November Takeaways, College Football 2020

-It feels like the kind of crazy year that could land college football in the Playoff Era its first Cinderella team, to borrow an expression from the much-missed March Madness. Cincinnati is knocking on the door with a rising star head coach and a program that has shown in the last decade-ish that it can run the table in the regular season and put itself in position to compete against the big boys. Coastal Carolina, right near where my folks live, is the story of the season perhaps, with its higher profile driven by an unusual AP poll season that has them in the Top 15. Nevertheless, the American Athletic Conference has charged headlong into Playoff committee members’ collective consciousness for several years, demanding their attention while the national narrative wonders when or if it will get its representative in the CFP. Cincy is the closest yet.

-Notre Dame had a November to remember, starting with the double-OT classic victory over Clemson I commented on more extensively in podcast form. I would not call that win program-validating as some pundits proclaimed, but it was awesome to see the Irish win a tight game against a top-ranked team, regardless of Clemson’s starting QB being out. The program, entering the 21st century’s ’20s, was coming off its best decade since the 1980s. Beating Clemson enhanced the program, not validated it; the Irish are a perennial Top 10 caliber team trying to break into the Top 3-4. What impressed me almost as much as ND beating Clemson was how well they followed up on that win, largely dominating Boston College and North Carolina in games that were labeled as upset alerts. The Irish are playing like a team with that extra something that separates contenders from squads that actually win titles. It could be a very exciting December.

-Florida vs. Alabama is shaping up to be a classic SEC Title game. The Gator offense is having an historic year. The parallels are strong with Kyle Trask and Joe Burrow. Neither was great in his first season as the starter at UF and LSU, respectively, but that second year showed versions of them that few thought could reach such optimal levels. Can Trask cap it off as Burrow did? Eerily similar teams, too. A typically stout defense doing its best Colts with Manning in the 2000s routine, very talented but also having to match endurance with its record-setting offense. LSU’s D figured it out when it mattered most. Can Florida’s, which already cost it a game against A&M? The offense will likely roll into that game with incredible momentum, and Trask will be in the thick of the Heisman race by the time they meet ‘Bama in Atlanta. Mac Jones will be too, virtually heading for New York himself in all likelihood. When’s the last time two Heisman front-running QBs faced in the SEC title game?

-I genuinely feel for the kids in the Pac 12 and Big 10 especially. Starting the season so late and then having so many games cancelled. Honestly, to me, the Pac 12 has not moved my needle of interest. There’s just zero intrigue for me, though is it time to start talking about Chip Kelly being in Year 3 and it not feeling like he’s got them pointed in the right direction? The Big 10 has had some noteworthy happenings, by comparison. Ohio State is a legit national title contender with a special offense and a defense that could very well come around in December and January, again, like LSU’s did in 2019. Michigan and Penn State’s universes certainly didn’t need the 2020 season to be like 2020 itself, but Northwestern and Indiana fanbases are loving life right now. I’m glad the Big 10 came back. They’re decision has enhanced my life a few percentage points. The Pac 12, though, with so many cancellations and such a late start, maybe should’ve just stuck to their original plan and postponed until the spring, especially since it didn’t take a college football aficionado to know that the conference was very unlikely to produce a playoff team (on short notice to boot).

-On COVID in football, I urged some new questions to be asked in my new podcast, The Doc Says

-I think Jimbo Fisher has to close out this 1 loss season. If Texas A&M gets through 2020 with a win over Florida and its only loss to ‘Bama, then perhaps that will buy Jimbo some time to build the kind of momentum he needs to justify his huge contract, as college football revenue lacks the in-person audience to drive it to the kind of peak that allowed for said contract. Fisher’s final seasons at Florida State continue to haunt him, as even now three seasons removed from his last year there, pieces are still being written about the demise of the Seminoles just a few years after they won the 2013 National Championship. I like the A&M program and I’ve generally liked Jimbo for his whole career, but these FSU reports are tough on his narrative. The type of storylines I enjoy most in this sport are when the stains on the coaching resume become hidden by greater successes, hiding the stains behind fresh pages with further accomplishment. We don’t remember Saban for the Dolphins or Brian Kelly for 4-8 in 2016, do we? If Fisher at A&M can turn a quarter-century of mediocrity back into a nationally relevant powerhouse, then all people will remember about Florida State is the 2013 title and 29 straight wins.

A Divine Win Over Clemson For Notre Dame (Special Doc Says Podcast)

Listen to the podcast here.

In this special college football edition, I offer you pre-game thoughts and post-game breakdown and memories of a most memorable Notre Dame vs. Clemson experience.  The pre-game thoughts were recorded on Friday night, setting the stage for Notre Dame’s biggest home game since the famous “Bush Push” (USC loss) in 2005.  Post-game (about 14-minutes in if you want to skip to it) was recorded Sunday morning, as I figured any listener would prefer to hear more than the cathartic hooting and hollering my wife and I were doing immediately after the game Saturday night as the fans rushed the field in a reminder that joy > fear.  May you find the kind of joy in anything that we experienced last night!

AEW’s Non-PPV Specials Ranked

The choice by All Elite Wrestling executives to run quarterly pay-per-views rather than WWE’s standard monthly specials has been a welcome one for yours truly. Each time AEW serves up a major show, it feels legitimately special. It better be, of course, with the $200 total commitment that it is to watch all four. What has also been welcome, though, is the promotion’s other offerings that are a cut above the average weekly episode of Dynamite on TNT. Be it 2019’s pre-Dynamite era pair of summer shows offered to viewers for free on B/R Live or the (copyright fee paid to my friends at Social Suplex) “Dynamite 1.5” events, which are NWA/Clash of the Champions-esque, PPV-caliber super cards, these offerings say to fans, “We’re always trying to create an engaging product for you.” So, while you can find my ranking of the 6 AEW pay-per-views to date over on my column writing home of 15+ years, Wrestling Headlines (LOP), I wanted to pay tribute to the other specials here and further contextualize All Elite Wrestling’s budding historical profile.

