Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Leftover Stew

One thing is for sure – I’ve really missed posting on this blog.  In the past few weeks, I’ve stressed over the FoxSports blog, trying to wedge in at least one post a day on varied sports topics.  I brought some of them over here, but only a handful.  What added to the stress was that I didn’t have the time to write non-sports posts at all.  Left me a little pent up, but happily, I can start letting loose again.  Hope you’re ready.  

Update on the Duke case that I wrote about a while back: pile some more “oops” onto the News & Observer and Mike Nifong, who were so unprofessionally quick to try and convict 46 members of the Duke lacrosse team.  The semen sample, recovered during the medical exam that set off the rape allegation and used unsuccessfully to try and match team members’ DNA twice, has finally found a match: the accuser’s boyfriend.  Odd that the DA did not include him in their first two rounds of testing, but this of course is the same office that violated standard procedures by having the accuser identify her three suspects out of mugshots that only featured Duke lacrosse players and refused to accept a player’s polygraph test offer (he took his own anyway).  With each passing day, this rat stinks a little more.  What’s truly upsetting is that the exculpatory evidence continues to be ignored by the same mainstream media that was happy to pile on the players in April.

Invasion, we hardly knew you.  ABC has pulled the plug on the show, which I’m a little sorry about.  This was a show that simply didn’t drum up enough of an audience to merit its relatively high budget.  I myself barely stayed with it, despite it’s LOST lead in and the wife’s intrigue, since the fall episodes were, in my opinion, only passably scripted, directed, and acted out.  They seemed to be trying to keep the hurricane-covered “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” premise as a smoking man-like mystery when any child would have caught on within minutes.  Then something strange happened in the second half of the season: it got good.  Unforseen twists and layers to the show emerged and ran up to a fairly engrossing finale that was armed with a legitimate series-shifting cliffhanger.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in a country that appreciates cooking with charcoal when propane is so much quicker.  I’ll say this though – a big screen leap a la Firefly would be backed in this corner.

San Antonio, we know you pretty well, but you also bowed out earlier than expected.  I was tremendously impressed with Duncan’s heart and determination, but can’t say the same about the overall team maturity.  I am thankful not to have to endure any more of the whistle-induced childish sulking that was spread across the entire team.  In tasteless order: Bruce Bowen and his slumping eye-roll; Ginobilli’s horrified reactions that make you think he’s witnessing a family member being stabbed; Duncan’s 11-year old “it wasn’t my fault” hysterics; and, Parker’s dazed and confused bit.  Popovich’s demeanor after game 7 spoke volumes – he really struck me as a father completely exasperated by his children, especially when asked about Ginobilli’s moronic block attempt/foul on Dirk that allowed Dallas to tie the game with the and-one free throw.  Q: Did you tell them in the timeout not to allow 3-pointers and not to foul anyone going to the basket?  Pop: (vein pops out, sinks back in) Yes.  Q: Where you surprised when Ginobilli fouled Dirk going to the basket?  Pop:  (vein pops out, sinks back in) Yes.

The Dixie Chicks are back, and the return has been awkward, at least in Texas.  Now, I really liked this group a few years ago; I saw them in concert I was invited to, and was greatly surprised to find they were far more than the radio country girl group I had taken them for.  They tend to dumb things down when on tour to pander to the younger 3-minute attention span crowd that pays the bills (or rather, their parents), but there’s some real musicianship inside that trio.  Unfortunately, the infamous incident in London happened.  Unfortunate not in that it sparked controversy, but unfortunate in that it led to Natalie Maines taking the low road and tossing fuel all over the place.  The group has chosen an antagonistic path rather than leaving well enough alone, kicking off their new album with the sharply pointed single “Not Ready to Make Nice” and following it up with quotes to the media saying they’d “rather have a small following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don't want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do.”  So in short, unless you enjoy their soapboxing, the door’s that way.  Strikes me as not being far off from Lauren Hill’s notorious take on the Fugee’s popularity with white kids.  Hey look, I want to enjoy music.  I don’t really care what your thoughts are, one way or the other.  If you’re a hippy, a Bill O’Reilly zealot, a rabid PETA member, a militant Islamic, a scorpion, a follower of Zeus, I don’t mind so long as you can pop out a good tune.  Just don’t go Tom Cruise on me, it’s a turnoff.  Songs with a political slant are cool – Dylan certainly hung his hat on them, and Born in the U.S.A. didn’t exactly end Springsteen’s career.  It’s ranting put to music and concerts that are halfway rallies that annoy the tomfoolery out of me.  Eddie Vedder – take the Bush mask off and play Better Man.  Bono – quit making up intros about how “One” is about the plight of Norwegian wildlife.  Sting – change the lyrics to “Every Breath You Take” one more time and I’ll put a hit out on you.  Natalie – just STFU.

