Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Obsessed with 26.2

As a life-long cyclist, I never had much time for (or much interest in) running. I did, however, always wonder if I could run a marathon. Once I turned 40, I decided to give it a try. This past Sunday (two weeks shy of my 46th birthday), I completed my 8th marathon. I am obsessed with the 26.2 mile distance, and there are many reasons why.

There is a fascinating science behind running a marathon as fast as you can. So many little things go into such a big effort. My first marathon (White Rock, '07) was a blur. I was so nervous about the race that I slept only 45 minutes the night before. Once the race began, the energy gels I had tucked in my waistband immediately fell to the pavement. I started to fall apart at the halfway point. I ran in a panic the entire way. I finished in 3 hours, 29 minutes--shy of my goal of 3:20 (my Boston Marathon qualifying time). I couldn't walk for a few days. I was only starting to understand the difficulty of the process.

Experienced marathon friends of mine had told me "You'll learn something every time you run a marathon, and that'll make you better in your next one." Indeed, over the last few years, through trial and error, I've learned a great deal about my body and my mind. I've learned what kind of training works for me and what doesn't. I've learned what kind of diet works for me and what doesn't. I've learned what kind of mental approach works and what doesn't. It's one big, ongoing experiment, and that's what makes it so much fun. There is nothing more exciting than lining up at the start on race day knowing you are 3 hours away from finding out if your methods and theories will work or not--and finding out just how far you can push your body and your mind. The results can be euphoric or depressing, and that's the beauty of it all.

I got a little better in my second race (Athens, OH, '08). A 3:25, but I fell apart with two miles to go--I had massive hamstring cramp that brought me to a standstill. My third marathon was a disaster (Eugene, OR, '09). I was coming off of a stress fracture in the fall, and my training in the spring had been subpar. But, I talked myself into thinking I could run a 3:20 because I had performed well in some tune-up races. But the marathon is such a different beast from any other kind of foot race. If it were 20 miles long instead of 26.2, it would be considerably easier. Something happens at mile 20. They say the 20 mile mark is halfway in a marathon, and they're right. That day in Eugene I hit the wall so hard at mile 20 that I could barely walk. My hotel was on the race route at mile 22, and with my eyes crossed and my legs and brain feeling like jelly, I quit the race and headed straight to my room.

That fall, I ran the New York City Marathon. I went in with few expectations, and finally ran a 3:20. One of the happiest days of my life--I had finally qualified to run Boston, which I did in '10 and '11. My times in my last few marathons have always been around 3:20, with a best of 3:18 at Grandma's Marathon in Duluth last June. At age 45, I was starting to wonder if I could go much faster. I knew that at some point I was going to start to slow down, I just didn't know when.

So, this fall, I changed a lot--the ongoing experiment continued. After a huge plate of ribs in August--and an afternoon of feeling like crap--I decided to change my diet. I cut out almost all red meat, chicken, pork and dairy. I ate more fresh fruits and vegetables. I also changed my training--instead of running my long, 20 mile training runs at a fast pace, I ran them easy. That plan left my legs fresh for my speed workouts during the week, and it also led to fresh feeling legs on race day. I discovered that I was wearing myself out during training, and often arriving at the start line in less than optimal shape.

I also changed my mindset. I started racing without a watch. This was a major move. I ran a personal best in the half marathon in October with no watch--I just went on feel. It was awesome--very liberating. I recommend it to anyone. I will never run another race with a watch again.

I also read an interview with legendary triathlete Mark Allen (Inside Triathlon, Nov '11) that changed my way of thinking in a race. Allen dealt with a lot of mental demons early in his career. He couldn't ignore the negative thoughts during a race--when he was feeling bad, his mind kept telling him to quit (the same voices most of us hear). He finally figured out how to deal with the bad times during a race--he had to train his mind to to find a certain place:

"Once you give in to the negative thoughts during a race, you almost always slow down--you're almost always done. But, I found it too hard to keep pumping myself up with positive thoughts in a long event. The best place to be is between the two thoughts. It's the most powerful place. There is a silence, and in that silence you find the answers to the problems you may be having. Or you'll just feel an ease, a grace, a calm.

If you can find that space where your mind goes quiet then you don't need a positive thought to keep going--you're not thinking and analyzing and thinking if it's good or not good. You're just there putting one foot in front of the other, and all of the sudden you can feel this ease wash all over you--all over the muscles in your whole body. And then you're not really attached to whether you do your best time or don't do your best time--you're just giving your best effort that you have. And when you're in that space, all of the sudden possibility just opens up for you. And you can just feel it. You feel like "wow, maybe I can" even though you're not really worried if you do or don't. It's just this space that's like awareness--you're aware of everything going on around you but you're calm and not talking and not judging."

Wonderful advice. Advice that I put into practice last weekend. I ran the California International Marathon in Sacramento. I was feeling great in mind and body. We had perfect weather: clear, calm and 40 degrees. I ran with the 3:10 pace group until I had to let them go at mile 20 (halfway!). My goal was to run something under 3:15, but after mile 20 I had no watch and no pace group, so I had no idea what pace I was on. I ran on feel, as hard as I could, just concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other--trying to find the place between the two thoughts. I finished in 3:13:38--a five minute personal best. I was elated. I was also very satisfied to know that my methods and theories had been validated--and happy to know that at almost 46 years old, I wasn't slowing down yet.

So, the obsession with the distance and the process continues. I've told myself that I won't stop running marathons as long as I keep getting faster. So how much faster can I go? Well, if I can keep chopping five minutes off of my time each race, I'll be able to run a near-world record time of 2:05 or so by my 60th birthday. Something to shoot for.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Why I Love and Hate College Football

Growing up in Oklahoma, I had no choice. College football was the sport. You followed the Sooners. You cheered for the Sooners. You lived and died with the Sooners. OU football was (and still is) the number one religion in the state, and if you weren't a follower, you were excommunicated. I didn't mind, because I truly loved it. There was nothing better than a football Saturday in the fall. Billy Sims and the Selmon brothers were gods to us. Even now, my favorite day of the year is in October when OU plays Texas. The color and energy of that day and that game can't be topped.

College football is a wonderful sport. The stadiums, the tailgating, the uniforms, the cheerleaders, the rivalries, the Heisman, the bowl games, the cheating, the drugs, the child rape scandals. Wait, somehow we just got way off course...

Unfortunately, there is a dichotomy at work here. While the greatness of college football can't be denied, it also can't be denied that big-time college football is the dirtiest, seediest sport in this country. Bar none. The Penn State scandal brings to light just how far a program will go to the dark side in order to preserve its image and its income. We’ve always known that it’s par for the course for programs to cover up paying for players and doctoring grades, but covering up a child rape scandal? Even the biggest college football sceptic couldn’t have thought this was possible.

I don’t ever want to hear “they do it the right way at such-and-such school” again. Nobody does it the right way in college football, where the only way to survive is to do it the wrong way. Dave Bliss was a card-carrying Christian Soldier, but turned out to be the dirtiest coach in the history of college basketball. I was always told that Joe Paterno “did it the right way” at Penn State. We now know how laughable that really was.

Where there is big money at stake, and high-paying jobs at stake, and school pride at stake, there will always be those willing to cheat the system in order to win games. Always.

We’ve heard for years that college football is “cleaner now than it was in the 70’s and 80’s.” That’s just not true. College football is dirtier than ever before, because the stakes are higher than ever before. The NCAA released a study last year: 53 of the 120 FBS schools had been found guilty of major violations from 2000-2010. Almost 50% of programs were dirty in just the last ten years! Common sense tells you that the percentage of guilty programs is probably much higher--those 53 schools were the ones caught cheating, but how many more got away with it? Over the last 75 years, 90% of FBS schools have been found guilty of major violations. In other words, everyone cheats, and most get caught. And yet, the cheating continues.

I call it the mentally-ill world of big-time college football. There is something about a college football program that warps a person's perspective. There are also reprehensible things going on in religion (the many, many sex scandals, most notably in the Catholic Church) and politics (sex scandals, cheating, lying, crime) and big business (corporate greed, cheating, lying, crime). None of it is right. But in the cases of religion (not the football kind) and politics and even some some businesses, we are talking about things that run the world, things that wars are fought over, things that people die for. But college football? It’s a game, or so we are led to believe.

I've known of friendships ended because of college football. We've read stories of beatings and vandalism and even murders over college football. For a frighteningly large number of people, their favorite college football program is more important to them than their family, friends and career--and sadly, they have no idea. They can't see the forest for the trees, unless the trees are killed by a crazy Alabama fan.