(Doc’s Note – Rankings were determined by offering each match a 1-4 grade – 1 is skippable, 2 is good, 3 is great, and 4 is rewatchably greatadding up each show’s score and dividing by the number of matches. Segments were considered intangible tie-breakers)

#8: Bash at the Beach 2020Due to copyright issues, it might end up being the only AEW Bash at the Beach, but if so, it was definitely a memorable one-off. Spearheaded by a romp of a tag team match for the #1 contendership during which we really started to see what the duo of Hangman and Kenny Omega would become, plus a pair of matches that had World Title implications in Darby vs. PAC and Mox vs. Sammy Guevara (after which Mox got his memorable storyline-eye injury). Darby-PAC and the 4-way tag contender bouts carry a lot of weight in hindsight during a comparative analysis, off-setting a contender for most forgettable match in AEW lore that stunk the joint out and basically killed any hope for the Brandi-led Nightmare Collective and Kia Stevens (aka Awesome Kong). DDP came back to lead a team that lost to a quickly-rising MJF, so that was fun and worth noting as an additional minor hit.

#7: Fight for the Fallen 2019 – Certainly by my estimation the weakest of the cards, but opinions will likely vary based on the main-event between the Bucks and the Rhodes brothers, which I thought was horribly over-long and ended with a dud of a climax. The other high profile tag match – SCU vs. Fenix and Pentagon – was the initial showcase of their shaky in-ring chemistry, the stimulus for a sloppy effort that did not connect with me. This show also featured quite possibly the worst match in AEW history in Allie vs. Brandi Rhodes, so while there was some good things presented like Cima vs. Kenny Omega (4.25 star/5 rated by me, 4.5 by Meltzer) and Dark Order vs. Jurassic Express vs. TH2 in a show-enhancing effort, it just did not seem to be AEW’s night back in July 2019.

#6: AEW 1st Anniversary Show – Two such specials have been built around Jon Moxley title defenses against dominant big men, this time around Lance Archer. Much like the special to be discussed in a bit, the AEW Dynamite Anniversary show’s quality is dependent on your opinion of the main-event. I thought Mox vs. Archer was quite engaging, but a step down from their work at NJPW’s WrestleKingdom in January. So, it was really good, but not great. Thus, I’m comfortable with how the ranking system I used placed this event here. Still, all of these shows are quite good in their own ways. I loved Orange Cassidy vs. Cody, both of whom routinely step up to the plate in these feature length showcases (plus I’m quite fond of the time limit draw’s return to prominence in AEW). FTR vs. Best Friends was an excellent Tag Team Championship match as well, the – um – best match that Trent and Chucky T have had under traditional rules.

#5: The Rock ‘N’ Wrestling Rager on Le Ship of Jericho – Hands down one of the coolest venues ever to host a major wrestling show, the Ship of Jericho was as much the star as any of the talent. Watching MJF get thrown by the Bucks into the top deck cruise-liner pool was a genuine “moment” in AEW that could not have earned that status without the setting. Not only that, this card featured one of the best AEW matches ever that nobody talks about. SCU was the first ever Tag Team Champions for the promotion and had done a solid job leading the charge without yet having the big PPV match to solidify their reign. Hangman Page and Omega came on strong pretty much out of left field to challenge SCU on the ship and they built a lot of momentum quickly. SCU vs. Hangman and Kenny proceeded to knock it absolutely out of the park – an over the green monster kind of home-run, especially for a TV match. Mox and PAC had a really good performance too; combined with a TV Match of the Year candidate and the electric setting, this was a smash hit.

#4: Fight for the Fallen 2020 – This show was really all about Jon Moxley defending the AEW World Championship against Brian Cage, a match that was hyped extraordinarily well and was postponed for a week due to COVID concerns. Personally, I thought their match was great, fueled as it was by such a strong build in the 6+ weeks leading up to it. The controversial finish did not bother me a bit (though Cage’s limited use in the four months since has). Opening with a TNT Title bout that saw Cody put Sonny Kiss on the map, Fight for the Fallen rocked it up this list on the strength of a pair of tag team matches in support of the main-event. The Elite vs. Jurassic Express was as good as you would expect and even hinted at the darker side that Kenny Omega has started to recently flesh out and FTR vs. The Lucha Bros. was an awesome, albeit abbreviated first chapter in what I hope will be a legit rivalry.

#3: Fyter Fest 2020, Part 1 – AEW has set the bar pretty high this past year or so. When they announce a card full of matches with definable stakes and solid build, expectations can get pretty high in a hurry. My expectations were extremely high for the Tag Team Title bout that main-evented this show and reasonably high for Proud and Powerful vs. Private Party, while my expectations for everything else were mild to moderate. Expectations can be a strange thing. All of the matches I was mild to moderate about over-delivered (Shida vs. Penelope Ford particularly, which I thought took Match of the Night honors), the match I was highest on under-delivered, and P&P vs. P.P. was a bit of a letdown. Everything on the show was good, though, so overall this was an excellent example of a supped-up Dynamite. I can see how some would think better of it than I did.

#2: Fyter Fest 2019 – As someone who places great weight in a main-event delivering like a main-event should deliver, the maiden voyage of Fyter Fest has an extra something that perhaps only one of the other shows up for debate here can equal. Jon Moxley vs. Joey Janela was absolutely outstanding. Mox vs. Omega topped it in the Hardcore genre months later, but I still maintain that you will not find many matches in gimmick lore as good as Mox vs. Janela. Given that this was also the show that introduced the wider audience to Darby Allin – in a very good, star-making 20-minute draw with Cody – the foundation of this B/R Live special was quite sturdy. I was not the fan of the Elite vs. Luchas that some were, but when that’s the number two or three best bout on a show, it bodes well for the card’s reputation in hindsight.

#1: Fyter Fest 2020, Part 2 – I got really excited for AEW Fyter Fest. Coming off the high on life moment that was Double or Nothing in May, the promise of a Clash-like card in the early summer seemed sublime. Of the three big shows they ran from July 1st to July 15th, this one from July 8th was a standard-setting kind of event. Orange Cassidy vs. Chris Jericho, more so to me than the high octane eight man tag team match that more people raved about (and rightfully so), told a marvelous story that nobody ever knew they needed to see told. The breakout star of the year was not supposed to be Orange, but it has been; and to date this was his peak. There was also an Omega/Page vs. Private Party 4-star match to enjoy and spirited efforts from both Dark Order vs. SCU and Joey Janela vs. Lance Archer. Nyla worked in a squash that furthered her rebuild to the #1 contender status she occupies today. Excellent card.

