Saturday, July 19, 2014

A cool story in a crazy time in Cleveland sports

One week ago, northeast Ohio was on a LeBron James-induced high after the four-time NBA MVP announced his decision to return home.

Fans still are. And the week that was produced some weird, wild and fun stories.

Here is a cool one I was able to post on thanks to social media. Saw a great photo shared by @imaraindancer retweeted in my Twitter feed, talked to the people involved and ended up with a story not just about LeBron hysteria (as it would have only seemed at the surface) but hometown pride.

Epic wedding photo captures LeBron homecoming fever

Eight groomsmen in No. 23 jerseys and a groom mimicking LeBron James' powder toss stand in front of St. Vincent Catholic Church in the four-time NBA MVP's hometown of Akron, Ohio, one day after James' colossal homecoming announcement.

You couldn't write this script any better.

When Nick Jones and Christa Deckard set their wedding date for July 12, 2014, they had no idea it would follow in the direct aftermath of what will likely go down as one of Cleveland's biggest sports stories ever.

So, what better way to celebrate a glorious life moment than with a photo for the ages, paying tribute to one of Northeast Ohio's most compelling athletes?

Jarred Wagner of Inlux Photo in Canton was the man behind the lens for the awesome photo, which he said was the groom's idea and took two takes to nail.

"I quickly collected my jerseys and we got everything rolling," Jones said, reacting ecstatically when he found out the news of LeBron's decision Friday. "We pulled the photo off even better than I could expect."

When the rumor of James' return started proliferating the weekend before, Jones initially asked his wife if he and his groomsmen could wear the LeBron jerseys as the introduction to their reception.

She obliged - just another sign that she was a keeper.

The Joneses story actually has part of its beginnings in basketball, as Christa took Nick to a Cavaliers game for their third date, Dec. 14, 2012.

"Looking back, I knew I'd marry her but had no idea where I'd be and, at that point, I didn't think there was a chance LBJ would be home," Jones said.

That December was a rough one for the Cavs, finishing the month 3-12. James' Miami Heat won 66 games on their way to a title that season. But two years later, on Jones' wedding day, the horizon gleams of much brighter times ahead for his favorite basketball team.

"LeBron coming back is the greatest thing that could have happened to us in the sports world," best man Mike Stuart said. "It is a great thing for Northeast Ohio in many ways, as he will help the economy of his hometown, inspire young kids to have their priorities straight, and of course, help break the curse of Cleveland sports."

All parties will have to wait on that whole breaking the curse deal but hopes are understandably high, staked upon the success of James' first tenure in Cleveland and a Cavs roster stocked with young talent. James' return also means he will once again be a hero to kids growing up in Cleveland, Akron and the surrounding areas of Northeast Ohio.

Jones and Stuart were once those youngsters, hitting the court together and becoming friends on basketball teams in Cuyahoga Falls. The groom and best man didn't go to high school together though, as the huge LeBron fan Jones ironically attended Archbishop Hoban, the rival high school of James' St. Vincent St. Mary.

Another groomsman, Bret Grund, was a high school classmate to Jones. The two faced adversity in those years, losing a friend and football teammate, Anthony Grimaldi, in a car crash.

Now, Grund again faces a fight, diagnosed with stage four glioma, a rare form of brain cancer. Currently living in San Francisco, Grund said the support from friends, family and love ones has been unbelievable. That support system was sowed in his home state of Ohio.

"Hard work and loyalty to our sports teams (and in general) is what my father taught me," Grund said. "And that all stems from growing up in Northeast Ohio."

Coming home is what James did in making his decision to play again for the Cavaliers.

"Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It's where I walked. It's where I ran. It's where I cried. It's where I bled. It holds a special place in my heart," James said in his first-person essay in Sports Illustrated.

These nine guys outside a church, bearing a name fittingly similar to James' high school alma mater, represent James' words too, a microcosm of the pride inherent in so many who call this place home.

"[The] wedding day really was the best day ever," Jones said. "All this is just icing on the cake.
LeBron coming home is the best thing that could possibly happen to Cleveland."

Can't find many in these parts who would argue that.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The free kick that nearly put the US in rare World Cup air

What could've been. So agonizing in sports are those moments you watch slip away, prime opportunities at what seemed so improbable.

The United States Men's National Team was an underdog coming into Tuesday's Round of 16 matchup with Belgium. They were up against it through much of the match's first 90 minutes, outshot but propped up by the otherworldly goaltending of Tim Howard. They were halfway buried when the extra-time deficit became 2-to-nil.

Then came the rush, a goal by sparkplug Julian Green to breathe some life into the situation and turn desolation into distant hope, opening the door for the moment that you can't stop thinking about after the game.

What could've been.

Twas' the 114th minute of this uphill battle when a brilliant scheme drew the U.S. achingly close to squaring the score.

