Thursday, December 18, 2014

Growing Up As A Sooners Fan

I am sick of Sooners fans.  I truly believe we have one of the whiniest and most entitled fan bases in the country.  Nothing is ever good enough.  Negativity permeates every viewing experience.  The live experience has soured thanks to rude and pessimistic fan behavior.  Our stadium is rarely imposing because we sit back and expect to be entertained.  We even boo (how spoiled is it to boo at kids who work their asses off, or to boo coaches who are more successful in their field than you ever will be in yours?).

I am Sooner born and Sooner bred.  My grandparents were students at OU and spent the rest of their lives in Norman.  My earliest baby photos reveal most of my wardrobe had Oklahoma written on it.  My uncle played for the '75 national championship team.  My Dad would have played for Switzer before a knee injury pointed him on a much more noble path to the Naval Academy.  I did not grow up in Oklahoma, but spent several summers with my grandparents who lived on Chatauqua in the shadow of Owen Field.  I lived and died on every game until I attended the school myself.  I never missed a game, never left early (despite suffering through the John Blake years) and was always one of the loudest fans while attending most of the games by myself (for reasons that would embarrass my friends).  Now I make a 12 hour round trip several times a season for the privilege to watch my Sooners.

My increased disgust of my fellow Sooners fans produced some strange results.  I was forced to care less about football which allowed me to enjoy the season more.  I have always been the guy whose weekend was ruined when the Sooners lost.  I couldn't get over it, and I never really thought it would change.

My despair dam burst after the Kansas State loss this season.  The negativity was eating me up and it was not only coming from myself, but from everything and nearly everyone around me.  As Sooners fans we are so sensitive when someone says anything negative about the program, yet we spend most of the season bad mouthing it to each other.  The more negativity I heard from friends and family, the more I felt the need to defend the program.  I began taking the criticism personally and decided I had to cut it out before it completely ruined the season.  I wasn't enjoying the games and team and I loved the way I wanted to.

It took that overwhelming negativity to realize the 12 Saturdays the Sooners play are the best days of the year, win or lose.  Failure to enjoy game day is mental inadequacy.  It's football.  It's not always going to go your way.  That is one of the fundamental lessons playing sports teaches us.  You're not going to win all the time so measuring your self esteem based on the results of a football game is a bad idea (especially one you're not playing in).

I no longer have time for it.  I rooted for the team in a positive way the rest of the season, and supported the program because it is one to be proud of.  The chat board geeks would say I'm drinking the Kool Aid, but what I'm really doing is letting go of the wild emotional swings from play to play, season to season.  I do not feel entitled, nor will I let lofty expectations spoil me in the future.  I appreciate the joy game days bring me and will miss them until next season.  It's as simple as that.  It probably shouldn't have taken me this long to come to that realization.

If you think Bob Stoops should be fired, I have no interest in your opinion on football.  If you don't support the team when they're down, don't try to talk Sooners with me when they're up. If you are so negative that you can't enjoy a win because of past losses, please don't contact me on a game day.  Was this year a great coaching season for Stoops? Nope.  He possibly made the most critical coaching error of his career which lead directly to the Sooners losing to Oklahoma State at home.  Has the program failed to reach its potential several times in the last seven seasons?  Yep.  Is there anyone I'd rather have running the program? No way.  He runs a successful, competitive, clean program.  One that revitalized Norman and the university after a decade of stagnation.

My Grandpa never liked Joe Castiglione and soured on Stoops rather quickly.  One of the last conversations I had with him was a quasi argument over their merits.  I still participate in talking my Grandma off the ledge after losses.  She likes to joke that she's "going to commit suicide" after an OU loss (not particularly funny considering how closely touched our family is to that subject).  At least my grandparents unrealistic expectations are understandable considering they never witnessed a single loss their entire time attending OU.  They were fortunate to attend during a winning streak that is still an NCAA record.  For all the non 80 somethings out there, I'm not sure why you would expect perfection.

My fan foundation was built through years of success viewed on tape. Game days my Dad would pull his chair in front of the TV with a corded Beta Max remote in hand (he edited defense whistle to whistle and cut out commercials while leaving offense in tact which made for quick rewatching).  My attention span as a child was too short to watch live games, but we had dozens of classic games on tape that I would pore through on rainy and sick days (that's the reason I know Mike Gaddis was every bit as good as Barry Sanders before he got hurt).  That's how I came to understand the history of the Sooners.  I toiled as a teen with Gary Gibbs and Howard Schnellenberger, and attended the university during the Blake years.  During this period, it took me four tries before I got to see a Sooners victory in person.  That's how I came to understand tribulation.

The Blake years were brutal.  The student body president of OU lived down the hall from me in my fraternity house and was goaded by myself and many others into writing a strongly worded letter to President Boren calling for Blake's job.  It was a move that made national headlines including Sportscenter, USA Today and CNN.

While Sooner nation waited for the announcement of Jim Donnan to replace Blake, Castiglione said the name Bob Stoops.  I was on the North Oval when Stoops addressed the student body for the first time.  You could feel the excitement of change.  Anything would have been better than the last ten years.  One and a half years after going 5-6 (Blake's best season), the Sooners were number one in the country and went on to win a national championship.  Stoops has since put a consistent winner on the field, dominated his time in the Big 12 and raised expectations from a winning season to a national championship run on an annual basis.  That is how I came to understand triumph.

Despite a rocky season, it was still Oklahoma football.  I will no longer spend mediocre seasons in agony.  I am determined to enjoy each game individually and keep a better perspective.  I'll still get heated from time to time, or question play calling, or indulge in outrageous superstitions, but as long as Stoops is running the program, I will hope for the best and live with the results (assuming he continues to beat Texas regularly).  I am a much happier fan as a result.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

5 Football Questions for Sooners Fans

It's time.  No more hiding.  Football season is right around the corner.  We've made it through the agonizing wait to get onto the roller coaster and now we slowly climb for two months until...the freefall, the loops and everything in between.  In the old days I could speed these two months along by transitioning into baseball, but since I am boycotting the Padres there is no more denying the imminence of the football season.  The NBA has given me some needed distraction with some compelling free agency dilemmas, but until July 10th, things look to be pretty quiet.  So, here we go.  Strap in and keep all body parts inside the ride.

1. Why hasn't the Big XII changed its name?

On July 1, the Big XII announced a rebranding of the conference logo and the conference website.  See if you can pick out the humor in this sentence from the press release discussing some of the new changes.

"A re-designed website at has also debuted, containing information on each of the league’s 10 member institutions"

The new logo is supported with the catchy tagline, "One True Champion."  Recently, BYU tried to beg their way into the conference and were met with staunch resistance from the league's athletic directors. Oliver Luck, one of the NCAA's most respected AD's and the Big XII's representative on the playoff voting committee said (paraphrasing), "the Big XII is happy with a ten team setup and the one topic no one has discussed is expansion."

So why keep the name Big XII for a ten team league?  If you want a ten team league, that's fine.  But, why keep the name Big XII and revamp the logo?  I understand the Big Ten (which has 12 members) has not changed its conference name, but they at least had the sense to take the Ten out of their official logo.  Just because the Big XII conference includes Oklahoma State as a member doesn't mean it has to employ their hillbilly sensibility.

As for the tagline, "One True Champion," I'm not sure that makes more sense than the logo.  While the SEC, Big Ten and Pac10 chose to expand, the Big XII got smaller eliminating the need for the championship game.  The problem that ten team leagues have had in the past has been presenting one true champion because of the tie scenarios that have to be figured out through a series of tie-breaking stipulations, not through a game on the field.  While I understand a ten team league means everyone plays each other rather than splitting the conference into divisions, the chance for several teams to finish with the same record is very real without a game to determine the one true champion.

If the Big XII still plans to expand they aren't in any hurry.  Adding BYU and another school would be easy and make the conference moniker apropos.  If they are truly happy with the ten team set up, then they should change the name.  It's ludicrous.  With the new four team playoff system, I like not having a conference championship game.  While the rest of major conferences will have to play 15 games to win it all, Oklahoma the Big XII will only require 14.  It sets up beautifully unless the playoff voters hold that against the Big XII.  So, bottom line, change the damn name.

