Monday, December 28, 2009

You may not know of Brittney Griner, but you should


I'm going to be honest — until I picked up and leafed through my most recent Sports Illustrated, I had no idea who Brittney Griner is. So thank you, SI, for waking me up to one of sports' best stories, and one of its most overlooked.

In case you're like me, here's Brittney's quick bio: She's a freshman center for the Baylor women's basketball team. (Yeah, I know, big news!). But here's the kicker — she dunks basketballs with ease. She makes it look so simple, in fact, that it's not even a story when she throws one down.

As far back as I can remember, there hasn't been a women's basketball player like Griner. She's 6-foot-8, wears 18½-size kicks, has an 88-inch wingspan and dunks like it's nothing. Remember when Candace Parker dunked a few years back? It was huge news, making all the highlight shows. Wow! A woman had dunked.

For Griner, dunking is as simple as tying her shoes. She does it every day in practice. There are a handful of YouTube videos of Griner going through the motions as she throws down one-handed slams, two-handed slams and throws the ball off the backboard to herself for dunks. She executes them as if she's doing the dishes.

The whole story here is that, well, it's not a story. Rather, dunking is just a small part of Griner's game. Never before has a woman's player made dunking a basketball not a big deal. During her freshman season, instead, Griner has received more attention for her shot-blocking abilities. Through her first 12 games at Baylor, she is averaging a ridiculous 6.4 blocks per game. The NCAA record for a season is 5.7 bpg.

And Griner's presence on the floor has completely transformed opponents' game plans. They've tried every kind of zone against her and crowded her like no other player ever before, and on the other end she's affecting shots before they're even attempted. As a result, Baylor is ranked No. 5 and has just one loss (to Tennessee).

The best thing about this story is that it'll only get more deserved attention — Griner's got at least a few more years of college basketball.  There probably aren't a lot more players with Griner's combination of size, length and athleticism coming up through the women's basketball ranks, so for now we should all just enjoy and cherish the unique abilities she brings to the court.

Griner may be just a freshman, but she's already proven that she's a special player who doesn't come along very often. Her defensive presence has even gotten her comparisons to some guy named Bill Russell. Too soon? Definitely (and comparing men's and women's players is kind of pointless to me). But that speaks to just how dominating and overwhelming her game is. And the Russell comparison also says this — observers of Griner's game can't think of a past women's player who matches up.

Did I mention that she dunks like it's akin to putting on socks? According to SI, she has six jams in her arsenal and is working on adding a windmill. No, she doesn't come close to matching the dunks of even unimpressive men dunkers, but given context, her nonchalent throw-downs are impressive and historic.

And, to many, unknown. 

So spread the word. And if you're still unsure, watch her videos. Brittney Griner is in a class of her game. A women's hoops player like we've never seen before.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Roger Federer is my male professional athlete of the decade


I heard an interesting discussion on the radio this morning, and now I can't help but dive into it -- because I disagree, can you believe that?, with both of the show's hosts' opinions.

The debate: Who is the athlete of the decade?

When thinking about this question, I must lay out just a few criteria:

1. It can't be an athlete who's only been around for, say, six years. I want someone who has performed at an extremely high level since Y2K.

2. The athlete must have won multiple championships. One of the hosts threw out Peyton Manning only to get bludgeoned by the other. Manning's been great, he's graced the cover of SI several times ... but he has just one championship.

And that's it.

My pick? Roger Federer.

Didn't have to think twice. Let me hit you with the numbers.

2000: In his second professional season, Federer reached the third round at the Australian and U.S. opens.

2001: Federer won his first ATP tournament and won three matches for Switzerland in the Davis Cup in the same month. Then he made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, beating four-time champ Pete Sampras to get there. Not bad for a kid who wasn't even 20 yet.

2002: Federer won his first Masters Series final and beat two former world No. 1s in the Davis Cup against Russia.

And then he really began his ascension to the best in the world.

2003: Won Wimbledon, his first major.

2004: Took the tennis world by storm, winning the Australian and U.S. Opens and repeating at Wimbledon (4 career grand slams).

2005: Wimbledon, U.S. Open (6).

2006: Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open (9). Runner-up at French Open to Rafael Nadal.

2007: Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open (12). Runner-up at French Open to Nadal.

2008: U.S. Open (13). Runner-up at French Open to Nadal.

2009: Won the French Open, finally, and Wimbledon to claim the all-time grand slams record with 15. Was the runner-up at the other two majors -- and could have easily won either of them.

I mean, name me a year in which Federer wasn't great? Critics said he was losing it in 2008 -- and he still managed to win a major and lose to Nadal in what was the most epic major-championship final ever at Wimbledon.

I guess the first three years have to be looked at as his down years, because he hadn't won a major yet. But he was still a top-10 player. He wasn't a no-name. People knew he was going to become good.

