Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Father's Day Tribute

I've always viewed sports as a great bonding tool between generations old and young, especially among fathers and sons.  The amount of life lessons that can be taught through a game of catch or one-on-one are endless.  I have received some of my best advice from great men who used sports to clearly convey the message.

And that's why, in honor of Father's Day, I am writing a series on what today's college and pro athletes can learn from some of the influential men in my life, all of whom are fathers.

Part Four: M-V-Pops

One summer night in 1999, I was on the porch talking with my dad.  The exact extent of our conversation is a little fuzy, but I'm sure it was typical of the ones we have to this day.  We probably discussed sports, politics, women, and everything in between.  I love these conversations.

The one part of this particular talk that stood out the most was me telling him how I was terribly concerned that I wasn't going to make the freshman basketball team in the fall.  (These are things that cause mental anguish to a 14-year-old, but at the time, it was a big deal.)

That was the moment my dad told me something I will never forget.  He began quoting the poem "IF" by Rudyard Kipling.  (The following are parts of the poem)

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you; 

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too....

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;....

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings - nor lose the common touch;...

You'll be a man my son. 

And after, my dad said, "if you can remember the message of the poem and continue to work hard, you'll make the team."

From that moment on, I worked on my game constantly.  I spent hours playing pick-up games under the scorching sun at Groves High School.  I would get to the court around 5 p.m and stay until the only thing you could see was the moon and stars.  I was playing with guys twice my age and three times my size and that challenge was paying off as my skills were getting noticeably better, but what was even better was that I was doing it all with my dad by my side.

He would come to the court after work and just sit and watch me play.  After games, he'd break down what I did right, what I can work on, and encourage me not to get discouraged.  When we were a man short, he'd grab his old gym shoes from the trunk of his car, lace 'em up, and hoop with guys half his age...for hours.

I made the team that fall and by my junior year made the varsity squad, because every summer my dad and I were on the court daily.  He was always there.

That summer represents our relationship perfectly.  My dad has been at his best when his best was needed.

Several years ago, after getting dumped by this girl, I was miserable.  I went into one of those movie scene depressions.  All I wore was sweatpants, refused to shave or groom myself in any way, shape, or form, and spent my nights watching sports, sulking in my own self-pity.  It was pretty embarrassing, I'll admit.

But my dad, like David Ortiz in the ninth, stepped up and hit a home run.  He told me, "young Samuel (that's what he calls me) if you are a baseball player and hit .300 for your entire career, just three-of-every ten tries, you know what happens?  You are in the HALL-of-FAME!"

I thought to myself, "look man, that's great, but I could care less about Ichiro at this particular moment."

He went on.  "What I mean is, sometimes you strike out.  Life doesn't always go your way.  But, great hitters don't just quit, they step into the batters box and swing themselves out of a slump."

In a weird way, it was exactly what I needed to hear.  I decided to shower and get on with life.  (For the record, my batting average is  still worse than Brandon Inge's at this point, but that's a different story).

Two years ago, after sending out about 200 resumes, hoping to get a new job, I was about ready to quit journalism.  I've wanted to be a journalist since I was five, but had been stuck in the same job, working about 70 hours a week, in a city where snow fell as often as the sun rose.  I was ready to throw in the towel.

I told my dad point blank, "I'm quitting and joining the Peace Corps."  I had put some serious thought into this decision and researched how to join.  After making this big announcement, all I heard on the other end of the phone was dead silence for about five seconds and then..."BAHAHAHAHA."  My dad was cracking up.  "Peace Corps?, you can't even rake the leaves," he said.  

Eventually he composed himself and again dipped into the sports analogies to shed some light on the situation.

"Great shooters don't just stop shooting when they miss.  They keep launching shots."  Translation, so what that the first 200 resumes that you sent out didn't get you a new job.  It may take another 200, but at some point, you'll get your shot.

To be fair, it took about another 100, but as he has always been, my dad was right and I got a new job, that didn't require me to get any shots or sleep with a mosquito net around me.

The all-time greatest athletes have another gear.  They take their talents to another level when it matters most.  That type of elevation is mandatory to achieve icon status.

