Thursday, December 20, 2012

2012, the Sports Year in Review

As they say, when one door closes another door opens. It's always sad when one of those doors closes, but it's always exciting when you get a glimpse of what's behind the new door. It's true in life as it is sports, especially when the fine line between sports and life is often blurred, as it is and always has been for me.

A Door Closing

Spoiled by success unprecedented in National Hockey League history throughout my lifetime (they haven't missed the playoffs since I was 3 years old), it pains me to admit this. But I think a door has closed for the Detroit Red Wings, and us residents of Hockeytown are staring down a new era in which - gasp - the Wings are not competing for Stanley Cups year in and year out.

It's been a gradual downturn for the Motor City's Winged-Wheelers. From Stanley Cup runners-up in '09 to back-to-back second round losses at the hands of the San Jose Sharks to last year's embarrassing five game loss to the Nashville Predators - who seem to have finally caught up to the team they modeled their franchise off of - the Wings have been hanging onto threads under the guise that they can still compete with the NHL's top guns. But the departure of Nick Lidstrom and the failure to sign either of the big name free agents in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter stood as a bitter reminder of what Wings fans have been denying for years: the glory days have passed us by here in Hockeytown.

For some reason, the exact moment I heard about Parise and Suter sticks out in my mind as one of the preeminent memories of 2012. I attribute that to the ongoing denial that was going on in my own head for years. I kept telling myself that one sniper could fix the broken Wings, that one stout defenseman could replace Lidstrom and all would be well again. It was the Fourth of July. My buddy and I were on the freeway headed to the lake house with a case of beer in the trunk. He glanced up from his phone and told me the news: 'Parise and Suter sign with Minnesota'. That's when I knew. An era was over.

Mediocrity or not, I'd much rather be watching a .500 Red Wings team than suffering through the agony that is this winter's lockout. This winter break, I had plans to a) be playing pond hockey in a backyard rink; b) be watching the Red Wings play in the Big House - an interwoven glory combining my two favorite sports teams while simultaneously being allowed to consume alcohol in Michigan Stadium for the first time. . . legally c) be watching my favorite OHL team in the London Knights play the hometown Plymouth Whalers in an outdoor game at Comerica Park. Due to global warming and the NHL lockout, I will be doing none of those things. Talk about a hockey buzzkill.

A Door Opening

Circa 1998 found the younger version of me in the midst of a full-blown love affair. It was the era in which I was falling in love - an outright obsession probably better describes it - with University of Michigan athletics. My extended family, including all of my aunts and uncles and cousins, were gathered at my family's house for some unremembered family gathering and also to watch Michigan basketball in the NCAA tournament. After a heartbreaking 3 point loss to UCLA I threw some sort of temper tantrum and stormed off while those around me watched with dropped jaws - it was an unappealing scene that would be mimicked many a time in college as booze only heightened my rage/sorrow after each sorry Michigan football loss during those regrettable Rich Rod years, usually resulting in broken bottles in my college house basement. It wasn't pretty, but I don't even know what would have happened had I known that day that Michigan basketball would suffer through a time that could aptly be labeled "The Dark Ages of Michigan Basketball" in the subsequent decade following that day.

I remember being excited about winning an NIT championship. I remember when progress meant losing to Michigan State by less than 10. I remember sitting in a Crisler Arena desperately in need of renovations with a half-full student section and an entirely empty upper bowl during the Amaker era of my early college years.

John Beilein has ushered in an era where I don't have to be excited about an NIT tournament appearance or a competitive game with Michigan State. After reinvigorating a fanbase that had detached themselves from the basketball team in the last decade with tournament appearances led by the likes of Zack Novak and Stu Douglass, the real cavalry has arrived in the form of big-name recruits. And Beilein has the Wolverine fan base at the very least as excited about the basketball season as the football team. And for the first time since five freshman wearing baggy shorts captivated the nation's attention, Final Four runs in the coming years appear to be a realistic aspiration for Michigan basketball.

What Could Have Been

There are always those sports moments that you can look back and wonder, had it come out the other way, would it be one of those precious memories that defines 2012 when I look back on it in five or ten years? The foremost memory that got away is obviously the Detroit Tigers coming up short in the World Series. I wrote at length in my "1984" Blog Post what a World Series would mean in terms of my life. It didn't happen, and you always have to wonder if it is, like that 2006 freshman year loss to Ohio State that prevented us from a shot at the National Championship, something I will always look back to and wonder what could have been.

Denard Robinson's electric run against Ohio State also comes to mind. In Michigan lore, there are two defining moments in Michigan football history: Desmond Howard's punt return in The Game ("One man! Goodbye. Helloooo Heisman") and Charles Woodson's eerily similar punt return along the very same sideline in 1997's version of The Game ("Charles Woodson! Down the sideline! He's gonna go! All the way!"). I remember thinking after watching Denard's run that this might be Denard's defining moment, a moment that could potentially be played right alongside Howard and Woodson's punt returns as the defining moments of the past 25 years of Michigan Football. Alas, the thought of what could have been in terms of that run will haunt me for years.


