Most New Zealand children do not imagine their careers taking them to Oklahoma City. Until recently, perhaps most New Zealanders had never even heard of Oklahoma City. A national star has changed that.

Like many New Zealand youths, Steven Adams aspired to join the nation's most prestigious club, not the NBA.

"I actually wanted to play rugby," Adams says. "I wanted to be an All-Black."

Adams was blessed with size from a young age. He says he hit his growth spurt early and was consistently the tallest among peers. But height is not always an advantage in rugby.

"If you're the tallest guy, they're just waiting for you to catch the ball, so they can tackle you," Adams says. "I was also really skinny."

When Adams reached his teens, he came to the realization, no New Zealand kid wants to come to: He was not going to be an All-Black.

"I did that until I was 13 and then switched over to basketball because rugby was tough," he says. "It was just hard."

At seven feet tall, Adams found early success on the court that drew interest from New Zealand professional teams and American college programs. Adams understood he would have trouble judging his basketball potential due to New Zealand's lack of competition.

"We played, but it wasn't good," he says. "[My friends and I] would just play for fun. It wasn't as popular a sport. It's all rugby there."

Soon after Adams committed himself to basketball, he became one of New Zealand's elite stars. In 2011, at age 17, Adams signed with the Wellington Saints of the New Zealand NBL. Adams won an NBL Championship and a Rookie of the Year Award in his one season with the Saints. Adams proceeded to play one college season at Pittsburgh, where he averaged 7.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks and earned Big East All-Rookie Team honors.

As a rookie with Oklahoma City in 2013-14, Adams, the 12th overall pick, averaged 3.3 points and 4.1 rebounds in 14.8 minutes with 20 starts. His playing time increased in the playoffs to 18.4 minutes.

In 2014-15, Adams has evolved into a more dynamic big man, passing veteran center Kendrick Perkins on the depth chart to start every game. Adams has averaged 7.6 points and 6.8 rebounds in 24.5 minutes through 24 games.

Adams' production has been especially necessary for a team that had holes early. For four weeks, the Thunder trudged along without stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The team struggled, going 4-11 missing the two stars that have led the team together for six years (5-12 in games without Durant). Talking before Westbrook and Durant's return, Adams acknowledged the team's mindset did not change, for the most part.

"Nick Collison did play some of the three," Adams says "Other than that, no one really changed [his] role. We just kind of stood up and said we had to play as a team. Kevin and Russell are good players."

Added Adams about the stars' absence: "They're doing all they can to help us out. Russell's been really good. He's been giving me tips and stuff on what he sees. They're like coaches."

In Adams' rookie season, Durant earned his first MVP Award. Adams calls the reigning MVP "a real laid back dude" and claims Durant has the same persona off-camera as he appears to the public.

In terms of his own game, Adams is budding into a stellar NBA center. The youngster was promoted to the starting lineup, where he his role has seen a noticeable hike in stats.

Night-in, night-out, Adams is dueling with some of the league's top big men. Adams can name a handful he enjoys battling.

"Zach Randolph's always a good time," he says. "Dwight Howard's always good. Oh, and DeAndre Jordan. He's fun."

Adams' teammates are a form of support for his growing game. But the Thunder's roster of 15 is actually smaller than his immediate family. Adams is one of 18 siblings.

"They're supporting me all the time," Adams says. "What's good is they came out with this thing -- what's it called? -- Facebook. We just made a group chat, so everyone just keeps writing in there. It's 15 of us. The other three are probably in the bush somewhere."

Adams is the youngest and tallest of the siblings. Growing up with 17 older siblings, Adams had a natural chip on his shoulder while learning from them.

"It was cool, but it was tough," he says. "They're really old. They're old school. They do teach me a lot of things. I was more competitive because I was always the weakest. ... Playing against my sisters and my brothers, the older ones would play really rough and elbow you. Plus the younger ones did a little too."

Now, Adams has a new family in Oklahoma City. In his sophomore season, Adams' image is growing in the city, where Adams says he has "met a lot of New Zealanders."

"I'm recognized a lot more than when I first got here," he says. "They're all good. All of them want to come say hello and good job and what not. They're good people."

The NBA and American Express recently followed Adams around as he roamed Oklahoma City. The videos capture Adams as he engages with fans and local businesses.

