Sports News

A True Basketball Big Man

2014-04-10 10:00:35 lbridwell
Former NBA commissioner David Stern.  (Fortune Live Media via Wikimedia Commons)

Former NBA commissioner David Stern.
(Fortune Live Media via Wikimedia Commons)

When the National Basketball Association playoffs tip off on April 19, the star players who take the court should credit their status to recently retired league commissioner David Stern, according to Peter Horvitz, author of “The Big Book of Jewish Sports Heroes.”

Horvitz said Stern’s leadership of the NBA for 30 years saw the league shift from the fringe of sports fans’ attention to the very center.

“The leading players of the sport have become true superstars,” Horvitz said. “Players such as Larry Bird, Dr. J, Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan have become cultural icons. I don’t think the prosperity and popularity of any sport owes so much to the executive abilities of a single man more than basketball owes to David Stern.”

Stern — who grew up in a Jewish family in Teaneck, N.J. — retired from his role as commissioner on Feb. 1 and will be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this summer. Hall of Fame board chairman Jerry Colangelo said Stern, a lawyer by trade, made himself a marketing genius through his work for the NBA.

Brian Scalabrine of the Boston Celtics accepts his NBA championship ring in October 2008 from then NBA commissioner David Stern.  (Eric Kilby via Wikimedia Commons)

Brian Scalabrine of the Boston Celtics accepts his NBA championship ring in October 2008 from then NBA commissioner David Stern.
(Eric Kilby via Wikimedia Commons)

“With intelligence and hard work he was always on the cutting edge in the areas of cable [television] and technology,” Colangelo said. “He positioned the NBA to take advantage of the new wave of technology and put us in a position on an international stage to be the first professional league to have a major foothold internationally. By doing this, he elevated the league in a tremendous way.”

Colangelo — who formerly owned the Phoenix Suns of the NBA, the Phoenix Mercury of the Women’s National Basketball Association and the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball — said Stern “had great autonomy in terms of making decisions, and he proved to be an extraordinary leader of wealthy owners.”

Before rising to the rank of commissioner in 1984, Stern was the NBA’s executive vice-president and its general counsel. During his tenure as commissioner, the league expanded from 23 to 30 teams and television revenue increased from $10 million per year to $900 million per year. Stern implemented several rule changes in the game, instituted the age limit for NBA draft entries, created the draft’s lottery system, oversaw the launch of the NBA Developmental League and managed the relocation of six franchises.

“I’ve known David since 1967,” Colangelo said. “To have watched his growth as an individual, as a lawyer with great business acumen, as someone who developed relational skills — I’ve seen the whole journey and so I know his accomplishments, which are just short of sensational.”

Credited for developing and broadening the NBA’s audience by setting up training camps, playing exhibition games around the world and recruiting more international players, Stern’s legacy is in the numbers: the NBA now has 11 offices in cities outside the U.S. and is televised in 215 countries and 43 languages.

“Basketball is the No. 2 sport in the world in terms of popularity and participation, with soccer being No. 1,” Colangelo said. “The NBA and its incredible growth has been a big part of that overall growth. That’s because of the exposure of the game, domestically and internationally. There’s no small piece of credit that belongs to the NBA for where basketball as a sport is in the world.”

In a 1991 Sports Illustrated article titled “From Corned Beef to Caviar,” E.M. Swift wrote that Stern, the son of a New York deli owner, was undisputedly “the best commissioner in sports, the best in the history of basketball and every bit the equal of the best sports commissioners of all time, such as the National Football League’s Pete Rozelle and baseball’s Kenesaw Mountain Landis.”

Swift quoted Michael Goldberg, a former general counsel of the American Basketball Association, as saying that Stern “dismisses the adage that nice guys finish last.”

“David’s father ran a successful deli in New York. To be successful in that business, you have to have great rapport with your customers. You have to get them to come back, even if the corned beef is a little dry and the apple pie a little stale. You have to give the customer a smile, a pleasant greeting, a sense that he is being taken care of. David Stern understands that, and I don’t think it would be farfetched to say that he has applied that to the NBA,” Goldberg said.

Colangelo concurs with Goldberg’s assessment of Stern.

