September 10, 2012

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Shaquille O’Neal and Roger Clemens Prove there’s a Career for Athletes after Retirement

By: Anson Whaley

First, it was Roger Clemens who came out of retirement to pitch in a couple of games with the independent league Sugar Land Skeeters. Now, it appears to be former basketball star Shaquille O’Neal tossing his hat into the ring for a brief post-retirement stint. According to ESPN, Shaq is reportedly in discussions with the Fuerza Regia team in Mexico to play a few games this October. His availability may depend largely on his ‘other’ job as a studio analyst for TNT.

Truth is, this type of stuff has been happening for a long time. But with more money to be made now from smaller leagues owned by rich owners, could it be the beginning of a trend? My guess is yes.

Players such as Kobe Bryant have been offered a lot of money to play for smaller leagues.

Athletes are always looking for ways to earn more money – autograph shows, personal appearances, speaking engagements, and licensing rights are all ways to do that. Some go into coaching or front offices as those jobs can pay well and allow them to stay close to the game. But that doesn’t always work, as we’ve seen. Greats like Magic Johnson had a difficult time coaching mediocre players for the Lakers in the 1990s. Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest player of all-time, hasn’t exactly produced a winning team as an owner.

You know what most of these guys would die for, though? Another chance to suit up.

With a few exceptions, we all understand the quality of their play isn’t going to be extremely high after retirement. Roger Clemens pitched 3 1/3 scoreless innings in independent baseball, but at 50, was unable to even reach 90 miles per hour on the radar gun with his trademark fastball. Throwing in the high 80s as he did is an unbelievable accomplishment at the age of 50, but unfortunately for him, 99% of pitchers in the major leagues can throw as hard as he is right now.

And the last time we saw O’Neal, he was averaging a modest nine points and five rebounds for the Boston Celtics two years ago. Now, out of game shape, Shaq would be fortunate to even come anywhere close to that production in an NBA game.

But guess, what – not much of that matters.

Unlike front office or coaching jobs, performance in these games isn’t a big deal. Fans eat this stuff up and so does the media. There are few things more intriguing than seeing a player well past his prime compete to see what he still has left in the tank. The simple fact is that it doesn’t really matter how well they do – people will pay to watch it. Whether it’s Clemens pitching a third of a game or the Diesel lumbering up and down the court against mediocre players, we’ll watch.

Back to the financial aspect a bit, we all know that Clemens and O’Neal don’t need the money. Those guys made enough in their lifetime to take care of their families handsomely as well as a few others if they wanted to. But what about players who had their careers cut short due to injury? Or star players that squandered their money? There’s room for them to compete in these types of leagues and the good thing is that they don’t even need to do it on a full-time basis.

There was a report last year that an Italian team offered Kobe Bryant $800,000 to suit up for them. Per game. Most of the players that would need the money aren’t on the level of Bryant, of course. But if he could get that much, why couldn’t a former All-Star secure a deal in the high five figures per contest?

As more and more independent and international teams open up their checkbooks, it’s easy to see that former athletes will be flocking to them to play a game or two.

September 4, 2012

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Michael Jordan is Still King of the Hill

By: Anson Whaley

Dwyane Wade had some interesting comments about Lebron James and Michael Jordan recently in the wake of the Miami Heat winning their first title with James on board. Speaking at a recent charity event, he essentially said he’s unsure if his Heat teammate can ever top the NBA Hall of Famer even though he conceivably still has many more years to play.

Will LeBron James be considered better than Michael Jordan one day?

Wade, of course, had to make that statement because for some odd reason, LBJ-MJ comparisons are becoming as common as Robert Horry game-winning shots. The simple fact, though, is that James isn’t close to topping Jordan right now and any conversation about the two being equals is entirely too premature.

