Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Inspirational Tale of Hard Work Paying Off

I usually spend much of my time on here venting about problems I have with the Hawks or the BCS or the NCAA or Georgia Tech or....blah blah blah. I know, I'm a bitter sports fan -- well except when it comes to my Green Bay Packers. I thought now might be a good time to change it up a little and write briefly about something positive in the world of sports. A story that is really under the radar, and if you mention that to this person, they probably like it that way.

I want to talk about hard work. Dedication. Positive attitude. Handling pressure. I want to talk about my friend Patrick Ewing Jr. I received a text message from Patrick last Friday night, "I'm so excited bro." He had just found out he was being called up from the NBDL (in Sioux Falls no less) to join the New Orleans Hornets for the remainder of the season. You are probably thinking to yourself....big deal, the season is almost over, he may not even see any minutes. To look at this situation like that would be short sighted.

To know Patrick Ewing Jr. is to understand that hard work and refusing to fail is a lifestyle. This young man started his college career at Indiana University. After one season, he decided that wasn't the right fit for him. He decided to play where his legendary father played collegiate basketball - Georgetown University. Keep in mind, nobody expected Patrick Jr. to be as good as his father, but every time he put on that Hoyas jersey with his surname on the back, the expectations to perform at a high level were there, whether he wanted them or not. He accepted the challenge and became part of a special team that made it all the way to the Final Four in 2007.

In 2008 Ewing Jr. was drafted by Sacramento, traded to Houston and then to the Knicks. Yes, the New York Knicks, once again where his father becarme an NBA legend. Again, pressure for this young man? Of course. He wouldn't admit it, but it was there. Patrick showed up everyday, worked hard and did his best. It wasn't good enough for the Knicks and they decided to cut him right before the start of the 2008 season began. Patrick could have hung his head, given up, looked for something else to do with his life. Instead he decided to keep pushing, chasing a dream to play in the NBA just like his father. The pressure continued to mount.

Fastforward to 2008, Ewing Jr. signs with an NBDL team in Reno, Nevada. In the Spring of 2009, Patrick suffers a Grade 1 MCL sprain. He is done for the season. Again, Patrick could have hung his head, given up, looked for something else to do with his life. Instead, he spends almost a year rehabilitating his knee and his game.

Summer of 2010: Patrick gets invited to play on the summer league teams for the Knicks and Magic. The Knicks like the new and improved Ewing Jr. and invite him to their Fall camp. There is an old expression, "I've seen this movie before. I know how it ends." Ewing Jr. unfortunately got cut right before the start of the season by the Knicks for a 2nd time. That would be it for me. I would probably just say 'screw it' and look to do something else with my life. Coaching. Broadcasting. Work for an agent. Anything but putting on a basketball jersey. If you think that's what Patrick don't know Patrick. Showing his humility and dedication to the game he loves, he accepted another roster spot back in Reno in the NBDL.

As if things couldn't get more frustrating, this past January Patrick was traded (exiled seems more appropriate) to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As John McEnroe famously said, "YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!" To go from potentially earning a spot on the storied New York Knicks to now playing basketball in South Dakota?!? Guess how Patrick handled this? Yep....with the right attitude, remaining as dedicated as ever to the game. Since being traded, Ewing Jr. averaged 22 ppg and 11 rebounds for Sioux Falls.

And then it happened. The phone call he was waiting for. After all these years of climbing the mountain, the rehab, the last minute cuts before seasons began anew, the cold nights in South Dakota...for what? For this. To receive a phone call from the New Orleans Hornets telling him he was joining there team, if only for a few weeks, validated his hard work. This call wasn't about getting a chance to play - it was about proving to himself he did it the right way. He had the right attitude. I could not be happier for my friend. He is an inspiration for anyone that doubts their personal journey . There is an old proverb, "A great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do." Words Patrick Ewing Jr. lives by everyday...

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Two Prize Fights Saturday Night

The Saturday night at the Final Four every year is usually college basketball's best value for fans. You get to watch two critical games with a trip to the championship on the line.

This year will be no different however the contrast between the two matches on the marquee could not be more different. VCU will take on Butler in one game while Kentucky faces UCONN in the other. If this were boxing, it's clear who would be the under card. However, what makes this so special is the winner of the under card gets a shot at the title fight. Think about that. This is the equivalent of an under card winner getting a shot at Manny Pacquiao two days later.

