Tuesday, July 31, 2012

2012 London Olympics: Phelps Most Decorated Olympian Ever?

Even through his foggy goggles, smiling underwater once he touched the wall, lifting his head out of the water and turning toward the board for confirmation to see where he finished in the race, Michael Phelps knew he had earned a 15th gold medal. It’s because he has the unprecedented talent and enthusiasm ripping his way through the pool like a streamlined, torpedo-shaped dolphin to embark on a swimming voyage under the sea at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. It’s because he anchored the United States to a gold medal in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay Tuesday night, earning the 19th Olympic medal and the 15th gold of his unimaginable career as a famous, world-class Olympian.

Americans waited all week hoping to see Phelps redeem himself after a sluggish fourth-place finish in the 400-meter individual medley when US teammate Ryan Lochte slaughtered him. The American folks waited all week, looking forward to seeing Phelps respond after swimming in the anchor of the 400 free relay but missing out on the second straight gold medal in these games when Frenchman Yannick Agnel charged on the final leg to catch Lochte and beat the Americans. Then Phelps sounded like, well, an exasperated swimmer who hated to lose when he finished far behind Agnel in the 200 free, not even winning the silver or bronze.

And then just an hour before he was back in the pool for a relay, on the same night he won his first Olympic gold in these games, South Africa’s Chad Le Clos chased down Phelps on the final stroke, winning in 1:52.96 seconds, just 0.05 seconds ahead of Phelps. In a moment when he released his frustration, he flung his cap outraged and settled for silver in one of his favorite events, the 200 butterfly, a competition he normally dominates without struggling to defeat other swimmers in for a fatiguing, laborious fight in the pool. Phelps, as good a swimmer as he is, reacted in a positive way when many felt he had come unglued for his tiredness, boredom and laziness. But as it turns out, Phelps came back kicking his legs and lifting both arms forward over his head, and when he reached the wall on the other side of the pool, he performed a solid flip turn to propel through the water for an eventual first-place finish that gave him and his teammates the gold medal.

His opponent Agnel, surely no slouch, had no shot at closing in on Phelps in the final leg. Beyond that, Phelps needed back up from his teammates Ryan Lochte, Conor Dwyer and Ricky Berens. So before the race, understanding that history was in the making on the night, they all huddled together. Lochte was standing on the deck cheering on his teammate, Phelps, waving his arms, urging him to propel to the finish. He certainly beat everybody in the water, as usual, and came flying in to the wall for his first gold of the London Games with a staggering time of 6 minutes, 59.70 seconds. The remedy was that Phelps uplifted Lochte, following his struggles in two straight events.

It turned out Phelps wasn’t done giving his best, after all. It turned out he wasn’t bored, after all. It turned out he wasn’t tired, either, as some suggested. What was seen, of course, was a re-energized swimmer, a recharged water creature of some sort and, as Phelps becomes the most decorated Olympian of all-time, he still may not be done with events impending this week. In other words, though he doesn’t have his mind set on returning in 2016 for the Rio Games and is leaning toward retirement once he’s completed a quest, Phelps is not quite ready to change from his speedos and into casual clothing. With 19 gold medals and counting, he’s on pace to get more than 20 medals before these games come to a close. This was an ultimate record for the ages, the most breathtaking event of the whole Olympics, a moment in Phelps’ swimming career that he had reached a crescendo and masterfully achieved the impossible, getting the 19th medal to surpass then-Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina’s 18 medals from a relay he won easily.

He has a collection of medals, probably on display at his home secured in a treasure chest in a secret room, as he’s the greatest swimmer ever. Phelps fuels up right with Subway sandwiches, and because he eats fresh, he’s energized and fierce occupying himself with a herculean task. Tuesday night at the London’s Aquatic Centre marked the first time Phelps won the gold since he was photographed sucking on a water bong at a college party in South Carolina. We haven’t lost an ounce of curiosity, infatuated with him when populace have watched him dominate the pool over the years, and obviously treated the beloved icon as if he’s a godlike superhero. It’s not debatable, perhaps not even worth wasting a single breath, to discuss whether or not he’s the greatest swimmer ever. His regiment of medals is a testimony to sheer greatness, and trouncing everyone else in these games is glaring that he’s surely No. 1 on the list, at least he is on mines.

By now, closing in to the end of his colorful career, he’s simply the most dominant competitor and the greatest Olympian the sport has ever seen, marked as the G.O.A.T and swam exceptionally to earn that title. Someone of Phelps’ pedigree approaches these games with diligence, persistence and conviction. But he also needed to put in long months, long days and hours of grueling and extensive training to regress into shape. A few attributes to Phelps’ advantage are his long torso and incredible wingspan, and the fact he’s a skilled athlete blossoming into an all-time Olympian great — more famous than Jesse Owens and Mark Spitz, amazingly so. It’s not so shocking come to think of it, when he surpassed Spitz in Beijing at the 2008 Summer Games. Couple that with 14 gold medals he won in the land of the Great Wall of China and even his contributions with the men’s 4X100M freestyle relay team that pulled off one of the unthinkable comebacks in Olympic history four years ago.

The celebration of what he’s reached as far as a unique plateau no other Olympian can ever match is very appreciated, and with all due respect, Phelps deserves cheers. Come now, he’s made every American proud to be an American, as folks debate his place in history and whether he’s the greatest Olympian ever. But there’s no need to argue when his amount of medals separates him from the typical amateur athlete. The medals speak for themselves, not Phelps. The achievements speak volumes, not Phelps. The longevity and dominance in four straight summer games speaks loudly, and I mean loudly. Phelps is a damn good swimmer.

He knows that, you know that, I know that. You can’t deny it. You can’t imagine it. You can only live it. Not a myth. Not an imaginary story. That’s reality.

For now, the nation will continue to watch him pile up medals with three events remaining — the 200 IM, the 100 fly and 4×100 medley relay. As he takes pride in this country, you and I take great pride in him, not only because he’s the most decorated athlete in Olympic history but because he represents our country every four years. Once he decides to leave an ineradicable legacy behind, we’ll talk about Phelps for many years to come.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Missy Franklin, the Teenage Darling of America, Pockets Her 10k Gold

It’s obvious the popularity of Missy Franklin has grown in these Summer Games, particularly in America, which she is the new face of U.S. swimming. The masses are closely watching the next golden girl, the teenage queen of the pool who made a splash at her first Olympic games in London and relished the joy of chlorine-soaked fun.

If she likes, Franklin can pose in the latest issue of Cover Girl. If she likes, the 17-year-old American swimmer can wear the crown to be our next Miss America with her bright smile that defines her stature especially when she dives into the water for a race, confident she’d outdo anyone and come away victorious in the end. It’s time to bow to the queen of London, not Queen Elizabeth — mind you – but Franklin, an American athlete appreciated greatly ever since she qualified for an astonishing seven events in the 2012 Summer Games in London at the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials in Omaha in late June and early July.

It’s time we come to notice a teenager and give her the uttermost respect and idolize her, as she is one of the rising and young swimming stars to gain premature fame, like Michael Phelps at the Summer Olympics in Athens eight years ago. The irony of this story is that she became the first American woman ever to swim seven events at the London Games with a chance of competing against other world-class athletes and winning Olympic medals. She smiled, knowing her dream turned into reality, knowing she had just won her first ever gold medal. Melissa Jeanette Franklin lifted her head out of the water, tiny drops were still falling from her face, when she laughed and giggled to soak in a gratifying moment. A girl who stayed in the water growing up had emerged into an Olympic champion.

When she stepped out of the water, met by NBC’s Andrea Kramer for a post-race interview, Franklin was still wet from the pool and couldn’t stop smiling. Like a typical teenager, she was a kid again, a high-school senior who could have easily been mistaken for a young girl who was given her favorite toy for Christmas. Standing on the podium, as she bent her head over to receive the gold medal, as the national anthem was ringing out of the loudspeaker and as the American flag was rising above, Franklin turned on a big smile and tried to sing the Star Spangled Banner. She struggled to fight back tears of joy during a moment she was honored, and forgot the words of the national anthem, overjoyed and so ecstatic for what had just happened when she touched the wall after a dramatic finish in the women’s 100-meter backstroke Monday night in London.

