Thursday, March 31, 2011

Why Dennis Rodman should be in the Hall of Fame

When the Hall of Fame announces their 2011 class on Sunday, Dennis Rodman's name should be among those called. Cast aside his flamboyant personality and extravagant lifestyle, there's more than enough evidence that Rodman was a HOF-caliber talent on the court.

1. At only 6-7, Rodman led the NBA in rebounding for a record 7 consecutive years, averaging highs of 18.7 and 18.3 in 1991 and 1992. His 13.1 career average ranks 10th in NBA history and is the highest since 1973. He ranks 4th all time in offensive rebounds (4,329) and his career of 34 rebounds is the 3rd highest since 1973. Simply put, Rodman is the greatest rebounding forward ever.

2. He was the most versatile NBA defender in his prime. The Worm was a 7-time All-Defensive 1st Teamer (8 selections total) and 2-time Defensive Player of the Year that could guard all 5 positions like a shadow. Despite being an undersized power forward, he challenged the bigs of the NBA and made them work for every basket and rebound. Ask Shawn Kemp and Karl Malone in the 96-98 NBA Finals.

3. He's a winner. It's no surprise that when the NBA named their 10 greatest teams in 1996, two of Rodman's teams (89-90 Pistons, 95-96 Bulls) made the list. The 5-time NBA champion played a vital role on each of those teams and prior to Tim Duncan's arrival, he helped key the San Antonio Spurs best playoff run in 1995 to the Western Conference Finals.  

4. He controlled the game without scoring. Despite only averaging 7.3 points in his career, Rodman made his mark with a combination of exceptional rebounding (based on his studying of how balls caromed off the rim), hustle, intense defense and mind games to frustrate his opponents. He twice made the All-NBA Third Team despite not averaging double figures in scoring those years.  No less authority than Lakers coach Phil Jackson called him the smartest player he's ever coached.

5. He was the ultimate teammate. He sacrificed his offense to contribute in other ways and more often than not, those around him reaped the benefits. It's no surprise David Robinson won his only MVP in 1995 with Rodman by his side and when Michael Jordan needed extra support for his first full season after his comeback, he asked his old Pistons rival to suit up. It's hard to find a teammate who has a bad thing to say about him on the court

It'd be a crime if Dennis Rodman's personal life and off-the-court antics overshadowed the Hall of Fame resume of one of the greatest defenders/rebounders of the last 40 years. Hopefully the voters will do the right thing and give NBA fans the chance to appreciate a legend as well as enjoy what's sure to be one of the best induction speeches ever.

Everybody Hates Chris? Why I Don't

I'm not looking to change minds on how people feel about Chris Brown two years after the incident. I'm looking to opening your mind to see why I've been in his corner. His latest incident on Good Morning America plus his appearance on Dancing With the Stars Tuesday has brought out the usual number of folks who are angry at him.

I criticized him right away because it was stupid and irresponsible. Robin Roberts is a professional and if he got upset over that, then he needs to chill out and get his head right. What did he expect? He acted a fool and deserved to be treated like an idiot.

Yet I don't see a monster. I see a 21-year old who's trying to figure out his life. I see someone struggling with his identity as he embraces a bad boy image (and a terrible dye job) while still trying to endear himself to his mostly young, female fanbase.He hasn't accepted his scarlet letter because he's trying to show he's more than that.

I root for him because he's still young with plenty of time to repair his life. He assaulted Rihanna at 19. I can think of many folks who did dumb stuff at 19 that they are grateful doesn't follow them into their late 20's and 30's.

At college I saw many at 18 and 19 who acted stupid, partied hard and/or faced legal trouble. By the time we graduated and beyond, they've moved well passed that to have good lives and be responsible adults. Did all of them commit crimes? No, unless you count underage drinking. Maybe it's not assault but most of us have dark spots on our reputation that we wish folks wouldn't bring up as we try to move past it.

It's the same with Chris. He's turning 22 this year and he has plenty of time to show that he's grown from that incident.

Second, he's has been punished quite enough for what he did. He's lost a year of his career, which is everything in this fickle pop age. He's lost respect and fans that he will never get back. Most of all, he has to live with what he did. Folks are quick to say he doesn't seem repentant in public but living with guilt, working to forgive yourself and being reminded of what you did daily is enough a cross to bear.

Too often we punish folks (celebs or criminals) because it makes us feel good instead of having it fit the crime.  I believe Chris has served his penance and I'd rather see him show that he's sorry by living his life and being a better man instead of saying it every time. If Rihanna has a chance to reclaim and reshape her career, so should Chris.

Michael Vick needed Tony Dungy to reclaim his life. Something Chris Brown needs too.
This leads to my most important reason. I see Chris like I see so many young men who don't have mentors to guide them. Many young Black men lack an older male role model who can teach them how to cope with adversity and give them sound advice they NEED to hear. I see plenty of immaturity because he isn't being shown - as opposed to being told - how to grow up.

Chris grew up with an abusive father. He inherited that attitude without knowing it because most young people don't realize they carry parental attitudes until 18-21 years old. I vowed to be different than my Dad until I realized in college that I began to act like him and had to embrace that.

He had no way of knowing Rihanna would bring out the anger in him yet unfortunately, he didn't take steps when that anger began to come out. He's embracing the bad boy look by cursing more and not caring how he's perceived yet it feels forced and not authentic. What he needs now is somebody to advise him to be himself and have his back while not being afraid to call him out privately.