By the way, the correct way to refer to the Big XII in print is actually, the Big 12 Conference, despite the use of Roman numerals in the new and old logo.  That's not confusing or idiotic at all.  I will admit the color choice for the logo is top notch though.

2.  Who will be included in the inaugural four team playoff?

Florida State

Florida State is a mandatory pick for one of the four teams.  They are the defending national champions and return talent everywhere including Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Jameis Winston.  They literally have no weaknesses on paper and they play in the ACC making their path to the playoff easier than any other contender.  Their biggest test might be the first game of the season when they play Oklahoma State in Arlington, but OSU looks to be weaker than last season after replacing the majority of their starters.  OSU won't be ready to compete with national champs that early in the season.  FSU might be tested in their final game of the season against in-state rival Florida who is sure to be better than last year's squad that went 4-8, losing their final seven games.  But, the game is in Tallahassee so the chances of an upset are slim.  FSU might not have a tough game until the playoffs, and will be given the benefit of the doubt as reigning champs.


The schedule worked against the Sooners last year and they still managed to win 11 games.  This season, they get Baylor and Oklahoma State at home and will have revenge on their minds against Texas.  They return the bulk of their contributors on both sides of the ball and should boast one of the best defenses in the conference.  Eric Striker, Charles Tapper, Frank Shannon, Geneo Grissom, Chuka Ndulue, Jordan Phillips and Dominique Alexander create one of the most formidable front sevens OU has had in years.  Quarterback Trevor Knight had a year to develop and we all saw his potential in last year's Sugar Bowl when he undressed Alabama, the supposed best team in the country.  He will have the most experienced and deep offensive line in the country to protect him and a stable of highly touted young backs to carry the ball.  Incoming multi-purpose weapon Joe Mixon is expected to bring big play ability and if the waiver for Dorial Green-Beckham clears, they will be loaded with weapons at receiver.

Road games against TCU and Tulsa might be overlooked by fans, but have the potential to be very difficult.  Phil Steele has TCU pegged as the most improved team in the country, while Tulsa is also improved and will bring much more motivation than the Goliath Sooners in their home stadium.

It still feels like a bizarro world when you have to consider Baylor to be the Sooners biggest challenge on the schedule.  Baylor will most likely start the season ranked higher and will once again lead the NCAA in offense.  The fact that they play in Norman is the reason the Sooners should beat out Baylor for the conference championship.  A single loss for any Big XII team will eliminate them from playoff consideration, so OU will have to go undefeated to win the national championship. 


I'm not really going out on a limb with any of these picks, but I don't see how you can pick anyone else in the SEC and truly believe it.  Auburn had a dream season last year and used no less than three miracles to pull out wins against Alabama and Georgia.  Georgia and South Carolina have a fighting chance, and you can never underestimate the talent of LSU, but when you boil down, Alabama is still coached by Nick Saban and he has a stable full of five star players, and unlike Texas, knows how to use them.  The Tide will be breaking in a new starting quarterback, but two of their recent national championships have come with first year starting QB's.  Someone from the SEC is going to be in the final four, Alabama is the odds on favorite.


They play one of the toughest schedules in the country, but just like Oklahoma nearly all of their tough games are played at home.  They have to play Texas in Arlington on a (sort of) neutral field and travel to Tempe to play Arizona State.  After that, all the big boys have to come through Pasadena.  If UCLA is able to beat Stanford, Oregon, USC and Arizona at home they might own the most accomplished resume of any of the four playoff teams.  They have one of the best quarterbacks in the country and it is Jim Mora's third season at head coach so he has hand picked talent at all positions.  They have capitalized on USC's troubles and this could be the season they put it all together.  Admittedly, Ohio State has a much easier road to an undefeated season and might be the smarter pick, but they are not as complete of a team as UCLA.

3.  Will a four team playoff satisfy college football fans?

It better, because it's not changing for 12 years.  There is no perfect system, and a four team playoff certainly isn't perfect.  Teams that finish 5-8 in the voting will be upset that they weren't included in the final four, while others will feel four teams simply isn't enough.  It was always funny to me how much people hated the BCS.  I think when we get to the end of the season there will be several fan bases that miss it.

For starters, any team not included in the "power 5" conferences are automatically disqualified.  There will be no more Cinderella teams like Boise State playing spoiler against traditional powers.  If you're not in a major conference, you have no chance to play in the playoff.  It will also be a much more subjective way of voting.  Rather than a computer formula, there will be actual people making the decision.  That probably sounds good to some, but the one thing computers aren't, is biased.  Some might argue that the computers were biased based on weighting and certain rankings that didn't make sense to common sense humans, but that is why they used eight computer formulas to determine an overall ranking.  Of course it was flawed, but if you don't think humans voting for a final four will be flawed, you are naive.

I am already dreading the conspiracy conversations that come with getting snubbed from a panel of humans that inevitably will be swayed by biases.  At least with the BCS, there was no one to get mad at.  This year, Condoleezza Rice might become the most hated person in the South.  For Oklahoma fans, the computers were very kind.  Under Stoops, the Sooners had a history of playing a strong non-conference schedule and the computers always rewarded Oklahoma.  A panel of humans will not place as much weight on margin of victory, which is a good thing, but there will be problems we can't even think of until the time to vote comes up.

The other possible casualty is the rest of the bowl season.  Will anyone care about making a bowl if they aren't in the final four.  At least with the BCS there were ten teams that played in major bowls, and eight others that felt good about their situation.  Now, it will be a championship or bust mentality.  For the major schools, that might not seem like a drastic change, but Oklahoma would not have had the chance to play Alabama if there was a playoff.  The BCS was actually more giving to more teams that were not in the top four.  Don't get me wrong, I am excited about the playoff because the opportunity to win a national championship is extended to two more teams, but outside of the national championship, what are the top schools going to be playing for?  Every other bowl will seem like a consolation prize with the devalued prestige.  Just like replay in baseball, we should be careful what we wish for.  And save your breath on an eight team playoff, it ain't happening for over a decade.

4.  What should Oklahoma fans be worried about entering the 2014 season?

One of the best parts of being a Sooners fan since Stoops took over is the frequency in which the Sooners have national championship aspirations before the season starts.  Stoops is entering his 16th season and this will be the eighth time the Sooners are considered title contenders.  As a fan, you really can't ask for more than that.  But we do.  Sooners fans are some of the most impatient and cantankerous fans in the country.  Somehow we feel like we deserve a winner.  We pack the stadium full of nearly 90,000 fans, then sit on our hands unless the Sooners are dominating.  We go to the game waiting to be entertained rather than cheering as a weapon.  We have called for Bob Stoops' job when we don't win a conference championship two straight seasons.  There is truly no pleasing us short of a championship.  It is the reason I can't talk to half of my friends or family during the season.  The Sooners appear to have their most complete team since 2010.  So what are we going to get worked up about this season?

