Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Celtics Need Intimidating Nickname

I never knew the color green could be so intimidating.

These modern-day Boston Celtics scare the living hell out of me. Out of all the teams in the league, they're the most deadly serious. The Lakers are a young, affable, goofy bunch. In their own unique ways, Pau Gasol, Vladimir Radmonovic, Sasha Vujacic, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum and even Jordan Farmar are all stupid, but likably so. You can tell they're good, unthreatening guys.

The Spurs are totally business-like and professional, but emanate class, dignity, and humility. We know they're good guys, always have been (except that damn Bowen).

The Celtics, on the other hand, seem unapproachable. If I saw a person on the street that carried the same disposition one of these Celtics displays on the court, I'd look for someone else to give me directions. Boston is like the tough antagonist team in sports movies or TV sitcoms that you're supposed to root against, that appears on screen for the first time walking in slow motion. Basketball fans know that once the buzzer sounds, the C's are cooperative gentlemen. But we know that only because we follow the sport. The casual fan, flicking channels and happening upon one of their games, isn't going to be able to decipher that.

Starting with KG, and trickling on down the line, the Celts ooze intensity. And not just in their faces, but in their play. I have never seen a more aggressive defense. Sometimes, like during the Christmas Day tilt with the Lakers, it goes from simply stalwart to spectacular. It's like their defense starts attacking the other team's offense, Boston's swarming, smothering athleticism and contesting of every shot overwhelming. It happens when the C's are making a run, they always close it out with defensive rebounds, and if they're on the road you'll hear a lot of hooting and hollering from their bench.

The Celtics get a lot of flack for hooting and hollering, but that's more annoying than intimidating. Kendrick Perkins, an excellent role player, needs to shut the hell up. Seriously. Just because you won one championship averaging six points and six rebounds on a team with Garnett, Pierce, and Ray Allen doesn't mean you're Shaquille O'neal. And Kevin, I must admonish you also: There's no need for all that nonsense. I don't play favorites.

Of course, the Celtics, who lead the league in technical fouls, wouldn't behave so brashly if they weren't so damned good and couldn't back it up. I didn't truly believe that the Lakers would pull out that close Dec. 25 game until they did. After losing in Portland Tuesday night, the C's are now 8-1 in games decided by fewer than nine points. Nothing fazes them. They're the iciest team in basketball. We knew Pierce and Allen were assassins, but have you seen KG this year? Last spring he played through the most important games of his career and was shaky in the biggest moments (that's always been the biggest knock on him), but his team achieved the ultimate success, and thus, the weight of having never won a championship has been extricated from his shoulders forever. And it seems as though the relief of this pressure has turned Garnett into a clutch player. KG don't feel nothin' no more. He's not as cool about it as Allen and Pierce; you can tell it's new to him, and he seems almost pleased with himself. But the fact remains that Boston has three players on their roster who are ready and willing to take and make big shots, and that their entire team thrives in tense situations.

The Celtics have lost three of their last four, but always seem invulnerable.

You know who these Celtics remind me of: John Thompson's Patrick Ewing-led Georgetown Hoyas. The intense physical play, trash talking, and hellacious defense, along with the reality of their (nearly) all-black squad, evokes comparisons to Hoya Paranoia (with KG simultaneously embodying both Thompson and Ewing) - specifically the '85 squad that HBO immortalized (well, right up until the part about the loss to Villanova). You mean to tell me you don't recognize some of the parallels?

I need to think of a nickname for these Celtics that reflects how terrified I am of them.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

In Peyton Manning We Trust

His name belongs with the greats.

Montana. Unitas. Brown. Rice. Butkus.


Sounds right.

Don't you see what's happening with Peyton Manning this year, right now? He hasn't just had his most valuable season, he's begun the process of transcending mere first-ballot Hall-of-Fame status and becoming a sacrosanct legend.

Manning was already a lock for Canton before this season, with his gaudy and mind-numbing regular season numbers (we take them for granted, bored by their consistency, but they are the best ever), two MVP's, and Super Bowl trophy.

But his career still lacked that something extra, that thing that separates great players from hallowed ones.

It's one thing to put up a bunch of crazy stats and win a bunch of games and even win a championship when the conditions are relatively amicable. But Michael Jordan's finest hour was his last one, in his final season with the Bulls, aged 35, when he led Chicago to a 62-win season and a championship despite Scottie Pippen missing 38 games during the regular campaign and being practically debilitated by a back injury by the last game of the Finals. Muhammad Ali's greatest athletic triumph came at 32, when he was considered past his prime and even Howard Cosell said he had no chance versus the younger, seemingly indestructible George Foreman, but knocked Big George out, anyway.

Manning came into this season not fully recovered from two offseason surgeries on his left knee and missed all of training camp and the preseason. The Colts struggled out of the gate, limping to a 3-4 start as Peyton threw only 10 touchdowns versus 9 interceptions. Bill Simmons asked if Manning was "sleeping in the same bathtub of plaster Dan Marino used from 1995-1998?" I wrote an article (which never saw the light of day) about the mortality of athletes, and it centered around Manning, now 32 and looking like a shell of his former self.

So what happens? He spends the first half of the season playing himself into form, and now the Colts have won eight straight, clinching a seventh consecutive playoff berth Tuesday night with a victory over the Jaguars in Jacksonville. Manning's line: 29-of-34, 364 yards, three touchdowns. During the winning streak, he has thrown 16 touchdowns and only three picks, in the process establishing himself as the favorite for a record-tying third MVP award and giving his career the substance that turns the greatest of players into mythical beings.

This season the Colts became the first team in NFL history to win 11 or more games in six straight seasons. But this is the least imposing of all of those squadrons. Bob Sanders has been hurt. That would be okay, because Bob Sanders is always hurt, but on top of that Manning's longtime center, Jeff Saturday, has been in and out of the lineup. So has Joseph Addai, and he's averaged only 3.5 yards per carry when he's played, same as his backup, Dominic Rhodes. As a result, the Colts are ranked 31st in the league in rushing. And Marvin Harrison, once the Frick to Manning's Frack, is, definitively - and understandably, at 36 - no longer the man he once was.

True greatness is measured in times of adversity.

And there is no question that watching Manning - not a kid anymore, coming off the first serious injury of his career, with three of his team's top seven players missing a combined 16 games, with his famous partner-in-crime finally acting his age - this year has been a more meaningful experience than watching him at any point in the previous ten (well, other than when he won the Super Bowl).

The Colts are older and more vulnerable now, and so is Manning. He doesn't seem as invincible now as he did just as recently as last year. But in a way, he seems more dangerous than ever. Mortality and the decline of the team around him have wounded him, but wounded animals are extremely dangerous. Which means the Colts are, too, because Manning has never been more indispensable to them and completely embodies their team at this point.

And so now, when you consider all of his accomplishments, when you consider the fact that he has not once missed a professional football game (he started the very first game of his rookie year and has started every game since), when you consider that he was one of those rare no. 1 overall picks that absolutely, positively lived up to every expectation that comes with being that selection (and then some), and when you consider what he has done this season, you must realize that 40 years from now, they'll show grainy old footage of Manning stretching or warming up before a game and it won't need any sound.

This year, Manning has become that kind of player.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Dream Match turns into Mismatch

Wow. That was sad. It felt like a boxing funeral. It was a boxing funeral.

It was an annihlation you had to see to fully comprehend. If you didn't witness with your own two eyes, you would not be able to truly grasp it. Manny Pacquiao crushed Oscar de la Hoya Saturday night in Las Vegas. He destroyed him. He decimated him. He humiliated him. He hit him and he hit him and he hit him again. Then he hit him some more. It got worse over the eight rounds; by the end, Oscar wasn't even swinging back. He was just getting hit. Over and over and over again.

De la Hoya had become the proverbial champion fighting that one fight too many. Other than Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, no one saw it coming. To the rest of us, Oscar's boxing death unfolded in one night.

It went from shocking to kind of numbing to just plain hard to watch. It wasn't quite Larry Holmes beating up a defenseless Muhammad Ali in 1980, but it was something like it. Of course, I know that fight only through the internet; I wasn't born until 1988, so I truly only know Ali's legend via ESPN Classic, a movie starring Will Smith, and YouTube. It would be impossible for me to watch a grainy, 28 year old tape of him on a computer screen and feel the same pangs of sympathy for Ali that those who lived through his career did as he was absorbing blow after blow.

But I lived through Oscar's run. Roy Jones Jr., Bernard Hopkins, and Floyd Mayweather Jr. are the best boxers of this era, but Oscar was unequivocally the most famous. Plus, he was from (East) LA, my hometown. He's a good man. I was rooting for Oscar last night. Now, I know how those Ali followers felt. Saturday's tilt made me squeamish, and when it became obvious in the seventh and eighth rounds that referee Tony Weeks could step in at any time (and arguably should have, although I respect that he gave the aged warrior the benefit of the doubt), my heart started beating in anticipation. Oscar was getting pummeled, and the stoppage could come at any moment. Dueling emotions were at work here: on the one hand, I didn't want to see De la Hoya go out like that. On the other, he was being badly embarrassed, and even his puncher's chance seemed vanished - so why not just stop it?

Luckily, it was over before Oscar was seriously damaged - he came out of his corner before the start of the ninth, but only to embrace and congratulate Pacquaio, boxing's new big draw. It was a dazzling performance by the Pacman - with Mayweather in retirement (more likely an extended vacation, of course), Manny is - by far - the sport's best pound-for-pound fighter, as well as it's most exciting. But for Oscar, it was over - for this night and probably forever.

De la Hoya, a warrior just as much as a cash cow, was too prideful to utter the words "I quit," but knew he had no chance and offered nothing in the way of protest to his corner's decision to throw in the towel. His body language spoke defeat, and the forced, humbled acceptance of it. Pacquaio was clearly the much better man, obvious to everyone, including Oscar.

