In honor of the holiday, Sports on Earth asked four writers to answer the question: What are you thankful for in the world of sports?
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LeBron James, Heart of the Matter
By Joe Posnanski
LeBron James entered the NBA in 2003, which just so happened to be the crest of my pro basketball indifference. The NBA was my first love -- before baseball, before even the NFL. The Cleveland Cavaliers were the first team I clearly remember caring about. A guy named John Johnson was the first athlete I remember rooting for. Don’t know why. Probably the name. I was 5.
In any case, by 2003 the NBA was spent for me. I had no interest at all. The games seemed impossibly boring -- everyone standing around, guys with the ball isolated and dribbling, no passing, no movement, no nothing. Remember the humiliating performance of the 2004 U.S. Olympic basketball team? That to me was a perfect representation of the NBA game. Michael Jordan was hanging around, shooting ugly fadeaway jumpers for a dreadful Washington team. The New Jersey Nets were winning, and for whatever reason I particularly disliked watching that dreary team with Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles and all those guys. And the Cavaliers, the team of my youth, had become the worst team in the league again after a decade or so of utterly fruitless competence.
I was out.
And then, he showed up and pulled me back in.
I know the editor was surprised when I told him I would write my “What are you thankful for in sports” bit about LeBron James. Heck, I’m surprised myself. Total shock. But this is the hard truth. I’m an NBA fan again. I watch the games through a child’s eye again. And LeBron James is the reason.
At first, he was the reason because he singlehandedly -- and I mean singlehandedly -- made the Cleveland Cavaliers winners. The game had never seen anything like him. He was a bigger Jordan. He was a more powerful Magic. He was a faster Bird. He was the best scorer on the floor. He was the best passer on the floor. He was the best ball handler on the floor. He was the best rebounder on the floor. He was the best defender on the floor. Always. Every minute.
The Cavaliers were the worst team in the NBA when he made the trip 40 miles or so due north from Akron. By his third year, the Cavs were a 50-win team. In his fourth, they were in the NBA Finals. In his sixth and seventh, they were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, 60-win seasons both.
And it as amazing to watch. James was so thrilling from the moment he threw the rosin in the air to the first time he ran down a streaking player and blocked the shot from behind to the final drive where he twisted between two defenders and somehow powered the ball through. One of the great joys of sports is the feeling of knowing that you are watching someone thoroughly unique in history -- that, I think, is why everyone loves watching world records get broken. I would never say that LeBron was better than the greats -- the Oscars, the Wilts, the Russells, the Magics, the Michaels, the Kobes. But, like them, he was remarkable in his own way. There was no mistaking him for anyone in NBA history.
Then, in 2010, he broke the heart of my hometown, first by mailing in a spiritless playoff effort in his final playoff series -- “How could his heart not be in it?” we asked each other -- and then by announcing on a specially crafted TV show that he was shaking the dust of Cleveland off his boots and taking his talents to South Beach. The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a full page photo of his back, him walking away, with an arrow pointed to his ring finger which, of course, did not have a championship ring.
It made me sad for many reasons -- for Cleveland, for those fans who invested so much in him and all that -- but also because I figured that the NBA was over for me. But then, James surprised me again. If anything, he made me even more interested in the NBA -- now I wanted only to root against LeBron James. Fortunately, his Miami Heat was the perfect team to despise -- a just-add-water dynasty with too many stars and too many egos and arrogance dripping from the rafters. They were like comic book super-villains. I got the NBA package just so I could watch the Heat and root for them to lose. I’m not saying it was the most mature outlook for a mid-40s father of two, but then, hey, maybe you’re a big poo-poo head.
James finally won his championship last year, after nine years of trying, and when that happened I was able to step back and realize: It is James, more than any athlete of the last decade, who has made me FEEL sports like I did as a kid. As a writer, I love sports for the drama, for the narratives, for the thrills, for the personalities, for the storylines. I don’t root except for people I like. I don’t get that feeling in the pit of my stomach -- that fear, that anticipation, that joy and, mostly, that worry -- that tossed and turned me throughout my childhood. I love sports in a whole different way now. That’s good.
But LeBron -- he makes me young again. He brought me out of my chair, screaming and cheering, when he was on my team. He makes me sink deeper in my chair, moping and sulking, when he hits the big shot now that he’s on their team. He’s visceral. And that’s good too. Sports is visceral.
Someone asked me recently: “Now that LeBron’s won his title, will you still root against him?” My answer: OF COURSE I will root against him. He doesn’t even turn 28 until the end of December. I hope to root against LeBron James for many years to come.
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Rory McIlroy, the Next Big Thing
By Leigh Montville
I officially took a seat, front row, center, on the Rory McIlroy bandwagon on the morning of Aug. 13, 2012. This was one day after he had won the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C., by a record eight strokes and established himself as the No. 1 golfer in the world.
Playing at a much-reduced level of the game with Larry, Bob and The Sarge at our local nine-hole course, the conversation moved naturally to the events that had taken place at Kiawah a day earlier. Everyone was impressed by McIlroy’s swing, his style, his humble demeanor. The 23-year-old kid from Northern Ireland was golf’s new star.
“And he’s only 5-feet-9, weighs only 160 pounds,” Bob said.
“He hits the ball as far as anyone,” Bob repeated. “And he’s 5-feet-9, 160 pounds.”
I did not know this. Height and weight are hard to judge on television. The announcers never mentioned the numbers, not that I heard. I always thought McIlroy was bigger. He had to be bigger…but, no, he wasn’t.
He was 5-feet-9, 160 pounds. I was also 5-feet-9, 160 pounds, give or take a couple of desserts and a Bud Light or six. He was the same size as me. (OK, maybe his 5-feet-9, 160 pounds were distributed in different proportions, but still…)
The idea that he could hit the ball 300 yards and more at that size -- take that, Tiger -- and hit, I don’t know, a pitching wedge from 150 yards and putt his brains out and be the absolute best in a competitive, conniving, brutal, everyone-for-himself sport was inspiring. He was a funny, level-headed interview, seemed to get along with everyone, had that tennis-player girlfriend, Caroline Wozniacki, showed up for her matches in the weirdest places, seemed to enjoy himself in all that he did.
Did I mention that I’m half Irish?
“Rory McIlroy,” I decided there and then, “he’s my guy.”
Easy as that.
He was my first new favorite, my first new sports rooting interest in a while. For a decade, maybe more, cynicism has been in charge of that part of my brain. Too many failed drug tests, too many salary wrangles, too many free agent departures, too many scandals have made me slow to adopt any athlete or team.
If you lived through the Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa steroid era, can you ever believe any baseball performance is legitimate? If you remember Ben Johnson and Carl Lewis and the drug-filled Seoul Olympics, have you been able to believe in any of the Olympic performances since? If you followed Lance Armstrong in those seven Tour de France wins -- and I have seen his height and weight listed as 5-feet-9, 165 pounds -- how do you ever watch the Tour again?
In college sports, sanctions follow championships with embarrassing regularity. In all sports, money rules everything. Colleges walk briskly away from tradition, off to new leagues and fatter television contracts, geographic logic be damned. Owners lock out players in the National Hockey League for a bigger share of revenues. Everybody in every league is moving, moving, looking for a better deal. Free agents wander the marketplace. Buy an official jersey for the star of the old town team and chances are very good that it will be out of date in a year, two, certainly three. The star will become a rival. Just like that. “It’s all too much,” I say, you say, we all say. “I won’t get burned again. I won’t be sitting here with my Manny Ramirez shirt, my Tiger Woods shoes, my Livestrong yellow bracelet, my Southern Cal Trojans socks, my Seattle Sonics shorts, my displaced loyalties, when the trouble hits. I’m done with all that. I really am.”
Except then Rory McIlroy comes along.
Or Kevin Durant.
Or Mike Trout.
Or Manti Te’o.
Or somebody else.
The new face, the new hero, the new story is what sustains sport. Talent comes along and makes us forget history. Maybe this time will be better. We see something in this new arrival that makes us follow. Maybe he or she is from our hometown. Or maybe they play on our hometown team. Or maybe they part their hair the same way we do. Or maybe they part their hair in an entirely different way that intrigues us. Or maybe they say things we want to hear, do things we want to do, overwhelm us with their excellence.
Or maybe they’re 5-feet-9, 160 pounds.
I have looked online to see if I can buy one of those Jumeirah Resorts caps that my new man, Rory, wears on the course. (Doesn’t seem possible.) I have decided to switch from Titleist balls to Nike because my man is going to switch for a rumored $200 million. I have cheered the fact that my man already has locked up the money-earning title for both the PGA and European tours, and this weekend will finish his season in the Dubai World Championship. I see great things ahead in the next season.
Yes, I am thankful for the new face, the new hero, the new story. I am thankful to be on the bandwagon again.
I just hope it doesn’t crash this time around.
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The Williams Sisters, Setting the Bar High
By Shaun Powell
Ten years ago I took my daughter Victoria to Arthur Ashe Kids’ Day, an annual event just before the start of the U.S. Open that’s best described as Nickelodeon meets Bud Collins. Ducking into the media room to fetch supplies, we bumped into Serena Williams and her puppy, which only naturally caused my daughter to stare. At Serena, not the pooch.
Her 4-year-old eyes had never seen anyone who looked like she did and also looked like that, meaning, a powerful African-American athlete in a skirt. Serena was amused by the frozen awe and gave a little hello smile, and I assumed Serena, even at that early stage of her remarkable career, had seen that stare many, many times before.
Long story short, my daughter was never moved enough to pester me to buy a racket and turn into Richard Williams. No, this didn’t become one of those fabled, life-changing moments you often hear about that triggered an athletic dash to glory. Or did it?
Victoria eventually chose another sport and ran with it, quite literally in fact, winning 16 Junior Olympic titles and setting national age-group sprint records in track before reaching high school. She never mentioned Serena again and probably doesn’t remember much about that day except the ice cream sandwich. Yet, there was something about the look of awe on her face that still resonates with me. Maybe in some deep psychological way, a connection was made. Maybe she became one of thousands of girls who set eyes on Serena and Venus Williams and then decided to get off the couch or put down Justin Bieber and go do something.
The really amazing part is how the sisters are still the best box office in tennis on the women’s side, some 15 years since they were girls from the hood, some 10 years since they took the game and shook it up. Capriati, Henin, Hingis, Mauresmo and Davenport have all come and gone and the Williamses simply won’t budge. It can’t be stressed enough how two sisters winning 22 Grand Slam titles (and counting) is needle-in-the-haystack stuff and may never happen again in our lifetime.
Dare I say Venus and Serena Williams, despite the funky and revealing tennis outfits, the wacky father, the sashaying on dozens of red carpets and the massive trophy collection … are tremendously underrated, if not underappreciated?
What are the odds that an uneducated father, who never played tennis in his life, would find the game in his late 40s and just so happened to have two daughters with tremendous athletic genes who also, oh yeah, took an instant fascination to a country-club sport?
What are the chances their parents, who were far from rich, would keep them from turning pro just so they could have a normal childhood? And then, imagine two young women having the wherewithal to avoid the traps and temptations that come with the vortex of fame and fortune at an early age? And having the maturity to deal with the occasional slights from the tennis world that could be construed as racism?
We should be thankful that Serena’s most glaring misstep was a Crip walk dance, and that she didn’t do as she promised to that poor lineswoman. Those were rare lapses, according to those who know her. She and her sister, while not perfect enough for some, have been about as good as it gets as role models, especially for female athletes, particularly those of color. They’ve managed to become pop-culture trendsetters without upsetting the stoic tradition of tennis, a line as fine as those scorched by their forehand shots.
It goes a bit deeper than that. They’re driven and successful and able to generate hundreds of millions of dollars through prize money plus endorsements, tough for women to pull off in a very limited professional landscape. But what makes them all the more compelling is their common blood. They’re family, and that connects with all of us. We can’t relate to being No. 1 in the world or blowing away the field at Wimbledon or getting global love, even from the French. But watching Serena and Venus rekindles memories of our own brothers and sisters and the special bond we shared then and now. They make you think about family, and what can be more precious and inspiring than that, especially this time of year?
Neither Venus nor Serena spent a day in college and yet you wouldn’t know it. In public they’re poised and worldly and thoughtful without being too revealing (except for the occasional Serena outfit). In an Obama-like way, they’ve made a solid enough impression with people of all backgrounds, not just their own. They win championships, sometimes against each other, and serve as ambassadors for the sport. Hyped as pre-teenagers, they met the expectations long ago and now are going beyond them. Still.
Richard Williams once said of his girls: “Venus is a good player but Serena will turn out better. That’s because Venus set the bar high and set a good example. And they’ll become famous for something other than tennis.”
That’s hard to imagine, and even if their legacy is confined to being great tennis players and nothing more, that’s enough for me. That alone makes them unique.
We’ve seen them grow from girls to women, never easy to do in public and in a stuffy sport, without losing their grip on the game or on life. Along the way, Serena and Venus knew what they were creating and the examples they were setting and how far their reach could go.
They always seemed to be aware of being watched by millions, but more important, knowing that some are staring.
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The Greatest Bridge on Earth
By Chuck Culpepper
I'm thankful for a Pakistani cricket fan from Peshawar named Zia, not only for helping me feel like an exotic zoo animal but also for reminding me of the most valuable thing about sports upon this roiling planet.
I'm thankful that I encountered Zia one warm October night outside the Zayed Cricket Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, and that soon I found myself in a cluster of about 25 Pakistani men in their traditional two-piece shalwar kameez garments, staring at me, watching me scribble Zia's comments as if I were some freaky bird in the aviary at the San Diego Zoo. When they stared hard, as if they had never seen a blond-haired, blue-eyed chatterer with a notebook, I felt the whoosh of exhilaration that comes from venturing across a personal frontier, while they stared so unselfconsciously that two years on I still can see and feel their eyeballs.
What force could forge this unlikely meeting of a lunkhead raised in a small town in Virginia and these laborers who hailed mostly from northwest Pakistan around Peshawar? What uncommon power could take people from two countries with such a knotty, thorny relationship and make them mingle? What's the greatest bridge on Earth?
Zia and his companions reminded me of the answer: sport, as most call it, or sports, as we call it, for its international language, its cohesive properties, its status as a vessel for learning. The world is bad enough with it; imagine how lousy it would be without it.
Now, we all know the awful does permeate sports, from FIFA's corruption to Lance Armstrong's lameness to the tree-killer at Auburn. We know doping makes it hard to believe what we're watching, and that sometimes we don't learn quite what we watched until years after we watched it. We know fanatics lose their minds and practice irrational contempt. We also know that somehow this whole pockmarked pursuit also throws us together and attempts to apply some glue.
Follow sports, and you can hang with people most anywhere.
Follow sports, and you might end up running the Champs Elysees one night with giddy French and even Brazilian drummers, still loving life even though their team just lost shockingly. You absolutely can land in Manila and converse for an eon with a stranger about Manny Pacquiao. You can dine in Colombia, and somebody might ask about Juan Pablo Angel or Juan Pablo Montoya or both. You can talk cricket with a Bangladeshi driver in Queens.
In Barcelona, you can meet a fan appreciative because Lionel Messi has just been declared the world's greatest soccer player -- by Kobe Bryant. In New Zealand, you can get by with a little chatter about rugby. Speaking to fans of the TP Mazembe soccer club might lead you to learn that their city of Lubumbashi sits down there in that curious little map notch of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, next to the Zambian border.
From a World Cup-winning headline in Mumbai, you might ponder that the "Joy Of A Billion" still excludes 200 million Indians who apparently don't care about cricket, and that even the excluded comprise two-thirds of the population of the United States. From an Australian in Brisbane, you might learn that on their first Tuesdays in November, the entire country stops ... for a horse race. From a Brazilian in Lisbon, you might learn that when Brazil lost to the Netherlands on a Friday at the 2010 World Cup, it felt somber around Sao Paulo -- until Argentina got drilled by Germany the next day, whereupon another celebration revved up.
All of that surpasses even the dazzle of seeing Rajon Rondo fake a pass and keep going, or Robert Griffin III run a sideline, or Rory McIlroy play golf, or Roger Federer play tennis, or Lionel Messi play with defenses. I'm thankful for the mingling, for the international hodgepodge, for that cricket night that provided the invaluable chance to feel like a zoo animal.
After all, as Zia epitomized, the Pakistani love for cricket equals or exceeds just about any sports love on Earth, maybe even Alabama’s love for football. So on that October night, about 500 Pakistanis went to the stadium -- just to stand outside. At $20 and up, the ticket prices were far too steep for their wages.
They just wanted to be close to the Pakistan national team and to the mighty bonding of sports, so in clumps and clusters they stood, all the way around the premises, craning necks and leaning on shoulders and in some cases backing up for marginally better views of the inside. Every few paces you would find some who had found a sightline that afforded a sliver of green grass inside, or a flying ball, or an update from a scoreboard ("Great Catch," "Well Fielded," "Huge," or the listing of Shahid Afridi's birthday).
At the beginning of this international tapestry, a helicopter descended carrying a sheik for a pre-game ceremony and flinging up so much sand that I kept finding it later in my shoes and ears. In the middle, I walked toward these ticketless strangers with some vague idea of what it meant to be a Pakistani cricket fan, having heard of these extra-stadium gatherings, and of a cab driver refusing to charge my excellent British editor after the excellent British editor described his affinity for a Pakistani player. But when I finished, I had a picture in my head from a man I was born highly unlikely to meet, a fan from Peshawar named Zia, who told of his role in bringing us improbably together.
He said it had taken him an hour to reach the stadium -- for a match for which he had no ticket.
I pictured a long bus ride.
He said he had walked.
And in a hard world with too much to learn, I'm thankful he did.