Tuesday, October 31, 2006


"Dad, your racquetball partner died."

This is how my nine-year old son greeted me when I picked him up from a neighbor's house Saturday night. And it was true. In the 1990s, I was one of many employees of the George Washington University Athletic Department who spent some time on the racquetball court with Red Auerbach, who died at the age of 89 on Saturday.

Red was a GW alumnus and a resident of Washington, D.C., and he would come to campus several times a week to get a workout. He was in his seventies then, but his physical skills were surprising; his mental and emotional competiveness was not. We played a three-man racquetball variation called cutthroat, and he would growl at you if you missed an easy kill to knock off the opponent, an error he almost never committed. Likewise when he was serving for the win, he bore down and the ball came off his racquet with more velocity and spin than you had seen the whole game.

But his most effective tactic by far was to call timeout to slow his opposition's momentum. He would stand, breathing and sweating heavily, his goggles pushed up on his forehead, resting with one hand against the wall. It was at this point that I always recalled the words of a former GW basketball assistant coach.

"You don't want to be the guy on the racquetball court with Red Auerbach when he dies of a heart attack."

And so, when play resumed, the game would inevitably take a turn back in Red's direction. The highlight of the whole experience was hearing the stories after the game was finished. Red would hold court in the locker room, which could take a while because, as he said, "The hardest thing about exercising when you get old is changing your clothes." You'd hear stories about Russell and Havlicek, but you'd also get his opinion on why Jordan won championships and Barkley didn't, or why Dennis Rodman was worth every penny despite his outrageous off-court behavior.

When I graduated from college and put together that first resume, there was a space at the top where I listed my "Career Objective." I could never have dreamed of writing "Hanging out with the greatest basketball coach of all time," but those times were more memorable than any deal I ever made.

Rest in peace, Red.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Halfcourt Harry

The other night, after I escorted my sons to the swimming pool at a local university, I walked across the hall to the basketball court. The boys enjoyed being on the swim team so much last summer that they asked if they could swim year-round. We signed up for two nights a week, sandwiched around other sports, Scouts, school and, oh yeah, free time. The workouts are tougher than the summer and there is less team camaraderie, but I am hoping they will see some improvement and enjoy the fruits of their hard labor.

Rather than sit in the bleachers and read or chat with other parents, I decided to get a workout of my own while the kids are in the pool for an hour. Like most universities these days, this one has a beautiful, state-of-the-art fitness center with a three-story climbing wall and rows and rows of exercise machines I don't even know the name of, let alone know how to use. Of course, these facilities are for the use of the students, who deserve at least this much when you consider what tuition goes for; people like me, with no real affiliation with the institution, are not welcome. Which is just as well because I'd rather play basketball anyway, and there's no electronic ID reader at the door of that gym.

I've played pickup basketball since I was strong enough to get the ball to the hoop, and even though I have reached an age where my fitness needs would be better served on a treadmill or in a swimming pool, I still choose the court. One of the great benefits of my job at Johns Hopkins University was the noontime hoops game with the other guys who worked in the Athletic Department. We played one game, fullcourt to either 30 or 35 points. Everyone knew each other, nobody got too upset, but nobody wanted to lose either. It was usually Old Guys against Young Guys and every now and then somebody would set a point spread.

There was a similar situation when I was an undergrad at Cornell. Lunch League was full of players who set and called out screens, passed the ball, and played defense more often than not, concepts foreign to the And-One mix tape crowds that often populate the courts now. During my senior year, I made sure my schedule gave me at least three days without classes from 11:00 - 1:00.

The court I grew up playing on was at Lyon Village playground, a mile or two from my house in Arlington, Virginia. We just called it the Park, although I hear the kids now refer to it as the LV. There was nothing special about the Park; it had a playground, a small covered pavilion, and an open field that worked for football, as well as two tennis courts and the community center, but mostly I spent my time there playing basketball.

I remember some great runs at the Park. Maybe it was the lights that stayed on late or the proximity to Lee Highway, a major artery from D.C. to Northern Virginia, but there was almost never a shortage of players. And, like all great courts, the Park had its regulars and characters.

