The Bisheff Blog
Analyzing and commenting on what's hot in sports

Mar
17

In honor of my late and much missed friend Alan Malamud, here are some notes on an early Madness scorecard:

— A vintage Ben Howland-UCLA defensive clinic was almost ruined when the Bruins fell apart late against Michigan State. Good thing they held on, 78-76, because they deserved to win.

— Credit Malcolm Lee for a brilliant job, shutting down the Spartans’ Kalin Lucas. For most of the game, Tom Izzo’s team had trouble getting anything close to a good shot. The last few minutes, of course, were a different story.

— Funny how those free throws get tougher to make down the stretch, huh, guys?

— USC coach Kevin O’Neill said he was proud of his team. OK, but there wasn’t much to be proud of in that play-in (or was it play-out?) loss to Virginia Commonwealth. The Trojans not only lost, they quit at the end, failing to compete right up to the final buzzer. It was embarrassing.

— And if USC’s Nikola Vucevic thinks he is ready for the NBA, he should watch the tape of his game against VCU. He was pushed all over the floor. In the NBA, Nikola, the players are bigger, stronger and meaner.

— In view of the off-court controversy and the way the Trojans fell apart in their brief tournament appearance, you at least have to wonder a little about O’Neill’s future at USC

— Morehead State? Really?

— Jimmer, Jimmer, Jimmer. He gets 32 against Wofford, but now it starts to get tough for him and BYU. He’ll always score, but he’ll need a lot more help from here on in.

— Gonzaga over St. John’s. Mark Few over Steve Lavin. Let’s just be kind and say it figured.

— San Diego State beat Northern Colorado, but now we start to really find out about the Aztecs. As someone who used to cover them when you could count the fans in the stands with your finger, I’ll be rooting for them.

— Kentucky just held on against Princeton, or both John Calipari and Rick Pittino would have been knocked out in the first round. And that would have been a real shame, huh?

— Florida wallops outmanned UC Santa Barbara, and now gets its old friend, UCLA. The Bruins should be afraid, very afraid.

— Pittsburgh coasted in its first round game and may continue to coast in easily the tournament’s softest region.

— Beware of the Spiders from Richmond. They could have a free pass now into the Sweet Sixteen.

— If the Pac-10 wants to prove it wasn’t as weak a conference as many said, both Arizona and Washington have to at least win their first round games on Friday.

— STEVE BISHEFF

Mar
15

They’re only opinions, but at least they’re all mine:

I have an idea for the NFL owners and players. Instead of quibbling over that $9 billion payout, why not do something, instead, that will show some selflessness and compassion? Why not donate 10 per cent of that money to the Japanese relief fund? . . .

So President Obama is picking the four top NCAA seeds to make it to the Final Four. Come on, Mr. President, you have to be more creative with your bracket than that . . .

If Casey Blake’s back is a question mark, and Juan Uribe has to play a lot at third base, who plays second for the Dodgers? Paging Mr. Eckstein, Mr. David Eckstein. Hey, he’s still unsigned and available. Ned Colletti could do a lot worse . . .

How ironic for the Angels. They finally have developed a young, power-hitting first baseman who appears ready to play, and they have no place to play him. Here’s my advice on what to do with Mark Trumbo early: Rotate him with a still recovering Kendrys Morales and Bobby Abreu at first and DH. Then wait to see what happens. If Trumbo keeps hitting like he has all spring, you have to find him some at-bats . . .

Everybody is down on UCLA for flopping so badly in the Pac-10 Tournament, but here’s my question: How badly did the Bruins really want to play three games, as opposed to resting up for the big tournament, especially with top defender Malcolm Lee hurting?. . .

As it is, the Bruins didn’t catch any break in their first round draw. It’s not Michigan State that is so intimidating, it is the Spartans’ coach, Tom Izzo . . .

The NFL Players Association should be ashamed for asking the top college prospects to boycott the NFL Draft in New York. Those kids worked all their lives to enjoy that moment. They deserve to savor it, as opposed to making a statement about a lockout they probably don’t even understand . . .

