Wednesday, June 30, 2010

LeBron's legendary status could depend on this decision


The options must be enticing, like walking a buffet lined with Filet Mignon, the best ribeye and the freshest seafood.

Play in Chicago alongside one of the best young point guards for the next 10, 15 years.

Head to South Beach to run cats up and down the floor with D-Wade, one of the top five players in the game.

Compared to whom he's played with in Cleveland, LeBron James' options come the opening of free agency at midnight tonight are ridiculous. Put James next to Wade, or receiving alley-oops from Derrick Rose, or in a frontcourt with Chris Bosh, and he's undoubtedly on the favorite to win the next 13 NBA championships (give or take).

But aren't we forgetting about one less glamorous option? Yet an option that James still has the most to gain from in terms of his place in NBA history.

Yes, Cleveland.

Over the last couple months, I've been reading Bill Simmon's gigantic "Book of Basketball," an epic, thoroughly thorough history of the NBA. In it, Simmons ranks his different pyramids of the league's top players from 1-100. I believe James was somewhere in the 20s.

With the talent James possesses, there's no way he shouldn't end up in the top 5 with Jordan, Russell, Kareem and Magic/Bird (although Kobe's making a bid for a top spot, now, as well). The only way James could sabotage his legacy, to an extent, would be to play his best years alongside another top-five current player in his prime, such as Wade.

Think about it -- nobody was talking about Bryant as one of the best Lakers when he won three consecutive championships beside Shaquille O'Neal. Only when he ditched Shaq -- or had management do it, to be politically correct -- and finally won a couple as the team's unquestioned leader did this conversation of Bryant as the Greatest Laker begin.

If James plays alongside Wade, he'll have to share the praise after each championship. Wade is that good. This wouldn't be a Scottie Pippen-M.J. situation in which Pippen was a great player, but no one ever questioned who the leader was or whose hands the ball belonged in at the end. This would be completely different if James played with Wade or even the younger Rose, who will only get better and always want the ball in his hands.

To a lesser extent, the same would be true if James were to pair up with Bosh, as many experts have speculated. While Bosh wouldn't be handling the ball at the end of games, I'm sure the ball would go through him on plenty of possessions.

I have no idea what's going to make this decision for James. If I had to guess, I'd think he will pair up with another star. He hasn't shown the Jordan or Bryant singular thirst for championships, and at times during crucial games has seemed content to let the Mo Williams of the world run the offense. Maybe he doesn't care so much about always being the alpha dog, about everything being about him.

But if James truly wants to be remembered in the same breath as Jordan and Bryant -- and, no, he won't reach Russell status even if he plays with a Wade, Rose or Bosh, because no one in this era is coming close to the legend's 11 titles -- he needs to stay in Cleveland, be the man all the time, put up ridiculous numbers and start winning championships.

It's the most difficult route he could take, but it would also certainly be the most fulfilling road to legend status.

Oh, and Cleveland might just name itself after him.

So what's it going to be, LeBron?

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Big 12 basketball only gets better with less teams


One minute, it looked like the Big 12 might be no longer. Not even a conference. Now, it will become the most dominant basketball league in the nation. Thank you, Longhorns.

When Texas decided to stay in the league, it meant the Big 12 will have 10 teams once Nebraska and Colorado depart -- sidebar: how awkward is it going to be for those two schools this upcoming season? Hey, we're playing in the league, but, um, we already ditched you -- in the summers of 2011 and '12, respectively, reports indicate.

In other words, the perfect number of teams for a college hoops league. With 10 teams, everyone can play everyone twice. No exclusions. No weak schedules. No brutal slates. Just a completely even playing surface. Could you ask for anything more?

Add to that the fact that arguably the two weakest hoops schools are the ones departing, and you're talking about an infinitely better league. Seriously -- Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor, Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri. That's one helluva top six. Then add in Texas A&M, Oklahoma State (both NCAA Tournament teams in recent years), and finally Texas Tech -- regarded as on the up-and-up -- and pesky Iowa State, which is tough to beat at home.

Wow, I don't see any easy games. That's gonna make for ridiculously exciting and chaotic regular seasons. Count on it. The league's coaches have to be licking their chops. There will be no weak RPIs, no anemic schedules. Just throw in a couple tough non-conference games, and teams will be in prime position to make the Big Dance with 18, 19 wins. Perhaps seven routinely will -- which, of course, would be a mind-boggling 70 percent of the league.

