Friday, December 21, 2007

Feel Good Story of the Year?

If there’s anything I hate more than having to work on any day within a week of Christmas (on either side) it’s the sappy, emotional stories that assholes like Tom Rinaldi and Chris Connelly continually run on ESPN. Listen, I watch ESPN (because I have no other real sports options) because I want to see sports and maybe (gasp!) gain a little insight on things from time to time. I don’t care about waterheads playing fictional football games where they’re told they scored the winning touchdown(s). If those assholes aren’t smart enough to realize that wheelchairs are illegal in football, well, then maybe they don’t deserve wheelchairs. That’s right…maybe they’d appreciate the game of football a little more if they had to drag their semi-paralyzed asses around on the turf for awhile. I mean, you don’t see me using a Segway in my city league basketball games, and I’m short and white!

Well then…that certainly got out of hand quickly. Anywho, the point is, I hate those sappy non-stories. However, I hate it even more that I actually want to see a sappy piece done about the player who has simultaneously saved the seasons of both my fantasy team and my NFL team, Earnest Graham. I’m playing in my fantasy league’s Championship game this weekend and the Bucs have clinched the NFC South and there’s no doubt in my mind that neither of these would have been possible without the sudden and sustained emergence of Earnest Graham as a legitimately dangerous NFL tailback.

Graham had been toiling in obscurity for the past four years as, first a practice squad player and then a special teams contributor for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I, like most people, didn’t anticipate that he’d ever become much more than that throughout the rest of his career. While Graham is a solid player, he seemingly lacks any great skill that would make him stand out among the genetic freaks who play tailback in the NFL. I say seemingly because, what Graham lacks in speed, size or quickness he more than makes up for in determination. Graham has made a living this season picking up ground in 3 & 4 yard chunks and has been even more effective near the goal line where he’s become nearly automatic for the Bucs offense. When you consider what Graham had to go through to get to this point, it shouldn’t be all that surprising.

After a solid, if unspectacular career at Florida that was marked as much by untimely injuries as much as anything else, Graham went undrafted. After eventually finding a home with Bucs, he was cut after his first year in the league. This led to Graham (along with his son and wife) being evicted from their Tampa area apartment. Not quite ready to give up his dream of playing pro football, Graham rededicated himself to the sport and ended up securing a spot on the Buccaneers as a 4th string tailback. Graham would soon carve out a role for himself on special teams and, eventually, become a fan favorite due in large part to the fact that he was the Bucs’ leading rusher during each of the past 4 exhibition seasons. Fast forward to early this season in Carolina: Cadillac Williams had just gone down with a season ending knee injury and Graham (now the third string tailback and backup fullback) was inserted in the game as backup tailback Michael Pittman’s lead blocker. At least, that’s how the coaching staff had it planned. Whether it was his sense of loyalty to a great teammate or just a painful flair up of his herpes, Michael Pittman decided he didn’t want the ball on the next play (which called for him to run off right guard). Instead, Pittman told Graham he’d be the one playing tailback, with Pittman lining up as his lead blocker. A few seconds later, Graham burst off the right side for a big gain, eventually stiff-arming a Panther defender on his way into the endzone for his first career NFL touchdown. Graham would go on to score another that day and has scored 10 TDs this season in addition to amassing nearly 900 rushing yards. If the NFL had a ‘Most Improved Player’ award, Graham would be a lock at this point. Instead, he’ll have to settle for being a key cog in a one of the year’s most surprising playoff teams. Oh, and having a decidedly more secure job situation than he could have ever imagined. So yeah, cue up the cheesy piano music and put a weird filter in on the camera lense. Earnest Graham, you’re the man. Now, just score a couple TDs this weekend and I’ll forget all about you missing the Tennessee game in 2001.

If you guys are anything like me you’re hungover…and you’re also still doing your Christmas shopping. With that in mind, here’s a some help if you’re still wondering what to get me this year.

Everyone have a good time this weekend. I’ve got an early Christmas with my family tomorrow morning (they’re going up to see my oldest sister and her family in Tallahassee for Christmas and I’m not going to sit in that cold, damp shithole without the benefit of copious amounts of booze and/or drugs) so I’ll be up early on a Saturday but I’ll also be getting some fucking presents for my troubles. I’ll be back on Sunday with a few last minute Christmas thoughts. Now, do like your ancestors would want and go get drunk and say inappropriate things to those you love most.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Awesome-O 4000?

In case, amidst all the well-deserved Tim Tebow hype, you've forgotten who the most electrifying player in college football was this year, well, I'm here to remind you. He played on the same team as Tebow and (surprise!) my alma mater, its none other than Percy Harvin.

I present you with YOUR 2008 Heisman Trophy Winner...

And because I'm really lazy and not quite motivated enough to write until later this week, here's a little funny to distract you. Funny good.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Uh oh its Magic!

