A Sobering Reality For Some

Student_Athlete-655x280About a year ago I was on my last leg of covering high school basketball in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My beat was a good one, but mostly because the other writers weren’t fond of covering games in the hood. Lucky me, because that’s where a lot of the best basketball in the city was being played.

At any rate, my most frequent coverage was at a school called Howard School. Make no mistake, this was an underperforming academic school with a ton of raw talent. But as you could probably guess, most of the kids either refused to be coached, didn’t have a coach who could control them, or simply listened too much to their uncles who sat in the front row and told them to “just drive.”

If it sounds like a classic case of “they really need Samuel L. Jackson to come in there, relate to the boys, and take them to state,” you’re right. It was exactly like that.

It’s frustrating watching a team of pure athletes so easily go 18-6 (some games they just didn’t try), and then make a b-line straight to a state tournament blowout because no one in the state could keep up with them on the floor. It’s frustrating because it could be so much more, and there was so little evidence of personal growth, maturation, or even a semblance of well-roundedness.

That wouldn’t be a problem if, say, the boys scored well on their ACT’s and made decent enough grades to get accepted into a DII or even low level DI school, but not a single one of these kids are getting those offers. Why? Underperformance in the academic realm. We’re talking about sub 2, and in some cases sub 1 GPA’s. We’re talking about the inability to to have a simple conversation with a reporter after a game when being prompted with softball questions. No communications skills, no education, and therefore no more hoops when this run of state titles ends.

Depressed yet? It gets worse. I talked to about a half dozen kids in my final season as a high school reporter who would use phrases like, “when I start playing ball at the next level,” or, “when I get to college and I can showcase on a higher level.” Absolutely no concept of the fact that you cannot get into a school without making grades. Obviously I cannot speak for every student on every underperforming high school basketball team, but there appears to be a pretty sharp ignorance when it comes to things like the realistic future.

And this makes sense, too, because by in large there is not much proof that any of the kids listen to any of the authority in their lives. I’m not just conjecturing here, either. This stems from multiple conversations with their head coach, assistant coaches, and school boosters. These kids could absolutely not care less about anyone’s opinions except “key members” of the crowd (the same guys who smell like alcohol when they show up to the games, and the same guys who tend to get kicked out of rivalry games). They are the alumnus, and they love nothing more than razzing the hell out of the athletes for not being as tough or cool as they were back in the day. What’s worse is their ability to get into each players ear and cause them to ignore their coach, and make horrible basketball decisions on the court.

This is one example but I imagine it’s not unique to Howard School in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Leadership breeds character, and character yields results. Those results might not be a seven figure salary in the NBA, but they most certainly will be better than filling out an application and in the education category writing, “high school diploma, but we won state every year…”

This isn’t new information for most people, and I don’t have a solution for it other than a call to educated, caring men and women to make it more of a priority to stress the importance of education over athletics. Samuel L. Jackson can’t coach every school at once, so more need to step up.

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Embrace The Truth. Some Teams Are Better Than Others

ImageA handful of tweets in the past few days have caught my attention. There appears to be a keen awareness and heavy interest in writers being surprised by both home court advantage and one-sided series’ thus far in the NBA Playoffs. But why? And more importantly what is this new found fetish for first-round parity and upsets? It’s possible that NBA watchers have been spoiled by multiple great playoffs’ in a row. It’s also possible that it has become fully ingrained in our sports culture that close games and upsets are the only two things that make sports (namely the playoffs) great. I guess I don’t disagree, but I’d be careful about how often I demand these two phenomenons, especially at the professional level. The truth is, we want these wars of attrition, but not all the time. We want them in the Conference Finals games and the Finals themselves. Ultimately the sarcastic responses and flippant tweets about what has been both a highly predictable and highly entertaining first round are impatient, and need to stop.

