Thursday, March 15, 2018

The First Unicorn

by Anthony Strait, OTSL Panelist

March 5th, 2018. The Brooklyn Nets are at home hosting the Chicago Bulls at the Barclays Center. On this night the Nets were honoring one of the best players in franchise history. Of course to do that they had to go back to their New Jersey Nets days. For a whole generation of fans attending, their fondest and perhaps earliest memories involved teams that featured Jason Kidd. So you can forgive them when they reacted to getting a Drazen Petrovic starting lineup action figure with a look of bewilderment. After all, Petrovic’s time with the team occurred in the early ‘90s back when the Nets played in East Rutherford. What they perhaps didn’t know is just how good Petrovic was; long before even stepping onto a NBA court. Before Kristaps Porzingis was dubbed “The Unicorn”, Petrovic just may have been the first unicorn in the NBA. Petrovic’s story is more of a lasting legacy than a “What If”… a great talent whose career and life was cut tragically short.
Born in Sibenka, Croatia, Petrovic’s path to basketball started early as his oldest brother and current Brazil national team coach Aleksandar pursued the sport. By the age of 13, Drazen was playing in the youth selections of the local professional club and by 15 he was on the main team. With Petrovic leading the way, Sibenka reached the finals of the FIBA Radivoj Korac Cup on two separate occasions. In 1983 at 18 he led Sibenka to a win over Bosnia for the Yugoslavian club championship; but it was taken away the next day by the National Basketball Federation citing refereeing irregularities.
It would be the move to Cibona and playing for the KK Cibona National Team where he would establish himself as one of the best Europe had to offer. Following a mandatory year in the military, Petrovic would win both the Yugoslavian League Championship and the Yugoslav National Cup. During this time he was also a member of the Yugoslavian National Team that would win bronze in the 1984 Olympic Summer Games and Silver in 1988. Playing for the national team saw Petrovic team with future NBA players like Vlade Divac and Toni Kukoc. In the ‘80s and early ‘90s Petrovic became a star in Europe and a hero for many in what would later become the war-torn disintegration of Yugoslavia.
With his success overseas, it was only a matter of time before Drazen would grace the NBA. The Portland Trail Blazers drafted Petrovic in 1986 but it would be another three years before he would debut in the NBA. The Blazers bought out his contract with Real Madrid and he joined the team for the 1989-90 season. With a team that boasted Clyde Drexler, Terry Porter and veteran Danny Young, Petrovic struggled to get playing time in a new limited role that he was not accustomed to. The following year only became worse as Danny Ainge was brought to the team in a trade.
It wasn’t until a three-team trade that sent him to the Nets that Drazen Petrovic began to flourish in the league. Although initially coming off the bench, the Nets started Petrovic in the 1991-92 season. Paired with second year star Derrick Coleman and rookie Kenny Anderson; the Nets saw a 14-win improvement from the previous season and made the playoffs for the first time since 1986. Petrovic averaged close to 21 points per game and shot 44% from 3-point range, which was second in the NBA. His work ethic and on-court aggressive nature made him a team leader. His unique skill set of deadly outside shooting, improved defense and sheer passion for the game simply made him stand out at a time where European players were not in high demand in the tougher NBA.

It all came together the following season for Petrovic as his scoring went up to 22.3 points per game. He led all guards shooting a blistering 52% field goal range and again shot 45% from three. Petro as he was dubbed by fans stateside, made All-NBA third team despite not making the All Star team. The Nets again made the playoffs and looked like a team on the rise in an Eastern Conference dominated by the Chicago Bulls.
Petrovic was a pending free agent and traveled to play with the Croatian National team following the Nets first round loss to Cleveland. He played for the now independent nation in the 1992 summer games in Barcelona and helped win silver, losing only to the legendary U.S. Dream Team. Frustrated by his contract not being extended, he contemplated leaving the Nets and NBA behind for good.

There were rumors that he agreed to contract offers from at least two Greek teams. Amidst it all, the Croatian team competed in EuroBasket that Summer and won the tournament. The team flew to Frankfurt, Germany for a connecting flight to Zagreb, Croatia. Drazen decided to forgo the flight to spend more time with his girlfriend. On June 7th 1993 Drazen Petrovic, along with his girlfriend and another female passenger were involved in a car accident. The two female passengers suffered major injuries, but Petrovic died at the scene, his life cut short at the age of 28. The NBA was hit hard by tragedy that Summer. Boston Celtics young star Reggie Lewis died of an apparent heart attack over a month later. Perhaps the most shocking loss would occur later that Summer with the tragic murder of Michael Jordan’s father James Jordan. Many attributed this, as well as fatigue, as factors in Jordan walking away from the game a few months later.

Petrovic’s untimely death wasn’t just felt in the league as the loss of a young budding star. In Europe and in Croatia, his passing was devastating. The impact he had, not just as a star, but as a symbol of hope for anyone playing in Eastern Europe hoping to succeed in the NBA was astronomical. The Nets retired his number 3 following his death and wouldn’t see another franchise changing star for another decade until the trade for Jason Kidd. Petrovic would be enshrined posthumously into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2007 he was inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame.

