Leland Stein III

North Carolina gets Deliverance and a title

In sports column on April 10, 2017 at 2:45 am
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North Carolina celebrates its methodical victory over Gonzaga.

By Leland Stein III

GLENDALE, Az. – This was my 21st Final Four and I have to interject that this collection of college basketball teams assembled together in Phoenix were extremely unique.

In the 2017 Big Dance there were three rookies and one veteran. This Phoenix congregation of three teams – Gonzaga, South Carolina and Oregon – had one Final Four appearance among them. Oregon proudly claimed that lone one, which unproudly happened 78 years ago in the very first NCAA title game – when the NIT was a much more prestigious tournament.

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Leland Stein III

It all started in November with 351 teams, and now, five months later it was down to three Final Four rookies and one vet. Make no mistake about it however, as all four of these teams were deserving of being one of the Final Four contestants for the national title. Each team here implemented, followed unique, and in some cases unlikely, paths to Phoenix. But all four teams had a singular moment that cemented its Final Four status.

Finally, March Madness aficionados were left with two, after Gonzaga outlasted a scrappy South Carolina squad, and, North Carolina had squeezed by Oregon.

In the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship game before 76,168 we were left with one traditional powerhouse, North Carolina, and, Gonzaga in its 20th NCAA tournament appearance reaching its first Final Four in program history.

The three rookies getting to the final game weekend was an awesome story, but 2017 was not to be the year of Cinderella. With methodical precision the North Carolina Tar Heels (33-7) did just enough to win the national title overcoming Gonzaga 71-65.

The victory for the Tar Heels was sweet redemption, after they lost in 2016 on a last second shot from eventual champion Villanova.

“I put it (redemption) on the locker room up on the board,” coach Roy Williams exclaimed in the post-game euphoric interview. “They wanted redemption and my guys bought into it. They played tough, although neither team played their best, but both were competitive and battling through it all.”

Added Tar Heels center Kennedy Meeks: “It hurt badly last year losing, so we dedicated ourselves to ensuring we produced a better result than last year. I told the fellas that we could get back and get a better result and we fought through all the fouls and adversity to get it done.”

Unfortunately each team did not only have to battle each other, the referees interjected themselves into the fray and turned the game into a stop-and-start ugly contest.

The referees called 27 fouls in the second half, completely shattering the flow of the game and sent North Carolina’s

Meeks, Gonzaga’s 7-footers Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, and, a horde of others to the bench in foul trouble.

The game “featured” 52 free throws. Both teams were in the bonus with 13 minutes left. Somehow, Collins was the only player to foul out.

“It sucks that I fouled out this important game,” Collins said. “Look I am going to put it on me. I had been having some foul issues all year, but I thought I had worked hard to get my defensive effort under control. The referees did not see it that way I guess.”

I will never understand why or how the NCAA allows the referees to dominate a national title game like they did. No one came to the game to see them blow whistles and run over to the scorer’s table to give a number of the supposed fouler.

No matter, Williams got his third championship, putting him one ahead of his mentor, Dean Smith, and now behind only John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski and Adolph Rupp.

“When I think of Coach Smith, there’s no question,” Williams interjected with sincere enthusiasm. “I don’t think I should be mentioned in the same sentence with him. But we got three because I’ve got these guys with me and that’s all I care about right now – my guys.”

Added Joel Berry II, the 2017 NCAA Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player: “Sure it feels great to get Coach his third title. With all the ups and downs this win was awesome. It was a complete 180 degrees from last year that feeling of losing. I cannot describe how excited it is to be on the other end of this. Coach told us to remember how we all felt last year so we went out and gave it our all.”

In spite of the loss, Gonzaga has a lot to feel good about. It had made 20 tournament appearances and finally reached the Final Four for the first time — becoming the first West Coast Conference team to advance that far since San Francisco made its third straight trip in 1957. The Zags closed out their season with a lofty 37-2 record.