What would you prefer? For the Bucks to win a few games so we could talk about Brandon Jennings and his stupid claim that Milwaukee would beat Miami in six games? Would you rather see the Kobe-less Lakers miraculously shoot the lights out to upset the clearly better team in maybe one or two games before eventually being knocked out? Maybe the dark side of you wants to see James Harden sneak a sucker punch win in Oklahoma to resend a message from Houston, “you’re no better than we are.”

Except they aren’t better. The Thunder are better, and by a long shot. Same goes Miami in regards to Milwaukee, and despite the constant trolling from Laker Nation, the Spurs are a far superior team than the Lakers, Kobe or no Kobe.

For me, this is precisely what makes the NBA playoffs so much more enjoyable than, say, the NCAA tournament. I’ve been on record saying this for years. One and done is a silly format that gives way too much room for bad teams to get in a moment. The sample size is too small, and the result is an inaccurate picture of who the best team(s) are. You don’t have that problem in the NBA Playoffs. In fact, in a lot of first round cases (as we’re seeing play out right now), the better team will win almost all the time, and will most certainly win a seven game series. It’s not perfect, but it’s surely more statistically sound than March Madness.

So we all know this, right? Then why complain about it when it plays out? Why the incessant tweets about how unexciting the first round has been because the better teams are consistently beating the worse teams? Yes, home teams with higher seeds have better players and are therefore going to win by double-digits. No, Boston with an aging KG and Pierce (and no Rondo) will not be all that competitive against a good Knicks team when Carmelo scores 35 points. We’re going to get our wars, though. So be patient. We’re going to see our seven-game series’. We’re going to get those match-ups where we truly aren’t sure who is “better.” Hang tight. This is why this plays out for two months. It’s a whittling process, and the best process in all of sports in terms of finding and naming a true champion. Sit back, relax, and enjoy watching great teams beat the teams they are supposed to beat. This isn’t a movie, after all.

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Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right


What should be done about morality in sports? Does it even matter? Should it affect the way fans and reporters view professional athletes, coaches and organizations? And if it doesn’t, then what kind of observers are we? Too many times recently analysts have concluded that we are not to hate the players, but the organizations that makes immorality possible. That can’t possibly be right, though, can it?

Most recently it was Colin Cowherd on ESPN radio who uttered the infamous phrase, “don’t hate the player, hate the game.” He quickly referenced multimillion dollar companies who find tax loopholes to avoid charges. Cowherd says it’s not their fault, but the fault of the IRS for making loopholes possible. So blame the system that allows for immorality? Seems like a shaky way of going about things.

Note: Cowherd was talking about Bobby Knights discontent for Jim Calipari and his questionable recruiting tactics. Of course nothing is immoral (at least that we know) about the way Calipari does business. But the argument from Cowherd was that “if the school allows it than it’s not his fault.” What? If the institution says yes than just roll with it with no blame and no accountability?

Almost immediately a few examples of system based immorality come to mind. Bill Belichick and Spygate, an atrocity I wrote a college paper on, Bobby Knight and his recruiting beef with Jim Calipari, and the bounty program in New Orleans.

Too many times the reaction from the masses is to defend the athletes, coaches, and leaders in these organizations and blame the system for making wrongdoing a possibility. But what about this proposition: Regardless of the system, humans will find a way to do wrong and gain an advantage. There is no such thing as a system so air tight it will not allow for foul play, greed, and bastardization.

That is not to say that everyone who plays, coaches or manages sports is a villain. That’s just not fair. But to be ultimately OK with rule breaking and advantage taking on the basis of a broken system is a cowards path. One cannot help but see the irreconcilable truth that what has been happening in New Orleans (and likely elsewhere) is an abomination of not only the game of football, but humanity. Arguing over the whether it is right or wrong is child’s play. Weighing the severity of the crime is for the birds. The bottom line is that a group of professional athletes, who shop themselves to the public as the older brothers of the youth of America do the wrong thing a lot of the time. 

