Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama
Virachai Tanasugarn in Yokohama

 

The Indonesians and the North Koreans were in Tokyo. They were only one day away from setting foot in the National Stadium and parading before 70,000 cheering spectators at the opening ceremonies of the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on Saturday, October 10, 1964. But on Friday, October 9, the national teams of those countries, hundreds of athletes, coaches and administrators, abruptly turned around and went home. Many cried as they waited to board the trains away from Tokyo, and their chance at competing at the highest level.

Virachai Tanasugarn was on the Thai national Olympic team, a guard on his country’s basketball team. He was in Tokyo to play in a qualifying tournament with nine other national teams, with the chance to play in the beautiful Kenzo Tange Gymnasium Annex, and the hope of competing in the Olympics. And like the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he did not stay in Tokyo long enough to participate in the Games. But unlike the Indonesians and the North Koreans, he left with a sense of adventure and excitement.

Thai basketball team in Yokohama
National Thai basketball team in Yokohama; Tanasugarn is #13.

From September 25 to October 4, ten teams vied in the qualifying round for four spots, in order to be a part of the 18 national teams to play in the Tokyo Olympics. Tanasugarn was on the Thai team, a spot player on the bench, who was simply excited to be in Japan. Despite starting off well, defeating Indonesia convincingly 85-50, the team proceeded to win only 3 of their 9 matches.

Tanasugarn, like his teammates, did not expect to make the cut. They were there to get experience, like so many of the other athletes from Southeast Asia. This was actually Tanasugarn’s second Olympic qualifier as a basketball player. When he was in Rome with hopes of helping the Thai team make the Olympics, he remembered looking at the spaghetti, cheese and ketchup and having no idea what they were or how to eat them. But when they came to Japan, they were happy to see more familiar food. They walked around Yokohama, went to Kamakura to visit the Big Buddha, and played lots of basketball against much better teams.

Tanasugarn was so confident that the Thai team would not qualify that he had already bought an airplane ticket for California to leave before opening ceremonies. After graduating from Thammasat University, he was encouraged to go to the United States by a cousin who graduated from the University of California Berkley, and was practicing as a medical doctor in California.

IMG_0172(Edited)

(TOP) Tamarine Tanasugarn, Virachai Tanasugarn, Monica Seles, (BOTTOM) Rose Tanasugarn, the mother of Monica Seles

So unlike the Indonesians and North Koreans, Tanasugarn was excited to be leaving Japan just prior to the start of the Games. At the age of 26, with essentially no English ability, he was embarking on a new life in a new world. He went to a high school in San Francisco that had an adult education program where he learned English, and met his wife to be. He got his JD at the University of West Los Angeles School of Law, but could not find work in the legal field. Eventually, with his wife and mother, he opened up a Thai restaurant in Hollywood named Thai House, which he ran for 8 years.

Through a friend’s introduction, Tanasugarn was able to put his first daughter, Rose, in the Jack Kramer Club, where some of the best tennis talent was being groomed: Tracy Austin, Lindsey Davenport and Pete Sampras. Their coach was Robert Lansdorp, and Rose showed progress as a tennis player. However, after 6 years Rose decided she did not want tennis to be the primary focus in her life, and left competitive play.

While in the United States, Tanasugarn had divorced and re-married, having a daughter with his second wife that they named Tamarine. In 1982, he returned to Bangkok with Tamarine, then just 5-years-old. Tamarine began to focus on her tennis with her father as coach until she was 20, and then proceeded with professional coaches and increasingly competitive tournaments.

Tamarine would go on to become Thailand’s most successful female tennis player ever, reaching the quarter-finals in Wimbledon in 2008 and the Wimbledon doubles semifinals in 2011, climbing as high as #19 in the world, and competing in four Olympics, from 1996 to 2008.

IMG_0178

The writer and Virachai Tanasugarn at Rama Garden Hotel

Her father, Virachai, utilizing all the wisdom and insight he learned from observing Lansdorp and some of the best up-and-coming talent in the world at the Jack Kramer School in the 1970s, and watching first hand his daughter Tamarine rise to world-class levels, embarked on a career of tennis coach. At the Rama Gardens Hotel in Bangkok, he continues to coach tennis at the age of 80.