He needs a Tony Dungy to his Michael Vick. An older R&B star who wants to see him grow as a man because he has some much ahead of him. An older figure who'll coach him on how to handle the media and look everyone straight in the eye.

I salute writer/activist Kevin Powell for writing this letter to Chris coming from the perspective of not just an older male, but someone who had bad history with women and risked his career because of it. This is what Chris needs. Not just scolding but advice on how to handle situations now. He doesn't need jail, he needs to open his eyes and ears and somebody needs to teach him.

You may say I'm being far too kind and delicate. But I care about him as a man with potentially a lot of power to impact others. What good is it to punish someone if you can't also teach them how to be better.

I've spoken to several victims of abuse and I can understand why they won't forgive him because they know what Rihanna went through. I've debated my views on him for the past 2 years with folks who take a hard line stance. You might even wonder why I'm easy on Chris and not Ben Roethlisberger (because at worst, he forced himself on two women and gotten off far easier publicly than Chris has despite being older and having a higher profile).

Chris needs to grow up and understand the world. As he promotes the #1 CD in America, he's gonna have to face questions about Rihanna like Vick faced about dogfighting last fall. He will mess up. That's part of the road to recovery. As long as he does more good than bad, providing that bad doesn't include violence against women.

If he wants to reclaim his life, he has to start with his head high, face the music and start wising up before he loses. But I'm willing to give him more room for now because he needs it after we criticize him.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Three Cheers and Trepidation with VCU

First off, a moment of silence for my bracket and the millions of others that went up in smoke this weekend....

(It was all good just a week ago)

Now slap me in the head for not trusting UConn since I've seen them all year. They demolished Kentucky in the Maui tournament and made those freshmen look downright average compared to John Wall and Co. last year. They've won nearly every big game they needed to win. Kemba Walker has run out of superlatives for his play while Jeremy Lamb is having his coming out party. Did I really think my Blue Devils were gonna beat them?

(By the way, Duke got the crap kicked out of them worse than any team in 20 years. Not since the 1990 title game when UNLV overwhelmed them physically, mentally, athletically. Hard to argue why Derrick Williams isn't the best Pac-10 prospect since James Harden)

Aside from praising UConn and John Calipari making his Final Four debut**, the fact that No. 11 seed VCU is in the Final Four is both a great story and a problem. It's great for Shaka Smart coaching his boys up and catching fire from the perimeter and for those of us who remember former guard Eric Maynor beating Duke in 2007. It's great because this is one of the greatest runs in March Madness history. 

Yet it's a problem. It's the 1st time that all 4 No. 1 and No. 2 seeds are gone before the Final Four. But like most folks, I didn't have much faith in the No. 1 seeds this year because while they were great, they weren't dominant teams and for the first time, I filled out my bracket with no clearcut idea who would win. 

The No. 2's were almost the same. UNC and Florida were great teams but they had their shortcomings. Notre Dame was overrated and San Diego State's great year fell victim to the UConn buzzsaw. 

There's reason for parity in college basketball. This year's freshman class was the weakest in 5 years besides Harrison Barnes and Jared Sullinger. Nearly all of this year's top players didn't look like exciting NBA talent. More upsets happened because teams just weren't that good and teams like Arizona, UConn and Kentucky came together at the right time. 

Butler's a great story, being the first mid-major to reach back-to-back Final Fours since UNLV in 1990 and 1991. VCU's even greater for this year. But it's also a byproduct of a weak season that inadvertently added to the March drama.

The bigger problem with VCU's success, though, is the folks who'll use this to justify expanding the tournament. They'll say that thanks to the First Four, teams can go on a miracle run in a similar way. Nevermind the fact that expanding the tournament is watering down the field even more in a watered down era of college basketball.

While some teams get screwed every year from the Big Dance, letting in more teams isn't the answer.  Expanding it to 96 teams gives the Selection Committee an out for their mistakes while bringing in more teams who have no business being there.

Case in point, the Big East had 11 teams in this year's tourney. How did that work out? The Pac-10 didn't deserve more than 3 teams (not counting USC in the First 4). Mid-major conference bids should be determined by how teams do outside of conference not just finishing top 3. 

Too much of anything is never good. Pretty soon, we're gonna be letting in every team that finishes .500 and while we may love the drama, the tournament will lose it's magic as folks will tune out average games while waiting for the better ones. 

VCU is gonna inadvertently give the powers that be more reason to want to recreate their success. Each win should be praised but it could be a case of backhanded praise if the NCAA meddles in this story. 

I'm still ready to enjoy this unlikeliest of Final Fours, but it's a strange case of wondering if this is all good or just a sign of the times. 

**Somehow I doubt Coach Cal is gonna get this trip removed from his resume like he did at Memphis and UMass. But the fact he did it without an All-American or much fanfare is impressive.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

At the Crossroads: Hobby or Career

There's a point in life where you have to step back and assess what you've done while looking at where you're headed. If you've read anything I've written, you know how much I treasure my writing as much as any skill I have. Yet now, I'm facing a battle in my mind about what I'm going to do with it.