If not this great, if not the-best-of-all-time great.

Here's the mind-boggling statistic that points to Federer's consistent greatness, to his never having an off day: When he made the semifinals of the '09 U.S. Open, it marked his 22nd consecutive berth in a grand-slam semifinal. Yes, if my math skills are correct, he hasn't been eliminated in the first five rounds of a major since the 2004 French Open.

That's consistency at about its highest level.

So why is Federer more deserving than Tiger Woods, than Albert Pujols, than Kobe Bryant?

Well, let's dismiss Pujols first. And believe me, this isn't easy -- he's been nothing short of amazing. Including his 2001 rookie season, he has hit at least .314 every year with more than 30 home runs. And he might, actually, have avoided the performance-enhancing-drugs phenomenom (although we can never know for sure).

But then there's this: He's only won a single championship -- and it was in a World Series (2006) that the Detroit Tigers lost as much as the St. Louis Cardinals won.

OK, let's move on to Tiger -- and this is easy.

Woods, like Federer, has dominated an individual sport. But he hasn't quite, simply, been as dominant as Federer. And that's despite the fact that he was already experienced and a two-time major winner entering the decade.

Woods had his greatest year in 2000, winning the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. And he followed that up by completing the Tiger Slam with a win at the '01 Masters. After two more majors in 2002, however, he then had two down years with no majors, including the '04 season that featured just one win. In fact, he was only fourth on the PGA Tour money list in '04 as he battled swing changes.

Woods had very good 2005 and '06 seasons, winning two majors apiece, and then added one each in 2007 and '08 -- with the second victory his amazing, one-legged, comeback thriller at the U.S. Open. But he again went dry in 2009 despite pronouncing his health better than before his leg surgery.

So that leaves him with 12 majors for the decade and six runner-up finishes to Federer's 15 and four.

And Woods had a handful of majors in which he was never a factor.

I'll take Federer.

Finally, there's Bryant. He's won all four of his NBA titles during the decade. He's been among the league leaders in scoring and MVP votes most of the decade. And, well, he's been one of the top three players in the league for basically the entire decade -- and competed against studs such as LeBron, D-Wade and 'Melo.

But here's the knock on Bryant: He won those first three titles with Shaquille O'Neal, who was named the MVP of the NBA Finals each time. Then, when Shaq ditched L.A., Bryant struggled to do anything with his team for three straight seasons.

Obviously, in team sports other contributors are needed to help a star win championships. But during those down years, Bryant was often seen as selfish and disliked by teammates. He didn't do much to assuage such opinions and created all kinds of controversy around the team by saying he wanted to be traded, then refuting his statement, then reiterating it.

No doubt, Bryant has been amazing. But not on Federer's level.

The other "athlete" mentioned was Jimmie Johnson, who has won four consecutive NASCAR Spring Cup championships. I'll admit it -- I hardly follow NASCAR beyond knowing who wins the Cup each year. And maybe Johnson's greatness is as good as it gets. But he didn't reach the pinnacle of his sport until 2006.

So Johnson gets my vote for the best athlete of the last half of this decade.

There are arguments for others, no doubt, but when you look at the numbers and remember the moments, nobody has been better, nobody more clutch, and nobody more consistent than Roger Federer.

My top 7
1. Federer
2. Bryant
3. Johnson
4. Woods
5. Pujols
6. Tom Brady

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tiger should follow Kobe's lead


Here's a little game. Some think-quick questions:

Question: What's the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ... Tiger Woods?

Sample answer: Scandal. Cheater. Idiot. Womanizer. ... Oh, and he's a pretty good golfer, too.

Question: What comes to mind when I mention ... Kobe Bryant?

Answer: One of the NBA's top three players, four-time NBA champion, he finally won without Shaq.

OK, no more games. Here's my point. Right now, and likely for another year or two, no mention of Woods — whether at a business meeting, a cocktail outing or on a party boat — will go without reference to how he completely tarnished his image in the course of two weeks. Regardless of the measures he and his people take to to try to mend his image, the main Tiger conversation will be about his infidelity, his inability to drive out of his driveway and what, exactly, happened involving his beautiful wife, a 9-iron and the back window of his Escalade.

And Tiger deserves all of it. He deserves to be booed at tournaments whenever he returns from his indefinite leave from golf. He deserves to have to answer difficult questions at press conferences and on television. Yes, this is his "private life," but scrutiny of his personal life comes with his fame (along with all those endorsements, cash and black-tie events). Sorry, Tiger.

But there should be, if Tiger can see this far ahead, a place not too far down his career path when Tiger could go back to simply being called the world's greatest golfer and, still a possibility, the best to ever play the game.

Bryant, an athlete of similar fame and achievement, can vouch for such a scenario. In fact, maybe Woods needs to sit down with the Lakers star for advice.

