TrueHoop: Other People's Writing

Think like Mike, or not

February, 16, 2013
2/16/13
12:35
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Michael Jordan
Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images
Learning more than ever about the thoughts of an icon.

Hanging over All-Star weekend in Houston is Wright Thompson's must-read exploration of Michael Jordan's mind at 50 -- almost certainly the most insightful thing ever written about almost certainly the greatest basketball player of all time.

As it happens I read it very early Saturday morning. I was up before the sun, plodding around a dark hotel room, getting ready for a fun run, a 5k, that the NBA puts on as part of this crazy weekend of one event after another.

What a disorienting thing, to explore the mind of maybe the greatest athlete ever precisely while marinating in those nervous hours before competition (yes, I realize I'm talking about a 5k fun run -- allow me this comparison). Essentially, I was trying to access my own inner competitive spirit, as best I could, while learning all about his, which is famously successful, if vicious.

Thompson got some high-grade access to Jordan, which afforded quality observations, like:

Jordan is obsessive, which we have always known. His obsession with conditioning and skill development made him just about superhuman. But pushing 50 some of his other obsessions are rising to the fore and are surprisingly ... not superhuman. For instance, he watches so many Westerns, including on his private jet, that one of his employees would prefer to fly commercial.

Jordan has logged so very many hours playing the free and simplistic video game Bejeweled that he attained the status of "Demigod." He lost hours trying to remember things like the combination for his safe, and where exactly he left two of his championship rings. He had misplaced them, and later found them, but in between made bold proclamations about dealing with the thieves, who proved to be figments of his imagination.

In other words, he's a lot more like your neighbor than you might have expected.

Which is not all bad. There's also some touching stuff that makes it seem like it might be funny to hang out with him. Who wouldn't laugh at the idea of serving a very fine bottle of Merlot with a bendy straw sticking out of the top?

For about five minutes I tried on the idea that I would run this race with Jordan's approach to competition. I would go in with the mindset of a man who would spit on every cinnamon roll, to make sure nobody else would eat one. All for me.

It felt alien, and strange, and quickly I realized why: Jordan approached sports strictly for victory. I was approaching sports almost as strictly for joy. I was running basically because I want to have a long and happy life. Victory, for me, was a nice to have.

He made his living at the extreme edge of thinking about sports, where only some can survive and many suffer. I was aiming to be in the middle, where some suffering was inevitable, but avoided whenever possible.

I heard a psychologist on the radio once saying that merely being angry can take a heavy toll on your health. So stalking around my hotel room trying to think like Jordan -- including remembering people who might have slighted me, and getting mad about it -- well, it felt counter to my entire project. I could feel the adrenaline, testosterone ... whatever that hormone combination was that worked so well for Jordan. For me, heading to a fun run at age 38, that anger felt all wrong, and unhealthy. Even as I consciously went back to thinking about the joy of running well, what good form would feel like, how I'd breathe ... I let the idea go that maybe, just maybe, I could run faster if I could summon more fiery demons.

Eventually it would be time to head over to pick up my number, which I did by walking a mile or so in shorts in the surprisingly cold early morning. Minutes after getting registered, I found myself killing time huddled over a cup of free coffee in the lobby of a hotel where I was not a guest.

Runners were coming and going, you could tell there was a race starting soon a block away. One came in through the double doors to the street -- a fast-looking guy I'd later learn was a track coach from Texas named Eric. He asked if there was a bathroom he could use -- an honest and ever-present need for any racer.

The security guard near the door, though, said something long-winded and quiet that I couldn't hear. Eric's posture stiffened. Soon they were arguing, loudly. Eric was not a guest at the hotel, was welcome neither to pee nor linger, and was super mad that the guard in the suit had addressed him as "dude."

After a few tense minutes, they walked out together, the guard sort of escorting Eric, Eric sort of leaving on his own.

This was my cue that I, another non-guest, wasn't welcome in that lobby either. I was also a little creeped out that my chosen lobby may have had race issues. I, a white guy, had been allowed to hang out unquestioned with the free hot beverages. Eric, not white, was sent on his way. Time to go. I walked out on Eric's heels, he saw me coming, knew I had seen the exchange, and waited for me.

We talked it over as we walked to the start line.

Eric was able to laugh about it. But he was also still mad, emotional, not unlike I had been getting myself in the hotel room an hour earlier, back when I thought I wanted to approach the race with the emotional experience of Jordan approaching a game.

If you had to say who, of the two of us, had better Jordan-mind ... it was Eric, hands down.

Not long after that, there were some dignitaries -- T.J. Ford, Felipe Lopez, the mayor of Houston -- welcoming us to the race, and then the start. I was happy enough with my time, feeling great after the race, walking back to the hotel knowing I has found time for some much-needed exercise in the middle of this busy weekend of work.

Eric, though?

He won the damn thing. Jordan would be proud.

Gothic Ginobili's 370 NBA player capsules

December, 31, 2012
12/31/12
12:39
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Are you a completist? Obsessive about making sure no collection in your home has a missing component? Do you get nervous if you lend out Season Three of your favorite TV series and are now staring at a hole on your shelf?

Meet Aaron McGuire of TrueHoop Network blog, Gothic Ginobili.

For the better part of six months, Gothic Ginobili has been rolling out their player capsules three at a time. The capsules, ordered at random, each contain eyeball observations, advanced stats, external links to interesting stuff. You learn that Nikola Vucevic taught himself English by watching "He Got Game," and that Daniel Gibson was barely below average for an NBA Finals point guard by statistical measures. You'll also have the pleasure of reading descriptions like this one:
If the NBA was performance art, [Andre] Miller would be the town's muted bladesmith, performing in front of a nearly-empty house. Always quiet, never elaborate, extremely effective. Spends these long hours pounding away with his scaling hammer on a piece whose beauty is rarely appreciated as much as their application to war. Never gets wholescale appreciation for what he brings to the table, but always comes back and puts the same loving care into every pass thrown and offense built. Miller is simply brilliant, and there's a rare few players in the league that are anything like him.

In all, the Gothic Ginobili capsules come to 374,000 words. The best way to sample? Navigate toward your favorite players, and go from there.

Friday Bullets

April, 13, 2012
4/13/12
4:37
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

On Bill James, the writer

March, 1, 2012
3/01/12
11:22
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive

AP Photo/Charles Krupa
Bill James is the godfather of advanced stats in sports, but he's also one heckuva writer.

