Monthly Archives: February 2015

All-Star Entertainment

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on February 17, 2015.

All-Star Game selections are designed to recognize the best players of the league. You can malign the fan-voting system if you want, or the way the All-Star rosters are frequently changed due to injuries; but for the sake of this article, let us assume that the goal of the All-Star game is to highlight the skills and accomplishments of the best players in each conference. If we could identify the superstars of the league and put them all in the same game, then we would expect to see the best display of the sport. Unfortunately, that is hardly the end product. In fact, the annual matchup between these two teams of superstars is underwhelming at best. With the exception of the MLB All-Star Game, which still holds some semblance of respectable competition, most of these such events have turned into casual affairs, devoid of any real strategy or defense; in particular this is the case with the NBA All-Star Game and the NFL Pro Bowl. I’m still on board with the honor of an All-Star selection, but fans looking to see a competitive game are often disappointed.

Thus I had minimal interest in watching the NBA All-Star Game this year, but happened to catch the 3-point contest on Saturday night. This season has featured some of the best individual shooting performances in the NBA, and the league’s biggest names were all participating in this year’s contest. I watched stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kyle Korver, plus finalist Kyrie Irving and defending champ Marco Belinelli. Their shots seemed almost effortless, arching through the air as they had numerous times before in practice. Curry put on quite a show, making 13 consecutive shots at one point during his victorious final round, staking his claim as the top shooter in the NBA. And anyone who wasn’t impressed should try to just shoot 25 shots in a minute from the NBA distance, let alone try to sink 13 in a row. Already impressed, I just had to watch the Slam Dunk Contest, which I admittedly had not watched since Blake Griffin’s over-hyped, shouldn’t-have-won, jumping-over-the-hood-of-the-car-he-happens-to-endorse dunk. This year’s contest featured some of the game’s young stars who brought a combination of skill and athleticism that brought the New York crowd to its feet. Victor Oladipo and Zach Levine dazzled the audience with the off-the-backboard, between-the-legs, around-the-back dunks that looked like video game manifestations.

For every young kid that has picked up a basketball in the driveway, the All-Star festivities are a reminder of the playground games that put bragging rights on the line and creativity to the forefront. I remember trying to the hit the shot from the back of the driveway in the final round of H-O-R-S-E. My friends and I would lower the rim and pretend we were dunking on the big stage. Weekends were all about who could make the off-the-roof, left-handed, one-footed, bank shot that no one would be able to recreate. That was the fun of the sport, making our own rules and trying to do something that hadn’t been done before. With the eventual transition to organized teams and official competition, these antics fade away from times of youth. But for one night, the NBA puts away the rulebook and brings out the bright lights. Never mind that the dunk contest scoring makes no mathematical sense, we just want to see someone defy the law of gravity. And the players get into the excitement too, cheering for every next highlight-reel worthy moment, just like they were back on the playground. I was genuinely entertained and impressed with the skills and pageantry of each contest.

Maybe the NFL can take a lesson from this too. Who wouldn’t want to see Tom Brady and Peyton Manning line up at the 50-yard line and try to hit different targets in the end zone? Let’s see who can nail a 70 yard field goal, or make the best one-handed catch. The MLB already has the home run derby, but why stop there? Let’s see who can throw a strike to third on the run from the warning track. For one night, let’s put the entertainment value back into sports. It doesn’t always have to be about teams and championships, sometimes it can just be fun. So yes, I’ll overlook the mediocrity of the game itself, and instead watch to see who can dribble through obstacles the fastest or who can hit the shot from half court. I want to see 10 3-pointers in a row, or maybe the triple-backflip, off-the-trampoline, through-the-ring-of-fire, windmill dunk. Why? Because that’s entertaining, and sports should be fun. The rest of the season can be about competing for every point and trying to make the playoffs. For one day, it doesn’t have to be about the actual game; just make it entertaining. Most of the players probably began playing on a playground, just trying to do something exciting and new. Once a year, they have a night to go back. Watch them put on a show.  AN

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Running under a Shadow

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on February 3, 2015.

