Friday, June 22, 2012

A Closer Look Needed to Find Champion Character

It's something we do every day.  We all look in the mirror.  Maybe it's just a glance or maybe we give ourselves a full "Mirror, Mirror on the wall...Jean Claude Van Damme I'm Fine" look.  Whichever it is, it's routine and usually done just to make sure everything is in order.

But, there are times when the full length door mirror simply won't do.  There are moments when we must break out the magnifying mirror.  Sometimes a quick gander is all we can stomach because what we see is humbling.  Zits, wrinkles, gray hairs, baggy eyes, and receding hairlines (ahem) that are often hard to detect with the normal mirror are not only exposed, but unavoidable.   The magnifying mirror gives us an honest look at who we really are.

Twelve months ago, the Dallas Mavericks forced LeBron James to step away from the bathroom mirror and take a long, hard look into the 10x one.  Today, he is better for it.

James' poor performance against the Mavs in last year's NBA Finals and the circus he created leading up to that series was representative of an immature, arrogant, pompous young man who had never been forced to face failure in the eye.

When he was 16, Sports Illustrated anointed him "The Chosen One."  He was heralded as a franchise savior when drafted first overall by his hometown Clevaland Cavaliers.  Even when he struggled in his last series as a Cav, he received the red carpet treatment from every other team and fan base in the world the following summer as probably the most coveted free agent in NBA history.  He selfishly announced he would "take (his) talents to South Beach" during a nationally televised, hour-long special on ESPN.

LeBron had become the King of basketball, if not only by talent, but by popularity. The sports world watched his every move closer than teenage boys in the 80s watched Phoebe Cates get out of a pool.

And he bought into it.  To be fair, it's hard to receive that kind of attention and not lose yourself a bit, especially in your mid-20s, but LeBron, who is an intelligent person, handled his popularity without class or poise.

What LeBron bought into was different from reality.

At the time, LeBron acted as though champions were crowned by expectations, not performance.  The loss to the Mavericks was a vivid realization that he wasn't invincible. He is just like the rest of us, flawed, not loved by all, and capable of being humbled.

This season, LeBron changed.  He came out hungry and with a title or bust mentality, different from his first season in Miami when he was concerned more with the bright lights of fame than the shine of the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

LeBron's talent was never really the problem, but he became a stronger, more well-rounded player.  But what changed the most was the muscle between his ears.  LeBron thought before he spoke or acted.  He acted like a professional.  He was a leader in the huddle, a voice of reason in press conferences, and conducted himself as the face of the league's most popular franchise.

That demeanor carried over to a more poised, mature player on the floor.  While he wasn't perfect, he was pretty close.  LeBron put together a playoff run that statistically is one of the best ever.  He almost averaged a triple-double in the Finals and made key plays at key moments, which was an aspect of his game that was greatly lacking just a year prior.

The saying goes, "you can't truly succeed, until you experience failure."  LeBron James failed early in his career.  He failed as a player, especially in the clutch.  He failed as a leader and he failed as a professional.

Over the past year, LeBron stripped himself down, stood in front of  life's mirror and decided to correct the flaws that were keeping him from true greatness.   He embraced where he fell short previously and took the necessary steps to make himself better, both in talent and character.

Now when LeBron James looks into that mirror, he will see a man who turned arrogance and failure into humility and success.  In other words, he will be looking back at a true champion.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

A Thunderous Transformation

We've all experienced that moment.  That moment we thought could happen, but are still in awe of when it actually does.

For example, in grade school, high school, or even college, there was always that girl who was cool, down to earth, and had a great personality. She was cute in her own way but, you never really looked at her in THAT way.  Then one day she transforms.  She starts out as just some girl who you sit next to and then the next moment she is a Rumble-Young-Man-Rumble KNOCKOUT.

There were signs the whole time, but once the transformation is complete, you can't help but realize you should have realized it sooner.

The NBA's new hottie is the Oklahoma City Thunder.  In less than two short weeks, they went from braces and saddle shoes to makeup and heels.

They matured and in impressive fashion.

Oklahoma City is one of the youngest teams in the league, with an average age of about 25.5 years old.  There are only four teams with more youth and none of them made the playoffs, let alone the NBA Finals.

But, for what these young'ins lack in birthdays, they make up for in teachability.

Throughout the first two games of the Western Conference Finals, OKC's opponent, the San Antonio Spurs put on a clinic.  They moved the ball as well as any team can.  They played balanced and were poised.  In other words, they won as winners do.  That is to be expected of a franchise with four titles in the past 13-years, maybe the greatest power forward of all time, a hall-of-fame-coach, and an MVP candidate point guard.

During the first two games in San Antonio, the Spurs showed the Thunder exactly what a champion looks like.

A lot of young teams would have accepted this butt whooping as a learning experience, folded, and said they would use those lessons learned and apply them next year.

But, in sports and life, nothing is guaranteed NEXT year.  Carpe Diem.  The Thunder threw their books down, stood on their desks, yelled "Oh Captain, My Captain" and seized the opportunity.

They changed from a team full of one-on-one players in the opening two games, to a team that made passing contagious.  Everyone bought into their roles.

Russell Westbrook played under control.  James Harden was a spark plug off the bench.  Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins played fast and aggressive.  Thabo Sefolosha defended and hustled like a mad man.  Derek Fisher hit big shots as he has done throughout his career.  And Kevin Durant...well, Kevin Durant went from a dangerous threat to a full on, cold-blooded, sleep with both eyes wide open, killer assassin.

