Month: April 2013

Past the Point of Underachievement

Every assembly of talent hoping to be a team is bestowed with a floor and a ceiling.  The floor is a threshold level of achievement, and the ceiling is a long shot of a faded team photo in the Hickory gym with the echoing voice of Coach Dale, “I love you guys.”

It’s been 325 days or so since we assembled our talent at Disney for the Memorial Day weekend tournament.  It was at that time apparent we had the ability to be a very good team. We played our 70th game this morning, a 3-0 win over Weston in the Elite 8 of the State Cup.  We have won 43 of the 70, tied another 11, won 3 tournaments and 2 leagues, in making the final 4, we have reached our floor as one of the best team’s in the state. 

We play the Florida Cup in two weeks, and the Final Four a week later.  We will reach for our ceiling with “house” money, unburdened by any concern that we flopped, faded or imploded.  We have earned this opportunity, and we need to appreciate it.

Two players that started with us aren’t playing soccer anymore.  Another joined us along the way, and is a part of us.  In three weeks time, we will never exist like this again.  Change always comes, some times incremental and respectful of a core, others expansive and all-encompassing.  We will remember this time, but how?

Billowing Smoke From the Factories of Self-Esteem

I was driving across town wallowing in the depths of my own long-standing, largely undiagnosed depression when I received a text from my daughter, “what are you wearing?”  I double checked the sender, and yes it was Holland. 

“My work clothes.”

“Ok.”

Twenty minutes later, I was at the Double Down Cheer Banquet in full compliance with the no jeans, no shorts dress code.  Admittedly, I looked at the well dressed attendees, announced at 450, with a measure of WTF?  Why are we all dressed up, and what are they gonna do to entertain me over the next three hours?

I was served homemade pasta with unlimited parmesan cheese and coke.  Bright start.

I spent forty minutes sitting among people I don’t know while Holland caught up with teammates and tried really hard to look comfortable.  About expected.

Holland returned and we watched a twenty minute photo slide show that featured two iconic images of Holland.  Proud moment.

The speeches began and continued for two hours.  There was a common theme of hard work and perseverance resulting in personal and team success.  As the coaches moved to individual awards, I found myself at attention and scanning the crowd to see if I could see the next heroic lioness being described.  Two girls hobbled on stage with crutches.  Another put off surgery to complete the season.  Some were tall and sturdy, others best described as frail.

Throughout the night “Cheer for Caitlin” was cheered and seen on shirts.  Caitlin missed the banquet.  She couldn’t beat cancer.  She was five.  Her mother and surviving sister (on crutches) were on stage near the end.  Caitlin’s mom served my pasta.  She didn’t speak long.  She didn’t need to.  She was thankful for the support the gym had given her family in this unimaginably difficult time.  It was raw and real, and spoke to the value of connectedness.

I was happy to share the night with Holland and Double Down as they brought closure to a season measured better in the self-esteem gained together in the gym, slowly, fall by fall, building their cheer skills, than in trophies and medals.  It is a communal path to self-esteem and needed to be concluded in community.

ODP Again

ODP stands for Olympic Development Program. It is a money-making soccer program whereby for a fee young soccer players can tryout for the state team, and then compete in the Region Camp in hopes of for an additional fee making the Region Team and if all goes extraordinarily well, and for yet another fee, your child might make the Youth National Team. Like all human endeavors, the process is unpalatably inefficient and subject to varying degrees of corruption. That said, it has been a terrific experience for my son, Bryson.

Last year, Bryson made the Florida ODP team, and played well enough in Alabama to make the Region 3 Pool. The experience allowed him to compete against the best players in Florida, and the ten other states that comprise Region 3. In doing so, he gained confidence, exposure and a tangible accomplishment to his playing resume that contributed to his transfer to FC America this season. His time in the dorm in Tuscaloosa, and his friendships an invaluable life experience not readily available by other means.

This year I looked forward to ODP tryouts, but not without concern that after an occasionally tumultuous season, Bryson might not make it back to Alabama.

The tryout was divided into three scrimmage sessions: 6 v 6, 8 v 8 and 11 v 11. The 6 v 6 session saw Bryson playing several player for whom possession of the ball was not a priority, which poses a number of critical problems for a possession player. On every occasion I looked over, I saw Bryson half-heartedly chasing the ball. I was stressed and very hungry by the end of the session.

