Sunday, March 31, 2013

Forget the Fab Five: Michigan’s Renaissance Better Than Ever

He cradled the bronze plated trophy, handed it to Tim Hardaway Jr. and watched as his team celebrated and partied in North Texas. Then came the tears of joys, the prolonged hugs with his wife, Kathleen, and kids and grandkids. John Beilein, Michigan basketball coach, is a big name at the school, and he has renewed a widely known program. He watched his players climb a ladder to cut down a piece of the net, one by one, and he was proud of his players and embraced the moment, realizing a dream had finally come true.

It’s almost unreal that No. 4 Michigan, going to the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five in 1993, thrashed No. 3 Florida 79-59 in the South Regional final Sunday. It’s a real surprise Michigan has made it to this point, lasting longer than expected and radically becoming the storyline of college basketball, but all season long, the Wolverines rate as having the most efficient offense in college basketball — a prolific backcourt with the likes of Hardaway and Trey Burke, who’s believed to be the best guard in the country.

The program is back and it’s necessarily great for Michigan fans that waited a long time to witness such a gratifying moment again in school history. The reemergence of Michigan in 2013 — when they won 26 games and ranked No. 10 in the final AP Top 25 — rekindled a tradition over all other programs. That’s not an overstatement. It’s the truth. But this Michigan team, which is seeking its second championship in school history, is more extraordinary than the Fab Five.

The year, from beginning to end, has been remarkable and folks have seen a glimpse of the latest version of Michigan basketball and fans may have witnessed the best team in school history, yes, more spectacular and proficient than Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson. However, it didn’t seem like a Michigan team would ever be as good as the Fab Five.

As for this Michigan team now, despite having one of the best offenses in college basketball, they weren’t supposed to beat fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, dismissed by so many experts. As for this Michigan team now, despite having a teacher in Beilein, they weren’t supposed to beat No. 1 Kansas, a team that had seniors who could have beaten the Michigan kids. But star guard, Trey Burke, took the last shot in the final minutes of a thrilling Sweet 16 classic. When he hit the game-tying three-point shot over Kansas’ Kevin Young to send it into overtime for what might have been the most sensational second-half comeback in the history of college basketball, amazingly for Michigan, it stunned the world and generated buzz.

The tournament told a story no one hardly believed, every bit as fabulous as Burke’s seven assists, as grand as center Mitch McGary’s 9 rebounds and as outstanding as Nik Stauskas’ 22-point performance to lead all Michigan scorers. You wouldn’t believe it if you see it, but now you can start believing. Michigan fans, the population in Ann Arbor, haven’t stopped believing — keeping the faith and have been very optimistic that this is the moment for the Wolverines to reign supreme in the Big Ten.

This is a great time for Michigan’s program, a rebirth, a revival — renewing its brand name, mastering success and elevating its chances of winning a second title in school history. This is a great story indeed — and would be even greater if they beat fourth-seeded Syracuse on Saturday night in Atlanta to secure the final spot in the NCAA basketball championship on Monday night. Nobody should, as we have done in the month of Madness, ignore and disrespect a renaissance for a national power that finally made the Final Four, erasing the memories of misadventures and long-suffering. It is real what we’ve seen so far, and yet it’s also too tremendous refusing to acknowledge.

There’s a Big Ten team not many expected to make the Final Four. The chances of Michigan winning the whole tournament, evidently in for a heavyweight fight against Syracuse, are likely although the 2-3 zone defense used by Jim Boeheim is a riddle that some of the best teams in the country haven’t been able to understand. But this season, Burke, who is considered a strong candidate for national player of the year honors, is one of the marquee stars of the Big Ten. He has been combustible, knocking down one of the most famous three-point shots in NCAA history, making a dramatic game-winner to become a hero in the month of March.

The Wolverines reached this year’s Final Four by Burke’s playmaking and game-saving shots and by Stauskas’ three-point shooting. This season means something. This season has been a huge accomplishment. Burke is a superstar, a student of the game. He’s grown and he’s matured into a natural ballplayer, an intelligent sophomore in position to win an NCAA championship. For Burke and Stauskas especially, this was a fantastic kind of performance, having arguably their best game this season.

If this day was any hint as to how superb the Wolverines truly have been in this tourney, disbelievers can appreciate what Michigan has accomplished with these offensive weapons, ideal game strategies and efforts. The Wolverines are playing like, you know, hungry beast. The hustling, strenuous boys of Michigan bolts up the floor, moves the ball before it goes to Burke’s hands and then he beats the press to finish at the rim if the ball doesn’t go to McGary up high. It’s an insult to have a Cinderella tag affixed to Michigan’s name in the NCAA tournament when, in fact, the Wolverines pummeled Florida, who was vital and expected to be a Final Four team to some. It can be lovely to watch, so awe-inspiring, an instant classic every spectator looks for when watching the NCAA tournament.

There was something evidently odd that even Florida coach Billy Donovan didn’t ever see coming in this tournament matchup. The night for 6-foot-6 freshman Stauskas was beyond exceptional, scoring 22 points on just eight shots and finishing 6-for-6 on 3-pointers to become the first player in NCAA regional finals to reach that plateau. The game began with McGary hitting four shots from the paint, jumping out to a 13-0 start and leading by as many as 25 points in the first half to secure a spot in the regional championship next Saturday. The talent, it seems, is everything for Coach Beilein and Michigan, mind you.

It’s amazing what Beilein, at West Virginia and now Michigan, has done to transform both programs into winners. But at Michigan, he’s done more than just transformed the program back into winners. He’s renewed tradition for a well-known school and has been given a chance to coach elite talent, already modifying the program and attracting prospects who might be interested in committing to play for Beilein’s Wolverines. The program, before he came along to restore it, was shredded and paralyzed for all the misfortunes that Michigan invited over the years.

Beilein, one of the best offensive coaches in the game, has done something not even Brian Ellerbe or Tommy Amaker could accomplish. He’s taught his boys to work diligently and give it their best effort. The resurgence of Michigan happened once Beilein arrived to be a teacher to his kids and he has demanded hard work, discipline and unselfishness. The 2013 Wolverines essentially heals and erases the hideous memories of the sanctions and punishments that poisoned the program — victories were vacated, banners were taken down and the school was banned for the postseason.

What’s not to like about this Michigan team?

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wolverines win it all.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Trey Burke’s Late-Second Heroics Served Up Michigan’s Epic Classic

The folks witnessed a wave of excitement and felt a shiver on Friday night, a tingling sensation vibrating throughout their bodies. The folks went berserk in the building, the Michigan fans screamed and the jitters vanished fast, sending a crowd clad in U of M blue into a state of delirium. The star guard, Trey Burke, the Big Ten player of the year, rescued Michigan in a late comeback, one of the virtuoso classics of March and in this tourney alone.

The Wolverines and No. 1 Kansas played a basketball game that was an epic and thrilling finish — 87-85 win for Michigan in the South Regional semifinals. There’s nothing like the drama of a clutch three-pointer that sent a game into overtime, extending what was incredibly an electrifying ending to probably the greatest last-second shot in NCAA tournament history. Burke is building a legend, in just his sophomore season, his first Elite Eight appearance with Michigan. When he finally heated up, he changed the nature of the game, by hitting jump shots and by scoring on a layup to pull within three.

He has to be Michigan’s hero for his last-second heroics, although, with his first-half struggles and poor shooting, he was not playing virtually like a hero but a wannabe Harlem Globetrotter with funny tricks, lack of discipline and commitment. What this game meant for Burke was to pull off an incredible comeback and climb to elite status. The talk of the college basketball world, of course, is Michigan and Burke’s magnificent shot, turning out to be a dangerous scorer when he’s on the court and pulling through when much is at stake.

More remarkably, Burke poured in 23 points in the second half and overtime, pulling up from far out and burying the game-tying three-pointer with 4.2 seconds left, a shot that forced overtime and saved Michigan’s feel-good season. It happened after Kansas’ Elijah Johnson missed a free throw and Michigan grabbed the rebound. Playing with vehemence and ferocity, Michigan rallied from a 14-point deficit in seven minutes, having a better all-around performance in the final 20 minutes to oust Kansas, who was believed to be en route to the next round and then Atlanta for the Final Four.

There had been moments when Michigan blew opportunities to cut the deficit, but then Burke, who is probably the best point guard in the nation, couldn’t miss a shot after starting the game 3-of-11 while trailing by double digits. With 35 seconds left, Tim Hardaway Jr. missed a 3-pointer in the final moments, but while down by five, Glenn Robinson III stole a Kansas pass and scored a reverse layup. After over two hours of craziness and after freshman center Mitch McGary hit a jumper to give Michigan an 83-82 lead, all part of an awesome game with five lead changes in overtime — the first OT game of the tournament — it’s simply fine to believe in the Wolverines.

The emergence of McGary just clearly means Michigan likely can win it all — or at least scare its next opponent in the South Regional Finals. It appears he’s a scorer, leading Michigan with 25 points and 14 rebounds, although his counterpart, Burke, is getting all the recognition for that one shinning moment. Now, to be logical, McGary still is growing as a player and he’s not a star at the very moment, but he’s quickly bursting into view. The basketball program basically has been retransformed into a national power of the Big Ten, bigger than its little brother, Michigan State, a team that could meet No. 1 overall seed Louisville in the Midwest Regional Finals.

But, in the meantime, Michigan is buoyed by Burke, a vocal leader of this team, and more notably, a factor on offense. He’s having as much fun as ever, and he has encouraged fans to serenade the Wolverines with “Go Blue!” chants, especially when Michigan perpetuated an unimaginable run. All along, Burke’s coach, John Beilein had confidence that he could produce in big moments, and surely, he managed the mental state and tension of an important game nicely.

