Monday, June 27, 2016

Supporting the Transferring Athlete

Imagine you are 18 years old. You have been receiving phone calls, emails, letters, and text messages from college coaches since you were 15. These coaches have been praising your athletic skills, trying to sell their program, trying to get to know you better, and ultimately asking you to come play for them. All of that attention from the coaches, time spent talking with your family and friends about the best fit looking at factors like; major, distance from home, the conference they play in, the city the school is in. All of that has led to today, National Signing Day. You know that you have picked the right school. You feel good in their colors. You have met some of the other student-athletes in your signing class and you know this is the right place for you. What could go possibly wrong?

It turns out there are plenty of things that can go wrong. Student-athletes today are transferring at a higher rate than ever before. According to the NCAA about 40 percent of all men’s basketball players who graduate high school and go on to play Division I basketball transfer schools by the end of their sophomore year (“Tracking transfer,” 2015). In most cases the decision to transfer is an attempt by the student-athlete to put them in a better position for increased playing time, but plenty of other factors can lead to a decision to transfer. In my search for answers, I didn’t find any research that explicitly looks at why student-athletes transfer. In my experience as a student-athlete, and a graduate assistant in a Division I athletic department, I have observed several factors that most frequently lead to a decision to transfer.

Lack of Playing Time:

Many student-athletes feel their personal identity is tied to their identity as an athlete. If a student-athlete isn’t getting the playing time they deserve it can affect their confidence, their social relationships, and their academic performance. The student-athlete makes many transfer decisions so they can put themselves in the best position to succeed athletically.

Relationship with the Coach:

No matter how great it seems like you’re getting along during the recruiting process, you don’t really have a true idea of what practice, competition, and off-season training is going to be like, and how the relationship with your coach is going to develop. Sometimes the student-athlete decides the relationship has not developed in the way they envisioned, and the student-athlete decides to leave. Sometimes the coach asks the student-athlete to look at transferring because they don’t think the student-athlete is a fit for their program.

Distance from Home:

Sometimes the school is simply too far from home. Going out on your own to make a name for yourself at 18 can be a difficult task. You are dealing with balancing academic challenges, and social pressures you may have never faced before, while being challenged athletically on an elite level. All of those factors, along with the fact that you are separated from your family, friends, and the comfort of home, can make life difficult.

Disciplinary Action:

This is stating the obvious, but occasionally college students don’t always make the best decisions. Whether it’s an honor code violation, underage drinking citation, failed drug test, criminal action, or any other violation of team rules, at times student-athletes are forced to leave. Other times student-athletes are embarrassed by a decision they made and decide a fresh start might be best move for them.

Coaching Changes:

With the amount of pressure coaches face to win today, the coaching carousel is moving faster than ever before. When new coaches come in, the student-athletes they inherit need to build those relationships all over again. From time to time, the student-athletes don’t fit the new scheme and feel they need to go somewhere where they are wanted. Frequently coaches want to make their mark on the program right away by changing the culture. This process of changing the culture often involves removing players who are hurting the culture and making room for new talent to come in (Fowler, 2014). Whether it is disciplinary action, or a decision not to renew a student-athlete’s scholarship, coaching changes seem to be a leading cause for roster turnover.

So why is this transfer information newsworthy? Well in my experience students who are asked to leave, forced to leave, or make a decision to transfer on their own, are often uneducated on what lies ahead of them. Often times they risk losing credits, and the life they have created at their current institution, at the expense of searching for athletic success. Maybe the student-athlete will ask an academic advisor for help, or have an empathetic coach willing to help them out, but the most consistent message I’ve seen is something along the lines of “If you’re transferring, don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” And I think that’s wrong. If the mission of college athletics is to help our student-athletes develop into well-rounded individuals, and set them up for future success, then how can we kick them to the curb when they aren’t able to do anything for us anymore? A social worker, or somebody in a similar role, would be able to help the student-athlete decide if a transfer really is the right decision for them. If they are being forced out, they could help them talk through the emotions surrounding such a difficult situation. Ultimately they would be able to connect the student-athlete with campus resources to obtain the necessary paperwork and help them make the smoothest transition possible.  

Under current NCAA transfer legislation student-athletes transferring from Division I institution to another Division I school in baseball, men’s basketball, men’s ice hockey, and football, must sit out one academic year. The first year at their new school is supposed to be their acclimation period (NCAA Division I Manual, 2015). But why don’t student-athletes who compete in swimming and diving need that same acclimation period? It seems like the NCAA is conveniently trying to preserve a sense of amateurism in the sports that produce the most revenue.