In the water, standing 6 feet 1, Franklin swam with her arms stretched back in rotation, she flipped and pushed from off the wall and kicked her legs and feet harder than Australia’s Emily Seebohm. When Seebohm closed in on the gold medal, toward the end of the race that finished in a dramatic fashion, Franklin knifed her way through the pool and outmatched everybody as the rest of her opponents floated around stunned and helpless. So was Seebohm, who entered the competition as precisely the favorite, among all qualified swimmers. Just then, because she was a veteran in her second Olympics and posted the fastest time in qualifying, it was understandable to assume that Seebohm would climb out of the water a winner. But not so fast — Franklin was here, too. She was in another lane, and had clearly been ignored entering the women’s 100-meter backstroke.

The notion, one expected, was that Franklin would be favored to dominate the backstroke, which is her specialty as a swimmer, and indeed she darted from second place at the turn and bustled past Seebohm in the final 50. This, of course, marked an emotional night after Franklin’s backstroke time of 58.33 seconds was half-a-second faster than her American record a month ago. The teen sensation touched the wall first, then Seebohm, who nearly arched toward the finish before everyone else, won the silver in 58.68 and then Japan’s Aya Terakawa lucked out receiving the bronze with a time of 58.83.

Afterwards, Franklin looked up and noticed her name atop the board, and a giant video screen featured a live shot of her parents, D.A. and Dick, who watched nervously and proudly from their seats at London Aquatics Centre. It’s even more nice Franklin won her first Olympic gold medal in her first ever event with an exhausting six events left on such a hectic schedule – and among all other things, it happened in a race just 14 minutes after she was in the water qualifying for the 200-meter freestyle. As a way to celebrate, she smiled, slightly giggled and tears crawled down her rosy cheeks, a sentiment we know so well about a nice, friendly kid. It’s almost beside the point, but she’s a fan of pop star Justin Bieber and her favorite movie is “Sound of Music.” It’s almost beside the point, but she’s not even out of high school, she has no diploma and has the character of a four-year senior in college. Her swimming acumen is amazing. Her wingspan and torso is long. Her body is well built and fit perfectly for swimming.

Splendid. Remarkable. Unbelievable.

And so it was moments after her swim that Phelps was so amazed of her energy and solid swimming and said he’s never seen a turnaround shorter than 30 seconds, performing better than Ryan Lochte and him. Since her arrival, Franklin has fallen in love with these Games. The laughter and smiles are signs of a teenage girl having fun at these games, the sweetheart of American athletes, the darling everyone has a crush on in these summer games. Her longtime coach, Todd Schmitz, has helped developed one of the fastest and youngest swimmers in the land of the USA, if not the world after such a heartfelt victory.

For now, for all the exhilaration, she reminds us, as some Olympians always do, that memories are made and legends are born. That is the gist of the Olympics, always is, and Franklin will always be remembered for her magnificent victory to a gold medal in the women’s 100-meter backstroke. We’ll always remember the goofy teenager pulling her gold medal out of her pocket and raising it into the air flaunting the 10k gold. We’ll always remember the London Games.

We’ll always remember Missy.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

2012 London Olympics: Jordyn Wieber Deprived of Fulfilled Promise

The loss of widely the top gymnast in the world, Jordyn Wieber, is agonizing and heart-rending, and some of our American spectators expressed grief for considerably one of the best U.S. Olympic hopefuls, as I did, feeling truly sorry for a girl who was in tears after finishing third on her team in the all-around scoring.

Unable to advance further with her teammates Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman, who both sailed through qualifying, Wieber wobbled on the balance beam and stepped out of bounds on the floor exercise mat, a few uncharacteristic mistakes that cost her tremendously and eliminated her from contention. Her best friend and competitor Raisman knocked her out of the finals to end the reigning world champions fulfilled promise of trying for gold Thursday. At noontime Sunday, Wieber was not Wieber and stumbled on the biggest stage to miss out on all the fun coming up this week, disqualified sooner than later –unfitted to conquer a medal in an event that she trained and waited for her whole career.

The afternoon was anything but kind to Wieber, and she flubbed early on a vault landing by stepping out, and then broke her form during an uneven bars routine. It was bad timing for a 17-year-old girl who was expected to go out there and perform her routines, expected to go out there and break a leg, but sadly it came to a poignant end. Her personal coach, John Geddert, if no one else, knows she was greatly in pursuit of earning an Olympic gold medal and can imagine what she’s feeling after fading in an event she was favored to rock her own world. But she’s not that girly rock star, not in these games, and strangely won’t join her teammates for the challenge as the bigger story seems to be her relapse, which no one ever saw coming until it happened before their very eyes. It was mind-blowing to watch Wieber, winner of the individual all-around world championship about nine months ago, fold and botch her chances of meeting qualifications to revel in the moment of gratification.

When you prepare and spend hours practicing, the last thing you want is for an event to go to waste, particularly after staying late nights in the gym to nail down a routine. And she did just that, no doubt, but had a tremendous amount of pressure on her to sustain seminal excellence because she’s one of the most appreciated American athletes at the London Games. A lifelong wish, which wasn’t the way Wieber thought it would be, fell short and the day turned into a disheartening nightmare, one she’d like to have back if possible. But now, even if the results are not too delightful and will emotionally hurt for a while, it’s only good to move forward and place the dreadful failures behind her and take it as a learning experience.

This is what happened to a teenager who competes in her first Olympic games. So what happened is somewhat surprising but just as shocking, looking at her accomplishments in prior years. The point is, she was overzealous and jittery, not completely focused but excited to be part of the fun in London. She is a natural talent, the new attractive among gymnast stars and a representative for the U.S., but the downside is that she’s not invited to give it her best effort in the finals, which would be a perfect time to redeem herself of woes and affliction. Wieber encountered a misadventure that broke her heart, and a shaky competition wasn’t bittersweet, stopping her of the possibility to take a prestigious gold medal. The honorable prize on this day slipped away and she wiped away tears in frustration and sadness. Maybe more so, this was new to Wieber, only losing an all-round title twice to fellow Americans in both events since the 2008 season.

There was no whining nor was she making any excuses for her failures and realized she was the only one to fault, making off quickly without interviewing with reporters afterwards, distraught for disappearing and making numerous mistakes that forestalled her attempt of representing the United States as one of the best gymnasts. It’s certain she had the worst moment of her life, and everything went wrong as aspirations were taking away from Wieber. The world came crashing down indeed, and by now, she’d like to have a second chance but realize it’s far too late. The reality set in as soon as it happened, and her sheer dominance and constant training stunningly disappeared during a year she was considered the next great American gymnastics star.

Right now, setting history in a negative way to become the first world champion to not qualify for the individual all-around final, Wieber failed to advance and placed a total of 60.032. And with Douglas, who also stepped out of bounds on her floor exercise, the last of four rotations for the U.S., had an average of 60.265 points and qualified. Credit was given to captain Aly Raisman for finishing second overall that knocked off both of them, as Douglas impressively finished third. Going into the all-round, Wieber and Douglas were the two favorites, with at least one of them favored to win a medal. But looks as if Douglas is the U.S. gymnastics team only hope, if not Raisman. There’s no shortage of confidence without Wieber, but she was an antidote to heal the wounds for the most horrid farce of the Beijing Games four years ago.

Wieber had her chance and blundered. She took an enormous fall, a disastrous lapse to keep her out of conversations for mental mistakes that ruined what was supposed to be a refreshing story. But as it turned out, Wieber’s dream is deferred.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

2012 London Olympics: Lochte’s Swim Drowns Sinking Phelps

He’s not that human fish we once knew, that invigorated Aquaman we were enamored with, in a sense, exhausted and apathetic, no longer a threat to opposing swimmers or even his teammate, Ryan Lochte. Michael Phelps, a 14-time Olympic gold medalist, aims for a 15th gold medal at these Olympics. And as one of the more popular American athletes, he has always been the face of USA Swimming, adored because of his sensational world records and journey four years ago in Beijing.