I like USC’s chances to not only win its play-in game Wednesday night but to beat Georgetown in its Southwest Regional opener on Friday . . .

By the way, USC coach Kevin O’Neill deserved that brief suspension. If you’re going to party after a game, Coach, you don’t do it within dribbling distance of the arena . . .

The American League’s most improved team might be the Baltimore Orioles, but that won’t get them very far in the A.L. Beast, er, East . . .

They’re already feverishly at work on the new $70 million John McKay Center on the USC campus. The ol’ coach would be very proud . . .

Judging from his first race as a 3-year-old, Uncle Mo still looks like he will make everybody else cry uncle when the Kentucky Derby rolls around in May . . .

Yeah, troubled Angels pitcher Scott Kazmir is a new man, all right. Sure he is . . .

The San Diego Padres have a new-look lineup with only one problem: They have no one who even resembles a star offensively . . .

Meanwhile, Adrian Gonzalez will be as comfortable in Boston as your average Kennedy relative. He’s still my pick to be A.L. MVP . . .

I’m a Kobe guy, but I have to ask this about his post-game shooting session after that recent Miami loss: Would he have done the same thing if all the media hadn’t been watching? . . .

OK, so here’s the Final Four on my bracket: Kansas, North Carolina, San Diego State and Pittsburgh . . .

— STEVE BISHEFF

Mar
13

This is the easiest call of the year.

Let’s see, which would I rather follow, March Madness or NFL Madness? A bunch of energized, excited kids playing for the pure fun of it, or a group of millionaires and billionaires unable to decide how to divide up $9.3 billion?

The basketball dreamers from all the Old Dominions and Belmonts and Woffords, or the spoiled jocks and greedy, arrogant owners of the richest organization in sports?

The wild, happy enthusiasm of all the college kids who will come out in droves to cheer on their teams, or the stern, humorless lawyers who will be emerging out of those gray buildings to give us the grim news that no progress has been made?

The madness of this March arrives at the perfect time. It will help us not only escape the horrible news that keeps flickering onto our flat screens from Japan, it will also drown out the sourness emanating from all the big money players who are threatening to close down the 2011 pro football season, arguing over billions while folks across the country can barely afford to fill up their gas tanks.

Tell me, would you rather watch San Diego State try for the impossible, or Jerry Jones add to his already inflated bank account? Would you rather root for little Indiana State, or wonder how those poor quarterbacks with their $20 million-a-year salaries are going to survive?

College basketball has plenty of faults, but for three giddy weeks in March, the NCAA Tournament captures the country like no other event in the calendar year.

So get out your brackets, sharpen your pencils (never use a pen; you always have to erase a few times, at least) and get ready. Here are a few tips from somebody who has dribbled down this road more times than he cares to admit:

— When in doubt, go for the better coach, not necessarily the better players. Above all, this is a coach’s tournament. The good ones always know how to get it done.

— Never pick a team that doesn’t have a quality point guard. Controlling the tempo is everything in the tournament. You can’t win without a steady, experienced hand at the wheel.

— You rarely can get a home court, but you can get a home region. Watch for the good teams who have a chance to play an hour or two away from their campus. Their fans can make a big difference.

— Solid seniors can often be more effective than flashy freshmen. You want kids who have been to the dance before. Teams that have learned how to play together can survive longer than those selfish 18-year-olds who all want to play one-on-one.

Most important, take the time to look around, soak it all in and smile. The wonderful drama, the last-second shots, the delicious tension and, above all, the crazy, unpredictable finishes.

This is what sports are supposed to be about. Enjoy every sweet, delicious minute of it.

It’s the best possible way to tell the NFL what it can do with its silly threats of strikes and lockouts.

