Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Draft Day All About Understanding Risks

I'm kind of a square.  Taking risks is not something I'm known to do.  I've never done an illegal drug, felt insanely guilty when I had my first drink when I was 18, would rather stay in and watch games than party, and drive the speed limit 99-percent of the time.

I'm sure my four-equal-sides, four-equal-angles lifestyle has cost me some fun life experiences, but I play it close to the vest, and am pretty happy with the way things have turned out.

I'll admit, there are times when I wish, if only for a day, I could slip on Charlie Sheen's shoes of chaos and mayhem.  It'd make for great stories, I'd probably feel as free as ever, and see things in a new, likely blurry, light.

Unfortunately, these are risks I'm not willing to take.  I've invested too much in my career, family, and friends to throw it away on a weekend bender (Scott Doyle's Bachelor Party next March excluded).

Sometimes the risk just isn't worth the reward.

To risk or not to risk is a question that takes center stage Thursday in New York City at the NFL Draft.

Committing a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract to a 22-year-old who has been told his whole life he is the greatest thing since jorts is the definition of rolling the dice.

If you hit snake eyes, your franchise could be set back for years. If you throw Yahtzee, it could be a decade of playoff runs.

In this day of twitter, facebook, and thedirty.com it's pretty easy to identify players with "character concerns."  College football players can't blow their nose without someone tweeting about it, so when they are doing keg stands with co-eds, it's plastered on the news wires immediately.

In some ways its unfortunate that these kids are followed by paparazzi like Brangelina adopted them, but it's the evolution of the sports' popularity.  As a General Manager, you don't want the next face of your franchise with more mug shots than touchdowns.

$35M, Spent $34.5M on Purp Drank
However, I don't think it's fair to say a player is a waste because it's taken him time to mature.  Yes, all of the athletes in the draft are adults by definition of age, but most are still learning what it means to be a man.

Nothing makes a man more than understanding humility and responsibility.  The NFL, more than any sport, needs to teach this lesson early and often.  Those who don't pick it up fail, those who respond succeed.

The league must take more of an initiative to make sure there are more Danny Woodhead's than Jamarcus Russell's.

The teams that decide to gamble on guys with troubled pasts need to make sure they surround their rookies with veterans and support systems that challenge them, rather than cater to their every want and desire.

Ryan Mallett
Mike Vick is a prime example.

In Atlanta, he was handed the world and not held responsible for his setbacks.  He was given passes when he cut corners and bent the rules because he was a star. Ultimately, that behavior caught up to him.  Not only did he hurt his career, but he scarred a franchise and city.

In Philadelphia, he was humbled by coming in as the third string QB and had veteran leaders like Donovan McNabb and Asante Samuel to guide him along.
Jimmy Smith

He not only transformed his game and had the best season of his career, but he transformed as a man, too.

Cam Newton, Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Smith, and a host of others enter Thursday's draft with unbelievable talent marred only by their questionable life choices.

You don't shed your past problems over night and I don't expect that to happen to these prospects or any other in the future.  The teams that draft them need to go Gene Hackman Hoosiers-style,  "tear 'em down, to build them up."

The NFL can take a big step forward in assisting in the maturation of its young players by implementing a rookie pay scale.

Guaranteeing a kid $10-million, $20-million, $30-million, or $40-million right out of college is like a sleepover at the Neverland Ranch.  It may look harmless, but it's probably going to end in tears and disaster.

Instead, make these guys earn those record contracts.  Set a limit for their first two or three years.  It will make them work harder, humble them, and lessen their sense of entitlement.   A player that knows his big pay day depends on how he performs and behaves is less likely to pull a Vince Young making it rain in the Boom Boom room.

You add all these things up and you get fewer busts and an overall higher, quality product.

Risk is defined as "exposure to the chance of injury or loss."  The NFL will lose fewer of its players to "character and off-field issues" if it increases the incentive on the field.

As much as the league has a responsibility to help its young stars, ultimately, the onus falls on the individual.
Suh: Not a Bust! A Beast

Any coach will tell you, he'd rather his QB throw the ball out of bounds than try to make the big play into double coverage.  It's the "live to play another down" mentality. 

All rookies need to have this mindset.  No one wants a risk, they want someone committed to excellence, even if it takes time and extra effort.

With that said, there is no shame in taking risk, but hitting blackjack and not crapping out, depends on having a system and personnel in place that encourages sound judgment and long-term success, not spotlight and hype.

