Thursday, June 30, 2011

How I Became A Sports Fan

This is something I'm surprised I didn't do sooner. But I guess it's time to share how I became such a huge sports fan because it's not your typical road to being the junkie that I am right now. 

My first sports memory was my mom watching the 1991 NBA Finals and remembering the end seeing Michael Jordan and Co. celebrate. I had no awareness as a 6-year-old what I was watching but I think I was mad and I didn't want to wear any Bulls gear. That might have been the start of my hatred of the Michael Jordan era even though I didn't really become a sports fan. 

(Technically, Mom gave me earlier sports memories because she says I'd look at her confused while she'd go nuts over the Showtime Lakers. But I digress)

The next summer, I played T-Ball with some friends of mine from school. People might be surprised baseball was the first sport I ever played but I wasn't really that good. I just loved hitting the ball and that first season, I got a lot of doubles. 

But my best memory was winning the game ball for hitting a "home run" in the semifinals - a HR that was more like reaching 1st on an error then running to 2nd and seeing the ball thrown into the outfield then running all the way home when the ball got thrown past the dugout. We may have lost in the finals, but that apple cider shower we all had was great!

Not exactly Al Bundy scoring 4 TD's in one game but it's my moment, alright? Thanks to T-Ball for two years and the Sandlot and Rookie of the Year in theaters, I became a Dodgers fan and started memorizing names like Eric Karros, Mike Scioscia, Kevin Gross and Darryl Strawberry. It later included Mike Piazza and Hideo Nomo, whose arrival I still remember driving folks into a frenzy.

The mid-90's also brought me into hockey briefly thanks to the Mighty Ducks and Wayne Gretzky. I owned the LA Gear Gretzkys and those movies had everyone wanting to be the man like Charlie Conway or super cool like Russ and his knucklepuck. They made hockey cool no matter what race you were and of course, Gretzky made LA Hockeytown for his brief stay. 

I became a Cowboys fan during Super Bowl XXVII when I watched at home with the game in Pasadena. When I watched them play next year, I became a bigger fan. Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin became my favorite players and I dug into the team's history. That led me to start watching Monday Night Football with my Dad and I taught myself who the best teams were and the best players. The 1995 Cowboys were the first time I really followed from start to finish and that's the first football season that got me started. 

I never liked the Raiders or Rams so seeing them leave in 1994 was no big deal to me. I hated how folks still wore Raiders gear and their fanbase scared me. The Rams were so terrible, it was like good riddance. 

Shaquille O'Neal got me into the NBA and I became an Orlando Magic fan before I became a Lakers fan. I had to teach myself how to play and who the best teams were. As I grew up watching Shaq and Penny, I also grew up with Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones, Elden Campbell and going to sleep listening to Chick Hearn and Stu Lantz host the postgame chatter. I used to rent NBA highlight videos from Blockbuster and study all the players and their moves and I'd also buy NBA Almanacs to study the history of the game. 

And when Shaq came to the Lakers? I was actually upset because I wanted a Magic jersey and I bought it the summer after he got traded. But I was happy that my favorite player was coming to the West Coast, more excited than some HS kid we traded for who was more known for dating Brandy as well as his incredible talent. 

That was the start of me watching Fox Sports Net, which just debuted that year so I'd watch that for TV recaps of the day. I knew all of the local sportscasters by heart - Todd "Take a Hike" Donoho on ABC, Fred Roggin on NBC and Jim Hill on CBS - and I'd watch them at 5 and 6 p.m. break down local sports to a science. 

Around that same time, I started reading the sports pages every day. I'd go to school with a copy of the LA Times and read the sports section and comics religiously. By the time I turned 12 in 1996 as I entered junior high school, my sports fandom education was complete - although I had a lot to learn as I got older. 

I pretty much learned a lot about sports through experience and self-teaching. I didn't grow up thinking my teams were the greatest because except for the Cowboys, they weren't. My dad watched games with me but he didn't pass down any knowledge as much as he spent time with me watching and talking about what I saw (he always loved to needle me about the Bulls breaking my heart every holiday as much as my cousins did). 

I grew up hearing Chick Hearn criticize the Lakers on air as much as he'd praise them and put games in the refrigerator. I grew up hearing Vin Scully's easy yet authoritative and professional voice tell it like it was with the Dodgers with no bluster. To me, I never had a reason to be a homer fan because my examples weren't super fans who didn't treat their team as gods. They were stars but not beyond criticism and if the voice of the team could be impartial yet loyal, so could I.

