Saturday, July 29, 2017

Their #2 vs. Our #2

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The careers of Cleveland guard Kyrie Irving and Washington guard John Wall will be forever linked.  Fair or unfair, that’s just how it is.  The points of intersection are too great; the comparison is too juicy to ignore. 

Both players attended blueblood institutions – Wall chose Kentucky, Irving went to Duke – and left for the NBA after just one season.  Both were number one overall picks in the NBA Draft - Wall (2010) and Irving (2011) - and have inked lucrative contract extensions.  Both players have been four-time All-Stars.  Both players are among the best point guards in the world.  Oh…and both wear number 2.

Similar?  Yes.  Identical?  No.  The differences…    

While Wall and Irving are both point guards, their styles are unique.  Wall is a traditional point guard (a regrettably negative description in this great jump shot era).  He orchestrates offense through masterful ball distribution.  Wall can score as required, but he thinks pass first.  His court vision is arguably the best; he inarguably makes his teammates better (and a whole lot richer: see Bradley Beal and Otto Porter). 

Irving has a little Allen Iverson in him.  He’s a better pure shooter than Iverson, but his offensive mentality is identical: score.  Pass?  Well, sure…but only as necessary.

Wall’s and Irving’s impressive individual career statistics illustrate this contrast.  Wall’s averaged 18.8 points and 9.2 assists per game; Irving’s countered with 21.6 points and 5.5 assists per game. 

Pick your style.  Toe-may-toe; Toe-mah-toe.  A finely crafted IPA or a porter.  The Beatles or the Rolling Stones.  Splendid either way.

But there’s a non-basketball difference between these two and it surfaced on the same day last week: Irving has a little drama in him…Wall not so much.    

In his first three seasons, Irving’s Cavs won 21, 24 and 33 games.  In the last three, Cleveland’s recorded 53, 57 and 51 wins, appeared in three NBA Finals and won a NBA championship. 

The change coincided with LeBron James’s return to Cleveland.  Yet despite the success realized from the James partnership, Irving requested that the Cavs trade him last week.  Why?  Irving is fatigued by being Robin to James’s Batman and desires a new team where he can play alpha-dog and receive the credit he feels he’s deserved.  Never mind that James, at age 32, is likely in decline and may leave Cleveland after this season – all things that would offer Irving the leading role he covets…in Cleveland.  And the timing – after the draft, after free agency – was just awful.  It drips of impulsiveness and is saturated with self-interest.

In other words, Irving threw the latest NBA version of a two-year-old fit. 

Conversely, just hours after Irving’s trade request made headlines, Wall signed a four-year extension with the Wizards.  Wall is staying put and trying to build something that Washington hasn’t had since 1978: a NBA champion.  He’s pursuing his career-defining ring and writing his legacy organically: no team hopping, no trade demands, no drama.  Instead of shunning Washington because of all it isn’t, Wall is committed to elevating D.C. - a post-disco era third-world NBA town - to basketball’s pinnacle.  And Wall’s making that commitment in his typical all-business, no bull---- style: It’s as if Wall’s never seen a daytime soap, is unfamiliar with Susan Lucci and is disgusted by hysterical, tearless faux-cries. 

Considering recent team history, Wall, not Irving, should be seeking professional asylum from his current employer.  But that’s not Wall’s style.  Putting the money aside (it’s so inevitably crazy for NBA stars that it’s irrelevant), Wall’s decision to remain with Washington – a team that needs him more than he needs it - indicates that our #2 values being synonymous with one team and one city and endearing himself to one fan base.  In other words, Wall doesn’t just value fame, advancing his “brand” and chasing titles, he values something that’s all but lost in major sports today: loyalty.    


So while Cleveland deals with chaos in the wake of Irving’s drama-bomb, consider, and appreciate, the calm surrounding the Wizards.  Consider and appreciate John Wall, a man who has determined that the greenest grass grows beneath his feet.

Monday, July 24, 2017

The Declining Consequence Of Sports

Previously published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In his book “Queer”, William S. Burroughs wrote, “What happens when there is no limit?  What is the fate of The Land Where Anything Goes?”  Considering national and world events since last fall, a running scroll of unfortunate chaos, it feels like Burroughs’s questions are about to be answered. 

By any apolitical, objective assessment, the last six months have been “unsettling”.  Anything can be said about anyone.  The quality of the nation’s health care appears secondary to a political score.  With inconvenient scientists and scientific fact systematically removed from the record, environmental stewardship has been disregarded.  International relations are both strained and unrecognizable – long-time friends are on the fritz; long-time foes are flirting.  The nation’s intelligence community is under a confounding internal attack.  All news is fake; all media not stroking The Administration’s massive and fragile ego are lying swine.  The draw of Twitter at 3 a.m. is contributing to nationwide insomnia.  Every day brings a new crisis - some real, much contrived.  Recent history is being obliterated; the future is a coin flip.  The truth…it’s whatever it needs to be at any given moment.    

Ah, but what does it matter?  Anything goes.  Right then.  So it does.   

