Culture of Hoops

Top 10 Most Influential People and Stories in Sports for 2014

Image courtesy of Samuel Stafford/Flickr.

Image courtesy of Samuel Stafford/Flickr.

Out of the hundreds of exasperatingly exhausting stories that were layered with corruption and distaste during 2014 (kindly shoo, Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and Donald Sterling), here are ten individuals that caught both my attention, and the nation’s attention, in a positive way this past year.

10. Dirk Nowitzki
It’s somewhat difficult to stumble upon an athlete who has such an overwhelmingly strong presence both in their particular field of expertise as well as in everyday life without harboring a slight enmity toward them – whether it’s envy or jealously. The power forward from the Dallas Mavericks happens to be one sports figure that’s pretty hard to hate, even if you’re a division rival. His talent is incredibly hard to limn out in terms of painting a picture or putting an accurate description into words, since you’d have to be there to witness the awe that is Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway. At 36-years of age, the Big German’s skills are still on point, even when they’re not.

However, this year Nowitzki made headlines in a different fashion during the offseason that had nothing to do with his iridescent skills, but rather his bulletproof loyalty. Dirk took a large pay cut after agreeing to a three-year, $25 million deal that was less than half his market value in order to make cap room for the Mavericks to sign small forward Chandler Parsons to a three-year, $46 million deal. And he did this all without hesitation or even blinking an eye, even when the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers called with max offers to Nowitzki. For him, it was never about the money (which is rare in the world of professional sports) it was about surrounding himself with a stellar cast of supporting characters, including Parsons, Tyson Chandler, Monta Ellis, and Devin Harris. Unlike some spurious money-grabbing whores you usually see parading around, Nowitzki is in an entirely different league of his own, and it’s a league that most athletes should strive to be in.

9. Marshawn Lynch
Okay, so sure, the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of the hostile Seattle Seahawks running back is probably in the shape of a middle finger, unless you’re a Seahawks fan or drafted him in your fantasy football league. The media often describes the talented running back as a “thug” and routinely complain about his sincere hatred toward the press. But hell, can you blame him? Some of the sports media have their thumbs planted firmly up their own asses and are only interested in what’s happening in the private lives of an athlete instead of focusing on what’s taking place during the game itself. Because of Lynch’s introverted style and his extreme repugnance for mouth-breathing sports journalists who berate him with sneers and castrating words, his soft side and caring nature often go unnoticed. And he likes it that way. Sports Illustrated’s Robert Klemko reported that when Lynch met his agent, Doug Hendrickson, for the first time, he didn’t ask the man about his contract and how much money he’d be making in a given year, but rather he told Hendrickson that his dream was to build a youth center for children in Oakland, California, his hometown, a goal that’s he’s nearly finished in accomplishing. He even selects underprivileged children and brings them and their families to Seattle’s practice facility and gives them a tour while introducing them to the coaching staff. Lynch’s skills and heart far exceed the field whether he wants the public to know it or not, and for that, he happens to be one of the most benignant sports figures in the game right now.

8. DeMarco Murray
When it comes to the Dallas Cowboys joining the end-of-the-season playoff race, the statistics are clear – The Month of December: 292,374,238,186, The Dallas Cowboys: 0. The unforgiving month of December always seems to catch the Cowboys off guard, no matter how high they’re flying in the beginning of the season. Quarterback Tony Romo always seems to manage to choke in fourth quarter scenarios, Dez Bryant never fails to throw his temper around only to have it come back and bitch slap him in the face, while owner Jerry Jones inserts his foot firmly inside his mouth and goes to town with the chewing. But this year? This December? This December is different thanks to one man.

DeMarco Murray is sure-as-hell making a winning case for that MVP trophy. So far, Murray has 1,687 yards rushing (and needs 87 yards to break rushing leader Emmitt Smith’s franchise record) as well as 11 rushing touchdowns. Murray has also done the impossible of keeping Romo in check by getting him to run the ball rather than pass, which has cut his interceptions down to five this season as opposed to the 11 picks he tossed out last season. The bad news? Murray broke a bone in his left hand during the Cowboys last game against division rivals the Philadelphia Eagles. However, only 48 hours after surgery, Murray attended practice and was catching passes with his healthy hand. The Cowboys’ chances of making it into the playoffs this year falls on Murray’s hand and his rushing abilities.