  • Josh Heupel: Before the reemergence of Trevor Knight, he captained some of the most frustrating offenses under Bob Stoops.  They have been absolutely loaded on offense and it seemed he never played to the team's strengths.  It's things like the Belldozer that drive me crazy.  I absolutely loathed it and we saw its flaws clearly last season.  Shuffling units on and off the field played a major role in the beat down by Baylor last season.  Heupel has also wasted the careers of several talented running backs by being completely inflexible on how he calls plays.  He quarterbacked under Mike Leach and brings that same mentality to the offense despite having incredible runners every year.  This season, he once again has access to four highly touted running backs and a veteran offensive line.  Refusal to run the ball and control the clock will be extremely frustrating.  With a mobile quarterback added to the mix, the Sooners should average 250 yards on the ground, setting up the pass, and not the other way around.  The first time Heupel decides to pass on 2nd and 5 or 3rd and 1 will remind fans of past annoyances.
  • Trevor Knight: The overreaction to the sophomore quarterback began the moment he led the Sooners to a victory against Alabama.  He was amazing.  Sooners fans had hope, but not a single person outside of his parents could have imagined how well he played in the Sugar Bowl.  There was nothing to indicate he had that type of game in him.  To expect him to be that guy week in and week out this season is asinine.  He is a sophomore.  He will struggle and he will make mistakes.  It's easy to forget that he lost his job to Blake Bell last season, and that he was injured on two occasions which kept him out of action.  Knight's progression was obvious in the second half of the season and he really showed his potential against Kansas State.  But, it was still Bell who had to save the day against Oklahoma State after Knight was knocked out of the game.  Bell saved the season on more than one occasion, and he will not be there to back up Knight this season.  If Knight has similar injury issues, his absence could be the difference between a playoff appearance and an bowl appearance.
  •  Conference Bias: Like it or not, the Big XII has been relegated to the fourth out of five conferences in the "power five."  It seems a little unfair considering Baylor will be the best offensive team in the country, Texas still has as much talent as anyone, TCU will be healthy and ready to resume their winning ways, Oklahoma State has been consistently tough, Texas Tech is coming off a nice season and bowl win, and Kansas State is back to winning under Bill Snyder.  Regardless of what seems like seven tough teams (discounting West Virginia who has a solid history) out of ten, the Big XII just doesn't carry the same respect that it once did.  Oklahoma and Baylor are thought to be the only good teams in the conference which will definitely hurt public perception and might influence their spot in a four team playoff.  Losing one game will eliminate any chance of a Big XII team to make the final four.  Oklahoma will have to win impressively to keep the voters on their side.  Squeaking by will not be an option.  Fans should get ready to listen to prognosticators denigrating the conference and subsequent Sooners resume.

5.  How do you feel about the new alternate uniforms?

As a rule, I think most Sooners fans over the age of 25 are against changing the classic look of Oklahoma uniforms.  In a perfect world, there would be no need for alternate uniforms.  But, in today's landscape of college football, uniform variations have become a useful tool in recruiting.  It also gives the team a boost when they get to change it up.

Luckily, Oklahoma has not gone the way of Oregon or Oklahoma State with 10,000 combinations.  For the Sooners, it's only two games a year and this season they have gone pretty unique with wood grain helmets and jerseys that highlight past achievements.  The most prominent being "47 Straight" written across the neckline.  The uniforms also come along with a built in twitter tagline #BRINGTHEWOOD.

As far as alternate uniforms go, I like these.  They are definitely unique to Oklahoma and still have a throwback/classic look mixed with something fresh for the kids.  I don't love the crimson pants and I would rather see the helmets monochromatic with the jerseys, but if these uniforms help the Sooners bring the wood and the recruits, then I'm all for them.  I would like to roll them out against Tulsa and Kansas rather than Texas, but that's just a little superstition.  Regardless of the rest of the uniforms, I would be a fan of keeping the helmets in rotation.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Wade Holds Key to Keep LeBron in Miami

Let the sweepstakes begin.  LeBron James has decided to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent for the second time in his career.  The first go 'round shook the NBA to seismic proportions and created the most polarizing team in NBA history.  After four scintillating seasons, James has another decision that could shake up the NBA landscape.

James had seven days left before he had to make a decision whether to exercise his player option which would have paid him $20 million next season.  By announcing an opt out now, he gives the rest of the NBA time to make moves and get strategies in place two days before the draft.  It also puts pressure on the Heat to get their plan in place after a bitter end to the season.  The threat of losing the best player in basketball is real for Miami and they will have to amend their roster drastically to make James comfortable.

By opting out before the draft,  hundreds of possible scenarios are in play, not the least of which would be the Cavs making a move with the first pick.  The Cavs could trade for a veteran like Kevin Love to make themselves championship ready for James.

After the humiliating Finals loss to the Spurs, James said he would first get away with his family to clear his mind.  After a brief vacation he said he would talk to the organization and later with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.  He took the vacation, but it is almost certain he didn't meet with Wade and Bosh.  After a difficult season and a worse Finals, it appears James had made it clear what he thinks about the money owed to Wade and Bosh.

The Heat should still be viewed as the favorite to sign James, but it entirely depends on what Wade and to a lesser degree Bosh do with their player options.  Both players are due to make $20 million next season which is more than they're worth on the open market.  Wade especially holds the future of the Heat in his hands.  He has every right to opt in.  The organization made the contract and all parties agreed it was fair.  He has won three championships and been the face of the franchise since he was drafted.  But, with his declining health, production and games played, Wade is simply not worth the money.  In the playoffs Wade looked refreshed early, but was a shell of himself in the Finals.  The Heat will need a good chunk of the $20 million owed to Wade to replace his lost production.  With both players aging, James was counting on Wade to help ease the nightly wear and tear which hasn't happened in the last three seasons.  After two straight miserable Finals showings, James knows Wade's best days are behind him.

Bosh has sacrificed to play for the Heat, but his skill set is not worth $20 million.  He was never a physical big and now he is basically a spot up shooter.  He doesn't give the Heat any interior presence or rebounding which has been their weakness for four seasons.  Another team might pay him $20 million because he is still healthy and capable of being a consistent offensive threat, but the reason why he went to Miami was to compete for championships, not be a featured player.  As the third member of the Big 3, Bosh hasn't been a difference maker.  He's a nice piece, but it is obvious there are several NBA teams whose second and third best players are better than Wade and Bosh.  Egos of professional athletes, especially perennial all-stars, make recognizing weaknesses very difficult.  It also makes it hard to leave money on the table.  If Wade and Bosh are unable to come to that realization, or are unwilling to give up their best salary option, the Heat will be unable to realistically compete for a championship, even with James being the best player in the game.  Should Wade and Bosh sign their player option, owner Micky Arison will have to pay the repeater luxury tax he has ardently claimed he would avoid.

So where could James wind up next year?  The short answer is anywhere he wants.  There are only a handful of teams that wouldn't do everything in their power to retain his services.  There are also only a handful of teams that have the available cap space as currently constructed.

Miami has several advantages on their side.  James trusts Pat Riley and Eric Spoelstra.  There is no other team in the NBA that can provide that comfort level.  He is also aware of the mistakes he made while leaving Cleveland, so he's sure to give Miami every opportunity to resign him.  Despite the turbulence, he has made four straight Finals and should continue to do so with some small improvements.

Unlike leaving Cleveland, Miami is not James' team.  Although he is the leader and clearly the best player, the city still belongs to Wade, making an exit much easier than his first decision.  Riley and Arison should be very aware of that and do what is necessary to keep him.  They certainly want to stay loyal to Wade, so it will take a lot of juggling or a lot of spending should Wade opt in.

If James leaves Miami, home to Cleveland would be the most likely destination.  Aside from returning home, Cleveland is the only team that wouldn't make James appear to be a mercenary.  Legacy is still very important to James.  If he starts bouncing around the league chasing championships, his critics will always have ammunition to belittle his achievements.

There are three major obstacles for Cleveland.  The first is owner Dan Gilbert.  Do you think he is regretting that letter he wrote when James left for Miami right about now?  I bet he is.  Before James considers returning to Miami, he would need Gilbert to grovel and get on his knees to deliver a  tearful apology.  Anything short should be viewed as a deal breaker.  Gilbert is a moron who might have already ruined his chance at resigning the world's best player before he turns 30.

The next obstacle is the roster.  They have Kyrie Irving and some intriguing young talent, but absolutely no playoff experience or veteran leadership.  The Cavs would have to sacrifice the number one draft pick to acquire a big name to entice James.  That's a serious gamble, and one Gilbert might not be ready to take.

Finally, they would have to sell James on newly hired head coach David Blatt.  He is highly regarded as an excellent international basketball coach, but he is unknown to players in the U.S.  Cleveland probably won't have the time to make a proper pitch for Blatt and would need someone within James' inner circle to convince him he is the right fit.

