Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dirk Overcomes All Odds

Michael Jordan remains in the eyes of many the greatest basketball player that ever lived because of his ability to defy gravity all while time after time manipulating games with his pure basketball skill. Sports are an unknown. They do not follow the rules of mathematics or basic science, but rather chaos theory. We can not predict the outcome of a game with absolute certainty because we do not know. With Jordan we knew. We knew he would take the game over and we knew he would win. The reason being was his drive.

Michael Jordan's drive was not nearly as flashy as his free throw lines dunks, or his patented fadeaways. For much of his career Jordan's drive was on the back burner to his physical abilities. One of the more remarkable things about him as a player is when his abilities did start to erode and he could no longer glide, Jordan and the Bulls were still winning. This was most prevalent during the Chicago Bulls' last championship run. In the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals the Chicago Bulls were facing a younger, bigger Indiana Pacers team. Despite Game 7 being in Chicago, some people did think this was the end of the Jordan era.

Chicago won the game in a hard fought defensive slugfest 88-83, but more importantly was the fact that Chicago outrebounded Indiana by a staggering 16 rebounds. Quantifying something as vague as drive is difficult to say the least, but the number 16 gave us a clearer picture on just how much this game meant to Jordan and the Bulls. And how they were not going to fall.

I bring up Jordan and his drive because in some ways Dirk Nowitzki's performance during these 2011 NBA Playoffs (and especially the 2011 NBA Finals) was very similar to Jordan and his Bulls during that 1998 NBA Playoff season. Countless times this postseason Dallas was faced with a dire situation in which a loss seemed imminent and countless times Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks gathered themselves, rallied and won.

How ironic is it that a player like Dirk Nowitzki, who has remain driven to bring Dallas a championship since 1998, beat LeBron James of the Miami Heat, a player who deserted Cleveland after he, himself, could not bring the city a championship?

I have always talked about how the one thing separating a champion from the rest of the pack is the X factor. There is something inside of a handful of players that when the odds are stacked against them, they can still will their team to victory. Bird did it. Jordan did it. Kobe does it and now Dirk does it. Since 1995 I have watched every NBA Finals. This year marks the first time where I have ever witnessed a team with little or no momentum, switch and turn the tide. In the first four games it is safe to say that Miami was outplaying Dallas the majority of the time, but on two separate occasions Dallas still prevailed. Dallas was hanging on to life by a thread. In Game 2 trailing by 15 with a little over six minutes remaining and a 2-0 deficit staring them in the face, Dallas rallied. In Game 4 with Dirk battling a sinus infection, Dallas rallied from nine down in the fourth quarter.

Great players seize that opportunity when it's prime for the taking. They step up when the stakes are the highest. They can take something like a game of basketball where so many variables are occurring on and off the court and manipulate and control the outcome. They can win. It did not matter that from a talent stand point Miami had more star players. Dallas felt they could win having a better team. It did not matter that outside of Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas's only other real reliable scorer was 6th man Jason Terry, who at the time was struggling. All of that was irrelevant because for Nowitzki he HAD to win this series. Losing another NBA Finals series was too painful. 2006 was too painful. This series was not everything to No. 41, it was the only thing. He HAD to overcome the sinus infection, the struggling teammates, the juggernaut opponent because he HAD to be a champion.

The Dallas Mavericks run to an NBA Championship proved so fulfilling on so many fronts because it boldly underlined why a team is more important than a three guys, but it also showcased in the purest form one individual's over-the-top drive and dedication to do whatever it took to stand on top of the mountain with one index raised in great pride.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Why We Should All Be Rooting for the Dallas Mavericks

Sports are adored by fans because of those magical moments, those moments that grab your attention and freeze time. Movies best emulate this quality. All our childhood movies from Mighty Ducks to Hoosiers display that "Against All Odds" aspect we like about sports.

The 2011 Dallas Mavericks capture everything that captivates us towards sports. And on the contrary the Miami Heat, in my great humble opinion, highlight everything we do not like about sports. On one hand you have a Dallas team that has battled the "too soft" label for about a decade. To top it off they are lead by one of the most highly criticized players in the sports. Period. Dirk Nowitzki's past playoff shortcomings seem to suffocate any accomplishments that he has ever had in his career. Now rightfully so Nowitzki has earned some criticism, but overall I do feel the guy gets a worse bad rap than he deserves.

