Published December 31, 2016
It’s that time again.
Another year has flown by.
As I do whenever a new year dawns, I look back at the all-too voluminous amount of words that yours truly has splashed over the Internet, and pick out those pieces where I was on the money, and many more where I was less than prescient.
Here we go!
On Ben Wallace’s jersey retirement (Jan 18)
Rodman of the “Bad Boys” and Wallace of the “Goin’ to Work” Pistons teams—who damn near matched Rodman and company with two straight championships of their own—perfectly represented the city for which they played.
Forget that the Palace is in Auburn Hills. Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace played their basketball for Detroit, and when I say Detroit I mean the entire region, filled with natives and suburbanites who closely identify with the city’s hard scrabble resilience.
They couldn’t throw the basketball into the ocean but they made sure the other team couldn’t, either.
The Pistons, a franchise that needed about 25 years to start doing things the right way after moving here from Fort Wayne, should get some recognition for richly acknowledging the contributions of two players from small colleges who played a glamorous game without any glamour whatsoever.
Rodman and Wallace were two bulls in the NBA’s china shop. Good for them—and for the Pistons.
Saturday was the franchise’s night, too.
The Pistons would later retire Chauncey Billups’ no. 1 and have recently announced plans to retire Rip Hamilton’s no. 32 this season.
On new Lions GM Bob Quinn’s intro presser (Jan 12)
Quinn didn’t elaborate much. If someone would have asked him what he ate for breakfast, he would have said, “Food.”
When the 20-minute sparring was over, we didn’t know much more about Bob Quinn’s plans for the Lions than we knew before he was introduced by president Rod Wood.
But we do know this.
Quinn is clearly more about substance than style. And that by itself ought to encourage Lions fans.
He did have some kind words for owner Martha Ford and for his family—and for the Patriots organization. He thanked so many Krafts, he made the family sound like the Brady Bunch.
So it’s obviously not about winning the press conference. It’s about winning football games.
The Lions have won nine of them—so far—in Quinn’s maiden voyage. Whether they get the 10th and most important one on New Year’s Day remains to be seen for a few hours yet.
On Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill (Jan 13)
The Red Wings have mostly avoided lengthy slumps, and the only real negative is that the team has perhaps underachieved at home, which is a shame because the first half of the schedule was heavy with games at JLA.
But that’s nitpicking.
Blashill, of course, learned about coaching in the NHL from none other than Babcock, for whom he assisted for one season before getting more seasoning with the Griffins.
There are a bunch of firsts with Jeff Blashill.
First Red Wings coach born in the United States. First former goalie to coach the Red Wings. First one who was born in the 1970s.
There’s only one more first for him to achieve, and it’s a biggie.
Could Blashill be the first Red Wings coach to win a Stanley Cup in his first season on the job since Jimmy Skinner did it in 1955?
Umm…just joking, maybe? Less than a year later I called for Blashill’s head.
On Calvin Johnson retiring (Feb 1)
Johnson can afford to retire at age 30 because he doesn’t need the dough like so many of his brethren do. The money he’s made—and it’s a lot—still might not last him for his entire life, but if he wants to earn some after his playing days, it’s always easier to do that when you have a sound mind.
I don’t think Calvin Johnson is retiring from the NFL because the Lions have had such little success in his nine years in Detroit. Granted, the team has mostly stunk, but that’s not why he’s thinking of getting out.
Another Lions superstar appears to be on the verge of retiring from the NFL at a relatively young age, but this time the team isn’t to blame.
It’s the game itself.
Not so many people agreed with me. They wanted to blame the Lions.
On Adam LaRoche retiring from White Sox (Mar 24)
I don’t want to hear sad stories about how professional athletes don’t ever get to see their kids.
Yes, there’s a lot of travel involved, and a baseball season essentially starts in February and could last into early-November. I get it.
But what about home stands? And a bulk of the season takes place in the summer, when the kids aren’t even in school. And you still get almost all of November, all of December and all of January to spend time with the offspring.
Oh, and Drake LaRoche is home-schooled, which is another column altogether.
It’s not standing on principle if you don’t engage in dialogue to find common ground and a compromise.