Little did he know in Tokyo what future lay before him as he embarked the Pan Am flight for America in October, 1964.

He looks at the tennis courts with pride, knowing that his daughter Tamarine, and the success she had, helped build the foundation for tennis in Thailand today.

Advertisements
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics
Alex Ovechkin at the Sochi Olympics

For the hottest game on ice, the players and owners have entered into a cold war of sorts. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently told the press that no meetings have been arranged with the International Olympic Committee regarding the possibility of NHL players competing in the PyeongChang Winter Olympics in early 2018.

The NHL schedule and the Winter Olympics schedule overlap every four years. In order to convince he NHL to release its players in the middle of the NHL hockey season, the IOC agreed to pay for the insurance, travel and accommodation of these professional hockey players. The insurance is a key component because it protects the NHL teams against an injury to a star player who could impact team success and/or team revenue for years to come. For the Sochi Olympics in 2014, the IOC sent some USD7 million to the NHL, something the IOC does not do for other sports leagues. The IOC has done so for the past five Winter Olympics since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, but this year the IOC announced they would not pay the NHL for players to come.

Bettman stated that without IOC financial support, it’s unlikely the owners would support. “We don’t make money going [to the Olympics]. I can’t imagine the NHL owners are going to pay for the privilege of shutting down for 17 days. I just don’t see that.”

However, the star players in the NHL view the Winter Olympics as a matter of prestige and pride. The very best players like Canadian Sydney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Russian Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals have said they intend to go, Ovechkin going as far to say he would go without the NHL’s permission. And as mentioned in this Ottawa Citizen article, the owners will listen to their stars.

When Alex Ovechkin said he was going to the Olympics, with or without the NHL’s blessing, it didn’t take long for Washington Capitals owner Ted Leonsis to stand behind his star. And why wouldn’t he? Ovechkin is the face of the team. He not only helps the team win games, he puts fans in seats.

Major League Baseball stands in contrast to the NHL. Currently, the World Baseball Classic, an international baseball championship series taking place in March, 2017, has the full commitment and support of MLB. And while the major league players from big-time baseball nations of Japan, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Korea are heavily involved in the World Baseball Classic, Team USA is bereft of its stars. In contrast to the NHL players, the Americans have little to no interest in participating.

Now, the World Baseball Classic is not the same at the Olympics. And when baseball returns to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred will likely want to ensure his league’s best players are at the Summer Games. Growing the international market for baseball will be a big priority for Manfred. But he has yet to gain consensus with team owners on how to make it work for the MLB when the Olympics will take place in the middle of the 2020 MLB season. Injuries and lost revenue to lost games will certainly be in the minds of the owners.

Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner
Rob Manfred MLB Commissioner

According to this Sports Illustrated article, there are two possible options to make it work: allow the season to continue without interruption, and just free up the players selected to their respective national teams, or shut down the MLB season for, say two-and-a-half weeks, like the NHL has done in the past.

The NBA, on the other, other hand, has had the distinct advantage of holding a primarily Fall-Winter-Spring season, while the Olympics tend to fall in the summer, the basketball off season. Traditionally, the NBA has promoted its brand and players globally, and have been a model for building a global business. Their commitment to the Olympics is thus considerable. The issue has been ensuring that the richest and greatest athletes in the world stay motivated enough to train and risk injury during their time off.

The US men’s team took bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics, and were dubbed “The Nightmare Team”. It didn’t bode well when the superstars of the league, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Garnett begged off of the team, and Ray Allen and Jason Kidd were out with injuries.

After the team’s embarrassing finish in Athens, Team USA appointed Jerry Colangelo to take charge of team selection. His job was to persuade the NBA’s best American players that it was their duty to restore pride and glory to men’s basketball in the international arena.

Colangelo convinced such stars as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwayne Wade not only to join Team USA for the 2008 Seoul Olympics, he got them to commit to playing together for three years leading up to the Olympics. Under Colangelo’s leadership and the coaching of Mike Krzyzewski, Team USA dominated at the 2008 Seoul Olympics to easily win gold. They’ve done so ever since.

