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Book Review – The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O’Neil’s America

     Joe Posnanski is generally regarded as one of the finest sports writers and brightest baseball minds in America.  In 2009, he became a full-time senior writer at Sports Illustrated.   From 1996 to 2009, Posnanski was a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star.  In that time, he was twice named the best sports columnist in the country by The Associated Press Sports Editors.  He still occasionally writes columns for the Star.  Before becoming a columnist in Kansas City, Posnanski worked in various roles for the Cincinnati Post, Augusta Chronicle and Charlotte Observer.  Posnanski is also an extremely active blogger.  He posts daily on his personal Joe Blogs site, and while he focuses mainly on sports, he also touches on various other topics, be it travel, movies or food.

      Baseball was a topic that had always interested Posnanski, and he hoped to make it the subject of his first full-length book.  According to the prologue of The Soul of Baseball, he first aimed at writing an entire book on a single game, one that numerous Negro Leaguers had told him was the greatest game ever played.  However, he abandoned that idea after finding information on the game proved too difficult.  Almost all of the game’s participants were dead, and the Negro League did not keep sufficient records or documentation.  Posnanski then thought about writing a novel about a white talent scout sent to the Negro Leagues in search of the next big thing but as he said, he quickly came to understand that the idea was “all too real” to be fiction.  Posnanski soon realized that the best way to tell the story of the Negro Leagues would be through the eyes of Buck O’Neil.   Buck was a Kansas City legend, and one the few Negro Leaguers still alive.  Buck had been a player and manager for the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues before becoming a coach and scout for the Major League’s Chicago Cubs.  Buck had a strong presence in Kansas City and attended many Royals baseball games, so Posnanski had met Buck on numerous occasions.  Being one of the few Negro Leaguers still alive, Buck became the main ambassador for the league and its museum, which was located in Kansas City.  He made trips all across the country to talk about the league and his experiences.  From New York to Atlanta to rural Kansas, Buck spoke in schools, on radio shows and at banquets.  Posnanski decided to join the eloquent Buck for a year as he made his trips across the country.

      Posnanski is successful in his quest to tell the story of the Negro Leagues.  The Soul of Baseball is not just a simple narrative about Buck’s speaking engagements, it’s a story of Buck’s entire life story, the Negro Leagues, baseball and life itself.  Buck had every reason to be resentful of the past.  He was never given a chance to showcase his talents in the Major Leagues.  Buck and his Negro League teammates traveled across the country in old, rickety buses to go play on inferior fields, littered with rocks and broken glass.  After the games, Buck and his teammates were excluded from the main dining halls of restaurants, they were only allowed to eat in the kitchen.  However, if you listened to the stories Buck told, his time in the Negro Leagues could not have been any better, it was a blessing.  Buck spoke of the beauty of Negro League baseball and how much playing the sport meant to him.  Buck talked about the great talents and personalities of the Negro Leagues, the latter of which was exemplified by the nicknames of some of the league’s biggest stars.  Cool Papa, Turkey and Double Duty were just a few. Posnanski found Buck’s voice to be musical.  He stylized that point by occasionally presenting Buck’s words in a lyrical form.

“Where does bitterness take you?
To a broken heart?
To an early grave?
When I die
I want to die from natural causes
Not from hate
Eating me up from the inside. ”

That quote embodied Buck.  He did not believe in hate.  Buck would often offer hugs to anybody he thought needed one, and for some reason, they always obliged.  As Posnanski said many times, Buck just had that look to him, he brought a smile to the face of anybody he dealt with.

     A writer is nothing without a worthy person, place, event or object to write about.  In the case of The Soul of Baseball, the subject was Buck O’Neil and he was definitely captivating. He was the star of the show.  In The Soul of Baseball, Posnanski deferred to Buck. He used Buck’s quotes to tell the story of the Negro Leagues, and the result was powerful. Buck dropped countless gems of knowledge and advice though out his stories.  Since finishing the book, I’ve questioned the power of hate; is being bitter worth the effort?  Buck was able to withstand the ugliness of racism even though it robbed him the chance to play baseball on a national stage.  Buck died before the book was published, but his story and message lives on. Buck lived an exceptional life and his story of success offers hope to all.

