Monday, October 25, 2010

The Orlando Also-rans?

With the 2010-2011 NBA season set to kick-off in less than 24 hours now, we bring you a last minute guest team preview courtesy of the skilled Clint Peterson. Be sure to follow him on Twitter for some quality NBA tweets. Without further adieu, here is Clint's forecast of last season's Eastern Conference runner-ups, the suddenly overlooked Orlando Magic.

While you were watching the Finals last June, Dwight Howard was working on his "Milk Shake." Allow me to explain...

"Gotta tell you guys that I haven’t been able to watch one game in the Finals yet. I can’t really watch it at all. Every time I turn on the TV and I see a Celtic or a Laker I kind of get ticked off. Sorry, that’s just the way that I feel.

I wanted to tell you guys about what I was doing last week. I’m not just sitting around and feeling sorry for myself about losing to Boston. I decided to get back to work on my game immediately, so I went to Houston to work out with Hall of Fame center Hakeem 'The Dream' Olajuwon. We worked three hours a day for five days last week.

Hakeem showed me some things with footwork and shots off fakes to get free. He was always so patient in the post and it was like he had defenders on a string with his moves. So I’m just trying to pick up as much as I can from him.

Hakeem had the Dream Shake, but mine is going to be the Milk Shake."

From The Official Dwight Howard Blog

Everything for Orlando once again begins with Howard. It's the endings of games that concerns them.

An atrocious freebie shooter, head coach Stan Van Gundy often been criticized by fans for being perceived as opting to stay away from Howard in the most critical of times with a game hanging in the balance. This leaves the Magic in unenviable position of needing to start out a game ahead and trying to stay there. This is paramount to what makes soccer one of the most unpopular sports in America, as most teams try to come out hard, get a lead, then spend the rest of the game simply defending it. You gotta play to win in the NBA, not play not to lose.

Throw in the fact that the Magic love to die by the 3-pointer and you suddenly lose a lot of options for winning ball games. Indeed, in losing to the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Final last spring, Doc's boys watched the Magic heave 92 3's for only 28% in their four losses, and 53 of 'em for 43% in their two wins.

When you're down your instinct wants to take over and make that big-point play that gets you back into it, further removing the center of their game from the action, as 3-ball attempts tend to bounce away from the bigs as often as not. The league's leading 3-heavers (2241 3-FGAs in 2010-2011) need more offensive options.

So the question for the Magic and Howard is did they do so?

Key Losses

After failing to lure Raja Bell to LA, Kobe Bryant then set his sights on I-love-to-hate-this-guy 1a, Matt Barnes. Barnes took the "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" route, joining the Lakers, although personally I think his tattoos would have been a better fit for Denver. He was made for that Nuggets mentality.

Also out are Adonyl Foyle and Anthony Johnson.

Nothing much "key" about any of this.

Key Additions

Journeymen Malik Allen, Chris Duhon, and Quentin Richardson who had seemed to have finally found a home with the Heat until the Big 3 2.0 came prancing into town. Also in are rookie draft picks Daniel Orton and Stanley Robinson.

Again, nothing very "key" about it. The Magic brass decided to simply try and tweak the roster a bit, rather than mess around with what should again be an easy 2-seed in the Eastern Conference, probably a smart move considering Orlando is leading the league in the preseason in both offense and defense. Q Rich should fit into the Magic's "4-out/1-in" offense better than Barnes did, however.

Since we've already covered Dwight himself, let's check out Howard's help.

Jameer "Half-year" Nelson

Nelson has yet to play a full 82 games in his career, and regressed a bit stat-wise last season from his previous All-star one. However, if he stays healthy his tenacity and toughness when he is on the court will relieve some of the pressure on Howard to create a post move he doesn't yet have with his mean drive through the paint. Defenders have to collapse on him or he will bull his way to the basket for an easy two. When he keeps 'em honest it makes for easy pickings for Howard on a dish-off.

I'd like to see more of this this season from the pair. It's highly effective.


Last year Vince Carter added a bit of that flavor I mentioned earlier in the form of another option on offense. He's the sole Magic man that is a real threat to create something from nothing off the dribble. It honestly seemed like a bad idea to throw him in there since he's always been used to being "The Man," but he pleasantly surprised by fitting in well.

There's still some gas left in that tank. Expect Carter to once again contribute to the success of Orlando, both in the regular and more so this year, the postseason.

Rashard "Don't Forget About Me!" Lewis

Um, yeah. Not goin' there....

Suffice it to say, if the Magic don't get something from him this season I'm dubbing him "The Next Jermaine O'Neal."

The Role Players

The Magic have 'em aplenty! Brandon Bass gets his very own mention at the top of this section for showing up stellar in the preseason. He was basically transparent last year, but seems to have found his niche alongside the, Polish Hammer, Marcin Gortat. The pair have found a chemistry in the preseason that Orlando hopes will carry over all regular season long.

Playing with either/or Jason Williams and JJ Redick in the backcourt, and the likes of now-starter Mikael Pietrus and Ryan Anderson on the wings, as well as the aforementioned new additions, the Magic have one of the deepest, most talented benches in the NBA.

You can also expect to see plenty of minutes where SVG puts out his version of the Twin Towers, Howard and Gortat together, something I relish seeing on the hardwood. A few offensive sets for this pair wouldn't hurt, in my opinion.

Projected starting lineup

PG Jameer Nelson

SG Vince Carter

SF Mikael Pietrus

PF Rashard Lewis

C Dwight Howard

Probable win/loss total


Divisional prediction

1st in the Southeast

While most have the Miami, Heat already crowned, or at least in the Finals losing to LA, I'm not yet ready to hand them even the divisional the hardware. The Magic have looked awful good thus far and didn't get any worse compared to last year. Add to that the fact that the Magic are 8-4 against LeBron-led teams over the last two years, including a 4-2 playoff boot year-before-last, and Orlando is poised to make a whole lot of experts look silly. Again.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


She reminded me of a cat. She was like Catwoman.

She stood about 5'7", with long legs and she often wore black leggings. It gave her a certain sleekness, and she seemed to even walk like a cat, especially when she had on those magical black leggings.

She was light-skinned, and cute as a rabbit's ear. In particular she had the type of nose that makes you want to poke it with your index finger. She also had nice lips.

She had jet black hair, which she would wear in either a pony-tail or at full-length; more effectively at full length, of course, as all women look better with their hair down, but it didn't matter. She looked wonderful from the neck up, no matter how she wore her locks.

She also had very nice hands and feet.

And now for the best part:

This girl had a Grade A+ ass on her.

She didn't have much in the chest area, but she more than made up for it in her hind parts. To my liking she had a perfect ass; though it was big, it fit her overall body type - tall and thin - and just in general had a perfect weight to it.

It was sort of, dare I say it and risk blasphemy, like a J-Lo ass. Maybe not as big, but like that, ya know? You get the point. It was perfect.

She was perfect.

Friday, July 2, 2010

This One Broad

She was light-skinned with dimples, a certified cutie pie with a tremendous smile.

She had curly hair and she always smelled good; I think it may have been the hair product she used, though I'm not sure.

It's hot out here, and she often wore shorts with sandals.

She had nice thighs and legs and nice feet.

Naturally, I suppose, she also had nice hands.

She stood about 5'1", it looked to me, and was thick but not too thick, if you know what I mean; she was just right, like a delicious stack of pancakes that would leave you full but not stuffed.

We shared a class together last semester.

I'm not going to beat around the bush or try to disguise the feeling she gave me, instead I'll be perfectly frank:

I wanted to bang her.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Kobe's Greatest Playoff Series'

Following the Lakers' closeout victory of the Suns in the Western Conference Finals Saturday night, Bill Simmons tweeted: "Great series by Kobe. One of his best." Which got me to thinking - what are Kobe's greatest postseason series performances? Here's my take - listed in chronological order:

2001 Western Conference Semifinals versus Kings: 4 gms, 43.3 mpg, 35.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.25 spg, .473 fg%. Lakers win 4-0.

On the way to an all-time NBA-best 15-1 postseason record, the Lakers swept Portland in the first round before taking on a Kings team that had won a (then) team-record 55 games during the regular season (only one less than Los Angeles). After taking a backseat to Shaq during the first two games as L.A. protected their home court (behind a prime Diesel's 44-21 and 43-20 showings), Bryant played the lead in Sacramento. He scored 36 in Game 3 as L.A. took a commanding 3-0 series lead, and then (in what Simmons last year called Bryant's best single playoff game performance) went off for 48 points and 16 rebounds in leading L.A. to their second consecutive sweep. The game was highlighted by Bryant's sick crossover on Doug Christie before serving up a nasty facial on Vlade Divac.

2001 Western Conference Finals versus Spurs: 4 gms, 42.0 mpg, 33.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 7.0 apg, 1.5 spg, .514 fg%. Lakers win 4-0.