Summary:

  • NHL: League and Owners not committed; Players committed
  • MLB: League committed; Owners not yet committed; American players not committed, but world players committed
  • NBA: League committed; Owners committed; Players committed

 

Next Big Pivot 2_Yuko Mitsuya
Yuko Mitsuya at The Next Big Pivot Charity Dinner 2017

 

“I’m tall, so I played volleyball. It was never a dream or a passion.”

It’s not what you’d expect to hear from an Olympian. But that’s how Yuko Mitsuya, member of the Japan woman’s volleyball team that took bronze at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, started off her speech at a charity event on February 23, 2016.

“I didn’t really like how tall I was. Volleyball was the only way to deal with this.”

One imagines someone who succeeds at the highest levels would be filled with passion for their accomplishment. But the 177 cm tall woman from Katsuyama, Fukui, was ever humble in a talk that was inspirational. Mitsuya was speaking at an event called “The Next Big Pivot Charity Dinner 2017” in Tokyo, raising funds to provide young Japanese women with an opportunity to learn about leadership in the sports industry. Last year, five women went to New York City to participate in a program called Future Frontwomen, which gave them in-depth exposure to how the NBA is run and how sports can be managed as business.

Those five women were present to hear Mitsuya explain that the path to success is not just fueled by passion, it is one of hard work, persistence and learning. Mitsuya, currently the chairperson of the Japan Basketball Association and the former CEO of a lingerie manufacturer, explained that she made the team because she was tall, but in her early junior high school days, she wasn’t very good. She worked at it, got better, and was able to contribute.

 

Next Big Pivot 1
Mie Kajikawa and the Future Frontwomen

 

I wasn’t that good. I was really a problem to the team. I hated it, but this was all I could do. Over time I got better, and more confident. I realized that becoming good at something was not a matter of whether I liked it or not. It mattered whether I practiced. And I practiced every day, and learned. I tried very hard and eventually got recognized as the best junior high school women’s volleyball player in Fukui.

Her one big lesson for young women in Japan (and perhaps for anybody who desires to achieve) is that no matter how good you are, there’s always another level up. She succeeded as a volleyball player in junior high school in Fukui, but when she moved to Tokyo for high school, she realized that she still had a lot to learn.

I thought I was good, until I got to this next level. And I lost confidence. But my friends supported me and helped me recover my confidence as I improved. And that’s what’s important – always stepping up, going another level up. There is always an opportunity to rise up further. You do well and you get to the top, and you realize, there’s another level to climb. As I got used to achieving and stepping up, I could always improve. For women, young women, I believe there are lots of chances to step up. You shouldn’t let your pride get in the way, worrying whether you will achieve or not. You need to understand that getting to a certain level means re-setting your mindset and your goals, so that you climb to the next level.

Prior to Mitsuya’s retirement, the only life she had known was volleyball. But she took it to the next level by transitioning to teaching at the high school and university level. Three years after participating in CSR activities with the leadership of a lingerie company called Ten Arrows, she was named CEO of that company. That was a big step up.

 

Mitsuya Yuko 1
Yuko Mitsuya in 1984

When I became a company CEO, a lot of people said I was hired just because I’m a well-known person. But I want young women to realize that specialization in one area does not mean that you cannot do something else. You need to challenge yourself and try different things because there are common skills you can use in other types of work. Based on my experience in volleyball, I learned how to motivate people (which is important for company leaders). I learned another important lesson from sports, which is also important in companies: resilience. I encourage people to challenge themselves because you need the experience of overcoming issues. And if you fail, well, through failure you grow. More importantly, if you do not challenge yourself, you may regret not making the attempt.

 

Mie Kajikawa understands this. Kajikawa was first a basketball player at Nagoya University. She worked in sales for the Japan Travel Bureau in Nagoya, studied French in France for a month, spent a few years doing secretarial work for executives in foreign financial services firms in Tokyo until she realized what she wanted to do – study sports management in the United States. During her master’s program at Ohio University, she had a career-defining experience – an internship with the Detroit Pistons.

