Falling Away

I sure do love me some March Madness. Wall-to-wall basketball for the better part of a month. If it’s not being played, it’s being talked about. Nobody mailing it in, every team playing their hearts out because they know it’s win-or-go-home. The best time of the year to be a basketball fan, hands-down.

freakout_1_-_1.0_standard_500.0I used to devote hour upon hour to watching every second of basketball I could during the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament. I obsessed over my bracket every year, cursing the names of every losing team that made me look foolish for picking them to win. Much to the chagrin of nearly everyone around me, I was a Kentucky boy rooting (for no particular reason) for the North Carolina Tar Heels. Yelling at the television, throwing stuff, biting my nails… Yep, I was that guy.

I say all that in the past tense because I’m not really that guy anymore. I mean, I still watch quite a bit of the tournament, but I don’t feel very emotionally invested in it anymore. I still fill out a bracket, but I don’t really care what my overall record is once the dust is settled. Not only do I not root for the Tar Heels anymore, I don’t throw my support behind any particular team these days. I still care … but, then again, I don’t care. Know what I mean?

Maybe my slow fade from tournament junkie to semi-casual observer started several years ago when I read Alexander Wolff’s Raw Recruits during the breaks in a lengthy trial I had to cover for the newspaper I was working for at the time. Or maybe it began nearly 12 years ago, when my wife and I welcome our first child into the world and our lives and priorities got turned upside-down. Or maybe it was when I realized I was finally older than all of the players (and now I’m actually older than a lot of the coaches,too).

Whatever the case, I found myself sitting down to fill out a bracket this year and suddenly realizing I had no idea what I was doing. Even stranger, I wasn’t really bothered by that. I’m certainly not criticizing anyone still knows the starting five of every team or dresses up in their favorite team’s gear just to watch them on television. If your heart still lies there, I think that’s awesome. Somewhere down the line, mine sort of moved on … and I’m not entirely sure that’s such a bad thing.

All my life, I’ve heard that God will take things out of your life if He doesn’t think they’re fruitful. I’ve always envisioned that as Him having to pry whatever it was I was holding onto from my clutching, angry fingers as I kicked and screamed through the entire process. Whatever it was, it would be something I desperately didn’t want to give up, and He would cause me great pain and discomfort by taking it. After a while, with this mentality, it’s easy to start thinking that Christianity is less about joy and freedom and more about sucking all the joy out of life in an effort to conform.

As with most things in life, though, God needs to change the heart before he change the behavior. Had someone come to me and said, “Hey, you’re really obsessing too much over basketball. You need to stop watching so much.”, I probably would not have responded in a very compliant way. Stretched out over time, though, I saw my time going to other things – writing, kids, friends – that made me happy in my heart. And while I never lost my love for the game, I did lose that feeling that I had to be plugged into it constantly during tournament time.

There are certain things we’ll have to give up in life. For example, if you’re an alcoholic and you’re destroying your liver with booze every night, you will have to give up drinking. Something will have to move the heart away from the liquor store, however, before the body will follow. So from ending sports obsessions to chemical addictions to ingrained behaviors, the same madness is at work. The good thing is, it’s not just limited to the month of March.

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Anger Tested

0210141442See that? I did that. Got ticked off and kicked a door, and since this particular door did not have any kind of stopper on it or behind it, its handle slammed into the wall, creating the hole you now see.

I’m sure you can also see the “hole” is really more of a square. That’s because this particular wall had been punctured before and had been subsequently patched, so, in my defense, it took less effort to create a new hole in an already-weakened area. And, for reasons I won’t go into, I was really hacked off about an incident that probably would have caused a great number of hot-headed males to at least kick something out of frustration.

