Behind the Mic: Thrill; Agony

From 1961-1998, I regularly would watch The Wide World of Sports on ABC.  Jim McKay was the host and the show’s introductory video and catchphrase was “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”.  Those words were spoken over a celebration of a great win followed by a ski jumper severely crashing during a competition.  The pictures and the phrase became ingrained into the psyche of every regular viewer.

That phrase came back to me this past week while broadcasting the two Emmaus state basketball games.

Let’s start with the “thrill of victory”.  Emmaus had beaten Cheltenham 68-67 the previous Saturday to advance to the PIAA State second round.  They were the only AAAAAA boys’ team left from the Lehigh Valley because both Allen and Parkland had already been beaten.  The irony of their participation is that up until this year when the PIAA added six classifications, Emmaus would not have even gotten into the state playoffs.  With the additional classes, four teams were eligible and Emmaus was the fourth.

That set up a one day snow-delayed matchup with the Harrisburg Cougars, the #1 team out of a very strong District 3 at Reading High School.  Harrisburg had beaten Reading in their District playoffs and they were now considered the favorite to make it to the state championship game.  In a thrilling game with a nail-biting finish, Emmaus won 64-61 and, for the first time in school history, would move on to play in the state quarterfinals.  They would be part of, in NCAA March Madness lingo, the Elite Eight!  The celebration that followed was the definition of “the thrill of victory”.

That set up a return trip to Reading for Emmaus as they would take on the Carlisle Thundering Herd for a place in the state semi-finals.  Harrisburg had beaten Carlisle twice and they were in the same district as the Cougars.  They entered the playoffs as the #5 team in District 3.  Emmaus certainly could enter this game knowing they were every bit as good as their opponent.  And they were.

Emmaus led by six at the end of one period and by ten at the half.  They still led by ten with just 3:05 to go in the game.  But… Carlisle waged a comeback.  Emmaus still could clinch the win as they led 62-59 with 7.9 seconds to go.  Emmaus’ all-time leading scorer, David Kachelries, a 76% free-throw shooter, went to the line to shoot one free throw (he had made his first six of the game, but missed his previous three).  Make it and the Hornets are in the state semi-final; miss it and the Herd still needed to make a three-point shot to send the game into overtime.  He missed and Ben Milligan made a three at the buzzer to tie the game at 62.  “Thrill” and “agony” by anyone would be delayed.

Emmaus needed three free throws on one trip to the foul line by David’s twin brother, Matt Kachelries, to send the game into a second overtime.  He calmly went to the foul line and made all three.  The first overtime ended 69-69.

But the second overtime period ended with Carlisle controlling the scoreboard and the Thundering Herd galloped to a 78-74 win.  The Emmaus season was over.  The Kachelries twins had scored an amazing 57 points in the game and that was still not enough.

David ended his career with 1,910 points and Matt finished with 1,027.  Matt had missed two-thirds of his sophomore year due to injury or his total would have been much higher.  Emmaus finished with one their greatest and most memorable seasons ever.

None of that mattered though at @ 6:30pm on Saturday night as the Green Hornets and Coach Steve Yoder walked off the floor in Reading.  Much like the skier in the Wide World of Sports intro, they were severely suffering from “the agony of defeat”.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. The Bethlehem Catholic AAAA girls’ basketball team is the last team standing from the Lehigh Valley. As I write this, they are preparing to play Gwyned Mercy in the PIAA semifinals.  A win would get them into the state championship game.  Congratulations to Coach Medina and the girls.  Go Hawks!!
  2. How are you doing on your NCAA bracket? I assume many of you had Villanova and Duke to go far into the tournament and even winning it all.  I had Duke making it to the Final Four.  I still have Arizona, Kansas, and North Carolina alive to make the Final Four.  I heard a lot of moans and groans this past weekend.
  3. It is hard to imagine that the next Eastern Pennsylvania Conference basketball season could match this one. Losing so many stars like Sam Iorio, Kevin Wagner, the Kachelries twins, Tyrese Martin, Talek Williams, etc. will be hard to duplicate for a very long time.
  4. He gets a mention every week – Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman of Central Catholic is still playing in the NCAA tournament. Muhhammad starts and plays as many minutes as anyone for Michigan.  He scored 16 against Oklahoma State and some vital points down the stretch against Louisville as his team moved on to the Sweet Sixteen.
  5. My usual reaction at the end of the basketball season is how fast winter flew by. Except this year, the season has come to a close and winter continues to rear its ugly head.  C’mon!  What’s a golfer to do?

