Monday, June 22, 2009

The Harry Potter Mega Post

So I know this is somewhat outside the typical scope of this blog but given that we are now only a couple days past the two year anniversary of the release of the final book coupled with the release of the sixth movie (the best yet, but as always woefully inferior to its literary partner) last week, for the past few weeks Harry Potter has managed to be my substitute in the doldrums of the sports year that is the month of July. That said I was more than happy just to reread a few of the books and go see the movie without devoting a post on my sports blog up until a phone conversation with my brother a week ago.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, the older of my two younger brothers and I share a specific bond in the world of sports, mostly due to our intense competition in all things sports through our childhoods and on until today. While not quite the sports fan that I am, I still have some of my longest conversations involving sports while on the phone with him. Though he does not share my enthusiasm for reading he of course has read the Harry Potter series (honestly at this point you are a bit of a social oddity if you are between the ages of 15 and 25 and haven't read the books). We got into a long discussion breaking down the books and discussing certain elements of Rowling's genius and even some shortcomings (though few). After finally hanging up after being on the phone for more than half an hour, I decided that I would dedicate a post to a thorough ESPN style breakdown of the Harry Potter books, then finish off with some parallels between Harry Potter and the world of sports. So hang onto your Firebolts because from here on out its Potter Time. Oh and if you are one of the misguided souls who has yet to read the books SPOILERS AHEAD!

The first part of this mega-post will delve into the books. While I feel I could easily write a book myself breaking down this behemoth of a series I will take the opportunity to break it down in three parts all in a sports style: 1) Rowling's Greatest Strengths 2) The VFSS Top 10 characters in Harry Potter and 3) The Best Chapter of Each Book in the Series.

Rowlings Strengths
The Harry Potter books are far from the best books ever written in a classical literary sense and if you asked a literary critic they would say Rowling's writing is far outstripped by authors such as Orwell, Hemingway, and Tolkien. However Rowling utilizes he own brand of genius in her ability to grab the reader from the first page and not let go until the last. I can count on one hand how many 700+ page books I have read in a 24 hour span and both are Harry Potter books. Along with this ability to write literary cocaine, two other things stand out to me as particular talents of Rowling's writing.

The first is her ability to come up with names for characters that stick, many of which are less than subtle homages to other works of fiction or mythology (e.g. Argus Filch is a reference the the Greek creature Argus, Wormtail seems to take certain elements from Grima Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings). Not only does she think up great names, she often will mention a name in passing in one book, then introduce that person as an important character several books later. I personally don't think she plans that far ahead with every character, but regardless it makes the characters seem that much cooler when introduced. For instance, I doubt that while writing the first book Rowling knew that Sirius Black was going to be such an integral part of the series, however using that name as opposed to another gives greater meaning to smaller aspects of the previous books, instantly making them easier and almost necessary to reread.

Rowling's greatest strength however is her ability to build up storylines, then deliver an awesome payoff. Snape's storyline of course is the ultimate example of this, but Rowling weaves multiple storylines in each book and also weaves several across each book. For example the Barty Crouch storyline paid off wonderfully within the fourth book and the reason for Dumbledore's withered arm in the sixth book paid off wonderfully in the seventh book upon the revelation concerning the Deathly Hallows. That said there are some less than satisfactory payoffs in the series, though few and far between. I was a little disappointed with the fleeting nature of how Wormtail's debt to Harry was incorporated for example. These few admirable misfires though are not nearly enough to detract from the brilliance Rowling exhibits in creating long lasting storylines, then paying them off in dramatic fashion.

The VFSS Top 10 Harry Potter Characters

1) Severus Snape- Argue if you want, but for my money Snape is the best character in the entire series. From the first book a juxtaposition exists between Snape's apparently irrational hatred of Harry Potter and the fact that Dumbledore trusts him implicitly. Through the first five books we pretty much assume Snape to be good, yet he still antagonizes Harry Potter as well as characters such as Lupin and Sirius Black to no end. The brilliant decision Rowling made with Snape was refusing to fully explain his motivations until the end of the final book, yet giving short glimpses and hints throughout the series (such as in the Snape's worst memory chapter of book 5). To me the true testament to the fact that Snape is #1 is the fact that, in the time between book 6 and book 7, the biggest question on the minds of most fans was not whether Harry would live or die, or what the Deathly Hallows were, but instead was whether Snape was good or evil. Book seven delivered on that with the best chapter of the series (see below) and was the best of J.K. Rowlings many amazing literary payoffs.

