Saturday, June 28, 2008

The national-title game effect


Lost among the story of a record 10 freshmen getting taken in the first round of Thursday’s NBA draft was a story line that could be spun as a positive for college basketball.

I’ll call it the national-title game effect.

One by one, players from Kansas and Memphis either took the stage in New York or heard their names called from a television somewhere in the country. And by the end of the night, a team-record five Jayhawks had been selected as well as three Tigers.

That’s eight players out of 60 or 13.3 percent of the NBA’s newest employees. In one word, impressive.

Of course, several of the players would have been drafted regardless of what happened to their team during the season and the NCAA Tournament — Kansas’ Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur and Memphis’ Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts were basically sure things.

But for the other players, their teams’ deep runs into March — and then April — had to play a huge role in what transpired Thursday night. And even for a pair of the sure-thing draftees, their stock had to have been helped by their play in the Big Dance.

Before the tournament, not a soul considered Rose the No. 1 pick in June’s draft. He wasn’t even thought of as the best player on his team. But he played precociously when it mattered most on the big stage, showing off his great talent to the minions of people who hadn’t watched his Conference USA games during the regular season.

Rush, meanwhile, cemented the fact during March that he was fully recovered from the ACL tear that had forced him to pull his name from the draft the previous year (a huge blessing in disguise). And even though he didn’t have the best tournament, his stock continued to rise, eventually resulting in him becoming a lottery pick at No. 13.

The stories of the other players are even better. While CDR and Arthur were expected to be NBA players throughout the college season — and actually were chosen lower than expected — answer this:

In February, did anyone project Kansas’ Sasha Kaun and Darnell Jackson, a pair of down-low bangers, to make the most competitive league in the world? Yeah, when George Bush gets a good approval rating.

And did anyone think that little, 6-foot-1 Mario Chalmers, just another of Kansas’ throng of guards, could leave school a year early and safely make the association? That’s another no (and I’ll skip the sarcasm this time).

Even Memphis’ Joey Dorsey, who is described as a football player, wasn’t a sure thing to get drafted. He couldn’t shoot free throws — something he still can’t do — and was known to pull disappearing acts in big games by getting into foul trouble. But Dorsey matured in March and April and, like Chalmers, was an early-second round pick Thursday.

Chalmers, of course, proved his worth as a player with arguably the most clutch shot in college-basketball history.

As for Kaun and Jackson, inspiring performances in Kansas’ wins on the march to the national title had to sit well with NBA teams who were simply looking to find winners with their second-round choices. Because there’s no way the two seniors were the most talented players left on the “board” when selected.

(Even though Kaun will play overseas for the time being, getting drafted has to be a huge confidence booster as he begins his professional career.)

But teams must have figured, “Hey, we don’t have to give them guaranteed contracts. We can see if they make the team, and if they do, they might provide valuable minutes off the bench.” That’s all either guy could ask for. And whatever happens in the coming months, I’m sure they’ll both give great effort during their tryouts.

Don’t forget that it was Kaun who basically rescued a nervous Kansas team in the regional finals against Davidson. And both players made an impact for the Jayhawks in their final two victories in San Antonio.

It was refreshing to see, after watching freshman after freshman from mediocre team take the podium, that winning in college basketball still means something to a player’s future. Maybe not to a Michael Beasley-type player, but to guys who go to college without knowing for sure that they’ll end up with an NBA career, a mansion and six cars.

Now if only the NBA would allow high-school players to once again enter the draft — and make it so college players have to stay at least three years — the Mario Chalmers and Darnell Jacksons of the world would get the proper spotlight they deserve during the college season.

While the Beasleys and O.J. Mayos of the world wouldn’t have to fool around on campus for a year for going-nowhere teams.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Heat would be foolish not to pick Beasley


"Character issues."

It's one of those phrases ESPN analysts -- and the other 43,296 sports "experts" in this country alone -- love to throw out when discussing that player who is extremely talented but, alas, messes up once in awhile.

It doesn't have an explicit definition, but it can refer to a player who's been arrested six times, a player who rains money in strip clubs that leads to innocents getting shot, and other kinds of scenarios -- including a player who, I dare say, lets his mother feed him a chicken wing.

So let me ask this question: Which of the CIs listed below do you believe is more serious? And which CI would you be more concerned about if you were interested in employing the man with the CI for a yacht-load of money?