My Dad is the Michael Jordan, Joe Montana, Carl Lewis, Wayne Gretzky, and Willie Mays of fathers.  He elevates his game at the most critical moments.

Simply put, there are none greater.

 Part Three: The Legacy of a Champ

Sitting in the pew of a church in Venice, Florida last month at my grandfather's funeral, I felt uncomfortable.  It was hot and the emotions of the week leading up to the day had gotten the best of me, but neither were the source of my uneasy feeling.

For my 26 years of life , I had "The Champ" as my go to guy.  While a man of few words, he always knew exactly what to say.  I could count on him in any situation.  From what I heard at the funeral, I wasn't the only one who felt this way.

In that moment, sitting on the pew, on this tragically hot day,waiting to say my final goodbye, to one of the people I loved the most, I found myself wondering if my grandfather truly got the most out of his 82-years.

The question was answered quickly.

As my aunt Catherine read her perfectly scripted eulogy, I suddenly had the clearest understanding of my grandfather's life and what he wanted to get out of it.

I don't remember my aunt's speech word for word, but there was a part that listed a number of accomplishments my grandfather wanted to achieve before he passed.  By the time he died, he had everything checked off.  And what made the list so interesting was that his goals were based on making sure those around him were moving in the right direction.

He wanted to see all ten of his children grow up, have families, and find their identities.  For the most part, check.

He wanted to see his youngest daughter get married, check.

He wanted to see me graduate from high school, check.

My grandfather not only got to experience these joys in life, but he got a few extras.  He saw his children have children who grew into adults and teenagers.  He even saw his great-grand children.

Not only did he live to see me graduate from high school, but he lived long enough to see me put on a cap and gown after four-years at Michigan State, and then hung on long enough to see me jump across the midwest three times with new jobs.

He got the most out of life because he knew what was important.

Family mattered most to Roy Klemet and making sure his was ready to handle the rigors of life was his main motivation.

He didn't live a life of great luxury, but he made those around him feel rich.  He was tough as nails, but had a heart softer than snow.  He spoke in few words, but the words were always impactful.

Roy Klemet strived his whole life to make the world around his family a better one. 

In sports, I think we are seeing an opposite trend.  Athletes forget they are part of a larger picture.  The average career of a player in any given league is between three and five years.  Superstars and consistent role players are sometimes fortunate to squeeze out a decade or more.

In the grand scheme of things, their time spent on the field and court are but a mere speck in the history of their respective sports.   With that said, I want to see more athletes do more to make a positive long term impact and use the few years they spend playing at the highest level to make the leagues better for those that follow.

Time spent taking mug shots, in court disputing child support, and in clubs making it rain takes away from building a better legacy.  Those actions embarrass the reputation of the leagues these athletes are part of.

Players like Peyton Manning, Walter Payton, Bill Russell, and Mark Messier are great because they changed the way their sports were played.  Their attention to detail and passion for hard work were contagious and forced those around them to either get better, or get lost.  

They didn't distract themselves with trivial, self-serving indulgences because they wanted nothing to distract them from improving their careers, and in turn, improve their leagues.

Sports careers, like life, are too short to not try to get the best out of them.

My grandfather got the best out of life and because of that, made the lives of  others better, as well.

The Champ made sure he did what needed to be done so when he was gone, the rest of us could carry on using him as an example.

He showed his family how to live life right.  He helped those around him become better people and left a legacy of higher standards.

Which was the ultimate check on his life list.

PART TWO: Don't Forget the Fun

Let me paint a mental picture.  It’s the middle of summer.  Two boys - one eight, the other nine-years old - are standing with their jaws dropped just shy of the ground.  They are in absolute awe.  Confused, maybe a little embarrassed, but mostly proud.

By the looks on their faces you would have figured Phoebe Cates just emerged from a pool like a glorious sea-goddess and they were unable to avert their eyes.

But believe it or not, the spectacle they were looking at was a hard-breathing, man in his early 40s who had just left a streak of sweat on a basketball floor that was as long as a tire skid mark at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The two boys were my cousin Zack and I watching as his dad and my uncle (and godfather), Kirk, dove on the floor after a loose ball while playing hoops.

