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.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Let's give Big Mac a break

Aside from the magical night in St. Louis when Mark McGwire hit a line drive of a bomb that gave him MLB's single-season homerun record, my lasting memory of that remarkable summer of 1998, when McGwire and Sammy Sosa embarked on a historic pursuit of Roger Maris's lasting accomplishment, happened in a car ride with my Dad in August of that year.

I was only 12 at the time, and I had gone to sleep away camp for two weeks right when the chase was hitting its stride. This was before I ever had a cell phone, and even before I lived and died by my internet connection when it concerned sports news. So when my Dad came to pick me up from camp, my first question as I got in the car was "What's going on with Sosa and McGwire? Are they on track to beat the record?"

I wasn't alone in being captivated by the whole thing, all of America embraced the dual pursuit of one of baseball's most cherished records. So when I first heard McGwire's statement yesterday, I exhaled a little bit, happy that this strange and sad saga might finally be reaching its conclusion. Tim Kurkijan of ESPN came on my screen and started talking about how while McGwire probably will never make it into the Hall of Fame, at least he can now get on with his life on the diamond, no longer forced into relative solitude as it concerns being in the public eye. All he had to do now, Kurkijan said, was one of those tell-all interviews where people who don't understand what was going through McGwire's head during his steroid-using days attempt to comprehend just what exactly he was thinking.

When I returned home from work late last night to watch McGwire's sit down with Costas, I flipped on ESPN first. There I saw several baseball types -- including Kurkijan -- up in arms over McGwire's insistence that steroids didn't help him hit any homeruns. All it did was keep him healthy so he could keep showing the masses his God-given homerun prowess, McGwire claimed. As a result, today, even more have weighed in, disgusted at McGwire's defiance.

They overlooked the fact that he's essentially been a hermit since retiring from baseball due to the dubious reputation he left behind, how he's constantly had to deal with the whispers because of his obviously unnatural growth as a physical specimen during his career and ridiculous appearance on Capital Hill five years ago. "I'm not here to talk about the past," became synonymous with being a coward. They found the tears during that Costas interview to be contrived, the regret merely a ploy to look better in front of the media. All that seems true when you read this New York Times piece about McGwire's media strategy for this somewhat unexpected tell all:

He did it all in one afternoon, starting with a statement that was distributed widely to the news media, and that came across the Associated Press wire at 3 p.m.

The A.P. followed quickly with a story that featured an interview with McGwire, who subsequently spoke to numerous other news media outlets — including USA Today and The St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Tim Kurkjian and John Kruk of ESPN (both by telephone, not on the air); KTRS Radio in St. Louis; and The New York Times, before talking to Bob Costas live at 7 p.m. Eastern on MLB Network.

The one-day plan — coordinated over the past month by Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary who runs a crisis-communications company, and the St. Louis Cardinals, who recently hired McGwire as their batting coach — contrasts with last year’s roll-out of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid admission.

If you don't remember, Rodriguez was forced into contrition after Selena Roberts of Sports Illustrated somehow found out ARod was on a list of 100 supposed steroid users who had tested positive a few years back. He didn't really control his own news cycle and got really lucky when Peter Gammons trusted him at his word during an exclusive one-on-one rather than asking some necessary follow ups to some of Rodriguez's answers.

Well, now everyone not named Bob Costas are beginning to voice some of their own follow ups in response to McGwire's interview. How could he possibly believe steroids didn't help him? How in the world could he wait this long to finally expose himself? Why does he have those weird Norv Turner-esque blotches on his neck (okay maybe that's more my question, and apparently Brian Williams from NBC News had the same query).

Maybe I'm naive and going against the status quo of considering the sport of baseball as holier than thou, but can't we just give the guy a break and let him move on with his life? I don't understand why we can't just say 'Mark McGwire apologized, Jose Canseco was right, now let's get on with our lives.' No, instead we have to get our last punches in on a man who as a result of his mistakes will forever have his name tarnished, will never make the Hall of Fame, and was never going to be looked at the same whether he gave us an apology or not. Did Mark McGwire lie to us during that historic chase? Sure. Did he try to deflect blame during his tell-all interview? You bet. But he's not a criminal in my book. He was a man who played baseball during a time when players' judgments were clouded by a desire to perform at the highest level.