For those of us who’ve observed Phelps closely in Athens and Beijing, he was supposed to win seven medals in London — not zero, not one, not two, not three, but we strongly felt he’d leave England with all seven, brainwashed to postulate that he’d elevate his ultimate legacy after the folks in the United States were used to him stockpiling medals. An era for the all-time greatest medal winner in Olympic history, no matter how many times he stood on the podium to receive gold medals as our national anthem played, is surely coming to an absolute end.

This isn’t a matter of whether he’s unbeatable in the water against swimmers from other countries, along with countryman Lochte and the rest of the US team diving in to make a sudden splash, not intimidated and not afraid to compete and challenge Phelps to an exhausting and mind-numbing swim. This is a matter of him declining in the darkening stages of his magnificent career, plunging into the deep end of an Olympic-sized pool. The United States has a new athlete to root for, and maybe even the best world-class athlete.

Years ago, Lochte had no shot at beating Phelps, but now he’s a threat as his teammate Phelps is just as vulnerable. While Lochte knew what was at stake, pushing through water and looking stronger for four minutes, Phelps seemed disengaged and uninspired as if he wasn’t ready to swim. He was basically a no show for the night, which Lochte gave Americans a dramatic finish and left one of the greatest Olympians in defeat and shock. The victory for Lochte, without a doubt, cemented his claim to be one of the world’s greatest swimmers and move into the company of legendary athletes. Much has changed for Phelps. If he cannot beat Lochte, then what makes a person think he’s going to defeat him when they meet in a rematch for the 200-meter individual medley next Thursday?

This could be an upstart to Lochte’s rise after making a splash for an Olympic gold medal, which happened because of his turns off the wall and strength to float his way through water. Aside from his achievement, Phelps narrowly qualified eighth in the morning preliminaries. Now he won’t feature on Wheaties boxes, the official cereal of champions, and he won’t appear on Sports Illustrated either, to relive four years ago when he was on the front cover with his 14 gold medals around him. But it’s a different time now, a moment for Lochte to show the world he’s as good as Phelps.

What rivalry are we talking about, again?

It wasn’t even close to a rivalry, although Phelps vs. Lochte wasn’t ever a rivalry when they both share a uniform, and instead was more like a disaster Saturday night at the Olympic Aquatics Centre. There’s no better time, with the fiascoes that Phelps has experienced lately in swimming events, than now to swim home and take off his Speedos, owning more medals than any Olympian. He won’t give up so easy, and even though he seems lethargic and lazy in these games, he’s trained and worked out harder each day to stay in fit and good condition. But it’s not all that healthy for a man to notoriously eats a 12,000 calorie-a-day diet while he has preparations and trains, if true. It’s not easy to painfully watch the greatest US men’s swimmer of all-time suffer a beating, no fun at all.

Unfortunately, he has reached that point in his career, a moment when he is fading out of the equation at the summer games, for which it is someone else’s moment to dazzle in the pool. The king of H2O is our very own Lochte and he finally made it clear to the nation, if not the entire world that he’s the guy to be reckoned with after swimming an event that requires toughness and painstaking training, for which swimmers train and master the art of the butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle. That’s a lot to handle in one swimming match. Lochte now dominates the sport Phelps once owned, and everyone climbs out of the pool to make way for Lochte. It was not a triumphant moment as Phelps wasn’t ever close to standing a chance against his supposed rival, and climbed out of the chlorinated water startled. It’s the first time, after placing fourth in the men’s 400-meter individual medley, that he dropped his head with hands placed on his hips. Lochte versus Phelps was a stunning beat down, an epic blowout, and a major disappointment.

The first two laps up and down the pool, he was still in the race trailing Lochte by less than a second, and then he began to sink quite like a rubber ducky in a bathtub. The rout came from the instant both men hit the backstroke, and a well-anticipated duel between Phelps and Lochte wasn’t a classic but a race spectators and viewers can forget about as it might have been Phelps’ poorest performance. Where he ran into trouble was on a pair of breaststroke laps, and from then on out, Lochte gained complete control of what had been a tight, tense race. After all of that, Phelps finished fourth. The Brazilian swimmer, Thiago Pereira claimed silver. And then behind him was Kosuke Hagino of Japan winning bronze. Lochte kicked his butt and everybody else’s as well, and strolled onto the pool deck with a huge smile, waving to his family and throwing flowers in the stands. Oddly enough, Phelps followed, while dazed and baffled, passing by Lochte without congratulating his opponent and appeared to be very disgusted with himself for such a humiliating race.

These days Phelps is drowning, and he couldn’t finish the greatest swim ever, falling way behind even before the victory lap. These days Lochte performs a double flip, and it made a splash. And so, on to specifics, Phelps looked like an unsuccessful Olympian and not a 14-time gold medal winner. When it was over, surprisingly and amazingly, he looked like a washed up Brett Favre or Brock Lesnar, who were sent into retirement. Still, despite the upsetting loss, Phelps is favored to grind it out in the upcoming swim events. Four years ago, he owned the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, bringing home a historic eight gold medals.

But now he doesn’t own these Olympics, particularly not in the 400-meter individual medley, finishing four seconds slower than Lochte to stun the crowd and miss out on the silver and bronze. What we can take from these struggles is that he can’t race as fast nor will his body allow him to take on fatiguing swim events. This is a new reality, though Phelps’ place in swimming history ranks up there. Keep in mind, he’s the holder for the most overall Olympic medals won by any male athlete ever. With 14 gold, he has 16 overall and could surpass female gymnast Larysa Latynina of the former Soviet Union, winner of 18 medals, if he can earn at least two.

There is much belief he will shatter Latynina’s record, but what’s not certain is whether he can defeat and compete against his rival Lochte, who remarkably got the best of him on the opening day at the Olympics and surprised the world.

In short, Phelps is not the king of H2O. It’s now Lochte who owns the throne.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

2012 Olympics: Teenager’s Rise Comes to Light In London

The reality was, all along, Missy Franklin, a 17-year-old American swimmer, was fitted to take part in the 2012 London Olympics. The actuality was, during the 2012 U.S. Olympic swimming trials in Omaha, Neb., she was equipped to compete in the summer games and unsurprisingly became the first American woman to qualify for seven events. It’s not surprising she arrived at such a young age, winning five medals, three of them gold, in her first world championships last year.

Though she was raised in Denver, Colorado and represents the U.S. women’s swim team for one of the most exhilarating stories, both of her parents were born in Canada, which she could have represented our neighbor’s north of the border. A gifted swimmer, Franklin is a teenage athlete whose love for water is what shaped her into being crisp and the most decorated female Olympian of all-time, making the 100 and 200 meter backstrokes and is a favorite to win. With a heavy heart, reflecting on the loss of 12 victims while sending her prayers to the other 58 who were injured in the mass theater shooting in Aurora, she is embracing her lifelong dream to swim in the Olympics.
It’s not every day that you hear a story about a teenager, as astonishing as Franklin, a world-class athlete who is on the quest to attain gold medals and leave London in tremendous happiness. She is thrilled to be swimming in the Olympics in the United Kingdom, a place she can leave behind countless memories. There’s competitiveness in her. There’s determination and self-discipline in her. There’s continuity and mental toughness in her.

And that she is considered to accumulate medals, because she’s won three gold, a silver and a bronze at last year’s world’s championship and currently is the world-record holder in the 200m backstroke, there’s no denying the promising swimmer who has already showed the world she can swim. Franklin, ladies and gentlemen, is making her Olympic debut in London this week, and after watching her in the trials, she moves through water like a fish. Now 17, Franklin achieved each of her feats at the age 16, and impressed the nation.

It was her Sweet 16.