From that point on, the doors to NBA officials or relevant sports industry players, as well as sports associations in Japan opened up. Kajikawa went on to participate in Tokyo’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics (which eventually went to Rio), and founded the company, Cheer Blossom, Inc., which provides consultation in CSR to Japan’s professional basketball league – B. League. And when she established the non-profit organization, Next Big Pivot, she became a significant player not only in promoting the empowerment of women in sports business, but also advocating for the development of basketball in Japan.

If you are interested in learning more about Next Big Pivot and Kajikawa’s plans, click here.

team-canada_tokyo-olympic-basketball-games-guide-1964
Team Canada_Tokyo Olympic Basketball Games Guide 1964

It was a far cry from years in the future when Canada embarked on a highly financed campaign to win a bevy of gold at the Vancouver Winter Olympics with their Own the Podium program.

In 1964, the basketball players on Team Canada paid their own way to Tokyo to compete in a qualifying tournament that took place a week prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics. If Canada played well enough to finish within the top four in the 16-team tournament to qualify for the Olympic tournament, then the 15 players would be reimbursed for the S1,044 round-trip economy airfare from Toronto to Tokyo, according to a Yomiuri article from October 5, 1964.

On October 2, Canada got by The Philippines 68-64, which set up a match against Cuba. And on October 4 in Yokohama, Canada defeated Cuba 72-63. As the article describes, “Canada’s Olympic basketball team members are in the money, and far from keeping it quiet, they’re yelling their heads off jubilantly.”

Then there’s the adage “be careful what you wish for.”

After the opening ceremonies, and the commencement of the Olympics basketball tournament in the beautiful National Gymnasium Annex in Yoyogi, Team Canada quickly realized they had entered a slaughterhouse. Team Canada proceeded to lose seven games in a row.

To the delight of the hometown fans, Canada lost handily to a much shorter Team Japan 58-37, in what was considered at that time an upset. Japan in fact won 4 games in the tournament. Team Canada’s only consolation was in the consolation round, when they somehow defeated Peru 62-61, before falling to Hungary, and landing in 14th place out of 16.

japan-beats-canada-in-basketball_tokyo-olympiad-1964_kyodo-news-service

carmelo-anthony-favela-2
Carmelo Anthony in Santa Marta, a favela in Rio de Janeiro.

Carmelo Anthony is a New Yorker, now playing for my hometown team, the New York Knicks. I’m proud that he is a Knick, but as I grew up a St Johns Redmen fan, and he led Big East rival Syracuse to an NCAA championship, I wasn’t an immediate fan.

When Anthony joined the Knicks after essentially demanding a trade from Denver, I looked on the deal with tremendous skepticism. The Knicks have floundered in the Carmelo years, although that floundering began way before he arrived. Skepticism has turned to apathy, and my expectations for my Knicks have dropped.

But my respect for Anthony has continued to climb. He has been a proud Olympian, representing the US men’s basketball team a record four times, helping the US to three gold medal championships in the past three Olympics. More importantly, Melo has been willing to speak out on social matters important to him, an uncommon trait for well-paid athletes.

During the Rio Olympics, a day after Ryan Lochte told the world that he and fellow swimming teammates were held up at gunpoint at a Rio gas station, Carmelo Anthony was visiting one of the more notorious favela in Rio, Santa Marta. Favela are where the poorest of the inner city in Brazil live, their lives influenced by the vice of the drug trafficking economy.

Anthony, with a few friends, went with cameras, and without security to hang out with citizens of Santa Marta. It was a couple of days after the USA defeated France by a unexpectedly slim margin, and a day before their opening match in the knockout round with Argentina. The US team’s mission was far from complete, but my guess is that Anthony worked this out with the coach so that he could fulfill a dream to visit a favela. He admitted that he had seen the film, City of God, dozens of times, and as a child of the inner city growing up in Baltimore, he wanted to see what life was like in Santa Marta.

“This was on my bucket list, to be honest with you; specifically to go to the favelas — forever,” said Anthony, staying on a nearby cruise ship with his teammates. “I just always wanted to see and experience that. Growing up in Baltimore, and knowing what that was like, in my own favela, you know what I mean? So I wanted to go and experience that for myself. I wanted to touch that.”

carmelo-anthony-favela

One of the more powerful images in social media during the Rio Olympics was Carmelo Anthony sitting in a plastic chair in the middle of the favela, his blaring red clothes and cap in contrast to the multi-colored canvas of the favela apartments behind him. What he wrote below his Instagram picture was a statement of empathy and ease, one that I’m sure enamored him with many in Brazil.