October Takeaways, College Football 2020

-I’ll begin with an admission: I’m still trying to work my way into college football mode. Maybe it’s because other things that I would have been watching earlier in the year (like the NBA Playoffs) were postponed to the time of year I would typically be consumed by college football and have stolen some attention. Perhaps the COVID hysteria seeping into this sport more than the others I watch has made a more significant impact than I had previously cared to let on; it definitely influences week-to-week excitement because the virus narrative practically demands that genuine hype cannot begin until Saturday morning. Whatever the reason, I am carrying into November – especially with Notre Dame vs. Clemson on the 7th – a hope that football season will begin to feel more like football season.

-Alabama is the best football team I’ve seen play this year, with all due respect to Clemson, Ohio State, and even Notre Dame (I’ll get to them momentarily). The two biggest games of the season thus far, to me, were in the SEC, first being Georgia vs. Auburn and then the next Georgia vs. Alabama. The Bulldogs whipped the Tigers, but then got whipped by the Crimson Tide. ‘Bama simply overwhelmed the talented but developing ‘Dawgs. Big games matter to me when you’re trying to judge incomplete resumes on the fly. The other top teams in the conversation have yet to play those big games. November will change that.

-Georgia vs. Alabama offered the kind of big-time game in the middle of the season that surges excitement for college football and keeps the sport at the forefront of diehard fan thoughts through the holidays. Given their recent history – among the Top 17 college football games this century, according to this avid fan, three since 2012 alone are ‘Dawgs-Tide clashes (two SEC and one national title game) – it was the game of the first half of the season on paper. The 2020 game matched the historical hype for one half, at least.

-Notre Dame has to beat Clemson next week. I would have loved to have seen the Irish find a way to beat the Tigers with Trevor Lawrence playing, but word is he’ll be out and Dabo Swinney will turn to the 5-star rated freshman quarterback whose name I won’t have memorized until next Saturday night. With Lawrence, Clemson has become the top program in the game, that NFL player factory like USC was under Pete Carroll, Florida and Ohio State were under Urban Meyer, and Alabama has been under Saban. Without Lawrence, Notre Dame has no excuses. It is what it is. I think the pressure rises on Notre Dame to deliver now and it will be interesting to see how they handle that pressure. Brian Kelly believes in his guys. That’s still the college game’s closest thing to an NFL team out there, starting QB or not. The Fighting Irish have to finally win a game like this. Against the best teams of their era in the 21st century, they always lose – USC, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson. If they want to work their way off the top of the second tier of powerhouses and into the first tier, it starts next Saturday night in South Bend.

-So much for that awesome Mike Leach and KJ Costello joint narrative in the SEC…

-Do you remember the 2007 season? It was the craziest college football season I have ever seen. With the Irish upending with their worst season of the 2000s, my focus turned to everyone with a shot of contending for the national title – and my goodness were there a lot of teams that nearly made it to the final pair. A two loss team won the national championship. I’ve had 2007 vibes for this season since the start. Look at the Wisconsin Badgers and the narrative flip they endured after seemingly finding the stud QB to help put them over the top in the Big Ten, only to have COVID run wild on BadgerMania. Trevor Lawrence. Saban. ND and several other teams not playing for three weeks. COVID is going to flip momentum in the direction of several teams that may not usually have it pointed their way in such a big picture, national title sense. That’s my prediction. Who steps up when lady luck knocks on their door? I was writing this while watching Oklahoma State hand Texas turnovers and penalties like candy on Halloween, so I guess we know how the Cowboys handle that kind of opportunity. Too bad. I was rooting for their narrative. Who’s narrative to root for next? Cincinnati and the other Group of 5 contenders? Wisconsin?

-How about the Fox college football studio team? It’s been a couple of years now, but that’s the best studio show in the business. Notre Dame’s all-time leading passer (Brady Quinn), a pair of Heisman trophy winners from the mid-2000s USC dynasty in Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart (Quinn’s greatest foes), and three-time national title-winning coach, Urban Meyer. Nobody can touch that for the foursome’s ability to connect with modern college football fans like myself. All of them bring unique insights.

A Timeless Classic Hidden in Japan

To watch New Japan Pro Wrestling is to step into another world, one in which nobody really cares that the results are predetermined because there is a willingness from everyone involved to buy fully into the fiction. In NJPW, pro wrestling is a sport, a revered one at that – to the point that the Olympic torch ceremony was to feature the heavyweight champion, Kazuchika Okada, as the symbolic flame bearer in Tokyo this summer. Strong Style, a hybrid of mixed martial arts and pro wrestling as it is more traditionally performed, lends itself to legitimate displays of tough guy bad-assery combined with dazzling feats of athleticism, some gravitating toward one end of that spectrum over the other. In other words, the physicality is more overtly NFL than Hollywood, so even the biggest detractor would struggle to claim “it’s fake” while watching NJPW’s top talents beat the tar out of each other. It is a fascinating and truly engrossing product.

New Japan’s version of WWE’s network-streaming service, njpwworld, offers a treasure chest of amazing matches that hold up with and at times take to the next highest level of the artform the library of classics produced in the mainstream North American wrestling scene during the WrestleMania Era. One that I recently happened upon reminded me a lot of the all-time Top 10 of the Mania Era caliber war between Triple H and Cactus Jack / Mick Foley at Royal Rumble 2000, a match that saw the champion, HHH, have to prove himself by entering the challenger, Foley’s, chosen “Street Fight” environment and exiting victorious with his tough guy bonafides confirmed. The NJPW match I reference is Kazuchika Okada vs. Katsuyori Shibata at Sakura Genesis 2017.

