Getting Older Through Sports

We all age, and the older we get the more quickly years seem to slip by.

Aging through the prism of sports is especially fascinating: not only do we get to watch ourselves age but we get to see careers begin, flourish, decline and inevitably end.  Players you remember as young, upstart rookies gradually age in confident veterans and leaders before they transition to the final stage of their careers as grizzled vets.  In our own lives we move from youth and inexperience to careers and families and genuine responsibilities.  At some point you can no longer be considered “young” but are thought of as an “adult”.  How does this happen?

Age happens to us all.  Consider the following players: Charles Woodson, Kobe Bryant, Derek Jeter and David Beckham.  I remember each when they were a rookie.  One of my most vivid sports memories is Charles Woodson having the greatest season a defensive back ever had in 1998 – stealing Peyton Manning’s Heisman and National Title.  Now, Woodson has a Super Bowl ring and is nearing the end of his career as one of the best defensive backs in the history of football.  Bryant began his career in a draft day trade from the Hornets and over the next few years became one of the best players in the NBA.  Early in his career he won three titles and then stopped measuring himself by winning and focused instead on personal glory.  Now in the twilight of his career, he has rededicated himself to being a Champion.  Jeter has transitioned from a confident rookie into one of the great leaders in New York Yankees history.  Beckham just announced he is planning to leave LA at the conclusion of this season – in what many figured was the final stop for him after playing for Man U and being the face of English soccer for a very long time.

Others who are now grizzled vets are guys I remember as rookies and young bucks: KG, Paul Pierce, A-Rod, Pujols…the list goes on endlessly.  As sports fans we will probably see three or four cycles of players in our lifetimes.  In mine I feel I am on the second.  The vets like Duncan and Kobe and Peyton and Tom Brady are going to be on their way out in the next few years.  New players like KD, and LeBron and Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan are moving in to take their place.  Somewhere other future players are being born, and in eighteen years they too may be on our radar as future Hall of Famers.

This is the true gift of sports: we get to see entire careers play out over the course of years and when our old favorites leave there are always new ones waiting to take their place.  Great careers never fade completely but as we get older the connection never dims because our own lives so often mirror what athletes go through.

Sports is the great metaphor for life and I can only wonder if as I get older I will find myself with more and more of an affinity for those grizzled vets who just want one more chance at winning a title.

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Colin Kaepernick Arrives – Welcome to QB Controversy Frisco

In the up and down world of the NFL, where one week you can tie a bad team (like the Rams) and the next week you can obliterate a good one (like the Bears), one game is often enough to make a judgement on a quarterback.  I most certainly have made a ruling on Colin “Steve Young Jr.” Kaepernick – hand over the keys to the franchise.

The one game rise to prominance has a lot of precedent: Matt Schaub and Matt Flynn were both backups who had limited opportunity to shine before getting big contracts (as was Charlie Whitehurst…and Tavaris Jackson; bottom line the Seahawks have made some awful QB decisions).  Kaepernick may eventually also get such an opportunity, unless of course he has stolen Alex Smith’s job right out from under him.  The reasons Kaepernick would do so are the following: he has a cannon for an arm and surprising accuracy, he can run like Steve Young and escape from pressure, his command and leadership in the huddle are evident even from a small sample size.  Midway through the third quarter of the Monday nighter, Kaepernick threw an absolute laser of a touchdown to the resurgent Michael Crabtree and I found myself genuinely liking the kid…maybe more than I have ever like Alex Smith in any one game in his entire tenure with the team.

Going forwards, both Smith and Kaepernick will struggle at some point and the calls will come for the yank.  The Niners need to ensure they do not take one game and expect the second coming of Steve Young to continue to produce at the same level.

Yet, for the first time in a long time the 49ers have a truly exciting player at the QB position – and it would be a shame to just let him languish on the bench…

The Association – Miami Heat Edition

In my two plus years of being a Miami Heat fan I have never once turned off a game before the conclusion.  Miami has shown strong resilience and has often come back from deep down because of their supernatural ability to score points like few other teams in history.

Then there are the nights where nothing will go down and the team throws in the towel early in the fourth and allows the bench to get some court time (Hello again, Eddy Curry!) – but this was something altogether different.  I physically could not make myself finish the Heat – Clippers game from the other night.  It was more than simple disappointment at the predictable outcome, the Clips came in with something big to prove and shot the lights out, it was downright painful to watch Miami try to fight back into the game again and again only to see yet another three pointer (or deep two) improbably go in.  The whole thing was back breaker after back breaker and right around the time that Blake Griffin hit one of his five minute jumpers from about eighteen feet I started to get the feeling:

This is awful – there is simply nothing Miami can do to get back into the game.  The Clippers are just feeling it tonight and nothing is going to stop them. 