You'd never know it from hearing people casually talk about Bryant today, but six years ago he was in a quagmire similar to Woods' current mess. Quick recap: In the summer of 2003, he was accused of rape. That charge was eventually dismissed, but Bryant admitted to adultery. He had never been exposed for negative off-the-court behavior. No legal issues, no family problems.

Just like that, however, Bryant was despised by the American public. Even after he made the right move by holding a tear-filled press conference in which he admitted his infidelity — I'd advise Woods to hold a similar presser and drop some tears while holding his children at the podium — he was booed and heckled at opposing arenas throughout the 2003-04 season as his case progressed. It was a season from hell for the All Star.

But then the case was dismissed. And the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs. And the lazy days of summer took over.

And by the following fall, the only questions surrounding Bryant were how he'd deal with not playing alongside O'Neal for the first time in his career. Cheating on his wife? A rape charge? ... What??? All in the past. Water under the bridge, kids.

Now, after an NBA title last June, Bryant is once again revered in NBA circles. His teammates love him. His fans absolutely adore him. His jerseys are sold worldwide . His world is one of perfection, almost — kind of like the one Woods inhabited, at least in the public's view, until Thanksgiving.

So, Tiger, I know I'm not one to give you, the man, advice. But it's really simple. If you get back to playing golf and swallow the pills that you deserve. If you find a way to save your marriage and be a good family man (Bryant might recommend a pricey diamond ring; just ask his wife). And if you get back to being the world's supreme golfer and winning majors ... well, that's all anyone will talk about.

And here's the added bonus for you, as you begin this comeback: You play a sport that you can stick with, at a very competitive level, for another 20-plus years. If you do your thing, nobody in 2033 will be talking about your nine (or so) affairs way back in the first decade of the century. PUH-lease! It'll be all about how you broke Jack Nicklaus' majors record with that amazing chip on the 17th hole of the 2016 US Open. And, of course, golf lifers will reminisce about where they were when you won the Open on a broken leg (I'll never forget that I was at a family reunion).

The thing about sports is that they're all about the present. One week, a certain image might capture your attention. The next, you'll have completely forgotten about it thanks to a new amazing moment, a new astounding play.

It'll take awhile for Tiger Woods to get back to being, simply, that amazing golfer (especially while he's on this leave from golf). But after a couple years of dominance on the course, assuming he won't let his personal issues affect his play on the course (he certainly didn't struggle while having these supposed affairs), Woods will return to his old self.

And be thought of as his old self. In other words, Tiger Woods the golfer — not Tiger Woods the very flawed person.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Wie maturing on a healthy diet of golf, college and Spam


Quick quiz: How old is Michelle Wie?

Based on how long she's been around -- did Brett Favre's or her career start first? -- you'd think she's at least 25, maybe starting to bang on that door of the 30s.

Um, no. How 'bout not even drinking age? That's right -- Wie is just 20 years old. It really does seem like an eternity ago when she took the golf world by storm as a precocious 13-year-old focused on playing with the men and showing up veteran golfers across the world.

That was then. Read this Sports Illustrated article and you'll see that Wie -- despite the teenage fits, despite the overbearing coaching style of her parents, despite the endorsements, the fame, the money -- has turned out just fine. Actually, it's pretty incredible that Wie has become, almost, a normal college student at Stanford who loves Spam, hangs out with a large group of friends and, get this, is even frugal.

Frugal? If I had millions of dollars at that age, I think I might upgrade from Spam. Just a thought.

But this column isn't about Spam. I'll be sure to dedicate a future column (non on this blog, mind you) to the utterly disgusting food. This is about the maturation of a famous athlete both as a player and a person.

Who knows how good of a career Wie will have? That's as unpredictable as the economy. But she did pick up her first LPGA victory recently, showing grit in the final round to stave off a strong field of contenders. Learning how to win is a big, big part of becoming a top-notch pro, especially as a golfer out there on the course alone. Wie did that, and now here, less than a month later, she has greater confidence as she prepares for the 2010 season.

Is she stressing about building off the win? Absolutely not. She's more concerned about her papers that are due, her finals coming up. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Wie is her ability to balance schoolwork at a top-notch institution along with playing golf professionally. She'll graduate from Stanford in the next couple years, and still have plenty of good years on the golf course ahead.

Perhaps the biggest indication of her maturity is what her competitors are saying, and they're not just praising her because of her importance, marketing-wise, when it comes to the LPGA's success. Just a couple years ago, they were sick of her childish behavior and pompousness on the links.

And now? "So many players have come up to me this year and said, 'Wow, Michelle is a really cool, really sweet, really down-to-earth girl,'" Natalie Gulbis was quoted in the SI article.

Having friends and admirers, of course, doesn't win tournaments. And neither does getting A's in college. But from all indications, Wie has found a happy balance in life -- and is playing the best golf of her career as a result.