In these equally bizarre and historic times, the role of sports and their social utility is difficult to place.  The games we watch have traditionally been a definitive respite, a place where people of different backgrounds and political persuasions unite to celebrate victories, mourn defeats and generally escape the grind of life’s responsibilities.  For doubters of sports’ magical ability to bridge deep personal chasms, consider this: During the 1968 Presidential campaign, Hunter S. Thompson, sworn Richard Nixon antagonist, scored a private meeting with the future president…why?...because Thompson, like Nixon, was a great connoisseur of pro football and Nixon, knowing this, apparently needed a moment to relax and converse with someone of equal pigskin intellect.   

But now it is all so confusing.  Would it occur to Donald Trump to chat with Rachel Maddow if he knew she loved football and shared Trump’s failed vision for the defunct USFL?  I think not.  Where oh where has the charm of this one-time ultimate and all-welcoming Garden of Eden gone?  Is it still there, unspoiled by an acrimonious world that in any other forum demands we take sides, dismiss numerous similarities and obsess over our differences?  And are sports capable of promoting social change, as it did when Jackie Robinson took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 or as they do more subtlety today by achieving workforce diversity that should be the envy of corporate America?  I’m willing to consider it.  I’d rather conclude that sports hasn’t changed and that everything else around them has.    

Whatever the truth, sports’ ability to bind society and demand its best feels diminished.  In every moment of crisis over the last 100 years, through wars, presidential assassinations, the Civil Rights movement and terrorist attacks, sports weren’t just games being played; they mattered – psychologically, socially and historically.  Now, in the world where anything goes, they are just there, seemingly along for the ride and hesitant to influence the vector of this pivot point in history.
Do I expect athletes to become swarming political activists?  No, but I expect more than what has been delivered.  I expect more from Kevin Durant than immature and meaningless Twitter wars with trollers.  I expect more from the NBA than giving LaVar Ball and his “Big Baller Brand” endless screen-time.  I expect more from Tom Brady than channeling Terrell Owens’s “I love me some me” sideline rant, and writing a book on how to be like…Tom Brady. 


Is some of that entertaining?  Is it safe?  Personally beneficial?  Yes, but it is also diminishing and inconsequential in a time of great consequence.  Edward Murrow once said, “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty…when the loyal opposition dies, I think the soul of America dies with it.”  Professional sports used to be part of that loyal opposition.  Maybe the money and the lifestyle are so good now that athletes are content just being athletes…even if it kills a little of America’s soul.  

Unemployed Activist

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

A month before NFL training camps begin, former 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick remains mysteriously unemployed. 

Considering only football-related factors, there’s no plausible explanation for his want of work.  Kaepernick boasts a career quarterback rating of 88.9, an impressive 72-30 touchdown passes to interceptions ratio and in February 2013 came within one goal line play of winning the Super Bowl.  What has he done lately?  Last season, with a talent-challenged 49ers team, Kaepernick threw 16 touchdown passes, just four interceptions and posted an impressive 90.7 quarterback rating. 

And yet, not one of the 32 NFL teams has signed Kaepernick this offseason.  To offer some context to this curious situation, here are a few employed backup quarterbacks: Sean Mannion (Rams), Geno Smith (Giants), Kellen Clemens (Chargers), Trevone Boykin (Seahawks) and, just for you Ravens fans, Ryan Mallett. 

Smith’s career quarterback rating is 72.4.  Clemens’s is 69.4 and he’s won just 8 of 21 starts.  Mallett slept through practice, missed a team flight and lost 3 of 4 starts with the Texans in 2015.  I’m unacquainted with the rest.  When we meet, introduce yourself as Sean Mannion; I won’t know the difference. 

So with no rational football argument for Kaepernick’s unemployment, what’s the dirty little secret?  As The Dude said, “This is a very complicated case…you know, a lotta ins, lotta outs, lotta what-have-you’s.”   

Call it public relations, brand protection or sensitivity to consumer concerns - package it however you want.  Just be sure to acknowledge what cannot be denied: Kaepernick remains unemployed because he decided to be socially and politically active last season and kneel during the national anthem to raise awareness of on-going oppression of minorities.  Now his on-field contributions don’t justify the perceived trouble accompany his employment. 

And with that, a statement: this isn’t about the issue fueling Kaepernick’s protest.  That’s been debated, picked over, marinated and cooked to a crisp.  Opinions are set.  Hopefully it advanced our country in a positive way. 

What is worthy of further consideration is why Kaepernick remains unemployed and what it says about tolerance of players choosing to be athletes and activists – a combination that has produced change agents like Jackie Robinson, Billie Jean King, Muhammad Ali, Kathrine Switzer and Arthur Ashe.  The NFL, with its stated intent to “protect the shield”, didn’t want to be bothered and it might be/probably is using Kaepernick to send this message: no unnecessary controversy on our stage…we are the lords of pro football. 