While this thought was still rattling around in my head (and ESPN has Lisa Salters chatting away with a clearly disinterested Grant Hill) Chris Paul, with complete confidence, nailed a thirty foot three like it was an everyday occurence.  As I was trying to process the ridiculousness of this shot, the Heat turned the ball over and Paul strolled down the court and absolutely destroyed Miami with another three.  The second he stepped up I had no doubt it was going in.  Every shot they were taking was going in, and this would be no different.  Paul’s confidence was so evident it was beyond clear the game was over.  Miami had no chance.

For the next two or three minutes it was like being in a complete state of shock.  I drifted in and out of the game and then finally picked up the remote and decided I had seen enough.  Why should I put myself through the agony?  I know teams get up to play Miami, to prove they can beat them but this was something else.  This was pure and unadulterated torment.  Miami has been awful defending the three this season, partly because it seems like they are content to coast through the regular season and turn it on when it counts most.  When they need to win a game, or a series, they have the best player in the world – a man who can singlehandedly win games or series.  The most recent instance being the other night against Houston when LeBron put up 32 points in the second half to carry the team to Victory.  To be clear: the Heat are not worried.

Maybe they are right, maybe they should not be worried.  Winning a title last year gives them a certain amount of leeway because they have proved they can get it done when they need to.  The Heat are the team whom no one wants to face in a seven game series.

The game against the Clips was hard to stomach though – it was like watching someone take punch after punch in a fight that had to go the distance.  Even though the Heat were staggered and bloody and taking it from all sides they had to keep going, there would be no mercy for them.

The Heat soldier on to Phoenix on the final stop of their West Coast swing, and it should be an easier game for them – hopefully if LBJ (sick) and Wade (hurt) play.  However, all in all:

We are not, and should not be worried about the Miami Heat. 

My Life as a Chelsea Fan – Nov 12, 2012

Chelsea fans, myself included, have been riding high since the beginning of the 2012 / 2013 Premier League season back in August – and why not?  The team featured a “well compensated” core of new players (Hazard, Oscar) who meshed perfectly with a rotating cast of solid vets (Juan Terry, Torres, Lampard) in a diamond-like formation, which allowed them to storm out to take the top of the table through the first quarter of the season.  Moreover, guys just always seemed to be in the right place at the right time: take Victor Moses, Gary Cahill or the resurrgent Juan Mata, each of whom are playing the best football of their careers.  In the early going of the season, I genuinely thought they might continue to be a team of destiny; a team who got all the breaks and continued to make their way through the table (sort of like Man City last year when everything broke right for them).

Then a few weeks ago I started to get a little nervous about the team when we lost to a team with a name like Shaktar in the Champions League group stage; when the team started drawing all their Premier League games it became increasingly worrisome.  For one thing: this team is too good to draw with anyone.  If Chelsea has one chance this year, it is in their ability to get a result no matter what odds are stacked against them.  A couple of weeks ago with the back to back against Man U, it was time for the team to show whether they could take down their primary challenger for the top spot.

Spoiler Alert: They failed.

In what might be the best game of the season, attended by my good friend @madadub Chelsea fought and scrapped to keep up with United only to lose on a goal in the closing moments by a clearly offside Javier Hernandez (3-2 United).  The clubs squared off again a couple of days later with Chelsea managing to overcome a goal onslaught thanks to a late winner by Victor Moses (5-4 Chelsea).

A split with United left fans even more stumped about the team: are they an elite group of players or not?  Can they come through when it matters, or will they end up a distant third to United and City when the season concludes?  Then there was this weekend: United and City surging to wins again with Chelsea squeaking out another draw when three points were desperately needed.  The thing with teams like Man City and Man U – they get it done, even when all the odds are stacked against them.  City keeps getting last minute goals from its harem of strikers they can bring off the bench, United keeps getting timely contributions from high paid  Hernandez and RVP.

Chelsea?  Leader and legend John Terry gave them a brilliant goal before going off with an ugly sounding knee injury – a massive blow to a foundering club in need of a strong veterans and outright wins.  If they continue to play with a trick or treat style they will surely end up on the wrong side of the top of the table.  As of right now they sit third (one point behind City, three behind United) but already that gap seems vaguely insurmountable the way the team is currently playing.

Keep in the mind the season is still in its early stages, but after their hot start the Blues have cooled – right as United and City are surging.  The team needs to dig deep to withstand the onslaught and keep themselves afloat long enough to make another run at being number one.  Chelsea certainly has the talent to do so, and as they proved last year in the Champions League, they definitely have the moxie needed to be Champions.

For the next few weeks, they just need to show it.

LeBron and the Heat – Shades of the ’86 Celtics

LeBron and the Miami Heat are currently playing at a ridiculous level – they are 4-1 in the early going of this season and show no signs of slowing up.  The only loss the Heat have suffered this season came at the hands of a ridiculous, post-Sandy shooting storm by the New York Knicks (will not happen again).

