If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

If it’s June, mistakes must be magnified

They say no one remembers who finishes second. ‘No one else’ is more accurate. The players who finish second can never forget until they finally win it all.

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Right now, both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Vegas Golden Knights are having series they would rather forget in the NBA and Stanley Cup Finals respectively. If they cannot forget now, the end will arrive sooner rather than later and both will have at least a year to replay it all in their minds, wishing after what might have been.

Vegas

Last night, the team playing with house money took the game to the Washington Capitals in the opening ten minutes. Down two games to one in the series, victory would both level terms and return home-ice advantage to the Golden Knights.

The puck gods had other ideas and, apparently, all their money on the Caps. Ninety seconds in, a shot deflected off Eric Haula’s skate then the post. Reilly Smith was up next. He fanned on a shot with the net gaping. James Neal hit the post on the powerplay with Washington netminder Braden Holtby flat on his back, helpless. Those three misses may have cost Vegas the series and the rest of us an amazing Cinderella story to get us through the next lockout.

The Capitals would not miss three times in the following ten minutes, taking a commanding lead into the second period, one that would translate into a 6-2 victory and a 3-1 series advantage.

Washington Capital TJ Oshie pops in the rebound Vegas Golden Knight Marc-Andre Fleury couldn't control in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Final.

Lady Luck has caught up with irrepressible Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, too. The ever-smiling, effervescent ex-Penguin carried the club through the regular season, then the playoffs’ first three rounds. Against Los Angeles, San Jose and Winnipeg, his net was emptier than Donald Trump’s promises. Fleury boasted a .947 save percentage. At the worst possible time, he has regressed to the mean, his number in the Finals 102 points lower.

It will have to come back up and the skaters in front of him will have to start converting their chances. As hard as it is to relax when it’s win or go home, Vegas can’t afford to grip their sticks any tighter or make that one extra pass out of uncertainty.

Cleveland

It wasn’t three misses that put the Cavaliers under the cosh in the NBA Finals; it was one shot declined. Things had been going swimmingly for the Cavs in the NBA playoffs. LeBron James had been carrying the load and the supporting cast was ensuring he had a clear path to the basket against Indiana, Toronto and Boston. Matters were much the same for 47 minutes and 56 seconds or so of Game 1 in the fourth instalment of their annual NBA Finals confrontation. Then JR Smith happened.

In case you were locked in your bathroom for five days [it happens, I’m not judging], the 6’9″ Freehold, New Jersey native who the game program lists as a shooting guard suddenly declined to do so. Collecting the ball under the rim with the score tied [NHL Fan Book rule number 14: Never listen to Don Cherry], Smith dribbled to the sideline to run out the clock, apparently thinking the Cavs had the lead when the score was tied. Cleveland then lost in overtime.

Needless to say, LeBron was displeased. He’d been driving the bus for three series just to get the chance to beat the Warriors, and now JR Smith decides to hop out for cigarettes?

Game 2 was a debacle. Cleveland suddenly couldn’t trust each other while Golden State had to believe the stars were aligned and the moon was in the house of Klay and Curry. The Warriors won by 19 to take a two-games-to-none lead as the series switched to The Land.

Another time-honored truism in best-of-seven series is that you’re never in trouble until you lose at home. Well, the Cavs are 48 minutes from trouble of a kind they absolutely do not want. They cannot afford to give Golden State a 3-0 or even 3-1 lead. There will be no coming back. JR Smith, at 32, may face a lifetime thinking, “I could have sworn we were up one.”

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

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Are you ready for LeBron versus the Gang of Three, Chapter Four?

Are you ready for LeBron versus the Gang of Three, Chapter Four?

We live in an age of instant gratification. Our attention spans have dwindled to almost nothing. Virtually everyone’s kids–look at me when I’m talking to you–are diagnosed with ADD, ADHD or ADWTF. They’re all heavily medicated. Moms and dads take out one-year leases on cars built to last a decade. We trade in our old phones for the newest on a monthly basis. Nothing is ever good enough. In the immortal words of Freddie Mercury, we want it all and we want it now.

