Random thoughts of a conflicted sports fan

The Golden 1 Center in downtown Sacramento is a fine place to watch a basketball game. I went there Friday evening to watch the McClatchy girls’ team play for the Division 1 state title. Given the small crowd, the steep upper deck was closed off, and a $10 senior-citizen ticket put me in a prime viewing area. I enjoyed the intensity of the players and the excitement of the crowd. The game was tight until Windward, from west Los Angeles,  went on a run in the final six minutes to take the title. Still, it was a pleasure to see McClatchy at the championship level.

I can’t say I had a world-class, $255 million experience (the starting cost to Sacramento taxpayers to build the arena), although the $10 hot dog and $5 bottled water gave me a taste of the pretentious  ambience that envelops the venue. The thing is, I was perfectly content watching high school playoffs at Sleep Train Arena, the former home of the Sacramento Kings. Heck, I was excited watching McClatchy play in its small school gym just a few blocks from my home.

Who needs a sparkling arena loaded with high-tech equipment, an 84-foot-long scoreboard and farm-to-fork organic produce to watch a ballgame? What kind of value system is at work here and what’s it say about the city of Sacramento, where homeless people die on the grounds of nearby City Hall?

Grumble, grumble.

The NCAA Tournament has provided some terrific basketball games, but I find it hard to keep the unsavory stuff in the background. All through the Kansas-Oregon game in the Elite Eight round on Saturday, I kept thinking about the criminal investigations involving a number of Kansas players.

There was an alleged rape at the team’s on-campus dorm; a player was suspended in December after he was arrested on a charge of domestic battery; another player has been accused of vandalizing the car of a female student. Kansas coach Bill Self circled the wagons and downplayed the multiple problems. Oregon’s 74-60 victory over Kansas seemed to have some karmic significance.

Sunday’s game pitting North Carolina against Kentucky, a classic thriller with an astounding final minute, involved two universities doing their best to compromise the idea of college education.

North Carolina, the 75-73 victor, has been mired in an embarrassing six-year! investigation into academic fraud involving basketball and football players. Instead of being ashamed of a phony-class scheme, the university has the effrontery to claim the NCAA is blowing the case out of proportion.

Kentucky coach John Calipari, bless his heart, is quite willing to defend his one-and-done recruiting approach as a benefit to players caught between competing interests of the NBA and big-time college programs. Los Angeles Times writer Mike Hiltzik aptly says universities that tolerate such a system are “prostituting their academic standards.”

Meanwhile, let the Final Four drumroll begin.

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From the dentist’s drill to parking-lot woes

mustangdamageWhen you leave a dentist’s office, things should start to pick up. Such was not the case this week.

Monday morning, I drove over to a trendy section of east Sacramento, parked my 2014 Mustang in the dentist’s half-filled lot and prepared myself mentally to get two fillings and a crown replacement. I thought I had been taking reasonably good care of my not-so-good teeth, but my teeth genes are questionable. My father periodically told the story of giving up on his teeth in his 30s and having them all extracted in one day. He spent a year gumming his food before he was ready for dentures.

My hour in the dental chair went smoothly enough. The dentist and his assistant were competent and caring. Neither asked me complicated questions when I couldn’t possibly answer. I was free to meditate on the lack of good dental-insurance plans in American society. Indeed, our free-choice system means I can choose between little or no coverage. I pay out-of-pocket, as I do for vision care. Monday’s bill came to $1,500. Factor such things into your retirement planning, folks.

Anyway, I left the dentist’s office hopeful my teeth would hold up for a couple of years. I walked over to my Mustang — and suddenly felt confused. The driver’s-side mirror looked odd. In fact, there was no mirror – just the frame hanging at an odd angle. The door had a dent and a scrape. I found the mirror and broken plastic on the ground.

Not again, I thought with a touch of despair. Three months ago, my lightly driven Mustang lost its innocence when a pickup driver sideswiped it in midtown Sacramento. He stuck around to exchange unpleasantries. I filed a claim with my insurance company, which paid more than $3,000 for repairs. I had to fork over $500 to cover my deductible.

This week, the offending party fled the scene – or maybe just shrugged and disappeared into a rat hole. I didn’t waste too much time indulging in revenge fantasies. Too many creeps have been given license to do and say lousy things these days. I choose not to be riled up every waking moment.