Also, Phoenix became the first far west city to host a Final Four since Seattle in 1995. That was a memorable one for me as I was there to watch the UCLA Bruins claimed their 11th national basketball championship.

In the end Zags coach Mark Few handled the referees with more class than I ever could. Taking the high road, calling the refs “three of the best officials in the entire country,” and insisting they did a fine job. Political correctness at its finest and probably the right call, because what else could he do? Nothing!!!!!

After all, his Bulldogs a small school in the equally small West Coast Conference, tried to keep the big picture in mind. Twenty years ago, this sort of run looked virtually impossible. With less than 2 minutes left, they had the lead in the national title game, but on this day in the desert Cinderella could not crash into the champion’s realm.

“We broke the glass ceiling everyone said we couldn’t break,” junior forward Johnathan Williams said. “We had a great season and gave ourselves a chance to win it all, but we just came up a little short.”

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII

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Awe-inspiring collection of Scholars/Athletes inducted into Watkins Family

In sports column on March 25, 2017 at 9:19 pm
Group pic best of all

The 2017 Watkins “Elite Six” (l to r) Donovan Peoples-Jones (University of Michigan), Isaiah Pryor (The Ohio State University), Rakavius Chambers (Duke University), Conner Wedington (Stanford University), Justin Foster Clemson University), and Ryan Johnson (Stanford University). – John Paige – Photo

By Leland Stein III

WASHINGTON DC – At the pronounced Renaissance Hotel in the District of Columbia, the National Alliance of African American Athletes (The Alliance) recently hosted it 26th consecutive Franklin D. Watkins Memorial Award for America’s premier scholar/athletes.

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Leland Stein III

The “Elite Six” Watkins Class of 2017, are otherwise being announced and proclaimed as the “Seismic Six”!

The literary definition of seismic is: “subject to, or caused by an earthquake; or relating to an earth vibration caused by something else (as an explosion or the impact of a meteorite).

By all accounts the “Seismic Six” –Watkins 2017 Class – indeed are capable of individual explosions with the influence of a meteorite. Centered on each of these young men’s character and verbal declarations over the Watkins Weekend in Washington DC, they have each left many with the expectation that they will implement noteworthy or have a strong and widespread “seismic” impact on their communities.

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Everrette Pearsall and 2017 Watkins Man of the Year, Jelani Jenkins, he is former Miami Dolphins linebacker, a current Raider and a member of the Watkins Class of 2009. – John Paige photo

The “Seismic Six” scholar/athletes selected by the national Watkins Award selection committee are indeed gifted enough to make their mark long after their playing days are in their rear view mirrors.

These All-American Scholar/Athletes had so much on their plates that it would have been understandable if each had not completed or attempted the exhaustive Watkins application process. Yet each did navigated the process, emitted official transcripts, documented their athletic competence, produced comprehensive essays, supplied at least three letters of recommendation, demonstrated community and school service, and, the result of their efforts and accomplishments were that they were feted in a black-tie Heisman like affair in Washington DC.

The Watkins Award is a modus operandi for recognizing extraordinarily talented African-American male athletes who, by their example, help promote high academic standards and steadfastness to community service. But most importantly, destroy the perceived stereotype that African-American males are just athletes, who do not value education.

The National Alliance conveyed the so-called “Seismic Six” to Washington DC, to be vetted and made aware there are other high school scholar/athletes like themselves, and, help them understand they do not have to completely succumb to the intense pressures of football only, but each can merge their academic dreams with their sports efforts. The “Six” also were introduce to a fraternity of pass Watkins scholars, who just so happen to also have been All-American athletes.

Everette Pearsall, Executive Director of The Alliance exclaimed: “This year’s 2017 Watkins Award features an incredible collection of fine student athletes. Each of these young men is well equipped for success academically. We have continued to recognize and honor the premier African American Scholar/Athletes in the United States.”

The 2017 “Elite Six” are:

Rakavius Chambers, from Auburn, Alabama is headed Duke University. RC is a National Honor Society scholar, National Science Honor Society scholar and a Theta math honor society member. He was named an offensive line All-American while maintaining a 4.3 GPA at Opelika High School.

