Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Perfect Day

Rough night of sleep.

Shitty day at work.

Heinous traffic on the way home.

Take out dinner order was screwed up.

Driving range was closed.  

At home, greeted by smiling kids and hugs.

See the title.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sports & Parenthood In The Aggregate

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

You’ve been barking the entire game.  Clueless officiating and sketchy coaching by the home team have your blood boiling.  The press is giving the team fits. They need another ball handler on the floor.  The rebounding is awful.  Their archaic zone defense is gift-wrapping offensive put-backs.  And is the team going to run organized offense?  It’s all freelancing.  No one is moving without the ball and everyone has a hero complex.  Is this “he who takes the most bad shots wins”?

It’s so obvious from the bleachers.  In fact, your verbal lashings were so wise, an assistant coach requested your presence in the locker room at halftime.  Entering the team’s inner sanctum, 12 sets of eager eyes stare at you.  The coach admits he’s lost and hands the team over to you.  This is a Hoosiers adaptation and you’re cast as head coach Norman Dale.

Just before the second half begins, a voice from beyond asks, “Coach, do you want a tie game or a two point lead.”  What?  You realize you’re dreaming, but this is too good to quibble.  The choice seems obvious: take the lead.  Or is it?  Context is required.  Is the team clinging to a two-point lead after being up 15 or did the boys draw even after trailing most of the half? Given those scenarios, you take the tie…and the momentum.  

The alarm wails.  Another day begins; another dream ends prematurely.  You’ll never get to coach your Jimmy Chitwood.  Now conscious, the tie/two-point lead debate lingers.  There’s something to that, beyond an imaginary basketball game.  Moments and circumstances can complicate fact.  Take Tiger Woods.  What if someone had said in 1997, shortly after he won The Masters, that Woods would have 14 major championships at age 39?  Would you have bet on him to break Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18?  Probably.  But you wouldn’t now, having witnessed his mental and physical meltdown…even though he’s 39 with 14 majors.

What about the Bryce Harper?  Rewind to 2010, the year he was drafted.  Would you have considered a Rookie of the Year award, two All Star appearances and 55 home runs before age 23 successful?  Absolutely – and he’s done it all.  So why does Harper feel like a disappointment so far?

For reasons I cannot explain, this dichotomy between facts and perceptions had me thinking about parenthood, a trade where the truly accomplished often feel far from successful.  For the best - and there are many – a parental audit revels many accolades, from the basic to the complex.  Fact: kids sleep in warm beds and with full tummies.  Fact: they are doing fine in school; perhaps they’re even on the honor roll (I see your bumper stickers on the Southern Maryland roadways).  Fact: many are involved in extracurricular activities – band, swimming, baseball, cheerleading, etc – and, judging from their smiles, they’re having a blast.  Fact: kids are loved more than they can possibly know.  Fact: they think mom and dad are super heroes, even though they don’t know Taylor Swift’s latest song.    

(Written with the Cowardly Lion’s “Courage” speech in mind…)

Who provides the roof and the rations (veggies included)?  Parents.  Who runs a non-stop taxi service?  Parents.  Who’s the teacher’s evening assistant and a child’s emotional foundation?  Parents.  Who dries the tears, cleans the cuts and breaks up the fights?  Parents.  Who does it all from the morning’s misty mist to the evening’s dusty dusk?  Parents.

Yet parents frequently feel inadequate.  Why?  We rock!  I suppose because when we aren’t our best, it weighs heavy on our hearts.  Dog tired and stressed, we can be impatient.  Work sometimes causes us to miss activities.  We occasionally yell when we should have hugged or order when we should have listened.  The moment can produce our worst, a pesky blemish on an otherwise stellar body of work.  In the aggregate, we are overwhelmingly loving and hard-working.  In the aggregate, we have momentum.  In the aggregate, (say it with me) we’re doing just fine.  Just like Bryce Harper will be just fine.  Woods?  Okay, you got me.  I still wouldn’t bet on him winning 18 majors. 

Regrets

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

April 1 – no fooling – will be the 30th anniversary.  Unbelievable.  John Thompson has long since left the Georgetown bench.  Well…sort of.  His son – John Thompson III - is coaching the Hoyas now.  Then Villanova coach Rollie Massimino, now 80, is still tormenting referees and probably pulling upsets as head coach of Northwood University in Florida – a long way from Villanova, Philadelphia and the Big East.  Patrick Ewing, the most athletic seven-footer my eyes have ever seen, is coaching too.  He’s an assistant for the Charlotte Hornets.  Much has changed, but some things remain the same.

