Cognition & Reality

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Jackie Robinson Day

Filed under: Race,Sports — drtone @ 3:05 pm

Friday night, 15 April, was the anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson became the first Black man to play in a major league baseball game. Before the game, the Dodgers aired a short piece, narrated by Vin Scully, celebrating Robinson’s accomplishments as a player and as a Civil Rights pioneer. It showed, among other things, Robinson stealing home and Robinson signing autographs for adoring fans. Reminding me of my feelings about the current view of Martin Luther King, it did not show, nor so much as mention, the constant abuse Robinson took during his first season, 1947, and subsequently, for having broken baseball’s color bar. The abuse came from fans, but also from his fellow players, many of them Whites from the South. Robinson’s stoic response to this outpouring of hatred made him a hero.

Something is happening to history, and it is not good. As a friend of mine said about leaving out the death threats, etc., that Jackie Robinson faced leaves the frosting and takes away the cake, portraying an empty heroism. To forget about the open bigotry unleashed by Robinson’s debut season, not only detracts from Robinson’s greatness as a man, but also does a disservice to our country, especially to young people, who deserve to know what we were then and how we have changed. In these daze when a person somehow becomes a “hero” for simply being a police officer or soldier, we can’t afford to forget what real heroism requires.

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Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Marijuana: The Point-Shaving Drug

Filed under: Cannabis,Date Rape Drugs,Sports — drtone @ 12:00 pm

They’re not just date rape drugs any more.

In an interview I’m watching about a point-shaving scandal involving players for the University of San Diego and UC, Riverside, once attended by yours truly, the NCAA’s point person for enforcement answered a question about how they investigate such allegations with a nod toward “our contacts with Vegas.” In other words, she does not have any problem consorting with gamblers. The real problem with point shaving is not that it changes who wins basketball games, which it need not. The real problem is that it fucks up the point spread, which hurts gamblers. Consequently, this scandal is not about “the integrity of the game,” as the NCAA rep calls it. It’s about damage to the NCAA’s Vegas contacts.

The scandal indicates the power of gambling and the so-called “gaming industry” in American life. That the fixing of a basketball game (not across state lines) should occasion a federal indictment demonstrates the control gambling interests exercise over our government. Think about it: The point spread is sufficiently sacred that to trespass against it in a game between teams from two obscure schools (sorry UCR!) is deemed a crime against the American people.

A discussion of the scandal on ESPN’s supposedly hard-hitting “Outside the Lines” omitted any serious discussion of the hypocritical partnership between the NCAA and the oddsmakers in Las Vegas, a partnership that appears to be a matter of pride to both parties. One question about the “irony” of talking about the integrity of sport and gambling in the same sentence was directed at the representative of the Las Vegas sports betting association, who of course did not answer it. Much more interest was directed at the question of whether players “need” for money motivates point shaving, and also at the involvement of those indicted with the use and distribution of marijuana. For the interested parties, it would be nice if the public blamed smoking pot for point shaving by college athletes.

Thursday, 31 March 2011

More On Melo Drama

Filed under: Sports — drtone @ 9:44 am

Although I believe the only “power ranking” worth anything is a team’s won-loss record, ESPN now has the Denver Nuggets #2 in their ranking of NBA teams, bolstering my claim that trading Carmelo Anthony made Denver one of the strongest teams in the league. The Nuggets have been tearing up the league since the trade, in contrast to the NY Knicks, who have their fans tearing up their programs. Some of the talking heads are pointing to next season for the trade to pay off for New York, perhaps anticipating that the team will trade Chauncey Billups, and find a point guard who better suits Mike D’Antoni’s run-and-gun coaching style. Strangely, Raymond Felton, whom they traded for Billups, is such a player. There’s always talk of Chris Paul coming to New York as a free agent, raising the question of how many superstars it will take before the Knicks are any good.

It’s as if the Knicks’ management looked at a team that was weak on defense, but had no trouble scoring, and said to themselves, “To make ourselves a true contender, let’s get a great offensive player who does not like defending–and divest ourselves of almost every good defensive player on the team.” To make matters worse, they went to great lengths to acquire Billups, who does happen to play defense well, but is a poor fit with the highly paid, highly respected D’Antoni, himself brought to New York as the Knicks’ savior. Remember, it was the Billups part of the trade that delayed it for so long, because the Nuggets did not want to give up their most popular player. It is a sad irony that, in order to acquire Denver native Billups and in addition to giving up Felton, the Knicks had to trade Danilo Gallinari, the son of D’Antoni’s best friend from his time playing basketball in Italy. The result of this bartering of beloved players is that Billups, one of the finest men in the game, has somehow become the villain of the piece, rather than the childish Anthony or the fools who run the New York Knicks.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Melo Drama Continues: Breen Goes Off

Filed under: Sports — drtone @ 11:51 am
Tags: ,

Recently, I predicted that the New York Knicks’ trade for Carmelo Anthony, which jolted the NBA, would not work out well for the organization. Although I emphasized how much New York gave up in the trade as the main reason it would not work out for the Knicks, I mentioned, as another factor, the heat that would be on Carmelo and the team, because of the attention the trade had drawn and the impatience of the New York fans and press. The nightmare is coming true.