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Except when it comes to the NBA. Then, we’re happy to slog through an 82-game season listening to Charles Barkley make no sense, followed by four rounds of playoff action just so we can get to what everyone knows is coming: another episode of the LeBron and Steph Show known as the NBA Finals.

Both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors deserve credit. They tried to throw us off the scent, teasing us that maybe this was the year a new team would step up to move the NBA forward by taking their respective conference finals to seven games. Golden State even let a Houston Rockets side without Chris Paul run out to a double-digit lead in the first half before pulling out another patented shock-and-awe third quarter to put the series to bed.

In the end, though, there will be a fourth consecutive final between the Cavs and Warriors, and people couldn’t be happier. If LeBron can somehow drag his supporting cast of cable repairmen and UPS drivers to a title, it could tie this best-of-seven-years series at two and force it to at least a sixth season. And the fans would eat it up. So would the television executives. Guaranteed ratings for the foreseeable future.

The opening matchup of this year’s series is tonight in Oakland. Golden State open as 12.5 point favorites. My gut wants to buy into that line by taking Golden State. I can see Steph, KIay Thompson and Kevin Durant outshooting King James. Both teams won on the road to close out but the Warriors went last and have the momentum.

On the other hand, I remember that opening scene from Once Upon a Time in the West. The planks on the train platform are too rotted and warped to dribble a ball, but the tension in the three-against-one gunfight is dead-on. Harmonica (Charles Bronson) asks Not Frank (Jack Elam) if he brought a horse for him. Not Frank laughs and says, “Looks like we’re shy one horse.” Harmonica shakes his head and replies, “You brought two too many.” Then he outdraws Not Frank and his two cohorts, gunning them all down.

I worry that LeBron James is feeling his inner Harmonica coming into Game One. He certainly felt it in Games 6 and 7 against Boston, when he ripped off 81 points.

Is he still up to it? Maybe, but he’ll definitely be alone. Kevin Love remains doubtful as he undergoes Concussion Protocol. Larry Nance Jr isn’t likely to be effective simply because Golden State doesn’t go inside as often as Boston. He should be around to clean up for James at the other end, however.

The critical point in this series will come when Golden State starts strongly. If they are even or ahead going into the half, how will Cleveland respond in the third quarter? If they have an answer for the Warriors berserker onslaught, it will be a long series. If they don’t, well, LeBron will have to take Harmonica lessons in the off-season.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Riding the L-Train in Game 6 between the Cavs and Celts

Riding the L-Train in Game 6 between the Cavs and Celts

There are two kinds of people in the world: the results oriented and those who are all about the journey. The results-oriented crowd will tell you only the last minutes of a basketball game are worth watching. All that matters is who won. The backpackers will counter that landing a helicopter on a mountaintop doesn’t provide the same breathtaking view as when you climbed to the top through the wind and the cold under your own power. Then they’ll dare you to snatch a bottlecap from their hand and call you ‘Grasshopper’.

In Game 6 of the NBA Eastern Conference final between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Boston Celtics, LeBron James kept both groups happy.

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The Vince Lombardi acolytes tuned in just in time to see LeBron set up on the left, then feint towards the hoop against Jayson Tatum before sidestepping and burying a long three with 2:22 on the clock.

Forty-two seconds later, the King provided his own instant replay. Tatum bit on the fake again. James stepped to his left and let fly before an enraged and embarrassed Tatum leapt at him. James slithered further to his left. Tatum stumbled past. The Quicken Loans Arena erupted when the ball went in. James, chest puffed out, did his best Kimbo Slice impersonation for the crowd, including an ‘accidental’ bump and a very intentional game-over stare for Tatum as he cavorted back on defense.

And that was that. Even though there was another minute-forty remaining, the score read 107-96 Cleveland. The results-oriented crowd’s viewing experience was complete. None of them felt any need to have their blood pressure checked.

