Thinking out loud … while wondering what blockbuster stories 2016 might possibly bring.
— Yes, we have such a heavy Boston influence on our local landscape. Nevertheless, as part of this week’s thoughts and opinions, I’ll present what comes to mind as the top five Rhode Island sports stories for 2015 — while mixing in a few Boston-centric picks, too. Feel free to comment on your big stories if we miss one.
— The selection of Tim Neverett as the new Red Sox radio voice is a great pick. I had the pleasure of working with Tim in the early ’90s as part of something then known as The Sports Final Radio Network, based in Cambridge. Sports Final was a predecessor to ESPN Radio, and while it eventually ran out of funding, it did prove there was an appetite for sports radio — even in the overnight hours.
— In a business that so often chews up and spits out some really good people, Neverett is one of the good ones who has managed to stick around and stay with a craft he loves. He’s paid his dues (in the minors). He has big-league experience (in Pittsburgh (with the Pirates). He’s a New Englander coming home (from New Hampshire). Win-win-win for him, and for the listening audience.
— Working from my top story No. 5 to No. 1 in 2015: The death of new PawSox principal Jim Skeffington was indeed a blow to the local baseball community, as well as to his family, friends and business associates. His passing in May at age 73 also put the team’s campaign for a new stadium on the I-195 corridor in Providence on the back burner, where it eventually cooled and withered under public pressure.
— Could the new stadium deal (and the move from McCoy in Pawtucket) have been done had Skeffington been able to see the process through? I’ve heard from many people on this — and the answer is quite possibly yes.
— Dave Henderson’s death this past week forced me to revisit the very moment I remember becoming a real Red Sox “fan.” It was in 1986, the very moment the ball rolled through Bill Buckner‘s legs against the New York Mets in the World Series.
— I watched that entire playoff run — including Hendu’s big blast against the Angels — with a good friend from Cumberland, Rhode Island, who I was working with in television in San Antonio at the time, John Kirby. It was entertaining, watching JK’s emotional rise and fall on each big moment. But when Buckner’s boot occurred, I was hooked. It wasn’t hard to buy in to the sort of passion I witnessed.
— While all Sox fans suffered then, I was lucky. I only had to wait 18 years before the next World Series title, not 86.
— Seems like the end of a year is made for remembering and praising those we’ve lost along the way. Another piece of childhood — and a real influence on my love for basketball — passed away as the great Meadowlark Lemon of Harlem Globetrotters fame died this week at age 86. His ability to hit that half-court hook shot — sometimes on his first try of a game — was uncanny. As a kid, I practiced that shot on my driveway at home for hours.
— The Clown Prince of Basketball? Absolutely. A showman, an ambassador and a pretty good player, all rolled into one. If you’ve ever been to see the Globetrotters play — especially when Lemon was running the show — there’s no way you left the arena without a smile on your face, and a new appreciation for the sport.
— I never got to face Meadowlark, but I did get to suit up one night as a member of the Globetrotters’ longtime travel partner and cannon-fodder, the Washington Generals. Sweet Lou Dunbar was the go-to guy then, and he tried to pull my shorts down while I was at the free throw line. Good thing I had more than just a jock strap on underneath at the time. And good thing there was no social media then, either.
— Made both free throws, too. I’m in the all-time scorebook, putting up my deuce against the Trotters, in 1991 at the then-Providence Civic Center.
— Top story No. 4 for 2015? Let’s go with the failed attempt to bring the world to New England, and the now-busted Boston 2024 Olympic bid. What could have happened: an event or two moving south into Lil’ Rhody, along with extra tourism dollars. What did happen: The reality of massive traffic jams, too much infrastructure under construction and the folly of a “temporary” Olympic Stadium being built were too much for even the most optimistic flag-waver to comprehend.
— Brown and URI met on the basketball floor for the 157th time this week, and the Rams had to go to overtime to beat back the Bears, 88-85. The Ivy League‘s two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Cedric Kuakumensah, had a school-record seven blocked shots, and Rhody’s Four McGlynn got some fizz from his game with a bubbly 33 points. He needed every one of them, as the Bears were bounced after blowing a 15-point second-half lead.
— Not for nuthin’, but on Jan. 1 of 2015 the Big East was 94-30 against non-conference competition last season. On Jan. 1 of 2016? The league is 94-29 this season. The league’s top four this season are a combined 45-4, with zero losses outside of the national top 15 against non-league foes. I’m sensing a trend here.