But that's sports, right? Pacquaio, 29, is in the prime of his career. Oscar is 35, not even competitive on this night. It goes like that. LaDainian Tomlinson, once as breathtakingly good as any tailback to ever play, is averaging 3.7 yards per carry this season. Through 13 games, he has had two 100-yard outings and is on pace for the poorest rushing totals (yards and touchdowns) of his career. His toe may still be bothering him, but the real problem is that he's 29 now - running backs start going downhill at 28. Adrian Peterson, aged 23, is the guy now.

Allen Iverson, now 33, the NBA's third all-time leader in career scoring average, is producing only 18 a game this year. For this year, the Pistons would be better off with Derrick Rose, a rookie.

Greg Maddux retired this week. Nobody lasts forever.

Though he entered the bout about a pound-and-half lighter than De la Hoya, Oscar is naturally about 25 pounds heavier - he began his pro career at 130 lbs, Pacquiao at 106. But Pacquiao was simply too fast, too quick, too maneuverable. Had Oscar been 29, it would have been more of a fair fight. Maybe he could have caught Pacman, maybe he could have avoided him. Instead, he just got beat up. Badly. Hit. Repeatedly.

Oscar's legacy? Obvious Hall-of-Famer, 10-time world champion in six different weight classes, Olympic gold medalist in Barcelona in 1992. No fighter ever generated more money. Totally classy. Never ducked anybody - he fought Tito, he fought Shane (twice), he fought Hopkins, he fought Floyd, he fought Pacman. But what endures may be that he lost all six of those matches (albeit a couple of them controversially), and the argument can be made that he never beat a truly great fighter at the peak of their powers (Julio Cesar Chavez, whom he beat twice, and Pernell Whitaker, had both probably advanced their apex's).

The final Compubox number's from the night? 224 of 585 total landed for Manny, as opposed to 83 of 402 for Oscar. 195 of 33 power punches met their mark for Pacquiao, only 51 of 164 De la Hoya, 59 percent to 31 percent. But if you didn't see it, you still don't get it.

Oscar did. He was ulitmately non-committal, but also reasonable, about his boxing future in his post-fight interview with Larry Merchant. While he stopped just short of saying "I'm finished," his words spoke of a man that knew he was. He told Roach, his former trainer turned nemesis who in the events leading up to the match said that after watching Oscar's victory over Steve Forbes in May, he realized De la Hoya no longer had his fastball after and predicted exactly the round this one would end, after the fight, "You were right, Freddie. I don't have it anymore."

He doesn't.

As for me? I just wish I could unsee what I saw.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Titans Being Treated Like No Big Deal

Why no love for the Titans of Tennessee?

They have the league's second best head coach. They have the league's best rushing attack. They have league's finest defense.

They have not lost a game.

And yet, no one seems to be seriously considering the increasing possibility that they may go 16-0. Actually, there is a reason for this. Actually, there are two reasons for this:

1) Nobody looks at them as the type of team that could go an entire regular season without losing, and

2) Nobody cares.

The Patriots were, what, 2-0 when people started wondering if they could win them all? 3-0?

But of course, that was different. The Patriots had the championship pedigree, and the previous year had lost the AFC Championship game late in the fourth quarter, after blowing a 21-3 first half lead.

Now they had added Randy Moss, Wes Welker, Donte Stallworth, and Adelius Thomas to the mix, giving them undoubtedly the most loaded team of the salary cap era. This was a team with top-notch professionals on both sides of the ball, Pro Bowl and All-Pro-caliber talent at every level of the defense, and the highest-scoring, most jawdropping offense of all-time. They were impeccably well-coached, led by the legendary Bill Belichick and (as always) the best group of assistants you'll find in any sport, plus they were pissed off, and thus were just crushing people, with no restraint. They may have lost the Super Bowl, but seriously, folks, they were the best NFL team ever.

The Titans, on the other hand, are probably the least talented 10-0 team in the history of the league. Their quarterback is 35, and although he did signal-call the Giants to the Super Bowl in 2000, he's never really been that good. They do not have good receivers. They have a stellar two-man running game - rookie STUD Chris Johnson and touchdown machine Lendale White - but neither one them are really brand-namers.

Their defense features the dominant defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth and the past-his-prime Jevon Kearse, but other than those two and maybe Keith Bulloch, they are a composition of nobodies.

Which means their greatest strength, truth be told, is their coach, Jeff Fisher, who I like to call the game's best "manufacturer." You wouldn't look at last year's Tennessee roster and think 10-6, nor would you look at the 2006 roster and think 8-8, anymore than you would look the current personnel and think 10-0 after Week 11.

But Fisher has come to excel at "manufacturing" wins, at producing enough points each week to earn a victory more often than a loss. On a consistent, Sunday-to-Sunday basis, nobody does more coaching, or gets more out of his teams, than Jeff Fisher.

The Titans are a smart, efficient, whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-their-parts club that palys exceptionally hard and literally maxes out it's potential. But they do not inspire awe, or fear, like the '07 Patriots did, either on paper or on the field.

The bottom line, though, is that they have won every game that they have played this year, which as we all know is all that matters. They're more than half-way to 16-0, a mark that we know from very recent history is attainable.

Which brings us to our second problem:

We've already seen the unbeaten thing before. In fact, we've just seen it.

Maybe it's just me, but the general mood prevailing throughout the NFL atmosphere is that in the wake of last season's Patriots, people (fans and media) aren't as interested in witnessing a team finish 16-0, and will not make a big deal out of it if it happens. It would be extremely impressive and praiseworthy, a supreme accomplishment, and more shocking than when the Patriots did it.

But I doubt if it would get the same attention, or the same reaction. The thing that made New England's quest so intriguing was that the closer they got it felt like history in the making, and there's nothing we enjoy more than the opportunity to witness something take place that has never happened before. And even though the Dolphins ended their regular season 14-0 (and of course they would go on to finish 17-0) in 1972, it took place so long ago that it almost feels like it belongs to an entirely different time-frame; no one under the age of 30 remembers it.

So when the Patriots were chasing it, the entire journey was novel. It no longer is.

Anyways, regardless of all this, the fact remains that all we have seen the Titans do thus far this season is win. Why couldn't they run the table? They absolutely could. We may not believe, or care, but if they do, we will have no choice but to respect.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

A Completely Random and Inexplicable Rick Fox Tribute

The term "role player" is used so often in NBA discussions that it has become trite. Being a Lakers fan, I know the phrase very well: if you were watching basketball at the beginning of this century, you couldn't help but know that the Phil Jackson-led Lakers featured two superstars...and a bunch of role players. It was Shaq and Kobe...and a bunch of role players. That was the way the supporting cast was identified. And with respect to Ron Harper, Brian Shaw, and Devean George (and Mike Penberthy, if you're nasty), the three chief representatives for this group were "Big Shot" Robert Horry, Derek Fisher, and Rick Fox.

Horry's clutch shooting exploits are extremely well-documented, and Fisher hit the famous "0.4" shot against the Spurs in the 2004 playoffs, made the emotional, right-out-of-a-movie arrival to the playoff game against the Warriors two years with Utah after tending to his ailing daughter the same day, and is respected for his cool head, experience, and on-court leadership.

But Foxy? He was once married to Vanessa L. Williams, he's a renowned actor (okay, just actor) who had a small role in "He Got Game," he got in a fight during a preseason game with Doug Christie, and he was "pretty" (he once grew his curly hair long and wore it in a pony tail).

But he never got enough recognition as a player, even for one who's job was to merely fulfill a role. This always bothered me, because Foxy was the quintessential role player, and he helped my favorite team win three championships. I love the guy.

Defensively, Foxy was one of the better small forwards in the league, as evidenced by the way he shut down Peja Stojakovic in the 2001 Western Conference Semifinals. Offensively, he was a good outside shooter and passer, someone who Phil Jackson praised in "The Last Season" for his ability to make the entry pass to Shaq, a smart player who never made a boneheaded play and always played within himself. In Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals against the Kings, he had 13 points, 14 rebounds, and 7 assists. With a potential three-peat hanging in the balance, he stood taller than ever, rising to the occasion along with Diesel, Mamba, Big Shot, and Fish in helping us get back to the Finals.

Foxy won three championships, and every title team has a Rick Fox on it, or someone like him. Two of the last three featured James Posey, defensive ace, clutch three-point shooter, King of All the Little Things. The current player that reminds me most of Foxy is Shane Battier. The Lakers mollywhopped the Rockets at the Staples Center Sunday night, with Battier relegated to the sidelines with an ankle injury that will keep him out of action for at least another month. If these Rockets are to ever win a championship, you can be sure that Battier will have something to do with it, wholeheartedly throwing himself into the team concept, selflessly assuming the Fox role.

Eight years ago, in explaining that the defending champion Lakers were still the team to beat, SLAM Magazine wrote in their NBA preview "I don't care if Shaq and Kobe are surrounded by 10 Rick Fox clones." This was meant as a diss, but to me it reflected Fox's status as the prototype role player, which as far as I am concerned isn't a bad thing.

Aside from an acting gig on the CW network's "The Game" series, Foxy is now serving as an analyst for Lakers home game coverage on Fox Sports Net. He is pretty good. But he was also a good basketball player. I don't know why I felt compelled to tell you all this, but I have for a while now, and I'm glad I did.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

This Is Going To Be Fun

Flashback to 2001.

The Lakers were the defending NBA champions, and they were opening up their 2001-02 campaign at home against the Trailblazers. After receiving their championship rings in a pregame ceremony, Los Angeles beat Porland with relative ease, recording a "Ho-hum, we went 15-and-1 in the postseason last year and are just much, much, much better than everyone else" 98-87 win. For that night (and really the first month or so of the season, as they would start 16-1), the Lakers looked and felt unbeatable, a championship seemed forgone, and being a fan of the team never felt more relaxing, peaceful, or fun.

