Football season is officially over. All 726 collegiate bowl games are in the books. The ink is dry on national signing day. And after a safety and ensuing punt officially closed the lights on the NFL season, sports lovers are left to file one extremely heavy-hearted question: "Now what?"
With all due respect to the boys of summer, pigskin has shoved its way ahead of all other sports, using two heavily gloved hands to grab hold of the mantle as America's Pastime. But simply because football has taken a knee for a few months, that doesn't mean the average fan needs to go into a depression hibernation. Here now, seven suitable substitutes to keep us all warm during the coldest winter months:
1. NHL – In case you were unaware, which would be entirely understandable, relations have thawed between the world’s best ice-hockey players and those who sign their checks (note: it’s likely that most financial transactions actually occur care of direct deposit, but let’s not split hairs, especially when it comes to those sporting iconic mullets).
The business is no longer in the front, and the party is in fact back, as after a 113-day lockout, which cost the league some 625 games and more than half a season, the NHL returned in mid-January.
And now with a 48-game season that began roughly three weeks ago, each skate means that much more. “Barns” will be a rockin’, and teeth will go a flyin’, as goal-scorers and enforcers alike are forced to ratchet up their intensity and sharpen their elbows.
So pull your favorite team sweater out of the closet, and dust off your abacus; it’s time to re-calculate “plus-minus.” And toss the Gillette Fusion ProGlide back into your medicine cabinet, because it’s never too early to start cultivating that playoff beard.
2. PGA - We're still a handful of J.B. Holmes drives from hearing Jim Nantz's signature "Hello Friends" as the CBS mic-master welcomes us to Augusta, reminding all that it remains "a tradition unlike any other." And while April and Amen Corner truly announce golf season, there are early signs to suggest that the PGA is nearing full swing.
Last Thursday, Phil Mickelson came within a breath of posting only the sixth sub-60 round of all-time, and three days later South Korean rookie James Hahn took the training wheels off golf's first celebratory Gangnam Style putting-green jig.
Certainly, we're a far cry from seeing PSY paired with Bill Murray at Pebble Beach, but weekends spent watching the world's best play 36 holes, against some of the world's most captivating backgrounds? That’s one way to beat February's frozen tundra.
3. College Basketball - There is a prevailing theory that suggest the average fan doesn't begin paying attention to on-campus hoops until after the Super Bowl. Okay then, here we go!
With perennial powerhouses like Duke, Kansas, Indiana, Syracuse, Arizona and Michigan all littering the Top 10, the rankings feel like a familiar throw blanket under which one might curl, as temperatures in Big East and Big 10 country drop to mirroring single digits.
But with no undefeated or one-loss teams to be found, and four separate schools having claimed the No. 1 ranking in each of the last four weeks, expect the hardwood to the heat up significantly as we dribble towards Selection Sunday.
4. The NBA’s All-Star Weekend - If you’re feeling old, this won’t help. On Feb. 17, the greatest player to ever slip on sneakers turns 50.
And while Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame career often centered around an epic accumulation of numbers (more than 32,000 points, 10 scoring titles, 6 World Championships), seeing a sixth decade is an accomplishment unique unto itself, especially inasmuch as it will occurs exactly on the evening of the game in which he starred 14 times.
Beginning next Friday, the NBA’s All-Star Weekend blasts off from Houston, and “His Airness” figures to be prominently featured throughout the festivities. Long before “King James” and the “Black Mamba” had their own signature swoosh, every kid in American wanted to “Be Like Mike” (and many of those kids are now adults who still do, with the 27th installment of the shoe line, the “Jordan 2012,” serving as the most-recently released model.)
Announced only as of Thursday night, Gerald Green, Kenneth Faried, and defending champ Jeremy Evans will pace the participants in this year’s Slam Dunk Contest, but don’t be surprised to see at least one high-flying young-'un pay homage to MJ with a tribute-jam of sorts (think something like a team warm-up removed to reveal a No. 23 Bulls jersey, perhaps with Chicago scripted in cursive.)