1. A player who is known for being a prankster, including writing his name all over one of the many high schools he attended -- the key words being "high schools."

2. A player whom an extremely detailed report identified as taking gifts from a booster-type figure. A player who despite the evidence continues to deny everything. In my book, almost certain a liar.

If you're an NBA fan, you know whom I am referring to. The first player is Michael Beasley, whom most experts consider the most talented player in Thursday's draft. He also happens to enter the event with the best college numbers despite playing in the super-competitive Big 12.

The second player is also very capable. No one will deny that about O.J. Mayo. But he's not better than Beasley, no matter what his new boyDwyane Wade thinks and tells the Miami Heat's decision-makers.

More than a month ago, prior to the draft lottery, Beasley was touted as a sure thing to go either No. 1 or No. 2 in the draft along with Memphis point guard Derrick Rose. Now, reportedly, the Heat are having serious doubts and are leaning toward either trading the pick and getting Mayo or Arizona point guard Jarryd Bayless, or simply taking Mayo.

Would the decision come back to haunt them? I'm not going to make that stretch -- Mayo will be far from an NBA scrub. But it would still be a mistake, just not a Sam Bowie-caliber gaffe.

As any expert -- and Beasley's barber -- will tell you, Beasley is a "can't-miss" prospect. Let me translate: He'll be a productive NBA starter for several years to come. In Miami, he could be D-Wade's sidekick, posting up when Wade's outside-penetration game isn't working and also stepping out to shoot the long bombs.

I harbor no doubts that Beasley will be an All-Star at some point for whichever teams drafts him. And he could fit in Miami with Shawn Marion, who is more of a wing player. His rebounding shouldn't be ignored either, as the barber said when he predicted the kid becoming a top-10 guy in that category in all of the league.

Beasley has all the tools to help the Heat quickly place last season's disaster in quick sand. Yet the good old CIs might just get in the way of him ending up in South Beach.

That's sad.

Beasley, no doubt, loves to have a good time. He jokes around, even saying he'll pull a fake handshake on commissioner David Stern Thursday night (I don't think he has the guts for that). He probably goes out and mixes it up with the ladies.

But does he hurt anyone? Has he ever been arrested? And, importantly, did any of these CIs affect him during his stellar season in Manhattan, Kan?

No, no and no.

Beasley has a checkered past, and his comical style might rub some the wrong way, but overall he's innocuous. Just a kid -- who happens to be very good, not to mention hardworking, at basketball -- having fun.

Mayo, on the other hand, has some issues that could affect his pro career -- note the word "could." He, like Beasley, attended several high schools. And he, like Beasley, got into some trouble during his adolescent years, including an incident with a referee that got him ejected from a game, although the ref might have done some acting.

Unlike Beasley, however, Mayo's one-year-and-"see ya" college career is publicly tarnished. A very extensive ESPN investigation revealed that he took about $30,000 in cash and gifts from a sketchy friend during his bike-riding days at USC.

Of course the ongoing investigation can't affect Mayo now, as he will, I'm sure, upgrade from his Huffy to an Escalade in a matter of minutes. But the most troubling aspect of the case is that Mayo has played dumb, repeatedly denying that he did anything wrong when it's pretty clear that he did.

If an NBA organization is ready to take a player with the No. 2 pick in the draft, it should be able to trust that man. Mayo, at least to me -- an outsider who has never stepped within 100 miles of him -- doesn't seem like an honest person.

But on the eve of the draft, it's Beasley's character issues that might drop him a slot. Of course, Minnesota would love to have him, and it would be much easier to stay out of trouble in the chilly Twin Cities.

But Miami, devoid of a front-court star, would miss him in a big way.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Sports, a 365-days-a-year obsession

Sports are akin to the younger sister or brother who won't leave you alone, who commands your attention even when you have other things on your mind.

This month has been a dreadful reminder of how binding sports are. When I married sports about 10 years ago -- give or take a year -- I didn't know what I was getting into. Now it couldn't be clearer.

Two weekends ago, the morning after my sister's graduation, I woke up in the resort where we were staying and made a beeline for the television. The French Open final was on -- Nadal vs. Federer! -- and the rest of my family be damned, I wasn't missing it for the world (especially considering that the night before I'd been dragged away to an Italian restuarant before the running of the Belmont Stakes!?!).