Justin Foster, out of Shelby, North Carolina is headed to Clemson University. This young man is a member of the Career & Technical honor society and was named a U.S. Army All-American. At Crest High School he fashioned a 4.2 GPA.

Ryan Johnson, uplifted in Axis, Alabama and has endorsed Stanford University. This young man is an honor student and was an Under Armour All-American, yet still hoisted a 3.9 GPA while attending St. Paul’s Episcopal High.

Donovan Peoples-Jones, matured in Detroit, Michigan has agreed to attend the University of Michigan. DPJ is a perennial honor student, named Player of the Year in Michigan and was a US Army and Under Armour All-American. He produced a 4.0 GPA while attending Cass Technical High.

Isaiah Pryor, raised in Atlanta, Georgia, has agreed to attend The Ohio State University. IP is a member of the National Honor Society and was recognized by the President’s Education Awards Program. He was selected as an Under Armour All-American. Attending IGM Academy High he finished with a 3.9 GPA.

Conner Wedington, out of Sumner Washington, selected Stanford University. He is a four-year member of the honor roll and Washington Core Leadership Group. Most importantly, he manufactured a 3.8 GPA as a student at Sumner High.

The 2017 edition of the Watkins collective christened the “Seismic Six” is exceptional in every sense of the word. All are All-Americans that will continue to dispel the lingering notion that most African-American male student/athletes are not concerned with education, only the playing fields. They all combine scholarship, athleticism, community awareness and volunteerism to form at their young age the character of developing men that are primed to explode into society as more than just athletes.

Also feted as Watkins Man of the Year was former Miami and recently signed Raiders’ linebacker and a member of the Watkins Class of 2009, Jelani Jenkins, who graduated from Florida University.

The Watkins Award has been presented annually to African American scholar-athletes since 1992. Previous Watkins Finalist include Heisman Trophy Winner Jameis Winston of Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Rhodes Scholar Myron Rolle and a recently admitted Harvard medical student; Justin Blalock, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons; Gerald McCoy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers; Arrelious Benn formerly of the Jacksonville Jaguars; Ted Ginn Jr of the Carolina Panthers; Lorenzo Alexander of the Buffalo Bills; Marcedes Lewis of Jacksonville Jaguars; Darnell Dinkins, formerly of the New Orleans Saints; LaVar Arrington, formerly of the Washington Redskins; Joseph Barksdale of the San Diego Chargers; Eric Reid Jr. of the San Francisco 49er’s; Mohamed Massaquoi formerly of the Cleveland Browns; Grant Irons and Ronald Curry formerly of the Oakland Raiders just to name a few.

The National Alliance of African American Athletes was founded in 1989.  The mission of The Alliance is to empower African American males through athletics, education and public programs.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and at Twitter @LelandSteinIII

 

Ilitch leaves a noteworthy footprint in Detroit beyond sports

In sports column on February 13, 2017 at 12:57 am
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Mike Ilitch hoist the American League pennant trophy as his Tigers head to the World Series. Dan Graschuck – photo

By Leland Stein III

Detroit Tigers and Red Wings owner Michael Ilitch recently passed at age 87. He may be gone physically from us, but his legacy and works will keep him in sports lore.

In 2011 ESPN the Magazine released its annual “Best in Sports” rankings and when it came to pro franchise owners, Ilitch was ranked #1. The rankings were reportedly based on honesty, commitment to the community and loyalty to core players.

As I think of great owners in sports, two men quickly come to mind. When I was snotty-noised journalist trying to come up in L.A., surprisingly to me Al Davis (Oakland & Los Angeles Raiders) and Dr. Jerry Buss (Los Angeles Lakers) became my personal advocates and helped me gain traction in the industry, by ensuring I got inclusion, as I was transitioning from engineering to a journalism career.