7. Kevin Durant
You don’t have be an Oklahoma City Thunder fan to appreciate the awe-inspiring talent that Kevin Durant possesses. Durant, an essential potentate in the entire NBA, won the highest individual honor the league bestows upon players this year, the MVP Award, receiving 119 first-place votes. And, of course, he turned us all into emotional little girls with ringlets during his speech when he turned his attention toward his own mother. “You made us believe, you kept us off the streets, put clothes on our backs, put food on the table,” Durant emotionally expressed as he looked at his mother, the lights of the room reflecting off his own glistening tears. “You’re the real MVP.”

Durant closed the 2013-14 season averaging 32 points a game, 7.4 rebounds, and 5.5 assists, and succeeded in helping OKC go 59-23 which placed them right in the middle of a playoff race. The crux of the story? He did a majority of it without the aid of All-Star Russell Westbrook, who was sidelined most of the season with a knee injury. Durant also took home the scoring title this year as well, becoming the first player to take home both prestigious awards since Allen Iverson did so 14 years prior.

6. Mo’ne Davis
Ask any pitcher in the major leagues – it’s harder than hell to pitch a shutout game. The pressure mounts, and it becomes difficult to focus long enough to stanch out a team’s offense. This is difficult for any adult pitcher, let alone a child. Let alone a girl. One of the best stories of the year was about the young Mo’ne Davis and her predator missile of an arm. Davis helped take her team, the Philadelphia Taney Dragons, to the Little League World Series and became the first girl in the series’ 75-year history to ever pitch a shutout game.

“I throw 70 miles-an-hour. That’s throwing like a girl,” Davis states in her voiceover in the above Chevrolet commercial that aired during the 2014 MLB playoff season. Davis ended up both becoming the youngest athlete to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated AND was named SportsKid of the Year by Sports Illustrated Kids, thus becoming the ideal role model for girls aspiring to dominate in a man’s field. Even though the Taney Dragons were bumped out of the LLWS by a young team from Chicago when they were only one win shy of the U.S. championship game, Davis made her mark in history.

5. Richard Sherman
Great. This guy again. The Seattle Seahawks corner back caught the world’s attention with his now infamous post-game interview with Fox Sports correspondent Erin Andrews following his tipped passed that led his Seahawks to the 2013-14 Super Bowl over the San Francisco 49ers, a interview that would define his personality in the months that followed after he referred to himself as the “best corner in the game”. He even notably called out 49ers’ receiver Michael Crabtree a “sorry receiver” whom other things, catching a visibly shaken Andrews off guard. Despite the backlash he received from critics after his rant, Sherman came back to prove himself over and over again during this 2014 regular season, and even proved himself to a sincere influential individual with his outspoken nature and refusal to back down from a cause whether it’s backing up his words with actions, or mocking the NFL media policies.

Sherman even injected himself directly into the line of fire of the growing controversy about police brutality, and says that NFL players should have a say about the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. “There shouldn’t be these color lines and racism and all that,” Sherman said at a Seahawks press conference recently. “Everybody thinks it’s gone, and it’s not.” Due to the influence American athletes have over a society, Sherman believes that players can shine a positive light by taking a stand. “I think that being together and being great role models, as players, it’s our duty, it’s the thing we can do – not going out there and doing things that aren’t reputable.”

4. Madison Bumgarner
By the young age of 25, San Francisco Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner had already won three World Series championships, which is impressive all on its own, but what was more impressive was how he accomplished that third championship; the 2014 World Series. The Giants coasted their way through the 2014 season as they had during the even years prior when they would take home the most elite trophy in all of major league baseball, and flew quietly under the radar. At least, that’s what outsiders saw. For Giants fans, there was only one word that could accurately describe how it felt watching the highs and lows of the season: Torture (a description coined by beloved Giants commentators Mike Krukow and Dwain Kuiper). If the dripping tension of the season got to Bumgarner, he didn’t bother to show it in his cool demeanor when he stepped on the mound.

