The World Cup is Bonkers – And Then Luis Suarez Bit Someone

As the World Cup charges towards the elimination rounds, it is getting more and more outrageous as the stakes grow higher and higher.  The shocks just continue and continue: Italy out, England out, Spain out!?!   Here are some awesome things about the 2014 World Cup:

The supposed Championship teams have looked borderline beatable (Argentina, Brazil, Germany) and upstarts who are shocking people (Chile, Colombia, USA) could potentially win this thing…and then Luis Suarez bit someone.

The World Cup was already going down as one of the best ever, not only did you have ridiculous weather conditions and wire to wire games like the one between the USA and Portugal, or the way that the biggest players in the world are stepping up when it matters most like Neymar or Messi.  You could argue that even Suarez had been stepping up as well, but then, well, you know what happened next.  Suarez always, always downplays the fact that he bites people and there is no denying what he did.  FIFA moved quickly to suspend him for 9 games, but Suarez deserves more, much, much more.  He is one of the most despicable examples of a human being: he is one of the best footballers in the world. 

A quick comparison: during the NFL playoffs, Richard Sherman gave one of the most astoundingly honest interviews ever.  It was an honest and terrifying look at the frame of mind professional athlete who has to transform themselves into a monster in order to play an exceedingly violent game.  Suarez has said his own wife does not recognize him on the pitch, do soccer players have to transform themselves as well?  Some of the best players in the world have done incomprehensible and seemingly reprehensible things when it seems bizarre for them to do so.  Most people struggle to separate French star Zinedene Zidane from his infamous headbutt in the World Cup Final (even though the team won both the World Cup Championship and World Cup with him) even though he was one of the best players of his generation.  Suarez (who has not won anything) is crafting a similar legacy as the good and bad are definitely not balancing any more.  At the outset of the World Cup this was an opportunity for Suarez to banish the bad press.  He was coming off the best season a Premier League striker had ever had, and he was the reason Liverpool was competitive and fighting for the top spot in the league.  Finally he was growing up it seemed and yet, he could not help himself.  This is the third bite in his career and a strong message has to be sent.  One player cannot be bigger than the tournament itself and he deserves to be banned for a very, very long time.  Two incidents is way too much: three is a pattern that is not going to change.  Send a message, across the board.

Another great thing about the World Cup has been the Men in Blazers and their breakout performance as media stars at ESPN.  They are off kilter, hilarious and incredibly insightful.  The Blazers make soccer easy to understand for Americans and are almost singlehandedly increasing the popularity of the sport in the country.  This has been their breakout opportunity and their popularity will likely skyrocket as a result of all the burn they are getting at the World Cup. 

What will happen in the upcoming round of 16 is likely to be totally nuts.  CONCACAAF teams could make a big splash and Brazil could easily lose to Chile!  Unless of course there is some serious match fixing going on, which, given how much Brazil has invested in winning this thing would not be surprising (there first game already looked a little match fixy).  Will the teams who have looked great – think France and Holland – be able to keep it together and actually win some real games? 

This World Cup is awesome: and is only likely to get better with a new team rising to the top and the ongoing question is who will be able to survive the pressure.  A couple of players, Messi and Neymar, are feeling intense pressure to deliver the title.  This may be the last chance for Messi and will be the only time Neymar will play on his home soil.

World Cup = bonkers.  And it will only get better.    

The NBA Mount Rushmore

Earlier this season LeBron James was asked about his NBA Mount Rushmore and if he felt he belonged atop the NBA’s ultimate pinnacle – he was hopeful that one day he would be viewed by many in this context and then he threw out his personal Rushmore and it was very, very flawed. 

Why was it flawed – because it did not accurately reflect the idea of a Mount Rushmore.  What exactly is this?  Mount Rushmore did not just have the four greatest Presidents on it; rather it had the four most impactful on the country. 

Who then, are the four most impactful players in the history of the NBA (remember, not just as players but also on the league as a whole)? 

Michael Jordan

Bill Russell

Larry Bird / Magic Johnson

And…

LeBron James

What?  How can (insert old timer name here) not be on the Mount Rushmore? 

The league has gone through multiple eras and transitions, and each of these should be reflected on Mount Rushmore.  Just because someone is still active does not diminish their impact on the development and expansion of the NBA.  LeBron may not seem like a great choice but hear out the argument for each before passing judgement.

Michael Jordan – the argument for the NBA’s greatest player is pretty straightforward, he is the NBA’s greatest player and without question expanded the league to new heights never before thought possible.  Jordan became known as more than simply a basketball player and he moved the game into the worldwide phenomenon it is.  There is little doubt of the impact he has had, and now as an owner / ridiculous brand billionaire he is poised to continue playing a part in the future of the league.

