Michigan Basketball Mt. Rushmore

It is commonly accepted that the University of Michigan is a football school with a good basketball program.  This is measured based on the revenue, television ratings, alumni, Big Ten Titles, and Bowl Games Michigan has played in since Bo Schembechler became the head coach back in 1969.

You could argue that since 1964, Michigan has actually been a better basketball school.  Basketball never produces the same revenue as football, and television ratings consistently lag behind football ratings.  Still, the success of Michigan on the court has actually been a bit more impressive, depending on which measure you use.

People will say the football team is more successful, because since 1964 they have won or shared 22 Big Ten Championships, compared to the basketball team’s 9 Big Ten Championships (and 1 Conference Tournament win (1998) which was later vacated).  Also, both teams have won 1 National Championship since 1964.  Basketball in 1989, and football in 1997.  But, the basketball team has played in the National Championship game 5 other times since 1964, and been in the Final Four one other time, in 1964.  The football team finished number 2 in the country once (1985), and in the top four 6 other times (1964, 1971, 1976, 1980 and 1988).  The point here being the basketball team has actually had more looks at winning a National Championship than the football team.

With all that being said, I will now present my picks for the Michigan basketball Mount Rushmore.  I have read other picks on this, and I mostly agree with the others, with one notable change, which I will explain.

First, and I feel the person who has to be first on any such list is Cazzie Russell.  He is probably the greatest player who has ever graduated from Michigan.  The unfortunate thing about his career is that it came before basketball became extremely popular in the country.  He played from 1963 to 1966, winning the National Player of the Year award after the 1965-66 season, while averaging 30 points per game.  Michigan won three Big Ten Championships in these years.  They were the national runner-up in 1965 to UCLA, made the Final Four in 1964, and the Elite Eight in 1966.  He was a second-team All-American in 1964, and a first team All-American in 1965 and 1966.  He followed that by being the number 1 overall pick in the NBA draft in 1966.  He is simply the greatest Wolverine to play basketball for the school.

The second choice is also a no-brainer.  Glenn Rice was the most valuable player on a very talented 1989 Michigan team, which went on to win Michigan’s only basketball National Championship.  During those 6 game tournament, Rice scored a record 184 points (30 points per game), which stands to this day.  For the season, he averaged over 25 points per game, earned the Big Ten Player of the Year, was a second-team All-American, and got drafted 4th overall into the NBA.  Rice also graduated with several of Michigan’s individual records, including most career points (2,442).  He followed that with a long career in the NBA, where he was known as a sharp-shooter.

The number three person on the mountain is Trey Burke.  Again, no arguments here from all of the “experts” I see out there.  In his two years with Michigan, Burke led the Wolverines to a Big Ten title, and a berth in the 2013 National Championship game.  I personally think the referees kept Michigan from winning that game, calling ticky-tack fouls on Burke, forcing coach John Beilein to bench Burke for much of the first-half.  Near the end of the second half, Burke also had a great block on Peyton Siva which was called a foul.  This swing in points was too much to overcome.

Ok, off my soap box, Trey Burke earned the National Player of the Year honors as a sophomore in 2013, averaging almost 19 points per game, and over 6 and a half assists.  As a defender he had 62 steals and 20 blocks.  He will always be remembered for his long, game-tying three pointer against Kansas in the round of 16 of the NCAA tournament at the end of regulation.  He scored all 23 of his points after half-time in that game, personally taking it over when it appeared Michigan was done with only minutes left in the game, and returning Michigan basketball to relevance after two decades of obscurity.

The last person who belongs on the Michigan Mt. Rushmore is also the most controversial.  From a pure talent standpoint Chris Webber could arguably be the greatest Wolverine.  He also seems to have left the most unfinished business, as well as questions surrounding his career.

Chris Webber was the considered by some to be number one player in the country coming out of high school.  As a freshman power forward he average 15.5 points per game, and 10 rebounds.  He also had 84 blocks and 54 steals.  This Michigan team would go to the 1992 NCAA Tournament Finals after entering the tournament a number 6 seed.

For the 1992-93 season, Webber would lead Michigan in scoring (19.2 ppt), rebounding (10.1), and blocked shots (90), while also being second in steals (47).  He would be a first-team All-American.  Michigan would end the season ranked #3 in the country, with only three losses in conference (four overall), and yet would not win the Big Ten.  Indiana, the #1 team in the country only had one loss in conference.  Despite this, Michigan would get a number 1 seed in the tournament, and ended up losing a thriller in the finals to North Carolina, when Chris Webber called a timeout while Michigan did not have any.

I can see why Webber is not included in many people’s Mt. Rushmore of Michigan basketball.  His involvement in the Ed Martin scandal, which cost the school several years of vacated wins, not to mention banners coming down from the rafters, is still a dark shadow on the program.  Further, Webber has chosen to keep disassociated from the school despite his contact ban being lifted.  Adding to all of that he had a borderline hall of fame career in the NBA, if you look only at his stats.  His teams were never relevant, however, which hurt his overall legacy.  Webber retired in 2008, and his legacy is still confounding to this day.

Despite that you cannot talk about Michigan basketball without talking about the Fab Five.  Chris Webber, whether you like it or not, was the sun around which the other players orbited.  Even decades after the Fab Five attended Michigan, they are still among the most discussed teams in NCAA history.  The years 1991 to 1993 were truly the only years the basketball team eclipsed the football team in the popular lexicon.  Leaving a player like Webber off the Mt. Rushmore feels criminal, even if he never fulfilled his promise, or acted as ethically as he should have.  I simply cannot come up with a player who outshines him in the program’s history.

To close, this list is not meant to disrespect so many great players who have played basketball at Michigan.  My main criteria in choosing this list included 1) winning.  All of these players were on teams which made the NCAA Tournament Finals.  All of these players were All-Americans; Glenn Rice being the only second team All-American, but making up for it with not only the Big Ten Player of the Year, but also the Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA Tournament.

