Unbroken: My Review

March 1st, 2014

I just finished Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand. I wanted to give a quick review of the book, since I found reading it to be such a profound experience.

Unbroken is the story of Louis “Louie” Zamperini. He’s led an incredible life, and the book follows it from the beginning to present day. It starts off with Louie’s childhood, and how he was a mischievous boy. As he got older, running became his escape. It got him on the right path, plus Zamperini had an innate skill for it. He took to it like a fish to water, eventually even making the US team in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.

The real focus of the book, however, is Louie’s experience in World War II. He joined the Army Air Force and was a bombardier in the Pacific portion of the war. One day, when participating in a search party, the plane Louie’s flying in, The Green Hornet, went down in the middle of the ocean. Louie and two other crewman, Phil and Mac, survived the crash. The three of them were stuck in a life raft, in the middle of the ocean, for weeks. Mac eventually succumbed to starvation, dehydration and the rigors of floating in a life raft in the middle of the ocean after 33 days. Louie and Phil kept going, lasting 47 days, before reaching the Marshall Islands.

Upon reaching the islands, Louie and Phil are immediately captured by the Japanese. This starts the next chapter of his war experience, where Louie is a POW until the conclusion of WWII in 1945. He endured unimaginable conditions, meager nutrition and, most noteworthy, severe treatment from the Japanese, in particular Mutsuhiro Watanabe, whom the prisoners called “The Bird.”

After the war, Louie and the rest of the POWS returned to a hero’s welcome. But assimilating back into society wasn’t easy. In fact, it was very difficult. Louie really struggled with his demons for years, often having flashbacks and his dreams invaded by images of The Bird inflicting unthinkable punishment. This, in turn, caused him to turn to alcohol, which almost ruined his life and his marriage.

Yet, one day, while evangelist Billy Graham was hosting a convention in Los Angeles, where Louie lived, his wife, Cynthia, talked him into attending. The first day there, Louie left in shame, but he was coaxed into returning the next day. That day’s sermon hit home for Zamperini. He saw the proverbial light, and with it came peace and forgiveness for what had been done to him. In fact, Louie returned to Japan to face his captors and to let them know that he’d forgiven them.

From there, the book delves a bit into the rest of his life. He’s received countless awards, ran a camp for troubled boys, carried the torch in numerous Olympics and done countless other things I’m not mentioning. In fact, this is obviously a real general rundown of the book.

The main reason I wanted to write this wasn’t to summarize the book. I couldn’t do that justice, as Hillenbrand is an amazing writer. How she was able to do all the research and interviews to put something like this together is remarkable. Perhaps more amazing is her ability to convey that information in an entertaining and meaningful way. So much so, that you don’t need to enjoy history to enjoy the book.

While this book is certainly centered around a historical event, that wasn’t what I took away from it.  Don’t get me wrong, as a history major in college, I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect of Unbroken. But what I’ll remember most are the lessons on the human spirit and its ability to overcome incredible adversity. The physical survival of Zamperini is amazing, but I enjoyed his spiritual survival more.

Admittedly, I’m not a religious person, at least not in the traditional sense, so I can’t relate to that aspect of the book. Yet his ability to find peace after such an unthinkable ordeal is unfathomable. The fact he was able to put his flashbacks and atrocities behind him is one thing; that he was able to completely forgive his captors for what they’d done is what really stood out. Although, I suppose he wouldn’t have put it all behind him without forgiveness. But that’s only a supposition. I’ve obviously never experienced anything close to Zamperini, and therefore cannot relate to him.

In order to like this book, all you really have to like is reading. It’s that good. There’s something in here for everyone. History buffs will take away that aspect of the book. Virtually everyone will enjoy the stories of the human spirit. I’m not big on recommending books to people, as I believe there’s a subjective quality to them. Everyone can appreciate good writing, but that doesn’t mean you’ll like the book. Kind of like music. Anybody with any sense of objectivity can identify a talented musician when they hear them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll like the music. This book is different. Not only will you be able to enjoy the brilliance of Hillenbrand’s writing, but you’ll also enjoy reading the book. I’m quite sure of that, which is why I absolutely recommend it.