I wrote this book report in April 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.

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Butler Beats VCU, Advances Back To Title Game

Butler’s unprecedented run to the 2010 National Championship Game seemed at the time like a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Now it seems like an annual event.

Butler defeated Virginia Commonwealth 70-62 Saturday night in Houston, earning the Bulldogs a second straight trip to the National Championship Game. Butler will play Connecticut on Monday night with a title on the line.

“We’re not going to settle on just getting back,” said senior guard Zach Hahn. “I remember the sour taste it left in my mouth last year, and I just think this group, we’re here now and we have a chance. That’s all you can ask for.”

Butler’s defense is the main reason they will get another chance to play for a national championship.

VCU took a 15-7 lead seven minutes into the game thanks in part to three three-pointers from guard Bradford Burgess. From that point forward, Burgess only made one more three-pointer as Butler adjusted their defensive approach and slowed down the pace of the game.

The Butler defense held VCU to zero fast break points. The Rams had been averaging nine fast break points a game in the tournament.

“Butler was the aggressor for the majority of the game. We had our runs,” said VCU head coach Shaka Smart.

The Rams set a record for most three-pointers made in an NCAA Tournament (61) but only shot 8-22 from the three-point line against Butler.

Butler’s guards Shelvin Mack, Ronald Nored and Shawn Vanzant did an excellent job locking down VCU’s shooters.

VCU guard Brandon Rozzell, who had made 17 of his 35 three-point attempts in the tournament coming in to the national semifinals, was 0-3 from the three-point line on Saturday.

Senior point guard Joey Rodriguez only made one of his eight field goal attempts.

“Some of our shots didn’t fall. Open shots, shots we’d been making,” said Rodriguez. “I think if you go back and look at the tape, you’ll see some of them were in and outs. Almost felt like it wasn’t supposed to happen or something.”

On the offensive end, Butler rode second half hot streaks from two of their guards.

Hahn made two three-pointers and a layup in a 90 second span, helping the Bulldogs maintain the lead they took into halftime.

“[Zach Hahn] is not the most athletic guy in the world. He’s not the biggest guy in the world. But there’s a reason why he’s playing major minutes in the national semifinals,” said Butler coach Brad Stevens.

With 11:53 remaining in the game and Butler leading 44-43, Mack missed two straight free throw attempts. The misses seemed to motivate Mack, who soon took control of the game. Mack sank a three-pointer at the top of the key on the Bulldogs’ next possession, and kept going. Mack scored 10 consecutive points over a three minute stretch, giving Butler a 54-47 lead.

With three minutes remaining and the shot clock running down, Mack found Vanzant in the corner with a bounce pass.  Vanzant then sank a three-pointer to put the Bulldogs up 61-54.

Mack led the Bulldogs with 24 points and made five of his six three-point attempts.

“[Shelvin Mack] is an incredible basketball player. He has a will and determination that’s unlike other guys,” said senior forward Matt Howard. “He many times carried this basketball team and that’s still playing within our offense. That’s what Shelvin is, he’s a great basketball player. Again, you saw evidence of that tonight.”

VCU’s loss ended a remarkable run through the NCAA Tournament. The 11th seeded Rams knocked off five opponents from power conferences, four by double digits, on their way to the Final Four.

Smart, who’s star has risen to great heights during the Rams’ run, said he thinks VCU can repeat their success in the future.

“Of course it’s not a once in a lifetime run. We’re going to try to do this every year,” said Smart. “It’s not easy, there’s no question about it. If we’re capable of coming together as a group and playing aggressive, confident, loose basketball, and we have the right guys out there, it’s certainly possible.”

Smart and the Rams don’t need to look far to see that history can repeat itself.

Butler lost to Duke 61-59 in last season’s title game. Gordon Hayward, now playing for the Utah Jazz, missed a half court shot at the buzzer that would have given the Bulldogs the championship.

“Last year we didn’t get it done, so that’s on the back of my mind,” said Mack.