2) Albus Dumbledore - if I had written this list before reading the seventh book, Dumbledore would have not been ranked any better than 5. Throughout the first six books of the series Dumbledore basically fills the archetypal role of the old wise sage, similar to Merlin, Gandalf, or Obi-Wan Kenobi. That's no slight of Rowling, as he still was perhaps more lovable than anyone in the group and simultaneously emanated power, wisdom, and a very quirky sense of humor. The seventh book completely changed all of that. Most characters in film or literature that fill the same archetype as Dumbledore don't get much attention with regards to their past. In giving us the background of Dumbledore and Grindewald, Rowling blindsided most readers (myself included) by suggesting that Dumbledore was fallible in his trust (which made the Snape storyline even more engrossing) and had less than pure ambitions at some point in his life.

3) Harry Potter
- Harry Potter is one of the most loved and certainly well known protagonists in the history of literature. While one never really questions his alignment with the side of good or his eventual success in his endeavors, where Rowling really succeeds with Harry is in his interactions with his peers. His interactions with Ron and Hermione and the fact that, despite his unyielding alignment to good, his ego leads him to act without much regards for the rules, really convey a character who the readers can identify with. Harry's two best moments were the aftermath of Sirius's death, in which he was legitimately infuriated with Dumbledore, and the moments before he willingly accepted his apparent death in book seven, when he accepts his fate. Harry is the ultimate good guy who symbolizes friendship and love's triumph over evil and hate.

4) Lord Voldemort/Tom Riddle- After the first book Voldemort seemed not too much different than any typical villain: powerful, purely evil, and not very deep. While Chamber of Secrets gave us a bit more insight into his past via the flashbacks to Tom Riddle, it was not until the Half-Blood Prince that the character who all but a select few wizards are too afraid to name truly got a chance to shine

5) Dolores Umbridge- Dolores Umbridge first speaks on page 146 of the Order of the Phoenix and is carried off into the forest by the centaurs on page 756. I have never hated/loathed/reviled a character in any work of literature or film as much as I did Umbridge in those 610 pages. From her sing-song voice to her passive aggressive demeanor Umbridge all the worst qualities of that teacher or boss that you just couldn't stand. It got to the point where I wanted her to undergo the same torture that William Wallace did at the end of Braveheart. And I would have been one of the people in the crowd cheering. When you can engender such emotion in a reader, you know you have just created one hell of a character.

6) Sirius Black- Sirius Black is probably not the best written character in the series but managed to be one of the most embraced characters by the fans. I think the reason for that lies in his tragic nature. Black was a misfit in his family and only found comfort with his friends James Potter, Remus Lupin, and Peter Pettigrew. That was until his best friend, James, was killed due to the betrayal of another one of his friends (Pettigrew), and on top of this he was wrongfully accused of Pettigrew's crime and forced to waste away in Azkaban for 13 years. Due to the fact his name is not cleared until after his death, Harry really never gets to spend the time with the one person who is a link to the life he could have had, had his patents not been killed. Perhaps aside from his mortal enemy Snape, Black is the most tragic character in the entire series.

7) Hermione Granger- Hermione Granger is the friend we all have that prevents us from doing stupid things and is a dedicated know it all. While this friend may annoy the hell out of us at times they always seem to have your back. No where is this more clear than in the seventh book in which, despite Ron leaving for a bit, Hermione never strays from Harry's side. While she never really has a truly powerful moment like Harry or Snape, she is consistently a good character throughout the book and a perfect complement to Harry and Ron.

8) Fred and George Weasley- You know how I just said Hermione is the friend that prevents us from doing stupid things. Well Fred and George are the friends who you always enjoy being around and seem to get you into trouble. I am really not sure there are two funnier characters in any book I have ever read. It's impossible to pick a single moment as their best, but for me it's pretty hard to top their magnum opus of mischief in the 5th book in which they undermine Umbridge's regime of terror then fly triumphantly into the sunset. Their devotion to good never waivers, yet they don't fret over letting those they feel deserve it have it. I felt the death of George was a bit contrived, but even in the more serious moments of the book these characters shined.

