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The Familiar (Lebron) And Freaky (DeChambeau) Define 2020

“When a surreal year is revisited, the foremost sports memories will include LeBron James’ heavy responsibilities, on and off the court, and the rise of a science-lab experiment unlike anything golf has seen.”

Jay Mariotti

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It’s the definitive award for a normal sports calendar: Sportsperson of the Year. But this time, for reasons as overt as a six-inch swab shoved into one’s nasal cavity for 15 seconds, the title requires creativity. Survivor of the Year? Pummeler of the Pandemic? Braveheart of the Bubble? Crusher of the Covid? Sultan of Swab?

Whatever the description, it fits LeBron James like his snug Black Mamba jersey. Others are carving initials into this surreal moment, too, including mad scientist Bryson DeChambeau, the transformative carbs-and-weights android who gained 40 pounds, imposed his will and savage driver on Winged Foot and won golf’s U.S. Open. But there’s something about his Hans-and-Franz act that feels freakish, at least until he proves otherwise at Augusta National in November, bizarre as that sounds. And if you’re looking to the NFL for 2020 memories — see Russell Wilson — first ask this after a Sunday when injuries were rampant: Thanks to a coronavirus-shortened preseason, will anyone stay healthy?

As for LeBron, we know who he is and where he’s likely headed in the coming weeks. Even in wild and unrecognizable times, it’s still very much his sports world, like him or loathe him. He doesn’t have too much on his massive, mountain-range shoulders right now — parenting his namesake son through a weed-smoking drama from 2,500 miles away, fighting racial inequality and police brutality from a campus he can’t leave, chastising the media for dissing him in MVP voting and, oh, positioning the Los Angeles Lakers for renewed glory. We’ve entered the championship phase of our medical marathon and global mind-bleep — basketball, hockey, golf, tennis — and, clearly, James is among a sacred few separating themselves and leaving indelible sports footprints in the apocalyptic sand.

But for him, this is about more than outlasting the competition inside the NBA Bubble, winning a trophy and throwing a virtual parade, assuming that is possible amid the wildfire threats and Covid cases of southern California. Up 2-0 over scrappy Denver in the Western Conference finals, after Anthony Davis’ buzzer-beating three-pointer, James is nearing his ninth NBA Finals in 10 seasons. Bigger than all of that, he is accomplishing precisely what 2020 needed from an iconic athlete.

He is the consummate badass warrior, promoting Black Lives Matter, pushing Americans to vote (against President Trump) AND subduing all postseason comers while maintaining his mental equilibrium in restrictive confinement. He is pushing 36 and finishing his 17th year in the league, yet James is the one still standing after Giannis Antetokounmpo faded, Kawhi Leonard choked, Paul George battled demons and James Harden tripped on his beard again. LeBron never will be Michael Jordan, as “The Last Dance’’ docu-series reaffirmed, but I doubt Jordan would have lasted in the Bubble even with daily opportunities to golf and gamble. Nor would Jordan, at the time, have made any impact as an activist. To refer to James as multi-relevant this year is grossly understating his impact. A day doesn’t pass without him making a headline, and, over the weekend, he made at least three.

He ripped the judicial system — and rightfully so — for allowing actress Lori Loughlin and her husband to serve sentences in low-security prisons (yoga and pilates for Aunt Becky!) despite paying $500,000 in bribes in the college admissions scandal. Noting that a judge gave Loughlin a slammer of her choice, James responded on Instagram with five smiling/crying emojis: “Of her what!!??? I’m laughing cause sometimes you have to just to stop from crying! Don’t make no damn sense to me. We just want the same treatment if committed of same crime that’s all. Is that asking for to much??? Let me guess, it is huh. Yeah I know!! We’ll just keep pushing forward and not expecting the handouts! STRONG, BLACK & POWERFUL!’’ White privilege at work, wouldn’t you say?

Then he made news as a father. James didn’t want his three kids joining him and his wife in the Bubble this month because, in his words, “My kids are adventurous and they love to do so much stuff. There’s nothing to do here.’’ That left 15-year-old Bronny, the high-school hoops sensation, to be adventurous in California: He posted a video of himself smoking a blunt, a clip that went viral before it was removed from his Instagram account. While hardly a capital crime, this is a distressing episode for LeBron, who hasn’t seen his children since Father’s Day and admitted to “numerous nights and days thinking about leaving’’ the Bubble. Bronny’s full name, as you know, is LeBron James Jr. He has 5.6 million followers on Instagram, 4.3 million on TikTok. His dad has talked openly about playing at least one NBA season with him. Think there isn’t concern about the fishbowl that awaits him and how he’s handling it? This is a father-son talk best done in person, not on a Zoom call, but in the middle of the playoffs, what is a dad to do? Nor should he blame the evils of social media; after all, LeBron also is the king of networking.

