Tuesday, March 31, 2009

And Cal Taketh Away

photo: Commercial Appeal
Since my statcounter showed that my last post regarding basketball was the least read or commented upon in recent months, let's do another. I don't know whether to be sad or mad about this John Calipari situation, but here is a message I received on March 22nd from my cousin Bob who lives in Boston and, as a fan of Umass, has experienced this same drama before. I don't think he'll mind if I demonstrate his prescience.
Cousin Bob said...
For years, I've been advocating a rule change that would really make the fouling team think twice. Award the shooting team two points if the first foul shot is made for any foul committed in the last minute.
I usually agree with everything you write, but I wouldn't pop the champagne corks yet if i were a Memphis fan. No doubt the bad taste that remains from Calipari taking UMass far but ultimately nowhere, then skipping to the NBA (and to the Nets at that - it would be like leaving Gonzaga for the Grizzlies), makes it hard for me and many others in New England to root for a Coach Cal team. Which does not mean that I'm picking UConn, which (as Dan Shaughnassy pointed out the other day) might as well be on Long Island as far as Bostonians are concerned. I'd like to see Pitt win, and as for Louisville, if you think Calipari left a bad taste...
Keep up the great work, a sentiment seconded by Denise./Bob

I don't begrudge Coach Cal accepting the premier head coaching job at the University of Kentucky, but does he have to wreck the Memphis program on the way out the door? My understanding is that U of Memphis backers were prepared to match whatever lucrative offer made by Kentucky. The big dog, FedEx Fred Smith his ownself, went to visit Cal's home to convince him to stay. So, most likely, money wasn't the motivator. At some point, however, it would seem a coach whose star has already risen would ask himself how many times can you start over and at what price? Everything Cal could want was here for him in Memphis; a new arena, new on-campus practice facilities, a devoted fan base, a rich recruiting environment, plus all the money he would ever need to commit the remainder of his career to the university, and have the building named after him when he retired. Is the fame or respect so insufficient here that you need your name to be whispered in the same sentence with Adolph Rupp or John Wooden? Without question, Cal turned the U of M into one of the nation's elite basketball programs, but that elitism just caught the last plane out.

The pain of losing so dramatically in the NCAA tourney was assuaged by Cal's statement that Memphis was where he wanted to be, and that next year's recruiting class was ranked among the best in the country. Now, Cal leaves with the staff, the recruits, and the reason for the remaining players to want to stay here. After Memphis dominated the C-USA Conference for years, sports radio announcer George Lapides says that instead of competing again for a national title, the Tigers will be fortunate to finish in the conference's second tier next season. Kentucky gets their man, but Memphis fans get to see a wrecking ball taken to their beloved program and the resulting rubble will take years to clean up. John Calipari has become the George W. Bush of basketball. There is no questioning Cal's civic contributions to our city, and I'm sure he'll continue to do the same in Lexington, but to discover he "chased" vacant coaching jobs at Pittsburgh and St. John's in recent years confirms that nagging doubt that while Cal was our Dixie Chicken, his heart was always in the northeast.

Thirty-five million for six years at UK is one sweet deal and it will make Cal the highest paid coach in college basketball history. But what price can you place on the loyalty of the Memphis fans who, in these difficult times, were willing to pay whatever the cost to convince him to stay? After nine seasons, Cal understood that one of the remaining joys in this "Town Without Pity" is University of Memphis basketball, and he was the parade's Grand Marshall. Where is his loyalty in return? While watching this year's tournament, I couldn't help but take note that the most successful coaches in college basketball; Gary Williams at Maryland; Mike Krzyzewski at Duke; Jim Calhoun at Connecticut; Jim Boeheim at Syracuse, are coaches that have devoted decades to their respective institutions. Recently retired coaches like John Thompson and Cal's arch-enemy John Cheney, became famous for taking relatively small schools' basketball programs from obscurity to prominence. When Cal came to Memphis, he promised a national championship. We nearly got there, but he didn't deliver, especially in the final seconds of last year's championship game. But then, he made the same promise to UMass before he split for a dismal tenure in the pros. Will Kentucky be his final stop, or does Cal secretly want to be Pat Reilly? Same hair-do.