The 2011 NBA Finals is a prime opportunity for Nowitzki to prove to all doubters the legitimacy of his career and what better way to "slay the dragon" than defeat the very franchise that shattered his dream five years ago.

With a little over six minutes remaining in Game 3 of the 2006 NBA Finals the Dallas Mavericks held a 13 point lead. They were on the verge of going up 3-0; of being a mere one game away from a championship. But they slipped and Dwyane Wade rose up. Dallas lost Game 3. Then Game 4. And Game 5 and finally Game 6. In a week Dallas went up from 2-0, to losing 4-2. Despite the controversy that does exist when looking at the 2006 NBA Finals Dallas did choke and more importantly Nowitzki choked. Since the meltdown of 2006 Dallas and Nowitzki have carried that scar.

Rarely does a franchise and a player like Dirk Nowitzki get a second chance like the Mavericks have. That window of opportunity that opens and closes within a sports minute was thought to have been bolted shut for the Dallas Mavericks. But this postseason changed that. Dallas got by the first round and then bounced the two-defending champion Los Angeles Lakers in six games. And in a single four game sweep people started to believe in Dallas.

One of the things we admire about people in general is hard work. When someone continuously and frivolously works for something and finally gets what they desire, whether it be a co-worker or some athlete on television, it is human nature to feel a sense of happiness for them. Dirk Nowitzki fits this mold as well as 18 year veteran Jason Kidd.

In the Miami Heat you lose that feeling.

By all means I realize LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh work tirelessly at their craft to one day be champions, but for the Heat that lust that is so apparent in the Mavericks is, well, nonexistent. The best example of this is LeBron James. James had every right to leave Cleveland. He had every right to head elsewhere. The Cavs failed to develop enough talent around him among other things. Where LeBron James lost his appeal and solace from the fellow basketball fan is when he decided to air The Decision and when he decided to join the Miami Heat. In The Decision, for the first time I can recall, the public had an aggressive backlash (but warranted) response to a spoiled athlete who despite all the physical talents he possessed in the world, still did not have the brain capacity to understand the simple logic that it's not okay to humiliate the city you grew up with. Add in the fact that LeBron joined a team that already was in supply of someone who played his position (and was his rival) and you get the general outline as to why people like myself do not see the same appeal with LeBron winning a title as they do with Nowitzki.

In short, LeBron, Wade and Bosh all seem to have taken a "shortcut" in their pursuit of a title.

Through LeBron's decision, to Carmelo Anthony's push for New York, heck even through Kobe Bryant's push for a trade in the summer of 2007, Dirk Nowitzki has remained in Dallas loyal to his objective of winning a title as a Maverick. One of the best things about witnessing a player win a championship is seeing that player go from such a low, to such a high.

The Dallas Mavericks success this postseason has been the result of great team defense, an unstoppable Dirk Nowitzki and strong bench play. Despite the significance of these three factors in Dallas's first three rounds, they alone will not be enough to defeat the three-headed monster simply known as LeBrondwyanechrisosaurus. For Dallas to have a shot against Miami, Coach Rick Carlisle must devise a game plan that stops one Miami Heat player and not three. With a team as talented as Miami, Dallas is wasting it's energy, or better yet shooting for the impossible, if they plan on stopping LeBron, Wade and Bosh. The best option for Dallas is to choose one player they will put more focus on stopping.

My thoughts: Run a defensive game plan that constantly has Dwyane Wade or LeBron James being doubled. Create a situation where Miami will only win if Bosh is putting up 25 and LeBron or Wade is putting up 35 each night. Use Miami's weak bench to your advantage.

Easier said then done.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Nowitzki Eyes Chance at Fairy Tale Ending

Sports are an absolute. Unlike politics, sports have a definite winner and loser. It's the one universal thing about sports that attracts fans. We, the fans, enjoy knowing that at the end of any sporting event there will be one team that's victorious, while another will soak in defeat. We enjoy knowing that with all the stats and variables taking place on the field of play, the only thing that matters is the final score.

The same can be said when looking back at a player's career. Whether right or wrong, we enjoy labeling a player "good" or "great" by whether or not he won a championship. Why is that? Why does a title, a championship, hold so much merit into how a player is viewed for the rest of time?

Simply put, a metal trophy signifies the purest example of someone being the best, of living up to their expectations.

As kids when we imagined ourselves playing in the NFL or NBA, we do not imagine scoring the winning touchdown in the NFC Championship Game or hitting the game winning three pointer in the Eastern Conference Finals. No, we imagined winning the Super Bowl or the NBA Finals.

