Friday, February 25, 2005

Hard Hits: Nothing Like College Basketball

"It's awesome baby," exults ESPN color analyst Dick Vitale during a competitive college basketball game. That has been his motto for almost two decades. Vitale is as passionate about the sport as anyone. He's gotten to travel to many great arenas and call some of the best action in the land. His enthusiasm is second to none. But also, it's because he's living a dream. To be able to cover one of the most exciting sports and see great college basketball players put on a dynamic show must be a privilege. This year has been no different.
If you're down without the NFL or a depressed NHL fan, you can tune in on almost any night and find a competitive college basketball game on TV. Watch a raucous Cameroon Crazy crowd ratchet up the intensity during an epic one-point victory over arch-rival North Carolina. See the best show in the country when undefeated Illinois takes its high wire act to Wisconsin and comes back in enemy territory and snaps the Badgers' 38-game home win streak. See one of the most underappreciated top programs this season in Boston College put on an unselfish display of teamwork and rugged defense as they defeat the Syracuse Orangemen by five as fans storm the court. Check out one of the top backcourts in America at Wake Forest lead the Deamon Deacons to a thrilling three-point win over a gutsy Duke team.
These are some of the stories that have made this season one of the best in recent memory. Where else can you find a bunch of rowdy students going berserk for their heroes and then celebrating a big win by mobbing the court? It's the best atmosphere in sports. These are still kids and you can see the exuberance on their faces. And fans are allowed to be part of it. It's not like pro sports where you have canned music blasting out of loudspeakers and security full blanket permitting fans from being part of a big triumph. Plus the intensity is far from a feverish pitch.
This is the best time of year if you love college hoops. Conference tournaments are around the corner and bubble schools are trying to make a lasting impression with the NCAA committee so they qualify for the 64-team tournament in March. In reality, 65 teams make the field but there is one play-in game to see who the final team will be. The term March Madness will become prevalent in a matter of days. That's when the real fun begins. Which school can be a dangerous opponent come tournament time? Will there be a school with a glass slipper who spoils the party and becomes the ultimate bracket buster? Which schools will be left out by the crack committee and have their collective hearts broken? It's all part of what makes this part of the year intriguing.
There will be the usual big favorite when "The Big Dance" gets underway. Illinois is trying to make history and become the first team to have a perfect season since the '76 Indiana Hoosiers. Fourteen years ago, the defending champion UNLV Runnin' Rebels had their shot at history. But they ran into a determined Duke squad in the national semifinals and lost by two points to the eventual national champions. There was once an unreal run by Villanova 20 years ago that resulted in one of the greatest upsets when they edged Georgetown for the championship, becoming the lowest seed (eighth) to ever win the tournament. That still ranks at the top in my book. It was that memorable.
These are the kinds of moments that have made college basketball a must watch. So, check out the conference tournaments to see who makes it and find out which schools do just enough to squeak into March Madness. And most importantly, watch the best tournament in sports that will have us all feeling like kids again at a candy store. Because you never know when the next buzzer beater is or the next huge upset. There's nothing like it in sports!

Hitting Back:
-So, legendary Temple coach John Chaney thought it was okay to send out a player and order them to give hard fouls and in the process break St. Joe's forward John Bryant's arm ending his career. When the damage had been done, the fiery coach knew he was wrong and even suspended himself for a game. But the NCAA gave him an additional two games to conclude the regular season. Chaney has always been tough but didn't he realize that his actions went too far?
-Why can't every basketball player shoot free throws like Duke's J.J. Redick?
-This rolling out the red carpet for the IOC just so New York can get the Olympics in 2012 is ridiculous. Mayor Bloomberg and Jets owner Woody Johnson make it sound like it's a "done deal" if they get their West Side Stadium. They bend over backwards when the Olympic Committee visits and even spend time with Jim Dolan in his luxury suite at a Knicks game when Dolan has been opposed to the idea from the very beginning. And the worst part is that there's no assurances that if they construct the stadium, that the Olympics are coming here. That's why it's a farce. The biggest one in sports. Ask most New Yorkers if they're in favor of it and they'll spit in their faces.
-What happened to Isiah Thomas' vow that he wasn't making any deadline deals to take on more useless contracts and eat up even more cap space? The way he talks about the two first round picks the Knicks received, you'd think they were from two lottery teams. Thomas would try to sell you the Brooklyn Bridge before admitting that he's had a bad season.
-We thought Nazr Mohammed was the key to the Keith Van Horn deal. Guess we won't be seeing anymore Knicks Life repeats about Mohammed's bright future.
-What did the media really expect Barry Bonds to say last Tuesday? That he was sorry for rubbing cream and clear all over his body with no knowledge that they were steroids. Bonds has never been an apologetic figure. He still is one of the greatest players of his generation. It's very hard to compare eras. To be honest, I miss the days when Bonds was a 40/40 threat before he put on all that weight. Why doesn't someone ask him about that?
-Now that Randy Moss is a Raider, his off-the-wall antics will finally fit in with the Silver and Black image. He still is a great player and could wind up doing for his new team what Terrell Owens did for the Eagles. But is anyone thinking Super Bowl when they have Kerry Collins at quarterback and Tyrone Wheatley at halfback?
-Say this for Allen Iverson. For a guy his size and with a laughingstock of a supporting cast, he somehow had the 76ers right there for the Atlantic Division before they acquired Chris Webber. Iverson is as tough a player as there is and might be having his best season. Now, that he has a real star alongside him, it's playoffs-or-bust for AI.
-Based on how Spring Training is covered, is Opening Day in a week?
-When do Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez finally rumble? Shhh... don't tell anyone. They might actually catch on!