I suppose Cal deserves thanks for the nine exciting seasons he was here. He hit the gold-mine with his connection to Laurinburg Prep, the basketball preparatory institute who's starting five all came to Memphis. Season ticket costs plus the extortion to the Athletic Department were jacked up and television was limited, but Cal could sure recruit. Thanks for one year of DaJuan Wagner, who's Dad you hired to assure his attendance, and is now out of basketball after a stint in Poland. Thanks for one year of Derrick Rose, two for Darius Washington, and now one-and-done for National Freshman of the Year, Tyreke Evans, who said, "If he (Calipari) leaves, then I'm not staying." And thanks for sneaking away from Galloway Drive under the cover of night without saying a word to the fans who supported you, while simultaneously deserting the team who played for you. When I received the above message from Cousin Bob in Boston nine days ago, I initially felt it was just sour grapes. Now my own grapes are making me feel a bit queasy.

I am sure that John Calipari can resuscitate the storied Kentucky basketball program, yet I'm still reminded of a former Memphis coach, Gene Bartow, who didn't find UCLA nearly as hospitable as Memphis, nor as patient, and ended his career in Birmingham. Calipari was already a legend in Memphis. Now, he risks his legacy to reach for, what? So once again, the U of Memphis must start from scratch. According to my pal Billy in Florida, the quickest way to return to national attention is to recruit Michelle Obama's brother, Craig Robinson, now the head coach at Oregon State. He didn't have much of a season last year, but at least we'd have one very high-profile fan. But what prominent coach would want to come here to the OK Corral and play in a mediocre conference with a decimated team anyway? The answer may lie right in our own backyard; tanned, rested, experienced and ready. It's time to forgive and forget. Re-hire Dana Kirk.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Basketball's Longest Minute

If I'm ever informed that I only have one minute to live, I'm heading straight for an NCAA basketball game. Not just because I'm a fan, but the final sixty seconds of a college game can seem like an eternity. Anyone who has ever waited for their team's game to be televised, while an already decided contest bogs down into a parade of free throws and time outs, knows the frustration of watching thirty seconds on a frozen scoreboard turn into ten minutes of futility. During a game's thirty-nine other minutes, the personal foul is considered an infraction, both for the individual player and the team. A foul is supposed to produce a penalty, yet in the final minute, a foul is encouraged and rewarded by stopping the action and giving the losing team the chance to steal a victory through, essentially, breaking the rules. It transforms a team game into an individual free throw shooting contest, and worst of all for television, it is intensely boring. It's time for a rule change.

A mild case in point was Saturday's Michigan-Oklahoma game. With 59.4 seconds to go and ten points down, Michigan called a time-out. That final minute took six minutes to complete and, guess what; after three more fouls and another time-out, Michigan lost by ten points. It was like watching water evaporate. Why should something considered a liability for the rest of a game become an asset in the final seconds? Other rule changes have only benefited the game. I can recall when the dunk was illegal, and any player the referee believed a little too aggressive around the rim could have his shot waved off. The slam dunk electrified the game when it was finally permitted, but the strategy changed from the jump shot, to throw the ball under to Shaq and let him break the backboard. To correct this, the three point shot was added to reward the long jumper and reclaim the game from the behemoths lurking beneath the basket. Now, the excitement of a timely three-pointer rivals the dunk.

The shot clock sped up the game and ended the strategy of stalling and sitting on a lead. No one knows the pain of holding season tickets for a team who's game plan is to hold the ball for extended periods of time and only shoot if it's a lay-up, like the fans of the Memphis Tigers during the mid-1960s. Moe Iba, who was hired as coach because he was the son of legendary coach Hank Iba, proved that none of his father's success wore off on him by routinely producing games with final scores like 27-24. In the process, he ruined the career of Memphis Prep star Mike Butler, who, with the proper coaching, might have looked something more akin to Pete Maravich. But the fans endured until Iba was finally shown the door and the shot-clock made certain that such an abomination would never happen again. The excitement returned with a team that wanted to win and not merely try not to lose, and the problem was fixed. Now, it's time to address the game's final flaw, the excruciating, final second foul-fest and crawl to the finish.

