By Micheal Ives

Mick Durham is turning around the Alaska Nanooks men’s basketball team.  Last season was the first time since 2006 that the team broke double-digits in wins, let alone finish with a winning record.  In those 5 years of play, including Durham’s inaugural 2011-12 season at UAF with an inherited team, the Nanooks were 33-97 (winning .254%).  Even more painful was conference play as the ‘Nooks during that period had only 16 GNAC wins in 82 contests.

The 2012-13 Nanooks under Coach Durham were a different, brilliant breed.  They finished the year 16-12 overall (winning .571%) and were 10-8 in GNAC action.  They famously knocked off the reigning DII champion Western Washington Vikings and gained their first ticket to GNAC postseason play (on the same evening, in fact).  WWU came into Fairbanks with a title belt, an unbeaten season record of 24-0, and a 30-game win streak…and left shocked by a 77-73 Nanook bullying.

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GCI Alaska Invitational 2012 Champs.
photo credit- uafcornerstone.net

Here are three reasons why the 2013-14 Nanooks can be the GNAC’s top squad:

  1. Top-Notch Coaching
  2. A Roster Built for Success
  3. Taking Advantage of Conference Turnover
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photo credit- uafsunstar.com

Top-Notch Coaching

I’m a big Mick Durham fan.  I believe he is overqualified for his current position and could easily be coaching a winning DI program somewhere.  But he chose the Nanooks.  And UAF fans should be stoked he did.

Durham is a former point guard (4th all-time in assists and FT% at Montana State) and has a wealth of top-level coaching experience.  He coached at his alma mater for 16 seasons, notching a Big Sky Conference record 246 wins and winning the conference Coach of the Year award three times (1996, 2002, and 2005).  He also led the MSU Bobcats to a pair of Big Sky titles and a birth in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.  Mick went March Madness (falling to the Syracuse Orange).

Coach Durham went 5-23 his first year at UAF with a team he inherited from former HC Clemon Johnson.  In year two, Durham gutted the team (returning only 3 athletes) and recruited a team that made one of the biggest turnarounds in DII hoops history.  Yep, Coach Durham is a fantastic recruiter, as well.  Mick not only excels in basketball knowledge (I can personally attest to his being a hoops nerd, respectfully), but also is a great communicator.  This helps him in teaching and conveying skills on the hardwood and in drawing quality student-athletes to the program.  Coach Durham has the knowledge and personality to create a winning atmosphere…something the UAF hoops program was in desperate need of.

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photo credit- alaskananooks.com

A Roster Built for Success

The Nanooks projected starting lineup is scary and gorgeous.

  • PG- Pat Voeut  (Sr.)
  • SG- Ronnie Baker  (Sr.)
  • SF- Stefan Tica  (Sr.)
  • PF- Andrew Kelly  (Sr.)
  • C-  Sergej Pucar  (Sr.)

That’s right.  Five seniors starting for the ‘Nooks.  Dom Brinson and his team-leading 12.4 ppg are gone, but Alaska returns 46.7 ppg with Voeut, Baker, Tica, Kelly, and Pucar.

Pat Voeut is an unassuming ball-a-holic who burst onto the GNAC scene as one of Mick Durham’s big signings last year.  After winning a couple Red Lion GNAC Player of the Week awards in 2012, Voeut slowed slightly as the season progressed but finished well enough to earn an Honorable Mention selection to the All-Conference team.  Voeut was second to Brinson in team scoring with 11.5 ppg while leading the team in assists (150) and steals (46).  His 5.4 assists-per-game were second in the GNAC and his 1.6 steals-per-game placed him third.  He was also Top-25 in scoring.  While opposing defenses seemed to find ways to slow and frustrate Voeut as last season wore on, this year finds him with teammate chemistry and a leadership role that can only advance his production.  If Pat Voeut can overcome his random dips in confidence and letting game frustrations show in his on-court play…the sky is the limit for Voeut and this Nanook team.

Ronnie Baker has the size and strength at the 2-guard spot that coaches on all levels drool over.  This coming season is Baker’s chance to become a Bankstown hero.  A versatile player, Baker was Top-10 in GNAC steals (1.3 spg) and had 13 double-digit scoring games to go with a few double-digit rebound contests.  Baker can do it all on the court (hit the three, attack off the dribble, post smaller SG’s, play tough defense, rebound) but must learn to do it all with just a bit more control and finesse.  He has periods of explosiveness that are nearly unstoppable…followed by bouts of mental letdown and lacking attention to detail.  Baker has the talent to be a nightmare for opponents on both ends, and I think this is the year we see it all start to come together for Mr. Baker.  Finding the right times to strike…and knowing when to defer and not do “too much” will dictate his future success.  With an increase in playing time and a bigger role, the kid from Vallejo, California will be given the opportunity to shine.  He will.