Now you are probably thinking, was this for the rec league championship? No.  

What about a high school reunion game? No.  He wasn’t trying to impress his old buddies? No.  

So where did he do this? A basketball camp?! Really?

That’s right, in a game with other dads and uncles, my uncle was sacrificing his body as if it was the final minute of game seven and not the annual Tim McCormick Father-Son Basketball Camp at Saint Mary’s High School in Orchard Lake, Michigan.

That’s just who is.  My uncle Kirk gives his all, all the time.

Those who read my blog regularly, all three of you, are probably guessing at this point I am going to use my uncle’s hustle as a way to rip lazy, over-paid athletes.  While I could, because there is plenty of material there, I actually use this example of my uncle doing his best Brian Cardinal impression to say…sports needs to get back to having more fun.

As hard as my uncle played that game, and weekend, he never stopped smiling.  He loved it.  He was a 40-something-year-old man getting in touch with his inner kid and reveled in every minute of it.
To me, there is nothing more refreshing, except for only the fact that this is my uncle Kirk’s approach to every day.

Maybe it’s his psychology background or various life experiences, but I can’t think of anyone who enjoys the little things in life more than my uncle.

Without getting too personal, Kirk could easily take a different approach and sulk in a number of bad hands he’s been dealt.  But instead, he uses those setbacks to find joy elsewhere.  

You won’t find a happier man than my uncle when he is singing, having a conversation while eating Subway, or simply listening to stories of his kids and nieces and nephews.  His joy is simple, yet perfect.

I wish he would spread some of that positivity to the sports community, media included.

Think about the biggest stories in sports right now.  The Heat failure.  The NFL lockout.  Lance Armstrong cheating.  And the scum of college athletics.

If I was a kid and these were the headlines I was reading growing up, I would trade in my bat and glove for a three-piece suit and campaign signs, because even politics doesn’t look this grim.

We, yes I said we (me 100-percent included), focus so much on what's wrong with sports, that we forget about why we fell in love with them in the first place.

Sports are all about the kid who catches a foul ball at his first game.  They are about the little brother whose favorite player signed the playing card he sleeps next to every night while dreaming of one day becoming his idol.  They are meant to be about the father and son enjoying a brew while watching the team they’ve cheered for, for decades, finally reach the playoffs.
As is true of most aspects in life, as you get older, you begin to understand everything is a little more complicated than it was as a youth, including sports. 

Sports are businesses which can lead to corruption and cheating, but at the core, they are still all about fun.

Sports need to channel their inner uncle Kirk more often.   Even when the times are tough, even when there are few reasons to be encouraged, stop for a minute, and simply smile.

I imagine the next day after his floor-dive, my uncle was walking a little more gingerly.  But, I have no doubt he’d do it again because he was spending time with his boys, playing a game he loved, having fun.

Exactly as sports are meant to be.

PART ONE: The Mount Rushmore of Greatness

It's fitting to start a four part series talking about four men who I view as a Mount Rushmore of sorts.

To me, Jorge Morales, Mark Roualet, Mike Peluso, and Bud Petcoff are the faces of business savvy.  They are each either immensely successful business owners or presidents of major companies.

I've always considered what these four men have accomplished as perfect examples of hard work paying off.  They have put in endless hours, paid their dues, consistently moved up the ranks, and once they reached what most would consider the apex, challenged themselves and tried to rise even higher.

They are the ultimate businessmen.

In the metro-Detroit area, I imagine they could give any doorman the Godfather "Do you know who I am?" treatment and have a top-notch table, at a five-star restaurant, with a 32-ounce steak waiting for them within minutes.  Through their hard work and commitment, they've probably earned the right to do so.

But, as good as they are at business, they are better people and never walk around entitled.

Each of the four are as selfless and as generous as there is.  When you work as hard as they do and accomplish as much as they have, it would seem natural that they would carry a hint of arogance.  But, not once in all my years of knowing these men have I felt like any less of a person when around them.

They represent everything I wish we'd see more of in today's sports world, humility and staying grounded.