— STEVE BISHEFF

Mar
10

TEMPE, Ariz. — You obviously can’t see everything in just a few days, but here are just a few quick observations from my time watching the Angels in spring training this week:

— The offense is still lacking. No matter how Mike Scioscia mixes and matches, the lineup can’t be the same until Kendrys (yes, that’s how he wants his first name spelled now) Morales returns and fills the gaping hole between Torii Hunter and Vernon Wells. Even then, the bottom part of the order is shaky. “If (Peter) Bourjos and (Jeff) Mathis can both hit .240, we’re going to win a lot of games,” says Scioscia. And that says a lot about this offense. They’re actually rooting for two guys to hit .240. Good times, huh, Angels fans?

— The closer situation isn’t any more settled now than it was at the end of last season. Fernando Rodney has been less than impressive so far, and although kids like Jordan Walden and Kevin Jepsen throw hard, the sense you get is that neither is ready to take over in the ninth inning yet. Don’t be surprised if the closer eventually turns out to be Scott Downs, the proven and expensive lefty ($15 million over three years) who closed some before in Toronto. He has good stuff, but what is more important is his experience. My guess is he’s the first guy Scioscia goes to if Rodney falters.

— Mark Trumbo deserves to make this team. Sure, he’s blocked at first base by Morales and he can’t DH much with Bobby Abreu around, but the kid is doing everything right this spring. It is not only that he leads the Angels in every offensive category so far, it is the fact that his at-bats have been so impressive. He isn’t swinging at bad pitches and he’s been making solid two-strike contact. Trumbo displays the confidence Brandon Wood has been searching for the past couple of seasons. Will he keep hitting once the pitching gets better in a couple of weeks? That remains to be seen. But if Morales isn’t ready to play fulltime by opening day, it will interesting to see how the kid who grew up just a flyball away from Angel Stadium does once the real bullets start to fly.

— Scott Kazmir looks like the same, old Scott Kazmir. He didn’t give up an earned run on Wednesday, but he did allow five hits and coughed up four walks in a typical sloppy outing. Scioscia keeps saying he is making progress, but it sounds forced. If Kazmir continues to pitch like this, he shouldn’t be part of an otherwise excellent rotation. It’s really as simple as that.

— The most exciting player in camp is a 19-year-old kid who is probably two years away from Anaheim. Everything Mike Trout does looks and feels right. No wonder baseball people regard him as one of the two best prospects in the game. He has a quick bat and is disciplined beyond his years at the plate. His work ethic is off the charts and his greatest tool — his speed — is remarkable for someone 6-2 and 215 pounds. They say he was timed in 3.98 seconds going down the line to first base the other day. That would only make him the fastest player in baseball. What Scioscia and everyone in the organization really loves, though, is Trout’s attitude. “He has the character of a Don Mattingly and the talent of a Kirby Puckett,” says Scioscia. The Angels have had more than their share of “phenoms” who fizzled out through the years. Do not expect Mike Trout to be the next one. No, no, this kid is different. He is the real deal.

— STEVE BISHEFF

Mar
08

The five big Angels’ questions I hope to get answered on my trip to Tempe, Ariz., this week:

1. Who is the closer? I know Mike Scioscia says he’ll start with Fernando Rodney and see what happens, and I realize he has a bunch of young power arms he likes in the bullpen. But that still doesn’t answer the question. Rodney was terrible the second half of last season and he has been shaky so far this spring. If the season were opening tomorrow, whom would Scioscia call on to protect a lead in the ninth inning? I don’t think he knows yet, but I’ll be working to find out.

2. Can Peter Bourjos hit enough? Everyone hopes so, but nobody really knows. He had a big second half in Triple-A Salt Lake last season, but until then, he hadn’t shown much with the bat. The kid is a blur on the bases and might already be one of the three or four best center fielders in the game. So he doesn’t have to hit a lot. But it has to be more than the borderline .200 average he managed in his brief time in Anaheim last year.

