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‘The Last Dance’ & Minnesota Connections

April 30, 2020 - (0) comments

 

For me there is a Minnesota connection to the story of the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls team that is back in the news because of the “The Last Dance” series on ESPN that began April 19 with the first of 10 episodes.

So far the series portrays general manager Jerry Krause as the organization’s bad guy for telling the public before the season that Phil Jackson would be out as coach by the spring of 1998, and for taking a miserly stance on compensation for gifted forward Scottie Pippen. Indeed, Krause was a character. I learned that first-hand in the late 1980s when playing the lead role in arranging an exhibition game at Met Center with the Bulls featuring a young Michael Jordan who Larry Bird had already described as “god” in sneakers.

Krause was aloof that long ago night and certainly didn’t win any personality competitions. Near tipoff time in the basement of the Met he made it known the Bulls wouldn’t be taking the floor without a check for their exhibition game guarantee. The demand to show him the money first was unexpected because the Met was accustomed to settling with promoters after the event, but we paid up and the game went on as scheduled.

Not many viewers of “The Last Dance” know Krause’s early background. H was a part-time sportswriter for the Peoria Journal Star while in college at Bradley. Later he became both a pro basketball and baseball scout including for the MLB Chicago White Sox owned by Jerry Reinsdorf. In 1985 he became general manager of the Bulls, convincing Reinsdorf, who owned both Chicago teams, that he could excel in leading the NBA franchise that had never won a championship.

Krause, who died in 2017, was the team’s GM until 2003, playing a major role in the Bulls winning six NBA titles. A short roly-poly man who loved eating doughnuts and was disparagingly nicknamed “Crumbs,” Krause proved more than capable of the faith Reinsdorf placed in him. It was Krause at the top of the organizational pyramid who dealt with Jordan’s considerable talents and ego, and had to put the right supporting cast around him. The biggest piece Krause ever added was discovering Pippen at a small school, a prospect few knew about, but a player who developed into a superstar to complement Jordan. Jackson was a minor league basketball coach until Krause saw his potential and made him an assistant with the Bulls and later head coach.

While Krause receives criticism for some foolish decisions in banishing Jackson and not paying Pippen what he deserved, it seems the role of Reinsdorf is forgotten. Why was the owner silent when it seemed Krause went off the rails?

The fourth episode in the series shown last Sunday referenced assistant general manager Jim Stack. Later general manager of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Stack persuaded Krause to acquire bad boy Dennis Rodman. Krause listened and brought the erratic Rodman to Chicago where his rebounding and defense were the final piece needed for NBA titles in 1996, 1997 and 1998.

Rodman created another Minnesota link in a game against the Timberwolves at Target Center after he fell out of bounds near the baseline. A camera was pointed toward Rodman and he wasn’t pleased (to say the least)—and then he kicked the cameraman in the groin.

So far during “The Last Dance” series there has been no mention of the bad boy’s deed.

Worth Noting

Eric Musselman, who some Gophers fans wanted as head basketball coach a year ago, has the No. 6 ranked national recruiting class for 2020, according to 247Sports. Musselman, whose dad Bill Musselman coached the Gophers in the 1970s, finished his first season at Arkansas this winter after turning Nevada into a top 20 program.

Michigan, at No. 9, is the highest ranked Big Ten school in the rankings that with recruiting all but done at most schools won’t change much between now and next fall. Illinois is No. 14 nationally, and No. 2 in the Big Ten, Indiana No. 23 and No. 3, and Wisconsin is No. 24 and No. 4. The Wisconsin class includes two incoming freshmen from Minnesota, four-star Ben Carlson and three-star Steven Crowl.

Richard Pitino

The Gophers chose to scholarship just two freshmen for their 2020 class, Jamal Mashburn Jr. and Martice Mitchell. Both are four-star players, per 247, with the website ranking Minnesota’s recruiting class No. 59 in the nation and No. 8 in the Big Ten. Since becoming Minnesota’s head coach in 2014, Richard Pitino has struggled to land players from the state, with Amir Coffey and Daniel Oturu the only local four-star players to become Gophers.