Read Unbreakable. You won’t regret it.

The Journey, Episode 10.

May 7th, 2013

I’ve been hosting a podcast since January but have yet to post any of the links on here. Well, that stops now. Here’s Episode 10 of the Journey. I’m joined by Tom Firme to talk Memphis Grizzlies/OKC Thunder and Garrett Jochnau to talk San Antonio Spurs/Golden State Warriors.

You can listen to the show here, or you can download it on iTunes by searching “Sim Risso”.

How Much Is Tyreke Evans Worth to the Sacramento Kings?

May 5th, 2013

I wrote a recent article for Bleacher Report that examines how much Tyreke Evans is worth to the Sacramento Kings. I examine the recent contracts that similar players have signed and compare them to Evans to give an indication of what his market value would be. Then I juxtapose that value with what he’s worth to the Kings. You can find the article here.

What the Sacramento Kings Mean to This Loyal Fan

April 30th, 2013

I posted a new article on Bleacher Report. It’s about the Kings staying in Sacramento!!! Here’s the link.

Why Jason Collins’ Announcement Is a Victory for Our Society

April 29th, 2013

If you’re someone that’s read a lot of my work, you’ll notice that I try to avoid anything political. The vast majority of my writing deals with sports. That’s for a couple different reasons: 1) I deal in the sports realm; I’m much more comfortable discussing it, and 2) I don’t feel too strongly about politics because, for the most part, I don’t think they define us. I’ve met plenty of good people from all sides of the political spectrum.

That said, I’m going to step back from that overall philosophy and write about something that’s overall scope isn’t entirely sports related. That, of course, is the recent announcement from Jason Collins in an upcoming issue of Sports Illustrated that he is homosexual. Collins’ revelation puts him as the first male in a major American team sport to come out while still an active player.

Personally, I’m proud to be an American. I’m proud to be a citizen of one the most progressive countries in the world. Yet there are certainly times when I feel like our society isn’t progressive enough…isn’t accepting enough. So I’m proud to say that this is not one of those moments. I feel like today is a victory for all Americans, regardless of your opinions on homosexuality.

I don’t know what the overall effect of Collins’ announcement will have. I don’t know how people will react. I imagine we’ll see people voice opinions on both sides. And that’s fine by me. I’d expect nothing less. In fact, I want nothing less. Homosexuality, like plenty of other things, is a polarizing issue in this country. But the only way we can truly accept people for who they are is to have an open dialogue. This announcement will certainly provide that.

What I take from the announcement, and what I think people should take from it, is not whether homosexuality is “right or wrong.” I have my opinions, just as I’m sure you have yours. What those opinions are is irrelevant. What is relevant, however, is that acceptance of people for who they are is paramount.

Because we’re a progressive society, the dialogue about sexual orientation isn’t going away. And just because Collins was the first male in American professional team sports to come out, it certainly doesn’t mean he’ll be the last. If anything, his revelation will open the floodgates to more and more people feeling comfortable enough to go public with it. This, too, is a good thing.

But now that this is here to stay (not that it wasn’t before), we as a society need to accept it for what it is. Even if you don’t agree with homosexuality, think it’s some sort of sin, or a decision people make rather than a natural preference beyond their control, you need to accept that it’s here to stay, and treat people with respect regardless of their orientation.

I’ll end with this: I’m not big on quotes or quoting people. Don’t get me wrong, I read quite a bit and I come across many admirable sayings worth admiring. However, not many of them resonate with me to the point where I use them in every day life or use them in my writing.

Yet there’s one that I learned during my freshman year of high school in my Italian I class while watching the Federico Fellini film, “81/2.” The quote reads, “Accept me as I am. Only then can we discover each other.”

That’s what Collins’ announcement, and any other ones like it, are about. We don’t have to like it. We don’t have to agree with it. But we need to accept it for what it is, for that’s the only way we’ll see people for who they are. That’s the real accomplishment here.

