Remember the classic “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop” commercial?
For those that aren’t familiar, an animated owl sits in a tree with his male friend, takes two licks of his Tootsie Pop, then bites into it and yells, “Three! Three licks to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.”
Well, if even the average fan were asked “Who is the best pitcher in Major League Baseball,” it would take most far more than three guesses to reach the right answer.
You’d get a lot of people vouching for Justin Verlander, who is the next best option. David Price, Matt Cain, CC Sabathia and Clayton Kershaw would get their share of votes. Stephen Strasberg would likely come to mind quicker for the less-informed.
All are good answers (except Strasberg, for now), but wrong. Felix Hernandez is the best pitcher in baseball. Has been for the past five years. Yet, most of us forget he exists because he’s been rotting in the nadir that is Seattle.
Include me among the guilty parties. I see him pitch against the New York Yankees—as he did Tuesday night—once or twice a year, marvel at his ability, and laugh at the pile of crap behind him. Once the game is over, I forget Seattle has an MLB franchise, and go on telling everyone that if I needed one man to win one game to save a season, I would take Sabathia without hesitation.
That’s just plain wrong. Sabathia’s great. He’s building a case for the Hall of Fame. Sabathia has done it before in the postseason, leading the 2009 New York Yankees to another World Series title. Pitchers solidify their reputations in October, a month in which Hernandez has never thrown a fastball, curveball or any of the other pitches from his filthy arsenal.
But, playoff appearances aside, Hernandez is the safest bet in baseball. That’s why it’s time I start the official “Free Felix” campaign.
Since King Felix claimed the throne as baseball’s best pitcher in 2009, his ERA has averaged out to 2.56, with a silly average WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 1.09. Through nine starts in 2013, he’s putting up career-lows in both categories, with an American League-best ERA of 1.53, and a 0.93 WHIP.
Hernandez’ only Cy Young Award was given to him in 2010, when he won just 13 games, an all-time low for a Cy Young winner. But he finished with a 2.27 ERA and 232 strikeouts in a career-high 249 innings pitched.
The Mariners lost 101 games that year. Hernandez accounted for 21 percent of their wins. His WAR was 7.1, best in the majors. That speaks to both his greatness and just how far the Mariners have sunk.
Hernandez’ ability to thrive in spite of having one of the league’s most barren roster’s backing him up tells me that if you put him on a postseason contender such as the Yankees or Cardinals or Tigers or Braves, he’ll do just fine. Hell, his B-game would make any of those teams the prohibitive favorites.
To those of you at home saying “Anyone can pitch great in a no-pressure situation like Seattle, where everyone expects you to lose every game regardless of how you perform,” just stop.
If the latter part were true, the three other starters in the Mariners’ rotation aside from Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma—who is having a career year thus far—wouldn’t have an astronomical earned run average (ERA) of 6.26. That includes Joe Saunders and Aaron Harang, two middle of the rotation veterans that have pitched in the postseason before.
Harang registered a career-best 3.61 ERA in 31 starts just last year for the Los Angeles Dodgers, one of the more pressurized environments in baseball. His 1.4 wins above replacement (WAR) was his best since it was 1.6 in 2008. That “no pressure” situation has brought a career-worst 7.30 ERA and a -0.5 WAR.
Saunders came to the Mariners after another decent season that started with the Arizona Diamondbacks before finishing in Baltimore. He posted a respectable 4.07 ERA in the regular season, and was a big factor for the upstart Orioles in the postseason, winning the Wild Card game over the Texas Rangers, while allowing just two earned runs in 11.1 total innings pitched. That complete “lack of pressure” has helped his ERA jump to 5.51, Saunders’ worst since his rookie season in 2005.
Harang and Saunders aren’t Hernandez, obviously. But they’re solid starters who, according to the theory above, should become more than that simply because Seattle is a perennial cellar dweller. Clearly, it’s a lot easier said than done.
Commissioner Bud Selig has made a long list of decisions that left the public dumbfounded. Arguably the most memorable came in 2004, when he blocked a trade between the Rangers and Boston Red Sox that would have sent Alex Rodriguez to Beantown. Shortly after, Selig approved a similar deal to their nemesis, the Yankees. More than just the Boston faithful were up in arms (although now they probably want to hug him).
Nearly a decade later, Selig should again wield his power and do the complete opposite by forcing the Mariners to trade Hernandez to a contender so that we can witness his dominance at the season’s climax. In the playoffs. Where legends are made.