Shibata actually was forced into retirement at the conclusion of this match, a legit headbutt he delivered busting him open during the match and causing a subdural hemorrhage within the hour that followed the final bell. He had emergency surgery on the same night that he wrestled the match of his life. It therefore garners a bittersweet memory, like if Daniel LaRusso’s leg was too injured for him to ever fight again after kicking Johnny Lawrence in the face to win the All Valley in Karate Kid. Shibata played the Foley role against Okada, welcoming the Rainmaker into his realm of hard and relentless strikes. Shinsuke Nakamura vs. Kota Ibushi at WrestleKingdom 9 might have offered a better and purer example of Strong Style, but that was two specialists – two kings, if you will – of that style going head-to-head. Okada is perhaps the perfect hybrid, arguably the best wrestler of the last twenty years in terms of his body of work, but Shibata made it a Strong Style match essentially, like Foley made HHH fight him at Madison Square Garden seventeen years earlier. Further historical evaluation would be needed for me to claim Shibata-Okada my favorite version of Strong Style overall, so I would safely call it for now the greatest version of a Strong Style savant against a hybrid wrestler. The story told between them was captivating on a level reserved only for the all-timers.

Okada-Shibata was a match that made me miss packed arenas full of invested enthusiasts. Had the same match taken place in the clap-heavy pandemic era in New Japan, which does currently allow masked fans who cannot chant, it would not have been nearly as good. That is not to say that it was Rock-Hogan, a performance largely carried by audience participation, but Shibata’s brand of Strong Style is so strike heavy that one Grappl (a star ratings app) user gave it 0.25 stars. Aesthetically, dozens of New Japan wrestlers I’ve watched in the last few years while becoming a fan of the NJPW product are far superior to Shibata. Okada vs. Omega the Rainmaker’s bout with Shibata was not. It was comparably long yet without the slick sequences Okada, Omega, Hiroshi Tanahashi, and Kota Ibushi would employ to give the crowd a jolt of adrenaline. Imagine Daniel Bryan if he only did his striking and submissions; that’s Shibata. A great story is a great story, though, regardless of the devices used to tell it.

It was a war, every bit as dramatic as the 6-star ratings scale-breakers that sandwiched it in 2017. Perhaps the Okada-Omega series has overshadowed the Shibata-Okada masterpiece among the talking heads of the English-speaking language, the victim of an extra star putting an all-too-mythical distance historically between Omega-Okada and its fellow 5-star classic. I wonder, though, if domestic fans in Japan feel differently. Maybe it does not get talked about as much because of the tendency in modern society to dwell on the negative, in this case that Shibata to date has never wrestled again. His legendary performance was akin to Elway retiring after 2 straight Super Bowl wins.

So, Shibata-Okada is basically the Terry Funk vs. Ric Flair “I Quit” match to Okada-Omega’s Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair series in 1989. It just so happened that four of the greatest matches ever wrestled took place within a few months of each other.

NBA Finals Running Diary

September 30th (pre-Finals Thoughts)

I have too many thoughts to keep the other running diary veering any further into epic length, so here we go with a separate version for the Finals. Heat vs. Lakers. Not what we expected, but what we deserve in this wild year. A 5th seed making the championship round is novel in the 21st century. Miami is no ordinary 5th seed, though, given that the NBA Playoffs were contested inside a bubble in which nobody had home court advantage. Neutral sites even the playing field and the Heat have simply proven the better team time and again for the past six weeks. Are they better than the Lakers? I think it would seem obvious that their team is superior on paper. They fit the modern mold, with a roster full of shooters and versatile two-way players, only they lack a player considered among the very best in the world. Jimmy Butler is their anchor, though he would say Bam Adebayo has earned that label. Both are All-Stars, but neither are considered on the same level as Anthony Davis or LeBron, who are two of the five best players in the league. It’s going to be interesting. Does star power win out over team basketball?

The Lakers, beyond their two stars, do not scare anyone. Who is their third best player? Kyle Kuzma? The ageless wonder, Rajon Rondo? It could get dicey for them when they need a third guy to step up and save a game. Miami is loaded with guys who can play that role. Andre Iguadala reminded us in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals that they have players down to their ninth or tenth man who can win them a huge playoff game. The Lakers did not get tested in the Western Conference bracket. They got a huge pass when the Clippers choked away their 3-1 lead over the Nuggets. Miami is far more likely to push their buttons and get them out of their comfort zone. I have full confidence in LeBron, but if Davis disappears for stretches, who steps up in his place? I think Miami is a match-up nightmare for the Lakers and that they will force someone other than James or Davis into the spotlight in this series.

Mostly, I’m intrigued by the legacy conversations. That’s my thing in sports. The Xs and Os…I’ll listen to that stuff and can carry on a conversation about it to a point, but when you start talking about player legacy, that’s the topic that engages me most. LeBron could come out of this series with his fourth title. I told my buddy, Jeff, recently that a fourth ring for the King would make me start listening to the “he’s surpassed Jordan” arguments that I’ve never seen fit to even bother with to date. Four titles on three different teams, 9/10 NBA Finals (and 10 total and counting), on pace for all-time leading scorer…the numbers are starting to add up, but the fourth ring needs to happen NOW. AD starts to become a relevant all-time level player if he gets a ring too. Danny Green begins to look great as a top-tier role player (three titles on three different teams if they win, a starter for each of them). Over on the Heat side, Butler would re-write the narrative on his career, especially if he earned NBA Finals MVP.

I’m picking the Lakers in six. It’s too hard to bet against LeBron. I think AD will dominate, and even though I do not love the Laker role players, there is a lot of Finals experience among them. Finals experience tends to matter when one team has it and the other does not; check the history books.

October 1st (post-Game 1 Thoughts)

Wow. Writing about sports / entertainment, it is easy to get caught up in the moment and levy conclusions way too hyperbolic to hold up to time’s test, but after Game 1, is it too late to change my pick to a Lakers sweep or LA in 5?

Granted, everything that could have gone right for the Lakers did and most of what could have gone wrong for the Heat did. One of my favorite narratives in these Finals is the coaching history between Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, who coached LeBron during his Heatles run, and LA’s Frank Vogel, who never could beat Spoelstra. Coach Spo is among the game’s best at adapting, but with the Heat’s injuries, I’m not sure it will matter. If anyone is up to the task, Spo is among the chosen few. Still, if Bam is out, then the advantage that AD already has gets magnified to the power of 10, rendering this series, to quote a friend I used to talk basketball with in shop class back in the day who I ran into a parking lot yesterday, “The varsity against the junior varsity.”