I thought of that hole this weekend when I saw Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart shove Texas Tech jerk fan Jeff Orr in the chest Saturday night. I won’t deny that there is a part of me that loves seeing smart-mouthed knuckleheads in the stands get what’s coming to them. Ron Artest at The Palace? Dude shouldn’t have thrown that cup at him. Vernon Maxwell punching a guy in the face? Don’t mock a man’s wife’s miscarriage. Monica Seles getting stabbed? Well, it didn’t happen, but somebody should have beat the crap out of that maniac, too.

Smart claimed shortly after the incident that Orr had called him “the N-word,” but he seemed to back off that statement later. To show his classiness, Orr clarified that he hadn’t used the racial epithet, but had rather called Smart a “piece of crap,” which, of course, is much better. Both men apologized for their actions, and Smart received a three-game suspension, while Orr voluntarily will not attend any more Tech games this season, presumably leaving him more time to call teenagers pieces of crap from the comfort of his own living room rather than in crowded gymnasiums.

Some guys (and probably girls, too) just have it coming. Truth be told, though, a lot of other people in the arena that night probably had it coming, too. And a lot of people at the next Oklahoma State game will probably having it coming as well. If Smart makes it to the NBA, you know a lot of those fans will straight up deserve a shove in the chest. Beyond that, though, Smart will likely have to deal with rude waitresses, people talking too loud at the movie theater, lazy co-workers, drivers who cut him off in traffic…

You can probably see what I’m getting at. Everywhere we go, there is going to be something to test us. Smart will likely have to deal020914-Marcus-Smart-600 with jerk fans until he hangs up his high-tops for good one day, and as much as they would probably deserve it, he can’t shove every one of them in the chest in retaliation. And as bad as my day may be, I can’t go around kicking holes in walls to take out my frustration. Without self-control, we can cause all kinds of damage. As much as we would like to, we can’t dish out justice as we see fit. We have to turn the other cheek sometimes.

So I failed my anger test, just like Marcus Smart did, and I’ll probably fail many more before my time on earth is through. I hope Smart comes out of all this a better man … or at least a better man than Orr was Saturday night.

Potential

In case you hadn’t noticed, it didn’t take me long to break my New Year’s resolution about blogging every day. My intentions were good, but my dedication just wasn’t there. To be honest, I had my mind of a lot of other things besides blogging, so I just didn’t do it. I guess you could say I wasn’t passionate enough about posting something here every day.

As expected, I noticed the number of views this blog received dwindled each day I didn’t write something. This was definitely not a surprise, as it is sort of customary for things that don’t have a lot of effort put into them to receive less and less attention. This tends to be the case with people; the ones who don’t try very hard are generally the ones who eventually fade into obscurity.

Well, unless your name is Andrew Bynum, that is.Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers

Here is just a sampling of the professional basketball career of Andrew Bynum (I was going to use his full name here, but apparently his middle name – like much of what goes on inside his head – is something of a mystery.): He once attempted to steal the ball from one of his own teammates – on purpose. He was suspended four games and fined $25,000 for a vicious flagrant foul on J.J. Barea during the 2011 playoffs. He injured his knee while bowling last season and never played a game for the Philadelphia 76ers. And this season he was such a pain in the butt in Cleveland, the Cavs sent him packing to Chicago, who promptly released him in a money-saving move.

Considering that’s just a sampling of how nerve-racking being a coach or teammate of Bynum can be, you would think this might spell the end of his enigmatic NBA career. Not so, however. At last check, SI.com was reporting Bynum was drawing interest from eight different teams, including the reigning NBA champions, the Miami Heat. ESPN’s Chris Broussard reports that playing time and the team’s status as a title contender would be major factors in the former All-Star center’s final choice of where to play next.

So, let’s review here, shall we? Show flashes of immense basketball talent, put up wildly inconsistent numbers, blatantly attempt to injure players smaller than you, go bowling on a balky knee, prove to be enough of a pain in the rear that your team suspends and then trades you, get waived by your new team, and then sit back and wait for the offers to come rolling in. Makes sense, right?

kinseyA few years ago, my brother and I went to see a Memphis Grizzlies game. They were playing the Denver Nuggets, who still had Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony at the time. The Griz were basically tanking the season at this point, and all of their good players (including a pre-Lakers Pau Gasol) were sitting out that night. They still wound up winning the game, though, because a guy named Tarence Kinsey went for 20-plus points.