King Felix hasn’t pouted or prodded the Mariners to ship him elsewhere. He just continues to show up every fifth day by doing his thing better than anyone else around. Once a week, the other hapless Mariners see what it means to play with a swagger. Like you’re on top of the world.
Seattle will never reach that pinnacle, and it doesn’t appear Hernandez will force his way out of town, so allow me to kick the tires.
Free Felix! His introduction to relevant baseball is long overdue.
For the Houston Rockets and their fans, the present sucks.
Friday night’s Game 6 loss to the top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder at Toyota Center put an end to a season that was at times mesmerizing, and other times just downright maddening. That’s what you get from a team where the average player is 25 years of age, the NBA’s youngest roster. You get growing pains. Sometimes up, sometimes down, but, as the Rockets showed in this series in which they trailed 3-0 before rallying to force a sixth game at home, never down and out.
All the mushy, feel good stuff aside, it’s easy to think of what might have been. What if the Rockets held on to that four-point lead in the last two minutes of Game 2 and went home even at one game a piece instead of down 2-0? Or what if the high Heavens decided it was finally going to give Houston a break and push Kevin Durant’s game-winner in Game 3 just long off the heel of the rim, sparing the Rockets defeat at the hands of the luckiest bounce of all time?
Such is life in the postseason. Winner moves on, the loser is left to ponder the “coulda, shoulda, woulda.” But this season was never about the present for the “younger, faster, fearless” Rockets. It became about the future the minute Daryl Morey swung a franchise-altering deal with the Thunder, acquiring James Harden just hours before the tip of the 2012-13 season. No one knew then what the Rockets were getting with Harden in terms of a ceiling. Now, we know they have Star No. 1. To reach the NBA’s pinnacle, you need two, and that’s what this summer is all about.
Year one of The New Age (as the marketing experts dubbed it heading into the postseason) laid a solid foundation. The Rockets began the season with just two players—Chandler Parsons and Greg Smith—back from the previous year and, because of the late deal for Harden, had almost no time to get acclimated. Despite that, Houston developed a remarkable chemistry, especially on offense, where it finished second in the league in scoring at 105.7 points per game. Incredible when you consider the circumstances.
This year also brought Parsons’ coming out party, as the 2011 second round pick went from a complimentary piece to a potential star himself. For now, his versatility will make him a perfect fit next to Harden and Star No. 2. However, if Parsons continues on his current trajectory, Morey will have to make a decision similar to the one Thunder GM Sam Presti had to make with Harden, who was once considered an ideal running mate with more heralded stars Durant and Russell Westbrook. Thankfully, such a decision won’t be necessary for another two years.
Point guard is a position of great strength with Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley and Aaron Brooks. The playoffs didn’t work out the way Lin and everyone else hoped for him, but make no mistake, the Rockets do not sniff the playoffs without Lin. Once they got there, it was Beverley’s rise and Brooks’ return to relevancy. There will be some decisions to make here come October.
With the talk of an all-out pursuit of Dwight Howard in free agency, Morey can feel comfortable that if his efforts come up empty, he still has one of the three or four best centers in the NBA. Yes, I’m talking about Omer Asik. Other than Harden, Asik was the team’s most valuable player, starting 82 games, averaging a double-double at 10.1 points and 11.7 rebounds, and so often covering up the mistakes of his teammates’ porous perimeter defense.
He also brings an attitude, and this series showed the nasty side, with the cameras often catching Asik shouting and finger-pointing at the mighty Durant, Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. When the Thunder resorted to Hack-A-Sik late in the fourth quarter of Game 5, Asik (a 56 percent free throw shooter) calmly stepped to the line and hit 11-for-16, making Thunder coach Scott Brooks look lost. Asik defines reliable in every way.
Carlos Delfino, whom the Rockets sorely missed in Game 6, Francisco Garcia, who was simply outstanding offensively and defensively against the Thunder, Beverley, Brooks, Smith, and youngsters Donatas Motiejunas and Terrence Jones give the Rockets quite a bench mob. My guess is not all of the listed parties will be on the roster next year, but whoever is can contribute on a nightly basis.
There wasn’t a more fun team to watch around the NBA this season. They play fast. They play loose. You can tell they’re always having fun. Fran Blinebury, a columnist for NBA.com, likened the Rockets to a team always “casually playing shirts vs. skins,” or pickup ball, in simpler terms. If they’re going to win big, that will have to change. Defense must become a priority. Cutting down on careless turnovers also has to be on the spring cleaning list.
