Month: January 2013

Focus

Despite alarming levels of corny and my natural aversion to martial arts, The Karate Kid was a defining movie of my youth.  Daniel-san, an awkward transplant from the east coast, finds himself in California and is promptly subjected to the ruthless bullying of the Cobra Kai, a teenage karate team coached by a win at all costs testosterone-fueled psychopath.  Daniel-san is befriended by the immortal Mr. Miyagi, who’s unconventional training methods integrate the body and mind under the constant urge of “focus”.

Daniel-san uses “focus” to build self-confidence, overcome a bad leg injury before the final and ultimately unleash history’s greatest Crane kick.  It is inspirational, but instructional. 

Focus is a tremendous and frequently under-appreciated talent that separates otherwise talented individuals from each other in big moments.  A few years ago, I watched a young soccer player that had received a call up to the National team.  At first glance, I missed it.  He seemed ordinary.  Small in stature, quick, but not in a breath-taking way and largely bereft of ball trickery.  The second game showed me the difference.  It was a final and played on level terms.  He was the difference winning the game by scoring two goals in two plays that may have taken less then ten seconds.  Midway through the first half he made a subtle, horizontal run into the box and calmy volleyed a chipped pass into the net, more precision than power.  The second goal came when he pounced on an opponent’s shaky touch to create a breakaway.  He shot hard and low, but the keeper saved it.  The rest of the play unfolded in slow motion.  The ball bounced high and to the right of the prone keeper, and the player calmly volleyed home his second goal.  At no time did his eyes come off the ball.  He was completely focused and it made all the difference.

Earlier in the week, I watched a freshmam basketball game where the home team went down, endured a few strange officiating calls and scrambled back into the game before losing.  Several players came unhinged in the final minutes flailing arms and shaking heads over non-calls while the game remained live.  There was one exception, and it was this player who continued to make shots and other plays to keep his team in contention.  It was not a coincidence that his focus on things that mattered in that moment enabled him to make plays, while those around him did not. 

Out of Our Hands

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One of the most frustratingly compelling circumstances in sport is when you do just enough to take fate out of your hands, but not quite enough to definitively screw yourself. It is the place where hope, prayer and cynicism theatrically collide. Such a collision occurred Sunday morning at 9:15.

On Saturday, we opened with a 0-0 draw with Maitland, a team defined by a high work rate and exceptionally physical style of play. The game saw more fouls than chances and mirrored a 1-1 draw we had with them two months ago. They are the soccer equivalent of a cunning, leathery tough club fighter that can and will alter the course of promising campaigns, a definite red flag in any team’s State Cup group.

In the night cap, we played Tampa Bay United who had already beaten us in FPL play. We scored first on a Mikey Lynch header, but they equalized immediately. We lead again midway through the second half when Eric Brody converted a penalty, but conceded two points and control of our destiny late on a free kick scramble.

We arrived to dissipating fog on Sunday morning needing to beat Lakeland by three goals and having Maitland amd TBU tie. There was aggravation at having thrown away points the day before and putting ourselves in this position, a pervasive feeling of unworthiness for doing so, and a vague sense of entitlement that we deserve better and the soccer Gods will show us favor churning in our stomachs.

We jumped on Lakeland and won 4-0. With the game in hand full attention was directed to the next field where TBU held a 1-0 lead at the half. Maitland equalized midway through have and for the final twenty reckless and chaotic minutes it seemed impossible another goal wouldn’t come, but it didn’t and we advanced to the final to play our FC America second team.

The final was as boring as soccer can be. We scored in the first minute, and our goal was never seriously threatened thereafter as we benignly passed the ball around the field. The final whistle seemed to blow prematurely, but it may have felt that way because it woke me up. It was a title scrounged from unlikely good fortune, but did little to define us going forward. We are 27-9-8 with four titles as a team since June and somehow feel adrift and embattled.

3 v 3 Worlds

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The Sharks playing staff underwent an overhaul after winning Nationals in August with a foursome of Mikey Lynch, Braden Kemp, Eric Brody and Bryson Pink. The additions of Randall Congreaves and Assyed Sanchez made the team deeper and more athletic for the World Championships this past weekend. The Sharks entered the weekend as the top seed, but before beginning the Championships had the not so small matter of playing a full team game against Jacksonville United in the Florida Premier League.

Jacksonville brought a loaded team and took an early 1-0 lead, but FC America created chances at will building a 3-1 lead. Jacksonville pulled a goal back, but Zues Rodriguez sealed the game with a running header to make it 4-2.