I can insult a religion or a political party or a business on our radio show, and I’ll get some feedback. But if I insult the Longhorns, Aggies, or any college football program, I’ll get death threats. I can’t explain what makes people lose their marbles when it comes to their favorite college football team. For some reason, college football bragging rights mean more than doing the right thing. In the case of Penn State, bragging rights meant more than protecting young boys from a serial rapist. How does anyone explain that?

Jerry Sandusky is a monster. We see now that Penn State was willing to go to great lengths to cover up the actions of this monster. Why? Because they didn’t want to soil the great reputation of Joe Paterno and Nittany Lion football. Because they didn’t want to toss a wrench into the money-making machine that is Penn State football. The only way a monster like Sandusky survives for that long is to work within another monster--in this case, the other monster is a big-time college football program.

There are few things I love more than college football. But it’s getting more difficult by the day to keep that love affair alive. Conference realignment, the BCS, drugs, cheating, and the win-at-all-costs mentality make the sport difficult for me to fully embrace. In a professional sport, we almost expect cheating and drugs and scandal. But college football, we are told, is about competition and education and apple pie. Then, we learn about Joe Paterno covering up a child rape scandal. Joe Paterno, who does things the right way.

There is no right way. Not anymore. Not in college football. Not as long as they’re keeping score.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Who Would Have Thought?

Thirty eight years. That's how long it took the Texas Rangers to win a playoff series. Forty nine years, if you count the Washington Senators era. That's a long period of baseball futility. And now, this. The World Series. Again. A half-century drought, followed by a two year deluge. We must be dreaming.

Two or three years ago, did anyone see this coming? The honest answer is no. It's been an unlikely journey--as unlikely as any I've ever seen in DFW sports history. Consider all of the "who would have thought" examples this growth process has provided:

The Lovable Losers -- The Rangers were the American League version of the Cubs. They were never going to win anything. That was their fate. We had all accepted it. It was good enough just to have baseball in this town, and to be able to go to the Ballpark and eat a hot dog, drink a beer, and watch other good teams come through. The Rangers had never been on anyone's radar as a serious World Series contender. Even going into last season, they were picked by nobody (other than Nolan Ryan) to win the AL West. Spring Training, 2010: who would have thought the Rangers would win back-to-back AL flags?

Nolan Will Lead Them -- When Big Tex was hired as team president, did anyone think it was going to be anything more than just a figure-head role? Help sell a few tickets, sign some autographs, and sit there like you care. Who would have thought that Nolan would prove to be the most important sports hire in this town since Jerry hired Jimmy to coach the Cowboys? Nolan completely changed the culture in Arlington. He demanded more from everyone, and he commanded respect while doing so.

The Kid Turns it Around -- The first two years for John Daniels as Rangers GM were not great. He was just 28 years old when hired, which caused some giggles--and his first few trades caused even more giggles. It seemed he was on the wrong side of everything. Then, in the summer of 2007, the Teixeira trade happened--the Rangers got Feliz, Harrison and Elvis, and the mojo changed for Daniels. Since then, practically everything he's touched has turned to gold: the Cruz deal, the Murphy deal, the Hamilton deal, the Lee deal, the Napoli deal, the Lewis, Vlad and Beltre signings, and on and on and on. Who would have thought that after such a shaky start as GM, he would now be regarded as one of the best, if not the best in the business. And he's stocked the Rangers farm system--the future is bright.

Wash Keeps His Job -- Spring Training, 2010: we learn Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine after indulging at a party during the All-Star break the previous summer. Most thought Wash either would be or should be fired. He wasn't, and the rest is history. Who would have thought that, as he's telling his story to the media that afternoon in Surprise, that 18 months later he would be managing the Rangers in the World Series for the second straight season?

The Comeback -- He always had the ability, but he also had a lot of baggage. Just a few years ago, as he's in and out of rehab (and banned by Major League Baseball), who would have thought that Josh Hamilton would have an MVP trophy on his shelf and would be the dependable linchpin of a Rangers offense that has helped carry them to back-to-back pennants? If anyone saw this coming, raise your hand. I didn't think so. I bet deep-down, Josh didn't either.

These Guys are in the Rotation? -- Again, Spring Training, 2010: who would have thought that relievers CJ Wilson and Alexi Ogando, along with Japanese import Colby Lewis, would turn into consistent, if not dominant, starters in a World Series-caliber rotation? Really? Who saw that coming? Part of the amazing transformation of a once-laughable Rangers pitching staff. Much credit to Nolan and Mike Maddux for helping work small miracles.

Young Again -- Spring Training, 2011: who would have thought the Michael Young story would have turned out this well? It seemed the Rangers had run out of places to play Young, and would make a trade. Young and Daniels had words for each other--it appeared to be a bad situation. But what happens? Young stays, and has one of his best seasons in what has been an amazing career. He turns into even more of a leader, and helps the Rangers put away the Tigers with a strong finish in the ALCS.

Nap Nap -- When the Rangers acquired Mike Napoli, it looked like a nice pickup. Who would have thought it would turn out to be one the best pickups in franchise history? A guy with a reputation as a so-so defensive catcher suddenly blossomed in that role with Texas. Meanwhile, at the plate, he blew away his career highs in HR's, RBI's and batting average. Who would have thought that Napoli would hit more home runs than Hamilton while playing in fewer games? Amazing.

Cruz Control -- Spring Training, 2009: Nelson Cruz is seen as a prospect who may never get it done at the big-league level. He can hit 30 home runs a season in the minors, but bring him up to the show, and he's nothing but a fly-ball out. Then, it happens. Cruz gets it. He figures out major league pitching, at age 28. 33 home runs, and an All-Star game nod. In March of 2009, who would have guessed that Nellie would go on to hit 6 HR's in the ALCS a few years later--a record that may stand forever?

It really has been an incredibly unlikely journey, and I've loved every minute of it. As a card-carrying Dr. Pepper Junior Ranger, I never thought I would see the Rangers in the World Series. And now it's happened twice. For the franchise that could never catch a break, everything is suddenly working out for them. It's a serendipitous time, and nobody saw it coming. Which makes it even better.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

All Hail, The Uniform Czar!

In the first, and perhaps last of a series, I turn this blog space over to a special guest columnist. This week, we hear from an old friend of mine who would like to say a few things about the crazy turn uniforms have taken in the world of college football:

Hello, I am the Uniform Czar, and I am very angry!

(cue thunder and lightning)

I would like to thank Craig for allowing me to be his guest columnist this week on his immensely popular blog. Craig has always been great about honoring my wishes, and about helping me get my message to the public.

Let me start by saying that this is a sad time for the Czar. The 2011 college football season has brought great suffering. Some of the uniforms being worn this season not only fly in the face of tradition and fashion sense, but they are so offensive that they seem to be flipping off Lady Liberty and the rest of this great nation. And I won't stand for it. Which is why I'm sitting down to write this.

(cue rim-shot...I used to want to be a stand-up comedian, please forgive me)

We should have seen these atrocities coming. It started many years ago, with the Hitler of uniforms in this country: Oregon. Phil Knight and his Nike Gestapo started the trend of tricking things up (although I'll admit that Oregon had bad colors to begin with, so they've always been cursed). Under the watch of their evil 'Athletic Director' Knight, Oregon shocked the football world with what appeared to be joke uniforms back in the mid-00's:

There is no doubt that Knight is the Antichrist. He has now taken things to a sickening level, introducing his new Nike Combat series. He has taken some classic looks and turned them into something a DISD school wouldn't wear. He is messing around with the very fabric of the sport (get it!). On opening weekend, we were 'treated' to Georgia's new look. Why would they get rid of those classic, identifiable uniforms in favor of these abominations?

The answer? Because Phil Knight is the devil. He knows nothing about and cares nothing about tradition (because he's from Oregon, a school with zero football tradition, save for Dan Fouts). He care about money and money only. He wants to create new looks that will prey upon the weak-minded video game crowd, hoping to brainwash a new generation of jersey-buyers.

It's not just Georgia he's messing with. His wicked ways have infiltrated LSU, Stanford, Michigan St and Ohio St:

In terms of pure aesthetics, the Czar does not oppose some of these looks. The new LSU uniform is not offensive per say, but the point is this: LSU has one of the most classic looks in college football, so why tamper with it?