Seven years later, the Lakers once again opened their season against Oregon's finest. They didn't collect any rings this time; that honor went to the Celtics, who began their season with a 90-85 victory over the Cavaliers in Boston. Still, the Lakers looked like the best team in the league. They jumped out to a 19-8 lead and were up by as many as 22 before a closing Blazer flurry cut the margin to 15 at the break. The likable Portland upstarts, everyone's favorite young team, were listless, no doubt, but Los Angeles looked flawless. Their defense was brilliant, a step ahead of Portland in holding them to 31 percent shooting over the first two quarters, and two steps ahead of what we saw from them on that end last year.

They displayed an absolutely endless stream of talent: As Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley pointed out during TNT's halftime show, the Lakers have every position covered - twice. There's Fisher and Farmar, and Radmanovic and Ariza, with Odom, Gasol, and Bynum rotating at the big spots. Then there's Sasha and some guy named Mamba, who made a mockery out of the difficulty basketball at the highest level is supposed to present.

I have never seen anyone play the game of basketball so well, and yet so effortlessly as Kobe Bryant did last night. In the first 24 minutes of action, he seemed to be literally going through the motions, scoring only six points on 3-of-8 shooting. But he had an impact over the flow of the action - eight rebounds, five assists - and he was getting to any spot on the floor that he wanted and making it look easier than ever, while holding Brandon Roy to two points on 0-of-6 from the field.

Then, after a little extra-curricular bump from Joel Pryzbilla early in the third, Kobe, coincidentally or not, bumped his effort level up from 50 percent to maybe about 75, scoring thirteen points in the final nine minutes of the period. He would finish with 23 in all, on 9-of-17, in a 96-76 L.A. win. And I have to say that in all of the years I've been watching him play, I don't know if the man has ever seemed more arrogant for a single game than he did last night: it was just too easy, and he knew it. Thanks to this stacked Lakers roster and his own startling talent, Bryant now has the lightest workload of any superstar, and so on many nights this season the challenge for him may not be the game itself, but how embarrassingly simple he can make it appear to be as he further illuminates his ever-increasing accomplishments in athletic brilliance. I know, I know, I'm in love with the guy; I have a man-crush on him and I want to marry him. Whatever. On some nights, nights like the last one, Kobe Bryant is so good, his command and mastery of the concepts of basketball so thorough, his natural ability so pronounced (and even more impressive now that he's 30, with all that mileage), he deserves such praise.

Anyways, I feel the same way as a Lakers fan that Kobe came off last night: arrogant, cocky, privileged. I don't think I have ever seen a team as talented as these Lakers: their first ten players range from "solid" to "transcendent," with supremely talented bench players that offer contrasting qualities to the starters, everyone bringing something different to the table. Every style appears to be covered, an offense fast and quick-hitting and efficient and Kobe. Hell, even the defense looked great for once.

For at least one night, it was perfect in Lakerdom, and it didn't look like anything could possibly go wrong. Reminded me of 2001.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

For Love...For Honor...For Kobe

In Bill Simmons' first ever fantasy basketball preview column, unleashed Friday, he ranks Kobe Bryant only number six on his list of most eligible fantasy baller's (Bryant is generally considered a top three pick) - and goes on to explain why it might not be the greatest idea to build your imaginary team around Mamba this year. He goes through a lot of potential hazards: Kobe's considerable milage; his decrease in athletic explosiveness and the lack of a fallback option to combat it, a la MJ with the latter-day power post game/turnaround fallaway; potential on-court chemistry issues (not enough shots to go around, clogged middle); his pinkie. I'm not even going to get into all of those things - I'll save it for another day, another piece. This post is going to be long enough.

Simmons wrote something six months ago that stuck in my craw a little ever since - now, he's mentioned it again, and for my own sanity, my own piece of mind, I must delve deeper into it, and disprove it to the public.

In recent times I have become almost neutral regarding Kobe Bryant the Man. But that feeling of indifference does not extend to my fervent support and defense of Kobe Bryant the Basketball Player. As a diehard Lakers fan, I feel the same way about 24 that Simmons feels about Larry Bird or Michael Wilbon feels about Michael Jordan. So when the Sports Guy attacked Kobe's reputation for utter individual dominance last June by typing that he struggled against bigger defenders, it actually hurt my feelings. Simmons said that these types of defensive players served as Kobe's "kryptonite" flaw - nonsense, as far as I was concerned. Maybe he had his troubles against historically great team defenses, but to state that any type of single defender could have an advantage over him in a strictly player-to-player match-up...I was affected by that.

Still, I just let it simmer - until 'ol Simmy referenced it again in the fantasy hoops column - and well, I've got to get it off my chest. What can I say? It bothers me.


In the initial column, posted between games five and six of last year's NBA Finals, Simmons wrote:

"Boy, Kobe sure seems to have trouble scoring on these Shane Battier/Paul Pierce types, doesn't he? If someone's a little bigger than him, stays between him and the basket and has the reach to contest his jumper, and if that person is flanked by smart defenders who remain aware of what Kobe is doing at all times, it sure seems Kobe has trouble getting the shots he likes. Not to belabor the point because it's a moot discussion at this point, but MJ didn't have a "kryptonite" flaw. He just didn't. Of everyone from the '90s, John Starks probably defended him the best ... and it's not like Starks was shutting him down or anything. He just made MJ work a little harder for the points he was getting anyway. The point is, Jordan did whatever he wanted during a much more physical era, and when he faced great defensive teams -- like the '89 and '90 Pistons or the '93 Knicks -- nobody ever shackled him or knocked him into a scoring funk. Kobe? He looks a little lost offensively against the Celtics. It's true. Same for the 2004 Finals against Tayshaun Prince, another lanky defensive player with a good reach. Just remember to mention this on his NBA tombstone some day."

The Battier reference likely stemmed from an ABC televised game in mid-March between the Lakers and Rockets in Houston, when Battier held Bryant to 24 points on 11-of-33 shooting in a 104-92 Rockets win. And obviously, Pierce did an excellent job on Bryant at times in the championship series last June.

Then, Friday, Simmons wrote of the Lakers that "their best lineup remains Fisher and Vujacic at the guards, Kobe at the 3, and Gasol with Odom or Bynum up front ... which allows opponents to defend Kobe with bigger players and opens the door for more spotty offensive efforts from Kobe like what we witnessed in the 2008 Finals."

And I could no longer stop myself from addressing this maddening assertion.

When I did my research for my statistical analysis, I tried to study game logs (basketball-reference.com - the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be) in which Bryant played against teams with great perimeter defenders, or so-called "stoppers," who 1) are listed at at least 6-7 (an inch taller than Kobe is listed at) and 2) I can specifically remember being assigned to guard him on a regular basis.

These are Kobe's career numbers (regular season only) versus the five players whom I felt met my qualifications:

v. Battier: 25 gms, 249-585 FGM-A, 23.5 FGAPG, 42.5 FG%, 29.2 PPG, 3 40-pt gms, 3 50-pt gms

v. Prince: 9 gms, 69-158 FGM-A, 17.6 FGAPG, 43.7 FG%, 25.4 PPG, 1 40-pt gm

v. Andrei Kirilenko: 20 gms, 203-423 FGM-A, 21.2 FGAPG, 48.0 FG%, 33.5 PPG, 3 40-pt gms, 1 50-pt gm

v. Josh Howard: 17 gms, 176-379 FGM-A, 22.3 FGAPG, 46.2 FG%, 33.7 PPG, 3 40-pt gms, 1 50-pt gm, 1 60-pt gm

v. Ron Artest (although Artest is listed at 6-7, he and Kobe appear to be the same height - you know, Kobe used to be listed at 6-7, when he had his afro - whatever, this isn't an exact science, I included him anyway): 20 gms, 162-350 FGM-A, 17.5 FGAPG, 46.3 FG%, 27.8 PPG, 1 40-pt gm

Total: 91 gms, 859-1895 FGM-A, 20.8 FGAPG, 45.3 FG%, 29.3 PPG, 11 40-pt gms, 5 50-pt gms, 1 60-pt gm

Career numbers: 866 gms, 7456-16450 FGM-A, 19.0 FGAPG, 45.3 FG%, 25.0 PPG, 92 40-pt gms, 23 50-pt gms, 4 60-pt gms

What do these numbers show us?

Well, for one, obviously, Battier does a better job on Kobe than any of our variables (I'm a scientist now). After offering little resistance to Kobe his first four seasons in the league (Bryant averaged 25.5 points on 45.7% shooting against Battier in their fourteen matchups from 2002-2005 - including the game in Shane's rookie year where Kobe scored 56 points in three quarters and then sat out the fourth), Battier has become an extremely legitimate Mamba foil: since the 2006 campaign, Battier has held Bryant to 39.9% shooting in eleven contests - 33.1 points on 28.6 shots per game. Only once in those eight games has Bryant shot above 50%.

Then again, Bryant has had games of 53, 53, and 45 against Battier since Battier joined Houston in 2006-07 - albeit on a combined 114 shots and a pedestrian 43.0% shooting.

Overall, it would seem that Battier has taken the mantle from Bruce Bowen as the John Starks to Kobe's MJ - to paraphrase Simmons, he guards him better than anyone else, but it's not like he's shutting him down or anything; he's just making him work harder for the points he's getting regardless.

Against Prince, Bryant doesn't take many shots. On top of that one 40-points game, he has had two 39-point efforts. Other than that, there's nothing to it. Nothing sticks out.

What seems more accurate than Simmons' claim is the notion that Bryant simply ran into two all-time great defenses in those two championship series, and more importantly, two units that predicated all of their potential success on their ability to stop him and him only, and game planned accordingly. And I don't think he was prepared either time. He had thoroughly dominated the postseason last year up until the series with Boston, so even though the Celtics defense had thwarted him in their two regular season matchups, I'm sure he wasn't expecting anything resembling that kind of struggle.

