Tuesday, February 11, 2003

FROM MY SEAT

FROM MY SEAT

Posted By on Tue, Feb 11, 2003 at 4:00 AM

ROUNDBALL RESET With the NBA All-Star break behind us, it’s time for some mid-season musings on Pau, Yao, the Mavs, the Cavs, and what’s in store for the season’s second half and beyond.
  • The Grizzlies are a fun team to watch. They’re still bad, folks, but they’re young, versatile, and genuinely exciting. The addition of Drew Gooden, Gordan Giricek, and Wesley Person has transformed a plodding, predictable team with maybe three scoring options to a club that might be led in the scoring column by any of seven different players. Pau Gasol is the real deal and will serve as the measuring stick for how close the Griz are getting to playoff contention. He’s a classic “second star.” Think about what Boston’s Kevin McHale was to Larry Bird. Or L.A.’s James Worthy to Magic Johnson. More recently, how about San Antonio’s David Robinson to the brilliant Tim Duncan? When the Grizzlies find a player who will shift Gasol into a supporting role Ñ and as long as Gasol accepts such a transition Ñ Jerry West’s creation will be on its way to May basketball. Where do you find such a gem? That’s why Mr. Logo is a Memphian.
  • The fans have “spoken” . . . and should be ignored. Yao Ming an All-Star starter ahead of, ahem, Shaq Daddy? Come on, people. With all due respect to the biggie-sized story that is Yao, and with a tip of the cap to the Chinese fans who took advantage of on-line voting, this was an atrocity and made the over-hyped exhibition game that much more of a joke. I was as stoked as the next guy to see the 7’5” Rocket slap O’Neal field goal attempts hither and yon in the first Houston Laker game of the season. It’s hope for the future, to say the least. So let Yao start an All-Star game . . . in the future. Shaquille O’Neal remains this generation’s most significant force in the NBA. And he shouldn’t sit behind anyone. My proposal? Turn the All-Star selection process on its head. Instead of letting fans choose the starters (with head coaches filling the roster), allow fans to pick all twelve players for each conference. Sure, it’s a popularity contest. So what? (You might allow a single “wild card” selection for a diamond-in-the-rough on each team.) Once the roster is established, allow the coach to name his own starters. Give the honor some credibility.
  • Speaking of diamonds in the rough, when do you think we’ll next see a nationally televised Cleveland Cavalier game? What an awful collection of rim-denters surrounding rookie Dajuan Wagner. I’ve been excited to see the undersized Wagner’s scoring acumen prove as dynamic on the NBA hardcourt as it was at the University of Memphis. I’m just afraid his game will remain one-dimensional as long as he’s stuck in the latest incarnation of the “mistake by the lake.”
  • The Dallas Mavericks will not win the NBA title. Or even reach the Finals, for that matter. So long the league’s laughingstock, Dallas may be the most fun team to watch since Jordan’s Bulls. That is, when they’re playing their game and against the right competition (read: not the Kings, Lakers, or Spurs). They pass, they run, they score, they even block shots (a frontcourt of Shawn Bradley, Raef LaFrentz, and Dirk Nowitzki is more than 21 feet of swat). But the Mavericks continue to lack a toughness, a grit, a fire that every NBA champion has had. They blew a 27-point lead in the fourth quarter(!) against the Lakers. Portland beat them up inside in erasing a 12-point halftime lead on Super Bowl Sunday. They may win 65 games, but . . .
  • If they can get healthy by April, the Sacramento Kings will be your 2003 NBA champs. I’m convinced the Lakers will rise, and may even edge San Antonio for a spot in the Western Conference finals (the de facto championship series, based on the Eastern Conference’s vast inferiority). But Sacramento is so good that their second unit would make the playoffs (and might just win the East!). Most importantly, Chris Webber has turned himself into an unselfish player. The Kings start a unit of five players every bit as willing to pass the ball as shoot. Their backup point guard Ñ Bobby Jackson Ñ would start for about 20 other clubs. They have a center in Vlade Divac who doesn’t know he’s outmanned by O’Neal or Duncan. And that’s important come June. Webber is the requisite superstar . . . he’ll be your Finals MVP.
  • My mid-season All-NBA team: Jason Kidd (New Jersey) and Paul Pierce (Boston) at guard, Tracy McGrady (Orlando) and Kevin Garnett (Minnesota) at forward, and Duncan in the middle.

    Monday, February 10, 2003

    KRAUTROCK, BITTE?

    KRAUTROCK, BITTE?