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Hard Hits: Turning Back The Clock

This weekend, the NBA All-Star Game festivities got underway Friday night in Denver with the Got Milk Rookie/Sophomore Challenge. Led by hometown star Carmelo Anthony's 31 points and LeBron James' 20, the super sophomores prevailed 133-106.
And so another All-Star weekend will continue tonight with the once very popular dunk contest and three-point shootout as well as who can dribble a ball through a maze the fastest. At one time, this stuff along with a highly anticipated game between the best the league had to offer meant something to fans. But today, the game isn't the same. Sure, there is plenty of talent to go around. You have your Shaq's, Kobe's, Garnett's, McGrady's, Iverson's, Nowitzki's, Carter's and the fresh face of the league, LeBron James.
However, as gifted as they are, they never got to play in arguably the best era when the NBA was on top. We're talking about the 80's and early 90's when superstars were larger than life and had flambuoyant personalities which fans could identify with. Gone are the days when All-Star weekend was an easy draw for fans. With stars such as Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Doctor J, Dominique Wilkins, Charles Barkley, Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, Stockton and Malone, it was worth watching.
This wasn't only because of how exciting these players were but because of how they respected the game. They treated the fans well and the fans returned the favor by worshipping their heroes. It was much easier to identify with the players because you could tell that they genuinely cared. There weren't any selfish egos asking to be traded or pushing coaches out the door. There weren't any guys making check me out poses and showing disrespect on the court with poor sportsmanship. You never had to worry about a Ron Artest losing his head and instigating a brawl with drunk fans in The Palace.
Back then, the NBA slogan, "It's FAN-TAS-TIC" was appropriate because no other sport captivated the audience like Commissioner David Stern's game. They had some of the best talent ever assembled on a basketball court who put all their skills on display in an eventful weekend. Twenty years ago, back when the Slam Dunk contest reigned supreme, fans and players gathered around to watch Wilkins outduel Jordan in one of the most electrifying events ever. A year later, with Air Jordan out due to injury, the Human Highlight Film was out to defend his title. But instead, teammate Spud Webb stole the spotlight in the final. They watched in awe as the small wonder mesmerized a crowd by defying the laws of gravity to become the new champion. I still remember thinking, 'How could a guy five-six get up that high?' With Wilkins sidelined in '87, Jordan took his first dunk contest. A year later in Chicago, the highly anticipated rematch between Wilkins and Jordan took place. As each player outdid the other with windmill and double clutch dunks that sent the crowd into a frenzy, it came down to one final dunk for the ages. With the pressure on to defend his title, Jordan gave his supporters what they came for when he took off from the free throw line and soared through the air and completed a jawdropping jam to take the contest edging his counterpart 147-145. The dunk, which drew a perfect score of 50, is still shown on TV today and became a poster. This was the defining moment of the contest.
There were other exciting contests like when Kenny "Sky" Walker won in '89 and Wilkins took his second slam title edging Kenny Smith. Yes, the same Smith who now works for TNT as one of the game's best studio analysts. There were also remarkable performances turned in by Dee Brown and Cedric Ceballos enroute to victories. These kinds of highlights were what made All-Star Weekend big.
While the dunk contests were always the thing, not to be outdone, there were some exciting three point contests which featured some deadly shooting from some of the league's top gunners. This included Larry Legend knocking down trey after trey in an '88 victory to capture his third consecutive shootout trophy. It also included Craig Hodges shooting the lights out to win three straight trophies of his own. Mark Price and Jeff Hornacek also won it twice. Remarkably, one of the game's best riflemen Reggie Miller never won one. Shows how stiff the competition was.
