Tuesday, January 31, 2012

A Lesson in Rising: Griffin's Jam More Than Just a Dunk

I don't think it's a coincidence that President Obama announced he would start scaling back NASA's space travel around the same time Blake Griffin entered the NBA.

The Clippers second year forward is flying places humans have never been.  There is simply no longer a need to fund expensive rockets when one human can explore the great unknown by himself.  Monday, against the Thunder, was Griffin's latest, most exciting mission into space.

But, before I analyze what is already being labeled the 'Dunk of the Year,' let's recap how we got here.

The Clippers are historically one of the worst franchises not just in the NBA, but in all of sports. They play in the same city (and stadium) as the Lakers, who are arguably the most popular franchise in basketball. Michael Olowokandi, anyone?  Their owner, Donald Sterling, is nuts, and maybe the best player in team history is nicknamed after a Bowel Movement.  It's been crappy to be a Clippers fan, pardon the pun.

But, ever since Blake Griffin threw on that red, white, and blue jersey and set foot on the Staples Center floor, there has been a different feeling surrounding the franchise.  He has become a mainstay on ESPN's Top Ten highlights.  He has a contagious personality.  And most importantly, he is focused on winning.  He is the model player to be the face of a franchise.

Griffin's success and talent helped recruit another elite, young player this off season, Chris Paul.  Two years ago, the thought of maybe the NBA's best point guard moving to Los Angeles to play for a team not named the Lakers would you been absurd.  If you would have offered up that suggestion, the basketball world would have had you thrown into the same halfway house that *NSYNC called home in the "I Drive Myself Crazy" video. (You're welcome for the reference Joey Fatone fans everywhere).

The Clippers have never been a sexy franchise.  There was little alluring about joining the team for free agents.  Blake Griffin has changed that stigma and made the Paper Clips Sofia Vergara-esque.

Enter, Monday night.

Chris Paul, who as previously mentioned is now a Clipper in part because of Griffin (and David Stern....), was running a pick-and-roll.  The threat CP3 poses helped to draw three Thunder defenders to the top of the key.  Paul, like a surgeon, threaded the needle between the OKC defense with a perfect bounce pass to Griffin who set the initial pick.  Because of the attention to Paul, Blake was looking at an open lane with just Kendrick Perkins between he and the basket, and so begins the fun.

As Griffin gets the ball, he doesn't even really make a move toward the basket, he takes two steps to position himself and then just rises.  AND I MEAN RISES.

Kendrick Perkins isn't a leaper, but he is built like a mountain, almost immovable.  Griffin knew this and went all 'Price is Right' on Perk and instead of going through the mountain, went over the top and threw the ball down so violently at the basket you would have thought that little orange rim stole $20 from Griffin, married his sister, cheated on her, and then stole Blake's girlfriend.  There was anger in that jam.  Utterly violent.

Griffin was in the air so long, not only did he jump before Perkins, but he was still rising as Perkins came down to the floor.  That type of elevation defies logic.

The reactions following the dunk are as epic as the dunk.

The second Neil Armstrong Griffin comes back down from space, DeAndre Jordan runs over and grabs Blake as if he needed to be held down from an exorcism, just holding him until the demon that just abused Perkins could fully leave Griffin's soul.  Blake rips off Jordan as though it can't.

And then there is a man in a blue shirt sitting baseline behind the basket who puts his hand over his mouth and looks up to the heavens.  No sir, you are not dreaming.  You did in fact just see something mythical.  A man just flew right before your eyes.

Then the camera pans over to Perkins. His face is priceless.

As he lines up on the free throw line (oh yea, the dunk was an And 1, just to make things worse) he has a look of pure bewilderment.  "What just happened? Why did that happen? Where am I?"  And then you hear the crowd's reaction when they see the replay on the jumbotron and Perkins' bottom lip gets a little stiff and you can see he wants to let out a grown man cry.  He knows his career highlight reel now starts with him getting victimized.

And you know what? Perk has no one to blame but himself.  Do some research.  Blake's dunk on Timothy Mazgov last season came on a very similar play and Perkins himself knows the pure embarrassment of letting someone go Jimmy Hendrix on you to "Kiss the Sky," when D-Wade put him in a Purple Haze in Miami.  I know defense is important.  But so too is your self worth, and if Perkins keeps letting guys boom on him like this, he is going to have to get some voice lessons and try to turn poverty into wealth in other ways.

Yet, Monday's classic jam was all about Griffin.   His dunk is a microcosm of what he means to the Clippers organization.

He is the reason an annually pathetic team is not just watchable, but competitive.  The man who set up the dunk was recruited to the Clippers because of Blake and the fact that the Clips ended up winning the game, against the team with the best record in the league, is another example of the rise, both literally and figuratively, of the Clippers and Blake Griffin.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Joe Paterno's Broken Legacy

The greatest coach in all of college sports is John Wooden.  This is a statement of fact, not opinion.  The famed UCLA basketball coach based his career, both on and off the court, on 15 "Building Blocks" which he called the "Pyramid of Success."  The one that stands out the most to me is "Be At Your Best When Your Best Is Needed."

It's a message that resonates beyond sports.  It can be incorporated into any facet of life.