Also, each player is from a different era.  Even though Webber and Rice played at Michigan only a couple of years apart, the two seasons between their careers changed everything.  Michigan fell apart in 1991 after graduating all of the starters from the 1989 team, requiring Steve Fisher to be aggressive in his recruiting.  What was one thing he could promise to a freshman?  The chance to compete for playing time.  Other major programs had upper classmen who were taking the critical minutes.  By the middle of their freshman year, the entire Fab Five was starting.  This was unprecedented in NCAA basketball at the time.  Rob Pelinka was the only member of both teams.  This is why the 1989 team and the 1991-92 team are of different eras.

Mixing up the eras I feel the major milestones of Michigan basketball are represented here.  The obvious apologies have to go to the 1976 team, which was also the national runner-up.  Rickey Green and Phil Hubbard both deserve mention, also winning a Big Ten Championship in 1977, and both earning second-team All-American honors, while entering the NCAA Tournament ranked #1 in the country.  They made the Elite Eight before falling to Charlotte, 75-68.  Either of these two would be worthy of mention, hence why they are here, but I do not feel that either outshines the people who made this list.  Unfortunately there are only four spots to fill.

Roy Tarpley comes close as well.  He earned All-American honors, was Big Ten POY, and won two Big Ten Championships.  The 1984-85 team and the 1985-86 team both entered the NCAA tournament ranked in the top 5 in the country, and neither team got out of the second round.

Also, I don’t want to disrespect other members of the Fab Five, especially Juwan Howard and Jalen Rose.  Neither made this list, because Webber was the better player.  Add Nick Stauskas to that too.  Even though he won the Big Ten POY, and led Michigan to a Big Ten Championship and the Elite Eight in the Tournament, he is overshadowed by Trey Burke.  Last, throw Gary Grant into that mix.  His career overlapped with Tarpley early, and Rice late.  He was an All-American, and played on good Michigan teams, but his teams never performed will in the NCAA Tournament, which keeps him on the outside here.

There are my picks, and my reasons.  Who are yours, and why?  Go Blue!

Michigan in the CFP: 1990 to 2007

The CFP does nothing if not get people talking.  No matter what is decided, somebody somewhere will feel slighted.  The system’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness.  4 teams get in, but only 4 teams get in.  All is decided and finalized, and questions will still linger.

The question I am posing is what would have been had the CFP existed before 2014?  In a previous post I asked that question about the Bo Schembechler era.  Now I will ask the question of the Gary Moeller/Lloyd Carr era.  How many times would UM have made the CFP from 1990 to 2007?

Bo Schembechler retired after the 1989 season, but he did not leave the talent cupboard bare in Ann Arbor.  Michigan entered 1990 with high hopes, and even became the #1 team in the country for a spell.  Still, losing two in a row to Michigan State and Iowa killed any hopes of being considered a top team, even though they won their bowl game and finished #7 in the country.

1991 would have been the first season Michigan would have been in the playoff hunt.  Their only loss in the regular season was to a very good Florida State team, which finished #5 because of 2 losses in a row to Florida and Miami.  The state of Florida was no doubt the mecca of college football in the 1990s.

#4 Michigan actually achieved a CFP match-up with #2 Washington, who crushed the Wolverines in the Rose Bowl 34-14, and split the National Championship with Miami.  Talk about a year created for a playoff!  #1 Miami defeated #11 Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, but with a CFP they may have had them play Florida, before that winner went on to play Washington for the National Championship.  The CFP was created to end the split National Championship conversation.

1992 would have been intriguing, because Michigan went undefeated, won 9 games, but they also had 3 ties.  The rankings at the end of the regular season had them at #7.  Miami was 11-0, and ranked #1.  Alabama was 12-0 and ranked #2 (and would defeat Miami to win the National Championship).  Florida State was #3 and 10-1 (their only loss to Miami).  Texas A&M was #4, and 12-0, with Notre Dame #5 and 9-1-1.  At #6 was Syracuse with a 9-2 record.  The question is whether Michigan could have somehow squeaked in to the top 4.  Not likely.  If the rankings held, Miami would have started off with Texas A&M, and Alabama would have played Florida State.  Notre Dame would have tried to argue its way into the picture, and since they beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, they had a legitimate claim.

Michigan would be silent again until 1997.  This was the last year of the Bowl Alliance, before the BCS took over.  Michigan and Nebraska both went undefeated, and each claimed a share of the National Championship.  Had the CFP been in place, instead of Washington State, Michigan would have played #4 Florida State, who only lost a heartbreaker to Florida at the Swamp, 32-29.  That FSU team was #1 going into that game, which was the last of the season.  This would have been no gimme for Michigan by any stretch.  #2 Nebraska destroyed #3 Tennessee 42-17 in the Orange Bowl, securing their place in the final game.  This one would have been decided on the field, as it should have been all along, but putting this season in light of the CFP would have diminished Michigan’s chances of winning the National Championship, because they would have to beat both Florida State and Nebraska.  The benefit would have been that with these games, there would have been no debate going forward who the best team in the country was.

The 1999 Michigan Wolverines finished the bowl season ranked #5, but they ended the regular season ranked #8.  Wisconsin would have reached the CFP as the #4 team in the country, and they would have matched up with #1 Florida State.  #2 Virginia Tech and #3 Nebraska would have made up the other CFP game.

The 2003 Wolverines would be next to make the mythological CFP.  Fortunately they had the perfect #1 vs. #4 match-up, as the #4 ranked 10-2 Wolverines played the #1 ranked 11-1 USC Trojans.  USC won 28-14.  The #2 vs. #3 game also happened.  In this case #2 Oklahoma played #3 LSU, with LSU winning 21-14.  This should have set up a USC vs. LSU championship game, but instead the National Championship was split between the two schools.  And, now we know why the BCS was a flawed system.