In Croatia Petrovic’s life is celebrated with the Drazen Petrovic Memorial Center. His impact is felt today as he is viewed as a crucial contributor to the influence of the European players that we see in today’s NBA. His tomb has become a sanctuary for those who knew him as a teammate and friend. The Cibona stadium was renamed in his honor as were several streets. He was the subject to a 2010 ESPN 30 for 30 documentary which was put together with help from his former teammate Vlade Divac. The documentary explored their friendship which was brought together by basketball but torn apart by the realities of civil war. Younger Eastern Europe players hear the stories and watch highlights along with reading old news clips just to get a grasp of how good Petrovic was during his career.

As the Nets defeated the Bulls on Drazen Petrovic night, the team honored him with a video tribute. For many it was the first time seeing him in action, while those who remembered saw a glimpse of something that was special. His mother was presented with a commemorative basketball as the retired number of her son was hung in the Barclays Center rafters. His 43.7% 3-point shooting is still third all time to Hubert Davis and Steve Kerr. Who knows what might have been, but we see what doors were opened when we think of Kukoc, Dirk Nowitzki, Goran Dragic and many other international players who have changed the way the NBA is being played. 

Drazen Petrovic’s role as basketball icon, hero, and pioneer is the stuff of mythical proportions. Like a unicorn, we couldn’t believe what we saw, but when we wanted to see more … it was gone and it left us far too soon.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Six Overtimes

By Antony Strait, OTSL Panelist

Visitors who roam the hallowed halls of Madison Square Garden are normally treated to quite the scenery. In the 100 and 200 levels the greatest moments to ever take place in the building line the hallways amongst the concession stands and restrooms. From Marilyn Monroe to the Grateful Dead, if it happened at the Garden it had to be special. There have been a number of great college basketball games that have taken place there, in particular one that took place the night of March 12, 2009. That night a basketball game that tipped off at 9:36pm local time didn’t end until literally the next day at 1:22am. You can’t help but think when you see that glass display and hallway plaque “Where was I when that game went to six overtimes?”
It was the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament and featured two traditional powerhouse schools. The Syracuse Orange had put together a 28-win regular season and were led by their legendary head coach Jim Boeheim. The UCONN Huskies won 31 games, were ranked 3rd in the AP poll, and were led by their own legendary head coach in Jim Calhoun. Both teams had NBA hopefuls that would play vital roles on this epic night, including a UCONN freshman whose Big East glory was still ahead of him.
In regulation the game itself played like a match-up between college basketball powerhouses. The Huskies led by three at halftime behind guys like A.J. Price, Stanley Robinson, and Hasheem Thabeet. The Orange countered by outscoring UCONN in the second half by the very amount they trailed at halftime; 37-34. Paul Harris, Eric Devendorf, Jonny Flynn and Andy Rautins spearheaded Boeheim’s offensive attack while anchoring his signature Zone defense.

The game wound down and almost ended in regulation. That UCONN freshman I mentioned earlier? His name is Kemba Walker and as if it was a sign of later greatness, he tied the game at 71-71 with a layup. 1.1 seconds remained when Harris ran the baseline and threw an inbound pass that was deflected by UCONN’s Gavin Edwards. The ball landed into Devendorf’s hands and he fired off a 28-footer that found nothing but nylon as time expired. As Devendorf leaped onto the announcer’s table and Syracuse celebrated, the officials needed to go to the video review to confirm that the shot came before the time expired. After review the shot was waived off as the ball was still in Devendorf’s fingertips as the buzzer sounded. The game went to overtime. Of course, no one knew that the night had only just begun.

The numbers from this game were dizzying to keep up with. A combined 93 free throws attempted by both teams, with the Orange hitting 40 of their 51 attempts. The teams took 209 shots over the course of the evening. Both teams would have multiple chances to win the game in overtime. Neither one, however, was able to end the night or take full control of the contest. Rick Jackson’s dunk tied the game for Syracuse and Walker’s game winner fell short, leading to a second overtime. Flynn had a chance to win the game for the Orange in the second overtime but came up short. In the third overtime it seemed like UCONN had finally seized control of the game jumping out to a six point lead. Syracuse rallied back, capped off by Rautins game-tying three pointer to send the game into a fourth overtime.

The game was not decided in the fourth overtime or the fifth overtime. In the sixth overtime, with the night stretching well past midnight, Syracuse - thanks to Rautins three-pointer - took their first lead since the end of regulation. Rautins’ dad Leo played in a triple overtime Big East tournament game two decades earlier and now his son had topped that and then some. Syracuse held on and won the game 127-117, but it felt more like they simply survived a war of attrition. 3 hours and 46 minutes was the official game time and many inside Madison Square Garden were simply exhausted at 1:22am the next morning. 244 combined points with 102 scored in the six overtime periods. Eight players fouled out and six players registered double-doubles. Jonny Flynn scored 34 points and played 67 minutes for the Orange while A.J. Price led UCONN with 33 points and 10 assists.