Stefan Tica.  Oh, Stefan Tica.  Super smart guy (named Dr. Wood Scholar-Athlete).  Super streaky shooter.  Tica came into 2012-13 as a preseason All-GNAC pick.  Cold shooting and a lack of confidence found Tica sliding into a new role on the team.  Coach Durham moved Tica to a sixth-man role, having Stefan as the first player off the bench and responsible for adding a scoring punch to the bench unit.  His scoring average dropped from 14.6 ppg in his sophomore campaign, to 8.6 ppg off the bench as a junior.  Tica has a a chance to make back up that 6 ppg, and then some, as he returns to a starting role as a senior and leader of this team.  Tica, when on, is deadly.  He has a quick trigger and can fire effectively while coming off multiple screens both on and off-ball.  He must find a way to keep the shooter’s confidence that every time he fires…it’s going down.  He can expand his game and make this UAF team that much nastier if he can maintain defensive focus and intensity while finding ways to benefit the squad when NOT sinking distance looks.  If Stefan can add a reliable dribble-drive/separation move and know to move the rock to his teammates when defenses start focusing on chasing him down, than everyone improves.

Andrew Kelly is my favorite player on this team.  Not just because we both attended the little Community College in the desert (Chandler-Gilbert CC in Arizona), but because he does all the things that make coaches and hoops nerds, well…nerd out!  Kelly scored 7 ppg while leading the Nanooks in rebounding and blocked shots with 6.9 rpg and 33 blocks, respectively.  Kelly did this in only 22 minutes-per-game of action in a reserve role.  It is how Kelly uses his size that makes him so deadly.  At 6’7″ he has the quickness and agility to make life tough on the opposition.  He uses his basketball smarts to know where and when to be in order to make big plays.  He ups the ante on defense, a sensation that was palpable in the Patty Center every time he touched the floor last year.  While most of the other Nanooks need to rein it in a bit and make smarter decisions, Kelly actually needs to be a bit more selfish to help the ‘Nooks.  He shot 60% from the field last year, and 70% from the free throw line, which screams for more usage and attempts.  Kelly keeps his stellar FG% by contributing put-back buckets at the rim and routinely beating the opponents down court on the break.  However, his game can be much more than that as Kelly has the ability to step out and hit the mid-range jumper, as well as the handles and speed to abuse defending PF’s with a quick assault to the hoop.  If any player is going to make huge strides this season and really surprise folks around the GNAC, it’s Andrew Kelly.  We won’t be all too surprised.

There is nothing nicer in college basketball than having a dominant center with actual big-man size.  The Nanooks Sergej Pucar is that guy!  At 6’11” and a stout 265 lbs. Pucar creates match-up problems every time he pulls on the Alaska jersey.  Apart from his obvious size and strength, Pucar brings some “Euro-big” style play to UAF as he combines a high hoops IQ with a shooting stroke uncommon in men of his size and lumbering look.  Averaging 10.8 ppg and 6.6 rpg last season, Pucar was actually the ‘Nooks best 3-pt shooter (knocking down 33 on the year at a 42% clip).  When Sergej is hitting from distance, the entire court opens up for Alaska and other players take advantage.  Pucar is also an underrated passer and defender.  He can find open cutters and shooters from the high-post and beams passes ambidextrously for open looks at the bucket.  Defensively, the addition of Kelly next to him in the lineup makes this a fearsome frontcourt.  Kelly’s speed, defensive acuity, and hustle will fit perfectly with Pucar down low.  Expect quite a few thunder rejections thanks to some help defense in the paint.  Pucar’s weakness was on display in the home UAA loss from last year. In a game that UAF was controlling, the constant pesky defense of the Seawolves finally frustrated Pucar to the point of losing control.  He elbowed a UAA player in the face, drawing a technical foul and effectively flipping the game’s momentum.  UAA would cruise on to the win.  Sergej has to understand that being a big man in hoops isn’t easy (ask Shaq about hacks!) and that every team that squares off with UAF knows their best option to “quiet” Pucar is by trying to shake his mental focus.  As a senior this coming season, Sergej will be ready and prepared (and have the teammates to back him) to punish opponents and keep THEM frustrated in Fairbanks.

