Decent guy Peyton Manning does a decent thing

Peyton Manning has done an altogether decent thing and even though I am naturally biased when it comes to this particular issue, I think I have a perspective that can hopefully be illuminating.

Here’s what I’m talking about: Manning called a beat writer at the Indianapolis Star to say thanks and goodbye. I just now read that story, and as I type these words, I am still in a state of shock recovery. Not because it was Manning; he has always seemed like a decent guy. And not because the athlete felt he had a relationship with a reporter; that’s common, too.

But it’s because either I’ve never covered someone who liked me enough to do something like that, or because Peyton Manning is one of the nicest guys to become an athlete in the modern age.

I can’t say with certainty such an act is unheard of, but I’ve never heard of it happening. This is mostly because of the complicated nature of the relationship between reporters and their subjects. We are taught not to trust them, and they are taught not to trust us, and there are good reasons for both.

There is a common tension between athletes and sportswriters that goes something like this:

Athlete: “Why do you guys have to be so negative all the time?”

Reporter: “Athlete, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say 90 percent of what I write is overwhelmingly positive.”

Both of them are usually right.

Let’s say a reporter is talking to a veteran point guard about his team’s season. The team is winning, although it is winning in part because this veteran point guard has accepted a reduced role while a younger star has taken control of the team.

The reporter’s budget line looks something like this: Joe Dingleberry, once the Toledo Sphincters’ great hope, is finally on the precipice of an elusive championship. It just took a reduced role to get there. 

Now, this certainly will be a story that makes some perhaps uncomfortable implicit observations — Dingleberry could not get it done. — but the eventual takeaway will be that Dingleberry is a good guy who made a personal sacrifice for the good of the team.

Yet in order to report that story, the reporter is going to have to ask Dingleberry some pointed questions about his role, how he felt about conceding it to a younger star, if he has any regrets about the years before, and so on. That’s the conflict that makes the story interesting.

But to Dingleberry, there is a decent chance he is going to feel like the reporter is merely trying to bait him into saying something inflammatory. He also might feel insulted by some of the questions and begin feeling defensive. This depends on myriad factors, including everything from the physical setting of the interview to the tone of the reporter’s voice to whatever pre-existing relationship the two of them have.

But, generally speaking, it is in the reporter’s interest to get the player to speak humanly and interestingly, and it is in the player’s interest to do the opposite of that.

So in the end, the reporter writes the story and can honestly say it painted the athlete in a positive light, and the athlete can honestly say, “Yeah, but you were poking me the whole time.”

So it’s complicated. We aren’t adversaries, but we aren’t on the same team, either. There is a good bit of confusion about that among the general public. People often assume sports writers are fans of the teams they cover. And I suppose, in most cases, we are more happy to cover a winning team than a losing one. But when it comes right down to it, our identity is not attached to the team the way it is for a fan. To us, this isn’t recreation or entertainment (even though it is often entertaining); it’s work. My former boss Kurt had the best way of putting it.

“I root for me,” he said.

And yet Peyton Manning called a Colts beat writer to say thanks. For what, it’s not entirely clear. It sounded general, like, Thanks for all the work over the years. It was recognition that those two men had gone to work (sort of) with each other every day for many years and that Manning respected Phillip Wilson’s work and their relationship.

That doesn’t mean much on a practical level. Manning can’t give Phillip Wilson a raise. And a journalist is always going to be a little bashful about receiving praise from one of his subjects, because he wouldn’t want it to indicate his coverage hadn’t been objective.

But it sure was nice of him.

A visual tour of the beautiful crumbling Astrodome

Yesterday the Astrodome opened its doors to some local media, who had to sign liability waivers before we walked in. Place is unsafe, they say. What I found was a place that, like a lot of things in Houston, was born in a very specific period, right as we were going to the moon and going to Vietnam, after the first oil boom but before the second, right as the Baby Boomers were hitting adulthood.

The Astrodome was finished 18 years before I was born, so I don’t know what it looked like then, but I got a strong impression not much has changed.

A tour:

The seats are quite comfortable for a building built in the 60s, but they're all cracked. Sitting in the Astrodome feels and smells like sitting in an old car that's been sitting in a dusty garage for many years.

