March 3, 2011

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March Madness Brings out the Underdog in All of Us

By: Stephen Arnold

The season spans five months, but the madness of the NCAA basketball tournament makes one month more significant than all the others combined: March. For four weeks each March, while the boys of summer begin spring training and professional golf moves from the west coast to Florida, college basketball sits squarely in the collective conscience of the American sports-viewing public. And the yearly edition of the NCAA basketball tournament continues to be “the greatest show on earth.”

This time of year, it’s hard not to think of Kentucky’s horse fences or the budding flowers lining Tobacco Road in North Carolina. These states are synonymous with college basketball, and their universities have thrilled us time and time again on the hardwood. But each year, the royal families of basketball get some competition for the hearts of America from one team: the “little guy.”

At every level, from the small college gymnasiums of Division III to the huge stadiums of the Final Four, college basketball decides its national champions on the court—not in the polls. When the tournament dust settles, there is no arguing the best college basketball team in America. (Are you listening, college football?)

March is the month of the little guy. Every few years, the tournament features a smaller school upsetting a few larger, heavily favored teams and capturing the imagination of fans and media alike. The 68-team tournament serves as the great equalizer, pitting large universities with national fan bases and huge operating budgets against smaller schools with tenacity and a cohesive style of play, reminding us of the style of basketball played in decades past.

Like an old-fashioned playground fistfight, the NCAA tournament is the perfect way to settle scores. When fist meets chin, a school’s size, fan base and national reputation mean very little. Each school sends its five best players to the floor. In a world where this statement is often made but rarely meant, size means nothing in the NCAA tournament (though it doesn’t hurt to have a talented 7-footer on your team).

A funny thing happens across living rooms and in arenas when an underdog challenges a favorite deep into the second half of a tournament game. Electricity builds as fans cheer for schools they don’t care about and players they don’t know, for one simple reason: Americans love an underdog.

Last season, tiny Butler University from the state of Indiana took basketball behemoth Duke to the brink of elimination in what would’ve been college basketball’s equivalent of the Hickory Huskers upsetting the South Bend Central Bears in “Hoosiers.” For 40 minutes, Butler’s group of relative unknowns stayed with the Coca-Cola of college basketball programs basket for basket. In the end, a half-court shot for the history books missed by less than an inch.

Underdog Butler's Mascot, Blue II

But the moment wasn’t lost on Butler, Duke, the media or the millions of fans watching at home with weary eyes and clenched fists. Prior to last season’s tournament, most fans couldn’t have named the town where Butler University is located. Several years ago, the same could be said for George Mason University and before that, it was Valparaiso University. And yet, each year fans stand with sweaty palms, hoarse voices and accelerated heartbeats—all hoping to see David slay Goliath.

As Americans, rooting for the underdog must be part of our DNA. As underdogs ourselves, we won our independence from a bigger, stronger rival and established the “a man can be anything he wants” credo. Americans have a soft spot for the overachieving “little guy.” We love him. We are him. Each March, we can’t get enough of him.

The underdog represents the best of America—in sports and beyond. As we look forward to all this month holds in store, somewhere out there an underdog is preparing to capture our hearts. Long live college basketball.

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February 24, 2011

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Simply the Best

By: Stephen Arnold

In an era heavy on flash, one player still brings substance to the court night after night: Kobe Bryant.

The best and most valuable player on the planet is consistent in his approach to the game, the leadership of his team and his relentless will to win. He produces from preseason to postseason and everywhere in between.

He doesn’t need a flashy nickname, and he doesn’t bother with elaborate handshakes, choreographed dances or premeditated powder tosses. Like the stars of yesteryear, all that matters to him is the scoreboard.

His stubborn pride and distaste for losing are the hallmarks of his ultra-competitive personality. He would never run away from the spotlight, the last shot or his team. He would never run off to join another star’s team.

Kobe Bryant believes in himself. He craves pressure, revels in adoration and accepts blame. Money doesn’t drive him. Endorsements don’t own him. Off-court issues haven’t stopped him. He plays to win in every sense of the word, from the opening tipoff to the final buzzer without making faces or whining for calls.

Sure, there are stars that score more points, make more assists and pull down more rebounds. But Bryant is a complete player and has five NBA titles to prove it. In an era where lots of superstars love to win; Kobe Bryant hates to lose. The difference is subtle but enormous.