That’s the point. Humans cannot help but do wrong, so pointing fingers and blowing it all up is counterproductive. How about establishing some accountability in the league? How about the fact that perhaps it wasn’t punishment enough to suspend  Sean Payton for a year. Maybe each and every one of those players should be held accountable for acting foolishly. Maybe Sean Payton should be banned from the league forever for his crimes. That’s not my personal belief, by the way, but it sure is worth thinking about instead of immediately going to his defense and the defense of the players. Was there not one player on that team who had the stones to step up and say “this is wrong!”?

Look, I’m certainly not the morality tsar. Lord knows if I was exposed for even a 10th of the wrong I’ve done I would be held in contempt by everybody on the planet. But if we are going to excuse athletes, defend coaches, and side with organizations because the system is flawed, maybe we need a new system–a system of accountability and no tolerance action. We’re not talking about social victims here. We’re talking about guys getting paid millions of dollars to work out and play a game. The world, in my humble opinion, depends on these sports. We thrive on them. Imagine a world with no sports. What would we do between 5 and midnight every night? What would we talk about at work the next morning? It would be hell on earth if sports didn’t exist. So why not uphold integrity in what might be the most important form of entertainment we have left? Certainly integrity and accountability won’t be found in Hollywood. On a whim we scoff and chuckle at divorce, infidelity and drug use.

But sports are different. At least they are supposed to be. Athletes are the idols of young ones. They are the positive influence. They are the anti-drug, and they show kids how to stay off the streets and stay in a gym. That’s the message when it comes to things like NBA Cares and Big Brother programs that so many athletes are involved in.

Why, then should young kids have to look up to guys who are trying to kill other guys for a living, literally trying to break guys’ necks for cash? And why when that comes forward are analysts and fans outraged at the severity of a punishment?

The reason is simple. Analysts don’t want to lose sports, and losing a coach like Sean Payton for a year means losing the New Orleans Saints for a year which means diminishing the quality of the NFL for a year. That’s what it all goes back to, and there are really no two ways about it. When you do wrong, even if the system allows it, you should be held accountable. If you don’t wish to be held accountable for wrongdoing, then include that sentiment in your campaign to the children who look up to you. No more foolishness in professional sports. Let’s make it a better thing to look up to.

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Things We Can Observe and Learn

 

When Lebron decides to get up and shoot baseline jump shots for a crowd of kids in London, his demeanor totally changes. You can see it all over his face and up in his shoulders. He’s nervous. He doesn’t want to fail. He doesn’t want any kids (or adults) to think he’s not the greatest player in the world. But somehow it still doesn’t seem like it’s all about him. I mean these are kids, and what kind of adult locks up in front of kids?

This is precisely the type of video that you don’t want to see if you’re a Lebron fan, because it shows vulnerability, even if just a hint.

I spend way too much time thinking about the “Lebron can’t close a game in the fourth quarter” era that we are in right now. I think about what might need to change, who might be to blame, and what might happen if he does show up and close games down one year. More than anything, though, I think about what changed between 2009 and now. I think about that dunk against the Celtics where Lebron James had no regard for human life, the moments when sprinted back to the bench with a look of determination on his face, like nothing could stop him.

That Lebron James wouldn’t be scared to miss a few jumpers in front of some kids in London. He’d have smiled it off, told a joke, and maybe even invited some criticism (at least in jest).

I’m not calling Lebron a villain, because that title doesn’t really add up anymore. I’m not going to call him scared, because I don’t believe anyone in the NBA is scared, even the Luol Dengs, the Steph Currys, and the Jason Richardsons. No such thing as scared in this league.

I’m going to call his condition hyper-self-awareness (HSA), a distinguishing title I won’t let him share with anyone else. He’s sensitive because he hasn’t won a championship yet, defensive because of the body of work he’s put in, a little arrogant because of how phenomenal he is at basketball, and probably confused (literally confused) about how it’s possible he hasn’t won a title yet.

