Sunday, December 4, 2011

Should Dirk Nowitzki win Sportsman of the Year?

Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year award will be announced tomorrow. To me, the three strongest candidates are Aaron Rodgers, Dirk Nowitzki, and Novak Djokovic. Here is a review of their credentials.

Rodgers has played superlatively in 2011, from his Super Bowl run in January-February to his undefeated regular season this autumn. Moreover, an American face on the cover would be likelier to sell magazines. On the merits, Rodgers's excellence in his sport was not worse than the success of Nowitzki or young Djok: all won championships (there is no defined championship in tennis, but Djokovic won 3 of 4 "major" tournaments) and looked dominant in doing so. In the current regular season, Rodgers has 37 touchdown throws against only 5 interceptions; he has completed 70% of his passes and is on pace to break the record for passing yards in one season. However, Sports Illustrated also picked NFL quarterbacks for the award in 2005, 2007, and 2010; four in seven years would be too much. Let us scratch Rodgers, then.

Between the two Europeans, Nowitzki is likely better known to Americans, as he spent all his time this year playing in the main US pro basketball league. After a previous loss in the Finals, an individual MVP, a broken engagement to a questionable woman, and an impressive record of skill improvement over his 13-year career, it was heartening to see Nowitzki finally win the championship this year, leading his team to a surprising win over the more talented Miami Heat. Nowitzki played solidly against Portland before exploding against Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and Miami in a two-month run that cemented his place in the NBA Hall of Fame. Against the Thunder and Heat, Nowitzki keyed improbable 15-point, fourth-quarter comebacks that sapped the spirits of his opponents and made his teammates believe that Dallas could really do it. Yet it was the relative brevity of this display -- just two months -- that puts Nowitzki just behind the rightful winner in my estimation. Nowitzki's vernal outburst excited American fans as they emerged from the long winter's freeze. He was very good. However, Djokovic did his thing all year long.

Unlike Nowitzki, Djokovic's success lasted from the Australian Open in January to the U.S. Open in September, across a span of eight months, four continents, and four playing surfaces. Besides his three major wins in Melbourne, Paris, and New York, he won tournaments in Montreal, Rome, Madrid, Belgrade, Miami, Indian Wells, and Dubai. That's right-- Djokovic won ten tournaments in a single calendar year! [Notably, Djokovic has failed to win the three late-season tournaments he entered this year after leaving Queens-- losing to lesser-ranked players in Basel, Paris, and London.] Djokovic amassed a staggering 70-6 record in 2011, taking 3 of 4 matches from Roger Federer and 6 of 6 from Rafael Nadal. While Nowitzki's story is the most endearing, I would hand the award to Djokovic, who clearly established himself as the best in his sport. To understand Djokovic's season, consider his forehand to save match point against Federer in New York:

UPDATE December 5th:
Well, instead of the three guys listed above, Sports Illustrated gave the prize to two long-serving US college basketball coaches who did not win anything in 2011: Mike Krzyzewski and Pat Summitt. They are certainly deserving of something, with 12 NCAA championships and 3 Olympic gold medals between them, but the timing was strange. Perhaps Sports Illustrated / Time Warner wanted to do something "nice" in light of Summitt's recent diagnosis of neurologic illness. On the merits, though, it is difficult to defend.

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