Championship Memories

October 26, 1997. Game 7 of the World Series. Marlins and Indians tied in the bottom of the 11th inning. Edgar Renteria at the plate, and he bloops a single over the glove of pitcher Charles Nagy and through the Indians’ infield. Craig Counsell trots home from third scoring the Series clinching run, and I start screaming like a mad man. Standing alone in my apartment, I race into the bedroom where my fiancé was sleeping. I wake her up with my yelling and incoherent blabbering. It would be three days before she speaks to me again.

October 25, 2003. Game 6 of the World Series. Josh Beckett on the mound for the Marlins, pitching on only three days’ rest, and trying to close out the series – on the road – against the vaulted Yankees. I’m once again standing alone in the family room of my house; pacing, sweating, praying. I’ve long since devoured my finger nails. My heart is racing at 120 beats per minute. Jorge Posada stabs at a pitch, making contact, and sending the ball dribbling up the first base line. Charging from the mound, Beckett scoops up the ball, tags Posada, and the Marlins are once again World Series champions. It would take me four days to get my voice back.

June 20, 2006. Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Dallas Maverick Jason Terry misses what would have been a game-tying three point shot, and the Miami heat hold on to win the game and their first ever NBA Championship. Standing alone in my apartment, I once again go into crazy person mode, and hope my neighbors don’t call the police because of all the yelling and screaming.

I remember vividly where I was for each of the recent championship-clinching moments for my beloved South Florida sports franchises. They are memories that are emblazoned into my brain; mental tattoos I will carry with me forever.

The same applies to other key sports moments I witnessed in my lifetime.

I remember jumping up and down with my dad in our living room as Kirk Gibson hit his majestic and legendary homerun to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. I remember yelling gibberish at the TV as I watched Marcus Allen weave his way through the Redskins’ defense in Super Bowl XVIII on his way to a 74 yard touchdown run. I even remember crying both a year before and a year later as I watched my Dolphins fail in Super Bowls XVII and XIX, respectively. The images of John Riggins plowing over Don McNeal and Roger Craig high-stepping into the end zone still haunt me as a sports fan.

But I recall more distinctly sharing those moments with my dad and other family members. I remember the laughing, the screaming, the cheering, and yes, the crying. I remember the euphoria and the sorrow those moments brought, but more so the fact I was able to share those emotions with the people I loved.

With the recent championships of both the Marlins and the Heat, however, what I specifically remember is that I was alone as I watched them happen. It was just me and my sports psychosis. The moments are still very memorable, but they don’t exactly rank with the memories from my childhood, where the smile on my dad’s face was outdone only by the smile on my face. Those moments were special, snapshots in time dipped in magic and sealed forever in that happy place that is the corner of my heart.

June 21, 2012. Game 5 of the NBA Finals. There was no drama. There was no suspense. For the better part of the 4th quarter, the Miami Heat held a twenty point lead over the Oklahoma City Thunder. The only things that were shocking were how dominating the Heat played to win their fourth consecutive game of the Finals, and Mike Miller’s lights out performance from 3-point range.

But one thing was spectacular as the clock ran down to zeroes and the Heat put a bow on their championship run. I watched the whole game with my daughter sitting right beside me. She laughed at my quirky mannerisms and ignored my sports Turrets as I yelled at the TV. She asked me why I spent so much time tweeting during the game. She indulged me as I felt the need to highlight and explain the nuances of the plays we’d just witnessed.

Yet through it all, we took in the historic moment together. I was able to watch her excitement build as the game progressed, as her eyes exploded open with every laser beam pass and gravity-defying dunk. I relished the sound of her pre-teen voice as she’d marvel, “that was awesome” or “that guy’s on fire.” She was less cheerleader and more a student of the game, but a fan nonetheless who was thrilled to see her dad’s favorite basketball team win it all. It would officially become her favorite basketball team that evening as well.

