Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Year of the Tiger

One of my fondest memories of Christmas, especially as I got older and began seriously following sports (high school years) and returned home during college and later from the "Real World (no, I'm not a reality TV star; I'm talking about my $1,000 a month internship in the Princeton U. athletic department), was reading a Washington Post column written by -- ironically enough -- a bald Jewish guy.

Love him or hate him -- well, I've never loved him, but have enjoyed his work, and definitely at times have hated him -- Tony Kornheiser is a brilliant, witty writer with an uncanny ability to make you think, laugh, cry and throw a chair across the room all in a few sentences. While I wouldn't describe him as one of the media's foremost sports experts, as a columnist he is sorely missed.

Kornheiser used to write a year-in-review column about this time every holiday season. In typical Kornheiser style it usually was witty, touching -- even abstract -- and dripping with sarcasm. He normally chose a theme for the year and started off with a few graphs about the events of the preceding 360 or so days and then closed with a list of names of athletes, celebrities and other newsworthy folks grouped in twos, threes or fours, related to each other by some unamed connection (or simply for comic relief). The opening caused you to pause and reflect, while the list made you think and try to connect the dots. Sometimes they were easy to figure out, like Danny, Vinny and Zorn might be this year. But sometimes you couldn't figure out the connection and it would drive you crazy until at some random moment it hit you, inevetably causing you to blurt it out proudly to no one in particular or to a stunned and confused group of friends or relatives during Christmas dinner.

I searched long and hard for one of these columns and thanks to some advice from @geosteph on Twitter finally tracked one down in the Washington Post online archvies (cost me $3.95; Tony, do you get royalties?). Korneheiser's column dated Dec. 25, 1990, was titled, coincidentally, The Year of the Big Fall. The more things change, the more they stay the same I guess. I'm not sure if anyone else misses this yearly piece, but I'm hoping that maybe some of you might. So, this year, I'm attempting to fill the void -- and maybe start a new holiday vision -- with my blog entitled The Year of the Tiger. Consider it a tribute to Kornheiser's work instead of outright creative thievery, if you would.

In reality, according to the Chinese calendar, 2009 is the Year of the Ox. And, when you think about it, several of the past 10 or so years could have been dubbed The Year of the Tiger in sports -- albeit for different reasons. In fact, the way Tiger Woods played at times this year, at one point a case could have been made that even without the public revelations about his self-proclaimed "transgressions," 2009 might have turned out to be the Year of the Tiger in a positive light. However, first the Chosen One proved to be human during a couple of on-course physical and emotional meltdowns and then, like any good Greek tragic hero (maybe that's where the physique came from, not the "Juice," as some recently have hinted) -- his hubris away from the links led to a, pardon the pun, climax involving a mysterious accident and a smoking golf club. That was followed by a footrace to the "ATM" featuring all of the skeletons in Tiger's closet.

I lost count when Tiger's face and/or named graced the back page of the New York Post an unprecedented 12 consecutive days, I believe outlasting the attacks on 9/11. And why the public outcry? Because Tiger and his marketing team had made us believe that the greatest golfer of all-time also was one of the greatest guys of all-time? Or did they? Or was it just that we wanted so badly to believe that at least one world-class athlete also was a world-class person that we convinced ourselves, to paraphrase Denny Green, that he was who we thought he was?

Maybe it was a combination of the two, but the reality is that until we follow the advice of Sir Charles Barkley (who has become a folk hero in this country because of his absolute fallibility and willingness to point that out and poke fun at it), and stop anointing professional athletes as role models, we are going to continue to get kicked in the same area that Elin wanted to stick Tiger's 8-iron. It's time to come to the realization that professional athletes are great at what they do and provide us hours of enjoyment and entertainment on the field, court, rink or wherever they ply their trade. They also happen to be just like you and me -- prone to making mistakes, stupid decisions, bad judgements and getting into altercations with others. This was okay in the days of the Babe and the Mick, so maybe to avoid another Year of the Tiger we should learn to look at things with more of an old-fashioned perspective going forward. Whatever...what's the over/under for number of women who ultimately will step forward? Let's set it at 28-1/2.

