Donovan McNabb doesn’t know what it means to be on the fringe.
After becoming the starting quarterback at Syracuse University in the fall of 1995, McNabb was not only the best player on his team, but one of the very best at his position for the next 15 years. The Philadelphia Eagles drafted him No. 2 overall in the 1999 NFL Draft, which almost immediately changed the fortunes of a franchise that had combined to win just 14 games in the previous three seasons.
In 2000, McNabb’s first full season as the starter, he led the Eagles to 11 wins and their first playoff victory in five years. He finished second to Marshall Faulk in the MVP race that winter. That was just the beginning to one of the better careers of any NFL quarterback in the last decade-plus.
But will it all be enough to get him into the Pro Football Hall of Fame?
McNabb himself thinks so. Others say not so fast. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, the fact is, it’s going to be close. For the first time in his athletic career, McNabb finds himself on the fringe.
Below is a case for and against him reaching football immortality, as well as one entirely obscure writer’s final verdict.
He’s in because:
As of August 1, 2013, there are 23 “modern era” quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame. There is no set criteria for admission. No number of titles or touchdown passes ensures a bronze bust.
Dan Marino got in by shattering every passing record previously held, and transforming the position as a whole, while winning zero championships. Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw got in with middling numbers, but four titles each. Hell, Joe Namath got in on a guarantee alone (seriously, look at his career statistics, they’re borderline pathetic).
Donovan McNabb never finished a season at the top, but make no mistake, he did a lot of winning. He led Philadelphia to five NFC East divison titles, five NFC Championship games, and the 2005 Super Bowl- a 24-21 loss to the New England Patriots.
His 98 wins as a starter are good for 13th all-time. Of the 12 quarterbacks with more, eight (John Elway, Marino, Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas, Montana, Bradshaw, Warren Moon, Jim Kelly) are in the Hall, three (Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Drew Brees) are active and will likely be first-ballot selections, and Brett Favre is retired, but certain to pass first vote in January 2016. For the record, McNabb won more games than other immortals, such as Bart Starr, Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Len Dawson and Bob Griese.
Of the five football-numbers-only statistics that quarterbacks are measured by (completions, completion percentage, yards, touchdowns, passer rating), McNabb finished in the top-25 of all but completion percentage. According to ESPN Stats and Info, among all retired non-HOF quarterbacks with 5,000-plus passing attempts, only Favre has a higher career passer rating.
McNabb was one of the most versatile quarterbacks in league history. He could beat you with his arm and legs in ways few other quarterbacks could. According to ESPN S&I, he’s one of three players with 35,000 passing yards, 200 pass touchdowns and 25 rushing touchdowns. The other two—Elway and Tarkenton—rest in Canton, OH.
One of several things McNabb never got much credit for was his ability to remain highly efficient under pressure. He was sacked 410 times in his 13-year career, good (or bad) for ninth-most all-time. Despite this, he finished with a full 2:1 touchdown:interception ratio (234-117), and still ranks fourth all-time with a 2.2 interception percentage (number of passes intercepted divided by attempts). Only Aaron Rodgers (on pace for HOF), Brady (first-ballot HOF), and Neil O’Donnell (what the hell?) have a lower percentage.
I could rattle off more numbers alike, but what it all boils down to is this: According to Pro Football Reference, McNabb played 11 of his 13 years (basically his career in Philadelphia) at a similar quality and shape to Elway, Bradshaw, Griese, Kelly, Aikman and Montana. Not only are all six in the Hall of Fame, but they’re a handful of the most illustrious signal callers in NFL history.
He’s out because:
From all the information above, you gather that Donovan McNabb was a good, sometimes great, quarterback. Unfortunately for him, other than Namath, the Hall of Fame doesn’t allot much space for “sometimes great” players.
The deeper you look into it, the more you realize that there was nothing spectacular about his career.
Let’s take it step-by-step, starting with the most vital information, and work our way down:
1. McNabb never won a championship, and lost four NFC title games. His playoff record was 9-7. He finished with 24 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in the postseason. Meh.
2. McNabb never won an MVP award, or many awards at all for that matter. He was named NFC Offensive Player of the Year, and NFC Player of the Year in 2004. That’s it. He made six Pro Bowls, but just one after 2004, and unless I’m missing something, he was never once named to an NFL All-Pro team.
3. McNabb holds exactly two NFL records: most consecutive pass completions in a single game (24, twice in 2004), and first NFL quarterback to throw for 30 touchdowns and less than 10 interceptions in a season. Both are rather mundane.
4. As previously stated, McNabb finished in the top-25 in four of the five major quarterback statistics, but wasn’t in the top-10 of any. Fourteenth in completions, 17th in yards, 22nd in touchdowns, 24th in passer rating. Meh.
5. McNabb finished with a 59 percent completion rate. That’s below Tim Couch, David Carr, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Tavaris Jackson, J.P Losman, Elvis Grbac and Chad Henne. Okay, no football team in any league on any planet would allow any of them to stick around long enough to attempt 5,374 passes like McNabb. So as for good NFL starters that had long careers, but will never sniff the Hall of Fame, his 59 percent is worse than Chad Pennington, Daunte Culpepper, Marc Bulger, Brad Johnson, Trent Green, Marc Brunell and Bernie Kosar.
6. Even his best season, 2004, wasn’t out of this world. He threw for 3,875 yards, 31 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while rushing for 220 yards and three touchdowns. Those passing numbers are a half-season now for Brady, and Tim Tebow gets 220 and three scores in a half. Alright, sorry. Had to see if you were still paying attention. Again, good, but it doesn’t register as memorable to anyone outside Philadelphia.
7. Earlier, I touted McNabb for his ability to win a game with his legs. I stand by that, but 18 quarterbacks finished their career with more than his 29 rushing touchdowns. Now, it’s imperative to point out that only nine of them played after 1970, when passing became a league-wide option, but the point being McNabb isn’t one of the two or three best running quarterbacks of all-time, either.
Donovan McNabb is the gold standard for a fringe Hall of Famer. I don’t see how the committee could come across a player more difficult to vote on.
Part of me says put him in. With 23 quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame, his top-25 numbers are clearly good enough, and several quarterbacks received admission nary a championship. Five conference championship games is impressive, and he did reach one Super Bowl.
Aside from that, McNabb restored a franchise that was garbage when he arrived, and we should recognize what a mess it has been since he departed after 2009. And who is to blame for McNabb leading Philadelphia to only one Super Bowl?
Remember for years leading up to the 2004-05 season how fans and analysts alike would scream for the Eagles to acquire a single threat on the outside? Todd Pinkston, James Thrash and Freddie Mitchell were, uh, limited, and that’s putting it kindly. The Eagles finally traded for Terrell Owens, and what happens? McNabb had his best season and Philadelphia comes within a field goal of winning the world championship.