9) Ron Weasley- Ron is basically a normal kid who happened to become best friends with a famous peer who seems to have a magnetic attraction to dangerous circumstances and gets brought along for the ride. Ron is a great character in the fact that he is like most of us would be in his circumstances: somewhat scared and occasionally jealous of being in the shadow of his friend. These faults and occasional moments of weakness are easy to identify with and make him a great third piece along with Harry and Hermione.

10) Rubeus Hagrid- This one of course was the toughest. Lupin, Moody, and Dobby were all considerations and certainly had great moments throughout the book. I really like Luna and Neville, as they are the most similar to Harry in their backgrounds. Malfoy was the first runner up for this spot, as he really shines in book six, but a lackluster conclusion to his story line in the last book (he kind of just all of a sudden turns good) prevented him from taking this spot. In the end though its hard not to include Hagrid on this list. While he does not change much between the person he is in the first book and the person he is in the last, it's hard not to love the good-spirited half-giant whose love of hazardous creatures is beyond everyone else's comprehension. In addition Hagrid gave Rowling the chance to introduce some awesome magical creatures both of her conception and reimaginings of mythological beasts. While Hagrid's most powerful moment comes when he carries the apparently dead Harry out of the forest in book seven, it is really the two or three visits to Hagrid's cabin every book where we get to really love the big guy.

The Best Chapter of Each Book
A quick word before I start: In case you are about to label me the biggest dork in the world, I did look the chapters up quickly as I could not remember the names of many of them.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: The Boy Who Lived
"Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much." That's how the first chapter of the first book starts. From the get go, we are let in on the fact that something is extraordinary about Harry Potter. Rowling immediately draws a great contrast between the Dursleys and the wizarding world. While the Mirror of Erised is also a great chapter The Boy Who Lived has to get the recognition here.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: The Heir of Slytherin
In retrospect, the Chamber of Secrets may be the weakest of the Harry Potter novels. The plot is very similar in layout to that of Sorcerer's Stone and the story definitely lags a bit in the middle (The Death Day Party is one of the most boring chapters in the series). However the climax of the book is superb and the revelation that Tom Riddle was the past self of Lord Voldemort certainly caught me by surprise (granted I was only 12) and thus I think it is the best chapter of the book.

Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban: The Servant of Lord Voldemort
While many look at Goblet of Fire as the turning point in the series (which makes sense as it definitely darkens the mood and after all is the middle book in the series), I personally think Prizoner of Azkaban was the most crucial to the success of the series. The first two books were great but had become a little formulaic.  Both ended with pretty much everyone happy and the status quo restored. The Prizoner of Azkaban completely changed that and is unique in the series in that it is the only book not to feature Voldemort in some form or fashion. Instead of Harry's adaptation to the world of wizarding, the third book focused more on Harry's father, and the circumstances surrounding the death of his parents. After discovering that Sirius Black was apparently responsible for the death of Harry's parents Harry finally comes face to face with him in this chapter only to learn that Peter Pettigrew is still alive and is responsible for his parents' death. The events of this chapter set in motion the rise of Lord Voldemort and bring light to how Voldemort found the Potters.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: Flesh, Blood, and Bone
Goblet of Fire was astoundingly longer than the previous books and thus has a lot more solid chapters to choose from.The Unforgivable Spells chapter was very cool and The Pensieve and Veritaserum were both very enlightening as to why certain things were going on. Flesh, Blood, and Bone is a relatively shorter chapter, but accomplishes what has been building up over the past 4 books, the resurrection of Lord Voldemort. The chapter begins with the killing of Cedric Diggory and ends with a resurrected Voldemort, keeping a very high level of suspense and forboding in between.

