Is ESPN’s “The Last Dance” The Most Overrated Sports Documentary of All-Time?

ESPN’s documentary about Michael Jordan’s last season with the Chicago Bulls is getting serious buzz because there’s no competition. Current sports programming consists of reruns of “classic” games; or in the case of golf, tournaments; and forced National Football League trade and draft drama.

The documentary, based on the first two installments, underwhelms. There’s one way to judge docs. Do viewers with no prior interest in the subject become interested? And how much so? I’m already down with pro basketball, so I’m not the best judge, but I have a hard time imaging basketball agnostics jonesing for it after watching the first two episodes of The Last Dance.

It does have one redeeming value. Jordan’s unbelievable smoothness on the court never gets old. One day in 1984, after class, I was (once again) putting on a clinic in UCLA’s Wooden Center. In walked Jordan, in town to pick up the John Wooden award as college basketball’s best player for 1983-1984. Watching him that day school the UCLA varsity was like watching Baryshnikov in his prime. I can still see him effortlessly filling passing lanes and making steals with ease. It’s a shame no one thought of asking me to check him.

One other thing I’ve found somewhat interesting is Phil Jackson’s player-centered leadership. Which begs a question, what the hell happened to Jackson in New York? That’s the documentary I want to see. How does a coach go from the top of his profession to utter and total incompetence?

One other, other thing of interest, is Magic’s and Bird’s pointed, effusive praise of Jordan. In the LeBron versus Jordan debate, it’s worth noting that LeBron’s contemporaries don’t speak of him with the same reverence.

The fact that Pippen was grossly underpaid, the sole focus of Episode 2, is not nearly interesting enough to anchor the hour. And Jordan’s mistreatment of the General Manager, a subtheme, is just kind of pathetic. Except for learning about Jordan’s and Pippen’s family backgrounds, off the court, nothing about Jordan or Pippen inspires.

Instead of a zoom lens on Jordan, Pippen, and Krause, the producers should’ve used a much wider angle one. So far, viewers have learned absolutely nothing about what it was like to be a teammate of Jordans. Toni Kukoc, the silky smooth 6’11” Croatian great is invisible. Harper, Kerr, Longley, invisible.

Give me more of Jordan splitting defenders and elevating for mid-range jumpers (since we don’t see those anymore) and more of the high flying one arm sideway slams that I always found difficult to pull off. But even more than that, give me some subtleties, nuance, ambiguity as it relates to the whole team. Their success suggests the sum was more than the individual parts, but the documentary, so far at least, fails to illuminate that dynamic. And that is a fatal flaw.

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Cincinnati—You’re On The Clock

The National Football League Draft combine is taking place right now in Indianapolis*.

Everyone knows the key to success in the NFL is having an elite quarterback. Everyone also knows the key to being an elite quarterback is having big hands.

And so, Cincinnati faces a decision that could transform their franchise—Burrows or Byrnes?

Burrows was decent during his final season at LSU—60 touchdowns to 6 interceptions. But when it came to pickup basketball at UCLA’s John Wooden Center, Byrnes was an early 80’s legend. Among other things people on campus remember from his play was the way he’d palm the ball like a shorter, younger, whiter Connie Hawkins.

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Byrnes easily palmed the ball because he has large hands. Burrows—9″. Byrnes—9.75″. Cincinnati’s dilemma is there’s not a lot of football tape of Byrnes since he retired to golf after whiffing a tackle in the eighth grade in Cypress, California. That was on the coach though because the young phenom told him that he was “. . . born to quarterback, not cornerback.”

People in Kentucky, Ohio, and Southern Cal still reminisce about his after school pick-up quarterbacking. It is Cincy’s bad luck that all of that was before pocket video cameras, GoPros, and drones.

Will Cincy go with the guy who is anxiously waiting for the iPhone SE2 so he can more easily grip it or the guy who can palm an 11″ iPad? We won’t know until April 23rd.

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*President Trump, that’s in Indiana.

Don’t Box People In

My advice to myself after reading this short article, “Emotional Michael Jordan unveils first of two medical clinics in Charlotte”.

One day in the spring of 1984, MJ walked into UCLA’s Wooden Center where a scrawny senior history major, who would one day become a famous blogger, was on fire. After helping my team hold court again, I stopped to watch MJ run with an assortment of professional and UCLA varsity ballers. In town to accept the John Wooden Award, he was on another level, even compared to me.

Like any basketball fan I suspect, I always admired his talent, the ease in which he moved, got open, shot, defended. Simultaneously, I was always dismayed by his refusal to use his platform and incredible wealth to benefit others. Did he have his social conscious surgically removed I wondered?