The coaches on Saturday night feature the two elder statesmen, Jim Calhoun and John Calipari, each earning millions of dollars personally and for their university. The other game pits the two hottest young coaches in America - Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart. One is 33, the other is 34. Jim Calhoun began his coaching career at Northeastern in 1972 - neither Stevens or Smart were even born yet.

Calhoun and Calipari are at the peak of their profession. They are in charge of storied programs and will probably never leave those schools until they retire from coaching. Stevens and Smart are just now scratching the surface of their careers in coaching. Both can and will easily write their own ticket to bigger pay days and be handed the keys to a larger program with a bigger budget.

Saturday night is a contrast in schools that are about the names on the front of the jersey (UCONN and Kentucky) and two that are about the names on the back. UCONN and Kentucky land high school All-Americans by merely sending out letters with the school's logo on envelope. VCU and Butler convince the kids that didn't get those letters to play for them.

UCONN and Kentucky more often then not can wear down an opponent based on talent alone. VCU and Butler have achieved similar success based on heart and courage. The kids on those teams show no fear and have shown they will not be intimidated by their opponent's jersey.

On Saturday night, VCU and Butler may feel like an under card, but you can bet the winner will step into the ring Monday night confidant and prepared to deliver a knockout punch.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Joe Johnson Lacks TigerBlood

This is more of a vent than a blog. I'm thoroughly disgusted in the Atlanta Hawks. I'm even more disgusted in Joe Johnson. I just spent two of the past three nights at Philips Arena. Last Sunday it felt more like Madison Square Garden with seemingly 75% of the crowd cheering for the Knicks. And Tuesday night was Staples Center South as most of the fans cheered on Lakers.

I'm so beyond frustrated that I don't even blame those fans. They came out to see superstar players. Guys like Carmelo Anthony, Amare Stoudamire and Kobe Bryant. The Hawks do not have a superstar. They have superstar contracts.

I hate to beat a dead horse, but Joe Johnson is the main reason this franchise is screwed. Sunday night vs the Knicks Joe Johnson had 14 points. Some dude named Landry Fields of the Knicks had 15 points. Landy Fields makes $473,000 this season. Joe Johnson makes $16 million this season. I wasn't an economics major at USC and even i know one team isn't getting a proper return on their investment while the other one is. Tuesday night vs. the Lakers Joe Johnson had 11 points on 4 for 14 shooting. That's one more point than Damien Wilkins. He makes $225,000 this season. Joe Johnson is a lifeless, emotionless, leaderless, overpaid guard with no killer instinct. He floats around the court like a bench player just trying to blend in and not screw up. The Hawks should have let Joe walk, blown this whole thing up and signed some run of the mill guard that can average 17 to 18 points per game, which is basically what Joe gives you. He's really no different than Jason Richardson, Stephen Jackson, Kevin Martin. The only difference is those guys probably play with a lot more emotion for less money.

This Joe Johnson contract is the worst contract this city has ever seen. Its more than just the actual numbers. He isn't an 'attraction' to the fan base. There isn't one fan in this city or any other NBA city that is paying money to go see Joe Johnson play basketball. $124 Million Dollar contracts are for guys that create a buzz when they walk on to the court in an arena. They get your heart pumping as a fan. Joe Johnson flat lines. Joe Johnson is a supporting actor forced to play the leading man -- and his body language suggests that makes him very uncomfortable.

As for some of the other Hawks - it's really simple. I've said it before, Jeff Teague is the type of player who wouldn't be on an NBA roster if he weren't on the Hawks. This is a 1st round draft pick. I will never forget watching Ty Lawson being selected one pick ahead of the Hawks on that night. Josh Smith - I'm really getting tired of that permanent sour look on his face. I would start with him as a trade piece if I were the Hawks. Marvin Williams - he isn't even worth discussing. For $35 million he will average 10 points and 3 fall downs per game.