Don’t miss the hypocrisy.  And really, how could you in time when certain people can say denigrating things about, well, just about anyone and suffer no consequences?  The NFL waved off Ray Rice and is apparently doing the same with Kaepernick while it continues to employ the likes of Ben Roethlisberger, Adam Jones, Michael Floyd and Sheldon Richardson, players with rap sheets that should be universally offensive and actually do erode the NFL’s brand.  Just last year, Goodell, with a wink and a giggle, suspended Richardson for one game after he went on a 143 mph joy ride in his Bentley.  After being pulled over, police detected the odor of marijuana, found a semi-automatic handgun and discovered a 12-year-old passenger.  What a role model!  And while we’re pondering the transgressions of NFL players, do not forget the league’s very dubious (mis)handling of concussion data – likened to the tobacco’s industry’s statistical manipulations – and the $765M settlement it paid out to former players in 2013.


Amidst this ethical and moral ooze, Kaepernick, a man who has been genuine and thought-provoking about his anthem protest and who is an all-star philanthropist, is the great villain the NFL would prefer to see eradicated from its payroll?  Whatever brand protection the league sought post-protest has been undone by the wall Big Brother NFL and Party leader Goodell built between Kaepernick and the football field.  Kaepernick shouldn’t be ostracized, he should be appreciated for his social awareness and lauded for courage to act (more athletes should).  At the very least, he should be employed.  That he’s not is an indictment of the NFL and the skewed value system it perceives exists in its patrons.  Does it?  

The Pleasure Of Defeat

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

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

If LeBron “The King” James, the man and the basketball player, was tried by a jury of unbiased peers, in Judge Objective’s courtroom, the unanimous verdict would be not guilty – not guilty of falling short of any reasonable or meaningful measure of a man and hardcourt legend. 

In 2003, James was the most heralded high school basketball player since Dr. Naismith hung his peach basket.  James’s combination of size, strength and comprehensive basketball skill was inconceivable.  He passed like a point guard, scored like a two-guard and had the body of a power forward.  The potential for basketball feats never witnessed had NBA fans salivating. 

Fourteen NBA seasons later, James has surpassed any realistic expectations.  Yes, I said surpassed.  James’s resume reads like superhero’s, had basketball been prioritized over crime fighting.  Rookie of the Year.  13-time All-Star.  Three-time Finals MVP.  All-NBA first team 11 times.  Two-time Olympic gold medalist.  Three-time NBA Champion. 

Basketball superlatives aside, James has been first team all-human off the court.  Imagine being the NBA’s newly anointed “next best thing”, immediate hero to Cleveland and your home state of Ohio, apple of Nike’s eye and with a personal gross national product that outranked many countries – all at age 18.  Would nefarious temptations have compromised your scruples?  Might there have been a late night brawl or traffic stop gone awry?  An embarrassing TMZ story concerning a love interest?  With James there’s been none of those famous athlete-run-amuck clich├ęs.  Yes, there was The Decision – James’s mishandled free agency announcement.  And he can be fussy with the media at times (what ultra-competitive athlete isn’t?).  But these are victimless blemishes and petty complaints considering the remarkable grace with which James has handled fame and the blinding light shining on him 24/7. 

Unconvinced?  Read his Wiki page and notice what it lacks: domestic violence, DUI, late-night carousing and general “jerk spoiled athlete” behavior.  What you will find: a stud basketball player, political activist, philanthropist and a man who married his high school sweetheart.  That’s Central Casting stuff for The Great American Hero.

And yet, except for Tom Brady, there’s no other athlete of his stature who galvanizes the cantankerous, jealous and ill-intended haters like LeBron James.  Aside from fans of James’s team, people mostly want him to fail.  They relish in his Finals defeats and mock him for not matching Michael Jordan’s accomplishments.  There’s public pleasure in James’s pain.  When The King loses, the people win. 

James’s obsessive critics are often the same people who deify former greats like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan.  Really?  Johnson, lest we forget in the rightful celebration of his contributions to HIV awareness, acquired the virus as a consequence of promiscuity.  Bird’s estrangement from his biological daughter has largely been dismissed.  Chamberlain, the most dominant basketball force of all time, notoriously bragged about his sexual exploits with thousands of women.  And then there’s the precious Michael Jordan.  On the basketball court, he was the Greatest of all Time.  Off it, he was a terrible teammate capable of visceral, demeaning criticism (similar to corporate icon Steve Jobs), a notorious gambler and an adulterer. 

These are our declared basketball heroes.  And James is our pariah? 

Ani DiFranco’s song “32 flavors” includes this line: “Everyone harbors a secret hatred for the prettiest girl in the room.”  Ditto for the most gifted basketball player in world…based on pure, unadulterated hypocrisy.  On the one hand, Jordan is worshipped and the extramarital antics of Tiger Woods and violent acts of Ray Rice incite appropriate outrage.  On the other, there’s a confounding lust for James’s failures, a genuine pleasure in it, despite him being, by all accounts, a good father and husband and a survivor of a fishbowl capable of exposing the smallest of character flaws.  


But it is what it is; James’s public cast is set.  That aforementioned objective trial will never happen.  No matter, for this much is clear: the conviction of James as non-Jordan and the condemnation of him as the NBA’s villain is more of an indictment of the would-be jury’s values and character than it is of The King’s.