Friday, April 29, 2011

Chris Paul: A Distributor On and Off the Court

Chris Paul and company battled with every fiber of their being, but the length, experience, and overall talent of the Lakers proved to be too much for the feisty Hornets. Now, following a brilliant individual playoff series performance, Paul will have to ask himself some tough questions.

Does he want to stay in New Orleans?

Is this team committed to bringing in the necessary pieces to win?

Paul's knee injury he suffered in 2009 gave him a glimpse of how quickly an injury can change a course of a career or drive one off a cliff. Paul now possesses a sense or urgency, a knowledge that an NBA career is measured in dog years. New Orleans lost the series, but Paul's play elevated his stock faster than when Apple released the I Phone. On the court, Chris Paul is once again ice-cold calculation, fast yet patient, and visceral as much as intellectual.

As masterful a show as he put on during these playoffs, his assists off the court shined through even brighter. His humanitarian and warm hearted nature shows the real Christopher Emmanuel Paul. When the Hornets point guard heard about a high school basketball player from New Hampshire who lost his mother in February from a tragic snow mobile accident, Paul's memory was immediately triggered to a tragedy parallel to his own past.

It was nine years ago that Paul's grandfather, Nathanial Jones was beaten to death outside of his gas station in North Carolina by five fifteen-year-old teenagers; Jones hands duct-taped to a fence, left to die for the few bucks in his wallet. He was 61 years old. 48 hours later, Paul played in his high school basketball game scoring 61 points, a point for each year of the man's life that shaped him as a basketball player and most importantly, a human being. When Chris announced he would be playing college ball for Wake Forest, Jones was standing at his grandsons side.

When Paul reached the 61-point mark, he intentionally missed a free throw, and then took himself out of the game even though the state high school scoring record of 66 points was within reach.

The 14-year-old high school student named Brad Rhoades followed with his own tribute, scoring 46 points in his high school game for every year of his mother's life. Chris Paul's honoring of his grandfather whose murder was disgraceful, indefensible and an unspeakable tragedy brought strength to a teenage boy now without his mother.

After hearing of this story, Paul invited Rhoades and his father for the third game of the series to New Orleans. The playoffs for most athletes are a time when they close their emotional doors from all "distractions", but Paul went out of his way to open his heart. Rhoades and his father received one of the best seats in the arena, signed jerseys, sneakers, posters, and he even got to warm up with Paul before the game.

The greatest gift received that night wasn't one-sided however. Paul and Rhoades both were given the gift of a mutual bond they will share for the rest of their lives.

A die-hard Celtics fan, but on this night, no one in the stands was cheering CP3 louder than Brad Rhoades.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tom Brady: Success in 2011 NFL Draft Means Looking At The Past

April 28th, mark it down on your calender. With the NFL Lockout negotiations spinning out of control faster than Charlie Sheen on Tiger Blood, its nice to know that a sacred tradition won't be removed because of a little bickering between NFL siblings. Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr, draft staples just as the Bunny is to Easter, have been making their picks on mock draft boards for weeks now.

My seventh and eighth grade History teach Mr. Razor (he looped with us for 2 years, God knows why) always used to say the reason why we learn about history is so we don't repeat the mistakes of the past. The 32 NFL teams, hundreds of scouts, and organizations General Managers need to take Mr. Razors advice.

There have been the Ryan Leaf's of a mistake, to the recent Jamarcus "purple drank" Russell's banishment from the league. Now, not only can coaches not handle him, but his life coach recently quit and is seeking therapy.

History spoke to us eleven years ago almost to the day when Tom Brady, 3-time Superbowl wining quarterback and two-time NFL MVP was picked 199th in the 2000 draft, a compensatory pick in the sixth round, and the seventh quarterback taken.

I know what your thinking: What! How! Why! Confused? Yes!

The piece ESPN recently aired called "The Brady 6" (be careful when you-tubing unless you want a Brady Bunch montage to play for an hour), chronicled Brady's fall to the 199th pick in the draft.  I'm not sure if Y2K was freaking everyone out or if scouts were too busy cooking crystal meth in their basements than studying game film, but Brady falling to the sixth round had just as much oversight as recent air-traffic controllers.