Nor can he do anything but look in the mirror and recall his teenaged self. In his book, “Shooting Stars,’’ LeBron admitted to smoking marijuana as a high-school junior. With co-author Buzz Bissinger, James wrote, “We had become big-headed jerks, me in particular, and we are to blame for that, but so are adults who treated us that way and then sat back and smugly watched the self-destruction.’’ He learned back then about the scarcity of trust, and that’s what he seemed to convey when he tweeted, as his son was being crucified on social media: “Exactly why I have my close circle cause as soon as you try to expand to a square the people who you thought was in your corner as the exact opposite. #MyThoughts.’’ Please keep in mind that James, in almost two decades in the high-profile public eye, has avoided scandal. Hey, kids try weed. At least half the players in the NBA smoke weed. He’ll deal with it.

It was his rant about the MVP vote, though, that suggests James is so amped to prove a point that he can’t possibly lose what would be his fourth championship. Not only did Antetokounmpo win the award for the second consecutive year, he won in a landslide — an outcome that looks dubious after his latest playoff bust as James appears title-bound. After winning MVP honors four times between 2009 and 2013, LeBron hasn’t won since. He also has lost six times in his nine NBA Finals appearances, always an eyesore, especially when compared to Jordan’s 6-0 mark. Now, Giannis is the beloved freak after Leonard became the darling of June. When asked about the vote, James let loose with a torrent of P-words.

“Pissed me off. That’s my true answer,” he said. “It pissed me off, because out of 101 votes, I got 16 first-place votes. That’s what pissed me off more than anything. You know, not saying that the winner wasn’t deserving of the MVP. But that pissed me off. And I’ve finished second a lot in my career, either from a championship (or) now four times as an MVP.

“I never came into this league to be MVP or to be a champion. I’ve always just wanted to get better and better every single day, and those things will take care of itself. But some things is just out of my hand and some things you can’t control. But it pissed me off.”

Not finished, he targeted the voters: 100 media members worldwide and one fan representative. It’s a strange system for such an important honor. “I don’t know how much we are really watching the game,” James said of the panel. “I’m not going to sit up here and talk about what the criteria should be or what it is. It’s changed over the years since I’ve gotten into the league. Sometimes it’s the best player on the best team. Sometimes it’s the guy with the best season statistically. I mean, you don’t know. I do know Giannis had a hell of a season.’’

But Antetokounmpo didn’t have a hell of a postseason. Nor did the Milwaukee Bucks, who never found their stride in the Bubble and wilted after boycotting a game to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake. The Lakers also were among teams that subsequently boycotted games, but thanks to James’ leadership and considerable activism experience, they maintained clear focus. It never has made sense that MVP awards, which are supposed to pinpoint the best players in their leagues in a given year, are based entirely on regular seasons. James is in the process of making a mockery of the method.

“He locks in. I mean, he goes into a different mode,’’ said Davis, who is the second-best player remaining in the Bubble, with apologies to Jimmy Butler. “He’s already in that mode regardless, because we’re trying to win a championship. I know he’d rather win a ring than an MVP award, but it definitely sparks him like he’s got a chip on his shoulder, like he’s got something to prove. He’s the best player in the league. I mean, every headline is about LeBron James, and everybody talks about what he’s done. But you look at this year, what he’s able to accomplish in the regular season and playoffs — for me, it’s clear-cut he’s the MVP.’’

Some championships this year should be affixed with an asterisk — such as in Major League Baseball, which never should have attempted its Covid-wrecked farce of a shotgun season, and college football, which persists in attempting a disjointed campaign as the virus batters campuses and at least one big-time coach (Florida State’s Mike Norvell). But anyone who tries to downgrade LeBron’s would-be title is an Ass-terisk. The same applies to Naomi Osaka, who took over women’s tennis at the U.S. Open while wearing the names of shooting victims on her masks. And the team that survives the NHL Igloo up north, maybe the surprising Dallas Stars.

