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Basketball Short Story
Paris, October 1997
Playing for Keeps, David Halberstam (2019)
In the fall of 1997, Michael Jeffrey Jordan, once of Wilmington, North Carolina, and now of Chicago, Illinois, arrived in Paris, France, with his team, the Chicago Bulls, to play a preseason tournament run by McDonald’s, one of his principal corporate sponsors, as well as a very important corporate sponsor of the National Basketball Association. Even though it featured some of the better European teams, the tournament was not, in terms of the level of play, likely to be competitive for a top NBA team like the Bulls. Nor was it supposed to be: It was a part of the NBA’s relentless and exceptionally successful attempt to showcase the game and its star players in parts of the world where basketball was gaining in popularity, particularly among the young. It was also done in no small part because it delighted the league’s corporate sponsors by opening up and solidifying critical international markets. Not surprisingly, the American players did not take the competition very seriously. (Nor did their announcers. When the Celtics played in the tournament a few years earlier, their longtime announcer, Johnny Most, a man who did not always have an easy time with the names of American players, gave up completely, and fans back in Boston were treated to, “And so the short guy with the mustache throws it in to the tall guy with the beard. ...”)
The Bulls arrived to play for the hamburger championship of the world, as they often did these days, with all the fanfare of a great touring rock band. They were the Beatles of basketball, one writer had said years before, and in fact they flew over in the 747 normally used by the Rolling Stones for their tours. There had been a time when Michael Jordan had regarded France as a kind of sanctuary, a place where he could vacation and escape the burden of his fame, sitting outdoors in front of a cafe and savoring the role of anonymous tourist. His appearance on the Olympic Dream Team five years earlier and his subsequent mounting international fame had ended that. His gross income had more than doubled, but he had lost Paris; he was as recognizable and as mobbed here as anywhere else. Huge crowds waited outside his hotel all day long hoping for the briefest glimpse of the man French journalists called the world’s greatest basketteur. At the games themselves, the French ball boys seemed unwilling to serve their own team and wanted to work only with the Bulls. Some of the French players inked Michael’s number, 23, on their sneakers as a means of commemorating their brush with greatness. At Bercy, the arena in which the games were played, copies of his uniform jersey sold for the equivalent of a mere eighty dollars.

