RealClearSports: The $40 Million Man Comes Back

By Art Spander

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The pain is gone. The one in his shoulder that
is. And Alex Smith says the figurative one, that of being called a
failure, of being described as a $40 million bust, also has
disappeared. His second act is about to begin.

So much glory. So much disappointment. Alex Smith was the No. 1 pick
in the 2005 draft, a placement he seemingly began to appreciate less
and less as the months passed and the criticism grew.

The San Francisco 49ers threw the dice, if you will, but as we know
the NFL draft is more scientific than that. Then again, their new head
coach at the time, Mike Nolan, now deposed and departed, gave a few
weird reasons for grabbing Smith. Especially when in the Bay Area the
popular choice would have been another quarterback, Aaron Rodgers of

We're a strange breed, the sporting community. Management makes the
selections, but if and when those selections do not meet expectations,
outlandish or legitimate, we take out our anger on the athlete.

Nobody booed Mike Nolan, whose future was tied to Smith. A great many booed Alex. Before they pitied him.

The Niners, through perception or luck, were a team of quarterbacks,
great quarterbacks, from Frankie Albert in the 1950s through John
Brodie, to the Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, and then
after that, Jeff Garcia.

This wasn't three yards and a cloud of mud territory; it was a place
for the wide-open game, a style as irrepressible as the region in which
it was utilized, the place of cable cars, protest marches and residents
who sometimes seemed as interested in the tailgate party as the final

Alex Smith, then only 20, was anointed the hero in waiting. Poor
lad. It's a theory that quarterbacks from unorthodox college offenses, the
spread, the run-and-shoot, don't adapt well to the NFL, where the
defenders are bigger, faster and smarter. And we are presented names
such as David Klingler or Andre Ware as examples.

At Utah, Smith played in the spread of Urban Meyer. OK. But Nolan
seemed less concerned with the how and what than with Smith's agility
and reaction time. Nolan ran Smith through some strange tests, not on
how far he could hurl a football but on how quickly he could jump a

That said, Northern California, having lost most of its sports
icons, Montana, Young, Jerry Rice, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire and
shortly to lose Barry Bonds, was desperate for a new star. Alex was
shoved into the starting lineup, probably before he was ready.

He was injured while trying to run, not pass. The Niners changed
offensive coordinators, bringing in Norv Turner, and in 2006 Smith
showed progress.

But the Niners in 2007 changed offensive coordinators again. Smith
was injured again, more severely. Nolan publicly questioned Smith's
toughness. The Niners in 2008 changed offensive coordinators again, to
Mike Martz. Smith was injured again, the same shoulder, and was placed
on the injured reserve list, with a dispassionate Nolan adding, “No
specifics. All I need to know is if he'll be back on this football

After a restructuring of that enormous contract, Smith is. Nolan,
however, is not. He was fired two months into the '08 season, replaced
by Mike Singletary. Shaun Hill became Singletary's quarterback, but
maybe Alex Smith could return to where he once was, without the baggage.

“That draft pick, all of that is not what I think about," said
Smith. The 49ers on Friday began a weekend mini-camp, a re-introduction
of Alex Smith, a newlywed with a new vision.

“My focus after the last two years is getting healthy and being out
on the field," Smith emphasized. "Kind of being with my teammates. It
was so difficult last year and the year before to sit on the sidelines
and watch or be in the training room. You're part of the team, but
you're not. You don't travel, aren't really there, have no
accountability to teammates. I want to get that back. It's something I
really missed. My goal is to be the player I can be."

What kind of player is that? A quarterback who has particularly
small hands and therefore fumbled an inordinate amount when he did play?

A quarterback whose legs are no less significant than his arm and could keep defenses off balance?

Smith wants to be a quarterback who, despite working under a fifth
offensive coordinator in five years, Jimmy Raye, has the adaptability
and perception to do what is required, most of all win games for a
franchise that had lost its way along with a great many games.

“What I learned through all this," Smith said, reflecting on his
mess of a career, “is to stop worrying about the stuff you can't
control. Early on, when you're a young player, it's easy to be
distracted. I want to focus on things on which I can really make a

He has the chance. Four years after he had it a first time.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports
history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his
long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has
earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has
recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of
America for 2009.

