Archive for Detroit Pistons
Tom Gores is, in a not-so-nice way, the Pistons’ other piece of bread.
He is the absentee owner to complete the sandwich.
Right now, the only real difference between Gores, the Pistons’ owner, and Fred Zollner, is that Gores lives in California while The Z lived in Florida.
Zollner was the rumpled man who brought his Fort Wayne Pistons to Detroit in 1957. By the mid-1960s, the Z attended a handful of games a year. Maybe. He spent most of his time in the Sunshine State.
The Z’s ownership, splotched with curious hires, slapstick on the court and uncertainty, was on its last legs when his neighbor down south, Bill Davidson, led a consortium of basketball lovers based in Detroit and bought the Pistons from Zollner, who was in ill health. The year was 1973.
Davidson was the opposite of Zollner. He lived in Detroit more often than not, number one. And Davidson actually dragged himself down to Cobo Arena to see the team play, number two.
By the time the Pistons moved into the Silverdome in Pontiac in 1978, Davidson was very present, taking his seat on court level underneath one of the baskets. He rarely missed a game.
Davidson would build his own basketball arena in 1988, tired of being booted out of the Silverdome for tractor pulls and wrestling events. At the Palace, Davidson again took his place underneath the hoop, arms folded, usually with a pleasant grin on his face.
The Pistons, under Gores, who took over in 2011, are again a team with an absentee owner.
Gores flies into town rarely, attends a game or two, and blows back out of town. He is the Tornado Owner.
In Gores’ last touch down, he fired coach Mo Cheeks. That was a month ago. Gores hasn’t been seen or heard from since.
The dribbles of comments from ownership since Cheeks’ ziggy have come from Gores’ Platinum Equity minions like Phil Norment, in prepared statements.
Gores is more Los Angeles than he is Detroit, which is something considering that Gores is a Flint kid, having grown up there.
Gores is starry eyed and likes the glitz and glamour that Hollywood provides. Just last summer, Gores brought erstwhile Lakers coach Phil Jackson in as an unpaid consultant to aid in the Pistons’ coaching search.
Gores’ fascination with high profile people is fine, as long as it doesn’t unduly influence the basketball decision-making back in Detroit.
Chatter broke out a week or so ago, alleging that Gores was considering hiring Isiah Thomas to run the Pistons, as the team’s chief basketball executive.
Fans who think with their minds rather than their hearts should have screamed “NO!” running down the streets, hearing the notion of Gores tabbing Thomas to take over the Pistons.
Isiah as coach? Maybe that would fly. He did have some success developing and coaching young talent as coach of the Indiana Pacers.
But Thomas as executive has been a train wreck.
Platinum Equity issued a statement a couple days after the Thomas rumors started, saying that yes, Gores and Thomas did have a meeting (perhaps a dinner), but that the topic was the upcoming 25th anniversary celebration of the Pistons’ 1989 championship with the Bad Boys.
There was never any talk of Thomas joining the Pistons as an employee, the statement said.
The cashiering of current president and GM Joe Dumars is expected, so much so that just about all postulating about the Pistons’ future doesn’t include Dumars whatsoever.
Again, that’s fine. Dumars has hardly earned a new contract beyond the one that expires after this season mercifully comes to an end.
Let’s hope that the Isiah-to-Detroit chatter, in any role beyond coach, is nothing more than rumor.
The Pistons don’t need to be the third NBA franchise Thomas runs into the ground, following Toronto and New York.
Gores likes the big names, it appears. But sometimes it’s the little names that have the most success.
Davidson found that out the hard way, which is how lessons are usually learned.
Davidson fell for the dog and pony show that Dickie Vitale gave him—and everyone else—and hired the former U-D basketball coach in 1978. Vitale, in his own way, briefly owned Detroit—at least when it came to basketball. His Titans had great success at a time when the Pistons were, as usual, stumbling.
Vitale flamed out in just over a year. Davidson gave Dickie the ziggy, something for which Vitale was very grateful, from a health standpoint.
Once burned, Davidson went the opposite of high profile and dog and pony with his next hire.
Only the most intense basketball fan knew who the heck Jack McCloskey was when Davidson hired him off the Pacers bench—McCloskey was an assistant to Slick Leonard—and made Jack the Pistons GM in December 1979.
The recommendation to hire McCloskey came from none other than the deposed Vitale.
“Whenever I see Dick, to this day, I make sure to thank him,” McCloskey told me several years ago.
McCloskey had a couple disastrous years as coach of the Portland Trail Blazers, following years of college coaching in the Ivy League. Still, few Pistons fans knew who McCloskey was.
A little more than three years after being hired as GM, with the Pistons still a work in progress, McCloskey and Davidson went the unknown route yet again.
Chuck Daly was perhaps even more anonymous than McCloskey was, when the Pistons hired Daly from radio row, where he’d been working as a commentator on Philadelphia 76ers broadcasts.
Daly spent a couple years as an assistant to Philly’s Billy Cunningham, and worked briefly as coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers, during tempestuous owner Ted Stepien’s rule.
Again, only the gym rats knew who Chuck Daly was.
Together, the two unknowns—GM McCloskey and coach Daly—built an NBA empire in Detroit. The same empire that Thomas, Gores et al will celebrate later this month in the Silver Anniversary party.
The well-known Thomas and the high profile Vitale have each crashed and burned when given opportunities that exceeded their grasp.
The unknown McCloskey and little regarded Daly built two championship teams with the Pistons.
These are the facts, but will Gores’ Hollywood shades filter them out?
David DeBusschere was all of 24 years old when he sat down for a drink in an East Side Detroit bar in November, 1964 with Detroit Pistons brass.
The location was appropriate. DeBusschere had been a high school star athlete at Austin Catholic High School, on the city’s East side. He specialized in throwing—baseballs to the plate and basketballs toward the hoop.
Inside the bar that evening, Pistons owner Fred Zollner and general manager Don Wattrick floated an idea past DeBusschere, who by then had been entrenched as the Pistons’ star player after a ballyhooed college career at the University of Detroit.
The idea was pretty simple, yet bold. Others would use different adjectives for it, hardly complimentary.
Hey, would you coach the team? DeBusschere was asked.
Over beers, the plan was hatched and DeBusschere accepted. At 24, he would become the player-coach of the Detroit Pistons, a franchise that had moved to the Motor City in 1957 and which had already suffered some ignominious moments, such as playing playoff games against the Lakers in a Grosse Pointe High gymnasium, because Olympia Stadium was busy and Cobo Arena had yet to be built. There was also the time the team was sent a school bus instead of a chartered bus to transport NBA players to a game. Wilt Chamberlain, no less, somehow managed to curl his long legs enough so he could sit in the tiny yellow bus.
DeBusschere’s promotion had the expected results, i.e. it didn’t work. Dave was 79-143 as the Pistons coach before it became painfully evident that Zollner’s bright idea had not been so bright, after all. DeBusschere was relieved and Donnis Butcher took over as coach.
The Pistons, from their move to Fort Wayne to spring, 1983, had a reputation for burning through coaches every two years or so—if not sooner. Sometimes the coaches quit, saving the team from firing them. Many of the coaches were hated by the players. Some proved to be incompetent. But what do you expect from a franchise that, in the ’60s, moved their radio announcer (Wattrick) into the GM chair? Zollner, the owner, was an out-of-towner, based in Florida. He would occasionally jet in to take in a game or two.
Who does that sound like?
But in May 1983, the Pistons, forever cursed with bad luck, it seemed, finally had the basketball gods smiling down on them.
That was when Chuck Daly was introduced as coach by GM Jack McCloskey, who literally flipped Daly a basketball and told Chuck to “go get ‘em” at the intro presser.
Daly, on the surface, didn’t have much on his resume for the fans to get excited about.
Daly was a college coach at Penn, which is where McCloskey coached for years as well. The pair met on the college coaching circuit in the late-1960s. When the Pistons hired him, Daly’s NBA “pedigree” consisted of 41 games as head coach of the Ted Stepien-owned Cleveland Cavaliers (9-32 record) and some time on the Philadelphia 76ers bench as an assistant to Billy Cunningham. That was it.
The Pistons got lucky, because Daly was at least the third choice of McCloskey’s, after Jack McKinney and Jack Ramsay turned him down. Phil Johnson was rumored to have turned the Pistons down, too.
From those less-than-stellar NBA creds, Daly ended up becoming a Hall of Fame Coach—a two-time NBA champion and an Olympic Gold Medalist.
But aside from Daly’s nine years in Detroit, the Pistons have always been a franchise that shoots coaches on schedule.
The roster of Pistons coaches from 1957-83, then again from 1992 to current, shows that longevity means staying on for three years.
So this deal of Pistons GM Joe Dumars changing coaches almost as frequently as we change the oil in our cars, is really nothing new to this franchise. The Pistons have been doing this for 57 years, with a nine-year break in between.
Maurice Cheeks is out, in the latest forced abdication from the coaching throne. Someone named John Loyer, Cheeks’ lead assistant, is in—for now.
The Pistons have done that a few times, too—promote an assistant into first chair.
One of those promoted coaches was Ray Scott, who took over for the fired Earl Lloyd in 1972.
“It’s not easy,” Scott told Al Beaton and me on “The Knee Jerks” podcast on Sunday night, mere hours after Pistons owner Tom Gores, the out-of-towner based in L.A., gave Cheeks the ziggy.
“The thing is, as an assistant, you know what the team should be doing,” Scott said.
Scott himself would get the ziggy, in January, 1976. Assistant coach Herb Brown, a disloyal opportunist, was promoted.
With Cheeks out after 50 games, Loyer has a 32-game audition. Gores wants playoffs or else. The Pistons are on the fringes of qualifying for a spot. And Loyer has 32 games to show what he’s got. And even then, it may not be enough to be offered the job beyond this season—especially when someone like Lionel Hollins is looming, unemployed as a coach.
It’s slapstick right now with the Pistons, but aside from Daly’s run and the success from 2003-2008 (three championships in those two eras), the Pistons have been bouncing basketballs off their sneakers and out of bounds since moving to Detroit in 1957.
Gores, like Zollner was, is proving himself to be an impatient, impetuous owner. That is actually a breath of fresh air in these parts, where the football team’s owner is patient and loyal to a fault.
With Cheeks dismissed, the spotlight turns to GM Dumars, whose contract expires after the season. The natives have been restless for a few years, but now even the national media is calling for Joe’s ouster. Lists of Dumars’ ill-advised moves have been compiled by those outside of Detroit and splashed onto the Internet for national consumption.
It is unclear whether Gores has a plan beyond his “playoffs or else” mandate. The owner flew into town a week ago Saturday, gave a less-than-thrilled assessment of the team to the media, and then flew back to California. Some say that Gores made up his mind to fire Cheeks on the plane out west, if not sooner.
