Monday, February 27, 2012

Congratulations Sacramento Kings Fans, You Did it

It normally doesn't happen, not in the sports business.

Normally when a sports franchise demands a new stadium or arena and they don't get it, it's only a matter of time before they leave and the fans of that team are left with a feeling of dejection. The process is long and painful, a cloud of inevitability hanging in the air the entire time.

Tell that to the city of Sacramento, CA.

Today  Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, the Maloof brothers, and the NBA reached a tentative agreement on an arena deal that would keep the Sacramento Kings in the city. This caps an improbable push by a city to keep its only major sports team amidst the deck stacked against them.

A year ago this would be seen as impossible.A year ago the King were all but gone.

Around this time last year the Maloof brothers, who own the Kings, were trying to work out a deal to move to Anaheim, CA. They implied that the Arco Arena, where the team plays, was just too old of a venue to remain competitive in the league. The Maloofs even went as far as trademarking the term 'Anaheim Royals' before formally filing a relocation bid with the NBA Board of Governors.

To say that this provoked a response from Kings fans would be an understatement.

Spearheaded politically by Mayor Johnson and on the ground by people such as radio host Carmichael Dave along with former Kings players such as Mitch Richmond and Chris Webber, a campaign was launched to keep the Kings in Sacramento. Mayor Johnson prepared to formally plead the case for his city in front of the NBA while Carmichael Dave helped to launch a grassroots effort called 'Here We Stay.' Businesses such as Jiffy Lube publicly supported the 'Here We Stay' effort. Soon the social media front was opened with Kings fans showing support on Twitter using the hashtags #HereWeStay and #HereWeBuild. Webber on a broadcast of TNT Network's 'Inside The NBA' made a public plea to keep the team in Sacramento.On the last home game of the Kings' 2010-2011 season fans held a 'Here We Stay' rally inside Arco Arena after the game. 

Even with all this happening there was a sense that it was all for naught. That started to change.

During the April 14 NBA Board of Governors meeting concerning the potential move Johnson, a former NBA player, made a strong case not only with coming up with a $10 million commitment from local businesses to support the team, but also with a potential buyer of the team in billionaire Ron Burkle. That push was enough for the NBA to not approve the move then. The Maloofs were given two extensions to their bid while the league investigated both their and Mayor Johnson's proposals.

On April 29 The Maloofs chose to withdraw their relocation bid and on may 2 announced that they stay in Sacramento for one more season while working with Mayor Johnson in coming up with a plan for a new arena.

Now today, after so many doubters told Kings fans that it was useless, they have plan. It's not all done yet though.

The city council of Sacramento still has to vote on a provision of the proposal that would lease public parking lot space to a private company. If it passes then only a few procedural votes would stand in the way on the Kings fans and victory.

This is something special and rare. A city fought tooth and nail to keep their team and actually won. Risky as it was for a first term mayor like Johnson to do it, he and his city stood tall and now stand last.

Sacramento, I tip my hat to you. 

Thursday, February 23, 2012

While a Regular Season Game, Tonight's Heat/Knicks Matchup Has '90s Playoff Feel

Rivalries in sports are mainly fun.

It gives us someone to root for and against. It's something that one can share with friends and family openly. They can be passed down at least two generations depending on their age. While most rivalries can make one lose their mind for a couple of hours, it normally ends in a handshake between opposing fans.

There are a few rivalries however where the thought of fans getting along after the game is considered a sin. These rivalries has both sides only showing disdain towards each other. These rivalries tend to transcend sports and spill into every day life.

The rivalry between the Miami Heat and the New York Knicks falls along those lines.

Even though the Miami Dolphins/New York Jets rivalry has a longer history it is Heat/Knicks that produces the most venom between players and fans.

It was Pat Riley's decision to resign (infamously via fax) from the Knicks and to become president/head coach of the Heat in 1995 that was the spark for the rivalry. Adding fuel to the fire was the outright disdain the residents of both cities had towards each other.

