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We are all fanatics about something: from our families, to our friends, to our sports teams, to the movies we love, to pretty much anything. That’s the glory of being fanatical, that it can encompass just about anything. Sometimes our fanaticism is pure and unadulterated, while other times it’s all tied up and twisted in the 12-step ethos. “Hi. My name is Sam, and I’m a Back to the Future addict.”

Is it better to be an addict for sugary sweets than an addict for the rush of catfishing? Is it too much to be fanatical over gambling? How about the Olympics? The definition of a fanatic is someone who “is filled with excessive and single-minded zeal.” It presupposes commitment to one thing to the exclusion of all else. To that end maybe it’s never a good thing, the idea that too much of a good thing cannot possibly still be a good thing. And too much of a bad thing is worse.

I am a fanatic about my schedule. I have a singular purpose, to make sure my calendar is evenly balanced, that I get to where I need to be on time, and that I don’t forget my appointed times to see and be seen by others. That’s what a schedule is, after all, a series of times when I have committed to being out and about, like a politician on an election tour. There’s an adrenaline rush I feel when I’ve made it to where I’m supposed to be, on time, a rhetorical fist bump that validates my entire being. Every once in a while I wonder if that’s too much emotion for maintaining a schedule.

I’ve known people who are fanatical about a variety of things, of people, and of situations. I knew a guy once who couldn’t sleep if he didn’t kiss the picture of his dog who died when he was 12 years old. There was a girl I dated a long time ago who had every ABBA album ever produced… on vinyl. Being a fanatic about things like that lead others to ridicule and harass them for it, which is ironic since the things we hold so dear we would fight to keep from being ridiculed. This is what they hold dear.

As a fan of the Eagles, I have followed them since I was a little kid, going to games, praying for the players, and fighting hard to gift them enough good luck to win the Super Bowl. I’ve collected team cards, copied every game I could see on TV, and watched those games so often I wore out the tapes. I’ve ranted and raved at the screen, at the team, at the refs, and at anyone else who would listen about the Eagles. I’ve cried when they lost games, and exhaled when they won, screaming my lungs out as if I had just caught that final ball, or called the final positive play. I say “WE” when talking about what the Eagles did.

But I would never hurt someone else as a result of an Eagles win, or loss. I would never run down the street and hurl a rock through a store window because I was amped up on the glory of an Eagles Super Bowl win. I would never boo Santa Claus just because I could, or punch another fan in the face because he happens to root for the Giants. I would never do any of those things because even though I’m fanatical about the Eagles, even though I spend some sleepless nights anxious over the possible outcome of the next day’s game, I understand that it IS just a game. I get that. Some people don’t.

So I’m ashamed when I read posts from people who say they have no respect for Eagles fans, when they lump us all in together because of what a few lunatics have decided is appropriate behavior for a fanatic. They judge all of us based on the actions of some rogues who refused to draw the line, who couldn’t separate the team from their own individual pride. But most of all, I’m ashamed when I see those posts because it doesn’t have to be that way. Tell that to the gambler who goes for broke just to actually go broke. Explain that to the Kevin Spacey fans who now have to come to grips with the actions of their hero.

Perhaps we can agree to disagree. Maybe you feel somehow superior by lumping all of us Eagles fans into some kind of “basket of deplorables,” but it doesn’t have to be this way. In the immortal words of Rodney King, “can’t we all just get along?” Well, can’t we? What’s stopping us from all treating each other as individuals instead of as caricatures of ourselves based on those of us who choose to be caricatures? I feel like some people wouldn’t know what to do if they couldn’t just generalize when it comes to everyone who isn’t quite like themselves, instead of digging deep and making informed choices based on actual solid information.

My fanaticism doesn’t preclude me from understanding and supporting yours, even if I don’t happen to share it. My fanaticism doesn’t stop me from treating you like a human being. And I hope it doesn’t stop you from doing the same.