So as my parents and high-school-graduate sister were packing up their belongings, preparing for an 11 a.m. checkout and a long drive home, I was glued to the couch, shocked by the dominance of Nadal as he embarrassed the world's No. 1 player in a lopsided match.

Fast forward a week and a few hours. There I was, at my family reunion on the beautiful North Carolina coast -- a once-every-three-years event. But what was I doing Sunday night? Why, what else but watching the dramatic final round of the U.S. Open and then changing the channel on the analog TV to Game 5 of the NBA Finals.

Only my immediate family stuck around for the end of the Celtics-Lakers game.

And now it's almost July, what I've always considered to be the deadest sports month in this country -- a time to think about such novelties as family, my professional life and, um, maybe a girlfriend?

My cousin wants to do a big hike July 4th weekend. Sounds great, right? I don't even like fireworks, and I haven't heard of any crazy parties around (although I'm sure they're happening; I'm just not exactly in the "loop"). But, more importantly, that's Wimbledon's final weekend.

Would I actually rather wake up to cicadas after sleeping in a tent or to Strawberries and Cream combined with a potential Nadal-Federer rematch on grass? Yeah, sports has me by the throat, locked up like Avon Barksdale (except for much longer than two years).

And there's no end in sight. That's the thing about sports -- they're a never-white-flag-waving cycle. They're both good and bad. They're great because I can always count on them to entertain me, to "wow" me, to boost my spirits. On the downside, maybe I wouldn't need them as moral support so often if I didn't spend so much time entangled in their weeds.

Regardless of where I am or what I'm doing, sports are constantly on my mind:

Example No. 1: During my fraternity's formal junior year, I checked out of dinner every 15 minutes to check the score of the Carolina-Duke game. And after dinner, I quickly chased down a cab for my date and I back to the hotel so we could watch the end.

Example No. 2: During my fraternity's formal senior year ... well, you get the point.

I guess it's no surprise I had different dates each of the four years I went on the trip.

Example No. 3: Because of my obsession with checking scores of games I can't watch by texting Google for scores, I exceeded my texting limit for two straight months this year, pushing me to tell my boy Tick that I'm on "texting probation."

Some people say they've cured the need to watch sports during other engagements through TiVo and DVR systems that allow them to watch the games later, after they get back from their dinner date or walk on the beach.

That's garbage. They aren't real sports addicts. I can't even imagine watching a big game three hours after everyone else has seen the final verdict. Technology can't save everything -- some events have to be watched live.

So that leaves me where I was at the beginning of this column: a man with many dilemmas. The worst thing about American sports is that they're so perfectly scheduled that there are hardly any days when there isn't something worth watching.

For instance, one weekend it's the Wimbledon finals, nine days later it's the MLB All-Star game and just two days later the British Open tees off. I usually reserve August for vacation time in New Hampshire -- and that's something I'll never change -- but the Olympics will be a large distraction this year in addition to the PGA Championship.

The only non-sports day I look forward to in the coming months is Wednesday, July 16. The day after the All-Star Game, amazingly, will feature no pro baseball, no anything else.

A perfect day for everything else in life, I guess.

Anyone got plans? I'll provide the Red Bull.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Pro golf sans Tiger is almost irrelevant


As riveting as the last two days of the 2008 U.S. Open were, including the 19-hole Monday playoff, the rest of the season will be bland, boring, a snoozer.

One reason: the absence of Tiger Woods.

For the first time since Woods joined the tour, commissioner Tim Finchem will discover just how lame the PGA Tour is when the world's best player is at home every week of the season. And there's nothing he can do about it. He needs a great player to capture the public's attention, but that's not in his hands.

Phil Mickelson? Despite his risk-taking, his sporadic play is no fun to watch.

Sergio Garcia? He's also way too inconsistent, even without the painful preparation routine before each shot.

Of course there remain plenty of capable players on tour, and the final two majors of the season could contain their share of back-nine drama, but Woods is in a league of his own when it comes to talent and the ability to play in any condition. Name one other player who would have played last weekend's tournament with one good leg -- yeah, there aren't any.

As a casual golf fan, I'll probably still tune into the final-day coverage of the British Open and PGA Championship, but without Woods I'll have no rooting interest. I'll simply watch if a good, exciting finish is in store.