The bench depth this coming season will be different and diverse…and could take a bit of steadying early before the ship is smoothly underway.  Returning senior PF Dallen Bills brings back his bruising play and 6’5″ and 210 lbs. of strength around the hoop.  New recruits from the junior and community college ranks include junior guards Rashaad Allen and Joe Slocum.  Allen, who went to high school in California with Nanooks starter Ronnie Baker, lit up the junior college level with 12.4 ppg and drilled 42% of his 3-pt attempts.  The precision shooting of Allen will fit nicely with Slocum’s unselfish play.  Slocum at 6’3″ has nice size for the position, and his 2.8 assist/turnover ratio is promising.  Former West Valley HS star John Renfro returns to Fairbanks after two years with DI Southern Utah.  Renfro will be asked to use his 6’7″ frame with Bills in the paint to spell the Kelly/Pucar frontcourt.  Finally, 6’1″ guards Cody Pierson (Soph.) and Damon Cikanek (Fr.) will have chances to contribute in spurts and earn more playing time.  Pierson played well in very limited minutes last year, become something of a crowd favorite, and Cikanek hails from Anchorage’s Dimond HS where he led the team with 19 ppg and was named 4A First Team All-State.

Five returning seniors in the starting lineup who should have nice chemistry.  An unselfish point guard who is one of the best players in the conference.  A handful of deadly outside shooters and shot-creators.  Throw in a defensive anchor and a “do-it-all-and-more” center with size and strength.  Yep, this Nanook team has a chance to be really tough.

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photo credit- gnacsports.com

Taking Advantage of Conference Turnover

The GNAC is arguably the strongest DII conference in the country.  However, after a two year run by Western Washington that saw them claim the 2012 DII National Championship and a 2013 DII Final Four appearance, the GNAC is ripe for the picking in 2013-14 thanks to many of the impact players moving on.

With studs John Allen and Paul Jones leaving WWU, the Vikings find themselves with a solid team but far from the dominant team of the previous 2 years.  Fellow GNAC 2013 First Teamer Jarrell Crayton leaves MSU-Billings and we will get to see some new sheriffs in town.

I believe that three teams this year can challenge the Nanooks for GNAC supremacy:

  • Seattle-Pacific has a formidable “Big 3″ in senior (2013 GNAC First Team) guard David Downs, senior forward Patrick Simon, and junior guard/forward Riley Stockton.  They play well-coached, high IQ basketball, but could struggle this year against the size and versatility of Alaska’s Sergej Pucar.  Simon and a 6’8″ starting center will be tasked with containing the big guy from inside and out…and keeping him off the glass.  Good luck.  This team will miss the 6’11” and 255 lbs. bulk of Andy Poling around the rim and the deadeye shooting/explosive scoring of Jobi Wall.
  • Central Washington has likely the best player in the GNAC this coming season in senior guard Mark McLaughlin.  In his inaugural GNAC season, the 6’6″ McLaughlin destroyed his way to a conference First Team selection and averaged almost 23 ppg.  He teams with Dom Williams and Kevin Davis to make the WIldcats a worthy opponent.  How far can McLaughlin take this team?
  • While we still don’t know what the heck Seawolves even are (sorry….had to), we do know that they seem to have our number on the hardwood as of late.  Star guard Kyle Fossman returns with fellow guard Teancum Stafford as UAA’s top scorers from last season.  However, the Seawolves will have to make up for the losses of “do-it-all” guy Abebe Demissie and their only true, experienced big in 6’11” Liam Gibcus.  There goes their size and their 1st and 3rd leading rebounders from 2012-13 (and 3rd and 4th leading scorers).  I believe fully that UAF has a better complete team and should beat UAA this year, but those ‘Wolves have found ways to beat the ‘Nooks both at home and in the Patty Center.  Back to Sergej Pucar’s mental breakdown mentioned earlier in this piece and his game-changing elbow against UAA last year, this Anchorage team has found a way to get under the Nanooks fur and create wins.  They are very well-coached and the Nanooks will have to improve their mental toughness to reverse this trend.
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photo credit- gnacsports.com

The 2013-14 Nanooks men’s basketball season kicks off November 8th at the Patty Center.  Let’s see if the reigning GNAC Coach of the Year can lead this talented Nanooks squad, and the hoops program, to the promised land.