Game 1 reminded me equal parts of Magic-Lakers in the ’09 Finals and LeBron’s Cavs against the Warriors in the ’15 Finals. Like the Magic in ’09, the Heat just were not prepared for the moment. Like I said in my pre-game thoughts, Finals experience matters and the Heat’s best players don’t have any of it. The Bam injury turned this into a comparable 2015 scenario. The Magic in ’09 came back and stimulated as enthralling a 5-game series as there’s perhaps ever been, but the Heat are going to be outgunned like LeBron was in ’15 when Kyrie Irving went down injured in Game 1. Down Goran Dragic too – maybe the most underrated player in the 2020 Playoffs – the Heat are chum in the water for LeBron and his school of sharks. The King knows when it is time to pounce on a golden opportunity.

October 2nd (pre-Game 2 Thoughts)

It’s not over until it’s over, though. LeBron’s Cavs took the Warriors to a six game series in 2015. The Heat still have shooters galore and I would put money down that the Lakers will be unable to sustain their 3-pointer hot streak. Get AD in foul trouble, fluster LeBron a little bit and make him bring back memories of 2011, when Dirk and a band of misfit toys stole a title from the Heat, get the young sharp shooters settled into the series, and hope that Jimmy Butler plays out of his mind…who knows?

The best we can probably hope for as basketball fans without a specific rooting interest is that the Heat find a way to steal one of these next two games so that Bam can get back on the court. Mentally, I’m preparing myself to start having those LeBron conversations. I wonder if Davis would earn Finals MVP over LeBron?

October 3rd (post-Game 2 Thoughts)

A mere glance at the box score would not do justice the effort with which Miami played last night. The Heat were totally overmatched. Anthony Davis missed one shot through the first 30-minutes of game time. LeBron was quietly dominant throughout. The pair of Lakers stars was playing on a level above everyone else on the court, honestly. Nevertheless, the Heat never let the game get away from them. Los Angeles built a double digit lead, reflecting the reality that they are 10-14 points better, if you will, on any night that the Lakers are full strength and the Heat are down two of their three best players, but Miami ensured that LA never got the chance to coast, working their tails off to stay somewhere between 9-16 points down. That effort cannot be understated. It was the closest double digit win you’ll ever see.

Jimmy Butler echoed his pre-game bravado with relentless play during the game, Kelly Olynyk had one of his classic “I’m sneaky good and I’ll prove it” nights, and the rest of the team followed their lead en route to a memorable losing performance; they earned a lot of respect from me in the process. Even if this ends up being a sweep, I’ll remember the Heat for their grit.

I asked my buddy, Jeff, last night during the game’s waning moments, “Would LeBron have to get to six rings before you’d say he can surpass Jordan?” Certainly, Game 2 in the big picture seemed to do nothing but up the volume on the “What is LeBron’s legacy once he gets to four rings” conversation. The King is on pace to end up the league’s all-time leading scorer. He’s dominated a decade and counting. Four rings ties him with Shaq. The only players with more titles that are also in the G.O.A.T. discussion are Bill Russell, Kareem, Kobe, Magic, and MJ. Our conclusion? If James gets to five rings and breaks the scoring record among his other longevity-laced statistical accolades, then we would greatly consider giving him the nod for #1 all-time. At four rings, I’m ready to start taking MJ vs. LeBron more seriously. Four years ago, that was a laughable comparison. LBJ is two wins away from further shifting his narrative. No matter where you stand, it behooves us all to appreciate the history we’re witnessing.

October 5th (post-Game 3 Thoughts)

It’s easy to get caught in the big picture and not appreciate the moment. I think most of us still believe that this series is basically over and I wouldn’t be shocked if the ratings for Game 3 reflect a less engaged overall audience, but how can you not appreciate Jimmy Butler’s performance and Miami’s win last night? He basically willed them to victory, though the Lakers turning the ball over and AD getting in foul trouble greatly contributed too. Butler had a 40-point triple double, becoming only the third player to do that and the first to do it in a win. He accounted for more Heat offense than anyone in the Finals since 1970. He scored 40 without attempting a three-pointer, with points in the paint at a comparable rate as two Hall of Fame centers did in their 40+ point games in the NBA Finals. Butler joined elite company that includes LeBron, Jerry West, Clyde Frazier, Shaq, and Kareem. That’s how good he was Sunday night.

Of course, it’s also easy to get caught in the moment and not appreciate the big picture. The Lakers didn’t play like their title depended on the outcome of Sunday’s game, and they lost. One would imagine, however, that Game 4 tomorrow night will paint a different picture.

October 7th (post-Game 4 Thoughts)

That ’09 Magic-Lakers comp is looking pretty good right now.

Cheers to the Heat for making this an entertaining series beyond Game 1. Last night’s game was the best yet, the kind of back and forth affair that basketball fans ideally want from the championship round. It was the type of game from Miami that exemplified how well they are coached and how much confidence they built by taking down the league’s best regular season team and another higher seeded team en route to the Finals; it was the type of game from the Lakers that made you appreciate seeing superstars be superstars when it matters most and that offered the kind of complimentary performances from role players that you reflect fondly on years later (shout out to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, who sandwiched the game with big shots that swung a close game in LA’s favor).

I must admit that I wanted to see Jimmy Butler try to take over in the fourth quarter. Granted, he was exceptionally defended most of the night by both AD and LeBron, but the difference between an AD/LeBron and Butler is that extra gear that says, “It does not matter how well you defend me, I am going to make tough shots or I am going to get to the foul line because if we lose it’s not going to be because I didn’t try.” Butler was too passive in my opinion, trying so hard to get his teammates good shots in the 4th quarter that he did not seem to realize that the Lakers were in winning mode and that he was the only guy with the chops to create his own shot down the stretch. He will have to be more daring in Game 5 to extend the series.

Inevitability has settled back in now. The Lakers are assuredly going to win the title, altering historical perspectives on LeBron and AD. I just hope that Butler can pull out one more epic game because, even in defeat, he has truly ascended in these playoffs. Nobody has benefited from the bubble playoffs more than Jimmy Butler, so it would only be fitting for the 2020 season to end with Butler going out with a bang. I’m getting ready for the LeBron vs. MJ debate, though, and looking forward to seeing where the likes of Bill Simmons moves Anthony Davis into his Hall of Fame pyramid.