Teams that don't think they are ready to handle that responsibility should play it safe.

Being somewhat square can be o.k.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Closing Time is for Champions, Not Frauds

No team in NBA history has ever won a title in the first round, but plenty have lost their chance.

The Miami Heat may be the most recent example.  The team that predicted seven titles in ten years must have figured they can concede 2011 as one of those championship runs.  How else can you explain their breakdown in the City of Brotherly Love, Sunday?

It was a breakdown Mel Gibson would have had to step back and say "wow, that's too much."

The Heat blew a six point lead in a minute-and-a-half, let the Sixers steal game four, and cost themselves a chance for some extra rest.

This isn't the mark of a champion.  If you want to see what a champion looks like, take a look at what happened at Madison Square Garden.

The Celtics handled business they way a team that expects to play in June handles business.  They manhandled the Knicks.  Yes, New York made a late game comeback, but almost every NBA team makes a late game run no matter the situation.  The Celtics didn't panic, stayed within their game plan, and gave the Knicks an early start on their summer vacation.

Boston is like the guy who goes into an interview who has been laid off for months after working in the business for years.  He comes ready because he has something to prove.  Tie is knotted, suit is dry cleaned, shoes are polished.  He pulls it together to emphasize his professionalism.

The Heat are the wiz kid out of college who expects to get the job just because he is who is.  He comes to the interview sloppy, uninspired, and entitled.

Who do you think gets  hired?

What the C's understand that Miami, specifically LeBron, doesn't is that every extra game you play, makes that trip to the finals 48-minutes more difficult.  James should be the last guy who wants to be on the floor more than he has to.  He is heckled and mocked in every road game, fouled harder than everyone but Dwight Howard, and the pressure created by the press mounts with every loss.

The 76ers were the dog you see in the road that had just been hit by a Cadillac (DETROIT!).  They were squirming and panting and just wanted out of their misery.  But instead of just running them over and ending it, LeBron's inability to close gave that dog some life.  And now Miami has to spend more time dealing with this dying dog instead of preparing for the healthy and hungry pitbull that's getting stronger as they rest.

Psychology is such an important part of the NBA playoffs.  If you can get into the head of your opponent early, you have a distinct advantage.  That's what made the Bad Boys and Bulls great.  The Pistons would beat the crap out of you for 48-minutes and make you think twice about driving into the lane, opting instead to take ill-advised jumpers.  The Bulls and Jordan had so much confidence that they would hit the necessary shot down the stretch, that their opponents expected to lose.

I think Miami expects to win, but they don't know how.  The don't understand the mental aspect. Having to play an extra game allows the veteran savvy Celtics to sit back for a few extra days, rest up those aging bodies, and analyze every Heat miscue.  Boston will use this advantage and past experience to give the Heat a business lesson next round, strike while the iron is hot.  If you linger, you'll miss out.

The Heat lingered and their let down in the first round will cost them even more in the second.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

My Champ: The Fighter

I used to go to my grandparents' house everyday after elementary school.  No matter how rough of a day I had, I always looked forward to going over to Nana and Papa's.

Nana usually had pancakes or waffles waiting for me, with layers upon layers of syrup.  And on the days when I wouldn't stay late, she'd make sure I always had at least a snack of carmel squares and Vernors.  To me, these were perfect meals.

After Nana was done feeding me, it was time for hanging out with the big guy.

Papa and I would spend hours together.  He taught me to play chess, do a proper pushup, and made the front yard our own playing field.

We would play catch with either a football or baseball until the sun went down.  We used to run this in and out pattern that would make Joe Montana and Jerry Rice jealous.  Papa, aka the Champ, would hit Sam, aka Shug, in stride every time.  We were unstoppable.  A perfect duo.

Little Shug
(Why he nicknamed me Shug, he's never fully explain.  I asked him once and he said "Because you're my Shug."  Papa is a man of few words and it made sense to him, so it made sense to me.)

What eight-year-old wouldn't be in love with this life?  Come home from school, eat like a prince, and play sports with the best teammate around.  I was in heaven.

Nana was always on point with the meals.  As a boy struggling to grow, she made sure I was fed.  But, there were times when I'd finish eating and the Champ was missing.  Nana informed me he was napping.  Well, now come on, we had a routine.  Eat, play.  Eat, play.  Eat, play some more.

I would often poke my head into his room to hear these animal-type grunts and snores.  Papa was knocked out.  I would usually give him about five minutes, then I got restless and Nana would tell me to go wake him up.

