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Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013

MILWAUKEE BUCKS: SLIPPERY TASKS

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Welcome to yet another “new era” for the Bucks. Several have passed by in the last dozen years, but this one has an extra sense of purpose. The much-revamped team under new coach Larry Drew isn't only trying to erase memories of three straight losing seasons. It needs to energize the fan base amid growing talk that the franchise can't survive here without a new arena.

Things weren't ideal heading into the season opener in New York. A spate of injuries made it tough to mesh a roster with 11 newcomers, and the flashy new Bradley Center court was too slick for the players' safety in a quickly-canceled exhibition finale.

Predictions? The Observers pass for now...

 

Artie: I can't believe this floor business! It's not just the players getting hurt, like the Brewers and Packers, but even the hardwood is physically unable to perform?

Frank: It was fine for two exhibition games and no one knew what happened last Friday night. Something with the paint job, or condensation from the hockey ice below...

A: Bucks exec John Steinmiller sounded like a trainer—they're monitoring the situation, the floor's day-to-day, not out for the season. But I'm worried this'll spread to the fans; they'll have an ankle sprain or sore shoulder and won't be able to get in the car to head downtown.

F: The team's performance has kept even able-bodied fans away. Last season the Bucks were 27th out of 30 NBA teams in average attendance at 15,035, about 80% of capacity. They haven't been as high as 20th in the league since 2005-'06.

A: I know why I'm not in the crowd. I'm financially unable to afford a seat anywhere near the court!

F: What the Bucks will put on the court doesn't impress the national media. Sports Illustrated ranks them 12th among the 15 Eastern Conference teams.

A: I saw power rankings from The Sporting News putting them 24th in the league and 11th in the East.

F: That surprises me a little. Yeah, they went 38-44 last season but they did make the playoffs at No. 8 in the conference. You've got to think Miami, Chicago, Indiana and Brooklyn will dominate the East, but after that I see a big grab-bag.

A: Everybody's made changes, of course. I guess the Knicks and Atlanta are the second tier...

F: Although I don't think Carmelo Anthony can lead a team anywhere near a title.

A: But the NBA isn't like the NFL, where you have really big swings from year to year, like the 8-0 Chiefs. So even though the Bucks made a big overhaul I don't think they've fallen below teams like Detroit, Cleveland, Toronto, Washington...

F: And certainly they're better than Boston and Philly, which went “in the tank” in anticipation of a really good 2014 draft.

A: Still, you can't tell much from the pre-season because so many Bucks have been hurt.

F: Carlos Delfino (foot) and Epke Udoh (knee) out indefinitely, Ersan Ilyasova spraining an ankle in the first exhibition, Brandon Knight with a hamstring, Caron Butler another ankle sprain...

A: That must have come in practice because he was the leading scorer in their last full exhibition.

F: Drew hasn't really figured out his best rotations because the combinations haven't been available all the time. But there's definitely some talent.

A: Lots of scoring ability in Butler, Ilyasova, O.J. Mayo and Gary Neal; two emerging big men in Larry Sanders and John Henson; good ball distribution from Knight and Luke Ridnour...

F: They could be the kind of unselfish, hustling team we saw during the playoff run in 2010. How has the top draft pick from Greece, whom I'll just keep calling “G.A.,” looked so far?

A: There's potential there, but it'll take a while. I think one guy who could contribute is Khris Middleton, a second-year pro who's 6-8 and has a shooting touch.

F: Drew set some numerical targets: Shooting at least 46% and holding opponents to no more than 43%. The first is plausible but the last time they got near the second figure was 2000-'01, when opponents shot 43.9%.

A: It's a cinch the Bucks will shoot better than last year's 43.5%—28th in the league—now that the two gunners, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, are gone.

F: I think the Bucks will grab a playoff spot, and maybe even at No. 6 or 7. Of course that means they'll have to face one of the powerhouses, but a winning record would be clear progress.

A: There are a lot of good players here, but all the top NBA teams have a legitimate all-star, maybe two or three. Hey, maybe while the new floor is "treated" the Bucks could play at the Klotsche Center at UWM. I'll bet they'd fill the place!

F: And everyone would be close to the floor.

 

WHAT'S IN IT FOR JOE FAN?

