Friday, June 18, 2010

LeBron-voyage

We are all witnesses…to LeBron-a-mania. The back-to-back MVP of the NBA is a mere weeks away from testing the waters of free agency, being wined and dined by half of the leagues owners and executives, and having each team’s fan-base go crazier over him than a bunch of middle school girls at a Justin Bieber concert. Everyone wants a piece of LeBron; everyone wants the man on their team. But for a guy that couldn’t even sniff the Finals this year, despite being the league’s Most Valuable Player on the team with the best record, is all of this media attention and excitement really worth it?

The Cavs were touted all season as the team to beat in the NBA, a basic lock to represent the Eastern Conference for a championship, and the heavy favorite to come away with the title. LeBron would solidify his spot as the best player in the Association, grab his first ring, and start paving the trail that Michael Jordan had blazed before him, on his way to being the greatest ever. Then, after winning that first championship, he would undoubtedly re-sign with Cleveland, a city he had saved from the depths of sports hell, and keep things rolling. The only questions would have been how much money he was going to get, and how many rings he could win. Four? Five? Six? Or, umm, none.

As shocking as it may sound, “none” would be the best guess at the current time. After a pretty putrid playoff performance by the Cavs (and James in particular), the sheen that had constantly followed LeBron his entire career was quickly fading. If you bought into the hype, you were led to believe that James was some combination of Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Jesus Christ (MVP, ’22 A.D.). As it turns out, James might be more of a combination of Chris Webber, Pete Maravich, and Lyndon B. Johnson.

In past years, James’ early exit from the playoffs always had a nice excuse to go along with it. When the Cavs made the Finals in 2007, they were just too young, inexperienced, and shocked to do any damage. When they were bounced by the eventual champion Celtics in ’08, it was because they didn’t have enough pieces to combat a strong veteran team like Boston. When they got beat by Orlando Magic in the ‘09 Eastern Conference Finals, it was due to the match-up problems that the Magic threw at them, and a lack-luster performance from the supporting cast. James always had an easy out. Not this year.

To the naked eye, it looked like LeBron gave up on his team this year. It appeared that he realized the Cavs couldn’t get past the Boston Celtics, for whatever reason, and that was that. It appeared as if the mighty King James was not cut from the same cloth as Michael Jeffrey Jordan. It appeared that all the LeBron hype, was pretty much just hype. But what’s most intriguing about the situation, is where the Akron, Ohio native goes from here. On July 1, James becomes a free agent, arguably the most prominent in NBA history. And after a turd sandwich playoff performance, can he come back to Cleveland, or will he venture elsewhere? That, my friends, is the question that will haunt every second of your life for the coming weeks.

So if LeBron flamed out so bad in the playoffs, why will he still be the most highly-prized free agent ever? Well, regardless of his inability to win a championship in Cleveland (which might actually be impossible, judging on past knowledge) James still won the past two MVP’s. He’s still on the very short list of top players in the league, battling Kobe Bryant for the #1 slot. He could still very easily be the best player on a championship team, and still has plenty of time to rack up a fist full of rings (he’s only 25). He may not have shown us the onions to win one yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen. A lot of it depends on where he decides to sign this offseason; it could literally change the direction of the league for the next 7-10 years.

There are a number of places with rumored (and explicit) interest in LeBron and his services on the floor. One of those places is the Los Angeles Clippers. James has made it clear that he wants to become a global superstar, and knows that playing in a big market/city is one of the easiest ways to achieve that desired status. Plus, the Clippers have been L.A.’s ugly stepchild when compared to the Lakers since, well, the beginning of time. But if LeBron is smart, he’ll pass on the Clips. Why? Just ask the blown knees of Danny Manning, Shaun Livingston, and Blake Griffin. Or ask the shattered careers of Baron Davis and Elton Brand. Or ask…you get the idea. Add in the fact that Clippers owner Donald Sterling is considered by many to be the toxic straw stirring this poison drink, and LeBron will probably sign with Al Queda before the Clippers.

