Remembering the Glass Slipper

What makes us root for the underdog? Where does that nature of rooting for the ‘little guy’ come from? When will the clichés end?

Being a Red Sox fan as a young child, I can tell you. I remember Aaron Boone and I remember the heart-break in the 2003 ALCS from Yankee Stadium. I remember being a seven-year old who pleaded with Grady Little through the television set to pull Pedro. Then – to quote “The Princess Bride” – the inconceivable happened and the 2004 re-vamped Red Sox mounted a comeback after going down three games to none. With the aid of heroes like second base thief Dave Roberts, from cut-to-clutch Derek Lowe and the lovable father of Red Sox Nation, Big Papi, the Sox “shocked the world” and took the next four games from the Bronx Bombers in extra innings to advance to the World Series.

That right there is the basic concept of an improbable comeback by a rag-tag bunch of misfits that band together to form a team that defeats a powerhouse organization. Tales like those inspired two things: one, nearly all of Hollywood’s sports movies; and two, the term, a “Cinderella Story.”

Cinderella has visited every sport, creating the tale that begins something like, “We were down by two goals with a minute left, so we pulled our goalie…” and usually become immortalized in video clips, plaques, descriptions and memories. Stories of teams who didn’t think they had a David’s chance against a giant will be perpetually memorialized. Mike Eruizone and the 1980 US Olympic hockey team defeating the Soviets in a symbolic contest, Mookie Wilson and the 1986 Mets, Doug Flutie’s “Hail Mary” and Frank Reich leading the depleted Buffalo Bills to a victory after being down in the 1992 AFC Wild Card game 35-3 in the third quarter over the Warren Mood-led Houston Oilers.

But the reason that names like Mike Eurizone and Doug Flutie are so well known is that one game – that one contest where their years of work manifested into a great moment of incredible shock and that one instance where all those who said the little team that couldn’t…suddenly could.

There is a specific time when Cinderella loves to appear, and that is March. March, filled with college basketball Madness, and seems to create many stories of lowly, begotten teams rising up in order to defeat a mighty and arrogant opponent.

As inspirational and tear-inducing as those parables are, that is simply not usually the way that things occur. Most of the time, the team that’s supposed to win, does. For example, (4-seeded) Syracuse’s 47-point slaughtering of Montana (13) went unnoticed in the NCAA world because, well, the Citrus was ranked higher and it was an expected victory.

It’s those irregularities, those unexpected joys, that make Cinderella stories so much better.

Even stories such as the Lehigh Mountain Hawks and the Norfolk State Spartans are quickly forgotten. For a refresher, Lehigh and Norfolk were two 15-seeded teams during the 2012 NCAA Tournament who upset two 2-seeds – and college basketball perennial powerhouses – Duke and Missouri, respectively.

However, after the Round of 64, Lehigh and Norfolk lived down to their number 15-seed billings and exited humbly and quietly. Florida routed the Spartans 84-50, including an unbearable 25-0 run during the first half, in which Norfolk simply looked as if they did not belong – it was Michael Jordan one-on-one with little Kevin from down the block. The Mountain Hawks exited in a similar fashion, a 70-58 loss to Kenny Frease and Xavier in which the Musketeers used its bigger men to dominate Lehigh inside.

Cinderella had forgotten her slipper in the round of 64, but returned to pick it up before Prince Charming had a chance to see it – the magic was gone, and so were Lehigh and Norfolk State.

In fact, before this year, according to ESPN Stats & Info, teams seeded 15th were 0-6 all-time in the round of 32. Not only were the 0-6, but on average they lost by 15.0 points per game. So not only did they end their season early, they ended it poorly.

This 2013 NCAA Tournament, however, has proved that college sports are incredibly unpredictable. Upsets left no ESPN bracket (and there were over 9 million) perfect on the first day.

This year, Cinderella has ridden again through the NCAA in her pumpkin carriage.