Oklahoma St is another big offender. They, like many schools, break the cardinal rule of wearing solids on solids. The only time a team should ever wear solid on solid is white on white. Anything else is right out, like OSU's black on black the other night against Arizona. If your eyes can take it, here are the new OSU looks for 2011:

Someone sent the Czar this work-up of the new Texas Longhorn uniform. Let's all hope they were joking. If not, the Czar will officially concede. I will have lost the battle. I will retire. I will finally move out west and run that small vineyard that I've been dreaming about. If this happens, the rapture will be upon us:

There is some hope, however. If history tells us anything, we may be able to take back ground soon. I remember a very bad time for uniforms in Major League Baseball in the 70's and 80's (remember the horrible Astros and White Sox duds?). Clubs eventually realized the error of their ways, and went back to the more traditional looks that we enjoy today. The same thing happened in the NBA in the 80's and 90's (remember the tie-dye Nets uniforms, or the crazy Nuggets color montage?), and we eventually found our way back to old-school uniforms. It's cyclical, and I feel like we will work our way through this bad patch. It may take ten years, but we'll eventually get back to basics.

We saw an indication that things might not get too out-of-control last week, when Michigan and Notre Dame met. Adidas tricked up each school's look, but not in an overly-offensive manner. They were throwback looks for two teams that already wear throwback looks. In fact, the Czar approved:

The Czar is willing to accept these changes. As with any negotiation, each side must be willing to give a little. I will go along with traditional powers like Michigan and Notre Dame making 'throwback' changes to their uniforms, as long as I never have to set my eyes upon the new Maryland uniforms again. If they aren't the worst uniform of all-time, they are in the discussion:

As the all-knowing, all-ruling and all-conference (back in my days as one heck of a linebacker) Czar, I beg of you: please do not support the new trend in college uniforms. Help me fight the good fight. We can win this battle. Support tradition. Support clean, crisp looks. Support the proper color combinations and the proper jersey/pants protocol. Don't let the Phil Knight influence get to Penn St, or Alabama, or Oklahoma, or USC, or Texas. Let's work our way through the current ugliness. In the end, we may be scarred from our battle, but our country will be better off.

God Bless,
The Uniform Czar

PS: I leave you with my favorite college football uniforms of all-time:

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My NFL Picks, in Five Words or Less

There are dozens of NFL preview magazines on the shelves now, all complete with pages and pages of thoughts on each team. There are hundreds of websites with their own, in-depth looks at the 2011 season. This blog? In keeping with the short attention span nature of today's world, I bring you my 2011 NFL picks, with a brief, five word (or less) thought on each team. Enjoy, hate, or fall into the vast middle ground of apathy through sheer boredom:

AFC West

1. Chargers. It's their year...again.
2. Chiefs. It's not their year...again.
3. Raiders. Just don't finish last, baby.
4. Broncos. Tebow sucks at pro football.

AFC South

1. Texans. Because Wade isn't head coach.
2. Colts. The decline starts.
3. Jaguars. They always bore me.
4. Titans. Odd to not see Fisher.

AFC North

1. Steelers. Mike Wallace for 60 minutes.
2. Ravens (WC). They hate Nasty Nestor, too.
3. Browns. No receivers for Colt.
4. Bengals. A complete mess.

AFC East

1. Patriots. Seven seasons since last title!
2. Jets (WC). Foot fetish still funny.
3. Dolphins. Miami loves Bush.
4. Bills. At least classic uniform returns.

NFC West

1. Rams. Bradford the next great one.
2. Cardinals. Still St. Louis to me.
3. 49ers. Alex Smith experiment, take three.
4. Seahawks. Tarvaris Jackson (cue laughter).

NFC South

1. Falcons. Even more weapons for Ryan.
2. Saints (WC). Jabari lives.
3. Buccaneers (WC). Win ten for Lee Roy.
4. Panthers. Newton era begins and ends.

NFC North

1. Packers. They were shorthanded last year!
2. Lions. Good QB, good defense.
3. Vikings. Missed their window in '09.
4. Bears. Too many ex-Cowboys.

NFC East

1. Eagles. Best in East, but overrated.
2. Cowboys. Looking .500 in the face.
3. Giants. Super Bowl cred fading fast.
4. Redskins. Dan Snyder comedy tour continues.

AFC Championship: Patriots over Ravens.
NFC Championship: Packers over Falcons

Super Bowl XLVI: Packers over Patriots

Final five words: I'm glad football is back.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Dominoes are About to Fall

One year after thinking the Big 12 (10?) had avoided implosion, it looks like their foundation is about to be rocked again. Texas A&M appears headed to the SEC, and who can blame them? Forward-thinkers are the winners in today's high-stakes game of college football poker. Cast your gaze twenty years down the road, and you'll be in good shape. Live for today and you're going to get left behind.

Now, the Big 12 is left trying to save a soon-to-be nine team league. This week, finally, there is talk of Big 12 expansion. Where was this talk last summer? Or the summers before that? I never understood how the Big 12 could be OK going forward with a weakened league. Conventional wisdom says that we are heading toward a new Division One in college football, to be comprised of four, 16-20 team super conferences (the SEC, Big 10, Pac 12 and ?). Why, then, would the Big 12 say "we're fine with a shrinking league" and try to go forward with ten schools that already have a very uneasy coexistence?

Some say it's because they wanted fewer schools in their league so that each school's share of the TV money would be larger. This is the most short-sighted view a league could ever take. The Big 12 should have been thinking about expansion five years ago. If they could have brought in a few more big schools and made themselves a super conference, then their TV contracts would be worth much, much more down the road. They could have tried to ad Notre Dame or BYU or TCU or Utah, and they could have dealt from a position of strength. Now, weakened by the departure of heavyweights Nebraska and Texas A&M (and lighter-weight Colorado), they have relatively little power. They are no longer an attractive landing place for big schools, because everyone is afraid the conference is about to dry up and blow away.

Nobody should be upset with A&M leaving. They have a chance to join the best, most stable conference in the nation. They will make more money in the SEC. Their visibility will rise. They have some natural rivals built in with Arkansas and LSU (don't forget that A&M and LSU used to be huge rivals--they've played 55 times, and RC Slocum always used to talk about resurrecting the series). They have always seemed like an SEC-type school to me, anyway. And, don't look now, but Mike Sherman has the Aggies on the rise--they are in just about everyone's pre-season Top 15 this summer. They may not get kicked around in the SEC like many suspect they will.

Likewise, nobody should be upset with Texas and their new Longhorn Network. Both schools are simply doing what they think is best for their programs. For the Ags, it's moving to a much better league. For Texas, it's starting up their own TV network, which will increase their exposure and which should be a profitable venture.

Will the Longhorn-Aggie rivalry continue? I don't see why it shouldn't. Texas A&M says they want to keep playing Texas. They could still play on Thanksgiving Day, and the rivalry would be more bitter than ever. If the Ags want to play Texas at the end of a brutal SEC schedule, then Texas shouldn't have any problem playing A&M at the end of a so-so Big 12 schedule. Plus, many big schools play big non-conference games late in the regular season (USC-ND, Georgia-Ga. Tech, Florida-Florida St, Clemson-South Carolina).

Can the Big 12 survive? Possibly. But, they are behind the curve. They are going to have to scramble. I'm not sure adding Houston or UTEP or SMU is the way to go. The conference will also be faced with the task of keeping schools like Missouri (who would be attractive to the Big 10) once other leagues pick up the pace of their expansion. The Pac 12 will always have their eye on the Texas-Oklahoma prize. And, who knows if Texas would actually think about going independent in football if the Big 12 can't adequately replace Nebraska and A&M? There are so many ways this story can go, which makes it one of the most fascinating stories that this reporter has ever professionally followed.

I'm old school. I wish we still had the Big 8 and the Southwest Conference. But, I'm also a realist, and I realize those days are long gone. I realize now that we are headed toward the super conferences at a much quicker pace than we were even one year ago. So, I'm ready for it to happen--let's quit the shadow boxing and get down to sorting it out. It's the next big step that has to be taken to get us to a college football playoff, so let's do it. And let's thank the Aggies for knocking over that domino.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Great Tour at a Great Time

There is no doubt the sport of professional cycling has taken a PR beating over the last 13 years. Once the Festina affair of '98 blew the lid off of the seedy underbelly of doping in the sport, there has been a cloud hanging over it's biggest event, the Tour de France. Just when it seems that things are getting better, Operation Puerto happens, or race leaders/winners like Floyd Landis and Alberto Contador test positive. While cycling is undergoing a cleansing, the Tour got just what it needed this year: a spectacular race with a worthy champion and no doping controversies.