3. Can Maicer Izturis stay healthy enough to be the regular third baseman and leadoff hitter? His record says no, but it’s not like Scisocia and his staff aren’t aware of it. They know he is fragile, but they also know they don’t really have anyone else to lead off, other than Bobby Abreu, who is probably better batting second. So what if Izturis gets hurt in the first month or two? What do they do then? Exactly. If they have a Plan B, it’s not evident yet.

4. Are they really buying into Scott Kazmir? I realize he had a good effort the other day, and everyone has been positive about the way “the ball is coming out of his hand,” whatever that means. All I know is that this guy was a train wreck last season, and if he can bounce back after putting up all those awful numbers, more power to him. It would make an already very good Angels rotation one of the best. Ah, but if he can’t, how long do they go with him? And would Hisanori Takahashi move from the bullpen to the No. 5 starter’s spot?

5. What Should They Do With Mark Trumbo? Some people saw him as the new Brandon Wood after he hit 36 homers at Triple A last summer, but so far he’s been anything but. He tore it up in the Winter League and has been even hotter so far in spring games, with more homers and RBIs than anyone else on the roster. If Kendry Morales isn’t ready by opening day (and that seems a distinct possibility), the decision is easy. Trumbo opens up as the first baseman. But what if this guy keeps hitting? What do you do with him when Morales gets back? Trumbo could DH or play a little outfield, but Abreu has to play, too. It would be a shame to send this kid back to Triple-A the way he is hitting, but that’s what the Angels did with Wood. The difference is, so far, Trumbo looks more legitimate than Brandon. Stay tuned. This could end up being the most intriguing Angels’ question of all.

— STEVE BISHEFF

Mar
06

So that’s what Andrew Bynum looks like when his head is in the game.

If you missed it on Sunday in San Antonio, Bynum, the man child center, was finally everything Phil Jackson and the Lakers dreamed he could be. He was a dominating presence on defense, he snapped up a game-high 17 rebounds and, even though he hardly scored, he set the tenor for the defending champs’ best performance of the year.

Don’t let the final score of 99-83 fool you. The Lakers were up 65-37 at halftime against the team with the best record in the NBA.

This was their statement game, and Bynum provided the seven-foot exclamation mark. His size and length simply swallowed up a Spurts team that had just humiliated LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and the Heat by 30 points. He was blocking shots and altering shots and generally leading the way for a stifling defense that we hadn’t seen much of so far this season.

Remember a few weeks back, when the town was alive with the Carmelo Anthony to L.A. rumors, and I wrote in a blog that a deal like that could ruin the Lakers’ chemistry? Well, the way they were playing at that point, they didn’t seem to have much, especially defensively.

But that all changes when Bynum plays like he did on Sunday.

Now the obvious question is, has the big kid finally arrived? Is he ready to take over as the inside force so many have predicted he could be? Can he be the wunderkind to lead Kobe and the Lakers to their third consecutive NBA title?

Or is this just another of Andrew’s infamous teases? He’s done this before. He’s given us titillating peaks at his ability. He’s proven his ceiling stretches almost as high as his body. We’ve seen enough to keep waiting and waiting …

But always before, there were slumps or injuries or immaturity, or simple lack of focus. “Oh, that’s just Andrew,” they’d say. “He just needs to grow up.”

OK, well, it is time to do that now. Time to act more like a man and less like the naive teenager who arrived fresh out of high school. Time to display at least some of the passion he demonstrated on Sunday in every game, especially once the postseason starts.

Bynum has to show he can do that before I’m ready to buy into him as the NBA’s next great center.

But the talent is there. Many who read this blog have e-mailed to argue with me about that. But now their argument has been swatted away like of the balls Bynum blocked against the Spurs.

This kid can do it, and so can the Lakers when they’re focused and ready to play.

Before the All-Star break, I was among those who were predicting doom. Jackson’s guys were playing as badly as I’d seen them, appearing disjointed and disinterested, and I really didn’t see how that could change.

