What Pete Newell doesn’t know about basketball could fill a book.
Of course, it would be one of those inch-high, wafer-thin titles sold at the Barnes & Noble sales counter, canonical masterworks such as “Finding Your Inner Goddess” and “You’re the Best” (no, really you are).
A Hall of Fame coach and legendary hoops guru, Newell is a Trevi-shaming fountain of basketball knowledge. Ask him about Wizards forward Kwame Brown, and he’ll give you a 10-minute dissertation on post offense.
Still, there’s one question that stumps even Newell: Namely, why is it that nobody teaches or uses the skyhook, an unstoppable shot that helped make Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the NBA’s all-time leading scorer?
“I had a clinic four years ago, and I asked [about 200 coaches], ‘Would Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, with that great skyhook of his, have any opportunity to shoot that shot within the parameters of your offense?’” Newell said. “Not one person raised their hand.
“You know what that told me? If Kareem went to their school, and he liked basketball, he would have ended up as a manager.”
Like Newell, we don’t have all the answers. In fact, what we don’t know about sports could fill a book and by book, we mean Encyclopedia Britannica, Vols. 1-32.
However, in the interest of brevity and selling more ads we’ll limit ourselves to a page. Herein, some of the sports world’s most puzzling unsolved mysteries:
Barry Sanders walked away. In his prime. Just 1,458 yards short of the NFL’s career rushing record. With more than $30million of salary and endorsements still on the table.
And unlike the great Jim Brown, he didn’t have a part in “Rio Conchos” waiting for him.
Sanders always was elusive probably the shiftiest runner since Gayle Sayers. But in announcing his sudden and unexpected retirement in 1999 at age 31, the former Detroit halfback set a new standard in here-and-gone hocus-pocus.
First, Sanders faxed the Wichita Eagle not the Lions, not the NFL a vague announcement stating “my desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to stay in it.” Next, he jetted off to Europe; cornered by reporters at England’s Gatwick Airport, he said that football was “not as fun” and that “I’ve been battling for the last few years; as I’ve gotten older, the game has changed in my mind.”
Since then, Sanders has declined all interview requests. Why did he quit? No one, not even his family, really knows. Sanders’ father, William, recently told Sports Illustrated, “I don’t know what’s up with Barry … he’s a mystery man.” We couldn’t agree more.
Seven seasons of HBO’s “Arli$$”
Imagine this: a sharkish (no!), shameless (can’t be!), semi-scrupulous (you don’t say!) sports agent with a heart for gold (get out of here!) navigates the precarious-yet-hilarious waters of his profession (oh, how delightfully wicked!).
Sound like a winning half-hour of television to you?
Us neither. Yet somehow, HBO’s magically unfunny “Arli$$” managed to stay on the air for seven seasons even with uber-annoying actor Robert Wuhl in the title role (a sports mystery all its own, come to think of it).
Despite weekly cameos from real-life sports stars such as Dwayne Schintzius, “Arli$$” get it? Agents like dollar signs failed to amuse largely because it sent up a profession prone to self-parody. Take a typical plot line from the show: Arliss lines up a big heavyweight fight. One of the boxers is imprisoned. Arliss convinces the governor and HBO to go on with the bout … live, from the state penitentiary!
Not exactly cutting-edge satire. Unless you live in a cave that doesn’t get cable. Or have never heard of Don King.
Still, “Arli$$” enjoyed a run to rival the ballyhooed “Sex and the City,” replacing the vastly superior “Mr. Show” along the way. We can only assume that the same viewers who carried “Coach” into syndication are behind the show’s undeserved longevity.
The term “strike” in baseball
Talk about counterintuitive. Given that the only striking going on is between the ball and the catcher’s glove and not between the bat and ball why not call a strike something else?
Like, say, a “miss?”
According to Skip McAfee, editor of “The New Dickson Baseball Dictionary,” the roots of the term “strike” are vague. Baseball historian John Thom speculates that because the terms “batter” and “striker” were once synonymous and the term “successful strike” is too unwieldy to describe a hit, players took to calling strikes “hits” and misses “strikes.”
Which just about explains it. Just about.
A.C. Green, NBA Virgin
We’re not inclined to buy it. But frankly, why would he lie? Until he married at the age of 38, former NBA ironman A.C. Green abstained from sexual intercourse making him the second-most famous virgin in sports (following Anna Kournikova, of course) and setting a mark that figures to endure long after his record of playing in 1,192 straight games is surpassed.
“It is definitely worth waiting,” Green recently told Good Morning America. “When you marry the right person at the right time you have no regrets. For me, I have nothing but smiles on my face.”
We bet. Still, the mystery here isn’t so much what Green did, but rather how he managed to pull it off (and really, no pun intended).
After all, Green was tall, rich, athletic. Not to mention unspoiled. He played in a glamour league (pro hoops) for a glamour team (the Lakers) in a glamour town (Los Angeles). In short, we doubt he was lacking for amorous opportunities, anymore than, say, Hugh Hefner.
Yet to hear Green tell it, holding off on sex was about as tough as remembering to brush his teeth before bed.
“It was harder waiting for the NBA championship than for the marriage to take place,” he said.