The NBA Lottery was last night and it was pretty interesting.  Toronto “won” the first pick, unfortunately they badly need a backcourt stud in a draft where the top 5 guys are frontcourt players.  Rumor has it that Brian Colangelo has decided that the team should focus on foreign players since Americans can’t get out of Toronto fast enough while Europeans are perfectly comfortable there.  With that in mind, they’ve repotedly made some inroads at bringing over an assistant GM with ties to Italian prospect Andrea Bargnani.  Personally, I think they’d be best off trading down and grabbing Brandon Roy or Marcus Williams, but second guessing a Colangelo as about as smart as bending over in front of Reggie Evans.  The real losers from last night were the New York Knicks, who were mentioned at every possible opportunity for handing the #2 pick over to Chicago for Eddy Curry’s 6 rebounds a game and Portland, falling to the #4 pick despite having the worst record in the league.  Let the misery continue.

24 ended with a somewhat limp finale Monday as a show that is rapidly becoming stale and formulaic.  The anticlimatic wrap-up was sadly predictable though it closed with a quick twist of a cliffhanger.  The Chinese got to Jack!  Don’t get too excited or lose sleep this summer and fall.  The show has ended with a cliff hanger before, when President Palmer fell prey to a poisoned handshake in the closing minutes of season 2.  Expect this cliffhanger to be resolved similarly – forgotten and explained away with some dialogue in the next opener.  As the producers themselves have already admitted, bringing Jack home from China would eat 16 of the show’s 24 hours…

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again.  Something’s wrong with the Detroit Pistons.  They averaged 97 PPG over the season, and all of a sudden this group can barely manage 85.  Rasheed’s ankle isn’t enough for me, and he turned it after the drop off began.  Nothing jumps out at me when watching them and I’ve yet to see anything to suggest strife within the locker room.  This clearly isn’t the same team that managed only 9 losses over the first 4 months of the season, however, and isn’t a team that will get the remaining 8 wins they need unless something drastic changes in a hurry.  


LOST Questions

With the season finale for the greatest show on network TV being aired today, I would be negligent if I didn’t devote a post to it today (and tomorrow and Friday and each day this summer).  Clearly, there will be more to talk about after it airs – revelations and new questions.  

Open ends that I believe will be tied off tonight:
Will Michael be reunited with Walt?  Will Michael find the death that seems to follow character resolution on this show?
Will Desmond return or have his experience on the island revealed?  It would stand to reason that we saw his (unmanned) boat at the end of the last episode.
What has happened to Walt since his abduction?
What was Libby’s full backstory?
What happens if the numbers are not pressed?  Can we be certain that Henry Gale did not punch them in?
How does the island ensnare passing by craft (Flight 815, Desmond’s boat, Rosseau’s boat)?
Do Jack and Claire share the same father?

Questions that I suspect will continue to linger:
What is Rosseau’s full backstory, before and after arriving on the island?
What are the large cables that extend into the water?
What is driving the dreams and hallucinations that guide (for good or bad) many of the survivors?
What is the “smoke” security system that seemed to telepathically read Eko?
What is the extent of the security system (trees, smoke, sharks, etc)?
What is the ultimate goal of the Hanso Foundation and what are the machinations of their work?  
How is the island healing individuals (John, Son)?

We’ll just have to see.  I’ll enjoy the unfolding events tonight over fish tacos and mango.

A Look at the 2006 NBA Free Agent Class

What, this topic hasn’t been burning a hole through your brain?  Well, maybe it will be now.  Here’s a glimpse at the money chasers in this pending offseason.  I’m going to omit the non-difference-makers and sure-to-resign types such as Ben Wallace and Jason Terry. The starting horn is July 1st!

Big Boys
Joel Przybilla and Nazr Mohammad are rarities: unrestricted centers that can actually play.  Neither are All-Stars, but both are capable starters that can plug the middle for donut teams such as Chicago or Seattle.  The more typical damaged goods are Michael Olowokandi, Kelvin Cato, and Lorenzen Wright.

The power forward collection is fair, though not exhilarating.  Chris Wilcox played like a demon after the Clippers gave up on him, but buyer beware when an upcoming free agent with a reputation for a poor work ethic “just happens” to double his career averages in March and April.  Reggie Evans is also out there, with a reputation of his own that was augmented with his uninvited jock check on Chris Kaman.  Nene Hilario is available, but with health concerns and failed to meet expectations before his injury.  A major shocker out of Philadelphia: Chris Webber may not exercise his player option to see if he can do better on the open market than the $21 and $22 million seasons remaining on his contract.  If you’re keeping score, that will make him the highest paid player in the league for the next two years.  