The remaining potential destinations are total speculation.  There is a case to be made for nearly every team.  Here are the one's I find most intriguing.

1. Miami Heat

2. Cleveland Cavaliers

3. L.A. Clippers: They give James the best chance to win a championship next season.  James is extremely close with Chris Paul and he adores Doc Rivers.  They are championship ready with three contracts they could shed to create cap space.  They would most likely have to part ways with Deandre Jordan which would be tough, but to get James in exchange would be well worth it.  If the Donald Sterling saga comes to a conclusion and Steve Ballmer is able to retain ownership, it is very likely he would be willing to pay luxury tax.  He overpaid for the Clippers by about a billion.  What's another $30 million?  I would love to see Blake Griffin and James on the same team.

4. Houston Rockets: They've reportedly been making plans to put a full press on Carmelo Anthony.  If they can get James at the same asking price, that's certainly the direction they will go.  They have some pieces to move before this can become a reality, but a starting lineup of Patrick Beverly, James Harden, James, Chandler Parsons and Dwight Howard is scary.  They won't have any depth on the bench unless the domino effect of signing James provides them with some veterans willing to take a discount. It's intriguing, but I'm not sure James would want to play with Harden or for a team that has no interest in defense.

5. Atlanta Hawks: It's doubtful because it's Atlanta, but there are some interesting theories as to how this would work.  Head coach and long time Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer has already got momentum on his side with a nice playoff showing this season.  He is striving to make the Hawks the Spurs of the East which might be attractive to James after watching the system precision of the Spurs in the Finals.  By clearing some space and getting a healthy Al Horford back, the Hawks could trot out a lineup of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, James, Paul Millsap and Horford.  Not too shabby.  He would play with teammates that complement his skill set and that would have no problem letting him come in and be the man.

The rest of the teams in play (but really not) are as follows:

6. Brooklyn Nets: Because Mikhail Prokhorov will not spare any expense, but they are too old.

7. New York Knicks:  Because he could sign with Anthony and play under Phil Jackson, albeit through Derrick Fisher, but they have a crazy owner and an incomplete roster.

8. Chicago Bulls: Because they would be a true contender instantly and they have some cap space and a great head coach, but it was Jordan's team, Joakim Noah hates him and it would be another slap in the face to Cleveland.

9. Phoenix Suns: Because they have the money to give him a max contract and they are on the rise, but they aren't championship ready.

10. Dallas Mavericks: Because they have the cap space, but Dirk Nowitzki is an older second option than Wade and they're in the same division as the Spurs.

The draft on Thursday will be extremely telling as to which teams are trying to maneuver for James.  If Cleveland trades the number one pick, they will be in play.  While James has options, I think he knows it is doubtful there will be a better one than the Heat.  We've heard all about the sacrifices the Big 3 made to play together.  Another large sacrifice will be required to keep them together.  No one would blame Wade or Bosh for keeping their money, but if they do, no one should blame James for leaving either.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

RIP Tony Gwynn, Mr. Padre

Shocked.  That is how I would describe my reaction to the news of Tony Gwynn passing away at the age of 54.  I knew he had battled cancer.  I knew he was on medical leave from his position as head coach of the San Diego State baseball team.  But, I never expected to hear that he was dead.  It was a sobering moment to say the least and one that I never saw coming.  I've heard of baseball players dealing with mouth cancer.  Curt Schilling dealt with it as a player and continued to pitch after having tumors removed from his mouth.  Despite knowing how devastating cancer is, I really didn't think mouth cancer was life threatening.

One of the things I love most about my wife is her compassion.  Nearly once a week when a celebrity or notable figure passes away she feels deeply.  It is usually my role to remind her what an amazing life that person led, and that we should all be so lucky.  It happens so often.  It is something I just accept as the cycle of life.  I usually take a moment to consider any memories I have of the deceased and move along with my day.

This case is quite different.  Gwynn was one of the most influential athletes of my life, and as a San Diego native and baseball fanatic, he was uniquely mine.  He was the pride of the San Diego when there wasn't much to go around, earning him the nickname Mr. Padre.  There have been so many beautiful words written about his passing because he was the most universally beloved athlete of my lifetime.  The fact that he was a Padre made him that much more special to me.  Everyone admired his jovial disposition, humility and generosity.  His career produced some of the most staggering statistics in baseball history, yet he will be remembered more for the way treated others.  It didn't matter if you were a laundry room employee, the mayor, or a kid at a spring training game that wanted nothing more than for him to acknowledge you, he treated everyone he encountered with the same genial regard.

His passing stunned and saddened me more than any public persona ever has.  I still feel hollow and try to follow my own advice about accentuating the positives that came from his time on Earth.  But, that is much easier said than done because of the personal connection I feel towards him, and how suddenly and before his time he passed on.  Baseball, the Padres, San Diego and Gwynn played such a huge part of my childhood and the lives of my family. 

I was that kid at spring training.  More than once.  One of the fondest memories I have of growing up is meeting him in Yuma, Arizona during spring training.  My Dad was a pilot in the Navy with one of Gwynn's best friends and college roommates.  Before one of the spring training games, my Dad gave me a squadron baseball cap to send into the locker room for Gwynn specifically.  When the game was over we lined up with the rest of the autograph seeking fans along the player walkway.  I was instructed to shout out,  "My Dad flies with Mr. Doleman," when I saw Gwynn appear.  My family and I waited with anticipation until we saw a blue squadron cap headed toward us.  He was actually wearing the cap!  I couldn't believe it.  He must receive stuff from fans all the time, and he was wearing our cap!  As he approached, I delivered the rehearsed message and his response was, "that is so cool!"  He stopped and talked to us for a few minutes which feels like an hour when there are hundreds of other people there begging for his autograph.  He couldn't have been cooler.  He actually thanked my Dad for the hat when all along we wanted to thank him just for putting it on his head.  He didn't think of himself like that.  He loved what he did for a living, but it never changed him as a person.

That was not the first time I had met Gwynn.  The Padres used to have "picture day" where kids could go on the field and families would take pictures of their kids with players.  Again, my memories of Gwynn were so positive.  Most of the players were tired of dealing with kids and pictures.  They were there out of obligation and would rather be in the clubhouse spitting sunflower seeds than posing over and over with snot nosed children and overzealous parents.  Gwynn, by far the biggest star in San Diego, appeared to be enjoying himself.  He spent time with each kid that took a picture with him.  He talked, smiled and laughed and when I was finished having my picture taken with him, I was euphoric.  I have pictures with several of the other players, but I remember taking my picture with Gwynn because of how he made the experience.

The final personal memory I have was driving home from a Padres game.  On the highway, we spotted the license plate Padre19 on a nondescript Mercedes (I think).  We pulled up alongside the car, and sure enough it was Gwynn.  We rolled down the window and waved like loons.  With a license plate like Padre19 he must have gotten that response all the time.  I imagine it got pretty annoying.  His reaction was to flash his famous grin and wave back.  It was awesome.  I can't tell you anything that happened during the game or a hundred others that I attended as a kid, but I'll never forget that moment.  I went to bed with a smile on my face.

Tony Gwynn was all of San Diego's to treasure.  At least half of the teams he played on were bad.  As a member of the Padres he played in both World Series in franchise history, but the team was only able to win one game in two series.  He could have played for any team he wanted to, and for a lot more money, but San Diego was his home and he was uniquely loyal to the organization.  No one would have blamed him for chasing a championship.  No one would have blamed him for taking twice the salary he was being paid.  But, he would have left a huge void in the city he became a hero in, and I think he knew that.

He was a community hero.  Forget what he could do on the field.  What he did for the city was a hundred times more important.  What San Diego lacks in success on the field has been more than made up for with the integrity, decency and character of its biggest stars.  None were more important than Gwynn, and I doubt there will ever be another like him.  He was a once in a lifetime human being and you can't find a single person to tell you otherwise.

