Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Going, going ...

I think this is my last picture of the demolition of Memorial Auditorium. I try not to shoot empty fields.

There was a ceremony of sorts today on the site, as a variety of politicians gathered for the usual dull speeches. They did open the time capsule from 1939. According to the headlines in the three-cent paper of the day, the Soviet Union was acting war-like toward Finland. I smell trouble ahead there. Plus, they revealed the winning photographs in the contest to determine the best picture of the demolition. There was a general consensus that the second-place photo (which had "Buffalo" of "Buffalo Memorial Auditorium" just starting to come down at the beginning at the project) should have won.

Must have been 500 people there today at least, if you don't count the politicos who ruined their shoes by walking in the mud. I'd say 499 of them had cameras.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Never-Never Land, Indeed

My favorite anecdote about Michael Jackson comes, from all people, Joe Barbera. He wrote a book called "My Life in Toons." It's pretty interesting, if you enjoyed the Hanna-Barbera cartoons of the 50's and 60's.

Anyway, Barbera tells the story about one of his most prized possessions, an autographed picture of Michael Jackson. M.J. signed it along the lines of "Thanks for bringing to life the great characters who were my only friends during my childhood." Such a line could keep psychologists at work for months.

Much has been said during the past few days about Jackson, who certainly ranks as one of the most influential musical and cultural influences in the past century or so. I can't complain about the amount of coverage he's received in the past few days. Jackson was a huge celebrity, and he died suddenly at a relatively young age. That's news.

The problem centers on what comes next. It figures to get mighty ugly.

Jackson was always an odd personality as an adult, and some of his actions may not have been technically illegal but were certainly inappropriate. Those will be rehashed. His parents are already claiming title to his affairs; that's going to be complicated. Throw in the usual autopsies, toxocology reports, tributes, etc., and there will be enough news printed about Jackson to kill some forests in the coming weeks. That's fine, and natural.

What really scares me, though, is how the "tabloid" press is going to handle this one. This story is going to go on and on and on. You think "The Insider" and "Entertainment Tonight" went overboard on Anna Nicole Smith? Think of what they'll do about someone who actually has talent.

It's tough to know how much coverage is too much in a situation like this, thanks to a high level of interest. But I have every confidence that if there is a line, we'll be flying past it in a couple of weeks, if not sooner.

Poor Michael. I don't think he ever had much of a chance at living a normal life. I'm glad he's missing what's ahead.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Meet the Beatles

The 2004-05 high school basketball season was one for the books by Western New York standards. That was the year when Niagara Falls was at its peak.

The Wolverines featured two sure-fire Division I talents in Paul Harris and Jonny Flynn. Harris was The Buffalo News player of the year in the spring of 2004 and 2005. Once Harris graduated, Flynn followed by getting the same honor in 2006 and 2007.

In that magical 04-05 season, Niagara Falls dropped out of its conference to play a national schedule. Few local teams could stay within 30 points of it. Our high school writer, Keith McShea, called the team "the Beatles" as a way of pointing out just how popular this group was. The phrase stuck around the office.

In the spring of 2005, Harris was the big star. There was talk that he could go immediately to the NBA. He was an amazing athlete in high school, doing essentially whatever he wanted on the court. A 6-foot-6 forward who could jump and rebound, he didn't have much competition. Flynn played Scottie Pippin to Harris' Jordan back then, although he certainly became a top-rank player in his own right.

Harris took a year to go to prep school and then went to Syracuse. He was the one with the big reputation. Flynn followed him there in the fall of 2007. Would Harris be one-and-done and then off to the pros?

It didn't quite work out that way. Harris was a good player for the Orange for three years, but didn't really have a natural position. When you are 6-6, you really need to be a good outside shooter to get to a level of stardom. Harris could do some scoring inside and rebounding, but he never dominated. Meanwhile, the unsung Flynn built a reputation as one of the nation's best point guards. His big moment came in the six-overtime game against Connecticut in the Big East Tournament.

When the SU season ended, there was talk that the team might be the best in the country next season if it stayed intact. But it didn't. Flynn heard the stories that he'd be a top pro pick, and entered the draft. Meanwhile, Harris and Eric Devendorf, who seemed to only have NBA-level tattoos, surprised everyone by turning pro.

Tonight, it was Pippin's turn to shine. Flynn was taken with the sixth pick overall by Minnesota. Vast NBA riches await. Meanwhile, Jordan, er, Harris, wasn't taken at all on Thursday. He'll probably end up in Europe. It reminded me of draft day about 24 years ago. Ray Hall was the big star at Canisius, but it was Mike Smrek who was the second-round draft choice and the person who won a ring with the Lakers.

