Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pats will be back in '08

When the New England Patriots lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII this past February, I thought it was one of the most crushing defeats in sports history.

One of those losses so devestating, the suffering team never completely recovers from it. They're never quite the same. Some defeats are just too devastating.

When you win the first 18 games of the NFL season, you deserve to win the 19th. You just do. The '08 Patriots were the best team any of us had seen - their level of dominance was unprecedented and felt unreal. Watching them completely toy with and obliterate the Bills in Week 11, I implored my grandmother to watch the history that seemed to be taking place right in front of our very eyes. The 2008 New England Patriots were the greatest team in the history of professional sports - that night, as they were in the process of crushing Buffalo 56-10 in New York, I was beginning to become convinced of this.

But because they lost The Big One, they will not be remembered that way. Unfortunately. I couldn't even fathom the level of grief and disappointment that those invested must have felt; as I wrote at the time, I felt sorry for the players, I felt sorry for the coaches, I felt sorry for management, I felt sorry for the fans.

I suppose that every team that doesn't win the Super Bowl ultimately considers their season a failure.

But because of what they had accomplished in the five months that preceded that fateful night in Glendale, Arizona, New England's defeat seemed like an even bigger collapse.

I was prepared for anything; there was a part of me that was waiting to hear the breaking news that Bill Belichick had decided to retire. As Tom Jackson said right after the game, the fallout that was to come from the Patriots' organization was unimaginable.

But then the winter finished, and spring passed, and now summer is in its dying days. And I feel a little differently. First, on PTI, Mike Wilbon dismissed the notion that the 2008 Patriots were a failure as foolish. I took heed. Then, in his TMQ AFC Preview, Greg Easterbrook pointed out that the '08 Pats (because of their history making regular season, statistical dominance, and how darned close they came to perfection) will be remembered more readily than the Giants team that defeated them in the Super Bowl.

I took heed again.

And now what I have come to realize is that while they did not hoist the Lombardi, there is still something rather prestigious about last year's Patriots - what they accomplished was still extremely noteworthy, to the point that they deserve to reside in their own, seperate castle of nobility.

They definitely weren't a failure, and are probably closer to being a success - even in losing the Super Bowl. Never again will we see a team come that close to doing what will never be done. Maybe they shouldn't necessarily be proud of the season they had, but they need not be depressed, either.

So, where do they stand now?

They lost cornerback Asante Samuel to the Eagles in free agency this offseason, and are looking shaky in the defensive backfield (even after the addition of veteran safety John Lynch) - but not as shaky as they did in 2004, when they won the whole damn thing.

In the AFC playoffs last year, Jacksonville and San Diego exposed a way to take Randy Moss out of the game, and deep threat Donte Stallworth departed to the Browns - no matter. Little Wes Welker is still around, and besides, two years ago Tom Brady nearly won the conference with Jabbar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell as his top two receivers. Brady isn't just a quarterback, he's a magician.

And tailback Laurence Maroney is ready to bust out, if necessary.

So the pieces are in places for another 14-win type season and deep playoff run.

Furthermore, I've tried to get a feel from afar for the overall mood of the this offseason. They seem fine. There seems to be no lingering effects. No depression or feelings of nothingness. Now, I'm not convinced of anything just yet - in the back of my mind, I still think there's a chance that, once the games start for real, the Pats will no longer have the fighting spirit to match their talent. Obviously, we'll have to wait until the season starts to find out for sure.

But if I were a betting man, I would bet that my initial beliefs about that loss and their aftereffects will prove to be misguided. Does than mean I'm picking them to go the whole way? Personally, I like the Colts this year - younger legs on defense mean they'll be fresher come January. Think it'll be the best team they've had over there.

The point, though, is that I have entered into a new age of enlightenment: the Patriots have no reason not to bounce back completely this season, and if they do end up making up for last February this February, I'll no longer be surprised.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Redeem Team" passes with flying colors

If the US had managed to blow away Spain in late, late Saturday night/early, early Sunday morning's Olympic men's basketball final (which I fully anticipated, after the rout that was their first meeting), I was going to use this space to prolaim that, yes, indeed, we now had a second Team worthy of being called Dream.

Unfortunately, Spain put up one hell of a fight, redemption for the American's in danger until the final minute. Because of the astronomical improvement the rest of the world has made in basketball since the Holy Trinity (MJ, Magic, and Larry) and their Superfriends dominated the world 16 years ago, you can argue that the 2008 version of our national team is the most impressive we've had. The world had caught up to us in basketball, and we beat the world by an average of 27.9 points, which is the 1992 equivalent of about 55 points a game.