My recommendation to the NCAA is twofold. First, they need to allow transfers to play right away in all sports. At the very least, if the head coach that you committed to play for is fired, or leaves for another job, the student-athlete should be allowed to play immediately if they decide to transfer. While this rule change would most likely lead to an increase in transfers, if there were a staff member assigned to working with transfers, then this issue can become an organized process, which would benefit both the outgoing student-athlete and the school they are going to. Some may have the mentality that they don’t want to do work for another institution because that’s the next institution’s problem to deal with, and they’re our competition, but in the end it balances out.  If we use Tulane’s men’s basketball program as a case example you can see what I’m talking about. Last offseason we lost four transfers, but gained the services of a transfer who had come in from LSU and sat the previous academic year out, and a graduate transfer from the University of Washington who was eligible to play right away. This offseason we fired our head coach and immediately lost two transfers. We also brought in a transfer from Vanderbilt who left after his head coach Kevin Stallings left to take the same position at the University of Pittsburgh. At the end of the day, the transfer process can be messy, but if we make some changes, together we can help make it easier on the student-athletes involved.

References

(2015). NCAA Division I Manual. Indianapolis, IN: NCAA Membership Affairs Staff. Retrieved from http://www.ncaapublications.com/productdownloads/D116APR.pdf

Fowler, J. (2014, September 5). Texas' Charlie Strong has disciplined most among first-year coaches. In CBSSports.com. Retrieved June 20, 2016, from http://www.cbssports.com/college-football/news/texas-charlie-strong-has-disciplined-most-among-first-year-coaches/


Tracking transfer in Division I Men’s Basketball. (2015, December 9). In NCAA Research. Retrieved June 20, 2016, from http://www.ncaa.org/about/resources/research/tracking-transfer-division-i-men-s-basketball

Monday, April 18, 2016

Raise the Age Louisiana: SB324

               Do you ever hear something that gets you fired up? I'm talking about fired up emotionally, as in fired up to the point where you feel like you NEED to take action. As a future social worker, advocate for human rights, and a person who cares about the general well being of others, I feel the need to speak up when I feel like people are being treated unfairly. The fact that Louisiana is one of of only nine states who tries all 17 year olds as adults is very concerning to me. This means that if a 17 year old is convicted of any crime they will be sent to adult prison. 18 is the age used to define the beginning of adulthood in this country. You need to be 18 to vote, you need to be 18 to serve in the army, you need to be 18 to take out a credit card, you need to be 18 to have an unrestricted drivers license in most states, you get the picture. Why should Louisiana's youth be tried as adults at 17? This is why I have decided to support the movement to raise the age at which youth can be tried as adults from 17 to 18 years old. By spreading awareness, I hope that I can help ensure that Senator John Morrell's Senate Bill no. 324, will become a law. You can spread the word by using the hashtags #SB324, #RaiseTheAgeLA, and #LYJD. You can also follow the link here to educate yourself, and take action by clicking on the red take action button in the middle of the page: http://www.laccr.org/what-we-do/transforming-juvenile-justice/raise-the-age-louisiana/
            The reason this issue became personal to me is because of my internship at the Youth Empowerment Project, and the students that I work with on a daily basis in the Village Program. Part of my role is to help with intake, during which I administer psychosocial assessments. A psychosocial is basically a fancy term for an in depth interview where you learn about another person's background. During one of the psychosocials I heard a story from one of my students that just didn't sit right with me. My client was running down Canal Street trying to catch the bus, when suddenly he was tackled to the ground by a police officer. He was put in handcuffs, read his miranda rights, and told that he fit the description of somebody who had just committed an armed robbery. They brought him over to the victim and asked if they could identify my client as the assailant. After the victim realized he wasn't the man who had robbed him, they decided to let him go. The cops said they would like to take down his information, incase they needed to bring him in for further questioning. The next day the police called my client's mom, and said he needed to turn himself in, because the victim had flipped his story, but my client didn't want to go to jail, so he ran. He was laying low for 4 months, until one day his friend was giving him a ride to work and they were pulled over because the vehicle turned out to be stolen. His friend got out and ran, and before my client could react he was being arrested for accessory to armed robbery of a stolen vehicle, illegal gun possession for the guns that were in the trunk, and possession of marijuana, on top of the warrant he had for armed robbery. When all was said and done he was facing 25 years in prison, mainly for things out of his control. 
           When he went to trial he was ready to plead guilty to the plea agreement that his lawyer had come up with; 10 years in prison. If he pleaded guilty to the armed robbery charge they would drop all other charges. He was 17 years old, and his life was about to change for the worse. By the grace of God his lawyer came through and got all of the charges dropped. It turns out they didn't have sufficient evidence to charge my client with any of the crimes that he was being accused of. Justice won, and he was given his freedom. But that wasn't before he had faced 76 days in jail, it wasn't before he came to accept the reality that he was about to spend the next ten years of his life in prison, it wasn't before he was separated from his family and everything he knows and loves for simply being in the wrong place at the wrong time. 
            My client expressed to me that he knew he was living wrong before he got locked up, and he was trying to turn his life around, which is precisely why he was there talking to me as part of his decision to enroll in our Village Program. It might have been good for him to get that wake up call. But most of the time that's what these kids need; a wake up call, not 10 years in prison. Another one of my clients shared a story with me about his own armed robbery charge, a charge that he was actually guilty of, although according to his story he was only peripherally involved, and far from the main aggressor. The difference was he was 16 when he committed his crime, and he faced two years in a juvenile detention center, rather than the potential of 10 years in adult prison. That's the purpose of the juvenile justice system; create a punishment that fits the crime, modify behavior, and rehabilitate them so that they can hopefully learn from their mistakes and live a meaningful life. The juvenile justice system is far from perfect, but it is much better when compared to the world of adult prison. 
            Hopefully after reading this, you too will become a supporter of the movement to "Raise The Age." But if you don't have any sympathy for these kids, maybe this will help you. Try to think back to when you were 17. What were you doing at 17 years old? Did you make all of the right decisions? Did you ever make a mistake that came to define your young adulthood, and perhaps your entire life? If you can't relate, maybe think of a loved one, or even your own kids who are at this age. I know I personally didn't make all of the right decisions when I was 17. I made some decisions that when I look back on now, I can hardly believe that I even considered it as an idea, but that's part of growing up. According to the Center for Disease Control prosecuting youth in the adult system can increase recidivism by 34%. If the goal of prison is rehabilitation, let's really think about what's best for these kids, and give them a chance to learn from their mistakes. Changes are happening. Are you going to be part of it? 

