In this week for giving thanks, I’ll help set the table with a few appetizers from the world of sports. In no particular order, I’m grateful for:
• 63 minutes of NBA playoff basketball on a Monday night in May ... in Memphis.
• Joe Jackson at the free-throw line with the game in the balance.
• Stan Musial’s 91st birthday (look it up).
• Christabel Oduro with a soccer ball at her feet.
• David Freese with two outs and two strikes.
• Someone beating the Heat.
• That someone being the Dallas Mavericks.
• NFL labor peacemakers. Fall Sundays without football? May as well make it a 6-day week.
• The gritty Gasol brother.
• Albert Pujols channeling the Babe for one World Series game.
• Twilight at AutoZone Park.
• The theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey at FedExForum. And this season’s Tiger intro video.
• Charlie Lea’s infectious love of baseball.
• Larry Finch at full strength on a court beyond the clouds.
• Living in SEC country and hearing discussion of BCS “scenarios.”
• Adonis Thomas as an extra.
• Lance Berkman with two outs and two strikes.
• Wolo and Stats.
• Bob Forsch throwing out the first pitch before Game 7 of the World Series.
• Bob Costas conducting the interview. Anyone, anywhere.
• Dirk Nowitzki to his left, with an injured finger.
• Roger Federer looking human.
• Tiger Woods reminding us that Jack Nicklaus was superhuman.
• Adron Chambers reaching the bluff at AutoZone Park.
• Adron Chambers reaching the Cardinals’ active roster for Game 7 of the World Series.
• The Lady Tiger soccer team cheering the fans after another victory.
• Chris Herrington breaking down the Grizzlies.
• Shane Battier’s timely return.
• Shane Battier from downtown for a playoff winner ... just the second biggest event of his day.
• Josh Pastner’s insistence that “winning is hard.” Ask Larry Porter.
• Jim Harbaugh’s handshakes.
• Hardwood Classics on NBA-TV. Especially any game featuring Rick Barry.
• Rick Barry from the free-throw line.
• The new Tiger sports Hall of Fame. (Wish that Lorenzen Wright jersey were of the Grizzlies variety.)
• The St. Louis Cardinals going with their gut (instead of a track record) and hiring Mike Matheny.
• The new skate park. Wonderful to see skaters actually doing their thing, and not on a video screen.
• Tiger football fans in the stands at the Liberty Bowl. This kind of loyalty knows no bounds. Hang in there.
• The Pastner/Calipari contrast.
• Televisions on the tables at Dan McGuinness Pub. Death to conversation, maybe. But great with a pint of Guinness at game time.
• Soccer-playing daughters. Thought I knew what rooting interest was before.
• Softball-playing daughters. Thought I loved baseball when I played.
• Penny Hardaway, Elliot Perry, and giving back.
• Every last one of my readers. I appreciate the loyalty. Happy Thanksgiving.
And now there’s the Sandusky Affair. Former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky is charged with 40 counts of sexual abuse involving boys, charges that cover a 15-year period (1994-2009) in which higher ups — most notably iconic Nittany Lion football coach Joe Paterno — apparently looked the other way as a monster stalked his prey. This story should stagger us for years to come. (As my colleague Jackson Baker points out, we must allow the legal system to do its thing. But there’s a lot of smoke with 40 charges.)
As heartbreaking and tragic as Magic’s announcement felt in 1991, we knew the athlete himself was the primary victim of his own decisions and behavior. As horrific as the murders of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman were, there were "only" two victims. Now with the truth emerging about Sandusky and his predatory ways, the victims under this latest headline could be counted in the dozens, if not hundreds. (When a grand jury report mentions eight victims, you can rest assured the number is a fraction of the total.)
With due respect to the athletic achievements of Magic and O.J., they are not in the category of Joe Paterno. In digesting Paterno’s firing last Wednesday after 46 years as the head coach at Penn State, I could come up with only two other college coaches (both basketball) I consider of similar renown when we measure their achievements in the arena and in the larger, more important, picture we know as life: UCLA’s John Wooden and North Carolina’s Dean Smith. Forget Paterno’s 409 wins and two national championships. This is a man whose program graduated as many as 89 percent of its players. (In baseball terms, this is a big-league player hitting .450.) A Penn State library was built with funds raised entirely by Paterno and his wife. Joe Paterno is, by most every measure, a decent man. An exceptional man, even.
But Joe Paterno had at least one blind spot, at least one breakdown in judgment. Who knows when Paterno first got wind that his longtime assistant may have been acting inappropriately with children? Perhaps it was 1999, when Sandusky retired at the still-young coaching age of 55. Perhaps it was in 2002 when, according to the grand jury, a graduate-assistant approached him having seen Sandusky raping a child inside Penn State’s football facility. Whenever Paterno became aware, he should have called the police. Had that call been made, we wouldn’t have a story of such magnitude today (and the Sandusky victim count would be much smaller).
With the demise of a man who belonged on a college sports Mount Rushmore, I see three lessons we should carry into a future made less certain by the reminder that there are, indeed, monsters among us:
• There are authority figures ... and there’s the police. The grad student who witnessed a crime (on a horrific scale) reported what he’d seen to a man (Paterno) he considered an authority. Paterno then reported what he’d heard to another authority (a Penn State vice president). And so the word traveled and, presumably, was minimized with each telling. Forget good-Samaritan laws that obligate us to report crimes we witness. Let’s remember the moral obligation we have, particularly to victimized children. Predators rely on silence and fear ... and a blind eye from authority.
