Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Fall of Troy

Well, perhaps that title is a slight overstatement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And even a trip to the Holiday Bowl beats that.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Kobe Still Lakers Main Attraction to Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Legend of Matt Barkley Begins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, August 17, 2009

Could Manny Pacquiao Beat Me Up?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is Jim Thome the Signature Slugger of His Era?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Don't You Know His Name?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 31, 2009

Eminem Ethers Mariah Carey: It's Alive!

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

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

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

Now, I think the animal is back.

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

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

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

Saturday, July 25, 2009

T.O. Is Way Too Big For Buffalo

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

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

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

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

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

Or am I?

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lakers About To Ruin A Perfect Thing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 3, 2009

"The Ariza Situation"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Victor Ortiz Shocked By Tough Marcos Rena Maidana

There are few things in sports that can hijack your undivided attention more quickly or easily than drama inside a boxing ring. It is exhilarating and captivating and causes ones blood to rush. The announcers voice heightens, the crowd rises to its feet and fills the arena with the swelled noise of excitement, and your heart begins to beat with anticipation. To me the best of these moments occur when one man possesses the momentum and has his opponent in trouble, and it appears that a fight is nearing its final stages - when it looks like the referee could step in at any second to save a fighter from further abuse (Pacquiao-De la Hoya), when it looks like someone might not survive an early round (Pacquiao-Hatton), whenever a fighter senses he has his man and goes in for the kill (Mosley-Margarito), etc. These scenarios can come in a variety of ways. Another way to get me hooked? When two guys exchange knockdowns within mere seconds of each other. That's what happened during the first round of the Victor Ortiz-Marcos Rena Maidana clash that aired on HBO from the Staples Center Saturday night.

I missed the initial broadcast and figured I would watch the second showing halfheartedly, at the same time I was resuming construction of my more than year long ongoing drawing of Anton Chigurh. The first knockdown, a hard right hand by Ortiz that dropped Maidana along the ropes, caught the majority of my attention and may have caused me to lose grip of my pencil. The ensuing knockdown, a vicious straight right by Maidana delivered directly following his taking of the mandatory eight count, left me, as a fan, no choice but to close the cover of my 18"x24" sketchbook, put it in its resting place and take in the fireworks.

There were more explosions in the second round. Ortiz knocked Maidana down twice; following the first commentator Manny Steward remarked that it seemed to give Maidana a quitters disposition. But he would fight on, however discouraged he appeared, both heavy handed men throwing defense to the wayside in your classic slugfest, as I predicted in my mind how the fight would be determined: one man either scoring a knockout or getting knocked out himself. This outcome seemed not only inevitable but just a matter of time, as there had been four knockdowns, both men were considerably hard punchers, and neither one of them seemed particularly concerned with protecting themselves.

Then, it happened. Maidana had a huge fifth round, using a big right hand to open up a dangerous cut over Ortiz's right eye in the process. Following the round Ortiz's corner threatened to stop the fight if he kept leaving his hands down. He seemed badly buzzed and was asked if he wanted the fight to be stopped, to which he was noncommittal, and it looked as though the fight could be over. When the sixth began Maidana jumped all over him, beating and chasing him into a corner and knocking him down with a barrage of punches. This seemed to seal the deal in Ortiz's mind. He was now swelling badly under his left eye, and the referee had the ringside physician take a look at the cut. The doctor decided that it was too bad to continue and the bout was called to a halt, much to Ortiz's total contentment with the outcome, as it became conclusive that he was done mentally and wanted nothing more to do with this match.

Ironically, in the pre-fight lead-up of the telecast HBO showed a piece about Ortiz's difficult youth (he lived in a trailer home and he and his siblings were abandoned by his parents) and resiliency. Max Kellerman stated that there were no questions about Ortiz's heart and Steward made a point of repeatedly touting the character of both fighters, birthed by their troubling lives. But only one man showed character on this night: the Argentinean underdog Maidana, outgunned and fighting in front of his opponents hometown crowd but making the stand anyway, while Oriz gave up in a startling display of cowardice.

"Vicious" Victor was thought to be a rising name and potential superstar, a handsome and likable young man handpicked by Oscar De la Hoya to be the fresh-faced poster boy of Golden Boy Promotions. That may all change now; as Kellerman said after the fight Ortiz may have just made the kind of mistake he will live to regret.