From purely an on-field perspective, this doesn't hurt the football side of things, either. Sure, Nebraska was improving under Bo Pelini, and Colorado used to be formidable (but I'm talking about the Kordell Stewart-beats-Michigan-with-a-Hail-Mary days ... uhg, don't remind me).

Anyone who's followed the league recently knows that the South has been much, much better than the North. It was a joke, really, that a team from the North got to play in the conference championship game. Now, there will be no such thing. The conference schedule can go to nine games, allowing every team to play each other -- again, the best-possible scenario -- and the champion won't be determined by a made-for-TV, Dr. Pepper-sponsored game.

Yes, dollars will be lost. But damn it -- can't we forget the business side for just 2 minutes these days?

The Big 12 will be the most fun league to follow in the entire country. Yes, even better than the ACC in hoops, the SEC in football. It still has all the incredible offenses in Texas, albeit minus Mike Leach, and all its rivalries. Nebraska and Colorado was a rivalry, so that worked out well.

There really should be nothing to complain about if you're a Big 12 fan. The stage is set for great drama -- both on the basketball hardwood and between the hashes.

Now for getting rid of those defectors ASAP...

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Upsets in tennis just don't create that excitement they do in other sports


I've often been asked, Why do you spend thousands of hours each year watching sporting events that have absolutely no impact on your life? Why watch a Texas-Texas Tech game in October or an Illinois-Ohio State game in February?

Well, there are a few reasons, but a big one I'd immediately throw out there is the possibility of an upset, of something shocking happening. College football is great because of the thrill from one week to the next of a No. 1 or No. 2 team maybe being thwarted and sending the world -- and the BCS -- spinning on its axis. College basketball is the same way, especially during March Madness. And one NBA series I'll never forget was little Golden State's surprising dismantling of No. 1 seed Dallas in the '07 playoffs.

But there is one sport that I follow very closely in which I don't root for upsets -- tennis. So when Roger Federer and Serena Williams, the world's top players, went down on back to back days in the French Open quarterfinals, I wasn't exactly overjoyed.


Because in tennis, players like Federer and Williams don't grow on trees. They are once-in-a-generation players who bring such a consistent brilliance to the game that I want to soak up their play as much as possible. In Federer's case, I want to see more championship matches against Rafael Nadal. And any tennis fan without allegiance to a particular player who argues otherwise, is downright lying.

The Federer-Nadal match at Wimbledon two years ago was the best men's tennis spectacle -- ever. The world's best players create the greatest drama. No offense to Robin Soderling, who was absolutely outstanding in his four-set victory over Federer, but I don't care to watch him as he pursues a title. I'll watch it, rather, for Nadal -- a player who has done enough, winning six majors, to become a household name and a player who you always know, pending his health, will show up to battle it out on clay, grass or hardcourts.

On the women's side, it's impressive what Australian Samantha Stosur has done on clay, posting a 19-2 record and beating Williams 6-2, 6-7(2), 8-6 Wednesday. But she, like the other three remaining women in the bracket, hasn't won a grand slam. And will she be able to repeat the impressive performance she put together against Williams, including two gutsy cross-court shots to claim the essential break?

No one really knows, because she's lacking in experience.

Of course, this isn't to say that it wouldn't be nice for a new star to emerge. But becoming an instant hit on tour and sustaining excellence over the years are two completely difference achievements. Just ask Ana Ivanovic that. Where's she at these days other than in SI's Swimsuit Issue?

Tennis, bottom line, is more exciting and captivating when legends such as Federer and Williams are playing on the final weekend at majors. It's similar to golf and Tiger Woods, although I don't mind seeing Woods stink it up these days. The TV ratings for a tournament in which Woods is competing are astronomically higher than for one in which he's, gasp, missing the cut.

As far as TV ratings, this is also true with the Yankees and Lakers. And, yes, it doesn't get any better than a Lakers-Celtics final. But would I tune out if it were Suns-Magic? Absolutely not -- they're still two great teams with interesting storylines and players worth watching. Only in an individual sport do the names matter so much.

Yes, I'll be watching both French Open title matches this weekend. But just not with the excitement created by a Federer-Nadal matchup or a Williams' sisters battle.

Because tennis is at its best when the best, most tremendously established stars take the biggest stage -- ready to put on another match, another incredible display of tennis, for the ages.