Harry Potter and the
Order of the Phoenix: The Only One He Ever Feared
Up until the seventh book, The Only One He Ever Feared was probably my favorite chapter. As I mentioned above Rowling is the master of payoffs and this one took the cake up to this point. Throughout the first five books it was continually mentioned that Dumbledore was the only wizard that Voldemort ever feared. We basically had to take Rowling's word for it, at least up until this point. As soon as I flipped the page and saw the chapter title when first reading the book I knew it was going down. The fight did not disappoint either. In fact the film potrayal of the events of this chapter has to be one of my biggest beefs with the entire movie series. In the book Voldemort casts killing spells at Dumbledore, who confidently blocks them with various objects in the room (specifically the statues). Dumbledore always seems to be a step ahead of Voldemort in the duel and while Voldemort is desperately aiming to kill, Dumbledore is simply stopping each attempt. Dumbledore pretty much wins the duel while Voldemort is forced to resort to invading Harry's mind in order to escape.
The movie F***'s this up big time. They abandon all the cool spells Dumbledore uses to block Voldemorts attacks by instead relying on big CGI explosions to impress the typical american moviegoer (I hate the typical american moviegoer) and in doing so completely change the dynamic of the fight. In the movie the duel appears to be between two evenly matched wizards and if anything Voldemort seems to have the upper hand. It completely ruins the mood of the book and the payoff therin. And that kids is why books are almost always better than movies

Harry Potter and
the Half-Blood Prince: Horcruxes
Half-Blood Prince really serves as exposition and rising action for the final book. The best part of the book is the flashbacks to Tom Riddle/Voldemort's past in Dumbledore's office. The way Rowling crafted this story element was somewhat ingenious because when reading, I, like Harry, kept looking forward to the next visit to Dumbledore's office and vis a vis finding out the next part of the puzzle. This story line reaches its climax in the chapter Horcruxes in which we finally get the answer as to why it is Voldemort couldn't die and also find out exactly what Harry Potter has to do to take Voldemort down once and for all. Also we get an awesomely chilling scene between Slughorn and teenage Voldy.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: The Prince's Tale
The best chapter in the series. Bar None. Up to the point where Snape gives Harry his collection of memories before dying, it is still up in the air as to whether Snape is good or evil. I think it would be safe to say most people didn't like Snape before reading this chapter, but once you are done reading this you can't help but feel a huge amount of empathy for him. Other than answering the question of whether Snape is good or evil, the chapter also finally explains why Harry having his mother's eyes is significant. Throughout the books it seems like the main reason Snape dislikes Harry is because of James Potter. This chapter makes one realize that Harry is a reminder to Snape that not only did the girl he loved end up with his worst enemy, but also that he was responsible for her death. It even lets us know why Dumbledore trusted Snape so implicitly. Every word of the chapter is wonderfully crafted and as a result it is not only the best chapter in a book jam packed with amazing chapters but also the best chapter in the entire series.

This is a sports blog after all so why not finish this up by tying Harry Potter to the world of sports. There are two things I want to touch on in this section. The first was a revelation I had the other day. Within the state of North Carolina there are four major ACC schools: North Carolina, Wake Forest, N.C. State, and Duke. I realized the other day that each of these schools has a pretty good parallel with one of the houses of Hogwarts. Before I go any further let me admit that I am not the first one to put this idea forward on the internet. A short running UNC parody blog called the Daily Tar Hole first mentioned this idea (you'll have to take my word I thought of it seperately as well) in a very funny post that went on to draw comparisons between characters in the series and current basketball players at Duke and Carolina. Anyways here is my breakdown of each of the schools and their corresponding Hogwarts house.

NC State is Hufflepuff
I am fully aware all NC State fans are going to hate me now, but hey, at least you aren't Slytherin. Hufflepuff is considered the house for hard-workers and their philosophy was to not be so selective about who they wanted in their house. State is certainly considered a good institution that is less selective than the other three schools. Hufflepuff also tends to lag a bit in the main sport (quidditch) just as State does in the main sport here (basketball).

Wake Forest is Ravenclaw
Ravenclaw's goal is to get the brightest and most cunning, intelligent students in the school. That's not to say they always do (Hermione vs. Cho Chang), only that that is their cheif aim. From all first-hand accounts Wake's classes are as difficult as any school's in North Carolina. With regards to sports Ravenclaw is always considered a threat to Slytherin and Gryffindor. In fact, Ravenclaw wins the quidditch cup in the first book. Wake Forest plays a similar role, occasionally rising above Duke and UNC to take the ACC.