Sam

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kramerballmanRemember that Seinfeld episode when Kramer wanted to be a ball man for the U.S. Open? He spent an awful lot of time racing from place to place, stopping on a dime, and then racing back. I’m almost certain he never really made it to the big time, but it was Kramer so it was just funny that he even thought he could. That’s one thing about Kramer: he always gave his all to whatever passed his fancy.

But I’m sitting here watching Wimbledon, and I see these kids sprinting back and forth from one side of the court to the other, chasing balls before the stars who are playing the actual match get ready to serve again. I can do that.

What we need in today’s modern tennis game is a really good ball man. We need someone who can make quick decisions, who won’t get too caught up in the game, who can focus on wherever the balls are, and who can retrieve them and get them back into play as soon as possible. Ball women would be nice too.

Think about it. So many of the tournaments throughout the year are played during school time. Why take these kids out of school so they can do a job an older person can accomplish just as well? There are many adults out of work. This would take care of a few jobs for them. 000039a7_mediumIt’s a win-win. Kids can still come out on the weekends and have part-time work that way, but during the week we can rely on really good ball men.

There would be a training academy where tennis pros and former ball boys and girls lead workshops on the best decisions to make in certain situations. They could be taught on court, and simulations done to test reflexes. There could even be a reality show on it; they’d call it “Get Those Balls, Man,” and there would be a separate “Get Those Balls, Ladies,” for the women.

Ball men would handle the ladies’ tournaments, and ball women would handle the mens’. This way we can hopefully keep focus intact, because everyone knows women are more interested in watching other women play, and men are more wont to pay attention to other men on court. By mixing it up we create better focus and, let’s be honest, more eye candy for the spectators. Being able to watch fit ball men and women get after those balls would only add to spectator interest. Another win-win.

We need a really good ball man because we need an infusion of something new in the ages old game. First there were changes in court surfaces, then better racquet technologies, and now the revolution should continue. Get those kids back in school, eliminate some of that rampant unemployment, and add to spectator interest.

Now, to pitch it to the world tennis tours…

Sam

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TN ORANGE WHITEI went to a college where everything was draped in orange, from the buildings themselves, to the attire in the school store, down to the lanyards and the cushions for fans to sit on at the football games. I’m surprised the beer at the bars near campus wasn’t all orange as well. That’s how much the school (nee, the town) bled orange, and probably still bleeds it to this day. In Knoxville, Tennessee, orange isn’t just a color; it’s a state of mind.

I used to like the color orange before I found myself at the University of Tennessee and everything I saw for miles around sported that color. It was on every license plate, on the flags that hung out car windows, adorning the menus at popular restaurants in the Knoxville area, and even on pet food. I don’t even want to know what they had to put in that pet food to make it the bright orange they advertised.

The Vols (and their rabid fans) pride themselves on supporting the team first, and everything else second. I haven’t lived in Knoxville for 15 years, but when the school made it to a bowl game last year I remember seeing orange when I looked in the stands at the game on TV. I tuned in because of some fascination with a school that I never truly identified with. Maybe it’s because I love green, and green doesn’t always go well with orange. Or maybe it was something else.

Syracuse CollarBut then I moved, and I thought I had left that insane amount of orange in my rearview, both physically and mentally. I got here, though, and because of this place’s proximity to Syracuse I was drawn in yet again. These fans aren’t quite as rabid about their Orangemen (and I suppose Orangewomen too) as Knoxvillians are about the Vols, but they aren’t too far off. And oh, the orange! It’s the same vibrant color I thought I had left behind, the same brilliant orange I thought was gone for good. Boy, was I wrong.

Now, this time of year, with the Syracuse basketball teams heading to the Final Four, the hysteria has hit a fever pitch. Nearly every person I saw today at the mall was wearing some variation of Orange, desperately trying to be a part of a surprise run by two teams none of these same people took to this position on their brackets. Is that hypocritical, to have so much support for a team now when they had no faith just three weeks ago? I don’t know, but don’t tell them you think it is. Those fans’ll take your head off.

