Thursday, May 24, 2012

My Point Exactly

I just received an urgent phone call from one of my Rec League Basketball teammates. He was frantically trying to figure out if we won or lost the game we just finished about an hour ago. My reaction was not even that of surprise or curiosity or even bewilderment.

Let me set the scene here: I’ve known this teammate my whole life and have probably spent upwards of 200 hours on the court with him. A talented player for sure, blessed with the some of the quickest hands I’ve seen and a sweet shooting stroke from behind the arc; he is the type of player you hate playing against and love having on your team. Off the court, well let’s just say we wonder what he is thinking most of the time.

His question did not catch me off guard; frankly, it was not even out of the norm for this player. Whether we won or lost just was not that big of a deal in his life—he honest to goodness just forgot. Now, to me this is just complete lunacy. After all, winning and losing are the two most important aspects of a box score, right? I get out there every week and love playing basketball, but honestly I am the most miserable human being if we lose. Does not matter if I dropped 20 points or blocked 10 shots; I just want to win.


The satisfaction of walking out of that gym with a win, and simply knowing that you and your teammates were just better than opposition is a phenomenal feeling. This is the way of life on every level of basketball—from jayvee hoops all the way NBA—winning signifies a major accomplishment. Some players are more accomplished than other because they were the best of a generation: Bill Russell with 11 rings, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with 6 rings, and Michael Jordan with 6 rings. Others just happened to be in the right place at the right time: Tom Heinsohn with 8 rings alongside the indomitable Russell (and most of the role players from the Celtic dynasty of the late 50’s and 60’s), Robert Horry with 7 rings from three different teams, and Steve Kerr with 5 rings, three from Jordan and two more with a player many are already beginning to forget—Tim Duncan.

Nothing about Duncan’s game is flashy or breathtaking, but he powered the San Antonio Spurs to four titles in eight years. He is seven feet tall, but yet rarely throws down a dunk considering this immense size. Regularly and methodically, all he does is win (copyright: Skip Bayless). Currently riding an 18-game winning streak and leading the Spurs to the Western Conference Finals, Tim Duncan has no peer. Not Hakeem Olajuwon or Patrick Ewing or even Shaquille O’Neal, a man who intersected the majority of Duncan’s career.

When debating the greatest players of all-time, usually Duncan and O’Neal receive a lot of airtime together. Shaq thrust himself into the limelight from Day One in the NBA, whereas Duncan preferred to spend his time off the court in less crowded settings to say the least. Shaq made rap albums and movies; Duncan invited his coach go swimming in his native St. Croix. On the court, both almost immediately were successful, but in vastly different ways. Only Duncan’s first NBA Championship can even really be compared to Shaq’s. David Robinson was just at the tail end of his prime by that point and had enough left in the tank to help power the Spurs to their first title in franchise history. After that, the team was 100% Duncan’s, and three more championships followed.

Shaq on the other hand always had a dominant sidekick playing alongside him. From Penny Hardaway helping to carry the Orlando Magic to the 1995 Finals to Kobe Bryant winning three titles next to him with the Los Angeles Lakers to Dwyane Wade willing the Miami Heat to the 2006 Finals, Shaq always had plenty of help. Along the way, Shaq also managed to make a lot of noise for the franchise that employed the Big Diesel. Shaq constantly feuded with teammates, coaching staffs, and various levels of management throughout his 19-year NBA career.

The true contrast though is what both players have done with the skills and abilities they have been blessed with. Nobody in the NBA has done more with less than Tim Duncan. He is not overly fast or athletic, but has used his high basketball IQ and elite post moves to average 20 points and 11 rebounds for his career. Shaq on the other hand was blessed with an amazing sense of balance and sneaky quickness despite his 325+ pound frame. Dominant and relentless, but only when he wanted to be—and therein lies the problem.

Tim Duncan wanted it more than Shaquille O’Neal. Winning appears to be the most import thing in the Big Fundamental’s life. I am not saying that Shaq would ever finish a game and call up Kobe to ask if they won because he forgot, but you don’t think that once he was showered and changed, O’Neal was at peace leaving the arena and heading out into the night?

All the nonsense from Shaq off the court helps to overshadow this truth about his career. People remember the funny quotes and the raps about Kobe and the crazy pregame dance moves, but forget that if Shaq had given 100% instead of about 80-85%, he would have gone down as the greatest Big Man ever, aside from Russell. We have our happy memories watching the joy on his face after throwing down that lop pass against the Blazers and watching his massive hands grasp the Larry O’Brien Trophy and Finals MVP Trophy with a big smile on his face and can even see his oversized, comical figure on TNT’s in-studio show during the playoffs, but just remember: he could have been so much more.