I'll leave you with this. Say you're a 31-year-old baseball player who had hit 49 homeruns as a rookie, averaged 34 bombs through the next five seasons, but had played a total of 74 games as a 30 and 31-year-old. Then you have some genie in a bottle or something approach you (genie in a bottle is my term for steroid dealer for some reason) and say, 'Hey I got this kind of, sort of illegal drug that MLB doesn't test for, will allow you to average nearly 58 homeruns a season over the next four years, break Roger Maris's homerun record, make more than double the amount of money during the final eight seasons of your career ($59.741 million) than you did the previous nine years, and never face any criminal charges if you tread carefully when people ask if you used them.'

Because that's Mark McGwire's story. Could you have said no to that proposition? I'm not sure I would have been able to, which is the actual dilemma being overlooked here. Were these guys during the steroids era morally wrong for cheating the game's history? Definitely. But would any normal human, presented with the same situation, do the same exact thing they chose to do? You can decide for yourself, but I think humans, money, and glory form an irresistable combination.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Arenas, Shanahan, and a crazy DC sports week

What a week for someone working for the sports section at Washington, D.C.'s top newspaper. We had paparazzi style stalking of Mike Shanahan outside of lavish steakhouses and airports, the ongoing denigration of Gilbert Arenas from basketball blogging icon to gun toting criminal, and hell, Saturday, Georgetown and Connecticut might have played the best college basketball game of the season to date.

I wasn't really on the front lines for any of this (although I was in the house to watch UCONN and GTown), but for much of the week I was working in the office at the Post as everything developed. It was craziness, editors that usually work 9-5 schedules working through the night and me having very little time to do any blogging. What was I doing? Well, you can read a profile I did for the paper on UConn's Jerome Dyson as well as four stories about high school wrestling that be viewed here, here, here, and here. I would include the GTown and Capitals stories I did for the Express, but alas, their website is really messed up and you can only view the .pdf of the paper.

But through it all I got to see the side of the newspaper/media business that I hadn't really seen since my New York Sun days. That being the ideal of the scoop. See, in my opinion, The Post got its ass handed to it on the original reporting of both the Arenas and Shanahan stories. The New York Post's Peter Vescey broke the original report of a western shootout between Gilbert and Javaris Crittenton in the Wiz locker room. In Shanahan's case, it was Michigan Daily alum Adam Schefter driving the news cycle.

The first instinct is to criticize the Post for this, because well, they got beat on two of the biggest sport stories to happen in DC in recent memory. But here's what some people don't always realize. Do you really think Peter Vescey got his source for that story from the Wizards? Considering the NBA league offices are in New York City, I'm almost 100 percent positive it got leaked by someone up there. With Shanahan, I think it was generally overlooked that Schefter wrote Shanahan's book, "Think like a Champion", which came out in 1999, and that every time "sources" were telling him things about the situation, the most likely person giving him that info was Shanahan himself. Also overlooked in this story was the fact that Dan Snyder and the Skins hate the Washington Post's guts even though we give them double (and sometimes triple) the coverage of any other sports team in this town.

But like I said earlier, people were working their butts off in the office once these stories broke and I think my employer more than acquitted itself on both these stories in the days after news broke. First, in the Shanahan story, I think Les Carpenter's excellent feature that came out the day Shanahan was introduced as head coach really got to the crux of what could go wrong in this Redskins marriage. With it looking more and more like Snyder was talking with Shanahan throughout this season, therefore meaning Bruce Allen was handpicked by Shanahan to be general manager, I'm having second thoughts about Shanahan as the ultimate decision maker in this organization. Shanahan claims he won't use that final say power often, but his track record makes that seem highly unlikely. Because as we all know, the only person I can think of that has been able to successfully balance the roles of talent evaluator and coach has been Bill Parcells. Here's a look inside his brain:

While Shanahan's coaching prowess is widely proclaimed, he is not nearly as admired as a personnel executive. Much of the thinking is that Shanahan's lust for control and a constant belief that he was only a player or two away from the Super Bowl led him into questionable moves. ...

Shanahan often evaluated players by watching tapes of their highlights, a system employed by some in the league who believe that if you see a player at his best then he can be coached up to that ability. ...

