Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Young, Unknown & Fearless

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in April 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The dance began with 68 participants. Four are left. 

My bracket is perfect.  Warren Buffet, courtesy his billion-dollar challenge, is sweating.  I’m starting to count my 10-figure payoff.  Early retirement.  New car.  New home.  Vacation home.  Or two.  Maybe three.  I will shamelessly indulge my hobbies.  My mom will never work again.  My dad…well…he’s a professional retiree.  He hasn’t worked in years.  But I’ll float him a new set of golf clubs and personalized balls branded with my adorable likeness.  My palate will only know the world’s finest beer; my music collection will be epic.  I’ll move my cousin into a guesthouse.  He has no fixed address anyway, and I’ll need a wingman for my life of leisure – and he masters in leisure.  And of course there would be much philanthropy (food for the soul). 

That paragraph contains more madness than the tournament itself.  My bracket is trashed.  The billion dollars remain in Mr. Buffet’s massive account.  I remain employed and the holder of a single mortgage. My mother still works; my dad is playing generic, off-the-shelf balls. My cousin continues to wander and my philanthropy remains meager.  My bracket dream is over.  I’m the same guy today that I was before the tournament – not that there’s anything wrong with that.  My wife would agree…I think.

The reason I didn’t find my wonderland, get bequeathed a chocolate factory, or end up with a enough of Mr. Buffet’s money to buy a private island isn’t the result of lack of knowledge or overall ability.  Oh no, I have skills.  The problem, one that thwarts so many brackets that coulda been contenders, was this: the occurrence of the unforeseen, the illogical and maybe even the impossible.  Stephen F. Austin beat VCU – stone cold.  Harvard whipped Cincinnati - not in a math-a-thon – on the basketball court.  Dayton defeated perennial powers Ohio State and Syracuse.  Stanford sent Kansas home early – no ruby slippers required.  And of course, Mercer, the pride of Macon, Georgia, bounced Duke in the first round. 

Upsets are part of single-elimination tournament basketball.  Always have been.  But David’s beating Goliath so often now, it’s fair to question if they’ve been cast correctly.  Upstarts – small schools from non-descript conferences - are winning regularly and are even making runs to the Final Four (see George Mason in 2006, Butler in 2010 and 2011, VCU in 2011 and Wichita State last year). 

So what has changed?  Well, a lot.  Early entrants to the NBA are robbing major programs of elite talent while smaller schools with less decorated recruits build teams – real teams – over several seasons.  But it’s more than that.  The kids from Butler, Dayton and Mercer, and nearly every school like them, act like they belong now.  A national T.V. audience, cavernous arenas and blue blood opponents engender not a trace of intimidation, cowardice or inferiority.  The tournament’s grand stage, the opportunity to win and to chase the sports’ greatest prize is as much theirs as it is their more ballyhooed opponent.  Mercer isn’t less than Duke; Mercer equals Duke.

I watched a re-run of Rocky III recently.  In Rocky’s first fight with Clubber Lang (Mr. T), defeat was in his eyes.  He wanted no part of the hungry challenger.  Of course, as Rocky so often did, he came back with vengeance and defeated Lang in the rematch.  In the climatic fight Rocky defiantly implored Lang to hit him while proclaiming, “you ain’t so bad…you ain’t nothing.”  Rocky had absorbed the champ’s best punch and found him to be no greater, no stronger than he was.  The kids from Mercer, Dayton and insert-any-instant-Cinderella-here, routinely compete with the same fearlessness as Philadelphia’s beloved boxing hero.  Goliath is mighty and strong, but David is a highly skilled with his slingshot. 

Bill Cosby once said, “In order to succeed, your desire for success should be greater than your fear of failure.”  To see that quote in action, watch the NCAA tournament every spring.  For it to show up throughout the year, it is up to us to apply the fearlessness of these young men to everything we do.

Living…On Life’s Terms

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in March 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The Atlantic Coast Conference started with a seven-school gang - Clemson, Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, South Carolina, Wake Forest and Maryland – in 1953.  There have been a few membership tweaks in the 60-plus years since, but with the exception of South Carolina (who departed in 1971), all original members remain today.  They feel as familiar as old sneakers and, with rivalries six decades long, possess the hostility of ultra-competitive brothers.

The old, tightly woven family is about to change.  With Friday’s loss to Florida State in the conference’s basketball tournament, Maryland’s run in the ACC is essentially over.  Starting with the 2014-15 athletic year, Maryland will take up residence in the Big 10 Conference. 

This is not new news, of course, but the reality is now undeniably real.  The end of the football season stung a little.  But with basketball being the ACC’s primary identity, the curtains falling on Maryland’s ACC basketball association is a lot more uncomfortable.  Maryland’s Big 10 move is a money-grab, an irresistible chance to patch the athletic department’s financial hemorrhage and reside in a more lucrative neighborhood.  Such is life in college sports today. 