The Knicks, a .500 team overall, fell to 7-9 with a loss to the Boston Celtics Monday night. It was a signature loss, if there is such a thing. Carmelo was dynamite in the first half, but got into early foul trouble, compounded by a stupid foul, giving him four, about midway through the third quarter, forcing him to sit down for several minutes. He never really got back into the game. Meanwhile, the Celtics, behind almost the entire way, won through outhustling the Knicks down the stretch.

The New York media are already in on the discontent. The papers eagerly quoted the remarks of the team’s other superstar, Amar’e Stoudemire, which were deemed to be sideways criticism of Anthony, after the latter blew a potential game-tying basket in a loss Saturday night at Detroit, a losing team. For Stoudemire to express his disappointment barely a month after the trade matches the expectations of many that, on the court or off, the two immature, egotistical stars would get in each other’s way. The Knicks may be only a couple of losses from unraveling. Although New York is almost certain to make the playoffs, owing to the weakness of the teams behind them in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, they seem destined to make an early exit from the post-season, stimulating discontented howls from their fans, and more second-guessing by the talking heads.

Another prediction: Although he may be one of the few players in the NBA capable of steadying the Knicks on the floor and in the locker room, Chauncey Billups will be gone before the start of next season.

During the big game with the Celtics, Knicks announcer Mike Breen took shots at Carmelo. When the home team’s play-by-play announcer is openly critical, consider how bad the feeling is on the street in NYC. Breen’s complaint that Anthony must “change his ways”is absurd: You don’t trade for a veteran superstar expecting him to become  another type of player or even a better player. Anthony, in his eighth year, has established himself as a great offensive player who hogs the ball and who plays defense both indifferently and with indifference. His numbers with the Knicks are in line with those he was posting for Denver, although he has had to share the ball with Stoudemire. Despite the obvious need of the Knicks to spread the ball around more and defend better, Breen’s suggestion that Carmelo become more unselfish and defense-minded is bizarre, at best. It’s not as if the Knicks bought a pig in a poke.

Friday, 18 March 2011

UCLA & The Clock

Filed under: Sports — drtone @ 9:05 am

I haven’t watched college basketball all season. Last year, I didn’t even watch the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, “March Madness,” but this year is different, because I’m at loose ends. As long as I don’t have much to do, I might as well check out the games, right? For many years, I rooted for UCLA, going all the way back to when I first lived in Riverside. Later, my father taught there, which made for another connection. Of course, I’ve always rooted against Michigan State, because I was born on campus at Michigan. Reason enough, right?

There I was yesterday, watching 10th-seeded Michigan State play 7th-seeded UCLA. It was a close game in the first half, but UCLA got out to big lead in the second, as much as 23 points. At just under 10 minutes to go and up by more than 20 points, UCLA should have been milking the 35-second shot clock on every possession. I can’t quite say “by my calculation” they would have won easily doing that, because I’m not sure how to do the calculation. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how, if UCLA were using 25 to 30 or more seconds every time down the court, Michigan State could have caught up, given that UCLA was playing good enough defense to keep State in its half-court offense for at least 15-20 seconds pretty much every time. At that pace, MSU would only have made maybe a dozen trips downcourt to their basket. They would have had to score every time and prevented UCLA from scoring altogether, in order to win. That’s not what happened.

UCLA started to run the clock down, but then  started shooting whenever a player got open. It looked like they were seduced into shooting by some early successes following the decision to slow it down, as players were coming open early in the clock and putting it in the basket. Then they got sloppy. On one possession, UCLA point guard, Malcolm Lee, committed an offensive foul with about 3 seconds on the shot clock. On another possession, at a point when merely keeping the ball probably would have iced the game, he lost the ball through sloppy play. UCLA players were missing open shots. The pace, instead of slowing down, became frenetic, with the teams charging from one end to the other. There was almost no way for that not to work in Michigan State’s favor, and their coach, Tom Izzo, could not hide his gloating. With about four minutes remaining, time stopped. UCLA players kept going to the free throw line and missing. Meanwhile, State scored a few quick, easy baskets. By the weird black magic of basketball, the huge lead became one measly point.