But since they didn't dominate every team they faced, I'll hold off on calling them Dream Team II. With many regrets. Just know that they came close. Damn close.

But it's okay. I've still got a story.

Few times in my life have I felt as American as I did in the wee hours of this morning. Watching Team USA as they attempted to hold off a resilient, gutsy Spanish team to win gold, I found myself rooting for them like I did for Floyd Mayweather Jr. when he fought Ricky Hatton in Vegas last December, when Hatton's British fanatics booed during the singing of our national anthem.

And when they finally won, I was as estactic as the players and coaches. All I needed was someone to hug. It was one thing to hear Kobe and LeBron talk about how important it was for them represent their country and reclaim gold; it was another to see their joyous celebration once they actually did.

It resembled that of a college team that had just won the national championship. You could even say they were like a bunch of 12-year olds that had just won the Little League World Series. Initially, I was shocked by their child-like giddiness; afterall, didn't they expect to win?

Of course.

But Jerry Colangelo asked these men for a three year commitment. And when you work with other people in giving such time and effort to a goal so important, so much bigger than yourself, the reward becomes that much greater, the camraderie that much stronger. Those smiles you saw last were sincere; those hugs were genuine. And they went to show that all this talk about team and country was not just hot air, but truth speaking.

Now, surely Dwyane Wade was motivated to use the world stage to show that he was back to being Dwyane Wade. And I'm sure that he and the guys who lost in 2004 in Athens and/or 2006 at the World Championships wanted to avenge those losses not only for their country, but for themselves.

But I don't think there's any question that, from Coach K on down, these men were united behind a single goal, above all else: to restore America's dominance in international basketball. To take our game back. When some of the players ran over to the broadcast booth after the game to shake hands with Mike Breen and Doug Collins, they did it because those are American announcers, and so dadgummit, they're apart of this redemption, too. And when they played our national anthem during the medal presentation, it really did seem meaningful to them.

And since they took it so seriously, so did I.

It all seemed so familial, and I felt like part of the family. It seemed so much like a brotherhood, and I felt like one of the brothers. It was all so patriotic, and I was glad to be an American.

Dream Team? Maybe not. A team this country can be proud of? Absolutely.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Criticisms of Kobe unnecessary

I promised I wasn't going to write anything else about Kobe Bryant for the remainder of the summer (lest I be required to change the name of this site to blackmamba24.com). But the anti-Kobe contingency on the blogosphere has forced my hand.

Even in Beijing, China, where he is currently serving as one of the leaders on our national basketball team in its quest to reclaim gold, Bryant is drawing unfair criticism from his compatriots back home.

He scored 18 points and made half of his shots in Team USA's 92-69 win over Greece early Thursday morning, proving that he can in fact still play this game of basketball. But if you had read the blogs and their message boards after our first two tourney games versus China and Angola, and didn't know any better, you'd have thought he had suddenly turned into Willie Mays falling down in the outfield in the 1973 World Series.

We've reached the point with Kobe where he has two sub-par outings in August on an Olympic All-Star team, in games that his team won by a total of 52 points, and people are tearing his game apart. And not only are they tearing his game apart, they're dropping him in rank. And not only are they dropping him in rank, but they are absolutely basking in the concocted oportunity to do so.

The Kobe haters are out in full effect, no doubt, and even for them this is bad. It's embarrassing. I've seen Kobe get criticized for shooting too much and shooting too little; I've seen Kobe get criticized for scoring 81 points, a month after getting criticized for scoring 62 points in three quarters and then sitting out the fourth rather than trying to score potentially 81 points.

But I don't think any of those criticisms were as stupid as the one's he's been receiving this week.

In Team USA's series of exhibition games leading up to the real deal, Kobe was second on the team in scoring, but more importantly, since he joined the team Kobe has embraced the role of defensive stopper. Just as he did to Brazil's Leandro Barbosa last summer in the FIBA tournament, Kobe put the clamps on Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius, taking him out of the game from the start and allowing his team to jump out to a 24-5 lead.

No, Jasikevicius in not a big NBA star. He's not a little NBA star. He's a middling NBA player.

But he lit up Team USA for 28 points and seven three-pointers in an opening round victory over America four years ago in Athens, and the point is that Kobe's defense at the point of attack, his ability to basically elimate the opposing team's best perimeter player, is where the U.S.'s key to dominance starts. Success in international basketball is predicated on strong guard play, and it wasn't too long ago that the U.S. made Jasikevicius look like Steve Nash and Carlos Arroyo look like Isiah Thomas. I don't care how many times people say he got beat off the dribble against Angola, those days are now over.