He had also been the dominant player in the 2004 playoffs (although not as brilliant as last year), and he certainly wasn't ready for that Pistons ambush (not to mention the fact that he made things harder on himself by playing so selfishly and effectively playing right into their hands).

Both times, it appeared as though he had walked blindly into a blizzard snowstorm, without the necessary survival skills.

And I know we've been conditioned to think that MJ was literally infallible, but if anybody really thinks MJ just walked all over those great Pistons and Knicks defenses like he did everyone else - well, you need to hit up basketball-reference.com, check out some box scores.

Anyways, as far as Simmons' idea that bigger defenders are Kobe's Achilles heel - I would conclude that that appears to be a matter of feeling and seeming, rather than actual being.

Monday, October 20, 2008

T-Mac's Sadly Unfolding Story Arc

This morning on NBA TV it scrolled across the ticker, the message that Houston Rockets swingman Tracy McGrady may miss the team's season opener on October 29 versus the Grizzlies due to "health issues." On Houston's media day last month, Mac announced that he hadn't fully healed from off-season surgery on his left knee, and would need an operation after the upcoming campaign to repair an arthritic left shoulder. Yes, you read that correctly: Tracy McGrady already has an injury so serious it will need a procedure at the conclusion of the season...and the season hasn't even started yet. That sounds insane, but it isn't really surprising: With Chris Webber now making his living under the employment of Ted Turner, Mac is the NBA's new resident MCS: Most Cursed Superstar.

McGrady has to be the only player in NBA history that peaked at the age of 23. I never thought he was as good as Kobe Bryant (not as good a defender, not as clutch), but he was damn close: The 6-foot-8, long-limbed frame, combined with the amalgamation of scoring, ballhandling, and playmaking capabilities, made Tracy the offensive fusion of an evolutionary George Gervin and Scottie Pippen. He averaged a 27, 8, and 5 at 21 (his first and breakout year with the Magic), a 26, 8, and 5 at 22, and an absurd 32, 7, and 6 at the aforementioned 23. In those latter two years, he was named All-NBA first team. By consensus, he was one of the two best all-around players in the game, and so his potential, though rarely spoken of, seemed obviously limitless.

But as Stephen A. might say...


(And if I were the Sports Guy, this would be the point that I made a reference to the inevitable "downward spiral" segment teaser of any VH1 "Behind the Music" episode.)

It all started going suddenly downhill from there. The Magic won a mere 21 games in 2004, as Mac missed 15 contests and shot the lowest percentage of his career - this was also the year that back spasms began establishing themselves as his personal Achilles heel. He would be traded to Houston that summer, and while he had a terrific year overall in his first year with the Rockets, he shot only 43 percent and the Rockets lost in the first round to the Mavericks.

Meanwhile, McGrady's once prescribed co-savior of the Magic, the conveniently redemptive Grant Hill, represented Orlando as a starter in the All-Star Game after playing in only 47 of a possible 328 games in the previous four seasons, and No. 1 pick Dwight Howard drew comparisons to a young Moses Malone. The Rockets missed the playoffs entirely the following year, and then, in 2007, Tracy was the victim of another first-round series exit, this time tasting defeat in a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Jazz.

Last year, the Rockets won 22 consecutive games during the regular season (second most all-time), but lost Yao for the year in February, and once again, went one-and-done in the postseason, falling to Utah for the second straight year.

Which means that, at 29, and entering his 12th season, Tracy Mcrady has a career playoff series mark of 0-7, and there is no doubt that it is a bearing on the man's soul. McGrady is partially to blame for his embarrassing record: While the Magic were certainly overmatched in terms of personnel against Detroit in the 2003 postseason, he had his team up 3-1 and couldn't muster one more victory (naturally, this was the year the NBA changed it's first-round format from best-of-five to best-of-seven.) And he had a Game 7 at home in '07 against Utah but couldn't pull it out (the 29 points and 13 assists were heroic, but the key is to win the game).

But most of Tracy McGrady's misfortune seems to stem from ill-fate. How many times would he and a healthy Hill have made the Finals together in Orlando? He was forced to go at it alone. Why did a troublesome back sabotage his 20's and put a ceiling on his prime? We'll never know how good he could have been. Why did Yao have to suffer a stress fracture last year, on what could have been Houston's best team since Hakeem's '95 repeat squad? All those wins in a row meant nothing against the Jazz, not with Mac outmanned and reliving his soloist days with the Magic.

And why is it that, now that the Rockets have acquired Ron Artest and assured that McGrady will be a part of the most talented team of his life...he's already injured? The punt never, ever takes a T-Mac bounce.

You take a look at this Houston roster and think that they have a chance to be earth-shatteringly good. And earth-shatteringly good should at least get you past the first round. But if you're a McGrady fan, how realistically optimistic can you be? Things never seem to go in his favor.

Regardless, we root for him. We like him. And thus, may God bless his knee, back, and shoulder, may Yao remain on the court for the duration (or at least be healthy come spring), and may Ron Ron not go Ron Ron. For Tracy's sake.

P.S. And may they not beat my Lakers, under any circumstances.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

On Paper, Lakers Look Like Sure Thing

Lamar Odom came off the bench for the Lakers in their preseason tilt with the Kings on Sunday, and seemed fine with it for a change. Previously, Odom had expressed disgust at Phil Jackson's declaration that he will make Lamar the team's sixth man if he struggles with his transition to small forward. Odom's discontent had the potentiality of sabotaging what could be a dream Lakers season.

Los Angeles has the highest ceiling of any NBA club this year. The Rockets match the Lakers in terms of sheer talent (the trio of Yao Ming, Tracy McGrady, and Ron Artest, along with their dedicated working class teammates, looks like bloody murder on paper), but aren't as much of a sure thing. The Lakers went to the Finals last year without Andrew Bynum, and other than whether or not Kobe's pinky will fall off, the only concern (at least to me) was how Lamar (or, to be more accurate, Lamar's attitude) would fit into the season. The Bynum-Gasol co-existence issue will work itself out in time, and even if their union is a little awkward, a healthy Kobe makes the matter moot. Bynum's presence shores up the shotblocking and rebounding problem, and I'm sure Jackson will enforce a newfound defensive intensity. And they will definitely be playing with a chip on their shoulder, after being humiliated in the Finals last year.

Now, Lamar vows not to be the large piece of ice that sinks this magnificent passenger liner. Which means that if these Lakers stay healthy, it's very likely that, at some point next June, they will have a parade that ends on 1111 S. Figueroa Street, and there will be nothing anyone can do to prevent it.


In the post-Jordan era of the NBA (1999-present - forget the Wizards years), no other organization has assembled a roster with such a transcendent superstar, surrounded by such a killer supporting cast. The Lakers have the league's best pair of big men; a (mercurial) walking double-double aptly nicknamed The Goods; and the game's deepest collection of role players. That, by itself, is a pretty damn good foundation. So to throw Kobe Bryant into the mix is really just piling on. His subpar performance in the Finals against Boston is our most recent memory of him (the Olympics don't really count), so it's only natural that he seems a little more human right now. But we should not remove from our minds the level of play we witnessed him ascend to before that championship series. For roughly a month-and-a-half, or about the time it took him to lead the Lakers to a 12-3 record through the torrid Western Conference playoff, Kobe Bryant played basketball as well as it can possibly be played. Let us not forget that truth. In 2008, he won an MVP and a gold medal, but could manage only a mere trip to the Finals; he falls just shy of Jordan. But in today's game, his peers fall short of him. And if Jordan is basketball's only true immortal (think about it, he is), then Kobe is the next nearest guy.

By the time you get to the Zen Master, you realize that this current Lakers team is not merely built to win, like other contenders; Mitch Kupchak has put together the type of personnel that should not lose and, if there were such a thing, cannot lose. We saw this with the Jerry West-built three-peat teams of the beginning of the century; it seemed obvious that a team with Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, headed by Jackson, would be the squad that won the championship. Then again, when Karl Malone and Gary Payton were added to that nucleus following the ringless 2002-03 campaign, the title felt inevitable, too. And we all know how that ended.

Needless to say, nothing is guaranteed.

But a team with Kobe Bryant, in his prime, with three supporting stars, led by the best coach in league history?

You have to admit, the Lakers feel like more of a cinch than anybody right now.

Friday, October 3, 2008

An Open Love Letter to Candace Parker

Dear Candace,

I just wanted to congratulate you on winning WNBA Rookie of the Year and MVP this season. You're the new Wes Unseld. As a player, you remind me of a young Kevin Garnett, only more aggressive offensively. Love your game. And you're only going to get better. That's the crazy thing.

Now, enough about all that.

Candace, I think I'm in love with you. You're the prettiest female athlete who's ever lived. That isn't an opinion, it's a simple fact of life. It's not subjective, it's objective. We hold this truth to be self-evident, that you are the most gorgeous woman to ever play sports. Your skin is flawless, as are your features. Your mouth is perfect. Your nose is perfect. Your eyes are perfect. I even like the way you blink. On top of all that, you have baby hair - a huge turn on for me. Hell, you even make that shoulder harness (which Kobe made famous during the 2003-04 season) you wear look sexy. You're a "Mike Tyson in 1988"-level knockout.

I tried to stop myself from writing this letter, out of respect for your man, Shelden Williams, one of my all-time favorite college players. Guy was a beast at Duke, and I haven't given up on him as a pro yet. But at the end of the day, you were just too damn fine. I had to write you this letter. I want you to know how I feel about you, and I want the world to know how I feel about you, too.

Sorry, Shelden.

Yours truly,

Monday, September 29, 2008

As the NFL Turns: Life Without Brady

Is it just me, or does the NFL kind of suck without Tom Brady?