I'd nudge him, he'd roll over with a moan that insisted "what that ---" and then see it was me, smile, and hop out from under the covers.  Gametime.

He always made time for me and I couldn't wait to get out of school to hang out with the Champ.

One day in third grade, I walked in the door and Papa was already up from his nap and alert.  He noticed his normally energetic, excited grandson was looking depressed.

He asked what was wrong and I just put my head down in shame.

I've never been a big kid.  I was the smallest kid in my class until college and the only reason I finally got out of the lower tier was improved odds of going to a school of nearly 50,000 students and some legal growth hormone in high school.  Great investment.

But, in third grade I stood barely four feet and 50 pounds soaking wet.

I was a pretty well liked kid, but this one giant-of-a-creature was set on crushing me, both mentally and physically.  He picked on me daily.  Short jokes.  Shoves.  It was your standard grade-school teasing, but it finally took its toll.

I told my grandpa of what had been happening and without hesitation he grabbed me and took me to the basement.  You would have thought a meteorologist just reported a tornado was within a block of their house.  I've never seen Papa move that fast.

Once in the basement, he just looked at me for a moment and put up two hands.  I looked at him with a look of bewilderment.  "This is not the time to teach me some new high five, man!"  He waited a few more seconds then said "Hit 'em."

"Hit what?  Your hands? Why," I questioned in my head (I'd never question the Champ out loud).  He then followed with "No one is going to mess with you.  You are a Klemet."

For the next 45 minutes I threw punches at the Champ's hands like I was Joe Louis.  He showed me the proper fighting stance and routine boxing jabs.  He was determined to have his grandson ready to handle any oversized ogar.

He finished our session with this... (paraphrased) "Sam, you might not always win the fight.  You might lose, but you should always be ready and believe you can win....Now go kick that 'son-of-a-pup's ass."

I heard my grandpa swear before, but it was when he didn't think I was listening, so when he said that to me directly, I knew he meant business.

(He did add that I was not to tell my mom he swore, which made me laugh.)

I never got to fight the kid who was picking on me.  He actually stopped messing with me for the most part starting the very next day.  I have a theory that my grandpa found out where he lived and gave him a mob type visit to let him know there would be no more incidents or he might wake up next to a horses head.  Just a theory, though.

While I never got to use my Jack Johnson boxing skills the Champ taught me, I gained a lot more from that 45 minute session of throwing punches in the basement, I learned to battle, no matter what the challenge.

Without that day I never would have made the high school basketball team.  I never would have finished on the Dean's List at Michigan State.  I never would have had the guts to take my first job out of college making $22,000 a year in Salem, Illinois where the cows were smarter than most of the people.

My grandpa taught me in that moment not to fear anything or anyone.  He made me a fighter in life.

Now it's his turn.

Today, I learned my Champ took a punch.  He has stage four throat cancer and it's unknown how much longer he has left to live.

I heard the grim news when I was driving to work.  I had to pull over as my eyes filled with tears.  I couldn't talk, let alone drive.  I sat in a parking lot for five minutes in shock and anger.

I've always thought of my grandpa as invincible, so for him to take a hit like one only cancer can deliver felt surreal.

And then I thought back to the basement. 

Immediately, I wanted to get on a plane and head to Florida, look his doctor in the face and laugh.  I'd say, "Doc, I know your medical knowledge makes you believe my grandpa has only a matter of months left on this earth, but what no X-ray will indicate is that he is a Klemet.  Klemet's fight."

I know Papa will fight as long as he can.  He will give cancer a battle it wishes it didn't start.  He will jab and hook and uppercut like no one ever has. 

I've always thought of my grandpa as larger than life and that's why I know even life's biggest challenge can't get the best of him.

He's a Klemet.  He's a fighter and he's going to beat this "son-of-a-pup's ass."

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

No Shame in Butler's Game

Sitting on the bench, dejected, after another loss, 17-year-old Sam Klemet learned a lesson he carries with him everyday in his life.

He looked up into the stands of the Brother Rice gymnasium to see his parents smiling at him, both pointing to their chins signaling to "keep his head head up."

Bench warmer
It came after I spent, yet again, 32 minutes riding the pine for a team that didn't win a league game.  I thought to myself "how is this at all fair?"

I knew for a fact that no one worked harder than me.  None of my teammates spent more hours working on his game in the summer, running hundreds, maybe even thousands, of miles during the fall to improve my endurance, and no one dissected film like I did.  I watched game tapes so much you would have thought they were titled "One Night in Paris."

