Archive for May, 2012

Boy, it’s really nice to have a little NHL back in my life. Not since the glory days of NHLPA ’93, when dominating with the Scrabble-winning tandem of Red Winger’s Steve Yzerman and Paul Ysebaert was the thing to do, have I engulfed this much hockey at one time. Now please don’t get all fired up and tell me that hockey can’t be that cool if it’s played by a bunch of men prancing around on ice skates… Or because it’s too tough to play a pickup game… Or because it’s a sport for Canadian Socialists… My answer to all those gripes is simply this – It has mullets. Lots of them. It can’t that bad!

All kidding aside, hockey truly is a difficult game not to like if you commit yourself to watching it. Almost every good element of sport takes place over the course of a hockey game – selflessness, teamwork, toughness, tradition, effort… Each one of those attributes is an integral staple of the game. There is no question that hockey is by far the most blue-collar sport around (especially in the playoffs). While no sport is completely without of the presence of a few prima donnas, even the biggest pussies in the NHL will occasionally mix it up.  Can you imagine a longhaired Tom Brady going toe-to-toe with an afro-puffed Mark Sanchez? Or 140 lbs David Beckham having to square off against any other other soccer player in the world? You can’t help but like that…

It’s a travesty the NHL was so difficult to watch in recent years. Without getting into too much detail, let just say the NHL ‘screwed the pooch’ last time around when negotiating their television deal and it almost killed the game. Luckily for hockey fans everywhere, NBC/Comcast recently bought the Versus Network – formerly known as the Outdoor Life Network (I don’t even know what that means) – and put a major priority on highlighting the NHL this postseason. Almost mimicking CBS’s production of March Madness, NBC/Comcast flooded its wealth of channels with postseason hockey, making it easy for even the most casual of hockey fans to find any game they desired. After being forgotten, buried, and left for dead in recent years, getting the maximum amount of exposure for the game was of the utmost concern of the NHL. They successfully accomplished this.

While it is no easy task to market a sporting event that is broadcasted between 3 Gun Nation and the fledgling United Football League (two actual programs on the new NBC Sports Network), NBC/Comcast has done a nice job of taking advantage of its opulence of resources to help this partnership start out with a bang. Notwithstanding the fact NBC/Comcast’s ultimate goal of creating a genuine rival for ESPN may be a tad ambitious, aligning itself with the NHL gave both parties a much-needed shot of credibility. It’s great news for the future of the game that the NHL found a television partner that will be as invested in the future of the game as they are themselves.

So after years of not watching a single hockey game, I probably watched the better portion of 20 playoffs games this postseason (as well as attended several). While it obviously helped that the Phoenix Coyotes, New York Rangers, and New Jersey Devils all made substantial runs this postseason, the fact every single playoff game was on television was the most determining factor to my skyrocketing viewership. While attending a hockey game in person is admittedly a much cooler experience than watching it from the couch, there is no reason the addictive substance of postseason hockey can not entice a few casual sports fans to jump on the NHL’s depleted bandwagon. Going forward, I genuinely hope the NHL builds on this postseason’s momentum and continues to get its blue-collar product in front of larger and larger audiences. While the NHL’s poorly-conceived expansion to the Sun Belt States has been an overall disaster, at least one ‘Sun Baby’ is again interested because of the sport’s amplified exposure. That’s that.

*While I realize I risk alienating about 99% of my reading audience (Arizona roots) with this post, I feel it is something I just needed to get off my chest*

Image

With only four teams left in the 2012 NBA playoffs, I have recently found myself rooting for a team I never thought I could… the San Antonio Spurs.