In a split second, Bumgarner went from being an insanely talented pitcher, to a legend. He was 4-0 during 36 World Series innings and has the lowest ERA at 0.25. He started Games 1 and 5 on the bump against the Kansas City Royals, but his defining moment came when he emerged from the bullpen during the middle of Game 7, threw five shutout innings, and silenced Royals fans who were desperately praying that their precious Royals’ batters would figure out this pitcher in time to save the game and win the title. Throughout the post season, he struck out 45 batters and saved a game. He also hit a grand slam during Game 3 of the NLDS against the Washington Nationals, bringing his grand slam total to three during the entire 2014 season, which made him fatal on the plate as well.

3. Clayton Kershaw
Sigh. This was difficult. After revealing my Top Ten picks to a few of my close friends, one friend in particular sent me a tetchy text message that simply stated, “You’re dead to me.” Why? Because I listed Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw ahead of SF Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner. Any one who knows me understands that I’m a diehard Giants fan, and knows that putting a Dodger ahead of any one on the Giants roster (including the AT&T’s landmark Coke Bottle and mascot Lou Seal, and maybe even the grass) was like me taking a swan dive into a pool of toothpicks. But let’s call a spade a spade, shall we? Kershaw earned a slew of offseason honors including a GIBBY Most Valuable Major Leaguer, and his third National League Cy Young Award (the youngest player to win three at 26-years old) for his regular season performance.

The numbers for Kershaw don’t lie: He’s won four consecutive MLB ERA titles, has a winning percentage of .875, a 0.86 WHIP, a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 7.71, and a 1.77 ERA, while the Dodgers went 23-4 in his 27 starts during the 2014 season, which never fails to be impressive for a damn dude in crappy-ass blue.

2. Becky Hammon
Leave it to the San Antonio Spurs to make such an historic move for both the NBA and for women everywhere. During the month of August, a few short months shy of the kick off of the 2014-15 season, the Spurs hired Becky Hammon, a six-time WNBA All-Star, as their full-time assistant coach. Head coach Gregg Popovich, an all-around scary ass bastard yet brilliant coach, spoke highly of Hammon’s abilities. “I very much look forward to the addition of Becky Hammon to our staff,” he stated. “Having observed her working with our team this past season, I’m confident her basketball IQ, work ethic, and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs.”

Hammon announced on July 23rd that she would retire as a player for the San Antonio Stars after playing her final eight seasons with the team. Now, given, she’s not the first woman in the NBA grace a coaching staff (that would be Lisa Boyer, who was on the Cleveland Cavaliers coaching staff under the reign of John Lucas 14 years ago), but she made an historical impact nonetheless. “There’s women that have trail-blazed much bigger paths and really trail-blazed the path for things like this to happen,” Hammon said at her introductory press conference. “There’s a lot more important things going on, in the bigger things, CEOs of companies. Women are really in every area. They’re in the surgery rooms. They’re doctors. They’re lawyers. They’re COOs.”

Popovich-approved. “She’s just a natural.”

1. Lacey Holsworth and the Michigan State Spartans
One of the most gut-wrenching stories of 2014 was that of 8-year-old Lacey Holsworth, a prismatic young girl who was struck down with neuroblastoma, a fetal-nerve cell cancer, in the spring of her life, and her bond with the Michigan State basketball team, especially her friendship with star forward Adreian Payne. Lacey (lovingly called “Princess Lacey”) met Payne when he was visiting the hospital she was occupying two years earlier, and the two struck an immediate and long-lasting friendship.

Payne become a brother-figure in Lacey’s final years, and spoke of her often, visited her frequently, and invited her to his games. She even assisted him in cutting down the net after Michigan State won the Big Ten Tournament title in 2014 and accompanied Payne to the College Slam Dunk Championship in Dallas. The entire team, especially Payne, was deeply affected by Lacey’s passing. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo issued a statement following the loss of the little girl: “Princess Lacey has taught us all an incredible lesson about love, strength, and toughness. We can learn from her on how to handle adversity with class and dignity,” Izzo stated. “She has become an inspiration to our team, our families, our university, and most recently our entire nation. At just eight years old, she has given us all a lifetime of memories. We are all saddened today, but we are all better people for having known Lacey. Her smile and passion for life will live in the hearts of everyone she has touched across our country.”

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