I went to a college where everything was draped in orange, where the mascot was a droopy-eared dog who wore a mix between a shawl and a cape. But it was orange, so I guess it counted. I guess anything orange still counts. Which is both sad, and really, really cool. I’m just not quite sure which at the moment.

Sam

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chi-ct-bulls-cavaliers015-ct0023569433-20141031There is indignation in Chicago tonight, and they believe it’s justifiable to feel that way. But they’re wrong. Let me lay the scene for you…

The officials in the Bulls/Cavaliers playoff game had controlled the action, and the score, throughout the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, calling offensive fouls on the Cavs to let the Bulls back into the game, and not calling obvious fouls to try and win the game for the home team. With 3 seconds left on the game clock those same officials neglected to call a foul on Joakim Noah, instead letting the ball get knocked out of bounds by the Bulls. .8 was on the clock, but the actual time the ball went out of bounds was in dispute so they huddled at the screen to figure it out.

Meanwhile, the Cavs, who had no timeouts remaining, got an unofficial one while the referees conferred. By the time they returned they had not only put time back on the clock (to 1.5 seconds), but they had also given the Cavs a chance they wouldn’t have otherwise had to call up a play. Hence the ire of the Bulls fans at the United Center, thinking they were robbed when LeBron James took advantage of the situation and hit a buzzer-beater to tie up the series at 2 games apiece.

But they weren’t robbed. In fact, they shouldn’t have even had the chance to take this game to overtime if it weren’t for those very same officials. Earlier in the quarter LeBron James was called for an offensive foul, but the replay showed that Noah joakim-noah-bill-kennedy-nba-chicago-bulls-sacramento-kings-850x560was still shuffling his feet, a call that led to a Bulls field goal to pull closer. Then J.R. Smith was called for a technical foul when he barely touched a player who had hooked him around the neck. Finally, the no-call on Noah, who was on top of LeBron James as he went in for the contested layup right before the ball was hit out of bounds on that fateful penultimate play.

I was screaming at the TV, and I don’t even get into basketball that much, when Noah climbed all over James, and I found it priceless when the Cavs got the “free” timeout to draw up the final play. It was long overdue that they finally get a break in the final span of time before the end of the game. I’ll be the first person to admit that James did commit an offensive foul when boxed in by two Bulls players, the play that led to the game being tied in the first place, so it was vindication when he received that inbounds pass and hit the shot that was the final dagger in a game that really would have been over long before that if not for those same referees.

Payback is a bitch, isn’t it? Sorry, Chicago fans. But those are the breaks.

Sam

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628x471I went ice skating once, a long time ago, and I did it because of peer pressure. I mean, everyone else was doing it, so I tried it too. When we got to the rink it reminded me of bowling because I had to rent skates, and the pressure was intense when they didn’t know if they would be able to find them in my size. Luckily for me there was one pair that wasn’t going to totally crush my feet, so I put them on and went out on the ice. And promptly fell flat on my butt.

But in my mind I was a world-class skater who never fell, who skated figure eights with the utmost of ease, and who didn’t need the wall just to hold me up. It was at times like those when reality somehow put a dent in my self-image, reminding me that while there might be some thing I’m good at, there are countless others that I should probably just leave alone. Unless I was absolutely committed to getting better at them and becoming something special. Otherwise, it would be best to live vicariously through others who were gifted or who put in the years of training to be as good as they were in a sport I wished I had in my back pocket.

So, in that summer of 1996 I made up my mind to learn as much as I could about international sports, to soak in the feel of victory and the agony of defeat, and to feel as alive as I could, as energetic as those people I watched on the screen who could do so much. And as luck would have it, the Olympics were occurring that very summer in Atlanta. I didn’t miss one second of them. I scrambled to watch every event, to cheer on each athlete, and to revel in the cultural aspects that make the Olympics second to none when it comes to sporting events.