Duncan on the other hand left everything; repeat everything, on the court. When was the last time you heard a story about Duncan doing something ridiculous in his spare time? When is the last time you even heard Duncan speak? Four championships should speak for themselves, but how many times can we really be expected to watch the same spin move for a right-handed hook shot off the glass? For the reasons that nothing is memorable about Duncan’s game will be the reasons I will always tell younger NBA fans about how truly great he really was. You knew what you would get every night from #21: fantastic leadership, top notch post-D, and, yes, that same old spin move off the glass. And Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will continue to get that level of production from his almost unnoticed superstar throughout the remainder of these playoffs because that is what epitomizes Duncan’s career—consistency. Despite people not caring or noticing or whining about how boring Duncan appears to be, he will put up the same numbers and do whatever it takes to help his team win.

I told my father yesterday on the way home from work that I was considering writing my next column on Tim Duncan. My father (who can be described as an average basketball fan and can at the very least carry on an intelligent NBA-related conversation and know what he is talking about) responded in this way:

“Tim Duncan? Is he still active in the NBA?’

My point exactly.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Surprising Answer to the NHL's Most Title-Starved City

Consider the averages of the seven-year apexes for these two players:

Player A: 38 goals, 48 assists, 86 points, +25, 1 Hart trophy, 5x All-Star, 1x All-NHL
Player B: 26 goals, 65 assists, 91 points, +27, 1 Hart trophy, 7x All-Star, 3x All-NHL

Player B was traded along with five other players, two draft picks, and $15,000,00 cash for Player A.

Player B is two-time Stanley Cup champion Peter Forsberg, and Player A is the much-maligned Eric Lindros.


It happens every year at this time; honestly, it happens almost every time a champion is crowned in one of the major sports, but during the rush of the NHL/NBA playoffs, it is a guarantee.

“What is the most title-starved city out there?” a coworker says to me.

I think for a moment and realize many logical and fitting candidates exist (I’m looking at you Cleveland), but since hockey is the closest to crowning a new champion, I wanted to plant my flag right in the middle of that sport’s draught argument. So, I quickly give back my answer, and before I was able to elaborate why, we both remember we get paid by the hour. Seeing as our company’s president was in town for a visit, we decided it would be ideal if we returned to work instead of taking the time for this column to be spoken rather than written. However, this conversation led to a great distraction piece in my head for the rest of the day, which, as usual, was more than welcome.

On paper, the large Canadian metropolises of Toronto and Vancouver look like the logical candidates. Forty-three seasons have elapsed since the Maple Leafs last brought home Lord Stanley’s Cup, and the Canucks have played 40 seasons without ever seeing their captain hoist the sport’s ultimate prize. The Leafs have not even returned to a Cup Final since upsetting Jean Beliveau and the high-flying Montreal Canadiens at the height of their powers in 1967 (the Habs responded by winning eight out of the next twelve Cups in the midst of a 15 out of 24 run from 1956-79). Vancouver on the other hand has appeared in three Cup Finals, and aside from being blown out by the New York Islanders’ dynasty in 1982; they let two winnable Cups slip through their grasp. In 1994, the Canucks took the New York Rangers to a Game 7 in Madison Square Garden where the fell by one goal in a 3-2 Rangers win, and their 2011’s Presidents’ Trophy-winning squad could not beat the Boston Bruins in a Game 7, on home-ice nonetheless.

Trust me; both of these draughts are substantial in length and have plenty of pain hanging over the heads of the two fan bases, but fans of hockey in Toronto and Vancouver have plenty of positives to push themselves back towards positivity: Toronto, Canada’s largest city, is home to the Hockey Hall of Fame and Vancouver just watched Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner against Team USA in the Olympic Gold Medal Game on their ice.

In my mind, two other cities jump out right away and both for a totally different reason, but one mega-trade will eternally link these two together: Quebec City and Philadelphia.