Jordan is generally viewed as the best player of all-time. That’s largely because of his six championship titles and James winning one, two, or even three shouldn’t be enough to even place him in Jordan’s territory.  The intriguing thing is that he could conceivably get there, though. James probably isn’t quite the scorer Jordan was, but his all-around game is on par with MJ’s. He averages more rebounds and more assists per game than Jordan did over his career and like his predecessor, makes his teammates better. At 27 and having won his first title, James has more than enough time to catch Jordan in terms of rings.

However, when it’s all said and done, I don’t expect James’ numbers to stack up to Jordan’s. If he continues to play alongside All-Stars Wade and Chris Bosh, his individual numbers will suffer. Since joining the Heat, his rebounding has continued to remain strong, but his points and assists have already dipped below his career averages. As age catches up with him, those numbers will likely continue to drop a few years from now. If Lebron wants to be considered as Jordan’s equal by many, he’ll need to not only win six titles, but surpass that number. And even then, he’ll still rank behind Jordan by some who will insist that he had an easier road being paired with Wade and Bosh.

The only player in recent memory even worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as Jordan is Kobe Bryant. And in my opinion, he’s still behind MJ.

Bryant has five rings to Jordan’s six, but three of them came with one of the game’s most dominant centers – Shaquille O’Neal. Sure, Jordan had Scottie Pippen and even Dennis Rodman for a brief stint, but neither was the player that Shaq was in his prime of those championship runs.

Kobe also wasn’t the individual player that Jordan was. Both are amazing players at each end of the court, but Jordan was a more efficient scorer. While Bryant many times hoists up poor shots, Jordan rarely did that. Over his career, MJ shot 50% from the field (and that includes his last two seasons playing for the Washington Wizards where he averaged a modest 43%). As a shooting guard that was often double-teamed, that’s an incredible feat. Bryant, on the other hand, has averaged 45% for his career thus far and since his percentage has dropped each of the past three seasons, it’s likely that his final total will drop even further.

Scoring isn’t everything when evaluating players, but Jordan’s career averages in rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks are also higher than Bryant’s. He also took care of the ball a little better and had fewer turnovers per contest than Kobe.

Both James and Bryant are remarkable players, but neither is better than Jordan.

July 11, 2011

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Despite Injury-Shortened Career, Yao Lived Up To The Hype

By: Anson Whaley

Way back in 2002, Yao’s detractors stood almost as long as the Great Wall of China. We all remember the pre-NBA Draft video footage, right? Sure, he looked fine against a run-of-the-mill center from Oregon, Chris Christoffersen (not to be confused with Kris Kristofferson), in a one on one matchup in front of a host of NBA scouts. Yes, he could shoot jump shots and block shots as well as advertised, but we’d also been down that road before (see Shawn Bradley circa 1993).

The fact is there were question marks about Yao Ming – and lots of them.

The trendy pick for the No. 1 selection was point guard Jason Williams out of Duke. He was a ‘proven commodity’ shall we say, having played against the best amateur players in the world. Unfortunately, Williams suffered a career-ending motorcycle crash shortly thereafter, ending his brief NBA career and ensuring that the mantra ‘There is no sure thing’ remained firmly intact.

But back to Yao. The Houston Rockets gambled with the No. 1 pick taking the big man. Ming immediately paid dividends on a poor Rockets’ team, averaging more than 13 points and 8 rebounds in his first season. The best news, though, was that there was far more to come. Three seasons later, Yao averaged 20 and 10 and had established himself as one of the NBA’s best big men.

Even though Yao Ming had become an NBA star, his biggest contribution may have been expanding the reach of the league overseas. Ming was an instant hero in China and at many points over his career, was one of the league’s leaders in jersey sales. His influence was apparent when he repeatedly led the NBA in All-Star voting at center, even in seasons in which he was injured.

More importantly than that is that Yao Ming appears to be a genuinely good person. When Shaquille O’Neal mocked him with faux Chinese, Yao was the bigger person choosing to not make it a big deal. Yao Ming has also donated two million dollars and set up a foundation in order to help rebuild schools after the earthquake in Sichuan.

