Thursday, June 16, 2011


Newspaper reporters don’t have heroes among the people they write about, or, at least, aren’t likely to admit it if they do. That would break the objectivity rule that governs most American news organizations, one that’s honored far more strictly than most believe.

Also, we newsies aren‘t worshipful types, a trait that sometimes gets us into trouble around the house.

However (my favorite word), in my travels in the world of sports I did encounter people I thought were worthy not only of praise but also of emulation. Mostly, these were not the big-time athletes who attained fame by capitalizing on inborn, genius-level physical attributes but never would admit as much, or the control freaks who directed their movements. I preferred sports folks who’d thought about their places in the Great Scheme of Things and concluded that the sun didn’t rise to see them get out of bed. Here are three of them, and you have to be a real fan to recognize their names.

-- The winningest college-football coach ever isn’t Joe Paterno, Bobbie Bowden or some other CEO of a football “program” at one or another Enormous State U. It’s JOHN GAGLIARDI, who, at age 84, still coaches the sport at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn., where he’s been since 1953. His teams have won 478 games—77 more than Joe Pa’s-- and four national small-college championships. He’s done it by breaking just about every rule in the coaches’ handbook.

Gagliardi got his first coaching job—and framed his philosophy—as a 16-year-old high schooler in his native Trinidad, Colorado, where, in 1943, he was elected by his teammates to replace the coach who’d suddenly been drafted into the military. With teenage chutzpah he decided he’d run the show by jettisoning everything the previous coach did that he didn’t like. That included contact scrimmages, heavy calisthenics and long drills of any kind. His judgment was confirmed with a league title.

Gagliardi added to his “no” list when coaching became his adult occupation. He eschews compulsory running and weightlifting, informing players that it’s up to them to get in shape. He limits players’ film viewing to game-before successful plays that affix a positive image. He spurns the title of “coach,” preferring that his players call him “John” (“when one calls me ‘coach’ I want to call him ‘player,’” he says). His players, none of whom are on athletic scholarship (NCAA Division III doesn’t permit them), run through their plays 90 minutes a day four days a week in season, period. When appropriate, some of those minutes are spent in his “nice-day drill,” where they lay on their backs admiring the sunny sky.

He’s had offers to leave St. John’s, including one from the Minnesota Vikings, but turned them down. “I doubt if I’d find better kids elsewhere, so why move?” he reasons.


-- DOT RICHARDSON was an athletic genius, so good at softball that at age 10 she was playing on women’s teams. The shortstop was even better when she grew up, becoming the best softballer of her era and starring on two gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic teams. The photo of her rounding bases after hitting the home run that won the 1996 O Games final, arms raised and face alight, remains a glowing image of that fest.

When she wasn’t playing games, though, Dot was doing things that she came to believe were more important. She got through college (at UCLA) and medical school, eventually becoming an orthopedic surgeon. She became a full-time doc after her 2000 athletic retirement and now, in addition to a private practice, is medical director at the U.S. Triathlon Training Center in Florida and a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. In her spare time she gives motivational talks to adults and kids.

I spent the best part of a day with her in 2000, and sports talk occupied, maybe, an hour of it. She said she probably was lucky that she played a sport that offered few financial opportunities, because otherwise she might not have developed her other talents. “My parents raised me to believe that gifts should be shared, and I’ve been fortunate enough to have two,” she said. And who knows? she added-- maybe as time goes by she’d discover others.

--- DICK BAVETTA wasn’t much of a basketball player, but he loved the game so much that, in full adulthood, he quit a good-paying stockbrokers’ job to referee in the Eastern League, a circuit that was so tough he had to bring along his brother, a New York cop, for post-game protection. When Dick’s wife complained about his travel he decided he liked basketball better than her, and the pair split. This might not have been admirable, but it was honest.

For nine years he was rejected as an NBA ref, partly because of his scrawny physique. He finally made it in 1975, at age 36, when the base pay for new refs was $200 a game (it’s about $130,000 a year now, but vets make a lot more). His first 30 years in the league, he never missed a game while moving from the bottom of the efficiency chart to the top. He’s still at it at 71, staying in shape by running eight miles on his off days and in the summers, in addition to the four or five miles a contest he logs over the eight-month season. He takes a day off after each campaign “just so nobody can say I never take a vacation.”