I shoulda been more patient. I apologize MJ for not giving you the benefit of the doubt that someday you’d most definitely give back in the most meaningful of ways. Good on you.

 

An Anxious Aristocracy

From the Business Insider:

  • Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin are among 40 people indicted by the FBI and US attorney’s office in Boston in an alleged college admissions scandal.
  • The scam allegedly involved parents having their children pose as athletes regardless of athletic abilities to get accepted into Division-1 universities.
  • Parents are also accused of paying to have a man take ACT and SAT tests for their children.
  • Schools involved include Georgetown, Stanford, University of California, Los Angeles, Yale, University of Texas, University of Southern California and Wake Forest, according to NBC Boston.

Care to comment Alexis Nedd?

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Favoring My Private Self

I learned to write at UCLA. In the early 80s. First in a small Remedial English composition class filled with future professional athletes, and later, in history course after history course. One of the myths we erroneously tell ourselves at places like my employer, a smallish private liberal arts university, is that personalized learning can’t happen at large public universities. I’m living proof that’s not true. Sure, often, those history course discussion sections were lead by doctoral students, but they were outstanding and demanding beginning teachers.

Like marathon training, there are no short cuts in learning to write. Defying conventional wisdom about large, public university professors, my teachers and their assistants bled all over my papers. I paid close attention to their feedback and quickly caught up to my peers. And then continued improving quarter by quarter.

One memorable day in my sophomore year, in a large class on Central America, my professor, E. Bradford Burns, read my name and the title of my essay and said it was one of the three most outstanding in the class.

Stunned is putting it mildly. Wish my dad had been there.

After watching me skate through high school the first eighteen years of my life, he thought I should skip college and go to work for him sweeping floors in the Los Angeles factory he ran. Or join the military. If those harangues were reverse psychology, they worked. To succeed I knew I had to apply myself, and I did.

Another leap forward as a writer came exactly one decade later when, thanks to the encouragement of a young innovative mentor from Stanford, I wrote a 324 page doctoral dissertation in novel-like form. In it, I told the story of an International Studies magnet high school in Southern California. I was the very rare doctoral student who enjoyed the vast majority of the dissertation research and writing process.

As a professor, I’ve published quite a bit, but have not found academic writing gratifying. The whole tree in the forest thing. If only a handful of other egghead professors read it, is it worth it? For better or worse, a decade ago, I cut back and started the humble blog.

Which brings us to the present. My E. Bradford Burns booster shot of confidence has faded a bit. Sometimes I think, if I was a good writer, the humble blog would have a larger readership. In fact, I might have to stop referring to it as the humble blog. More important than assessing how well I write or not is the incontrovertible fact that I enjoy it.

One thing I like about it is that it’s difficult. In particular, I struggle with how to engage people without revealing at least some of my inner landscape. For example, right now, apart from writing a semi-autobiographical novel, I can’t figure out how to meaningfully explore and explain what I’ve been thinking most about—motivation, or what causes us to do the things we do, or more to the point, what causes me to do the things I do, without compromising other people’s and my privacy. I’ve struggled with that since the beginning, and doubt I’ll ever master it. I error on the side of maintaining others’ and my privacy.

That means there’s way more unspoken content between blog posts than within them. When I go four or five days without posting, sometimes I’m out of interesting ideas, but other times, I’m just favoring my private self.

I doubt I’m unique in this regard. Isn’t there more to your thinking than you typically let on? Aren’t you semi-transparent at best? Don’t you struggle with being vulnerable? With trusting others with your innermost thoughts? Aren’t we all icebergs of sorts, with much more going on below the surface than anyone realizes?

Or maybe with you, what you see, is what you get. In which case, I am unique.

 

 

 

 

 

Why We’re Likely to See More Student Protests in the Future

In some courses I use a class activity I created that requires my predominantly white future teachers to advise me, their hypothetical principal, on what our increasingly diverse and divided hypothetical high school’s priorities should be. They rank issues in order of importance, first individually, then as teams of “teacher-leaders”. They always rank “Our faculty is predominantly white; as a result, students question whether we value cultural and ethnic diversity” as the least important of the seven issues. In doing so, they say faculty members’ open-mindedness is more important than the color of their skin.

Meaning they are utterly clueless as to what it’s like to never see anyone that looks remotely like them in positions of authority. Some bus drivers, an occasional custodian, but never a teacher or administrator. How does that experience, year after year after year, effect African-American or Latino students’ thinking about what’s possible in the future?

