Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Shaqtin' A Cyberbully

Trash talk from a competitor in any sporting arena can only end up in four possible outcomes if you are the recipient of the trash talk: you can push back with trash talk, ignore it, let it rattle you, or shut up the trash talker.  There are good ways and bad ways to shut up.  A good way is to play better.  A bad way is to shut the Jabberjaw's mouth for him with a right hook. The millennial way to do it is to run to social media, which could turn out to be good or bad.  At the end of the day, trash talk is meant to get inside the head of an exceptional player or disrespect someone with weak game. And respect in sports is earned, not given.

Enter JaVale McGee.

Since being selected with the 18th overall pick in the 2008 NBA draft, JaVale has been viewed as the "clown prince of the NBA".  His erstwhile nickname was "Must See" McGee, which has not necessarily been the wisest choice since it invited the pilloring and ridiculing he has received from many.  When a player nicknamed "Must See" runs down the court to play defense while his team is on offense, you definitely want to wish for him to get away on the next Southwest flight smoking. With all his gaffes provoking inescapable guffaws throughout the sports universe, he was unemployed for the better part of a year and a half, partly due to injury. That was until the Golden State Warriors threw him a bone and signed him to an nonguaranteed contract...which he has parlayed into a remarkable career resurrection.  In fact, he has been so solid - especially when the starting center, Zaza Pachulia, was out due to injury - that there were rumblings about whether Zaza would get his starting center spot back from JaVale. Yes, THAT JaVale...was STARTING...at center...for the Warriors...for several games.

Despite his hardcourt resurgence, JaVale was not able to escape his unintentionally jestful past.  Shaquille O'Neal, a retired and recently inducted Hall of Famer who had his share of bloopers on the court and was lambasted for such, had made it his mission to never let JaVale live down his previous reputation.  Shaq, in his Shaqtin' A Fool segments on the NBA broadcasts on TNT, has basically made JaVale the permanent and resident foil - or should I say, fool - even dedicating an entire segment to the man Shaq designated "Doctor Strange".

JaVale didn't ask for any of this. He did not purposely invite this stigma of being a "dumb person". He didn't appreciate having his livelihood damaged and negatively affected by the perception that he is a buffoon in a NBA costume. So at last, JaVale had had enough.

He went to Twitter to blow Shaq's eyebrows back...only to find Shaq returning even more heat. But JaVale didn't back down. Others jumped into the fray. Kevin Durant. Steve Kerr. Former NBA players. All this while JaVale and Shaq are going blow-for-blow in this 7-foot cyberspace one-on-one. Until Shaq said that his mother told him to stop. It's like having your mother run on the hoop court to accost you by your collar for talking back to a referee, which no player would EVER let happen. But that's Shaq's story, and he's sticking to it.

My observations:

To put it bluntly, Shaq has the "bully gene".  Shaq has always been one of the biggest, most physically dominant players on every court upon which he has set foot. Almost every nickname he sports starts with "The Big".  As comical, fun-loving, entertaining, and self-deprecating as he can be at times, Shaq can turn heel in the blink of an eye and run that act into multiple terrestrial crusts. Look at the virutal and overt run-ins he had with Kobe while on the Lakers. Kobe didn't back down, but that didn't stop Shaq. He referred to The Sacramento Kings as "queens". He has pushed, shoved, punched, and sarcastically quipped to impose his behemoth will and ego. Oftentimes his fall-back justification is that he is just having fun and being humorous. Pretty convenient.

Shaq and JaVale...together under friendlier circumstances...

I can't recall Shaq ever being accused of owning up to his mistakes, swallowing his pride, and letting bygones be bygones of his own will...which is typical of any bully. In fact, Shaq is invariably prone to doubling down rather than doubling back, and this Twitter feud serves as Exhibit A. The fact that JaVale decided to clap back only gave Shaq recourse to go from an on-swole Bruce Banner to a humongously ego-overinflated Hulk, dropping references to JaVale as a "bum" and photoshopping his face onto a homeless person.

Yes, Shaq has the bully gene, and that cannot be ignored. The difference here is that he is no longer a bully on the hoop court, but a media and Twitterverse bully.  I mean this: adolescent teens are sadly committing suicide for less intense social spewing from classmates than Shaq is dishing out.  He actually threatened violence on JaVale. Only bullies use threats of violence as leverage to shut people up who push back on them. The fact that Shaq's own mother - who according to him is the only person who succeeded in getting him to cease and desist - blew off his physical threats and expletives as 'slang for 'Be quiet'" did not help anything. But it did, however, dish a dime to JaVale's mother, who accurately called out Shaq's exploits as cyberbullying.

