Kobe’s Haters Became His Motivators

For all of those basketball fans and those in the media who said Kobe Bryant would never win a title without Shaquille O’Neal, and then witnessed it Sunday night, I have two words for you on behalf of Mr. Bryant:

Thank you.

Now why, I’m sure you’re wondering, would someone want to thank their critics?

Simple. You helped to create the seething, teeth-baring, smoke-breathing monster that we saw in this postseason. And all it took fuel him the whole way there was more and more criticism.

He’s a ball hog. Throw out the fact that he had his best shooting percentage during the regular season since 2001-02 — the last year he won a title with Shaq — and you’ll notice that his scoring average went down for the third year in a row, and he shaved off about half a turnover per game, despite also shaving off half an assist per game. But check this out: this year, he played just over 36 minutes a game, his lowest per game average since he became a starter ten years ago.

What does this all mean? That he had a better team around him, that he didn’t have to do it all himself, ergo, he was able to finally trust his teammates. Before this year, the only person that would’ve merited such trust was Derek Fisher (and who was it that got the assist to Fisher for the dagger three-pointer in Game 4 of the finals? Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you to look it up…)

Jerry West, Kobe’s former mentor, proclaims LeBron is the best player in the league. You will not hear me of all people broach this topic now. In my opinion, it’s not a fair scenario (but that’s not my point). When the time came for the league’s two biggest stars to face adversity in their respective conference finals and lead their teams to the next round, Kobe’s team succeeded. LeBron’s did not.

Yes, you can argue that Kobe’s supporting cast answered the bell, while LeBron’s virtually ran away from it, but when crunch time came, when everybody knew that Kobe would have the ball in his hand and was moving for the kill, he got that kill. He proved why he is called “the best closer in the game.”

The Lakers will choke against the Rockets. No Tracy McGrady in the playoffs? No Yao Ming after Game 3? No problem for the Rockets. What bothered me most about this is during this whole run, nobody gave any credit to the Rockets for battling through without their two biggest stars. Everybody made it more of, “the Lakers are blowing it” than, “the Rockets are showing tremendous heart.” And in Game 7, knowing what was at stake, even Kobe had sense enough to know that deferring to his big men, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, would make the difference in the game. (I could go off on a tangent on how people just don’t respect Kobe’s basketball IQ, but I don’t feel like blogging all night.)

The Lakers will choke against the Nuggets. OK, so yes, the Lakers weren’t 100% sharp against the Rockets, the Cavs got pimp-slapped by the Orlando Magic, who had also beaten the Boston Celtics before them. But did it make as much sense to simply jump on the Nuggets bandwagon?

Yes, I’ll agree, the Nuggets wasted the New Orleans Hornets and the Dallas Mavericks, but for probably the same reason why the Cavs killed the Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons: because it was expected. Those lop-sided matchups ended the way they were supposed to, with the more talented team decimating the lesser talented.

Nevertheless, cheering for the Nuggets became the sexy thing to do, especially after the Cavs began to falter in the Eastern Conference Finals. It was the sexy pick for two reasons: a) because they had played such impressive basketball and hadn’t faced any real competition, and b) because all of the LeBron worshippers believed that if the championship wasn’t LeBron’s to win, then Kobe couldn’t have it either. And when the Western Conference Finals were tied after Game 4, everybody just assumed it wasn’t the year for the league’s two best players to square off.

Enter the “angry-dog”-faced Kobe. The rest is history.

The Lakers will choke against the Magic. Ha ha ha ha ha. You guys really thought that would happen? You thought a well-balanced offensive team that won 60-plus games in the league’s tougher conference would succumb to a three-point-shooting freak show? Nothing against the Magic, they played admirably in Games 2, 3, and 4, and without the ghost of Nick Anderson haunting Dwight Howard late in Game 4, Howard hits his free throws, closes out the game and the series is tied.

