Sunday, June 29, 2014

Learning hoops and catching zzzz's

I took not one but two naps this past week. And I could have used more.

Oh, and I normally am not a napper!

What made me so doggone pooped?

Well, the better question would be "who," and the answer would be the 15 girls in this photo:

The occasion was the inaugural Scholars Academy Girls Basketball Camp. After having some experience working at camps, this was my first opportunity to run one. Most of the girls, who will be in 4th through 8th grades next year, are students at Scholars. Only three played for my team last season. (A fourth former Eagle, Maddie, is to my left as you look at the photo; she is on her sister's back. Maddie graduated just a couple of weeks ago and served as my assistant at the camp.)

We had a lot of fun and learned a lot of basketball. And when I say "we," I mean it, because I learned a lot, too.

One thing I learned was that running a camp is an incredibly time-consuming undertaking requiring significant planning! I knew it would be going in, but it was all that ... times two.

And so when I got home each day, I was thoroughly exhausted ... and a couple of times I gave in and crashed. I'm glad I did, because I needed the zzzz's, but the naps meant I would have to stay up late those nights planning the next day's session. Which made me tired the next day, as well. Lather, rinse, zzzz-peat!

If it seems as though I'm complaining, I don't mean to be doing so. It really was a "good tired" each day because I had a great time and I felt we accomplished so much. Watching the girls improve from one day to the next -- heck, from one hour to the next -- was truly satisfying.

Camp got me stoked for the 2014-15 season. I wish I didn't have four months left until tryouts!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Today's High Five: U.S. Open and other endings

5. Martin Kaymer reminds me a lot of myself.

No, I'm not talking about his wire-to-wire victory in the U.S. Open, his incredible putting, his bunker play, his 310-yard drives, his good looks, his physique or his overflowing bank account.

I'm talking about his apparent disdain for using wedges around the greens. Like me (and many other high-handicappers), the man putts everything he possibly can.

On one hole, Kaymer could have tried a tricky chip from a tight lie over a bunker into a pin near the edge of the green. Instead, he actually putted backward through the fringe, leaving himself with a long par putt from off the green. He two-putted from there for a bogey, and seemed quite happy to get it.

With a huge lead over the field, he knew that the only way he could lose the tournament was by experiencing a few horrific holes. He knew that the best way to avoid that was to stick with the club he trusted most. I loved it because I do the exact same thing. (And not only when I am leading the U.S. Open.)

What I didn't love was Kaymer lapping the field. I dig fantastic finishes, and watching dramatic U.S. Open battles has become a Father's Day ritual. So Tiger being hurt, Phil stinking up Pinehurst, Rory failing to find any magic, Bubba missing the cut and everybody else being unwilling or unable to challenge Kaymer turned the tournament into the Who S. Open and ruined my Father's Day.

Ruined it, I say!

Actually, that's not close to being true. I had a lovely, relaxing day. Roberta, Simmie and I took a long walk and visited with some goats and a donkey at a nearby hobby farm. I saved nearly $40 on a $12 grocery store bill - I am not making this up! - and even received a $10 instant rebate for buying a $5 pie. That's right: They paid me 5 bucks for taking a key lime pie off their hands! Later, I thoroughly enjoyed the Copper River salmon I grilled on a cedar plank for dinner. (And pie for dessert!) Of course, I also took several moments to fondly recall my many happy times with my father, truly a great man.

Kaymer even saved an otherwise anticlimactic U.S. Open for me by putting from off the green - well off the green - on at least a dozen occasions.

The next time I'm playing with my buddies and they scoff at me for putting from 15 feet off the green, I'll just smile and say, "It worked for the Who S. Open champion!"

4. And speaking of anticlimactic, it sure would have been nice if the Heat had bothered showing up for the last three games of the NBA Finals.

You know what? Instead of totally ragging on the losing team, let's give a big thumbs-up to the winners.

The Spurs were the NBA's best all season and they underscored their dominance in the Finals. They are talented and savvy and well-coached and deeper than the Grand Canyon. They wore out LeBron & Co., outplayed them, outclassed them and outscored them by 20 points per game after the series was tied 1-1.

There was a lot of talk about players' legacies going into this series, specifically revolving around LeBron James and Tim Duncan.

Despite all the haters' blah-blah-blahing, LeBron's legacy is fine. He has won two titles, has carried two organizations to a total of five Finals appearances and already is one of the top 10 basketball players ever.

Duncan? You know, he's pretty good, too!

3. The U.S. Open and NBA Finals weren't the only things to end Sunday. I already miss Game of Thrones.

It might be time to put my HBO subscription on hiatus for a little while.

2. And while we're on the subject of endings, this weekend marked the end of my Little League umpiring season. 

Here in Charlotte, it is too hot and humid to make the kiddies play all summer, so they have spring and fall seasons.

I had a lot of fun in my first full season behind the plate and in the field. And hey, I only ejected one coach all year - and I let him hang around for at least three innings of whining longer than I should have.

My highlight: During a brief time-out while one of his teammates was tying a shoe, a 10-year-old catcher turned around and asked me: "Do you umpire MLB, too?"

I was so stunned, I didn't even have a clever retort. I probably even blushed. Umps don't get compliments very often, especially one quite like that!

