Thursday, December 13, 2012

Who is the Sportsman of the Year?

I had already known it for a few days, but, last night, I was in a Barnes & Noble store, and I saw the cover of Sports Illustrated, awarding the magazine's annual Sportsman of the Year to LeBron James of the defending World Champion Miami Heat -- and, this past summer, Olympic Gold Medalist.

Last night, in Miami, the Heat lost 97-95 to the Golden State Warriors, a team that has missed the Playoffs 5 years in a row, made the Playoffs once in the last 17 years, and hasn't even been to the Conference Finals since Gerald Ford was President.

The Dreaded SI Cover Jinx strikes again? Or just a coincdence? As Leroy Jethro Gibbs taught us on NCIS, "Rule Number 39: There is no such thing as coincidence."

(Of course, I'm guessing Gibbs doesn't believe in jinxes, either.)

LeBron, Athlete of the Year? An understandable pick.  But "sportsman"? The big jerk doesn't know the meaning of the word.  If he does, he's got a funny way of showing it.

Dictionary.com defines "sportsman" as follows:

1. A man who engages in sports, especially in some open-air sport, as hunting, fishing, racing, etc.

2. A person who exhibits qualities especially esteemed in those who engage in sports, as fairness, courtesy, good temper, etc.

Based on those definitions, am I judging LeBron too harshly?

He does engage in a sport.  Basketball, unlike golf, is a sport.  Although the "hunting, fish, racing, etc." part of it harkens back to a time when there were no professional team sports as we now understand that phrase.  As late as its first decade, 1954-64, SI went out of its way to focus on such sports: Horse racing (no problem there), tennis (no problem there), golf (I don't like it but I understand), fishing (I don't like it but I understand), hunting (I despise it but I understand), and even dog shows and professional cardplaying -- not like in today's professional poker, but contract bridge.  The man most often associated with that latter game, Charles Goren, was on the SI cover at least twice in that period. Dog shows and card games are certainly competitions, but they're not sports.  Okay, when Oscar Madison played poker on The Odd Couple, it could get somewhat physical.  Other than that...

But based on the 2nd definition...

* Good temper? Actually, yes.  I have never seen LeBron lose his temper on the basketball court.  If he ever has, I've either never heard about it, or missed it.

* Fairness? Well, if you think about it, he did fulfill his contract with the Cleveland Cavaliers.  He wanted better players brought in, but he never demanded a trade from them.  To the Cavs, he was fair.  But to the Cavs' fans? Well, strictly speaking, he never had a contract with them.  They certainly have the right to be mad at him, but does he really owe them anything more than he actually gave?

* Courtesy? This is where LeBron falls short.  He had other options besides "taking my talents to South Beach." He could have stayed home in Cleveland.  He could have gone to the great basketball city of New York.  Or he could have gone to the great basketball city of Chicago.  Considering how good both the Knicks and the Bulls are at the moment, he could have made all the difference those teams needed.  And when New York and Chicago love an athlete, that athlete stays loved.  Even if they fall.  After all, Joe Pepitone went to prison, and Lenny Dykstra is going there, but they're still loved in New York.  But no, LeBron left for a ready-made team and good weather.  Winning a championship is never easy -- he found that out when the Dallas Mavericks beat the Heat, as the 2011 Heat did a great impersonation of the 2004 Lakers -- but the 2012 NBA Title was probably the most ready-made in the league's 65-year history.  And it still felt like he was rubbing everyone else's noses in it.

I cannot see LeBron as Sportsman of the Year.  Athlete of the Year, maybe.  Sportsman of the Year, no.

So here are my 5 nominees, and my winner:

5. Urban Meyer.  He left the University of Florida pretty much on top.  Then he went to Ohio State when it was disgraced, and its loyal fans needed a lift.  He gave them one.  He (apparently has) obeyed the rules, and built an undefeated team that, if not for his predecessor Jim Tressel's transgressions, would now be Big Ten Champions and preparing to play Notre Dame for the National Championship.  But because of the NCAA's probation, they can't play to determine that they are, indeed, the best college football team in the country.  And you know what? Just like Terry Bowden, who led Auburn to an undefeated season in his first year after the scandal that forced Pat Dye to retire, he hasn't complained a lick.  Compare him to men like Nick Saban and Bobby Petrino.  And, if you want to throw in the collegiate form of another sport, Rick Pitino and John Calipari.

4. Usain Bolt.  We can't know for sure that he is the fastest human who has ever lived.  But as far as we can determine, he is.  And, except for being a Manchester United fan, he is, as far as I can determine, a man of sterling character, a credit to to his nation (Jamaica), his sport, and to any race, be it the 100-meter dash or the human race.

3. Michael Phelps.  Sure, it seems greedy to want all those Gold Medals.  But he challenged himself, and, yes, in some races he needed teammates, and challenged them, too, and they benefited.  He's a great individual athlete and a great team athlete.  He doesn't have a swelled head.  He has a good sense of what he means to his sport.

And his one public misstep wasn't exactly committing a felony like O.J. Simpson did and Kobe Bryant was accused of, and it wasn't a blatant violation of the rules of his sport like Pete Rose and the steroid users did, and it wasn't even a thoughtless (or even willful) humiliation of his family like Tiger Woods did.  Besides, there are now 2 States where it's legal.

(Man, if you had told me 20 years ago, or even 5, that, in 2012, gay marriage would be legal in more States than recreational marijuana use, I would've asked you what you were smoking.)

2. Eli Manning.  The New York Giants quarterback didn't say he was the best quarterback -- even in his own family.  He said he had joined "the elite" of quarterbacking.  Then he proved his point.  He showed the New England Patriots, for the 2nd time in 5 years, cheating doth never prosper for long.

While the groundsharing Jets don't know who their starting quarterback will be, or should be, Eli just does his job, quietly, and does it well, in the biggest sport in the country, in the biggest metropolitan area in the country.  When he wins, he accepts it modestly and credits his teammates.  When he loses, he takes it like a man, puts it in the past, and does his best the next week.

Of course, the Sportsman of the Year does not have to be a current athlete.  My choice for 2012 isn't.

1. Bruce Bochy.  Once upon a time, he was called "a good defensive catcher." Translation: He couldn't hit a beach ball with a telephone pole.  He batted .239 with with 26 home runs and 93 RBIs.  Curtis Granderson might call that "a typical season." Bochy calls it "my entire playing career" (1978 to 1987).

But, like a lot of mediocre athletes, his love for the game and his intelligence led him into coaching.  All he's done is manage a team that had never won the World Series in over half a century in their current city to 2 in the last 3 seasons.  And this team, the San Francisco Giants, previously known for steroid cheat Barry Bonds, appears to have done so cleanly, and with a bunch of fun characters, who know what to take seriously, and what not to.  Bochy has also been active in youth charities.  He's a great manager and a great guy, and hardly anybody knows it.

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