Consider that Houston led the NBA in turnovers at 15.8 per game, yet still finished second in points scored. Imagine what that figure would’ve been if it cut that number down to 11. It doesn’t sound like much, but giving a prolific offense five extra possessions a game takes you from a 45-win team to maybe one with 55 wins.
On the morning of October 27, the Rockets were ready to embark on a season set to be an epic failure, featuring Lin and Kevin Martin as it’s go-to players, and a slew of rookies filling out the rotation. Just the thought makes me sick, but had that been the case, it’s possible Morey isn’t granted a seventh year at his post.
By that evening, Harden was officially a Rocket and Houston’s fortunes changed forever. What ensued was something for all involved—personally or professionally—to be proud of.
We’ve hardly seen the last of these Rockets, and the budding Houston-Oklahoma City rivalry provided a solid opening act, another story that’s just beginning. After the Harden trade, the two franchises forever became intertwined. This hostile, hard-fought six-game series just added fuel to the fire. Provided another successful summer of roster moves, these two will be battling for the Western Conference crown and NBA titles for years to come.
I’m not the only one that thinks so.
“They’re building something special here in Houston,” Durant said after Game 6. “They’re a force that will need to be reckoned with.”
And thus, for the first time in about five years, the promise of the future trumps the pain of the present in Clutch City.
As the 2012-13 college basketball season fades to black and we look ahead to what’s in store for next year, experts everywhere seem certain about one thing:
The Kentucky Wildcats are going to win the 2014 National Championship. Or, at least, they’re the overwhelming favorites.
Really? Labeling any team the odds on favorite to win a game that won’t be played for almost a full year is jumping the gun, no matter who it is. But this is going overboard. John Calipari has arguably the best recruiting class in the history of the sport coming in this fall with eight players, four of which are consensus top-10, and another two in the top-20. Calipari’s Wildcats are also the favorite to land Andrew Wiggins, the top player in the 2013 class.
Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Julius Randle, James Young, (most likely) Wiggins and the others will join returning players Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer, Ryan Harrow and Willie Cauley-Stein. They’ll find great chemistry right off the bat, perfectly coalesce, run the table in the terrible SEC, nab a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, and be untested in an easy six-game run to a second title in three years. Then they’ll all declare for the 2014 NBA Draft, make millions of dollars, Calipari will go refill the cupboard with nothing but the best, and everyone will live happily ever after.
It happened in 2012, so why not? Well, because it’s not that easy. Calipari would, or should, be the first to tell you. He’s made a living off of this. Every year his school sits at the top of the recruiting class rankings, but only once in his 21 years as a head coach has the finished product hung a championship banner. 2012 was the exception, not the rule.
Last year at this time, most pundits were saying the same thing, despite the fact that every player of consequence from the title team had departed. A near consensus No. 1 class arrived, started the season ranked No. 3 and received a total of seven votes for No. 1 in the two major polls. Looking back a year later, that’s just silly. Kentucky finished 21-12, good enough for fourth place in easily the worst conference in college basketball, and missed the NCAA Tournament. To cap it off, the Wildcats lost in the first round of the NIT to Robert Morris.
Experience and chemistry count for something. Sometimes both factors are overstated, but most championship teams have some semblance of familiarity with one another. Look at the Louisville Cardinals. Lost in the 2012 Final Four, returned just about everyone in 2013 and brought home the trophy. Same with 2010 Duke, 2009 North Carolina, 2008 Kansas, 2006 and 2007 Florida, 2005 North Carolina and 2004 Connecticut.
The Syracuse Orange in 2003 are the closest thing we have to the 2012 Wildcats. They won almost solely because of some freshman named Carmelo something or other. But, aside from freshman Gerry McNamara, the rest of that roster was filled with upperclassman.
What most people choose to forget about Kentucky’s championship team is that it had a handful of talented returnees and upperclassman. Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb were super sophomores, Darius Miller a senior. Those three and others contributed heavily during a run to the 2011 Final Four, which ended with a narrow loss to eventual champion Connecticut. Anthony Davis put the Wildcats over the top a year later, but those three had as much to do with the final confetti shower as anyone.
The elder statesmen on the 2013-14 squad—Harrow, Wiltjer, Cauley-Stein, Poythress (all but Harrow are sophomores)—have no such experience. They won’t even be able to tell the incoming freshmen what to expect in the NCAA Tournament when it arrives because none of them have actually played in it. Add in the potential of being a high seed and the pressure of Kentucky’s “Championship or Bust” mentality, and suddenly the daunting task of playing perfect basketball for six games isn’t the only problem.
