Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Comparisons: "Next Bob Dylans" And Our Worst Knee-Jerk Impulse.

As a society, we seem obsessed with the art of the comparison. Nowhere is this preoccupation more evident than in the media. From highly-paid journalists to casual bloggers, you can't turn around without running headlong into someone likening things to other similar things. You've never heard of Band X? Well, they sound like a cross between Band Y and Band Z. Oh, did you like this book or movie? You should read/see this other thing, it resembles the first thing closely. This used to drive my buddy Ian nuts. He did some part-time writing for an Indy music blog, and was always hyper-fastidious about only describing what he was hearing, never how it related to other music. Since I'm not as pent-up and type A as he is, it took a little longer for the comparison bug to get around to my last nerve, but it's damn sure there now. The sports world has exploded with two separate incidents of unnecessary comparison recently. I blame Rory McIlroy. I blame Scottie Pippen.

Actually, I don't really blame Rory; it's not his fault he's here. Someone has to be the PGA's new alpha dog, and right now he seems to be the logical "next annointed one." But the fervor and hyperbole that sparked off after his win at Congressional was, for whatever reason, the last straw for me. "The Next Tiger Woods," they said. First of all, that's a backhanded compliment at best these days. Would any sane, well-comported, extremely talented young athlete (and McIlroy certainly is all of those things) want to be compared to sports' ultimate Icarus? Not likely.

The thing about comparisons in sports (or anything else) is that they're insanely unfair to both parties. McIlroy surely must feel somewhat flattered at the notion of being compared to Tiger, but at the same time that comparison thrusts heavy and unwarranted expectations upon his burgeoning career while simultaneously depriving him of an individualistic identity. I can understand PGA people themselves wanting to saddle the kid with the "Tiger" mantle. The sport experienced a pretty heavy tailspin following Woods' fall from grace and subsequent dismal performance on the course. They need a new face of the game, and a handsome, charming young guy like McIlroy is just what the doctor ordered. But the media's overblown reactions were grating and foolish.

Please understand, I enjoy comparison and ranking people in a historical context as much as anyone. In 50 years, I'll be glad to sit around and talk about how Woods' and McIlroy's legacies stack up against each other. But trying to jam the young phenom into Tiger's spikes at this juncture is just plain silly. Rory McIlroy is a very promising young golfer who is hopefully cranking up for a long and beautiful career. Why can't we just say that about him? Why does the arc of his PGA experience have to be hardwired into someone else's to be meaningful? His intrinsic properties as a golfer and a person ought to be sufficient to be getting on with.

And then there's the other side of the coin. Publicly, of course, Tiger was very complimentary of McIlroy, but he really can't afford to be elsewise given his current tenuous status in the public eye. Regardless of how you feel about him as a person, you have to think all this hype rankles him pretty badly. "For over a decade I absolutely owned EVERYONE on the tour. I won a tournament on one freaking knee!!! I can hit farther with a 4 iron that some dudes can with a driver!!! This kid wins one paltry major and now he's the new me? Are you joking?" And, seriously, are we? I hope so.

Those (hypothetical) sentiments were very likely reverberating in Michael Jordan's head after Scottie Pippen made that unfortunate "MJ was the best pure scorer, but LeBron might be a better basketball player" comment, then compounded his mistake by trying to say he was "taken out of context." I really do feel pretty bad for LeBron at this point. Certainly, I've been as guilty as anyone in over-scrutinizing every little failure, and putting every missed shot under a vitriolic microscope. When you're touted as a possibility to unseat Jordan's GOAT status before you can legally vote, naturally, that's going to cause some problems. As with the McIlroy/Woods scenario, neither LBJ or MJ can possibly be happy about our collectively, constantly assessing them vis-a-vis one another. For LeBron, anything less than flawless dominance is automatically perceived as failure, and Jordan must be in Charlotte smoking stogies and utterly confused as to why this kid was ever even in the discussion, especially given James' recent playoff miscues.

Of course, Jordan has the benefit of having been through this before. Kobe. Wade. Any time a hyper-talented two-way shooting guard appears, we automatically start wondering is this might be the guy to take MJ's crown. For Tiger, McIlroy is the only the first, but if Rory falters, you can bet the press will instantly find another talented young kid on the tour to hitch its wagon to. And this of course is ignoring whether Tiger will ever catch Jack, the previous generational "who's the next GOAT?" saga that's still in play.

You know who all this comparison-mongering this reminds me of? Bob Dylan.

Perhaps no legendary figure in the realm of music has been subjected to such a fierce search for their replacement or heir apparent or whatever as the man from Hibbing, MN. Think about it; we never hear about "The Next": Hendrix, Coltrane, Stones, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Zeppelin, Michael Jackson, Elvis, Aretha, Bill Monroe, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, James Brown, Muddy Waters, Beatles, P-Funk, Elton John, Cash, Beatles, Nina Simone, Madonna, Ramones, Satchmo, Beach Boys, Ella, Nirvana, Marley, Robert Johnson, Grateful Dead, Public Enemy, Gram Parsons, Sly Stone, Who, Velvet Underground, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Bird, John Lee Hooker, Tom Waits, Stevie Wonder ... you get the idea. Nobody ever looks at a new group or artist and talks about them usurping those places in music history. Oh, there might be a nod given or a brief allusion to influences of the old on the new, but never acknowledgement of "legit challenger" status. It would be unthinkable; a heinous transgression.

But in the curious case of Bob Dylan? For reasons that remain totally unclear, we're obsessed (or were for a great while) with finding an heir to his particular crown. He never got accorded the same "off-limits" status as so many of his peers. Seems like about once every five years or so for a really long time, we had a new "Next Dylan" on our hands. Tom Petty, Springsteen, Neil Young (post-CSNY), John Mellencamp, Jackson Browne. (I think Lou Reed may have gotten the "Next Dylan" nod at some point, too, but I could be wrong.) And in that list of media-generated ersatz Dylans lies the great lesson that we as sports fans and sports writers need to learn.

Think about those "Next Dylan" names for a second. Does Bob Dylan even come to mind? Of course not.

Tom Petty plays great American rock'n'roll. Just song after song of gorgeous, dirty brilliance. The guy is a hook machine. It's all he does. Slap on "Greatest Hits" sometime and think of the multitude of things you could be doing for which it would provide the perfect soundtrack while you sing along to every single word. It's a long list. It's a road-trip album, and lazy day album, a party album, an everything album. Because Tom Petty is never out of place or not fantastic.

The Boss ... what more can I say? You don't get a nickname that awesome without good cause. Not even the Beach Boys made American sports cars sound as cool as he did. The spokesman of small-town life and arbiter of marathon showmanship and unabashed joy on stage. Rock's ultimate everyman balladeer. Not to mention the sweeping grandeur of his compositions. Whether he's doing folky or screamin' swagger, he's an absolute original, and the single greatest export New Jersey ever produced.