2004 would have been another great year for a playoff, with 5 teams finishing the regular season undefeated.  How would a committee have seeded USC, Oklahoma, Auburn, Utah, and Louisville, with 10-1 Texas (after having lost to Oklahoma), also hanging around.  If properly seeded, I think the CFP would have chosen USC vs. Utah (or Texas) in the #1 vs. #4 game, while Auburn and Oklahoma would have played in the #2 vs. #3 game.  Fortunately this season would have also been decided on the field, instead of Auburn fans being upset that their team never had a chance to prove their ability, and finishing #2 in the country despite being undefeated.  Michigan only factored in the season by losing to Texas in the Rose Bowl, but they were ranked #13 at the time.

2005 would have brought about the question of whether two Big Ten teams would make the CFP, since Penn State and Ohio State were ranked #3 and #4 respectively at the end of the year.  This is the one season everyone agrees that the BCS did its job, by matching up undefeated #1 USC against undefeated #2 Texas, in perhaps the greatest BCS Championship game ever.  It would have been a shame to make these two teams jump through another hoop before playing each other.  This begs the question in my mind of whether we should forgo the semi-final games when there are two teams who are clearly above all the others in a season.  Because money is on the line, I know the answer to that is a definite no.

In 2006 the Big Ten would have undoubtedly had two teams in the playoff.  Ohio State and Michigan were #1 and #2 in the country when they met for this year’s version of “The Game.”  After a thriller, Ohio State prevailed 41-38.  The main question was whether Michigan would remain #2 or drop to #3.  In the end, Florida jumped Michigan as the #2 team, and went on to trounce the Buckeyes in the BCS Championship.  Michigan lost the Rose Bowl to #8 USC.  If the rankings had held, Ohio State would have played #4 LSU in the CFP semi-finals, and Michigan would have played Florida (with no need of Urban Meyer whining to the media about Florida being more deserving of the #2 ranking).  What is interesting is that these bowl match-ups actually happened the following year, and Michigan beat Florida, while LSU beat OSU.  Still, those were different teams and different years, and we cannot be certain how these would have gone.  History shows the Gators as the National Champion of 2006.

Likely CFP berths:
1991
1997
2003
2006

Near misses:
1992

What can be concluded from this is that Michigan had a significant drop-off after the retirement of Bo Schembechler, who ended the regular season in the top 5 eleven times in his 21 years as coach.  Although four Top 4 finishes is nothing to scoff at, Michigan did not live up to its massive expectations during the Gary Moeller/Lloyd Carr era.  Here’s hoping Jim Harbaugh can get the Wolverines rolling and back on track again.

Bo and the CFP

What could have been if Bo Schembechler, who never won a National Championship, had the benefits of the College Football Playoff during his tenure as coach?  Obviously it’s impossible to say, and given his less than stellar bowl record, he may never have won a National Championship even with the implementation of the CFP, but isn’t this why we created the CFP: to talk about it?  Let’s take a look at the history books.

Bo took over Michigan in the 1969 season, and achieved one of the greatest upsets in college football history, by beating #1 Ohio State at the Big House 24-12.  This game kept Ohio State out of the Rose Bowl, but in all likelihood, had the CFP existed, the loss would not have kept the Buckeyes out of the CFP, as they still finished the regular season #4.  Such is the charmed life of Ohio State, right Penn State?

Bo’s first real look at a National Championship was following the 1971 season.  Michigan went 11-0 in the regular season, finishing #3 in the polls behind Nebraska and Alabama, both of whom were also undefeated.  This was a tailor-made season for the CFP.  Nebraska and Alabama squared off against each other, and Michigan played Stanford in the Rose Bowl.  If Michigan wins the game, they have had an outside shot at a National Championship, but alas, Rod Garcia ended all of these hopes with a field goal at the end of the game to beat the Wolverines.  What if Michigan had played #2 Alabama instead, with the winner facing off against the Nebraska v. Oklahoma winner?  Who knows?  I look at this season as the one that got away from Bo.  He would never get closer to that elusive National Championship.

In 1972, Michigan was the #3 team in the country until they lost to Ohio State in Columbus, 14-11.  This game is famous because Bo decided to go for the win instead of the tie, which would have still sent his Wolverines to the Rose Bowl.  Ohio State made a goal-line stand on fourth and 1 to end the game.  Would Bo have made a different decision if the CFP was in place?  Again, impossible to say, but given that he left the Rose Bowl on the field to try to beat his rival, I don’t think the CFP would have been any more of a carrot.

1973 is the season every Wolverine fan wants a do-over for.  This was the year of the famous 10-10 tie with Ohio State, followed by the Big Ten selection committee choosing Ohio State to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl, even though by rights it was Michigan’s year to go.  After finishing 10-0-1, Michigan was left out of everything.  The real question is whether Michigan would have made the CFP this year as well?  No doubt, it would have been controversial.  Alabama was sitting at #1 with an 11-0 record.  Oklahoma was #2 with a 10-0-1 record (they tied USC, who at the time was #1 in the country, and ended the regular season #7).  Notre Dame was #3 with a 10-0 record, and then you had Ohio State and Michigan, each with a 10-0-1 record.  This would have been a year when the committee would have been discussing the importance of a “quality tie”.  It appears either Michigan or Ohio State would be on the outside looking in, with Bo Schembechler perhaps showing the same bitterness he did with the Big Ten committee.  Despite the changes, the results appear to be the same…

1974 looked similar 2016.  #2 Michigan went to Columbus to face #3 Ohio State.  After jumping out to an early 10 point lead, Ohio State’s defense shuts down Michigan, and the Buckeyes eventually win a close game 12-10.  To end the regular season Oklahoma was ranked #1 with an 11-0 record.  They were never outside the top 3 for the season.  Alabama sat at #2, also with an 11-0 record.  Then you had 10-1 Ohio State, 10-1 Michigan, and 9-1-1 USC.  Would the CFP have let 2 Big Ten teams get in over the Pac-8 Champion?  Again it would be hard to say.

1976 is what a playoff game would have looked like for Michigan.  After ending the regular season with a win over Ohio State, the Wolverines were #2 in the country.  They would face #3 USC.  The only change today may have been the venue, since Pasadena is nearly a home game for the Trojans, who were the lower ranked team.  No matter, Michigan lost this one 14-6.  Pitt went 12-0, and was the clear National Champion.