Against Atlanta, and playing without DWade, the Heat got down early and then proceeded to absolutely toy with the Hawks.  At one point, LeBron stole the ball and sprinted down the court.  He looked back and saw Hawks PG Jeff Teague catching up so he slowed down just long enough to make contact with Teague in order to draw a foul alongside his eeasy dunk.  Who else is smart enough to make that play: maybe Jordan at his peak, and maybe Bird or Magic but no one else.  Later on, James shot a three from maybe thirty-five feet for seemingly no reason; shades of course, of Larry Bird deciding to shoot all his shots with his left hand for an entire game.

The Heat are firing on all cylinders and it is already evident this is the deepest team of their three year run with the Big Three.  During the off season the team added Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis, both of whom have seamlessly integrated with the team and are both having great seasons – particularly Lewis who is shooting over 50% and 47% from three point land.

Another reason the Heat are better this season is, as Rat Riley speculated, the pressure is off.  The team can simply play and win.  They are moving the ball frighteningly well and there is little doubt LeBron is the best player in the league and can do virtually whatever he wants.

The Heat are a special team this season, like the ’86 Celts were.  They are built around an apex superstar (Bron / Bird), two all-stars (Wade and Bosh / McHale and Parrish) and include a variety of lovable characters off the bench.  Could the 2012/2013 Heat end up as one of the best teams ever, as the ’86 Celtics did?

Regardless of how they are viewed historically, fans should enjoy this team while we can – how often do you get a chance to see one of the greatest players ever at his absolute peak?  For years we have wondered how high LeBron’s ceiling could be and now that it appears to be here, all we can do is stare in absolute wonder.

Why the NHL Lockout is Truly Horrible

The current NHL lockout is horrible for everyone for a number of reasons: the league was gaining some serious momentum with young stars like Crosby and Stamkos, the league is in financial trouble, contraction seriously needs to be on the table, and of course this is one of the most talent rich periods in history (the most talent rich times otherwise being the 50’s, 70’s and mid to late 80’s).

However, for Canucks fans this lockout is particularly galling for the following reasons:

1) We are missing a season of the primes of our (aging) super stars – Vancouver has a lineup built on offensive excitement with guys like Daniel and Henrik Sedin and a second unit capable of huge plays from gritty star Ryan Kesler.  However, they are not getting any younger and Vancouver is now two seasons removed from our epic collapse in the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals – and yes, let’s be honest Vancouver, it was a complete and total collapse.  We were up 2-0 and had home ice advantage where we were virtually unbeaten not to mention…(and I’m going to stop here or this post will be twenty thousand words which no one really wants).  Back to the main argument: Championship windows are very small and have a tendancy of slamming shut rather abruptly.  After their bad loss at the hands of the LA Kings last April the window is smaller than ever for the Canucks.  We do not have much time left with our current core and we are already starting to jettision players who previously would have been untouchable just a couple of years earlier, which brings us to:

2) Luongo looms over the franchise like an albatross – When we signed Luongo to a franchise record 12 year $68 million contract it seemed like a great idea at the time.  For one thing everyone was doing it: Rick Dipetro anyone?  For another Luongo gave us a chance to win every single night, he was one of the elite players in the league and he was headed for 2010 where he backstopped Canada to a gold medal.  Now?  The media and fans of Vancouver have destroyed him, and the rest of the league has caught up to his very, very glaring weaknesses – like the fact that when he flops down he takes roughly two minutes to get back up so that he gets beaten by every high shot every taken or that crowds can get to him (like Boston in Game 6 where from the outset it was clear he wanted no part of it at all.  Had we started Cory Schneider that night there would be a banner in Vancouver, hanging in the rafters stating: 2011 Stanley Cup Champions).  Last season in the playoffs it became clear that no one needed a change of scenery more than Luongo and that the Canucks need to roll the dice with the much, much, much cheaper Schneider.  As my brother, Just Ross complained at the beginning of last season “we have like 8 years left of Luongo?  As he gets worse and worse?”  At the time it seemed like we did.  At the conclusion of last season he decided to waive his no-trade clause and has requested that Vancouver deal him.  Then the lockout came into play and now Luongo is sitting in Florida while he waits for it to shake out.  The rumors of trades to Florida, Tampa Bay and Toronto continue on a daily basis but nothing can happen until the lockout ends.  Luongo and the team are in stasis just waiting and hoping for something to happen.  For both the team and the player we need to hope something does.