Being a LA sports fan in the 90's was fun but challenging. Nobody won titles besides UCLA basketball (who won that 1995 title right when I became interested in the school) but you connected to players and a team identity. You liked the Dodgers' young core of 5 straight Rookies of the Year, you enjoyed The Lake Show, you enjoyed Wayne Gretzky still in his prime. I loved watching the Cowboys win 10-12 games a year and get geeked to play the 49ers every year in a classic. 

All of this I mainly discovered a lot on my own and my family pretty much let me be without influencing my team preferences. And that's how I ended up seeing sports and my teams today. 

One more note: I became a Duke fan in 1998-99 when I saw Elton Brand and Co. run through college basketball. I became a Chargers fan in 2002 when I started attending school in San Diego and for the first time, saw a city rally around a football team.

Maybe I'll do a Part 2 describing my first time attending a sport event and how weird it was to attend my first ever football game at 18. 

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Genius of Frankenstein (and why it's relevant Today)

Frankenstein is one of my favorite novels. It's the father of science fiction literature and has got so many layers that I could be here a long while digging into them. It's also made people believe the monster is named Frankenstein, one of the greatest misconceptions in literary/film history.

Like most folks, I discovered it in high school and appreciated that I was wrong in thinking the monster was named Frankenstein. It was a great story that I didn't see coming but two years later, the book came even more alive in college.

My professor explained it in the context of the Romantic movement (where poetry/novels/art became more realistic, descriptive of common things and simplistic – at least in language, not themes – to relate to common folks) and it suddenly became way more than a horror novel.

The way I saw it, Frankenstein was a warning to society. As life passed on I saw even greater messages from it that are coming to life right now.

First, we create monsters today through the cult of personality. Celebrities and athletes are often told how great they are. On a smaller level, young kids get showered with constant attention and praise while parents make excuses are made for their behavior instead of corrections.

Why are we surprised when they rebel against us and become either terrors or ego-driven creatures? Why are we surprised LeBron James has shown himself to have a ridiculous ego after being allowed to be the king of Cleveland/Akron? I won’t forget a friend of mine explaining to me that Cleveland made LeBron who he is and that’s why Cleveland is upset with him leaving.

It was loaded with irony. They indeed made him. They made him King James despite his nickname. They created the monster they now hated. It’s the same with Charlie Sheen, Lindsay Lohan or any celebrity that’s allowed to run wild without being checked or with an army of adoring fans who ignore their faults.  The parents create the monster in their child expecting anything they want then wonder why that child is spoiled.

We are Dr. Frankensteins as a society feeding into drama and as a result we have plenty of reality shows that cater to this which has hurt the quality of network television the last decade.  Unchecked power will usually create problems later on as Victor Frankenstein learned.

Second, the book is warning of going too far in science. Yes it’s a science fiction novel but it doesn’t celebrate scientific progress as much as it shows the danger of doing too much. The creature is called all kind of evil, demonic names instead of a glorious celebration.

Needless to say, folks wouldn’t be surprised at this if they were aware of the meaning of the book’s other title: The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus is the Greek mythology figure who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. They thanked him for that but Prometheus was forever tortured for his efforts.

It’s a reminder that technology, while a great thing, can also harm society in ways we may not expect. For example, the creators of the atomic bomb devoted their life decrying what they helped create.

Shelley also smartly foreshadowed how men in their quest for power are suspect for corruption. The book can also be a metaphor for how ego-trips can go bad because we can lose control of our ambitions. Victor wanted the glory of doing something nobody had done before and it cost him several relationships and ultimately his life. Dream big, but dream responsibly.

She also showed how women can be victims in this ego trip. As we see through history, when men often made the rules and dictated what was going on, women were left behind or considered afterthoughts. It’s no surprise she had that mindset considering her mother was one of the first feminist philosophers.

 “How I, then a young girl, came to think of, and to dilate upon, so very hideous an idea?” – Mary Shelley
The story behind the novel’s creation is almost as fascinating as the story itself. During a downpour in 1816, Shelley and her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley were hanging with Romantic poet icon Lord Byron and several guests at Byron’s house. All of those involved started to pass the time discussing science and read ghost stories and decided to make a challenge to create their own.

Here is Shelley in her own words about her short story idea:

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion. Frightful must it be; for SUPREMELY frightful would be the effect of any human endeavour to mock the stupendous mechanism of the Creator of the world.”

