Saturday, March 15, 2014


                If you read the sports pages for more than the scores you might have come across an article about Curie High School of Chicago a couple of weeks ago. It seems that the school’s basketball team, which had posted a 24-win, 1-loss season and won the city’s Public League championship, had the trophy taken away, and its wins turned into losses, because it had played the entire campaign with seven (!) of its 12 players academically ineligible.
                From there the story only got stranger. According to news accounts the ineligibility was uncovered not by the Southwest Side school but by an anonymous phone call to the city’s school administration.  That body completed its investigation the day the team was to play in the championship game, but instead of blowing the whistle immediately it let the contest go on, because, well, the tickets had been sold and the TV cameras were in place and it didn’t want to spoil the party.
               Further news coverage revealed that city teams were supposed to submit eligibility lists before each game, but the practice had lapsed from disuse.  It also turned out that the eligibility issue might have been avoided if the school had submitted “individual study plans” for the underachieving seven, attesting that they couldn’t handle high school work and needed special help, but nobody had thought to do that.

                An additional layer of lunacy was attained when the Illinois High School Association, the state’s governing body, stepped in to declare that the seven could play in state-tournament qualifying rounds because their grades, while under the “C” average the city requires, made them eligible under its more-lenient rules. But then it looked again and ruled out two starters, and Curie was eliminated in the first round of state play, its season going into the record books at an inglorious 0-26.

                Public and journalistic reaction to the unfolding tale mostly was one of outrage—over the school-officials’ actions that stripped away Curie’s victories and title. Like many things these days the issue had a racial twist (team photos show that 11 of the 12 players are identifiably black), and Jesse Jackson, who lives in Chicago, was quick to leap to the lads’ defense. “[They] didn’t break any rules; adults didn’t do their work,” he declared. 

                “These kids aren’t in gangs. They’re not engaged in violence,” he added, making the curious assertion that in this day and age the absence of vice should be regarded as a virtue.

                As the days went by and the blogosphere went into action, a few voices were heard to say that, maybe, the laggard seven would have been better off spending less time on their shooting and dribbling and more with their schoolbooks. People with good memories might recall the Rev. Mr. Jackson making a similar point decades ago when he proposed “learn baby, learn” as a counterpoint to the “burn baby, burn” mantra that was fueling the urban violence of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. 

                But while the world is older than it was then, apparently it’s not smarter when it comes to getting high-school jocks to view their talents in the context of a broader life plan.  The upshot is that for too many the visions of athletic wealth and glory—the “Hoop Dreams” of the widely viewed 1994 movie documentary of that name—is a snare and a delusion, steering kids away from more promising paths for the like-getting-hit-by-lightning chance for a National Basketball Association career.

                Indeed, if anything the disconnect between athletics and education is wider than it used to be, and our nation’s colleges are complicit in the development. I refer to their reaction to the NBA’s dictum of 2005 that it would henceforth draft only players who were at least 19 years old and out of high school for a year.

 The league did that because it had grown weary of taking the gamble involved in drafting kids right out of high school. That was understandable for an entity that exists to present entertainment and profit therefrom.  The colleges have (or should have) other, loftier aims, but opted to accommodate the NBA by setting aside classroom space for young men who intend merely to double-park in academe before getting on with their “real” lives. Thus, we have the “one-and-done” phenomenon that has become the main topic of conversation during every NCAA basketball tournament since the rule went into effect.

Interestingly, the Curie team was led by Cliff Alexander, a 6-foot-9 center who, as one of the top-half-dozen recruiting prospects in his class, is a prime “one-and-done” prospect, and whose signing- day nod to the U of Kansas was televised nationally.  The names of the players whom the city and state declared ineligible weren’t made public, so it’s not known if Alexander’s was among them. This was an instance where protecting the privacy of some tarred all.

Hoop dreamers might get a dose of reality if they use their computers to learn about the later lives of William Gates and Arthur Agee, the two Chicago high-school prospects featured in the “Hoop Dreams” film. Gates’ prowess earned him a scholarship to Marquette, where he played but did not star. He got no closer to the NBA than a tryout camp and spent almost a decade in sporadic employment before getting a divinity degree and becoming pastor of a South Side church.

 Agee played in junior college and at Arkansas State and likewise bounced from job to job after his college days, apparently degreeless. His latest venture is a clothing company called “Hoop Dreams” which offers t-shirts for sale on-line. He also gives talks to youth groups in which he tries “to help kids to understand that their role models shouldn’t be professional athletes but their parents at home.”

That’s good advice if the parents really are at home, and on the job. Too many aren’t.