Although I hope I am being completely fair to Victor. He is a pup, and as Max said he made a decision in a rough moment, and of course young people make bad decisions. And in their post-fight conversation Ortiz admitted to being overwhelmed by the L.A. crowd that was so behind him, and this was the first event he had headlined. Furthermore, I wonder if he was truly troubled by something greater - he told Max that he didn't want to go out on his shield, that he was young and didn't think he should be taking that kind of beating, that he wants to be able to speak well when he's older. Excuse me but, huh? Where did that come from? What happened to the hardened young man and what kind of fighter talks like that? I understand his rationale, it's the same reasoning that keeps me from going into boxing. But I don't understand it coming from him, before this night arguably the hottest young prospect in the game and participant in 26 professional fights. Very weird.

Ortiz was a quitter tonight, that's a fact, but there may be more to the story than that. I can only hope he is/was not experiencing something more pressing. If he really wants to continue with boxing I wish him success with that. If he does then I hope people are understanding, and that he is given a pass as a young person who made a mistake, and that he is allowed another opportunity to be a main attraction. Maybe one day what happened to him Saturday night will add to his narrative as a great fighter. If he doesn't want to further pursue this career then that is fine, too. All I know is that after the fight he said, "I have a lot of thinking to do," and it was the truest line spoken on the night and possibly the most concrete idea we'll take away from it.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A Tribute To Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

In the irony of ironies, I was just reading the short article in this week's Rolling Stone titled "Michael Jackson's Troubled Comeback," by Fred Goodman, which detailed the bumpy circumstances of the legend's upcoming batch of 50 concerts in London, a massive event which would curtail his financial and legal woes and announce his return to music prominence. Within an hour of putting down the magazine, he was pronounced dead. Surely in the wake of this much will be said about the changes in appearance, the court cases, and the general eccentricity that had come to define his life, as it should; it was all part of his legacy and made him even more famous. But it wasn't what made him an icon in the first place, and in my tribute piece I'd like to focus on the true nature of his legend, what made the man with the fancy white glove so newsworthy in the first place.

People always say "such and such was/is the Michael Jordan of their field," as a way of indicating that that individual was/is the absolute best and most transcendent in their given arena. And if that's the case, then Michael Jordan was the Michael Jackson of basketball. Jackson was the single greatest entertainer of all-time, perhaps the most influential man in pop music history, and still amongst the most famous men in the world. I'm only 21, so I wasn't even alive during his apex, but like everyone else will, I feel the need to pay my respects as Jackson's impact was so far-reaching it touched my generation, too, and will affect the ones after mines. I'm not writing this for any reason other than what he meant to his genre, what he meant to the game. He changed it. He reinvented the concept of the music video and almost single-handily helped spawn the success of MTV, turning these short clips into short cinema. The Thriller flick was simply a work of art and remains the gold standard for all that have come after it. His live performances and dance moves were revolutionary and his best songs remain the seminal work of any solo artist in pop music. He spearheaded the Jackson 5 phenomenon as a child, his career spanning four decades. But his influence will carry on forever, in every music video, dance sequence, and pop song, in Justin Timberlake, Usher, and every other similar performer in stark or subtle ways, in the dollars he generated and his overall body of work.

And even through all of the travails of his life and his increasingly infrequent activity he was still capable of delivering the goods. The video he did with Chris Tucker for "You Rocked My World" earlier this decade? He still had it, what he had - the distinct voice, the unmatched charisma, the megawatt star power - one can never lose, and he was going to prove that this summer. Now, he won't get the chance.

We all knew Farrah Fawcett was losing her battle with cancer and that Ed McMahon was an 85-year old man in the hospital, so those two deaths were saddening but not jolting. No one was prepared for this one. Michael Jackson was a young man and in seemingly fine health. I am not shocked, Jackson's life was always kind of tragic (and again I will leave those details to someone else), but obviously this is still something I was not ready for. All I had planned for tonight was to watch the NBA draft on ESPN, but that event seems trivial now. In my lifetime all I can compare this to is the death of Princess Di, which I was too young to understand the significance of at the time. This tragedy is different, but similar in its way, worldwide news of the highest order, and this time, I get it. And now I can say with regret that I know what it was like when Lennon died.