If McNabb won that Super Bowl, are we having this discussion? Probably not.
But he didn’t, and he really needed that to solidify his legacy because he didn’t have Marino’s position-altering career and Earth-shattering numbers. Nor did he save face by winning a couple MVPs. I just can’t get past the fact that he wasn’t selected to an All-Pro team. I know those can be political, but voters won’t miss you 11 times if you truly deserve to be an All-Pro.
You’ll never remember him as the best at anything, and he never had a defining moment that forever stands out. To stick with the Marino example, Favre went on to break many of his passing records, but the narrative hasn’t changed. Marino is still considered by anyone with a brain to be the greatest pure passer of all-time.
As for a defining moment, McNabb’s, sadly, may be us watching him vomit in the huddle during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Owens brought the incident more attention than it deserved, but I can’t think of a last-second touchdown pass, or big fourth quarter comeback that gets more airtime than that. Those usually happen in the playoffs, where he orchestrated only one game-winning drive, in 2003.
At his very best, McNabb was great. We just didn’t see it often enough. And not enough to join pro football’s most exclusive fraternity.
By week’s end, Dwight Howard will officially become a member of the Houston Rockets. Since Howard announced his intentions to leave the holy land (Los Angeles) for Sugar Land, just about everyone has shared their opinion, creating a lot of negative perception. Shocking, isn’t it?
After reading the thoughts of several national columnists, I’ve identified the five most common angles writers are attacking Howard from, and we’re going to play a quick game of “Perception versus Reality” to see just how much truth there is to all the noise.
Perception: Dwight Howard couldn’t handle the pressure in Los Angeles.
Reality: Dwight Howard was a member on a sinking ship, not the missile that sunk it.
Kareem says so. So does Shaq. It must be true. Eh, let’s dive a little deeper into this.
Talking heads everywhere have been saying for the past six months that, at 27, Howard is on the downside of his career. Where I come from, that’s considered the early stages of a player’s peak years, but for the sake of argument, I’ll play along.
Last season, Howard held court with Kobe Bryant (34), Metta World Freak (33), Pau Gasol (33), Steve Nash (39), Antawn Jamison (37), and Steve Blake (33). In other words, not one Laker of consequence was under the age of 33. So if Howard is six years younger and on the “downside” of his career, then right away we see the problem in Los Angeles.
The 2012 Lakers were a very old group, and even as extraordinary as Bryant is, it’s really hard to win unless you’re getting contributions from Generation Next. Take the San Antonio Spurs for example. They’re just as old in a number of key spots, but came one giant 20-second collapse away from winning the championship because of youngins like Danny Green, Kahwi Leonard, Gary Neal and Tiago Splitter.
The Lakers had nothing close to that. Coupled with the fact that their former All-Stars couldn’t get healthy, suddenly the reason Los Angeles sucked last year becomes clearer. Nash missed 32 games, Gasol missed 33, Blake missed 37, and the bottom officially fell out when Bryant was lost for the season with a torn Achilles one week before the playoffs.
Aside from all that, the Lakers fired one coach (Mike Brown) a week into the season, and rather than bring back arguably the greatest basketball coach this world has ever seen in Phil Jackson (the man Howard asked GM Mitch Kupchak to hire), they inexplicably chose Mike D’Antoni! Mike D. is a perfect fit for their 39-year old point guard, but also happens to be the absolute worst fit for the franchise center.
Brilliant. And yet all of the above was Howard’s fault. Makes sense.
Howard is not free of fault. He contributed to the all-out fallout. There were reasons for it, which I’ll get to in a minute, but last season was not one of his best. You can argue it was his worst. Still, Los Angeles was a far better team with him on the court than without him. The numbers show it.
Maybe Howard didn’t appreciate the overbearing media, or his overbearing sidekick, but last year’s debacle had little, if nothing at all, to do with pressure. The simple fact is, the Lakers as a whole just weren’t very good.
Perception: Dwight Howard doesn’t care about anything or anyone but himself.
Reality: Dwight Howard’s priorities are the same as every other member of his NBA fraternity.
Who does LeBron James worship most? LeBron James. Who’s No. 1 in Kevin Durant’s mind? Kevin Durant. Just about everyone he’s encountered considers Kobe Bryant to be the worst teammate ever.
The same could be said for the second, third, fourth and fifth tier of NBA hierarchy. Every player puts himself first, team second. And don’t prop up yesteryear’s stars like they were any different. Michael, Magic, Larry, Hakeem, Isaiah. They started the trend for cryin’ out loud.
The common belief is Howard doesn’t care about winning. Recent history shows that couldn’t be farther from the truth. It may not be No. 1 on his list of priorities but, as former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy—who has coached stars such as Patrick Ewing, Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady and Allan Houston—said in an ESPN interview last week, winning isn’t priority No. 1 for a lot of professional athletes. It’s about money, endorsements, fame, adoration. Winning falls somewhere in there. It’s unfortunate, but it’s also the truth.
So are the Rockets getting one of the most prideful, self-centered, egotistical individuals the league has to offer? Absolutely. But is he hungry to win? Yes.
If you think otherwise, consider the following:
A) The importance of solidifying your legacy comes later in a player’s career, especially if success didn’t happen early. Howard is entering his tenth season in the NBA. He’s made seven All-Star teams, seven All-NBA teams, won three Defensive Player of the Year awards, led the league in rebounding five times, and been to the NBA Finals once. That’s a damn good career. But he hasn’t won a championship, and unfortunately, that’s how an athlete’s career is defined. The next three or four years are his best chance to control whether or not he wins a ring and solidifies himself as one of the best centers of all-time.
B) In April 2012, Howard underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back. He also dealt with a debilitating shoulder issue through most of last season. Yet, Howard missed just six games in 2012. If he didn’t care about winning, or care about his team, he could have sat at the end of the bench, collected his paycheck while he got closer to 100 percent, played in 25 games and still had Houston, Golden State, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Dallas begging for his services the minute free agency opened.
C) The Houston Rockets present Howard with the best chance to win a championship now and in the future. If his primary concern was money and fame, he would have just re-upped with the Lakers, who could offer him an extra $30 million and a heaping dose of misery over the life of the deal. Not to mention all the extra endorsements that would be available to him in L.A. that won’t be in Houston. Instead he chose true title contention and happiness.
Perception: Dwight Howard is no longer an elite defender.
Reality: Dwight Howard is still the best defensive player in the NBA.
Howard spent the entire 2012 season plugging holes in the Lakers’ porous defense. Or trying to, anyway.
