Donnellon: Some rebels are more obscure than others

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Lou Lamoriello turned his New Jersey Devils into masters of the neutral-zone trap.

REBELLION FOR rebellion's sake is as common among those in sports as it is in everyday life.

Allen Iverson, Jim McMahon, Charles Barkley and so many others undoubtedly were independent thinkers, but mostly as it pertained to themselves. Others, though, such as Branch Rickey, Muhammad Ali and Don Haskins, have grated the grain of their particular sport in the name of fairness or social justice, forging a closer kinship to Washington, Jefferson and Franklin and the others who have turned every July 4 into an annual celebration of higher principles - even as we still struggle among ourselves, some 240 years later, to clarify them.

Rickey's integration efforts triggered similar undertakings outside baseball. Most who lived through the 1960s and '70s are well aware of Ali's antiwar stand and the black-power salutes of John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand at the 1968 Mexico Olympics and their long-ranging impact. Another example is Haskins' controversial assemblage at Texas Western of the first NCAA basketball team with an all-black starting lineup, which won the 1966 NCAA championship and was made famous in the movie Glory Road.

These are well-known stories of earth-changing rebellions. Few know Carlos and Smith were prodded to do so by Harry Edwards, then a student-athlete activist, but also, for the last four decades, a tireless and effective advocate in efforts to protect black athletes from what he deemed exploitation, and to integrate the hierarchy at the top of professional sports.

Now 73, Edwards remains one of the most sought-after opinions where issues of race are involved, coming to the defense of Chip Kelly amid accusations of racism from former Eagles such as LeSean McCoy.

Social change is almost always a byproduct of rebellion, at least where sports is concerned. Rickey foremost was trying to win games for the Dodgers. Haskins wanted to be competitive, too.

Curt Flood's challenge of Major League Baseball's reserve clause led to free agency in baseball, which permeated other professional sports.

He had disciples and like-minded activists, names that were overshadowed by events of the time and obscured by the passage of it.

As William C. Rhoden pointed out this week in the New York Times, the NBA's 19-year-old draft picks owe a huge debt of gratitude to Spencer Haywood, whose 1971 lawsuit challenged and ultimately invalidated an NBA rule that deemed ineligible any player who was not four years removed from his high school graduation. Haywood, 67, is pushing for the National Basketball Players Association to name the existing provision that now allows underclassmen into the NBA "the Spencer Haywood rule."

The NBA argued then that an influx of young players would diminish its league and compromise college basketball - arguments that critics of the current NBA and the super-conference-dominated NCAA still make. The suit made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled overwhelmingly in his favor, and the NBA altered its rules over the ensuing years to where it is now.

As Haywood pointed out in Rhoden's piece, and via a new documentary about his life titled Full Court, the NBA was hardly diminished in the wake of that decision. But his triumph was hardly recognized then, and is hardly recognized now.

A screening of the film over last weekend's draft festivities attracted not a single player.

"I was really hurt," Haywood told the Times.

Rebellion can start at the top, too. There's a one-word reason the New Jersey Devils, who appeared in five NHL finals and won three Stanley Cups over a 17-season stretch, have never appeared in a Winter Classic.

Boring.

And that leads to two words: Lou Lamoriello.

Love him or hate him - and for most Flyers fans, it's the latter - the architect of that damned New Jersey Devils neutral-zone trap threatened the game in a way not seen since, well, the Broad Street Bullies.

Lou didn't invent the neutral-zone trap. He just came the closest to perfecting it, at least within the confines of the NHL. His star-starved championship and near-championship teams, in which playoff beards and jersey numbers over 30 were highly discouraged, preached defensive responsibility and rule bending - especially when it came to impeding skaters without the puck.

As the Devils won the 2003 Stanley Cup, the Toronto Globe and Mail described the Final as "only sporadically entertaining," won by players who "scrap and fight for the puck at both ends of the ice, establish a lead, and choke off any attempts by the opposition to get to the net.

"It's far from artistic."

So the league did what any threatened species would do: it rooted out, or in this case, ruled out, the virus. Without a center-ice red line and the two-line pass violation, today's game allows for longer, trap-breaking passing. Puck-handling goalies in the mold of Martin Brodeur are now kept from playing pucks outside of the trapezoid. More room behind the net, enforcement of interference penalties: All are self-preservation moves that made the league more exciting again - and turned Lamoriello into just another team president/GM.

But what a run.


donnels@phillynews.com

@samdonnellon

Columns: ph.ly/Donnellon