By Micheal Ives

Image from 5toolplayers.com

Image from 5toolplayers.com

Baseball scouts are always looking for the elusive “5-tool-player”.  Prospects rarely attain this status in big-league play, but those who do become leaders, All-Stars, and Hall of Famers.  Legends like Willie Mays, Andre Dawson, Barry Bonds, and Ken Griffey Jr. are the picture of a 5-tool-player.  Current studs like Mike Trout, Matt Kemp, Bryce Harper, and Ryan Braun fit the bill.  Proven by the sands of time, scouts still search and dream of finding these gems in the crowd come draft time.  So with the NBA Playoffs coming down to Conference Finals time, and the NBA draft looming…this basketball nerd has decided to look into the 5-tool-player in the NBA.  The results are (not really) shocking, but may cause the casual hoops fan to cry foul.

First, what are the “tools”?  Well, in baseball we are talking about the ability be impactful at:

  1. Hitting for Power
  2. Hitting for Average
  3. Fielding Ability (glove)
  4. Throwing Ability (power, accuracy)
  5. Baserunning (speed, steals, smarts)

So here is my basketball “5-tools” translation:

  1. Scoring Ability  (can you put pressure on the opponents on offense?)
  2. Rebounding Ability  (are you an asset on the boards at your position?)
  3. Defensive Ability  (can you regularly check the opponent across from you?)
  4. Passing Ability  (can you facilitate and make those around you better?)
  5. Will/Desire  (do you have the guts, the passion, the confidence to be great?)

With the draft lottery right around the corner, and draft night coming up June 27th, it’s time for NBA scouts to be applying these very criteria to the crop of incoming 2013-14 NBA rookies.  Your favorite NBA team’s future depends on it (trust me, I’m a Charlotte Bobcats fan…I have seen pain and cruel punishment).

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Image from CBS Sports

Before we talk abut the youngsters, let us look at these current NBA Playoffs to see just how important the true 5-tool-player is to hopes of an NBA title.  The easiest example of this type of player is reigning champion and MVP LeBron James.  He has fit every category above (had to prove a couple!) and has the resume and awards to show for it.  But even outside of a freak like King James, there is another Eastern Conference comparison currently on display.  The Indiana Pacers up 3-1 in their series over the New York Knicks.  Both teams feature All-Star small forwards in the Pacer’s Paul George and NYK’s Carmelo Anthony.  George is a young and climbing player.  He was the 10th pick in the 2010 draft and got his first All-Star nod this season.  Carmelo Anthony has been widely regarded as a Top-10 or Top-5 player for almost a decade now after being chosen 3rd overall in the 2003 draft.  Melo is the much more widely known and touted athlete, but I’m here to tell you that Paul George is the better player.  His postseason success will be a testament versus the numerous and continued failures of Melo-led teams come crucial playoff time.  Let’s look at the tools.

If you are scouting Paul George, you have 5 checked boxes.  The young guy can score (led this team with Danny Granger out…17 ppg on 42% FG, 36% 3pt FG, and 81% FT).  He can rebound amazingly for his position (7.6 rpg).  He is a fantastic defender who creates havoc with his length and athleticism (1.7 spg, 0.6 bpg, All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team, led NBA with 6.3 defensive win shares).  He passes unselfishly and within the system (4 apg).  And he seems to have the fire to be great.  George led his team in scoring and steals, was 2nd in assists, and 3rd in rebounds.  He is the 2012-13 NBA Most Improved Player and went from being a young complimentary piece to being the leader of a team making a run for the NBA Finals.

Carmelo gets buckets.  Heck yeah.  He really does.  When he is on fire, he is like no other.  I could watch him play all day.  Unless I was a Knicks fan….then I would end up jumping out of windows several times weekly.  Let’s look back at the tools.  Melo is a GREAT scorer.  Top 2 in the game, in my mind, with one Kevin Durant.  He led the NBA in scoring this season (28.7 ppg).  His rebounding numbers are solid (6.9 rpg).  His passing ability leaves a bit to be desired, not only in the stats (2.6 apg) but also to the eye test.  He just doesn’t have a natural knack for facilitating.  Even when he is drawing double and triple teams, he has struggled to find and correctly set up his open teammates.  His defensive numbers show a shortcoming as well (0.8 spg, 0.5 bpg) that is also visually evident on the hardwood.  He has the length and physicality to be a good defender, but just seems lost, disinterested, or tired when playing “the other half” of the court.  Carmelo has a will and confidence..he is a great closer and there might be no one better in the game to take a last-shot…but there is something missing in that area too.  He has not yet understood that no matter how great he is in one facet of the game, he must improve the others to be legendary (and win titles).

