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Knicks GM Grunwald, former HS star Cross and what could've been

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Knicks GM Grunwald, former HS star Cross and what could've been

When Glen Grunwald was named vice-president and legal counsel of the Denver Nuggets, I called to congratulate him. We go back a long way, to the time he broke in as a freshman sensation for Norm Goodman's basketball team at East Leyden.

When he returned my call, he began: "I finally made it to the NBA."

Now he's back again. After serving as interim general manager for the New York Knicks since last July, he has promoted to executive vice-president and general manager on a permanent basis. No more interim. He has a hearty endorsement from Knicks owner James Dolan.

"Glen has done a terrific job this season," said Dolan, the chairman of Madison Square Garden. "He is an intelligent, seasoned executive and we look forward to him continuing in the role of general manager for many years to come."

Grunwald was just as upbeat when he returned my congratulatory call the other day. "It's a new job. We have a great fan base. Hopefully we can keep moving forward. I never knew where life would take me," he said.

After serving as general manager of the Toronto Raptors from 1994 to 2004, he became president and CEO of the Toronto Board of Trade, the largest business organization in Canada, before joining old friend and college teammate Isiah Thomas as senior vice-president of basketball operations of the New York Knicks in 2006. He was promoted to interim general manager in 2011.

Now he is preparing for the NBA playoffs and the upcoming NBA draft. He is excited about working with another college teammate, Mike Woodson, the Knicks' new head coach, and is proud of the development of former Oak Park star Iman Shumpert, who moved into the Knicks' starting lineup, then suffered a season-ending ACL tear last Saturday at the same time that the Bulls' Derrick Rose was sidelined with the same injury.

Shumpert was the Knicks' first-round draft choice last year, the No. 17 pick out of Georgia Tech. "He has played so well for us. Unlike most rookies, he knows how to play hard and compete. He has great physical gifts. He is athletic and has a great NBA body," Grunwald said.

Of all of the outstanding high school basketball players I observed as a student and fan and covered as a sportswriter for four daily newspapers over a period of 50 years, two who stand out are Grunwald and Russell Cross.

I'll always wonder how good they could have been, if they could have achieved the Hall of Fame stature of George Mikan or Harry Gallatin or Andy Phillip or Isiah Thomas or Dan Issel or Cazzie Russell or Jerry Sloan or Don Nelson or, upon his retirement, Kevin Garnett.

They never had a chance.

Grunwald, the only four-time All-State selection in Illinois history, was recruited out of East Leyden by Indiana coach Bob Knight. He chose Indiana over North Carolina and Kentucky. But he suffered a severe knee injury during the summer prior to his freshman year and never was able to fulfill his enormous potential.

"Sure, I'll always wonder how good I could have been," he once told me. "It was tough not to succeed in basketball after high school. But I was part of a good college program and happy to be part of its success, however small. When you are injured, you feel you can get better. But the gradual realization is that it won't be the same."

He was co-captain of Indiana's 1981 NCAA championship team that was led by Isiah Thomas. He was drafted by the Boston Celtics in the fifth round of the NBA draft but never played in the NBA. Instead, he focused on his education, earning a law degree, an MBA and an Honours business degree in marketing. He was a successful corporate attorney for major law firms, including Winston & Strawn in Chicago, before joining the Denver Nuggets.

Cross was the Bill Russell and Anthony Davis of his time, a 6-foot-10 center with great athleticism and the wingspan of a 747 jumbo jet. A two-time All-Stater, he had a feared reputation as a rebounder and shot-blocker and led Manley to the state championship in 1980.

Under the guidance of coach Gene Keady at Purdue, Cross was Big Ten Rookie of the Year and a two-time All-Big Ten selection. He led Purdue to the NIT finals as a freshman and sophomore. As a junior, his team lost to Arkansas in the third round of the NCAA tournament. Afterward, he declared for the NBA draft. He was selected by Golden State as the No. 6 pick in 1983.

But his professional career never took off. He was slowed by a knee injury that he suffered during his senior year at Manley, when a Simeon player charged off the bench and tackled him to prevent him from scoring. The injury was never completely repaired and his knee got progressively worse, despite surgery during his sophomore year at Purdue.

He was traded to Denver but was released. He played in the CBA, then went overseas and played in Italy and Spain for seven years. He retired in 1991 after doctors told him that he couldn't play another year on his damaged knee.

"From a physical standpoint, I never played well in the NBA. I never played up to expectations and my potential," Cross said. "My skill level wasn't quite the same. I wasn't able to run as fast or jump as well, things that were part of my game that helped me to dominate."

But Cross, a very religious man, has no regrets over his experience. "I am appreciative of what I got done in high school and college. There was some disappointment but no regrets for not playing in the NBA," he said.

"It was a blessing in disguise that I was able to play overseas and see other countries and learn new languages."

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs' Craig Kimbrel rises to the moment in 'sharp' outing against Brewers

Cubs reliever Craig Kimbrel stuck with what was working. He pounded the strike zone with one high fastball after another against Manny Pina. Kimbrel was rewarded with a strikeout to end the inning.

In the Cubs’ 4-3 loss to the Brewers on Friday, Kimbrel pitched a shutout ninth inning to give his team the chance to rally. Instead, the Cubs’ bats went cold. But the stadium lights illuminated Kimbrel’s progress.