“I agree, because when you are brought up in that environment and you see firsthand how to run a business, how to deal with customers, that’s a solid foundation to come from,” Colangelo said. “When he left that scene and went on to school, then professionally as a lawyer and then the NBA, he brought all that knowledge with him.”

Colangelo acknowledged that Stern is part of a long line of Jewish figures that helped shape basketball history, including coach and owner Eddie “The Mogul” Gottlieb; Ossie Schectman, who scored the first basket in NBA history; and legendary coaches Red Holzman and Red Auerbach.

“Eddie Gottlieb was a dear friend of mine, as was Red Holzman,” Colangelo said.

Though the David Stern era was marked by the rising popularity of the NBA’s stars, Colangelo stressed that basketball remains the everyman’s game.

“Basketball doesn’t take a lot of equipment or space,” he said. “You can play it in an alley, a playground or a schoolyard or on the side of a barn. You can play organized ball in YMCAs and high school gyms and college field houses. There are many places to play the game, which is the consummate team game. We always push stars and we talk about the greats, but basketball is poetry in motion.”

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A Way with Words

2014-04-03 10:55:04 lbridwell

040414_sports-Ben-RabyIt is 10:05 p.m. and the lights on the phone bank at the studios of WFED-AM radio in Northwest Washington are completely full. The Capitals have just lost to their bitter arch-rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins, on a last-second goal.

Ben Raby, who hosts the postgame show on the Washington Capitals Radio Network, is poised and ready to play the role of Dr. Phil. For the next hour he will calm down the callers and do his best to answer all of their questions. In other words, just another day at the office.

The Montreal native is in his fifth season as part of the Capitals’ broadcast team. He handles pregame and postgame duties, along with period breaks. He is joined on the network by play-by-play announcer John Walton, color analyst Ken Sabourin and reporter Mike Vogel.

The team’s radio network reaches from Harrisburg, Pa., all the way to New Bern, N.C., with two stations in Baltimore, WJZ-AM 1300 and WHFS-FM 97.5, as part of the family. The games are also streamed for free on the Internet at federalnewsradio.com.

Recently, Raby spoke with the JT about his early career in Canada, his present role as part of the Capitals’ broadcast team and the many fans the team has in Baltimore.

JT: Tell us about your early career in Canada.
Raby:
While I was still attending Bialik High School, a private Jewish school in Montreal, I was contacting newspapers and radio stations. Then I started college at Concordia University [in Montreal] and was very fortunate to land a job at The Team 990, the first all-sports station in Montreal, when I was 19.

I started as an overnight and weekend board operator and producer, but I gradually worked my way up and took advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves. I wound up spending four years at The Team 990, taking on a variety of different roles. I served as the station’s beat reporter for the Canadian Football League’s Montreal Alouettes, and I hosted the Montreal Canadiens’ weekend postgame shows.

During my final two years at The Team 990, I added TV work to my resume as a sports reporter with CTV Montreal, where I covered the Alouettes and the Canadiens. I also produced a series of year-in-review pieces in 2006 and 2007.

I left Montreal in 2007 to pursue a master’s degree at Syracuse University.

Did you have any broadcasting role models growing up?
My uncle Jason Moscovitz spent 29 years as a TV reporter with the CBC and more than a decade as its chief political correspondent. I always had an interest in media while I was growing up, so I admired the work he did. I’m grateful that since I started working in the media myself, he has passed along advice and feedback.

When I did TV reporting in my early 20s with CTV Montreal, every few months I’d bring a stack of VHS tapes of my work to his house, and we would review what worked well, what could have been better. He continues to listen to my radio work online and gives me feedback.

What is the key to being a good postgame host and talking to callers?
The key is finding a nice balance of information and entertainment. We may replay some of the game’s best highlights, but we may play them as a montage with an appropriate bed of music and a number of player cuts sprinkled in as well that help tell a story.

It’s also important on a postgame show not to just say what happened in the game, but to try to explain why it happened. For home games on the Capitals’ side, I’m joined by Ken Sabourin, who does an excellent job in answering the why.

It also helps to find storylines and identify broader picture themes. Sure the Capitals may have won a game by a 5-4 score, but what does it mean in the standings, what could it mean it for Player X, who may have broken out of a prolonged slump with the game-winning goal? What was significant about the game?

