Monthly Archives: June 2015

A Warrior’s Path

The Golden State Warriors completed one of the most successful seasons in NBA history, culminating with a Finals victory in six games. No player on the Warriors had any previous Finals experience, but that was hardly apparent based on how well they all competed. They overcame slow starts in the first quarter of multiple games. They made lineup adjustments, putting MVP Andre Iguodala in the starting lineup to rejuvenate an offensive slump and dial up the defense on LeBron James. They withstood occasional stretches of poor shooting and found ways to win close games. They dealt with outside distractions: hearing how Klay Thompson was not shooting well, or how they would not be able to stop LeBron, or how Matthew Dellavedova’s defense was changing the outlook on the series. (Admittedly, he played very well during the Finals, but the idea that he would completely shut down Curry for an entire series was a ridiculous notion from the start). The Warriors did not play like they were just happy to be in the Finals. They played with energy and determination, embodying the “Strength in Numbers” mantra that adorned their apparel. Now they are the NBA champions, and with most of their core roster intact, will likely contend for a few more.

Most importantly, the Warriors were led this season by a point guard who, although rarely espouses his personal accomplishments, finally saw his own basketball journey come to fruition this season. Stephen Curry burst onto the international scene over the past two seasons, building a well-deserved reputation as one of the best young stars in the NBA. He has also been a hit on social media, although his daughter Riley is likely equally responsible for that. By now everyone has heard his long story: the son of Dell Curry who would tag along to the Charlotte Bobcats arena and shoot a few jumpers with his father; the late bloomer who had to retool his entire shooting stroke when he became strong enough to hoist the ball from above his shoulders; the high school star who was passed over by nearly every major college program and found his way to Davidson, where he would lead them to the Elite 8 during his sophomore year in one of the most memorable runs in NCAA tournament history. Despite this, many scouts and fans still doubted whether Curry would be able to make it in the NBA, especially when compared to other supposedly-superior point guards in his draft class. He was drafted after Jonny Flynn and Hasheem Thabeet. The Timberwolves alone took Flynn and another point guard, Ricky Rubio, while Curry was still on the board. That year he finished behind Tyreke Evans in the Rookie of the Year voting. Then, injuries and ankle surgery hindered his early professional career, leading to widespread concern that lingering ankle problems would prevent him from reaching his potential. In his fourth season he began to emerge as one of the league’s premier shooters, but was overlooked during selections for the All-Star Game.

Look up Curry’s story and you will hear everything about his improbable journey, but there is something else nearly as distinctive: his shot. Most shooters release the basketball at the highest point of their jump, but Curry’s shot looks different. As depicted by “Sport Science” on ESPN, Curry releases his jump-shot earlier, while still ascending in the air. This quicker release can create accurate shots amid tight defense, which has set him apart from other NBA stars. Fans are captivated by his pinpoint accuracy from the left corner and his ability to make shots on a fast break. Any game could be one in which he makes ten from behind the arc or hits from half-court (or really anywhere). He frequently attempts shots that would be dismissed for their degree of difficulty, yet he gives every shot a decent chance at going in, and many of them do. In the NBA, we have grown to expect the plethora of playmakers, big dunkers, and defensive stalwarts, all without argument. Yet it is the skill of shooting that appeals to the nostalgia and purity of the game. A brilliant shooting display can ignite a crowd in the mere second the ball swishes through the net. It gives us buzzer-beaters and memorable moments. Many are willing to work to improve every year, but not everyone can become a master of the craft. Every generation there are one or two players who demand our attention, who simply make us want to watch (and replay) every shot. And right now we are watching one of the best of all time.

Stephen Curry was not a top recruit out of high school. He was never considered a number one draft pick. Not everyone thought he would even succeed in the NBA. Now he is a perennial All-Star and the MVP of the league. He is the best 3-point shooter in the game right now, and perhaps the best of all time. He combines skills in dribbling, passing, and shooting that are individually mastered by many players, but rarely displayed by one superstar night after night. At first embracing the underdog role, he has blossomed into one of the classiest and most exciting players in the NBA. He has already accomplished enough to fill a successful career, and yet it seems like he is just getting started. He is the kid that people thought might not even make it; now he is an NBA champion. Stephen Curry’s career, just like his shot, is on the up.  AN

This article was concurrently posted at NoCoastBias.com on June 25, 2014.

