Wednesday, July 14, 2010

My Decision on "The Decision"

You didn’t really think I was going to let the LeBron James “Decision” pass by without chiming in, did you? Truth be told, immediately after watching the hour long debacle last Thursday, I was ready to pound out 3,000 words. I, however, decided to take some time and let the news sink in. In part, I wanted to let some of the back stories come out. And, in part, I didn’t want to offer a knee jerk reaction and come across like a hyperbolic moron. Too bad Cavs owner Dan Gilbert didn’t do the same. Ah, who am I kidding? Gilbert’s letter turned out to be one of the most fascinating things to come out of this whole insane situation. It was hilarious, ridiculous, idiotic, insane, horribly offensive, and it was the greatest use of all caps and exclamation points this side of Kim Kardashian’s Twitter feed. Frankly, I’m still not sure Mel Gibson wasn’t the author. In other words, thanks for the entertainment, Danny. All that said, where do I stand on this whole situation? Well, I have to break it down into two parts:

Part I – The Delivery

Before we get to the actual decision and its ramifications, we simply cannot ignore the hour long LeBron self love fest we witnessed last Thursday. And, as I typically do, I’m going to cop out and address it with seven questions and answers:

7) Was the television special necessary? If LeBron’s goal was to reveal himself as a self consumed 25 year old gazillionaire that loves the spotlight while alienating every NBA fan in 49 ½ states (at least temporarily), the answer is a resounding “Yes”. If his goal was ANYTHING else (do I have to pay Dan Gilbert royalties for the all caps?), then the answer is a resounding “No”. I’m going to give LBJ the benefit of the doubt and assume his goal was the latter and chalk this answer up as a “No”.

6) Was the television special a big middle finger to Cleveland? Honestly, for the 72 hours following the announcement, I absolutely felt this answer was an unequivocal “Yes”. Then, I saw Rachel Nichols’ interview with the Recalcitrant 3 (a big prize to the first person to get that reference), and I changed my opinion. Why? After watching LeBron’s demeanor and listening to his answers, I am convinced that he is 100% happy with where he is and how he arrived there. In other words, I think he is presently so consumed with himself that he wasn’t acting maliciously when he made the announcement. Instead, I am convinced that he simply felt that he was entitled (more on this word in a moment…) to this spotlight, and he felt America wanted to dedicate an hour of their lives to hear his decision and his reasons for it. And, you know what? He was right. For all the bitching and moaning about the ESPN special, not the least of which has been from me, the special did a 7.3 rating, which dwarfed the rating ABC garnered when LBJ and the Cavs played in the NBA Finals in ’07. Does the rating justify the self indulgence? Of course not. I mean, millions of people are watching the series finale of “The Hills” tonight. Does that justify “The Hills” existence?

5) Should we be surprised that LeBron is a self consumed athlete that was insensitive to the long suffering fans in his home town? Based on what I just wrote in the preceding paragraph, I bet you are expecting me to say “No”. I bet you are expecting me to mount a spirited defense of LeBron and claim that we, the celebrity obsessed fans, have engaged in such hero worship that we have actually enabled and encouraged LBJ’s self indulgence and obsession. Well, you would be right.

Honestly, in the wake of the Tiger Woods scandal, it absolutely blows my mind that anybody is still surprised that any of our biggest sports stars and celebrities are raging ego maniacs. In his own historically awful television special, Tiger himself explained how he felt he was “entitled” to live the life he did. Why should we be surprised that LBJ, the only athlete we have that approaches the same level of fame as Tiger, would similarly feel entitled to his hour of self indulgence? Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming these guys. I’m not judging these guys. And, I’m not excusing these guys. All I’m saying is that any act of public (or private in Tiger’s case) self indulgence should not surprise us.

4) Should we be surprised that LeBron announced his decision on an hour long nationally televised special? In light of my previous answer, I bet you are expecting me to give this question a quick and dismissive “No”. In this case, you would be incorrect. While I believe that we should not be surprised that LBJ was capable of this type of self indulgence, I’m still shocked that he went through with this disaster. To draw again from the Tiger scandal, if athletes and celebrities learned nothing else from that disaster, shouldn’t they have learned that controlling and delivering the message in a manner that appeases the public is far more important than the message itself? Obviously, LBJ and his advisors didn’t learn this lesson. If anything from this entire debacle is shocking, it’s the fact that, only 8 months after Tiger wrote the book on how not to handle a difficult situation, LBJ decided to write the epilogue. It’s completely stupefying.

