The In-Jury’s Out: Kobe Bryant & Derrick Rose

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Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose are two of the most exciting players the NBA has to offer. Kobe has been the face of the NBA for years, especially  after  Michael Jordan retired. Rose is a rising star in the place where Jordan made basketball relevant,  Chicago. However, these stars have been dealt tough obstacles to overcome in their careers with brutal injuries. Kobe, on the back end of his career, suffered a torn  Achilles injury at the end of last season. Rose, whose career is blossoming, tore his ACL in a playoff game two seasons ago and had to miss the entire 2012-13 season. Without these superstars, their teams are helpless and irrelevant. Without these superstars, the NBA is without two key franchises to its growing brand.

Two seasons ago Rose and the Bulls were positioned to challenge the Miami Heat when Rose injured himself in the first round of the playoffs against the 76ers. Last year, to the dismay of all NBA and Bulls fans, Rose sat out the entire year including the playoffs. The team still had Luol Deng, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, but no one ever could take it  seriously as a contender. The Bulls  even matched up against the Heat in the playoffs and stole Game 1 in Miami, before they proceeded to be eliminated. You know you have come to desperate measures when the most exciting guy on your team is 5 foot 7 and that’s being generous. Nate Robinson provided a spark for the Bulls, but a spark that size is not a good recipe for success.

With Rose returning this year, the excitement and expectations are back in Chicago. Through ten games, they are 6-4 and have handed the Pacers their only loss of the season. However, Rose has struggled a bit and seems rusty. This is nothing surprising, given the injury he endured, and he should become stronger as the season progresses along. Rose wasn’t built in a day. He has hit a game winning shot against the Knicks and made some explosive plays that would make Wyle E. Coyote say, “Wow! That’s explosive.” His athleticism is unprecedented for a point guard and his ability to attack the hoop is a spectacle to watch. The Heat and Pacers should take notice.rose2

Bryant tore his Achilles tendon last year, and then tore all hope from every Laker fan. Since the Kobe-Shaq era ended, there has arguably been no player more important to his team’s success then Bryant. He is the brains, heart and courage of the team as he leads his players down the purple and yellow brick road. Just like the Bulls last year, the Lakers — barely — made the playoffs, but no one could even consider picking them to advance without the Black Mamba. The San Antonio Spurs swept the Lakers like a pushbroom after a garage sale.  Dwight Howard is no Kobe, not even close.

Even with Dwight, Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, the Lakers looked like a lottery team without Kobe. We all know how determined Kobe is to return quickly this year. He has been able to overcome injuries throughout his career like he was a Terminator Machine. Entering his 18th season, Kobe faces his most serious injury ever, and many experts out there are saying he is done and will never be the same. Maybe this is a reality Laker fans must face. Maybe not. The Laker organization has money saved up to rake in some top free agents next season.  Names like LeBron and Carmelo Anthony come to mind. Before this bridge gets crossed, it must be seen how Kobe plays when he returns. And his team desperately needs him.

The Lakers version of Robinson this year has been Steve Blake. Or as they call him, the “White Mamba.” The White Mamba has hit a game-winning three pointer on the road against theRockets this year, but more often than not, the Lakers have been mediocre and inconsistent. They have indeed shown glimpses of greatness from a bunch of young talent, but they seem to only play like this against lowly teams. Their leading scorer is averaging 13 points a game. Kobe can put that up in a quarter, maybe half a quarter.

The Los Angeles Lakers are very important to the NBA. Having won 16 titles, the NBA does well when the Lakers are doing well. The Lakers cannot do well without Kobe. It’s like watching the Dark Knight without seeing Batman in any of the movie. It is like trying to win in chess without your queen. Having a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich is not the same without the Peanut Butter. And the Lakers as just a jelly sandwich are going nowhere. Soggy. Kobe’s team needs him, and he needs his team. The Lakers and the NBA anxiously anticipate the Mamba’s return, and hope he can overcome the toughest injury out there to flourish again on the court.

Kobe BryantThe Lakers and Bulls are more than capable of challenging for a championship this year. Most would agree that Bulls roster is more primed for a playoff run, but if Lakers can get healthy, you never know. The West is very much up for grabs. The success of the Bulls and Lakers fortunately and unfortunately is highly dependent on one player. With  Rose, the Bulls have shown this year that they are a force to be reckoned with even a matador would be scared of. Without him, there is no optimism or chance in Chicago. In LA, a new era of mediocrity is moving in quickly, with Kobe  as the last hope to restore some order to Staples Center. The Lakers without Kobe are only a contender for a lottery pick.