It’s selfishness and entitlement, plain and simple.
And those are two terrible things to teach a child.
The White Sox came roaring out of the gate in 2016, indicating that the LaRoche thing may have galvanized them. But their 23-10 start was long forgotten by the end of another lousy season.
On Red Wings GM Ken Holland (Mar 14)
At the trade deadline a couple weeks ago, I beseeched Holland to do something bold.
Literally a trade for trade’s sake.
I argued that it was time to take the Red Wings’ snow globe and give it a good shake and see what happens.
I didn’t argue for the dealing of 19 year-old Dylan Larkin, or of goalie Petr Mrazek.
I may be stupid but I’m not a fool.
But in order to get off this treadmill that has become Red Wings hockey in recent years, I suggested a top-six forward be traded for another top-six forward.
But that’s not Ken Holland’s style.
The problem with the Red Wings—and it’s not just Holland—is that they tend to be loyal to a fault.
Holland and company can easily fall in love with players and they become Red Wings for life. Then they all get front office jobs when they retire. Even the fourth line guys.
Remember the odd bromance Holland had with Dan Cleary?
The Red Wings are not going to hell in a hand basket, but they’re in a rut.
And they still are.
On Oakland University basketball coach Greg Kampe’s candor (Mar 4)
If Greg Kampe’s words were food, they’d be Thai stir-fry: spicy, eclectic and bursting with flavor. And all natural ingredients.
If you like your interviews to be antiseptic and predictable—where you can pretty much fill in the answer even before you ask the question—then don’t bother talking to Greg Kampe.
Kampe, Oakland University’s brutally honest men’s basketball coach, speaks without a filter. His words don’t come pre-processed. He takes being candid to the next level. With Kampe, the bare minimum you’ll get is candor. Often, you’ll get a little more.
Kampe is like the lyric from that song, “Oh Well.”
“Don’t ask me what I think of you; I might not give the answer that you want me to.”
Still the best interview we’ve done in seven years of The Knee Jerks.
On comparisons between Isiah Thomas’ early Pistons teams and Reggie Jackson’s 2015-16 version (Apr 26)
Playoff heartbreak that began on a hot April night inside Joe Louis Arena in 1984.
You can dare to draw some comparisons between the Reggie Jackson Pistons of 2016 and the Isiah Thomas Pistons of the mid-1980s because both teams wandered back into the playoffs after an extended absence.
Both rosters contained a young core that figure to be together for several years to come.
And both teams had their heart ripped out in the final game of the year.
With any luck, we’ll look back at last Sunday as the baptism of Jackson’s Pistons and the April where the foundation of a championship-caliber team was built, albeit on the slab of discontent.
Maybe Jackson should give Isiah a call this summer. It can’t hurt.
Clearly Jackson’s ascent to an Isiah-like leader for the Pistons has taken a massive detour.
On Dylan Larkin’s ranking among today’s Red Wings (May 4)
It’s not a stretch to say that Larkin, the 19 year-old whirling dervish, is the team’s best player. Certainly he’s the most exciting.
It’s not a stretch because the ex-elite players on the Red Wings—Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk—are no longer that. Datsyuk, in fact, may no longer be a Red Wing at all, if he follows through on his threat to move back to Russia to play hockey next fall.
Zetterberg is still a good player, but he’s not elite. He has morphed into a second or third line guy—something usually not befitting a team captain, though I doubt he’d be demoted.
It’s not a stretch to suggest Larkin is no. 1 because the other forwards haven’t taken that next step from good to very good, let alone from very good to elite.
Justin Abdelkader, likely your next Red Wings captain, isn’t elite, though right now he might be the team’s most complete player—which isn’t the same as being elite.
It’s not hard to imagine the Red Wings as being Larkin’s team in the near future, even without the “C” on his sweater.
Larkin will soon be the kind of player that will be worth the price of admission. Right now, he’s at the price of a couple of beers, and trending upward. He had a shaky second half, but that wasn’t shocking. He still finished with 23 goals and 22 assists and led the team in plus/minus with a plus-11. Only one other Red Wing scored as many as 20 goals (Tomas Tatar, 21).
