Monday, June 20, 2011

Congrats Bruins, you made me eat my words

I made a very bold statement a few weeks ago – one that I was sure was true: “Maybe the Bruins will come back to beat the Canadiens in the first round; maybe they’ll even make it to the conference championship – but they won’t win the Cup, and all of the fans, bandwagon or not, will be disappointed in the end.”

Well, I’m eating my words. Last week, they proved me wrong by winning the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1972, and doing it in impressive fashion. 

I won’t give you a run-down of their Stanley Cup run – their three Game 7 wins, their dominance at home or their epic turnaround after Game 2 in Vancouver, when a Canucks victory parade seemed inevitable. I won’t give you a summary because the Bruins run to Lord Stanley was a strange one for me. I didn’t fully jump back on the bandwagon because, as I said in April, I’ve “lost that loving feeling” for the B’s and I just couldn’t trust them. I tuned into the games and cheered for them to win, but it was all halfhearted because I couldn’t truly invest in something that I was sure had a heartbreaking ending.

Before I was born, the Bruins were IT in Boston. In the 1970s, they were bigger than the Celtics, the Patriots and even the Red Sox. But after the Jacobs Family bought the team, things changed. I assumed I’d never see the Stanley Cup hoisted by the black-and-gold because, well, they’re the Bruins – owned by a man who doesn’t even live in or around Boston (he lives in Buffalo!) and always spent enough money to compete but never enough to win. 

I loved hockey until I was 22. But since 2005, I haven’t truly cared about hockey unless the Bruins or my alma mater, Boston University, made the playoffs – even then, I didn’t really care. So I can’t take as much pleasure in the Bruins Cup win as the die-hards who stuck with them through thick and thin – people like my cousin Shawn, who hasn’t turned on them in his 35 years and has worn a Bruins hat since the day I met him 10 years ago (he is technically my cousin’s husband). When they won Game 7, I was thinking about how happy people like Shawn must be, and wishing I was still one of them. 

One Saturday, the Bruins held their championship parade and it was the biggest parade in Boston history – even bigger than the Red Sox parade in 2004 after their first World Series win in 82 years. The thing about hockey is it fits in Boston – Boston is a tough, working-class city, where the men drink and fight, and the women are just as tough. Hockey is a sport for real men – if you look at someone wrong in the NBA you get a foul; if you blow on the quarterback or a receiver in football you get penalized; but in hockey, players stand up for each other and themselves. 

I grew up loving Ray Bourque, Cam Neely and Adam Oates, but they lost me in the post-Joe Thornton days. Now, kids in Boston are idolizing Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Milan Lucic in that same way and I think it’s great. I hope they never feel the gut-punch I did when I realized the management didn’t care about the fans.

And I hope those real, true fans like Shawn – who never abandoned the team and always believed this day would come – are enjoying every second of the Stanley Cup being in Boston.

The legacy of LeBron

Never before have we had an athlete like LeBron James. I don’t mean just in his athletic ability, but someone who has been scrutinized on a daily basis since he was 13 years old.

Since James’ Heat were defeated for the NBA title by the Dallas Mavericks, many are already talking about his legacy being tarnished – that, having lost two titles in two tries somehow says that he isn’t a clutch player, that he doesn’t have the drive to win numerous championships.

Since James was in high school, he was the “next greatest player,” being compared to the best ever – Michael Jordan. But, after eight years in the league and no championships, people are starting to question his drive.
Michael Jordan is the greatest NBA player of all time, but he was not the most gifted athlete the league has ever seen – what made Jordan so great was his relentless drive. There has never been someone as hungry – and with such a chip on his shoulder – than Michael Jordan.

LeBron James’ drive never has been and never can be equal to Jordan. Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team as a sophomore – to some that seems like a minor bump in the road, but to Jordan it was a punch in the gut . He took that and made it the driving force in his basketball life. Even after scoring 1,400 points in high school, getting a scholarship to the University of North Carolina, being drafted third overall in 1984, five NBA MVP awards, ten All-NBA First Team designations, nine All-Defensive First Team honors, fourteen NBA All-Star Game appearances, three All-Star Game MVP awards, ten scoring titles, three steals titles, six NBA Finals MVP awards and the 1988 NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award, he still brought up being cut from the varsity squad in high school at his Hall of Fame induction.
LeBron James has been called “The King” since he was 14 years old; his high school games were broadcast on ESPN; teams were hoping – in 2001 – to get the number one draft in 2003 so they could have him on their team. He has always been worshipped. Jordan in high school was a very good basketball player, but it wasn’t until he was cut as a 15 year old that he got the hunger that drove him – and still drives him – to prove everyone wrong. LeBron doesn’t have that drive; with the life he’s led, it would be impossible for him to have it.