Before we can even talk about Kentucky as a potential champion, Calipari is going to have to figure out how to mesh essentially eight or nine alpha-males, and get each one to accept a role lesser than one each would have had at another school. He failed miserably in doing so last year, and told the public himself following a loss to Georgia in early-March. The Wildcats had championship-level talent, but no chemistry, rhythm, or continuity. Talent is great, but it doesn’t amount to much when not working in unison.
Calipari will be starting the season three steps behind top “challengers” Michigan State and Louisville. Tom Izzo returns everyone but center Derrick Nix and isn’t bringing a top freshman into the rotation of a team that finished a game behind Indiana in the nation’s best conference, and lost narrowly to Duke in the Sweet 16. Four of five starters will likely be NBA draft picks in 2014. It’s a team of juniors and seniors. Talent? Up and down the roster. Experience? Check. Chemistry? Check.
The defending-champion Cardinals lost Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva to the NBA, but everyone else is back, depending on Kevin Ware’s injury status. Rick Pitino also added more than just the new ink to his shoulder this offseason, bringing in three highly-regarded freshman and a JUCO transfer.
At this point, if pressed, I’m far more comfortable putting my life savings on either of those two cutting down the nets in Arlington. Lots of gamblers that laid cash down on Kentucky to repeat had a serious case of buyer’s remorse last season.
I’ll happily be the first person on record to encourage those same people to find other ways to invest their money. Next year’s Wildcats are hardly a sure thing.
Ten years ago, NBA legend and TNT analyst Charles Barkley authored a book titled “I May Be Wrong but I Doubt It.”
College basketball fans, and even several high-level analysts, would argue the exact opposite, but when it comes to the NBA, Barkley usually hits the nail on the head. I’ll pull a clip from Sunday evening to illustrate. Between the Miami Heat’s drubbing of the Milwaukee Bucks and the tip of the Oklahoma City Thunder-Houston Rockets series, Barkley said something that he wouldn’t have to defend on this night: “This is setting up to be the worst NBA Playoffs ever… Sorry, worst first round ever.”
Inside the NBA host Ernie Johnson seemed appalled, responding sternly, “What?! Why?”
While one can understand Johnson’s reaction (the last thing TNT wants is one of its talent basically telling America to avoid watching the network in primetime over the next 2-3 weeks), the “why” is there for the whole world to see. The playoffs started Saturday with the Knicks coming back to beat the Celtics 85-78, immediately followed by the Denver Nuggets knocking off Golden State, 97-95, on an Andre Miller layup with 1.4 seconds to go. That was the only close and exciting Game 1 opening weekend had to offer.
The other six games were double-figure beatdowns. Oklahoma City and Miami—the No. 1 seeds on either side—won their games by 29 and 23 points, respectively. That’s to be expected. We hope Milwaukee and Houston can add at least a little bit of drama, but OKC and Miami are the overwhelming favorites to represent their conferences in the NBA Finals again, so no margin of victory over the hapless and hopeless eight-seeds will come as a surprise.
But even the 4-5 match-ups were shockingly one-sided, and these are supposed to be the one series in each conference played close to the vest. New Jersey blasted Chicago by 17 (it wasn’t that close), while the Los Angeles Clippers ran away from the Memphis Grizzlies, 112-91. The latter is considered by most to be the premier first round bout.
All in all, home teams went 8-0, with an average margin of victory of 16 points. Rather anti-climactic, wouldn’t you say? I’ve seen several fans of the eight losers on twitter saying, “It’s only Game 1, time to regroup for Game 2.” Yea, that’s all well and good, but how many of them actually can?
The way I see it, the odds of getting swept are greater than winning even one game for the Rockets, Bucks, Lakers (versus Spurs) and Hawks (vs. Pacers). That’s half of the first round right there. Can Golden State, Chicago, Boston or Memphis win more than one? The Warriors were dealt a huge blow with the loss of All-Star David Lee to a torn hip flexor, and on top of that, Kenneth Faried returns in Game 2 for Denver. Derrick Rose isn’t running out the tunnel with the Bulls this postseason, nor is Rajon Rondo for the Celtics.
That leaves Grizzlies-Clippers as the only series truly capable of producing any excitement whatsoever. So, you see, Sir Charles was right. The problem is, 2013 isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. The first round of the NBA Playoffs is almost always a drag because, quite simply, there aren’t 16 playoff-worthy teams in the league in any given year. No one wants to hear that, but it’s the truth. You could argue that there has never been more talent at the top, but the same problem persists below. There just aren’t enough top-flight players to spread around to the other 23 or 24 teams.