3) Was there a “right” way for LBJ to handle this announcement? Absolutely! In fact, it was very easy. The moment LBJ decided he wasn’t going back to Cleveland (or immediately after Game 6 against Boston if he already knew he was leaving), he should have called a press conference in his high school gym in Akron, and he should have said this:

I love Ohio. I love Akron, Cleveland, and all the Cavs fans around the country. That said, I am 25 years old, and I have spent my entire life in Ohio. For the past 7 years, I have given everything I have to the Cavs and the pursuit of a championship for Ohio. Unfortunately, we have come up short, and I will always regret this. The time has come, however, for me to move on. I’m not sure where I will play next year, but it will not be in Cleveland. This decision has nothing to do with the Cavs or the people of Ohio. It is about me and my desire, at age 25, to experience something new and to seek new challenges. I know this decision will be met with much consternation in Ohio, but I only hope you believe me when I say that I truly hope time will heal all wounds and the Cavs fans will one day understand my decision and will always think of me as a proud son of Ohio.

Then, once he decided on a new team, he should have held a typical press conference at the offices of the new team, holding his new jersey. THAT’S IT!!!! (Again, thanks for the all caps motivation, Danny). If he follows this plan (i.e. the “it’s not you, it’s me” plan), Cleveland is pissed in the short term, but they get over it eventually, and Cleveland’s friends respect LBJ’s candor, and maybe one day LBJ hooks up with one of Cleveland’s friends after they run into each other at a party! At any rate, there was an easy solution for LBJ and a “right” way to handle this situation. The thing that really infuriates me is not that LBJ took the route he did, it’s that he is paying some guys millions of dollars to advise him to take that route when the correct route was so damn easy. If anybody sees LBJ, please tell him I’m happy to advise him for a fraction of what these clowns are charging him.

2) What did LeBron gain by holding the hour long special? Nothing.

1) What did LeBron lose by holding the hour long special? In the short term, a lot of fans. In the long term, nothing. In three years, if LBJ, Wade, and Bosh are wearing two rings, all will be forgotten. Winning leads to forgiveness (see Bryant, Kobe). Forgiveness leads to billion dollar Nike ad campaigns (again, see Bryant, Kobe). Billion dollar Nike ad campaigns lead to unfathomable levels of fame, fortune, and love from the fans (once again, see Bryant, Kobe). In short (and, I do mean short because I’ve already typed Kobe Bryant’s name four more times than I can stomach), if Kobe can come back from his “ordeal”, LBJ will be just fine. If we, as fans, have proved one thing over and over, it’s that we just can’t stay mad at our stars. If they win, we flock. Don’t believe me? You don’t have to ask Kobe. David Ortiz, Andy Petite, and Alex Rodriguez can enlighten you.

Part II – The Decision

I will be brief. I promise. When I first heard the announcement, I was angry. I was furious that LeBron would shrink from the challenge of leading his own team to a championship. I was furious that he would team up with D. Wade on D. Wade’s team. Why was I furious? Because, I believe that LBJ is the only player I have ever seen that has the chance to achieve the all around greatness MJ achieved. And, given the fact that I loved everything about the MJ era, I was truly hopeful I could relive it to some degree through LBJ. But, in an instant, LBJ eliminated any chance of that. I agree whole heartedly with Bill Simmons, Charles Barkley, and everyone else that has made the point that MJ would have wanted to beat D. Wade, not play with him. I also agree with those folks that, by choosing to play with D. Wade, LBJ has diminished the “greatness” of every title he may win in the future. I agree with all those things for all the same reasons Simmons, et. al. have already expressed. And, for those reasons, I was angry when LBJ announced the “Decision”.

Six days later, however, I am happy to report that I have gained a little perspective, and I am now far from angry with LBJ’s decision. Why? Well, first of all, at some point I remembered that this whole thing is about sports, which, for a 32 year old out of shape working stiff, should be nothing more than an entertaining distraction from real life and should, under no circumstances lead to anger (other than Georgia Tech, Hawks, Falcons, or Braves losses – I’ve gained perspective. I didn’t have a lobotomy) Second, I actually thought about what was going on here. Specifically, a 25 year old guy decided that he wanted to do something that made him happy. He decided that he wanted to make 9 figures while working with some of his best friends in a city that boasts some of the most fun activities and beautiful women in the world. Now, please re-read the previous two sentences and tell me one thing about them that sounds even the least bit crazy. I’ll save you the time…you can’t. When you look at LBJ’s decision in plain and unambiguous terms, it makes perfect sense. When I was 25, I spent my time occasionally attending class and studying, frequently playing playstation, and more frequently drinking at every bar in Manhattan that didn’t have a cover charge. In other words, when I was 25, if somebody gave me an opportunity remotely similar to LBJ’s opportunity, I would have pulled both hamstrings running to jump on it. Hell, if somebody gave it to me now, the only difference would be that I would throw my back out in addition to pulling the hammies.