Aside from the contests, the games themselves had their moments. In '88, Jordan put up 40 to take MVP honors. Two years earlier, Thomas stole the show with 30 points and 10 assists in an East victory. In '87, in front of a home crowd, Seattle star Tom Chambers scored 34 points to win MVP in a thrilling 154-149 game that needed overtime. But maybe the most memorable game was a '92 West blowout triumph over the East. While the game was uncompetitive, a compelling story was Magic Johnson's final All-Star appearance. Due to him contracting the HIV Virus and making the stunning announcement on November 7, 1991, he was forced to retire from the game he loved. But with his popularity never in question, fans elected the Laker legend as a West starter. With permission from the league office, Johnson suited up and turned in a vintage performance, scoring a game-high 25 points and dishing out nine assists to garner MVP honors. While there have been other feel good moments like when Stockton and Malone combined to lead the West to a '93 victory at Salt Lake City, sharing the MVP trophy, none will be remembered better than Magic's because of what he meant to the game.
These were the kind of memories that made the NBA All-Star Game larger than life. The stars are still there. But there isn't that same feeling you once had, when it didn't just feel like a meaningless exhibition. It was something you had to watch because you didn't know when the next great moment would occur.
The Slam Dunk contest will take place tonight but just features four players. But out of the four, only the Suns' Amare Stoudemire is an established star. He'll be up against Chris Andersen and rookies Josh and J.R. Smith. At one time, as many as eight participants took part in three action-packed rounds. Now, just four players compete with one less round and fewer competition.
One player, who will be absent from tonight's contest is King James. James, all of 20 has fulfilled lofty expectations thus far in his first two seasons with Cleveland after being selected first overall out of high school in the 2003 Draft. This year, he's putting up MVP numbers averaging 25.4 points-per-game, 7.1 rebounds-per-game and 7.7 assists-per-contest. The remarkable second-year phenom has the Cavs sitting second in the Central Division with a 30-21 record. He has them in line to qualify for the playoffs for the first time since '97-98. James declined the league's invitation to participate in the dunk competition because he's under the weather. However, that didn't stop him from having four slams the night before including a windmill jam. After the game, James discussed what's happened to the art of dunks. "Why don't guys do it anymore? Because all the dunks are taken," James said Friday night. "There are no more dunks. If we come up with some new dunks, people might do it. Every time there's a dunk out there, people say they've seen it before."
This kind of thinking is what's been missing lately. It's ashame the game's newest sensation will not be able to show off his incredible leaping skills tonight. The game needs a boost. James is a burst of energy for what's become a tired league. Nobody wants to read about why Vince Carter dogged it in order to get traded out of Toronto. Nobody cares about Kobe's problems off the court or his feud with Shaq. Nobody wants to hear Allen Iverson complain about the lack of a supporting cast he gets in Philadelphia. Fans want to embrace a bright young star like LeBron because of how he goes about his business on and off the court. He wants to win, plays the game with a flair and handles himself with class. This is the way the all-time greats like Russell, Chamberlain, Reed, Bird, Johnson and Jordan did it. They never blamed others and didn't ask out of games. James has a chance to put his stamp on the game tomorrow.
Time to turn back the clock.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Clock Strikes Midnight On NHL Season

The 2004-05 NHL season came to a abrupt end Wednesday afternoon when Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the cancelation of the entire season. In devastating fashion, both owners and players failed miserably in delivering a new CBA that would have prevented this horrible outcome. Now, no matter which side you took, both came out losers in a game of chicken, in which the fans didn't seem to matter to either party.

Not since 1919 has there been no Stanley Cup winner. However, circumstances were extremely different back then due to an influenza epidemic. There was no such excuse this time. While both parties can claim that they put forth a last ditch effort to save this season, it came too late and was not enough. Instead of giving an honest attempt to reach an agreement last summer and during the fall, neither side seemed in any rush. They each procrastinated and didn't seem ready to negotiate in good faith. The NHLPA was intent on not having a salary cap while the owners not only insisted on a cap but a hard one that included linkage of revenues. The way the process was handled by Bettman and PA chief Bob Goodenow, there never was a chance. Both were so stubborn on getting their way that neither was willing to budge for months.