Yes, it’s a monumental day in gay rights. That’s good, but it’s also beside the point. It’s a monumental day for our society as a whole. This is another step in accepting people for who they are. That’s the real victory.

Follow me on Twitter: @SimRisso

Predicting Each Divisional Round Matchup of NFL Playoffs

January 11th, 2013

For as promising as last week’s playoff matchups appeared to be heading into the weekend, what we ended up getting were three less-than-dramatic games.

Without Christian Ponder, the Vikings stood no chance against the Green Bay Packers, especially since they didn’t have a great chance of winning even with Ponder. The Bengals offense could get absolutely nothing going against the Texans defense, making that game a one-sided affair. The now-inspired Baltimore Ravens were too experienced, too jacked up, and just too good for the Indianapolis Colts and rookie quarterback Andrew Luck to handle.

The only game that had any drama at all was the matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and Washington Redskins, one in which the Seahawks won 24-14 after trailing 14-0. However, upon extending their lead to 14-0, the Redskins essentially lost Robert Griffin III for the game, even though he remained in the contest until midway through the fourth quarter. It was later learned by Chris Mortensen of ESPN that Griffin had a torn ACL and LCL, which helps to explain is ineffective play after the hot start.

So here’s to hoping that this week’s playoff matchups are better than last week’s. Like last week’s, we have four games on the schedule. Unlike last week, we seem to have some teams that are more evenly matched. It’ll be interesting to see how it shakes out and who will be heading to the conference championship games. To that end, here are my predictions for the divisional round matchups.

Baltimore Ravens at Denver Broncos

These two teams played earlier in the regular season with the Broncos beating the Ravens 34-17. Unlike that game, which was played in Baltimore, this one is in Denver. The result, however, will remain the same. Denver is the only team in the NFL that boasted both a top-five offense and a top-five defense. The Broncos’ highly-ranked defense should give Joe Flacco fits. And even though you can never count out the Ravens defense, this isn’t the same bunch we’ve become accustomed to seeing. Not to mention Peyton Manning is running the Broncos offense. It’s possible the Ravens ride the momentum of this being Ray Lewis’ last ride, but it’s likely that Ray will be riding off into the sunset.

Green Bay Packers at San Francisco 49ers

This is the most difficult game for me to pick because of the matchup and because I’m an admitted 49ers fan. Quite honestly, regardless of all the focus put towards the 49ers’ switch from Alex Smith to Colin Kaepernick, this game will come down to one thing for the 49ers: the health of Justin Smith. If Smith is healthy, I think the 49ers win the game, simply because his presence allows the 49ers to get consistent pressure with a four-man rush, making it much more difficult for Aaron Rodgers to pick apart a secondary that can commit to coverage. If Smith isn’t healthy and the 49ers have to commit to blitzing to pressure Rodgers, the Packers win this game even if Kaepernick or the 49ers offense is rolling. The 49ers can’t afford to get into a shootout with Rodgers and the Packers, and if Justin Smith isn’t healthy, that’s exactly what will happen. Ultimately, I’ll pick the Packers because I’m not sure about Smith’s health, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see the 49ers win.

Seattle Seahawks at Atlanta Falcons

If Chris Clemons didn’t hurt himself against the Redskins, I’d surely pick the Seahawks to win this game. With the loss of Clemons, it remains to be seen how much Seattle’s pass rush is affected. Rookie Bruce Irvin is expected to take over and he should be able to provide some pressure, but how much? I’ll pick Seattle anyways, but that’s mostly because I don’t trust Atlanta’s ability to win in the playoffs, rather than the Seahawks’ overwhelming ability. I think Seattle can run the ball against the Falcons, alleviating pressure off of Russell Wilson. I also like Seattle’s chances of slowing down Roddy White and Julio Jones because of cornerbacks Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner.