The header to that RS story read, "The singer's upcoming 50 concerts will make him rich again - if he holds up." But the writer didn't mean it in that way, and what a sad day it is.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Shaq Trade Thickens LeBron-Kobe Plot

They say terms have been agreed to. The Suns will send Shaquille O'Neal to the Cavaliers for Sasha Pavlovic and Ben Wallace in a move long speculated over and now a reality. The Suns get some cap space, dumping the Daddy's unreasonable contract ($20 million in its final year next year) in exchange for Pavlovic's partially guaranteed salary and a possible buyout of Wallace, who has expressed an interest in retirement and at the worst comes off the books in the basketball event that is next summer. They also receive the 46th pick in today's draft and $500,000 in cash. The Cavaliers get a 37-year old legend who probably played the last All-Star caliber ball of his career this past season. What do we get? Another Shaq-Kobe arc. Theirs is a story that will never die.

If Robert Horry was the master of finding himself aligned with the best big men in the game (Olajuwon, O'Neal, Duncan), then Shaq is the best ever at tagging up with the deadliest wing players going. Young Penny, Kobe, Wade, and now The King; the only cat he never hooked up with in his day was MJ himself. Having laced it up with those four guys is enough to make your career a noteworthy one. The Big Twitterer's latest partner is Kobe's new foremost rival, even more so than himself at this point, and I wonder how this trade will affect the supposed truce he has with his old teammate. Shaquille has always been known to tout his guy, even when he was playing with Kobe; will he be able to pronounce the supreme virtues of his new running mate without demeaning the greatness of his longtime nemesis? They're allegedly cool now, I've heard about it; but we all know that deep down hatred defines the true nature of their relationship, especially from Shaq's end. Can he resist his natural instinct to trash him, now that the obvious LeBron-Kobe pitched battle has been placed right in front of him and made a part of his life? The math says no. It's like he's been given one good reason.

I'm wracking my brain trying to come up with a precedent for this scenario, of a situation in which a partnership is formed between two people, they become forever linked by their alliance/success, have a bitter fallout, and it culminates in one of the agents of the former union committing the ultimate act of treachery by joining forces with his onetime colleague's current chief opponent. Betrayal, a theme that has been explored countless times throughout pop culture and history, and I cannot come up with a reference, a fact which I will kill myself for once Bill Simmons beats me to it. I'd compare it to Phil Jackson forming such a bond with Jordan through their six championships together, then helping Kobe close the gap on him in Los Angeles, but there is no bitterness between Jordan and Jackson.

I can only imagine what a Lakers-Cavs Finals would look like now, even juicier than before, double the hype and drama. Kobe, with a win, would vanquish both LeBron and Shaq in one swoop, the proverbial killing of two birds with one stone. Shaq, with a victory, would be able to find great peace in knowing that he lent a helping hand as LeBron pushed Kobe down the short waterfall and became the king in more than just name. Both of them would have the opportunity to move one ahead of the other on the all-time rings list, and go up 1-0 head-to-head in a seven-game series.

Will it happen either way? There's no guarantee we will ever see it take place, as Shaq will be a year older next season and without the aid of the wizards that are the Phoenix Suns medical staff. LeBron always made sure Big Z got his touches on the block and will surely feed the Big Dog, but it's just unlikely that Shaq will be as effective in the upcoming campaign as he was in '09. ESPN's Chris Broussard, who broke the story, suggests it will help Cleveland not get eaten alive by Dwight Howard again, but if they really wanted match up better with the Magic they should have made a move for a swingman, like Stephen Jackson. And of course the Spurs have become a become a problem again with their recent acquisition, something the Lakers will have to worry about.

We were let down this year, everyone's dream match-up squashed by Orlando, but I suppose at some point LeBron and Kobe will have to meet up to decide this thing, and it might as well happen while the Diesel is still around to thicken the narrative and multiply the plot times two.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Can the Other Lakers Get Some Love?

The Lakers win the NBA championship, and all anyone can talk about is how it's Kobe's fourth and first without Shaq, and Phil's 10th overall, surpassing Red, and where it ranks them all-time. Well, can a single coach and a single player win a championship by themselves? Of course not, it's a group effort, and so if no one else is going to do it then allow me this opportunity to thank assistant coaches Brian Shaw and Kurt Rambis, who will be heading their own squadrons in the near future, as well as longtime Zenmaster bench aids Frank Hamblen and Jim Cleamons. Tex Winter, wherever you are, get well soon, so you can enjoy this also. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, we salute you as well, you deserve much better than a job as a tutor and a seat behind the bench.

And the front office, I mean, how can Mitch Kupchak not get more praise? He built this team, he had a vision and the patience and fortitude to see it through despite great pressure to do otherwise. This guy knew what he was doing. And Dr. a league in which few owners are willing to put winning above all else, you are one of the exceptions, okaying the Gasol trade even though you knew it would put the team over the luxury tax threshold for years to come. Finances don't matter to you as much as championships do, the tradition of great Lakers basketball, and for that we salute you, that's why Los Angeles now has a ninth banner under your keep.