Where is Tarence Kinsey today? He’s overseas, playing for Partizan Belgrade of the Serbian League. Now, I’m not saying Tarence Kinsey ever possessed the raw basketball talent of an Andrew Bynum. What I am saying is I once saw Tarence Kinsey score more than 20 points in a professional basketball game. I’m pretty sure he had to work pretty hard to even be on the floor that night. And now he’s not even in the league.

I believe there are few things more frustrating in life than having to watch people with “potential” be given endless chances to succeed while other people who work their butts off never seem to get an opportunity. Michael Jordan once got cut from a basketball team, but someone later saw how hard he worked and gave him a second chance. What did Bynum do to earn all these chances? He was tall, and he was supposed to be really good. He’s the guy with the golden smile who got the promotion over the family man with the college degree.

If I don’t write regularly, I don’t expect that many people to stop by here. I’m not a household name, so I can’t just churn out anything and expect to get a thousand visits a day. That’s okay, and I accept that. It just makes me want to work harder to succeed. I wonder what message the continuing saga of Andrew Bynum is telling us, though. If only I had a little more potential to show people. Who knows what I could get away with then?

Baseball’s Greatest Problem (Today)

In this day and age of suspensions and scandal in Major League Baseball, I believe we should stop and pay homage to the one man who has done more to clean up the sport than perhaps any other in history: Peter Edward Rose.pete rose

Yes, the eradication of one of MLB’s greatest problems can be traced solely to this one extraordinary man. This plague that once afflicted America’s Pastime can be traced back as far as 1865, when Thomas Devyr, Ed Duffy, and William Wansley of the New York Mutuals were (temporarily) banned from the sport. The Black Sox scandal of the 1919 World Series brought with it a slew of lifetime bans (and spawned the excellent movie Eight Men Out in 1988). And then Pete … well, we all know what happened to Pete.

What happened to Pete, though, apparently did something no commissioner or league rule could ever manage to accomplish: The lifetime suspension of Pete Rose ended gambling in professional baseball.

Think about it for a moment: Has anyone been banned from the game of baseball – temporarily or otherwise – for gambling since Pete Rose was back in 1989? I can’t even think of anyone who has been investigated for gambling within the game of baseball since then. (Note: I did stumble across a story from 2011 that MLB was looking into some possible gambling activity by Alex Rodriguez. That investigation was apparently for “underground poker games,” though, and didn’t seem to have anything to do with the actual game of baseball.)

Now, I would consider any infraction that warranted a lifetime ban from, well, anything to be of the greatest importance. It must rank as the crime above all crimes, the capital offense of all capital offenses, the sin of all sins. And with the banishment of Charlie Hustle, it disappeared from Major League Baseball forever. Poof…

Um, yeah. Right.

In a sport where players live, breathe, eat, and sleep competition, does anyone honestly believe Pete Rose was the last person arrogant enough to place a bet on a game? Even throwing out the possibility of someone attempting to influence the outcome of a game like Rose was accused of doing and the 1919 Sox were proven to do, there are spreads to be beaten, dollars to be earned, more victories to be accomplished. Players today make a lot more than Rose did in his day, plus they have the advantage of eliminating paper trails by using online betting. And they all just quit cold turkey?

I bring this up because as I type this Bud Selig and the rest of MLB are busy patting themselves on the back for striking a major blow against the use of illegal performance enhancers in the game. Basically, what we got was Ryan Braun being set up with a sweetheart deal to come back and play next season and not lose that much money; the attempted suspension of A-Rod through the end of 2014, which has been appealed and hasn’t gone into effect yet; and 50 games each for Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, and a bunch of guys you’ve never heard of, with last names like “Bastardo,” “Puello,” and “Norberto.”