Remember folks, Mary’s only 19. What the heck was going on in that head of hers? An awareness of science going too far to defy religion? A mad genius gone too far in his studies? Her lover convinced her to turn her short story into a book and the rest is history.

Cool footnote: Lord Byron’s unfinished story Fragment of a Novel inspired his physician John Polidori to create a short story of his own called – wait for it – The Vampyre. So in one crazy night of competition, the science fiction and vampire genre of literature were both born. Who said Twilight and Star Trek fans didn’t have something in common besides diehard fandom?

So while you may have hated literature growing up, there’s plenty of reasons why you should’ve pay attention. Hopefully I convinced you to re-read Frankenstein and see why it’s truly a genius work that speaks as loud as it did nearly 200 years ago.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Tupac 10 - 10 Collaborations of a Legend

It was too hard to come up with 10 great Tupac songs. I tried last year and failed and this year was an equal fail. Instead, I tried to come up with 10 classic collaborations with other artists that I loved. It just showed that Pac had love for a lot of artists and he shined with them as well as he did on his own.

It's crazy that not only would Pac be 40 today, I'm a year older than he was when he died. It's just a reminder that when he was alive, he accomplished more than folks twice his age. He knew he had a legacy ahead of him and it's a shame it was cut short. (It's even sadder if this recent report is true about the infamous 1994 shooting that set off the domino effect that ended with Pac and Notorious BIG dead.)

Here's the Tupac 10 Collabs according to one hip hop head. Feel free to share your own.

1. California Love (w. Dr. Dre and Roger Troutman) - Any explanation needed? 16 years later and it's still the definitive Cali anthem that'll give folks pride.

2. Thug Luv (w. Bone Thugs N Harmony) - One of the hardest beats in hip hop history. Pac didn't try to imitate Bone Thugs' double time flow like Biggie did but his passion fit right in place over this beat. I'll never forget the biggest Bone Thugs fan I know let me hear this for the first time and I lost my mind.

3. Smile (w. Scarface) - Soul from the Hole as Cali and Houston came together for this unbelievable classic. Two of hip hop's most introspective wax poetic in one of the greatest duets in hip hop history.

4. Got My Mind Made Up (w. Kurupt, Daz, Method Man, Redman and Inspectah Deck) - For all the bicoastal beef talk, it's a known fact that Pac was ready to link up with Big Daddy Kane on a record label. Anyways, Kurupt, Meth and Red demolish this track with INS the rebel batting 6th in audio essence. I posted the full version with Deck's verse at the end for those who haven't heard it.

5. Runnin (Dyin to Live) [w. Notorious BIG] - Everyone can remember just how special it was to hear this track when Resurrection came out. It's a painful reminder that nobody won that feud. Hip hop fans, families, the media and so many others lost.

6. 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted (w. Snoop Dogg) - Pac was hungry coming out of jail. Snoop was hungry after his murder trial. Both were in the mood to party. The result? A classic duet that proved to be the last gasp of Death Row as we knew it.

7. MSG Freestyle [w. Biggie, Shyheim, Scoob and Big Daddy Kane] - If you haven't heard it, please do. Please remember that Pac and Biggie were once friends. Best of all, imagine how live this scene was to have 3 of the greatest on stage and one of the illest teen rappers ever in Shyheim in front of tens of thousands at Madison Square Garden.

8. All About U [f. Snoop Dogg, Dru Down Nate Dogg and the Outlawz] - Classic party jam

9. Last Words [f. Ice Cube and Ice-T] - Noteworthy for being one of the few times Ice Cube and Ice-T were on wax together, this gem from Pac's 93 album is criminally slept on.

10. Still Ballin [f. Trick Daddy] - I know it's a posthumous jam but it still sounds as hard as anything Pac would've done alive. Plus it reminds me how underrated Trick Daddy was in his prime.

Honorable Mention: Staring Through My Rearview f. the Outlawz. Phil Collins never sounded so good since Nas and Bone Thugs sampled him. Happy Birthday Tupac Shakur, keep on living long after you've left this Earth.

Electric Relaxation: Finally getting around to Big KRIT

I haven't been this inspired to write about a rapper in a while and I should've written it sooner. Big KRIT is an MC I've heard a lot of buzz about the past 9 months, especially since listening to Bomani Jones' morning podcast and since March, his last two mixtapes have sat in my music folder waiting for me to listen to them.

