Monday, March 25, 2013

Dr. Franken-Smart's Monster

Along with the buzzer-beaters and blowouts of March Madness come the firings in the coaching ranks. Along with the head coaches of losing teams getting fired, some coaches whose teams made the 68-team field of the NCAA tournament get axed, too.

Accordingly, UCLA has fired Ben Howland and Tubby Smith is out at Minnesota.

Howland, 55, was 233-107 in 10 years at UCLA. This year his team won the Pacific 12 regular season title and went 25-10. Ironically, his Bruins lost to Smith’s Golden Gophers in the NCAA tournament. Smith, 61, was an overall 124-81 in six seasons at Minnesota. He went 21-13 this year. Minnesota just lost to Florida in the round of 32.

UCLA and Minnesota qualifying for the NCAA's championship tournament wasn't enough. Headlines (here, here) are linking those two openings to Virginia Commonwealth University’s Shaka Smart (pictured above).

Which means, with the Sweet 16 games still to be played, the annual Shaka Watch has already started. In four years at VCU Smart, 35, has an overall record of 111-37. During the 2012-13 season Smart became the second youngest coach to win 100 games.

Last year Smart turned down an offer to make $2.5 million a year coaching at the University of Illinois. Why did he turn down roughly a million dollars more than he makes at VCU?

Perhaps Coach Smart had a list of good reasons to stay. Maybe he likes his job. Maybe he likes Richmond; he and his family have bought a home in the Fan District. Maybe he’s not chasing money, so much as it is chasing him. And, it could be that VCU’s phenom of a basketball coach is still in the process of building a project -- a basketball monster.

VCU's monster-in-progress looks like it's being built to consistently compete for the national championship. And, before Dr. Franken-Smart leaves his West Broad Street laboratory, this intense mad scientist wants to see his brainchild strut its monster stuff in the last tilt of the NCAA’s Big Dance.

When Smart first came to VCU, right away, he talked about his new system. He called it “Havoc.” Later, after one of his first games, in the media room in the Siegel Center Smart explained how it would work. He said no one would likely be playing 38 minutes a game, because to go at the pace he wanted, no player -- no matter how well conditioned -- would have the stamina. He said he would use his bench more liberally than many coaches do, because starters would play fewer minutes. 

The problem in the beginning was that he was using the previous coach’s recruits. Not to say they were bad players. Not at all. But to make Havoc work as he envisioned, Smart needed better defensive players than Joey Rodriguez, like maybe a Briante Weber. He also needed big men who could run the floor better than Jamie Skeen, like maybe a Juvonte Reddic. And, yes, he needed slashers to the basket with more finishing ability than Brad Burgess ... like Treveon Graham, for instance.

All three of the former Rams stars mentioned above were good basketball players -- guys who gave their all to the program and brought glory to it. While Smart coached them quite effectively, they weren’t handpicked by him to execute his trapping, overplaying defensive scheme.

Smart’s game plan also calls for open-court, unselfish play on offense -- a total commitment to group thinking. Truth be told, it’s harder to find the sort of player who is capable of thinking that way on most of the rosters of successful schools in the top six conferences. Weber, Reddic and Graham will all be back next year and Smart’s recruiting class for 2013-14 is fast afoot and impressive.

The pampered stars at Kentucky and Kansas don’t want to have to practice or play the smothering defense Smart insists upon. Nor do they hope/expect to play four years of college basketball.

Whereas, at VCU, the players are onboard for four years and they graduate. If Smart were to take his demanding system to a major conference school, it might be harder to sell it to talented one-and-done kids on their way to pro basketball. What Smart now has at VCU is a group of bright kids, who want to prove they can consistently beat such teams with a well-executed plan and an all-out effort.

With Dr. Franken-Smart as their coach the Rams seem to believe they can do it. After all, most of their opponents have no way of practicing realistically to face the monster known as Havoc.

Last year Smart’s players had to have loved it when he walked away from the temptation of more money. Coach is all in, too, is what they must have taken away from Smart’s continued dedication to building a program at VCU. If he does it again this time that feeling will only expand.

Yes, it’s reasonable to assume Smart will one day leave VCU to coach elsewhere. Someday an irresistible offer will come. Still, Rams fans hope the good doctor will wait for a call from an athletic director at a major program who wants to replace a longtime successful coach, a guy who's retiring as a happy man.

In the meantime, maybe next season, the biggest fans of Havoc are hoping for the Rams to be dancing to the Monster Mash, as their coach, a smiling Dr. Franken-Smart, cuts down the net for the last game of the 2013-14 season.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Picasso and Powell

In February of 1981 I saw Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” with my then-11-year-old daughter. When the Museum of Modern Art’s elevator doors opened the sight of the 25-foot wide masterpiece was so stunning the doors began to close before the spell was broken.