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Finding your purpose: My journey back to the classroom

           “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” My brother Anthony shared this quote with me after he saw the movie “The Equalizer.” This quote can originally be credited to the legendary Mark Twain. I think it is a great quote, and to take it a step further I would like to add, once you find your purpose, what are you going to do to chase your dreams and live out your purpose?
            Some people think I was crazy to leave the Spurs. I was 24 years old, succeeding as an employee for one of the top organizations in sports, and had a strong reputation in the company. But I knew what I was doing wasn’t my passion. I knew God had a different plan for me, and that I needed to pursue the passion He had placed on my heart to find my purpose.
            Finding your purpose is a process. For me that process started from my first memories, although I didn’t necessarily know it at the time.  My first role models were my parents, and my older brother Benny. My mom was a physical education teacher (don’t call it a gym teacher, she will correct you), and my dad was a social studies teacher in the Copiague School District. Hauppauge is my hometown, but Copiague is my second home. My parents grew up in Copiague, and they dedicated their lives to making it a better place. My mom shaped the lives of Copiague’s youth for over 30 years, and impacted so many lives that it is impossible to count. After a successful career as a shortstop at Washington and Lee, and a Headmaster at Christchurch in Virginia, my dad returned to Copiague and spent time teaching social studies, and serving as head of the history department, before eventually rising to assistant principal. My dad also coached the Copiague varsity football, wrestling, and baseball teams, and he was successful doing it. The football team still hasn’t recovered since he left, and the baseball team reached unprecedented heights under his watch. But the most important thing I learned from watching my parents was the relationships they built with their students, and their players. My parents supported these students as if they were their own children, and had a genuine love for them. They held them accountable when they acted up, but they were also the first ones to give them praise and be there to congratulate them when they succeeded. They refused to let the sometimes broken neighborhoods, and homes these kids were raised in, define who these students became.
            I didn’t want to be a teacher though. I wanted to blaze my own path. I loved playing sports growing up. My brothers and I would go all year round; baseball in the spring and summer, football in the fall, and wrestling in the winter. Benny was our first hero, and we watched him in football and wrestling through his high school and college career. I knew I wanted to be a college athlete from that point on. Football was my best sport, and after a successful senior year I ended up at Robert Morris University. I wanted to test myself at the highest level, and RMU gave me a chance to do that. I figured I would give it my best shot to make it to the NFL, and if that didn’t work out, I would take advantage of RMU’s Sport Management program and go into scouting, and eventually become a general manager in baseball or football. But when you’re 18 you don’t really have as much figured out as you think you do. I found out pretty quickly that I didn’t have what it took to make it to the NFL, and during my freshman year I had the chance to meet RMU alum, and Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Kevin Colbert, and former New York Giants General Manager Ernie Accorssi at the Robert Morris Sport Management Conference and I learned I didn’t want to be a General Manager either. The NFL is a business. I learned from talking to Ernie and reading his book, the hard truth of how difficult it is to sit there and tell a man who has worked all his life to achieve a dream of playing in the NFL, that we don’t have room on the roster for him, or that he needs to take a paycut so we can sign somebody else. Evaluating talent sounds great, cutting players, and firing coaches, not so much.
            While I was figuring out that I didn’t want to be a GM, I made a connection that would change my life forever. In my first semester at RMU I had a professor named Dr. Artemisia Apostolopoulou, who changed my life. I got a 34 on Dr. A’s first quiz, and I felt terrible about it. I started to question whether I was cut out for college. I knew I needed to do something differently, so I went to her office hours. I told Dr. A that I thought her quiz was too hard, so she asked me how much I had prepared for it. I told her not much, but I thought I could get by like that. Dr. A was disappointed in my effort, but she offered me some study tips, and challenged me to do better. Most importantly she showed a belief in me, that I didn’t necessarily have in myself at the time. She so genuinely believed in my ability to succeed, that I had no choice but to perform. I owed that to her, and I owed that to myself.