The Flyers Cup-drought of 35 seasons places them seventh overall on the waiting list, but to make matters worse, Philly has appeared in six Cup Finals since captain Bobby Clarke last lifted the Cup in both 1974 and 1975. No other team even comes close to six losses in the Cup Finals in that span (Vancouver and the St. Louis Blues have each lost three to place them in a tie for second place). A three-peat was on the line for the Flyers in 1976, but they were promptly swept by the aforementioned juggernaut from Montreal. Philly made two more appearance in the 1980s, both against the NHL’s new powerhouse, the Edmonton Oilers. Wayne Gretzky and Co. plowed through Philadelphia to take the series 4-1 in 1985, but Flyers’ net-minder Ron Hextall managed to single-handedly keep Philly afloat in a 1987 rematch that went seven games before the Oilers clinched the Cup. The Flyers returned to the Cup Finals in 1997 (we will get to that one later), and also made a fluke appearances as a seven seed in the 2010 Cup Final.

Six Cup losses and a thirty-five season Cup-less streak is a rather depressing notion to dwell on, but unfortunately we must go to the one place darker and more depressing than Philadelphia—Quebec City, which saw no championships from the Nordiques in their sixteen NHL years playing in the Colisee de Quebec. And then in 1995, it was bye-bye Quebec City and hello Denver, Colorado.

It has been almost 20 years since the fateful trade of Eric Lindros for Peter Forsberg, Ron Hextall, Chris Simon, Mike Ricci, Kerry Huffman, Steve Duchesne, a 1st round selection (Jocelyn Thibault) in 1993, a 1st round selection (later traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, later traded to the Washington Capitals—Nolan Baumgartner) in 1994, and $15,000,000 cash between the Philadelphia Fylers and the Quebec Nordiques—20 years that had the trade never happened, would have surely resulted in a Cup for each city.

Eric Lindros was the most talented player of his generation, and also the biggest enigma. He dominated opponents in every sense of the word on the ice. Listed on draft day at 6’5” and 228 pounds, he simply was bigger, stronger, and, amazingly, faster than everyone else. The team that ended up securing Lindros’s services would be viewed as an immediate contender in the NHL and a force to be reckoned with for years to come. Of course, there was a catch—the general manager that selected Lindros would then have to figure out how to get him to put pen to paper and sign a contract offer.

The Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League initially held Lindros’s rights after drafting him out of Toronto’s prestigious St. Michael’s College School. In what would set a precedent for Lindros, he refused to sign with the Greyhounds and instead took his talents to the Oshawa Generals, also of the OHL, where he blew the league away with an OHL-high 149 points for the 1990-91 season. Lindros’s name was firmly affixed to the top of every draft board prior to the 1991 NHL Draft.

The elite skill set Lindros possessed made the red flags surrounding him easy to ignore before the 1991 NHL Draft. Lindros was not only the top amateur player by a mile (1.6 kilometers for those in the Great White North) that year, but by this point in time, quite possibly the highest regarded hockey prospect ever. Scouts and analysts alike were completely enamored with the man-child of the Oshawa Generals. But there was still the problem of his firm stance of refusing to sign with the Nordiques if they used the top pick on him.

If Lindros was the “can’t miss” prospect in the 1991 NHL Draft; Peter Forsberg was completely under the radar as a fringe second rounder. When the Flyers reached for him with 6th overall pick, General Manager Russ Farwell was heavily criticized in the local and national media. All of this was of course before Forsberg continued to star with Sweden’s Modo Hockey and delivered for his country an Olympic Gold Medal at Lillehammer in 1994. Forsberg would be the centerpiece of Quebec’s haul for Lindros, and a trade that for the city of Quebec should never have been made. As has been the theme with these two intersecting careers, hindsight is always 20/20.

Two cities, two pains, and one trade lives in the middle.

The one large variable that I am going of off here is virtually impossible to change. However, this is sports, and if there is one thing that sports proves over and over again, it is that the “what if” question will always be present.

What if Lindros cared first and foremost about just merely playing hockey and not about the potential lack of marketability, speaking French, and listening to what his mother famously thought he should do? What if Lindros put on the Nordiques sweater that was handed to him by GM Pierre Page on draft day? What if Lindros anchored a second line behind the first line unit led by team captain Joe Sakic? I believe the answer is simple—the NHL would never even have thought to relocate the Nordiques to Denver. The league would have a built in blood-bath rivalry featuring Quebec against the Montreal Canadiens, their most marketable player in Lindros pining his trade in a Canadian city, and have two of the league best centers on one team. If in this parallel universe the Nordiques were still be able to pull of the heist of Patrick Roy from Montreal, the NHL would be looking at a potential dynasty forming in Quebec City of all places.