When I left my sports editor position last year, I knew that I was going to have to face a reality where being a journalist was no longer my main meal ticket. My former editor who spent 30+ years at the paper once told me on the job that with the way newspapers are heading, you have to make this a hobby and find other ways to eat. I didn't understand him then but when I decided to leave, it made more sense.

Folks aren't reading as much as they used to. In this age of soundbytes, pictures, fast info and flashy graphics, it's rare to find folks who actually want to sit down, stop and read something thats informative or well-thought out. Factor in that newspapers are stale by the time they reach your door and it's hard to imagine them not fully transitioning to the digital world in the next 20 years.

With my blog, I never started this thinking that I'd become a celebrity on the blogosphere. I didn't do this for fame or attention but I also didn't do this to be another online journal either. I wanted to be fun, original and share a piece of my mind knowing full well it was an escape from only writing from a certain perspective at the paper.

I write about sports mainly because thats my passion and hopefully my career. Yet this year, I've tried to write more about music and my other issues because I don't want sports alone to define me here. At first I wanted to show that I write about more sports than just the Black/local perspective I had to for work. But now I want to keep exploring that diversity and creativity, even if it means that marketing my blog for a specific target is harder.

Plus it's challenging to write thought provoking or fascinating stuff knowing that folks may not always read it. The blog that got the most attention recently was the one I wrote about my respect for Justin Timberlake. It's no surprise but it's funny what pieces get attention and which ones don't while knowing you can't control it.

I know I'm fighting for attention but I'm not just writing for myself. You can see my thoughts on Twitter as I interact with folks daily on a variety of issues. I have to fight to urge to care so much about readership and page views that I don't compromise why I did this.

I know I have a gift and while I share it here freely, I wouldn't mind being paid for it too. I've had a great chance to freelance for ESPN RISE and the Torrance Daily Breeze over the last 5 months. It's a sweet deal that reminded me why I loved sportswriting/journalism in the first place - telling stories and sharing what I know.

So here's my crossroads. Do I accept writing as only a hobby that might be compensated while I pursue another career? Or do I keep trying to make it as a sportswriter or try to pursue public relations?

Every writer faces that dilemma, especially nowadays. I'm sure we'd all like to be Charles Dickens and get paid by the word or Ben Mezrich who's seen two of his books become successful films. We'd love to be Maya Angelou or John Grisham or Rick Reilly or Mitch Albom. But the fact is that there's too many writers and not enough judgement to determine who the next potential talent will be.

(Ben Mezrich's living out a writer's dream right about now)
The problem that we all face a bigger burnout than writers of old. Maybe it's frustration. Maybe it's thinking why write about something everyone else already did (like I felt about the Fab 5/Grant Hill situation). Maybe it's just a call to find more motivation.

My buddy Shane bid farewell to his 5-year-old blog this week after saying that he didn't make him happy and he didn't want to share his life so publicly with folks who meant nothing to him. Shane's one of the most fascinating folks I've met the last two years as well as a passionate writer on many things. But to hear him lose his passion while worrying about losing who he was in the process - that's the blogger's concern.

I've also talked to several folks who've dealt with that same concern (losing passion) and either left their blogs for other endeavors or lost the desire to post as frequently. As time passes, the vision gets shaken and you have to figure out how to make it clearer while remaining satisfied.

As much as we want feedback and some sense of approval, in the back of our minds we have to remind ourselves why we write and do we want to keep going and evolve or just make it a hobby to release while we transition to something else. For me, careerwise, I also have to answer what the main focus of my writing will be, accept it, and continue to move forward.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Duke vs. Arizona - Flashback to the Future

Tomorrow night, Duke's gonna face Arizona in the Sweet 16 about an hour away from me. Unless somebody magically gave me $400 and helped with parking, looks like I'll be watching it from the casa. Earlier this week, former Duke guard and ESPN college analyst Jay Williams tweeted this is the first meeting between the schools since the 2001 national title game.

That game was huge for me as a Duke fan because I remember it like yesterday. Arizona ran through the Pac-10 easily and Duke was No. 1 most of the season. That was the team that helped solidify my fandom as I was debating if I'd apply there besides my first love, UCLA.

(Ironically, UCLA lost to Duke that year in the Sweet 16. For a minute, LA was buzzing about UCLA and USC meeting in the Elite 8. Duke ended up beating both of them.)

Shane Battier was a role model to me being a smart, Black athlete who had a lot of stuff said about him that folks said about me growing up. Jay Will was probably the best college point guard I've seen with his mix of IQ, speed and shooting. Course that didn't keep him from being a dummy in the NBA with that motorcycle (tell Kyrie Irving to be extra smart in vehicles!) And Chris Duhon was deadly as a freshman who made that backcourt one of my faves besides Earl Watson and Baron Davis.

When I used to play NBA Live 2000, I had a play called "Duke" where I'd take the PG and have him pull up for a 3 walking up court. They were heavy on the perimeter and between Jay Will, Duhon, Dunleavy and Battier jacking up 3's, it was bombs away all day. Ask Maryland who faced Duke four times that year and lost all 4, two of them in classic fashion.

Maryland had a 10-pt lead with a minute left in Cole Fieldhouse. Jay Will and Battier erased that and sent it to OT for the win. In the Final 4, Maryland was up 22 in the first half and I thought the game was over. Somehow Duke won by 11. The title game was mere formality.