1977 would have been intriguing as well.  After defeating the Buckeyes 14-6, the 10-1 Wolverines cracked the top 4 in the AP.  The difficult choice for the committee would have been between Michigan and Notre Dame for that #4 spot.  Both had a bad loss to an unranked team.  Texas sat at #1 with an 11-0 record.  Oklahoma was #2, with a 10-1 record – their only loss being to #1 Texas.  #3 sat Alabama, also with a 10-1 record.  If this held, Michigan would have played Texas, likely in the Cotton Bowl, while Alabama and Oklahoma squared off in the Sugar or Orange Bowl.  Since Michigan lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl, their chances did not look good against Texas.  As a side note, Notre Dame jumped from #5 to #1 after they defeated Texas.  What would you gain with a playoff, and what would you miss?  Always interesting water cooler talk.

1978 appears to be another year when Michigan would have been on the outside looking in.  Despite a 10-1 record, and beating Ohio State, the Wolverines ended up #5 in the polls.  1 through 4 were: Penn State, Alabama, USC, and Oklahoma.  Alabama defeated Penn State 14-7 in the Sugar Bowl, which may have occurred even with a playoff, but first Alabama would have had to play USC, and Penn State would have gone against Oklahoma.

1980 would have seen Michigan one away from the playoff as well.  They finished the regular season #5 in the country, after dropping 2 of their first 3 games, only to become perhaps the most dominant team in the country.  Still, with a 9-2 record, they ended the season looking up to #1 and 10-0 Georgia, #2 and 10-1 Florida State, #3 and 10-1 Pitt, and #4 and 9-2 Oklahoma.  The post-script here is that Michigan finally won their first bowl and Rose Bowl for Bo Schembechler, by defeating Washington 23-6.

Michigan would have to wait until 1985 get back in to the top 5 at season’s end.  Again, however, this would have placed them one off the playoff picture.  Michigan was 9-1-1, having lost to then #1 Iowa, and tying Illinois (!) 3-3. Iowa won the Big Ten this year, and finished the regular season #4, with a 10-1 record.  Oklahoma was ranked #3 with a 10-1 record, Miami was #2 with a 10-1 record, and Penn State was alone with an 11-0 record.  Michigan beat #7 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl, and ended the season #2 in the country, Bo’s highest ranking after the bowls.

1986 would have seen Michigan back in the playoff picture, and this would have gotten interesting.  This year featured the famous #1 vs. #2 matchup between Miami and Penn State in the Fiesta Bowl (which #2 Penn State won 14-10).  Would this game have still occurred if Penn State had to go through #3 Oklahoma?  Could Miami have beaten #4 Michigan?  It would have been fun to watch.

1989, Bo’s last season, would have also been his last attempt to win it all in a playoff.  Michigan dropped their first game of the season, 24-19 to Notre Dame, who was #1 in the country at the time.  After that, the Wolverines went undefeated until the Rose Bowl.  They were ranked #3.  Colorado was #1 in the country, and they actually played, and lost to #4 Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl.  Miami, which was #2 in the country ended up with the National Championship, after defeating #7 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.  With if #3 Michigan played them instead?  That would have been a fun game to watch.

After examining these years, and playing the inevitable, and impossible, game of “what if?”, it’s still difficult to see how Michigan could have won a National Championship for Bo Schembechler, given the chance.  Still, in the “that’s why they play the game” world we inhabit, it would have been intriguing to watch these great Michigan teams fight for the respect they never quite achieved.

Possible CFP berths:
1971
1973
1974
1976
1977
1986
1989

Near misses:
1972
1978
1980
1985

It appears Schembechler would have coached in at least 5 CFP games, with the possibility of an additional 2.  It also appears Michigan would have been in the first cut for 4 to 6 other CFPs.  Unfortunately, there was no CFP in Bo’s day, so all we can do is talk about “what if?”.

Chris Webber, the Fab Five, and Basketball Corruption

Today, May 8, 2013 is the day Chris Webber is no longer “disassociated” from University of Michigan activities. This is not to say he has been reinstated to represent the university, but rather talks, and hopefully healing, can now begin.

Growing up in Michigan, where my grandfather and father both attended the university, I bled Maize and Blue. Naturally I idolized the Fab Five from the time they began attending Michigan in 1991. I watched, enraptured, as Michigan made the NCAA finals in both 1992 and 1993. Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson became something like distant relatives to me, because I spent so much time following every move they made (in a pre-social media world).

I was heartbroken to hear and read about the money and gifts Chris Webber (among others) received from Ed Martin, and how these tarnished the university. The worst symbolic effect was the taking down of the Final Four banners, NIT championship banner, and Big Ten Tournament Championship banner from the rafters of Crisler Arena. For years, I was disappointed that Chris Webber would bring such shame and scrutiny to this great university (of which I am now an alumnus). As the years have gone on, I have softened a bit. I don’t justify what Ed Martin or Chris Webber did, but I also do not hold them 100% responsible.

Now that the 10 year disassociation with Webber has ended, I sincerely hope the university will reach out to Webber, reconcile, and re-establish recognition (let’s hang some banners back in the Crisler Center) for the efforts all of the members of the Fab Five gave to the university. Jalen Rose has been very vocal about his perceptions of the scandal, because he feels the other members of the Fab Five are being punished for the acts of one, which does not seem to be justifiable. He has a point.

In addition, I am ready to see the university and the NCAA take responsibility for their part in creating the atmosphere that allows kids to be placed in this sort of position. Currently, there are severe, and antiquated, restrictions on college athletes with regards to what kinds of contact, gifts, and payment they can receive while they are student-athletes. Colleges and universities offer a valuable, free education, along with expenses paid for athletes while these kids are in the care of the university, but is that enough?

