04/18/14 Lightning Strikes
Maybe they just aren't ripe enough.
Maybe they just aren't tough enough.
Maybe they just aren't tested enough.
For whatever reason, the players of the Tampa Bay Lightning are in trouble today. Two games into the playoffs, and they are already halfway to the offseason. They trail Montreal 2-0, which is like staring into a deep, dark hole where something is moving around. The Lightning must now win four of its next five games to avoid elimination....
04/17/14 Lightning Strikes
At the beginning of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Steven Stamkos started to collect goals … and adjectives.
He was terrific, all right? He was fast, and he was skilled, and he was dangerous. He was tough, and he was combative, and he was explosive. In the biggest of games, Stamkos was the biggest of stars.
And now, what are we to expect?
Tonight in Game 2 against the Canadiens, Stamkos has to stand a little taller. Tonight, he has to reach a little deeper. After all, this is his team, and this is his time. Who else do you expect to be there in the crucial moments late in the game? Where else would you rather have the puck but on his stick? Who else would you trust to tie this series with a single shot?...
Overnight, their faces melded into yours.
Overnight, their hunger became your own.
Overnight, you became a member of the Lightning.
The transformation came quickly, like that of the building and the souvenir stands. One moment, these were mere hockey fans. The next, they were playoff hockey fans.
You could see it in the eyes. Just like that, their eyes were like those of Steven Stamkos, sharp and glaring. There was the glint of something hot behind those eyes, a yearning, an ache. It is as if the playoffs had lit the lamp in Stamkos' eyes....
04/14/14 Lightning Strikes
In the moments before the puck drops, in those precious seconds when the rare energy threatens to blow the roof off the arena, when the players stand and fidget from the sheer anticipation of the moment, the man in the stands will be a fan once again. In that snapshot, Jeff Vinik will no longer be a businessman, and he will no longer be an ambassador for his team. In those precious seconds before play begins, he will once again be a fan, watching his team, yearning for its success. You know, just like the rest of you. This is the part that Vinik seems to grasp, the part that makes him one of the most popular sports owners in Tampa Bay. He cares, deeply and passionately. He watches, intensely and without blinking. He believes, in today and in tomorrow....
If you're picking for today's game, you go with the wide receiver. No doubt about it.
If you're picking for this play, for this pass, for this shot at the end zone, you do not hesitate. You pick Clemson's Sammy Watkins, or in the almost certainty he is not there, you pick Texas A&M's Mike Evans.
You pick a guy who can get open. You pick a guy who can run deep. You pick a guy who can pluck the ball out of the sky as if he were picking apples. You pick a guy to line up beside Vincent Jackson, a guy to replace Mike Williams, a guy to make Josh McCown a happier man....
The old man was watching, of course. He is always watching. In some ways he is still coaching, still calling plays, still in charge.
All of that is okay with the new kid, by the way.
As it turns out, Kevin Ollie coaches just fine in the shadows.
After all, it was Ollie's UConn team, not Jim Calhoun's, that drove Kentucky crazy Monday night. It was Ollie who coaxed his team to be resilient enough, energetic enough, tough enough to get past the Wildcats and all of their talented freshmen in the NCAA championship game....
Once upon a time, a thousand dreams ago, Christian Laettner caught a long pass, turned and hit one of the most iconic shots in NCAA Tournament history to lead Duke over Kentucky.
He did it once.
Once, a million bounces of the ball ago, Evan Turner crossed midcourt and threw up a miracle to help Ohio State beat Michigan.
He did it once.
Once, a billion story lines ago, Keith Smart took the ball in the corner and launched a winning jump shot to lead Indiana past Syracuse....
The deficit was down to 12 now, and the opponent was a runaway train, and the look on Billy Donovan's face was one of disbelief.
He crouched at the end of his bench, as if he could not quite comprehend what was happening in front of him. How could so many things go so wrong at once? How could his Gators have been stripped of so much on such an important night?
Nothing Donovan tried seemed to help. The Florida offense struggled as if the basketball was too big for the rim. The defense kept getting lost. The scoreboard kept tilting the wrong way. UConn was running away with this....
The jump shot leaves his hand, and it is fair to say, the scouts do not hear music.
There is nothing gentle about the shot, nothing poetic. It is a homely thing, a line drive that may, at any moment, bend the front of the rim. No one calls it silky. No one calls it smooth.
Then there is his drive to the basket, which looks something like a bear searching for food. Patric Young doesn't razzle opponents, and he doesn't dazzle them. He is not a shake-and-bake player who breaks ankles on his way to the hoop. He is 6 feet 9, 240 pounds of muscle and sweat and force, and even brave men get out of his way....
A team can shoot its way here. Or, it can get here by making sure the other guy doesn't shoot.
A team can rebound its way here. Or, it can pass its way here.
A team can get here because of its seniors. Or, it can get here because of its freshmen.
The truth of it is, there are a lot of ways to dribble down the Road to the Final Four, the ultimate destination in college basketball. You can get here behind a crafty old coach, or you can get here behind a relative newcomer. You can get here because of guards, or you can get here because of big men. You can get here by sailing through your schedule, or you can get here by stumbling just enough for the critics. You can get here by recruiting off the top shelf, or by coaching a lesser athlete here....
03/31/14 The Heater
There is a calm, collected way to look at this, of course. It's a good start, nothing more. It's a fine first step, but the season is a thousand-mile journey.
That's the way a measured fan will look at the Rays' 9-2 bashing of the Toronto Blue Jays in Monday's season opener. It was just a notch in the belt. A small sample. Nothing more.
Then, of course, there is the infinitely more fun, excitable boy approach....
Finally, the University of Florida was head and shoulders above college basketball again.
It was early in the evening, and the beating was done, and one by one, the Gators players approached the ladder. Player by player, they climbed through the thinning air, and one by one, they snipped the cords of the net.
Time was, back seven years ago, the Gators used to do this net-cutting thing all the time. Back then, they were a program that lived in the clouds. But it has been a long time, such a long time, since then. Seasons came and seasons went, and pretty much, the Gators were stuck at the base of the ladder with no place left to climb....
None of these moments were promised to him. Not the run through the cheerleaders or the blur of the crowd or the teammates slapping his back. Not the sound of the pep band or the glare from the opposing point guard.
This was someone else's future, not his. This was someone else's smile. … Scottie Wilbekin had thrown it all away, the 3-pointers and the reckless drives and the no-look passes, and now his head coach was pointing him toward the door. Go and be someone else's disappointment. Go and be someone else's headache. Billy Donovan had had enough....
03/28/14 The Heater
Here's what you can expect from the starting pitcher: Success.
For the Tampa Bay Rays, anything else is inconceivable.
Tomorrow, and every other day, you can expect the starting pitcher to walk to the mound as if he owns it. You can expect him to establish the fastball early, and to be successful in his cat-and-mouse game with the hitter. You can expect him to keep runs off the scoreboard. You can expect him to win....
Now that's the No. 1 team in the nation.
That's the team worth all the praise, worth all the cheers, worth all the admiration. That's the team to beat in this NCAA Tournament. That's the Florida Gators, and baby, they're back.
Muscle? Yeah, they had that.
Hustle? Yeah, that, too.
Prepared for a tussle? More than anything, they were that.
The Gators, two days after treating their opening game as a rare stroll through the park, smothered an outmanned Pitt team with ease Saturday afternoon. The Gators jumped on Pitt from the start, dominating the boards, dictating the play with their defense, swarming the Panthers on their way to a 61-45 victory....