On the other hand, those of us who watched the game in full did our part in helping to pay off a few med school loans.

Cleveland started out on the front foot, jumping out to an early first-quarter lead. Then James took over on the way to a 46-point night. Boston’s five-point lead after 12 minutes became an 11-point deficit at the half. When the Cavs opened the lead to 16 halfway through the third, that third group of people I forgot to mention assumed there was nothing more to see and moved along.

It was understandable. James couldn’t miss; Boston couldn’t hit. When the Celtics tried to sneak a fast break after one James layup, the King came storming back to swat away Terry Rozier’s response.

When Boston inbounded, Tristan Thompson blocked another. But the Celtics weren’t as done as they looked. A minute before the block, Tatum had made his first field goal of the game. JR Smith had shut him down for 2-plus quarters. Early in the third, he’d passed the ball to Cleveland’s George Hill, then was called for traveling. But, as is often the case when one basket finally goes in, more followed.

Tatum ended the quarter with nine points and an assist. At the other end, LeBron began to look human. He missed a shot and made a bad pass. JR Smith began pleading with referees as he was blown for two fouls. He was back to being the Cav’s drama queen. LeBron would later remind everyone it was the drama king who sat on the throne.

But to begin the fourth quarter, Cleveland continued to struggle and the Celtics began to carry the play. Smith drew another foul. Kyle Korver drew a couple. James continued to miss. It was obvious the Cavs were holding on in an elimination game. If you were rooting for them, a gnawing feeling grew in the pit of your stomach. If you were backing Boston, hope grew.

Especially when James tripped over a teammate three-and-a-half minutes into the final frame. He rocked on his back like an armadillo, clutching his right shin. The suspense in that moment–would he continue or, [OMG!] was Cleveland’s season over?–demanded full emotional commitment from everyone watching. Sorry, you last-two-minute guys, but you f***ed up. James pushed himself to his feet, hobbled gingerly for a possession, then attacked the basket. Another miss came, followed by a driving layup after letting the shot-clock drop to critical mass.

Larry Nance Jr had come on for Tristan Thompson with a minute to go in the third. He was the one who, off balance, had crashed into LeBron. The second-generation baller wasn’t about to be the guy who broke LeBron, however.  Whenever James drove the lane from that moment, Nance cleaned up so much garbage he could star in a Men at Work reboot. After Marcus Smart rejected no.23, Nance picked up an offensive rebound and put it back. He slammed the next one home.

Not one to be ungrateful, LeBron would set him up for another dunk with a little less than three minutes remaining.

Nance’s six points and two offensive boards kept the pushing the gap to nine rather than allowing it to drop below seven. Had Boston managed a three-point play to cut it to four at any time, you had the feeling Cleveland wouldn’t hang on. That was the knife’s edge on which we all balanced. James had the same feeling. The difference was he did something about it. With the pain subsiding, LeBron switched tactics. Following the pass to Nance, he set up against Tatum on the left and dropped the two bombs.

There is a Game 7 to come tomorrow night. In Boston. Neither team has won on the road in this series. Cleveland hasn’t even come close at the TD Garden. After watching LeBron James exert his will in Game 6, you get the feeling the script could undergo a last-minute rewrite. And it’s your choice. You can tune in around 10:45 or so to catch the last few minutes, and come away with mild satisfaction or disappointment. Or you can put your heart through a wringer for two-and-a-half hours so that your cardiologist can make his next BMW payment. I think you’ll find the latter was worth it.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Can LeBron and the Cavs respond or will the Celtics roll?

Yes or no. Black and white. Over/under. We live in a binary world where it’s most comfortable to think there are two sides to every story. If there are more, it’s easier just to say “it’s complicated.” So, let’s keep it simple by saying there are two narratives for Game 2 between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Boston Celtics.

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The overriding train of thought after Boston’s blowout win in Game 1 is that Celtics’ coach Brad Stevens is just too smart for Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers. Beat writers are comparing him to an NHL coach. He has no stars but has brought his team together as a unit too formidable for LeBron James to take down on his own.

