Saturday, May 20, 2017

Virtual Football

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

After taking a brief hiatus, I’m back - or at least some damaged version is – from a self-imposed exile from society at-large, D.C. sports in general and the eternally-hexed Washington Capitals, specifically.  The Darkness, the evil force undeniably enveloping D.C.’s professional teams, overwhelmed me. 

How acute was my sports-affective disorder?  After the inexplicable, inexcusable and completely illogical Game 4 loss to the Penguins, I was Caps-fan-on-fire: screaming like a 1980’s hair metal concert goer and using language that wouldn’t make my momma proud.

The aftermath was unprecedented: I abandoned the Caps.  With the misery needle buried in the red, I did not watch games 5-7.  First time in my life I’ve ever done such a thing.  I’d seen this Caps script too many times and was in no place to willfully subject myself to the anguish.  This annual torment is the Caps’ Rite of Spring, if you will, a play on the haunting/doomsday’s approaching masterpiece by…wait for it…Russian composer Igor Stravinsky.  Game 4 broke me.  I couldn’t even write; a condition critical that forced Duke Radbourn to pen the last column while I recovered. 

But enough of that.  Here we are, together again, in this fabulous moment to discuss something of substance or at least bizarre, like the death of major sports league. 

The buried lede: The NFL won’t live to see Super Bowl C (100) in 2066, not in its current form.  The now undeniable consequences on the human body and, more importantly, the human brain are too great. 

Countless former NFL players are suffering from early on-set dementia, a diagnosis that is often posthumously changed to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).  Confusion.  Mood swings.  Child-like behavior.  Forgetfulness.  Depression.  Suicide.  These are the symptoms.  Two more names were added to the NFL’s victim list last week: Nick Buoniconti and Jim Kiick, teammates on the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins.  Many, many more will follow.

But this generation has something the priors didn’t: knowledge of football’s risks.  That knowledge will curb the NFL’s talent supply, either through increased early retirements or young athletes opting for other sports.  It will also pull the league’s purse strings as sponsors disassociate their brand from a debilitating sport.

What does the future hold for America’s sport?    

Tom Brady, pending Madden cover boy, might have teased the answer recently.  When playing the game with his son, Brady disclosed that he chooses either Green Bay or Seattle.  New England?  Not an option.  His son makes that claim. 

Virtual football.  Is that where we’re headed?  Is virtual reality the solution for the NFL? 

Crazy talk?  Sure.  I’ve been a little bleary-eyed recently.  I’ve flirted with the dark corners of my brain.  But if you think the NFL will just keep marching along, as is, with the same corporate sponsors and the same supply line snaking back through colleges, high schools and pee wee football, you aren’t paying attention to what professional football is doing to its participants. 

Think of these scenarios: a fully virtual league or one where players are robots, controlled remotely by humans.  In the former the “players” are programmed with attributes – size, speed, etc. – with complex coding/simulation determining the outcome.  In the latter, all robots are physically identical with the game decided by the skill of gamers.  Or something like that.  You get the idea.

No more concussions.  No more injuries.  Player personalities could be cultivated like WWE stars.  Gridiron superheroes.  And ponder the potential revenue growth with the sport now globally viable and freed of human body-imposed game limits. 

But would we watch? 

Of course we would.  This is 2066, mind you.  When considering the technological advances of the last 50 years, is 2066 even sufficiently imaginable to mount a counter-argument?  And do you doubt future generations will lack the bloodthirst that makes football so appealing?

Besides, look at us now.  Concocted Facebook lives.  On-line dating.  Reality television (which is often anything but).  Virtual reality is everywhere – and it’s getting scary-good.  Facts are routinely skewed.  Fiction thrives, even in the most important facets of American life.  If the story’s compelling, we’ll buy a ticket and take the ride without hardly a question asked.  

A Diamond Grows Up

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr. (via Duke Radbourn)

Words rifle across the screen.  I’m numb.  Emotion was for year’s past and another, less psychologically weathered version of myself.  Now, the decades of scar tissue have left me still.  Cold.  Resigned.  Washington, D.C.: This town, this cursed town and its professional sports teams have broken me.  The ‘Skins, Bullards, Capitals and Nationals win enough to stir hope and sometimes enough to justify big, spectacular, championship dreams.  But in the end, all are fool’s gold.  Heartbreakers.  Soul shakers.    

