Tag Archives: Olympics

“Legends Club” – V, K and the Dean


John Feinstein delivers in his sweet spot – college basketball – with “The Legends Club”. It is a story of fathers and sons of genetic and organizational and institutional relation; it is a love story of men and a game and rivals and life-long learning; it is at times almost unintentionally hilarious and equally sad because of the real-world characters involved. I have told bits of pieces of the following to people who ask why I left a technology company to join a healthcare company: reading stories of how Dean Smith’s mental gifts were stolen by his struggle with Alzheimer’s made me realize how elements of my management style were a reflection of his public persona, and that nobody deserved to die without the dignity of being their true mental selves through their entire lives.

If that’s a bit melancholy, it sets the tone for the book. Dean Smith and Jim Valvano don’t survive to the end of the story, but how Feinstein relates the incredibly textured, complex and rival-driven relationships of their lives is what makes this a compelling read.

My introduction to college basketball happened mostly accidentally – my freshman roommate decided to run a pool for the 1981 NCAA tournament, featuring our own Princeton Tigers squaring off against a BYU team lead by some kid named Danny Ainge (how prophetic that would be for my sports fandom years after moving to Boston). At the time, I knew very little about college basketball, and after being immersed in freshman physics, linear algebra and intro to CS, few of us knew very little about the outside world at all. So my Final Four picks included Indiana (because a high school friend went there) and North Carolina (since my closest roommate, Matt, was from Chapel Hill and his dad taught there). It was nothing more complicated than that.

I spent the week between the Elite 8 and the Final Four in Chapel Hill. It was my first time on an airplane, my first time south of Virginia, and my first exposure to life at a school with a storied coach. Marking time in NCAA brackets, nearly everything about that trip of 35 springs ago remains crystal clear, from the fact that I had a scruffy beard that was painted Carolina blue by someone during an impromptu parade after the Tar Heels won their semi-final game, to cleaning that same paint off of Matt’s car, to my intense fear that I was failing freshman E&M and had decided to re-learn the entire half semester one day, to sitting with Matt’s dad listening to “Classical Gas” which I stupidly thought was originally recorded by Larry Fast and Synergy. Seeing me studying, Matt’s mom brought me a slice of home made pie that was the single greatest incentive and study aid ever invented. Freshman physics took me deep into overtime but lost (I eventually wrapped college with an astrophysics class that made me revisit those days with a bit of educational joy). Names like Al Wood and James Worthy became part of my sports vocabulary (that Michael Jordan kid arrived the next year). Carolina fanaticism was born, slowly, emerging over the course of watching the Tar Heels tournament run reflected in the college town, because of the spirit, the people, the warmth, the fierce competitiveness that never spilled over into ugly vernacular or name-calling, and because of a slice of pie. UNC lost to Indiana in the championship game, and as a result I won the roommate pool for my first ever sports betting win. For the next 25 years I learned to idolize Dean Smith, the UNC hoops coach, my first steps in becoming a lifelong college basketball fan.

The only title-named coach that makes it to the end of the book is Coach K; the book was released before he took the US Men’s Olympic basketball team to a gold medal in Rio; but the final chapter is as moving as any novel where the plotlines can be constructed for heartstring tension. It’s not a happy book in the way that any resolution of long-standing, often petty and ugly personal conflict isn’t happy and jocular, but it is hopeful and illustrative of the power of mentoring, coaching and public relationships, and for those reasons I will put it in the short list of “sports books with business implications”.

Here’s what I learned from Feinstein’s deeply personal narrative of how UNC, NC State and Duke, with a strong supporting role played by Indiana and Bobby Knight: Dean Smith was far from a saint, but he acted in a way to always put the focus on his team and its players. He acted out of love for the game, and as a manager, his redirection of the spotlight is a tenet I hold dear. Mike Krzyzewski is not the (Blue) Devil, a bad person, an angry man or a bad coach. He is remarkably adaptable, dealt with physical setbacks (back surgery) that would have forced others into retirement, and worked in the dual large body shadows of Bobby Knight and Dean Smith. And Jimmy V was always the mood lifter, the soul shifter, and sadly, the too gentle soul whose career was injured through actions several long arms’ lengths away from him. My dislike for Coach K has been tempered and damped with facts and backstory; while I respect Dean Smith to this day, it’s evident how much his gravitas and context created space for him to excel. And I will always, always laugh at the ESPN/CBS clip of Jim Valvano running onto the court after winning the National Championship, arms open in a half-hug, because while joyous and hilarious it also represents in relief the best part of enjoying sports – doing so with family, friends, and those you want to hug after the win.