So it is what it is.  I don’t like it, but I understand it.  Will I come to hate Michigan or Ohio State – Big 10 crown jewels – like I hate Duke and North Carolina?  I doubt it - but maybe that’s good for my overall health and mood.  My wife is nodding her head.

Still, despite the known reality, this hurts.  I suppose you harbor disdain for your brother…until life parts your paths.  The freshly sounded final buzzer on Maryland’s ACC basketball membership left me awash in nostalgia.  Racing through the significant memories (some good, some bad), I realized this spring marks the 40th anniversary of Maryland’s 103-100 overtime loss to N.C. State in the 1974 ACC title game, perhaps the conference’s greatest game. 

That ’73-’74 Maryland squad, with players like Len Elmore, Tom McMillen and John Lucas, was Maryland’s most talented if not its all-time best.  The loss was particularly painful because, in 1974, at-large NCAA tournament bids didn’t exist (unreal…and unjust).  N.C. State, by the narrowest of margins, went on to the big dance and, eventually, the national championship; the Terrapins swallowed hard and went to…College Park (home).  

The memory of that team reminded me of Comcast’s fabulous “My Life” piece on John Lucas.  Lucas, an All-American and the first overall pick in the 1976 NBA Draft, is a fascinating subject.  Racked with drug and alcohol addictions, his vagabond NBA career is a tale of unfulfilled promise, the standard-bearer for a drug culture that infected sports in the 1980s. 

In the “My Life” feature, Lucas identified several causal factors for his disease.  Having always dreamed of being an NBA player, he struggled with the “now what?” after being drafted by the Houston Rockets.  Lucas also feared failure, life without sports and getting older.  Sounds familiar, huh?  For Lucas, cocaine made all those worries and all that internal conflict subside – temporarily.

Lucas summarized his one-time mental state with this profound statement: “An addiction wasn’t my problem, life was my problem…I couldn’t live life on life’s terms.”  Individuals exert tremendous influence on their personal odysseys, but a vast component of contentment and happiness is dealing effectively with inevitable unknowns or the random cards that life deals.  To a person, we all struggle with this challenge to some extent; John Lucas succumbed to it – but only temporarily.

This spring wasn’t just the 40th anniversary of that epic Maryland-N.C. State game; March 14th marked the 28th anniversary of John Lucas’ sobriety and a second, “clean” act that has included tremendous work with athletes afflicted with addiction.  When asked what saved him, Lucas noted the love of others and that, “I’m very honest with myself; I’m always under self-examination as to what my motives are.” 

Hunter S. Thompson once wrote, “…with every sunset we get a little older and a little less honest.” John Lucas is getting older, but he remains brutally honest with himself.  It’s a trait that has sustained his wellness.  It is also darn good advice.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

An Afternoon With The Muppets

Every now and then life - real life…you know, the shit that matters - begs your participation. 

On a rare half-day of school recently, my wife called me at work and asked if I wanted to meet her and the kids for a matinee showing of The Muppets Most Wanted.  My schedule was clear, but the tug of work responsibilities and the hassle of interrupting my day nudged me toward taking a pass.

But that would have rendered this day just like every other nondescript day during the grind.  It also would have left a memory unmade - a terrible mistake in the finite word of fatherhood.  So I offered my 9 to 5 a hearty middle finger (mentally, of course), turned in a leave slip and bolted to the theater to hang with my demon seeds, a famous frog and a swine diva. 

Two hours later I emerged with a couple of smiling kids, a reconnection with my youth and the exclamation point for a successful day in dad-ville.  Good luck finding your exclamation point.  Admittedly they can be elusive. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Paying It Forward: Bag-less For A Cause

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I live in a small town. It has charm and all the essentials – restaurants, parks, town events, good schools, etc. - one preferring a tranquil, easy-going existence would want. It even has a health food store, a little gem that sprung up a few years ago.

The store has been wonderful resource for my family and has planted and sowed a dietary conscience in my hometown. I have even witnessed an exponential increase in healthier options sold at local, traditional grocery stores in recent years – a product, in part, of the little health food store that could.

Here’s another area where my local health food store has been a community leader: the usage of plastic bags. If you don’t understand the size and scope of the world’s plastic bag epidemic, I have two recommendations. First, get your super-consumer, shit-on-the-earth head out of your ass. Second, scan and commit to memory these statistics from www.inspirationgreen.com. If you remain unmoved and disinterested in making better personal choices, well, I’m sorry for interrupting your pathetic existence. I’ve rudely caused you to miss about thirty seconds of the Kardashians and half-dozen mindless Facebook posts from your “friends” all in the name of saving the planet – such a frivolous pursuit. 