A: Now there's a big-time task force in town to devise some entertainment blueprint that I'll bet will include a new arena.

F: As we've said many times before, Milwaukee has too many economic and social needs to justify using public money to build such a thing. Many of those 48 task-force members are corporate big shots; let's see them pony up their own money if they want a new building. Or have Scott Walker call his pals the Koch brothers.

A: For one thing, we don't think there's anything all that wrong with the Bradley Center.

F: Not for out purposes, which I think are the same as the average fan's: Decent sight lines, a decent scoreboard, easy access to food and drink and easy access to bathrooms.

A: But that ain't good enough for the fat cats of the NBA and all their big-money pals.

F: What do we always hear when they talk about a new arena? More luxury seating and suites, more restaurants inside the building—In other words, more ways to yank a few more dollars out of Joe Fan so that the big shots can sit in their nice courtside seats.

A: And Joe Fan and his family are welcome to sit upstairs.

F: Does anyone think that a new arena would include lots more affordably priced seats? Those are available now, of course; it seems like Jim Paschke and Jon McGlocklin spend half their time on the telecasts touting package deals. But how many of those seats provide anything close to the views you get from your sofa in front of the wide-screen?

A: Upstairs is still upstairs, no matter how new the building is.

F: I can attest to that. Last December I went to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn for a college tripleheader. And I loved it—because we were downstairs. But my brother and I hiked upstairs just to see what the views are like, and man, they were even more remote than the Bradley Center's.

A: Of course the task force folks are saying that a new arena wouldn't be only for the Bucks, but for concerts and whatever else. But I don't care if it's a monster-truck blowout or whatever; if you're up there, you're up there.

 

THE BREAKS ALWAYS EVEN OUT

F: Hey, did you stay awake long enough to see that bizarre finish to Game 3 in the World Series?

A: Well, after conking out I woke up in the eighth inning, so it was in time for the so-called obstruction or interference or whatever they said it was.

F: Of course I loved it because it cost the Red Sox the game. But you sound a little skeptical of the call.

A: I mean, what was the third baseman supposed to do? After he missed the throw he couldn't do anything else but lie there, and while that impeded the runner if there was no “malice” or intent involved, why shouldn't they just say, “Hey, it's just a baseball play.”

F: First of all, I'm not sure there wasn't some intent involved once he knew the ball was past, in terms of lifting his legs up.

A: But that's what happens when you're lying there, ain'a?

F: Well, I saw him as having his legs lifted, then flat, and then lifted again. I admit that as a Yankee fan I was seeing with my heart a little. But in any event, baseball has a mania for rules unlike any other sport, and this one is explicit and then some.

A: Gotta love that “Rule 7.06(b)” stuff.

F: But here's what I wanted to bring up. Did that play ring a bell with you, in terms of the Red Sox being involved in an obstruction controversy?

A: Nope.

F: You're not alone. I saw nothing about this in the post-game coverage on Fox, ESPN or MLB Network. But as soon as I saw the play I thought, “Wasn't there something similar in a playoff game against Oakland at Fenway Park that benefited the Red Sox?” I couldn't remember the year, but after a little research I found it: A division series in 2003.

A: So what happened?

F: The Athletics came in leading the series 2-0. In the sixth inning of this game the Red Sox led 1-0 but Oakland had the bases loaded with two out. Now I'll quote from one of the summaries I found on the Web:

 

“Ramon Hernandez hit a chopper in the hole that eluded shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. Erubiel Durazo scored, tying the game. And as Miguel Tejada raced around third, he clearly ran into Red Sox third baseman Bill Mueller. The contact did not escape (umpire) Bill Welke, who pointed at Mueller, ostensibly calling interference.

“Tejada, meanwhile, thought home plate was his automatically, so he stopped running hard, pointing back at Mueller and Welke. Left fielder Manny Ramirez threw home... and Jason Varitek slapped a tag on Tejada who, much to his surprise, was called out...

“Obstruction was called (Rule 7.06), and because, in Welke's judgement, Tejada would not necessarily have scored, he was running to the plate at his own risk, a judgment that seemed highly questionable.

“So the inning ended with the game tied, instead of with Oakland holding a 2-1 lead with two on and two out. The A's, not surprisingly, were upset.”

 

A: But if obstruction was called, why didn't Tejada have home plate automatically?