Florida Gulf Coast University: the most cursed name in everyone’s brackets currently and the holder of the title “Cinderella Story.” The small, upstart college based out of Fort Meyers, FL astonished everyone with their upset of (2) Georgetown. Georgetown was a team that many selected as a Final Four contender. However, once America was defibrillated from the shock, they discovered it was real. Contrary to many who dismissed the FGCU Eagles as a one-and-down, similar to the Spartans and Mountain Hawks.

Then, they did it again. It was improbable, but it happened. Florida Gulf Coast triumphed over (7) San Diego State 81-71 on Sunday night. The Eagles, who gained full Division I membership in only 2011, became the first ever 15-seed to make it to the Sweet 16. With their rap anthem and chants of DUNK CITY (#DunkCity trended nationally on Twitter), the Eagles are the hottest story in sports. They entered the 2013 NCAA tourney with 2000-to-1 odds of winning it all and have already taken two of the necessary steps to get there.

But there is a catch. As fun and as inspiring it is to have Florida Gulf Coast do so well, expectations should be tempered. The lowest seed to ever win an NCAA tournament was the 1985 Villanova squad, who was 8th, since seeding started in the 1979 NCAA tourney. There have only ever even been two double-digit seeds in the Final Four (2006 George Mason and 1986 LSU).

Florida Gulf Coast may write the history about double-digit seeds, but right now, history is against them.

So while Cinderella may leave her glass slipper for a round or two, she always returns to retrieve it before the night is over – and with the night coming to a close, so does the tournament for double-digit seeds.

On to the Next One

You have a friend. You and this amigo are best friends. You do everything together; you confide in each other, you’re wingmen. For years this friend and you hang out, learn others eccentricities and assist one another through the times.

Then suddenly, boom, you’re no longer friends – not even acquaintances. No texts or calls – they’re as popular as MySpace.

In that hypothetical situation there’s no room for sentimentality and there’s the same amount of loyalty in that relationship as Scott Boras clients and their franchises.

Such is the way of any NFL team. In fact, the word allegiance does not even appear in an NFL lexicon. And that’s a good thing.

The New England Patriots are probably the league’s most exemplary franchise when it comes to embracing this ideology. They are also one of the league’s most complex franchises, hoarding draft picks like they should appear on the TLC show and searching for deals like an extreme couponer. Led by a studious but iron-fisted Head Coach, Bill Bellicheck, the Patriots have made an unprecedented 12-year run at greatness with five Super Bowl trips and three rings.

Similar to a traditional river-boat gambler, Belichick has had his wins with players including drafting a top two Quarterback ever in Tom Brady at pick number 199, signing Running back Danny Woodhead who was cut by the rival Jets, and trading for Randy Moss while only surrendering a fourth-round pick. He has also had his defeats, which are headlined by former Pro-Bowler Defensive Tackle Albert Haynesworth – who failed the fitness test three times en route to being released four months after signing…and, of course, the Chad Ochocinco fiasco.

Another great Belichick “win” was Wes Welker – who he procured from the Miami Dolphins in 2007 for a second- and seventh-round draft picks. For Belichick to give up those draft picks, a player has to know that he’s special. But there were no signs there. Until 2006, in his first three NFL seasons, Welker had served as a third-string receiver and a special teams serf for Miami. He was only reeled in by the Dolphins after going undrafted in 2004 and then was signed – and cut – by the San Diego Chargers. Welker in Miami caught 96 passes for 1,121 yards and one touchdown…in three years. In juxtaposition, Welker surpassed those statistics in all three of those categories in every season since in the NFL besides 2010 when he caught 86 balls for 848 yards, but still that season he had seven touchdowns.

When the Patriots let Welker leave in a rocky way to the Mile High City for two years and $12 million Patriot nation almost revolted. Callers to the New England sports radio station WEEI were outraged that for such a cheap price that New England let a tough, fan favorite, elite slot receiver leave for a top AFC competitor. Even the Mayor of Boston, Thomas M. Menino, will surely miss the great “Wes Weckler.”

(Although it was not his first incident in mangling Boston sports name, “Mumblin’ Menino” referred to other “ionic” figures in Beantown lore incorrectly.  He performed poorly for the C’s with “KG and Hondo,” and congratulated the Pats “Vince Wilcock” on great play last season and the Patriots ability to lock up “Gonk” or “Grabowski” to a long-term deal.)