Right now middle school and high school kids are being attracted to AAU teams through shoes and jerseys. Along the way, these kids get expenses paid for with regards to tournaments, and they also get other payments (in certain cases) if needed. The vast majority of these go unreported, because the player would be declared ineligible for college athletics at that point. For the most part, these payments are not bribes, but rather a helping hand to kids who are in real need. In other cases, adults are certainly crossing a line with payments and gifts – trying to gain influence in a child’s life so they can further be compensated later on. Yet, we punish the kids who are involved, or perhaps the teammates of the kids involved, instead of the adults who make this culture a required passage before the kid can reach their dreams.

This is where I come in with Webber. According to reports he accepted gifts and payments from Ed Martin going back to the time when he was in Middle School. My question is this – how was a 13 or 14 year old Chris Webber supposed to know the broad reaching consequences of receiving gifts at this young of an age? Why is he the one held responsible for these indiscretions? Also, these events began in the 1980s, yet the culture for youth basketball and college basketball has only become more greedy and corrupt in the last 25 years. The answer the NCAA gives – punish the school sports programs and the kids. When are we going to hold adults responsible for this culture? When is it going to be important enough for us to hold responsible those who are responsible for this? AAU coaches, shoe companies, the NCAA, sports agents, boosters, parents. Why are they not being brought into this conversation?

Also, from 1991 to 1993, when Chris Webber was the star for the university, how many of his jerseys were sold? How many times did the TV networks use his image to sell an upcoming game to viewers? How much money was made off of Chris Webber? How much of that trickled down to him or the other members of the Fab Five? The NCAA holds a double standard when it comes to student-athletes. The athletes themselves cannot be paid, but there is no limit to how much money can be made off of them. This appears so hypocritical in light of the level of punishment the NCAA levies against players and programs (particularly innocent players who get to pay the punishment by not being eligible for tournaments long after the offending player has left). It appears that the NCAA is holding children to a higher standard of conduct than they are willing to hold themselves. Why is this not being addressed?

In light of that, I now ask, what will the University of Michigan do? Chris Webber has served his sentence. The university made a ton of money off the Fab Five back in the 1990s, and they too had to serve the sentence of probation with the NCAA. As we stand today, all of that is history. It is time to put that where it belongs, in the past. Let’s move forward in reconciliation and healing for the parties involved. Let’s give the Fab Five the recognition they deserve – you can’t wipe away the games that were played, not matter how much you try to “vacate” them. Let’s learn from the mistakes kids like Chris Webber have made, work to change the culture of amateur athletes, and set a new example for the future. I challenge the University of Michigan to lead the way in setting a new standard of conduct for the NCAA. Live up to your credo – be the Leaders. Be the Best. Go Blue!

Jazz, Dance, and Being Created to Create

My wife and I attended a free jazz concert at our local public library today.  The musicians were music majors at a local university, so this also gave them the opportunity to get some live experience together.  We all got something out of the performance.

After the concert, we were given a few minutes to ask questions.  One person asked the status of jazz in our society today.  The director answered that by stating that jazz is an art form which gets passed from generation to generation.  A person who loves the music, and has practiced for years gets great joy in seeing a younger person catch the spark.  It is cyclical in that sense.

The director also went on to talk about how challenging it is to make a living playing jazz, but that also has not changed very much.  You have to be creative if you want to play it.  Those who love it the most find ways to play, compose, and teach.

The question and answer session went right along with what I watched in each of these players, none of whom could have been older than 21.  I was amazed that when I watched them all talking and getting ready to play they all looked and acted like regular, young adults.  When the music started, I saw a visible transformation in each of them.  They went somewhere else, mentally and emotionally.  I was just as amazed at this transformation as I was the music they were playing.  There was something transcendent in the performance.

While the music was playing, an older gentleman, who also happens to be a dance teacher, stood up and went to an area off to the side.  He began to dance in free-form.  Here was free-form music, combined with free-form dance in a little room with perhaps three dozen people.  And it was amazing.  The players played from a sense of passion.  You could see they had, what I call, a case of the “can’t help its.”  It was like they were born to make this beautiful noise.  The dancer moved because he could not physically stop his limbs from reacting to the music his ears were hearing.

This brings me to something I have been going over in my mind for several months.  It begins in Genesis 2:19: “So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”

I love this verse.  I imagine after God creates Adam that God is standing by like a parent who just gave their child a puppy.  Then God says, “Go ahead, name them.  All of them.”  In the moment, the purpose of the existence of Adam was established.  God created Adam so Adam would partner with God in Creation.  I am amazed by this.  We were created to be creators.  Can you believe that?

Then God waits for Adam to do his job.  He names one creature the Lion, then moves on to the Gazelle, then the Alligator, and the Woodpecker, and he just builds momentum from there.  I can see God watching this in amazement, yes amazement, because God’s creation, the one made in God’s image, is creating names for the animals.  He’s good at it, too.  I can also see God prodding Adam to keep going, and laughing at some of the crazy names he comes up with, while seeing the logic in other names.  A partnership was formed – God will make all this stuff, and Adam will name the stuff.

This takes me back to today.  While the musicians all had a case of the “can’t help its,” playing their improvisational music, we all sat in amazement.  They were creating beautiful sounds, and all on the spot.  I have to believe that God made these kids to do this, just like God made the older gentleman to dance to the music, also improvisationally.  They were fulfilling one piece of their purpose on earth.

This morning at church we heard the parable of the talents as told in Matthew 25:14-30.  This is a harsh story, because of the poor guy who hid his talent, and had that taken away from him when the master returned.  The point of the story is still the same as that in Genesis 2.  God gives certain gifts to each of us, and some of us get more than other, while others of us get less.  All of us have something to use for the benefit of God’s Kingdom.  That is the point.

My question then is this: what is your talent or gift?  What did God make you to create?  What can you simply not help yourself but to make?  This has been a hard lesson for me of late, because I have learned that I have a compulsion to write.  This does not bode well for someone who has a full-time office job, needs to sleep, eat, and exercise, along with other hobbies like reading, travel, and spending time with my spouse.  What it comes down to is that I cannot help myself but to write.  I hope what you are reading is a blessing to you, and the Kingdom of God.  Thank you for reading.