There was such an outpouring from fans, friends and the baseball community after Gwynn passed away, it was truly amazing to see and read.  I knew I wanted to say something in my own words, but for days after his death, I couldn't stop reading all of the wonderful words and stories others published about him.  Many of the articles were about his genius on the field and a chronicling of his mind boggling numbers.  Even as a close fan I had forgotten, or taken for granted some of his remarkable achievements.  But, those achievements were virtually hollow in comparison to lives he touched and joy he brought so many just by being himself.  Seeing his smile was to feel his joy, and it had a funny way of transferring to those in his presence, or through the TV set.  This world is a little bit worse without Tony Gwynn in it, but he will always be remembered, especially in San Diego, and especially by me.  Thank you, Mr. Gwynn.

Perhaps some good will continue to come from his untimely death with a greater awareness of the dangers of smokeless tobacco.  Doctors weren't convinced that chewing caused his mouth cancer, but he was sure that it did.  Baseball and smokeless tobacco have been linked together for nearly 150 years.  Perhaps this tragedy can get the ball rolling to remove its use from the game.

Whatever else comes of his death, I hope his family finds peace soon.  I can't imagine what his wife and children are going through right now, and it must seem completely unfair to lose him this early.  For the rest of us, it's another opportunity to reflect on exactly what is important in life.  An opportunity to take a step back from our daily routines and remember the fragility of life and focus on the legacy we are leaving.  You can be the highest achieving employee at your job, but what lives on is the love you give and receive.  Tony Gwynn was able to pack ten lifetimes full of love into his short 54 years, and I hope everyone that is truly close to him can find solace in that fact.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Spurs Dominate, What's Next For the Heat?

Athletes and sports fans alike often feel they would rather lose in a blowout than a close loss.  If that is true for the Miami Heat, they don't feel nearly as bad as the Spurs did last season after having the trophy ripped from their hands.  The Spurs destroyed the Heat in five games with one of the most dominant Finals performances in history.  LeBron James could have averaged 50 points a game and it wouldn't have changed the outcome.  The Spurs were simply unstoppable.  They shot at a record clip of 53 percent.  Their ball movement and depth exposed Miami's old legs and lack of rim protection.  By the second quarter of game 3, the series was effectively over.

The Spurs are everything sports fans claim they want out of an NBA team.  They epitomize team basketball while staying completely humble.  They display pride without arrogance, practice fundamentals, don't talk trash and allow themselves to be coached harshly without incident.  There is no doubt they were the best team all season.

The series was sweet revenge for the Spurs and a culmination to their most successful season in team history.  Quite an achievement considering it's their fifth championship.  Their franchise has become the gold standard of professional sports.  They look for players that are "over themselves" to advance their brand rather than promoting flashy superstars which has been the standard train of thought in the NBA for 30 years.  They develop players better than any other NBA franchise and they have a keen eye for undervalued talent.

The Spurs roster is filled with players that gave them a best case scenario type output.  Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard was drafted as a "tweener" small forward who couldn't shoot.  The Spurs saw something more in his future and exchanged his rights for George Hill in a trade that looks like absolute larceny now.  He is now considered the future of the Spurs whose all around game is comparable to Paul George.

Boris Diaw who would have finished runner-up in the MVP voting (if there was such a thing) was cut by Charlotte (the worst team in the NBA at the time) for being fat and lazy.  The Spurs figured out how to use his strength and he flourished.  He was a weapon throughout the playoffs after the rest of the NBA wouldn't touch him.

Danny Green was cut twice, once by Popovich, before becoming and integral part of two Finals runs.  Patty Mills was not on anyone's radar before becoming one of the best bench players in the NBA.  And of course, the over-the-hill-four-years-ago duo of Ginobli and Duncan continue to play like 30 year olds.  Remarkable.  When they put it all together, the Spurs appeared to have no weaknesses.  All that being said, the Spurs, as usual, are not the most compelling story and they wouldn't have it any other way.

What's going to happen to the Miami Heat?

After four thrilling seasons, four trips to the Finals and two championships, the future of the franchise is as uncertain as it was before acquiring LeBron and Chris Bosh.  They have 13 free agents on the roster, basically the entire team.  The only player with a guaranteed contract next season is Norris Cole.  The Big 3 have a player option for another year, but the salary structure hardly seems prudent considering the play of Dwyane Wade and Bosh.  What seemed like a forgone conclusion that the Big 3 would be together next season, is now in doubt based on the way the season ended.  Four Finals appearances in four seasons seems like a hollow accomplishment after such a humiliating loss.

The legacy of LeBron James was not destroyed based on his play, but the talks of greatest ever have been squashed, and it's probably for the best.  It's time to move away from that type of comparison and just let his career play out for what it is.  The legend of Michael Jordan will live on, and with the current state of the collective bargaining agreement, the chances of another run similar to the 90s Bulls is extremely unlikely.

When thinking about the legacy of LeBron and the Heat, it dawned on me how grossly underrated Scottie Pippen was as a player.  He was a reliable second option every night offensively while also playing elite defense.  Consider the rest of Jordan's supporting cast.  Great shooting point guards like John Paxson and Steve Kerr, amazing rebounding from Horace Grant or Dennis Rodman, third scoring options like Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper, and bigs like Bill Cartwright who could protect the rim.

Unlike 2011, James did everything he could to help his team win.  "Follow my lead," was his message to his supporting cast before game 5.  They didn't.  At times, it felt like he was playing one on five.  Wade was abysmal.  A performance so bad that most of the basketball world assumed he was injured again.  He had no explosion in his legs and couldn't finish anything at the rim.  He missed more easy opportunities than he has at any point in his career.  If he was truly healthy (as he claims), he picked a bad time to play the worst basketball of his career.

Bosh had his moments but was not a difference maker.  The Spurs exposed him defensively by attacking the rim with the option to kick to an open teammate.  As the only rim protector, Bosh was moved in and out of the paint which either forced him into foul trouble or forced him to run all over the court leaving open shooters.

The Heat bench was also horrendous.  Mario Chalmers had to be benched after his worst stretch of basketball all season, Chris Anderson looked completely out of gas, Ray Allen was okay but a liability on defense and Norris Cole was a no-show.

The lack of production from the bulk of the team was surprising, but what was most shocking was how badly Eric Spoelstra was outcoached.  I have never criticized Spoelstra, but he got his butt kicked this series.  His adjustments looked desperate and he tightened his rotation when the team needed rest.  They couldn't defend the Spurs and he left veteran defenders Udonis Haslem and Shane Battier on the bench until game five.  The offense became increasingly LeBroncentric which is understandable considering the play of the rest of his team, but he knows better than anyone that you can't beat the Spurs with one player.

In the last four years the Heat have been undersized.  They have no interior presence and can't rebound.  They played every game/series knowing they would lose the rebounding edge which is why Spoelstra placed such a premium on defense and offensive efficiency.  Both strategies failed against the Spurs and their weaknesses were exposed in embarrassing fashion.

It's amazing to think that the sky is falling for the former back to back champs, but that's the reality for the Heat.  Every win and loss is blown out of proportion.  With another monumental decision for the Big 3 and an entire to team to rebuild this offseason, the future of the Heat is all speculation.

Will the Big 3 resign with the Heat?

Bosh has already publicly stated a desire to stay together.  Wade is the most beloved Heat player in franchise history and will probably want to finish his career there.  LeBron is the biggest question mark.  Does he still have faith in his teammates and ownership?

Wade took a third of the season off in order to be fresh for the playoffs while Lebron shouldered the burden.  In the end, Wade ran out of gas in the Finals leaving another season of heavy mileage on LeBron's legs.  If Wade accepts his player option he is due to make $20 million next season which is drastically more than he's worth at this point in his career.  Based on what he has done for the franchise and his pride, Wade will probably want to keep his money, handcuffing the teams ability to sign premium free agents below the luxury tax penalty.  If Wade is unwilling to renegotiate, LeBron's future in Miami is very much in doubt.