As for the MJ issue, it is what it is. In my mind, and the mind of many others, LBJ has given up the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with the greatest of all time. I sense that he understands that, and he is clearly okay with it. Therefore, any regret I have over his decision is a me problem, not an LBJ problem. Therefore, at the end of the day, I hate the way he announced it, but I am okay with his decision. And, as a lover of the game, I can now admit something I would have never admitted 6 days ago: I cannot wait to watch these guys play together. If nothing else, it will be entertaining as hell.

Now that I have officially signed off on the Recalcitrant 3 in Miami, it’s time for me to turn my attention to sharing my thoughts on the World Cup. The good news about that is that I have four years before anybody cares about soccer again, so I should have no problem getting that piece together in time.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Same Book...New Chapter

One of the great joys in life is re-reading one of your favorite books or re-watching one of your favorite movies. For example, a good friend of mine told me today that he just recently stumbled across a late night showing of "Hoosiers" and, despite the fact the clock wound well into the early morning hours, he couldn't stop watching. Why? Because "Hoosiers" is one of his favorite movies (and, if it isn't one of yours, you should probably move on to another site), and he couldn't tear himself away. That's the way it is with the great works of literature or cinema. You know exactly how the story ends, but the journey toward the ending is just too entertaining to pass up. In many ways, the Celtics-Lakers rivalry is the same. When a Finals match up between the two storied franchises materializes, we know we won't be able to tear ourselves away from the television. The difference between the rivalry and those great books or movies, however, is that we don't know the ending of each chapter of the rivalry. This uncertainty, of course, only makes the anticipation for the journey toward the ending all the more enticing.

When I think Celtics-Lakers, no matter how long I live and how many incarnations of the drama I am lucky enough to witness, I will always think first of Magic and Bird. In some ways it is unfair to all the other great players that faced off in those three epic battles in the '84, '85, and '87 Finals, but the images that endure for me are those of Magic's and The Legend's great successes and equally devastating failures in those series. Even though the MJ era turned my love of basketball into a life long obsession, I can thank Magic and Larry (and to a lesser degree, Isaih) for that remarkable stretch between 1984 and 1990 in which I truly fell in love with the game.

Two years ago, 21 years after the last time these two franchises had faced off in the Finals, we were treated to a renewal of the rivalry. It would be hyperbole to call that series great, but it would be completely fair to call it memorable. From Paul Pierce's injury and return in Game 1 (sure, the wheel chair may have been excessive) to the Celtics' stunning Game 4 comeback and the ultimate Game 6 shellacking, the series was played with a staggering level of intensity that was worthy of the two franchises. But now, as we approach the tip off of the latest chapter in the rivalry, the anticipation is even greater than it was in 2008. Why? Well, I'm glad you asked. Here, in old school WAD style, are the seven reasons why I believe this is the most anticipated NBA Finals since MJ walked away in 1998 (yes, I know he came back a few years later, but I choose to pretend like that never happened):

1) The surprise factor. Raise your hand if after the Celtics closed the season 3-7 in their last 10 games you thought they would make the NBA Finals. Now, if you just raised your hand, please go look in a mirror. You see that person in the mirror? That person is lying. Nobody in their right mind thought this aging team that, over the past 18 months, desperately tried to trade one hall of famer (Ray Allen) and one guy that suddenly looks like he could be a hall of famer (Rajon Rondo) would make the Finals. The Hawks swept the season series with the Celtics for heaven's sake! It's simply unfathomable what they have done in plowing through D. Wade, Lebron, and Dwight Howard. If we've learned nothing else from this Celtics run, we've learned these three things: a) never count out a team with three first ballot hall of famers; b) Vince Carter is really fun to root against; and c) If this were college basketball, the Eastern Conference might have been a three bid league.

2) Rondo. Forget the numbers. Forget the fact that he can't hit a 15 foot jumper. Forget the fact that he looks like he might be the first alien to play in the NBA since Sam Cassell. Can you ever remember a guy going from All-Star to Super Star status as quickly and authoritatively as Rondo has in these playoffs? And, can you ever remember a guy going from somewhat forgettable to thoroughly mesmerizing on a basketball court this quickly? The only way you can't enjoy the surgence (I just made that word up) of Rondo is if you are a Kentucky fan that had to watch him labor under Tubby Smith. Not such a great job by you, Tubby.

