): Generously listed at 6-3, "Stevie Franchise" was an explosive dunker who could throw it down over players who were much bigger than he was. The 2000 co-Rookie of the Year made the All-Star team three times but never really seemed to fulfill his potential in the NBA.

6) Shaquille O'Neal (LSU): The "Diesel" candidly admits that every time he dunked the ball in college he was trying to tear the rim down. Understandably, no one wanted to get in his way when he had a head of steam. Young Shaq was quick, graceful and mobile while also having tremendous power. If only he had become as interested in blocking shots as he was in dunking...

O'Neal was a controversial selection to the 50 Greatest Players List (he had only been in the NBA for a short time when the list was made) but he certainly went on to prove that he belonged in that elite company.

7) Michael Jordan (North Carolina): Even though this is a list purely about college dunking skills, not pro dunking skills or overall greatness, seventh seems a bit low for "Air Jordan." Everyone knows his resume, so there is not much to say about the man who will be formally inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame this fall.

8) Darvin Ham (Texas Tech): Sort of a poor man's Dominique Wilkins, Ham delivered powerful dunks off of two footed takeoffs. He will always be remembered for breaking a backboard during Texas Tech's upset of North Carolina in the 1996 NCAA Tournament. He averaged 2.7 ppg in an eight year NBA career.

9) Harold Miner (USC): "Baby Jordan" could not live up to that unfair nickname but he was an excellent college player and a very creative dunker even though he, like Griffith and Francis, was not as tall as his listed height (6-5 in Miner's case). Miner's NBA career lasted only four seasons but he won two NBA Slam Dunk Contests.

10) Jerome Lane (Pittsburgh): Bill Raftery's "Send it in, Jerome" call helped to immortalize Lane's 1988 backboard breaking dunk versus Providence. Newly hired Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller provided the assist to Lane and jokingly says that he remembers the play as "the pass."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Heels Stomp Spartans

Although the North Carolina Tar Heels were not the number one overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, their impressive run--culminating in an 89-72 Championship Game victory over Michigan State--provides in retrospect an air of inevitability about the final result; when people look back on this season in 10 or 20 years they will surely wonder why the Tar Heels were not a prohibitive pre-tournament favorite, because they simply dominated the event from start to finish, winning each of their games by at least 12 points and racking up the second largest aggregate point differential (121 points) in the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The last team to roll to an NCAA Championship with six straight double digit wins was Duke in 2001.

CBS' locker room access with Michigan State provided some telling foreshadowing, because Spartans' Coach Tom Izzo's pregame speech essentially consisted of the message that North Carolina would make scoring runs throughout the game but that Michigan State had to try to limit those runs to six points instead of 10 or 12. I don't know about you, but I would not find that to be a particularly inspiring message, though I respect Izzo's candor. The reality is that Izzo is an exceptional coach but on this occasion he went into a gunfight with butter knives, which is an impossible task even for an NBA assassin like Kobe Bryant.

North Carolina beat Michigan State 98-63 early in the season and even though the Spartans have improved since then they clearly are not in the same class as the Tar Heels, which is saying something considering that the Spartans reached the title game by beating Louisville--the number one overall seed--and Connecticut, also a number one seed. Any momentum from those triumphs quickly receded into the history books almost immediately after the opening tip of the Championship Game--the Tar Heels led 17-7 after less than five minutes, pushed that margin as high as 24 and never let the Spartans get closer than 13 points the rest of the way. The Tar Heels led 55-34 at halftime, setting Championship Game records for points scored in a first half and biggest halftime lead.

Wayne Ellington earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors after scoring 19 points on 7-12 field goal shooting but Ty Lawson (21 points, six assists, four rebounds, eight steals) and Tyler Hansbrough (18 points, seven rebounds) also had excellent games; Lawson tied the Final Four single game record for steals with seven swipes in the first half alone and he added a second half steal to take sole possession of that mark. Goran Suton led Michigan State with 17 points and 11 rebounds. The physical Spartans won the battle of the boards 40-33, which is a trademark of Izzo's teams, but they turned the ball over 21 times (compared to just seven miscues by North Carolina) and even when they retained possession long enough to attempt a shot they connected just 40% of the time.

North Carolina's roster may contain as many as six future NBA players, though Michigan State's Travis Walton vastly overstated the case when he said, "You're looking at a team that could probably beat the worst team in the NBA"; even the 12th man on most NBA rosters was a star in college, so no team of young collegians--at least half of whom will not make it to the NBA--is going to beat an NBA team full of former college stars who have matured physically and mentally.

It is hard not to think about the NBA while watching college basketball, because the players who have the most upside are only staying in school for one year before jumping at the chance to sign for millions of guaranteed dollars; this process hurts the quality of both pro and college basketball but the NCAA is getting the worst of it. Players who enter the NBA before they are ready lower the standard of play a little bit but then they usually end up with reduced minutes until they mature, so their presence on the roster drives off some more competent veterans who do not have guaranteed contracts but does not drastically affect the quality of the game. On the other hand, the cream of the crop of college players do not stick around long enough to fully mature either as players or as well known faces who can be marketed to boost college basketball's TV ratings. For instance, I would much rather have seen Kevin Durant in the 2008 NCAA Tournament as opposed to watching him chase around NBA shooting guards as he received on the job training while playing out of position. Sure, Durant has blossomed in his second NBA season but it would have been better for college and pro hoops if he had gone through that maturation process as a collegian. It is obvious that we would be seeing better individual performances as well as deeper, more balanced teams if so many future stars did not look at going to college as nothing more than a necessary evil for one year.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Coke Zero "Taste the Madness" Ad Will Debut Monday Night

Last month, I wrote about Coke Zero's "Taste the Madness" commercial that will include videos and photos submitted by fans. The Coke Zero people sifted through more than 1000 submissions to choose 61 fans who will be featured in the new ad, which will air on Monday night before the NCAA Championship Game. Here is one of the winning submissions:

The Florida A&M Snake Pit is a very energetic, spirited place: