Monday, January 31, 2005

The ice is melting

I was disheartened recently to read that the Cleveland Barons, the American Hockey League team in town, may be considering a move to greener pastures -- namely, the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.
Hockey's got to be in trouble when Davenport, Iowa holds more promise than a metropolitan area of nearly three million people with a 20,000-seat downtown arena to play in.
To tell you the truth, I can't tell whether this is a bigger indictment of hockey or hockey in Cleveland. Yes, the NHL is mired in a lockout that could kill the entire 2004-05 season, and sustained long enough, could permanently alter the professional face of the sport. Minor league hockey can't help but be affected by that. If the big boys aren't playing on ESPN, most casual fans probably aren't going to get too pumped about the bus leagues.
In Cleveland, that is especially the case. Say what you will about rivers catching on fire and a steel industry that has been dead and/or comatose for much of the past 30 years, but Cleveland is a major league town. We have NFL football, NBA basketball and Major League Baseball. Any minor league franchise is fighting an uphill battle against our big three.
The Barons currently rank 22 out of 28 AHL teams in attendance, averaging less than 5,000 fans per game. Team officials have gone on record saying the Barons are bleeding money and have been for quite some time.
The Barons, quite simply, just aren't capturing the imagination, and by extension the pocketbooks, of Cleveland fans.
Greater Cleveland is a great grass-roots hockey area, boasting one of the best hockey rink-to-population ratios in the country. But if this edition of the Barons fails, it will be the fifth hockey franchise to move or fold in Cleveland's history.
The original Barons, the ones that made a legacy in Cleveland, moved in 1973. The Crusaders were swallowed up when the World Hockey League was absorbed by the NHL in 1976. The NHL Barons (yes, Cleveland briefly was an NHL city), lasted only two red-inked seasons before being merged with the Minnesota North Stars in 1978.
The International Hockey League's Lumberjacks lasted almost 10 years in town. Armed with a promotional cache of loopy sideshows and heavily-hyped giveaways, they drew good crowds to Gund Arena until poor management killed the team, and shortly thereafter, the league.
The $64,000 question is, how can a city with an extensive hockey history, and a well-rooted amateur scene, be such a wasteland for the professional game?
Part of it is Cleveland, and part of it is hockey.
I think hockey is a lot like golf to many people: enjoyable to play, but tedious to watch. The nonstop movement makes some seasick when viewing on television. The small, black puck is work to follow. The breaks in action and constant face-offs also seem to frustrate viewers, though football is every bit as spastic.
Hockey isn't basketball with slam dunks. It isn't baseball with home runs. People aren't innately attracted to sheer feats of athleticism like with other sports. The greatness of hockey, like the passing of Wayne Gretzky or the skating of Bobby Orr, is more nuanced. People that appreciate hockey were most likely brought up watching it.
And for the NHL and all the leagues below it, that is less and less the case.
The NHL can take a lesson from Cleveland and other cold-weather towns where hockey continually fails. Professional hockey is not doing a good enough job of building a widespread, loyal fan base of people who can relate to the sport. It has withdrawn resources from cold-weather hockey enclaves to go for the sun and fun of the South.
After Gretzky, hockey thought it was hip and happening. It moved to Miami, to Tampa Bay, to Phoenix and Anaheim and several other places where it only snows in "The Day After Tomorrow." The NHL wanted glamour. It wanted sizzle and suntans. But in doing so, in turning a blind eye to its chilly roots, hockey overstepped its bounds.
The lesson is simple, and hopefully not too late to learn: if hockey has trouble being relevant enough to survive in Cleveland, Milwaukee and Winnipeg, how can it survive in Miami, Phoenix and Atlanta? In the long run, it probably can't.

Friday, January 28, 2005

Holding your breath

Ever heard 18,000 people gasp at once? I never had either. Then I went to Wednesday's Cavaliers-Grizzlies game at Gund Arena.
Early in the fourth quarter, LeBron James went up for one of those purist-chafing Jordan fadeaway jumpers, which rimmed out. Memphis grabbed the rebound and hustled to the other end of the floor, where my eyes were following.
Then a mass "ooooh." from all sides. Back at the defensive end, LeBron was crumpled on the floor. Even from my upper-deck seat hundreds of feet away, I could see Cleveland's franchise was in excruciating pain. He writhed, flung off his protective mask and headband, and pounded the floor.
He reached for his left ankle. Not good. He reached for the back of his left ankle, right around his Achilles tendon. Really not good.
When LeBron came down from his jump shot, his foot landed on the foot of Dahntay Jones, a Memphis player who was guarding LeBron like his Siamese twin. That's the disadvantage of being one of the most lethal offensive players in the game. Paranoid defenders obsessed with not getting burned will stay close enough to smell the laundry detergent your jersey was washed in.
Teammates and the trainer, Max Benton, helped LeBron up and carried him toward the vomitorium. Near Cleveland's bench, he shrugged off further assistance and limped to the locker room to a hopeful standing ovation.
My friend Dave and I looked at each other, knowing full well the fate of the Cavs' season was being discovered about 100 feet below us.
The Grizzlies pared down a 10-point deficit and the game was slipping away. But then, Cleveland had its own Willis Reed moment when LeBron walked back out onto the floor. Now the pensive standing "O" from 10 minutes previous was replaced with uninhibited joy.
Shaking off the effects of what was diagnosed as a sprained ankle, LeBron keyed a final push with a steal and bucket to hold of Memphis for a 114-111 win.
Could he be the dragon slayer? In two NBA seasons, he has shaken off two ankle sprains and a broken cheek bone to miss a grand total of three games as of Friday.
Whatever curse and/or negative mojo the Drive-Fumble-Shot-Red Right 88 legacy has thrown at LeBron, whatever bad luck he has faced, he has stared it down and emerged even better.
They call him King James. If he slays Cleveland's dragon, if he reverses the spell that has prevented Cleveland from winning a major sports title for over 40 years, that moniker will fit more than we ever thought.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

You're welcome, Bill

Bill Belichick, you are one lucky man.
You are standing on the precipice of your third Super Bowl in four years. If you win on February 6 (and you should), you will make the New England Patriots the "Team of the 2000s," the same way the 49ers were the "Team of the '80s" and the Steelers were the "Team of the '70s."
You will write your name alongside Bill Walsh, Vince Lombardi and Paul Brown as the greatest mastermind coaches of all time. Sure, other teams have won three in four years. But Jimmy Johnson and Barry Switzer had better players. The mini-runs of the Denver Broncos and Oakland Raiders were more the products of John Elway, Dave Casper and Ken Stabler than Mike Shanahan, Tom Flores and John Madden.
You are winning with a philosophy, Bill. Not superlative talent.
And I just wanted to say, on behalf of Browns fans everywhere and our smoking wreckage of a team, you're welcome.
You're welcome because we were your own, personal safety town. You learned on us. Learned that coaching is more than poring over Xs and Os on dry-erase boards for hours on end.
You've always been one of the greatest at strategy. But when you came to Cleveland in 1991, you were clueless about being a leader, about handling people so they believe in you. You were a terse, sulking charcoal briquette of a man, leaving a trail of proverbial soot wherever you went.
You cut Bernie Kosar when Vinny Testaverde was injured. You kicked a field goal down by 21 points in the fourth quarter. You brought in retreads and castoffs from the Giants by the busload.
And yet, despite the clouds and the "Bill must go" chants, you somehow developed a dominant defense and won a playoff game against your mentor, Bill Parcells, in 1994. Maybe it was a bit of your potential leaking through.
This year, you brought your reigning world champs into Cleveland, and pounded the utterly debilitated Browns 42-15. You saw some Pats fans cheering in the near-deserted stands as you left the field, and thrust your fist in the air as you made eye contact.
You are on top of the world now, Bill. But somehow, sticking it to those Browns fans that chided you, made you a punch line in the darkest, most confusing era of your career was a bit more satisfying than your scores of other wins.
But we helped mold you. Your struggles and humiliation in Cleveland forged you. You learned the need to motivate, to evaluate, to get 53 players and a dozen coaches to work as a team. You learned winning doesn't exist in the abstract, conceptual world of the playbook. That is a starting point. Games are won in the real, imperfect world of human interaction. That's what Cleveland taught you.
Now, you are the whole package. Leading like a president, strategizing like a general, winning like a champion. Your bust will be cast in bronze and placed in Canton someday. And we in Cleveland will get a chance to drive an hour south and see what we don't have: everything you have brought to New England.
We don't exist in Utopia. We merely pay it forward to other cities, other teams, other coaches.
You're welcome, Bill.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Black holes