America has been in anti-bully season for a while now, despite the POTUS's desire to pull a Hue Jackson and "build a bully" in his own image. Apparently Shaq did not get the memo and has been getting checked in the media since this whole issue went viral, nuclear, and universal. I don't anticipate Charles Barkley, his fellow TNT analyst and self-styled bully, being able to resist applying his co-signature to Shaq's cause. Nevertheless, the reality is that bullies are a dying breed and rightfully so, but those of Shaq's ilk will prove harder to kill than others. Even when he is throwing stones from the window of a glass mansion.

Kobe survived Shaq's venom and tactics and came out 2 rings richer.
I applaud JaVale for standing his ground. Of course, he clearly crossed the line with some inappropriate tweeting of his own. But at least he didn't allow Shaq's prime-time and online trash talk continue to gnaw at him anymore and cause him to continue to suffer in silence without a solid comeback.

So I have a piece of advice for JaVale: Stay on your grind. For good.

Don't give anyone a reason to push you back to the days of yore when you were just an automatic punch line. Be that gym rat that shows up early and leaves late. Show up on game time and let everybody know that what you bring to the table can and will neither be ridiculed nor dismissed. Redefine what "Must See" McGee is about: that players coming into the paint will meet a troubling, high-motor, disruptive force that nobody will outwork, outhustle, or outmaneuver. Heck, take a page out of Rudy Gobert's book and help redefine the center position for this era. Take your game to the next level by working on your free throw shooting, fine-tune your ability to play team defense, and develop a mid-range jumper. OK, that last one is wishful thinking. But the idea is to make yourself more of an indispensable asset and less of an indefensible liability.

You're getting respect with every appearance on the court, not because you play for the odds-on favorite to win rings in June, but because of your palpable contributions coming off the bench since November. And it's refreshing to see you reinvent yourself against the waves of hypercritical public opinion. That should be gratifying to you and provide fuel enough to carry you into and through the playoffs. And it should be enough to keep you from resting on your laurels so you can get an even better contract in the future.

So grind on, young man. And remember the words of The Main Ingredient: "Everybody plays the fool sometimes..." And this time, it's Shaq's turn to wear the harlequin suit.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Tom and T.O. Show: A Contrast of Future Hall Of Famers

There are many ways in which the National Football League has been described using its iconic letters (Not For Long, No Fun League).  One of those could be "Not-all-honorable Football Legacies".

The highlight of every National Football League season is Super Bowl Week.  This is a time when the past legends of the Shield get together and welcome as many as 7 new entrants into their gridiron brotherhood, the Hall of Fame.  Of course, there are those who miss the cut for various reasons, reasons in which a select group of media opined, debated, and determined are either justifiable or simply a matter of the numbers - a group that has never been between the lines during a pro game.  Then there are players who are either retired or still currently playing in the league, yet are anointed through the media as "future Hall-of-Famers".  And sometime in the not-so-distant future, there is be one marquis name among this group who will cross the threshold of this hallowed Hall on the very first try: Tom Brady.

Yes, THAT Tom Brady.  The now 5-time Super Bowl winner, 4-time Super Bowl MVP, 12-time Pro Bowler, et cetera, et cetera...

And it was during Super Bowl Week, on February 5, 2017 - the same week when 7 new ecstatic, self-reflective, visibly emotional, and relieved former footballers gained entry and donned gold blazers - when Brady notched Super Bowl win #5.  As a result, the hubbub now is that he is the GOAT, the greatest NFL quarterback of all time (which I disagree with all that is in me) and a shoo-in for the Hall. (I know that some of you are tempted to post the words "hater" in the comment section below concerning my disagreement. I may deal with that issue in a future blog.)

But what I would like to address here is a double standard of sorts. You see, many New England Patriot fans - and maybe to some degree, Tom himself - will launch a defense when there is any attack or criticism directed towards him.  Reminds me of Benita Buttrell, the character from In Living Color who freaked out when someone said anything bad about Miss Jenkins. Regardless of whether the criticisms are documentable and validated or specious and murky (e.g., Deflategate, Spygate), Patriot compatriots like 19th-century hucksters will try to pull the okie-doke on the unsuspecting assembly on the periphery to get them to agree that Tom is squeaky-clean, take a pass on the Haterade, and imbibe the "miracle" tonic schlepped by the northeastern US contingent of NFL fandom.


