I’ve had The Wizard of Oz on my mind as the first month of basketball season gathers momentum. Remember how loyal and deferential all the winged monkeys and foot soldiers were to the Wicked Witch ... until Dorothy washed her away? Remember how they rejoiced at the removal of their “queen,” and actually broke into song? Both the Tigers and Grizzlies seem to have undergone a cultural shift along these lines. However successful the team was under John Calipari, the Tigers were a tense operation. It showed on the floor and you could hear it in the locker room with every post-game comment. Expectations were such that no player was allowed a mistake, let alone a slump. Now this, from junior guard Roburt Sallie as he emerged from a shooting slump last month: “I honestly can’t tell you where I’d be last year if I started out the first three games like this, shooting-wise. I probably wouldn’t have seen the floor for a month or two. But Coach [Josh] Pastner lets us play through mistakes. You know, he’s in his first year, and he makes mistakes, too. We let him know. That’s the kind of relationship we have. It’s a good one. I’m appreciative to be here.”
As for the Grizzlies, the story since Allen Iverson signed with the club late last summer was how and when Iverson would fit the franchise. Who would have to sacrifice minutes to make sure AI stayed happy and productive? Could "The Answer" be a leader off the bench? How would Iverson and a coach with no track record of success cooperate? Well, each of these story lines was washed away when Iverson packed his things and chose retirement — and eventually, his old club in Philly — over Beale Street Blue. While the Grizzlies may not be playoff caliber — yet — winning nine of 14 games and beating the likes of Portland, Dallas, and Cleveland is new to Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, and O.J. Mayo. Better yet, the team can learn from and build upon slices of success without the concern of pleasing one Hall-of-Fame-bound veteran.
So let’s sing together for both our basketball teams: Ding-dong, the tension’s dead!
• I was thoroughly pleased to learn last week of Whitey Herzog’s election to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the museum’s Veterans Committee. If imposing a philosophy of the game is as important as merely winning championships, the White Rat should have been enshrined years ago. After leading Kansas City to three division titles in the Seventies, Herzog moved on to St. Louis in 1980, where he immediately began building a team that would thrive on the artificial turf in cavernous Busch Stadium. Having designed his club around speed (Lonnie Smith, Willie McGee, Vince Coleman) and defense (Ozzie Smith, Keith Hernandez, Terry Pendleton), Herzog led the Cardinals to three pennants and the 1982 world championship. Take this to the bank: no baseball team will ever again win a World Series with its leading home-run hitter having hit but 19 (as George Hendrick did 27 years ago).
With Herzog’s election, consider the remarkable stretch of history among Cardinal managers. Presuming Joe Torre (1990-95) and Tony LaRussa (1996 to the present) are elected shortly after they retire, and with Red Schoendienst (1965-76) already a member, St. Louis has had Hall of Fame credentials in its manager’s office for 42 of the last 45 seasons. (Vern Rapp managed the Cards in 1977, Ken Boyer the next two seasons.)
• You gotta hate the BCS. (Though bless the decision-makers who put Boise State and TCU in the Fiesta Bowl together. It will be the best game of the postseason.) There will be at least two undefeated teams after the bowl games are played; three if Cincinnati can upset Saint Tebow in the Sugar Bowl. What would be wrong with an additional week of college football, and one more game to decide a champion on the field? I chase this question in circles every year, convinced that the moneymakers behind each of the 34 bowl games will cling to the current system as though it’s the last piece of driftwood after the Great Flood. But wouldn’t a single winner-take-all, post-bowl-season Game of the Year make more money than any bowl game under the current structure? I can’t figure it out.