The Dallas Mavericks are in the mix, but it doesn’t seem to fit James and his aspirations for the future. Plus, he’d have another crazy owner to deal with (Mark Cuban), and I bet LeBron wants to steer clear of the superior Western Conference.

The Miami Heat are players, but Bron’s ego is much too big to play with a star of Dwayne Wade’s stature. And if Wade leaves Miami, then there is even less chance he’d head there.

The New York Knicks have basically gutted their roster the past two seasons to get James, but they are essentially the East Coast Clippers. He has a better chance winning the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in New York than an NBA title.

The New Jersey Nets are contenders, mainly because of rapper Jay-Z’s minority ownership and Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov’s majority ownership. But the Nets suck. And despite the team most likely moving to Brooklyn in a few years, that still leaves too much time for LeBron to have to hang out with The Situation, Pauly D, and Snooki at the Jersey Shore.

The Chicago Bulls seem to be the best chance for James to win championships and dominate the league (thanks to the pieces already in place), plus it’s a big market. However, LeBron would have to be pretty vain or pretty stupid (or both) to follow Jordan and the legacy he left in Chicago. James would always be second place, regardless of what he accomplished. It would be like trying to re-make The A-Team or Karate Kid or something like that. Wait, nevermind.

So what’s left? Yup, Cleveland. As unlikely as it seems that James would return after what transpired, I don’t see him heading elsewhere. He grew up there. He’s a home-grown star. He’s the best thing to happen to Cleveland sports since Jim Brown. Every home game for the Cavs is essentially a three hour ass-kissing of LeBron. And if we’ve learned anything about James over the years, it’s that he is extremely loyal – to the place he grew up in and the friends and family he grew up with. Plus, he is very much aware of the athletic history of Cleveland, and would love nothing more than to end the drought, forever immortalizing himself as the city’s savior.

If I had to bet my iTunes Music Library (which is pretty much the most valuable thing a college kid owns), I’d say LeBron stays put. No place else really makes sense for James and the legacy that he hopes to leave on his career. Some places he can win, some places he can gain fame, and some places he can achieve greatness…but I don’t know that he can do all of those things in one of those places. Shockingly enough, Cleveland, Ohio would probably be the best bet.

And if it turns out that the build-up was more than the reveal, that LeBron’s greatness was never all it was cracked up to be, and that his struggle for eminence and titles will somehow always come up short, then maybe Cleveland really is where he belongs.


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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Only The Good Die Young

Of all the professions out there, is there a single one that would hire an employee after he had beat up some strippers and arranged for a man to be killed? What if the employee was arrested for possession of unlicensed weapons? Or maybe the employee was arrested for possession of cocaine, and later failed a drug test while on probation. And what if an employee had been arrested on four separate occasions on various assault charges against women, and then publicly used a gay slur directed toward his previous boss? Is there any chance in hell that someone with this track record would get hired to a high-profile, well-paid position? Well, actually, yes. As long as you can play football.

The Cincinnati Bengals have been using jail and court appearances as a feeder system for their professional football team, as opposed to a red flag or warning to stay away. In recent years, my beloved Bengals have done anything but shy away from drafting and signing players whose pasts are littered with legal problems; it has become their calling card. Committing crimes and getting arrested is basically a job interview for Cincinnati’s hiring process. It certainly seems ludicrous. But then again, maybe it’s not.

There are three possible explanations for why the Bengals have become so enchanted with employing players that have had run-ins with the law. The first possible explanation is that Owner and General Manager
Mike Brown is a dim-witted, cheap bastard. The second is that the Bengals organization has realized that young professional athletes are often given too much, too fast, and that it sometimes takes a second chance for them to come to their senses and quit acting like brainless hooligans. The third possible explanation is that the team is planning to make a real-life documentary of The Longest Yard.

