Mike Beebe, Todd Day & Ron Brewer at the inaugural Mike Conley, Jr. All-Star Classic

 

Here are some scenes from Thursday night’s Real Deal in the Rock event featuring all-star teams from Arkansas and Tennessee. Tennessee won 81-78. Stay tuned for an upcoming piece in Sporting Life Arkansas for details and video on Razorback signees Nick Babb and Trey Thompson.

Rep. Reginald Murdock (Marianna) points while Gov. Mike Beebe and Real Deal co-founder Bill Ingram look on

Rep. Reginald Murdock (Marianna) points while Gov. Mike Beebe and Real Deal co-founder Bill Ingram look on

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Former Razorback All-American Todd Day (L) shakes hands with Arkansas signee Nick Babb. Day, a Memphis native, was coach of the Tennessee All-Star team.

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Coach Ron Brewer gives some pointers to all-state Daryl Macon of Parkview.

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Razorback signee Anton Beard sure would have helped the Arkansas All-Star team on Thursday night, but said he couldn’t play because he’d already committed to two other All-Star games.

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Former Razorback All-American Ron Brewer coached the Arkansas All-Star team. Here, he’s giving love to Davell Roby, a Tennessee player who will play for Saint Louis University.

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The Arkansas connections of Mike Conley, Jr

Conley, Jr. has grown up quite a bit from his days in Fayetteville as a nine-year-old (L)

Conley, Jr. has grown up quite a bit from his days in Fayetteville as a nine-year-old (L)

The following is republished from a Sync magazine article in 2009

The Memphis Grizzlies want your business, Arkansas.

And they’re working for it.

More radio stations carrying game broadcasts, community outreach events and 280-mile charter bus trips are a few ways that central Arkansas’ nearest pro team has tried to drum up interest in a state only miles from their FedEx Forum home.

There’s no choice, says John Pugliese, the team’s senior director of marketing and communications. Grizzlies management understood when the team arrived from Vancouver in 2001 that expanding its fan base into a tri-state area including Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee would be vital to success.

Eight years later, to what extent do Arkansans consider the Grizzlies the state’s “adopted” pro basketball team? For the sake of comparison in this specific context, let’s consider the Dallas Cowboys to be Arkansas’ adopted pro football team.

The Grizz have certainly reached across the Mississippi River. In its first years in Memphis, Grizz players, coaches, mascots and salespeople visited Arkansas cities like Jonesboro and Little Rock to promote the team, Pugliese said. The team has set up “Jr. Grizz” basketball teaching programs for children ages 6-15 in Jacksonville, Conway, Marion, Helena, West Memphis and McGehee.

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said last week that he has taught one-day camps with “pretty good turn out” at a Boys & Girls Club in West Memphis the last two summers. Conley, whose father starred in track for the Razorbacks, spent most of his childhood in Fayetteville before eventually moving to Indianapolis, Ind.

Conley’s relatives, who are spread across Arkansas, may see new Grizzlies billboards in places like Marion, Jonesboro and West Memphis as they travel east to see Conley’s home games. The advertisements are part of a commercial outreach that includes four Arkansas radio stations broadcasting Memphis games. Fans can tune into stations based in West Helena, Marion and Jonesboro and, in central Arkansas, Conway’s KASR 92.7 FM. Grizzlies television broadcasts extend nearly 75 miles into east Arkansas, Pugliese added.

In an effort targeting Little Rock, the Grizzlies last year sold tickets of $47 and $99 for a charter bus round trip to select Memphis games.

“We see a little bit of our fan base in Arkansas growing every year,” Pugliese said. He added that roughly 10 percent of ticket holders to Grizz games are Arkansans, and a majority of those hail from West Memphis and Jonesboro, which is 64 miles from Memphis.

According to espn.com, Memphis averaged 12,745 in home attendance last season, 29th of 30 NBA teams. It’s kept the same spot through 10 home games this year by averaging 12,210.

So, let’s cut to the chase — has Arkansas developed a love for its neighboring Grizzlies?

Based on the many conversations I’ve recently had about this subject, I’d say “no.” Let’s explore possible reasons.