But on the court, the problem was that injuries eventually derailed his career. Yao missed 25 games in his fourth season and was never quite right the rest of his career. The frustrating part was that when he played, it was clear that he had the talent. From 2005 through last season, Yao was heavily injured playing only one full season over that span. But during those years, he averaged more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Now at the young age of 30, Ming’s been reportedly forced to retire.

The announcement hasn’t yet been made official, but if all reports are correct, Yao has decided to call it a career. The good news is that he may be back. At 30, he’s still young enough to even sit out for a year or two and still have several more seasons left. One of his agents is saying the chance exists for him to make a return and that’s encouraging.

So if it’s the end of the line, where does Yao stack up amongst the greats? It’s hard to find a spot for him as a top ten center of all-tme because his career ended so early and he’s not a likely selection for the Basketball Hall of Fame. But Yao Ming was definitely one of the best centers of his era and proved a lot of people wrong on draft day.

June 9, 2011

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Top Nicknames in the NBA

By: Rick Jarrell

Shaq was arguably one of the most animated NBA players of all time. Throughout his 19 year career, the dominating center was rarely shy with media, offering up various analogies and nicknames for himself and others. He named himself “Shaq Diesel”, the “Big Aristotle,” and the “Big Deporter,” and named Dwayne Wade “Flash.”

Now that the “Big Shamrock” has decided to call it quits, one may suspect the large exit to include an evacuation of hilariously awesome nicknames. Not true. They may not be contained within one large man anymore, instead scattered around the league, but they’re still there. You just have to look.

The Beard

A rising star in his sophomore season with the Oklahoma City Thunder, James Harden has a nickname that fits. “The Beard,” given due to Harden’s monstrously profuse beard, has an old school flavor that matches his old school game. Harden never seems to be moving as quick as the other NBA players, but still finds a way to make plays and get to the rim. Much like his nickname, “The Beard” wreaks of simple confidence, conjuring up images of Earl “The Pearl” Washington. He provided a spark plug off the bench for the Thunder in the second half of the season and during their playoff run. Was it because of the beard? I can confidently say, yes.

Boom Dizzle

Baron Davis earned his much more modern nickname during his early career, with menacing open court vision and thunderous dunks – his UCLA highlight reel is especially tantalizing. Boom Dizzle has had an up down career, reaching All-Star teams but suffering lows at every stop – clashing with Byron Scott in New Orleans, leaving Golden State after a rift with the front office, not performing up to par with the Clippers (although that’s not his fault), and landing with the rebuilding Cleveland Cavaliers. As a fan, I’ve been impressed with the Boom Dizzle that arrived at the trading deadline, and as a longtime fan, I’m excited for his expectedly short tenure with the team. If Dan Gilbert is willing to pay him the next few years to give me the ability to scream “BOOM DIZZLE” a few times a game, I’m a happy man.

Photo courtesy of Salvatore Vuono

The Human Victory Cigar

 The few players before this one may have had somewhat obvious nicknames. But this one is rarity. Awesome on many levels. First, because it’s long. Second, because it is well thought out and creative. Third, it exemplifies winning. And fourth, because it almost seems like it belongs to the wrong player. You’d think it would be one of the greats, like Robert Horry—but no, he’s Big Shot Bob. Or Michael Jordan even, due to his affinity for dominating and cigars, but no. Who owns it you say? The infamous former number two overall pick, Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Darko Milicic.

Of course, Milicic was branded this way because in his first few NBA seasons he was only inserted into the game when his team, the Pistons, had already locked up the win.  His 40 seconds of playing time meant that Detroit was up by 20 points and there was absolutely no chance of its opponent coming back.   Since those first years in the league, “The Human Victory Cigar” has garnered his fair share of negative media attention, and somehow managed to simultaneously become a sort of counter culture hero. And that counter culture is the likely source of one of the best nicknames in the NBA. Cheers to you, underground back up power forward fan club.

