Saturday, May 20, 2017

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.   

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