The fun will continue for Burke and the rest of his teammates when Michigan, a heavy-favored team to make the Final Four, will have a chance to make noise and counter the defensive-minded Gators or Florida Gulf Coast, the darlings of this year’s NCAA tournament. And, more generally, Michigan finished by making the boldest and loudest statement and by getting national regards, advancing deeper into a compelling NCAA tournament. The man of the night was Burke, despite that he was scoreless and struggling in the first half. He’s a Columbus native who grew up a Buckeyes fan, but was not recruited by Ohio State and blossomed into a star at Michigan, becoming the ultimate centerpiece.

All around him are players, contributing and playing collectively, but obviously, from the progress Burke has made this season alone, Beilein gave the reins to his sophomore. That’s what happens when a team’s star player evaporates and plays with confidence after maturing and staying poised and patient, which usually convinces the coach that a player is capable of taking charge. He’s now a floor general, a focal point for Michigan, leading the team the deepest it has been in ages, and with his second half performance, he strengthened his credentials. If he’s aiming to forgo his junior season for the pros, then he may have even enhanced his NBA draft stock, which seems to be the least on his mind — focused on winning the school’s first national since 1989.

This year, Michigan looks like the menace of March, with one of the most prolific backcourts in college basketball. It’s exactly the kind of basketball fans have been craving and there’s a good chance Michigan will be cutting down a net, making it to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1994. If the Wolverines walk over the Cinderellas of the tournament or even beat No. 3 Florida on Easter Sunday, a game projected to be just as spectacular as what we’ve witnessed, then Michigan will advance to the Final Four and could cut down the nets in Atlanta, Ga. In a year that anyone can win it all, given the parity and talent of the remaining teams, No. 4 Michigan might just be the team to make it happen.

It’s now time for Dick Vitale to gush over Michigan, then Louisville, then Ohio State, then Wichita State, then maybe Duke.

There will always be surprises, of course, and Michigan happens to be one of those surprises in the 2013 NCAA tournament, refreshing our memories of the Fab Five era, whether the players were scintillating or infamous.

One day, we will look back at Trey Burke.

One day, we will remember Trey Burke. And they will talk about him for many years.

Monday, March 25, 2013

There’s No Mirage: La Salle Dances Through Tourney

The cutest, most lovable team is dancing to the Sweet 16 certainly eager to stun crazed fans of its astonishing, jaw-dropping tournament run, looking to upset No. 9 Wichita State and create a memory of a journey no one imagined. After enduring a week of skepticism about not being the heavy-favored team to advance past No. 4 Kansas State and beat No. 12 Ole Miss 76-74 on Sunday, the Explorers generated as much attention as George Mason and Davidson a few years ago.

It’s a Cinderella story — presumably the cunning team from the Atlantic 10 Conference, the coolest underdog other than Florida Gulf Coast. Yet as much as La Salle’s miracle is ignored from Tyrone Garland hitting a floating layup in traffic with 2.5 seconds remaining to send the Explorers to the next round, La Salle poses a threat in the NCAA tournament. The striking, euphoric tale of a little school from Philadelphia elevating to contenders has become a national power with its epic, mind-blowing stories — the school’s deepest run since 1955.

The insults of La Salle’s incredible, historical victories are not a surprise when the school is not recognized as a powerhouse from the Atlantic 10 Conference and, with all the disrespect, the Explorers are unnoticed and undiscovered. Just like that, after two decades of gloom and murkiness, La Salle sets out on a Cinderella run. With La Salle portrayed to be perhaps the scariest and toughest out of the tournament, beating and sending high-seeded teams packing, the Explorers have a scintillating backcourt with the likes of Garland and Ramon Galloway. The darlings of March, forgotten or not, have morphed into contenders in the month of Madness. The cuddly creatures of March, undervalued or not, will take the floor with high hopes and elevate the program to the ranks of perennial schools quickly to emerge in a tournament of agony and ecstasy.

This is immensely a team that comprise of more than just sleepers or bracket killers but believers and winners, which specifies just how well equipped and crafty the Explorers really are in a tourney where they can make one of the deepest runs among Cinderella teams. For those who follow college basketball religiously every spring, it has been another magical, compelling March Madness, as it is normally with a few unexpected teams that sometimes creep into the Final Four. This year, it happens to be La Salle, a Philly team some have actually fallen in love with after surviving Boise State in the First Four, the Wildcats and then after surprising America in the Round of 32, ending what could have been a treasured Cinderella tale for Mississippi as well.

The love of an underdog captivates American, maybe even American pop culture, enduring the beauty of underdogs and upsets to become really intrigued by the compelling stunners that leave fans speechless and shocked. This is a March Madness made of chills and thrills, and maybe even an instant classic. By night’s end, La Salle had celebrated something worthwhile, something that meant a lot to the school and those players who aren’t intimidated and believes they can win it all, dance with glee, cut down the nets and hold the trophy.

The accomplishments of the little guy are something America has become fascinated with, and incredibly, the underdogs contend against the big guys while having a “take on the world” mentality. The underdogs, amazingly, gives us a story and millions gather at fraternity houses, workplaces or bars to root for the little folks, witnessing the emergence of the precious underdogs — David trumping Goliath. That’s what America likes to see, falling in love with La Salle quickly, and now that brackets are destroyed all over the nation, why not root for the Explorers?

And after a big win, hope floated in the minds of the little people and they are now dreaming of the ultimate prize. We like to believe that this tourney has a way of hypnotizing our minds and that underdogs can be decided on the basis of unquestioned talent and sheer domination, which defines La Salle, an underemphasized school that has been belittled for struggling in the second half of the prior two games — although the Explorers somehow survived.

There’s much pleasure in watching Garland, the Virginia Tech transfer who was raised in Philly. The shot he made was a well-timed floater, a game-winning bucket in a thrilling third-round contest in the West Region that sent La Salle to the Sweet 16. Trailing by five with 4:18, La Salle was able to take advantage of Ole Miss’ abysmal free-throw shooting. The hot shooting from Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson, who scored 40 points in two games, wasn’t enough to grind it out. With time winding down, La Salle tied the score at 74 with 31 seconds remaining. The ball went to La Salle on the next possession following Ole Miss’ shot-clock violation but Henderson said he was fouled on that play. The game ended with La Salle’s Tyreek Duren dribbling the ball up the floor, burning as much clock, dribbling to his left and dishing off to Garland. The 6-foot-1 guard drove into the paint and delivered a right-handed floater.


What we are about to witness is sweeter in the round of 16 teams, maybe the best you could ever have, with La Salle believing it can beat anybody it plays in the upcoming weeks. For those who don’t believe, the Explorers are real, not bothered by the insults of being called a Cinderella team when the Explorers feel they deserve to be regarded as top contenders. If things turn out right for La Salle, a school that was guided by a Philly basketball legend Tom Gola and won a national title in 1954, it would be a dream come true and a run you don’t get often in this tournament.

The Explorers are still not the overwhelming favorites to even reach the Final Four but La Salle coach, John Giannini, insisted that his team was more than just a “Cinderella,” a tag annexed to his Explorers. Legitimately, Giannini stimulated and strengthened his own players. Giannini, who earned his PhD in sports psychology, has never been to the NCAA tournament, let alone the Sweet 16 in his nine years at the school.

The most La Salle ever settled for was the NIT — National Inferior Tournament — and wouldn’t ever advance further than the first round. Emboldened by his words and brilliant coaching, his players amazingly played with a purpose and has not been denied of unthinkability of a run that signifies the joy of the moment. There will be discussion about La Salle winning its play-in game, flashing back to ancient history of a storied program from decades and decades ago.

A year from now, we will remember La Salle’s incredible joy ride, no matter how long it lasts.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Kansas Overcomes Tough Obstacles, Shows Resilience

It ended with Kansas coach Bill Self meeting North Carolina’s Roy Williams to give him a friendly handshake, and then he chortled and smiled with his players near mid-court. It ended with Williams walking out of the tunnel, long after his players and assistants, long after a Kansas party erupted in the Sprint Center. It wasn’t bad, couldn’t have been to hear from a fan base that still appreciates Williams, who can tell us plenty of stories about his Kansas days.

Much to Williams’ chagrin, who is 0-3 lifetime against Self and Kansas since taking the UNC coaching job in 2003, the Tar Heels lost a comfortable lead by the second half. All around him, fans kindly stood and praised the former Jayhawks coach. But an emotional Williams, as usual whenever UNC can’t beat the Jayhawks in the NCAA tournament, sits at the podium during news conferences and congratulates Kansas, while he talks about a disappointing end of another season.

It started with sloppy plays for the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks on both ends of the floor. Early on, things were bad enough and couldn’t get any worse for Kansas, a team many national experts picked to make the Final Four. The game was boring and slow, uneventful and uninteresting in the first half. The coach’s stare was edgy. Self was hysterical and uneasy, and he nervously walked back and forth on the sidelines, without even sitting and having a drink to settle down.

With Kansas struggling early, Self was gesturing to his players and encouraged them to loosen up and find a rhythm. The gutsy 70-58 win late Sunday afternoon against eighth-seeded North Carolina was followed by the ballsy victory over No. 16 Western Kentucky in the first round. And like most successful teams, resilience just makes the Jayhawks stronger as a team. The depth and talent has been working to Kansas’ advantage, a senior-laden team pursuing the ultimate goal, which is to win a national title. If they win a trophy and cut down the nets, it would be Self’s second national title.

Kansas, however, might be the most dangerous team in this tournament and certainly is up for the task, realizing that another trip to the Final Four is at stake, along with potentially another back-to-back national title appearance. The rulers of basketball are the Jayhawks — a perennial national power of college basketball, winning five of the last seven Big 12 tournaments, despite falling victim to the biggest upsets in tournament history to both Northern Iowa and VCU.

