Thursday, June 16, 2011

Thursday Night Therapy

Another perfect night for Thursday Night Hoops

Thursday Night Therapy
By Aaron M. Smith

The score is 18-17 in a game to 20. The team with 17 points has the ball and the conservative player is thinking “we can still go in twos.” The rest of us know that a three-pointer is the only option.

“I think the odds of winning when you go for two in that situation are dramatically decreased,” says the founding father of Thursday Night Hoops. “Once you go inside, they’re not going to give you anything.”

I’d have to agree.

With the ball checked at the top of the key, the team with 17 points engages in a flurry of passes and picks in wild three-to-four-man weave around the three-point arc. Someone is going to get a shot. It doesn’t matter who or when, but there will be a shot taken. Eventually someone will get an open look.

After 47 seconds (often longer) of passing and cutting and picking, someone is left open from the right wing. A long skip pass finds its way into the awaiting hands of a shooter (we’re all shooters on Thursday night). His feet are set when the ball arrives. He throws up a high rainbow of a shot over the charging fingertips of a defender.

Net. Game over. Twenty to 18.

Players on the winning side smile and slap hands and congratulate each other on a game well played. Players from the losing side have mixed reactions. Some go off to get a drink of water by themselves and analyze every single blasted one of his missed shots. Some just shake their head and smile. Others congratulate the other team.

But no matter the feeling after that game – a win or a loss – there is no better place to be.

 Long-standing tradition

Randy Howe's book is dead on.
I’ve been playing Thursday night hoops for almost seven years (only on visits during the three years I lived in California), but this long-standing tradition has been going on for about 25 years. My father-in-law began this Thursday night game in his backyard with friends from church and from the neighborhood. And every Thursday night at about 9 p.m., a mini line of headlights emerges around the curve destined for what promises to be another great night of basketball.

Terence Mann’s quote in Field of Dreams comes to mind on Thursday nights. “Oh, people will come, Ray.” And on this concrete court of dreams under the lights, people will most definitely come. Rain or not. Wind or stagnant. Whether it’s like a sauna or a freezer, people will come to play on Thursday night.

Thursday night basketball is a necessity for me. By Thursday night, the stresses of the week are just about at their peak. Now, I know my stresses pale in comparison to some and I feel totally blessed. That being said, being home with three children ages four and younger most of the week, my mind and body are in serious need of competition, male camaraderie, and an all-out physical challenge.

I’ve never been more exhausted than I am at about 12:05 early Friday morning after three hours or rigorous exercise on unforgiving concrete. Nothing, however, feels better than that exhaustion, than that pain screaming in my ankles, knees, and wherever I received an elbow on that particular night.

Basketball from every era

I love the group of players we have on Thursday night. We have guys in their 60s who come complete with short shorts and deadly accuracy. We have guys in their 50s and 40s who shoot hook shots and try to run spread offenses. We have guys in their 30s or younger who like to drive to the basket because they never were allowed to (or able to) when they played in high school. It’s a good mix of great people.

The competition is great; everyone has their strengths. We’ve got shooters and rebounders, lock-down defenders, and good passers. In best-of-three series, we almost always go the distance.

There are times, though, when tempers can flare – a bad call here, a misplaced elbow there, a complaint or two that rises above a mutter. But that’s basketball. You can’t battle against the same people for years and years under black muggy skies without getting into a bit of a disagreement from time to time. The guys that show up on Thursdays are great men – businessmen, writers, lawyers, volunteers, and, more importantly, family men. There may be a spat here or there, but I know – at least on my end – that there is a great deal of respect for everyone that steps out there on that court. Nothing is ever personal. Nothing ever leaves the court.   

Thursday Night Hoops is the equivalent of three hours of therapy every week. We all have problems ranging from health issues to work stress to family situations. It builds and builds during the week and somehow, some way, there needs to be a release. Thankfully for all of us, Thursday night is always just around the corner.

To be expected, there have been injuries, too. Broken fingers, torn ligaments, knees that bend in the wrong direction, broken noses, rolled ankles, teeth marks on balding heads, skinned knees, and sore shoulders. We are a tangle of wraps, knee braces, and sports goggles.

But we always come back.

