basketball

Exit 92. Unfortunately, I can’t change him. But…

(This appears to be about sports, but if you’re one of those sportsball haters, I hope you still read it, because there’s more to this than sports.)

I just got back from the Sacramento Kings basketball game.  This team has been driving me crazy the last few weeks.  They won five games in a row, which put them in position to make the playoffs, which has not happened this late in the season since a decade ago.  Then they lost four games in a row, removing them from playoff contention for now.  Then they won tonight, even though they were without their top scorer, center DeMarcus Cousins, due to a sprained ankle.

DeMarcus Cousins was recently named to the All-Star team for the second consecutive year; last year was the first time the Kings had had an All-Star since 2004.  In one recent game (the last of the five consecutive wins), Cousins scored a career-high 48 points, then two nights later he topped that, scoring 56 points in a double-overtime loss and tying the Sacramento-era record (this is the team’s 31st season since moving to Sacramento).  Many sports writers are calling him the most talented center in the league right now.

However, there is a down side behind all that raw talent.  Cousins is known for being short-tempered.  He often is among the league leaders in technical fouls received for arguing with the officials.  He has been known to lash out in frustration, not only at officials, but sometimes at his own coaches.  Usually, however, such behavior is accompanied by an eventual apology.  Some say he is not a good team player.  Some say that he is lazy, not playing as hard as he could, and he has let himself get a little out of shape.

I feel a certain sort of camaraderie with DeMarcus Cousins, because I can be the same way sometimes.  I am also short-tempered, in a way that affects my ability to express my talents.  I have often acted in frustration and subsequently apologized.  And I have been known to start unnecessary arguments when things don’t go my way.  I don’t necessarily believe in this, but my mom would probably say that Cousins and I are so similar because we are both Leos.

I want to see Cousins succeed.  I want to see him grow up and calm down, so he can focus on being one of the world’s elite basketball players.  I want to see him play hard and shake the reputation for being lazy.  I want to see him take bad calls in stride and not lose his cool, so he can help the Kings bounce back and be a better team.

Unfortunately, I can’t change him.

But I can change myself.

I can work on my own temper.  I can avoid unnecessary arguments when I’m angry.  I can work hard at my goals and not let myself get distracted.  I’ve never met DeMarcus Cousins, and I may never meet him, and working on all these things in myself will probably not affect his play or his personal growth in any way.  But working on these things myself might help someone else, a younger friend or one of the kids I work with, before it’s too late for them.

Exit 79. You have to admire that kind of loyalty.

Sometimes, I have to acknowledge that people I don’t like, or people who support a cause I don’t support, have qualities that I admire.

Last night I watched the Sacramento Kings play the Los Angeles Lakers (that’s basketball, for you non-sports people).  The Kings won.  They led by 31 points at one point, and ended up winning by 18.  It was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  Northern California sports fans, like me, do not like Los Angeles teams.  That’s just the way things work.  Also, these two teams in particular have a very tense history beyond the typical North vs. South rivalry.  The Lakers are one of the most successful franchises in the histoy of the NBA, having won 16 league championships in their history.  The Kings have only won one championship in franchise history, in 1951, long before they moved to Sacramento, and when the league only had 11 teams instead of today’s 30.  Los Angeles, of course, gets much more attention from the media than Sacramento.  And the Kings’ best chance to win a championship in Sacramento, in 2002, was cut short in a playoff game against the Lakers that featured so many biased calls from the referees, including no foul on Kobe Bryant after elbowing Mike Bibby in the face and knocking him bleeding to the floor, that it has spawned conspiracy theories about being fixed.

The Lakers have fallen on hard times in recent years, however.  Last year, they had two games left, and they needed one more win to avoid having the worst winning percentage in franchise history.  They finished their season with two games against the Kings, one in Sacramento (which I attended) and one in Los Angeles, and the Kings won both.  Games in Sacramento against the Lakers are always tense, not only because of that history, but because there are a lot of Laker fans up here.  Most fans of visiting teams who show up to watch their team play the Kings are pretty decent.  They’re just there to see their favorite teams and players and see a good game.  Most Laker fans, though, make a point of being the biggest thuggish foul-mouthed jerks possible.  They boo the Kings and their star players.  They act annoyed when Kings fans cheer for the home team, as if we have no right to be there in our own arena.  And they keep rubbing 2002 in our faces.  (Of course, I do know a few decent and well-behaved Laker fans.  The next paragraph does not apply to them.)

As I said, the Lakers looked absolutely pathetic last night through the whole first half, trailing by 24 at halftime.  They started to chip away at the lead later in the game, but the Kings led by at least 15 for the entire second half.  The Lakers have not won yet this season (although they, like the Kings, had only played one game before Friday night’s game).  You can’t spell LAst pLAce without LA.  And yet Laker fans were just as loud and dirty as ever, putting down the Kings and cheering on their team that was getting embarrassed on the court.  There was one two seats over from me, and, had the Lakers actually gone ahead in the fourth quarter, I probably would have had to ask my friend to restrain me physically from punching this guy in the face.

The point I’m trying to make here: You have to admire that kind of loyalty.  Not that kind of behavior or attitude, but loyalty.

I don’t really see that kind of loyalty in a lot of Kings fans, at least not as a group.  The building is rarely packed these days like it was in 2002.  I know a lot of people who gave up on the Kings when the team started to fall apart in 2006, and who refuse to go to any more games because of the way the owners behaved in 2006-13, despite the fact that those owners are gone and have nothing to do with the team anymore.  A few years ago, when it looked like the team was going to be moving, I knew people who called themselves Kings fans who said that they wished the team would hurry up and move just so the drama would be over.  As Inigo Montoya might say, you keep using that word “fan.”  I do not think it means what you think it means.  This all makes me sad.

Real fans don’t give up on their team when the team is doing badly.  And for as much as I don’t like the Lakers, and I don’t like obnoxious trolling fans who show up at the other team’s venue and act like jerks, I can’t deny that I admire them for sticking with their team even when they do badly.

Exit 45. Who is this guy, and why am I taking my picture with him?

I recently attended the Sacramento Kings Team Breakfast, an event for season ticket holders.  In addition to the free food that gave the event its name, there was a raffle, face painting for the kids, and locker room tours.  Fans also had the opportunity to line up in several spots to take pictures with one or two players and a team dancer, and kids had the opportunity to line up and shoot baskets with players and coaches.  The event ended with radio announcer Gary Gerould hosting a question-and-answer session with new coach George Karl and most of the players.

The players involved in the photo opportunities rotated every few minutes, probably to avoid a situation where everyone would line up at the same spot to take their picture with the big names, but that had the side effect that fans didn’t know who they would get to meet when they lined up.  I stood in line for about 20-30 minutes, and when I first got far enough in line to see who was posing for pictures on the court, it was Nik Stauskas and Derrick Williams.  Then after a few minutes, Ben McLemore and Ray McCallum rotated in for pictures.  They were both draft picks from the year I became a season ticket holder, I’ve been watching them for their whole careers, so I was excited about that opportunity.  They rotated out before I got to the front of the line, but Rudy Gay took their spot.  I was excited about that; he is one of the team’s big scoring threats, and he is a two-time FIBA World Cup gold medalist with Team USA.  I was next in line to get my picture taken with Rudy Gay when something happened.

In order to get through the line more quickly, they opened up a second spot to take photos on the court, with people alternating between the two.  An arena staff member pushed me to the second photo station to get my picture taken with some other guy I didn’t recognize.  The person waiting behind me got to meet Rudy Gay instead.  Who is this guy, and why am I taking my picture with him?

“How are you doing?” the guy said.  “Good,” I replied, but I was so stunned at what happened that he could probably feel the disappointment in my voice.  I asked three staff members who he was once I was out of earshot, and none of them knew either.

I found out later, during the question-and-answer session when they introduced all the players participating, that the guy I was photographed with was Eric Moreland.  Eric Moreland is an undrafted rookie who the Kings signed this year.  He had gone back and forth several times between the Kings active roster and their D-League team, the Reno Bighorns (for you who don’t follow basketball, that’s basically the minor league team for players who are still developing their skills), until he got hurt a couple months into the season.  He had surgery in January and will miss the rest of the season.

Once my mind finished processing everything that had happened, I realized that I had acted like kind of a jerk.  I felt bad for not recognizing Eric Moreland, and I felt bad for not being more excited at the chance to take my picture with him.  Being an undrafted rookie dealing with an injury, he probably doesn’t get many opportunities like this to be in the spotlight.  I was the first fan in that line who got to meet him, and I acted disappointed.  How would I feel if I were in his situation?  I finally get to take pictures with fans, and the first one to come along acts like he wants to be photographed with the other guy instead.  I sure wouldn’t like that.  If I ever again get the chance to meet Eric Moreland, I’m going to apologize.  And if he heals from this injury and plays for the Kings again, I’m going to cheer for him like crazy.

I’ve also learned that if they ever do this event again, if I want to be photographed with players, I should get in that line early, so I have time to get more than one picture with a player.  In fact, I’ll skip the food entirely and eat what’s left on the way out.

Exit 17. Change one word, and the hypocrite is me.

Disclaimer: This week’s post is pretty much all about sports.  If you don’t like sports, I suggest you read it anyway, because there are some life lessons at the end.  If you don’t even like sports enough to get some life lessons, then please read any of my other 16 posts on this blog.  Maybe you’d rather read about geekbullying or a certain early 90s teen pop band or being an introvert.

During the recent 2014 soccer World Cup, as well as the 2010 World Cup, I remember reading a few Facebook posts from Americans who were actively rooting for Team USA to lose.  Now I’m not talking about people who have a loyalty to another country because of their ancestry, or because they lived there, or because they have a favorite player from that country.  I don’t have an inherent problem with that.  I see that as no different in principle from Vega* the Nice Ex, who grew up in Colorado and was a Broncos and Avs fan despite the fact that she lived in northern California when we were dating.  We never fought about that.  We never fought about anything, for that matter, which is why I refer to her in front of my friends who don’t know her as The Nice Ex.

(* Again, this is me using names of stars, planets, moons, etc. to refer to people from my past and present in an anonymous fashion.  The Nice Ex was not actually named Vega.)

But anyway, I’m talking about people who actively root for the Americans to lose, no matter who they are playing against, and who would not be happy if Team USA were to win the World Cup, simply because they don’t like aspects of American culture or politics, or they don’t like the way Team USA plays soccer.  You’re entitled to your opinions; this is America, after all, land of free speech.  And people with that last reason usually know more about soccer than I do.  But I’m entitled to my opinion too, and my opinion of those people is that they’re a bunch of jerks who are ungrateful for all the freedoms they have in this country, and if they hate America so much, maybe they should like move to North Korea or something.

because_merica_thats_why_us_flag_american_eagle_sw

There’s one serious problem with this view: Go back to that description, change one word, and the hypocrite who deserves to be deported is me.  Specifically, change “soccer” to “basketball.”

Before 1992, NBA players were not allowed to play in the FIBA Basketball World Cup or the Olympics.  Those two tournaments were historically intended for amateur players, and the decision to open them to NBA players was somewhat controversial at the time.  The 1992 USA men’s basketball team, nicknamed the Dream Team by the media, was widely hyped as being the best basketball team of all time, featuring such stars as Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Chris Mullin.  They went on to dominate the rest of the world in the Olympics.

I was a precocious 15-year-old during those Olympics, with an opinion on everything… specifically, an opinion that wasn’t always well formed.   I was a purist, and I felt that professionals didn’t belong in the Olympics.  And I was tired of the hype surrounding this team.  The final straw was when I read an article about how the warmup suits were manufactured by Reebok, and this was a problem because some of the players on the team were under contract with Nike and not allowed to wear clothing containing a logo of one of Nike’s competitors.  To me, this represented everything wrong with this setup… if the Olympics were kept pure, without NBA primae donnae, they wouldn’t have these money-driven sponsorship issues.  So I decided to root for the USA to lose.  I was going for Lithuania (even though they had a few NBA players too), because my dad liked Lithuania’s tie-dye practice jerseys, designed by the Grateful Dead.  Lithuania won bronze.

lithuania front 2008

(By the way, the Nike players ended up draping flags around their shoulders at the medal ceremonies to cover the Reebok logos.)  I can remember being actively anti-USA Basketball also in the 1996 Olympics.  After that, I was mostly just neutral toward Olympic basketball and the FIBA World Cup.

But this year is different.  This year, I have a reason to follow USA Basketball at the upcoming FIBA World Cup.  Since a year ago, I have had season tickets to the Sacramento Kings, and I attended 23 of their 44 home games last season.  This is a team that has been stuck in a quagmire of rebuilding, and last year was the first year that they were not also stuck in a quagmire of incompetent ownership.  Kings fans haven’t had much to be excited about over the last decade, but things are slowly, slowly starting to turn around.  And two members of this Kings team, DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, will be playing for the USA at the FIBA World Cup.  (And, just as importantly when it comes to motivating me to want to root for this team: Kobe Bryant won’t be playing.)  After watching these two on the NBA court, I think the international experience will be good for them, and I’d like to see how they do.  Being out there with some of the best players of the game to represent their country is bigger than team rivalries and bigger than corporate sponsorships.

So I officially recant my former anti-USA Basketball position.  And I officially apologize to all the US Soccer haters.  You have your reasons, and I don’t agree with them, but I’m not going to judge you for it.  I haven’t walked in your shoes.

One more exhibition game Tuesday morning against Slovenia.  First game of the tournament Saturday afternoon against Finland.  Game on.