But the Lakers did what was necessary to win, even when it meant Kobe knowing when to take the back seat and when to defer to someone else. (And don’t forget, even the great Michael Jordan had to learn to defer to John Paxson and Steve Kerr… even after he punched him in the face.) And it seemed only fitting that Kobe and Fisher — the misfit and the disrespected “old man” — teamed up to deliver the crushing blow.

He will never win a title without Shaq. 32.4 points per game, 5.6 rebounds, and 7.4 assists in perhaps the best five-game stretch we’ll ever see from the Black Mamba helped cap off his journey out of basketball purgatory. After the Lakers fell to the Pistons in the 2004 finals and the team was subsequently dismantled with Shaq’s trade to Miami, all the blame fell at Kobe’s feet, some deserved (even from Phil Jackson), some largely undeserved.

Was he young and immature at the time? Yes.

Was he a threat to Shaq’s dominance on the floor and in the locker room? Yes.

But did he show up for training camp three years in a row out of shape and missing games in bunches because of injuries and lack of conditioning? No, but Shaq did.

So when it came time to decide between renewing the contracts of your two biggest superstars that made it clear they could no longer co-exist, GM Mitch Kupchak chose the younger star still yet to enter his prime over the aging one that was about to leave his prime. It was a no-brainer. (Notice I didn’t mention that Kobe had any say in the matter. Why? Because he was ready to go to the freakin’ Clippers!)

When Shaq and Kobe’s run came to an end, there was only room enough for one superstar in everyone’s hearts, and Shaq was the more lovable of the two. He had the funny commercials, the playful demeanor, the locker room and press conference jokes, the bad movies, ridiculous video games and failed music career… well, you get my point.

When the lovable character was removed, the other one took the brunt of the blowback. But they have now both won titles without each other. The divorce is final, and both have moved onto healthy relationships and are very happy. But don’t expect that “Bruce-Demi” relationship to happen because that would make Sasha Vujacic “Ashton”, and I refuse to entertain that scenario because eventually I need to sleep tonight.

We can go back and forth all day about Kobe and Shaq, Kobe and LeBron, etc. But the fact of the matter is that when Kobe Bryant fell after 2004, many believed he would never recover from it. They thought he would create his own self-destruction and forever doom himself and those around him to fail. However, he rose above his mistakes, his critics, and his obstacles to do exactly what people said he couldn’t do: lead a team to a championship. He had plenty of help to get there, from the Lakers’ front office, to his family, to his teammates, to Phil Jackson.

But he also had some big assists from those who preyed on his downfall.

So, once again, thank you.

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Lay Off Crosby Already

Let me get this straight: we just witnessed arguably one of the greatest Stanley Cup finals in modern history, with two of the league’s best players, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and the Pittsburgh Penguins taking on the league’s best team and defending champion in the Detroit Red Wings, battling to the last seconds of the seventh and deciding game to take home the world’s most storied trophy, and after the game we hear complaining because the winning captain didn’t move quickly enough to shake the other captain’s hand?!

REALLY?!

Detroit’s Kris Draper told the Associated Press that after time expired and the Pens initial celebration ended that Red Wings’ captain Nicklaus Lidstrom “was waiting and waiting, and Crosby didn’t come over to shake his hand” in the traditional handshake line.

He then added, “that’s ridiculous, especially as their captain, and make sure you write that I said that.”

Once again, let me try and understand this: the young man who was anointed “The Next One”, succeeding Wayne Gretzky as the face of the NHL (without his permission, I might add),  just helped his team win a championship series against a team that almost nobody in the national media thought they could beat after falling behind 2-0, after missing the last thirty minutes of the game with a knee injury, and nobody expected an outpouring of emotion?

I’d like to think for someone like Draper who has won four championships, he would at least emphasize or understand the importance of winning the first one. I’m sure he wasn’t 100% aware of what to do when he won his first, much less 100% aware of the captain’s duties, considering that he wasn’t a captain, much less the youngest ever to hoist the Cup in league history.