Quadrennial House Guest Reflection

One of my favorite images of Hanukah is that of the house guest that visits you for a week, during which you indulge in foods and celebration. For years, I’ve felt the end of Hanukah tinged with sadness, as I pack away the special menorot and candles, putting away the equivalent of our house guest’s trappings for another year. A similar, but different, feeling applies to the Olympics. Staggering the winter and summer games has made their two week run feel less like a leap year or Presidential election and more like a much anticipated book or album release. However, there’s still the feeling that you’re living with a long-cycle periodic house guest who holds up a mirror for you to check in on how things have progressed. Or not.

We see ourselves in the Summer Games more than the winter episode because anyone who has run around outside, glided on a swingset, hung from a playground climbing set, kicked a ball or jumped in the water has visions of being the best, the fastest, the first of some unique aspect to ascend that podium. The Summer Olympics appeal to our first and best outdoor childhood instincts.

We need to measure how we, as a nation, show up. Are we respectful of the host country, its norms and people and food and culture, or do we vandalize a local business and lie about it? And then as a country, do we fail to ask for accountability of those chosen (and funded) to represent us? Not just in their actions, but in how they participate, cheer for their teammates, and how they comport themselves in and around other athletes (good: men’s basketball team cheering for swimming; bad: same team staying on a luxury yacht)

We need to let the stories tell themselves, rather than having NBC spoon fed us tape delayed highlights and heavily produced segments. One of the highlights for me was seeing runner Brenda Martinez sporting a Coheed and Cambria tattoo, which she later acknowledged to fellow fans. On Twitter. That bit about seeing yourself in the games? Works for us old people too. She overcame incredible adversity, trained in basketball shoes, and has given back to her sport immensely. There’s a hero of the games who doesn’t need a medal to earn our admiration, and has done more to tell her story with authenticity than any professional sportscaster.

We need to realize that the athletes representing our country are projection of our demographics and diversity, and to treat our country’s team with respect, equality, and a little bit of “all nations but mostly America” pride (to quote Muppet Sam The Eagle). If we go looking for every fault with those we’ve put on the international stage, how can we achieve anything with our neighbors and co-workers who represent those same changing demographics. It’s not just gender and skin color and religion and body shape; it’s style and approach and geography and public comfort. I’m sometimes amazed that Bill Walton became an outstanding basketball commentator after learning how to work with his stutter; had internet trolls existed to shame him in his early interviews then we would have lost the opportunity to hear a jocular and informed voice. Why on earth do we even consider shaming those who have represented us so well on the world stage, for their actions in cheering teammates, receiving honors, or excelling in their sports that require strength and agility composited with poise and character in any shape or color of body?

If the Summer Olympics are our house guest, here to reflect our collective and individual behaviors, let them show the best of mature adult as well as dreaming child.

Generational Performance

I believe once every 18-20 years we witness something that constitutes a generation marking performance; a confluence of skills, poise, courage, stamina, team and individual leadership that make us sit up and take notice, in a way that we’ll use as a chronological reference point for the ensuring quarter century.

Within my sports recall lifetime:

The 1980 US Men’s Olympic Hockey Team. The 1969 Mets and 2004 Red Sox. The “We Are Family” 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates. Bill Walton in his final season with the Boston Celtics. Mark Spitz.

I’ll add a Rio quartet: Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Katie Ledecky, Simone Manuel. Nearly all of the previous generational moments happened in a world of print media, selective mediated access, and slowly evolving timelines. Our US Olympic women athletes competed in a world of social media, intense pressure, direct access to and from the athletes, and a race to expose “stories.” Each of the four battled competition and those external pressures to deliver a generational performance. Katie Ledecky literally swam away from the pack, and then was the roommate and teammate everyone wants as she cheered Simone Manuel to a gold medal. Simone Manuel combined faith and grace and power to establish new a first ascent. Aly Raisman showed how you come back from crushing disappointment with stamina, humility, hard work, and an intense smile. Simone Biles makes me question gravity, in both the physical and existential sense. She seems to be having more fun the higher she flies.

The generational moment is that I like the Olympics again, after re-assuring myself that I wouldn’t watch or care.

