March 22nd, 2016


The one with Dikembe Mutombo, Nuke LaLoosh, and Miami Hurricanes vs. South Dakota State Jackrabbits

Tuned in to the news station for traffic, I heard a fellow describe what he saw in Brussels. At the end of his woeful story, KCBS identified the man as Dikembe Mutombo.

A member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Mutombo was one of basketball's most tireless interior defenders — 2nd all-time in blocked shots, 9th all-time in defensive rebound percentage, four-time defensive player of the year — Mutombo's list of accomplishments pales in comparison to his defensive highlight reel.

Mutombo had a signature move. He'd knock a shot into the seats, then wag his finger in a gesture of "don't bring that weak shit in here again".

I loved that move, his warning finger wag in the wake of a monstrous block. Then it got ruled out under a new policy against undue celebratory or taunting behavior. As ever, a few shitheads spoil things for everyone — some 20-year-old dickhead does a touchdown dance after hanging on the rim for five seconds following a 2-point dunk, and an understated badass move like Mutombo's gets caught in the dragnet.

The women's basketball team of Miami (FL) got screwed by the stoicism-enforcement guidelines last Saturday. In the first round of the NCAA tournament at Stanford, South Dakota State led Miami 59-48 with 8:20 remaining, when Miami freshman Laura Cornelius sparked the Hurricanes. The guard made a trey at 7:50 to cut the South Dakota State lead to 8, then a steal and another trey at 6:03 to make it 61-56.

It was a very big basket. The Jackrabbits' lead was cut by more than half, and the momentum had swung to the Hurricanes. The Miami boosters roared, and Cornelius double-fist-pumped in celebration. A referee thought that inappropriate, whistling Cornelius for a technical foul — and even ruling her three-pointer a two. The break in the action plus the two free throws for South Dakota State deflated Miami, who got as close as three, losing 74-71.

Miami coach Katie Meier recounted those events at the post-game press conference, saying she'd take full responsibility for that pivotal technical foul. "I love emotion," she said about her freshman's actions. "I'll take that T. Put it on me."

I adored Coach Meier. The 2011 Associated Press national coach of the year is one who doesn't slip into LaLooshian coach-speak when addressing the media.

LaLoosh language is the fucking death of sports journalism. In "Bull Durham" — a landmark sports movie — Kevin Costner teaches Tim Robbins (Nuke LaLoosh) the quotidian manner of press relations, and in this stupid world where sound bites rule, LaLoosh-speak is the national language. No one bothered to remind us about "Bull Durham" that Crash teaching Nuke the least offensive way of public speaking was satire.

Any writer with an ear for the shit doesn't have to attend a press conference — a LaLooshian interview sounds the same in any sport and any form of media; a capable writer can just make the shit up, and I guarantee no one will notice or care, not even the person being quoted. (In fact, I'd wager that if a sportswriter said: "Coach, how about I make up your half of this conversation, so you can go to bed", most coaches would go for that if they had a trusting relationship with the writer.)

Some coaches don't automatically default or regress into that crap, but the problem is that press conferences are structured in a way that depends on it. If you put all the reporters in a group, and set the cameras rolling, the bullshitters have to get their way because that's what bullshit consumers have learned to expect. If a writer really wants to talk to a coach, it has to be a small-time setting without cameras or recording devices — I had that with the Big West Conference five or seven years ago, but two of the coaches with whom I had great relationships — Lynne Roberts and Lindsay Gottlieb — graduated to a power conference, so they've got no more time to talk to me, and two who gave me credit for not adhering to the typical bullshit script — Sandy Simpson and Dr. Maryalyce Jeremiah — retired.

And so, Coach Meier — who is probably a blast in press conferences after she wins — and her #5 seed Hurricanes went home to Miami, leaving the #12 seed Jackrabbits to face host Stanford in the second round.

I fell in love with the entire South Dakota State regiment. They've got an excellent, intelligent, tough-minded, distance-shooting team with no graduating starters, and the loudest fans I've ever heard. The South Dakota State boosters are raucous and devoted — according to SDSU coach Aaron Johnston, many of them accompanied the team on its trips to the Virgin Islands and road games in the Summit Conference (opponents in Nebraska, Colorado, Illinois). Those folks are so convivial that they tweeted "Come to Frost Arena in Brookings, South Dakota, and we'll show you *really loud*." Their radio guy is exceptionally good — I have to sit besides lots of them, and if a basketball team is adept at swinging the ball around the perimeter, most play-by-play announcers will skip one or two passes in order to keep up with the ball, but not the South Dakota State fellow. Along with all that, South Dakota State's director of basketball operations was at my hometown Cal State Hayward — college women's basketball is such a small world.