The seats are quite comfortable for a building built in the 60s, but they're all cracked. Sitting in the Astrodome feels and smells like sitting in an old car that's been sitting in a dusty garage for many years.

The windows still let the light in. Soon after the dome was built, baseball players complained it was hard to find the ball against those windows, so there is a film over them now.

The windows still let the light in. Soon after the dome was built, baseball players complained it was hard to find the ball against those windows, so there is a film over them now.

Can't remember where this was, exactly. But I assume it to be an original 1965 sign.

Can't remember where this was, exactly. But I assume it to be an original 1965 sign.

Don't think these work anymore, but all these signs have little lights around them that light up like a marquee.

Don't think these work anymore, but all these signs have little lights around them that light up like a marquee.

When we say the Astrodome is crumbling, we mean that literally. Chunks of the building are falling off. It has been deemed unsafe for occupation.

When we say the Astrodome is crumbling, we mean that literally. Chunks of the building are falling off. It has been deemed unsafe for occupation.

Astroturf, you may know, was named for the Astrodome, and this is one of the last places on earth you can still find it.

Astroturf, you may know, was named for the Astrodome, and this is one of the last places on earth you can still find it.

This is the door to a dark room. You know, where they develop film on site. Remember film?

This is the door to a dark room. You know, where they develop film on site. Remember film? One older member of the media said he and somebody else used to come back here for a seventh-inning toke. I couldn't tell if he was 100 percent serious, but this was the 60s and 70s we're talking about.

The press box was actually not that dissimilar from the press box at Minute Maid Park. Older TVs. Otherwise, a press box is a press box is a press box. Except for the one at TCU. Man, that thing is garbage.

The press box was actually not that dissimilar from the press box at Minute Maid Park. Older TVs. Otherwise, a press box is a press box is a press box. Except for the one at TCU. Man, that thing is garbage.

"Welcome to The Show," it says.

"Welcome to The Show," it says.

Just one example of how so many things in the dome are stuck in a very specific period.

Just one example of how so many things in the dome are stuck in a very specific period.

I didn't ask, but those looked like they probably still worked.

I didn't ask, but those looked like they probably still worked.

Carter vs. Permian. Written on the walls in one of the locker rooms. I actually got chills when I first saw this, then realized that 1988 game was played in Austin. This was done for the Friday Night Lights movie in 2004. Nonetheless, it's pretty cool that's still there.

Carter vs. Permian. Written on the walls in one of the locker rooms. I actually got chills when I first saw this, then realized that 1988 game was played in Austin. This was done for the Friday Night Lights movie in 2004. Nonetheless, it's pretty cool that's still there.

There are limitations to my camera phone. Those signs say "Home of the Houston Oilers" and "Home of the Houston Astros."

There are limitations to my camera phone. Those signs say "Home of the Houston Oilers" and "Home of the Houston Astros."

A broken, discarded chair sitting in the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the field. Seemed poignant.

A broken, discarded chair sitting in the tunnel that leads from the locker room to the field. Seemed poignant. By the looks of the label, this was from the Don Draper era.

Funny thing is, there were a lot of copycat stadiums after the Astrodome went up in 1965. SkyDome, Three Rivers, Riverfront, etc. When they started tearing them all down in the late 90s, early 2000s, everybody said they were cookie cutter stadiums. But look at this place. Unmistakable for any other.

Funny thing is, there were a lot of copycat stadiums after the Astrodome went up in 1965. SkyDome, Three Rivers, Riverfront, etc. When they started tearing them all down in the late 90s, early 2000s, everybody said they were cookie cutter stadiums. But look at this place. Unmistakable for any other.

There I am, standing on about the 20-yard line. I can't imagine playing football on that turf. There's nothing to it.

There I am, standing on about the 20-yard line. I can't imagine playing football on that turf. There's nothing to it.

These are the lockers in the Oilers locker room. I was told quarterbacks and running backs would have been in this row. Earl Campbell, Warren Moon. Don't they look ... dumpy?

These are the lockers in the Oilers locker room. I was told quarterbacks and running backs would have been in this row. Earl Campbell, Warren Moon. Don't they look ... dumpy?