It was so disorganized that when it became apparent neither side would be able to settle the labor dispute in time to play at least half a season, Bettman still wouldn't commit to a drop-dead date. By the time he decided last week to finally give a definitive deadline, even if they had miraculously agreed to a new deal, only an abbreviated 28-game season with playoffs would have taken place. A far cry from a full 82 games, which had to have diehard fans scratching their heads. From a credibility standpoint, it made no sense to even play at that point. The league probably should have pulled the plug three weeks ago. But instead, it continued to drag out.

When Bettman indicated that he would call the press conference Wednesday at 1 PM, Goodenow finally cracked and offered a $52 million cap to go with a 24 percent giveback he already made back in December. The league came in at $40 million and no linkage leaving both sides a great deal apart. When Bettman offered a take-it-or-leave-it $42.5 million Tuesday night, Goodenow countered with $49 million. This was the closest both sides had been. $6.5 million was all that separated the two from having a new deal in place. But neither was willing to go that extra mile to reach the common ground required to achieve a new agreement. That figure looked to be around $45 million. Unfortunately for the league and its players, it never came to fruition. Instead, team employees who lost their jobs and diehard fans were left high and dry by two greedy sides fighting over millions and billions of dollars. To a regular working person on the street, we didn't count in their book.

No matter how much remorse Bettman and Goodenow expressed yesterday, the damage was done. Losing an entire season makes no sense, especially when their sport is not even in the same stratosphere as other major sports like baseball, football and basketball. Even televised poker might be a better draw than the NHL. When stations like ESPN and FSNY can televise poker tournaments, you know the league is in trouble. Now without a season, it's on the backburner.

This is a sport that doesn't have a good network TV deal in place. At one time, ESPN gave it a lot of coverage and aired many games and even had a half hour show "NHL2Nite" dedicated to hockey fans. But as ratings continued to sink the past couple of years, they decreased the amount shown and finally canceled NHL2Nite last year. Even if there had been a season, they would have showed even less games and they only would have aired on ESPN2. That's how bad things had gotten for the NHL. ABC didn't renew their contract with the sport, forcing the league to get a second-rate deal with NBC that wasn't even guaranteed; contingent on there being a season. What happens now? ESPN has an option on the NHL coming up later this year. Would you keep a dying sport when the two sides can't even get in the same room and finalize a new labor deal? It makes zero sense.

Not only has the sport suffered ratings-wise, but they can't even attract enough backers to help boost revenue. Combine that with a lack of promoting its stars and a decrease in scoring and the league was doomed. And now, they have the dubious distinction of becoming the only major sport to postpone an entire season. How can a league survive all that when it wasn't that popular to begin with? It beats me.

One can only hope that both the owners and players will realize the folly of their ways and do everything possible to make sure they don't lose anymore games for 2005-06. Without a new CBA, there can't even be an NHL Entry Draft. That means that the most regarded prospect, Sidney Crosby, since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux doesn't even know when he'll be on an NHL roster. Not exactly the way a league wants to enter a new era.

Of course, with no season, the players have lost a lot of money that they'll never be able to earn back. Without one, players that signed one-year deals last summer will become free agents again. There could be a huge crop of UFA's whenever a new agreement is reached. All this uncertainty is not healthy for the sport. The best way to fix it is for both sides to lock themselves in a room and don't come out until a new deal is reached. The longer it goes, the worse it could be for everyone. They risk losing even more fans.

When the game returns, hopefully, they'll have a plan in place to fix the game itself. Bring back the tag-up rule creating more flow to a sport that's become a drag. They should also enforce obstruction penalties. Too often, players get away with tugging the game's best stars, making it increasingly difficult for them to score. We're not saying that good backchecking and attention to detail should be tossed out. But any player who grabs another player is preventing them from making a play. That shouldn't be allowed to happen. Another area that needs to be addressed will be the regulation of smaller goalie pads. Too often, goalies wear pads that make them bigger and take up more space in net, leaving little room for scorers. We're not advocating keeping goalies from playing pucks. If a goalie has a natural puckhandling skill, they should be permitted to utilize it because if they're not, it restricts them. That's not good for the game.

Other topics have included no-touch icing and going to shootouts to decide ties. On both issues, I'm against it. Sometimes in games, attacking players will race to try to keep a play alive before an opponent touches up the puck for icing. By shifting to an automatic whistle, those kinds of hustle plays will no longer be rewarded. Doesn't that take away from the competitive nature of the game? In my book, it does. Shootouts are being tried out in the American Hockey League (AHL) this season. It's been met with mixed feedback. While some fans are entertained and know someone will be a winner, players and coaches do not like it because their teams can lose out on a valuable point for something that is basically street hockey. What if your team worked really hard and deserved to share a point with an opponent but the opponent won the shootout and gained an extra point? How is that justifiable? This is something we'd like to see the NHL hierarchy answer. Of course, with the way they have handled the last decade, their answer might not make much sense.