The six Sharks set out for Disney with sandwiches in tow for a 2:30 match with FC Brazil from Colorado. The Sharks were sluggish most of the game and trailed 2-1 before rallying for the win on a pk conversion at the final whistle. The impression was that we played poorly amd our opponent was good, but not great.

Game two was against The Avengers from Illinois. The Avengers packed it in defensively and literally gave the ball away with long kick when placed under duress. It was a strange and ultimately futile strategy resulting in a comfortable 5-2 Sharks win.

Sunday, the Sharks played their final group game against Bloomington Elite from Indiana, who provided little resistance in a 7-2 game. The Sharks were second seed entering the playoffs on goal difference.

The Sharks played The Flying Dutchman from Buffalo, New York in the opening round. It was a cagey, tactical match that saw the Sharks take a 3-2 lead with about two minutes to play. The Flying Dutchman mounted a late flurry of pressure in front of goal, but were beaten when the Sharks won possession late. The Sharks played for a decisive goal, but lost possession and the lead on a counter attack forcing overtime. The Sharks dominated the extra session and won it with a Mikey Lynch goal from an acute angle.

Monday morning saw a rematch with FC Brazil. The first half was tight at 1-1. Midway through the second half the Sharks scored three quick goals to go up 4-1. FC Brazil capitalized on some mistakes cutting the lead to 4-3 before capitulating.

In the final we played Stronghold from New Jersey. Stronghold was impressive during our scouting operations and presented a significant challenge. Playing our best soccer of the weekend, we lead 2-0 at half and extended it to 3-0 early in the second half. It was a mop up operation from there 5-2.

The core three of Mikey Lynch, Braden Kemp and Eric Brody had won Nationals several times, but always come up short in Worlds. Bryson joined the team in August, Randall and Assyed this month. They all play together at FC America, but the intimacy of this experience in 3 v 3, joining and fulfilling a longer narrative was something I hope each of them appreciates.

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Thoughts on Lance and Performance Enhancing Drugs

This post has been festering in my head since the fall of 1988 in the aftermath of Ben Johnson being stripped of his Gold Medal and 100 meter World Record.  Johnson was immediately a villian beyond redemption, but the race was electrifying.  I saw it.  It happened and no executive action could take that away. 

I felt the same way following the Congressional hearings on baseball’s steroid era.  I enjoyed Big Mac and Sammy Sosa’s home run race in 1998, the lethal home run hitting Barry Bonds and the extended run of Roger Clemens.  None of these men were recently inducted into the Hall of Fame despite being the dominate players of the era because all three were connected to performance enhancing drugs.

This week Lance Armstrong ended years of speculation and investigation by admitting his use of PED’s.  In each instance the response is the same there is indignation and outrage, sponsors drop the villian, achievements are vacated or stripped and it happens again.

“If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” – Nascar proverb

The primary complaint against the use of PED’s is cheating, specifically that it creates an unfair competitive advantage.  This is contextual.  Seven of the eight finalists in the 1988 100 meter final tested positive at some point in there career including Carl Lewis during the US trials BEFORE the 1988 games.  To the extent they revealed anything, the Congressional hearings on baseball established that PED usage was rampant throughout the league among hitters and pitchers.  As for Armstrong, over half of the Tour De France top ten finishes during his reign have been tainted by a positive test or admission. 

PED’s are generated by medical science.  The same science that we entrust to cure cancer, heart disease and other ailments.  Periodically advancements are made that increase human performance in sports.  This is not sinister.  It’s progress in the same way that weight training, nutrition and improved surgical practices have contributed to improved athletic performance and longevity. 

PED’s do not directly result in increased athletic performance.   They facilitate with rapid recovery and energy stimulation the training necessary to increase the performance.  In the instance of aging athletes like Clemens and Bonds, PED’s enabled them to train longer amd harder diminishing the effects of age.  In that sense, it represents a higher degree of commitment to performance than many athletes are willing to put forth.  Contrast your sentiments of Clemens and Bonds in that light against your feelings for a talented athlete, who routinely appears unfit or smokes marijuana.

The second biggest argument against PED’s is the long term consequences of their use is unknown.  What is known, however, is that competing at the highest level of sport is not good for anyone’s long term health.  Being an elite athlete already comes with a price sometimes as steep as death or severe mental illness and more commonly accelerated degeneration of the spine and joints.  These are consequences that each athlete accepts as they progress up the pyramid in their field, and frequently the reason many athlete’s don’t reach the highest level.