In the last 48 hours, the Caps soiled themselves (again), losing the first two games at home, and effectively, another second-round the playoff series to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  Spare me the insult of hanging another hollow Presidents’ Trophy banner.  Sandwiched between the Caps’ losses, the Nats’ season took a grotesque turn when Adam Eaton, the gritty catalyst that the team emptied its farm system to acquire in the offseason, blew out his ACL.  Bye-bye 2017!  The Nats’ scorching April was nothing more than a cruel nibble of what could’ve been a divine course.  Yes, the Bullards won a series against Atlanta.  But the inevitable reality is they’ll done in by Boston or LeBron’s Cavaliers.  Choose your death.

I’m consumed by The Darkness.  My passion meter has flat-lined.  So I’m punting this week’s column over to Duke Radbourn, a wise old and some say mythical friend and occasional contributor to this column.  For my sake, for your sake, here’s what Duke has to say about something.      

Good grief, Junior.  I’m supposed to recover from that dreary introduction and whip this crowd into a wide-eyed frenzy?  There’s barely a discernable pulse.  Is this an audience of people or corpses?  Hard to tell.  Zombies perhaps?  Ah well.  I’ll rip into something.  Opinions you need?  Opinions I have.  So here it goes.  Relax and enjoy, but hold on tight…I tend to be reckless. 

Remember Diamond Stone?  An emphatic “no” is understandable.  The kid with the fancy, superhero/WWE-ready name was a 2015 McDonald’s All-American.  He shunned his home-state Wisconsin Badgers and committed to Maryland late in the recruiting process.  It earned our beloved turtles a preseason top-five ranking.  Final Four dreams were dancing in our heads, if ever so briefly.

After one under-whelming season in College Park (for team and player), Stone, then just 19, chose to chase his NBA dream (and NBA riches).  Understandable.  To that point, Stone had been on the basketball fast-track, a path where success, accolades and praise were in healthy supply.  Cool stuff for a teenage mind, eh?  Intoxicating.  Why wouldn’t he jump at any trace of NBA flirtations?  Why indeed?

Stone probably figured he was a mid-first round pick at worst, a status that would have scored a guaranteed three-year, ~$4.5M contract – lucrative work for a teenager!  Reality: Stone was selected 40th overall and ultimately inked a two-year deal in the $1.4M range.

That’s still good moolah, but Stone didn’t exactly live his NBA fairytale.  He played in just seven games and scored 10 measly points with the Clippers this year.  Frankly, Stone’s dubious professional existence is defined by extended stints with two NBA Development League teams you’ve never heard of: Salt Lake City Stars and Santa Clara Warriors.  For this NBA-lite experience, Stone forfeited a chance to star on a young, talented Maryland team, make a run in the NCAA tournament and spend another glorious year as a big man on a big college campus.

But Stone had it all figured out, as many youths do.  Speed, and a hint of entitlement, to one’s destination carries the day.  Process?  Marination?  Grinding, paying dues and developing skills to ensure success at the highest levels?  Nonsense.

Stone can’t be begrudged for getting paid, but the joy in the journey often matches that of the destination.  Stone’s financially richer for his NBA adventure, but poorer in some ways too.  And no matter how much money he makes in the grown-up world of professional basketball, he’ll never reclaim his last best chance to be a kid. 

Is that wisdom or foolish drivel?  The reader can decide.  But know this: The real world encroaches upon us all, eventually.  

The NBA’s Conscience

As published by The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

By the end of this madness, half of you will pump your fists in air or slap the table in passionate agreement.  The other half will condemn me a crusty old curmudgeon wailing ancient values from his porch, half a bottle of poison in one hand and a cigarette in the other. 

You’ll be both be right, at least figuratively; neither will be wrong, at least not totally.   
In the ninth edition of this column, way back in April 2008, I reflected on a recent television interview with Cal Ripken Jr.  The conversation with the Baltimore legend covered his entire Hall of Fame career with a predictable focus on that unimaginable streak of 2,632 consecutive games played. 

Ripken, in typical self-deprecating fashion, attributed the accomplishment to nothing more than applying his dad’s blue-collar work ethic and being prepared to perform every single day.  Okay, Cal.  Translated for mere mortals, you only play in 2,632 consecutive games if you possess an uncompromising commitment to your craft and a competitive fire that’s perpetually ablaze.