A lot has changed for both teams and the conference since that fateful night inside Madison Square Garden. Syracuse now calls the Atlantic Costal Coast (ACC) home while UCONN now plays in the American Athletic Conference (AAC). The Big East is now strictly a basketball conference and even the venue that held this epic game went through its own renovation. Many of the major players in this game did not fare well afterwards and were either out of the NBA or failed to make it into the league after this night, with one notable exception. Two years later Kemba Walker led one of the most miraculous runs in NCAA tournament history. He became a star in the Big East tournament, leading the Huskies to five wins in five days to win the Big East tournament title. Three weeks later, Jim Calhoun was hoisting his third national championship trophy and Walker would take his talents to the NBA where he’d eventually become an all-star.

The annual Big East tournament is upon us yet again and the Big Apple stage awaits for new stars to emerge. Nine years to the day of this marathon, fans who see the displays and artifacts from that night have an appreciation for those who participated and left literally everything on the line.  The only disappointment was someone had to lose that night, even as both teams received a standing ovation from the exhausted 19,000-plus crowd as they staggered to shake hands and leave the court after almost four hours. Basketball fans and historians who long for the glory days of the Big East became the biggest winners as they witnessed history. Who knows, maybe the Huskies simply ran out of time…otherwise they could have gone well into the morning rush hour. 

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Fallen King

by Anthony Strait, OTSL Panelist

They say that a king can elevate those around him to unimaginable levels of greatness. A good king can also be elevated by those around him to protect his kingdom in times of peril. For 13 seasons a king resided in New York; his kingdom is the small piece of real estate between the pipes at Madison Square Garden. Henrik Lundqvist earned the nickname “King Henrik” because he did what most kings do: give their people hope. Rangers fans and opponents alike knew with Lundqvist in net, the Blueshirts were always in line for victory; and since 2005, 33rd Street and 7th Avenue was Henrik’s castle.

The 2017-18 season however has seen the Rangers struggle to possibly their first non-playoff season in seven years. Like a kingdom defeated in battle, the front office waved the white flag in the hopes of a brighter future. Core players like Rick Nash and Captain Ryan McDonagh have been traded in an attempt to rebuild. King Henrik has become a victim of father time; no longer capable of carrying his team through an entire NHL season. Now the Rangers and their fans must face the inevitable future where the king finally relinquishes his crown and steps aside. The thought of Lundqvist being traded is as real as it has ever been.

The Rangers struggles are not all on Lundqvist shoulders, but when you have been the franchise player for over a decade the blame goes with the territory. Defensively New York has been a nightmare, allowing 34 shots against per game. Injuries and inconsistent play have left the great goalie to play beyond what he is capable of at the age of 35. Lundqvist has been pulled at least four times since the All-Star break and he has shown signs of losing a step. Shots that he stymied in the past with ease now find the back of the net with more regularity. His record as of February 27th is a mediocre 23-21-5 and he’s allowing close to three goals per game.

But for a three month stretch however the King showed that he was again up to the challenge of leading the Rangers on the quest for that elusive Stanley Cup. He posted a save percentage of .927 in November, .936 in December and .921 in January. It was his play that helped the Rangers stay competitive in the season’s first half. It was enough to land him in the All-Star game as the Rangers representative. Lundqvist had once again lifted the Rangers on his shoulders as he had done for so many years, but at the age of 35 and with declining talent around him, it would not be sustainable.

So now the man who has won a Vezina Trophy and holds a record for consecutive game seven wins yielded to a rookie making his second start in the NHL. For a man who has carried a team for so long, this was not the ending anyone pictured. It seemed like only yesterday the King was at his best as the Rangers won their first Eastern Conference title since 1994. The man who led Sweden to an unlikely gold medal in 2006 and holds several team and league records now sits helplessly and watches as the kingdom he built crumbles.

Such is the cruel fate to a season that went horribly wrong just days after a fun, emotional win in the Winter Classic. The team’s future is uncertain and Lundqvist’s own future with the Rangers is no longer a sure thing. His salary may be difficult to move in a trade, but with a decline is there a remote chance of him becoming an expensive has-been backup? Such is the unfairness of royalty. One cannot stay at the top forever. The Rangers are at the bottom of a tough Metropolitan Division and will, in all likelihood, miss the postseason. Another year lost for Henrik in trying to win his first Stanley Cup championship.

The fall of a king can be attributed to many factors. The loss of manpower; father time; decline in those around him; and self-sabotage. This season Henrik Lundqvist has been the victim of all of the above. The king will spend the last two months of the season watching the very kingdom he built at the corner of 33rd Street and 7th Avenue collapse.