Neil Young has done nothing more than crush, smash, and obliterate every boundary and convention he could get his hands on, all the while churning out enigmatic and iconic songs that stretch across generations. Also may hold the record for having been a member of the most different great projects ever, what with Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, plus solo. Listen to "Helpless" and tell me you don't get a little misty in the eyes. I'd call you a liar, and I'd be right.

John Mellencamp gets a (very slightly) unfair rep as a lesser light in the rock pantheon. Maybe it's understandable if you're stacking him up against the absolute elites, but "Jack And Diane", "Small Town", "Hurt So Good", "Scarecrow" ... come on! The guy had (and still has) a knack for turning the trivial into the anthemic in a rockin', accessible fashion. Say he's derivative, and on the surface you'd be right, but really, that would mean you're not paying enough attention.

Jackson Browne is among our more woefully underrated geniuses. "Oh yeah, he was pretty good!" is a response commonly heard, and completely wrong. It's not laudatory enough. He engineered a bizarre alchemy of folk, twang, soul, and what later became "soft rock" (in a good way in this case) in a totally unique fashion. The guy was dialed in to a specific frequency, and he let that resonance come out through a filter only he could have provided. Beautiful stuff.

My point is that these guys were never the "next" anything or anyone. They were the one and only versions of themselves. Instead of comparing them to Dylan, we would have been better served discussing them on their own merits, reveling in their individualism, not their convenience as analogies to someone else. Why would we want to pass that crown in the first place? Dylan himself has said he never wanted it. But we gave it to him, and considering everything he did (and continues to do) while wearing it, it's stupid to propose anyone could ever inherit the thing. Thinking anyone could be the "Next Dylan" not only diminishes what Dylan has accomplished, but puts ludicrous pressure on whoever gets stuck with that tag. When McIlroy and LeBron hang up their gear for the last time, we can talk endlessly about their places in sporting Valhalla. Until then, let's stop trying to compare them to Tiger and MJ. It's an easy out, a trite gimmick, and a faulty premise. We can do better than setting these kids up for failure and degrading the ostensible GOATS while were at it.

Remember kids, "gravity fails and negativity don't pull you through."

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Sports Doldrums, Yar!

Let's say I'm on a boat. Not with "my flippie-floppies" on a yacht like that hilarious hip-hop tune; I'm talking about an old-school frigate. Rigging, spars, yardarm, the whole nine yards (cubits?). I'm in the midst of my yearly global circuit of trade, taking me to exotic ports at all points of the compass. Currently, my vessel, the S.S. Over-Enthused Fan, is docked in the exotic Dos Isles Del Draft, a pairing of fertile islands where the indigenous people engage in an ancient annual rite. Calling not only on their native sons, but upon young warriors from distant lands, this sacred ritual signals a passage into manhood for members of the two tribes: The Fellowship Of The Hoop, and They Who Glide On Skates And Knock The Crap Out Of Each Other.

Soon, however, our stay in this pleasant land must end. A day in the life of a captain:

Captain's Log: 24th June, in the Year of Our Lord David Stern, 2011, 10:15 AM. Observed the naming ritual for the Fellowship Of The Hoop last night with crew. Noted an unusually disorganized and strange movement among the elders of the tribe. First Mate observed that Elder Kahn Timberwolf is still an incompetent fool who does not seem to grasp the purpose of the ceremony. I concur. Much dismay voiced by seaman Bob from the Fair City of Cleveland over naming of a young warrior called Tristan Thompson. Crew consoled him with copious amounts of rum and rereading of missives detailing the fall of Cleveland defector LeBron James.

12:26 PM. Over noon repast, lively debate among crew over whether newly named warrior Jimmer of the Clan Cowbell will be able to assimilate with fellow clansmen Evans and Cousins. Lunch ended in gales of laughter when someone uttered the phrase "Metta World Peace."

1:24 PM. Crew ambivalent about tonight's They Who Glide On Ice And Knock The Crap Out Of Each Other naming ceremony, as none of us ever know what's going on or who the new warriors are. However, we must remain, as this will be the last important cargo we can take on for another month or two at the least.

1:31 PM. Crew demands that before continuing our planned journey, we make a stop in the Czech Republic in an attempt to locate other women who look like Jan Vesely's girlfriend. I happily assent.

1:48 PM. We leave on the morrow. After consulting with First Mate, we conclude that we should have fair winds through the Straits of Wimbledon, aided by the meteorological phenomenon that occurs ever few years, the FIFA Women's World Cup. (USA! USA!) We also have favorable news of the Omaha currents, which flow swiftly by the Cape of College Diamonds. They should see us safely on our way from Dos Isles Del Draft for a fortnight or so.

2:06 PM. Further consultation. We gazed in apprehension at the map. The Tennis and Soccer Winds and Omaha currents will soon give way to the treacherous swath of seas know as the "All-Star Break(ers)" There is always a terrible chance of being becalmed and stranded there until mid-August. We are uncertain whether our cargo of mid-season injuries, slow-paced games, and over-priced hotdogs and beer will be sufficient to sustain us if no significant pennant developments occur. It is a beautiful stretch of ocean to behold, full of much that is wondrous, but still a danger to movement and enthusiasm. When a ship becomes listless, one risks profound boredom for and possible mutiny from the crew, no matter how fervently a captain may attempt to rally them with reversed caps and monkeys. I resign to implement motivational ploys such as VORP (Value Over Replacement Pirate) and ERA (Earned Rowing Average) to keep the crew motivated. Advanced Metrics, Yar!!! If they fail to measure up, they will walk the plank and be sent down to Davy Jones' AAA Locker(room).

3:45 PM. Disturbing reports from many quarters. Our usually profitable stops in Hardwoodport and The Bay of Gridiron may be aborted. We make for these refuges of succor during the Fall and Winter months, to take on an abundant cargo of joy and entertainment. (And spices.) Sadly, both locations are suffering from a severe outbreak of what is commonly known as the Lockout Plague. (Ship's doctor informs me that the medical term is Owner's Greedia Exhorbitus.) Our grey-bearded helmsman terrified the crew with accounts of the last time he visited ports where that horrible disease had struck. Symptoms include lack of emotional rudder, heavier-than-usual drinking, and unnatural interest in Cricket. It sounds a terrifying thing to endure.

4:45 PM. We elected to take on our cargo early and depart before the They Who Glide On Ice, etc. naming ceremony. You can't really blame us. Anchors away!

5:19 PM. We fear the Lockout Plague may not run its course by the time we make our scheduled stops in Autumn. We resolve instead to make for the lively coastal metropolis of Encee-Ay-Ay. It is a usual port-of-call for us, but this time we may need to spend the entire Winter there. Barricaded behind their thick walls of marble and Amateur Status, they remain untouched by the Lockout Plague. Encee-Ay-Ay is not an altogether pleasant destination. There are a few dockside brigands selling gold pants and other corrupt merchandise, and some of the most prominent traders routinely engage in violations of various sorts. Nonetheless, their goods are, on the whole, profitable and enjoyable. Any port in the storm.