“Sports Science” is a TV series owned by ESPN.

The End of Rafa’s Reign

Rafael Nadal’s quest for a tenth French Open title ended in the 2015 quarterfinals, losing in straight sets to top-seeded Novak Djokovic. For Nadal, it was only his second loss in eleven years at Roland Garros. Nadal had struggled during the clay court season, a departure from his history of dominance on the surface. After winning nine titles and seventy matches at the French Open, Nadal is undoubtedly the most successful clay court player in history. Yet he missed the final this year, only the second such occurrence during his illustrious career. Nadal has not made a Grand Slam final since his last French Open title in 2014. If this signifies a newfound mortality on clay, Nadal’s quest for another Grand Slam is suddenly much cloudier.

In 2005, the nineteen year-old Spanish lefty won his first French Open, defeating Roger Federer on his way to the title. He repeated as champion the following year, and soon established himself as one of the world’s premiere clay court players. Additional championships in 2007 and 2008 continued his remarkable run. After his epic win over Roger Federer in the 2008 Wimbledon final, he was recognized as a serious contender on all surfaces. Soon after, Nadal won the 2009 Australian Open, and he completed his Career Slam with a US Open title in 2010. He has been ranked number one in the world multiple times since 2008, and has transformed his game into one of the best of all-time. When he won his fourteenth Grand Slam title in 2014 at the age of 28, many tennis analysts predicted he would easily surpass Roger Federer’s record total of seventeen, based on his prowess on clay and Federer’s recent struggles at major tournaments.

However, injuries plagued the rest of his 2014 season and continued into 2015. Some early season losses on clay led to critics wondering if he would return to top form. Suddenly Nadal, while still an outstanding tennis player, has seemingly lost a step from the dazzlingly athlete who sent those whistling, top-spin ground-strokes down the sideline. Sports have a different way of interpreting age. Nadal is 29, young by any other standard, but may in fact be in the latter half of his prime. On the other side of the net, Novak Djokovic has firmly grasped the world’s top ranking, searching for his own career Grand Slam. Andy Murray and Stanislas Wawrinka are the two players in recent memory other than the “Big 3” of Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic to win two Grand Slams; they are continuing to improve every season. If injuries continue to take their toll, Nadal’s time at the top may be over. He is still one of the best players in the world, but tennis is a sport with a very small margin for error. In the same way that a few inches can turn a winner into an unforced error, a year can make all the difference between contending for the title and coming up short. Nadal’s window of opportunity to dominate on the hard and grass courts may be behind him, but the French Open was always assumed to be his domain. Perhaps this year was just a hiccup, and we will see him back on the pinnacle at Roland Garros next year. But now the King of Clay is no longer a guarantee, nor is the quest for 17, or even another slam. We will still be rooting for him to win one or two more. Nadal’s established history of persistence and determination gives every reason to believe he will win again, but perhaps not every year. If this is the end of his reign at the French Open, what a remarkable run that it was: winning nine championships and losing only one match from 2005-2014. How long until we see a player dominate a domain of tennis the way Nadal did so at the French Open for the past decade? Or will his record-setting nine titles in ten years be enshrined with the other seemingly untouchable records from Joe DiMaggio or Cal Ripken Jr.? Either way, if this year’s French Open ends the Era of Nadal, it does so by closing one of the best chapters in the history of tennis. And as far as stories go, Robin Soderling (who singlehandedly stopped Nadal from going ten for ten) has a great one from Paris to tell about a certain match in 2009.  AN

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on June 23, 2015.

If you can’t beat ’em…

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on June 6, 2015.