The rivalry resulted in the teams playing each other four straight years in the NBA playoffs from 1997 to 2000 with the Knicks winning three out of the four match ups. Each series was physical (the first two having bench clearing brawls and suspensions) and went to the limit.

Since their last playoff meeting the rivalry cooled in the decade that followed.

The Knicks embarked on a road to irrelevance following their trade of franchise player Patrick Ewing to the Seattle SuperSonics in September of 2000. This time was highlighted by various questionable player acquisitions, a carousel of head coaches, and underachieving draft picks. In that time they only made two playoffs appearances, each ending with first round exits.

The Heat also struggled early due in part to franchise player Alonzo Mourning not being able to play while battling kidney disease. Unlike the Knicks however, the Heat remained a playoff contender in six of those seasons and won an NBA championship in 2006.

The NBA's division realignment before the 2004-05 season did more to cool the rivalry as the Heat were moved to the Southeast Division.

Even while all this was happening the venom between the fans of the two team was as potent as ever. It has been simmering under the radar just waiting for the moment when it could explode. That time appears to be now.

The Knicks, riding the wave of the Lin-Sanity craze, is going to the American Airlines Arena tonight to face a Heat team that has been decimating opponents lately.

With the sudden rise of Knicks guard Jeremy Lin and the return of forward Carmelo Anthony along with the signing of guard J.R. Smith, the spotlight has been on a Knicks team that has despite their record been considered a legitimate Eastern Conference opponent.

During this time the Heat have quietly attained a league best 26-7 record with forward LeBron James having an MVP-type season. Guard Dwayne Wade and forward Chris Bosh are also having great seasons. The team is seen by many to be now playing at the caliber expected of them when James, Wade, and Bosh formed the 'Big 3' in the summer of 2010.

To add fuel to the fire the game is being broadcast nationally on TNT, which doesn't allow local broadcasters to simulcast. That means fans in New York can't see the game on MSG Network and fans in Miami can't see it on Sun Sports Network. That means no local bias, only national scrutiny.

One would think that a game between the best team in the league and one that barely has a .500 record wouldn't matter much. However, thanks to Lin-Sanity this has now become a statement game for both teams.

For the Heat this game has to prove a point. While they are currently on a seven-game winning streak where the margin of victory has been at least 12 points, the spotlight tonight brings familiar scrutiny. The unprecedented coverage that the team received last season produced some narratives that traveled over to this season. One of those narratives is the doubt that the Heat can win a close game against a good opponent. This game with its national spotlight is being looked at the chance for the Heat to put that narrative to rest.

For the Knicks there is hope that with the discovery of Lin they now have the right point guard to run head coach Mike D'Antoni's offense and fully utilize the abilities of forward Amar'e Stoudemire and center Tyson Chandler along with Anthony and Smith. This feeds the frenzy that fans have about returning to the days of Ewing.

Moreover, this is a statement for Lin. Most of his success has come against sub .500 teams, the exceptions being the Los Angeles Lakers and the Dallas Mavericks. The question now is whether he can duplicate his play against a championship-caliber defense. This game against the team that is considered the prohibited favorite to win the NBA title this season is the ultimate test for him.

There hasn't been this level of hype for a game involving these two teams in a long time. Not even the intense matchups between the Heat and the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals last season got this much attention. It's only fitting that the way these two teams would get this intense spotlight on them is in a game against each other.

Heat nd Knicks fans that long for the days of the Ewing/Mourning and PJ Brown/Charles Oakley matchups wouldn't have it any other way.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Upcoming MLB Season Will be One to Remember

It's almost the end of February. To the general American public it signifies the end of winter and coming spring.

To American sports fans it signifies the coming of MLB spring training camps and a new baseball season.

Normally a new baseball season is met with expected story lines and almost the same expected World Series contenders every year. This upcoming baseball season however is being met with unusual anticipation thanks in part to the wild off season that preceded it.

The big spenders this time around weren't named the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. This time around they were the Miami Marlins.