Game 1 suggests there is some truth to that. The Celtics stormed to a 26-point halftime lead. The Cavs nearly cut it in half during the third quarter, the only frame in which they surpassed 20 points and Boston did not. Then Stevens made another adjustment and his squad ran away with the game in the fourth quarter.

Marcus Moore stopped LeBron James in Game 1 of the Cavs/Boston series. Can he do it again?

Marcus Moore held LeBron James to 15 points on 5/16 shooting, 0/5 from three-point land. In fact, almost the entire Cleveland team was colder than Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ stare. Only Tristan Thompson, George Hill, and Jose Calderon shot 50% or better. Calderon only played three minutes. Rodney Hood contributed a passable 42%. The rest were in the low 30s or worse.

It was not pretty but poor shooting offers a different explanation. The Cavs had an off night. It happens. You’re free to believe that Stevens is the next coming of Steve Kerr or if you want to double down on that hockey analogy, Gerard Gallant, but having a good plan is only half the job. You must go out and execute it.

Ask yourself a question. Is Marcus Morris better than Draymond Green? Can he shut LeBron down for an entire series? The Warriors defensive specialist battled James in three consecutive NBA Finals. He won some battles but never completely derailed the L-Train.

Will Morris? Please. The 28-year-old is in his seventh season out of Kansas. One season was spent with the Rio Grande Valley Vipers in the former NBDL. If he can dominate the game’s best player for a full series, you’d have to wonder what took him so long to become an elite player.

No, LeBron is going to get his. He’s averaging 28.6 ppg in these playoffs. Even if he doesn’t go off, 23 points is both a bad night and an eight-point improvement for the King. Then, the question is whether his teammates can raise their games, as well?

Is Tristan Thompson the key to the Cavs/Boston series?

Pundits buying into the Brad Stevens narrative are calling for Tyronn Lue to bring Tristan Thompson in for Kevin Love. In small doses, Thompson was effective against Indianapolis. The matchup issues for Cleveland are similar. So, that’s an option.

If it works, the ball will be in Stevens’ court. He’ll make an adjustment to which the Cavs will have to respond. And that’s my point. A best-of-seven series isn’t decided in the first game. If it was, what would be the point of playing more? It’s about adjustments. Don’t toll the bell for Cleveland’s doom just yet. But don’t ring it for Boston’s demise either.

Expect a much closer game tonight.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Does Celtics coach Brad Stevens have an answer for LeBron James?

Does Celtics coach Brad Stevens have an answer for LeBron James?

There are significant differences between college hoops and the pros. The game and shot clocks are not the same. Nor are the number of fouls that take you over the limit. Other rules vary, as well, but I said ‘significant’.  Topping that list is the fact that NBA players are paid much more than NCAA athletes, and not under the table.

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Making the NBA is also a rite of passage into manhood. Pro coaches may occasionally refer to a rookie as a ‘good kid’ but the player will work hard to shed that image. All but the most impressive NCAA players are kids. The elite are ‘young men’. The NBA is all about being a man.

Talk is building that the T-Wolves might hire Becky Hammon as coach.

Yes, I see you there, Becky Hammon. You know I don’t mean it that way. What I’m saying is that NBA stars are more independent and therefore resistant to coaching than student-athletes. In the college ranks, players don’t stick around too long. Coaches are the stars. In the pros, it’s the opposite. Virtually every franchise is associated with a player.

People will refer to Golden State as Steph Curry’s team, not Steve Kerr’s. The Cavs are LeBron James’ squad. Many fans need a second before identifying Tyronn Lue as the coach. Even the greatest coach in the game’s history [Sorry, Mr Auerbach] took a back seat in Chicago and Los Angeles. The Bulls were Michael Jordan’s team. People argued over whether the Lakers belonged to Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal before the Big Aristotle settled the debate by leaving for Miami. No one questioned Phil Jackson’s genius in either city but he wasn’t the face of the franchise like John Calipari and Mike Krzyzewski are at Kentucky and Duke respectively.