Lundqvist’s future with the team may be in doubt but his legacy is not. It’s more than enough to have him in the Hall of Fame one day. It truly is good to be the king…until the head that wears the crown can no longer bear the burden.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

We Call Them Knights

by Anthony Strait, OTSL Panelist

October 17th 2017: Thousands of fans converge on T-Mobile Arena on a pleasant Tuesday night. Yours truly was among the fans getting their smart phones scanned to enter the building. Las Vegas is known as a great vacation destination for a variety of reasons and I explored a few of those earlier in the day. Checking out the casinos, eating at In-and-Out Burger, and even watching the Yankees play the Astros in Game Four of the American League Championship Series at a local bar. As the fans made their way into the arena it felt more like a party vibe with activities for the fans and a rock band playing outside the New York New York Hotel and Casino adjacent to the venue. Except this wasn’t a concert or a UFC fight card; the event on this night was a professional hockey game.
Why is that important to point out? Why paint this kind of picture for a hockey game? 500 yards away stood the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino. Two weeks prior, the famed Vegas strip that is usually full of energy and excitement gave way to unspeakable horror and a tragedy we all felt. The evening of October 1st saw a lone gunman open fire on innocent people who were simply having fun at a country music festival. Madness laid its head on the 32nd floor and rained bullets down on a crowd of over 22,000 for reasons no one will ever really know. 58 people lost their lives while 851 people were injured and over 400 needing to be treated for gunshot wounds. It became the deadliest mass shooting by a lone gunman in U.S. history, somehow topping another tragedy that took place at Pulse night club in Orlando just one year prior.
It’s the kind of scar that won’t go away for a very long time, if ever. As a New Yorker I still recall like yesterday frantically calling in search of my brother who worked a couple of blocks from the World Trade Center on September 11th 2001. The relief of knowing he was safe later gave way to the sorrow of watching my hometown hurting in more ways than one. Now, here I was in Las Vegas a few weeks after the shooting and the wound was as fresh as you can imagine. I shared an Uber with a local when I was going to my hotel after my flight and I can remember her saying “Everything is somber, the strip may never be the same again”.

Sure enough the strip was quiet albeit for a few tourists making their way from a show. I just kept thinking to myself was this a good time to be here? How can I live life to the fullest when so many are still reeling from a nightmare, that like so many tragic events, no one saw coming? Even the famous “Welcome to Las Vegas” sign became a makeshift memorial with flowers now dying after a few weeks, laid alongside cards, burnt out candles and police tape. The Mandalay Bay didn’t represent a crime scene as much as it represents an ominous grey cloud of death and chaos that was visible for miles. You just couldn’t turn away from staring at it no matter how hard you tried, it was that glaring.
Back to the night of October 17th. So I made my way up the massive escalator that would take me to my seat. The lineup card that workers handed out was as big as a NFL coach’s play chart so I simply folded it and put it in my back pocket. The fans of both teams, the Buffalo Sabres and the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights, along with a few fans of other teams filled T-Mobile Arena. Who were these Golden Knights? With so many hockey-rich traditional cities for a team to call Las Vegas, Nevada home didn’t exactly scream frozen ponds and hockey pucks. In pure Vegas style the marching band in a makeshift castle at the East end of the arena played loud enough to be heard in Reno and a video intro right out of Game of Thrones ushered the new kids on the NHL block onto the ice. Even local resident and WWE star Dean Ambrose literally sounded the alarm to hype up a sold out T-Mobile Arena. The next few hours would answer a few questions I had walking into that building.
The Golden Knights came into existence on June 22, 2016 as they were voted unanimously to become the National Hockey League’s 31st franchise. Their role as the city’s first sports franchise would come into play later on. The foundation for a startup franchise had to be put into place. Gerald Gallant was hired to be the franchise’s first head coach on April 13, 2017 while affiliations to minor league teams were announced. Weeks later the team participated in the expansion draft. They picked one player from each of the other 30 teams that were basically left for the scrap heap. Notable names like former Pittsburgh Penguins Stanley Cup winning Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and James Neal, who played across from Fleury in the final as a member of the Nashville Predators, were now teammates looking at a new beginning. No one expected much from the newbies as far as the season was concerned. Many were skeptical about the interest from fans and how long it would last when the inevitable losing kicked in and the reality of a hockey team in Sin City finally set in.

Then October 1st happened and interest gave way to a welcome distraction and a new normal in the face of a city trying to recapture any semblance of normalcy. The Golden Knights made their presence felt within the community on and off the ice. Before their home opener first responders and those who stopped to help the wounded were honored as the heroes they are in an age where the word “Hero” is thrown around all too frequently. The Golden Knights, a team of castoffs starring into the unknown, jumped out to an 8-1 start to the 2017-18 regular season. One of those early wins took place the night of October 17th.  