In the very next series the Lakers took on a Spurs team that had finished with the league's best regular season mark (58-24). Bryant followed up his 48-16 in the closeout of the Sacramento series with a 45 point, 10 rebound performance in Game 1 against the Spurs, as the Lakers took the homecourt advantage. In case you're scoring at home, that's a total of 93 points and 26 rebounds (by a guard, no less) in consecutive road playoff games. He scored 28 in Game 2, including a back-breaking three late (followed by a Derek Fisher dagger from behind the arc, as L.A. broke San Antonio's spirits by taking a 2-0 lead heading to the Staples Center. By the time the series reached Los Angeles the Spurs had already surrendered mentally, and the Lakers proceeded to stomp them into the ground, winning by 39 in Game 3 as Bryant went for 36-9-8, and 29 in Game 4 as he went for 24 points and 11 assists. The Lakers had run their record to a perfect 11-0 to start the playoffs, and only an inspired effort by a gutsy Allen Iverson-led Sixers team in Game 1 of the Finals would keep L.A. from becoming the first NBA team to sweep through an entire postseason.

2008 Western Conference Semifinals versus Jazz: 6 gms, 41.3 mpg, 33.2 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 7.2 apg, .491 fg%. Lakers win 4-2.

It was during the first three rounds of this postseason that I believe Bryant played not only the best all-around ball of his career, but achieved a level of basketball mastery no player ever had before. This series is kind of inconspicuous compared to the others on the list, but Bryant was brilliant. Only back spasms suffered during Game 3 managed to slow Bryant as the Lakers ousted Utah on the way to our next series.

2008 Western Conference Finals versus Spurs: 5 gms, 40.4 mpg, 29.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 3.8 apg, 1.6 spg, .533 fg%. Lakers win 4-1.

This series featured the least eye-popping statistical output from Bryant of the performances on the list. But the thing that stood out about this one was the control Bryant displayed. He picked his spots beautifully and literally scored whenever he wanted - saving his best offensive production for the final period, of course. It was totally arbitrary. In Game 1 he scored two points in the first half - followed by eleven in the third and fourteen in the fourth. In Game 5 he scored 13 in the first half - then nine in the third and seventeen in the fourth to close out the series. At the time, I compared Bryant to a person who had mastered a video game.

The Celtics would shut Bryant down in the Finals, denying him a fourth title in the process, but I'll never forget the level he reached for the six or so weeks before they did.

2009 Western Conference Finals versus Nuggets: 6 gms, 34.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 6.2 apg, 1.5 spg, .481 fg%. Lakers win 4-2.

Following a seven-game series with a gritty Rockets team that hassled Bryant with Shane Battier and a terrific team defense, the Lakers were met by a tough and talented Nuggets club trying to prevent them from making a second straight Finals appearance. On a podcast with Simmons,'s J.A. Adande (who has followed Bryant the player's entire career) noted that he heard Bryant admit to being tired for the first time ever. Finally, Bryant's body language was showing effects of the considerable mileage of a long career of big minutes and deep playoff runs - a matter complicated by a physical Nuggets team that beat him up with multiple defenders and a strong help defense that met him at every turn.

Which is what made Bryant's performance in the series all the more impressive. After winning a hard-fought Game 1 in which Bryant scored 40 points, the Lakers lost the home court advantage in Game 2, only to regain it in Game 3 behind 41 more from the Black Mamba. Following the latter effort, Bryant conducted the right-after-the-game interview bent over, tugging on his shorts, barely even able to catch his breath. In the closeout in Game 6, Bryant scored 35 points on 12-of-20 shooting, grabbed six boards and handed out 10 assists - Simmons called it the second best playoff game of Kobe's career.

In the Finals the Lakers beat the Magic in five, and Bryant cemented his legacy by winning a fourth title.

Western Conference Finals versus Suns: 6 gms, 41.7 mpg, 33.7 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 8.3 apg, .521 fg%. Lakers win 4-2.

The Suns were game, but the Lakers were better and now find themselves heading to the NBA Finals for the third year in a row. Bryant was amazing in the series. He scored at least 30 points in all but one game - and in that one game he handed out a career playoff-high 13 assists. In total he had three double-digit assist games, and dished out nine in the dramatic Game 5 win (which will forever be known as The Artest Game). His jump shot was simply unbelievable - he made 19 threes and at times it seemed he couldn't miss. As is his custom, he made a lot of tough ones - most notably the last shot he made, in the clinching Game 6, a long two over a perfectly defending Grant Hill, right in front of Alvin Gentry on the Phoenix sideline. Then he turned to Gentry and gave him a little pat on the butt before spreading his arms and making like an airplane on the way back to the L.A. bench.

If Kobe can have another great series, this time against the Celtics in the Finals, he will likely win a fifth world title. Here's hoping I can add another series to this list in a few weeks.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How Will You Remember Me?

How will you remember him?

Wednesday night Phil Jackson passed Pat Riley to become the winningest coach in Lakers history. Of course, he is also the winningest coach in Bulls history.

Recently, Jackson discussed which of the two franchises he most identifies himself with. He was stuck in between.

"I'd have to have a jacket with both sides -- one side Lakers, the other side Bulls," Jackson said.

But it's not fair to choose both. He has to choose one. Well, obviously he doesn't, because he didn't. But the question remains: Which team do you associate Jackson with the most?

Personally, I think it's hard to say. To date he has won ten championships, six of them with Chicago. Two separate three-peats, as the overseer of Michael Jordan's decade of fame and dominance. As the late, great David Halberstam noted in his book about His Airness, Jordan was arguably the most well-known American - not just athlete, but American - in the world. He was bigger than not just the game but sports itself, and his outsized notoriety helped make the Bulls a vessel of media attention and national exposure. With Jordan, Jackson, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman (joining for the second three-peat), the Bulls were (as Halberstam put it) the Beatles of basketball, especially during the second half of the 90s. Thanks to Jordan's celebrity and its ability (along with the team's startling success) to make almost everyone around him a household name, the Bulls became the equivalent of an insanely popular rock band that everybody wanted to get a glimpse of when they traveled into town.

The Bulls were a national phenomenon. I guess the necessity that everyone felt to get a piece of them made them a circus, in a sense. But the Lakers were a circus in the truest meaning of the word. The Bulls had their drama - Rodman's crazy antics, the rift between Jackson and the players and management - but they couldn't touch the Shaq-Kobe-Phil Lakers in that regard. As has been well-documented, those teams were the epitome of dysfunction. O'Neal and Bryant coexisted uneasily on the way to three titles and four Finals appearances in the five seasons they played together under Jackson. They got along very well for one (2002), awkwardly but peacefully for another (2003, when Bryant, playing as single-mindedly as ever but receiving vocal endorsements from O'Neal, sort of informally took over as the team's first option on offense while still not taking full control of the alpha dog steering wheel), completely business-like in another (2000, with Bryant okay with the pecking order and fulfilling Jackson's ideal role for him), and were at each other's throats for the two others (2001 and 2004). And Jackson often found himself mired in the fray. While his spats with O'Neal were innocent and inconsequential, his clashes with Bryant were more serious, as he struggled to get his young pupil to conform to the parameters of the triangle offense and good team basketball.

By their final season together in 2004, with a rape trial hanging over Bryant's head, the Shaq-Kobe feud having grown more personal than ever, Phil and Kobe having come to an un-friendly truce (said Bryant at that year's All-Star weekend: "I don't like Phil as a person, but I love him as a coach"), the suddenly even greater expectation of a championship that came with the additions of Karl Malone and Gary Payton, Shaq's desire for a contract extension, and the uncertainty about the future that came with Jackson and Bryant's impending free agency, the Lakers were pretty much a team (and organization) in chaos. That team in particular may have received the most media attention of any single NBA team of ever, including the famed "Last Dance" Bulls of 1998, who had Jordan nearing potential retirement, nearly all of the pivotal components approaching free agency, and the players aligning themselves, behind Jackson, against GM Jerry Krause (Jackson's arch-nemesis) and owner Jerry Reinsdorf.

Neither O'Neal nor Bryant can or could single-handily match the starpower of Jordan, but together they pretty much equaled it. When L.A. went on the road they were always a guaranteed sell-out, too, and their appearances were also seen as events. Plus (and here's the kicker), Jackson had now become a superstar himself. He was wildly successful as the coach of the Bulls, but the bright lights of L.A. turned him into something more: arguably the most famous basketball coach of all-time. Only Pat Riley and maybe John Wooden could pose a conceivable threat to him in this regard. The nature of Los Angeles made Jackson the kind of star who could stand on his own, a force unto himself in the basketball world. He arrived with a sterling track record and proceeded to tack onto it in Hollywood. He left and came back again, winning another ring. His player-coach relationship with Bryant is perhaps even more notable than the one he shared with Jordan, and he has actually now coached in L.A. one year longer than he did in Chicago. And the city just fits him, what with his big ego and larger-than-life personality.

His contract in L.A. runs out after this season. Another title or two would likely floor the argument. But (and I admit bias on my part when I say this, as a diehard Lakers fan) if I had to lean in one direction, I think I can already say that I will remember Phil Jackson as coach of the Lakers. He and this team were simply made for each other.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Sticking In My Craw

LenDale White goes into the end-zone for one of his three touchdowns against Texas in the BCS championship game following the 2005 season. He finished with 124 yards on 20 carries.

I have to get this out of my system.

From Bill Plaschke's column in the LA Times on Wednesday, the day after Lane Kiffin was named Pete Carroll's replacement as head coach at USC:

"A program that thrives on the big play just hitched its future to a guy who was holding the controls during this team's worst play in many years.

"It was the Rose Bowl after the 2005 season, the Trojans needed one first down to clinch the win and national title against Texas, it was forth and two, remember?