We imagined being number one.

I mention all of this because of one current player still fighting in the NBA playoffs: Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki is a 10x NBA All-Star, a 4x All-NBA First Team member, the 2007 NBA MVP winner and someone who has averaged over 23 points and 8 rebounds for a career. With his 7'0" frame and his patented fadeaway he is as unique of a player as we have ever seen. His style of play has made him unstoppable and when he does hang it up he will probably be in the Top 15 of NBA Career Scoring Leaders.

In short, Nowitzki's career has been expectional. But through it all the one glaring omission is that Nowitzki has never won a title. And if Nowitzki never wins a title the only thing that will remain on his record is the note, "Can't Win the Big One."

This is what I like so much about the playoffs in any sport. I enjoy watching a cherished veteran, a future Hall-of-Famer put up absolutely everything in hopes of getting the one thing missing from his trophy case.

Since the debacle now known as the 2006 NBA Finals, Dallas has gagged in almost every way imaginable way. In 2007 they got bounced in six games in the first round to the 8th seeded Golden State Warriors. In 2008 they got knocked out again in the first round by the New Orleans Hornets and in 2009 Dallas lost in the first round to the San Antonio Spurs.

I like the Oklahoma City Thunder and what they have going on with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. I like the Chicago Bulls and Derek Rose, but neither of those teams have the intrigue or appeal that the Dallas Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki bring to the table.

We see it all the time in sports, but rarely does it happen where the veteran going for his last shot at a championship grabs that elusive ring. We saw guys like Charles Barkley fight valiantly to get another shot in the finals, but fall short in the postseason. We have seen the likes of players like Karl Malone lose three NBA Finals series (1997, 1998, 2001) with 1997 and 1998 ending in the most dramatic fashion.

You know what was one of the bigger things I enjoyed about the Saints winning the 2009 Super Bowl? I enjoyed seeing a 12 year veteran like Darren Sharper, who contemplated retirement, who was let go by the Minnesota Vikings because his playing days were long gone, who was a part of the Green Packers team that lost Super Bowl XXXII, stand up and fight through it all and win a championship. Those moments sell me sports. Those moments bring me back. The glitz and glamour are nice, but seeing that guy who has worked tirelessly his entire career finally get that moment where he can put one index finger in the air is what resonates the most.

On April 23rd the Dallas Mavericks coughed up an 18 point 4th quarter lead against the Portland Trailblazers. With the win the Blazers tied the series at 2-2. We all thought the Dallas Mavericks were on course for another postseason collapse. Fast forward 15 days to May 8th and the Dallas Mavericks were putting the finishing touches on the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers with a 122-86 thrashing.

Nowitzki's situation remains unique because that window we all thought was closed for his moment of glory still seems to be ajar. Here's a guy who has been with the Dallas Mavericks through thick and thin. How fitting would it be for Nowitzki, having been victimized countless times for his team's failures, to overcome it all and take home the title? Better yet how fitting would it be for Dirk Nowitzki, loyal Maverick and all, to take down the evil Miami Heat empire that took away his dream five years ago?

It would be nothing short of a fairy tale.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Uber-Competitive Uncle Ruins Another Family Reunion

Every family has one. He is either your father, brother, uncle or distant relative, but we all have that uber-competitive family member who plays every sporting activity like his life depends on it.

Uncle Ted Dandridge of Erie, Pennsylvania is no different.

Last week the Dandridge family had their annual family reunion at the nearby state park. The afternoon consisted of burnt hot dogs, lousy potato salad, volleyball and the traditional basketball game. Like so many years in the past Ted played the meaningless game like it was the Game 7 of the NBA Finals.

"Did you see me out there?" Ted proclaimed. "No one can stop the February 1986 Pennsylvania High School Player of the Week! I still got it baby!"

Ted put up a "family reunion record" 57 points in the game, including 0 assists, 24 rebounds and 12 blocked shots of 8-year-old nephew Timothy Dandridge.

"Doesn't matter if you are 35 or 8 the Ted-O-Nator is going to bring it 100 percent all day," Dandridge explained. "The joke is on the other team! They lost again! Ha! What a bunch of losers!"

