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Brad Wing’s Road To Redemption

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This article appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com on September 13.

It was just how LSU special teams coordinator Thomas McGaughey drew it up. Freshman punter Brad Wing took the ball from long snapper Joey Crappell, began his kicking motion, only to abandon the punt after two steps and begin sprinting down the left sideline. Chase Clement laid a block on Florida’s Chris Rainey and Wing strode into the end zone for a 52-yard score. Tiger Stadium erupted.

Moments later, celebrations were halted when a flag was seen lying at the 10-yard line. Wing had raised his arms moments before crossing the goal line, which was enough to draw a whistle for unsportsmanlike conduct, wiping the touchdown off the board. Despite the outcome of the play, the innocuous gesture had put Brad Wing on the map.

Fake punt aside, it was his play four weeks later in front of a crowd of 101,821 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that legitimized him as one of college football’s preeminent punters in 2011.

Against Alabama, Wing kept the Crimson Tide pinned deep in their own territory with a masterful series of punts that were downed inside the 20-yard line. One flew out of bounds at the Alabama 5-yard line, one was downed at the Alabama 4, and a third resulted in a fair catch at the Alabama 11.

But it was his penultimate punt that was his finest. With the game tied at 6-6 midway through the fourth quarter and LSU backed up to their own 9-yard line, Wing, standing at the back of the end zone, launched a 73-yard monster that sailed over the head of return man Marquis Maze, and rolled to a stop at the Alabama 18.

LSU prevailed 9-6 in overtime and went on to finish the 2011 season undefeated, before losing to Alabama 21-0 in the BCS National Championship Game. Despite the loss, Wing still drew high praise from the national media for his stellar punting.

Wing, who became just the second punter in LSU history to earn first team All-American honors, finished the 2011 season averaging 44.2 yards-per-punt, with 27 of his 59 punts downed inside the opponents’ 20.

His on-field credentials, needless to say, were hard to fault.

But it was his off-field transgressions during his three years at LSU that had professional teams wary of the talented left footer. Wing was arrested for simple battery in 2011 following a violent incident in Baton Rouge, and in 2012 he was suspended for the Chick-fil-A Bowl for a violation of team rules. At the conclusion of the 2012 season, despite having two years of eligibility left at LSU, it was reported that LSU officials told Wing that he wasn’t welcome back.

So, instead of continuing his college career elsewhere, Wing announced that he would be entering the NFL Draft and in the process became the first punter to declare early since Chris Gardocki did in 1991.

On talent alone, Wing should have been the first punter selected in the 2013 NFL draft. But the knock on him was that he didn’t care enough about football. He was, in no uncertain terms, too much about himself. At LSU, Wing was a rock star, possibly the most interviewed punter in the nation, and he carried himself with a self-confidence that is rarely seen from a player at his position.

At the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, phrases like “too many red flags,” and “problem child” began to circulate after the interview process. Scouts spoke about how he sought fame, was unremorseful when talking about his past misdemeanors, and, above all else, was a party boy. Nobody seemed to talk about his strong leg, amazing control, and precision accuracy.

Brad’s father, David Wing, punted in NFL Europe and had a short stint with the Detroit Lions in 1990. But Brad grew up playing Australia Rules Football for the Sandringham Dragons in Melbourne, and only considered punting when the Dragons cut him and he moved to live with family friends in Baton Rouge for his final year of high school. Wing turned heads at LSU with his ability to kick with both feet, and his talent for manipulating the ball – namely how it landed – with the “drop punt” kick.

As it turned out, talents like this don’t matter to professional teams, who are more often than not concerned about the character of a player. So as it was, over three days in late April 2013, Wing watched as 254 names were called at the NFL Draft. Two punters were selected, Jeff Locke from UCLA and Sam Martin from Appalachian State, but Wing was not.

Not long after, Wing was granted an NFL lifeline from the Philadelphia Eagles, who invited him and eight other undrafted free agents to rookie minicamp. But after showing up out of shape and failing a basic fitness test, the Eagles had not choice but to place him on the non-football injury list, something that thoroughly displeased head coach, Chip Kelly.

He ultimately re-joined his teammates on the practice field, but failed to beat out veteran Donnie Jones for the spot on the roster and he was cut.

Wing spent the 2013 NFL season on the sidelines. Then, in January, the Pittsburgh Steelers contacted him and offered a futures contract, providing him with the opportunity to prove his wares during the offseason. The Steelers struggled mightily on special teams in 2013, cutting punter Zoltan Mesko mid-season after some poor performances and getting similarly average production from former Dallas Cowboy, Mat McBriar. Both players finished the season outside of the top 30 in yards-per-punt average.

By the time preseason rolled around, the competition for the Steelers punting job was a one-man show. Adam Podlesh, a seven-year veteran who played for the Chicago Bears the past three seasons, was absent from training camp on personal leave because of difficulties with his wife’s pregnancy. This allowed Wing to take every rep in the first two weeks of camp and he was the only punter available for first preseason game against the New York Giants. He never looked back.

Despite showing some inconsistency, Wing seized his opportunity and when the Steelers submitted their 53-man roster on August 30, his name was on it.

Brad Wing’s road to the NFL has been paved with adversity. Maturity issues and a checkered past seemed to have follow him wherever he went and his quest to “revolutionize the position” has been firmly put on hold in favour of more realistic short-term goals.

The challenges that Wing has faced have shaped him, and he is beginning to grow up. Father to an 18-month-old, he is now less about himself and more about supporting his family, an attitude change that is helping rebuild his once tarnished image.In his first two NFL games, the 23-year-old has punted well, landing 3 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line on 10 attempts. There is a long way to go to establish his name in the NFL and repair his indifferent reputation, but so far, in a black and yellow Steelers uniform, Brad Wing’s redemption mission is punting in the right direction.

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06:24 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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Daniel Ricciardo In Conversation

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This article appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com on August 21.

Daniel Ricciardo, Western Australia’s first Formula One driver, is a very long way from home. Yet, sitting in his one-bedroom apartment in Monaco, he smiles, knowing that the two things he misses most about Perth, the sun and the sand, are abundant in his new surroundings.

It hasn’t just been a change in scenery that has lifted his spirits. Winning, more importantly, has meant that Ricciardo has enjoyed Formula One’s mid-season break just that little bit more than normal.

Ricciardo has used the time off to catch his breath and reflect on his meteoritic rise to Formula One championship contender in his first year with Infiniti Red Bull Racing. The 25-year-old currently sits in third place in the overall standings, 71 points behind leader Nico Rosberg of the Mercedes team, and 60 points behind Rosberg’s teammate, Lewis Hamilton.

With victories at the Canadian Grand Prix in June and the Hungarian Grand Prix in July, Ricciardo counts himself as the only driver other than Rosberg and Hamilton to win a race this season. Along the way, he has also won a slew of new fans, with his ever-present smile and friendly persona.

Before the Formula One season fires back up again in Belgium this weekend, Ricciardo took time out of his schedule to chat with ESPN Aussies Abroad about the season so far and what the future holds.

ALEX BENTON: You’ve just had some time away from the car. Where did you go and what did you do to relax?

DANIEL RICCIARDO: I ended up staying here in Monaco and did a weekend in Saint-Tropez. We had some friends from Australia here during the break so was fun to chill out with them, have a few nights out and spend some long days at the beach. It was a good couple of weeks of relaxation.

How are you enjoying life in Monaco? How does it differ to Milton Keynes?

It’s been a world of difference, it really has. Milton Keynes was good to me, but after five years I was ready to move on and Monaco has exceeded my expectations. The weather and the sea are the two biggest things that you just can’t replace, especially growing up in Perth where I lived less than 10 minutes from the beach and the sunshine is so regular. It’s made a massive difference moving here. The mood is better and my motivation for training is better. It’s been good to me.

Reflecting on your performance so far this season, do you feel as though you’ve exceeded expectations (personally and for the team)?

