Sunday, May 20, 2018

Jordan vs. James: The GOAT Debate

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I was nine when Michael Jordan drained the winning shot in the 1982 national championship game, 12 when the first Air Jordan shoes were released, 14 when he claimed the NBA’s dunk title, 15 when he won his first NBA MVP award and 18 when he won his first NBA Championship.  During this period I attempted his dunks on Nerf rims, imitated (poorly) his jump shots on any available court and admired his confidence and ferocity (neither of which I was capable of duplicating) - and I wasn’t even a fan of Jordan’s or the Chicago Bulls. 

This is all to say that I witnessed, at very impressionable ages, Jordan’s rise from unknown North Carolina guard who played in the shadows of Sam Perkins and James Worthy, to basketball’s Greatest of All Time (GOAT) and the most consequential athlete of my generation.

With those admissions and declarations, I’ve found the periodic suggestions of LeBron James challenging Jordan for the NBA’s throne quite irritating.  But with James’s most recent playoff run, again with a cobbled together band of nondescript session performers, another Jordan vs. James debate has started.

A resume review should end the conversation quickly.  Here’s the scoreboard, with Jordan’s count first, followed by James’s.  Championships: six to three.  NBA MVP awards: five to four.  NBA Finals MVP awards: six to three.  NBA All-Defensive First Team: nine to five.   

Let’s go deeper.  Jordan’s 6-0 in the NBA Finals.  James is 3-5.  What’s more, James has often shown indications of competitive anxiety at the biggest moments of the biggest games.  Jordan had not one discernible trace of fear on the court – ever.  You want to give James extra credit for more Finals appearances?  Fine…but then acknowledge that he has feasted on a pathetic Eastern Conference for his entire career.  Meanwhile Jordan had to overcome the Bad Boy Pistons, Patrick Ewing’s Knicks and Shaquille O’Neal’s Magic, among others.  And then there’s this: if you had to win one game and had to choose between peak Jordan or any version of James, Jordan would be the majority’s choice. 
Debate.  Over. 

Well…sorta.  There are other data points.  If the criteria was expanded beyond basketball accomplishments, James surges.  Jordan wasn’t a great husband, was notoriously ruthless to his teammates and, for all his fame and potential influence, chose not to engage socially or politically.  On the other hand, James is, by all accounts, a solid husband and father, a good teammate and has shown a willingness, despite rude admonishments to “shut up and dribble”, to engage on social causes.

This isn’t an argument for James over Jordan.  James just isn’t of Jordan’s basketball ilk at this point.  I’m fortunate that’s the case because I’m resistant to even consider ranking James over Jordan.  The truth is the gap is closing and narrower than I’m ready to admit. 

Why the reluctance?  If wrapped in Wonder Woman’s truth lasso, I’d offer this response: I’m biased.  A cognitive corruption has stolen my objective analytical ability.  As a basketball player, I value Jordan more than James.  It’s not that I dislike James – quite the contrary…I’ve defended him many times in this column over the years – it is simply that Jordan is the icon of my youth.  He made an impression on me at very impressionable ages.  I don’t want his standard of greatness to be challenged; I want James to leave my adolescence alone.

This bias is likely shared with other Jordan supporters of my vintage; similarly, more youthful basketball fans may be inclined to argue for James.  Bias can be based on just about anything.  It creeps into your mind, clouds your judgement and skews reality.  We are all capable of it, and it’s habit-forming.  When debating such things as basketball’s best, it’s benign; in life, biases can be misleading and fundamentally wrong.  The trick then, is to be more conscious of their formation and, most importantly, to consistently identify that important line between silly debates and things that really matter. 

To that end, I’ll prepare myself for an objective Jordan vs. James discussion.  But not yet.  Jordan’s still the GOAT - for now.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

Jobs, Trump And The NFL Draft

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Don’t let the title concern you, this isn’t about politics, per se.  What it does address is how technology and the current political environment have invaded the NFL Draft and left NFL executives grappling with inescapable facts.

I was raised to tell the truth.  “Bad news doesn’t age well” was the underlying advice.  Made a mistake?  Admit it, own it, request forgiveness and move on.  At best, carefully spun webs of lies, built to obscure undesirable facts, only delay and increase the pain.  At worst, exposed elaborate lies break trust and ruin reputations.

But there was always a youthful interpretation and application of that clear direction – because shades of gray were possible.  I grew up in a world where indiscretions could often be effectively messaged, if not completely concealed.  It was still a he said/she said time – no viral pictures, videos or social media trail.  In other words, unless you screwed up big, there was rarely hard evidence of typical adolescent excursions.    