Larkin, like the Red Wings as a whole, has regressed from last season.
On Cameron Maybin giving Tigers a much-needed boost (May 26)
So what Maybin is bringing the Tigers now—a constant presence on the base paths, some sneaky power and an infectious, bubbling personality—is the team’s comeuppance, some 11 years after the 2005 draft. The Tigers went 5-1 last week, and Maybin was a huge part of that.
You can’t talk to a Tigers player right now without hearing Maybin’s name coming from that player’s lips.
They speak of his energy. They rave about his outgoing personality. And mostly, they love what he’s doing on the field.
Maybin is providing sorely needed offense from the lower third of the order (manager Brad Ausmus is batting him seventh), which too often has been a graveyard for Tigers rallies in recent years.
“Maybin has added length to our lineup, no question,” Ausmus said over the weekend. “That’s the thing — if you can get the bottom of your lineup hot and swinging that bat well and getting on base, now you are flipping your lineup over and you’re getting your best hitters coming up. That’s how you score runs.
“When teams go on offensive streaks is when the bottom of the lineup is hitting,” Ausmus added.
Apparently the Tigers’ desire to trim payroll trumped whatever spark Maybin provided last season. Maybin was traded shortly after the World Series ended, to the Angels.
On my father (June 19)
One of the reasons why I never felt awkward on the field with my dad functioning as a virtual coach was because he never called me out in front of the other kids. If he had advice to give me, he did it privately, with dignity. Which is more than I can say about too many LL parents.
He only got angry with me once on the field, and I deserved it.
Our team had gotten into a little tiff with the other guys. I can’t even remember what it was about, but our reaction to it, as a team, was immature, even for youngsters.
My dad was livid at how our team had behaved. He got even more so when, walking back to the car, I said something that was in support of our behavior.
He didn’t say anything to me. He didn’t have to. He just gave me a glare that I can still see to this day. It was the only time I’d been dressed down as a child, in silence.
That one, brief glare told me everything I needed to know, more than any speech could have.
We were wrong. And I was even more wrong for supporting us in our wrongness.
Dad will be gone 21 years in February. Time flies even when you’re not having fun, too.
On Detroit sportscaster Al Ackerman, who passed away (June 9)
Al Ackerman not only talked the talk, he walked the walk.
Al would give you the scores at 11:20 every night—first on channel 4 then on channel 7, then on channel 4 again—but he’d also give you a piece of his mind. And that wasn’t enough; he’d give those he was covering a piece of his mind, too.
Fellow sportscaster Bob Page, who started working with Ackerman at channel 7 in 1977, said yesterday in an email to me that Ackerman’s on-air persona wasn’t an act.
“He was crazy. Insecure as the day was long,” Page, who would eventually leave Detroit for New York, wrote. “He was a yeller and immediately disliked me because of my background. He’d actually scream at me, ‘You Grosse Pointe mother——!’ But I guess I won him over eventually because I was his reporter and I hustled and dug up stories constantly for him. We wound up getting along very well.”
Ackerman was the Bill Bonds of sports reporting. Viewers tuned in to see what Ackerman would say and who he would take to task. His on-air relationship with Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler, for example, was good television.
Ackerman wouldn’t say anything on the air about you that he wouldn’t say to your face. That was a cold, hard fact.
Oh, do I miss Al Ackerman!
On Tigers rookie Michael Fulmer (June 7)
If Fulmer keeps wiping out big league hitters the rest of the summer, a once-tenuous, shaky rotation suddenly looks downright nasty in spots 1-3, which is pretty much all you need in the American League, where competent starting pitching is at a premium.
It may not be the most desirable path, to put so much on a rookie’s shoulders, but that’s where the Tigers are right now.
“All of a sudden, now you feel like with Verlander, Zimmermann, Fulmer pitching like they’re pitching, it’s a good top three,” manager Brad Ausmus said after Fulmer’s silencing of the Toronto Blue Jays bats on Monday night.
And Fulmer already sounds like the typical “aw, shucks” phenom.