The Hawks are stuck with this roster at least for the rest of this season. The Atlanta Spirit are like that group of guys who run up an large bar tab (bad contracts) and then skip out on the bill (sell the team.). I truly believe, until they can find a taker who sees Joe Johnson as their missing piece to get over the hump, and can afford his contract, the Hawks will be relegated to mediocre in the East.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Hawks Playing The Prevent

The NBA trade deadline is approaching this week (Thursday, February 24th). If you have lived in the city of Atlanta long enough, you know the Hawks aren't keen on making major moves. The last time they tried that they ended up with Danny Manning when they exiled the face of their franchise, Dominique Wilkins to the Los Angeles Clippers.

To use an NFL analogy, the Atlanta Spirit would much rather play a 'prevent defense' when it comes to major roster moves. They won't get burned deep by taking a risk. Status quo is safe to them. This current cast of characters is basically filming their sequel to last season's movie, and yes, we all know how it will end (with a loss in the 1st round or 2nd round).

Here is my big picture assessment of the Hawks problem. They don't have a centerpiece. They are lacking that cornerstone franchise superstar that you can build around. I know what your thinking - they paid Joe Johnson 'centerpiece' money. Remember what I said about 'prevent defense', well that was the formation the Atlanta Spirit called when Joe was to become a free agent. They knew he wasn't worth the money, but they felt their Plan B meant getting burned deep and losing him without getting a comparable replacement. Joe Johnson to the Hawks is the equivalent of that guy who owns a really expensive Ferrari, but only takes it out for a drive once a week. You paid a lot of money for this thing, but you aren't getting a lot of mileage out of it.

Look around the Eastern Conference and assess other team's centerpiece players. The Knicks have Amare Stoudamire (they could potentially end up with Carmelo Anthony as well). The Bulls have Derrick Rose for the next 10 years. The Magic more than likely will have Dwight Howard for another decade. Miami is set with Wade and LeBron. Those are franchise, superstar players. Line up Joe Johnson next to those guys and it just feels wrong.

As long as the Hawks continue to convince themselves that Joe Johnson is the cornerstone of this franchise, they will be stuck in mediocrity. If being one of the top eight teams in the East, but not contending for a championship, is ok with the Atlanta Spirit, then've accomplished that goal. However, if you want to become an elite team, you have to start taking risks. It's time to scrap the 'prevent defense' and become the aggressor.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Super Bowl Champs - It's Much More Than That

This is my first blog of 2011 and wow this one feels great! As many of you know, I grew up in Wisconsin. Sundays meant Green Bay Packer football. To witness them become Super Bowl Champs this past Sunday night was euphoric!

However, I don't want to write about how they were a #6 seed and overcame a ridiculous amount of injuries to key players all year long. I'd rather share why this is such an emotional victory as a sports fan. I exchanged text messages with a good friend of mine, who is a former NFL player (he will remain nameless, but let's just say his initials are W.D.). I asked why he was so shocked that I was overcome with joy and emotion after watching the Packers win. He said, "dude it's just a game." My response to that was, 'its much more than that.'

The NFL game is unique to other pro sports because your team plays one day a week. It's usually on Sunday afternoons. Growing up as a kid, this makes for the perfect scenario to find quality time with mom and dad and any siblings in the house. Watching the Packers win this Sunday night brought back memories of sitting on my couch as a 10 year old or 15 year old in Milwaukee with my parents, my brother and watching guys like Lynn Dickey at quarterback, Eddie Lee Ivory, James Lofton. No matter what happened throughout the week, I knew Sundays our family would be together because the Packer game was coming on the television.

I spent much of this past Sunday night texting with my brother. My dad called periodically to check my heart rate and to make sure I didn't pop one too many xanex pills! I even found myself thinking of my mom who passed away in 2002. I know she would be thrilled right now too.

"It's much more than that." This is about Emotions. Memories. Family. Tradition. It's a celebration of a journey. For me, the journey isn't the 16 game season, but rather the trip down memory lane.

My nine year old nephew watched the game Sunday night. He sat on the couch with his dad and grandfather. He saw the Green Bay Packers win. He may not appreciate it today, but 20 years from now he will remember this night. He may not remember the play of Aaron Rodgers or the interception by Nick Collins. What he will remember is how for one night in February he shared a special moment with family. He will realize it was more than just a game. "It's much more than that."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

EXTRA! Reid All About It!

