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The NFL hasn’t exactly provided a wealth of positive stories over the past several days.  From the alleged bullying saga in Miami, to health scares for both the Broncos and Dolphins head coaches, professional football has left us little to smile about as of late.  

Leave it to original Houston Texans offensive lineman Chester Pitts to neutralize some of the negativity, as he and other current and former Texans players will drive senior citizens to the voting booth on Tuesday, Nov. 5.  Literally.  

Pitts, who retired from the NFL in 2011 and now works for local television station KPRC in Houston, is joining forces with the Harvest Community Center  for the second consecutive year in helping the elderly members of his community to vote.  

Last year’s event went so well that Pitts decided to do it again, and not just in light of the Houston mayoral race, the fact that the elderly are often an infringed voting group, or because it’s a mitzvah.  But also, because old people are awesome.  

"Seniors, you can learn so much from them and just being around them for the length of time we were, was an amazing experience," Pitts told PepperOnSports.com. 

"Their gracious attitude told me this was something I had to keep doing."

Joining Pitts behind the wheel of several large passenger vans that will shuttle seniors from various community centers to the polls will be current Texans offensive linemen Duane Brown and Brandon Brooks, as well as former Texans defensive lineman Travis Johnson and former Houston Oilers receiver, Haywood Jeffries.  Johnson also participated on election day last year.  

Tuesday will be the Texans first day off since a demoralizing Sunday Night Football performance in which the team gave up a 21-3 first half lead over the Indianapolis Colts, ultimately losing at home, 27-24 and dropping their season record to 2-6.  Texans head coach Gary Kubiak collapsed on the field during halftime with a still unknown medical condition.  It’s pretty cool that despite a trying season thus far, some of the Texans are willing to give up what little free time they have to help out strangers within the community. 

"There is no responsibility for professional athletes to do this," Pitts told PepperOnSports.com.   

"But as a professional athlete you are a role model and I believe you should always do what is right.  Helping others, especially our seniors is always important and as long as I am able, I want to do just that." 

Pitts says that as a media member, he has approached different players about helping out with the event in the locker room following Texans games.  He hopes player involvement will increase each year.  

(photos courtesy of Chester Pitts)

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(Top photo, Pitts and Brown. Bottom photo, Brooks and Pitts)

Sports fans often obliterate the boundaries of good taste when supporting their teams.  The free, fun-loving nature of the games which we all grew up playing sure seems to have a regressive impact on adults, doesn’t it?

It’s a fine line to walk, but whomever created the billboard below nailed this tightrope act with expert precision.

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Complex Magazine posted photos of an electronic billboard in Chicago featuring a rotation of creative images supporting the city’s pro sports teams.  Joakim Noah -the Bulls’ most eccentric and interesting player since Dennis Rodman- is shown blasting a grimacing LeBron James with a fire extinguisher. 

I’m actually laughing just typing this up right now….The look on LeBron’s face is priceless. 

Sure, it was only ONE playoff game in which Noah and the rest of the depleted-yet-not defeated Bulls shocked the defending champs, but the fans and city should savor every single moment they can. 

Kudos to whomever created these ads.  Aside from a burst of carbon dioxide to the face, the “Noah extinguishes LeBron” image (as well as the pro-Blackhawks billboard) is hilarious without hurting anyone’s feelings. 

If anything, the billboard will add fuel to the Heat’s fire heading into Game 2. 

Without Luol Deng and Derrick Rose, that billboard might be the last we see of the Bulls putting the Heat on blast. 

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The personality and intrinsically entertaining human being that is Ozzie Guillen tweeted an interesting photo Sunday.  The Miami Marlins manager posted the pic (above) of he and his wife having dinner in Madrid with some friends.  The caption reads, “dinner in madrid yes we having good time, stanton, ricky and petey. cenando en madrid que bueno.”