But now we must get to the men on the court, afterall that is where the games are won and lost. Kobe will get most of the credit for this, and indeed he dererves the lions share, but he couldn't have done it without these guys, most notably...

...Pau Gasol, whom, as Jeff Van Gundy likes to put it, is the NBA's best second best player. This season, and especially in the postseason, he went from a very good player to a great one. Not only does he score on anyone and possess a sky-high basketball IQ, but his defense has become much improved. Last season it was mock-worthy, then it became adequate, to above-average, to damned good in the Finals, as evidenced by the job he did on Dwight Howard, holding him to 15 points a game on a mere 49 percent shooting, eleven percent south of his overall postseason effort. Of course he couldn't have done it without a little help from...

...Lamar Odom, much maligned and asked of for more, but finally arrived. This was his finest season: Before the season began he accepted a demotion to the bench in a contract year, and after some brief discontent he embraced his new role. Then, when Andrew Bynum went down to a knee injury in January he quietly and seamlessly filled in until Bynum's return in April, at which point he quietly and seamlessly transitioned back to his position as sixth man. With Drew failing to recover his previous form and constantly plagued by foul trouble, he picked up the slack once again, averaging a 13-8 in the finals and a 12-9 overall in 32 minutes a game in the postseason. Redemption and vindication at last. I'm happy for Lamar, he's been here for a while now, through all of the post-Shaq angst, tons of scrutiny, and enough trade rumors that I'm almost shocked he lasted this long. He's a great guy, adored by his teammates and well-liked by reporters, and there's not a lot of guys unselfish enough to make the sacrifice he made, get jerked around and treated like an object all season, and remain such a positive team guy. Lesser men would have become the kind of cancer that can sabotage a championship dream. If Odom leaves this summer, he will leave a champion, and he didn't need a ring to prove it.

Derek Fisher - we already covered him, so let's move on to...

...Trevor Ariza. I think Odom is more valuable to this team. With Bynum's injury history and general flightiness, you can't underestimate the importance of having a guy on the bench who fits into the puzzle so easily and brings just as much to the table in his own way. But Ariza's defense, athleticism, outside shooting, and knack for getting his hand on the ball were huge to this championship run. If he ever learns some moves off the dribble he'll be Eddie Jones 2.0. Every title team has a Trevor Ariza on it; I hope the Lakers still have him next year.

Andrew Bynum - Didn't do much in the postseason, aside from a moment here and there, but if he hadn't gotten hurt last season, L.A. might not have felt the same urgency to cash in on the Gasol insurance policy. He's shown flashes of dominance, and when he gets right again, it'll be even more hell for the rest of the league.

Luke Walton - Other than Odom, he made the biggest impact of any Lakers bench player this postseason. Just solid.

Sasha Vujacic - Wasn't much of a Machine this time around. Sasha kind of went in the tank this season after a breakout performance last year. He saw a decrease in playing time as Ariza stole the minutes he got playing alongside Kobe to finish games last year, but he also didn't shoot as well as he did last year, from 45 percent overall and 44 percent from deep to 39/36. It was almost as if he played over his head last year and fell back to earth this season. He went scoreless in the Finals, which is kind of incredible - when he signed that new contract last summer no one envisioned him struggling so mightily. But he's still Sasha, he's still our Sasha, and we love him regardless. Regardless of his poor play he was a key rotation player this year, so he can wear his ring with pride. The same can be said of his backcourt buddy...

...Jordan Farmar, another good character guy on a team stacked with them. Jordan hit a sort of junior wall this season, if that exists (I know it doesn't). He missed time with a knee injury and just flat struggled all season, somehow regressing from a strong sophomore campaign. He lost his job at the end of the season and beginning of the playoffs, shared it, and finally retrieved it in the Finals - a lot of this fluctuation dictated by the matchups that were presented in each series. He just has to get his confidence back and he'll be fine, I still see him as the point guard of the future. However, I hope...

...Shannon Brown is still around to push him. He's a free agent also, and hopefully the Lakers can afford to keep him. A perceived throw-in in the Radmanovic trade, Brown surprisingly proved a natural fit for the triangle offense: he has good size, he can shoot, he defends, and it doesn't matter that he's not a pure point guard because the triple post doesn't require one. He's also an insane athlete (the best on the team and one of the best raw athletes in the league), allowing him to play the two on occasion, and he plays hard as hell every second he's out there. He could probably make more money elsewhere, but I think he fits in best here.