"USC called a running play with LenDale White plowing straight ahead while Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush incredibly watched from the sidelines. White was stopped, Texas took the ball and eventually a game, the dynasty's downfall began.

"The offensive coordinator for that play? Your new USC head coach, Lane Kiffin.

"What was Mike Garrett thinking?"

And then, from Friday's edition, by Chris Foster and Gary Klein, in regards to offensive coordinator Norm Chow's decision to remain at UCLA rather than return to USC:

"...USC fans have been slow to forget that it was Kiffin who was calling plays when the Trojans failed to convert a fourth-quarter, fourth-and-two running play in the Bowl Championship Series title game against Texas in January 2006.

"Bush was standing on the sideline when tailback LenDale White was stopped short of the first down."


This line of thinking always irritated me, for the sheer stupidity of it, but this week it's really gotten to me, to the point that I'm about to snap. If you know anything about USC football from 2003-2005, you know that LenDale White was the short-yardage and goal-line back for the Trojans. Reggie Bush was one of the best college football players of all-time, but White was SC's hammer, and with good reason: At 6-1 and 235 lbs, White was your prototype big back, and he was damned good. In fact, he was great. At the University known as Tailback U, White holds the record for most rushing touchdowns with 52. In only three years of play, mind you. He also finished with 3,159 yards and a 5.9 yards per carry average. In 2005, Bush's Heisman-winning season, White rushed for 1,302 yards and 24 touchdowns!

And a lot of those touchdowns were a result of White's size and his skill around the goal-line area, where he served as Mr. Reliable in the greatest offense in college football history. Similarly, in short yardage situations - like, say, fourth-and-2 - White was SC's go-to-guy. The thing is, I thought everyone knew this. When Bush was drafted the experts said he wouldn't be an every down back. He wasn't at USC. He's just not a big guy: 6'0", 200 lbs and that's probably being generous. Why would he be the short yardage back over someone as big and good as White - who only fulfilled the same role with the Titans two years ago, scoring fifteen touchdowns on the ground as the thunder to Chris Johnson's lighting. In fact, in college White and Bush were even nicknamed "Thunder and Lightning." Again, I thought this was understood.

I guess not. And the worst part is, in this instance we're talking about local people who are still criticizing the call! It's one thing for people not as familiar with the situation to be critical (although they are not excused either; if they're going to speak about it they should know their stuff); it's another for the people who are actually from Los Angeles and followed the team and know better.

People like, um, Plaschke and USC fans. Yeah.

Are you really going to second guess the call just because it failed, when it worked so many times in the past? When they won 34 straight games with the same exact strategy? C'mon son. If USC was going to go for it there (another decision that is oft criticized but should have been just as anticipated, considering that SC always went for it in those situations; the confidence in the offense was the most high, and rightfully so), White was the guy who was going to get the ball. The calling of his number should have only been expected.

So, please, for my sake, stop being so idiotic. You're killing me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Not Enough Time

In nine seasons at USC, Pete Carroll amassed a record of 97-19 (.836) and won 2 national championships.

When I heard Friday morning that the Seattle Seahawks had fired Jim Mora, my reaction, like everyone else's, was "Hmmmmmmm...that's odd." Afterall, Mora had been handpicked as Mike Holmgren's successor in Seattle and had only been at the helm for one year. Little did I know that, later in the day, it would become evident that it was part of Seattle's scheme to make one of my worst sporting nightmares a reality.

Pete Carroll held a goodbye press conference from Heritage Hall Monday afternoon, formally announcing that he was stepping down as head football coach of the USC Trojans to take over the same position with the Seahawks, and recapping the nine years of great success and great times he enjoyed while at the school.

Great times and great fun times they indeed were, for an entire city, and they're over far too soon.

An arrow was officially pierced through the heart of Los Angeles today, and it's not a Cupid's arrow, because there is nothing at all for this town's football fans to love about this scenario (except for the ones who chant for U-C-L-A).

To call what Carroll rebuilt here at USC a "powerhouse" would be to understate just how dominant the Trojans were in his tenure. Carroll built a dynasty, a machine, leading USC on one of the most jawdropping runs of excellence in the history of college football. After going 6-6 in his first year here in 2001, Carroll's Trojans went 82-9 over the next seven years, winning back-to-back national titles in 2003 (splitting with LSU when the AP voted USC as their season-ending #1) and 2004 and seven consecutive Pac-10 titles. They went 6-1 in BCS Bowl games and produced three Heisman trophy winners. In the 2005 BCS title game versus Texas, they came one epic Vince Young performance away from becoming the first college football team ever to win three straight national titles. In all that time, they did not win fewer than 11 games, and most mind-boggling of all, they lost no games by more than six points. In his first eight seasons at the helm, they lost one game by double-digits: to Notre Dame by 11 in 2001.

It's a sign of the standard of success that was created that USC went 9-4 and won a bowl game this year and the season was considered a catastrophe. They failed to win the conference and suffered two blowout defeats, to Oregon and Stanford. You figured they would get back in the BCS picture, but those big losses made it seem like the end of an era. Could they ever regain the same mystique and swagger?

An era is over in more ways than one now, with Carroll, the face of the school and an icon in the city, out the door, and who knows what about to possibly enter. The timing of his departure seems suspicious. It's cold in Seattle, and while Carroll denies that his decision to leave now was influenced by ongoing NCAA investigations into the Reggie Bush and Joe McKnight scandals...well, if NCAA sanctions are indeed leveled upon the football program, I can envision Trojan Country not being too happy with their beloved Pete.

But even if he's just trying to beat the tidal wave, I really don't care; I have already chosen to remember all of the good things, all of the fun Carroll recounted at the presser. The team was so influential in the city. No NFL team? No problem. Outside of New England, no city, college or pro, got more joy or cherished moments out of their football team. When Kobe fell from grace and the Lakers fell into mediocrity, it was Matt Leinart who became the city's most popular athlete and the Trojans who became its most popular team. Those Leinart-Bush teams, 2005 especially, transcended college football and became a real Hollywood team, not much un-like the Lakers during the Shaquille O'Neal-Bryant days. And if Leinart and Bush were Shaq and Kobe, then Carroll was Phil Jackson, made for it all. It wouldn't have been the same without him, or been possible. He was huge in the community, too, trying to inspire the troubled young men in this city, taking late night van rides to dangerous neighborhoods and giving pep talks to guys who needed them. He says he will continue his work in the community here, which offers some solace.

It was wishful thinking to believe he would stay here forever; Trojans fans didn't want to believe it, but it was really only a matter of time before he went back to the NFL. He's flirted with multiple pro teams over the past several years and conventional wisdom has always said that he would return. His mantra here was "always compete," and the man is a fierce competitor. His stay in the NFL is often misrepresented as a complete failure, when in actuality he compiled a respectable record of 33-31 with the Patriots and Jets. But it has never been a secret that Carroll was not satisfied with his work there, and was interested in another shot.

"If you know anything about me, you know I can't pass up this challenge," he said Monday.

But he was such a natural fit in the city, so synonymous with the school - in my dreams Carroll was supposed to grow old at USC, like Paterno did in Happy Valley and Bowden did in Tallahassee. There were more games to be won for Carroll at USC, more fun to be had.

But it was always a dream, and for Pete the time was right. He thanked everyone who supported the program during his final press conference at the school Monday. On behalf of everyone he thanked, I'd like to thank him, too.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Dwight Howard Is No Superman

Dwight Howard is a great player. Having just recently turned 24, in his sixth year out of high school, he has already been named All-NBA three times (first team twice, third team once), All-defense twice (once each first and second team), won a Defensive Player of the Year award and been the centerpiece of a team that went to the Finals. In the past two seasons his team won 52 and 59 games, and so far this season they are 24-10. Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy has devised this killer inside-outside offense in which Howard is the key. Orlando surrounds him with four shooters, and is able to survive playing only one non-perimeter player because Howard can handle all of the rebounding and shot-blocking responsibilities by his lonesome. Anyway you look at it, he is one of the league's most valuable players, a true franchise guy, one of the top three guys in the league that you would most like to build your team around.

But the thing is, they call him the league's new Superman. We all know who the original was, and I'm here to tell you all that, Dwight Howard, my friends, is no Superman. He's simply not worthy of the title, at least not yet. Howard can rebound and block shots with anyone in the past 10 years - in particular I think he is the best natural rebounder since Dennis Rodman. But as far as being a dominant offensive force, as Shaquille O'Neal was in his heyday and as Howard should be to truly earn such a nickname, Howard is far from it and I'm starting to doubt that he ever will be.

Through five seasons, Howard has never averaged more than 20.7 points per 36 minutes, and (through Monday) this year is averaging only 17.5 - that's his lowest average in that department since his second year. By comparison, Shaq averaged 22.2 as a 20-year-old rookie - followed 26.5 at 21, 28.5 at 22 and 26.5 at 23. An excuse is often made that Howard doesn't get enough touches, that his teammates don't pass him the ball enough. There is certainly an argument to be made for this - per 36 minutes, Howard has never taken more than 12.5 shots a game, and this year he's taking only 9.3, his lowest since his rookie year. Recently on TNT, Chris Webber made the point about Howard's lack of touches, and when Kenny Smith countered by pointing out Howard's deficit of post moves Webber replied that young Shaq didn't have many post moves, either, and still managed to get his touches. This is true, also.

I think the difference is two things. For one, Shaq was the kind of overpowering force that Howard is not. For all of the comparisons, we must remember that Howard is listed as two inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than Shaq has been listed at in any point in his professional career. At 6'11" Howard is written down at 265, at 7'1" O'Neal never less than 305. He is clearly outsized by Shaq, and is no bigger than the size of man Shaq ate for breakfast and got remnants of stuck between his teeth during his prime. Granted Shaq did that to everybody, to men bigger than Howard (see Sabonis, Arvydas), but still.

Of course with that being said, Howard is the most physically impressive and overpowering force in the game today. He is not at the level of O'Neal, but he is the closest thing we have - I concede that. He is a man amongst boys, and people tackle, er, foul Howard to prevent him easy layups and dunks in the same way they did to Shaq in his prime. But - here comes difference number two - Howard lacks the personality of a dominant offensive player. Something tells me if he really wanted that ball, I mean if he really wanted it, if he had that gene that great big men scorers have, he would be getting it. He might say he wants it, but men like O'Neal demand it. Their games insists upon it, and their personalities do, too.

Howard reminds me of Kevin Garnett. Like Garnett, Howard is a dominant rebounder and defender but not a naturally dominant offensive player. In Garnett's case the skills were there, but as with Howard not the mindset. Garnett was always somewhat reluctant as Minnesota's top offensive threat. He always would have been better off in the situation he's found himself in in Boston, with other, more natural scorers around to equally share the load (and carry the crunch-time responsibilities). He doesn't have to worry about being The Man there, not in the traditional sense; he can focus first on being the complete, all-around menace that he is and think about scoring second. This was the key to Boston's title run two years ago - finally Garnett was put in a situation that best suited his immense talents. And while the Big Three shared the credit (and rightfully so), it was Garnett who was most pivotal to the Celtics' success.

I wonder if Howard is the same way, if maybe we need to reconsider how we think he should be used. Maybe he will peak as an S-class (Shoefly lingo) big man who gets 18-20 points a game rather than 25-30, but protects the rim and rebounds like no other and still wins multiple championships, the modern day Bill Russell rather than the second coming of Shaq. No one would complain about that scenario taking place; in fact I'd rather see the next Russell than the next Shaq, because there hasn't been anyone like Russ since Russ, and Russ retired 40 years ago.

As an offensive player, David Robinson was further along at this stage in his career than Howard is in his. Patrick Ewing and Hakeem Olajuwon were, too, albeit by lesser margins. I can honestly say that, best case scenario, I don't ever see Howard averaging more than about 23 points a game. But whatever happens in the future, and whether or not we need to recalibrate our expectations for Howard, for right now the least we need to do is put a moratorium on calling him Superman. I suppose it really doesn't matter, but technically it is inaccurate to call him that.

And if the nickname doesn't fit, we must quit.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Fall of Troy

Well, perhaps that title is a slight overstatement.

It remains a distant possibility that USC will finish this season with 11 wins, a Pac-10 title, and a trip to the Rose Bowl, a combination that represents the least that they have accomplished in each of the past seven seasons. They control their own destiny in the first category but the latter two are out of their hands. Two teams sit ahead of them in the Pac-10 standings: 3-1 Arizona and 4-0 Oregon, who crushed them Saturday night in Eugene by a score of 47-20. Even if SC runs the table from here on out (including beating the #20 ranked Wildcats in the season finale), it would still take a miraculous collapse by an excellent Ducks team (ranked #10 and sure to rise) for them to secure an eighth straight league title. And without that automatic trigger for a Pasadena appearance, SC could find themselves left out of a BCS bowl game for the first time since 2001.

But I don't even think that was the most damage done last night. It's one thing to have a season that doesn't live up to your lofty expectations even though you're still going to finish it with double-digit wins; it's another thing to have a season in which you lose your mystique. I think that's what Saturday night's loss may have done, and done for good. In the Carroll era, during which they are now 94-17, it is only the second time that they have lost by double-digits and the other defeat was by 11 points to Notre Dame in 2001 - Pete's very first year here! Even more shocking, since 2002 they are 88-11 and last night was the first time they have lost by more than a single touchdown!

In other words, even when you beat them, which was seldom, you barely did beat them. To use a (now obsolete) Halloween reference, they were like Jason or Freddy Kruger, always right there, always spooking you out, which allowed them to maintain their aura of invincibility even in the event of rare defeat. When you nudged them it was a fluke and you knew it. So not only did they have the best and most respected program in college football, the one spoken of in the most reverential tones, they had the most frightening. They were the team that, with a few breaks here and there, could have been on a triple-digit number winning streak, the team that was competitive in literally every game, the team with the startling win-loss record exceeded only by the shock caused by a deeper look at their game-by-game results.

That's all over now. USC lost by 27 points to Oregon - the worst loss by a Trojans team since 1997. They gave up 47 points - the most they have allowed since 1996. They allowed 391 yards on the ground, the most since the 1977 Bluebonet Bowl against Texas A&M. They allowed 613 total yards, the second most in team history, behind the the 623 they gave up to Notre Dame in 1946.

What the hell happened? Well, I can't imagine that Oregon has more talent than USC, or even as much talent, but clearly the gap has closed in that department. The truth is, while this SC team is likely still the deepest and most gifted in the country, they're probably a little less talented than they've been in recent years. If they were ever going to lose their grip on the conference, it was probably going to be this year. And if they were ever going to suffer a lopsided loss, this was the ideal night for it to happen, with a freshman quarterback (Matt Barkley, who played well statistically but couldn't lead the Trojans offense in keeping up with Oregon's pace in the second half the way that, say, Mark Sanchez probably would have), without their money running back (Stafon Johnson), without their stud tight end (Anthony McCoy), on the road in a raucous environment (Autzen Stadium) against just the right team to hand it to them (a terrific Ducks team playing better than anyone in the country). It was shocking to witness - after all, this just doesn't happen to USC, they don't get run off the field - but in retrospect maybe it's not as surprising as it seemed.

What happened? They just got their asses kicked, all across the board, it was bound to happen at some point and this was that point. Now they've lost that distinct air that surrounded them, and once that's gone it's hard to get back. Are they still the best program in the country? Yes. Are they still the same program that they were before Saturday night? No. They're just like everybody else now. So what happened last night wasn't just a loss; in one respect, it was the end of an era.

And even a trip to the Holiday Bowl beats that.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Kobe Still Lakers Main Attraction to Me

I'm sure all of you out there who have NBA TV watched the L.A. Lakers begin training camp last week. It was the start of Kobe Bryant's 14th. He is 31 years old now, which for your typical athlete is still not that old. It's older certainly, definitely not a kid anymore, but it is an age that indicates an athlete is still in their prime (if nearing the end of it). But it's not really the age with someone like Bryant, it's the years served and the mileage, and there is nothing even remotely young about our Mamba in those two categories. I'm not going to go into any further detail about it, you already know the deal. I'm not breaking any new ground here. Kobe Bryant has reached the point in his basketball career when he could start falling off. It's been well documented. In basketball years, he is about 34 years old, and that is old no matter how you look at it.

Bryant had a very quiet summer following the winning of his fourth championship, and it carried over into the start of camp. The Lakers held media day last Tuesday, and most of the press' attention centered around the debut of highly controversial off-season acquisition Ron Artest and the newly wed Mr. Khloe Kardashian, Lamar Odom. But to me, Kobe is still the most interesting person on the team. Sure, I want to see how Artest fits in, what impact Lamar's new union plays on the team, what kind of year Andrew Bynum has (will he come off the bench?), and what happens with the point guard situation (can Jordan Farmar overtake Derek Fisher for the starting gig?). But none of those things intrigue me as much aswhat I consider the great theater of watching the "old" master Kobe as he tries to outsmart the onset of decline. I want to see what new tricks he pulls out from under his sleeve as his legs accumulate more and more games and minutes and the wear and tear tries to trip him up from behind (like Bruce Bowen used to).

He broke out a couple of new methods last year, aimed at preserving his body both short-term and long. Blessed with the most talented supporting cast in the league, Bryant, having reached his 13th year, seemed intent on coasting (relatively speaking, of course) his way through the regular season in a calculated effort to save his body for the playoffs. Then Andrew Bynum went down again and his workload was increased, but by that point it had become evident that Kobe realized he needed to make adjustments. Step two of the conservation plan involved Bryant cutting back greatly on his slashing and transforming himself into a virtuoso primary jump shooter - a move that represented not only a desire to reduce the stress on his legs and body but, as the late, great David Halberstam once put it in praising a similar change by Michael Jordan at the end of his run with the Bulls, "a very smart player's concession to the changes in his body wrought by time." Indeed, Bryant's hops and first step are not what they used to be.

But what alterations will Bryant make next? He already made one. Kobe tempered his legendary work ethic greatly this off-season, barely picking up a basketball until the start of September. Then last week, Dime magazine's online site posted recent video of Kobe in Houston, working out with with the legendary Hakeem Olajuwon. Yep, a two guard trying to learn post moves from the center with the best set of post moves in league history. It's another page out of MJ's book, but while Mike put on muscle as he got older and developed more of a power post-up game in his latter years with Chicago, Kobe seems to be going at it in a slightly different direction, opting instead to keep his body more lean and rely more on sublime footwork and finesse (although of course MJ had textbook footwork as well - remember kids, it starts with the fundamentals).

