Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Context and the Caitlin Clark Effect

A meaningful Greek proverb states: “A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit”

Young or old, male or female, a lot of trees have been planted on and in basketball gyms across the nation. When I think of the growth and development of basketball—a sport born in America—many a tall tree paved the way and laid the foundation for the incredible success and popularity of the game today. 

The irony of "shade" is not lost on me here. In fact, I'm not trying to throw any against the magnificent Caitlin Clark. I'm a fan...and it's not because she shares but the jersey number and surname of my favorite male athlete: Will Clark. I'm grateful for the exposure and attention she has brought to the game. I'm willing to defend her too. Not on the court but in the other court—the one of sports debate. 

Clark is one of the greatest shooters of all time and has the record to prove it. When you successfully make that many buckets, one need not be super selfless. However, Clark led The Big 10 in assists in 2023-2024. Solid. She is an outstanding passer and has remarkable vision on the court. She has already been named a "generational player." We shall see, but one thing is certain: Caitlin Clark is a household name. She has been the subject of Q&A, discussion and debate. And Yahoo Sports' Cassandra Negley wants to know: Is the league ready for the "Caitlin Clark Effect"?

Negley speaks to this question with much more than color commentary. Whether or not the market is bullish, the WNBA's stock is trending upward. Her numbers speak to that and Clark is to blame. She states,

The WNBA's 28th season is poised to be its biggest yet: bigger crowds, bigger TV audiences, bigger commercial aspirations, bigger stakes. 

There are going to be growing pains that we're already seeing play out. "The growth is happening so fast. It's so accelerated," Lynx head coach and president of basketball operations Cheryl Reeve said.

Merchandise offerings and availability are often a problem. And the overall experience of watching or attending games will be at the forefront for everyone.

The Mystics and Dream each play in venues with limited capacity. Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., seats about 4,200. The Mystics already moved their June game against the Fever to Capital One Arena (more than 20,300), where it could set a WNBA attendance record. Atlanta's Gateway Arena at College Park holds 3,500.

Clark has a personal security detail in Indiana as she did in Iowa, and general manager Lin Dunn said the franchise committed to keeping everyone in their traveling party safe.

Connecticut Sun head coach Stefanie White said the crowds waiting for players at hotel lobbies and near the team bus have grown to the point where hotels are sectioning off areas of the lobby for safety.

"It's not just one or two stopping to get an autograph or a picture," White said. "It's hordes of people."

Developing story... The league is adding chartered flights for all teams this season, but the rollout has been bumpy. The Fever and Lynx flew private for their openers tonight, while other teams had to take buses or fly commercial.

What to watch... The WNBA's most-watched game took place 27 years ago and drew 5.04 million viewers. Some believe Clark's debut tonight in Connecticut could break that record.

All in all, The league's metrics in attendance, viewership and engagement have been on the incline for the last few years, but the "Caitlin Clark Effect" will push it all into overdrive.

I don't want to undermine what is happening. The shade in which today's player sit is wonderful. I simply want to send the poignant reminder of what is true far beyond basketball or the development of any women's program: We must not forget those who planted those trees. They include, in no particular order: Pat Summit, Cheryl Miller, ‌Sheryl Swoopes, Maya Moore, Becky Hammond (first female coach in the NBA), Candace Parker, Diana Taurasi, Cynthia Cooper, Tamika Catchings, Muffet McGraw, Ruth Riley, Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu, Tara VanDerveer, Kim Mulkey and the list goes on. It will continue to do so. Let us put their names on those benches in the shade and share their stories. 

Are we ready for the Caitlin Clark Effect? Think of it as an iceberg. This is just the tip of a meaningful force—buoyed by others who stand proud and stand tall. Tomorrow's players will fill their shoes and it's exciting to think of what the game will look like for them. In the meantime, it's worth mentioning that two-time WNBA MVP A'ja Wilson is getting her own signature Nike shoe. She joins Sabrina Ionescu (Nike) and Breanna Stewart (Puma) as the only active WNBA players with signature deals.

The women in today's game stand on the shoulders of giants. Thanks for planting.