I recently saw that scientists have revised a long-standing theory that black holes only suck in material. Apparently, they found one, six hundred some-odd Milky Way galaxies across, that is spitting material back out into space.
Now, what are the odds that a particle of matter would not only be drawn into a black hole, but subsequently retched out?
Better than you might realize.
Sumbitted for your approval, one Mr. Lamond Murray, professional basketball player. He's been traded twice in his career, once from the Clippers to the Cavaliers for Derek Anderson, and once from the Cavaliers (the sucky, pre-LeBron James edition) to the Raptors for a package including the incomparable Michael "Yogi" Stewart.
Murray has been sucked in and spat out by two black holes, one of the few players in league history who can count Donald Sterling as an owner and Randy Wittman as a coach.
There's a silver lining, however. Lamond Murray is a good enough player that the Cavs thought it essential to dump him to reach the latrine-duty status that allowed them to land James. I have to think Murray is flattered.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

An inferiority complex

The calls are coming into local sports radio from Pittsburgh fans everywhere:
"Why don't you Browns fans support the Steelers? Give your division some love."
And, you know what? I can't think of a good reason not to.
The Steelers may be our hated AFC North rivals, but if you can't beat them (and we assuredly can't right now), what else can you do?
Making a case for the Steelers being the bad guys is kind of like making a case that Jennifer Aniston is homely. Not even Johnny Cochrane could argue that one and win.
The Steelers are a high form of football life. I hate saying that, but it's true. They're not the Yankees, out-spending everyone to the playoffs. They win most years with the same salary-cap restrictions the Browns and everybody else in the NFL has. They just make good decisions, instill pride and discipline in their organization, and are (damn) lucky.
Pittsburgh has head coach Bill Cowher, oozing competitveness with every jut of his prominent chin; Cleveland had, most recently, pudgy Butch Davis making faces on the sideline like he was passing an extremely jagged kidney stone.
Pittsburgh has quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, Ohio native, hater of the Browns and Bengals. Big, tough and workmanlike, he's the ultimate Pittsburgher. Cleveland has Jeff Garcia, who is short, old, and it turns out, really whiny.
Pittsburgh has Dan Rooney, son of Art Rooney, as an owner. The Rooneys are beloved, devoted to Pittsburgh and its people. They won four Super Bowls, and Dan may get a fifth next month.
Cleveland had weasel Art Modell, who spent himself into catastrophic debt, then lied about his intentions to move the team. Not that it was all his fault. Modell stood back and watched the Indians and Cavaliers get new digs while his Browns were stuck in delapidated Cleveland Stadium.
But Modell's ending is a happy one. He won the Super Bowl ... in Baltimore. Cleveland's still waiting for an appearance in the game.
The Steelers exist in football Utopia compared to the Browns. Their fans are happy and supportive, the players are talented and competitive, the coaches coach, the front office manages, and the owner is benevolent. The Browns are an angry, disjointed bunch plagued by a bottle-throwing incident, fractured relations between the coaches and players, a non-existent front office, and all the hope in the world resting on the relatively-young shoulders of new general manager Phil Savage.
Did I mention they're on their second franchise?
As I Browns fan, I probably can't bring myself to root for the Steelers, but I sure can't root against them. The sorry state of football in my own backyard makes me unworthy.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Savage Town

I am a bit late with this, but consider this a formal welcome of Phil Savage as the new general manager of the Cleveland Browns.
Sad to say, but right now I am happier about what Savage isn't than what he is. He isn't Carmen Policy. He isn't Dwight Clark. He isn't Butch Davis. He's not well-known. He's not a figurehead.
He's pretty much what Mark Shapiro and Jim Paxson were as they took the reigns of the Indians and Cavaliers, respectively. He's young, ambitious, but unproven as "the man" in an organization.
He's not Ron Wolf. He's not Tom Modrak. I have a theory about organizational people who have been around too long or have already reached the summit. Sometimes, they lose their edge and grow tired of the daily grind. To draft and recruit and hire and revise and critique and approve and disapprove, you need to have the desire to look past all the "dirty work" to envision the final product. Savage, at 39, is young enough to do that.
Having said that, many of us here in Cleveland have been burned by the young, ambitious mastermind type. Butch Davis was that when he took the reigns of the Browns in 2001. He left as a megalomaniac, seemingly more concerned with coveting power than winning.
In a nutshell, Savage is smart. He has a history of great talent evaluation with the Ravens. As long as he understands his job is to find great talent, get it into Browns uniforms without bankrupting the team, and get back behind the scenes to plot his next move, the Browns are on the way up. If not ... well, let's not even think that way.