Ozzie’s three pals are Giancarlo Stanton, Ricky Nolasco and Bryan Petersen, who just happen to be players on the Marlins’ roster.  How many times have you seen a coach or manager either vacationing with his or her players, or meeting up with them for dinner while abroad?

After I saw this tweet, the story below seemed less shocking. 

One of the several issues plaguing the Marlins concerned pitcher Heath Bell, who was none to pleased with a lot of things in Miami.  The Marlins unloaded Bell, shipping him off to the Arizona Diamondbacks, and seemingly with barely both feet out the door, the Miami Herald published these secrets from the inside:

"Unhappy with his diminished role, the bitter Bell was openly critical of pitching coach Randy St. Claire, the training staff, Marlins catchers, sportswriters, and even the Showtime production crew that filmed The Franchise. Bell said he was portrayed too negatively during the reality series.

"For the Marlins, the final straw might have come the final week of the season when Bell, in a live radio interview, said it was "hard to respect" manager Ozzie Guillen.

"The following day, Bell’s teammates, in a show of support for Guillen, turned on the manager’s weekly radio show inside the clubhouse, raised the volume, and made Bell listen to Guillen state that he no longer respected Bell "as a person."

Upon reading this anecdote, I was immediately transported back to the 8th grade where stuff like this happened all of the time.  Picking sides, bullying, humiliating your peers, etc.

I’m not saying Bell is a nice guy who got the shaft in this situation, but that sure seemed like a catty move for a group of adult men.  Then again, pro athletes as a whole, aren’t necessarily considered the most mature population segment of adult society. 

But this begs an important question.  Should a manager or coach be that close to his or her players? Can you properly discipline your employees and garner respect while on or close to their “level?” 

In Ozzie’s first season as manager, the Marlins finished dead last in the NL East with a 69-93 record and 19 games back of the division-winning Nationals. 

Yikes.

In my few stints as a manager, I found the line between friend and boss incredibly difficult to draw since I really liked most of my employees and considered them friends.  Depending on each individual, some listen to you and do what you ask as their boss because they respect you as a friend, while others do the opposite, undermining your authority because they consider you an equal. 

Terry Francona did the impossible, breaking the curse and bringing multiple World Championships to Boston.    Once his tenure as Red Sox skipper came to an end, various reports revealed that he had allegedly become so close with his players that he rarely disciplined the group when necessary and because of that, he “lost” the team.

Could Ozzie’s close-knit relationship with his players be one of the many reasons why the Marlins absolutely sucked last season?  I don’t know the answer, but I think it is a topic worth exploring. 

Ahhhh yes, the so-called “coronation of King James” finally happened Thursday night as the Miami Heat beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 4-1 for the NBA Championship.  LeBron James, the self-proclaimed King, earned his crown in his ninth season in the League, leaving everyone asking questions like “is this redemption,” and “does a title signify the pinnacle for James and will it quiet the haters?”

With one notch on his Championship belt comes a level of respect for James that even the toughest of the haters must acknowledge.  You don’t have to like the guy or forgive some of the crappy choices he’s made in the past, but with this title comes the confirmation that LeBron is more than just a superstar; he’s a winner. 

James has experienced a true career evolution, but in reverse.  As a high school phenomenon, James was, without earning them, handed the keys to the kingdom -based on talent, not results- before making an NBA roster.  While he was a celebrity from Day 1 and showcased an arsenal of offensive skills in his very first season as a Cleveland Cavalier, it took James a few years to get his defense up to par, which elevated his game and reputation significantly. 

Since becoming the complete package circa 2009, the question seemed to be not “if” but “when” James would win a Championship and enter the elite ranks of the NBA.

For years, nobody doubted James’ talent, instead, using non-basketball reasons to pick the man apart.  From the rumored affair between ‘Bron’s mom Gloria and Delonte West, to Handshake-gate vs. the Magic, to The Decision and The Heatles, much of the James-hatred was self inflicted. 