Amidst a fun environment, friendly banter with fans of all teams, even a few fellow Rangers fans that were in attendance, and some good food, the first overtime in team history took place. David Perron’s second goal of the night 3:52 into overtime gave the Golden Knights a 5-4 victory. The crowd went home happy and as I walked along a busy Vegas Strip all seemed right in the world; if even for a brief moment. The Mandalay Bay didn’t seem as ominous as before. Locals and visitors were having fun again. Sin City felt like its nickname again if only temporarily. It then dawned on me that Vegas didn’t need the NHL as much as the NHL needed Vegas.
The All-Star break sees the Golden Knights as arguably the year’s best story amidst a national tragedy. Las Vegas has the best record in the Western Conference and second best overall. They beat more traditional teams like the Rangers, Blackhawks and Bruins. They even have wins over both Stanley Cup Finalists (Penguins and Predators) during this remarkable debut season. The Knights sit just one win shy of the All-Time record for wins by an expansion team in a single season with plenty of hockey left to play.

They won with a Goalie-By-Committee lineup for a stretch when Andre-Fleury was injured. They won in high scoring shootouts just as often as they found ways to grind out wins in defensive gems. This team has more and more taken on the identity of a city whose reputation is taking on a change of its own. It is becoming a town where the people like their hockey team; refuse to be slowed down; and is simply too loud and proud to go quietly into the night. This Cinderella not only is capable of partying past Midnight, she just might party deep into June and toast the town with the Stanley Cup itself.

A knight is a symbol of nobility and honor. As the city’s first major franchise, the Golden Knights thus far have honored those who still mourn by continuing to reach out in the community they call home. Recently they even implemented a “kids-only” policy that prohibits anyone over the age of fourteen for requesting autographs at practice. It’s almost a throwback to the young squires who looked up to and emulated the knights they would one day become themselves. No matter how the season finishes, the Golden Knights have already cemented themselves as winners even if it’s not on the scoreboard or the standings. On the same city block where darkness casts its shadow lays a team that has embraced the city as much as the city has embraced them in its time of need. 

They are no longer a cast of throwaways, they are the Western Conference’s best team. They are Knights and like in a game of chess, the knight is a powerful tool used to win the battle. The Knights and Las Vegas are determined to win the long term battle…one golden day at a time.

Monday, January 29, 2018

We Don’t Hate the Patriots…We Envy Them!

