Great Sports Writing: “A Fan’s Notes On Earl Monroe”

In 1977, Woody Allen was invited by the now defunct Sport Magazine to do a cover article on Knicks player Earl Monroe.  What should have been just a normal feature piece produced one of the most evolutionary pieces of sports writing ever created.  In the following account, Allen details a brand new philosophy on the game of basketball in which he admits he roots for individual talent and artistry rather than the team concepts that so many people have come to appreciate as the paramount principle of championship basketball. It’s a fantastic tale that has influenced a number of current sports writers including Deadspin founder Will Leitch and most obviously the guys who started the now finished Free Darko website (R.I.P.).  Read it up as Allen goes to great depths to describe what makes Monroe so brilliant on the basketball court and wonders aloud whether an athlete as magnificent as Monroe should be subjected to team basketball, implying that it might in fact be below him to do so.  This is a timeless piece and has the potential to forever alter how you view professional sports.  From Sport Magazine via SportsFeat:

Then in 1971 he got traded to the Knicks. Naturally, I was happy to be able to watch him more often, but there were two uneasy questions. Could he play alongside Walt Frazier? Frazier was then the premier all-around guard in basketball and had set standards so high that years later when he might be off his game a fraction and could no longer single-handedly win games, the fans could not deal with it and turned on him. I found this unforgivable and it certainly says something about the myth of the New York sports fan.

In those days, however, Walt Frazier played with a serene brilliance that made it seem that could steal the ball whenever he wanted to, dribble it behind his back, and score at will. He was wonderful to look at (great posture, perpetual “cool”), dressed flashy off the court, drove a Rolls, and got an awful lot of rebounds for a guard.

Monroe, who when he joined the Knicks reportedly said, “Man, I got two Rolls,” was also used to being the cynosure of his team. He had never had to be overly concerned with defense and never had to share the limelight with anyone approaching Frazier’s greatness. This didn’t worry me, because I felt the two guards would be simply breathtaking together, which they indeed were. They played brilliantly in tandem. Frazier was the steadier of the two. He did everything perfectly. Monroe was, as always, the more dramatic and explosive one. Consequently, when Frazier dribbled up the middle you could count on your two points because of his smooth-as-satin style. When Monroe drove, his lust for danger took him in directions where he might get the ball slapped away or might miss a shot because of spectacular gyrations. Again, like Brando, Monroe takes risks, and while some fail, enough come off to make him an artist.

The second and more irritating question to me was, can Monroe fit into the flow of team play? Can he become part of that superb combination of Bill Bradley, Walt Frazier, Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, etc., that hits the open man, retains poise, and sooner or later grinds up opponents like a well-oiled machine? Some said Monroe would not be able to adjust. Others felt Monroe could learn to give off the ball, to play defense, to sublimate his brilliant one-on-one skills and contribute to this championship club. But I asked, why would anyone want that of him? After all, here is the single most exciting player in basketball, a solo performer. Do we really want him to abandon his individuality and become a cog in a machine? Would we ask Heifetz to become a sublimated member of the string section? Great Knick fan that I was, I would rather have seen the team set up Monroe for his dazzling solo feats than the other way around. Is winning so important that we can afford to sacrifice Monroe’s essential gift to the game of basketball?

Now there were those who argued with me and said they derived more aesthetic satisfaction out of watching a five-man unit execute with the precision of the Knicks at their height. Nothing was more beautiful, they said, than the ball going from Frazier to Bradley, to DeBusschere, back to Frazier, to Reed for a basket. Well, what can I say? I don’t agree. Perhaps because I’m a performer. Artistry like Monroe’s does not come along often and I for one feel sacrifices must be made for art. It’s great if the team wins (Baltimore did quite well with a Monroe-oriented offense), but if the price included the conformity of Earl Monroe to a patterned offense, I didn’t like it.

A funny thing happened after reading the piece.  It sounds oddly a lot like the dilemna many  fans debate when talking about Carmelo Anthony.  Just saying…

[Sport Magazine via SportsFeat]

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D-Backs GM Kevin Towers Admits That Teams Alter Opposing Pitcher’s Radar Gun Readings In The Stadium

This is beyond brilliant.  A simple yet incredibly effective way to get into your opponent’s head.  From the Arizona Republic:

After Cincinnati Reds left-hander Aroldis Chapman’s velocity dipped earlier this month on the radar gun at Petco Park in San Diego, Reds manager Dusty Baker wondered aloud about the reliability of ballpark pitch speeds, espousing a conspiracy theory many believe to be true.

Baker said some major-league teams crank up the scoreboard readings for their own pitchers and dial it down for the visitors. Whatever it takes to gain even the slightest psychological advantage.

Turns out he had reason to be skeptical. Especially of the gun in San Diego.