Any talk of great owners in sports should yield George Halas, Chicago Bears (1920-1983); Ted Turner, Atlanta Braves (1976-2007); George Steinbrenner, New York Yankees (1973-2010); Walter O’Malley, Brooklyn/L.A. Dodgers (1944-1979); Robert Kraft, New England Patriots (1994-present); Pittsburgh Steelers owners Art Rooney and son (1933-present), Dan, who took over in 2003 and was the linchpin for the “Rooney Rule, and finally my guys Buss and Davis.

All these men were winners and understood continuity, their athletes and each sieged the moment in front them.

To Ilitch’s credit he tried to siege the moment in front of him during his ownership, not sparing anything, including money, to put both his Tigers and Red Wings in positions to win.

But what puts him up in the top rung of owners is his commitment to the community and the actions he took to make Detroit a better city.

A few years back I wrote a column beseeching, cajoling Detroit’s movers and shakers to seek to make the Motor City a national sports entertainment district.

In my 29-years as a journalist, one of the most amazing transformations I have seen is the cities of San Antonio and Indianapolis. Both were little towns with nothing going on in their downtown, each had minimal restaurants, hotels and entertainments venues.

However both San Antonio and Indianapolis built basketball and football venues and all the hotels and entertainment facilities soon followed.

I think Ilitch saw what I saw in those two smaller cities that were both seeking to define themselves. Each city recognized and acknowledged the walkable sports entertainment future direction and took massive steps to regenerate themselves in that genre.

Building basketball, football and baseball facilities in downtown have worked for both San Antonio and Indianapolis and each city have seen their downtown explode.

Unfortunately Ilitch did not live to see his Little Caesars Arena open. But he can take refuge in the fact that unlike San Antonio and Indianapolis, Motown has all four professional sports franchises, and, they are in walking distance from each other.

Ilitch in his plans for the Detroit District has committed to not only a new basketball and hockey arena, but the redevelopment plans include a posh hotel, medical center, retail shops and residential housing.

“It’s always been my dream to once again see a vibrant downtown Detroit,” said Ilitch in an early interview. “From the time we bought the Fox Theatre, I could envision a downtown where the streets were bustling and people were energized. It’s been a slow process at times, but we’re getting there now and a lot of great people are coming together to make it happen. It’s going to happen and I want to keep us moving toward that vision.”

Indeed Ilitch believed that a sports and walkable entertainment district would collectively help Detroit’s renovation and place the city in rotation for hosting the mega-sporting events like the Final Four, Super Bowl, NBA All-Star Weekend and many other sports and entertainment events.

Maybe, just maybe the addition of Little Caesars Arena could be the linchpin that will even further thrust Detroit into the sports entertainment rotation of major sporting events.

The Motor City is the only cold weather city to host two Super Bowls, and, it has also recently been host to the Final Four and Major League Baseball All-Star Game. With the new arena the NBA and NHL All-Star Games are sure to make their way here.

Ilitch’s commitment to Detroit is noteworthy. Not only has it been sports, but he showed where his heart is attached when he and his wife, Marian, took a chance on the historic but neglected Fox Theatre when they purchased it in 1987. They restored the 5,000-seat theatre built in 1928 to its original splendor.

It did not stop there as the Ilitches commissioned an extraordinary renovation of the adjacent 10-story Fox office building in 1989, relocating its suburban offices staff, and established a world headquarters for their Pizza Company and Olympia Entertainment, Inc. in the transformed office building.

Since then, the theatre district has seen a rebirth marked by the opening of other restored theatres and new restaurants, and the building of two side-by-side stadiums for the Detroit Tigers and Lions.

In all the Ilitches own Little Caesar Pizza, Olympia Entertainment, Olympia Development, Champion Foods, Blue Line Foodservice Distribution, Little Caesars Pizza Kit Fundraising Program and the Detroit Red Wings, Detroit Tigers, as well as, the Motor City Casino.

Mike Ilitch may have transitioned to the afterlife, but his life’s works here in Detroit will live on and on and on and on.

Leland Stein can be reached at lelstein3@aol.com and Twitter @LelandSteinIII