Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Making A Difference

One of my high school classmates, now a successful biologist, is the subject of nice feature in the local newspaper, detailing the work he is doing to battle brain diseases. He and his father, a chemist, are working together to develop a drug that may prevent the progression of brain damage.

It is fun to say I went to school with professional sports figures, but I am particularly proud to say I know people doing things like this. Wreck the curve all you want, Paul. Having seen two grandparents-in-law succumb to dementia, any progress toward beating brain disease is most welcome.

UPDATE: Paul earned himself an interview on local TV.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Wrecking The Curve

We spend our days doing the best we can with whatever gifts, talents or insight we have been given. We strive to make our little personal world, and the people who inhabit it, as pleasant as possible. We succeed daily, in greater or lesser measure, and move on to the next day with the general expectation that we will rise to the challenge of whatever comes next. That challenge is usually pretty moderate on the Grand Scale Of All Things: will I have enough milk to go with my Cheerios? Will I make someone at work laugh with me and not at me? Will I trigger the 30-second fast-forward button on the DVR this evening so perfectly that I skip the commercials in the show I recorded without going even a nanosecond into the show itself (which, if not done correctly, will trigger a back-and-forth with the rewind and fast-forward buttons that takes longer than the original commercial break)?

Then there are the people that make us all look like chumps.

This article tells the story of a fascinating kid who just happens to have figured out how to create nuclear fusion. In a garage. The really interesting kicker is that he has come up with a way to adapt his work to create a bomb scanner for cargo containers. I don't think I would want to be this boy, or his parents; his brain seems to work at speeds and levels that are scarcely recognizable. If he can harness his frighteningly powerful mind to work for good in the world, and he doesn't become a bizarre hermit along the way, more power to him. From my perch on the couch, I will gladly raise my TV remote to him in tribute.

And then there is this guy (video link). Unless you are a tall, tanned, muscular Adonis-type who could make Renaissance sculptors weep at the perfection of your abs, with a peerless sense of drama and timing, you cannot approach the sublimity of his marriage proposal.

Thanks, pal. Now I'll have to pick up an extra dozen roses at my next anniversary just to retroactively make up for not proposing marriage with such awesomeness.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Freddie Solomon, R.I.P.

Freddie Solomon, who died this week of cancer at the too-young age of 59, was an essential yet understated pillar of the first great San Francisco 49ers Super Bowl teams. Less celebrated than Dwight Clark (the player who gained immortality for making The Catch) and less renowned than Jerry Rice (the transcendent player who is considered by some to be the best NFL player ever), Solomon was the veteran presence that the budding dystasty Niners teams of the early '80s headed toward greatness. Anyone who followed the Niners in those exciting days knew that Solomon was a dependable and indispensible part of that team. Unlike so many wide receivers over the last 15 years, who preen, mope and strut all over the field, Solomon was a team-first player who, it seemed, was always where Joe Montana needed him. He earned two Super Bowl rings with the team, and then quietly tutored Rice to take his job and usher his exit from the league.

Solomon went on to enjoy a fruitful career of service to the Tampa community, where he is as beloved for his post-football career as he is in the Bay Area for his expoits on the field. Solomon is the sort of sports star we heard about too seldom: supremely talented yet humble and dedicated on the field, and equally diligent, talented and sacrificial when his playing days ended.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Local Hoopsters Making Good

Jeremy Lin, late of Palo Alto High and Harvard, has been a minor local sensation for several years. Lin led his high school basketball team to a highly unlikely state title over a nationally ranked foe. After generating no interest with west coast basketball programs, he took his talents to Harvard, where he led the Crimson to new successes and notable victories over traditional hoops powers like UConn.

No NBA drafted Lin, but the Golden State Warriors signed him as an undrafted free agent, and he made his professional debut for the home-town Warriors last season. It was a big deal for the local community, and particularly the local Asian-American community, as Lin is of Taiwanese descent. Lin was very popular, but still raw and a bit overmatched by the situation. He bounced between the Warriors and their developmental team, and was released in December as the Warriors geared up to make a run at trading for more accomplished players. Those deals never materialized. Lin ended up with the Houston Rockets briefly, without making much of an impact, then moved on to the New York Knicks, where he again shuttled between the big club and the developmental team.

On the verge of being released yet again, injuries forced the Knicks to play Lin. What he did in the five games became a matter of instant legend. Immediately averaging more than 20 points a game, his court vision, toughness and athleticism envigorated a Knicks team that was swiftly sinking to the bottom of the league under the weight of disinterest. As the media frenzy built, the LA Lakers came showed up in Madison Square Garden last Friday night for a game televised on ESPN. Always a prime draw, the Lakers arrived to find themselves supporting players in what had become a national story.

By chance, we were in a restaurant that was showing the game. I rarely watch NBA games, and won't go out of my way to turn one on until the playoffs, but I gladly turned my attention to this mid-season game. Like something out of a sappy Disney sports movie, Lin lit up the Lakers. He was involved in the Knicks' first 15 points (scoring or assisting on all of them) as the Kicks jumped out to a big lead. He made spectacular passes. He drove the lane for crazy layups. He stole the ball. He made three point shots. He did everything you could possibly ask one player to do, under the biggest spotlight imaginable for a non-playoff game. The joy with which he played, and which his teammates returned, was palpable. Kobe Bryant eventually brought the Lakers close, as he always does, but Lin stepped up yet again, sealing the game with two three point shots, two free throws, and a tremendously alert defensive move to take a charge and generate a turnover (he is a Harvard grad, after all). From my vantage point in the dining area, I could not always tell who had made the play to send the Knicks fans into unbridled joy, but over and over, inevitably, it was Lin.