Thanks to Steve Jobs and the proliferation of handheld, 24/7 everything devices, we are now under constant surveillance.  Add a little Mark Zuckerberg with various other social media offerings and suddenly a whimsical thought, frustrated expression or momentarily immature declaration is on the record - forever.  The content of yesterday’s conversations – because they were spoken face-to-face or over the phone – could be debated; today’s typed words and recorded acts cannot.

The NFL’s pre-draft navigation of this new social dynamic has been fascinating.  Not long ago NFL executives focused only on a prospect’s football measurables.  “Character research” was little more than a token interview and a few reference checks (parents, coaches, etc.).  And if there was a blip on the resume, teams could overlook it without concern of a viral media storm. 

That era of innocence is gone.

NFL executives adapted to present day realities, where their prized draftee can suddenly be caught in compromising YouTube videos or undermined by unbecoming Facebook posts from years before, by cranking up the vetting process and becoming obsessively risk averse.  It was an understandable response – why gamble your career on a “troubled’ kid when everyone knew, courtesy of modern media, that you knew prior to the draft that he was potentially the next Todd Marinovich or Ryan Leaf? 

But if the recently concluded NFL Draft is any indication, the winds of change just blew through NFL boardrooms.  Leonardtown native and Cleveland Browns GM John Dorsey picked crotch-grabbing, drunken-police-dodging QB Baker Mayfield with the number one overall pick.  The Buffalo Bills selected Josh Allen seventh overall, despite the discovery of racially insensitive tweets from high school.  And the Arizona Cardinal used the tenth pick on Josh Rosen, a prickly cat who seems more Jay Cutler than Peyton Manning. 

I get it.  No endeavor in life is without risk and ultimate success often requires a few well-played wildcards.  But I haven’t seen NFL teams so willing to accept risk this high in the draft and at the franchise pivot position of quarterback in a long time.  Is this the Trump Effect?  Has the POTUS set a new normal for behavioral transgressions?  Is what’s passable in politics now passable for the NFL? 

That’s a serious question – politics aside.  John F. Kennedy wouldn’t have gotten away with his personal blemishes had they been exposed in the early 1960’s.  Bill Clinton barely survived a relationship with an intern in the 1990s.  Now the president is having affairs with porn stars…and the predominant response to this one-time atrocity is an unremarkable “meh”.

This isn’t necessarily a moral commentary on society, but it does indicate that we’ve grown more accustomed to – and less shocked by – the truth.  You can’t hide from it anymore, so individually – as voters, NFL executives, parents and ordinary everyday citizens – we are left to parse known human imperfections, subject them to our own values or situations, and decide what is tolerable.  It’s an adaptation more than a shift or decay…but I still wouldn’t want my folks or prospective employers having full access to all the undeniable facts of my youth.  Who would?  Maybe that’s one perk of middle age…

Getting “The Call”

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

This article was rescued from the jaws of hypocrisy by the timely, and unlikely, convergence of two white knights.  It was set to be a screed about the decline of the Baltimore Ravens, a once-upon-a-time model NFL franchise. 

The Ravens, you see, just signed Robert Griffin III, after a year on ice, to be its backup quarterback.  Last summer, Baltimore considered Colin Kaepernick for the same position but decided, despite his unquestioned conviction and philanthropy, that his method of supporting social change was unworthy of the esteemed franchise.  So instead, they inked a lesser player who was, in all probability, unfaithful to his first wife and impregnated his second outside of wedlock.  It’s a befitting decision by a franchise that erected a statue of Ray Lewis outside its stadium and initially stood by Ray Rice after his grotesque domestic violence incident.  But please, ignore the hypocrisy and sleep well at night, Ravens nation. 

Enough of that.  I mercifully digress to a more positive storyline, one that started, once upon a time, when minor league baseball intersected with an NBA rookie.

John Feinstein, best-selling author and columnist for The Washington Post, published “Where Nobody Knows Your Name” in 2014, a book chronically life in baseball’s minor leagues.  I’m listening to it on tape now – four years after it was published.  Being cordially late to the party turned out to be perfect timing.   

Shortly after starting Feinstein’s book, Andre Ingram happened.  The connections defy explanation.  Feinstein, a D.C.-based writer and Potomac, Maryland resident pens a book about baseball’s minor leagues.  My latent listen times precisely with Ingram, a one-time basketball star at D.C.’s American University making his NBA debut with the Los Angeles Lakers at age 32 and after a decade in the NBA Development/G-League and one year playing in Australia (in other words, pro basketball’s minor leagues).  