It remains to be seen if the Bulls and Rose bloom throughout the year, prepping for a playoff run to challenge the Heat and Pacers. If Rose does not return to form, it will  surely be only a two-team race to the NBA Finals. The Lakers need to hang in there until Kobe gets back. Even at this stage of his career, I am very confident Kobe can resume playing at a high level. How high? This is the most important question of the year. The Lakers, the NBA and this NBA fan are hoping the Black Mamba has some venom left.

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Paul Culley
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A Pirates Life for me

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I called my dad after it happened. It was his birthday coincidentally, and we had a special father-son bonding moment that we have been longing to have for more than 20 years. I breathed a sigh of relief into the phone and all I said was “82.” I couldn’t see it, but I knew he was grinning ear to ear, just like I was when I said that number. It is an emotional feeling that I just can’t properly put into words and a single word would not do justice to the years of suffering Pirate fans and myself have felt. Eighty-two wins is just a number. But for us fans that number means so much more. There was no special celebration among the coaches and players after the win, but they surely understood what it meant to the fanbase. There was plenty of celebrating to be had back home.

No one knew just how bad the losing would get after that 1992 season. The story has been told countless times in a variety of ways since then, but it always came back to the same thing every time; losing. If there was one constant throughout all of those years, it was the people who ask some variation of these questions:

“Why are you still a fan? The Pirates suck,” or “How do you support a team who does nothing but trade away their best players and never wants to win?”

hi-res-152771322_crop_650x440Each time I would have to produce an answer, and each time I would receive the same blank and confused stare, as if your answer for supporting this team was never going to be right. I had put too much time and effort into this team, and I was never going to turn my back on them. I can think of one time, and one time only I was about ready to give up on this team — the second half of 2010. You had a few core of players ready for a breakout and passable Major League talent (by Pirate standards at the time), but were only able to manage 57 wins. I barely watched any of the second half of that season, I just needed a break. I was worn out. But I knew would be back, because you had players like Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez in the lineup. What I had waited all those years for, the core face of franchise players, had just let me down at the worst possible time but were ready to help this ballclub now. There was an excitement that just didn’t exist over previous years.

It’s a day, quite frankly, many of us didn’t think we would ever see, but knew was going happen at some point. We just didn’t know how we were supposed to feel or act when it actually happened. You just had to celebrate in your own way.  Along the way many fans have became attached to players who were the face of a franchise during its worse times. Players who would love nothing more than to suit up for this current team and be a part of the winning that they were never able to experience here. Players like Jason Kendall, Jack Wilson, Jason Bay and Brian Giles were all fan favorites, each bringing their own passion and love for the city. You could tell they wanted to win here, witnessing first hand their enthusiasm and energy they gave on a nightly basis.

7034648There have been too many ugly moments to talk about and too many forgetful players. I found myself in a four-hour car trip with a friend playing the game “name a former Pirate” (rules being they had to be from the losing era). After about an hour-and-a-half and close to what might be 150 some players, I only realized just how bad some of those teams were based on names alone (Abraham Nunez, Mike Benjamin and Chris Stynes were some of my favorites).  I was rooting for the Pirates and trying to care for players who I barely cared about. This team has players that are likeable, none more so than McCutchen, who shows up every night. It starts from the top with Clint Hurdle who brings something former manager John Russell would never show, passion. It has worn off on the players and even the fans have warmed up to Hurdle and his positive sayings. There are two former two managers I can think of who had staying power and the ability to win over the fans, Chuck Tanner and Jim Leyland. They were true leaders and likeable guys. The closest the Pirates might have had to that in those losing years was Lloyd McClendon, and that’s not saying much because  he was remembered more for his outburst and stealing of first base. Enjoy and appreciate what Hurdle has done and what he means for this franchise.