- - - - - -
© RealClearSports 2009

Baron comes back, and so do the questions

OAKLAND – He was back, if as a bittersweet
reminder, and so were our questions. So were the "What ifs?" So was the
unavoidable reality that the team that lost Baron Davis hasn't done a
thing without him, and the team that lured him away for an oil sheik's
fortune has done even less.

Baron was out there in the red uniform of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Baron on the floor at Oracle Arena, where he had been a star for the


Who lost him last summer, because of a $65 million contract.


Or maybe because of their own negligence.


Or maybe because they believed they didn't need a 10-year veteran who seemed to be hurt as much as he was healthy.


Baron has taken some shots lately in L.A. The figurative kind. There
were those injuries – with Baron, always there are those injuries – and
an apparent lackadaisical attitude.


For $65 million, in his hometown, in the place where he went to school, UCLA, Baron was supposed to be a savior.


But can anybody ever save the Clippers, the NBA franchise that couldn't and never will?


Baron, having missed 15 games, has not been able.


Against his old team Tuesday night, Davis had 29 points and seven
assists, but that couldn't stop the Warriors from a 127-120 win.


One Los Angeles Times columnist, T.J. Simers, called Baron a
dog. Another, Kurt Streeter, a bit kinder, induced Davis to concede,
"This has been the worst year of my NBA career and the least fun I've
ever had."


The basketball cognoscenti might have predicted as much. The Clippers
are not only the second team in a one-team town, virtually undetectable
beyond the Lakers, they are historically inept, a symbol of sporting
incompetence, a punch line of Jay Leno jokes.


It's awful for Baron and the Clips (they now have a 16-51 record). It's
not so great for the Warriors either. They've had their own failings,
their own ailments. Management foresaw Monta Ellis as the quite
adequate replacement for Davis, but he missed weeks after that
cockamamie moped accident.


What if Baron had stayed? The idea is tossed at Davis, who steps
lightly on a line between diplomacy and disrespect. "I don't know," he
begins. "I'm a real optimistic person. I figured we came off a 48-win
season (in 2008), winning more games each year we were playing
together, so who knows what would have happened.


"But I definitely know we would have been in playoff contention and a good team to be reckoned with."


Coaches and teammates are different from fans. They judge on individual
merit. The paying customers consider the uniform, "the laundry," as
someone once said.


An athlete leaves as a free agent, if free ever should be a reference
when $65 million is concerned, and the people who buy the tickets
consider him a traitor to the cause.


Warriors coach Don Nelson said he would be "disappointed" if Baron were
booed in pregame introductions. After all, Nelson contended Baron was
"one of my favorite players" and along with Steve Nash, who Nellie had
at Dallas, the best of the point guards he'd been permitted to coach.


Davis was less demanding. "There probably will be a mixed reaction,"
Baron said. "I'll take whatever I can get. I'll be appreciative of the
cheers I do get. It just shows class, the level of mutual respect I
have for the fans and the fans for my time here."


Indeed the reaction was mixed but more positive than negative, some
fans, recalling that "We Believe" playoff fantasy of two seasons past,
when Baron indeed was royalty, even offering a standing ovation.


In L.A. there is but one basketball hero, Kobe Bryant. Baron was
brought in not so much to counter Kobe the Unconquerable, as create a
presence and – we turn our heads and chuckle in private –  make
the Clips a contender.


Baron has been noticed, if not as hoped. But he says what others,
particularly journalists, think of him is not taken personally. Just as
was the occasional jeer Tuesday when he handled the ball.


"I let things run off my shoulders," was his response. "I have big
shoulders. I'm here to do one thing, that's to win, to get this team
where it needs to be. That's my mission. So if I'm criticized or
ridiculed, I accept it and use it as motivation to continue to get


If that bears a resemblance to one of those Hollywood script speeches,
well, Baron is peripherally involved in the movie business, one of the
reasons we're advised he deserted the Warriors after three and a half


Baron would speak no ill. Monta Ellis, Davis thinks, "is a great
player," and now powerless general manager Chris Mullin "a legend, a
Hall of Famer, someone who's always going to be in my corner and I'm
going to be in his."