I don’t point this out so much to criticize MLB for its relatively lightweight response to the issue of PEDs (again) as to show that this is another example of baseball striking a sweeping blow, patting itself on the back, and then firmly inserting its head back into the sand. Illegal performance enhancers are supposed to be the cardinal sin of baseball today, just as gambling was in Pete Rose’s day. Yet gambling is not even mentioned in the game today. How many years before baseball considers its PED problem “solved” and moves on to something else?

I appreciate the fact that MLB is at least trying to take a step in the right direction with these suspensions. I just hope they continue to take more and more steps and not consider their problems solved in a year or two. Whether they do that or not is one bet I’m not willing to take just yet.

Upward & Onward

Wait, wait, wait… This can’t be right. My daughter is smiling.

Sports has occupied some space in my life for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, I can’t say all my athletic experiences have been positive. Through my own insistence on perfection, demeaning and cruel coaches, and a body that would just never quite do what I wanted it to, participating in sports probably did as much damage to my psyche as it did good. I never gave up watching sports live and on television or reading about them in the newspaper or listening to them on the radio, but even today I can’t do any of those without feeling the sting of those awful years I went through.

The prospect of any of my children wanting to seriously pursue sports today absolutely terrifies me. If I heard a coach address any of my children in the manner some of my coaches did me, I’d tell them to quit on the spot. No “hang in there, it will build your character, blah, blah, blah” speech from this dad. The price of my children’s dignity and self-respect is worth more than whatever some coach might want out of them will ever be.

When my wife and I had two girls first, I thought we might be able to avoid sports altogether. That may have been stereotyping on my part, but I seem to notice more girls who never pay much attention to sports than I do boys. Of course, my hopes were dashed when both girls wanted to play soccer as soon as they were old enough. We’ve done a little tee ball and a little more soccer since then, with my oldest son getting into things.

So far, there hasn’t been anything negative to report. In fact, everyone seems to be having quite a bit of fun. I still have this uneasy feeling, though, that things will change as they start to get older. Practices will become more frequent. Coaches will be more demanding. Pressure will be put on us to travel every weekend. This could all be ridiculous speculation on my part … or it could be the way we’re headed. Only time will tell, I guess.

For now, though, I have been most pleasantly surprised this year by my 10-year-old daughter’s first experience with Upward Sports. Upward Sports LogoShe wanted to play basketball last year, but we felt like we had too much going on. Plus, the logistics of getting her to and from practice weren’t really going to work out, so we waited until this year to let her play. Even knowing that Upward is a Christian-oriented, non-competitive organization, I still worried that basketball could turn my happy child into a brooding competitor or snarling perfectionist.

I’m happy to report, with one game left in the season, she hasn’t become either one of those things. She does have one problem – giggling. She smiles and giggles all the time. In practice and during games. To the credit of Upward and its coaches, no one seems to have a problem with this. She’s actually enjoying herself. I can honestly say I don’t remember what that ever felt like. I don’t want the season to end because I’m having so much fun watching her have fun.

If we have it figured right, she has one more year she can play Upward basketball. The thought of anything beyond that causes the same old fears to rise up in me, because I know coaches at “the next level” tend to frown upon giggling when their players are on the court. Whether she wants to go farther will depend on a number of factors, mainly whether or not she wants to continue playing. At any rate, I’m glad she’s getting to know what it’s like to enjoy sports. And I’m glad I’m getting to remember.

Caution Is The New Fear

I may be the only person alive who’s ever broken a bone while working at a radio station. I wasn’t even doing anything strenuous. I was just walking from one room to another when I turned around to go back to my office for something I forgot, caught my foot on a piece of paneling that was leaning against a counter, and tripped and fell. When I tried to catch myself on the doorway that was suddenly rushing toward my face, I fractured my left elbow. I’ll bet Casey Kasem never did anything like that.