And as we took in the post-game festivities and watched LeBron James hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy in poetic celebration, I noticed the only thing bigger than the smile on my face was the smile on the face of my daughter. I hope she, too, will carry that mental tattoo with her forever.

The Rules of Engagement

I am a diehard sports fan. I love sports. Watching, coaching, partaking; I can’t get enough of sports (with the exception of Cricket. I just refuse to get into that at all.) Specifically, I get crazy about the teams from my hometown. So with the Miami Heat reaching the NBA Finals, instead of being 100% consumed with joy, I’m actually a little saddened.My good friend Matt is a diehard sports fan. He loves sports. Watching, critiquing, …, watching; he can’t get enough of sports. (I actually think he would get into Cricket). Specifically, Matt is crazy about the teams from Dallas. Rangers, Stars, Cowboys, and, of course, the Mavericks.

The Miami Heat will face the Dallas Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals.

You can see my dilemma.

My dilemma is fueled by the fact it’s very easy for me to slip into obnoxious fan mode. I wish I could control it. I wish I could promise you it wouldn’t happen. But that would be the equivalent of asking Bruce Banner to control the raging, green monster inside of him. It just happens. Throw in a case of beer and it happens a lot faster.

I need to emphasize Matt is not just a friend. He’s a very good friend. He’s in my inner circle. He’s one of the first numbers I’d call in the event of an emergency. My family celebrates the holidays with his family. He and his wife come over to our house just to hang out. We’re tight like that.

So in the interest of keeping a good thing solid, I’ve developed what I would like to call the 2011 NBA Finals Rules of Engagement:

  1. Under no circumstances are Matt and I allowed to watch any of the games together. I don’t care if he’s picking up the tab or providing all the beer. It ain’t happening.
  2. In-game commentary shall be limited to text messaging only. Unlike Twitter and Facebook, text messaging remains the last bastion of true private conversation.
  3. The ability of one person to be obnoxious following a win is directly proportional to how obnoxious the loser was during the game. Grace begets grace and douche begets douche.
  4. Both parties are reminded that opinion is NOT fact. All commentary must begin with “I think” or “I believe.” Caveat: Any commentary that is substantiated by documentable statistics is allowed (which means I will lose this part every time).
  5. No blaming the refs. Bad calls will be made that adversely impact both teams. It happens in all sports. Overall, it evens out. Both parties have to live with it.
  6. The first person to use the word ‘Wambulance’ agrees to let the other person slap him in the face.
  7. The first person to use the word ‘Meh’ agrees to let the other person punch him in the throat (I totally put that in there for my own benefit).
  8. Any wagering on the series is not to exceed $20 and cannot lead to the humiliation of the losing party (although I do love the idea of Matt wearing a LeBron James jersey to work).

In the end, it’s all just a game and we’ll both return to being best of friends. That is, of course, unless the Heat lose because the refs decided to baby Dirk Nowitzki all series, and the Mavs played dirty, and the Cowboys still suck, and Nolan Ryan was overrated, and the Stars should have stayed in Minnesota, and Jerry Jones is the reason for the lockout, and Debbie was a skank anyway, and…..


Don’t Hate

I am going to begin this blog entry with a disclaimer. Yes, I am a fan of the Miami Heat. Yes, I was born and raised in Miami. Yes, although I currently reside in Tampa, my sports allegiance – with the exception of the Rays in the American League – resides in South Florida. I am an unapologetic Miami homer.

Now, with all that having been said, is there any more asinine and ridiculous column than the one written by Phil Taylor at about the Miami Heat? (see his full column here).

Mr. Taylor goes on to write, with what I can only hope is tongue-in-cheek disdain, about the new collaboration in South Florida sports: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh joining forces in Miami. He talks about loving gifted players who chase greatness, and thus this leads him to hate the Heat? Really? LeBron James making the choice to be a villain, making the choice to take less money, and making the choice to step out of his back-to-back, two-time MVP spotlight in pursuit of multiple championships is a bad thing?