The first thing Adam Silver should do after taking over for Commissioner David Stern next winter is cut the regular season down to 60 games. Immediately after that, Silver should adopt Major League Baseball’s playoff setup, and hack the current field in half.
Neither of these suggestions will ever happen, but they would greatly enhance the NBA as a whole. It would shorten the insanely long playoff season by eliminating the watered down first round, while also adding value to the regular season. You think teams like the Spurs and Heat would be able to shut down their stars with three weeks left in a 60-game season? No. And picture how competitive the games would be from one to 60 if 15 teams in each conference were battling for four playoff spots instead of eight.
Here’s what this year’s field would look like under the (old) MLB model:
Eastern Conference: (1) Miami Heat vs. (4) Brooklyn Nets, (2) New York Knicks vs. (3) Indiana Pacers.
Western Conference: (1) Oklahoma City Thunder vs. (4) Denver Nuggets, (2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (3) Los Angeles Clippers.
With this model, the top three seeds are decided by division winners, with the Nets and Nuggets earning wildcard spots based on having the best record of non division winners. Funny thing is, the odds of these same eight teams advancing to this year’s second round are roughly 97 percent. Again, no need for a first round.
If the NBA wanted to adopt the MLB’s bogus new model which added a second “wildcard” team to the mix last year, setting up a silly one-game playoff between the two wildcards to decide which gets to advance to a five-game series with the top seed, that could work as well. Do a three-game series spread out over five days instead of the one-gamer. That could be exciting.
That being the case, Denver would have homecourt advantage in a short series with Memphis for the right to play Oklahoma City in the West, while Brooklyn would have homecourt against Chicago in the East, just as it’s currently set up.
This would mean no playoffs for Atlanta, Boston, Milwaukee, Golden State, the Lakers and Houston. It stinks for the fanbases, but it’s absolutely in the best interest of the league. Those six teams combined to go 113-160 against teams with a winning record in 2012-13. Among them, the Rockets finished with the best record at 22-26, meaning these six “qualifiers” padded their records and reached the postseason by taking care of business against the Kings and Bobcats of the league.
The playoffs are supposed to include the best of the best. In a great league, two or three good, playoff-worthy teams will be on the outside looking in. We see it all the time in the NFL, and no one questions whether it’s the best league in professional sports.
Sadly, there’s too much money involved, so the NBA will never change for the better, meaning we’ll all have to continue doing two things that should be deemed unlawful: sleep through the playoffs and admit Charles Barkley was right.
According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to transcend is to (a) rise above or go beyond the limits of, (b) triumph over the negative or restrictive aspects of, (c) be prior to, beyond or above something, or (d) to outstrip or outdo in some attribute, quality or power.
In sports, we often hear the statement “Player X transcended the game.” Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan. Tiger Woods. All great examples of players that near perfected their craft and elevated their respective sports to another level. But when examining what it means for an individual’s impact to truly transcend an entire industry, Johnson, Jordan and Woods don’t really fit the bill. In fact, no athlete, past or present does. Except one.
Jackie Robinson. If you’re old enough to be able to read this, then you know of him by now. If you’re a Baby Boomer, then you know more than my generation, and if you fought in World War II and saw George Herman Ruth in person, as my 90-year old grandfather did, then you may have been one of the many that weren’t so accepting of Robinson becoming the first African-American to play Major League Baseball.
Robinson’s struggle to break the color barrier was wonderfully portrayed in the movie “42,” which hit theaters Friday. I don’t make it a point to rush to the theater to see many movies on opening day, but I felt I knew far too little about Robinson and, as a diehard fan of sports, I owed it to him to see it as soon as possible.
42 is great. I urge you to go see it. Harrison Ford, playing Brooklyn Dodgers’ owner Branch Rickey, Chadwick Boseman, the little-known actor that likely made his career in portraying Robinson, and Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, the Dodgers’ manager who was suspended days before the start of the 1947 season for committing adultery, all turned in excellent performances.
That’s the extent of my movie review. But I digress. I want to focus on why it’s so important for fans to always keep Robinson’s feat in proper perspective. Start by naming your five favorite sports figures. Of mine—Dan Marino, Hakeem Olajuwon, Derek Jeter, Jason Taylor and Mariano Rivera—only Marino is white. If not for Jackie, there’s a chance we never come to know the other four. Jeter and Rivera for certain. Same goes for the aforementioned Jordan, Magic and Woods.
Robinson, to a lesser degree of course, was to sport what Martin Luther King, Jr. was to the civil rights movement. Without their strength, vision and guts to stand tall, and remain ethical in the face of adversity that most of us cannot even begin to understand, sport and, most importantly, America, aren’t what they are today.