“He looked really good,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “I’ve been trying to find a spot for him, and the feedback has been great every time I talk to the pitching guys, and his bullpens and the work he’s put in. I think you saw that tonight. The ball was exploding out of his hand really well. Some bad swings. Looked sharp.”

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It should be noted that the spot Ross found for him was in a one-run game. Kimbrel, who entered the season as the Cubs closer, at least temporarily lost that job after a string of rough outings. The Cubs blamed mechanical issues.

On Friday, Kimbrel didn’t allow a hit with the game on the line.

One of the biggest developments for Kimbrel is that he’s now throwing his curve ball for a strike, therefore not allowing opposing hitters to simply gear up for a fastball.

The third pitch he threw on Friday was a curve ball. Avisail Garcia already had two strikes on him, and then he fouled off a curve at the bottom of the strikezone.  Kimbrel sat him down with a high fastball clocking in at almost 98 mph.

“I don’t think he was far off (all year),” Cubs starting pitcher Alec Mills said, “and I think tonight he started putting a few more things together, fastball up in the zone and some good curve balls. It was good to see, for sure.”

As Kimbrel’s teammate, Mills may not be speaking from a position of objectivity. But he knows pitching, and he said he’s been excited about Kimbrel’s fastball all year.

“Even that first inning in Cincinnati,” Mills said. “The ball was coming out really good. It was electric. It was more like the Craig that I remember from past years.”

The Kimbrel from past years was a seven-time All-Star from 2011 to 2018, the year he won the World Series with the Red Sox.

But from 2017 to 2019, the average speed of Kimbrel’s fastball dropped from 98 mph to 96mph. It has remained right around 96 mph this year. On Friday, Kimbrel was locating it more effectively, while his curve ball helped put batters off balance.

Kimbrel still walked a batter – he stopped short of overpowering. But even against the one batter he walked, Justin Smoak, Kimbrel got ahead in the count early. He threw two curve balls for strikes. The first Smoak watched. The second he whiffed.

One outing isn’t a guarantee that Kimbrel will win back his role as closer. But it does show that the positive feedback Ross is getting translates into games. And that Ross is ready to trust him in close games. 

“I'm still going out there trying to compete,” Kimbrel said earlier this month.

On Saturday, he sure did.

 

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Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

Why Cubs might not lose again and other musings in strange, short season

As if things weren’t already going well enough for the Cubs during this strange, short season of baseball in a pandemic, now the baseball gods are dropping gifts into their laps.

The Cardinals’ lengthy shutdown because of a coronavirus outbreak has the Cubs’ arch rivals restarting their season Saturday in Chicago with a patched-up roster and eight games over the next five days, including five games against the Cubs.

And although that means the relative hardship of two doubleheaders for the Cubs in three days, all five of those games Monday through Wednesday are against a decimated Cards roster that won’t have the front end of its rotation for any of the games.

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They catch the Cardinals at their weakest point of the early season a week after catching an otherwise formidable Cleveland team at a moment of clubhouse crisis involving protocol perps Zach Plesac and Mike Clevinger.

That one resulted in a two-game sweep by a combined score of 14-3.

This one already has resulted in all 10 games against the Cardinals now being scheduled for Wrigley Field.

Combine that with the three road games against the White Sox next month, and it means that the team with baseball’s best record on the field, the perfect record in player COVID-19 testing and no significant injuries to key players so far will play 60 percent of its games within its Chicago bubble if the Cubs and MLB pull off the full 60-game season.

If the Cubs were positioned any better to make the playoffs, they’d already be there.

“You can look at it that way if you want,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We’re just doing our thing.”

No other way to look at it from here. Have you seen the rest of the schedule?

The Cubs have 43 games left, including 29 within a National League Central Division that doesn’t include another .500 team three weeks into a nine-week season. Nine more games are against the Tigers and White Sox.

The best team on the schedule is the Twins, and all three of those games are at home and not until the second-to-last weekend of the season.

With all due respect to Ross and his fear of “bad juju,” the Cubs can’t lose.

“It’s still early on,” the manager said.

Nothing’s early in a 60-game season. And the Cubs already have matched the hot starts of their 2016 and 1908 World Series champions.

“We’ve still got a long ways to go in the season,” Ross said.

The Cubs did have to scratch Tyler Chatwood from his scheduled start Friday night because of back tightness. And Kris Bryant has missed the last two games because of a sore finger after rolling his wrist trying to make a diving catch in left field in Cleveland Wednesday.

But Alec Mills looked good in short-notice replacement duty Friday until a rough four-pitch (and three-run) sequence in the sixth. And Chatwood might be ready for one of Monday’s games — or possibly one of Wednesday’s.

“Things falling in our favor?” Ross said. “We’re playing good baseball, and that should be the focus for me and not the other stuff.”

Granted, they still have to play the games. Granted, Bryant wasn’t available off the bench with the bases loaded in the eighth Friday, and Josh Phegley struck out instead.

And, yes, they actually lost a game to the Brewers Friday night.

But if you still don’t believe the baseball gods are stirring the Cubs’ pot so far this season, you weren’t paying attention in the ninth inning when Craig Kimbrel struck out Avisail Garcia swinging at a 98-mph fastball to start the scoreless inning and Manny Piña swinging at a 96-mph fastball to end it.

What closer problem? Bring on the Cardinals, right?

These guys might not lose another game.

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