For those readers that just left, good riddance. For those that remain, thank you. Let me share this simple saying: you are either part of the problem or part of the solution. I don’t know who I poached it from, but I use it often and plan to chisel it in my children’s brains during future “teaching moments.” Needless to say, when it comes to the viral usage of plastic bags, my local chain grocery stores – Food Lion and Giant - are part of the problem; my health food store is part of the solution. Food Lion’s and Giant’s cashiers frequently act annoyed when I flood their food conveyor belt with reusable canvas bags.  It upsets their shallow-thinking rhythm ever so slightly. Instead of simply slipping open another plastic bag and rudely tossing my shit inside, they now have to grab, open and situate a canvas bag; it is a task that takes an “outrageous” two or three additional seconds. Hell, I’ve gotten so used to the sink-face looks (think an I-just-smelled-shit expression) or eye rolls that I just bag my own groceries. Sorry for the bother, checkout person, it’s just that I’d rather not defecate on mother earth today. They probably consider me a silly dreamer, but I’m certain I’m not the only one.

Here’s my proof: my health food store prefers the usage of reusable bags and incentivizes customers to bring in their own carryout reservoirs. The program works like this: bring in your own bag and the store gives you a wooden nickel. The nickels, with an in-store donation value of five cents apiece (or roughly the cost associated with the bag you need), can then be dropped into one of three containers associated with local charities on your way out. Simple. Beautiful. Powerful. Capitalism with a eco-conscience.

I often wondered about the impact of this program. Earlier this year the store set up a small display table that answered my question: roughly $350 was donated to a local park, a soup kitchen and animal rescue from nickels collected in 2013. Think about that. No, really think about that. It equates to approximately 7,000 bags that did not get tossed in the garbage, local waterways or your housing development’s ditches. It represents fossil fuels that went unused and animals that didn’t suffocate. It represents 7,000 customers – and I was very proudly one of them many times over – that stashed a few reusable bags in their car and grabbed them on the way into the store.

I’m applauding all the participants and the little health food store in a tiny little town that made it happen. And…I’m wondering what the fuck is wrong with the all major grocery store chains and retailers and devil-may-care consumers in the world that aren’t with “the program.” There is no good reason why similar programs aren’t in place for every retailer in this country. Frankly, it should be law.

You’re either part of the problem or you are part of the solution. Decide to be part of the solution. Don’t walk into any store empty-handed. Grab a reusable bag. Please.      

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Homework Assignment

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in March 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, the man with the prodigious chin and elite car collection, used to do occasional street-side “Jaywalking” bits where he’d pepper unsuspecting folks with basic history or general knowledge questions.  It produced some of his best work. There was the Thanksgiving edition where a lady answered “Benjamin Franklin” when asked which president made Turkey Day a national holiday and a guy declared that the Pilgrims landed in “Virginia.”  Some of my other favorites include the guy who couldn’t name the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the lady who blanked on the number of stars on the American flag, a young man who didn’t know the home country of the Panama Canal and a high school student who went to Florida to take a dip in…the Pacific Ocean.  Of course how could I forget the lady who, in an apparent ode to Sarah Palin, thought “Africa” was the largest country in South America or the young lady who quipped “the restaurant?” when asked where the Outback was located.  Sigh…

This is all quite funny, of course, until you are overwhelmed with example…after example…after flighty example.  At some point the smile fades and irritation takes over.  Could some of these folks have been so brilliant that they created fictional idiocy to ensure their 15 seconds of fame escaped the editor’s scissors and landed on the small screen?  I suppose, but I fear most of these folks – flunkies of fundamental knowledge - legitimately walk among us.  They probably even exert influence over others.

I understand the world is different now.  I am also acutely aware of my advancing age. I’m tucked into the middle generation.  I realize that kids today are far more concerned with Facebook, smartphones and the latest reality T.V. show than they are about the Constitution, geography and The History Channel.  I probably would have been the same way, but “my generation”, with the exception of Atari, lacked all the fancy and frivolous distractions of the electronic world – an age that produces instantaneous information and can aide learning when the crap doesn’t overwhelm the good stuff.

But that’s no excuse.  Individuals have a responsibility to build a knowledge base about our country’s history and the world. You don’t have to be a Jeopardy champion, but you do have to be smarter than a fifth grader (assuming of course you’re older than fifth graders). We owe it to our forbearers – a term I’m applying loosely – to understand the contributions they made to our species, our world and our nation.  Knowledge of the past and how the world fits together provides a sense of self and belonging, inspires patriotism, promotes understanding and tolerance and diffuses our innate human tendency to obsess over petty differences at the expense of substantial similarities.  Colonial Williamsburg’s succinct motto captures the point best: “That the future may learn from the past.”