Future pros in this game? Duke had Duhon, Jay, Battier, Mike Dunleavy Jr. and Carlos Boozer. Arizona had Richard Jefferson, Luke Walton, Gilbert Arenas. Surprisingly Loren Woods didn't last long in the pros even though he was a tall force in the paint. That's a star studded lineup of upperclassmen and freshmen we may never see again in a college final.

I remember that game because it was when Mike Dunleavy broke out with 18 2nd-half points to push the victory and the Duke jersey I bought was his #34. I was so hyped when they won that I wore my jersey everywhere I could that spring. And the irony is the best pros from that game ended up being 2nd round picks (Arenas - 2001, Boozer - 2002)

10 years later, we got another rematch. But outside of Nolan Smith and Kyrie Irving, I'm not a fan of too many guys on this team. Kyle Singler's regressed mightily from last year and despite being rated as highly as OJ Mayo, Derrick Rose, Eric Gordon and Kevin Love as a freshman, he'll barely get drafted. The Plumlee Brothers are nice but average swing men. Seth Curry is good and I'm already thinking he and Austin Rivers (Doc's son and the #1 kid in the country) will be nice next year.

I actually like Arizona more as a team. I covered Solomon Hill and Jordin Mayes closely when they went to high school out here. I saw Derrick Williams (above) play in an All-Star Game and show why he'd be a beast at the next level even though I'm shocked at HOW good he is as a future NBA lottery pick. I think Sean Miller's a great young coach. So it's almost like the tables are somewhat turned even though I'm rooting for Duke.

Here's hoping 10 years later we get a great game. And yes, I'll be wearing my jersey for extra luck.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

There Will Be Madness (Bracketology Fails, Little East and Upsets)

I've been watching March Madness for 16 years and this year's version is one of the wackiest since 2000 when 8 of the top 12 teams (2 No. 1's, 3 No. 2's, 3 No. 3's) were gone after the first weekend and we had two No. 8 seeds in the Final Four. Granted we still have 3 No. 1's and all the No. 2's but here's who's still dancing: No. 11 VCU, No. 11 Marquette, No. 10 Florida State, and No. 12 Richmond.

VCU, a First Four team or Florida State will be an Elite Eight team while higher seeds Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pitt will be watching this weekend's games at home. I'll bury the Big East later but think about that. Who honestly had half of those teams advance?

That's the beauty of March. The surprise stories as well as the expected ones which help you almost forget your bracket. I remember past years watching VCU beat Duke with Eric Maynor and nearly beat UCLA the following year. Florida State beat Duke earlier this year with physical play and Marquette hasn't gone this far since I saw Dwyane Wade mess around and get a triple double on Kentucky in 03.

Speaking of my bracket, it looks good if you only count the East and West brackets. I lost a total of three teams, including two Sweet 16 picks. But if you click below and look at the right side, it's got more red than those Red Asphalt tapes they made us watch in driver's ed.

More reason for me to hate the South. Terrible luck picking teams. My Southeast bracket on the bottom right has been shot, including my Final Four pick Pittsburgh. I'm in the bottom half of most of my pools because I took more gambles than I should've and didn't predict the ones that happened (except for being 3rd in one ESPN pool)

Which leads me to the Big East, the 2nd biggest story of the tournament.

11 Teams in, half are gone by the start of the "3rd round" (by the way, is this another casualty of the First Four? Hate it.) and four more to follow. The best conference in America? I sure didn't think so this year when I saw teams besides UConn and Pitt. Syracuse was overrated, Notre Dame was nice but not elite. If St. John's didn't lose their 2nd best player to an ACL injury, they would've been a Sweet 16 team.

Let's all point and laugh at this ineptitude of overhype and comeuppance. If not for Kemba Walker's brilliance and Steve Lavin's resurgence, that conference would be a bigger joke this year. Five of the nine lost by 8 or more points and you can't blame Louisville for losing by one. Pitt's loss will go down as one of the most heartbreaking and surreal 8 seconds I've ever seen.

Big East? More like the Little East. Glad we kicked out the children so the big boys can keep dancing.

- Morehead State's Kenny Faried earned himself a trip to the NBA Draft with his two stellar games this weekend. Amazing rebounder and defender who'll make some team proud.

- Texas/Arizona lived up to the hype of maybe the best 2nd round (excuse me, 3rd round) game besides San Diego State and Temple. The first few hours of the 1st round were probably some of the best excitement I've seen in years.

- UCLA, Michigan and St. John's will be Top 10 teams next year, assuming nobody leaves. I'm proud of my Bruins for hanging tough with Florida after nearly blowing a big lead to Michigan State. Michigan's got a backcourt to watch for 2 years with Tim Hardaway Jr. and Darius Morris. And St. John's is bringing in another Top-5 recruiting class.

- Kansas is still alive. Surprise, surprise. Not as surprising as Wisconsin

- I'm happy for several LA kids I covered showing up big in the tournament. Jordan Hamilton (Texas), Derrick Williams (Arizona), DJ Gay and Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State), Morris (Michigan), and Tyler Honeycutt (UCLA) all repped the City of Angels proud.

Week 2 of the Madness coming up Thursday. Already looking forward to previewing Duke vs. Arizona - rematch of one of my favorite teen memories. The 2001 National Title Game.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Let the Games Begin - March Madness!