“Just see the sign, grip it and throw it and try to locate it as best as I can,” he said after his latest masterpiece. “At the end of the day, it’s trying to put zeroes on the board.”
Those zeroes have gone up on the board 22 times in a row, and a third.
Meet your 2016 AL ROY, Mr. Fulmer.
On Chris Osgood’s HOF credentials (June 27)
The debate over Osgood for the Hall will be wonderful to play out, whether he makes it or not. Even as he gives his induction speech—if he’s so fortunate—there will be naysayers to his enshrinement.
That’s OK. Hall of Fame debates are among the most fun in sports.
I don’t have a vote, but if I did, I’d cast a yes.
There are those who say that if you have to debate over a guy’s qualifications at length, then he’s probably not a Hall of Fame player.
There are all sorts of Hall of Fame players. The no-brainers, the mildly debated and the hotly contested. Guys who wait for years because the appreciation for their careers grows in direct proportion to how long they’ve been retired.
Osgood’s career may not scream Hall of Fame, but even if it whispers it, and the voters give him admission, he’s a HOFer just the same.
I’d vote yes.
Ozzie didn’t get in. Maybe next year!
On the death of Gordie Howe (June 11)
Mikita’s respect for Howe was also evident in this great quote.
“The best teams in the league are Montreal, Toronto, and Gordie Howe.”
Mr. Howe, Mr. Hockey, or just plain old Gordie—however you choose to address him, has thrown his last elbow on Earth. He’s gone, passed away on Friday at age 88.
He could have been gone 66 years sooner than that.
Howe was checked by Toronto’s Ted Kennedy late in the 1949-50 season and went horrifically into the boards, fracturing his skull. Howe’s condition was perilous, at the very least. For a couple of days, the pressure on his brain made his prognosis highly suspect.
This was 1950. Brain surgery and treatment weren’t nearly as advanced as they are now.
It’s not melodramatic to say that Howe, not yet 22 years old, lay near death in the hospital.
He survived, of course, and made his way onto the ice several weeks later as his Red Wings teammates celebrated the winning of the Stanley Cup.
Howe survived the brain injury, the Canadiens, Mikita, expansion and his shameful treatment at the hands of the Red Wings following his retirement—his first retirement—in 1971.
Along the way, he made the folks in the NHL offices tear up their record books and write new ones.
He threw elbows, washed hundreds of faces, jabbed countless opponents in the ribs with his stick and he did it all while eluding the watchful eyes of the referee. There was no quicker trigger in the Old West than Howe’s on the ice.
RIP, Mr. Hockey.
On Ziggy Ansah’s potential (July 30)
Ansah still has much to learn. The finer points of his position can only be absorbed with experience. The art of footwork, learning the strengths and weaknesses of opposing blockers and knowing the best routes to take to get to the passer—and which not to take—should take firmer hold with every snap he plays.
You don’t start playing football in high school and have the game mastered in four years.
But that’s OK, because conventional wisdom says that Ziggy Ansah is only going to get better the longer he plays. And he’s two years way from possibly playing for a team other than the Lions, who ought not to let that happen.
Ansah’s five-year rookie contract expires after the 2017 season. The Lions don’t want another Ndamukong Suh situation—although in retrospect, letting Suh go to Miami via free agency probably wasn’t all that bad.
Suh, a force in the middle, nonetheless could never be as valuable as a guy who plays Ansah’s position with brilliance, which Ziggy does already.
Give me a powerful edge pass rusher over a dominating defensive tackle any day of the week and twice on Sundays.
Lions GM Bob Quinn knows of which he does. It’s only been six months, but Quinn already strikes me as the most competent front office guy to work for the Lions…ever. Certainly in my 46 years of following the team.
Quinn might be OK, but Ansah, thanks to injury and who knows what, has had an awful 2016.
On Stan Van Gundy’s third year upcoming (July 19)
If the Pistons get off to a mediocre start—or worse—in 2016-17, it will be interesting to see whether SVG has the patience to leave his core alone, or if he will be tempted to try more trades, contracts willing.
The Core Five needs time to jell. It’s an intriguing quintet and it could become a power in the Eastern Conference.