He's too slow. He lacks arm strength. Questionable leadership qualities. These were some of criticisms scouts and draft board analysts made about Tom Brady leading up to the draft. These denunciations would have been plausible if the following didn't happen when he played college football at the University of Michigan (not the Rich-Rod era, but in an era of dominance paralleled to the Ohio State University):

During his first full year as starter, he set Michigan records for most pass attempts and completions in a season. Brady was All-Big Ten (honorable mention) both seasons and team captain his senior year. The Wolverines won 20 of 25 games when he started and shared the Big Ten Conference title in 1998. Brady capped that season with a win over Arkansas in the Citrus Bowl. In the 1999 season, Brady led Michigan to an overtime win in the Orange Bowl over Alabama, throwing for 369 yards and four touchdowns.

Having all of those accomplishments under his belt, what was the hesitation and fear of selecting him in an earlier round? All I could find was his combine numbers. He ran the 40-yard dash in 5.23 seconds, "slow" by NFL quarterback standards. What scouts should have been evaluating was the immeasurable -- his heart, soul, and character. 

Jerry Rice, regarded as the greatest wide-receiver of all time, ran a 4.71 40 time, much slower than most players at that position. He attended a small college in Mississippi and went on to a hall-of-fame career with the San Francisco 49er's. Jerry was never the fastest, strongest, or tallest out there on the field, but he worked the hardest to be a perfectionist at his craft. He played with a similar chip Brady does, always trying to prove the naysayers wrong year after year and he did. 

NFL teams have four days to get away from their blueprint, cookie-cutter mold of the quarterback with only the physical tools and to dig deeper to find the mental and emotional makeup of the player within.

It's the players who know that their lucky and blessed to play a game that pays them millions who are the safest picks. For this year's draft, pick the players who have the talent, but also the humility of a grocery store bagger.

Find a person who never had it easy, who had to fight adversity because every Sunday that's exactly what they will be going up against. Draft a player who will practice the most and the one who studies tape relentlessly. Everyone in the NFL is athletic, it's the ones who work hardest that truly have a chance to become legends. A player who wears a chip plays better when they are stacked up against him.

The Brady 6 might have changed the perception of what qualities are the most important when evaluating a potential athlete to draft, especially at the quarterback position. But, most likely there will be another story of a player who fell down the draft board because of his lack of size and speed or red hair. And in 2021, we might look back on this year and wonder why teams didn't learn from the past.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The NBA Playoffs: Super Predictions

Watching the cross-promotions between the NBA playoffs and the movie Thor which comes out next month, I couldn't help but notice similarities between the sixteen teams in the playoffs and the some of our favorite Superheroes.

 Philadelphia Sixers vs. Miami Heat

Sixers strengths: Scrappy. Youth. They had the least amount of turnovers per game during the regular season in the NBA.
Sixer's weakness: No one to take the last shoot. Inability to get to the free throw line. Inexperience.
Superhero: Spiderman
Strength: Agile. Endurance. Andre Iguodala can scale the highest backboard.
Weakness: Lebron James and Dwayne Wade's venom.

Miami's strengths: Fast-break. Getting to free-throw line. Two 4th quarter players. 3 All-Stars who can score 20 a piece. They  have become a great defensive team.
Miami's weakness: Lack of depth. Lack of height. Lack of chemistry. Wade's migraines and self-reflection.
Superhero: Flash
Strength: Speed.
Weakness: Trying to run on ice. Battling the line between confident and cocky.

Result: Flash outruns Spiderman. Miami in 5.

Chicago Bulls vs. Indiana Pacers

Bulls strengths: MVP derrick rose. Defense. Unselfish play.
Bulls weakness: If Rose has an off shooting night. Not a lot of other scorers. Inexperience
Superhero: Captain America
Strength: Strength, endurance, agility, speed, reflexes, durability, healing, and the shield.
Weakness: Red Skull and letting the media get in their heads.

Indiana strengths: Underrated talent. Underrated Danny Granger. Never-die attitude.
Indiana weakness: Lack of star power
Superhero: Green Hornet
Strength: Gadgets and Black Beauty
Weakness: Sub-par fighting ability against the elite villains.