Yup, the Miami Marlins. A team that had to be forced to spend more by both the league and the MLB Players Union a couple of years ago has suddenly become the man with the big wallet in the hall. It's astounding to think of this happening as an outsider, it's even more the case if one is Marlins fan.

As insane as it sounds, that's where the Marlins are standing right now. With a new stadium (whose business arangement is being investigated by the federal government) opening and a new cast of characters in manager Ozzie Guillen, pitchers Heath Bell, Mark Buehrle, and Carloz Zambrano along with shortstop Jose Reyes joining the team the Marlins have completely remade their image within a few months.

Not only have Marlins been capable of this makeover so quickly, they have had their hand in a couple of othe big off season moves.

They were most likely a no-trade clause away from landing the crown jewel of the free agent class in first baseman Albert Pujols along with pitcher C.J. Wilson before losing both to the Los Angeles Angels. They were heavily recruitng defected Cuban player Yoenis Cespedes before he decided to sign with the Oakland Athletics.

These moves alone would have made this off season interesting. It wasn't the only major move done though.

There was first baseman Prince Fielder's sudden signing with the Detroit Tigers.

There was Texas Rangers' winning the bidding to land Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish.

There was Boston Red Sox president Theo Epstein essentially trading himself to the Chicago Cubs to do the same job there. The Red Sox also hired manager Bobby Valentine to replace Terry Francona.

Even today the Athletics signed outfielder Manny Ramirez to a one-year contract despite him having to serve a 50-game suspension for voilating the MLB drug policy first.

These happenings along with the possibility of a new playoff format in which two Wild Card teams would have a play-in game being implemented this season have made this season one to look forward to.

Even with all this happening the main story will be the Marlins. The league thinks that enough to feature them on the Showtime cable network and for them to be the home team on THE Opening Day game against the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals to start the season. They aren't just the headliners in a slew of Opening Day games in one day, the stage is theirs alone.

What this does also is to make the National League East arguably the toughest division in the MLB. These new look Marlins along with the Philadelphia Phillies, the Atlanta Braves, and the Washington Nationals have made the NL East into a division with four legitimate contenders (sorry New York Mets.) It won't all be sunshine though.

Much like the Miami Heat after their 2010 off season coup, there will be as much scrutiny as there is hype surounding the Marlins. There will be questions as to whether franchise player Hanley Ramirez truly accepts his expected move to third base to facilitate Reyes. There will be eyes watching to see if a clubhouse filled with lively characters like Bell, Guillen, Zambrano, and outfielder Logan Morrison will be able to coexist. The team will be battling a history of lowly fan attendance and of holding fire sales after quick success. They will also be battling the noteriety of a federal investigation and of their owner Jeffrey Loria (just ask the city of Montreal.)

While the Marlins will be the new belle of the ball this season, they will  be the other new beauties there as well.

That alone makes this season worth watching.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Raw Journalism in Action: Dealing With Lin-Sanity

There is a reason I call sports the funhouse mirror of society.

The reason for that is that sports has a way of putting a spotlight on issues that otherwise would be minimized or ignored by the general public. The main way this is shown is by the manner journalists cover sports. Sometimes journalists & broadcasters become the story themselves.

The current fascination with New York Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, dubbed Lin-Sanity, is a perfect example of how sports media has become the story.

During the Lin-Sanity craze there have been three incidents of note that show the difficulty that sports media is having while covering a great story. These incidents are:

1.) A now-infamous tweet from Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock made during the Knicks' 92-85 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers on February 10 elaborating about Lin's sexual prowess.

2.) An instance when MSG Network, the television home of the Knicks, highlighted a fan-made sign showing Lin's head coming out of a fortune cookie while a caption underneath read "The Knicks Good Fortune" on the air during The Knicks' 100-85 victory over the Sacramento Kings.

3.) ESPN Networks using the phrase 'Chink in The Armor' as the headline to their online story covering the Knicks' 89-85 loss to the New Orleans Hornets and using it on the air covering the same story.