Of the aforementioned players of consequence—Bryant, Nash, World Freak, Gasol, Blake, and Jamison—only World Freak was a great defender in his prime. Kobe always was, and still is just an okay defender, everyone. He’s not all-world. Shouldn’t even be all-league, but when you’re Kobe Bryant, you get some things you don’t deserve out of respect.
The point is, no one on the roster outside of Howard could guard a mannequin, and even the game’s most incredibly imposing figure can only cover so many mistakes on a 94 1/2 foot slab of hardwood. The weight of carrying an entire defense is not only physically exhausting, but also mentally taxing.
Worrying about what the other four players might do, while also guarding your own man will tire you out, and it wasn’t something Howard had to do very often in Orlando, where he was surrounded by a team of solid defenders and a coach (Stan Van Gundy) that was second-to-none in coaching defensive principles.
Despite popular sentiment, Howard did an admirable job, all things considered. He led the league in rebounds (again) with 12.4 per game, a half-rebound more per game than Nikola Vucevic, who finished second. That doesn’t sound like a wide margin, but Vucevic played one extra game and was still 28 rebounds shy of Howard for the season. He also finished fifth in blocks, swatting 2.4 shots per game, the same number he totaled in 2010-11, supposedly his last “elite season.”
So did Howard have a down year by his standards? Probably, but he’s set the bar pretty high. By league standards, he had another elite season. It’s fair to say his rotations were a bit slower than in years past, but the ongoing recovery from back surgery, and his head constantly being on a swivel due to his teammate’s defensive failings make it understandable.
Put it this way… Marc Gasol won Defensive Player of the Year last season. He’s a fine player. Gasol averaged 1.74 blocks per game, and finished 23rd in rebounding at 7.8. That’s fewer than Durant, James and Larry Sanders, who played 7.7 fewer minutes per game than Gasol.
You can have the reigning Defensive Player of the Year. I’ll happily take Howard. On a down year.
Perception: Dwight Howard’s offensive limitations will derail Houston’s high-speed scoring machine.
Reality: Dwight Howard will complete the Rockets’ high-speed scoring machine.
The Rockets finished second in the NBA in scoring last season, just a tenth of a point behind the Oklahoma City Thunder, at 106 points per game. They were a fun, run-and-gun outfit that was nearly impossible to stop in transition.
But the inevitable lulls came towards the end of quarters, and in the waning moments when the game slows down and speed is bottled up. That’s when the Rockets became a predictable isolation offense that would put the ball in James Harden’s hands and hope for the best. There are worse scenarios, as Harden showed more often than not, but now the Rockets will have a post option in the half-court.
Howard isn’t Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan or even Shaq, who had one move (dribble middle, bowl over defender, dunk/baby hook), but he’s powerful enough to get in close for a high-percentage shot. He’ll also be surrounded by a group of shooters that combined to make the second-most three-pointers in NBA history in 2012. His presence alone will create far more uncontested looks for the likes of Harden, Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, etc.
The scariest part of the Howard addition, however, is that Harden is arguably the best pick-and-roll player in the NBA. The Rockets run an offense predicated on it, and a combination of he and Howard in the pick-and-roll will be devastating. Harden and Lin were both outstanding running it with Omer Asik, who has zero athleticism and half the offensive ability as Howard. See where I’m going with this?
The Rockets may not average 106 points per game moving forward, so in a sense, the talking heads are right. Naturally, the addition of Howard will slow down an offense that ran like crazy to compensate for not having a legitimate threat in the paint.
My guess is owner Leslie Alexander, GM Daryl Morey and coach Kevin McHale will be just fine sacrificing four points per game for an extra 10-12 wins.
Perception/Reality: Dwight Howard is incapable of leading a team to an NBA title.
Reality: Dwight Howard has all the physical tools and facilities available to him to lead a championship march.
So far, the Steven A. Smith’s and Skip Bayless’ of the world are not wrong.
Dwight Howard has proven himself incapable of leading a team to an NBA championship. So far. So has Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul and a whole slew of other superstars we go goo-goo-ga-ga over.
Unlike Anthony and Paul, Howard has carried a team to the Finals. In 2008-09, he was a First-Team All-NBA selection and D.P.O.Y, averaging 20.6 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 2.9 blocks per game. On the way, the Orlando Magic knocked off the defending champion Boston Celtics and mighty LeBron James in Cleveland. The Magic lost to the Lakers in five games, a result that may have been different had Courtney Lee made a wide-open layup at the buzzer that would have won Game 2 and given Orlando home-court advantage.
He’ll be joining a Rockets team with a second star in Harden and far more talented complimentary pieces. You could argue that Parsons would’ve been the second-best player on the 08-09 Magic. With a clear mind and under the assumption he’s back to 100 percent, Howard will resume being the most dominant big in the NBA. History has shown Morey will do whatever it takes to surround Harden and Howard with the absolute best supporting cast, one that compliments their strengths and covers whatever weaknesses you can find.
Houston will provide him with everything necessary to claim that elusive championship. The one thing he won’t have is a valid excuse for not getting it done. Good health, great teammates, great ownership, and the best front office in sports. What else is there?
It’s put up or shut up time for Dwight Howard. That’s not perception. It’s reality.
Roger Federer is the greatest tennis player of all-time. Some, for reasons unknown, will argue this despite a record 17 Grand Slam titles won in an individual sport.
Those who argue against Federer will say Rafael Nadal is better and point to his 20-10 record against (8-2 in GS matches) as proof.
But one thing all tennis enthusiasts can agree on is that both were on center stage for the sport’s finest hour.
Saturday is the five-year anniversary of the 2008 Wimbledon Final, one many felt would be just another notch on the old belt for the five-time reigning champion Federer. The rhetoric at the time, believe it or not, stated that Nadal was only a clay court player. Couldn’t hack it on the other surfaces, they said, even though he stretched Federer to a fifth set on Centre Court the previous year before succumbing.
As it turned out, there were no foregone conclusions in this one. Time, score, winner, weather. None of the above. After four hours and 48 minutes, five jaw-dropping sets, 413 points played (209 won by Nadal), and three rain delays, Federer’s forehand clipped the net and landed on the wrong side of the grass. Nadal fell on his back as the previously immortal Federer stared in disbelief.. Amid pending darkness, thousands of camera’s flashed all over tennis’ most hallowed grounds. Rafa was the new champion at Wimbledon thanks to a 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7 victory over his chief rival.
The images from that match remain freeze framed in my mind, like it was yesterday. Nadal took the first set. No big deal, I thought. Then he took the second, and it looked like we were in for an unfathomably short afternoon.