The pages of my 1984 Bill James Baseball Abstract are crinkled and mildewy from the moist Carolina summer. My name, in my mother’s handwriting, is written in black felt pen inside the front cover because I lost things at a ridiculous rate, even for an 11-year old. Like every edition from 1983 to 1988, the Abstract was purchased at a small neighborhood storefront called Ardmore Books in a L-shaped strip mall on the north side of Atlanta. Ardmore was owned and run by the kind of quiet, friendly couple you imagine presiding over an independent bookshop. When the Abstract arrived each year, Ardmore would call me, which was pretty cool because it was rare you got transactional phone calls about official business at that age.

The Abstract fed an insatiable need I had for more information about Major League Baseball. Previews from the Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and Streets & Smith's were all fine material, but each could be devoured in a night or two. James' annual was the mother lode, an inexhaustible trove of stuff -- much of which warranted second and third reads.

James' legacy in sports will be as the godfather of advanced stats, an honor he rightly deserves because the most treasured gift you can leave your profession is innovation. But for as much as James elevated our understanding of the game in his Abstracts with his presentation of big ideas, it was his writing that first drew me in. His ability to communicate in his work propelled my interest in advanced stats -- not the other way around.

There were formulas underpinning his findings, but his prose and presentation were liberating and unconstrained by the conventions of sportswriting. He had the gift, an ability to convey these ideas in a broader context with far more self-reflection than self-regard. This is how James greets his readers in the introduction to the ’83 Abstract:
Hi. My name is Bill James, and I’m eccentric.

The final chapter of the Abstract is titled, “Not of any general interest,” in which he defines more obscure metrics. Despite his self-deprecating voice and his repeated acknowledgement that there’s probably only a very small pool of people who care about studying baseball through the prism of advanced stats, James tackles his larger themes with certitude.

My favorite section of the early Abstracts were James’ player ratings, in which he ranked every starter at every position. There’s a beautiful asymmetry to the reviews, and you could almost characterize them as blog posts in the parlance of the digital age. Some extended for several pages; others were only a sentence or two. Some were clinical statistical arguments; others were personal essays as much about James as the player. James would use some of the lengthier reviews to author landmark manifestos on some of the most contentious debates in baseball and to slaughter sacred cows.

James’ 1983 review of Ozzie Smith challenged the faith among many fans that the slick-fielding shortstop was one of the game’s premier players despite his meager offensive stats. Smith was universally loved by baseball fans for his wide smile and acrobatics in the field, and there was a popular belief that Smith was a legitimate MVP candidate because he saved the Cardinals countless runs with his glove. Only, this didn’t sit well with James, who couldn’t find any evidence of Smith’s larger-than-life impact on the Cardinals’ overall performance:
The arguments for Ozzie Smith as the National League’s Most Valuable Player shine with a pristine logical clarity, unpolluted by evidence.

For James, the runs saved by Smith weren’t as countless as many broadcasters, columnists and fans believed (some maintained that number was as high as 100). James demonstrated that the Cardinals’ pitching staff actually had a lower ERA when Smith wasn’t in the field. More impressive than his pursuit of empirical truth was his humility in the face of his findings. Sabermetricians are often tarred with the charge that they’re dogmatic or unwilling to entertain opposing arguments. Yet James almost always left room for the mysteries of the game. After laying out his elaborate argument rebutting the impact of Smith’s fielding, James concludes his long essay with a disclaimer that combines modesty with a faith in his work:
Perhaps I have not plugged the right numbers into the scheme. I do not know, exactly, how many runs Smith saved the Cardinals. But I have a hell of a lot better reason for thinking it was 25 or 35 than anybody has for thinking it was 100.

In the Abstracts, James doesn’t lay out a series of statistical arguments, so much as he takes you on an intellectual journey. Serious sports fans -- and James was that above all else -- have peculiar relationships with the players they follow. Sometimes we characterize it as love-hate, or a fondness for on-the-field exploits, even as we try to explain away the player’s human flaws off the field. The Abstracts are full of James’ humanity. Steve Garvey -- handsome, confident, well-mannered and seemingly perfect (circa 1983) -- makes James feel uncomfortable in the precise manner his cousin (pseudonym Wally), the Harvard grad who has never betrayed a moment of human weakness, does.
Self-doubt comes directly from pain, as ashes are left by a fire. What is so unnerving about Wally and Steve is to think they have never lost a year or two out of their lives because they were wondering about something, got their values confused, never sifted through the ashes before.

However much some baseball mystics loathed James’ reliance on empirical data, he couldn’t have been further from a robot. James was baseball’s most confessional, most personal voice. In his early work, he grapples with inner conflict as both a man of science and a lover of the game. There’s something about Tigers first baseman Enos Cabell that drives James crazy (or, more specifically, Tigers manager Sparky Anderson’s reliance on Cabell, whom Anderson saw as a consummate team player, despite a lack of production):
I think that’s what drives me nuts about Sparky Anderson, that he’s so full of brown stuff that it just doesn’t seem like he has any words left over for a basic, fundamental understanding of the game. I want to look at a player on the basis of what, specifically, he can and cannot do to help you win a baseball game, but Sparky’s so full of “winners” and “discipline” and “we ballplayers” and self-consciously asinine theories about baseball that he seems to have no concept of how it is, mechanically, that baseball games are won and lost. I mean, I would never say that it was not important to have a team with a good attitude, but Christ, Sparky, there are millions of people in this country who have good attitudes, but there are only about 200 who can play a major-league brand of baseball, so which are you going to take? Sparky is so focused on all that attitude stuff that he looks at an Enos Cabell and he doesn’t even see that the man can’t play baseball. This we ballplayer, Sparky, can’t play first, can’t play third, can’t hit, can’t run and can’t throw. So who cares what his attitude is?

In some sense, the ’83 Cabell comment represents the definitive mission statement, albeit a scathing one, of the sabermetrics movement. Baseball desperately needed to be demystified, so we could advance our understanding of its beauty. Mythology can be lyrical, but its narratives are sometimes rooted more in convenience than reality. James sought to change that in a radical way, even as he grew closer to the nerve center of the game as more people became familiar with his work. One year after that Cabell screed, James confronts the consequences of his words (and, as usual, articulates that even his most passionate opinions are accompanied by doubt):
You may not believe this, but Cabell and I have friends in common … He apparently has taken my remarks about his abilities in stride, and left an unfriendly but good-natured gesture with an intermediary. Public life is rougher than you think it is; you learn to accept those things. Everybody tells me that Enos is a hell of a good guy, and you know, you can tell he is. His abilities being what they are, would he be in the major leagues if he wasn’t? Tom Reich insists that if the Tigers don’t re-sign Enos, it will cost them 10 games next year because they’ll lose Enos’ steadying influence on some of the other players. I don’t deny it; I just don’t have any way of knowing about it. I’m an outsider. And I find that the closer I get to becoming an insider, the harder it is to resist their distortions and misjudgments. So I spray a little acid around, make a few enemies. It helps keep me honest.

