Saturday, October 27, 2007


One of the beautiful aspects of sports stems from one of its ugliest. When an athlete is traded to or has signed with a new team, there are usually questions about how (s)he will blend with new players, new coaches and new expectations. For some, however, there are far-reaching questions regarding a checkered past; drug use, criminal proceedings, a controversial attitude, choking in the playoffs. The fact that the elite of the profession make millions and/or have extremely high profiles brings out much more skepticism, anger and doubt. While not every player mentioned has something to prove because of outside issues, the remainder of the 2007 sports schedule will be flooded with questions of redemption.

Tank Johnson: There’s a reason why the Dallas Cowboys took a chance to sign Terry “Tank” Johnson to a two-year deal when their starting nose tackle Jason Ferguson was lost for the season due to torn biceps. When on the field, he’s pretty good. It may not be a coincidence that his former team, the Chicago Bears, have gone from the fifth-best defense in the league to twenty-fifth as teams have been able to rack up 357 yards and close to 24 points per game. Johnson fits the mould for teams that play a 3-4 defense (three down lineman and four linebackers) as the scheme requires its lone interior lineman to take up space, essentially eliminating two blocking offensive linemen. Though getting sacks is a secondary task for nose tackles, Johnson, at 6’3’ and 300 lbs., has managed to get nine sacks in three seasons for the Bears. Yet, the 25-year-old’s chronicled penchant for guns got him in serious heat. Though it was a DUI which turned out to be false that forced the preemptive release for Chicago, Dallas decided to not add a zero-tolerance clause to the contract, which may lead people to believe one of two things. The first option would be to think that Johnson has learned something during his rollercoaster twelve months; witnessing his best friend and bodyguard being murdered, serving a five+ month’s jail sentence and having been suspended for the first eight games of the regular season. The second option is to think that the ‘Boys will turn a blind eye to any potential off-field transgressions, so long as Johnson lets linebackers DeMarcus Ware and Bradie James roam free. The questions will start to find answers as soon as the Cowboys visit the Giants on November 11th. Johnson has been able to practice with his new teammates while finishing his time-out.

Chris Henry: While Johnson may potentially be given a new life in Dallas, the other player suspended for half of the season returns to Cincinnati in hopes of helping the disappointing Bengals fight for a playoff spot. Henry, the third-year wide receiver, rejoined the team – sort of – as a scout team receiver for the Bengals this past week. He has been allowed to practice with the team as he finishes his suspension with the possibility of returning for the Bengals-Baltimore Ravens tilt, also November 11th. While the physical side of the game can still be worked out, his maturity seems to be a work in progress. Henry was arrested four times between December 2005 and June 2006, had separate run-ins with law enforcement and previously served a two-game suspension from the league for violating the conduct and substance abuse policy. These incidents are well and beyond the ‘youthful exuberance’ that could be sanely allowed, but this is one of those cases where talent and character are mutually exclusive. The former West Virginia receiver helps Carson Palmer spread the ball as the third wideout along with Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh. With Cincinnati standing at 2-4 in the AFC North and a favorable schedule ahead, Henry will also prove to be an important piece to the puzzle against teams like Pittsburgh and Baltimore. There are leadership and responsibility issues in the Bengals’ lair, starting with their head coach Marvin Lewis all the way down to Henry, who was one of ten different players on the team arrested over the past two years. The easiest way for Henry to earn the trust and faith of the NFL, the Bengals franchise and its fans is to find the holes that will open as Johnson and Houshmandzadeh get doubled-up.

Stephen Jackson: Eyebrows were raised when Golden State Warriors head coach Don Nelson named the talented-but-troubled swingman a team captain. Well, more than eyebrows are raised these days as anyone with a blog – save mine – or vocal chords ripped the team for anointing Jackson as a designated team leader. Since none of us are in the practice facility or chatting with anyone on the team personally, it’s even harder for anyone to truly understand why Stephen Jackson, a player whose more known for throwing punches during The Brawl and some gun play than for being one of the handful of truly versatile swingmen in the NBA. Despite the de-emphasis on defense in the league and especially in Oakland, Jackson is the Warriors’ best all-around player because of his defensive ability. Streaky shooter, sure, but he’s a difficult matchup because he can post guards and put forwards on the perimeter. Again, his game is not the question, but long after he finishes a seven-game suspension to start the season, people will start asking how well he can handle adversity if the Warriors don’t build off of their momentum and playoff run from last season. The Bay Area isn’t Indianapolis or San Antonio as there are plenty of places to let off steam without being a distraction, yet it’s an area that hungers for a winner outside of the San Jose Sharks. His captaincy reflects the respect and admiration that the players and coaches have for him, not outsiders. His experiences with different teams, leagues – he spent time in the CBA before making his impact on the NBA – and off-court troubles just might make him the ideal captain for one of the youngest rosters in the Association. Oh, and in case you weren’t aware, Jackson is the only member of the entire franchise other than Coach Nelson with a championship ring. After all, before there was Manu Ginobili in 2003, there was ‘Jack’ in 2001.