“I discovered that what most people call creepy, scary, and spooky, I call comfy, cozy, and home.”

This image and statement was in direct contrast to the image painted by Lochte, who reinforced the perception that Rio was a scary, violent place. You can see how people quickly picked up on the contrast between Lochte and Anthony here.

Anthony walked around, played basketball with the neighborhood kids, and brought smiles to people in the favela. I think that when stars combine acts of unexpected kindness with a consistent articulation of their values, you get a more authentic view of them as people. So now I’m glad and proud that Melo is a member of the New York Knicks. There’s more to life than winning championships. (But I wouldn’t mind if he does.)

Rick Barry
Rick Barry and his underhanded free throw technique
In Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History, he tells the story of Wilt Chamberlain and one of the most incredible basketball games ever played. His Philadelphia Warriors beat the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962 by the score of 169 to 147, and Chamberlain, incredibly, scored 100 points in that game.

As Gladwell points out, a good reason he got to 100 was because he knocked down 28 free throws, missing only 4. That’s an accuracy rate of 87.5%. And he did it shooting underhanded, as I explained in the previous post.

This is a technique that Rick Barry, considered one of the 50 Greatest Players in history, employed. Barry held until recently the record for career free throw percentage at over 90%, where the overall NBA free throw average over the decades is around 75%. For every 100 free throws, Barry accumulated 15 more points than the average NBA player. Imagine if Chamberlain hit free throws on the par of Barry. As Chamberlain’s coach once said, according to Gladwell, “if you shot 90% we might never lose.”

But the next year, Chamberlain gave up on the technique. Barry and Chamberlain knew each other as their careers overlapped. And Barry would kid Chamberlain for conceding a huge number of points by not using the underhanded throw. Why did he give it up?

Well we call this technique the “granny throw” because it looks like you’re shooting “like a girl”, or “like a sissy”. Before Barry was coached by his father to shoot underhanded, Barry himself was worried about shooting underhanded. And he also hated being called a sissy. But he got results. And that’s all that mattered to Barry. But Chamberlain, despite seeing the results himself, could not stick to the plan. And according to Gladwell, Chamberlain wrote in his autobiography the following:

I felt silly, like a sissy, shooting underhanded. I know I was wrong. I know some of the best foul shooters in history shot that way. Even now, the best one in the NBA, Rick Barry, shoots underhanded. I just couldn’t do it.

In other words, as Gladwell explained, “Chamberlain had every incentive in the world to keep shooting free throws underhanded, and he didn’t. I think we understand cases where people don’t do what they ought to do because of ignorance. This is not that. This is doing something dumb even though you are fully aware that you are doing something dumb.”

The underhanded free throw – clearly an easy way for almost any coach to add more points per game – remains a technique banished to the dustbin of history because people were afraid of how they looked.

And yet, I believe there is a coach out there, perhaps of a division three college in the US, or a poorly performing team in the Spanish professional league, or of a national team of a small country, that’s thinking….”I will do anything to squeeze more points out of my boys.” Maybe it’s someone new to coaching basketball and indifferent to how the players or the fans feel as long as they get results.

My guess is there will come a time when we see an entire team shooting free throws granny style, hitting 82%, then 85%, then maybe even 90% of their foul shots. And when it becomes clear that their 1-point, 2-point victories are because they hit 18 of their 20 free throws underhanded, who knows how long it will take before another coach feels he or she has nothing to lose except a few laughs from the stands in the early going.

That coach may one day say, “I may be stupid, but I’m not dumb.”

Wilt Chamberlain 100
On March 2, 1962, Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game.
Australia has yet to medal in men’s basketball in the Olympics. And they fell so agonizingly close in their one-point loss to Spain in the bronze-medal match at the 2016 Rio Olympics. You can’t blame their free-throw shooting, as they went 13 of 15 for the game. That’s an excellent 86.7%. Spain on the other hand could have had a far easier victory if they had shot better from the free-throw line, as they hit only 15 of 22 free throws.