James’ honesty was why his Abstracts became the first grown-up work I absorbed. I can’t say for sure, but they might be the most profound inspiration for wanting to become a writer. In the ’84 Abstract, James included a capsule for each major-league manager, evaluating their habits and leanings. Was the manager “more of an emotional leader or a decision-maker?” “Is he an intense manager or more of an easy-to-get-along-with type?” “Does he prefer to go with good offensive players or does he like the glove men?”

In seventh grade, bored out of my wits in Torah-study class at my Orthodox day school, I appropriated the format of James’ managerial profiles to identify the inclinations of every teacher in the school. “Does he prefer the religious kids who know everything about Chumash (the five books of the Old Testament) or does he like to help non-Orthodox kids who don’t know as much?” “Does she spend a lot of time in class going over homework, or does she teach new stuff?” And, of course, “Is she an intense teacher, or more of an easy-to-get-along-with type?”

At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday and Saturday, a community of acolytes will celebrate James’ enormous influence. Most of that praise will focus on the way James elevated advanced statistics and data-driven practices to the forefront of the sports world. As much gratitude I have for those contributions, I’ll honor James for his voice, which kept me company during long family road trips and rest hour at summer camp -- and which convinced me that the way I looked at the world as a kid wasn’t crazy.

Award-winning NBA writing

February, 28, 2012
2/28/12
10:40
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
At All-Star Weekend in Orlando, Professional Basketball Writers Association president Doug Smith of the Toronto Star announced the winners of the organization's annual writing awards.

Winners were announced in three categories:

Game story

1. Marc Stein of ESPN.com on Dirk Nowitzki's roller coaster of emotions during and after Game 6 of the NBA Finals.

2. Mark Woods writing for ESPN.com on Serge Ibaka and a very deep Spanish team beating France for the EuroBasket gold medal.


3. Kerry Eggers of the Portland Tribune on Brandon Roy and the remarkable rally in Game 4 that evened the Blazers-Mavs series.

Column

1. Fran Blinebury of NBA.com reflecting on the highs and lows of Yao Ming's injury-ravaged career.

2. Kevin Ding of the OC Register on the links between Kobe Bryant and LeBron James after Miami's fade in the NBA Finals.

3. Henry Abbott of ESPN.com's TrueHoop on the facts and myths of Kobe Bryant's performance in the clutch.

Feature

1. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman tracing Russell Westbrook's rise to All-Star status.

2. Scott Howard-Cooper of NBA.com with an in-depth look at the soon-to-be-drafted Bismack Biyombo.

3. Sam Amick of SI.com on Adam Morrison's attempts to resurrect his pro career in faraway Serbia.

Volume shooters and political yard signs

August, 30, 2011
8/30/11
12:36
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
If you're a sports fan who enters the field as a professional, it won't be long before you confront some unsettling realities and your fandom is turned upside-down.

An intern in an NBA front office might discover that the team he lived and died with growing up is woefully mismanaged. A closer look at how horribly the team runs their business convinces him they deserved every misfortune that befell them. Meanwhile, its rival -- the team he's always loathed -- is actually a well-oiled machine whose day-to-day operations are governed by smart people and sound principles.

NBA teams are more than a collection of players -- they're organizations and businesses, some better than others. Hate the Lakers and Heat all you want, but however disgusted you are by what you might perceive as arrogance, they know what they're doing.

The same holds true in electoral politics.

There's the candidate -- a composite of his various policy positions, his ability to communicate that agenda and his overall manner.

Then there's the political operation -- the resourcefulness of the fund-raising team, the competence of his handlers, the agility of consultants. Is the campaign intuitive enough to pivot if the political climate demands it? Does it invest in the right message and value the smartest tactics?

That candidate who drew you in with his bold stance on the issues you care about? If you could pull back the curtain, you might see that everything from the staff structure to the decision-making process is a disaster. You know an NBA team like this and you might even wear its logo on your chest when you work out at the gym -- just as you might have that well-intentioned, poorly organized candidate's name stuck to the bumper of your car.

Your candidate's opponent whose positions and persona you find repugnant? Turns out she has an operation that's the paragon of professionalism, the Dallas Mavericks of the campaign trail.

Sasha Issenberg is an author far more interested in the political machinery of campaigns than where their practitioners stand on tax policy or alternative energy. Issenberg covered the 2008 campaign for the Boston Globe and became fascinated by much of the stuff that goes unreported by the political press. How did campaigns decide where to send candidates on whistle-stop tours? How did they choose which media markets to saturate with ads and which to bombard with robo-calls?

But even more universally, does any of this stuff really matter? Are campaigns decided, as some political veterans and academics maintain, on nothing more than job approval ratings and the unemployment rate? Are all the diner drop-ins, mass mailings and hit pieces nothing more than a massive sideshow?

A veteran Republican political operative named Dave Carney has been asking the same questions for the past decade or so, and Issenberg has an upcoming book titled "The Victory Lab," which chronicles Carney and the brain trust that have been working for Rick Perry for the past decade. A sneak preview of the book, "Rick Perry and His Eggheads: Inside the Brainiest Political Operation in America," has been released by Random House Digital.

How you feel about Perry as a presidential candidate is irrelevant to how entertaining and insightful Issenberg's profile of Carney and the exploration of his ideas are.

Carney had grown frustrated with the unproven assumptions that governed most political campaigns. When he signed on with Perry back in 1998, "Carney brought a deep skepticism about the folkways of campaigning, along with an almost monomaniacal obsession with the potential of scholarly methodologies to upend them."

Just as many NBA execs have traditionally based personnel decisions on entrenched stats found in box scores, political campaign consultants have also clung to assumptions that have never faced a truth squad. Since there was little if any empirical evidence to demonstrate the effectiveness of various campaign tactics, Carney decided it was time to introduce analytics into the process. He went out and hired four academics who had examined many of these questions, but never had the opportunity to test their findings on a real-life campaign. (Two of the four scholars were ardently non-ideological and, if anything, had greater affiliations on the left side of the political spectrum.)

Issenberg recounts the day prior to Perry's 2006 gubernatorial primary when Carney had two of the academics -- Don Green and Alan Gerber -- introduce themselves to the old-guard operatives:
Don Green began presenting the research that he had done with Alan Gerber over the years, rigorously itemizing all the things campaigns did that he believed he had proven to be a waste of money. Green did this while facing a room filled with people who had gotten rich off these practices, and had been looking ahead to the next Perry campaign as perhaps their biggest payday yet. Carney later likened Green’s talk to “going into the Catholic church telling everyone that Mary wasn’t a virgin, and Jesus really wasn’t her son.” Carney delighted in the face-off he had manufactured, the awkward pitting of academics against professionals -- with millions of dollars, control of the country’s second largest state, and claims of intellectual supremacy all at stake...