Baron's in another sort of corner these days, but the memories are
sustaining. "I have admiration for these fans, the people in the Bay
Area. That playoff run, the fact it brought the whole community
together I'll always have. I'll always be able to cherish."


It was great, but it's gone. And unlike Baron, it may not return for a long while.

Shaq and the NBA's good old days

OAKLAND -- Call him what you will --
Diesel, the Big Socrates, or by his name, Shaq. It doesn't matter, if
you don't call him finished. Which people were doing a few months back
in describing Shaquille O'Neal.

Finished? "I've been watching him since he was 15," said Alvin Gentry. "He's never been finished. You saw what he can do."

And what the Phoenix Suns can do. Which is what the critics said they never could do with Shaq in the lineup: run.


Turn a basketball game into a track meet. As the Suns did Sunday night,
beating the Golden State Warriors, 154-130. Without any overtimes.


It was like the good old days when the NBA was a league of grace, glory
and points, like the days before the game became one of shoving and
bumping and scores in the 90s or the 80s, something more resembling
wrestling than basketball.


Phoenix picked up Shaq in a trade just about a year ago, intending to
add muscle to speed. When the plan didn't work, the critics sneered.


Shaq and Steve Nash? That's like trying to blend Santa Claus and Tinkerbell.


"He's a proud guy," Gentry said of O’Neal. "Everybody felt he was done.
But as you can see, he's still a huge factor. He gives us the best of
both worlds. We can run or we can set up. If you don't double-team him,
he goes inside. If you do, he passes off. Arguably, he's the best big
man who ever played in this league."


Against the Warriors, in his second game in two nights – Saturday the
Suns were home against Oklahoma City – 37-year-old Shaq O'Neal,
7-foot-1, 325 pounds, played a few seconds less than 24 minutes and had
26 points. He was 11-of-13 from the field, 4-of-9 from the free throw


"I accept all challenges," said O'Neal.


He is sitting in front of his locker, looking bemused. The man has a
great sense of humor. Also of timing. As we saw when he danced at the
opening of the All-Star Game program before he became the co-MVP with
Kobe Bryant.


"People have been saying I can't do this, can't do that," said O'Neal.
"I have four championships. I would like to get two or three more."


The Warriors couldn't match up against Shaq, not with their 7-footer,
Andris Biedrins, recovering from a sprained ankle. The Warriors
couldn't match up against the Suns. Phoenix had 120 points at the end
of three quarters. Say all you want about defense, but offense like
this is delightful.


The late Wilt Chamberlain told us again and again, "Nobody roots for
Goliath," and it's true there's a tendency to favor a smaller guy
against a bigger one. But Shaq is lovable, a jester, and for the heck
of it he has a master's degree. He's easy to cheer for.


Years ago, in the same building where the Suns crushed the Warriors,
Shaq, then with the Los Angeles Lakers, was telling about his life's
objectives during a break from a late-morning practice.


"I'd like to be somebody like Larry Ellison," said O'Neal, alluding to
the head of Oracle, the dot-com giant located down the highway in
Silicon Valley. "Now there's a man with real money."


Maybe someday, Shaq responded when reminded of the comment. That still
was a goal. If not quite as realistic as again scoring 40 points, which
he did against Toronto, becoming the third in NBA history to do it in
the uniform of four different teams.


A year ago, Shaq averaged 12.9 points in the 28 games he played for the
Suns. "A lot of people thought I lost it," he conceded. "I was injured.
It's kind of funny, when people say I'm injured nobody really believes
me. This is my 17th season, but I've really only played about 13
seasons because of the injuries. I have years left."


Earlier in March, one of Shaq's numerous former coaches, Stan Van Gundy
of Miami, whined about O’Neal "flopping" in the lane to draw a foul.
Shaq, the gentle giant, was less than gentle in his reaction.


"I heard his comment," Shaq said of Van Gundy. "Flopping to me is doing
it more than one time, and I realized when I tried to take the charge
as I went down, I realized that play reminded me of his whole coaching


O'Neal had a better relationship with Warriors coach Don Nelson, for
whom he played on the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. "He was my sixth man,"
said Nelson. "He asked me if he could come off the bench. I said fine.
I love him to death."