— As good as Kris Dunn may be, Ben Bentil is beginning to steal some of the headlines that have come the Friars’ way this season. His 32-point, 12-rebound performance in a 24-point road win at UMass was almost, well, effortless — even though it wasn’t. That’s a scary proposition for the rest of the Big East. Bentil was named the Big East Player of the Week for his game against the Minutemen.
— There may be only one other big man in the Big East who can match Bentil’s offensive capabilities — freshman Henry Ellenson at Marquette. Those two will get to tango on Tuesday at the Dunk.
— And how good is Kris Dunn? Good enough to be second in the country in steals and seventh in assists thus far, and he’s missed two games with a stomach virus. And a mere 24 hours after the dry heaves, he throws up (pardon the pun) a 14-point, 11-assist double-double at UMass.
— Top story No. 3 for 2015: How about back-to-back trips to the NCAA Tournament for the Providence Friars? The feat hadn’t been accomplished in 25 years, and even though PC lost to Dayton in the opening round, a sense of “belonging” has returned to Friar Fanatics everywhere. A conference tournament title and two NCAA trips in the first two years of the “new” Big East? Can’t wait for the encore.
— The Friars’ second-half performance on the road at ninth-ranked Butler was one of the more impressive halves of hoop I’ve witnessed as their play-by-play voice in 27 years. Down 11 at the half with PC’s stars in foul trouble, Rodney Bullock and freshman Drew Edwards picked up the Friars when they needed it — at least until Dunn and Bentil could join the fun.
— Fifty-six second-half points, outscoring the Bulldogs 56-37 in 20 minutes, was wild after being down double digits at the half. If you don’t get your tickets now to see these guys play, you may just miss out on something special in 2016. It “feels” like these Friars can be both fantastic and memorable. Dunn and Bentil, aka Batman and Robin, already are.
— Great pick-me-up for Villanova against No. 6 Xavier, blasting the Musketeers by 31 in their league opener. XU had the starch taken out of its shirts early, as freshman point guard Edmond Sumner went down in the opening three minutes with an injury and had to be taken off the floor on a stretcher. His teammates were visibly upset. It was over right there.
— Hate to see anyone hurt like that, and hopefully Sumner is back soon. But poise is needed under pressure, especially on the road. Xavier would like a do-over, no doubt.
— Sliding under the radar a bit right now — the Seton Hall Pirates. Nice win on the road in the league opener at Marquette, and Kevin Willard’s once-underachieving youngsters now are gaining favor as a possible NCAA team this year. The real question is whether they can sustain success, because they fell flat after a strong start a year ago.
— PC’s No. 1-ranked hockey Friars finally had their unbeaten streak end at 19 straight, with a 2-1 loss to ninth-ranked Cornell in Florida after a three-week layoff. The mark of a champion, however, comes from the bounce-back. And that the Friars did — beating fourth-ranked Boston College, 2-1.
— If that’s not impressive enough for you, then consider what USA Today did this past week — listing PC as the ninth best soccer school in the country, based on the men’s team’s athletic and academic successes. Unprecedented times, perhaps, in Friartown?
— Let’s get this straight: Peyton Manning wasn’t accused of cheating. Al Jazeera reported his wife allegedly received HGH shipments. The report didn’t accuse Manning of PED use. Now, we all can wonder why she might have had a prescription for HGH, but HIPAA laws are designed to protect everyone’s privacy. Including the Mannings’.
— We’re so quick to draw lines to connect imaginary pieces of a puzzle that along the way we forget some pieces just don’t match.
— But that’s boring. The sports world digs dirt. We need dirty laundry, just like Don Henley once wrote, and recorded. “I make my living off the evening news. Just give me something, something I can use. People love it when you lose, they love dirty laundry.”
— And this Henley line seems particularly poignant right now: “Dirty little secrets, dirty little lies. We got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pie. We love to cut you down to size, we love dirty laundry.” Tom Brady knows this, all too well.
— Did anyone else get the feeling that Charles Sly, the erstwhile pharmaceutical intern at the Guyer Institute where the HGH shipments originated, enjoyed performing for that hidden camera in the Al Jazeera report? Just sayin’.
— Top story No. 2 for 2015: Patriots win Super Bowl XLIX, as “The Butler did it” to the Seattle Seahawks in one of the most memorable, thrilling endings to a championship game in the history of sport — never mind the NFL. And a story of this magnitude rates a mere No. 2? What in this bizarre world could actually rate higher than your local team winning a world championship? Wait for it.