The consultants replied as Carney expected they would -- in what he called “total denial,” boasting of pieces of mail or phone campaigns that had proven decisive in past elections. One vendor, making the case for robocalls, recalled a legendary voter-registration program that featured a recording of a little girl’s voice reminding people to sign up.

“Great,” Carney said, wrapping up the presentation. “One of you is right. Either the eggheads are right or you’re right. We’re going to prove it out, and plan our campaign and allow these guys to develop experiments for everything we do.”

Sounds an awful lot about the geeks vs. the jocks dynamic that has emerged in sports, and the further you read into Issenberg's piece, the more the parallels between the 2006 campaign and the current landscape of sports come to the surface.

Over the course of Perry's 2006 campaign, Carney and his academics unearthed all sorts of findings, implementing many of them in Perry's 2010 re-election campaign:
In addition to lawn signs, Carney banished direct mail, robocalls, newspaper ads, and visits to editorial boards -- shifts he estimated helped save $3 million during a primary in which Perry would go on to beat Hutchison by more than twenty points. Instead, Carney plowed money into a virtual network linking “home headquarters” -- each one representing a volunteer supporter who had agreed to sign up eleven friends and neighbors to vote for Perry. Every time one of them started a headquarters of his or her own, the initial recruiter got paid $20 by Perry’s campaign. “It gives those activists something to do instead of running around putting up yard signs or four-by-eights,” says Deirdre Delisi, an eventual convert to Carney’s approach. “What we really want you to do is get your friends to vote.”

After reading polls that showed wide social-media use among Perry targets, Carney thought it was possible to conduct nearly all of the campaign’s voter communication through social media and dispense with a physical infrastructure he found outdated. (Perry had none of the regional campaign offices that were standard in statewide races.) Based on Shaw’s experiments from 2006, Carney held off on running general-election ads against Democrat Bill White until just weeks before Election Day, and instead focused the candidate’s time on in-person visits to coffee shops or BBQ restaurants in small markets where they would have maximum effect. “Maybe Perry is different, because when he does an event it actually causes more excitement than a boring candidate,” Carney says. “We don’t know that. We haven’t tested that.”

Early reviews of Issenberg's book evoke comparisons to Michael Lewis' "Moneyball." Via email, Issenberg discussed how political geekery mirrored sports geekery.
The Moneyball analogy is amazingly durable with political campaigns -- the wise men who tend to be judged more on longevity than wins, the reflexive spending practices that repeat themselves regardless of results, the folks (like agents or media consultants) who thrive on commissions/contracts from the existing spending patterns and have no incentive to see them change, etc.

The same problem of trying to institutionalize competitive advantage holds in politics even more so than sports: if everyone realizes that direct mail/volume shooter are overvalued, that's unlikely to remain a proprietary finding for too long. The difference is that prices for many political services are less elastic -- direct mail costs are shaped by paper and stamp prices, TV ads costs what they do in part because of consultants' fees but mostly because they're what the station would change Procter & Gamble for the same time if Rick Perry didn't buy it. So the market won't adjust to a crappy dollar-per-votes ratio by repricing services the way the free-agent market theoretically does with talent once multiple teams begin to value it the same way.

The elasticity Issenberg might in fact be addressed in the next collective bargaining agreement. If player salaries are reduced, the margins in cost between the superstar and the journeyman will narrow, which means data-minded NBA execs will be tweaking their metrics to reflect new realities.

Whether you're selling widgets, assembling a basketball team, running a multi-million dollar political campaign, overseeing urban transit, or even navigating a romantic relationship, most of us are looking for a singular answer:

What works and what doesn't?

As Carney explains, "... a billion dollars is spent on politics every cycle. No company, no entity, no business would spend that amount of money without knowing what works. It has a lot to do with the insecurity of political people. No one who gets hired wants to admit they don’t know anything.”

Chris Ballard on the perils of aging

July, 13, 2011
7/13/11
4:48
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Last weekend, I bought a Manduka mat and drove over to a yoga studio in Los Feliz. I've always considered it a badge of pride that I'd held out in Los Angeles for longer than a decade before I took my first yoga class. And I've capitulated only because I was told the studio in question was more likely to play The xx, DJ Shadow or Erykah Badu than some sitar instrumental or Carnatic music.

Why did I cave?

It's pretty simple. I can't so much as play two sets of tennis or a game of ultimate frisbee in the park without feeling like I've been thrown from a six-story building over the next week. Yeah, I stretch a bit before each activity, but now closer to 40 than 30, I am just not equipped to absorb high-impact exercise the way I could a decade ago.

If I'm not going to feel like a geriatric all the time, I basically need to force myself to spend 3-4 hours a week stretching. Where I live, yoga class is the most efficient way to do that.

Chris Ballard of Sports Illustrated is one of the basketball press corps' max-level talents. He played in college and is an automatic double-team anywhere on the floor in a game of sportswriters. But at 37 years old, Ballard says he's now confronting the brutal mortality of age, and it's become apparent at his rec league games:
The opposing team's 20-year-old point guard advances upon me. He is quicker than I am, can jump higher and, based on how fresh he looks, isn't feeling the heat. Once upon a time, back when I played in college, I would have owned this kid. Not now. Now I cannot guard both the shot and the drive. Instead, I pick one and hope. That is what I rely on now: hope.

Ballard runs through a catalog of late-thirtysomething athletes who still display flashes of brilliance, moments when their games seem every bit as potent as it did in their prime years. Derek Jeter's 5-for-5 performance last weekend when he notched hit number 3,000 (a home run) was one of those exhibitions. For an aging athlete, it's tantalizing. You hope that maybe, just maybe, the mojo is back. But you quickly learn that the moment is fleeting, more of an outlier than a resurgence:
That is the most frustrating thing: Wedged between bad days and sore days and frustrating days, there comes that afternoon when it all comes back, when the legs feel springy, the shoulder is loose, and you really can do what you once could. Perhaps, as with Jeter and his desire to reach the milestone before the home crowd, you ride a welcome wave of adrenaline. You feel invincible again. And yet, inevitably, the feeling slips away, like a dream lost in the early morning hours.