Melo isn’t the only guy designed that way.  Not even close.  The league is full of them.  And like Melo, most are highly-contributing players on their teams.  You can think of guys like JR Smith, Jamal Crawford, Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings, Eric Gordon, Rudy Gay, JR (Isaiah) Rider (you still out there buddy?!?) that fit the mold.  But they rarely, if ever, are important cogs on championship teams.  Yet players in the Paul George mold (King James, Dwayne Wade, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Marc Gasol, Tayshaun Prince, etc.) and their squads soldier on into the Conference Finals.

So back to the draft.  But first let’s look at the prior NBA draft.  Did scouts and teams notice and go after 5-tool-players?  Yessir!  Picks #1 and #2 were both attempts at finding that guy.  Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist were selected because of the their ceilings for 5-tool-domination.  The Hornets/Pelicans and Bobcats selected young athletes with 4 of the 5 boxes checked.  They were the same boxes for both…defense, rebounding, passing, and desire.  Both had proven their will power in leading the Kentucky Wildcats to the NCAA title as 18-19 year old freshmen.  The only slight question in their abilities was scoring the rock (more MKG than Davis).  One think NBA staff have found is that it seems easier to coach a young player up to being a impactful offensive player, than it is to coach up the other ares (especially desire and defense).  Even the the Wizards pick at #3 (Bradley Beal) has a chance to be a 5-tool-player.  From there we saw “specialists” move in the draft.  Players like Dion Waiters and Harrison Barnes went to the Cavaliers and Warriors, respectively.  Barnes’ case is a good one to assess due to his current play on a huge stage vs. the Spurs in the Western Conference semi-final.

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Image from nbadraft.net

Harrison Barnes, a former #1 recruit out of High School, can get buckets.  He is doing it on the biggest level.  He led the Warriors in Game 4 with 26 points (9-26 from the field) and is a good rebounder at his position.  But the other areas are suspect.  He is not a good defender (stiff, mechanical, strong but slow laterally) and is a weakness there.  He is also not a good passer (has been a lead scorer his entire hoops life).  And after the kind of disappointing run he had at UNC, his will/desire can’t be checked yet either.  So even though he is looking really good (and this not a knock on Barnes in actuality, he can be a really good player and I am a fan) you have to see the whole picture.  Realize he is scoring because the Spurs are making him.  They are leaving Tony Parker and Gary Neal on him defensive to lock up shooters like Steph Curry and Klay Thompson.  He is scoring, but doing it very inefficiently against the other teams weakest defender.

So with the 2013 draft approaching, get out your notebooks, watch some tape/games, and check off your 5-tool-player sheet.  Some of the draft’s top talent appear to be legitimate shots at “tooly” players.  Do you want your team moving into the future with an explosive, one-tooled player…or a youngster with the value-pack ready to be a two-way player and lead a team to the promised land?  No love for regular season domination here…we want CHAMPIONSHIP WINNERS!  Here are my favorites for “5-tool” status and players I have questions about in the 2013 draft:

  • Nerlens Noel- He’s projected #1 for a reason.  Great defender and rebounder.  Good passer and appears to have the desire.  His offensive needs lots of growth, but he will not be a weakness there.
  • Victor Oladipo- Top 10 pick.  Tenacious defender (think Tony Allen).  Has the desire by the pound.  Good rebounder with his springs, strength, and IQ.  Can slash/score, but will have to prove he can shoot in the NBA.  Needs to improve his passing (which I believe he can) but has the smarts and skills to better his teammates.
  • Otto Porter- Top 5 pick.  Guy just has solid all-around game.  Positive impact at every area.  Question is just how high his ceiling is.  Can he grow to be a superstar and dominant in areas, or will he always be solid.  Good problem to have.
  • Anthony Bennett- Top 10 pick.  This is a guy I am very high on that others disagree with.  I think he has the tools to be a 5-tool-player.  He is a high-level scorer (and versatile scorer) for his position.  He rebounds without trying and as he gets smarter can become a tough boards guy.  He is not a weakness on defense now…and has the strength and athleticism to lock guys down in the future.  And he seems driven to me (played through a torn rotator cuff) as a young player.
  • Jamaal Franklin-  Late 1st, Early 2nd round pick.  My sleeper of the bunch.  Franklin is tough as nails and has the desire and leadership aspects in tons.  He is a tough, plus defender and rebounds at an almost elite level for his size/position.  He is a moderate passer but not bad, and he can score well.  He slashes and attacks, while shooting respectively.  Franklin has the full package.
  • Shabazz Muhammad- Top 10 pick.  Here’s your Melo!  Bazz has been a scorer and will be a scorer.  He is a defensive weakness and has not shown a desire to be a rebounder or facilitator.  He can get you buckets…but that will be his role.
  • Cody Zeller- Top 10 pick.  Has great post moves.  Can shoot out to a decent range.  Has the will/desire you love, great competitor.  Good passer in the post, plus there.  Struggled to defend in college, will be a weakness on an NBA court.  Not a great rebounder for his size, will struggle even more with length and strength of NBA boarders.
  • Ben McLemore- Top 3 pick.  I like Mac so it’s hard to conclude this, but he is not a (nor do I think he will be a) 5-tool-player.  He is a great shooter (gorgeous form, teach kids with it).  Defensively he is ok and can be plus.  He needs to improve his rebounding.  But his passing and desire/will are what I think he lacks.  He just does’t create anything or adapt to defensive pressure on himself like great players must do.  he also seems to disappear from games (or have a cold night) and just phase out/ghost from the game.  This is troubling to me.  He can be a great scorer and complimentary player in the NBA, but I just don’t think he will be the 5-tool-player I think teams need for titles.