Duke is Slytherin
The other comparisons in this list are mostly accurate with a few noticable differences, but Duke pretty much is Slytherin. Okay maybe they don't actually produce evil people (except J.J. Reddick and Gerald Henderson) but Duke's elitist atmosphere and mission to select only the most elite students from old money isn't too far a cry from Syltherin's policy of selecting only those of pure blood. Much like Slytherin, Duke is generally disliked by the other three members of the list, yet always poses a threat when it comes to basketball (Slytherin was on a long winning streak before Potter arrived, much like Duke was before Hansbrough arrived). Matches between Gryffindor and Slytherin tend to get violent with Slytherin employing less than fair tactics (see the game in book three). Can you say Eric Montross/Tyler Hansbrough and Duke Flopping? Face it Duke, you are Slytherin, you both even have devil related mascots.

North Carolina is Gryffindor
I know I'm biased as I go to UNC, but North Carolina really is the most like Gryffindor out of the four. Like Gryffindor carolina students are from a varied background but all have a sense of pride and confidence that can occasionally border on cocky. Carolina also has turned out the most famous basketball player of all time, just as Gryffindor has the most famous wizard of all time (Potter). Carolina is often considered a protagonist of the ACC by most fans with Duke being cast as the antagonist. Sports wise Carolina has gone on a string of ACC championships with an NCAA championship just as Gryffindor went on a run of quidditch and house cups in the books.

I was going to go into depth about quidditch and its place as a sport in both the world of Harry Potter and our world. However both and ESPN page 2 covered the topic in depth and I don't feel like retreading their words. Basically its amazing how Rowling created such an awesome sport that is completely untranslateable to the real world (at least until apple invents the iFirebolt, iBludger, and iSnitch).

So there it is. If you made it this far I am proud because that was one hell of a long post. As always feel free to share your opinions by commenting. To end, i'll just say that you have to wonder if J.K. Rowling had any idea that she would create such a phenomenon by writing a book about a lightening scar.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

#9: 24 - Season One

Error: Awesomeness exceeds caption limits
Few people have as big an impact on the world in the entire span of their life as Jack Bauer manages to have in 24 hours.  Before there were Russians framing Chinese who were in turn framing Arabs and before 50% of the White House Staff was helping terrorists Jack Bauer was simply an agent for CTU (the fictional counter terrorism unit) who was having the worst day of his life.  Jack is simultaneously dealing with the kidnapping of his daughter and being framed for an assassination attempt on State Farm spokesperson presidential candidate David Palmer. 24 introduced the innovative technique of "real time" storytelling, which allowed viewers to feel like they were experiencing a day in the life of Jack Bauer.  As a result 24 is infinitely better to watch on DVD/online rather than in the context of a TV season, though you can easily be swept in to a 6 hour TV binge if you're not careful (not that it is always a bad thing to do so).  In a lot of ways 24 is the Harry Potter of this list in that it may not be a work of art from a television perspective (just as there is much better literature than Harry Potter), but it is nearly impossible to pause once you've started watching.

With regards to the season itself, the first season had the tightest plot and seemed the most "realistic."  While Jack certainly took some damage, he wasn't the superhuman he ended up being in later seasons (in one season his heart stops, he is shocked back to life and manages to kick terrorist ass for another eight or so hours).  Season One also introduced some awesome surprise plot elements that became cliches in later seasons.  While in later seasons the question became not if but who was the mole in CTU, throughout season one we are wrapped up in trying to figure out who exactly is out to get Jack.  Season one also had one of the biggest finale shockers in TV history with (highlight for spoilers) the murder of Jack's wife by Nina MyersOverall, season one of 24 is action-packed TV at its finest.