8 v 8 was a positive turn. Bryson was paired with FC America’s Mikey Lynch, a stout central defender, and a speedy striker. The team was balanced and found a rhythm that flattered the sum and the parts in equal measure. Mikey and Bryson left the field together in good spirits.

There is a school of thought in these tryouts that the decisions are largely made at this point in the process, and readily apparent by the selection of the 11 v 11 teams the next morning.

Earlier today, I grew in confidence when Bryson was put on a “loaded” team. The first scrimmage was scintillating, and Bryson was up for the task with a solid showing. In the second segment, Bryson and Mikey went head to head. Bryson had the better of the opening exchanges, but seemed to lose his legs, and Mikey finished better.

The session ended and the five evaluator/coaches huddled for twenty minutes as 82 players and a similar number of parents waited. The coaches approached the players, who sat motionless for another ten minutes before dispersing. I studied the body language of the players as they crossed the field, it didn’t reveal much. As they got close enough, I heard some tell their parents they made it, and others confirmed they didn’t. Bryson was lingering on the far side of the field with Mikey. I tried desperately to read into this, but nothing was clear till they were about forty yards away when a smile crossed Bryson’s face. True to character, it was gone by the time he reached me, and I got a curt, half-mumbled “made it.”

Back to Alabama we go, but I hope with a greater sense of purpose. By any normal standard, Bryson is incredibly fit, reducing dreams to attainable goals is abnormal however, and the most profound lesson of the weekend is Bryson’s ability to perform at his most influential best is fueled by an absurd amount of physical labor that demands a greater level of fitness.

I have spoken, will he listen.

An Unpretentious NBA Playoff Preview

I had no intention of writing this post, but about thirty minutes ago it started raining and foiled my soccer training plans for Bryson.  It may also be one of the worst television nights of the year so here are my thoughts on the first round of the NBA playoffs.

Miami/Milwaukee

Miami in 4.  The Heat are the best team in basketball in part because they will take this series seriously and dispense with an overmatched foe as expeditiously as possible.  The Bucks are an erratic team sans meaningful playoff experience, and can only hope to get absurdly hot from behind the arc to steal a game.

New York/Boston

Selfishly, I hope the tragic events in Boston inspire a new chapter in Celtic Pride, and this amalgamation of aging warriors and unproven spare parts bounce the annoying Knicks from the playoffs.  The Knicks are annoying because for several years they have remained pseudo-relavent for their ineptitude making it difficult to accept them as the contender they have become.  I continue to believe Carmelo Anthony is a turd, albeit a high scoring turd, and even the presence of one of my all time favorite players, Jason Kidd can’t elevate this group to likability.  Despite my hopes, I see the Knicks slopping their way to a 4-3 win.

Indiana/Atlanta

Pacers 4-2.  The Pacers are expert practitioners of smashmouth basketball, and this alone assures they will beat the non-descript Hawks.  This series turns almost entirely on the value of having a philosophy from which grows an identity.  Pacera have one, Hawks don’t.

Brooklyn/Chicago

I am not sure what series will be played.  If the series includes Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose, Bulls win 4-2.  If only Noah or Rose, Bulls win 4-3.  If neither, the Nets win 4-2.  I suppose it is good to see the return of Deron Williams, but I can’t get over the fact that his disappearance or hibernation as it were was self-imposed which makes me wish a groin pull upon him. 

OKC/Houston

OKC 4-2.  The obvious story line is James Harden, now a fully-minted superstar, against his old mates, and anyone old enough to be familiar with name Willie Burton, knows the perils at hand.  The bigger story is whether OKC, has the maturity to crush a team that will play a similar style of basketball with inferior talent and experience.  It should be the most entertaining series of the first round.

San Antonio/LA

The Spurs are struggling, and the Lakers were on a tear, and now at least on some sort of Ewing Theory/emotional journey of redemption.  Enhancing the drama is the sneaky fact the Spurs have quietly sucked against the Lakers.  I don’t have a strong sense of this series beyond the fact it should last a while.  Spurs in 7.

Denver/Golden State

A combination of high altitude and late tip offs will mean I don’t watch much of this series.  Both teams are entertaining and Steph Curry is likely to drop 50 in one of these, but neither is likely to reach the conference final so I don’t feel that bad.  In a mild upset, Golden State wins in 7.