John Loyer becomes yet another little-known assistant to become Pistons coach in mid-season, after guys like Herb Brown and Alvin Gentry before him. And Ray Scott, who wasn’t little-known in Detroit (a stellar playing career as a Piston ensured that), but who was also an assistant-turned head coach. So was George Irvine, who had head coaching experience before taking over for the deposed Gentry in 2000.
The Pistons even moved Bob Kauffman from GM to coach in 1977, to replace Herb Brown.
And don’t forget the ill-advised promotion of young player DeBusschere to coach.
Chuck Daly came in and restored order for nine years, winning two championships along the way.
But mostly it’s been calliope music, tents and three rings.
It’s that time again.
It’s time to look back at a year’s worth of columns and see how the Detroit sports landscape looked through my crossed eyes.
So, without further ado, here’s the annual “Best of/Worst of Greg Eno” for 2013.
On the Red Wings’ slippage to begin the truncated 2013 NHL season:
The Red Wings used to play a selfish brand of hockey—meaning that they never let the other team have the puck. They cycled and passed and it was like watching the Harlem Globetrotters with the basketball during “Sweet Georgia Brown.”
It’s become so hard for the Red Wings now.
No longer do teams step onto the Joe Louis Arena ice shaking in their skating boots. Gone is the intimidation factor at The Joe. The crowds are still sellouts but it’s a polite crowd nowadays—19,000+ who are sitting on their hands too often.
We knew it wasn’t going to be the same this season, but for a long time it was all conjecture, thanks to the labor lockout. The hockey season was always somewhere over there, past the horizon.
Then the labor strife was over and the NHL started playing games again, and all of Hockeytown’s fears are being realized.
The Red Wings are an ordinary team, no longer one of the league’s bullies. They win on some nights, lose on others. They are 7-7 and it befits them.
This could describe this season’s Red Wings, eh?
On then-rookie Andre Drummond being, at age 19, the Pistons’ best player—already:
In Drummond’s absence the Pistons have collapsed like a house of cards. They are shockingly inept with Drummond out of the lineup. They are pushovers in the paint, and lost everywhere else on the court defensively. The only rebounds they grab these days are the ones that fall directly into their hands.
The Pistons, with Drummond on the sidelines, have become a disinterested, wretched mess of a basketball team. They are unable, perhaps even unwilling, to play anyone tough right now.
Drummond’s absence and the Pistons’ subsequent freefall into oblivion are about as coincidental as cause and effect.
So it’s not too much to say that Drummond, at 19 years old, is the Pistons’ best player right now. It was not too much to say back in 1981 about Isiah Thomas, when the 20-year-old rookie from Indiana University became the Pistons’ best player just a few minutes into his first game.
Thomas didn’t stop there; he became the franchise’s best player of all time.
It’s way too soon to say that Drummond is a HOF player, but his impact on the team remains significant
On the Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference for the 2013-14 season:
NBC is a winner, too. The league’s TV network surely must be busting buttons when they see all the tradition-rich games featuring the league’s top squads that they can schedule for Sunday afternoons.
Remember Detroit-Toronto in Steve Yzerman’s young years? Remember how exciting those games were? And the Maple Leafs weren’t even any good back then.
I can see the smiles on the faces of the old-timers when they see those iconic Canadiens jerseys skating up and down the JLA ice several times a season.
You missed the Bruins’ visit to Detroit? There’ll be another one next month; you won’t have to wait until the next presidential election cycle.
The Red Wings ought to be thankful, too—because had they still been in the West, they would be way out of the playoff picture this season.
On Justin Verlander’s contract situation and his possibly heading toward free agency after the 2014 season:
So I wouldn’t worry too much about Justin Verlander hitting the free market after next season. Ilitch won’t have that. There will come a time when the owner will yank DaveDombrowski by the ear into a room and ask his GM, flat out, how much it’s going to cost to keep Verlander in the Old English D. Dombrowski will tell his boss, who will fork over a check, and that will be that.
That check is likely to steamroll past $200 million.
It will be a bargain.
Verlander is nothing like we’ve ever seen on a pitching mound in Detroit. He’s 30 years old and he’s just getting started. He’s pitched in more big games already than most guys will see in a lifetime. His awards and achievements and accolades read like a 20-year veteran’s. He’s funny and good-looking and loves the media.
He also thinks free agency will be fun. Too bad he’ll never get to find out for real.
JV did, indeed, sign an extension for over $200 million—and proceeded to have a difficult year, though he turned it on in the playoffs.
On collecting baseball trading cards as a kid growing up in Livonia:
Outside the store we’d stand, our bikes between our legs, gum packing our cheeks like sunflower seeds in a hamster’s.
The first thing you tried to do was offload “doubles”—those duplicate cards that were not needed. We’d shuffle through our cards like traders on the floor of the NYSE, calling out doubles loudly in case anyone was interested, right then and there.
The checklists were always mental. Everyone seemed to know which cards they needed, cold. We didn’t have to consult with a grocery list of needed cards. And we also knew which cards we already had, so the doubles could either come in the form of two of the same card from that day’s haul, or by way of mentally connecting your collection at home with those cards being shuffled in your hands in front of the store.
Sometimes you’d end up with triples or even quadruples, usually of some bench player who rarely found his way into an actual game. No one got three or four Rod Carews.
Brings back some memories for you, I hope!
On the Lions drafting DE Ziggy Ansah:
The whole idea of the draft is volatile enough. You hardly need to add to its propensity for being tenuous.
Yet that’s what the Lions have done, by picking hugely talented but terribly raw DE Ziggy Ansah, number five off the board. This kid could become the best pass rusher to wear Honolulu Blue since Bubba Baker.
Or he may flat out stink.
Boom or bust. Star or dud. Genius or folly.
Pretty much describes the NFL Draft as a whole, I’d say.
Ansah had a decent rookie season. He is far from being a draft bust—so far.
On the Red Wings signing G Jimmy Howard to a six-year contract extension:
The wolves were out again this week, as news came to light that the Red Wings are about to outfit Howard with a six-year, $31.8 million contract. It should be signed any day now, after some final details are hammered out.
The therapists on talk radio, namely Bob Wojnowski and Jamie Samuelsen, had a bunch of apoplectics on their hands Thursday evening when the topic of discussion turned to Howard and his soon-to-be new contract.
The bridge jumpers were aghast. They didn’t like the length of the deal. They thought GM Ken Holland was “overpaying” for one of his own. They didn’t like the money, as if they were each being shaken down for a share of the payout.
Mainly, they didn’t like the idea of Jimmy Howard playing goalie for the Red Wings for the next six years.
Based on how Howie has played this season, the fans like this contract even less.
On the freefall of WR Titus Young and how it compares to that of Charlie Rogers, the team’s first round pick of 2003:
It’s not about football anymore for Titus Young. It’s about life, and his ability to survive it. It should be pointed out that Young is the father of a nine-month old baby boy, Titus Jr.
Again we smirk and shake our heads at Young’s personal life, as we did at Charlie Rogers’.
Rogers never got any help. Young’s father’s comment gives hope that Titus can get some help and support. Maybe there will be a personal posse that will gather and help Young battle his demons.
Charlie Rogers is 32, broke, and has no future. The world that was once his oyster is now his living hell.
That’s nothing to smirk about.
Let’s hope the next time we read of Young, it’s about how he’s getting his life together. Don’t hold your breath.
On the Tigers’ much-maligned utility man, Don Kelly:
He is the quintessential Jack of All Trades, Master of None. Killing him is like killing nine mediocre people. But he’s open-minded; he’ll try anything once—and he has.
Don Kelly has done it all on the baseball diamond. He just hasn’t done it all that well.
Ah, but what would baseball be without the Don Kellys of the world?
Someone has to be the 25th man on a 25-man roster. Kelly has spent his entire big league career looking over his shoulder and seeing no one behind him.
It’s been a baseball life lived on the edge—of extinction.
Kelly, the Tigers Designated Sitter, has been hanging on to a big league job by a thread for so long, it defies physics.
The Tigers drafted him in the eighth round of the 2001 amateur draft. Little did they know it would be like drafting a boomerang. Every time the Tigers tried to throw Don Kelly away, he kept flying back to them.
Kelly meandered his way through the Tigers farm system, like a rat in a maze, looking for the cheese. He started as a shortstop but that soon proved to be as significant as saying a chameleon started green.
In the minors, Kelly switched to third base, then to second, then to first, then back to third base again. He was threatening to rewrite Abbott and Costello’s act, all by himself.
Kelly will return to the Tigers in 2014, the ultimate baseball survivor
On the comparison between new Pistons coach Mo Cheeks and his predecessor, Larry Frank:
The similarities pretty much end with their both being NBA head coaches prior to coming to Detroit. Frank coached the New Jersey Nets; Cheeks steered the Portland Trailblazers and the Philadelphia 76ers. Both coaches led their teams to the playoffs, but neither went very far into the postseason.
After that, Cheeks and Frank part ways.
Frank never played pro basketball. Not even close. He was a pipsqueak gym rat who started his coaching career as an errand boy for legendary Indiana University coach Bob Knight. After Indiana, Frank lived a hard scrabble basketball life, taking very unglamorous jobs before finally getting his break. Still, he became an NBA head coach at age 33.
Cheeks not only played in the NBA, he was one of the game’s star point guards in the 1980s. He was manning the point when the 76ers won the league championship in 1983. His career was filled with assists and points and both individual and team success.
Mo Cheeks can never be accused of not knowing what it’s like to play in the NBA.
But Cheeks, so far, has presided over a terribly inconsistent basketball team in Detroit. But it’s still early.
On the breakout year of Max Scherzer’s:
The Tigers soon discovered that the scouting report on Scherzer was dead solid perfect—he was the human roller coaster.
It was Cy Young one day, and Sigh Young five days later.
Scherzer’s arm was alive, alright, but it was like what a scout once said about a young Sandy Koufax.
“Koufax would be a great pitcher,” the scout said, “if the plate was high and outside.”
Scherzer was installed in the Tigers rotation in 2010 and not having seen him pitch before, I thought the young man was trying to throw his arm to home plate, along with the baseball.
Scherzer, at the time, had what is known as a “violent” delivery. His windup was designed to gain power from his legs, which he then used to whip-snap the baseball from his right hand like it had cut him off in traffic.
It was anyone’s guess as to where the baseball was going at that point.
It wasn’t that Scherzer was ridiculously wild. In his only full season with the Diamondbacks, he averaged about 3.5 walks per nine innings.
He just threw a lot of pitches. Like, a ton of them. He was about as efficient as the government.
The Tigers presumably knew what they were getting in Scherzer, which was a big arm who could be a fixture in their rotation, as long as he could be refined. They hoped that he could, one day, be a nice complement to their ace, Justin Verlander.