1) A Memphis native, and fellow Little Rock Central High School alum, told me while Arkansas is very much Razorbacks country, so is Memphis still very much Tiger country. He averred that despite their NBA credentials, the Grizzlies have yet to capture the hearts of Memphians as the University of Memphis Tigers do. They’re just too new, and haven’t won enough yet. It seems more Memphians would have to first come to love the Grizzlies before Arkansans would.

2) Winners attract new fans, but for most of the last eight years the Grizz have been a losing team. They had won three consecutive games going into last Friday’s game against Oklahoma City, and offered $3 tickets to help pack the house. Attendance was 13,048, and Memphis lost.

3) Although winning would help the problem, the Grizz lack “superstars” that can sell tickets on name alone. They almost had one in Allen Iverson this fall, but he bailed on the team and wound up signing with Philadelphia.

A pickup basketball friend of mine from Little Rock said he was disappointed to hear Iverson had left because he was planning a Memphis trip to see him play. I mentioned the team still had young, exciting players in Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo, and he laughed. He’d totally forgotten.

4) I believe Arkansas is still a football state, and that’s one reason why to many Arkies the Cowboys matter more than the Grizzlies (factor in Dallas’ winning tradition and Razorback connections like Jerry Jones and Felix Jones). This plays out even in West Memphis, the Arkansas area receiving the most Grizzlies exposure. Sonny Weems, an NBA player, said there’s plenty of enthusiasm for the Grizzlies in West Memphis, but he never attended a Grizzlies game while playing at West Memphis High School in the early 2000s. Football was his sport, he said.

This decade, central Arkansas has had chances to support NBA basketball in its own backyard but has whiffed. NBA preseason games were held in North Little Rock at what was then known as Alltel Arena from 2000-2006, peaking with an attendance of 14,672 in 2002 between the Lakers and Grizzlies, based on Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports. The last two years however, saw attendances of 4,290 and 6,275. Pugliese said the Grizzlies “are open” to the possibility of returning for a preseason game but there are “no immediate plans.”

It’s too bad. I genuinely feel NBA ball provides some of the world’s greatest athletic spectacle, and nobody knows how long it will last on Arkansas’ doorstep.


Arkansan NBA pioneer to be Inducted in Hall of Fame, Featured in Major Motion Film

In 1958, Arkansans Nat Clifton (L) and Goose Tatum teamed up again a decade after starring as Harlem Globetrotters

In 1958, Arkansans Nat Clifton (L) and Goose Tatum teamed up a decade after starring as Harlem Globetrotters

Technically, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the second black player to sign with an NBA team. He was also the first black player to play in the NBA Finals, as well as being the oldest player in NBA history to make an All-Star game debut (at age 34).

Technicalities aside, it should be obvious Clifton’s place in sports history is significant. Basketball, after all, is the world’s second most popular sport primarily because of the exploits of African-American players. There is no Julius Erving, Magic Johnson or Michael Jordan without the efforts of Clifton and his contemporaries.

This is why, come August, Clifton will be inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame alongside Nolan Richardson. It will surprise some to learn Clifton was born in central Arkansas in the early 1920s and spent the first six years of his life in England, Ark. He and his family then moved to Chicago’s South Side, where he starred in baseball and basketball for DuSable High School. He landed in New Orleans for college, then served three years in the U.S. Army before bouncing around a few pro leagues. He wasn’t exactly a scrub journeyman, though: In 1948, Clifton signed a $10,000 contract to become the world’s highest paid black pro basketball player with the Harlem Globetrotters (which featured fellow Arkansan Goose Tatum, considered by many the greatest Globetrotter ever).

In 1950, he signed with Knicks, where he became one of the franchise’s most popular players and helped lead New York to three Finals appearances. According to the Chicago Tribune, Clifton was primarily a rebounding forward and center, who at 6-foot-6-inch, 200 pounds averaged 10 points and 9 rebounds a game in eight NBA seasons.

A tenacious defender, Mr. Clifton was called on night after night to guard some of the league`s toughest players, including George Mikan, Dolph Schayes and Ed McCauley.

