Since today is when Chicago Cubs pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training (other teams, too, but team schedules are variable), I thought it only proper to, once again, post this wonderful song by the great Tom Paxton about being a baseball pitcher. Well, it's about that and more.
With a shout-out to the inveterate Chris Dunn.
This is about basketball, but bear with me. It's about a remarkable woman.
Caitlin Clark, who plays for the University of Iowa in the Big Ten conference, is a phenomenal college basketball player. With an emphasis on the "phenom" part. In fact, on this Sunday, she may break the all-time scoring record for college women.
(Bad timing, unfortunately, since that’s the Super Bowl, but so be it. I believe they may have moved the game up to earlier in the day -- noon in the Midwest, 10 AM in Los Angeles -- so as not to conflict. It will be broadcast on the Peacock streaming service.)
By the way, yes, I know that there was a lot of political and legal presidential news yesterday. But, sorry, Caitlin Clark may set the record for college women this weekend, and I want to write about her before it happens. She has priority today.
How much of a phenomenon is Caitlin Clark? Let's put it in perspective. The average price of tickets for UCLA women's basketball is $35. For the University of Iowa, it's $527! And courtside seats are far more -- in the thousands. People want to see Caitlin Clark that much.
Or this: average attendance for UCLA women's basketball games is 2,700. For Iowa, it's 11,500. But that's nothing -- the past October, the University of Iowa played the NCAA's first-ever outdoor game for women's basketball, which was held at the college's football stadium.
And 55,456 fans attended! Yes, that was a record. As I said -- a phenom.
The thing is, it’s not that Caitlin Clark is going to score the most points in college women's basketball history, but how she does it. Does it all. She set the bar so high with her skills that she's, as the expression goes, in a league of her own. After all, she’s not only going to become the scoring record-holder, but passing skills are so remarkable that she’s currently #8 on the all-time list for assists! (She probably won’t become #1, though I think could make #5.)
But it’s her shooting that leaps out above everything.
She makes long-range, 3-point shots from so far away that they’ve been given a name. “From the logo.” (The logo referred to is at the half-court line.) The 3-point line is 22 feet away from the basket. That’s where most basketball players shoot their 3-point shots. They’ll take a step back to make sure they’re in “3-point territory” and can shoot from as close as possible. Not Caitlin Clark. She’ll regularly be five feet from behind the line…and then take several steps back to separate her from the defender. In fact, at one point on a video I’m posting below, you hear the announcer say, “That’s gotta be 40 feet!!! And as you’ll see, even that isn’t uncommon.
It's remarkable how far back she shoots from. Regularly. She shoots from so far away – often halfway between the 3-point line and halfcourt line! – that you almost start laughing. And what’s brilliant about it (assuming you can make such shots, which she can) is that it’s almost indefensible. No team will send someone to closely guard a player that far away, because a) if she dribbles past you then there’s so much open court, and b) that’s distance that’s so far away teams will laugh and say, “Ha, you want to shoot for there??! Go ahead, please.”
Here are two videos.
This first is a 9-minute video of her “From the logo” 3-point shots. Yes, nine minutes of them!! No need to watch all nine minutes, but at least watch a couple minutes to get the idea that this is common for her. Not just a video of, say, three long shots. No, it’s dozens and dozens and dozens of them. At the very least, watch just one minute.
I was going to say, “When you watch, she’s #22,” but you’ll be able to tell who she is. She’s the one bombing from mid-court. (Most of her jerseys here will be all yellow or all black, though often they’re just white.)
Amazing as that is, this second video is actually a better video to show who she is as – as I mentioned above -- an all-around player, since it not only shows her 3-point bombs, but also driving through the lane and great passing to other players. It’s not as “flamboyant” and eye-catching as the video of bombs, but just shows how amazing she is, in a normal, workmanlike way.
The video is only 5-minutes. No need to watch it all, though you might enjoy doing so.
My periodically-mentioned friend Myles Berkowitz deeply loves the NFL. The other day, I read him a quote by former coach and current TV analyst Tony Dungy about what he believed was wrong with pro football today. I asked what he thought Dungy said was the sport’s big problem. “Oh, God,” Myles said mournfully, knowing the Hall of Famer’s past comments, “it wasn’t religious was it???”
I assured him happily, no, it wasn’t, and then made the question easier for him. You won’t guess it, I said, so instead just tell me what you think might be the biggest problem in the NFL this year. He thought a moment and then said, “Probably the officiating.”
Well, I told him, NBC expert sports analyst Tony Dungy said it’s Taylor Swift.
“Ohhhhh, God,” Myles repeated.