…join ’em? Everett Golson will compete for the starting QB job with the Florida State Seminoles in 2015 after playing two up-and-down seasons with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. After dazzling in the previous year’s Blue and Gold spring game, Golson emerged as the starter for a Notre Dame team looking to turn the corner on back-to-back 8-5 seasons (and of course the infamous 3-9 in 2007). Bringing a dual-threat package that electrifies college football today, Everett Golson rejuvenated the Irish fan base with his strong arm and nimble footwork. Despite some close games at the beginning of the season, a victory over Michigan and overtime goal-line stand to defeat Stanford suddenly put Notre Dame on the national radar. The top-10 matchup against Oklahoma proved their mettle; the triple overtime game against Pittsburgh nearly ended in heartbreak; yet by the time Thanksgiving weekend rolled around, their last victory over rival USC capped off an undefeated regular season and a spot in the national championship game.

Months later, the terrible news spread around campus that Everett Golson, the hero of Notre Dame’s magical season, would be dismissed from the school and sitting out for Notre Dame’s 2013 campaign. Instead, the Irish fortune relied on the arm of the often-polarizing senior Tommy Rees, who put together a more-than-respectable 9-4 season, including a victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. Everett Golson returned in 2014 amid the always high expectations from the Notre Dame fan base. After a year of workouts and self-professed personal growth, Golson was readmitted to Notre Dame and primed to return Notre Dame to the championship hunt. The Irish raced to a 6-0 record to open the season, setting up the primetime matchup with Florida State, both schools hoping to be in the top 4 in the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff. A close game throughout, Notre Dame was poised to hand the Seminoles their first loss in two seasons, and jump into the top-5. With seconds ticking away, the game-winning touchdown turned offensive pass interference shattered the dreams of Irish fans around the country (not to mention everyone else rooting against Florida State). The Seminoles once again dodged a near defeat, and Florida State would complete a second straight undefeated regular season and a berth in the playoff. Notre Dame, however, would follow a different path.

It was the flag that turned a season. Notre Dame closed out the year with four straight losses, complete with interceptions, injuries, and poor late-game execution. Golson struggled with turnovers through the second half of the season, hindering Notre Dame’s offense as they stumbled into the Music City Bowl (for which they would not have even been eligible if not for the early start to the season). Golson’s late-season trouble wore Coach Kelly’s patience thinly, so instead Malik Zaire started in the bowl game, a surprising victory over LSU. Golson, who did also play in the bowl game, was clearly the second choice, his starting job for next season now in jeopardy in the wake of the other dual threat quarterback in Zaire.

This season, Everett Golson will suit up for the Florida State Seminoles, the same team that he nearly knocked off the previous October. Ironically, had the final touchdown stood, a Notre Dame victory would have pushed them to 7-0 and a top 5 ranking. They may very well have carried the momentum through the end of the season and into title contention. Golson may have played better, kept his starting job, and never even considered transferring after all. Instead, the hero of the 12-0 season has now left South Bend for the second time. But now it’s different. He has officially graduated from Notre Dame, so he will be able to play without sitting out a season.

Everett Golson may not end up as an NFL starter; his time at ND is done, but he still has to win the starting job at FSU. He is still a great college football player, with one more year of eligibility and an opportunity that any number of high school standouts would love to have. Certainly he would have still been a valuable member of the Notre Dame team, and Brian Kelly would love to have the “problem” of choosing a starter from the two great QBs. But Golson also may have been stuck on the sideline watching the Irish play on without him. Golson has already had to watch an Irish season from afar. And his ND career has been anything but routine. He’s played in a national championship game; he’s been expelled for “poor academic judgment.” He’s led game winning drives and he’s forced a few too many turnovers. When he was suspended from Notre Dame, he easily could have left the school for good, but he chose to return to ND and take the field once again. He won some big games, lost some others. Now he is once again at a crossroads, and this time on his own terms. Golson has one more chance to play football on the national stage. And this time, he’s leaving with something far more valuable than game film for pro scouts or a championship ring: a degree from one of the best universities in the country. Now he just wants to play football. He’s paid his dues, and now he has once more chance on the field. Save the debate over the graduate transfer rule. Stop counting his interceptions or predicting what he will be able to contribute next year. Just let the kid play.

Meanwhile, at Notre Dame, the Malik Zaire era officially has begun.  AN