Friday, July 09, 2010

LeBron lost more than fans with 'The Decision'

It was the end of my senior year of college when I first saw the LeBron effect in Cleveland up close. Myself and two friends had found $25 upper deck tickets to Game 2 of the 2008 first-round playoff series between the Cavaliers and Wizards online and made "the decision" to drive from Ann Arbor to the shores of Lake Erie for the game.

What I remember vividly is the pregame scene, thousands of fans gathered on a car-less street filled with what looked to be recently opened bars. We went to a place that had a bowling alley and served $1 Bud Lights. But what's most important here is to realize this corridor of bars was a result of LeBron, a direct correlation to the 12,000 or so fans that attended Cavs games before he came to the NBA and the sellout crowds that populated Quicken Loans Arena once he arrived.

I say this in light of the reaction James is receiving from his former owner Dan Gilbert, Cleveland fans, and to a certain extent, the entire country now that he's chosen to create a super team down in Miami. I was all ready to completely wallop LeBron for his decision, but the aftermath of his hour long special has left me unable to totally lambaste the man.

While my preference was to see LeBron return to Cleveland and become the ultimate folk hero there, I've never felt he owed the town anything. If we're going to judge the guy by championships won, the bottom line was his best opportunity to win multiple titles was to leave the state of Ohio. I understood the fans' reaction -- lighting jerseys on fire and what not -- because they're supposed to be emotional in the immediate aftermath. They've invested time, money, and energy into LeBron and now he's turned his back on them.

But, as that new downtown area of bars and restaurants suggests to me, LeBron's impact was a lot more than basketball. He revitalized Cleveland to a certain extent. Even though he won't be playing basketball there anymore and presumably the team will be much worse, new business is there to stay for the foreseeable future.

With that being said, the reaction of owner Dan Gilbert absolutely disgusts me. Don't let a letter that appeared to be written by a 14-year-old girl who was upset at mommy for not letting her date that high school senior fool you. Gilbert wasn't fuming because LeBron spurned him, he was fuming because his net worth went down by about $100 million Thursday night. Brian Windhorst, the Cavs beat writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, tries to sort of justify Gilbert's reaction in a column written for ESPN:

Gilbert hired one of James' friends and paid him more than some assistant coaches to hang out with the team so James would be comfortable. Gilbert allowed members of James' management team to fly on the team jet. He spent $25 million to construct a practice facility that was located 20 minutes closer to James' home than the old one. He rebuilt the locker room. He hired a masseur to travel on the road because James likes massages.

He even fired his head coach, somewhat on spec, with the belief that James wanted a change. It is because of all of that James' decision to walk was such a gut punch to the owner. It wasn't that he didn't see it coming, it was he didn't know what he could do to stop it.

And yet it was Gilbert who chose to just ignore all the signals that LeBron was a fish that had simply grown too big for such a small pond. There were his statements when he signed his original three-year extension back in 2007 that he wanted to keep his options open. His constant refusal to just shut up and no comment when the media would ask him about 2010 free agency -- until the cacophony became too much midway through this past season. Even the little things, like showing up to the ALCS in Cleveland rooting for the Yankees or rooting for the Dallas Cowboys instead of the hometown Browns.

While many in the media have criticized LeBron for how he's handled himself the past few weeks and even years -- the ego, the pomp and circumstance, the feeling of contrived suspense -- the only problem I had with James' decision is that I got the sense he knew he was leaving Cleveland months ago. He should have let the Cavaliers know earlier of those intentions so they would have a chance to re-group and maybe pursue some of these other high profile free agents.

The shame in all of this, though, is what it does for LeBron on the court. Sure, Miami Heat games will become the most sought after ticket in sports the next five years, and the national and international attention affixed -- especially in the next year -- on LeBron, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh will be unlike anything we've seen since the original Dream Team. And maybe LeBron and Co. will win five straight titles, since my guess is guys will be lining up to take pay cuts to play with them.

But let it be known now, by going to South Beach (even though technically the Heat's arena is not actually in South Beach) LeBron has given up trying to become the greatest player ever. The most frustrating part about 'The Decision' is that it's LeBron saying there is a ceiling to his talent, something I wasn't aware of until last night. Not only has he proven he can't win a title as the lead dog, he's shown he doesn't really have the competitive juices, the courage if you will, to even try.

LeBron can say all the right things, how this decision is all about winning championships, how he couldn't pass up a chance to play with his talented buddies, Wade and Bosh, how he's fine sharing the crunch time responsibilities from night-to-night. I believe him, too. But no matter the bullshit he feeds us about having a dream the night before or whatever other Disney crap he uses to justify his decision, this just doesn't feel right, a superstar at his peak ceding the spotlight.

The real tragedy is not that LeBron disrespected the city or the fans of Cleveland -- it's that he disrespected his game and the levels of excellence he could have reached.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The free agent phenomenon, locally and abroad

I remember the first time I met Yi Jianlian, the newest Washington Wizard. Well, meet probably isn't an accurate word. I actually just sat in a room jampacked with Chinese journalists at the 2007 NBA Draft, who instead of asking Yi about getting drafted by Milwaukee, just wanted to know whether he was going to demand a trade considering the only thing relevant I could find on google when I typed in "Milwaukee Chinese" was a place called Long Wong's.

But Tuesday, I got a little re-introduction to Yi when the Nets essentially gave him up for free to the Wizards in exchange for precious cap space as we approach judgment hour in the biggest NBA free agent extravaganza the world has ever seen. Except this trade, and the draft day deal that brought Kirk Hinrich and the 17th pick last week's draft, likely means the Wizards will be on the sidelines when the bonanza begins at midnight.