Some say that Max has supplanted Verlander as the Tigers’ ace. I say give it at least one more year before you make such a declaration. Besides, Max may be gone after 2014, anyway.
On Chris Chelios’ being voted into the HHOF, and his unexpected turn as a Red Wing:
I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the news that the Red Wings had acquired Chelios in March, 1999 at the trading deadline. I was in my car, and nearly ran it into a ditch.
Chris Chelios, a Red Wing?
It was Ted Williams to the Yankees. Larry Bird to the Lakers. A Hatfield to the McCoys.
Chelios was 37 when the trade was made, and it looked like so many the Red Wings were famous for making—a wily veteran on his last legs, for a prospect that would never find serious ice time in Detroit anyhow.
Chelios was traded for a defenseman named Anders Eriksson, who was 24 at the time and who would play in the NHL for another 11 years, but whose career reads more like a travelogue. Eriksson played for six more teams after being traded to Chicago, never carving out much of a niche anywhere he went.
But a funny thing happened with this Chelios-for-Eriksson deal. Despite being 13 years Eriksson’s senior, Chelly nearly played in the NHL for as long as Eriksson would last.
Chelios became a Red Wing, and eventually the Winged Wheel was tattooed emotionally on his heart. Detroit slowly replaced Chicago as Chelios’ home. He opened restaurants in metro Detroit, got involved in charity work and won two more Stanley Cups along the way (2002 and 2008). He played in Detroit until he was 46 years old, beating Gordie Howe in that category by three years in the age department.
Last week, Chelios—along with fellow Red Wing Brendan Shanahan—was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Chelly deserves it, but did anyone thing he’d play for the Red Wings for as long as he did?
On the idea of the Pistons moving back downtown:
Move the Pistons back downtown, the romanticists say. The crowds will return.
The Red Wings’ recent announcement of plans to build a brand new hockey arena in the area near Comerica Park and Ford Field has fueled the Pistons-to-downtown rallying cries.
Luckily, the Pistons have an owner now who won’t take the bait.
Tom Gores didn’t find his money in a satchel somewhere. He wasn’t born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t win the Lotto, nor sue for negligence. He wasn’t left a fortune by a rich uncle.
Gores got his money fair and square—by earning it and turning profits into bigger profits. He navigated choppy financial waters to build his portfolio into something pretty amazing for a guy who has yet to reach his 50th birthday.
Gores is smart enough to know that the only thing that will bring fans back to see the Pistons in droves is winning.
Gores knows that you can move the Pistons downtown all you want—put them right smack next to the RenCen if you please—but it won’t mean a hill of beans if the team keeps turning in 29-victory seasons, like the one just passed.
I have a hunch that Gores is perfectly happy to have his team remain in Auburn Hills—for now.
On MLB’s desire to use instant replay for more than just HR calls, starting in 2014:
Major League Baseball is on the verge of expanding its relatively limited use of instant replay for the 2014 season. Taking its cue from the NFL, MLB will allow managers to use challenges—one prior to the seventh inning and two afterward, until the game ends.
Pallone, in a Facebook comment to me, wrote simply, “Why don’t we just use robots!!”
I understand Pallone’s stance (he absolutely detests FSD’s so-called FoxTrax, which supposedly determines electronically if a pitch was a ball or a strike), especially given that he is a former big league umpire.
But there’s also something to be said for getting the call right, and for returning good umpires back to anonymity.
I say use the damn thing already.
Looks that way!
On the return of Red Wings RW Dan Cleary:
The Red Wings didn’t have to say yes to Cleary just because he drove up to Traverse City to ask for his old job back—especially not after it was reported that he was on the verge of signing with another team.
This one’s for loyalty and for not always chasing the money. This is for everyone who doubts that pro sports teams and players really will scratch each other’s backs—when push comes to shove.
Dan Cleary said no to the money, and yes to being a Red Wing. The team said no to convenience and yes to rewarding past performance.
How about that?
Yeah, how about that? And how about Cleary’s awful performance thus far?
On the Lions’ ineptitude in Washington, written on the eve of their game against the Redskins:
They’re going to fly to Washington, land, de-board, take a bus to their hotel and spend Saturday night dreaming of touchdowns and defensive stops. They’re going to imagine themselves walking off the field on Sunday as victors.
Dutch Clark couldn’t do it. Neither could Bobby Layne or Joe Schmidt. Lem Barney was never a winner in Washington, nor was Charlie Sanders.
Sorry, Chuck Long. Scott Mitchell, you couldn’t win there either (Mitchell was the one who threw the game-winning pick-six in overtime to Darrell Green in 1995).
So you have to give this 2013 group of Lions an “A” for guts and gall. They fancy themselves as the squad that can fly home from Washington as winners. That the Redskins are 0-2 and not exactly one of the league’s best teams perhaps buoys them. But the quality of the two teams has meant diddlysquat in years past. It’s always been Goliath beating David, no matter what.
Detroit at Washington, NFL style. Forget the spread; take the ‘Skins. It’s the lock of the century, every time. The house always wins. It’s been the biggest waste of three hours on a Sunday for eight decades and counting.
The Lions WON. Go figure.
On SS Jose Iglesias making Tigers fans forget—already—Jhonny Peralta
But Peralta is the 2013 Pipp, whose place in the Yankees lineup at first base was taken by one Louis Gehrig in 1923 as Pipp infamously nursed a headache. Pipp was a pretty good player, too, but he was no Gehrig, as it turned out.
Iglesias is already making people think of Peralta as a distant memory, and Jhonny has only been gone for a little more than a month.
Iglesias plays shortstop as if he tumbled out of the womb wearing a mitt. It wouldn’t surprise me if his first words were seis-cuatro-tres.
Brooks Robinson was dropped on Earth by God to play third base. Iglesias is a shortstop the way Brooks was a third baseman. In just seven weeks as a Tiger, Iglesias has made plays that you only see on video games, or in dreams.
There isn’t a baseball that Iglesias can’t get to. He has the range of a nuclear bomb, and an arm like an ICBM missile.
We have never seen shortstop play in Detroit like we’re seeing it now with Iglesias. With all due respect to Alan Trammell and Steady Eddie Brinkman, Iglesias combines competence with flair. He’s an acrobat playing baseball, and part gymnast, too.
What’s Spanish for vacuum cleaner?
The Tigers have Iglesias sucking up ground balls at SS for several years to come. Should be fun to watch.
On the amazing comeback of Victor Martinez, especially after his slower-than-molasses start to the season:
I remember watching a game on television in June, when Martinez started to perk up a little bit. Still, his average was below .250. FSD analyst Rod Allen said, ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if Martinez was back around .300 by the end of the year.”
I thought Allen to be merely spewing out propaganda as a homer shill.
Well, look who was right, after all.
Martinez has lifted his batting average, which was like an anchor, all the way to “around .300,” just as Rod Allen prophesized.
Martinez’s recovery from an awful first two months, at age 34, especially considering that the resurrection came after losing an entire year to injury, when there were calls for his head in May, is nothing short of amazing.
Martinez is on pace to hit .300, drive in 80+ runs, and his bat is considered so valuable to the Tigers’ cause that the team is seriously considering playing him at catcher in World Series road games, where the designated hitter doesn’t exist.
This isn’t a comeback, it’s a reincarnation.
They shouldn’t call it the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award. It should be renamed the Victor Martinez Trophy.
Mariano Rivera won it, in his final year before retirement. V-Mart fell victim to sentiment.
On the Red Wings’ struggles:
These are tough times for Babcock’s bunch, just 12 games into the season. He has some guys he badly would like on the ice but just can’t be, due to injury—like Darren Helm, who is exactly what the Red Wings need right now. Patrick Eaves will be dressing for the first time, Wednesday in Vancouver.
Babcock also has guys who are new and who were supposed to be a big deal but who haven’t been yet—Stephen Weiss, for starters. Daniel Alfredsson, to a lesser degree.
Babcock has a defenseman, Brendan Smith, who is confused and prickly for being scratched. He has had to split up Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, which the coach is loathe to do, because when he does so, it usually means that something is wrong.
And something is wrong with the Red Wings right now. This time, Babcock doesn’t need to give us a hard sell on it.
“Right now, with the way we’re playing, we have no chance,” he said after the Rangers game.
No eye rolling from anyone this time.
And the struggles continue…
On the Tigers’ search for a new manager:
Now, as to who might get the job?
Keep these guys in the mix for now.
McClendon. Dusty Baker. Brad Ausmus. Jim Tracy. Ozzie Guillen. Tony Pena.
The reasons are as follows, for each man respectively.
Already interviewed. Past success. Mike Matheny redux. Dark horse but brilliant mind. Crazy enough to work. Experience, can relate to the plethora of Latin-American Tigers.
Dombrowski, it’s been reported, will likely wait no longer than the first 10 days of November before choosing his new manager. This gives us about two weeks or so to see the focus shift to the finalists, as news of interviews comes to light.
Regardless, this is a great job for the right person. But the right person must know that if the 2014 season isn’t capped with a parade down Woodward Avenue, there will be hell to pay.
Ausmus got the job, and let’s hope he dialed Matheny and thanked him.
On retiring manager Jim Leyland:
Leyland didn’t always push the right buttons, but what manager does? He was slave to pitch counts. He wasn’t particularly aggressive or creative. The move of Jhonny Peralta to left field, when it comes to Leyland, was almost off the charts. It was Mickey Stanley to shortstop-ish.
But the players adored him. And when players like the manager, they tend to play better. That’s a fact.
It still stands alone. Leyland wasn’t able to rip that year from the wall. It’s 29 years and counting. That gap makes the 1968-84 wait seem like nothing.
Leyland, thanks to the emergence of the Internet and talk radio, was nitpicked and criticized more than any Tigers manager prior to him, combined.
But would we have nitpicked and criticized, if the team was dreadful?
Isiah Thomas, the great Pistons point guard, once said that fans don’t boo nobodies.
Translated: only the irrelevant escape feeling the heat.
The very fact that Jim Leyland, in his eight years managing the Tigers, faced so much criticism, is actually a testament to the man.
Here’s wishing the Marlboro Man all the best in retirement—though it is a soft retirement of sorts. Leyland will still advise President/GM Dave Dombrowski.
On the trials and tribulations of Michigan football this season:
Hoke, while not the popular first choice, at least had some Ann Arbor pedigree.
He was a Michigan Man—a term that is beginning to be more laughable than serious these days.
Hoke, frankly, looked more like he belonged at Michigan, coaching football, than his predecessor. His name even sounded more like Michigan than his predecessor, if you want to be even more superficial.
To Rodriguez’s muscular build, good looks and Latino last name, Hoke offered a squishy body, a moon face and a name of a left tackle.