It’s Thursday Night Hoops for God’s sake; we’ve been waiting all week for this.

Friday, June 10, 2011

When a Hero Falls

When a hero falls
Jim Tressel -- AP File photo
By Aaron M. Smith

I nervously paced outside that door for what felt like a week. I knew I would be able to do my job when he arrived; I just hoped he would give me the opportunity.

In the autumn of 2002, just a couple months after earning my degree in journalism from Ohio University, I was starting my journalism career at the tiny Urbana Daily Citizen in rural Ohio. Half of my time was spent in the news department, the other half writing for the sports section. I mostly covered high school sports, but every once in a while, the sports editor -- Steve Stout -- allowed me to use our paper's credential to cover various big-time sporting events. I covered the Cincinnati Reds a few times and was able to cover a few Ohio State football games.

Urbana University had recently hired a new head football coach named Todd Murgatroyd, who once was the program assistant/assistant recruiting coordinator under head coach Jim Tressel at The Ohio State University. Stout wanted me to do a story on him and knew I would be using the paper's credential at the next Buckeye football game. I usually roamed the sidelines, took notes, and attended the post game press conference to get experience. I hadn't done any one-on-one interviews yet. But my editors felt it would be a good time for me to do one. Stout wanted me to interview Tressel about Murgatroyd and then write a feature on the new Urbana coach. I was equal parts excited and nauseated. This interview would be, by far, the biggest for me -- that is, if I could even get Tressel to talk to a green reporter from a small newspaper in rural Ohio.

Once the Ohio State game ended, reality hit me like a salivating middle linebacker: How the hell am I supposed to get a hold of Tressel for a one-on-one interview? I had no idea how the system worked. I didn't have a clue about protocol. I didn't feel that talking about Murgatroyd was appropriate for the post game presser. I would try and corner him as he walked off the stage, I thought. I tried. I failed. A big balding fellow put up his arms and made it known to me that I had gone far enough.

Now what?

I left the room and went down a hall that looked like it may go to a locker room. It did. I walked in and saw various Buckeye players milling around in towels. I looked for Coach Tressel, but he was nowhere in sight. I talked to a security guard and asked if he knew of the coach's whereabouts. He did. Coach Tressel was taping his television show in the stadium somewhere. I asked if Tressel would be back down to the locker room. Doubtful. I was told he usually goes home after the taping.

I felt sick. I didn't want to return to Urbana and say I wasn't able to get the interview. I should've been able to do it; I was desperate not to fail. I began walking around he stadium looking for possibilities. I noticed a few assistant coaches walking out of a door and walked over in that direction. I was not allowed inside. The doorman, however, did tell me that it was possible that Tressel could come down this way. So I waited.

And waited. And waited.

Every time the door opened I stood up. Every time the door opened, someone other than Jim Tressel walked through it. Just as I was about to chalk this failure up to experience, the door opened once again. Out walked Coach Tressel with his arm around his wife Ellen. I stood up. This was my chance.

"Excuse me, Coach?"

He stopped and stuck out his hand to shake mine.

"Coach, my name is Aaron Smith and I write for the Urbana Daily Citizen," I said. "I'm writing a story on Urbana University's new football coach Todd Murgatroyd and I was hoping to talk to you for a little bit."

"Ah, Todd Murgatroyd," Tressel said. "That's a good man. I'd be happy to talk."

As I was about to spew my line of questioning, Tressel quietly asked his wife to bring the car around before inviting me back upstairs to his office. I was stunned. Here is a Division-I coach at The Ohio State University and he is taking the time to answer a small-town reporter's questions.

Back in his office he had me sit across his desk. He asked me about my career, how long I've been writing, and about my family. He then talked about Murgatroyd in great detail -- I didn't have to ask a single question. He gave me everything I needed and told me to tell Murgatroyd he said hello and good luck. Tressel then escorted me back down to the door, shook my hand again, and left in the small car his wife had pulled around.

I was forever changed after that experience. Tressel didn't need to treat me with that level of respect -- most people in his position would have kept on walking. I had been ignored by Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn when I covered a few baseball games in Cincinnati. Yet Tressel never appeared to be bothered by me. He never made me feel that I was wasting his time. He treated me the way I would expect him to treat someone from ESPN or Sports Illustrated, not the Urbana Daily Citizen.