So, as Tiger continues to dominate the headlines like an April Sunday at Augusta, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year (or here's to a better 2010) to:

Steve Hauschka, John Carney and Sean Suisham;
Billy Cundiff and Graham Gano;
Matt Stover and Sean Suisham;
Kurt Warner and Larry Fitzgerald;
Ben Roethlisberger, James Harrison and Santonio Holmes;
Danny, Zorn and Vinny; Moe, Larry and Curley;
Jason Campbell, Clinton Portis and Hunter Smith;
Todd Collins, Colt Brennan and Chase Daniel;
Drew Brees, Mark Brunell and Chase Daniel;
Mark Ingram Jr., Mark Ingram Sr. and Tim Tebow;
A-Rod, Andy, Geroge "The Boss" and George Costanza;
Redskins and Orioles fans;
Gary and Greivas;
Fridge and James Franklin;
Stephon Heyer and Edwin Williams;
Brude Boudreau, Dan Bielsma and John Stevens;
Ovie, Syd the Kid and Geno;
Jose Theodore and Olaf Kolzig;
Santana Moss and Chris Cooley;
Andre Carter and Brian Orakpo;
Kobe, Shaq and Lebron - one name says it all;
L.T., Andre Agisi and Ron Artest;
Roger Federer and Andy Roddick;
Mike Shanahan and Bruce Allen;
John Gruden and Tony Kornheiser;
Art Monk, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders - those were the days;
Devin Thomas, Fred Davis and Quinton Ganther;
Mariano, Duane, Peyton and Pavel -- class personified;
Wade and Jerry;
The Hershey Caps - Neuvirth, Laing, Giroux, Aucoin, Wilson, Carlson, Gordon, Kane, Perreault, Alzner;
Varly and Lord Stanley;
Comcast, Direc TV and Vs.;
Michigan and Notre Dame;
Manny, Joe Torre and Phil Jackson;
Manny and Floyd;
Manny, Moe and Jack;
Manny happy returns;
Michael Jordan and Kanye West;
West Coast offense, NFC West and AFC West;
Isaiah Thomas and Steve Phillips;
David Beckham and Landon Donovan - to be reuninted on opposite sides in S. Africa?
The Steelers and Penguins;
Bill Ripken and the New Jersey Nets;
Rex Ryan and Bill Belichick;
Ricky Williams, Carson Palmer and Cedric Benson;
Chad Johnson and Chad Ohchocino - together again;
Mike Vick, Donovan McNabb, Desean Jackson;
Baseball, softball and Chicago;
Weiss, and Mangenious;
Josh McDaniel and Jay Cutler;
T.O., Roy Williams and Miles Austin;
UConn women's hoops, the Colts, Texas and Alabama football;
Brett Favre, Brad Childress and LeRoy Butler;
Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu;
London Fletcher and Miami;
Brian Kelly; Nick Saban and John Calipari;
Abert Haynesworth, Randy Moss and Adalius Thomas;
Haynesworth (it takes a really great year to make the list twice, so congrats to the $100 million man, team-MPV-turned-scapegoat Suisham and preseason Skins MVP Daniel), Jeremiah Trotter, Deion Sanders, Bruce Smith, Brandon Lloyd and Adam Archuleta;
Abe and George - R.I.P. D.C. Sports Icons; same to you, Steve McNair and Chris Henry.

Enjoy the holiday season and get ready for another roller-coaster year in sports in 2010. We wouldn't have it any other way, would we?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Ovechkin Owes it to Hockey to be Himself

Okay, so I grew up in the D.C. area and have been a Capitals fan since Day 1. I’m stating that bias up front.

But, as someone who also has played and coached hockey since I was five years old, I want to state this fact, which I don’t even consider open for argument: If you had to choose one player in the world to start a professional hockey franchise with, it would be Ovechkin. I say that with all due respect to Crosby, Malkin, Chara, Tavares and the rest. There is no one who plays with the combination of speed, skill, desire and physicality that he brings to the ice. In fact, he may stand alone in NHL annals when it comes to possessing that complete package (That is open for debate!).

