Professional football's regular season kicked off this weekend, including a full slate of fixtures on Saturday and Sunday; and yet, I'm wagering that you won't find a single article about the games, or see a single photo of face-painted football fans - save maybe an article by Bird Brown - in today's papers, here or in Baltimore.
A full weekend of professional football; including a game or two covered by one of the most eloquent and poetic commentators in the business, Sir Ian Darke; and, 98 percent of you, despite professing your devotion to the game of football, likely missed it.
I'm talking about soccer. The Barclays' Premier League season opened this weekend.
I found the Premier League almost by accident; and, continued tuning-in almost by default. Watching back-to-back SportsCenters on Saturday mornings is only palatable for so long. At some point, the Premier League, with the melodies of its chanting fans, and the poetic verse of its dandied and articulate announcers, became the accompaniment to my Saturday breakfasts and Saturday morning couch-naps.
But-for the Premier League, August's sports' calendar really only has one other noteworthy topic - Practice(s).
Unless you're HBO, or the ad agency for Dick's Sporting Goods or Under Armour, training camp and the preseason aren't sexy.
There's no tailgating at training-camp and no fantasy points are awarded for preseason practice performance.
But, practice is where players' performances are perfected; where lessons are taught and learned; and, where the games are played absent the distractions of game-days' theatrical pomp and circumstance.
Great players love to practice. They can't get enough. They're gym rats; living in the weight-room; studying film; shooting (jump-shots, not people) all hours of the night.
Great players work on their weaknesses - until they don't have any. Great players extend their careers by perfecting fundamentals and footwork; knowing the nuances of the games they play; defying Father Time, and outperforming younger players' superior athleticism by preparing for game-time performances through tireless practice.
Allan Iverson (in)famously ranted, "Practice!?! We're talking about practice!? How silly is that?"
Despite all his perceived on-the-court, in-the-heat-of-the-game heart, Iverson lost a lot of fans because of that rant.
Practice is invaluable; particularly in team sports. Few who coach or play sports at their highest levels were surprised when (or that) Iverson's career ended so abruptly, and with little-to-no fanfare. Iverson's success was predicated upon unique "God-given" physical gifts; namely, his lighting quickness. A noteworthy non-practicer, when he "lost a step" he lost his singular (athletic) advantage.
Michael Jordan worked-on his footwork, and a turnaround, fade-away jumper; knowing his ability to fly would, one day, become fleeting. Jerry Rice's ability to catch with his hands (rather than with or against his body), perfected through practice, extended his career as his speed gave way. Muhammad Ali out-thought, and thereby outfought, the raging-bull that was a younger, stronger George Foreman; rope-a-doping his way to a win by studying his opponent's tendencies.
Two years before his rant, I was witness to Iverson's aversion to practice. Then-Sixers' coach Larry Brown, a Carolina guy, brought his Sixers to the Dean Dome; holding the team's training camp at UNC. Our preseason conditioning sessions followed the Sixers' practice sessions, and we would arrive early to catch a glimpse of Iverson and the Sixers in action. As a glimpse into the future debate over Iverson's penchant for skipping practice, Iverson didn't (practice that is). He claimed to be battling the flu; strangely unseasonable in September in the south.
It seemed the Sixers were well-acquainted with Iverson's anti-practice antics. The team's trainers were instructed to ensure that each day Iverson skipped practice due to the "flu" he consumed at least 600 ounces of fluids.
Iverson's demeanor was like watching a dyslexic ad campaign for Gatorade; pouting (and what must have likely led to perpetual peeing) instead of practicing. The dynamic was analogous to a teenager feigning illness to skip school to play PS3, instead being made to choke-down sour-tasting cough medicine while being "deprived" of his tech-toys.
Nicknamed "the Answer," Iverson's questioning (of) the value of practice foreshadowed the irony whereby his story-arc became a cautionary tale of the taking for granted of ("God-given") gifts of athletic ability.
No matter how good you (or your folks think you) are, you can always get better. If you're in middle school or high school or college and someone handed you this to read, it's time to put down the paper and go practice.
Matt Laczkowski is a former Division I basketball player, a coach, and a columnist. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.