The 82nd win was gratifying, but with this team in the heat of a division race for first place, it’s hard to appreciate it because there is so much more on the line right now. But the players who were involved for 82, it feels like a symbolic passing of the touch to what the future holds. A future ace in Gerrit Cole, whose pitching ceiling looks to be unlike any other to ever wear the black and gold, taking the mound and stepping up. An MVP candidate, who is locked up for another five years, playing centerfield just crushing baseballs right now. Alvarez, who has finally come into his own this year, delivering the winning hit and the local kid Neil Walker delivering the final out to end the streak. Every one of those seems too perfect for this franchise

This losing streak has consumed more than half of my life, but I’m ready to move on.  A chapter has been closed and a new one is ready to begin for the Pirates and for their fans. The 82nd win will be a memory that soon fades, but one that will not be forgotten for a long time.

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Chris Dazen
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22: The New Face of Baseball – Andrew McCutchen

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In an era in where steroids and PEDs have tarnished the image of baseball and its players, there are very few pure American stars — yet alone any stars — left.

Ryan Braun has suffered a disgraceful fall. Alex Rodriguez is an afterthought. Barry Bonds was forced out of baseball six years ago. If you ask the uninformed fan who the next face of baseball is, I’m sure that there would be a lot of pauses before he answers. Well, I have a simple suggestion for you. You take the best player on one of the the best teams in baseball. How about the Pittsburgh Pirates?

Yes, those Pirates. For Pittsburgh sports fans, many are used to boasting about Ben Roethlisberger or Sidney Crosby, but they have a new superstar to talk about, Andrew McCutchen.

”Cutch” has steadily progressed since making his debut in June 2009. The right-handed hitting center fielder is the total package. He has speed like a gazelle. He shows his power by hitting it to all over the field, including over the fence. He covers ground like a sumo wrestler. Most importantly, he plays the game the right way, free from off-the-field temptations and PED use.

In January, McCutchen was announced as the cover athlete of the baseball video game MLB 2013: The Show, where he beat out CC Sabathia in fan voting. After making the All-Star team for three consecutive years, Cutch is slowly starting to be the face that baseball desperately needs to carry its torch. Just like the Pirates, he is walking the walk with style and class. They don’t the need the media attention that the other teams get to prove their greatness.

Social media is a new tool that players like Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth never experienced. Typically, the media helps create these superstars who play in big markets such as New York or Los Angeles. And given the fact that the Pirates have played in a playoff game since two days before Bryce Harper was born, they have not received much attention from the fans, and especially the people who just tune in to watch during the playoffs. McCutchen is putting Pittsburgh on the map. This Wednesday, ESPN televised the Pirates playing on the road against St. Louis, a game in which the Pirates won easily. It was very symbolic for Cutch and his Buccos.

Given the state of the game rife with scandal and steroids, baseball must utilize their superstars to get fans interested again in watching the game. It starts with finding the right players who epitomize the perfect balance of excellence on and off the field. And Cutch hits a home run in regards to those statistics. He is very proud of who he is, where he came from, and what he is on his way to doing. Young kids learning the game need a role model like this to learn how to play the game the right way, with hard work and dedication. He was drafted out of high school, worked his way up, paid his dues and is now thriving as the cornerstone of the Pirates organization.

Meanwhile, he is leading his team to their best season in ages, and given a terrible collapse, we will be seeing the Pirates playing ball in October for the first time in a long time. Cutch has been there through thick and thin, and did not choose to abandon ship to cash in on a bigger paycheck. He signed a 6-year, $51.5 million extension with the Bucs, showing that he plans to play in Pittsburgh for a very long time. His loyalty to his team and city is commendable and another positive character trait that kids growing up can follow. Very few superstars in any sport these days play with one team their entire career.

McCutchen is a rising star for a rising franchise. He has made Pittsburgh a baseball city again and has the rest of Major League Baseball buzzing as well. Steroids and PED use has given the sport a major black eye, especially with the Braun scandal. Now, Cutch emerges as the new face of a sport that needs a face lift. His skills are elite, his team is playing like it belongs in the World Series and he does this with class personified. He never promotes himself as a superstar, and these days, he does not have to. The Pittsburgh Pirates are back and Cutch is here to stay. Baseball has a new golden boy, and they look to Buc the trend of scandal and negativity into a new era of excellence done in the right way, on and off the diamond.