In recent days Ovechkin has alternately been painted by many fans and media personnel as a bad guy, a dirty player, reckless and/or careless. I’m going to fall back on the Tiger Woods argument here: Do you know any 24-year-olds who are a bit reckless and careless? Who think that maybe they are invincible? Who drive their cars too fast or don’t wear their seat belts or have a few too many beers before driving? How did you behave at age 24? How do you behave now?

I have the good fortune of seeing Ovechkin on an almost daily basis and observing how hard he practices, how he is appreciated by his teammates, how much he cares about being the best, how he gives his best effort every single night, how excited he gets when other players score and how much he hates to lose. I also get the insider’s point of view at times since one of my former bosses, a former intern of mine and a friend whose son I coach in baseball and hockey all work for the Caps.

While I know that many of you in Philly, Pittsburgh, New York, Buffalo and now Carolina won’t agree with me, Ovechkin is not a dirty player and he’s certainly not a bad guy. He happens to play the game at a speed that, to be frank, is not normal by even NHL standards. He’s all-out, all the time, and at 225-plus lbs., when you are moving that fast, your ability to stop or turn on a dime and to swerve at the last second to avoid a potentially damaging hit is extremely difficult.

All year long we’ve heard about how Tom Brady is being over-protected and receiving the royal treatment. Football fans have openly wondered how a large, athletic person moving at full speed and ready to engage another player can stop his momentum on the spot and not follow through on a hit. Ovechkin, while not 250 or 350 lbs., is still quite a load. And he’s on skates. On top of that – and I’m just guessing here – I think he’s moving a little faster than Albert Haynesworth. Does anyone really think that Ovechkin would want to subject his knee to the type of impact and trauma it was exposed to in his most recent hit on Carolina’s Tim Gleason? C’mon man!

And for those who are claiming that this is his third incident since last season’s playoffs, let’s be real. I happen to be a Sergei Gonchar fan from his days with the Caps, but he has been known to run from contact and turn the puck over when pressured. Penguins fans should remember first-hand how he gave their team the puck and a playoff series win against Washington with an overtime turnover years ago. Gonchar caused that injury by trying to basically run and hide from Ovechkin, who apparently tortured him in Russia during the lockout year. Similarly, Gleason saw the freight train coming and made a quick, athletic move at the last second. Don’t get me wrong, I would have done the same (not as athletically, of course), so it’s not Gleason’s fault. But I’m just not convinced that Ovechkin, at that moment, could have done much to avoid the contact. And as for his recent boarding major, there are three to five hits a game that go uncalled and are worse than that one.

Don’t get me wrong, the officials had no choice but to penalize Ovechkin for the Gleason hit, and by rule, the league really had no choice but to suspend him. I’m not debating that, but he’s simply not a dirty player. He doesn’t use his stick to restrain people or carve guys up. He doesn’t fight. He’s never jumped a defenseless, unsuspecting opponent or sucker-punched a player engaged with another opponent like Sydney Crosby has. And I definitely don’t consider Crosby a dirty player.

Hockey is a contact sport. Fans and sports reporters everywhere complain on a regular basis about professional athletes. They get paid too much and don’t care. They don’t work hard every night. They don’t talk to the media. They have no personality. They don’t promote the game. They don’t love to play.

Wake up everyone! We have found a guy who does all of that on a daily basis. Ovechkin gives 100 percent all the time, loves to play, celebrates for his teammates as much or more than for himself, wants to win badly, strives to the be best in the game, pokes fun at himself in commercials and in the media and promotes the sport.

He drove a Zamboni down Sixth Avenue in Manhattan and cruised D.C. on a Segway with several teammates for the love of God. Maybe he’s a 24-year-old who thinks he’s invincible. If that’s his greatest flaw, then perhaps we are all guilty – or have been – at some level. No matter how you slice it, his style of play and personality are good for the game and good for professional sports. We need more Alex Ovechkins, not fewer.