6:28 PM. Vessel sunk under the weight of overwrought nautical/sports metaphors. Gave order to abandon ship with as much cargo as we could reasonably take off. Currently stuck on a lifeboat with obnoxious Boston, LA, and New York fans, and one strange fellow who claims to be a genuine supporter of some place called "Miami", which apparently has a basketball team. I remain dubious of his sincerity.

7:06 PM. Mercifully, we salvaged a keg of ale and some BBQ Wings from the cargo hold, and First Mate's iPad has the "MLB Total Package" app. All is not lost.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

My well-reasoned and profound thoughts on Round 1 of the NBA Draft.

Um ... What the ^$&% just happened?!?!?!?!?!?!?

My gast is officially flabbered.

That is all.

Upside: Why 2011 NBA Draft Isn't As Terrible As You Think.

Ah, one of the premier not-actually-a-game sports nights of the year is upon us once again. Let's forget for the moment that we're careening towards a lockout. Let's abstain from griping about this year's draft class being shallow, or lacking potential franchise guys, or however else you want to say "this draft sucks." Because that's an awfully narrow view to take. How can you boil down the experience of the NBA draft into one raw criterion of "superstar talent"? It shortchanges everything else that's great about the night. True, the next LeBron is not lurking among those on the board, and we're unlikely to see a Steve Nash-ian rise from 15th pick to one-of-the-best-ever-at-his-position status. True, our projected Number 1 has logged around 300 total minutes of NCAA hoops, and a few Euro lottery guys are staking their positions based on so little film that scraps of grainy footage are being bandied about the internet like definitive proof of Big Foot's existence. But for all that, I'm finding reasons to be as giddy as ever about tonight.

This draft, ladies and gents, still has "tremendous upside." Five reasons why:

1. Draft day fashions. Do you ever watch pre-awards red carpet shows or catch any footage from a big fashion show and think "who in the hell would actually where this crap in public?" Of course you do. Maybe I'm just not forward-thinking or savvy enough to get it, but some of the ensembles people trot out as supposedly hip or stylish at these events leave my mind thoroughly boggled. Oft-used adjectives like "daring" and "exquisite" seem to me like thinly-veiled substitutes for what the majority of us are really thinking: "What the ^#%$ is that?"

However, as silly as these things can be, no red-carpet awards show or runway walk in Milan or Paris comes anywhere close to the jaw-droppingly perplexing fashion hilarity of the NBA Draft. One of the best parts of the night is always, always seeing these kids trying to out-flamboyant each other. Oh, Jimmer will probably wear some conservative suit, but I'd guess we get at least 5-8 truly eye-bending ensembles to gaze upon tonight. As a matter of fact, there aren't any big awards shows on right now, are there? Why can't we fly in Melissa Rivers or someone similar to do a draft red carpet show on ESPN2? I'd watch that bad boy. Better yet, get sports-savvy fashionistas to do this; that way they can ask smart questions about where players are expecting to go in the draft and why they went with the plum-and-azure Armani suit with a lemon-yellow bow tie. (I'm looking at you, Hannah Storm and Michelle Beadle.)

Note: if this lockout persists, NBA TV needs to get some high-fashion minds and run a once-a-week retrospective fashion analysis show for every draft we of which have sufficient footage. They can fill air time and entertain us in the process. Can you imagine the commentators' barely-concealed disgust by the time they hit like 1987? High comedy, I say.

2. Greeting Stern. In general, I'm a huge David Stern fan. 99% of his decisions have been brilliant moves to advance the popularity and appeal of the league, and I love him for it. But let's be honest: the guy looks and talks like an assistant principal, which always makes his interactions with the draftees downright hysterical. Nothing can beat huge athletes, drunk on the exuberance of having their names called, encountering Stern at the podium. He's so clearly trying to maintain the dignity befitting his role in the proceedings, but rarely are his young compatriots obliging in this endeavor. Every year, we see everything from tame handshakes to the hand-clasp-half-hug to the full-on smushy embrace. The commish's facial expressions during the more, ah ... enthusiastic greetings from these young men are never short of comedic gold.

By the way, I'm still waiting for someone to absolutely shatter the ceiling on these moments. Every year, I secretly hold out hope for an event that never seems to happen. When is one of these kids going to go all out? I want to see someone attempt an Olympic-gymnast, 10.0 level of difficulty handshake with Stern:

The convoluted, 12-step shake-clasp-slap-backslap-shake-it-around-re-clasp-top-bump-bottom-bump-pound-explode-re-re-clasp-hug. If Stern botches the whole thing, it will be funny as hell. If he pulls it off, he'll be the smoothest, pimpin'-est old dude on the planet. Either way, we could expect 4,372 replays on Sports Center. Can someone make this happen, please?

3. Trades. The rumors that swirl every year about potential draft movement are always intriguing. Draft-day chess matches are just awesome that way. This year is a special treat because we're in a tectonic-shift phase in terms of team relevance and player movement, thus creating an inordinate amount of potential for huge trade moves. We know the lottery teams need help, but a lot of prominent teams are looking to make substantial moves as well. Gasol, Nash, Howard, Bynum, Parker; there are a bunch of big names who might find themselves in new zip codes in the name of rebuilding, restructuring, or salvaging various franchises. Orlando needs to get something for D-12. The Lakers need to think about their direction as an organization with Kobe's decline becoming ever-more precipitous. San Antonio is looking to do something to keep themselves in the hunt next year. Phoenix is looking to get back in the mix, and Nash is the logical big chip to get them there. And of course, Minnesota is involved in myriad rumors and discussions. Which brings us to ...

4. David Kahn. 'Nuff said. (If for some reason the Cavs elect to take Derrick Williams at #1, making yet another point guard the best player at 2, expect cataclysmic reverberations of funny.)

5. Why I'm actually hyper-pumped for tonight (specific to this draft): Roll-player UPSIDE. While we don't have the sex appeal of sure-fire greatness to bask in this evening, what we do have is a ton of guys who could be good-to-great contributors in an 8-man rotation. And we love those guys, right? If you're a fan, it's not just about the Kobe's and LBJ's of the world. Few things are more gratifying to watch than the glue guy who knows and fulfills his role on a consistent basis. We enjoy rooting for the everyman who makes good, and you can't win a title without a few of these guys on your bench. It's why Bulls fans love Kyle Lowry so friggin' much; why Pacers fans cheer whenever Tyler Hansbrough hits the hardwood. Because of the lack of overt superstar guys on the board this year, I'm more interested to see which players evolve into those types as their careers unfold. Truth be told, I generally enjoy superb bench guys on teams better than just-average starters. That's counter-intuitive to an extent, I suppose, but it's how I think.