Woods is almost like the Yankees. Either you're rooting for him or against him -- and regardless of your stance, you're admiring the amazing shots he pulls off. I was at my family reunion Sunday, sitting in a room full of Lloyd's as Woods snuck in his tying putt on No. 18.

Earlier in the day, I had bet my uncle Chuck $5 that Woods would win the tournament, so I gave a slight fist pump when the putt dropped. Other family members cheered, while some "we want 45-year-old Rocco Mediate to win" folks let out groans. It was one of those great family moments shared in front of the TV screen.

I guarantee you hardly anyone would have been watching if Woods wasn't in contention -- that's how popular he is among the general public; how else can good television ratings for Monday afternoon's back-and-forth battle with Mediate be explained? Put another golfer in Woods' place, and much more office work would have gotten done on that day.

The name "Tiger Woods" sells itself.

Now, the tour has to figure out a way to attract attention and TV viewers while Woods rests at home. Finchem is billing the coming months as an opportunity for young players to build name-recognition among golf fans, and I'm sure that all tour players see the rest of the '08 schedule as a great chance to win a few tournaments.

Which is all gravy for the pros, who will continue to play from the same tee boxes and for the same large purses -- and not have to deal with a man wearing red on Sunday afternoons.

But Finchem better hope that Woods returns healthy and with his game intact come 2009, because the rest of this season will prove just how irrelevant the tour is to the casual golf fan when Tiger isn't striding toward the green, determined to make that tournament-winning putt.

Especially during an Olympics/election year.

Friday, June 13, 2008

2008 baseball trip: a taste of old and new


This year's baseball trip that Tick and I took last week was a tale of two days, two vastly different stadiums, two unique experiences.

I loved them both.


After a ridiculously long bus trip, it began in Philadelphia. While neither Tick nor I made it to Veterans Stadium -- not exactly something I'm punching myself about -- I noticed a sign for the stadium as we walked toward Citizens Bank Park.

The sign was next to a parking lot for the current ballpark. Nice.

The interesting thing about Philly's sports complexes is that they're all within a block radius in the south part of the city. Across the street from the ballpark are Philly's football stadium, "The Linc," and basketball and hockey arenas, both sponsored by Wachovia.

I'm hoping that in the future there will be an October Sunday when the Phillies have a home playoff game, the Eagles and Flyers have home games, and the 76ers are home for an exhibition contest. That would be chaotic fun.

But I'm wandering here. Let's talk baseball.

I entered the ballpark excited, primarily, about two things: the opportunity to see Ken Griffey Jr. swing for his 600th home run and $1 hot dog night (I'm not kidding). My ideal scenario was to be eating my fourth hot dog as Griffey hit one high, hit one deep!

That, of course, didn't happen. Griffey didn't even play until a pinch-hit, four-pitch walk in the eighth inning. And I only downed three dogs. But there were other things to be excited about.

For one, the stadium didn't exactly fit the mold of a lot of modern stadiums, something I was worried about. No, there was no overhanging upper deck like in Tiger Stadium, but the upper levels were more up than back. If you want an example of an upper deck that is far from the field, visit Comerica Park. That wasn't the case in Philly.

We sat in third-level seats down the left-field line. If we had been a little closer to the field, we would have been in foul-ball territory. The seats weren't bad.

The stadium towered around us. There are four levels, not including suites that are packed in right above the third level. The altitude of the ballpark gave me the feel that we were in an enclosed park, which holds sound much better than a park like Comerica.

And there was the added benefit that between the seats down the right-field line and the outfield seats, there was a patch of blue sky through which airplanes flew nearly every minute on their way to the Philly airport. A nice distraction for the kids, or for fools like Tick and I who guessed how long it would be until the next plane came.

As for the game, can I submit an MVP vote for Chase Utley? That guy is remarkable. He's got that short, compact swing that prevents him from striking out much, but he also has a wealth of power. Add that to a humble persona, and he's your perfect franchise player. Utley had a couple of big hits in the Phils' 3-2 win over the Reds.

I learned later that if Utley wins the National League MVP award, it will mark the first time since the early 1960s that a team featured three consecutive MVPs (Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins won the past two years).