Behind the Mic: Bracketology

Northwestern is in!  For the first time in school history, the Wildcats are in the NCAA tournament after winning 23 games this season.  Can they win their first game ever when they take on Vanderbilt in Round One?

Before we get to that, there are more important things to consider – which of the 68 teams will win their bracket and move on to the Final Four?

WEST
Gonzaga (32-1) was given the top seed in this bracket.  There are many who believe that, despite their 29 straight wins before a loss to BYU, top seed was only possible because they played a weak schedule.  With that said, they have beaten the #2 team in this section – Arizona.  Gonzaga has never made it to the Final Four.  And… they will not make it again.  They will lose to Arizona in the Regional final.

And, by the way, Northwestern will lose to Vanderbilt in the first round.

MIDWEST
Kansas (28-4) is #1 in this region and the committee selected them #2 overall in the tournament.  They were the Big 12 champions.  I like the way Michigan played in the Big 10 tournament and they have local favorite Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman.  I like Michigan to beat Oklahoma State in their first-round game, but then they run into Louisville and their season will end.  Louisville will play Kansas in the Regional final.  Kansas is a potential national champion and will win this region.

SOUTH
After winning the ACC tournament championship, many expected Duke to garner this top spot.  Instead it went to North Carolina (27-7), a team that Duke beat two out of three times.  Time will tell if this was a wise decision by the committee.  It is probably their most questionable top seed.  It appears that UCLA or Kentucky would be their biggest challenge and that can only happen in the Regional final.  UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is certainly one of, if not the best, freshman in the country.  So I like UCLA vs North Carolina in the final.  North Carolina wins.

EAST 
I saved the East for last.  Can Villanova (31-3) do it again?  They are good enough to do it and they are certainly battle-tested having played one of the toughest schedules in the nation.  If, as many believed, Duke should have been a #1, then Villanova may have the toughest road to the Final Four because Duke is #2 in this region.  And it should come down to these two outstanding teams.  I would rather see Villanova win, but I think Duke wins this game.

FINAL FOUR
                        Kansas vs North Carolina
                        Duke vs Arizona

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
                        Duke vs Kansas
 
NATIONAL CHAMPION
Kansas

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. It was certainly not the weekend that local basketball fans expected when our 15 boys’ and girls’ teams played in the first round of the PIAA basketball playoffs. Only four of our teams advanced into the second round of playoffs.  Northampton, Bethlehem Catholic, and Southern Lehigh girls moved on, but only the Emmaus boys won their game against Cheltenham by a 68-67 score.  It was shocking that the Allen boys, Bethlehem Catholic boys, and the Easton girls lost.  What is the adage – “That’s why you play the game.”
  2. If the local basketball players disappointed over the weekend, the District XI wrestlers did not – Lehigh Valley AAA wrestlers claimed four state titles, two runner-ups, and 18 total medals. Nazareth won the team title, had two state champions, and Coach Dave Crowell was named Coach of the Year for a record sixth time.  In AA, eight local wrestlers won medals.
  3. Parkland boys’ basketball lost to Archbishop Ryan on Saturday, indicating, once again, just how powerful the Philadelphia Catholic League teams are. Ryan was the #3 team out of District 12 and they were every bit as good as any team here in the Lehigh Valley.  They beat Parkland by 24 – enough said.
  4. The Bucknell men will face West Virginia in their opening round NCAA matchup in the West Region. Bucknell was seeded #13 and that’s impressive for the Patriot League. West Virginia is the best team in the nation at forcing turnovers, so this will not be a pleasant experience for the Bison.  But I will cheer them on and hope for the upset.
  5. One final note about the Allen Canaries – this team under Doug Snyder made basketball in Allentown meaningful and exciting again. No team had a more supportive fan base and their energy migrated out to other communities once basketball fans got to see them.  It was a great year ending in disappointment, but thanks for so many memorable individual plays and games.

Behind the Mic: Dollars and Sense in the Age of Major College Athletics

Gary will be returning with a new blog on May 19.  This week, he’s asked RCN’s John Leone to guest blog.  RCN-TV viewers should recognize John from the Lafayette College basketball broadcasts on the Lafayette Sports Network.


Pay college athletes. There, I said it. Of course, it’s certainly not nearly that simple, and after a long discussion with my lawyer daughter, well, there are more than just a few minor wrinkles that would need to be ironed out, not the least of which are legal and ethical. But it can – and many believe should – be done. Time and space preclude a detailed discussion here, but I’d like to offer a starting point. After all, dealing with a few legal and ethical details should hardly distress the NCAA. Their rulebook, after all, makes the Affordable Care Act read like “The Cat in the Hat.” I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, careful to not upset them too much. My plan will require their support. And in fact, it may make life a good deal easier for them.