The L.A. Lakers are Kobe’s team. He won with Shaquille O’Neal and without him. And while the supporting cast has changed, the star has remained the same. To be truly great, an athlete must be willing to accept the responsibility of being “the guy.” He must embrace the pressure of expectation and rise above the fear of failure. Kobe is up for the challenge. He has too much ego, too much pride, too much confidence in himself to be anything else.  Few others are like him.

Kobe Bryant has won five NBA championships. While other superstars pile up stats and individual awards, Bryant fills stat sheets and wins championships. And while pre-game rituals are great for the camera, only winning feeds the meter of greatness. Add it all up—from production to leadership to competitive spirit—and in the post-Jordan era, Kobe Bryant is simply the best.

Now in the 13th year of his NBA career, Kobe Bryant has enjoyed unparalleled success. Consider his stats:

  • 5 NBA Championships
  • 1 NBA MVP
  • 2 NBA Finals MVP Awards
  • 4 NBA All-Star MVP Awards
  • 13-Time All-Star
  • 8-Time NBA All-Defensive First Team
  • 8th All-Time NBA Scoring List
  • 4th All-Time NBA Playoff Scoring List
  • 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist
  • 2nd Most Points Scored in an NBA Game (81)
  • Career Scoring Average: 25.3

Kobe Bryant is more than his championships and far more than his stats. He is so intertwined with the Lakers that you can’t mention one without the other.

While other superstars want the tag of greatness, they must first earn championships. At the end of the day, the pathway of success leads to the gate of greatness—the place where legends are made. Entrance has nothing to do with being “The Chosen One,” and everything to do with being “The Proven One.” Michael, Magic and Larry all proved it. Among superstars in the current NBA landscape, Kobe Bryant has not only proven it, he is it.

February 17, 2011

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Draftheads

By: Stephen Arnold

The NFL just crowned another champion in Green Bay. If you’re anything like me, your team didn’t make it all the way. For some fans, not winning titles is more of a tradition than bringing home trophies. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Jacksonville and Houston, fans have never experienced a Super Bowl—let alone a world championship. (Somewhere in the distance, Bret Michaels is singing, “Give Me Something to Believe In.”) But fear not, fans of lovable losers everywhere: your days of salvation are coming soon in the form of the NFL draft.

It happens for a few days each April at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Fans from every NFL city gather to cheer, boo, jeer and chant as their favorite teams sort through the best college talent in America.  From college student athlete to instant millionaire, the draftees enter the world of professional football with the weight of fans’ expectations on their shoulders.

There’s a saying in football, “Everybody’s favorite player is the backup quarterback.” On draft day, a city’s favorite player and the fans’ franchise savior is the guy just drafted.  Reality on the football field rarely meets the hype and hope of the draft room. But for three days in April, the 31 NFL franchises that didn’t win the Super Bowl all find something to believe in— without the bandana.

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February 16, 2011

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Spitting Tiger

By: Stephen Arnold

2011 is off to an inauspicious start for golf superstar Tiger Woods. Following a messy year of trysts, tabloids and the destruction of both his family life and golf game, Tiger entered this season with a lot to prove. Prior to his first round of 2011 two weeks ago at the Farmers Insurance Open, a calm Tiger spoke of his priorities: his children and golf. Unfortunately, Tiger quickly faded out of contention and finished a distant 44th, bringing his new swing coach, Sean Foley, into the line of fire.

This past weekend, in his second event of the year, Tiger stalked the Dubai leader board for three rounds and appeared to be the Tiger of old. He entered the final day just a stroke off the lead. However, Tiger’s chance to end a year-long losing streak quickly disappeared as he bogeyed two of the first three holes before finishing 20th.

Normally, Tiger’s inability to secure a victory would be the talk of the golf world. However, a bizarre incident on Sunday stole much of the attention. While lining up a putt on the 12th green, Tiger Woods turned his head and spit as if hundreds weren’t gathered around and millions weren’t watching at home. It took everyone by surprise, including the commentators. In the end, the European Tour had the last word, fining Tiger Woods an undisclosed amount for his odd behavior.

For years, golf fans have marveled at more than merely Tiger’s putting, ball striking and will to win. Most players and commentators agree that Tiger Woods is the best all-around athlete on the PGA Tour. When his dad, Earl, once stated that Tiger could’ve been a track star, nobody blinked. But Earl never mentioned baseball.

Baseball players are the king of chew, dip, gum and the spit. And while the Yankees would probably give him a long look in center field, on Sunday, Tiger Woods apparently forgot that he’s a golfer. And the best golfer in the world doesn’t spit. Right, Lee Westwood?