I loved watching the parade of nations on that first night, seeing the gaudy costumes, the big hair, and the stunning surroundings. For two weeks I was mesmerized. I even tried once again to do some of those physical activities —  I hurt my back trying to do a flip like Shannon Miller. And by the time the fortnight was over, my absolute love of Olympic competition had been forged, despite the bomb, despite the poor showing of some of my favorite Olympians, and even with the lack of ice skating (I would have to wait another two years to see that in Nagano). I was hooked. (more…)

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**Summary: I coached varsity tennis for both girls and boys for six seasons, and this series is meant to highlight those moments that I felt were real connections between player and sport, between player and coach, or between opposing players in a competitive setting. The real nature of a competitor is shown through how she/he deals with pressure, adversity, surprises, and expectations.

It was my first year coaching the boys team, and I had some real doubts about our ability to win actual matches. The crew was undisciplined and small. If there were just two players who didn’t show up for a match we would have to forfeit one of the positions. That’s how small the team was. But they were fearless, which was their best quality. Well, that and their sense of humor. Even though we had a horrible year in the win-loss column, we never gave up and we always played hard until the very end.

One of our early matches that season was with a school we matched up well against. In fact, my first and second singles players won their matches rather easily, as did their second and third doubles teams. That meant the match came down to third and fourth singles, and to first doubles. We sweated out the first doubles match, winning in the third set 6-4. The fourth singles match came down to the wire as well, but we lost it in the third set 7-5. And, as often happened in those high school tennis matches, when players finished their matches they gathered around to watch whatever matches were still in progress. That meant everyone on both teams, including both head coaches, was gathered around to watch the drama that was the third singles match. (more…)

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Did you know that there are incredible Olympic sporting events that the general public rarely sees, if ever, on television? With the rise of Olympics coverage on multiple networks, though, we have had unprecedented access to a lot of these events, and some of them are definitely amazing, even if they are hard to understand at first. Here are my top five “behind the scenes” Olympic sports:

5. Fencing

There’s just something about the facemasks, or the foils, or the technique it takes to fence correctly. Until the 2008 games in Beijing I had never watched a second of it, but when I was recording coverage during those Olympic Games it was one of the events I came back to frequently. It didn’t hurt, either, that Americans did so well in it that year.

4. Curling

The rise of curling was a subtle one, in my opinion, although I’m sure it had been very huge in Canada for a very long time. I didn’t get into it until the most recent winter games, and I still don’t quite understand all of its rules, but it intrigues me. It was rare for it to be shown on NBC, but I did catch it on there in those same Games. I like curling because it’s a team effort, and those guys are amazing with the brooms. Maybe some day I’ll even understand the rules.

3. Badminton

This has long been one of my favorite sports, ever since I took a class (an actual class) on it in college. We played various tournaments against the others in the class, and I ended up second overall in three of our five tournaments, losing in the final match each time. I hadn’t even realized that badminton was an Olympic sport, however, until I happened to catch one of the late night broadcasts a few Summer Games back. I found out then that it was usually broadcast on some of the fringe channels, and I caught almost the entire tournament at the Beijing Games. It’s incredible.

2. Trampoline

I am afraid of heights, but I have been more comfortable lately watching people dive from great heights, so I’ve come around on the trampoline, another of those “obscure” sports. What I remember about trampolines is them being in backyards for people to have fun on, but when I saw the Olympic version of the sport I was honestly amazed. These are real athletes who do amazing flips at great heights, and have to stay as close to the center of the pad on the landings, which is tricky indeed. I truly enjoy the trampoline competition, especially when one of the favorites messes up because that opens the door for some true surprises.

1. Snowboard cross

I was one of the first people to scoff at the idea of having snowboarding at the Olympics, but Shaun White and company made a believer out of me with the half-pipe. Then I was shocked that they were going to add more snowboarding events to the winter program, but when I saw snowboard cross in action, it was incredible. It’s the competition of excellent athletes who have to be technically correct as well as be skilled at avoiding others on the same track at the same time. I look forward to seeing more of it at the Winter Games next year in Sochi.

Sam

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