Standing 6 feet 1, weighing almost 170 pounds, with her extraordinary wingspan and versatility to glide through water, Franklin is the next big star in the pool for USA Swimming, a phenom who is the female version of Michael Phelps. It’s clear that she’s definitely a stud and, in water, she’s larger than life, a soon-to-be American icon and even a beauty queen in the next few years.
My theory, in retrospect, is she will be around for decades and stand as an American symbol in the Olympic games with Phelps leaning toward retirement after London. It sounds as if swimming has its next brightest athlete for an eventual post-Phelps era — and rightfully so — Franklin is equivalent to the 14-time gold medalist after entering in five events this week, which includes the 50, 100 and 200 freestyles, along with the 100 and 200 backstrokes.

In today’s swimming, she may have channeled her inner Phelps, and then hopefully shatter records over the years. She is, however, a kid at heart, a typical teenage girl and carries a teddy bear in her backpack, as she jumps into the pool and makes a splash. It’s inevitable to ignore Franklin, even if it is her first Olympic games, even if this is a time she may be overly excited and nervous. Franklin, in this case, could suddenly have a nice cachet if she produces for the USA women’s swim team. In any event, she will have her work cut out for her, especially against 11-time Olympic medalist Natalie Coughlin. They are scheduled to meet in a captivating swim race for the 100 backstrokes event and then again for the 100 freestyle, where Franklin is seeded first and Coughlin second.

Long before Franklin came along, she was the dominant one of H2O, but now there’s a new girl in the water. It’s kind of crazy how we just forgot about Coughlin when she clinched a top seed with a time of 59.12 seconds, while Franklin finished just short of first with a time of 59.18 seconds. The U.S. women’s swim team, and there’s no doubt about it, is full of talented and fast swimmers, but nobody can match the teenager’s speed or even the 29-year-old veteran. It will and should be a scintillating event between these two incredible swimmers, an opportunity for Franklin to try and beat her role model and a chance for the world to take notice of the teenybopper who can appear on the popular Seventeen Magazine. But even better, if she brings home gold medals and earns a fair share of recognition, then she can feature on the front cover of Sports Illustrated, where most champs appear after accomplishing marvelous triumph.

She can rip through water, faster than lightning, and float beautifully under water once the electronic beep sounds for the race to begin. She is relentlessly fast in the pool, which is why she has a cool nickname and also is referred to as “Missy the Missile.” Years ago, when she was 13-years-old, Franklin wasn’t nearly as good and famous as she is today. In fact, dating back to four years ago in Omaha, she finished 37th in the 100 free but took it as motivation and had the audacity to get better. The hard work and exhausting competitions for long days, long weeks and long months paid off, turning her into a budding Olympian, trained and well-suited to be our next compelling star of H2O when Phelps decides to take backstrokes home and change from his Speedos to his street clothes.

For her, it’s really about turning into a faster swimmer and growing up to be stronger. For her, it’s really about staying in condition and withstanding rigorous training. At this point of her life, Franklin is not a party animal and attending parties is her least concern, with her eyes on the prize in these summer games. The tension and pressure is quite much for a teenager to handle, but she is more focus than ever before, more serious than before and more prepared than before. While preparing for stiff competitions, which could be her real challenge, Franklin is having fun as well, smiling and laughing with her family standing by her to root on their girl in London. Folks are used to her laughing, giggling and being shy in front of cameras.

But when she’s in the water, she’s for real. Beside Franklin on the pool deck is her 33-year-old coach Todd Schmitz, a man who is a head coach of a youth club and has credentials to mold and breed his athlete. His work ethic and enthusiasm for working with Franklin has shaped her into a pedigreed swimming star.

Her love for water began at age 6, when she won her first race, a 25-meter backstroke. As a little girl, since winning at such a young age, her grandmother would tell stories that her granddaughter would someday be an Olympian. And look at her… she’s a first-time Olympian. What’s more, Franklin is in position to become the wonderful face of swimming.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

2012 Olympics: Usain Bolt Still Has That Swagger

This is Usain Bolt‘s moment, the most extraordinary story waiting to be told at the 2012 Summer Games in London, the one time he can wear Jamaica’s Olympics gear designed by Bob Marley’s daughter and strap on his golden Puma shoes and claim gold medals as the fastest man in the world. He is the quickest sprinter, and in the blink of an eye, he can run faster than Sonic the Hedgehog. Never has there, as one can recall, been a man as fast as Bolt, at least not from Kingston, Jamaica.

And, in London, like the time he won by remarkable margins at the 2008 Sumer Games in Beijing and 2009 world championships in Berlin, he’s again favored to run the fastest and float across the finish line unbeaten. If he reaches the finish to conquer gold medals, he leans back, with his arms tilted and the left hand pointing skyward for his famous victory pose, and then jogs around the track with the Jamaican flag draped across his shoulders. As a child, growing up three hours away in Jamaica’s rural North West, he loved playing a game called cricket. But then one day, his coach saw potential and convinced him to pursue running. Bolt, a world-class Jamaican track star, found a passion for running at a young age.

It’s likely that his coach had seen something in him and knew he’d someday turn famous and showcase his wheels in track and field, earning endorsement deals from Gatorade and Puma, defined as one of the greatest athletes to ever compete in the Olympics. It’s a sign that he was willing to meet the challenge and stand as a competitor against runners on their quest for gold medals. When he tried running at early age, faster than lightning and born with raw talent, Bolt ran at top speed and Dwayne Barrett and Pablo McNeil inspired him to expand on his speed and swagger. As he gotten better over the years, being that he was a gifted runner, he won his first silver medal in the 200 meters with a time of 22.04 seconds at the annual high school championships in 2001 and rose as a star rather quickly.

As the years went by, Bolt finished with a best of 48.28 seconds in the 400 meters and won a silver medal at the CARIFTA Games in 2001, a Caribbean regional competition. Bolt would go on to record a time of 21.81 in the 200 meters and earned a silver medal — and raced at the 2001 IAAF World Youth Championships in Debrecen, Hungary, a world level event in which he never qualified for the 200 meters final. The amazing thing is, he still finish with a time of 21.73 seconds, for a personal best. The matchups would become effortless each time, and other runners had no shot against Bolt, unable to keep pace with the speediest man alive, unable to cross the finish line without being exhausted and overworked by trying to outdistance him. At every opportunity, Bolt was more noteworthy and faster than before, and had impressive numbers at the Central American and Caribbean Junior Championships, setting the record of 20.61 seconds and 47.12 seconds in the event.

By then, they surely knew who Bolt was after those extraordinary races, a sprinter who fuels on Gatorade and prepares and trains for the stiffest competition, even though his competitiveness and sturdiness has never been a problem during his superlative Olympic games. So respectfully, with all that has happened in his teenage days, Bolt’s work ethic, rigorous preparations and workouts have benefited in his favor, such as the time he won a gold and two silver medals at the age 15 when he raced at the 2002 World Junior Championships in Kingston. Beginning his new journey Bolt was the center of national attention and acclamation for his exceptional speed and performances.

After winning a gold medal at the 2003 World Youth Championships, plus breaking records in both the 400 and 200 meters in his last Jamaican High School Championships with 45.30 seconds and 20.25 seconds, he was advertised as the fastest athlete in the world and had been distinguished as a top-notch runner. Favored to dominate in his particular sport, though he’s been struggling with leg and back problems, Bolt is focused and poised in effort to heighten his legacy and represent his native homeland as one of the greatest to ever run for Jamaica, where he is a beloved icon. You can see Bolt’s sense of responsibility four years later. By flashing back, he was arrogant and a showboat as it was a turnoff for many, and he wasn’t the most likable guy around the globe. It’s in his nature suddenly to avoid premature celebrations and compete at the highest level.

And behind it all, entering the 2012 London Games, Bolt is likely vulnerable to plunge to his rival, training partner Yohan Blake, who beat the world’s dangerous sprinter twice at Jamaica’s Olympic trials. The day he set a personal best in the 100 with his finish in 9.75, Blake, in retrospect, was the subject of many regards and gleamed at a moment that Bolt was doubted and questioned. But, to get a few things straight, he is still a menace and is certain he can heal his disappointments and struggles to put fear in the hearts of every runner, including his Jamaican team member, Blake. And more than anyone — the culture of Jamaican sports, the love of running, the investment of conditioning and exhausted training and discipline and the second nature of their heritage — Bolt is simply the best.