"The community here's really big and they support the Thunder through thick and thin," he says.

If you keep doing the same routine every time you hit the gym, it won't be long before you fall into a rut and your results hit a plateau. Variety is the key to continuing to challenge your body. There are different ways to tweak your approach and make the most of your workout time. Here are some insights from Travelle Gaines, personal trainer for many professional athletes, and Dr. Patrick Khaziran:

Fitness, Tools

It's easy to forget how good Grant Hill was.

He's often remembered as a former All-American who led Duke to back-back national titles in 1991 and 1992.

That momentum didn't relent in the NBA, where Hill thrived. The Detroit Pistons drafted him third overall in 1994. He was named Co-Rookie of the Year and made the All-Star Game. He went on to make the All-Star Game six times by 2001, and in 1996 he drew more votes than Michael Jordan.

The 1997 All-NBA First Team member went on to tally 9,393 points, 3,417 rebounds, and 2,720 assists by the end of his sixth season. Only three players have done better: Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird and LeBron James.

Grant Hill was phenomenal.

So what happened?

"I'll say this: At no time did I defy a doctor's orders and play when I shouldn't have played." Hill says. "One time, I knew I was done for the year, and it would have been the last time I played against Michael Jordan -- I knew I would have to have surgery and be done for the season, and I played one quarter."

Despite his best intentions, Hill's ankles gave up on him. In his first season with the Orlando Magic after signing a seven-year, $93 million contract, Hill's left ankle started to cause problems.

Just months before signing with the Magic, he underwent surgery to fix the medial malleolus on his ankle. The surgery seemed to be successful, but Hill last only four games the following season before the injury sidelined him for the year.

What followed was a horror show: Five surgeries in less than three years, with a serious MRSA infection that almost killed Hill and put him on intravenous antibiotics for six months.

By 2004, Hill had seemed to fully recover from his medical troubles. After missing 199 of 246 games in three years -- including the entire 2003-04 season -- Hill returned to average almost 20 points while being voted back in to the All-Star Game.

The next season, though, a rash of injuries throughout his lower body limited Hill to just 21 games -- and lowered the ceiling of his on-court performance for good.

Hill's timeline is relevant today because it mirrors Derrick Rose's current path: One of the league's great players endures multiple serious injuries -- an ACL tear followed by a meniscus tear -- while missing all but 10 games of two NBA seasons. A return from such a long layoff is marked by flashes of brilliance interrupted by a litany of seemingly minor injuries.

The fear of re-injury is why Rose is so hesitant in playing while hurt -- to a fault, many would argue. The Chicago Bulls guard has taken heat for saying that he's got more than basketball on his mind.

"I think a lot of people don't understand that when I sit out, it's not because of this year," Rose said last month. "I'm thinking about long term. I'm thinking about after I'm done with basketball, having graduations to go to, having meetings to go to.

"I don't want to be in my meetings all sore or be at my son's graduation all sore just because of something I did in the past."

For Hill, Rose's sentiments were fair -- but maybe a little too honest.

"I think I agree with what he was saying there, but I don’t know if it translates, if he needed to say that," Hill says. "I don't fault him for being careful and being cautious, and I don't fault the team for being conservative.

"If he has an injury and it's two days to recover, why not take five days?"

The trick with Derrick Rose -- and for almost any professional athlete -- is that forces once working in unison are suddenly thrust in opposition of one another. When healthy, athletes' minds and bodies, along with coaches, teammates, and fans, all have the same goal: perform your best, push your hardest, and win.

Injuries create chaos. Players' mental states can overestimate their physical capabilities. Hill points out that pain is "an indication that something is wrong," but that players often don't want to recognize it as such.

Meanwhile, teammates, coaches and ownership want to win. So do fans, many of whom revere the athletes who sacrifice their bodies for a larger cause. And athletes don't want to let anyone down.

It's a dangerous cocktail.

"There were times where I played when my gut was telling me not to play," Hill says. "The regret is that I should have trusted my gut, and maybe some of this stuff would have been avoided.

"Even after everything I went through, I still struggled [to protect my physical health]. My last year in Phoenix, I had a torn meniscus, and I came back after two weeks. There’s no way I should have been doing that, but you just get caught up. It's hard to flip that switch."