            I made it through my first year at RMU with a 3.7 GPA, and although I wasn’t getting the time on the field that I wanted, my identity was less tied up in who I was as a football player, and more tied up in who I was as a student-athlete, and a brother, and a son. Life was good. That summer I started hearing rumors about some of my teammates leaving.  I found out they weren’t leaving by choice though, they were struggling, and had nobody to lean on in the face of adversity. One of my teammates got arrested and kicked out of school, one had failed multiple drug tests and was suspended from playing football, and decided to leave school, and a third was ruled ineligible for failing to earn enough credits before the start of our sophomore year. Just like that three of my teammates were gone. Now you might be sitting there thinking “they did this to themselves” or “they had their chance.” But these were my teammates, these were my brothers, and I couldn’t just sit by idly and watch them struggle. We were in this struggle together. I did everything I could to help my teammates, from holding study groups, helping them complete assignments, and letting them borrow my laptop, to taking them home for a day so they could see their families. I was just one person though, and I could only do so much as their teammate and friend. I had taken it upon myself to seek out a mentor like Dr. A, but who did the student-athletes that didn’t take that initiative have in their corner when things went wrong?
            The NCAA is a broken system. As the NCAA and its member schools profit off of their athletes, what are they doing to help these athletes graduate and find success once they do? I wanted to be somebody that could help these student-athletes achieves their goals on and off the field, and ultimately become the men and women they are capable of. Now the question was, how to do it. It turns out at schools that have a larger athletic budget than RMU, they offer academic services, and in some cases counseling services, specifically for student-athletes. I think this is really important because the student-athlete experience is very different from that of the general student population, and their schedules don’t always allow them to take advantage of traditional tutoring or counseling services. Along the way Benny showed me a feature they did on Showtime: 60 Minutes Sports, on a man named Greg Harden, who works with the student-athletes at the University of Michigan. Greg helps student-athletes by providing counseling, and offering tough love when needed. I’ve watched that clip at least 20 times, and he is an inspiration for me today.
            RMU’s Sport Management department has a tremendous amount of alums in the sports business world. People like Dr. Dave Synowka, Dr. A, Harry Leckemby, Steve Swetoha, Lisa Quinn, Bill Sutton, Rob Mattina, Russ and Katy Yurk, and Murray Cohn have helped to build it into one of the top sports business programs in the country. The sports business world is where my connections were, so I decided to make the most of the opportunity. I earned an internship with Spurs Sports and Entertainment for the summer before my senior year, and turned that into a full time job offer.
            I loved everything about the Spurs. The organization treated us right. The Spurs call their employees and their customers the Spurs Family, and they really were my family. They took care of us. I developed a strong relationship with my hiring manager Frank Torres, and he helped me adjust to life in a new city. I made some friendships with both my coworkers, and my clients, that I know will last a lifetime.  I had the chance to be a part of an NBA championship winning organization, and meet some of the best players in the world. I have no regrets about the two years I spent there. But I knew that producing revenue for a professional sports franchise wasn’t my passion. I was good at it, and it was fun, but I knew I needed to live out my purpose.
            I applied to be a graduate assistant at Tulane University in February, through a posting I found on NCAA Job Board. I had no connection to Tulane, and I had never even been to New Orleans, but the position was for a graduate assistant role in the Academic Services Center for Student-Athletes, and they had a respected social work program, so it seemed like a perfect fit.  After an on campus interview, and a brief tour of New Orleans, I returned to San Antonio to wait and find out my fate. I felt like I was cheating on the Spurs during that time, but at the same time I feel like they understood. When I got the news that they were offering me the job, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. I was somewhat shocked, excited beyond belief, and sad to leave at the same time. On May 31st I packed up a U-haul and my car, and made the drive to New Orleans.
            It’s hard to believe I already made it through one semester here. I got involved right away. I helped out with our athlete essentials 101, and 201 classes this summer, helped develop new programming for the student-athletes, served as an educational assistant for some of our freshmen student-athletes, monitored our Academic Excellence Program which functions as an objective based study hall for our freshmen football players, and took seven of my own classes. I met some really awesome people, and integrated myself into my new home city along the way. It’s a grind, and I’m often running low on sleep, but I wouldn’t change anything. I feel so blessed to be where I am, and I thank God every day for leading me here. I’m so thankful for all of the people in my life that have helped to shape me into the man I am today, and hopefully I can help these student-athletes I have the privilege of working with realize their potential. I believe all of us have greatness inside of us, what are you doing to share your greatness with the rest of the world?