The criticisms of being unable, and even worse, unwilling to take “big” shots tainted James’ on-court image just enough to change the question to, “will he EVER win a title?”

Individual talent is no longer good enough for those playing team sports.  The debate exists, “can you be at the most elite level without a Championship ring?”

Look at Dan Marino, or Peyton Manning before he finally led the Colts to a Super Bowl victory in 2006?

With career averages of 27.6 points, 7.2 rebounds, 48 percent shooting in 39.9 minutes per game, PLUS a host of hardware including three MVP awards, four NBA All-Defensive First Team honors and eight All-Star appearances, all that remained was a Championship to put a bow on an already-Hall of Fame worthy career. 

John Stockton & Karl Malone, TOGETHER, never won a championship.
Eglin Baylor never won a championship.
Charles Barkley never won a championship.
Reggie Miller  never won a championship.
Dominique Wilkins never won a championship.
Patrick Ewing never won a championship.

These guys are some of the best to EVER play the game of basketball, an opinion backed up by the fact that each one is a member of the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.   Had James failed to win a title during his career, he would still be in great company.  That said, he would be haunted forever, just like the men listed above remain, to this day. 

Michael Jordan won his first of six Championships in his seventh season.  It took Shaquille O’Neal eight years, and poor Dirk Novitzki toughed out 13 seasons before winning it all. 

While second place is indeed the first loser, there is something to be said for the fact that James had already been to the Finals twice, with two different teams.  Neither the Cavaliers nor last year’s Heat team would’ve made it there without James on the roster.

Every great individual basketball player needs a good team surrounding him (or her) to win at the highest level.  It took James a LONG. ASS. TIME. to get the right people around him on the court, clipboarding on the bench and sitting in the front office before he could possibly put on a ring. 

After Miami’s Big Three went through all kinds of trial and error in its first season together, the players finally fell in place this year as the Heat figured it all out.  Miami completely dismantled a Thunder team that looked unstoppable, losing a mere three playoff games heading into the Finals. 

There would be no taking a backseat for James in the Finals this year, no sir.  He did not defer to his teammates.  James was the first option, period.  That says a lot when Dwayne Wade is on the court as well.  I don’t care if Wade looked old and beat up at times, he’s still a damn good basketball player who was dwarfed by LeBron in this series, a few specific moments aside.  James averaged 28.6 ppg and 10.2 assists in the series, earning him the title of Finals MVP.

After the series-clinching Game 5 win, Wade said of James, “I don’t know if I could be happier for another guy, another man to succeed in life as I am for him.”

Talk about a different tune.  Not so long ago, word would occasionally leak from Cleveland depicting a young, cocky and often times selfish player who was so untouchable that the head coach was afraid to discipline him, causing resentment among fellow Cavs players.  Now, it sounds like James is clearly adored by his Miami teammates, including Wade, the brightest of stars in his own right.

The haters will keep on hating.  “Well, how many rings will he get?  I mean, Mark Madsen has more rings than LeBron.” 

True.  But who cares? 

In my book, all it takes is one, therefor James can finally rest on top of the mountain and enjoy the view. 


WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS

It’s a battle of old school versus new school in the Western Conference Finals as the good ol’ San Antonio Spurs look for a fifth championship while the young Seattle Super Sonics….errr, Oklahoma City Thunder strive to make their first-ever trip to the NBA Finals.

Both teams have only ONE loss between them through the first two rounds of the playoffs, a stat which really boggles the mind.  The Thunder swept the Dallas Mavericks before losing just one game to the L.A. Lakers in the second round while the Spurs swept both the Utah Jazz and the L.A. Clippers.  The Spurs won the regular season series between the two 2-1.

The Spurs have won 18 straight games dating back to early April, making this a run for the ages if they make it past the Thunder in any number of games. 