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Paul Culley
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Tainted Love

Ryan BraunBaseball is viewed as our national pastime. But in actuality steroids are making baseball past its time for many other reasons. Recently, Ryan Braun became the newest member of baseball’s CSUC, the Convicted Steroid Users Club. He has now destroyed his image of a hard-working power hitter for a hard-nosed team in a blue-collar city. Once viewed as one of the game’s up-and-coming stars, Braun must now live with this stain for the rest of his life. And baseball now has another huge bruise it must cover up, but I’m afraid this one will require some serious reconstructive surgery.

Braun made a splash in the big leagues as a rookie, swatting home run after home run, leading the Milwaukee Brewers to new winning ways. Before, fans only showed up to MillerPark because it was sponsored by a beer company. Now, along with Prince Fielder, fans had something to gloat about and root for. From the naked eye, he looked like a medium-sized built player who just had an unbelievable swing and eye for the ball. Looking back at it now, it all makes too much sense.

With steroids and PEDs becoming a major issue in the post-Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds era, Braun had been viewed as one of the good guys. A role model for young players, if you will. Hard work and dedication can pay off. The adage, “If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying,” is a myth. Now the only thing mythical about Braun is Braun himself, and this represents another devastating blow to the game of baseball.

The main crux of the issue lies with the deterrence for using performance enhancing drugs. Even though players know it’s bad for the sport, why do they continue to take banned substances? It’s because they get paid the big bucks to produce. This is why over the years many owners and managers kept their mouths shut and looked the other way. They saw all the butts in the seats for every game. Revenue was up. Home runs were up. Popularity was up. The only thing that was down was the integrity of the game and that didn’t matter one bit to those profiting owners. Teams generated money and players got a piece of the pie. Both parties won.

Money is the key ingredient to this all. Baseball thinks it can suspend players 50 and 100 games, and have that be enough to prevent players using PEDs. I don’t think so. Sure, strides have been made, but going from awful to terrible is still pretty bad. And when a superstar like Braun is a member of the CUSC, the game’s image and integrity plummets. No one cares when the stupid bully cheats on a test, but when the class valedictorian does, it’s a big deal.

Let’s examine how this whole Braun thing has played out. He first was suspected of steroid use, but avoided punishment because of a technicality. The handler of the evidence “handled” it in a way that was against protocol, and Braun’s representation jumped on this mistake. It’s like when a guilty party gets off because he has a really good lawyer. Everyone knows he is guilty but the system does not allow the right justice to be served. Secondly, in this entire process, he maintained his innocence, still holding on to the last ounces of trust we had left in him as fans of the game. With his PED use now confirmed, he not only cheated the game, but all the people associated with it. Players, owners, managers, family, friends and especially us, the fans, the ones who pay his salary. We were duped.

With Braun reaching an agreement with MLB, he is now suspended for the remainder of the season and gets to hide away on vacation and let his negative rep linger in the background. People won’t forget, but they will forgive as soon as he starts hitting home runs next year. Especially with the attention now on Alex Rodriguez, Braun might actually end up as the good guy, relatively.

The bottom line is that players are cheating to produce. Then, they get paid because of their production. And no suspension of games is going to take a significant chunk of change out of their pocket to deter them from cheating until they get caught. Sure it is $3 million, but what is three million compared to the $52 million they are making because of their PED use. It’s almost as if it is a tax that if they are careful enough, they might not have to pay.

With Braun’s guilt, it just adds another big name to the list of stars who cheated, except this guy represented a glimmer of hope in a new of era of trying to rid baseball of steroids. In fact, he now has put baseball and its integrity in an even worse state. He is the bad apple that has spoiled the bunch. It does not matter that many players are playing the game the right way. Braun cheated, he signed his big contract, and now has to face a slap on the wrist for his mistake, while baseball faces the brunt of the punishment. Do you think Braun cares he might be hated every time he plays on the road from now on? Maybe. But he will quickly forget about this problem whenever he checks his bank account.

I propose that baseball needs to enact clauses in all contracts stating that any player guilty of steroid or PED use will have his contract voided at the team’s discretion. It is not about the number of games he misses. It is about the big picture financial impact that getting caught will have on a player. Take away the guaranteed contract. Take away the sponsors. Take away the stability. Then, only then, can you have a deterrent to improve the tainted image on the game. Good luck baseball. This fan is rooting for you.

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Paul Culley
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