DeChambeau? Until a scandal proves otherwise, The Hulk is taking over golf with a counterintuitive mixture of science, protein shakes, painstaking hard work and just enough nuances, such as a short game and, yes, even a few fairway landings between constant saves from the rough. He vowed last year to change his body and swing — but who knew he’d change the sport? Asked Friday if his ethos was big enough to overcome the Winged Foot carnage, he invoked Tiger Woods, who missed the cut for the eighth time in his last 15 majors in a crash that suggested Augusta 2019 will be his famous final scene. “That’s a question for the gods. That’s a question for God,’’ DeChambeau said. “I mean, Tiger has been able to do something like that many times before, so I think there is something. But human scientific research does not say that there’s anything about that.’’

This is a man who vows to live to 130. Is he human? For his next trick, he’ll try a 48-inch driver. “Keep pushing the boundaries,’’ he said.

In a signature 2020 scene, DeChambeau stopped on his way to the trophy ceremony to speak to his family on a big-screen Zoom call.

“I did it!’’ he said.

“You did it! Love you, buddy!’’ his mother said.

“Thanks for sacrificing everything for me,’’ he said.

“We’re going to open up a bottle of champagne,’’ she said.

Golf never has seen anyone like him.

But then, we’ve never seen any year like 2020.

The NFL can’t afford to lose stars such as Nick Bosa and Saquon Barkley to serious injuries in a limping procession that included Christian McCaffrey and Jimmy Garoppolo. The 49ers’ season might have been sabotaged by evil turf at MetLife Stadium, where coach Kyle Shanahan blamed a new surface that was “sticky’’ — knowing his team returns next weekend to play the Giants. Quarterbacks continue to rule the Monday morning Zoom conversations — water coolers are long gone — with the Tom Brady/Cam Newton comparison game still in flux. Brady played better in a victory while Newton, while continuing to impress, was denied on the game’s final play in Seattle, with the Patriots lining 10 men on the line and alerting the Seahawks to a run. Elsewhere, Patrick Mahomes rallied the Chiefs again after nearly meeting his match in the Chargers’ defense and rookie QB Justin Herbert; Aaron Rodgers avenged turmoil to regain his MVP sheen; and Josh Allen, Jared Goff and Ryan Tannehill hurled touchdown passes galore. We saw Wilson dominate the Patriots after declaring himself the league’s best QB, “without a doubt.’’ Bill Belichick agreed, saying he “doesn’t really see anybody better’’ in a dig at Brady, who isn’t in the conversation and might never be again.

And the fans? Little by little, they’re starting to return in increments, still not the sensible approach but unstoppable in a sports world that — as I’ve said and written repeatedly — still treats Covid like the common flu. In Dallas, 21,000 humans shrieked in joy — and spread saliva droplets — as the Cowboys staged an improbable comeback victory. (At least Jerry Jones wore a mask as he hugged people in his suite.) In Kansas City, a Chiefs fan tested positive after attending the season opener, forcing everyone who sat near him to quarantine. In Cleveland, only 6,000 fans were allowed, but that didn’t stop several from engaging in fisticuffs in a town that might not know what the coronavirus is. The league is weird enough this year — Green Bay players trying Lambeau Leaps with no fans to catch them, fake boos piped in over speakers in Philadelphia (natch) — to complicate matters with sick patients in hospitals.

At this stage, though, 2020 belongs to James. Which is astonishing, recalling how he looked “washed’’ last season, to use his media-mocking term. When the NBA season was halted March 11 and didn’t resume until July, he could have dismissed the Bubble as an absurd aberration and checked out. Instead, the King reinvented himself as Prince of the Pandemic. If the Lakers go on to play Butler and the Heat — an intriguing matchup of LeBron’s current and former teams … and Pat Riley’s former and current teams — it won’t be easy. Unlike, say, the dissension-torn Clippers, the Heat have created a closer bond inside the Bubble. In taking a 2-1 lead in the Eastern finals, they’ve rattled the Celtics into a screaming, chair-throwing scene in their locker room and returned to win twice from double-digit deficits.

“Man, we got grit,” Bam Adebayo said. “I’m happy to be on this team with these guys because everybody in here has a different story. We all come from nothing, and that’s what’s beautiful about this team, man. You put guys that come from nothing together, and they have a vision.’’

