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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Winter Sports

When you grow up immersed in New Jersey Parochial basketball, no other sport really matters.  I followed football and always had strong ties with baseball.  But I never excelled at either of those sports.  Hell, I was barely competent at basketball.  I loved the game though and made up for my lack of skill with heart and hustle.  With that I probably got more out of my game than I should have.

As I grew up I could not get enough of the game.  I played during all my spare time.  I watched any action I could.  High school, grade school, college, pros...  you name it I was mesmerized.  Growing up watching the greats, like Jack Sikma and Xavier McDaniel, made it a little easier.  I suppose Magic, Bird and that bald guy with the tongue in Chicago were not bad either.  

Now, many years later, I have tuned out the pro game altogether.  In fact, up until last night, I had not watched a minute of the NBA playoffs.  And the minute I did watch, an overtime game between Memphis and San Antonio, exemplified why.  1 on 1 dribbling and isolation plays.  Timeout after timeout.  I tuned in with 2 minutes left and must have been watching for 15 minutes.  I gave up before the final buzzer sounded.  San Antonio, at home, was fighting off elimination from upstart Memphis.  I sensed some crowd excitement, but barely any from the players.  Tim Duncan might be a robot anyway so maybe not the best example.

I mentioned to a friend how I found the NBA unwatchable and he showed concern.  An avid Celtics fan he sited Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett as team players with an overall great scheme.  I am still not buying it.  Garnett opens his mouth too much.  Paul Pierce was in a nightclub stabbing.  Rondo, well he is good, but I am still not caring.  And that is when my buddy told me I sound like a crotchety old man.  Dare he say, racist??

Not true.  I watched most of March Madness with a keen eye.  There is true excitement at the college level, even at the big schools, because the young athletes have not yet been jaded by instant riches, Bentley's and arena groupies.  Of course some of the top kids at major universities have a taste of that, but not at Butler.  Seeing the Bulldogs reach the Final Four two consecutive years speaks to the overall health of the game.  Get 5 to 7 kids working together for 4 years and good things can happen.  Once the select few reach the pro game talent super-cedes teamwork.  Where hath Gordon Heyward and JJ Redick gone???  Shane Battier and Mateen Cleaves???  Great college players with Final Four clout who went on to become adequate role players at best.

Today we have Kobe Bryant, Garnett, Kevin Durant etc...  Guys who went straight from high school or maybe one year of college right to the pros.  And the game needs maturity.  Truth be told I am older now and I want to root for good kids.  I don't want to see tattoos everywhere.  I don't want to see players rip into refs for every call.  And more to the point I don't want to see 2 minutes of game take a half hour of my life.  NBA:  Not Buying At All.

And as I tune the lifeless NBA out, I have gravitated more and more to hockey.  For someone who has followed playoffs in all sports for as long as I remember, nothing captivates more than the NHL.  The chase for the Stanley Cup IS the best playoff.  Growing up in West Jersey during the 80s there was not an ice hockey rink anywhere near me.  I still have yet to skate.  At age 38 I think that ship has sailed.  It is the one sport where I never followed a team.  Loosely I liked the Islanders when Mike Bossy was winning cups, but I would never admit to that these days.  As with every sport I hate all teams NY and Philly.  All that is irrelevant in April, May and June.

The game keeps getting faster.  The players bigger and stronger.  The excitement palpable.  The breaks in action???  Almost non-existent.  Add to that Doc Emrick's voice and play by play ability, or the chance of bloodshed, or penalty shots, or power plays, short handed goals, game 7 overtimes...

And players who care!!!  Already during the first round I have found myself watching Vancouver/Chicago, Tampa Bay/Pittsburgh, Boston/Montreal and Philadelphia/Buffalo play game 7s.  All this with no rooting interests.  I am learning about players from all these teams and seeing the determination in their eyes (and playoff beards.)  Passion pouring from goalies sweat filled masks.  Coaches rotund faces juggling lines looking for the right mix.  Emotions boiling after heated battles, night after night.  Crowds exploding with joy as lamps are lit.

Finally, the game 7 handshakes.  Combatants for weeks lining up like my 3rd/4th grade softball team will tonight. "Good game.  Good game.  Good game."  The goalies, drenched and exhausted, finally meet at the end of the line.  They embrace as gladiators and acknowledge, like all sportsman should, there are no losers tonight.  A better team did prevail and will move on.  But the game lives on.  A true battle of will waged for several more weeks.  Hockey, not like any of the other sports, embraces the true meaning of sport.

There is nothing more physical.   I dare you to find me a sport with more raw emotion.  Yet when the battle ends...  after all the spit, blood and vitriol...  an embrace, an acknowledgment that you got me this time, but I will be back.  Best of luck moving on, but remember you had to get by us...  and we did not give up.

Picture for a moment the Celtics and Lakers lining up after game 7 sometime in June...  and when you are done laughing put the Versus network on and watch Nashville hockey this evening.

Sounds crazy I know.  But I fear you might get hooked.

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