Oh, what we will do to hold on to that dream. I have become the guy I used to mock. Like an old quarterback who arrives late to training camp or an aging center who skips shootarounds, I ration my exercise. I eat healthier, engage in long and goofy stretching routines, religiously ingest a preemptive cocktail of Tylenol and Advil two hours before rec league games. My wife thinks it's ridiculous; my 39-year-old brother, who also played college basketball, does not. He recommends yoga.

The takeaway for Ballard, though, is that you can't surrender. Like Jason Kidd, you might have to reinvent your game and accept new limitations. But under no circumstances can you give in, because the punishment isn't getting beat -- it's letting yourself get beat:
5 for 5. How can one concede after that?

So, like Jeter, I refuse to listen. The 20-year-old point guard drives left, zipping by me. I turn and give chase, though really it is not him I pursue, but a younger version of myself. I know it could be futile, but I do it anyway. For what scares me is not the day when I cannot catch him. It is the day when I don't try.

In the meantime, you follow your brother's advice: Head to the yoga studio and master Warrior One.

Take my team...please!

December, 29, 2010
12/29/10
5:55
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Did LeBron James miss the point about contracting teams, and did we all miss the point while chasing his tail?

When James spoke well of contraction--and yes, that’s what he did, despite contraction retractions--he posited a better, cleaner, less diluted league. This logic was easy to puncture. The NBA is more talented than ever before, losses are a zero sum game. To my mind, his statements were misguided. As an aside, I found the impassioned “How dare he job the union like that!” exclamations to be overheated "Decision" aftershocks. Billy Hunter will live.

(Hypothetical David Stern: I’m happy to announce that NBA players will be making minimum wage as a result of LeBron’s off-hand remarks to a reporter! Bwahaha!)

Lost in the haze of the James kerfuffle was that contraction isn’t about players or teams: It’s about cities. Some cities--especially smaller Southern cities--flag in NBA support. There's a reason why the annually awful Golden State Warriors are never threatened with contraction, while the sword of Damocles perpetually hangs above the Grizzlies, Bobcats, and recently NBA-purchased Hornets.

What I want to know is, does this matter to you as a fan? Do you care if certain regions are lukewarm for pro basketball, or if the NBA bleeds money maintaining a product in smaller markets?

I personally love supportive small markets like Portland and Phoenix. Keep them at all costs, it's fun to cheer a dogged underdog. And I'd take once-supportive Sacramento under my wing, had I the power to shield. But I don't want my favorite sport to languish, unloved, before empty arenas. Televised apathy saps energy from the viewing experience, and it makes little sense to force a product on an unreceptive customer.

It was easy to attack LeBron’s points about league quality but difficult to address the issue he ignored. Is the NBA better for eliminating the teams that drag apathetic followings?

Play defense, get emasculated

December, 29, 2010
12/29/10
1:10
PM ET
Strauss By Ethan Sherwood Strauss
ESPN.com
Archive
Tuesday’s Knicks-Heat game gifted us a jarring “Dunk of the Night” from Amare Stoudemire. Amare absolutely bopped on LeBron James in a quake that rumbled into Youtube tsunamis. Shades of Jordan Crawford, without the creepy footage destruction rumors.

Nobody likes to be dunked on. It’s emasculation, on permanent video loop. And Amare seems to know that. Look at the first clip in the Heat-Knicks recap package. When James drives down the lane, Stoudemire scampers to safety like a wise hermit crab. He wants no part of this highlight, even if it means possibly preventing it.

When we think of incentives that work against team play, scoring is our fixation. For the greater good, players must subvert ego by taking fewer shots. Youtube has given us a new kind of ego sacrifice: The dunk thwart attempt.

So, put yourself in Amare’s shoes. What would you choose? You can go for the block and receive public shaming, or you can duck the risk, assured that a mustache will catch D’Antoni’s anger spittle.

I’m reminded of a Spurs-Cavs game from some years back. LeBron James drove towards Tim Duncan, as Timmy tried to establish position. Too late. James scaled Duncan like a mountain, unleashing a cram that made TD crumble.

I jumped off my couch, yelled, pointed at the TV. The greatest power forward of all time looked feeble, pathetic and totally at the mercy of an ascendant star. It was a thrilling, sad, dunk to behold.

A wise friend sitting next to me calmly asserted, “Timmy don’t care.” Later that year, the Spurs scraped the Cavs for an easy title. To be a defensive stalwart is to absorb moments of complete and total humiliation.

Jason Terry has special powers

December, 28, 2010
12/28/10
2:47
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
The statistical analysis revolution has helped rational explanation replace vacant punditry. It’s no longer enough to just believe a proposition like "player X is better than player Y" because it seems true, you have to back it up with advanced statistics that reveal an irrefutable mathematical truth. But thank the Basketball Gods that there are still players like the Maverick’s Jason Terry who defy all logical understanding.

Last night, Terry turned around an abysmal one for nine shooting performance through three quarters to drop 11 points on five of eight shooting and two big assists in the fourth quarter, almost singlehandedly putting away the Thunder for the short handed Mavericks. This wasn’t a fluke. Just a week ago, Terry scored all 19 of his points in the fourth quarter to help the Mavericks ice the Heat’s twelve game win streak.

As though by some Pavlovian response, when the bell rings for the final round, Terry somehow transforms from above average bench player to all world closer.

Rob Mahoney‘s wrote the following eloquent description of Terry’s mysterious talent for stepping up in the clutch on The Two Man Game:
He emerges for the fourth of every game with his belly full of a magical elixir, some fluid or ether that turns clanks into swishes. These instances lie beyond explanation; JET goes through the same motions, from the hesitation on his dribble to the crispness of his pull-up jumper. Everything is absolutely the same except in the one way that truly matters, and any man who can deduce a logical reason as to why deserves a bronzed bust in some hall with all of the world’s other great thinkers.

How do you explain why his shots suddenly start falling in the fourth? It’s not a question of effort, or even intelligent execution. Terry is the same player throughout, but the first three frames are part of a process, and the final one is the consummation of his worldly — and otherworldly — duty. There is an amazement that comes with watching Kobe Bryant pivot his way into brilliance or Tim Duncan cover every second of a screen-and-roll. Those are amazing feats accomplished by champions of men. But during every phase of execution, they’re still fathomable. Terry’s clutch performances, juxtaposed against his struggles throughout the rest of certain games, aren’t even remotely fathomable.

Terry is something supernatural. A reaper, perhaps, come to collect lost souls at the very end. Any man’s death diminishes him, because he is involved in mankind. Never send to know for whom Terry’s bell tolls; it tolls for thee. Call him a ghost through the first three quarters if you will, but his very presence in the fourth marks death. He isn’t an assassin, just the natural order of life itself, a process which cannot be explained or denied other than the fact that it just is.