April Fools’ Day 1985 is significant because the underdog Villanova Wildcats, an eight-seed in the NCAA tournament, defeated Georgetown, the heavy favorite to win it all, 66-64.  It was the second biggest upset of my lifetime, supplanted only by the greatest upset of all time: the U.S. Hockey Team’s defeat of the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics. 

Entering the game, Georgetown had dropped only two games all year: a one-point loss to St. John’s (another Final Four team in 1985) and a two-point defeat on the road to nationally ranked Syracuse.  Straight from the “it was just their day” file, Villanova shot 78.6% from the field, missing just six shots.  Six!  You don’t do that in the backyard with phantom defenders and loose accounting, much less in the national championship game. But Villanova did…and that’s what it took to beat Georgetown.

I found myself reflecting on those ’85 Hoyas, rivalries and bitter losses while sitting in the stands at St. Mary’s College a few weeks ago.  The College was hosting an event for area parochial school basketball teams and cheerleading squads.  What triggered my 30-year-old memory was the sight of kids wearing jerseys from Archbishop Neale School.  A…N…S…three letters that will incite angst and furrow my brow apparently until I am no more.  Why?  Glad you asked.

It was 1986.  I played guard for a Father Andrew White basketball team staffed heavily with eighth graders determined to win a championship.  After taking our lumps the year before, this was our season, our moment.  ANS was our primary obstacle.

We lost a close game to them in the regular season.  The defeat didn’t demoralize, it confirmed that we were close and could beat them.  Entering the single-elimination playoffs late that winter, a FAW-ANS championship game, a final epic battle for basketball supremacy, was assumed. 

Ah, but assumptions and reality don’t always agree.  We lost to Holy Angels in the semifinal.  We played sloppy, shot poorly and never found our rhythm.  We were spectators, not opponents, as ANS won the championship.  It still gnaws at me 29 years later.  And it’s not the loss to Holy Angels that bothers me; it’s not getting another shot at ANS.  I’ll never know if we could have beaten them.  It is my one great athletic regret.

I wonder if John Thompson, Patrick Ewing and that ’85 Georgetown team feel similarly.  While they at least made the championship game, by losing to Villanova, the Hoyas squandered an opportunity to be remembered as one of the greatest teams in NCAA history.  They were about to chisel their legacy into college basketball’s stone tablet and they dropped the hammer.   

I suppose I’m curious if that Georgetown team, despite winning the 1984 title and all their accomplishments, regrets the loss to Villanova.  They could have been iconic; instead the Hoyas became the slain giant in someone else’s David versus Goliath story. 

Regrets: therapists will tell you they are unhealthy, remorseful thoughts to be avoided.  You can’t control the past, only the future.  Yeah, yeah.  Here’s my counterpoint.  Frank Sinatra sang, “Regrets, I’ve had a few”, in his song “My Way.”  Bryan Adams’ reflective song “Summer of ‘69” screams of youthful good times and abandoned opportunities.  Bruce Springsteen strikes a similar nostalgic, regretful chord in his song “Glory Days.”  So Bryan, The Boss and Old Blue Eyes had regrets.  I think we all do.  Regrets are an inevitable part of living, a running tally of mistakes or opportunities missed.  Unhealthy?  Maybe.  But can they be character building teaching points?  I hope so.  Thanks ANS? 

Wilted Rose

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

When I close my eyes, the visual is of him dribbling nonchalantly at the top of the key, the ball transitioning between his hands with each slow, rhythmic bounce.  As the shot clock reaches 10 seconds, the crowd begins an alarmed countdown, but he doesn’t seem to notice.  Slightly bent at the waist, his eyes are calm, his body is relaxed and his expression is neither fearful nor threatening.

As the crescendo-ing verbal chant reaches “six”, his dribble gets more deliberate and his chiseled body launches into motion.  A quick crossover and he is by the overmatched on-ball defender.  Entering the lane, a pack of large defenders collapses on him.  No matter.  He slashes by the first and seven feet from the basket he takes off with rare explosion.  Rising into the air he contorts his body in inhuman ways, splits the final two defenders in mid-flight and violently dunks the basketball.

The crowd leaps to its feet in adulation while a deflated opponent fetches the ball from under the basket.  Derrick Rose, having put an exclamation point on another routine act of jaw-dropping athleticism, cracks a wry smile and meanders back up court.