And even better: the occasional flashes where completely unexpected player X takes over a game assassin style. For example, if you follow the NBA, I don't have to explain what "The Dragic Game" means. We can't say how Goran's ultimate arc will unfold, but we'll always have that night. We're still reeling from Barea fever, and rightly so. And no-one is likely to forget "Taj Gibson Posterization Night" at the United Center anytime soon, either. The random hurricane of dominance from a totally off-vector location is one of the best things in sports. When a guy taps into that magic, however briefly, it's special to behold.

In many ways, it's almost a better fan experience than watching superstars. We anticipate D-12 or Paul Pierce having a huge night, because it's expected of them. When Blake Griffin does something monstrous, well, he's Blake Effing Griffin. When the little guys shine, it's like watching a random pitcher throw a no-hitter. You don't really realize it's happening until you stop and mentally play it back. Bench dude X comes in because someone is in foul trouble or just needs a rest. After a while, you notice he's played more minutes than his usual allotment. "Isn't it time to bring back the Big Dawg? Why is that guy still in the floor? Wait ... has that guy missed a shot yet? And didn't he have a key steal earlier? Oh yeah, and there was that pretty outlet pass he threw 4 minutes ago! Wow, he's really feeling it. We've got the makings of a special night here!" This draft is chalked full of dudes who might never crack a starting rotation but are capable of delivering a handful of those games over their careers, and being solid and important contributors even when they're not lighting it up. (My personal bet: Kemba Walker will win like 4 Sixth Man of The Year awards, and have at least 5-8 "Holy $&%!!!" playoff games on his resume when it's all said and done.)

You could argue that even the top guys, because of the 2011 draft weakness, are more likely to go ceiling than bust, and that might be a good thing. Personally, I've enjoyed the draft debates this year specifically because we haven't had one or three hype vehicles dominating the conversation.

So let's take tonight on its own merits. Between the comedy of outfits and Stern interactions, the trade intrigue, and the "who's going where and why and to contribute how much?", it should be sufficient. The Next Big Thing can wait.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Claim Jumping: A Hockey Orphan's Guilt and Absolution

Whew, life keeps getting in the way of me putting things up in this space. After returning from a whirlwind of family stuff, I had time to fire off one piece on LeBron, and then I was gone again. I spent the past week at Great North Sound Studio in Nowhere-ville, Maine, cutting a record with my buddy Pat's band. That's not the actual name of the town, obviously, but that's where it felt like. No cell reception, no TV, no internet, nothing. We were in complete isolation in this beautiful old New England farmhouse; just us and the instruments and our intrepid and long-suffering (one non-stop week with us probably qualifies as "long-suffering") producer/engineer Dan. Really, that's the environment you want for making a record. No distractions, no outside forces, just immersion in the music and the camaraderie that comes of living and working, eating and drinking together in tight quarters for a week.

Anyway, the majority of our members being New England born-and-bread, our keyboardist managed to find one tiny, magical spot in the living room where his iPhone could pick up reception, and kept us updated on the progress of game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. When the final score flashed up, we knocked off work for the night. Bottles were cracked, toasts were raised and drunk. The Bruins had broken a 40 championship drought, and Boston teams have now hit for the cycle in terms of championships over the past decade. During our little celebration, someone asked me why I seemed so happy.

"Well, I'm a Bruins fan."

They looked at me quizzically.

The funny thing about making a record is how you adapt to the situation. Things that seem to work in rehearsal when you're all jamming together sometimes sound totally out of place when you're listening to the playback. Change it, scrap it, but you have to do something. Or suddenly you hear room for a part to slither in that you didn't think of until just that moment, and the texture of the song is altered as a result. Those little moments can make or break a tune. The point is, you have to make the music work, but you can't force it, either. It has to evolve organically or it'll end up sounding contrived. Even people who know nothing about composition can hear when something on a record is disingenuous.

Herein lies the tale of my organically evolved (and hopefully not disingenuous) courtship and eventual marriage to Bruins fandom, a team separated from my birthplace by a vast swath of geography, and which I theoretically have no right to root for.

As you've no doubt gathered if you visit this space with any regularity, I'm a die-hard fan of Atlanta sports. Born and raised in Georgia's capital, I've rooted our teams on through times of prosperity, failure, and in some cases humiliation. The Braves, Hawks, and Falcons have played perhaps inordinately large parts in my life. Every win a small comfort and source of happiness, every loss a small cloud that slightly dimmed the light of the day. It's foolish to place so much emotional stock in what ultimately amounts to grown men playing boys' games, but that's the nature of the thing. I don't even participate in fantasy sports, because I could never bring myself to hope another team's player had a good day if they were facing one of the ATL's franchises. If I draft Drew Brees because he's the best QB left on the board, I still want the Falcons forcing him to eat turf and breaking up his passes all livelong day when they play the Saints, and that philosophy would make me a poor fantasy owner. So I avoid the whole mess, tantalizing and fun as it looks. The teams mean too much to brook any possible contradiction. Hawks, Braves, Falcons ... but what about hockey?

When I was born, the old Flames franchise was two years gone, and Atlanta was devoid of a hockey team or any fans who cared to root for one. I learned to love the game, and a team, over the all-too-brief period from '92-'96, when we had the IHL Atlanta Knights, a farm team for Tampa Bay. Dad and I took in a good chunk of those games live, and watched even more when they were on local TV. I even listened to a bunch on the radio in the first two seasons, turned down so my parents wouldn't hear it after they sent me to bed. (I was 10 in 1992). I was crestfallen when they left for Canada, but what's a kid to do? Besides, they were IHL. They weren't playing with the big boys at the game's highest level, and I didn't want to root for Tampa Bay, even if we were in their system. So I got over it. By the time the Thrashers came into existence in the 1999-2000 season, I was already a senior in high school, and bound for the frozen wasteland of Minnesota to attend Carleton College.

(Don't get me wrong, college was great. I had a blast and made a bunch of dear, dear lifelong friends, but in retrospect, uttering the phrase "I want to go somewhere it snows; snow is awesome!" is still one of the stupidest things a southern boy ever said. Take heed, kids. South or west. Go south or west if you have any way of doing so.)

Even if I had stayed close to home, I'm not sure I could have been a Thrashers fan. I tried, I really did, but it just seemed wrong somehow. I suspect many people whose home towns have acquired teams after their formative years have passed feel the same. Like some unfortunate young lad or lass in medieval Europe whose parents have arranged a marriage with a spouse you've never met, you try to do your duty and love the betrothed, but there's no basis to it, no affection born of long years together. It just doesn't work.

Still, those Knights years had taught me to love and care for the game. Hockey is an entity unlike anything else we have in sport. At its highest level, the best elements of other games are inherent in it. The deft grace and fluidity of basketball are there. Both games reward the subtle pass, and the vision to see a play before it happens. The deke is hockey's crossover dribble, the one-timer slapshot its three-point bomb. The ferocity of the NFL is there, too. A good, clean open-ice hit or ramrod into the boards is as compelling and awesome to behold as any QB sack or shot on a running back at the line of scrimmage. You get the elegance and the violence in perfect confluence, feeding and fueling eachother.