It's fun to guess the future when looking at high school players. And sometimes you're wrong.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Whitewater walk

It was a perfect summer day today, and Jody and I both had the day off. No time to write an angry blog about anything. Instead, we played tourist up in Niagara Falls, Ontario. I always wanted to walk along the rapids in the Niagara Gorge. Today we paid our $9.19 each (Can.), took the elevator down 70 meters, and went for a waterfront stroll. Here's the best of the pictures; click on it for a bigger image:

I feel more relaxed already.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Take five, first day of summer edition

* Here in New York State, it's against the law to talk on the phone while driving. So when I'm driving and I'm next to someone who is talking on the phone, I just don't know how to act. That especially true because I'm not into obscene gestures. Should I honk the horn? Make a "hang up" gesture? I guess I'll just be very, very careful, because the other person doesn't care enough about me to pay full attention to the road.

* I saw where the new book entitled "A-Rod : The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez," which received all sorts of publicity including a "Today" show interview, at last count sold about 16,000 copies. That's an astonishingly low number, considering the hype. Half of the reviewers on Amazon.com gave the book one star, which is quite amazing. Care to guess when it will pop up in the discount bin?

* Entertainment Weekly recently did a story on the best and worst reality television shows. Better it than me, since I wouldn't have any bests. I've never bothered to watch one and don't understand the attraction. Heck, it took some research for me to find out who the "Jon and Kate" that the tabloid headlines were screaming about on a regular basis were. Is this the first time a show on TLC caused that much of a buzz?

* Right now my list of the greatest men's tennis players of all time goes, 1-2-3, Rod Laver, Roger Federer and Pete Sampras. Laver gets the edge because he was shut out of the majors for some time in the Sixties because of the pro/amateur silliness of the time. But Federer has a chance to move up a notch, and he's an easy guy to root for at Wimbledon in the next two weeks.

* Someone is going to have to explain to me what the New York State Senate is fighting about, and why I should care. I've heard talk about legislative gridlock in Albany, which to me sounds like business as usual.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Ten years ago tonight

On June 19, 1999, I was sitting in the auxiliary media area upstairs in Marine Midland Arena, waiting for Game Six of the Stanley Cup finals to end. And waiting and waiting and waiting.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of the controversial game, and I was there for The Buffalo News. As our deadlines slowly sailed by, my planned story about how the Sabres had generated some offensive opportunities if not goals seemed less and less relevant. By 1 a.m., I just wanted the game to end so I could do my work and go home. But the game had other ideas.

Finally at 1:30 or so, Brett Hull scored, and those in the press area muttered something about "finally" and headed to the press elevator to go to the locker rooms. I remember someone saying on the way down, "Hull's foot probably was in the crease." He was joking, and we all laughed. After all, the "foot in the crease" rule was an issue that seemed to come up constantly all that season. Then we got off the elevator, walked down the hall and entered a full-fledged blow-up about the goal's legality.

I wrote my sidebar and a notebook in a hurry. I don't think it was exactly poetry, but it helped fill the space in the newspaper that next morning. But my best work in the subject, came some time later, when I wrote the following for The Sporting News:

That sound you may have heard this week was my jaw hitting the ground.

I've now read the NHL's supplemental rules about goals in the crease, and I'm willing to say that the goal that ended Game Six of the Stanley Cup Finals should not have counted. That's an 180-degree turn from my feelings after it happened.

Let's review the play one more time. Mike Modano of the Stars put a shot on goal. Brett Hull may or may not have gotten his stick on the puck in an effort to deflect the shot. The puck bounced off Dominik Hasek and into an area in front of the crease. Hull appeared to direct the puck from his left skate to his forehand -- and keep in mind that according to the NHL's rules, possession can only be obtained by having the puck on one's stick. Then Hull moved his left skate into the crease as he fired the puck past Hasek for the winning goal.

While the rule book states that a goal cannot be scored if an offensive player has his foot in the crease, an internal NHL memo states that the rule is not absolute. A March memo listed 12 situations that could come up. Two could be considered relevant here.

The NHL cited clarification number nine, which said, "An attacking player maintains control of the puck but skates into the crease before the puck enters the crease and shoots the puck into the net. Result: Goal is allowed. The offside rule rationale applies (in the sense that a player with the puck can precede it into the opposing zone.")

Clarification number 10 states, "An attacking player takes a shot on net and after doing so, skates into the crease. The initial shot deflects outside the crease. The original attacking player, still in the crease, recovers the puck, which is now outside the crease, and scores. Result: Goal is disallowed."

All right, let's start with the fact that the Hull "goal" did not fit either classification neatly. You probably could argue that in such cases the main rule should therefore apply, that a goal can't be scored with a skate in the crease.

If you had to pick which example was more relevant here, it probably would be number 10. Hull didn't have possession (as the league defines it) of the puck until it was on his stick, even if he did deflect the first shot. Therefore, clarification number nine would not apply. And he didn't clearly have possession, take a shot, collect the rebound, and shovel the puck home either.

