Monday, April 30, 2012

LA Riots 20: Rodney and LaTasha (Part 2)

21 years later, Rodney King is still a scarred man. He’s more well known almost for his legal troubles than as the man nearly beaten to death in Lakeview Terrace. For most of my life, I’ve looked at him with pity – trying harder to remember why he’s been on this path instead of just scold him for keeping his life a mess.

I read my friend Kurt Streeter’s profile of him in the LA Times and I saw a man at peace with the men who attacked him. Yet he was also scarred by brain damage, jumpy around cops and struggling to deal with the hand he’s been dealt. He also isn’t blaming himself for his troubles. It was a sympathetic portrayal and yet I didn’t just feel pity – I felt angry too.

To be fair, King has caused most of his problems. His rap sheet reads like a laundry list of trouble and embarrassment – alcoholism, domestic disputes and reckless driving among a few before he tried to fix his problems on Celebrity Rehab. But one thing is clear, it does not excuse what happened to him on March 2/3, 1991, and it doesn’t hide the fact he’s a living reminder of Operation Hammer’s effect on the Black community.

As I showed in Part 1, the LAPD’s rampant use of excessive force in handling the drug/gang problem increased tensions between them and the Black community that had been simmering since the 1960’s. It made people assume that Black people were criminals and believed they contributed to the arrests.

The conflict of the two worlds – glamorous and hood – came together on that fateful night The night that Rodney King and two friends had just finished watching a basketball game and were speeding on the 210 Freeway. We know that King was on parole, going at least 90-117 mph the freeway and had a blood alcohol level of 0.19 – twice the legal limit.

King and his crew ended up in Lakeview Terrace (the link has the exact corner) with police cars and helicopters in tow. His two friends exited the car and were detained without problem. King, however, didn’t get out so easily. According to reports, he was waving to the helicopter and acting erratic before he went to the ground. Sergeant Stacey Koon ordered four officers – Laurence Powell, Theodore Briseno, Rolando Solano and Timothy Wind to swarm King to subdue him but King resisted.

The officers fell back and assumed he was on PCP, later to be disproven. Then came the Taser and the beating.  56 shots with batons, kicks and more. It looks like lions seizing on prey and thankfully George Holliday had his video camera as shown below. Just looking at King’s battered face/body is chilling and it doesn't capture the kidney, brain and leg damage he also suffered.

(Ice Cube made a song about it called “Who Got the Camera”, which I still find powerful and vivid, and Thurz, formerly of U-N-I, made a song retracing the moment from start to finish from King's perspective)

As a 7-year-old, I didn’t understand why he was beaten so much. But watching that video now, I got reminded of what a slave beating must have looked like. Excessive punishment for a crime. King was beaten so many times that after a while, you have to ask why? My barber told me the other day he thought they killed him. I remember back in 1991, Nick News did a feature on it talking to kids about what happened.

No matter if King committed a crime or not, you cannot justify that much force used to beat him. It got national attention for a reason and I’ll never forget seeing it to open “Malcolm X” or hearing then-Senator Bill Bradley express his outrage.

But in talking about Rodney King, you can’t forget about what happened two weeks later. The murder of 15-year-old LaTasha Harlins. A reminder of a side of 1980’s Los Angeles that rarely gets discussed: The tensions between Asian-American shop owners and Blacks.

LaTasha Harlins

I didn’t notice any tensions growing up. I lived near Koreatown and my apartment complex had Korean neighbors. We were all friendly and I remember playing around with them often. Yet unknown to me, Asian-Americans who owned liquor stores were a source of frustration to many in the community. They assumed Black customers were out to rob them and Black folks resented them owning property in their community (something you can see in Do the Right Thing).

Ice Cube made a song about this called “Black Korea”, ironically quoting that movie. It’s probably one of his most vicious songs but it summarizes the tension as well.

Harlins was a student at Westchester High School who was buying orange juice at a liquor store. The shop owner accused her of stealing and lunged at her. They fought briefly and then the owner, Soon Ja Du, shot Harlins in the back of the head. She claimed self-defense and robbery to her husband but the chilling video and testimony of witnesses proved it was wrong. Watching it gave me a sad feeling and reminded me of Trayvon Martin’s case more than Rodney King did.