Lance Armstrong, Stan Musial, and the Death of Heroes

There are no more heroes.  That was the line I read last week, and I have been chewing on it since.  It was written during a very strange week in sports, where Lance Armstrong “confessed” to using performance enhancing drugs, and Manti Te’o was discovered to be the victim (participant?) of a strange, odd hoax.

The week before last was also interesting, because no baseball players were elected into the Hall of Fame, thanks to the stain and strain steroids have exacted on the sport in the last two decades.

This last week ended with the death of Stan Musial.  His death added a new dimension to the opening line, which did not have Musial in mind when it was penned.  It became more poignant to me after I read Musial’s obituary on Sunday.  There are no more heroes.

This begged the question in my mind, ‘what makes a person a hero?’  I decided I had to narrow the conversation down to the sports world, because that was the context within which the initial statement was written.  I came up with what I felt was a simple, and hopefully complete enough, definition of a hero.  First, we define a sports hero as one who achieves an elite status in their profession.  That could be done over the course of a career, or in some cases, in one game or contest (especially if it is for a championship). Second, a hero is expected to have at least a minimum level of character, integrity, or honor.  They must be somebody who kids can look up to, and emulate.  Third, a hero must be someone who overcomes a great challenge, or sacrifices themselves for a cause or other people.

This takes me to Lance Armstrong.  We considered Armstrong a hero, because he competed in a sport rife with cheating, and we were told he was the lone clean rider, and his competitive spirit was what led him to be the greatest cyclist who ever lived.  On top of that, he had beaten cancer, and was using his fame to further the fight against the disease.  Heroic, noble, except it was all lies.  The money he has helped give to cancer research is all very real, but Lance is a liar.  What I find most disturbing about Lance Armstrong is not that he lied about cheating for 15+ years, but that he ruthlessly ruined people’s lives who were telling the truth all along.  There is an element of evil in his story, and it is scary.

With the loss of Armstrong as a hero, who do we have left?  I could argue nobody.  At least nobody who is actively participating in a sport.  We have former athletes who I would easily consider heroes, but I really cannot find a current athlete who meets the definition.  Why? Let me explain.

First, we have too much media scrutiny.  That is not an indictment on the media, but rather an indictment on our collective desire for constant drama in this country.  We love dirt, and we will stop at nothing to find dirt on people.  The media is only giving us what we want.  A by-product of this constant media attention is that we have created a culture where athletes are now attention seeking.  This is the opposite of someone like Musial, who is often described as ‘humble’.  Athletes used to focus on doing their job as best they could.  Now they look for the cameras so they can give their scripted, attention seeking statements.  This is not attractive, nor heroic.

Let’s go back to the 1940s, when Stan Musial was the top National League outfielder of his generation.  Musial was leading his Cardinal teams to four World Series in five years.  His teams won three of those contests.  In 1948, Musial was one home run shy of the triple crown.  He won seven batting titles in his career, and when he finally retired, he had amassed a .331 batting average, on 3,630 hits, which was the National League record until Pete Rose later broke it.  This man was a hitting machine.  The media only covered his baseball career, however.  His private life was off limits.  It was a different time, and I think people would rather imagine that Stan Musial was the kind of guy they wanted their daughter to bring home, than find out he had demons in his closet.  Fortunately (and sadly, because it should not need to be mentioned), Musial’s AP obituary stated that he was “scandal-free” in his playing days.  This now makes him the exception.

The media scrutiny we see today was not at a very high level when Mickey Mantle played either.  His alcoholism and marital infidelity were not topics the press felt the need to report.  Again, it was a different time, without smart phones, tablets, or even digital cameras.  A drunk Mantle out with a strange woman was not going to be on anybody’s Facebook page in the morning.  Fans were shocked to hear of his personal struggles when they came out in full.  Compare that to Josh Hamilton today, whose alcohol and drug issues have been exceedingly widely reported.  I am not saying that watching Josh Hamilton work on overcoming his struggles is not an inspiration, or heroic in a sense, but I am saying that he gets scrutinized, perhaps unfairly, more than prior generations have been scrutinized.  It was easier for us to call someone a hero when we did not know how human they actually were.  That is no longer the case.

The second reason I think we struggle to find heroes today is that professional athletes make way too much money.  This making of money invites an element of greed into the equation, which is not a heroic element.  Looking back at Stan Musial, he made good money as a ballplayer in his day, but nothing approaching the outlandish salaries of this day and age.  His highest salary, converted into today’s dollars, would be worth approximately $500,000 – $600,000 per year, and he is one of the best hitters who ever lived.  Today, that amount is below the league average.  Musial played his whole career under the Reserve Clause, which was not abolished until after the 1975 season.  This clause meant that Musial could either play for the Cardinals for what they would pay him, or go home.  Don’t get me wrong, Musial was not starving to death, and nobody felt sorry for him at the time for only making $80,000 to $100,000 per year.  Still, he did not have to face the choice of chasing the money or staying with the home team.

In 2012, Albert Pujols began playing for the Anaheim Angels.  This was after 11 seasons with the Cardinals where he earned legendary status, helping St. Louis win two World Series, while he personally earned the Rookie of the Year award, and three MVP awards. Many Cardinals fans turned on Pujols in 2012 because he turned down a 10 year, $210 million contract to stay with St. Louis to go to Anaheim for $254 million.  This forces the average fan to ask what, honestly, is the difference between two ungodly sums of money? Unfortunately, the answer we are forced to give is greed.

In his 11 seasons with St. Louis, Pujols established himself as the best hitter in all of baseball.  Nobody else was even considered close.  He also impressed people with his humility, and integrity.  He is a player who claims to play the game clean, and is very critical of those who use performance enhancing drugs to improve their stats.  In addition, he has set up a foundation which supports people with Down Syndrome, other disabilities, and those in poverty, particularly in the Dominican Republic.  This all makes Albert Pujols a hero in the minds or many people.  Then he turns down the opportunity to finish his career in St. Louis, so he can earn a little more money elsewhere.  This apparent greed leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of too many fans, and it reminds us that there are no more heroes.