Permitting “Weckler” to walk out of town was a good move for New England.

Mere hours after letting him leave the Patriots replaced their former five-time Pro-Bowler with a mini-Wes. Mini-Wes is ex-St. Louis Ram Danny Amendola and he, 28, got 5 years $31 million but the same guaranteed cashmoney as Welker with $10 million. Both went to Texas Tech, both are slot receivers, both are under six-feet tall. They’re both southern boys (Amendola’s a Texan and Welker’s an Okie) and both are even with ten pounds of each other. They are doppelgangers, except for two key facts: Amendola’s injuries and Welker’s age.

Welker will be 32 at the beginning of next season, which in the NFL is considered to be nearing the age of eligibility to collect on Social Security, and has shown signs of slowing. His age, coupled with the tenacious, hard-hitting play that slot receivers endure, showed the Patriots their only move was to go with youth. Another thing: there are two big faults with Welker. He led the league in drops last year with 15 and when has he come up with a clutch play at a clutch time? I have nothing.

Injuries and age are no strangers to the NFL and are its greatest fears, even more than losing. Those concerns are the impetus for the ‘next man up’ mantra. Even NFL players realize the plight. When asked about the philosophy, Colts Safety Antoine Bethea explained, “It sounds like a broken record…but if somebody goes down, the next man up has to come in and play ball.”

Amendola’s injuries are spotlighted by a dislocated elbow injury that cost him the entire 2011 campaign. Unfortunately for Amendola, he suffered the ailment during the first game of the season after catching five passes. In the four year stretch that Amendola had been playing on the Rams, Welker also suffered a season-ending blow when he tore his ACL on a hit by (who else?) Patriot Killer, Safety Bernard Pollard. It was merely coincidental (and bad luck for Amendola) that Welker suffered a serious injury in the last game of the season while it robbed Amendola of a year’s worth of production.

Another point for Amendola is that there is a distinct possibility that over the last six years Brady has developed a “security-blanket” mantra with Welker. That if a receiver wasn’t getting open downfield, he’d dump the ball over the middle to number 83. Brady was playing too conservative and Amendola is a better downfield threat than Welker so that gives the Patriots the option – along with Gronkowski and uber-athletic tight-end Aaron Hernandez – to become cyclical with vertical threats and over-the-middle securities. It opens the Patriots offense and makes them, the top rated offense in the NFL last year in points and yards, even more potent.

Both Weckler and Amendola are crisp and accurate route-runners and the move benefits the transfer from St. Louis, Amendola can stop pretending to be a number-one receiver like he was acting as and return to the slot in New England. Their Texas Tech coach says the comparison of the two is unfair because Welker has succeeded so much more at this stage of his career, although Amendola had Sam Bradford and Welker had Brady…and certainly that isn’t a fair comparison.

So before any Pats fans complain about losing Wes, must they be reminded of the Dolphins. In the Bill Belichick era, the turnover has been substantial and he has shown no semblance of morality as he trades or releases veteran, fan favorite Pats…and then triumphed. There was Lawyer Milloy, a beloved, hard-hitting strong safety who was released just prior to the 2003 NFL season. Milloy signed with AFC East-foe Buffalo and led them to a 31-0 romp over his former team. From there all New England did was go 17-1 en route to their second Super Bowl title in three years. If not Milloy, then Deion Branch. Ty Law. Richard Seymour. Randy Moss. Adam Vinateri. All Patriots legends who they ended up being fine without. A passage from the Bill Belichick playbook: no player is more important than the team – everyone is replaceable. So when will New Englanders put on their dollar bills, “In Bill We Trust?”

Also, as successful as Welker has been in New England (672 catches for 7459 yards and 37 touchdowns) he has not won what symbolizes success the best. He has not put a ring on his finger and he has not hoisted the Lombardi trophy. So even if Amendola does not average 110 catches every year, if he can be a key instrument in an orchestra once again playing a championship Overture, fans would be “wickahd happy” and would ask, “Wes who?” All Amendola needs to do is his job.