At age 34, Cadel Evans became the third oldest man to ever win the Tour, and the first Aussie (somewhere Phil Anderson is smiling). He's been trying for years, twice finishing second. I used to not be much of an Evans fan, but ever since he won the World Championship with that brilliant attack in Mendrisio, I've come around on him. He'll now go down in the record books as one of the sport's greatest, an all-around champion who can win the biggest one-day events, as well as the hardest stage races. You wouldn't guess it by looking at his slight build and hearing his contralto voice, but Evans proved to be one of the toughest men on earth over the past three weeks.

Evans won this race as the greats of the past have, with consistency and panache. He won stage four by out-sprinting Contador on a steep, uphill finish. He was always near the front on the big climbs, often having to work alone without the benefit of teammate...or a brother (I loved that the Schlecks were always trying to give Evans the old one-two, yet Evans still prevailed) in the high mountains. His rivals refused to help him chase, so Evans just got on with the task at hand and did it all himself. He kept himself close enough to the lead throughout the three weeks, and then finished everyone off with one of the most dominant time trial rides in recent Tour history.

To win the Tour, you must be a complete rider. You must be able to ride with the best uphill, downhill, and in the time trials. Evans can do all three. Andy Schleck can only do one of those. Granted, he does that one thing (climb) better than anyone, but it wasn't enough. Andy lost the Tour on the descents and in the time trials. Andy didn't ride a poor final time trial when he surrendered yellow to Evans, it just wasn't the kind of TT a Tour champion has to ride. The pure climbers who have won the Tour in the last 30 years (Delgado, Pantani, Sastre) have all been able to go downhill fast, as well as ride a competent enough time trial to hold on to the race lead.

Andy Schleck: The New Poulidor?

It should be noted that Andy Schleck is getting better at riding against the clock. His ride in this year's final TT was not as poor as everyone is making out to be: he finished 17th, 2:38 back. Compare that to his final TT last year, when he finished 44th and 6:12 back. Yet everyone says he rode a great TT last year and a poor one this year. In reality, it's just the opposite. What confuses everyone is that Contador rode a very poor TT last year, making Andy's ride look good. But Contador was terrible that day, as was Schleck. This year, Schleck was OK, Evans was phenomenal. OK usually doesn't win the Tour. Phenomenal does.

Will Andy Schleck ever win the Tour? He's finished second three times now. He's 26, so he's got many good years remaining. He's got to get over his shakes going down hill fast, and he's got become a better time trialist. He's clearly got a massive engine, so he should be able to ride faster against the clock. But I can't see him ever being a truly complete rider. Plus, he'll have to face Contador in his prime for a few more years. Andy might get a Tour win at some point, but he's had two golden chances the last two years, and he couldn't do it. How many more golden chances will he get?

Raymond Poulidor earned the nickname "The Eternal Second" because he was always close to winning the Tour, but never did. My guess is that Andy Schleck's career will look more like Joop Zoetemelk's or Jan Ullrich's: a lot of second place finishes, but one Tour win sandwiched somewhere in the middle.

Best Tour in Years

Credit to Tour Director Christian Prudhomme for laying out a great course. The team time trial is always fun. The first week wasn't just a bunch of boring, flat sprint finales--there were plenty of tricky and tough uphill finishes to make it interesting. The second week in the Pyrenees was great, unfortunately the riders rode the stages very conservatively which made for some dull mountain racing. But they more than made up for it in week three. There were more fireworks in the Alps than we've had in some time. The early stages in week three were made interesting by the tricky descents that ended stages and created time gaps. The two big stages ending on the Galibier and l'Alpe d'Huez were brutal tests, and Schleck and Contador attacking so far from the finish on those days were the stuff of legend.

Speaking of Contador, he was never really himself in this Tour. Why? He probably never thought he would get to race the Tour (his doping hearing was supposed to take place in June), so he raced all-out at the Tour of Italy in May, which he won in dominant fashion. He may not have left much in the tank for July. Or, perhaps he lost too much time because of crashes in the first week. Or, maybe this is the real, non doped-up Contador, who, when clean, is one of the best in the world, but not always the best. Whatever the reason, a below-his-best Contador was still a big part of the race. He helped make it an epic Tour.

French interest in the race was sky-high. Thomas Voeckler's long stint in the yellow jersey was tremendous to watch--he fought as hard as anyone in recent memory to stay in the lead, and kept the jersey much longer than anyone (including himself) thought was possible. It's amazing to consider that in his career, Voeckler has now worn the maillot jaune for 20 days, more than Fausto Coppi, Felice Gimondi, Alberto Contador, or Jan Ullrich. Thomas Voeckler! Teammate Pierre Rolland was a revelation, winning the white jersey for best young rider, as well as the stage to l'Alpe d'Huez. Two other French riders finished in the top 15. For a country that hasn't had a Tour winner since Hinault in '85, the future is finally looking bright.

There were so many other great animators in this race. Mark Cavendish won five stages (20 now in just four years!). The world champ Thor Hushovd won two stages and did the rainbow jersey proud. Fellow Norwegian Edvald Boasson Hagen won two stages as well, and looks like a future superstar. Philippe Gilbert was always mixing it up. Even American Tyler Farrar got his first-ever Tour stage win, while his American team Garmin-Cervelo won the best team competition.

Vive Le Tour

I was reminded of why this is the greatest sporting event in the world. Three weeks of incredible suffering, incredible sports drama, and incredible performances. Three weeks of getting to listen to Phil Liggett. Three weeks of all kinds of weather. Three weeks of crashes and sprints. And, three weeks of HD television pictures of the most beautiful stadium ever created: the French countryside (sorry Jerry, it's even more amazing than your Deathstar--as if he's reading this blog).

Perhaps most importantly, this appeared to be a clean Tour. It looked like the old days of cycling--riders looking exhausted at the end of a tough stage, star riders getting dropped on the climbs, and riders attacking from way out in an attempt to make up lost time. In many ways it was a throw-back Tour. We saw the kind of racing we haven't seen since the 80's--since before EPO. Maybe the great lengths the sport has gone to in order to clean up the peloton are finally working. Maybe.

If a Cadel Evans positive drug test is revealed in the next few days, forget I wrote any of this.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Experiment is Over

Last year at this time, the men's World Cup had just finished. I wasn't impressed. The soccer was generally boring to me. Perhaps it was the constant sound of the vuvuzelas coming from the South African crowds, perhaps it was the great lack of scoring opportunities during each game, or perhaps it was that I knew almost none of the players. Whatever the reason(s), I mentioned on the show how the World Cup generally put me to sleep, and that opinion was met with great anger from the soccer community. So, I decided to give the world's number one sport one more chance.

Most of the emails I received from soccer fans actually agreed with me. They said that the World Cup was not the best soccer to watch--that most of the teams played very defensively and they weren't as familiar with their WC teammates as they were with their normal professional club teammates. Many suggested that I watch European pro soccer--the English Premier League, La Liga (Spain), or Serie A (Italy). I decided that the best the league to follow would be the EPL, since everything would be in my language--the broadcasts, the articles, etc. I also decided to pick one team and follow them for the entire season, that way I would get very familiar with the players while seeing every other team in the EPL as they popped up on the schedule.

But which team? At The Ticket, Bob Sturm adopted Liverpool, so I couldn't pick them. Man U are the Yankees of the EPL, so I couldn't pick them. Chelsea is a close second to Man U, so I didn't want to pick them, either. I didn't want to go too far down the EPL table, because I needed a team that would be popular enough to have all or most of their games televised. Arsenal stood out. They are very good, but not the best. They have a colorful history. They have a cool name. And, everyone told me that they played a very wide-open, Euro-style of football that would be exciting to watch. So, a year ago today, I officially adopted the Gunners. The announcement was carried around the world. My one year experiment was underway.

I pledged that I would watch all of the Arsenal games that I could, read as much about them and the sport as I could, and, at the end of the year, I would decide whether the sport was worth my time or not. How did I do? Of the 38 regular season games, I saw 32 of them. I missed a couple due to vacation, and I missed the last three at the end of the season when I lost interest and while the NBA playoffs were heating up. I checked my various soccer websites almost daily. Bob loaned me his copy of Fever Pitch, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I bought an issue of Four-Four-Two magazine and digested it. I gave the experiment all that I had. I left everything out there. It was a remarkable effort.

My conclusion? I really enjoyed the journey, and I now really enjoy the sport. I had a blast. Arsenal was, at times, very frustrating, but they were always interesting and entertaining. Some of my favorite things from my year with the EPL:

The Four Competitions: It's a long season, and with the schedule constantly broken up by the four different trophies that clubs chase, I thought it would be too much. It actually turned out to be one of the most interesting things about the season. The EPL title, the Champions League title, the FA Cup and the Carling Cup all being contested during the same season keeps things lively. Arsenal had a shot to win all four (they didn't win any). Just as you might start getting bored with the EPL regular season, here comes a Champions League game against Barcelona, or the Carling Cup Final, or a game against Man U in the FA Cup. Can't imagine that kind of a season working for an American pro sports league. Maybe that's why I liked it so much-it was different.