Kobe shot 10-27 from the field in the Americans' first two official games in Beijing, including 1-15 from deep but not that deep. That's terrible. I don't dispute that. But since when did individual statistics matter when your team is winning by an average of 26 points? On a team of stars? Has Kobe really been surpassed by LeBron AND Wade after only two games? Do two games, even at the putrid percentages he's shot, constitute a true slump, even for someone like Kobe? Isn't it more likely that they were just an abberation? Haven't his selflessness, effort on defense, and unwavering intensity been the most important added ingredient to the team? Have we even come close to losing a game since he first stepped foot on the court for us last summer? Doesn't he deserve a pass for a couple of off nights? Even from the famed and relentless Kobe Haters?

Now, surely some of you will read this and dismiss it with some statement resembling, " Here we go again, another Kobe Lover who can't stand for his boyfriend to be criticized." But the truth is that none of these men representing our country deserve to be bashed for playing two poor games in blowout wins, especially not the MVP of the team. Of course, it's unlikely any of them would be. A world away, his attackers desperately seek for a way to vilify him and bask in even his most irrelevant of misfires.

'Tis the life of Kobe, I guess.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Manny Experience

The Dodgers' trading of superstar catcher Mike Piazza ten years ago remains the most jarring moment of my relatively brief sports fanhood.

It happened exactly a week before my 10th birthday, May 15, 1998, and I remember sitting in the hallway at home, listening to the radio, and being a little bit depressed for the first time in my life. My dad and I had tickets to an upcoming game, and I was not in the least bit excited about the prospect of cheering on Gary Sheffield and Charles Johnson instead of Michael Joseph Piazza. We went anyway, but that was one of the last baseball games I attended. I haven't been to Chavez Ravine in years, and not only did the trade cause me to put a hex on the team that I still haven't lifted and never will, but it soured me on the game in general. The Dodgers had traded my hero, and all these years later, it still doesn't make sense.

Piazza was 29 and in his absolute prime, coming off a career year in '97 (.362/40/124/.431/.638). And he was a flat out star. Piazza was perhaps the most beloved player in Dodgers history, an icon, not only because he was the best hitting backstop of all-time, but because of his Montana-like mullet and hazel eyes. Piazza was a sex symbol, the swooning obsession of teenaged girls, not very much unlike Derek Jeter in New York. Probably the most popular athlete in the city.

And so what does FOX ownership do? They trade him, rather than giving him the cash they would spend the approaching offseason on a 33 year-old Kevin Brown.

Go figure.

But I say all that to say this: Piazza stood as the Dodgers last defining superstar until they acquired Manny Ramirez last week.

Gagne came awfully close, but his reign at the top was too short. Reminiscent of Fernandomania. And as great a ballplayer as Gary Sheffield was (wildy underappreciated in his time here), he was lacking that extra something that those most notable of players possess - he didn't have the it factor. But Manny? The man is simply an entertainer. "Manny Being Manny" and everything it entrails has taken on a life of it's own in the sports media, and the city of Los Angeles has welcomed it with open arms.

It's Manny Fever in Dodgertown right now, the organization to soon begin selling caps with dreadlocks attached to them. The dreads are part of the Manny package, part of his star, and judging from the reception he's gotten thus far, this town is certainly appreciative of it. I think the Dodgers faithful were desperate for a dose of true starpower, and well aware that it could be gone in only a couple of months, are basking in it and enjoying it while it last. Hey, what city wouldn't enjoy the honeymoon period with a character like Manny Ramirez?

But more than his personality, I'm enjoying the ManRam Experience because of his bat. Good Lord can this guy hit. Even after going 0-for-5 Friday night in San Francisco, Manny is still hitting .464 in seven games with his new club, with four homers and nine runs batted in. It's taken him literally no time to adjust to a brand new league after playing 15 1/2 seasons in another, and he's been so good that I might have to start monitoring Dodgers games just so I can watch his at-bats. With no disrespect meant to Albert Pujols, Manny is the smartest hitter in the game with Barry Bonds currently unemployed.

Juice aside, Bonds' plate discipline in his latter years was inspiring. He wouldn't flinch at balls an inch outside the strike zone, but if the next pinch was an inch closer to the plate, it was almost guaranteed to end up in McCovey Cove. Like Bonds, Manny seems to treat hitting like an approach to a science, and it is something to behold.

And like everybody else, I'm soaking it up. All of it. He's brought a much needed buzz back to the team, stealing back some of the spotlight from the Angels, who have dominated Southland baseball in the 21st century. The Dodgers haven't felt this relevant in years. Manny's arrival won't make me start rooting for the Dodgers again, but it has piqued my interest in them.