Then Federer flipped the script. He led 5-4 in the third set when the first weather delay occurred. Eighty-seven minutes later, the players returned. You’d think they had stiffened up and the quality of play would suffer. Instead, they carried on like business as usual. Federer held on to win the third-set tiebreak, and fought off two match points to win an epic fourth-set tiebreak, 10-8. Nadal at one point led it 5-2 before a double-fault opened the door, which, of course, Federer stormed through.
I knew in my heart that Nadal’s collapse in the tiebreaker would cost him more than just the fourth set. He was done. No way he could overcome it mentally. Federer had all the momentum and all kinds of history on his side. Forty straight wins at the All-England Club. Sixty-five straight on grass.
None of it fazed Nadal.
Rain again delayed the match at 2-2, deuce in the fifth, this time for 30 minutes. Again, no ill affects were shown by either player. They continued to match eachother serve for serve, shot for shot, “Come on!” for “Vamos!”
Federer had a shot to beat the darkness and the upstart, leading 5-4, 15-30 on Nadal’s serve. Two points from an unprecedented sixth straight Wimbledon crown. But Rafa held strong. Finally, just when it seemed the match would have to conclude on Monday morning, Federer cracked in the 15th game of the final stanza, and Nadal came through with what proved to be the decisive break.
As Rafa served for the championship, Federer saved a third match point with a forehand passing shot down the left sideline, one that was somehow more beautiful and captivating than the 36 million others he’s put on highlight reels over time. Minutes later, on Championship Point No. 4, Ferderer hit a short return, one that had doom written all over it for Rafa, into the net.
Game, Nadal. Set, Nadal. Match, Nadal.
The clock read 9:15 p.m. Some wondered afterwards if there would have been time for even one more point. This one defined “going the distance.”
“In the last game, I didn’t see nothing,” Nadal said in post-match interviews.
Even Federer admitted after that returning to finish on Monday would have been “brutal.” I’m not sure it would be remembered the same had there been such a break in the action. It deserved to be settled that evening.
You’ll often hear after an event that both competitors deserved to win. It’s rarely true, but here was a golden example. Nadal himself said in his trophy acceptance speech that “I feel very good for me, but sorry for (Federer) because he deserves this title, too.”
From start to finish, both men brought their A-game. There were only five service breaks in the entire match, just two in the final three sets. For a good two hours, I wondered if it would ever end, and wished it never would have. What I was watching was competition at its absolute finest; a level of greatness I may never again bear witness to.
Many thought this was the beginning of the end for Federer. Five months later, he was reduced to tears after dropping another heart-wrenching five-setter to Nadal in the Australian Open Final. Then he went on to win three of the next four majors, including his only French Open, to complete the career Grand Slam. Nadal, too, got his after winning the US Open in 2010.
Aging gracefully, Federer is the defending Wimbledon champion for another forty hours or so until Sunday’s championship between Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray is in the books. Nadal overcame a slew of injuries to wrap up his record-setting eighth French Open title in May.
The Grand Slam scorecard currently reads Federer: 17, Nadal: 12.
So many hours of brilliance delivered by the two legends over the years. None more glorious than the five we were all treated to on July 6, 2008.
The city of Miami celebrated the Heat’s second consecutive NBA championship with a parade Monday afternoon.
As the Department of Public Works cleaned up all the confetti, LeBron James began his summer vacation. No more media, no more distractions. Just quiet, until camp opens again in late-September. Well, quieter, anyway.
When it’s time to embark on season No. 11, the question for James becomes: how high can I go? It’s no longer about getting a monkey off his back. He did that last year. It’s not about joining the ranks of players to win multiple championships. He added his name to that list this year.
LeBron held off the youngest threat to his throne (Kevin Durant) and the oldest (Tim Duncan) in the last two finals. With that in mind, the thought of Kobe Bryant, James Harden, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, or Dwight Howard taking over won’t make his wheels spin too fast.
James has reached a stage where he’s far enough ahead of the current competition that his focus can shift to the illustrious ghosts of basketball’s past. Or should I say ghost. The one he’s been compared to since his junior year at St. Vincent/St. Mary. The one most consider to be The One. Michael Jordan.
Is it possible for James to alter that perception? Can The King become The One? At age 28, he’s won four MVP awards, two championships and two Finals MVPs. For a lot of people, that isn’t good enough. Media and fans across the globe continue to harp on his past postseason failures and “The Decision.”
Several plays in a given game will have The Jordan Sect (Yes, he’s a religion. I patented this in high school after listening to Jordan freaks talk for hours on end. He’s viewed as the all-powerful, one and only, and if you talk highly about any other player, you’re out of line.) saying “Michael would’ve never done that.”
But here’s three other things Jordan didn’t do by age 28, either: win four MVPs, two titles and two Finals MVPs. For some unknown reason, no one is willing to mention that Jordan had his share of struggles on his way to the top, too.
M.J. averaged a career-high 37.1 points in his third season, but the Bulls won just 38 games and were swept out of the playoffs. Chicago didn’t get out of the first round until Jordan’s fourth season, which was also the first year in his career that the team finished with a winning record. Entering that season, his career playoff record was 1-9. For the record, James took Cleveland to the NBA Finals in his fourth season.
Jordan won his first title at 28 and took home Finals MVP. At the time, he had just two MVPs. I say “just two” because that’s half of LeBron’s current total. Even then, no one knew exactly what would become of Jordan’s career. He went on to win five of the next seven titles and five more MVPs before calling it quits after the 1998 season (I don’t include his comeback with Washington as part of his career).
James is a few steps ahead of Michael at the same age, and there’s no reason to think he can’t put together the same run moving forward. He’s the best, most complete player on the planet, and there really isn’t a close second. Like Jordan, he’s an iron man of sorts, never enduring a serious injury or missing more than seven games in a season. Unless that happens or God himself decides to lace ‘em up for a year, whatever team James is on will be the favorite to win for the next five or six years.
Is that improbable? Absolutely. Impossible? Hardly. Plus, he only needs four more to match Jordan, so there’s some margin for error. The Jordan Sect will tell you that LeBron needs to surpass Jordan to be considered the better player because James will never measure up to Jordan statistically.
Is that a fact?
Jordan blows James away in scoring. For his career, Jordan averaged 30.1 points per game. James is at 27.6. He’ll never catch M.J. there, so in that regard, Jordan-enthusiasts are correct.
But in almost every other category, James is the same or better than Jordan. Assists is advantage James, 6.9 to 5.3. Rebounds, advantage James, 7.3 to 6.2. Steals, advantage Jordan, 2.3 to 1.7. Both average 0.8 blocks per game. Both shoot 49 percent from the floor. Three-point shooting, advantage James, 33.7 percent to 32.7 percent. James averages slightly more free throw attempts per game (8.6 to 8.2), while Jordan made a higher percentage (83.5 to 74.7).