Ripken’s record is unbreakable.  It isn’t just the odds of a human playing that many consecutive games.  It’s that it doesn’t even occur to today’s players to try.   

In MLB and the NBA, we are in the era of mental health breaks or general maintenance days off.  In a little slump?  Sore ankle?  Balky shoulder?  Take a day.  Better yet, take two.  Further, the best NBA teams routinely sit stars during the regular season – Spurs, Cavaliers – and the NBA’s worst, without even a modest disguise, sit players to tank games and improve draft stock.

With the long regular seasons in these sports, the strategy is understandable.  And in the NBA, the playoffs last for months – literally.  But I also hate it - to my core.  It cheats fans, makes a mockery of athletic competition and, in my mind, reduces the players who tap out.  Where’s the overriding competitive fire?  The pride in knowing that you’re only as good as your last game played – or not played?  I’m not going to call this generation soft.  I’ll leave it at…different (and quietly lament the travesty). 

There’s a ray of light in this laissez-faire, I-need-a-day-for-me and participation trophy era.  An athletic assassin.  An ultimate competitor.  A man who eradicated “submit” from his vocabulary.  In its greatest gospel of rock, “Stairway to Heaven”, Led Zeppelin, mystics and rumored purveyors of black magic, may have eluded to this great athletic force of the future when Robert Plant murmured, “…when I look to the west” and “In a tree by the brook”.  West.  Brook.  Westbrook.  Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook.    

Westbrook is, in a word, ferocious.  In a league where players often “compete” at a casual, too-cool-for-school pace, Westbrook attacks the game, every game.  No one plays a midseason contest in Minnesota or Milwaukee on a sleepy Tuesday night like Russell Westbrook.  Noooooooobody. 
Does his game have flaws?  Does he get out of control sometimes?  Dominate the basketball too much?  Yes.  But his effort and desire to win cannot be doubted.  When the clock expires Westbrook wants his opponent’s beating heart in his hand and he’s prepared to spill his last drop of blood for ultimate victory.  I respect that.  It’s how it’s supposed to be at the highest levels of athletic competition.

And I also respect that after Kevin Durant, his long-time running mate, bolted OKC to form another manufactured superteam, Westbrook didn’t throw a fit or lament his personal misfortune.  Instead, the dude averaged a triple-double and turned in one of the best statistical seasons…ever.   
In a perfect world Westbrook, the NBA’s conscience, would guilt his peers into giving more consistent effort.  But alas, he’s but one man against a now deeply ingrained culture.  At a personal level though, maybe he’s the extra foot in the backside we need when our motivation wavers.  It’s the “What would Russell do?” challenge or, simply, the one-time “What would Cal do?” challenge by another name. 

Hopefully that question, that standard, still resonates.  And hopefully this has been more refreshing sermon than antiquated lunacy from an aging sports fan in his rocking chair.   

Diminutive Stature, Giant Heart

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Few rules govern this column.  It has to be clean, worthy of print and contain some loose connection to sports.  The specific subject is completely at my discretion, a fact that’s equally exhilarating and nerve-racking.  Eyes will scan these words.  Opinions will be expressed.  Emotions will be moved and thought provoked (I hope). Pressure?  Lil’ bit…

A local angle is good, but not required.  Like beer, variety is important; too much of one sport, even the NFL, can get a little stale.  Humor is often attempted.  Weird connections to pop culture are common.  But it’s the point – the connection between sports and our ordinary lives – that matters. 

Whatever the sport, team or athlete, and regardless of how spectacular the take-a-way, a topic won’t work if it fails to ignite passion.  It’s either there or it isn’t.  If it’s not, I move on.  A forced screed will be a grind to write and you’ll sense the artificial motivation.    

I was grasping this week.  The sports calendar was stuffed as always.  Candidates were plentiful.  But nothing moved me.  I was staring at a haunting blinking cursor and an approaching hard deadline.  Momma…

Then a woman I had never heard of, on a team I knew nothing about, made a shot.  And away we go…

Sports has changed considerably in my lifetime.  The money is unreal.  Individuals are often celebrated more than teams.  Showmanship has blossomed a little too much for my liking.  And the games have evolved – for good or ill. 

