The National Basketball Association, reacting to a statement in a story in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that some Seattle SuperSonic players deliberately lost a game last season to the Philadelphia 76ers in order to get Coach Tom Nissalke fired (SI, Dec. 10), had its director of security, John W. Joyce, investigate the matter. On Dec 21, NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy issued a pompous statement that referred to the author of the article as "one Bob Briner" and claimed that the NBA's "thorough and detailed investigation has produced no evidence to support Mr. Briner's allegations, and I have concluded that there is none available."
Despite Kennedy's slighting reference to him, Briner is no basketball dilettante but the former general manager of the ABA's Dallas Chaparrals, which the NBA commissioner ought to know. Briner's charge that the Seattle game was dumped was not made sensationally but as part of a sustained and serious criticism of professional athletes as a group.
And, contrary to the NBA report, there is considerable evidence. The Seattle players' disaffection for Nissalke was common knowledge around the pro leagues. Players were heard to say that they were going to get rid of Nissalke in the Philadelphia game because they knew that one more loss at that time would mean his dismissal. One player said the night before the game, "There's no way in the world Tom is going to stay, because some of our guys want to lose him more than they want to win games." An NBA referee, who later denied saying it, reportedly confided to ABA players that Seattle players had told him much the same thing.
January 6, 1974
Significantly, before the game none of the Sonic players would look at Nissalke or talk to him. Seattle sportswriters, wondering about the result, asked pointed questions, got no answers and described it simply as a poorly played game. But Jack Kiser of the Philadelphia Daily News implied that the game was lost intentionally, repeated the statement later and gave reasons why he felt that way.
Briner's charge of dump may never be proved to the hilt, but for the NBA commissioner to say there is no evidence to support it is irresponsible.
Our friend Kelly, the superfan from Canada (SCORECARD, Nov. 26) who jumps back and forth around North America and even to Europe to see the sporting events he favors, and who doesn't bother buying a ticket until the last minute, saw the jam-packed Grey Cup game in Toronto, as predicted. He calmly refused to buy two tickets he was offered for $75 as too expensive, and instead got two on the 40-yard line for $40—20 minutes before kickoff.
A radical change in the concept of amateurism in the U.S. may be at hand. At its annual convention this coming week in San Francisco, the NCAA will consider an amendment to its constitution that would allow a collegiate athlete who is a professional in one sport to compete as an amateur in others. Esoterically, this means that a pro football player, say, who has gone back to school to get his degree could compete as a shotputter in track. More practically—and the NCAA is nothing if not practical—it means that promising high school athletes who sign professional baseball contracts can still play NCAA football or basketball, or whatever. The present rule forbids this, saying once a professional, always and everywhere a professional. Since only about 5% of the kids who sign baseball contracts ever reach the big leagues, even for a cup of coffee, it means that most are washed up as competitive athletes at a very young age. Under the new plan, their abortive baseball careers behind them, they can try again for football or basketball scholarships and a college career. Because an athletic scholarship is in itself a professional reward, it would appear that the NCAA is only recognizing reality. Nonetheless, the amendment would be a welcome one, and we hope it passes, especially since it is likely to lead to a further liberalization of sometimes stringent restrictions. For instance, collegiate golf and tennis players may be allowed to compete in pro-am events without losing their eligibility (for playing against professionals), and athletes in one sport may be permitted to coach in another sport or officiate at non-professional games, for pay.
While other news occupied baseball's attention during the recent major league meetings, a quieter but possibly more significant story bubbled offstage. For the last few years, versatile pitching machines (particularly one called JUGS) have been infiltrating the game, and the campaign is picking up speed. Pitching machines have been around for ages, but most of them have been merely refined catapults, with a metal arm that cradles the ball and flings it, or mortarlike cannons. JUGS, a prime example of the new type, is basically comprised of rubber wheels spinning side by side. The ball is inserted between the wheels and comes flying out the other side. By adjusting the speed of the wheels and their angle, straight balls or a variety of curves may be produced at varying velocities. The machine can also be used to "hit" pop fouls to catchers, ground balls to infielders, fly balls to outfielders and so on.
High school and college coaches love the machines, but one of the most rewarding areas has been in boys' baseball. For example, in 1972 a coach in Houston began to use JUGS as the pitcher for both sides in games played by nine-year-olds. Usually, in games involving kids that age, the pitchers are either overpowering or can't get the ball over, and nothing much happens. Games are deadly dull, the players are bored and baseball suffers. With the pitching machine throwing nice medium straight balls over the heart of the plate, nobody walks and the kids start to hit the ball, which, after all, is the basic idea of the game. In Houston, the league's overall batting average jumped from a pre-JUG .190 to a resounding .389. Hits per game for both teams rose from nine to 28, walks dropped from 15 to 0. Games became much faster. The average number of players coming to bat rose from 46 to 73, and defensive fielding plays (ground balls, pop-ups, flies) nearly tripled.
This way, batting and fielding skills improve tremendously, and pitching does not become important until the kids are older and better equipped physically to cope with it. The significance for baseball is this: instead of a disproportionate number of outstanding pitchers, the game can look forward to a rich supply of trained hitters and fielders, too. In brief, baseball may be able to forget the artificial stimulus of "designated" players and return to basic skills for the balance the game needs.
PRICE OF FAME
A poll of Canadian sportswriters and broadcasters decided that the team of the year in Canada in 1973 was the Montreal Expos, for making such a determined bid to win in the National League East. The most disappointing team, they decided, was also the Montreal Expos, for not winning.