Shaun White, Jersey Tomato

Shaun White, the Flying Tomato, rocks. Even in LAX, late at night, when he has better things to do like listen to some tunes and relax. He’s working, like the rest of us, yet he was talking, high-fiving, low-fiving, signing autographs, and generally being a Tomato worthy of a Jersey appellation. Tough skin but great in all ways. And he was flying coach — he’s an easy guy to like, and I’m happy that my kids like him, because he’s what you’d hope for in an Olympic icon.

Kathyrn Bertine’s Olympic Quest

ESPN’s e-ticket follows Kathryn Bertine’s quest to represent the United States at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Doing just about anything, it seems. The series is Bertine’s quirky, self-effacing and sport-defacing travelogue of her attempts to qualify in the women’s pentathalon, checking out team handball to a tortuous, tortured, and not at all circuitous route to the 7-11 Velodrome for Team USA Cycling.

Top Ten Hockey Books

I love books. I buy many more than I read, and lately I’ve been buying out of print or gently used editions from amazon.com to add to my collection. Typically the used tomes fill in from days when spending $15 on a book would have put a serious dent in my spending money. Now that I can dabble in books and have somewhere to put them other than a cardboard mover’s box, I’m able to build up small libraries in obtuse topics such as Lake Placid, New York, hold’em poker, cryptography, and 70s art rock group Yes.

Without any further introduction, here’s my current top ten favorite hockey books:

Last Season, Roy MacGregor. The only fictional book in the list, and one of the few sports-related books that’s ever made me profoundly sad. Perhaps it’s “Bats” discovering his limitations as a man and player; perhaps it’s the surprise ending.
Ice Time, Jay Atkinson. A book for hockey dads by a hockey dad himself, who also happens to be an outstanding sports writer. Atkinson follows the trials, travails and training of the Methuen, Massachusetts high school team, but this book truly digs into what it means to be a good youth sports parent.
Boys of Winter, Wayne Coffey. Of all of the content scribbled about the Miracle on Ice, this is far and away my favorite collection of insights and stories. Coffey takes a look at each player, and how their lives were shaped before and after the famous 4-3 game in Lake Placid. I quote from the introduction frequently as our youth hockey season winds down, as Jim Craig’s few pages alone are worth the cover price.
Blades of Glory, John Rosengren. Sort of the foil to Ice Time, Rosengren follows big-time high school hockey in the first state of hockey (Minnesota). Another great look at a season from deep inside the locker room. Casual references to players from rival high schools read like a who’s who of young NHL players, with the New Jersey Devils’ own Zach Parise and Paul Martin making cameo appearances as themselves.
Home Team, Roy MacGregor. He’s so good he gets two slots. Non-fiction and closer to home (literally). Blend Last Season with Ice Time and you get this book, a look at fathers and sons in and around NHL draft events. Expectations, met, exceeded, undershot or crushed, and how hockey families sometimes are more about family than hockey.
They Don’t Play Hockey in Heaven, Ken Baker. You’ve probably never heard of Ken Baker, as he was a goalie for Colgate but never “made it”. I only discovered this book after reading Kathyrn Bertine’s All The Sundays Yet To Come (figure skating and anorexia in South America, but quite funny), as she and Baker were friendly at Colgate. As an adult league player, and someone who has met many guys who always wondered if they could have made it in the ECHL, this is a great read: Baker tells a story of fulfilling his dream of playing professional hockey well after he had hung up his skates, and the result has the poignancy of a Disney movie blended with the rough edges of “Slap Shot.”
The Game, Ken Dryden. Stanley Cup, Montreal Canadiens, Cornell University, and now big-time Canadian politician. Awesome read, and in a newly released reprint.
Beyond The Crease, Martin Brodeur (and Damien Cox). Not at all what I was expecting. Rather than the usual “I was taped to the goal by my older brother who fired pucks at me from a carbon-dioxide powered air gun” story of his life from 3 years old to 3 Stanley Cups, Brodeur’s book focuses on much more recent events, including his relationship to the Devils management and the league, how he sees the sport evolving, and what it was like to represent his country in the Olympics. His reflections on playing in Torino, and echoing his father’s footsteps on Italian Olympic ground, are alone worth the purchase price.
Breaking the Ice, Angela Ruggiero. So this one is about brother-baiting and boy-badgering, but it’s about the only book I can find that addresses women’s hockey.
The Hockey I Love, Vladislav Tretiak. Yes, the Russian goaltender, who was pulled from the Miracle on Ice game. The book ends in the late 70s, a few years before the Lake Placid Olympics, so you don’t get Tretiak’s views on the game for which he’s probably best known in the States. What you do find is a discourse on playing in some of the most famous international hockey series of the 70s.