Great teams overcome adversity. Great teams grind out victories and endure to the end. Great teams find ways to rally and show that resilience is the result of success and building late momentum. That’s exactly what Kansas was able to do against the Tar Heels. With each victory, the Jayhawks have become stronger and more efficient. It was not Kansas’ best game, I assure you, but it was enough to survive and beat North Carolina for the second straight year, and the Jayhawks will advance to the Sweet 16 and will face No. 4 Michigan in Arlington, Texas, on Friday.

It wasn’t pretty that seven-foot center Jeff Withey, the nation’s best shot-blocker, was not intimidating and a factor inside the paint to start. There were simply too many turnovers and missed shots. They were lucky to be within striking distance and not trailing by many by the end of the first half. They couldn’t make a jump shot in the opening 20 minutes against North Carolina. It took them about 22 minutes to snap out of a shooting drought, and Kansas had the worst shooting percentage in a half, only shooting a staggering 25 percent.

By assuming that the slow start scared thousands of panic-stricken fans, though fans were confident and hopeful the Jayhawks would turn it around in the second half, one could only wonder whether or not Kansas was on the verge of a disappointing ending. The Jayhawks were sluggish, torpid and clumsy, turning over the ball 17 times, barely settling for put backs and a couple of dunks. Surely, you saw the Jayhawks’ best player Ben McLemore finish 2 for 14 from the field in two tournament games. He’s one of Kansas’ top scorers, but he wasn’t playing like it, scoring like it, and mostly, he was missing shots by taking ill-advised ones. And surely, you saw Kansas guard Elijah Johnson shoot 2 for 12. There was a universal sense, both for national experts and Kansas’ fans — that Johnson was not a five-star player — that he’d oftentimes struggle and receive unwarranted criticism from thousands of critics.

Self wasn’t too happy and pleased with what he saw in the first half. So then he followed his team into the locker room and, without a doubt, delivered a message to his players. His team’s lack of effort and poor ball execution had been formidable, but whatever he said to his players during the half, it was enough to wake up everyone. By that, he gave them one of his halftime speeches, a coaching strategy Self exercised, especially when Kansas failed to play effectively in the first half of a contest. At halftime, Kansas trailed by nine points and the night was so nerve-racking, so excruciating and then it was so tantalizing.

And perhaps most incredibly, Kansas finally drilled jump shots. The first three-pointer of the tournament, after 13 consecutive misses over two games, was buried by Travis Releford and it was a game-changing shot and might have given the Jayhawks momentum in what turned out to be dramatic. Had it not been for Releford the Jayhawks could have been eliminated in the Round of 32, but he made the team’s first three-pointer after Kansas had gone without a three for the first time in 201 games against Western Kentucky. As it happened Withey, whose toughness and confidence soon became contagious, grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds.

This kind of thing happens in March and that’s excitement and thrills, such was Kansas running the Tar Heels out of the building by scoring 31 points in nine and half minutes. It came down to who had the most energy and who was the strongest and hungriest. Turns out it was Kansas. With a Sweet 16 berth at stake, Kansas shot the ball efficiently, limited turnovers and played smart, perpetuating a 35-12 run and turned the game into a pep rally for the crowd.

The Kansas seniors, including the rest of the team, are well coached, to be sure, and don’t want to go home empty-handed. At the right time, Releford, who is a defensive specialist, was on fire, scorching the nets and finishing with 22 points. It’s time for all of us to realize that Kansas is a tough out. Before we discount KU, realize they have size with Withey, who blocked five shots and had a double-double, giving him a total of 43 swatted shots in his NCAA career, second all-time behind Tim Duncan in the postseason.

Holy smokes.

Now that the top-seeded Kansas has shown it can overcome obstacles, Self’s team is definitely a dangerous out.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ben Howland May Have Reached His Expiration Date at UCLA

The month of March is described as madness at UCLA because it’s when the Bruins usually wave goodbye under Ben Howland, a coach who has been under heat and scrutiny lately for not having much success in the NCAA tournament. The dreaded ending is something we’ve typically seen coming, and it seems every national expert picked Minnesota as the upset pick over No. 6 UCLA.

If you were UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, then, how tough would it be to face a decision on whether or not to dismiss and lean toward replacing Howland? This 83-63 loss to 11th-seeded Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament was the sign of a reign coming to an end, and rumor has it he won’t return for his 11th season. The truth is, he has past his expiration date to coach UCLA and couldn’t ever bounce back after falling to Florida in the national title game in 2006 and then suffering two heartbreaking losses in the Final Four appearances. This was supposed to be a moment to shine, celebrate another trip to the Final Four and represent the unvalued Pac 12 conference.

If this was another one of those magical UCLA teams, the kind we’ve seen advance to the Final Four and write miraculous stories — a UCLA library of books with stories to tell — it certainly wasn’t a story to be told this year, and in reality, Howland’s tenure is coming to an end. There is a slight chance Howland probably coached his final game as a UCLA head coach after a decade of accomplishments and disappointments. He is the biggest reason the Bruins had three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006-2008, despite falling short in all three trips. He is the biggest reason UCLA rolled to 25 wins and won the Pac-12 regular-season title, the most victories the Bruins had since winning 26 in 2008-09.

For the Bruins, this year at least, March Madness was March Sadness and UCLA was eliminated from the tourney early. Once again, before tip off Friday night, UCLA wasn’t favored by every metric. There is a problem that can’t be solved until Howland is escorted out of the door and to his car. This is definitely a moment to rebuild and recreate a brand that defines the late John Wooden, an all-time UCLA great who built a pyramid of success. No one will ever come close to Wooden obviously. But you know — like I know — that this is a deep and talented team.

The brilliance of bringing together one of the nation’s top recruiting classes by UCLA’s polarizing coach is overlooked because of Howland’s conservative style of coaching and a suffocating defense. Either his players aren’t listening to him or he can’t coach five-star studs. If that was the case Friday night, Howland might be the one critics point fingers at, following a blowout loss that raises much concern about his job status. The Bruins seem to be in opposite directions and yet Howard landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class.

As we’ve seen so many times from other programs, the Pauley Pavilion was renovated but UCLA was barely making progress at home, winning a bulk of its games on the road. Before we judge, he represented UCLA with class and dignity but couldn’t give what a demanding program was anticipating as an ambassador who was once admired by a community that truly was confident that he would restore the general principles of success and pedigree. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Obviously he’s not Wooden.

There’s your hit for what had gone wrong at UCLA, definitely bringing forth a discussion that became old as time progressed, that annoyed fans and had everyone speculating about Howland’s job status. This might be the time he won’t make it through this latest fiasco, and won’t be given another shot to rid the failures he and the Bruins have encountered lately.

For a very long time now, his players have done their own thing and detached themselves from Howland, with an attitude that it was their way or nobody else’s way. The bad thing is, Howland’s inability to bond and inspire his players has divided the team and affected the Bruins’ performances in the past four seasons. In a postgame news conference in front of reporters, after a painful ending to what could lead to a divorce, he couldn’t answer the last question.

“Do you think you’ve coached your last game as UCLA coach?” he was asked.

“No comment,” he said.

Meanwhile Howland is still employed, saying all the right things to salvage his job year after year, when the program can wave goodbye and begin a coaching search for someone who is worthy to take on a challenging task. But, we can only hope that he won’t return next season. The way the athletic department figures it, for business purposes, this will be Howland’s last season. That, by the way, means UCLA will buy out his $2.3 million contract. So maybe he could have saved his job only by getting the Bruins to the regional semifinals, having missed the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive year.

Now, because he failed to build on his three Final Four appearances, he’s being pushed out the door. Easy thing would be to cut ties with someone who is described as a control freak, and even when he’s responsible for the letdowns at UCLA, fans behind the Bruins bench gave him a standing ovation in his final moments. It’s too bad freshman point guard Jordan Adams’ season-ending foot injury in the Pac-12 tournament derailed a season and even possibly ended Howland’s tenure. At the beginning of a miserable night, the Bruins were in a drought and failed to score a point in the first four minutes.

And while Larry Drew III and Shabazz Muhammad were missing easy layups, you have to wonder whether or not if his players ever respected him. It was late in the first half when the UCLA starters made their first field goal. By halftime, the Bruins had nine turnovers and missed an array of shots. Then in the second half, the Bruins were still in the game while Minnesota made nine threes and blew open its largest lead. It was more disgusting to see Muhammad, who is UCLA’s leading scorer, miss all seven shots in the first half and never really find a groove.

I happen to like Howland and mainly thought he was good for UCLA and its program. For instance, I defended him over the years while former UCLA big man Bill Walton recently called for Howland’s coaching job, which a bevy of growing critics continues to pick apart his slow, methodical offensive sets and poor clock management of the game. The criticism of Howland won’t ever cease and certainly not after the Bruins were eliminated in the first round of a tournament they once were allowed to brag and celebrate about — after a long history of dominance and Final Four trips. These haven’t been easy times for the Bruins, and especially not for Howland, whose job security could be in jeopardy.

The program embodies the essence of extraordinary traditions and achievements, but lately the team has had poor discipline and lack of leadership from players who performs individually and selfishly, not playing as a team and pouring on effort. The whole idea of having a coach is to recruit brilliantly and build a competitive athletic program, and while Howland has accumulated talent, the Bruins have floundered to find ways to win when it counts.

A nation of fans lost no sleep when Tubby Smith’s Golden Gophers routed UCLA and sent a distinguished program back home to Westwood, California, where fans clad in classic blue and gold were cheering for the Bruins, who usually makes the tournament and rarely misses the action in the month of March.

Logic is, Howland’s UCLA career has been a great run but it is essentially over.