What the Patriots got in Welker-lite is youth (by four years), control (five years compared to two), and cap space ($6 million per year either way). The only worry in New England about Patriots football should be the ability of Mayor Menino to pronounce “Amendola.”

Let’s Go Streaking

I must give forewarning because the title may have been misleading – what I’m looking at is the Chicago Blackhawks and the Miami Heat winning-streaks – or, in Chi Town’s case – points streak. It’s not looking at the other activity of streaking…at least not in the Shire anyway…at least not until May…at least excluding the Penguin Plunge…

Things have gotten heated on social media as of late, especially on Twitter, when ESPN asked whose streak was more impressive. The question received well over 10,000 tweet responses; all from omniscient, second comings of the Schwab who felt that their answer was correct.

So, whose streak impresses more?

Is it the Chicago Blackhawks who garnered a point in 24 straight games in the NHL (before falling to the Avalanche 6-2 on Friday night) or does that right belong to the NBA’s Miami Heat who had their superstars LeBron James and Dwyane Wade explode, each scoring above 24 points per game and nearly 6 assists during their current, 17-game win streak?

Well, there is a very fundamental discrepancy between the two. Miami hasn’t lost in 17 consecutive games while Chicago has avoided defeat in regulation for those 24 contests. So, really, for Chicago it’s a point-streak, not a win-streak as the Blackhawks have fallen three times in overtime.

How the NHL works is such: that a win rewards the victorious team with two points, an overtime-loss (including shootouts) with one point and a regulation loss warrants zero points. Therefore, to lose in overtime can perversely observed as a win for the defeated team.

It must be taken into account, however, that there is a margin of parity in the NHL, whereas no one pretends that anything of the sort presents itself on the hardwood. To prove that point: the point-percentage (games in which teams gained at least one point divided by the total games) for the Blackhawks was .634 whereas the Heat’s opponent winning percentage during their winning series tallies a .481.Even that number is skewed because of a few teams with absurdly high winning percentages, but there are 9 teams under .500 the Heat have taken on and defeated.

Those numbers don’t tell the entire tale because, of those 9 teams, five were 15 games under the 50-50 line, which is extremely high and shows the Heat have inflated their record with wins such as those. Those numbers are comparable because the NBA does not allow ties and NHL teams Chicago faced can accumulate anywhere from at least 2, to 6 draws. To eliminate draws would reduce the percentage drastically, but it would still be close to the Heat’s opponents winning percentage (.477).

Upon further examination of the two teams schedules would reveal that 20 out of the 24 teams Chicago challenged, the organization had between 10 and 13 wins out of a 24-game schedule and 19 of 24 had above-.500 records. Those near .500 records show that on any given night, anyone can skate away with the W. That’s parity at its finest. The Heat played 7 out of 17 teams with records above .500 – therefore, analytics say that Chicago has navigated a more challenging course this season. Also, Chicago won its first 12 games even, though 10 of them were on the road and their season led-off against the defending-champion Los Angeles Kings. Oh, and the NHL started during a strike-shortened season where many players were out of shape and the teams were not cohesive. There cannot be anything tougher than that.

Both teams play tenacious defense. The pair of goaltenders for the Blackhawks – Corey Crawford and Ray Emery – split playing time and yet both are in the top-four in save percentage and goals-against average. That includes Emery who started a perfect 10-0-0 for the season – a historic milestone for the tendy as Emery is the first ever to accomplish such a feat. A point for Miami is that they allowed less than 100 points in 12 of their 17 games and are averaging a mere 94.9 points per game. Their streak includes making another team from the Windy City – the Bulls – look dismal and stifled their offense as the Heat only gave up 67 points.

The unreal series of wins has been unusual in that there has not been a competitive, alpha-male spirit surrounding the coinciding streaks. In fact, there has been much love between the teams, including LeBron tweeting out that the Blackhawks were “awesome” and Bryan Bickell of the ‘Hawks reciprocating. Everyone has been tossing in their countenance as Mr. Hockey, Wayne Gretzky, offered to debate Mr. Basketball, Michael Jordan, on whose streak was more impressive. That would be more “awesome” than LeBron’s compliment, or even Barney Stinson, if it would happen.