A note about Howard: He got booed. The slugger was a strikeout machine, with his most frustrating "K" -- at least for Phillies fans -- coming with the bases loaded and just one out. It was a taste of the Philadelphia sports fan; they're not afraid to rain boos on a player, regardless of what he did two years ago.

With a delicious cheese steak earlier in the day at Reading Terminal Market and wasabi peas at the bar we visited after the game, I'd give our Philly experience an A-.

Not bad at all.


Here's the thing about New York: There's so much going on, so much activity, that at times you forget there is the most famous baseball team in town.

But the great thing about Yankee Stadium is that it's solely about baseball. Once you take the "B" train to 161st street in the Bronx, once you ditch your backpack or non-lady bag (Tick had to throw away the one our friend Stan had provided him), once you hand your ticket to the ticket-taker ... you know you're in a baseball stadium.

There are no Ferris wheels, no "kids area," just baseball. The main pregame attraction is Monument Park, which is located behind the center-field fence and features statues of all the Yankees greats. With a 15-minute wait for that and batting practice in progress, Tick and I opted to head toward right field.

And what a good decision it was. In Philly, Tick -- who had the only glove; I had somehow forgotten mine -- had just missed on a couple of batting-practice flies, including one that sailed just over his head. I guess he was just waiting for the ultimate experience, inside MLB's most storied stadium.

A fly ball was hit -- I don't remember the batter, but it was a Blue Jay -- and it sailed toward the short porch. Tick and I, positioned in the first row behind the aisle, intently viewed the line drive as it screamed toward us. And next thing I knew, Tick had the ball in his glove, and he had fallen back a row -- he had made an acrobatic catch over his head, and the force of the ball pushed him over his seat.

Wow. I knew right then that regardless of how the game went, my only Yankee Stadium experience would be a memorable one. As Tick stood up with the ball still deep in the webbing of his mitt, he received a smattering of applause from the folks around us scattered in Yankees jerseys. What a moment.

Then we headed up. It was funny, but walking up the wending aisles to the 600 sections of the stadium, I was actually excited. Usually when I'm doing such a thing at a ballpark, I'm depressed. It means I'm destined for the dreaded upper deck, otherwise known as "50 miles from home plate."

But Yankee Stadium is different. Mainly, I guess, it's simply antiquated. When we arrived at our left-field, upper-deck seats, we were far from the field, yes, but not so far that I would have rather been camped out in front of a high-definition television.

I had watched enough Yankees game to know that home runs occasionally reached the upper level -- just like at Tiger Stadium -- so I wouldn't let Tick keep the glove in his plastic bag (which was provided him after he had to dump Stan's bag). If A-Rod connected on a bomb toward us, there was no way I wasn't catching it.

Alas, there wasn't even a lower-deck home run to our part of the field. In fact, the game was a bit of a dud, save for Mike Mussina's excellent pitching and a dominant 1-2-3 ninth inning by Mariano Rivera. The Yankees' 5-1 victory wasn't anything to get overly excited about, but I'll never forget my only Yankee Stadium experience.

The rumbling of the train going by right behind the bland scoreboard in center field.

The $11.50 beers they sold (no, I didn't get one). Besides paying $45 for our tickets, I now know why the Steinbrenners have always been willing to spend so much on big-name free agents. With nearly 55,000 expensive seats and pricey beers, they can afford it. Just do the math.

The fans in the center-field bleachers, who were clearly a gang of their own. Just like the Tigers fans who would congregate in Tiger Stadium's bleachers, these fans had a grand time, doing chants and cheers in unison. It was as if one huge extended family was out there.

And just the sense of history that I could smell while in the stadium. As fans were leaving, a man chipped a piece of a wall off, giving himself a souvenir of the soon-to-be-closed stadium. I thought about doing the same, but I was comfortable that my experience would never abandon my memory.

Plus, I had the scorecard from the game (a tradition Tick and I have held since we began these trips in 2006).

As we walked outside, the new Yankee Stadium loomed across the street. I asked Tick to take a picture of it, but it really wasn't necessary.

After all, there are plenty more baseball trips to come.

And New York will once again beckon.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Celtics' Game 4 comeback the front-page NBA story


There will be a time for the questions, for the conspiracy theorists to voice their ludicrous theories.

That time could begin as soon as Monday morning. And a thorough inspection of the NBA's referees is in need -- don't get me wrong.