Perhaps more critically, Croatia loss to Serbia by three points, while shooting a decent 78.9%. This was out of 38 attempts to Serbia, which only had 25 attempts, which meant that as a team, Croatia was effective at getting fouled and getting to the free throw line. If only they had hit three more free throws, Croatia could have had a shot at gold against the Americans instead of Serbia.

Coaches are always scheming to figure out how to gain more points than the other team, either via offensive or defensive schemes. But when it comes to the free-throw, the coach can only hope and pray that the shooter has practiced enough to hit the free throw with regularity. After all, no is guarding you. It’s just you against the basket.

The question is, would an improvement in free throw shooting impact a team’s win-loss percentage?

Let’s look at the 2015 Detroit Pistons, which shot 66.8% collectively for the season. They hit 1,399 free throws over 2,095 attempts. Now if they hit 80% of their free throws, like the New York Knicks did that season, the Pistons would have had a total of 1,676 successful free throws, or 277 more points, or 3.4 more points per game over an 82-game season. Would that have taken considerably higher than their 44-38 win-loss for 2015? Possibly, perhaps enough to help them finish ahead of the Indiana Pacers for second place and avoid a first-round meeting with the Lebron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers.

In other words, if you had an idea how to instantly improve free-throw shooting percentage by 10 to 20% points, you would think any NBA or national team coach would be hiring you for tons of money to teach them your secret. You would think so, wouldn’t you?

Wilt Chamberlain shooting the granny shot
This is how Chamberlain shot free throws in the 1961-62 season.
And yet, as Malcolm Gladwell recently explained in his fascinating podcast, Revisionist History, basketball coaches and players at all levels of basketball have resisted one of the proven, most effective ways to make free throws. In this podcast, Gladwell told the well-known story of Wilt Chamberlain of the Philadelphia Warriors, and the game on March 2, 1962 when he scored 100 points against the New York Knicks. What is less well-known is that Chamberlain hit 28 free throws, still an NBA record.

Chamberlain had improved his free-throw shooting from 50% to a career-best 61% that season. In that 100-point game, he hit 28 of 32 for an amazing 87.5%. What is even more amazing, he did it using the “granny throw”. That is the technique basketball great Rick Barry made famous.

It’s a throw that starts with both arms hanging naturally in front of the body. Then with an easy upward swing of the arms, and simultaneous flick of both wrists, the ball is lofted lightly toward the hoop. Barry hit 90% of his free throws over his career with that technique, the best in NBA history at the time of his retirement. And Chamberlain hit the century mark that wonderful night in Philly over 54 years ago because of that technique.

But after that season, Chamberlain gave it up, and reverted back to being a very poor free-throw shooter, a rate which waffled between 38 to 50%. Why would he abandon a huge part of his offensive weaponry? Why would one of the most fouled players in NBA history give up easy points by shooting his free throws holding the ball as everyone else does, starting from around his forehead?

Ah…the answer is both complex and simple, and I defer to the great Gladwell to tell this stunning story about why people and pride get in the way of results. See my next post.

Opening Ceremony Maracana Stadium 2016August 5_New York Times
New York Times

The Debutante Ball is over. And Brazil is looking very good.

Despite all the issues that have arisen in Brazil in the run-up to August 5 – the impeachment of its President on corruption charges, the collapse of its economy, the constant news of the polluted Guanabara Bay, the shocking news of the impact of the zika virus, rumbles of possible riots by the underclass – the opening ceremonies at Maracanã Stadium went off pretty much without a hitch.

And there were a few big moments. Let me focus on three:

Sex: Carlos Nuzman is the president of the Rio Organizing Committee, and former member of the International Olympic Committee. He and his teammates likely helped inspire generations of volleyball fans in 1964 when he was on the men’s Brazilian team in Tokyo, where the sport debuted as an Olympic event. There he was on his country’s biggest stage on Friday, bubbling with excitement, exorcising all of the repressed worries he told countless people in the press not to be concerned with.

We never give up, we never give up. Let’s stay together when differences challenge us.

But to add a bit of spice to the formality of the opening speeches, Nuzman made one of those slips of tongue that the head of the IOC will never forget. Nuzman was responsible for introducing Thomas Bach, and said it was his honor “to hand over to the president of the IOC, the Olympic champion Thomas Bach, who always believed in the sex…success of the Rio 2016 Games.”