If we’re honest, the alpha male mentality among NBA stars is why even the best college coaches struggle in the league. Yes, I’m looking at you, Calipari.

John Calipari will tell you it's tough for NCAA coaches to make the transition to the NBA

There are some coaches who can adapt. Billy Donovan is doing an excellent job in Oklahoma City. A coach without NCAA credentials might have blinked when Kevin Durant ditched the Thunder for the Warriors. Not the former Florida Gators boss. He’s used to players leaving after one or two years.

The other coach proving it’s not a question of either/or enjoyed more lasting relationships with his players. Brad Stevens didn’t have a procession filled with NBA sure-things like Joakim Noah, Al Horford, David Lee, Corey Brewer, Chandler Parsons, and Mike Miller, among others, parading in and out of the Butler locker room, collecting huge signing bonuses rather than diplomas. There was Gordon Hayward, Shelvin Mack, and that’s it. Two men don’t a parade make. Nevertheless, Stevens coached his mid-major side to a pair of NCAA Finals.

Now he’s in charge of the most storied team in NBA history, the Boston Celtics. He has them in the playoffs, one game from an Eastern Conference matchup with the Cavaliers. He’s led them this far without his most talented player, the point guard who forced a trade away from the Quicken Loans Arena to escape LeBron’s immense shadow. Kyrie Irving broke his kneecap in 2015. Three years later, on April 8th, the Celtics were forced to shelve Irving for the season after an infection developed around the tiny screws still in his patella, requiring surgery. Without his primary star, Stevens has had to pull his team together.

To add injury to injury, the coach has lost the player who might best help him unite the squad. Former Butler small forward Gordon Hayward dislocated his ankle and fractured his tibia six minutes into the season opener against the Cavaliers. He has been gone the entire season. If the Celtics put the Philadelphia 76ers away tonight, they’ll come up against the Cavs again, but it won’t be full circle. Stevens can still call on Billy Donovan’s former UF big man, Al Horford, however, to keep the six degrees of separation in play.

When Brad Stevens draws up a play during a Celtics timeout, it tends to work.

What separates Stevens from many NBA coaches is his tactical acumen and man-management skills.

He has shaped the Celtics into a balanced team in which there is no alpha male. The detail-minded coach spent equal time with reserves at the end of the bench as he did with Irving, Hayward, and Horford when all three were healthy. When two of them went down, players such as Terry Rozier stepped right in and thrived, knowing exactly what Stevens desired because trust and understanding had already been established.

In-game, Stevens is renowned across the league for running diverse and varied plays following timeouts. The Celts can come at you and defend you in different sets and situations.

A Cleveland/Boston series offers a unique matchup: Stevens v LeBron, Mind v Matter. Can the game’s most cunning strategist find a way to stop its most determined will? James has adapted to adversity himself. The Cavs failed to provide another running mate to replace the traded Irving. Isaiah Thomas didn’t fit. Dwyane Wade’s knees weren’t up to the task. Nearly half the roster turned over at the trade line. The man on a mission to reach his eighth straight NBA Finals had no choice but to go all Thanos on the Eastern Conference.

LeBron has carried the Cavs through the Eastern Conference’s first two rounds. The Clevelanders needed seven games to sneak past the Pacers in the first round but the L-Train wasn’t going to run out of steam before reaching the Finals. He raised his game and the rest of the team’s with it to sweep the number-one-seeded Toronto Raptors, allowing for a few days’ rest. Maybe more if the Sixers make a series of their clash with Boston.

We’ve seen the Cavs and Warriors go at it for three seasons running now. We know what to expect. That isn’t the case with a potential Cleveland/Boston matchup. Can Stevens keep LeBron off-balance for an entire best-of-seven series? The fact he came up short in his two NCAA title games suggests maybe not, but there will be tremendous entertainment value in watching him try.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.

 

Has LeBron found a way to step out from Michael’s shadow?