3) Kobe. Not much to say here. If he beats a worthy opponent like the Celtics for his 5th Title and his 2nd non-Shaq title, there is no denying he is one of the greatest of all time. Hell, you probably can't deny it now, but at least you still have an argument. Listen, nobody hates the way Kobe has played the games at times more than me. Nobody is quicker than me to point out how he destroyed his team in '04 Finals, the '07 playoffs against Phoenix, or the '08 Finals. But, nobody is quicker than me to admit that there is NOBODY I would rather have with the ball in his hands with everything on the line than Kobe. That being said, fair or not, I believe this series will shape his legacy, for better or worse. If he wins, all the negative on the court stuff vanishes into thin air once and for all, and he takes his place in history just below MJ. But let's be clear. Unless he cures cancer or stops the oil spill in the Gulf, he will never rise higher...never.

4) Artest. There is no substitute for the ever present possibility of insanity. There was a reason every Mike Tyson fight was riveting. There is a reason you get a little excited every time you see Emmit Smith with a microphone in front of him. And, there is a reason it never gets old watching the clip of Kevin Garnett incomprehensibly screaming after winning the title in '08. People acting insanely on live television can be great fun, and with Artest in the mix it's not a question of if he will do something insane, it's when.

5) KG. Uhhh, see #4 above.

6) Phil Jackson. The greatest team sports coach of my lifetime with his future in limbo. If he wins, will he stay? If he loses, will he stay? If he moves his shoulders, will his whole body tumble over? So many questions. Seriously, the Phil Jackson story is one of the most intriguing subplots of this series. Personally, I'm praying that, win or lose, he is coaching the Nets next year. I would pay money for a new channel that only broadcast every conversation between him and the big Russian guy that now owns the Nets.

7) Lebron. Granted, the Lebron saga and the Free Agent Summit has nothing to do with the Finals, but I'm pretty sure anybody talking or writing about the NBA right now is required by law to mention it, so I'm just carrying out my legal obligation.

So, there are my seven reasons why I'm beyond excited about the '10 Finals. As for the actual games, unlike '08, I think it's a mis-match. I think Pau is too skilled inside for this version of KG, and he's too mobile on the outside for Perkins. I think Artest will grab, trip, punch, and disrupt Pierce into utter frustration. I think Phil will continue to whine and bitch to and about the refs to the point that you won't be able to look at Kobe without drawing a whistle. And, as for Kobe, this is the moment for which he has waited his entire life. As much as it pains me, I just don't see any way he doesn't put in a virtuoso performance and cement his legacy as the greatest Laker of all time. Now, if you will excuse me, I'm going to go rip my finger nails off one by one.

Prediction: Lakers in 5 and Kobe wins the MVP.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Nobody to Blame But Myself

As I begin writing this entry, the Mavs and Spurs just began the fourth quarter of their Game 6. Dirk is throwing in ridiculous bank shots. George Hill continues to make corner 3's. Ginobili is throwing his body around recklessly while sporting the most ridiculous tape job I've ever seen over his nose. Honestly, if that thing was a Breathe Rite strip, it might keep me from snoring. Even Richard Jefferson and Jason Kidd look like they care tonight. And, to top it off, Reggie Miller is on pace to shatter Troy Aikman's record for stating the obvious in a single sports broadcast. In other words, every body involved in this Game 6 brought their "A" game tonight. And, frankly, isn't that what you would expect to see from two proud franchises in the most important game of their seasons?

Read that previous sentence again. What word stands out? For me, it's "proud". Unfortunately, watching these two teams go toe to toe while leaving their guts on the floor highlights even brighter what we learned about the Atlanta Hawks 24 hours ago: the Hawks are not a "proud" franchise. Think I'm being harsh? Well, would a proud franchise EVER allow a team led by a 19 year old kid and Carlos F. Delfino (for the record, I have no idea what Carlos' middle name is...I chose the F for my own reasons) to dominate it in the fourth quarter of a must win playoff game on its home floor? Would a proud franchise's players EVER start screaming and pointing fingers at one another as it's season was crashing down around them? (I'm conveniently choosing to forget the Scottie Pippen "If you are drawing this play up for Kukoc, I'm going to sit my ass right here on this bench like a four year old" game for the moment). And, if you want to go back two years (and, I do), would one of the best young players on a proud franchise ever willingly ditch that franchise and go play in Greece? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, I would kindly ask you to stop reading now. You aren't going to like what follows.

