King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The dumbest controversy in Belgium. Plus: The dumbest team in America? More like the firedest coach. And: Good basketball reading.

By Salon Staff
Published December 3, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

My favorite controversy this week is the one in which it looks like Belgium, which already has the No. 1 female tennis player in the world on its Olympic team, will lose the No. 2 player over a clothing contract. As in all my favorite controversies, there are really no good guys, just fools of varying degree.

Kim Clijsters, who is sponsored by Fila, announced on her Web site that she's pulling out of the Athens Games next year because the Belgian Olympic Committee is sponsored by Adidas and has a contract requiring its players to use only Adidas gear. Clijsters' contract, of course, stipulates Fila gear. The committee had made a huge concession by saying it would allow Clijsters to play in her Fila outfits, but if she won a medal, she'd have to wear the official Adidas gear.

No way.

"I have decided not to go to the Olympic Games," Clijsters or a ghostwriter wrote in her site's diary section -- in a third paragraph, only after describing a trip to the hairdresser's in Australia and saying she'd play in next year's Fed Cup in Moscow, which she skipped this year to protest its inconvenient scheduling. "I want to remain loyal to the people with whom I have closed a contract. They were the only ones interested in me two years ago and although they have been the ones who have been treating me correctly, they are the ones being blackened. A pity."

I assume that last part about the blackening is a reference to the Belgian press and public, which is howling about her loyalty to money rather than country. Belgians don't tend to win a lot of Olympic gold medals, and with top-ranked Justine Henin-Hardenne, who, being an Adidas player, has said she will play in Athens, and Clijsters, things were looking mighty good for tennis gold. Now they're looking one second-ranked player less good, and the Belgian people are miffed, if press reports are to be believed.

I'm sure Clijsters thinks she's doing the right thing by her stalwart friends at Fila, who I'm sure would stick with her through thick and thin even if it harmed the company's reputation. What she's really done is take an enormously popular Fila spokeswoman -- the sunny, 20-year-old Kim Clijsters -- and turn her into a national pariah and something of an international symbol for misplaced values. Nice work, Kim!

Whoever that person is at Fila who didn't say to their star tennis player, "Listen, kid, do what Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley did in '92 and drape yourself in the flag on the medals stand to cover up the other company's logo" ought to be looking for work. Whoever that person is at Adidas who didn't say, "Whatever happens, this cannot end up looking like Adidas kept Kim Clijsters from playing for the Belgian Olympic team" should join the Fila person at the employment office. Whoever that person is at the Belgian Olympic Committee who didn't say, "No one is leaving this room until this problem is worked out" -- well, that person works for an Olympic committee. What can we expect?

It's amazing that such a petty dispute can't be worked out in such a way as to prevent one of a country's two highest-profile athletes from skipping the Olympics. And in Belgium! Have these people never heard of a "Belgian compromise"?

I love this stuff.

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Callahan clarifies, then packs his bags [PERMALINK]

A day after the AFC champion Raiders fell to 3-9 Sunday with a 22-8 home loss to the Broncos, Oakland coach Bill Callahan said his team has "got to be the dumbest team in America, in terms of playing the game."

When told of this press conference blowup, sage veteran receiver Tim Brown said, "When your head guy says that about you, there could be a little separation thing going on." Brown knows a lot about that little separation thing. He used to do it to defensive backs.

So on Tuesday Callahan clarified his outburst. "I totally respect our players and always have," he said. "My problem is not with our players, it's the way we play." And no doubt Al Davis' problem is not with Callahan, but with the way he coaches, something he'll do for Davis for precisely four more weeks.

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Two good basketball books [PERMALINK]

Elliott Kalb, whom I don't know, was for years a basketball stats guru at NBC and now does the same work at ESPN. He sent me a copy of his book "Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball," and it's pretty good.

Kalb, playing off the NBA's 1996 list of the 50 greatest players of all time, makes his own list and defends his choices using copious but easy-to-understand statistics as well as quotes from a roster of former players and coaches and current observers. The headline is Kalb's conclusion that Shaquille O'Neal, not Michael Jordan, is the game's all-time greatest player. In fact, Jordan ends up third, also behind Wilt Chamberlain.

As you might guess from the cumbersome, slightly off-key title, the writing here isn't always the most graceful, but Kalb has a lot of charm. He's been courtside for a lot of big-time NBA games over the last decade and a half, and he uses that to provide insight without resorting to "I was there and you weren't" obnoxiousness. He's more like your friend at the bar, taking this angle and then that one to try to get his argument across. The arguments aren't terribly persuasive -- I still don't get why he thinks O'Neal was better than Chamberlain even though Chamberlain had far more dominant numbers against a superior crop of contemporary centers -- but they sure are fun, and that's more important.

Kalb ends most of the player profiles with a "Who's Better, Who's Best" blurb, comparing No. 44 Bob McAdoo, say, to No. 37 Bill Walton, or No. 35 Elvin Hayes to unranked Chris Webber. Occasionally, though -- too occasionally -- he provides "A Better Analogy," comparing the player in question to some non-basketball figure. In this way we learn how Bob Pettit was like Stan Musial, Scottie Pippen is like Clarence Clemons, Tim Duncan is like Pete Sampras, and Shaq is like Frank Sinatra.

"Sinatra's success with the [Harry] James band led to his recruitment by the king of swing bands, trombonist Tommy Dorsey," Kalb writes. "You might compare this band to the Los Angeles Lakers." That's swingin'!

For a far more rigorous and statistically interesting take on the NBA, though, try John Hollinger's "Pro Basketball Prospectus," 2003-04 edition. Hollinger is an editor for and runs, "the basketball page for thinking fans."

In the tradition of Bill James and his baseball followers, Hollinger uses formulas more complicated than the standard stats (points and rebounds per game, shooting percentage, etc.) that Kalb cites to evaluate players and teams. "Basketball Prospectus" has plenty of lively writing to go with the statistical tables. It's one of those rare serious reference books that also make for good bathroom reading.

My only quibble is its strange organization, which puts players who changed teams over the offseason in the chapter of their former club. So, for example, in the Mavericks chapter you'll find Hollinger musing about how Nick Van Exel will help the Warriors, and in the Warriors chapter you'll read his consideration of Antawn Jamison's future in Dallas.

I'm reading about the NBA a lot lately because the season starts in only five months.

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