Houston Texans at New England Patriots

This is by far the easiest game to pick of the weekend. Regardless of location, I’d pick the Patriots to beat the Texans. Since the game is in New England, I think it’s almost a lock. First, consider New England trounced Houston 42-14 in Foxborough, Mass. a month ago. On top of that, it’s Tom Brady and Bill Belichick vs. Matt Schaub and Gary Kubiak. I think Kubes is a good coach and Schaub is an above-average quarterback, but they’ll be opposing two all-time greats. It’d be one thing if Houston was going against New England’s porous defense from a year ago. This unit is ranked seventh in total defense and tied with Houston for ninth in scoring defense. Houston’s only real shot at winning this one is getting out to an early lead and forcing New England to be one-dimensional on offense, allowing J.J. Watt to relentlessly pressure Tom Brady. I don’t expect another repeat of the 42-14 game, but I think New England wins this one pretty easily.


Predicting Who Wins Each Wild Card Round Matchup

January 5th, 2013

The NFL playoffs are finally here. All of the participants and matchups have been finalized. Now it’s time to settle it on the field.

Part of what makes the NFL so much fun as a spectator is the “any given Sunday” mentality—that any given team can win on any given Sunday. To an extent, this carries through to the playoffs; although by now, we have a 16-game sample size to go off of. Given the unpredictable nature of the NFL, there are no guarantees that my picks will be correct. That said, here’s my best attempt at predicting the winners of this week’s Wild Card Round.

Cincinnati Bengals at Houston Texans

This game features two teams headed in opposite directions. The Bengals finished their season on a roll, while the Texans stumbled into the playoffs, losing their No. 1 seed and first-round bye by losing to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 17. This is one of the more difficult matchups to pick, but I’ll go with the Bengals, simply because they’re entering the playoffs hot, and I think the Bengals have an advantage on defense and at the quarterback position.

Minnesota Vikings at Green Bay Packers

This is a rematch of Week 17, in which the Vikings topped the Packers 37-34, giving Minnesota a berth into the playoffs. Although the Vikings won their most recent matchup, I like the Packers for one main reason: quarterback play.

Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL right now; Christian Ponder has been solid in the past few weeks but shaky overall. Quarterback play becomes increasingly important in the playoffs; either in the ability to make a big play at an opportune time or to avoid a costly mistake at an inopportune time. That’s a distinct advantage for the Packers.

I think Minnesota’s best chance at winning is to control the ball by running Adrian Peterson and turning this into a low-scoring affair, even in light of it dropping 37 on Green Bay in Week 17. While it’s possible for that to come to fruition, the Vikings must not fall behind. If they’re in a scenario where Christian Ponder needs to get them back into the game by throwing, then they’ll be in a lot of trouble.

Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens

Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis is returning for Sunday’s game against the Colts. His presence alone should help steady a Baltimore defense that’s been shaky. Add in the emotional swing from Lewis announcing that he would retire after this season, and I’ve got to believe the Ravens will find a way to get it done. That’ll be one fired up team and one fired up stadium, especially with it likely being Lewis’ last game in Baltimore, regardless of whether the Ravens win or lose.

As much as I like Andrew Luck, I’m not too confident in his ability to win a playoff game. His offensive line is shoddy and he doesn’t have much of a run game to support him. That should allow the Ravens to apply pressure without a genuine fear of being beaten on the ground. I don’t necessarily like Joe Flacco any better, but I think he has a stronger supporting cast around him.

Seattle Seahawks at Washington Redskins

This game is incredibly difficult to pick. Both teams have rookie quarterbacks who have shown to be similar in skill set and ability throughout the season. They both have excellent ground attacks, with Seattle ranking third in rushing and the Redskins ranking first. Ultimately, though, I think Washington has a better offensive attack, mainly because I like its versatility and receiving corps better.

There’s no doubting that Seattle has a serious advantage on defense. The Seahawks were fourth in total defense and first in points allowed. The Redskins, meanwhile, were 28th in total defense and 22nd in points allowed.

The last component worth considering is the game’s venue, as Seattle has gained a reputation for being a juggernaut at home and subpar on the road. Once again, the Seahawks were 8-0 at home (really 7-1 because the Green Bay debacle shouldn’t count) and 3-5 on the road. The Redskins were a steady 5-3 both at home and on the road.