Soon Ja Du and her husband
A cousin of mine was an alternate on the jury and in our brief discussion, she told me (among other things) that Ja Du’s husband lied twice. First, he testified that two people robbed the store, something the video disproved. Second, he told the 911 operation they had been robbed while on another phone, he told a family member what actually happened as he stood and moved over Harlins’ dead body.

Ja Du’s trial saw her convicted of manslaughter and while the jury recommended she get 16 years, the judge overruled it and gave her 5 years probation, a $500 fine and community service. It was an egregious miscarriage of justice – and one that haunts me thinking about George Zimmerman facing 2nd degree murder for killing Martin.

My cousin never forgot that the way Harlins was shot, she died before hitting the floor. She never forgot seeing the money in her hand as her cold body lay on the floor on the video. What the prosecutor told her remains haunting: You can never claim self-defense after throwing the first punch.

As the video above shows, a Korean man who abused a dog got 30 days in jail while Ja Du barely got anything for shooting down a girl after a scuffle.  It says volumes about how Black life was valued back then by the system.

There was finally video evidence of some of the injustices and people couldn’t turn away anymore.  The four officers (Koon, Powell, Briseno and Wind) would be charged in court. The outrage over Ja Du’s light sentence brought a frustrated community together and there was hope that the King verdict would change.

Yet as I think about Rodney King still living his life and I feel some pity for him, I feel sadder for LaTasha Harlins, who never got to see her life realized. Both of them are intertwined with the harsh climate of 1980’s/1990’s Los Angeles and both are reminders of how bad it got for unknown victims everyday under the Gates regime and in the city.

Part 3: The Christopher Commission/King Trial and Verdict
Part 4: All Hell Breaks Loose
Part 5: The Aftermath

(For a followup eulogy to Rodney King, who passed after this post, read here)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

LA Riots 20: The Prologue (Part 1)

On the surface, Los Angeles in the 1980’s looked like the place to be. You had the 1984 Olympics becoming the most profitable Games in modern history. “Beverly Hills Cop” did for the Beverly Hills/LA what Miami Vice did for Miami in terms of attractiveness. The sports teams were thriving with the Showtime Lakers, the Dodgers riding Fernandomania in 1981 and Kirk Gibson/Orel Hershisher in 1988 to championships, the Raiders winning in 1984 with USC star Marcus Allen and the Kings in the early 80’s before somehow pulling a monster trade to get Wayne Gretzky.

We had a Black mayor in Tom Bradley, only the 2nd in a major city at the time of his election in 1973.

Not to mention the Sunset Strip was alive and well as hair metal bands like Motley Crue owned the scene while alternative bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction and more began carving out a niche as local heroes. Yep, my city was looking good to the visiting eye.

But beneath the surface, there was a lot going on most didn’t know about. In South Central and other urban areas, the crack epidemic hit furious and hard. The gangs changed from guarding territory to becoming more violent. Reaganomics were forcing people to seek extreme measures to find money and security and the drug/gang game proved too tempting for many.

At the center of this was a former star tennis player at Dorsey High School named Ricky Ross who became a small-time criminal in the late 1970’s. By 1980, Ross got introduced to cocaine and became a dealer in Compton/South Central. He made a small profit and then got hooked up even more through Nicaraguan connects Oscar Blandon and Norwin Canterero. By 1982, he was Freeway Ricky leading and organizing distribution and selling of crack cocaine – a cheaper, yet more potent high – throughout L.A. as well as other cities around the country.

Through the drug trade, Ross was friends with the Crips and they used the profits from selling drugs to purchase heavy artillery as well as cars, jewelry and more. It changed the landscape of those communities, ruined family lives and made those areas even more dangerous. It changed the gang lifestyle because as they got more involved in the drug game, turf wars became more violent and innocent folks became victims.

This is the Los Angeles I was born and grew up in when I lived near L.A. High School. My parents kept my sister and me very insulated from most of this but by 5/6 years old, I knew about gangs. I had seen the D.A.R.E. program at my elementary school. I may have been raised on cartoons and cereal (word to Kendrick Lamar) but I knew certain things. Maybe not to a deep extent, but I was aware.