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

RMCMB climbs their way to the top of the NEC

Besides being great players,
Coron and Treadwell are great friends. 
The Robert Morris Men's Basketball team is by far my favorite basketball team. Shooting guard Coron Williams is one of my best friends, and fan favorite Treadwell Lewis is one of my roommates. All of the players on the team are great guys, and the team represents my school in a positive way which is something I take great pride in. I realize that I am biased and it is tough for me to write about them objectively, but anybody following them this season would have to agree their story is quite compelling. 

To say this season has been a rollercoaster for the Colonials would be an understatement. There isn't much this Robert Morris team hasn't faced. The Colonials ended last season with a heartbreaking loss in the Northeast Conference championship game to LIU in Brooklyn. However despite that loss, the Colonials still had one of the brightest young minds in the game in Head Coach Andy Toole, and a roster that was returning a ton of talent. The only player the Colonials were losing was Lawrence Bridges, and they were adding size in transfer Vaughn Morgan, and freshman Stephan Hawkins, and a dynamic scorer in transfer Karvel Anderson. When you combine that with the fact that the Colonials were returning All NEC Point Guard Velton Jones, veteran forwards Lucky Jones, and Russell Johnson, sharpshooter Coron Williams, and and two big men ready to break out in Mike McFadden and Lijah Thompson, the future was looking bright. 

Things don't always go according to plan though. The first turn of bad luck was when Lijah tore his ACL in the preseason. It didn't help that developing big man Keith Armstrong had undergone microfracture surgery on his knee over the summer. Those two injuries left the Colonials thin in the front court. How would the Colonials respond? At first it wasn't pretty. RMU was blown out by Rider in a game they expected to win on the road to open the season and embarrassed in the Preseason NIT by Lehigh, before scoring their first victory over Fordham. The team was still figuring each other out and getting used to the new pieces. Russell Johnson was missing from the lineup. But they knew they were better than that. 

When Karvel is on, good luck stopping him
After going on the road and taking a strong Xavier team to the wire before coming up just short, the Colonials went on to win 7 of their next 8, including spirited home victories against a previously unbeaten Ohio team, and a dominating performance against rival Duquesne. Velton Jones was still the playmaker everyone knew he was, Russell Johnson was playing some of the best basketball of his career, Dave Appolon stepped up and turned in some phenomenal defensive performances. Karvel Anderson turned in the most impressive performance during this streak with a 28 point outburst against Ohio, when he hit all ten shots from the field including a perfect eight for eight from three point range. The streak came to an end when RMU went into Fayetteville and nearly upset Arkansas of the Southeast Conference. Surely this would give them confidence and they would manhandle the Northeast Conference right? Wrong. 

RMU opened conference play with home losses to Central Connecticut State and Bryant. Not exactly what they had in mind as they embarked on their journey to win the NEC. The team wasn't shooting well, or playing the defense they knew they were capable of, Vaughn quit the team, and the injuries began to pile up. Russell Johnson hurt his ankle, Anthony Myers-Pate suffered a concussion, Karvel injured his foot. Coron and Stephan are the only regulars that have played in every game this season. The doubters began to wonder out loud whether or not the Colonials would even be able to compete for the conference crown, let alone win it. 

Velton hits a game-winner against LIU
But the Colonials didn't panic, they simply regrouped and went about their business reeling off six straight victories. Than another setback came as the team traveled to Brooklyn. In the first game of their road trip Velton went down with a shoulder injury and didn't return as the Colonials lost to St. Francis NY. With a rematch of last years NEC title game against LIU coming on Saturday the team pulled together and put forth an outstanding overall effort. Velton played through injury and hit one of his patented game-winning floaters to send the team back home victorious.

After an overtime win over Wagner, a road trip to Connecticut where the team lost a tough one to Quinnipiac and escaped Sacred Heart with a victory despite a  late Shane Gibson led rally, and some help from other teams around the NEC, the Colonials now find themselves alone atop the NEC standings with a record of 10-4 in conference and 18-9 overall. 