Bill Russell – was literally responsible, along with Wilt / West / Baylor, for bringing the NBA out of the dark ages and making the game modern.  As an 11 time champion, he also helped break down the racial barriers across the country and successfully integrate the game.  He has continued to serve as the NBA’s ideal champion and one of the classiest men in professional sports. 

Magic / Bird – we are going with a half Magic face and a half Bird face because these two men saved the league when it was in its darkest time.  The rivalry between the two men allowed the league to move on from cocaine troubles, tape delay and a distinct lack of exposure.  They saved the game and began the turn towards becoming one of the biggest sports in the world.  The 80’s is remembered as Bird and Magic’s time and rightly so for all they did to expand the league.

LeBron James – when you think of the post Jordan league who is the first player you think of?  Kobe?  Shaq?  Duncan?  None of those players (great all) have had the same impact of LeBron James.  He has brought the league into modern, twitter-ful times.  The Decision – what other player would have had that kind of spotlight or ability to make a choice that fully altered the landscape of the league?  Everything he does is scrutinized over and above what anyone else in the history of the league has had to withstand.  Time and again he has stepped up (his averages in elimination games / game 7’s are the highest in NBA history) and he has revolutionized the NBA.  From style to worldwide branding, LeBron has changed the game forever.  He deserves a spot on the Mount Rushmore of the NBA…and his career is maybe half over.  What new heights – dizzying heights some may speculate – can he lift the league to?  Already teams are being sold for $2 billion dollars on the strength of TV contracts and players potential.  LeBron is the face of the revolution, like it or not.

Toughest omissions – Kareem (just not as impactful as Bird / Magic), Kobe (nowhere near as impactful as LeBron), Wilt (LeBron before LeBron), Shaq (very popular and well know culturally), Duncan (never cared to be known outside San Antonio), West (literally the logo and built the Lakers of the 2000’s)

There you have the real NBA Mount Rushmore – of guys who shaped the past, present and future of the game as it moved forward into a new era of prosperity.

The Legacy of Tim Duncan

Where does Tim Duncan sit historically and why is this question so difficult to answer?

Tim Duncan is probably one of the five or six best NBA players of all time, and yet, most people struggle to slot him into their top ten.  How can this possibly be?  Can anyone honestly say that a prime Duncan did not give a team one of the best chances to win a title?  This is a man who threw up an ungodly 24 points-15 boards-5 assists-3 blocks in one NBA Playoffs, has two MVP’s, three Finals MVPs and five titles to his name.  Bird (widely considered the best or second best forward ever) has three MVP’s, three Finals MVPs and three rings but he only played nine years.  Magic lost out on the end of his career due to contracting HIV but won five titles and changed the game forever. 

The question is simple: does Tim Duncan in his prime give you a better chance to win a title than Bird or Magic? 

What makes it virtually impossible to accurately measure Duncan’s career (and understand exactly how good he is in a historical context) is the fact that he never cared about anything but winning.  Tim Duncan is the best teammate of all time – and that is not even close to up for debate.  When he was at his best (2 MVP’s and literally unstoppable) he was never considered “better than Kobe or LeBron” simply because the entirety of his impact is unmeasurable.  Here is what we know: his teams never missed the playoffs, he got significantly better when it mattered most (upped his ppg / rpg / minutes) and he pushed his team to their absolute best.  Should he be punished because his coach (Pop one of the two or three best ever) smartly limited his regular season minutes to keep him fresh?  Should he be punished for playing in one of the best systems the league has ever seen?  Or for being quiet when others were loud but not as good? 

Tim Duncan’s peak was never as transcendent as LeBron’s, Kareem, Jordan or even Magic and Bird, but he has been one of the best players in the NBA for more than 19 years – and his five titles attest to his impact on the league.  However, as Bill Simmons points out in his column today; would you take 19 years of Duncan, or 9 of Bird?  It is a diabolical choice for a reason. 

Here is what we know – Tim Duncan does not care how he is viewed historically and he will be the last guy in the world to tell you how great he is.  His game stands for itself.  His record stands for itself.  He allows his five titles to speak for him. 

They speak rather loudly. 

Heat Check – LeBron and the Cavaliers

During game 3 of the NBA finals, the Heat trotted out a lineup of Norris Cole, Birdman, Rashard Lewis, a somewhat dead Ray Allen and LeBron James.  At that point my brother asked the entirely serious question: is this LeBron and the Cavs again?  Watching the game last night one had to agree that the Heat are, in fact, not a very good team.  