If John Wooden is the greatest coach ever, Joe Paterno isn't too far behind and is probably the best in college football history.  However, after a career in which he lived and coached in step with Wooden's famed mantra, the one time he didn't likely cost Joe Pa's permanent legacy.

Joe Paterno passed away this weekend at the age of 85.  I was always a fan of his.   I grew up in Big Ten country and watched Paterno put together quality teams, for the most part, year-after-year.  Even when people thought he was washed up and the game had passed he and his coaching style by, Paterno responded with superb seasons and proved doubters wrong.

Simply put, on the field, Joe Paterno knew how to win.  In fact, he knew how to do so better than any coach in College Football history.

But, the scandal that cost him his job paints a grayer picture of a career that otherwise would be defined as a masterpiece.  The sexual abuse allegations against his former defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, of which Paterno allegedly knew about but failed to act on appropriately, make Paterno look more like a man who put football ahead of life.

No one can argue Penn State's legendary coach changed the lives of countless individuals.  If a person impacts the lives of one-one-hundredth of those that Paterno did, they have lived a great life.   But, Paterno also turned his back on those who needed him the most, child victims.

We all make mistakes.  No one is perfect.  It's easy to forgive those who try to make amends for their setbacks and there in lies the problem with Paterno.

Joe Pa never tried to correct the mistake of not reporting what he heard about Sandusky until it came out publicly.  He tried to mask a serious problem that he knew would ruin his program's otherwise sterling reputation.  Paterno put his legacy and Penn State's in front of doing what was right and that is inexcusable.  Not only did he not try to help vulnerable kids when he first heard of the allegations, but he sat on the information for nearly a decade and therefore allowed these heinous crimes to continue, when they could have easily been avoided.

Paterno led Penn State to 409 wins, two National Championships, a multitude of conference titles, and 24 Bowl victories, but he failed to lead when it was most needed and those are the moments that define a career and life.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tebow's Belief in Tebow Keys His Success

The Denver Broncos are in the second round of the NFL playoffs and divine intervention has nothing to do with it.

It's become cliche to talk about Tim Tebow and his faith and what role it may or may not have on his athletic successes and failures.  The Broncos quarterback's belief in God is not why he and his teammates are two games away from the Super Bowl.  It's his belief in himself that's helped them get to this point.

Tebow is an average quarterback.  Actually, according to his season numbers, which were some of the worst EVER among NFL starting quarterbacks, he is below average. But, as any player, coach, or analyst will tell you, skill is only a part, albeit a very important part, but only part, of being a successful quarterback.

The other key piece is being a great leader and while there is plenty left to be desired from Tebow's throwing motion, accuracy, and timing, his ability to inspire is elite.

And I don't mean inspire in a religious sense.  I understand Tebow's religious beliefs and morals have helped enhance his reputation and notoriety, but I don't think he is getting any special treatment from the man upstairs.  (Although I'm not entirely ruling out a Tony Danza, Christopher Lloyd 'Angels in the Outfield'-type situation).

Timmy Touchdown inspires through his confidence in himself.  He has been scrutinized, and praised, more than any  player in the League this season. Yet, he never lost sight of himself or belief in his own abilities.  If he did, it never showed.

His post game press conferences were always the same.  Tebow, rocking a b-boy winter hat, talked about Team Unity, Focus, Getting Better, and Continuing to Work.  It was boring and predictable, but unlike guys like Bill Belichick or Tiger Woods who are intentionally vague, it appears Tebow really buys into these concepts.

He has proven it throughout his career.  At Florida he stepped in and played a specific role on a National Championship team as a freshman.  He let the senior Chris Leak lead and he paid attention and learned.  The following year he became the first sophomore to win the Heisman Trophy and, the year after that, returned the Gators to another National Title.

He was a first round draft pick in the NFL only to sit the majority of the early part of his career on the bench being told he should convert to a tight end or running back because he didn't fit the mold of the traditional quarterback. But, Tebow never wavered from his belief that he could start and thrive at the position he's always played.  He put in the work and vowed to be ready when his opportunity arouse.

This year, he got his opportunity and even though there have been ups and downs, Tebow is one of eight starting quarterback still playing this season.

His overtime winning throw against the defending AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers is his signature career moment.  He was not expected to excel against the Steelers' vaunted defense.  In the game, he didn't complete 50-percent of his throws, but he made plays when it mattered most.

As a teammate, that's inspiring.

Quarterback is considered the most difficult position in ALL of sports.  When a QB can get the job done with the game on the line, it encourages those around him to continue to fight harder and dig deeper because they know there is always a chance to win.

Confidence is contagious. Tim Tebow oozes it.  He is as mentally tough as they come.  He doesn't let critics change how he approaches the game and doesn't buy into the praise either.  He exemplifies balance and those who are balanced rarely stumble.

A basic theme of Christianity is "Love Thy Self."  Tebow lives up to this message by trying to get the most out of his abilities and because of that, believes he can achieve whatever he sets his mind to.  That's the mark of a leader.

A football player doesn't part seas, walk on water, or turn water into whine.  They play a game one day a week.  But, Tebow proves obstacles can be overcome through resiliency and faith in oneself.    That message resonates on and off the field, for everyone.

That is inspiring.