Josh Powell - Another shrewd pickup by Mitch, Powell made only spot appearances in the playoffs, but when Bynum went down his number was dialed and he answered the call. A money 18-foot jump shooter, Powell always made a positive impact when he was on the floor.

Adam Morrison, Sun Yue, DJ Mbenga - Thanks for coming guys (and Vladi and Ronny, wish you were here).

Everyone deserves a curtain call, too often people forget that while the NBA is a star driven league, and certainly the sport in which individual players can have the greatest impact on the outcome of a contest, ultimately basketball is a team game, and it takes a group effort to win. Like all other champions, that level of teamwork is what the Lakers have achieved.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Kobe Wins Fourth Title, And Now He Can Sleep Soundly

Well, after all of that, now that he's done it, I think the most apt question is, Is anyone surprised? Of course Kobe Bryant led a team to an NBA championship. For the most part, all the truest of true legends have done it, and who has ever watched Kobe during his career and not realized that they were watching the kind of pure genius you tell your grandkids about? He has over the past 13 seasons ascended to levels of play that arguably no other player has achieved. As its peak, his scoring prowess was such that he was capable of scoring 50 to 60 points in literally arbitrary fashion. Like boxing writers say about Roy Jones or Floyd Mayweather, there have been times when Bryant has operated at a level so superior to the opposition it was just mesmerizing. Defenses ceased to matter. No contemporary basketball player has outclassed more challengers (team and individual) with his skill and talent. On top of that, he's a defender, rebounder, passer, and ballhandler - and a triangle offense initiator for the first three championships of his career, Scottie Pippen only if Pippen had to score 25 a night instead of 20 and carry the crunch-time burden as well.

In other words, we have spent all of this time obsessing over something that was inevitable. We know who the best players of all-time are, they're the ones with the rings: Magic, Larry, Mike, Shaq, and Duncan have been the NBA kings of the past 30 years because they acquired the hardware. Shaquille's presence and impact was so large it cast even a megastar like Kobe into a shadow, and ensured that if Kobe retired without a title as the best player on a team his legacy would have been that of a man who couldn't win a title without the Big Guy. He would have ranked ahead of the sidekicks - the Pippens and McHales - and he would have placed before the guys who never won rings - the Barkleys and Malones. But he would have fallen short of that most exclusive of clubs, the Elite Company, with Johnson, Bird, and Jordan, etc., that we know he aspires for membership in.

But we knew those guys, and we knew Kobe, so we had to have known this day would come eventually. Of course, I say this with the knowledge that he has won the fourth championship. If ten years from now he had hung it up with only three, I'd see him in an entirely different light. Instead, I see this as the accomplishment that verifies how great I already knew he was. I also see the fourth ring as providing certification to the other three and solidifying with them, proving that he was capable of winning titles as top dawg all along: He doesn't have three rings with Shaq and one ring without, he just has four rings, period. And all he needed was sufficient enough help.

I like to compare the Kobe and Shaq duo to that of Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. I once started a discussion on an HBO message board that pondered who was the better no. 2 between Stringer and Chris Partlow, and a smart commenter somewhat deflated my topic by arguing that Avon and Stringer were more or less partners, as they shared profits. Still, though, Avon's job description read drug kingpin, while Stringer's read drug lord, and as such while Stringer had an extremely crucial voice and very much his friend's ear, Avon's word was the gavel.

Similarly, while Kobe did more heavy lifting for those teams than any other "sidekick" ever did, in all honesty sharing equal responsibility with Shaq - even serving as the end-of-game go-to-guy and sometimes flat-out carrying the team - in the end he deferred. Shaq was the focal point of the offense and the most important reason for L.A.'s dominance, and thus 1A, and this was proved each June, when Kobe would fall back and let Shaq go to work in the Finals, content to do the Pippen routine while Shaq put up the monster numbers and collected that little trophy that is now named after Bill Russell.