Leaving fans wondering, once again, will he return?

My guess is no.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Barry Larkin's Son, Shane, Classy, Athletic Just Like Dad

The kid is here to endure the madness and mayhem of March, for the first time, as a Miami point guard. The bright lights from a baseball field that shone directly over home plate had fascinated Shane Larkin, taking swings in the cage with Tony Perez and Pete Rose and spending time with his dad and every Cincinnati player as a young kid.

For as long as he can remember -- back in early childhood -- Shane imitated Perez in his at-bats, wiggling his wrist and emulating the leg kick. When he was 5 or 6, he was sure to be a baseball player, and follow his dad's footsteps. Growing up going to spring training with his father, Larkin wasn't enamored with baseball like his father.

Deion Sanders, who was multi-athletic and played in the big leagues, gave him the nickname SugaShane. Inside the clubhouse, he walked around wearily, laughed and joked around with his dad's teammates and chewed all the bubblegum. While he looked on during games, he would dribble his basketball in the Reds' dugout.

Soon enough Larkin, the son of former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Barry Larkin, could drain a breathtaking, game-winning shot to send his team to the Final Four in Atlanta, Ga., and in the meantime, whether the Hurricanes are bracket killers or not, he's stepping onto the court with a chance to reach the ultimate goal as a player. And yet, he pursued a different game to play, he chose basketball and now he's a star for the Miami Hurricanes.

He's the son of 12-time All-Star, a former NL MVP and a Hall of Famer. The kid mostly ran down fly balls blasted to him at spring training, and eventually he was eligible to play in a coach-pitch baseball league. At age 7, when he roamed the outfield and scaled the outfield wall, he made his decision, a smart decision. From that point on, he was dribbling a ball and shooting hoops, no longer jumping and kicking off the wall and then trying to catch a ball.

When he was in elementary school, the Reds began giving him tips on hitting and conditioning him for the big leagues, but then he returned home to Orlando, Fla., and his Little League coach turned him away from the sport by criticizing his swing. He gave up on baseball, but his father passed athleticism onto his son, so daddy is still proud and attends every game his son plays.

He couldn't believe it. Barry recalls the day his son told him he no longer wanted to play baseball. He was young, wealthy and gifted, deeply in love with baseball and was lucky enough to make a living as a pro athlete, while his son was just introduced to the game. Barry's greatest surprise was his son turning down the game, in frustration. There has been almost nothing but good fortune for him ever since he began playing basketball.

More than that, Barry remembers being incredibly upset and disappointed that he quit baseball. This was a chance for him to move out of his dad's shadows -- to make his own decisions. He had another goal in mind, and just like his father but in a different sport, Shane was driven and ambitious to grab a basketball, dribble it down the floor, make plays and finish at the rack. It's not that he chose the wrong sport. He didn't. It's just that he chose a sport opposite of what his father played, and his presence this season turned Miami into a superpower nationally.

It should certainly be noted that Larkin's emergence is the reason Miami began a 6-0 start for its first in conference play in school history. It's true, becoming attached to basketball, baseball had never been Larkin's sport of choice. It's really never been something that interested him because he found it boring and too slow. It was something Barry's son never wanted to pursue. Barry had never known this before, his mind amped up as if his son was the next baseball star of the family.

It turns out that he was the first basketball star of the family, a speedy 5-foot-11 Orlando native who has flourished in the Hurricanes ball-screen offense, scoring 14.6 points and dishing out 4.4 assists a game all season. He's a well-rounded guard, a natural-born talent, the kind of player every coach wants on his team. No one, of course, is more fully developed than Larkin, just as no one can play defense and run Miami's balanced offense better than him. The ball is secured in his hands, he's a playmaker, he hardly ever makes mistakes, and more importantly, he's unselfish with the ball.

His efforts to get his teammates involved in every game, unlike few sophomore players who are selfish sharing the ball and displaying teamwork, exceptionally put together a breakthrough season for the entire program. Larkin, 20, in many ways has emerged as a leader on the court among the four other seniors in the starting lineup. It was his father's idea to instill leadership qualities in him, for whatever he decided to work towards in life, which was becoming a stud in basketball.

For too long, we have ignored Miami in the ACC and respected Duke and North Carolina -- the Hurricanes are suddenly a national power, and deservingly they are a Final Four contender on a number of NCAA Tournament brackets, including mine. So it could be he took a detour and knew he had potential to be a premier star in basketball, with his solid ball handling, with his knack and love for the game -- zealous and keen, but respectively a skilled superstar.

It's time, now that Miami claimed its first ACC Tournament championship and earned a No. 2 seed, that we realize Larkin has grown into one of the nation's top point guards under veteran coach Jim Larranaga, who was most notably for guiding George Mason to 13 straight winning seasons. There's no doubting that Larkin has been taught and groomed by his father, as a kid, and has played with such passion and energy.

They are talking about him, reading about him, so everybody knows who Larkin is by now -- a burgeoning star in basketball, and the University of Miami Hurricanes are one of the biggest success stories of this tournament. All season, loudly, the Hurricanes have played tournament-style basketball with the grinding effort that makes them a potential Final Four threat. And Larkin has blossomed into one of top point guards in college hoops, and his team, the Hurricanes, finished the regular season with a 27-6 record and went 15-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

On Friday, the Hurricanes who were ranked fifth nationally in the poll will begin on the road to the Final Four. They will play against No. 15 seed, Pacific, in the East region of the NCAA Tournament. It's fair if you believe, as I do, that he's a more efficient basketball star than he is a baseball player, judging by his success on the hardwood where he's led Miami's charge to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference. In Chicago, DePaul wasn't the place he called home, and coach Oliver Purnell was trying to rebuild around him, but Larkin bailed out and transferred to Miami where he became the centerpiece for Larranaga.

It was Shane's decision to focus on basketball and not baseball. The coolest thing about Larkin is that he treats the game like an exam, and when he plays like a superstar that he is, he scores big and leads the Hurricanes to a positive outcome. It is especially all so familiar to Barry, who, like others, raised an athletic and classy son with the desire to succeed and the urge to reach his potential, but more importantly, to lead Miami to a national title.

The Hurricanes, for once in school history, are relevant in college hoops of Larkin's breakout season. The focus remains on school for the sophomore who decided to return for his junior season, staying in college and not making the jump to the NBA.

The son of a retired baseball player better put his shoes on. It's about to get good.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Hard To Stomach What Happened at Steubenville

There is nothing more devastating or catastrophic, and nothing more disturbing and upsetting than what happened at Steubenville.

This was profoundly an awful story involving two high school football players who not only destroyed their football careers, but their lives by using poor judgment and by choosing the wrong path. Judge Thomas Lipps found Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond guilty Sunday of raping an intoxicated 16-year-old girl.

The defendants were sentenced to a minimum of one year in a juvenile correctional institute, but Mays received an additional year for transmission of nude photos, which he will serve after his rape sentence is completed. It’s often someone is found guilty of rape, but it’s not often that teenage boys are charged for sexual assault.

It’s an unbelievably sad, sad story, the worst tragedy involving kids. It is also an example of what could happen to those who sexually assault someone. It’s also a way of cracking down on rape and sex offenders, something that needs to be taken seriously.

What happened at Steubenville, a public high school in Ohio, sends a strong message to children who may have attempted to attack, dominate and express masculinity through sex crimes against women. The outrage of a troubling case grabbed national attention, and because sexual assaults are more common especially in high school and college, it should have taught every high school student about the severity of sexual assault, just as parents should instill in their children a sense of responsibility and stability.

Much of the media attention has focused on this case, and for good reason, considering that these are teenagers who chose to ruin their lives, their family’s lives and those victims’ lives. It’s hard to forget and, without a sense of sympathy for the convicted Steubenville rapists, rape culture will haunt Mays and Richmond for the rest of their lives.

There is zero chance they will ever play football again. Sadly, the real problem these days is that rape involving athletes turns into a sports story. It’s a small community, where everybody knows everybody and where football is the identity.

One day soon, maybe even a couple of years from now, they can be motivated speakers and enlighten high school football players about the realities of rape and lecture to them about rape culture.

They can make a difference in their communities, by encouraging student-athletes to not take the same path, long after their juvenile sentences — promising careers that are forever destroyed. It’s a trial that featured all sorts of sickening, outrageous testimony about everyday teenage behavior and it shocked the world, a trial of which was in the spotlight nationally and a rape scandal that was so disgraceful and despicable.

The case of two teenagers, no doubt, embarrassed and polarized a town of almost 20,000 in Ohio, but it’s the moment when America must stress the danger of rape. It’s a good thing that a disturbing case is exposed in the sports world, even though the Steubenville rape is very uncomfortable and so repugnant.

It’s awful what happened at Steubenville. It’s an event I hate to talk about since watching negativity on the news all the time, a feeling that makes me numb, a feeling that angers me as I express my deepest sympathy to the 16-year-old victim. It’s beyond alarming what’s happening today, and what happened at Steubenville can happen anywhere and to anyone. This isn’t about football but two teenagers who played the game, which turned out to be a sports story.

This isn’t about football but it involved two football players, which turned a story into an endless chronicle in sports sections of newspapers and on sports websites, when in fact, there was one website that had an article that featured on the front page with a picture of Mays’ and Richmond’s face.

But it’s not a sports story. It never was. It was a story about real life, and what’s happening every day in a troubled society.

Yet, through it all, thankfully, the Steubenville story was a teachable moment for teens, an eye-opener.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Take My Advice: Pencil In Louisville, Gonzaga

March is the month when we fall in love with college hoops. It’s a birthright, in America, to fill out tournament brackets, and then witness the suspense, the excitement and thrills, the disappointments and underdogs of college basketball. Our infatuation with underdogs and the best tournament in all of sports captivates our heart and souls, grabbing the attention of all men and bringing offices together with conversations about the madness near the water cooler and the boxes of Dunkin Donuts on the back table.