OK, Bach will always cherish that moment I’m sure…and it’s what’s on the mind of half the athletes at the moment anyway. (It’s been heavily reported that 450,000 condoms have been made available in the Olympic and Paralympic villages.)

Beauty: I’m a Jets fan. I hate Tom Brady. That goes with the territory. While Brady is one of the best quarterbacks in the history of the NFL, an instant hall of famer, his wife is arguably even more famous globally. Super Model, Gisele Bündchen, who was born in in Southern Brazil, travelled to London at 17. She was plucked out of the crowd of wannabes to make it on the catwalk for designer Alexander McQueen. From that point, Bündchen was a star, becoming a mainstay on the cover of Vogue and the body of Victoria’s Secret.

And so, in a moment of exquisite simplicity, the organizers brought together Brazil’s most famous song and its most famous face. First the crowd heard the massively familiar bossa nova rhythm and melody of The Girl from Ipanema, performed by Daniel Jobin, the grandson of the music’s writer, Antonio Carlos Jobim. From the other end of the stadium emerged the super model, coming out of retirement to make her final catwalk. Probably her longest catwalk ever, Bündchen sashayed some 150 meters across the entire stadium floor to the roars (and photo flashes) of 78,000 ecstatic fans.

gisele bundchen rio olympics
Gisele Bündchen – click on this image to see a video of the moment.

Glory Restored: It was the marathon event at the 2004 Olympics, in the birthplace of the race, Greece. Brazilian, Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima, of Cruzeiro de Oeste, was leading the marathon race with 7 kilometers to go when a strangely dressed spectator burst onto the road and just as suddenly pushed de Lima off the course. As I have described in a previous post, de Lima looked disgusted as he made his way back onto the course and continue on with the race. At the end of the 42-kilometer footrace, de Lima finished in third. There were attempts to give him a gold medal, but it is likely that since de Lima was still in first with a decent lead, the IOC decided to keep the results as is.

No doubt, this incredibly quirky incident was hard to forget for Brazilians, and particularly de Lima, who could have been on the top step of the awards podium, with a gold medal around his neck, listening to his national anthem. Instead, he listened to the Italian anthem, consoled with a medal of bronze.

Fast forward to 2016. The most famous athlete in Brazil, the legendary Pelé is rumored to be too ill to participate in the opening ceremonies. Up steps de Lima, who took the sacred flame from Brazilian basketball star, Hortência de Fátima Marcari, and carefully climbed the 28 steps to the Olympic cauldron. He raised the flame high with two hands to immense cheers, turned to the cauldron and ignited it, and the hearts of 78,000 people in the Stadium.

As the cauldron climbed into the night, to become the centerpiece of an incredible metal sculpture that turned the sacred flame into a swirling solar spectacle, de Lima was probably feeling the pride and joy he could’ve, should’ve, would’ve felt, if not for that crazy man in Greece in 2004. As the fireworks exploded around and above Maracanã Stadium, de Lima’s heart, I’m sure, was full.

Vanderlei de Lima lighting the cauldron
Vanderlei Cordeiro de Lima lighting the Olympic cauldron.
Ibitihaj Muhammad
Ibitihaj Muhammad

Ibitihaj Muhammad was invited to speak at South by Southwest (SXSW), the popular culture, media, technology conference in Austin, Texas. When she arrived to check into the conference, she was asked to remove her hijab so that a photo ID could be taken.

During the panel discussion entitled, “The New Church: Sport as Currency of American Life”, Muhammad said “I had a crappy experience checking in. Someone asked me to remove my hijab isn’t out of the norm for me. Do I hope it changes soon? Yes, every day.”

Muhammad is the first Muslim woman to join Team USA and represent America in the Olympics. She is a sabre fencer who got into fencing when she noticed as a young teenager that fencers have to cover their entire body from head to toe. In other words, she can wear her hijab and compete without any concern for what people will think or feel.

But fencing may be one of those uncommon sports where one can wear something on your head without a rule being invoked or disapproving stares cast your way.