See, this is a perfect example of the complete hypocrisy that exists in the world of sports journalism today. To be clear, I am not a journalist nor do I claim to be one. Still, I’ve been a sports fan and a student of sports media long enough to be able to speak about this matter with a certain, weekend-warrior level of confidence.

We implore our celebrity athletes to be open and honest. We chastise them as greedy when they leave championship caliber organizations in pursuit of more money (see former 49’er Ricky Watters, former Cowboy Larry Brown and former Buccaneer Dexter Jackson). We hold them to higher moral standards than we do ourselves. Yet, when LeBron James makes the gut-wrenching decision of admitting he cannot, by himself, achieve the level of greatness he seeks, when he reveals a level of humility and vulnerability that is rarely, if ever, seen in an athlete of his stature, our first response is to vilify him. Admittedly, the delivery of the message was awful. ‘The Decision’, as aired by ESPN, was a nightmare, and the reception in Miami, a party which was indeed wretched and grossly premature, was embarrassing. However, the court-jester messenger should not take away from the message; that being what LeBron did in leaving Cleveland for less money, less spotlight and a ton of hatred is unprecedented in modern day sports.

Speaking of money, Mr. Taylor goes on his column to minimize the financial sacrifice the Miami Three have made in order to play together. “I hate that we have become so accustomed to the overwhelming greed of superstar athletes that when the Heat’s threesome accepts roughly $110 million each when they could have had closer to $120 million, some people want to fit them for angels’ wings,” he writes. Let’s analyze that for a moment. Mr. Taylor is suggesting – scoffing really – that $10 million dollars is nothing for these already wealthy, superstar athletes. When you look at the $10 million as a percentage of the total contract (9%), things aren’t quite so clear. I have no idea of how much Mr. Taylor earns yearly as a writer for SI, but I wonder if he would flippantly shrug and say “No big deal” if Sports Illustrated asked him to take a pay cut of 9%. That would be the equivalent of going from a $100k salary to that of $91k. I am hard pressed to find anyone I know in my circle of friends who would voluntarily take that type of pay decrease in pursuit of a passion or dream. It’s rare.

Mr. Taylor goes on to dismiss the idea that players coming together, collaborating as friends and sacrificing collectively in pursuit of greatness, as something to be celebrated. “If the NBA turns into a top-heavy league, I’ll hate the Heat even more for starting the process.” What? Why doesn’t he instead direct that hate to Danny Ainge, the general manager of the Boston Celtics who made key moves to obtain Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, establish the modern day NBA model of the ‘Big Three’, and subsequently win an NBA championship? Do you think Pat Riley would have been inclined to aggressively dump salary and clear cap space in Miami had it not been for the precedent set by the Celtics?

Furthermore, Mr. Taylor indirectly bashes D-Wade, LeBron and Bosh for wanting to play together. My counter argument is this. With the exception of Peter King, why does anyone still read Sports Illustrated? Steve Rushin is gone. Rick Reilly is gone. Sports Illustrated as a media entity has slipped. Does Mr. Taylor mean to suggest that if Rick Reilly were to call him up and offer him the opportunity to write columns for the pages of ESPN the Magazine, in collaboration with Reilly and Steve Rushin, he would turn down the offer and cite the argument of pursuing greatness on his own? Seriously, any national sports writer who has less Twitter followers than I do (and I’m a nobody) is not going to achieve greatness on his own.

Finally, we get to the point where Phil Taylor starts to make some sense. He describes Miami as a city full of front-runner loving, bandwagon jumping, hype-engulfing fans. Mr. Taylor, tell me something I don’t know. Have you BEEN to Miami? That city redefines vanity. The only thing shallower than water in a puddle is the general approach to sports fandom in South Florida. Much in the same way men on South Beach pay a gross amount of attention to women with cinnamon tans and implants, all the while ignoring women who tend to not be surgically enhanced, Miami fans will love a team when it’s winning and not give that same team the time of day when it’s losing. That’s Miami. If you don’t have the bling, the glitz and the glamour, don’t bother. LeBron, DWade and Chrish Bosh ARE the bling, the glitz and the glamour. Of course all Heat fans are going to be infatuated with that. It’s what we do best.