One last reason I have as to why we have no heroes in athletics these days is that we cannot find athletes who overcome a great obstacle or sacrifice themselves for a cause or for others.  Let’s talk again about Stan Musial.  In 1945, Musial went into the US Navy to help defend our country against the Japanese.  He lost a year of playing baseball, while in the prime of his life to fight in World War II.  This is heroic.  Granted, Musial was never placed on the front lines, so he was never seriously placed in harm’s way.  In fact, only two baseball players were killed in action during the war – Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill. Even in saying that, I don’t want to discount what so many baseball players contributed to the war effort.  First, they spent time in a hostile, foreign country, away from their families, and there was no guarantee that they would not be injured, wounded or killed.  Second, the morale boost given by the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, or Bob Feller to their fellow countrymen was exceedingly important to the war effort.  This was a real sacrifice.  It made a whole generation of athletes into heroes.

Now, name me a professional athlete who was fought for their country in the last two decades.  The obvious person who gets mentioned is Pat Tillman.  Pat Tillman is a hero, without question.  Now, name me another professional athlete who left behind an athletic career for any amount of time to serve their country?  The next closest name is David Robinson.  After being drafted in 1987, Robinson postponed his NBA career for two years to finish out his active duty commitment to the US Navy.  This is admirable, and even heroic when you consider the amount of money Robinson left on the table to make this sacrifice, given he was one of the greatest centers who ever played.  If that weren’t enough, Robinson is widely considered to have very high integrity, and he has given over $10 million of his personal fortune to found a school, the Carver Academy, among other charitable endeavors.  David Robinson is somebody to look up to, and not just because he is seven feet tall.

Does every professional athlete need to serve their country to be considered a hero? Absolutely not.  Muhammad Ali is a hero for not fighting for his country.  A man of deep religious faith, Ali lost four years of his boxing career at the time when his skills had peaked, to stand up for his personal beliefs, defying the US Government, and not reporting for the Vietnam draft.  This was a very costly sacrifice.  Ali was publicly shamed by the government, and many in the media and populace.  He was also stripped of his heavyweight titles. Standing up for his principles in the face of this backlash, and at the cost of his own ability to earn a paycheck makes Ali a hero.  He also happens to be the greatest heavyweight fighter to ever live.  And he continues to live his life with great integrity.

Another hero is Roberto Clemente, who lost his life trying to bring relief supplies to Nicaragua.  A legendary athlete, and one who, because of his stature, did not have to get on the plane carrying the supplies to Nicaragua.  Clemente chose to go, because he wanted to make sure the people who needed the supplies the most received them.  He died when his plane, too heavy from the amount of supplies on it, went down in the Caribbean.  That is sacrifice.

Perhaps the person I admire the most as a hero is Jackie Robinson.  He carried the hopes of an entire race of people on his shoulders, while having the discipline to keep his own cool when goaded, spiked, thrown at, cussed at, and derided by anybody and everybody in baseball during 1947.  Not only did Robinson withstand the onslaught of others, he performed at a very high level, and changed the way the game was played, while also changing who played the game.  He is a hero.  I wish there were a larger term to apply to Jackie Robinson, because his heroics cannot be understated.

Where are our heroes today?  Is it possible to be a hero today?  It seems now that in light of Lance Armstrong and Major League Baseball, we find ourselves cynical in the face of those who appear to play by the rules, excel at their sport, and bring good to a cause.  We feel it is only a matter of time before a story breaks, and we find find ourselves in the midst of a scandal, and another person we admired gets placed with all the rest.

Or, we follow a player who does everything right, leads our favorite team to a championship, gets involved in the community and pours money into a great cause, only to break our hearts by leaving our team for another team who will pay them more.  Money will always be a reason a hero falls from grace when athletes make over $20 million per year, and only want more, while we, the fans, are making ends meet.

Last, we just don’t see sacrifice in our athletes anymore.  Many athletes give to charity, or start foundations with the intent to give back.  This is good, but they should do this, because they are making millions upon millions of dollars per year.  They have a responsibility to give back – this is not something that should be considered a sacrifice any more, but a minimal expectation.  My issue is that athletes no longer give in a costly fashion any more.  We thought Lance Armstrong was on to something with this Live Strong Foundation, and he really did do a lot of good.  Still, we have a bitter taste in our mouths, because the ends just don’t justify the means.  You cannot build a sustainable kingdom using the devil’s tools.

There are no more heroes.  Is there any hope that one day we will have another hero?  Honestly, I don’t know.  And I am not very optimistic.

Ray Lewis, The Baltimore Ravens, and Isaiah 54:17

I am not much of an NFL fan these days.  I don’t have anything against the NFL – it’s just that over the last decade I have lived in three states, five cities, and lost touch with the NFL.  I am a fan without a team, which makes me not much of a fan.

Until the 2013 playoffs.  When I heard Ray Lewis was retiring at the end of these playoffs, I just knew I had to watch.  This guy is a football legend, and once upon a time he was coached by my favorite defensive player in NFL history – Mike Singletary.  The two play a lot alike, which is why I have to watch these last few games.  For January, 2013, I now have a favorite team – the Baltimore Ravens.

The AFC Divisional Playoff game against the Denver Broncos on Saturday, January 12, was an unbelievable game.  I will not re-hash the highlights in totality, but I have to mention some.  First, nobody expected to see Baltimore win this game.  I thought this would be the last game I would get to see Ray Lewis play.  Then Baltimore finds a way to overcome a punt return for a touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown, Peyton Manning, and the altitude in Denver to complete one of the great comebacks I have ever seen in football.  Joe Flacco’s 70-yard pass to Jacoby Jones (which went about 60 yards on the fly, in the swirling 8 degree wind of Mile HIgh Stadium) put the game in overtime.  Then, just when I thought Baltimore’s defense had nothing more to give, they stopped Denver from scoring for another whole quarter, intercepted Peyton Manning, and won the game.  Remarkable.