Now I realize I was wrong, but only if Bynum can keep this up. When he plays the way he did on Sunday, the Lakers are a completely different bunch. The pressure is off Pau Gasol inside and he can concentrate on what he does best on the offensive end. Bryant, too, can relax more and play less minutes, something that will become more important when the playoffs start.

The Carmelo trade would have been exciting, but my suspicion all along is that Jackson and Mitch Kupchak both understood that defense wins championships. And for all his other gifts, Anthony cannot defend.

Bynum can. NBA scouts always have loved him, and you could see why against the Spurs. Andrew was taller and longer than anyone else out there, and he was the biggest reason for that L.A. romp in Texas.

But now here comes a good Atlanta team in Georgia, followed by LeBron and Dwayne. And while the Heat are admittedly struggling at the moment, let’s not forget they embarrassed the Lakers on Christmas Day. And that was on the road. Thursday night’s game will be in Miami.

Then comes Dallas in Big D, and quietly, the Mavericks are playing as well, or better, than anyone in the league.

If the real Andrew Bynum has finally stood up, the Lakers should win at least two of those final three road games and maybe even sweep them. If the big guy is ready to demonstrate that one last, elusive trait called consistency, they are certainly capable of doing that.

If not . . .well, it won’t be like we’ve never been there before.

— STEVE BISHEFF

Mar
03

They’re only opinions, but at least they’re all mine:

I think UCLA’s Ben Howland is still the Pac-10 Coach of the Year this season, but let me add this: Nobody misuses time outs more than he does . . .

By the way, where exactly was that TV camera site for the Bruins game against Washington? In Spokane? . . .

Anybody notice the Spurs’ Tony Parker, the Thunder’s Kevin Durant and the Mavericks’ Tyson Chandler all suffered significant injuries this week? I’m sure the Lakers did
. . .

Wait, wait, now they want to call the NFL’s proposed L.A. Industry site Grand Crossing? OK, but it sure isn’t grand when you’re trying to cross that freeway at rush hour . . .

I know it makes me sound old, but I can remember when the Santa Anita Handicap was one of the bigger races in the country, loaded with quality contenders. Now it is something less, and this Saturday’s edition appears to have only one proven, quality animal — Twirling Candy . . .

I like Don Mattingly talking about a set Dodgers lineup. I think Joe Torre tinkered far too much, especially with the young kids. It will help the Matt Kemps and Andre Ethiers to know where they’re hitting every night . . .

The Kendry Morales health reports out of Angels camp in Arizona are not good. It’s tough enough to come back from a broken ankle. But reporting 15 pounds overweight only makes it more difficult . . .

So the NFL labor negotiations were extended for 24 more hours, huh? They can extend it for 24 more weeks, and I’m still not sure they could come to an agreement . . .

The Phil Jackson quote of the week, or the year, in a Lakers’ story talking about Ron Artest adjusting to the triangle. “He’s probably a little better than Kobe is at it because Kobe ignores the offense.” . . .

Why don’t you just come out and say what you really think, Phil . . .

USC’s Lane Kiffin sure knows how to keep the media away from upcoming week day spring football practice sessions. He’s starting them at 7:25 a.m. . . .

At that hour, least he could do is serve coffee and doughnuts. (Yeah, right) . . .

It doesn’t matter how many ways they examine him, someone selecting in the top ten will pick Cam Newton in the NFL Draft . . .

Seems fair that the kid from BYU was thrown off the basketball team for having sex with his girl friend. I mean, that never happens at any other college in America . . .

Now that it appears the Sacramento Kings are moving to Anaheim, I disagree with those who say Orange County basketball fans won’t come out. They will, but it will be to see stars on the other teams . . .

The NFL Combine might be the most overrated thing in sports. Seriously, what do most of those things have to do with whether somebody can play football? . . .

Watch out for Xavier in the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Then again, I think I say that every year about Xavier . . .

If somebody tied Dick Vitale’s hands behind his back, I’m not sure he could talk . . .

How much fun would it be to make out the Boston Red Sox lineup card every day? . . .