Our callers like how we break the game down so that when we open the phone lines they have plenty to talk about, regardless if it was a Caps’ win or loss.

What about Baltimore’s hockey fans?
Baltimore had a wonderful tradition of being a great minor league hockey town. Of course, over the past two years we have played the Baltimore Hockey Classic, and that has given us a great chance to see our fans in Charm City. But during the season, there are busloads of fans from the Baltimore area who make their way down to the Verizon Center to watch the games, and then we have plenty of callers from the 410 area code. So yes, Baltimore’s love for the Capitals is strong and continues to grow.

How about your life away from hockey?
I am about to celebrate my six-month wedding anniversary. My wife, Ellyssa, is from Toronto, and she is a volunteer teacher. We live in Bethesda, and we love the area.

As for seeing the rest of my family, by covering hockey and basketball, there is a nice window in the summer months when I can return to Montreal and Toronto and spend time with them.

It’s funny, though, because folks down here say that I have a Canadian accent, and then when I go back up north, my friends and family all say that I sound like an American.

Ben Raby serves as producer for the NBA Washington Wizards’ radio broadcasts when he is not attending to his role as host on the Capitals’ radio network. As for the future, he hopes to return to television while staying in the Baltimore-Washington area.

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Maryland Teams Hustle to Win

2014-04-03 10:51:52 lbridwell
Danielle Miller, left, and Paige Siegel grasp the Kiddush Cup after their  victorious Maryland team captured the National Hillel Basketball Tournament championship at the University of Maryland on March 30.  (Hillel Kuttler)

Danielle Miller, left, and Paige Siegel grasp the Kiddush Cup after their
victorious Maryland team captured the National Hillel Basketball Tournament championship at the University of Maryland on March 30.
(Hillel Kuttler)

“One, two, three, hustle!” yelled Paige Siegal’s University of Maryland women’s team as they returned to the court from halftime during the National Hillel Basketball Tournament championship games on Sunday.

They were leading by eight points. Within the first minute of the second half, Ali Feinstein of the Texas team had taken hold of the ball and shot a three pointer. Not to be outdone, Maryland responded with their own three-point shot 30 seconds later.

Players kept the same intensity throughout the game. In the last minute, Siegal rebounded a missed shot and swung the ball down half court to teammate Connaught Blood, who sunk the game’s final basket. Maryland won, 38-32.

“It was difficult at first getting used to playing with each other,” said Siegal. “A lot of us didn’t even know each other before.”

Students from some 30 campuses competed at the weekend-long tournament held in College Park.

The team of six was all smiles as they raised their Hillel Tournament trophy proudly, smiling for pictures.

“We’ll all go get food and just hang out to celebrate,” said Siegel, the team’s 5-foot-5-inch captain, a sophomore studying business and management.

The same suspense was repeated as the men’s semifinalist winners, University of Maryland and Harvard University, took to the court. Although basketball is considered a no-contact sport, the game soon became territorial, with three fouls called within the first 40 seconds. Each time UMd. junior Danny Hoffman sunk a three, the crowd evolved into a contagious euphoria. UMd. Hillel’s rabbi, Ari Israel, said this year’s fans brought new electricity to the tournament.

“The turnout is huge and their energy is high,” he said.

During halftime, tournament chairs Michael Shrager and Joseph Tuchman thanked the event’s sponsors and introduced the NHBT founder, Rachel Klausner.

“I am amazed by the amount of sponsors and players,” she said. “I remember when there was a board of 12 of us. We were just a bunch of friends who loved basketball. This year they took it to a whole new level.”

With 30 seconds left on the clock, UMd.’s point guard circled the ball around the perimeter until the game was over. Both teams broke into huge smiles, with hugs of camaraderie and “congratulations” sealed with high fives. University of Maryland’s Jason Langer team beat Harvard, 39-30.

Seniors Aaron Jagoda and Josh Rice coached Maryland’s team to victory. Like the women’s team, many of the players had never competed together before the tournament.

“Our biggest obstacle was making sure that defense talked to each other,” said Rice, “but in the end the chemistry was really great.”