Wimbledon Thoughts and Update on What's Coming Soon

So now that sports aside from baseball are done (and who cares about baseball at this point of the season), there are less current stories in sports to write about. I refuse to simply make up stories or dig into unfounded rumors on this blog, so you won't see any of that. I was planning on writing up an awesome Wimbledon preview breaking down why it may be the most intriguing final ever if Nadal and Federer meet. Then Nadal withdrew due to injury. Now my Wimbledon Preview looks pretty much like this: FEDERER WINS. Period. If he doesn't it will be one of the biggest choke jobs in tennis, ever. That's not to say his competition isn't talented. But Federer has been one of the most dominant players ever on grass. Coming off year where he may have still been recovering from mono, it took a Herculean effort from Nadal to beat him, and produced one of the best matches I have ever seen (along with Sampras-Agassi in the 2001 US Open Quarters and Federer-Safin in the 2005 Australain Open Semis). Anyways the point is, as good as Djokovic, Murray, and I hesistate to say, Roddick are, none of them have the talent nor the mental edge against Federer that Nadal does. Were Nadal healthy, I think we could have seen another match for the ages in the final. For now just be content to watch some amazing tennis in the first few weeks, then resign to the fact that Federer is going to win the tournament. The women's game (which I find less intriguing unless Ana Ivanovic is playing), is a crap shoot. That said I think Sharapova, who fought hard at the French, will win Wimbledon. Honestly I just hope she plays Ana Ivanovic in the finals. If that happens we all win.

Also, by some miracle the U.S. advanced to the final rounds of the Confederation cup and will play Spain in the semifinals this week. I fully expect Spain (who I watched in the Eurocup last summer while in Spain) to pulverize the US, but the achievement of advancing out of group play is impressive enough. And you never know what can happen in sports (actually you do, the US is going to lose bad).

When I'm not working on my med school application, going to class, working in my lab, or watching tennis/soccer this week, I figured I'd start doing some NFL preview/ranking bits. I plan on doing Top 10 fantasy probably rankings (probably not for kickers though). I plan on doing two lists per position, fantasy rankings and actual rankings. I'll kick that off in the next couple days with the Quarterback position so be excited.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Thoughts on the NBA Finals and the NHL Finals

The NBA and NHL finals both wrapped up in the past couple days and I while I don't feel like breaking down either in depth I had some thoughts that I wanted to share on both.
  • I admit I am not the biggest Kobe Bryant fan. But since entering the league as a precocious 18 year old who refused to go to Charlotte (Kobe for Vlade Divac is not a fair trade), Kobe has learned how to successfully lead a team. While I maintain that RIGHT NOW LeBron is the more talented player, Kobe has cemented his place among the all-time best with this title while LeBron still has a lot to do. Kobe is not at MJ's level and probably never will be, but he did show the same killer instinct and cold ruthlessness in these playoffs that emanated from His Airness when his Bulls were atop the Basketball World.
  • Speaking of LeBron, while a trade for Shaq may help the Cavs, I think they would be just as well served by trying to work out a trade for Antwan Jamison or Vince Carter. Shaq will still be Shaq, but adding him slows down the pace of the team and he can give you less minutes than he could six years ago. While Jamison has stated he wants to finish his career in Washinton, I think he could help take Cleveland to the next level if he was paired with LeBron. Carter would be a risker proposition as he is incosistent and plays a position similar to James, but he would still be the second best player on the team without question.
  • I don't care what kind of crazy dunks he can do, after watching the NBA finals I am fully convinced that Dwight Howard would have benefitted from a couple years of college. Perhaps he would have learned some post moves. Crap, if Howard had Tyler Hansborough or Blake Griffin's arsenal around the basket he would be at a completely different level. The age requirements for the NBA have been a hot topic as of late. For the sake of the NBA and college, the NBA needs to get rid of the one and done rule. I think that basketball players should be required to complete two years of college. It would ultimately help most players, giving them valuable coaching, not to mention an education. I know the financial situations of some players make them want to jump as early as possible, but an education and more experience are ultimately a better plan even if they have to forgoe the millions for one extra year. There are only a handful of superstars who jumped from high school and a much larger list of players who were not ready for the jump.
  • Outside of games two and four (both of which were choked away by the Magic, the NBA finals was completely unentertaining from a neutral sports fan's point of view. While a Kobe-LeBron showdown would have been entertaining, I really think the best matchup would have been a rematch of last year's finals with a healthy Celtics team. If I was David Stern I would be praying that LeBron gets help, the Bulls continue to improve, and that KG makes a full recovery. If those things happen the east should be very interesting next year.
  • In contrast to a rather dull NBA finals (except for Lakers fans) the Stanley Cup finals delivered in full. I thought Pittsburgh was down for the count after the beating they took in Detroit in game five, but they rebounded with a physical performance. Observant readers may have noticed I went back and changed the pick from Wings in Seven to Pens in Seven after game six. I usually don't like to do that but after seeing how the Pens performed in the Igloo I thought they may be able to pull off a miracle in the motor city. The game on friday lived up to the hype as both teams produced an amazing and tense game that came down to a few amazing blocked shots in the final seconds. Hockey still has a long way to go to build up a fanbase anywhere close to the NFL or NBA, but you have to feel these playoffs with the multiple exciting Hurricanes' series, a seven game showdown between Crosby and Ovechkin, and a bit of a changing of the guard as the Penguins take down the Red Wings in a rematch of last years finals. I watched hockey as a kid (when the Penguins had Lemeuix and Jagr) but after the strike I was pretty much done with hockey. Over the past three years the sport has me back among its fans and I think it can keep building in the next few years.