Contrast my students’ thinking with current campus protest leaders:

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From least important to single most important. The challenge will be increasing the diversity of college and university faculty given what we know about who is earning PhD’s, the typical prerequisite to higher education faculty positions. Most doctoral students attend selective undergraduate institutions which are struggling to recruit and retain students of color:

Among the 100-odd “very high research activity” institutions scored by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, most saw their percentage of black undergraduates shrink between 1994 and 2013, the product of modest growth in black enrollment amid a much more rapid expansion of students on campus, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education.

This list includes not only Ivy League schools and selective private colleges, but also many large public universities, including UCLA, Florida State, and the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, other institutions of higher education—including speciality schools, baccalaureate programs, and colleges that primarily offer associate degrees—have seen black representation increase, sometimes dramatically. Source.

Long story short, the “x” axis, demand for increasingly diverse faculty does not align well at all with the “y” axis, supply of African American, Latino, and other PhD graduates of color. Meaning more protests ahead.

 

 

 

You May Now Unplug the Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill, also known as hedonic adaptation, is the tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive (or negative) life changes. According to this theory, as a person makes more money, expectations and desires rise in tandem, which results in no permanent gain in happiness. For example, a person excitedly drives a new car home from a lot. They’re marginally happier. But a few weeks later it’s dirty and the driver has adapted to the improved interior, handling, and quietness. The loving feeling dissipates.

Now that you’re an expert on the hedonic treadmill, you’re ready for a March Madness story about our tendency to think the grass is usually greener on the other side. Let’s title the story “Why is contentment so elusive?”

UCLA, my team, got schooled in the opening round. A few days later, the coach got whacked. The backstory to why is an interesting case study in leadership, but that’s peripheral to our story.

Along with many others, Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Brad Stevens (Butler) have been mentioned as possibile replacements. Because of a new Pac-12 conference television deal, UCLA can triple or quadruple their current “small market” salaries. Both coaches, young and very successful, have been sought after by other schools in recent years.

Here’s what an Indiana reporter recently wrote about Stevens and UCLA.

UCLA just spent $138 million renovating Pauley Pavilion. Stevens is going to be able to negotiate, not just a top salary, but also facility upgrades (the Bruins need a practice facility), length on the contract, security on that contract (Howland got a buyout for the remaining four years on his deal), and assurances that this coach can run the program as he sees fit.

You give Stevens all of that, coupled with the lifestyle that living in Beverly Hills (just a long jump shot from the UCLA campus) brings, and all of sudden Butler fans have a very legitimate reason to be nervous.

I don’t question Stevens’ love of Butler in any way. I love my alma mater, as well. But when he visits the UCLA campus and tours a renovated Pauley Pavilion, visits the private school where his children will attend in Beverly Hills, eats lunch and plays golf at Bel-Air Country Club (just across Sunset Blvd. from the campus), takes Tracy and the kids shopping along Rodeo Drive, and has them (second) home-shop in Hermosa or Manhattan Beach, where they’ll spend their weekends, I can’t fathom that Stevens doesn’t give pause before waving it off.

The same reporter acknowledges:

There is no doubt, Stevens’ love of raising his family in Indiana, his love of Hinkle Fieldhouse, his love of his players, coaches and administration, his affection for everything about his position at Butler, is going to be tested if the UCLA Athletic Director calls.

Finally, he writes:

Stevens has always said “No, thanks” to job offers. And perhaps he will again. But an opportunity to coach UCLA is different. I told him he’d be crazy to turn it down.

I fully expect Stevens to say “thanks, but no thanks” again. And while he’d be a great coach, I’m actually rooting for him to stay off the treadmill. The writer is projecting his desire to live large in some place like Los Angeles onto Stevens. I suspect Stevens knows money changes you. Sending your kids to a Beverly Hills private school will definitely change them and probably not for the better. And if Stevens wanted a second house twenty miles from his primary residence, he would have probably jumped on the elite program coaching treadmill already.

Few’s the same way. Prefers Spokane, Washington over West Los Angeles. Some people are like moths, attracted to the bright lights of big, celebrity filled cities, but both Few and Stevens are reported to be “intensely private” and know there’s a cost to lost anonymity. Nearly everyone thinks they’d be a lot happier if they made a lot more money. A preternatural minority knows that’s not the case.

I applaud Few’s and Stevens’ self-understanding, wisdom, and willingness to not just say “no” to a lot more money once, but repeated times. Here’s hoping they keep daring to be different.

Ask yourself "What would Nike do?" and then do the opposite. Just don't do it.

Ask yourself “What would Nike do?” and then do the opposite. Just don’t do it.