The Color and Pageantry: I can't wait to go to an Arsenal game in person. I will do it this season. It's a spectacle on television, so it must be 10 times better in person. I love Euro sports anyway--the signage, the announcers, the uniforms. Again, it's different to what I'm used to watching in this country, so it's stimulating. The fans, the chants, the stadiums--it all captured me.

The Game: I now understand why they call it 'the beautiful game.' It's not always beautiful when watching the World Cup or the MLS, but when you see the best players in the world playing in the best leagues in the world, it's beautiful. The EPL teams, for the most part, play to win. Arsenal's style is great--their passing is precise, they like to get up and down the pitch, and they get a lot of scoring opportunities (although they tend to want to walk the ball into the net sometime, which made me sorry I missed the halcyon days of Thierry Henry). Bottom line: I don't need a lot of goals to make me happy, but I do need a lot of scoring chances, and I got a lot in the average EPL match. I also like the fact that it's a tidy presentation: two, 45 minute, running clock halves. Two hours for a match--never more, never less. The only time you see a commercial during a game is pregame, halftime, or postgame.

The EPL Table: 20 teams. You play each team twice--once at home, once on the road. That's perfect. No divisions. No playoff. Simple. Top team wins the title (the best always wins--no chance of some Wild Card team getting hot and stealing a championship), top four teams qualify for the Champions League (the best of Europe), and the bottom three teams each season--get this--are demoted! The crappy teams get sent down to the minor leagues and the three best from the minors get called up to the show--great concept!

I learned that there is a lot to like about soccer, and I'm just scratching the surface. One problem: I've already become a soccer snob. Just like an NFL fan trying to watch the CFL or the XFL, I can't just sit down and watch any college, low pro-level or women's soccer match. But at least my one year experiment has given me a base of knowledge to work with when discussing the sport.

Soccer didn't become my favorite sport (I would still rather watch a bike race, any NBA game, any NFL game, or any college football game over soccer), but it's now on par with baseball and golf for me, and ahead of hockey and tennis and anything else. It's something that I'll always watch and follow. I'll always be an Arsenal fan.

I also discovered that you are never too old to start following a new sport. It can be invigorating. There is so much great action and drama out there, it's a pity that some people get football or baseball tunnel vision. In fact, I'm thinking about adopting a new sport to watch this fall--maybe curling? Or badminton? Or camel racing?

I was wrong last year when I said that soccer sucks. I should have said cricket sucks.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Christmas in July

"To say that the race is a metaphor for life is to miss the point. The race is everything. It obliterates whatever isn't racing. Life is the metaphor for the race."

Donald Antrim

The sport of bicycle racing has been my passion since I was 12. I would pedal up to the bike shop and read the European racing magazines. The pictures blew me away--pictures of men who looked like they were suffering in the worst way, riding shoulder to shoulder with the snow-capped Alps as the backdrop. It was a world that few in this country (and nobody at school) knew about, yet in the photos the crowds along the roadside were huge.

The Tour de France, I would learn, was (and is) the world’s largest annual sporting event, with over 20 million spectating in person each year and another one billion watching on television around the globe. It’s a magical, three-week odyssey, circling France--clockwise one year, counterclockwise the next--with a history chock full of incredible stories. Since the mid 90’s, however, we’ve come to learn that many of the riders who authored those incredible stories have had some serious pharmaceutical help.

Pro cycling is, without question, the hardest sport in the world. The Tour is the hardest single event in the world. Many events can rival a single Tour stage in difficulty, but no event demands that you compete at such a high level for three weeks straight. The five-time French Tour champion Jaques Anquetil once said “how can you expect to win the Tour on bread and water alone?” In his day (the 50’s and 60's) amphetamines or liquor helped the riders get over the Pyrenees. Today, it’s EPO or testosterone. Cycling’s governing body has done a better job than any other sport in the world of trying to police the cheats--first-time offenders are banned for two years--but the demands (and rewards) of the sport have the cheats always trying to come up with the next great drug or next great masking agent.

As one of the biggest bicycle racing fans alive, even I have a tough time getting past the sport's dirty recent history. How many Tours since 1991 have been won by clean riders? I’m afraid the answer may be less than five, and possibly less than one. I hate that drug use has sullied such a beautiful sport. But, like a lot of sports fans, I’m able to compartmentalize--like the baseball fan who cheers a bulked-up slugger or the football fan who roots for an impossibly big and fast linebacker, I’m able to watch a bike racer fly up a mountain and still get a thrill from it.

It will be hard to watch Alberto Contador in this year’s Tour, but I’ll still watch. The sport is still a spectacle. The HD helicopter shots of the French countryside are still breathtaking. The bikes are still cool. The voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are still quite comforting. And, the drama of a battle up l’Alpe d’Huez or a close time trial is hard to beat. Yes, the sport has it’s problems, but which sport doesn’t? And, I’m not alone in feeling this way--20 million will again line the roadside in France, and one billion will again watch around the world.

The Tour is Christmas in July for me. Each day’s stage is a present waiting to be unwrapped. It’s also a trip down memory lane--each summer as I watch the race, my mind's 'refresh' button gets clicked. All of the great moments from Tours past which motivated me through countless miles of my own training and racing are recalled. Merckx or Hinault destroying the field. LeMond vs Fignon. Roche getting oxygen at the top of La Plagne after saving his yellow jersey. Bridesmaid Zoetemelk winning, at last.

I appreciate the fact that I now get to watch televised coverage of the Tour live, every day. When I was first discovering the sport in the late 70’s, I had to wait three months to find out who had won the race--the results were never printed in the sports page and there was no Internet, so I had to wait for the October issue of “Bicycling” magazine to learn who had come out on top. In 1981, NBC did a few minutes on the Tour when Jock Boyer became the first American to ride it (that was also the first time I had ever seen moving pictures of the race), and CBS did weekend coverage of the event in the mid 80’s when LeMond burst onto the scene. Today, we are spoiled.

So what kind of race do we get this summer? Who will win it? How many will test positive? My picks:

1. Alberto Contador. Yes, it's hard to believe the tainted meat story. But it's also hard to deny that Contador is the best bike racer in the world. If everyone is doping, Contador wins. If everyone is clean, Contador wins. He’s one of the best ever. He’s won the Tour, Giro and Vuelta--only Merckx, Gimondi, Hinault and Anquetil have done the career sweep of the three big races. He can’t be dropped on the climbs, and he will time trial better than he did last year (he recently finished 3rd in the Spanish TT Championship). He may be a little tired from winning the Giro in May, and victory in the Tour will not be as easy as it was in Italy, but he’s still the favorite. We’ll have to wait for his August hearing to find out if all these wins count.

2. Andy Schleck. If he doesn’t drop his chain on Stage 15 last year, he probably wins the race. At 26, he’s in his prime--the problem is that Contador is 28 and in his prime, too. Schelck has not been impressive this season, getting dropped on the climbs in California and Switzerland. But we said the same thing before last year’s Tour. He has a way of peaking for this race. He’ll benefit from the team time trial, but most likely lose time to Contador in the individual time trials--and since there is more time to be won and lost in the individual TT’s than in the team TT, the advantage swings to Contador. (By the way, are we all sure the Schleck brothers are clean? If Contador is doping, then how can Andy and Frank match him pedal stroke for pedal stroke? This is the sad thing: nobody in the sport seems beyond suspicion.)

3. Ivan Basso. His entire season has been focused on one last good shot at the Tour. At age 33, he probably won’t be able to climb with Contador and Schelck, but a podium spot is not out of reach.

4. Sammy Sanchez. Underrated rider. Can climb and time trial. Will be a factor.

5. Robert Gesink. 6th last year. Great climber, not much in the time trials. Will win a mountain stage.

I have a feeling that this Tour might be too much for elder statesmen like Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, the evil Alexander Vinokourov, and the high-talking Cadel Evans. Oh, and Mark Cavendish will win most of the sprints--he’s got 15 career Tour stage wins, and getting to Merckx’s record of 34 is not out of the question considering Cav is just 26 years old.

I'm glad the team time trial is back--it's poetry in motion. I'm looking forward to the Stage 8 finish at Super Besse. Stage 12 over the Tourmalet and then up to Luz Ardiden is a classic Tour route. And Stage 18, finishing on the mighty Galibier, could be epic.