L-R: Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippen
JORDAN AWAITED LIKE A KING read the headline announcing his arrival in the sports daily L’Equipe. The games had been sold out for weeks, and the French press seemed ready to give Jordan head-of-state treatment and cut him some slack — when, during a press conference, he confused the Louvre, a great museum, with the luge, a dangerous winter sport, no one came down hard on him, though it was just the kind of mistake an American might make that normally the French would have seized on with great enthusiasm, to show the barbarity of the new world. MICHAEL HAS CAPTURED PARIS said another newspaper, and a writer added, “The young Parisians lucky enough to get into the Bercy must have dreamed beautiful dreams, for their hero had been everything they could have hoped for.” Noting that Jordan was wearing his celebrated beret, journalist Thierry Marchand enthused, “We shall be able to call him Michel.” France-Soir went even further: “Michael Jordan is in Paris,” it said. “That’s better than the Pope. It’s God in person.” The games themselves were not, in fact, very good; if anything, they were just short of an embarrassment. The Bulls performed sluggishly but managed to beat Olympiakos Piraeus of Greece in the Final. Jordan’s celebrated teammates Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen were not there, and Toni Kukoc, once the best player in all of Europe, scored five points. Jordan scored twenty-seven, but was not pleased to have to play without two critically important teammates. Staying home would have been more restful, as his toe was infected. Jordan was well aware that the true triumph of Paris belonged less to him than to David Stern, the commissioner of the league. The tournament was not merely a reflection of the growing internationalization of the sport, which Stern helped engineer, but a celebration of the NBA’s connection with McDonald’s, one of America’s blue-chip companies.
Stern, surrounded by most of the NBA executive staff and all sorts of McDonald’s executives, had a wonderful time. Almost everybody in the basketball structure who was anybody had come. There was one notable exception, and that was the absence of Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ owner, who rarely showed at things like this. Stern had pushed Reinsdorf to come and enjoy some nachas, a Yiddish word for pleasure, but that kind of nachas did not seem to appeal to the Bulls’ owner, a man who seemed to prefer his privacy to the semidubious glitter and adulation that even an owner could be a part of at occasions like this. In addition, there had been a good deal of speculation at the last moment among the NBA people as to whether one other VIP, Dick Ebersol, the head of sports for NBC, would come. There was a powerful rumor sweeping Paris that even though the McDonald’s championship coincided with the start of the World Series, Ebersol, whose heart was said to belong to basketball rather than baseball, would come to Paris instead of sitting in some highly visible box seat being seen by his own cameras at the Series. Appropriately, given the symbiotic relationship between television and big-time sports, Stern and Ebersol were very close. Ebersol was wont to call Stern his boss, and Stern was wont to call Ebersol his. Stern was the most passionate and sophisticated of modern imagemakers, and it was Ebersol’s company that determined which images went out to the nation. Stern understood, as not everyone in the world of sports did yet, that image was more important than reality in their business. He monitored the league’s coverage of his sport very closely, and often seemed to take quite personally any departure on the part of the broadcasters and their cameras from what might be considered an image upgrade. In fact, when he had first ascended at the NBA, at a time when the league’s image was still largely negative, he had been famous for calling network executives on Monday to complain about any image downgrade that might have taken place on Sunday.
Both Ebersol and Stern had a shared stake in the good name and the public image of basketball, especially in the public behavior of its best players, and the two men had worked closely in a collaboration that had seen a dramatic rise in the popularity of the sport, and in time in its network ratings as well. That the question even arose of whether Ebersol would bag the World Series for exhibition basketball games against weak opponents in a foreign land for a cup handed out by a hamburger company showed how much the fortunes of the two sports had changed in recent years. This World Series, between Cleveland and Florida, did not, as it was about to begin, seem to the average fan a particularly tantalizing one; it seemed to lack the sense of a traditional rivalry, or at the least, some degree of geographical animosity. It pitted a Miami team, one that few fans knew very much about, against a Cleveland team that was talented but not well known. Neither team, to the general sports public, had yet created any kind of persona. There was no rivalry, neither historic nor geographic, between the two teams. Eventually Ebersol had stayed in America to watch the Series. Stern had teased him about that—“Dick, if you want to stay back in the States and watch the lowest-rated World Series in history, feel free to," he had said. (Stern was wrong: It was not the lowest-rated World Series; the one in 1993, when for the first time the NBA Finals had been rated higher than the World Series, was.)
Disappointing Ending to Auburn Series
If LSU doesn't host a regional despite finishing #5 in the SEC and perhaps winning a game in the conference tournament next week, one factor will be the careless pitching by Zach Hess in the 9th inning of the final game against Auburn.
  • Hess was two outs away from getting the save in a 4-2 victory Saturday to complete the much-needed sweep.
  • Then he walked Will Holland on four pitches, all of which he delivered quickly with his herky-jerk windup.
  • Ahead 0-2 to Matt Scheffler, Zach threw a batting practice fastball waist high down the middle that the Auburn C clouted into the LF bleachers to tie the game.
  • Two innings later, with Manieri still going with Hess, Holland doubled in the go-ahead run for the 5-4 win.

If you get the impression that Zach Hess is not my favorite LSU player, you win a purple popsicle.

  • Possessed with obvious talent, especially a fastball with movement, the lanky righthander is infuriatingly inconsistent.
  • After spending most of the year as the Friday night starter, he was moved to the bullpen.
  • His stats to end the regular season are unimpressive:
    5.00 ERA, 3 wins - 5 losses, 73 hits in 63 innings, 73 Ks but 30 BBs, .290 batting average against.
  • In a season with so many injuries to the pitching staff, LSU needed much more from Zach Hess.
  • Fans seem to love his confident manner, especially when he charges in from the bullpen. But the numbers don't lie. His performance doesn't warrant such arrogance.
  • He'll probably be drafted, but I won't be surprised if he is a project for his MLB team. The pros will want to reduce the motion in his windup and thereby get him to be more consistent.

LSU is fortunate to finish as high as they did in the SEC.

  • They gave up almost five earned runs a game (4.76 for all 56 games).
  • But hitting helped them amass a winning recod (34-22), scoring a little over five runs a game (5.28).