In a way, yes, but at the same time I always believed that I could do it given the right opportunity. Did I think I would be outperforming Sebastian like I have? Probably not, but to be honest, I didn’t really set any expectations. I knew that if I worked hard, trained well, and soaked up the knowledge of the world champion team, then I would be able to perform.

What has been your greatest challenge in your first year with Infiniti Red Bull Racing?

Everything’s just been fun to be honest! Formula One is a challenge in itself, but no more this year than when I first entered the championship. The more time I spend here, the more I feel that I belong. So yes, on paper this year is my biggest challenge yet, but I’m adapting as I go along, so no step has felt overwhelming. And my approach was to go out there, learn from the four-time champ and just enjoy it. If I can challenge him, that’s great, I deserve to be here.

From the outside, it looks as though you’ve developed a great camaraderie with your team – there seems to be genuine mutual affection – can you tell us about that relationship?

Relationships are important in all aspects of life - personal, work, etc. I am a friendly, easygoing person and this helps when starting relationships. And passion. If you all share a common passion to win and succeed in the sport, then you’re pretty much there. I trust the people I work with, we all want the same things, and so it’s pretty easy to get along with them. We also know how to have fun, which is important.

Sebastian has struggled so far this season with the RB10. How are you feeling behind the wheel?

I’ve enjoyed the new cars this year. They went through a lot of changes from 2013, but at the end of the day they’re still an F1 car. I think for me it’s been more enjoyable than last year because of the situation I’m in now. With a top team I am regularly fighting for podiums and the hunger and passion for what I do is increasing every race because of it. I can’t really speak for Seb. People will have their theories, but yeah, I’m just loving racing up the front!

What is your relationship like with Adrian Newey? By all accounts the guy is a genius with a 2B pencil.

Yeah, Adrian is a wizard. He’s way too smart for me! [Laughs] We communicate mostly at the track in debriefs, and he basically asks the questions and I give him my best answers. We are constantly testing new parts on the car and he needs feedback on a lot of this stuff. Computers are great, but we as drivers are the best tool to report on what we feel. This is where people like Adrian will lean on us and where we work together to bring the team forward.

How big of a role has Helmet Marco played in your development as a racecar driver?

He taught me to toughen up! [Laughs] Since day one he set the bar and it made me grow up quickly. He also has a massive passion for success and if he sees a little 1% floating around somewhere, he’ll make sure I’m aware of it and get after it.

It’s been said that you’re humanizing a traditionally closed-off sport, particularly with your down-to-earth personality on Twitter. Is this something that you’re conscious of?

A little, perhaps. At the end of the day it’s just me being myself and this is what I want the outside world to see. Some sports and industries are very standoffish and I just don’t see the need to be any different because I’m on TV or in the spotlight. I guess it’s also because I’m not so into fame and just want people to see me as a normal person. Not that I would say I’m famous, but you get my point.

What improvements do you think you can make in the second half of 2014?

Just keep learning, build on the things I’ve learnt in the first half of the year, and use it to keep propelling me forward. I’m still young, so plenty of knowledge is out there for me to grab hold of.

There are eight races left in the season, including double points on offer in the season finale in Abu Dhabi. What lies ahead for Daniel Ricciardo and Infiniti Red Bull Racing?

I always take a race-by-race approach and that’s worked well for me. So Abu Dhabi is a long way away. Double points may be the greatest thing in the world! Let’s see. Spa is next, a track I really enjoy, so it’s just about collecting as many points as possible, being solid, take a few more wins if they are there, and leave each race with no regrets. I think I’ve left a lot on the racetrack this year, something people didn’t think I was capable of, so that’s the plan.

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10:56 pm, from the brain of alex benton[1 note]
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Richie Porte’s Bad Day

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This article appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com on July 18.

Eleven days ago, with steady rain pounding the peloton as they navigated the treacherous 152.5-kilometer route between Ypres and Arenberg Porte du Hainaut, defending Tour de France champion Chris Froome climbed into a Team Sky car and withdrew from the race. Froome, who badly injured his wrist in a crash the previous day, fell two more times during stage five, becoming the first defending champion to quit the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1980.

With Froome out and 2012 Tour de France winner Sir Bradley Wiggins not selected, Team Sky turned to Richie Porte, the diminutive 29-year-old from Launceston, to lead the team in their quest for a third consecutive maillot jaune.

Porte was instrumental in both Wiggins’s 2012 Tour win and Froome’s last year, excelling in the role as super-domestique for the British outfit. He was slated to lead Team Sky at the Giro d’Italia back in May, but was withdrawn from the squad after a bout of gastroenteritis disrupted his preparation. The illness forced Porte to abandon four consecutive races earlier in the season, but he insisted coming into this year’s Tour de France that the lack of racing would not hinder him and that he was fresher than he had been in previous years.

Unexpectedly thrust into the spotlight as Team Sky’s main GC hopeful, Porte began strongly in his challenge for a podium position in Paris. In a dramatic 10th stage that saw Alberto Contador withdraw from the race after a gruesome crash that left him with a broken tibia, Porte moved into second place in the general classification, 2 minutes and 23 seconds behind race leader Vincenzo Nibali.

Questions continued to linger, however, about whether Porte would be able to maintain this level of riding as the peloton navigated the Alps on the way to the Pyrenees. Despite being one of the most talented riders in the peloton, inconsistency has plagued Richie Porte throughout his career. The main criticism directed at him is that during every grand tour, he seems to have one very bad day.

In the 2013 Tour de France, it was stage nine.

The day prior, on the road to Ax-3-Domaines, Porte impressed everybody with a resounding ride in the mountains. After pacing Team Sky leader Chris Froome, Porte out-climbed more fancied rivals Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans to finish second on the stage.

He entered stage nine placed second in the general classification, 51 seconds behind Froome, but almost immediately ran into trouble. On the second climb of the day, Porte was dropped. When he began to bridge the gap on the Col de Val Louron-Azet, the Movistar team lifted the pace, cracking Porte, who would dramatically finish 17 minutes and 59 seconds behind stage winner Dan Martin.

In cycling, every rider has bad days, but it’s how they handle them and minimize the damage that separates the good riders from the great ones. Lingering in the shadows of Richie Porte’s great start to this year’s Tour de France were memories of 2013 and questions about his ability to ride for three weeks without going missing for a day.

Friday, on Montée de Chamrousse, it wasn’t just a bad day for Richie Porte, it was his nadir. With 12.5-kilometers to the summit, Porte was dropped. Teammate Mikel Nieve fell back to help his team leader, but not long after, Porte was forced to call for medical assistance. Porte had found himself in cycling hell, lactic acid coursing through his body, and feeling like his brake pads were rubbing on his wheels. It was an all too familiar story.

A former triathlete, Porte’s strengths lie in his endurance over long climbs rather than the sharp vertical accents, making this particular stage, which finished with a 19-kilometer climb, right in his wheelhouse. But, in the 3o-degree heat, Porte wilted.

Up ahead, the yellow jersey was running away with the stage. With 3.3-kilometers to go, Vincenzo Nibali attacked. Rafal Majka and Leopold König couldn’t match the acceleration of the Italian and, in his first major test in the Alps, Nibali left no doubt as to who the strongest rider in the race is. On a day of scorching heat, Nibilai was white hot and now completely controls the race.

Porte, flanked by teammates Mikel Nieve and Geraint Thomas, crossed the finish line 8 minutes and 48 seconds behind Nibali. After starting the day in second place overall and dreaming of a podium finish in Paris, he now finds himself in 16th place, over 11 minutes behind the leader.

Yes, Porte is a fantastic domestique, but questions will again be raised as to whether he is good enough to lead a team at a grand tour. A loss of time this significant almost certainly spells the end to Porte’s GC ambitions at this Tour de France and will further cast a light on his frequent off days in the saddle.

Despite the setback, however, Richie Porte is a fighter. There is a long way to go to the Champs-Élysées and he will not give up now, continuing to be aggressive in his typical Tasmanian style. But if he truly harbors ambitions of winning a grand tour one day, he must silence the critics who are repeatedly validated in their predictions that at one point or another, he will go missing. Only then, when he exorcises those demons, will he be taken seriously as a team leader and fully maximize his incredible potential.