“We used to dial it down,” said a smiling Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers, formerly the Padres’ GM.

“I know for a fact that every time Brad Penny pitched for the Dodgers in San Diego it was probably the lowest velocities he ever had. He liked velocity. He’d stare at the board. He was throwing 95-96 (mph), but we’d have it at 91 and he’d get pissed off and throw harder and harder and start elevating.”

As recently as 10-15 years ago, pitch velocity was the exclusive domain of radar gun-toting scouts. Now, every ballpark in the majors displays velocities.

Some parks have their own radar guns beaming the velocities to the scoreboard. Others employ the advanced Pitch-f/x system, which uses three cameras to track the speed, location and movement of every pitch and is installed in all 30 major-league ballparks.

I love finding out little things like this.  Gets me all happy inside.

[Arizona Repupblic]

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Good Morning Generation

I normally don’t take much interest in the NFL draft otherwise than to wonder why in the hell the Broncos decided to take yet another offensive weapon when our defense has sucked for the better part of a decade.  Oh sure, I always tune in.  But you won’t find me gobbling up bogus mock drafts from alleged experts who in all actuality are sock puppets being toyed with by various GMs and agents around the league.  If you’re among the many who actually eat up those mock drafts in the weeks prior to the draft, I pity you.  You’re no better than the thousands of females who took the day off from work today to stay up all night and watch the Royal Wedding. 

This year was a little different though.  Word started to leak among the various news outlets that Andy Dalton — he of the two BCS appearances for TCU, Rose Bowl championship, and the logo of this fine website — might actually get drafted in the first round.  This was exciting.  He’s been a four year starter at my Alma Mater and was a major player in my second greatest intramural story of all-time at TCU (if you read the site, you should no about the water polo one by now) which involved me being matched up against him in basketball my sophomore year.  I dropped 35 points on him, oh by the way (we still lost though, and Dalton threw down an alley oop on me a la Blake Griffin over Mozgov).  Anyhow, this was good news and gave me added incentive to actually pay attention last night.

However, I couldn’t get one awful feeling out of the back of my head this week.  I can’t remember where I read it (my apologies), but I found a great write up on the draft this week that basically said winning in the draft is all about providing as much misinformation as possible and never panicking — basically what the New England Patriots do every year.  Too many teams buy into ESPN’s big board and perception from external forces.  When they see a guy who was rated with top ten talent still available at pick sixteen, they freak the f— out and call up New England and give them four picks to move up for that one guy who will probably end up being a bust (there was a reason he was still available).

Buried in that piece was an idea that teams will all start to overrate a couple of guys in particular in hopes that the less savvy front office’s around the NFL will buy into the hype and take a player way before they should actually go. 

I’ve watched Andy Dalton for four years.  I LOVE him.  I will tell my children about how I watched the greatest QB in TCU history.  I made him the logo of my freaking site.  I cannot overstate enough how much his accomplishments on the football field have meant to me personally.  But in no way did I ever think he’d be a first round NFL draft pick.  The horrible feeling I had?  That Dalton was the pawn being used by NFL GMs, via Mel Kiper, to get a team to make a catastrophic mistake in the first round.  I expressed it to Gen Y co-founder Eddie yesterday as we debated where he might get taken.

As I sat and watched the final picks last night and hoped that Andy D might in fact get drafted, I had an epiphany about this whole draft process (Dalton wasn’t selected, although he is expected to go early in the second round).  I get that teams want to get other teams to screw up and have bad drafts.  I’m totally fine with them using CIA counterintelligence tactics to get the Minnesota’s of the world to draft a Christian Ponder or an Andy Dalton way too early and ruin their franchise’s future for the next five years. 

What I’m not okay with is Mel Kiper willingly participating in the charade as if he has no idea what’s really going on.

Kiper has been doing this at ESPN for nearly thirty years.  I don’t think it’s unrealistic to say he knows every trick in the book on how teams are going to behave during the draft and that he can tell when a little bit of espionage and counter-intelligence is going on.  For him to knowingly participate in all of that and try to act shocked or astonished when Dalton didn’t go last night is so incredibly unethical.  To get that kid’s hope up, to get his family’s hopes up, to get his future wife’s hope up that he’s going to get drafted in round one, while simultaneously knowing there’s no chance in hell that’s going to happen, that’s flat out wrong.  It’s the same kind of scumbaggery as the SEC coaches who over-sign recruits and then dump five to ten of them from their scholarship after they’re three weeks into a semester.  It’s the same kind of crap as all those agents preying on young athletes with impoverished backgrounds.

Mel Kiper Jr. is bush league.

I love how we all have conveniently forgotten that Kiper was implicated in the outstanding SI cover story a couple months back where a former NFL agent enlightened the world