    Posted By on Mon, Feb 10, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    Morvern Callar
    Various Artists
    (Warp)
    Well, what do you know? It's our old friend, the soundtrack as aesthetic defining point and semi-pop marketing device. In the case of the disc accompanying director Lynne Ramsay's acclaimed Morvern Callar, there's something of a twist to the usual soundtrack CPR: The disc serves to reposition Can, the early-'70s German prog-rock group, as a pop band. By including Can's two most immediately memorable songs (1972's "Spoon" and 1976's "I Want More," the latter an actual hit record in England) and two similarly hooky cuts by bassist/producer Holger Czukay ("Cool in the Pool" and "Fragrance"), it offers Krautrock at its friendliest. For record geeks who've been attempting to foist this stuff on people for years, it'll serve as a godsend. It's helped along by a bunch of other hipster-friendly selections. As befits a Warp records release, there's plenty of that Sheffield label's avant-electronica, with smart selections from Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, and Broadcast. We also get a welcome edit of Stereolab's endless "Blue Milk," some dub from Lee Perry, some gamelan, and a pair of country parodies, one good (Ween), one stupid (Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazlewood). But considering what mishmashes soundtracks tend to be, one that keeps its focus as straight as this one is a blessing, even when it stumbles. Grade: A-

    Friday, February 7, 2003

    Bully Pulpits

    A loser in last fall's leadership fight, Ford finds new ways to show his flag.

    Posted By on Fri, Feb 7, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., whose bid to become House minority leader fell short back in November, continues to find avenues for his governmental ideas -- styled "moderate" or "centrist" by most pundits but generally called "results-oriented" and "pragmatic" by the congressman and his spokespersons.

    Democrat Ford was co-featured with Arizona Republican Senator John McCain at this week's annual dinner of the Washington Press Club, one of several venues -- the National Press Club and White House Correspondents dinners being others -- that are considered prime showcase opportunities inside the Beltway.

    For the occasion, Ford availed himself of speechwriting help from Al Franken, the well-known comedian and Saturday Night Live grad. But, besides conforming with the tongue-in-cheek aspects of the occasion, which will be emceed by club president Adam Clymer of The New York Times, Ford is likely also to spell out some of his views on budgetary matters, according to his chief of staff, Mark Schuermann.

    The Memphis congressman has just been named to the House Budget Committee, where, said Schuermann, he will have the opportunity to serve three terms before returning to his former base on the Education Committee.

    "He'll obviously get to lobby for his education ideas on the Budget Committee," says Schuermann. Equally obvious is that Ford will have a new -- and conspicuous -- platform to vent his ideas in general. The congressman, who last year lost to current minority leader Nancy Pelosi of California, has not closed the door on future leadership bids if Democrats continue to fail to achieve a House majority.

    Ford was tapped for the Budget Committee by ranking Democrat John Spratt of South Carolina, well known as a moderate on fiscal matters.

    · Meanwhile, Tennessee's new governor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, continues to signal a moderate, cost-cutting approach -- one that has caused some to recall a Vietnam-era joke, in which a citizen who voted for Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964 instead of Democrat Lyndon Johnson, the landslide winner, said: "People told me if I voted for Goldwater I'd see this country involved in an interminable military quagmire. Well, they were right!"

    In the contemporary Tennessee version, the lament is from a voter for Bredesen's defeated GOP opponent, self-described fiscal conservative Van Hilleary. "They told me if I voted for Hilleary, I'd see state government programs cut to the bone! Well, they were right" goes the refrain.

    In fact, Bredesen has used his weekly cabinet meetings -- three of which have been held so far -- to advertise a series of forthcoming cutbacks. This week, he floated trial balloons for shifting state road funds to education and perhaps holding back portions of the state-shared tax proceeds upon which Tennessee's local governments have depended.

    Bredesen's picks for his cabinet, incidentally, have earned good reviews for being chosen more on merit than on patronage considerations. The three Memphians named so far are less well-known in political circles than has usually been the case with gubernatorial appointees.

    The three are: Kenneth S. Robinson, named this week as state health commissioner; Gina Betts, commissioner for Mental Health and Developmental Disabilities; and John A. Keys, commissioner of Veterans Affairs. Rev. Robinson, a minister of St. Andrew A.M.E. Church here, has an extensive background in community health initiatives. Betts, the former president of the American Nurses Association, had been serving as director for health policy at UT-Memphis after a previous stint as senior adviser on nursing and policy in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Keys had been for many years the director of veterans' affairs for Shelby County.