Now in any other circumstance, I would wholeheartedly agree with the approach Ted Leonsis is taking now that he's the majority owner of the Washington Wizards. Just like he did with the Capitals a decade ago, he wants the product to bottom out and build fresh off the draft.

The stats back him up, too. Take a glance at the past 20 or so NBA champions and each were led by a seminal talent cultivated through the draft rather than free agency or a trade. There's the Bulls and Michael Jordan, the Lakers with Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, the Celtics with Larry Bird and most recently Paul Pierce, the Pistons and Isiah Thomas, the Spurs and Tim Duncan, or the Rockets and Hakeem Olajuwon. I guess the only exception is that Pistons squad that won back in 2004, but in general that team has been an outlier of sorts compared to other champions because they lacked a true superstar.

This template has worked wonderfully (in the regular season, at least) for Leonsis in regards to the Capitals. Much of the team's nucleus -- Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, Semyon Varlamov, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Jeff Schultz to name a few -- have come either via the draft or a trade when the franchise was de-constructing itself earlier this decade. Here's how Leonsis himself related all this together recently on his blog, Ted's Take:
The draft is important because a young, great player gets identified with the team; the fans fall in love with the player over a long period of time; the coach gets to help build a system around that player’s basic skill set; that player helps to build the identity of the team. And younger players are less expensive than max free agents, so they allow you to build more options and have more depth. And I believe when the time comes, your own young players should be courted, respected, treated, and wooed like they are free agents. I prefer to reward people that we know and trust more than players we don’t know and have contributed to another system and franchise.
Generally speaking that is a very wise, level-headed way to run a business. And frankly, amidst the hoopla that's always going on at Redskins Park during free agent signing periods, a breath of fresh air. But part of me is lusting for a little bit of Snyder to transfix itself inside Leonsis's head. Because this isn't a normal year in free agency, and to treat it like that is foolish. There are literally three no doubt Hall of Famers (LeBron, DWade, and Dirk) and numerous All Star types (Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, Amar'e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, Joe Johnson, and Rudy Gay to name some) right there for the taking.

In the Post this morning, Wizards beat writer Michael Lee said the only comparable year in the NBA's free agency era was 1996, "when Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Alonzo Mourning, Dikembe Mutombo, Reggie Miller and Gary Payton were available." But considering MJ had no real intentions of leaving Chitown (just wanted to scare them into giving him more money), I would say this class is bigger and better. The only other recent comparison is probably 2000, when Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady, and an in-his-prime Grant Hill were all available -- but that class dropped off precipitously from there.

At worst then, this year's flux of free agents is a once-in-a-15-year occurance. So if you have plenty of cap space -- something the Wizards had before the Hinrich and Yi deals courtesy of their midseason roster purge -- why would you sit on the sidelines? And why would the two trades you do make to upgrade the roster be for middling players that in the end just give a couple Eastern Conference rivals (in this case, the Bulls and the Nets) greater flexibility to go out and sign some of these fantastic players on the market? Patience aside, it just doesn't make sense unless your plan to get another star player besides John Wall (it pains me to admit it but Gilbert no longer fits under this disclaimer) is to be terrible again and get another top 5 pick in next year's draft.

All those rumors about maybe signing Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony next year? Chances are if he doesn't sign an extension with the Nuggets soon, he might just end up on the trading block so Denver doesn't lose him for nothing. Would he sign a max deal to play with the Wizards and John Wall next offseason? Maybe, but he's also going to be the crown jewel of an otherwise blah year of free agency. And don't think he hasn't been paying attention to the stir his buddies LeBron and DWade have caused hijacking the NBA offseason. Simply put, if Melo becomes a free agent, the Wiz won't be the only team courting his services.

I'm not even considering DC area native Kevin Durant, who becomes a restricted free agent in 2011. He's already in discussions with Oklahoma City about a long term extension and has said as much recently:
"No," Durant answered, when I asked if he's ever thought about coming home. "I mean, I'm just worried about Oklahoma City. I never envision myself playing at home, but you never know what'll happen. But I'm happy I'm in Oklahoma City, if that's what you're asking."

That leaves the Wizards average at best on the court, in my opinion. The addition of John Wall along with Gilbert Arenas's return is going to make them respectable and maybe even a threat for the 8th playoff spot -- and therefore another top-five pick in the draft is unlikely. So what is the Wizards' brass doing here? Building through the draft is a novel concept, but blissfully ignoring everything else just doesn't make much sense when established stars are sitting right at your feet.

Some other thoughts heading into the free agent frenzy:

*Speaking of Wizards' brass, I was reminded yesterday of my growing contempt for all things Ernie Grunfeld when it was announced Randy Foye would be allowed to become an unrestricted free agent. Combined with Mike Miller's impending free agency, it means the Wizards traded the No. 5 pick (Ricky Rubio's rights) to Minnesota for one-year rentals that helped Washington to a XX-XX record. Though Rubio's stock has fallen this year since he can't guard quick point guards, if he does anything resembling this once he comes to America, someone should have Grunfeld's head on a platter.

The guy has been living off his Caron Butler-for-Kwame Brown steal for way too long now. He's the guy who basically got Al Thornton in exchange for Caron, Haywood, and Jamison at the deadline this year (and don't you dare include the five games Josh Howard played in those trades). He's the one who signed Gilbert to his atrocious contract. And if Leonsis is looking to build through the draft, well, take a look at Grunfeld's selections through the years:

2003: Jarvis Hayes, 10th overall; Steve Blake 38th overall
2004: Devin Harris, 5th overall (traded to Dallas for Antawn Jamison); Peter John Ramos, 33rd overall
2005: Andray Blatche, 49th overall
2006: Oleksiy Pecherov, 18th overall; Vladimir Veremeenko, 48th overall
2007: Nick Young, 16th overall; Dominic McGuire, 47th overall
2008: JaVale McGee, 18th overall;
2009: Nada. Zilch. Zero.
2010: John Wall, 1st overall; Kevin Seraphin, 17th overall; Trevor Booker, 23rd overall

So you're Ted Leonsis and you have this draft-first philosophy and this is who you entrust to carry that strategy out? I'm surprised he could even walk by Grunfeld's office and ignore the stank, not to mention let him keep his job.