But, despite my efforts, the only shots I was taking on gameday were ones during warm ups.  (And yes, I did keep my stats for the pregame.  I was about a 60-percent shooter, although that's slightly inflated because the first five were usually layups.)

It wasn't fair. It wasn't meant to be, but it was a great teaching moment.

My parents kept reminding me that no matter how the season ends, even if I never play a minute, to take pride in the process and be proud of putting forth my best effort.

I took their advice and grinded through the season.  I never missed a practice, came early to shoot arounds, and was as bruised up as  Vince Neil's ex from diving on the floor for loose balls in practice.  It was all for naught.  I probably averaged 2 minutes of playing time per game for the season.  My best efforts didn't result in great rewards.

Butler, I feel your pain.

Basketball, as can all sports, tears at your heart and can beat you down after you've given all you've got.  

The Bulldogs, for the second straight year lost in the National Title game in heartbreaking fashion.  Worse than last year's near miracle-shot loss against Duke, this year's Butler team shot miserably on the worst possible night.    It was a drought even Texans couldn't comprehend.

Brad Stevens' team shot 18-percent from the field, the worst ever in a title game, with the whole world watching.  How embarrassing.

Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored, and their teammates were simply off.  Their faces were in shock.  They looked as if they had just been robbed and lost everything.

But to their credit, they fought.  I didn't see any quit in Butler.  Even when the game was out of reach (yes, 10-points is out of reach when you make 12 total shots), the Bulldogs battled.  They fought for rebounds, dove for loose balls, and worked hard on defense.

It just wasn't their night.  Like Sam Klemet's high school basketball career, it wasn't meant to be.  Kemba and the Kembets were a better team.  They deserved to win.

But that doesn't mean Butler isn't a champion, as well.

What Brad Stevens' teams have accomplished over the past two seasons is remarkable.  There is no shame in getting to a title game and losing.  (Unless you are Michigan, nice T.O C-Webb....unnecessary shot at the Wolverines, count it for Sparty! Zing!)

Butler should take pride, and the nation should commend them, on achieving success the right way.

As much as I respect the run UConn made, I think it's a little sour.  Their coach will sit out three games next season for committing recruiting violations.  That doesn't seem right does it?  This is not to take anything away from the Husky players, who are every bit deserving of a title, but the team is led by a man who was caught cheating.

Seems unfair.

Butler has a clean program.  Their leader is the poster child (child being almost accurate) for up and coming coaches.  He demands success from his players and doesn't care what the odds are against them. 

Stevens has created an identity that his team would rather go down fighting than cut corners.

It's an identity more teams, especially on the college level, should adopt.

Butler is made up of mostly juniors and seniors.  According to the endless reports from Houston during the Final Four, most are level-headed guys, who work just as hard in the classroom as they do on the basketball court, and most have aspirations outside of the sports world once their careers are over.

Let's look at, ohhh I don't know, how about...Kentucky.  Good season, yes.  Final Four, pretty impressive.  Basically a whole new roster next season, no doubt.

John Calipari has built a pit stop for pro athletes.  His players go to class for a semester and then start eying their spot in June's draft.  John Cal's one and done count will soon rival Wilt Chamberlain's bed posts.

Although, it's not entirely his fault.  The system makes it possible. There is no emphasis on education, which according to the NCAA, is what sports is all about.

Apparently at Kentucky, North Carolina, or Ohio State a full educational experience for athletes is a one year program.

Butler is developing a culture of winners and leaders, both on and off the court.

I've seen it first hand.

Saturday, before the Bulldogs semi-final game against VCU, I took my little brother to Butler's campus.  We made a day of it, making stops at the College Sports Hall of Fame and at Conseco Fieldhouse to watch the women's Final Four practice.  But, the best part of the day was just outside of Hinkle Fieldhouse when he looked at me and said "This place is awesome. I would love to go to school here."


The success of the Butler basketball team has opened doors and given exposure to a university that is rich with sports and academic tradition.

It's given 13-year-old's a group of men to look up to, not because of what they have (rims and diamonds), but because of what they represent, hard work.

It probably isn't fair that a team that works so hard came up empty...again.

But, while the Bulldogs may still be feeling sheepish today, when they look back on what they have achieved on the journey, they will find, they have done something more important than winning a trophy.  They've created a legacy and culture of leaders and role models.....true champions.