The Golden Boy went down eight minutes into the regular season, and three weeks of football have since passed. Storylines are emerging, as they always do. The ageless wonder that is Brett Favre has been let loose by the Mangenius and partied like it was 1995 against the Cardinals on Sunday, tossing a career-high six touchdowns. T.O. may be on the verge of turning on Tony Romo. The Bills are 4-0 and so are the Titans, led by the great Jeff Fisher. But none of these subplots seem as important as they usually would. Tom Brady is the best player on the league's flagship team, and in the opinion of this writer, his absence is undermining the relevance of the league at large. The games are still hard-fought and spirited and exciting, but overall, this early portion of the '08 season hasn't been as fun. And I think it will remain that way for the duration of the year. To me, the NFL isn't as interesting as it usually is. You can call it the Brady Effect.

It has been a looooooooong time since a team athlete as indispensable to his team and his league as Tom Brady went down for such an extended period of time due to injury. In my sports fandom career (admittedly relatively brief), I can't think of anything that compares. Imagine Kobe breaking his leg in the Lakers' season opener a little over a month from now (actually, don't imagine that - forget I even told you to). Last year Brady threw 50 touchdowns versus only eight interceptions, on a team that came 35 seconds and one miracle play involving Eli "Houdini" Manning and David Tyree's helmet from going a perfect nineteen-and-oh. Already a lock for future "best quarterback ever" roundtable's after winning three Super Bowls while throwing to only slightly above-average receivers, Thomas was handed Randy Moss, Wes Welker, and Donte Stallworth in '07 and proceeded to level the discussion. Joe Montana, the one-time king, won one more Super Bowl, but he never threw for more than 31 touchdowns in a single season, despite being blessed with Jerry Rice. Brady has four more rings than Dan Marino and three more than Peyton Manning. He is unflappable and technically flawless, and with him under center, the Patriots are the team to beat.

They are also the league's most hated squadron. If the Cowboys are "America's Team," the Pats are the exact opposite. Everyone outside of Boston despises the Patriots, for much the same reason everyone outside of Durham, North Carolina hates the Bluedevils: They win at a startling pace, and nobody wants to see any team have a monopoly on winning. They're also kind of rogue: Their coach is a jerk, they've been called classless, and last year they got caught cheating (although that entire controversy was probably overrated) and then ran up the score against helpless opponents when people questioned the veracity of their dynasty. Through almost all of this, Brady has worn a satisfied smirk as he knocked up actresses and bagged supermodels and dissected defenses. He's the NFL's version of Derek Jeter pumping his fist and incarnating the New York playboy life as jealous fans rail against the Yankees for having an infinite amount of money to spend on acquiring the best players. So when he goes down, everyone rejoices.

Not me.

I don't understand how anyone, from any region of the country, could be happy about not getting to see Tom Brady play football in his prime. Maybe it's because I see things from a different perspective, a nonpartisan position. I live in Los Angeles and have no real diehard rooting interest. I follow the Saints because of Reggie Bush, but while I root for him to do well I could honestly care less if they win or lose. I thought I loved the Patriots, until I realized on Sunday that I didn't care that they got blown out at home against the Dolphins with Matt Cassell at the helm. It turns out that I only like the Pats when they are dominant and unstoppable. Which means that I only like the Patriots when Brady is standing tall and nonchalant in the pocket, lofting long touchdowns to Moss in the most breathtakingly perfect QB-to-receiver combination ever, and carving teams up with stoic, machine-like efficiency in crunch-time. And when that's happening, everything else that's going on around the league takes on more meaning. But when the league is deprived of that, everything else seems a little cheap. The NFL revolves around the Patriots; when they're just an ordinary team, the NFL seems almost like just an ordinary league.

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Belly of the Upset

It always hits hard.

The No. 1 ranked USC Trojans lost on the road to the Oregon State Beavers by a score of 27-21 Thursday night, two weeks after dismantling Ohio State so thoroughly that it seemed almost unfathomable that they could actually be beaten in a college football game. Pundits said that this was Pete Carroll's best team and that they would run the table to Miami. Deadspin mocked the Beavers' chances at victory and on PTI the only question was whether or not the Trojans would top 50 points (Tony said no, Le Batard said yes). The game seemed like such a mere formality that I forgot it was on until it suddenly hit me and I flicked to ESPN about mid-way through the second quarter. I guess you can imagine my surprise when I realized that THE TROJANS WERE DOWN 14-0!

OSU scored again right before the half TO GO UP 21-0! The Trojans fought back, of course, and still had a chance to win the game when they lined up for an onside kick with a little over a minute to play. The onside kick was not recovered by Southern Cal, and my whole night was officially ruined. But while I'm definitely disappointed that my city's amateur-professional football team lost, I can't find it in myself to really criticize them. How do you explain the nature of the upset in college fooball?

Four of USC's last five losses have come to teams that they, in theory, should never have lost to: last night; two years ago against this same Oregon State program in the same setting and against UCLA at the Rose Bowl (to lose their spot in the BCS Championship Game); and last year at home to Stanford. Since they typically annihilate the really good teams that they play, these losses to such lesser teams seem inexplicable and inexcusable. But the reasons for these defeats are impalpable. How much of it has to do with the idea that the Trojans overlooked an inferior opponent, and were both underprepared and lacking the proper fire? How much of it had to do with the thought that the USC players didn't know how to respond to having the underdog take the fight right at them, the proverbial schoolyard bully stunned at having the little guy walk up one day and slug him in the face?

And how much of it had to do with the fact that, on any given day or night, anybody can beat anybody, in any sport? That last truth, mixed with USC's undeniable success over the last seven years, makes it impossible for me to rip them.

But it still makes me feel down when they lose. Poor Carroll, a great football coach and even better man, becomes so humble and despondent after every (rare) defeat. Witnessing Carroll talk to reporters after last night's game was like watching a sad little four-year-old give an interview after he just spilled his milk and cookies. Furthermore, the USC campus is about 20 minutes from my house. It's about 20 minutes away from everybody in L.A.'s house. It's smack dab in the inner-city, in the "hood," as they say. Unless you attend/used to attend UCLA, how can you live in Los Angeles and not root for SC? The Bruins suck and we don't have an NFL team; the Trojans are our football heroes.

Oh, and just one more thing: Is it really "just a game?" I don't just mean college football, but team sports in general. Technically speaking, it is, but as fans we tend to watch these contests as if their outcomes will determine life and death. This is especially true in NCAA gridiron action, where each and every game is crucial. If it really were "just a game," I would have had a much happier ending to my Thursday night.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Tale of Two Teams: USC Thrashes Ohio State

The result was not surprising. Before the game, I actually thought Los Angeles' beloved USC Trojans Football Team might be in trouble, although for reasons more psychological than physical. Bill Simmons often writes in his columns about sports teams playing the world-renowned "Nobody believed in us" card, regardless of whether anyone really did believe in them or not, and using it as a motivational tool to prove the world wrong. Well, nobody believed in Ohio State's prospects of hanging with the Trojans Saturday night at the Coliseum, and rightfully so: There was no reasonable explanation, at least pertaining to football, as to why the Buckeyes' would be able to stay with USC. Big 10 teams struggle versus teams with speed (i.e. teams from the SEC and Pac-10 - don't ask me why teams from those two conferences are able to recruit speed, and teams from the Big 10 are not; the answer escapes me), and despite their dominance otherwise, OSU is not an exception. They lost the last two BCS title games to LSU and Florida, by a combined score of 79 to 38. On top of that, they were missing their best offensive player, preseason Heisman hopeful Beanie Wells.

But they were still a top-5 team, and a red flag should always be raised whenever a relatively worthy team becomes too much of an underdog in a big game. Not necessarily in terms of a point spread, but in terms of the number of people who are picking you to win the game. Ohio State is a very good football team, and I figured they might take the lack of respect as a slight, and summon up the proper emotional savagery and pride to negate enough of the gap in talent and athleticism to make the game much more competitive than people expected. And maybe, just maybe, pull off the upset no one saw coming.

Instead, they just their asses kicked. I couldn't have been further off. Final Score: Trojans 35, Buckeyes 3.

USC was simply too fast and wily with possession of the ball and too quick without it for Ohio State, and ironically it was the Trojans who played with the ferocity of the disrespected underdog. The Best Defense in College Football allowed only 207 total yards, forced three turnovers, and garnered five sacks. Countless times Buckeye plays were completely destroyed by a gang of swarming thugs (and I mean "thugs" in the most complimentary way possible) who converged on the football like a pride of hungry lions trying to bring down an elephant in an African safari. On the gridiron, the ballcarrier is prey to the Trojan defense, something that it must consume to ensure it's survival. It's inspiring to watch.

Against teams with top-flight athletes, however, the Buckeyes are not. Before long, Saturday night's game succumbed to its predictability, and by the end, it was embarrassing. And so for the third time in their last four losses, Ohio State has been completely outclassed on a national stage. What are we to make of them? Obviously, Jim Tressel is a very good football coach, and he runs a fine football program. He won a national title in 2002 and his team dominates the storied Big 10 conference. But are they a true powerhouse? It's one thing to come up short against the Louisiana State's and Southern California's of the world; it's another thing altogether to be incapable of making the game competitive. Chris Berman and Tom Jackson like to say "One time is an accident, twice is a trend, three times is evidence." Is this most recent loss enough evidence to suggest that Tressel's program is O-VER-RAT-ED? I think so.

USC, however, is beyond reproach in that regard. They play in either the best or second best conference in America, there are no creampuffs on their schedule, and even in the rare event that they lose, they barely lose. Since 2002, also known as Year II of the Pete Carroll Era, the Trojans are 70-8; they have not lost any of those games by more than seven points (and in the entire Carroll era, they have lost only one game by more than a touchdown). Only once in those eight defeats did they lose to a team that was clearly better than them (last year on the road against Oregon). During this span they have produced three Heisman Trophy winners and won three Rose Bowls. They won consecutive national championships in 2003 and 2004, and in 2005 they came just 19 seconds away from becoming the first team in college football history to three-peat. They are a powerhouse, a machine, a dynasty. And this is the best team they've had in three years.