Following his retirement from professional basketball in 1958-seven years before the league instituted a pension plan-Mr. Clifton played two seasons for Globetrotter spinoffs, the Harlem Magicians and the Harlem Americans. After injuring his knee in 1960 while playing with the Magicians, he began driving a Chicago cab.

`I might not be, but I think I`m the best cab driver out there,“Clifton once said. “The way I look at it, if you`re gonna be something, be good at it.’ ‘

Indeed, at age 63, Clifton died of a heart attack at the wheel of his Chicago taxicab.

The story of Sweetwater’s life appears to be adventuresome, inspiring and possibly sad.  It’s remarkable he lived in a world – the pro basketball circuit of the late 1940s and 1950s – that as far as I know hasn’t yet been portrayed in a major motion film.

Others have noticed this too. That’s why spring 2015 is the scheduled premiere of “Sweetwater,” a biopic featuring stars such as Nathan Lane, James Caan and Brian Dennehy. The film’s currently in pre-production, and appears like it will exercise some creative license to widen its appeal. As an example of how this could happen, look at this character outline (which is six years old and could have changed in the meantime).

In it, we see Sweetwater has the ambition of the becoming the “Jackie Robinson of basketball” and is disappointed when the distinction of being the first black to play in the NBA goes to Earl Lloyd. I haven’t yet researched Clifton’s life in detail, but I would guess this distinction wasn’t so important to Clifton. For starters, the NBA had just started a few years before and was nowhere near as established as Major League Baseball. At that time, there was no guarantee the NBA would even survive and one day become a league as important and influential as it is now. I could be surprised, though. Obviously, Clifton was a competitive man and Jackie Robinson was still on everybody’s mind.

Another likely history twist: Clifton had a blues-singing white woman lover soon after arriving in New York City . I’m 99% sure this didn’t happen, but injecting this affair and blues singing will definitely help at the box office. Romance or not, I’ll be fascinated to see how the movie actually comes together. I certainly salute its producers for seeing it through despite complications over the last six years.

My goal in the coming months is to learn as much about Clifton’s Arkansas years and family as I can. There’s scant info out there now. It’s been said his grandmother apparently used snuff, and young Nat – who loved sweets – put cocoa in his cheeks to emulate her and get a bit of sugar rush. We know he lived with his mother and an aunt in Chicago, and that’s about it.

It’s unclear what year he was born, although the best guess is 1922. It also appears he was born as “Clifton Nathaniel” so now the task is to find any Nathaniels who used to live around England, Ark. (Lonoke County). If you have any tips, please reach out to me.

More than six decades after he became a pioneer, Sweetwater will again make headlines in the coming year. Help me make sure his life’s full story is told.

 

The above is Part 2 of a series about Chicago and Arkansas sports ties. 

 


Nolan Richardson Isn’t the Only Arkansan Entering the Basketball Hall of Fame: Part 1

Chicago.

Is it in the least surprising that a city known for its wind should have so many interesting people floating in and out of it, seemingly carried aloft by the currents of fate?

When I heard Nolan Richardson was being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame this August, one of my first thoughts drifted northward to that great city on a lake. Ten years ago, Richardson’s reputation in Arkansas was marred after an ugly firing from, and lawsuit of, the university with whom he’ll always be linked. The idea of enshrining Richardson seemed far-fetched in that period.

In the last five years, though, we’ve seen a whole-scale rehabilitation of Richardson’s image in the state and nationwide. Much of this, of course, has to do with the passage of time. It also helps Richardson that none of his successors have achieved anything near the same level of success he did in Fayetteville.  An ESPN documentary, released in 2012, also helped Richardson by essentially canonizing his “40 Minutes of Hell” style among the great strategies in basketball history.

But I think one of the most important reasons for Richardson’s resurgence into the public’s goodwill has been his biography, written by Chicagoan Rus Bradburd. Bradburd’s “Forty Minutes of Hell” published in 2010, is a must-read for all fans of college basketball and students of the race relations in the South. It goes back to Richardson’s west Texas background to explain the complicated roots of his anger, and it lays bare the knarled relationship between he and former Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles. It shows, in a way no mere article or documentary could, the extent to which the passion that led to the 1994 championship and the frustration that led to the 2002 meltdown were two sides of the coin.