This week, I finally got around to listening to his latest mixtape "Return of 4eva" and last year's "KRIT Wuz Here." Hand me a late pass but now I see why he's arguably the best Southern MC since T.I. and Killer Mike debuted. Mississippi finally has another dope rapper/producer to champion besides David Banner.

I heard folks compare KRIT to Pimp C aand as soon as I heard the intro on "R4", I could hear the comparison. He sounds like Pimp (even to the singing on some of the hooks) but he could easily be like Big Gipp or Khujo Goodie. His voice makes me you feel his emotion as he takes you through a journey through his mind as well as the South. Plus you get that he knows his legacy the way he references classic Southern hip hop songs throughout his songs.

You got riding jams like "Sookie Now" and "My Sub" but then you see his soul in tracks like "Dreamin", a great story about how KRIT's living his dreams that he's had for a while. Plus the guests shine hard, especially Chamillionaire on "Time Machine", one of my favorite flashback jams.

Adding to his dopeness is that he self-produced "Return of 4eva" - the beats remind me of the old Organized Noise sound that used to define older OutKast/Goodie Mob records. They have a groove to them that's missing in hip-hop nowadays and no better song shows that than "Get Right."

To me, the best Southern MC's sounded cool and confident yet soulful and inspiring. OutKast, UGK, Goodie Mob, Geto Boys and Little Brother all made great music that made you dance but they spoke about the struggle. They didn't wallow in self-pity but they were always self-aware of what was going on and tried to inspire folks to move beyond what was going on. KRIT carries that legacy proudly.

When I heard "R4", I got excited the same way I did when I heard Lupe in 2006, Wale in 2008, J Cole and Jay Electronica. Then when I heard "Krit Wuz Here", I felt the same way, especially hearing Touched Down and "Country S***" (R4 has a bomb remix with Ludacris and Bun B). Both mixtapes are amazing and I'm glad I realize it.

To sum it up: Dope beats, dope hooks ("Highs and Lows"), excellent verses, a variety of content, soul. I told folks that I felt hip hop wasn't inspiring me this year besides Odd Future and as wild as Tyler, The Creator is, there's only so much of him you can take. KRIT gives me hope that not only will the South get back to the diversity it's known for but hip hop's in good shape this decade.

Return of 4eva's definitely in the running for HH album of the yea and KRIT is showing why he'll be the best XXL Freshman of this class.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

LeBron James Now = Magic Johnson in 1984

(I honestly didn't want to write a Finals piece. The overanalysis of LeBron's poor play has made folks who rationally criticize him turn to defenders because people are trying to rewrite his legacy every game. It's sucked the fun out of a great series and I've actually boycotted Sportscenter and most media reports since Wednesday. But in my usual form, I decided to write something nobody has brought up to distract me from being jaded. Just real talk and hoops analysis.)

Amidst all the irrational and blustering talk about LeBron James' legacy changing game-after-game (and the overshadowing of the Dallas Mavericks playing on an incredible level since the Game 2 comeback), I want to just suggest one thing as a rational hoops fan that loves the game more than hating a player.

LeBron James is proving once again why he's more Magic than Michael. I've said it before but I realize it now watching this series. LeBron James in 2011 is Magic Johnson in 1984.

For those who don't get it, the 1984 Finals between the Lakers and Celtics has been regarded by folks as the series that helped make the NBA a success in the eyes of marketers and the general public. It was the first meeting between Magic and Larry Bird and it was a 7-game series where the Celtics won in almost dominating fashion.

If you're want further comparisons to Dallas and Miami, the Lakers won Game 1, blew Game 2 on the famous Gerald Henderson steal, blew Game 4 and a 5-point lead with a minute left (the famous Kevin McHale clothesline to Kurt Rambis) and fell short during a Game 7 rally. Up to my last point, does that sound familiar to 2011?

Let's get more familiar. In each of those games, Magic played a key role in contributing to those losses and was infamously called Tragic by Boston fans. He was labeled a choke artist and on the heels of embarrassingly swept in the 1983 NBA Finals and being accused of a coach-killer, his reputation was in tatters despite his greatness.

Heck, this was the man who had one of the greatest NBA Finals games ever. He'd already won two rings and by 24, he was the best point guard in the game who appeared in 4 NBA Finals in his first 5 seasons. His 1000-watt smile had earned him fans across the country and made him beloved in L.A. But after coming up short again, all of that didn't matter.