The defense may be as good as it's been under Carroll, but the key is the offense. The last two seasons, the offense was efficient but never spectacular. Now, it is dynamic again. John David Booty was a very good quarterback; Mark Sanchez looks like a superstar. He may not be the pure passer Matt Leinart was, but he is damned good throwing from the pocket, and very mobile. Tailbacks Joe McKnight (who had 105 yards on only twelve carries against the Buckeyes and is so much like Reggie Bush it's disturbing), Stafon Johnson (a future 1,000 yard NFL rusher), and C.J. Gable (singled out as the most complete back of the bunch by Kirk Herbstreit during the telecast) give USC it's best running attack since Bush and Lendale White ran between the tackles at the Coliseum. The receivers aren't great, but they're better than they were last year, thanks in large part to the addition of Arkansas transfer Damian Williams, who caught two touchdowns on Saturday. Helluva football team.

And in praising these Trojans, I think the most damning thing I can say about the Buckeyes is that they were not a true barometer for USC to measure themselves by. They were a walkover, everyone predicted they would be, and it didn't galvanize them at all. Sure, they didn't have Beanie, but Beanie wouldn't have made that much of a difference. USC is phenomenal; Ohio State is beginning to look increasingly like an illusion, in more ways than one.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Is the Patriots dynasty over?

Nothing has been confirmed yet, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady scheduled to undergo an MRI Monday to determine the severity of the left knee injury he suffered during New England's season opener against the Chiefs in Foxborough on Sunday, but there is a rumor going around that the Golden Boy has a torn ACL and will miss the remainder of the season.

Brady was hit in the left knee by Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard on a pass to Randy Moss in the first quarter, and it appears that New England's dreams of another shot at the Super Bowl have been shredded along with the ligament in their quarterback's knee.

Brady's injury is devastating to the Patriots; he is one of the best signal-callers to ever play the game, and along with Peyton Manning, the most indispensable player to his team in the NFL today.

He is the Patriots, basically.

But more than just dealing with what this particular injury means to this year's Patriots, I'm starting to seriously wonder what a defeat that happened two years meant (emblematically) to the New England dynasty as a whole.

The Patriots lost the 2006 AFC Championship game to the Colts, but it's starting to look like more than just a loss that happened in a big game.

Two weeks ago I wrote an article about the Pats. While the piece was positive ("Pats will be back in '08"), the whole time I had a much more negative thought in my head. I just needed more evidence before I would write about it.

Remember Buster Olney's book, "The Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty"? In it, Olney chronicles Game 7 of the 2001 World Series, or, as he calls it, the last night of the Yankees dynasty. I've always agreed with Olney's sentiment, albeit for totally different reasons (this isn't a book review, so if you want to know Olney's reasons, you need to go buy the book - or read a book review).

The D'backs got to Mariano Rivera that night, at a time when Rivera would be, at least theoretically, his most frightening; to face Rivera in the bottom of the ninth inning, in the seventh game of the World Series, is like going to a hypnotist appointment and seeing Freddy Kruger sitting there waiting for you.

Well, they beat him, anyway, and while it wasn't the first time Rivera had blown a save in the postseason, it was the first time since 1997, when the Joe Torre Yanks had won only one World Series title and before Rivera had become "Sandman."

As it turns out, the Yankees haven't come that close to winning a World Series since. The loss was symbolic. Of what? Nothing concrete. Rivera didn't fall off the face of the earth after that, obviously; instead, he has gone on to further cement himself as the greatest relief pitcher in the history of baseball.

But the point is that something unusual happened that night, and ever since then, nothing has really gone the Yankees' way.

Well, in 2006, the Pats lost the AFC Championship Game to a player and a team that they had previously tormented in the playoffs, Peyton Manning and the Colts, after blowing a 21-3 lead. This was unusual. This was not supposed to happen.

Then, last year, after starting the season 18-0, standing on the doorstep of ultimate immortality, they lost again, this time to the Giants in the Super Bowl.

And now, after the falling of this most recent domino, I feel that the "Olney Theory" must now be considered in the case of these Patriots.

Because sometimes in sports, you lose a game and it's more than just a loss. It can never be proven that the Yankees dynasty ended that night, or that the Patriots dynasty ended the night that they lost that game to the Colts (if that proves to be true).

But if you give weight to this kind of symbolism, you have to give it contemplation. And I am giving it serious thought. I think there is a very good chance that the Patriots dynasty has been over for two years, and most people just don't realize it yet. Brady will have surgery and then rehab, and when he comes back, he will still be Tom Brady, or something like it. He threw 50 touchdowns last year, versus only 8 interceptions, on a team that went 16-0 during the regular season. Think about that for a second. He has three Super Bowl rings, and two Super Bowl MVP's. The man is an athletic God, so even if when he returns he's not quite as good as he was before, he'll still be better than everybody else.

And once Brady does return, the Patriots will likely compete at a very high level, like they always do.

But be the team that lifts the Lombardi? Something tells me those days are already done.

Monday, September 1, 2008

The 25 Best Players in the NBA Today

Well, the NBA season's been over for about two-and-a-half months, but we're still about a month away from the start of training camp for '08-09 - let's make a list! Just seemed like the right thing to do. Obviously, these things are never easy, and they're far from definitive - I realized even before I was done that I had probably already made some mistakes, that there were going to be some rankings I myself would regret, some guys I left off that I would wish I had put on...and accepted it. I wasn't going to torture myself. Overall, though, I think it's a very solid list - you (or I, tomorrow or a week from now or a month from now) may look at it and think, "This guy should be ahead of that guy," or "That guy should be ahead of this guy," or "Where is this guy?," or whatever. But I believe I have everybody in the very close proximity of where they belong; I'm not way off with any player. Anyway, enjoy. And obviously, argue amongst yourselves and talk about how stupid I am.

P.S. I had already started the rough draft for my list before SLAMonline kicked off their Top 50 with Kevin Durant. So whatever mean names you call me, please don't call me a jocker. You can call me anything except a jocker (and late for dinner).

P.S.S If this list feels only half-done, I'm sorry. But I couldn't find the inspiration to make a Top 50 all by myself. I guess I'm not made of the same stuff Stan McNeal is.

1. Kobe Bryant, G, Lakers - Even after a disappointing showing in the Finals, Mamba still stands as the most complete basketball player in the world. Flawless fundamentals, historic scoring ability, best all-around perimeter defender since Scottie F. Pippen. He's the best. Although...

2. LeBron James, F, Cavaliers - ...this guy is gaining fast, and it's only a matter of time before he takes the no. 1 spot. His progress feels inevitable, but it's still fun to watch. There's never been another like LeBron: at 6-9 and 260 pounds (from his own mouth) of chiseled bulk, LeBron is like a brawnier, faster, more agile version of the '96 Shawn Kemp - only if Kemp was a perimeter player who ran the offense from the top and seamlessly balanced scoring and passing. LeBron is able to simultaneously assume the roles of scorer and facilitator: he's constantly looking for his teammates and keeping them involved, while still putting up 30 a game. He's also a rapidly improving defender who plays with a nightly (quiet) competitiveness and intensity equaled by few in the game. And no one - NO ONE - has ever done more with such a mediocre team. His unselfish style of play lifts the performances of his very below-average teammates, and has allowed Cleveland to compete neck-and-neck with the far more talented powerhouses of the Eastern Conference the past three seasons (they went to Game 7 against a 64-win Detroit team in 2006, beat them in 2007 to make the Finals, and then went to another Game 7 against 66-win eventual champion Boston this season).

By simply adding good-but-not-great point guard Mo Williams this offseason, the Cavs should now be considered the favorites to win the East again next year - and as a Lakers fan, I want no part of LeBron James in a seven-game series. You could even say I rue the day.

He turns 24 on the last day of the year.

3. Chris Paul, G, Hornets - One of the things that amazes me so much about the great young players in the NBA is just how good they are at such young ages. They're not just great players, they are superstars, amongst the best in the game with very little experience. Take Paul, for example. He was 22 for the entire '07-08 regular season. Yet he was so in control of the game at all times, so thoroughly dominant - other than throw Deron Williams and that boulder-sized chip that sits on his shoulder (from being unfairly cast in Paul's shadow) on him, what can you do to slow down Chris Paul? Nothing, right? He does whatever he wants to do. He's not perfect, but...you get the point.

4. Tim Duncan, F/C, Spurs - For no athlete is immune to Father Time, even the great Tim Duncan. The Big Fundamental showed signs of definite slippage in the playoffs last year. Against the Hornets in the second round, Duncan had significant trouble with the long arms and athleticism of Tyson Chandler(a good but not great defender who probably would've been no trouble to Duncan four years ago). Timmy can't get the same seperation on his faceup drives anymore - I seemed to notice him shooting more and more of those awkward, one-legged fallaways against Chandler in that series. Sure, Duncan will still have his way with big men who can't defend (like Pau Gasol in the following series against the Lakers) or guys who don't have the physical tools to make him take difficult shots, but guys like Chandler will likely give him trouble from here on out.

With that being said, of course, Duncan is still an exceptionally smart player, a great defender and passer with stellar court awareness on both ends of the floor, not to mention the man with the deepest array of low-post moves in the game. So he's still a top-5 player. For now.

5. Kevin Garnett, F, Celtics - Kevin won his first championship last year, and while as a Los Angelino I was very disappointed that my team lost, I still felt happy for him. By all accounts, Kevin Garnett is a good man - loyal, hardworking, and as real as they come. We need more athletes like him.