It hasn't been easy, but the team is right where they want to be as they head down the stretch run. This team can be very special if they are able to get everybody healthy and they are playing at the level they are capable of heading into the conference tournament, or they could struggle with the same bad luck and inconsistencies that have crippled them at times this season and fall well short of their expectations. But after all they have been through together to get to this point, are you really going to doubt them? 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Taking Fan Heartbreak to a New Level


Just like that it was over. A postseason run that started out so promising with 10 straight wins, had suddenly been abruptly ended by the Kevin Durant led Oklahoma City Thunder. The deep, talented, and veteran Spurs after jumping out to a 2-0 lead, had been sent to four straight losses, and an earlier than expected postseason exit by the younger, more explosive, and more athletic new kids on the block. I felt pain and sadness Wednesday night, for my latest love affair, the San Antonio Spurs.

I've been a sports fan for as long as I can remember. My first sports fan memory is one of my Dad and I watching our beloved New York Yankees winning the World Series over the Atlanta Braves in 1996. Just like all great fans and die hards, I am very passionate about my teams and extremely loyal. When your team is playing well you are along for the ride with them on an emotional high, and when your team lets you down, you feel their pain, their sadness, and sometimes anger.  That first World Series I saw with my Dad was amazing, but it set me up for failure because more often than not your team is not going to be the last one standing.

I have experienced some great moments as a fan including seeing my Yankees win 5 World Series, seeing Ohio State win the National Championship in 2002, Donovan McNabb finally leading the Eagles to the Super Bowl, the Jets upsetting the Patriots in the 2010-11 playoffs, and seeing the Robert Morris Basketball team make the NCAA tournament my freshman year. I've experienced my fair share of heartbreak too though, including the Yankees blowing a 3-0 lead to the Red Sox, the Jets losing to the Steelers in the AFC Championship Game (twice), and Robert Morris losing to LIU in the NEC Championship game (twice.) When it comes down to it, more often than not, your team is going to finish the season on a loss. But the pain and sadness I felt and experienced tonight, for my latest love interest, the San Antonio Spurs, ranks right near the top of my list for moments of heartbreak as a fan.

For die hard sports fans, the relationship with your team is a lot like a relationship that one would share with their spouse in a marriage.  Some are born into their fanhood, and similar to an old school marriage where the people directly involved didn't necessarily have a choice, you are stuck with each other. Others float around and get into the game a little bit later, making what they think is a better choice for themselves personally as their team, or in the case of marriage their spouse.  The only difference between a marriage and a sports team is your favorite team cares even less about your opinion than your wife does. But even though we know that, in both cases, we don't let it affect how much we love them right?

My marriage with the Spurs began when I chose to move to San Antonio for the summer for my internship as a New Business Consultant.  I had always liked the Spurs. I always thought they were a first class organization, had a great coach in Coach Pop who ran a tight ship, played great team ball, and won four championships. Plus they had Tim Duncan. A classic quiet guy who always let his play do the talking, my kind of player. But I would never say I was really a fan of them. My first memory of the Spurs was seeing them knock off my New York Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals. However once I got hired, I began to read about the Spurs daily, checking out the box score after every game, following every player transaction, and I knew the bio of every player on the roster.

Once I actually got down here to San Antonio my love for the Spurs was in full effect.  I was ready to chant "Go Spurs Go!" with the rest of San Antonio and I watched them close out the Utah Jazz in my first night on the town.  My orientation was that Monday and the staff and organization couldn't have been more friendly and welcoming. The organization is one of a kind in my opinion. I haven't worked for another professional sports team so I realize I am biased, but it is hard to imagine one that preaches and even more importantly upholds the values that they believe are vital to running a good business. They place a real emphasis on staff interaction, building a culture, and maintaining an identity of a family atmosphere.

We had to wait about a week before we knew who we were playing, and finally we found out the Los Angeles Clippers were coming to town. I'll admit the first game I was a bit star struck.  It was pretty crazy to see Chris Paul and Blake Griffin get off the team bus no more than 20 feet away from me, as we were eating our staff dinner. It was even more surreal when I walked by Kawhi Leonard in the tunnel and realized he might not be the biggest player on the floor but he is MUCH bigger than I am. The atmosphere in the arena was electric. I got chills during intros when they played Party Rock Anthem and Tim Duncan was introduced. It was my first NBA game in 10 years and it certainly didn't disappoint. The Spurs dominated from the start, and ran right through the bruised and battered Clippers winning that first game 108-92, and sweeping them 4-0 to secure our spot in the Western Conference Finals.

The atmosphere for the Western Conference Finals was even more amplified than it was against the Clippers. I had become a little less star struck but I still thought it was pretty cool to walk by Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka, and Kendrick Perkins in the tunnel on my way to dinner in Game 1.  After being down for much of Game 1 the Spurs exploded for a 39 point 4th quarter, while my favorite player Stephen Jackson shut down Kevin Durant down the stretch to help ensure the victory.  Some people may think Stephen Jackson is an interesting choice for a favorite player since he is a bench player, and somebody who is a supposed thug, on a roster with three future Hall of Famers. But as Jonathan Abrams on Grantland pointed out, there is a lot more than what meets the eye when it comes to Captain Jack. The Spurs completed the comeback and came away with a thrilling Game 1 victory.