If he prevails, he can easily be one of Olympics most gracious athletes and fastest all time. And Bolt, meanwhile, owns 100m and 200m Olympic titles. His moment perfectly came in 2008 when he shattered the world record and won the 100m effortlessly in Beijing. The most perceptible thing about Bolt, besides that he’s mercurial and speedy and can amass gold, silver and bronze medals on his quest to complete a race with the most wondrous track time, is his blatant 6ft 5in frame and blazing vehemence. He has chicken nuggets for his pre-race meal, an unhealthy diet that fuels him to race at such an all-time high. For years now, he’s been known to be “Lightning Bolt,” a trademark that perfectly fits his brand. At age 25, he’s feeling good and can produce astonishing performance to shatter his own world-record 9.69 seconds in the 100. Ricky Simms, Bolt’s agent, told reporters about two weeks ago that Bolt had no tightness in his hamstring and has returned to high-speed, not hindered by chronic back problems or leg injuries.

It’s hard, though he’s nursing injuries that can have a damaging impact on him, to dismiss a runner as good as Bolt. It wouldn’t be right, nor smart to rule out the world’s fastest sprinter, injured or not, because he’s recorded three faster times this year alone. He isn’t worried but disbelievers are left to wonder if he can avert poor starts.

But a couple of days away from another Olympic appearance, Bolt has a chance to not only dominate, but also an opportunity, a golden opportunity to accumulate a large number of gold medals if he runs proficiently and briskly. If that someone can achieve, it’s no one other than Usain Bolt.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Harsh Penalty Sentence Penn State to Death

In the light of an egregious scandal, maybe the worst in NCAA history, we could have seen this coming a long time ago and we could have already known a punishment would have been so severe to basically destroy Penn State. Unfortunately, as we witness the unprecedented scene of punitive sanctions in which PSU may never recover and especially not anytime soon, the university is crippled because of Jerry Sandusky’s horrid crimes of sexually abusing young boys.

Eleven days removed from the damning report by former FBI director Louis Freeh that learned the late Joe Paterno had concealed allegations of child sex abuse against Sandusky, along with three other high-level Penn State officials, the NCAA handed down the harshest penalties to Penn State without the Committee on Infractions having a word.

One day removed from the removal of the larger-than-life bronze statue of Joe Paterno, while the monument was stored in a “secure location,” the NCAA leveled rare penalties to use Penn State as an example. And, in fairness, it was handled responsibly with disciplinary actions that fit the crime as the school must pay for its wrongdoing. Unfair as it is to those who have nothing to do with these heartless and selfish acts, Penn State is punished as a whole. It’s a real shame, but in reality, student athletes, coaches and alumni are guilty by association because they chose to commit or attend a storied university and football program that four men knew about Sandusky’s dirty secrets of sexual child abuse but kept it confidential to protect the school’s brand, reputation, and more importantly, Paterno’s legacy. It’s unfortunate, but it’s something that had to be done.

And so as a way to pay the price, the NCAA pretty much sentenced Penn State to death without handing down the Death Penalty. It’s worse than what SMU, a football program that received the most stringent punishment ever in the late 80s, endured and the NCAA sanctions can paralyze Penn State for months, years and decades. For a moment Monday morning, this stood as one of the most humiliating news conferences in college sports history, and NCAA President Mark Emmert stepped to the lectern and acted as if he was the new sheriff in town.

“In the case of Penn State, the results were perverse and unconscionable,” Emmert said. “No price the NCAA can levy will repair the grievous damage inflected by Jerry Sandusky on his victims. However, we can make clear that the culture, actions and inactions that allowed them to be victimized will not be tolerated in intercollegiate athletics.”

Rather than impose the death penalty and shut down the entire football program, he just handed down a $60 million fine, a four-year postseason ban, including the Big Ten championship game and the playoffs that goes into effect in 2014, a reduction of 40 scholarships over the next four years and 112 vacated wins. That makes Penn State alumni and the student body cringe, as a somber mood spreads on campus with the suffering and desolation from the depravity of sordid allegations and concealment by a dead football coach and three top administrators that percolates through people’s minds for all that has happened over the past months at State College. The historic sanctions against Penn State wasn’t an overreaction or even too harsh, but it was the right thing and a way to send a powerful message to every school that protecting the safety of children is the top priority over shielding a football program from vulnerability.

“There is incredible interest in what will happen to Penn State football,” Ed Ray, the chairman of the NCAA’s executive committee and Oregon State’s president said Monday. “But the fundamental chapter of this horrific story should focus on the innocent children and the powerful people who let them down.”

The NCAA and Emmert dropped the hammer and nailed Penn State football program for its role in shielding and keeping Sandusky’s misconduct of sexual molestation hush hush, refusing to stop suspected sexual abuse of children and report a longtime assistant to authorities for preying on young helpless boys. In other words, Paterno, who was docked 111 wins and stands 8th on the all-time wins from the sanctions, enabled a damn sexual predator and failed to protect the victims. It’s become obvious that Paterno moves onto the back burner, behind Florida State’s Bobby Bowden and Grambling’s Eddie Robinson. As of today, now deceased after dying at the age of 85 to lung cancer earlier in the year, Paterno is not represented as the winningest coach in college football history.

The most stunning upshot of the ordeal – and even for those Penn State folks in State College who cried and lowered their jaws in tremendous shock as Emmert caught us by surprise with his unprecedented decision – was the inconceivable penalties he announced. One of the finest and most prestigious programs, losing money from its wallet and a sense of pride even, was deprived of wins in the record books. With that in mind, Penn State, a shamed football program best known for the ugliest scandal in the history of American sports, will take decades to recover from the destruction if not permanent damage to forever wash away what the university stood for and a well-respected football culture.

“It’s important to know we are entering a new chapter at Penn State and making necessary changes,” said Penn State president Rodney Erickson. “We must create a culture in which people are not afraid to speak up, management is not compartmentalized, all are expected to demonstrate the highest ethical standards, and the operating philosophy is open, collegial, and collaborative.”

The corruption of Penn State’s despicable outrage and disgrace, though not everybody at the institution is culpable or responsible for the actions of four men who are either dead, unemployed or going to prison, warranted an unprecedented reaction to discipline a school after enabling a pedophile. It’s one thing for an athlete to receive improper benefits from a slimy agent that is commonplace in this era of college athletics. But it’s quite another thing for a football program, along with three top Penn State officials, to ignore a child predator and not stop him from sexually abusing children on campus for at least over a decade.

Tough as it is, newly hired football coach Bill O’Brien arrived at a time when it all remained in much uncertainty. But he also knew what was likely to happen when he accepted the coaching job to replace the fired Paterno. After the NCAA enforced a punishment that was harsher than the death penalty, sabotaging an entire program for decades and years — an investigation that didn’t take months — decided Penn State’s fate. For a long time now, recruiting will become greatly difficult for O’Brien and his staff. What’s uncertain is, Christian Hackenberg, the No. 1 rated quarterback prospect who is cautious and holding back as to whether he should decommit and verbally commit to another top football program with advice from his father. The bad thing is, Greg Webb, a four-star recruit in class of 2013, has rescinded his verbal commitment to Penn State and instead has chosen to attend North Carolina.

“Today we receive a very harsh penalty from the NCAA and as head coach of the Nittany Lions football program, I will do everything in my power to not only comply, but help guide the University forward to become a national leader in ethics, compliance and operational excellence,” said O’Brien. I knew when I accepted the position that there would be tough times ahead. But I am committed for the long term to Penn State and our student athletes.”