There you have it. Hope you enjoy the 98th edition of “La Grande Boucle.” I know I will. So will the 12 year old inside me--and he won’t have to wait three months to find out who wins.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dirk's Place in History

Let’s face it: it’s all about the ring. People like to pretend it’s not, but if you are a quarterback or an NBA superstar, leading your team to a title is the most important thing.

Baseball players have limited chances to affect the outcome of a game. They may get four at-bats or a few chances in the field. A starting pitcher goes every four or five days. In football, a QB gets 20-50 (or more) opportunities to directly impact the contest. He touches the ball on every snap, as well. Titles matter when judging QB’s--not so much for LB’s or WR’s or anyone else on a football team. In the NBA, everything is centered around your star--they have a chance to impact the game in more ways than any other sports stars, and it's always up to them when the game is on the line. That’s why championships in baseball and for non-QB’s in football are way down the list that determines who gets into the Pantheon of Greats in their sports.

When judging a player, the ring matters to me--a great deal. I look at Dirk differently now. I looked a Garnett and Pierce and Allen differently after they won it all. I looked at Billups differently after his Finals MVP. The playoffs are the ultimate proving ground in a sport where one player can make a monumental difference.

Dirk entered basketball’s Pantheon with his stirring performance in this postseason, which culminated with a title. Following the ’07 season, I had serious doubts as to whether Dirk would ever lead a team to a championship. I’ve been more bullish on Dirk the past three seasons (see previous blog entry), yet still I had a hard time imagining that he would go postal on anyone who got in his way this postseason like he did. The biggest Dirk homers would have to admit that even they didn’t think 57% FG, 73% 3PT, 94% FT and a sweep against the Lakers was a possibility.

Dirk gave us a performance for the ages. Had the Mavs fallen short of a title, the performance wouldn’t have carried anywhere near the weight it does. Dirk’s postseason is one of the four best post-Jordan runs we’ve seen (Shaq ’00, Duncan ’03, Kobe ’09). He was epic, and better late than never. In six weeks, Dirk went from “one of the best to have never won a title” and a top 40 guy, to "member of the exclusive championship club" and a top ?? guy.

So how high does the title push Dirk on the all-time list? Cuban and Carlisle have both recently said that Dirk is a top-10 all-time guy. Many think Dirk is equal to Larry Bird.

Here are my top 20 NBA players of all-time. I'll explain my thoughts and criteria as we move down the list.

1. Michael Jordan. Really, this is one of the easiest decisions in sports. Jordan is the best ever, and the more I consider his regular season and postseason numbers, his epic close-out performances in The Finals and his unmatched desire to win, I don’t understand how anyone could not have him ranked 1st. The Wilt fans are either 1) delusional 2) one of the 20,000 women he slept with or 3) the many who were so put off by Jordan’s HOF acceptance speech that they will never give him any credit at all.

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This is the first spot where it gets tough. It’s between Kareem, Wilt and Russell here. I give Kareem the edge. He won more titles (6) Finals MVP’s (2) and regular season MVP’s (6) than Wilt (2-1-4), and he was better all-around than Russell (who was much more limited on the offensive end than Kareem). Kareem is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, and was as much or more of a game-changer in college and the pros as Russell and Wilt were.

3. Wilt Chamberlain. The most physically dominant player ever (as much so as Shaq, but more skilled). Crazy individual numbers, but the knock against him was his sheer will to win, or lack thereof. Still, he won two titles, and to get into my top 10 you better have multiple championships. Averaging 50 ppg for a season is pretty good, too.

4. Bill Russell. 11 rings (plus two more titles in college). The greatest winner ever. Not a great offensive player, but maybe the best-ever on the defensive end. And a tremendous desire to win.

5. Magic Johnson. Another pure winner. Whatever it took. Five-time NBA champ. When he filled in for Kareem and played center in Game 6 of the Finals his rookie season, he scored 42, grabbed 15 boards and had 7 assists. That performance alone is enough to get into the top 5.

6. Larry Bird. Very close between Larry and Magic, but Magic’s 5 (6 including college, although Bird gets some credit for taking a bunch of total spares to the championship game) titles--many against Bird--make the difference. Bird won 3 NBA titles, and, like Jordan, was a natural. I’ve always thought the Bird-Dirk comparisons were ludicrous--and while I’ll still take Bird, it’s at least a good conversation now. The funny thing is, it’s the color of their skin and hair that seem to stir the debate. They don’t even play the same position. We should compare Dirk to Barkley, Duncan, Malone and Garnett. We should compare Bird to Dr. J, Wilkins, Worthy and Baylor. Do me a favor and google "Larry Bird great passes"--a four minute YouTube video that will show you why Bird and Dirk are not comparable (sorry, I still can't figure out how to add a link on blogspot or I would have given you the shortcut--I suck).

7. Tim Duncan. This is the second spot where it gets tough. It’s between Duncan, Kobe, Shaq and Hakeem. Duncan gets the nod because of his all-around game, and because of the fact that he was a finished product when he entered the league, maximizing his impact. Also, won titles without a Kobe or Shaq at his side--Robinson was aging, and Parker and Ginobili are very good, but not great, players. His four titles trump Hakeem’s two, his three Finals MVP’s trump Hakeem’s two, and his two regular season MVP’s trump Hakeem’s one.

8. Kobe Bryant. The closest thing to Jordan the NBA has ever seen. But not Jordan. Still, five titles...and counting.

9. Shaquille O’Neal. Four rings. Only one regular season MVP--probably should have won five or six.

10. Hakeem Olajuwon. Late bloomer (like Dirk). Two titles, and he completely carried those Houston teams. Gives thanks every day that Jordan played baseball for two seasons.

I think the top 10 are easy, although you may debate the order. Starting with number eleven, we get into guys with one ring. It’s a big group, and it starts to merge with great players who never won a ring. I will lean toward to players with titles as a tie-breaker.

11. Moses Malone. Might be the most underrated player ever. His numbers were ridiculous (in ’82 he averaged 31-15). He won three regular season MVP’s, and one Finals MVP (his only ring, in ’83 in Philly).

12. Oscar Robertson. Won one title, but rode young Lew Alcindor’s coattails to get it. But if you average a triple-double for an entire season, you’re a stud.

13. Jerry West. Many experts have West in the top 10, and if not for the Celtic dynasty, he would have ended up with more than one ring. But he didn’t. Great scorer and clutch performer.

14. Julius Erving. My ABA bias may be showing here, but I say Dr. J won three titles, not one (yes, two were ABA). The ABA was very competitive--the numbers put up in that league should be counted in any career scoring ranking. As a rookie in the playoffs, Erving averaged 33 points and 20 rebounds. His athleticism was breathtaking. As a basketball icon, he probably ranks second behind only Jordan. Not a great outside shooter, but an underrated passer and defender. Three time ABA MVP, once NBA MVP.

15. Dirk Nowitzki. He’s not in the top 20 without his newly-won title, but a championship changes everything. Proved himself to be clutch when it matters the most, and proved to be a leader. If 2011 Dirk had played for the 2006 Mavs, they would have two titles. Possibly the best pure shooter ever, and before he’s done will move way up on the scoring list.

16. Elgin Baylor. Old-timers will crucify me for putting Baylor behind Dirk, but Baylor never won a title or an MVP award. Magnificent talent. Not much footage of him in his prime exists, but I understand he was Dr J-like. In his prime he averaged about 35-15. Yikes.

17. Bob Pettit. One title, two MVP’s. Career 26-16 guy--huge numbers, but I tend to slightly discount the numbers of the old-timers who played in a league full of guys who looked like my dad.

18. Charles Barkley. Had Sir Charles won a ring, he would be pushing the top 10. Too bad, because he was a tremendous force. He accomplished things at 6’4-ish that he shouldn’t have been able to. Could shoot outside, or post you up. Could rebound with the best. Could run the floor and pass. Maybe even better as a broadcaster, definitely worse as a golfer.

19. Karl Malone. I remember Karl for finishing on breaks and for his 18 footer. And for not winning a title. There was just something about him that was amiss.

20. John Havlicek. Never thought he was that great, but I have to acknowledge his accomplishments. 8-time champion and once the Finals MVP. Superb defender. Wins the 20th spot ahead of Bob Cousy, Rick Barry, David Robinson and Isiah Thomas. LeBron and Wade will be in the top 20 one day, just not this day.