Photo Credits
Yahoo Sports
WNBA Greats

Thursday, May 16, 2024

A Different Type of Reveal Party: Welcome Vakeryies!

We live in confusing times, while many seek to blur the lines of gender, a popular gathering exists because of it: the gender reveal party. I have never attended one, but I have seen the extent that many people—especially celebrities and athletes—take to make their baby's event stand out among the rest. In spite of the fact that more than one of these gatherings have led to drama and trauma, they are not going away. One must consider why. Why are they popular? People love to gather, celebrate and share news. It's human to want answers and exciting to gain revelations. And such is the spirit that characterized a different type of reveal party—an identity party—as shared on Good Morning America. Please meet the Valkyries!
In this instance however, no gender to the reveal was needed. The Valkyries are the 13th team in the WNBA and with them women's basketball is coming to the Bay Area. Formed in partnership with the NBA's Golden State Warriors, fans wanted to know what would be the name of this team. Turns out, the SF Chronicle ran a poll and this title took 25% of the vote. It's fitting. Why? Valkyries are in fact female warriors. 

Those who love mythology, might already know that a Valkyrie is "the angelic figures who guides slain heroes to the afterlife in Valhalla – paradise in Norse legends – which were first written about in the Poetic Edda and Prose Edda manuscripts in the Middle Ages. In those myths, valkyries work as a collective for the one-eyed god Odin, and are ready to fight as warriors in the apocalypse known as Ragnarok."
I appreciate the context offered by team president Jess Smith. She said, “It’s a beautiful nod to the Golden State Warriors, but also is uniquely our own. What’s so incredibly powerful about it is first and foremost is what a valkyrie is. A valkyrie doesn’t act alone, it’s a group moving things forward. As we think through what we’re building here at Golden State, it’s on the court and off the court. To make the impossible, possible like the Bay Area does.”

Others wondered if they would share the franchise blue and gold of the Dubs. Instead the Vakeryies opted for "Valkyrie violet" and black. I couldn't help but wonder if any of the inspiration came from another woman dominating media locally and beyond. Taylor Swift's megahit "Lavendar Haze" is a reference to a term a 1950s-dated common phrase for the state of being in love, inspired by the series Mad Men. Fitting. Why? How? Right now, seems that the media is in love with women's hoops. 
Both "warriors" will play at Chase Center in San Francisco. The Valkyries will practice in Oakland, where the Warriors practiced until 2019. The spirit of the Bay is alive.

I love that the reveal was done on the first day of the 2024 WNBA season! Yes, it's smart marketing AND it's one more example that women's sport is finding its way into the spotlight it deserves. 

A key component of Sports and Spirituality is requiring my seniors to build from what they learned their junior year Religious Studies' course: Foundations of Ethics: Morality and Justice. Through a presentation entitled Sports in the News, they raise ethical questions, complete research and take a stand on an issue that intersects sports and society. We came to the realization that the future will most likely examine ever further the role, impact and growth of women in sport. Topics might include:
  • Rise of Women’s Sports
  • The Caitlin Clark Effect?
  • N.I.L and Women’s Sports/Athletics
  • Transgender Athletes and Women’s Sports
  • Female Coaches: Will the NBA be the first to appoint a woman as their head coach? 
  • Prediction: Dawn Staley, Sixers.
  • Will we see women on the playing field in
the NFL, MLB, NBA in the future (we have
already seen this in the PGA)?
While we did not have an identity reveal party in class for the Valkyries, I do think we celebrated the success of women's sports throughout the year. Rather than working from a defensive stance or place of apology, we found ourselves standing tall. I think their public announcement has it right. 

Valkyries are a defiant symbol of the power of women. Fighting for community and connection, Valkyries represent the Bay Area spirit of unmatched progress and innovation. A combination of strength and grace, the Golden State Valkyries are writing the next chapter in the epic tale of the WNBA, a league that has transcended limitations and norms over the last 27 years. Larger than life and here to play ball, the Valkyries will reshape our world, and this league, as we know it.

Cue up Taylor....