To Rodriguez’s mild manner and soft voice, Hoke’s demeanor conjured humorous comparisons to the late comedian Chris Farley’s satirical motivational speaker.
Then they started to play the football games.
And here, near the end of Year Three under Hoke, the Michigan football program is in no better shape now than when Rodriguez was given the ziggy.
It may actually be worse.
Hoke’s most critical year as U-M football coach will certainly be 2014.
On the legacy left in Detroit by 1B Prince Fielder, traded to Texas for 2B Ian Kinsler:
Detroit sports fans are simple folk, and I don’t mean that in a derogatory way. In fact, far from it.
Here’s what they want, and it’s very simple.
The Detroit sports fan only asks that you, as one of their athletes, show that you’re just as torn up as the fans are about failure.
They want to know that you feel their pain.
Fielder, in two post-seasons as a Tiger, not only failed miserably on the field, he failed miserably in the court of public opinion. He never really made us feel like that he was “one of us.”
Not once in either playoff did Fielder say, “I stink. I know a lot is expected of me and I’m just not getting it done.”
That’s all he had to say. And the forgiveness would have been plenty.
Instead, after the 2012 World Series sweep at the hands of the San Francisco Giants, Fielder deflected criticism, essentially saying that fans better not look at him cross-eyed, because he’s one of 25 guys.
Those comments didn’t get too much play. They were spoken almost in a vacuum. But he said them.
Fielder will always remain an enigma in the Old English D.
On the Tigers’ new manager, Brad Ausmus:
Ausmus is 44—just a few years removed as a player. He was one of the best defensive catchers of his time. He has worn the Old English D, as then-GM Randy Smith kept trading Ausmus, and trading for him. But to Leyland’s resume as a manager, Ausmus offers a big baseball brain and not much else.
Ausmus has yet to be second guessed. He has yet to hear his name besmirched on sports talk radio. Nobody wants to fire him—yet.
It’s the cleanest of clean slates—a manager with not a speck of big league managing experience.
It’s also a hell of a risk.
The Tigers aren’t a team in development. They’re not in rebuilding mode. This isn’t a situation where a manager and his players can learn on the job, together. This job isn’t warm and fuzzy. It’s win or else.
The Tigers expected to win in 2011. They expected it again in 2012. The pressure to do so in 2013 was off the charts. So what do you think expectations will be in 2014—Ausmus’ rookie year as a big league skipper?
GM Dave Dombrowski apparently feels that Brad Ausmus, all 44 years of him, has what it takes to enter this win-or-else pressure cooker and come out without being so much as scalded.
I still maintain that Ausmus’ hiring is a risk, but I believe it is less so, after some thought and Ausmus’ answers to the questions put forth to him since he was hired.
On the Lions’ plummet from division leaders to being on the verge of missing the playoffs:
The Lions should be cruising, on their way to the playoffs.
They could still get there, of course, but if they don’t, there ought to be repercussions.
The infamous winless Lions season, in which they became the only team in NFL history to go 0-16, was five years ago. That is ancient history when you’re talking about a league in which teams’ records go up and down like an EKG reading.
Head coach Jim Schwartz is in his fifth season. He has a losing record in four of those years. The Lions did seem to be trending upward after Year 3, when their games won went from two to six to ten. But last year the Lions regressed badly, to the tune of 4-12. If the charge was that they got too full of themselves after a 10-6 record and going one-and-done in the playoffs, then shame on them—and on Schwartz.
This year’s team started 6-3 but has become as wobbly as a Weeble.
If the Lions don’t win the division this year, they will have no one to blame but themselves. And the apologists who would tell you that this somehow still shows improvement are part of the problem.
The Lions must not only make the playoffs, but must win a playoff game for Schwartz to earn trust back that has been lost since the 2011 season.
If owner Bill Ford can shake himself free from the yoke of blind trust and loyalty, and let his football people—and his son—make some decisions that may be difficult but necessary, then the Lions will finally show the football world that they are through with moral victories and settling.
The Lions blew it, Schwartz lost his job, and the gag job was complete.
On EMU football:
A few weeks ago, longtime pro and college coach Jerry Glanville let it be known that he was tossing his cowboy hat into the ring to be Eastern’s next football coach. His interest isn’t a joke. Glanville is dead serious.
EMU should be dead serious about Glanville, by the way. Hiring a big name guy is about the only thing the school hasn’t tried. Glanville’s hiring would put EMU football on some people’s radars again—and that by itself is a great start to resuscitating the program.
Besides, Glanville is the only big name coach who appears willing to come to Ypsilanti. I’d hire him in a heartbeat.
EMU didn’t listen to me (big surprise) and hired former Drake coach Chris Creighton. Frankly, the university did the right thing. Now, if they’d only return Hurons as the school’s nickname…
There it is—2013 at a glance. As usual, I was right a little, wrong a bit more, and that trend will probably always be the case.
Happy New Year!
It’s become an annual tradition. Look back at 12 months of tripe and pick out the stuff that I either got very wrong, very right, or that makes one think I might be onto something (or on something, whichever).
So without further ado, here’s the Best (and Worst) of Greg Eno for 2012.
On the state of the Lions after their 45-28 playoff loss in New Orleans:
“There needs to be more roster massaging before the Lions can truly call themselves Super Bowl contenders. No one gets bumped out of the playoffs in the first round, as soundly as the Lions did, and comes back with the same cast and crew and expects to make progress.”
Yet that’s exactly what GM Marty Mayhew did, for the most part, as his draft was less than spectacular. And you saw what happened.
On what the Tigers should do in the wake of the Victor Martinez knee injury:
“Is there a Martinez on the list?
The closest is Prince Fielder, and while it’s intriguing to imagine Cecil’s kid accepting a one-year deal in Detroit before testing the market again for 2013 and beyond, it’ll take a boatload of cash and quite a payroll hit to make that happen. Not likely to transpire, but fun to think about.
The next closest, perhaps, is Vlad Guerrero, coming off a so-so season in Baltimore.
The rest of the list contains some acceptable names, but not all of them would one consider to be enough protection behind Miguel Cabrera. In fact, few of them would be.
So the Tigers have to realize that they just won’t go out and pluck another V-Mart from the tree.
Guerrero would be a fine addition. He is strictly a DH at this stage of his career, so in that way he’s a tit-for-tat replacement for Martinez, who even before this latest injury wasn’t going to play in the field anymore—not with the Tigers signing Gerald Laird to be catcher Alex Avila’s backup.
But Vlad won’t hit .330, and he’s not a switch-hitter, another thing that Victor has over the available free agents.
Still, a Guerrero who can hit for power but not threaten .300 would make opposing managers at least think twice before issuing Cabrera the four-finger pass.
My money is on the Tigers signing Guerrero for a year.”
They didn’t sign Guerrero for a year. They signed Fielder for nine.
On the Red Wings’ Tomas Holmstrom playing in his 1,000th career game:
“Holmstrom is the crazy guy in the war movies who tosses himself onto a grenade in a fox hole. Only the fox hole, in this case, is the goal crease. The grenade is the puck. And Holmstrom has allowed his body to be battered and bruised all in the name of moving said puck across the red line—for 1,000 games.
You figure that if Holmstrom plays about 15 minutes a night, then his 1,000 games represents 250 hours of punishment in front of the net. Can you imagine being slashed and cross-checked and making yourself a target for shooting pucks for over 10 days straight?”
Sadly, Holmstrom hasn’t been able to add to his total, thanks to the lockout. And it’s no sure bet that he’ll be back, anyhow.
On the status of Austin Jackson and Brennan Boesch:
“Jackson shouldn’t be batting leadoff any more than Ben Wallace should be the Pistons’ new starting point guard.
Why not make Boesch the new leadoff hitter?
Dump Jackson down to ninth, where he belongs.
Boesch IV, the leadoff version, will likely hit .270-plus, start the occasional game with a home run, and—most importantly—he won’t strike out 175 times. He’s got some speed, is a competent base runner and he won’t strike out 175 times. He’ll get on base with surprising frequency. Did I mention that he won’t strike out 175 times?”
Jackson had a breakout year of sorts, and Boesch…didn’t. Shows you how much I know.
On the off-season (up to that point) of Lions GM Mayhew:
“Martin Mayhew seems to be the guy that can take this thing from 0-16 to the Super Bowl. He has done a marvelous job of drafting, trading, signing and re-signing.
The latter—re-signing—has been far more important to the Lions’ future than any free agent from outside the organization they’ve signed in recent years.
Mayhew wanted to keep his own free agents in the fold, and rework the contracts of some of his star players to create the financial space in which to do all that re-signing.
His off-season, thus far, has been A+.”
That was BEFORE the draft, which wasn’t very good, to say the least. And Mayhew is suddenly on the hot seat, perhaps.
On Pistons (then) rookie point guard Brandon Knight:
“Coach Frank, speaking basketball-ese, put it this way to the Free Press the other day.
“I think a big part of it is when Brandon is playing north-to-south and not east-to-west. He has those, we call them ‘rack attacks,’” Frank said in that East Coast dialect that all pro-basketball coaches seem to have.
“That’s vital, especially for a primary ball handler, you have to be on the attack and put pressure on a defense,” Frank continued. “When you do that, it might not be your shot, but you’re going to collapse (the defense) and force help.”
There you have it. The Pistons are better off when Mr. Little makes those big rack attacks.
Only time will tell if those rack attacks, and his growing chemistry with Greg Monroe, will put Brandon Knight on the path of Dave Bing and Isiah Thomas-like greatness.”
Knight this season, at times, appears to be regressing, or at the very least, not progressing as much as hoped.
On the dreaded retirement of Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, after it was made official:
“You don’t replace Nick Lidstrom. Let’s get that straight right now.
All the Red Wings can do is cobble together as much talent as they can on defense and hope for the best, really. They’re a much worse team now than they were yesterday, no question.
But all is not lost. Plenty of teams have won the Stanley Cup without the greatest defenseman in NHL history on their roster. I mean, look who’s playing for the Cup right now (LA and New Jersey).
The sun will rise tomorrow. It’s just hard to imagine that it will, after it set on Nick Lidstrom’s career today.”
And there STILL haven’t been any games played since, to see what life post-Lidstrom is like.
On Pistons big man Greg Monroe, as said by frequent “Knee Jerks” guest and former Pistons player and coach, Ray Scott:
“It was then when Scott said something that would have caused me to bop the speaker in the mouth—had the speaker not been Ray Scott.
“With Greg Monroe, we finally have a big man in Detroit who we can throw the ball into for all four quarters and make something happen and we haven’t had that since Bob Lanier,” Scott said of the kid from Georgetown who just finished his second season for a bad Pistons team, which Scott and Lanier know all about.