So there you have it. Dirk is a top 15 guy. When the Mavs drafted a skinny 19 year old German back in 1998, I think everyone would have taken top 15 all-time. Could he ever be a top 10 guy? He'll need at least one more ring to get there. And if this version of Dirk remains valid for a few more seasons, another ring (or two) is a possibility.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Evolution of Dirk

May, 2009. The NBA Playoffs. Dallas vs Denver. That's when I first noticed a change in Dirk Nowitzki. Something was different. He was better. Not that he had turned from a mule into a thoroughbred--Dirk was always a great player. But it was the first time that, after a playoff series loss, I said to myself, "I can't really pin that one on Dirk." Yes, he had a poor defensive series against Denver, but we were used to that. Something had changed for the better on the offensive end (and would soon change on the defensive end as well), but I couldn't put my finger on it.

During the following '09-'10 season, I recall saying on the show many times that I thought it was Dirk's best season ever--even better than his '06-'07 MVP campaign. And then, this past '10-'11 season, he was even better. I've been amazed that he's continued to grow in his 30's. Most stars are what they are by their mid-20's, and they stay at that level until age takes it's toll. Dirk is one of the few stars who has kept improving late in his career. Hakeem Olajuwon and Steve Nash also come to mind, but I think Dirk's late growth spurt is even more impressive.

What is behind the Dirk metamorphosis?

The Knock on Dirk

For years I watched Dirk and found him both a marvel and a frustration. We had never seen a 7-footer who could shoot like that from the outside. We had also never seen an uber-talented 7-footer who could’t dominate inside. We could never understand how year after year in the playoffs, teams could bother Dirk with an undersized defender. Bruce Bowen, Ryan (Ryan!) Bowen, Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem, James Posey, Stephen Jackson--it didn’t make sense. Why doesn’t Dirk just post these guys and be done with it? A lot of that was because of how he was raised and what Don Nelson did and didn’t require of him early in his development.

I used to also think that Dirk’s light weight was the reason that he wasn’t comfortable in the post. But, notice how Dirk’s dimensions compare to the other great big men in NBA history:

Kareem A-Jabbar -- 7’2, 225
Shaquille O’Neal -- 7’1, 325 (freak)
Wilt Chamberlain -- 7’1, 275
David Robinson -- 7’1, 235
Hakeem Olajuwon -- 7’0, 255
Dirk Nowitzki -- 7’0, 237
Robert Parish -- 7’0, 230
Bob Lanier -- 6’11, 250
Tim Duncan -- 6’11, 248
Bill Walton -- 6’11, 210
Moses Malone -- 6’10, 215
Kevin McHale -- 6’10, 210
Bill Russell -- 6’9, 215

As you can see, Dirk compares favorably size-wise to most of these great big men. Some of those big men were able to live inside without Dirk's size, so what's the difference? These metrics don’t account for strength, and maybe that’s what Dirk doesn’t have--but I doubt it. I think his lack of interior presence has had more to do with a lack coaching--and lack of want-to. But that was Old Dirk. Welcome to New Dirk.

The Numbers

According to the stats, Dirk has been a better postseason player over the last three years than at any time during his career. His recent series against the Lakers was his best ever. Compare his LA series stats with the numbers from the two series that most consider his finest: ’06 vs San Antonio, and ’06 vs Phoenix. Also, compare his numbers vs LA to his low-water mark, the series in ’07 against Golden State:

2011 vs LAL: 57% FG, 73% 3PT, 94% FT
2006 vs SAS: 52% FG, 12% 3PT, 91% FT
2006 vs PHX: 46% FG, 50% 3PT, 89% FT
2007 vs GSW: 38% FG, 21% 3PT, 84% FT

57%, 73% and 94% vs the Lakers? Those are unheard-of-type numbers. Dirk is better now. And, there are more numbers that back this up. Dirk’s TS% (true shooting percentage, a formula which combines FG, 3PT and FT percentages) and his eFG% (effective field goal percentage, which combines all three and gives more weight to the shots that count for more) have both been higher for the last three postseasons than ever before:

2001-2008: Never had a TS% higher than 59% or an eFG% higher than 52%
2009: 63% TS, 53% eFG
2010: 64% TS, 57% eFG
2011: 61% TS, 53% eFG

Clearly, he’s improved his offensive game and efficiency during the last three playoff runs compared to earlier in his career. But how? I went into geek mode this weekend and watched a lot of old Dirk game tape, from the ’03 playoffs against the Kings and Spurs, the ’06 Finals against the Heat, and the ’07 Golden State series. There are many reasons why Dirk is better now, and one of those is direction.


Don (and Donnie) Nelson deserve full credit for discovering, drafting, and believing in Dirk. But I believe that, as a coach, Nellie stunted Dirk’s growth. Watching ’03 Dirk, you see a player who was still raw in many ways, but who had developed into a full-blown All-Star. He had become what his Dr. Frankenstein had wanted: a freak show of a 7-footer with a deadly long range shot. Nellie never required Dirk to post up, and never asked anything of him on the defensive end.

Dirk spent a lot of time that postseason living on the perimeter on offense (a common theme, as you’ll see). On defense, he was the definition of flat-footed. He was very poor guarding his man, yet made up for it on the boards--he didn’t rebound well through technique as much as he did through desire (an early indication that he was indeed somewhat comfortable inside).

As we know, Dirk didn’t finish the playoffs that year. In his “Book of Basketball,” Bill Simmons writes “The ‘soft’ tag started in ’03, when Dirk refused to limp around with an injured knee in the Conference Finals...strangely, nobody remembers this decision now.” I’m not sure that’s accurate. I remember Cuban wanting Dirk to play through it, but Nellie thinking it was too risky. I don’t remember if Dirk wanted to play or not. Anyway, that’s where some think the ‘soft’ tag started.

Enter Avery Johnson. Dirk seemed to grow under Avery--he had some of his best years under the Little General, including his MVP campaign. Yet, watching the Heat and Warriors series, there were still some things that needed to be corrected. I watched Games 3 and 4 from the ’06 Finals. We all remember the Game 3 meltdown--Dallas up 13 with 6:30 to play in the game. Do you know how many times Dirk took his smaller defender into the paint during that last 6:30 (while Dwayne Wade was leading the furious comeback by attacking the lane)? Twice. And one of those was with :03 left (which resulted in a trip to the line, where Dirk missed the game-tying free throw). For the final 6:30, Dirk lived on the perimeter. One time he got the ball 15 feet from the rim with little Jason Williams guarding him. What did Dirk do? He passed the ball.

That’s something that has changed. Against Miami, Dirk refused to punish shorter defenders--Haslem and Posey were always able to get position on him (meaning they easily pushed him from 15 feet away out to 20 feet away). Not anymore. Example: the Lakers series, Game 2. Phil Jackson tries to slow down Dirk by putting Ron Artest on him. Dirk responds by telling Jason Terry “I’ve got this--get me the ball,” and he scores easily over Artest from different ranges. ’06 or ’07 Dirk would have passed the ball. Not now. Another example: 4th quarter of Game 2 this year vs Portland. Dirk posts LaMarcus Aldridge (a guy almost his exact size--yikes!) and backs him down--he damn-near looked like Barkley! And, Dirk and Mavs dominate those quarters and protect home-court. (The Denver series in '09 was one of the first times I could remember an opponent trying to get really physical with Dirk and it having no effect whatsoever. Up until then, the knock on Dirk was always "play him tough and tight--he doesn't like that." You don't hear that any longer.)

Game 4 against Miami was bad. It was a 2 for 14 clunker from Dirk (although he did get the line 14 times). His 16 points were not what his team needed from him. They needed their 7-footer to be a 7-footer. He was very much a wallflower in this game--unable to impose his will. By this time, the notion that Dirk was a 7-footer who played like he was 6'9 was cemented.

The 2007 Golden State series was worse. I watched Games 4 and 6 (both Dallas losses). I seemed to recall that the Warriors double-teamed Dirk a lot, but that wasn’t necessarily the case. They did run all sorts of chaotic looks at Dirk, and double occasionally, but it was mainly Stephen Jackson playing a very tight and aggressive man-to-man on Dirk. They clearly flustered him. Dirk was firing up wild, off-balance, on-the-run, fade-way shots from long range, or making wild passes out of perceived trouble. He was rushing when he didn’t need to rush. He never tried to take advantage of his size. In the fourth quarter of Game 4, he was even more of a wallflower than in parts of the Miami series. He was so out of sorts against the Warriors that he shot a near-career low 84% from the free throw line during the series. It was as though Golden State had convinced Dirk that he wasn’t a good player. Nellie’s voodoo brainwashing tactic had worked.

(Two things I noticed while watching that matchup against the Warriors: Avery Johnson was, at that time, the most tightly-wound human being alive. I'm surprised he didn't jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge during that series. And, Mark Cuban had a goatee! I had totally forgotten about that facial-hair experiment of his. But you know what? It looked good! He should have stayed with it.)