The only savior in that case is owner Micky Arison.  He has lived a dream life as owner over the last four seasons and the players might be tired of taking pay cuts so billionaire Arison can avoid luxury tax.  No one on the team was happy they waived Mike Miller to save a few bucks, and there's no doubt they could have used him this season.  It might be time for ownership to open the purse strings like Mikhail Prokhorov in Brooklyn.

At this point in his career, LeBron should not be moving around like a mercenary.  His move from Cleveland was absolutely necessary after seven seasons of poor coaching and management, but he is comfortable in Miami and should look to finish his prime as a member of the Heat.  Players will always want to play with him, and he has developed a trust in Pat Riley and Spoelstra that would be impossible to replicate anywhere else.  But, the Heat have to get him help.  He has been a leader in minutes played every year of his career and after watching the decline of Wade, he is very cognizant of his own mortality.  He is no longer the greatest athlete on the planet.  Like Jordan, he has matured his game to remain dominant but the minutes will continue to catch up.  The Heat can't rely on LeBron playing 40 minutes a game anymore.

Riley and Spoelstra are the two biggest reasons I believe LeBron and subsequently the Big 3 will stay together.  Best case scenario would be all three opt out and take less money, with Bosh and Wade setting aside ego and taking significantly less.  They need another scoring option, younger and more athletic role players and bigs that can protect the rim and rebound.  Assuming the Big 3 stay, I would expect Chalmers, Allen, Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley to be resigned leaving six spots open for free agency.  All of which should be used for young, athletic bigs.

There are rumors that the Heat will target Carmelo Anthony.  I think that is more fantasy than reality.  Aside from relegating Wade to the third option, Anthony does not play efficient basketball.  He is a volume shooter who defends when he feels like it.  That hasn't been the Heat way for the last four seasons and I don't think he would fit in with what they are trying to do.  Anthony would also have to play for half his worth in order to make that move work.  It doesn't seem like a smart use of salary cap.  Getting LeBron and crew several young and competent role players is enough to win without adding another star.

In the end, the sky really isn't falling and that's what the Heat should realize.  They played a better team in the Finals and must continue to grow and evolve to regain their place as champions.  When it comes to building a team and selling a dream, Riley is one of the best and I would expect the Big 3 to make another run next season.  For now, they all need rest, and lots of it.  There is no doubt they are drained mentally and physically.  Bosh stated that the season was the least fun of the four with expectations weighing the team down.

Everyone associated with the Heat needs to do some soul searching and redefine what they feel is success.  Any team with LeBron will have a championship or bust mentality, but the Heat were always at their best when they were having fun.  Strange as it sounds, a Finals loss is often the best thing that can happen to a group.  It either breaks you or makes you stronger.  The Heat must figure out which it will be in roughly nine days when the Big 3 are forced to decide their future.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Padres Use Manziel to Spit on Fans

When is the last time you dined at a Planet Hollywood?  Hard Rock Cafe?  For those who have been to San Diego, did you eat at the pier on Seaport Village?  Austinites, have you ever eaten at the Oasis?  Gueros?  Those of you with kids, have you eaten at Chuck E. Cheese's?  Let's just say, if you have been to any of these places or restaurants like them, you weren't there because of the food.  It's about the side show or decor or view.  After you've been once, there's no need to go back.  In fact, you're probably questioning the reason you went in the first place.

That's what the San Diego Padres are to professional sports.  Petco Park was inaugurated in 2004 following a brief run of success.  The park is beautiful and befitting a city as picturesque as San Diego.  It was at this point in team history that ownership stopped caring about their true fans.

The Padres became a tourist ball club.  Why spend money to cater to the few true fans and San Diego natives when you know you can draw enough tourists and opposing fans to turn an excellent profit?  You're not in San Diego for the baseball, you're there for the weather.  Hard Rock Cafe doesn't need the locals to eat at their restaurants, the tourists will take care of that and buy a T-shirt.

It sucks being a Padres fan.  There is a 5:1 pain to pleasure ratio.  As a lifelong Padres fan you actually become accustomed to it.  In a way, it is easy to pervert your thoughts to think that a championship would be that much more special because you had to put up with so much heartache leading there.  It is the closest thing sports has to an abusive relationship.  Ownership tells you how much they love you only to turn around and slap you in the face with the way they do business.

Cleveland sports fans are generally recognized as the most maligned.  The Cubs are synonymous with baseball futility.  San Diego sports fans don't even count.  We're like Sasquatch, rumored to exist but few who believe, and less that have seen.  I wont get into the anguish of being a Chargers fan, but believe me, that's no picnic either.  No one cares about us, least of all ownership.  We have been abused for so long, we feel like it is deserved.

Well, I'm breaking the cycle.  I can't put up with it anymore.  Not after the front office decided it would be funny to draft Johnny Manziel.  It's not enough that they have fed us the same garbage for years.  It's not bad enough that currently the Padres are the worst in the majors in batting average, runs scored, on base percentage and slugging, or that they're 14 games out of first place a month before the All-Star break.  It's not enough that they swindled the tax payers out of money for a new stadium with the promise of fielding a competitive team.  Nope.  After all that, they decided it's okay to waste a draft pick on a publicity stunt.

Manziel is not a baseball player.  He didn't play in college, and even if he did he will never play professional baseball.  I'm not going to waste words taking down Manziel as a person (although I could), that's not the point.  It's not his fault the Padres are run by a bunch of jackasses.  This organization cannot afford to waste picks with their history of misses in the draft.  They don't spend money on free agents and refuse to keep talent in the organization.

Instead, the philosophy is to develop prospects.  Prospect like Manziel?  I don't care if he was the 837th pick.  There are thousands of four year college players that would have been thrilled to be drafted anywhere.  That's someone's dream that the Padres handed to a football player with no prospects of playing baseball.

The worst part of drafting Manziel is the realization that the organization literally doesn't give a shit about their fans.  That decision proves it.  No one in the room thought,

"Hey guys, uh, maybe it's not the right time to flush a pick down the toilet to get some cheap publicity.  Maybe our fans won't see the humor considering how bad we suck and have sucked for years.  It's been eight seasons since we've made the playoffs and thirty years since we've won a World Series game.  Maybe we should at least try to make it look like we're trying to build a competent team."

No.  No one thought it.

MLB just got new TV deals for all thirty teams.  At MININMUM, the Padres will net $750 million on the deal.  Big changes should happen but they won't. Ownership will pocket the money and continue to make a profit thanks to the tourist bucks while the locals who pay for the stadium get screwed.

The current roster is filled with underachievers, guys suspended for performance enhancers and retread veterans.  Even with an excellent pitching staff, this team as currently constructed, has no hope.  Aside from that, they will lose Andrew Cashner, Tyson Ross, Huston Street and Joaquin Benoit after this season through trades or free agency.

What hope is there for the future?  Johnny Manziel, I guess.

I'm done.  I have been a fiercely loyal Padres fan and will continue to be when the current front office and ownership is different.  Until then, I'm not eating the same shit they're serving, regardless of the scenery.  In every relationship there has to be a give and take.  It's been all take for a decade.

Friday, June 6, 2014

A Rant Against LeBron Haters

Two days before the 2014 NBA Finals I wrote that San Antonio's AT&T Center had the worst facilities for a professional venue I had ever experienced in any sport.  Two days later while hosting game 1 of the Finals the air conditioner goes out.  Game 1 of the Finals.  As Manu Ginobli might say, "reedikulos" (or was it the other guy? I forget.).  The court was over one hundred degrees by the end of the game.

LeBron James has a history of cramps.  He cramped up against OKC in the 2012 Finals.  He was able to play through it to some degree and hit a clutch three pointer that sealed the game for the Heat.  Last night he started cramping in the fourth quarter.  He tried to play through it but was physically unable having to be carried to the bench.  He basically missed the last eight minutes of the game.  Eight minutes that the Spurs used to turn the tide of the game and go on a historic shooting spree finishing 14-16 from the field and 6-6 on threes.  Amazing shooting.  The Heat players were gassed and LeBron probably wouldn't have been enough to stop the onslaught.  No one used any excuses about the air conditioner.  Both teams had to play in the same reedikulos conditions.

