Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

NBA Finals Preview: Golden State Warriors vs Cleveland Cavaliers

I don’t write much about the NBA on this blog, but I am intrigued enough by this year’s NBA Finals to look into the series as it begins tonight in Oakland.

This year’s Finals are a rematch of last year’s title series, won in six games by the Warriors after they had trailed 2-1 in the series.  However, the Cavaliers were missing forward Kevin Love (17.3 ppg, 9.6 rpg*) due to injury coming into the series, then lost guard Kyrie Irving (24.3 ppg, 5.1 apg) to injury in the series opener.

This year, the Cavaliers are healthy, and have stormed through the Eastern Conference, sweeping the Detroit Pistons and Atlanta Hawks in the first two rounds, before ousting the Toronto Raptors in six games to reach the finals.  The Cavaliers are, of course, led by forward LeBron James (25.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 7.0 apg), the hometown player from nearby Akron, OH, who is trying to bring Cleveland its first professional sports title of any kind since 1964.  James is in his sixth consecutive NBA Finals, although the first four of that run were during his tenure with the Miami Heat; James has won the title in two of his previous six Finals appearances overall.

The Warriors are the defending NBA Champions, after winning that series against Cleveland last year, and reached the finals in dramatic fashion, overcoming a 3-1 series deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder in a thrilling seven-game Western Conference Finals.  Golden State had previously defeated the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers in the early rounds, each in five games.  The “Dubs” are led by the two-time reigning NBA Most Valuable Player, guard Stephen Curry (26.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.1 apg), although they would not be in this position were it not for the exceptional performances of guard Klay Thompson (26.2 ppg) against the Thunder.  Forward Draymond Green (14.0 ppg, 9.5 rpg, 7.4 apg) has also been a key contributor, even through his controversial antics in the Thunder series (but that’s another story for another day).

The Warriors, of course, made history in the 2015-16 regular season, setting an NBA record with a 73-9 mark.  The Cavaliers were 57-25 in the regular season.  The two teams combined for the third-most combined regular season wins in history by two teams meeting in The Finals.

Guard play in this series slightly favors Golden State.  Curry and Thompson, known as the “Super Splash Brothers,” have been the best backcourt duo in the NBA for at least the last two seasons.  That being said, much of the Cavaliers success on their way to the Finals is because of strong three-point shooting, with guard J.R. Smith (12.0 ppg) and forward Channing Frye (8.6 ppg) complementing the Cavs three big-name players on the perimeter, and Irving is perfectly capable of holding his own against Curry and Thompson, so don’t be surprised if the Cavaliers hold their own in the backcourt.

In the frontcourt, I would give a very, very slight edge to Cleveland.  James and Love are two of the best forwards in the game, although no credit should be taken away from Green and Harrison Barnes (11.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg), and the job they have done all season for the Warriors.  Rebounding could certainly be a key in these games, and while Tristan Thompson (4.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg) for Cleveland and Andrew Bogut (5.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg) for Golden State are not necessarily the best rebounders in the league, they are certainly capable of contributing to their respective teams in the Finals.

Two young coaches meet in this series, with Steve Kerr, 50, trying to win his second NBA title in just his second season at the helm, to go along with five rings in his playing career, and Tyronn Lue, 39, trying to do what Kerr did a year ago and win a title in his first season, after two titles as a player.

One factor that may or may not potentially help Cleveland in this series is the fatigue factor.  Cleveland was able to comfortably close out Toronto six days ago, while Golden State had to battle tooth and nail to come from behind and beat Oklahoma City.  The Warriors-Thunder series had the feel of one that could take so much energy to win that the victor would not have enough left in the tank to battle Cleveland as hard as they would like, resulting in a Cleveland series win in five or six games.  Whether or not this actually happens is still to be seen, although if there is a team that can overcome this and go on to win the title, it is probably the Warriors.

The Warriors have home-court advantage for The Finals, hosting the first and second games, as well as the fifth and seventh if necessary, while Cleveland is home for the third, fourth, and (if necessary) sixth games of the series.

When these two teams met in the regular season, Golden State won both meetings.  On Christmas Day in Oakland, the Warriors won 89-83, behind 22 points and 15 rebounds from Green.  On January 18 in Cleveland, Golden State obliterated Cleveland, 132-98, behind Curry’s 35-point performance (in just three quarters).

Many pundits are picking the Warriors to win this series, and while that pick can certainly be backed up by the numbers, the Cavaliers should get the credit they are due as well, after a 12-2 mark in the first three playoff rounds.  These two teams are both playing at a very high level, which is why I expect the series to go the full seven games, regardless of the victor.  That being said, the Warriors have home court advantage, the league MVP, and as much or more momentum as the Cavaliers, and continue to show some of the most impressive chemistry the sports world has ever seen.