In clarification number 10, Hull certainly recovered the puck after an initial shot and scored while in the crease. It's not a perfect fit, but it's the closest one available. When the NHL first explained its rule, it said that a player had to have possession and control of the puck as he scored in order to record a legal goal even with a skate in the crease. I took that to mean "at the time of the shot," comparing it to a breakaway when a player is touching the crease when he scores.

But the supplemental instructions show that Hull had to have control of the puck for a longer period than that. With all that in mind, I can come to only one conclusion. No goal.

I still think in a perfect world that Hull's goal should have counted. I'm a believer in "no harm, no foul" in such cases. The foot in the crease had nothing to do with anything. I still think the Sabres have themselves to blame for not having a defenseman in Hull's vicinity. I still think the NHL got into trouble because its published rules were not the actual playing rules. And I'd still like to know who opened the Zamboni doors after Hull put the puck in the net.

But I no longer think the goal should have counted. That means the final outcome of the series always will be slightly tainted.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Talking back

Ever see something printed or heard something said in the media that you feel like answering quickly, and then you realize it's a little difficult to effectively shout at a newspaper clipping? Me too.

So let's take a few items on some different subjects that deserve a reply:

"The reason that there are seven-game series in the hockey finals as opposed to the other sports is that the game is so competitive now."

The higher seeds in hockey have been winning playoff series at about a 67 percent rate for years. In basketball, it's above 80 percent. If the better team is going to win, I'd bet it happens quicker than in a sport where there a larger chance for an upset. Meanwhile, hockey went for years and years without a seven-game final, so the small sample size has something to do with it too.

"How can Chrysler get a bankruptcy ruling so fast? It takes months and months just to get a divorce these days."

Let's see -- there are thousands of jobs at stake here, and I assume enough lawyers have been working on the case in the last couple of weeks to fill a small city. It might be in everyone's best interests to get this done as quickly as possible. And why would you criticize the court system for working too quickly?

"Why would Obama say we are making money when banks return TARP funds with interest? We'll never see that money."

Would you prefer the banks keep that money? Even if the program is a net loss to the government balance sheet, it's still nice to see the plan working as advertised in some cases.

These last two comments came from a talk-show host, who you think would know better.

"Instead of cutting the size of legislatures in half, why don't we cut the salaries of legislators in half?"

The relevant phrase is, "You get what you pay for." If you think there are some mediocrities in elected offices now, think about what sort of talent pool would be interested in those jobs if the pay was 50 percent less.

Ah, I feel better already.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Scenes from two ballparks

1. Last Tuesday night, I was off to Tropicana Field to see the Rays play the Angels in exciting American League action. You have to like a park in which parking is free when you have four people in the car; it's $15 for the rest of us. Plus, tickets at the second level between home and first were $31 apiece -- pretty good for major league baseball. There was help everywhere in the ballpark, and everyone was polite and friendly. And the staff handed out free programs as you walked in.

The highlight, though, came after a well-played game. You've heard of the promotion where kids run the bases after the game? Tampa Bay has something called "the senior stroll." You can walk from the area down the line from the dugouts out into center field, and then turn for the fence and exit in dead center.

So ... how cool is it to stand in an actual major league center field? Very. What's striking the view. The dome in Tampa has most of the seats between the foul poles, and they seem to go up forever. You feel surrounded, even in center field. And it must take some practice to pick up the ball off the bat on fly balls because of the background. Oh, yeah, those guys are pretty good. Next time, I bring a camera, darn it.

2. We had our own small section, more or less, in the club level at the Bisons' game today. We walked up 10 minutes before the game and bought seats in row A, seats 1 and 2. There were a few others scattered about in section 208. I found myself wondering about a foul ball, since that's pretty prime territory for such events.

Sure enough, a fall came back and bounced off a seat a row behind me and a few seats over. It bounced two rows in front of me, so I slid down and calmly picked up the ball.

Then, since I had thought about what I was going to do in such a case, I strolled over about 12 seats and handed the ball directly to a 5-year-old girl. Got a nice hand from the few that could see me up there, and the girl came over shyly to my seat at the end of inning to thank me.

You take your triumphs where you find them.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A salute

Sometimes vacations aren't always fun. For the past few days I've been down in Florida, checking up on Mom who was carted out of her home three months ago by EMT's and who should be back in familiar surroundings shortly.

Many of us have spent a little to a lot of time with loved ones in hospitals over the years, and there's obviously an urgency to the setting. I'm not as familiar with nursing homes/rehab centers. So spending parts of a few days around one is an eye-opener.

