Archive for March 24th, 2005

Tweeners and Roundball

March 24, 2005

If you need me, I’ll be hanging out at the Tender Crisp Bacon Cheddar Ranch with Hootie.

I thought this week I’d grace you with two mid-size articles instead of one long one.

TweenersAs a sports fan, it’s easy to point to the time when my teams were doing the best, 1994-1995. That year, the Rockets won back-to-back championships (no asterisk talk, please), and my baseball team (at least back then), the Braves, avoided being baseball’s uber-Bills by actually winning a world series. My football team (the Raiders) pretty much stank, but that was okay. Sweetest of all, however, was the bliss brought by my favoritest favorite team, the Arkansas Razorbacks men’s basketball team, which won the title in 1994 and were only prevented from repeating by Toby Bailey having the game of his life.The centerpiece of that team was, of course Corliss “Big Nasty” Williamson, who pretty much dominated the college game in that era the way Shaq has dominated the pro game the last ten years. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but not too severe of one. The Nasty routinely imposed his will on opposing power forwards and centers, forcing teams to double- and triple- team him so he could pass it out to one of many deadly three-point shooters. This often resulted in the Hogs beating good teams by about thirty. I still vividly remember him abusing Rasheed Wallace in the final four in 1995 and thinking how much greater a pro he would be than his Tarheel counterpart.

Well, you know the rest of the story. Rasheed Wallace has made a few All-Star teams, and Corliss has won a sixth man of the year award. In fact, in a fitting sort of irony, Corliss backed up Rasheed on the Pistons last year as they both picked up their first NBA rings.

So, what happened? Well, nothing really, except Corliss was about 6’7″ and not terribly athletic nor a great outside shooter, and so, when he stepped up to the pro game he sort of fell through the cracks. His physique, which let him maul people on the college level, could no longer compensate for his shortcomings, and he turned into a role player.

The reason this interests me is that since then I’ve seen the same thing happen year after year; dominant college post players get to the pros and find they’re too small to play power forward, and too slow to guard an NBA small forward. Danny Fortson comes to mind, as does Rodney Rodgers, Lonny Baxter, Marcus Fizer. Rember Dmitri Hill? How about Samaki Walker?

There are exceptions. Carlos Boozer seems to fit this mold, but maybe he’ll break out of it; he’s already made an Olympic team. Of course, Charles Barkley is the most obvious example of an undersized power forward, but he was really more athletic than all these guys. Maybe Larry Johnson, too. How tall was he?

The college game is crawling with these guys this year. Ike Diogu from Arizona State seems to fit this mold the best; he pretty much scores at will now, but I’d be worried if your team takes him as a lottery pick. Chuck Hayes is another; I absolutely love him as a college player, but I don’t think he has a position at the next level. There’s Ryan Gomes at Providence; Jason Maxiell at Cincinnati; Chevon Troutman at Pittsburgh; maybe Lawrence Roberts at Mississippi State (though he may be taller than I’m thinking). What about Wayne Simien at Kansas? I think he’s a tweener. Sean May goes about 6’9″ and is pretty athletic; I think he’ll be okay. I can’t really make up my mind about Ronnie Turiaf at Gonzaga; we’ll have to wait and see.

I guess this happens in every sport — there’s always that minor league batting champion that can’t ever catch up to the big league fastball — but I think it’s a pretty fascinating phenomenon. The trick is telling who falls into the mold and who, like Barkley, has that extra whatever to break out of it. Maybe Simien or Hayes does and I can’t see it; maybe Mays doesn’t. It’s fun to think about, though.

Roundball

Everyone remembers the “Tiger Slam,” right? When Tiger Woods won four straight majors, just not in the same calendar year. How could you not, unless you were trapped in a cave or something? I think ESPN voted that the greatest sporting accomplishment of the last 25 years or something, placing it over Jordan’s winning six titles. People wonder’d if anyone would ever win another major; if Tiger would end up with three times as many as Jack; whether Tiger was an extra-terrestrial superbeing with telekinetic powers to control the flight of a golf ball.