There’s no doubt the university is in a quandary, and sadly, this may be the end of Penn State. Indeed it is, and the school is paying for its sins. With a lack of institutional control, which involved sexual child abuse, NCAA enforcers and overseers had not conducted or launched into its normal investigation but relied heavily on the scathing Freeh Report. It concluded that Paterno, among three others, shielded the sexual child abuse allegations against Sandusky as it was more important to protect a football program and school from embarrassment.

“An argument can be made that the egregiousness in the behavior in this case is greater than any other seen in NCAA history,” Emmert said.

True, it’s the most heinous crime we’ve seen in NCAA history.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dez Bryant Needs to Get It Together, Before It Goes to Waste

Given his background of troubles off the field, Dez Bryant is not a spotless well-behaved guy. He is a wide receiver who represents the most storied NFL franchise, the Dallas Cowboys. Owner Jerry Jones is not reluctant ever in taking a risk on renegade players, gave his unsettled wide receiver a chance when the general public questioned Bryant’s character and behavioral concerns.

It can actuate a needless distraction, as the Cowboys enter another season of hell and questioning about their defiant wideout. For a rash of troubles Bryant has had with the law in the past, it should be taken into account by the front office, particularly after his latest run-in with the law. It comes at the wrong time as training camp looms and Bryant’s arrest Monday was disturbing, with his thug-like behavior, and a demeanor that badly humiliates Jones and the Cowboys. A team devoted to him after a police report alleges that he turned angry during a verbal dispute.

If there’s any truth behind a domestic dispute, aware of a preceding incident from Bryant’s run-in with an off-duty police officer about his pants sagging too low at NorthPark Center Mall, he grabbed his mother by her shirt and slapped her in the face with a baseball cap and pulled her hair. If there’s any truth behind a physical attack on his mother, up to date with Bryant receiving a criminal trespass warning a year ago for arguing and refusing to leave the mall, his own mother avowed that her son “tried to kill me,” terrified and in distress at the time of the disturbing call.

That means he could be a detriment and a rogue, which is not good for the Cowboys, and spells doom for a franchise already having shortcomings and wrecked by futility that has inhibited Dallas from success lately. At least, unlike others jumping to conclusions on a fresh story making national headlines, I’m reserving judgment and I’m not so fast to say he needs to be punished or dismissed.

Only time will tell about Bryant’s foreseeable future and how much longer he will wear a helmet emblazoned with a star logo. But for now, until there are further details, you cannot run him out of Dallas, not when he allegedly fought his mother and not when she was heard in a harrowing 911 phone call that maybe wasn’t as horrifying as it sounded.

Though it had to be rampant for her to call the police on her own son, horrified and aghast by Bryant’s actions that resulted in physical violence, Bryant might be innocent of assault. Then again, judging on his poor character and wrongful conduct, he might be guilty of grabbing his mother’s hair and hitting her. The Monday night outburst, as Bryant was irate and livid with his mom for an argument, began between Bryant and his half-brother. He was arrested and charged with misdemeanor family violence. It’s disappointing that it seems, since his arrival to the NFL where expectations are large, Bryant is always ending up in trouble. The vibes are bad now that he’s embroiled in plights from his incident a year ago to his recent happenings. But without enough facts, it’s hard to really fathom what to believe in the wake of his domestic violence charges.

The fathomable thing here is, because Bryant had a rough upbringing in his childhood, he’s digested emotional stress and dysfunction that has mentally corrupted his state of mind and destroyed him, having an influence on his out-of-control NFL career. As a kid, he went through a time of difficulty that his mother, Angela Bryant, had a battalion of unlawful troubles, including spending 18 months in prison during her son’s childhood for selling crack cocaine.

And who’d have guessed Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland would kick up controversy at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine for asking Bryant if his mother was a prostitute?

It only seemed like yesterday. And then came a firestorm, including African Americans playing the race card, and this almost jeopardized Ireland’s job status in Miami. Bryant, despite the recent arrest, is scheduled to play for Dallas next season, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could hand down a lengthy suspension for violating the NFL’s personal-conduct policy. It’s now time he turns himself around and mature into one of the cleanest athletes in pro football, and only he can turn it around, not his teammates, not his coaches, not his family, not even Jones.

Only he can make it better. Whatever it takes for Bryant, a prodigious talent and gifted wide receiver, he can’t let it go to waste — by choosing to make stupid decisions. He must defuse poor judgment that can hinder him from becoming a top receiver in the National Football League. And in fairness, we must be true Americans and reserve judgement.

What Dez is doing is only hurting him, and he’s slowly ruining his NFL livelihood, by being unable to control his emotions. It would be a major blow to him and his family — as well — now that he’s risen in his football career to finally reach a lifelong dream — an absolute waste if he somehow throws it all away for misbehaving and having off-field issues.

By offering unsolicited advice, although he’s a grown man and should be able to help himself when practically no one else can, he needs to seek anger management counseling to resolve his ostensible anger outbursts that can later make him self-destruct.

But he’s the only person who can take hold of his career and get a grip on life.
Dez has to make it possible. Dez has to do whatever it takes. Dez has to quickly turn his life around… or else.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Year of Pittsburgh Pirates Rebirth? I’ll Believe It When I See It

The calendar reads early July, which means there’s plenty of season left in baseball. At any giving time now, the emerging Pittsburgh Pirates can stumble, go astray, and, well, drop out of first place in the NL Central, given the team’s prior history to only dominate their division for a few days before it becomes a total loss, in which they were inhibited from clinching an eventual playoff berth that was never plausible.

Friday night, the home crowd stood, and not one fan in the stands was wearing a paper bag over their head and protesting against a hapless franchise. And as much as there is reason to have firm conviction in Pittsburgh, nine games over .500 for the first time since 1992 with the fourth-best record in baseball, there is a sense that they may not last very long in October. As you probably know, when the Pirates were pertinent and inherited a winning season, Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke and longtime skipper Jim Leyland anchored Pittsburgh. If you can recall the mediocrity and unflattering criticism, which wasn’t too long ago, then you know fans in the Steel City used to relentlessly attack the Pirates and had turned their heart and soul to the Steelers. It will always be a football territory, but now the Pirates bask in an unvanquished season, finally returning to the very top and giving the fans every reason to boast about their baseball team.

A long time ago, Pittsburgh was so horrific, it was painful to stomach — not even Captain Jack Sparrow could spare the Pirates' lives. Fans felt they were robbed and viewed it as fraud, a marketing sham they thought was run brilliantly by owner Robert Nutting. And nothing was more startling than documents being obtained by the Associated Press that showed Nutting, like a bandit robbing a bank, pocketing a massive amount of money as fans endorsed the franchise. The saddest part of this charade, an inevitable crossroads that demolished the tenor of a once respected major league team and yet was close to falling into debt from a financial disaster, is that the Pirates earned $29.4 million in profits during a span of the 2007 and 2008 seasons.

There will forever be talk of the Pirates’ blockheaded decisions, which they shipped All-Stars Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth and Jack Wilson away in trades, leaving every fan suspicious as no one quite understood their intentions. About 10 players, such as Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, John Grabow, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Damaso Marte, Nyjer Morgan, Ronny Paulino and Sean Burnett, were arbitration-eligible before leaving Pittsburgh under free agency. The question as to why the Pirates traded slugger Jose Bautista comes back to haunt them, I’m sure, now that he has swung the bats exceptionally well since his arrival to Toronto. Today, I’m sure, the Pirates regret dealing a slugger with a home-run swing to drive in runs. The idea of them cleaning house was a bit fishy and strange when Pittsburgh had considerably possessed star power and almost eased into postseason mode. It was historic. Moves no one had ever seen in professional sports.

In fairness, aware of the mischances and bad decisions that set the franchise back — dismantling one of the hallmark franchises of baseball — it’s morally wrong to accuse a man of fraud when his organization encountered an economic disaster amid a wicked recession. What sure looks like a promising season happened sooner than expected, but winning or salvaging a division title is no guarantee in Pittsburgh. It’s a mentality to have as the Pirates so often blew division leads when fans actually felt it was their year, their moment to seize control and their moment to advance to the postseason, but the masses spoke too fast and Pittsburgh rapidly fell out of the pennant race. That could happen this season, as well, as you never know about the Pirates — you just never know — and yet the Pittsburgh population is building confidence in a team that relapsed a year ago.