But many league executives say the approach can become intoxicating to a coach who is confident in his ability to coach the player to that level and has the ultimate authority to choose that player. "He didn't listen to his scouts," said one NFL general manager, who asked not to be identified because he didn't want to publicly criticize another team executive.

Those three paragraphs should cause some red flags among devoted Skins fans. The problem this organization has had since Snyder took control was overrating their own players. They overpay players, who as a result of their bloated salaries, believe they're as good as they're being paid. For a coach to think a team that has gone 6-18 over the past season and a half is a player or two away would be damn near criminal in my book. Good thing we've got some new, sane minds over there at Redskins Park. Wait, what's that? An oh shit moment, courtesy of Bruce Allen during his presser announcing Jim Zorn's firing:

I'm saying that we need to find the passionate coach, a winning coach, that can come in and lead the men that were in this room earlier, because maybe some of our greatest improvements are our players that are already on the roster playing better."

Me and Bruce will have to agree to disagree on that one. I would gut the roster as soon as possible.

Moving on to Gilbert, it's been a tragic fall for a guy who I loved just a couple of years ago. Now personally, I'm not one of those that have just left the Gilbert wagon. My best guess is his days as a Wizard are probably over, especially since they've removed any semblance of him from Verizon Center. But I think this personification of Arenas as some kind of criminal by the national media overlooks some of the man's biggest character flaws.

He's a 28-year-old kid at heart, a troublesome kid, but a kid nonetheless. The real problem here is that he's 28 and not say, 13 or 14. Creating mischief when you're being paid hundreds of millions of dollars is just not a formula for success, and ultimately through all his antics, it's partly our own fault for disregarding some of his obvious faults (I'm just as guilty of this as anyone else). The Post's Mike Wise has been all over this story (and broke the whole Crittenton loading a weapon and chambering it thing) since he knows Gilbert about as well as any reporter out there, but it was Sally Jenkins who I thought wrote a brilliant column about this whole situation in Saturday's Post. Read the whole thing because it really does some great psychoanalyzing, but here's an excerpt that I think does this situation complete justice:

I don't claim to know Arenas. Like so many others, I've always enjoyed him from afar for his lightness of being. But looking backward, perhaps it was a sign of trouble. That lightness now looks like an empty vessel that he fills up with whatever version of a self pleases him in the moment, or that he finds expedient. This season alone, we have seen Strictly Business Gilbert and Vow of Silence Gilbert morph into Chattering Gilbert and Unstoppable Twittering Gilbert. He contradicts his own statements, one day he expresses regret for bad judgment and the next he's got nothing to be remorseful about. The emerging depiction is of a man with sharply veering moods, whose sense of self is highly unstable, and who has yet to adequately address or heal some inner divisions and fractures.

To me, Gilbert Arenas is that loveable troublemaker that you can't just punish even though deep down it's probably the best thing for him. Was he dumb to bring his guns into the Verizon Center? Absolutely. But it's all part of some complicated psychological issues that he's had for a long, long time. Problems that should have been addressed years ago, but because of his basketball talent and natural charisma, were swept under the rug and ignored at times. That being said, I really hope he finds a way to get back into the league (and if Latrell Sprewell got another shot, Gilbert most certainly will, too) because at his peak, Gilbert was spectacular to watch both on and off the floor. As we look back over time, I really believe he will be remembered as one of the revolutionary figures in the NBA post-Jordan, with the way he changed how athletes communicate with their fans.

Monday, January 04, 2010

NFL Notes: There are some dumb NFL coaches

So seeing as the news that Jim Zorn was fired during a 4am meeting with Dan Snyder and Bruce Allen and that Mike Shanahan subsequently appeared at Northern Virginia's Dulles International Airport and is expected to be announced as head coach Tuesday are already reported, I figured I should focus on some more surprising developments heading into the wild card weekend of the NFL postseason:

-First, I just wanted to comment on the meteoric fall of the Denver Broncos, or as I like to call them, the West Coast Redskins (or I guess Western time zone would be more appropriate errr Mountain time zone). Start out 6-0, get a bunch of cool little features on pregame shows, and then watch it circle down the drain amidst a 2-8 finish. Sounds familiar to me. Seriously, though, how does a team lose by 20 to a 3-win opponent with the playoffs on the line? I know Brandon Marshall got suspended, but against a moribund team like the Chiefs, you'd think that would light a fire not ignite a stink bomb. Oh yeah, and with Shanahan already in the DC area, cue the Marshall in burgundy and gold rumors.