Gee, does that remind you of anyone? A certain Miami Heat player who has been destroyed for his fourth-quarter screw-ups and seen his legacy ripped to shreds despite being hailed for times when he's come through before. Granted Miami didn't start on the road like the Lakers did but aside from that, this is the same scenario. LeBron also doesn't have Magic's two rings at the time but he does have two MVP trophies to his name.

Let's kill the myth that LeBron James is not clutch. The reason most of us real hoops fans are upset (not Cleveland fans, not anti-LeBron fans) is because we've seen LeBron rise up before and are mystified why he's playing so passively. And not passively as in body language but passive in his play.

I'm just showing folks that what LeBron is doing has precedent. He's on a Miami Heat team that hasn't been tested since right after the All-Star break with the crying game. Name to me the last championship team that wasn't battle tested before they got a ring. Even the Heat's inspiration, the 2008 Celtics, were tested in seven games in the first two rounds and their Big 3 had suffered big losses in the postseason.

Miami breezed through Philadelphia, ran through a weakened Boston Celtics squad and overpowered a not-ready-for-prime-time Chicago Bulls squad. Then they assumed they'd beat up a Dallas team that would either be overwhelmed in the end.

I'm not making excuses, I'm giving out facts. What's happening to Miami is exactly what most of us thought would happen against Boston before the Celtics got old and traded Kendrick Perkins. What's happening to LeBron is shocking considering this is the same guy that killed the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals while destroying Derrick Rose in the worst MVP-handcuffing since Hakeem Olajuwon schooled David Robinson in the 1995 Western Conference Finals.

Should Miami lose this series, LeBron needs to study Magic. Read his book with Larry Bird and study how he soaked in all the disappointment of 1984. Magic vowed to get better and he worked hard to improve his game. LeBron needs to ask Magic directly about that summer because what happened after that summer changed the NBA title landscape. Inspired by that heartbreak, the Lakers won 3 of the next 4 titles and cemented their legacy as the team of the 80's.

Will this inspire LeBron? We know what he hasn't done (maybe more than what he has done). He has yet to make his presence felt fully in these Finals despite his triple-double in Game 5 and has become as much pitied as scorned by America. Whatever the case is, he's being tried by fire and getting burned by the pressure instead of heating up

This is his 4th straight year of staring down a disappointing playoff loss. 2008 - losing the Game 7 shootout with Paul Pierce, 2009 - getting blasted by Orlando despite his incredible scoring, 2010 - the last ride with Cleveland where despite 27 points, 19 rebounds and 10 steals (while shooting a poor 8-for-21 with 9 turnovers), he's accused of quitting.

Now, he faces a humbling defeat and for the first time in a year, he's realizing how much harder he has to work to become great. Either he finally rises up in the next game or two and becomes the player he (and the rest of us) expect him to be or like Magic Johnson 27 years ago, prepare for the longest summer of his career and use it as fuel.

Once again, the Decision is his.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Why Terrelle Pryor is Guilty but an Unfair Scapegoat

With news that Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor has given in to the blood thirst around him and (wisely?) decided not to return for his senior year, it makes me look back at his career since he was hailed as the most hyped football recruit ever.

For those who don't remember 2008, Pryor was not only the consensus #1 football recruit in the nation, he was a top-25 basketball recruit as well. He was a bigger Ronald Curry - 6-6 with jaw dropping athleticism, a big frame and possibly the best two-sport star many of us had seen in ages. He delayed his recruitment to win a state basketball title and I for sure thought he was going to be Richard Rodriguez's next Pat White at Michigan.

When he went to Ohio State, I was shocked. He had a so-so freshman year but he finally gave Jim Tressel some BCS hardware after years of Fiesta Bowl wins and choke jobs. He never developed into an elite QB - name the last Buckeyes QB that had NFL success -  but he became a game manager under the conservative Buckeye offenses.

Do I think Pryor was overrated? Not really. I think we never saw his full potential because of the system he was in. However, he looked stiff and not fluid at times and chances are he's played his last days at QB unless something changes in his personal development. 

But it looks like he alone is going to be blamed for bringing down Ohio State football when there's plenty of blame to share. The comments by Ohio State Athletic Director Gene Smith on hoping he gets his degree ring hollow compared to his and President Gordon Gee's dog-and-pony press conference supporting Tressel, where Gee said "I hope Tressel doesn't fire me"

At this point, I only frown on academic cheating and criminal offenses. When it comes to athletes getting money under the table, I'm looking at the NCAA like "You'd rather have this than paying these guys upfront?" "You support amateurism in an era of TV contracts and bowl games getting huge financial payouts yet none comes down to the guys who make it possible?"