The Max and Marcellus sports talk show on 710 ESPN would be better if they talked less about Max and Marcellus . . .

— STEVE BISHEFF

Mar
01

Garret Anderson wasn’t the greatest Angel of all time.

Only the least appreciated.

On any list of the greatest Angels in franchise history — and you’ll see plenty of lists this year on their 50th anniversary — Anderson has to rank either fourth or fifth, depending on how his longevity and consistency rate with Vlad Guerrero’s shorter, more spectacular burst of productivity.

The sad part is, the fans, and much of the media, never fully embraced Garret, who officially retired Tuesday after a distinguished big-league career. People would complain he didn’t hustle all the time and writers would grouch about what a tough interview he could be.

But when you look back at his numbers, they were much better than most realize. More than a few are even eyepopping. Take his 2002 season, for example. He hit .306 with 29 home runs, 123 RBIs and 56 doubles. It is no coincidence that was the year the Angels won their only world championship.

In 2003, he went .315-29-116. In 2001, he was .289-28-123. In 2000, the numbers were .286-35-117. Overall, he holds the club records for hits, runs, total bases, extra base hits and RBIs. So you get the idea. This was a special player.

So why wasn’t he more popular? Well, it was all about style and appearance. Anderson didn’t run as much as he loped. He was more laconic and aloof than animated and chatty. While teammates such as Darin Erstad would have crashed through walls to make catches, Anderson was always more conservative and maybe a little cautious at times in the outfield. His idea was that he wanted to be in the lineup every day, and one play was never enough to risk injury that could put him on the DL.

Same in the batter’s box. The swing was as sweet as any in the American League. But it was smooth and silky, not frantic and overly enthusiastic. In clutch situations, though, there was no one on the team more apt to deliver.

Yet people didn’t buy it. Fans were always e-mailing me to complain about him. When I would try to argue otherwise, they didn’t want to hear it. The classic scenario came in the ’02 World Series. Everyone remembers Scott Spiezio’s dramatic home run that led to the big comeback in Game 6. But most forget it was Anderson’s bases-clearing double that was the game-winning, series-deciding blow in Game 7.

I was around Anderson as much as any writer in the area, and I always felt I had a good rapport with him. He was basically introverted and didn’t enjoy talking to the media. He had this little trick of bending down to tie or untie his shoes when you walked over, making him difficult to hear. But if you were patient, he eventually would answer your questions.

Was he my favorite guy in the clubhouse? No. But since when is that a criteria when it comes to writing about ballplayers? It never was with me.

The funny thing is, underneath that understated persona was someone who cared deeply. He cared about the team and, yes, he cared about his image.

I can remember in all the media hype about Barry Bonds heading into that World Series, Anderson kind of stood back and smiled. I approached him to write a column about “the other gifted left fielder in the series,” and he shook his head and said it wasn’t about comparisons.

“The guy is a great player and deserves the attention,” Garret said. “You’ve seen me play since I came up, I don’t think I have to go out of my way to tell people what kind of player I am. I think my performance speaks for me.”

He was right. It did speak for him. It spoke volumes.

He didn’t get enough recognition then, and he won’t now. And that’s too bad.

But understand this about him: Garret Anderson is one of the five greatest players in Angels history.

If you listen to sports talk radio or spend any time in a sports bar in the next few days, there will be plenty of people who will try to tell you otherwise.

Don’t believe them. If the arguing persists, just quietly mention the only thing you need to say. That the numbers are right there in the record book.

And they never lie.

— STEVE BISHEFF

Feb
27

It was one of those emotional sports weekends for me, beginning with that final game at the soon-to-be renovated Pauley Pavilion.

To have it end the way it did, to have John Wooden’s great grandson, Tyler Trapani, be there, under the basket, to grab a missed shot and put in the final two points in the old building was surreal.

It was clearly an unforgettable final moment in UCLA’s most stirring victory of the year over Arizona.