What’s interesting about this is that another athlete accomplished something that’s probably just as impossible last year, and most of you are probably wondering what I’m talking about. In case you missed it, Roger Federer had possibly the greatest year in the history of men’s tennis last year. He won three grand slams on three different surfaces, only missing out on the clay at the French Open. He went 11-0 in tournament finals, and didn’t lose a match against an opponent ranked in the top ten. He won 92.5% of his matches. Many observers think he has the most complete game of any man since Rod Laver and possibly of any man ever. This year he’s only lost once, but he had the bad taste to do it in the Autralian Open, so there’ s no chance for a Slam. Maybe next year.

So, why aren’t we bombarded with Wilbon and Kornheiser yelling at each other over whether Federer’s already surpassed McEnroe and Connors among all-time tennis greats rather than yelling at each other about whether Tiger needs to divorce his wife and make up with Butch Harmon? Well, pretty simple. America likes golf a whole heaping lot more than it does Tennis.

This fact intrigues me, since Tennis and Golf are really similar in a lot of ways. Both are games you can play your whole life. Both are generally played with friends in small groups, 2 or 4. Both have international appeal. Both are basically individual, rather than team sports. Both have historically been played by middle-to-upper class types. Both require a great deal of discipline and training to master. Both have grand slams at the professional level. Both became popular around the turn of the century.

Why is golf more popular, then? Here’s some guesses.

While only one of tennis’ grand slam events is on American soil, golf has three that take place in the U.S. of A. That means that we get to watch nearly all of them without getting up at some riduculous hour. A die-hard tennis fan would have to be up at 3 AM on Sunday morning or thereabouts to catch the Australian Open final; It’s much more convenient to spend a Sunday afternoon watching the final round of the Masters.

The tennis people also seem to choose generally poor times to schedule their big events. The Australian Open always seems to be in the middle of the NFL playoffs, so even if you do want to watch, you tend to be distracted. The French and Wimbledon are in the middle of summer, but the U.S. Open comes just as baseball pennant races are concluding and their playoffs are cranking up, so many fans are completely absorbed in that. On the other hand, golf schedules all its majors during the dog days of summer, providing a nice complement to the grinding marathon that is the meat of the baseball season.

It also doesn’t hurt golf that most of its stars are either American or from the old British Commonwealth, while tennis’ stars tend to come from more diverse corners of the world. Perhaps if Andy Roddick had the year Federer did last year, we would have heard more about it. Americans love to root for their own, and it’s probably true that Tiger and Phil will always be more popular here than Roger and Marat Safin.

Another reason is that more of us play golf, so we can identify at least somewhat with what the players are going through. We’ve all flown one into the cart path or got the yips on a putt, so we feel for the pros when the same thing happens to them. Some of us could probably even identify with Jean Vandevelde when he had his cataclysmic meltdown at the British Open a few years back. Likewise, since we know how hard golf is, we can appreciate a birdie putt from 20 yards or a chip-in to save par.

But, how many of us have that same appreciation for a great shot in tennis? We can ooh and ahh when Roddick pours in a 140-mph serve, but few of us understand the subteties enough to distinguish an impossible passing shot from a routine one. Few of us appreciate how difficult it is to keep trading backhands with a great player until he makes an unforced error. Why? We don’t play tennis; we haven’t been there, and we don’t realize as fully the magnitude of what we’re seeing.

Finally, I think golf owes part of its popularity to the legacy of baseball. Many of us in America were weened on the national pasttime, and for us it will always be the measure by which all other sports must be judged. Thus, part of what a great sport is involves the discrete moments of drama and tension that bring a fan to the edge of his seat. In baseball, this occurs repeatedly when the pitcher confronts the batter, and the tension dial is raised or lowered by such other factors as the score or having runners on base. Golf also presents us with these moments; when a big hitter pulls out the driver on a par four and takes aim at the green, or, more often, when he lines up a critical putt for birdie. Likewise, the tension rises throughout the weekend and as the player moves from the 1st hole to the 18th and up and down the leaderboard.

Tennis, on the other hand, is a more fluid sport; more in the mold of basketball. It doesn’t have as many discrete moments of tension. Only a tiebreak or late-in-the-set break point has the same feel of impending drama that tends to occur throughout a baseball game or a round of golf. They’re there, but not on as regular a basis as you find in golf.

That being said, I think both of these are great games, and if you haven’t watched a tennis match in a while, you might give it a chance. Do something with all that time you’re saving not watching hockey.

Did I say mid-sized articles? Whoops. I’ll skip the quick takes this week.