Here's my picks. I almost never pick all No. 1's but this year is terribly tough. Picking Ohio State to win it because I can't trust Kansas. Time to start the MADNESS!!!!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Nate Dogg - A Hip Hop Legend and West Coast Giant

I tried so hard to start this blog with words but I couldn't. I'm literally tearing up listening to this song because it was part of my childhood. Nate Dogg dead at 41? Somehow I always hoped that despite those two strokes, he'd survive and come back to make one more song with Snoop Dogg or Dr. Dre's Detox.

For those like me who grew up in Los Angeles, Nate Dogg was just as much a part of the West Coast scene as any rapper. His rough but smooth voice was the icing for the G-funk/gangsta rap era but it was special because nobody sounded like him before or after. He was the first go-to-guy to sing hooks on a record who didn't sound soft but enhanced the rap vibe of the song.

"Regulate" not only kept the West Coast buzz alive in 1994 along with Snoop's Doggystyle album, it saved Def Jam from extinction. The label was nearly broke in the mid-90s before Warren G signed with Violator Records, a subsidiary of Def Jam, and thanks to this song, his debut went triple platinum and kept the label afloat.

Look at Nate Dogg's list of contributions - Tupac, DJ Quik, Pharaoh Monch & Mos Def, Eminem (Til I Collapse is even more ominous with Nate's voice). He helped Fabolous have his first hit, Ludacris his first non-album hit, 50 Cent cross over to the ladies, and gave Westside Connection their last hit where Cube certified his status with "It ain't a single til Nate Dogg sings on it." This man wasn't just a rapper, he was every bit a talented singer who gave songs a gritty, yet golden touch.

I know this album got slept on heavily by folks. 

Here in Cali though, he means more than just a precursor to Akon and T-Pain. We grew up on his solo songs "Never Leave Me Alone" and "I Got Love" and his classic hooks on jams like Tupac's "All About You", Snoop Dogg "Ain't No Fun" and many more, Shade Shiest "Where I Wanna Be", Kurupt's "Girls All Pause", Warren G's "Game Don't Wait", Dr. Dre's "Next Episode" and "Xxxplosive", The Game "Where I'm From" and finally the remix to Snoop's "Boss Life" which I wish was on Blue Carpet Treatment instead of Akon.

We love Dr. Dre, we love Snoop Dogg and we love Tupac. But Nate Dogg is loved just as much because he was part of the innovation and sound of an era. He repped Long Beach with his childhood friends Warren G and Snoop Dogg and knowing their history - the 213 album and songs "Im Fly" and "Groupie Love" meant more than just a supergroup. It was friends coming together, which is exactly what hip hop is about.

I was proud to hear that 93.5 KDAY interrupted program format to play Nate Dogg songs. We know that radio today is more programming and less jocks but for them to interrupt says a lot about this moment. They said that DJ Pooh and others called in to pay respects. At a time where I've hated LA hip hop radio for going too pop, its only fitting that the best hip-hop station left stopped what they were doing and connected with the people.

I know Power 106 did their own tribute, but KDAY needs to be commended for being right there when it happened.

It was even sadder to me because when I saw Snoop Dogg at Rock The Bells last year, he had the old Death Row gang up there with him performing Doggystyle. Dogg Pound, Lady of Rage, RBX, Warren G. The only one not there was Nate and Snoop asked everyone to sing Nate's part on "Aint No Fun" to show him love in the hospital.

I'm not gonna say it's one of the greatest openings ever, but as far as verses that the most folks will know RIGHT AWAY and sing word-for-word, you'd be hard pressed to find many memorable than Nate on that song.

It's a sad day for hip hop but an even sadder one for the West Coast. A childhood memory now gone. Let Nate get the final word with "Never Leave Me Alone" and remember a true original. Rest in peace, Nathaniel Hale.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bracketology 101 - 2011 Edition (Opening Lecture)

Welcome to the Madness of March! As you take your seats in the lecture hall, feel free to grab a hold of your notebooks and pencils as I, Dr. Virgo Kent will present my thoughts on this year's bracket. And yes, I do hold a degree in bracketology from years of research and fandom. If you'll look at this wall, you'll notice my pick of Duke to reach the national title game last year, Memphis in 2008 and Florida winning in 2007. Let's begin shall we?

Quick caveat - no Final Four predictions until Wednesday. This is an opening lecture of my 1st impressions to help you and help me. So let's begin shall we?

- Duke got the roughest bracket. The West is loaded with Texas, Arizona, and Michigan just on Duke's side alone and then you have UConn and San Diego State in the other half. But it's fair because even though my Devils embarrassed UNC, we're a soft #1 seed. Shout out to Hampton being Duke's 1st doormat, the other HU.

- On that note, San Diego State and UConn potentially in the Sweet 16 could be one of the best matchups of the tourney. I'd say Kansas/Louisville but more on them later.

- My other squad got a nice lil matchup in Round 1. UCLA heads to Florida to face the great Tom Izzo and underachieving Michigan State. It'll be a nice showdown with my fellow Ph.D. bracketologist and die hard Spartan @MrESPN. Great game and maybe UCLA finally gets out of the 1st round for the 1st time in 3 years to see Florida for the first time since the 07 Final Four

- Tourney Expanded to 68 teams which means USC barely (but deservedly) snuck in. This is how the NCAA cons us into expansion: Add a few teams every few years and eventually we're gonna have 70+ teams in there. It's a slow racket that troubles me.