Head coach Scott Brooks deserves a lot of credit, too.  He was able to get his team of  'kids' to react as men and buy into the teaching moment their opponents provided in the first two games.  As opposed to being stubborn and insisting on playing the "Thunder" way, Oklahoma City used the model of success the Spurs have laid out for over a decade and made it their own.

OKC became the better passing team.  They set the tempo and they made the hustle plays.  The Thunder shed who they were, forgot about egos and previous misfortunes, and grew into something better.

Growth sometimes comes natural and sometimes it comes through paying attention, looking in the mirror and realizing you want to see something different.

Oklahoma City always had the talent, but they didn't know what to do with it, until now.  They went from a cute, fun team with potential to the team no one can take their eyes off of.  

And no one wants to take their eyes off a winner.   

Friday, June 1, 2012

Scholarship Outrage Insults Combs' Efforts

One of my favorite songs of all time is "Victory" by Notorious B.I.G, Busta Rhymes, and Diddy.

The song is powerful.  It masterfully blends the booming bass of hip-hop with the dramatic violins of classical music.  Biggy goes hard on the verses.  Busta's hook is epic and Diddy adds the perfect mix of flavor, bars, and commentary.

My favorite part of the song that is all about rising to success comes at the very end when Puff hits the autotune (the song was released in 1998, before autotune became huge) and yells 'What am I going to do now, huh?  What am I going to do now?  It's all F***ed up now.'

I imagine Mr. Sean Combs is thinking similar sentiments today as critics chastise his son, Justin, for accepting a $54,000 a year athletic scholarship to play football at UCLA.  They argue that, because Diddy is worth more than a half-billion-dollars, he should cover the expenses of his son attending and playing football at the next level.

However, sports scholarships come primarily through revenue earned by the athletic program.  They are not funded by tax payer money, instead by corporate partnerships, media contracts and private donations.   Financial need is not taken into account.

Also, football revenue is usually one of the driving financial forces of a university.  Hundreds of thousands of fans pack UCLA's Rose Bowl for home games every year.  That money is used to help other students come to the school for free or reduced prices, so it's beneficial to all Bruins for the team to have a successful football program.  If the school thinks Justin Combs will help enhance that product and believes a scholarship is the only way to bring him in (mind you, he had other offers including at Illinois and Wyomig) then that is what the team is supposed to do.

Sports scholarships are intended to reward students with high athletic ability that also meet the academic requirements.  Justin Combs meets both, with ease.  He is not only a highly touted football player, but the young man has a 3.75 grade point average. 

According to a 2008 New York Times report, about two-percent of nearly six-and-a-half-million students who play high school sports receive a scholarship to continue their athletic careers at the next level.  That is an elite group who must make a lot of sacrifices and put in a lot of hard work to be recruited in such a way.

Justin Combs is part of the lucky few.

Yes, he lives a life of great privilege and yes, he has probably had access to opportunities that made his athletic and academic success easier than others, but that doesn't take away from the fact that he put himself in a position to make his own mark without being "Diddy's Son" his whole life.

I thought Mike Wilbon made a great point while debating this issue on "Pardon the Interruption," Thursday.  He said, there are probably tons of Wall Street millionaires whose kids go to elite high schools who are given full ride scholarships, yet, there aren't people screaming 'outrage' and calling for those kids to return the financial aid.

I personally went to a private high school and know students whose parents were beyond wealthy who received full ride scholarships and no way were they returning the money.  And these weren't athletic scholarships, these were scholarships funded in part by student fees that could have gone to other, more needy students.

Calling for the Combs family to reject the rewards of their son's work is unfair.

Society, myself certainly included, is constantly harping on the lack of young people today striking a balance between athletics and academics.  AAU teams and high schools have become factories for developing dreams of the Big Leagues, while at the same time states are cutting budgets for public school teachers, books, and educational field trips.

Sports are seen as a means to an end with school often overlooked.

Justin Combs has found a balance between school and sports.  He is not in trouble with the law.  He is a typical teenager hoping to receive some acknowledgment for his dedication to class and football.

Telling him to reject the scholarship essentially sends a message to kids whose parents are wealthy that you don't need to develop a work ethic because your road is already paved for you.  That's a dangerous precedent and likely will lead to an even more entitled culture, which is already a national problem.

Justin Combs is the son of a man who was born and raised in Harlem's public housing projects.  Diddy dropped out of college only to work hard enough to build a multi-million dollar entertainment empire.  He made the most of his opportunities, including dating J. Lo for awhile, probably his finest accomplishment to date.  He wasn't handed anything, he worked for it.

I have to believe a man like that doesn't raise his son as someone allowed to rest on the success of his father.  Anyone who has ever listened to Diddy in an interview or seen his reality shows knows the man is all about business and not cutting corners.

Justin Combs' success on and off the field proves he has bought into his father's expectations. He did the work that was required of him, went above and beyond, and should be able to reap the rewards.

Those so appalled by his receiving a scholarship should instead focus their energy on more pressing needs in America's flawed education system, such as limited access to books for children in our inner cities, sky rocketing student loan rates that hinder financial prosperity after graduation, and an overall perversion of college sports recruiting that involves administrators using PUBLIC funds to pay for alluring top notch athletes with suspect GPA's or covering up sex scandals.

Those issues cost more kids access to college than ONE millionaire's son getting a football scholarship.

Personally, if I were the Combs family, I would give the scholarship back.  But, I don't think that should be expected.

Justin Combs worked his butt off and made the most of his opportunities.  We shouldn't look down on him for being rewarded for doing so, instead we should commend his efforts and let him be proud of his "VICTORY."