PED’s are a part of sport and should, if not accepted, be viewed in context rather than the constricting narrative of cheating and villian-making.  To do otherwise is a hypocritical betrayal of who we are and what we truly believe of competition.

Pay Off

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It took this picture yesterday as my son Camden took his driving test. That’s my car off in the distance leaving the parking lot with him at the wheel. I watched him pull out, execute a few manuevers and drive past me before I thought to take the picture. The picture I wanted was ten seconds earlier as he passed right before me, hands at ten and two and a face of maturing focus. I was late and the moment passed.

I stood on the sidewalk for fifteen anxiety-filled minutes, while Camden drove. I listened to music and tried not to betray my turmoil to anyone that might glance my way. Camden pulled into the parking lot and I quickly, almost subconciously scanned my car for damage (none), and watched intently as the tester emerged from the car for any sign of the result (none). Then Camden came around the back side of the car with an irrepressible smile and understated thumbs up. My face tensed as I battled a sudden dust storm around my eyes. He did it.

Thousands of people got there first driver’s liscence yesterday, but this one was close to me. I was there for the process. The initiative he took collecting all the information he needed, the wheel time he demanded from me over the last twelve months, the demonstrable improvement that wheel time rendered, and the events from last Thursday night till the moment of victory.

We lost his social security card and scoured the house for several hours Thursday night without success. We spent Friday morning at the social security office getting a new card only to learn he didn’t need it to take the test. We raced back to the test center Friday only to be told walk-ins had to be there before 9am. Camden drove a lot this past weekend and was very smooth. On Monday night coming back from his vocal lesson it dawned on me that he was ready and could probably nap in the shotgun seat.

Tuesday morning was a different matter. Camden was terrible on the two mile drive to the test center. I fought the urge to scream “GET IT TOGETHER MAN!”, and settled for some soft platitudes about handling mistakes without letting a single mistake turn into three or four. As Coach Dale said, “we are way past big speech time.”

He didn’t acknowledge his nerves to me until we were waiting for the liscence and he asked if we could stop by the house before I dropped him at school.

“Why? Did you forget something?”

“No. Deoderant.”

“Did you forget to put it on?”

“No but my pits smell cause I was so nervous.”

During the early part of our wait, I listened to a speech Ray Lewis delivered at Elon College. Youtube it. He talked about effort and not being outworked by anyone in his career, but he also spoke of time. It never stops, but we have the choice of what we do with that time. I wish I used my time to take the picture I really wanted to take, but I used my time to be there with my son so that picture will stay in my mind with all the other little moments of the time we spend together.

The Difficulties of Fandom With Regard to James Stewart Specifically

I am a fan of James Stewart.  My path to fandom was familiar to me.  I saw him for the first time racing in the supercross lites class on a green Kawasaki.  The gate dropped and he entered turn one in fifth or sixth place.  Through the arc of the turn he took the lead and on exit seemed to be going twice as fast as anyone else on the track.  He rode the remaining laps by himself literally amd figuratively.  His mastery of momentum, balance and physics was absurdly unfair to the rest of the field, but wildly intoxicating to behold.  He would claim titles at every level of racing including a perfect season in outdoor motocross (he won all twenty motos), and the lofty title of “fastest man on the planet.”

He learned his craft like Tiger Woods endless hours of training from tender years under the watchful eye of a stern father. Big James, himself an aspiring motocross racer, spared no expense or minute developing his son’s talent.  As wins and sponsorship increased, he built a family compound with three tracks in Polk County, Florida.  On the hard dirt and hot sun between the orange groves, Bubba as he was then known, cracked the talent code.

He didn’t just race he attacked a course with a toxic balance of ragged-edged relentlessness and artistry.  Stewart could save himself from crashes no one else could while finding racing lines that no one else saw. The unadulterated brilliance of Stewart in attack mode meant two things: he was the fastest man on the track whenever he raced and if he didn’t fall, he would win.  This is definitive and hedge-free.  A tough standard to uphold.

I was at Daytona a few years ago.  There was a two level jump just passed the finish line.  Every rider in every class hit the jump and tire-tapped the second level to clear it, until the second to last lap of Stewart’s heat when he went all in and clear both tiers of the jump.  He gained an immediate competitive advantage as no one dared to clear the both levels in a single jump.  Stewart dominated the final until he went head over heels on a different jump.  Crashing at this speed has consequences.  Visibly shaken, Stewart fell down while trying to start his bike, but eventually remounted his bike and came through the field to seventh.  His dash from the back was more compelling than anything the gifted leaders did that night.