Van Gundy just needs to let it breathe.
Just because you can make major changes, doesn’t mean that you have to, or that you should.
The first stage of the Pistons makeover is pretty much complete. Van Gundy took a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009 and in less than two years, turned it into a winning organization.
The 2015-16 Pistons, it could be argued, played the world champion Cleveland Cavaliers as tough as anyone did in the playoffs, despite the four-game sweep.
The first stage of the makeover is done, and the next stage is the toughest for a man with Van Gundy’s front office girth.
The Pistons are onto something here, but it ought not be broken up too soon.
They’re onto something, alright. A colossal failure, perhaps.
On Jim Harbaugh’s nomadic ways (Aug 20)
Harbaugh is what Michigan needs—now.
And when he leaves—and I give him five years, tops (and probably less)—that will be what Michigan needs, as well.
Now, this isn’t to say that while he’s at Michigan, the Harbaugh-led Wolverines won’t have any big time success. In fact, they might even win a national championship.
But make no mistake—sooner or later, Harbaugh will rub folks the wrong way in Ann Arbor and/or the NFL will come calling again with some big bucks and another perfect storm will have been created that sends Harbaugh into the sunset.
Have chalk, will travel.
Or in Harbaugh’s case, have a hot motor, will travel.
This isn’t Harbaugh’s fault. It’s who he is. He can’t help that.
Coaches like he don’t plant roots, they plant stakes.
Harbaugh is 52 and he’s already been the head football coach at four different stops, the first three of which lasted an average of 3.7 years.
Even if you want to toss out the University of San Diego (2004-06) as a stepping stone program, Harbaugh still hasn’t shown the proclivity to stay anywhere for any significant amount of time.
But this is Michigan! It’s where he went to school and played quarterback for Bo Schembechler! This is what he’s always wanted to do!
Maybe it’s Harbaugh’s dream job—for now—but the thing about dreams is that you wake up from them, often rudely.
Again, most disagreed with me. They think that Jimmy is a Michigan lifer. We’ll see.
On Justin Verlander’s Cy Young Award possibilities (Aug 8)
The fastball regularly touches the mid-90s, even late in games. The pitch speeds are changed and mixed with virtuoso-like skill. The breaking ball is back to buckling hitters’ knees.
So yeah, why not Justin Verlander for Cy Young?
The fact that this is even a discussion in early-August after a lousy first month of the season should be enough to give Verlander some sort of an award right now.
The fact that this is even a discussion at all in 2016 is one of baseball’s best stories that no one is talking about—yet.
But as the season dwindles and the games grow in importance—which they will for the Tigers if they hope to be in the playoffs for the fifth time in the past six years—“Justin Verlander” and “Cy Young Award” will find themselves in an awful lot of sentences together.
And so it was true. Verlander actually garnered the most first-place votes, but finished second.
On John Long’s induction into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (Sep 9)
Long was a one-dimensional player but that was OK. He had a specialty and when Thomas shared the backcourt with him, many a time Isiah would find Long in the corner or at the elbow for that patented set jumper. From 1979-86, Long hit those shots to the tune of no less than 45 percent to as high as 51 percent of the time.
That’s some serious shootin’.
Long just celebrated his 60th birthday on August 28. His nephews, fellow Romulus natives and former Pistons Terry Mills and Grant Long, are 48 and 50, respectively.
It’s enough to make an old-timer like me groan.
John Long will be inducted into the MSHOF tonight, nearly two decades removed from hoisting his last NBA jumper.
But to hear him say it, Long is a “young” 60.
“I’m still in the same shape I was when I was playing, but I can’t run anymore,” Long told Perry Farrell of the Free Press.
“I had a left knee replacement. If the Champions league (a new league made up of former NBA players) could find a way for me to run I could do everything else. I could play, but not like I used to. I can walk, and that’s the most important thing.”
Tonight Long will walk up to the podium on his replaced left knee and take his rightful place at the MSHOF induction ceremony, to be held at the Max Fisher Music Center.
He wasn’t an official NBA territorial draft pick, but John Long will always be a Michigander.
And a Hall of Famer, at that.