Said Butler, who finally seems to have found his happy place in NBA life: “We believe in one another. We know what we’re capable of. Yeah, we get down at times, but we never hang our heads, because we know if we play the right way, we give ourselves a chance to win. With this group of guys, man, it’s always smiles out there on the court.”

The Heat will win titles in the future, especially if Antetokounmpo takes his talents to South Beach. But no one can stop LeBron James when he is sensing a chance to finish first again, not second, in a career that often has been more grating than rewarding. Plenty of people in this country aren’t watching sports, glued to news channels weeks before the most important and potentially poisonous presidential election ever, even as athletes bust through the gloom to invent new ways to showcase preeminence.

But if there’s one sports figure who is polarizing enough to draw an audience in October, it’s the Braveheart of the Bubble. The title sticks.

BSM Writers

Being Wrong On-Air Isn’t A Bad Thing

…if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign.

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WRONG BAD

In the press conference after the Warriors won their fourth NBA title in eight years, Steph Curry referenced a very specific gesture from a very specific episode of Get Up that aired in August 2021.

“Clearly remember some experts and talking heads putting up the big zero,” Curry said, then holding up a hollowed fist to one eye, looking through it as if it were a telescope.

“How many championships we would have going forward because of everything we went through.”

Yep, Kendrick Perkins and Domonique Foxworth each predicted the Warriors wouldn’t win a single title over the course of the four-year extension Curry had just signed. The Warriors won the NBA title and guess what? Curry gets to gloat.

The funny part to me was the people who felt Perkins or Foxworth should be mad or embarrassed. Why? Because they were wrong?

That’s part of the game. If you’re a host or analyst who is never wrong in a prediction, it’s more likely that you’re excruciatingly boring than exceedingly smart. Being wrong is not necessarily fun, but it’s not a bad thing in this business.

You shouldn’t try to be wrong, but you shouldn’t be afraid of it, either. And if you are wrong, own it. Hold your L as I’ve heard the kids say. Don’t try to minimize it or explain it or try to point out how many other people are wrong, too. Do what Kendrick Perkins did on Get Up the day after the Warriors won the title.

“When they go on to win it, guess what?” He said, sitting next to Mike Greenberg. “You have to eat that.”

Do not do what Perkins did later that morning on First Take.

Perkins: “I come on here and it’s cool, right? Y’all can pull up Perk receipts and things to that nature. And then you give other people a pass like J-Will.”

Jason Williams: “I don’t get passes on this show.”

Perkins: “You had to, you had a receipt, too, because me and you both picked the Memphis Grizzlies to beat the Golden State Warriors, but I’m OK with that. I’m OK with that. Go ahead Stephen A. I know you’re about to have fun and do your thing. Go ahead.”

Stephen A. Smith: “First of all, I’m going to get serious for a second with the both of you, especially you, Perk, and I want to tell you something right now. Let me throw myself on Front Street, we can sit up there and make fun of me. You know how many damn Finals predictions I got wrong? I don’t give a damn. I mean, I got a whole bunch of them wrong. Ain’t no reason to come on the air and defend yourself. Perk, listen man. You were wrong. And we making fun, and Steph Curry making fun of you. You laugh at that my brother. He got you today. That’s all. He got you today.”

It’s absolutely great advice, and if you feel yourself getting uncomfortable over the fact that you were wrong, stop to realize that’s your pride talking. Your ego. And if people call you out for being wrong, it’s actually a good sign. It means they’re not just listening, but holding on to what you say. You matter. Don’t ruin that by getting defensive and testy.

WORTH EVERY PENNY

I did a double-take when I saw Chris Russo’s list of the greatest QB-TE combinations ever on Wednesday and this was before I ever got to Tom Brady-to-Rob Gronkowski listed at No. 5. It was actually No. 4 that stopped me cold: Starr-Kramer.

My first thought: Jerry Kramer didn’t play tight end.

My second thought: I must be unaware of this really good tight end from the Lombardi-era Packers.

After further review, I don’t think that’s necessarily true, either. Ron Kramer did play for the Lombardi-era Packers, and he was a good player. He caught 14 scoring passes in a three-year stretch where he really mattered, but he failed to catch a single touchdown pass in six of the 10 NFL seasons he played. He was named first-team All-Pro once and finished his career with 229 receptions.