But Tom is NOT squeaky-clean when the optics are so evident that a dark cloud will follow him, Bob Kraft (owner of the Patriots), and Bill Belichick (Patriots head coach) - likely future HOFers themselves - wherever they go. A dark cloud of mysterious happenings, thick-cut innuendo, evasive deflection and spin, and other purported hijinks have the power to frame his autobiographical episode of "A Football Life" in an arguably more authentic context than the one this triumvirate serves on a red, white, and blue platter.  Some obviously will dismiss these statements as mere conspiracy theories founded on sheer envy and jealousy. My argument is that, regardless of these being fact or fiction, there remains no squeaky-cleanness on their part.

I mean this: I've washed my share of dishes. Some may look clean until you rub your finger on the surface, only to discover that you feel a layer of grease still there. Here is some oily residue for you to consider:

And I can't leave this out either...

But for all of the hue and cry of the mass conglomeration of anti-Patriots, the attempts to besmirch Tom is a fait accompli because he most assuredly will be inducted into the HOF.  Despite the vitriol, many are giving him his props for the choke job by improbable comeback against the Atlanta Falcons. Never mind the fact that he is currently the most hated quarterback in the league (AND the 5th most hated player all time by SportingNews.com), playing on the most hated NFL team. Patriots fans will chalk that up as mere "fake news", channeling Tom's association with Donald Trump. 

But there is a double standard that I see here, due to another figure looming stage right.  This former player was a finalist for the HOF the past 2 years, only to fall short of the requisite votes for enshrinement, perennial glory, and relative immortality. And this former NFL standout has his own dark cloud following him, but probably should not be as dark as some others because perception and reality are not mutually exclusive: Terrell Owens, aka "T.O.".

 Yes. THAT Terrell.

The Sharpie-sportin', pom-pom-shakin', popcorn-eatin', Cowboys-Stadium-midfield-star-jackin', "I-love-me-some-me"-lovin', situps-in-front-of-the-house-crunchin'...you get the picture.

This same Terrell also was able to pull off the following in his career:
- 1,078 receptions (8th all-time);
- 15,934 receiving yards (2nd all-time);
- 153 receiving touchdowns (3rd all-time);
- 156 career touchdowns (tied for 4th all-time);
- 72.8 yards/game (16th all-time);
- Led the NFL in receptions 3 times;
- 6-time Pro Bowler;
- 5-time first-team All-Pro;
- Holds or shares 9 NFL records

He also had 1 Super Bowl appearance in which his team lost.  However, he had a statistically monster game (9 catches, 122 yards).  Ironically enough, his team lost to...wait for it...the Patriots.  And he did all of this on a not-yet-fully-healed fibula that was fractured 7 weeks prior.

But no HOF for the second year in a row for TO. And those media members on the Selection Committee offered insight, albeit somewhat sheepishly, through a levying of "justifications":
1. He was disruptive - he tore teams apart to where all five teams for which he played found a way to get rid of him.
2. He was an off-the-field distraction with too many off-the-field issues.
3. He was too outspoken, often throwing teammates under the bus.
4. He was too flamboyant, self-promoting, and prima donnaish.
5. He dropped a lot of passes.
6. We just don't like him. (This wasn't said, but was clearly implied.)

How can you not love an athlete signing a football for a young fan? Oh yeah...he was still on the field...

OK, I'll take the bait and take apart each one of these "justifications":

1. Brett Favre (inducted into the HOF last year) retired from the Green Bay Packers, then wanted to come back to play for another team. When the Packers refused to release him or give him the starting quarterback slot, he brokered a trade to the New York Jets by throwing the team under the bus IN THE MEDIA plus accusing them of forcing him to decide on whether he should retire when he wasn't ready to decide.  Then came the unproven rumors about the Minnesota Vikings (one of the Packers' hated division rivals) tampering with him before the trade...only to find himself on said Vikings team after stating he was retiring while on the Jets. Tension was so bad because of his playing for an archrival and being personally motivated to teach the Packers a lesson to where Favre was the most hated player in the NFL in 2010...and this was a fan poll. You have to wonder how many Packers fans were part of that poll. Talk about a legendary team and fan base like the Packers being "to' up" by a future HOFer at that time. 

Terrell had his issues with his quarterbacks, most notably Donovan McNabb, but you can make the same argument that he did what he could to make his quarterback successful in helping the team win. He would irritate teammates to death, most intensely his quarterbacks, with his sideline antics and vocal posturing.  But what no one could never do is question his heart, his desire to win, and effort on the field. Look at his steel-cut physique and that should give you a clue. But Terrell is not the first nor would he be the last HOFer to cause dissension. Locker-room cancer? That is, of course, clearly debatable. Persistently vocal and hyperactive irritant? Definitely. And although teams found a way to get rid of him, other teams found a way to sign him soon after his release. Flies in the face of logic for a team to welcome a known cancer into their organization.