  • While Malkin deservingly was awarded the Conn-Smythe trophy as the most valuable player for the Penguins in the playoffs, the star of game seven was Fleury. Fluery had been horrendous in most of his games at Joe Louis arena but made some remarkable saves in game seven, especially down the stretch to bring the Stanley Cup back to the Steel City. While I know the Penguins rotation was limited by the injury to Crosby, I thought the decision to play defensively for most of the third period was a bit of a mistake. The strategy allowed the Red Wings to get off a lot of shots that period and play mostly in the offensive zone. Luckily Fleury was good enough to get the win, but getting conservative near the end of a game has come back to haunt plenty of playoff teams in sports (see Marty Schottenheimer).
  • Perhaps the most rewarding part of beating the Red Wings was the fact that Benedict Hossa, who turned down a better contract in Pittsburgh to play in Detroit (because he wanted to win a Stanley Cup, watched his plan backfire without contributing much at all to the Red Wings cause. On one hand I do feel bad for Hossa, who by all accounts is a class act, but he ate his words on this one and deserves what he got.
  • If you were wondering about the image at the top of the article, it is my somewhat poor attempt to replicate the awesome 1979 SI cover that was run the last time the city of Pittsburgh held multiple championships. I really think it would be cool if they did a throwback to that cover and I personally think that it should feature Crosby and Polamalu (though I would understand if they chose Big Ben instead).
  • More sports updates are ahead as tomorrow I will put up my updated NCAA Elite Eight, accounting for the players who returned to school/stayed in the draft.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

NBA Finals Preview (a.k.a. The Adam Morrison vs J.J. Redick throwdown)

After watching the Cleveland LeBrons fall to the Magic, the everyone's dream matchup of Kobe vs. LeBron has been put on hold for at least one more year. Nike was especially banking on the matchup with their MVPuppets commercials. The commercials, which were hilarious to begin with (I particularly like the Unstoppable Game Tape one), are now even more funny with the added irony of the fact that Kobe made the finals while King James will be staying at home. At this point Nike's best move would be to continue the ad campaign, playing off the current situation, rather than just pretending it did not happen. They should either incorporate Dwight Howard, maybe having Kobe move in with him instead, leaving LeBron alone, or should have Kobe at the finals while LeBron is at home. The commercials have been too good to just end them now.

With regards to the real life counterparts, Kobe got the edge over James by taking his team to the finals. Despite what some may say, the Lakers cast surrounding Bryant is not much stronger than that surronding James. Mo Williams is better than any guard on the Lakers other than Kobe and Delonte West also a solid contributer. The Lakers do have talent in the frontcourt with Bynum, Gasol, and Lamar "Augustus Gloop" Odom, but of the three Gasol has been the only consistent performer for the Lakers. I think LeBron is a more skilled player and will probably go down as a better player than Bryant. That said Kobe is more similar to Jordan in his cold ruthless, efficiency on the court. Bryant has been in the league longer and even though LeBron was dominant by himself, Kobe was more effective in leading his team to victory (the big turnovers and missed free throws at the end of games three and four). I don't wish to discredit LeBron (who made one of the best buzzer beaters I've ever seen at the end of game 2), as he is the best player in basketball and will win a championship (whether it be with the Cavs or with the Knicks), but if you must compare him with Kobe, I think Bryant gets the edge as far as these playoffs go. While LeBron did emerge this year as the best player in basketball, he still is very young and has more to learn. The whole handshake drama (which has been blown way out of proportion) is further testament to that. It's not that what James did was that bad in any way, it just showed that, for as classy and mature a person as he is, he still has some room for further growth.

