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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

James Wolfe's New Novel Explores NCAA's Worst Nightmare: A Fixed Championship Game

James Wolfe's novel How to Rig the NCAA Basketball Championship for Fun and Profit provides an account of how a referee could decide the outcome of college basketball's crown jewel event and get away with that crime. Sadly, the basic premise is not far-fetched: since the infamous 1951 scandal involving 32 players at seven schools (including powerhouses CCNY and Kentucky) there has been at least one major NCAA basketball point shaving case per decade and while the previous incidents have involved players, not referees, it is certainly conceivable that a referee could be involved in such activity; just four years ago, former NBA referee Tim Donaghy pleaded guilty to providing information to mob-affiliated gamblers and although there is no evidence that he fixed games his case revealed how difficult it would be to detect point shaving and/or other illegal activity conducted by an unethical referee.

While it is realistic to propose that the NCAA Basketball Championship could be fixed by a referee, some aspects of the scenario presented in Wolfe's novel are implausible, most notably the amount of money wagered by Wolfe's crooked referee, Stanley Osborn: a $1,000,000 bet would immediately shift the line and attract the attention of the authorities no matter how cleverly that action was "balanced" by Osborn's bookie. The novel is written in first person style, with Osborn describing how he went from being a scrupulous referee to a referee who manipulated dozens of games prior to fixing the outcome of the NCAA Championship Game. Osborn tries to justify his conduct (to himself and to the reader) by describing at length the flaws and corruption that are an inherent part of the way that the NCAA administrates big-time college sports in general and Division I basketball in particular. Osborn's plan is to fix the NCAA Championship Game and then escape from the authorities by creating a new identity for himself so that he can live a life of luxury on a tropical island. Osborn is not entirely motivated by greed; once he has made his escape he plans to reveal to the media exactly how he pulled off this caper and thus force the NCAA to initiate various reforms. Again, it is possible that a referee could fix a game or at least shave points but it stretches credulity to suggest that a referee could fix the NCAA Championship Game and then just scoot off to a tropical island without experiencing any repercussions, let alone make a clean getaway while announcing to the world exactly who he is and how he pulled off such a monumental crime. I am also not convinced that anyone with the audacity and lack of ethics necessary to fix one of the world's biggest sporting events would feel such a burning desire to reveal to the world how he did this with the expressed intention of ultimately improving college sports; that is not a motive that I have ever seen attributed to anyone involved in the various point shaving scandals that have taken place in the past several decades.

One of the most important aspects of writing engaging fiction is to convince the reader to buy the premise and suspend disbelief. How to Rig the NCAA Basketball Championship for Fun and Profit presents a scenario that is a bit far-fetched from my perspective--and from a technical standpoint the text would have benefited from proofreading to eliminate several typographical mistakes and grammatical errors--but in spite of these flaws it is a light and entertaining read. The book concludes with a manifesto of sorts written by Osborn explaining how he got away with fixing games and proposing reforms to improve the NCAA's administration of college sports. Nothing groundbreaking is presented in this material but I do agree with the basic sentiment that the NCAA is to some degree inherently corrupt because it is supposedly a non-profit, education-oriented enterprise but in fact it is generating huge amounts of money by elevating sports over academics. It seems like nearly every day we learn of a new scandal taking place at a big NCAA program and money is often at the root of these problems; schools are either cheating in various ways to try to win more games and make more money or they are covering up misconduct by various athletes/coaches because those athletes/coaches can potentially generate huge amounts of revenue. Wolfe's novel is a well-intentioned plea for a reassessment of how the NCAA functions.

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:11 AM


Monday, March 12, 2012

Can Jeremy Lin Really Save the Poorly Constructed Knicks?

Prior to the spectacular rise of Jeremy Lin from bench player about to be cut to international sensation, the New York Knicks were a sub-.500 team that lacked both style and substance; they were painful to watch because of their isolation-based offense revolving around Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire and because of their aversion to consistently doing the dirty work--rebounding and defense--that is essential to create a winning program. "Linsanity" briefly provided some excitement for the fans and some wins in the standings but now the Knicks are, to borrow the overused and yet entirely apt Dennis Green quote, "who we thought they were": an overrated and overhyped team.