Has LeBron found a way to step out from Michael’s shadow?

Whether or not we teach it in schools, whether or not we claim otherwise, Americans believe in evolution. Our nature demands that whatever comes next prove itself better than what came before. If it does, we worship it. When it doesn’t, we show it no mercy. Get the Best NBA Playoff Point Spread Picks.

That is LeBron James’ curse. This generation’s greatest player has felt the pressure throughout his career to surpass the greatest of the last, the greatest of all time. He has pushed back against that pressure every step of the way. Nothing he has done has been enough.

Le Bron has been to seven straight NBA Finals. He still could make it eight. Michael Jordan only went to six finals in his career but won them all. King James has won titles with two teams. His Airness retired then came back to win a second set of three consecutive NBA titles with the Bulls. For every individual record LBJ has set, MJ still holds another.

When James and the Cavaliers stunned the 73-9 Golden State Warriors to win the 2016 NBA title, preventing Steph Curry and Co from closing the deal to eclipse the 1995-96 Bulls team that went 72-10, all he accomplished was to confirm Jordan’s greatness. It seems he cannot win. Or can he?

The 2017/18 Cavs are arguably James’ worst team since his Finals run began. It was so old and slow that Cleveland GM Koby Altman blew it up. At the trade deadline, Altman dealt away Isaiah Thomas, Jae Crowder, Channing Frye, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose, Dwyane Wade, and a first-round pick. George Hill, Rodney Hood, Larry Nance Jr, and Jordan Clarkson came to the Quicken Loans Arena. The end result? Cleveland was younger, faster, more sound defensively, but much less dangerous with the ball. Of Jordan’s six NBA title-winning teams, this Cleveland side is most like the first.

There were three players on that Bulls squad who averaged double-digit points per game: Jordan (31.5), Scottie Pippen (17.8), and Horace Grant (12.8). The season-ending Cavs roster has three comparable players in LeBron (27.5), Kevin Love (17.6), and Jordan Clarkson (12.6).  Rodney Hood and Jeff Green’s matching 10.8 ppg averages compensate for the 4-point difference between Jordan and James. Bill Cartwright, John Paxson and BJ Armstrong were the other primetime players in that Chicago squad. They provided 9.8, 8.7, and 8.8 ppg respectively.

The similarity ends there, however. Phil Jackson had a short bench and came at opponents in one way, through Jordan and the triangle offense. Tyrone Lue uses his bench players more liberally, adopting different strategies according to the opponent. In Game 1 against the Toronto Raptors on Tuesday, for instance, Kevin Love had a poor shooting night, going 3-13, scoring just seven points but grabbing 13 rebounds. Kyle Korver and Jeff Smith picked up the offensive slack, with help off the bench from Jeff Green and Tristan Thompson.

Kyle Korver doesn't rate as LeBron James' Scottie Pippen.

The other difference, the one that will help LeBron make his case in the GOAT debate, is that he is the only future Hall-of-Famer on this team. Kevin Love is essentially LBJ’s Horace Grant. James has no Pippen. If he can carry this team to the Finals, he will have to win it on his own, which is something Jordan never had to do.

Of course, we’re a long way from the Finals but the Cavs stunned the Raptors in Game 1, stealing a one-point victory on the road in overtime. LeBron and Co found a way to get it done, just as they did against Indiana. They’ve beaten Toronto on the way to the Finals in the past two seasons, as well. Will the Game 1 victory mess with the Raptors’ heads? If the Cavaliers can hang with the Eastern Conference number one seed in tonight’s early game — seriously who starts a game at 6 pm? — it might clear the road to a third meeting with Golden State.

The Warriors may have too many weapons for the new defensive-oriented Cavs. Proving he can carry a team to glory on his own may not happen for the King. Expect him to give it a good run, however, and maybe bet the under with Cleveland until they match up with Golden State.

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Martin Palazzotto is a freelance writer and author of strange bOUnce, a collection of sport fiction.