Before the NFL Draft last week it looked like safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and tight end Thaddeus Moss could become part of a small group of sons of famous pro football dads that were selected in the same draft. Didn’t happen, though, because while the Gophers’ Winfield was chosen by Tampa Bay in the second round, LSU’s Moss wasn’t selected in the draft’s seven rounds and has signed with Washington as a free agent. Moss is the son of former Viking great Randy Moss.

After the draft, Betonline.ag made odds this week that seven other teams are more likely to win the NFC championship than the Vikings. The Saints, 49ers, Bucs, Cowboys, Eagles, Seahawks and Packers are all ahead of the Vikings.

The Ravens and 12 other teams had more favorable odds than the Vikings to win the 2021 Super Bowl.

The CORES meeting for Thursday, May 14 at the Bloomington Event Center, featuring Gophers athletic director Mark Coyle, has been cancelled. More information about CORES is available by contacting Jim Dotseth, dotsethj@comcast.net. (CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans).

It was 64 years ago last Friday that the American Association’s Minneapolis Millers opened the corn field-turned into a ballpark, Metropolitan Stadium. The facility was similar to Milwaukee’s County Stadium and was built to lure a MLB team to the area. The Washington Senators arrived after the 1960 AL season and became the Twins. Metropolitan Stadium cost less than $10 million to build and was financed through revenue bonds issued by Minneapolis, Bloomington and Richfield.

 

Gophers Picking Up 4-Star Momentum

April 28, 2020 - (0) comments

 

The football Gophers are trending toward their best recruiting class in more than a decade and this spring are picking up more four-star preps. Minnesota has four four-star players among 13 preps who have made verbal commitments for the class of 2021 that eventually may have about 20 scholarship freshmen.

In the latest rankings by 247Sports for 2021, Minnesota is No. 5 nationally and No. 2 in the Big Ten (behind Ohio State). When national Signing Day comes along in December it seems like this class could be as hyped (or more so) by recruiting authorities as coach Tim Brewster’s group in 2008 that 247Sports ranked No. 26 in America. None of Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck’s previous four recruiting classes have made it into the final 247Sports top 30 rankings.

Ryan Burns, the publisher of GopherIllustrated.com affiliated with 247Sports, believes Fleck and his staff could pick up three or four additional four-star players to go with a load of three-star recruits. “That wouldn’t surprise me one bit,” Burns told Sports Headliners.

The Minneapolis-based recruiting authority sees a possibility that two more four-star targets could commit in the next 30 days. Running back Mar’Keise Irving from Hillcrest High School in Country Club Hills, Illinois and Chicago Simeon offensive lineman Cameron James both have strong interest in Minnesota despite the COVID-19 epidemic preventing them from visiting campus.

Ryan Burns

Burns said Minnesota also has commitments from players currently ranked with three-stars who could move up to four-star status (next highest from five stars) if a fall high school season is played and they excelled. He mentioned Shakopee defensive end Devin Eastern is on the edge of moving up because of his on the field skills and also his impressive offseason training.

It doesn’t look like Minnesota will land two of the state’s top rated players in the class of 2021, per Burns. Four-stars Justice Sullivan from Eden Prairie and Riley Mahlman of Lakeville South appear headed to Iowa and Wisconsin respectively. Justice is labeled an “athlete” whose college position appears undecided, while Mahlman could add to the Badger legacy of great offensive linemen.

As of today, 247Sports ranks Iowa’s 2021 class No. 6 nationally, with the Hawkeyes having 12 recruits including four four-star players. Wisconsin is No. 13 in the rankings, with 10 commits including three four-star prospects.

The list of Gopher four-star commits so far is comprised of cornerback Avante Dickerson, Omaha; quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, Antioch, Illinois; cornerback Steven Ortiz, Goodyear, Arizona; and “athlete” Sam Jackson, Naperville, Illinois. All but Athan Kaliakmanis verbally committed to Minnesota this spring.