And hockey has its own distinguished charm as well. I'm not sure there's anything quite so impressive in all of athletics as guys that big moving like ballet dancers on a wholly unnatural surface. In every other game, the players run on grass or track or turf or wood, running being an easy and inherent movement for bipedal lifeforms. In hockey, they move ungodly fast and expertly change direction with thin metal blades strapped to their feet, on a surface you'd never even walk on normally if you could avoid it. Furthermore, hockey is the sole game where players get to settle their beefs on their own. These days, looking at somebody the wrong way will get you T'd up in the NBA. Football conflicts are broken up before anything real can happen. And baseball's favored tactic of "hit one of ours, we'll hit one of yours," takes all the agency of the principles out of the equation, unless someone charges the mound, which is a rare occurrence at best. In the NHL, if someone messes with someone else, they drop the gloves and throw down. Things are settled in the moment and on the ice, not with penalty flags or retaliation against guys who had nothing to do with the original slight. It's glorious.

Anyway, I didn't want to abandon the sport entirely. I wanted a team to root for, but the Thrashers weren't mine, never had been or would be, and given the outcomes of Atlanta's past hockey endeavors, I figured they wouldn't be around that long anyway. Turns out they lasted a good while longer than I expected, but that's beside the point. I wrote them off from jump. A hockey team in Atlanta is a fruitless thing. It carries no meaning. Hockey is for the lands of cold and ice, not places like my home state, a bastion of SEC football and the Braves. The long and the short was that I didn't want to be a hockey orphan, but I wasn't comfortable with Atlanta's new franchise. If I was going to root, it would be for a team and a city where hockey counted for something. Most fans need context and relativism, heroes and villains to make a sport sing for them, and coming to hockey late as I had initially compared to other sports, I wanted ... no, I needed a certifiable entity, not a team who had only recently appeared and was likely to disappear again just as quickly. But neither would I pick a random team for inane reasons, nor would I become a frontrunner for whomever was hot at the moment. I didn't have a favorite player in the league whose team I could peripherally latch on to. Maybe my knowledge of the sport's history and lineage was too scant, my foundation not sound enough, to make an informed decision. Nonetheless, my respect for its sanctity was intact. No one likes a bandwagoner, and I wasn't going to be one if I could help it. I decided that the Hockey Gods would tell me who to root for, and I would listen.

As it happened, I thought my prayers were answered even as I spent that final summer in Atlanta working at the OK Cafe and scraping those last few months of familiar company out of life's basin before we all went our separate ways. Carleton was located in Northfield, MN, less than an hour's drive from the Twin Cities, where Minnesota had finally gotten a new team to replace the departed North Stars. The newly-christened Wild were scheduled to begin NHL play a mere few months after my arrival in Minnesota, and to my naive, overly-dramatic, sports-addicted, 18-year-old self, it felt like destiny. I would find my new NHL team in my new home. Fresh beginnings and such. (I was a stupid, sappy kid with an overdeveloped connection to things that felt preordained or significant, especially when it came to sports. I admit it freely.) Two things happened to derail this supposed synchronicity:

1. College doesn't leave much time for stuff like finding a suitable replacement of hockey rooting interest. You're a tad occupied with figuring out who you are and what you want out of life ... and partying your brains out the way only kids that age can. Oh yeah, and writing papers and going to class and such, too. There's a lot on your plate. Keeping up with the teams I already loved became a daily battle of sustained effort and time allotment, never mind diligently seeking out a hockey team to which I could pledge my loyalties with a clean conscience.

2. My hoped-for adoption of the Wild was not accompanied by the buoyant and uplifting tide of local enthusiasm I had anticipated. Of all the adjectives one might think would describe Minnesotans' sentiments upon the acquisition of a new professional hockey team after going a half-decade without, ecstatic, jubilant, and their ilk were not among the actual list. If I had to pick one word, it would be grateful. I can't imagine what Minnesota fans must have gone through when the North Stars left for Dallas, of all places. Plucking a professional hockey franchise from the bosom of the American north country to send it to a place of sunshine and blistering heat made no sense at the time and even less in retrospect, no matter the dubious "reasons" of owner Norman Green. The general impression I got was that the act had sapped much of the luster from hockey in the minds of Minnesotans. They were happy to have a team again, but wary and much-diminished in vigor. I had hoped, foolishly, to join in some sort of sweeping hoisting of new banners, but such was not the case. Maybe it means I'm a gutless jerk for failing to embrace the new team. Maybe if I thought I wanted to become a Wild fan and failed, it was a fault of my fortitude or conviction. Whatever the reason, it didn't happen.

Fast forward to 2007. Despite living an additional three years in Minneapolis after graduating, I still haven't warmed to the Wild, or found any other hockey team that I could forge a connection with. It's actually starting to legitimately irk me. I'd thought to find NHL salvation there, in the town where "The Mighty Ducks" was filmed and kids grow up learning to skate on the many frozen lakes and ponds that freckle the city every winter. It's the logical place, the right place. But that visceral connection somehow hasn't been made. The team lacks verve and life, still living in the shadow of its predecessor's departure, and I'm due to leave for Boston soon. On to a new town for more schooling, where I'll likely be once again too hampered with adjustments and studies to spend time worrying about hockey. I've been following the league as best I could, watching the games and noting what's, well, notable, but impartiality is not for me. Moving day comes, and I cram all my worldly possessions into a vehicle and trek across the country with my Dad. Again I arrive somewhere new, still without a hockey loyalty. I don't know why I care anymore. I've been searching since the Knights left town. Maybe, southerner that I am, I'm not meant to be a hockey fan. Basketball was always my favorite sport anyway. My top five priority list, if I had to rattle it off, goes like this (in no particular order, save for the Hawks, who hold the one-seed in perpetuity):

1. NBA, specifically the Hawks.
2. NFL, specifically the Falcons.
3. MLB, specifically the Braves.
4. College Football, specifically the Georgia Bulldogs and the SEC in general.
5. College Basketball. No applicable loyalties, I just love hoops.

Other than my Hawks caveat, that list isn't set in stone. But hockey doesn't make it in any case. Still, I very much did LOVE the game. As I rolled into Beantown in the fall of '07, I was still looking for the right foothold, the right team. I didn't think I'd find it in Boston. As I anticipated, when I got there, precious little time was left for choosing up sides. But I did meet someone who summarized the situation. "All of us needing a place to call home," my friend and fellow songwriter Allison Francis once wrote. True.

Fall 2008: at this point, it's been a lot of years. Maybe it's time to let it go, watch hockey when I can or when I feel like it, and resign myself to a casual relationship with the sport. But ... I can't. For a short time, hockey mattered immensely to me. I refuse to confine it to fringe status. I want to be a fan, but I want that fandom to manifest itself organically, and I want it to have a focal point. I'm still waiting for the flash of clarity. Slowly, as I forge new friendships, things slide into place.