In spite of  Ben Howland’s terrible strategy, if you can call it that, UCLA did manage to pull out a two-point win. I will never understand why Howland did not force his team to take the air out of the ball when they had the chance. He’s a successful coach who has three times taken UCLA to the Final Four. In addition, I was amazed that, while his team’s huge lead dwindled away, none of the announcers were talking about his huge coaching lapse.

I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to hang on to the ball for 30 seconds every time downcourt. The reason UCLA kept going to the line was because of MSU’s desperate defense. On several possessions, however, UCLA would set up high, set screens, and fake toward the basket, as if intending to hold on to the ball, but then they would work toward the basket or take a jump shot. It was the only way that MSU was going to get back into the game and was  frustrating to watch.

Right now, I’m going to see if Michigan, an 8-seed, can beat 9th-seeded Tennessee.

It’s a couple of hours later. Michigan won going away, operating in a style that, coincidentally, drives home the point I made above. With about eight minutes to go in the second half, and up by 20, Michigan began to freeze the ball. On their possessions, they stayed out on the perimeter until, with 10 or 12 seconds on the clock, they would initiate a play. As it happens, of the three or four crucial possessions on which they tried this strategy, they scored on all but one. The clock kept ticking, and Tennessee, desperate for a score, took some ill-advised shots at their end. After only a few trips like that, with Michigan patient and Tennessee wild, it was all over: The clock was down to four minutes and the Wolverines were up by 25. The Michigan coach, John Beilein, understands how to win.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

A Derrick Rose Believer

Filed under: Sports — drtone @ 4:37 pm

I haven’t been this interested in the NBA in a couple of decades. For many years I’ve watched a few NBA games to fill in the gap between football season and baseball season, but this year I’ve watched a lot of pro basketball. The games are, if anything, more exciting than they were at the other time in my life I was a big NBA fan, the 60s to the mid 80s, when I started to lose interest and focus more attention on baseball.

One feature of this season has been the number of guys who have been mentioned as possibilities as the league’s Most Valuable Player. Early in the season, even Lakers’ forward Pau Gasol, a terrific player who is rarely considered one the few best, was in the conversation. And, of course, there’s the actual MVP of the Lakers, Kobe Bryant, who won the league honor three years ago and about whom little need be said, except that, in his fifteenth stellar season, he remains one of the best players at every facet of the game. Dwight Howard, the formidable center of the Orlando Magic, comes under consideration, partly because he’s the best player at his position a time when there are few really good ones in the game, but also because he is a force under the basket on both offense and defense. Early as it is in his career, they’re already clearing space in the basketball hall of fame for Kevin Durant, of Oklahoma City, likely to repeat as scoring champion and clearly one of the great players the game has seen, with athletic grace that must be seen to be believed. The reigning MVP is LeBron James of Miami, who’s won it the last two years, and who has not missed a beat statistically since his defection from Cleveland in what was certainly the most publicized free agency story ever in any American professional sport. Then there’s Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls, in only his third season, yet arguably the league’s best point guard, who has been leading his team to an unexpectedly good record.

The question I always ask about a reigning MVP is, “What has he done to lose the title?” Up until the last week or so, despite the Heat’s up-and-down season, I’d figured that KIng James had done nothing that could de-throne him. Although he’s famously had to share the ball with Dwyane Wade, his numbers are much the same as they were with Cleveland, where the ball was always in his hands. Sure, his points per game are down a little, but what do you expect when there are two other great scoring options on his team, Wade and Chris Bosh, who was also acquired in the off-season in what is turning out to be a failed a bid to make Miami the powerhouse of the Eastern Conference. In addition, there is no better defender in all of basketball than James, whose uncanny athleticism and wondrous knowledge of the game make him able to shut down opposing players at all five positions. Then in the last two or three games, all against the better teams, LeBron has kept his team in it, but has been unable to close out at the end, supposedly his speciality. The other night, against Orlando, he missed a three-pointer that could have tied a game in which the Heat had surrendered a 24-point lead and lost. Then, this afternoon, with 15.9 seconds remaining and the ball in his hands, he could not come up with the game winner on  drive to the basket. Those are the plays an MVP makes, no matter how good the defense is. Period.