For full disclosure, Ray wanted us to know that he serves on the board of Monroe’s charity foundation. That’s OK; what he said didn’t smack of shilling. Ray doesn’t roll like that.
Monroe, to hear Scott say it, might become the best NBA center from Georgetown since Patrick Ewing. No less.”
Nothing that Monroe has done this season indicates that Coach is wrong.
On the Lions’ consistency:
“So far, the lack of football heads rolling in Detroit since 2008 seems to be working. The Lions seem to be getting better. Schwartz is on the last year of his contract, but that will soon be ripped up and an extension signed, I would imagine.
All of a sudden, the Lions are a model of consistency in today’s NFL. An improved won/lost record has been concurrent with that consistency.”
On the hype over Quintin Berry:
“Jackson, one of the premier center fielders in baseball, went down, and here came Berry, riding in from Toledo on what some people thought was a white horse.
Berry did his best at being Jackson’s stand-in. For a few games the Tigers got a lift from the journeyman. It didn’t hurt his standing that, at the time of his promotion, Boesch and Young were terrible.
But let’s not get carried away. Berry may not even be with the team come September. He might be long forgotten by then, as the Tigers, it is hoped, scramble for a playoff spot. Or, his speed alone may keep him on the roster. We’ll see.
Who will not be forgotten, who will not be a footnote to this season, is Jackson. And, I submit, Boesch and Young, when all is said and done.
Jackson has the potential to be the best all-around center fielder the Tigers have had since Al Kaline roamed there in the late-1950s.”
Berry faltered, as I expected, though his spot on the 2013 roster seems secure, for now.
On Tommy Hearns’ induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame:
“Hearns fought all the big names: Sugar Ray Leonard (twice), Roberto Duran, Wilfred Benitez and Marvin Hagler. The opponents were always the best that boxing had to offer at the time. Tommy didn’t always win, but even in defeat, he fought a hell of a fight. The Hagler bout is legendary for its fury.
He did all this mostly in the first half of the 1980s, at a time when Detroit needed a champion and a figure of respect in the worst way. The 1979 depression, which hit the Big Three automakers hard, had sapped a lot of the spirit out of Detroiters.
But then came Tommy Hearns with his long arms and his wicked right, and in a way, when Tommy kicked the ass of Duran (in 1984 with the hardest punch I’ve ever seen thrown, by the way), we felt like we were kicking ass, too. And when Tommy lost, most famously to Leonard and Hagler, we felt like we got slugged in the gut as well.
Tommy Hearns was more than a boxer. He bridged some of the gap between team champions (1968 to 1984) and made Detroiters proud again.
For that alone, he should be in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.”
I think we can all agree that this was long overdue.
On the worry over the Lions’ lack of a bona fide running attack:
The Lions’ fortunes, make no question, will ride on Stafford’s golden arm and Johnson’s Velcro hands. They are the best QB/receiver tandem in the NFL, bar none.
Why force-feed a cache of questionable running backs the football, just for the sake of laying claim to running and passing balance?
It makes no sense.”
I stand behind this, despite 2012′s 4-12 record.
On the MVP race between Miguel Cabrera and the Angels’ Mike Trout:
“Cabrera is having a season that would be a runaway MVP year in just about any other, except for the kid Trout and his highlight-reel play in center field, which has combined with the power and cunning batting eye to give Cabrera a run for his money.
Trout has dropped off, however, at the bat in recent weeks. He hit .284 in August and is at .257 in September. His team is still in the playoff hunt, as is Cabrera’s, so that’s mostly a wash.
It would be easy for MVP voters to become enamored of Trout’s position of glamour, to recall the feats of derring-do he’s accomplished in center field, look at his total offensive numbers (not just the ones since August), and award him not only the Rookie of the Year, but the big enchilada, too.
Those voters will try to justify their vote by pointing to Cabrera and his sometimes uneven play at third base, which isn’t as sexy as center field to begin with, and offer that up as a reason to go with Trout as MVP.
If a man can win the Triple Crown, or come so damn close to it that we’re still wondering if he can do it on Sept. 22, his defense would have to be a combination of Dave Kingman and Dick Stuart’s to cancel it out enough to take him out of the MVP race.”
Thankfully the right decision was made!
On the future of Lions RB Jahvid Best, and his role in today’s NFL, when it comes to concussions:
“Some have suggested that Best hang up his spikes and call it a career, despite his tender age and this being just his third pro season. The brain is nothing to be trifled with, they say. Maybe because of Best’s youth, he should consider retirement.
Best has given no indication that he will retire. Lions fans, eager to see what Best can do for an extended period of time, haven’t exactly blown the horn for retirement, either.
No matter what Best’s fate turns out to be—short-lived career or full recovery and longevity—the NFL has a problem on its hands.”
The NFL needs to work on better helmets, among other things. Best won’t be the last player imperiled.
On the Pistons using big men Greg Monroe and rookie Andre Drummond at the same time:
“Two years ago, GM Joe Dumars selected Greg Monroe, a scoring big man, from Georgetown University, which has been known to produce a good NBA big or two.
Monroe has developed to the point where, heading into his third season, he is considered a team leader and on the verge of stardom. He’s the first scoring big man on the Pistons since Rasheed Wallace, only Monroe doesn’t treat the key as if there was a force field around it.
Neither does Andre Drummond, the Pistons’ rookie center from Connecticut, a seven-foot, shot blocking kangaroo who, at 19 years, is tender in age but loaded with skills, some of which still need to be harnessed, and refined.
Pistons fans are daft. They are beside themselves in wonderment of what they could be seeing on the floor, with Monroe and Drummond running side-by-side. Never before have the Pistons possessed two athletic men of this size, at the same time.
It’s enough to make one dare murmur those two words.
About time the Pistons tried it.”
Coach Lawrence Frank has been trying it more, with success, and to the pleasure of the fans.
On Lions coach Jim Schwartz, who I obviously soured on after the beginning of 2012:
“But Schwartz, acting as impulsively and with the same lack of discipline and brains that his team frequently shows, whipped out his red challenge flag and slammed it into the Ford Field turf, a move as illegal as going through a red light, according to the NFL rule book, which states that attempts to challenge a touchdown play are as against the rules as they are unnecessary.
Now, you can say that the rule is silly. You can say that it would be nice if the referee, Walt Coleman, would have sidled up to Schwartz and said, “Jim, put the flag away. The guys in the booth will take a look at it.”
But Schwartz should know the rules. Of all the boneheaded moves the Lions (and their coaches) have made over the years, Schwartz’s blunder might be at the top of the list. It’s right up there with Marty Mornhinweg taking the wind and Bobby Ross going for two.
“I was just so mad, I had the flag out before (Forsett) got to the end zone,” Schwartz told the media after the game.
The Lions are undisciplined, mouthy and in a freefall.
Just like their coach.”
It’s been reported that Schwartz’s job is “under review” by the Ford family, largely because of this kind of stuff.
On Matthew Stafford’s inconsistency:
“The concern, and it’s a valid one, is that Matthew Stafford this season has been too erratic. His once accurate arm has betrayed him too often, and not just with difficult throws. Basic tosses are going astray. High, just out of the reach of wanton fingertips. Wide, too far for even the longest of arms to grab. Low, skipping off the turf into the receiver’s belly.
Too many errant throws.
It doesn’t matter how much the Lions run the football. They are, not yet, a team that is going to ram the ball down anyone’s throats with any consistency. The Jacksonville Jaguars, it should be noted, are not exactly a league powerhouse.
The Lions will only go as far as Matthew Stafford’s golden arm will take them. That arm, so far this season, has been puzzling in its too-often inaccuracy.”
Though I certainly didn’t foresee an 0-8 second half.
On the Tigers’ signing of pitcher Anibal Sanchez, and the future of Rick Porcello:
“High profile, expensive free agent pitchers, as soon as the ink dries on their signature, become as unpredictable as tomorrow’s weather. Their arms get fragile. They need a GPS to find home plate. They spend more time on the disabled list than eggs on a grocery list.
But if you’re going to have an embarrassment of riches anywhere on your roster, then it may as well be in your starting rotation. You could do worse.
The Tigers can now trot out, weekly, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Doug Fister, Sanchez, and a pitcher to be named later, who might as well be Dontrelle Willis. The critique is that they’re all right-handed (except for Willis). But that’s like saying the one thing wrong with Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady is that they all wear number 12.
In a business where teams struggle to even name four starting pitchers, the Tigers have four who could lead many rotations in baseball. The Tigers are so rich in starting pitchers that they actually have six of them.
Ricky Porcello, the oldest 23-year-old pitcher in baseball, will apparently battle it out with lefty Drew Smyly for the fifth spot in the rotation. But there should be no battle here. Keep the southpaw Smyly, whose ceiling is ridiculously high (witness what he did in Game 1 of the ALCS in Yankee Stadium, after the Tigers were waylaid by Jose Valverde in the ninth inning), and trade Porcello.”
Time will tell, but I maintain that Porcello is more valuable as trade bait than as a long reliever.
On the city’s two octogenarian sports owners—Mike Ilitch and Bill Ford:
“The two octogenarian owners in town, Bill Ford and Mike Ilitch, each have white whales. One is bereft of a Super Bowl, the other a World Series.
Both are proud, loyal and considered to be very nice men who are respected within their respective circles.
But when compared, side by side, it just isn’t close when it comes to rendering a verdict as to which man has the stronger sense of urgency to win.
Does Bill Ford want to win a Super Bowl before he dies? Of course he does.
Mike Ilitch just seems to want to win a World Series more.”
Anyone want to disagree with that?
So there you have it. The highlights (and lowlights) of another year of scribbling.
Hope you have a great 2013!
Wax up the sleigh. Check it for flight. Shine St. Nick’s boots. Make sure Rudy’s nose is bright and squeaky clean.
Test the GPS. Gather the weather reports. Check the sack for rips. Tell Mrs. C not to wait up.
It’s gonna be another long night, but then it always is on December 24.
The jolly, old, fat man is set to make his annual trek. Chimneys the world over wait. Fireplaces are about to be pounced on.
Santa has something for everyone, or so they say. Keeping the faith, I’m going to accept that statement as fact. So, with that in mind, let’s see if he can find room in his big, red pack, upon his back—as Andy Williams sang—for these goodies.
For Calvin Johnson, a new NFL record, but more importantly, a football team worthy of his gargantuan talent.
For Matthew Stafford, highlight reels of Slinging Sammy Baugh and Fran Tarkenton, so the kid knows that you don’t have to have perfect “mechanics” to be a winner in this league.
For Jim Schwartz, a general manager who will draft him some defense.
For Rick Porcello, a team who wants him.
For Jhonny Peralta, a new nickname: The Kitchenette, because they say he has no range.