I came to find out later that the apartment complex I stayed in had a landlord who allowed people to sell drugs and rob our neighbors.  My area wasn’t a bad area but occasionally you’d see folks hanging around that looked suspicious. It was part of the climate.

These two worlds – the glitz and glamour vs. the gang/drug cultures – were at odds and they still dominate what people perceive LA as. But back then, the gang/drug culture threatened to make the L.A. look like the Wild, Wild West. And the LA Police Department stood in the middle to make sure it wouldn’t happen.

A famous image from the 1965 Watts Riots (also immortalized on the Roots' classic 1999 album Things Fall Apart)

The LAPD already had a bad taste in some folks’ mouths after the 1965 Watts riots, a 4-day uprising that was one of the first major race riots in the civil rights era and at the time the worst in the city’s history. Then-chief William Parker was notorious for implementing the chokehold to subdue suspects and hiring police officers from the South to “help” control the Black population. His name, I later learned during my time at the LA Sentinel, is still a dirty word to older members of the Black community.

With the crack epidemic/gang violence escalating out of control (a high publicized shooting in 1988 left an innocent bystander dead in Westwood and made people even more fearful), action had to be taken. Leading the way was LAPD Chief Daryl Gates, an authoritative figure who for better and worse laid a heavy hand on areas/people affected by this.

A disciple of Parker’s intimidation and suppression of Black youth without evidence, Gates was police chief from 1978-1992 and he already showed his heavy hand when he (with Mayor Bradley’s blessing) organized gang sweeps in 1984 before the Olympics. Allegedly 25,000 were taken to jail, yet most of them had no charged filed against them. He had enough influence to intimidate those around him, including the media. He openly spied on high-profile figures and planted police to either gather information or start riots (famously the 1982 May Day attack)**

**This all comes from a former LA Times reporter who witnessed this in the 80’s**

As an officer in 1968, it was Gates who developed the first S.W.A.T. units. He initially named them Special Weapons Assault Team but the name was too military in the mind of his boss. Under his watch as chief, the LAPD became nationally known for being tough on crime and using military influences to subdue the Black population. Outsiders praised it; the community feared and hated it.

Throw all that in a crockpot – along with a mostly White police department – and consider what was about to be unleashed in the mid-1980s.  With the War on Drugs in full swing nationally and laws being changed to punish drug users severely, Gates responded to the crack/gang epidemic with two programs. The school-safe D.A.R.E. program and the creation of the C.R.A.S.H. units.

C.R.A.S.H. (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) had the free reign to do whatever necessary to fight gang violence and lived up to its name with raids all over South Central. The raids came fell under “Operation Hammer” and it was an initiative to show that the LAPD was taking back the streets.

Unfortunately, the raids were more rounding up/questioning/arresting/sometimes assaulting innocent folks. One such raid came about as residents complained about drug dealers in the areas yet as 88 police swarmed the area, drugs became a secondary concern.

Two apartments buildings were ransacked and police left their own graffiti as they rustled up residents, arresting folks at will. It cost up to $4 million in damages and no police officers were charged with any crimes, crimes they initially blamed on gang members. 25 policemen were suspended without pay. Many residents who were arrested were also not charged.

The biggest flaw in this raid? No oversight, no control from the LAPD, no tactical planning to handle this situation better. Yet from observers at the time, this type of behavior happened often during Operation Hammer from 1987-1990. Folks were put into databases as gang members with or without proof and when they were stopped, they were treated as such. The LA Times reported that by 1992, 47% of Black males in LA were classified as gang members.

Instead of making the public feel safer, they added to more tensions and perceptions. Of the 50,000 people allegedly arrested during Operation Hammer (the most since the Watts Riots), the majority of them were Black. In one weekend for example, 1,453 were arrested. A cousin of mine told me her son and his friends were driving around and when police stopped them, they were ordered out of the car and forced to lie down while searched (they never got a ticket or were arrested). Most of the folks arrested weren’t charged with anything and it only enhanced a perception that Blacks and Latinos were criminals.

- This is a big reason why as a young man, I was taught how to handle the police. “Yes, sir.” “No, Sir” Don’t make any sudden moves…

This was standard procedure due to heightened awareness of the LAPD yet it created more conflict and mistrust with the police. As I’ll show later, the CRASH units tactics it would prove costly in the late 1990’s with the Rampart scandal.