Thanks to Washington Nationals’ pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the health of elbows has been a topic of much discussion as of late. At least Strasburg screwed his elbow up doing something worthwhile – pitching for a major league baseball team while earning more money than I’ll likely see in my entire lifetime. Then again, I only had to wear a sling for a couple of weeks; Strasburg had to basically have his whole elbow rebuilt.

A short summary of the Stephen Strasburg story goes something like this: High school phenom pitcher gets drafted by the Washington Nationals, blows through the minor league system in about five minutes’ time, becomes instant sensation with an electrifying major league debut, mangles elbow, has to have Tommy John surgery to repair damage, misses entire 2011 season, returns in 2012, and becomes ace of surprising Nationals’ team which has itself positioned for a playoff run this year.

If this were all Strasburg had done, however, he wouldn’t be the topic of discussion on every sports talk show in America (Well, at least the ones that aren’t talking non-stop about football right now…). In an attempt to protect the health and pitching longevity of their young star, the Nationals opted this week to shut Strasburg down for the rest of the season and, possibly, for the entire postseason as well. Washington General Manager Mike Rizzo had stated at the beginning of this season the team would shut Strasburg down after 160 innings, and (give or take a few innings) the Nationals made good on their promise.

In a strictly sports-related sense, this particular scenario can provide endless hours of debate. If you factor in the years when the Nationals were the Montreal Expos (and, before that, the years they were actually the Washington Nationals), they haven’t even sniffed the playoffs in years, and they just removed their best pitcher with the shot of a playoff success staring them in the face. Then again, Strasburg is only 24 years old, which means he and the team could have plenty more chances to achieve postseason glory. And then again…

Blah, blah, blah. Here’s what I think about the whole situation: The Washington Nationals are chicken. Unfortunately, they just seem to be following a popular trend these days – attempting to mask fear with “caution.”

A pitcher for a Major League Baseball team has the potential of mangling his arm every time he takes the mound. Sure, Strasburg had Tommy John surgery, but so did Adam Wainwright of the St. Louis Cardinals, and he’s not on any kind of pitch-count. I guess the argument here is that Wainwright is seven years older than Strasburg and doesn’t have as much career left, but he was still the Cardinals’ ace before he got injured. Beyond pitchers, though, any player at any position could incur a career-ending injury every time they take the field. In the case of Cardinal outfielder Juan Encarnacion, he was simply standing in the on-deck circle when his career came to an end.

Whether it’s from a lack of life skills or poor money management or just plain not wanting to grow up, athletes in every sport today seem terrified of having their careers cut short. In fairness to Strasburg, he was not happy with the decision by the Nationals front office to sit him down. That this type of thinking has spread into the management ranks, though, should indicate how rampant it has become, as even those with the reputation of wearing out players with alarming frequency are becoming gun-shy about placing their proven commodities in harm’s way.

What really worries me, though, is how this mindset is creeping into everyday life. I mean, think about it: I broke my arm walking down a hallway. It stands to reason I could possibly break my arm walking down any hallway now, since that bone is probably a little more brittle than before. Even if I survive the hallway, though, I’ll have to get in my truck eventually and drive somewhere, and we all know how many auto accidents occur every year. A lot of people get choked on food every year, so I better give up eating, too.

Every day, there are hundreds of thousands of reasons to be terrified of everything that moves. For those of us who grew up idolizing professional athletes as men-of-steel who could do all the glorious things we couldn’t, seeing a talent like Strasburg sidelined not by an injury but by the mere chance an injury could occur just seems wrong on every level. If we’re playing the law of chances, the past history of the Nationals suggests they won’t win the World Series this year, so why not just shut the whole team down at the end of the regular season? Someone might get hurt in the playoffs, after all.

So I say let the kid pitch. And I say if it looks like the golden ring is within your grasp, go after it. If you lose something in the process, at least you’ll know you tried. Play ball!