October 10th (post-Game 5 Thoughts)

I isolated myself in the North Carolina mountains this weekend to reset after a tumultuous couple of months and got into a mindset going into Game 5 that I was ready to see and fully appreciate history in the making. Admittedly, I was rooting for LeBron, a player whose career I have followed since my weekly Sports Illustrated subscription brought him into my consciousness in 2000. I’ve said for many years now that I’m going to enjoy LeBron’s run as much as I can because, while I saw Jordan’s peak, I was too young to comprehensively embrace the greatness in front of me. And James was indeed great in Game 5, even if he and the Lakers came up just short of the series clinching win.

The narrative I created around Game 5 was what it would mean to the legacy of King James if the Lakers won. As he has done all post-season long, however, Jimmy Butler made sure the narrative to be discussed was his and not the more famous player trying to advance his legacy at Butler and the Heat’s expense. Butler dueled LeBron all night long in another marvelous display of fortitude and skill. It has been truly amazing what Butler has done in these playoffs and it has been fitting that his pair of triple doubles in the Heat’s two victories in the Finals thus far have ensured that he will be forever remembered. Narratives can quickly shift in the modern sports world. Ask LeBron. Is his dominance in the East remembered over the four NBA Finals in which his Cavs and Heat teams combined to go 2-16 in lopsided series losses? Not according to the articles that I’ve read. Had Butler and the Heat lost in 4 or 5 games, I think that eventually their run in 2020 would have quietly faded into the background historically, but Butler’s second monster game that pushed the series to 6 games? I believe that forever changed the Jimmy Butler narrative and cemented the Heat as one of those rare runner-ups worth discussing in conversations decades removed from the events.

October 12th (post-Game 6 Thoughts)

Well, we were starting to get spoiled with awesome games, weren’t we? The Lakers brought us back down to earth with their wire-to-wire, title-clinching stomp of the Heat. I’m glad Miami made it a series worth remembering, but the sense of inevitability started during and following Game 1 finally caught up in Game 6. The role players for Los Angeles truly answered the call in the NBA Finals, as did Anthony Davis and of course LeBron was LeBron. Miami came into the series looking like the more complete team with a moxie born of an improbable playoff run, but injuries prevented their momentum from continuing into the Finals. Give credit where due, the Lakers were well prepared and played like the top seed in the most dominant conference.

It’s wild to think back to the end of the 2019 season, when the Lakers were a comedy of errors. Look at them now. Their embattled front office saved face with the trade for AD, who formed with LeBron a classic example of a rising tide that lifted all ships. A question asked often as the 2020 season progressed was, “Who was the best teammate James has ever played with: Wade or Davis?” I think it clearly has to be Davis after these playoffs. AD and LeBron meshed rather seamlessly. They were the best team in the West pretty much the entire year, eliminating from past LeBron super-team equations the two-three month feeling out period that resulted in mortal regular seasons. Davis certainly has been the most natural fit alongside James; the dynamic of integrating a star perimeter player into LeBron’s universe always felt like a square peg into a round hole. So, cheers to the duo for making it work so well and to the organization for facilitating a memorable, truly special pairing.

At the end of the Finals each year, I enjoy trying to put the team that won the title into a larger context, namely how memorable the team was to me. As a LeBron fan, this Lakers title is a memorable one. As a fan who was dog tired of the Warriors dynasty, this playoff was a memorable one. Given the craziness that upended the season, the champion is that much more memorable. I’m one of the few on earth who appreciated the ’99 lockout season historically because basketball nearly didn’t happen that year, so when it happened, it was that much more awesome. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. Same thing this year.

I feel some similarities between this LeBron team and Duncan’s Spurs at the beginning of last decade that culminated in the 2014 title. The Spurs were, like LeBron, the steady force in the league for a decade-plus, regardless if they ran up against dynasties. King James is a comparable force. It’s like James is an organization unto himself and I have great admiration for organizations that remain so good for so long that their dedication eventually leads to more championships and more legacy building feats. If the LeBron-AD combo wins another title or two, they’ll get put in the dynasty category of memorability with the Heatles and Warriors and Shaq-Kobe Lakers, but for right now I am putting them alongside that ’14 Spurs squad.

The big picture thoughts continue into the historical place that AD now occupies as the first or second best player on a championship team. He now has hardware that Ewing, Barkley, Malone, etc. never won, giving him a leg up in at least part of that conversation down the road when his career is complete. Bill Simmons mentioned that he might have Davis in his Top 40 all-time after the title. I guess I need to make my own list. Maybe before the 2021 season.

As for LeBron’s all-time greatness level, he certainly has closed the gap between him and #1 hasn’t he? Something about winning a fourth title on a third team; something about winning a title in year 2 with each team since taking control of his destiny in 2010; something about winning this particular title given the uniqueness of this season. Combine the various elements and it is now easier to accept the argument that James might be the greatest ever. I’m certainly as guilty as anyone of being so engaged by the historical narratives of sport and entertainment that I prematurely crown something “all-time great” before the player/game/series/event has had the chance to pass the test of time, but title #4 for the King has distinct qualities that make it feel…greater…or at least the caliber of great achievement that elevates LeBron closer to the threshold he himself has said he desires to reach; he is pretty close to catching his shadow from Chicago. It’s worthy of a comprehensive dissection. Someone needs to create a logical formula for this like I did for sports entertainment lore. It must be done. No element can be left out, from longevity to titles to individual statistics to the state of the league at which a player’s success took place…put all relevant arguments into a blender and see what it spits out. Maybe I’ll do it.

Final Conclusions

Basketball’s return was everything I wanted it to be. I rely on sports for escape. I’m the type that needs to turn off the real world and the role I desire to play in changing it for the better. Basketball is one of my favorite yearly escapes. To have gone through 2020 without the NBA Playoffs – without the opportunity to dissect these various narratives – would have genuinely left a hole in my world. I could have filled it with other topics you see across the menu bar on this blog, but I never wanted to. I wanted – needed – basketball. So, I’m very thankful that the NBA figured it out. I teach people every day that they cannot live their lives around illness, but there has to be an escape like basketball to assist in that endeavor. Cheers to the NBA for providing that escape.