Each of these instances got push back for their racial insensitivity towards Lin and the Asian community at large and each party involved reacted in their own ways.

In Whitlock's case he received a virtual pummeling on Twitter and from the Asian American Journalists Association before he issued a public apology.

In MSG's case the network stressed the fact that they didn't create the image themselves after the incident was picked by news outlets including MSNBC television show host Ed Schultz.

In ESPN's case the network deleted the headline from its' online story shortly after posting and released a statement saying it was looking into the matter.

These events highlight the raw moments in which sports media, in this case basketball media, deals with an unusual story in their genre. The difference between them is how these incidents came to fruition.

When it comes to Whitlock one has to know that he uses his Twitter account both personally and professionally. This fact blurs a line that most journalists hold firm for ethical reasons. Whitlock's profiency to say outlandish things doesn't help matters for him. While he did apologize the incident put Fox Sports in a bad light since, as Whitlock's employer, were inadvertenly put in the crossfire.

When it comes to MSG, it was a consequence of live television. During timeouts local sports networks fill time with trivia, video highlights, and shots of the arena crowd. Event directors  have the task of putting these things together while not missing any of the game action. That leaves very little room for mistakes, but they do happen. MSG has no control of the signs that fans bring into Madison Square Garden. They do however have the control of choosing what signs to show on air, even if it's a split second decision.

When it comes to ESPN, it's a lapse in the editorial process. In the modern media world where information is instantaneous there is always a competition to see who gets their story up first. Even with this rush there is a ladder that articles have to go through before they're published. One of the steps in that ladder is the copy editor. Copy editors serve as the last grmmatical gatekeepers that an article has to pass by. Another duty that copy editors have is thinking of headlines for articles. Headlines have to be short but catchy enough for the reader to be lured into looking at the article. In this case the copy editor chose a cliche line for the article in 'Chink in The Armor' but not realizing that the word 'chink' is also used as a racial slur towards Asians, particularly the Chinese. The same can be said of the person that wrote the television script which the SportsCenter anchor used.

All of this can be put into perspective in something that New York Times columnist William Rhoden pointed out on MSNBC Friday night with Schultz. He pointed out that the NBA has been dominated by Black players for over that last three decades. That means that the media covering the league has been exposed to all steps it has to take to best avoid incidents of racial insensitivity towards Black players. Do they get it 100% right all the time? No, but awareness has been ingrained into the culture of NBA media when it comes to Black players.

This hasn't been the case with Asian players. Even with as much anticipation as the debut of Yao Ming got in 2002 there wasn't as much awareness in the media to racial sensitivity in the NBA media because Yao went to a medium league market in Houston and there was no major wave of other Asian players following Yao. Lin's sudden success coupled with the fact that he's doing it in New York City, the biggest media market in the country, has caught everyone by surprise.

The NBA, a league well versed in trying to control its' image, now sees a reinvigorated Asian fan base both here and abroad that may be paying attention to how the media is covering Lin. While worried about these incidents, they were beyond the league's control. The reaction to the incidents bring something good though.

The fact that we're talking about these incidents openly rather than sweeping them under the rug shows progress. While Whitlock's incident was brought to light by social media the MSG & ESPN incidents were spotted by other media outlets very quickly. It shows that as this story is developing before our eyes people are paying attention. It also opens up the discourse about racial stereotypes.

Could we have been talking about this story if it wasn't happening in New York City? Probably not.

Are there other compelling stories similar to Lin's in the NBA? Yes, a good example is Atlanta Hawks rookie forward Ivan Johnson.

All of that aside, this saga shows how media deals with an unexpected story. It's a raw, messy proccess where mistakes are often made, especially in this underdog-type story.

No one said that this was easy.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Dwight Howard Saga: It Has to End Soon (& Where Will He Go...)

To say the Orlando Magic have been in a free fall lately after a 11-4 start would be putting it lightly.