In August 2014, officials of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) at an international basketball tournament in China insisted that two Sikh players representing the India team play without their turbans. Why? Because FIBA rules state that “Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players”, which apparently includes hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes.

Despite the fact that the opposing players in that game did not mind that the Indian players wore turbans, and that the coach of the Indian team, Scott Flemming had apparently already attained approval from FIBA for his players to wear turbans, FIBA officials at the game still decided that the rules were the rules.

I know that US bureaucracy has a few rules for headshots for passports and driving licenses, and I know they don’t allow you to wear anything on your head. But as it turns out, the US government realizes that while rules are rules, you do need to be flexible in maintaining other rules (e.g.: the first amendment of the US constitution). The US State Department clearly states that there is an exception for headgear used “for religious purposes” are allowed, as long as the face is fully visible.

US Passport Photo Rules Headgear
US State Department passport photo rules

Hijabs, turbans and yarmulkes in various sports like basketball and soccer have not proven to be a safety risk, any more than any other piece of clothing worn during a competition. And yet, the fact that Muhammad is in the news because she is wearing a hijab in addition to the fact that she is a gifted athlete, and that I am writing this blog post indicates that the hijab and the turban are less about safety and more about a conflict of values.

There is power in being the first. It would be wonderful for Muhammad to do well at the Rio Olympics, to show a whole generation of Muslim women in America (and perhaps in other countries) that values and attitudes can change, and that new possibilities for them are opening up.

Moon Tae Jong of South Korea (L) passes
Moon Tae Jong of South Korea (L) passes a ball as Amjyot Singh of India (R) defends during their preliminary round match between South Korea and India at the 26th Asian Basketball Championships in Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province on September 17, 2011. South Korea won 84-53. AFP PHOTO / LIU JIN (Photo credit should read LIU JIN/AFP/Getty Images)

NCAA-March-Madness

It’s March Madness in the United States, which means that basketball fans all over the country have filled in their brackets, and are moaning over the college teams that let them down, or the ones who have won to live another day.

While high school superstars at times skip college and go straight to the pros (ie: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James), many great ones make their mark at the university level, and a few go on to win an NCAA championship. Both my neighborhood college, St John’s, and my alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, have made it to the famed Final Four, but neither has won an NCAA championship.

After all, only one team can be champion….which makes this list absolutely amazing. Only seven people in history have won championships at the NCAA level, the NBA level, and at the international level, i.e. The Olympics.

  • Quinn Buckner: Olympic Champion: 1976, NCAA Champion: 1976 (Indiana University), NBA Champion: 1984 (Boston Celtics)
  • Magic Johnson: Olympic Champion: 1992, NCAA Champion: 1979 (Michigan State University), NBA Champion: 1980, 1982, 1985, 1987-88 (Los Angeles Lakers)
  • K. C. Jones: Olympic Champion: 1956, NCAA Champion: 1955-56 (University of San Francisco), NBA Champion: 1959-66 (Boston Celtics)
  • Michael Jordan: Olympic Champion: 1984, 1992, NCAA Champion: 1982 (University of North Carolina), NBA Champion: 1991-93, 1996-98 (Chicago Bulls)
  • Clyde Lovellette: Olympic Champion: 1952, NCAA Champion: 1952 (University of Kansas), NBA Champion: 1954 (Minneapolis Lakers), 1963-64 (Boston Celtics)
  • Jerry Lucas: Olympic Champion: 1960, NCAA Champion: 1960 (The Ohio State University), NBA Champion: 1973 (New York Knicks)
  • Bill Russell: Olympic Champion: 1956, NCAA Champion: 1955-56 (University of San Francisco), NBA Champion: 1957, 1959-66, 1968-69 (Boston Celtics)

And if you look closely, you’ll see that K. C. Jones and Bill Russell played together on championships teams with the University of San Francisco, the US Men’s Olympic squad in Melbourne, as well as 8 championship seasons with the Boston Celtics. On top of that both won two championships each with the Celtics as a coach.

And one more amazing fact: On that 1963-64 Boston Celtic team – the one that defeated the San Francisco Warriors in 5 games – three of these seven immortals played together: K. C. Jones, Bill Russell, and Clyde Lovelette.

1964 Boston Celtics