The constant remains the compelling convergence of people and pressurized, win-or-lose situations.  
Hit that ball, bury that kick in the net, convert that shot and you win.  Fail…and you lose.  Watching humans, even elite professionals, function in these moments is fascinating.  The anxiety is palatable from the couch.  Imagine what the athlete is experiencing.  Think of Tom Brady in all those Super Bowls.  Or Adam Vinatieri before drilling so many clutch kicks.  Or Villanova’s Kris Jenkins as the clock ticked to zero in the championship game last year.  Excel?  How about not vomiting?    

Basketball is particularly compelling in these moments.  Faces, expressions and mannerisms are discernable.  The pace is more frenetic than baseball, but it isn’t as purely reactionary as it is for many football players.  Basketball is played fast and demands instinctual responses, but there’s a sufficient cerebral element – time to think, assess - that makes it easy for big moments to imprison an athlete in his or her head.

The best manage the pressure, even relish in it.  It’s evident in their body language.  Fear is absent.  There’s a wry grin, a calmness and a determination.  They don’t defer.  They want the shot.  Because they’re going to make it.  There’s no doubt.

Last Saturday, Mississippi State guard Morgan William, all 5’5” of her, made a shot at the buzzer in overtime to beat UConn 66-64 and send the Bulldogs to the national championship game. 
It was the biggest shot in women’s college basketball history. 

Exaggeration?  Maybe.  But name a bigger shot on a grander stage?  William didn’t just win a Final Four game.  Her shot upset an undefeated opponent, ended UConn’s 111-game winning streak and Huskies’ bid to win a fifth consecutive NCAA championship. 

What was so amazing, more than the upset itself, was William’s body language in the final seconds.  She sought the basketball and shot without hesitation.  And when the ball went in as the buzzer sounded she had an “only fool’s doubted me” look on her face.  Morgan William: smallest player on the court, steadiest nerves and the biggest heart.

At the risk of sounding like Dick Vitale, it was scintillating.  Sensational.  Exhilarating.  Inspiring.  Pick-your-superlative stuff. 

What’s the comp for mere mortals grinding through our less publicized and comparatively mundane lives?  I suppose it’s any pivot point - significant parental moment, job interview, big presentation, etc. – that puts a knot in your gut because of the acknowledged and wholly uncomfortable chasm between success and failure.  What to do in these moments?  Well…be cool, sharpen your senses, attack with confidence and cross your fingers that a little bit of Morgan William resides within you.  

Useful Dysfunction

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Warning and a hedged promise: A tired, perhaps psychologically unhealthy topic follows.  Brave it…there’s a 50% chance you’ll be glad you did.   

For my entire childhood and through my teenage years, the NFL team in Washington was a source of joy and tremendous pride.  It provided many victorious Sunday afternoons, great memories with family and dear friends and a little strut in my step on Monday mornings as I confronted the prior week’s naysayers.  

The metrics Washington produced between 1982 and 1993 are unimaginable now - 10 winning seasons, eight playoff appearances, 16 playoff wins, four Super Bowl appearances, three championships and five Hall of Famers.  That’s fairytale stuff, but it happened…I think.  I have trinkets – magazines, shirts, pennants, Wheaties boxes, etc. – that indicate it did.  Faint memories still exist in my aging, overloaded and overheated brain.  Dusty VHS tapes and YouTube videos provide concrete visual evidence.  But it seems like another lifetime, so long ago that I may have been another organism in this distant earthly realm, or myself on another planet altogether. 

Washington’s once great franchise is now two-and-a-half decades into an absurd period of persistent losing and managerial incompetence.  That joy and pride I once felt as a child has been replaced by frustration and embarrassment. 

Over the years, disregarded or ill-spent draft picks, grotesquely overpaid free agents, fumbling away internal talent – like a 28-year-old potential franchise quarterback named Trent Green (does this scenario resonate in 2017?) – and misguided impulsiveness have been the organization’s identity.  The pervasive lack of vision, discipline and leadership is beyond criticism now, it’s is downright comical.     

Recently, though, there had been flickers of hope: The organization had adopted a traditional front office structure, restrained reckless spending, committed to the draft and acquired a respectable core of talent.  The result was something that hadn’t happened since grunge music’s arrival: two consecutive winning seasons.