*Pat Riley could turn out to be the biggest player in the next couple of week, and I'm including LeBron, Dwade, and Bosh when I say that. I'm fairly certain Riley is going to pitch the trio of LeBron, DWade, and Bosh to take slight pay cuts with the, "You guys are the only reason I would come back to coaching" routine. This is going to be Riley's last hurrah, and if he somehow pulled it off, it could be his greatest achievement ever.

*What blew my mind about this year's class of free agents is the sheer amount of middle-of-the-road/past their prime players available. Names that stuck out to me were: Richard Jefferson, Shaquille O'Neal, Tracy McGrady, Allen Iverson, Grant Hill, Michael Redd, Kenyon Martin, David Lee, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Larry Hughes, Brad Miller, Chris Wilcox, Brendan Haywood, basically the entire 2009-10 Miami Heat, Darko Milicic, Bobby Simmons, Peja Stojakovic, Matt Barnes, Kyle Korver, and Josh Howard.

If I'm a contender (or the Wizards) I wait things out a little bit and then try to get someone like Michael Redd, Kenyon Martin, or Chris Wilcox on the cheap.

*Another interesting character in all of this is LeBron's business adviser Maverick Carter. LeBron fired his agent about five years ago and gave the reins to his buddy. I'm excited to see how the whole recruitment process goes. The rumors out there that LeBron would release a new shoe for each city he visits has already been denied by his people. They've also indicated Worldwide Wes won't play a role either (I'm not buying that, though). I'm still convinced LeBron goes to Chicago, the pressure of playing in the shadow of Michael Jordan be damned.

*I have two inclinations for the next three weeks. Most players will re-sign with their original teams or everything will be turned upside down. I don't know if we'll see no movement or watch player after player switch teams. I think out of the big names, Bosh is definitely on the move and Amare is almost certainly out of Phoenix. Aside from that, I think Joe Johnson is back with Atlanta, Boozer might go but only if someone is foolish enough to offer him a max deal. I have no idea what's in store for Paul Pierce or Ray Allen. Although I think the wild card nobody seems to think will leave is Dirk Nowitzki. Am I wrong when I say it would be scarier if LeBron paired himself with the German over Bosh?

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Awkward encounters on the recruiting trail

Sorry this post is so late in the day, but I just got back from the Washington Post's annual All-Met luncheon honoring the best and brightest in high school athletics around the DC area. Since I just started with the Post last August, I had never attended one before. I must say, the event is pretty cool.

This year they had Sheila Johnson, owner of the WNBA's Washington Mystics, and John Thompson III of Georgetown as the guest speakers. Because I cover Georgetown basketball for the Express during the winters, I was paying particular attention to Thompson.

That being said, I got the sense Thompson was keeping tabs on someone else in the crowd: The Washington Post's All Met Basketball Player of the Year, DeMatha junior Quinn Cook. A smooth shooting point guard, Cook has offers from just about every major basketball school in the country -- including Thompson's Hoyas (check out his ESPN recruiting page, it lists Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, Maryland, and Georgetown).

For the record, I've seen Cook play live once -- last year during an ESPNU game against rival O'Connell of Northern Virginia. In that game, he absolutely torched Kendall Marshall, a McDonald's All-American who's off to play at UNC this fall. You'd think Wednesday's luncheon would be a perfect opportunity for Thompson to mingle and chat up the star recruit, maybe even show a side Cook wouldn't get to see on the recruiting trail.

Except it's a quiet period on the recruiting trail. So not only did Thompson avoid conversation with Cook (as far as I could tell), he barely looked him in the eye when Cook came up to accept his award for being named All-Met. All in all just an awkward encounter that I guess is a reality with the NCAA's stringent rules concerning what's right and what's wrong when it comes to recruiting.

Afterwards, as I was taking the escalator out of the Grand Hyatt, Thompson was right behind me. So I turned around and asked, "Did you have to write to the NCAA in order to attend this?" His answer was interesting. "No, but now that you mention it, maybe I should."

Just in case anyone NCAA-related is reading this, I maintain that I saw Thompson have no actual contact with Cook other than the aforementioned handshake on stage. Duke commit Josh Hairston is another story; another reporter joked Thompson was making one final run at him when he sidled up and talked with the kid.

Long story short, I'm just curious how often things like this happen. It just doesn't make sense to me that Thompson couldn't even go have a normal conversation with Cook -- although I guess a normal conversation would have eventually turned to basketball, and therefore been a no-no according to the NCAA.


Also wanted to address yesterday's post about a certain right handed pitching phenom. Turns out the hype was not only warranted, but Stephen "Jesus" Strasburg seems to have embraced it. I know it's only one start against the woeful Pirates, but wow. This kid is already a phenomenon here in DC and I fully expect each of his starts the rest of the year to be a bonafide event for area fans.

Though I wasn't able to watch the game live (to give you a sense of how big this was for DC, they were giving inning-by-inning updates over the PA at the girls' lacrosse games I covering) I've been tracking all the aftermath. And one quote when Strasburg was asked what he'll do differently in his next start made me go "wow."
"The big difference now is that tonight they didn't really talk to me about a game plan and how to attack certain hitters, they just wanted me to go out there and enjoy it, so that's going to be a new experience, to make up a plan to attack the Indians' hitters."

So there was no plan, Stevie? None at all?
Yeah, I mean they wanted me to go out there ... I really don't have a scouting report to begin with cause it's my first game, but, you know, you've got so much experience behind the plate (in Pudge Rodriguez) ... so I was just trusting whatever he called."

I know some (cough cough Hartman) thought my post yesterday was pessimistic, but I can't wait to watch the Strasburg era unfold over this summer and many years to come.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

It's Strasmas, but don't go celebrating just yet

Tonight marks the long-awaited debut of pitching phenom Stephen Strasburg -- well actually it's only been about 10 months since he officially signed so I don't know if long awaited is entirely accurate. Unfortunately I will not be there, as the Virginia girls' lacrosse state semifinals beckon.

But I just wanted to quickly comment on the unprecedented hype (at least since I've been following sports) that the Stras is experiencing. Frankly, I just don't get it. Now don't get me wrong, I'm excited Nationals Park will be sold out with bonafide DC fans for the first time since the stadium opened in 2008. This is a historic sporting event in the history of DC professional baseball, and anything short of a sellout would be disappointing to me.

But to have Baseball Tonight broadcasting live on location? Or for Nationals officials to hand out close to 250 media credentials? For there to be wall-to-wall coverage as if this were the World Series? Hell, the town of Strasburg, Virginia (pop. 6,200) has even offered to change its name to Stephen Strasburg, Virginia if the pitcher makes his way down there for an appearance. I just don't get it.

This isn't the first pitcher to throw 100 miles per hour and he won't be the last. To me, we're just setting this kid up for failure (and he is a kid in my book since he was born in 1988 and is therefore younger than me). I didn't see people getting their panties in a bunch (not including the Bay Area of course) for the debut of Tim Lincecum a few years back. He's only become a two-time defending Cy Young winner by the age of 25, a feat I think would be remarkable for Strasburg to achieve.

Here's my question, though. What if all this pressure gets to Strasburg? Nobody in the media seems to want to acknowledge this. Here's a kid who has probably never pitched in front of 40,000 people before -- not to mention the hundreds of camera lenses that will be focused in his direction. Say he comes out and throws a dud tonight -- something like four or five earned runs in four or five innings. Not disastrous, but nothing like the savior he was billed to be.

Or what if he's just terrible this year -- not fully ready to handle the rigors of pitching to hitters that won't be blown away by a 100 (or more like 98) mph fastball? What if the Nats are forced to send him back to the minors for some fine tuning? It's not likely, but it happens even to the best of baseball's prospects now and again.

In this "what-have-you-done-for-me-lately media circus, we need results now. We form opinions without contemplation, disregarding the fact that opinions do change over time. So as I sit here at work, anticipating the Strasburg debut but also aware that I will miss it for some enthralling girls' lacrosse action, I want to leave you with a case study Tom Boswell of the Washington Post likes to use when discussing the Strasburg.

In Rogers Clemens' first six starts for the Boston Red Sox back in 1984, here's what his pitching lines looked like:

May 15, 7-5 loss at Indians: 5.2 IP, 11 hits, 5 runs, 4 earned, 3 BB, 4 K, 0 HR
May 20, 5-4 win at Twins: 7.0 IP, 7 hits, 4 runs, 4 earned, 1 BB, 7 K, 1 HR
May 26, 11-7 loss vs. Royals: 6.2 IP, 10 hits, 5 runs, 5 earned, 1 BB, 8 K, O HR
June 2, 6-3 win at Brewers: 6.2 IP, 7 hits, 3 runs, 3 earned, 0 BB, 3 K, 2 HR
June 7, 6-3 loss vs. Brewers: 5.2 IP, 13 hits, 6 runs, 6 earned, 0 BB, 4 K, 0 HR
June 12, 9-8 win vs. Yankees: 3.2 IP, 8 hits, 6 runs, 6 earned, 2 BB, 2 K, 1 HR

At the conclusion of those first six starts, Clemens had a 2-1 record and a 7.31 ERA. But he got progressively better as his rookie year went along, finishing the season with a 4.32 ERA and a 9-4 record. The next year, 1985, he was 7-5 with a 3.29 ERA after pitching just 98.1 innings due to a shoulder injury.

As we all know now, though, while those first two seasons were decidedly average, Mr. Clemens went on to win the 1986 Cy Young (24-4, 2.48 ERA) and eventually turned himself into arguably the greatest power pitcher of all time (that is until he started messing around with PEDs and underage country singers).

So let's try to avoid rushing to judgment after this one start. Whether Strasburg pitches a no hitter or gives up nine runs in two innings, he's not going to make or break his career or this franchise in one night.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The new Most Fascinating Team in the NBA

Brandon Jennings first caught my attention at the time the above picture was taken. He was the guy with the '80s flat top who put on a show at the 2008 McDonald's All-American game. He re-entered my stratosphere when he decided not to go to Arizona and instead play professionally in Italy to prepare for the NBA. There were stories written about his struggles getting consistent playing time overseas, and then he dropped in the NBA Draft to the point that he had one of the stranger draft moments in years:

Well guess what? Upon marveling at Jennings' gumption, refusing to back down from and even spewing his own trash at Glen Davis and Kevin Garnett of the Celtics last night, I checked the standings. Brandon Jennings and the Milwaukee Bucks are fifth in the Eastern Conference and 10-2 since the All-Star break. After an initial burst out of the gate, peaking with Jennings' 50-point extravaganza, Milwaukee looked like it was fading. Now ... they are the most fascinating team in the NBA.

The Bucks have the 2010 version of Allen Iverson, an irreverent dude in the running for rookie of the year who currently sports a mohawk with a red streak down the middle and once got something called a Gumby haircut. The only arguments for Rookie of the Year come in the form of Tyreke Evans and Stephen Curry.

They also have Andrew Bogut, remember him? The Aussie from Utah who is quietly one of the top 10 centers in the NBA right now, averaging 16 points and 10 rebounds per game. Then there's the coach, Scott Skiles, the NBA's resident curmudgeon. The guy literally never looks happy, and probably scares children when they first meet him. But we saw what his ornery style did with the Bulls a few years back, it can work in spurts. Inevitably the players will tire of it, but this is Skiles' first year. As of now, it's infused a fresh scent of discipline that's reflected in Milwaukee's ranking as the 5th-best defensive team in the NBA this year.

But first and foremost, I like Jennings. He's got swagger, spunk, whatever you want to call it. I'm not sure he's a better young point guard that Derrick Rose, but he's really entertaining. Rose is blah. Jennings has friends who apparently like to record him saying things that could get him into trouble. Things like, "F____ (Ricky (Rubio) and "F___ the Knicks" for "skipping out on me", that they're "always gonna be beat." And now he's jawing at Kevin Garnett.

If you're here in DC, you'll fondly recall KG inspiring this great passage involving Andray Blatche and Flip Saunders after the Wizards blew a big lead against the Celtics the other days:

Blatche felt disrespected by KG, who was talking smack millimeters from Blatche's face. Wizards coach Flip Saunders felt Blatche made "terrible decisions ... woofing the whole time at Kevin Garnett. You can't do those things. He had 23 points with six minutes to go [but] he didn't piss a drop the last six minutes."

On the other hand, after Jennings helped the Bucks hold on for a two-point win over Boston, he started jawing at KG as they walked down the tunnel. "They’re known for punking people, but they weren’t going to come in here and just punk me, Jennings told reporters. "We’re competing. They’re a team that doesn’t take any mess, so we don’t either. I said once that happened, I said ‘Oh yeah, it’s on now.’"

Monday, February 22, 2010

The stuff I get paid to do

Long time no blog. Corey Maggette has been up on front of Sports and Life Ramblings way too long for my liking -- his ties to Duke notwithstanding. And for the record, from here on out I'm gonna ignore mentioning the fact that I post way to sporadically for anyone's liking.

But one of the main reasons I fall in and out of love with blogging is that I don't get any money for the stuff I write on her. On the other hand, for the Washington Post and the Washington Post Express, I get paid handsomely (that's in comparison to the free work I do here, not compared to most professionals out there).

I figure I should start linking/posting all the things I write for them on here considering my topics range from the best team in the NHL and an NCAA Tournament-bound basketball team to the enthralling world of Maryland public school basketball and Virginia high school wrestling.

So first, I'd like to point you to my story on Georgetown basketball that will appear in tomorrow's Express. I was at Georgetown-Syracuse this past Thursday in 100 level media seating since there were a ton of national media types in attendance that got courtside precedence over me. If you haven't been paying much attention to the Hoyas, they are one of the big wild cards in college basketball this year. They seem to alternate between brilliant and blah game-to-game — and sometimes half-to-half like we saw in their latest loss to 'Cuse. Since the Express has a weird website, Below is my story:
Should John Thompson III be worried? That was the all-important question posed to the Georgetown coach last Thursday night after his Hoyas lost consecutive games for the first time this season when their comeback from a 23-point deficit fell just short against No. 4 Syracuse.

“Two in a row is pain and misery, but I’m not worried about this team,” responded Thompson. “This team has to continue to get better, this team will grow from these last two games, but am I worried about this group at all? No. We’ll figure it out.”

Trying to hone in on this team isn’t easy, though. Possessing a trio of scorers as formidable as any in the country, Georgetown has looked like a Final Four contender at times this year, navigating through the nation’s third-toughest schedule with impressive wins over ranked opponents like Pittsburgh, Duke, and Villanova.

And yet, there are also moments like the first half against the Orange, when the Hoyas looked overmatched and in danger of getting blown out of Verizon Center. They’re now seventh in the Big East and just .500 in their last 10 games, including frustrating upset losses to Rutgers and South Florida in the past month.

But through all the ups-and-downs, an important characteristic has emerged, one that should serve No. 11 Georgetown well with Selection Sunday just more than three weeks away and a Tuesday night game at Louisville looming. Acutely aware of their 4-11 slide to end last season, players have refused to dwell, whether it’s overcoming a 23-point deficit or recovering from a particularly deflating defeat.

Just like their coach, no matter how much “pain and misery” a particular loss may have inflicted, there’s been a level of confidence and resiliency unbecoming of a team that features just one player (junior Austin Freeman) who has ever played in an NCAA Tournament game.

“One thing about this team is we believe in each other and we really are confident when it comes to coming back,” said junior Chris Wright. “We really believe in perseverance and really trying to grind through any trouble we’re in.”

And while college basketball will likely dominate the sporting landscape in the coming weeks, there's no doubt in my mind that the story of this past weekend was the Olympic hockey tournament. Alex Ovechkin's hit on Jaromir Jagr in the Czech Republic-Russia game was something to behold, and is quickly turning into a metaphorical miracle for Capitals fans. The franchise's current star delivering a KO blow to the former star who let the franchise down in so many ways. Oh yeah, and in other news, our Americans upset Canada in the Olympics for the first time in 50 years. Not saying I predicted 'Miracle on Ice' success for this year's incarnation of the U.S. hockey team, but I was a pre-Olympics member of the David Backes fan club.

Last week in advance of this year's tournament, I penned two stories for the Express concerning the Capitals and the Winter Games. First, the reception Alex Ovechkin was sure to receive in Canada as the Caps made a two-game trip up north right before the Olympic break:
After practice Tuesday morning at Capitals Kettler Iceplex, Washington Capitals defenseman Tom Poti could only laugh and shake his head when asked about the reception his teammate Alex Ovechkin would receive upon arriving in Canada later that day for a three-day trip north of the border.