Yes he shoots more, yes the Mavericks are more keen to put him in optimal scoring positions in the fourth, but I concur with Mahoney’s testimony that, at some level, JET is simply a money player.

It helps that he’s a master of getting his favorite shot, which may be the deadliest midrange pull-up in the game (he’s shooting a blistering 47% from 16-23 feet this year). But because the Mavs aren’t “his team,” he also manages to slip out of the defense’s collective consciousness for open looks with the stealth of a catch and shoot ninja.

How teams consistently leave him late in games is beyond me. Doesn’t everyone know he’s been killing in the clutch for years?

Maybe that’s it. If a player becomes comfortable in a role, even the most uncomfortable situation--scoring under pressure--can become routine. I guess that’s one way to rationally explain why Terry seems to have an uncanny ability to ball hardest when it matters most.

The only thing less logical than Terry’s winning time wizardry is that his clutch profile remains so low in spite of all his heroism. Perhaps that’s how Terry wants it. As we continue talking about how Kobe, Pierce and Wade are such assassins, JET will continue to sneak up on victims who never see him coming until it’s far too late.

A cup of coffee in the NBA, a cup of corn in Turkey

October, 27, 2010
10/27/10
2:45
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
Tony Gaffney
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
In early October, Tony Gaffney was in uniform in Boston. Now he's writing from Ankara, Turkey.

Less than a month ago, Celtic Tony Gaffney was, perhaps more than any NBA player, living his dream. He had grown up in a Massachusetts bedroom with parquet floor, covered in Celtics memorabilia. After college at the University of Massachusetts, then stints with the Lakers, and in Israel, he was a few weeks from wearing green in an NBA regular season game for the first time. Alas, there are no promises at the NBA's fringes, and Gaffney was cut in training camp. He quickly signed with Telekom, in Ankara, Turkey. He has agreed to update TrueHoop readers from time to time from abroad. His first installment:


So 22 days after I have "switched places" with my man Semih Erden, now in Boston with the good guys, I find myself venturing out into the land of the Turks.

This overseas thing is beginning to grow on me. While I loved living in Boston and in Los Angeles, there are definitely some things I've seen out here in Ankara, Turkey, that I wouldn't have seen in a million years back in the States.

Three weeks ago, upon arrival, as I'm driving through this unfamiliar territory, I notice that about every mile or so, there is a mall the size of Rhode Island. Tons of shopping outlets and malls, I'm thinking ... I could get used to this.

About a week ago, I wandered into one of them. The first thing I see when walking into the doors with a few of my teammates (foreigners as well: Greg Stiemsma from Wisconsin and Sani Becirovic out of Slovenia) is a giant chocolate fondu kiosk.

I'm immediately in heaven.

As I approach it, to my immediate right, is another kiosk, with a line that stretched as long as Comm. Ave. in Boston. That line is at the ... wait for it ... corn kiosk.

Nope, no mis-type, every 50 feet or so, there is a little spot where you can purchase a cup of corn.

I'm thinking to myself, "there's got to be a story, or some Turkish meaning behind this."

Nope, as Americans, we love to go to the mall, grab a pretzel, or maybe some ice cream while walking around. In Turkey, if you're walking through the mall, or going to a movie, or even in a 5Migros (the Walmart of Turkey), you grab a cup of corn, throw some butter on it, some salt, some seasoning, and enjoy the day.

Three days ago, I made my way to the movies, to watch the newly released Avatar 3-D with added scenes. You already know what I had in hand on my way into the theater: 3-D glasses and all, a large cup of Turkish grown, salted and buttered corn.

I'm definitely looking forward to sharing many more of my experiences out here in Turkey over the next few months, and if Allen Iverson wants to join a fellow American out here for a cup of corn, I'm ready to help him adjust to the Turkish lifestyle, just saying. Catch y'all in a few.

Tony Gaffney is on Twitter at @tgaffney27.

Coleman Collins on pro basketball and college football

September, 9, 2010
9/09/10
9:52
AM ET
By Coleman Collins
ESPN.com
Archive
In addition to being a key big man for the Bundesliga's Ulm team, Coleman Collins has long been among TrueHoop's most thoughtful contributors. After a summer of travel, he's back in Germany preparing for the season, and he checks in with thoughts of travel, writing, international professional hoops and college football:

I did a lot of traveling this summer. I visited Sweden for Midsummer, visited my favorite Peace Corps volunteer and quasi-brother in the Philippines, spent a month in Spain -- Barcelona, Madrid, San Sebastian. I had a wonderful dinner at one of the best restaurants in the world. There are a lot of stories and experiences I'll eventually share, starting with this:

I'm at a bar in Barcelona, watching the World Cup. It's a small Irish pub around the corner from our apartment, a spacious spot in El Born that my friend Vita so graciously offered Matt and I while she was away traveling the month of June (thanks Vita!) The U.S. is playing Slovenia. There are about four or five Americans milling about, making idle chatter.

One of them approaches me. "Hey," he says, "aren't you the Unfiltered Sake guy?"

"Why, yes," I say, flattered.

"Coleman Collins, right?"

"One and the same."

"I really like that blog you have, man, but you never update it."

"I know, I know, I've been busy traveling, working out ..."

"And TrueHoop, too, man, you don't write for TrueHoop anymore? I loved those!"

Well well well now, I thought to myself. You have really done it now. Now you have a public. A readership, however small. It's been confirmed, on a different continent no less. You gots to do better. And I assured him that I would, and here we are again. I am going to make an effort to go from writing once every few months to once every few weeks, or maybe something more frequent than that. Starting today.

Two quick sports-related things:

1. I'm back with the same team from last year in Germany, and I feel very fortunate to be here. Though we had a bit of a down season last year, we've got a revamped roster and some good momentum coming into this next year. Currently, two of our players are playing for the German national team in the World Championships. When we get them back we'll be well on our way. I spent the first part of last year playing out of position at the 5, but we've brought in a little more size and I'll be able to play the 4, my natural position. I'm excited about that.

I'm also excited that I'm in a familiar environment. A lot of times playing overseas, you're sort of wedged in where people think you should fit, given a week or so to pan out in the style that the coach/GM/megalomaniac rich businessman/heir thinks is appropriate. I'm glad I've got a great coaching staff in my corner, that understands where I'm effective and how I play best.

A good example of this is my former college teammate Jamon Gordon. He just signed with one of the top teams in the world -- Olympiakos. He deserves it, too, but it hasn't been easy -- he's played in a lot of bad situations in various countries over the past few years, until last year he found a great team in Greece and dominated, earning his way to the best team in the league. Congratulations to him, and best of luck. Outside of making the league, that's one of the best gigs you can get.