This came from an appearance Dungy had just had made on Fox “News” and was asked about the “Taylor Swift Effect” on the NFL. “That’s the thing that's disenchanting people with sports now," he said. "There's so much on the outside coming in -- entertainment value and different things taking away from what really happens on the field."
Because, yes, Taylor Swift sitting in a skybox excitedly cheering for her boyfriend who plays for the Kansas City Chiefs, and the TV cameras showing her happy, is exactly what is disenchanting people about sports. After all, professional sports has never, ever been about “entertainment values” (most especially, such exciting high entertainment things as watching Taylor Swift clapping in a skybox) or about gambling or cheerleaders or mascots or marching band halftime shows or massive TV coverage or an entire NFL Network channel devoted entirely to football for 24 hours a day, 12 months a year or…or…or… No, no, the problem is Taylor Swift. In her Kansas City Chiefs jersey, cheering at a game for her boyfriend, tight end Travis Kelcey. Now, that’s entertainment! And disenchanting entertainment at that.
Happily, what is continuing to enchant people about professional football, in the eyes of Tony Dungy, is its bewitching charm of severe head concussion trauma. Just not Taylor Swift. Cheering. Unlike the 74,999 other people in the stands politely, quietly watching the games in refined decorum, like fans are supposed to do.
I mention this because on Sunday, former NFL great, Hall of Famer Brett Favre was on that aforementioned NFL Network and also joined in to slam Taylor Swift. "She's obviously using Travis Kelce for publicity. It's a money grab that's not going to end well. Eventually the Chiefs are going to lose and it will be her fault. She's bad for football."
Because with Taylor Swift -- Time Magazine's Person of the Year, whose world tour was the first ever to gross over a $1 billion, and whose concert film of the tour has become the highest-grossing concert film of all-time, making $261.6 million worldwide -- the one thing she obviously needs most of all is figuring out a way to get publicity.
Man, oh man, did ace pop culture analyst Brett Favre call it out and get this one spot-on right. Taylor Swift is just freeloading off the fame of cheering for her boyfriend Travis Kelce.
By the way, just to be very clear about how professional sports works: if a team loses specifically because one fan likes them, then they are a Really, Really, Very Bad Team.
Of course, when it comes to “money grabs that don't end well” -- yes, this Brett Favre is the same Brett Favre who is currently under investigation for receiving $77 million in federal welfare money in Mississippi that was earmarked to help one of the poorest states in the nation, accused of misspending it on personal projects like a volleyball gym at a college where his daughter plays the sport.
Man, talk about projecting your own problems on others!
And as for projecting, there's something...well, enchanting about a person trying to slam someone for a supposed "publicity grab" by going on TV to get publicity slamming them.
Between Aaron Rodgers (who is ruining his legacy one soundbite at a time) and Brett Favre, this has been a horribly bad couple of weeks for former Green Bay Packers quarterbacks trying to analyze popular culture.
(As a Chicago Bears fan, whose historic rivals are the Green Bay Packers, I must say it couldn’t happen to a more-deserving team…)
To be clear, this ludicrous bashing of Taylor Swift isn't limited to a couple of NFL icons, but also includes many GOP officials and Republican supporters on social media. And the thing is, I absolutely understand the far-right hating someone as wildly popular worldwide as Taylor Swift for endorsing Democratic candidates and registering voters. It’s infantile of them, but I understand it. However -- to put this all in perspective -- all that Taylor Swift is doing is rooting for one team, and her cheering is only covered when TV directors of their own decision choose to put the camera on her sitting at the game, cheering. She is not popping up at football games throughout the league like "Where's Waldo?" Just one game. Which is usually only broadcast locally to the two cities competing. And furthermore, in doing this, she is bringing the National Football League attention to an audience that the NFL pretty much didn’t have.
This, to Brett Favre and Tony Dungy and Republican officials and far-right supporters is what Taylor Swift is doing to disenchant and ruin pro football. Cheering for her boyfriend. And bringing new fans to the league. How dare she?!!!
Man, talk about Republicans actually Swiftboating someone. Yet again.
Now, if only Taylor Swift supported a pathologically lying, white supremacist, malignant narcissist, four-time indicted, convicted fraud found liable for rape con man who tried to overthrow the government and wants to be a dictator on Day One, and she instead registered voters for the party that enables him, then she might be forgiven for her sins of cheering at a football game.
But gee, if only she didn’t have Travis Kelce to rely on for publicity so that people would finally get to know who she is and appreciate her for herself.
What an utterly amazing season for the beloved Northwestern University football. Going 8-5 and a bowl win...when at the start of the season (after only win last year, and just two wins the year before -- and then the shameful hazing scandal before the season began with some players leaving the school and parting ways with the coach, and playing instead with an interim coach, hired only six weeks before the first game) most people reasonably would have said that two wins would have been tremendous.