This brief flirtation with stability and success was apparently intolerable.  Enemy of the State/Owner Dan Snyder has recoiled and pressed the self-destruct button…again.  So far this offseason, the General Manager, Scot McCloughan, was jettisoned under suspicious circumstances, acrimonious negotiations with Kirk Cousins have become an omnipresent albatross and talent is departing for other teams.  Uncertainty is the prevailing forecast.

They were so close.  After 18 mostly humiliating years as an NFL owner, Snyder almost had it figured out.  An extended period of competitive, respectable football was within reach.  Now Snyder, The Master of Chaos, and his merry band of yes men has the franchise back to being a national punchline – on TMZ as much as ESPN – and vying for another dubious “30 for 30” documentary.

Like many long-time and aging fans, this latest chapter has left me despondent but philosophical.  I’m wondering, sometimes aloud and to the chagrin of my wife/therapist, what usefulness this team and its constant dysfunction has in my life.  Do I need the added angst and negativity?  Would this relationship pass any rational test of healthy living?  Don’t I have better things to do with my time? 

But then it occurred to me: This is no longer a football team, it is a metaphor for life.  Washington fans are following a team while trapped in a Bob Dylan song.  They almost had it figured out only to fall victim to ever-present shortcomings and familiar trappings.  I’ve almost had many things figured out in my life.  School.  The opposite sex.  Relationships.  Marriage.  Career.  Parenthood.  The meaning of it all…the meaning of life!  Almost.  So close…so many times. 

Then the curve ball comes, an unforeseen element or a layer of complexity my modest mind couldn’t have anticipated.  And I fall short.  I’m humbled and confused.  I’m left searching again for some footing.  But I’m never broken.  Life moves on and I’m still in the game, still striving to uncover a better me.  I remain a contender, if endearingly flawed.  Next time I’ll get it right.  Next time I’ll nail it.  And if not, there’s always the “30 for 30”…or whatever the equivalent is for a well-intended, try hard dude/friend/colleague/husband/son/brother/dad who is perpetually finding his way through a series of false starts, curious decision and ill-fated excursions.   

Mindful of the Moment

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The image is still vivid in my mind.  He lurked in the post-game tunnel watching the victor’s elation.  He needed to soak it in and to make a permanent entry into his mental Rolodex.  Players were just starting to file off the field.  Confetti still helicoptered in the air throughout the New Orleans Superdome.  The crowd was out of its mind.  It was Mardi Gras in January and to some exponential factor.

Despite the pure, unrestrained joy that filled the cavernous dome, Adrian Peterson was angry.  He was hurt.  Surrounded by raucous celebration, he was a despondent loser. 
Peterson’s Minnesota Vikings lost the 2010 NFC Championship Game 31-28 to the New Orleans Saints.  On the precipice the Super Bowl - the point of all the workouts, drills, practices, games and the physical and psychological brutality of an NFL season – the Vikings and their All-Pro running back, fell oh-so-cruelly short. 

Peterson was just 24 years old at the time but had already established himself as the best running back in pro football.  With an aging but still productive Brett Favre at quarterback and plenty of surrounding talent, there was every reason to believe Minnesota would make another championship run the following season. 

That’s why Peterson had to watch New Orleans, the eventual Super Bowl champions, celebrate.  He wanted to see what the prize looked like.  He wanted to experience the pain and use the imagery and his raw emotions as added motivation to ensure that next season would be different.
It was - very different.    

Minnesota won just six games the following year.  As often happens, Favre got old very quickly and tossed only 11 touchdown passes against 19 interceptions in just 13 games.  As for Peterson, he’s been running uphill in pursuit of the elusive do-over ever since.  In 2011 he suffered a severe knee injury and ended the season on injured reserve.  Three years later he was suspended for 15 games after pleading no contest to misdemeanor reckless assault.  And last year, Peterson sustained another knee injury and played just three games.  In all, and despite Peterson’s personal brilliance, Minnesota has managed just two winning seasons since that 2009-2010 campaign and has won exactly zero playoff games.

Peterson, now at the NFL graybeard age of 31, faces an uncertain future.  Last week, Minnesota declined to pick up an option in his contract, thus making the franchise’s all-time leading rusher, and arguably its best player ever, a free agent.  Peterson still has a chance to climb the mountain, but it will likely be as a role player and not with the Vikings.