For Torii Hunter, nothing—because he already had his Christmas when he signed with the Tigers.
For traffic lights throughout Metro Detroit, Anibal Sanchez’s timing.
For Alex Avila, health and happiness—and for him, they’re one and the same.
For Miguel Cabrera, the abolition of sabermetrics.
For Tigers fans, also nothing—because they already have their new third base coach.
For Tommy Brookens, the new third base coach, the best of luck.
For the NHL, coal in its hockey boot.
For Mark Dantonio, a quarterback.
For Brady Hoke, a headset.
For Joe Dumars, a slashing, scoring small forward in the draft, because it sure isn’t on his current roster.
For Lawrence Frank, a book on the Pistons of the 1960s—oh, wait, he’s already writing the remake.
For Andre Drummond, the career of Shaquille O’Neal, because Ray Scott told me that Andre reminds him of a young Shaq.
For Greg Monroe, the career of Bob Lanier, because (see above).
For Pistons fans, a new RV, because you can all fit in one.
For George Blaha, some recognition (finally) as a damn good football play-by-play guy.
For Charlie Villanueva, no regrets.
For Tayshaun Prince, a nice twilight so his career will be properly book-ended.
For all of us working stiffs, the longevity of Jim Brandstatter.
For all of us husbands, Brandy’s marriage, too.
For Cecil Fielder, Prince Fielder’s smile at the next Thanksgiving table.
For Notre Dame football fans, you don’t get anything—your prayers were already answered.
For NHL fans, never Fehr.
For Alex Karras’ legacy, a diabolical plan to gain induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For Miguel Cabrera, whatever he wants.
For Dominic Raiola, a seven-second delay.
For Ndamukong Suh, peace.
For Louis Delmas, two good knees.
For the two Vs, Vinnie Goodwill and Vince Ellis (Pistons beat writers), a thesaurus to help them describe what they are forced to watch nightly.
For Jerry Green, many more Super Bowls.
For Rob Parker, see Dominic Raiola.
For Mark Sanchez, the hell out of New York.
For Toronto Blue Jays fans, somebody to pinch them.
For Chicago Cubs and Lions fans, a support group.
For Billy Crystal, the only known celebrity Los Angeles Clippers fan, a winner.
For Billy Crystal’s movie career, the same, for it’s as overdue as are the Clippers.
For Magic Johnson, all the success with the Dodgers as he had on the basketball court.
For the San Francisco Giants, the antithesis for Magic.
For Linda McCoy-Murray, happiness with her new man. But he’ll never write like Jim.
For Jim Leyland, we folks off his back already.
For our daughter, anything she wants, because she tamed Oakland University as a freshman like she had ice water in her veins.
For my wife, see Charlie Villanueva.
For all of you who read me every week, a year’s supply of Zantac.
Life on the road in the NBA is supposed to be a battle of attrition, fraught with jet lag, living out of suitcases and sleeping in airports. It’s supposed to be filled with games in enemy arenas tilted with unfriendly whistles and acerbic leather lungs in the champagne seats.
There are supposed to be no gimmes on the road in the NBA. Even the dregs of the league can manage to play at least .500 ball in their own building.
That’s the way it is, pretty much, for visiting teams. Until they come to Detroit, er, Auburn Hills.
They’re papering the houses for Pistons games again. Just like they did when the team got dropped off on Detroit’s porch by owner Fred Zollner in 1957, when he moved his Pistons from Fort Wayne, IN.
First at Olympia Stadium, then at Cobo Arena, the Pistons would be lucky to fill a third of the building. Phony attendance figures would be announced over the PA. Even among the puny crowds, a good portion of them got in for free or at reduced rates, thanks to all the coupons floating around town.
When the Pistons grew up enough to build their own basketball Palace back in 1988, it was thought that the days of papering the houses were long gone.
But the franchise has returned to its old ways.
They’re not counting too good at the Palace, and it’s getting embarrassing.
The Palace can’t possibly afford the Pistons much in the way of a home court advantage these days. It’s too quiet, too polite an atmosphere. Once again the building is less than half full, like the old days of Pistons basketball, when the shorts had buckles and the socks were wool and sagging.
The attendance figures are again papering the house. The other night against thePhoenix Suns, the public address announced a crowd of 10,000-plus. Like the old joke goes, maybe there were 10,000 people—but 7,000 came disguised as empty seats.
I watched the game on television, and try as you might as a director in the production truck, you can’t hide empty seats—especially when they were in as long supply as they were that night. No offense to the ladies, but the crowd looked like that of a WNBAgame.
The Pistons would make a basket, make a defensive stop, do something else good—and there was plenty of good in the 117-77 romp—and the efforts would be greeted with polite applause. Golf claps, if you will.
Fans dotted the landscape at generous distances from each other, as if everyone had consumed garlic for dinner. It was a good night if you had to get up often to run to the bathroom or the refreshment stand, or merely stretch out.
Yet the Pistons had the gall and audacity to announce a crowd of over 10,000 on a night when the fans could hear the players talk—and vice versa. Maybe they counted everyone twice, to be safe.
This was Pistons basketball, some 45 to 50 years ago, when Cobo was visited by only the most curious, and sometimes for free. They announced phony crowds back then, too.
I never thought those days would return.
But maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised, because once again, Detroit is proving itself to be a front-running town when it comes to pro basketball.
Two of the loudest venues I’ve ever experienced, however, have involved Pistons games.
They were 20 years apart.
The first was in April 1984, at Joe Louis Arena. First round of the playoffs—the Pistons first appearance in the postseason in seven years. The fifth and deciding game—the night Isiah Thomas went crazy against the New York Knicks, scoring 16 points in the final 90 seconds of regulation in a game in which the Pistons lost in overtime.
JLA was as loud that night as I’ve heard it for Red Wings playoff games—and I’m including Stanley Cup Finals tilts.
The crowd was spellbound by the drama being played out on the court, in a game that would decide the series—Bernard King of the Knicks seemingly going 1-on-1 with Isiah Thomas, the other eight players on the court merely place setters, bit players on stage.
The other occasion of loudness took place two decades later—Game 3 of the 2004 NBA Finals, at the Palace. The Pistons were manhandling the mighty Los Angeles Lakers, on their way to a third league championship.
The Palace reverberated. If you wanted to think, you couldn’t hear yourself doing so. Ididn’t know that building could be so loud—and I’d attended rock concerts there as well.
But those were shrieking crowds pulling for playoff contenders. Not papered houses, and the term “fair-weather fans” comes to mind.
Detroit, from the moment the Pistons showed up, kicking and screaming on the city’s doorstep, has never truly been a basketball town. It never will be. Detroit, when it comes to its pro basketball, is a front-runner’s town. The fans have been fair weather since 1957.
That’s the last time the Lions won a championship. It’s been 55 years, and in that time, the Lions have won a grand total of one playoff game. One.
There have been winless seasons, and seasons nearly so. There have been poor coaching hires, bad drafting and the handing over of the team’s reins to a color analyst.
Yet the Lions need only to open the doors at Ford Field and the place will be packed on Sundays. And on Thanksgiving Day. The folks here can’t get enough of its football, the same way a masochist can’t get enough lashes with a whip.
The Red Wings have a fan base deeply rooted and passed down by generations. It’s a core group that has never abandoned its team, even in the darkest days—and from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, those days were dark indeed, and they couldn’t all be blamed on Ned Harkness, whose name formed an unfortunate rhyme.
Mention the Tigers and folks’ hearts naturally warm. The mention will invoke memories of first visits to Tiger (or Briggs) Stadium; of family and Boy Scouts outings; first dates; the thrill of seeing Kaline, Cash, Colavito, Lolich, Freehan, McLain, Gibson, Parrish, Whitaker, Trammell et al doing their thing in their creamy white uniforms with the Old English D branded over their hearts.
No fair-weather baseball fans here. No sir.
The Pistons, today, are losers. They are trying desperately to remake themselves on the fly, so as not to be tagged with that dreaded “rebuilding” label. Rebuilding smacks of years and years of suffering. But the fans won’t be fooled. They know how far away the years of playoff contention and shrieking for winners are, and those days aren’t exactly right around the corner.
So the Palace is half empty, at least, on most nights, while the 10 players do their thing on the court. Detroit can open its wallets and its hearts to losers in the other sports, but not with the Pistons.
Some say the detachment is due to geography. The Pistons should move back downtown, they say. I think you could plop a Pistons game across the street from some of the so-called fans here, but if the team is losing, they won’t bother to make the walk.
The Pistons have been Detroit’s redheaded stepchild and always will be.
Before the events of 9/11 sullied the term, Twin Towers conjured up a different meaning entirely in the world of sports. Basketball, specifically.
Basketball is a tall man’s game. Everyone knows that. Players who are bean stalks with arms. When it rains outside, the guy who plays center knows it before everyone else.
It all started with George Mikan, old No. 99 for the Minneapolis Lakers. Mikan, from DePaul University, stood 6-foot-10, weighed 245 pounds, and when he entered the league in 1948 (it was called the Basketball Association of America, BAA, back then), pro basketball was more of a medium sized man’s game.
When Mikan stepped onto the court for the first time as a 24-year-old rookie, the next tallest Lakers teammate was four inches shorter than he. The rosters of the day were filled with guys 6-foot-5 and shorter.
It wasn’t long, however, before the NBA grew—literally. Taller players entered the league. Mikan was joined by other bean stalks. Then the tallest bean stalk of them all, seven-foot Wilt Chamberlain from the University of Kansas, burst onto the scene in 1959.
The year before Chamberlain loped onto the hardwood for the Philadelphia Warriors, the team posted a 30-42 record. With Chamberlain clogging the middle, the Warriors improved to 49-26. They were strong championship contenders from that point on.
It was official: if you wanted to win in the NBA, you had to have a capable big man. Just ask the Boston Celtics, who won title after title with Bill Russell dominating in the pivot.
Or ask Jack McCloskey.
Trader Jack, long before he made a name for himself as one of the league’s shrewdest executives with the Pistons, was a haggard coach—first in the Ivy League, then with the NBA’s expansion Portland Trailblazers.
Jack loved big men. He was infatuated with what they could do, how they could be game changers. In 1981, McCloskey rued the decision by Virginia’s 7-foot-4 Ralph Sampson to not come out in the NBA draft. The Pistons, with the second overall pick, “settled” for a pipsqueak point guard from Indiana University named Isiah Thomas.
So it was with cruel irony that McCloskey, as coach of the third-year Trailblazers, was saddled with maybe the biggest NBA draft bust of all time.
LaRue Martin was 6-foot-11, and he wasn’t even a bean stalk; he was a bean pole. Martin barely managed 200 pounds on that nearly-seven-foot frame. The Blazers grabbed him first overall in 1972.