The Knicks essentially tanked the 2009 and 2010 seasons to position themselves under the salary cap in order to make a run at LeBron James--but I never believed that there was a realistic chance that LeBron James intended to become captain of the Gotham Titanic. I expected him to stay in Cleveland--where he had a great chance to lead the Cavaliers to a championship--but in my 2010 All-Star Game recap I mentioned the only scenario that I thought could convince James to leave Cleveland:

"Despite all of the feverish speculation about James leaving Cleveland to play in New York or New Jersey, neither of those scenarios makes any sense; James understands that his resume will not be complete unless he wins an NBA title--10 or 15 years from now he does not want to be the butt of jokes on TNT a la Charles Barkley (with all due respect to the ring-less Round Mound of Rebound) and James is smart enough to realize that the New York and New Jersey franchises are not built to win championships. However, if James and Wade work out a way to play for the same team as a package deal then that team instantly becomes very formidable, assuming that the rest of the roster is not completely gutted to pay the two superstars. The only way that I see James leaving Cleveland is if the Cavaliers fall short of winning the 2010 title and he is able to partner with Wade in the aforementioned manner."

Cleveland's worst sports nightmare came to life in the months after I wrote those words--the 2010 Cavs fell apart in the playoffs as LeBron James quit and then James bolted to Miami to team up with Wade and Chris Bosh. Meanwhile, the Knicks--who apparently felt compelled to do something with all of that salary cap space they had cleared--signed Amare Stoudemire and prayed that he could be the franchise's savior. The 2011 Knicks feasted on a soft early schedule to start out 16-9 but they were barely above .500 (28-26) when they traded four players, three draft picks and $3 million in cash to acquire Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Renaldo Balkman, Anthony Carter and Shelden Williams. Stoudemire, Anthony and Billups were supposed to comprise New York's "Big Three" to match the "Big Threes" in Miami and Boston but it took quite a stretch of the imagination to believe that New York's trio compared with the Heat's three All-NBA caliber studs or Boston's collection of future Hall of Famers. New York went 14-14 after the trade, including 14-13 when Anthony played. The media then portrayed the Knicks as the proverbial "team that nobody wants to face in the first round"--and the Boston Celtics made that assessment look foolish by sweeping New York, 4-0. Portland was also considered a "team that nobody wants to face in the first round" last season and in my 2011 Playoff Preview I wrote, "Someone should go through the archives and find out the winning percentages of such teams, because I suspect that most "teams nobody wanted to face" actually did not go particularly far in the postseason (I think that Carmelo Anthony's Nuggets received that title several of the years that they lost in the first round)."

Before the truncated 2012 season began many media members continued to hype up the Knicks as a potential Eastern Conference power, while I picked the Knicks to finish sixth in the East. The Knicks "amnestied" Chauncey Billups and limped to an 8-15 record without a legitimate starting point guard before Lin led the team to seven straight wins--but now reality has set in again and the Knicks are currently 18-23, clinging to the eighth playoff spot. The media, the fans and the "stat gurus" relentlessly blamed Isiah Thomas for everything that went wrong with the Knicks a few years ago but the Knicks were 33-49 in 2006-07, Thomas' first season as coach. Granted, those were hardly the franchise's glory days but in the subsequent seasons the Knicks exceeded that win total just once (last season) and they are currently barely above that winning percentage now.

I wrote these prophetic words at the beginning of the Mike D'Antoni era:

"...there are two interesting dynamics to watch with the Knicks, namely what roster changes new team president Donnie Walsh makes in the next year or two and whether or not D'Antoni is willing/able to coax a better defensive performance out of this team.

'Defense' may be a four letter word to D'Antoni but if the Knicks want to spell a certain 12 letter word--'championship'--for the first time since 1973 then defense will have to become a part of their collective vocabulary."


Further Reading:

Knicks Buy Ticket for "LeBron Lottery"

New York State of Mind

New York State of Mind, Part II

Why Would LeBron James Become Captain of the Gotham Titanic?

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posted by David Friedman @ 4:30 PM