It seems like every day I read a story about some player saying some variation of "I need to get mine."  Unless you are a track runner, who is not on a relay team, these should be the last words that enter your head, let alone leave your mouth.

We saw it in LeBron's (paraphrased) "my world is fine, because I'm rich, your world sucks because you are not me," postgame comment.  The mentality was on full display in Columbus, Ohio for almost a decade and the NFL is tarnishing its reputation and product by owners and players both trying to "get theirs."

Athletes, and even coaches, lose site of what got them to where they are.  It's an unfortunate trend that those that reach the top of their sport often buy into the hype.  That's why Terrelle Pryor figured he could roll around in any car he wanted.  It's why the Heat celebrated a title eleven months too early.  It's why Jamarcus Russell figured he could sip on Purple Drank instead of participate in off-season workouts.  Because they all believed they were in fact as big as the amount of zeros on their pay checks.

I want to send my men of Mount Rushmore to lecture these selfish, self-absorbed morons on what it means to be truly successful and truly a man.

Greatness isn't defined as the amount of cars in the garage or the number of carats in your chain.  It's defined as reaching the top of your abilities and then striving to go even further, even if that means failing in the process.

Jorge Morales, Mark Roualet, Mike Peluso, and Bud Petcoff are great men and fathers because through all their successes, they always stayed true to who they are and never let their feet elevate off the pavement.

Kids should wear jerseys with their last names on the back and hang posters with their faces on the wall, because these four men live Hall-of-Fame lives.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Dallas Mavericks: The Example of a Champion

The Dallas Mavericks finally got to spray champagne.  For Dirk, Jet, J Kidd, Chandler, Marion, Carlisle, Cuban, and the rest of the team, there must be no better feeling after so many times coming up just short of a title. 

But, I wish they would have toasted wine instead.  It would have been more fitting.  Champagne is exciting and flashy, it's very Miami.   Wine is distinguished and the best ones are aged, just like the NBA's newest champions.

The Dallas Mavericks capped off one of the most exciting NBA seasons in years by winning one of the most exhilarating finals in recent memory.

Since June of last year, when LeBron James and Chris Bosh decided to join Dwayne Wade in South Beach, this season was all about the Heat and starting what they believed would be a dynasty run on championships.

To be fair, there is so much talent on that team that they probably will get fitted for a few rings, but over the past two weeks, the Mavericks taught them how to be champions and it starts with probably the most unlikely person.

As great as Dirk and J. Terry were in the finals, the most credit for Dallas' title has to go to Mark Cuban.  The outspoken, often over the top, owner made adjustments in his demeanor and roster that were nothing short of remarkable.

This series begged for Cuban to be a walking sound bite.  He could have taken verbal jabs at Miami.  He had plenty of material.  Whether it was Chris Bosh looking like a raptor, LeBron's non-existent fourth quarter performances, or Wade's flops that indicate his girlfriend Gabrielle Union is giving him acting lessons on off-days, there was no shortage of punch lines waiting for Cuban to capitalize on.

A couple of year ago, Cuban would have been on ESPN daily, but he matured.  He knew Miami needed no more fuel added to the fire and knew the finals alone were enough of a distraction  that he kept quiet and let his team's play do the talking.

That's because he believed in the guys he brought together.

Dallas does not have a sexy roster.  Dirk is elite.  He is no question one of the all-time greats.  But Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and Shawn Marion, who have all had outstanding careers (Kidd a hall-of-fame career), are past their primes.  But, nonetheless Cuban believed.

Many considered Tyson Chandler, the former number two overall pick, a bust.  Cuban saw a different player, believed, and Chandler responded by defending and rebounding in the biggest moments.

Cuban believed in a five-foot nothing point guard (with a BEAUTIFUL girlfriend), J.J Barea, who torched defenses throughout the playoffs.

He put his faith in a man written off as a stepping stone coach who could only get a team so far, but not to a title.  Cuban saw differently and was right.

Cuban, like a true business man, believed in his product and did what needed to be done to get Dallas to the title.  He deserves a ton of credit.

But, Cuban can do only so much.  Players have to play.  Dallas' players played.

