Talkin’ Sports

11 Sep
Man, I like Obama but I hate his sports picks.  Biggest frontrunner ever.” 
-Jeff Klein, text message to Dad, June 3, 2009 
 
It’s certainly not surprising to anyone that Jeff started a sports blog after college.  After all, he was passionate about all sports, craved huge upsets, and loved to talk to anyone and everyone, even people who had no interest in sports, about the latest happenings in the sports world.  As an example of the latter, a young woman named Ashley posted on Midd-blog’s page remembering Jeff, calling him “One of the most genuine guys at Middlebury, even if I never got any of his sports references!” Even his blog’s name, Talkin’ Sports, had roots way back to the summer of 2006 when Jeff was first given the opportunity to write his own newspaper column in The Middlebury Campus.  His idea was to call it Talkin’ Sports, but the sports editor at the time suggested J.K. Rolling, and Jeff agreed to go with that.

Although known for basketball, Jeff was a fine baseball player. This photo is from 1996

But as many people also know, the aspect of sports that got Jeff riled up the most was the preponderance of “egregious” behavior that permeated the sports landscape.  And sure enough, it turns out that there was one specific atrocity that served as the final straw, the catalyst that resulted in the creation of Talkin’ Sports.  This blog post will definitively answer the following trivia question: 
Which of these egregious situations directly led to Jeff’s decision that it was imperative for him to start a blog to speak on behalf of enraged sports fans across the nation ?  Was it… 
A)   The continuing mismanagement of the Knicks, from Isiah Thomas to James Dolan, which had led to a 7 year playoff drought and a plethora of huge contracts handed out to underproductive players
 B)   Jeff’s belief in the David Stern Conspiracy Theory, which holds that Stern attempts each season to coerce the NBA’s referees to make foul calls in the playoffs that favor the teams that Stern wants to see participate in the NBA finals in order to maximize television ratings,
  OR
C)   Jeff’s view, and that of many March Madness fans, that the selection committee makes poor decisions AND intentionally matches underdog non-BCS (big schools that are eligible for the Bowl Championship Series in football) schools against each other in the first round, so that there are fewer opportunities for them to pull off a huge upset against a BCS school that the networks want to stay in the tournament (again, for ratings reasons) ?
To take these in order, Jeff had been disenchanted with the direction of the Knicks ever since their last NBA finals appearance in 1999.  By the 2005-06 season, they had the highest payroll and second-worst record in the league.  Thomas was President of Basketball Operations and had traded several future draft picks for Eddy Curry.  And in February 2006, he traded for Steve Francis to play alongside Stephon Marbury. 
I am an optimist by nature, and I told Jeff that Francis was a great player and would help turn things around.  Brett, who was only 11 at the time, was at an age where he still agreed with everything his Dad said (I miss those days).  Jeff, however, was aghast and baffled that I would say such a thing and that I would brainwash young Brett into thinking everything would be rosy in Knicks-land.  And so on February 23, 2006, Jeff sent me the following email.   The subject line said simply, “Reality”
“Dad, I want you to sit Brett down on your lap, and together the two of you can maybe take yourselves out of your denial and understand what really is.   P.S.  Hope you’re having a good time in the Bahamas.”
And he pasted in two links to two different espn.com articles on the state of the Knicks.  One of them began, “The back page of Thursday’s New York Daily News labeled the Knicks ‘The Biggest Mess In Sports’.  It continued, “…NBA analysts across the country were ridiculing the trade that doubled Brown’s trouble, uniting evil twins Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury in the coach’s doghouse…Two reasons the Knicks will continue to be the NBA’s worst team with the bleakest future.”
Wow !  One thing about Jeff- when he took a position on something, he defended it with maximum force and hit you with it right between the eyes.  This was a perfect example, but you know what, he was right and I was completely wrong.  Not only did the Knicks not make the playoffs that season, but they didn’t do so in any of the next four seasons either.  It is heartbreaking that when they finally made it to the post-season again, this past season, Jeff was not here to see it.   In any case, even though the Knicks were enduring yet another losing campaign in 2010 when Jeff started his blog, this was not the impetus for its creation.   Answer A) is incorrect.
And then there is David Stern.  To Jeff, there was no bigger villain in sports than the NBA’s longtime Commissioner.  Jeff was convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Stern was blatantly guilty of manipulating the outcomes of playoff games.  Over several years, Jeff observed that referees seemed to make outrageous foul calls that favored the marquee team or superstar that Stern wanted to see advance to the finals.  In May of 2009, Jeff was rooting hard for the Magic to beat the Cavs and Lebron in the Eastern Conference Finals.  He was certain, though, that Stern wanted Lebron to get to the finals, and on May 28th, he emailed me with his concern that the refs would ensure that Stern’s preferred result happened:
“I hope the Magic close it out tonight, and if not tonight, home in Game 6, because we all know there’s no way the refs would ever let the Magic win Game 7 on the road, especially if the Lakers have already clinched.  If it’s not Lakers-Cavs, the league loses, which is why I can tolerate a Lakers win.  Actually, the thing is, I think the league wants the Cavs even more, because Lebron is the up and coming star, and Stern wants him to be the face of the league… which is why it’s even more important that the Magic win.  I really think they will, though- the Magic are the better team, and I don’t think he can get the Cavs into the finals without starting an outright scandal.”
 The Magic won the series in Game 6 at home.
 In 2009, Jeff was just getting warmed up with respect to his anti-Stern rhetoric.   He even used that Halloween as a venue to make his point about NBA officiating, donning a “blind referee” costume at his friends’ Halloween party. 