Saturday, May 11, 2024

Lessons Learned from the Feet of French Phenom Victor Wembanyama

How a person comes to learn about a professional athlete isn't always through sport. Perhaps they are the son or daughter of a sports legend. Maybe they star in a music video or movie. Occasionally their name is included in the lyrics of a song. Sometimes it's in a brush with fame or winning a prestigious award and title. Such is the case for Victor Wembanyama. No matter the path toward which you have seen, heard or read about the 7'4" Center/Power Forward from France, it's not just his fame that can teach us a lesson in Sports and Spirituality, I think his feet can, too.

Wemby has an 8 foot wingspan

Taken as the first pick in the 2023 NBA draft, Wembanyama—known as Wemby—participated in the Las Vegas summer league prior to the regular NBA season. Pop music fans may have learned about him through an unfortunate encounter outside a restaurant on the Strip.

Wembanyama made headlines when Britney Spears, “decided to approach him and congratulate him on his success” outside a restaurant. Allegedly, Spears tapped him on the shoulder. Wemby and his security team claim otherwise. According to the 41 year old pop icon, a member of his security team “back handed me in the face,” knocking her glasses off. 

No doubt Spears and Wemby get swarmed by fans on a regular basis. Rather than standing in a place of solidarity, she operated from a space of unbridled enthusiasm. To be honest, I can relate. As adults, yes, you would think we can keep ourselves in check but sports fans (and I don't know that Spears is) push personal limits on the regular. It can't be easy.

Where we stand and how we stand are important. Wemby kept walking. His security team did not. They reacted. The outcome could have been different. No harm, no foul? yes and no right?

In the past week, Victor Wembanyama was named Rookie of the Year for the 2023-2024 season, receiving all 99 first-place votes to become the sixth unanimous ROY, joining Ralph Sampson (1983-84), David Robinson (1989-90), Blake Griffin (2010-11), Damian Lillard (2012-13) and Karl-Anthony Towns (2015-16).

A  unanimous choice, Yahoo Sports writes that he "lived up to the outrageous hype, averaging 21.4 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.9 assists, 1.2 steals and a league-best 3.6 blocks in just 29.7 minutes per game for the Spurs."

Barker adds, "Watching Wemby is mesmerizing... No other player can do what he does on the court. His numbers, while elite, don't do justice to how utterly spectacular he was at times, flashing unlimited potential while routinely making plays that made you say to yourself, "How?" He is a generational talent worth paying attention to and learning from.

In a one-on-one interview for Good Morning America, Robin Roberts met with Wemby in Paris. Her conversation from June 2023, served as another introduction of the French phenom. Roberts says, "Your pre-game warm-ups are crucial to avoid injury. Your athletic trainers—there is something I read about the way they get you prepped. You take off your shoes and socks and you crawl?"

He replies "Having your feet actually connected to the ground is really important as a basketball player because it gets the the feet stronger. If your feet are strong you can then get better on every other aspect of your body." 

Our feet help us to stand. Where and how we stand is essential. The development of firm footing is not to be taken for granted. Removing our shoes put us in direct contact with the ground. Our toes, our feet can tell us about the surface. It is smooth and steady? Or is it uneven or uncomfortable?  Crawling is the first step toward walking on two feet. It's not always that comfortable. Why? We have to shift our balance. We must let go of what we already know and remind ourselves of fundamental and foundational exercises.

I find Wemby's pre-game warm-up to be a spiritual practice. How? Why?  Spirituality is about understanding and awareness.We don't do that in the abstract alone. While prayer or reflection, meditation or silence and well known spiritual practices, our bodies can engage as well. I believe holistic participation can yield a deepened appreciation. 

To consider how we are connected to the ground is a metaphor for the spiritual life. By paying attention to my feet and their grounding, I am invited in a new way to consider what else in my life brings stability and meaning. For so many Religion is a rooting; my Catholic faith gives me a place to stand. But it also allows me to give space to others and to understanding their beliefs. I am better for knowing the roots of my own beliefs and how or why others see differently. This can lead to solidarity which can be one thing to know and another to live out.