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09:42 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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Socceroos Dare To Dream

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This article first appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com on May 24.

There is something incredibly special about the final hours before your country’s first game of a World Cup. There is the sense that, despite what has been prognosticated by the football pundits and statistical forecasting models, anything is possible. FIFA rankings are blatantly ignored, past results completely dismissed. Hope, above all else, rules the day.

I remember the afternoon of June 12th, 2006, high-fiving complete strangers on the way to Fritz-Walter-Stadion in Kaiserslautern. I may not have known these people personally, but there was a sense of kindredness that is hard to describe. These people were fellow Australians and we were marching in unison with a common purpose. Unlike any other sporting event in the world, the FIFA World Cup generates a sense of a patriotism that is arguably unmatched and there is a genuine confidence that if we all band together, our country will succeed.

The Socceroos enter the tournament with the sixth-youngest squad (an average age of 25.8) and their 392 international caps make them the second-least experienced team in Brazil. What they lack in experience, however, they make up in support. As of last week, 52,289 World Cup tickets had been bought by Australians.

This Friday, as the Cuiabá afternoon begins to fade, the travelling Australian fans will mobilize and a sea of green and gold will migrate towards Arena Pantanal. Knowing glances will be cast in the direction of fellow countrymen and these will be met with confident nods of equal optimism. It is in these subtle moments where nothing seems beyond the realm of possibility.

Yet, despite a quiet confidence emanating from within the 23-man squad, it is widely agreed that Ange Postecoglou’s Socceroos, hastily patched together in the past seven month, need something close to a miracle to make it out of Group B. In fact, most believe that Australia won’t come close to winning a game.

But beware of the country with nothing to lose. The Australian identity is built on the underdog attitude and as the lowest-ranked team in the tournament it would seem as though the Socceroos are perfectly cast to play the part. In the face of overwhelming adversity, this is when our country is at its best.

All that matters now is the 90 minutes that lies ahead. To take it “one game at a time” is a cliché that is often overused in sport, but nothing rings truer than at the World Cup where looking beyond the task at hand is an utter waste of time.

Come Friday evening (Saturday morning AEST), the chatter will have stopped and it will be time to play. The national anthem will echo around the stadium, the referee will blow his whistle, and any lingering doubts will be supplanted by a shared sense of optimism and a belief that maybe, just maybe, the Socceroos can do something special. Hope, above all else, will once again rule the day.

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07:15 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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Next Generation Socceroos Out to Prove Critics Wrong

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This article first appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com on May 24.

Shocked 2-1 by lowly Jordan at King Abdullah Stadium in September 2012, the Socceroos’ hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup suffered a considerable setback and many began to speculate whether it was time for the next generation of Socceroos to get their opportunity.

The average age of the squad that ​evening was 30.5, with Robbie Kruse the only player in the starting-11 under the age of 25.

Head coach Holgar Osieck faced steep pressure to get younger, ​but insisted on ​​sticking with the old guard for the remainder of the qualifying campaign. The Socceroos finished second in Group B and booked a ticket to their third consecutive World Cup tournament, but questions remained about what the team would look like in Brazil.

As it turned out, Osieck’s reluctance to blood young players ultimately led to his demise. In the two games following their final World Cup qualifier, ​the Socceroos capitulated, suffering​ successive​ ​6-0​ defeats at the hands of Brazil and France. The FFA had seen enough and ​​Osieck ​was sacked two hours after the final whistle in Paris.

Osieck’s successor, Ange Postecoglou, was tasked with rejuvenating a national team that was in desperate need of an overhaul. Straightaway he made it known that his goal was to field a squad capable of winning the 2015 AFC Asian Cup, even if it came at the expense of some of Australia’s longest-serving internationals.

Last week, Postecoglou’s vision came into focus when he named his 30-man preliminary squad for next month’s World Cup in Brazil. The average age of the squad is 25.5 and there are 10 players aged 22 or younger, two of which are uncapped. Stalwarts such as Lucas Neill, Mark Schwarzer and Harry Kewell are now gone and a new, youthful group has been tasked with leading the Socceroos into the future. Ten players from the A-League made the first cut, joining 20 overseas-based players from European, Asian and United States-based clubs.

After recently being named Belgium Pro League Goalkeeper of the Year, 22-year-old Mat Ryan is the favourite to replace Mark Schwarzer in goals for the Socceroos in Brazil.

The fact that Ryan has played consistent minutes all season long gives him the advantage over likely back-up keeper, Mitch Langerak, who primarily sat on the bench for Borussia Dortmund. Ange has made it clear that he wants in-form, match hardened players in his starting line-up.

What’s more unclear though, is who will play in front of Ryan.

With Trent Sainsbury left out of the squad with a freak knee injury and Curtis Good struggling to prove his fitness, Postecoglou raised some eyebrows by selecting 21-year-old defender Bailey Wright. The Preston North End centre-back may not make the final 23, but his selection, perhaps more than any other, embodies Postecoglou’s philosophy of providing ambitious young players with the opportunity to prove themselves on the big stage in spite of their inexperience.

FC Utrecht’s Tommy Oar and FSV Frankfurt 1899’s Matthew Leckie will lead the midfield line for the Socceroos, alongside 29-year-old defensive midfielder Mile Jedinak.

Jedinak was a revelation this season with Crystal Palace, leading the Barclays Premier League in tackles and interceptions, whilst skippering the South London club to an 11th place finish. Jedinak’s performance as captain for Palace didn’t go unnoticed, as it was announced this week that he will wear the captain’s armband for the Socceroos in Brazil.

Up front, vice-captain Tim Cahill will make his third World Cup appearance and will play a critical on-field leadership role.

Fellow veterans Alex Brosque and Archie Thompson failed to find their way onto Postecoglou’s team sheet, who will instead look to likes of Tom Rogić from Celtic and Fortuna Duesseldorf’s Ben Halloran for a spark in front of goal. Halloran another example of Ange’s preparedness to select form over reputation – the unknown youngster lighting up the Bundesliga 2 this season to arrive at training camp in sizzling form.

Grouped with Spain, Chile and the Netherlands in the hackneyed “Group of Death,” ESPN’s Soccer Power Index (SPI) prediction model rates Australia a 6.7% chance of advancing from Group B and a mere 1.2% chance of winning the group.

In fact, according to SPI, Australia is the least likely of any country in the entire tournament to advance to the Round of 16. All three of Australia’s opponents rank inside the top 10 of the SPI ratings system, whilst Australia is ranked 40th, further compounding a nation’s wary expectations. But don’t tell that to a group of young Australians with nothing to lose.

In the 11 months since securing qualification for Brazil with a 1-0 win over Iraq, the Socceroos squad has been altered so profoundly that it is now virtually unrecognizable. That was the past and this is the future, with Postecoglou fostering a new culture and employing a greater emphasis on fast and attacking football. It is this acute change in tactical direction that makes Australia’s chances at this World Cup so difficult to predict.

It promises to be a revealing month. Expectations amongst Australian fans need to be tempered and realistic, rather than comparing this new line-up with previous World Cup combinations.

The Socceroos are in generational transition – Ange and his young squad with the chance to sow the seeds for another ‘golden’ generation.

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01:42 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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The Rise of Patty Mills

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This article first appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com on May 7.

Sidelined with a toe injury, Patty Mills, white towel in hand, watched helplessly from the end of the bench as the Miami Heat celebrated their second NBA Championship in as many years last June. Mills’ artistic towel waving featured more prominently than his basketball skills did in the Spurs 2013 postseason run, averaging just 3.4 minutes per game and providing minimal impact as the fourth option at point guard behind Tony Parker, Cory Joseph and Gary Neal.
 
Fast-forward eleven months and Mills is now a vital cog in the well-oiled San Antonio Spurs machine, contributing valuable minutes off the bench as Tony Parker’s chief deputy. Appearing in a career-high 81 regular season games, Mills averaged 10.2 points on 46.4 percent shooting and in the space of a year has established himself as one of the NBA’s top back-up point guards.
 