It wouldn't surprise me if Donovan had wanted to switch places with T.O. in this shot...

2. Terrell was never arrested or charged for any crime, did not have or hide a protracted substance abuse problem, never made news in a volatile domestic incident, or found himself on the wrong side of the NFL Commissioner to threaten him with a multi-game suspension.  Sure, he was fined or suspended by his team...yeah, he apparently OD'd on Hydrocodone...but for things that either could not be proven (e.g., spitting on an opponent) or would land him in the scathing hot waters of jurisprudence.  Can't say the same for some HOFers.  The clock may be ticking on Lawrence Taylor's next run-in with the law.  I'm hoping there won't be.  He has suffered enough.

3. Ray Lewis. Shannon Sharpe. Jim Brown. Joe Theismann. Cris Carter. Eric Dickerson. Joe Namath. Warren Sapp. And I'm naming only PLAYERS here.  All of these are HOFers except Lewis, who will likely be inducted next year.

4. You will be hard-pressed in most cases to find a top-flight wide receiver on any team who is not self-promoting, flamboyant, or prima donnaish.  Matter of fact, you don't have to be a wide receiver primarily to be that way (see Sanders, Deion...another HOFer).

5. Come on...is that the BEST you can do?  Let's not bring up Jerry Rice's seminal 49er years. Do I really need to say here that Jerry is a HOFer?

6. That sounds closer to the truth.  Has a ring of Barry Bonds backlash in there.

Terrell is both controversial yet congenial, disturbingly annoying yet admirably passionate, unwisely outspoken yet unyieldingly overprotective, over-the-top flamboyant in his showmanship yet fanatically committed to his craft. But for the Selection Committee to offer a weak take on dropped footballs as to the reason why he was not inducted speaks to something more ominous. And I'm not talking about the race card, either.  I don't have to. I'm playing the perception card.

Some NFL media outlets have a way of whitewashing one figure while blackballing another (and I told you that I'm NOT playing the race card). The NFL Combine and NFL Draft are two perennial examples of this behavior. Tom and Terrell for all of their NFL adventures and misadventures have at least one thing in common besides each having a HOF resume: their respective clouds are black, and there is no need to try to reach for the color palette to determine if the black is charcoal or purple. The fact that Tom is a quarterback and Terrell is a wide receiver could play into the notion that Terrell, while "viewed" as a HOFer or having HOF credentials, had to "earn" his way into the HOF. And "earning" his way indirectly means that he needed (and still needs) to play by the rules of etiquette as defined by the media outlets who are coat-blocking his induction.  Not to mention subjective player code stipulations by former greats. (I'm talking about you, Dan Fouts.)

Tom has never been very forthcoming or transparent with the media because that is the Patriot Way (see Belichick; Deflategate). But his ability to play close to the vest is not seen as flagrant as Terrell putting his heart on his sleeve before the media, openly and unapologetically voicing his opinions, disappointments, or frustrations...often with a reserved yet confident defiance. But I thought that was what the media is supposed to want and love: players who can be candid, thoughtful, opinionated, fiery, and have a take that they can use to fill prime time on sports talk shows and cable sports networks. Shannon Sharpe got to co-host his own Fox Sports cable show on the strength of that approach. Unlike Shannon, Terrell is an anomaly stuck on the wrong end of the perception spectrum, victim to a vicious catch-22 that at the most climactic of times rewards the lubricious and penalizes the ostentatious. And the media is always packing enough oil to selectively help those who do enough to hide a multitude of press-conference sins while simultaneously leave their enemies with cracked skin from excessive exposure to the heat from their keyboards.

It appears that as long as Terrell keeps talking, his induction will be postdated and postponed. And no matter what Tom does that has an unseemly smell to it, it will not make him less of an HOF lock than he is now. Doesn't seem fair, but neither was Tom's 4-game suspension before the 2016 season...at least that's what the Patriots would have you believe.

But there will be trouble on the horizon for the Hall and media representatives responsible for the voting. If Terrell standing behind the velvet rope did not pose enough of a challenge, next year could serve as a referendum on the obviously flawed, perfectly subjective, and deliciously biased HOF selection process. Come next year there will be another name standing in line behind Terrell who could pose some problems for the Committee...and I'm not talking about Ray Lewis.  It's the person with whom Terrell is tied for most career touchdowns:

Amen, Stephen A.