There was a guy named Carl, who played tennis and basketball all day and inspected restaurants at night. He was an excellent shooter and better passer who would find you whenever you cut to the hoop - even if you didn't know you were open. He wore white hightop Chucks and Penn State sweats and t-shirts because his mother worked in the bookstore there. And there was Pierce, the best pure shooter I ever saw there, whose team never seemed to lose. And George and Lou. George didn't looked like much but he scored big with a hanging jumpshot, and Lou pinballed around the court wreaking havoc on defense and usually on his own team's offense as well. Between games, they would scan the daily racing charts.

But of all the regulars, the one that stood out the most was Halfcourt Harry. Halfcourt was probably in his late 40s or early 50s, with Elvis-length sideburns and gray hair always pulled back in a bandanna. He wore sweatpants and kneepads regardless of the temperature and he never played in any games. Instead, he would shoot some layups and jumpers and then go into an angry basketball tai chi routine the like of which I had never seen before or since. Positioning himself in various spots around the court, he would catch the ball as if receiving a pass and execute a complex series of pivots and fakes before shooting. As he whirled and jerked about, he would slam the ball against his palm with a force that made you think the ball might explode. He was also known as Slap-Happy Harry (I'm not even sure Harry was his real name), but the nickname we used more often came from the hookshots he would shoot from halfcourt at the end of his ritual.

Maybe he was a nice guy, maybe he was competely deranged, I don't remember anyone who ever tried to find out. We watched Halfcourt from a safe distance, and when he left, we would crack each other up trying to imitate his manic maneuvers.

I hadn't thought of Halfcourt for a long time, until I returned to the basketball court the other night. I warmed up, stretched a little, watched a game in progress, figured that I could probably play without substantial risk of injury, and got on the team that had next.

I had played several times this summer with a group of guys in my neighborhood, just enough to raise my expectations but not enough to raise the level of my skills. They were hard-fought, competitive games, but the average age on this court was about 25 years younger than the neighborhood game.

As we matched up to start the game, one of my new teammates asked, "Do you want the big guy?"

"I want the slow guy," I replied.

I ended up with the short, quicker-than-he-looks guy who also turned out to have a pretty reliable jumpshot. After he made one, I came out a little further to guard him. He dribbled right and when I moved to cut him off, he crossed over to his left and drove towards the hoop. I recovered just enough to get a fingertip on the ball as he released it. A few years ago, it would have been a solid rejection, but I was happy to get a piece of it.

I was not happy to find that one of my teammates had slid over to help and knocked my left foot out from under me. I had really hoped to land on that foot, but instead, I came crashing down on both knees. It was loud, and moments later, quite painful.

"Are you okay?' he asked, looking at me the way you look at an elderly person who has had a bad fall. Actually, they were all looking at me like that.

I was fine, just some bruises, broken skin and near critically wounded pride. I finished the game, but as I limped off the court, I suddenly remembered Halfcourt Harry, and I thought to myself, "I am going to need some kneepads."

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Ravens, Redskins, on a Roll

Well, well, well, looks like we've got ourselves a couple football teams here in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area. Or is Washington-Baltimore? Either way, it was pure pigskin pleasure over the weekend.

The Redskins and Mark Brunell legitimized their masterful performance a week earlier against the Houston Texans with an overtime win against Jacksonville. I'm not ready to put the Skins in the playoffs, but when Clinton Portis is healthy, offensive coordinator Al Saunders can absolutely bludgeon opponents with his 700-page playbook. Brunell went from awful to awesome early last season and appears to be on that track again. He still doesn't throw the ball deep with much authority, but most of the plays seem to get the ball into the hands of playmakers like Portis, Santana Moss and Chris Cooley, on the move which is a scary prospect the opposition.

You have to be worried about a defense that gives up 30 to the Jaguars, but the Jags had faced some tough D in their first three games (Dallas, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis). The Skins go to New York and Indy over the next three weeks; if they can steal a win on one of those trips, they'll have two weeks of huge hype with a bye leading up to Dallas. Then we can talk playoffs.

I got a personal, if not up-close, look at the Ravens last weekend when I took my boys to see the hometown team against the Chargers. Last year, we went to the last home game, a lackluster win over the Texans that was an appropriate end to a disappointing season. We had fun, and I cheered the good plays, but mostly watched politely and kept an eye and ear out for knuckleheaded fans that would cause problems. Mercifully there were very few.