I drove home carefully, avoiding sudden lane changes. I called my insurance company. The representative was pleasant. I knew the routine and felt none of the anxiety I had the first time around. Within 90 minutes, I had delivered my car to the body shop and gotten a rental.

I sighed about the prospect of paying another $500 deductible and hoped my policy rate wouldn’t jump when renewal time arrived. Even though I was the victim in both mishaps, the insurer might assume I had bad karma. Long ago, a cold-hearted company canceled my homeowners insurance after burglars hit my house twice in a year.

Meanwhile, I feel an irrational resentment toward my Mustang. This cool car was supposed to bring me fun times, not headaches.  I drove an aging Toyota Camry for years without suffering the dings and dents of outrageous fortune. My Irish side has long warned me against putting on the dog. Maybe a humble car is in my future.

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Those who take clutch shots, and those who don’t

basketballPrinceton’s Devin Cannady could have been the hero last week, but he missed a three-pointer in the closing seconds of an upset bid against Notre Dame in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. He had a relatively open shot; the ball clanged off the rim.

“It was a good look,” Cannady told reporters. “It’s a shot I’ve taken before. But the ball didn’t fall like I wanted it to.”

And what now for the Princeton sophomore?

Will that missed shot haunt him for the rest of his life? Will he use failure as fuel for success? Will he shrug it off with a win-some, lose-some mentality?

The impact of buzzer-beating shots on players’ lives was explored in a half-page article in the New Yok Times Sunday.  Even a clutch shot in childhood can have long-lasting impact.

Arkansas guard Daryl Macon was 14, a freshman at Parkview High School in Little Rock, when he hit a 3-pointer to send a game into triple overtime. He was not a starter, and he did not even play in that third overtime. But he said he leaned on that moment throughout his high school career.

“I was just 5-foot-5 as a freshman,” Macon said. “I had my doubts whether I was going to be a player or not. I made that shot and I remember thinking: Maybe I have something. Maybe I have what it takes.”

Although the focus falls on the crunch-time shooter, I also wonder about players who decide not to take the big shot. In the Princeton game, Cannady’s teammate Amir Bell, a junior, seemed to have an opportunity for a pull-up jumper from 15 feet despite close guarding. He might have made the shot or gotten fouled. Instead, he chose to pass off to Cannady for a long-distance shot. Was it pure basketball reflex on Bell’s part or fear of taking the big shot?

In the NCAA championship final last year, Villanova senior guard Ryan Arcidiacono dished off to teammate Kris Jenkins in the final seconds. Jenkins made an electrifying three-pointer to win the game. If Jenkins had missed, Arcidiacono’s decision might have looked questionable. He was the senior, he had the opportunity, and yet he passed on it.

Even the great Michael Jordan might have been second-guessed for passing off to Steve Kerr in Game 6 of the 1997 NBA Finals. Jordan was Mr. Clutch for the Chicago Bulls and had already made two game-winners in the series against Utah. Fortunately, Kerr made the buzzer-beater, giving the championship to the Bulls.

I had only one buzzer-beating moment in all of my grade-school and high-school playing days. I can still see the small fifth-floor gym at P.S. 33 in Queens Village. I was an eighth-grader on the Our Lady of Lourdes team, and we were playing St. Mary’s for the CYO league championship. We were down by two points and called a timeout in the frantic final seconds. The coach said there was a split second left on the clock.

“Just get the ball and heave it,” he told me. “You don’t have time for a real shot.”

I did exactly that from about 25 feet out. The ball hit the backboard and went into the basket, tying the game. ( No three-pointers back then.)  We won easily in overtime.

I felt no emotion at all. I just stared at the ball hanging in the net. It was a lucky heave I couldn’t duplicate in a hundred later throws at the playground. It wasn’t my skill and practice paying off under pressure. Still, the shot gave me confidence that good things would happen if I stuck with the game of basketball.



Posted in Basketball | 4 Comments

The Sacramento Kings and “the integrity of the game”

“The integrity of the game is everything.”

You hear that line in sports a lot, especially when bad stuff taints the public perception of athletic competition. Nothing like the whiff of a point-shaving scandal to set off panic buttons. The slightest manipulation of the score can get folks sent to prison. Can you imagine the scandal if games themselves were thrown? Or even if there were suspicion of such a thing?

My goodness, little kids would be crying on street corners, pleading with stars to “say it ain’t so, Joe.” Prosecutors would be racing for the courtroom. Newspapers would be running withering editorials about the failure of a basic social contract.

