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July 31, 2017

Philly sports teams finally choosing character over characters

If you squint toward the horizon, you should finally see a tiny sliver of light. There is hope – genuine, realistic hope – that this dark period in Philadelphia sports is ending.

Over the past nine years since the Phillies won the World Series, the annoying credo for all four of our sports teams has been to trust the process, which is just another way of saying that going from terrible to great takes time. Actually, that’s not all it takes. It also takes character.

The best sign yet that this is not just another false start in the rebuilding of our franchises came last week in words spoken by two of the young players who represent the future for the Sixers and Eagles.

“We’re going to be in the playoffs this year,” rookie guard Markelle Fultz told Comcast SportsNet. “I think everyone is willing to listen to the coaches and put forth their best effort.”

“Seven and nine will never be good enough,” said second-year quarterback Carson Wentz on the first day of training camp. “It will never be acceptable.”

Fultz and Wentz have all the talent required of the No. 1 and 2 picks in their respective drafts, but they have something equally important. They have a respect for the games they play, and for the people who teach it. They are real building blocks to success, not doomed to crumble at the first sign of adversity.

By way of comparison, look at the young prospective stars who preceded them during this dark period. Andrew Bynum was going to jump-start the Sixers four years ago, but he was one of the laziest, least committed players this city has ever encountered. Before him, it was Evan Turner, the No. 2 pick who cared more about himself than his team.

Somehow, the Eagles convinced themselves that they could build a champion with gifted athletes who lacked a winning attitude. Before they finally found Wentz, the Eagles were counting on like flawed leaders like Sam Bradford and Mark Sanchez, the highest of draft picks with the lowest of self-esteem.

Fultz and Wentz have the spirit, and they are surrounded by people who share their commitment. Remember, Joel Embiid was equally bold when talking about the playoffs in January, much to the chagrin of his bosses. He has it. Malcolm Jenkins and Jordan Hicks are smart, dedicated professionals. They have it, too.

How did I come to this new perspective on winning, and on the value of character? I just finished watching an extraordinary TV series on Netflix called Last Chance U, a documentary on a school whose team is composed almost entirely of the worst acts in college football.

East Mississippi Community College is the final hope for many college stars who are a lot better at playing football than they are at living life. Many of these kids are in East Mississippi because they were thrown out of school for everything from ignoring rules to criminal behavior.

One such player, former Penn State defensive tackle Kam Carter, is the best example I’ve ever seen of squandered talent, a ne’er do well who never listened to his coaches, rarely went to class and was offended by all forms of authority. Because of these flaws, he was an enigma even in junior college. (He did get picked up by Pitt, where he will fail this year.)

For too long, Philadelphia sports teams have counted on their own Kam Carters, the DeSean Jacksons and Dom Browns and Jonathan Papelbons who arrived with so much hype and left with so little success. Character matters. Players like Fultz and Wentz offer more than talent; they are players worthy of our passion.

The dawn of a new era is finally here. If you look hard enough, you will finally see the first sign of light.


You know a GM has lowered the bar for expectations when he squanders tens of millions of dollars for a handful of lottery tickets and the response is positive. Such is life these days for the man running the Phillies, Matt Klentak.

With no real choice but to make a few moves, Klentak managed to find new homes for Pat Neshek, Jeremy Hellickson, Howie Kendrick and Joaquin Benoit before the trade deadline at 4 p.m. Monday. What he got in return were a couple of decent prospects, a few more one-in-a-thousand shots and some extra money to invest in more kids.

Neshek, a journeyman reliever who represents the best free-agent signing of Klentak’s two years as GM, went for three A-ball players. Shortstop Jose Gomez is the best, ranked 21st among Colorado prospects. The Phils also snagged pitchers Alequandro Requena and J.D. Hammer, both highly unlikely ever to sniff the big leagues.

Kendrick went to Washington for 21-year-old lefty starter McKenzie Mills, whose 3.01 ERA and 10.1 strikeout rate give him a chance to become a back-of-the-rotation starter someday. That day won’t be soon, however, since he is also still in A ball.

