Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Jam Session

I played high school basketball and for the past couple of years have renewed my interest in the game on Sunday mornings at the JCA. (Although I haven’t played in a couple of months)

The Jacksonville Jam are in their first year of existence as a professional basketball organization. They’re in the ABA, a far-flung league that gives guys hope that there is a future for them somewhere up the chain of basketball leagues. Part of the Jam’s promotional program is to employ an “11th man” a quasi-celebrity to join in the warm-up, sit on the bench and get a little game time as well.

I was the 11th man last Friday as the Jam played the Atlanta Vision. The Jam are in the playoffs, the Vision are a schedule filling team. So I figured to get some playing time, and even have a chance to score.

“The guys will embrace you,” the team’s PR person told me as I was doing the news live at 5 and 6 from the UNF Arena. And he was right.

“I’m Tony,” one of the post players said to me as they walked on the floor for warm-ups.

I joined the team in the locker room just in time to hear Coach Steve Tucker give his pregame instructions. “I’ve said all along a team will come out of the shadows, why not this one!” Tucker asked the Jam as they huddled in one alcove. He was clearly challenging his team to make a statement tonight.

The actual time on the floor starts just like any other basketball experience: the lay-up drill. The first thing I noticed was that I wasn’t one of the “bigs.” At 6’3” I’m used to being an inside player, somebody who’s asked to bang the boards, set picks and start the break. But in this lay-up line, I was somewhere between small and little.

I made a few lay-ups, missed a few, missed most of the warm-up jumpers but stayed in the drill until the end when an assistant called me over to say, “You’re starting.” I thought that was kind of funny but then he laid it out for me.

“We’re going to win the tip and run “T-Flat.” You go to the baseline with the other four guys while the point brings the ball up. He’ll beat his man and drive the lane; you flash out to the wing and spot up. He’ll feed you the ball and you hit the jumper. Then get back on defense.”

Sounded simple enough.

The Jam do a good job of putting on a show. They have “Jam Idol” before each game, letting fans show their vocal talent and the winners get to sing God Bless America and the National Anthem. They’ve converted one of the racquetball courts into a kid’s playground and another into a merchandise mall. The opening sequence has an NBA feel with music and loud introductions. I was the last starter introduced, slapping low fives with the mascots and joining the team at center court.

“A fast start,” Coach Tucker exhorted his team.

“Get back and play defense after we run the play,” he told me on my way to the floor. “They’ll try and isolate you but after we get the ball back, we’ll call time-out and get you out of there.” I thought I’d get a few trips down the floor but I was now told I’d be out after one possession. I’m not sorry to say I was a little disappointed.

As predicted, we won the tip and headed down the floor on offense.

“Down here Sam,” ABA All-Star Jerry Williams said as he pointed me to the baseline. It all seemed perfectly scripted. And I had practiced the wing jumper in the warm-ups so I felt ready. Sure enough, the point guard beat his man and was driving to the basket. I flashed to the wing and was wide open. And that’s when the guy with the ball pulled up and shot his own 15-foot jumper.

“Wait a minute,” I wanted to scream, but the ball was coming in the other direction already. I picked up the guy who wasn’t being guarded (I found out later he played on the And 1 tour all last year) and luckily, he didn’t get the ball. I was in a good position for the defensive rebound until some 6’10” guy (a teammate called “Spiderman”) swooped in to grab the ball. I was tipped out of bounds and that’s when the timeout was called and I went to the bench.

I sat there for a while watching as the Jam went to work. Inside, outside, three pointers, the talent on the floor was impressive. You could see that each player had skill but all had a little hole in their game. Or they couldn’t quite integrate into a team concept.

Tucker paced the sideline yelling offensive sets “Two game,” “Name,” “Stack,” and many others. Intense doesn’t begin to describe his demeanor. When the Jam had a 42-point lead, I thought I might see the floor. But it wasn’t until a minute remained in the half that I got back in. Two offensive possessions resulted in some time clock burning followed by a defensive double-team in the corner that lead to an errant three pointer at the end of the half.

Tucker’s speech in the locker room was clear and to the point: Send a message to the rest of the league and keep piling on the points. Atlanta had beaten Wilmington just a week earlier, the same Wilmington squad that had beaten the Jam just two nights earlier on the road.