Manieri is an incredible 34-8 in the SEC Tournament during his tenure at LSU.

  • As the #5 seed, the Tigers are expected to win just one game - against #12 South Carolina Tuesday night.
  • The good news from the weekend is that Eric Walker and freshman Landon Marceaux pitched very well in the two victories over Auburn, both two-hitters.
Football Short Story
Hell - Part 2
The Junction Boys: How Ten Days in Hell with Bear Bryant Forged a Championship Team,
Jim Dent (1999)
September 1, 1954
It was the kind of deep silence you can feel on a dew-covered morning in the Virginia backwoods, or on a snowy mountaintop, or in the Texas Hill Country in the middle of the night when even the crickets have dozed off.
That stillness was shattered at 4:00 A.M. when Troy Summerlin sprinted through the first Quonset hut shining a flashlight and blowing a coach's whistle. Behind him rambled Billy Pickard, banging together two cook pots. The noise could have woken a dead man. ...
More than an hour later, with players now fitted with helmets and uniforms, they began lining up for calisthenics on the rugged field that had been partially cleaned but was still littered with rocks, cacti, and sandspurs. Not once could the boys remember practicing football in the dark, or having to dodge cactus, for that matter. The moment that Bryant's barracks door shot open, though, the sun popped over the tall, craggy hill overhead. ...
What Bryant saw in the first light of morning were ten rows of players wearing five different colored jerseys. Maroon was for the first team, white for the second, blue for third, orange for fourth, and yellow for the fifth-teamers and anyone else without a designation. From day one, Bryant wanted his players to understand exactly where they stood in the team's pecking order. The different colors created tension among the troops, and Bryant liked that.
They were a ragtag bunch of skinny boys with drooping pants and scarred-up helmets. Not once in his coaching or playing career had Bryant seen more pathetic equipment. The inner suspension of several helmets had either frayed or broken through. Heads would be cracking against the hard plastic. Many of the Plexiglas face masks didn't fit properly and wobbled when the boys ran down the field. In spite of the stifling heat, players wore long-sleeve jerseys. Somebody had forgotten to pack the short-sleeve ones. ...