The truth is, unless one believes the Pirates are capable of holding on to convince a long-suffering fan base that they are finally unwavering and strong, no one won’t take Pittsburgh seriously, ignoring the likes of Andrew McCutchen, Clint Barmes, A.J. Burnett, James McDonald and Jeff Karstens. It remains to be seen if the Pirates can keep riding the ship in the right direction and continue to be the best story in baseball, but Pittsburgh is know for captivating an audience and then eventually collapsing to miss the postseason. The crowd was behind the Pirates all the way last season, wishing for the very best considering the team’s fiascoes and struggles in the past, but it lasted no time.

It’s similar, to put it simply, to what the Pirates experienced last July, at a moment when winning seemed logical until Pittsburgh stumbled and lost a seven-game lead. So again, the Pirates have a chance to redeem themselves and erase the dreadful memories of a late-season collapse. There’s no reason for the Pirates to fall apart, but knowing them they probably will find a way to blow it and falter in the next few months, even if they have signed elite players and accumulated talent.

Burnett, who was acquired in a trade from New York for two inferior prospects after he struggled for three seasons in the Bronx, arrived from nowhere and has flourished in one of his best seasons since his days spent in Toronto. It’s been an incredible turning point for the right-handed pitcher, improving his mechanics and returning to form, with much more velocity on his fastball.

This is also happening when McDonald, who ranks sixth in the NL with a 2.45 ERA, is a young player emerging into an ace in the Pirates pitching lineup. Sometimes you have to play behind a veteran because of his expertise and flair, for which McDonald can grasp a better sense of the game and find out what it takes to pitch in the majors. And now, he serves an apprenticeship as a strikeout pitcher with his team, who can build a sound pitching rotation around him. There are turning points in the Pirates’ bullpen with the likes of Juan Cruz and Jason Grilli, who has been a lights-out reliever, managing the setup role. And, no less surprisingly, McCutchen is having an MVP type season and had three hits for the Pirates to lift his batting average to a National League-leading .360 in a 6-5 loss to the Giants in San Francisco that snapped Pittsburgh’s four-game winning streak. The play of the 25-year-old McCutchen is flawless, riding a wave of dominant hitting and compiling monster numbers in his breakout campaign.

It’s funny how this is one of the hottest teams in baseball, and how we are so fast to jump onto the bandwagon, failing to realize this is a team that disappears and cannot ever salvage a lead to qualify for the postseason. Then again, maybe this is their year, thanks to the expansion of Major League Baseball’s playoffs with the extra wild card round. This season, unlike last summer, Pittsburgh is hopeful and reigns as the favorite to dominate the NL central. My first instinct — beyond the realm of possibility — is to believe it when I see it.

The Pirates can make it to the postseason with the addition of a few veterans in Erik Bedard and Rod Barajas. It’s hard to buy into the hype, but as of now Pittsburgh is atop the standings in its division, under the direction of manager Clint Hurdle. The fact that he was part of an improbable run the Colorado Rookies had in 2007 is amazing, as the Pirates are on a tear after Hurdle changed the disposition and gave them optimism. The question, as the Pirates have a reputation for faltering late in the season, is can the Pirates keep a commanding lead and surge in September?

They have been here before, with a chance to make it to the playoffs for the first time in 20 years, the last time Pittsburgh finished above .500 and nearly won Game 7 of the 1992 National League Championship Series at Fulton-County Stadium in Atlanta. And through it all, the Pirates led the Braves 2-0, but then went on to lose 3-2 and Atlanta advanced to the World Series and lost to Toronto. I know. I can recall everything that happened on that night. I was a seven-year-old kid and remember watching that game with my late father. And ever since, I was immersed into America’s Pastime, the great game of baseball, just by watching an instant classic between the Pirates and Braves.

These Pirates are back, certainly, but can we truly believe in them? These Pirates are winning, but how long can it last and will it last? These Pirates are good, but just how good?

If they are still in this current state and winning by September, I’ll start believing.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Deron Williams Key to Nets Debut In Brooklyn

His name is Deron Williams, a free agent point guard who wants to make his decision before reporting to Team USA training camp on Thursday. He doesn’t need them — but, oh, Brooklyn wants him, knowing he can definitely sell tickets in a new location for a franchise that moved from New Jersey to New York, one of the largest media markets in the country.

Hints as to where he will sign are vague and unknown at this point, but nonetheless we will speculate where free agency’s ultimate prize will end up shortly after Independence Day. As of now, that is, expect Brooklyn Nets general manager Billy King to aggressively work on a long-term deal to hold on to Williams. It’s a very provocative tableau, wondering whether or not he will stay to hopefully team up with Dwight Howard, who demanded a trade to Brooklyn. But knowing his ever-changeable mind, Howard could, as usual, change his mind about joining the new-look Nets. And, according to reports, the Nets have dropped out of the Howard sweepstakes and looked into another direction for now, with an agreement in principle to acquire guard Joe Johnson from the Atlanta Hawks.

It’s all in Kings’ hands to make sure the deal gets done, and with a tremendous amount of pressure on him, he could be the first GM to come through on a deal that wheedles him to build a foundation in Brooklyn. If he can’t talk Williams into staying, which is likely as the three-time All-star is leaning toward the Dallas Mavericks and the Nets, the idea of building one of the bona fide tandems in basketball falls apart. Williams, who grew up in the suburbs of Dallas — and now as the most coveted free agent — some are speculating his next destination is with the Mavericks. But even better, under the new CBA rules, he can sign a five-year deal worth approximately $100 million, whereas Dallas can offer him $75 million over four years.

Wherever he goes, Williams is a consolation prize any team would like to have on board, expected to keep on a Nets uniform after the team has relocated, in a nearby town next to Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudimire. If the Nets manufacture a raft of star power that can put butts in seats and churn out revenue for a franchise on the horizon — with enough victories — this team could respectfully be given the nod in the Eastern Conference and turn into instant semifinalists in their flashy new home. No one, least of all the Brooklyn folks, cares about the business aspect of it. But they do know they want to see Williams in a Nets uniform come next season. That’s all that matters. He’s all that matters.

If it does happen, he’s going to be the face of the franchise and will handle the point guard duties. He’s proven to be a trusty guard who runs the offense and is one of the best scoring point guards in the league with his elite passing and sharp ball-handling. The man, in addition to all of this, plays where he can make the money, and if it happens to be in Brooklyn, well, then he will most definitely call it home and be the Nets franchise player as long as the team continues to pay him. There isn’t a bigger blockbuster name out there who is worth keeping around, and the Nets are desperately hoping to finally persuade Williams to forge his signature for a long-term commitment, when much promise is suddenly coming to life.

It can be the most exciting franchise, and it can be more fun with Williams as a marquee name, a centerpiece for a blueprint to awe New Yorkers a couple of rivers over, on the busy streets of Brooklyn. And here comes a re-branded and resuscitated Nets team that fled Newark and opened the new Barclays Center in Boerum Hill, and here comes flamboyant billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov, one of Russia’s richest and charismatic moguls. What’s a boon for the Nets and Brooklyn homers, as a result of Brooklyn having money to spend in hopes to invest and build a winning product, is how Prokhorov is willing to do whatever it takes to convince Williams to not turn down the Nets and leave for Dallas.

He is, as a competitor and savvy tycoon, not going to lose his battle to Mark Cuban if he can re-sign Williams by putting together a sturdy supporting cast and building a workable nucleus. If Williams walks out on the Nets, however, Brooklyn won’t even qualify for the playoffs, especially now that the team has rebuffed interest in Howard. This is the biggest offseason for the Nets, and it feels almost like they are aggressively fighting for the most attractive free agent available. It would be a colossal disappointment if Brooklyn misses out on Williams, and fails to retain his services, as the Nets are styling a new logo and new jerseys. There’s no way he’d turn down the Nets, unless they refuse to give him the asking price and take care of him for the next five years.