My high school math teacher is somewhere, cringing as I write this. But even I can calculate that the money is there to support a more palatable system. Consider that the first television contract with CBS paid the NCAA $1 billion for the rights to the national tournament. Yes, that’s with a “B.” And did I mention that was a generation ago? The latest deal (2010) was a 14-year agreement for $10.8 billion, generating $771 million per year for the NCAA. And, bear in mind that is for the tournament only. And you thought that “March Madness” referred only to the action on the court! Factor in the revenues generated throughout the regular season from concessions, parking, gate receipts, sponsorships, and yes, even more TV money, and suddenly we are talking about serious capital. That’s big business. That’s a professional system.

The true crux of the issue here lies with the NBA and the NFL and their inability, unwillingness, or more likely their lack of incentive to create a viable minor league system. But then, why should they? They have the major college programs serving the same function, and doing so free of charge. In the meantime, the impulses created by mega dollars have littered the straight and narrow pathway of college athletics with all kinds of land mines, exploding notions of academic integrity, amateurism, and in far too many instances, the broader college experience. The stories of young athletes lured to a campus where they may not belong, nor would they want to be but for the promise of an athletic proving ground, read like so many proverbs. Many colleges housing major basketball and football programs are little more than athletic incubators for youngsters whose primary – if not sole – aim is to make it to the professional level. If, as in most cases, those aims fall short of the intended target, the youngster is left with little on which to fall back. It has become a false promise, and far too many academic institutions, enticed by the exposure and tempted by the potential financial windfall for their schools, have become compliant in this charade.

The time, talent, and treasure now spent by the NCAA in its attempt to herd the cats of big- time programs into their amateur cages and preserve the slightest element of academic integrity has become the epitome of throwing good money after bad. My apologies to Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova, and the scores of other major programs for whom the pun applies, but it may be time to rethink the approach, and take some creative steps to save these major sports at the college level. If not, the college game as we know it will soon cannibalize itself at the altar of its own largesse. The advent of the “made for TV” sports of college basketball and college football have given the NCAA an opportunity to take real and effective action in the best interests of the games, the interests of its own mission, and most important, in the interests of so many young men and women misplaced on campuses throughout the country.

Of course, not every college would desire – or for that matter be required – to follow the new blueprint. The NCAA already has different rules for its different divisions, so why not simply establish one more classification? Clearly, there will be some hard decisions for those major college programs that still cling to the “student athlete” ideal. But within the parameters and rules governing the new division, schools will have the flexibility to do more or less – depending on their own interests and philosophical stance. Disparities will exist, but will they be any more pronounced than those which now separate, say, Prairie View A&M and Kentucky or Cornell and Georgetown?

For whatever system to work in favor of intercollegiate athletics and in the best interests of the young people involved, there will have to be serious and honest cooperation between the institutions and the governing body. The fallacy of academic integrity has permeated too many programs. Who among us thinks first of “academic learning or achievement” when we hear the word “scholarship”? On the contrary, the word has come to preclude most notions of higher education for so many of the athletes in question. A CNN.com article published in January underscored just how pervasive the problem might actually be.

Still, the college athletes will have to be tethered to their respective schools in some fashion. This is not only possible, but perhaps it tills fertile ground for real creative thinking. Would they be “employed” as independent contractors? Might they take courses for which they pay out of their own pocket, thereby having some “skin” in their own academic future? Perhaps some would benefit most by taking courses in basic life skills and money management. Possibly pursue a trade? In short, a system could be established to fit the needs and skill sets of the athlete, as opposed to the square-peg-and-round-hole paradigm now in play.

It is no secret – or it shouldn’t be – that the financial windfall from major college athletics largely supports all programs along the vast food chain of intercollegiate athletics everywhere. It’s an honorable end, but the means have caused significant angst and drawn more than a little well-earned cynicism from intellectually honest observers.

It may be time – especially with the kinds of dollars now pouring into the system – to take a lesson from my friends at The Rotary Club and build a system that meets their four way test. Create a system that is truthful, fair to all concerned, builds goodwill and better friendships, and is beneficial to all involved.

That’s an exam that anyone can pass.

 

Behind the Mic: Thank You, VIA

On March 26, 2014, I will be inducted into the Lehigh Valley Basketball Hall of Fame. I certainly have plenty of people to thank for this honor and I would like to share some of those sentiments with you.