And yes, the interim coach David Braun was signed to a five-year contract.
We take a moment for a bit of Personal Privilege.
Back in March, I wrote a piece here about a TV documentary series that airs in Miami called Inside the Heat that provides a look into the Miami Heat NBA team. And they just did an episode that devoted the full program to the 35-year career of my cousin Andy Elisburg who is the General Manager and Senior Vice-President of the basketball team. (No, not a typo, their wing of the family spells it differently) At the end of the article, I quipped that -- "I also believe that the show should be nominated for an Emmy next year as Best Program of the Year. Though I'm admittedly biased."
O ye of little faith. It turns out that it wasn't just a quip, but a prescient one. Because bizarrely -- and happily -- I wasn't far off.
The other week, at the 47th Annual Suncoast Regional Emmy Awards -- the episode actually, really won an Emmy Award!
Hey, like I always say here, I tries nots to steers ya wrong.
And I'm not fibbing. Here's the proof --
And just to show that, no, this isn't just a photo of a random Emmy statuette, here's a close-up of the text on the base for those who choose not to the use "zoom" feature on your computer --
And as Andy ways --
"Working my way slowly to an EGOT..."
Very sorry to see the passing of Dick Butkus, the Hall of Fame middle linebacker of the Chicago Bears. He was pure Chicago -- he played his entire career in Illinois. He grew up on the Chicago South Side, went to Chicago Vocational High School, attended college at the University of Illinois. And then played for the Chicago Bears.
When the Bears had Butkus and Gale Sayers (picked #3 & #4 in the very same 1965 draft! Man, what a draft that was...), the team was usually awful -- yet they were as great to watch as any Bear team...because of watching just those two. In fact, even with Sayers -- as graceful, remarkable and entertaining a runner to watch as I've seen -- Butkus is the only defensive player who's made me look forward to seeing the Bears (or any) team *without* the ball.
The quintessential Butkus play, that I saw often growing up was a runner getting the back, sweeping left with two blockers in front of him leading the way -- and then you'd see Butkus's body come flying in, knocking the two blockers aside, bursting through them and not only tackling the runner, but causing a fumble and recovering the ball.
Here's how great Butkus was: in 1969, the Chicago Bears only won one game, they ended the season 1-13. They were terrible. Yet Butkus won the NFL Award for best Defensive Player of the Year.
When ESPN did a special countdown on the 100 greatest NFL players of all-time during the NFL's 100th season, they named Dick Butkus #10. Despite playing on only two winning teams in his nine-year career (cut short by bad knees.) That's how great Butkus was.
It should be noted, too, that when college football gives out their Linebacker of the Year award, it's called the Butkus Award. That, too, is how great Dick Butkus was.
Here's the video evidence. But stick around for a bonus video -- a short, but glorious clip of my favorite play ever with Dick Butkus, that I remember as a kid and happily found.
Yet for all his renown as a spectacular defensive player, my favorite play with Butkus that I remember when growing up had nothing to do with defense!
When the Bears would kick extra points and field goals, they would use Butkus to block for the kicker, because he was so tough. Late in one game in 1972 (the video says "1971," but that's incorrect), the Bears lined up to kick an important extra point against the Philadelphia Eagles. But the snap was bad, and the ball got away from the holder -- who happened to also be the team's quarterback, Bobby Douglas.
Meanwhile, as Douglas scrambled around to gather up the loose ball, Dick Butkus had the presence of mind (even as a defensive player) to realize that he was of no value in the backfield, and instead sneaked his way into the end zone.
Now, I can assure you, at no time during the Philadelphia Eagles' game preparation was the question ever brought up -- "Okay, now, who will be covering Butkus?" And so, there Butkus was, almost literally just standing in the end zone all alone, no one close to him. Because who in the world would think of covering Dick Butkus. And when Bobby Douglas finally was able to control the ball, he ran around to his left -- happily being a left-handed thrower, and happily Butkus (perhaps knowing this and in part, too, because he was lined up on the left) had run out to the left side -- and so Douglas, being a quarterback, spotted Butkus entirely by himself in the end zone. And threw him the ball, which Butkus simply stood there and caught, for the extra point.
But that's not the best thing about the play. What happened next made the play special -- all the more so when compared to this era of player celebrations and choreographed team dances when they do something good. When Butkus caught the extra point, he didn't celebrate, he didn't dance, he didn't spike the ball -- instead, he just turned to the Eagles' defender who was rushing towards him, but too late...and politely, and utterly sardonically held out the ball for him. In perhaps the most gracious, "in your face" move you will ever see. At which point the frustrated Eagles player just thwacked the ball away.
And best of all, as proof, here's that video!
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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