Tuesday, March 2, 2010

A little March Gladness

Here's a story that I hope will cheer everyone up. As it turns out I love women's college basketball. I was looking up some stats on some of my favorite players and came across an excellent page at Fox Sports. Yeah, I know I have sworn to boycott Fox News, but there just isn't very good coverage of women's basketball - to say the least. So you get your information wherever you can.

The great thing about this Fox webpage is that you can sort dynamically by whatever stat your interested in. (I know that's a given in men's sports, but try finding this information for the women.) One of my beefs with the men's game is how badly they shoot free throws. When I watch the women play they seem to be making a higher percentage of foul shots. It's true that the women's ball is slightly smaller, but the free throw line is at the same spot and the height of the basket is the same.

There are a few women that are hitting over 90%, which is way excellent. Another thing that bothers me is players that hit a high percentage of 3-point shots and then miss their free throws. Well there was one woman that was hitting 91% of her free throws and 44% of her 3 point shots. She was one of the leaders in both categories. So why is she playing for Delaware?

Then I looked at her points per game: 26.9! That's Michael Jordan territory. Sure she's making that against inferior competition, but surely the free throw numbers can't lie. So finally I decided to do a Google search. I expected to find an undersized guard that couldn't make it into the big conferences because of her size. Wrong. She's 6' 5''!

Her name is Elena Delle Donne - not exactly a household name - but if she was playing in one of the major conferences she would be as well known as Tina Charles. So there's got to be a story here, right? And sure enough there is - and a great one at that.

I like to give credit to my fellow bloggers whenever I can, so here's a shout-out to Michael Lewis at Wide World of Stuff. He has one of the top ranked articles on Elena and provides some great links to stories in the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.

If you still think I'm overhyping this female athlete, just take a look at this. In a recent game against one of the top teams in her conference, Elena scored a whopping 54 points! That's just the most points scored this season in a Division I game - no biggie. That's more points than the whole Notre Dame team scored in their recent loss to Connecticut.

Somehow Delaware lost that game against James Madison, which tells you something about the caliber of the team as a whole. In fact Delaware is not even headed for the NCAA tournament. And they are in the middle of the pack in their CAA conference. At least they have a winning conference record at 10-7.

Of course you can't put up those kind of numbers and go unnoticed. And Elena has been recruited by colleges throughout the nation since she was in middle school. Eventually she chose to go to Connecticut, one of the top women's basketball programs in the country. So what happened? Why is Elena currently playing at Delaware?

ESPN did an excellent job of letting Elena tell the story herself in this mini-documentary on their "Outside the Lines" program.

Elena describes herself as "burnt-out". We're all familiar with that term. We talk about being burnt-out at work or burnt-out at school. It's almost a cliché. But I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate on the particular nature of being "burnt-out" as it applies to an elite athlete of the caliber of Elena.

I've been watching the Vancouver Olympics. There was one story in particular that grabbed my attention. It's an oft repeated story about Olympic short track skater Apolo Ohno. The story has become almost legendary and who knows the true details behind it, but the gist of the story is that Apolo's dad, Yuki, disgusted with his son's performance dropped him off at a remote cabin. There Apolo was left for eight days alone. His father had given him the task to decide at the age of 15, whether he was going to commit himself to a career in skating. According to the legend, Apolo came out with the resolve to commit himself to his sport and never looked back.

That's the way the story is told by the sports media. It is used as an inspirational story of the love of a father, and the dedication of a son. But I'm not so sure. I wonder about how young children are molded into elite athletes in the US sport system. I wonder about the pressures put on young, vulnerable kids to perform at an early age.

American society is all about pressure. How much pressure can you handle? The amount of pressure you can take seems to correlate to how successful you will be in life. Americans revel in rising to meet the ever increasing expectations. We take pride in our ability to handle life's challenges without complaining, as we push ourselves to the breaking point.

American society is all about competition and winning. "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." Perhaps this explains American's obsession with being the best. It's a culture that perhaps can be compared to ancient Sparta. This wouldn't be so bad if this spirit of competition weren't then translated into militarism. But that's exactly what I'm afraid has happened to American society.

And this is what intrigues me about this story. This connection between athletics and militarism. I can't help but thinking that part of the training that a young athlete goes through is a kind of brainwashing. Similar to the initiation process that a young recruit goes through in the military. They are broken down mentally and physically until they are totally subservient. Then they are reshaped into the mold of a soldier.

It seems to me that something similar went on with Elena. It wasn't so much that she was burnt-out, but that she refused to fit the mold. She wanted time to find out who she really is outside of basketball. She wanted to be able to spend time with her older sister, Elizabeth, who has autism and cerebral palsy and was born deaf and blind.

Everyone told her she was making the biggest mistake of her life. How hard must it have been to walk away from all of that. It's not everyone who gets the kind of opportunities that she has had in life. And yet I applaud her for standing up to the pressures and deciding to live a simpler life.

If Elena had been born 50 years earlier, before the rise of women's sports, she would perhaps have been happy. She would have been "a natural", a skilled player at her game who would not have attracted that much attention. She would have excelled at basketball or some other sport and would probably have competed in college. Maybe she would have even participated in the Olympics as an amateur.

She would have received accolades from local newspapers and others in her sport. And after graduating from college, she would have pursued a "normal" life. Perhaps, inspired by her older sister, she would have become a special education teacher as she has talked about in interviews. Times were simpler back then. I'll let you be the judge as to whether they were "better". They were certainly different.

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