First, I wish to thank the VIA Lehigh Valley Basketball Hall of Fame Committee for this wonderful honor. Ironically, I always hoped that if I could not play my way into the Hall of Fame, I could certainly talk my way in. And that has happened.

Over 40 years ago, I was teaching English at Wilson High School when I received a call from Fred Anderson of radio station WEST asking me if I wanted to be his color analyst for high school basketball. I was on my way to help supervise a pep rally for the Nazareth-Wilson football game and I really could not talk to him. I promised to call him back. When the pep rally ended, I was on my way to call WEST back and accept the job. It sounded like something I would love to do and WEST was THE sports station in the Easton area. On my way to the high school office to make the call (no cell phones then), I stopped and checked my mailbox and there was a message that said while I was away, Bob Gehris of Twin-County Television had called and would I call him back.

Bob had been my sixth grade elementary school teacher and was someone I greatly respected. I decided I would call him before calling WEST. It turned out that Bob was doing play-by-play for local high school basketball games on cable television and wondered if I wanted to be his color analyst. Two calls within 30 minutes, both offering the same job! And it was a job I was thrilled to try. I asked Bob what the pay was and said I would get back to him shortly. I called Fred Anderson back and, after some discussion, I asked him what the pay was. WEST offered $7.50 a game and Twin-County was offering $15.00. Suffice it to say, I took the television job and have been doing it ever since!

In accepting this award, I feel a bit like a member of a basketball team, because this honor recognizes a team, not just me. Without good camera work, our product is not good. Without the proper replays, engineering, audio, and clear pictures, our product is not good. And certainly, without a good fellow announcer, our product is not good. Without the cooperation of school administration and coaches, the product is not good. So this is more of a team award recognizing those who put the entire package together and I am proud to have worked with this team for over 4500 broadcasts, about two-thirds of which were high school basketball games.

I would be remiss if I did not recognize the people who have been a major part of my journey. First of all is the man who has been our director and the leader of our team for almost all of our sporting events, Rick Geho. Then there are my long-term sidekicks – the man who started it all – Bob Gehris. Next the man who sat alongside me for over thirty years doing basketball, baseball, and football games – Dick Tracy. And my current high school announcing team – fellow announcer, Tom Stoudt, and stats man extraordinaire, John “Beet” Bowman.

In 1996, I retired from teaching and became a full-time employee because of our new association with Lafayette College and the Lafayette Sports Network. We have been doing basketball and football with them ever since. The Lafayette guys deserve special mention – Scott Morse of LSN who is the Director of Athletic Communications and Promotions and I am happy to say a very good friend. My Lafayette cohorts – John Leone, Mike Joseph, and Dan Mowdy. And, of course, there is no job without the support of management and I certainly want to thank the vice president and general manager of RCN PA, Sanford Ames. Please accept my gratitude for your efforts, your camaraderie, and, most importantly, your friendship.

That takes me to my wife. Luba and I have been married for fifty years. Although, technically, if you subtract all the nights I have been away to do games, we probably have about twenty full years together! This job does not work if you do not have support at home. I have that! I can tell you that after doing all those games, I can count on one hand the nights I went out after a game. I always wanted to get home to my family and to my wife. I did not want to be anywhere else. She is certainly in my Hall of Fame.

In conclusion, when I was teaching, I used to tell my students that their happiness was dependent on getting the four A’s from the people who mattered most in their lives, their loved ones, their peers, and significant adults. The four A’s are: Attention, Affection, Approval, and Acceptance.

Attention – You want people to know who you are.
Affection – You want people to like you.
Approval – You want people to let you know that you do a good job.
Acceptance – You want people to welcome you into their circle.

This honor has filled me with the 4-A’s and for that I am very grateful, very humbled, and very happy.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. The Morning Call this past Sunday had an article written by Keith Groller about Larry Miller of Catasauqua. Keith did a wonderful job recognizing both the basketball talent and idiosyncrasies of the player I considered the very best to ever play in the Lehigh Valley. By the way, that’s my quote in the headline. It is a good read. Check it out:
http://www.mcall.com/news/local/mc-larry-miller-retrospective-20140322,0,3953032.story

2. Watching the NCAA playoffs and witnessing so many great players made me think about how many of them actually will become professionals. The NCAA stats say that of the 538,676 high school male basketball players, 17,984 will play college basketball – but only 46 will be drafted by the NBA. According to the NCAA, 3.3% of high school basketball players will play college basketball, 1.2% of them will play professional, and 0.03% of high school players will play professional basketball. It seems pretty obvious that education should be the most important concern for 99% of the athletes.