When asked about Patty Mills’ breakout season recently, the always-candid Gregg Popovich didn’t mince words when explaining why he struggled for playing time in his first four seasons:
He was a little fat ass. He had too much junk in the trunk. His decision-making wasn’t great, and he wasn’t in great shape. He changed his entire body. He came back svelte and cut and understood you have to make better decisions, point-guard type decisions. He did all those things better and he earned it. He’s been real important to us, obviously. 
Mills’ improved decision-making is evident in his enhanced Turnover Ratio this season. Turnover Ratio is the percentage of a player’s possessions that end in a turnover and prior to this year Mills was averaging a mediocre 11.7. In 2013-14, despite elevating his playing time to a career-high 18.9 minutes per game, Mills was able to reduce this number to 6.9, spearheading San Antonio’s second unit when Parker rested.
 
Further to Popovich’s point, Mills worked extremely hard in the offseason to improve his fitness and it resulted in him being able to move around the court at a speed that he struggled to achieve in the past. SportVU software, which tracks the movements of every player on the court, shows that Mills is now one of the league’s most active players, ranking him first in the entire NBA with an average speed of 4.8 miles per hour while on the floor.
 
It’s this intensity that has kept defenses on their heels all season. Partnered with his superior shot accuracy off the dribble, Mills adds another dimension to an already formidable Spurs offense by providing impressive shooting off pick-and-rolls and exceptional play in transition. In the 2013-14 regular season, Mills shot a remarkable 48.0% on pull up three-pointers, second in the NBA for players with more than one such shot per game, and better than more heralded players like Kevin Durant (40.7%) and Stephen Curry (39.3%).
 
His 18.8 PER was a career-high (and 12th among all point guards), and his 3.2 Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus, which estimates a player’s on-court impact, ranked 21st in the entire league. It’s on the back of these numbers that Mills finished in ninth place in the recent NBA Most Improved Player Award voting and with his contract up at the end of this season he will most certainly garner the interest of teams looking to upgrade their point guard stock.
 
Until then, however, Mills and the San Antonio Spurs must overcome the upstart Portland Trail Blazers in the second round of the 2014 NBA playoffs. In the Spurs first round match-up against the Dallas Mavericks, Mills struggled to find his touch, shooting just 35 percent from the field and 26.1 percent from beyond the arc. But the extra motivation of playing against the team that drafted him with the 55th pick of the 2009 NBA draft may help Mills find his groove. In San Antonio’s 116-92 blowout victory over Portland in Game 1, Mills scored 10 points on 3-5 shooting in 12 minutes, and unlike the 2013 playoffs, the white towel is firmly packed away for now.
 
In the past, Mills may have excelled in his role as glorified team mascot. But now, with his ability to carry an offense for extended stretches, the Spurs will be hoping that the 25-year-old Indigenous Australian kid from Canberra will be the missing link to their NBA championship dreams.
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10:40 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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Matthew Dellavedova: Life As An NBA Rookie

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This article first appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com on April 19.

Matthew Dellavedova and fellow undrafted free agent Henry Sims sat patiently in the Cleveland Cavaliers video room last October, waiting for their fellow NBA hopefuls to arrive.

“It was a bit surreal because we were just in the video session and a couple of the other guys weren’t there,” Dellavedova told ESPN Aussies Abroad.

Throughout training camp, the Cavaliers had not announced when players had been cut. Instead, the group simply became smaller as training camp progressed, until there were only two players left to fill the final spots on the Cavaliers roster. Alone in the video room, Dellavedova and Sims were the last men standing.

For Dellavedova, the 23-year-old from the goldfields region of Victoria, this moment was the culmination of a lifetime of hard work, and now he had finally hit the NBA jackpot.

“You think back to all the hours you spend as a little kid, dreaming of playing in the NBA one day,” Dellavedova said. “And then, when it finally happens, it doesn’t feel real.”

Dellavedova’s road to basketball’s biggest stage began in May last year, when NBA teams across the country began their pre-draft workouts. These workouts are the rite of passage for all NBA hopefuls, who trek across the country competing in basketball combine drills and petitioning their wares in front of coaches, general managers and owners.

“I think I ended up having about 13 or 14 workouts, travelling all around America,” he said.

Lasting anywhere from 60 to 90 minutes, workouts took place mostly in the morning and rarely involved full team drills, instead focusing on one-on-one, two-on-two and three-on-three activities.

“It’s pretty intense, because everybody knows what’s on the line,” Dellavedova explained. “You’ve got to be up and about, ready to go right from the start to show them what you have in that hour and a half.”

In addition to on-court workouts, teams also subject players to a variety of physical and psychological tests.

“It was pretty full on, but I enjoyed the experience,” he said.

Heading into the NBA Draft on June 27, Dellavedova felt confident about his chances of being selected. His agent Billy Duffy, who also represents Joakim Noah, Rajon Rondo and Steve Nash, had received positive feedback from several teams, so Dellavedova’s camp was quietly optimistic that his name would be called that evening.

At the house of Saint Mary’s basketball coach Randy Bennett, Dellavedova and a group of coaches watched and waited. It was a long couple of hours.

“A team comes up that you think you had a pretty good workout for and who said that they’re interested in you, and then they pick somebody else. So, you know, I was very disappointed after the draft,” Dellavedova said, reflecting on that evening.

Dellavedova didn’t have time to lament his misfortune for too long, however, when Bill Duffy called to tell him that the Cleveland Cavaliers had offered him a partially guaranteed contract and invited him to play for them in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas.

The 2013 Summer League in Las Vegas featured 22 NBA teams playing in a tournament format over a ten-day period in July. Teams use the annual event as an opportunity to better evaluate which prospects are worth the investment of a guaranteed contract, and which are not.

Playing 20 minutes per game, Dellavedova averaged 2.8 points, 3.0 assists and 2.6 rebounds, shooting 27.3% from the field. More importantly, however, Summer League provided him with the opportunity to strengthen his relationship with the Cavaliers’ scouts and coaching staff in an effort to secure a call back for their final try-outs in September.

“It was a good experience,” Dellavedova said. “I got to know some of the guys and some of the coaches and play a different style of basketball,” Dellavedova said. “It was a good experience going against those type of athletes.”

Dellavedova’s athleticism, or lack there of, has been a constant narrative throughout his career. But any doubts surrounding his ability to overcome his physical shortcomings were quelled by his natural leadership qualities and his physical style. Dellavedova’s international experience helped him significantly with his development and his intangible’s quickly separated him from other Summer League invitees.

The Cavaliers saw enough in Dellavedova in Las Vegas to want him back in September for final try-outs, but instead of staying in the United States, Dellavedova chose to travel to Auckland to play in a two-game series against New Zealand in the 2013 FIBA Oceania Championships. With his NBA future hanging in the balance, and no guaranteed contract in place, Dellavedova knew that any form of injury could potentially end his NBA dream, but the urge to represent his country was too strong.

The Boomers won the series 2-0, with Dellavedova playing a key role in the victories, and he returned to Cavaliers training camp with renewed confidence in his ability to contribute in the NBA.

After securing a spot on the Cavaliers roster, Dellavedova’s minutes fluctuated in the opening of months of the season as he battled for playing time. With established players like Kyrie Irving and Jarrett Jack ahead of him in the lineup, Dellavedova focused on things that were within his control like putting in extra hours at practice to ensure that when his number was called, he would be ready.

“You’re going to get your reps in practice so you’ve got to try to make the most of them and prove your worth,” he said. “You’re not going to just be given an opportunity in a game, you have to earn it. So I was just trying to go in and work hard. Just trying to get a little bit better each day, so that when my opportunity came, I was ready to take it.”

Getting a little bit better each day meant getting to practice early to get extra shots up. It also meant watching tape with the assistant coaches and spending extra time in the weight room to develop his strength and prepare his body for the harshness of an 82-game NBA season.
“The little things like that add up, so you can improve a lot during the season,” he said.

