1) While watching the UNC women punch their ticket to the final four the other night, I was thinking about Jackie Stiles. Stiles, some of you may remember, was the star of the Southwest Missouri women's team that made an improbable run to the women's final four in 2001. She was the most exciting woman I have ever seen play the game, with the possible exception of Sheryl Swoopes when Swoopes was at Texas Tech. Stiles was not especially tall, I think about 5' 8", much shorter than some of the rangy women who've dominated the women's game, like Cheryl Miller, Chamique Holdsclaw and now Candace Parker. But, she had a tremendous all-court game - an ability to drive hard to the basket and a deadly jump shot. And, she's the only woman I can think of who had a deadly step-back jumper a la Bird or Jordan, the result of uncommon upper body strength and coordination. Stiles was a treat and, for two weeks in March of 2001, a national sensation.
It happens that Page Two's Jeff Pearlman was on the case, with a piece ten days ago on Stiles. Pearlman describes Stiles' magical 2001 tournament thusly:
She played for a school that everyone pooh-poohed, and with good reason: What the hell was Southwest Missouri State? And did it even have a women's basketball team? So when opponents faced the Bears, they were really facing Jackie Stiles. Stop her -- you win.
Stop her -- yeah, right.
Stiles, who remains the only woman to score more than 1,000 points in a single season, is the best college basketball player I have ever seen. Not the best female. The best -- period. Stiles created her own shot unlike any guard around; found open spaces with a mouse's intuition. In that 2001 NCAA Tournament, she scored 32 points in a second-round upset of Rutgers, then torched top-ranked Duke for 41 in an 81-71 shocker. She followed that up with 32 against Washington to reach the Final Four. Though the Bears lost there to Purdue 81-64, Stiles still scored 22.
"It was the most amazing ride of my life," Stiles says. "The best time I've ever had. I mean, who thought we could beat Duke? Nobody. Who thought we were a Final Four team? Nobody." Stiles still recalls arriving at the airport in Springfield, Mo., after toppling Washington to advance to the Final Four. "People were packed wall to wall," she says. "It took us three hours to get through a 10-gate airport. There was so much … love."
But, as Pearlman tells it, It's a sad story, actually. Stiles was WNBA rookie of the year in 2001-2002, but had so beaten up her body playing basketball that, despite thirteen surgeries over three years, Stiles never played a WNBA game after August of 2002 and has struggled to come to terms with the premature end of her career since. It's a nice piece.
2) Mike Wise has an article today in the Washington Post insisting that:
For all the retro references and nostalgia Georgetown's NCAA tournament run has produced, the Final Four has one underlying old-school message:
College makes big men better.
Three of the four universities playing this weekend in Atlanta start bona fide low post men who quantifiably improved their games by remaining in school. They also developed an appreciation for the pivot almost nonexistent for young players at the next level. College, not the NBA, made Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford, Georgetown's Roy Hibbert and Ohio State's Greg Oden the rarest of centers: big men who actually play like big men, who want to be big men.
You can eventually learn footwork and when to shoot a baby hook at the next level; you can't learn how to be an ogre, how to be a beast underneath, how to physically dominate the competition.
How much Kobe Bryant or LeBron James would have gotten out of college from strictly a basketball perspective is debatable; their games translated almost immediately. But there's no question Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry would have learned something -- for instance, how to play their position.
A few points. One, it's not clear to me that Eddy Curry's problem is that he doesn't know how to play his position. If there's one thing Curry is obviously good at, it's his ability to plant his posterior in the low post and score very effectively from that position. HIs indifferent defense and poor passing skills may have been improved in college, though I am unconvinced. But, he's about as traditional big-man scorer as there is in the NBA today, so not a very good example. As for Kwame, I don't know whether he would have developed had he gone to college, but neither does Wise. But, I can think of a number of big men who have done just fine bypassing college - including three of the best in the NBA - Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett and Amare Stoudamire. Now, Wise might argue that Nowitzki and Garnett aren't classic big men, in that they play facing the basket as much as they play with their backs to it. But, one would be hard-pressed to put Stoudamire in that category and, besides, though Oden and Hibbert are more classic center types, I will be very surprised if Noah is a classic low-post player at the next level and I am not sure Hibbert is going to be that good. What's the point: that Wise is playing very loose with his categories. If he's arguing that big men can't go straight to the NBA and do well, he's obviously wrong. If he's arguing that classic low-post players can't go straight to the NBA, he's included in his final four list one and maybe two players (Noah and Horford), who don't really fit that definition. (Noah and Horford are certainly not more classical bigs than Stoudemire or Dwight Howard who's also been a terrific NBA player). And, if like many people in the past few days, he's taking this opportunity to lament the lack of classic big men in basketball today, that strikes me as having nothing to do with whether kids are going straight to the NBA or not. Since Tim Duncan entered the league ten years ago, can you name a classic big man who's come into the league one way or another? The game has evolved, and classic post seven-footers have become more and more rare. Why is that? I don't know. But, with sample sizes approaching zero, it's hard to draw any meaningful conclusions about whether lack of college is a culprit.
