July 26th: Holding A Franchise Hostage

This past week, Kyrie Irving asked the Cleveland Cavaliers to trade him. Apparently, playing with the greatest player in basketball (perhaps ever) doesn’t suit him, especially when it means losing so much vacation time playing in May and June. In a league where players are all scrambling to join forces on super teams, Irving wants to take his one-man-show to a destination all by himself.

The baffling part of the story is that, after asking for a trade, the Cavaliers seem to be shopping in order to make a deal. The NBA is one of the only industries in the world where you can make outlandish demands of your employer with relative certainty that you will get what you want. Of course, the Cavaliers don’t HAVE to agree to trade Irving, but a disgruntled star’s performance is unlikely to be more valuable than any of the possible players that could come back to Cleveland in a trade.

KyrieThis doesn’t bode well at all for Cleveland. With rumors already swirling about LeBron James leaving next summer as a free agent, the Cavs could very quickly go from being the three-straight Conference Champions to a franchise struggling to regain an identity. Kyrie Irving’s demand only accelerates that process.

Irving isn’t the only player who has put his team in a bad spot because of a demand for a change of scenery. Carmelo Anthony has made it known not only that he wants out of New York, but that he specifically wants to play in Houston, putting incredible pressure on the Knicks. Paul George’s desire to play for the Lakers in the future forced the Pacers to trade him, for fear of losing him to free agency with nothing in return. The NBA offseason continues to leave teams scrambling to fill out a roster before contracts change the game again and again, while the players look out for their own self-interests with demands and threats.

The 2017 offseason has seen a collection of teams amassing talent while others are forced to rebuild. A season after one of the least dramatic playoffs in recent memory will show a small collection of powerhouse teams clashing, while almost all competition takes place in the Western Conference. Power dynamics are all out of whack, even before we consider the whims of what a particular player wants.

Kyrie Irving’s trade demand is selfish and damaging to the Cleveland fans and the league as a whole. The nature of a contract is that he is expected to play for the team for a certain duration of time, with the freedom to choose a new home when it expires. Trade rumors and speculation may be fun in the short term and get people talking about the sport while it isn’t on TV, but this kind of hijacking of a team can prove dangerous for a franchise that, until recently, was hoping to build a tradition of success.

Advertisements

May 18th: A Tale of Two Playoffs

The NBA and NHL playoffs have kept pace with one another, both beginning in early April and continuing through the first few weeks of June. On the one hand, basketball has pitted two powerhouse teams on either side of the bracket, with a virtual destiny to meet for the third time in a row in the Finals. Meanwhile, the NHL has four teams remaining, two of which are competing for their first championships in team history, while a third looks to seal the deal on a dynasty. Two sports in very different places have, by fate of scheduling, put themselves in position for comparison, and the results are striking.

The NBA has always gotten the attention of the American public. ESPN covers basketball to an almost obnoxious degree, with every single game, character, and personality analyzed. Because of NBC’s stranglehold on the rights to the NHL, hockey is, at most, a few moments on any given night of Sportscenter, dramatically preventing the public from getting the chance to see the excitement that goes into a playoff hockey game. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are some of the most intense, dramatic, and exciting contests in professional sports, but most Americans would never know that.

Curry

While there have been a dramatic number of overtime games this year in the NHL, the NBA is dragging out a snooze fest. With some of the largest margin of victory in the history of the league, the Cavaliers and Warriors have made the playoffs “must-miss TV,” with a very low chance of getting to see anything surprising or exciting. There have been a few games of intrigue (Game 7 between the Celtics and Wizards being one of them), and the Finals are supposed to be an epic clash of the Titans, but, in general, NBA fans have had little drama to get them excited or to incentivize tuning in for a game.

One of the reasons that the NHL has been so successful at creating intrigue for the extended playoff season is that their playoff structure stacks exciting matchups early. Intra-division playoff series start each post-season, meaning that teams are facing bitter rivals right off the bat. As the playoffs grow deeper, the gravity of the situation spurs on the intensity, having gotten the boost from prior round’s enthusiasm. The hardwood could learn a thing or two about this by restructuring the divisions in the NBA (which are seemingly worthless now), to allow a playoff structure that would create more engaging and entertaining matchups than watching a top seed abuse a squad with a losing record.