Taking all that into account, it’s fair to say James is the better all-purpose player. You can make the argument. If you’re sold on Jordan being the better player just based on scoring, then you’re making this debate moot by conceding that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the G.O.A.T. Like Jordan, Jabbar won six titles. He’s also the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. See where I’m going with this?
Based on the way people view Jordan and his legacy, it’s unlikely that the public would accept or even entertain James being the better player even if he equals Jordan in the number of Larry O’Brien trophies.
The reality of the situation is, while he has a long way to go, it’s very much in the realm of possibility.
1,314 games down, just one to go in the 2012-13 NBA season.
It culminates Thursday with a champion being crowned after a final, hopefully frantic, 48 minutes. David Stern, in his last full season as commissioner, and the millions of fans worldwide, couldn’t ask for more.
The Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs haven’t always given us a pretty series or even a dramatic one. Games 1 and 6 were fascinating; two of the more memorable NBA Finals games in recent memory. But in the four games between, the teams took turns blowing eachother out, with the Spurs’ 114-104 Game 5 victory providing the closest final margin.
Before diving into Game 7, let’s get to the bottom of how we got here. NBA writers across the country based their Game 6 commentary around the following three myths, all of which I’m here to debunk.
1. LeBron James “dominated” the fourth quarter and overtime.
In the first 4:04 of the fourth quarter, James was something above dominant. He made 4-of-5 shots and assisted on three-pointers by Mario Chalmers and Mike Miller. After that stretch, however, he was rather ordinary and, at times, awful.
LeBron finished the quarter 2-for-5, including a monster three-ball that kept the Heat’s slim chances alive, and two errant misses; one that hit only backboard, and another that missed everything. He also had three turnovers in the final 3:17, two that came in an 11-second span of the last half-minute, which should have cost the Heat the championship.
In overtime, James went 1-for-3 with two points, two assists and, again, a big turnover. James was stripped by Danny Green on a fastbreak, and the ball went out of bounds off LeBron. Miami was up just a point with 40 seconds to play. Had the Spurs won, this exchange would’ve stuck on the highlight reels, forever haunting James and his legacy.
Add it all up and James did what was necessary to force a Game 7. That’s all that really matters. But his performance in winning-time of Game 6 was hardly Jordan-esque.
2. Gregg Popovich lost the game for San Antonio.
It wasn’t Pops’ finest performance. There’s no arguing that.
He out-thought himself by pulling Tim Duncan for Boris Diaw twice in the last 30 seconds of regulation to go against Miami’s small lineup. This allowed the Heat to grab two offensive rebounds on missed threes in their last-gasp efforts, both of which were converted on the second chance.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say Duncan is just as mobile as Diaw, and that had he been in the game in either situation, we aren’t talking about a Game 7.
But you’re really giving the players a pass by taking this angle. We can agree that Popovich coached one of the best games of his illustrious career for 47 minutes and 25 seconds, right? And when you’re team is up five with 28 seconds left, the odds of losing are almost less than one percent. How’s the saying go? You can lead a horse to water, but…
The Spurs had 45 rebounds Tuesday night. Someone other than Duncan had 28 of them. In fact, Kahwi Leonard had 11, and he had the potential series-clincher stolen away by Miller. MIKE MILLER! Diaw, Duncan’s replacement, was outfought by Chris Bosh on the second one. Just because Duncan is on the bench doesn’t mean the Spurs can’t rebound.
Leonard and Manu Ginobili each missed a free throw in the last 28 seconds. You can’t fault Popovich for that.
Having Duncan AND Parker on the bench for a short stretch in overtime was confusing, but it didn’t cost San Antonio the game.
The one thing that had me up in arms was the complete lack of organization at the end of regulation after Ray Allen’s three tied the game with 5.3 seconds left. Yes, the Spurs were out of timeouts, but don’t tell me they haven’t practiced that situation several times in the past nine months. I’m pretty sure the play didn’t call for four players to stand around while Parker dribbled to the other baseline, dead-ending himself and having no shot at the basket.
It should’ve never come to that, though. It’s Popovich’s job to put his players in a position to win. He did.
Rebound and make free throws. Players are paid to do that, not coaches.
3. (Insert referee conspiracy theory here).
Can we please let this go?
Look, I get it. I read Tim Donaghy’s book detailing all of the betting he and other unnamed officials did on game’s they did and did not officiate some years ago, and his accusation of the league ordering officials to force a Game 7 in the Lakers-Kings 2002 Western Conference Finals clash.
I buy some of it. Like him betting and getting caught. I call shenanigans on the latter. Donaghy fabricated that part to get more people to buy his book in hopes that it would take the focus off his transgressions and put the onus squarely on the league. That’s what criminals do.
Here’s the truth, before even getting to how the officials “favored” the Heat in Game 6: fixing a basketball game is nearly impossible. Just take Allen’s game-tying three for example. He could practice that shot 100 times—everything from the footwork to the clock running down in his head—alone in the gym and miss 40-50 times. That’s with no crowd noise, no real pressure and no defenders.
The NBA and its officials did not script that ending. If they wanted Miami to win, they’d be foolish to. The one way officials can influence a game is by favoring one team over the other. Fouling out one’s best player or having Team A shoot 40 free throws while Team B shoots 14.
Guess what? San Antonio shot 28 free throws in Game 6. Miami shot 21. Joey Crawford, Ken Mauer and Mike Callahan whistled 47 fouls. Twenty-six were on the Heat. If anything, Miami overcame the officials to force a Game 7.
There was some contact on the two offensive rebounds that saved the Heat, but nobody died. There wasn’t even a body on the floor.
Parker faded away from Bosh on the final shot of regulation and fell to the floor on his own. Ginobili took 18 steps in his drive to the basket on the Spurs’ second-to-last possession of overtime. Allen bumped him, but that was after steps 15 and 16. It was a travel well before contact.
Far too often, fans cry out “Let them play!!!” So the officials do, and we cry conspiracy. The league hoped for a Game 7. Duh. It’s a business first, and one more game helps the bottom line. But by no means was Game 6 fixed in Miami’s favor.
So how does Game 7 play out? I haven’t the slightest idea, but I’ll be watching the first quarter very closely. Both teams looked absolutely spent in overtime Tuesday night, and it was more than just the exhaustion from one dramatic evening. This will be game 100-something for the Spurs and Heat. They aren’t the youngest teams.
Which players have their legs and who gets off to a fast start? The first quarter of each game has been nip/tuck in all but Game 5, after which the Spurs led 32-19. The team that won the opening stanza is 4-1 (Game 2 was tied at 22).