Hill has stayed busy since retiring from the NBA two summers ago. He joined NBA TV as an analyst and commentator, and he serves as a committee member for the AllState NABC GoodWorks Team, which selects 10 college basketball players whose work in their communities stand in distinction among their peers. "One of the hardest things is trying to vote on the winners, because I think [the nominees are] all worthy," Hill says.

And while he sees the heat turned up on the former MVP right now, Hill believes the backlash is only a temporary concern.

"The beautiful thing is, fans are so passionate about their teams, if he can get healthy and stay healthy, people will forget," Hill says. "If he can get back or even get close, people will forget this particular moment in time."

"People have forgotten already what he did 3-4 years ago."

As Grant Hill knows, memory is just as fickle as the body. That's why Rose's ongoing return from his injuries has observers poking and prodding his identity. The diagnosis remains unclear. How we remember Derrick Rose's past will depend on what he does in the future.

-- Follow Jonathan Crowl on Twitter @jonathancrowl.

Right now, Landon Donovan's name triggers memories of his famous World Cup snub and the controversy it spawned.

That will always be a chapter in his story, but years from now it won't matter. What will matter more is Donovan's massive contributions to soccer in the United States.

Measure that role in whatever manner you like. His 217 U.S. men's national team appearances are a record. So are his 101 international goals.

Donovan is the all-time assist leader for international play, as well, and he has been named the best player on the U.S. national soccer team seven times. No won else has won the award more than three times.

Or appoint him America's greatest soccer player for the thrilling performances he has delivered on soccer's largest stage. Donovan was a key member of the 2002 World Cup team that came from nowhere to reach the World Cup quarterfinals. In that tournament, Donovan was named the Best Young Player.

Eight years later, America was on the verge of tying Algeria and getting eliminated from the World Cup when Donovan did this:

Landon Donovan's World Cup goal vs Algeria by cdh7116

Then consider his starring role in Major League Soccer, helping elevate the profile and credibility of a young league looking to establish roots among the U.S. fan base. As a starring forward for the Los Angeles Galaxy, Donovan preceded the arrivals of many prominent stars coming over from more established European clubs, including David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and Clint Dempsey.

It's fitting that Donovan ends his career on a team -- and in a league -- that owes so much to him for their existence. The Los Angeles Galaxy will square off with New England Revolution this weekend with the Major League Soccer Cup on the line.

Donovan is seeking his sixth MLS Cup championship in seven appearances with both the Galaxy and the San Jose Earthquakes. Even on the cusp of his retirement, the forward is playing soccer near the top of his career, notching a hat trick once already in this playoff run and tormenting opposing teams alongside forward Robbie Keane.

His strong performances have brought many to wonder aloud why Donovan is choosing now to retire. Some speculate that he is reacting to coach Jurgen Klinsmann's decision to leave him off the World Cup roster, and is choosing to retire than to face future disgraces.

Donovan insists that isn't the case. Instead, he wants to move on to new phases of life and opportunities he's missed because of his soccer career.

"This is all overwhelming," Donovan said earlier in the playoffs. "When it's all said and done, there’s going to be some sadness, but there will be even more excitement, because I will know for the first time in 16 years, I won’t have to worry about next year."

Yet fans can't help but feel that they're the ones missing out. Donovan isn't just a once-in-a-generation player. In America, he's a once-ever player. And even as the USMNT appears to have a bright future, it's hard to underestimate how much Donovan has done to make such success possible.

There may be better players to come after him, but there won't be a single player that did as much for soccer in the United States as Landon Donovan.

Golfers are not like other sports fans.

Millions may be similarly obsessed with baseball, football or basketball, and waste years of couch-bound hours in front of the TV, but they needn't actually own a football, nor possess a Tom Seaver instructional video to indulge their obsession.

Only golf really requires that you play the game in order to be addicted to it. Consequently, we must buy expensive clubs, flammable pants, magazines, sunglasses, soft spikes, motivational videos, swing aides, hand warmers, golf vacations and silly hats. By comparison it seems much cheaper and less painful to be a Cubs fan.

So, periodically, I’ll be reviewing some of these products, be they goofy or brilliant. And most of these are grand ideas for holiday gifts. Full disclosure: Some of these items come to me unsolicited, some demos I request, others I might have seen at the annual PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando. But in all cases I've actually tested the products, though don’t confuse that with scientific testing or the marketing claims of the manufacturers.