What makes San Antonio so good?  The Spurs run a quick offense with superb ball movement led by point guard Tony Parker who is having the season of his life.  with Russell Westbrook running the point, the Thunder are even faster, especially in transition (especially on the fastbreak) and have been successful shooting jumpers from all over the floor.  Just as important, OKC is averaging a league-low 10.7 turnovers in the playoffs while often capitalizing on opponents’ mistakes instead.

During the regular season Westbrook, NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant and James Harden were the top scoring trio in the league combining for 68.4 points per game.  That is FIERCE.  Sure, we’ve watched each guy go through shooting slumps are various points throughout the playoffs, but they were short in duration and clearly, didn’t cost the team wins at the end of the day. 

The Spurs aren’t exactly slouches on the other end.  He might be on the older side, but Tim Duncan is having an outstanding year.  The big man up’d his 28.8 ppg in the regular season to a fierce 32 points even in these playoffs.  Duncan also boosts a small hike in rebounding, now averaging 17.6 per game.  The guy is 36 years old.   Seriously.  It’s beyond impressive. 

Might OKC’s Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins limit him down low?  Yes.  The Thunder defense stifled L.A.’s bigs Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol at times, forcing the Lakers to settle for bricks, errrr, jump shots and three-pointers.   Luckily for the Spurs, who, along with its own trio of stars (Manu Ginobili being the third), also have legitimate depth as NINE guys on the roster averaged 8.9 points per game during the regular season.  Rookie Kawhi Leonard has come up big for the Spurs in these playoffs.  San Antonio will need all of the help it can get in dealing with a tough Thunder team.

The Thunder definitely took the tougher road in getting to the Conference Finals while getting nearly the same amount of rest as the Spurs.  My heart says the Spurs will win this series because of their experience level and coaching, but my eyes have seen the Thunder and the fury they play with.  I see this series going seven games and boy, would it be tough to send San Antonio packing on their own home court.  You guys will have to decide your own winner on this one since I can’t!

EASTERN CONFERENCE

I hate to say it, but I don’t think the Boston Celtics matter all that much in this series.  What I mean by that is the winner of the series depends on which Miami Heat team shows up at the arena.  Is it the confused, Bosh-less Heat?  The secure, pink-pants-wearing DWade, Bosh-less Heat?  The Heat, with Bosh? 

Surprisingly, the Celtics won the season series 3-1 against the Heat and even with players out due to injury, looked their best against Miami.  The old Big Three definitely get inspired taking on the new Big Three and it shows.  The great thing about Boston is the palpable emotion that drips from the pores of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, lifting not only their teammates but firing up the crowd as well, at home or on the road.  Aside from the Lakers, no other team enthuses the Celtics the way Miami does.

I would give the playoff edge to the team with a true center, but neither the Celtics or Heat has one, which is pretty interesting considering the value of the position historically.  I was looking forward to a Bosh vs. Garnett match up down low, but that is unlikely given Bosh’s abdominal injury.

The season-ending injury to Boston’s Avery Bradley could really hurt the Celtics as he has been integral to Boston’s defense, which has carried the team through the playoffs.  Boston is holding teams to a mere 83.9 ppg in the playoffs, good for the best team defense in the postseason.  It should be fascinating to watch that defense go up against the ever-potent Heat offense which is averaging 95.5 ppg.  The highest score against the Celtics this postseason has been 92 points while the Heat have scored over 100 points in six of 11 games. 

What makes the Heat machine run so well?  LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.  When they are on and feelin it, back up or else! Despite having issues at times, check out the overall playoff performances of these two.  James: 29.0ppg, 8.7 rpg, 5.9apg.  Wade: 23.8ppg, 4.5rpg, 3.6apg.  Of course, various Heat role players step up to the plate each night which is great, although not fabulous for the sake of consistency.

Interestingly, the Celtics Big Three has been offensively inconsistent throughout the playoffs while Rajon Rondo has done most of the heavy lifting averaging 15.0ppg, 12.5apg, 6.4rpg and 2.6 steals.  If Miami’s defense heats up and the Big 3 are off the mark offensively, it will make life tough on Rondo.  Sure he can sore and be a one man show, but his job is to distribute the ball.  Rondo alone can’t beat the Heat.