Good on ya, John!
On Red Wings’ expectations for 2016-17 (Oct 12)
Ken Holland isn’t wired to transition a veteran, elite team into a young, mediocre squad trying to find its way.
The Red Wings, if things aren’t planned well, could become the NHL’s version of the Oakland Raiders—a proud team with iconic uniforms and logo whose mystique wore off long ago.
If things really go to pot, the Red Wings could also become the Edmonton Oilers, who’ve been bumping into themselves for over 20 years.
Fans are growing weary of Holland, and I wonder if Holland is growing weary of the Red Wings.
He’ll always be a Red Wing at heart but maybe he’d be better served somewhere else.
Somewhere like Ottawa, where the Senators are on their seventh opening night coach in 10 years—an NHL record.
Coaches aren’t the only people who know when their time has come to move on.
The fans’ discontent with Holland seems to grow exponentially by the week. Whether that means anything, remains to be seen.
On Pistons’ chances in 2016-17 (Oct 26)
The Pistons can’t sneak up on folks this season. They’re not a ragamuffin, little engine that could unit any longer.
They’re coming off 44-38 and a playoff berth. Yes, they were swept by the eventual world champs in the first round but as far as sweeps go, it wasn’t a joke of a series. The Cleveland Cavaliers had to break out a sweat.
This is SVG’s third year and it says here that it’s likely to be his most important, even after history closes the books on his time in Detroit.
If things break the way they should and the way that the Pistons want, we’ll likely look back at this season as the one where the young ballers from Detroit came of age.
I don’t want to hear about taking one step back to take two steps forward. The Pistons should be done with taking any steps back for quite some time.
Sadly, the Pistons haven’t taken one step back. They’ve taken several.
On Lions coach Jim Caldwell’s job security (Oct 5, after a 1-3 start)
But after this season, all bets are off as to Jim Caldwell’s future with the Lions.
Going further, I’d be shocked if Caldwell returned in 2017. Unless the team somehow picked itself up after a gory 1-3 start and made the playoffs.
What are the odds of that?
On the flip, I doubt that Quinn would fire Caldwell mid-season, unless the 1-3 start spiraled totally out of control. Then a firing might be a mercy killing to put the coach out of his misery.
The new guy would be interim and would have zero chance of being retained beyond the end of this season.
For all we know, Quinn has someone in mind to take over as Lions coach in 2017 and beyond. Even if he doesn’t, Caldwell is probably gone. You never know who might be available after the season.
Quinn had a ton of housekeeping to do when he took the Lions GM job. He knew it, his bosses knew it.
Caldwell, truth be told, likely knew it.
Caldwell is already fielding job security questions, and we’re barely into October. He said the usual “I don’t worry about my job” thing, which always amazes me.
How come coaches never worry about their job security?
The calls for Caldwell’s head are back as the Lions are on the verge of a three-game winning streak and missing the playoffs after a 9-4 start.
On Pistons’ move back downtown for 2017-18 (Nov 23)
This version of the Pistons are moving back into Detroit at a much better time in terms of the health of the franchise, than when they headed north in 1978. Despite the early stumbling this season, boss Stan Van Gundy has the team on a good track, considering what he took over in May 2014.
But they’d better keep it up.
The move back into Detroit will be a boon, initially. And it should be. The Pistons ought to be congratulated for contributing to the rebirth of the city—as long as we’re not talking about neighborhoods here.
But if they don’t win, the shiniest arena in the world won’t help them.
Fans in Detroit won’t walk across the street to see a losing NBA team. That’s been proven. But they’ll fill Ford Field to see a team that has one playoff win in 59 years. Go figure.
The Pistons are back in Detroit, starting next season. Good for them. Good for the city. Not sure what this means for Palace employees, but there always needs to be collateral damage, I guess, in the name of big bucks.
But the Pistons better win. And keep winning.
Why does it feel like the Pistons will again (and soon) be relegated to no. 4 in a four-team town?
So there you have it. Another year, another ham-handed attempt by me to pontificate about Detroit sports. As usual, I won some and lost some.
Have a great and healthy 2017!