The madness is upon us, and the irony of the game today is at a time when it is not as fun to watch with college hoops becoming a one-and-done system, the annual rite of spring still overwhelms employees in the office. All next week, no doubt, March Madness pools will generate attention and productive employees will stop what they are doing in the workplace. March will always be fun because of thrilling upsets, breathtaking finishes and the influence of brackets.

The real fun of March Madness, whether the program is an underdog or a favorite, is the interesting match ups and the drama. This year’s tourney, clearly, is intriguing, with solid match ups and refreshing storylines. This has been a crazy season of college basketball, and since college basketball is so unpredictable in March, here are the keys to filling out those NCAA Tournament brackets.

Top Contender In the Country: Louisville

By now, you should be sharping your pencils and choosing Louisville to prevail in a tough Midwest Region. There appears to be no one who can beat the Cardinals, a No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, a 28-5 squad, a favorite to punch a ticket to Atlanta, Ga. and win an NCAA tournament. The Cardinals ended the season on a tear, with an astonishing turnaround after Notre Dame upset Louisville 104-101 in a five-overtime thriller back in February, winning 10 straight games and capturing the Big East title, the school’s second straight.

You never know about March Madness — Louisville will emerge as a Final Four team. It’s possible coach Rick Pitino’s team is the deepest that he’s had during his tenure at Louisville. Have you seen Louisville lately? If not, it’s the hottest team in the nation and senior Peyton Siva, an efficient point guard who had 11 points and eight assists to lead No. 1 Louisville to a 78-61 victory over No. 19 Syracuse on Saturday night, is the heart and soul of the Cardinals.

There’s absolutely no sense to discount the Cardinals from the Final Four or even call the team a disappointment, because this season is their time to cut down the nets and raise the trophy. So there’s a sense that the Cardinals, having defensive-minded center Gorgui Dieng who was recruited out of Senegal, are the team to beat and no team in their region stands a chance against them. It’s a team you would, well, respect in this tournament, when the Cardinals are well-coached and play fundamentally sound, when the Cardinals have the No. 1 defense and the No. 15 offense, run by Siva who speeds up the tempo and then there’s two-guard Russ Smith who presses and pushes in transition, accelerating and finishing at the rack.

Louisville, fast and experienced, thrives on turnovers and moves the ball along in transition for points. The road to Atlanta seems realistic for Louisville, but it won’t be easy. They will have their work cut out for them against eighth-seeded Colorado State or ninth-seeded Missouri, who are among the nation elites, and then later in the regional title game they can either meet No. 2 Duke or No. 3 Michigan State. The last time Pitino won a national title was in 1996 at Kentucky, and the Cardinals have the recipe for success.

It probably won’t even matter now, as Louisville has an elite defense, who they will play throughout the tournament. And now the Cardinals, forcing 59 turnovers in victories over Villanova, Notre Dame and Syracuse, have been penciled in, and as a result, the NCAA selection committee rewarded Louisville the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region. The committee was right, no matter how many people disagree, no matter how many people think they will be a major disappointment. The committee made a good choice, whether you like it or not. It’s Louisville. And guess what? My bold prediction: Louisville advances to the Final Four and wins the 2013 national title. Yeah, and so what if I’m wrong?

What if I’m right?

Gonzaga Is No Easy Out

In the West Region, I like the Gonzaga Bulldogs. If you don’t have Zaga going to the Final Four, you don’t know college basketball. That’s the truth, and sometimes, the truth hurts. The chalk it is for No. 1 Gonzaga, who may play No. 2 Ohio State in the West Regional in Los Angeles. There are no secrets to the way Zaga has dominated all season to be rewarded a No. 1 seed, and longtime coach Mark Few has done an amazing job in turning the Bulldogs into a national brand. Will it happen this time?

It’s a much different team this year, and even the vibes are good for those who are Zag fans, cheering on and believing in the Bulldogs. Get past Ohio State, and we can move on and talk Final Four, such as 7-foot center Kelly Olynyk. The Bulldogs star is Olynyk, a versatile Canadian who can play forward and maybe even shooting guard, averaging 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. It’s a Gonzaga team that can beat anybody in its path. There’s no way — at least I don’t see it — that the Bulldogs will obliterate brackets with a stunning loss in the first round.

Keep your eyes on Louisville and Gonzaga.

They will have a date in the Final Four.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Kobe’s Anger Sets Off Uproar as Dahntay Jones Must Fear Repercussions

It has often been said that Kobe Bryant whines and gripes, and the truth behind it is at a time when the Los Angeles Lakers are beginning to string together much-needed victories to fight for the eighth spot and qualify for the playoffs is that sometimes he’s overly sensitive.

The Black Mamba is the most fearsome creature of the NBA, and maybe he whines and gripes to referees for a no-call or a play that he felt he was fouled. There is much to love about Bryant, just as there is much to dislike about him. That’s because in the NBA he dazzle crowds with his exceptional play, and for the time being, unhindered and ageless, he’s playing his best basketball. The Lakers caught fire, currently in the eighth spot, a potential danger once Bryant is healthy. The Lakers are right where they want to be late in the season, thus far keeping sole possession of the final playoff spot.

If at some point center Dwight Howard put forth dominant performances, like the night of his return to Orlando, the Lakers can be a threat out west — if Jodie Meeks and Antawn Jamison comes off the bench and average double-digit points — there is a chance the Lakers can make a strong run. Those familiar with Kobe, known for publicly ripping his underperforming teammates and known to be outspoken, weren’t flabbergasted when Bryant called Dahntay Jones a “dirty” player and sounded off about having to wait to take vengeance. And, of course, he’s enraged over the incident, staring with an evil glare and bleeding to “get revenge,” as there is beef between the two players.

The rage of the Lakers resident superstar unwrapped on a night that Bryant suffered a severe ankle sprain, angrily criticizing Atlanta Hawks swingman for a distasteful foul and said he was Jalen Rose’d. Bryant will almost surely get him back after suffering an injury that can jeopardize the Lakers season. If he’s not, it will be a surprise, but knowing Bryant payback is coming for Jones.

So did Jones intentionally hurt Bryant? If so, it’s not cool but reckless and cruel, and a number of players from around the league are jumping to Kobe’s defense, calling it a low-down play. He will do something about, and Jones knows there will likely be repercussions. The growing anger and the declining sense of respect, the unfolded bitterness, will bring out another side to him while his injured ankle heals. It won’t undo what’s been done, though, and the damage can’t be repaired. Or, as happened during which rival Raja Bell nearly decapitated Bryant’s head in Game 5 of the Lakers/Suns series in 2006, maybe he won’t hold a grudge against Jones and will choose to move on and may even lobby for him to come play for the Lakers.

He’s not in the best mood, but he will eventually get over it, particularly when he returns to action. And more importantly, when he’s in full health. Following a severe injury to Bryant that could force him to miss action, and surely as he’s a hero in Laker lore, he truly doesn’t want to be listed as being out indefinitely. It is simply more important, more paramount, without risking his health in a game the Lakers can stand a chance with contributions from Steve Nash and Howard, to rest Bryant who is recovering and will hopefully be in good shape for the playoffs if the team holds on to the eighth seed.

The reality is that Bryant is unhealthy, late in the season. The Lakers, whether or not they will admit it, stands around and expects so much of Bryant. Minus the greatest scorer on earth, the best finisher in basketball, it allows the Lakers to believe and have confidence while Bryant watches from the sideline in pain. There is no question that someone else will have to step up and take over offensively until Bryant is healthy.

He has shown that no one will bully or victimize him without him retaliating, or maybe he’s just talking to lash out at Jones, angry and incensed with the way he defended him, giving him an earful when he spoke to the media shortly after being injured on a play that clearly looked spineless. The feeling won’t ever be the same, and without apology, Jones is a loser to Bryant, even if he reiterates that he feels bad and didn’t intentionally try to hurt the Lakers star.

“I didn’t try to intentionally come up under him,” Jones said to ESPN. “I was trying to play as hard as I could, to compete at a high level, to try to help my team win and try to contest the jump shot.

“I didn’t want to give up on the play. I take pride in how hard I compete and not give up on plays, and that’s all I was trying to do. It would be very hard for me in a nine- second span to be able to play defense and gauge where I could get my foot up under his as I’m looking at the ball and trying to contest the jump shot.”

Of course, Bryant was fuming after the game and has not bought into what Jones had to say. He is mad for suffering an injury, for not getting the foul call he asked for late in the game. Bryant is a remarkable talent and had been playing brilliantly, but unfortunately went down with sprained left ankle in the closing seconds of Lakers’ loss to the Hawks. No injury, of course, is truly inevitable in sports, but Bryant said Jones undercut him on a jumper from the wing.

The theater of insanity happened on Atlanta’s home floor Tuesday night involving Jones and Bryant, who came down on Jones’ foot. He does not have the ability to stop Bryant, and in Jones’ effort to defend him, the NBA acknowledged that he fouled Lakers guard. It’s not over, a feud that will probably last until Bryant meets Jones again. Kobe, who never fears anything or anyone, wasn’t afraid to respond and stand up for what he considered was “dirty and dangerous” and, in this case, Jones’ foul on Kobe was dirty. It was not the first time Jones had problems with Bryant on the court. Remember, Jones intentionally tripped Bryant during a playoff game in 2009.

“As defensive players, you can contest shots, but you can’t walk underneath players,” Bryant said. “That’s dangerous for the shooter.”

He later tweeted: “#dangerousplay that should have been called. Period.”