Burns doesn’t foresee any of them dumping Minnesota to attend other schools, although he will remind a listener “18 year olds” are unpredictable.

Dickerson is the highest ranked Gopher recruit since Washburn running back Jeff Jones committed to Minnesota in 2014. “He (Dickerson) is everything athletically you would ever want in a corner,” Burns said.

It’s almost unheard of for the Gophers to receive a pledge from a Nebraska recruit. Not only are the Nebraska Cornhuskers a legendary team in the state, many of college football’s blueblood programs were also in pursuit of the 6-foot, 165-pound Dickerson who many observers think is the best prospect in the state. Burns believes it’s nearly a lock Dickerson comes to Minnesota and doesn’t give in to the pressure of Big Red Nation.

Why?

Because Dickerson highly values his relationships with coaches and the Gophers won him over led by assistant Joe Harasymiak, according to Burns. He said “Nebraska didn’t put in the work that Minnesota did” to land the gifted prep cornerback. While the Husker staff is likely to try “catch up,” Burns believes Minnesota’s investment in time and effort will keep Dickerson committed until he can sign a National Letter of Intent.

“I think his (recruiting) ranking is warranted,” Burns said. “I think the ceiling is incredibly, incredibly high for him.”

Kaliakmanis gave Minnesota a verbal pledge more than a year ago, per 247Sports. Burns said an indication that Kaliakmanis will keep his commitment is the dual-threat quarterback is recruiting others to become Gophers.

Ortiz committed earlier this month and Blair Angulo of 247Sports predicts an 80 percent likelihood he becomes a Gopher. The University of Washington has a 20 percent chance of having the cornerback eventually land in Seattle. Burns said Ortiz intends to enroll at Minnesota in January and could see playing time in 2021 as a nickel coverage man.

Jacknson was offered a scholarship by Notre Dame to become a defensive back, a position he has never played. He was a sophomore wide receiver before switching to quarterback as a junior last year. “All I know is he is truly one of the most dynamic athletes in the Midwest and that’s why he was so highly sought after,” said Burns who expects Jackson to play wide receiver or QB at Minnesota.

Burns believes Jackson’s intentions toward Minnesota are solid. Jackson de-committed from the Gophers awhile back, and Burns said it would be unusual for a recruit to do that twice with the same school.

 

Zim Looks for New WR to Play Now

April 24, 2020 - (0) comments

 

Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer made known his expectations for first round draft choice Justin Jefferson last night on KFAN Radio. “He’ll be able to come in and should be able to play right away.”

The Vikings selected the former LSU wide receiver at No. 22 in last night’s NFL Draft. Zimmer praised Jefferson’s ability to play inside and outside in an offense. He also mentioned Jefferson’s work ethic in practice, competitive nature and intelligence.

Jefferson has a reputation for making difficult catches and the Vikings considered him one of the best wide receivers in the draft. “Quite honestly, we tried to move up and were hoping that he would be there,” Zimmer said.

Minnesota acquired another first rounder in TCU cornerback Jeff Gladney at No. 31. Zimmer told KFAN the 5-foot-10 Gladney needs improvement with his playing technique but expressed enthusiasm about his new defensive player.

Mike Zimmer

“He’s very quick. Good accelerator, has a lot of speed,” Zimmer said. “He’s a little on the shorter side. (But) of some of the other guys (in the draft) he had longer arms and longer wing span. But he’s a very competitive kid… .”

Will Jefferson and Gladney ultimately be judged as productive players for the franchise? General manager Rick Spielman is in his ninth season with the Vikings and led last night’s opening round decisions. Looking at his eight previous drafts, Spielman hit the success button more often than not, but a few misses standout now when the Vikings have needs at cornerback and wide receiver.

Cornerback Trae Waynes and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell were first round selections in 2015 and 2016. Neither is with the team and they didn’t even come close to being impact contributors for Minnesota. Spielman drafted cornerback Mike Hughes No. 1 in 2018 and while opportunity waits in 2020, Hughes has struggled with injuries and has made only five career starts at a position of ongoing need.