- Florida gets blown out by Kentucky in the SEC Title game but gets a No. 2 seed? Anybody care to explain that. UK gets a 4 despite beating Florida twice but yet the SEC is so down that Alabama won the SEC West and didn't get in. I'd be surprised if neither reached the Sweet 16. Fraud Alert!

- Speaking of frauds, Texas got exposed badly against Kansas in the Big 12 final. And their reward? They get   No. 13 seed Oakland who beat Tennessee and nearly beat Michigan State and Illinois early this year.

- St. John's got a great deal being that team nobody wants to see. They potentially got BYU in the 2nd round. UCLA fans know full well that St. John's head coach Steve Lavin made 5 Sweet 16's and knows how to win big games.

- More basic tips for your bracket. Trust teams with great guard play and coaches of high seeds with proven resumes. Which means watch Rick Pitino at Louisville.

- I think Kansas is a shaky No. 1. They can either win the whole thing on great talent and balance or lose early. I give em the Public Enemy treatment: "Cant Truss Em". Meanwhile Ohio State (the overall No. 1) and Pitt have the easiest brackets.

- Who's ready for Charles Barkley, Kenny Smith and the NBA on TNT crew getting in March Madness? And throw in the always reliable Kevin Harlan and Gus Johnson along with Clark Kellogg + Jim Nantz. If only we could somehow get Dickie V on there.

There you have it folks. Feel free to come by my office hours and discuss what you think and don't forget to sign up for my Facebook bracket if you're down. Class dismissed. See you on Thursday with my Final 4 picks.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Kemba and The Jimmer

With all due respect to Jared Sullinger and Nolan Smith, the National Player of the Year race is between two guys who've been the most consistent all season. Friday night showed us why Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette have been head and shoulders above their competition.

Kemba Walker's impressed me from his 1st tournament this season - the Maui tournament where he had 30+ points in the first 3 games and willing his unranked UConn team to the tourney title by beating 3 ranked teams. Here was a guy who's 6-1 but has the intangibles: leadership, clutch and a knack for the big shots. 1st half of the season, nobody played better.

UConn struggled in the Big East so he lost a bit of his buzz but he reminded us again that when the lights are on, nobody's better. It's not just that Walker blitzed through the tournament scoring record (111 points with one more game to go), it's how he did it. Thursday, he hit the game-winner over Pitt after breaking the ankles of his defender. You knew it was coming but you couldn't stop it.

Friday, he showed off his full arsenal against Syracuse. The pull-up jumper, the long-range shot, the court vision, the defense and his awareness of what needed to be done to get the victory. At 6-1, he not only had 33 points but 12 rebounds (12!), 6 steals and 5 assists. He made freshman Jeremy Lamb better as Lamb made big plays in overtime to get the victory.

People talk about his scoring but I was impressed with his defense and IQ. He not only has that New York swagger, but he's a complete player. He's already up there with Syracuse's Gerry MacNamara in 06 for the memorable Big East tourney run in recent years.

And then there's Jimmer Fredette, the guy everybody looked forward to after last season's scoring binge in the NCAA Tournament. 6-2, Mormon and a feathery jumper reminding folks of Steph Curry and JJ Redick. By the way, those are the only 2 guys worth comparing him to based on size and shooting so save me all the White baller comparison.

I've yet to see Jimmer for a full game but he's got skills inside the 3-point line too. He's willed his team to a great season just like Kemba has and his signature game might be torching San Diego State for 43 points with an array of shots. He was easily the best player of the season for the 2nd half (with Nolan Smith and Jared Sullinger taking the crown at spots).

Of course, his luster was diminished when his teammate Brandon Davies was kicked off the team for breaking the honor code. Like I've said on Twitter, rules are rules and the 2 things you gotta know when going to a school are 1) What's the vibe of the school, 2) What's the rules with girls. - BYU promptly got that backside waxed by New Mexico soon after.

But just when you think Kemba took his shine back, Jimmer turned out his best game of the season a few hours later. 33 points in the first half against New Mexico en route to a 52 point net-burning for a revenge win. Just fell short of a double nickel but enough of a reminder to say "Yeah, I'm still the man."

So who do you pick as the better POY candidate? I've said Jimmer most of the season but this week, Walker reminded me why I was fascinated with him in the 1st place. My vote is going to #15 because he's made more big plays all season but all respect to the Jimmer for what he's doing.

Either way, nobody's gonna want to see BYU or UConn in the NCAA Tournament. Which reminds me, I gotta get ready for next week when the Dean of Bracketology 101 invades the blog. March Madness started early this year and I love it!

Memory Lane - NYLC 2001

Let me take you back to 2001. 16 years old and way more comfortable in a classroom than in a casual setting. I was still in my sheltered world of school, home and church and starting to get excited for college apps as a HS junior. UCLA was still my dream college but my sporting life was restricted to being the team manager and stat boy (yes, I had that nickname before Tony Reali on Around the Horn).

One of my teachers told me to apply to this conference in Washington D.C. but I wasn't sure I was interested because I didn't want to miss any school time. Yep, like a dork, I wanted a perfect attendance record throughout school. When she found that out, she got in my face and said that I better not let fear keep me from doing something that would help me grow as a leader.