Meanwhile, Rose had another outstanding game today, leading his team from behind in the second half to win a hard-fought game against the embattled Heat. The game featured the best play I’ve seen all season: A coast-to-coast, full-speed, ramble by Rose straight up the middle of the court with the equally speedy Wade right with him, ending in a blur of layup, half a step ahead of James, who was coming fast (faster, fastest) for one his patented blocks from behind. In other words, with a combination of athletic ability and the purest skill, Rose beat two of basketball’s best defenders, one of them his main competition for MVP. As mentioned earlier, his Bulls won. Characteristically, in a post-game interview, he blamed himself for almost losing the game because of a turnover with about a minute to go and gave the most touching praise to his teammates for their tenacity.

Up to today, I had been arguing to myself that, although he’s a great player at his position, Rose would be a lot easier to replace than James would be, simply because there are three or four other NBA point guards in the any conversation about who is the best–and perhaps another half dozen after that–in some vague way diluting the value of the position. That’s silly in general and particularly unfair to Rose, who elevates the Bulls from a solid team with good players all around that could certainly expect to win more than lose into the elite few who might expect to win the league championship. He does it with passion, poise and grace. As of now, Rose is my candidate for MVP.

Monday, 28 February 2011

Billups

Filed under: Sports — drtone @ 2:32 pm

After making my entry last night regarding the trade of Carmelo Anthony from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks, I was afraid I had undervalued Chauncey Billups, one of my favorite players, who also went over to the Knicks in the trade. I had. Just now, with a long delay, I watched last night’s Knicks-Heat game, which Billups took over in the last three minutes to win it. He is a difference-maker, and may, after all, be the difference in that trade. Any team with him on it has a chance to win.

Sunday, 27 February 2011

Melodrama Will Have Sad Ending For Knicks

Filed under: Sports — drtone @ 6:29 pm
Tags:

The trading deadline in the NBA brought a number of big trades, but none was bigger than the one that sent Carmelo Anthony, one of the league’s brightest stars, from the Denver Nuggets to the New York Knicks. Anthony’s desire to go the the Knicks had been talked about since last season, and the many recent stops and starts in his journey to the Big Apple have distracted the entire NBA since at least the beginning of January. Now that it’s over, I predict the trade will be a disaster for New York, no matter how well Carmelo performs on Broadway.

The reason I say this is based partly on the outsized expectations placed on a team with two superstars, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire–and no bench–but mostly on an assessment of what Denver received in return for Anthony and the great Chauncey Billups. Anthony is that rare superstar who can score with ease either facing the basket or with his back to it, and score in bundles. Nevertheless, he is a poor defender and something of a head case. Billups, a favorite in his native Denver, is on his way to the Hall of Fame, meaning that he’s far from the player he once was, and was in the middle of a productive but, for him, somewhat down season.

It is notoriously difficult for a team to get value for a star player who is playing out his contract with no intention to remain with the team, as was the Nuggets’ situation in Carmelo Anthony’s case. Nevertheless, in addition to draft choices, they received three players who could start with pretty much any team in the league, and another who could be a significant back-up big man. Wilson Chandler and Danilo Gallinari are both guys who can get you 16 points and 8 rebounds night after night; either can occasionally go off for a lot more, and both are good defenders. Raymond Felton is in the midst of a career year that, although he plays in NYC, has been overlooked on account of the gaudy numbers being put up by some other point guards in a league presently rich in artists at that position. Although no one could replace the leadership of Billups in the short term, Felton will eventually wrest the starter’s role from fellow North Carolina alum Ty Lawson, and could end up being an upgrade from Billups over the long term. Timofey Mozgov has performed well for the Knicks in limited minutes at center, starting over a dozen games for them.

Setting aside some more marginal players involved in the deal, which included a trade-within-a-trade involving Minnesota, Denver got a hell of a lot from the Knicks, who could have signed Carmelo in the off-season without sacrificing a clutch of excellent players had they taken the minor gamble of waiting until then. The Knicks also gave Denver the opportunity to improve itself greatly later on, giving up a first round draft choice this year, as well as second round choices in the two succeeding years. Even if it does not land a superstar with one of those picks, Denver, under George Karl, one of the elite coaches, has a chance to become a team like the league-leading San Antonio Spurs, an efficient unit of excellent players with no superstar. Few trades improve both teams as much as that. Furthermore, unless the Knicks start winning big soon, unlikely considering what they had to give up to get Carmelo, they are in danger of melting down under the megawatt spotlight of the New York media. Time will tell that, having made Denver one of the deepest teams in the NBA, the Anthony trade was too lopsided a deal to have been good for the New York Knicks. The “Melodrama” will turn out to be a tragedy for Knicks fans.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

New Football

Filed under: Sports — drtone @ 3:52 pm

I’m not sure how an entry about pro football figures into either “cognition” or “reality,” but I’m making one of my periodic entries on the subject.