I believe in integrity but when I realized that football and basketball made way more money for the school, I'm more upset at people who make money off these players then get away with no punishment while they go down for relatively small-time offenses.

(In Pryor's case, his money tree, Dennis Talbott has an interesting history. The fact that he openly paid checks says dude didn't care about dropping dollars or running to make money off his name and the names of other guys.)

Thanks to this latest story about Pryor being compensated - where his biggest crime is Nicky Barnes like flaunting, not making money off his name when older men were going to do that at auctions - chances are Pryor's name will be stripped from the record books and Ohio State's going to lose some victories.

Meanwhile, Jim Tressel is being hailed as a pious, noble figure for resigning despite the Sports Illustrated story showing this is bigger than Pryor and his four associates and controversy has followed him since Youngstown State. He lied to the NCAA while trying to protect his players amidst a federal investigation but the NCAA doesn't care. If Tressel came clean, Pryor and Co. would be suspended and we'd move on.

Meanwhile Gene Smith has to watch his head because saying that Pryor and Co's tattoos were an isolated incident has clearly backfired. If Mike Garrett was forced to step down as USC athletic director based on Reggie Bush, OJ Mayo and other instances of impropriety, Smith should be the next head to roll.

Meanwhile, boosters are showing once again they impact college sports in negative ways. They have power and most use it wisely to benefit their school of choice. At the same time, that power is negative when they don't have to answer for dropping money into the laps of a few kids creating a hornet's nest of jealousy in the locker room and escaping blame when everybody suffers around them for their "noble gestures."

It just goes to show you that enormous hype and attention showered on kids paves the way for snakes and poor decision making all around. But we also need to differentiate between boosters giving benefits to sway a kid going to college versus a kid getting a (reasonable) hookup while he's there. What's more damaging to a program? You know things are bad when Bobby Knight is calling out the NCAA on this rule.

The problem isn't players or even the CEO coaches - it's boosters and the hypocrisy of an organization promoting amateurism and student-athletes without doing more to protect the players they see as expendable. It's bigger than Terrelle Pryor and once folks see that, then we can talk intelligently about what happened to Ohio State.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Top 10 Random Acts of Shaqness I'll Never Forget

Shaq scoring 61 points on his birthday in 2000 - Watching this game live, I knew Shaq was mad that the Clippers wouldn't honor his requests for more tickets on his 28th birthday. This game symbolized just how dominant he was that year. He added 23 rebounds and it's still one of the best scoring efforts I've witnessed.

The alley-oop - The 4th quarter rally happened while I was at Evening Service at my church. I got home thinking the game was over only to watch this play over and over and over again. I can still hear Bob Costas make the call and I can see Staples Center and the Lakers bench erupting as one as Kobe shook Scottie Pippen and threw up for the big man to get it. It ranks up there with beating Boston in Game 7 as my favorite Lakers playoff moment.

The near quad-double in Game 2 of 01 Finals - Game 1 was all about Allen Iverson's one man show with 48 points. Game 2 was about reasserting dominance and Shaq, who had 44 and 20 in Game 1, let everyone know who was the true unguardable force was. 28 points, 20 rebounds, 9 assists, 8 blocks. For people who said Shaq was all brute force, this was a reminder of how underrated his passing was.

Coast 2 Coast versus Miami - One of my favorite plays. Rookie Shaq grabbing the rebound, dribbling the length of the floor and slamming it home like a runaway train. Miami's players scattering like children makes it even better. Young Shaq was a beast. An absolutely terrifying combo of speed, agility and power.

Destroying David Robinson in the 96 ASG - Let's set the scene. Game's nearly over. All-Star Game is in San Antonio, hometown team of David Robinson and the city where Shaq became a HS sensation. Shaq's long felt that the Admiral snubbed him and never had any love for him. Worlds collided in 1996 and at the end, Robinson got humiliated by the Shaq Attack. And that might be putting it lightly.

Destroying Chris Dudley - My personal standard for embarrassing somebody: Dunk on them and leave them on the floor in a crumpled heap. Scottie Pippen did it to Ewing. Shaq did it to Chris Dudley with a two-hand flush and then shoving him into the photographers. I remember going nuts at the dinner table and then laughing at Dudley, one of the worst FT shooters in history, somehow aiming a perfect pass into Shaq's back in retaliation.