“The worst thing you can do is play them even this half,” Tucker told his team. “Pour it on these guys because they won’t stop playing and send a message to Syracuse and other cities, we’re for real.” That’s when I knew I wouldn’t be playing again but rejoined the team on the bench to watch the 3rd quarter unfold.

Tucker was right; the Vision didn’t quit and quickly chipped into the Jam’s halftime lead.

“When we get back in there,” Williams told his fellow starters, “We need to bring the hammer.” And they did winning 141-95.

And I never touched the ball.

It was fun though, getting a first hand look at the team and the talent. Tucker is serious and the players are accountable to him and each other. They’re plenty talented, but like I said they all have a hole, however small, in their game. I can’t imagine how good the guys in the NBA must be!

I’ll stick to the Sunday morning game.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

I Miss Dale

I’m a little sad today.

After spending the whole day at Daytona International Speedway on Thursday for the Gatorade Duel 150 qualifying races, I realized my real, visceral passion for NASCAR is gone.

I certainly looked for it.

Thought about it all day.

But I just couldn’t find it.

Even sitting in Victory Lane, twice, seeing Tony Stewart and the Home Depot crew and Jeff Gordon and the Dupont crew celebrate their victories, I just didn’t have it. I walked through the garages. I went to see some fans. I was in the pits looking at the crews work at the cars go by. There is no sensation like standing a the end of pit road going into turn one and have the cars coming at you and going by at over 185 mph. But I just didn’t love it like I used to (sounds like a country song).

So why?

I was always attracted to NASCAR as a sport because of the personalities. The drivers, the crew chiefs, the owners, all self-made men interested in their sport. They were interested in racin’. They liked to drive fast. They wanted to beat the other guys.

Every time.

They weren’t happy with second or fifth or a top ten, they wanted to win and they would do just about anything to get there.

Cale, Richard, Dale, Donnie, Bobby, all of them knew each other, knew their strengths and weaknesses, could speak about each other personally and it was real. It seems rather homogenized now. Very corporate. Victory Lane is orchestrated with the “partners” getting their shots while everybody stands around to watch.

Maybe it’s become routine for Gordon and Stewart but even the “Wooo” from their crews while having their picture taken was muted. Stewart and Gordon’s exit from their cars seemed staged. Their answers were very stock, very carefully crafted. Don’t get me wrong, they’re both great drivers and their interviews are full of sound bites we can use for weeks at a time. But there was no excitement to it.

Could NASCAR be losing a part of its core fan base? A quick tour through the infield reveals a lot of expensive RV’s and not a lot of tents and pick up trucks. Fans are more sophisticated, for sure, but NASCAR was built on fans that loved the cars, the drivers, the speed and the track. The smell of burnt rubber and a blown engine. It’s still there in small doses, but the days of the old infield are gone.

I miss Dale.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Hall of Fame Vote

I’d have written this earlier but I’ve been tied up answering and deleting all of the hate email that has filled up my mailbox since the Pro Football Hall of Fame vote was announced. There are confidentiality rules that come with the honor of being one of 40 selectors on the committee so there’s only so much I can say. But I can tell you this: It was a long, sometimes contentious, very conscientious, well thought out meeting on Saturday where we reviewed the 17 finalists who had made it to the final list.

From 7:30 until 2:15 with a couple of short breaks, we met in a room at the Miami Beach Convention Center and meticulously went over the credentials, careers and achievements of all 17 eligible for discussion.

The order of discussion is rotated every year by position, so they guys who are on the table at 8AM aren’t forgotten by 2PM. The list is whittled down to 10 (11 this year because of a tie) and then down to 6 as the candidates compete against each other for one of the final six spots. Once the final six are chosen, each gets an up or down vote.

I’ve been on the committee for 12 years and have come to the conclusion that if a player makes the final six, he should get in. Some of the other members of the committee deride that attitude and one in his national column called it an “ill-advised” plea to put all six, no matter who they are, in the Hall. But I happen to agree with that philosophy now, even if I didn’t before.

Not voting for a player who gets to the final six is either an act of personal vendetta or arrogance. Especially if he’s a player recommended by the Senior Committee. If a player is brought to the full commit from the Senior meeting in August, he’s been closely inspected and more scrutinized than anybody else on the ballot.