Which brings us to Rick Carlisle. Carlisle has been perfect for Dirk--a coach that equally stresses both ends of the floor. It’s no coincidence that Dirk’s three best postseasons (stats-wise) have come under Carlisle, who has positioned Dirk closer to the basket than any previous coach. And, he’s finally playing some defense! During the Lakers series, Phil Jackson openly complained that Dirk was “being too physical with Pau Gasol.” When has that ever been said about Dirk?

Speaking of his defense, the change is noticeable when you watch Old Dirk vs New Dirk. In the past, he would play defense by placing his hand on his man’s hip, giving two feet of space between he and his man, and keeping that distance no matter what the man did--like a dance step (which is fine outside against a quick guy, but not in the paint against a big guy). He would also bend over too much, I thought--making his 7-foot frame more like a 6-9 frame. Fast forward to the Lakers series: Dirk guarding Gasol. He used his chest and legs much more. He bodied Gasol, instead of dancing with him. He got physical. He bumped him. He moved his feet. He refused to give ground. It was a drastic departure (for the better!) from how he used to defend. He’s still not a great defender, but he’s no longer terrible.

Last year at this time, I wrote a blog entry about Dirk’s defense, and how you can’t be weak at the power forward position on defense and still win a title. I said the Mavs needed to get a top-flight defender at center if they wanted to get away with Dirk’s defense at power forward--and they did. Credit Tyson Chandler’s arrival, along with Carlisle’s coaching and Dirk’s late-career desire, as the three factors that have helped make Dirk a better defender.

A True Leader

Remember when Dirk would yell at his teammates, and it just didn’t seem right? Now, it seems right. He now gets on his teammates at the right times, and for the right reasons. It used to be out of frustration only. Now, he chooses his spots, like a leader. I think one reason is that he now gives full effort at both ends of the floor--not to mention the fact that he’s raised his game on both ends, and thus can expect more out of those around him.

There has always been the question of the quality of supporting cast for Dirk, and it’s a legitimate argument. Certainly Chandler is much better alongside Dirk than Raef LaFrentz in ’03 or Eric Dampier in ’06 and ’07. Would the Mavs have won it all those years with Chandler? No. But he would have helped. I also noticed that Terry and Josh Howard has some really poor stretches in ’06 and ’07. But I think that only tells part of the story. When Dirk really started to raise his game to it’s current better-than-ever level it was in 2009--back when everyone was complaining about his supporting cast. Ditto for 2010. So that leads us back to Dirk.

What else happened in 2009? In addition to Carlisle taking over, those were the playoffs when the sordid story of Dirk’s fiancee Crystal Taylor came out. I think this may only be a small part of the puzzle--very small. But, in a way I think that toughened Dirk. I think it made him less trusting. I think the way the public reacted to it pissed him off--or perhaps the fact that it went public at all. If your personal life is picked apart like that by the masses, it has to have some effect on you.

Anything else happen around that time? I think the arrival the year earlier of Jason Kidd helped--a lot. Kidd joined Dallas in time for the New Orleans series in '08, which they lost. But that wasn’t really on Dirk or Kidd--that was all on Josh Howard (who was so bad in that series that the Hornets refused to guard him on offense--he shot 25% from the field against them, so they embarrassingly begged him to shoot). Howard was awful, on and off the court. But Kidd’s presence was helping lay a foundation for Dirk’s growth.

Another thing that happened around that time: Dirk turned 30. I believe that when he hit that age, it started to sink in. He didn’t want to be remembered as soft. He didn’t want to join Barkley and Malone and Stockton as the greatest players to never win a title. A middle-age crisis, if you will. I think it dawned on him that time was running short, and he had better do everything he can--squeeze every last ounce of ability out of that 7-foot body. And he has.

Today, Dirk is better. The stats show that he’s shooting the ball better than ever before. He is now a threat to not only shoot from the outside, but to drive or to post. He’s playing better defense. He’s a better leader. He’s just better. His unusual late-career growth culminated with a series against the Lakers that any NBA 7-footer, past or present would be proud of. Dirk was the alpha-male. Not Kobe. Dirk.

In the past, Dirk simply took what the defense gave him. Now, Dirk takes what he wants. And, what he wants is a ring--and thanks to a brilliant series against the Lakers, that window is still open.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Giro

The Tour de France is the world's biggest bike race, and always will be. The Giro d'Italia is Italy's version of the Tour--a three week stage race that takes in all parts of the country. The Giro has always played second fiddle to the Tour, and that will never change. But the Giro is a magnificent race in it's own right, and in many ways it's better than the Tour. (There is a third Grand Tour, the three week Vuelta a' Espana, or Tour of Spain, but it's very spare in comparison to the Tour and Giro)

Until the Armstrong Era, if you were to be considered one of the true greats, you needed to win at least one Giro. Coppi, Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Indurain--they are all more famous for winning the Tour multiple times, but they also won Giros. Armstrong never cared about the Giro--his fame and fortune were built around only one race--the Tour. Since Armstrong helped take the Tour's popularity to new heights, team sponsors also became much more interested in doing well in France in July as opposed to other races in other months. So, now more than ever, it's all about the Tour. Too bad for the Giro, because in many ways the Italian race embodies the beauty of the sport better than the Tour.

The leader of the Tour wears the yellow jersey, both as an honor and so that spectators can spot him as the peloton whizzes by. In the Giro, the leader wears a pink jersey (insert homophobic joke here). The newspaper that sponsored the Tour was printed on yellow paper, thus a yellow jersey. Same thing in Italy--the national daily sports page was (and is still) printed on pink paper, therefore a pink jersey for the leader. They yellow jersey is the most coveted piece of cloth in cycling, but I like the look of the pink jersey better. I can't explain why, I just think Merckx, Hinault and Indurain (pictured) all looked better in pink (insert second homophobic joke here).

One of the best things about the Giro are the fans. They love cycling in France, but they love cycling in Italy. A typical Frenchman is reserved, while a typical Italian wears his emotions on his sleeve--and it shows on the roadside. The 'tifosi' as they call them, worship the sport like few others. I would say the two countries where cycling is the most popular would be Belgium and Italy. For a decade, the top sports heroes in Italy have been cyclists. The nation was torn in half during the Coppi vs Bartali years, and later during the Moser vs Sarroni battles. Perhaps it's their hot Italian blood, or the always-flowing Italian red wine--whatever the reason, Italian fans get into the sport more than the French. And while the Tour has become a huge international event, the Giro is still very much still an Italian domestic celebration.

The Giro also wins the annual battle with the Tour for the hottest podium girls. Yes, winning a stage is prestigious. Yes, winning a stage can make a career. Yes, winning a stage keeps the director sportif off your back for a while. But it's also a nice reward after a hard day's work to get a kiss (and possibly a happy ending) from one of these race representatives.

Another reason to like the Giro is the fact that the organizers do a better job with the route each year than the Tour bosses. They mix it up--a lot of tough early stages, and tough stages balanced with easier ones throughout the three weeks. The Tour is more locked into the same, predictable formula: eight days of flats, then a weekend in the Alps, then more flats, then the Pyrenees, then flat to the finish. Last year's Giro route was greatly varied, which made for one of the most exciting stage races ever.

And then there is the Italian culture. Every cyclist lives on a diet of pasta, and there is no better pasta in the world than in Italy. The scenery along the route is incredible--whether it's racing along the Mediterranean coast, up the steep Dolomites, or past the Coliseum in Rome, there is always a spectacular backdrop. Remember the movie "Breaking Away?" The main character, Dave Stoller, was obsessed with the Italians and the Italian racing culture. The food. The music. The language. The women. The gold chains. Organized crime. What's not to love about it all?

While LeMond and Armstrong won a combined 10 Tour titles, only one American has ever won the Giro. In 1988, Andy Hampsten (riding for the Dallas-based 7-Eleven sponsored team) braved blizzard conditions over the Gavia Pass to claim the leader's pink jersey, which he never gave up. The storm that day was so bad, and most of the riders so underdressed, that many simply couldn't descend the mountain--their arms and legs trembling so much that they couldn't steer their bikes. Others suffered from hypothermia and frostbite. Many simply quit the race and jumped into the team car. Hampsten kept going, and authored one of the greatest chapters in cycling history.

There will be no American winner this year, and probably not one anytime soon. But if you like events with history, passion and excitement, you'll like the Giro d'Italia. Yes, I'm excited about this race--or is that just a cannoli in my pants?