Three’s A-Plenty
Al Harrington and Predjag Stojakovic should be the two big dogs on the open market this summer.  As I’ve noted before, I don’t buy that Peja (or as I might call him, Preddy) plans on staying in Indianapolis.  Chicago has cap space, so do the Clippers, and he’s long been connected to those cities because of their Yugoslavian communities.  Harrington will likely let the money do the talking, though one would think his Hawk tenure has shown him that winning is a lot more fun than being the main man.  Tim Thomas certainly won’t make half the money he did on his last contract, but has to be happy with the way the Suns system is making him shine.  His rebounding and defensive deficiencies are almost unnoticeable on this team, and the open court style covers up the fact that he struggles to execute designed plays.  He will either face a tough rotation with the returns of Amare Stoudamire and Kurt Thomas in Phoenix or a sour fanbase elsewhere if they bite into his lemon-filled career.  Vladimir Radmanovic will kick his agent all summer for turning down the Seattle offer last year, but he’s a tough player to use with his almost stereotypical European game.  Devean George, Matt Harpring, and Jared Jefferies can’t give a team big numbers, but they are fairly reliable role players that would help good teams.

Backcourt Offerings
Bonzi Wells figures to cash in this summer, for two reasons: his eyepopping showing against the Spurs and the fact that he is the only true starting shooting guard on the market.  His competition is principally from combo Iversonian guards (Jason Terry, Mike James, Flip Murray, Bobby Jackson, Marcus Banks).  However, as much as I’ve poo-pooed undersized 2’s in the past, it’s become very apparent that the NBA rule changes have paved the way for Phoenix-style small ball to dominate the league.  Playing a Kirk Hinrich next to a Ben Gordon may become more attractive when it was originally a forced hand.  If Dwayne Wade (6-4) is so successful next to Jason Williams (6-1), a Mike James-Andre Miller backcourt might be intriguing to Denver management.  Strike that, George Karl’s assuming GM input.  If Dwayne Wade (6-4) is so successful next to Jason Williams (6-1), a Mike James-Chris Paul backcourt might be intriguing to Hornets management.  

I hope your team isn’t in need of a point guard this year, because the selection (aside from the above combo guards) is awfully bare.  You could choose the soon-to-be 37 Sam Cassell, but bare in mind he was recently owned by a 32 year-old Canadian with a congenital back condition and he only plays well when he’s gunning for a new contract.  Aside from that, he’s fantastic.  Gary Payton should retire, but won’t, so he’s available.  That leaves Speedy Claxton, who’s better than currently advertised but nobody’s point guard of the future.

The Fatcats
The teams that can make at least some splashes in free agency by virtue of being under the cap and not restricted to the approximately $5 million MLE:  Utah, Toronto, Atlanta, Charlotte, Chicago, L.A. Clippers, New Orleans/OKC.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Rest in peace, Senator Bentsen

Any writing I would have done today is going to be pushed aside in deference to this morning’s passing of former Senator and Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen. In a world were politicians are generally held in the same contempt as lawyers, this was a truly good, able, accomplished, and sincere man. He was unquestionably one of the great statesmen that this country produced. I’d like to republish the Houston Chronicle’s write up as I certainly could not do better:
Lloyd M. Bentsen Jr., a Texas patrician who made a sizable fortune in private business and an even bigger name in national government as a U.S. senator and Treasury secretary, died today. He was 85.

Bentsen, in failing health for more than a decade after a stroke in 1995, died at his home in Houston, said family spokesman Bill Maddox.

A handful of family members and friends arrived late this morning at the guarded gate of the Bentsen home on Indian Circle in the Tanglewood area. Shortly before noon, the gate opened and a hearse from George H. Lewis & Sons drove out, followed by two cars.

There will be a private graveside service at Forest Park Lawndale Cemetery in Houston and then a memorial service at First Presbyterian Church. The dates have not been set yet.

On the state political stage for almost half a century, Bentsen was a link to the heyday of Texas Democratic politics, when the regular wing of the state party was the fiefdom of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson and House Speaker Sam Rayburn, Bentsen's most influential early mentor.

Although Bentsen helped Johnson in the 1950s to fend off a conservative challenge for control of the party, Bentsen gained his own first statewide victory in 1970 by defeating Texas' reigning liberal icon, Sen. Ralph W. Yarborough, in the Democratic primary. In the general election that year, Bentsen beat Republican George Bush, delaying his fellow Houstonian's national political ascent.

True to his Tory Democratic roots, Bentsen was an unabashed advocate of his state's oil industry and an early proponent of cutting corporate and capital gain tax rates.

Bentsen was a member of a prosperous Rio Grande Valley family, and almost everything he touched seemed to turn to gold, be it far-flung personal investments, the insurance company he founded in the 1950s or his political career, which stretched from being Hidalgo County judge immediately after World War II to taking a seat in the Cabinet during President Clinton's first administration in 1993.

His political career, at least, was not without its disappointments. His campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1976, only six years after returning to Washington as a senator, cratered in the early caucuses.