-All this talk about the Jets cake walking into the playoffs is so valid it hurts. Did the Colts and Bengals rest their starters? Sure. Did the Jets win as a result? Absolutely. Did it keep the Houston Texans and Andre Johnson from making the playoffs? You're damn straight.

So for those thinking the Texans were gonna be the Arizona Cardinals of last year, with Johnson playing the role of Larry Fitzgerald, I would like to point this out. Yes, Fitzgerald was dynamite during the Cards' Super Bowl run, but to me, the reason Arizona went so far was the emergence of its defense and more specifically, its defensive line led by Darnell Dockett. Oh wait, Johnson is the best wide receiver in the league and Mario Williams not only has proven he should have been picked ahead of Reggie Bush, but is probably better than Darnell Dockett ... damn, the Texans could have been this year's Cardinals.

-Speaking of the Jets, I think their elite defense gives them a chance against anybody, especially a Cincinnati team that appears to be the weakest division winner in the NFL except for ...

-The Saints, who I think are going to be one and done when they face either Green Bay or Arizona next week.

-So it was T.O. or bust this year in Buffalo. BUST! (That was for you Graham, who if I recall correctly was anxiously awaiting the Trent Edwards era even though I constantly reminded him that nobody that wins one game his senior season at Stanford should be worth getting excited for).

-Here's what drives me nuts about the NFL. Jeff Fisher (Tennessee) and Jon Fox (Carolina) are currently the longest and third-longest tenured coaches in the NFL, respectively, as we close the 2009-10 season. Who knows if either gets fired (Fisher sounds like a no, Fox sounds like a probably no after the Panthers won five straight to end the season), but to me they're getting credit where credit just isn't due.

In Carolina, Fox finally benched Jake Delhomme after a merciful four INT performance against the Jets, and when he inserted Matt Moore into the lineup the very next week in a 17-6 win over Tampa Bay, lo and behold, the Panthers commenced their five-game win streak. Carolina's players deserve all sorts of credit for their showing, considering that the playoffs were a fantasy when they began this hot streak. I just don't get how the five consecutive wins would save Fox's job. If anything, I would can his ass for not putting Moore in there earlier, when the playoffs could have still been a possibility.

In Tennessee, Fisher did the same thing, although he had the sense to go from Kerry Collins to Vince Young while the Titans still had a faint hope of postseason glory. See, he waited until the Titans were 0-6, so that even when Vince Young played incredibly well and went 8-2 down the stretch (with losses to Indianapolis and San Diego), they still couldn't make the playoffs.

How are these considered good coaching jobs? The only reason these two teams didn't make the playoffs was the incompetency of their head coaches. I would fire both right now.

-Biggest disappointments of the NFL season (in no particular order): The Matt Hasselbeck to T.J. Houshmandzadeh connection, the Matt Cassel to Dwayne Bowe connection, Josh McDaniel the disciplinarian (would Belichick have benched his star wide receiver heading into a do or die game even if his head wasn't on straight?), James Harrison as the 2009 NFL Defensive Player of the Year (winners of this award should at least be the MVP of their own defense, something Troy Polamalu proved Harrison wasn't this season), defensive guru Lovie Smith, Chris Long as a top 3 pick in the NFL Draft (nine sacks, 43 tackles, and 3-29 record in two seasons), and lastly, wide receiver Devin Hester.

There's so many more and I would love to hear some of yours. Comment away...

-And last, this is more for Redskins fans out there that are looking forward to owning the offseason once again (I'm already hearing rumors that Mike Zimmer, the defensive coordinator in Cincinnati and a guy I wouldn't mind having as a head coach, is on the verge of becoming the defensive coordinator here). Just remember ... even if Dan Snyder somehow finds a way to bring the ashes of Johnny Cochran back to life, hires him to get O.J. Simpson out of jail, and then figures out a way to reverse time so that he has an in-his-prime Juice to split carries with Clinton Portis ... the Oakland Raiders won more games than the Washington Redskins this year.

Sad, but true.