What’s missing? A book about Jeff Halpern . Something focused on hockey diversity, featuring Scott Gomez and Jarome Iginla, perhaps. The hagiography of Saint Patrik (Elias), with a whole chapter on how he can consume dumplings and kolachi and still be pure muscle.

Bertine to Beijing

Got an email from Kathryn Bertine, former ice skater, ice show skater, and very funny writer, about her deal with ESPN to pen a column chronicaling her quest to compete in the Beijing Olympics. She’s published one more sports book than me, used to skate at the rink in Colorado that used to bear my company’s logo, and she answers her own email. Good buying signs for her work: the column is a great read.

We’re Going To Lake Placid

Fifteen hours from now, I’ll be driving a car loaded with one smelly hockey bag, two well-worn sticks, two boxes of girl scout cookies, three suitcases, camera bag, case of trophies, box of NJ Devils Youth Hockey club pins, a cowbell, two parents (mine) and one son (also mine). 290 miles from here we’ll pass the Prague Motor Lodge as we enter the town of Lake Placid. Friday morning we start our annual end of season tournament.

I love Lake Placid, possibly because it reminds me of the timelessness one of my other favorite haunts, Princeton University. Standing there puts you in a river of tradition. It’s never the same, but it’s the same landmarks and waysigns and visual clues that you’re somewhere special.

It’s 1932 and 1980 and 2006 all rolled into one. It’s a Main Street so quiet that if you stand outside on a cold night, you swear you hear “U-S-A!” being chanted. It’s where our hockey season, like that of Mike Eruzione, comes to an end this year.

We face some tough teams in our division. We have four games in a 38-hour stretch over two days. I believe in the 17 young men who will be playing on that fabled rink, where, we are told by banners at every corner, “Miracles Happen Here.” I’ve waited 51 weeks to find out if it’s true — again.

Over and Out From Torino

Olympic hockey has been anything but predictable. The early favorites have early exits, the early disappointments have Turined up the heat, and more than a few people are left scratching their heads.

Chalk it up to global growth and interest. Chalk it up to blatant nationalism that the Canadians and Americans discount Scandanavia and TRFKAC (the republics formerly known as Czechoslovakia) as hockey hotbeds. But it’s great fun to watch, and I’m now waving my little Czech flag as a sideline fan. Should the Czechs medal, I hope someone picks up a medal to go for Patrik Elias. It was Elias who skated Petr Sykora’s jersey around with the Stanley Cup in 2000 after Sykora was injured in the finals. He deserves Olympic-sized props for that.

Here are my observations on today’s quadrophenia:

  • Mike Modano wins the Pass The Blame Award for his post-game comments that took shots at the team selection, travel schedule and logistics. Hey, Mike, talk to some of the bobsled or speed skating athletes, who have to book their own travel and pay for their own hotel rooms without multi-million dollar league contracts. And talk to Jamie Langenbrunner, who is a better skater on the big ice, has a wicked shot, and would have been a better team player than some other selections. He’s spent the last two weeks in New Jersey, not Italy. See him complaining?
  • Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta actually looked like they were having fun. Maybe that’s why Gio had four goals — the US team lead in goals. Or maybe it’s because they play on the same line back in Jersey, so they know where to look for each other. Something to think about in terms of team selection: don’t take players, take centers and wings and defensive pairs who know each others’ styles.
  • Alex Ovechkin is scary good. I liked him before the Olympics, but the rookie from Washington blew me away several times in the past 48 hours – his big goals against the US and Canada were a start. But he also commented that he wears #8 because it was his mother’s number, and that one touched me where I live, literally. After today’s semi-final game, he looked and sounded more mature than your typical 20 year old for whom English is distant second language. Ovechkin thanked the people who got him there. He should give exit interview lessons to Mike Modano. Not just scary good talent, but scary good person too.
  • Injured Elias Leaving Torino

    Elias is on his way out of Torino. The good news is he’ll have a solid 10 days to let the ribs heal up before the knock’em sock’em Eastern Conference schedule resumes; the bad news is that he went through a lot of travel and personal wear and tear to play in one Olympic game.

    So much for filling up on home-style Italian cooking. Time to come back to that local Italian place where he’s frequently spotted. It’s widely rumored that Elias is a locker room prankster, but this isn’t the kind of ribbing he should get in return.