On Monday night, Mack and the Bulldogs will have a chance to replace that memory with something greater.

I wrote this story in April 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.

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Rose, Bulls Blooming Into Title Contenders

With four victories in their recent five-game road trip, the Chicago Bulls made a statement loud enough for everybody in the NBA to hear. For the first time since Michael, Scottie and Phil left town in 1998, the Bulls are legitimate championship contenders.

The Bulls showed their mental toughness and resiliency in bouncing back from their 83-80 loss in Atlanta Wednesday night. The Bulls blew a 17-point halftime lead against the Hawks and scored only 30 total points in the second half, and point guard and MVP candidate Derrick Rose took the blame for his team’s collapse.

“The game was definitely on me,” said Rose. “But I guarantee it won’t happen again.”  It didn’t. The Bulls finished off their five-game road trip through the Southeast by defeating the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat.

The Bulls’ 87-86 victory over the Heat on Sunday completed a season sweep of the squad former Knicks and Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy thought would challenge the 1995-1996 Bulls’ NBA-record 72 wins.

The Bulls’ win literally left the Heat in tears.

“This is painful for every single one of us to go through this, there are couple of guys crying in the locker room right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after the game.

While the Heat, losers of four straight, hardly look like the NBA’s best team, the Bulls keep impressing.

The Bulls have moved ahead of the Heat into second place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 43-18. They have proven themselves against the the NBA’s best, holding an 11-6 record against the league’s top teams.

For the Bulls, it all starts with Rose. The Chicago native and Eastern Conference All-Star starter leaves fans and opposing players breathless with his electrifying moves. In a league where a superstar is needed to win championships, the Bulls definitely have one.

Rose leads the team with 24 points and 8 assists per game, and has emerged as a favorite to take home this season’s MVP award. Even teammates of LeBron James, the player considered Rose’s main competition for the award, believe Rose is the NBA’s MVP.

“I think I would give it to Derrick if I were a voter. He’s playing well,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh. “He’s playing like the best point guard in the league and the best player in the league. He’s the most valuable player if you really think about it. You take him out of the lineup there’s no telling what you get.”

While Bosh’s last statement may be true, the Bulls are more than just Rose.

Forward Luol Deng has emerged as an all-around star on his own. Deng is averaging 17 points and 6 rebounds per game, and has become the Bulls’ go-to-player in the clutch. On Sunday, Deng hit three free throws in the game’s final seconds to give the Bulls the lead.

It’s obvious from coach Tom Thibodeau’s praise that Deng’s improved play has been essential to the Bulls’ success.

“When you’re around him every day and you see his leadership and the way he works, you can’t say enough about him,” said Thibodeau. “He’s our glue. He keeps us together. When things are tough, he’s the same. He doesn’t get rattled.”

One of the reasons the Bulls will be a tough team to play in the postseason is the depth of their front court. Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson, Omer Asik and Kurt Thomas all receive regular time in Thibodeau’s rotation.

Because Boozer missed the season’s first 18 games with a broken hand and Noah recently missed 30 games with a broken wrist, the other three big men all received more playing time than they would have normally. This gave the backups a chance to gain experience playing with the starters, and gave youngsters Gibson and Asik a chance to develop their skills.

Asik, a seven-foot-tall rookie from Turkey, improved drastically while filling in for the injured Noah.  Asik had a career-high 13 rebounds against Dwight Howard and the Magic on Friday night.

Having not played a full 82 games, Noah and Boozer should be fresher than their opponents entering the playoffs. As well, now that both are back, Thibodeau can rest the 38-year-old Thomas so he’s ready and able to be a defensive enforcer in the playoffs.

The Bulls still need to improve if they are going to win a championship this season, and the players realize it.

“We’re just trying to play the best we can,” Noah said. “I think we still have a long way to go and we can get a lot better. That’s what is so exciting about this team. Our defense is really improving. We can still improve offensively as well. We can take this pretty far.”

I wrote this story in March 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.

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Why is Bruce safe?