Three scenes from the movie stood out to me in the way each reflected just how difficult Robinson’s transition was from the Negro League to Major League Baseball.
The first came about halfway through the movie, when Philadelphia Phillies manager Ben Chapman stands on the first step of the dugout and shouts every racial slur known to man in Robinson’s direction during his at-bats. After a weak infield fly ended his second plate appearance, Robinson musters every bit of self-control in him to keep from taking a bat to Chapman’s face.
Instead, he runs into the clubhouse entrance and smashes his bat into 1,000 pieces before crumbling to the ground in tears. After a brief conversation with Rickey, Robinson returns to the field and scores the game-winning run in the ninth inning.
The first person I thought of in reflection of this moment was LeBron James. I hate to always pick on LeBron, but remember back in the 2010-11 season when, after publicly ditching Cleveland for Miami, he was always on the defensive with the media and often complained, subtly or not, about how difficult it is to deal with the fans and media always being on him?
How do you think LeBron would’ve done as a pioneer? Think he would’ve made it through a month of the 1947 season? No athlete has ever had it as bad, or will ever have it as bad as Robinson. The fact that he refused to engage the public says all you need to know about his character.
Towards the end of that segment, Robinson is walking out of the stadium with his wife. He says “I never want to let them beat me… they almost did today.”
When certain rookie phenoms, stars or super teams go on the road, fans and residents in the host city will say “The circus is in town.”
Jordan. The Miami Heatles. The Showtime Lakers. More recently, Tim Tebow-mania. Fans embrace it. The networks love it. Ratings soar to an all-time high.
But when Jackie Robinson went on the road, it was the exact opposite. There’s a scene when another team’s owner calls Rickey and tells him that his team will not play if Robinson travels with the Dodgers. And another when the team bus arrives at a hotel only to be told to leave the premises because the Dodgers—not just Robinson—are not welcome at the establishment.
While manager Burt Shotton protests, one of Robinson’s teammates says “Maybe Jackie has enough friends in the area that we can bunk with.” Taken aback, Robinson asks “What do you want from me?”
The teammate screams “An apology for turning this season into a circus.” Some shoving ensues before several teammates stop the fight. This is the only time in the movie you see Robinson get physical with another human.
At first, no one wanted Robinson around, but as the season went on, fans and baseball cities around America wanted no part of the Brooklyn Dodgers organization. The locker room is the one safe haven for athletes, but Jackie didn’t have even the support of his teammates. The national backlash towards the franchise only made matters worse.
“I’m just here to play ball,” Robinson said at the end of the scene. “And I’m not going anywhere.”
Twitter tough. That’s a term current athletes use to laugh off fans that say they’re going to do this or that because someone isn’t performing up to snuff. With everyone having access to athletes through social media outlets, death threats happen every 30 seconds and are probably taken more lightly than they should.
But a scene late in the movie shows how they were viewed in the 1940s, especially for someone in Robinson’s shoes. And just how many he received.
Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese was from Kentucky. Before a road trip to Cincinnati, just outside his hometown, Reese enters Rickey’s office and indirectly asks him to keep Robinson home from the trip so, among other things, he can have a happy homecoming. He said he’d been receiving letters from homers calling him a carpetbagger due to the fact that he willingly plays with a black man.
Rickey walks over to his file cabinet and pulls out three manila folders bulging with paper. He hands one to Reese. Inside are open threats to Robinson, telling him to get out of baseball or they’ll kill him. And his wife. And newborn baby. One by one.
“The FBI is onto a threat from Cincinnati,” Dickey says while Reese reads on. “Be happy you’re only being called a carpetbagger.”
In one of the more emotional scenes from the movie, Reese runs over to Robinson at first base during infield warm-ups in Cincinnati and tells Robinson to drown out the hatred coming from the stands. Then, in a sign of singularity, Reese puts his arm around Robinson.
“I want my people to know who I am,” Reese says.
As he jogs back to shortstop, Reese looks back at Robinson and says “Maybe tomorrow we can all wear No. 42 so no one will look at us differently.”
Reese’s thoughts became reality when Major League Baseball began honoring Robinson earlier this decade by picking a day every April where all players around the league wear No. 42.
“Like our savior, we need to have the guts to turn the other cheek.”
In a bit of foreshadowing of the struggles that lie ahead for Robinson, Rickey said this to him in their initial conversation. Robinson replied with “You give me a uniform, I’ll give you the guts.”