So what was his secret? Self-discipline? Sublimation? Spectravision? In the end, only Green knows.
After all, it’s not like we can ask Shawn Kemp or anything.
Elgin Baylor’s gainful employment
How’s this for a resume? Seventeen years as Los Angeles Clippers VP of basketball operations. Two playoff appearances. First-round selections such as Terry Dehere and Bo Kimble.
Admittedly, team owner Donald Sterling isn’t big on spending money. Or winning. And say this for Baylor: He’s probably an improvement over Sterling’s wife, who once ran the team.
But not by much.
Brady Anderson’s 50 home runs
Improbable. Incredible. Inexplicable. How else to describe Anderson’s 50-homer outburst in 1996, a feat that remains remarkable even in today’s overpowered game?
Granted, the Orioles center fielder was a talented ballplayer, a former jewel of the Red Sox farm system and the first American Leaguer to tally 20 HR, 50 steals and 75 RBI in a single season. But 50-tater talented? No way.
Anderson’s power surge came out of the blue: In his three previous seasons, he hit 41 homers combined. It vanished just as quickly, too, as he hit just 18 HR the next year and never hit more than 24 in another season.
Some speculated that the addition of No.2 batter Robby Alomar gave Anderson better pitches to hit. Others argued that the cozy dimensions at Camden Yards played a part (even though Anderson hit 31 of his dingers in away games). Most noted his buffed-up physique, the result of a demanding offseason weightlifting program.
For his part, Anderson seemed as baffled as everyone else.
“I always had the ability to hit home runs for two or three weeks at a time,” he said at the time. “But I never sustained it like this year. When you do, the homers really add up.”
Even when the numbers don’t.
Disney has asked us to swallow a lot of patooie over the years: Wisecracking genies, talking candelabras, ducks who wear shirts but not pants. But nothing not even the Mighty Ducks (the team and the trilogy) has required a more willing suspension of disbelief than the canine hoopster “Air Bud.”
Granted, the film’s box art shows Buddy the Dog throwing down a jam with his adorable little paws. But c’mon are we really supposed to believe that a non-cartoon pooch could hold his own in a five-on-five junior high basketball game, let alone lead his squad to a championship? Especially when he learned the game from an abusive professional clown?
Please. Everyone knows that clowns can’t play basketball. Former Wizards center Gheorghe Muresan excluded.
In fact, the only thing more ludicrous than a shot-calling LeBron Lassie would be a pooch in shoulder pads, running pass patterns and catching touchdowns with his teeth (oops that’s “Air Bud II: Golden Receiver”). Or a dog training with the U.S. women’s soccer team (“Air Bud III: World Pup”). Or a dog playing baseball by holding a bat in his jaws (“Air Bud IV: Seventh Inning Fetch”).
A USA Today critic dubbed the original film “dull but harmless.” On the second count, we beg to differ.
Steve Nash’s hair
Nash can’t explain it. In fact, the mop-topped and that’s putting it kindly Dallas Mavericks point guard doesn’t even like to talk about his unconventional ‘do.
“This is just how my hair is,” Nash said last year. “I don’t take care of it, or comb it, or put anything in it, or style it or anything.”
That much is obvious. Less clear is the inspiration for Nash’s Wookie-like cut. Is it a salute to wet dogs? An ode to the bygone era of shag carpeting? A nod to Khan’s son in “Star Trek II?”
“It’s Steve’s way of saying that although he is an NBA All-Star, there is more to him than his stats on the court,” Mavericks owner Mark Cuban once told reporters. “His hair says it all.”
Maybe so. But we still don’t know what to call it.
“Rock ‘n’ Roll, Part II”
Of all the stadium-worthy sports anthems out there, why is Gary Glitter’s ode to hand-clapping the people’s choice? Why not Queen’s “We Are the Champions” or “We Will Rock You?” Why not Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration?”
Why not something else anything else from ESPN’s “Jock Jams,” volumes 1-5?
Sure, Glitter’s tune has been challenged on occasion most notably by “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” “Whoomp, There It Is!” and the infectiously evil “Who Let the Dogs Out.” But like Fidel Castro, “Part II” has stood the test of time, an El Commandante among las canciones.
Stranger still, Glitter himself real name: Paul Gadd is decidedly unappealing, a pudgy goof dismissed by one English music critic as “the world’s largest chromium jelly.”
Then there’s the really bad stuff: Once jailed in England on child pornography charges, Glitter was recently deported from Cambodia after being detained for suspected sex offenses. Which is something to consider the next time you’re shouting “Hey!” Or picking up an R. Kelly album, for that matter.
Say did we mention “I Believe I Can Fly?”
Gifted young musicians are paid for their work. Talented young actors are allowed to appear in commercials. Prodigious young writers not that we know any are free to accept prize money.
Outstanding young athletes, on the other hand, aren’t allowed to dip into the cookie jar of our free market economy. Not unless they turn “professional.” Otherwise, they’ll be sullying the integrity of sports … which is somehow different than every other field of human endeavor.
Makes a lot of sense to us. LeBron James, too.