Jagoda said that although the team was composed of high scoring “ballers,” everyone worked together to “make the play” and participated selflessly. As the team gathered for a photo, plans were made to celebrate over dinner.

After seven games, “Lord knows I’m hungry,” Rice said with a laugh.

This year’s MVPs were announced before the closing barbeque. Women’s captain Paige Siegal and men’s forward Mark Brenner each received glass MVP awards to recognize their athletic achievement.

Tournament chairman Michael Shra-ger noted the “very high-caliber basketball” displayed over the weekend, and the participation of Jake Susskind, a Division I player, who joined this year’s NHBT winning Maryland team.

“The competition is the best it’s ever been,” said Shrager. “It’s great to see how athletics and sports can bring Jews from all different backgrounds together in Jewish unity. We did everything we wanted to do.”

With trophies awarded and students returning to their respective colleges, plans for NHBT 2015 are underway.

Shrager, a senior psychology major, has worked on the Hillel Tournament committee since joining its pilot planning board four years ago. Co-chairman Joseph Tuchman is already developing plans for the next tournament.

“Next year, we look forward to improving involvement from the UMd. community, through housing athletes, volunteering and attending events, to showcase our unbelievable campus and community,” said Tuchman.

Klausner has even greater expectations.

“Oh man, I got big dreams,” she said. The business school graduate, who lives in Israel, is still a Terp at heart. “I can’t wait to see the Hillel Tournament being played at the Comcast Center — or at least the championship game.”

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Tamir Goodman Stays in Game

2014-03-27 10:24:52 lbridwell

032814_tamir-goodmanWhen he was sidelined by injuries during his time as a professional basketball player in Israel, Tamir Goodman’s mind was still in the game.

“Specifically during that time when I wasn’t playing, I was spending my time in rehab, but I’d go to every game, I’d go to every practice, and I’d study if there was a scouting report,” said Goodman. “I just spent hours on the sidelines thinking, ‘What’s really needed in basketball, what are the coaches expecting from players?’”

Goodman’s homework paid off, culminating in his creation of the Zone 190 — a basketball training tool that combines trampoline-like material with a 190-degree, professional-grade carbon steel frame that allows players to practice a wide range of skills without the presence of a partner. After spending three years in development, Goodman rolled out the first “real model” of the Zone 190 earlier this year.

Goodman said the product, priced at $699, has garnered sales at every level of basketball — from camps to high schools to colleges to the NBA’s Detroit Pistons.

Hoopsters previously only had access to “one-dimensional” training tools such as pitch backs or toss backs, Goodman explained. While such tools are traditionally placed under the net to deliver the ball to shooters in a straightforward manner, they require the recruitment of multiple practice partners for a shooter to replicate receiving the ball from the array of spots on the court from which passes in a real game would come. Goodman said the 190-degree frame of his product changes that reality.

“The uniqueness of the Zone 190 is that it allows players to replicate game-like scenarios,” said Goodman. “In basketball, you get the ball from multiple angles. If you’re a post player you get the ball from both sides of the block; if you’re a guard you’re getting the ball from multiple areas passed to you — the top of the wing, the wing or [elsewhere] depending on where you are. Depending on from where the ball is coming to you in a game, you have to set your hands and feet accordingly.”

The Zone 190 further simulates game-like situations in that it is “the first basketball training system that comes with defensive distractors,” its website says. The tool includes a defensive hand that can be raised, lowered or removed to accommodate each user.

Nicknamed the “Jewish Jordan” after being ranked among the Top 25 high school players in the country, Goodman was profiled in Sports Illustrated and went on to play collegiately for Division I Towson University and then professionally in Israel. As an observant Jew, he sported his yarmulke on the court in front of national television audiences.

A 32-year-old Baltimore native who now lives in Cleveland, Goodman began a career as a coach and motivational speaker after injuries forced him to retire from Israeli professional basketball in 2009.

When he was at Towson, Goodman’s coaches reworked their team’s entire game schedule to accommodate his strict observance of Shabbat and Jewish holidays. Goodman will be similarly accommodated for his Zone 190 presentation on April 6 in Nashville at the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association National Convention, held annually in conjunction with the Final Four of the NCAA Division I Women’s Tournament. In recognition of Shabbat, the WBCA has allowed Goodman to move his Zone 190 presentation from Saturday to Sunday.