What followed was predictably moronic.  The anti-LeBron community which dwarfs the pro-LeBron community came out in droves to criticize the back to back Finals MVP.

"LeBron is soft." "He's afraid of the moment." "Jordan would have played through it."

You LeBron haters can't wait to find a way to attack him.  You've had to keep your dumb ass mouths shut for two years and last night was like the dam bursting.  By the way, LeBron was playing great before the cramps.  His last play before being pulled for good was a layup. But, the first chance to degrade him, you do with the enthusiasm of a dog with a bone.  He is a finely tuned athlete with minuscule body fat and he's asked to do more on both ends of the floor than any player in the NBA.  Cramping is not a surprise.  It happens all the time in football.  Are you calling your favorite football player soft when he cramps up?

This world is filled with morons that love to give their unintelligent opinions.  It seems like the stupider people are, the more sure of themselves they are.  Stupid sports fans are too stupid to know they're stupid.  It's the reason morons like Skip Bayless are so popular.  Here's a guy who tells the world (to this day) that Tim Tebow just needs a chance and he would be a Super Bowl champion, then turns around and crushes LeBron because of a tattoo he got in high school.  Complete lunacy.

No matter how many former athletes say that cramps are a debilitating injury, and that pain tolerance or "will" cannot overcome them, the anti-LeBron world just won't listen.  Why?  Because Jordan would have played through them?  Yeah.  Because you know that.  Or is it that you're still mad about The Decision?  The Decision saved a post-Jordan NBA.  The only star near LeBron's level after Jordan is Kobe Bryant.  A guy that was on trial for rape while married.  A guy who ran teammates out of town.  A score first, selfish player.  A guy who even his fans understand was a piece of shit person for a good portion of his young career.  Yet we love him, just like we loved Jordan.

LeBron faced challenges in his childhood that are way too common among professional athletes.  Challenges that Kobe and Jordan never faced.  As a human being LeBron could have easily used that as an excuse to be another Stephen Jackson shooting up strip clubs.  But, no, he went the other route.  He is a model citizen.  His teammates love him.  He'd rather pass than score (something else LeBron haters kill him for).  He's never been in trouble with the law, never fights or retaliates when players take cheap shots, never been caught in an adultery scandal (married to his high school sweetheart) and never been rumored to do drugs.

What do the rest of you see that I don't?  Why do we hate this guy?  I started rooting for him the day he was drafted.  He is Mozart of basketball.  An absolute prodigy.  Scouts knew he would be the number one draft pick when he was 16.  He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice before graduating high school.  He has had cameras in his face since he was 14.  His talent is beyond what any player in the league has.  Would you expect someone like that to be normal?  Wouldn't you expect that person to be a little self-centered?  A little egotistical?  Newsflash: ALL PROFESSIONAL ATHLETES ARE EGOTISTICAL.  You can tell me Kevin Durant is the basketball version of Jesus Christ and I wouldn't necessarily disagree, but even he is egotistical.  You have to be.  Of any athlete on the planet, LeBron's life and career most resembles Tiger Woods, another absolute phenom.  Who would you say is a better human?  Who is better adjusted?  I hear how much people hate Woods and LeBron, yet LeBron's critics seem to have much more vitriol.

We hate LeBron for The Decision because he said "I'm taking my talents..."  Are you kidding me?  Yeah, it was egotistical.  Yeah, it was insensitive to the fans of the Cavaliers.  It was also a kid making a mistake.  A very small mistake when you consider what NBA and NFL players do with their off-seasons.  How many times as a football fan have you looked past a legal indiscretion because someone was a good player?  Here, we're talking about words.  Words that were a little egotistical.  Words that raised millions of dollars for the Boys and Girls Club.  You anti-LeBron people are idiots.  Oh yeah, it was also four years ago.  Get the fuck over it.  Have any of you said or done something stupid in the last four years?  Misjudged a situation?  No? That's right, because LeBron haters are such perfect people it is well within their right to judge him.

What? Are you mad he said, "not one, not two, not three..." Guess what?  Aside from the fact it was a celebration for Heat fans only before the national media broadcast it everywhere, he's been to the Finals four straight seasons.  Four for four.  He's on the doorstep of three straight championships.  He pretty much backed up the talk.  And, there's no doubt who led the Heat there.  He has dragged the other two of the Big 3 with him.  Dwyane Wade's health problems and Chris Bosh's frequent ineffectiveness are never brought up with LeBron.  Nope.  It's easier to say he took a shortcut to championships.  You know how I know that's bull shit?  I watch the games.  I watch.  I see.  What are you watching?

The NBA is as popular now as it was in the Jordan era.  LeBron did that.  You might hate him, but you care now.  For most, there's someone to root against.  For me, it's a greatness that eclipses anything I have seen since Jordan and I will cherish it as long as I am fortunate enough to witness it.  Had LeBron not gone to Miami, the Clippers wouldn't have sold for $2 billion.  Think about it.

I've said before that as a ten year old I pretended I didn't like Jordan.  I guess I am a contrarian by nature.  The problem was, I couldn't keep it up.  I became an enormous Jordan fan.  I consumed everything Jordan like most basketball loving folks did during his run.  We loved his commercials, his smile, and his non-controversial stances.  It was all fake other than his greatness.  It took him seven years before he would pass the ball.  He shot 35 times a game.  LeBron averages 15 shots a game.  Jordan drank, gambled like a degenerate, was competitive to the point of insanity, punched teammates and we fucking loved him.  The day Jordan retired 50 percent of white basketball fans identified him as their favorite player.  Before The Decision, LeBron topped out at 15 percent, now it is 8 percent.  How?  I don't get it.  Never have.

When LeBron said, "I'm taking my talents..." my first reaction was an uncontrollable smile.  I knew what would happen.  He would finally be playing with a team that could legitimately compete for championships.  I knew Cleveland would be pissed.  They should be.  I would have been too.  But, they're the only group that has an excuse to hate LeBron.  What's the rest of yours?

Say it out loud.  Say what you don't like about LeBron and be honest.  Is it that he beat your team?  Okay.  I don't like Ginobli, but it's because he's good, and I understand that.  Cockiness? Tattoos? Race? Facial expressions?  One thing he did one time?  Whatever your problem with him is, you're wrong.  He's not perfect.  He's human.  I would think that would make him more likable.

Then there was the Dan Gilbert letter.  The most public, scathing criticism an owner has ever written about a player.  Word of advice to owner's of an NBA franchise.  Don't treat African American players like servants.  White owners plus black players equals a tenuous working relationship.  To insinuate LeBron owed you something after giving blood, sweat and tears for seven years is a mistake that can easily be viewed as racist.  It's probably more of a rich thing since rich assholes like Gilbert aren't used to people telling them no.

Free agency exists for a reason and to begrudge LeBron the opportunity to take a better job is nonsensical.  So, LeBron hater, are you going to stay in your first job forever because the owner hired you out of college?  Or are you going to leave Cleveland and move to Miami to work with your friends in an environment that will benefit your career exponentially?  By the way, LeBron made Gilbert hundreds of millions. That letter redoubled my support of LeBron.  The rest of the world could turn on him, it only made me love him more.  I didn't want to be that ten year old kid who pretends he isn't witnessing excellence.

Do you LeBron haters understand how incredibly rare he is, not just as an athlete but as a person?  How many times have we overrated kids from high school or college only to see them fail as a pro?  It happens all the time.  The next big thing almost never is.  LeBron had IMPOSSIBLE expectations.  He could not have been more hyped.  Guess what happened?  He exceeded expectations.  He is everything we and he said he would be.  Four MVPs, two championships, five Finals appearances in seven years, two Finals MVPs, and a truck load of statistical records.  Why do we hate that?  On top of all those expectations and pressure we expect him to be just like Charlie your friendly bank teller.  We expect Mozart to be normal.  One of the things that is most remarkable about LeBron is how well adjusted he is with the life he's led.  He is amazing.