Which brings me, latently, to sports. Baltimore Orioles manger Buck Showalter was “Jaywalking” with prospect Josh Hart recently and learned the young man didn’t know Orioles legend Frank Robinson.  Instead of getting a good chuckle from the naiveté of his nineteen-year-old ball player, Showalter gave Hart a homework assignment: write a one-page paper on Mr. Robinson. To Hart’s credit, he recognized his knowledge gap and completed the assignment.

Baseball isn’t reading, arithmetic or science, but if you are going to play professional baseball, and especially if you are going to play for the Orioles, you need to know Frank Robinson.  While Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, a slew of stud African American players riding his coattails - a group that included Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and, yes, Frank Robinson - forever solidified the MLB diamond as an equal-opportunity workplace.

During his career, Frank Robinson hit 586 homeruns, won the triple crown in 1966, won a MVP award in both the American and National League (the only player to do so…ever), was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and was the first African American manager in MLB.  Buck Showalter was right. Frank Robinson is worth knowing…and now Josh Hart does.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Money Machine

I tuck my son in to bed nearly every night.  As I sat on the edge of his bed tonight, we talked about the day that was and the one that was to be. After joking around a bit he looked up at me and said, "daddy, I wish there were money machines so you didn't have to go to work and we could spend more time together." Me too, buddy...me too.

Here's to dads who work hard, carving out time with the kids and the pursuit of that elusive "money machine."

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

One Commissioner & Three Decades Of Basketball

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in February 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

NBA Commissioner David Stern resigned at the end of January ending a remarkable 30-year run as professional basketball’s leading man.  Stern, thumbing his nose at George Orwell’s troubling prophecies, defiantly assumed the NBA’s helm in 1984.  Stern inherited a league with limited television presence and that was, with the NFL and MLB as reigning kings, little more than a niche sport.  Much has changed.  The game now has global appeal, its players literally hail from all over the world and its stars shine as bright as those in any sport.  And unlike its competitors on sports’ stage, the NBA has had no era lost to Performance Enhancing Drugs and its future lacks the alarming realities of concussions.  

I want to be careful to not give too much credit.  Stern was a good Commissioner, but he was no savior.  He didn’t walk on water or turn water into wine.  His tour began and was defined by an abstract force necessary for any successful endeavor: luck or, more politely, good timing.  He inherited a couple young studs named Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird.  Stern’s first NBA Draft netted the league Hakeem Olajuwan, Charles Barkley, John Stockton and some raw, athletic shooting guard from North Carolina named Michael Jordan.  Karl Malone, Chris Mullin and Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing arrived a year later.  The ’87 Draft scored Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller and the United States Naval Academy’s David Robinson.  And just like that, a generation of great basketball, one that would establish the NBA as a major sport with unprecedented reach across the globe, was born – Stern or no Stern.

As the years since 1984 have passed, the mantle of “Greatest Player” has passed from Magic, to Jordan, to Kobe Bryant, to LeBron James – not bad.  Shaquille O’Neal arrived and proved that having the biggest dude on your team works not just in the neighborhood but also in the pros.  The dominant franchises have included the Showtime Lakers, the Bad Boy Pistons, Jordan’s Bulls, the Shaq and Kobe Lakers, the fabulously boring Spurs and the Miami Heat.  It’s been quite a run for the bouncing orange sphere.

But that is just the game on the court.  Limiting one’s consideration of the last 30 years of NBA basketball only to those players with first name recognition – Magic, Larry, Michael, Kobe and LeBron – or those aforementioned team dynasties minimizes the sports exponential increase in cultural influence during Stern’s regime.

Bird and Magic were great individually, but each man was better for the other’s existence.  The one-upmanship of their careers is a microcosm of the American spirit.  Accomplishment breeds complacency, unless an equally powerful force exists to constantly enhance the standard.  To understand the influence of passion, competitive fight and self-confidence on success and reaching one’s full potential, look no further than Michael Jordan.  Magic Johnson opened eyes to the non-discriminatory nature of the HIV virus and life with the disease.  The Dream Team swelled national pride in 1992.  The death of Maryland’s Len Bias, just days after the 1986 NBA Draft, was a brutal example of the dangers of drug abuse.  And the game, perhaps more than any other, has annihilated petty differences in personality, background, race and nationality.  Basketball once united a quiet white kid from Indiana (Bird) and a gregarious African American kid from Michigan (Magic); it now routinely congeals men from literally all around the world.  That ability to trivialize personal contrasts and bind people around a common purpose represents the best of sports – and the NBA is the standard.

In 1984, my parents’ driveway was adorned with a basketball hoop.  The simple fixture brought a blacktop to life, created deeper friendships and a fruitful connection with a wise old game.  Thirty years later, kids are still hoisting shots at hoops on playgrounds or at the end of cul-de-sacs and are unknowingly poised for the lessons of the next chapter in basketball history.  They will be, like I am, better for it – Stern or no Stern.  That is impressive commentary on a transcendent game that started modestly with a peach basket nailed on a gymnasium wall.