Sometimes the writer chooses the topic; sometimes the topic chooses him. 

Ingram only played the last two regular season games with the Lakers, but he scored 19 in his debut.  That, and his incredible 46.1% career three-point shooting percentage, should at least earn him a serious look next year.  But in some ways the results don’t matter; what does is, very simply, he played in the NBA.  Or, as Crash Davis said in the classic minor league movie Bull Durham, he made it to “The Show”. 

That’s the prevailing message in all the stories in Feinstein’s book.  Highly touted prospects, undrafted free agents, former major leaguers rehabbing from injury or trying to rediscover the magic: every player’s specific story differs but they are all there, grinding, traveling America’s highways in obscurity solely to realize the dream of playing, either again or the first time, in the majors. 

Ingram’s sport is basketball, but after playing for three NBA G-league teams and Australia’s Perth Wildcats across a decade, he could have fit nicely in Feinstein’s baseball book.  How many times must Ingram have doubted himself, wondered what he was doing, questioned whether it was worth it or if he should just hang up the sneakers, put the dream to bed and get on with his life.  Feinstein’s real-life baseball characters project similar internal struggles.  To a man, their drive felt obsessive – if somebody somewhere offered a job, and therefore a chance to sustain their dream, they would take it, no matter where it was or how humble the gig. 

Ingram and Feinstein’s minor league baseball players are big dreamers, and no matter how loud the alarm of conventional wisdom or the real world blared, they kept dreaming.  Their journeys took tremendous sacrifice (from player and family), commitment to a goal, tolerance of professional risk, constructive acceptance of rejection and, underlying it all, a relentless belief that one day the “phone” would ring and it wouldn’t just be “a call”, it would be “the call”. 

That call finally came for Ingram.  For many in the lower rungs of professional basketball or baseball’s minor leagues, it hasn’t and it never will.  Regardless, I respect the heck out every single player who’s still out there waiting for the phone to ring and their dream to come true. 

UConn’t Go Undefeated

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Last year about this time, Morgan William, a guard on the Mississippi State women’s basketball team, swept into the national consciousness and took center stage in this column.  This year, and for identically amazing reasons, Arike Ogunbowale, a guard on the Notre Dame women’s basketball team and owner of the rainbow jump shot heard ‘round the world, gets the nod.
The unbelievable connection between these players is this: both made improbable, even divine shots to beat an essentially unchallenged women’s basketball team from the University of Connecticut in the national semifinal. 

That isn’t where the story or the connection between these two players ends.  In an incredible coincidence, Ogunbowale’s winning shot advanced Notre Dame to last Sunday’s championship game where the Irish met…yup…William and her Bulldogs teammates in a battle of iconic UConn slayers.  Ogunbowale hit another game-winning shot to get the better of William’s Bulldogs, but despite the championship showdown, both will remain synonymous with their semi-final daggers-to-the-heart of UConn, the most dominant/dynastic/filthy-good athletic institution of viral winning in all the land.

There is no team, in any sport of any significance, like the UConn women’s basketball team.  Check this roll call of accomplishments: 16 Final Fours and 10 national championships this millennium and a total…TOTAL…of 14 losses since 2008, including four undefeated seasons.  That is complete domination of a sport.  As if that resume wasn’t enough to quantify just what William and Mississippi State and Ogunbowale and Notre Dame accomplished in consecutive seasons, consider this reality-bending statistic: UConn had won four consecutive national championships entering the 2017 NCAA tournament and was undefeated before both the Mississippi State game last year and the Notre Dame game this year. 

And then they weren’t undefeated anymore.

On paper, the Bulldogs and Irish, despite being teams of consequence among all others lurking below UConn’s other-worldly level of play, had no legitimate shot of winning either game.  The outcome was known, the game a formality – until it wasn’t.

An admission: I don’t like UConn.  They are a cyborg, a grotesque machine that has hijacked the competitive balance of an entire sport.  Supporters will laud them as the new standard for women’s college basketball.  But over 15 years into the UConn-and-everyone-else run, their dominance, unlike the rising tide, has failed to raise all boats/the level of play of other basketball blue-bloods.
Or maybe it has, if not in totality then at least in moments - William and Ogunbowale have earned that acknowledgement.   