Unlike many sports figures, Bavetta has a sense of fun. That was on display during the 2007 NBA All-Star Game weekend, when he and Charles Barkley, 25 years younger but many pounds heavier, engaged in a foot race on court, for a charity purse. Barkley won—he always has been quicker than he looked—and afterward kissed the top of Bavetta’s bald head. Bavetta stood still for that, too, enshrining himself forever in the Good Sport’s Hall of Fame.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


As a nation we are into the new, always eager to declare the latest to be the greatest. The annual antidote to this error is the NBA playoffs, the current edition of which now is entering its final stage.

When the playoffs began some weeks ago many believed they would signal a changing of the guard in our basketball major league. The best record in the regular season was earned by the Chicago Bulls, led by their whirling dervish guard Derrick Rose, at age 22 the league’s youngest-ever MVP. In the West the up and comers were the Oklahoma City Thunder and their duo of precocious 22 year olds, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

The notion that a new age was aborning was underscored when the two best teams of the last decade—the L.A. Lakers and S.A. Spurs-- were shoved aside rudely in preliminary rounds.

But here we are at finals time and who’s still standing? The Dallas Mavericks, surely one of the oldest aggregates ever, and the Miami Heat, a younger but still solidly veteran crew. As I’ve been noting for years, the NBA victory stand is no place for young men. Another name for a “good, young” NBA team is “also ran.”

This state of affairs stems in large part from basketball’s status as our best-played sport. Those of us with memories of times long past can only marvel at the skills and athleticism of today’s players, which dwarf those of previous eras. High-school teams today would beat top college teams from my younger days, and the wonders the pros perform routinely surpass understanding.

Television has spurred basketball’s growth by turning every game into a clinic for young players, but I think that by scaling it down to screen size the medium also diminishes the sport. Only when viewed “live” from courtside can the size, speed and strength of NBA players be fully appreciated. I know that such seats are expensive (us press got ‘em free), but sitting in one once is worth a place on every sports fan’s bucket list.

If you play in the NBA you almost certainly have the combination of agility and spring the players call “hops”—at least initially-- but the game has evolved far past the point where that alone suffices for success. A range of skills must be cultivated, along with judgment, which translates roughly into the ability to know when to do what. They take time to acquire.

Michael Jordan, the best basketball player (and maybe the best athlete) ever, was in his seventh season in the league before he hoisted a championship trophy. The Heat’s LeBron James, the current best, already has played in eight without earning the privilege. Dirk Nowitzki, the Mav’s ace and one of the all-time most-versatile offensive big men, is a 13-season vet still vying for his first ring.

Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, All-Pros all, put in a total of 36 seasons before the basketball gods allowed them to combine to win in 2008 in Boston. Lakers’ great Kobe Bryant won his first championship in his fourth pro campaign, but he had help from guys like Shaquille O’Neal, Glen Rice, Ron Harper and A.C. Green, who’d been around the block a time or three.

It’s not just a team’s starters who require seasoning; when a coach peers down his bench late in a playoff game he’s not looking for dewy youth but for the grizzled likes of Robert Horry, who could sit on his butt for two hours, then step on court and immediately nail a three, grab an offensive rebound or plant a strategic elbow. Horry collected seven NBA rings with three different teams over a 16-year career, most of them in latter-day supporting roles.

It’s often asked around Chicago how new-hero Rose stacks up against old-hero Jordan at the same, early stage of Rose’s development. Pretty evenly, I’d say. Both came into the league with hops a mundo and the ability to see openings and angles to the hoop invisible to lesser basketball intellects. Jordan went on to improve his straight-on shooting ability, as has Rose, although so far to a lesser extent.

But six or seven years into his career Jordan developed the fade-away jump shot that rounded out his game by making him lethal from mid-range—the same shot, by the way, that has sustained Nowitzky and Bryant in productive hoops maturity. Young Derrick ought to give the shot a try while he’s sweating through his summer drills. Like many a good young baseball pitcher, he’ll soon be realizing that his fastball alone won’t get him and his mates where they want to go.