June 6, 2011

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Shaq Retires

By: Anson Whaley

It goes without saying that Shaquille O’Neal was one of those rare athletes that transcended the game he played. He wasn’t the most dominant as some have called him lately – that title clearly belongs to Wilt Chamberlain, who averaged more than 50 points and 25 rebounds per game in the 1961-62 season and more than 30 points and 20 rebounds per game for his career. But Shaq (like Wilt) was larger than life, which is why no single article will do him justice.

So with that, I give you the top ten things I’ll remember about the Diesel.

Shaq

 

10. Shaq Signs Exclusive Deal with Classic Trading Cards

Shaq was a trendsetter and had one of the first exclusive trading card deals in history. Classic, an upstart company back in the early 1990s, made one of the biggest splashes in history by signing O’Neal to an exclusive card deal, owning the right to print his first rookie cards. Sure, go ahead and scoff if you want. But his deal was enormous for the industry as it led to other companies signing exclusive deals with athletes.

9. Literally a Showstopper

O’Neal didn’t only break a few backboards when he dunked early in his career, but he literally tore down the entire support systems. This, of course, delayed play while the systems were fixed or replaced. Shaq was one of the few players that forced the NBA to look into reinforcing their backboards.

8. Shaq Raps

No, the Diesel’s abilities weren’t limited to only the basketball court. He was also a great rapper. Okay, well, maybe not. But his debut Album ‘Shaq Diesel’ still went platinum, which gives him exactly one more platinum record than almost everyone on the planet.

7. Leading Magic to Finals

O’Neal was only in his third season when he led the Magic to the Finals. He didn’t just help them get there, he was the clear star of the team. With all due respect to Penny Hardaway, Dennis Scott, Horace Grant, and Nick Anderson, the Magic probably don’t get out of the first round without the Diesel. Orlando was swept by the Houston Rockets, but it wasn’t because of Shaq, who averaged 28 points, 12 rebounds, and 6 assists per game.

6. Passed over for Christian Laettner

The decision to take Christian Laettner over O’Neal for the final spot on the 1992 USA Olympic Dream Team had about as much impact on the outcome as it would if I were selected. Lots of factors played into the decision – Laettner was a senior with two NCAA titles for starters. Still, it was a big-time snub nonetheless and Shaq wasn’t all that happy about it.

5. Taking Heat to the Title

Make no mistake – the 2005-06 Miami Heat were Dwyane Wade’s team. But it’s fair to say that without O’Neal’s nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds every night, Miami would still be looking for their first title. Shaq also proved to the world he could win a championship without Kobe and his fourth title placed him in select company.

4. Kobe Feud

Okay, let’s get this out of the way. If Kobe and Shaq stay together, it’s likely that they would have gone on to win several more titles. The feud will always be one of the first things fans think of when reminiscing about Shaq. O’Neal wouldn’t have been able to run down Bill Russell’s 11 championships, but Kobe is young enough that it’s conceivable that he could have gotten close.

3. Signs with Lakers

The rumors swelled in the Summer of 1996 about what Shaq would do. He eventually chose to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers and effectively began a mini dynasty, helping the franchise to three titles. His signing filled the gap left by Vlade Divac, who was traded to the then Charlotte Hornets for … Kobe Bryant. That effectively concluded the most lopsided deal in NBA history.

2. Leading Lakers to Three-Peat

O’Neal began the Lakers’ Dynasty by helping the franchise to three straight championships. Whatever side you fall on of the great Shaq vs. Kobe debate, none of those titles are won without O’Neal, who won the Finals Most Valuable Player award each year.

1. Pythagorean Theorem

There have been countless memorable quotes over Shaq’s career, but none will ever top the time he tried to describe just how unguardable he was. An exacerbated O’Neal said his game was like the Pythagorean Theorem, claiming there was no answer. The only problem with that is there actually is an answer to the Theorem: A2 + B2 = C2.

It’s okay, Shaq – we get the point.