In Game 2 Tony Parker turned in a vintage Tony performance. He was efficient, exhilarating, and unstoppable. The Spurs never trailed and we were up 2-0 for the series. The team was looking great, our win streak was at 20 straight. We were playing good team defense, great team offense, knocking down big shots, and the young Thunder looked shell shocked. San Antonio was ready to celebrate.

Than we went on the road to Oklahoma City and the series turned. The home court advantage was undeniable, but we just looked bad. The Thunder did their best to turn it into a track meet and we couldn't keep up. The Thunder made quick work of us and sent it back to San Antonio tied 2-2.

I wanted to have confidence coming back home, but I was definitely worried.  The atmosphere was great again, and we even broke out white shirts for all the fans to make a white out. For the first 3 and 1/2 quarters of Game 5 the Thunder picked up right where they left off. But than suddenly down 13 with 5 minutes left in the 4th the Spurs sprang to life and began an improbable comeback. Tim Duncan led the Spurs to within 2 and they needed a defensive stop.  But the next time down the floor James Harden hit a cold blooded step back 3 that broke the hearts Spurs fans everywhere. It was undoubtedly the dagger and sent the fans to the exits.  The fans were worried and we were going back to Oklahoma City for Game 6. We just couldn't keep up with them.

The Spurs wouldn't go down without a fight though. Tony Parker came out of the gates hot and the Spurs built a lead as large as 18 points at one point in the first half, before heading into the break up 15.  However even that lead proved to be not enough to beat the Thunder. Kevin Durant took over in the second half, Tony Parker slowed down, and the Spurs just couldn't keep up.  Durant and the young Thunder were headed to their first NBA Finals.  It was a sad, sad night in San Antonio.  The office was very quiet on Thursday morning.

Despite the common perception that this team is too old, the window of opportunity for another championship hasn't closed.  As long as Coach Pop is running the show, R.C. Buford is making the calls, and Tim Duncan is in a Spurs uniform I think it would be wrong to not give them a chance. They will reload, get better and they will be back.  My internship is still moving along in full force. Still sales to make, and it's time to focus on Silver Stars. No time to dwell on the loss from a professional standpoint.  But for now from a fan's perspective this one hurts. The fans know how good this team was, and that an opportunity for a championship slipped away, and being a part of the Spurs family made it that much tougher.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Remembering Marco Giovengo

On Friday evening March 16th this world lost the best man I know. Marco Giovengo suffered a heart attack in his on campus apartment in Lexington. But that's enough about his death. I am writing this today so people will remember him for the way he lived, because that is what he would have wanted, and that is what he deserves.

My relationship with Marco began in our Sport Coaching class.  He had asked me to help him out on an assignment through a message on Facebook and after I had helped him he challenged me to a video game of NBA 2k11.  It was definitely a different experience for me at first.  I had never had a friend who was handicapped, growing up as an athlete I had very few friends who weren't athletes, and I had a very minimal understanding of the disease muscular dystrophy that he was suffering from.

The first time I met him it made me sad because I had trouble understanding everything he was saying. I felt bad asking him to repeat himself, but he understood that I was trying my best so he didn't mind too much.  But despite not being able to hear him very clearly that first time we hung out there were a few things that I learned about him right off the bat.

Marco is one of the passionate people you will ever meet, and that passion carries over to everything he does, especially the Pittsburgh Pirates.  He loved baseball more than anything. He told me about how his Pap would teach him about the game, how to hold a bat, how to break in a glove, how to throw a ball, and he loved all of it.  He played baseball at every chance he could, both when he was physically able to and even when he wasn't, and he could talk baseball with you all day.  His love of the Pirates also showed you his loyalty. The Pirates have been the worst damn team in baseball since he was 2 years old, but he never once thought about switching his allegiance.  He loved his "Bucco Brothers", as he so affectionately referred to them, for life. His favorite Pirate was local kid Neil Walker who he had built a very close relationship with. Marco had a 20 game season ticket package, and before each game he attended, he would text Neil to let him know he would be there, and Neil would make sure to come over and talk with him in the pre-game, and than give him the ball he had warmed up with.  I had the privilege of seeing this relationship first hand, as Marco insisted that I meet Neil, because as he put it "he wanted to be just like the two of us someday, and we both made his life a much better one."

