Monthly Archives: June 2011

How “Blue Chips” Made Me Realize I Don’t Care Who Cheats

Here's the twist: recruits were actually forced to take their SATs. How bout that Derrick Rose?

I stumbled across “Blue Chips” the other day on some movie channel.  I hadn’t seen it in a while, and with Shaq’s Meryl Streep-esque movie career on my mind after his retirement, I decided to invest the hour and a half and dust off the old gem.

Now “Blue Chips” is no “Shazaam,” but I still got quite a lot out of what I forgot to realize was a very underrated sports movie.  “Blue Chips” also isn’t “Hoosiers,” but it definitely keeps you interested, and holds up surprisingly well almost two decades later.  Seeing Shaq as Neon Bodeaux – the unknown giant from the swamps of Louisiana who has absolutely the best and most appropriate name for a fictitious basketball player from Louisiana – is worth it by itself.  On top of that, you have a Larry Bird cameo, a made-up team (L.A.-based “Western University”) that is eerily similar and foreshadowing to USC, Penny Hardaway when he was still Penny Hardaway, and a great ending speech that I wish would actually happen once in my lifetime.

If you haven’t seen the movie at all in or a while, here’s a quick recap: Pete Bell (played by Nick Nolte) is a legendary college basketball coach at Western University (think: Bob Knight still at Indiana).  Pete has won national championships, has his own TV show, and is generally revered as a living deity in the college basketball world.  He has three losing seasons in a row because it is getting harder and harder to recruit athletes without cheating (side note: this is 1994).  Pete has always done it the right way and is morally hard on his stance.  He finally gives in during the recruitment of three top-level recruits played by Shaq, Penny, and some slick-shooting, farm-boy white forward from French Lick, Indiana (hence the Larry Bird cameo).  Pete finally gives in to some “friends of the program” to help him pay off these recruits.  Everything goes well; they all come to school and the team eventually plays number one ranked Indiana and the real Bob Knight.  Pete starts to hear some things about some of the “friends of the program” getting to some of his other players and starts to regret his decision about cheating.  Western takes down number one Indiana (with Shaq dunking over multiple Hoosiers an estimated two hundred and forty times during the game), and in the post-game presser, Pete delivers this movie-validating speech in which he quits.

Watching Blue Chips and hearing the speech blew me away.  One more time – this was 1994.  Seventeen years ago, this was the underlying theme of the movie: you cannot win in college sports without cheating.  This quote did me in more than any:

“Y’know, someplace, someplace in America right now, there’s some 10 year old kid. He’s out there on that playground, and he’s playin’, he’s dribbling between his legs, he’s goin’ left, he’s goin’ right, he’s already above the rim, he’s stuffin’ it home. You know what’s gonna happen to this kid? Five minutes from now, he’s gonna be surrounded by agents, corporate sponsors and coaches. Y’know, people like me. Just drooling over this kid because he holds our future employment in his hands. I mean, that’s what we’ve made this game. That’s what we’ve done.”

That was seventeen years ago.  Six years after Southern Methodist got the infamous “Death Penalty” from the NCAA in 1988.  In college sports, you had no major headline-spanning scandals except point shavings until Southern Methodist in 1988.  I was born in 1986. So when I was two years old, major college sports was exposed.  Considering my age, I was not able to experience the shock and disbelief that those who followed sports at the time were able to feel.  I didn’t look up from my cereal bowl with dried cheerios all over my face and say “wow for those first two years I really thought college athletics were a pure and untainted part of my life.”

I’d say probably any major sports fan or just casual onlooker born between 1980 and 1995 has no ability to put college athletics in the proper perspective because of how prevalent this stuff has been.  Maybe they can be less cynical, but I have no foil.  I have no ability to say “it’s not how it used to be.” And it took a most-likely half-drunk Nick Nolte in a blue sweater to make me realize this.

It made me realize that I have no moral resentment towards anyone who gets caught cheating in college sports.  I’ll take interest in the salaciousness of the story or the particular details, but in the back of my mind – I have yet to find myself angry or disgusted.

I find myself asking the question of “how dumb were they to get caught” more than I say “wow, I didn’t expect that.”

Most of the popular sportswriters and analysts who cover this subject today are of a different generation.  Those who spread across the pages of the major media – print and online – and those who fill up our televisions grew up in a different era.   They grew up without the omnipotence of scandals, cheating, illegal text messages, and returned championships.  They were the children of an age when every recruit, every program, and every season wasn’t mired with suspicion.  They weren’t guilty until proven innocent.  You didn’t have to win a championship and still hold your breath for the five years after to make sure you kept it.

When there is a changing of the guard in the generation of sports personalities, when those born after 1980 become the elder-statesman, we will be a sports media culture that is numb to the cheating.

The men who fill the ranks as big-time college football and basketball coaches are some of the most competitive men you will find anywhere in sports.  And in an atmosphere where there are no drafts, there are no salary caps, and there are more rules you are expected to follow than there are restrictions that you simply can’t get around, they work 24/7 and still have to circumnavigate some of those rules to stay competitive.

This is why no coach is safe.  No record can be perceived too spotless, no closet can be assumed skeleton-free.  Sometimes the ones at the head of the mob with the biggest pitchforks turn out to be Frankenstein themselves.