Last season Bryant saw a reduction in minutes; at 36.1 per contest he had his lowest average in that department since 1999, when he was 20. And yet, at the end of the regular year L.A. went on an eight-game road trip in which Bryant played as poorly as I have ever seen him play for a sustained stretch. He was exhausted, you could tell. And he showed the signs of fatigue in the conference finals against Denver, a fact that made his stellar performance in the series the most impressive showing of his career (as he fought through the weariness to average a 34-6-6 on 48 percent shooting).

I do not question whether or not Bryant will maintain his dominance this year; I am almost certain he will. He has proven it foolish to doubt him, so that is not where the intrigue lies. No, the intrigue lies in witnessing the means by which Kobe Bryant will continue to succeed, and I can't think of anything about this Lakers team that could be more absorbing than that.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Legend of Matt Barkley Begins

I have no real audience, so I am speaking only to you random people who just happened to come across this via a search engine and my kindhearted friends on Facebook who clicked on the link in my status updates. But I feel like this is necessary, if only because you same people might click on the link I have posted on the sidebar to the right, to the Sporting News' new boxing/MMA blog The Rumble, where I will be posting three times a week.

It's headed by experienced boxing writer Dave Larzelere, a presence on this here internet through his work at HBO Boxing, TSN, and his blog, No Mas. He's put together a nice roster of writers and I'm just grateful and excited he asked me to join. I've been waiting for an opportunity like this for some time now. We actually started last week, and while we have been experiencing some technical difficulties the past couple of days that have slowed our output, there is already some quality material up that should encourage you to become a regular trafficker.

I already posted here rather infrequently, and now it will become even more infrequent, but there are some things for which I must be on the record and last night's SC-OSU game is one of them.

The Trojans defeated the Buckeyes in Columbus Saturday night, in front of the largest crowd in the history of the Horseshoe and one of the most raucous fan bases you will ever hear. The final score was 18-15, USC embarking on a dramatic game-winning drive that we will one day remember as the beginning of true freshman quarterback Matt Barkley's legend. It was setting up that way the whole night: the Buckeyes were fired up following last season's thrashing at the hands of Southern Cal and were looking for revenge. Their defense played extremely well, thwarting USC's vaunted rushing attack about as well as it can be thwarted. Barkley was not playing well at all, a kid showing his inexperience in his first massive road game. But SC's defense was stout as well, ensuring that the Trojans would have a chance to win the game.

The plot was developed: High school phenom and true freshman starting quarterback for imperial USC goes to Columbus to take on #8 Ohio State in only his second game ever and first road outing. The place is jam-packed and deafening with noise. He struggles for the first 52 minutes before leading the Trojans to a come from behind victory with an epic six minute final drive.

I could see it coming. Pete Carroll has had some high profile quarterbacks come through his incredible football program over the past nine years - couple Heisman trophy winners, a few top-10 NFL draft picks - but Barkley may have arrived with the most expectations. Not right away, of course. Down the line. But an injury to redshirt sophomore Aaron Corp, the quarterback he was competing with for the starting job, nudged him into a historic position: the first true freshman signal caller to start an opener for the Trojans.

That happened last week, when he went 15-19 for 233 yards and a score in SC's 56-3 win over San Jose State. All things considered it was a fine performance, even against such wholly over-matched competition and while not really having to do anything. As I expressed to my barber Bernie, anyone could do what Barkley did last week. You'd have to be mentally challenged not to be able to hand off to that gifted plethora of running backs and make those simple passes to those big, talented receivers. Even when Barkley threw, it was the receivers who were doing all the work. He didn't have to make any plays. That's the way Carroll has always used his quarterbacks - for the most part, all he asks them to do is get the ball to the vast pool of playmakers that they have been surrounded with - but things have been super-simplified with this kid (and understandably so).

This Saturday those successes were few and far between. And to be accurate, that final drive was really a showcase of the Trojan ground game than it was anything else: the big boys up front who compose yet another world-class offensive line in the Carroll era and tailbacks Joe McKnight, who did the heavy lifting, and Stafon Johnson, who ran in the winning touchdown.

But Barkley made two key passes: one to McKnight and another to tight end Anthony McCoy to garner consecutive first downs. SC was backed up near their own end zone when the drive began, and he led them to victory while displaying striking composure. This kid looks like he came right from the beach and he is cool. There's just something about his calmness that makes it obvious why he is thought so special.

He will have many more special moments in his college career and beyond, but I have a feeling this will go down as the defining one.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Could Manny Pacquiao Beat Me Up?

I spent my Saturday at L.A. Live, bowling at the "Lucky Strike" and playing games at the ESPN Zone (before closing out the night by being, ahem, entertained by some beautiful ladies at this fine establishment near L.A.X., if you follow me), all in honor of my cousin's 18th birthday/going away to college. While I was there a 3-on-3 tournament was being held, as part of a three-day event being sponsored by the Lakers and partaken by celebrities and common men alike. When I arrived they were warming up for a game, and right there on the court in front of me were two of my favorite people whom I don't know: the talented, underutilized (and, for his performance as Avon Barksdale on The Wire, underappreciated) actor Wood Harris, and the great welterweight champion Shane Mosley. Harris was tall and slim, as I would have expected. It was the tiny Mosley who's size surprised me. It's one thing to know how small most of these welterweight and lower weight class fighters are. It's another thing to see it in person. Shane Mosley is a fighting machine, a bad, bad man. He's also a virtual pip squeak. His arms looked skinny and weak and he didn't even seem the 5'9" he's listed at. He was just puny. Having seen him in the flesh I find it hard to fathom how someone so small could beat people up for a living. I've eaten burrito's from Mexican restaurants that were bigger than Shane Mosley.

And to think, Manny Pacquiao is even smaller! I bring this up only because Pacman's frightening destruction of Ricky Hatton in May got me and my father to wondering if the little Filipino was so bad a dude that he could take out a bouncer-sized fellow like myself, a curiosity inspired by the sheer disparity in dimensions. I am a 6'2", 325 lb sportswriter in the body of a nose tackle. Manny is 5'6 1/2" and 140-ish. The consensus is that size does matter in a fight, in fact that it is the most important factor. But then again, as the saying goes, speed kills. So, who would win this imaginary squabble?

Before we consider that question any further, I think first I should tell you a few things about myself. I am 21 years old. I have never been in a fight. I have "gone body" in playful contests of machismo with friends but I have never been punched in the face or had anyone swing in that direction. I have had those same buddies I sparred with tell me that my punches do not hurt, and that I punch lazily. But I have also had other people tell me that my punches do hurt, that I am a very hard puncher. But in recent times I have become quite a fan of the sweet science, to the point that I even dropped some coinage on a punching bag. It's one thing to just be big; it's another thing to be big and know how to throw a punch. Whereas before - when I was in high school and middle school and engaging in these friendly battles - I was the former, these days I am closer to the latter, having learned much better how to throw a blow, and furthermore having practiced putting together combination's on my standing Everlast.

The scenario my father initially proposed went like this: Say I was in a liquor store, prepared to make my purchase, and I saw Manny standing in line ahead of me and decided that I was just going to walk up, nudge the little fella out of the way, and cut in front of him - and Manny took offense to this act of disrespect, decided that he would correct it the old fashioned way, and just swung on me. Could he knock me out? Could I take his best shot? We wondered about the left hook he deployed to render the Hitman unconscious - would it have the same effect on me? Almost certainly no, we decided. I am twice Hatton's size, so it is almost guaranteed that I would withstand it much more effectively. But could he knock me down with a punch? Could he rock the big guy off of his feet? Or would I merely shake it off and proceed to manhandle the southpaw slugger?

And what if we doubled up? I'm not talking about Manny just taking a swing at me now, I'm speaking about us both actually raising our fists and assuming the fighting position, going toe-to-toe, shooting the fair the one, as it is called in some circles. There is no doubt that, if I were able to catch Manny, to land a fairly clean shot, I could knock him out. I don't care if he is the pound-for-pound champ, or that Bert Sugar called him one of the 20 best boxers ever following his defeat of Hatton - he's still as small as he is and I'm still as big as I am. But that's a big part of the equation, though: Could I find him? Would I be too slow to locate such an elusive and well-trained target, a man for whom it is only instinct to avoid the punch of another man? Would he pepper my face with 18 consecutive punches before I even knew what was hitting me?

I think my best bet would be to just let go on him, to just swing away on him with anger and aggression, to impose my size on him and overwhelm him with it until the best he could do is just cover up, to try and shield himself from the avalanche. Because remember, not only do I outweigh by almost 200 pounds, but I'm taller than him by half-a-foot. So those punches would be reigning down on him and coming at him from all angles.

We'll never know the answer, obviously - unless, of course, I challenge Pac to a fight when I make my planned trip to the Wild Card Gym in Hollywood (the boxing hot spot and residence of Manny's training camps owned by his trainer, Freddie Roach) once he begins preparing for his November clash with Miguel Cotto in Las Vegas, and he accepts my invitation. All I know is that after seeing the diminutive Sugar Shane at L.A Live this past weekend, I remember thinking to myself, "There's no way he could take me." And as I said, Manny is smaller than Shane. Actually, I think that answers the question. At least for me it does.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is Jim Thome the Signature Slugger of His Era?

Before you read this any further, click here. Link opens up in a new window, and what you will find is a list of the top 1,000-plus home run hitters in baseball history. But just focus on the top 20. Out of all of the names in that group, ask yourself this question: Which one seems like it doesn't belong?