A potential WNBA strike
Yes, it would be nice if WNBA players got a raise. We’d like one, too (and really, who wouldn’t?).
What we don’t understand and hence, the mystery here is where the They-Got-Nexters will be getting their leverage in any forthcoming labor-management dispute.
Most WNBA clubs exist as money-losing subsidies of individual NBA owners. Two teams folded in the offseason (a third may follow). The players don’t exactly have another league to defect to. And the networks could easily replace their WNBA summer programing with, say, dog shows and strongman competitions.
Doesn’t sound like a strong bargaining position, does it? (You can put your hand down, Ms. Burk).
Again, we’re all for a bigger piece of the pie. But asking for a slice and being able to take one are two different things.
Baseball managers wearing uniforms
Are they actually planning to hit the field and play? More importantly, are pinstripes really the most-flattering look for a group of guys who mostly resemble New York Yankees bench coach Don Zimmer?
(Coincidentally, Bobby Valentine once managed a game for the Texas Rangers while wearing wristbands, sunglasses and eye black, which is kind of like Mike Dukakis putting on a tank helmet. Wonder if Dubya was amused?).
Monica Seles’ place in history
She’s as great as they come in women’s tennis nine Grand Slams, three year-end championships, more than 50 singles titles. But how much greater would Seles have been if not for a single crazed spectator?
From 1990 to 1993, Seles ruled the women’s game, capturing eight of 12 majors. Ranked No.1 and coming off a win at the 1993 Australian Open, the then-teenager seemed on the cusp of prolonged dominance.
That April, however, everything changed. German stalker Guenter Parche attacked Seles during a changeover at a match in Hamburg, stabbing her in the back with a knife.
Badly hurt and shaken to the core, Seles missed the next two years of play. She returned a lesser player, winning just one Slam (the 1996 Aussie) since 1995.
Meanwhile, Steffi Graf went on to win four Slams during Seles’ absence and seven more after her return, establishing herself and not Seles as the dominant player of the 1990s.
The incredible disappearing bullpen car
If Major League Baseball wants to speed up its games, then why did it get rid of it?
In the entire history of organized athletic competition, has crying, carping or going flat-out crazy over a call ever accomplished anything? Besides incurring a subsequent ejection and/or technical foul?
If the point of post-whistle blubbering is to have the call overruled, then athletes and coaches are wasting their time. Refs don’t change calls. At least not for that.
Likewise, if the object of rushing onto the court, smacking your forehead and screaming like a Tourette’s-afflicted loon is to persuade the officials to see things your way in the future, then folks like Indiana basketball coach Mike Davis are going about it all wrong.
Consider Michael Jordan, no stranger to the occasional kind whistle. When the Washington Wizards forward berates a ref, he does so in unobtrusive fashion, pulling his jersey over his mouth.
The reason? Officials hate to be shown up. More than that, they detest attention after all, anonymity is every ref’s goal, the mark of a job well done.
As such, it’s highly unlikely that officials will ever reward histrionic attempts to embarrass them. To the contrary, one might expect them to punish such behavior, either through additional fouls or forthcoming, er, “missed” calls.
Besides, incessant bitching can foster a haggard countenance, a laughably conspiratorial mindset and atmosphere of “JFK”-shaming paranoia around your team. And who wants to end up like Miami Heat coach Pat Riley?
Jason Sehorn, NFL poster boy
He is the Ed McMahon of the sports world a player whose mysterious fame seems to stem from being famous, a Mobius strip of baffling ubiquity.
In nine seasons with the New York Giants, Sehorn has never made the Pro Bowl. He was fricasseed in his only Super Bowl appearance (by Baltimore’s Brandon Stokely in 2000). His signature achievements are a single standout year (1997) and one memorable play (his juggling, tipped-ball pick against Philadelphia in the 2000 playoffs).
Nevertheless, Sehorn is one of football’s best-known and most popular players. Is it his handsome mug? His marriage to model-turned-actress Angie Harmon? The fact that he proposed on the “Tonight Show?” The sheer dint of playing in the world’s media capital?
Whatever the answer, this much is certain: There isn’t another NFL player who could open New York’s fashion week as Sehorn did last year with as much elan. Except maybe Deion.
“The Superstars” as a measure of athletic supremacy
Three things to consider about the made-for-television extravaganza:
1. The tournament is held in Jamaica. At a resort.
2. Among the 10 events that make up the competition? Jet-Ski racing.
3. Past champions include pro water skier Wayne Grimditch (1978), footballer Mark Gastineau (1985) and, of course, Sehorn (1998-2000).
The Steelers’ one-sided helmet logo
Believe it or not, some questions actually have answers. Like this one.
According to the online library at About.com, the Steelers’ distinctive logo was originally applied to the right side of the helmet because an equipment manager was unsure how it would look on the team’s solid gold helmets.
When the Steelers switched to black helmets, the team stuck with the look, largely because the Steel Curtain was kicking butt and management didn’t want to mess with a good thing. To this day, Pittsburgh remains the only NFL team with a one-sided helmet logo.
As for why the club ever sported solid gold, Notre Dame-wannabe helmets in the first place? Hey your guess is as good as ours.