I will repeat that the Heat are not a very good team.  Player for player the Spurs are dramatically better and I can prove it: quick name the sixth best player on the Spurs and the Heat!  For the Spurs a lengthy discussion begins, maybe Splitter or Diaw or even Patty Mills.   For the Heat it is probably Juwan Howard and he is now coaching the team.  Seriously, who is it?  Cole or Chalmers or maybe, gasp, Wade?  The point is that one through twelve is not a kind comparison for Miami and the only reason they are anywhere remotely close to into this series is because of LeBron.  He has single handedly revived the career of Rashard “left for dead” Lewis, gives his teammates more open shots than Jon Stewart on the Tea Party and frequently defends multiple players in the same possession.  Could he possibly do any more?  Should Spolestra possibly be tried for attempted murder?  When he cramped up in game 1 the Heat were not worse, they were downright ghastly.  Again and again they brick open looks or pass up shots to swing the ball back to Bron with less than 6 on the shot clock.  The most valuable player debate is over, so too may be that of number 3 player ever, as the fact that James dragged this awful team to the finals itself is an astounding feat.  

Yet, because he is LeBron, we continue to ask him to do more.  Threepeat LeBron! We cry while giving other players a pass.  Imagine this for a second: my dad suggested the idea of switching LeBron with Durant.  Take a moment to ponder this one carefully.  Now you have James, Ibaka and Westbrook as a core, with Adams, Collison and Reggie Jackson.  Does that sound like a Championship team?  Not really, it sounds more like a dynasty.  Meanwhile the Heat are now probably a second round team or Eastern Conference Finalist…at best.  In the NBA it is not even close, there is LeBron and everyone else.  No other player can elevate a Cavaliers like lineup to the heights he has, they simply cannot.  The reason – truly the only reason – the Heat will Threepeat is because of LeBron James dragging them over the line when it matters most.  Bosh will continue to play well, and Wade will hopefully improve, but there is no question how they get there: riding the broad shoulders of the best player in the world, LeBron James. 

Heat Check – A Finals Rematch

After LeBron and the Heat punched their ticket to the finals with a fired up and emphatic performance – Bron was playing end to end D, taking it to the basket and hitting ridiculous falling down jumpers – all that remained to be seen was whether he had to take on Greg Popovich or Kevin Durant for the Title.  The answer was clear after an epic Game 6 as Tim Duncan and the Spurs have the rematch they want for the Championship.  Game 6 haunts the Spurs and they desperately want to have it back.  

Who will take this one?  Will the Spurs get their revenge or will LeBron get his Threepeat?  

In his 5 finals trips, (four straight) LeBron has faced the Spurs 3 times which is simply astounding.  For him, as always, everything is on the line.  Can he join the elite Jordanesque company of MJ, Shaq and others?  Can he lift a truly weak team to the title?  The Spurs are ready and raring to go, but, the Heat have lost only one series as a team and they are playing out of their minds right now (even Rashard “Mike Miller” Lewis has been hitting shots!) and LeBron is a man with his legacy on the line – fairly or not.  

From day one of the season I have believed LeBron and the Heat are destined for a Threepeat, no one is going to beat him 4 games out of 7 period.  The Heat know what it takes to win, and this may be their last run with the current squad, they will pull it off.  The Heat will Threepeat and Bron will win his third straight Finals MVP.  

Gary Smith – An Appreciation

News broke the other week that Sports Illustrated legend, Gary Smith, was going to retire from The magazine.  Smith, if you were not aware, is the best magazine writer of all time.  It is not close.  No one else  has achieved what he has – he won National magazine awards multiple times (the only person to ever do so) and the annual Best Sportswriting of the year was sure to feature a Gary Smith story (more than any other sports writer).  

Smith has had a profound impact on my life – some of his stories are so poignant and touching that they still resonate with me long after I have read, and reread and reread and reread them.  His best articles are miles ahead of any other writer.  His Pantheon level articles: The Ripples From Little Lake Nellie, Higher Education, Shadow of a Nation, Rapture of the Deep, Damned Yankee, As Time Runs Out, and the incomprable Crime and Punishment.  Smith understood his subjects on a deeper level that no one else has ever reached.  He sees inside them and tells their stories in a fluid way that is simply impossible to describe.  He wrote a prophetic article about Tiger Woods and the perils of fame; stunning pieces inside the heads of Mia Hamm and Andre Agassi and Mike Tyson.  

His work is stunning, powerful and his article Higher Education gets me dusty every single time.  Or, take his story about a Cleveland Indians pitcher struggling to come back after a horrendous tragedy, or even his story about the biggest mistake of Ritchie Parker’s young life.  Smith is like his work: incomparable and a level high above any other.  His loss is a massive one, and it got me to reread both of his books: More than a Game and Going Deep.  Order these books online and enjoy them, as I have, again and again and again…