There is anger and there is resentment, neither of which is good for the game. Bryant, clearly sullen and angry over ankle sprain calling it his worst sprain since 2000 when he missed Game 3 of the NBA Finals, has been performing at a high level and willed the Lakers to substantial victories.

With Bryant not even close to approaching the twilight of his career — although he’s considering retiring from the game after his current contract expires to bring an era of distinction and transcendence to an end — it wouldn’t be surprising to see Bryant growling and snarling next time they meet. Since he has the most hideous facial expression in sports, more hideous than Craig Sager’s wardrobe, Bryant might be scorching the net that night and scowling next time he’s on the floor with Jones.

In a time when much is at stake, more than ever, Bryant was playing with toughness and aggressiveness, with a strong supporting cast finally stepping up. In a time when emotions are running high, while Bryant’s passion and obsession for the game still burns, viciously, he won’t back down from anything or anyone. There is nothing, amazingly, Bryant cannot do or say on the court, and to this day, he reigns so dominant and supreme.

The Lakers, which were once favored to make a deep run in the playoffs that even non-Laker fans did not envision the team to be a disappointment, are now poised and focused on a playoff run because of their sense of urgency and determination to play together as a cohesive unit.

Bryant is not too happy, and thinks he was done dirty. Watch out for Bryant’s sharp teeth and fangs. The Black Mamba is seeking payback.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Derrick Rose’s Long-Term Health Top Priority: Don’t Rush It

Maybe the best thing is to realize what can happen to Derrick Rose. Consider this: He returns, suffers a setback in his left knee and misses action next season, not able to save the Chicago Bulls. As much as anything, he is missed greatly by a city that adores Rose more than any other player.

For now, I genuinely believe that he needs to continue to rest and rehab. It’s not what the fans want. It’s what Rose wants. If he feels the time is right to make a return for the first time since suffering a season-ending injury, then he can finally play his first game of the 2012-13 season. There’s been something of an adjustment for the Bulls this season — players had to calibrate their games in the prolonged absence of the star point guard. The injury to Rose left Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau with no choice but to make major adjustments and rely on Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer.

The length of Rose’s delay, as well as the rash of injuries to Bulls’ players, forces Deng and Boozer to score at will for much of the season. The Bulls talent level is diminished, but as we know, Boozer and Deng are important offensively. Without Rose, the Bulls are average. With Rose, the Bulls can meet the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. The majority of Chicagoans are growing antsy and don’t realize that rushing him can jeopardize the superstar guard’s career.

Rose said he’s not fully healthy and would be very limited by the injury, most likely not returning this season, an absence that has fans worrying and begging for him to play before the season ends. Yet in rehabbing and missing nearly the entire season, he’s become the son of Chicago, just as likable as Michael Jordan was during his time spent in the Windy City. The comeback, after all, is not smart and he won’t be helping himself by rushing back.

Therefore, returning too soon and re-injuring himself as the team is not favored in the Eastern Conference this season, with or without Rose, is a no-win situation. He’s mostly the superstar of the Second City, but unlike fans who refuse to wait patiently and until he fully recovers after having knee surgery, Rose knows what’s best for him. It’s clear he’s not comfortable and won’t likely play on Friday, as most anticipated and yearns for his comeback.

Rose, for one, is thinking long-term priority over titles at the moment on team that his services are needed desperately and he certainly is capable of carrying the Bulls, a responsible and skilled player who will embrace his role as the top-scorer, if not one of the best point guards in the league. There’s no timetable set for his return, but he’s getting healthier, and the worst that can happen is that he’s rushed back too soon. Now he just needs to take precautionary actions, and not worry about satisfying an impatient and crotchety group of Chicago fans.

If he came back today, he could inflict more pain, and maybe, just maybe, his surgically repaired knee is not in good condition, even when he’s making progress in his recovery. Then he’s mentally and physically not quite set to play, but when he’s fit, he will return. Since no one else seems inclined to say it, well, then, I will say it. Reality is Rose, who puts the Bulls in good position to win a championship, is not 100 percent — a notion that he’s still overcoming a severe injury.

There is no other team in basketball that misses its star player more. Rose, on the other hand, is far more concerned about the organization long-term, and by trusting him, he’s surely thinking with good sense. It could be to the Bulls disadvantage if he weakens other muscles and bones in his body or even re-injures his knee, which is likely to happen if he’s not careful.

The fastest path, after all, for a sudden return, is to work hard and regain full strength. And yet, every time Rose is expected to return, or tries to save the Bulls season, it’s uncertain as to whether he will be bothered by any remaining effects from his left knee. Realizing that Rose had surgery to repair a tear to the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee on May 12, he still has no return date, and by stating that he doesn’t, it would be nice for the loyal fans to respect Rose’s wishes.

So rushing for him to deliver and make a bigger statement in the Eastern Conference is not very smart among fans, teammates and coaches. If he’s not ready, why allow him to play during his rehabilitation and risk further damage to his knee? If he’s not ready, why force him into the starting lineup, which is uncertain given the seriousness of Rose’s ACL tear? The doctors cleared Rose to play, but he won’t return until he can confidently dunk off his left foot, so fans will just have to wait.

For obvious reasons, the Bulls are confident he will return this season and hopes for a mid-March return, but folks in the city are emotionally attached to Chicago’s finest. The face of the city is Rose, and the Bulls are clearly the only pro franchise in town that fans show affection for, but the team won’t win an NBA championship without Rose’s good health. And perhaps more important to the Bulls’ long-term success is having Rose’s presence on the court.

It certainly wasn’t something he had in mind, but only he knows his body and knows the pain he feels. Rose ignores all the fans that try to push him to return right now. He insisted he’d give it more time before he makes a decision, working out on a stationary bike, with Bulls trainer Jeff Tanaka standing by him in the training room. The humble star just needs to gain the proper strength.

With faith and patience, he’s not in a hurry to get back on the court and has taken it day-by-day, step-by-step, going by his own pace. Think about how much he endured since suffering an ACL injury on April 28 — when we celebrated arguably the top point guard in the league, watched him amaze our senses and saw a glimpse of a rising star.

Just think how much better the Bulls will become once he’s fully healthy.

Save him for when he’s really needed. Save him for long-term. In the long run, it might pay off.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Tom Crean Can Lead The Hoosiers To The Final Four

He won’t back down, will he? It’s all about Tom Crean at Indiana University, and the topic at hand — an ongoing topic that has people surprised — is not that serious or newsworthy. Nothing he may ever do should surprise us.

For those who know Crean, he would angrily confront another coach and would exchange words in a heated argument whether it’s a win or loss. For those who don’t know Crean, he’s not a goofy, silly guy.

This is one of the more fun guys in college hoops, someone who knows how to teach players the game and someone who doesn’t take nonsense from his players. He’s a fearless, hard-spoken, irascible guy. For those who haven’t seen him walk on the sideline during the games, he shows that he is vibrant, fierce and intense.

The program has not had a head coach this tough since Bob Knight, a legendary man who was used to constantly getting in trouble for things like throwing chairs, choking a kid and for even head-butting a player.

The Hoosiers, since the Knight-era, have finally found themselves a basketball coach whose attitude fits the program and whose tirades fires up his players. It became clear that Crean is not like everybody else, and from his work-ethic and attitude, he’s treated like a villain but is only an agitator who can get under someone’s skin.

You don’t have to embrace him or like him, but at least admit that he’s not a good coach but a great coach as he’s carrying a team that can win it all with a workable nucleus.

There wasn’t anything wrong with him exchanging words and getting in the face of Michigan assistant Jeff Meyer, once a member of IU’s staff, after the Hoosiers beat the Wolverines.

The confrontation soon ended, but moments later as the handshake line continued on, Crean and Meyer exchanged words in a shouting match after the game. This led to Indiana assistant Tim Buckley stepping in between and restraining the two men.

It was all in excitement, but to keep it under control, Buckley played the peacemaker during a feisty conversation. Crean has been the face of Indiana, one of the finest coaches in the sport.

On Saturday, the same day he had his post-game altercation, the Hoosiers pulled off a stunning, come-from-behind victory for their first undisputed Big Ten title in two decades. So sure, the game ended in dramatic fashion but it also ended with a verbal assault.

That right there could have motivated the Hoosiers collectively and made his players stronger, especially with the mayhem just beginning as March Madness looms. The Big Ten is fun to watch because of Crean and the hard-fought players he’s shaped in five seasons, thanks to his brilliant recruiting and coaching emphasis.

He says what’s on his mind without any hesitation and shows unscripted emotion on the court — he does not always act like a professional, but what matters the most is whether or not Indiana wins games. So far right now, they’ve been successful at that. If he’s around to produce and replenish talent, there’s no doubt the Hoosiers will always be one of the top schools in the nation.

Rather amazingly, in his fifth season, Crean has done an incredible job at Indiana, considering that his first recruiting class was highly regarded to be among the top 20 in the nation.

He’s the guy who rebuilt the Indiana program into a winner and restored what had been defaced after Knight’s departure. The turnaround happened under his watch, and potentially this season — with a rock-solid class that better defines the Hoosiers — Indiana can reach the Final Four.

The Hoosiers, belive it or not, are playing their best basketball, and with Crean’s frenetic demeanor, the program is performing at its highest level. Crean immediately turned Indiana into the talk of college hoops by connecting with his players and teaching the basics and fundamentals of basketball. In a season dominated by the Hoosiers, the only fitting thing was trash-talking from Crean.

It would seem that Crean and Knight have nothing in common, yet their personalities are a bit similar. He’s mentioned in the same breath with Knight, which makes sense in the aftermath of his latest episode on Saturday. Besides being one of the perennial coaches in the nation, Crean is also fiery and vehement and lets his emotions get the best of him every so often.

