April 9, 2012 – 12:15am
30,000 miles above South Carolina
Funny baseball story about Josh Gibson, one of the greatest to ever play, the legendary slugging catcher and all-time Negro League homerun champion.
His home runs, in the pre-television age, were the stuff of the-fish-was-this-big hyperbolic yarn. The story goes that one day in Pittsburgh he hit a ball so far out of the ballpark, no one ever saw it come down. So the next day, with his team playing another game hundreds of miles away, let’s say Harrisburg for the sake of the story, Gibson hits a towering pop fly that takes so long to come down, everyone loses it for a few seconds. When it finally reappears and eventually lands in an infielder’s glove, the umpire turns to Gibson and says “You’re out…yesterday…in Pittsburgh.”
Point is, it’s been kind of a long day. I was in Tampa at the Frozen Four last night and left there this morning, I’m about to land in Miami and head to the hotel to sleep. That wouldn’t seem like much of a thing until I add that in between, there was a Celtics game in Boston and about 94 minutes of sleep.
So right now, I feel like that Josh Gibson home run from Pittsburgh, about to crash down after a long day’s journey that will only end up as something like 250 miles of net yardage.
And the point is, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. That’s how much I love the Frozen Four.
But let’s save that for last, since it’s so 27 hours ago and start with the Celtics, who in six weeks have gone from two games under .500 and four games out of first, to a three game division lead with now just ten games to play.
The stories in my hockey-related absence this week were two, Ray Allen’s removal from the starting lineup, and Doc Rivers verbal beat-down of his squad. Both of which came on Thursday.
I’ll reserve judgment on Doc’s tirade, other than to say coaches have the most impact doing it when they don’t make a habit of it. And I think there was at least a little method to that particular madness. With the calendar growing short, 19 days until the playoff opener, and the very clear understanding that the Celtics can compete with anybody, but no longer with anything less than meticulous effort.
The Ray Allen-to-the-bench decision to me, was if not a no-brainer, pretty close. The dilemma to me was whether to do it to put Avery Bradley in the lineup. When Mickael Pietrus went down with that gruesome concussion in Philadelphia 16 days ago, I’m convinced he was headed for the starting lineup in place of Ray, maybe as early as the next game. I’m not going to bash Ray’s defense. He’s battled hard the last few years the likes of Dwayne Wade and Kobe Bryant (hello…6-for-24 in Game 7 anyone? The Celtics win that game, and Ray’s defense that night becomes part of NBA lore). But it was time for the move, not to mention now you have a hall of famer coming off the bench, he’ll still get the key crunch-time minutes and mid-game minutes against other bench players. He will thrive in this role, and it could end up extending a career that doesn’t appear close to winding down anyway. Mentioned this on the broadcast a few months ago, but Reggie Miller retired with 2,560 threes. Ray, sitting at 2,711, heading into the Miami game Tuesday, has a shot at becoming the NBA’s first Mr. 3,000. Perspective? Yeah, that would be like someone hitting 900 home runs.
(Someone say, like Josh Gibson**, who might have had they let him play in the majors from the time he was 19. John Gibson rant coming on soon…can’t stop it….)
But first, the fun stuff…the numbers. One of the added features of the New Big Three Era has been documenting their final, wet cement steps into the concrete of the all-time records en route to the hall of fame. It was inevitable, they’d get a little tangled along the way and now they have. Tonight, Paul Pierce became one of the NBA’s all-time top 25 scorers.
But by the end of the night, he ended up falling back to 26th. Twice.
He began the night seven points behind the 25th spot. Easy enough. But that 25th spot at the start of the night, was held by Tim Duncan whose Spurs (after a visit to Boston on Wednesday), were set to tip off at home about an hour after the Celtics. 11 first-quarter points put Pierce into the Top 25. But with the Celtics’ captain on the bench in the second, Duncan scored five early points to leap-frog back in front. A Pierce three in the 3rd quarter flipped them again…and you get the point. Heading into Tuesday, Duncan sits at 22,426, Pierce at 22,423.
The Celtics remaining schedule is not easy. Seven of the ten games are against teams in the playoff race, the other three are the back-to-back-to-back set everyone else has already gone through. Right now, the C’s are in the early stages of a ridiculous 12-game-in-17-night-stretch. Eight of the 12 on the road, and none of the home games consecutive. Meaning, they have to travel to each game. But a three-game lead with ten to play means 5-5 should be enough to get Boston the more desirable 4-seed and what they wanted, to avoid Miami and Chicago in the opening round.