On the court, Garnett has never been a truly dominant scorer - he simply lacks the proper mindset and will to take over games. But he is still skilled at putting the ball in the basket - he has range out to twenty feet and has a deadly turnaround jump shot along the baseline that is one of the game's signature moves. His rebounding slipped last year - from 13 boards per 40 minutes in '06-07 to about 11 last year - but he is still very strong in that area. He is also the very best defensive player in the league, and one of the best passing big men ever. At 32 he's no longer the freakish athlete he once was, but his smarts and experience more than make up for it.

6. Dwight Howard, C, Magic - The best rebounder in the league topped 20 points a game for the first time last year. He is also an emerging defensive force - he averaged more than two blocks last year, and with his ridiculous leaping ability there is no shot he cannot get to. Howard is an amazingly athletic big man with a body made for basketball - he's like a more powerful David Robinson. And as good as he is, at 22, he will only get better.

7. Dirk Nowitzki, F, Mavericks - Dirk played more like Dirk after the new year, and was the only Maverick who showed up in Dallas' first round series loss to the Hornets. He's back. Perhaps the most unique 7-0 in league history (think about it), Dirk is the best shooting big man ever. He doesn't rebound enough and is only an average (at best) defender, but he has become a pretty decent passer in addition to his special scoring ability. His hair is long again, and I look forward to a career year from the 30-year old Nowitzki next year.

8. Deron Williams, G, Jazz - Surely some of you will argue that No. 8 is too high for D-Will - not surprisingly, as Williams is the most underrated player in the league. Big and burly with an improving outside shot (39.5 percent from three last year) and splendid passing skills, Williams is the pure point guards pure point guard: he thinks pass first, but he also knows when to take over the game. 19 points and 11 assists per on 51 percent shooting last year. CP3 is better overall, but not by very much.

9. Steve Nash, G, Suns - He turns 35 next year, but last we checked, he was still Steve Nash: 17 points and 11 assists on 50, 47, and 91 percent last year.

10. Amare Stoudemire, F/C, Suns - Sure, he's one dimensional - he doesn't rebound enough, doesn't play defense, doesn't pass. But when your one dimension (scoring) is so good that it makes you the most unstoppable big man in the game, well...you're one of the 10 best players in the league.

11. Dwyane Wade, G, Heat - You don't know how hard it was for me to leave him out of the top 10. But he's missed 31 games in each of the last two seasons. Fair or not, I put him here because of how good he is when he's healthy (top-3). And consider his performance in Beijing a warning to the NBA.

12. Carmelo Anthony, F, Nuggets - The second best pure scorer in the league behind Bean - just a natural at putting the ball in the hoop. Inside and outside, facing up and back-to-the-basket, quick and strong - once he starts hitting threes consistently, I don't know what's going to happen. Also averaged a career 7.4 boards a game last year, and he's made strides as a passer. The second most underrated player in the league. He's 24.

13. Paul Pierce, G/F, Celtics - You never know how good a player is until you get to watch him night in, night out in a seven-game series. And after watching Pierce slice up the the Lakers in the Finals, let me tell ya, I had no idea Paul Pierce was that good. Great defender, very good ballhandler and passer - did you know Paul Pierce had that kind of floor game - great scorer. I love Pierce's game offensively - unlike McGrady and Kobe, who are totally fluid and skilled and make it look like basketball just comes natural to them, Pierce is kind of rough around the edges. He kinda stumbles around sometimes, he doesn't have the easiest handle, he's a good but not great athlete, etc. But it's the untidiness of his game, the fact that it doesn't look pretty or effortless, that makes it so beautiful to me.

Did that last paragraph sound simpish?

14. Tracy McGrady, G/F, Rockets - Now 29, he's not as good as he was at 23 (when he peaked as a player) - chronic back problems have relegated him to mostly jump shots (hence the low shooting percentages) and caused a dip in his rebounding numbers. But he's a smart player, an exceptional passer, and when he's feeling it he's as unstoppable as ever. Also a great teammate.

15. Chris Bosh, F/C, Raptors - I almost put him in the top 10 because of his comedic exploits, before coming to my senses. Bosh is big, skilled, and athletic, but he has to start blocking more shots, and statistically, he hasn't gotten any better in three years.

16. Gilbert Arenas, G, Wizards - Top 10 when healthy, I guess - but even when healthy, he's madly inconsistent. Also needs to move to the two, like A.I. did under Larry Brown years back.

17. Yao Ming, C, Rockets - I would never bet on him staying healthy for a full season. He's too big. But when healthy, he's the best big man ever over 7-2.

18. Carlos Boozer, F, Jazz - A walking, breathing 20 and 10 - not much else, but still, a walking, breathing, 20 and 10.

19. Allen Iverson, G, Nuggets - The NBA's biggest anamoly: 26 points, 7 assists, 46 percent from the field, 2 steals a game last year on a 50-win team - at 32. To put that in perspective, Isiah Thomas retired at 32. Then again, doesn't he seem almost irrelevant now.

20. Baron Davis, G, Clippers - Reached his full potential under Nellie. Now to see what he'll do back in a more traditional offense.

21. Manu Ginobili, G, Spurs - When you consider how good he really is, how much of an impact he has on a game, and how important he has been to such a successful team - I'll just come on out and say it: Emanuel David Ginobili is the best sixth man EVER.

Well, other than Havlicek.

22. Tony Parker, G, Spurs - He's not a good defensive player and he 's not really a pure point, but he can get wherever he wants to get on the court at any time, he's the perfect pick-and-roll point guard (one of the main strengths of the team over the years when you consider that Duncan is the perfect pick-and-roll big man), and he's been the starting point guard on three championship teams in the last six years. He runs his damn team, and he runs it well.

23. Pau Gasol, F/C, Lakers - As frustrating as he can be at times (like, the Finals for example), he saved the Lakers season, and other than Duncan, no 7-0 brings more to the table offensively. Big, long, skilled, and smart - if only he didn't let people push him around and could hold on to the ball. Keep your position and hold on to the damn ball, Pau!

24. Ron Artest, F, Rockets - One of the best end-to-end players in the game. Just a beast. Only problem is that he tends to think he's The Man, when really, he's a world-class supporting player. Don't try to carry the offense in Houston, Ron. Just play your part; your team has a chance to be downright scary.

25. Caron Butler, F, Wizards - The poor man's Pierce.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Pats will be back in '08

When the New England Patriots lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII this past February, I thought it was one of the most crushing defeats in sports history.

One of those losses so devestating, the suffering team never completely recovers from it. They're never quite the same. Some defeats are just too devastating.

When you win the first 18 games of the NFL season, you deserve to win the 19th. You just do. The '08 Patriots were the best team any of us had seen - their level of dominance was unprecedented and felt unreal. Watching them completely toy with and obliterate the Bills in Week 11, I implored my grandmother to watch the history that seemed to be taking place right in front of our very eyes. The 2008 New England Patriots were the greatest team in the history of professional sports - that night, as they were in the process of crushing Buffalo 56-10 in New York, I was beginning to become convinced of this.

But because they lost The Big One, they will not be remembered that way. Unfortunately. I couldn't even fathom the level of grief and disappointment that those invested must have felt; as I wrote at the time, I felt sorry for the players, I felt sorry for the coaches, I felt sorry for management, I felt sorry for the fans.

I suppose that every team that doesn't win the Super Bowl ultimately considers their season a failure.

But because of what they had accomplished in the five months that preceded that fateful night in Glendale, Arizona, New England's defeat seemed like an even bigger collapse.

I was prepared for anything; there was a part of me that was waiting to hear the breaking news that Bill Belichick had decided to retire. As Tom Jackson said right after the game, the fallout that was to come from the Patriots' organization was unimaginable.

But then the winter finished, and spring passed, and now summer is in its dying days. And I feel a little differently. First, on PTI, Mike Wilbon dismissed the notion that the 2008 Patriots were a failure as foolish. I took heed. Then, in his TMQ AFC Preview, Greg Easterbrook pointed out that the '08 Pats (because of their history making regular season, statistical dominance, and how darned close they came to perfection) will be remembered more readily than the Giants team that defeated them in the Super Bowl.

I took heed again.

And now what I have come to realize is that while they did not hoist the Lombardi, there is still something rather prestigious about last year's Patriots - what they accomplished was still extremely noteworthy, to the point that they deserve to reside in their own, seperate castle of nobility.

They definitely weren't a failure, and are probably closer to being a success - even in losing the Super Bowl. Never again will we see a team come that close to doing what will never be done. Maybe they shouldn't necessarily be proud of the season they had, but they need not be depressed, either.

So, where do they stand now?

They lost cornerback Asante Samuel to the Eagles in free agency this offseason, and are looking shaky in the defensive backfield (even after the addition of veteran safety John Lynch) - but not as shaky as they did in 2004, when they won the whole damn thing.

In the AFC playoffs last year, Jacksonville and San Diego exposed a way to take Randy Moss out of the game, and deep threat Donte Stallworth departed to the Browns - no matter. Little Wes Welker is still around, and besides, two years ago Tom Brady nearly won the conference with Jabbar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell as his top two receivers. Brady isn't just a quarterback, he's a magician.

And tailback Laurence Maroney is ready to bust out, if necessary.

So the pieces are in places for another 14-win type season and deep playoff run.

Furthermore, I've tried to get a feel from afar for the overall mood of the this offseason. They seem fine. There seems to be no lingering effects. No depression or feelings of nothingness. Now, I'm not convinced of anything just yet - in the back of my mind, I still think there's a chance that, once the games start for real, the Pats will no longer have the fighting spirit to match their talent. Obviously, we'll have to wait until the season starts to find out for sure.

But if I were a betting man, I would bet that my initial beliefs about that loss and their aftereffects will prove to be misguided. Does than mean I'm picking them to go the whole way? Personally, I like the Colts this year - younger legs on defense mean they'll be fresher come January. Think it'll be the best team they've had over there.