You know, the easy way to explain it is to call it an extraordinary coincidence. But I’m sorry, this time it seems like more than that. This time it seems like the man whose overwhelming success prompted the building of Pauley somehow managed to work his magic once again.

To quote the greatest coach who ever lived, “Goodness gracious sakes alive,” what a wonderful way to have it all play out.

*****

As one of the few who was on hand from the very beginning in Westwood, allow me to run a few of my favorite Pauley Pavilion highlights out there:

— Lew Alcindor’s debut on opening night at Pauley, when he and the best UCLA freshman team ever destroyed the two-time defending National Champion varsity and, many think, basically ruined their season before it even started.

— Alcindor’s varsity debut, with the hype going basically through the Pauley roof. All Lew did was score 56 points, dunking and swirling and demonstrating he was the most mobile big man ever. Alcindor and the Bruins went 30-0 that year and 88-2 over the next three, making it five national titles in six years for Wooden.

— Wooden’s first loss at Pauley — he only went 149-2 in the place — was the infamous slowdown game, brilliantly devised by USC coach Bob Boyd. The Trojans’ Ernie Powell won it, 46-44, with a jump shot at the buzzer. Wooden criticized the slowdown tactics in the days and months after, but many years later, in an interview for the book I wrote about him, he admitted if he had been playing against a center as dominant as Alcindor, he probably would have done the same thing.

— The debut of The Walton Gang. Many thought the Bruins dynasty was over after Alcindor and then Sidney Wicks, Curtis Rowe and Co. left. But they hadn’t seen the gifted, young redhead from San Diego who played the game with more enthusiasm than any of them. No one fully believed Walton, Keith Wilkes, Greg Lee et. al were the real thing until highly-ranked Ohio State came to Pauley in early 1971. The Walton Gang blew them away, 79-53, and proceeded to go 30-0 and win yet another National Championship for Wooden.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Pauley was the Taj Mahal of college basketball in its day. They can tear down part of it on the way to the $100 million facelift it badly needs after 46 years, but they can never erase those wonderful memories.

Especially after what might have been the best one of all. Wooden’s great grandson being there at the right spot, at the precise moment, to make that final shot.

****

It is always tough to lose one of your boyhood heroes, and one of mine died Sunday.

Duke Snider was the center fielder and best power hitter on my favorite team growing up, the Brooklyn Dodgers. It was Jackie Robinson who first attracted me to baseball and sports, with his spirit and his courage. But as Jackie’s skills began to fade, Duke became my guy.

“Mickey, Willie and The Duke,” is the way the great Terry Cashman song goes, and in New York at the time, they had Mantle, Mays and Snider, the holy trinity of center fielders. Willie and Mickey were more glamorous, but The Duke was right there with them. He could hit, field and throw, and he put up some huge numbers playing in Ebbets Field.

I was 3,000 miles away, following them in L.A., checking the box scores faithfully every day, then practically becoming delirious when a) the Dodgers finally won the World Series in 1955, and b) it was announced three years later that they were moving here.

Snider came with them, but he wasn’t the same player. And whatever was left of that marvelous power was sucked out of him by the absurd dimensions of the L.A. Coliseum, where it was about 450 feet to the right center field fence. Nobody hit more long outs in the first couple of seasons for the L.A. Dodgers than Snider.

Years later, one of my bigger thrills was getting the opportunity to interview Snider, by then a Hall of Famer, one-on-one at Dodger Stadium. I was happy to discover he was as warm and classy as he was talented back in his playing days.

Too bad he didn’t get a chance to perform in this era. The Duke would have been treated like a King.

*******

The other sad note of the weekend for me was to learn of the death of Ted Tajima, my first journalism teacher at Alhambra High.

“T,” we called him, and he had this deep, baritone voice and a kind, patient demeanor. I remember telling him of my dream to become a sports writer some day, and he was always encouraging, always upbeat about it.

He laid the foundation for me, teaching me the principles, stressing accuracy and balance in your work and to make sure you present all sides of the story. He was also the first one to give me my own column. “Line Dives,” I called it. I know, it sounds hokey now, but believe me, it was something I cherished.