This led to Ray Lewis’ emotional post-game interviews.  CBS sideline reporter Solomon Wilcots was able to corral an emotional Ray Lewis, and got this response (http://youtu.be/tG0rkzdb_qw).

I love this guy.  I wish Ray Lewis could play forever – he is that much fun to watch, even now, with an injured triceps muscle, and age obviously not on his side.  His emotion is palpable.  I wish I could be his teammate when I hear him talk with that kind of emotion.  I hope they win the AFC Championship so we can see him play in the Super Bowl.  What a great way to finish a career.  I just want to see Lewis play in two more games – one is not enough.

Here is what caught me when Ray Lewis spoke.  He said “No weapon.  No weapon formed shall prosper.”  He gave the same quote when interviewed on the field by ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio (http://youtu.be/1SX-aTyBjPQ) as well.  What did he mean?

The quote comes from the Old Testament of the Bible, Isaiah 54:17 to be exact.  Here is how the complete verse reads: “‘No weapon that is formed against you will prosper; and every tongue that accuses you in judgment you will condemn.  This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord, and their vindication is from Me,’ declares the Lord.”

I will start by saying I am not a theologian.  I am married to one, however, and I have spent my whole life reading the Bible.  I also have a history degree, which means I have learned to read things within the context they were written or said.  All that being said, I am still a novice to this, I will not pretend to be anything else.

My first question when I heard this quote by Ray Lewis was “why did he pick this verse over all others?”  I can’t get into Lewis’ head, but I do wonder why he didn’t quote Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through Him who gives me strength.”  This is a verse often quoted by athletes as a verse to show that God is on their side, although it too is taken out of context.  Lewis chose, “No weapon formed against me shall prevail.”  What was the weapon?  The Denver Broncos? Peyton Manning?  The Denver community?  Are these people working against God?  That’s scary ground to tread indeed, but I don’t think that is what Ray Lewis meant.

I do think (without any first-hand knowledge) Lewis feels his current quest has divine intervention on the side of the Baltimore Ravens, or at least for Ray Lewis.  His words tell me that he feels his team has a date with destiny, and that involves the Super Bowl.  Do they?  I don’t know.  What if the Ravens do win the AFC Championship?  Is that proof this team is destined?  No.  Is God a football fan?  I can’t answer that one, but I do know God loves God’s creation, and within that, God loves people more than anything.

The question for me then is can Ray Lewis read this verse and conclude that nothing will stand in his way to get to another Super Bowl before he retires?  It at least appears he is, but is that OK?  This particular verse was written around 700 BCE to Israelites in exile from their homeland.  Was it intended for Ray Lewis, on a football field in America over 2,700 years later?

Our smart theologians out there will want us to use ‘exegesis’ at this point.  Simply put, exegesis is placing the text in the context with which it was written, and intended, by the author.  In other words – what did the author mean when these words were put to paper?  It’s obvious in reading the 54th chapter of Isaiah that football was not the subject of the author.  What was?  In the simplest terms I can describe, the Kingdom of God, when the earth would be renewed, peace and justice would reign, and no weapon which has been formed to stop the work of God would be able to stand against the plan, design and will of God.  This is my rough paraphrase, but I give it to help clarify the subject.

How come Ray Lewis applied this verse to the football struggle between the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos?  I think it is this: when this verse is pulled out of its context, it is a very inspiring verse to consider.  Who doesn’t want to believe that those who are walking the right path will not be harmed by any weapon which has been formed to stop them?

How come we willingly take 2,700 year old verses and apply them to our particular moments?  The truth is, we always have.  Isaiah 54 follows the 53rd chapter (shocking, right?), which is a very familiar chapter to Christianity, because it is one of the key Old Testament chapters we as Christians use to state that it was foretold that the Messiah would be killed for the sake of the world.  Starting in verse 4, we read these familiar words: “Surely our griefs he himself bore, and our sorrows he carried; yet we ourselves esteemed him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.  But he was pierced through for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon him, and by his scourging we are healed.”

For generations Jews have been stating that Christians take these words out of context, along with numerous others, because these verses were written about Israel, the suffering servant of God in 700 BCE.  Christians have responded that when you read the stories of Jesus in the New Testament, it is obvious that these verses were written as a double meaning, applying both to Israel, and 700 years later to Jesus.  Who is right?  Well, that is matter of faith.

Now, let’s bring it to the present.  Can we really say that this verse could apply to a football game in 2013?  If I am being honest, I do not think it does.  I will also state that I do think these verses could be reapplied to today in regards to the working of God in the world, as God continues to bring about the establishment of the Kingdom in this world.

So what do I think of the ‘miracle’ applied in the Ravens win, and Ray Lewis use of Isaiah 54:17 to help inspire his team?  I think Lewis is a great motivator of people.  He knows what will get his teammates fired up, and behind him.  I also think Ray Lewis has a very deep Christian faith, which he draws upon on a daily basis.  Because of his age, experience, stature, and maturity, Ray Lewis is looked up to by many people, not just his own teammates.  I think he has led many football players to deepen their own faith, and make better decisions in their lives.  Ray Lewis draws upon his faith to help lead people.  It works.  Ray Lewis is being exactly who he is.

Let’s also make no mistake about it – the Baltimore Ravens are a good football team.  They are about to play in their third AFC Championship game in five years.  They started this season off red-hot, before injuries brought them back to earth.  They still made the playoffs, and are still a formidable force.  Are they inspired?  Yes.  They play to win, and they have a little extra boost because they are playing for their leader.  Is this verse helping to propel this team forward?  When their leader speaks it, it does.

I want to be careful in stressing that I don’t think this verse applies to football.  I am certain that this verse will be applied again, however.  It will be applied appropriately, in the context within which it was written over 2,700 years ago – when God’s Kingdom is established on earth for eternity.  And there is no weapon on earth formed, or yet to be formed, which will stop that from happening.