Said place, or places to be accurate, turn out to be bar stools and living rooms. See, there's an interesting phenomenon that happens for sports fans who relocate. We love our native teams, and they will always hold top priority. We follow them implacably; it's in our blood. But wherever we are, the teams of our current location slowly come to hold an oddly prominent place in our minds. It's a kind of situational osmosis, if you will. With a barrage of local media, not to mention the locals themselves, keeping us constantly informed, we slowly and unconsciously accumulate a wealth of knowledge about the franchises of our new homes. When I was in Minneapolis, I always knew the most about the Atlanta teams, and the second-most about the area's own. It happens. The same thing happened in Boston, with one crucial difference as regards my hockey quandary.

Boston fans love their teams. Admittedly, to an annoying and obnoxious extent sometimes, but the love is genuine, intense, and in most cases, generations old. And I happened to befriend a number of devoted and passionate Bruins fans. The aforementioned knowledge comes slowly, but it comes. You learn the stars' and the coach's name, and the biggest rivals first, then the heavily played regulars, then the guys who are good but young and still developing, and finally the dudes on the bench who barely play. Eventually, the team becomes second nature.

Gradually, that familiarity turned into a sort of wary affection. I say wary because every time I cheered a goal or a save, I felt like a fraud. I was beginning to fall in love with this team, but I was wondering if I wasn't violating something fundamental about fandom in the process. Who was I to root for this proud franchise? By what right did I intrude myself into such a loyal contingent?

As time wore on, that guilt faded, little by little. By the time the puck dropped 2009-2010 season, I was certifiably hooked. I was bickering about who should be starting in goal and wondering if the team had enough offense. I knew I was in for good after Philly swept the B's out of the playoffs, and I was seriously bummed out for a few days afterwards. So when we got the news and drank to the Bruins in that farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, it felt good. Heck, it felt real for me.

No doubt the real, old-school Boston fans cringed while reading this. Bandwagon, frontrunner, convenient timing declaring "fandom" right as they win The Cup. I know, I know. But I stand by it. I'm a Bruins fan, now and forever. It happened organically, over time, and I make no apologies.

The hockey orphan found a home.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Mothers Of The Disappeared

On the tail of the NBA and NHL playoffs, I've been ruminating on something that happens every year. There's precious little that is ever certain in this fickle world, but a few things are pretty much a lock. Politicians lie. Terrain erodes. And every playoffs, for every sport, we trot out what Charles Barkley has dubbed "The S&$% List." Sure as snow in Minneapolis and traffic in NYC, we're going to end up talking about those guys. The greats, the iconic players, who for reasons of irony, injury, or fate's capriciousness, never achieved the ultimate success in their arenas. Maybe they didn't have the right teammates, maybe they swayed or broke under pressure. Whatever happened, they remain sans championship, and that ends up defining their legacies to perhaps an unfair extent.

If you're on that list, it is guaranteed that whenever postseason tensions begin to mount, a broadcast, blog, interview, column, or some other media outlet will drag your name back into the light for a brief moment. It stinks, I know. If I were annually reminded of the one great thing I never did, in perpetuity, I'd be pretty effing bummed about it. Those guys, Barkley, Ernie Banks, Dan Marino, and all the rest, have my sympathy. But they also have their immortality. They were great enough that it seems wrong that they left the field or arena for the last time without knowing that joy. To have reached that level is an achievement of itself ... right?

I don't know about you, but every time I have to hear "The List", I get a little sad, and I suspect I'm not alone. Bottom line, we feel like they deserved it. When Steve Nash retires in a year or three, how many basketball people are going to quietly sigh because circumstances conspired to deny him a ring? At a guess, all of them.

But what about the flip side of the coin?

There are four major categories in play here: Stars who won a title, stars who never won a title, unimportant guys who never won a title ... and unimportant guys who won a title. It's that last group, the anti-"S%#T List" guys if you will, that kind of fascinates me. What is their place in our minds, and in history? How do we feel about them? How should we feel? How should they feel about themselves? Does it matter? I'm curious about these things.

Ultimately, i think our perceptions should break down into two sub-categories:

1. Guys who were not marquee names, starters, or even necessarily consistent in-game factors, who nonetheless made a few important plays at the right times. Their lesser talents didn't earn them many moments, but they made at least some of them count. However small the part played, they contributed to the championship.

2. Guys who just got really lucky and wound up on title teams without having done a single thing that even remotely justifies their "champion" status.

After a little research and a lot of internal debate, here are my go-to examples for each grouping:

The Obscure Dudes With Rings Who Deserve Them Club is represented by Mike Devereaux. The very definition of a journeyman player, Devereaux played 12 seasons in The Show with six different teams. A fifth-round draft pick for the Dodgers in the 1985 draft, he hit .254 for his career and only played in more than 100 games in 6 of his professional seasons. He hit 105 career homers and his lifetime OBP was a meager .308.

But Mike Devereaux has a World Series ring.

He earned said ring with my beloved Atlanta Braves in 1995. I'd forgotten until I looked it up, but he was actually the '95 NLCS MVP on the strength of his game-winning RBI in the 10th inning of Game 1 and a three-run homer in Game 4. That's how obscure the guy was. The NCLS MVP winner during my hometown team's championship season, and I'd almost forgotten that award. I remembered those plays, mind you, but not what they earned him. (I also think our pitching staff deserved all MVPs that year. I mean, those were big plays, but Devereaux getting that award was like Kobe's 2010 Finals MVP, totally undeserved.)

In the 1995 World Series, he had one meaningless hit and no RBIs. When you combine that NCLS and the World Series, Devereaux looks like Peja Stojakovic from this year's NBA playoffs. Peja came up huge from deep against LA (and OKC to a lesser extent), but pretty much did nothing in the Finals, to the point of being benched. Even so, without him, maybe Dallas isn't in a position to win the championship at all. In 25 years, the majority of fans will remember him in vague terms at best, the way we barely remember Devereaux now, but both guys came up clutch to get their teams to the finals. Gotta crawl before you run.

In fact, Mike Devereaux almost had two World Series rings. He was in the Dodgers organization for their improbable 1988 season, when Kirk Gibson hit one of the most legendary homeruns in MLB history, but he only played a handful of big league games that year. What if he had been in that dugout when Gibson hobbled to the plate and sent that moonshot into the stands? One ring you can potentially chalk up to a fluke. Two? That's either great timing or you contributed in some way to those titles.

Even without that second piece of jewelry, Mike Devereaux can wake up every day for the rest of his life and put that hardware on his finger if he chooses. He is a World Series champion.