So I was listening to sports talk radio this past weekend (the national four-letter network that has taken over the world), and the on-air host made a statement that I can't stop thinking about. He was discussing the Philadelphia Eagles and said (I'm going to have to paraphrase here) that Andy Reid got lucky with Michael Vick.

That's not a fair statement. It's a statement that quite frankly discredits the character of Andy Reid. In the summer of 2009, the Philadelphia Eagles took a chance on Mike Vick. Thirty-one other teams passed. Most owners probably felt it wasn't worth the headache. It certainly would take the right type of coach to handle such a unique situation like this. Eagles' owner Jeffrey Lurie believed Andy Reid would be up for the task.

Andy Reid is all about second chances. Why? He has to be. Reid has two sons that have been to prison. One from a drug and weapons charge and the other from an altercation at a halfway house. There isn't one NFL head coach in the league today that has a better grasp on how prison can affect a young man, than Andy Reid. Make amends for your errors. Learn to live a new life. Mike Vick needed someone to open up that door to a new life and Andy Reid was right there to invite him in.

Not only did Andy Reid give Mike Vick a second chance in the NFL, he gave him a second chance to be a starter in this league. Sure, Vick got his break when Kevin Kolb got injured, but once Kolb got healthy, Reid stood by Mike.

The Mike Vick resurrection project wouldn't have worked out just anywhere. This project wasn't about playing time and depth charts. It's been about belief and encouragement. It's about faith and second chances. This journey is personal for Andy Reid. This story hits home. He deserves all the credit in the world for his team's success and Mike's success. There is nothing "lucky" about it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Time To Say GoodBuy-Out

Calling all Georgia Tech alum! Calling anyone that is a fan of Georgia Tech men's basketball! We are starting a fundraiser. We need to raise money immediately. How much? Are you currently sitting down? I'll wait....

Approximately $8.1 million dollars.

That is how much its going to cost Georgia Tech to tell Paul Hewitt to clean out his locker. This program has reached it's breaking point. It's reached the point where we must now say: it's worth it.

I don't want to make this column about numbers. It's too easy to talk about his inability to get past the 2nd round in the NCAA tournament (in years his team has even qualified: 5 years out of 10). Yeah, I know, he took his team to the Final Four in 2003. That seems like it was at least seven years was. You know who else has gone to the Final Four since then? George Mason University & Butler University.

This season has been a disgrace and ACC play hasn't even begun. Hewitt's team already has losses to Kennesaw State, Northwestern and now in-state rival Georgia. Horrible, bad, trouble. For years, Hewitt has typically saved face in the offseason by landing a prize recruit. The problem is that window of opportunity with said star recruit closes so quickly, we hardly remember their name.

Ironically, while Georgia Tech was losing to UGA Tuesday night, I was at Philips Arena watching the New Jersey Nets, and former Paul Hewitt star recruit Derrick Favors. His stat-line: 24 minutes / 4 points, 5 rebounds. By the way, Hewitt's other prize recruits: Thaddeus Young has an NBA career average of 11 points and 4 rebounds. Javaris Crittenton...well, let's just say his NBA career bit the bullet (sorry, pun intended) and he now plays in China.

Coach Hewitt is always praised for his recruiting. However, it begs two questions: (1) is he good enough a coach to do something with these kids in the one year he has them? Calipari seems to do it. (2) why can't he convince these kids to stay more than one season? Coach K and Roy Williams seem to do it.

It's clear Georgia Tech is headed towards another subpar year. The ACC hasn't even been that competitive the past few years and this program had the chance to be one of those 2nd tier teams behind Duke and UNC. Instead, Georgia Tech has become nothing more than Virginia basketball or Clemson basketball. Irrelevant. A non-factor. Sadly, it doesn't have to be this way.

Bobby Cremins spent 19 years building this program into something special. Paul Hewitt is taking 10 years to slowly erase all the goodwill and credibility established by Cremins. It's time to stop the bleeding. This program is worth saving. It's ACC basketball in a fertile recruiting area.

There is an old expression: you have to spend money to make money. If the athletic department and alumni base at Georgia Tech are committed to producing a winning program, it's time to raise that $8 million dollars and make that 'donation'. It's worth it...