The biggest knock against the Heat’s streak is that it’s hardly the best this season as opposed to the Blackhawks who are doing the best ever. The Los Angeles Clippers became domineers of the Staples Center by winning 17 in a row earlier this season.

It’s safe to conclude that the Blackhawks have the greater streak.

Just to be clear, though. How much do streaks really mean? Ask the 2007 Patriots who went on an 18-game tear but lost when it counted, or the 2002 Athletics who won 20 games in a row (a MLB record), or the 1979-80 Philadelphia Flyers who strung together a North American sports history record by going unbeaten in 35 straight contests. Other than winning a bunch of games in a row, those teams all have one thing in common: They all lost in the championship.

The season becomes nothing without a title, that’s something both the Blackhawks and the Heat should make sure to remember.

 

Back to School

It was Saturday in Bloomington, Indiana. A Hoosiers player chased down a black-and-gold clad opponent who was in possession. The 7-foot tall chasing Hoosier dove, forgetting his body, and used an outstretched finger to tap the ball away. That lunging, athletic play stopped a 3-on-1 for the black-and-gold Iowa and flipped the play from an effortless layup for the Hawkeyes to an easy transition bucket for the Indiana Hoosiers.   

The man who scored the bucket was incidentally the same man who tipped the ball away from the Iowa man and crashed to the hardwood only seconds before. Cody Zeller, Indiana’s bigman, leads his team not only in statistical categories – which he does most nights in points, rebounds and blocks – but in hustle.  Zeller puts forth everything he has on the court every single night.

Zeller was unfazed when he cut his chin during the second half. He attempted to conceal what was happening to the officials, but bled on his shorts and had to be escorted from the game. Zeller stayed out for an eternity…27 seconds. He immediately returned to the court and drew another foul, made two free throws, then converted on a dunk all while lauding his teammates with praise for giving Indiana the victory.

Efforts like Cody Zeller’s are just one of the reasons that the hippodrome of college basketball is so revered, so pure and so beloved in today’s society. Pride, upsets, equality?

One of the reasons that players make efforts like Zeller’s is that they are playing for pride; they are playing for their school. When they stop across the white line, they respect that they are representing the other students (that they very well may have class with the next day) that are sitting in the bleachers or on the couch at home. That effort channels itself through every game and creates a better product for the NCAA than even the NBA can produce. Where is that leaping effort in the NBA? The only time recently that an NBA player would hit the floor by their own accord would be Chris Bosh on his incredibly delayed reaction to a supposed Carlos Boozer elbow (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-I95QvTlsDs flip to 2:43 for your viewing pleasure). Bosh missed the Oscars last week where he should have won at least some sort of acting award – and if not an acting award, maybe “Best makeup” then for his fantastic ostrich impersonation.

Another part of that allure to NCAA basketball is the campus feel and the stadium atmosphere.  Also helping is probably the fact that the NBA runs a higher average ticket cost than the NCAA.  The college atmosphere is great – the student body appears to be as one when a rival arrives. Face paint, chants and the obscure, but awesome, happenings on a regular campus. The greatest pranks have been pulled there: CollegeHumor faking out colleague Amir on a blind-folded $500,000 shot at Maryland in 2009, and the Harlem Shake/Gangnam Style flash-mob that exploded in the bleachers of the Terrapins home stadium just last week. Other than Reggie Miller and Spike Lee’s jawing during the 1994 Playoffs, there is not the same level of intensity from the crowd at NBA games, because there’s no reason to. There’s a certain level of detachment at NBA games whereas it is the exact converse at college games.

Speaking of detachment, it’s rare in college basketball. Players are committed to their teams – unless they play with John Calipari at Kentucky with the “One and Done” philosophy where they merely fulfill their obligation to play. There is no ‘teaming up’ or Super teams at the collegiate level. There’s also an absence of immaturity, at this younger level. It’s a healthier environment where the coaches coach and the players play. As odd as it sounds – college players are more mature than those in the NBA. When’s the last time an NBA player forced out a coach, committed to a team, then asked for a trade – all in the span of three months (we’re looking at you, Dwight Howard). What about the ugly affair that eventually separated the pairing of Carmelo Anthony and the Denver Nuggets? No college player controls a front office (because there isn’t one) or gets upset with his coach (the coach gets upset with them) and decides that he’s a superstar so he’ll do whatever he damn well pleases – which is refreshing. The college man understands the concept of loyalty.