 

I have grown up to the voice of Bob Costas.  As a sports fan, he holds the 2nd most recognizable voice (to the master of sports microphoning, Marv Albert) in the business and has successfully covered almost every sport in the book for decades.  Yet last night during halftime of the Dallas Cowboys/Philadelphia Eagles Sunday Night Football game on NBC, Costas decided to step out the “journalist box” and rant subjectively on gun-control while relaying the painful news from the Kansas City Chiefs camp.

Saturday morning, Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher committed suicide outside Arrowhead Stadium after murdering his girlfriend and mother of their 3-month-old child just minutes before.  This tragedy has shocked the sports world, and makes one realize how much more there is to life than what we focus on day-to-day.  While the story of Belcher will be pieced together in the days to come as we try to grasp understanding of why something like this could happen.  But journalist must remember to follow their basic guidelines,ethics, and beliefs that make journalists relevant.

Sports journalism offers a slightly wider path than other fields of reporting.  While the idea is to remain objective (report what you see…the facts), sports reporting asks for a bit of personal input and subjectiveness.  Yes, Marv/Bob…we want the objective play-by-play and news, but fans also look up to these perceived “experts in their fields” and enjoy some commentary.  This is what makes sports reporting so fun!  If the numbers say the quarterback stinks, you give them the facts…then have a chance to tell the viewers and listeners WHY!  Your personal take, from experience.  Still, a smart sports reporter must know what waters to wade into, and which are simply too dangerous or outside of your focus.

Picking and representing a side for the gun-control debate during halftime of your football program is not right.  Costas could have given us the sad news and let us ponder the reasons.  So many aspects come in to play with this story, that his rant almost feels like a snatched opportunity to voice a personal vendetta.  So according to Bob, if handguns are banned, the Belcher family would still be living happily ever after, and society would be much less violent and orderly.  Aren’t you glad you learned that from a sports reporter while you were waiting for your Cowboys to comeback and get a win, Cowboys fans?!  Picking side of a political tipping-point as a sportscaster is a losing battle.  No matter which side you choose, you will have angered (and persuaded to channel-switch) a large percentage of the population….during a football game.

There is a time and place for voicing your personal political opinions (or for a journalist, maybe there shouldn’t EVER be), but Mr. Costas chose a poor location for his 2 minutes.  Funny enough, right as Costas is speaking about restricting what seems to be American 2nd Amendment rights….”God Bless America” plays at the stadium in the background.  Wow, Bob…..really?

19-year-old NBA rookie Bradley Beal featured in the Washington Wizards “Bar Tour” and beer night promotion earlier this month (Nov. 2012)

Ah, sports!  Where stadiums, race cars, and championship trophies are adorned with (or filled with, ask reigning NASCAR champ Brad Keselowski) alcohol and beer logos.  While your humble blog-a-saurus is not a big fan or supporter of boozing in general…I understand the enjoyment of kicking back a cold brewski while watching your favorite sport live.