Well, well, well…I go ahead and show a little faith in the Magic and how do they reward me? By losing two consecutive games to teams below .500. That’s right, just a day or so after I declared that I no longer felt like my praise of the Magic’s collective efforts in this space could bring them bad luck, they blew numerous second half leads in a loss to Indiana and then followed that up last night with a loss to the Hoover, er, Atlanta Hawks. Despite this unnerving turn of events, I’m going to show a little faith in the Magicians and continue on with my thoughts about this years team.

I was going to mention that one of the most encouraging things about the Magic thus far is that they’d only lost to quality teams (Phoenix (twice), San Antonio & Detroit). Of course, that no longer applies so we’ll just move on to what I feel is one of the more significant differences in the overall play of the Magic, the role players. It’s not just the bench I’m talking about here either. Keith Bogans has done a great job of finally finding his niche in the NBA by morphing himself into a poor man’s Bruce Bowen. He’s always been a tough, tenacious defender who drew the opposition’s best perimeter offensive player, but now he’s added a consistent three point shot to go with it. With Bogans now a legitimate threat to knock down open 3s, teams can’t play off him and force the Magic to swing it to Bogans in the corner without fear of the results. This further opens up the inside for Howard and the rest of the Magic on offense.

The emergence of Bogans has also allowed Van Gundy more flexibility with his reserves. He can go with Carlos Arroyo and Keyon Dooling at the guards, or go big in the backcourt and play Dooling at the point alongside Maurice Evans. Evans was a part of a recent trade that flew under the radar for most NBA fans but drew the ire of many Magic fans as he was swapped, along with Brian Cook, for fan favorite Trevor Ariza. While Ariza is loaded with potential and brings swagger and energy to the court (not to mention a the occasional jaw dropping dunk and a ridiculous minutes to offensive rebounds ratio), there were not a lot of minutes to be had for him with this edition of the Magic. He doesn’t have the shooting or ballhandling prowess to play extensive minutes at the 2 and struggles to defend most 4s ude ot his slight frame and 6'8" height. With both Turkoglu and Lewis playing most of the minutes at the 3, it became a situation where Ariza wasn’t going to receive the necessary amount of minutes to continue his growth as a player in Orlando. By trading Ariza before he languished on the bench for half the season (thus dropping his trade value), the Magic were able to acquire another physical, athletic defender to matchup against the league’s premier perimeter scorers )Evans) as well as another forward who can draw big men out on the perimeter and spread the floor for Dwight Howard (Noticing a theme here?) with his long range touch (Cook). It’s been a long time since I agreed with a Magic personnel move from the jump but I loved this move. We’ll see if Evans and Cook are able to find their respective roles and find some minutes for themselves as the year progresses. If so, they'll only add to an already dangerous Orlando bench. Finally, while I’m not an Adonal Foyle fan, he has provided the Magic with some defense, rebounding and toughness underneath on the second unit without demanding the ball or causing waves in the locker room. While I’d sooner give it to Arroyo in the post than Foyle, he’s sure to set a good example of professionalism for the young guys in the Magic organization.

And that’s the final point I’d like to make about this Magic team: It is a good group of guys. It really is. You’d be hard pressed to find a “bad guy” on this Magic team. Howard is almost too nice, Jameer Nelson is a natural leader who pays for the whole team to come up and hang out in Philly for a week each summer and even new acquisitions like Lewis and Foyle came to the Magic with reputations as no nonsense, team first players. As bad as the Magic have been recently this has, surprisingly, not always been the case. Steve Francis was at times moody, selfish and inwardly focused. McGrady became withdrawn from the team and organization as his tenure wore on and the team continued to struggle and Penny Hardaway was just a bitch. Not a bitch like your ex-girlfriend but a bitch like that kid at the bar who talks shit and then refuses to back it up. As much as I love the Magic, it was awfully hard to root for guys like Francis and Hardaway during much of their tenure (I give McGrady a bit of a pass since the organization did zilch to compliment him for most of his time in Orlando). This isn’t the case with this group of Magicians. They genuinely seem to enjoy each other and enjoy being on the court playing a game they love. Maybe that’s why I’m not as worried as I normally would be after two consecutive bad losses. Because I believe this team has not only the talent, but the wherewithal to stick together when shots aren’t falling and fight for each other in order to change the direction of this franchise.

Because, you see, there’s more at stake here than just winning basketball games. The city of Orlando approved a new arena last year and Dwight Howard signed a long-term extension recently but all of that won’t mean a thing if the Magic still haven’t made it out of the first round five years from now. By that time, Howard will have grown tired of mediocrity and the Magic will have run off yet another franchise player. By that time, Orlando won’t have the Magic anymore. Orlando won’t have anything but an empty arena and thoughts of what might have been.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Can you feel the Magic?