On the flipside, Philadelphia clearly would not have made out so bad either. As noted in this column’s introduction, Forsberg appeared to have not only an equal statistical career as Lindros, the argument can be made his career was even better. When the Flyers returned to the Cup Finals in 1997, none other than Ron Hextall was back in net wearing the black and orange. They could have just saved his contract and let him play out those years in Philly because Lord knows they could have used a reliable goaltender through the ‘90s. The four other players in the trade were role guys who would have augmented and filled out the remaining roster nicely, and valuable pieces were available in both the 1993 (Saku Koivu and Todd Bertuzzi were still available after the 10th pick) and 1994 NHL Draft if they felt like they did not want to go with Thibault and Baumgartner. The saved money is another interesting aspect. The $15,000,000 in cash they gave Quebec was almost double that of their payroll. After the NHL emerged with a higher salary cap after the next lockout, Philly would be sitting on a pile of cash that owner Ed Snider was willing to spend on Lindros, so why not the free agents that were hitting the open market in the mid to late ‘90s? The dynasty that was built in Colorado would be 1,725 miles (again, that is 2,760 kilometers) away in the City of Brotherly Love.

Instead, the Flyers gutted their franchise giving up more for Lindros than even the Los Angeles Kings gave up for Wayne Gretzky who was in the prime of his career. The Nordiques on the other took the loot and bolted town a few years later. The city of Quebec was forced to sit by and watch their old team raise the Stanly Cup and celebrate in those hideous Colorado Avalanche jerseys. As much pain as been dealt to the Flyers since their last Cup in 1975, there were some excellent years with Lindros when he was healthy and focused to what he could control on the ice instead of feuding with team GM Bobby Clarke. For the Nordiques, there are hardly any positives to take away from this whole debacle—their team is not only gone, but the national pastime of their country no longer exist as a NHL franchise in Quebec. Throw all that in with the Avalanche’s two Stanley Cups, and the choice is an easy one. Despite no longer possessing an NHL franchise, Quebec City gets the nod as hockey’s most title-starved city.

If Eric Lindros had just donned the sweater of the team that drafted him, the whole mess would surely have been prevented. 

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Where It All Began

"How much water you got?"

"About 6 inches over the angles," I reply.

This is an almost daily conversation in my workplace. Barge comes in for repair. Barge has hole(s). Barge is full of water. I have the fortunate position of being the first one inside the boat to survey just exactly how much water is present. I gauge my water levels on how far above the 6" x 4" steel angles that are welded to sheets of steel that form the floor of the boat. 

This process is not nearly as exciting as I have made it sound (sic.), but it has given me an idea for the name of something that I have wanted to do for a while: write a meaningless sports blog about the useless conversations we have to get through our day at work. The phrase "over the angles" will apply heavily to this blog because thanks to a very diverse and eclectic mix of coworkers, I will cover arguments from just about every sport.

Most of these discussions will center on pro football, but look for many also about soccer, baseball, and hockey with some basketball sprinkled in (after all it is my favorite sport). I will be open and up front with you, I am a diehard Philadelphia sports fan, but I will try to not be homer. However, our shipyard is located in New England and just close enough to New York City to breed many a Big Apple vs Beantown argument.

I mentioned soccer before as a featured topic, but in hindsight that may be an understatement. At times, and especially during this summer's European Championship, futebol will dominate this space. A good percentage of our yard hails from Portugal or Portuguese speaking nations, and they are constantly battling the Americans, who typically could care less about soccer, for my time to talk about the beautiful game.

I guess that is really what this is about in a nutshell. I am a sports fanatic. I care about, follow, and have an opinion on every sport. Ever since Day One, the different sporting factions of our yard have been battling for my attention to their favorite sport and to hear out their arguments. You see, I came in to the yard with quite the reputation. My father, the only other one who comes close to my acumen in the different disciplines, is the foreman of our yard. For many years I have provided him with information and fodder to pass on to the guys. This not only made me quite popular, but also has lead to some excellent discussions over the years that I have shared with my old man. So on top of the many random and pointless arguments, there will also be some highly intelligent conversations that he and I share on our commute to and mostly from work. 

I am guessing that if your reading this; you can only share some similar occurrences in your workplace. I am here to say you are not alone. I am here to give you these arguments. And occasionally, I am here to be the Great Arbiter in the most bitter of discussions. 

This is Over the Angles.