Seniors are pulled out of the morass of hundreds of players who some how “slipped through the cracks” (some of my fellow committee members hate that expression.) But it’s true, they either got caught up in a numbers game or the social pressures of the time when they were eligible (see Bob Hayes) didn’t allow their induction. So if a guy makes it to the final six, it means that a vast majority of your fellow committee members think that he’s Hall of Fame worthy.

So you’re the only smart one among the bunch? You’re the one who’s going to keep him out although some of the top people in your profession sitting in that room, listening to the same arguments think he should get in? I have to say that it doesn’t surprise me that some of the people on the committee have that attitude because that’s how they conduct themselves on a regular basis. But I have a lot of respect for the process and if a guy gets to the final six, he’s getting my vote.

I didn’t want to vote for Michael Irvin but he made the final six so I gave him a “yes” even though in my personal “Hall” he’s not a Hall of Famer.

The reduction to 11 didn’t surprise me even though just retired Commissioner Paul Tagliabue didn’t make the first cut. We spent 57 minutes talking about Tagliabue. Some of it was heated, with his proponents pointing out the legacy he left and the growth of the league while his detractors brought up examples of just the opposite. I think Tagliabue will eventually get into the Hall. He was part numbers game part incomplete career in terms of not getting more consideration.

When the vote got down from 11 to 6, I could have easily made a case for the five who didn’t make the final cut. They all have Hall of Fame credentials. I am surprised by the lack of support for Gary Zimmerman. As his presenter pointed out, he was the only player of the 17 on the ballot to be a two-time all-decade performer in the league. The best in two different decades but not in the Hall of Fame? Could have also been a numbers game with the plethora of offensive linemen on the ballot.

Again, I was disappointed that Art Monk didn’t get to the final six. Some of his detractors in the past publicly said they were changing their vote, so I thought he might have enough support this year. But it might have been a numbers game as well. Or it could be a backlash against the non-stop email campaign from Monk’s supporters among fans who harangue me and the other voters for not having already put Monk in the Hall. I guess they’re not different than the Cowboy fans who wrote after Rayfield Wright and Troy Aikman were in the same class that I had some kind of anti-Cowboy bias.

Bob Kuchenberg belongs in the Hall, but there is a sentiment that Jim Langer and Larry Little are already in and that’s enough offensive linemen from that Dolphins team. That’s baloney; he’s a Hall of Famer.

Putting Roger Wehrli in was long overdue. As one of my fellow selectors said it was a “sophisticated pick.”

As a member of the committee, I don’t have a say in the process, but we were able to give our opinions to several of the Hall’s Board of Trustees. As a group, the selectors would like to see the initial process of paring down the list changed and we’d like to see the class bigger, especially with the addition of another Senior Candidate. Don’t be surprised if next year, the class could grow to seven.

Other than that, I can tell you it’s a serious process with a lot of work done by members of the committee. Make fun of the process, call the whole thing silly if you like but I can tell you first-hand, in that room, it’s serious business.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super Bowl XLI

“I thought these were supposed to be the two best teams,” one fan joked at the end of the first quarter. A kickoff runback, three fumbles and an interception.

The Bears took the lead on Devin Hester’s opening kickoff run back for a touchdown and lead 14-6 after a good catch by Musin Muhammad from Rex Grossman. In between, Peyton Manning eluded a sack and hit a wide-open Reggie Wayne for a touchdown on a blown coverage although the holder botched the conversion.

Even though the Bears had the lead, you didn’t think they were in control, nor did it seem that Indy had any grasp of the game either.

And it was raining. Harder and harder.

But the Colts seemed to accept the fact that the game was going to be played in these conditions and they were going to just have to find a way to get it done. The Bears continued to try and run the ball and why not? The Colts were the worst team against the run in the regular season, but they’ve become a very stout defense in the playoffs.


“Because we’re playing better,” Tony Dungy deadpanned during the week. That and the return of Bob Sanders to the defensive backfield.

When the Jaguars ran for 375 yards against the Colts in December, Sanders wasn’t in the game. Adam Vinatieri hit a 29-yard field goal after a nice drive to bring Indy to within 5 at 14-9.