Picasso's “Guernica”

A few months later, upon the 100-year anniversary of Picasso’s birth, history’s most celebrated piece of anti-war art was packed up and sent to the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid, Spain. However, a large copy of “Guernica” hangs on the second floor of the United Nations building -- a tapestry donated to the U.N. by Nelson Rockefeller’s estate in 1985.

On the occasion of then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell’s February 5, 2003, presentation, underlining his president’s impatience with U.N. members seeking to avoid or delay war in Iraq, the tapestry was completely covered by a blue drape. Powell, or somebody on his staff, apparently realized that even a replica of that particular piece had to be avoided as a backdrop of any photographs of him on that fateful day.

Ten years after the invasion of Iraq, I wonder how much of what Powell said that day he knew then had been ginned up by propagandists in the Bush administration. And, I wonder how much of what he said he believed was true.


In some ways little has changed at the heart of arguments concerning war and occupation since France’s army -- as driven by the empire-building vision of Napoleon Bonaparte -- was an occupying force in Spain.

Overwhelmed by the brutality of France’s campaign of terror to crush the Spanish will to resist, Francisco Goya (1746-1828) -- a well-connected artist who had much to lose -- took it upon himself to remove the romantic veil of glory which had always been draped over paintings of war in European art. Documenting what he saw of war, firsthand, the images Goya hurled at viewers of his paintings and prints radically departed from tradition.

Instead of heroic glorification Goya offered horrific gore. The art world hasn’t been the same since.

Following in Goya’s footsteps artists such as Honore Daumier (1808-1879), Georges Rouault (1871-1959), Frans Masereel (1889-1971), Otto Dix (1892-1969), among many others, created still more haunting images illustrating the grittier aspects of modern war. In the midst of the Spanish Civil War, with the storm clouds of World War II gathering, Spaniard Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) created “Guernica.”

On April 27, 1937, to field test state-of the-art equipment, Adolf Hitler loaned a portion of Germany’s air force, the Condor Legion, to a fellow fascist dictator -- Spain’s Francisco Franco. The mission: to bomb a small town a few miles inland from the Gulf of Biscay; a Basque village that had no strategic value whatsoever.

The result: utter terror.

Bombs rained on Guernica for over three hours; cold-blooded machine gunners mowed down the poor souls who fled into the surrounding fields.

Four days later with grim photographs of mutilated corpses on the front pages of French newspapers a million outraged Parisians took to their streets to protest the bombing of Guernica.

That same day Picasso, who was in Paris, dropped everything else and began sketching studies for what became “Guernica.” As Spain’s government-in-exile had already commissioned him to create a mural for its pavilion in the upcoming Paris World’s Fair, the inspired artist already had the perfect place to exhibit his statement -- a shades-of-gray, cartoonish composition made up of a terrified huddle of people and animals.

When the fair closed “Guernica” needed a home. Not only was the Spain of Generalissimo Franco out of the question, Picasso decided it wouldn’t be safe anywhere in Europe. He was probably right. Thus, the huge canvas was shipped to the USA and eventually wound up calling MOMA its home until 1981.


Colin Powell, a former four-star general, who, unlike some of Bush’s hawkish neoconservative experts, knew war firsthand, from the inside out. It seems the Secretary knew something about art history, as well. Six weeks before the invasion of Iraq, he apparently retained a firm grasp on the potential of “Guernica” to cast a bitterly ironic light upon his history-making utterances.

That, while he may have lost his grip on what had been his honor. Instead of resigning because he disagreed with the Bush policy, Powell said, “We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities...”

Now, on the 10-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Powell lives with the memory of the strategic blue drape that was thrown over “Guernica,” and the symbolic blue drape that he helped to throw over the truth.

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Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Withering Fear of Being 'Primaried'

Because so many elected Republicans have become witheringly fearful of getting “primaried,” the GOP has developed a problem that is steadily getting worse. In order to stave off such challenges from extreme rightwing candidates, incumbents have been preemptively moving to the right on all sorts of issues.

That crab-walking migration toward the past is making Republicans less appealing in general elections, because John Q. Public usually isn‘t so happy voting for candidates who seem to have lost touch with reality. And, Jane Q. Public isn't getting any happier at all about voting for candidates who appear to be marching to the cadence of a "war on women" strategy.

"If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down,” said losing senatorial candidate Todd Akin. "I'm not a witch," said losing senatorial candidate Christine O'Donnell. That's not the end of the career-crushing quotes, but there's no need to go on.

The point is, if Republicans could get better turnouts, if the turnout in primaries could be larger and more representative of the whole party, there would be less need for Republican incumbents to fear crazy rightwing challengers. And, there would be less need for them to distance themselves from the center of the political spectrum for the entire nation.