Throughout his first season in the NBA, Dellavedova has improved significantly, increasing his playing time through a combination of more efficient shooting, better defense and smarter decision-making.

“I’ve got better at pushing the ball in transition and making the right reads in transition and off pick-and-rolls,” Dellavedova explained. “I’ve also improved my shooting and how to defend within the team concepts, because NBA defenses are a little bit different.”

His defense has improved so considerably that he has often been tasked with defending opposition’s best player. On March 20, when the Oklahoma City Thunder visited Cleveland, Dellavedova was called upon for his toughest defensive assignment to date. With Cleveland’s top wing defender Luol Deng out injured, and small forward Alonzo Gee in foul trouble, Cavaliers’ coach Mike Brown summoned Dellavedova to guard the NBA’s most prolific scorer, Kevin Durant.

Giving up roughly six inches, Dellavedova agitated Durant with his physical style of defense, causing the Thunder forward to miss five of his first six shots.

“He plays hard,” Durant said after the game. “You can respect a player like that.”

Mike Brown bestowed similar praise on the young Australian.

“One thing Delly’s going to do for sure is fight,” Brown said. “He’s going to get up in your chest and he’s going to bother you, he’s going to show his hands so he’s not going to foul you. He makes you work for points.”

For Dellavedova, he looked at the assignment of guarding a player like Kevin Durant in a more uncomplicated way.

“He’s the best scorer in the NBA, so when I went in and had to guard him I was just trying to not to let him catch the ball, because if he catches the ball it’s going to be tough to stop him,” he said. “There’s no one that can guard him one-on-one. You’ve just got to try and not let him catch it and make somebody else make a play for their team.”

For an NBA rookie, the grind of an 82-game season can be a difficult adjustment after becoming accustomed to the significantly shorter college campaigns.

“It’s been pretty full on,” Dellavedova said about the NBA workload. “You’re playing three or four games a week, so there’re no breaks apart from a little one at the All Star break. You’ve just got to make sure that you take really good care of your body and not overdo it.”

Finding that balance between hard work and rest has been the key to Dellavedova’s steady improvement as the season has progressed.

“You’ve got to get your extra work in, but you need to be smart about it otherwise you’ll burn out,” he said. “And you’ve got to make sure you’re taking care of your mind as well, so that you’re ready to go for each game.”

In addition to adapting to a longer basketball season, Dellavedova has also endured an extended season of a different kind. This past winter was the eighth snowiest on record for the Cleveland area, with 86.1 inches of snow to date.

“It was a long winter,” he said. “Everyone says it was one of the worst winters in 15 or 20 years, so that was a shock to the system.”

Despite the brutally cold temperatures across the state of Ohio, the temperature inside the Quicken Loans Arena has felt considerably warmer, despite the Cavaliers up and down season.

“The people here are great, they really get behind the team, and show a lot of support at each home game,” Dellavedova said.

This past February, Saint Mary’s College retired the No. 4 jersey that Dellavedova had worn throughout his four-year career at the school. Dellavedova became only the second men’s player at Saint Mary’s to have his number retired, joining Tom Meschery whose No. 31 was raised to the rafters in 1973.

“That was a pretty awesome experience,” Dellavedova said. “My mum and dad came back over for it, so it was really special to have them there, and just a huge honor.”

Dellavedova was a three-time first-team all-West Coast Conference player and won the player of the year and tournament MVP award in 2012. Perhaps his most famous moment as a member of the Gaels, however, came against BYU in 2013, when he hit a buzzer-beater from just over half court to beat the Cougars 70-69. It was only fitting then that the Saint Mary’s opponent for the night of his ceremony was his old rival.

“I loved playing at St Mary’s and it’s always going to be a home away from home for me after spending four years there, so it was definitely a very cool experience and one that I won’t forget,” he said.

Dellavedova’s NBA rookie campaign concluded on Wednesday with a 114-85 win over the Brooklyn Nets. Irrespective of the blowout win, the Cavaliers finished the season with a 33-49 record, missing the playoffs for the fourth straight year. Dellavedova finished the year having played in 72 games, whilst averaging 17.7 minutes, 4.7 points and 2.6 assists per game.

Reviews of Dellavedova’s rookie season have been nothing but positive, and despite not having a guaranteed contract in place for the 2014-15 season, the Cavaliers are expected to re-sign him. But, like draft night, he knows not to take anything for granted

“[The contract] is a team option, so they’ve got the option to keep me next year, so hopefully they pick that up,” he said.

In the meantime, it’s back to work for Dellavedova, improving on his game, getting in more reps and finding new ways to improve.

“I’ve got Summer League and then Boomers starts. We’ve got the World Cup in Spain, so I’m really looking forward to that and I can’t wait to pull on the green and gold again,” he said.

In 2012, Dellavedova’s strong play at the London Olympics against the professional guards on Spain and Team USA put him in the global spotlight. When he returns to the international arena at the 2014 FIBA Basketball World Cup in August, he will be one of the leaders of the Australian national basketball team, and this time, it will be him who is the professional.

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Introducing Oliver Goss

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When Adam Scott was navigating the back nine at Augusta National on his way to winning the 2013 Masters tournament, 19-year-old Australian amateur golfer Oliver Goss was sitting in his dorm room at the University of Tennessee, glued to his television set. Nothing was going to prevent him from watching the first ever Australian pull on a green jacket, not even his school grades.

“I had an assignment for one of my classes that was due the next day, but I could not stop watching him play those last holes,” he told Masters.com.

This year, Goss, who is currently the world’s 12th-ranked amateur golfer, will have a very different view of Augusta, when he tees off at his first Masters tournament.

“I am going to be so nervous and so excited at the same time,” Goss told The Weekend Australian in March. “Who knows where that ball is going to go on the first hole?”

Raised in Perth, Western Australia, Goss moved to the United States in January, 2013 to attend the University of Tennessee. He arrived on campus as the highest ranked player the university had ever recruited, boasting a résumé that included a second place finish in the stroke play portion of the 2012 Australian Amateur Championships and as the winner of the 2012 Western Australian Open.

Qualification for the 2014 Masters came by way of finishing runner-up in last year’s U.S. Amateur Championship and he didn’t waste any time in getting to know Augusta National, playing his first round of the fabled course just a few months later.

“It was dead quiet, without all the people and the scoreboards, and I could not get over how peaceful and still it was,” he said, reflecting on the experience.

That tranquility will dissipate this weekend, when the young Australian arrives at Augusta a few days early to prepare for the biggest tournament of his fledging career.

“I’ll play and practice those two days, but then I will tone things down a bit so I can come out firing on Thursday when the tournament starts. I hear stories all the time about guys being so excited to be playing in the Masters that they wear themselves out during the week. But I want to be sure that I am not too tired when it is time to compete.”

Growing up playing at the Royal Fremantle Golf Club, Goss idolized fellow Australian Adam Scott, and modeled his game on the current world number two. As evidenced by the clip below, which shows the similarity of both of their golf swings, Goss has done an impressive job emulating his childhood hero.

By arriving at Augusta early, Goss is holding out hope of spending some time with Scott in an effort to soak up some valuable course knowledge. The two first met back in 2012, when Goss was grouped with Scott and 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell for the first two rounds of the Australian Masters.

“I haven’t nailed anything down yet, but I hope I can organize a practice round with Adam. That would be a real thrill, especially with him being the defending champion,” he said.

Goss will turn 20 on the Saturday of the Masters tournament, but he won’t be alone for his birthday. Golf Australia has arranged a residence for him in Augusta that is large enough to accommodate his coaches, parents and girlfriend Jessie, who is a fellow student at Tennessee.

“And maybe an auntie, too,” Goss quipped. “It will be great having everyone around, and being able to share the experience with them all.”

Since 1952, the lowest scoring amateur to make the cut has been awarded the Silver Cup. Past winners include Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, but Goss is being realistic about his expectations.