Lin's rise from NBA obscurity, after rising from the obscurity of schools with no basketball tradition, all while commentators try to explain the significance of his Asian-ness, marks the best way that sports can elevate a community. That community may be defined by geography, educational institution, league, the sporting world in general, or race. The "experts" remain skeptical that he can keep up the pace he has set, but just about everybody is delighted that he made so much of the opportunity he was given.

At the other end of the basketball food chain, Michael's basketball season came to an end this weekend. His team also played with characteristic enthusiasm, but in this case with a pronounced lack of success. We went winless this season, and it wasn't even very close. Nobody on the team could shoot the ball reliably, so the offense suffered in all ten games. Michael was the primary point guard and played well at that position. He was near the team lead in points, he reliably ran the offense (to the limited extent that the team could be said to have an offensive system), and played tenacious defense with a lot of steals. The boys, to their credit, never showed any ill effects from losing games. They seemed to accept the fact that they collectively and, for the most part, individually lacked basketball instincts, and simply enjoyed their time on the court doing the best they could. Michael got a chance to play on a team with his best friend for the first time, which was a treat for both of them, and they both played better as the season progressed.

The most fun game, certainly for me and, I think, the players, was when we were matched up against the other team from our parish (I think that is the right term). That team, which was mostly the team Michael had played on last season, had killed us in scrimmages and a practice game. Our regular coach was gone (along with his son, who was our leading scorer), so I stepped in for my basketball coaching debut. I said a few motivational things, reminded them of some basic offensive and defensive principles we had worked on in practice, and turned them loose. When the other team immediately dropped in two baskets, I thought we were in for a long evening. I kept barking instructions, though, and they kept listening (amazing!), and we toughened up.

The only special play I put in was to match up Michael one-on-one with the other team's best player to keep him from dominating the game. I warned Michael I was going to do that earlier in the day, and understood immediately why, and how to do it. While the rest of the team played zone behind him, Michael shadowed the other team's star, denying him the ball, harrassing him into turnovers, and basically taking him out of the game. By midway through the fourth quarter, Michael was called for his fifth foul and I had to sit him to keep him from fouling out. He was devastated that he had committed so many fouls, but the fouls were a measure of how tough he played and that intensity was exactly what we needed. The other team rested their star at the same time, and I was able to return Michael to the game before the end without our guys losing ground. The game hung in the balance, 10-9 (yes, after 38 minutes of play, that's all that had been scored) until the last minute, when the other team put the game away with a single basket. Despite the loss, the boys came off the court excited by their effort. It was their best game of the year, and they knew it. For me, it was an opportunity to try on the coach's mantle for another sport, one I do not know well. It is always gratifying to see the boys respond to coaching, advice and encouragement, and that game is one I will remember for a long time.

It would have been nice to win some games. I am not a fan of valuing participation medals on the same plane as championship trophies. Character building through adversity is a delicate thing in youth sports, though. The older they get, the more competitive the competition, and the more losing hurts. Fortunately, these boys never lost their joy of the game and of competing, and their coach always kept them focused on their own improvement rather than how they compared to others. We can hope for better results next year, but we will not regret the games we played this season.

The Point Guard In Action

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Time, It's All Relative

Today's Mindblowing Fact of the, um, Day:

Two grandsons of President John Tyler, who was born in 1790, are still alive. In just two generations down the line, that family touches four centuries.

This interesting article offers a few interesting examples of these "human wormholes" in time. In a week in which the world's last known veteran of World War I passed away, it is incredible to think that widows of American Civil War veterans were still collecting government pensions as recently as 2004, nearly 140 years after that conflict ended.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

A New Day

One of the timeless beach-trip pleasures for small children is to cover dear old dad in sand using colorful plastic pails and shovels. It is all fun and laughter, but when dad has finally had enough, he may be surprised to find that the sand, applied in child's-toy increments, is heavy enough to make movement difficult.

The last month was like that. (Metaphorically only, sadly enough; it has been far too long since I have spent any time on an actual beach.) The last week of January was one of those weeks that, in retrospect, I realize I spent more than a month aiming toward. Monday was a showdown with a federal judge. Wednesday was a mediation starting in the late afternoon and running late into the evening, the third straight Wednesday mediation for that case. Friday was the ruling on a motion in yet another case. In hours in between, there was a motion to write and a massive client report to prepare. It was a week heavy on firm deadlines and big outcomes, after a month full of similarly time-sensitive or otherwise significant activities.

The accumulation of a multitude of burdens snuck up on me. I usually do not appreciate how much weeks like that weigh on me until they are over. This weekend felt like that part of a hike when you finally crest a hill and see the next valley spread out before you. You have been so focused on each footfall on the way up the trail that you forgot about even the possibility of a summit, let alone what might lie beyond. It was a time of great relief and lightness.

I'm still busy, and there are no indications that I will be anything less than busy for the foreseeable future. However, it is a relief to be through that particular set of rapids. I will be content to merely paddle with the current for a while.

And perhaps pull up on a beach every now and then.