As the saying goes, the victors get the spoils, among which is society’s fascination.  Whether it’s just a personal affection or our rebellious, competitive American DNA, we are winner-obsessed.  But the defeated teach as much as, if not more than, the victorious about the power of moments.  The winners are validated as individual players and as a team; those that lose, as Peterson did in 2010 or as the Atlanta Falcons did this year, are left with a bitter taste and the arduous task of getting back to that big game, that big moment again.

When I think about Peterson in that Superdome tunnel, in that extraordinary moment and his uneven and unsatisfying journey since, I think about everyday life and unremarkable moments.  An average day at work.  Carryout pizza dinner night.  A soccer game on a Saturday morning.  Another triple-digit round of golf.  Such things barely leave a trace memory and certainly not one as vivid as the haunting image of a broken and beaten NFL running back in the losers tunnel after a conference championship game. 

But they should.  Every moment in life is this unique confluence of time, people and circumstances.  None can be recreated.  Each is a single entry on our personal scroll.  Each is worthy of an appreciative pause, as Peterson did in the Superdome tunnel, to take account of it all – the place, the people, the experience – not necessarily to celebrate victory or defeat, but simply to remain mindful of the extraordinary pleasures found in the routine.      

Building D.C.’s Wall

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Quarterback.  Center in hockey.  Pitcher.  Point guard. 

These are the great orchestrators of the major sports, the conductors of athletic symphonies.  The best at each position are mesmerizing, must-watch performers.  Look away at your own risk. 

Elite quarterbacks command the huddle, manipulate at the line of scrimmage, satisfy a demanding cast of offensive specialists and drop wicked, under-duress passes into tight windows with the game on the line.  I’m talking about Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees. 

Centers lead, glide through traffic, control the power play, score and feather passes to snipers on either wing.  My personal favorite is the elegant and cerebral Nicklas Backstrom.  Sidney Crosby?  No.  Wrong town.  Wrong writer.    

Pitchers…what can you say, eh?  They put the ball in play and rip pitches that vary in velocity and defy physics.  The best control tempo, are masters of situational baseball and are capable of reaching a higher gear, bulldog mode if you will, in high-leverage situations.  Example?  Max Scherzer.

And then there’s my favorite: point guards.  In youth basketball, the first thing you need is a kid with handles, right?  Those same dribbling wizards are soon breaking presses in middle school and high school.  Point guards rule the college game.  In the NBA, where dominant, back-to-the-basket bigs have nearly gone the way of the dinosaurs, guards power the universal, spread, drive-and-dish, three-point shot offenses.  Point guards advance the ball, control pace, combat stagnation, run sets, gets shots for teammates or create their own when required.  For avid sports fans, watching an elite point guard work is a delicious four-course dish of jaw-dropping athleticism, unselfishness, high cerebral function and diversity of basketball skill.

You see where this is going.  Know that I do so with great trepidation.  Merely suggesting that the Washington Wizards, behind the oh…so…sexy play of John Freakin’ Wall, will contend in the Eastern Conference will likely cause a karmic apocalypse (this being D.C. sports and all).  But that’s what I’m doing. 

True story: The Washington Bullets winning the 1978 NBA championship is my first sports memory.  It’s very faint, but I remember the Bullets celebrating after beating the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 7.  Fast-forward 39 years (gulp), and I’m sports-meditating in my man cave.  Contemplating the Wizards’ recent epic heater, I reach this conclusion: This is the best Washington basketball team in nearly four decades.  They are legitimate Conference contenders. 

Yep, in the immortal words of the Star Trek voice-over, I just boldly went where no Washington basketball fan has gone since the Carter administration.  After a 2-8 start under new coach Scott Brooks, this looked like another lost season for Washington.  Then Wall found another gear, his teammates blended together like Nawlins gumbo and the Wizards, the Washington Wizards, rose from the Eastern Conference’s abysmal depths to its upper crust.

Wall is playing the best basketball of his career and is arguably the league’s best pure point guard.  His progression is undeniable, even if it wasn’t always consistent.  The first overall pick in 2010, Wall has always been a stat-stuffer: Scoring 16-20 points, dropping 8-10 assists and recording two steals is a routine night.  But in his first six seasons, Wall was plagued by injuries, a poor supporting cast, inconsistent shooting, an uncontrolled on-count recklessness and a mopey attitude unbecoming a team leader. 