Frankentressel

This was the case with Pete Bell, and unfortunately in real life it was personified by Jim Tressel. This was a guy who was Pete Bell:  The books about integrity and being honest. The pristine reputation. The national success and the respect of his peers.  The difference – in an obvious way – was that Pete Bell couldn’t morally stomach his actions.  He was sickened by his hypocrisy and he broke down within one season of committing his transgressions. Tressel covered things up for who knows how long and was forced to shamefully resign.

No real-life college coach has ever pulled a Pete Bell before.  Would we love to see this happen? Aboslutely. We view this man as a martyr of sorts, immediately forgive him, and hold the rest of the coaches to this kind of standard.  The pre-SMU generation would respect the old-school morality and the rest of us would appreciate knowing some of these guys actually have a soul.

Until that happens, I’ll go back to the self-sustaining apathy and wait for the next scandal to come down the line.  The only thing that could really surprise or shock me at this point is if I found out that Coach K had his players running a meth lab in the basement of Cameron Indoor (settle down Tarheels, I know you all just went six to midnight).

I’ll continue to be content making jokes about players getting busted and speculating about the teams and coaches I don’t care for.  This stuff has been the same now for two decades and I just realized I have no reason to know any better.  Plausible deniability. Thank you, Nick Nolte.

The LeBron James Rollercoaster

LeBron has a lot riding on his 100th game as a member of the Miami Heat tonight.

It’s not so much just about mental toughness.

Any man who has gone through what LeBron James has had to deal with – or any other professional athlete who has ascended to “superstar” status – has to have some semblance of cerebral fortitude.

It’s not a question of whether LeBron has it or not.  The way arguments seem to be going these days, everyone has to polarize themselves and stand pat on one side or the other.  There is a vast majority of pundits, analysts, and talking heads that handcuff themselves by dealing in absolutes.  Luckily we have Skip Bayless to save us from this “I-can-shout-louder-than-you-about-my-opinion-which-makes-it-better” journalism.

The true measure of greatness – the miniscule difference between championships and excuses – is repetition and consistency.  LeBron James is mentally tough.  We’ve seen it before: Game 5 against the Pistons in 2007 when he scored the final 25 points for the Cavs on his way to a ridiculous 48-9-7.  More recently, we’ve seen it this year against the Celtics and Bulls in the fourth quarter of close-out games.

However, within these dynamic examples of mental toughness are scattered the baffling performances of a superstar who shies away when the spotlight gleams its brightest: the infamous Game 5 against Boston last year in the Eastern Conference Finals and two nights ago in Dallas.

So the question isn’t whether or not LeBron James is mentally tough.  It’s not necessarily one or the other. For LeBron James, as we have found in many different instances, he is both – he’s inconsistent.

LeBron’s decision making has always been questionable. Choosing to allow his childhood friends to be his main representation, choosing to never develop any semblance of a post-up game, choosing to go to Miami, holding an hour-long special to announce that he was going to Miami, for some reason saying “taking my talents to South Beach” when he finally announced it, wearing that heinous white sweater for the State Farm commercials, or sitting down with his legs crossed against the base of the basket when the game was delayed for a spilled drink in Game 3.  Things that make you wonder, “what the hell could he possibly be thinking?”

Jordan was a coldblooded, no-excuses assassin.  Kobe is an asshole.  LeBron is a constant game of mental roulette. You think Jordan would ever take a seat on the court with his legs crossed in the middle of an NBA Finals Game?  Jordan would quit basketball and play another sport before he subjected himself to such childish behavior.

Henry Abbot wrote an article for ESPN.com’s basketball blog “True Hoop” (which he also founded) on May 9th titled “The Meaningless of Playoff Toughness.”

It was written one month ago today – when LeBron was shaking all the criticisms of lacking that killer instinct.  The first of the two distinct LeBron 180s was in full swing.  The second obviously has happened in the last two days. We’re now back where we started.

Abbot’s point was that maybe it’s not so much mental toughness as it is just pure basketball.   LeBron so kindly defecated all over that theory in Game 4.  (Sorry Henry).

Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, who knows LeBron so well I’m almost positive he’s been sleeping under LeBron’s bed for the past eight years described the recent performance like this: “He lapsed into detachment…It wasn’t that James didn’t deliver in a clutch moment. That is excusable. It was that he looked like he didn’t even want to be in the moment.”

Detachment : That was the word I was looking for; thank you Brian.  Not that he has mental toughness or not.  Not that he is or isn’t clutch.  It’s that he removes himself from the situation altogether.

Tonight is LeBron’s 100th game as a member of the Miami Heat.  Not to jump on the hyperbole-laden S.S. Bayless that I have previously admonished, but this is the most important game of his career.

If you saw the totally not-staged-for-TV pregame speech that the ESPN cameras “caught” before Game 4; the one that on the scale of 1 to Drew Brees’ “This is New Orleans” 300 speech came up as about a 2.5, you heard Mr. James say that he felt like “his back was against the wall.”

If that was the case, I’m not even sure what metaphor to use now at the point he’s currently at.  What’s 100 times more than “back against the wall?”

LeBron James is an unpredictable entity.  He is a fascinating array of chemical reactions.  Does he allow Jason Terry and DeShawn Stevenson’s comments to get to him? Did Wade’s scolding hurt his confidence?  Is he happy to pick up the second fiddle and strum quietly in the corner?

If there’s one thing I can be certain of, it’s this: we can’t be certain of anything when it comes to LeBron Raymone James.  So let’s be comfortable with the indecisiveness of our conclusion, get in the LeBron rollercoaster, put your hands up and enjoy the ride.