But how does he feel about it, knowing that what most people remember from that Braves season is the greatest pitching staff of the 90s and the Crime Dog, Chipper, Lemke, Justice, and Bobby Cox? Gratified, thankful and joyful of the memories, I'm sure. But does he think he "earned" it? (I'm not saying he did or did not, I just wonder how guys like this feel about themselves within the context of a championship.) My guess is, he feels like that ring is rightfully his. And he should. I still don't think he deserved that NLCS MVP, but damned if those plays didn't turn the tide at some critical moments. Mike Devereaux can wear that piece of shiny goodness with pride, because he made meaningful contributions to its acquisition. Even if history has forgotten him, you can bet his teammates won't.

On the other side of the equation, how about Brian Scalabrine? The guy has a quasi-endearing, quasi-grating reputation as the over-enthusiastic bench guy who really isn't good at basketball by NBA standards. There might not be a more ragged-on current player. But he also got to hold the Larry O'Brien Trophy for a quick second when the Celtics won in 2008. You know how many minutes he played in the 2008 playoffs? 0.00. Goose egg, baby. Nonetheless, he must have done something at some point during the regular season which might maybe kinda-sorta have helped the C's win a game or two, contributing to playoff seeding and home-court ... right? Maybe, but I doubt it. He's still got the ring, though, which is a travesty. I hate that a guy like that gets to wear a ring while Steve Nash goes without. Hate it. Nothing personal against Scal, but it's an injustice that the thing is sitting on his mantle right now.

Especially since he had this to say afterwards:

“Maybe now you could say I didn't play a second, but in five years, you guys are going to forget. In ten years I'll still be a champion. In 20 years I'll tell my kids I probably started, and in 30 years I'll probably tell them I got the MVP. So I'm probably not too worried about it.”

It was theoretically at least a little bit tongue-and-cheek, but how bloody infuriating is that? And the sad part is, he's right. We will forget.

Unfortunately, if we think of Devereaux and Scalabrine at all in 50 years (and we probably won't), they will be remembered equally. Little more than passable at their respective sports' highest levels, yet owners of an honor that all athletes covet and many deserving players never attain.

What I'm saying is, we should make a concerted effort to quantify these things, even for the obscure legions who mostly just ride the pine. If we're going to deconstruct Chuck Wagon differently because he never won a ring, discerning the differences between the small-scale contributors and the pure coat-tail riders is something we owe these guys.

Because Mike Devereaux is a far cry from Brian Scalabrine. May we never forget it.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Monkeys and Torches

There are an awful lot of cliches that sportswriters tend to reach for we we're looking for a way to phrase things. The list is long, a plethora of banality, and you don't need or want me rehashing it here. But last night gave us a gift: a uniquely compounded metaphor encasing two of our favorite go-to moves. You've heard them before. Passing the torch. Getting the monkey off one's back. Finally, the stars aligned so that we could say this: "Dirk Nowitzki got the 'soft' monkey off his back ... and passed that unpleasant monkey/torch right to LeBron James."

I had originally planned not to write this post or anything like it. As the seconds ticked inexorably away in the fourth quarter last night, and Miami's "fans" streamed towards the exits like passengers headed for lifeboats on the Titanic, everyone saw what had become of "The Chosen One." The world had pulled the pins on its invective criticism grenades; they were just waiting for the buzzer to sound before yelling "fire in the hole!" and throwing the things. No need to lob another projectile into the conflagration, right?

But I can't resist. That bullish and unthinking post-game presser was just too much.

(ahem) ... "FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!"

What's funny is, after the Boston series last year, I was vehemently opposed to applying the "choke" label to LeBron. I fell squarely into the camp that figured his elbow was bothering him far more than he let on, and that some manner of off-court issue was compounding the stress to intolerable levels. Cleveland hadn't exactly surrounded the guy with a bang-up supporting cast, maybe he needed a true sidekick. Or maybe he just wasn't ready. That was my mindset at the time, and I'm not the first person to espouse the notion that maybe you need to get kicked in the teeth a few times to truly plumb those inner depths of "killer instinct" and "greatness." Infuriating and silly as The Decision was, is was a bad PR move and nothing more. I didn't see it having long-term implications on his hoops legacy. Same goes for the absurdity of that Heat celebration replete with fog machines and bombast before the season started. In short, I thought LBJ was poised to catapult himself into the ringed brotherhood, and sooner rather than later.

This Finals proved me completely wrong. After a playoffs full of promise, LeBron's game went ghost town the moment game one tipped at the Triple A. The drop off was cataclysmic. The hot-potato passing, the listlessness on defense, the trailing on plays, everything was indicative of an irrefutable fact: LeBron James was shot. Like a lion who's been trapped behind bars at a zoo for too many years, his prowess and ferocity, so evident just a scant time ago against the Celtics, had been extinguished. We must give the Dallas defense its due for limiting James in certain situations, but he looked utterly disinterested in, and fearful of, aggression in any form. We know the skills are there, so whatever mental or emotional machinations were whirling around behind those dead eyes must have been extreme. When you're electing to dish off to Juwan Howard in key moments, something is clearly wrong.

To be sure, we are all witnesses. To the evaporation of 99% of the chances that we'll one day speak of LeBron in the reverential way we talk about MJ, Magic, Russell, Bird, et al.

And then came that press conference.

As they had all season, James and fellow Heat player Dwayne Wade sat side by side at the podium, but this was a darker, more humiliating ride by far than the locker-room tears incident or any other nadir the Heat suffered this year. Early on, a lot of the questions were sophomoric and directed at James, his answers petulant and defensive. That whole "the people who hate me will still wake up with their same crappy lives tomorrow" bit? Well, LeBron probably has grown tired with the heaps of scrutiny and criticism, the villain role, and all the rest of it. But to pointedly torch his ill-wishers by reminding them of the gulf separating his life from their own was childish and classless, especially since most of those public sentiments now seem well-founded. How unaware can a dude be? Apparently, severely.

And the "God just didn't think it was my time" line. Can you imagine Jordan or Kobe ever saying something like that? If you're as great as LBJ's talents indicate he should be, don't you make it your time? We'd like to think so. But what rankled worse than either was the incredible ego. LeBron hijacked the mic last night, desperate to defend himself. Did you notice that reporters started tacking on the caveat "for the both of you" to every question? They were clearly conscious that LeBron was subsuming the whole charade and leaving Miami's hometown boy in the shadows. Yet, nine times out of ten, LeBron still rushed to grab the mic and make his views known, while Wade was left hanging.

To be fare, Dwayne Wade has nothing to prove, nothing to answer for. He owns a ring, he never bolted his team, and he busted his rear last night. He didn't need to acquit himself, and had LeBron addressed his personal failings in a contrite and human fashion, I would have been fine with him gobbling up the majority or air time in that room to do so. Instead, he made an abysmal botch of it and confirmed that his lack of clutch-ness is not confined to the court alone.