L-R: Bear Bryant, Frank Leahy, Richard Vick, Elwood Kettler
The sun had climbed far into the pale blue sky and the gravel pit known as the practice field was dotted with orange juice stains when the 80y wind sprints, also known as gassers, finally ended. More than 20 times the boys had chugged to the other end of the field, taken a short break, and then wobbled back, stirring up clouds of thick dust. Just as Bryant predicted, the boys were vomiting everything in their stomachs - the orange juice, vitamins, and salt tablets. Bryant seemed happy to see the boys bent over and puking so early in the morning.
A big part of the master plan was to shock their systems and separate the quitters from the keepers.Meanwhile, the Man would also demonstrate how he organized and executed precision practices. When he sounded a whistle, the boys would break up into eight groups to participate in different drills. The assistant coaches ... carried clipboards and were in charge of leading the drills while Bryant moved from station to station, riding herd. Only a handful of coaches around the country ran such regimented practices. Bryant patterned part of his plan after Frank Leahy, the legendary coach who'd just retired from Notre Dame. At the sound of Bryant's whistle, players moved like clockwork to different drills. Bryant had already gained a reputation as a brutal taskmaster. But at least he was systematically brutal. ...
Standing with his hands on his hips, monitoring a drill run by Zapalac, Bryant began to holler, "No, Willie! Get the sonofabitch into a stance like this and bring the forearm up like this." Shoving Zapalac aside, Bryant hiked his pants and dropped into a three-point stance. Charging forward, he thrust a forearm into the sternum of unwitting center Richard Vick, lifting him a foot off the ground. The breath could be heard whooshing from Vick's lungs as he landed with a thud on his back. Bryant smiled. He was just getting warmed up.
Minutes later, Bryant watched a two-on-one blocking drill that was getting the best of Henry Clark, a tall and broad-shouldered tackle ... Clark's objective was to penetrate the wall of blockers and tackle the running back. Henry was failing miserably. As he gasped for air, Bryant could see his legs wobbling from near-exhaustion. With each snap, Henry was engaged by a fresh set of blockers, and each time he was knocked backward and pancaked to the ground by both men. Henry's body was raising a dust cloud almost waist-high every time he landed flat on his back.
Bryant grabbed the big tackle by the shoulder pads and shouted, "What is your name, son?"
Breathing heavily, the boy said, "H-Henry Clark."
Bryant released the boy and blew his whistle. "I want all of you sonsabitches on this practice field to stop and listen up, because this boy tells me his name is H-Henry Clark. Now I want you to see how a fart blossom named H-Henry Clark handles himself."
The players could see Henry's legs trembling as he dropped into his stance. A small running back named Charles Hall spoke up. "How can we all stand here while this man abuses our teammate like this?"
"Shut up, fool," Elwood Kettler said, "or you'll be next."
Again Clark crumpled beneath the weight of two blockers. He was dragging himself to his feet when Bryant grabbed the boy's jersey and spun him around. Seizing the inner part of his shoulder pads with both hands, Bryant pulled Henry's face close to his. "You ain't worth tits on a boar hog. And you call yourself a Texas Aggie football player."
The man with the leather exterior had rehearsed in his mind this little theater that would teach all the boys a lesson in toughness. He ripped Henry's helmet from his head and grabbed the back of the boy's head with two meaty hands. "Now I'm gonna show you how to do this goddamn drill." Bryant then butted Henry in the hose with his forehead. He yanked his head forward again and again, bashing his skull into Henry's nose, lips, and eyes. Blood poured down Henry's neck and began to soak his white jersey. Even from 40y away, players could hear the sickening thud as Bryant's forehead slammed into the boy's face. Finally, Henry fell like a sack of potatoes onto the hard ground.
Stumbling forward, blood smeared across his forehead, Bryant breathed heavily as he turned toward the team. "Trainers! Get your butts over here and fix this boy's broken nose." The coach had three cuts on his forehead.
Henry's shattered nose had been shoved an inch to the right. Blood flowed from his gashed lips. Soon his eyes would be swollen shut. First, though, Smokey Harper had to wake him up. Snapping an ammonia capsule, Smokey crammed it into one of Henry's blood-caked nostrils. "Stand back," Smokey said, acting as if he'd lit a firecracker. "He'll be shakin' and rattlin' any minute." But Henry couldn't inhale the harsh amonia for the coagulated blood. So Billy Pickard pulled a large swath of cotton from his bag and began clearing the breathing passage. Billy snapped another capsule about an inch from Henry's nose, and he jerked awake.
Standing a few feet away, Bryant said, "Billy, fix his nose and tape him up. Give him a little break. But I want him back on the field before this practice is over."
[Postscript: Henry Clark made the 1954 Aggie team as an offensive lineman.]
Lou Brock: It's All in the Mind's Eye
Redbirds Revisited: Great Memories and Stories from St. Louis Cardinals,
David Craft and Tom Owens (1990)
In retelling the story of how Lou Brock first became interested in baseball, it's important to highlight the "growling tummy" factor.
In the small, one-room school house in rural Louisiana, where he soon learned the third "R" (as readin', 'ritin' and ...) could also stand for "redemption," a young Lou Brock once misdirected a spitwad meant for a female classmate but which hit the teacher behind her ear. To redeem himself, the little mischief maker was required to research the lives of several big league baseball players - Stan Musial and Jackie Robinson among them - and deliver a report to the rest of the class.