If I grew up like LeBron, I would probably be a cocky prick.  I already was a cocky prick and all I ever did was play high school athletics.  Can you really imagine what you would be like if you had all the talent, fame and money in the world?  Would you work as hard as he does?  Would you avoid temptations the way he does?  Would you resist being self-centered?  Would you keep your priorities in check?  Would you stay out of trouble?  NO. You wouldn't.  You're lying if you think you would.

Why do I love LeBron James besides his transcendent talent?  Because of you morons.  The old saying, "you wouldn't know greatness if it shit on your face (maybe I just made that up) applies to all you LeBron haters (outside of Cleveland, I get it guys).  I love thinking about him winning a third straight championship because it would piss you off again.  Keep looking for reasons like cramps to tear down a once in a generation athlete, you're the one with shit on your face.  Not me.

By the way, this is my 100th post.  Thank you to all of you that kept me going by reading.  I know I haven't been the most consistent blogger, but I have persevered because of you.  I had something funny and special planned for the 100th post, but this was more pressing.  I'm so sick of unfair LeBron criticisms.  He's not beyond reproach but the venom directed his way over stupid shit baffles me.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Clash of the Dynasties: NBA Finals

I should probably come clean about something.

I did, very much, want a Heat/Thunder rematch.  I wanted to see LeBron James and Kevin Durant square off.  I wanted to see if the formerly super-athletic turned savvy veteran Dwyane Wade could beat the production of currently super-athletic but erratic Russell Westbrook.  I was even curious to see how Chris Bosh would stack up against Serge Ibaka.  Mostly, I wanted to see Durant in a signature moment against LeBron.  They'll be competing for MVP trophies the next few years, but it would be fun to see them competing for Larry O'Brien trophies.

I've said all this recently.  What I need to come clean about is the other reason I wanted a Heat/Thunder rematch.

I thought the Thunder would be an easier opponent than the Spurs, and I think LeBron would have dominated his matchup against Durant.

The cagey veterans that once rattled LeBron in the fourth quarter have been vanquished.  Durant and his generation view him with reverence.  He would have a decisive advantage having faced his demons and conquered them.

Durant is just now getting to know his demons.  I got the sense they were lurking this playoff run.  It showed up in his free throw shooting.  In the Thunder's four losses to the Spurs, he shot 65 percent from the line.  He freely admitted that he thinks he's bad luck when watching his teammates shoot free throws.

It showed up in his impact.  There were fewer signature games than most expected.  It's also no secret he is happy to let Westbrook take the reigns in pressure situations.  There were moments where he actually looked like he was hiding within the offense against the Spurs.

Durant is facing similar pressure LeBron faced before his first championship.  He is next in line to win and now the clock is ticking.

Expectations wear on athletes.  We saw expectations crumble the Indiana Pacers this season.  I don't think Durant was quite ready to dethrone LeBron and the Heat.  Throw in the Thunder's lack of size (Miami's achilles), lack of depth and propensity for turnovers (Miami's bread and butter), and that's a recipe for a three-peat.

I also could have lived with the results if it were Durant and the Thunder that ended LeBron's bid for a legacy building three-peat.  It would be great for NBA intrigue and I would have been happy for my friends and family.

Conversely, if the Spurs beat the Heat (as most are predicting) then I have nothing to feel happy about.  Some of my least favorite people are Spurs fans.  Okay, just two, but believe me, they are serious jerks (it's a family blog or I would assign different descriptors).

I also still hold a grudge against Greg Popovich and the Spurs for the decision to rest Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobli against the Heat in Miami in the 2012-2013 regular season.

Why would this affect me?  As a result of that move (one Popovich was fined for since it was a nationally televised broadcast), the Heat decided to give Wade and LeBron a rest against the Spurs in San Antonio.

Why did that affect me?  Thanks for asking.  My 2012 Christmas present from my parents was a ticket to see LeBron and Wade against the Spurs in San Antonio.  It is the first and only time I have had an opportunity to see my favorite player in person, and he rested.

Thank you, Popovich.

*As a side note: It actually was an awesome game.  Chris Bosh played great including a three point buzzer beater for the victory.

**I found out recently that San Antonio is the fourth smallest TV market in the NBA which explains their arena.  It is hands down the worst professional facility I have ever watched a game.  Any sport.

The Spurs are an unbelievable organization.  You absolutely have to marvel at their success.  They embody every positive sports cliche you can think of.  Tim Duncan and Popovich won their first championship 15 years ago.  Now they're back for the sixth time.  Absolutely incredible.  Imagine what you were doing 15 years ago.  SVP & Russillo pointed out that the Super Bowl act in 1999 was Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. Hilarious.

The Spurs are frustrating to opposing fans.  When Danny Green drops seven three pointers, that is the definition of annoying.  When that's followed up with Manu Ginobli daggers and a sprinkling of Boris Diaw, Patty Mills or Kawhi Leonard, it is devastating.

If they're not destroying you behind the arc, Tony Parker is making baffling shots and Tim Duncan is turning back the clock to dominate like it's 1999 (literally and the Prince reference are both appropriate).  And when you think you can take no more and you're cussing their very existence, you hear how humble and respectful they are in victory (and defeat for that matter).

Here's my challenge to anyone who claims to hate Ginobli.  Watch his interviews or post-game press conferences.  He is the living embodiment of Balki Bartokomous from Perfect Strangers in looks and demeanor ("Don't be reedikulos").  It will make you feel bad for judging him on what he did to your team.

The 2013 NBA Finals were among the greatest series of all time.  A seven game thriller that included a miracle comeback by the Heat in game 6.  The Spurs were 30 seconds away from the championship.  The arena was roped off and the trophy had been wheeled out before some missed free throws led to Ray Allen's corner three to save the Heat's season.  Everyone remembers that, but the casual fan has probably forgotten how unbelievable game 7 was also.  Let's hope this series comes close to that.

The Heat find themselves in a similar situation to the Thunder before playing the Spurs.  They are not the better team in this series, they don't have home court advantage, but they have the best player.  Luckily for the Heat, they are injury free unlike OKC to start the series.

The smart money is probably on the Spurs.  Miami doesn't have as many ways to hurt their opponent as the Spurs do.  Every player on the floor is a threat for San Antonio because of their ball movement and style of offense.  The Heat will need to give their most impressive defensive effort this entire season to combat the Spurs precision.

Aside from ferocious defense, LeBron has to be the best player on the floor.  He didn't get comfortable until game 4 of last seasons Finals.  The Heat cannot afford for that to happen this series.  They are notoriously slow starters saving their best basketball for when their backs are against the wall. With the first two games being played in San Antonio, a slow start is not a luxury the Heat can afford.  The Spurs can take a slow start and turn it into a blowout by halftime.

LeBron is not Michael Jordan.  He doesn't shoot 35 times a game and take every shot in the fourth quarter.  He is much closer to Magic Johnson with his style and approach to the game.  But, Jordan is ubiquitously considered to be the greatest of all-time.  His two three-peats are the standard by which other NBA superstars are judged.  If LeBron truly wants to be the best ever, he will have to lead the Heat to this three-peat.

Duncan is looking for a legacy cementing fifth championship.  The type of victory that puts a cherry on the top of a hall of fame career.  He is already one of the greatest to ever play.  Many think he is the greatest power forward ever.  His greatest asset in this series is motivation.  He feels like he has something to prove.  The Spurs vowed revenge a year ago and now they have their chance.

Thinking with my head, I think the Spurs will win.  Depth, offensive execution and home court advantage favors the Spurs.  They are the epitome of team with ten different players to be concerned about.

Thinking with my heart, I think the Heat find a way.  The Big 3 have grown every season and are ready for the moment.  Something they couldn't say in 2011.  Three point shooting, defense and rebounding will be keys to Miami's success.  And a whole lot of LeBron won't hurt either.

Translation: I am too superstitious to say Heat in 7.


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