You can see this in films like “Boyz N The Hood”, “The Wood” and “Colors”. You can hear it in the raps of Toddy Tee’s “Batter Ram” – a song describing a tank-like vehicle used to break open suspected drug houses. Of course, they didn’t always catch the right house and the LAPD never apologized for their mistake.

Most of you probably know two of my city’s finest artists who captured this anger. Ice-T started it off with “6 N The Mornin” and later described the gang life perfectly in “Colors.” And then 5 guys led by a former drug dealer turned businessman amped it up further with a little album called Straight Outta Compton and a track that told the police how they felt called "F--- The Police"

You might hate NWA but along with Ice-T, they articulated the anger of a community. When Ice Cube left NWA to go solo, he carried that anger into his classic solo albums.  Young Black men felt like they were being hunted and even if you were on the right path, you were a target because you fit the profile. Black women, too, felt like targets and had anger over their sons/cousins and more being targeted on a whim.

All of this is important to understand before we get to discuss Rodney King. Because before you see him, you have to see my city. A war between two worlds and an overzealous/overworked police department that treated their involvement like soldiers with full speed ahead from their leader/general. A drug trade that caused so many scars and open wounds that we are still recovering from. And a community that felt beaten down and terrorized for years without anybody listening to their concerns. There were multiple tensions and all it needed was a powder keg.

One final note. Another underlying tension was that liquor stores were owned by Asian-Americans, who didn’t trust their Black clientele that were always hanging around. As Part 2 will show, that was just as key an issue as the LAPD task forces and drugs.

Part 2: Rodney and LaTasha
Part 3: Christopher Commission/King Trial and Verdict
Part 4: All Hell Breaks Loose
Part 5: The Aftermath

Friday, April 27, 2012

LA Riots 20: The Trailer

Next week, I'm unveiling a project that means a lot to me. My retrospective of the Los Angeles Riots as the 20th anniversary. Why am I doing it? Why does it mean so much to me? This video explains it all.

I'm also sharing the link to my old 2009 article that quickly summarized the Riots in the aftermath of the staff meeting I discussed in the video. I'm using this as inspiration to go deeper and revisit/research some stories.

In addition to Ice Cube's Death Certificate/The Predator albums, I'm also being inspired by songs from the 2011 album "LA Riot" by Thurz, an LA rapper who decided to revisit the 20th anniversary in his own provocative way. So join me as I take a walk back down Memory Lane.

Part 1: The Prologue
Part 2: Rodney and LaTasha
Part 3: Christopher Commission/King Trial
Part 4: All Hell Breaks Loose

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes - 10 Years Gone

I'll always remember where I was on April 25, 2002. I woke up excited to hear Eminem's new single "Without Me", the first from The Eminem Show (still my favorite Em record). I remember hearing it and being curious how people would react to it at school.

Yet I also heard sad news that threw off my day. Big Boy from Power 106 announced that Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes had died in a car accident. I remember folks being completely stunned as we were still living off the high of the "Fanmail" CD. I remember Carson Daly and John Norris having T-Boz and Chilli call in to TRL and both were in tears trying to remember her.

(Ironically, there was some TLC drama around that time. Left Eye was supposedly working on a solo album with Death Row and challenged her groupmates to put out solo albums to see whose was better. After she passed, TLC released another album and it just didn't sink in like the previous two. Who can remember them doing a reality show to replace her for a one-time show?)

Coming off the heels of Aaliyah's death a few months earlier, it was another shock for my generation. Just like Aaliyah, Left Eye was in another country, albeit doing charity work.  I've never seen the video of her last moments because I felt it'd be too hard. But I am glad that she was able to spend her last days helping others.

I've wondered for years if Left Eye actually sang with the group or did harmonies besides her raps? I still don't know because I'll remember TLC for T-Boz's silky but rough vocals, Chili's smooth sound and of course Left Eye's raps. She was the rebel with an independent streak and I know girls looked up to her. At a time when most females were polished, she was out there just being herself as a free spirit. Now that I'm older, I can respect that.