The point, though, is that I have entered into a new age of enlightenment: the Patriots have no reason not to bounce back completely this season, and if they do end up making up for last February this February, I'll no longer be surprised.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

"Redeem Team" passes with flying colors

If the US had managed to blow away Spain in late, late Saturday night/early, early Sunday morning's Olympic men's basketball final (which I fully anticipated, after the rout that was their first meeting), I was going to use this space to prolaim that, yes, indeed, we now had a second Team worthy of being called Dream.

Unfortunately, Spain put up one hell of a fight, redemption for the American's in danger until the final minute. Because of the astronomical improvement the rest of the world has made in basketball since the Holy Trinity (MJ, Magic, and Larry) and their Superfriends dominated the world 16 years ago, you can argue that the 2008 version of our national team is the most impressive we've had. The world had caught up to us in basketball, and we beat the world by an average of 27.9 points, which is the 1992 equivalent of about 55 points a game.

But since they didn't dominate every team they faced, I'll hold off on calling them Dream Team II. With many regrets. Just know that they came close. Damn close.

But it's okay. I've still got a story.

Few times in my life have I felt as American as I did in the wee hours of this morning. Watching Team USA as they attempted to hold off a resilient, gutsy Spanish team to win gold, I found myself rooting for them like I did for Floyd Mayweather Jr. when he fought Ricky Hatton in Vegas last December, when Hatton's British fanatics booed during the singing of our national anthem.

And when they finally won, I was as estactic as the players and coaches. All I needed was someone to hug. It was one thing to hear Kobe and LeBron talk about how important it was for them represent their country and reclaim gold; it was another to see their joyous celebration once they actually did.

It resembled that of a college team that had just won the national championship. You could even say they were like a bunch of 12-year olds that had just won the Little League World Series. Initially, I was shocked by their child-like giddiness; afterall, didn't they expect to win?

Of course.

But Jerry Colangelo asked these men for a three year commitment. And when you work with other people in giving such time and effort to a goal so important, so much bigger than yourself, the reward becomes that much greater, the camraderie that much stronger. Those smiles you saw last were sincere; those hugs were genuine. And they went to show that all this talk about team and country was not just hot air, but truth speaking.

Now, surely Dwyane Wade was motivated to use the world stage to show that he was back to being Dwyane Wade. And I'm sure that he and the guys who lost in 2004 in Athens and/or 2006 at the World Championships wanted to avenge those losses not only for their country, but for themselves.

But I don't think there's any question that, from Coach K on down, these men were united behind a single goal, above all else: to restore America's dominance in international basketball. To take our game back. When some of the players ran over to the broadcast booth after the game to shake hands with Mike Breen and Doug Collins, they did it because those are American announcers, and so dadgummit, they're apart of this redemption, too. And when they played our national anthem during the medal presentation, it really did seem meaningful to them.

And since they took it so seriously, so did I.

It all seemed so familial, and I felt like part of the family. It seemed so much like a brotherhood, and I felt like one of the brothers. It was all so patriotic, and I was glad to be an American.

Dream Team? Maybe not. A team this country can be proud of? Absolutely.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Criticisms of Kobe unnecessary

I promised I wasn't going to write anything else about Kobe Bryant for the remainder of the summer (lest I be required to change the name of this site to blackmamba24.com). But the anti-Kobe contingency on the blogosphere has forced my hand.

Even in Beijing, China, where he is currently serving as one of the leaders on our national basketball team in its quest to reclaim gold, Bryant is drawing unfair criticism from his compatriots back home.

He scored 18 points and made half of his shots in Team USA's 92-69 win over Greece early Thursday morning, proving that he can in fact still play this game of basketball. But if you had read the blogs and their message boards after our first two tourney games versus China and Angola, and didn't know any better, you'd have thought he had suddenly turned into Willie Mays falling down in the outfield in the 1973 World Series.

We've reached the point with Kobe where he has two sub-par outings in August on an Olympic All-Star team, in games that his team won by a total of 52 points, and people are tearing his game apart. And not only are they tearing his game apart, they're dropping him in rank. And not only are they dropping him in rank, but they are absolutely basking in the concocted oportunity to do so.

The Kobe haters are out in full effect, no doubt, and even for them this is bad. It's embarrassing. I've seen Kobe get criticized for shooting too much and shooting too little; I've seen Kobe get criticized for scoring 81 points, a month after getting criticized for scoring 62 points in three quarters and then sitting out the fourth rather than trying to score potentially 81 points.

But I don't think any of those criticisms were as stupid as the one's he's been receiving this week.

In Team USA's series of exhibition games leading up to the real deal, Kobe was second on the team in scoring, but more importantly, since he joined the team Kobe has embraced the role of defensive stopper. Just as he did to Brazil's Leandro Barbosa last summer in the FIBA tournament, Kobe put the clamps on Lithuania's Sarunas Jasikevicius, taking him out of the game from the start and allowing his team to jump out to a 24-5 lead.

No, Jasikevicius in not a big NBA star. He's not a little NBA star. He's a middling NBA player.

But he lit up Team USA for 28 points and seven three-pointers in an opening round victory over America four years ago in Athens, and the point is that Kobe's defense at the point of attack, his ability to basically elimate the opposing team's best perimeter player, is where the U.S.'s key to dominance starts. Success in international basketball is predicated on strong guard play, and it wasn't too long ago that the U.S. made Jasikevicius look like Steve Nash and Carlos Arroyo look like Isiah Thomas. I don't care how many times people say he got beat off the dribble against Angola, those days are now over.

Kobe shot 10-27 from the field in the Americans' first two official games in Beijing, including 1-15 from deep but not that deep. That's terrible. I don't dispute that. But since when did individual statistics matter when your team is winning by an average of 26 points? On a team of stars? Has Kobe really been surpassed by LeBron AND Wade after only two games? Do two games, even at the putrid percentages he's shot, constitute a true slump, even for someone like Kobe? Isn't it more likely that they were just an abberation? Haven't his selflessness, effort on defense, and unwavering intensity been the most important added ingredient to the team? Have we even come close to losing a game since he first stepped foot on the court for us last summer? Doesn't he deserve a pass for a couple of off nights? Even from the famed and relentless Kobe Haters?

Now, surely some of you will read this and dismiss it with some statement resembling, " Here we go again, another Kobe Lover who can't stand for his boyfriend to be criticized." But the truth is that none of these men representing our country deserve to be bashed for playing two poor games in blowout wins, especially not the MVP of the team. Of course, it's unlikely any of them would be. A world away, his attackers desperately seek for a way to vilify him and bask in even his most irrelevant of misfires.

'Tis the life of Kobe, I guess.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Manny Experience

The Dodgers' trading of superstar catcher Mike Piazza ten years ago remains the most jarring moment of my relatively brief sports fanhood.

It happened exactly a week before my 10th birthday, May 15, 1998, and I remember sitting in the hallway at home, listening to the radio, and being a little bit depressed for the first time in my life. My dad and I had tickets to an upcoming game, and I was not in the least bit excited about the prospect of cheering on Gary Sheffield and Charles Johnson instead of Michael Joseph Piazza. We went anyway, but that was one of the last baseball games I attended. I haven't been to Chavez Ravine in years, and not only did the trade cause me to put a hex on the team that I still haven't lifted and never will, but it soured me on the game in general. The Dodgers had traded my hero, and all these years later, it still doesn't make sense.

Piazza was 29 and in his absolute prime, coming off a career year in '97 (.362/40/124/.431/.638). And he was a flat out star. Piazza was perhaps the most beloved player in Dodgers history, an icon, not only because he was the best hitting backstop of all-time, but because of his Montana-like mullet and hazel eyes. Piazza was a sex symbol, the swooning obsession of teenaged girls, not very much unlike Derek Jeter in New York. Probably the most popular athlete in the city.

And so what does FOX ownership do? They trade him, rather than giving him the cash they would spend the approaching offseason on a 33 year-old Kevin Brown.

Go figure.

But I say all that to say this: Piazza stood as the Dodgers last defining superstar until they acquired Manny Ramirez last week.

Gagne came awfully close, but his reign at the top was too short. Reminiscent of Fernandomania. And as great a ballplayer as Gary Sheffield was (wildy underappreciated in his time here), he was lacking that extra something that those most notable of players possess - he didn't have the it factor. But Manny? The man is simply an entertainer. "Manny Being Manny" and everything it entrails has taken on a life of it's own in the sports media, and the city of Los Angeles has welcomed it with open arms.

It's Manny Fever in Dodgertown right now, the organization to soon begin selling caps with dreadlocks attached to them. The dreads are part of the Manny package, part of his star, and judging from the reception he's gotten thus far, this town is certainly appreciative of it. I think the Dodgers faithful were desperate for a dose of true starpower, and well aware that it could be gone in only a couple of months, are basking in it and enjoying it while it last. Hey, what city wouldn't enjoy the honeymoon period with a character like Manny Ramirez?

But more than his personality, I'm enjoying the ManRam Experience because of his bat. Good Lord can this guy hit. Even after going 0-for-5 Friday night in San Francisco, Manny is still hitting .464 in seven games with his new club, with four homers and nine runs batted in. It's taken him literally no time to adjust to a brand new league after playing 15 1/2 seasons in another, and he's been so good that I might have to start monitoring Dodgers games just so I can watch his at-bats. With no disrespect meant to Albert Pujols, Manny is the smartest hitter in the game with Barry Bonds currently unemployed.

Juice aside, Bonds' plate discipline in his latter years was inspiring. He wouldn't flinch at balls an inch outside the strike zone, but if the next pinch was an inch closer to the plate, it was almost guaranteed to end up in McCovey Cove. Like Bonds, Manny seems to treat hitting like an approach to a science, and it is something to behold.

And like everybody else, I'm soaking it up. All of it. He's brought a much needed buzz back to the team, stealing back some of the spotlight from the Angels, who have dominated Southland baseball in the 21st century. The Dodgers haven't felt this relevant in years. Manny's arrival won't make me start rooting for the Dodgers again, but it has piqued my interest in them.