My epiphany for 2014 was that I needed decent-looking, golf-specific, prescription sunglasses instead of just using your dad’s sexy clip-ons with my regular glasses. But the hurdle for most of us who wanted prescription sunglasses was that optometrists told us prescription lenses couldn’t be made for the more sporty, wrap-around, golf shades. That’s no longer true.

SportRx, a performance eyeware company out of San Diego, offers stock lenses with all the major sport brands, such as Oakley, Adidas, Bolle, Rudy and others, but they specialize in grinding custom made lenses for various sports.

"Using clip-on sunglasses for golf is a bit like putting a putter head on a broom handle," says SportRx vice-president and optometrist Rob Tavakoli. "It’s amazing to me that golfers will have the finest driver, the best shoes, the latest swing aides, but they compromise on their vision and use everyday glasses. For us, it’s an education issue.”

Tavakoli, an avid cyclist, says he has tested many lenses on many different golfers and he has come to some conclusions.

"The most common mistake golfers make is to have lenses that are too dark," he says. “We don’t think green or gray really works very well for most golfers. They’re too neutral and don’t enhance colors. You can’t really read the greens. We’ve been very pleased with the rose-brown-amber family of tints that protects the eyes, but helps define contours and land features much better."

And now, after wearing a new pair of Oakleys with that rose-brown tint, I think I agree. They don’t leave my eyes fatigued after five-hour rounds in the Texas sun, yet they aren't so dark that I feel like I have to take them off to read greens. I should have been wearing these for the past 30 years.

I won't surprise anyone by saying TaylorMade’s SLDR driver was the best new thing I put in my bag this year. The adjustable-head driver -- off-spring of golf’s first adjustable driver, the R7 in 2004 -- has received plaudits from the pros, the masses and virtually all serious gearheads. A sliding weight located on the front of the sole moves the clubhead’s weight low and forward to lower the driver’s spin, thus increasing distance.

I've kept mine at a slight draw from the day I unwrapped it, and while I’m still quite capable of pop-ups and duck-hooks, my solid shots are clearly longer. There are plenty of good drivers out there. The best from PING, Nike, Callaway, Cobra and Titleist will continue to please their fans -- especially those looking for more forgiveness than the SLDR provides -- but if you simply want 10-15 more yards, the SLDR unleashes impressive distance.

More surprising to me was that TaylorMade also produced the year’s most interesting irons. That would be the RSi series, three styles of irons ranging from Tour-quality, forged instruments to elegant game-improvement irons that every 20-handicapper should covet.

I was most impressed with the model in between, the RSi2, a handsome hunk of forged carbon steel and tungsten technology that has a bit more forgiveness than the Tour-quality RSi and a bit more performance oomph and workability than the RSi1. But don’t believe me. I watched Tom Lehman hit them in San Antonio at The Club at Sonterra and put them through their paces like a robotic Iron Byron.

He stood on the No. 10 tee box, which was playing at around 170 yards with little wind, and proceeded to hit nine 7 irons 182 yards on the button, with an 89 mph swing speed. He put some pink impact tape on the face of the RSi2 7-iron to see what the ball was really doing.

"This club is really consistent across the entire club face,” Lehman said, intrigued. “The weakest part of the club is high toe. I’m hitting it there on purpose. But I’m still getting much the same distance, just a slightly different ball flight."

I'm not fool enough to think I could replicate that. My 7-iron toe jobs aren’t going 182 unless they take the bus, but when I hit mine a smooth 160 in the middle of the clubface they felt nearly like a blade. Little vibration, penetrating ball flight, and a clean simple look at address. That’s about all I ask. I can't say my Mizunos will be sent to the minors, but they now have stiff competition.

I have no reason to dislike the Titleist Pro-V1 family of golf balls. On those Spring mornings when I actually find the middle of a clubface they fly fast and behave like a champion border collie. If I ran Goldman Sachs, I would give them away like breath mints. But sometimes -- let’s say you’re playing a strange course in 20 mph wind with nothing at stake – you simply don’t want to spray new $4 balls into knee-high roughage.