I’ve talked to Bradburd in person and over the phone a few times about Richardson, Arkansas sports, the craft of writing and more. He’s a fascinating person in his own right, a creative writing professor who’s also spent a year coaching professional basketball in Ireland while learning how to play the fiddle. Oh, and this: He was also a Division I assistant coach who “discovered” a largely unknown point guard named Tim Hardaway in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood.

In the early 1980s, while a teenage Hardaway walked to courts to hone his craft, there would have been at some point a large, 6-7 heavyset older man driving a cab by those same courts. Perhaps, they knew of each other. Likely they didn’t.  The man’s name was Nat Clifton. He is one of the most significant figures in NBA history, a man who will posthumously be inducted into the Hall of Fame alongside Richardson.

And he grew up in Arkansas…

 

Click here for Part 2 of this series.

 


Marco Rubio, Ashley Judd & Anders Holm as Final Four Announcers

http://instagram.com/p/jxjgOCzVwV/

It appears the “savior of the Republican Party” may be a baller. He’d be an even better halftime shot caller.

The broadcasts of this year’s Final Four games feature a new twist. As usual, national television viewers can tune in to a main broadcast a semifinal game on TBS with familiar, established announcers. But on Saturday we will will also see the debut of two other broadcasts that will simultaneously air on separate channels.

These broadcasts will showcase team-centric announcers catering to the fans of Florida, Connecticut, Wisconsin and Kentucky. There will be four “teamcasts” overall to be  shown on TNT and truTv – games which you can find odds for by going to MyTopSportsbooks.com.

This is for the most part a good idea. But CBS/Turner Sports missed out by not including celebrity fans who could appeal to the tens of millions of viewers who are only casual college basketball fans and appreciate insight that veers off into other entertainment worlds like the movie business. As of now,  the teamcasts will feature regional sports channel announcers and former players like UConn’s Swin Cash and Kentucky’s Rex Chapman.

That’s fine for diehard UConn or Kentucky fans, but why not complement those announcers with non-basketball celebrity fans who know the game? Put the following famous fans on the pre or post game shows, or half time, and let them do what they do best: entertain the masses with interesting life stories.

It’s not too late. If CBS/Turner Sports were to at the last second announce teamcast cameos, here’s who should be chosen. Each Final Four program gets a favorite and at least one “darkhorse” candidate.

 

Kentucky

Favorite: Ashley Judd – who else?

She, along with Jack Nicholson and Spike Lee, are as iconic as celebrity fans get.

Judd’s ties to her team run very deep. She believes Big Blue Nation has so many fans is that it binds a geographically diverse state “that has had its hard times. She adds “basketball has given us something to distract us from hardships, from coal mines and strikes and poverty, and given us something positive about which to dream.” Judd herself had a traumatic and fluid childhood, attending 13 schools in her first 18 years. Through all this turmoil one thing she could count on was the joy Kentucky basketball brought her. I’d guess she feels gratitude toward the program.

Judd’s super-close connections to UK basketball would spark enough stories for 20 pre-game shows. For example:

“The 2002-03 squad came to our house (fan nirvana, anyone?) after they beat IUPI … in Nashville and my friend Cathy, Aunt Dot, and I cooked for them. We were all mutually awestruck, so they ended up eating a whole heck of a lot less than the boosters who came over the next night and were far less numerous! Coach loved our countryside setting, and he kept trying to get the town boys to believe he wanted them to take a walk in the woods with a kerosene lantern. One guy was nearly hysterical at the thought.”

Darkhorse #1: Of the rest of Kentucky’s seemingly never-ending list of famous fans, Drake would probably provide the most interesting commentary. Two questions for him: 1)  Does he feel anything is wrong with the fact he got his own UK championship ring before Judd? 2) Can he produce a basketball-centric rendition of his hit singe “Started from the Bottom”? I want it relay the emotional narrative of this year’s Wildcats, who started as the nation’s #1 ranked team before losing 10 games.

Suggested title: “Started at Top, Then Fell to Middle,  Now Close to Top Again.”