While Ovechkin may be the biggest star in the D.C. market and an ever-increasing national figure, his popularity here in America pales in comparison to the treatment he receives from the hockey-mad populace of Canada.

“He’s like a rock star up there,” said Poti. “There’s tons of people waiting for autographs, or even just to see him and snap a photograph. It’s probably 10 times the media attention and it’s all focused on him.”

But if it’s possible, this trip up north, which includes tonight’s game in Ottawa, could inspire more Ovechkin fanatics than any other visit during his five-year NHL career. That’s because the Vancouver Olympics will be mere days away when the Capitals land in Canada and Ovechkin’s Russian National team is the biggest threat to challenge the Canadians in the Olympic hockey tournament.

The Capitals PR staff said a typical trip to Canada involves at least a couple dozen reporters at the team’s morning skate and even more at the game later that night. A standard day in Washington means Ovechkin has less than 10 reporters waiting for him after practice. As charismatic as they come in hockey, Ovechkin just eats all the attention up.

“It’s fun to go to Canadian city, it’s a great atmosphere over there,” he said. “Sometimes when you go somewhere, it’s not like hockey place, but over there, just crazy about hockey.”

Goalie Jose Theodore, who played in Montreal and grew up in Quebec, sometimes can’t believe the reaction Ovechkin receives north of the border. Whether it’s positive or negative, it’s hard to ignore the amount of Ovechkin jerseys in the crowd, he said. If anything, though, his teammates are just happy they don’t have to deal with Canada’s frenzied fans.

“It’s nice he gets all the attention,” said Poti. “We can all slip through the doors and slide away from everything.”

Two days later, I had something on the double-edged sword facing Capitals management with five of its players risking injury to play for their country in these Olympic Games. Here it is:

Washington Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin made an Olympic promise to talented center Nicklas Backstrom in recent weeks. If Ovechkin’s Russians meet Backstrom’s Swedes when next week’s Olympic hockey tournament begins, the Great 8 is going to “kill him.”

“Well, not kill him,” Ovechkin quickly countered this week when a reporter brought up the statement. “But I’m gonna play hard against him.”

Now that the Capitals 14-game win streak is over following a 6-5 overtime loss to Montreal Wednesday night, Ovechkin’s playful threat is the biggest dilemma for owner Ted Leonsis, the man signing the $124 million paychecks of Ovechkin, currently the NHL points leader, and Backstrom, who’s quietly moved into third place in the NHL points race.

While the Capitals have reached unprecedented heights — they’ve got the NHL’s best record in February for the first time in franchise history — five of the team’s best players will fly to Vancouver later this week, putting their bodies on the line in a hockey tournament that has no bearing on Washington’s Stanley Cup chances this spring. The predicament has Leonsis reconsidering the NHL’s relationship with the Olympics.

“One day, someone is going to lose a great player,” Leonsis said earlier this fall. “Even though we have insurance, if someone suffers a career-ending injury and can't sign that next contract, people will start to think twice.”

Talented wing Alexander Semin (Russia), goalie of the future Semyon Varlamov (Russia), and up-and-coming center Tomas Fleischmann (Czech Republic) will join Ovechkin and Backstrom in Vancouver next week. If any suffers injury, it would significantly alter the Capitals’ lineup.

However, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau has said repeatedly during the season that the honor of representing one’s country is too lofty for him to stand in the way of players’ Olympic dreams. Even teammates not participating in the Olympic tournament — who will likely take to the beaches for two weeks after facing St. Louis Saturday — believe the threat of injury is nothing to worry about.

“You can get hurt playing outside so we don’t think about those things,” said goalie Jose Theodore. “It’s a great experience and it’s gonna be fun for us to watch them play.”

If you're looking for more of my fine work, be sure to check out my coverage of high school girls' basketball, a preview of the Maryland high school basketball playoffs, a recap of a regional wrestling tournament, a story I did in advance of the Virginia state wrestling championships (very controversial stuff ... if you care about wrestling), and the subsequent story covering the results of the state wrestling tournament.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Poor Corey Maggette

It's Wednesday morning and I've already begun gearing up for Coach K. See, Duke is coming to town to face Georgetown on Saturday afternoon and I will be in the house at Verizon Center, credentialed and everything, so I can pick the brain of one of the great leaders ever. Call me brainwashed, but I would believe Mike Krzyzewski if he told me he could walk on water. I would think to myself, "You know (because I love starting every thought with that phrase) it makes sense the guy is an immortal straight out of story of morals known as the Bible. How else could his hair remain so black, so straight, and so the same for three decades now?

But with my thoughts on Duke, I couldn't help but think about Corey Maggette. What ... you thought No. 1 Kentucky going down, Michigan almost pulling off the upset over Sparty, Kobe in D.C., the Caps seven-game winning streak, or even Super Bowl build-up was more interesting than Maggette's 18-point performance in a 96-93 loss to Sacramento?

Well, take a closer look at the box score. Maggette went 3-for-22 from the field to get those 18 points! I've been in attendance at more than 200 high school games, close to 100 college games, and played and watched countless hours of basketball during my life. I don't think I've ever heard of 3-for-22. Would have silently laughed if I saw it at a high school game I was covering, but would never expect it at the pro or college level. What's even more depressing/hilarious is Maggette was 0-for-17 through three quarters. I know the guy is notorious for being a chucker, but when you're like 0-for-10 or 0-for-14, usually there's a voice in your head that finally kicks in and says, 'Dude you're off, people are staring.' And if you're that person saying, "But Mark, he did get to the free throw line 16 times, made 13 of them, and grabbed 12 rebounds. That's a double-double. At least he's being aggressive," just take a look at his +/- rating. Maggette was -10, joining Andres Biedrins as the lone Warriors with a plus/minus lower than -1. The game continued a growing trend for Maggette, averaging lots of points in a losing effort. He's now -72 for this season, -148 in 2008-09, and -236 in 2007-08 with the Clippers.