Oh yeah, back then I was scared of doing anything outside of comfort zone. I was smart and when I spoke, people listened, but my teacher knew there was more to be seen. Naturally, when I told my parents, they went full speed ahead with the idea.

That's how I ended up attending the National Young Leaders Conference. It was 10 years ago this week that I woke up super early in a suit and tie, kissed my folks goodbye and took my 1st solo plane ride across the country with a bunch of other kids for a week we'd never forget.

To explain what NYLC is, imagine several hundred 16 and 17-year old kids from around the country coming together to get a firsthand experience of how the government works with mock press conferences, Supreme Court Justice sessions and the process on how Congress passes a bill from the various committees all the way to a model session of Congress. We went through all that and had to prepare every night for the next day's activities.

Besides the model Congress, we also got to visit the National Press Club as well as hear speakers during the week speak on a variety of issues. But that was just the work side. The fun included tours of Union Station, the D.C. monuments and memorials, walking on Capitol Hill, meeting our Senator and Congressmen and sitting on the floor of the House of Reps. To a kid who had only seen D.C. once before, this was heaven.

Plus the 4-H center we stayed at near Chevy Chase, Maryland, had a basketball court and a game room complete with arcades. And at the end of the week, there was a dance. I'll never forget wondering what kind of dance this would be until I saw two of the leaders get a lil close and I said to myself, "Yeah it's on," even though I had no clue what to expect.

That first plane ride was a bit rough at first but once we landed, all the Cali kids started asking if we were going to NYLC. Course we all stepped outside and it was FREEZING cold. And I had to laugh when I met this kid from South Carolina with an "aww-shucks" drawl and thick accent talking about Ludacris' first CD while I said, "so you know about that Southern hospitality, huh?"

But to keep this story short, cause I can talk about this all day, the trip was memorable in so many ways.

1st solo plane ride
1st time meeting people my age who were as motivated and driven as I was.
1st time being around Black kids (especially girls) my age who were motivated.***
1st time at a dance and learning how to slow dance (Where has this gone?)
1st time I was forced to make friends and get out of my comfort zone.

**I went to a high school that was mixed but mostly Black. At that point in my life, I felt bad that most of the younger kids weren't as driven or as goal-oriented as I was and I couldn't relate to them. This trip showed me there were indeed others like me and that was mindblowing.

I remember meeting kids in my group from Oklahoma, Mississippi, Pennsylvania and Northern Cali. My roommate was from Montana. I remember waiting outside to go into the House of Reps and meeting a dude from Boston that is still to this day one of my closest friends (What up OOL!). He's the reason I know what "Return of the Mack" is (more on that story here)

Sadly I thought about it more after 9/11 because I realized just how lucky I was. March 2001 - my parents and sister walked me up to the airport terminal. Airport security was basic. I took a photo across the street from the White House. My aunt met me in the terminal for a layover in Denver when I left DC. All of these things are almost non-existent today.

It makes me wish now that we had Facebook or Twitter back then to keep track of everyone. We were all pretty sad to leave and it got even sadder when one of the girls prophetically said she was emotional because she knew we'd most likely never see each other again. In the back of my mind, I hoped she was wrong but I knew it was likely. By the time I started college 18 months later, I was only in contact with two of my group.

Mainly I came back motivated to not just be a better leader or but get out of my shell as a sheltered kid. I listened to more music, tried to explore my faith a big deeper and expand my social life a bit more. It inspired me to be a different person as I saw there was a world bigger than what I saw and I could be free to discover myself without being afraid. I ended up going to a similar conference that summer and enjoyed it primarily because I knew what to expect. I even encouraged other friends to go because I knew it would benefit them as well.

It prepared me for more than just being a leader and a well-informed kid. It showed me how to balance learning with learning how to have fun. Can't believe it's been 10 years since I took that flight. And I'm thankful every day that I did.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Electric Relaxation: More on LCD Soundsystem

Okay I couldn't talk about LCD Soundsystem for just one blog. I wrote all of this at one same time and decided to break it up so that way I could gush over "All My Friends" in one post and then the band in another. Here's the rest of the story.

My friend who sent me that song also sent me links to hear "Someone Great" from the same album (Sound of Silver - currently on my buying list) and a newer song "Dance Yrself Clean". It helped me realize that they are modern masters of epic songs that can overpower you yet bring you in at the same time. Someone said it best on youtube: Their songs are experiences. 

I went back and listened to "Daft Punk Is Playing At My House" - the OG version didn't hit me that well but when I saw a video of them performing it live on Letterman, they gave it a funky twist by speeding it up and playing it in a major chords. I swore this could be my exit music anytime I left the house.

What I liked about them was unlike Arcade Fire who sounded like a bunch of noise and fury, they had a sound that was fairly easy to relate to if you have any experience with indie music. They look ordinary but they sound like a hip, electronic outfit with no sense of being pretentious. That's something I hate about a lot of indie bands because even if the music is good, they sound too cool for school. Not so with LCD.

Back to "Dance Yrself Clean" - I listened to that song plenty near the end of 2010 when I was looking up songs to end the year on. That's another example of a great crescendo but with a balance between minimalism and power. It's just 3 minutes of a minimal drum beat, two back and forth notes and electronic sounds before it bursts into a dance party jam. 