The bottom line is that this spring, two sports have both had the chance to exhibit their greatest chases to the ultimate crown. One of those races has proven to be as exciting and engaging as ever, with matchups that keep the attention of just about all fans of the sport, while the other has put forward a generally unsuccessful attempt to stir up drama where it doesn’t exist. While there is still a ways to go, both sports are forcing fans to choose which they would prefer to watch, and the result may be that the more casuals fans are choosing to watch neither at all. If those fans can’t get the updates and highlights they want on a major network, and are getting highlights that aren’t worth watching, it takes the fun and excitement out of the playoff chase, the time when both sports should be able to shine the brightest.

March 18th: The Crean of the Crop

After an 18-16 season, Indiana had to make a change. On Thursday, Head Coach Tom Crean was fired after nine years with the program.

Crean’s time in Bloomington has been quite the mixed bag. There have been plenty of high moments, with two Sweet 16 appearances and the famous Kentucky game in 2011 that will live on in the hearts of all Hoosier fans. At the same time, Crean often seemed to struggle to keep his team from making routine mistakes, and keeping turnovers to a minimum.

CreanThis season may have been his most frustrating, with debatably one of his most talented teams incapable of getting out of their own way. Much like the rest of his time at IU, this season saw wins against Kansas and North Carolina, and losses against just about everyone else. It may come as a surprise to some that, in the last hundred years, Tom Crean has the second worst winning percentage amongst IU head coaches (.551).

Crean’s greatest success at IU was his ability to run a program that exuded integrity. He brought in recruits and made a home for them, taking boys and turning them into young men that the IU community could be proud of. Tom Crean served himself well, led a team that understood it’s importance to the school as a whole, and represented the heritage of what it means to be a Hoosier. As a man, he will be missed.

At the same time, as a Hoosier fan, I can’t help but respect the fact that the athletic department has a demand for excellence. After yet another season of immeasurable talent that never came to be, it’s about time to see a change. If Tom Crean wasn’t going to be the guy who produced wins in February and March, we need to go and get ourselves a coach who will.

Over the next several months and years, it is to be expected that Indiana will go through a major culture shock from the loss of our leader. Many players will declare for the NBA draft earlier than they should, and still more will transfer to other schools altogether. But, as a long history of proud Hoosiers will tell you, the championship pedigree and rabid fans will always show up in Assembly Hall.

Tom Crean deserves a massive thank you for all he has done for the Indiana basketball program. He led with integrity, helped to guide young men into the limelight, and demonstrated his values both on and off the court. He has brought the Hoosiers to the doorway of success on a number of occasions. And now is the time for someone to take us over the threshold.

December 16th: A Colorful Suit and a Changed World

We don’t really know athletes. We think we do. We think we have a connection to the men with whom we spend our free time, the men who entertain us every evening. But we don’t really know them. We don’t know how they treat their friends, how they treat their families, what they do and what they care about. We know so vastly little about what they allow us to know. It’s the same way with all celebrities. We think we know them, but we really know so very little.

I never met Craig Sager. I only know him from his time on television, those few minutes per game where he would interview the stars and give the viewers a look into the minds of the athletes and coaches. I didn’t know him on a personal level. But, from everything I’m hearing, I certainly wish I had.

After battling cancer for years, Craig Sager passed away yesterday at the age of 65. His fight with illness had been well documented, and the entire sports world had rallied around him through each round of treatment and each long recovery. When news came of his death, the entire sports world stopped to remember the man that, according to his friends and colleagues, had been as colorful and joyful as the suits he wore.

sager-1It is easy to make someone into a saint on the day he dies. That wasn’t the case for Sager, though. Reports of his spirit and his joy were widely known, his zest for life well documented. As the stories and the love came pouring in, it was clear that this was a man who truly was as good as his reputation claimed. He was defined by the way he treated people, the way he attacked his job, and the way he brought a little joy to the world. To be able to do that, regardless of your role in life, makes you great. And Craig Sager truly was great.

Gregg Popovich, the coach of the San Antonio Spurs, is widely known for hating in-game interviews. He has a reputation of giving reporters and awfully hard time when they ask questions, and doing everything he can to avoid them altogether. The only exception: Sager. Popovich would always make time for Sager, even if he didn’t want to do the interview. Last night, in his tribute to his late friend, Popovich said of Sager: “If any of us could display half the courage he has to stay on this planet – to live every life as if it’s his last – we’d be well off.”

When I have children, if they take after their dad, they will want to be sports fans. When I show them the foundations of my love of sports, it won’t be the touchdowns and the dunks that define why I love the game. It won’t be the home runs or the money and fame. It will be men like Sager, that used a microphone and a tie to bring joy to the lives of those who loved the game, and who used their voice to make the world just a little brighter.

May his memory be a blessing.