Darkhorse #2: The actress/superfan who would provide the most interesting visual:

 

 

Wisconsin

Favorite: Anders Holm

This comedic actor, best known for his role as Anders “Ders” Torpin Holmvik on the Comedy Central show Workaholics,  has the Badger background and improvisational chops to be the no-brainer choice here. Holm’s was a swimmer for Wisconsin in the early 2000s and has been outspoken in his support for the basketball team:

Holm is known to freestyle, which opens the door to the tantalizing possibility of a battle rap showdown between he and Drake..

I pray you, CBS/Turner Sports, do not slam this door shut on me.

 

Darkhorse: Aaron Rodgers.

 

When you can make a head coach look like this just by showing up, your star power is no joke. Rodgers could simply dish out stories as a Super Bowl-winning quarterback for 90% of the time and still hold the audience in thrall:

H/T to Phil Mitten of Buckys5thQuarter.com for insight

Read the rest of this entry »


Kevin McHale Spits Out Perfunctory “Wow” Following Omer Asik Airball

Big nationally televised game tonight in Brooklyn.

The NBA’s third and fourth most winning teams since the New Year – Brooklyn and Houston – are squaring off. The Nets, led by recent Eastern Conference Player of the Week Joe Johnson, have won 13 games in a row at home and could win a franchise record 14 tonight.

Unfortunately, my TNT game feed is inexplicably en Espanol tonight.

Fortunately, the funniest GIF of the night doesn’t need a translation:

Addendum!


ASU and the UA Should Use the Natural State to their Recruiting Advantage

 

The great outdoors, design, football.

A decade ago, the typical college athletics administrator likely concerns himself only with the last of these.

Not anymore. These worlds are colliding with unprecedented frequency as self-marketing matters more and more in college football. Across the nation, programs are jazzing up their facilities and uniforms in an effort to attract recruits, media coverage and donations. Ambitious programs are realizing more variation – in color, shade, design – is better.

Two trends have emerged, one piggybacking on the other.

The first trend entailed marketing an array of different uniforms designs and colors that went beyond a program’s traditional road color and home white. Oregon football kicked this off in 2006 by unveiling a dizzying array of pant, jersey and helmet combinations. Merchandise sales soared as Oregon became one of the nation’s hottest programs.

Around 2011, an offshoot trend emerged where designs of jerseys and playing surfaces incorporate local, geophysical flavor. Here, heritage – natural or man-made – meets the all-important “buzz” factor.

Oregon basketball, one of the first to get into the act, superimposed onto its new court silhouette images of the state’s native fir tree. Other programs have made similar moves. Palm tree images now frame the courts of Long Beach and Florida International universities.

Wyoming football last year unveiled a new artificial turf with a depiction of the state’s Teton Range in both end zones. The lettering “7220 feet” is on both sidelines, marking the stadium’s record-setting elevation above sea level.

Even older, more established programs have gone down a similar, though more subtle, path.

Programs are also using man-made objects to promote their brands. Take Maryland, which in 2011 launched a “state pride” initiative that put the design of its distinctive state flag (the nation’s only one to feature British heraldic banners) on Terrapin football helmets and end zones.

 Indiana went the same flag-based route with one its new football helmet variants.

 So, should Arkansas join the movement?

 Without a doubt.

Our state has far too much iconic imagery to stand on the sidelines and not take advantage. Why, for instance, should the Hogs settle for white helmets and black jerseys when there are so many more interesting, Arkansas-specific designs that could be used?

 We’re the Natural State. It’s high time those playing our best football programs know it.

I’ve shared some ways already on Sporting Life Arkansas - including a diamond Razorback helmet – but below are some others that would work for any program in the state even thought I highlight Arkansas and Arkansas State.

1. According to a Washington, Ark. newspaper article in 1841, the Bowie knife was originally invented not by frontiersman extraordinaire Jim Bowie but by craftsman James Black. It became known as one of the most dangerous big knives in the region, just as Bielema’s Hogs aim to become of the most feared teams in the SEC.  Use a a small silhouette or outline of this knife somewhere on the uniform, perhaps down the side of the legs. Make the blade diamond-like for extra points.

2. Arkansas’ Buffalo River was the first National River to be designated in the United States and along with the Hogs is one of north Arkansas’ prime attractions. It’s time they join forces. Why not incorporate an image representing running water onto the perimeter of the field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium?