The blind referee- Halloween 2009

In 2010, Jeff was in rare form as the playoffs were approaching, and he really let loose in the following emails and texts he sent to me:
 4/14/10- “How bout fixing the problem of the NBA trying to fix the outcomes of the games come playoff time?  How far will Stern and his minions go to try to get a Cavs-Lakers finals ?  They failed last year, but only because Orlando played out of their mind, beating both the Cavs and the refs to make an unexpected appearance in the Finals.  I really hope some underdog, small-market teams crash Stern’s party this year, I really do.”
 5/5/10- “That’s good news that Lebron seems certain to stay.  But you know what’s great news?  Last night David Stern was at the Magic game and before the game he went to center court to announce that the 2012 All-Star game will be in Orlando’s new arena.  And the crowd booed him heavily !!!  (the writer of the article I’m reading thinks it’s because of all the bad foul calls that went against Dwight Howard in the first round).  I’m so happy the Magic fans are recognizing how Stern is trying to screw them.  Again, in a fairly reffed series, the Magic would beat the Cavs in 5 or 6.”
5/29/10: “I know they want Celtics-Lakers, but breaking out the machetes this early ?”
 But believe it or not, despite Jeff’s deep disdain for Stern and his belief that NBA playoff games were rigged in favor of the league’s preferred teams, this situation was not the specific catalyst for the creation of Talkin’ Sports.  Answer B) is therefore incorrect.