Let’s not tear it all down just yet

There seems to be a big paintbrush in the sky today. We are told Kentucky’s championship — it having been won with a collection of rentals — is an ominous sign for the future of college basketball. The one-and-done thing was not supposed to work, but it did, and now what is stopping John Calipari’s reign of terror?

I suppose I agree with that on a theoretical level. That Calipari won a national championship doing it this way certainly is a Louisville Slugger to the gut of some old illusions about college hoops. I don’t know that anybody thought it was impossible to win a national title with a team of freshmen and sophomores — Michigan very nearly did it in two different seasons, and that was 20 years ago — but the old thinking seemed to be that, yeah, you can go with Cal and run that freewheeling offense and get into the NBA, but your undoing will be inevitable, and probably at the hands of some senior with good grades. A team cannot live on talent alone.

So the fact Kentucky won on talent alone feels like a paradigm shift. It feels like Calipari has cracked the code and now will just keep hitting the refresh button ad infinitum until we all cry uncle.

But here’s the thing: That’s all based on a fallacy.

That Kentucky team that beat Kansas last night was not just a collection of one-and-done players. It was an especially selfless, congealed collection of one-and-done players which happened to include one of the most game-changing forces we’ve seen in college basketball in 20 years. We may go 10 or 15 years without seeing another player like Anthony Davis, and I think it’s at least fair to speculate that if, instead of Davis, Kentucky had some other more “normal” McDonald’s All-American like, say, Rakeem Christmas, the Jayhawks would have been the ones cutting down those nets last night.

The point here is not to take away from Kentucky’s well-deserved championship. And just save it with the “It’s going to get vacated anyway” stuff. Nobody cares. The point here is that this sort of proved you could win a title with a bunch of freshmen, but what it really proved is that you can win a title with Anthony Davis.

And let’s pause for a second to observe that it isn’t like Cal invented this. You know who else has tried to win that way? Bill Self. You don’t believe me? Kentucky started two guys last night that Self tried hard to get. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb were big fish in KU’s recruiting pond. Self tried hard for John Wall, too. He did get Xavier Henry and Josh Selby the last two years, and if he could have signed Austin Rivers and LeBryan Nash, he darn well would have. Everybody would have. Nobody ever has inferior players as part of their coaching philosophy.

John Calipari has not re-invented the wheel, and if he is at Kentucky for 20 years he will win more national championships, but more of his teams will be like last year’s UK team than this year’s. This year’s team was stunningly talented, unusually mature and extremely well-coached and that’s why it won the national championship. But it was anomalous and it is about to completely disintegrate. And Kentucky will bring in another great class, probably headlined by the No. 1 player in it, Shabazz Muhammad. And Kentucky will be excellent again next year, most likely.

But it is not going to have Anthony Davis, and probably some other team is going to win the national championship. Probably some team with a couple senior starters and a couple young stars and some dude who can shoot the petals off a rose.

And what then?

Will Calipari stop trying to get all the players? Will the rest of college basketball adopt the new (old) model? Will players once again see Kentucky as a place where you can ball out but won’t ultimately win?

What will have changed? Calipari didn’t need a championship in order to attract guys. He was getting all the guys anyway. Terrence Jones went on national TV and committed to Washington, and Calipari still got him.

I mean, he can’t sign every single player, although I am sure he’s trying to find a way to do that right now. And every recruiting class isn’t going to have Anthony Davis in it. Every recruiting class will have a John Wall in it, and Cal is going to get him more often than not and so Kentucky will be a monster of a basketball program for the foreseeable future.

So what’s really changed again?

Harsh realities are Bill Self’s thing

Bill Self left me three voicemails one evening, and by the time I listened to them and called him back, I had realized he was asking me for a favor that I couldn’t believe he was concerning himself with.  He thought a headline on one of my stories about a big recruit was misleading and he was asking me to change it, because the family of that recruit read everything, and he didn’t want them to be mislead, even though he was all-but certain KU wasn’t getting the kid anyway.

He was standing at the bottom of a 100-foot well, fighting for an inch.

There’s another story I’ve heard, which isn’t mine to tell. But you know that Vince Lombardi speech, “What it takes to be No. 1?” There’s a quote in there that says this: “I’ve never known a man worth his salt who in the long run, deep down in his heart didn’t appreciate the grind, the discipline. There is something in good men that really yearns for discipline and the harsh reality of head-to-head combat.”