    · The Public Issues Forum of Memphis, a public-affairs organization founded in 1994, will inaugurate its 2003 calendar with a forum on TennCare, the state's ever-beleaguered health-insurance system, to be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at First Congregational Church on South Cooper.

    A panel will examine TennCare, which faces renewed cuts under state budgetary restraints, from a Memphis and Shelby County perspective. Panel members include: Dr. Cyril Chang, professor of economics at the University of Memphis; Dr. David Mirvis, director of the Center for Health Services Research at UT-Memphis; and Don Voth, director of the Memphis and Shelby County Mental Health Summit. Happy Jones will serve as facilitator.

    · Although two other candidates -- Jerry Cobb and Arnold Weiner -- are contesting the issue, Kemp Conrad is considered the odds-on favorite to be named the next chairman of the Shelby County Republican Party at the party's forthcoming convention, to be held at White Station High School on Sunday, February 23rd.

    Conrad's troops were in great evidence two weeks ago during the local GOP's reorganizational caucuses. A transplanted Georgian, Conrad headed up the local party's minority outreach program during the past year.

    Outreach will be an implicit theme of the GOP's annual Lincoln Day Dinner at the Adam's Mark Hotel this Saturday. Featured speaker will be U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige, one of several prominent African Americans (two others being Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice) in the Bush administration. ·

    POLITICS

    Chairman Bailey pulls the pin but has to stick it back in the grenade.

    Posted By on Fri, Feb 7, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    NO DEAL Momentous things occurred during the committee meetings held Wednesday by the Shelby County Commission -- notably a vote to rescind the litigation fees recently ruled unconstitutional by the state Attorney General -- but one of the potentially most dramatic events had a life-span of only a minute or two. That was when Commission chairman Walter Bailey, making a late entry into a mid-morning meeting of an ad hoc staff-reorganization committee chaired by Joe Ford, pulled the pin on a grenade from a box his mates thought had been tucked away after the traumatic Calvin Williams episode, then carefully replaced the pin when there was general alarm. The commissioners had been engaging in an extended and somewhat desultory colloquy over such issues as: (a) whether acting commission administrator Grace Hutchinson should be permanently so employed or whether there should be an open search for the job; (b) how many staff members there should be and what their pay and functions should be. The discussion -- based on some thoughtful recommendations by Ford, a veteran of a similar reorganization as a city council member a decade ago -- was necessitated by the resignation under pressure last month of former commission administrator Williams. Williams, it will be remembered, had been the subject of some blaring publicity about -- inter alia -- conflicts of interest concerning his temporary employment agency, his browbeating of County Assessor Rita Clark, and his reported involvement as a middle-man in paying off a female employee of the Juvenile Clerk’s office who had a sexual harassment case against Williams’ pal Darrell Catron. Catron, now apparently a cooperative witness in a case against others involved in dubious county transactions, had numerous other legal problems. Williams’ problems, too, had been mounting to the point that he had to go. Hutchinson, his deputy and a long-term county employee of impeccable reputation and nose-to-the-grindstone reputation, succeeded him on an interim basis. One of the points that had not been debated at the point that Bailey entered the committee room and took his seat was the revised nature of the administrator’s duties. Williams had been a wheeler-dealer and broker on the grand scale; not only did he cut his own deals, he helped various commissioners cut theirs. Hutchinson is much more the civil-servant type, at the opposite end of the job description, and the discussion ante Bailey had assumed that kind of profile for the position. That’s when Bailey pulled his pin. Let’s face it, he reminded his mates, “we’re all politicians.” Accordingly, the commission administrator should be gifted at politics, too, a “political person” able to “help us out” when bargains needed to be struck and impasses unblocked, or when a consensus needed to be reached. Therefore, there should be two chief administrative positions -- one, charged with budgetary and general administrative backup, to be held by Hutchinson or someone like her and another for -- a broker type. There was, it is fair to say, general consternation at this, and there were no takers -- or none, in any case, willing to publicly second Bailey’s remarks. The chairman had not alluded to Williams, other than to note that his own potential vote against retaining him had been based on the deposed administrator’s ultimate inability, under fire, to be a “consensus” maker. But Bailey seemed to have had the Williams mold in mind. Speaking of “consensus,” Michael Hooks spoke for what was clearly one Wednesday morning. “We should never ever get a person as ‘political’ as our last administrator,” he said. And, as far as simple consensus-building was concerned, the low-key, unobtrusive Hutchinson “has proved her political savvy…but -- he underlined the point -- “she’s not a 14th commissioner.” Moreover, Hooks noted realistically, “We would never be able to decide on another Ôpolitical’ person.” The amens around the table were a crescendo. With that, Bailey withdrew his proposal as quickly as he’d introduced it and conceded the point. That had to be bad news for the experienced political types -- among them, former city council members Kenneth Whalum Sr. and Jerome Rubin and veteran pol Joe Cooper -- who’ve put their names in the hat to succeed Williams. In the end the commissioners voted for a 90-day open search and stated their preference for a chief administrator who would function , basically, as a budgetary aide and office administrator, and who would be paid in the neighborhood of $90,000 (as against Williams’ $101,000). There would be an add-on deputy, making two such in all. The county’s personnel office would be invited to assist in -- but not dominate -- the search process. In the end, acknowledged several commissioners privately, it was likely that Hutchinson would get the job. But in the meantime there would be a fair and open search. No deals. And no deal-makers, either.