3. The Red Wolves and now the Razorbacks have a thing going with mostly-black unis, we know. Tough guy and all that. But so many other programs do that, too. Why not separate yourself from the pack by incorporating colors from the most visually stunning bird native to the state? In the hands of a skilled designer, adding flecks of color from the scissor-tailed flycatcher onto the dark background would be a sure-thing eyecatcher.

The above is an update of an article that originally ran in Sync magazine in summer 2013.

 

 


Arkansas Travelers’ “Otey the Swamp Possum” As Gateway Mascot to Toothless Meth Head-ism

There have been quite a few famous faces affiliated with the Arkansas Travelers since the minor league baseball franchise was formed in 1901. Hall of Famers Tris Speaker, Travis Jackson, Bill Dickey, Jim Bunning, Ferguson Jenkins – along with Angels superstar Mike Trout – top the list.

No roster addition, however, has caused as big a stir as the Travelers’ latest – Otey the Swamp Possum. The new mascot, designed by a California-based company and introduced this week, is meant to pay homage to one of the best second basemen in Traveler history* while appealing to children. So far, though, it has primarily sparked a firestorm of criticism.

One fan on social media sarcastically asked why a “toothless meth head” wasn’t used instead, since “were [sic] stereotyping Arkansas.” Others asked if the possum has to look as if it was “straight out of Deliverance” and wondered the possum was used only because “negotiations to get Cooter from the Dukes of Hazzard fell through.”

Other fans are cool with the choice.

Old Otey

Old Otey

New Otey

New Otey

There’s more than new mascots and brand new logos to be excited/enraged about heading into the season. Here’s a preview, courtesy of Tiffany White:

In April this year, the Travelers – under an all-new coaching staff – will enter their 14th season as an affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels and 48th in the Texas League. The schedule for the 2014 season includes the Texas League All-Star Game, one of the highlights of the season, to be played at Dickey-Stephens Park on Tuesday, June 24. It is the first time that it is played at the team’s new field – the Dickey-Stephens Field, in North Little Rock – which opened in 2007 replacing the former Ray Winder Field (named after Ray Winder who worked as ticket taker in 1915 before rising to general manager) which had served the Travelers since 1932.

The opening of the new season might be the right opportunity to place your bets on the baseball teams playing in the League. If you need some assistance when shopping for the right place and safest website, you might as well check the Internet for bettingsports.com sportsbook comparison. During this new season, you will have plenty of games to choose from, as the format of the Texas League season remains unchanged with the Travs playing mainly against their North Division opponents.

Their most familiar ones are The Springfield Cardinals and Tulsa Drillers (Colorado Rockies), while there are 28 games scheduled with the in-state Northwest Arkansas Naturals. Moreover, the Travs will play all South Division teams (Midland, defending champion San Antonio, Frisco and Corpus Christi) 12 times each.

They will host their eighth Home Opener at Dickey-Stephens Park on April 10th against the Midland RockHounds (Oakland Athletics). During Memorial Day weekend, the Travs will host San Antonio for a 5:30 pm game that will coincide with the Riverfest Fireworks show afterwards, while on the Fourth of July the team is hosting the Frisco RoughRiders (Texas Rangers) at 5:30 pm with the Independence Day downtown fireworks show after the game.

If you are a Travelers fan, an inveterate swamp possum mascot aficionado, and/or simply want to enjoy a good game, remember that tickets and smart packs for the 2014 season are now on sale.

*  The original Otey was R.C. Otey, who died at age 88 in 2011.  A graduate of North Little Rock High School, Otey broke into pro baseball in 1942 with Amarillo, but was quickly nabbed for military service.  “After three years in the Navy, including eight months on Okinawa, he met and married the love of his life, Ida Maxine Morton, who eventually was the director over the Arkansas State Board of Nursing and Superintendent of Missouri Pacific Hospital,” according to his obituary. “In 1949, the Arkansas Travelers bought Infielder Otey off the Pampa Club of the Class C West Texas-New Mexico League. He was the only player who had been with one Southern club for 10 consecutive seasons. He held many records in his tenure, including the most double plays by a second baseman. In 1958, Otey retired from playing baseball and became the Ray Winder Park Superintendent, a position he held for almost 30 years.” – via arkbaseball.com

 

The year before Otey retired, the Little Rock Travelers were named after the entire state and became the Arkansas Travelers. Throughout the years, they have been part of eight Major League farm Systems. After going through a dry decade for league titles, when Arkansas never climbed higher than second but still attracted 250,000 fans annually, they started to win again in 2001, when the new millennium and a new Major League affiliation with the Angels brought another Texas League title.