So, the Washington Wizards (struggling NBA franchise in our nation’s capital) decided to capitalize on the combination of beer and basketball with a Budweiser promotion and “Bar Tour” night, with discounted beers ($2 each!!  Death to the $8-10 stadium beer!!) at the arena’s numerous bars.  To promote this event, they posted pictures, flyers, and billboards using their top rookie Bradley Beal in the ads.  Beal is the future of the Wiz franchise after being the #3 pick in this year’s NBA draft.  The 6’4″ shooting guard has a skill set the Wizards hopes fills seats for many years to come.  However, they overlooked one small detail in their haste to bring in crowds and money.  Beal entered the NBA after only one season of NCAA ball with the Florida Gators.  He should be a sophomore in college.  He is 19-years-old.

That’s right.  The Wizards are using a 19-year-old to sell their beer.  Doesn’t really sound right, does it?

This phenomenon will not go away as the age of professional athletes at the cusp or in the fire of stardom has plummeted.  With young athletes having access to professional pay and media attention so early, guys like LeBron James, Anthony “The Brow” Davis, and others become household names before they are even old enough to drink.  Being surrounded by a business that is so heavily involved and supported by alcohol and beer sales will make this interesting moving into the future.  Should teams be allowed to use teenagers to promote their age-restricted products?  Should Justin Bieber sell us cigarettes? (sorry for the random Beebs drop)

The Wizards apologized for the add and removed it from wherever they could, but the simple lack of attention to detail (or lack of care?) has brought up a subject that pro teams throughout sports must remember and contemplate before making some decisions with the beer bigwigs.  With alcohol abuse and underage drinking so prevalent and uncontrolled in our society, is using a 19-year-old role-model and icon to sell beer the right moral and ethical move?

#16 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets, Royce White from Iowa State University.

What a highlight video!!  Let the hoop-shaking dunks, feathery touch with the ball, deft passing, and tough defense sink in.  Then realize this, Royce White is an unnatural talent.  White is 6’8″ tall and weighs 260 pounds.  If you listened to the stats announced in the video, you heard that White led his Iowa State team in EVERY category.  Here is a guy with the quickness, smarts, and ball-handling ability to play the point guard spot (and he did, very well, leading the Cyclones in assists) and the strength, power, size, and aggressiveness to score and rebound in the post as a power forward (and he did, with the best in the nation).  This kind of skill set and versatile game is almost nonexistent in the game today on the NBA level.  The “point-forward” who can push the ball the length of the court, shaking off defenders and finishing with a thunder dunk or blistering, no-look pass?  I want three!  But today, Royce White is hair away from walking away from the game he loves.

The story of Royce White, unfortunately, has turned into one of misunderstanding and sadness.  As a collegiate player (who bounced between a couple schools), it became known that White suffered from an unknown mental health issue and was prone to severe anxiety attacks.  White has an admitted fear of flying (he basically refuses to fly…although he has made a few exceptions) along with an apparent stress/anxiety issue with change and new faces.  In college, with a less rigorous game schedule, Iowa State was able to accommodate White and bus/drive him to games.  Throughout his collegiate career, Royce White never missed a NCAA basketball game due to his condition.  His vast skills, size, and future upside had him rumored as a possible top 10 pick in the 2012 NBA draft.

White fell, slightly, before he was selected at #16 by the Houston Rockets.  Leading up to the draft, many teams met with Royce and discussed the future ahead.  White was very open with his disability and made it clear to al the NBA teams that he had some certain needs and areas to be addressed to complete the transition to professional basketball.  While things seemed to start off good for White and the Rockets, to say it has recently fallen apart would be a huge understatement.  Houston began by insisting they were in tune with the needs of their new rookie, and promoted that they would be very patient and understanding.  They set up White with some mental health specialists in the Houston area, and tried to slowly integrate him to the team.  Yet, it has all crumbled.  The Rockets have begun to discuss White’s failures and their frusterations with his progress.  White played in one preseason game, but has not been available before or since his lone appearance.  White and the Rockets have been raging a battle of words, as Royce has taken to Twitter (@Highway_30) with his feelings of disrespect and lack of understanding from his team.  The Rockets, of course, have had to respond to his digital public voice, and the sides are a long ways apart.  Royce feels that Houston lacks compassion for the amount of time he needs and the situations he is trying to deal with.  The Rockets feel like Royce is taking advantage of them using his disorder.  The problem…. nobody knows who’s right/wrong!  Mental health issues are hard to deal with for not only the afflicted, but all those who surround them.  Family members of folks with mental health problems could tell you how tough it is to comprehend what’s happening inside someone’s mind.  Care is frustrating, time consuming, and painful.  And the healthy human mind just simply cannot even fathom the things going on inside the mind of an affected person.  How can you equally and understandingly act and communicate?