We watch sports because it is hope. Hope that one day, no matter how far off, we will watch our teams hoisting a trophy. Hope that one day, we can experience a life-defining moment, watching with the people we care about - with friends or with your father or with your future son - that we will never forget. There's no lack of hope in the looming sports year of 2013. The Tigers should again be in the hunt for a World Series and will undoubtedly be overwhelming favorites for yet another pennant. The Wolverines Basketball squad looks to repeat as B1G champions and also looks to remind a deprived fan base what it's like to make a deep tournament run again. Dreams seem aplenty for the forthcoming year in sports. And, after all, dreams are what make life tolerable.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

2012, A Year in Review

The season is upon us now, a time for gifts and giving
And as the year draws to a close, I think about my living
- John Denver

When it comes to nostalgia, I'm guilty as sin. On any given day you can find visions from my past dancing around my head: visions of my childhood friends and I building a fort in the woods behind our houses or visions my college friends and I enjoying some 40's of malt liquor after class. But there is a fine line between nostalgia and living in the past; the former is fine and dandy, but the latter can be unhealthy.

Self-admittedly, I have spent a large portion of the past two years living in the past. Whether it be clinging to college drinking habits, trying to revert back to a college lifestyle when I was happy, or taking a ride down memory lane with the proverbial "One That Got Away" one thousand too many times, I was living in the past.

I think about the past two years and one word comes to mind: stuck. Stuck in some sort of rut. There were certain stretches where it seemed I was making absolutely no progress in growing up, in emotional healing, in my life's own progress whatsoever. Part of it was me not ready to heal. Part of it was me not ready to grow up. But a large part of it was me sitting back and waiting for something to happen.

Nick Hornby describes an eerily similar rough patch in his life in the close-to-home novel Fever Pitch:

"That night I was as usual looking to Arsenal to show me that things did not stay bad forever, that it was possible to change patterns, that losing streaks did not last. Arsenal, however, had other ideas: they seemed to want to show me that troughs could indeed be permanent, that some people, like some clubs, just couldn't ever find ways out of the rooms they had locked themselves into. It seemed to me that night and for the next few days that we had both of us made too many wrong choices, and had let things slide for far too long, for anything to ever come right"
I found myself locked in one of those rooms during one particularly bad breakdown this year. I went for about a 10 mile walk in Hines Park, where I spent a great deal of my childhood, hungover and depressed and thinking I had, like Hornby, made too many wrong choices for anything to ever come right. Wrong choices in the way I had handled certain relationships, wrong choices in leaving Chicago, wrong choices in trapping myself in a career I wasn't sure I wanted, wrong choices in the having one too many drinks on occasion, wrong choices in feeling sorry for myself for too long. Wondering what had happened to the happy-go-lucky, carpe-diem me from college. It was hell.

But a strange thing happened in the ensuing weeks. I resolved that I wouldn't sit back and wait for changes any longer. It's true as they say, "you can't expect different results if you keep doing things the same way you have always done things". Determined to stop feeling sorry for myself, I resolved to change the way I did some things. I started to ask for help, I started exercising regularly for the first time in years, I started to eat more healthy, and I started to change some of those drinking habits. And things are looking up.

You don't have to stay in the room you've locked yourself into. I know it doesn't happen overnight, but things can change if you work towards it. For the first time in a long time, I'm feeling ready for the next big step in my life. And for the first time in a couple years now, I'm entering the holiday season feeling better about my life than I did the previous year's holiday season.

Here's to a new year in 2013. I think it will bring good things.

The Best of 2012

Other than that, some pretty cool things happened in the previous year - some things that I don't think I'll soon forget.

  • The Sugar Bowl, New Orleans, LA. The first day of 2012 found me road-tripping down south to bayou country with a carload of people. We crossed the Louisiana border somewhere around 4 a.m. I was driving, hopped up mountain dew and chewing tobacco, while the other passengers dozed off erratically. I don't think I'll ever forget the feeling that came over me upon first seeing the neon Nawlins lights appear in the windshield. Our host for the weekend was sound asleep and we were locked out, so we walked down the willow tree-lined street and ventured inside an old hole-in-the-wall bar. We put a few country songs on the jukebox and sipped on a few beers while talking with the surprisingly wide-awake patrons. 5:00 a.m. on a Monday morning - but from the patrons you wouldn't guess it wasn't happy hour on a Friday. There's nothing like New Orleans. I also met a pretty cool girl on that trip - it was the first time I had felt feelings for anyone else since the previous summer. And that was important. 
  • Public Defender's Office, Ypsilanti, MI. Although I wasn't necessarily fond of this job, it would be an understatement to say I'll never forget some of the individuals I came across. This summer I conducted my first trial, conducted my own interviews at the Washtenaw County Jail, and heard some incredibly entertaining excuses for postive drugs tests (see: spider bites, 'my girlfriend bit me'). Not necessarily my favorite part of 2012, but a memorable one nonetheless.
  • Up North Trips with the old Friends, St. Joseph's, Ontario; Pentwater; Schuss Mountain. Perhaps the most redeeming aspect of 2012 was my reunification with my childhood friends. We had remained friends throughout the years, but we are closer than we have ever been now. After college I really lamented the loss of the college friends. It was an incredibly difficult adjustment to go from seeing them everyday to one day just never seeing them. But I've learned that new periods of your life bring new people, and I'm incredibly greatful for the new group of close friends I have now. Life can surprise you like that - it'll bring you new people and new adventures you never expected. That's a pretty cool phenomenon.