Dirk's performances were legendary.  A pair of double-digit fourth quarter comebacks, clutch shot after clutch shot, he was simply spectacular.  He erased the painful memory of the 2006 finals collapse, by putting together one of the most complete playoff performances ever.

He also did what the world wishes LeBron did.  Dirk stuck with a franchise that saw highs and lows until the job was done.  For 13-years he and his team's championship fortitude were constantly in question, season after season.  But, Dirk never quit on his team or city and continued to put in the work until he finished on his goal.  A lot is to be said about that kind of commitment and dedication.  There may be no better feeling in sports, ask Elway.

Jason Terry and Jason Kidd overcame careers full of NBA Finals disappointment (three losses combined) by continuing to scratch and claw.  They didn't shy away from challenges of teams with title history - the Lakers - or up-and-coming squads - OKC - instead, they stayed true to and focused on their mission, and tattoo, all to win a title.

The Mavericks are exactly what champions should be.  They are mature, poised, humble, and hungry.

They are who Miami should model themselves after going forward.

From day one, the Heat acted entitled. They held a title celebration months before the PRESEASON even started.  You can't be hungry if you are being fed and feasting on BS.  That's what the Heat did when they bought into the idea that they were about to wear the NBA's crown every year by simply stepping on the floor.

The poses, the mocking, the yells were the ultimate signs of immaturity.  

The Mavs put on a clinic in maturity.  The Heat acted and performed just the opposite.  They were premature in their celebrations in games two and four and never really recovered after Dallas made two of the greatest comebacks in Finals history.

Miami learned a valuable lesson, being hungry is more important than being talented.  Those that figure it out, like the Dallas Mavericks, perform maturely, brilliantly,distinguished, and complete...just like the finest wine.

Cheers, Dallas.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

LeBron and Tiger in the Midst of Ultimate Test

The two most transcendent athletes of the last decade are at turning points in their careers.

For all the greatness they've produced, LeBron James and Tiger Woods find themselves in a place they have never been before.  It's a place that consists of more doubt than adoration and is proving to be the ultimate test for two men, who if they pass, could end up being the greatest their sports have seen.  If they fall short, they could be considered two of the biggest letdowns.

From the minute they stepped on the scene, Tiger as an overachieving, focused amateur and LeBron on the cover of Sports Illustrated as "The Chosen One," they have been heralded as the next great thing in their respective sports.

Then they turned pro and both exceeded expectations.  Tiger owned Majors and 'Bron became a player the NBA had never scene before, a 6-8, 275 pound guard.  He is a taller Osi Umenyiora with Magic Johnson's skill set.

Ahh the good ole days.

Both men have been to the height of their profession.  The endorsement deals are endless.  Magazine covers, shoe deals, signature video games...they had it all.  Even when they messed up, fans still believed their greatness would be enough to bounce back quickly.

Tiger missed the cut at Winged Foot in the 2006 U.S Open and Bron was swept in the Finals against the Spurs, but they were so good and dominant the consensus was that it was just be a matter of time before they were again at the top of their games.

They did, only to make poor life choices that made the court of public opinion turn on them quicker than Cher's daughter did into a son.

Bron and Tiger are no longer getting the love they've grown accustomed to throughout their careers.

We are learning these supermen do have kryptonite and it sits between their ears.
Tiger's off the course rounds still are causing more problems than any ACL injury and LeBron trying to win back the adoration of NBA fans have hindered their quest to be great.

Sports fans use Michael Jordan as the model of greatest.  MJ was ruthless, hardworking, and focused only on winning.  He is seen as the standard of a champion.

Tiger and LeBron have both tried to live up and eclipse his Airness' level of dominance.  Tiger was close and Bron may have been put there prematurely, but regardless, its a standard his career will ultimately be compared to.

The thing that separates Jordan from these two is his mental game.  Jordan blocked out the world when he was on the court.  Whether it was his gambling debts, media criticisms, or memorizing lines of epic movies, MJ didn't bring that stuff with him on the court.

Every time Tiger walks a fairway, there are whispers in the gallery about his sexual escapades.

Every time LeBron steps on the 90-feet of hardwood, he is the most despised man in the building because of "The Decision."