No more.  Wall, still just 26, is averaging career highs in points (22.8), assists (10.2) and steals (2.1) per game.  He’s smiling more, attacking relentlessly and doing what he does better than anyone: see the floor and find open teammates in a most unselfish and completely refreshing way in this score-first generation.  But it’s the winning that matters most and those hopeless 2-8 Wizards are now 31-24 at the All-Star break.

The short: It took several years to build this John Wall.  He stopped.  He started.  He broke down and was rebooted.  Now he’s just balling.  The patience – he with himself and the organization with him – was worth it.  It’s a nice reminder that with a little faith – in ourselves and from the right supporting cast - we can all travel the imperfect journey to becoming our inner All-Star.  

Kids and Giants

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

After a Wild Card playoff win against the Minnesota Vikings, the 1992-93 ‘Skins traveled to San Francisco for a showdown with the 49ers on 9 January 1993. 

Washington, the defending Super Bowl champion, had experienced all the post-championship trappings – injuries, inspired opponents and ring-satisfaction - and backed into playoffs with a modest 9-7 record.  On the other coast, the 49ers, behind QB Steve Young, had posted a league-best 14-2 record.  It was a mismatch on paper.  Vegas’ take?  Niners -9.5.

San Francisco predictably jumped out to a 17-3 halftime lead.  It wouldn’t be that easy though, not against a prideful, veteran opponent and a Hall of Fame coach (Joe Gibbs).  The 60-minute game meant the 49ers would get a 60-minute fight.

In the second half, Washington methodically trimmed the 49ers’ lead to 17-13 and grabbed full momentum after recovering a fourth quarter fumble by Young deep in ‘Skins territory.  This was it – winning time.

A handful of plays later, the ‘Skins had a first down at the 49ers 24-yard-line.  A conservative, bread-and-butter running play was called.  At the snap, The Hogs, the most famous offensive line in NFL history, opened a drive-a-truck-through-it hole in the 49ers’ defensive front.  As QB Mark Rypien went to hand off to RB Brian Mitchell for a big gain, if not the go-ahead score, the ball slipped from Rypien’s hand, caromed off Mitchell’s leg and was recovered by 49ers LB Mike Walter.
That was effectively it.  The 49ers chewed up the clock on the subsequent possession, tacked on a field goal and won 20-13. 

I remember three things from the game: the fumble, the hole and the image of an aging, defeated giant.  I don’t know if the broken giant appeared after Rypien’s fumble or as the clock expired - the years have contorted the details of the game, among other things.  No matter, the image of Joe Jacoby, the ‘Skins icon and player perhaps most synonymous with The Hogs, remains sharp and poignant.  He stood, this human mountain, with hand on hips, drenched in sweat and with mud stains all over his uniform.  The forlorn look on his face reflected a great champion’s resignation of a defeat much greater than a single contest. 

Everything changed after that game.  Gibbs resigned a few weeks later.  Jacoby hung on for one more season but the franchise cratered to a 4-12 record in 1993 and entered a dark period of losing that it hasn’t consistently escaped to this day.

For me, that final stand of The Hogs and the Joe Gibbs ‘Skins version 1.0 was a line of demarcation.  I was no longer the innocent, carefree young lad capable of developing fairytale relationships with his sports heroes.  Such bonds, as I’ve learned, are only possible through a child’s mind.  I was eight when Jacoby started playing and 20 when the ‘Skins lost to San Francisco in 1993.  The boy was gone; the man I’d become, one aware of the real world, acquainted with life issues and dashed with adult cynicism, was emerging.  Sports would never be the perfectly filtered allusion it once was; its players would never again be the giants my young mind created.  There would never be another Joe Jacoby, even if there was another player who was just like Joe Jacoby.

Right now there’s a 12-year-old kid that’s crafting a comic book hero out of Alex Ovechkin, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and John Wall.  There are 20-somethings for whom Ray Lewis and Ed Reed are beyond reproach.  Good for them (and you if you’re one of them).  Now in my forties, I’ve formed all my sports heroes - those players who stir raw emotions and remind of more carefree times; there will be no more.

I have one more moment with Jacoby.  After being a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist for the second consecutive time this year, he was passed over.  I consider it a great injustice, but one I believe will eventually be righted.  And when it does, when “HOF” trails Jacoby’s name, I’ll be overcome with pure, unrestrained joy.  I’ll be a kid again, if only for a day.