 


Could an Indian American become Arkansas’ first ice skating champion?

Rising star Pooja Kaylan with her coach Robin Aprea on left.

Keep an eye out for 11-year-old Pooja Kaylan. When it comes to world-caliber ice skating, she may one day not only put Arkansas on the map, but the world’s second largest nation.

For the last six years, Kaylan has been training at the Ozark Figure Skating Club in Springdale while making regular training excursions to Tulsa and California – where is coached by the same coaching legend who has instructed Michelle Kwan and Gracie Gold. A dressmaker in Dallas designs for Kaylan custom-fit boots costing more than $1,000. A choreographer from Colorado creates her competition program. Her mother, a physician in Fayetteville, estimates she and her husband have spent $12,000 a year on Kaylan’s skating hobby.

But the returns are starting to come in.

Last year, Kaylan placed first at the Southwest Regionals of her U.S. Figure Skating competition track.* She then placed fifth in the Nationals. This year, at a higher division, she won regionals again, placed third in sectionals and 10th at nationals.

While she still isn’t among the very elite at a national level (e.g. she cannot yet land the triple axels her competitors can), she is enjoying her sport and may be the most promising young ice skater in Arkansas’ history. Kaylan is the state’s only skater to qualify for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in decades, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. If she one day wins a national title, some of the credit would likely go to flawless execution of her most impressive move – the Biellman spin.

In the move, Kaylan “grabs a blade and raises a leg over and behind her head, rotating quickly on her standing leg,” writes the Democrat-Gazette’s Cheree Franco. “But she also likes to do double lutzes, double loops, double toe jumps. (The lutz is basically a counter-rotated axel, and the “loop” and “toe” refer to takeoff and landing methods.)”

Even if Kaylan were to become a national sensation, don’t expect her to appear in the next Olympics. In 2018, she will still be too young to qualify, so her best bets are 2022 or 2026. There is a chance she would be become the first winter Olympian to spend a majority of her childhood in Arkansas.

Kimberly Derrick, who captured Bronze medal for the 3,000-meter relay in 2010, is the first U.S. Winter Olympian born in the state. But  she only lived in Arkansas for three years before moving to Ohio. (N.B. Thirty-five U.S. Summer Olympians have been born in Arkansas)

Kaylan’s ascendance would mean a lot for India as well. Based on her name, she appears to be ethnically Indian. As far as I can tell, no Indian American has ever earned a medal at a U.S. Figure Skating national competition. Traditionally, it has been east Asian Americans who have dominated the sport, not south Asian Americans. But in the last couple decades, the number of Asian Indians in the United States has spiked with northwest Arkansas at the forefront in terms of per capita population growth for that ethnicity. From 2000 to 2010, the number of Asian Indians there rose 157% (No. 1 nationally) to 8,000. It’s only natural to see some outstanding athletes emerge from this expanding pool of people.

*According to Franco, “U.S. Figure Skating has two general competition tracks, one for youth and one for adults. There’s also a “qualifying track,” open only to youth who have passed the first four levels of testing. Qualifying skaters who do well at Regionals may advance to Sectionals and then Nationals.”


How All Those New Arkansas Football Coaches Bond

Few coaches tower over Bret Bielema. Rory Segrest is one of them.

Few coaches tower over Bret Bielema. Rory Segrest is one of them.

Arkansas football’s struggles last season are well chronicled. Mention of its nine losses, winless conference record and back-to-back 0-52 shellackings to the hands of South Carolina and Alabama are sure to darken the mood of even the most optimistic Hog supporters. But there’s at least one fan not falling into line here. “Some people look at a 3-9 record as a downer,” says head football coach Bret Bielema. “But I find it more exhilarating than anything you could ever find.”