And all this takes me back to the magical summer of 1999. That's when Maggette — who had just finished his freshman year as a sixth man on a Blue Devil team that lost to Khalid El-Amin, Richard Hamilton, and UConn in the NCAA Championship game in a certain somebody's domed atrocity in St. Petersburg, Fla — joined Elton Brand and William Avery in leaving Duke before graduating. As is well documented at this point, they were the first three players to ever leave Coach K and Duke early. As the story goes, Coach K only really thought Brand was ready to go pro and he was the only one who actually got his blessing.

What hasn't been well-chronicled is what has happened to all parties involved since all that early departure business went down more than a decade ago. As we all know Elton Brand has had a solid, though sometimes injury-riddled NBA career. Coach K was right about William Avery; he amounted to very little in the NBA and now plies his trade on teams with names like Galatasaray Café Crown and Trikala 2000 in places like Turkey, Ukraine, and Israel.

Then there's Maggette. What's often overlooked about Maggette's year-long stay in Durham is the fact that basically a year after he left, he admitted to taking $35,500 from his AAU coach (who has the totally non-shady name of Myron Piggie) while in high school, a pretty blatant violation of NCAA rules, no matter the intentions involved with the money. Coach K said two weeks after this came to light in 2000, that Duke should be punished if it were true.

They should have vacated that runner-up banner and maybe even gotten some probation, but Duke being Duke (even an apologist like me has to admit this), they didn't get any punishment. It's the type of supposed Coach K favoritism that made me a target growing up in Maryland country and has inspired many websites of this ilk.

But the resulting effect Corey Maggette has had on the Duke program since then is profound. Coach K is scared of another Maggette ruining his squeaky clean program, so he's mostly stayed out of the fray when it comes to one-and-doners since then. Quite frankly, though, his program really hasn't been the same. After making it to the Final Four eight times between 1986 and 1999, he's gone just twice since. It's true, extended excellence eventually turns into exceedingly difficult expectations.

What does this all mean? To be blunt, Corey Maggette has been paid tens of millions of dollars to accomplish very little on the basketball court. And yet, we may look back and wonder how a man so insignificant in a basketball sense permanently weakened one of the great basketball programs to emerge in the past 25 years. Writing that, I feel bad for the guy, though. It makes me wonder what life would be like if he had three more years with Coach K? My guess is he would have stopped shooting at around 0-for-10 last night.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

My first radio interview

Actually it wasn't really the radio. I think it was more of a podcast. But last Saturday night I covered a high school basketball game between Montrose Christian (Kevin Durant's high school) and T.C. Williams (the "Remember the Titans" school). Montrose features a guy going to Duke (Josh Hairston), another dude who recently de-committed from Maryland and is now choosing between Duke, Kentucky, and Kansas (Terrence Ross, pictured above), and a sophomore who many are already projecting to be a one-and-done lottery pick type player once he graduates from high school (Justin Anderson).

Now they absolutely blew T.C. out of the gym — T.C., mind you, is one of the best public school backetball programs in the D.C. area — and I wrote a little about the game and what life has been like for Ross since he decided to re-open his recruitment. Due to the story, and the rampant speculation surrounding Ross, I was invited to be a guest on "Verbally Committed" a "prepcast" that is featured on the website of local sports talk station 106.7 The Fan.

You can download my segment by going here and perusing through the various guests they've had in recent weeks. I'm about the sixth segment from the top. Go have a listen and then come back here to read my short self-critique (and feel free to add to this critique in the comments section below):

So after giving it a listen myself, I had a few things that will undoubtedly gnaw away at me until I get my next chance to be on the radio again:

1) I wish I had written out some talking points. Silly me figured I would be able to wing it and say everything I wanted to. But of course, I forgot a cool little anecdote that I thought would bring some new information to the table in terms of Terrence Ross and where he might end up playing college ball. Nate James is a former Duke basketball player and is now an assistant coach there for Mike Kyryzewski. He also happened to play for Montrose Christian Coach Stu Vetter back in the days when he coached at St. John's Prospect Hall and I was a frequent attendee at his summer camps. Vetter even brought up James name during his postgame talk Saturday (though it was totally unrelated to Ross). My guess is Ross, James, and Vetter have all been talking in recent weeks. Of course, though, I didn't mention this on the air.

2) I think I said the phrase "you know" about 50 times. I've been told about my frequent "you knows" once or twice before, but, you know, I guess I haven't stopped yet.

3) I'm a little peeved at myself that I slighted the T.C. Williams guys a bit towards the beginning of the interview when I said Montrose's Justin Anderson made them look like "JV players." Yes, they really were overmatched from the moment they stepped on the floor, but the T.C. program has been so good to me over the past couple of years since I came back to D.C., especially last year when i was essentially their beat writer for the The Connection. I hope they don't hate me, because I really had no intention to demean them. Chalk it up to radio inexperience.

4) I can't believe I didn't pump Sports and Life Ramblings. I was debating in my head whether or not I should, but chickened out last second and just went with a plug for my stuff in the Express covering the Capitals and Georgetown.

Like I said above, add your own critique in the comments section below. Would love to hear your praise/insults/stuff I definitely need to work on.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Reasons to watch the Winter Olympics

If you remember back before my long hiatus from blogging life, I found it hilarious that the Vancouver Olympics decided to make their torch look like a supersized joint. But as the Games approach closer and closer, I've found myself wondering if I'll even watch the stuff they show on network television.