I'm convinced the next best thing for average golfers is the mid-level, "E" series of golf balls from Bridgestone, which sell for about $22 a dozen at Golfsmith. Bridgestone’s top of the line B330 models -- all American-made in Georgia, by the way -- compete well with the Pro-V1, as evidenced by the 15 Tour and LPGA players who use them, but the "E” series specifically aids those with slices, low ball flights or those who simply want more distance. I think I just described 25 million golfers.

I’m still surprised more American golfers don’t go Euro and routinely use pull carts -- or, more accurately, push carts. My amateur research suggests that there is still some geezer stigma to pushing a cart at many American golf courses, which seems absurd. Only in Krispy Kremed America would there be zero stigma for sitting on one’s fluffy butt in a motorized cart for five hours, but let us see you walking 5-6 miles pushing your clubs and we find you comically unhip. The simple truth is this: carts let you carry more stuff and nearly eliminate back strain, thus letting you swing freer and better regardless of age.

I’ve gone through my share of flimsy, clumsy chariots, but then along came Clicgear in 2007 with a Canadian inventor’s ergonomic dream, an efficient, all-but-indestructible push-cart that folded up so compactly it would fit in virtually any car trunk, along with your clubs. Clicgear soon became a word-of-mouth sensation, blowing away competitors, and now they are easily the gold standard in carts for walking golfers. Rarely in golf do I encounter a product in a highly competitive niche market that enjoys the kind of devotion Clicgear does. One website,, simply threw in the editorial towel in rating Clicgear’s new 3.5 cart and said it had achieved "perfection." But I understand why. I can’t imagine golf without one.

Nor can I imagine going to Ireland or Scotland for golf without my waterproof Sun Mountain bag. I'm not sure I fully understand why every golf bag is not waterproof, since they’re always full of things like cell phones, scorecards and cameras, but Sun Mountain's H2NO line of moisture-defying bags has certainly changed my game.

On trips to Scotland and Ireland, where the horizontal ice pick squalls can inundate a golf bag in seconds, I learned long ago to carry gallon-size, zip-lock plastic baggies to keep notebooks and electronic stuff dry. But my Sun Mountain bag is now the first line of defense.

They all weigh about four pounds or fewer, have efficient sturdy fold-out legs, smart and abundant zippered pockets and, most essential, the excellent Sun Mountain dual-strap, which evenly distributes the weight, like a good backpack. The list price on these 2015 bags can run $250 or more, but you can usually find last year’s perfectly wonderful models for $150 or less at a place like Golfsmith.

Similarly, I would feel naked abroad without my OGIO Monster travel bag. We've logged tens of thousands of airline miles and lost a few battles with snarling baggage carousels, but I’ve never had anything inside damaged with this ballistic-fabric workhorse. Yes, your clubs will be more secure in one of those hard-plastic cases, but they won’t fold up and may not fit width-wise in that wee rental car you just got in Dublin at midnight.

(Speaking of travel, American Airlines continues to give me the most problems on my flights to Europe, from routine lost and damaged bags to my most recent nightmare, where an American rep on the phone assured me I would not be charged a fee for my golf bag to go to Ireland, then to be hit for $100 at the check-in counter. Weeks of protest to American’s customer relations department got me nothing. Plan your trip accordingly.)

Though not quite golf equipment per se, gorgeous golf photography is as much a part of my golf life as a shag bag. Several years ago, I was walking up the staircase of the clubhouse at the Carne Golf Club in far northwest Ireland, where I’m a member, and stopped to admire a stunning photo of Carne’s enthralling 11th hole.

Aidan Bradley, a Cork, Ireland native who now lives in Santa Barbara, California, and photographs courses from Augusta to the Azores, had captured the elegant beast at peace before dusk, the rumpled dunes like a khaki jacket dropped on the floor, russet and blonde sea grasses bent in the wind, the solitary 11th green waiting for victims. I liked the photo so much that a copy now hangs in my office. Bradley’s portfolio includes courses from 14 countries and 33 U.S. states, with reprints ranging from $75-$200.

When I go to Europe for golf, I've learned to expect rain, dress accordingly and take two pairs of golf shoes, so a soggy pair can dry out between rounds. Like most golfers, I've used wadded-up newspapers to stuff in the shoes to help soak up moisture, but this year I discovered Stuffitts -- cedar-filled, light-weight, anti-microbial inserts that fit perfectly in your shoes. They also make other models for gloves, helmets and stinky gym bags.