I’m really waffling in my mind, but I’ll pick the Seahawks. I don’t like them having to travel to Washington; that’s an obvious disadvantage given their woes on the road. But, because the quarterbacks and offense are so similar, the difference in each team’s defense will become a factor. In general, I also like a defense’s ability to travel, so even if Seattle’s offense struggles in Washington, its defense should be its normal stout self.

Check back next week for my predictions in the Divisional Round.

Also, Follow me on Twitter: @SimRisso

Marvin Miller: The Loss of a Legend

November 28th, 2012

As you’ve probably heard by now, the father of the MLB Players’ Association, Marvin Miller, has passed away at the age of 95. Like most people, you probably aren’t too aware of Miller’s contributions. While I’m not an expert on the man, or his life, I became somewhat familiar with his story by reading John Helyar’s “The Lords of the Realm” (an excellent book, if you haven’t read it).

There isn’t much to be said about his life accomplishments that hasn’t been written a hundred times over by other journalists. Because of that, I’ll largely stay away from that topic. Besides, since my only encounters with the man are from Helyar’s book, I’ll give you what I took away from it.

As a character, Miller was hard to sympathize with. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons why, but my inclination is that it’s because of his hard-lined approach. Miller knew what he wanted to accomplish, and he took whatever steps were necessary to get there. Whether it was striking, battling it out in courts or by being a cut-throat negotiator, Miller always reached his destination.

He’s also, at least according to the baseball executives interviewed in Helyar’s book, responsible for ending the patriarchy between front offices and their players. Before Miller and the union, there was this relationship between a team and its players that hasn’t existed since. The players viewed their general managers like their parents; they’d ask them for advice, and they’d negotiate contracts together, the players knowing full well that the GMs held all the leverage.

After Miller, relationships between teams and players became business-like, which is ultimately what they should be. After all, as much as we hate to admit it, that’s what professional sports really are—businesses. That’s how they operate when deciding which players to sign and which players to cut. Personality, character, years of service…those things don’t go into consideration; it’s only about the bottom line.

Miller’s also responsible for skyrocketing salaries and free agency. Those things tend to add a disconnect, especially the salaries, between athletes and their fans. It’s simply easier to relate to someone when you’re in a similar financial situation. You face the same struggles, or a lack thereof, and you tend to look at the world in similar ways.

While those climbing salaries and increased freedom created distance between fans and athletes, or athletes and front offices, it’s a necessary evil. As I see it: Sports are a big-time business. There’s a lot of money invested and that doesn’t figure to change anytime soon. So, the question becomes: If somebody’s capitalizing on this, should it be the players or the teams?

You could look at it both ways. The teams deserve the most capital because they’re the ones flipping the bills; they’re the ones taking all of the financial risks. The players, however, are the commodity. Without them, sports wouldn’t be as lucrative as they are. They’re the “talent”; they should be rewarded handsomely for that. Miller understood that, and he used it to his advantage in negotiations. So, as unpleasant as Miller may have come off to the owners, to the media and to the fans, he was a necessary cog in the sporting landscape.

Without Miller, we may have eventually ended up where were are today. Athletes would probably still make millions of dollars, and sports would probably still consume a large portion of our daily lives. But just because something would have happened eventually, it doesn’t discredit those that hastened the process. For that reason, Miller deserves credit for his accomplishments.

Whether that means he’s eventually enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame, who knows? The fact that he’s not already there tells us a lot about the purpose of the Hall of Fame; it’s not a historical museum, it’s a revisionist’s historical museum. Its refusal to include Miller and steroid users tells us as much. But that’s beside the point.

The point is, losing Marvin Miller today is a blow to our society. Agree or disagree with his methods and his accomplishments, you can’t deny his progressive nature. Those are the types of people that make this society great. They have enough foresight and intelligence to see something that needs to be changed, and they have enough courage to do something about it.

For that, Marvin Miller will surely be missed.

Drawing Walks and Getting to the Free-Throw Line

November 6th, 2012

The recent advancements made in sports analysis have been in sabermetrics, or advanced statistics. These advanced statistics give us a new way of evaluating sports and seeing value in areas that haven’t been coveted historically. Two examples, from different sports, that come to mind are drawing walks in baseball and getting to the free-throw line in basketball. While both are obviously from different sports, there are some similarities between the two.

First, there’s the simple fact that being able to consistently draw walks or regularly getting to the free-throw line is a quantifiable value in a player. But the similarities don’t stop there.

There’s also the fact that drawing walks and getting to the free-throw line are skills. That is, they aren’t random. In baseball, it’s about plate discipline and working the count to your favor. One could also argue that eyesight factors into the equation. While that’s true, even the most free-swinging players have adequate vision; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have made it to the major leagues. So really, it comes down to discipline and working counts.

In basketball, getting to the free-throw line on a regular basis requires aggressiveness with the ball and manipulating defenders into uncomfortable positions, where they’ve either left their feet and have no control over their body, or by being forced to foul because they are out of position.

Some players are better than others at drawing walks in baseball; some players are better than others at getting to the free-throw line in basketball. And if you look at statistics, you’ll see that the same names keep popping up in leader boards in both categories.

There’s also what I like to call the “fear factor”. The basic idea behind the “fear factor” is that if you’re a dominant enough player, you’ll draw walks in baseball and you’ll get to the free-throw line in basketball.

The best example in baseball is Vladimir Guerrero. Anybody who watched Vlad play knows about his free-swinging nature. It’s what made him such an amazing player to watch, because he could hit pitches inside and out; from his toes to his eyes. But despite that lack of plate discipline, Guerrero drew his share of walks. It obviously wasn’t because he was a patient hitter, it’s because pitchers feared him.

Consider that from 1999-2007, Guerrero averaged 62 walks per season. Or, you could say he walked in 9.6 percent of his plate appearances during that time. That’s a decent number, certainly better than average. But it’s attributable to the fear surrounding pitching to Vlad. As an example of this, on average, 23 of Guerrero’s 62 walks during that span were intentional walks. And an unquantifiable number of those were “unintentional intentional walks”, where the pitcher didn’t throw anything within the vicinity of the plate.

The same goes for basketball, with Shaquille O’Neal being the best example. During O’Neal’s prime (1994-2005), he shot an average of 10.7 free throws per game. Six times during that span, O’Neal led the NBA in free-throw attempts. Was this due to his ability to draw fouls or was it due to the “fear factor”?

With O’Neal, it’s difficult to quantify how much was due to fear and how much was due to a skill in getting to the line. He undoubtedly drew a lot of fouls because of his position (center) and proximity to the basket. But the fear that came along with O’Neal was the main reason he got to the stripe so often. Basically, whenever he got the ball near the hoop, he was unstoppable. It was a better bet to foul him and send him to the line than to try and guard him honestly.

What’s interesting is that statistically speaking, fouling O’Neal was a better bet than letting him shoot. His career field-goal percentage (.582) is greater than his career free-throw percentage (.527). And if he makes a field goal, it’s an automatic two points. If you foul him, the odds are that he’ll only get one point because of his poor free-throw shooting.

In baseball, on the other hand, in most situations it’s statistically better to pitch to a player like Vladimir Guerrero than it is to walk him intentionally, because the expected value of putting a player on base automatically is higher than if you were to pitch to him. There are scenarios that are exceptions to the rule, but for the most part, you’re better off pitching to a hitter than giving him a free pass.

So, what’s the point? The point is that there are two-new school barometers of evaluating players in two different sports and there are similarities between the two. There are similarities in the skills involved, and there are also similarities in the fear involved. Is that useful information? That’s up to each individual. But it’s certainly interesting, which is what’s most important to me.

Indianapolis Colts hire Jim Tressel as Replay Consultant

September 3rd, 2011

Former Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel was hired by the Colts as a replay assistant. But will Tressel face suspension like Terrelle Pryor will have to?

Read more at Suite101: Indianapolis Colts hire Jim Tressel as Replay Consultant | Suite101.com http://www.suite101.com/content/indianapolis-colts-hire-jim-tressel-as-replay-consultant-a387232#ixzz1WukhWZZt