And finally…

3) It may be another season where Vancouver could win the Cup – Few fan bases have been as tortured as Vancouver who have played in 3 Stanley Cup finals in their forty-two year history.  In the first they lost to the Islanders dynasty, in the second they lost a brutal game seven to the Rangers that touched off riots and in the third they lost a brutal game seven to the Bruins that touched off…well you get the picture.  We have a team capable of winning now – two straight Presidents Cup Trophies as the leagues best regular season team – but we are running out of time.  I want, more than anything to see a Cup for my city.  We deserve it and desperately need it; even if people from Surrey do not at all.  A season unplayed is a season without a Champ (the last lockout cost Eric Lindros his shot at a title.  There was no chance the Flyers lose that year) and while I am not saying the Canucks are a lock by any means (we have a ways to go) we need that chance to win.  Our aging core of vets is rapidly running out of time and this could be their shot.

Canucks fans need this to end as much as anyone and is anyone else tired of watching “classic movies” on Saturday nights instead of hockey?  Come on league and NHLPA we need to get this done and bring our boys back from overseas (the number of players signing over there is a good indicator of where we are with the lockout: deep with little hope).  Most of all we deserve a chance at the Cup.  This just might be our year which would make no hockey this year all the more sad and ironic.

Miami Thrice Title Quest Diary – The Aftermath

Tonight was one of the best Sports nights of my life: tonight, the Miami Heat got their Championship rings.

Usually these ceremonies simply involve an eff you to a vicious rival team of the Champs -like the Heat were forced to become last year when the Dallas Mavericks made them sit through a trophy presentation.

This year though, I had no problem with the Celts sitting through the whole thing as I hate them so it was all good.  Seeing Bosh, Wade and LeBron get their rings and grin like kids with a new toy was fantastic.  However,  the best part was seeing them get right back to the business of repeating and playing with fire and crazy intensity (keeping in mind the Celtics have been constructed this season solely for the purpose of beating Miami.  There is no question they will be beaten by someone like Indiana because they focused too much on the Heat).

How can you not like to see Ray Allen stick it to his old team (he is a guy I actually like, mostly for his tenacious D) was incredible.  Midway through the first quarter after Rashard Lewis hit a deep three I had the thought: Man, I really love this year’s Heat.  They are deeper (adding more shooting / scoring) and more primed for a Championship run (they know what it takes) than ever before.

Then there is LeBron who is  playing at a ridiculously high level and who last night, in slightly more than a half had 26 points and 10 rebounds.  We need to frequently remind ourselves we are watching the most dominant player in the last twenty years.  Twenty years ago, Jordan had a mega-apex after the Olympics and 1992 Finals and now LeBron too, is enjoying the same feeling, for the next generation this is almost a surreal experience.  They struggle to understand how good LeBron is – for kids these days, he is without doubt the best player any of them will ever see.  So, it was another great night for LBJ and other than the cramps he was virtually unstoppable: my favorite moment from last night was when LeBron handed the ball to Bosh, disappeared off screen and then reappeared on the end of a ridiculous alley-oop from Bosh.  At first I thought Bosh might have been simply throwing the ball up and then LBJ swooped into frame for the dunk.

The one sticking point for the team – Wade who seems hell bent on reasserting himself into “alpha dog” status (both through strange haircut and bad shots).  At one point, LeBron threw a  tricky spin bounce pass to Bosh that Wade stole from him and then turned over.  He just tried to do too much and seems desperate to prove his importance.  A development to watch over the course of the season (yes, I cannot stop myself from nit picking with this team, I love them too much).

This moment was a special one: to see that banner CHAMPIONS! raised to the rafters.  When I signed on to support the Heat two years ago, this is what I could not wait to see.  The moment felt good – great even – but the problem is one I believe will plague Miami all season: wanting more.  Titles are like a drug you just want to keep chasing, once you have gotten a taste nothing else is ever as good.  That is why KG plays every single game like his life is on the line, or why Jordan could never fully let go, or why Duncan conserves himself for the right moments time and again.  That is why LeBron is going to be putting on the greatest display we have seen in recent memory, and we are all the better for it.

Currently, I have been re-reading Bill Simmons Red Sox Opus Now I Can Die in Peace (tough to get through one time as a Yankees fan, but twice?  As a Vancouver Canucks fan I can sympathize) and more than ever I understand the book on a different level.  Imagine if LeBron and Miami did not win last year, the chaos and scrutiny that team would be facing.  Bosh and Spolestra would be gone for sure and likely others.  There would be no way Ray Allen would be there, and no way the Celtics would have re-tooled like they did.  Watching LeBron and co. take a ring was incredible, unbelievable and wholly an unnerving experience – I was actually watching through my fingers for most of the 2012 Playoffs.  A title just means so much, especially for a guy whose hockey team has now lost two brutal game sevens seventeen years apart.  Will I see them win a title in my lifetime?  Will I love them any less if they do not win? (The answer to both questions is “Of Course”).

A banner in Miami means so much to LeBron’s legacy because now we can begin to appreciate him as a great player.  As he once said, now we can enjoy his greatness without the endless questions of whether or not he can get it done when it counts the most, because as the banner they raised the other night proclaims: yes, without a doubt, he can.