That daydream was once everyday life with Rose.  In 2008, Rose led a Memphis Tigers team, coached by John Calipari, within a single point of a national championship and nearly busted my golden March Madness bracket in the process.  Memphis eventually lost to Kansas in overtime, but not before Rose, clearly the best player on the floor, scared the bejesus out of me, Dorothy, Toto and anyone else with a real or financial connection with Jayhawk-nation.

Later that summer, Rose, a Chicago native, was the first pick in the NBA Draft…by the Chicago Bulls.  By 2010 he was an All-Star.  In 2011, at the ripe old age of 22, he unseated former Washington Bullets center Wes Unseld at the youngest MVP in league history. 

The fairytale overloaded in the opening game of the 2012 NBA Playoffs.  Penetrating the paint with reckless abandon (much like the story that lurks in my memory), Rose jump-stopped short of the rim.  Instead of finishing with trademark explosion, he grasped at his left knee in mid-air and collapsed near the baseline.  The verdict: torn ACL.

Rose missed the entire 2012-13 season and a meniscus injury to his right knee cost him all but 10 games of the 2013-14 season.  This year was his latest attempt to regain the ferocious, carefree form that once had him among the NBA’s elite.  It was going okay…but after another injury and surgery last week to his right knee, that fabulous version of Rose, the supreme athlete that’s stuck in my head, will likely never be reality again.

Rose’s terrible and unfair demise will change the way I follow sports, the final stage of an on-going process.  I like heroes and villains – we all do.  I like to love and hate and to cheer “my guys” and boo “their guys.”  The love and adulation for members of the home team will remain; it’s the utter disdain - for such things as the Pittsburgh Penguins, Duke Blue Devils and everything Dallas Cowboys – that’s waning.

As a Wizards fan, I shouldn’t like Derrick Rose - but I do.  I should find some sick pleasure in his myriad of career-sapping leg injuries - but I don’t.  Rose made the NBA better and basketball more fun to watch.  He never wore a Wizards jersey, but my goodness his skills were breathtaking (past tense, I’m afraid)…and I took them for granted.  I figured Derrick Rose would be Derrick Rose for years, just like I thought Bo Jackson would dominate the NFL and Tiger Woods would lay waste to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major championships.

I’m a fool.  Athleticism isn’t just finite; it is terribly fragile.  One wrong step, one awkward fall and a career can be altered or ended.  Assume nothing; maximize every opportunity; appreciate every moment - even if it means admiring a so-called enemy.  I supposed that’s the lesson in the scars all over Derrick Rose’s knees, a place where sports- and life-wisdom apparently intersect.  

An Enemy Impossible To Hate

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The plan was to be on the University of Maryland campus at least two hours before tip-off.  After that, our fate would be in the hands of the basketball gods. 

We executed to precision.  My buddy, a devout North Carolina fan, was decked out in Carolina blue; I rocked the best threads from my extensive Terrapins wardrobe.  We were quite the visual contrast, but we shared a common dream: to find our way into Cole Field House to watch the Tar Heels play the always courageous, if not equally talented, Terps. 

There was a fly in our basketball dream’s ointment: we lacked tickets.  That would be a minor issue in today’s age of StubHub, but this game was played on February 22, 1997.  Game day scalpers controlled our fate. 

There was another problem: we were young lads of limited means.  We had eighty bucks.  We were all-in.   

After trolling around Cole for a while, we learned that many (affordable) scalped tickets were specially marked for students.  To use them, you needed a Maryland ID.  The regular tickets?  They far exceeded our meager budget.  It looked bleak for the little fans that could.  

Dejected, we sat slumped on a curb holding out two fingers (a non-verbal demand signal for two tickets).  Five minutes before tip, a voice from the heavens asked, “you guys need two?”  Uh, yessir.  We confirmed they weren’t student tickets and then asked the fateful question: “How much?”

“Gimme forty…for both.”

The seats were in the third row, a few feet from the baseline.  Thieves were we.  Unfortunately, the game lacked the drama of our pre-game adventure.  North Carolina, behind Vince Carter and Antwawn Jamison, cruised to a 93-81 victory.  The 1996-97 season would prove to be long-time Carolina head coach Dean Smith’s last and this game his finale at legendary Cole Field House.

Nearly 18 years later – February 8, 2015 to be exact – I was back on the Maryland campus to watch the women’s basketball team play Nebraska.  At halftime I grabbed my wife’s phone and checked the sports headlines.  Bad news.  Dean Smith had died. 