So I think Kobe needed this one, to show that he could do it guiding the sleigh, and now that he has one of his own he must be considered one of the top-10 players to ever lace 'em up. He can just go chill out on some farm somewhere if he wants to, and give up basketball, he has nothing left to prove. Of course he'll keep pushing, he wants five and six rings, he wants as many as he can get, he wants to keep rising up the all-time ladder. But even if he doesn't win another one he can sleep soundly, his legacy is secure. I think the best athletes reach a level of greatness at which everyone's excellence becomes virtually the same. You may not be the best guy at the table, but it doesn't matter, all that counts is that you get to sit down in the first place. I think Kobe has reached that point. His persecutors will continue to throw rocks, as they say hatred lasts forever, but in truth he has silenced them, and it was really only a matter of time before he did.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Derek Fisher Comes Through For Lakers Again

Derek Fisher has, here in the latter stages of his career, come to be admired as a sort of basketball warhorse. But he was not always so esteemed. Near the end of his first stint with the Lakers, Fisher earned a reputation as a liability for his lack of success defending quick point guards. He had a scorching run during the 2001 playoffs, but by the time the Lakers completed their three-peat the following season, the feeling was that the Lakers were winning in spite of their point guard. When the Lakers failed to win a fourth consecutive title the following season, management looked to improve their resistance at the position. That summer, they added future Hall-of-Famer and defensive genius Gary Payton in an attempt to solve the issue. Fisher was moved to the bench, a sort of cold demotion for a man who had been a starter on two championship teams. And yet, it was Fisher who made the most notable play of that season, authoring one of the most famous shots in NBA history (I believe you know which one I am referring to).

The L.A. dynasty would be dismantled following a shocking upset at the hands of the Pistons in the Finals that June, and Fish would join in on the great exodus, fleeing via free agency. But after three seasons away from the nest he would return, this time not as a handicap but as a plus: a cool-headed, steady handed veteran leader who would help bridge the gap between long-time back-court mate Kobe Bryant and his young, embattled supporting cast.

Indeed, Fisher's stable play and maturity was a major upgrade over the flighty Smush Parker, and the Lakers made the Finals last season thanks in part to Fish's positive calming influence both on and off the court. He could've retired last summer, with everyone's respect and his impact appreciated by Lakers Nation. He had earned it. Of course with that being said, when he struggled down the stretch this year his head was once again called for. His poor play wasn't going to negatively affect his reputation but it was hurting his team. Loyalty is a great notion but it doesn't help win ballgames. It seemed to be the only thing that was allowing him to keep his job, though. Fisher had always done two things well: make threes and take charges. Now he wasn't doing much of either, only he was still playing 30 minutes a night. He was playing basketball whilst sporting dentures and needing the aid of a cane and it was time to hand the reigns to the young guys, Farmar and Brown.

Then it happened. The real reason Phil Jackson stuck with him, I suppose. Game 4, NBA Finals, Orlando leads L.A. by three with eleven seconds left. Out of the timeout Ariza inbounds to Kobe, who's doubled and forced to give it back to Ariza, who then throws it to Fisher. Fish dribbles the ball calmly into the frontcourt. Will the Magic foul? They never do. Jameer Nelson gives Fish way too much room to breathe, so he casually stops behind the three-point line, squares up, and tickles the net for the last basket of regulation. In overtime, Kobe has been monopolizing the ball to an extreme fault, but now there's 30-some seconds left and he's doubled in the post by Pietrus and Nelson and has no choice but to pass. And Fisher is wide open behind the arc, straight away. In the very first game of the regular season last year, Bryant found him for a game-tying jumper in the fourth quarter to cap off a rally versus the Rockets. The Lakers would lose the game but the outcome was besides the point: Kobe may not have trusted the rest of his teammates, but he did trust Fisher, and he trusted him in big moments, and that was evident immediately upon his return.

Thursday night, Kobe gave it up to Fisher again, and the rest is history. The Lakers won, despite being on the bad end of one of the most lopsided officiated games in Finals history. Not just the 37-20 disparity overall, but the fact that Orlando shot 17 free throws to the Lakers ZERO in the fourth quarter. 17 to ZERO? Really? How can that be? I don't know how the Lakers pulled it out but they did, and Fisher was the hero (along with Ariza), as he cemented his status as one of the best clutch shooting role players of his generation. It speaks volumes of the old guy, and for the experience and mental fortitude that is so valued in him, and it seems only right that the Lakers are now only a game away from a fourth title this decade and Derek Fisher is right in the middle of it.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Where Will Kobe Rank All-Time If He Can Win This Title?

I've heard that he's top-15 with a chance to crack the top-8. I've heard that he's top-10 with a chance to break the top-5. Many have their opinion about where Kobe Bryant ranks historically right now, and where Kobe Bryant will rank if he can secure a fourth championship ring this month.