OK, I need to do this and then we’re on to the Frozen Four, I promise.
(** I’ve gotten myself in trouble before, which I often do, talking about Josh Gibson. As I bring his name up every time Major League Baseball, or society, tries to celebrate the anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. That lonely struggle remains and always will, one of the great accomplishments of the 20th century. Not in sport, but in humanity. But when it’s anniversary is celebrated, it always hits me as asinine and utterly lacking self-awareness. As if to say, “hooray, it’s only been 50 years since we escaped from a backwards, race-driven culture of fear and hate.” So when the anniversary is celebrated over the accomplishment, I like to point out that two months before Jackie’s debut with the Dodgers, Josh Gibson died. At 35. And he died a delusional, alcoholic, one of the greatest to ever play driven to it by his exclusion from the majors. We are proudest of sports when they lead society rather than follow it. When they set an example for it, rather than merely reflect and perpetuate its greatest fault lines. But while Jackie will always remind us what is possible, Josh Gibson reminds me of what happens when fear of change overcomes not just the better angles of our nature, but our nature itself.)
Not sure what got me thinking about that. Any idea, Augusta National? Exclusion, archaic thinking…any idea at all? No?
Look, I love the Masters, we all do. But the reality is, I don’t get ever get to see much of it because of the weekend on which it falls. It’s Masters weekend to most people. To me, it’s Frozen Four weekend.
I’m long since over the idea of winning people over to the things I love. You learn as you get older that’s really something of a wasted exercise in most cases. Mostly, because in the Twitter age, the natural evolution of the “how’s my driving” joke. (You know, the one where no one ever calls that number to say “I just saw your driver back across two lanes into that loading dock perfectly and I just wanted to say great job”), tearing down beats lifting up by a pretty healthy margin.
I think it’s cool if you’re into NASCAR, or the Premiere League. Honestly, if I had more time, I’d like to learn then both, try to understand what makes it great, but I’ve got at least 20 channels on my cable system that are all-sports, there’s only so much you can soak in before it’s time to switch to Cartoon Network for Family Guy at 2:30. I’ve never strayed too far from the “big six” (MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, College Football, College Hoops). Golf, tennis, boxing have all their share of my attention at times over the years, and since my outing last year, most of you know of my life-long passion for the pro wrestling industry.
I’m not here to recruit you, I’m not even going to push it on you if you don’t want to try it. But in my world, college hockey will always have a very special place.
It’s an honor to be the “Voice of the Frozen Four”. I was told last week , and this surprised me, that I’ve now called more NCAA Championship Games (12) than anyone else. And I will keep my promise to go back every single year they’ll have me.
I’ve gotten a ton of hockey questions the last few days, and I didn’t want to blow up my Twitter with some Frozen Four blowout 140 characters at a time, so this seemed like a better place. The questions ranged from how hard is it to not to do hockey now all year then jump into a championship weekend? (It’s complicated, and challenging, but mining is hard, construction is hard, a job you do for money, with no sense of passion or accomplishment, that’s hard. I’m one of the lucky people in the world and I know it, the few employable skills I have, are doing what I love, that’s a blessing). Do you feel weird having to miss Celtics games every April? (A little, but I got my start in college hockey and I will never forget that, that’s reason number one why I’ll always go back. It’s how I pay my respect to the game). Is this year’s BC team the best you’ve ever seen? (Ah, now that’s a meaty one…)
I’ve been around the game for a quarter-century now. (Please hang on while I process how freaking old that last sentence makes me seem. Maybe I should spend less time blogging and more scheduling prostate exams. I don’t know.) And it’s hard to say the 2012 Boston College team is the best I’ve ever seen. Not when you saw Maine in 1993, or some of the BU or Michigan teams of the 90’s. The back-to-back championships of Denver and Minnesota from 2002-2005.
But not only is Boston College putting up dynasty numbers, the one common thread of this BC run that no one else can claim in the modern era, is that when the games get tougher, and the stakes get higher, they get better. Think about that. Since 1998, BC is 79-17…in the playoffs. Say that again with the Jim Mora voice…in the playoffs!