Long before Crean arrived to Indiana and revived the Hoosiers, ex-coach Kelvin Sampson repeatedly violated NCAA rules regarding phone contact with prospects.

Long before he arrived to Indiana and rescued the fallen program, bringing a sense of humanity back to a spiritless school, the Hoosiers were unable to suit up for the daunting tournament, let alone the Final Four, thanks to Sampson. But Crean, as we can see, fought through five seasons and produced wins, elevating the pristine Indiana from 1-17 to 14-4.

For a school that was a disgrace and in shambles from a cheating scandal, which resulted in a fired coach and a couple of players kicked off the team, Crean was a savior who was crafty and brilliant enough to straighten out the program from the moment he stood on the sideline at Indiana.

There are few coaches who can meet the challenge and tack together one of the most impressive teams in the nation with their recruiting abilities and basketball brilliance, wooing the top prospects in the country to play for the school.

Crean, though, as angry as he was that night, gives credit to Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who pretty much mentored him. For years, Crean was at MSU as an assistant coach and suddenly ventured on his own to earn an eventual coaching job. Crean has undoubtedly gotten under people’s skin and annoyed opposing players and coaches, but it’s worked.

What happened on Saturday wasn’t the biggest deal, and was definitely blown out of proportion. He’s not changing for anybody and won’t ever change his ways. Some coaches are relentless competitors, and Crean is leading the Hoosiers to a place they haven’t been in years.

Better known as a recruiting expert, the native of Michigan is one of those coaches you would like to have around, an individual who is over a team primed for the NCAA tournament. If there was ever a time the Hoosiers would return to greatness between now and the upcoming seasons, it would be the moment with another multitude of prospects arriving next season.

He encourages his players to play mentally tough and portrays himself, by definition, as a genius, developer and motivator. Look up all three of those definitions in the dictionary, and Crean’s picture would appear next to all those words.

The new ruler of the Big Ten is the Hoosiers. After all, Indiana is a Hoosier state. And Crean is the one who is leading them.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Mike Trout Deserves The Money, But He’ll Have To Wait

He’s a humble, likable baseball prodigy. This could easily be the best season for the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, who is one of the most sensational players in baseball. But with Spring Training currently in progress, his agent, Craig Landis is upset over a contract dispute and feels that Trout hasn’t been earning what he’s worth.

Sooner than later, though, Trout’s payday will come. First, he would need another incredible season on the diamond, even though he’s done something rare that most players at his age can’t make happen. Along with that, the Angels renewed his contract for $510,000, and sense that he’s getting what he deserves.

Judging by Trout’s agent, he absolutely knows nothing about the economics of baseball and has no leverage, and therefore he’s mad at a ball club that is unwilling to give the best all-around player in baseball what he may have foreseen and demanded, too.

The Angels, whether he likes it or not, renewed his deal at a low salary. It’s fitting for an organization that has a reputation of being cheap and stingy when it comes to giving a player a mega-sized contract. Fans have seen it often over the years.

It is well-established that Trout, after producing monster numbers in a game obsessed with statistics, hasn’t met the criterion for baseball’s economic structure.

Given his marveled rookie season, couldn’t he have made massive bucks? Certainly, but he and his agent will have to wait until after a couple of seasons for the Angels to restructure Trout’s contract. There has, quite precisely, never been a one-of-a-kind player in baseball like Trout.

On the field, he was awesome — the best rookie the game’s seen in this era, maybe the best rookie ever. Trout, who was called up to the majors from Triple-A back in April 2012, hit .326 with 30 home runs, 49 steals, 129 runs, a .564 slugging average, .399 on-base percentage and .963 OPS.

Right away, he brought so much attention to the Angels last season, blossoming into a rookie sensation practically overnight. He amazed fans in Orange County and even nationwide. That’s pretty amazing for someone who is barely 21 years of age, wouldn’t you think?

Because he’s a player with less than three years of experience and that he’s done it for one year, Trout may be the most underpaid and unappreciated player, making less than most of his teammates, as he’s playing for a minimum.

He would need to hit the ball hard enough to advance base runners, and more importantly, he would need to play a full season in the big leagues to earn a raise from the Angels. His agent can be unhappy all he wants, but the Angels aren’t ready to pay him a raise when he’s just entering his sophomore season.

The time will come to pay the money he’s worth, and as an ultimate sign of respect, the only way to show somebody that they are welcome is by signing them to a hefty deal and locking them up for long term.

He’s still young, but he’s shown he’s a baseball phenom. Trout won Rookie of the Year last season, getting 248 at-bats and joinining the likes of Derek Jeter, Josh Hamilton, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols. It should be convenient that the side to blame is Major League Baseball Player Association, not the Angels. The criticism of the Angels sounds ignorant and irresponsible.

It couldn’t be worst timing, as the Angels are focused on more important things than to hear an agent whine about a player’s salary. It’s a shame Trout’s agent points the finger at Angels owner Arte Moreno, who is very cheap at times but also will overpay players just to buy talent. Jerry Dipoto, Angels general manager, is not culpable either.

What many in this age of baseball don’t quite take into account is pre-arbitration, in which players that can’t always get a large contract usually don’t luck up with one. Presumably because of the system, organizations have the right to pay a player less than the asking price, which means the Angels are the dictators.

As the team that has the lowest-rated form system in the game, the Angels might not have to worry about one of baseball’s prodigies coming from the club’s form system.

No matter a team’s policy, the best hitter and runner in baseball deserves the biggest raise. As much as any baseball team last season, the Angels embraced the notion of handing Trout the challenge of becoming an everyday starter in centerfield.

Had they made the move and called up Trout to play centerfield much sooner, the Angels might have won the AL West. So with that, Trout is the next Angel to earn big money, because in reality, he could have won AL MVP a season ago.

Considering that Miguel Cabrera won last year’s Triple Crown, it was appropriate for him to be named the MVP, as he finished the season by achieving something that hasn’t been captured in decades.

This week, the barrage of outcries initiated by a greedy agent is enough to set off an uproar. The ball club, again, spent massively, shielded that money from Trout and foolishly overpaid for Pujols and Hamilton, forking out $365 million over 15 years on a player whose numbers were in decline for the first year of his 10-year deal, and then another player who has a long history of injuries.

The day after Trout was given his 6.25-percent raise to $510,000, it created a media frenzy. More for the Angels’ sake than his own, he needs to be given the amount he’s due to make by the next couple of seasons. Wherever he goes, if the Angels don’t pay him soon, he’s this generation’s transcendent player.

For now, of course, he’s the generation of Tomorrowland, and he’s not a fantasy. He’s real. He’s good. He’s a hitter and runner. He drilled 30 homers and stole 49 bags.

The question here is not whether he will remain an Angel for a long time, but whether Trout is unhappy about moving to left field, a decision made by manager Mike Scioscia, as Peter Bourjos is expected to start in center field.

Scioscia likes Bourjos' ability to hit and get on base, and since Torii Hunter fled the residents of Disneyland to play for the Detroit Tigers, Trout and Bourjos are Scioscia’s guys.

Yes, he’s unhappy with his contract, but the Angels will eventually buy out Trout’s arbitration years, and perhaps a year of free agency, and then he’ll get $100,000 back. The thing is, Trout won’t be eligible for two seasons, so in the meantime, the star outfielder will continue to amaze us with his baseball greatness.

Our fascination with Trout is growing, especially after what he’s done as a rookie. Being the good kid as he is, Trout will be an Angel for many years to come.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Even When On the Rise, Joe Flacco Isn’t Worth Every Dime

Once maligned, now a superhero, Joe Flacco has earned millions that he can stash in the bank. Once, unappreciated to many, once unconvincing to claim elite status among NFL quarterbacks, Flacco is getting paid like a first-rate quarterback.

The money has finally come, unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the Ravens’ victory of Super Bowl XVII, making Flacco the highest paid player in NFL history, a bloated and ridiculous deal for someone who has only won one Super Bowl championship, even with him emerging into a far more supreme quarterback. The check was issued to Flacco, the unsung hero who is Baltimore’s most accomplished pro quarterback since Johnny Unitas. He is now, unlike Unitas in those days, worth millions.

For Flacco, he’s an endearing superstar, like Unitas, who was never to be matched, the one pro quarterback with a long future in Baltimore. The Ravens and Flacco agreed to a six-year, $120 million contract on Friday. And he became the richest NFL player, pocketing more than Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Peyton and Eli Manning and Drew Brees.

But, in truth, he’s certainly not worth more than $120 million — rewarding a player who still is unproven in a sense, after throwing 11 touchdowns and no interceptions with his best postseason as a starting quarterback. Because he led the Ravens to the team’s second Super Bowl title in 12 years, and because he solidified his status with a remarkable playoff run, Flacco was treated like royalty.

Players are overpaid for underperforming and a lack of effort, but fans fill their wallets. Owners are getting richer and stubborn, but fans pay for tickets. I, for one, am tired of athletes who are unworthy and haven’t nearly accomplished much. In fairness, Brady and the Mannings are all more laudable than Flacco at the moment.

Not to take anything away from Flacco, but he’s only on the rise to becoming a franchise quarterback, and the Ravens moved too fast. Flacco, the fifth-year quarterback, had a breakthrough season but he’s not worth more than Brees, the NFL’s highest-paid player at $20 million a season. There is, of course, Eli Manning in New York. He’s won two Super Bowls, but he’s only earning $106.7 million over seven years. It’s almost unreal, to say the least, that Flacco is getting more than those crowning quarterbacks. He, among others, amazingly takes home all the green. He was rebuked by doubters, and not close to a big payday.