Unless the team signs Burt Reynolds to a contract anytime soon, the Bengals affection for miscreants is some combination of possibilities one and two. Yes, Mike Brown is a dim-witted, cheap bastard; there is no questioning this. The man owns and runs an organization that hasn’t won a playoff game in 20 years, and yet he doesn’t deem it necessary to hire a real general manager. Plus, he knows that he can get high-quality players much cheaper than usual, as long as he waits for them to spend some time behind bars. It’s tough to get big-name, superstar athletes to play in Cincinnati when the owner is unwilling to shell out the big bucks. But by signing and drafting society’s degenerates, the Bengals are often a troubled player’s last option. They aren’t really in a place to hold out for more money or make demands. They really just need a job.

However, Mike Brown’s frugality is not the sole reason for the team’s interest in these types of players. As I mentioned before, it appears the Bengals' organization has come to realize that sometimes, a second chance goes a long way. Ask any true sports fan, and they will undoubtedly tell you that a sizeable portion of professional athletes are immature morons, especially early in their careers. How could we expect them not to be? Think about it: in the major sports, players enter the league as 19 to 22 year olds, and are immediately given tons of money, tons of fame, and a boatload of entitlement.

Media and fans often put these kids on pedestals, giving them a sense of superiority and special treatment. Mix that with the freedom offered in the millions of dollars they earn, and it really isn’t shocking that a number of them would get into trouble. They have more money than they know what to do with, women constantly throwing themselves at them, the vast majority of people telling them how great they are, and most can’t even rent a car yet. I’d probably be a jackass too. Getting a DUI or assault or drug charge is almost inevitable. It doesn’t make it any more acceptable, but it certainly isn’t shocking.

For a lot of these athletes, it often takes a couple screw-ups for a person to realize how stupid they are. And by that point, for an NFL player, there aren’t many teams willing to trust these guys with million dollar investments. And when these athletes finally reach the point where they don’t have organizations clamoring for them like teenage boys slobber over
Megan Fox, it’s a pretty big wake up call. By offering another chance, the Bengals aren’t enablers as much as they are redeemers. These players soon realize that Cincinnati might be the last chance they get to play football for a living.

Take
Cedric Benson for example. Benson was the fourth overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. In his first three seasons with the Chicago Bears, Benson was arrested twice and had numerous chemistry issues with the team. He was released by the Bears after the ’07 season, and basically treated like a cancer by other organizations throughout the league. The Bengals felt otherwise. They saw a talented young running back with a few dumb mistakes, and a guy who desperately wanted to change his image. They gave him a chance, and he quickly became the team’s starter and earned a contract extension. In his first full season with the team, he rushed for 1,251 yards, six touchdowns, and had six games with over 100 yards rushing. On top of that, he has been nothing but a model teammate, quickly becoming a fan-favorite for his tough, hard-nosed approach to the game. All he needed was another chance.

Benson is only one player in a long-line of guys that the Bengals have taken chances on. Pacman Jones,
Tank Johnson, Chris Henry, Matt Jones, Frostee Rucker, Larry Johnson, Carlos Dunlap, Antonio Bryant and Rey Mauluga…the list goes on and on. For the most part, they’ve all worked out. But the Bengals have also made sure to surround these guys with the right teammates and coaches to keep them on the straight and narrow. Head coach Marvin Lewis is a great leader with the ability to coach and mentor these kinds of players. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is a no-nonsense hard-ass that doesn’t put up with punks or thugs. Carson Palmer, Bobbie Williams, Andrew Whitworth, Dhani Jones, Roy Williams, and even Chad Ochocinco are all great locker room leaders that won’t allow their teammates to get out of line. When you mix such a strong foundation with guys that want nothing more than to move on from the past, it generally works out. The Bengals are starting to prove it.

Sure, the team has struggled over the past two decades. But anyone familiar with the organization would tell you that things are changing. The team is coming off a
2009 Division Championship, their second in five seasons. The program is no longer the bottom feeder that it once was, and it appears as if things will continue to get better. The Cincinnati Bengals owe a great deal of that credit to the fact that they have changed the culture of the team, buying in to certain stocks that no one else would even glance at.

Yeah, it was risky. But no risk, no reward. And sometimes, to the spoils go the victories.



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