Besides being remembered for burning down Andre Rison's house, I remember Left Eye's energy when she rapped. One of my favorite verses was on TLC's collab with Goodie Mob "What It Ain't" where she spit double-time over that funky, spaced-out beat.

We don't think of her as a great female rapper but she definitely held her own. Her verse on "Waterfalls" will always be remembered for adding some hope to one of the 90's best songs and her energy won't be forgotten.

But I'll never forget the day when I heard the beginning and end. The beginning of Eminem's greatest year and the end of one of the greatest female R&B groups ever.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Deadspin, Grantland and the future of sports writing.

So I was reading this Grantland story on the idea of Humblebrag, one of those elitist, sarcastic writer terms that has crept up in the past year or so. For those who don't know, here is Harris Wittels (the author) explaining what it is.

A Humblebrag is basically a specific type of bragging which masks the brag in a faux-humble guise. The false humility allows the offender to boast their "achievements" without any sense of shame or guilt.

In other words, praising yourself in a low-key way. Think award speeches. Granted folks tend to do this a lot and it's why I don't follow too many athletes or celebrities because they promote their interests and rarely show a true glimpse of who they are. But I think Wittels went too far in this latest story. I barely read his pieces and when I read this one, I remembered why.

In his Top 10 list of Humblebraggers, he mentioned writer/social activist Kevin Powell who tweeted about taking two homeless women to dinner. Powell said he couldn't do it every day but he did it then. Naturally, most of us would sympathize because we face that dilemma (I do every time I go through my old city) but Wittels in his sarcastic tone said this:

"Best of luck to you tomorrow in your struggles of going back to ignoring them."

That sarcastic tone got on my nerves. Are you kidding me? Having been on Twitter for 3 years, I've seen this before with people who are jaded by charity or sincerity from a famous person. I assume it’s because people feel celebrities are shallow and full of themselves and are easy targets due to the 24/7 media cycle around them. Instead of saying it to friends, Twitter makes it easy to say it publicly.

But rarely would I expect to see that in print. Wittels is a writer for “Parks and Recreation” so that explains his tone and writing but I was insulted that genuine charity is treated with such callousness. 

Sadly this type of sarcastic tone happens often in modern sportswriting, especially on sites like Grantland, Yahoo's blogs and Deadspin. It's a sarcastic, jaded, more opinionated style that has crept up in the last 7/8 years thanks to folks like Bill Simmons and Will Leitch.

Simmons (AKA The Sports Guy) started to become popular on ESPN around 2003/2004. By 2005, he was probably one of the most read writers in the country. He influenced Internet sports writing (and this writer in particular) with his combination of wit, quirky tidbits, personal stories, sound opinion and pop culture references. It's because of his success that he has creative control that few writers have, leading to his conception of the ESPN 30 for 30 series and his spinoff site, Grantland, last year.

Personally, I think that when Simmons is on point, he's worthy of his lofty position. He's a sound writer on basketball, his live-columns are intriguing (where he goes minute by minute watching something), he has great analysis and his critiques of professional leagues are usually 100% correct. Unfortunately, at his worst, he can be painfully biased and so caught up in his own Boston hype that he's downright annoying.

Bill Simmons is probably one of the 10 most influential sports figures of the last decade.  I have no shame admitting he was one of the first sportswriters who I realized influenced how I wrote nor the fact that he has spawned cheap imitators. 

Will Leitch, on the other hand, impressed me when he wrote “God Save The Fan”, a book that showed how sports fans are being left out or thought of last in the sports-industrial complex. I find him to be incredibly smart, witty, polished, sarcastic and not mean-spirited. He loves his St. Louis Cardinals and he loves to tell great stories, whether it be in Sporting News or his recent GQ piece on reigning MVP Derrick Rose.

Unfortunately, his site Deadspin was built on telling the side of the story you didn't see in the mainstream. It was mixed with a ton of distant sarcasm (sarcasm that tends to lack any understanding or sympathy of context), gossip stories (athletes partying, questionable pictures), and some actual good work that ESPN and others didn't report. For better of for worse, it's the granddaddy of modern sports blogging.

I never really read Deadspin too often, especially after current editor AJ Daulerio threw a hissy fit over the NY Post scooping ESPN's Steve Phillips' affair in 2009. It was unprofessional and childish - basically the reputation that Deadspin has now posting suggestive photos and potty humor amidst the actual decent commentary they have.