Joe Lee is a successful LASIK eye surgeon and addicted golfer in Los Angeles who decided the world needed a better indoor golf net. The problem with the traditional variety – typically a semi-circular expandable nylon net – is that it usually takes up too much space inside, is unwieldy and doesn’t give a great deal of visual or audio feedback about the quality of the shot.

So, Lee invented the SwingBox, a 50" x 47" metal box, with dozens of cords of thin rope stretched across the outer surface that adeptly stop even the mightiest golf drives. As the ball passes through the lattice of rope it is dramatically slowed, then it hits a sturdy mat and cascades harmlessly down the contraption and returns to your feet. Though there’s no launch monitor or electronics involved, the audio feedback of a reassuring thunk with each solid hit is more pleasing than the muted whiffle of an outdoor golf net. Perfect for a garage or roomy man cave.

And, yes, I’ve spared you all that juicy inside intelligence on the latest wrist-watch rangefinders and solar-powered launch monitors. Please don't tell me if these can somehow be combined with Google Glass.

Golf, Holidays

Packing on unwanted pounds is a holiday tradition most of us wouldn't mind skipping. It's not just the big meals that will plump you up. It's all those tempting treats at parties. One way to avoid or at least minimize this seasonal weight gain is pre-party strategy. Here's the breakdown from Travelle Gaines, personal trainer for many professional athletes, and Dr. Patrick Khaziran:

They say everything is bigger in Texas.

Sometimes, you just don't see it on the outside.

Jose Altuve is officially listed at 5-6 and that may be courtesy of the heels in his cleats. In 2013, ESPN's Jim Caple reported Altuve as 5-5, making him the shortest player in MLB in more than 30 years.

For 24 years, Altuve's height has been scrutinized. His below-average frame was considered his kryptonite as he climbed the ladder in Venezuela and the minor leagues.

"That was the process everywhere I went," Altuve says. "People kept asking if I could play with my size. I kept saying just stay healthy and play hard. Now, here I am."

Carlos Altuve did not let height get in the way of believing in his son. Jose says his father encouraged him to tune out his critics and focus on the task at hand. Carlos gave him real-life Venezuelan examples to model his game after.

"Watching guys like Omar Vizquel and Marco Scutaro play in the big leagues -- they're not really big," Altuve says. "I thought I could play."

In three full major league seasons, Altuve has two All-Star Game appearances and a Silver Slugger Award. In 2014, he was the MLB leader in batting average (.341) and hits (225), and his 56 stolen bases led the American League. For reference, Dustin Pedroia, another short superstar second baseman (5-8), who Altuve refers to as a "kind of my role model," has never hit higher than .326. That total came during Pedroia's 2008 AL MVP campaign.

At the major league level, Altuve has shut up his final batch of naysayers. The second baseman is perhaps the best contact hitter in the league and he is just hitting his prime. In 2014, only Robinson Cano had a higher WAR at second base (6.4) than Altuve (6.0). In his first three seasons, Altuve ranked 12th in batting average, but fourth in hits and first in singles. During that span, among second basemen, Altuve ranked first in singles and stolen bases. He was second in batting average and hits, behind Cano in both categories.

Altuve took a massive step at age 24 in 2014. According to numberFire's nERD ranking, Altuve's 2.78 score was the 11th best nERD among second basemen in a season since 2000, and it was the 11th highest total among all 2014 hitters. That means that in 2014, Altuve would add 2.78 runs over league-average batters if he batted in every spot for a team.

Altuve, who exudes humility and a calm demeanor, refuses to boast his 2014 accomplishments. Wrapping up the season, he cannot help but look at the team picture, which was certainly helped by his individual accolades.

The Astros went 70-92 in 2014, up 19 wins from their 51-111 record in 2013. Houston also had MLB's worst record in 2011, 2012 and 2013, never winning more than 56 games during that span. "I think we're ready for next season," Altuve says. "I think we'll show people who we are. Hopefully we'll be in the playoffs."

Before Altuve's mid-2011 debut, reaching the postseason by 2015 seemed like a dream scenario in Houston. Altuve's production and leadership are closing in on the playoffs as a reality. The Astros have not played in October since 2005 when the Chicago White Sox swept the Astros in the World Series.