Result: Captain America squashes the Hornet. Chicago in 4.

Orlando Magic vs. Atlanta Hawks

Magic strengths: Defensive player of the year. Three-point shooting. When Gilbert is good.
Magic weakness: Lack of scorers. (P3) players past prime. Bad Gilbert. Dwight Howard's technical fouls. Allergies to the paint.
Superhero: Superman
Strength: Almost everything
Weakness: Kryponite and trying to be a jump-shooting team.

Hawks strengths: Individual talent. Hops
Hawk's weakness: Complacency. Discipline. Heart
Superhero: Hawkman
Strengths: Flight. Weaponry battlefield
Weakness: A passing Boeing 747

Result: Superman puts Hawkman in the Phantom Zone. Orlando in 6

Boston Celtics vs. New York Knicks

Celtics strengths: Veterans and future Hall of Famers. Using trickery and experience.
Celtics weakness: Legs. Fatigue. Trading away Kendrick Perkins.
Superhero: Batman
Strength: Utility belt. Science and smarts.
Weakness: No real super powers

Knicks strengths: Offense. Star talent.
Knicks weakness: No defense and lack of chemistry.
Superhero: Hulk
Strength: Strength and jumping.
Weakness: Happiness

Result: Batman out-smarts Hulk. Boston in 6.

San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies

Spurs strengths: Coach Popovich. Defensive and veterans. Follows orders like a well-oiled machine.
Spurs weakness: Injury prone Ginobili. Tim Duncan running on fumes.
Superhero: Cyborg
Strengths: Superhuman strength, speed, and can interface with computers.
Weakness: Can be controlled by a computer chip and Eva Longoria.

Grizzlies strength: Toughness. Skilled and powerful big-men. Nothing-to-lose attitude.
Grizzlies weakness: Lack of focus and sustained energy.
Superhero: Hawkeye
Strengths: Very peak of human conditioning; he is an exceptional fencer, acrobat and a grandmaster marksman.
Weakness: Bullets and poker games from 30,000 feet.

Result: The machine is tested, but not broken. San Antonio in 7.

Los Angeles Lakers vs. New Orleans Hornets

Lakers strength: NBA's fiercest and most clutch player. Length and playoff experience. NBA's premier skilled big man and the sixth man of the year. The Zen Master.
Lakers weakness: Complacency. Boredom. Age
Superhero: Green Lantern
Strength: Flight. Force-field and mental powers.
Weakness: The color Yellow and a Kardashian.
Common Denominator: Rings

Hornets strength: CP3. Resolve. Unselfishness
Hornets weakness: Injured David West and overall talent level
Superhero: Wolverine
Strengths: Healing, speed, senses. Adamantium claws.
Weakness: Himself and carbonadium

Result: Green Lantern gets help from his bench. Los Angeles in 6.

Dallas Mavericks vs Portland Trailblazers

Mav's strengths: Scoring. Depth. Regular season dominance
Mav's weakness: Consistent Playoff Under-Achievers. Finesse.
Superhero: Aquaman
Strength: Telepathic ability to communicate with marine life. Super speed and strength.
Weakness: Land

Blazer's strengths: Emergence of LaMarcus Aldridge. Rose Garden arena.
Blazer's weakness: Brandon Roy's knees
Superhero: Human Torch
Strength: Flight. Fire from hands. Supernova
Weakness: Water, wind, and the spirit of Bill Walton.

Result: Aquaman keeps his head above water. Dallas in 7.

Denver Nuggets vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Nugget's strength: Depth. Passing. Nene and Kenyon.
Nugget's weakness: Lack of leadership and experience at the point guard position. No end of game shooting threat.
Superhero: Iron Man
Strengths: Suit. Weapons. Flight.
Weakness: Heart condition and shortness of breath from Melo-Drama.

Thunder's Strength: Scoring champion Kevin Durant. Underrated point guard Russel Westbrook. The addition of Perkins for size and toughness. Speed.
Thunder's Weakness: Turnovers. Lack of playoff experience.
Superhero: Thor
Strengths: Extended lifespan. Strength and speed. Keen senses and hammer.
Weakness: Warriors madness

Result: Thor lays the hammer down. Oklahoma City in 7.