Yet Simmons and Deadspin have influenced a lot of websites. The sports blogosphere has some good merit (I respect SportsbyBrooks for his journalist ethic and SBNation is incredible) but the majority of sites are Deadspin-lite and get a bad rep due to their own making. Yahoo's sports blogs usually find good stories but when their snide, condescending tone comes out, I typically tune out because they lack any understanding and remind me how uptight or super sarcastic they are.

It leads to a point that I've reflected on for two years and Bomani Jones' reflected on last year. At the Blogs with Balls conference last year, ESPN's Jemele Hill asked Daulerio why Deadspin didn't hire more Black writers and Daulerio said that it's a White industry and he doesn't see a lot of Black people in this new media. Therein lies a key part of the problem.

I see a lot of young White writers in the blogosphere and some of them rely a lot on snarky comments, statistics** and their own perspective. Of course there are some great White writers that I admire but typically that leads to a disconnect with covering some sports (NBA: dominated by Black players, MLB: a large number of Latino players). It leads to some comments or opinions that come across as insensitive but mainly there's little flavor in how sports gets discussed in the public sphere.

The dominant Black blog, Black Sports Online, is part gossip site, part real news combined with a healthy dose of ego tripping (and as a friend points out, quite a bit of bad grammar). While BSO stands alone, the lack of color or pursuit of it lends me think this new media is going to be homogenous like this and that bothers me because it alienates a lot of great talent.

(It reminds me why I really enjoyed The Morning Jones. That deserves its own blog post one day [Edit: It's right here] but I’ll just say that hearing a different voice on sports – a voice like mine and so many others – was refreshing.)

Throw in the fact sports media is dominated by loud opinions, over-the-top statements and anything to generate attention instead of just writers who get it with their provocative words and you have a bad climate for future talent to develop.

The main offender of this new era? Skip Bayless, who has written about sports for 30 years in Dallas, The Bay Area and Los Angeles, but will mostly be remembered for his over-the-top ideas and proclamations on 1st Take. 

(Thought about this the other day when I heard ESPN was folding up Page 2 - in college, I had the luxury to read Scoop Jackson, Jemele Hill, Ralph Wiley, David Halberstam, Dan Shanoff's Daily Quickie, Wright Thompson, a young Bomani Jones and Bill Simmons on Page 2. I saw the early days of Pardon the Interruption. Nowadays? Young journalists/sports fans see a culture of talking heads, shouting matches and dumbed down entertainment. The calm voice of reason in writing is almost ignored for reactionary pieces that lack nuance or depth.)

I saw it a lot on Bleacher Report when I wrote more for them. It's a crap shoot because for the talented writers you see, you see some bad writers who got a lot of hits for BS pieces.

Grantland is a mix of two worlds – the youthful energy of bloggers with the high-brow, long-form writing of GQ/Slate. They have a great array of talent (Wright Thompson, Jonathan Abrams, Jay Caspian Kang and the grizzled veteran Charles P. Pierce) but they also have some writers who get in the way of their story, like the aforementioned Wittels. Unfortunately, the highbrow audience acts like too much like Wittels and expects the same attitude from similar writers.

I like writers/sports personalities that have the right mix of inviting personality and great opinions. Something that makes you read or listen to them because you know you're getting quality. Mostly I like writers with common sense, not rushing to judgment but able to step back and give you perspective. Like Ralph Emerson's ideal poet, they speak to regular people plainly but share something you don't realize right away. 

On Twitter, I follow some very sharp sports minds. My bros Zach (@ZachMentz), Lamar (@Primetime2832), and James (@MrESPN) are solid young writers who get it and whom I often share similar opinions with on sports and media. Folks like Arjun C. (@arjunc12), Jackie Taylor (@ThatSportsBabe) and others bring passion, strong opinions and common sense. Nate Jones (@JonesOnTheNBA) is as smart, insightful and measured as anybody I follow. They inspire me to think and as a writer, I'm challenged by excellence and my own standard. Not by grabbing attention with publicity stunts.