    Tuesday, February 4, 2003

    A SEPARATE PEACE

    Memphis and the case for war in Iraq.

    Posted By on Tue, Feb 4, 2003 at 4:00 AM

    Two heavyweights came to Memphis to talk about war with Iraq last week, and the reception they got says something about the task facing President George W. Bush as he tries to lead the country into war. On Sunday, William Sloane Coffin, a liberal anti-war voice in the 1960s, spoke at a "service for peace" at Idlewild Presbyterian Church. Idlewild senior pastor Stephen Montgomery, part of an ecumenical group of organizers that also included Kenneth Corr of First Baptist Church, Frank Thomas of Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church, CB Baker of St. Mary's Cathedral, and Scott Morris of the Church Health Center, had optimistically predicted a crowd of 300 or maybe 500. Instead, 1,100 people packed the sanctuary. What was as notable as the size of the crowd was its constituency. This was a slice of the Memphis establishment, and its average age seemed to be well over 50. The service began with such anthems of the Sixties as "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?," "Blowin' in the Wind," and "If I Had a Hammer," but that was about where the similarities to the anti-war movement in the Vietnam era ended. There was a lot more tweed than denim, far more neckties than T-shirts. Whatever the political leanings of those who attended and it's a safe guess there were as many Republicans as Democrats they stood and applauded vigorously after Coffin made his staunchly anti-war remarks. At 78, the former Yale chaplain and CIA operative's voice is still strong, although he seemed to struggle a little at the end of his speech. The loudest ovations of the evening, however, went to the Spirit of Soulsville Singers from the new Stax Music Academy and the LeMoyne-Owen College Choir and soloist Tanisha Mack. Music, now as then, is the thing that bonds a movement and gives it its character. Three nights earlier, journalist and author Robin Wright talked about Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to about 300 people at Rhodes college. It was a lecture, not a rally, and Wright was careful to say she was nonpartisan. But Wright, who covers the Middle East and Colin Powell for the Los Angeles Times, left no doubt she thinks the country is headed for war, probably within seven weeks. She stuck to her promise of neutrality, but her catalog of the atrocities of Saddam and the political and cultural conditions in Iraq and Iran suggested she thinks Bush and Powell are on the proper course. Again, I was struck by the composition of the crowd mostly middle-aged, as many or more faculty and friends as students. As Wright noted, this is not the way it was when the country was agonizing over Vietnam. She is a 1971 graduate of the University of Michigan, as I am. She wrote a feminist vanguard sports column called "Broadside" for the campus paper. The war dominated campus politics, dominated everything, for that matter. We went to freshman orientation in the summer of 1967 as the riots raged and the fires burned in nearby Detroit. We got our dorm assignments, meal plans, football tickets ($14 for the season), and a you-guys-don't-know-squat welcoming speech from a member of Students for Democratic Society (SDS), the radical anti-war group founded a few years earlier by Michigan student Tom Hayden. By 1970, when universities all across America were shut down by student strikes, you could go to an anti-war rally every month or even every week if you were so inclined. On a national level, Coffin was one of the organizers. But at Ann Arbor, I don't remember many older people, other than professors, being involved in them. I think it had a lot to do with the draft. It's different this time. There's no draft. We slid gradually into Vietnam. We're leaping, or not leaping possibly, into Iraq. But where are the Tom Haydens and William Sloane Coffins of today? And if you can get 1,100 people to come on fairly short notice to a service at one of the most establishment churches in Memphis and stand to applaud William Sloane Coffin, can President Bush and his advisers not be having some very serious doubts about the willingness of the United States to go to war in Iraq at this time?
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