Also, keep an eye on Dwayne Wade. While unlikely, the Heat can win without a vintage performance—as they did in Game 6—but Miami is a damn near lock for victory if Wade brings his A-game. We saw it only once, in Game 4, when he had 32 points on 14-for-25 shooting, six assists, six steals and four rebounds. Miami spanked the Spurs by 16. As I wrote when the series began, Thursday night will go a long way in deciding exactly where Wade stands among the NBA’s all-time greats.
Lastly, I’ll be looking to see if Danny Green has any three-point magic left in him. It’s safe to assume that Duncan, Parker and, yes, Manu Ginobili, bring their best. After listening to Ginobili’s comments after Game 6, I won’t be surprised if he pops off for 25 points like he did in Game 5. He has too much pride to go out playing like he did Tuesday night (nine points, eight turnovers).
But Green is the key. He broke the record for most three-pointers made in the NBA Finals in Game 5, and when he’s on, the Spurs offense runs more smoothly due to the spacing he provides. Green has made 17 threes in San Antonio’s three victories, and nine in its three losses.
Five is the magic number. If Green makes a handful, the Spurs win.
Series finales tend to disappoint (think Entourage, Sopranos, Seinfeld). The Spurs and Heat may have exhausted whatever drama and energy left in them on Tuesday night.
Don’t expect another game for the ages. Just hope for something close enough to trigger more referee conspiracy theories.
When the clock starts ticking in a title game or championship round, there’s always more at stake than the trophy itself. Legacies are on the line for players and coaches young, old or in their prime.
In the San Antonio-Miami NBA Finals showdown, the world will be watching not only a handful of the league’s best players from today, but also a few that are regarded as the best in NBA history. The final result will sway the narrative in one direction or another for each of the following individuals.
Here’s a look at what we know today, and exactly what’s at stake:
What we know: You can hate his game and slap him with silly nicknames, such as “The Big Fundamental,” all you want, but you’re a fool if you don’t have Tim Duncan listed somewhere in your top-five of the NBA’s best big men of all time. The numbers and his truck load of awards say so. For his career, Duncan has averaged 20.2 points, 11.2 rebounds, three assists and 2.2 blocks. In 15 seasons, the Spurs have won four titles and never once missed the postseason. He’s been selected to an All-NBA Team every year but his rookie season, including 10 first-team spots.
Duncan won two league MVP awards during his prime (2002, ’03) and took home Finals MVP in three of the Spurs’ four titles. His name is included on 14 of the last 15 All-Defensive teams (eight first-team spots), and it’s a sin that players like Marc Gasol have won a Defensive Player of the Year award, but Duncan hasn’t.
Through it all, no player or coach was ever able to expose a single flaw in Duncan’s game. If you want to nitpick, maybe you point to his free throw shooting, but I know a lot of seven-footers that would love to say they shot 69 percent for their career (see Dwight Howard, Shaquille O’Neal).
What’s at stake: Duncan can reclaim the throne as the best player of his generation with a fifth title. It was already his once before, until Kobe Bryant snatched it away with back-to-back titles in 2009 and ’10, bringing his number to five, one more than Duncan. By evening the score, the edge has to go to Duncan.
Not everyone will agree with this; in fact, the bright lights of Los Angeles and the more dynamic style Bryant plays will likely have more siding with the Lakers guard. But consider that this would be the only time that Duncan wasn’t the best player on his championship team. Tony Parker won Finals MVP in ’07, which makes it easy to forget that Duncan averaged 22.2 points, 11.5 boards and 3.1 blocks in the ’07 playoffs, with a similar output in the regular season.
Bryant rode O’Neal to his first three titles and has one less MVP. Once Bryant became the head man, the Lakers immediately missed the postseason and were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round in back-to-back years before Bryant’s legacy was saved by the acquisition of Pau Gasol in January ’08. No player saved Ducan’s legacy at any point in his career. From the beginning, he was the savior.
Finally, this would be his second victory over LeBron James in the finals. The Spurs swept James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in his first trip to the finals in ’07. San Antonio was heavy favorites then, but this time around, most consider the Spurs to be the underdog.
If Duncan can bring home title No. 5 in the twilight of his career against this opponent, he could cement himself as not just the best player of his generation, but the best big man to ever play.
What we know: James is the best player in the world. Without question. That has been fact for about four years now. Only once have we seen a player with his combination of size, strength, speed and versatility, but James is a better athlete than Magic Johnson. He’s won four of the last five MVP trophies and this will be his third straight finals appearance.
When James ditched Cleveland for Miami, everyone said he did it because he knew he couldn’t win a title on his own. That’s obvious because no player wins a title on his own. The more intelligent way to put it would be no one thought James could lead a team to a title, but that’s exactly what he did last year, and what he could do again this year.
Fact is, he has dragged this Miami team to the Finals in spite of Dwayne Wade’s struggles, Chris Bosh’s ineptitude on so many levels and no bench production whatsoever. Take James off the Heat and they’re a 48-win team. Maybe.
What’s at stake: Everything. That’s how it’s always been with LeBron, and that’s the way it will be until the day he hangs ‘em up. When I first started the idea for this column, I was only going to write about how James’ legacy could change so drastically by the result of this series, but that’s clearly the case for more than just him.
If the Heat win, nothing really changes, the level of praise simply enhances. This title will be looked at differently than last year because for as great as LeBron played in last year’s postseason, it was Wade that got the Heat through the Indiana series, and the Heat received major contributions from Bosh, Shane Battier, Mario Chalmers, etc. That hasn’t been the case this year. Unless Wade magically gets healthier, Bosh finds his manhood and Battier can find a way off the pine, James will have carried the Heat to the pinnacle.
Now, if he loses, all Hell breaks loose. We’ll have to listen to Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith debate “Just how good is LeBron James?” for hours, days, weeks, months. The media will write the flipside of the argument above, saying again that he can’t carry a team to a title, that he needs a healthy superstar or two at his side.
Talking heads will finally acknowledge that his one and only title, which was claimed in last year’s lockout-shortened season, is a “half-title.” O’Neal famously used this label on Duncan’s first championship in the lockout-shortened season of 1999, which he couldn’t shake until winning a second four years later.
More importantly, or annoyingly, however you choose to look at it, the question of “Will he return to Cleveland after next year” will be absolutely abused. Ugh, I can’t go any further with this. If you don’t know the premise, look it up yourself. I’m already annoyed. I’m officially rooting for Miami to win just so I don’t have to listen to it.