Both men held up their end of the bargain. Slowly but surely, African-Americans began to litter the white man’s game, and became more prominent in sports as a whole.
It’s easy to say “It would’ve happened eventually anyway,” but without Robinson, it’s no certainty. Not only did he transcend his sport, but Robinson managed to transcend the wide world of sports.
Basketball remained the same after Jordan and Magic, as golf has as Tiger’s luster wanes. While captivating a kind, glorifying nation, they simply rose the bar for future competitors.
Robinson’s story tells us what it really means to “transcend the game.” And that’s why we must never forget.
The Los Angeles Lakers are going to make the NBA Playoffs. Let’s get that out of the way right off the bat.
As it stands, they’re anything but a lock. With three games left to decide the Western Conference’s eighth and final postseason invite, the Lakers hold a one-game lead over the Utah Jazz, but face a far more difficult schedule, and the Jazz hold the tiebreaker. But watching Kobe Bryant will L.A. to a 113-106 win in Portland Wednesday night, scoring 47 points in all 48 minutes in the second night of a back-to-back, I’m sold that he won’t have any part of an early vacation.
How long he can delay rest and relaxation is the question. Will the Lakers—a “Dream Team” gone horribly wrong from the start—do any damage once the playoffs begin? Everyone at ESPN seems to think so. Magic Johnson and Jalen Rose both predicted they’d qualify and beat the currently top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round. Kurt Rambis shared this sentiment on SportsCenter Thursday afternoon.
Look, I get it. The presence of Bryant alone makes L.A. the scariest No. 8 seed in NBA history. Throw in All-Stars Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, and it’s almost natural to label the Lakers as “the low seed that no one wants to play.” But allow me to seemingly be the first to tell you that Los Angeles’ playoff party ends in the first round. Likely in four or five games.
Look past the name on the front of the jersey and forget about the decorated history of some names on the back, and what you get is six months of inconsistent, sloppy, and sometimes downright awful play. At best, these Lakers are average. If you don’t want to listen to me, the numbers will tell you.
L.A. is a season-high five games over .500. At one point in January, the purple and gold were eight games below the even mark, and didn’t go above it all season until a March 8 victory over Toronto. It’s longest win streak in 2012-13 (five games) is one game fewer than it’s longest losing streak. They’re 25-24 against the West (average), 16-25 on the road (awful), and possess a mediocre point differential of +1.1. Other playoff teams with similar point differentials—Atlanta, Boston, Milwaukee, Golden State—are near certain to become first round fodder.
Names aside, what exactly makes the Lakers a sexy pick for a playoff upset? Bryant, Howard and Nash are great individual players, but together, they’ve mostly been a hot mess. If something hasn’t worked for 79 games, why should you think it’s suddenly going to click in the season’s defining moments?
Locked into the eight spot assuming they qualify, the Lakers will play either the Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder. If they draw the Thunder, the upset talk dies quickly. L.A. has no shot. They met in the second round of last year’s playoffs and the Thunder breezed through in five games. That Lakers team was a much better (41-25 in the lockout shortened season), more cohesive unit than this year’s. Yes, the Thunder traded James Harden to Houston but, clearly, they haven’t fallen off one bit.
That brings us to the Spurs. Ever since they were upset by the upstart No. 8 seed Memphis Grizzlies in the 2011 postseason, picking San Antonio to lose in the first round has become popular. But two things to consider: 1) those Grizzlies have turned out to be something pretty special, and 2) one semi-fluke aside, the Spurs are a near lock to advance past the first round every year.
In the glorious Gregg Popovich-Tim Duncan Era, San Antonio has failed to get out of the opening round just three times in 15 seasons. They’ve reached the conference finals or NBA Finals seven times in that span. They’re old and banged up—Manu Ginobili’s out and no guarantee to be ready for the first round, and Tony Parker is nursing an ankle injury—but last I checked, so are the Lakers.
Among their playing rotation, only Howard, Jodie Meeks and Earl Clark are younger than 32. Of that group, only Howard strikes fear into opponents. Bryant’s playing through a severe high-ankle sprain (although not looking hampered), Nash is dealing with a whole slew of injuries, Metta World Peace has a torn meniscus, and Gasol could audition for The Walking Dead, based on both looks and physical ailments.
Getting L.A. in the first round would be a dream come true for the Spurs. In terms of style, strengths, and weaknesses, the Lakers are their mirror image, just the Spurs are a whopping 15 games better. And have been all season. And they win on the road (23-16). And play defense (allowing 96.2 points per game to L.A.’s 101.1). And sport the league’s third-best point differential (+7.0).