The ironic part of all of this is, after Draper, Lidstrom, and about half the Red Wings left the ice quickly, Crosby made it to the handshake line to greet veteran Detroit’s veteran goaltender Chris Osgood and head coach Mike Babcock, who complemented Crosby on his “great leadership.”

So he shook the coach’s hand, but not the captain’s hand, and that makes him unsportsmanlike?!

It’s not like we’re talking about LeBron James here, who walked off the floor after he and the Cleveland Cavaliers lost the NBA’s Eastern Conference Finals to the Orlando Magic and didn’t shake hands with anybody, much less half the opposing team and head coach, and on top of that, made some lame excuse as to why he didn’t do it (and yes, Cavs fans, simply “being a competitor” is a very lame excuse). Now that is ridiculous.

It’s all very simple, Kris. Your team was supposed to win, and they didn’t. You lost. Tip your cap and move on. It would be different if the Penguins were the team that had won four champions in the last ten years and then were accused of something like this, but they weren’t. You are the one with four titles and fell short of your fifth.

And let’s put something else on the record. When Detroit won the Cup last season on Pittsburgh’s home ice, while the Red Wings celebrated and paraded around with the Cup, most of the Penguins STAYED ON THE ICE to watch. They waited behind to shake hands and respect the tradition. So the fact that you’re complaining about something that trivial, simply because you didn’t feel like sticking around to watch the same exact scene that the men you lost to witnessed last year doesn’t speak to Crosby being unsportsmanlike as much as it does to you being a sore loser.

So when it all comes down to it, who are you really mad at: Sidney Crosby, for enjoying the opportunity to do what so many professional athletes have failed to do, or yourself and your teammates for losing four out of five games after being up 2-0? Throw your blame where it’s deserved, and let the Penguins enjoy their championship. Nobody got in your way and pointed fingers at you over trivial misunderstandings when you won any of your four.

Get over it.

And someone do me a favor. If you know Kris Draper, give him this URL and make sure you tell him that I wrote this.

Losing McLouth was a “Cutch-22”

At the current moment I’m writing this post while watching the Pirates and the Braves in extra innings at Turner Field. Of course this game holds a certain meaning because it’s the Bucs’ first game against their former mate, Nate McLouth. McLouth was traded to Atlanta last week in a move that surprised everybody from team president Frank Coonelly to the players in the clubhouse to the fans. Even McLouth himself was taken aback by the move.

Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington even wrote a letter to the fans explaining the move and how it benefits the team in the long run.

Consequently, the Pirates announced they were re-calling their top outfield prospect, Andrew McCutchen, the same day, and he would make his Major League debut the next day in center field at PNC Park.

McCutchen made quite a splash in his debut, going 2-for-4 with a walk, a stolen base, and three runs scored in an 11-6 win over the Mets. Of course, it wasn’t enough to silence the trade critics for McLouth’s departure, but it was at least something to be excited about.

My feelings on the trade are quite mixed. I was initially frustrated because McLouth was such a likeable player, as well as an All-Star and Gold Glove Award recipient last season. But after hearing about McCutchen’s promotion, I was excited because the Pirates now had a legitimate leadoff hitter. Granted, Nyjer Morgan has done a commendable job so far this season at the top of the order, with a .275 batting average and a .356 on-base percentage, but McCutchen creates an even more exciting option because of his tremendous bat speed and gap power, creating more opportunities for doubles and triples.

And then there’s the reason why McCutchen is actually an upgrade over McLouth: his defense.

While it’s true you can’t replace McLouth’s 26 home runs, 94 RBI’s and league-best 46 doubles from last season, one would wonder why you would replace a 99.7% fielding percentage. The answer is quite simple: McCutchen is faster than McLouth, which means he can cover more ground and make the plays McLouth might make, plus some more that he might not. Also, McCutchen’s arm is stronger. The kid threw a runner from center field early in Spring Training, and it wasn’t lost on anybody.