These last minute touch fouls that kill the action and make the game resemble the Bataan Death March should be called by the refs as what they are; intentional fouls. Just because a foul doesn't knock somebody down, it's still committed with the intent and purpose of stopping the action. Rather than put the fouled player at the free throw line for a one-and-one, change the rule to make every non-shooting or open court foul in the final minute to be an intentional foul, and give the offended team an automatic two free throws. Or better still, do what they do in soccer. When a foul occurs in the open field, the offense just throws the ball back in and play continues. If there's no reward for fouling, the action goes on and the losing team actually has to play defense and sink the three-point shot.

Anything would be better than the interminable wait for the final ticks to expire on a game who's outcome has already been determined. The better team should win, and no basketballer who plays his heart out for forty minutes should have a game rest on his free throw unless he was fouled in the act of shooting. Ever since he removed the bottoms of the peach baskets, I don't believe Dr. Naismith intended for his fast-paced game to be decided at the charity stripe. And, need I add, that if this rule change had been in place last season, my Memphis Tigers would be the defending national champions. We ended, however, as runner-up to Kansas after owning them for thirty-eight minutes, and then the fouls began. But did you see the way the Tigers shucked Maryland and ate all their oysters on Saturday? And we're a much better free throw shooting team than last year, so until enlightenment strikes the NCAA rules committee and they decide to give the long-suffering fans a break, Go Tigers Go! In the meantime, please make your foul shots.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The Terrorists Won

"Happy birthday Osama,
We hope it's a blast.
But cover your backside,
It might be your last."


Doggone it. I forgot yesterday was Osama bin Laden's birthday and now I'll have to send one of those belated American Greetings e-cards. I think the NSA still forwards his correspondence. Osama has disappeared like Howard Hughes, supposedly in the "Mad Max" region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But they ought to check out the penthouse suites in the high rise hotels of Islamabad, just to see if anyone has tin-foiled the windows. Osama's probably up there, kicked back with his dialysis machine and a hookah, watching a Blue-ray of "Ice Station Zebra" on the 50" flat screen he just got for a steal at the Kandahar Circuit City. I think the cave search should be about over, now that bin Laden is the hero of the Muslim world and could be given shelter and protection just about anywhere. I noticed that no one has yet ventured a claim to the 100 million dollars that was offered by the Bush Regime, "Dead or Alive," for his capture. His devotees are busy celebrating the 57th birthday of a sick man who has been fighting in the mountains since the 80s. He's been the subject of a supposedly intense, worldwide manhunt, and has already lived fifteen years longer than Elvis.

Al Qaeda's stated objectives for their attacks on the U.S. were to draw the nation into their apocalyptic visions of worldwide Jihad, entrap the military in an extended guerrilla war on rugged terrain, and drain the nation's economy. I recall thinking at the time that if these lunatics believed knocking down the World Trade Center would alter our way of life, they had badly underestimated the United States. But bin Laden and his personal Karl Rove, Ayman al-Zawahiri, used the same playbook that worked with the Russians in the 80s. Back then, when the Afghan mountain resistance was known as the mujaheddin and were being armed and supplied by the Reagan government, we called them "Freedom Fighters." The bloody and costly ten year Soviet stalemate in Afghanistan did far more to bankrupt the Soviet Union than Ronald Reagan's' "Tear down this wall" speech. U.S. troops have now been in Afghanistan for eight years.

Look where George Bush's "International War on Terror," has brought us. The Iraq war and the resulting atrocities have been a breeding ground for terrorist recruits like a fetid swamp for mosquitoes; 17,000 more troops have been ordered to Afghanistan to attempt to return the situation to the status quo that existed several years ago; and the American economy, in the words of Warren Buffett, "has fallen off a cliff." Wall Street greed, the housing debacle, and Reagan/Bush economics certainly contributed to our financial collapse, but no U.S. president in history has ever tried to fight two wars, while simultaneously granting massive tax cuts and not requesting sacrifice from anyone but the military. Our financial institutions are in shambles, our armed forces are pushed beyond their capacity, the Taliban has returned along with the burka, and Pakistan has granted safe haven to "suiciders" and "evil-doers" in the Swat Valley, adjoining Afghanastan. One would have to surmise that in the past eight years, every one of Al Qaeda's objectives has been met. And bin Laden is still alive somewhere, with his pal Ayman, carving up a birthday cake in the shape of Pakistan like Hyman Roth in Cuba.