I know, I know… How could I, a lifelong Suns fan, do such a horrific thing? How could I simply forget the years and years of playoff heartbreakers? How could I forget Joe Johnson’s broken face that left us asking ‘what if’? Or if that towel throwing asshole Robert Horry hadn’t hip-checked Steve Nash into the scorer’s table! Or if Tim Duncan hadn’t hit that godforsaken 3-pointer against us! Suns fans know what I’m talking about. So you ask- ‘How could you so easily forget the years of HATE?’ To be honest, I don’t know how it happened. I am not proud, but I can’t deny…

In my defense though, this Spurs team is simply awesome. And fun to watch. This is a far-cry from the Spurs’ teams that Phoenix Suns’ fans remember. These juggernaut Spurs have handed out 20 straight beat downs, with 10 of those coming in the playoffs. I’ll say it again, 20 straight victories!!!! Are you kidding me?!? This Spurs team is no longer the ‘pound the ball to Tim Duncan in hopes of slowing down the Suns’ team of the mid-2000s. While the core remains, their identity has transformed. This is a team that went 50-16 in the regular season by bombing away wide-open three pointers and finishing second in the NBA in points per game (even ahead of the young, trendy, uber-athletic, fan-favorite Oklahoma City Thunder).

But despite this unparalleled transformation of playing styles, the reason I am cheering for the Spurs, is the same reason you cheer for the ‘old-man at the pickup game’. While the ‘old-man’ is never the most athletic, skilled, or talented person on the court, he simply knows how to play the game, and generally wins. This Spurs team simply knows how to play the game, and is definitely winning.

There is a saying that goes, “Work smarter, not harder.” Does a more fitting philosophy for the Spurs even exist? Throughout the course of a game, how many times does it look like the Spurs are doing the exact same thing every other team is doing, yet end up with a wide-open lay-up for Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili? 10, 11, 12 times a game? Before the season, many critics said the ‘old Spurs’ would crumble under the grind of the condensed lockout schedule. They went 50-16. And before the playoffs started, those same critics said the Spurs weren’t a legitimate contender to come out of the Western Conference. They are now 10-0. Before this playoff steamrolling had begun, critics pointed to the Spurs’ 2011 first-round exit from the playoffs as their reasoning (and usually went on to gush about the potential of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Memphis Grizzles). But what many of the critics forgot about last season was the fact Manu Ginobili was nowhere near 100% healthy. You see, in the last game of the 2011 regular season against the Suns, Ginobili hyper-extended his elbow (finally some Karma) and was ailing the entire series against Memphis. Insert Captain Obvious here: Unless your top two players are named Wade and James, it is unbelievably difficult to win in the playoffs when your third best player is out (I acknowledge Ginobili may even be the Spurs’ best or second best player). As good as Duncan and Parker are, they aren’t at the same freakish level of Wade and James.

Image

But this healthy Spurs team is playing like a well-oiled, recently sharpened buzz saw. I am rooting for them out of RESPECT. Thunder fans can bitch and moan all they want about how ‘lucky’ Ginobili’s desperation shots are, or how Parker won’t continue to be able to get in the paint the whole series. But guess what, many Suns’ fans spent a good portion of the mid to late 2000’s spouting out the same blasphemy. It’s simply not true. One could maybe call Ginobili’s shots ‘lucky’ if only he didn’t hit them multiple times in every game. Or one could maybe brush off Parker’s ability to get easy hoops in the paint as an aberration, if only he hadn’t already won multiple rings doing the exact same thing. After years of being blinded by purple and orange-tinted sunglasses, I have finally choked down my pride and accepted one humbling fact- the Spurs are just really freakin’ good.

It doesn’t matter who you put around the Spurs’ Big Three – Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili have such perfectly complimenting styles of play that the other two spots on the court can be filled by any sort of cookie-cutter role player. If we look back at any of the Spurs previous championship runs, I bet there are ten different players who have stood in that damn left corner and hit a wide-open, game-changing three pointer. Sean Elliott, Mario Elie, Steve Kerr, Steve Smith, Steven Jackson, Bruce Bowen, Devin Brown, Brent Barry, Michael Finley, Robert Horry, Glenn Robinson, and now Daniel Green…. Remember them? They all have championship rings (except for Green, who may be getting his this season).

Image

As my basketball heart aches (due the current state of the Phoenix Suns), my respect for the game has led me to cheer for the most unlikely of rivals. Just as I always root for the ‘old man at the pickup game’, I now root for the ‘old man Spurs’ to pull out one more championship with their aging roster. My hate has turned to respect. My ill will has turned to support. The young rosters of the Thunder and Heat will have plenty more runs in years to come… I genuinely hope this is ‘The Year of the Aging Spurs’. That’s that.