I felt Tressel was the absolute class of collegiate sports and I followed his career since that afternoon. He was a hero of sorts -- he did things the right way.

Then came the bombshell over the last year or so that has ultimately cost Tressel his job at Ohio State. I am still stunned and in disbelief. I won't go over the details of this because it's been written about 1,000 different ways.

I will say that I still respect Jim Tressel. I feel in my heart of hearts that he is a good man who tried too hard to protect players that didn't show him the same respect. He knew that what he was doing was wrong, but I cannot believe his intent was to cheat the NCAA. Jon Thoma is a former player under Tressel and this is what he had to say on his blog about his former coach.
"We had a responsibility to present ourselves in a positive way, as we were representatives of so many things so much bigger than ourselves.  Apparently, some of us could not handle that honor. 
"To some of us, there were different priorities, and becoming a man under the watchful eye of millions around the world was too much.  George Dohrmann from Sports Illustrated suggested that Jim Tressel lost control of his football team.  Quite the contrary.  The Ohio State Football culture took over Columbus.  Coach was the only reason there WAS any control on this football team.  Ask the troubled former receiver.  Ask the star quarterback.  Our mistakes occurred away from his watchful eye.

"Our mistakes had nothing to do with Jim Tressel."
I believe that there is more truth in Thoma's words than in the thousand or so words that Dohrmann published in Sports Illustrated.

I just hope I'm not being naive. Because I don't know what would hurt more: hearing the allegations against Jim Tressel and seeing his tenure end at Ohio State, or accepting and believing that those allegations are all true.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

San Francisco fans should know better

Buster Posey suffered a broken leg and ligament damage in his ankle after being hit by Scott Cousins of the Marlins. -- AP photo
San Francisco fans should know better
By Aaron M. Smith

The car wreck of a play-at-the-plate has been replayed 100 times in the last week. At least.

Florida's Scott Cousins is barreling down the line from third base toward home. San Francisco catcher and young phenom Buster Posey shields the plate and prepares for the throw that is screaming in from the outfield. It's going to be close -- the ball and Cousins will meet Posey at the same time. There is a collision; a brutal tangle of limbs and cleats and dust. One player gets up and celebrates, the other writhes in pain in the dirt. The play is reminiscent of Pete Rose blasting into Ray Fosse, a collision that ended the 1970 All-Star Game as well as Fosse's career for all intents and purposes.

Back to Cousins and Posey. Cousins scored the run and Posey broke a bone in his leg and damaged three tendons in his ankle. Posey's season is over while Cousins will continue to play in the Majors as long as his average keeps him there. Springing from this play is a debate about whether runners should be allowed to barrel over catchers in this way. I'll leave that debate to the hundreds of writers and rule makers already delving deep into that argument.

My issue is the other part of the aftermath. In the days following this play, San Francisco General Manager Brian Sabean had this to say about the collision:
"He chose to be a hero in my mind, and if that's his flash of fame, then that's as good as it's going to get, pal. We'll have a long memory. ... If I never hear from Cousins again or he never plays another day in the big leagues, I think we'll all be happy."
As a result, Cousins has been receiving death threats from San Francisco fans via social media, e-mail, and even phone calls. Death threats, in general, are disgusting in the sports world. But considering what the San Francisco franchise has already dealt with this season, the threats are especially despicable.

Following a Giants baseball game in Los Angeles against the rival Dodgers, a San Francisco fan was attacked from behind and savagely beaten and kicked. His head was treated like a soccer ball and it resulted in severe skull fractures and brain damage. He was attacked simply because he had a Giants jersey on in "Dodger territory." A father of two is clinging to life in a cold hospital room because he was a Giant fan in Los Angeles.

San Franciso fans wondered with anger -- with damn good reason -- how someone could be so savagely beaten over baseball. How can so many lives be ruined simply because a man wore black and orange instead of Dodger blue? It's just baseball. It's a game.

Apparently it's only a game when it's convenient to you. Because now, with a chance to show that you fans get it, that you treat professional baseball as just a game, San Francisco fans -- and its general manager -- have failed miserably and pathetically. A play that happens all the time in baseball and that has resulted in many injuries to catchers and runners has now happened to the Giants. And it has resulted in ugly fan behavior once again.