As I was laying down at the tattoo studio yesterday afternoon, I began to think about how long it had been since I’d written here. I mean really written. I’m not quite sure why I thought of this other than the fact that you’ll think about just about anything in order to distract yourself from the sensation of being repeatedly jabbed with a needle all across your stomach and chest. Of course, there are a number of reasons for my lack of blog related productivity. For one, I’m lazy…after that you get into a number of excuses, chief among them is that I’m spending a good deal of my time right now looking for a new job (long story). It’s not an especially urgent search at the moment but it’s still something I’m dedicating a large portion of my normal blog reading and writing time to. Next in my line of excuses is that the only major topics that I’ve been inclined to write about recently are Tim Tebow’s historic Heisman run and the Orlando Magic.

I’ve held off on Tebow because I think there’s been more than enough Heisman discussion between the internet, TV and radio to last us all. My completely
biased two cents probably isn’t going to change your mind or bring up any points that haven't already been illuminated. I’ll just say this: If the Heisman was voted on like the MVP (Which it isn’t, in any way, shape, or form) there’s no question that Tebow should win. Florida is a 5 win team without Tebow at QB this year, maybe worse. Will he win this year? My PS2 says no. Colt Brennan stole the Heisman from Tebow and Percy Harvin on my 2007 season which proves that Heisman voters are the same level of curmudgeonly idiotic in virtual reality as they are in everyday life.

As for the Magic, I have often refrained from addressing them in this space due to a fear that my praise of them will immediately result in a drastic downturn in their collective fortune. This, of course, only proves that I’m as big an idiot as the aforementioned Heisman voters, as it should be clear by now that the Magic will, always eventually falter and go back to their familiar, pathetic ways.

Rashard Lewis: All-Star Forward, Part-time Ninja

Except, I don’t really feel like that this year. Make no mistake about it, this Magic team is not ready to make the NBA, or probably even the Eastern Conference, Finals. However this team is for real. I mean, they were #1 in’s weekly Power Ratings this week, which I’m pretty sure is a franchise first. More importantly, they just went 4-1 on a West Coast road trip which is always a good barometer of whether an Eastern Conference team is real or not. They have a better collection of talent than any Magic team in the last decade (I know thats not saying much, but still) and that collection has fit together very nicely on the court thus far. Listen, I was as dubious about the Rashard Lewis signing as anyone (and I still think that he’s overpaid and his contract will be a huge burden on the franchise in 5 years) but his presence has completely changed the feel of this team. He’s a known commodity in the NBA. He gets 20+ points nearly every night and does it in an efficient manner (this can’t be underestimated). By doing this, he opens up space for Dwight Howard to operate in the paint while also lessening the scoring burden on guys like Hedo Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson.

Turkoglu is a fine NBA player but he’s more playmaker than scorer. He can’t be the #2 scoring option on a good NBA team. However, he can thrive as the #3 guy. In this role, Turkoglu can play freely and create shots for himself and his teammates as opposed to feeling like if he doesn’t score 20 then his team has no chance. Furthermore, while the forward combo of Lewis and Hedo is pretty bad defensively, it’s a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses. Both can create off the dribble against less agile big men, and both can shoot well enough that defenses have to honor them, which only opens up driving lanes for Nelson an space in the post for Howard to operate. Of course, having a beast like Dwight Howard roaming the paint makes it much easier for Stan Van Gundy to throw this frontcourt on the floor together. He dominates the paint in most games and he's still not even near his peak. It's really amazing to watch his game mature right in front of you.

There’s another thing that gives me confidence in the 2007-08 Orlando Magic, Stan Van Gundy. I’m serious here. Van Gundy is a very good coach. Everybody seems to forget what he did with the Miami Heat during Dwyane Wade’s rookie year. That team started out 0-9 and was left for dead by the media. But once Van Gundy figured out how to best utilize and motivate his players, the Heat went on a tear and ended up in the 2nd round of the NBA playoffs. Van Gundy is a flexible coach who will tweak his sets to accentuate his player’s strengths. Which is in direct contrast to former head man Brian Hill who refused to push the tempo despite having a young team that didn’t shoot particularly well and needed to get it’s young (and unbelievably athletic) big man some easy buckets. Van Gundy has not only employed an uptempo system and gone with Turkoglu and Lewis at the forwards, he’s also instituted the pick and roll as a staple of the Magic offense. The effect of this is three fold: It gets Howard moving and away from double teams while also forcing defenses to choose whether they want to drop inside to cover the paint (thereby leaving numerous open shooters) or risk giving Howard an easy dunk. Finally, it also simplifies the decision making processes within the halfcourt for Jameer Nelson which, in turn, allows Nelson to play more freely while cutting down on the turnovers which plagued him last year.

While I’ve got more to say about the Magic, this post is running long so I’ll cut it off right here for the time being. I’ll be back soon with more Magic related stuff as well as a number of random thoughts I’ve had over the last week or so of sports.