It's time for the game to give back to the fans. Don't make radical changes that will tarnish the sport. Make tweaks in rules that will allow for more skating, less holding and hooking creating more room and less whistles. Most importantly, whenever the game returns, ticket prices should be lowered at least 10-20 percent due to the loss of this season. Without loyal fans, the game wouldn't survive.

Hopefully, the next time the puck is dropped, everyone involved will have learned a valuable lesson. It's a long road back.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Hitting Back

Some thoughts on the week that was in sports:

-Nobody will ever be able to compare the Patriots' run of three Lombardi trophies in four years to the Packers of the 60's, 70's Steelers, 80's 49ers or 90's Cowboys. But what they accomplished in the modern salary cap era makes it very impressive. No team has ever won three straight Super Bowls. The '90 49ers lost the NFC title game to the Giants on a last second Matt Bahr field goal at Candlestick Park. That was the closest any team going for three in a row ever came to reaching the Super Bowl. That's what makes next year intriguing.

-When Rodney Harrison finishes with more catches than Freddie Mitchell, it speaks volumes about Mitchell's game on the field and we don't mean that in a good way. The so-called "People's Champion" might want to consider giving back that nickname to WWE superstar The Rock. If you smell what we're cooking!

-Deion Branch was the best kept secret for the champion Patriots for a while. He only had 10 catches in their Super Bowl XXXVIII victory over Carolina. He's gone under the radar because of his size and also because he missed a good portion of 2004. Last Sunday, he stepped into the spotlight and made some huge plays. Was there any one prettier than that third down and long leap he snatched between two Eagle defenders?

-Terrell Owens took a lot of heat the past two weeks for his belief in God being able to put him back on the field. His confidence never wavered despite how much his ankle hurt. Against a solid Patriot D, he was brilliant and tried to carry the Eagles on his back. That nine reception 122 yard performance was one of the most courageous we've ever seen. Say what you want about Owens the person. But you can never question his heart.

-Was that playcalling Andy Reid used down 10 points with under 7:00 left from the Herm Edwards/Paul Hackett playbook? At least the Jets weren't trailing against Pittsburgh.

-Can we please stop hearing about Donovan McNabb's struggles in the huddle? The bottom line was he didn't get it done. The odd thing was he had his moments where he drove the Eagles down the field without any problems. But then there were those inconsistencies which led to three interceptions and the horrible lack of leadership when his team needed to manage the clock better down the stretch. That ultimately cost the Eagles their first Super Bowl championship.

-Tom Brady wasn't spectacular on Sunday but he was efficient. He did fumble the ball once but never made the mistakes his counterpart made. When he needed to make plays after a slow start, Brady stepped up. That kind of calm under pressure is what separates him from other quarterbacks.

-Who else thinks Ted Bruschi is on the level of Ray Lewis?

-Against a more talented North Carolina squad at Cameron Indoor Arena, Duke once again showed why they'll be a tough out next March. J.J. Redick is as good as anyone.

-We haven't seen a better college basketball team this year than Illinois. We'll see if they can win their last six games and enter the tournament a perfect 30-0.

-Vince Carter has been everything advertised since becoming a Net. He put on a show in two wins this past week, scoring more than 40 against both the Pistons and 76ers. It's fun to watch him and a rejuvenated Jason Kidd work their magic.

-While the Knicks struggle to win games, Trevor Ariza continues to show flashes of brilliance.

-I get more excited to watch Phil Mickelson on a Par 4 than Tiger Woods.

-With Andre Agassi returning to play Davis Cup next month, maybe he can teach Andy Roddick a thing or two about keeping his composure during big matches.

-All the writers who criticize Jason Giambi for how he handled that press conference Thursday need a reality check. Giambi didn't even owe them one. It's people like Mike Lupica who feel they're bigger than these athletes and think they're entitled to everything. Did they ever once realize the ramifications if Giambi had mentioned steroids the other day? Did they stop to think that maybe if he had said what he was sorry for, the Yankee organization would have had an open and shut case to void his contract. What if you were Giambi and you were told not to discuss any details of what you testified to a grand jury over a year ago? Would you sacrifice your career so that the team that was gullible enough to sign you could have an excuse to not pay you? I don't think so. The media can be rough when it comes to these things. But for them to play dumb and act like they didn't know what Giambi was sorry about is as phony as anything.

-Whatever happened to the Bud Bowl?