But Thursday night belonged to L.A. and Boston, the Lakers and Celtics, the best rivalry in NBA history. And Game 4 lived up to that rivalry's past heroics.

A game might have been altered in 2002, but the refs weren't even noticed on Thursday, which is what should be the case every time two teams step foot on the hardwood.

There was no doubt -- none whatsoever -- as to who decided Boston's thrilling, unbelievable, remarkable, inspirational 97-91 comeback victory.

Let me start with Paul Pierce, the unquestioned leader of the Celtics. At halftime, trailing 58-40, Pierce asked his coach, Doc Rivers, to let him guard the NBA's most valuable player.

Rivers agreed to put Pierce on Kobe Bryant, and No. 34 in green responded with an effort that left him out of breath at the finish. His third-quarter block of Bryant was one of the premier defensive plays of these two-month-long playoffs.

Let's talk about Ray Allen. Two series ago, he had the confidence of a science club student on the dance floor. But in the waning seconds, it was Allen who waved off a screening Kevin Garnett, blew by Sasha Vujacic and finished a game-icing layup with his off hand.

And that was after playing the entire game. He must work out.

I have to talk about James Posey, because all he does is making winning plays. The average NBA fan wouldn't recognize this Xavier graduate on the street, but any Musketeers fan has to be proud of what he's accomplished in the NBA. Shaquille O'Neal has said that Miami couldn't have won the 2006 championship without him, and this series would be knotted 2-2 if not for Posey's shooting touch.

Playing with five fouls the final 14-plus minutes, Posey hit one big 3-pointer after another, including a falling-into-celebrity-row swish that gave Boston a 92-87 lead. It was the performance of a John Paxson, a Robert Horry -- 18 huge points off the bench.

And I'd be remiss not to mention Eddie House, who at times has been relegated to the Celtics bench for entire playoff games, forced to sit with his minute kid, who never misses a big game and serves as a refreshingly non-scantily-clad cheerleader. With Rajon Rondo both hurting and unable to knock down an outside shot, Rivers smartly went to a lineup full of shooters.

It was the coaching move of the series, and the Lakers had no answer for a Boston five featuring Pierce, Allen, Posey and House to go with the jump-shooting big man Garnett. One of the toughest things about completing a big comeback on the road is getting the "over-the-hump" basket, the shot that gives you the lead. House delivered inside the Staples Center, nailing a contested, long two-pointer that put the Celtics up for good.

That was just the climatic moment of a great night for House, who proved that even little, short guys with minimal abilities can make a huge difference on the biggest stage. House finished with 11 big points.

"We just needed guards that they had to stay with," Rivers said, mentioning how good of a help defender Bryant is when Rondo's on the floor.

Trudat, coach.

There is nothing shady, nothing nebulous about what happened in L.A. on this night -- Boston completed arguably the greatest comeback in an NBA Finals game, overcoming a 24-point first-half deficit and an 18-point hole at halftime.

Throughout the day, there was talk about Tim Donaghy. Was he telling the truth when he said two games -- most glaringly Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference finals, a Lakers win over Sacramento -- were fixed by officials taking orders from the NBA's front office?

Refs were interviewed throughout the day, including ex-ref Ted Bernhardt, who worked the game (and denied any wrongdoing outside of calling a poor game). Commissioner David Stern held another press conference. A media member was asked less than 2 hours before game time what story was garnering more attention, Game 4 or the fixing scandle: He gave the scandal a 55-45 percent edge.

But then the game began. A great first half by the Lakers, spurred by the resurgance of the mercurial Lamar Odom, followed by the comeback nobody saw coming. And any basketball fan, anyone who follows the NBA on a consistent basis, knew that the league is ultimately going to be OK.

Whatever happened six years ago wasn't right. I watched the game. Yes, the Kings got robbed by the refs. They should have swept the Nets in the Finals instead of the Lakers.

And, yes, Dick Bevetta probably needs to retire. He's was one of the other refs to call that game, and, apparently, he has been the basis of most questions asked to other refs and ex-refs. He's 68, he misses calls, and his presence at future games would only raise questions -- and I'm not referring to him unabashedly agreeing to race Charles Barkley at the All-Star Game in 2007 (a race that he somehow lost).

But the current NBA, the 2008 NBA, is just fine. Anyone who saw the product on the court Thursday night can't disagree. It was 10 guys playing their hearts out to win a championship, including the guys in gold. Phil Jackson didn't rip his team afterward. Forget that the Lakers had been outscored 57-33 in the second half and shot just 33 percent from the floor. He was well aware of the Celtics' impact in causing those numbers.

"I didn't think we got so lacadasical," the Zen Master said.

Rather, the Celtics played with an urgency that belied their situation. Many NBA haters say that the league's too predictable, the games easy to call. That theory was thrown under the Hummer in Game 4. The Celtics could have laid down, taken their beating and put all their marbles into a pivotal Game 5.

But then Pierce asked Rivers for the assignment, Pierce made a near-impossible layup for a three-point play, Pierce blocked Bryant's shot, and the comeback was on. It was a heroic performance by the Celtics more than a choke job by the Lakers.

"It was about going out there and competing," Pierce said simply.

Yep, nothing complicated about that. And after the game, after giving his postgame interview, there was no hidden meaning behind Pierce's joyous shouts as he walked down the tunnel, a 3-1 series lead in hand.

It's too bad for the NBA that this is almost over, that very soon there will be no more games until late October.

Because then, appropriately, the focus will shift entirely to the nasty mess that Donaghy has created. And you can only guess as to what new breaking news will hit during the dog days of summer.

But Stern has this going for him -- the NBA is full of great teams, great players and some pretty good coaches, too.

And when games are in session -- and special moments like the Celtics' comeback occur -- they take center stage.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Nadal denies Federer all-time greatness again


Roger Federer did not look like the world's No. 1 tennis player Sunday. In fact, he looked far from it. Like, maybe, No. 81.

Blame Rafael Nadal.

Once again, the Spaniard blew away Federer's chance of the career grand slam by dominating him on Roland Garros' clay surface. The score was 6-1, 6-3, 6-0, and Federer had to work extra hard just to steal those four games.

Yes, Federer wasn't at his best. But even his A- game wouldn't have won a set. That's how near-perfect Nadal was. The 22-year-old covered the entire court brilliantly, chasing down every potential winner hit by the overly aggressive Federer. And when he had a chance to end a point, his form was flawless.

Nadal didn't lose a set during the two-week French Open, and he's never lost a match in four years at the tournament. If not for his presence, well ...

1. Federer would have at least one French Open title, considering he's been in the final the past three years as the world's No. 1.

2. Federer might be tied with Pete Sampras for career grand slams won at 14. As it stands, Federer is still two shy with 12.

3. Most importantly, Federer might be considered the greatest men's tennis player of all time. As it stands, a feisty Spaniard stands in his way.

Because as great as Federer has been on grass -- with his five consecutive Wimbledon titles -- and on hard courts, with his four straight U.S. Opens, he can't be considering the best of all time sans a first-place finish at Roland Garros.

Again, blame Rafael Nadal.

Entering this tournament, Federer said he was playing his best clay-court tennis. He even won a tournament on the surface to back up his claim. He lost a couple sets during the rounds leading up to Sunday's final, but he was never in danger of losing.

He felt good about himself, about his chances. And when he has that confidence, there's usually no stopping him.

But instead he suffered his worst French Open final loss yet. What does that say about his chances next year and the year after? At 26, Federer is past his prime. He's still good -- really good -- but he's not going to get better on clay. Nadal, on the other hand, is still improving.

The only chance, in my mind, Federer has of winning that elusive fourth grand slam is for him to face a bracket that doesn't include Nadal. Maybe an injury. Maybe an out-of-nowhere upset. That's what Federer will need.

But first, he has to show that he can still win a grand slam -- any grand slam. For the first time since 2005, Federer will arrive in London devoid of a calendar-year major. And forget the streak he has there. Last year, Nadal took him to five sets in the final. Now, Nadal is a year wiser and more skilled. Australian Open champion Novak Djokovic shouldn't be forgotten either. He ousted Federer in the semifinals of that tournament.

Federer could, potentially, win the next three majors to eclipse Sampras' milestone. But chances are he won't have broken the record a year from now, and don't expect it to happen at Roland Garros in 2009.

It's not because he's a bad clay-court player.

Rather, the reason is the presence of the Clay King.

Again, blame Rafael Nadal.