These fans with the audacity to fire off a death threat to a player just trying to do his job need to get a clue. They need a little perspective. Maybe they ought to visit Bryan Stow -- the fan who was beaten within an inch of his life over a baseball game -- in the hospital and see what a death threat really looks like.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Witnessing a Miracle

Cleveland wide receivers Webster Slaughter and Reggie Langhorne celebrate after Slaughter caught a touchdown pass from Don Strock in the fourth quarter to defeat the Houston Oilers. The Browns' 28-23 victory earned them a playoff berth. December 18th, 1988. -- Plain Dealer photo
Witnessing a miracle
By Aaron M. Smith

The sharp frigid air cut at my face like a razor blade, but I couldn't wipe the smile off of my face. I had every reason to be uncomfortable in the bitter December air on the banks of Erie, but there was nowhere else on the planet where I'd rather be. I had seen this place on television many times and I had pictures of this cathedral on my bedroom wall. But there is something magical about walking into a stadium for the first time. The memories of my first time in Cleveland Municipal Stadium will never leave the recesses of my mind.

My brother Jeremy and I grew up watching football and we eventually clung to the Cleveland Browns even though my dad was a fan of the Cincinnati Bengals. Maybe we wanted to be different or maybe it was that awkward, side-arm slinging quarterback Bernie Kosar that captured our hearts. Kosar was a Byzantine Catholic. I was a Byzantine Catholic and until I found out about Kosar, the only Byzantine Catholics I knew were priests, gray-haired ladies that smelled like pierogies, and, of course, my own family. 

NFL players were mythical beings. They were athletes and celebrities trying to sell me Pepsi or aftershave on television. They were behemoths, running in slow motion while a baritone-voiced narrator spoke of magical places like The Frozen Tundra and Soldier Field. To me, football players were Vikings and Giants and Raiders. 

Now, one of them was a Byzantine Catholic. Like me.

Jeremy and I got the gift of a lifetime in December of 1988. Some friends from church informed us that they had two extra tickets to the Browns’ final game of the regular season – an AFC Central battle between the Browns and the hated Houston Oilers, coached by Jerry Glanville. We hated the Oilers as much as we loved the Browns. To make it even better, the Browns needed to pull out a victory at home to qualify to the playoffs. If they lost, the season was over.

That morning – Dec. 18, 1988 – I couldn’t sit still. Jeremy couldn’t stop talking about Kosar, upstart receiver Reggie Langhorn, legendary tight end Ozzie Newsome and the list went on. Unfortunately, Kosar had been injured the week before in a Monday-night loss to Dan Marino and the Miami Dolphins.

Kosar’s replacement was none other than Don Strock.

Don Strock?!

Who the hell was Don Strock, and why was he going to ruin our first Browns game together by starting in place of Kosar, our hero?  No worry though, we could still watch the relentless linebacker Clay Matthews, flashy receiver Webster Slaughter and reliable sure-handed Earnest Byner. It would certainly be a day to remember.

The late December afternoon in Cleveland was gray and cold. The game-time temperature was 22 degrees but the wind-chill factor was three below. The snow from the night before was plowed off of the green mud, and it formed mini white-capped mountains on the sidelines and in the stairwells of the cavernous Cleveland Municipal Stadium.

In other words, it was perfect for football.

We had seats near the 30 yard-line in the lower level. They couldn’t have been better. We were in perfect position to chuck icy snowballs at Warren Moon, Alonzo Highsmith and Curtis Duncan.

The game began with the Oilers taking early control. Don Strock annoyed us and the 80,000-plus fans by throwing an interception on the Browns’ first drive of the game. In fact, Strock threw three first-quarter interceptions as the Browns quickly found themselves down 16-7.

To make matters worse, the one touchdown the Browns scored in the first half, I missed because I had to use the bathroom. Jeremy has yet to let me live that down. I heard it was  great play and, upon seeing the replay, it certainly was.