"That was the punishment, to read to the rest of the class," Brock said of that childhood incident. "And it was a punishment, too, standing before all these people and trying to read about something I knew little about. Baseball. Wasn't anything exciting about that. Just a bunch of grown men chasing a little ball around a field. But in stumbling through what I'd read about these ballplayers, I guess there was this one paragraph that stated these guys got something like $8 to $10 a day meal money. This was an economically-poor rural community, remember, and one thing school kids identified with was lunch. Eating. A meal.
"I had trouble gettin' a quarter for meal money and these guys were gettin' maybe forty quarters a day. I thought, 'Wow! Can you believe that?' That stayed with me, and I wanted to learn more about baseball."
Brock chuckles when he tells the story, but he is quick to add that the experience of having to recite information to his classmates was incentive enough to settle down in school.
"I never wanted to be put in that situation again," Brock said.
Something else happened to Brock not long afterward that drew him into the game of baseball to stay. A city sandlot team of older youths and young men had formed, and twelve-year-old Lou would go to see them play.
"I was always fascinated by the sound of a ball off a bat," Brock said. "To this day, to me, there is no greater sound than a bat hitting a baseball in an open field or park. It's a sound that breaks you into what I call a fantasy world where you begin to - not daydream - but, rather, live through your mind's eye.
"As I sat there watching and listening, a lot of wonderful things would come racing across my mind's eye. What's beautiful about that is that you can be the fielder, the pitcher, the hitter, all the things you might be doin' if you could have a chance to be out there on the field."
One day, Brock got that chance. The right fielder didn't show up for a practice game. Another player was needed. A yell rang out, "Hey, kid! Can you play ball?"
In his mind's eye, Lou Brock had played ball a thousand times. He answered with a resounding "Yeah!" and ran onto the field.
If the ball is hit to you, the older players told him, wait till it stops rolling and then pick it up and throw it in. Instead, he charged the first ball knocked in his direction.
"And that ball hit me all over," Brock remembered, "but I picked it up, threw it in, and the ball sort of sailed. I'm not sure how I even held it. When the inning was over they asked me if I could make the ball do that again. In my mind's eye, I had done it before, so I told 'em, 'Sure.' So they had me take the mound, but the ball would never do that for me again. I tried, but I could never make it sail like a cut fastball again.
"Yet based on that time and place, I became a pitcher on that sandlot team. And I continued to pitch clear through high school. But still, it was the sound of the bat on the ball that fascinated me and got me involved."
As he matured, Brock played most, if not all, nine positions on the diamond. A left-handed thrower as well as left-handed hitter, Brock even tried his hand at shortstop for one game. ("It wasn't a difficult throw, either," he insists, "despite what people say.")
Brock was primarily a pitcher until he reached college. Once enrolled at Southern University in Baton Rouge, he tried out for the outfield. Opposing hitters, then, must have figured out his pitching repertoire.
"Repertoire? I threw the express," Brock said, smiling. "Only the express."
Brock's development as a good, all-round amateur athlete at Southern caught the attention of some people in key places, and Brock was chosen for the baseball squad representing the United States in the 1959 Pan-American Games. He remembers getting "a couple hits" for an American team that took home a bronze medal.
Coincidentally, Wrigley Field in Chicago which mathematics major Brock saw during the Pan-Am Games, became his first major league home after he signed with the Cubs in 1961. And it was no surprise that the perennial also-rans were anxious to bring the budding star to the big leagues. All he did at St. Cloud was lead the Northern League in hitting (.361); runs (117); hits (181); doubles (33) and, on defense, in putouts, with 277. For that Brock received the league's "Rookie of the Year" award.
Lou played reasonably well for the Cubs in the early 1960s, but in June of 1964 the club dealt him, along with pitchers Jack Spring and Paul Toth, to St. Louis for pitchers Ernie Broglio and Bobby Shantz, and outfielder Doug Clemens. Brock and Broglio were the key figures in the deal. The Cubs wanted to improve their mound corps, and Broglio, who went 18-8 with a 2.99 ERA for St. Louis in 1963, appeared to fit the bill.
For their part the Cardinals desperately needed a catalyst for their sputtering offense and a speed merchant to help in the outfield, and team officials felt Lou Brock was their man on both counts.
"There was one cheerful reporter who covered the story," Brock said. "I don't remember who he was working for at the time. He'd say, 'We like you' while his smile during our interview said, 'We're glad to see you go because we're getting a great pitcher [in Broglio].'
"That young reporter, maybe on his first assignment, was Brent Musburger," Brock added, breaking into a grin. "To this day, whenever I see Brent, I always rub it in."

About This Site
This site is devoted primarily but not exclusively to college and pro football. The unique feature of this site is the publication each fall of the author's rankings of all FBS college football teams and similar rankings for the NFL. I live in New Orleans and am a graduate of LSU and FSU. So I present a Southern and particularly an SEC point of view but one that is reasonably objective. I also publish a monthly Football Magazine with stories from the past and a monthly Baseball Magazine with a similar format. During the winter and spring, there's a monthly Basketball Magazine.

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