Just walking in the front door can be difficult. During the day, patients were often in wheelchairs, either waiting to be taken somewhere or just getting a little different scenery than their rooms. Every single one of them is a story of some sort, and probably not a happy one. You just don't know how many are ever leaving the building again, and how many ever have visitors.

But the uplifting part comes with dealing with the staff. These workers do things on a daily basis that the rest of us would prefer to avoid, thank you. And they do it with a constantly upbeat attitude. I can't say I encountered anyone that wasn't friendly and encouraging.

It's a tough job, and somebody's got to do it. It's good to get a reminder of that every so often. This is just another way of showing appreciation.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Attention: Tom Brokaw

One of the good things about finding out more about my family tree was learning a bit about my English cousin, Colin Robb. We're not exactly close relatives, but his search for his mom's relatives opened up all sorts of facts about our joint family history.

Colin lives in Freckleton, which is a little bit north of Liverpool near the west coach of England. He's done some work for the Parish Council.

Colin sent this note along over the weekend as we mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day:

I thought you might like to know that the Freckleton Parish Council, at my request, have been flying the Union Jack at half mast today to celebrate those that died on D Day and before.

You may not be aware that Freckleton has a very strong bond with what was known as BAD 2 (Base Air depot 2), where the USA was based in servicing aircraft for the front line during WW2.

There was an air disaster in 1944, which we still remember every year in August with a church service. I advise you to take a look at this:

World War II seems a long time ago now. But one point in history, in my parents' lifetimes, tyranny was definitely winning in the Eastern Hemisphere. Winston Churchill's magnificent voice of defiance was about the only sign that dictatorships were not the wave of the future.

It's nice to have a bit of a connection to all of that. It's a good weekend to think about it.

Friday, June 05, 2009

My fastest basketball opponent

It was sometime in the early 1980's and a "celebrity" basketball game was held one afternoon at Martin Luther King Park. I use the word celebrity with some fear, because I was one of the players. Dave Kerner and I turned up to represent WEBR. There was a collection of other hoop players there, including Tony Masiello in his pre-Mayor days.

I didn't see a great deal of action, but I remember coming down the court on offense at one point in about the third quarter. After a couple of quick passes, I got the ball on someone on the other team yelled "switch." And I looked up, and there was Randy Smith guarding me.

That's Randy Smith, who was just out of the NBA. Randy Smith, who was the single most improved player during the course of his career in the history of the NBA, in my opinion. Randy Smith, who could jump over me for a dunk and not even notice I was there.

It's funny how your mind works. I had instant visions of Randy stripping me of the ball, racing down the court in about a second and scoring on a backhand dunk. So I did the logical thing in that situation -- I passed the ball as if it were contagious and tried to make sure I didn't get it again on that possession.

I remember interviewing Randy at Erie Community College during a workout in about 1977. He was very kind and friendly to a kid who was a little scared about interviewing his first NBA player. I'll think of him now for his abilities on and off the court.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009


It's pretty to easy what the toughest part of the job of sports journalism is.

It requires the ability to predict the future.

Reporters in the so-called toy department are asked regularly to go public with their predictions on games and events. Does this happen in any other part of the business? Do City Hall reporters breathlessly print their prediction on that new housing bill that's up for passage? No, they don't. About the only time the newsroom does any predicting is at election time, and most of those races are over before they start. (Hint: follow the money.)

There are a couple of drawbacks to this system in sports, even though it's supposed to be done all in fun. The first is that sometimes you are wrong. Ask Bob Summers about that.

Bob writes a horse racing column for our newspaper. The day of the Preakness, his story was headlined, "The filly fails to infatuate -- Preakness bettors better look elsewhere." The story began, "Favorites have won the Preakness about 51 percent of the time, but the Happy Handicapper just can't bring himself to pick Rachel Alexandra to win today's 134th edition of the Run for the Black-Eyed Susans."

Well, you may know how that one turned out. Rachel Alexandra recorded an historic victory.

Bob told me he never knew he had so many readers until he opened his e-mail the next day. He had more than an hundred messages, telling him what they thought of his prediction.

Bob's problem, ultimately, was that he was no fortune-teller.

The other drawback comes when you are dealing with local teams. A football writer once told me that he hated to pick against the Bills in print, because players on the team would give him grief about it. He didn't seem to think that helped his relationships with the team members much.

Then there are the fans. Dave Kerner once went on a Sabres broadcast and picked Quebec to beat Buffalo in a first-round playoff series. When the red light went off, Dave was yelled at by sportscaster Ralph Hubbell. Ralph told him, "Never pick against the home team. If you are right, the fans won't care. If you are wrong, they won't forget."

To Dave's credit, he gave an honest answer to a question. And Quebec did win that series. But Hubbell's stand was rather insightful to the mindset involved too.

So the next time you see a prediction box in the newspaper, don't take it too seriously. If sportswriters could predict the future, they'd be buying lottery tickets.