Those three players haven’t benefitted Minnesota much, but five others have from earlier drafts. That includes last year when the Vikings made Garrett Bradbury the highest drafted center in franchise history at No. 18 in the first round. He was a starter in his rookie year and while evaluators say he has lots to improve on, he’s a first round success story right now.

The Vikings didn’t have a No. 1 pick in 2017 but let’s count running back Dalvin Cook to Spielman’s credit. At No. 41 in the second round he was the first player chosen by the Vikings that year, and he is the team’s best weapon on offense.

Spielman had two first rounders in 2014, linebacker Anthony Barr and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater. At No. 9 in the first round of the draft, Barr was the second highest linebacker the franchise ever drafted and has been a Pro Bowler. Bridgewater was on track to become the club’s starting quarterback for years until a devastating knee injury in 2016 eventually caused the Vikings to move on.

Spielman maneuvered for three first rounders in 2013 in this order: defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, cornerback Xavier Rhodes and receiver-kick returner Cordarrelle Patterson. All three gave the Vikings help, with Rhodes becoming (at times) a shutdown cornerback playing one of the most important positions in the NFL.

The Vikings didn’t hit a homerun with their No. 4 pick in 2012, selecting offensive tackle Matt Kalil, but no one will deny Spielman a gold star for choosing safety Harrison Smith with the No. 29 selection of the first round. Smith is still a starter and has consistently been rated among the NFL’s better defensive players. In 2017 Pro Football Focus ranked him the third best player in the league.

From 2012-2015 Kalil started 64 consecutive games for Minnesota but is no longer with the team, and he never fulfilled the expectations of a No. 4 overall pick.

Worth Noting

With NFL teams done with the draft after Saturday, they will focus even more on college free agents and veteran NFL free agents. It could be a telling week for 32-year-old Everson Griffen who was once an All-Pro defensive end and opted for free agent status last month. Probably a long shot the Vikings will re-sign him.

Former Gopher All-American safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will likely be chosen in the second round of tonight’s continuing NFL Draft. Dan O’Brien, now head football coach at St. Thomas Academy, was a Gophers assistant coach when Minnesota recruited him. Winfield was only a three-star recruit out of high school in Texas but O’Brien said the Gopher coaches knew after the first couple of practices the freshman was going to be an impact player.

“He just had fantastic instincts,” O’Brien said. “It seemed like he would read the quarterback as good as any kid we had, even though he was just a freshman. He was one of those players that just was always in the right spot.”

With 13 verbal commits, including four four-star players, the 2021 Gophers football recruiting class is second in the Big Ten and No. 5 nationally in the latest 247Sports rankings.

Condolences to family and friends of former Gopher and Viking star lineman Milt Sunde from Bloomington, who died this week. Sunde, the Gopher team captain, played his last college game on the surprise date of Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 1963. The game against Wisconsin at old Memorial Stadium had been moved from the original playing date of November 24 following the November 22 assassination of President John Kennedy. The Vikings drafted Sunde in the 20th round of the 1964 NFL Draft but he had a surprisingly successful career playing for 11 seasons for his hometown team.

Kerwin Walton, the four-star wing from Hopkins, is expected to announce his college choice Saturday. It’s believed his finalists are Arizona, Creighton, Minnesota and North Carolina. After following Walton’s recruiting, the guess here is Arizona will be the choice because of the Wildcats profile as a college heavyweight and the positive experience Zeke Nnjai, a former Hopkins teammate, had this season with the Pac-12 program.

This week NBAdraft.net projected Nnaji, a power forward, being selected at No. 22 in the first round. Gopher center Daniel Oturu is projected at No. 10, with Apple Valley point guard alum Tre Jones a second round pick at No. 41.

The NCAA has pushed its vote back to June regarding a new policy allowing a one-time immediate eligibility for athletes transferring from one school to another. Even if the policy is approved, it seems likely not to be implemented until the 2021-2022 school year given the late timing and upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

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