If you think like I do, the answer to that query is Jim Thome, by a mile. When I learned recently that Thome was only one home run behind Reggie Jackson for 12th all-time, I was thrown for a loop. It's not that I was unaware that Thome had activated the "mandatory Hall-of-Famer indicator" by locating the bleachers more than 500 times in his career; it's that one can't help but be caught off guard by the discovery that JIM THOME has one less career bomb than MR. FREAKIN' OCTOBER himself!!! It put Thome's career in perspective for me, and by doing so it at the same time caused me to consider him in a historical sense for the first time in my life, and really and truly to pay him more mind than I ever had before, period.

I have been watching baseball and grasping it since I was at least 8; as a young boy I was a student of the game. There was nothing I cherished more or spent more time focusing on. And yet in all these years, I don't really remember even thinking about Thome for more than maybe two seconds at a time, and it was rare when I thought of him at all. He was just so...blah. He was never really a superstar, and he never captured my imagination, or anyone else's.

Reggie's name and reputation put in relation to Thome provided some context for Jim's career acheivements and almost alarmed me to his existence. And so of course the two important numbers in the matter - 12 and 562, the number of homers he has accumulated - startled me as well; they both seem too high for him. It's like I knew he was in some exclusive company, while at the same time not being cognizant of the fact.

The reasons I have stated for this go hand in hand: In comparison to other similarly statistically significant players, I rarely thought of Thome. Why? Because he never felt similarly significant to me. There were never any elements of heroism to Thome, none of the grace, majesty, or superhuman powers possessed by his contemporaries; it's more like all he was was a guy who could hit a bunch of inconspicuous homers. On the other hand, Junior, Bonds, and A-Rod were divinely gifted; McGwire and Sosa were both like wood-wielding versions of Hercules; Manny was a goofy hitting savant; somehow even Palmeiro ended up seeming more important and intriguing than Thome, probably because of his connection to the steroids scandal.

Which brings us to another, also mind-boggling point: Isn't it reasonable to say that, considering how his peers are viewed, Thome could one day be considered the premiere home run hitter of his time? The majority of his peers are stigmatized, permanently tainted by their attachment to performance enhancers, their achievements accompanied by an asterisk.

And so here Thome stands, his name never brought up in any such conversations. Griffey has hit more dingers, but in my opinion his case is hurt by the time he missed to injury during what should have been his prime years; the relative lack of production there is glaring. Thome has been consistent, and is still going relatively strong, 21 bombs so far this season at age 39. Albert Pujols will pass him eventually, but that time is fairly far away, and you could even argue that Pujols will eventually wind up belonging to another era altogether.

And sure, this idea is the result of projecting in a way that, given the realities of what we have seen, should not be practiced. Thome could be outed as a name on the infamous '03 list, or otherwise linked to steroids or PED's, at any moment and no one would be surprised. But as it stands, Thome will go down as a big, homegrown mid-west dude who could always hit a baseball, and hit it far. Had things been different he might have become a defensive end for the Browns, Eagles, and Bears.

I don't know if I would necessarily agree with Thome earning such a lofty distinction - I lean towards the opinion that the numbers are what they are, the era was what it was, and that's that. But based on the prevailing logic of Baseball America, my proposal seems to make sense. Only, of course, it doesn't, for the same reason that I've never before heard the idea floated around or that Thome is breathing down Reggie Jackson's neck.

I'm not the only one who doesn't think of Jim Thome that way.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Don't You Know His Name?

On September 19th in Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather Jr., boxing's returning pound-for-pound titan, will square off against the rich pugilistic history of Mexico's current pride and joy, Juan Manuel Marquez, himself considered one of the top three fighters in the sport regardless of weight class. The bout will take place at a catch weight of 143-144 pounds, which is 8-9 pounds north of the 135-pound lightweight limit Marquez fought at in his last match, a knockout victory over young Juan Diaz. Beyond the questions that arise any time a fighter moves up in weight, Marquez will have to do so against a true 147-pounder who once looked impressive in beating a still game Oscar de la Hoya at 154 pounds and remains unbeaten through 39 professional fights. Such a mountain to climb has understandably cast Marquez into the role of underdog. But more than that I feel that he is being treated as an afterthought, and that is a notion that I do not comprehend.

As I have continued my deep foray into boxing over the past two years, Marquez has become one of my three favorite fighters. Once someone I believed to be a refreshing dose of comedy and entertainment, in his comeback and promotion for the upcoming bout with Marquez, Mayweather has come off as just plain angry and unlikable, lashing out at everyone in a way that has made me lose some affinity for him and realize why so many people want to see him lose. With that being said he is a brilliant ring surgeon and a superb athlete, and I cannot help but enjoy his displays of mastery and superiority in the ring. Furthermore, I suppose that it will only take one charismatic appearance from him on the upcoming "24/7" for me to return completely to his corner.

There is nothing to dislike about Manny Pacquiao, for he is a polite and humble sportsman and gentleman, while at the same time being nothing less than a killer between the ropes. He seems to me to be a shining example of a great athlete in his prime. His body looks flawless, defined by muscle with seemingly no trace of fat, and it has only looked better and stronger as he has gone on to the larger weights. He is a smart and versatile fighter now, all the flaws of his youth corrected by Coach Roach and the gift of experience. He is a lean, mean fighting machine and deserving of his current distinction as the top pound-for-pound boxer in the game.

In the shadows lurks Marquez. Mayweather and Pacquiao are the two biggest draws in the sport; Marquez exists in mainstream anonymity. I suppose it is because while Floyd is a character and Manny is spectacular (Floyd is spectacular too but in a much more boring way to most), all there is to Marquez is guts and technique. But those two traits matter much to me, which is why I enjoy watching Marquez so much.

He has been involved in two of my favorite fights to watch on YouTube - his first of two fights against Pacquiao and the fight against Diaz. In the former he recovered from three knockdowns in the first round and managed to salvage a draw by adjusting before the start of the second and proceeding to apply his boxing acumen. In the latter he capped off what Jim Lampley called his "patented mid-round rush" by knocking Diaz down in the ninth round with a barrage of punches, then finishing him off seconds later by going to the body to set up the closing uppercut. Diaz fell to the canvas again and the fight was immediately called to a halt, the professionalism exhibited by Marquez as he went in for the kill worthy of appreciation.

When I think of Marquez I think of the way Bill Simmons once pegged Jason Kidd in an ESPN the Mag installment of his "Reasons I Love Sports" column series. Simmons argues that in order for Kidd to make up for not being able to shoot, the rest of his game had to be perfect. Similarly, Marquez is, unlike his two P4P peers, not a particularly special athlete. He can, as they say, be hit, and he doesn't have strikingly fast hands or any other kind of eye-popping natural blessing. And yet he is able to compensate for his ordinary physical skills by being such an expert boxer and savvy veteran. A disciple of Boxing 101, he is an accurate counter-puncher who puts combination's together extremely well and possesses a textbook stance. Mentally, he is just as sharp as he is physically.

And so I think the question is, How can somebody like this be so overlooked heading into a fight against anybody, no matter what the circumstances? Someone so fundamentally sound with so much heart and determination and knowledge of his craft? A scientist with such a strong resume and impeccable reputation amongst boxing people? He has won championships in three divisions, defeated fellow Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera, deserved both decisions over Pacquiao in the opinion of some people and deserved the nod in their second fight in the opinion of more.

He is a well-respected champion who has earned his standing in the fight community, and yet the same people who tout him are the ones who give him no chance of winning this fight. I don't think he will win, either, as I said I understand that sentiment. But at the very least he has a fighting chance, and it should not be ignored.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Eminem Ethers Mariah Carey: It's Alive!

You know, it's funny. I was just thinking (for no real reason) about Michael Jordan's last game at Madison Square Garden, in 2003, when he was a slow, bulky, 40-year old small forward for the Washington Wizards who became incited by some smack talk from Knicks guard Shandon Anderson in the second quarter and proceeded to revert to vintage MJ destroy mode. Almost as if on cue, Jordan took over the game at will, scoring 19 points in the final 7 minutes of the period (he had 26 at the half and would finish the contest with a game-high 39) and reminding everyone that the aged warrior could still summon the legendary magic when properly provoked. It was one of the last great moments of an iconic career, and one of the few moments during Jordan's stint in Washington that made his comeback seem worthwhile.

That's what the new Eminem diss aimed at Mariah Carey and Nick Cannon, "The Warning," reminds me of. I enjoyed Eminem's last record, Relapse - he's a master lyricist, a genius of his craft, and the skillful writer/rhymer will always be my favorite type of hip-hop artist. Relapse, as the title indicates, is centered around the drug addiction that plagued him during his five year hiatus between albums. Beyond that, it's just the same antics he was up to seven years ago. It's repetitive and disappointing in that it doesn't show much growth by him as an artist, but it's still worth the listen, a chance to hear vivid storytelling by a man with a flow so agile and flexible and versatile and a mind so perversely brilliant. He's better on his worst day than pretty much anybody, and one of those rare rappers who will never fall off lyrically, no matter how old they get or how many years they put in the game (no small feat).

I don't think the Relapse version of Em represented him on his worst day, but it wasn't his best, and I think the reason was that he wasn't motivated. His legacy is etched in stone and he has nothing to prove at this point. The hunger wasn't there; for Eminem to be truly great he needs to be taking it personally, and I think that aspect was missing on this last album - not as much as it was on Encore, which I feel was his most lackluster offering, but still absent. He didn't seem angry on this record, more like he just wanted to vent.

Now, I think the animal is back.

When Little Nicky trashed him after he hit Mrs. Cannon below the belt on the Relapse cut "Bagpipes from Baghdad," Slim barely blinked, showing more signs that he had matured beyond the point of trying to kill somebody on a rap song. When Mariah released the impressive "Obsessed" and it became obvious that a female pop singer was aiming right at the head of one of the most dangerous emcees ever and he didn't respond in kind, I figured that the monster was dead. When she dressed up like him and portrayed him as a stalker in the video for the single and he didn't say anything right away my beliefs that the old Em was gone for good were only strengthened.

But thank goodness, my fears were misguided. Turns out I just needed to employ a little patience. In "The Warning," Em is as spiteful and vitriolic as ever - and at a level resembling his peak. This is his best single song since "Lose Yorself." Yep. It's that good. He kills the Cannons, especially, especially Mariah. He even splices soundbites of her from their time together and raps around it, an act which, besides merely adding to the quality of the diss, adds credibility to his claims that they were together and his threat that there is more damaging material where that came from. If this were a World War, the Cannons would be sending in their notice of surrender right now. He just dropped the atomic bomb. Best dis song since "Ether." The Good Doctor provides the beat. A poor one can ruin the work of a great wordsmith; Em is so vicious here that would be almost impossible in this instance, but it's a moot point anyway, as Andre supplies the perfect wave for Marshall to ride. Perfect. That's the optimum word to describe this track. It's just perfect.

At one point he reminds Mariah, "This is what the fuck I do." Glad to see that is still true. The inspiration is back. The monster has returned. It's like MJ at MSG that last time, all over again.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

T.O. Is Way Too Big For Buffalo

I was watching the second episode of VH1's T.O. show, "The T.O. Show," in which Terrell Owens was shown arriving in his new city of employment for the first time, and though much has been made of it already, the reaction that he has received from the Buffalo faithful can't be stated enough. He's a God, a hero, Pacquiao in the Philippines, a celebrity to easily starstruck inhabitants that feel honored and privileged and almost blessed to get to call him their own. Americans usually aren't so affected by big shots, because we are so used to them, and I think that just goes to show how little the small market of Buffalo has going for it. All the fun stuff goes on in New York, where the Giants and Jets roam, garnering all of the attention and casting the Bills into a shadow that they haven't been able to shake in sixteen years. In 1993 the Bills made the last of their four consecutive trips to the Super Bowl, so obviously they have had some great teams, and once upon a time they employed the services of Orenthal James Simpson, before he was the biggest pariah in modern American pop culture. But it's been pretty boring there for a while now: There's nothing to do, the beloved football team hasn't done much to bring excitement, and their biggest star has been Drew Bledsoe. Drew Bledsoe!!! T.O. owns Drew Bledsoe!!! Drew is one of his most notable victims!!! Everybody knows that!!!

And it is that last part, the fact that everywhere he goes Terrell Owens leaves a trail of destruction, wreckage all over the place in his wake, that makes the Buffalo experiment so special. Not only do we know it's coming, the pain T.O. brings to the teams he's on, but this is his greatest platform yet. Let me reiterate: Terrell Owens in Buffalo? Are you kidding me? There hasn't been that much of a mismatch since Super Bowl XX. T.O. is way too big for Buffalo. I don't know how good this team will be, but if Bills fans will be satisfied with just a show, they're going to get it.

There isn't anyone around to even remotely challenge his star power or the force of his personality. If T.O. dominated San Francisco, with Mooch and Garcia, and Philly, with Reid and McNabb, and America's team, with a celebrity like Romo, what is he capable of on the Bills, the NFL's everyman team? Dick Jauron, Trent Edwards, Lee Evans - Marshawn Lynch has had his run-ins with the law and is the closest thing they have to a star or a character - his flowing dreads, iced-out grill, and reckless running style creates a persona that I think the kids would describe as "hyphy" - but he pales in comparison to the larger-than-life quality Owens possesses.

The conflict, of course, will come between Owens and the men he seems to be preternaturally opposed to - coaches and quarterbacks (and tight ends who are best friends with the quarterback). He's going to have a field day with Jauron and Edwards, two of the most mellow and humble guys you'll meet. Can you imagine the mental anguish he is going to inflict on those two gentlemen?

I really don't mean to bash T.O. He has been a great player for a long time, he's easily one of the five best receivers that has ever played the game, and if he doesn't make the Hall-of-Fame on the first ballot (which wouldn't surprise me at all, considering his checkered past and the God-like tendencies of the Canton voters), I will absolutely scream and shout about the injustices of it all. But this is the reality of the Buffalo situation, and I'm only speaking about an inevitability.

Or am I?

T.O. signed a one-year deal with the Bills, and it's safe to say that this will be his last shot. Owens will be 36 in December, and while he was still a very productive player last year (69 catches for 1052 yards and 10 touchdowns, even with Tony Romo missing three games with a broken digit and being substituted for by a decrepit Brad Johnson), the effects of the aging process were nonetheless evident, as he was able to manage only two games of 100-plus yards and showed an inability to create the same separation against defensive backs that he did in his prime. There was a time when he was so good, you had to take the good with the bad, but that time is fading rapidly.

There is nothing wrong with Owens descending, obviously, that is what is supposed to happen to a player of his seniority. As Mark Jackson likes to say, Father Time is undefeated (and as I like to say, Father Time is undefeated against those who don't use HGH). But what really hurts Owens is the particular business he's a part of, the NFL the most cutthroat sports league in existence, no feeling for the aging player or any player, and in this case we have an aging player who's antics have been great enough and damaging enough that they have managed to overshadow one of the best careers any skill position player has ever had. In other words, this is his last strike.

But does T.O. realize this? Maybe he does. Owens is crazy, but most crazy people are not stupid. In fact, many of them are quite intelligent. And if T.O. is even a little smart, then he'll be on his best behavior in Buffalo this season, if only because he has no choice but to be.

In that sense, the thought of Owens not causing mayhem is more intriguing than the likelihood that he does. Because what is more captivating to behold: that which you have witnessed so many times you have come to expect it, or that which you have never seen before?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lakers About To Ruin A Perfect Thing

HBO has Marty Scorcese's brilliant look at the Las Vegas mob during the 1980s, "Casino," in their rotation and On Demand right now. One of my favorite parts is at the start of the movie, when Joe Pesci's character tells us how the story finishes. "Matter of fact, nobody knew all the details. But it should've been perfect. I mean, he (casino manager Sam "Ace" Rothstein, played by De Niro) had me, Nicky Santoro, his best friend, watching his (back). And he had Ginger, the woman he loved, on his arm. But in the end, we (messed) it all up. It should've been so sweet, too." They had what my man Shoefly would call "the golden ticket," and by their own foolish actions allowed it to escape their possession. In its own way, it's your classic tale of squandered paradise.

When I think of this Lakers off-season, I think of those lines from Nicky and what the movie represented, the blown opportunity of a lifetime. Coming off of this season's championship, L.A. had the formula for a potential dynasty, a magic potion that, once acquired, must be held onto for dear life. In the Lakers case, it was a perfect mix of youth, experience, chemistry, talent, and pecking order; all they had to do was keep it together and let it continue to grow. In other words, they needed to retain the services of unrestricted free agents Trevor Ariza and especially Lamar Odom this summer, the latter ballplayer the X-factor both on the court and during this critical off-season. They couldn't strike a deal with Ariza so they snatched up Ron Artest instead, Trevor winding up taking the same money from Houston that he would have gotten from them. High-risk, high-reward move: Ariza was a flawless fit for this club and a much safer investment, but if Ronnie works out he gives them a higher ceiling, a burly swing-man to defend the Melo's and King James' of the universe and just more punch overall, with everybody stacking up this summer for next season's league holy war.

But here's the thing: Without Lamar, it doesn't make a difference. To have a sixth man like that, a big man with that many skills who could start for damn near any other in basketball and is that unselfish who operates so well in your specialized system - he's what puts them over the top, I think, a luxury other teams can only dream of. Re-signing Ariza would have been a moot point in the event that he left; Ronnie completely tamed and turned into the player he always should have been by Phil can't take them high enough to compensate for the loss of #7.

It's looking like they might lose him. A deal believed to be imminent is now an offer that has been pulled off the table, according to reports. L.A. is willing to give Odom three years at a bit more than $9 million annually, he and his agent want a five year contract worth $50 mil, and the two sides cannot come to terms. Why the Lakers aren't willing to give him the extra two years, I have no idea. Why a compromise hasn't been reached at $45 million over five years, the salary they will concede at the length he desires, is beyond me. He's been talking with Dallas and Miami, who can only offer him five years of mid-level money. Why he would consider working five years to make two million more dollars than he could earn for three, and opt to become a free agent at 32 rather than 34, makes no sense to me at all (unless it's just a weak negotiating ploy). Is he really being this difficult? It must be his agent, Jeff Schwartz, playing the devil as agents sometimes do. But isn't Lamar his boss? Finally, why don't the Lakers just give him what he wants? They have upped their offer more than a million dollars since negotiations began, and I suppose don't want to appear so weak as to cave in completely, but if that's the case then, to paraphrase Jay-Z, I guess they forgot what they came for. It's not my money and I know the economy is harsh, but isn't it worth an extra milli to keep this team intact? They're already deep in the luxury tax, right? What's another million dollars?

What I do understand is that the Lakers appear on the verge of blowing it big, stupidity getting in the way of the shrewdness that was used in building a roster that, health permitting, might have two championships instead of one. They couldn't afford to lose a key piece without replacing it, and Odom is Bynum Insurance that they cannot duplicate. They already spent their MLE, so they can forget about a lesser power forward like Big Baby, let alone a stud like David Lee.

The reason this all happened, this title and the awesome parade and the burgeoning titan, was because of the staunch commitment to winning. Money, ultimately, was not an issue. Now it is? Relative peanuts?

I picked up the commemorative '09 championship DVD Tuesday, first day of its release, a reminder of how sweet this season was. I hope Mitch Kupchak takes a look at a copy himself, I hope Lamar, who attended the premiere screening Monday night, pops it in his Samsung or whatever he uses one more time before it's too late and everyone affected is forced to sit up one day and lament how perfect it should've been.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Albert Pujols Amazes, But He's Also A Victim Of The Recent Past

Ryan Alberti pretty much already covered this topic, but I have to express it again, this time proving his point from an individual fan's perspective.

Albert Pujols trots casually around the base paths and into All-Star weekend on what one has to believe will be a professional highpoint for him. The mid-season festivities will take place in his baseball hometown of St. Louis, Mo. He will partake in the Home Run derby and the game, for which he was the leading vote-getter, a distinction he has never been more deserving of: Pujols is having the best season of a career filled with absolutely nothing but great ones, and I'm starting to wonder if its more than just a nickname, if he actually is a machine, if he truly is inhuman. Or if it is a little bit of something else, a persistent thought, the existence of which I am not responsible for.

Pujols flirts with the triple crown, leading the NL in homers and runs batted in whilst coming in third in batting average, attempting to become the first man to achieve that feat since Carl Yastrzemski did it for the Sawx in 1967, and the first NL player to do it since another Cardinal, Joe Medwick, pulled it off all the way back in 1937. But that is only a margin of the equation. It is his startling, all-around consistency with the bat that makes it seem as though he was built, not born, still a noun but a thing rather than a person. Now in his ninth season, Pujols has never batted below .314, hit fewer than 32 home runs, or driven in less than 103 rbi's. His career 162-game averages? .334/43/130. He has a lifetime OPS of 1.058, the highest of any right-handed hitter in history and fourth all-time behind Bambino, Ballgame, and Iron Horse. Barring some unforeseen happening, he will be awarded with a third MVP honor at the end of the campaign. And so, in this age, when I think of think of "The Machine," I think of two possibilities, of which there is no in-between: either I am watching the greatest hitter ever...or the other thing.

I think you know what the other thing is. Recent history has told us that if a baseball player seems too good to be true, he probably is. Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa performed an all-out assault on the record books in 1998, captivating a country, transcending the game as they bumped off Roger Maris (and Sosa would hit 60+ bombs two more times). It was only later that we realized they were doing it with the aid of enhancements. Some wondered if they were not witnessing the best player ever in Bonds, his output at the plate from '01 to '04 the most eye-popping since Babe Ruth, even though they were achieved during the stage of Bonds' career when he should have been in decline. Soon after, these years of Barry's would be stigmatized by the same kind of asterisk. Then we had Alex Rodriguez, the pure talent who was to bring purity back to the all-time home run mark, and Manny Ramirez, the autistic genius wood wielder, meet similar fates as fallen Gods of the diamond whose accomplishments are now tainted.

And now here's Pujols, ostensibly programmed to belt baseballs, but someone who, because of the realities of what we have seen, I have no choice but to be a little skeptical. Ten years ago, I'd have thought nothing of this, I'd have simply bowed; today I am still reverential but in the back of my mind I am, oh, I don't know, well, like I said, skeptical. You can't blame me. It sucks, and you can charge it to the game that rather than being able to just marvel at and enjoy someone hitting for average and power on such a startlingly consistent basis, I also must wonder if it is being done naturally.

Friday, July 3, 2009

"The Ariza Situation"

Trevor Ariza is gone now, no longer for me to worry about, but I still will think about him, for what could have been and what will be. I wish Ariza had been retained by the Lakers, obviously; he has a fan-friendly style, the city loved and embraced him, he was a perfect fit for the team, and he had his fingerprints all over this championship season. He knocked down open threes (48 percent in the playoffs), wreaked havoc on defense, and made plays with his athleticism in the open-court. Role players usually do the small things, the things that go unnoticed to the untrained eye (like another Lakers small forward who won championships, Rick Fox), but Ariza's contributions were striking, even if you sit aside those two momentous steals in the Denver series: There was rarely a time when you forgot he was on the court, which is perhaps the greatest compliment one can give him.

But with that being said, when news broke that he was leaning towards leaving the Lakers over hurt feelings, I was disappointed but not devastated. Ariza is a good player, but not an indispensable one: As Kenny Smith pointed out on TNT the night the Lakers won the championship (in discussing the upcoming free agent scenario surrounding Odom and Ariza), what, really, is the difference between Ariza and Mickael Pietrus? Or for that matter, I'll argue, Shane Battier, James Posey, or Bruce Bowen in his day? The Lakers probably don't win the championship without Ariza this year, but mostly because they traded Radmanovic during the season, leaving them with only one other small forward with a pulse (Walton) and an eternally struggling Vujacic, who lost the crunch-time minutes he thrived on to the returned and improved Ariza. Remember that they made the Finals last season virtually without Ariza, and may have won the whole damn 'chip with a healthy Bynum. You could have replaced him this year with any of the aforementioned defensive specializing/three-point shooting swing men, and they'd have been fine. Going forward, they could have spent that mid-level exception on Josh Childress, or Gerald Green, or Kleiza, or Marquis Daniels, or Quinton Ross, or Jamario Moon, or Rodney Carney, or Desmond Mason, or Keith Bogans, or Kareem Rush, or Matt Barnes, or Ime Udoka...see what I mean? I don't like any of those guys more than I like Ariza for this team, or even at all, but how much does it really matter? They all have their strengths as small forwards and they're all going to look better playing with Kobe Bryant.

Not to go all Simmons on you (not that there is anything wrong with that), but my dad argued otherwise, suggesting that the Lakers should've done whatever it took to keep Ariza around (among other things). In a move I rarely make, I brought up statistics, pointing out that Ariza averaged only nine points during the regular season and eleven in the playoffs, as a means of putting his virtual worth in perspective. My father shot back with the same argument I often make: basically, that stats are about context. He's right: I think basketball stats are totally subjective, that too much is made of them in a sport in which there is too much they do not account for. But I do not think they are meaningless, and in Trevor's case I think they pretty much are what they are. Roughly half of Ariza's value (his three point-shooting) is dictated by others: He feasts on the open threes made possible for him by the lack of defensive attention he receives on an offensive juggernaut featuring Kobe Bryant. Rarely does he create his own offense in the half court - occasionally he'll get chased off of the three point line and throw in an awkward runner or soar in for a dunk, but that's about it. The points he gets from his defense will still be there, but he is not a true offensive player.

He is a dependent offensive player; how would he do if he had to fend for himself? If this were a situation in which a gifted offensive player were just stuck in a numbers crunch, or down in the pecking order, then that would be one thing, and Ariza's value would be greater. You'd think much longer about just letting him go. But this is not that case, and we'll see how Ariza does now on a Houston squad that has been devastated by injuries and the departure of its most dependable player, the new Laker Artest.

With more minutes, more touches, and more opportunities to score, I suppose he will up his point average about five points, basing that estimate off of the fact that even Battier averaged 14 per in 40 minutes a game for the 2002 Grizzlies - and like those Grizzlies, Houston will suck. This is not a knock against Ariza - most of the players in the league are or would be useless on bad teams. Ariza excels in that he possesses the kind of intangibles that can help a team on the very verge become a champion, even more so than most other role players do. But he is simply not someone who will guarantee you a ring, if there is such an entity, or bring you a great deal closer by himself, so you don't have to kill yourself to make sure he goes or stays. Role players are generally interchangeable, even those of the highest order, like the talented Ariza. Instead of paying them more than they are worth, you can just sort their minutes out in a different way and/or or add someone else who can contribute roughly the same in overall quality. I understand that sometimes you need what you need and not something else, but no team is perfect, anyway.

What the Lakers will get is Artest, who can no longer guard quick guys off the dribble like Ariza could, but is a big, burly son of a gun who won't get thrown around by the Carmelo's of the world, like our lithe wings were in the conference finals this year. If there is anyone who can tame Artest's suspect shot selection and ego on offense and get him to become the player of his destiny it is Phil Jackson, in what will be the last great test of his career. If the Zenmaster can pull it off, if he can confine Artest within the boundaries of the triangle, L.A.'s ceiling becomes higher than it was with Ariza. Of course those are "if's" that will have to be paid great attention to, while we already knew what we had in Ariza. But I suspect that with teams like San Antonio armoring up this summer, in preparation for the ultimate battle, the Lakers may have needed to do some beefing up, too.

They have, and now we'll just have to wait and see what happens. With all of it.