Altuve's November confidence could the result of his success in the 11th MLB Japan All-Star Series. After starting the trip as Cano's backup, Altuve's playing time increased after Cano suffered an injured toe. Altuve went 6-for-14 for a .429 batting average in the five-game championship portion of the series.

"The only chance you have to play with other players is the All-Star Game," Altuve says. "This was like an All-Star Game for a week. Playing with Robinson Cano, Evan Longoria and Yasiel Puig was something that was very good and I think the best part of the trip."

Altuve had never been to Japan before he got on the plane, but he expected a baseball-crazy environment. He was impressed by the frequency of baseball fields in the country and the pristine condition of the fields. During his off-days, Altuve traveled around the country, touring the various cities the team traveled through. He now refers to Japan as "a beautiful country."

Altuve's strength as a tourist came in analyzing the baseball. While Altuve has battled some of Japan's best products in MLB, he had a better opportunity to study the Japanese game when engaging against full Japanese teams in their home culture.

"I think they play the game a little different," he says. "Different pitches and stuff. There's a little bit more breaking balls and splitters. Everything else is really the same."

In the United States, fans have watched enough Daisuke Matsuzaka, Masahiro Tanaka and Hideo Nomo to validate Altuve's point. Although, right now, it seems like there is no pitch Altuve cannot hit.

"I want to keep working hard and keep doing everything," Altuve says about his offseason. "I'll try to get better in my defense, get better in my hitting, pretty much get better at everything. If you're doing that, it's good for your career."

Back in the United from Japan, Altuve plans to soon depart for his native Venezuela for the winter. There, Altuve will be engulfed by another baseball-heavy nation. However, in South America, Altuve is a national hero with an image only rising. He has children who look up to him, and Altuve believes it is his job to give back to them.

"Venezuela is a baseball country," he says. "It's the No. 1 sport there. The little kids are working hard to be big leaguers. We try to do the best we can. I'm going to go there, visit my family, spend time with the kids and do everything I can to let the little kids know about the big leagues and encourage them to keep working hard."

Last week, a fellow Venezuelan, Pablo Sandoval, signed a five-year $95 million contract to play for the Boston Red Sox. The deal crosses Sandoval over to the American League, where he will see Altuve on a more frequent basis. Sandoval and Altuve have both played in the Venezuelan Winter League for the club Navegantes del Magallanes.

"I feel really happy for him," Altuve says. "I think he deserves it. He's been working really hard. I hope he has a successful year with the Red Sox."

Before he leaves for Venezuela, Altuve is working in Houston as a spokesman for Bank of America, where he is demonstrating the brand's new ATM with Teller Assist to local individuals. The new technology allows users to speak directly over video with a teller in English or Spanish, seven days a week during extended hours.

The Astros open 2015 at home against the Cleveland Indians on April 6.

While much of the NBA community remains distracted by the saga that is Derrick Rose's health, his Chicago teammate Jimmy Butler is quietly having a breakout year.

Butler, the third-year swingman from Marquette, is averaging more points per game (21.6) than Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard and attempting more free throws (8.2) than LeBron James and Anthony Davis. He also leads the Bulls in minutes (39.2) and steals (1.62).

Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau, not usually one for glowing praise, couldn't help himself recently when talking about the league's most surprising player.

"He's been incredible," Thibodeau said Tuesday after Butler scored 32 points in the Bulls' loss to the Nuggets. "He's a star, and he does it on both ends of the floor. He's just an amazing player. We've had him play the point, we've had him play the 2, the 3, and tonight he played the 4. And he hasn't had any opportunity to practice the 4. So he just got out there, he's smart, he's tough, he does whatever the team needs, and he found a way to help lead us into coming back and having a shot at the end."

How did Butler make the leap from dependable to downright stellar? He didn't give himself a choice.

Ben Golliver writes in Sports Illustrated that during the offseason Butler and his buddies rented a house in his native Houston and worked out three times a day. He did his best to make sure there were absolutely no distractions.

"I wanted to be so good at the game that we didn’t have cable, we didn't have the Internet,” Butler said. "Whenever we got bored, all we would do is go to the gym. We'd eat, sleep and go to the gym. We'd go three times a day because we didn’t have anything else to do. We were sitting on the couch, looking at each other, saying, ‘What the hell are we going to do all day?'"