The Houston Rockets are Royce White’s family now.  They knew what they were getting when they chose Royce.  They preached patience…and they need to exercise it.  The guy has proven he can play, and other organizations were able to get him to that point.  Work with him.  Be his teammate and advocate, not his adversary.  Because if you can find a way to get Royce White out on the hardwood wearing your team’s jersey, your team will be much the better for it.  Ask an Iowa State fan!

Photo of Duke University’s athletics page showing the promotional picture in question. Photo is of the Duke Women’s Lacrosse team. They were “The Little Rascals” for Halloween 2012.

The photo above appeared briefly on the official Duke University Athletics website, before being noted and removed.  How many things does this tell us and what does a situation like this mean?  Caucasians dressing up in blackface has been long ostracized in American society, since decades in the middle of the last century were spent using blackface to mock and guffaw.  So how does something this blatantly racist and ignorant get plastered up the technological wall (GoDuke.com) of one of the countries most prestigious universities?  I believe a couple factors (besides a simple attention-to-detail mistake) are at work here…and are telling and troubling at once.

As the youth and newest generation take over control of many aspects of American life, I see a disconnect between the reality of racism that existed in just recent generations.  The young women on the Duke Lacrosse team probably never thought twice about the blackface for the Buckwheat character, and how that jabs directly at painful memories and points to severe repression and segregation that diseased our country.  In fact, it appears that not only did THEY not notice…but the coach taking the group picture, the people in charge of the GoDuke.com website, and Duke students and patrons themselves posted and surfed past the photo before it was called out and removed.  How quickly we forget!  Especially when the pain doesn’t really effect….you!

I know this was done with no malicious intent, but maybe that’s the scariest part.  Nobody even understood what they were doing was wrong.  Just dressing up for Halloween.  Having fun.  Getting some laughs.  Maybe at the cost of others.  I’m sure there are parents to quite a few African-American student/athletes that are looking at that scholarship letter to Duke right now…and sincerely wondering if Duke is somewhere they want their child going?  How will my son/daughter be treated?

Hopefully this serves as a learning experience not only for the university, but for a percentage of the new generation.  We mustn’t work in reverse and resort back to tired, ugly tricks and shenanigans.  White folks using blackface, while often not malicious (like this Halloween Duke instance), just simply has no place.  For a writer/journalist who believes strongly in free speech….I also strongly believe in repercussions for chosen speech.  And due to nasty misuse, blackface is a stinging, low attack that needs to be disappeared completely.  Stay classy (and try to understand the lingering effects of racism) young generation!  We are counting on you to CONTINUE the PROGRESS as we work to bridge the divide between all races, sexes, religions, and creeds.

oh…..and Go Tarheels!

Lauren Holtkamp (left) and Brenda Pantoja (right) were added by the NBA to their 2012 officiating crew.                  -Photo courtesy Getty Images and the AP

Hello readers!  Sorry for the break.  Yours truly has been down and out for a week recovering from surgery and hopefully I will be back making power moves in no time!  I return with a quick piece that I felt needed to be brought to attention.  The NBA has promoted two female referees to the pinnacle of basketball officiating, and the most remarkable part was the silence of the move.

Professional sports leagues like the NBA are very effective and focused on spreading the news of their good deeds.  Amongst the piles of cash they bring in, these leagues also (and rightly) donate money and support many important causes from disease to diversity.  These donations and movements are usually front-page news for the league.  You gotta balance the good (charity) news with the bad press (greed, lockouts, performance enhancing drugs, injuries, etc.).  That makes this story stand out to me.  The NBA promoted two female referees, and didn’t paper all sports media with pressers and bulletins.  The just promoted a couple refs they thought had earned a chance at NBA officiating.  No biggie, right?

Well I say, well done NBA.  It is enough of a anomaly to warrant some news. There have been two female NBA refs prior…out of a crew of 90-100 officials yearly.  Two….out of thousands in the past.  So why didn’t the league pat their own backs and gatling gun the news to the press?  I can only hope that the NBA has realized that simply promoting the best candidates for the job SHOULDN’T be news.  Would we get a press briefing on the new male referees?  Highly doubt it.  So hooray NBA, thanks for just letting it happen…and letting us sports journalists do the research and back-patting.  Sometimes keeping your mouth shut actually makes your point just that much stronger.