— Bill Belichick‘s decision to kick off in overtime against the New York Jets this past Sunday was a decision that you and I would not have made. If you really thought “Kick it! Kick it!” before the coin flip, you’re nuttier than a sundae in the summertime.
— This being said, there were quite a few hoodies and hoodie-lovers this week defending the wall (as Jerry Thornton calls it) and the decision. I simply cannot see choosing the only option that might have kept Tom Freakin’ Brady from even touching the ball in the extra period. But the Patriots did that. I’m sure Belichick didn’t see his secondary screwing up along the way, either, which did keep the Greatest Of All Time from touching the ball.
— And, stupid is as stupid does. But remember, Einstein once flunked math, too.
— OK, so the loss to the Jets really meant next to nothing, anyway. The road to the Super Bowl in the AFC still will run through Foxboro with a New England win in Miami. But in case you were wondering, just what exactly does getting the top seed in the AFC vs. getting the No. 2 seed mean in the big picture?
— The Boston Globe put out some solid research on the matter this week. Exactly half of the 50 Super Bowl participants over the past 25 years (that would be 25 of them) since the current playoff format began in 1990 were seeded No. 1.
— And nearly half of the last 25 Super Bowls actually have been won by a top seed — 11 of them, in fact. No. 2 seeds have won six of the big games, so in essence a 1 seed has about double the chance of winning The Big One as the 2 seed. Got all that?
— Resolutions are made to be broken. Nevertheless, I’ve managed to come up with what I think is a novel idea. Let’s start a health club, sell some memberships and after a month turn it into a bar. Members only. Who wouldn’t buy into that? It’s what most everyone does anyway — after a month of huffing and puffing, it’s like, “Forget that. Let’s go grab a drink.”
— My buddy Statbeast sez as far as New Year’s resolutions go he tends to follow what Mark Twain once said: “Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual.”
— Oh, and this reminder: “Stressed” spelled backward? Desserts. It’s as good an excuse as any. You’re welcome.
— Top story No. 1 for 2015: Deflategate. How could it be anything else? It was a story that lingered on, and on, and on for more than nine months since the AFC championship game last January — and dominated the media locally and nationally. It still has not come to a final conclusion as of this moment, because the NFL refuses to let it die and has appealed a court decision to “Free Tom Brady” of a rather ridiculous four-game suspension.
— TB12’s reputation has taken on so much national tarnish along the way, it’s almost impossible to fully understand or comprehend the “why” behind the NFL’s persecution. Integrity is important? How about the truth? What about justice? Isn’t that the American way? Don’t let the facts get in the way of making year-round headlines, right?
— There are other regionally related sports stories from 2015 that deserve a note, particularly surrounding the Red Sox — from Pedro Martinez being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, to David Ortiz announcing next season will be his last, to John Farrell‘s battle with cancer, to the Sox signing Dave Dombrowski to run the show at Fenway. And he signed David Price to anchor the rotation, too, after a second straight last-place AL East finish. In true Sox fanatic fashion, I am hopeful 2016 is a turnaround worth talking about.
— At the end of every year, I look back at the big stories and wonder how we can possibly top them. And at the beginning of every year, while looking back, I discover we do just that. We top them. This means, of course, we’re in for an extraordinary 2016. Buckle your seat belts and get ready for the ride. Chances are good we’ll see something happen that’s never happened before.
— Noel from Lancaster, California, posted on Facebook this week: My concern is the Pats have lost 3 out of the last 5 games. I know the injuries have contributed to that stat, so I guess we better get healthy fast, just a thought. Noel: There is little doubt in my mind that with a healthy(er) Patriots team, this edition most likely would be undefeated. Even so, you can pin the losses on poor special teams play — normally a strength — and one fairly bizarre decision from the head hoodie himself. Injuries, as tough as they’ve been to survive, haven’t been a decisive factor in the losses, in my opinion. The Next Man Up theory actually seems to work in Foxboro. But there is a limit, somewhere, to the losses sustained. These Patriots haven’t reached that limit — yet.
— Interested in having your questions on local Rhode Island sports (and yes, that includes the Patriots, Red Sox, Bruins and Celtics) answered in a somewhat timely fashion? Send ’em to me! It’s your chance to “think out loud,” so send your questions, comments and local stories to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll share mailbag comments/Facebook posts/tweets right here! Follow me on Twitter, @JRbroadcaster, and on Facebook, www.facebook.com/john.rooke.
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