I'm not giving up hope that great writing will continue to shine and folks will use the new media to become great talents. But with more people focusing on Deadspin, Skip Bayless, and Grantland’s snarky pieces instead of their brilliance, I have a fear that sports writing will devolve into snappy soundbytes instead of smart, quick hits. And that could hurt those of us who write with a clear purpose to be insightful, witty, cool and reasonable.

**Quite a few younger writers have embraced the sabermetrical culture of the post-Moneyball era. They use detailed stats to prove efficiency in a greater way than traditional stats do. As a former math geek/stat nerd, I find stats very helpful but they don’t tell the whole story.

A good writer learns to absorb numbers/info but trust their eyes and the words of trusted observers. Another problem I have with modern sports writing. Numbers never lie but they can be manipulated**

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

John Calipari - The New Jerry Tarkanian/Jimmy Johnson

John Calipari is the new Jerry Tarkanian/Jimmy Johnson. Now that he’s won a title, he can take his place among the controversial and successful modern legends of college sports.

Jimmy Johnson (with a start from Howard Schnellenberger) revolutionized college football in the 1980’s with Miami by fully embracing a mostly Black, inner-city roster that won big, won often and talked trash while doing it for each other and their school. Jerry Tarkanian took Las Vegas’ rebellious, wild image and translated it on the court with high flying teams that won often, culminating with his classic 1989-1991 squad that won 45 in a row and the biggest win (margin of victory) in NCAA title history.

Both attracted their fair share of controversy during their prime. But history has been far kinder in retrospect since 1) Their guys graduated, 2) They won, 3) They influenced future generations and have honestly yet to be replicated. John Calipari is the same way.

I really didn’t want to like Calipari after 2008. He had the best team of the season in Memphis and arrogantly let FT woes doom one of the best teams I’ve seen in the last 5 years. The same thing happened with his first Kentucky class as John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Co. lost to an inferior West Va. Team. His freewheeling style only bothered me because his guys lacked the mental toughness in close games.

I didn’t care that he openly recruited one-and-dones. It was more like they’d be great but never championship caliber. Well he just turned that idea upside down. He built a young team that worked for a common goal. They dominated all comers and lost only twice – once on a late 3, another in a game they probably lost to get focused for the NCAA Tournament.

He maximized a system that has become the norm over the last 5 years - one and done kids. Instead of recruiting the best talent alone and hoping that mentally they’ll pan out, Calipari coached them up to be team first and shine in their gifts while helping each other.

Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones probably made a lot more money because not only did they impact games, they showed they can gel with teammates and play different roles that could prepare them for not starring right away in the NBA. That's all Calipari's genius.

Most coaches put up with one-and-dones as a necessary evil. Calipari courts them and maximizes his time while knowing it is limited. He embraces the new era and it’s led to success. It’s a lot of foresight and risk and while it’s not always clean – I still don’t trust Worldwide Wesley and all those connections – now I have to respect it.

Even better that they focus on the little things. Free throws, hustle plays, defense as well as wild offense.

It’s maturity in not just his players, but himself. He cares about the kids. He cares about them the same way Tark and Jimmy Johnson once did and he’ll go to bat for them in the press. Not a lot of coaches have that because they care about being in control and letting people know who’s in control without letting the kids be solo. There’s a way to balance control with letting players be them and the best coaches do that.

Tarkanian and Jimmy Johnson had great teams fall short. But they reloaded and refocused their teams while never changing their style. It was free reign with the right amount of discipline to have their guys focused on the main goal. They took national criticism and just kept winning. 

It's the same with Calipari. Gone is the old arrogance of letting talent win big and leave without a ring. If he continues to convince high talent to buy into his system – which produced some of the most promising young NBA talent over the last 5 years – he’ll be remembered as one of the finest and influential coaches of his era. 

He's the perfect coach for a new era that builds off 20 years of younger players making an impact. Kenny Anderson, Chris Jackson and the Fab 5 showed the future of freshmen/sophomores taking over. Stephon Marbury, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden gave glimpses of it. John Calipari has taken that mantle and made it even more a rebelution – not just the players but a coach who see the future and have made it a reality.

Rebels never get their proper due in their time. But in 10 years, we may see Calipari differently and despite his controversy with 1996 UMass/2008 Memphis, he may finally be on a roll that could enhance his legacy and impact college basketball longterm.