Stewart, and by extension I, occupy a strange place.  He has in the last few seasons spent more time injured than on the podium.  He has aged and favors James to Bubba.  Winning that seemed inevitable absent the irregularity of a fall, now seems improbable without a divine alignment of the planets.  There are moments of those times, but a growing sense that we have seen the best he has to offer and must hold those times in the steel trap of our minds so we don’t forget what we saw and how it made us feel.

It is not easy to accept.  The eternal flood of hope springs with every race, and is slowly gnawed on with each disappointing result.  We excuse and rationalize what we see and spin the positives to the front of our minds, but the true greatness of Stewart’s early brilliance required none of this.  It leapt from the track demanding our undivided attention and showed us what was possible when two wheels dance on uneven dirt.

NBA Talk

Friday morning MagicJuan made an appearance on David Baumann’s sports talk radio show on AM 1080.  Here is an expanded look at his thoughts on the NBA’s trade deadline.

Ok, here you go.  You have buyers, vendors and teams that can go either way.

Either way – Atlanta declared themselves contenders two weeks ago and then lost four in a row dropping to 20-14.  Josh Smith will be a free agent and will likely leave his hometown team, and the only team he has played for since high school. It’s clear the Hawks initiative is to create space for free agency this summer for CP3 and Dwight Howard, or even Lebron in 2014.  Let’s see how this pans out.  They have the potential to be a top 3 team in the East, but if that doesn’t seem likely by the trade deadline, they could move Smith or possibly Horford.

Milwaukee just fired Scott Skiles sit eigth in the East and are enjoying a two game win streak under interim coach Boylan.  Brandon Jennings and Monte Ellis can both become free agents and the Bucks need to listen if anything of value is offered.  They could also be enticed by any opportunity to dump Ersan Ilyiosova’s contract.  If they get on a roll in the East they may ride out the season.

Buyers –

Brooklyn is in a win now mentality evidenced by firing Avery Johnson and are intent to move up from their sixth place spot.  PJ Carlisimo has spoken of not disrupting chemistry, but it’s difficult to not see Billy King jump if their is a big fish to be had.  Marshon Brooks, Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace are the most likely bait.

Boston is not simply bored.  Pierce and KG are a year older, and Rondo cannpt do it all by himself.  Look for them to add a big and/or a wing.  Jeff Green, Jared Sullinger, Brandon Bass and a future lottery pick seem to be the most logical assets on the block.

Portland can go either way at 19-15 they are ahead of expectations, and Lillard and Aldridge have been sensational.  They have survived injuries to Batum, Mathews amd endured a young, inconsistent bench.  If they are inclined to make a push this season, look for them to add a veteran or two to stabilize the bench.  They have some young asseta to make the move in Victor Claver, Meyers Leonard, JJ Hickson and Will Barton.

Sellers

Memphis is a surprise as they are top 4 in the West, but the new ownership group has said they are not interested in paying the luxury tax.  Look for the crime rate to go up in the vicinity of the Fed Ex Center if Z-Bo is moved.  Rudy Gay is likely gone as he as been connected to Denver, Golden St. and Boston recently.

Dallas is 13-22 and going no where.  Time for an overhaul and they have a ton of veterans with relatively low risk contracts:  OJ Mayo (scorer), Vince Carter (three point shooter), Chris Kaman (inside scorer), Shawn Marion (perimeter defender) and Darren Collison (point guard in last year of rookie contract).  Each of these players could help a contending team in some capacity.

Minnesota is 16-16 and without a plan.  Kevin Love is out 8-10 weeks with a broken hand and diagruntled.  Ricky Rubio has been slow to recover, and their are several players with movable contracts:  JJ Barea ( 3 years at $15m), Derrick Williams in Adelman’s doghouse, Stiesma and a rejuvenated Andrei Kirilenko (16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game) can all help a legitimate contending team.

Orlando is deeply in rebuilding mode and have some interesting young players.  They need more help and pieces to build around, and I would rate everyone after Affalo and Vucecic as movable.

Other names that could move include:

Amare Stoudamire – Knicks
Marcin Gortat -Phoenix
Eric Gordon – New Orleans
Pau Gasol – Los Angeles
Nene – Washington
Anderson Varejoa – Cleveland
Rodney Stuckey -Detroit
Andrea Barngiani – Toronto
Ramon Sessions -Charlotte
BJ Mullens – Charlotte
Evan Turner – Philly