“When I was a little kid, I had this dream of playing Division I basketball and professional basketball, and doing this without playing Shabbat and always wearing my kippah, and that was seen as pretty much impossible,” said Goodman. “But thank God I was able to live out my dream, and now through Zone 190 I’m almost continuing the same dream. Everyone accommodated me through my playing days, and now the WBCA has accommodated me as well in my post-playing career. It has just been such a great blessing, and I’m just so thankful to everyone for their help.”

Bonnie M. Norman, manager of professional development and legislation for the WBCA, said the association turned to the Zone 190 to address “education around the art of shooting” at this year’s convention.

“We know there are lots of great coaches and shooting instructors out there; we decided to go with Tamir because his product allows players
to have an independent shooting workout with a real game-like feel in any location,” explained Norman. “The Zone 190 allows players of all levels, from beginner to pro, to work on foundational fundamentals such as ball handling and their hand-eye coordination and catch-and-shoot skills. Because one piece of equipment can offer so much, it puts developing these skills back in the hands of the player in the offseason.”

Norman, who calls the Zone 190 “unique,” said that if she were still a coach at the scholastic level, she “would have purchased one because it is affordable even for programs that fundraise for everything they purchase.”

To enhance the experience of those who buy the product, the Zone 190 website features a series of instructional videos for drills in ball handling, shooting, passing, post skills and conditioning. Goodman said he has used the Zone 190 to work with thousands of kids from all levels, noting: “The same tool can help a 7-foot center, a point guard, an NBA player, a special-needs kid, and anybody in between.”

In fact, the Friendship Circle of Cleveland — a nonprofit that pairs teenage volunteers with children with special needs, primarily for social interaction — is using the Zone 190 “to stimulate ball movement so that the children with special needs feel empowered to play along,” said Rabbi Yossi Mazarov, the organization’s executive director.

“It’s purely a matter of confidence,” explained Mazarov, “when kids can throw a ball and it comes back to them, like they’re playing catch, … You don’t have to throw it into a small, defined net. They can use it in this zone, which has so much space and is so intuitive. [Zone190] just works for them. For many of the children who have handicaps and disabilities or are weakened, they find a sense of confidence in this type of equipment.”

Mazarov adds that Goodman is “purely genuine and humble, when he brought the Zone 190 and started interacting with the children, you could see the kids’ faces light up; you could see that difference that he makes, that he’s there and doing ball movement with the kids.”

This summer, Goodman will employ the Zone 190 in his work at two Jewish camps in Pennsylvania — Camp Nesher and Camp Ramah in the Poconos.

“I’m always working with a lot of Jewish athletes throughout the year, and I’m very passionate about teaching young Jewish athletes the lessons of basketball, the lessons that they can apply to their life, which is maximize your potential and help everyone around you as well as time management, teamwork, respect,” said Goodman.

“All these attributes you learn through basketball, and I think Zone 190 is the physical tool that can help that.”

Regarding the injuries that led to his brainstorming on the bench in Israel and thus his eventual creation of the Zone 190, Goodman said he is “just grateful that I’ve been able to turn a negative experience around to a positive.”

“I’m unable to play professionally again,” he said. “At least my team and I have created something that is going to be able to benefit the next generation of players and the current generation of players.”

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The Hockey Maven

2014-03-20 10:00:52 lbridwell
Stan Fischler is flanked by producer Glenn Petraitis (left) and co-host Peter Ruttgaizer at the Nassau Coliseum, set of their pregame and postgame shows. (provided)

Stan Fischler is flanked by producer Glenn Petraitis (left) and co-host Peter Ruttgaizer at the Nassau Coliseum, set of their pregame and postgame shows.
(provided)

As the Boston Bruins buzz the Islanders net throughout the opening period of a game at the Nassau Coliseum, Stan Fischler is standing 10 feet behind the Plexiglas to the left of New York goaltender Kevin Poulin.

Fischler, a hockey broadcaster for four decades, can feel the rattling boards of forechecking Bruins.

There’s no place he’d rather be.