A free kick facing the net square on from 35 feet out presented itself for the Yanks after a foul committed on Green. Jermaine Jones first tiptoed away from the ball, then Michael Bradley set off what appeared for those few seconds like dominoes being set down, tapping the ball to Chris Wondolowski, who slapped it to a streaking Clint Dempsey, who was denied from close in by Belgian keeper Thibaut Courtois.

So devilishly developed was that kick that it was a pity it did not hit the back of the net.

"It was a move that deserved a goal," brilliant ESPN commentator Ian Darke said of the set piece.

And it would have put the U.S. alongside only the 1982 West Germans in coming back from a two-goal deficit in extra time.

That U.S. missed opportunity was glaring from a biased American perspective. As was Wondo's shank in regulation stoppage time that would have sent the U.S. forward. Truly, the Belgian faithful had to be even more agitated sitting through 16 spectacular Howard saves and wondering why they even had to withstand 30 minutes more of jitters.

In this World Cup full of drama, knockout round extra time has become ritual, spoiling us as viewers. Five of the eight Round of 16 matchups required extra time. Two of those needed penalty kicks to determine a winner. Close is commonplace this month in Brazil.

America's journey in this World Cup will be one to remember despite a disappointing finish. Their foray through the Group of Death was ripe with dramatics, from John Brooks' game-winning header against Ghana when all hope for a win looked lost to the complete 180 of Portugal's draw-clinching dagger in the final seconds of play.

Watching Tuesday's U.S./Belgium match over again just a few hours later was sports masochism, but those 30 minutes of extra time really were something else.

And painful as it may be, four years is a long wait to soak in some more.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stop taking a dump on soccer

I've got a gripe I need to air out.

Disclaimer: This isn't coming from someone who is a total expert on soccer or would even call myself a "diehard." I enjoy watching Premier League games occasionally and watch the major world tournaments. I don't watch all the MLS games or follow everything soccer religiously.

I do watch as much of the World Cup as I can -- every second I possibly can that I'm not working or tied up with something else. Why? Because it's the top athletes in the game representing their country in a once every four years event.

Yet, some still don't understand the allure. And that's OK. It's fine if you don't get soccer or don't like it or just don't even care. But then there's another group of people -- oh, this group of people -- who refuse to believe that anyone can enjoy this "tedious, slow, mind-numbing" game.

Many of these same folks don't understand how the World Cup works. Here's an example of a conversation:

Guy: "What happened in the U.S. game?
Me: "U.S. lost"
Guy: "Figures."
Me: "But they'll still advance."
Guy: "Oh, I don't get that." 

Some are actually willing to listen to the reasoning behind the goal differential tiebreaker. Others are appalled. A sport where you can lose and advance? Blasphemy.

How could anyone care about this "Cup" played for by the world? Some refuse to believe it's anything more than a byproduct of the media's fascination. It's not like 24 million Americans watched the U.S. match against Portugal on Sunday or anything...

Dan Shaugnessy of The Boston Globe has expressed his lack of interest in the sport on a major platform. That is fine.

It's ignorance that becomes bothersome.

"Soccer takes away our hands. This makes the game incredibly skillful and exhausting, but also robs fans of much of the beauty of sport. Hands and opposable thumbs separate us from creatures of the wild," Shaughnessy writes. "Most of the memorable plays in sports are accomplished with hands. How would we have even known the athletic greatness of Pedro Martinez, Larry Bird, Bobby Orr or Tom Brady if they could not have used their hands? Soccer takes our hands out of the game."

How would we have ever known the athletic greatness of Pele or Maradona or Messi if they could not have used their feet?

Heck, Maradona even once very infamously used his hand

Shaughnessy's argument is silly. But people make silly arguments because they don't understand and are unwilling to learn more about the sport of soccer.

As I said earlier, I'm not an expert on the game. I don't fully dissect every tactic or formation or alignment. But I like to learn. I enjoy marveling at a skill I certainly don't have, the athleticism, endurance and drama produced by the tension of the plodding play on the pitch.

A low-scoring soccer match is no indication of its excitement level. In fact, those are often those most heart-wrenching, full of goals missed by inches, opportunistic defensive plays or great saves. 

Futbol is not football. They are completely different stylistically and in their scoring, so comparing them on that basis is futile. 

Again, apathy is no crime. Blind ignorance coupled with bold assertions are obnoxious, to say the least.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Despite being 3-0, Stanley Cup Final isn't as one-sided as some say

The New York Rangers are in trouble - big trouble, in fact, in this 2014 Stanley Cup Final.

Down 3-0 after a game they really needed to win at home, a first championship since 1994 is looking improbable. While the Rangers find themselves in a massive hole, the narrative of this series has taken a turn toward the inaccurate following the Kings' 3-0 Game 3 victory.