But regardless of which 20-something sips the Sprite as this year’s winner, remember this: before Blake Griffin leapt over a Kia, before Dwight Howard tied on a Superman cape, even before Dee Brown covered his eyes with his arm, Michael Jordan flew from the free-throw line.
And when the league’s best suit up come Sunday, in the 62nd edition of the actual All-Star game, it will be hard not to focus on the newly-minted 50-year-old, who thrice earned honors as the contest’s MVP.
The NBA’s all-time leader in total ASG points until Kobe Bryant passed him last year, Jordan is one of only three players to ever record an All-Star game triple-double (14-11-11, in 1997). Never shy to shoot it, MJ’s 233 career field-goal attempts are more than any All-Star ever, and his 37 steals make him the game’s most prolific pilferer.
From a wagging tongue, to a glistening dome, Michael left his Air Jordan footprint all over All-Star weekend. And as he hits the half-century mark on the day of this year’s game, expect to see signs of his long-lasting legacy embedded in every event.
The stars of today, many of whom grew up idolizing Jordan, will take his torch and light a fire under the stars who’ve yet to shine.
5. The Daytona 500 - Unofficially referred to the "Super Bowl of Racing," the green flag drops from Northern Florida on Feb. 24, bringing about a season that will feature such fanciful phrases as "restrictor plate racing" and "Boogity Boogity Boogity!"
Now why the sport holds its biggest event to begin the season is still as curious as the notion that NASCAR could list the left-directional as the sport's most important piece of equipment.
Nonetheless, with "The Great American Race" just around the corner in Turn 3, it's time to refamiliarize ourselves with a world in which "drafting" has nothing to do with the Army, nor anyone's baseball keeper league.
6. The World Baseball Classic - Speaking of all things diamond, we're officially within a week from hearing the four most magical words in any baseball fan’s vocabulary: "Pitchers and catchers report." But in the event that the start of spring training isn't enough for the average fungo fanatic, this year's Grapefruit and Cactus League schedules will wrestle with the welcome interruption that comes care of the World Baseball Classic (first pitch, March 2).
Created in 2005 as an answer to hardball being pulled from the Olympics, the 2013 tournament will be the third edition of the international event, and it arrives carrying a catcher's mitt full of storylines:
Can anyone dethrone two-time champion Japan? How will opposing WBC pitchers deal with the loaded line-up coming out of Venezuela (Marco Scutaro, Pablo Sandoval, Miguel Cabrera and Carlos Gonzalez hitting 2-3-4-5?) And just how slick will a Dominican Republic infield be that could put Hanley Ramirez, Robinson Cano and Jose Reyes all on the lip of the grass at the same time?
7. NFL combine - Even though fans will be without the pleasure of watching an actual, meaningful football game until mid-August, there will be plenty of tertiary topics to digest between now and the next series of opening kick-offs.
Switching into a three-day format in 2010, and gobbling up prime-time position in the process, the popularity of the NFL draft has increased exponentially, comparing favorably with the vertical leap and 40-time of your average “Mike” Linebacker.
But before a single war room phone rings, and prior to the donning of any brand-new Nike team caps, a week at the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis (Feb. 20-26) gives football fans the chance to punch up the NFL Network, and join stopwatch-toting GM's in evaluating the latest crop of linemen as though they were livestock.
In the days that follow, avid NFL aficionados will wear out their index finger refreshing Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay's latest Mock Drafts. And iPhones coast-to-coast will overflow with push notifications blasting the latest trade rumors.
Come April 25, meanwhile, fans across the country will descend upon New York City's famed Radio City Music Hall in hopes of hearing their favorite club call the name of a left tackle that can protect their quarterback's blindside for the next decade. Until then, the Kansas City Chiefs are on the clock.
For the rest of us, there’s plenty to watch.