Manning seems to have settled down after his first quarter interception and the Colts offense looks like the Colts offense of the regular season not the one that struggled against Baltimore and into the post-season. But the key is they’re running the football. Dominic Rhodes and Joseph Addai are all over the place running and catching and the Bears seem content to give them that. Marvin Harrison is making some catches, although none for big yardage.

Another controlled drive lead to a Colts touchdown by Rhodes and a 16-14 halftime lead for Indianapolis. Chicago is in the game despite having virtually no offense in the second quarter. Take away the opening kickoff return and this game looks like all Colts.

They’ll get the ball in the second half and they take it right down and score on 13 plays getting another Vinatieri FG. But they converted three long third downs and look to be wearing the Chicago defense out.

On Lex and Terry I picked the Colts, mainly because I didn’t think the Bears with Rex Grossman could score enough points. I didn’t give the Colts defense enough credit but Grossman is living up to the downside of his billing. He’s fumbled a couple of snaps and tripped over his own feet once going back to throw. He has to be efficient and smart, but Manning is doing that instead of trying to hit the home run. It seems that he knows that if he doesn’t make any stupid mistakes, the Colts can get the job done. A different feeling for him, letting his defense create field position and play a bit of a clock management game.

The Colts get another field goal but so do the Bears. It’s now 22-17 and Chicago, despite no offense, is still in the game. Grossman’s pass to the sideline was intercepted by Kelvin Hayden a backup, and returned 56 yards for a touchdown. That looks like it’ll seal it for the Colts barring something weird happening.

As soon as Grossman let go of the ball everybody wondered “Why?” It was an easy pick and the runback was only in question as to whether he stepped out or not.

Colts win and the stats are dominating. Twenty-four first downs to eleven, and a few of those for the Bears came in the last drive.

Manning is the MVP, although they could have easily given it to the offensive line or both running backs.

Despite the rain and the early sloppy play, the game went as expected. Indy scored and Chicago couldn’t match it. Manning wins the big game by playing out of character, just taking what the defense will give him.

A nice win for Tony Dungy too, showing that you can coach without being a raving maniac. Leadership isn’t all about screaming and hollering after all.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Miami’s Nice-Super Bowl Preview

It’s a very different Super Bowl week for a lot of reasons. The two teams, Indianapolis and Chicago are just 200 miles from each other in the Midwest. While the Bears have a national following, one player, Peyton Manning, defines the Colts.

Can he win the big one?

Can he take the Colts to the Super Bowl?

There’s no controversy, there are no “Bad Boys” on either team (figuratively of course. Tank Johnson would qualify in a literal sense).

It seems that there are 300,000 people headed to Miami and South Beach for the weekend just to be a part of the atmosphere. The last time the game was in Miami was 1999. Miami has become “hot” since then with TV shows and nightlife that glorifies the party scene. It’s the place where many NFL players head right after their games on Sunday to get in a party on Sunday night and through Monday before they have to get back to work on Wednesday. Some charter jets, others (from the Jaguars and the Bucs) jump on Southwest to Ft. Lauderdale to get there ASAP.

There also seems to be a pent up demand from corporate America to get something going at this Super Bowl. Right after September 11th, most corporations cut back on their entertainment spending, drying up a lot of the big dollars that they spent on clients to send them to big events like the Super Bowl. Add that to the fact that the game has been in Houston (ho-hum), Jacksonville (too little) and Detroit (too chilly) and all of the sudden folks are coming out of the woodwork to get to Miami and be part of the scene.

One columnist in Miami wrote it best when the headline on his Tuesday article said, “Today, the circus comes to town.” It really is a traveling circus, and the people who come to the Super Bowl are attracted to what Miami has to offer. Nightlife, strip clubs, cocktails and restaurants. The promise that you might see a celebrity or get invited to somebody’s party is a strong attraction for the Super bowl set.


Who needs tickets?

The game is an ancillary part of the week. The Maxim, Playboy, SI and ESPN parties are the big tickets people are trying to scam.

I think this is my 25th Super Bowl, and the whole thing has changed. In fact, it seems to change every year. Sometimes for the better, sometimes, not so much. This year the league has designated certain parts of South Florida as official “Super Bowl Zones.” But make no mistake about it. If it’s not happening in South Beach, it might as well not be happening at all.