What we know: This section is harder to pen for Parker than James and Duncan. Duh. But seriously, despite being a three-time champion, a Finals MVP and the man at the controls for the NBA’s most winning team of the last decade, there’s usually four or five point guards that get more dap than Parker on a regular basis. Hell, Jeremy Lin got more in February 2012 alone than Parker has in his entire 11-year career.
He isn’t an elite play-maker like Chris Paul, can’t shoot like Deron Williams, can’t defend the position like Rajon Rondo, but he’s won more than all three players combined, and has owned Paul and Williams’ teams in the postseason, going 3-0 against the two.
Amazingly, Parker has never been named to an All-NBA First Team, and only three times has he been named to any all-league squad. This speaks more to the incompetence of the people voting than Parker’s ability. Look at the 2008-09 season, Parker’s finest. He averaged 22 points and seven assists, leading the Spurs to a 54-win season. Yet, Paul and Brandon Roy were selected ahead of Parker, who was named to the third team, getting just one vote for the first team. It’s a lack of respect that has been present since the day he came into the league.
Whether it’s because of his size, the country he hails from or the market he plays in, it’s wrong. Parker is arguably the most unstoppable point guard in the pick and roll, and is nearly unguardable in transition.
What’s at stake: The narrative on Parker could change forever if the Spurs topple the Heat. This is his team now, and has been for the last three years. As well as Duncan and others have played at times throughout the postseason, the Spurs don’t get through Golden State in the second round if not for Parker’s monster performance.
This would be title No. 4 for Parker, which, amazingly, would put him just one behind Magic, and four ahead of “the great” Paul, Williams, John Stockton, Mark Price and whatever other random name you want to throw out there. I’ll be the first to tell you that titles don’t necessarily make one player better than another, but when those players are thought to have both more God-given ability and talent around them, it’s hard to argue.
Who thinks the Spurs are more talented than the Clippers? If your hand is raised, you’re a moron. Yet, Paul’s Clippers lost in the first round to the same Memphis team that Parker’s Spurs blanked in the blink of an eye. If he can guide them through the mighty Heat—who will have 10 eyes on Parker at all times—his name should be mentioned with the all-timers at the position.
What we know: When James arrived in South Beach nearly three years ago, people questioned who the alpha male was going to be. My, how things have changed. Since Wade and James joined together, their games have gone in opposite directions, with Wade descending from somewhere in the top-five to anywhere between the top 15-20 players in the NBA.
Wade’s best days are behind him, and few were better in his prime years. He’s made eight All-NBA teams in 10 seasons (two first teams), and three All-Defense teams. He was the NBA’s scoring champion in 2009 and took the downtrodden Heat franchise from 25 wins the year before he was drafted to 42 wins and a surprise trip to the second round of the playoffs as a rookie.
Just two years later, Wade put the NBA on notice, leading Miami to its first NBA championship, resurrecting the Heat from a 2-0 series deficit and a 13-point fourth quarter hole in Game 3, to beat the favored Dallas Mavericks in six games. D-Wade scored 42, 36, 43 and 36 in the four consecutive wins, almost single-handedly winning the title for Miami. His 34.7 scoring average was the third-highest in finals history, and earned him MVP honors.
For his career, Wade is a 24/6/5 player, with one of the best first steps and a great mid-range stroke, a rarity in this day in age. His “Flash” days are long over, but even in an off year, Wade managed averages of 21/5/5 and finished with a 24.04 Player Efficiency Rating (PER), which was seventh-best across the league.
It’s important to remember that without everything you just read, James and Bosh likely don’t migrate south. Every executive in the NBA wanted to make their sales pitch in July 2010, but it was Wade’s championship credentials that sold the title-desperate stars to join forces with him in Miami.
What’s at stake: Of all the players listed, Wade’s legacy will likely take the biggest hit with a loss. He’s been miserable this entire postseason. Look at the production, or lack thereof:
First round vs. Milwaukee (3 games): 13.7 points, 7 rebounds, 6.3 assists, 36.8% shooting.
Semifinals vs. Chicago (5 games): 12.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 50.9% shooting.
Conference finals vs. Indiana (7 games): 15.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 44.1% shooting.
Those numbers look more like a solid role player’s than a bonafide superstar. Sadly, that’s what Wade appears to be entering the finals. James even called him out subtly a few times in the Indiana series, and had Miami lost the deciding seventh game, the blame would’ve been put squarely on Wade’s shoulders because no one respects Bosh enough to include him in the conversation.
Wade has two titles already and his performance in ’06 will be remembered as one of the finest in history. As great as he was in that series, we tend to forget that Wade was a beneficiary of Shaq’s last very-good-to-great season, and got help from a slew of solid veterans, such as Antoine Walker, Gary Payton, Alonzo Mourning, Jason Williams and James Posey.
In the four years between that championship and the first year of the “Big Three,” when Wade was surrounded with talent much like what James had his entire career in Cleveland, the Heat lost in the first round three times and missed the playoffs once. The storyline at the time was that James needed Wade, but looking a little deeper, we see Wade probably needed James just as much, if not more.
If Wade can find another gear for one more series and help bring a third championship to Miami, he’ll be regarded as one of the five to seven best players of his generation, and a shoo in for the Hall of Fame.
A loss to San Antonio could bring an end to Miami’s triumvirate and, based on roster needs, Wade might be the first to go. In that case, his place in history will be much harder to decipher.
What we know: Popovich enters these finals with solid footing in the annals of NBA coaches. In the 20 seasons prior to his takeover in 1996-97, the Spurs franchise had never reached the NBA Finals, and had gone as far as the Western Conference Finals four times. In 16 years since, Popovich has guided San Antonio to 15 playoff appearances, four championships, and had it on the brink three other times, losing in the conference finals.
The Spurs are 4-0 in the finals under Pop, and have won 62 percent of their playoff games during his reign. His 68.1 career winning percentage is good for third all-time.
What’s at stake: If Popovich can push San Antonio past Miami, he’ll have five championships in his pocket, which is a significant number in NBA history. It would tie him for third all-time among coaches, right there with the great Pat Riley and John Kundla, who led the Minneapolis Lakers to five titles (4 NBA, 1 BAA) 800 years ago. Only Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach would be looking down at him.
It’s also safe to assume that this would be the most special of the five. San Antonio was heavy favorites in each of the first four, blowing out opponents that were far inferior. The Spurs and Heat are neck and neck, but most see this as LeBron’s series to lose, and hardly anyone had San Antonio getting back to the finals to begin with. Most entered the postseason believing the West would be represented by Oklahoma City or even the Clippers.