They are no longer loved.  In fact, for the most part, they are hated. And that hate is turning to self-doubt.

If Tiger wants to pass Jack's Majors record and LeBron wants to start a long term relationship with the Larry O'Brien trophy, both need to start worrying less about what people think and more on doing their jobs.

Tiger's decision to drop out of next week's U.S Open is a good one.  He is physically damaged, but mentally he hasn't been right since the world found out he had a little Hugh Hefner in him.  He is naturally a private, closed-off person and has had to put on a warm, softer front in order to win back the support of his fans, the golf community, and the corporate sponsors who fund Jupiter Island.

This is not the same man who was cut throat in the Masters and intimidated the entire field in practice rounds.  Until Tiger comes to peace with his past mistakes and truly begins looking forward at Jack and not back at those mocking him, he will continue to struggle.

If he cares more about winning than being liked, Tiger will come back aggressive and hungry and control the dented white ball like he used to, better than anything else is his life. 

LeBron has always been a happy-smiling figure. His on court demeanor was the antithesis of Tiger's.  He would dance and wink and it was all fun and games.  Fans were receptive to this style, because it made coming to the court fun.

For the past twelve months, he's had to be defensive and take a more serious approach because he decided a pursuit of a title was easier with help than by having to carry the burden on his own and the country responded with scorn.

He underestimated the amount of pressure that would come as a result.

In the Finals he's been missing more than Mr. Chow's length.  LeBron is starting to cringe as the pressure heightens.  He is proving to be a player he's fought so hard not the be, one that is above-average, but not great when it matters most.

If LeBron doesn't step up, come to play, and help his team win a championship over the next three games, it may prove that we are "Witness"ing one of the mentally softest players of our time, one that will never be truly great.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Game 2: A Story of Character and Maturity

I'll admit, I thought it was over.  At 10:39 pm, I tweeted "The last time someone ran through a bunch of Mavericks this easy was 1978...Debbie Does Dallas."

That was early in the third quarter.  And it got worse.  Miami was on the verge of a blowout and then, Debbie got lazy and Dallas got focused and made arguably the greatest comeback in NBA Finals history.

The Mavericks 95-93 win over Miami, Thursday, at American Airlines Arena was beyond miraculous.  Dallas put together a team effort and never quit.  Dirk hit the big shots, but Shawn Marion was consistent, Jason Terry was clutch, Tyson Chandler was ferocious, and Brian Cardinal...well he picked up a foul.  The Mavs gave it their all for 48 minutes.

Miami gave it their all for about 41 minutes and some change.

It was a perfect microcosm for why they are and will continue to be "America's Most Hated Team."

Anyone who has watched these playoffs knows the Heat are above and beyond the most talented team.  Coming into Thursday's game, they hadn't lost at home and were 13-3 in the postseason.  That is the definition of dominant.  No, they haven't really blown anyone out, but they have played as a team down the stretch when needed most.

Thursday, they lost focus of the team concept and reverted back to the June 2010 overhyped, self absorbed, celebrate before the job is done, Miami team that earned the scorn of everyone outside of South Florida.

In game two, the Heat were dancing and posing when they went up by 15 with seven minutes left as if Larry O'Brien had just told them he already started engraving their names into the trophy named after him.

Their actions were immature, selfish and entitled.   Those are three adjectives that do not describe a CHAMPION.

While 'Bron, Wade, and Rupal, excuse me, Chris Bosh, were working on their 'You Got Served' celebration routine, the Mavericks did what veterans do and fought.

They did it with efficiency and defense.

Dallas allowed Miami to buy into the idea that they were that good.  The Mavericks let the Heat run one-on-one offensive sets and had no problem letting them launch three's, because they knew, as a team, they have what it takes to beat a bunch of individuals.

And they did so to the tune of a 22-5 run that was capped off by a left handed, correction, injured left-handed, lay-up by Dirk Nowitzki. 

The Mavericks are certainly not more talented than the Heat, but they proved Thursday they are are more mature, focused, and better at handling adversity.

The Heat are a bunch of characters.  Cocky individuals.  The Mavericks are a team and soon should be Champions.