Until last night's win against the Washington Wizards the Magic were riding a stretch were they lost five out of their last six games including two embarrassing displays against the Boston Celtics. One of those games had the Celtics erase a 27 point deficit to win 91-83.

This stretch may push Magic General Manager Otis Smith to do what he as refused to since the start of the season. That is to trade franchise center Dwight Howard.

Howard has already let it be known that he no longer wants to wear a Magic jersey and would like to move on. Smith, along with the entire Orlando metropolitan area were, and may still be, hoping that Howard's good nature and loyalty may ultimately win out and that he would sign a contract extension. That doesn't look like it's going to be happening. Smith may have to pull off a trade soon, probably after the All-Star Game. With that in mind the list of teams that Howard would like to go to in a trade hasn't changed much.

That list includes: The New Jersey Nets, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, and according to various reports the Celtics and the Los Angeles Clippers.

Here is a team-by-team breakdown of how their chances to acquire Howard stack up.

Los Angeles Lakers:

The Lakers still remain the best team to do a straight trade with the Magic. One of the goals Otis Smith has in mind in trading Howard is to also trade away the contract of forward Hedo Turkoglu. That can be done in this trade sending Howard & Turkoglu to LA for center Andrew Bynum and forward Pau Gasol. Gasol has already been used as trade bait in the aborted deal for Chris Paul, so moving him wouldn't be a surprise.
Bynum on the other hand has shown that he is capable of the potential the Lakers saw when they drafted him. That may make this deal more enticing for the Magic.

New Jersey Nets:

The Nets have been known to be Howard's preferred destination, yet they are the team that has the hardest time in pulling off the trade. The only major piece that the Nets have that the Magic would be center Brook Lopez. Then there is the fact that the Nets can't take on the contracts of both Howard and Turkoglu in a straight trade. This means that a third and possibly a fourth team has to be added to the mix.

There are possibilities like this trade sending Howard to New Jersey and Turkoglu to the New Orleans Hornets and the Magic acquiring Lopez, Nets center Mehmet Okur and Hornets center Chris Kaman. Now this trade only works money-wise for the Magic as both Okur and Kaman are on their last year of their respective deals. However, it's highly doubtful that the Hornets, who are still owned by the NBA, would like the financial burden of taking on Turkoglu's contract while trying to entice a new owner to buy the team.

Another factor in play is that there is recent speculation that Howard would like to play alongside Milwaukee Bucks guard Stephen Jackson. Unfortunately for the Nets they simply don't have enough tradeable pieces to make room for Jackson's contract.

Dallas Mavericks

The path to get Howard for the Mavericks is the most interesting one. The team looks a lot different that the one that upset the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals last season. This wasn't by accident.

While letting key pieces like center Tyson Chandler, guard J.J. Barea, and guard DeShawn Stevenson go may have made the Maverick's chances of repeating as champions slim it has been done so by design. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban saw what the Heat did in the summer of 2010 to sign guard Dwyane Wade, forward LeBron James, and forward Chris Bosh. Now he is planning a similar act by having cleared salary cap space after this season to not only sign Howard, but also Nets guard Deron Williams as free agents.

That plan hinges on the assumption that Howard won't be traded by the Magic and the Nets not trading Williams. That's not likely to happen as the Nets have already indicated that if they can't get Howard, they will trade Williams.

Now even though the Celtics and Clippers are said to have intrigued Howard, those teams may have different reasons for not being able to get him.

The Celtics, even after president Danny Ainge has openly said he would be open to blowing up their Big 3 of forward Paul Pierce, forward Kevin Garnett, and guard Ray Allen, seem to gearing up for a last playoff run with their current roster.

The Clippers are looking like a legitimate playoff contender with their current lineup featuring guard Chris Paul and forward Blake Griffin. While Howard is enticing to get, their own center DeAndre Jordan isn't a bad option, particularly on defense.

Any way you slice it though, the Magic seem to be destined to trade Howard rather than risk him walking away with nothing to show for it. Otis Smith may not like it, but it may be his only choice.