So that’s what I pick up on when I see a video like this. I see his HSA in full bloom, and boy oh boy it gets worse as he asks the crowd if he gets a warmup shot or two. Then you’re sweating bullets watching his HSA get worse! He misses two shots! Personally I thought it was smart of him to dunk the basketball, involve the kid, and make everyone forget that he missed two corner jumpers. Haters will say it’s bad form to dunk on a kid, but Lebron was just saving face. That’s what happens when you’re a brand. You defend the honor of your brand at all costs. It’s harder at times, and more difficult for some, but Lebron has to do it every day. It’s how he developed HSA.

This is from the days before HSA, and a clip I watch about twice a week.

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The last Tebow piece you need to read

Tebow

I think the lesson we learned this year was simple: Extremes are bad. All season long dudes told other dudes that Tim Tebow doesn’t belong in the NFL because he “can’t throw.” Then other dudes would fire back by saying “he’s an unbelievable quarterback because he just finds ways to win.”

Both are wrong.

Tim Tebow is an NFL quarterback who throws the ball less well than some other quarterbacks, and scrambles moderately well against marginal defenses. He also has a competitive gene that allows him to perform well in late game situations. Sometimes he wins, and sometimes he doesn’t.

On the other hand, Tebow relies a ton on his defense, and struggles against elite teams. He fumbles more than a quarterback should, and on occasion has a hard time hitting open receivers.

It’s perplexing why Tebow is such a polarizing individual. In the end he is a decent quarterback with some tools for success and some restricting flaws. He helps his team beat other teams that he’s supposed to beat, and fails against teams he probably has no business beating.

In a word, he’s pretty normal.

Let these NFL playoffs be a cautionary tale about jumping on super-moderate bandwagons. Get hot and cold on guys like Aaron Rogers, Drew Brees, or even Tom Brady. Those are the guys that merit arguing about. Leave the .500 guys to wallow in mediocrity. Otherwise you find yourself feeling really empty after a gut-shot-blow-out-playoff loss—you’re caught wondering why the heck you got behind a guy who kind of sucks against tenured, upper-echelon teams.

And if you say you like Tebow because he’s a Christian, fine, then by that same standard it means you’re also a huge fan of David Eckstein, Lance Berkman, Kurt Warner, Vince Carter, Dave Dravecky, Mark Price, and Randall Cunningham—all outspoken evangelical athletes.

My suggestion, though, is to avoid extremes. Try something simple and truthful, like, “Tim Tebow is a young quarterback who is not ready to compete with elite teams, but he’s athletic and has some potential. I’m not sure what his ceiling is, though. Maybe a poor man’s Doug Flutie?  And he’s a really nice guy—handles the media with a ton of class.”

That’ll help you be less of an obnoxious person.

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My Experience: Darius Miles

I was in eighth grade, and a couple of the harder, more street savvy kids in my class started buzzing about some big showcase game at the Kiel Center (as it was called back then) between Vashon High School and East St. Louis High School. So I figured I’d roll with.

I wore some baggy jeans and a Tommy Hilfiger polo (freshly pressed), along with my knockoff silver watch (the only bling I had at the time).

Note: I also went through an Abercrombie phase in high school, as well as a borrowed clothes, ripped jeans pothead phase.

The skinny was that Vashon, an inner-city school in St. Louis that had won back to back to back state titles, would meet their match against East St. Louis High, a struggling city school that represented all that was wrong with urban society in St. Louis.

East St. Louis

The hook? Darius Miles was going to put on a show. Everybody knew it, and in many people’s minds, he’d probably snuff the swagger flame that Vashon had coming into the game… single handedly.

So we rolled down to the Kiel Center and eased our way into our luxury box (a friend’s dad hooked us up with tickets.) The place was a massacre. It didn’t even feel like a basketball game. Quite honestly, it felt more like a circus. Kids were up dancing around, screaming at each other, huddling up. Anthems bounced off each other and exploded into nonsense. It was disorder. It was chaos.

Vashon went up something like twenty points, but Darius was still getting his.