F: Apparently the key thing was that Tejada and Mueller collided before Tejada got to third. And as my official copy of the rule book states, when a runner advances beyond the base the umpire thinks he should be awarded, “he does so at his own peril and may be tagged out.” The rule book helpfully adds, “This is a judgment call.”

A: So the umps Saturday night decided that the Cardinal was entitled to home plate, but Welke decided Tejada was not entitled to anything beyond third base.

F: Well put. But of course when Tejada saw Welke signal that he was obstructed, he slowed up considerably. So how they hell could Welke reasonably conclude that he would not have scored if not obstructed?

A: Sounds like your Yankee heart speaking again.

F: You betcha. The game wound up going to extra innings, the Red Sox avoided elimination and wound up winning the series. Of course Aaron Boone took care of eliminating them in Game 7 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium, so justice was ultimately done.

A: Until the next year, when the Yanks had a 3-0 lead and the Sox somehow...

F: Enough! I never speak of the 2004 ALCS. But I just wanted to bring up the '03 thing because I was really surprised that none of the TV operations, with all their talking heads and researchers, had the collective memory to bring up the obstruction tie-in to the Bosox.

A: But your collective memory is doing just fine!

F: I'm not saying there's some big cosmic meaning here. But it sure is interesting, and somewhere in all the network blathering there should be a place for that.

 

THE PRICE OF HANGING TOUGH

F: In what was hardly a surprise, we found out from Brett Favre last week that he has memory problems. It's sad but certainly not unexpected, coming from a quarterback who played so many consecutive games while taking all manner of hard hits.

A: And of course that's the way the NFL was in the '90s and up until a few years ago. You got your bell rung—in other words, a concussion—and you just went back in.

F: Interestingly, another QB from that era, Troy Aikman, recently said the issue of concussions is “cause for concern, it's cause for questioning, and I think parents have to look for what's in the best interest of their kids and how that affects football at the grass roots moving forward.”

A: It could take decades, but if enough parents tell their kids, “No football for you...”

F: Aikman made his comments after seeing the PBS documentary, “League of Denial,” which paints a damning picture of the NFL's attitude and policies toward head injuries. I haven't seen it but I've got it DVR'd, and I'm sure it'll give us a lot to talk about.

 

AS GOOD AS IT GETS

F: Now let's talk about Favre's successor. Mr. Rodgers had quite a game at Minnesota, and that throw to Jordy Nelson on the first touchdown—mind-boggling!

A: Right on the money, and it had to be to beat the really good coverage. Nelson turned his head and bam! I think it may have been wedged into his chest.

F: The precision reminded me of another terrific throw Rodgers made, although not the same kind. I mean the one in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, when the Packers were leading but had a third-and-long to hold onto the ball and put the Steelers away. Rodgers somehow dropped the ball an inch over a defender's lunge and into Greg Jennings' hands.

A: Hey, I know that name. Was that the same Greg Jennings who bolted to the Vikings, lipped off about Rodgers a few weeks ago and had exactly one catch for nine yards against the Pack?

F: Yup. I wonder how he liked Rodgers' 24-for-29 performance? Anyway, the other thing I took out of this game—or the 1 1/2 quarters I stayed up for—was how much I like Cris Collinsworth as an analyst. He sees so much on every play!

A: As much as you like Cris, and I do too, that's how tired I am of Al Michaels. He's just been doing this too long. There's something about his delivery, the timbre of his voice, that grates on me. He's one guy who could put anyone to sleep.

F: Which I assume he did at some point?

A: Nope! This time I made it through the whole game.

F: So you saw Micah Hyde's 93-yard punt return, which must have been fun.

A: And of course I also saw the 109-yard kickoff return that put the Packers in an instantaneous 7-0 hole. That was the one thing I was worried about going into this game. With so many injuries they've had to plug in a lot of new guys on the kick-coverage teams. Cleveland broke a couple of long returns against them the week before, and I knew Minnesota had "Percy Harvin 2.0" in Cordarrelle Patterson, who already had TD return. And lo and behold...

F: Good thing the Packers had 59 minutes and 47 seconds to recover.

A: Now it's on to Monday night and what will be a delightful drubbing of Da Bears!

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek is always working on his shot.