Top 5 Moments of the 2020 Playoffs to put a nice little bow on the season:

#5 – Denver completes their second 3-1 comeback (watch out for Murray and Jokic moving forward)

#4 – Bam Adebayo’s block to seal Game 1 of the East Finals (best block I’ve ever seen)

#3 – Luka Doncic beats the buzzer (could be the Bret vs. Mr. Perfect of his career, the launching point to an absolutely amazing career)

#2 – Jimmy Butler’s ascendance to superstar

#1 – LeBron’s 4th Title (frankly the champion always deserves this spot)

September Takeaways, College Football 2020

-It took about 3 weeks for it to really feel like college football season. Typically, it’s my favorite sports period of the year, but with the COVID-related uncertainty, I never truly allowed myself to get the usual August excitement going. I watched GameDay on September 12th and saw the Irish play, I finally put up a flag holder at the new house so I could let the ND flag fly on Saturdays (see below), and I started listening to the Solid Verbal podcast (best CFB podcast out there), but it was not until Oklahoma got upset and SEC play began on September 26th that it actually felt like college football season (and ND didn’t even play). Now, every conference is going to play. I’m just thankful there’s football and I look forward to settling into the season during the month of October.

-What a win for Mike Leach to start the 2020 season, his first at Miss. St. I saw Quarterback, KJ Costello, play for Stanford against Notre Dame a few times, and he was very good. Put him with one of the game’s all-time greatest offensive minds (Leach) and there could be serious fireworks in the SEC from the Bulldogs. Ending the longest active winning streak that LSU carried through its season-long offensive clinic en route to a memorable national title winning team is a dream start for Leach’s attempt to compete with the big boys of college football (SEC has owned the national championship in this century). He and Costello combine for what could be a very memorable joint storyline to follow this season.

-Every season for me begins with the hope, slim even though it may be, that Notre Dame could win it all. I’ve never seen it. I’m a proud member of their subway alumni group who just loves and resonates with Irish football. I would consider it an unbelievable, divine gift to see them win the national championship considering the amount of joy it would bring me. So, there’s a lot of really intriguing pieces on the 2020 Irish squad, and I’m genuinely hopeful that they can make a run. They have shown flashes of a depth rare to the modern ND era, and that’s one of the things we need to beat Clemson. The Irish program lacks a recent signature win, though they’ve had some excellent teams that produced historically relevant seasons. ND nearly knocked off Clemson in 2015, Famous Jameis’s Seminoles in 2014, Georgia in both 2017 and 2019. Time to finish one off and beat Clemson. If they can beat Clemson, they can beat anybody.

-It’s only September, but the marriage between Miami and Houston transfer QB D’Eriq King could be successful. King was a baller for the Cougars and the Hurricanes have not had a dynamic quarterback in a long time. Miami always has talent, even if it their record does not reflect it. Sometimes, a team just needs that one missing piece to get a program’s momentum rolling. Their next game is at Clemson. We’ll see how legit they are.

-At first, I thought it presumptuous that pundits were liking Oklahoma State to win the Big 12, considering that OU has owned the conference in the Lincoln Riley era. The Cowboys have been winning ugly and without their starting QB, though, and I like a team that can win with defense and get a few breaks to go their way early in a season. 2015 Iowa comes to mind; they nearly went to the Playoff and had a 12-0 regular season. Texas can’t stop anyone. The Sooners still have major defensive woes of their own and a young quarterback who looked scared in crunch time. Iowa State seems to have taken a step back. Why not Oklahoma State?

-Depth is going to matter in 2020 more than perhaps ever before. Kids are getting COVID tested like crazy and, though most are asymptomatic when their tests are positive, they are being treated like they have the plague. So, teams like Clemson and Alabama would appear most equipped to handle the turmoil. There’s a lot of other teams that, this year, can probably match up talent wise through their starting line-ups, but I don’t think they’ll have the depth. Throw Ohio State into that Tiger-Tide mix. Georgia too depending on their QB situation (JT Daniels from USC would be great, I think, if he can get healthy).

She Was Like a Lady Bug…Only, She Was Our Lucy Bug

The title comes from a famous phrase in the history of the Chad and Sarah Show, as my wife and I were dubbed at our wedding. “She’s like a ladybug, only Lucy,” Sarah told me after uttering the nickname, “Lucy Bug,” for the first time. I’ve repeated that phrase a hundred times in the 12 years, 4 months, and 3 days since I met both Sarah and Lucy on the same night in 2008. The common refrain is that Lucy did not take easily to the male gender, but that she warmed right up to me. I eventually warmed right up to her too. She became our Lucy Bug.

Saying goodbye to her yesterday was perhaps the hardest thing I’ve ever done. My daughter said to me, “Daddy, I’d never seen you cry like that before.” The only other time I ever have was when I lost my dad in 2012. Lucy earned my tears, a tribute as they’ve been to her quiet yet vital role in my adult life. In this moment, feeling so grief-stricken, I think I was more attached to her than I had thought. God, I’m going to miss her…

Rudy, I’d have to say, was the original reason for my bond with the Lu. Forming the other half of the Ru Lu, my Yorkie found a best friend in Lucy. It’s funny to think that Sarah and I once spent a night out with friends wondering if Lucy and Rudy were getting along back at her St. Louis apartment. If you had ever seen them together these past twelve and a half years, it would have seemed impossible that they could have ever not gotten along famously. They even used to make out! We introduced them, went to a Cardinals game, and came back to find them acting as if they had known each other forever. That Rudy, who healed my fractured heart when I got him at Christmas 2006, loved her made it easier for me to love her. It was only fitting that he was present and intent while sitting right with Sarah and I as Lucy passed. He looked at me and whined, as if to join us in saying, “Oh no…our poor Lucy Bug is gone…things will never be the same.”

“She just wants to be loved,” Sarah would often say playfully. So, love her we all did. Lucy, I’d like to think, felt very loved. Sarah rescued her in April 2008, and a month later, she had a whole family including a Ru to play with most every day for the rest of her life. Her sweet and watchful role in Jordan’s early years added a deeper layer of love from me to her. Lucy looked out for Jordan like she looked out for Sarah, especially when J was just a baby. Who knows? Maybe Lucy Bug set the tone for Rudy to eventually come around to the kids making our family of four a family of six, as well. She just had a way of making things better.