• Exclusive power is dangerous. Paterno achieved a status in and around Penn State that, frankly, isn’t natural. It’s the stuff we read and hear about when tyrants are taken down overseas. (To be sure, Paterno’s elevated stature was gained through benevolent actions.) In the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “The rule of the boss is the negation of democracy.” When looking back on Paterno’s fall, we’ll see that the rule of the boss was, in this case, the negation of justice. However much power a person is seen to hold, there must be someone brave enough to tell him (or her) when a decision is wrong. “Coach, you really need to go to the police with this.”
• Sports are a privilege, and supplementary. Penn State did the right thing in firing both Paterno and president Graham Spanier. The student rally in support of Paterno last Wednesday night was unsettling. (As was the football game played Saturday. Should have been cancelled.) We too often describe our favorite athletes and coaches as heroes. They're not. The young men who came forward to finally bring Jerry Sandusky to justice ... they are heroes.
With the NBA’s players and owners refusing to share each other’s toys, it’s time sports fans in this part of the world get acquainted with an alternative winter game. Yes, I speak of hockey, the fourth “major” team sport in North America. Whether or not you’ve been to a RiverKings game at the DeSoto Civic Center (or better, a Predators game in Nashville), it’s not too late to call yourself a hockey fan. Here are the 10 things you must know to leave the hardwood for a frozen pond.
• In historical terms, Wayne Gretzky is to the NHL what Wilt Chamberlain was to the NBA. And John Stockton. And Magic Johnson.
A hockey player gets credit for a point by scoring a goal or picking up an assist on a goal. The Great One retired after the 1998-99 season with more assists (1,963) than any other player’s total points (Mark Messier is second on the points chart with 1,887). Gretzky also scored 93 more goals than number-two on the goals chart (Gordie Howe had 801). His individual numbers are so staggering that it seems merely incidental that Gretzky won the Stanley Cup four times as an Edmonton Oiler. Bar none, Gretzky was the most dominant player in any team sport in North American history.
• The Stanley Cup is the greatest trophy in team sports.
Triple the size of the Lombardi Trophy. With the names of every member on a championship club. And you can drink out of it, for Pete’s sake. Think about it: the NHL playoffs are referred to by the trophy awarded after the last game. (Among my life goals is to touch the Stanley Cup someday. Just touch it.)
• The Original Six.
For 40 years (1927-67), the NHL was a winter-long battle royal between half a dozen franchises: Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Boston, and the New York Rangers. To the league’s credit, these teams are still grouped as one in the consciousness of serious fans, despite being scattered over six divisions in a 30-team league. Better yet, the Stanley Cup has been won by an Original Six club three of the last four years.
• OTL = one point
The NHL did away with ties after an entire season was lost to labor strife (2004-05). An attempt (some say misguided) to further engage a thinning fan base. If a game is tied at the end of regulation (three 20-minute periods), five minutes of overtime are played (with four skaters per team instead of five). If tied after overtime, the game is decided by a shootout (hockey’s equivalent to soccer’s penalty kicks). The winning team, as always, gets two points in the standings, while the loser still gets a single point. So the third number you see in a team’s record (say a club is 14-10-5) is its number of overtime losses. Which means, of course, that club actually has a losing record (14-15). Don’t ignore that third number in measuring your team’s progress.
• Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin
The NHL has only two certifiable superstars, the most dramatic difference between hockey’s premier league and the star-driven NBA. Unlike the NBA, the presence of a superstar doesn’t guarantee a championship. Over their six seasons in the league, Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins have one championship, and Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals haven’t even reached the Stanley Cup finals.
• Icing has nothing to do with birthday cake.
When a player clears the puck from the defensive side of the red line (at center ice), he’s guilty of icing. A face-off ensues in that player’s defensive zone. The next time you get infuriated by a basketball player not running back on defense, consider: There’s no such thing as cherry-picking in hockey.
• Canada’s Game
While only seven of the 30 NHL franchises play in Canadian cities, the sport remains a way of life north of the border (as opposed to merely a nice distraction in too many American NHL venues). If you’re able to catch a game via cable or satellite, pick one played in Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver, or even Winnipeg. The atmosphere will be that of an NBA playoff game ... in January. No Canadian team has won the Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens — this sport’s New York Yankees — won their 23rd in 1993.
• Hockey makes great movies.
Check out Paul Newman in Slap Shot (1977) or Kurt Russell in Miracle (2004). Better than any basketball movie you’ve ever seen. (Okay, Hoosiers was great.)
• Go to the rink.
With the size of its court and its players all but naked to the camera (no hats, no helmets), the NBA is made for television. Not so hockey. The puck is small, the ice surface is large, and the players are hard to distinguish if you don’t know their uniform numbers. But get to an arena. The flow of 10 skaters across a white sheet — chasing that tiny rubber disk — is hypnotic. And the sounds of hockey — puck to stick, stick to ice, player to boards — positively stir adrenaline.
• Hockey has what you like ... you just don’t know it.
Every NHL game has padded players drilling other padded players (like football). Every NHL game has deft passing between players in transition from defense to offense (like basketball). And every NHL game has athletes loaded with hand/eye coordination maneuvering a long stick toward a relatively tiny object (like baseball). Catch a game soon. The NBA is giving you plenty of time to learn to love it.