If Nelson, who eventually was ejected Sunday night with a couple of
quick technical fouls, didn't love what Shaq did to his team. Finished?
Shaquille O'Neal's only just begun.

- - - - - -

© RealClearSports 2009


For A's, the Wolff is at the door

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The problem for the
Oakland Athletics is they were always confronting themselves, not to
mention the rest of us, with a conflict of bad ideas.

First was the ridiculous one to put tarps on the third-deck seats, as
if, borrowing from that not-so-wise bird the ostrich, what we couldn't
see wasn't there.

Then -- or did this come first? -- was the plan by owner Lew Wolff, a
real estate mogul, to erect a "village" that would contain a ballpark,
somewhere east of Eden and west of the sun. Well, in Fremont, 20 miles
from Oakland, but what's the difference?

Then in those whiny, pouting, "You don't know what I can do to you"
ways Wolff loves to impose, he complained last season nobody paid
attention to the A's, despite a surprisingly good start. And that more
people went to the games of the Giants, who weren't playing nearly as
well as his A's.

Wolff may have been the frat bro of baseball commissioner Bud Selig,
but Lew understands neither the game nor the people who support it, or
in his case fail to do as much.

You don't go around figuratively kicking fans in the teeth, whether
it's effectively telling them they're ignorant or attempting to confuse
them by trading away the talent or stealing away the franchise to
never-never land.

There are a great many individuals who would like to tell Lew what they
think, but only the folks like Lew, who don't have to listen to a boss
but are the boss, have that privilege.

What he told us Friday was Oakland (the town) stinks, and he'd go
anywhere else, including San Jose. If possible. But, ho, ho, it's not

Given the current state of the economy, the fact the Giants do hold
territorial rights down there at the south end of the bay and a place
like Sacramento has a better chance to losing the NBA Kings than it
does of acquiring the A's, Mr. Wolff is without the only thing that
means anything in his world: Leverage.


We concede that McAfee Coliseum isn't AT&T Park. But there are
worse venues. BART stops at the Coliseum. For day games the sun shines
at the Coliseum. And with the upper deck untarped and a crowd of at
least 20,000 there is a nice feel to the place.


"Our attendance and low number of season ticket holders (both one of
the lowest in Major League Baseball)," Wolff proclaimed in a statement,
"also continues to decline when our on-field performance produced
playoff participation."


Does Wolff need to be reminded the A's in 2007 and 2008 had losing records and were out of the race by July?


That those seasons they dumped almost every player who was recognizable by someone other than his own mother?


That continual hints of dragging the team to Fremont created negative feedback from a fan base already whipsawed?


Oakland, the city, hardly has been guiltless in this scenario, with
former mayor Jerry ("I know nothing about baseball except they don't
punt on fourth down") Brown preferring to build lofts in old warehouses
rather than a ballpark.


But lo, the current jefe, Ron Dellums, authored on Friday -- or at
least signed -- a letter to Wolff outlining the city's intent to
provide the A's a new home.


This was met instantly with a back-of-the-hand response from Wolff and
his minions, who spitefully answered the Oakland plea by saying, "We
have fully exhausted our time and resources over the years with Oakland
dating back to the previous A's ownership.

" ... Outside stimulation to have us continue to play in an aging and
shared facility may generate press and 'sound-bite' opportunities but
do not provide any tangible alterations in the circumstances we face."

In other words, nyah, nyah.

So, Lew, sell the team. Oh, nobody else wants it, at least until the market reaches 9,000 again?

These are tough times, as you know, and not just in the sporting business.

Journalism is dying as a profession. The New York Times said in two years there might not be a major city with a newspaper still printing. The auto companies are laying off thousands.

Who's going to buy a ball club?

The A's this late winter of '09 have given us a reason to think they
might be both interesting and contending, what with the addition of
Matt Holliday, Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra
along with the maturing of a seemingly decent pitching staff. Then
along comes the man in charge who says, "B'gone, with all of you."