Warren Moon dropped back to pass and was immediately pummeled by Browns linebacker David Grayson. The ball squirted loose and Michael Dean Perry scooped up the pigskin and rumbled into the end zone 15 yards away. The thrilling play occurred at the end of the field where we were sitting, and Jeremy got a great view of the celebration. I had a great view of a Municipal Stadium urinal.

At the end of the first half, Strock was showing signs of life, leading the Browns on a drive deep into Houston territory. However, Strock fumbled and an Oiler recovered the ball. Cleveland stumbled into halftime.

Nowadays, Jeremy isn’t what you would call an extreme optimist. But in 1988, he had no worries. 

“They’re coming back,” he said, mostly trying to convince himself that he would have fun at this game.

I was upset because the Browns looked horrible and their only touchdown happened without me to watch and enjoy. The game was awful. I was cold. I was hungry. But Jeremy somehow thought the game would take a turn for the better.

He was wrong.

On their first drive of the third quarter, the Oilers scored a touchdown that capped a convincing march down the frozen gridiron. The score was 23-7 and the Browns’ season seemed to be doomed.

Then it began to snow.

And snow, and snow and snow.

It was beautiful. The crowd, which had been taken out of the game, somehow drew strength from each tiny snowflake. The brownish-gray green mess the teams had been playing on quickly turned to a wonderful brownish-white. And then simply to white.

As the fans were resuscitated, so were the Browns.

Something had gotten into Don Strock, and he began completing pass after pass. Earnest Byner and Herman Fontenot got the ground-game working and things started to click for Cleveland.

The Browns drove the length of the field on their first possession of the second half, answering Houston’s score. Strock dropped back to pass from the 5 yard-line and found Byner wide open for Cleveland’s first offensive touchdown of the game. And I actually got to see it! Jeremy and I were high-fiving each other. We were hugging shirtless men who were smoking cigars and holding cups of frozen beer. Suddenly the Browns were back into the ballgame – 23-14. The stadium known as Pandemonium Palace began to live up to its billing.

Cleveland’s defense was inspired and thwarted the Oilers as the snow kept falling. The crowd began to sing “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow,” celebrating what they deemed the inevitable: a Cleveland comeback.

Strock again was nearly perfect. How could someone who was so out of sync in the first half look so flawless in the second? It was unbelievable. It was wonderful.

Again Cleveland methodically marched through the snow and Byner plowed in from 4 yards out to bring the Browns to within 23-21 early in the fourth quarter. The stadium was rocking. I was nearly in tears with a new level of excitement I never knew existed. It was incredible. Jeremy and I were in heaven and Don Strock unfathomably was God.

The Browns defense halted the Oilers again, whipping the crowd into a frenzy. We knew that when the Browns got the ball again, they would score the go-ahead touchdown. You could forget about a field-goal attempt in that snow. It would be nearly impossible.

Strock, waving his arms to silence the raucous crowd, picked apart the same Houston defense that made a fool of him in the first half. A pass to Slaughter. A dump-off to Fontenot. A slant to Langhorn. Strock was rolling.

On a critical fourth-down play inside Houston territory, Strock found a streaking Langhorn who somehow hung onto the ball after taking a forceful blow to the head. He limped off the field, but his stunning catch kept the Browns’ season alive.

From the Houston 22 yard-line with six minutes on the clock, Strock dropped back to pass, he looked to his right to pull the safety away from the middle of the field and then fired a strike to Slaughter, who ran a post on the left side. He caught the ball under a driving snowstorm and spiked the ball near the Dawg Pound.

Jeremy and I hugged. We slapped hands. We talked about how amazing that was. I was choked up. I didn’t know what to think. Was I really in heaven?

The Browns held on for the improbable win and earned a berth in the playoffs. But I wasn't thinking about that then. I wasn't thinking about much of anything. The incredible atmosphere swallowed me whole. The glow of the flakes in the lights of the old stadium lit up the dark December sky. The roar of the crowd filled my body and warmed my heart. 

In complete contrast to the raucous party taking place in the bleachers and in the streets of Cleveland, the star of the game limped quietly out of the stadium with only his daughter to keep him company. "Good game, Daddy," she said as they walked alone.

No, Mr. Strock. It was the most scintillating, emotional, gritty game you've ever played. And I am proud to have been a witness to the miracle at Municipal Stadium.