We're all fortunate to be playing this year. I often call my job recession-proof, but it's not true. The recession affects all of us. NBA teams have cut payrolls and carried fewer players (as opposed to filling the IR with healthy bodies) forcing a glut downwards. Top European teams (often bankrolled by psuedo-interested dilettantes that spent lavishly, operating at absurd losses, in times of plenty) have slashed salaries out of necessity. The specter of a possible lockout in 2011-2012 has scared a lot of guys off of the D-League, adding even more players to the European pool. The various minor leagues in the States have folded due to economic pressures. Second and third leagues in Europe are consolidating, or folding. The country with the most notorious reputation for not honoring contracts (Greece, outside of the top four or five teams) is going through one of the most painful recessions in the developed world.

A player with a contract and a check that comes on time in this market is a lucky man.

2. College football season is here! College football is my favorite sport to watch. I grew up in Atlanta and have always followed SEC football. I became a Virginia Tech football fan in college. We started the season with a loss to Boise State, I couldn't watch it because of the late start time. But I definitely root for the Hokies.

The problems start when I have to explain college football to my European friends.

"So, the players don't get paid."

"No, well, they go to school for free."

"But school is what, a few thousand dollars?"

"No, college is very expensive in the States. Like $30,000 or more."

"Really?"

"Really."

"Do the coaches get paid?"

"Yes."

"How much?"

"Millions, sometimes."

"Do people pay to go to the games?"

"Yeah."

"How much is a ticket?"

"40 dollars, maybe. Could be more."

"And the players don't get paid?"

This can go on and on and on, and I find myself defending a ridiculous system. The B.C.S. is the worst. How do you defend what is basically an illegal (should-be illegal) price-fixing, oligopolistic cartel?

"There's no tournament?"

"No, they vote on the teams and then they put the votes into a big computer and then the computer says who can play in the championship game."

"That's how they decide who's the best?"

(weakly) "Well ... yeah."

Never mind the fact that the BCS is controlled by the teams from the power conferences, and that the polls are voted on by coaches from same. Never mind that the teams that make the BCS games split up a huge pot, bringing millions to those same power conferences, making them more powerful.

A top player can get suspended for having a meeting (a meeting!) with Deion Sanders and be ruled ineligible for the season. And all of this ridiculous sound and fury about supposed meetings with agents in Florida, and the NCAA "cracking-down," "investigating," "sanctioning," etc. Million-dollar investigations into whether players attended a party that was thrown by an agent. All of this effort to "protect" players from this ominous boogeyman -- the evil, underhanded agent.

This is not to say that all of them are pure in their intent, but one thing has always be true -- the agent can't get paid until after you, the player, do. College football coaches get paid their money whether their players graduate or not. They get paid when the star running back blows out his knee and gets replaced by the hotshot freshman. Even after they get fired, they will still get everything promised to them by their contract. People forget that college scholarships are only good for one year, renewable. A coach can simply decide not to renew it, to "encourage a transfer." Of course, football players have to sit out a year if they do, unless they move down to 1-AA (or whatever they call it now). But a coach can switch schools with impunity.

Those are a lot of loosely-related complaints, and there's much more where that came from. Suffice it to say that everything about college football makes me very uncomfortable, except for the games, which I will be watching exclusively on an illegal streaming website this fall as my own private way of sticking it to the man.

All that aside, I am very, very excited about college football starting. It's a great product.

A father and the Celtics, in rhyme

June, 14, 2010
6/14/10
8:39
PM ET
Abbott By Henry Abbott
ESPN.com
Archive
TrueHoop reader Giles Li, a Celtics fan, new father, and blogger wrote a poem:

Life, Love, and Basketball
(a sestina)

For a lifetime, this has been his team.
Seventeen championships -- four of which he has seen -- they are without peer.
An obsession for him: no matter where he has lived,
he dreamed imaginary ballgames, along with careers and families. Now the title
of “father” is a reality. There is no more time to dream: the effect
of being tethered to a spot on earth with his children. No, not Boston --

which is implacable -- but actual concrete and soil. Where Boston
is just an idea, his children are real and teeming
with possibility. For his Celtics, he feels something to the same effect,
as every challenge flashes then slowly disappears.
Many doubt the Celtics are entitled
to this playoff run, just as he doubts he has earned the life he lives.

But then, this doubt is the reason he lives.
He questions his own memory -- maybe because he's from Boston.
The Celtics fan -- once almost entitled
to success, if not in life, then of his team --
as a father now dances over midnights, peers
at each coming day, thinking of ways to make them perfect.

This June night, his hometown squad can affect
tomorrow. There are no religious icons here to believe
in, pray to -- just a glowing television and yelps that pierce
the quiet hours before bed. Three miles from Downtown Boston,
this fan draws energy from the Celtics, and self-esteem
from his children fighting the intermittent tidal

waves of sleep and sleeplessness. No father is entitled
to a full night's rest anyway. So why not let a game affect
him? The clock climbs over itself and his head teems
with more doubts. The playoffs don't relieve
a father of his duties, but at least tonight in Boston,
the rules for fans usurp those for fathers -- so it appears.

This man constantly departs. Reappears.
Sings children to sleep, screams silence at games, writes poems with no titles.
It has never been so good to be in Boston --
a lovely ugly setting, where home sometimes exists. It is perfect.
There may be other cities more enjoyable to live,
but his children are here in this city -- and so is his team.

The City of Boston hopes Captain Paul Pierce
can help steer this magnificent team to another title --
if for no other effect than to remind us we're alive.
Andre Miller
P.A. Molumby/NBAE/Getty Images
Andre Miller's offseason regimen is heavy on burgers and hot links, and light on exercise.

By Andrew R. Tonry of Portland Roundball Society


At 617 consecutive games and counting, Andre Miller is the NBA's Iron Man. In the dozen seasons of his career thus far, injuries have forced him to miss a scant three games. Derek Fisher, who trails Miller on the active games played list, is almost 200 games back.

Nobody knows about withstanding the rigors of the NBA like Miller. So, what kind of fitness guru is he? What's his secret? Should every player mimic whatever it is the 34-year-old point guard does in the offseason?

Most experts would advise against it.

"I have no regimen," Miller says. After the season ends, so does Miller's working out -- no weights, no cardio, no nothing. "I really don't pick up a basketball."

Eating right also falls by the wayside. "(My diet) isn't healthy at all," Miller says. "Hamburgers, hot links on the Fourth of July, all that."

To control his weight, however, Miller uses old-fashioned discipline. "I starve myself," he says.

Seriously? "Yeah, I'm just starting to learn about calories and all that."