Holiday travelers often board their dogs at a kennel while they are away, usually for nominal rates. Those stricken with guilty consciences for leaving their loved ones behind can pay more. For example, one kennel in the Miami area offers facilities at rates from $3 to $29.95 a day. $29.95 a day? For a dog? Well, yes. But, for $29.95 Strongheart gets a three-room apartment, color TV, air conditioning, wall-to-wall carpeting, 24-hour human companionship, AM and FM background music, as well as brunch and dinner and a vitamin-enriched cocktail at 5 p.m. Arf.
LOVE'S OLD SWEET SONG
Poor Secretariat. No privacy at all. Millions watched him in his televised races, and now millions more are poring over every detail of his dawning sex life. First reports that the horse was sterile were refuted by his owner, Mrs. Penny Tweedy, and officials of Claiborne Farm, where the horse now stands, said it was probable that a test mare Secretariat had been bred to was pregnant. But one pregnancy, alas, is not enough. What horse breeders want are lots of pregnancies—a stallion services perhaps three dozen mares during the mating season. It may well be that Secretariat, while potent enough to service a full book of mares, may prove so listless in the production of mature sperm cells that a relatively small percentage of his mares will become impregnated.
Sending a mare to Secretariat under such circumstances would thus become a considerable gamble. One syndicate shareholder was selling his "season" to Secretariat for $75,000, plus an additional $25,000 if the mare becomes pregnant; the conditions governing such arrangements could change radically. For one thing, if a mare is not impregnated by Secretariat it might be difficult to arrange a mating for her with another top stallion in the same breeding year.
Riva Ridge is having much the same trouble as his famous stablemate, which has raised questions about the possible effect medication might have had on the two of them. Curiously, two new stallions at rival Spendthrift Farm have had some trouble, too. Sham, who challenged Secretariat so forcefully in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, apparently had a mild heart condition that worried his shareholders for a while, and Cougar II, the superb handicap horse who is entering the stud at the advanced age of eight, has shown distressing signs of being what horsemen call a shy breeder—he's just not much interested in mares.
ROOM AT THE TOP
If you can get your mind off running backs and wide receivers for a minute, we'd like to bring you the Top Ten for 1973, as selected by the ICF. The ICF, for your information, is the International Cheerleading Foundation, which is affiliated with the NCAA, and here is its ranking of the best cheerleading squads in the country: 1) Florida; 2) Southern California; 3) Michigan; 4) Auburn; 5) North Carolina; 6) Alabama; 7) Georgia Tech; 8) Kansas; 9) South Carolina; 10) Oregon. The ICF report notes that Florida had its best cheerleaders back from a season earlier, whereas Southern California, the 1972 champion, was rebuilding.
O.K.? Later this year, if all goes well, we'll bring you a report on the best ankle tapers. Competition begins at the American Football Coaches Conference in San Francisco in January and concludes at the National Athletic Trainers Association meeting in Kansas City in June. Winners receive the Conform Challenge Cup, a sculptured rendering of a foot and ankle, properly bandaged.
DRINK UP, CHAPS
Great Britain is in a shaky state at the moment, what with the energy crisis, strikes, three-day work weeks and continuing inflation. It might have been anticipation of this, or possibly only coincidence, but according to the annual report of the commissioners of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise for the fiscal year that ended in March 1973, Britons broke all previous records for drinking, smoking and gambling. Wine, beer and spirits consumption was up 8%, smoking up 5.25% and gambling (with bookmakers and on the football pools) up 10%. Such dissolute behavior was a delight for the treasury, which gleaned its highest-ever revenue from taxes and duties on these pleasurable vices.
THE WCT HANDICAP
When last year's model of tennis peace was put into effect, Lamar Hunt's World Championship Tennis agreed to restrict its schedule to the first four months of the calendar year. The International Lawn Tennis Federation would have the other eight months and would keep its hands off players during the WCT's time slot.
The WCT season climaxes early in May with the top eight qualifiers meeting in playoffs in Dallas. Remember the classic between Rosewall and Laver two years ago? And Smith-Ashe this past May was another top match. But now, unfortunately, there is a snag. A codicil to the peace-with-honor agreement, negotiated before the creation of a players' association, required that the WCT, in compiling its player standings, count not only its own tournaments but the previous year's Wimbledon, Forest Hills and French and Italian championships.
As a consequence, the competitive value of the WCT season is virtually ruined before a yellow ball has been hit in anger. Players who shone in 1973—especially those who crossed the Wimbledon picket lines—are a shoo-in to reach the WCT 1974 finals. Jan Kodes, the Wimbledon champion, starts play in one WCT division with 170 points, while Rod Laver has only five and is so discouraged at the silly business that he has told friends that he may junk the whole season. In another division, virtually all the playoff berths are clinched already.
The Association of Tennis Professionals asks only that Wimbledon be discounted this year, but it would seem that the WCT arrangement is foolish under any circumstances. It would be like baseball waving the A's and the Mets into next year's playoffs because of their 1973 success. If the WCT chose to ignore this aspect of the agreement it would seem to be off the hook morally, since Vijay Amritraj of India, a top drawing card, is reportedly being kept out of WCT play by his national federation in clear violation of the WCT-ILTF peace agreement.
The WCT season begins late in January in Philadelphia. Hopefully, all the players will start off even. If not, maybe the Pennsylvania Racing Commission should step into the tennis picture, assign weights as it does to horses and make it a genuine handicap.
THEY SAID IT
•Bep Guidolin, Boston Bruin coach: "Winning is the name of the game. The more you win the less you get fired."
•Jerry West, on his new role as captain of the Los Angeles Lakers: "All it means is I get to shake hands with guys I already know."
•John Breen, former general manager of the inept Houston Oilers: "We were tipping off our plays. Whenever we broke from the huddle, three backs were laughing and one was pale as a ghost."
•J.D. Morgan, UCLA's athletic director, on the intensity of his school's rivalry with USC: "If we met in tiddle-dywinks, everybody in town would want to know who plays left tiddly."