Furthermore, maybe Hibbert needed the time in college to develop, but to insist that Greg Oden's twenty odd games in college is the make or break reason behind his presumptively big future in the NBA is to take hypothetical reasoning beyond the breaking point.
It's of ongoing fascination to me that so many pundits are so convinced, on so little evidence, that skipping school is such a detriment to future NBA players. And, I can't help but note, too, that much of the nostalgia we're hearing this week about how nice it is to see the return of the classic centers and how their passing represents one more sign of decline in American basketball, seems to directly contradict one of the most common laments about why the US doesn't do well any longer in international competition. We all know that the rest of the world isn't producing traditional low-post players. Instead, their bigs all play facing the basket and shoot effectively from the outside and the fact that we don't have such versatile big men is our downfall.
When a notion takes hold - like the supposedly imminent crisis facing social security - no amount of pointing out how thin the evidence is can dislodge it.
3) Fire Joe Morgan does a really nice dissection of a lame cheap-shot column on Monday by the Globe's Dan Shaughnessy on Curt Schilling. Schilling has started his own blog, and Shaughnessy's column is a mock rendering of what some of the submissions to the blog might look like. In addition to being a tiresome grump, Shaughnessy's guilty of one of the worst sins a journalist can commit - thinking that he's the story. Shaughnessy's taken this to such an extreme that he can't even see anymore that his personal feud with Curt Schilling just has nothing to do with what Shaughnessy's job should be - to actually talk about the baseball team he's supposedly covering, rather than wasting whole columns grinding embarassingly petty axes that have no baseball relevance at all.
Anyway, here's FJM's take:
Shaughnessy wrote this column because Curt Schilling has started a blog, 38pitches.com, so that he can communicate directly with his fans. Seems like a good thing to do. Why not? Unfortunately, Shaughnessy, it appears to me, has now seen the writing on the wall for muck-raking journalists like himself, who have careers mostly because they get access to athletes beyond that of the general public and thus get to poke and prod them for quotes and then write articles detailing their every move. If the athletes get to talk right to their public, what use is there for middlemen like ol' Danny? Some real estate agents are going to disappear eventually because of on-line video tours of houses. Brokers took a hit from e-Trade. Brick-and-mortar bookstores suffered from Amazon. The internet is a highly effective middleman reducer.
Now, far be it from me to downplay the role of journalists in sports reporting. There are many good ones, and I personally enjoy the old-timeyness of the on-site reporter. And, just as in politics, I believe that the public does benefit from professional prodders professionally prodding athletes. (I wish they had prodded more over the last 20 years, when it must have been blindingly clear that everyone in the league was juicing and not one single journalist had the guts to report it. Or even raise it as an issue. Their fancy journalism degrees didn't serve them -- or us -- very well then, did they?) But I also, as you might imagine, see the great benefit in the personal blog. It simply cannot be a bad thing to have more outlets for athlete-fan communication, if for no other reason than giving the average $80 ticket-buyers a chance to speak directly with those whose services we are paying to see.
Shaughnessy thinks differently. He thinks blogs are for nerds who live in their mom's basements. He thinks Schilling is just an attention-seeking glory hound. (Which I'm sure has nothing to do with the fact that Schilling has been critical of the media in Boston.) He thinks this whole blogging business is something to sneer at, deride, dismiss, and ridicule. And that is why he is a dinosaur who will grow up to be more bitter and miserable than he already is.
I'll let you read the rest for yourself, but FJM does an especially nice job of comparing Shaughnessy's mocking implication that every one who writes to Schilling must be a sycophant to many of the actual questions Schilling gets on his blog, which are good, incisive questions that demonstrate a level of familiarity with newer approaches to understanding baseball that, as I have suggsted previously, Shaughnessy has not bothered to keep up with. (Since, after all, he's too busy thinking that his beef with Schilling is more important than his bothering to learn anything new about the game of baseball itself).