“I would be shocked if the Rangers could win Game 4,” NBC analyst Keith Jones said in an interview on The Jim Rome Show. “The LA Kings have shown great dominance for many parts of this series against the Rangers."


For the majority of this series, the Rangers have been ahead or tied with the Kings. In each of the first two games in L.A., the Kings only took the lead once and for all on game-winning goals.

In Game 3, the Rangers squandered opportunities in the first period then the Kings pounced with a final-second goal from Jeff Carter before the intermission.

The Blueshirts had double the shots of the Kings, but not one goal to their name, Monday night. More than the Kings displaying dominance, one player, goalie Jonathan Quick, did.

Quick was simply magnificent shutting the Rangers out in the Garden, sprawling and lunging to form an impenetrable wall in front of his net. The American goalie took his play to a world-class level, unlike the first two games in which he let in eight goals.

Look at it this way. The Rangers have had two-goal leads three times in this series - and blown them all three times. Sure, the Kings are "resilient," as just about every hockey writer and analyst has called them since the Final's first game.

But more than that, they're ruthlessly opportunistic. Kings goals have come at every which angle, deflected off sticks and skates, so elusive that Henrik Lundqvist's had little shot of keeping them out. Game 2's comeback was catapulted by a third-period goal in which Kings forward Dwight King stymied any form of movement for Lundqvist in the crease. Yet the play went on - no stoppage, no penalty, just the sound of the goal horn.

It's been that kind of series for the Rangers - one where the Kings have seized their opportunities to suck the life out of their opponent.

But on the whole, despite what it says on the ledger, the Cup Final has not been some kind of epic domination. Even time after time in Game 3 when the Rangers couldn't convert, they were still peppering Quick with quality chances. Each of the first two games had to be decided in overtime.

To completely rule the Rangers out in Game 4 would be ignoring the Rangers' own resilience (the 3-1 deficient they improbably emerged from against Pittsburgh) and misinterpreting how the Kings have gotten out to a commanding series lead.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Rangers' compelling comeback

The New York Rangers are finally a team.

It took tragedy in the middle of a series in which they looked beleaguered and lifeless for it to happen but once it clicked, it was sublime to watch.  

Martin St. Louis hasn't been with the Rangers long but he feels like a lifelong Blueshirt at this point, his emotion fueling his teammates forward first in Game 5, the day after his mother died, then in Game 6 with a goal on Mother's Day.

MSG turned from funereal in Games 3 and 4 to full of passion and life again on that special Sunday in which the Rangers sent the series back to Pittsburgh. 

"You guys have been nothing but unbelievable for me these past couple days and I'll never forget that," St. Louis said after that Game 6. "I couldn't be prouder to be a fucking New York Ranger with you guys. Thank you very much."

Heart - and pride. That's infectious.

Just a little more than two months ago, the Rangers traded away a lot to bring in St. Louis, parting with their captain and a 2015 first-round pick. 

What they gained in a leader and unifying presence now seems immeasurable. 

No one knew St. Louis would be faced with such adversity and that these Rangers would rally around him. 

Finally though, the guys in blue don't look like a cobbled together bunch of stars with little chemistry and an inability to mesh. Lifted by the spellbinding performance of Henrik Lundqvist and timely scoring, the Rangers did what was unthinkable less than a week ago - get to and win a Game 7, pulling off the comeback from 3-1 down in the series against some of the world's best players. Improbably they'll continue their quest, facing either Boston or Montreal, a series away from the Stanley Cup Final.

And, for the past three games at least, the Rangers have gone from eliciting certain four-letter words to embodying one that's far from obscenity.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

All for Saul

Saul Phillips cares - a lot.

When his North Dakota State Bison got knocked out of the tournament after upsetting Oklahoma in the first round, Phillips cried on the podium. Not because his team wasn't good enough but because he wasn't going to get to coach his group of six seniors again.

"Got to watch a group of guys that deserved it and wanted it so bad and made it a priority in their life and did everything I asked them to do. This season - wow," Phillips said after the Bison's loss to San Diego State.

Sometimes you can just tell when a coach is special. Phillips has all the makings of being that.

When a coach connects with his players so profoundly that it brings him to tears, well, Phillips put it best - wow. His next group of players is noticing that too.

That's already a good sign.

Jim Christian, who departed Athens for an ACC job with Boston College, did a fine job with the Bobcats. Many didn't like his hire or his tenure but he won 49 games in two seasons. That's far from mediocre and a resume strong enough to capture a power conference school's attention.

However, something tells me we may look back at this as a blessing in disguise, similar to when former Ohio coach Tim O'Shea bolted for another opportunity on the east coast.

As with Christian's departure, the news of O'Shea leaving came out of left field (more so because it was for Bryant University and not a prestigious, northeast gig O'Shea had been rumored to desire). Whatever the reason or feeling in the aftermath, O'Shea's exit opened the door for John Groce's entrance and two of the most magical runs in program history.