Illinois basketball continued its march towards the NCAA tournament bubble on Saturday, falling to Michigan State 61-57 for the team’s seventh loss in their last 11 games.

After beginning the season ranked No. 16 in the country, the Illini now sit unranked with a record of 17-10 overall, and 7-7 in Big Ten play. Things will not get any easier for the Illini in the near future, as they travel to Columbus on Tuesday to play No. 3 Ohio State.

The Illini experienced a similar downfall last season, losing six of their final eight games as the team failed to make the NCAA tournament.

As Illinois fans continue to grow tired of the lackluster results, coach Bruce Weber’s job appears to be completely safe.

In a state of Illinois Athletics address on Wednesday, Athletic Director Ron Guenther spoke glowingly of Weber.

“I feel very confident that Bruce can get this thing figured out. He’s a wonderful coach and a great human being,” said Guenther.

Guenther’s words should come as no surprise. This is the same A.D. that has stuck with head football coach Ron Zook despite the program’s free fall after reaching the Rose Bowl in 2007.

While Guenther has made it clear that Weber’s job is safe, the Illinois A.D. should be seriously considering whether parting ways with Weber would be best for the Illinois basketball program.

Weber, who came to Champaign before the 2003-2004 season, led the Illini to success early in his tenure. The Illini won eight NCAA tournament games over Weber’s first three years, including a trip to the national title game in 2005.

However, Weber and the Illini have not won a tournament game since 2006.

“There’s no reason why we can’t compete at the highest level here,” said Guenther at his Wednesday news conference.
Guenther is right, so why has Weber failed to keep Illinois among college basketball’s elite teams?

A lot of the program’s struggles stem from Weber’s poor recruiting in his first years as Illini coach. Weber’s early results came coaching players he did not recruit into the program. Bill Self recruited the core of the 2004 and 2005 teams – Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine.

Weber failed to cash in on the  massive media attention the Illini received in 2005 as they started the season 29-0 and made the national title game.

From 2005 until 2007, Illinois high school stars Julian Wright, Sherron Collins, Jon Scheyer, Derrick Rose and Evan Turner all left the state to play their college ball. To make matters worse, Collins and Wright joined Self at Kansas.

Of the five players that made up Weber’s 2005 and 2006 recruiting classes, four ended up transferring from the program before their junior years.

To Weber’s credit, his recruiting has improved. According to Scout.com, the Illini’s 2010 recruiting class featured the state’s top three prospects, including Meyers Leonard, Weber’s first five-star commitment.

However, the state of Illinois’ two five-star recruits of the 2011 recruiting class, Anthony Davis and Wayne Blackshear, both spurred the Illini, committing to Kentucky and Louisville respectively.

Weber has not only faced difficulties in recruiting, he has also had trouble developing the talents of his players.

One of the main reasons the Illini were ranked highly entering the 2011 season was the perceived strength of their senior class, headlined by guard Demetri McCamey, forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale.

However, all three of the Illini senior stars have been removed from the starting lineup at some point this season for poor play or poor leadership.

It also seems Weber has had trouble keeping control over his program. In an interview with Chicago’s ESPN 1000 two weeks ago, Weber said outside forces have negatively affected McCamey.

“It’s disappointing, some of it is Demetri, obviously,” Weber said. “But the outside influences, just kill kids, I’m just telling you. I feel bad. He was playing so well, and all of a sudden, the runners, the agents, the third-party people, they’re all telling him he’s an all-American and this and that.”

The future looks bright for the Illini. They have a young, talented core in Leonard, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Jereme Richmond waiting to take over control of the team once McCamey, Davis and Tisdale exhaust their eligibility.

It’s time for Guenther to seriously ponder whether the future of Illinois basketball would look even brighter with someone other than Bruce Weber as head coach.

I wrote this story in Feb. 2011  for my Sports Jounalism class with Len Shapiro.

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Put on the belt, Packers are champions

As confetti rained down the field at Cowboys Stadium after the Green Bay Packers defeated the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-25 in Super Bowl XLV, Aaron Rodgers stood at the podium with the glistening silver Lombardi Trophy in his left hand, and a bright gold title belt draped over his right shoulder.