Zach Randolph: If you watched or listened to the NBA Draft back in June, you would have thought that the Knicks fans would have only showed up to jeer any move by GM and Coach Isiah Thomas. However, just as the Boston Celtics’ wheelin’-and-dealin’ caused fans to jump out of their seats, the announcement of the draft day trade between the Knicks and Portland Trail Blazers brought out a surprising happiness to the crowd. Randolph averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds per game last season, being the only player in the NBA in the top ten of both categories. Now he plays with a Knicks team that has more to deal with than its late-season fade in April. With the sexual harassment case, the eccentric summer of Stephon Marbury and the league’s highest payroll, this is an entire team that has something to prove. With Randolph, you have a power forward that isn’t hesitant to score as Channing Frye was last year and can move out to the perimeter or take the low-post. There is the lingering question of how he and Eddy Curry can co-exist, as both are most effective down low. While that relationship will form itself over the next few years, what is less certain is how Randolph can thrive under the black cloud inside the Garden. The boos that will come will mostly be reserved for Thomas, but if New York doesn’t move up in the Atlantic Division early, he’ll hear them early and often. Yet, it’s not as if he hasn’t dealt with scrutiny directed at him before as the fishbowl in Portland got mighty testy with each misdeed and ‘misquote’. What was funny about Randolph’s arrival in New York is how many – including myself, at first – thought that he could get in much more trouble in the Five Boroughs than he ever could in Portland. However, New York teams have a history of taking undesirables with talent and most tend to pan out well; notably Latrell Sprewell’s complete makeover in his five-year run as a Knick (not his era with Minnesota). Do NOT be surprised that Z-Bo doesn’t get in trouble. Reasons are aplenty, but this will be due to the intense media scrutiny that follows any New York team, the fact that it’s nearly impossible for newcomers to become bored in the city and that the franchise cannot afford another punch to the gut.

Dirk Nowitzki: As previously mentioned, a player doesn’t always have to be in trouble with the law or the league in order to have something to prove. After losing four straight games in the ’06 Finals to Miami and being shocked by Stephen Jackson’s Warriors in the first round last year, Nowitzki took shots from all over the basketball world for shirking in the closing moments. Some fans and media thought that the forward shouldn’t have been given or even accepted last season’s Most Valuable Player award based on the collapse by the entire Dallas Mavericks team. As crazy – better yet, retarded – as it would be to deny him the award based on the regular season because of a poor playoff outing, Nowitzki has had to deal with “yeah, but” for a few years now. “He’s good, but… Steve Nash made him better.” “He’s a great shooter, but… he doesn’t post up at all.” “He’s a terrific offensive player, but… he can’t defend worth a damn.” “He’s improved his game every year, but… he’s no Larry Bird.” Now, with having been the best player on a team that has constantly stumbled in the playoffs, the first-ever European player to win the MVP award may not be able to validate two unsuccessful postseasons until the Mavs can best the champs (San Antonio), a Finals contender (Phoenix), a conference finals contender (Houston) and Don Nelson. The likely road to the NBA title he should have won will go though at least two of those teams. Is Dallas still among the elite? While it’s unfair to think that only Nowitzki can prove so, he is the only player in the league this season that will have to answer that question to the world. If Devin Harris doesn’t work out as the starting point guard, it’s Dirk’s fault. If Jason Terry tries too much coming off the bench, it’s Dirk’s fault. If Avery Johnson gets out-coached again as he was in the playoffs, it’s Dirk’s fault. So far, Mark Cuban’s elimination in ‘Dancing with the Stars’ hasn’t been pinned on Nowitzki yet, but if the Mavs don’t send a message to the league that the first-round upset was an aberration, expect ABC network execs to call for his head, too.

Say What?!?!: By the way, I'll be in the WHCR Studios tomorrow as a co-host for "What's Going On". Hit up, or on the radio Sunday at 3.

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