He also loved and appreciated people way more than anybody I know.  After leaving his apartment one time after we had hung out, he texted me and said "hey man thanks for coming over, it means a lot to me. I love you bro." I wasn't sure what to think at first.  I mean how many guys tell their friends on a daily basis that they love them. The next time we hung out he said to me "I know you might think it's weird that I say I love you. But I really do man. You don't know how many people can't accept me for who I am. So the fact that you look right past all of this, and treat me the way you do, it really means the world to me." It just about broke my heart when he said that to me, and I told him I loved him every day after that.

Another thing is he would never be afraid to speak his mind.  That first time we hung out, he beat my butt in that game of NBA 2k11, and he was talking trash to me the whole time.  He had used the Orlando Magic and I used the New York Knicks.  His favorite player was J.J. Redick and he was yelling things like "J.J. Redick baby", after he hit shots with him, and "New York sucks" the entire game.  Another thing that stuck out to me, was that in the entire three hours I spent with him, he didn't say one negative thing.  He had this terrible disease, but he was not about to let it define him by any means.  He was a regular college student, pursuing his degree, talking about girls, and living on his own.

This past summer I lived on campus, interning with the Washington Wild Things and training for football, and Marco stayed on campus as well taking summer classes. When he found out I got the internship and I would be staying on campus he was overjoyed. Every morning after working out I would play a game of NBA2k with him or MLB the Show before I left for work.  Every night after I got back from working the game around 10:30, we would watch some random West Coast game on my MLB.tv account, or if we were lucky enough the Pirates would be on a West Coast trip.  One night specifically stands out to me where the Pirates lost to the Atlanta Braves in extra innings on a very questionable call. We had stayed up until 2:00 in the morning watching and it was the most angry I have ever seen him.  While we were watching the games we would have "bullpen sessions" as he liked to call them, where we would talk about our days, anything new that was going on, how we were going to make his senior year the best year yet, and just life in general. He referred to me as Manager DBon, and he was my young pitcher that I was trying to lead to the Cy Young award.

One afternoon when I had the day off my friend Heather came to visit me. The Pirates were playing at 4 that day so he came over to watch the game with me.  When he got there he saw Heather, and he couldn't take his eyes off her. That was the only time I've ever seen him be distracted from a Pirates game. I introduced him and the three of us talked for about an hour before Heather had to leave.  After she left he said to me "she is the most beautiful girl I have ever seen." He told me that he wanted me to make sure that she was his Homecoming date for when he ran for King in the fall and I promised him I would do everything I could to make it happen.  I asked her if she would come over with me one day to his apartment, and although he was extremely nervous, being the courageous and polite guy he was, he said to her "Heather I'm running for Homecoming King, and it would be an honor, and a privilege, if you would be my date and escort." She happily agreed and Marco was so happy he could barely contain himself.

This year Marco has had some great memories, despite finishing as a runner-up for Homecoming King, he loved Homecoming weekend. I would be lying if I said he wasn't bitter about not winning, because he absolutely was. But he had a great time regardless.  I threw him a birthday party at my apartment and he said to me "Dan I got the invites for the guys, but out of us two you're the pimp so I want lots of ladies there." We had about 40 people crammed into my apartment for the party, and at least half of them were girls, and during the midst of it, he called me over and said to me "I love you Dan, this is the best night of my life."

Marco always loved the Pitt Panthers, but he really loved his Robert Morris Colonials and his university.  He said that this was his second home.  He was more involved than just about anybody on campus.  He was a member of the band, the Secretary of the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity, which he was Damn Proud of, as he liked to constantly say, and a Sport Management major who was ready to walk in May and graduate in August.  He was at every basketball game, and every football game, and he swore that we could beat anybody.

Marco is the most courageous person I have ever known, and I consider it a privilege and an honor to have known him so well, and to call him my friend.  Just think about all of the people you know, or maybe even you are guilty of it, who go through life just floating along, not working towards anything, wasting the gift, and the blessing they have been given.  Here was a kid who was dealt a bad card, but refused to let it hold him back.  Marco lived his life to the fullest until his last moments. I spent that afternoon watching March Madness with him. We were watching 15th seeded Norfolk State, upset 2nd seeded Missouri.  He was yelling about how embarrassing Missouri was, and that they sucked, mainly because he had picked Missouri to go to the Final Four in his bracket. But than he said to me "you know how I love underdogs, so I can't really be that mad." And I did know, he had said to me once, the reason he cheers for underdogs so much is because he is an underdog himself.

Marco always said to me and my teammates that we were an inspiration to him, but the truth is that he was an inspiration to us.  He has taught me so much, and he really has given me an entirely new outlook on life.  So although Marco is no longer physically with us, I hope that his passion, his courage, his love, and his unbreakable, and undeniable spirit, will live inside of all of us, and I can promise you that it will always live on inside of me.  Rest In Peace man. I love you.