“I basically want to go there and have as much fun as I can and learn as much from the experience,” he said. “If I play well that’s great. If I don’t that’s not a big deal. It’s the Masters. I will hopefully have some more opportunities in the future.”

Considering his career trajectory to date, those opportunities will come sooner rather than later.

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Adam Scott to Bring a Taste of Australia to Augusta

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This article first appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com.

Not only will Adam Scott be defending his Masters title when he returns to Augusta National Golf Club this April, but as the reigning champion, he will also be tasked with hosting the most exclusive dinner in professional golf.

The Champions Dinner takes place on the Tuesday evening of tournament week and is attended by former Masters winners who gather in their green jackets and regale each other with tall tales and off-colour jokes. Those seeking an invitation to dine with Augusta royalty are obligated to meet only one requirement: win the Masters.

The history of the Champions Dinner dates back to 1952, when Ben Hogan wrote a short letter to club chairman Clifford Roberts, inviting him to a stag dinner for all of the previous champions. That night, with nine of the past 11 champions in attendance, The Masters Club was born, and the dinner quickly evolved into an annual tradition.

"My only stipulation," Hogan wrote, "is that you wear your green coat."

The defending Masters champion is bestowed the privilege of selecting the menu, which is typically used as an opportunity to showcase some of the delicacies of their native country. Unsurprisingly, this has led to some particularly interesting outcomes over the years.

Dressed in a tartan kilt, Sandy Lyle famously served up traditional Scottish fare in 1989 that had attendees clambering for Augusta’s regular clubhouse menu. It turns out that haggis, which is made from sheep’s innards and encased in the animal’s stomach, is not a popular choice amongst golfers. “I had a steak that night after I found out what haggis was,” said 1971 Masters champion Charles Coody.

In 1998, a 22-year-old Tiger Woods wasn’t swayed by the white tablecloth setting, serving cheeseburgers, French fries and milkshakes, which resulted in a ringing endorsement from the club chairman at the time, Jack Stephens: “Cheeseburgers and milkshakes go good with wine,” he said.

2009 champion Angel Cabrera showed no remorse for vegetarians, treating attendees to an “Argentine asado,” a five-course banquet of meat that included pork, beef ribs and blood sausage. Not all attendees were fond of the blood sausage, however, prompting Jack Nicklaus to quip, “I hope he enjoys it.”

Traditionally held in the second-floor library of the clubhouse on a long rectangular table, Charl Schwartzel attempted to buck the trend in 2012 by proposing a traditional South African “braai” underneath the iconic oak tree near the first tee. Not only that, but Schwartzel also offered to slip on an apron over his green jacket and grill the meat himself.

The powers that be ultimately nixed the idea, but Schwarztel still served a barbecue menu that included grilled filet mignon, lamb chops and boerewors sausages with monkey gland sauce. Schwartzel reassured his fellow champions that contrary to the name, “There’s no monkey and there’s no gland.”

In keeping with tradition, the 2014 Champions Dinner will be a gastronomic showcase of the defending champions homeland, and Adam Scott recently disclosed the pièce de résistance of his Australian-centric menu.

"I can reveal Mum’s Pavlova dessert will be on the menu, and while I am not giving too many secrets away, hopefully it will be enjoyed by all," Scott said.

"[It will be] her recipe," he explained. "She might be nervous with Arnie and Jack in the other room."

The rest of the menu will remain a mystery until the Tuesday night before the tournament, but Scott has already noted a few key omissions.

"I am not going to go so clichéd Aussie and serve meat pies and sausage rolls or Kangaroo and crocodile, but I am going to serve something that hopefully everyone can enjoy, but certainly with an Australian theme to everything.”

Another Australian delicacy will also be a notable absentee from the final menu.

"I don’t think I can serve Arnold Palmer Vegemite on toast," Scott said with a laugh, when asked about Australia’s famous salty spread.

One item that will be tough to leave off the menu, however, will be Moreton Bay bugs, which Scott revealed last year to be of his favourite foods. And while he hasn’t confirmed or denied their inclusion, he hinted recently that The Masters Club might get a taste of the lobster-like shellfish.

"That would be a pretty good guess," he said with a wry smile.

Yet, no matter how good Scott’s choices turn out to be, it will be almost impossible to avoid the good-natured ribbing that takes place around the dinner table. In golf’s most exclusive fraternity nothing is sacred, and the champion’s menu selection is always a lively topic of debate.

"Over the years," former chairman Clifford Roberts once noted, "no one has been immune to the banter."

For Adam Scott, that’s unlikely to change this year.

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Grant Balfour Right at Home in Tampa Bay

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This article first appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com.

Grant Balfour never wanted to leave Tampa Bay.

During his first stint in Florida from 2007-2010 he met his wife Angie and the two built a house in the coastal town of Clearwater. They were comfortable there and started a family, but like many of Balfour’s 2010 Rays teammates, he hit free agency and ultimately signed with the Oakland Athletics when the Rays couldn’t match the offer.

In December last year Balfour became a free agent once again and the Baltimore Orioles agreed to sign him to a 2-year, $15 million contract. But less than a week later the O’s walked away from the deal because the club wasn’t satisfied with the results of his physical. That opened the door for a return to Tampa Bay, who locked him in to a two-year, $12 million deal, reinstating an integral piece of their 2008 and 2010 division-winning squads. More importantly for Balfour, it provided him with the opportunity to move home where his wife and two daughters, Raegan and Rielyn, continued to live.

Growing up in the suburbs of Sydney, Grant Balfour never harboured dreams of playing professional baseball. He idolized cricket, soccer and rugby players, and fervently supported the Balmain Tigers, the team his father David played for. It wasn’t until his father set up a T-ball league that Balfour had his first taste of the foreign sport. When his father became the General Manager of the Sydney Blue Sox in the ABL, Balfour began to meet major league players who would come down to Australia in the offseason on loan from the Toronto Blue Jays. It was during that time that he first began to think about baseball as a viable career choice.

Signed by the Minnesota Twins in 1997 as a 19-year-old free agent, Balfour worked his way through the Twins minor league system, ultimately making his major league debut on July 22, 2001. By 2004, he had become a regular contributor for the Twins, posting a 4.35 ERA in 36 relief appearances and capped off the season by throwing two scoreless innings against the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the AL Division Series. His final two outs were Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Balfour’s future looked extremely bright, but that was all about to change. In May of 2005 he underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow, and just four months later, he went under the knife again to repair a torn rotator cuff and a torn labrum. Many thought he might never pitch again, and with his career suddenly in jeopardy, the Twins decided not tender his contract.

Hoping that he would be fully recovered by the middle of the 2006 season, the Cincinnati Reds stepped in and signed Balfour to a one-year deal that guaranteed him $340,000. When he did return, however, he could only muster nine innings for three different minor league affiliates, the highest being in the Class A Florida State League. By October, Cincinnati had placed him on waivers.

Balfour’s long road back to the majors then took him to Milwaukee. After performing well at Double-A Huntsville, he was soon moved up to Triple-A Nashville. Throughout 32 minor league appearances, he posted an impressive 1.87 ERA, and in June of 2007, nearly 3 years after playing his last major league game, he took the mound for the Milwaukee Brewers against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Balfour’s time as a Brewer didn’t last long though. After only two appearances and a very unflattering 20.25 ERA, Milwaukee traded Balfour to Tampa Bay for right-hander Seth McClung. The Brewers, who had acquired fellow reliever Scott Linebrink in a trade with San Diego two days earlier, needed the roster space, and Balfour, who was out of minor league options, was shipped to make way.

"It didn’t really go as planned," Balfour said at the time.

Arriving in Tampa Bay, Balfour joined the worst bullpen in the league, which provided him with ample opportunity to prove that he could become a meaningful contributor after recovering from his surgeries. Pitching as a middle reliever, Balfour posted a 6.14 ERA in 22 appearances, showing just enough to avoid arbitration and secured a $500,000 contract for the 2008 season.