That teams like Mississippi State and Notre Dame and players like William and Ogunbowale are out there, trying, competing and ultimately defeating this overwhelming and intimidating Death Star-like force of basketball destruction is just, well, phenomenal.  In facing UConn, the easy play would be to give one’s best but to accept ultimate defeat – that’s what UConn’s dominance does to the human psyche.  To see two players and two teams overcome that, to be wholly unaccepting of that, to know that at least in one game, on one night that victory is possible – despite all statistical analysis to the contrary - is thoroughly inspirational. 

The ability to harness such self-confidence, such fortitude in face of external doubt and a truly daunting task is a gift from these two women and these two teams.  See, you don’t stare down the bully and beat such odds - you…don’t…beat…UConn – unless you legitimately believe you can.  There has to be some little light, an eternal internal flame that enables greatness in otherwise overwhelming circumstances. 

Call it heart.  Call it competitive will.  Call it whatever you want.  The classification is immaterial.  What matters is they did it – they stared down the giant villain.  They did for themselves, their teammates and their universities.  They also did it, knowingly or not, for anyone else who has ever been doubted, told not to bother, told they aren’t good enough or that a task can’t be accomplished.  When in those situations, remember the single loss on UConn’s resume the last two years, remember William and Ogunbowale, and know that an improbable, last second buzzer-beater over a so-called superior foe – that greatness - is within us all. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Finding Joy

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

It would be understandable if the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, spring’s March Madness, has lost its charm.  Viewing this year’s edition with a skeptical, irritated and even disappointed eye would be justified.  After all, the last few months have been rough: an FBI investigation implicated a who’s who list of schools – such ilk as Duke, North Carolina, Michigan State, Kentucky and Kansas - in a widespread recruiting scandal; Louisville coach Rick Pitino lost his job following a disgraceful trifecta of sins - infidelity, sex parties and a corrupt partnership with Adidas; and, finally, collateral damage from Pitino-mania forced Louisville to vacate its 2013 National Championship.

A brief aside…if you won a tournament pool because of Louisville’s championship, do those winnings have to be forfeited too?  Hypothetical.  Asking for a friend…

Pondering all of this produces a sad conclusion: Whatever claim NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball had left to pure, amateur athletics has now been severed.  The charade is over – big-time college basketball is an NBA affiliate.  The money to is too extensive, the bad actors too many, the pressure to win too high and the governing body – the NCAA itself – too disinterested (likely for financial reasons) to ensure compliance.    

And so, with this ominous storm spreading across the college basketball skyline, the sport cues up its crown jewel tournament and asks us to pretend nothing is wrong and that the brackets are filled with teams of the highest ethical standards.

Farewell to that fairy tale. 

The timing is perfect for an end of innocence.  In an age of interpreted reality, of leaders who deny all wrongdoing and responsibility, of intentionally divisive and fear-mongering propaganda, of impulsive international fights that strain time-tested fundamentals of the post-World War II world order and of reckless attacks on basic decency and the core tenants of our democracy, why not douse another bastion of goodness – the NCAA tournament – with gas and set it ablaze?  ‘Tis the era of cold, grumpy and humorless heads of state.  ‘Tis the era of deceit, disloyalty and impropriety.  So yes…let’s eviscerate one more thing that has annually generated genuine excitement.  Right.  Burn it to the ground and blame this group, that gender and those people.  Besides who has time for fun and togetherness?  Who has time for silly brackets and playful banter?  Who has…and who needs…joy? 

Rhetorical questions, obviously.  Everyone does, now and always, and in healthy supply.  The preciousness of joy is why the thin, fictional veneer of wholesomeness that college basketball once operated under is so frustrating.  This is why those who loved the sport are gnashing teeth and shaking fists at the perpetrators and the entire machine of snake oil salesmen.  This is why the temptation is to not watch and never embrace the game in the same way again.

But then the tournament happens.     

Whatever the story is behind the participants, the schools they are attending or the shoes they are wearing, when the ball goes up there is still something magical about March Madness.  Yes there are self-serving people – boosters, coaches, administrators and corporations – who are doing the game harm.  But like virtually every aspect of life, they are the loud minority; the majority of kids, coaches and schools are doing it the right way.  And frankly, considering the miniscule benefit elite players realize from the college experience when compared to the financial windfall for coaches, schools and networks, the time for revisiting and rewriting the definition of “doing it the right way” is long overdue. 