Prediction:  Warriors in 7 games

 

*All statistics in this post reflect only the 2016 NBA Playoffs

 

2016 NBA Finals
Game 1:  Thursday, June 2, 9:00 pm ET

Game 2:  Sunday, June 5, 8:00 pm ET
Game 3:  Wednesday, June 8, 9:00 pm ET
Game 4:  Friday, June 10, 9:00 pm ET
Game 5:  Monday, June 13, 9:00 pm ET
Game 6:  Thursday, June 16, 9:00 pm ET
Game 7:  Sunday, June 19, 8:00 pm ET

LeBron James Returns To Cleveland

After days of speculation, hesitation, rumors, and preemptive assumptions, LeBron James announced today through a first-person piece in Sports Illustrated that he will return to Cleveland to play for the Cavaliers.

James, a native of Akron, Ohio, began his career in Cleveland, after being drafted out of high school, going first overall to his hometown team in the 2003 NBA Draft.  He was part of a class that included Miami Heat teammates Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and fellow free agent Carmelo Anthony.  After seven seasons in Cleveland, with only one NBA Finals appearance and no titles to show for it, James departed to join Bosh and Wade in Miami, becoming part of the so-called “Big Three”.

That “Big Three” were together for the past four seasons, appearing in the NBA Finals all four years and winning the Finals twice, in 2012 and 2013.  The 2012 title was both expected and nearly painless, winning the best-of-seven series in five games over the Oklahoma City Thunder.  A year later, it took a miraculous and legendary comeback to stay alive in Game Six, before winning it all in another close game in the series finale against the San Antonio Spurs.  As it would turn out, LeBron’s last game in a Heat uniform was also against the Spurs, as San Antonio avenged the heartbreak of the previous June, beating the Heat in five games this time around.

At the start of the summer, many observers, including myself, didn’t see James leaving Miami as any kind of possibility.  I didn’t think he would be willing to leave what he has built in Miami, with his friends and teammates, under the direction of a Hall-of-Famer in Pat Riley.  Additionally, there had to be a sour taste in the mouths of everyone in the Heat organization after the humiliation of three straight blowout losses, with two coming at home, to fall in the Finals.

My initial theory when James opted out of his Heat contract, which had included, from the start, an “early termination option” for this summer, after his fourth season in Miami, was that he was simply planning to sign a new, restructured contract, along with Wade and Bosh, which would allow the Heat to pick up other supporting players in various roles, and make them better than ever.  As other teams, including Cleveland, began making roster moves to clear up money for a potential run at signing James, I thought that it was even a possibility that James had opted out simply to give other teams the hope they could sign him, leading them to weaken themselves trying to make room for him, and thus making the potential competition for James and the Heat weaker.

Then the Cavaliers were said to be believing James was listening to their recruiting pitch.  And suddenly, the sports media world (particularly ESPN) was thrust into a frenzy, asking “Where will he go?” and “When will he decide?”

Everyone was looking for potential clues as to where James would decide to play.  Every move made by LeBron, or anyone within his inner circle, was scrutinized without end.  For instance, large moving trucks appeared outside James’s Miami home to move his cars, which many took as a sign he was moving to Cleveland, until a reporter pointed out on Twitter that he moves his cars every summer (he has kept an offseason home in Ohio even while playing in Miami).  Also, a web developer pointed out that several pages on lebronjames.com, James’s official website, had been developed without content, and were waiting to be posted, with the Cavaliers colors of scarlet, gold, and dark blue.  This claim may have been accurate, but at the time many were skeptical of if the discovery had any meaning.

As the first days of July (also the first days on NBA free agency) unfolded, I gradually came to believe that he was, in fact, at least considering a return to Cleveland.  By Wednesday, ESPN seemed to be hinting that the return was certainly possible, and maybe even likely.  ESPN’s Chris Broussard even indicated there was, in his estimation, an “85% chance” James would sign with Cleveland.

As the tide shifted in Cleveland’s favor, many experts expected a decision to be announced before LeBron’s trip to the World Cup Final this Sunday in Brazil.  After James met with Heat executives, including Riley, on Wednesday, I had a feeling that an announcement was imminent by Thursday night or Friday morning.  Thursday morning, more than one reporter claimed that the police outside James’s Ohio house were expecting a 3:30 pm announcement, although that rumor was later denied.

Suddenly, Friday morning, instead of ESPN’s reporters and their “multiple sources” announcing James’s decision, one way or the other, it came out in an article published by James and journalist Lee Jenkins on SI.com, the website of Sports Illustrated.

Four years ago, James announced his landing spot after an equally wild free agency period in a highly criticized hour-long special on ESPN, known as “The Decision”.  This time, having learned from his mistakes, James’s latest decision was given to his fans, as well as his haters, in the form of an open essay, which you can read here.

LeBron began by speaking of his relationship with northeastern Ohio, and continued by chronicling how difficult a decision he had to make to leave Cleveland for Miami in 2010, defending the move, and thanking his Heat teammates as well as coach Erik Spoelstra and Riley for helping to make his four years in Miami such a success.

He continued by saying he left Cleveland to win championships, with the intention of eventually retiring a Cavalier.  In returning to Cleveland, he said, his goal is still to win championships, although he admits he is realistic and realizes that with the young roster the Cavs have, winning titles will require patience.