Despite an impressive preseason, the Rays opted to go with fellow right-hander Scott Dohmann, and Balfour missed a spot on the opening day roster. Designated for assignment, he began the 2008 season at Triple-A Durham. Instantly, he took out his frustration on the helpless Triple-A hitters. In 15 appearances, Balfour gave up only one run, going 1-0 with a 0.38 ERA, whilst striking out 39 and walking just 10 in 23 2/3 innings.

Now fully recovered, Balfour was turning his anger into results on the mound, and in late May he was recalled to the majors.

With his chest puffed out and a considerable chip residing firmly on his shoulder, the new Grant Balfour walked with a different swagger when he returned to the Rays’ 25-man roster. His career to date had not gone to plan and at 30 years old he was finally in a position to show the baseball world what he was capable of. Brash, loud and angry, Balfour brooded on the mound, talked to himself incessantly, and peppered his self-dialogue with expletives.

His penchant for profanities worked.

Using his new curse-ridden self-motivation technique, the results were remarkable. Balfour rocketed to stardom with a 6-2 record, a 1.54 ERA, four saves and 82 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings. Despite not playing in the first 50 games, he was arguably one of the best relievers in major league baseball in 2008, and helped the Rays achieve the biggest decrease in ERA from one year to the next of any team in 85 years, and their first ever World Series appearance.

Since then, Balfour has been a menace out of the bullpen.

After moving to Oakland via free agency in 2011, Balfour became the A’s full time closer in 2012 and immediately embraced the high-pressure role of being the last man standing. A section of crazed Grant Balfour fans quickly developed in the right-field bleachers; throwing their heads back and forth when he entered from the bullpen as Metallica’s “One” blasted through the Coliseum speakers. “Balfour Rage” rapidly became a league-wide phenomenon.

As Oakland’s ninth-inning man, Balfour posted a 2.56 ERA in 140 appearances, racking up 62 saves in 67 chances and helped the A’s to a pair of division titles. In July last year, he broke Dennis Eckersley’s Oakland Athletics franchise record, saving 44 consecutive games, and a week later flew overnight from Oakland to New York to pitch in his first All-Star Game after a late call-up to replace his injured teammate, Bartolo Colon.

In 2014, Balfour will return to the place where he resurrected his career. “I’ll be totally honest, I never wanted to leave [Tampa],” Balfour told reporters at his introductory press conference in January. “I love the area and I love playing for the Rays. My family is here, and I love staying at home.”

It’s a fitting narrative for a man whose career feels like it has happened in reverse. At 36 years old, he’s getting better with age, and is achieving career milestones that at one time seemed inconceivable.

Back in a Rays uniform, Balfour prowls the bullpen, hyped-up on Extra Strength 5-Hour Energy, waiting for his opportunity to be called up to close out games. Nine years have past since injuries almost derailed his career, and the All-Star closer is now more focused than ever.

"I want to win a World Series,” Balfour said matter-of-factly. "We got really close here in 2008 and I’m really hoping that here, in the next few years, that I can win one."

With the bullpen that they’ve assembled, anchored by the fiery Australian with the acid tongue, Tampa Bay are in a position to do just that.­­­­­

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The Evolution of the NBA D-League

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Tucked in the Northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, with a population of a little under 6,000, is a small town called Moosic. Once home to a popular amusement park for 101 years, the town has reinvented itself through recent developments that have added an open-air shopping center and a new $13-million multiplex movie theater. But the main attraction in Moosic takes place between April and September, when the local Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees, ply their craft at PNC Field.

People from neighbouring towns converge on Moosic to watch the RailRiders, who over the past three seasons have averaged a just over 1,000 fans per game. Every so often each season, however, that changes, when a circus that would not have been out of place at the old amusement park rolls into town. Last July, on a warm summers night, that circus came in the form of New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter, who was returning to the baseball field after suffering a fractured ankle in April.

Instead of immediately being slotted back into the starting line-up at Yankee Stadium, Jeter was assigned to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to shake off a heavy amount of rust. In his first game back, he played five innings at shortstop and went 0-2 at the plate. PNC Field was, unsurprisingly, completely sold out. He would go on to play three more games for the RailRiders in the coming days, before returning to the Bronx to make his Major League season debut. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner and Joba Chamberlin have all done stints at PNC Field whilst recovering from injuries in recent years.

The minor-league affiliate system in baseball provides organizations with the opportunity to not only ensure that their multi-million dollar investments can rehab productively and get themselves into game shape, but by also serving as a tool to develop young prospects with the goal of grooming them into Major League players.

In 2005, NBA commissioner David Stern announced that basketball’s equivalent of the baseball minor-league system, the NBA Development League (D-League), was expanding from six to 10 teams for the 2005-06 season.

"We hope the D-League can be for us what minor-league baseball is for the majors," Stern said.

In addition to expanding the D-League, Stern also pushed to raise the NBA’s minimum age from 18 to 20. This was a major point of contention in the negotiation of the 2005 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, and was one that Billy Hunter, then executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, heavily opposed.

The influx of high schoolers to the NBA was steadily rising, and Stern feared that this was happening for all the wrong reasons. He publicly campaigned for the age limit to be raised to 20, fearing that too many young people from urban areas saw the NBA as their ticket to fame and fortune.

"I really believe it would make the most sense in the context of a higher entry age, together with a certain number of years a young player could be assigned to a developmental league," Stern said.

Jermaine O’Neal was one of the more vocal opponents of this change, calling Stern a racist, but ultimately the union compromised and agreed to an age limit of 19. The greater purpose of the NBA Development League, however, was overlooked, and Stern’s vision of a true NBA minor-league system didn’t see its full potential.

Nevertheless, the D-League continued to grow, and in the most recent NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed on December 8, 2011, several provisions were included that were designed to positively impact the future of the league. Six years after David Stern’s proclamation about the future of the D-League and his vision of a baseball-like system, NBA D-League President Dan Reed echoed similar sentiments.

“The new CBA will deepen the level of integration between NBA D-League and NBA teams, and marks the next stage of our league’s evolution as the official minor league for the NBA,” Reed said.

Unlike Stern’s parallel comments in 2005, Reed had more cause for optimism. Namely the part of the agreement that states that teams can assign veteran players to its NBA Development League affiliate with their consent.

In the past, a team was permitted to assign a player to the D-League only during their first two seasons in the NBA, and they could only be assigned up to three times per season. With the most recent changes, a player can now be assigned in their first three seasons in the NBA, and there is no limit to the number of times that they can be assigned. This, and the provision that veterans are allowed to be assigned with their consent, are major steps in the right direction for the D-League.

The D-League now consists of 17 teams, 14 of which are either affiliated or owned by an NBA team. Yet, despite this, teams still show a hesitancy to designate veterans to the ‘minors’ who are coming off a significant layoff. Players assigned to the D-League continue to get paid their full NBA salary, so the impedance should be there to regain some much needed in-game form in the D-League before returning to the NBA and competing at the top level, especially after a long term injury. But so far, this hasn’t happened.

Additionally, the presence of a high-profile NBA starter on a D-League team would provide organizations with additional ticket sales and in-game revenues, this being especially important as concession stands at these arenas are operated by local vendors.

Much was made last week of Rajon Rondo’s stint as a member of the Maine Red Claws. Rondo, coming off a torn ACL, hadn’t played a game of competitive basketball since January, 2013. So the idea that he would get some much-needed minutes with the Celtics’ D-League affiliate team didn’t seem too far-fetched. If Derek Jeter, captain of the New York Yankees, can spend a week in Moosic getting into game-shape and regaining his feel for competition, then why was it so improbable that one of the best point guards in the NBA do the same?

“That’s what [the D-League is] for,” Rondo told reporters, when asked about going down to the D-League. “I’d probably be the first guy to do that, but it doesn’t make a difference. I want to make sure I’m healthy and I handle it the right way. I don’t want my first [game-like action] to be with the Celtics. I haven’t had a preseason. I haven’t had a training camp. Right now, this is pretty much my training camp.”