I’ve been watching the National Football League for over 50 years. In that time, the way the game is played has changed a lot, just as much as has everything else about the NFL, the money, the fans, the amount of attention it receives. Now, as we move toward the always over-hyped Super Bowl, on what is usually the best weekend of the season for fans, the “divisional” round of the playoffs, I have some thoughts about the game that I’ve been saving up.

The conservative coaching philosophy that dominated the game thirty years ago has given way to a new style that appears to involve more gambling. What I think has actually happened is that coaches now and always “play the percentages,” but they understand better what those “percentages” are. In the 1970s, under the influence of the much-admired George Allen (father of former Virginia senator George “Macaca” Allen), the emphasis was on minimizing mistakes and winning the game through strong defense. Allen’s “Over-the Hill Gang” Washington Redskins fully exemplified his philosophy of using veteran players and teaching mistake-free football. Like all of Allen’s teams, the ‘Skins played well, but could never quite win it all.

Somewhere along the way, NFL coaches began to realize that, although Allen was on to something in his emphasis on minimizing mistakes, he had missed the overall meaning of mistakes in the flow of the game: If minimizing my own mistakes will often lead to victory, then maximizing my opponent’s mistakes is of at least equal importance. For example, it had long been considered (to use baseball parlance) “bush league” to go after the ball on pass defense or when tackling a runner, but now coaches began to realize that, under some circumstances, going after the ball makes a lot of sense. Turnovers, fumbles and interceptions, it was seen, play a huge role in the outcome of games, because they not only give you the ball, but also deny it to the opponent. Focusing on the cost of losing the football, Allen had turned this recognition into a very conservative form of play. The new coaching philosophy, also cognizant of a turnover’s value, puts more emphasis on taking the ball away.

Now, what you see often see on defense defies the customs of a few decades back, or appears to do so, until you look at the subtleties. Coaches still want to see defensive players tackle the ball carrier, but the second and third men in on a tackle, depending on the first man in to make the tackle, go after the ball. Consequently, you see a lot more plays in which a defensive player attempts to punch the ball out of a runners grasp, or attempts to wrench the ball away. This change requires the defensive player to discriminate between times when stopping the runner (or receiver) is his primary responsibility and times when it is the responsibility of another player, the guy who first grabs hold of the runner. Yes, by focusing more on getting the ball, you reduce the probability somewhat of making the tackle, but you have to figure in the value of recovering a fumble.

Similarly, the second and third pass defenders to reach the point of play tend to go for the ball, although there is also more emphasis on the first defender’s going for an interception. For example, the great Deion Sanders notoriously could not tackle worth a damn, but quarterbacks did not throw in his direction because he was better at finding the ball than the average receiver. Again, by focusing a little more on the ball and less on the receiver, you’re taking a chance, but it’s a chance worth taking, given the value of an interception. In this new style of football, there are a lot more turnovers, or at least a lot more forced turnovers than in the old daze, when a fumble or even an interception was seen primarily as a lucky break, rather than as the result of deliberate effort on the part of the defense.

The same sort of process has taken hold recently in regard to situations when it is fourth down and short yardage. George Allen, and every other coach of his era, would grimace at the number of times contemporary coaches go for a first down on fourth-and-one or fourth-and-two. For years, I would marvel in disgust as coaches, failing to pick up a first on short yardage inside the opponent’s 40-yard-line, but outside “field goal range” (roughly the 30-yard-line), would punt the ball. As often as not, the punted ball would end up in the end zone for a touchback, bringing the ball back out to the 20, meaning that the punt would net less than twenty yards. Sometimes, they’d try a field goal from, say, the 35, although a miss would mean that the opponent would get the ball where it was spotted for the kick, seven yards behind the line; in the case of a missed kick from the 35, this would give the ball to the other team at their own 42, excellent starting field position. Coaches acted this way because they focused more or less solely on the negative, the cost of giving up the ball outside the opponent’s 30-yard-line, and on the cost of giving up an opportunity to score on a long field goal.

Nowadays, coaches  have seen the light. The often go for it when it’s fourth and short at, say, the opponent’s 35-yard-line. The worse case scenario is that, following a failed fourth down try, the other team receives the ball at their own 35, not a good outcome, but something that’s not hard to live with, given the big payoff if you made a first down fairly deep in the opponent’s territory. They have also recognized the huge cost associated with trying a long field goal, except late in the game when it’s the only chance of winning. In other words, coaches have begun to focus more on both sides of the equation, balancing how much it hurts to fail against how much it helps to succeed. They go for it more often now because they’ve realized that, gamble though it may seem, it’s actually the “safe” play.

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