The Boston Marathon was in the news again this week. Twice, in fact. After a snowstorm hit the Northeast, inspiring pictures circulated on the internet showing the finish line that had been cleared of snow. That feel-good story was subdued slightly within the running community amid the decision that Rita Jeptoo, the Boston Marathon champion in 2006, 2013, and 2014, had been suspended for 2 years following the positive test of her “A” and “B” samples for erythropoietin (EPO). EPO stimulates the production of erythrocytes, which are precursor cells for red blood cells, vital for transporting oxygen through the body during exercise. For its proven enhancement on aerobic capacity, EPO is a banned substance for all endurance athletes.

Jeptoo, who also holds the course record at Boston, is one of the biggest names in women’s distance running. Having also won the Chicago Marathon in 2013 and 2014, she was the top competitor at the World Marathon Majors, a circuit that includes six of the most competitive marathons around the globe each year. Jeptoo will no longer be eligible for that prize, and is banned from competition for two years, including the world championships this year and the 2016 Olympics. There will still be an appeal, which will occur before determining whether Jeptoo will have to forfeit any previously won prize money. However, her reign as a top-teir distance champion may be informally over, as the professional running community has increasingly moved toward an attitude that seeks to punish doping offenders and keep them out of future competition.

Most people would agree that doping is present to some extent in all endurance sports. The degree to which you believe it exists, depends on your level of cynicism. Unfortunately, until the penalties catch up to the infractions, there may remain be an incentive to cheat. Running is a demanding support; marathon training, even more so. At the professional level, the stakes are high to win races and set records. Champions receive nice payouts in prize money, but many elite and sub-elite runners live with mid-level sponsorship deals while training full-time and sometimes holding other jobs. A win at a major race can be a career-defining moment, not just in terms of earning potential, but also as a springboard for other competitions.

But distance running doesn’t have a “quick fix.” The “fluke” wins that might show up once in a while in other sports don’t occur in running. You can’t train to win a race overnight (or even within a few months). Winning a marathon “on luck” doesn’t happen. Sometimes an entire year is planned out in order to peak for a single race. Base mileage for elite runners tops 100 miles per week; specific workouts are tailored for each phase of the training cycle; and the “intangibles” of strength, nutrition, and recovery become even more important. Oh and by the way, everyone else is working just as hard to beat you. A nagging injury, improper recovery, or a few missed workouts can derail a training plan, which at the elite level, might jeopardize the race goal. I’ll never justify using performance enhancing drugs, but I do understand the motivation. Even when I’m sidelined with an injury in my running career (which doesn’t need to support my livelihood, I might add), sometimes the frustrating aches and pains leave me wishing for a magic healing pill or some secret formula to increased fitness as I chase the more talented runners ahead of me on the roads. Running is about setting goals and improving, and sometimes the line between what is fair and what is cheating gets obscured. A professional runner may know that doping is against the rules, but if “not doping” means a perpetual inability to reach the top-tier, than their decision-making suddenly gets cloudy. That is, until the review process and penalties are arranged in order to discourage doping or cheating of any kind. If the penalties becomes more strict, hopefully that will deter the use of performance-enhancing substances at the elite level. Now is the time for professional running to take a hard stance against doping, and maintain the integrity of the sport. Many professional runners have advocated lifetime bans for runners convicted of doping. Others are advocating in the US and abroad for regular and reliable testing procedures, which will hopefully set an example for younger athletes to compete fairly as well. Certain race directors are more likely to withhold entry into races from runners who have been banned in the past, and it is likely that future efforts will continue in this direction.

Running should be clean. It is the purest sport that pits one person’s physical limits against another’s. Implicit in this competitive contract is the understanding the accomplishments listed next to your name are yours alone, those earned without any unfair advantage. It is the sport that connects to the masses, not just those select few trying to make an Olympic team, but the millions more who sign up for local 5Ks, those who train to complete their first marathon, and the runners that trot along city trails and bike paths every weekend, simply for the love of the sport. When I read stories about doping in running, many emotions arise, but the first one is sadness: when a sport that unites runners around the world is cast into a shadow, and for the terrible example I fear this portrays for young athletes. Running is about the grit and effort that goes into each tough workout, the knowledge that you gave your all, and the satisfaction that you get out exactly what you put into it. But it’s also about revealing one’s character and winning with integrity. Doping, whether to increase red blood cells, build muscle mass, or recover from an injury more quickly, is merely just a shortcut.

And when it comes to running, shortcuts don’t get you there any faster.  AN