Less than two hours later, after a closed workout with Red Claws in the Celtics’ Waltham practice facility, he was recalled by the Celtics. His first game back testing his surgically repaired knee was against the Los Angeles Lakers last Friday night.

There is plenty of logic to Rondo’s comments, although many will argue that people have paid hard-earned money for NBA season tickets and deserve to see the best players on the court. But when players who are coming off a major injury use those first few games back to regain form and fitness, then it can hardly be claimed that people are seeing the best quality basketball.

In his two games since returning, Rondo is 7-19 from the field, and has turned the ball over 4 times in 40 minutes of action. He looks visibly rusty, exactly like a guy who hasn’t played competitive basketball in 12 months. Would a stint in the D-League have helped him and the Celtics? Quite possibly.

Go to the D-League website, and it will tell you that the NBA Development League is the official minor league of the NBA. But the reality is that it is still a way off Stern’s vision of a “true minor-league system.” Ultimately it will take a commitment from the organizations, and the players, for this to ring true. For now, it is still merely a place for NBA teams to develop young prospects and undrafted free agents, and provide under-performing players with minutes not afforded on the main roster. And although it remains an invaluable tool for marketing basketball at a grass roots level in small cities, the D-League could be even more invaluable for NBA teams who use it to its full capacity.

The recent rule changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement provide NBA teams with more flexibility around assigning players, and in time we should see more and more marquee talents entertain the idea of a short stint in the NBA minor league.

As Rajon Rondo said, that’s what the D-League is there for.

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06:51 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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A New Dawn for Arsenal

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As we speak, Arsenal are in hot pursuit of a Uruguayan striker who would shore up their attack and provide some much needed firepower in front of goal. But this is no ordinary player. This player, despite all of his talents on the football pitch, served an eight-match suspension in 2011 for racial abuse, and is now currently in the midst of 10-game suspension for biting an opponent.

Considering his less than immaculate track record, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that this might represent a perfect ‘buy low’ opportunity for Arsenal, something worth bearing in mind when you take a peek at their frugal past.

Yet, despite Luis Suarez’s indifferent reputation and penchant for human flesh, Liverpool has valued him at £50 million, and don’t seem in the mood for negotiating. Nevertheless, after eight trophy-less years, Arsenal are desperate, and are now positioning to make a revised offer for Suarez in a deal that would shatter the previous club transfer fee record of £15 million when Andrei Arshavin arrived at the Emirates in February of 2009.

£40 million plus £1. That was the most recent bid, which triggered a clause in the Uruguayan’s contract and allowed Arsenal to discuss terms with the striker. How did we get here though? This is most certainly out of character for a club built on a “socialist model,” as Arsène Wenger so colorfully depicted back in January.

Arsenal have long preached that clubs who spend beyond their means will eventually risk ultimate demise because of the unassailable debts they acquire. Wenger, who has a degree in economics from the University of Strasbourg, takes great pride shrewd signings and the the grooming of younger players, treating them more like stock options than professional athletes: buying low and then selling high. Kolo Touré, Patrick Viera, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry. World-class players who all came to Arsenal at unbeatable prices, and, in 2004, were part of Arsenal’s unbeatable team. Wenger, for a time, seemingly had it all figured out. He was the maharishi of identifying undervalued players and exploited this to his advantage.

By the time Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in July of 2003, however, teams were already catching on to Wenger’s astute methods and soon his competitive advantage had been abridged. Subsequently, Wenger, a long-time spokesperson for the UEFA Financial Fair Play policy–scheduled to take full effect in 2018–was none too pleased with the influx of outside money, accusing Chelsea of “economic doping, because their resources were artificial.”

But when the global recession hit in the winter of 2008, Arsenal, having enforced a policy of only spending what they had, saw themselves in a position of power. Many predicted that major football clubs like Chelsea would rue their overspending, and some went as far as forecasting foreclosures under the weight of masses of unpaid debt. Arsenal, perfectly positioned to reap the benefits of a crumbling market, were ready to swoop in and buy players at a discounted rate.

"Football is not untouchable,” Wenger said. “We live by people going to the stadiums and from [sponsors] advertising to people who buy products. All our income could be a little bit under threat in the next few months."

But that day never came. The football market never crashed and people attended more games than ever, distracting themselves from the complications of everyday life. As evidenced by the 3.8% growth in Premier League attendance this past season, they are continuing to do so.

Still, Arsenal remained patient, never wavering from their “socialist model.” In fact, they tightened their purse stings in order to pay back the £430 million borrowed to build Emirates stadium. Arsenal’s chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, continued to reiterate the club’s self-sustaining model, claiming Arsenal “can and will forge its own path to success.” But fans remained disgruntled with this tactic, seeing too many of its best players being prised away by clubs with fatter wallets. Between 2007-2012, the sale of the club’s star players was responsible for £178 million (or over 90%) of the £195 million total profit.

Since 2003, when buying and selling players, Arsenal has recorded net proceeds of -£17 million, while Chelsea and Manchester City both have over £500 million. In the same period, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool have all spent over £119 million. Arsenal, it seems, has taken greater pride in strengthening their balance sheet, as opposed to the playing squad.

But the burden of the Emirates stadium “mortgage” is slowly lifting, and Arsenal are looking to become more involved in the transfer market once again. “The debt that we’re left with is what I would call ‘healthy debt’ – it’s long term, low rates and very affordable for the club,” Gazidis said in 2011.

Furthermore, Gazidis spoke recently of improved commercial deals that would see an “escalation in our financial firepower.”

“It is a big summer,” he said in June. “We have been working very, very hard to gain the kind of financial capability we need as a football club to be at the very top end of the game.”

Mikel Arteta said recently that it’s “about time” Arsenal got aggressive in the transfer market and a figure of £70 million was understood to have been set aside for Wenger should he wish to land a marquee signing. So, after years of parsimony, the Arsenal faithful have watched and waited for their club to acquire one of the big fish. Yet, to this date, apart from acquiring 20-year-old Yaya Sanogo on a free transfer from French side AJ Auxerre, Arsenal has not spent a cent.

Herein lies the predicament that Arsenal, and their fans, now face. It has been eight long years (and counting) since the club last hoisted silverware and the dust on the trophy cabinet has grown too thick to ignore. Armed with money in a sellers market, they are forced to look at players like Luis Suarez to fill their needs and satisfy their fans thirst to make a splash.

Long have Arsenal supporters dreamed of the day that the financially conservative club would open up their checkbook. And yes, there is surely an abundance who would love to see Suarez ply his trade in a Gunners shirt at the Emirates. But, weighing down the other side of the scales, are those who face quite a vexing dilemma: That cheering for a proved racist, one who has a history of biting other players, doesn’t really fit the Latin inscription that once adorned the clubs’ crest: Victoria Concordia Crescit,"victory comes from harmony."

Luis Suarez is a mercurial talent, there is no doubt about that, but he walks with the burden of a black cloud hanging over his character like the London winter sky. Is this what Arsenal fans truly want their club to be seen as? Spending to win, by any means necessary, giving no regard to the character of the players they sign or the number of zeros on the price tag?

Whether or not they sign Suarez remains to be seen. What does seem more clear, however, is that Arsenal are finally willing to entertain the idea of spending big. And when this happens, no longer will Arsenal fans be able to hide behind the argument that they are somehow above the overspending that is omnipresent in top-level football. They must come to terms with the fact that their values and moral beliefs, the ones that previously set them apart from the Chelsea’s and the Manchester City’s, will be somewhat diminished. And if it’s Suarez, at that price, well, possibly obliterated.

Like it or not, Wenger has always made logical decisions and has stood by his system, often to a fault. But this transfer window feels different. Gazidis has set himself up with his bold statements, and now there is an expectation that the club must do something, even if it means taking on a player with questionable character.

So, here we are. £40 million plus £1. Arsenal fans have one indelible motif and it reads like a holy proclamation of North London. In Arsène We Trust. Now, more than ever before, they should hope that this rings true.

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02:59 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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