All the hard work is paying dividends, literally and figuratively. Butler is averaging career-highs in basically every major statistical category and has helped the Bulls stay afloat despite injuries to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Pau Gasol. At 9-6, Chicago has the third best record in the Eastern Conference.

Butler bet on himself earlier this season by turning down an offer from the Bulls worth about $40 million for the next four years. This makes Butler a restricted free agent after this season, and assuming he plays at or near this level, he should be in line for a deal like the ones signed by swingmen Chandler Parsons ($46 million/three years) and Gordon Hayward ($63 million/four years).

For Butler, whose backstory makes him somewhat of an NBA version of "The Blind Side" protagonist Michael Oher, the money is secondary to pride.

"I feel like I've never been the best player," Butler told ESPNChicago. "I've never been highly recruited, so I've always had all the chips stacked up against me and I've always found a way to make things happen. [The contract talk] is just another obstacle, another hurdle. But I think I'm in the right direction and if I keep my eye on the prize I think I'll end up successful."

The legend of Lionel Messi continues to grow. Ten years after joining FC Barcelona as a promising 17-year-old, the Argentinean has become the most prolific goal-scorer in La Liga history.

Messi scored his 252nd career goal over the weekend against Sevilla, breaking a 59-year-old record set by Telmo Zarra. The mere length of the record -- in one of the world's best soccer leagues, no less -- speaks to the magnitude of Messi's achievement.

Messi is considered by many to be the greatest soccer player of his generation. His career La Liga scoring record is just another feather in his cap, but it's far from the only one. Messi was phenomenal in leading Argentina to the World Cup final over the summer. His accomplishment in La Liga, at such a young age, only adds to his legacy.

There's no one in soccer at the moment with a realistic shot at breaking Messi's record. If Messi were to retire today, perhaps only Real Madrid's Ronaldo could surpass his rival.

But Messi is nowhere close to that point. At 27, he has many years left -- is still in his soccer prime. Should he stay with Barcelona for a few more years, Messi will crush Zarra's record and set a standard that will border on impossible to match.

Telmo Zarra's 251 goals were unmatched for 59 years. Suddenly, Messi is at 253. Where his record ends is anyone's guess. But it's clear that Messi is an all-time great, a soccer legend with plenty of life yet to live.

Tesho Akindele couldn't have predicted this success one year earlier.

Starring for the men's soccer team at the Colorado School of Mines, merely making it to Major League Soccer was an accomplishment in its own right. In the history of MLS, only one player had ever risen from NCAA Division II soccer to become Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year.

Make that two. On Monday, Akindele was voted in as the league's AT&T Rookie of the Year following a strong season with FC Dallas.

Akindele's ascension has been gradual throughout the MLS season. He ended the year with seven goals and three assists, but appeared in 26 matches and started 18.

He was at his strongest toward the end of the season, including after rookie award voting had finished. In the knockout round of the playoffs, he scored the first goal in a 2-1 over Vancouver.

In three playoff games, Akindele played every minute.

The Rookie of the Year award isn't something Akindele was expected to contend for at the start of the season. He only played 15 minutes in the first 10 matches of the MLS season, but the door to playing time opened after Dallas changed its attacking style following an injury to Mauro Diaz. Akindele was favored for his versatility in multiple different formations, which FC Dallas utilized throughout the regular seeason.

The best game of his young career game on August 16, when the forward notched a hat trick against San Jose.

Akindele's success has implications that run far beyond his MLS career. The young star has come out of nowhere to position himself as a prospect for the U.S. men's national soccer team. With the new four-year cycle ahead of the 2018 World Cup just beginning, Akindele has a great opportunity to polish his skills and gain international experience -- if he gets called up by coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

But Akindele has an interesting choice to make. A native of Calgary, he has already been solicited by the Canadian national team. Akindele declined to join the team on its first overture, but he could likely align himself with the Canadian team at any point.

If he decides not to play for the U.S., that is. Akindele hasn't decided which country he wants to represent, and that could be because he's holding out hope of joining the American team, which figures to be much more relevant on the international stage. But Akindele's decision could come down to whether or not he gets an offer from the USMNT -- and whether he has a chance to contribute in a significant role.

Even so, it's a great problem for Akindele to have. In less than a year, his soccer career has gone from merely possible to downright promising.

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