It needs to be said that his regular season statistics aren’t as advertised as Brady’s or Manning’s, but he’s won a Super Bowl ring, hoisted the trophy, then left for a trip to Disney World and then a flight to New York to visit David Letterman. It might not have only been Flacco demanding an outrageous contract from the Ravens, but the person representing him could have been talking the Ravens quarterback into seeking a huge deal. His agent, Joe Linta, has constantly been voicing that his client was a top quarterback and believed he merit an elephant-sized paycheck.

Here’s hoping the Ravens spent wisely and not foolishly on a player who still needs to develop, in the National Football League. We’ll soon find out, but until then we can only speculate as to whether signing him long term and to the richest deal is worthwhile or a bust. With all the pain and suffering in our world, it’s egregious that one person can earn this much money, when there are unprivileged families, starving children and unwed mothers raising kids while struggling financially.

Although he’s not someone you’d expect to see earn the amount he’s now making, Flacco believes he’s the NFL’s best quarterback, appearing on a radio show and boasting about his greatness months ago. If Flacco had lost in the playoffs or even in the Super Bowl, he likely would not have been handed a boatload of money. It would be, however, a disappointment to see him not live up to expectations and not make his reputation as one of football’s most exciting players, while erasing all the doubts.

Like most athletes, he’s getting paid after one of his most memorable wins, entering the prime of his career at age 28. Honestly, this wouldn’t even be a discussion as to whether he’s worthy or unworthy, but because he set the market, it’s an ongoing conversation nationally that has not waned. The deal is bigger than what it really is, although Flacco played a big role in the Super Bowl and played like a star quarterback on the national stage.

It was apparent in that moment that Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti and general manager Ozzie Newsome signed him to a new deal as his previous contract was about to expire. They took a risk with Flacco by restructuring his contract, as the first indication is that he’s truly that good. But, as telling as it is, Flacco is an example of rewards following one major win. All it takes nowadays is an impressive playoff run, and even greater, a championship win. What you fail to realize or acknowledge is that Flacco got hot at the right time.

The organization was manipulated and rushed by Flacco and his agent into signing a mega-sized deal. Flacco and his agent seemed to be the dictators, forcing and pressuring Bisciotti and Newsome to offer the biggest contract on the market. By leading the Ravens there he felt he was worth every dime. The good news for the Ravens is that he delivered a Super Bowl title, winning the MVP with an eye-catching performance. That, by the way, was the main priority for the Ravens, locking up Flacco for a very long time, suddenly convinced that he could bring the team multiple Super Bowl titles. The Ravens, no doubt, are still among the best in the league.

After all that happened on Feb. 3 in New Orleans, it was apparent that the Ravens felt he was instantly a star. But, as it turns out, he’s a superstar who barely was born, a superstar who has not dominated well in the regular season. It’s one thing to join 49ers legend Joe Montana by throwing 11 touchdowns without having a pass intercepted, and become the only quarterback in NFL history to win a playoff game in each of the five seasons to begin his career. It’s quite another to have to duplicate the same kind of performance next season.

Sure he has six postseason road victories as a quarterback. Sure he’s tied with Brady for nine playoff victories in his first five seasons, the most among NFL quarterbacks. The problem is that he’s absurdly overpaid and overly pampered, and his enormous deal puts pressure on him to succeed next season with a team that probably won’t be as good or as lucky. Everybody in Baltimore must not be too concern with the signing and recognizes that Flacco had 63 victories total in the last five seasons, the best during that span.

At some point, he can become a great stud, but at the moment, it’s hard to rank his place in history. It’s hard to base someone’s status, following one remarkable postseason in pro football. Sometime around next season, Ravens fans will know what Flacco is truly about. It’s hard to say he’s worthy of a richer contract. But before anything else, he must win more often and captivate fans during the regular season, as well, not only in the postseason.

This is the same Flacco who has never passed for 4,000 yards in a season or thrown for more than 25 touchdowns. In addition, he’s only completed 60.2 percent of his passes and thrown 102 touchdown passes with 56 interceptions. In this scenario he’s not worth $120 million and will have to make us believe he’s elite, as well as lead the Ravens in the future, without the 2012-13 team if necessary.

Of course, Flacco, who has accomplished much at the apex of his career, won’t turn down cash. And while he’s won unlike Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Matt Ryan, he certainly can use improvement. And as he’s now the team leader, from carrying the team on his shoulders, he’s still not quite there and has a challenging task entering next season.

The offense had flaws, most notably at the quarterback position, especially under fired offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. It was obvious the Ravens needed a change, and sure enough, they flourished under new offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell. Finally, there was a difference offensively. The most obvious turnaround was Flacco, who made smarter decisions with the ball and threw 15 touchdowns to finish the season, finding his go-to receiver Torrey Smith.

While he was out of sync to begin the season, he shouldered the blame for the Ravens’ struggles and then turned it around in the playoffs. When it mattered the most, even though he relied on the Ravens tenacious defense to bail him out at times, Flacco made plays, he executed his plays and connected with his wide receivers.

At the very least, doubters need to take into account that he is getting paid because he took a team to the Super Bowl and won the biggest game. Are the Ravens set for the foreseeable future or not? When the time comes, we’ll know whether or not Flacco is the centerpiece to Baltimore’s blueprint. It’s still uncertain when linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger, cornerback Cary Williams and safety Ed Reed are free agents, and will likely test the market, as the Ravens have a little cap room.

Newsome had no choice but to restructure a deal, or else Flacco would have talked with teams. Newsome was hopeful, and eventually the two sides reached a deal.

But a typical 28-year-old, however, is not worth $120 million.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Oscar Pistorius Murder Shows That Athletes Are Humans Just Like All Of Us

Dear Oscar Pistorius believers,

What I’m about to write is the truth about an inspirational Olympian who let us down. I was, like you, in tremendous shock when the news broke that Pistorius faced a murder charge in South Africa. I happened to believe in Pistorius, and was in defense of the “Blade Runner.”

Why are we taken by surprise? Why not realize that athletes are humans, like the rest of us all over the world? Pistorius, a double-amputee who inspired many by the masses, is shocking because of our perception that he’s a hero and a model of excellence to those with disabilities.

The last thing Pistorius wants, while he’s accused of premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, is for some bitter people to be against him and grasp a sense that he’s a senseless murderer.

He’s used to criticism that he heard all last summer for running with able-bodies as the blades, theoretically, were convenient to try to discourage him from fulfilling a lifelong dream — although he probably doesn’t care what people think about him. But he should be fazed by the murder case that’s giving him a bad name, even if he was built up then suddenly knocked down by the same Olympian cult.

I am shocked by the allegations. I’m stunned by a man who folks all over the world believed in. But why should we be startled? If anything, we should expect a pro athlete to have trouble with the law. We shouldn’t drop our jaws when our beloved pro athletes are involved in a scandal.

He’s like all the rest, after all: an amateur athlete who thinks he’s above the law and failed to realize those before him who were involved in transgressions, as there is a long history of athletes who have disappointed and shocked fans with their poor judgments.

For example, the sex scandal involving Tiger Woods wouldn’t go away for a long time, which caught us by surprise when he was simply, by all accounts, the most manicured, spotless golfer. However, he couldn’t keep his pants zipped and acknowledged that he cheated with as many as 120 women.

Remember Michael Vick‘s dogfighting scandal? That was even more horrific than Woods’ sins, and amazingly enough, we’ve forgiven the quarterback but obviously have not forgotten about the horrific crime. Remember when a 19-year-old hotel employee accused NBA superstar Kobe Bryant of rape? Those charges against him were eventually dismissed.

Alex Rodriguez nationally admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs while he played for the Texas Rangers; Andre Agassi, one of the greatest tennis stars, confessed to using crystal methamphetamine and recently, Lance Armstrong admitted to Oprah Winfrey for cheating.

We act like athletes or celebrities can do nothing wrong while we, as fans and members of the media, express great joy for every amateur or pro athlete and then become blinded by the fact that they make mistakes. It’s OK to make mental mistakes, because in reality it happens and it is only common.

But in this case, I have the feeling, like many, that he killed her intentionally and with premeditation on Valentine’s Day. Then again, I could be wrong. I wasn’t there at the time he shot her, so I can only state carefully about the killing. Viewed just a summer ago as an inspiration, especially to those who are disabled bodies, he’s suddenly a killer in many eyes.

This shocking downfall is jarring — and strangely enough — is unreal, but in reality, he shot and killed his girlfriend, dropping his head in shame at court appearances while shedding tears in a despairing moment. He has always been a fast runner on those blades, a wild animal on the track, a firm believer, making it possible for those who are handicapped.

What we didn’t know, at least when it comes to this devastating news, is that he had personal issues and lived a double-life. But he said he thought an intruder was in the house and that he killed his girlfriend by mistake. That could just be, for all we know, convenient to Pistorius, a way he can try to get away with the slaying of another human.

Turns out Pistorius is in ruins, though. He will be going to prison, unlike most athletes here in the states. He won’t certainly be running in 2016 at the summer games in Brazil. The thing is, no one ever imagined that Pistorius would ever be charged with murdering someone, but surprisingly as we shouldn’t be nonplussed by the recent incident, I was. Now I’m not.

Before this murder case, he was popular and appreciated from his inspirational image, but now he’s not even recognized by those who once showed support for him, including the people of Nike and Oakley. With those two endorsement deals, he was set to earn $2 million this year.

With this happening, we know Pistorius is obsessed with guns and had been involved in previous domestic incidents, according to South African police. It just goes to show that he’s not perfect. He’s certainly a great athlete, but what an Olympian does on the stage doesn’t define their character.

There is, as I write this, a scandal in the making right now. Some athlete is out there using banned substances. Some athlete is out there having an extramarital affair. Some athlete is out there running a scam. Some athlete is out there breaking the rules, or seconds away from a crime.

So this is not the first time an athlete has let us down. Get used to it. Humans are humans.