Hellickson, whom Klentak clung to for nearly two expensive seasons, finally left for Baltimore in return for Korean bust Hyun Soo-Kim and a low-rated pitcher, Garrett Cleavinger. This is one of those rare deals that made no sense for either team, since the Orioles are not contenders and the Phils got next to nothing back.

The Benoit deal was a last-second move made just before the deadline, in return for reliever Seth McGarry from Pittsburgh. Was yet another A-ball pitcher worth the $7.5 million salary Benoit got this year? Uh, no. Not even close.

Klentak can justify the middle two deals by pointing out that he also acquired some extra money in the international signing pool, which will go toward young prospects whose fate won’t be determined for many, many years.

The real story, though, is how much money the novice GM spent to make these moves. Over the past two seasons, he paid Hellickson $24 million, minus whatever Baltimore agreed to pick up for the last two months of his contract. Add another $24 million paid to Neshek, Kendrick and Benoit this year (minus whatever their new teams agreed to pay), and that’s somewhere between $40 and $50 million, for what?

Yes, Matt Klentak finally made some moves. Now we can only wonder when he plans to make his first really good one.


Two equally remarkable things happened last week in the bizarre career of Marcus Smith. First, the Eagles released him, finally admitting what a huge mistake it was to draft him in the first round three years ago. And second, another team actually signed him.

Smith was a rare combination of overrated talent and bad attitude. By most accounts, the Eagles knew they had blown it within minutes of taking him with the 26th pick in 2014. A linebacker from Louisville, Smith somehow managed 14.5 sacks in his senior season, which is exactly 10.5 more than he accumulated in 23 games so far as a pro.

In a first for my WIP radio show, GM Howie Roseman called in the next morning after that draft, unsolicited, to explain that a sequence of events had conspired against the Eagles, but that everybody was OK with Smith being the pick. Yeah, right.

As a rookie, Smith struggled mightily to learn the playbook, appearing in only half the games, and, by his third year, he had already been written off as a lost cause, despite his best season (2.5 sacks). Through it all, he demonstrated no great desire to excel – or to play at all, really.

In fact, he didn’t even show up for the three-week OTA program last month, explaining that it wasn’t necessary “because I’ve got my IPad.” For some reason – probably salary-cap issues – Roseman waited until the eve of training camp last week to hand Smith his well-deserved pink slip. Good riddance to another first-round draft bust.

Then there was one final twist. The Seattle Seahawks – one of the best NFL defenses over the past five years – signed him. To do what, nobody knows. The conventional wisdom is that the Seahawks had been impressed with Smith’s pass-rushing skills in college. Apparently, there was no tape available of his three years here.

Upon his arrival in Seattle, Marcus Smith gushed with excitement over his new opportunity – but there’s no way he can be as thrilled as Philadelphia is to see him gone.

And finally ...

     · Congratulations to the Cowboys for running away with the NFL lead in player suspensions over the past three years. According to ProFootballTalk, Dallas has had 15 players suspended in that span, five more than second-place Cincinnati. In a related matter, owner Jerry Jones will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday. Who said crime doesn’t pay?

     · After an eventful month in which his dog was held for ransom and he was cut by Dallas after being wrongly accused of a robbery, Lucky Whitehead quickly signed last week to play for the Jets. The Cowboys didn’t reinstate him even after police said the wide receiver was not involved in the holdup. Now that he’s playing for the pitiful Jets, Lucky might want to consider a name change.

     · It’s becoming more obvious by the day that Allen Iverson’s Big3 basketball league is a scam. After snubbing his own city of Philadelphia by not playing in a game here two weeks ago – and never explaining why – the Sixers legend was a no-show last weekend for a game in Dallas. It’s no secret that Iverson needs money, but does he really have to tarnish his image like this to get it?

     · As Baltimore ponders adding anthem-sitter Colin Kaepernick to its roster, new poll results have confirmed what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell denied all last season – the protests by the quarterback and his many followers were the No. 1 reason for the surprising drop in TV ratings. Some people just don’t want to be insulted when they sit down to watch a football game. Imagine that.

     · It would be so easy to rip New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for his latest bullying episode against a fan who heckled him yesterday in Milwaukee, but not this time. Kudos to the governor for not dropping a single nacho throughout the tirade. Even in these embattled times, Gov. Christie never loses sight of his priorities.