That roster certainly includes some very good young players.  Cleveland has had the top pick in three of the last four drafts, winning the draft lottery this year despite only narrowly missing the playoffs.  Kyrie Irving has already found his way to stardom, winning MVP at the most recent NBA All-Star Game in February.  Irving’s two all-star appearances the last two seasons are the only times he has played as a teammate of James, although James already seems like a big brother to Irving.  The most recent top pick, former Kansas guard Andrew Wiggins, is also expected to be a superstar.

Perhaps the biggest question mark for the Cavs is the coach.  David Blatt was hired this offseason, with no NBA head coaching experience.  The 55-year old Boston native and Princeton graduate has made a career of coaching in Europe, winning this year’s Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and being honored as Euroleague Coach of the Year.  He also led the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics in London.  Many around the NBA believe he will be an excellent coach for a team that is, for the most part, very young, with the glaring exception of its new star, LeBron James.

This team will win titles.  It may not be immediate, although some are already picking them to win the Eastern Conference this coming season.  The East, however, is much weaker than the strong Western Conference, which includes at least four very legitimate title contenders (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, L.A. Clippers, Houston) and others who certainly could be very good (Portland, Dallas, Golden State, and the L.A. Lakers if they’re healthy).  Over time, with the star power of James, Irving, and Wiggins, as well as the other role players already on the roster and anyone they may add in the future, this team will surely bring a championship to northeast Ohio.

Potential titles in Cleveland for LeBron could be even more gratifying, even from a purely basketball standpoint, as it would potentially show how good James is, and would surely be harder earned than anything he did with his high-profile teammates in Miami.  When you add the personal standpoint for James, growing up in nearby Akron, and beginning his career with the Cavaliers, any potential title won in Cleveland would certainly be the highlight of his career.

Keep in mind that the city of Cleveland is thirsty for a championship.  The Cavaliers have not won a title since their founding in 1970, with the 2007 conference championship during James’s previous stint being the highlight of their existence.  The Indians haven’t won the World Series since 1954, 60 years ago, led by the starting rotation of Early Wynn, Mike Garcia, Bob Lemon, and Bob Feller.  The Browns won the city’s most recent title, in 1964, 50 years ago, in the era of Jim Brown and Lou Groza.  That was before the Super Bowl era of NFL play.

Interestingly enough, contrary to popular belief, Bosh re-signed with Miami just hours after James’s decision was announced.  The popular theory was that Bosh would stay if James stayed, but would leave for Houston, who had offered him a 4-year, $88 million contract, if James went to Cleveland.  The Heat, however, gave him a longer, richer contract, possibly after being informed they wouldn’t have James under contract anymore.  Wade is widely believed to be staying in Miami, although a report surfaced today that the Chicago Bulls, Wade’s hometown team, may be trying to lure him to the Windy City.

I don’t usually write about the NBA on this blog (I’m more of a college basketball guy), but this story seemed to transcend the game of basketball.  For many, this was about home, family, loyalty, the return of an icon, and even forgiveness.  Cleveland can finally move on from losing their native son in 2010; from the scathing letter written about James by Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert; from the jersey burnings of free agencies past; from the boos when James returned as an opponent.

But, as the fairy tales say, “they all lived happily ever after.”  A title, or multiple titles, would seemingly make this story continue to have an already happy ending.  The hometown player, coming back home, and leading a team and a city to one or more championships 50 years overdue?  It’s almost like he signed with the Lakers or the Clippers…because that’s the type of stories you only hear in Hollywood.

 

 

 

LeBron James Career Statistics

2003-04 (CLE): 20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, NBA Rookie of the Year
Cavaliers: 35-47, missed playoffs

2004-05 (CLE): 27.2 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 7.2 APG
Cavaliers: 42-40, missed playoffs

2005-06 (CLE): 31.4 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 6.6 APG
Cavaliers: 50-32, lost to Pistons in second round

2006-07 (CLE): 27.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 6.0 APG
Cavaliers: 50-32, lost to Spurs in NBA Finals

2007-08 (CLE): 30.0 PPG (led NBA), 7.9 RPG, 7.2 APG
Cavaliers: 45-37, lost to Celtics in second round

2008-09 (CLE): 28.4 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 7.2 APG, NBA MVP
Cavaliers: 66-16, lost to Magic in Eastern Conf. Finals

2009-10 (CLE): 29.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 8.6 APG, NBA MVP
Cavaliers: 61-21, lost to Celtics in second round

2010-11 (MIA): 26.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 7.0 APG
Heat: 58-24, lost to Mavericks in NBA Finals

2011-12 (MIA): 27.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 6.2 APG, NBA MVP
Heat: 46-20, defeated Thunder in NBA Finals

2012-13 (MIA): 26.8 PPG, 8.0 RPG, 7.3 APG, NBA MVP
Heat: 66-16, defeated Spurs in NBA Finals

2013-14 (MIA): 27.1 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 6.4 APG
Heat: 54-28, lost to Spurs in NBA Finals