I had wondered how the kids felt about Lucy. Quinn has largely seemed indifferent to the dogs; Jordan, being the daddy’s girls she is, gravitated toward my little Ru, her connection with him mirroring mine. I learned definitively in her final minutes that both kids had indeed connected strongly with Lucy. Quinn stayed in the room with us to offer support as she passed. Jordan spent those last moments in her room, writing Lucy this note:

“I am going to miss Lucy. She will always be my friend. Every time I think about her she will always comfort me when I am sad and on her birthday I will sing to her and say happy birthday and we will always remember each other. She will always look down on me because she is my favorite dog who is named Lucy. I love you Lucy. You will always be my dog. You were always funny. You were always so cute. You were always my dog. She will always look after me even when I am asleep. She will always love mommy, daddy, and Quinn.”

She leaves a large presence missing in our lives. There is a hole in my heart right now and, though I know it will eventually be filled, her absence will be felt for a long time. Again…12 years, 4 months, and 3 days…that’s a third of my life – and the years that I quite frankly treasure most so far – that Lucy M. Bug was a constant presence. I could take a book halfway across the country from her and one of her little blacks hairs would show up in between random pages. She has just always been there, and I believe she always will be. The sadness will fade and all the many memories will remain.

Our sweet Lucy Bug…”Lucy in the sky with diamonds”…goodbye, my dear friend.

My Kid Likes What I Like!

If there is one thing I know about pro wrestling above all else, after thirty-three years of watching it and earning my stripes as a top 1% enthusiast, it is that you either get it or you don’t. It’s almost like it just chooses you somehow, and those who get it will always have a unique kinship with the other chosen ones and those who don’t get it will never understand its appeal. The only thing I’ve written and talked more about than health in my lifetime is pro wrestling, but though I’ve convinced thousands why they should take their health more seriously, I’ve never convinced anyone who didn’t get wrestling why they should appreciate it.

Such is why it genuinely lit up my world when my daughter took a big interest in wrestling this summer. She is now eight years old; there have been fleeting but substantial moments of intrigue from her previously, such as asking on two separate occasions to go to wrestling shows in person (I, of course, happily obliged both requests). Last November on the way back from AEW, she told me that she likes wrestling because I like it and it gives her a chance to hang out with me. I told her how much I loved that and her, but also made clear that wrestling was my thing and didn’t need to be her thing for us to hang out; I would happily take interest in stuff she likes. So, wrestling didn’t come up much after that.

Then, back in June, she asked to watch wrestling. So, we did. And then she asked me to leave her sticky notes with match suggestions for when she woke up each morning. I can pick out wrestling matches from the past 35 years like I can movies, so not only did I oblige her request, but I did it with gusto. I had to pick matches that were no longer than 15-minutes in length and generally fast-paced because of her attention span and current fan preferences; like limiting choices for a budding movie buff to the action and comedy genres. I gave her a wide-range, from the Blindfold Match between Jake “The Snake” and Rick Martel to Mysterio-Guerrero in WCW to Angle vs. Edge Hair vs. Hair to modern classic tag matches.

When she ended that routine after about a month – and what a glorious month for the father of a budding wrestling enthusiast! – I thought that perhaps she was done for a bit. However, her next request was of the sort that builds fans for life: she asked to stay up and watch Summerslam, the second (or third) biggest WWE event of the year. A movie fan can become a lifer by watching old movies; I can attest to that. The lifeblood of wrestling fandom, like sports fandom, is watching the biggest events as they happen – LIVE. There’s just something about making memories at the same time that everyone else around the world is making the same memories simultaneously. I had let her stay up to watch maybe the first hour of a WWE pay-per-view before, but never the entire show. Having always wanted my kids to “get” wrestling, I pounced on the opportunity to stoke the flames of her sports entertainment enthusiasm by allowing her to watch Summerslam 2020 in its entirety LIVE.

She was so much fun to watch Summerslam with too. I’m like an encyclopedia about my passions and welcomed the opportunity to offer insight like I did for so many years on my podcast, The Doc Says. She got really into it like never before. We had a great time! I was especially fond of her seeming to strike a balance between enjoying the childhood fascination with the “this is real to me” part of the experience and the awareness that some matches are just more engaging than others, as evidenced by her use of the phrase “that was a good match” on several occasions that I, author of the book that defined greatness across WWE lore, hope forms the foundation of deeper conversations about sports entertainment in the future.

Time will tell if summer 2020 was just a phase she went through or if it will preview an activity we spend years enjoying together. Either way, for both her and I, it was something we needed during a tumultuous time in modern history.

The WrestleMania Era 2.0 Podcast, Complete Season 1

Ladies and gentlemen, I hope you’ve been well as we all continue to navigate the upside-down world in which we live.  This year has been beyond strange.  Accordingly, I have been leaning heavily into the pro wrestling world for an escape.  Out of the chaos (and with other inspiration) came an idea to revisit my book, which gave some needed objective(ish) shape to the greatest wrestler of all-time conversation others falsely insist is too subjective.  In podcast form this time around, presented weekly over the last two months over at WrestlingHeadlines.com, I broadened that discussion. 

Much has changed since I wrote The WrestleMania Era in 2013 (last edition published in 2016).  The wrestling world is decidedly different today than it was then.  New promotions are up for consideration, which could fundamentally change the ranking process by way of additional data.  There has also been 4.5 years of WWE history added, along with wrestlers like AJ Styles throwing their names into the mix.  In August and September, I was joined by guests who helped me break down the evolving history of the business and shape the latest set of rankings. 

Season 1 Podcasts

Introduction, with a Reassessment of Batista’s WWE Career

AJ Styles and Where New Japan and Impact Fit in the WrestleMania Era Rankings (featuring Rich Latta)

Where Does Daniel Bryan Rank Among the All-Time Greats? (featuring Mazza)

Chris Jericho in the Pantheon and AEW’s Place at the WrestleMania Era Roundtable (featuring Sir Sam)

Seth Rollins: The Architect of the Best Overall Resume of the 2010s?

Season 1 Finale Introduction

John Cena: The Greatest of All-Time Part 1 (featuring David Fenichel)

John Cena: The Greatest of All-Time Part 2 (featuring David Fenichel)