Bentsen, however, could pull laurels even from the ashes, and he enhanced his standing as an astute politician in 1988 as the dogged Democratic vice-presidential running mate of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis.

In the vice-presidential debate that year, Bentsen hammered Republican Sen. Dan Quayle, with an artful putdown that found its way into everyday speech.

When his younger opponent compared himself to President John F. Kennedy, Bentsen, his voice dripping with disdain, retorted: "Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy."

Ever the pragmatic politician, Bentsen made it clear he knew he had establishment Republican supporters in Texas who would support his simultaneous Senate re-election bid even though they would forsake Dukakis-Bentsen in the national race for the Republican ticket led by Bush, who was moving up after eight years as Ronald Reagan's vice president.

During much of the last three decades, Bentsen was one of the most respected and important voices in the nation, and sometimes beyond, on federal fiscal policy.

Throughout his business and political career, including more than a quarter-century in public life in the the nation's capital, Bentsen became known as a savant who could spot a trend before it became one.

He was also ahead of his time in private commerce. He built a financial services company in Houston in the 1960s, long before such institutions became a dime a dozen.

Bentsen was a serious man and a no-nonsense operator in a trade sometimes known for easy — and often phony — affability. Bentsen was sociable, but his public style stopped far short of the voluble, chummy demeanor that was the hallmark of many Texas colleagues.

He could freeze staff aides with a glare and insisted on virtual perfection from his assistants — and sometimes from his notional superiors.

An autographed picture from President Clinton was inscribed: "To my friend Lloyd Bentsen, who makes me study things until I get it right."

Bentsen returned to his high-finance roots when he left government, taking on the leadership of the advisory panel at Beacon Group, a New York-based inverstment bank.

When he suffered a mild stroke in 1998, Bentsen conceded it came at the end of a three-month travel marathon during which he had been to 15 countries on four continents in three months.

"I enjoy challenges and being involved," Bentsen said.

Bentsen had an expansive life outside of commerce and politics. He was a voracious traveler, personally keeping notes and filing away clippings about places he wanted to visit — in the 1970s sometimes aboard the yacht he captained. And he indulged his sporting side, once buying a house in a resort development near San Diego, Calif., because he liked its tennis pro.

Bentsen and his wife, the former Beryl Ann Longino from Lufkin, were for years among the most attractive and sought after couples on the Washington social scene.

Bentsen, with silver hair and a handsome, angular visage that spoke of his Danish heritage, outfitted himself spectacularly, whether it was a carefully tailored business suit or smartly casual chamois windbreaker.

Bentsen's wife — known universally as B.A., which he said stood for Bentsen's "best asset," — became a political personality in her own right as a member of the Democratic National Committee from Texas for many years.

Lloyd Millard Bentsen Jr. was born Feb. 11, 1921, in Mission, where his father had moved after a hardscrabble upbringing in the Dakotas.

The son attended the University of Texas, receiving a law degree. He enlisted in the Army early in World War II and was a major by the time of his discharge in 1945. He flew 50 mission in Europe and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Bentsen was among the young veterans who stormed the political barricades soon after returning from military service. He was elected county judge of his native Hidalgo County in 1946.

When a Rio Grande Valley seat in the U.S. House — the one once represented by Vice President John Nance Garner — opened in 1948, Bentsen won a special election.

Highlight of the tenure, which would make Bentsen wince with embarassment in later years, was his proposal in 1950 that President Truman threaten to use nuclear weapons against China in the Korean war.

He was, however, not an orthodox conservative Southerner. Bentsen was one of only seven House members from the old Confederacy in 1949 to vote to outlaw the poll tax — a registration fee that effectively kept many minorities and poor people from voting. As a businessman in the 1960s, Bentsen insisted that a Houston hotel in which he was the primary investor be open to black customers, making it the first in the city to take that step.

In 1970, Bentsen narrowly defeated Bush. The Democrat widened his margin in 1976. And in 1982, playing paterfamilias to the remainder of the state Democratic ticket, Bentsen won by almost 20 percentage points and helped gubernatorial candidate Mark White across the finish line.

In 1988, Bentsen won the Senate race by an even bigger margin, even as he and Dukakis were losing the state to Bush-Quayle.

When Clinton was elected in 1992, he asked Bentsen to become his Treasury secretary. Some presidential aides indicated the move was principally to get Bentsen out of the Senate — and the chairmanship of the Finance Committee, a position from which Bentsen could have blocked some of the new Democratic leader's more liberal economic proposals.

Many intimates believed that not long after arriving at the neo-classical Treasury Building next door to the White House, Bentsen wished he had never left Capitol Hill.

Bentsen refused to be drawn out very far on the question and rejected several proposals that he write about his long, varied career and ties with the most famous politicians of the post-World War II era.

Bentsen recorded an oral history with the University of Texas which cannot be opened until five years after his death.

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau