Trayvon Martin and the Miami Heat

Author’s Note: This column appears in the March 29 issue of The Villanovan.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column that documented, among other things, why I dislike the Miami Heat. The superstar-laden South Beach squad has been maligned by many casual NBA fans over the last two seasons, as much for their off the court appearances as their on the court lack of success.

Sometimes however, people – or sports teams – can surprise you. Now you won’t see me putting on a Chris Bosh jersey anytime soon, but the Heat are definitely off my ‘Cheer against them in any scenario short of them playing the the Soviet Hockey Team list.’

For those who haven’t been following the recent developments in Florida, on February 26, 17-year old African-American teenager Trayvon Martin was stopped by someone on the neighborhood watch as he carried a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea to a relative’s house. Details are fuzzy regarding what happened next, but these are the facts: Martin was unarmed, and ended up dead by the neighbor’s bullet. Claiming self defense, the shooter, George Zimmerman, has escaped any sort of legal repercussions, and the matter is currently under investigation by both the local police, and the national media.

While the story had been rolling through the news cycle relatively quickly, a comment from Fox News pundit Geraldo Rivera last week set off a new controversy. Appearing on both the television and online components of Fox News, Rivera wrote that, “His hoodie killed Trayvon Martin as surely as George Zimmerman did.” Say what you will about Rivera’s quote, but I personally find it foolish and short-sighted. Martin may have been walking with his hood up – in the rain, mind you – but the argument that his choice of outfit was equally as responsible for his death as a trigger-happy neighborhood watch member is flimsy at best and ignorant at worst.
As it turns out, I am not the only one who has this viewpoint. Heat stars Lebron James and Dwyane Wade have made statements condemning the violent act, and recently Wade tweeted a picture of him and his Heat teammates wearing matching black hoodies, standing together for Martin. “We just couldn’t imagine (anyone’s) son leaving to go play basketball or go to the drugstore or go anywhere and he doesn’t return,” James said.

Kudos to Wade, James, and the rest of the Heat for making a statement about an issue that has swept the nation over the last month. In this world of 24 hour news cycles and instant-gratification-tweeting, it seems less and less common for athletes to make public statements, political or not, that don’t necessarily reflect their particular sport.

Two weeks ago, soccer player Fabrice Muamba fell to the ground in the middle of a game after falling into cardiac arrest. Without a heartbeat for 78 minutes, Muamba was finally revived and is currently recovering in England. The following weekend, former teammate Gary Cahill celebrated a goal by revealing a shirt under his jersey with the phrase ‘Pray 4 Muamba’ written on it.

Why is that athletes hesitate to make statements like this? Years ago, superstar athletes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Billie Jean King made no apologies for what they stood for, whether it was popularly supported or not. Stars like Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown had no problem dissenting with the American people or American government.

I’m not saying that every athlete with a Twitter handle needs to weigh in on the conflict in Syria, but how come more than a couple haven’t? It appears to me that in this world of image control and public perception, even though we may have more access than ever to an athlete or celebrity’s fleeting thoughts, we have less insight into what they truly stand for.
Consider this: do you follow any athletes, professional or collegiate, on Twitter? Check their bios, and note how many reference God or faith in some way. Then check out how many of their tweets support that belief, or any other.

Athletes, like all celebrities, have a unique opportunity as public figures to further the discussion on topics other than who won last night’s game or who is the NBA’s best point guard. Soccer star Didier Drogba, the captain of the Ivory Coast National team, has played a key role in the mediation of the nation’s internal conflict. Brown’s reputation as an activist precedes him. King advocated for gender equality both on and off the court. Where have the activists gone?

Honestly, I have no idea. Maybe Twitter and the 140-character limit is the problem. Maybe it’s the concern that any words might get twisted as soon as they are posted or spoken. Maybe it’s just apathy on the part of the athletes.

Rare is the time when I’m proud of the Miami Heat. Embrace it Lebron and co., because come playoff time, I’ll be cheering against you every chance I get.

Four Teams to Root For Now That Your Bracket is Shot

Author’s Note: This column appears in the March 22 issue of The Villanovan

If you’re like me, your bracket is wrecked. We’re talking missing-the-Erin-Express-because-you-were-driving-the-struggle-bus wrecked. Count me among those drinking the Missouri Kool-Aid, because I had them headed to the National Championship game before falling to North Carolina. I had Duke in the Elite Eight, and Vanderbilt and Belmont were my two sleeper teams. Clearly you don’t have to be good at predicting NCAA Tournament games to be a column writer.
But now that your bracket is ranked lower nationwide than Markus Kennedy’s free throw percentage—that’s 6.3 percent for those keeping track at home—it’s time to throw your support behind some new teams. Thankfully, I have a team from each region for you to root for this weekend.

Midwest Region: No. 13 Ohio
This choice is an obvious one, almost as obvious as picking a No. 2 seed over a No. 15 seed. As the lowest seed remaining in the tournament and the first No. 13-seed to make the Sweet 16 since 2006, the Bobcats of Ohio U should be your new favorite team. Ohio is a member of the Mid-American Conference, which features powerhouse teams like Bowling Green, Northern Illinois and Ball State.
After knocking off Villanova’s sworn enemy of the 2012 Big East season, South Florida, Ohio finds itself facing a UNC team that is without its most important player, sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall. If Ohio can get past the No. 1 seeded Tar Heels, they could find themselves facing another double digit seed for a trip to the Final Four.

West Region: No. 7 Florida
I can’t bring myself to pick any Big East teams, and considering Michigan State is the seeded favorite out West, the Gators are the default pick here. No team has crushed their opponents quite like the Gators this March—they smoked No. 10-seeded Virginia 71-45 Friday before eliminating Cinderella story Norfolk State by 34 on Sunday. Junior point guard Kenny Boynton has stepped up his scoring this season, and has seen his field goal percentage rise in each of the last two seasons. After dropping 20 points against Norfolk State, Boynton and the Gators take on Marquette today with a potential matchup against the Spartans on Sunday. Cheer against the chalk in the West, and take the Gators.

East Region: No. 4 Wisconsin
Every self-respecting college basketball fan needs to have that one team that they despise more than any other. For many, it’s the Duke Blue Devils or North Carolina. But for me, it’s Syracuse. The Orange, who are soon leaving the league they founded for the ACC, make my skin crawl. Some of my happiest moments at Villanova basketball games have been screaming “Toaster!” at Paul Harris or other not-AP-approved-things at Eric Devendorf and Wes Johnson. So this pick is for any self-respecting Villanova fan that can’t stand those god-awful orange jerseys and Head Coach Jim Boeheim’s constant complaining.
And the Badgers aren’t half bad either. A consistent underachiever in the NCAAs, Head Coach Bo Ryan’s team is the model of Big Ten basketball: slow, low-scoring and to be frank, boring. Facing ’Cuse’s 2-3 zone, the Badgers will need to have a strong shooting night to keep up with the Orange. It probably won’t happen and Syracuse will probably move on to face Ohio State in the Regional Final, but let’s think positively. Or is it negatively?
South Region: No. 3 Baylor
Baylor ought to move on against No. 10 Xavier, leading to a likely matchup against No. 1 overall seed Kentucky in the regional final. Baylor was the third best team in what I considered to be the deepest league in the country: the Big 12. But with Mizzou sent packing early, it’s up to Baylor to take the lead along with the JayHawks of Kansas.. Baylor’s balanced offensive attack is led by sophomore stud Perry Jones III, who gave up the opportunity to get drafted to lead his team on another tournament run—cough, cough, Maalik Wayns.
Another player to keep an eye on is senior forward Quincy Acy. Acy averages two blocks and what seems like at least four thunderous dunks per game. Watching Acy matchup against Kentucky freshman phenom Anthony Davis might be the best one-on-one matchup of the entire NCAA Tournament.

What’s Really Wrong With Villanova

I don’t think this claim will shock anyone, but Nova basketball its pretty bad this year. As in end our 7 year streak of tournament appearances bad. Some outspoken people have asked for Jay Wright to be fired, saying he has never developed as an X’s and O’s couch and now his recruiting is slacking. Others have said that we’re not as skilled because of our lack of seniors. I have a different theory.

Basketball is, first and foremost, a team sport. Though some people(Kobe) may frequently forget that fact, winning basketball games is about much more then having one singular star. Or as Miami and Kentucky learned last year, its also more important then having multiple stars with a couple of scrubs around them. Basketball teams are most effective when they are built on quality players from the top to the bottom. You have your stars in the lineup, but then you also have solid bench guys who are skilled enough to get the starters some rest. That is where Villanova has been struggling.

The frightening part however is not our lack of depth in general, but where it comes from. In the recruiting process, Jay Wright might not be Coach Cal, whose shady yet effective recruitment techniques have led to almost as many star players as it has vacated wins(42 by the way), but he is certainly capable of signing top ranked recruits. Our team’s shortcomings lie in a much more discomforting place: player retention. Since my freshman year(2008), we have lost Malcolm grant(transferred before I got here), Cassiem Drummond(transferred that year), Taylor King(may have been kicked out), and Isaiah Armwood(transferred last year). Thats four players(possibly three) in for years who fell in love with Villanova and its basketball program while in high school, only to come to the realization once they got here that they would rather sit out a season to play anywhere but here. Even if you exclude Taylor King, thats still a troubling amount of players who were unhappy being role-players under Jay Wright’s system.

Malcolm Grant is probably the biggest loss of all those players, but each had an impact on our team. Grant went on to become a skilled guard and leader for Miami, a player we certainly would have loved to have last year as we collapsed down the stretch, but his decision to leave after the ’07-’08 season left Jay with a single available roster spot for the next season, one which he did not expect to have. Entering the recruiting game late, the best player Jay had a chance of signing was Maurice Sutton, the lowest rated recruit Villanova has had in years. The others were all serviceable role players who left seeking more playing time elsewhere, deciding they would rather be a star on a lackluster team then play minor minutes here on a tournament team. We have two walk-ons on our team this year due to the loss

This may not seem that worrisome, but you don’t see players transferring from the Duke’s, UNC’s, and Kentucky’s at such a high clip. Players are happy just to wear those jersey’s on the court and be part of the storied franchise. Bench players at those schools relish their 5-10 minutes of playing time a game knowing that they have a chance to make a deep run come March Madness. Our bench players don’t have those same feelings. They’d rather get out while they can and finish their college years playing in obscurity at Marist, Concordia, or George Washington. That is much more frightening then any lack of offensive plays or second half scoring.