The 2011 NBA Playoffs: Let the stars collide. 

Friday, April 15, 2011

Barry Bonds: Bonds Trial Is a Dark Cloud over Jackie Robinson Day

It's a contradictious day in the world of sports. Friday is the eighth annual Jackie Robinson Day throughout the Majors, marking the 64th anniversary of the day baseball's color barrier was broken. It's also the day after Barry Bonds went from home-run king to convicted felon.

This moment has become one of disconnect rather than one of synergy. How would Jackie Robinson, who fought for every hit in baseball and life, feel about the all-time leader of homeruns only being there because of Performance Enhancing Drugs?

Robinson played in a time when baseball was as magical as a David Copperfield illusion. A time when players had their vices off the field, but played like role models on it. The baseball diamond used to be a religious place where cheating and lying was left outside the stadium walls. A day that should be honored for how far baseball has come has been grabbed by the undertow of its own arrested maturation in its decadent time.

It wasn't just Bonds who betrayed the sanctity of the game, but many of this generations "greats" have been reduced from statuesque figures to diminutive at best. From Clemens, Sosa, Tejada, McGuire, Giambi, A-Rod, and recently Manny, the games most dominate players reached their pinnacle not from out-working others, but from out-juicing. We've witnessed "The Homerun Era", now known as the steroid one, as the games greatest sluggers have been reduced to nothing more than the greatest cheaters.

The trickle down affect is the scariest of all. The youth that look up to these iconic figures might not take steroids as a result, but might deem it okay to cheat in other aspects of life. Maybe it will be their driving tests, their SAT's, their taxes, or their spouses. Even if as Charles Barkley said almost two decades ago," I'm not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids." It would be nice if our sports stars could be models of mortality or an exemplary of ethicalness in their chosen profession.

For the most part, people can compartmentalize Brett Favre the Sexter from Brett Favre the quarterback, but it's when they blur the lines with infidelity to the game, when they cheat on the fans, that the line crosses.
In Bonds case (no pun-intended), what makes this sting the most is his place as the single-season homerun leader and all-time one. The exhilaration we felt as career homerun 756 blasted into the right-center field bleachers at A T&T Park has been replaced with anger and embarrassment at his recent disgrace.

Our faith was betrayed again when Manny Ramirez failed his second drug test, inheriting a 100-game suspension. This prompted Manny to be Manny, to not man up, and to abruptly and cowardly retire. Say what you want about Manny, from mental lapses in both the outfield and running the bases to missing the White House reception for the Red Sox 2007 World Series championship.
The one thing as fans we always thought we knew was his dedication and ego had no room for PED's. Like finding out the tooth fairy is really mom putting that five under the pillow, we were played like fools, again.

Today, players from Milwaukee to Anaheim will be wearing the #42 patch on their jerseys. With the current state of Major League Baseball, would Jackie Robinson even consider that an honor?

Monday, April 11, 2011

Allen Iverson: A Tragically Talented Figure

From the practice rant in 2005 to the police tirade in 2011, Allen Iverson has been a top the head lines in recent years for all the wrong reasons. It was reported last week that Iverson was a passenger in his Lamborghini when it was pulled over for a lane violation in Atlanta. The car had a fake dealer license and was not registered. Iverson became irate, lashing out at the officers with "Do you know who I am?" and "Police don't have anything else (expletive) to do except (expletive) with me," according to the report.  

He later apologized to the police for his words and actions.

This is a long cry from the Allen Iverson I grew up idolizing, the basketball giant who stood barely 6 feet tall. The one who played with the heart of a lion and the fearlessness of a Green Beret. From 1996-2008, Iverson was David battling Goliaths every time he stepped onto the court. But, he could never shake his rocky past. Off the court drama followed him since he was a teenager. It was a 17-year-old Iverson who was involved in the highly publicized racial-bowling alley brawl that landed him in a correctional facility for four months. Trouble followed throughout his career from recording a controversial rap album and fights with then sixers coach Larry Brown to practice refusal and marijuana charges.