More importantly, the Spurs are still made up of the same core group that has won three titles since 2003. They define cohesion. They understand every last intricacy about eachother on the basketball court. In crunch time, there are no surprises.
This tells you all you need to know: the Lakers have had more coaches this season (two) than the Spurs have had in the last 16.
Spurs, Thunder. Doesn’t matter. These Lakers aren’t going anywhere. The Kobe-Howard marriage was doomed from the start, and it’s just a matter of time before we go from talking about how far they can take it together to if they’ll ever play with one another again.
Erik Spoelstra was out of answers. Shane Battier, for once, looked defenseless. There was nothing either of them, or anyone else on the Miami Heat for that matter, could do to put out the “Backdraft”-size fire that was Carmelo Anthony Tuesday night.
And yet, if that performance and the game itself didn’t raise a flag as red as the Heat logo in the mind of Spike Lee and every other diehard Knicks fan, they’re soon headed for a rude awakening. I’m not about to dog Anthony’s 50-point outburst. How could I? He was nothing short of spectacular, and uber efficient to boot, hitting 18-of-26 shots, including 7-of-10 from beyond the arc. This is about the big picture. About the part of the NBA season that really matters: the playoffs.
Are the New York Knicks—winners of nine straight—a threat to beat the Heat and win the Eastern Conference? I’ve said no all along, but Tuesday night made it that much harder for me to take them seriously. Start with the fact that the Heat were playing with the intensity of a Sunday walk through Central Park, just four games removed from a historic 27-game win streak. They cared so little that LeBron James and Dwayne Wade were in street clothes, resting up for their title defense.
The completely healthy and tuned-in Knicks should have blown the Miami JV squad into the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, they needed almost every one of Anthony’s 50 points to leave South Beach a winner. The Knicks trailed by eight at the half, and the game was still tied with 7:33 to play before New York finished on a 14-2 sprint.
As I watched Anthony bury a three in Battier’s eye, and stare him down past half court with his swag scowl, my only reaction was: “Haven’t we been down this road before?” Look, Melo could rip the Heat and every other team on the planet for 50 on any given night. But if he were to do it five times against Miami with James and Wade in the lineup, the Heat probably still win four. You’re a fool if you think the Heat are the least bit alarmed by the Knicks in a potential playoff series.
This will be Anthony’s third postseason in New York. The first two ended in embarrassment, as the Knicks were swept out cleanly by the Boston Celtics in round one in 2011. And guess who ended their run last spring, again in the first round? Miami. And boy, was it ugly.
Miami’s four wins came by an average margin of 18 points. David Stern should’ve mercy ruled the Knicks after they lost Game 1, 100-67. New York’s lone win came in the classic “they’re down 3-0, let’s give them a game” Game 4, when Anthony scored 41 points in a measly two-point victory. For the record, he averaged 27.8 points in that series, just shy of his 27.9 average this season.
Anthony has been to the playoffs each of the previous nine years and only once has he led his team out of the first round. That was in 2008-09, when he had the Denver Nuggets on the brink of the NBA Finals, but fell just short in an admirable six-game defeat to the eventual champion Los Angeles Lakers.
New York should win at least one series this year, but it’s far from a guarantee. If the final eight games of the regular season yield no movement in the standings, the Knicks will see the Celtics in the opener. With Rajon Rondo out and Kevin Garnett ailing, the Knicks are the better team, but would anyone be surprised if Boston took that series? I wouldn’t. And they better hang on to the No. 2 seed because falling to No. 3 would bring either the Chicago Bulls or the Atlanta Hawks. Again, I probably take the Knicks in either series, but only by the hair on Melo’s chine-chin-chin.
Winning a round doesn’t make the Knicks a threat, it only guarantees that Mike Woodson won’t lose his job and fans won’t clamor for a “Carmelo Anthony for Jeremy Lin straight up” trade this summer. Can they beat the Indiana Pacers in the semis? The Pacers have won two of three thus far, and their most recent meeting was a resounding 125-91 Indiana win. I’ll take Paul George, David West and that defense all day in a seven-game series, but it’s debatable.
April 14 will tell us something. It’s the final meeting between the two, with the Knicks currently leading the Pacers by a game in the loss column for the No. 2 seed, which would award them homecourt advantage in the series assuming both teams advance. That being a huge difference-maker, the game should be played at a playoff level. Maybe Anthony pops 50 again and the Knicks put the NBA on notice. I’m not counting on it, though.
We’ve been down this road before.