The once-in-a-lifetime Maine team in ’93 was life-and-death in the Frozen Four. Needing OT to beat Michigan in the semis and trailing 4-2 in the 3rd period of the title game before the epic Jim Montgomery hat trick (all assisted by Paul Kariya) to win it. The BU team in 2009 was a wire-to-wire #1. But we all know, and by we I mean those that follow our beloved game, that the Terriers trailed 3-1 in the final minute of regulation before the miracle finish at the OT championship in Washington D.C. There were teams that could have been on the best-ever list, like Michigan in ’97, BU in ’94, Michigan State in ’91, BC in ’07. But they either couldn’t win the final game, or didn’t even get there.
In fact, Saturday BC became just the 5th top overall seed since the Hrkac Circus/Ed Belfour North Dakota tram of 1987 to actually win the title.
In this epic run for Boston College, 10 Frozen Fours in 15 years, it’s just the second time they entered the tournament as the top overall seed. The other, 2005, they were knocked out by North Dakota in the regional finals. It fits the pattern. If they win twice this weekend, they’ll become just the 5th overll top seed in the last quarter-century to win it all. (In the previous 11 years since the tournament expanded from four teams (1977-1987), the top-seed winning was far more common. It happened five times in those 11 years (’77 Wisconsin, ’80 North Dakota, ’83 Wisconsin, ’85 RPI and ’87 North Dakota)
OVERALL #1 SEEDS WINNING NCAA TITLE (Since 1988)
1995 Boston Univ.
2009 Boston Univ.
2012 Boston College
But the thing is, BC isn't just winning the tournament, they’re dominating. Two years ago at Ford Field in Detroit, they faced the nation’s top two teams, Miami and Wisconsin, and went all Steffi Graf on them, 7-1, 5-love. To further illustrate, in the ten years since you had to win four games to win the title, BC’s three title teams in the last five years are three of the four most dominant.
NCAA TOURNEY SCORING AGGREGATE (Since 16-team format began 2003)
2010 Boston College +15
2003 Minnesota +15
2012 Boston College +14
2008 Boston College +12
2005 Denver +10
For 48 hours before the title, game, we had to listen to people not terribly familiar with the game, play up the David-versus-Goliath storyline. Yeah, Ferris State was David. David Freese. David Robinson. David Tua. They were the #1 team in the country for most of February, and they entered the NCAA’s ranked #6. This was no colossal underdog and that’s how the game played out. In 2003, Ferris had Chris Kunitz, now of the NHL MVP-favorite Evgeni Malkin’s line. And they didn’t make the Frozen Four. This was a special year for Ferris and I’m glad people got to spend some time in the world of Bob Daniels, one the most enjoyable, congenial, delightful guys and an increasingly teeth-bearing and ornery hockey coaching world.
My favorite stat of the Frozen Four this year, by the way, was that Union goaltender and Hobey finalist Troy Grosenick had more shutouts at Fenway this year than Red Sox pitchers did all of last year. And the way things have started, his might be the only one for a while. (The Celtics started 0-3 by the way, and now 53 games later have a three-game lead in their division, so you know, let’s chill for a bit.)
But as the plane starts its descent into the Sunshine State I left 17 hours ago, seems like an interesting time to think about full circle, and different parts of my strange life overlapping. And no, I don’t mean the once-in-who-knows-how-long chance to bring two of my buddies from opposite ends of the world together for dinner in Tampa the other night. Barry Melrose to my right, Jim Ross to my left. Clearly the beginning of a beautiful friendship between two icons in their worlds. That’s an entirely different blog. I’m talking about this one;
As the championship game approached, BC coach Jerry York talked about a speech his team had gotten a few weeks earlier from another coach. About how while not everyone can be a star, everyone can be a star in their role. He talked about how it resonated with his players as they made their run towards last night’s championship.
The author of that speech?
We often don’t think about how the different elements of sports, or our own lives can intertwine. But sometimes, you can be sleep-deprived, jet-lagged and not know if you’re looking at a power play or a flagrant foul, it’s still impossible to miss.
As we arrived at Hanscom Air Force base for our flight to Miami tonight, Doc Rivers was handed a gift. A few hours earlier, the national champion Boston College Eagles’ charter flight had touched down at the same terminal. The coaches and players he inspired had saved him one of the championship hats they were given on the ice moments after the final horn. Knowing the Celtics were about to pass through the same halls a few hours later, since they couldn’t offer him a tip of the cap. They just left him his own.
And now that hat, like Josh Gibson’s legendary home run, is about to touch down just a few hundred miles from where it originated.
One final reminder that the journey, is always more interesting than the destination.
(Although since this destination includes a king size bed, in this case I’m making a personal exception.)