In the modest estimation of this writer, as we speak only eight players sit ahead of Bryant all-time: Michael Jordan (man among men); Wilt Chamberlain (man among boys); Bill Russell (11 rings); Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (most underrated); Magic Johnson (transcended a position, could do anything on a basketball court); Larry Bird (raw, master basketball player).

Bryant was a better end-to-end player than the latter two legends, but they were the best two players on five and three championship teams, respectively.

I'd put Shaq O'neal and Timmothy Duncan before him, too, for they also were the best players on multiple title winning squadrons. I wouldn't put Jerry West ahead of him: he only won one championship, near the tail-end of his career, on the legendary 1971-72 Lakers, when he was pretty much equals with fellow Hall-of-Famers Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich (sort of a precursor to the KG-P2-Ray thing that happened 36 years later), and, in admittedly one of the great injustices in the history of the sport, never won a (regular season) MVP. Oscar Robertson was a statistical marvel, but fact is he never won a title on his own - he had to wait until the latter portion of his run, when he was second fiddle to a young Lew Alcindor on the 1970-71 Bucks.

Consider this: This season, Bryant became only the third member of what I consider to be a pretty exclusive club: the "first team All-NBA and all-defense team seven times each" club, joining Jordan and Duncan. I fairness, the all-defense team did not come into existence until the 1968-69 season. This was Russell's final campaign, and obviously many of the stars of the '60s were greatly precluded from inclusion, so its not the fairest list. Still though, that's 40 years of hoop right there, and for Bryant to be in such rare company, with the greatest player of all-time and, in my opinion, the best all-around big man of all-time, is a testament to the sweat of his career and the completeness of his game.

Bryant scores more purely than anyone ever, rebounds and passes as well as any two-guard could be asked, handles better than any non-point guard in history, and to top it off, competes with a nightly zeal on defense not often seen from such great offensive players. And he has the accolades to back it up.

I was tempted to move Bryant to the very top of the list while watching him carve up the Magic Thursday night in Game 1 of the Finals, specifically his 17-point third quarter performance. It didn't surpass MJ's best work in that round, but it was a show to be remembered, for the level of superiority and sheer intensity on display. We already knew Kobe was a magician on the court, and we knew he was dead serious, but Thursday night he appeared to be on the verge of madness. I mean, not even MJ ever wanted a championship so badly he was turning visibly feral in its pursuit.

But I don't think he'll have to wait much longer, it really looks like in the next week he is going to get the prize he pines for. Orlando just didn't look like they belonged in Game 1; I'd almost say they looked scared. They'll play better - Howard won't have another game where he makes only one field goal, for one, and Orlando's 30 percent shooting from the floor indicates that more than giving credit to the Lakers defense (which was excellent), we must recognize that the Magic simply had one of those games.

But I have come up with this rule of thumb: In a match-up between the Lakers and another relatively equally talented team, if Kobe shoots about 40 percent, La La will very likely taste defeat. If he hovers around 45 percent, they will probably win. If he shoots 50 percent? The opponent has no chance. In L.A.'s two previous trips to the Finals, Bryant shot a respective 39 and 40 percent, and the Lakers lost both times.

But those failures came against the 2004 Pistons and 2008 Celtics, two historically stout defensive clubs that made thwarting him their predicate to success. Not only do the Magic have no such defense or, apparently, game-plan, but Bryant is simply unstoppable now. He became a better shooter over the summer, adding more arc to his release in an effort to make himself more effective against the Boston-type defense that builds a fortress around the paint and forces him to get his points on long jumpers. He also sets up and plays more in the post now than ever before. He officially has an answer for everything. So, I see him shooting at least 47-48 percent in this series. Which means it's highly probable that the only remaining question is who is he about to leap-frog in the all-time rankings.

I don't know if one championship will shift him above anyone on my imaginary list, but something tells me he's got more than a single ring left in him. This dude is not nearly done playing basketball at a transcendent level. So we'll have this discussion now, and then we'll do the same a in a year or so, when he may be ready to make a real move up the ladder.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Desperate Lakers Will Top Magic in Finals

Before we tackle the NBA Finals, we must first congratulate LeBron James for being a hero, even in ultimate failure. To see someone play so unbelievably well in a losing effort is both disheartening and something to admire. He played his ass off, putting up numbers reminiscent of a young MJ, and like young Air he deserved better than the outcome. But he never really had a chance. With Mo Williams playing poorly this postseason, Cleveland reverted back to the one-man team of yonder, er, the past five years. Didn't matter for two rounds against an expired Detroit and a Hawks team that didn't nearly stack up, but it did now against a troubling Orlando squad. It was already a bad matchup and now it was worse with LeBron forced to go 1-on-5. His absurd 39-8-8 over the six games wasted. A ridiculous 35-9-7 over 14 playoff games gone down the drain. But he gets none of the blame. In fact, he deserves a consolation prize. Stephen Jackson, anyone?