If Miami plays the way they did closing out the series against Indiana, they’ll beat the Celtics with the youth, speed and strength of LeBron and DWade along with the shot of Mario Chalmers (ok, shots…many shots… should they make it in the net).  I say Miami in 7. 

In a condensed season that has lacked consistency in quality of play and top-notch rivalry games, the NBA fed its hungry fans with a prime time basketball feast on Wednesday night.  Both the Thunder vs. Heat and Lakers vs. Clippers games were full of excitement and intensity, fueling the competition as the league prepares for the playoffs. 

The Heat and Thunder proved that in fact, basketball is a game of runs, and typically the team that puts their foot on the gas last comes out the victor.  Oklahoma City couldn’t sustain its early lead as the Heat came roaring back in what turned out to be a nail-biting 98-93 finish, good for Miami’s 17th consecutive home win, which is the longest streak in the league this season. 

Sitting just two games behind the Bulls for first place in the East, Miami would do itself a huge favor by pulling ahead of Chicago as home court clearly means a lot to this team which is poised to, once again, do real damage to opponents come the playoffs. 

That was just one of a few pertinent messages delivered by the Heat with a victory in which they overcame an 11-point second quarter deficit and were held to a dismal 37 percent shooting overall.  Apparently, some people think the Heat are a bunch of wussie, prima donnas.  Now, the latter might be true but this is one tough group of players that has battled injury, top-notch defenders and physical play throughout much of their careers. 

Wednesday night brought more of the same as the Thunder weren’t the least bit intimidated by the defending runner-up Heatles.  It was no guts, no glory for OKC which was evident in their chippy style of play and the willingness of Russell Westbrook and Kendrick Perkins to go one or two body slams short of WWE on LeBron James and Dwayne Wade.  With the evolution of Perky in OCK comes more and more of a Celtics-like attitude of entitlement and fearlessness that the Thunder need to survive the playoffs out West.

Despite relinquishing an early and ultimately losing the game, the Thunder made just as big of a statement as the hometown Heat in the fact that they are a forced to be reckoned with on the court, both physically and fundamentally.  With the media’s coronation of these two as eventual Finals foes, both teams had to send a message and both did, even though only one team got the “W”  at the end of the night.

Across the country in Downtown L.A., another edition of intra-Staples Center play commenced between the Lakers and Clippers, duking it out in front of a Red and White home crowd. 

It is truly fascinating how one player can change the tone of a team, and thus the ambiance of an entire rivalry. 

Blake Griffin brought boatloads of excitement and confidence to the Clippers in his debut NBA season last year and while the “other” L.A. team certainly improved, they didn’t exactly instill fear in their bully big brothers wearing Purple and Gold. 

But this season is completely different.  Not only are the Clippers in the playoff hunt  - and by that, I mean actually going to make the post season, instead of hovering between 8th and 12th out West (and that’s during a good year!)  - but the team’s attitude has undergone a complete makeover with the addition of Chris Paul. 

It started with the first two pre-season games on the schedule for both teams, which saw the two LA squads playing each other.  From opening tip, there were no smiles and only scowls, specifically on the face of Blake Griffin, which would soon spread to the rest of his Clippers teammates.

The Clipps put the Lake Show on notice:  we’re no longer the lovable underdog who you share an arena with and whose fans buy our cheap season tickets just for the two games here at Staples where you, the Lakers are considered the “road team.”  We have an All-Star-caliber lineup of our own with Paul, Griffin, De’Andre Jordan and Chauncy Billups (pre-injury, of course), so don’t mess with us or you’ll be sorry.

The Clippers carried that swag right into the regular season and have not let up against the Lakers.  Heading into their third and final meeting of the regular season, the series was tied 1-1, with those two games consisting of 11 individual technical fouls between both teams.  