By Anthony Strait, OTSL Panelist

     We all love a good underdog story. Who doesn’t love the classic tale of an individual or group of people who rise above all obstacles and become a symbol of greatness? It makes for good television and stories we can tell for years. But what happens when that loveable underdog continues to win? What happens when that symbol of greatness continues to be so great that we forget they were even underdogs in the first place? Its real simple, we grow to hate them. We start to despise their winning and deep down we wait around for them to ultimately fail because that will teach them for becoming bigger than we want them to be. Secretly however, it becomes pretty clear that we wish to be like them. We are a society that builds up greatness like Lego blocks only to tear it down when we get sick of it.            
     How else can you explain some of the more successful people in the world seemingly having a large collection of critics? Everyone hates or supposedly hates the Kardashians because they are so famous despite their perceived lack of talent. How many people bash the family but deep down wouldn’t mind having their sizeable bank accounts? Beyonce, Jay-Z, Amy Schumer, Kevin Hart and now even Cardi-B’s success story isn’t safe from the bitterness of haters. It definitely rears its ugly head in the world of sports. Everyone hates the Duke Blue Devils and the New York Yankees are the evil empire. Sydney Crosby is a crybaby and LeBron James has his very own “I Hate LeBron James” Facebook page. We latch onto anything that will discourage us from facing the honest truth: maybe these individuals are just simply that good.
     This ideal brings me to the NFL team everyone loves to hate, the New England Patriots. You pretty much heard it all about this team over the past decade. They are cheaters, the referees have been bought off by owner Robert Kraft. QB Tom Brady and all the very unflattering jokes about deflated footballs. Coach Bill Belichick and “SpyGate”. The question is, if they supposedly can’t win without somehow cheating, then how come they have been so consistently good for so long? Once upon a time however the Pats were the underdog story heading into Super Bowl XXXVI. They faced an uphill climb against the St. Louis Rams and the “Greatest Show on Turf” with a backup QB name Brady. The Rams themselves were a loveable story, just two seasons prior winning it all but they were now the brash team that people wanted to see lose at any cost. Adam Vinatieri kicks a game winning field goal; Tom Brady leads a Super Bowl-winning drive to set up that field goal, wins MVP and we have a great story. We can now cherish it and move on right?
     Except the Patriots didn’t just fade into obscurity. They added two more Super Bowl wins over the next three years. The Indianapolis Colts complained about the Patriots grabbing and holding receivers in the 2003 AFC Championship Game. They held onto that excuse deep into their playoff rematch the next season. With the rules changed and actually favoring their vaunted passing game, the Peyton Manning-led Colts offense that scored the most points in the NFL was held to just three measly points by New England. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick only got more powerful when guys like Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Junior Seau joined the fray. The 2007 New England Patriots went 18-1 including playoffs. We put an asterisk to it not due to them losing the Super Bowl to the Giants, but because of “SpyGate”.
     “SpyGate” took place in week one; the team lost draft picks and was labeled cheaters…and they were blowing teams out after the fact as well. Teams like the Jets and Steelers always have them on the brain even when New England is not their next opponent. That tends to happen when you can never figure out a way to beat them. It becomes an obsession. Hard to ignore that the Steelers upset loss to the Jaguars was in some part due to them looking ahead to New England. Oh and who can forget “DeflateGate”? The biggest waste of money and resources ever. The idea that somehow under inflated footballs was such a big factor in a 38-point blowout win where the Patriots RAN for over 150 yards shows just how much we want to take away from their success. Truth is we wish our teams were as good and consistent in any year let alone the past 17. The Ravens, the entire AFC East, Seattle and now Jacksonville can be added to the list of teams that whined about some unfounded advantage when in reality they just can’t beat New England. After all, it’s pretty difficult to beat a team that doesn’t beat itself.
     The key to sustained success is consistency. The Pats have had the same coach, same quarterback and stable front office for 17 years. They have a system and culture in place where no matter how players come and go, the team is always set up to compete at a high level. Bill Belichick is surely not the guy you want to go out and grab a cold one with, and his post-game pressers can cure insomnia. Tom Brady has the super-model wife; millions of dollars; boyish looks even now at the age of 40; and STILL plays like a Hall of Famer. Robert Kraft is the owner of a team of cheaters according to critics. He always pays off the refs and the league always help the Pats even as the league spent a year trying to punish them for a few ounces of air in a football. All of these are reasons to hate this bunch except for the obvious one: they are just damn good.
     The fans, especially on social media, provide the greatest commentary on our envious ways. Think back to the Super Bowls against the Seahawks and Falcons and the AFC title game against the Jaguars. Social media was a parade of Pats haters licking their chops, ready to bash the Pats when they were losing those games. Social media had Tom Brady memes all lined up to mock arguably the greatest quarterback of all time. When the Patriots came back and won all three games, it was a different tone. Memes and still shots from the conspiracy theorists filled Instagram trying to prove -- without merit -- how the Patriots cheated to win. They always cheat right? Twitter gets bombarded with explicit language cursing the team to no end and seeing your friends cry over the most hated team ever on Facebook tends to provide great entertainment. We’d just rather drink acid then tip our hats to a team that has simply done it all and continues to do so.
     The Super Bowl is coming up and again we will sit and hope for the Patriots to lose, hoping that this era of greatness will FINALLY end rather than take the time to enjoy something we may never see again. Deep down however, anyone not a Patriots or Eagles fan will be wishing it was their team playing for it all. Why do they ALWAYS have to be so good while our favorite teams struggle to get over the hump? The Patriots have owned their division and no one has come close to challenging them. The Steelers, Ravens and others spend all offseason building to take them on but still fail. Belichick is still around and Brady still plays at a high level. Critics will be glued, waiting for the next “AH-HA!” moment when they think the Pats got a break and then will use it to fire up the next round of “The Patriots are Cheaters” talk should they win another Lombardi trophy.

     We don’t hate the Patriots because they are pure evil. Heck, we don’t even hate them for beating our teams. We hate them because they’ve been SO good for SO long. That wasn’t the plan way back in 2001. They were suppose to have their moment and then go away, but they are still here and still going strong. New England has been the prime example of sustained greatness in sports. We desire to be great and we hate it when we helplessly watch someone else be what we want to be.  Greatness, no matter any walk of life, breeds contempt and spite. It’s the way nature tends to work. We hate what we wish to be plain and simple. Fans and teams around the league don’t hate the New England Patriots, we simply envy them.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

U.S. Soccer’s Glimmer of HOPE

by Anthony Strait, OTSL Panelist

            Perhaps there has been no one who has been as successful and as equally polarizing to the game of soccer than Hope Solo. The 5’9” goalkeeper from Richland, Washington has the kind of career resume many can only dream of. She is a world cup winner, two-time gold medalist and has 200 caps as a national team member. She also holds several U.S. goalkeeper records -- male and female -- including wins and clean sheets. She’s the first goalkeeper male or female to record 100 shutouts in a career. There is no question Solo is one of the most decorated soccer players to represent America.

            Solo’s on-field career also comes with plenty of controversy off the field. In 2007 she publicly criticized her coach after being benched just before a World Cup game. That led to a suspension and many of her teammates shunning her for much of the post-World Cup matches. In 2014 she was arrested (though not convicted) for assaulting two family members.  Solo was later suspended 30 days when her husband -- former NFL player Jerramy Stevens -- was pulled over for driving drunk in a team van. Then after a 2015 that saw the women’s first World Cup win since 1991; Solo’s U.S. soccer career came crashing down in 2016. Following an upset loss to Sweden in the Olympic Games in Rio, Solo was essentially fired from the national team following comments where she called the Swedish players “cowards”.