McCloskey liked Martin as a person, he once told me, but Jack preferred another big man instead.
There was a leaping scorer from the University of North Carolina that McCloskey fancied. The scorer stood 6-foot-9, which qualified as a big man. McCloskey liked the athletic big man so much, he recommended to his bosses that they use their No. 1 overall pick on the kid from UNC instead of the bean pole LaRue Martin.
Jack’s bosses didn’t listen. They grabbed Martin. And the player McCloskey coveted, Bob McAdoo, went to the Buffalo Braves.
McAdoo is in the Hall of Fame. Martin lasted four dreadful seasons, a total bust.
McCloskey suffered two seasons with Martin, then was fired as Portland’s coach. And that’s when the cruelty of the irony reached its zenith, for not long after dismissing McCloskey as their coach, the Trailblazers drafted a big man from UCLA. His name was Bill Walton. Three years later, the Blazers won an NBA title with Walton and his headband banging the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens and Bob Lanier in the middle.
McCloskey’s fetish for big men was still there when he joined the Pistons as GM in December 1979. He liked towering centers, sometimes to a fault. Hence the Pistons overpaid for guys like Kurt Nimphius and William Bedford.
But never did McCloskey have the wherewithal to have on his roster, two big men with supreme offensive prowess. Hell, it was hard enough to find one such player, let alone two.
The Houston Rockets were the first team to try it.
Ironically, it was Sampson, the man who stayed in school in 1981, who was half of Houston’s Twin Towers experiment, teaming with seven-footer Hakeem Olajuwon when the latter was a rookie with the Rockets in 1984.
It didn’t produce the desired results.
The Rockets made a surprise trip to the NBA Finals in 1986, but within two years Sampson was shipped off to Golden State, his own career in a downward spiral.
The Twin Towers experiment had been a failure.
It hasn’t really been tried again since. The champions of the past couple of decades have been inside/outside teams—comprised of a creative little guy, a ridiculously athletic medium guy, and a dominating big man—the San Antonio Spurs of David Robinson and Tim Duncan a notable exception.
The Pistons, certainly, haven’t had Twin Tower capability. Ever.
Even when they were winners—in the Bad Boys years and in the mid-2000s—the Pistons never had even one dominating big man, let alone two. Bill Laimbeer was an OK scorer, but not a traditional low post, intimidating figure with the basketball. When Ben Wallace was on the court, the Pistons played every offensive possession with one arm tied behind their back.
But now it’s 2012, and the Pistons find themselves in an intriguing position.
Two years ago, GM Joe Dumars selected Greg Monroe, a scoring big man, from Georgetown University, which has been known to produce a good NBA big or two.
Monroe has developed to the point where, heading into his third season, he is considered a team leader and on the verge of stardom. He’s the first scoring big man on the Pistons since Rasheed Wallace, only Monroe doesn’t treat the key as if there was a force field around it.
Neither does Andre Drummond, the Pistons’ rookie center from Connecticut, a seven-foot, shot blocking kangaroo who, at 19 years, is tender in age but loaded with skills, some of which still need to be harnessed, and refined.
Pistons fans are daft. They are beside themselves in wonderment of what they could be seeing on the floor, with Monroe and Drummond running side-by-side. Never before have the Pistons possessed two athletic men of this size, at the same time.
It’s enough to make one dare murmur those two words.
About time the Pistons tried it.
That was the week that was.
David Frost, don’t come at me with copyright infringement. I didn’t capitalize all words. Give me some artistic license here.
With apologies to the Brit Frost, who produced two versions of the satirical show called “That Was the Week That Was” (or “TW3”)—one British, one American, in the 1960s—I can’t recall five days in which the Detroit sports landscape was fraught with so much sadness, anger, frustration and, ultimately, happiness, relief and awe.
Monday, October 8. The city is riding high, but there is some disappointment and even anger. The Tigers are up, 2-0, in their ALDS with the Oakland A’s. Only one more win and it’s a return trip to the ALCS, baseball’s version of the Final Four. Yet a peek ahead on the calendar shows that Friday, the 12th, was supposed to be the opening game of another NHL season, which is in limbo thanks to yet more labor unrest. The city is giddy over the Tigers around the Monday morning water cooler, and even more relaxed because the Lions didn’t play the day before. But there’s no hockey on the horizon, and that makes some folks cranky.
Tuesday, October 9. The Tigers series has moved to Oakland, which means a welcome back to the late night start, something we are used to with the Red Wings, who seem to play at least one playoff series every spring two or three time zones to the west. It seems like 9:07 p.m. will never come, but there is some sad news to deal with first.
Budd Lynch, the one-armed bandit and more of a Red Wing, in a way, than Gordie Howe or Stevie Yzerman, has passed. He was 95. It was Budd’s rich baritone voice that combined for many years with Bruce Martyn’s crackling one that made Red Wings hockey on TV and radio something worth tuning into, even when the product on the ice was horse manure—which it was for so many years in the 1970s.
Budd Lynch, the oldest of all surviving Red Wings—and yes, he was a Red Wing even if he never laced up a skate—is gone, and so many people’s memories flash back in a whirring manner. Budd is the Ernie Harwell of the Red Wings—a good man who was good to others. A man who lost his right arm in WWII and who could still play golf, as a lefty only, better than many with two good limbs. Budd Lynch, who started calling Red Wings games on the radio well before a single television camera found its way into an NHL rink.
Budd had tried to retire from the Red Wings twice—once in 1975, but then was lured back as the head of the Public Relations department; and again in 1985, but the Ilitch family persuaded Budd to stay on yet again, this time as PA announcer at Joe Louis Arena. And that’s exactly what Budd was doing, as late as this past spring—calling the goals and penalties and announcing “Last minute of play in this period” as if God himself was doing so.
We mourned for Budd, but then more bad news came, from the left coast.
Alex Karras, the short and stumpy, cigar-chomping defensive tackle with the thick, wire-rimmed glasses and with an innate hatred of quarterbacks (even on his own team), lie deathly ill, according to his wife, fellow actress Susan Clark. Kidney failure, we were told. Alex had days to live, maybe even hours.
While we wrestled with the news of Lynch and Karras, suddenly it was, indeed, 9:07 and time for the first pitch of the Tigers-A’s Game 3.
Anibal Sanchez is dealing from the mound for Detroit, but the Tigers offense goes AWOL, as it is wont to do. Sanchez does his best, but the Tigers don’t score any runs and fall, 2-0. The ALCS inches closer, the Tigers ahead two games to one.
Wednesday, October 10. Groggy from staying up until about 1 a.m. watching the Tigers lose the night before, we get the news in the morning that we feared. Alex Karras, old #71, six years in age past his uniform number, has died in California. The Golden Greek. Tippy Toes. Mongo. Webster’s foster dad. The only member of the NFL’s All-Decade Team of the 1960s not enshrined in the Hall of Fame. Alex is gone, one of the most colorful athletes to ever play in Detroit.
We go to work, come home, have dinner, and settle in for Game 4 of the ALCS. Tigers fans are confident the series will end tonight, with Max Scherzer on the mound. And Max does his best, limiting the A’s to one run and three hits through six innings.
The Tigers lead, 3-1, heading into the bottom of the ninth. The crazy Coliseum in Oakland is quiet, like its derogatory nickname, The Mausoleum.
But closer Jose Valverde implodes, the A’s teeing off on him with three straight hits, each hit harder than the previous. It only takes a few horrifying minutes for the A’s to wipe out the 3-1 deficit and win, 4-3, causing Tigers fans’ insides to twist like pipe cleaners. Series tied, 2-2.
The end of the world is nigh in Detroit. In 48 hours, we’ve lost Budd Lynch, Alex Karras, and a 2-0 lead in the ALDS.
Oh, and as if we needed more bad news, it’s reported that former Pistons player and coach from the 1960s, Donnis Butcher, has passed at age 76. Fittingly, today’s Pistons begin their exhibition season—a 101-99 win over Toronto. Also fitting that the only victory of the week is a meaningless one.
Thursday, October 11. We wake up in Detroit, stunned by the week’s turn of events. The Tigers, flying so high a few days ago, are now on the brink of disaster. Even the prospect of Justin Verlander starting fails to totally soothe the denizens, because the offense has wasted two superb starts in Oakland already. The city is ready to erupt with a volcano of venom if the Tigers blow this series.
Yet we are still not done with tragedy. Former Tigers slugger Champ Summers, who played in Detroit from 1979-81, succumbs to cancer at age 66 the day of Game 5.
These things are supposed to happen in threes, but this week it has happened in fours. Lynch, Karras, Butcher and Summers. All gone within 72 hours.
Verlander takes the hill for the 9:37 p.m. start and strikes out the first two A’s hitters. The third gets a single and that’s the last base hit for Oakland until 12 batters later. The Tigers scratch out a couple of runs and the way Verlander is throwing, the 2-0 lead may as well be 12-0. It’s still only 2-0 going into the seventh, but then the Tigers break it open with four runs for a 6-0 lead. The city exhales for the first time since Monday.
Verlander finishes the 122-pitch, 11-strikeout complete-game shutout with a tic-tac-toe ninth and the Tigers avert calamity with a 3-2 series win. They are headed back to the ALCS for the second year in a row. It’s the first good news in the world of Detroit sports all week.
Friday, October 12. No game today. No deaths to report. It’s a day of basking in the glow of Verlander’s instant classic pitching performance. All that’s left is to find out the Tigers’ opponent in the ALCS. Baltimore or New York—and the winner will also determine where the next series will start. In Detroit if the Orioles win; in New York if the Yankees triumph.
The Yankees, behind a complete game from their workhorse ace, CC Sabathia, beat the Orioles 3-1 and take the series, 3-2. It sets up another Tigers-Yankees postseason series—the third since 2006. The Tigers are 2-0.
The roller coaster week of emotions flies by. Five days of toil, tears and sweat. We lose four sports heroes—one each from the Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons and Lions—but retain the community of togetherness that is spawned when one of our teams goes on a deep playoff run.
It was something.
Detroit is not a “Look at me!” town. It doesn’t scream at you, like New York, or smirk at you, like Chicago. It doesn’t have the pretentiousness of Los Angeles or thesassiness of Philadelphia.
Detroit is a do-your-job, keep-your-head-down-and-plow-through kind of burg. Its biggest accomplishment is just getting through the day. All it wants is a cold beer at 6:00 and a game on Fox Sports Detroit at 7.
Detroit expects nothing from its professional athletes that it’s not willing to give from itself. It works hard, keeps its mouth shut, is just happy to be here, and so expects its sports heroes to do the same.
There hasn’t been much patience for the loudmouth, for the petulant, or for the ingrate. The whiner and the unhappy camper, Detroit can do without. Detroit is a “you don’t like it here, you can leave” kind of town.