Still, for whatever reasons in the last few years, many Republicans have acted like that option hasn't been possible. By that they're saying that most conservatives can't be motivated to participate, so the party has to go on being at the mercy of activists on the far-right.

At this writing, it seems young voters are likely to keep moving that hypothetical center of the spectrum further to the left than it is now. If that's true, the problem for Republicans is going to snowball.

Maybe Republicans should consider doing away with primaries.

When using primaries, instead of conventions, suddenly became much more popular -- 40-some years ago -- the thinking was that primaries would make the nominating process more inclusive. It was seen then as a boon to undiluted democracy, because it would do away with the decisions made behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms.

As far as either party is concerned, how has moving the decision-making to taking place in ad agencies and Super Pacs been a boon to democracy? Truth be told, primaries frequently empower the candidates with deep pockets, because they can throw a lot of money at two elections.

Well, maybe the experiment hasn't really worked so well for either party, but right now -- via primaries -- it's the Republicans who seem to be choking on their own bile.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Sequester Monster’s Horsefeathers

The Sequester Monster has been let out of its cage ... IT is on the loose!

What mischief might it do first? How afraid of tomorrow's Sequester Monster front page story should we be? What does it eat?

So far this crisis hasn’t had the suspense of the Debt Ceiling showdown in 2011. Maybe it's going to be a bigger deal than 2012’s Fiscal Cliff brouhaha was.


While the cable news channels work the monster’s story for all it’s worth, we can only guess at what history will think of 2013’s new version of the same old inside-the-beltway tug-of-war game about spending priorities. What's new here? Elephants like to spend on the military and adventures overseas; they like to subsidize big business. Donkeys like to spend on social programs and infrastructure; they'd rather subsidize a safety net.

For what it's worth, so far, Wall Street doesn’t seem all that scared of the monster's potential.

Will this new gimmick eventually be called a tipping point, a time that changed the direction of American politics? Or, will it soon be seen as another fizzler of a stunt, one that barely mattered outside the beltway?

Ten years from now, will it be called something other than the Sequester?

That seems likely.

The Sequester was spawned by the Budget Control Act of 2011, which made a law out of the compromise that ended the Debt Ceiling crisis of that year’s summer. That was the crisis that threatened to have Uncle Sam telling his creditors to be patient waiting for his overdue payments. Anyway, no matter who might be said to have originally thought up the concept of the Sequester, it was Congress that breathed life into the monster -- a rough beast slouching its way toward Easter.

Yes, both major political parties signed onto the trip we’re on with this business. It was the utter failure of Congress’ own handpicked Super Committee that set the doomsday machine's clock to ticking.

Which means to blame the White House for putting Congress on the horns of this dilemma doesn't jibe with the truth. Republicans pretending the Obama administration created the monster and set it loose know better.

Obviously, the Republican leadership in Congress has decided that it wants to keep moving from one crisis to the next for a while, perhaps through the mid-term elections. No doubt, the authors of this risky strategy have had this plan focus-grouped. Which means they think they know how the voters, or at least Republican-leaning voters, will react once the effects of slashed budgets become increasingly apparent.

One reason it’s a risky strategy is that it’s mostly just a strategy. There’s no coherent philosophy behind it; there’s no wizard behind the curtain. After all, the tax loopholes that Republican spokespersons are saying they will not allow to be closed -- not under any circumstances! -- are some of the same loopholes they wanted to consider closing last year, when the crisis du jour was that Fiscal Cliff thingy.

By the way, there’s yet another debt ceiling brinkmanship joust looming on the springtime horizon ... and so it goes.

What, pray tell, does IT eat?

Maybe 10 years from now these recent propaganda battles over money and the proper role of government will be called The Horsefeathers Avalanche.

Meanwhile, standby for the inevitable accusations from Tea Party’s propagandists, claiming the socialists in the Obama administration are gaming the effects of the sequester-driven cuts. They will say the suffering is being targeted to rough up and outrage middle class voters. That, heavens-to-Betsy, while the federal government continues to redistribute your tax dollars to the purses of welfare queens driving solid gold Cadillacs.

What the GOP brain trust may have taken away from those focus groups was that if Republicans can’t come coalesce as party in 2013 to offer up some warmed-over conservative-minded solutions for real problems -- like, right now who wants to talk about problems with guns? -- then the best thing to do would be to create some new problems, irritations Republicans can seem to have a hand in soothing.

In theory, such a strategy might hamstring Democratic efforts to get public support for their warmed-over liberal solutions to problems such as health care costs, a crumbling infrastructure and climate change. For sure, the ax-wielding Sequester Monster has already made one somewhat liberal opinion writer become a shameless mixer of metaphors.

As far as any fresh ideas go, with sequels to The Horsefeathers Avalanche already on the drawing board, who’s got the time to consider anything new?

And, so it goes...

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