Some of the highlights of the game included Ted sporting his high school uniform with a head band, 12-year-old Katie Dandridge getting elbowed in the face before Ted hit a fade away jumper, Ted throwing the ball at older brother Joel Dandridge's face during an inbounds play and Ted dropping the F word numerous times when fellow teammates did not understand the play he was calling.

"Did you see that jumper?! All day every, every day. It's what I do," Dandridge said. "During Thanksgiving this year Katie made a snide comment about my apple pie. That will teach her a lesson next time she thinks about ragging on the Ted-O-Nator!"

Despite putting up 57 points and leading his team to another victory, not all was well for the winning team.

"For the past 5 years Ted has gotten progressively worse at this reunion," teammate and cousin Rick Gathers said. "We all talk about not inviting him to the reunion, but then we start thinking that maybe his 41-year-old brain now understands that maybe it's not the best idea to block every shot of your youngest nephew. Or maybe it's not the best idea to drop kick the ball 30 feet in the air simply because you believe you got hacked by a 12 year old girl while you were going for a layup. We all hope this, but it never gets better."

The game ultimately ended when Ted jumped off Joel's back and dunked the ball, thus breaking the rim after hanging for two minutes. Following three minutes of trash talking by Ted to the opposing team, everyone decided it was best to just go eat the lousy potato salad and try to make the best out of yet another pathetic family reunion.

"Am I happy the Ted-O-Nator dropped 57 points and pulled down 24 monster rebounds? You bet," Ted explained. "But the Ted-O-Nator is never satisfied. If this team wants to be the best everyone has to play their best. No more dropped passes like Rick and his slow son did today. I did not beat St. Joseph High School in 1986 with a fade away jumper with two seconds left just to watch my family members dog it in a family reunion bloodbath 25 years later. This is war."

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

NFL Lockout Talks Cause Grown Man to Go Insane

James Donaldson was like any other resident of Topeka, Kansas.

“He was a good husband, a good friend and an even better host,” local neighbor John Barkowski said.

At 54 years old Donaldson was a happy man who could light up a room with his winning smile, but with the recent ongoing saga dealing with the ever-boring NFL labor talks, for all intensive purposes, multiple reports say Donaldson simply went insane.

Donaldson has been a season ticket holder of the Kansas City Chiefs for 22 years, but as far as the game of football he has been a fan for life.

“James was a true fan of the Chiefs, but more so he was a fan of football,” his wife Amy Donaldson explained. “Honestly, he loved seeing a grown man get hit so hard that he would suffer for the rest of his life. That is James for you.”

When news of a possible NFL lockout came up Donaldson remained optimistic things could be resolved.

“He knew it was coming, but knowing James he really thought things would get resolved, that the season would come just like any other season. I just don’t think he ever thought the constant boring coverage of an NFL lockout would cause him to lose his mind,” Barkowski explained.

Once Super Bowl XLV concluded every sports station spent countless hours evaluating the possible NFL lockout from what needed to happen to prevent it, what the garbage owners wanted, what the players wanted and what in the living hell a “collective bargaining agreement” actually was. Through it all, Amy says, Donaldson watched every minute of it.

“I think he was just trying to be a good fan,” Amy Donaldson said. “I think he just wanted to show everyone that he could and would understand what exactly was going on. Poor guy just never realized that if you try to acquire too much worthless information in a small amount of time you lose your mind. You go insane.”

Today is March 9, 2011. The sun comes up in the morning and dries the dew on the grass. Laying in a lawn chair in the grazing meadows at the Topeka Institute for the Insane is a man wearing jorts, no shirt, a red bandana and eating a bag of Cheetos. Foam slowly drips from his lips as he yells at the sky some incoherent babble.

This is James Donaldson. I try talking to James. I ask him a question about the NFL. He turns towards me, but is unable to make eye contact. His eyes wander. The only thing he mutters, or I can make out is something about “decertification.”

“What is decertification Roger,” Donaldson yelled. “What is it Roger?!”

This is who James Donaldson has become: lost, incoherent and of course insane. This was a man who only liked football, a man like any other man who just wanted to know what was going on with the possible NFL lockout. Unfortunately for a guy like Donaldson that task turned out to be too burdensome.

Some day when the Chiefs do play again their fans will rejoice from Arrowhead Stadium, but in one section of the stadium there will be an empty seat.

The seat of James Donaldson: a normal guy who went mad because of the constant news coverage of the dull, dreary and tiresome details surrounding the possible NFL lockout.

Only time will tell if James Donaldson is the only victim.