David Thorpe, executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Florida, suspects Miller may have a genetic advantage.

"When they cut open Secretariat -- the most amazing horse of all time -- his heart was one and a half times bigger than that of the average thoroughbred," says Thorpe. The same sort of thing may be true of Miller, says Thorpe. Perhaps his skeletal system and soft tissues are optimal for the rigors of the NBA.

Then there's Miller's style of play.

"A lot of guys get hurt because they're trying to make an athletic play and they pull a muscle, they lose their balance in mid-air, or during an explosive burst of speed they get hit or fall awkwardly," says Thorpe. "He hasn't relied on athleticism for a long, long time. He's beating you with craft and his mind, which is excellent."

It's not that the veteran guard doesn't get his fair share of bumps. Against the Pistons in November, Miller twisted both ankles. The pain was enough to leave him writhing around on the court. On the bench he refused treatment, which is his most common reaction when approached by a trainer. He would finish the game.

Miller's unique approach has gotten him this far, but Thorpe can't help but wonder what a disciplined off-season routine might do.

"If you went down whatever consensus list for the top 50 players of all time there would be only one common thread, and that'd be guys that played all the time, and trained and worked hard," says Thorpe. "I don't think you'd have any Andre Millers in that group."

Naturally, Miller has his own take.

"It's impossible to come into camp in game shape," Miller says. "I like to work into it."

More than that, the time away from basketball and working out affords Miller the opportunity to revitalize his competitive spirit and love for the game. There are risks, but Miller adds, "I don't want to burn myself out."

To a grieving acquaintance

December, 7, 2009
12/07/09
2:07
PM ET
Prior to the season, Henry Abbott and Jason Friedman made a friendly wager. Portland and Houston had three games scheduled over the first six weeks of the season. Whoever's team lost the "three-game series" had to write glowingly about the other's team.

By virtue of Portland's 90-89 win over Houston Saturday night, Jason lost the bet.

Unfortunately, the Trail Blazers lost something more significant in Saturday night's game -- Greg Oden to a season-ending injury.

As a writer who covers the Houston Rockets, Jason Friedman is has a great deal of empathy for Trail Blazers fans, and is well-versed in the coping mechanisms required of those who lose their favorite players to injury:

What do you say to a grieving acquaintance?

The inherent lack of intimacy often makes consolation a pipedream. Their pain is not your own. Any words of support or encouragement are destined to come across as hollow and trite, received as if they were nothing more than mere platitudes borne of obligation. Sometimes it’s better to simply let silence rule the day; to nod your head as a token of respect and understanding while allowing the aggrieved whatever time and space they require.

I know all of this. I get it.

And yet…

To stand off to the side and say nothing in this instance simply isn’t an option. I was at the Rose Garden Saturday night. I bore witness to the black hole which momentarily devoured every hint of color, joy and hope within the arena at the 7:45 mark of the first quarter until all that remained was the sickening sound of 21,000 distressed souls hoping their eyes had somehow deceived them. You know the rest.

In Houston, of course, we are all too familiar with that sound and the empty feeling which ultimately takes its place. We’ve heard the ludicrous chatter of curses and been filled with the fear which accompanies the label “injury prone.” It’s the price we pay for being human, I suppose. Our uncertain futures lead some to fill in the blanks with nightmares and phantoms of the worst kind. Given enough room to operate, those bogeys will happily shatter your confidence and destroy every last vestige of positive thought.

But there is another option. It is the one I come to pass along to my Portland “acquaintances” today. It is, quite simply, hope.

I know, I know. You don’t want to hear it. It’ still too early, the wound too fresh. That’s fine. I’ve been there. So, too, has Yao Ming. I’ve seen him down, despondent and depressed after his body betrayed him once more. But I’ve also witnessed how he responds to that betrayal with a quiet, steely resolve to return better than ever before. He understands that we are all faced with only two options in life: to give up or to press forward with the hope that each day will be better than the last. And he chooses the latter because he knows the first choice isn’t actually an option at all.

I recall seeing Yao right before the season began, as he was going through his workout routine at Toyota Center with personal trainer Anthony Falsone. Yao used crutches to go from station to station, while dragging along a boot that seemingly came from the Darth Vader collection on his surgically repaired left foot. He’d been going through this routine for more than a month by this point, knowing full well that many more months of monotonous rehab remained. And yet, his countenance reflected no sign of exasperation with that fact; he was upbeat, positive and quick to crack jokes. This part of the process was simply what had to be done in order to get back to the game and the team he loves. Therefore, he would do it.

Yao spoke that day of the grief which accompanied his initial realization that he would miss the entire 2009-10 season. He mentioned the mourning process that included a week spent mostly in disturbed silence. But then he told of his resolution and commitment to the rehab process. The moment for looking back was over. It was now time for work, for diligence and for hope. His goal stood far off in the distance but he knew that each day brought him one step closer and, therefore, each day would be better than the last.

I don’t know Greg Oden. But upon recalling that conversation with Yao, I suspect I have at least an inkling of what’s going through his mind right now. I’ve no doubt that he’s currently mourning in his own way. But just as certainly, I absolutely believe he will soon, if he hasn’t already, steel himself for the journey to come while dispatching the past in the process. Like Yao, Oden has, unfortunately, been through this before. And, like Yao, Greg will find solace by steadying his gaze on a future still rife with possibilities and potential. He’s only 21 years old, after all. He’ll be back.

In fact, Oden and Yao now figure to make their return at the exact same time: training camp 2010. It stands as yet another tie which inexorably binds our two great cities, Portland and Houston, together. The link began 26 years ago when the Blazers selected a ridiculously talented human pogo stick of a guard from the University of Houston named Clyde Drexler. One year later Portland and Houston were the principal figures in an even bigger draft coup: a coin flip for the rights to the No. 1 pick and an opportunity to select yet another U. of H. stud, Akeem Olajuwon. Since then, Drexler returned to Houston, the Blazers drafted Brandon Roy and Rudy Fernandez – both of whom were hotly desired by Houston – the Rockets made former Portland coach Rick Adelman their bench boss and the two teams recently met in the first round of last year’s playoffs. So maybe we’re more than mere acquaintances after all.

Point being, we are now bound together by a common hope: that our two talented and beloved big men can come back to fill the void their absence has left behind; that we can watch them go head-to-head once more, unburdened by the pain of the past and instead enjoying the sight of two of the game’s premiere big men battling each other at the height of their powers.

Their cities deserve such a sight. So, too, do their teams. But more than anyone, this Promethean pair deserves it. Thus, it is for them, and for all of us, that I hold out hope. I know they won’t give up. Neither, then, will I.

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