In but a year's time Victor 
Wembanyama has afforded sports fans and spiritual ones, much to consider. Merci beaucoup and Congratulations on your award

Photo Credits
Spiritual Roots
Wing Span

Saturday, May 4, 2024

Awards Season: Getting it Right

It's awards season. It's that time of year when schools, sports and society recognize the great achievements, effort, abilities and advancements made by people in the past year plus. In light of this timely tradition, I would like to offer a thought on why it's important to get awards "right." And, why we might get them wrong. 

On Friday, May 3, 2024 President Biden gave the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to 19 people. Check out the impressive list here. As noted by the WhiteHouse.gov  this prestigious award is "presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavors."

All of my social media channels were flooded with posts, pictures, and praise Rev. Greg Boyle, SJ—"a Jesuit Catholic president who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang-intervention and rehabilitation program based in California,"

Beyond my colleagues and friends who work in Jesuit education, this award was celebrated by those who love his writing, Catholics, Angelinos, advocates for social justice and many more. Read about his ministry, his efforts and approach and it's impossible to question another American more deserving.

In honoring Greg Boyle, I was reminded that getting awards "right" buoys our spirits; it's strengthens our society. It is good to collectively celebrate and honor a person. It puts their life's  story into our conversation and calls us to consider what they have done, what sacrifices they make, what their talents have yielded, etc. How or why the United States better because of this person? And who they recognize and celebrate?!

I appreciate that this award is extended to Americans, even after death. I was equally moved in seeing names like Medgar Evers and Jim Thorpe as 2024 honorees. What a class.

The risk, however, of extending an award is that from time to time we get it wrong. There's no other way to say it: we honor the wrong person. In some instances, there might be two candidates who are equally qualified. To award one means to leave out the other. Quite often questions of merit and desert are not easy to answer.Who decides? How do we decide? It's not easy to get it right.

To this day, there is one experience that still haunts me. I had been coaching for a good 10 years and we coaches opted NOT to honor a certain athlete with the program's highest honor. She was our best athlete and she was a great teammate. She did not however fit the mold of how athletes in the past demonstrated leadership in the capacity in which we were familiar or comfortable.

I wish we had spent more time discerning different and creative ways that our athletes demonstrate what the program’s highest honor aims to recognize. While criteria for the award helps, I also think its take a generous mind and an open one when making a decision like this one. We struggled with our choice. Please know, we made a good faith effort. We thought we were doing the right thing, but I'm not sure any of us felt totally comfortable with our choice. When it came time to extend the award, there was a collective gasp from the audience. Most people were shocked. The sentiment in that room was very different than it should or could have been. I will say, both the honoree and the athlete who did not win embraced and supported one another. Lessons learned.

The swimmer won seven Olympic gold medals and 21 world championship gold medals,
more than any other woman in the sport

I love honoring my athletes. I think awards are not to be dismissed. I want to acknowledge however, coaches, teachers, administrators and leaders don’t always get it right. It’s worth discussing how we get to bullseye. And for what it's worth, I brought this up with another coach in the program just last week. I told her how I felt and she said "no, we made the right decision."  Ten years after the fact and here we are: we agree to disagree.

Whether we get it right or wrong, awards require us to hit pause—to look back, reflect and recognize. Who has made a difference? And how Why are we better because of them? And in the choosing, we might cheer or jeer. As Americans we will not all agree on who deserves the Presidential Medal of Freedom—there are a few names on this year's list that I see as moves for pure political gain. Regardless, the class stands as a collective cannon whereby we can assess what American life and culture means from the lives of its very own.

Whether your choosing the 2024 valedictorian, the NBA Clutch player or Defensive Player of the year, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient or Presidential Medal of Free honoree, let us do what we can to get awards "right" and celebrate when we do.

Of all the awards to win, I have to admit being award "Clutch Player of the Year"....might be my preference.