Lew Wolff is angry because he couldn't get what he wanted. What A's
fans want is assurance their team will be not only worth watching but
playing where they should be, in Oakland, new park or old.

Warriors fans can be faulted for their passion

OAKLAND,  Calif. -- The crowd wasn't a sellout, but it was large.
Maybe too large. And too passionate. The Golden State Warriors arguably
have the best fans in pro basketball.

To their great disadvantage.

We had a brief interlude, a fling, a couple of years ago. The Warriors,
ending their seasons of silence, qualified for the playoffs, even
stunned the Dallas Mavericks in the first round. Hysteria. Elation.

But it's all in the past.

The Warriors are a bad team once again as this NBA season of '08-'09
wobbles toward the end, a bad team whose coach and star seemingly are
forever in conflict. And yet people don't seem to care.

Because they care too much for the Warriors. And so management resists change.

Don Nelson continues to coach, even if at times he seems rather bothered by the whole idea, other than having a seat of power.

Monta Ellis continues to confront Nelson, contradicting virtually everything Nellie puts forth.

And Chris Mullin continues as general manager, even if through
machinations by Nelson and president Robert Rowell, Mully's viewpoints
are of little consequence.

A mess. Except at the box office. Where it counts the most in pro sports.

Wednesday night, the Warriors played the New Jersey Nets at Oracle
Arena. Beat them, too, 116-112. Before 18,203 fans, who showed up to
scream and hoot and holler for a team that came into the game with
exactly twice as many defeats (42) as victories (21).

Fans who won't be deterred by reality. Fans apparently oblivious to the
private little war between the coach with the dictator's philosophy and
the player, Ellis, with the rebel's brazenness.

Fans who refuse to desert a team that will fail to get to the post-season for the 14th time in 15 years.

The Warriors are the little soap opera that isn't good enough for prime
time but nevertheless can't be ignored. A year ago it was Nellie and
Baron Davis at war, and noting what the Baron has done with the
Clippers, the situation up here could be worse.

This time it's Nellie and Monta. Not to mention Nellie and Jamal Crawford.

Ellis was back from his travels, not to be confused with traveling,
having returned from his home in Mississippi, missing the previous
seven games because of (take your pick) stiffness in the ankle he
injured during the summer in that moped accident or because he was
visiting his sick mother. Nelson said it was the former, Monta the

"Monta complained three different times, three different games that he
had soreness in his ankle," Nelson insisted before Ellis went out and
picked up 19 points and six assists against the Nets.

"He missed a few games, then he was supposed to come back to us, and he went to visit his mother and that's the story."

Not according to Ellis, who reiterated an earlier statement, "I told you I went to see my mom."

Nelson also said the Warriors would be ridding themselves of Jamal
Crawford, acquired in a trade from the Knicks for Al Harrington,
because Crawford makes $8 or $9 million, too much for a backup guard.

That was before the game. Before Crawford scored 19 points, 15 in the
fourth quarter. "He did most of his damage when running the point,"
conceded Nelson, who explained Crawford had been with the Warriors some
50 games, as if it was about time Jamal did something. Other than toss
in 50 earlier in the schedule.

Nellie has told others he is happiest at games, moving players in and
out, shouting instructions, that practice is as much work for him as
the athletes, not surprising when you've been coaching for decades.

The question might be whether this indeed is Nelson's team or a team
that Nelson tolerates and attempts to maneuver to his own pleasure. It
has long been accepted Nellie doesn't like using rookies, although now
in this season without hope the Warriors are starting Anthony Randolph
at forward.

Don Nelson can be gruff. Don Nelson can be impatient. He's done this
work a long time -- some might say too long -- and there's not a
mistake he hasn't seen or a reporter's irritating question he hasn't

Asked if the morale on the Warriors, considering the Ellis affair and
the conversation he had with Crawford about the future or lack of same,
is acceptable, Nelson responded immediately.


"It's acceptable when you consider the kind of year we've had," said
the coach. "We've won 21 ballgames (now 22), and we've worked hard to
keep the attitude and the morale good. I can't say it's been perfect
but overall it's been very good -- one of the few things we've done
well this year."

Along with packing the house with the best fans in basketball.