A word of caution:  that best golfer comment could leave Tiger spitting mad.

February 9, 2011

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It’s Still a Team Game

By: Stephen Arnold

In an era focused on individual stars, one NCAA team reminds us that basketball is still a team sport: the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes are 24-0 and ranked No. 1 despite losing last season’s college player of the year, Evan Turner. In a well-respected Big Ten Conference and at a school best-known for football, Ohio State has quietly become a national power on the hardwood, winning 38 of their past 40 games. I have to think even Aretha Franklin would agree: It’s time for the Ohio State basketball program to start getting the respect it deserves.

Team basketball was meant to be played the Ohio State way. Four OSU players average double figures per game: Jared Sullinger (18.0), William Buford (13.6), David Lighty (12.5) and Jon Diebler (11.2). The Buckeyes can beat teams inside or outside, driving past defenders or shooting over them. If the defense collapses on freshman sensation Sullinger, Ohio State has four guys shooting more than 40 percent from 3-point range. If their opponents guard against the 3-pointer, Sullinger can destroy them in the lane.

And if Ohio State is off their offensive game, they can survive with athletic man-to-man defense led by sixth-year senior, Lighty—the best and most versatile defender in college basketball. At 6-foot-5, Lighty is quick enough to cover smaller guards and athletic enough to guard larger forwards, earning him value well beyond the box score. All in all, the Buckeyes are talented and selfless, a rare combination in today’s sports world.

Ohio State is the total package. I haven’t even mentioned Aaron Craft, the freshman point guard who comes off the bench and averages nearly 7 points, 5 assists and 2 steals while playing terrific defense. And true freshman Deshaun Thomas, the seventh guy in the rotation, is the third-leading scorer in Indiana high school history and averages nearly 9 points and 4 rebounds per game. Throw in defensive and shot-blocking specialist Dallas Lauderdale at the center position and Ohio State is one very complete team.

In the modern game, high school superstars often play only one season at the college level. Nobody knows this better than Ohio State coach Thad Matta who, in the past five seasons, has lost six freshmen and one senior to the NBA Draft. Since the most talented players leave early, any team wanting to make a national championship run needs to strike the right balance between talent and team leadership.

There are teams that take the opposite approach and avoid players likely to leave after only one year of school. Such programs attempt to beat teams consisting of raw superstars (e.g., Memphis) with solid veterans (e.g., Pitt).  In this year’s Buckeyes, Matta has the best of both worlds. His seven-man rotation features three seniors, one junior and three freshmen. So the question remains, how do experienced teams with good players or inexperienced teams with great talent beat an Ohio State team with both? No one seems to know the answer.

I am not guaranteeing that Ohio State will cruise through March Madness  en route to their first national championship since 1960, when some guys named John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Bobby Knight roamed the floor. Winning a national title takes talent and experience, but also good health and luck.

Truthfully, with seven regular season games remaining and the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments yet to begin, I feel comfortable saying Ohio State will not end the season undefeated. The last team to do so was the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Theirs was an era of less parity, no conference tournaments and a 32-team NCAA tournament. Like a lot of things in life, “it was easier back then.”

The 1976 Hoosiers finished 32-0. In order to have a perfect season, Ohio State would have to go 30-0 in the regular season, 3-0 in the Big Ten tournament and 6-0 in the NCAA tournament, for a total record of 39-0. Such a feat would be the greatest team basketball achievement since John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins won 10 titles in 12 seasons between 1964 and 1975.

With the 14th ranked Wisconsin Badgers eagerly awaiting the Buckeyes’ arrival in Madison, Wisconsin this Saturday—a venue where Matta is 0-7 as Ohio State’s head coach—the Buckeyes face their toughest challenge of the season.  A road test against Purdue and home games against Michigan State and Illinois still loom.

In the end, the odds of a perfect season are long and the road to perfection nearly impossible. However, the Ohio State basketball program is announcing its presence with authority on the national scene and deserves some well-earned R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

The respect of analysts and fans isn’t important to this team. The pursuit of an elusive perfect season is a dream for the players, but the ultimate goal is a national championship—perfection in itself.

To make it all the way, Norman Dale, coach of the Hickory Huskers in the iconic basketball movie, “Hoosiers,” has some advice that rings true for any basketball team competing at any level in any era:

“Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team. No one more important than the other.”

It may be the wrong state, but these Buckeyes are the right team. And they’re playing a brand of basketball not seen in years. March Madness can’t get here soon enough.