Tearing down the backboards twice - I don't know what's better. Shaq saying this was payback for Derrick Coleman or big stuff Dwayne Schnitzus catching the worst of this. Either way, this is Chocolate Thunder x 10!!!! As for the Phoenix dunk, even the backboard knew to cower in front of Shaq's power

His Game-winner against Utah in 1997 - I couldn't find video of this but I picked this because I can't recall any game-winners in Shaq's career. True he hit the and-1 to sent Game 7 vs Sacramento to overtime but an actual game winner? I'll set this up, Shaq got a pass down low against Greg Ostertag. Then he did a simple turn-around junper to send the Forum into a frenzy. Probably one of the first times Mom realized I was a super passionate basketball fan cause I went crazy at dinner.

The 2001 parade: I watched the Lakers clinch the 2001 title at Universal Studios with hundreds of fans. Soon after, he had a hit single on Power 106, "Connected", that was the unofficial theme song of the summer. But nothing was better than hearing those four words at the parade. Caaaaaaaan Youuuuuuuuuu Dig It!!!!!! Every Laker was on the stage celebrating during his rap and of course, it gave us the epic Mark Madsen dance. Just a reminder of the fun and energy Shaq brought to the city.

Deading the beef on MLK/Sharing the ASG MVP in 2009: Let's face it, the Shaq-Kobe beef may have been part of the story and entertaining but all power struggles leave mostly regret despite the high times. I was tired of folks bringing it up after Shaq left and unlike a rivalry, it was turning into a Cold War you wanted to see end so we could enjoy what they had.

My senior year on Martin Luther King Day, Shaq and Kobe fittingly ended the feud. Bill Russell advised Shaq to do it and it was a beautiul moment. Fresh off Jay-Z and Nas ending their beef that winter, it was good for people to see grown men do the right thing. It was maturity. And then 3 years later, in Shaq's last All-Star Game, it was fitting they both shared the MVP. A partnership taking their victory lap one last time for the fans.

Honorable Mention: Fighting Charles Barkley, getting his degree from LSU and calling it Love Shaq University, his dance-off with LeBron and Dwight Howard.

Friday, June 3, 2011

End of an Era - Shaq Retires

1994 - the first year I got fully into loving sports. Shaquille O'Neal was one of the first athletes I knew and like most folks, I was in awe of this giant who dominated the court and was all over TV in commercials, movies and video games. Even though I started my jersey collection with Larry Johnson and Chris Mullin, Shaq's was the one I really wanted.

With the Diesel finally retiring, I thought about the 10 year old me who remembered when Shaq was the biggest dude in the world and he and Penny Hardaway were supposed to be the next dynasty. The kid who bought Shaq Fu even though he'd find out the game was terrible, watched Blue Chips and still thinks it's a great movie and both felt sadness and happiness the day Shaq came to Los Angeles the same year I graduated elementary school.

I'll never forget a camp counselor at my day camp coming up to me a week after he signed. He knew I was a big Orlando fan and he walked right up to me and said, "I only have one thing to say. SHAQ's A LAKER!"

I followed Shaq every step of his career. I got that Orlando jersey after he left  but I wore my Lakers one out to death. He was my favorite player growing up and in the 90's, he and Allen Iverson had the star power that would help transition the game from Michael Jordan to a new era.

And yes, I played the mess out of his hits "Shoot Pass Slam" (Do you want me to shoot it? NOOOOOO) and "I Know I Got Skillz" (a Top 40 hit). I remember those NBA videos where his highlights would come with his own music videos and remember folks, he has a gold and platinum album to his credit. Plus, he did this song with Biggie - one of the most underrated in Big's discography

Since I didn't see Wilt or Kareem, Shaq was the most dominant force I've ever seen play basketball. Allen Iverson dominated as a 6-0 combo guard who scored with blinding speed and a killer crossover but Shaq made his peers look stupid. In the last great era for centers, he destroyed Patrick Ewing, made Alonzo Mourning regret being around the same time he was and, as you'll see later, abused David Robinson every chance he could.

The only center he didn't dominate was Hakeem Olajuwon and that's why I have Shaq as my 5th greatest center ever. That said, Hakeem with his IQ, brilliant post moves and footwork had his trouble keeping Shaq in check all the time.