Even if the Heat do manage to rattle off a string of titles at some point, LeBron would have to scale an Everest of fourth-quarter production and display a completely revamped mindset in those moments to shift the judgements that descended on him last night. Is he capable of doing so? Probably. Anyone endowed with his unique gifts has the potential. But his long-term place in the pantheon took some big hits across the bow during this finals. A global icon he might still be, but that star could fade too is this continues. Ultimately, it's all up to The King, but I'm starting to think his crown is ill-fitting at best and made of tin at worst.

In my lifetime, I have never seen an NBA player this transcendent plummet so far in esteem so fast. LeBron has wandered right off the edge of the basketball map. Careful, your Kingliness; here there be monsters.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Legacy of Fun: Why Shaq's Deficiencies Don't Matter

Greetings, gentle readers. A protracted stretch of family-related goings-on has kept me away from this space for a stretch, but I'm back now. And it's time to talk about that oft-bandied theme in these NBA playoffs: legacy. I don't ever recall a postseason so filled with discussions about how the outcome will affect our perceptions of so many players in a historical context. Kobe's quest to tie or exceed MJ's six titles was effectively quashed, so where do we put him in the pantheon of greats now? Were the long-range perceptions of Boston's Big Three altered by that ignoble second-round exit? Will the acrimony with Russell Westbrook affect KD's chances at a title in the immediate future? So many questions, and those are just the guys who are already packed off to home. The finals are so implication-filled as to be every journalist, pundit, blogger, and TV producer's richest and most beautiful daydream.

Will Dirk's lingering playoff demons be exercised if he gets a chance to hoist the hardware? Does his standing on the list of all-time greats change with a ring? How about Jason(s) Kidd and Terry? What will D-Wade's already glorious career look like if we view him in ten years through the rose-tinted lens of three or four titles as opposed to his current single championship. Will Chris Bosh's historical imprint be magnified by a few titles, or will his third-wheel status alongside the Heat's dynamic duo condemn him to "yeah, he was good, but ..." status forever? And that LeBron James guy. Where will he sit at the high table of Hoops Valhalla if the Heat win this title, or the next five, but he continues to exhibit the fourth-quarter uncertainty and deferral we've seen so far in the finals?

We won't get the answers in the next week or month or year, but we'll get there. Through some alchemical process, an eventual consensus will be reached. We'll crunch stats, rewatch films, reread columns, and rely on our own recollections. Every player's cumulative basketball impact will be distilled down to a common perception, and plaques will go up in Springfield. I'm intrigued to see where Dirk and Wade and LBJ end up when that process is complete, but today I'm not thinking about any of them. Today, I wonder about the legacy of a man whose recent retirement probably got short shrift, coming as it did amidst the whirlwind of the finals. The question, ladies and gents, is what to do with Shaquille O'Neal?

Let's start with the obvious. First-ballot Hall-of-Famer? You betcha. The man is fifth on the all-time scoring list. He's got four rings, and averaged a 23-10 with 2.3 blocks for his career. As with all the greats, his playoff averages are even better: 24-11, 2 BPG, and, at his apex, complete dominance over every other player on the court. They called him the Big Diesel, but it should have been the Big Effing Freight Train. All those Robin/Batman metaphors vis-a-vis Kobe and Wade were inaccurate too. If you're going to compare Shaq to a comic book character, you have to go Marvel, not DC. Colossus, Juggernaut, something like that. It's safe to say the man's formidable accomplishments and reputation make him a lock for the all-time phenomenal team. And yet ... something keeps bugging me. The fact is, Shaq could have been better. Possibly a lot better. How much should that factor in, if at all, when we enshrine him in his eventual place in basketball history?

It was obvious from jump that he wasn't particularly interested in honing his craft. His natural abilities and sheer size allowed him to execute prodigiously without the need for intensive gym-ratting. Dude was so massive and powerful we redefined what constituted a foul just for him. Even when he wasn't trying, look at what he achieved at his peak. Give the guy one good perimeter counterpart (Kobe, Wade) and you were all but assured a title. Still, he obviously left something on the table. If his gaudy numbers are indicative of his dominance, that career .527 free-throw percentage is a testament to his neglect of some of the finer points of the game. But somehow, in Shaq's case, we don't seem to care about how much potential went untapped. Why, exactly, is that? Is there some vague threshold of talent or achievement he crossed that exempts him from the criticisms we levy against other, lesser players? We kill guys like Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter for their failure to become all they could have been. We've been killing LeBron for the past few years because he's more interested in being a global icon than developing a decent post game. As fans, there is nothing we loathe quite so much as an athlete who does not exhibit devotion to the game. We laud the fanatical dedication of a Kobe or a Jordan, and tear down those who don't push themselves, who are unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to reach their maximum potential. Except for the Big Fella, who apparently has Survivor-style immunity from the harsher winds of our critical nature.

I suspect our collective willingness to give Shaq a free pass on his permanent defrayal of a true apex stems from where he set the bar when he entered the league. A gregarious, charismatic personality goes a long way towards the forgiveness of sins, and O'Neal charmed the hell out of us from the minute he was drafted. All that joviality with the public and the media, not to mention the atrociously (and hilariously) bad movies and rap albums, served immediate notice that this guy was here primarily to enjoy the ride. Of course, he was going to kick a lot of tail and shatter some backboards in the process, but that seemed almost ancillary. That outsized, happy-go-lucky persona simply subsumed all his faults. Even when we were picking on the weaknesses in his game, it was with a grin and a chuckle. "Oh, there goes that supremely talented goofball bricking free throws again. How adorable." "He showed up to camp 50 pounds overweight? Oh well, he's still a beast." You know the phrase "Manny being Manny"? Shaq beat Manny Ramirez to that punch decades ago. He's the original take-nothing-seriously superstar. And we know it. We've always known it. If your expectations for a player aren't centered around 500 extra shots after practice and an obsessive conditioning regimen, how disappointed can you possibly be when a guy still wrecks everything in his path at maybe 83% of his ceiling? Not very, especially when he's doing it all with a smile on his face, a song in his heart, and a jape always ready for this loyal constituents. Even his protracted and often painful-to-watch decline can't deface his brilliance. Ultimately, we'll likely make the choice to view Shaq's Phoenix/Cleveland/Boston years through the same prism we apply to MJ with the Wizards: with our eyes closed, because it never happened ... right? Good.

In the end, it's not the rings or those 28,596 points I'll think of first when I remember Shaq. I'll remember the jokes, the laughs, and the pranks. I'll remember how congenial and open he was with the fans. I'll remember the replays of guys ducking out of the way as backboard glass rained down like shrapnel. I'll remember learning all the words to "Shoot Pass Slam." Shaq will end up somewhere in the Top 15 All-Timers list when everything is said and done. But more than that, he's the undisputed alpha-dog starter on the All-time fun athletes list. His basketball legacy won't be quite what it could have been, but I get the feeling his legacy of enjoying himself and entertaining the rest of us is the one Shaq cares about. Maybe we should too.