Name the sport- Jeff was ready to play

It should not be completely surprising that the catalyst for Jeff making the decision to start a blog related to March Madness.  He was passionate about so many things, but March Madness took his sports passion to a whole other level.  Specifically, he reveled in upsets, particularly big first-round upsets, and he basically put all else in his life on hold during the first round of the tournament. Make that during the entire tournament.  
The funny thing is that Jeff almost always finished last in his bracket pools, because he loved to pick lower seeded teams and root for the upsets, and didn’t really care about winning the pool.  In fact, Jeff copied me on an email he wrote on March 27, 2006 to Peter Shrager, a writer for FoxSports.com, who invited his readers to email him with comments on his articles.  Jeff wrote to Shrager:
 “Hey, I absolutely loved your article about George Mason and how it’s more important to see a historic upset than getting your bracket right.  I always find myself not wanting to fill out a bracket because all I really want to see is upsets.  It’s a shame that so many people would rather have the favorites go to the final four just because of their brackets.”
Since it was all about the upsets for Jeff, he felt that any action taken by the selection committee that effectively reduced the likelihood of upsets occurring was an affront to all college basketball fans.  So when the committee, in 2009, chose Arizona for the tourney over St. Mary’s, Jeff was livid.  He dedicated his next J.K. Rolling column to this unjust decision and began his March 19, 2009 article by scalding the committee with the following pen lashing:
“Arizona is in.  St. Mary’s is out.  Are you kidding me?  Great, Arizona extends its longest active streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 25 straight, which undoubtedly pleases all the traditionalists.  But is it really too much to ask the selection committee to base its decisions on merit instead of pedigree?  The fact that the Arizona Wildcats were awarded the last at-large bid in this year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament… is absolutely absurd and reflects the committee’s blatant bias toward traditional powerhouse conferences at the expense of lesser-publicized mid-majors…
The selection committee screwed up big time here… it made an ostensibly subjective decision that sorely lacks any semblance of validity…You think mid-majors can’t compete on the big stage?  Try telling that to Davidson- a team that came within a Stephen Curry three from going to the Final Four last year…
Give the little guys a chance. “
During his entire life, Jeff was a champion of the “little guys”, both in sports and in life.  In this case, he believed that St. Mary’s exclusion in 2009 robbed the tournament and its fans of an upset opportunity.  But how do I know that the final straw that led to the creation of Talkin’ Sports in 2010 was further atrocious behavior by the selection committee in matching non-BCS teams against each other?  Well, Jeff’s email to me on March 15, 2010 makes it crystal clear:
“Dad- Excerpt from the March Madness column of Gary Parrish of cbsportsline.com:
‘[2. The plan is to make the good non-BCS teams eliminate the other good non-BCS teams: I suppose (or at least I hope) it’s a coincidence, but it seems every year one of the non-BCS teams most likely to make a run in this event gets paired with another non-BCS team that’s likely to make a run in this event. This year’s best example is a first-round game in the West between Butler and UTEP. I said last week that the three non-BCS schools with the best chance to make the Sweet 16 were New Mexico, Butler and UTEP, and now either Butler or UTEP is guaranteed to have its season end Thursday because of an unfortunate pairing.]’
I’m starting a blog.  This shit is ridiculous.”
And so, with that declaration, it was decided.  Jeff, always a man of the people, would blog on behalf of sports fans everywhere against all injustice.  Thus, If you chose answer C), you are correct.
That very same day, on March 15th, Jeff created Talkin’ Sports and put up his first post entitled “March Madness Selection Committee’s Choice Of Bracket.” From then on, Jeff was on a roll.  He continued to post regularly through the spring up until July 8th. At that point, there were 20 posts in all, and Jeff demonstrated his versatility by writing about everything from March Madness to the NBA, MLB, NHL and even the New York Liberty women’s basketball team.  And he loved every minute of it.  He bounced ideas off me, asked me to critique his drafts, and debated with me constantly about all of it.   After the July 8th post, though, his hours at work started to get crazy, and the blogging stopped.  I was distraught, because I knew how much enjoyment he derived from his writing. 
After Jeff left his job in mid-August, he began to struggle with what to do next.  We talked about a wide range of possibilities, but more than anything, I strongly encouraged him to resume writing on his blog while he was sorting it all out.  I was convinced that this was crucial to getting his morale back on track and moving forward.  He seemed to agree, but the blog remained quiet.  In fact, after having posted 20 times in less than 4 months, the silence was deafening, and I began to plead with Jeff to write one to get back into the swing of things.
You have no idea how elated I felt when I received this email from Jeff on September 24, 2010 which simply said,
“After a long hiatus….
Stern Tightens Dictatorial Hold on League
At long last, another post.  I read it closely to discern whether the old Jeff Klein passion was still there.  I felt it was.  Jeff appeared to be his usual exasperated self, incredulous that Stern would impose a new set of rules giving referees greater latitude in doling out technical fouls for almost any  expression of disgust by players over a call.  And I thought his concluding sentences were vintage Jeff.  He wrote: “Well, I’m done venting for now.  Please don’t T me up.”
In retrospect, though, this post was a last gasp attempt to recapture the fire that had been there as recently as two months earlier, but tragically and inexplicably, the flame was burning out.  There would be no more blog posts.  To this day, I long to hear Jeff’s animated views on so many topics, but especially about the constant crazy happenings in sports.  The intense pain that I feel when I go to jeffkleinsports.blogspot.com and see the September 24th date of his last post is indescribable. 
As my writings on this blog will attest, I fully believe he is aware of and has had influence on both the good and egregious things that have happened in sports since he left.  There is comfort in knowing that.  And I am blessed to have two equally rabid sports fan sons in Drew and Brett with whom to watch games and exchange texts about the latest sports news.
I have spent hours upon hours poring over both Jeff’s emails to me and his newspaper articles from the past five years.  Needless to say, this has been a bittersweet exercise.  I have read so many things that have made me smile and even laugh out loud.  The sheer uniqueness of the way Jeff expressed himself in writing was often hilarious.   However, I cannot shake the horror I felt when I recently read the last two sentences of his J.K. Rolling article from April 11, 2007 in which he bemoaned the lack of upsets in that year’s NCAA tournament.  Jeff’s words, so innocent and so hopeful, have the impact of a dagger to the heart and haunt me every day.  He concluded the article by writing:
“Oh, and one last thing: a 16-seed will knock off a one-seed in my lifetime.  It’s gonna happen.”
Yes, no doubt it’s gonna happen, son.  But with one impulsive and horrific act, you ensured that it wouldn’t be in your lifetime.  I hope, pray and cling to the belief that when it does happen, you will be watching from a beautiful front row seat overlooking the entire scene from above, holding in your hand that classic draft beer with a pretzel rod in the mug handle, that you loved to buy at the Garden.

And maybe then, when that 16-seed has completed the ultimate upset that you waited your entire life for, you can find a way to send us just one more Talkin’ Sports blog post, from Heaven, speaking about the beauty of the little guy rising up to overcome all odds.  You know, that image could have been a metaphor for your own life, if only you had given yourself the same fighting chance that a huge underdog has every time it takes the court.
And the cruelest irony of all is that, in time, you absolutely would have won your battle, just as you said a 16-seed would someday win theirs.
-Rich Klein
Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: