Monday, February 27, 2006

Booing Lebron establishes Cleveland among the league leaders in low class fans.

I love Lebron James. It's beyond a sport-oriented man crush. I absolutely adore the guy. His tremendous ability on the basketball court is unparalleled but it's nothing compared to the attitude he exudes on and off the court. Lebron is everything you want a professional athlete to be. He's perfect.

Sure, you can nitpick your way into a small list of faults. You can crunch numbers and cite stats that reveal he is not exactly the kind of guy who you can count on to win games with a heroic last second shot. But most of those players we celebrate as clutch shooters missed more game winners than they made. Lebron simply hasn't been in position to win the big game with one shot. Yet. You can make the argument that his defense leaves something to be desired but when you look at the big picture you'd be an idiot if you didn't want this guy on your team. He's always flirting with a triple double and capable of scoring 30 points in a quarter. He can take the ball strong to the hole or drill a deep three pointer with a hand in his face and he sure seems to come up with the timely steal. Maybe he's not a lock down defender, but if Lebron plays too aggressively on defense he might risk foul trouble which would hurt his ability to take the game over on offense.

He is better after three years in the league than any other player before him was after three years in the league. At 21 he is setting performance standards that will not be matched in future years. But all of that is just window dressing. What really sets Lebron apart from professional athletes around the world is his attitude. He makes 40 year-old men look like petulant cry-babies.

After being heralded as the chosen one from his early high school days, one would expect Lebron to carry much baggage. You'd figure he would be a slave to his friends and his family, acting childish because nobody ever held him accountable for being a man. We see it in professional athletes who are much older and expect it in talented athletes that are Lebron's age.

But Lebron brings none of that. His nickname is an inside joke. Lebron doesn't act like somebody who has been called the King all his life, his manner is stately but certainly not regal. He is humble but doesn't exude false modesty. He is gracious, but not to the point where you feel he is putting up a front. Lebron is just a genuinely nice guy who happens to be one of the most remarkable athletes in professional sports. He's not soft, but he certainly doesn't have that bitter edge that makes it so easy to hate a player.

Unlike his peers, Lebron doesn't need to be the MVP every night. Lebron happily passes the ball to his teammates and truly enjoys seeing his team perform well. Most guys in Lebron's position will sacrifice team success for their own statistical performance, but Lebron is all about wins. He's doesn't just talk the talk, he walks the walk.

Lebron doesn't even get caught up in pursuing the elusive triple double. He doesn't force himself into the lane to steal rebounds from his teammates and doesn't get angry at those who fail to convert his crisp passing to immediate points. He loves to rack up the assists, but far be it from him to criticize a teammate for getting the ball a little closer to the rim for a better shot.

Lebron gets mad when he sees a lackluster effort. He takes responsibility for the team's failures but on the floor you can see Lebron trying to motivate his teammates to play better. He doesn't throw petty tantrums but he offers a solid mix of criticism and encouragement to help his coach get guys on the same page. He never uses the media to attack his teammates nor does he go out of his way to promote himself. He's also respectful of his opponents in both wins and losses. Instead of King, maybe we should call him Saint James.

You can run down a list of players present and past and not find a guy that brought a better balance of ability, work ethic, confidence and humility. Lebron is a natural born leader who understands that the best leaders not only do it through example, but they also know when to shut up and be led. The kid follows instructions and shows others the respect they deserve.

It's easy to lose sight of how special this is. Lebron is flashy but he doesn't show off. So many great players before him went to great lengths to market themselves through word and deed. Lebron seems content to let it come to him. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird ruffled feathers along the way. Michael Jordan took a long time to mature into a winner and even then had a tendency to rub teammates and coaches the wrong way. Lebron has all of the ability his predecessors possessed but he demonstrates none of the negative traits that made them human. As I already assessed: perfect.

It's a perfect story too. Lebron's a hometown hero. Let's face it. Akron is part of Cleveland even though most Rubber-heads will claim independence. Cleveland, Akron and Canton are all part of the same metropolis. You can't script it any better. The Cavaliers were terrible for years before Lebron arrived on the scene. For a brief spell in the early 1990's they looked like they might have some potential, but then they made dreadful personnel decisions and the team was an embarrassment to the entire institution of basketball. Lebron's rise to glory in high school gave everybody hope that Cleveland's salvation was developing his game just a few minutes south in Akron. When that number one pick fell into Cleveland's desperate clutches after Lebron had just finished his senior year, everybody knew that Lebron was staying put.

Nobody expected him to live up to the massive expectations placed on his shoulders. He was just a boy when he made his NBA debut and most experts figured he'd be lucky to average double digits in his first season. It would take at least two years for the kid to adjust to the bigger stronger and faster game played in the NBA. Look at Kobe. The real question wasn't whether or not Lebron would meet the ridiculous expectations, but how he would handle the pressure. There was a distinct possibility that he would implode and take three or four years just to get on track.

It didn't happen. Lebron exploded onto the scene putting up averages in points, assists and rebounds that rivaled the best players in the league. He quickly drew comparisons to Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson. His game had a few weaknesses but he started his NBA career at a level most analysts didn't expect him to attain for two or three seasons. He improved in his second season and got even better in his third. At 21 he has established himself as the best all around player in the league and he has the Cavaliers in position to not only make the playoffs but advance deep into them.

So when Lebron got off track in a recent game against the Wizards you'd have expected Cleveland fans to cut the kid some slack. He just came off an MVP performance in the All Star game and had been of fire in his previous starts. You'd have to expect a bit of a lull and getting it out of the way right after the break was better than running out of gas down the stretch. It's a long season and you can't expect a lights out performance every night.

But the clowns in Cleveland didn't see it that way. When Lebron struggled to find his stroke the fans booed. They gave Lebron the business. You'd have thought the Cavaliers just announced that Shawn Kemp was checking into the game. Lebron's performance was bad, but isn't he entitled to a poor showing once in a while? He plays 44 minutes a night and is bound to run out of gas once in a while. Right? Besides, he still turned out a near triple double performance. If anybody was to blame it might be the rest of the team.

There are those who will say that fans have a right to boo. They pay good money to sit in the arena and how they express themselves is their choice. Besides, Lebron is making big bucks and should be mature enough to handle it. Especially when he's struggling. If he's too soft to take it he should have gone to college.

That's one way to look at it. Fans have the right to boo. They also have the right to eat urinal cakes and wear underpants on their heads. For that matter there's no law against walking up to a cop and saying "oink" but that doesn't mean it's a good idea. There's a big difference between being right and having a right. Booing Lebron isn't right.

Cleveland fans would do well to remember that Lebron is approaching the end of his rookie contract. The Cavaliers will likely offer him the maximum deal, but that doesn't mean Lebron has to take it. If Cleveland fans want to exercise their right to boo, Lebron might exercise his right to bolt and go out of his way to punish Cleveland fans whenever he comes back to town. How loud would the boos be if Lebron signed a deal with Chicago just so he could have several annual opportunities to hang 50 points on his former club?

Cleveland's my home town but I'm not stupid. It's a hell hole. It's a decaying old industrial city populated with stupid people who don't bathe regularly. Many of them are my relatives. The only redeeming aspect of playing professional sports in a town like Cleveland is that the fans are supposed to be loyal...not only to their teams, but to the players who represent them. For years Cleveland has worshipped mediocre athletes because they were "our guys" and showed the city a little loyalty. We loved athletes who had a blue collar mentality over the arrogant jerks who played for other teams. Sure, Joe Montana might have been a better quarterback on paper, but everybody in Cleveland knew that Bernie Kosar had intangibles. If Bernie had been throwing the ball to Jerry Rice the Browns would have won 10 Superbowls. Right? You betcha. Best NBA point guard of all time? Mark Price. End of story. John who? Magic what? Get out of here. Finally Cleveland has a bona fide superstar who wants to bring his hometown a long overdue championship and fans are booing him for struggling in one game that won't matter at the end of the season. That's simply not how it's supposed to be.

So why stay? If fans are already turning on Lebron, why should he stick around? We all know that his endorsement deals automatically sweeten if he ends up playing for a big market team, and he'll get more media exposure in LA, Chicago or New York. What does Cleveland have? The Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame? Big Deal. It's not like they have induction ceremonies there. What else? Rust? Oh yeah, Cleveland rocks. Lebron's got to stay.

Cleveland's not alone when it comes to stupid fans. Columbus is home to some of the most ruthless college sports fans in the country and Cincinnati is a festering pocket of mean-spirited rednecks. Philadelphia is a pit of irrational hatred and New York fans are among the most arrogant jerks in the world. Southern California has terrible fans who don't pay attention to their teams unless they're winning and Chicago is overrated. What happened to all those Bulls' fans? Where did all the White Sox fans come from? Around the world sports fans are getting more and more impatient. Whether it's because the athletes are getting paid so much money or because the tickets are too expensive, fans are just being rude. But Cleveland used to be special and that made it a great sports town. It seems those days are gone. Maybe Lebron will be too.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

USA Hockey reveals truth about All-Stars

For years Americans lamented the tremendous disadvantage we faced in the Olympics when it came to team sports. In hockey and basketball there was little argument that the best athletes in the world were native to the good old USA, but Olympic rules regarding professional athletes prohibited the USA and Canada from sending their best to the games to compete.

Of course the problem was the Soviet Union. The Soviets put together powerful teams filled with grizzled veterans who had no choice but to play for the national team. In the States where people are free to make their own choices, the best players typically signed professional contracts and left the national team scrambling to find new players every year. In spite of the fact that the players representing the US were just children, we still found ourselves on the podium almost every Olympiad.

In basketball the US has enjoyed dominance, missing out on winning gold only four times in 16 Olympics. One of those was 1980 when the US opted to boycott the Moscow games and in 1972 there was reason to believe that the game was rigged to favor the Soviets. 1988 was the straw that broke the camel's back, with the US taking home a bronze after getting handled by the Soviets in the semi-finals. Over the next few years the US Olympic Committee lobbied to include professional athletes in the games because of the unfair advantage enjoyed by the Soviets. The International Olympic Committee relented, realizing the money that could be made off of the so-called Dream Team the US would assemble. 1992 was unforgettable. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan rounded out a team that included some of the best basketball players to ever play the game. It was bigger and better than an All-Star team. It was like the Basketball Hall of Fame put a team together. You couldn't have improved that team if you had a time machine.

After 1992 it went down hill. Fast. The novelty wore off and egos started to get in the way. Internationally teams simply got better and some of the biggest stars in the NBA were now coming from Europe. By 2004 the wheels came off and Team USA struggled to attract the best players. While that team featured Lebron James and Tim Duncan, there was no team unity and zero leadership. The 2004 team took home the Bronze medal after losing three games. That was more losses than USA Basketball had endured in the all of the previous games combined. From 1936 to 2004 the US lost two games in Olympic competition. TWO! Then in 2004 we dropped three? One of them was to Puerto Rico. At least the other teams that beat us actually had NBA players on their rosters. It was an embarrassment.

Hockey was slightly different. The US didn't dominate Hockey the way it did basketball, but the same situation was an issue in hockey. The US and Canada sent boys into the Olympics to take on the men assembled by the Soviet Union and other communist countries. Many of those teams were comprised of players who would later defect and become stand out player in the NHL. Since the US and Canada couldn't force players to remain in the amateur ranks this put those teams at a decided disadvantage.

That's what made the 1980 Olympics so special. The US hadn't sniffed a gold medal in hockey since 1960 and the Soviet Union was a dominant force. A team that crushed the NHL All-Stars when the NHL All-Stars really wanted to win. The Olympics Games was such a source of nationalistic pride that the Soviet Union invested heavily into dominating the games. Young athletes were harvested and sent to camps where their skills would be developed through strict programs. It was like SEAL training for jocks. There was no school, no social life, no family obligations. All practice all the time. There is even speculation that the Soviet Union used its power to import children from other communist countries in order to fortify their own programs.

Everybody around the world knew what was going on. Even though the US was a superpower and always enjoyed a strong showing at the games, the Soviets were the juggernaut and the US was the underdog. The entire world was on our side because we represented what was good and pure about sports while the Soviets were the imperial power that bullied everybody. It was great. Yes, the Soviets typically won more than their share of medals, but that made every victory gained by the US that much more rewarding.

After the 1988 games, US fans were fed up. They were tired of watching our boys get pushed around by grown men. By this time Canada was singing the same tune with regard to its hockey team and pressure from media outlets such as NBC, who saw the tremendous financial benefits of professional athletes playing on the international stage forced the Olympic Committee to make changes. Money, money, money.

Had it not been for the Soviet union collapsing, it might still be a good idea. Before the Cold War ended the rivalry between the US and the USSR was heated and professional athletes bought into it. Now that the evil empire is gone and our foes are less tangible, it's hard for professional athletes to get worked up over a gold medal. When the Soviets were there it was a challenge, now it's an exhibition. By the time an athlete gets to the professional level they have more trophies and medals than they know what to do with so taking time out to play in the Olympics is more of a chore than it is an honor.

Now we still assemble our all-star teams, but they don't represent the US with any sense of pride. They go over begrudgingly and complain about the accommodations, the weather and the fact that they're away from home. They simply don't want to be there, but they might be able to exploit a marketing angle so they play along.

In Hockey, the problem is that the rest of the world loves the game more than we do. They simply put out better players. Some of the biggest stars in the NHL are from other countries. Even in Canada, the heart and soul of hockey, there is a struggle to find the best players in the world.

Additionally, the fact that the US and Canada send teams that are entirely composed of NHL players as opposed to rounding out a national team with a few ringers, hurts the team in the international game. International rules are different. The ice is wider in the International game and the rules favor a more wide open game. NHL players are used to playing on a smaller ice surface and rely more on muscle and positioning to win games. NHL players simply can't keep up with the international teams.

Sure, the teams that sent the US and Canada home early have NHL players, but not from top to bottom and the NHL players who hail from Europe grew up playing the faster brand of international hockey. US and Canadian players are equipped for a different game.

Part of the problem is general malaise. When professional leagues sponsor their all star games the atmosphere is festive and the players take it easy. It's an exhibition game where winning and losing is not as important as having fun and putting on a show. In hockey, basketball and baseball the all star game is part of a mid season break, where players get to decompress before taking on the last half of the season. It's like a seven inning stretch. In football, the all star game is well after the season and is little more than a gathering of the league's best players for a company outing. The point is that all-star games are not taken seriously.

So what do we expect when we assemble an all star team to play in the Olympics? NHL players are right in the middle of their season. They've been playing for a different team all year and suddenly we expect them to pack their bags and get geared up for an international tournament.

In basketball we expect the all-star team to get into game shape during a time of year they normally relax in preparation for the coming season. With the rest of the world suddenly taking a liking to basketball, we're finding that the US no longer owns the rights to hoops dominance. In cities around the world you're likely to find poor kids shooting hoops in a rundown playground. Sadly in the US the kids who used to shoot baskets until their fingers bled are busy playing video games. And just like in hockey, the international game of basketball is different than what is played here. In the US the game is dominated by big men in the paint and high flyers above the rim. In the international game it's all about the jump shot. Our players aren't familiar with having to play outside the arc.

What we need in both sports is a bona-fide national team. We might be better off fielding a team of guys who aren't quite ready for prime time and supplement the base roster with a handful of earnest professionals who really want to win. Instead of stocking a roster full of prima donnas who want face time, play the international game with some hardworking grunts who share the objective of winning Olympic Gold. If we must send professionals, try to send an entire team as opposed to selecting all stars at least they'll know how to play together.

One thing true sports fans can't tolerate is under achievement. That's what makes recent Olympic performances so unbearable. Two years ago our basketball team let us down, this year US and Canadian hockey failed to show up. We would rather see a team over-achieve and go home empty handed than watch a collection of superstars go through the motions and win it all. We prefer to root for the underdog. So why waste time sending a punch of pampered professional athletes to represent our interests in the Olympics? Wouldn't it be more fun to watch a bunch of nobodies give their best effort on every play?

I miss the Soviet union. There was something comforting about the open hostility and the mutually assured destruction. We knew where we stood and every four years we got to vent our frustrations in head to head athletic competition. Now Russia is a broken down shell of a country, the old Soviet bloc is a diluted handful of wimpy republics and our biggest enemy on the global stage is our own inept leadership. Where have the good times gone?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Olympic Action. It's...ZZZZZ...

Isn't it dramatic? Not the thrill of athletic competition, but the frenzied manner in which the sensationalists at NBC exhaust every resource to find some human interest angle that can be contorted in such a way as to tug at our heart strings. Imagine the joy NBC's producers must have felt when they discovered one skier's mom had suffered a severe injury when she lost control while skiing. Making the story even more compelling was the fact that the skier's father was the one who found her in the trees and employed heroic measures to revive her. If that isn't enough the woman in question is a cancer patient who has lost all of her hair. GOLD! Dingdingding...we have a winner. NBC needs to have a special medal ceremony just to honor the reporters who dig up the best sob story.

In every event some athlete is playing with pain and we need to know about it. This skater has a bruised foot, this ski jumper pulled a muscle in his back, that curler is constipated. God forbid an athlete should be in perfect mental and physical health during these events. Why is it nobody seems willing to mention the fact that every athlete plays with pain. There's always a strain, a sprain or a pulled something or other and for that matter if you dig deep enough you can find some distant relative who is ailing. Big deal.

That's why I'm sick of hearing about Lindsey Kildow. It's great that she was able to suck it up and ski after suffering a tough fall, but she wasn't injured. She was banged up. I don't want to take anything away from her. I am not doubting that she was in pain, but when she watches the coverage she'll be embarrassed at how NBC made her ailments out to be so severe. You'd think that she almost died. Lindsey Kildow didn't do anything impressive and she would be the first to tell you that. She did what any self-respecting athlete would do. She got back up and played the game. Lindsey's not exceptional by athletic standards, Michelle Kwan is the exception because she opted to bow out instead of playing through a little pain. Athletes are supposed to be tough. You'd think sportscasters would know this by now.

The we have the youngsters. If I had a dime for every time one of the announcers mentioned the inexperience of a particular athlete I might be able to pay to have them shot. After all, Sicily isn't that far away and I don't think biathletes would require much inducement to open fire on the media. This is the Olympics people, I don't want to hear about how good these clowns will be in three years. You're supposed to be at the top of your game right now. News flash! Nobody cares about the World Championships next year. Deliver big on the Olympic stage or it doesn't matter. Save the rookie crap for the odd years.

Obviously the enduring story from these games will be the mental mistake perpetrated by Lindsey Jacobellis. The US snowboarder is considered to be the best racer in the world and was favored to win the gold in the Snowboardcross. After poor showings in the preliminary races, Jacobellis muscled her way to an early lead and increased her margin after the other racers got tied up in her wake. After checking to verify that her closest competitor was out of contention, Lindsey took a moment on the last big jump the course offered to hit a little style trick. Stunning considering that she tried out for the halfpipe team and failed to qualify, but the method air she went for wasn't exactly a hardcore trick. Unfortunately she held the grab too long, landed badly and gave up her lead. She was lucky that only one of the other racers was on her feet or the silver medal she settled for would have gone to somebody else.

I can't be too hard on the girl since she has to live with her stupidity. It's not as though she was a part of a team that was depending on her to come through. Some might claim she was representing the USA but that's a load of garbage. She was representing herself first and she suffered the consequences of her actions. She'll continue to suffer them. This was the first time Boardercross was a medal event in the games and it will eventually be the main event in the Olympics because it provides the excitement that the other events sorely lack. Every time a skier or snowboarder makes a mistake that costs them a race it will be called a Jacobellis. In fact, it's possible that every failed trick in snowboarding will soon be called a Lindsey. That's a harsh punishment.

Bode Miller hasn't won anything yet. His best event has traditionally been the Super G and he failed to finish his run in these games. Insiders say that his slalom performances have been weak lately, so Bode might go oh-fer. Detractors will chalk that up to Bode being a jerk, but the reason Bode is so popular is that he pushes himself to the brink of disaster on every run. Sometimes that results in big wins, sometimes it results in big mistakes. That's the way he rolls. The reality is that if it weren't for potential crashes we wouldn't watch skiing at all. Agony of Defeat, baby. That's why we love Bode.

There are some idiots out there like PTI's Michael Wilbon who think Bode Miller is some sort of self-promoter who has insulated himself with excuses for failing before that failure actually manifests. This is not true. Wilbon should know better than to pass judgment on the Olympic hype. Miller has always been a bit of a flake who marches to the beat of a different drummer. Most skiers are a little odd. You have to be too ride down icy mountain slopes at speeds of 70 miles per hour. He goes his own way and doesn't make a big deal out of winning. He likes to compete, but he does it on his terms.

They hype around Miller is courtesy of NBC and various Olympic sponsors who see Bode as a marketable commodity. Miller is happy to take their money, but he hasn't changed. Another reality in regard to Bode Miller is the fact that he was never the favorite to win gold in any of the events in these games. He was only the best American skier in Turin. That's not saying much. Even so, the guy presses hard on every run knowing all too well that the next time he crashes he could shatter his pelvis or break a femur. If you can't respect that you might be an idiot.

Bryant Gumbel
went out of his way to take shots at these games calling them over-hyped and he lamented the paucity of black athletes participating in Turin. Mr. Gumbel would do well to remember that these are the WINTER Olympics and as such feature sports that do not appeal to many black athletes. It's a cultural issue. The fact is most black athletes don't see the events in these games as socially acceptable. Shani Davis alluded to that when he was interviewed about his childhood. To borrow a bad cliche, some of my best friends are black... and none of them would be caught dead on a set of skis.

Why are we wasting time with Ice Dancing? This is like the minor league version of figure skating. How can I possibly be impressed with anything the Ice Dancers are doing when I know that there are better skaters out there who can actually do tricks that impress me? This is why black people don't like the Winter Games... we queer them up with white-oriented crap like Ice Dancing. Where's the soul? How about a little flavor?

Since artistic impression and choreography are such important elements in real Figure Skating, it makes no sense to have this ball room dancing on ice garbage. Are these the skaters who ride the short bus to the games? Do the real skaters pick on the ice dancers? And why don't the figure skaters who get too old to compete in figure skating just step down and Ice Dance? It's like the skating world's version of shuffle board. Lame. Scott Hamilton and Katarina Witt should hook up and show these Ice Dancers how it's done.

If you want to talk about athletes insulating themselves with excuses you should look no further than Apolo Anton Ohno. His big concern going into the short track 1000 meter final was team skating on the part of the Koreans. I watched the race and what I saw was a slow American skater get schooled by two much faster Koreans. No team work there, just an old fashioned butt-kicking. Ohno didn't accuse them of cheating but he went out of his way to make it sound like he lost because he outsmarted himself. That's not the case. The only excuse I'm buying is that the soul patch created some wind resistance. Shave that tuft of red scrub off your lip, Apolo. And next time pack your other "L".

How many different Ski Jumping events are there? Why don't we cut it down the big hill and leave it at that? Why do they have Luge and Skeleton? It seems that Skeleton is faster and more dangerous so drop luge and until they have coed naked double luge I really don't want to watch the Brokeback Mountain version of sledding that the double luge appears to be. Nasty.

Bobsledding would be more intriguing if they took a page from Boardercross and dispatched four sleds at the same time. That would really be like NASCAR on ice except the participants might be real athletes and there'd be a lot less inbreeding involved in rearing a driver. Guess what people do when they flunk out of truck driving school? They drive NASCAR. Yee-haw!

Biathalon would be very interesting if the contestants were allowed to shoot each other. I know that using real bullets would be wrong, but you could equip the racers with paintball guns and rewrite the rules to account for a combat oriented event. If they can have Fencing in the Summer Games, why not have a blood sport in the winter?

Why anybody would be interested in cross country skiing sans guns is beyond me, but they could make it like real cross country skiing and sneak some steep drops in on these guys. Maybe run some deer through the course to break the tracks up a bit and increase the degree of difficulty. If you really want to make it authentic you could hide barbed wire fences just below the powder and watch how the experienced Nordic skiers respond to those everyday obstacles your weekend warrior endures. Hey, you could even send some idiot hiker with unleashed dogs down the trail to mix things up.

I want to slam curling. I really, really do but the darn sport is somewhat interesting. It is a bit long. I don't think you need 10 ends. Four would be more than enough and speeding things up would really help. They already have a clock counting down an the time but wouldn't it be more exciting if they employed a timing format similar to speed chess? Sure it would.

Hat's off to the US Womens Curling team for finding a cute set of sisters (actual siblings, not Destiny's Child) to spice things up. Got to love the Johnson girls, eh? And don't tell me that Team USA didn't think the sex appeal aspect through. The US women are the only curling team wearing form fitting uniforms. Somehow I don't think wind resistance is an issue in curling, but I'm not complaining. Next year, however, wear fewer layers. It's a real shame for that cold air to go to waste, if you know what I mean.

We've reached that midway point of these games with women's figure skating remaining as the headliner. Hockey is supposed to be exciting, but for some reason NBC doesn't seem to think it's worthy of prime time coverage. Perhaps the medal matches will garner some evening love, but the secondary placement of Lord Stanley's favorite game should concern the NHL. I smell another professional sports league closing up shop and this time it's not another pro-football spin off. Too bad Lebron James didn't play hockey, eh? Five years ago we thought the NBA was heading for the showers. Now it looks like the NHL is on death's door. I'd shed a tear if I actually cared. Hey guys, when you have to find real jobs you might do better if you cut the mullet. Just a thought.

So, how many times will we hear Michelle Kwan's name mentioned in the coming week? 20 is the number. Over or under?

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Olympic Justice is served.

Michelle Kwan has pulled out of the Olympics. Apparently the injury that prevented her from qualifying legitimately wasn't 100% healed when she used her enormous popularity to claim a spot on the Olympic team. Sure, she claims that she injured it in practice but we all know the truth: she lied to the US Olympic committee and hoped that her groin would be operational in time to compete this week. It wasn't and she had to bail or suffer the humiliation of another Olympic disappointment. Now she can go out with a pity party. Coulda. Woulda. Shoulda. Didn't. Now shut up, go home and see if your agent can land you a job covering skaters who actually come through in the clutch.

What is upsetting about Kwan and the Olympic committee's desire to foist the charismatic skater on the viewing audience is that the politics being played will have a negative impact on Emily Hughes who rightfully earned the spot in the Olympics by placing third at the trials. Kwan's exemption bumped Hughes whose sister stunned the world by taking home gold four years ago. Won't Sasha be upset if another perky little Hughes girl steals her thunder yet again?
Technically Hughes should be ready to go, but staying in top physical condition and keeping your psyche honed are two different aspects of competition. Surely Hughes quietly fumed over getting bumped out of the Olympics and with the odds of her getting to compete very slim it's highly likely that she is not in top form. It's hard to maintain that focus and peak physically when you've been slapped with disappointment. Shame on her if she's not ready to step up, but shame on Kwan and the US Olympic committee for playing the popularity game with the selection process.

Look, athletes get hurt all the time. That's part of the game. In most sports you have two choices when you're injured: play hurt and suffer the consequences or bow out to fight another day. Getting to the Olympics is the pinnacle of success in many of these sports. Most people don't care about figure skating, skiing, women's hockey or curling until the Olympics begin. It doesn't matter how good Michelle Kwan has been or who holds the world record in an event. All we see is Olympic gold. Set a world record in winning an Olympic Gold Medal and you'll become a legend forever, do it in some world cup event a year later and you might as well knit an afghan. Look at Mary Lou Retton, she's still popular after all these years and for what? A perfect 10 in Olympic competition. Had she achieved perfection in 1986 instead of 1984 we'd have never heard of her. Anybody Remember Debi Thomas? Maybe that's because she didn't win gold, but she was the first African American woman to win a medal in the winter Olympics. No small feat, but still anonymity has claimed her.

NBC is to blame for this Michelle Kwan nonsense. Experts predict that ratings will fall with Kwan being out of the competition, so it's only reasonable to assume that NBC leaned heavily on the Olympic Committee to ensure Kwan would be competing. The dramatic tale of Kwan getting one last shot at the Olympic glory that has eluded her was a story the network was desperate to capitalize on. If NBC had remained neutral on this subject and honored the spirit of competition, they could have looked for a story elsewhere and possibly invested a little hype into Emily Hughes.

Apolo Anton Ohno failed to reach the finals in his 1500 meter short track race and when he tried to explain his failure he blamed the Chinese Skater he was trying to pass for bumping him. He didn't cry foul, but he wasn't honest either. Ohno screwed up. He was in position to take second place and qualify for the finals but he got greedy, lost his balance and skittered off the track. Nobody bumped him. He choked. Again. He'll probably claim gold in one or two of the other short track events, just as he did last Olympics (by acting), but if he doesn't succeed you can bet he won't take responsibility. So Ohno plays the blame game and Kwan wanted special treatment. Great. Go Latvia!

Say what you will about Bode Miller, but the kid did well in the downhill in spite of the fact that he supposedly stayed out all night partying, slept in late and didn't even try his new skis before the race. How much of that is true will never be known, but he took fifth in the men's downhill which is a great finish. When asked about his run, Bode simply said that he couldn't have done much better and that the other participants were faster. He admitted that he might have made a small mistake or two but even if he had been perfect he wouldn't have won it all. That's called manning up, folks. No excuses for Bode. And before you say he was supposed to win, you're wrong. Bode's not the best downhill racer. He's a carver. Look for him to fare well in the slalom events. And by the way, he's not considered to be the best in the world, only the most exciting. Big difference there.

Isn't it great that the Great One is Canada's problem? What an ego on this guy! Really. Sure, Wayne's not implicated in anything illegal just yet and probably won't be, because the NHL can't afford for Gretzky to become a Pete Rose. His wife is the one who gambles and there's no proof she had knowledge of illegal gambling. That's not the point.

The point is that there is a fire storm brewing over this whole NHL/Soprano family connection, and until the whole story is out Gretzky will be right in the middle of it. Team Canada doesn't need that kind of attention in the Olympics. And wouldn't you know, Wayne's at a press conference yesterday and reporters were asking him about the gambling investigation. Surprise, surprise, surprise. Wayne was smart though, he had a handler play the bad guy and rebuff reporters who wanted to cover the real story. Whoever it was sounded a lot like Dick Cheney. We're not talking about that, argh!

Why is Wayne there? EGO. Wayne needs to be the face of Canadian hockey. The smart thing to do would be to stay at home and let the bad hoo-doo remain stateside with him and his tart--I mean wife. Instead Wayne flew to Turin and made a bee-line for the press. Hello world, look at me! Sometimes it's better for everybody if you take the high road and in this case that meant laying low.

But Wayne doesn't care about Canadian Hockey. If he did he never would have played for the Kings. If that's not enough evidence for you perhaps you can tell me why he's in Phoenix instead of Canada. No? That's because Wayne Gretzky cares about Wayne Gretzky. I don't take issue with that. There's nothing wrong with looking out for number one, but don't pretend you're unselfish. Gretzky's acting like his presence in Turin is a benefit to the team when it's really a benefit to himself. What a jerk...

Friday, February 10, 2006

NFL's gotta be done.

In spite of the Olympics starting today, sports fans around the country are concerned with the NFL's version of the Hot Stove League. With several big names expected to move, the complexion of the league can change dramatically so don't expect to see the same teams winning big next year.

Most notably Pittsburgh is on the outside looking in when it comes to retaining the services of Antwaan Randle El. He is an unrestricted free agent and his tremendous versatility makes him very desirable. He is a great number two receiver but he's so athletic he could be poised to become the latest Steve Smith.

Pittsburgh gave Hines Ward a huge contract and has to work hard to create cap room to fortify the running game and the defensive line. It's unlikely that they will be able to match offers made to Randle El by other teams, particular Chicago, who desperately needs some explosive playmakers on offense.

With all that happening, Pittsburgh will likely finish 11-5 again but not have the fortitude to make a miracle run through the playoffs. The Bengals should have enough flexibility to get stronger and dominate the AFC North if not the entire AFC.

Forget about the Colts. Tony Dungy is too laid back to get that team to play tough. I thought he got shafted when Tampa sent him packing and John Gruden came in to win a championship with Dungy's team, but after watching the Colts fall apart this year I realize that Dungy is a lousy head coach. Exhibit A: Peyton Manning waving off the punt team on a fourth and two at midfield with a lot of time on the clock. Yes, the Colts converted, but it was a bad idea to go for it in that situation. Peyton is not the one who would have taken the heat had they turned the ball over on downs. You might win big in Vegas putting everything you have on 13, but that doesn't mean you were smart, does it?

Manning is a menace. He buys into the hype around him and believes he really is the smartest man in the universe. Move over Hawking. Peyton calls the plays and audibles relentlessly. It seems to work during the regular season but in the playoffs manning gets too cute. He audibles more and tries to outthink the defense on every play when anybody in football can tell you that sometimes you just have to outplay your opponent. You can't catch the defense off guard every time you snap the ball, but it seems as though that it exactly what manning tries to do. Instead he outsmarts his own team. Don't take my word for it, look at the numbers. The Colts stink in the post season. Period. Manning stinks in the post season. Until the Colts put the screws to Manning or simply send him packing they aren't going to win anything more than a division title. Overrated thy name is Manning. All three of you.

Oh yeah, Edge is talking about leaving. Big deal. I know that James thinks he's the heart and soul of that team, but running backs are a dime a dozen in this era. Seriously. Did the Broncos miss Clinton Portis? Nope. The Colts have a good offensive line and a great passing game. All they need is a serviceable back. James is a waste of money. Two words Indianapolis: William Greene. No kidding. The Browns don't want him and in that scenario he isn't worth a roster spot, but in Indianapolis the star crossed bench warmer could shine. It's not like he'll bring more baggage than James did and he'll cost less too.

As long as the Chargers want to play Marty-ball they'll come up short. Everybody seems so impressed with Schottenheimer's career record, but tally up the results from his post season and you'll notice two things. He hasn't gotten to the playoffs as often as you'd expect and he doesn't get much done once he's there. It's not bad luck, the guy is an idiot. Nice fit for San Diego, though. Talk about a franchise built on bad decisions.

The Broncos aren't going anywhere either. Not with Wake and Bake Jake. The guy put together one decent year amidst a career's worth of bad decisions. He proved that he's not a go-to-guy and if you want to win it all in the NFL you have to have a QB that can carry you once in a while. No, Roethlisberger didn't carry the Steelers in the Super Bowl, but he did put that team on his back in the playoffs and got them in the big game. Plummer tried to carry the Broncos past Pittsburgh and ended up doing more harm than good.

You have to figure that the Dolphins are due to make a postseason splash. With Saban calling the shots and some good personnel decisions being made, the Dolphins aren't nearly as bad as their record would suggest. I wouldn't be surprised to see them make some noise this year, especially if they can make a few moves in the off season. What do they need? Mostly just for everybody they have to play up to their potential. In all honesty that's not a bad team.

You can't rule out the Patriots. Had they not been hampered by injuries all year they would have been in the thick of things yet again. They'll acquire some depth in their defensive back field, find some parts for the offensive line and find the perfect scheme to bring it all together. Until they are out of the playoff hunt you have to consider them a favorite to go all the way.

Call me biased but I think that Romeo Crennel is going to have enough talent in place to make a playoff run next season. The Browns look so far out of contention, especially with a late 41-0 drubbing at the hands of the Steelers, but Crennel will get more of the right pieces into place for that 3-4 defense he loves to run and the Browns will be working hard to bring Charlie Batch along this off season. If they can catch lightning in a bottle by drafting a few guys who can contribute immediately, especially at the linebacker position, they could steal a wild card spot and I think Crennel's good enough to upset anybody once.

The AFC is wide open. Only the Raiders, Jets and Texans seem to be in dire straits. That's thanks to leadership. The Texans failed to build a strong offensive line, the Raiders have a madman calling the shots and the Jets invested heavily into marginal talent when they looked a little competitive a couple of years ago. Now they have complete mess on their hands. The Titans are a step above these three deadbeats, but not by much. Tennessee has no playmakers.

The NFC is a different animal. Where the AFC is strong top to bottom, with four exceptions. The NFC is weak with three or four exceptions. Chicago was 1-3 against AFC opponents last year. They lost to the Browns. In the NFC they were 10-2. That tells you a lot about the quality of the NFC. Washington was 0-4 against the AFC and 10-2 in the NFC. The second best record in the NFC last year was 11-5 with four teams sharing that record. The Seahawks won 13 games, but did so by achieving a perfect record in a terrible division...St. Louis finished second in the NFC West with a 6-10 record...and of course the Seahawks were 8-0 at home. They did go 3-1 against the AFC, but would they have gone 13-3 if they were still in the AFC West? Not likely.

Does it really matter who can win in the NFC right now? The Giants should be the cream of the NFC East crop, but what is that really saying? The Redskins are supposed to be a tough team, but tough in the NFC doesn't translate into Super Bowl wins. Especially when you don't have an offense. The Eagles need to find a running game, but don't have the horses to carry the load, will they find an every down back in the draft? If so will they be able to acquire a quality wide receiver?

Dallas is interesting. Parcels is a tough coach who is trying to build a winning team. Dallas was threatening to make a run for the playoffs last year, but came unglued down the stretch. Dallas might be ready to take ownership of the NFC East next year. In fact Dallas might be the best team in the entire conference next year. They need to bring in a few players to shore up the defense and find some consistency on offense, but they aren't far from being a 12-4 team.

In the Central I don't see much to be impressed with. We'll see if the Bears are for real when they face a tougher schedule. The Vikings aren't exactly dead, but winning the Central Division title means about as much as one of those gold stars your kindergarten teacher handed out for being brilliant enough to say please and thank you. Who cares. This conference is dead. The winner of the NFC Central should be allowed to stay in the NFL while the losers are relegated to NFL Europe until they can figure out how to play.

Green Bay needs to cut Favre loose. Favre is tough and you have to love his spirit, but he's sloppy and that gunslinger nonsense doesn't cut it in the NFL today. Favre's a little slower and the defensive backs are a little faster. That means more passes are being broken up. Green Bay should have looked for Favre's understudy four years ago and replaced Favre two years after that. You hate to tell a guy he's too old, and Favre could do great things for a team like Washington, but in Green Bay Favre's outlived his usefulness. And let's not talk about Detroit. The Toledo Mudhens play better football than the Lions.

As far as division go, the NFC south is actually tough. Tampa and Carolina both got to the playoffs last year and should make similar runs this year. Tampa should benefit from the development of Chris Simms and a few quality acquisitions to improve the offense might turn that 11-5 performance into a 13-3 showing. A healthy Joey Galloway could bring some homerun capability to the team and the defense should be stout once again.

Speaking of a stout defense, Carolina was excellent last year only allowing a total of 259 points. Impressive considering that they got 391 from the offense. Carolina would have been a better team if it hadn't been for injuries stretching them so thin on both sides of the ball. They managed to recover from midseason ailments to make a playoff run, but the bumps and bruises were too much and they eventually fell short against Seattle. They should be better this year with their biggest obstacle being a tough division. They could use another playmaker to compliment Smith, and a little depth on defense could help them spell Julius Peppers late in the season, but Carolina could stand pat this off season and still make waves.

Atlanta is the wildcard that makes the South such a tough conference, but Vick isn't the type of QB you can win big with. The NFL is all about the pass. Mobile quarterbacks can hurt you, but only if they throw really well all the time. Vick doesn't like to hear criticism of his passing ability, but until he can hike that passer rating up over 80 and show that he is a consistent passing threat the Falcons will beat weaker teams and lose to the better teams. He's had one or two great passing performances in his career. So has Chad Pennington. It's not good enough. That's why 8-8 is the standard finish for the Falcons. The bad thing about 8-8 is that you don't get anything for it. No postseason glory, no high draft picks and you don't get any scheduling help either. The Falcons are a one dimensional team with a good defense. The dimension they lack rests in Vick's hands, or rather, his arm.

New Orleans might as well be in the NFC West with the rest of the dregs. St. Louis has the potential to climb out of the basement and maybe win a playoff game or two, but that's going to depend on how well they adjust to a new coaching staff. The Mike Martz drama probably served as a distraction last season and with a fresh start awaiting them things could get better in a hurry. Steven Jackson is a beast of a back and should be ready to break out next season. If the team can shore up the line and get some help on defense...a lot of help on defense...the NFC west could be theirs.

Seattle's talented. They have a solid team all the way around but Seattle fans who wonder why their Seahawks aren't getting respect need to understand that the Seahawks played a soft schedule and call a weak division home. Tough calls notwithstanding, Seattle lost the Super Bowl to a team they should have beaten because the Seahawks failed to make key plays. These guys just seem to lack heart. That's a Holmgren trait. The Packers lost to the Broncos in the Super Bowl because they played a soft game. With a difficult schedule looming it won't be easy for Seattle to win 11 or 12 games this year and the Shaun Alexander contract saga hasn't even begun to play out. That could prove to be a front office distraction.

San Francisco
? Are you serious? Have you seen these guys play? It's going to take 3 years worth of serious rebuilding to get this team back on track and who can explain the Cardinals? The NFL should take operational control of this franchise in order to make sure everything is being done to make it competitive.

Obvioulsy a lot is going to happen between now and the start of the season, and we all should be concerned with things more immediate but the NCAA tournament doesn't start until next month, the NBA finals won't start until June and the Olympics don't matter unless there's nothing else on TV. Seriously, does anybody really care about the opening ceremonies? No. So we talk about football. Someday, when the NHL markets a product we want to watch we'll spend February talking about guys on skates, but until then we enjoy the afterglow of the NFL.

In the spirit of the season I offer my 50 week Super Bowl Prediction (everybody else is doing it, so why not?) : Dallas vs. Miami...
this pick is subject to change several times before the next Super Bowl.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Shut up Seattle

Come on. Are we really going to lament bad officiating when the real reason Seattle lost is lousy coaching?

I expected Mike Holmgren to take a shot at the officials and he has a point, the officials made some bad calls. Two were ticky tack, one was nothing short of a crime. But unlike some clowns in the media like Michael Smith who seems to think that the officials handed Pittsburgh the game, I can't let Seattle off the hook.

Dropped balls, missed kicks, and receivers stepping out of bounds robbed Seattle of the points they should have scored. On the defensive side it was three big plays that gave Pittsburgh their three touchdowns. I'll admit that Roethlisberger looked like he might have been stopped short of the goal line on that run, but at the same time I think that the ball did break the plane before he came down.

It doesn't matter. Pittsburgh would have gone for and gotten the touchdown on fourth and inches anyway. They've done it all season long. Besides, why was Pittsburgh on the goal line in the first place? Bad defensive play. Roethlisberger scrambled out of the pocket and hit a wide open Hines Ward to put the ball inside the five. They were facing a third and 28 and Seattle simply gave up on the play.

The Steelers started the second half with a 75 yard run for a touchdown. I didn't see the officials have a hand in that play. Willie Parker ran over and then past the vaunted Seattle defense. Where did the safeties go?

Pittsburgh's final score came on a trick play that everybody knew was coming. For two weeks people talked about Cowher's penchant for trickeration and they talked about the great arm of Antwaan Randle El. Sure enough, Randle El took the ball on a reverse and heaved a perfect spiral into the awaiting arms of Hines Ward for a 43 yard score. It was the best pass thrown all night. Why was Ward open? Because the entire defense got sucked in on the run. That's not the officials, that's poor preparation.

I won't argue that the officiating was bad, it's been lousy all year and the NFL needs to do some work, but please spare me the argument that Seattle was robbed by the men in stripes. Seattle lost because they failed to capitalize on their opportunities and they didn't take the big play away from the Steelers. Blame the loss on Holmgren.

The bottom line is simply this: if you allow the game to be decided by the officials you probably deserve to lose. The Steelers overcame bad officiating against the Colts and the Seahawks certainly had their share of unfettered chances to take ownership of the game. Sorry guys, no free pass on this one. You choked.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Super Blah

Pittsburgh emerged victorious in a rather unimpressive Super Bowl spectacle. XL will be remembered as one of the more forgettable games ever played in the NFL's title game. 21-10. Steelers win by default.

This was not a defensive struggle or an offensive shootout, unless you were keeping track of which team shot themselves in the foot more. That edge goes to Seattle. Both teams made mistakes, but Seattle took mistakes to a new level. The team suffered simultaneous breakdowns on the field and on the sidelines. Poor clock management, bad play selection and failure to execute those plays all culminated in Seattle losing the game in spite of gaining more yards.

Both teams were sloppy. Both teams seemed as though the pressure of the Super Bowl negatively affected their performances. Pittsburgh got a few lucky breaks and a couple of big plays, but they neither dominated with defense nor took control with offense. Boring.

The best Passing performance was had by Antwaan Randle El who hurled a perfect spiral to a wide open Hines Ward for a 43 yard touchdown Strike. Roethlisberger looked terrible, completing only 9 of 21 passes with two whatchootalkinboutwillis interceptions. Matt Hasselbeck was only marginally better completing more passes for more yards, but coming up short when it came to capping drives with scores. Missing two field goals sure didn't help, but where was Mr. Touchdown? Shaun Alexander carried the ball 20 times according to the stat sheet, but I don't remember seeing much of him. Why didn't Seattle ride that pony all game long?

For some reason, Holmgren seemed intent on using the pass to open up the run. Even though Pittsburgh started off poorly, Seattle played the entire game as though they couldn't afford to run the ball. Why not let the league MVP show the world why he's considered to be one of the best running backs in the game? Inexplicable.

Interestingly enough, this game was played in a dome so as not to be negatively affected by weather. The irony is that in spire of optimal conditions, the teams played poorly. It looked as though the ball was slick on the turf was soaked. Passes were well off target all night and players didn't seem all that fast or agile. Aside from a handful of plays, you would have thought this was a preseason game. Both teams looked weak and confused. Watching a dozen old guys scramble for the last piece of garlic bread on the Ponderosa Lunch buffet line might have been more exciting. And what was the deal with the officials? Offensive pass interference? Really? All season long we watch wide receivers man-handle defensive backs and not get called but you get to the Super Bowl and you'll negate a touchdown over a hand check? Yes, Darrell Jackson got full extension on that arm, but seriously can we have a little consistency on these calls? And I'll be really interested to hear the officials explain why Hasselbeck was nailed for a personal foul after making a tackle. Of course, that penalty didn't mean much after Randle El showed us why he should get a shot at playing quarterback, Ward was so wide open he would have scored from half a mile out.

The NFL still provides the best title game around, largely in part because it's a one game deal. It's instant gratification. Instead of dragging the championship out for seven games, the fans get treated to a do or die event that typically lives up to the hype. This year's game left a lot to be desired but it still offered that finality that only the Super Bowl can provide.

But that doesn't mean there isn't room for improvement. Why not play the game in the cold? Some of the best games in NFL history were played in extreme conditions. Fans will still come, sponsors will gladly pay through the nose regardless of the venue and the players will happily gut it out. The sloppy performances turned in by this year's combatants proves that perfect conditions don't guarantee a perfect game. Playing an outdoor game in Chicago on a February evening might not appeal to some of the entertainers the NFL might try to book and certainly will scare off prissy celebrities who only want to be seen, but this season's half time show proved two important things: age is catching up with the Stones and lip syncing isn't always a bad thing. The National Anthem was even worse. Can singers be forced into retirement?

It's time to stop trying so hard. People tune in to see the game and if the halftime entertainment is good then it's just icing on the cake. This year we had a double whammy. Bad entertainment and a pretty lousy game.