The truth is that I'm not angry at the Hawks for being a less than proud franchise. Instead, I'm angry at myself for getting sucked in and believing that, after a lifetime of disappointment and ineptitude, the Hawks had finally turned the corner. I'm angry at myself for spending the last three years constantly saying, "hey, we are getting better each year...we are really building something here." I'm angry at myself for spending the last six months saying, "I really think Jamal Crawford is the X factor that makes us a contender." And, most of all, I'm angry at myself for being shocked last night when the curtain came crashing down and the same old Hawks franchise was standing there exposed for all the world to see.

Again, I'm not angry at the Hawks. It's not their fault. They are what they have always been. They haven't changed. I'm the one that ignored all the signs that this team was no different from the litany of past Hawks teams that have left me empty (i.e. an embarrassingly weak Eastern Conference, a heavy crunch time reliance on one of the streakiest and most selfish NBA players of the past decade (Crawford), an even heavier crunch time reliance on an offense that makes Paul Hewitt's offensive sets look ingenious, and a complete lack of any scoring presence in the post). Most of all, however, I'm the one that ignored a lifetime of evidence that the Hawks do not have the wherewithal to be a proud NBA franchise.

The Hawks moved to Atlanta in 1968. That's 9 years before I was born. In their 41 seasons in Atlanta, including this season, the Hawks have made the playoffs 26 times. Of those 26 playoff appearances, the Hawks have NEVER...I repeat, NEVER advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. I'm not talking about winning a championship. I'm not even talking about making the NBA Finals. I'm talking about making the Conference Finals. In other words, in their 41 years in Atlanta, the Hawks have never been one of the best four teams in the NBA. Hell, the proudest moment in the franchise's history came when 'Nique engaged in a legendary duel with The Legend in a second round Game 7 LOSS in '88 (I'm going crazy with the ALL-CAPS). Let me repeat, the proudest moment in franchise history came in a loss 22 years ago! To make matters worse, the first Hawks game I remember attending was a Game 5 home loss to Jack "The Perm" Sikma and Milwaukee in the first round in '84. And, oh by the way, for the past five years we haven't even known who owns this freaking franchise!

In the face of all that evidence, I somehow convinced myself that things were now different. Again, I can't blame the Hawks for that. I only have myself to blame. Allowing myself to believe in this team was the sports fan equivalent of Elin agreeing to meet Tiger for breakfast at Perkins. Sometimes, you just have to know better.

In light of everything I've just written, I imagine you are expecting me to now declare that I've finally learned my lesson. That I finally know better. That I will not be watching Game 6 tomorrow night. Unfortunately, you would be wrong. I'll be in front of the TV. I'll be screaming. At some point in the second half, I'm sure I'll be talking myself back into Jamal Crawford. If we win, I'm sure I'll start talking myself into how a Game 7 win will give us the momentum to steal Game 1 from the Magic. In other words, I will go down the same road I have since I left the Omni after The Perm broke my heart in '84. On the bright side, I hear Perkins serves a great breakfast.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hello, Stranger!

It's been a while. 5 months, you say? Well, a lot has happened since we last saw each other. I mean, when we last met in this space, I thought Tiger's biggest concerns were his injuries from the car accident. Little did we know that he was so inspired by Amy Adams' performance in "Julie and Julia" that he decided to spend a year of his life cooking his way through Magic Johnson's pre-1991 cook book.

And that horrible joke, my friends, is the only thing I am ever going to say about the Tiger Woods scandal. Why? Because now that Billy Payne and Jim Nantz have told the world how we are supposed to feel about Tiger, the issue is settled, right? Once upon a time (i.e. about 8 days ago), I was a Nantz fan. In fact, I was even willing to conveniently ignore the fact that he was still allowed to announce the Final Four despite the fact that he is no better than CBS' fifth best college play-by-play guy. However, after his self righteous attack on Tiger over the entire Masters weekend and on Simmons' podcast last Monday (not to mention his nauseating false modesty on that same podcast), I'm no longer willing to give him a pass. If I was motivated and knew how to publish a website, I would have already started an online campaign to have Gus Johnson do next year's Final Four and the voice of the late Earl Woods do the '11 Masters. I know. I know. CBS would never let Gus do the Final Four. Thanks to the magic of Phil Knight, however, that is the only problem with my plan.

Okay, that's enough of that. Frankly, that's enough from me right now. I just wanted to take the opportunity to let you know I'm back, and I haven't forgotten about you. There should be plenty to come in the weeks and months ahead as the NBA Playoffs unfold, Jack Bauer puts in his final hours, Crosby and Ovechkin fight for the Stanley Cup, and "American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" move closer to crowning their champions. I'm just kidding. I don't watch hockey.