Once again I could picture a video to this. Walking on a street alone after a fight with someone and hating every bit of what that person did to you. Then at the breakdown, you start dancing. Finding that rhythm to be free and kiss that person off. Dancing yourself clean of that person and the negative energy while finding a way to tell them how the fighting makes you feel.

This song's actually a mix of a crescendo to a decrescendo to a rise and then back to a fall. Almost like the emotions after a fight. But it's almost 8 minutes of a great experience and that live video I just posted shows exactly why. It goes from calm and mellow to an upbeat dance party.

Safe to say they're my new favorite band along with the Black Keys and as soon as I can, I'll be buying Sound of Silver and This is Happening. But it's a shame that I got into them too late. Anybody wanna hook me up with tickets to Madison Square Garden in April??

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Electric Relaxation: LCD Soundsystem "All My Friends"

The last 5 years I've always heard about LCD Soundsystem. I kinda lumped them with Arcade Fire and The Black Keys with other indie bands of the last decade that diehards loved but I had to work to get into. But since I took the plunge last summer with Radiohead, perhaps the biggest band I was afraid of getting into, I figured it was time to check them out.

It started with a simple tweet last fall asking folks for some LCD Soundsystem songs to check out. A buddy then sent me three of his favorites and the first song I clicked mesmerized me. A hard piano melody that was a confusing jangle. Then a soft, yet driving drum beat followed by a throbbing bass groove. "That's how it starts."

In almost 5 months, "All My Friends" has become one of my favorite songs of all time partly because it uses one of my favorite musical elements. The crescendo. That buildup of music that starts slow and grows as the song progresses. What started as a 1:20 instrumental intro gets louder as synthesizers get added to the hook around the 3:22 mark. The music just gets louder and more diverse as it envelopes you into the world that James Murphy sings about. It overpowers you while still sounding mellow. How amazing is that!

"I wouldn't trade one stupid decision for another five years of life." - that's a powerful line on its own and in the context of the song it's even better. It's about growing old, reflecting on the life you've lived and the person you chose to share it with. Regrets and no regrets which we can all relate to that, especially me.

First time I heard it, I started thinking about my life and looking back on my college days and the things I did, wished I did and things I wished I didn't do. I even had a music video idea of a couple starting out together, going on trips, having kids but also growing distant and wondering where the spark went.

Then Murphy kept repeating at the ending climax "Where are your friends tonight?" and "If I could see all my friends tonight." That's haunting yet powerful. He doesn't sing it with strength as much as he does ravaged emotion. Immediately I thought about friends I've lost touch with and how I wish things could be different. I even wrote a poem about it, which eventually I'll post to share that cool story.

It's one of those songs you play when you're leaving a late night out or on a long drive and in a reflective mood. Just a perfect song all around where Murphy bares his soul without sounding emo. I listened to the version of their live London Sessions album and loved it even more.

Little did I know that Murphy not only looked like an everyday dude on the street (which made his voice and vibe even more befuddling) but the musical genius of the band who plays everything in studio. Can't think of a frontman who looks that ordinary yet is able to produce some great music.

I have more to say on the band but I'll save that for a follow-up blog later tonight. Enjoy this song and thanks to my buddy Evan for introducing me to them.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Electric Relaxation: Matchbox Twenty "Back 2 Good"

You might not think this about me but I'm a huge Matchbox Twenty fan. Along with Third Eye Blind, they're my favorite alternative band and I think Rob Thomas is an amazing songwriter. They're the Bon Jovi of the 90's/00's as far as being that band you might think is cheesy yet somehow they produce hit after hit that still hold up well over time. Most are probably shocked to know that Yourself or Someone Like You is the 19th best selling album of the 90's.

I didn't become a huge fan of the band until my freshman year of college and my girlfriend at the time let me listen to the album. This song was stuck in my head as I remembered hearing it when I was younger but never paying attention to the words. It soon became the soundtrack to doing homework, reading in my room and even a few poetry sessions.

If you see me out you don't know me 
Try to turn your head, try to give me some room 
To figure out just what I'm going to do 

I remember before I broke up with that girlfriend, I wrote a poem during the last month where things were getting difficult for me. She was growing distant yet I wondered if she was hiding her emotions too well while I was being eaten up. I even entitled it "Good 2 Bad" but I was thinking how we could get back to where we were as friends let alone the relationship.

One of things I love about Thomas' songwriting is that he makes pain sound uplifting. Matchbox had some catchy pop hooks and great melodies but the song lyrics dealt with some heavy stuff. For example, "3 AM" dealt with losing his mother to cancer but from the sound of the music, you wouldn't know it was depressing. This song's about a bad relationship and just wishing it'd get better but also looking for a way out.

Everyone here, knows everyone here is thinking about 
Somebody else 
It's best if we all keep it under our heads 
I couldn't tell, if anyone here was feeling the way I do 
But I'm lonely now, and I don't know how 
To get it back to good 

But even though the song is depressing, it's relaxing. Probably why I like it so much because even though there's desperation, there's a calm throughout most of it. Then it rages as Rob feels like he's alone and realizes that he's not going to get back to where it was. Most people can relate to that.

This song helped me deal with those emotions so long ago but now that's the last of the reasons why I like it. It's just raw emotion with great songwriting and a catchy hook. Probably my 2nd favorite Matchbox Twenty song because I respect the lyrics so much and it takes me back to those days of studying.