Of course, I'll remember Shaq from my high school days restoring the Lakers legacy as champs. For those who don't remember, the Lakers in the 90's were a collection of great to decent talent with poor coaching. Shaq and Kobe helped restore the Lakers tradition and got me used to expecting parades in June when I had to settle for watching them in Chicago growing up.

It's a shame because I honestly think they could've won 4 titles together. 2004 was a doomed season from the jump based on that summer and Kobe already on edge. Could they have won against the Pistons? It's possible but a lot of factors went against us.

Many folks think Shaq's decline came in 2006 but I saw a glimpse of it in 2004. In the Finals, Ben and Rasheed Wallace played the best defense I had seen on Shaq since Hakeem in 1995 and Shaq couldn't rise against it. His Game 4 that year told me that we were seeing the beginning of the end. True he rebounded in 2005 where he should've won the MVP against Steve Nash but once 2006 hit and he was a 2nd/3rd option in the Finals, I realized that the dominant Shaq of my youth was gone. Hard moment to see your favorites get old and have to work harder to score.

Shaq and his father "Sarge" - I always loved the bond Shaq had with his parents and I'm glad he respects his father for molding him into a man.

More than anything I'll remember Shaq as one of the first big men who was comfortable in his skin. He was a giant that embraced his celebrity then used it to touch it other lives with charity. I'll be glad to say I've watched a Top 5 NBA scorer most of his career the same way I'll say about Kobe when he retires. He loved the media and the spotlight but he used it to brighten others. Yet in his final moment, he retired with simple class and peace that a man should have in that decision.

I was happy to watch him in his prime during my teen/young adult years. Now I'll be happy to see him go and be one of the coolest retired athletes around. Thanks for the memories and see you real soon Diesel.

Next blog: My 10 Favorite Shaq Moments.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Electric Relaxation: XLUSIVE "Just in Time"

"Xlusive's the name, always does things his way. They say that he got him a vision. Xlusive has came. Oh, is that what they say. They say that he got the ambition." - "X Is The Name"

That quote comes from the hook on the first song of XLUSIVE's debut album "Just in Time" and it sums up how I feel about this cat since I met him on Twitter about a year and a half ago talking about hoops. Seeing that he was one of my few followers that actually lived in L.A., we hit it off real cool as he told me he was a rapper but didn't try to promote his music right away.

When you see his picture, he reminds you of Evidence from Dilated Peoples but on wax he sounds like a mix of Rakim's cool and AZ's clarity. He's Russian by birth but was raised on New York hip hop and studied the genre like a class he'd be taking at Cal Poly Pomona. He's released two mixtapes so far and now he's ready to take it a step further with this album.

But like most rappers today, he's also about branding himself and making this a career, not just making hits or quick money. Along with his manager Francisco Garcia, he's studied various marketing techniques and knows not just how to deliver a great product, but how to make it last beyond the moment. At 23, his business mind is sharper than folks 10 years older and it's shown in several conversations I've had with him.

His vision is starting with "Just in Time", which is available for free at his website until July 1 (also available at his artist page). The 13-track album is his formal introduction to the LA rap scene and is entirely produced by Loopz, another member of XLUSIVE's team.

The biggest draw is X's voice. He raps with charisma and precision but it doesn't sound forced or showy. His breath control is solid as he shows on "I'm Back" where he switches flows effortlessly without letting the beat get away from him. The same applies to the title track where he delivers boasts with a swagger of a veteran.

"So Cal" is a piano-heavy, West Coast banger that's perfect for cars and features a solid verse from Charm, whose aggressive flow nearly steals the show. But throughout the album, XLUSIVE's versatility shines as he uses different flows to drive home each song without sounding boring.

The ladies jam "Turn Off the Lights" is a turnoff only because his confident flow comes off begging more than convincing. Also, his voice can sometimes gets overshadowed by the pulsing beats and his content, while consistent, might not distinguish him from other rappers.

That said, he does show a bit of depth on later tracks "Love, Hate, Sex and Drugs" goes from hearing a lover's confessions on her ambitions to his personal focus on his music instead of sex and drugs. "Money and Drugs" shows X describes three tales of ladies struggling to survive with the emotion of a street narrator.  Both songs have hypnotizing beats that set the mood and are easily a highlight of the album.

The album is a promising debut that'll take a few listens to appreciate and it shows that XLUSIVE will be an MC to watch and listen for in the future. The same applies to Loopz, whose versatility behind the boards creates a cohesive sonic experience that fans will enjoy. Go cop the album

Follow him at @XLUSIVE and check out his websites and