Providing New York-area hockey fans with a bird’s-eye view and expert analysis is what Fischler, 81, has done on broadcasts of Islanders, Rangers and Devils games. He’s had a love affair with the sport since he was introduced to it quite by accident as a 7-year-old growing up in Brooklyn.

“The Hockey Maven,” as Fischler has long been known, has a love affair, too, with Israel. He and his wife, Shirley, visit there each summer. And their younger son, Simon, 35, lives on Kibbutz El Rom in the Golan Heights and blogs on diplomacy while also writing for Fischler’s hockey newsletter.

Simon, not surprisingly, taught the sport to his children at the ice rink in nearby Metulla.

He recalls his father asking him when he was 8 to find Israel on an atlas. The boy couldn’t, so dad pointed it out.

“That was one of my earliest memories: This is our land,” said Simon, who lives on the kibbutz with his wife and three children. “I thank him every day for it because I am extremely proud of my Jewish national heritage. It’s why I live in Israel.”

Fischler says his mother, Molly, losing nearly all her relatives in the Holocaust in the former Czechoslovakia helps explain why his support of Jewish causes “revolves around the security of Israel.”

It was his mother who introduced 5-year-old Stan, her only child, to spectator sports.

But two years later it was his father, Benjamin, who would bring Fischler to his first hockey game. They were intending to see “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” but emerging from the subway into torrential rain at 50th Street and Eighth Avenue, where Madison Square Garden then stood, the plans changed.

“Forget it,” said Benjamin, a big-time sports fan, in spurning the film, Fischler recalled. “We’ll go to the game.”

The Rangers’ minor league team, the Rovers, was taking on the Washington Eagles, and the boy was hooked. After each Rovers game, Fischler would write a recap in his souvenir program. A hockey writer was born.

Fischler would handle public relations for the Rangers, then work 20 years as a newspaper reporter before moving into broadcasting, first for the World Hockey Association’s New England Whalers and then the New York-area teams in the National Hockey League.

The opinionated broadcaster has won multiple Emmy Awards and, in 2007, the NHL’s Lester Patrick Trophy for advancing American hockey.

His love and knowledge of the game are apparent in the pregame and postgame shows he co-hosts for the three NHL teams on the MSG Network.

Fischler just had his 100th book on the sport published. “We Are the Rangers” is an oral history of the team that tugged at Fischler’s heart as a boy growing up in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Some of the books were co-authored with Shirley, with whom he lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. His subjects have included Hall of Fame players such as Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, Stan Mikita and Rod Gilbert. Others have been on coaches, teams, great moments and rivalries.

The epilogue of the new book tells of Simon needing a heart transplant in 1993. Fischler movingly writes of the Rangers’ then-coach and goalie, Mike Keenan and Mike Richter, visiting his son — a diehard fan of the Islanders, the Rangers’ bitter rivals.

Unwritten was what Gilbert relayed: He also had come to the hospital, where he and Simon, sitting alone, discussed hockey and prayer.

That evening, an emotional Fischler phoned Gilbert, a friend since the player’s debut in 1960, with the news that a donor heart had become available.

“Call it coincidence, call it energy or whatever you want,” Gilbert said. “I was very grateful that he did successfully get a transplant.”

Told of Gilbert’s comments, Fischler says the visit came when Simon’s condition was dire.

“I did attach something positive to Rod Gilbert’s visit. Rod was basically doing some preaching, some talking about getting through his [own] medical experiences,” Fischler said. “When you’re in a situation like that, you welcome any source of hope.”

Another source was praying at the family synagogue on West 110th Street.

The crisis wasn’t discussed on-air.

Viewers tune in to hear Fischler opine and inform on hockey — the sport he adored alone among his childhood pals in Williamsburg.

Fans strolling the Nassau Coliseum concourse during the Islanders-Bruins game stopped by the white picket fence delineating the set where Petraitis, Fischler and the broadcast’s other co-host, Peter Ruttgaizer, ply their trade.

They seek out Fischler to banter, ask questions and pose for photographs.

“You turn on MSG and there’s Stan,” said Kyle Hall, 25, after taking a picture with Fischler. “I only know things are true if Stan says so. He’s knowledgeable.”

Preparing for the pregame show, Fischler says, “It never stops being eciting because you never know what’s going to happen from game to game.”

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