This year, the atmosphere had changed 180 degrees. As I wrote two weeks ago, the arrival of Steve McNair and two wins to open the season has jacked expectations way up. Throw in a visit from undefeated San Diego, with superback LaDanian Tomlinson, and you've got a little excitement in M&T Bank Stadium. The crowd was large and loud as Ray Lewis brought back his dancing entry during pregame introductions, but the Chargers took the opening kickoff and moved their no-huddle offense 70 yards down the field for a touchdown. The Ravens evened the score later in the quarter after a Bart Scott interception gave them the ball at San Diego's 22, but the offense fell silent while the Chargers notched two more field goals before the half to take a 13-7 lead.

The beginning of the third quarter offered no relief as Baltimore went three and out. Fans began to grumble as the announcer continually intoned, "Jamal Lewis carries; gain of two." You know it's bad when the largest ovation of the day is for a hit the punter makes to tackle a return man.

On their next possession, the Ravens seemed to get untracked with a nice play from McNair to tight end and fan favorite Todd Heap on a crossing pattern that brought them into San Diego territory for the first time since early in the second quarter. Unfortunately, head coach Brian Billick decided to get fancy with a shovel pass on second and goal from the two. The pass was complete but fumbled by Daniel Wilcox, and the fans let Billick know that his offensive genius was offensive indeed.

Meanwhile Baltimore's defense continued to hold the Chargers in check. San Diego cooperated by missing a 40-yard field goal and botching the snap on another, but hadn't really threatened the end zone since the opening drive. Tomlinson had one big gain (29 yards) in the third quarter but more often found himself in the arms of Scott (15 tackles) and Ray Lewis (14). Lewis may have lost a step, but he still hits like a Hummer, and you never see a ballcarrier squirm or lean for an extra yard or two after contact. The Ravens had no sacks until the last play of the game but QB Philip Rivers never looked confident either.

Thanks to the defense, the Ravens got the ball back at their own 34 with less than eight minutes to play, still trailing by seven. Three Lewis carries later, the punt team trotted onto the field and the boos descended on Billick. Now I know why the vendors take the caps off the bottled water when you buy them (they are less likely to remain full and become lethal projectiles).

Let me just say that the boobirds were way off on this one. Yes, it's frustrating that your record-setting running back gets stopped on third and one, but do you really want to try it again and risk giving the ball back on your own 40? And considering that McNair had just thrown his second INT of the day, can you really blame Billick for calling running plays, especially when the first down play went for six yards? And finally, the defense is pitching a shutout in the second half, so, yes, you punt the ball in this situation.

Easy to say in hindsight, I guess, because San Diego fell apart with a couple penalties and eventually took a safety. Baltimore took over with three minutes to play, 60 yards from the end zone. At this point, I turned to my sons and said, "Well, this is why you get Steve McNair. He's got the experience in this situation." Next to us, a fan turned to his son and said, "They'll never do it." Negative Ned had also booed Billick's decision to punt and to run Lewis so frequently.

McNair proceeded to orchestrate what you would have to call a textbook two-minute drill. He completed three straight passes, threw in a 12 yard scramble, and, after throwing one away, zipped a bullet to Heap who spun and dove into the end zone with 16 seconds left.

Pandemonium! Jubilation! Ecstasy! Hugs and high fives for everyone around us! Except for Negative Ned, who says, "Now we gotta hold'em." Hold 'em? Really? That's your attitude? The defense has been holding them all day. There are 16 seconds left here. This game is over. Live a little!

The first Ravens' sack of the day closes the game and the high fives go around again. As fans march out of the stadium, cheers of "Four and OH!" and "HEEEAAAAPP!" erupt and echo in call and response.

The rumblings about a "special season" and comparisons to the 2001 Super Bowl team have already begun in the local media. The schedule gets a little tougher for the next few weeks, with a trip to Denver and a home game against Carolina leading in to the bye week. The Ravens defense has intimidated young quarterbacks thus far, and while the two Jakes (Plummer and Delhomme) are a cut above what they have faced, I still think this defense can really shake a team's confidence over the course of a game. McNair should get a little better, and they don't need much more than than that.