No one should pity Pop for the talent he’s had to work with throughout his run, but remember that Manu Ginobili was the 57th of 60 players selected in the 1999 draft, and Parker was an afterthought as the 28th pick in 2001. That speaks to his ability to develop talent and mold champions out of those taken at the top (Duncan was taken first in 1997), and the bottom of the draft.
Considering the wealth of talent Riley had with the “Showtime” Lakers (Magic, Kareem, Worthy, etc.) in the ’80s, and the fact that Kundla was calling plays for George Mikan, Vern Mikkelsen and Jim Pollard, the five-title tiebreaker would be in Popovich’s favor.
“Rise and Grind” was the Memphis Grizzlies’ rally cry during their 2013 NBA playoff run.
Veteran guard Tony Allen coined the phrase, describing the hard-nosed, blue collar, fight-for-every-loose-ball mentality the Grizzlies employed so well throughout the season. R&G and Memphis were a perfect fit for one another.
Or so I thought, until Tuesday.
Jesse Smith is a member of the PGA Tour of Canada. He’s also my second cousin, and without a doubt one of the mentally strongest individuals I’ve ever crossed, with a conviction and dedication to his craft that is second to none. I don’t say this because he’s a family member. I say it because it’s fact. Read on and I’m sure you’ll agree.
Smith starred at Colgate University, going from walk-on to the team’s Most Valuable Player in 2002 and 2003. On March 20 of this year, he broke the course record at Dubsdread Golf Club in Orlando, firing an opening round 59. At 33 years of age, he’s spent the past decade fighting to earn his PGA Tour card.
I was fortunate enough to be his caddy at a Tuesday qualifier for a Web.com event at Northwest Golf Course in Silver Spring, MD. The Web.com Tour is the level just below the PGA. Playing well there can earn you a spot in the big time. Qualifying rounds for these events usually take place on a Monday, but this was pushed back in observation of Memorial Day.
“These (qualifiers) are a bit of a crap shoot,” Smith said before his round started.
To say the least. Smith was one of 112 golfers fighting for six spots and the right to advance to the tournament beginning Thursday. He was set for a 1:40 tee time—the second to last of the afternoon—and with thunderstorms in the forecast, conditions would be less than favorable. Teeing off early is advantageous because the course is in tip-top shape. Grass is fresher, greens are faster.
Smith battled through the elements and a few bogeys on the front nine to be at two-under through 16 holes. Convinced the cut-line would be four-under, Smith’s 30-foot putt to save par on 16 had him in position for a playoff. As he retrieved his ball from the cup, I turned to a tournament official to get the scoop on the weather and what it would take to qualify.
“Think the storm’s gonna miss us?” I asked.
“It’s a big one,” he said. “It’s just about to head over the Potomac (River). They usually break up at that point, but if it rushes through, we’ll have to suspend play in about 10 minutes.”
“What’s it going to take to get to the playoff?”
I broke the news to Jesse as he walked off the 16th green. Three shots down with two holes to play. A par-five and a par-four.
“Damn it,” he replied. “Alright. Eagle-birdie. Gotta fire it up.”
The official was right about one thing. The storm rolled through, suspending play for about 45 minutes. But he was wrong about the qualifying score. It was actually six-under.
Smith parred out, finishing with an admirable two-under 70. At last check, nine golfers were preparing to playoff for the six spots. A crap shoot, indeed.
The Grizzlies took the floor Monday night with their season hopelessly on the brink, trailing the San Antonio Spurs three games to zero in the best-of-seven series. Despite the fact that no NBA team has ever rallied from such a deficit, 18,119 fans showed up to offer their support. ESPN was there as well to bring the game to the rest of the world.
For Smith and thousands of other golfers in his position, they’re on their own a lot of the time. There were no fans or national television satellites in attendance for the Tuesday qualifier. Had he qualified for Thursday’s tournament, a couple thousand people would line the fairways, but no familiar faces.
The nature of the beast doesn’t allow for family or friends to plan a trip to see him play. Because Smith isn’t a regular on the Web.com Tour, expenses force him to pick and choose what events he’s going to enter. If he doesn’t get through to the tournament, it’s immediately on to the next opportunity, the next city. He could be in one place for 16 hours or 96.
Smith arrived in DC Saturday night from New Jersey. From there, he goes back to New Jersey, then New York, New Hampshire, then British Columbia for the start of the Canadian Tour. All in six days time. And he’s not flying in a private jet, or even coach. Smith will be in his 2006 Audi, with his cell phone and books on CD to help pass the time.
Without great strength and fortitude, such conditions would make it very difficult for most to continue pushing forward.
Zach Randolph, arguably Memphis’ best player, earns $185,365.85 per game. That’s whether he plays great, plays awful, or even if he plays at all. The Grizzlies were just swept out of the postseason, in part because Randolph couldn’t do squat against Tim Duncan and the rest of the Spurs’ interior defense. Doesn’t matter. Randolph still gets paid.
It’s no wonder we see so many athletes in the four major sports fade into oblivion after they earn their first big-money contract. In baseball, basketball and hockey, every dollar is guaranteed.
In the NFL, a huge chunk of the contract is guaranteed, but the real money is made in a signing bonus. When Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback Tony Romo signed his $108 million deal in April, he immediately had $25 million wired into his bank account just for signing the dotted line.
In golf, at all levels, you earn every dollar. Make the cut, you’re guaranteed money. Miss it, and you get nothing. That’s if you’re Tiger Woods (who would still be worth millions on endorsements alone, but that says nothing for the average golfer on the PGA Tour) or Jesse Smith.
But for Smith, he’s at a stage where he must pay a hefty sum just for a shot at qualifying for a tournament to win money. For example, it cost $450 just to play Tuesday. And there isn’t a package in there that covers your travel expenses or hotel. So figure it cost about $750 total.
One round. Eighteen holes. For six spots in a pool of 112. If you’re one of the 106, the money almost instantly turns to vapor, with no chance to earn more on that particular trip.
Don’t bother labeling it a “pressure situation.” That would indicate that it happens every once in awhile. This is life for Smith. It’s called living in a pressure cooker.
It’s also the purest example of “doing it for the love of the game.”
Smith continues to rise and grind each day in hopes of one day snatching a PGA Tour card, but his journey to the big show continues to grow more complicated.
“They’re making it harder each year to break through (to the PGA),” Smith says. “For example, it used to be I could go to Q-School and place top-25 out of 1,000 and automatically earn my PGA card. Now, the top-25 just gets you on the Web.com Tour.”
But his big break could be just days away. On Monday, Smith will join the 79 other golfers in New York City that reached the final qualifying round for next month’s U.S. Open in Philadelphia. Three will advance to play in one of golf’s four major events. Should he seize this moment, life could soon be very different for Jesse Smith.
The time has come. No one deserves it more.