I know that speech, and that specific part of that speech, means a lot to Bill Self. Remember when Self lost to Bucknell and Bradley in back-to-back years? And everybody was laughing at him? And everybody had their Self jokes? And Roy won the national title?And Self was still this Big Ten guy with his high-low offense who kept blowing it in the tournament? How would you have liked to be Bill Self in that moment?

Well, a friend of mine asked him. There’s something in the hearts of competitive men. That’s what he told him.

It seems like you can almost always say that a basketball team is a reflection of its coach. They all seem to adopt some major part of their coach’s personality. The team that won it all in 2008 had Self’s confidence. Those guys could be a little too confident sometimes. They thought they were the baddest mofos in the gym every time out, and they were usually right. I have a high level of confidence that if you caught Sherron Collins or Mario Chalmers in a genuinely honest moment on April 6, 2008, they’d have both told you they thought they were better than Derrick Rose. I think Self is quite a bit like that. I don’t think he’s ever met a room he didn’t think he could own or a person he didn’t think he could win over.

I think those teams with Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich adopted something of Self’s too. Self always said he and Collins had very similar personalities, and I think because Self was the coach and Collins was the point guard those teams had a distinct temperament. Stubbornness. Always with something to prove.

His teams always play good defense, and they’re usually unselfish and if you want to see Self’s personality in there, you can always find it.

This team has those characteristics, too, but there is something else. This is the one that fights for the inch at the bottom of a well.

“It seems like when it kind of looks like it’s not going our way the most is when they kind of rise to the challenge and play their best,” Self said Sunday.

There’s something in the hearts of competitive men.

These guys were down 19 points to the No. 3 team in the country with 16 minutes left, and won the game. They trailed by double digits against Purdue, NC State and Ohio State in NCAA Tournament games and won all three.

This is not to say these guys aren’t confident. With the game on the line against Purdue, the shooting guard threw an alley-oop to the point guard on a fast break. Confidence is not an issue with these guys. But it is not their defining characteristic.

I think we give athletes too much credit sometimes for not giving up. One of my favorite quotes is from Bill Snyder, who was asked one day to credit his team for not quitting in a game the Wildcats ultimately lost.

“They don’t let you quit,” he said.

No, it’s not that impressive. Most teams don’t quit. Most teams keep trying to make plays even when the game has gone far in the other team’s direction. Most college basketball players will keep diving for loose balls, keep taking charges, keep fighting for rebounds, no matter the situation. It’s what you’re taught to do. It’s practically all you know how to do. It is the central tenet of athletic competition.

But there is a difference between not giving up and actually believing you can win. You have to believe that this rebound will make a difference. Maybe it only increases your chances by one percentage point. Maybe even less than that. But you’ll take it. And then the next play compounds it. One percentage point becomes four, which becomes 16, which becomes 64.

When Kansas was behind by 13 against Ohio State in Saturday’s Final Four game, college basketball sabergeek Ken Pomeroy calculated the Jayhawks’ chances of winning the game at 12 percent. Now, why a person who just watched a thrilling basketball game would feel compelled to pull out his calculator and perform a math problem is something I’ll never understand, and I think sabermetrics are sort of the novelty gift stores of the basketball world — Of what value is this remote-controlled fart machine/clutch-shooting metric? Not much, but it sure is fun to play with. — but I suppose I trust that Pomeroy gave us a more or less accurate idea of just how bad of shape the Jayhawks were in at that moment.

Yet there is no way to measure the psychology of a basketball team. Those metrics are based on ALL the college basketball teams, and the outcome of that game was based on Kansas and Ohio State.

“Beware of geeks bearing formulas,” Warren Buffet once said.

Buffet, Lombardi and Self might have some things in common. Buffet once bought a company whose owner counted the sheets of toilet paper in a roll to see if he was getting cheated, which he was. He admired that.

“Someone’s sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago,” he said once.

Well, the Jayhawks are sitting in the shade today. They may lose tonight. Kentucky is better. There is not much doubt about that.

But there is something in the hearts of good men that yearns for the harsh reality of head-to-head combat.