Now this is not the only reason that this is an absolutely terrible list. It is the most egregious, however. Bart Starr and Kramer are not among the 25 top QB-TE combinations in NFL history let alone the top five. And if you’re to believe Russo’s list, eighty percent of the top tandems played in the NFL in the 30-year window from 1958 to 1987 with only one tandem from the past 30 years meriting inclusion when this is the era in which tight end production has steadily climbed.

Then I found out that Russo is making $10,000 per appearance on “First Take.”

My first thought: You don’t have to pay that much to get a 60-something white guy to grossly exaggerate how great stuff used to be.

My second thought: That might be the best $10,000 ESPN has ever spent.

Once a week, Russo comes on and draws a reaction out of a younger demographic by playing a good-natured version of Dana Carvey’s Grumpy Old Man. Russo groans to JJ Redick about the lack of fundamental basketball skills in today’s game or he proclaims the majesty of a tight end-quarterback pairing that was among the top five in its decade, but doesn’t sniff the top five of all-time.

And guess what? It works. Redick rolls his eyes, asks Russo which game he’s watching, and on Wednesday he got me to spend a good 25 minutes looking up statistics for some Packers tight end I’d never heard of. Not satisfied with that, I then moved on to determine Russo’s biggest omission from the list, which I’ve concluded is Philip Rivers and Antonio Gates, who connected for 89 touchdowns over 15 seasons, which is only 73 more touchdowns than Kramer scored in his career. John Elway and Shannon Sharpe should be on there, too.

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BSM Writers

Money Isn’t The Key Reason Why Sellers Sell Sports Radio

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions.

Jeff Caves

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Radio Sales

A radio salesperson’s value being purely tied to money is overrated to me. Our managers all believe that our main motivation for selling radio is to make more money. They see no problem in asking us to sell more in various ways because it increases our paycheck. We are offered more money to sell digital, NTR, to sell another station in the cluster, weekend remotes, new direct business, or via the phone in 8 hours. 

But is that why you sell sports radio?

In 2022, the Top 10 highest paying sales jobs are all in technology. Not a media company among them. You could argue that if it were all about making money, we should quit and work in tech. Famous bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed twenty banks over twenty years. He reportedly said,” that’s where the money is”. Sutton is the classic example of a person who wanted what money could provide and was willing to do whatever it took to get it, BUT he also admitted he liked robbing banks and felt alive. So, Sutton didn’t do it just for the money.

A salesperson’s relationship with money and prestige is also at the center of the play Death of a Salesman. Willy Loman is an aging and failing salesman who decides he is worth more dead than alive and kills himself in an auto accident giving his family the death benefit from his life insurance policy. Loman wasn’t working for the money. He wanted the prestige of what money could buy for himself and his family. 

Recently, I met a woman who spent twelve years selling radio from 1999-2011. I asked her why she left her senior sales job. She said she didn’t like the changes in the industry. Consolidation was at its peak, and most salespeople were asked to do more with less help. She described her radio sales job as one with “golden handcuffs”. The station paid her too much money to quit even though she hated the job. She finally quit. The job wasn’t worth the money to her.

I started selling sports radio because I enjoyed working with clients who loved sports, our station, and wanted to reach fans with our commercials and promotions. I never wanted to sell anything else and specifically enjoyed selling programming centered around reaching fans of Boise State University football. That’s it. Very similar to what Mark Glynn and his KJR staff experience when selling Kraken hockey and Huskies football.  

I never thought selling sports radio was the best way to make money. I just enjoyed the way I could make money. I focused on the process and what I enjoyed about the position—the freedom to come and go and set my schedule for the most part. I concentrated on annual contracts and clients who wanted to run radio commercials over the air to get more traffic and build their brand.

Most of my clients were local direct and listened to the station. Some other sales initiatives had steep learning curves, were one-day events or contracted out shaky support staff. In other words, the money didn’t motivate me enough. How I spent my time was more important. 

So, if you are in management, maybe consider why your sales staff is working at the station. Because to me, they’d be robbing banks if it were all about making lots of money.  

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BSM Writers

Media Noise: BSM Podcast Network Round Table

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Demetri Ravanos welcomes the two newest members of the BSM Podcast Network to the show. Brady Farkas and Stephen Strom join for a roundtable discussion that includes the new media, Sage Steele and Roger Goodell telling Congress that Dave Portnoy isn’t banned from NFL events.

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