All this could never have been possible without the myopic George Bush and his militaristic neocons. In fact, if al Qaeda had hand-picked and trained their own accomplice, like a Manchurian Candidate, and placed him in the U.S. Presidency, they could not have found a more hapless and predictable foil than the crusader Bush and the other two stooges, Rummy and Cheney; Curly, Larry, and Moe, in that order. To paraphrase the old country song by Roy Clark, "Thank God and Greyhound They're Gone." There is still this thing called "accountability," however, and in the name of "keeping us safe," some evil deeds were committed in our Halliburton sponsored war with Iraq. Somebody's got some 'splainin to do and someone needs to inform all the Bush lackeys screaming "executive privilege," that the executive they speak of just left town.

In addition to the "Truth Commission" that Sen. Patrick Leahy has introduced to determine who did what in the phony, "mushroom cloud," Iraq War build-up advertising campaign, the United Nations has just begun an investigation into the Bush kidnapping and rendition policies, stating, "The change in administration will have no effect on our decisions." I know that Dubya wouldn't understand irony if it hit him in the presidential library, but who would have believed that Osama bin Laden would plot and execute an attack on this country that claimed 3000 lives, and eight years later, the wanted man is George Bush. In the world at large, Osama is a hero and Bush is a zero. The Leahy Commission and John Conyers' House Judiciary Committee are slowly chipping away at the Bush regime's wall of silence. It might be time for George to mosey on down to those imaginary 75,000 hectares that he denies buying in Paraguay, where they have no extradition agreements. It's beginning to appear that the Bushes should either go on the lam, enter Witness Protection, or flip on Cheney, or our 43rd President stands a good chance of going to jail. Happy birthday, Osama.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

What, and Get Out Of Show Business?

Bob and Randy
East High School
Dec. 1960

I had always heard that musicians do well in a Depression because everyone wants to be entertained, but I never imagined I'd be testing out the theory. I thought if bad came to worse, I could always ramble from campfire to campfire, like Tom Joad, and maybe get a skillet of stew if my song was spirited. It's not like I haven't done it before. So, a couple of weeks ago, I stepped away from whining and opining to emerge from semi-retirement and return to my real job as a singer. The semi-retirement wasn't really my idea. I'm just at that awkward age where I'm too old to be musically relevant but not old enough to be rediscovered as a curio by a younger generation. Fortunately, our audience for this gig was there to celebrate an old friend's sixtieth birthday, so we were practically on the cutting edge.

I performed with my old partners, Bob and Reni Simon, with John Grosse on bass. Since tinnitus prevents me from playing in an electric band, we did a seated acoustic show that travelled farther down memory lane than anyone cared to admit. It had been a year since we played together, so a couple of rehearsals were necessary to get our harmonies right and because we refuse to go anywhere and suck. But our main repertoire was at our host's request. We sang songs by Mary Wells, Ruby and the Romantics, the Impressions, and the Four Tops. We played some Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly and a short set of early Beatles, plus my favorite Ray Charles impressions and Bob's note-perfect Isley Brothers' version of "Shout," complete with the Little Richard "Whoos," that had some of the less inhibited souls doing the Bulldog on the living room floor. We even sang a couple by the Tymes and the Fleetwoods; and no, kids, I'm not talking about Fleetwood Mac. I had a great time and no one had to take me to the hospital or give me oxygen. Before the gig, however, I was a mess.