Photo Credits

Sunday, April 28, 2024

What is the Breakfast of Champions: Answers from Unexpected People and Places

Perhaps you will remember a significant turning point in the movie "Rocky." Mickey arrives late night to Rocky's apartment in a drunken plea. Rocky listens with a deaf ear as he throws darts at his bathroom door. The two men verbally spar. Rocky's had it. He enters the bathroom, closes the door—shutting Mickey out. When Mick leaves, Rocky unleashes the rawest of emotions only run to down the street and embrace Mickey a few minutes later. We can't hear what they discuss, but it's clear—Rocky relents. He must have said, "You're hired." The next morning. Rocky wakes up at 4:00 a.m., hits the alarm and immediately gets out of bed. Rock goes to the refrigerator and cracks open, not one, not three but six eggs and drinks them for breakfast. For fun, I ask my students: on a scale of one to ten, How gross is that breakfast? (I will post my viewer's guide soon). And, Is it the breakfast of champions?

While Wheaties cereal might have coined term, the BofC, I love the question. If food is fuel, What is the Breakfast of Champions? And whether or not Rocky continued to drink eggs on training days, What is your breakfast of champions? For those of you who travel to South Bend, IN I have a suggestion. Even if you don't go there, there's a life lesson in here, too.

To me, a championship breakfast it devoid of sugar. Therefore, most cereals, muffins and pastries are off limits. For others, a good breakfast disinvites a heart attack. So many hotels and restaurants offer bacon and sausage, home fries and hash browns, biscuits and gravy. Cholesterol city. No thanks. At St. Francis High School, the principal made a point of having hot breakfast for teachers on inservice days. Did that make us feel like champions? Let me give credit where credit is due. Some of them were pretty darn good. Thank you, Katie! I think your care and intention might be one of the essential ingredients for this type of meal. Read on...

If you're like me, you enjoy staying at a hotel that offers free breakfast. It's nice to wake up and not have to go very far to eat and get the day going. In some hotels, you will find processed and packaged offerings, fruit that is no fun and cheap. At others you might have a breakfast bar, omelette stations, and more. To be honest, I'll take what is given. Free is free, right?

For the past two years, I have stayed at the Fairfield Inn and Suites in South Bend for the Alumni Association Leadership Conference. This hotel has an ideal location. One can easily walk to campus and its proximity helps me get to my meetings on time. 

Running slow and lagging behind due to that three hour time change, I remember feeling grateful that I could just grab and go. I picked up a bagel and put it in the toaster. It must have been obvious that I was in a rush. An employee came up to me and said "You know the longer you stare at that bagel, the longer it takes to come out of the toaster." It was so unexpected and so funny, I didn't even have a come back. His made me laugh, smile and relax—even if just for a few minutes! When that bagel popped from the toaster, I enjoyed it that much more. 

Returning to that hotel this year, I saw that same employee. He greets all the patrons. He asks them about their morning. He is always organizing the offerings, replenishing supplies, emptying garbage and keeping things clean. His name is Martin. 

Though I opted to go no bagel, I told him, "last year, you shared a brilliant comment. I haven't forgotten." I repeated  what he said." He smiled and said "well, it's true right?" He added, "this morning we have breakfast tacos. I have put out all the ingredients right here." He approached another guest and said "add a little chorizo to that. It gives a lot of flavor. Fresh salsa is over there." Martin emerged a few moments later with a sign that had said "breakfast taco bar" I told him "I would not have thought to make a breakfast taco, but you and that drawing are convincing." It was the Breakfast of Champions. 

I might have missed the opportunity for this delicious meal, had we not had that encounter.  Another board member came over to me and said "I'm going to head to the meeting. The breakfast here isn't very good. Theirs is better." I replied "not today. Check this out." I pointed to my breakfast tacos. I said "they have fresh sliced strawberries too." She said "that looks great. And it will save me time."

I have no idea what it must be like to work in a hotel, let alone oversee free breakfast for over 200 people. However, I do know that Martin and others work in the hospitality industry and that is exactly what I encountered during my stay. I also know that hard work, taking pride in a job well done, being creative, and having fun make something go for ordinary to extraordinary. That breakfast surpassed my expectations because someone was willing to go the distance. I think it was the breakfast of champions because it was really good food, made with cariƱo. 

Though Fairfield Inn and Suites doesn't offer raw eggs for breakfast, perhaps they should ask their patrons: On a scale of 1-10, how was breakfast? I know my answer: Breakfast of champions. Thanks, Martin! 

Photo Credit
Fairfield Inn and Suites