Speed skating, figure skating, curling, and non-catastrophe skiing just don't really scream, "Stop watching college or pro basketball," to me. Although I would like to add two clarifications.

Ski-related crashes -- I'm talking, Herman Maier-style crashes -- are events in my mind. I just can't get enough of them. It's the only reason I watch the Winter X Games. I live for those highlights when it comes to the Winter Olympics. I enjoy these ski crashes almost as much as Gilbert Arenas likes pooping in people's shoes. In Arenas' head, there's no actual human behind his pranks. He lives in his own world, where everything can just be forgotten. So seeing the reaction of a perfect poop joke is hilarious.

I don't know these skiing guys that risk their lives, so I take enjoyment in the awesomeness of their crashes. I can't take my eyes off it. Hell, Herman Maier survived that Nagano crash. Long story short, ski crashes are on my to-do list next month.

Clarification No. 2 is that I find myself questioning whether I'll watch on network television, because most of the hockey will probably be on cable with all the fu fu ice skating taking up the primetime network slots. All the best hockey players in the world are gonna be there, and it's being held in Vancouver, which I think is going to create a frenzied atmosphere, especially for the big games. And now we Americans have someone to latch onto. Maybe you've heard about this already, but since David Backes of the St. Louis Blues was named to the American Olympic team, he's gotten in three fights with players named to the Canadian team. And it's all been relatively big names.

First Backes pummeled Chicago's Jonathon Toews on Jan. 3. Then he manhandled Corey Perry of Anaheim on Jan. 7. Tuesday, Rick Nash of Columbus suffered the wrath of American pride. He even tried, and failed, to have a dust up with Dany Heatley of the Sharks. Per the St. Louis Dispatch, here's some more stuff that sounds pretty awesome:

There's "no direct agenda there,” Backes said. "They just tend to be the guys that are in my way and creating some havoc around" ... After Backes fought Toews, Toews threw up twice in the penalty box.

So there ya go, two reasons to watch the Winter Olympics. Although, before I forget (or more like before I forget to pimp my own stuff), I'll also be on the look out for Keslie Tomlinson, a potential skeleton racer in this year's Olympics who I wrote a feature about at my old paper. She finds out in nine days if she made the team.

The Dirty Dirk

It's been a wild couple of days in the sports world with the Pete Carroll-Lane Kiffin switcheroo, the NFL playoffs looming, not to mention new revelations in the Gilbert Arenas and Tiger Woods stories ... what's that you haven't heard rumors that Tiger is currently in an Arizona rehab clinic for sex addiction and may also be donating a cargo plane and mobile hospital unit to the Haiti earthquake relief effort.

But lost in the shuffle was some history last night in the NBA (the above obscene picture aside). Dirk Nowitzki, better known as, well, Dirk Nowitzki (I wanted to call him the German Juggler but that just doesn't make much sense), eclipsed the 20,000-point mark with a third quarter jumper against the Lakers. I'll let Dime Magazine put his accomplishment into context:

There’s little argument that Dirk is the greatest Maverick of all-time as far as what he’s done with the franchise. He ranks No. 1 in career scoring, rebounding, field goals, threes, free throws, and is No. 2 in steals, blocks and points per game. He won the franchise’s only league MVP award, and guided Dallas to its first-ever NBA Finals appearance. The Mavs have made nine playoff appearances during Nowitzki’s carer, whereas in the previous 18-year period B.D. (Before Dirk), they made only six postseasons.

I never really thought of Dirk as a Hall of Famer before now, but looking at the statistics and just his overall impact on this generation, his jersey will probably hang in Springfield, Mass., one day. Tom Chambers and Mitch Richmond are the only 20,000 guys not currently playing that didn't get their names in the Hall. And frankly, there just aren't many 7-footers that can do the things Dirk can do and did throughout his 11-year career.

But what fascinated me about his accomplishment was something I heard on Sportscenter last night. Nowitzki is just the fourth non-American to get over the 20,000-point mark. The other three foreign born 20,000 guys are Hakeem Olajuwon (born in Nigeria), Patrick Ewing (born in Jamaica), and Dominique Wilkins (born in France). Maybe it's because of my skin color, but what stuck out to me was Nowitzki's status as the lone white guy on that list.

Call me curious, but I wanted to know if Nowitzki's status was a trend for all 20,000-point scorers. Is it one-fourth whites, three-fourths black dudes? I mean we all know African-Americans dominate the world of basketball these days, but maybe, just maybe, is this a way we can actually quantify that dominance. And don't call me racist, because we've all (white or black) been wanting to be able to determine this for eons Let's see...

Here's the complete list of 20,000 point guys (in order of how many points they have) as of today:

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone, Elvin Hayes, Hakeem Olajuwon, Oscar Robertson, Dominique Wilkins, John Havlicek, Alex English, Reggie Miller, Jerry West, Patrick Ewing, Kobe Bryant, Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Robert Parrish, Adrian Dantley, Elgin Baylor, Clyde Drexler, Gary Payton, Larry Bird, Kevin Garnett, Hal Greer, Walt Bellamy, Bob Petit, David Robinson, George Gervin, Mitch Richmond, Ray Allen, Tom Chambers, and Dirk Nowitzki.

So aside from the fact that I had to google Hal Greer to determine his skin color (yes, he's black and if you're interested, the only athlete in a Hall of Fame hailing from the great in bred state of West Virginia) and was shocked to see Gary Payton and Walt Bellamy on the list and George Mikan and Pete Maravich not on the list, that's 28 black dudes and six white dudes. That's 82.3 percent dominance. Glad that's settled.

And congratulations Dirk.