Musicians have a saying, "The music is free. You pay us to set up and tear down all that damned equipment." Although we were well compensated and I'd had two run-throughs, the day of the gig I developed a severe case of shpilkes, and by the time I loaded my own car, I was already exhausted. I refused Melody's offer to call an ambulance and boldly drove through the rain to my afternoon, early set-up rendezvous with my bandmates which, unfortunately, was my idea. I'm a little older than the birthday boy, so I required a nap immediately after all the stuff had been plugged up. I awoke to the intestinal spasms of which I have previously spoken, caused by the criminal Bush, and for a moment, I thought I would have to call in my apologies. But I've never missed a gig. Never. Besides, the host was giving away Radiants CDs as party favors and I already had a gig shirt picked out. Once we started playing, though, I was fine, and the crowd's good spirits lifted me.

The guests came with the intention of having a good time and a main topic of conversation was that there is no place in Memphis to hear this kind of acoustic music anymore. There are still good clubs that cater to younger crowds, but when I went to the Hi-Tone to hear the Iguanas, the opening band roared like a jet and sent me hurtling from the room wiping the blood from my ears. I can dish it out, but I can't take it anymore. My friend Jay Sheffield has generously offered a tour of area Huey's, but I just no longer have the desire to be background noise for family supper. Bless him and good old Thomas Boggs for providing the venues, though. The last time the Simon-Haspel Trio played Huey's midtown, Thomas sat at the end of the bar staring at us intently while the customers were noisy and indifferent. I was certain he was thinking that our act was too tired for the room. When we took a break, Thomas approached and said, "If you ever want a drummer to play that song list with you, I'm your man." I really miss Thomas. Especially when we were reminiscing at the birthday party about our club-going years at Overton Square, when Thomas was often my boss.

On some brisk, March, Saturday night in 1975, six great bands would be playing on Madison Ave. alone. Beginning near McLean St., you could hear Jimmy Buffett, Taj Mahal, or one of the funniest bands I've ever seen, Darryl Rhodes and the HaHaVishnu Orchestra at the Ritz, a club born to fail, but beautifully furnished, both aesthetically and acoustically. Across the street, new bands played in the underground Procope Gardens while upstairs, Fantasia was Memphis' only club featuring live classical music. Perhaps Rick Christian and the White Boys with the late Mark Sallings on sax, or Joyce Cobb and Hot Fun would be playing at Trader Dick's while headliners like Billy Joel, Kansas, or Minnie Ripperton held forth at the lost and lamented Lafayette's Music Room. Across the street at Bombay Bicycle Club, the acoustic group St. Andrew's Fairway was thrilling an audience with harmonies, while, if you were lucky, you might hear a late set of Larry Raspberry and the Highsteppers at Godfather's. Walk the extra blocks down South Cooper to the High Cotton and maybe catch a night when Don Nix or John Mayall was hanging out. Those were wonderful times for live music, but I needed to remind my enthusiastic and nostalgic friends that our audiences from back then are usually in bed by 10:00 these days. And Tunica has laid such waste to the Memphis nightclub business, who would gamble on a music room in this economy?

Still, it would be great if Overton Square could recover like Beale Street, or maybe they don't want it to. Old folks still like music too, however, and most of them carry credit cards. Any potential investors for Randy's Acoustic Deli? Last week's gig was also a milestone of sorts, and I tell you because many of you have listened to us for a very long time and wouldn't otherwise know. Bob Simon and I started the Radiants in 1962 with Howard Calhoun and Mike Gardner, but it was already our third band. After the Silvertones and the Dynamics, with John McNulty on drums, we started the Casuals with David Friener and Gary Hofman in 1961. David Fleischman joined the band as a back-up singer, and became "Flash" when I was grounded for poor grades. But Bob and I started playing and singing together in 1959 and made our first appearance that same year at a summer camp. Now, I'm not fishing for attention or accolades, certainly not from any show-biz type organization, and wouldn't accept any if offered, but the first gig of this year marks fifty years that Bob Simon and I have been entertaining together, and without a single fistfight. Of course, it ain't over yet. I guess someone must have told us somewhere along the line to never give up. Questionable advice. It took me a week to recover. Next time, please let me know well in advance if you want to book us so I can start doing sit-ups.