Smith, after 36 years on the bench, retired with then-record 879 Division 1 wins (many at Maryland’s expense).  Before Duke became Duke, Maryland’s archrival, the thorn in the Terrapins’ shell, was Smith’s Tar Heels.  North Carolina almost always had better talent, seemed to get all the calls and had a knack for break-your-heart late-game heroics. 

I remember one game fondly, though.  On February 20, 1986 – maybe to the day you’re reading this – Len Bias scored 35 points to lead Maryland to a 77-72 overtime win over North Carolina, in Chapel Hill.  It was the Tar Heels’ first loss at the glossy new Dean Smith Center.

But such victories were rare.  Carolina was the big brother Maryland could rarely whip, the standard Maryland never reached. 

This jaded, frustrating history should, by definition, mean that Smith is the enemy.  He should be hated.  Loathed.  His image should incite rage. 

Truth is, I love and respect Dean Smith.  He was just so darn classy.  He wasn’t flamboyant.  He never sought attention or craved credit.  Smith never tried to be bigger than his players, his opponent or the game – he sought only to blend in, despite his gigantic status.  Character was something Smith possessed, not something he was.  And this being Black History Month, it is important to remember his under-publicized (just as Smith would want it) contributions to desegregation.  His progressive acts included being the first UNC coach to grant an athletic scholarship to an African American and crashing a previously all-white restaurant with an African American player shortly after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Former All-American Maryland center and sworn on-court Smith adversary Len Elmore sent out the following tweet after Smith’s death:

“A life well lived, a job well done. The game, society has lost an icon. God bless #The Dean.”

Elmore’s statement captures Smith’s legacy.  A man whose profession demanded a winner and a loser died without a scant hint of an enemy.  Dean Smith: a life well lived, a life to be emulated.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Moving On

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in February 2015

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The other woman, our faithful fall mistress, has disappeared into another cold February night.  Did she even say goodbye?  Leave her number?  Scribble a farewell on a perfume note?

The abrupt exit, after the best of many sultry nights, was typical.  While her reappearance is inevitable, it won’t occur until the coming summer begins to fade and a hint of fall tickles the evening air. 

Locked in the dead of winter, the prospect is a cruelly far-off dream.  The NFL – that “other woman” – won’t return to invigorate its massive and obsessed fan base for months.  For the time being, memories of the season that was will have to do.

Baltimore’s recollections include Ray Rice and a (ahem) deflating defeat to New England.  Washington’s are of a recurring nightmare: an ineffective turnstile at quarterback, an overwhelmed rookie coach and relentless losing. Depressing.

The story is quite different in the Northeast. With the Patriots’ defeat of the Seahawks, QB Tom Brady and head coach Bill Belichick – with four Super Bowl titles - have earned a place among the NFL’s immortals.  Good for them, ethical excursions aside.  I would have offered Seattle the same had they won.  With their Adderal flirtations and head coach Pete Carroll’s disintegration of USC football, they aren’t choirboys either.  Few are.

My point - transgressions, aside – is that I’ve come to appreciate both Super Bowl teams. Their journeys were different, but they contained a common element: a willingness to move on.

The Rolling Stone’s song Honky Tonk Woman begins with an inconspicuous cowbell, then a drum beat and finally a distinctive guitar riff.  The sinewy Mick Jagger, a man of unique gyrations, slathers the following lines over the funky rhythm:

“I met a gin soaked barroom queen in Memphis,
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride
She had to heave me right across her shoulder
Cause I just can’t seem to drink you off my mind.”

Jagger sings of a man psychologically consumed by a relationship gone awry and requiring physical force to carry on.  The character is at a crossroads between commitment and determination – commendable traits - and stubbornness and blind faith – the folly of those in denial of the truth.  When to remain persistent and when to abort?  It is a thin line - one Seattle and New England have precisely navigated.  

During the 2012 offseason, Seattle inked former Green Bay quarterback Matt Flynn to a lucrative contract but had the nerve to start an unproven third round pick after he out-performed Flynn in the preseason.  Russell Wilson’s pretty good, eh?  In October, the ‘Hawks traded WR Percy Harvin, roughly 18 months after acquiring him for a steep price, to the Jets for pennies on the dollar.  At the time Seattle was 3-3 and Harvin was the most talented receiver on the team.  It seemed to make little sense.

Seattle didn’t lose between mid-November and the Super Bowl.