Turning attention to the actual matchup, I think Orlando does have the talent to contend with the Lakers. Howard will be challenged more by Bynum and Gasol than he was by Ilgauskas and Verejaeo, but he should still be able to put up at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. Ultimately the deciding factor will be the shooting of the Magic. Rafer Alsston and Michael Pietrus caught fire at times against the Cavs and Rasard Lewis and Hedo Turkoglu are matchup nightmares for any team. Coupled with the return of supposedly healthy Jameer Nelson, the Magic may be more talented down the roster than the Lakers. That said the Lakers have much more experiance and are less likely to be overwhelmed by the situation and also have some guy named Bryant.

As I was writing this post I kicked myself for not writing it earlier after reading Sports Guy Bill Simmons's column breaking down the Finals today. While I could never hope to write as good a breakdown as he did, I was disappointed to see that he beat me to the punch about what I think is perhaps the best subplot of the Finals. I of course refer to the matchup of horribly underachieving white college stars in Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick. Morrison, who was considered the better pro prospect of the two, spent his first three seasons riding the pine in Charlotte before finally being dumped to the Lakers for Radmanovic (ironically the other Bobcat involved in the trade, Shannon Brown, has been a big player for the Lakers in the playoffs so far). Redick meanwhile had a couple good moments against the Celtics but never really saw the court against the Cavs. Meanwhile Morrison has not even seen the court, but does have the highest creeper points average in the playoffs since Dennis Rodman. Actually, forget my ideas about the MVPuppets commercials. Just do a LVPuppets spin-off with Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick. I really think there may be some potential there. Regardless, I am going to feel cheated if these two are not on the court together at least once.

Anyways as far as the actual series I am torn. On one hand I don't want to bet against Kobe's determination. On the other I sincerely believe the Magic have the more talented roster. Call it a hunch but I think the Magic take it in seven.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

NHL Finals Thoughts

I meant to do a full breakdown and preview before the playoffs start, but never got around to it. To be honest perhaps its better I did not as I would a have waxed poetic about the improved Malkin and Crosby. And honestly, could you have really blamed me for doing so. Malkin looked like the best player in hockey against the Hurricanes, and Crosby outshined his rival Oveckin in the second round series against the Caps.

With all respect though to the Capitals and Hurricanes, the Red Wings are a whole other type of animal. The Red Wings are an equal, if not superior, to the Penguins in sheer talent, and if the series was being played based just on that I would expect it to be an entertaining, high-scoring seven game tossup. However, the Red Wings are a well-oiled machine who swarm the puck on defense, hardly ever mishandle passes, and use the debatably illegal tactic of engaging the Penguins in the neutral zone (a cricumstance I find similar to the New England Patriots corners abusing opposing receivers in the early part of this decade, it may have pushed the boundries of the rules, but the Pats were hardly ever penalized).

In the first two games of the series, the Red Wings caught a couple breaks then protected the lead for the rest of the game. The Penguins did show flashes of being able to play with the Wings when the game was even or when they had the lead. The main factor for the rest of the series will be the confidence of the Penguins. If Pittsburgh gets out to an early 2 goal lead tonight they may be right back in the series mentally. Conversely, if Detroit scores and starts playing lock-down defense, the Penguins may check out for good. The next two games of the series are crucial. While I may come off as a homer for saying this, I think the Penguins will win the series if they level it at 2-2, if they lose one of the next two games I don't think they will make it back to the Igloo for game six. Call me a homer, but I am going to give the young Penguins team the benefit of the doubt and say they win the next two. I can't convince myself though that they will win in Detroit in game seven, but screw it, I can't pick against against my team now that the game is going to seven.
The Pick: Pens in Seven