In reality, the person we should compare LeBron to is Wilt Chamberlin – both had national visibility beginning in high school; both were the best amateur basketball players in their state since they were 14; both possess unfathomable natural gifts. Wilt, like LeBron, was a once-in-a-generation talent. Chamberlain was a four-time MVP, a 13-time All-Star, a seven-time scoring champion and a 13-time rebounding champion, and averaged 50.4 points per game during the 1961-62 season. But his he didn’t win his first championship until his eighth season in the league. 

LeBron and Wilt were both atop the league when they entered, and each year their stats were among the best. But the championships didn’t come like they did for Jordan.

Jordan’s drive to be the greatest ever was highlighted last year. After James joined Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami, Jordan said “There's no way, with hindsight, I would've ever called up Larry [Bird], called up Magic [Johnson] and said, 'Hey, look, let's get together and play on one team.” He wanted to do it on his own, because he knew he could.

James’ talent is a great player; his talent is unquestionable. But he doesn’t possess the innate quality that made Jordan the greatest of all time – drive. James wants to win, perhaps more than anyone, but he still doesn’t have the level of drive that Jordan has and because of that, LeBron will never ascend above Jordan on the list of all-time greatest players.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Can Plax come back?

On Monday, Plaxico Burress was released from prison. 

After serving nearly two years on a gun charge at Oneida Correctional Facility in central New York, the former New York Giants wide receiver enters the world a free man, but without a job.

In a game I’d rather forget as a native New Englander, Burress caught a 13-yard pass from Eli Manning with 35 seconds to play to give the Giants a shocking 17-14 win over the undefeated  Patriots in the 2008 Super Bowl. Just nine months later, Burress’ world crumbled. He and then-teammate Antonio Pierce went to a nightclub in New York City, but before he left home, Burress tucked a handgun tucked into his waistband. While at the club, the weapon slipped from his waistband and as he attempted to catch it, it went off and shot him in the thigh. 

So not only did Burress shoot himself in the thigh, he was charged with criminal possession of a weapon, to which he plead guilty and accepted the two-year prison sentence. He was released three months early for good behavior.

I have many opinions of what Burress went through. Let’s start with the obvious – what an idiot! He had everything going for him, why in the world did he feel the need to illegally carry a handgun into a night club? In one second – when he tucked that gun into his waistband – he fell from Super Bowl hero to prisoner 09-R-3260.

Secondly, I think the sentence was extremely – and unfairly – harsh. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, has waged a long campaign against illegal guns and publicly reprimanded Burress for carrying his .40-caliber weapon. He wanted to make an example of a high-profile person in his war against illegal weapons. I think Burress deserved punishment for illegally carrying a weapon, but I think he should have been treated fairly – not more severely because of his celebrity status. 

But that’s in the past, and Burress is again a free man and says he’s ready to play football. 

Prior to his sentence, Burress was released by the Giants, and suspended by the league. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell ruled that he was ineligible to sign with any team he completed his jail term, but said he would be reinstated in the league upon the completion of his sentence. 

Making things more difficult for Burress is the lockout – he can’t even talk to teams (on the record at least) until the lockout has ended.

There are many other obstacles standing in his way: Burress has been out of football for three seasons; he will be 34 years old when football season begins (whenever that may be); he has to get into football shape, and that is utterly impossible to do on your own - and the longer the lockout lasts, the longer he will be forced to workout by himself.

But there are also things working in his favor: he is 6’5” and has great hands; that freakish athletic ability he possessed is still there – and that is intriguing to just about every NFL team; with the current NFL lockout, the field is more leveled for Burress – instead of the free agent market season opening in March and teams already having their roster needs filled, he will be entering the market at the same time as everyone.

It worked out for Michael Vick, but Vick was 29 when he re-entered the league after his prison sentence – five years younger than Burress. 

In the end, I have little doubt that Burress will find a team - Terrell Owens proves that you're talented enough, you can always find an NFL team willing to carry your baggage. And a 6’5”, freakishly athletic wide receiver with loads of experience? That’s just too tempting for no team to pick up on.

The question is: will he be a factor? Only time will tell.