LA/Memphis

This is an unfortunate series because I genuinely like both teams and will be disappointed to see one out of the play offs.  If only they could have played Denver and Golden State respectively, but life is not about fairness or even justice.  It is about Andy Dufruene slogging through a hundred yards of raw sewage on his hands and knees to get out of Shawshank whilst somehow maintaining a sense of dignity and an air of optimism.  Clippers in 7.

Pick Up

Every morning I wake up to the sensation of pressurized pain near my tail bone, and since an over-aggressive session of throwing the football a few weeks ago, a burning pain on the inside of my right elbow. As I slide off the bed and my feet find the floor, I stiffly rise with alternating pain in both legs sometimes it’s in the ankles and at others the knees, and for a brief moment, I consider a truly horrible thought….maybe I can’t play today.

I don’t play professionally. Nobody, save myself, truly cares if I play or not, but in the confines of my mind and soul, I must play. I am 41 years old, and there is no alternative. I play pick up basketball Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and recently, started playing pick up soccer on Tuesday and Thursday. It is as vitale to my survival as the beating heart that pumps blood through my body.

Stepping on the court or field temporarily relieves me of the stresses of my life, and transports me to a place where I am measured not by the car I drive, how I dress, or anything other than how I play. It’s true of everyone who plays. Are you a self-centered jackass who argues every call? Do you defend, move the ball and yourself for the betterment of the team? Is there something dishonest or even dangerous in the way you compete? Or do you without reservation or complaint give all of yourself to the cause?

Between my two pick ups, I play with a few dozen people on a regular basis. I know most, but not all of their first names, and far less of their last, but my mind carries a player profile of each one of them. The course of my day can turn on which of them I play with, and the probability of success. By success I not only mean wins and losses, but the tangible sense of playing and functioning as a team. It is these moments when 5-10 people accept roles, produce a combined effort and function as one for an hour or two that pick up nirvana exists.

It is the reason why, by the time I get out of the shower, I know I will play.

One More Time

Again, I am compelled to write about Kobe Bryant.  His season, and inspiringly, maniacal push to put the Lakers in the playoffs ended just outside the lane when his achilles snapped on a drive to the basket against Golden St. Friday night.  My reaction to his injury is revealing on several levels. 

First, I felt an immediate and profound sense of disbelief.  This couldn’t happen to Kobe and not during his heroic run of play.  It wasn’t fair, but life isn’t fair, or for that matter very often fun.  With this injury, the inherent unfairness of life invaded my refuge of sport…..nothing is sacred.

Second, I felt a tinge of guilt.  I had just written of Kobe, and it reminded me of my post on the San Antonio Spurs last season.  I praised the Spurs for a twenty game win streak that finished the regular season, and carried them to a 2-0 advantage over the Thunder.  The Thunder immediately ran the Spurs off the floor and out of the playoffs.  Perhaps in both instances, I was to blame.

Finally, I considered Kobe’s indomitable will.  He shot and made two free throws AFTER the injury, in a game that would be decided by two points, and then walked off the court unassisted.  The pain threshold, pride and sense of duty to team and game in that moment was extraordinary. 

Ultimately, it is why I have written about him as often as I have.  He is one of the athletes of this generation that through their greatness and competitive character give these games a greater meaning and extol transcendent lessons of perseverance and success.

I have no doubt he will play again.

The Prideful Lion in Winter

In his 77th regular season game of his 17th season with his team fighting for the 8th, and final playoff seed in the West, Kobe Bryant played 48 minutes producing 47 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks, 3 steals and 1 win. 

He is having one of the five best season’s of his illustrious career for a flawed, underachieving team destined to be overrun in the first round of the playoffs, but several weeks ago, Bryant guaranteed the Lakers would make the playoffs, and by the grace of Mamba they will. 

Bryant’s legacy, beyond the five rings and mountainous statistical accomplishments, will be his singular sense of purpose.   He has fought and fueded with Shaq, Phil and even Smush Parker for their perceived lack of purpose.   His relationships with teammates has felt forced at best, fraudulent at worst.

In this late playoff push though, he has granted a gift to his fellow Lakers.  The gift of being relevant, and somehow relieved of culpability for the season long shit show they have been. 

The story since his guarantee of a playoff birth, and his looming, if somewhat distant retirement, has been Kobe’s willful and inspiring performances.  It is odd and simultaneously awesome, in the true jaw dropping, head-shaking manner. 

It is entirely Kobe Bryant.