Compare this to Marcus Camby punching Jeff van Gundy, Ron Artest’s “Malice in the Palace” and any Dennis Rodman look from his playing days. The NBA does not even try until April, when the playoffs arrive. The NBA regular season is useless, as I’m sure you’re all aware. Teams advanced in age like the Boston Celtics can cruise through the regular season and then flick the switch ‘on’ for the playoffs. With the exception of the 2010-11 season where the Mavericks upset the favored Miami Heat, most NBA playoffs go according to schedule and the higher seed triumphs en route to the Conference Finals – from there it’s the team riding the hotter hand who makes the Finals. But in college, nothing is given and anyone is eligible at any time. Lehigh and Norfolk State had never been heard of until both #15 seeds pulled off court-storming wins against #2 seeds Duke and Mizzou, respectively last spring. Even then, #16 UNC-Asheville nearly beat #1 Syracuse in what would have been the first 16-seed beating a 1-seed in the history of the tournament just a year ago. Unpredictability holds NCAA teams accountable to bring all their effort every night and the upsets provide fans reasons to come out and reasons to love the parity, and the sport, of college basketball.  

The sport of college basketball is also closer to what Dr. James Naismith dreamed up in Springfield, Massachusetts so many years previous in 1891. It’s a tough game about free throws, layups, and great defense. College basketball emphasizes the fundamentals and winning whereas the NBA is more focused on its superstars, flashy dunks, and marketability. The NBA has even added rules to increase scoring and therefore, in their opinion, enjoyment to the viewers experience. What if someone wanted to watch a good, hard defensive matchup between two good basketball teams? He’d have to look elsewhere than at The Association. Some of the rules detract from the game.  Take the Defensive Three-Second rule. That rule states that defenders can’t hang out in the lane like most teams strategize to from first-grade rec ball to college. Teams place their biggest kid in the lane to stop any drives to the hoop for an easy layup, but the NBA purports flashy dunks…so it’s out with the defense and time to make the path a little clearer for today’s NBA superstars.  Another is The Continuation Rule, which says if a player is fouled, he has two steps to “complete the play” – which is basketball for get to the free-throw line so the TV commentators can discuss you and your new shoes/movie/clothing line more. The last, and worst, rule by the NBA is the sixth foul rule which ups the foul limit from five (which is used in every other form of basketball) to six. That rule change was enacted so that NBA fans could watch the stars play longer and that they would have more chances to forget real defense and rise up for a block on occasion. But the rule is pointless. Giving NBA stars an extra foul is meaningless because they already have an extra teammate in black-and-white stripes.  LeBron James, the NBAs premier player, went 254 straight minutes without a foul being called. That’s 27 quarters and nearly 7 games on personal foul free ball. Any player, whether it was James or Brian Scalabrine, could not go 254 minutes without committing any foul! At least…without some help. The biased in the NBA towards its superstars makes me angrier than Allen Iverson after being asked about practice, and it should make you too.

The worst is when rules aren’t enforced. Like Dwyane Wade’s travel in a game against the Mavericks in 2011 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDnCEQ9WJtc). Oh wait, it wasn’t just any game…it was the NBA Finals! How does an NBA player with multiple referees watching get away with three steps like that? Only David Stern knows.

Now it’s not being said that college basketball is perfect as a whole – what with recruiting violations and such – but between the white lines, it’s the best form of basketball that a fan can hope for.

College sports are beloved because it is the sport it in its purest form. College removes the politicking between the paid and bank roll – it removes the things that detract from the game and it brings the competition back to why fans originally loved it. And why should the fans of the NBA keep going there for their hoops fix? They shouldn’t. Colleges host more affordable games, rules closer to the original sport, loyalty, pride and the atmosphere – so they should host more support, too.