            So when the outspoken Solo announced her intentions of running for U.S. Soccer president you couldn’t help but give a raised eyebrow. Many others rolled their eyes at the idea and dismissed it right away. She’s one of eight candidates running for the position and clearly has a slim chance of winning, but if we have learned anything when it comes to elections is that no one candidate should be overlooked. Perhaps what U.S. Soccer as an organization needs is a dark horse to provide a change in perspective.

            U.S. Soccer itself has gone backwards. While the women’s team has all the wins and acclaim, the pay gap between the men and women has been an issue for the last few years. The women were paid half of what the men get for merely showing up when they won the 2015 World Cup. The Women’s team has been subjected to playing in far less idea conditions than their male counterparts. It got to the point that in 2015 they refused to play a friendly in Hawaii due to the field being in poor and dangerous shape. The men’s team failed to even qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. It will be the first time since 1986 that the men’s team will be home watching after qualifying for the previous seven World Cup tournaments. Bruce Arenas resigned as head coach and now there is a vacancy in the position. The development for the women’s side has been far more advanced than the men’s side. Compared to other countries, the talent gap as well as the level playing field has never been greater.

            Hope Solo is not the only candidate who was a US National team player; former men’s team player Eric Wynalda is also among the candidates. Yet she may be the best to understand both sides of the aisle. She has been vocal and active in the fight for equal pay for women. While her comments have led to backlash and even punishment; far too often her comments, like her activism fall into the double standard column since male athletes have said and done worse and have hardly been punished. Hope also may be aware of developing the next generation of stars for both men and women teams. While the women’s side has been able to get stars like Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd they’ve also been fortunate with the additions of young budding talent like Mallory Pugh.

The Men’s team hasn’t been as lucky. Most boys in the U.S. play other sports like basketball and football and not all of the ones who do play come from a soccer background like a Michael Bradley or Christian Pulisic. Solo herself was raised in a broken home and may know a thing or two about needing to find diamonds in the rough like a Clint Dempsey.

U.S. Soccer could also benefit from a culture change. Solo charged former FIFA president Sepp Blatter with groping her at an event in 2013. Seeing the fallout from USA Gymnastics and USA Swimming’s failures to act upon allegations of sexual misconduct, perhaps Solo’s history can be useful to prevent something similar happening. Solo has certainly been held responsible in the court of public opinion so there is no question she would not have a problem holding others responsible for their actions.

On Sunday the Women’s National team honored her with a commemorative jersey for her 200 appearances. The man presenting the jersey, current U.S. Soccer Vice President Carlos Cordeiro, was called out by Solo in a candidate forum just 24 hours prior to the ceremony. If anything, it was symbolic of Hope Solo, never afraid to rattle the cage even as her achievements as a player take a back seat.

Hope Solo may be far from a perfect candidate and yet she may be exactly what U.S. Soccer needs in the current political culture we now live in. She’s stressed the importance of transparency as far as development and growing talent. She has been one of the major voices for equality as far as the more successful women’s team being treated on the same playing field as the men. It’s pretty easy to dismiss her however because of her past and her trademark outspoken nature makes many uncomfortable. After the men’s team embarrassed themselves and the women still feel like mere afterthoughts in spite of its success, her bluntness may be needed. The only question that remains is will anyone care to listen.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Roy Halladay Was A Philly Kind Of Player

by Sam Lopresti, OTSL Special Contributor

Halladay immediately burrowed into the hearts of Phillies fans. His loss will sting for a long time.

To baseball at large, Roy Halladay will mostly be remembered as a Toronto Blue Jay. But his untimely death will hit the city of Philadelphia just as hard as Toronto.
He only spent four years of his 16-year career with the Philadelphia Phillies. Only two of those years saw him at the height of his power, but he is firmly entrenched in the lore of this team. He gave us so many incredible memories in that brief time that it’s not a stretch to say he belongs in the pantheon of the ultimate Phillies greats, both because of the memories he provided and because of the way he went about his work.
Halladay arrived in 2010 in a three-team trade that sent prospects to the Blue Jays and another ace pitcher, Cliff Lee, to the Seattle Mariners. That end of the trade puzzled fans, but the main feeling was one of euphoria. The city still wasn’t used to the success that the Phillies had had in the previous three years, and now the best pitcher in baseball was ours! It was the start of something big.
The memories started early. Within a month Halladay had thrown a pair of shutouts—then delivered one of the greatest moments in Phillies history.


I remember it well. As a Phillies fan growing up in New York, watching the team was difficult, but MLB Network was making things easier. I was eating in the kitchen when I turned on the channel and saw they were running bonus coverage: with the Phillies leading 1-0, Roy Halladay was pitching in the seventh inning and hadn’t allowed a baserunner. I immediately called my father, who was having dinner at a family friend’s apartment.
“Dad,” I said into the phone, “Do you have access to MLB Network over there? Roy Halladay is pitching a thingy.”
Thingy is the code my father and I, both respectful of baseball superstition, use when we talk about no-hitters in progress. I immediately clarified: "Actually it's a big thingy" - further code for perfect game.
My dad had watched Jim Bunning pitch his perfect game for the Phillies with his grandfather in 1964. There was no way he would miss this. With the blessing of our friend, who was immediately intrigued himself, my dad turned on the game, and we stayed on the phone together as we watched him complete the second perfect game in team history and the 20th in the history of baseball.