Saturday, March 1, 2014


                Some years ago I was in Las Vegas to write about a boxing match and staying in a hotel just off the city’s Strip. Sugar Ray Leonard, then-recently retired from the ring and doing a TV stint, was in the same hotel. One morning around 10 I left on my pre-fight reporting rounds and saw him on the place’s tennis courts, hitting balls spit out by a machine. He was still out there when I returned four hours later, causing me to conclude that he was seriously bored and not likely to stay retired for long. Sure enough, after a couple of months he announced his intention to fight again.
            The recollection was stirred by Derek Jeter’s recent announcement that he’d be leaving the baseball fields at the end of the season just ahead. Jeter has had about the perfect baseball career, with lots of hits (3,316), World Series rings (five) and individual honors in his 19 big-league seasons so far. He’s also survived the New York news-media cauldron without being scalded, no small feat for a single man with a reportedly active social life.

It would be nice to say that the Yankee hero is going out on top, but it wouldn’t be true. He could have done that after breaking an ankle in the playoffs of his remarkable 2012 season, in which he challenged for Most Valuable Player honors at age 38, but he returned for what would be an injury-plagued 2013 during which he appeared in just 17 games, and probably will do only part-time duty this time around.  The fact that he was paid $17 million last season and is due to receive $12 million in this one—on top of the more than $200 million he’d previously earned-- no doubt figured into his calculations.  Hey, a guy’s got to pay the rent.

Quitting at the peak of one’s game is an ideal in sports, but it’s rarely realized. I can think of only four men who’ve done it—Rocky Marciano, Jim Brown, Sandy Koufax and Pete Sampras-- and Koufax deserves an asterisk because while he won 27 games and had a 1.73 earned run average as an L.A. Dodger in 1966, the last year he played, the great lefty’s pitching elbow was so sore he had to scratch his left ear with his right hand for many years thereafter. 

The truth is that most athletes struggle to continue as long as they can in their sports, at any level. Contrary to popular belief, big-time pros on average have short careers, ranging from about 3 1/2 years in the National Football League to about 5 years in Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, and the baseball minors and their hoops counterparts abroad are littered with ex-big leaguers trying to hang on for another season, and another.

 Even some of the greats aren’t immune to the “keep on keepin’ on” syndrome. The above-mentioned Leonard abandoned and returned to his brutal sport three or four times depending on how you counted, and Michael Jordan twice “retired” from the Chicago Bulls (in 1993 and ’98) but had to give basketball one more try with the woebegone Washington Wizards (2001-03) before hanging it up for good. I’d bet that he’d give it another shot if the phone rang today.

The money the big-timers make these days is mighty motivation for sticking around as long as possible, but the reluctance to leave the sporting life preceded that. Ask an old jock what he misses most about his playing days and he’ll probably tell you it’s the camaraderie he enjoyed with his fellow athletes, but the loss of applause and status certainly are other reasons. Perhaps more important, playing either team or individual sports means sticking to strict regimens of workouts, practices, games and travel, and while active jocks might chafe under their requirements they usually miss them when they’re gone.  The question “What shall I do today?” is one most of us quickly learn to answer for ourselves, but for many ex-athletes it’s confounding.

Athletes usually are on their way out by their mid-30s, the time when most people’s careers are gaining steam. That puts them weirdly out of synch with their contemporaries. The idea of going back to school to continue the educations sports careers interrupted can be off-putting for a similar reason; would you like to sit in classes daily with people about half your age?

Given today’s salary levels for even fledgling major-leaguers (baseball’s minimum annual salary is $500,000, the NFL’s is $420,000), one would think that a few years in the bigs would set up someone for life, but, sadly, that’s often not the case. Young jocks tend to be unsophisticated financially and, thus, easy marks for dubious get-richer-quicker schemes. Wishing to be good guys, they’re often eager to share their good fortune with friends and relatives, a ruinous practice when indulged in to excess. And—oh, yeah—they tend to spend big, with the Mercedes dealer their first stop after their initial bank deposit.

In a way, athletes might have had it better in the old (pre-1975) days, before the salary explosion. Most jocks then understood that the game-playing would be brief, and planned accordingly. I once did a piece on Sonny Hertzberg, an early NBA star (1946-51) who, as an executive with the Wall Street firm of Bear Stearns, conducted league-sponsored investment classes for later-day NBAers. “Everybody in my day had an off-season job or sideline because we knew we’d have to go out and earn a living sooner or later,” he told me in 2001. “It may sound funny but I think we had fewer fears about our futures than players now do.”