Before the King, there was the Answer

Despite all the off the court decisions, there's no denying he's one of the greatest guards of all time. It wasn't just his play, but his integral role in transporting basketball from the 1990's into the 21st century. Before it was Lebron and Kobe sporting the trendy shooting sleeve, it was Allen wearing it for protect an elbow injury he suffered in 2001, turning it from rehab device to fashion statement. Before the Derrick Rose crossover, it was 1996 and then rookie Allen Iverson crossing up Michael Jordan. He brought the rhyme of the game and the beat of hip-hop to a head on collision. He was a pioneer with a basketball. His one goal, playing until his heart stopped was the one constant fans could count on. The numerous injuries, but playing through them. The fractured bones, but sweating it off like a head cold on his way to dropping 50 points.

For a decade, Iverson had the most popular jersey in the world. From Rucker Park to Sherman Oaks, kids would be running around in his signature shoes, the I3's. Iverson's popularity catapulted with his exhilarating performance in game one of the 2001 NBA finals against the Lakers. Most don't remember the final score or that it went into overtime. When you think of that game there's only one image that stands out. The "answer" stepping over the supposed Iverson stopper Tyron Lue nailing a twenty foot jumper, scoring his 48th point in route to ending the Lakers undefeated run through the playoffs. When I think back, these are the memories of Iverson I choose to hold onto.

Conversation in recent years have been about where he belongs in the basketball cosmos of the greatest players, with most analysts barely having him breach the ozone layer. Perhaps it was the neck tattoos and the cornrows before it was common place or his desire to wear jerseys when he was injured rather than three-piece suits. A criticism that will never dissipate is the amount of shots he took per game. We forget his supporting cast had the talent comparable to the Temple men's team a few miles down the road on Broad Street.

Even with the lack of skill around him, he averaged six assists per game for his career, 37th on the all-time assists list, 322 more than Chancey Billups, and 407 more than Norm Van Lier and nine shy of Michael Jordan. A 26.7 career average, sixth on the all-time list only behind Jordan, Wilt, Lebron, Elgin Baylor, and the "logo" Jerry West.

Carmelo Anthony has been described as a 6'8 version of Iverson, but Carmelo's biggest weakness was one of Iverson's biggest strengths: defensive prowess. He led the league in steals three times, a feat only duplicated by Jordan, Alvin Richardson, and Michael Ray Robinson.

If there's anything I'm mad at Iverson for is the years that he left on the table, his inability to take care of his aging body.

When Iverson left the sixers in 2007, no fan thought they would see him donning a sixer's uniform again. In 2009, there he was, sitting at the same table that 1460 days prior he gave the world the moniker "practice" 24 times. This Iverson seemed different, changed, matured, and grateful for a second chance with the team that made him a household name. He played in 25 games, starting in 24. He averaged 14 points, but was not the same player that led the league in scoring four times and was MVP in 2001. He had lost his step, his explosiveness, his dynamic crossover. The knees that once allowed him to do superhuman things were constantly on the bench getting drained. Every point he scored once with ease was now a struggle.

Iverson lasted with the team only until February 22, 2010. He left the 76ers indefinitely, citing the need to attend to his 4-year-old daughter, Messiah's health issues. After no NBA wanted him, he moved east, signing a two-year, $4 million contract with Besiktas, a Turkish Basketball League team competing in the second-tier level of European professional basketball.

It's unknown if Iverson will ever get a chance again in the NBA or if his fate is sealed as an overseas side show attraction. But, when I watch the greats of today play and put on their shooting sleeves, I will always remember the man who did it first. The man who danced through the forest of big trees, who drove through the lane without fear, sacrificing his body and ultimately career longevity for his team's success.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

UConn: Kemba and Company bring the Huskies their third National Championship

Last night's NCAA championship game between Butler and Connecticut played out sloppier than a four-year old trying to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For the select few of us awake, the game had the gravitas of watching paint dry and matched the excitement of a sink faucet slowly dripping. A 9:23 p.m. start time, preferential treatment to west coast advertisers and playing to the college student whose lack of responsibility is a direct correlation to the amount of Ramen intake, had the game begin on a sour note. Unfortunately, the tone didn't change and the game played screechier than a Miley Cyrus high note.