True grit

The 2010 season would be incredible even by Halladay's standards. He went 21-10, the first Phillie to win 20 games in a season since Steve Carlton in 1982. He threw nine complete games and four shutouts, winning the NL Cy Young Award with ease before he put an exclamation mark on the season by throwing the second no-hitter in playoff history in his postseason debut against the Cincinnati Reds, another huge moment in the history of the team crammed into a single year. He arguably pitched even better than he had in his perfect game.
Halladay got out-dueled by Tim Lincecum in the first game of the NLCS that year and took the mound in Game 5 with the Phillies facing elimination. As if the legend of his season could not go any deeper, Halladay suffered a groin injury in the second inning but gutted through six innings to win the game and extend the series. In a blue-collar town like Philadelphia, that kind of grit means something.
Then came 2011, the return of Cliff Lee, the R2C2 rotation, 19 more wins, eight more complete games, and two sparkling performances in the NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals: eight innings in a Game 1 win and eight more in the heartbreaking Game 5 pitcher's duel with Chris Carpenter when the Phillies were eliminated.
No one thought the window would close on the Phillies or Halladay so soon. Injuries sapped Halladay's effectiveness in 2012 and by the end of 2013, after making only 13 starts, he was out of baseball. The Phillies faded in a similar fashion as injury diminished core players like Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. By 2014 they were the worst team in baseball.

Behind the scenes

The memories the man called "Doc" gave Phillies fans will be remembered forever, but we loved him for so much more than that. In a hard-nosed town like Philly, Halladay's work ethic endeared him to fans almost more than what he did when he took the mound. It rubbed off on every player he ever played with, and players like Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley never saw the success they did after their career paths took them away from Doc's example.
His work ethic couldn't be summed up better than in this Instagram post made by Utley shortly after the announcement of his death:
My heart hurts writing this. I can still remember the first day we met. It was 5:45am on the first day of spring training when I arrived. He was finishing his breakfast but his clothes were soaking wet. I asked if it was raining when he got in. He laughed and said “No I just finished my workout” I knew right then- he was the real deal. Thank you Roy for allowing us to witness what it takes to be the best. We will all miss you.
That work ethic was backed up by an incredible humility. Perhaps born of his experience being demoted all the way back to Class A early in his career, Halladay never thought of his success as his work alone. After his perfect game, he ordered Swiss watches for 60 of his teammates, clubhouse staff, and front office personnel. Each watch was engraved with the line score of the game, the recipient's name, and the words, "We did it together."
He never hesitated to credit his teammates for his achievements. He called Carlos Ruiz "the best catcher I've ever thrown to" last August, and when he won the Cy Young in 2010, he had a replica of the award made and presented it to his catcher. After being named the cover athlete for MLB 2K11, he made a hysterical commercial that saw him taking signs from a pillow with Ruiz's picture on it to make everyday life decisions like which lunch meat to use.
But there is perhaps no better example of his team-first philosophy than how he responded to the formation of the historic 2011 starting rotation. In the run-up to the season, when Halladay, Lee, Hamels, and Roy Oswalt were being presented as the Four Aces, Halladay took exception to the fact that #5 starter Joe Blanton was being overlooked. To Doc, there were not four aces.  There were five.

Why we truly love him

All these things brought Roy Halladay close to the hearts of Phillies fans. But there is one other thing—perhaps the most important. Something that no one outside of Philadelphia will really be able to understand.
Philadelphia has often lived in the shadow of more glamorous sports cities like Los Angeles and, especially, New York, which is just 94 miles away. Combined with the fact that the Phillies are, by record, the losingest franchise in baseball history, big-time players often pass over the Phils for teams like the Yankees or Mets.
That's why the trade that brought Roy Halladay to Philadelphia in the 2009-10 offseason really struck a chord with Philadelphia fans. Roy Halladay had a no-trade clause in his contract with the Blue Jays. He had his pick where he would go if he moved on from the only team he had ever known. It's why the Mariners pursued Lee as part of that three-way deal, because Halladay had turned Seattle down.
It's this last point that is the foundation that holds up all the other reasons that Doc will be revered by Phillies fans for generations to come despite having such a brief peak in Philadelphia. It's the same reason that Jim Thome and Cliff Lee are treated with similar adoration despite their relatively short careers with the Phillies.
Roy Halladay, the best pitcher of his time, at the peak of his powers, could have gone anywhere he wanted.
And he chose us.
Sam Lopresti is a Contributing Writer to RealSport.
They have graciously allowed us to put this on our blog. 
You can find the originally published version of this piece at