3. By the way, soccer offers the best chance to become a professional athlete. A whopping 0.09% of the 410,982 high school soccer players get to be pros.

4. One of the scariest moments in my broadcasting career occurred on May 29, 2012 at Coca-Cola Park. Salisbury baseball pitcher, Nic Ampietro, was hit in the head by a batted ball. His teammate, Brad Vangeli, did a recent YouTube piece on the incident which includes our game footage and, more importantly, a happy ending. Check it out:

5. I picked Florida, Louisville, Arizona, and Villanova in the Final Four. Three are alive and one is done. I picked Florida and Arizona to meet in the championship game with Florida winning. Time will tell.

 

Behind the Mic: Bracketology

 

Now that the high school season has come to a close with Central Catholic’s 60-50 loss to Neumann-Goretti on Friday night, it’s time to get serious about the NCAA Tournament. I know Monday, March 17, was St. Patrick’s Day and, also, the birthday of Benito Suarez, the five-time governor of Mexico from 1861-1872. I, unfortunately, will miss both festivities because the NCAA brackets are out! March Madness has officially begun. With the assumption that you would like a little help, I am offering “valuable” inside information on the teams that I consider to be the Top 12.

Top 4 Seeds:
1. Florida – They are healthy (and they weren’t early in the season). They haven’t lost since December 2. Early problems created end-of-season depth – that’s a good thing.
2. Wichita State – 34-0! Everyone is saying they haven’t played the best college basketball has to offer. But, the nucleus of this team barely lost to Louisville, the defending national champ, last year. They have not lost a game since.
3. Arizona – This is the best defensive team in the country. If defense wins championships, they have a shot; if offense does, they can’t make a shot!
4. Virginia – Their games are slow-paced and low scoring, but it has worked for them all year. They won a tough ACC regular season and the ACC tournament. If you want to go against the experts, this is not a bad pick.

The Best of the Rest:
5. Louisville – Defending champs; near the top in both offense AND defense; playing great ball going into the tournament. Could repeat!
6. Kansas – Is Joel Embiid (back problem) able to play? If yes, they could beat anybody; if no, probably not in the final four.
7. Iowa State – They won the Big 12 and could make it to the Final Four. I’m cheering for Villanova to beat them and for the Wildcats to get to the Elite Eight.
8. Villanova – They were upset by Seton Hall in the Big East tournament. They will be rested; they win close games (4-0 in overtime); and have local product, Darren Hilliard. Go Wildcats!
9. Creighton – Villanova’s nemesis (they could only meet again in the national championship), they have the most prolific scorer in college basketball (3,000+ points) – Doug McDermott. Great players tend to carry their teams to great performances in the tournament.
10. Michigan State – Another team in the East bracket (Virginia, Iowa State, Villanova). When they want to play, they are among the very best.

Nostalgic Picks:
11. UCLA – Great offensive team; Steve Alford at the helm. But, can they beat Florida?
12. Kentucky – Their freshmen make plenty of mistakes and, also, plenty of great plays; whichever is the majority will determine their fate.

I would give you my picks, but then, I would lose the “for amusement only” office pool.
Actually, I haven’t filled out my pool yet and I am certainly skeptical of everything I have told you! Now, if I could only find a trusted source…

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. Best high school team(s) I saw this year – Neumann-Goretti’s boys’ and girls’ teams; the talent level might have been even more impressive on the girls’ team (40-3 halftime lead in the quarterfinals!) than it was on the boys’ team. I will be shocked if both of these teams are not state champions.

2. Best player I saw this year – I am happy to say he came from the Lehigh Valley. I expected Miami-bound Ja’quan Newton to fill the spot, but no one was better this year than Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, finishing his career with a 30-point performance against Neumann-Goretti. I am truly looking forward to his college choice and I hope that he chooses a school that has great TV visibility in the East.

3. Best game I saw this year – Allen at Parkland (1/24/14): Parkland won in double overtime by an 82-74 score; there was lots of scoring and plenty of dramatic moments down the stretch. It was a great high school game.

4. Best pre-game conversation (and there were plenty) – Bill Stein, assistant coach at Liberty. I knew Bill was the former athletic director at Saint Peter’s University. I did not know he was an assistant coach at Georgetown University for 10 years under head coach John Thompson. He was there when they went on to win the National Championship. His most famous recruit was Patrick Ewing.

5. Best part of the job – Watching how efficiently and seriously the crew operates each and every night to bring you the best games, the best pictures and the best replays. And a special “Thanks for a great season” to Tom Stoudt, John Leone, and “Beet” Bowman – only they know how much fun we really have!