This lasting image of Super Bowl XLV, a scene taken straight from the dreams of Packer fans, seemed far from realistic in the waning weeks of the 2010 NFL regular season.

In week 14, Rodgers suffered a concussion as the Packers lost to the Detroit Lions. Rodgers sat out the Packers’ week 15 road game against the team with the NFL’s best record, the New England Patriots. The Packers, led by back-up quarterback Matt Flynn, played one of their best games of the year but lost to the Patriots, 31-27.

From that point forward, every game for the Packers was do or die.

In week 16, with Rodgers back behind center, the Packers pummeled the Giants at Lambeau Field, 45-17.

The Packers entered halftime of their week 17 matchup against the Chicago Bears trailing 3-0. The Packers were 30 minutes away from missing the playoffs. But behind Rodgers and a solid performance from the defense, the Packers came back and won 10-3, clinching the NFC’s 6th seed.

As it goes, the rest is history.

The Packers overcame that halftime deficit in week 17 just like they overcame season-ending injuries to key players like running back Ryan Grant, tight end Jermichael Finley and linebacker Nick Barnett.

The Packers overcame even more adversity and solidified their legacy as resilient champions as they defeated the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

Veteran leaders Charles Woodson and Donald Driver both suffered injuries in the second quarter that knocked them out of the game. Cornerback Sam Shields missed a significant amount of the game with an ankle injury.

“We’ve been a team that’s overcome adversity all year. Our head captain goes down, emotional in the locker room. Our number one receiver goes down, more emotions are going, flying in the locker room. But we find a way to bottle it up and exert it all out here on the field,” said Greg Jennings in a television interview after the game.

The Packers were led by the steady-as-a-rock Rodgers, who completed 24 passes for 304 yards, 3 touchdowns and zero interceptions. Rodgers was named the game’s Most Valuable Player, capping one of the greatest postseason performances in NFL history.

In four playoff games, Rodgers threw for 1,094 yards, 9 touchdowns and only 2 interceptions. He also ran for 2 more touchdowns.

“Aaron’s proved that he’s one of the best, if not the best, quarterback in this game today,” said Driver, a 12-year NFL veteran who won his first Super Bowl championship on Sunday.

The Packers built a 21-3 lead with 2:24 left in second quarter thanks to Rodgers touchdown passes to Jordy Nelson and Jennings and a 37-yard interception return for a touchdown by Nick Collins.

The Steelers closed the gap to 21-17 after an 8-yard Ben Roethlisberger-to-Hines Ward touchdown pass late in the second quarter and an 8-yard Rashard Mendenhall touchdown run with 10:19 left in the third quarter.

Perhaps the key play in Super Bowl XLV happened early in the fourth quarter. The Steelers had the ball at the Green Bay 33 when Clay Matthews forced Mendenhall to fumble, and Desmond Bishop recovered for the Packers.

On the ensuing drive, Rodgers hit Jennings for another touchdown, putting the Packers up 28-17 with 11:57 remaining in the game.

The Steelers responded with a 25-yard touchdown pass from Roethlisberger to Mike Wallace and a successful two point conversion on a Roethlisberger to Antwan Randle-El option pitch to make the score 28-25 with 7:34 remaining.

The Packers ate up 5 and half minutes of clock and got a 23 yard Mason Crosby field goal on their next drive to put them up 31-25 with 2:07 seconds left.

Roethlisberger, who orchestrated a late game-winning drive in Super Bowl XLIII, had another chance to pull off a fourth quarter comeback on football’s biggest stage.

However, there would not be an encore performance. Roethlisberger ended the game with three straight incompletions, including one on 4th and 5 from the Pittsburgh 33 yard line that was intended for Wallace.

“I feel like I let the city of Pittsburgh down, the fans, my coaches and my teammates and it’s not a good feeling,” said Roethlisberger.

As the ball hit the turf and the Packers gained possession, one thing was clear. The Lombardi Trophy was going home to Titletown.

I wrote this story in Feb. 2011 for my Sports Journalism class with Len Shapiro.

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