Mr. Taylor, I know I was rough on you with my blog. For that I apologize. Still, hate the Miami Heat all you want because I am going to love, love, love reading what you have to say next summer when the ‘Three My-Egos’ (as you put it) are celebrating their first NBA title.

Wishful Thinking

Perhaps it’s the unavoidable need to entertain the pessimistic voice in my head. Perhaps it’s the Friday morning hangover following the single-most celebrated free agency acquisition in the history of the NBA. Perhaps it was the 5 pints of beer I consumed while feverishly watching ‘The Decision’ on ESPN. Whatever the reason, I find myself hurling back to earth following the high of LeBron James deciding to play for the Miami Heat.

I am a Heat fan. I am a fan of all teams from South Florida. Although I reside in Tampa (Go Rays), my sports heart will always be tied to the 3-0-5 and the franchises that call Miami home.

The euphoria with which the news of LeBron James’ decision was received in South Florida is understandable. The idea of a super-trio of basketball stars sharing the court at the American Airlines Arena, three friends, all Olympic gold medalists, paving the road toward more championship hardware. It is Miami’s own dream team. The question, however, is simple. Can Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh avoid the slippery slope that can quickly devolve this dream scenario into a nightmare for Pat Riley?

This has nothing to do with ego. What these three professional athletes have done is unprecedented. They have left money on the table – millions of dollars in salary – for the opportunity to win championships. Not just one title. Multiple titles. And that is where the intricate planning of Pat Riley, a plan he set in motion over two years ago, can all come unraveled.

From here on forward, the expectations are simply ridiculous. Anything short of an NBA title will be viewed as a failure. Anything short of multiple titles will be viewed as a failure. There’s no argument these three players, all of whom are in their prime, are capable of delivering two or maybe three NBA championships to South Florida. Still, what happens if they don’t?

The situation staring the Miami Three in the face is akin to the joke by comedian Eddie Izzard: Cake or death? There is no middle ground. There is no acceptable level of accomplishment that does not culminate with obtaining a ring. LeBron has reached the NBA Finals on his own. Chris Bosh has experience early playoff exits in Toronto. Yes, Wade has a ring, but it’s a title marred in some circles by the questionable officiating of the 2006 finals and the ‘Stern hates Cuban’ conspiracy theorists.

In a culture where winning is everything, Pat Riley and his Heat are in a no-win situation. If they deliver one title, it will be celebrated but diminished by the expectation of the ones still to come. If they don’t win titles at all, then this will all be regarded as a colossal failure and the media backlash will be more insufferable than it already is. Their only option is to win a slew of titles over the next five years. Only then will everyone be able to look back on this Heat team with positive praise.

Compounding the problem is the fact Miami invented the concept of ‘fair-weather’ fans. With all due respect to the handful of loyalists that are at every game, Miami is a city driven by trends and what’s hot. Marlins pitcher Josh Johnson may very well go on to win the NL Cy Young award this year, but no one will hear about it because for the next eight months there will be no topic hotter than the Heat. Even the Dolphins will take a backseat to the NBA this fall, with only an improbable Super Bowl run being the one thing that would avert our attention from the Heat’s Triple Threat.

Miami fans are analogous to the guy at the bar buying drinks for the hot girl only to leave her standing all alone so as to pursue the other hot girl that just walked in. Can you say 1996 Florida Panthers? We’re fickle. We’re impatient. We want to be seen courtside, but we attend games only when it’s convenient to us, and only if the team is winning. Yet this is what we wanted. This is what we hoped for. We wanted to be the landing spot for the most coveted free agents in the league. We wanted to be the center of the NBA universe. Now that we’re there, let’s just hope the old adage isn’t true. Be careful what you wish for.