As for Who would have thunk it? Before the season began, no one thought of Orlando as a legit championship contender. After winning 59 games during the season, they still got no respect. Then few, Charles Barkley notably included, thought they had a shot against Cleveland. No head coach took more of a beating than Stan Van Gundy, roasted mercilessly by Shaq, called out by his best player in the Boston series. No franchise player took more heat than Dwight Howard, scolded for being too nice, mocked for his lack of post moves. Then he put 40 on the Cavs Saturday night. That's what makes their rise seem so premature and surprising, almost like it wasn't supposed to be - they seemed on the verge of imploding during that Celtics series, and Dwight didn't yet seem equipped to lead a team so far, especially if he had to go through a fully-formed superstar to get there. But here they are. The question is, How?

Once again, the answer is the matchups. Orlando is built around a big man and four perimeter players. It starts there. Howard controls the boards better than anyone since Rodman, protects the rim with urgency, and dunks everything if you don't wrap him up first (and center Marcin Gortat proves a reliable backup in limited minutes). Rafer Alston (and before him Jameer Nelson), Courtney Lee, Mickael Pietrus, Hedo Turkoglu, Rashard Lewis, Anthony Johnson, and, when called upon, J.J. Redick, surround him. They slash, pass, but most and best of all, they shoot it, 38 percent during the season and a whopping 10 per game. It is, by far, the most effective inside-out game in basketball, and it creates nightmares for other top teams.

The keys, I think, are Lewis and Howard. Lewis, the de facto power forward, completes the spreading of the floor, giving Orlando a fourth shooter. That's the small ball part of it. The difference between them and say, '05 and '07 Phoenix or '07 Golden State, is that it never seems to leave them at a disadvantage down low. Orlando will never be dominated on the boards with Howard in the paint, and he can protect the basket by his lonesome - plus Lewis drags traditional power forwards out on the floor, distorting their influence around the hoop, like he did against Varejao in the Cleveland triumph, and leaving Howard to have a one-man house party in the paint. When Cleveland focused their attentions on Howard, Lewis seemed to get lost behind the three-point line. It's like pick your poison.

I rooted against Cleveland in that series for a few reasons. 1) They were measured against L.A. so closely, and I didn't want them to struggle versus Orlando any less than the Lakers were against Denver, 2) I was scared of having to see LeBron for seven games, and 3) I was able to take solace in the fact that Orlando's two wins during the regular season came in very close ballgames, and that L.A. does have the homecourt advantage. I think L.A. has the potential to exploit the slender Lewis down low by force-feeding the 7-foot Gasol in the post against him - effectively canceling out Lewis' considerable mobility edge on the other end, something the Cavs couldn't do with Varejao. Or they can just start Odom - don't even really have to, he'll play big minutes with Bynum inevitably in foul trouble. They're better with him and Gasol at the big spots, anyway.

These are two pretty evenly matched teams on the court, but I think what will get L.A. over the hump is that they need it more. A fire burns in their belly since last year's Finals, it was under control, but it began to rage in Game 6 of the Denver series, as they could practically taste their rematch with destiny. They seem ready to play their best ball of the season, but if there is one thing I've learned over the last few years, it's that when a new series starts between two teams, nothing that happened before matters except the history between those two teams. And as I said, Orlando took both meetings during the regular season. At this point, it must be considered foolish to ignore regular season results when trying to gauge playoff contests.

So while L.A. looks ready to roll now, and they will be fully motivated, and they are a monster when filled with inspiration - does any of that matter against a team that simply matches up well with them? History says no. But I do think their exigency will come into play, at the very end, at what I envision to be the conclusion of the series: Game 6 in Cali, Lakers up 3-2. Their experience in this setting has helped get them a lead in a very competitive series. Now we're down to the very wire, fourth quarter, championship minutes, ballgame up for grabs. What stops it from going the seventh? The Lakers are too close, too hungry. They won't wait another game. They snatch it as if their lives depended on it. They make every big play and come up with every 50/50 ball because they have to, because they must throw water on the flames. Desperation, the literal deciding factor.

Of course, I hope the Lakers sweep. But at last we must give the Magic more credit than that.