The senior, who would be drafted in the first round (third overall) in the 2000 NBA draft made sure of it. He demanded the ball to the point where, in the second half, he was bringing the ball up himself in most half-court sets. It was isolation 101, and a disaster of a basketball game.

Note: This was not fun basketball to watch.

If Miles touched the ball anywhere on the court and had two feet to work with, the crowd would suddenly re-engage into a crescendo’d mumble, as if to entice the wreckless phenom into jumping out of the gym. Miles lacked discipline.

On occasion, he’d deliver. At one point bringing the ball up the length of the court and finishing in the paint with a sloppy 360 dunk, Miles was the king of his mountain. It was just weird.

At 6’9, Miles looked more like 7’1 against the gangly high school opponents. His wiry frame further emphasized his length, adding a dose of drama to every time he touched the ball.

In the end, Vashon dismantled East St. Louis, but I will never forget the moment I saw the cockiest player in St. Louis unabashedly attempt to forever engrain himself in superhuman history. Frankly, it was pathetic, and even at age 12, I knew it.

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The Lockout and Our Collective Identity

I’ve noticed an interesting shift in the conversation regarding the lockout. What started as a hypothetical situation where the owners and players might not agree on terms has turned into a strange rumor-kettle filled with whimsical speculation and, quite frankly, a group of blue collar guys surrounding the Association who are scared shitless.

The problem started when the “what if” conversations of July and August became a different “what if” question in October. It’s easy to tweet from the beach that there had better be a season next year or else!!! But when games start getting cancelled, folks start to feel the squeeze.

The only reason any of this is worth mentioning is to note the types of responses from those who work closely around the league. Sports writers have had especially interesting reactions. Some blame Stern, some side with the players, some get in tune with European ball in the hopes to be on the front row when players decide to fly over the pond. Others are angry and sling mud (particularly at the owners). You see the introverted types writing narratives about their relationship to the game, and many resort to just watching old games or finding different basketball outlets to fill their void.

The common thread, though, that I have seen, is a knee-jerk, tongue-in-cheek response that is beginning to get a little annoying.

The same thing happens in politics, or religion, or social issues. When you get tired of talking about it, you pretend like you’re above it regardless of what happens. Today tweeters were slinging mud at George Cohen, the federal mediator brought into to help negotiate between the players and owners. I found it strange, and no better than the fans in Cleveland last year burning Lebron’s jersey.

The childish reactions seen around the web are a result of fear. For most of the writers in the conversation, this is their livelihood. It’s not only their emotional and psychological resting place, but it is a means for some income. Put differently, it is our identity.

The NBA is different than the NFL and major league baseball because it is a niche, and a pretty small one compared to the aforementioned. There is safety when the season is up and running and we all tweet back and fourth about one of us who is in a press conference after a game. We (the nerds) rely on each other to build our confidence. We geek out on each others work, and receive group therapy in the tweet-o-sphere. Problem is, with no games to be played, that comeradarie is at stake. The identity is at stake.

So we jab, poke, prod, conjecture, assume, blame, and make light of the way it all unfolds. We’re like a bunch of pissed off twenty-somethings who want tax breaks, peace, and a green world with a fair (for us) economy. When things don’t go our way we bitch and moan and then turn on Jon Stewart and pretend it’s all a big joke anyway.

This is what it’s like when your back is against the wall, and it’s a pretty natural reaction. Writers need something to write about, and it’s certainly a shame for NBA writers that the season is in jeopardy. But how should we respond? What would be the upstanding, integrity-filled reaction?

Sure, we want to keep our readers, keep them interested, and keep them entertained. So my hope is to start being smarter about the way I approach the lockout. I, for one, will not sling mud, or speculate, or hold it against someone in particular (specifically the newest guy who is trying to fix the problem.)

My guess is if we (writers) continue to lift each other up, support, create, and collaborate, we will make it through this lockout and come out better men and women on the other side.

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