When the dust settled and the clock struck 11:37 p.m. est., I adjusted my eyes, glazed over from 40 minutes of poor basketball to see a final score of 51-43. I rubbed what I thought had to be an obstruction on my eye socket, but a closer look and the miniscule score remained. A combined 94 points from the national championship game. So many emotions were running through my overly tired body and all I could do was let out a quiet laigh, (combination of a laugh and a sigh).

I missed "Dancing with the Stars" for this?

Not knowing the reasons for the late East Coast start would be naive, but the fact that the product didn't match the primetime Pacific Time zone placement was beyond frustrating. The people who care about college basketball, the east and Midwest regions of the country, were falling asleep in their chairs while it was dinner time for west coasters who think Kemba Walker is a surf board company.  The west coast palate is limited to college football and the NBA. They care as much about college basketball as a New Yorker does about fly fishing.

In regards to analysis of last night's game, it was obvious that the hours of minutes logged on the legs of both teams came up to bite them. Even 19 and 20 year old kids eventually get fatigued. It was evident in their jump shots with no lift and feet firmly rooted in the ground like tree trucks attempting to grab a rebound. The hardwood might as well been quick sand where explosion from guards to the basket was a rare sight. UConn star Kemba Walker who seemed to have the endurance of Usain Bolt throughout the Big East tournament and March Madness was finally hit with the effects of cross country travel and playing eleven elimination games in 28 days. I would argue his 26 percent shooting and 0 for 4 from 3 point land was due to the grind of games in succession, not a ferocious Bulldog defense.

Those arguing it was a great defensive battle are people who checked the final box score on their computers, but didn't actually watch the game. The contest itself was reminiscent of a black and white spoof of a 1950's basketball team practice, shorts high above their knees doing drills like a Twilight Zone version of the Harlem Globetrotters.

Even in all of the mediocrity, came realizations. I watched freshman phenom Jeremy Lamb for Connecticut stake his claim as a lottery pick or as the favorite for college player of the year if he stays at UConn. I watched the emergence of Huskies big man Alex Oriakhi. I saw that fatigue plagued Butler's sharp shooter Shelvin Mack more than anyone and how Matt Howard encompasses everything a Bulldog is and should be. I watched as 68 year old coach Jim Calhoun elevated an already cemented hall of fame legacy, but was unable to dodge questions about his own NCAA allegations of recruiting with improper benefits.

I witnessed something I thought I wouldn't see. Butler's Brad Stevens coached the second half flustered and the team played out of their element and comfort zone. Butler, a team in the championship game for the second straight year felt smaller than the moment. To call the Bulldogs an underdog this time around is a grave mistake. Knowledgeable sports folk picked them to win last night because of their length, veterans, and three point shooting. A Cinderella team last year, now a perennial power, was only an underdog in how they performed on the court.

Senior Forward Matt Howard, who Brad Stevens calls the greatest player to ever put on a Bulldog uniform shot 1 for 13 from the field. Scoring star, Shelvin Mack who was seamlessly draining half court three's throughout the tournament was 4 for 15 from the field. But, the two star players are not to blame. The team collectively shot 12 for 64 from the field, 19 percent, the lowest shooting percentage in the history of the men's title game. The Butler coach known for his calm sideline demeanor was agitated. It wasn't his facial expression that changed, but his team's identity and the X's and O's that he called were evidence of panic and desperation. You can't blame his frustration. The basketball hoop to the Bulldogs looked like the size of a decimal point.

The final score, 53-41 was indicative of how the 40 minutes played out. As spectators, we watched for the dramatic end-of- game moment that would never come. My heart does go out to Butler, for feeling the same disappointment as last year but hurting more because they were favored by most. I feel bad that Matt Howard played his final game as a Bull Dog. I've never seen a college player fight for every loose ball and rebound like Howard. He is a floor general as a forward, 230 pounds of bone and basketball. Butler losing Howard is like McDonald's losing Ronald, a piece of their identity, irreplaceable.

Over the next few weeks we will debate, discuss, and agree to disagree about the talent level of this year's tournament and if the last two teams standing really were the best two. For those who love the shoot out game winner and the walk off home run, the Championship game fell short of what we experienced in previous rounds from the upsets, buzzer beaters, and last second ill-advised fouls.

The good news is the NBA playoffs are right around the corner.