Groce was a young, hungry assistant replacing a guy whose resume reeked of a MAC lifer. Most of us knew that Groce, if he reached his potential, was not going to be Ohio's head coach for an extended period of time. Reaching the Sweet 16 meant Groce's profile rose even higher, even sooner and earned him a Big Ten job with Illinois.

Christian's hire was a contrast to Groce. No doubt the former Kent State coach had the MAC pedigree and track record but his return to the MAC only four years after his departure was an interesting development.

By no means do I think Christian is a bad coach, as some have made him out to be. I don't think he's a traitor or a liar for taking the BC job after only two years with the Bobcats. This happens in college sports. As Jason Arkley aptly wrote in his piece examining Christian, I don't think he was duplicitous.

However, my biggest concern with Christian was one that presented itself again in Athens. Despite all of his regular season success, Christian's teams never found that March magic that catapults a coach to prominence. Those six 20-win Kent State squads made only two tournaments and were bounced both times in the first round. The best one, the 28-7, 2007-8 Flashes, were a No. 9 seed in the tournament, very high for a MAC champion. Yet, they had a historically bad, embarrassing 10-point first half in a loss to UNLV after a historically impressive season complete with a major Bracketbuster win on the road vs. top 25 St. Mary's.

The ability to conjure that magic has just been missing for Christian. You really can't qualify why but, like Groce, Phillips has proven he too has it. He brought his Bison to the dance in their first year as a Division I program and then led them to a tourney win four years later.

Christian still has zero NCAA Tournament victories to his name. That's a stat that's hard to argue or shake.

Phillips may not have the recruiting ties in the region that Christian had but he has a proven capacity to build something from the ground up. If he does it right in Athens, we may very well have another coaching search in a few years. And that's OK.

Athletic Director Jim Schaus knows how to hire these guys. Phillips may or may not be another Gregg Marshall, who Schaus tabbed as Wichita State's head coach and has created a serious contender, but we should have faith in Schaus to continue to make the right call in advancing the program.

Dream-crushing 'Cats

Aaron Harrison just likes to win. Most of us like it but this freshman is getting good at it.

As he lined up a three to give his Wildcats the lead with only seconds left in Saturday's second national semifinal, we should've know it was going down.

"He's got that clutch gene," Wisconsin's Sam Dekker said.

So does that mean you can clone him? Harrison does have a twin brother but his unflappable ability to stick a dagger in his opponent this tournament has been unmatched.

If you've lost count, this is the bill on Harrison in the final minute of his last three games: go-ahead three with 39 seconds left vs. Louisville, go-ahead three with 2.6 seconds to go vs. Michigan and tonight, go-ahead three with 5.7 seconds on the clock to do in Wisconsin.

Somewhere Robert Horry is even a bit awestruck. 

March Madness is ripe for heartbreak and the 'Cats, propelled by Harrison, have doled out a heaping helping.

They've been the underdog in their last four games against some of college basketball's titans. Just take a moment and appreciate who they've beaten: No 1 seed and 35-0 Wichita State, the defending national champion Louisville, the defending runner up Michigan and a very balanced, formidable Wisconsin squad.

Harrison is a 19-year-old Texan playing the biggest games of his life in his home state. "JerryWorld" as AT&T stadium has become known, is a massive, behemoth of a place. Fans sitting in the upper reaches of the stadium had two views of Harrison's cold-blooded shot - the life-size one on the enormous HD video screen and the ant-like one of the proceedings taking place on the court.

No stage is too big for Harrison though who has found that special variable that fuels a team's run in March.

When you look back at past champions, there's always that one player you associate with a champion's run. For Kentucky, it was Anthony Davis in 2012, Jeff Sheppard in 1998 and Tony Delk in 1996. Connecticut, the Wildcats' opponent Monday night, has a title tradition too - led by Rip Hamilton in 1999, Emeka Okafor in 2004 and Kemba Walker in 2011.

Those championship teams make it difficult to pick just one "defining" player. The '99 Huskies also had Khalid El-Amin and the '04 version the scoring prowess of Ben Gordon. Kentucky's 2012 team was full of phenomenal underclassmen like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, the '96 team boasted Ron Mercer and Antoine Walker too.

You don't win a title solely on one guy's greatness.

This year, Shabazz Napier is Connecticut's stud but DeAndre Daniels has been the X-factor in this tournament. Julius Randle is arguably Kentucky's best - and most pro-ready - player on the floor. However, Harrison, who's had his ups and downs this season and tournament, has been the most clutch.

Intangibles are by nature an unquantifiable quality. Harrison has it in spades right now, which makes betting against this Kentucky team's "One Shining Moment" a difficult prospect.