In a perfect world, it shouldn’t be a problem financially, and not only do you have one of the wealthiest men investing billions on one team, but you have a famous minority owner in Jay-Z. At no better time, the Nets are fortunate and have $40 million in salary-cap space, a flashy new arena and, in a matter of days, could even re-sign Williams. In the meantime, the addition of Johnson, who is owed nearly $90 million over the next four seasons, was a strategy to woo Williams to stay. Flirting with Johnson, team executives would not have pursued him if he couldn’t persuade Williams to make his home in Brooklyn.

There’s still no guarantee Williams re-signs with the Nets, but maybe he’s now intrigued, realizing that he has assistance in the backcourt. In exchange for Johnson, the Nets sent Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro and Jordan Williams — including a signed-and-traded DeShawn Stevenson and a 2012 first-round pick from Houston to Atlanta. A $7.6 million hold for restricted free agent Brook Lopez will put them in serious salary-cap trouble. Very soon, Lopez is expected to re-sign, and when he does the Nets will be at $59 million — over the cap, but under the $70.3 million luxury-tax.

The best part — or maybe the foretelling part — following the recent transitions to meet a superstar’s demands when it comes to surrounding him with a supporting cast — is that this might have just kept Williams in Brooklyn.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Dwight Howard Creates Drama In Magic Kingdom

There is no repairing a broken relationship with Dwight Howard, a wishy-washy, flip-flopping, flaky, don’t-know-what-he-wants diva who was given too much power and abused his authority. The circus has drained us all, and peeved our senses — over and over until we couldn’t listen to the nonsense from a man who selfishly thought about himself and no one else, as the Orlando Magic meant nothing to him, even though he preached the magnitude of loyalty.

What loyalty?

For the last few months now, Howard has put a petulant franchise in Central Florida through hell, and drawn more headlines than any other player. A long time ago, we should have seen this coming from his body language and antics, which was clear that he really was unsure about renewing his vows with a team where he is not satisfied but unhappy. He told the Magic again that he wants to be traded to the Nets. On Friday, Howard, who has grown frustrated with the situation in Orlando, met with newly minted general manager Rob Hennigan face to face in Los Angeles. So now, the Magic are listening to offers and have already had discussions about moving the disgruntled center.

It figures. He told us he wanted out of town months ago. It’s the same tired saga and it just won’t go away, until Howard finally behaves like a man and not a spoiled brat who is seeking more attention and not so much a desirable destination to satisfy him — a pouty, self-centered superstar acting like an overly controlling owner. Simply he’s only a player, not an executive upstairs making personnel decisions. And so it seems though Howard won’t be in Orlando too much longer, begging to leave an organization that was too nice and gave him too much leeway. Like many before, he abused it and was haughty and bombastic throughout the course of the season. With all indications leaning toward a trade in potentially the next 24 hours, Howard’s preferred destination is Brooklyn.

But wherever he goes, as his departure appears to be inevitable, he’s a risk judging by his immaturity and baggage. It’s almost understandable as to why he wants to leave as new management refuses to give him power, unwilling to bow down to his demands. Howard wants to be a dictator for a team that now realizes they made a dreadful mistake by giving him too much responsibility. There’s never been a player, at least from my mind, who wanted so much from a team and implored for fame and/or likability among fans and teammates. Has it ever dawn on Howard that this is one way a person can fall from grace and lose respect? If anything, he’s turning away fractious and furious Orlando fans, and the vast majority by now are ready for him to either leave or stay, burnt out from the ongoing drama that has cast a gloom on the Magic Kingdom.

If he weren't content all along, then he should have stayed true to his words from the beginning of the season when he asked to be traded, and should have had the guts to be upfront with his bosses. But instead, he was biting the hands that fed him, acting as if he was happy with the team's direction, grinning in front of the media and telling the team and reporters he would stay through the 2012-2013 season and then become a free agent the following summer. Just to refresh one’s memory, he said he wouldn’t opt out of his deal and signed a waiver to remain under contract. He was, for the moment, credible and fairly popular in Orlando, where he was a marketable player for a lone sports franchise. What no one knew about him was that he was deceptive and fibbing to us last season. His responsibilities changed and he wasn’t committed to the team, however, and promised to stay loyal to the Magic but then he chickened out on team executives, his teammates and fans. His team was fooled, you were fooled, and I was fooled. Knowing his penchant for changing his mind, he never had the self-will, desire or urgency to take accountability and perform to his highest standard.

It’s a crazy summer in Orlando, with all the Howard drama stealing and killing the buzz, as we learn more about a 7-foot center who was never Superman and never wore his cape like a superhero.

Not once did he even come close to resembling Wonder Woman or Batgirl.

The absurdity from this Dwight Howard tumult, that is already hijacking our summer while free agency has opened with swirling drama mostly surrounding Howard, is the most annoying soap opera to drag on from time to time. The whole nonsense about trying to be the most famous and likable player is ridiculous to believe when he knew exactly what his intentions were and waited until the first day of free agency to grab our attention. By flashing back to the season — keep in mind — he tried to have his former coach Stan Van Gundy fired. In hopes to please Howard, the team cut ties with Van Gundy and relieved him of his duties. On the same day, the Magic and GM Otis Smith unanimously parted ways, and none of it ended the infighting, disastrous mess in Orlando.

After all of this, Howard is still not too satisfied and is unhappy on a team where there’s no coach, and no star player to play alongside one of the biggest men in the game. But he knew from the get-go that he really wasn’t willing to play for the Magic. And with that being the case, why wasn’t he man enough to speak up and demand a trade when he asked for one during the season? It was already a divorce in the making, in which everyone had sort of gathered a sense that his days were numbered in a Magic uniform, and surely, he’s now inclined to leave.

It would be best for Howard, and it would be best for the Magic if they both went their separate ways and moved forward. What he has done, while he has had the leverage in what has become a disaster that has taken countless twists and turns, is screwed over the Magic and led them to believe that he would be staying. For a long time, however, he’s been disappointed with the organization and told people that he feels the Magic “blackmailed” him into signing the “opt-in” clause. A week ago, he and his representatives complained to the players’ union in an attempt to have the waiver lifted, which would have made him a free agent this summer.

Oh, really?

That is why it’s time to part ways. He’s turning on the Magic organization, and no one is too sure what to believe at this point — at least I’m not too sure what to take away from this convoluted, chaotic mess. It’s hard to believe Howard was “blackmailed” when he had all the power to awe us with his magic tricks. So now he doesn’t want to stay because he’s upset the Magic made promises that have been broken. That means the organization has not mollified him. But it's good he can amount to something. Howard, in eight seasons, has led the league in rebounding three times. One individual achievement that stood out the most was when he led the league in double-doubles twice. He can also say he’s played in the NBA Finals, and has been voted the league’s Defensive Player of the Year three times.

There’s no question that he’s one of most dominant centers in the game, but he still needs to mellow into a matured professional when, as of now, he’s nothing more but a petulant child creating havoc, poisoning a team with his selfish, egotistical traits that just won’t fly with some teams. He can now flirt with the notion of playing with Deron Williams, a free-agent point guard who can sign with the Dallas Mavericks. There's a feeling Williams may decide to re-sign with the Nets, hearing the trade speculations that Howard likely could come to Brooklyn. The Nets reached an agreement with swingman Gerald Wallace on a 4-year, $40 million deal and are trying to hold on to Brook Lopez, as general manager Billy King and him are negotiating a deal. And with that, the Nets are shopping for deals and targeting the likes of Joe Johnson and O.J. Mayo.

There is pity to all of this Howard insanity. And one of these days, just as Brett Favre and LeBron James, Howard will regret what he’s done and realize how much he’s made it harder on himself. This is not the way to be a likable person. If anything, it’s the way to destroy one’s reputation. Not sure he ever thought about it. For now, at least, credibility is thrown out of the door wherever he plays.