These are complicated times indeed.  Big changes are coming.  Yesterday’s business of college basketball won’t be tomorrow’s.  As the elephants dance, let not the grass suffer, for the games and tournaments will continue.  There will be amazing, logic-defying and bracket-busting feats – like Buffalo over Arizona, Loyola-Chicago reaching the Sweet-16 and 16-seed UMBC making history by beating top-seed Virginia.  Those are this year’s storylines; new ones will be written every year, each one injected with youthful exuberance.  No matter the atmosphere off the court, joy will be consistently created on it; that joy is, and will remain, available to anyone whose heart hasn’t been completely hardened by the storm.

Ball-ing Again

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Bryce Harper has an ingrown toenail.  The Nationals strolled camels – literally – into spring training to “get over the hump” in the playoffs.  Seahawks QB Russell Wilson is playing baseball with the New York Yankees.  The NFL rumor mill is white hot.  Kirk Cousins is going everywhere.  Increasingly outrageous mock drafts are published in a reality-is-overrated click-bait competition.  The NFL Combine is underway…which means prospects are running around in often unflattering attire while fans obsess over cone drills, bench presses and 40-yard dash times. 

Toenails.  Camels.  Rumors.  Sports swingers.  BMI-defying men running around in spandex.  Is this sports or some disguised version of TMZ or a cheap reality show?  The theater of the absurd is upon us.  That the circus is flirting with actual entertainment is either a compliment to the charade or sad commentary on my desperate need for a legitimate sports fix.

But not all is sports-based foolishness.  There’s some serious business too.  The foundation of college basketball is fracturing under the pressure of widespread scandal.  But that athletes were likely paid by bad actors and that numerous blue-blood programs are implicated feels more like confirmation of long-held suspicions than a revelation.  And then there’s this horrible news: former Buffalo Bills QB Jim Kelly’s jaw cancer has returned – an absolute gut punch.  Hard to find words or to understand this latest challenge, given what Kelly and his family have already endured.  Needless to say…#KellyStrong.

I’m gathering myself here.  The uncharacteristic melancholy of recent “Views” resulted in friends encouraging more positive takes.  So here it goes.  I’m imagining happy times in the bleachers.  My team is winning.  My pal just returned from the concession stand with nachos drenched in that irresistible and artery-clogging “cheese” sauce.  The dude behind me bought two beers and, in a pay-it-forward moment, handed me one.  Angels walk among us.  The only thing better than beer is free beer. 

Now I’m feeling good.  If positive is what you want, positive is what you’ll get.  Let’s ride…

A basketball player returned to the court recently.  He had been out for a couple weeks nursing a knee injury.  His absence was barely noticed and news of his return was mostly crowded out by those aforementioned “stories.”

The lack of buzz was unprecedented and refreshing.  The player deserved it, because the player is Lonzo Ball. 

Lonzo’s father, LaVar Ball, is an over-the-top, Big Baller branded, 24/7 reality show.  Whatever insecurities and inadequacies LaVar retains from his own life (and they appear prodigious) he has sworn to overcome through his three talented sons.  And so, cursed as the oldest, Lonzo’s journey from hyped high school prodigy, to the freshman face of UCLA basketball, to rookie point guard of the Los Angeles Lakers has been disturbingly burdened by LaVar’s endless meddling and outrageous expectations.

But Lonzo’s quiet/LaVar-less return to the court may indicate a respite.  After yanking Lonzo’s younger brothers LiAngelo and LaMelo out of college and high school, respectively, LaVar’s been detained in Lithuania while he micromanages his two youngest sons’ transition to European professional basketball.  Now that’s doing big brother a serious solid. 

Potential guilty conscience aside, a distracted LaVar will hopefully offer Lonzo, a quiet, polar-opposite personality from his father, a chance to just play basketball.  And what a talent he appears to be.  The NBA’s narrative is dominated by high-flying dunks and prolific scorers; Lonzo is neither.  He is instead a Jason Kidd clone - a selfless, pass first/score-only-when-necessary, masterful ball distributer.  Lonzo has uncanny court vision and a feel for timing and space.  He is one of those rare intergalactic talents beamed to Earth every so often to remind us of how beautiful the game of basketball can be when unrefined isolation is replaced with a passing maestro and ball movement. 

That Lonzo might finally be escaping his father’s obnoxious shadow is certainly cause for optimism, for there’s a much more authentic and substantive spokesman dying to speak on the young man’s behalf: his game. 

So hip hip hooray, a cheese-soaked nacho and a swig of free beer to Lonzo…and any moment when a young talent comes of age and outraces the expectations of others.