Tajima is one of the main reasons I was able to spend 42 years working at a job I loved. I will always be grateful.

He was a great teacher and an even greater man.

— STEVE BISHEFF

Feb
24

It was just a short, passing item in a newspaper account the other day, but it told you everything that is wrong with college basketball.

The day before their latest solid victory over Arizona State, several UCLA Bruins, including sophomores Reeves Nelson and Tyler Honeycutt, junior Malcolm Lee and freshman Joshua Smith, were queried about the possibility of their next two conference matches being their final home games in a college uniform before they bolt for the NBA.

I read it and I didn’t just do a double take. It was more like a triple or quadruple take. Say what?

These kids honestly believe they might be ready for the pros? Really?

Of that group, only Honeycutt has a certified NBA skill set, but even he isn’t close to being prepared, unless you believe ranking second in the Pac-10 in turnovers qualifies you as a high first rounder. Yes, he can do a lot of nice things on the court, but most of them are still lacking both consistency and polish.

As for the rest of them . . .come on. Nelson is a classic tweener, a hard-nosed kid whose attitude you love. But his altitude doesn’t equal, or even come close, to that attitude. And when you’re his size and you can’t jump, or shoot particularly well, you might want to start looking into another line of work.

Lee is a brittle-looking guard who shoots OK and defends with the best in the conference. But he won’t be able to defend strong 6-5 or 6-6 240 pounders like they have in NBA backcourts. He needs more time and a lot more bulk.

And as for Smith, he’s not really ready to play full time in college, let alone in the pros. This is a kid with huge upside. He has the size, the hands and a surprisingly soft touch from outside. But he hasn’t even begun to understand the game yet. Deep on the block, he still dribbles when it is unnecessary, he fouls way too often and he stands around with the ball at the top of the key and consistently gets it slapped away.

All that can be corrected, but it should be at UCLA, not buried on the bench in, oh, say, Charlotte or Milwaukee.

I don’t mean to take it out on these kids. They’ve had a really fine comeback season for Ben Howland. But this is symptomatic of what is happening everywhere in the country. It is one thing when a Derrick Rose or a John Wall plays one year in college and opts out for the NBA.

But it is another when kids who aren’t even close to being ready, including some who never will be ready, start thinking about leaving school early to gamble with their futures.

College basketball needs to do something about this, because not only is it ruining their game, it is ruining a lot of young men’s lives.

Ever since this one-and-done rule was implemented, I’ve been against it. Considering TV ratings and attendance are down most places in the country, I think it is proving my point.

The thing is, it would be simple to fix. College basketball needs to switch to the college baseball rules for entering the draft. Any kids from high school who are drafted and want to go straight to the pros can do so. But those who opt to attend college must then spend three years in school before they are eligible for the draft again.

Take your choice. If you are that rare Rose or Wall-like talent, go ahead and jump. But if you’re closer to the Reeves Nelsons and Joshua Smiths of the world, then you could stay in school, refine your skills for three years and then leave, if you so desire, to begin what you hope will be a pro career.

The solution seems so obvious, and yet, the sport drags its sneakers and refuses to even address the issue.

OK, but if the decision makers would only look around, they’d see that this year is a prime example of how badly things are going. There are no great teams in the country. Only a few very good ones. And even they lack a true identity.

Go ahead, name me more than one or two players on Ohio State or Pittsburgh or Texas. Those are three legitimate Final Four candidates, and yet I’d be stunned if more than a couple of you could name two starters on any of those teams.

It never used to be that way. Everyone used to know who was starting for Duke or UCLA or any of the great teams. Everyone wanted to tune in to see a Laettner or a Walton, a West or a Robertson, a Duncan or a Stockton.

College basketball has gone from being a raging four-month entertainment to your basic, fleeting one month sport. Too bad.

It could still be so much more.

— STEVE BISHEFF