Pirates fans, I do empathize with you. I’m not more thrilled than the next man to lose such a rare beloved figure in the Pirates’ organization, even at the cost of three minor league prospects. But I am thrilled because McLouth’s exit has led to the beginning of an era for a player who can have a higher impact than the man he replaced.

Yes, the Pirates management has done the dubious deed of trading their entire starting outfield from last year’s Opening Day within the last 11 months, but the truth of the matter is that while Jason Bay, Xavier Nady and Nate McLouth may have been Pittsburgh’s three best players, none of the three would have been among the top 10 in the Major Leagues at the time they were traded (granted Jason Bay has gone on to greener pastures with the Red Sox, hitting .285 with 25 homers, 92 RBI’s and a .951 OPS — on-base  plus slugging percentage —  in only 105 games).

If the Pirates’ best players aren’t among the best in the league, what does that say about the quality of talent in the rest of the organization? I think Huntington’s message is simple: while the team’s talent may be the best it has been in quite some time, it simply isn’t good enough.

With that in mind, this is my theory: Huntington and his staff have determined that this organization is in dire need of impact talent from top to bottom. In order to re-stock that needed talent at each level, they need to liquidate the talent on-hand. I expect to see more trades, players being released and designated for assignment, and moves made to replenish this team with the talent it needs to contend on a perpetual basis.

Yes, the fans are fed up with 16 consecutive seasons of sub par baseball, and rightfully so. Yes, the possibility of a record-setting 17th season appears imminent. But let’s be honest here: most of the fans, media, and so-called “experts” expected it to happen anyway, before this trade took place. So who are we really fooling by being so up in arms about this trade?

The Pirates were expected to lose 81-plus games with McLouth. Losing a few more without him isn’t going to change anything.

And to further illustrate just how much of an impact McCutchen can have: McLouth is 3-for-7 in tonight’s game with a solo home run in the 3rd inning. McCutchen is 4-for-7 with a double and two triples. Both have an RBI and two runs scored, but McCutchen has nine total bases while McLouth only has six. And the game is still tied in the top of the 15th inning.

And I know what some of you are thinking: if they’re willing to part with Bay, Nady and McLouth when they have the best seasons of their careers, how do we know McCutchen won’t be next?

Well, we don’t, just like we don’t know how the Pirates fortunes will change in the future.

For now, it appears they remain about the same. The Braves just scored the game-winning run in the bottom of the 15th inning.

Here Goes Nothing…

Here we are, my third attempt at a sports writing blog. My first two were quite short-lived and I’m hoping to break the record for staying with one blog if only by default.

The first time I tried blogging was with a site I started called bucsblog.com. But after about nine months dating from the end of the 2006 season to the 2007 season, I ended up losing time and interest because I took on a huge endeavor by going back to college to pursue my journalism degree (my first degree in communications was getting me absolutely nowhere).

The second time was the beginning of the 2008 football season. I was one of six or seven writers for the Steel Curtain Times. After about six weeks, most of the writers (including myself) all but fell off the face of the planet. My reasoning for not following through was pretty simple: I just got bored.

When I came up with the idea to start another blog, I tried to realize what it was that made the first two attempts unsuccessful. Then came the first day I planned on writing, where I couldn’t decide what to write about between baseball, the NBA finals, the Stanley Cup finals, or the NFL off-season. And that’s when I realized that I couldn’t sustain one because there are so many things that I like to talk aside from one particular sport.

And to jump around from forum to forum, blog to blog, website to website?  Why make things harder for myself? It’s not like my time isn’t already limited.

So, this is what we’ve come to: Josh Taylor’s Row, where we will talk about just about everything sporting related, ranging from what’s going on currently in the world of sports to whatever the hell I feel like writing about. Maybe it’ll help ease the strain of all these overflowing thoughts. We shall see.

If you’re reading this and plan on reading more in the future, then enjoy. If not, oh well…