So it’s highly appropriate that the greatest sports stars who have played in the Motor City in this generation have also been among the most humble and quietly dignified of their profession.
That’s how we like it here, after all.
Chest pounding is OK, as long as we get the feeling that the chest that’s being pounded is that of the team and the city, not of the individual.
We have been blessed to watch the strong, silent types.
The generation of which I speak starts in 1983, when the Red Wings, slugged by the disappointment of not being able to draft the kid from Waterford, Michigan, PatLaFontaine, instead nabbed a scoring machine from greater Ottawa named Steve Yzerman.
Yzerman arrived with the funny name and the manners of a young gentleman. He tiptoed around that first locker room in 1983, around the likes of Brad Park and Danny Gare and Reed Larson, an 18-year-old who scored 39 goals as a rookie—a total which might have been more than the words he spoke that season.
It was early in that 1983-84 season that I, as a cub reporter, turned from the crowd gathered around sniper John Ogrodnick after a rare win for the Red Wings and spotted Yzerman, quietly dressing. He couldn’t have looked more unassuming.
I tried to chat him up, with some jocular words long forgotten by the speaker. I strained to hear him as he buttoned his shirt. He was mere months out of high school, after all.
Three years later Yzerman was a 21-year-old captain, the youngest in the league. We met up again, this time as I was set to direct him in a public service announcement for youth hockey at Joe Louis Arena that I had written.
He was three years older—a four-year veteran at that point—but not any louder, no less humble. He did take after take on the ice with the gaggle of kid hockey players recruited to be in the spot, exhibiting no impatience, acting not at all like a diva.
Twenty years later we met again, at the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame induction dinner. He was four months into retirement and just a few weeks into his new gig as a front office suit. Again I tried to drag some words out of him. Again he was polite, humble and soft spoken. He greeted my wife as if he was meeting the Queen of England.
The generation moved along from 1983 to 1985, when the Pistons drafted a shooting guard from Natchitoches, Louisiana named Joe Dumars. Superstar point guard Isiah Thomas took to calling Dumars “Little Isiah,” even though Joe was a few inches taller.
Dumars was another who let his play do the talking. He carried a big stick. On a team of Bad Boys, Dumars was silent but deadly. He deferred but he didn’t shrink. Dumars punched the time clock for 14 years in Detroit, content to be an Indian on a team full of chiefs.
The generation rolled along. We’re at 1989 now.
The Lions, thanks to the inexplicable draft strategy of the Green Bay Packers, fall into a jitterbug back from Oklahoma State, Barry Sanders. Head coach Wayne Fontes stands in front of the curious media and declares Sanders to be the “No. 1 running back in America,” and this time no one cares to second guess the coach.
Sanders ends up becoming the best running back in Detroit, by far, and arguably the greatest in NFL history. But in a league often dominated by the boorish and the selfish, Sanders is a breath of fresh air. He’s quiet almost to the point of strange, but we lap it up in Detroit.
A league that brought you the spike is now made retro by Sanders, who is content to simply hand the football to the on-field officials after a touchdown, as if this was 1959, not ’89.
It was in 1994, at the peak of Sanders’ aura in Detroit, that I met him during the shooting of a clothing commercial for television. Sanders was in the middle of a wardrobe change when I poked my head in the dressing room at Barden Cablevision, where I was working in management.
“Mr. Eno,” Sanders said, grinning, with a firm grip of my hand. He acted like the honor was his to meet me, instead of the other way around.
The blip on Sanders’ career, of course, was that it ended so abruptly and the silence that we thought to be endearing while he was zigging through defenses that werezagging, turned out to be maddening in his stunning retirement.
The generation keeps moving, now on to 1991.
The Red Wings’ scouting people have done it again. They drafted, two years prior, a Swedish defenseman with the 53rd overall pick named Nicklas Lidstrom. Now it’s the 1991-92 season and Lidstrom is suiting up for the first time in the NHL, as a 21-year-old.
Lidstrom puts his suspenders and skates on in 1991, takes them off nearly 21 years later, and in between, wins more Norris Trophies as the league’s best defenseman (seven) than the number of killer quotes he produces for the media.
On the ice, Lidstrom is the chess player of defensemen, capturing the other team’s king with angles, strategy, knowledge and a stick that he uses like a surgeon wields a scalpel. He doesn’t throw more than a handful of body checks in over 20 years. Like Sanders for the Lions, Lidstrom somehow manages to play his entire career without getting hit hard by the other guys.
Lidstrom ends up as another Detroit superstar labeled with words like dignity, humility and grace. He becomes that leader by example who prefers to do his talking between whistles.
The generation that began in 1983 is about to close. But not before one more Detroit sports superstar amazes us with selflessness, even amidst the pinnacle of personal achievement.
Miguel Cabrera, Triple Crown winner, would rather that we not bring that subject up. As Cabrera closed in on the first TC in 45 years, he appeared embarrassed of his grandeur. He was Roger Maris, though not as tormented. Cabrera didn’t want the attention that his feat naturally attracted. If he was going to talk, he wanted to talk about the team.
His preference wasn’t always granted.
There has been nothing negative said about Cabrera as a teammate, by his teammates. He is another Detroit sports superstar without the diva gene.
We’ve been fortunate to have such talented men play for our teams whose dignity and grace somehow managed to equal or even eclipse their accomplishments.
Sometimes it’s good to be Detroit, indeed.
But it’s very appropriate that Drummond was drafted this week.
For it was 59 years ago last Monday that Kaline made his big league debut, subbing late in the game at Philadelphia’s Shibe Park.
It was so long ago that the Athletics were still two stops away from playing in Oakland.
The tie-in to Drummond?
Kaline was all of 18 years and six months old when he spelled Jim Delsing in center field that day in Philly.
Drummond is 18. He’s yet another baby that the NBA allowed to be drafted with impunity.
And he’ll strive to be the first teenager to have any success in Detroit pro sports since Steve Yzerman, and Stevie was the first to do it since Kaline.
Kaline had just 28 at-bats as an 18-year-old, but as a 19-year-old “veteran,” he had 504 at-bats and hit at a .276 clip. Not bad for someone who was just a few years removed from having his meat cut up for him.
In his first year as a non-teen, in 1955, Kaline became the youngest player ever to win a league batting title.
So there you have it: I’m comparing Drummond to Al Kaline.
But what’s a little more pressure to put on a kid, eh?
Can’t be any more than what is heaped on these youngsters who are practically ripped from their mother’s wombs and deemed to be saviors of various NBA franchises.
The first two kiddies plucked off the board Thursday night were both from Kentucky—which continues to churn out NBA players as Penn State did with NFL linebackers back in the day—and both teenagers: power forward Anthony Davis and the very appropriately named guard Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
It was the first time in league history that the first two players selected both came from the same school.
But it was hardly the first time that the first two were barely old enough to vote. In this year’s draft, the top three picks were teens.
The NBA draft used to be as intriguing as its NFL counterpart, because there was actually a time when the league drafted young men, not adolescents.
It was about a generation ago when the incoming NBA players were three- or four-year starters in college. They still played at the Kentuckys and the Dukes and the North Carolinas, but they played there long enough for us to at least have seen them on a few Saturday afternoons on television.
We knew the incoming pro players because we watched them, we read about them and we saw their big plays on the 11:00 news highlights—for at least three years, if not four.
Kentucky—naturally—had a guard in the late-1970s named Kyle Macy. He was a starter on the 1978 national championship team.
But since Macy was a transfer, we heard about him, and because the rules mandated that he sit out one full year after his transfer, by the time he graduated, you would have sworn that Macy was college basketball’s first six-year player; that’s how much it seemed we saw of Kyle Macy’s playing for Kentucky.
So when it came time for these young men to be drafted into the NBA, there was some familiarity. There was some attachment. We knew their strengths, their weaknesses.
But above all, we knew their freaking names.
Full disclosure: I’m not a hardcore NBA guy, to the degree that I can keep tabs on prospects one year removed from attending fourth hour and remembering locker combinations along with half-court plays. But I suspect I am far from being the Lone Ranger in this area.
I picked up a few names as the draft grew closer.
I knew of Davis, of course, and North Carolina’s John Henson, because he was projected as a possible choice for the Pistons. And a few others, Drummond included.
It was like I had to do a crash course—pull an all-nighter or two to get marginally up to speed.
The feeder schools didn’t change; still the usual suspects who have been birthing NBA players since the days of the four-corner offense.
But oh, those player names.
But that’s the way it is nowadays: Colleges are lucky to get more than one year out of their superstars before they take their basketballs and backpacks—and crayons, for all I know—to the NBA.
Andre Drummond, a 7-footer from Connecticut, has been described as a freak. The people who know about such things say that Drummond, who skipped his last year of prep school to enroll at UConn, is a premier defender, shot blocker and, with a 7’6’ wingspan, a Pterodactyl on hardwood.
What they also say is not to expect big things from him for two or three years. Then, he will team with Greg Monroe to give the Pistons a frontcourt worth the price of admission.
Huh—don’t expect big things for two or three years? Then why draft him now?
Because the NBA allows it.
Here comes the old fuddy-duddy in me, bursting to the surface.
If I were David Stern, NBA commissioner, I would insist that no one be eligible for my league’s draft unless his 20th birthday occurs no later than October 31 of the draft year in question—which is right around the start of most seasons.
This year’s draftees had to be born by December 31, 1993. Under my rules, the cut off would have been October 31, 1992.
No more one-and-dones in college. No more festooning teenagers with millions, just a year after their senior proms. No more using college basketball as a faux attempt at a bachelor’s degree.
You want to play in my league, son? Put in at least two years of college ball; then we’ll talk.
You want to make millions? Then give me two years of college, at least, to put yourself on the path to a degree so you can be something after your basketball skills erode.
But if you want to use college basketball as nothing more than a hop, skip and a jump to the pros, we politely decline.
Don’t come at me with age discrimination or that I’m unfairly denying someone a right to earn a living. Playing in the NBA ought to be a privilege, not a right. And the commissioner ought to draw the line at teen players.
Not that 20-year-olds are bastions of maturity—but you have to start somewhere.
Meanwhile, the rules are what they are, and Andre Drummond will suit up for the Pistons this fall, like so many of his first-round brethren, as a teenage “freak” making millions, more than two years away from his first legal sip of alcohol.
Drummond will know more about the pick-and-roll than economics; more about setting screens than U.S. history; more about the half court than the Supreme Court.
And he’ll make a king’s ransom doing it.
Then one day he’ll be 33 years old and in the twilight of his career, at an age at which most men are just finding their professional strides.
I wonder what that one year of college will do for him then?
You can read more Greg Eno at www.GregEno.com !!