But what does it mean to throw a game? Is it a conspiracy among players to make sure they lose? Could it be a coach’s decision to play bench-warmers? Might it involve a suggestion from executives or owners that winning isn’t in the team’s best interest?

I ask these questions because I wonder what’s going on with Sacramento Kings. It’s bad enough they have a 27-41 record and have lost eight of 11 games since DeMarcus Cousins was dumped, but is it possible they’re now playing with the hope of losing each game? Even worse, are there forces at work within the team organization to try to make that happen?

I must say I was amazed to see the following observations in Monday’s Sacramento Bee:

Kings’ management has no incentive to win games down the stretch. More losses mean the team has a better chance of keeping its top-10 protected draft pick.

 These comments were made in a story by Jason Jones, the Bee reporter assigned to cover the Kings. He was explaining the announcement by Kings coach Dave Joerger to sit out three key players – Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos and Ty Lawson – in a game against the Orlando Magic Monday evening at Golden 1 Center.  Orlando is a team about as weak as the Kings, so why would the coach rest three regulars when the odds were good for a win?

Jones notes the lowly Kings have a questionable history of putting victory first.

Setting a not-so-strong lineup with the draft in mind is not new for the Kings. The team held starters out of games late last season to help keep their top-10 protected draft pick.    

One of those games was the season finale. The Kings had the opportunity to play the classic “spoiler” role by beating the Houston Rockets and giving Utah a shot at the final West playoff spot. Instead of making an honest effort, the Kings “rested” their three best players. The Rockets’ 35-point victory gave them a playoff spot. Jazz fans were left to ponder the integrity of the pro game.

For better or worse, the Kings managed to snatch a 120-115 victory against Orlando on Monday as well as win against the lowly Phoenix Suns last night. Makes you wonder whether the players have a goal different from that of management.

Basketball fans who value the integrity of the game would do well to go to the NCAA Tournament games on tap at Golden 1 Center tomorrow and Sunday or the upcoming high school championships. All-out effort toward a goal of victory is a virtual certainty at every game.

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Trump presidency poses challenge for investors

“Be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.”

I’ve been thinking about Warren Buffett’s advice to investors as I try to figure out how to play the Trump presidency. Like many folks these days, I’m uneasy about the economy and the stock market. As a middle-class retiree, I have modest resources. I’d like to see my safe-and-sane portfolio hold up at least through the estimated 14.4 years I have left on the planet.

Let me break my train of thought here. I got that number via a Social Security life-expectancy calculator. The site made sure I understood that figure reflected the “average number” of years on tap for a man of 71 years and three months. Heck, with my workout routine I could live to be 100 — or die tomorrow. Such unknowns make financial planning rather dicey.

Despite the so-called “Trump bump” in the markets – the S&P 500 is up about 5 percent this year and 13 percent since the election – many financial analysts warn investors to be cautious. The stock market doesn’t like uncertainty, they say, and the direction of this administration is difficult to fathom. The president’s pugnacious style also raises fears of a destabilizing geopolitical event.

As an anti-Trump guy, it would give me satisfaction to make some money at the expense of his abhorrent policies toward immigrants and foreigners. Trump has taken aim at Mexicans and wants to keep them out of this country by building a monstrosity of a wall along our southern border. He also is demanding that Mexico pay for this barrier.

Analysts believe Trump wants a 1,000-mile-long, 40-foot-high concrete wall. This would require 7.1 million cubic meters of concrete, at a cost of about $700 million. The estimated overall construction cost is $15 billion to $25 billion.

Well, here’s an ironic twist: Analysts at Bernstein Research have concluded the biggest winner would be Cemex, which as the name suggests, is Mexican and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of building materials, including cement and ready-mix concrete.

Since it isn’t economically feasible to transport heavy building materials over long distances, Cemex, with production facilities and aggregate plants near the border, has a strong advantage over competitors.

By contrast, my liberal politics would dissuade me from investing in the Geo Group and CoreCivic, two companies that don’t signal their primary business: operating for-profit prisons and immigration detention centers for states and the federal government.

The worse the news for immigrants, the better it has been for these companies, said business columnist Jeff Sommer in Sunday’s New York Times. Since the election, CoreCivic’s stock price has climbed 120 percent, and Geo’s has gained 80 percent.

Investor expectations that the actual business of incarceration and detention will expand under Trump have fueled their levitating share prices, Sommer said.

It will take work to play the Trump presidency and feel good about myself.

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