A red-hot Kobe Bryant and the Lakers put the little Clipps in their place early on in the rubber match, but the Red and White fought back with a massive run of their own, making the Heat’s comeback look lame in comparison to CP3 & company’s comeback from a 15-point third quarter deficit. 

There were dunks, threes, and fouls galore in a game full of high-flying antics and brutal physicality that scared the Lakers straight, as late-game defense coupled with the hoops-heroics of Bryant and Bynum sealed a 113-108 Lakers victory.

The Clippers are now 2 1/2 games behind the Lakers who own the 3-spot in the Western Conference, at least for the time being.  More importantly, the Lakers own the tiebreak as they won the season series against the Clippers 2-1.

Including the two pre-season games, each of the five meetings between the Lakers and Clippers this season were worth watching as every one of them involved a sense of urgency, rivalry, bitterness and importance.  A few years ago, when the Clippers made the playoffs for the first time in what felt like forever, there was a possibility that the Lakers would meet their neighbors in the second round, but that never came to fruition as the Phoenix Suns knocked out the Lakers in round one before giving the Clippers the same treatment in the second round.

A Lakers/Clippers playoff series could easily go seven games even though I think the Lakers are a stronger team on many levels at this point. 

Aside from providing ratings gold for the NBA and various TV networks, both a Lakers vs Clippers and Heat vs Thunder playoff series would be a welcome treat for basketball fans. 

                     

Pitcher Mark Buehrle found himself between a rock and a hard place when it came time to sign his name on the dotted line in Miami.  Before agreeing to a four-year, $58 million dollar contract with the Marlins in December, the lefty had to figure out how he and his family could move  to South Florida because of a law banning various breeds of Pit Bulls in Miami-Dade County, on the books since 1989. 

Buehrle, his wife Jamie and their two children are proud owners of Slater, an American Staffordshire Terrier (pictured above), along with three Viszals (Diesel, Drake and Duke), and do a lot of work with animal organizations. 

If you recall, Buehrle stirred the pot after Michael Vick’s first season with the Eagles after the quarterback was reinstated following a federal prison sentence for his role in operating a vicious dog fighting ring. 

  

In a joint interview with his wife for MLB.com, Buehrle said of Vick, “He had a great year and a great comeback, but there were times where we watched the game, and I know it’s bad to say, but there were times where we hope he gets hurt.  Everything you’ve done to these dogs, something bad needs to happen to these guys.”

Strong words that were undoubtedly echoed by many animal lovers worldwide, and equally condemned at the same time. Buehrle, who as a result of the ban in Miami-Dade county is living farther away from the Marlins’ facility in Broward County, also lent his opinions on the Pit Bull law to the Miami Herald.

"It’s kind of ridiculous that because of the way a dog looks, people will ban it," Buehrle told the Herald.  "Every kind of dog has good and bad, and that depends on the handlers. If you leave a dog outside all the time, it’ll be crazy. Slater would never do anything harmful.”

In an unscientific poll I’ve conducted, the postal workers in my neighborhood (all of whom have been bitten by dogs on the job) all perceive small dogs as more of a threat than Pit Bulls based on the the pooches that have attacked them.  Yipper yappers, as I call them, can be quite dangerous themselves.  In other words, don’t judge a book by its cover.

Like Buehrle, I too am a bit biased as I own a Pit Bull mix who is the sweetest, friendliest dog you’ll ever meet.  A law banning a specific breed of dog is just one of many reasons why dogs end up on the streets, abandoned and in the pound.  A blogger on Yahoo Sports made a great point that not every family has Mark Buehrle money, and if you are forced to move for a new job, what choice are you left with in terms of the family pet?  It’s really a shame to even think about a situation like that.

Luckily, the Buehrle family has the resources to take a new job and keep their dog.  Hopefully the fact that Buerhle made a stink about it will raise awareness in the Miami area, perhaps influencing an eventual overturn of the ban.