 Wait, what?

 Bielema points to the improvement Arkansas showed in its last four games, when it played opponents increasingly tighter and ended the year with  a four-point loss to No. 14 LSU. Over that span his players executed better and cut back on the mental lapses which had plagued the young team earlier in the season. The Hogs finished as the SEC’s least penalized team vs. other Southeastern Conference foes.  These early signs of a turnaround also give a master recruiter like Bielema a selling point. They help form a narrative appealing to the competitive nature of the top high schools players he most wants to sign. In essence, he wants them to buy into the prospect of building a legacy rather than preserving one. Hog coaches emphasize to recruits the part they could play in helping lead Arkansas to its first SEC title. Bielema says he tells recruits: “If you want to come and be apart of something at Arkansas that’s never been done before, and you want to build off the foundation of a 3-9 record, then I got something for you.

   For Arkansas to win a championship, its defense – which last season ranked No. 76 nationally and No. 9 in the SEC – must improve. Up front, three of four starting defensive linemen have left but All-SEC Trey Flowers returns for his senior season. As for linebackers, Bielema adds:,  “I do think we have a good group that we can piecemeal together. I think Brook Ellis showed us some good things. I think Martrell Spaight and Braylon Mitchell – those three guys will probably be your top three candidates” for starting positions.

  Bielema predicts the secondary, which ranked as the SEC’s worst pass defense against conference foes, will “absolutely” improve from 2013 when it allowed SEC opponents to complete more than 70 percent of passes. He cites added size, strength and quickness as one reason, along with more aggressive tactics that include challenging wide receivers more often at the line of scrimmage. There’s also an infusion of ideas from new defensive backs coach Clay Jennings, who was hired in February from Texas Christian University.

  On the field, Jennings is charged with shoring up the defense’s weakest area. Off the field, he’s expected to go on the offensive in the program’s most important out-of-state recruiting territory – Texas. It takes only a glimpse at the best teams in program history – including the 1964 national championship squad – to confirm this. For its most recent signing class, though, Arkansas coaches signed only two of the roughly 25 Texans they had recruited.

  Bielema’s confident that percentage will rise. He sent five staff members to recruit Texas last winter and believes the fruit of those efforts will be seen in upcoming signing classes. And Jennings, a Waco, Tex. native with a decade’s worth of coaching experience in the state, should strengthen Arkansas’ pull there, Bielema adds. “Any ties he has, we’re going to lean on those.”

  Jennings is one of three new Arkansas defensive coaches. At the top is defensive coordinator Robb Smith, a 38-year-old who last year coached linebackers for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Joining him is new defensive line coach Rory Segrest, who coached the same position at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala. “Rory’s a little guy,” Bielema says, tongue in cheek. “He walks into the room and he’s about 6-foot-6 with a size 18 shoe. I hired him because I didn’t want to be the biggest guy on the staff anymore.”

  Bielema is pleased with how his coaches have built off last season’s late momentum toward the April 26th Red-White Spring Game: “I’m excited about where our staff is right now. We’re really cranking into high gear.” He also knows the more his coaches trust each other, the faster their program will accelerate. To that end, he organizes mixers to help his new coaches get to know each other. For instance, Bielema reserved a suite for his coaches at a February 28th Hogs baseball game in Fayetteville. “My hope is that my [defensive] line coach ends up sitting next to my wide receivers coach and although they hadn’t known each other, maybe they get to know each other a little bit more. It makes things a little bit better.”

 Bielema also organizes other off-season outings that include players, too. He points to examples that naturally revolve around competition: bowling, slow-pitch softball, three-point shooting contests.

  Perhaps it’s appropriate these Razorbacks hone such skills together. Most onlookers, after all, consider them as long shots to win a lot of games any time soon. But that doesn’t faze Bielema. When he’s wooing recruits, selling them on his vision for a great turnaround, he need not ask them to strain their imaginations. They know the 2013 SEC championship game, after all, was played between Missouri and Auburn – two programs with a total of two SEC wins the year before.

The above article originally printed in the March/April issue of Arkansas Money and Politics

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