The Patriots have a long history of divorcing productive veterans; this year Logan Mankins was jettisoned.  Exiting training camp, the Pats dealt the six-time Pro Bowl guard to Tampa Bay for TE Tim Wright.  The early returns were poor.  After four games, New England was 2-2, QB Tom Brady was under constant pressure and the team looked lost. 

New England re-grouped and won 13 of its last 15 games.

There is a tendency in life – one intensified by age - to cling to the familiar.  Change – personal or professional - engenders anxiety.  The unknown incites fear.  The bird in the hand actually becomes more valuable than two in the bush. 

Had Seattle or New England adopted that philosophy, it’s likely neither would have played in last Sunday’s Super Bowl.  Both had the courage to make difficult decisions, to upset the safer status quo and to deal with dubious short-term returns.  They had guts to move on - and are better for it.  

When confronted with an alternative to the functioning norm, consider these Super Bowl combatants.  Are existing circumstances best?  Perhaps.  Or are we mired in the routine, stubbornly affixed to the known…and secretly hoping a gin-soaked barroom dweller will demand a different course?

Opportunity’s Unexpected Knock

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

“One of the jobs of a coach is ‘Let’s worry about today’…down the road, I think we’re going to be a very good team.”

Ohio State University head football coach Urban Meyer spoke those words during an interview on ESPN Radio’s “Mike and Mike In The Morning” show…on August 20, 2014.  It sounded like a bunch of coach speak, obligatory and desperate dribble offered to placate restless fans and to reassure a roster of young men facing a season in peril.  The thing is, only blind homers or those too young to know any better believe it.  Whether Meyer did or not matters little now; he’s officially a prophet, a football psychic. 

A season-ending shoulder injury to Braxton Miller, Ohio State’s all-everything starting quarterback prompted that August interview with Meyer.  Miller had led the Buckeyes to an Orange Bowl victory the prior season and was considered a serious candidate for the Heisman Trophy in what would be his senior year.  That was until an innocuous pass during non-contact drills shredded his surgically repaired right shoulder.  With four new starters on the offensive line and lacking the prior season’s leading rushing and wide receiver – consequences of graduations – Ohio State seemed particularly ill prepared to absorb the loss of its best player.  But the cosmic allocation of poor fortune never considers its victim’s circumstances.  Ohio State would just have to deal with the unfortunate and likely fatal extraction of Miller from its lineup. 

True to his word (as if he had a choice), Meyer penciled in backup QB J.T. Barrett, a redshirt freshman.  True to the reality of the situation, the Buckeyes struggled early, losing their second game by two touchdowns to a mediocre Virginia Tech team.  Surely that was it.  Season over.  Ah, but back to Meyer’s words: “…down the road I think we’re going to be a good team.”  The loss to Virginia Tech proved to be their last; Miller’s injury, however, wasn’t their last brush with adversity.   

As is well known now, Barrett broke his ankle in the season finale against Michigan, necessitating the introduction of Cardale Jones, the third string quarterback, to the nation in the middle of a potential championship run.  Jones led the Buckeyes to a 59-0 drubbing of Wisconsin the conference championship game, a 42-35 victory over top-ranked Alabama in the national semifinal and a 42-20 defeat of Oregon in the national championship game.

Of course he did.  Of course some unknown kid, buried deep on the depth chart in August and thrust into a stressful, seemingly no-win situation, stepped onto the sport’s biggest stage, played out of his mind and rescued Ohio State’s fairytale ending from misfortune’s zealous clutches.

I’m trying to think of a comp (real estate term) – a comparable player.  I got nothing…all blanks.  In all my years of watching sports I cannot recall anyone being given such an improbable opportunity and seizing it so completely.  Jones started the season with little expectation of seeing a snap.  Instead he took the most important snaps of the season with no advanced warning and after being on ice (i.e. holding a clipboard) for months.  He had no learning curve, no chance to fail or to grow into the role.  It was “here, Cardale, it’s yours.  Good luck.  Everyone’s counting on you…the entire season is on the line.”

Jones stepped in, played with a veteran’s poise and delivered the national championship.  You can’t do that without consistent focus and preparation – and uncommon amounts of both for a 20-something college student who had thrown all of two passes prior to this season.  Talent isn’t enough, not on that stage and not against the teams Jones and the Buckeyes faced. 

The thin line between success and failure – in life and in sports – is often as simple as being prepared to capitalize on opportunities…and Jones is the latest supporting evidence.  In a sports world that’s quick to move on – to the next event, player or season – that is what I’ll remember most about Cardale Jones, the third quarterback who remained ready and able to be his team’s savior and make a prophet out of his coach.