1. The weekend's first ending, the L.A. Kings' clutch performance against the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final, served as a happy reminder of something that happened to me 20 years earlier.

That memory actually started 21 years ago, when Wayne Gretzky and the Kings lost in the 1993 Final to the Canadiens. I was the lead hockey writer for AP back then, and my coverage earned the Will Grimsley Award for best body of work.

Flash forward to '94. This time, the Rangers were in the Final, and prevailed over the Canucks in a thrilling seven-game series to break their 54-year championship drought.

About two weeks after covering that series, Roberta and I were flown to a resort in southern California, where I received my '93 award at the Associated Press Sports Editors conference. Because I happened to be the first AP writer called to the podium, I had the stage to myself for about a minute while my peers applauded.

Twenty years later, I still consider that minute to be the pinnacle of my AP career ... and one of the great things to happen to me in what I acknowledge has been a very lucky life.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Finally time for the Finals!

The NHL is the most egalitarian league. If you make it to the playoffs, you have a chance. Not a chance only in a cliche kind of way - I mean, every team that makes the playoffs in every sport thinks it has a chance even though the opposite is true - but a legitimate shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

Look at what the L.A. Kings, who finished sixth in the Western Conference during the season, have done to reach the Stanley Cup Final. They fell behind the Sharks 3 games to none but stormed back to win the series, taking Games 5 and 7 on the road. They then met the Ducks, the No. 1 seed, and fell behind 3 games to 2 before winning the last two games. Then came the defending Cup champion Blackhawks. This time, the Kings got the 3-1 series lead and let Chicago back in it before rallying from a late Game 7 deficit to win in OT.

On L.A.'s winning goal, Al Martinez flipped a soft 50-foot shot from the point. The puck appeared to nick somebody's stick in the shot, changing directions slightly. Its trajectory continued upward until it hit the shoulder of Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy. That changed the direction of the puck yet again, and it fluttered past goalie Corey Crawford and into the net. Wow!

When was the last time an NBA team made it to the Finals on a basket that deflected off an opponent's shoulder?

Whereas David Tyree's catch in the 2008 Super Bowl is considered one of the most miraculous (and fortuitous) plays in sports history, goals like Martinez's happen ALL THE TIME in the NHL. Luck is a bigger factor in hockey than in any other sport, as the puck takes wild bounces constantly. Then there's the goaltender factor - a hot goalie can (and has) carried seemingly inferior teams to great heights. There is no real equivalent in other sports.

So with the Kings getting great goaltending from Jonathan Quick - a native of my hometown of Milford, Conn. - and getting even greater bounces at the most crucial moments, they were able to win three Game 7s, all on the road. Amazing.

By comparison, the Rangers had an easy road to the Final, although the Eastern Conference's No. 5 seed did have to overcome a 3-games-to-1 deficit to defeat the heavily favored Penguins in the second round.

So the Final, which starts Wednesday, will pit the clubs that had the league's 9th- and 12th-best records.

Is it a total cop-out to predict that the luckiest team will win?

Yes? Tough, because that's the best I can do!


Meanwhile, it was far easier to predict what happened in the NBA, where the team with the best regular-season record (Spurs) will meet the two-time defending champs (Heat). What else is new?

I can't remember the last time the NBA produced a true surprise at this stage - and that's fine, too. We have the NHL for that. The NBA tends to reward teams for proven, sustained excellence.

I enjoy watching the Heat thanks to the amazing LeBron James. Plus, his second fiddle is Dwyane Wade, arguably the greatest basketball player in Marquette history.

Even with those stars, however, Heat games sometimes are boring because they can be slow-paced defensive battles. LeBron and Wade also tend to go 1-on-1 quite often, which leads to a lot of standing around by their teammates and a lot of 3-pointers jacked at the 24-second-clock buzzer.

The Spurs, on the other hand, are almost always a pleasure to watch. They share the ball beautifully and play sound fundamental basketball. They also are much taller than the Heat, helping to create even more of a contrast of styles.

The teams met in a memorable NBA Finals last year. The Spurs seemingly had the title won in Game 6 but a questionable coaching decision by the usually outstanding Gregg Popovich helped cost his team the game and, eventually the title. (Popovich inexplicably benched Tim Duncan down the stretch, leading to Chris Bosh grabbing key offensive rebounds, including one that set up Ray Allen's tying 3-pointer.)

Now Popovich and the Spurs get a chance at revenge ... and it says here that they'll get it.

The Spurs have homecourt advantage, which is always huge but is even bigger now that the league has returned to a 2-2-1-1-1 format for the Finals. The change (from 2-3-2) means the Spurs will be home not just for Game 7 if necessary but also for the always pivotal fifth game.

Beyond that, I just like the way the Spurs match up with the Heat. Popovich can go big and the Heat really can't answer that. Popovich can, however, match the Heat if both teams want to go small. Kawhi Leonard is an excellent defender who will make LeBron work for everything, and if Manu Ginobili's shot is on, he will cause big problems for the Heat.

And I just talked about two Spurs difference-makers without even mentioning future Hall of Famers Duncan and Tony Parker.

The Heat will need Bosh to justify his $100 million salary and also will need major contributions from several supporting players, most notably Allen, Mario Chalmers and a couple of bigs.

I'm saying Spurs in 6, and they won't even need a basket that deflects off of Udonis Haslem's earlobe to do it.