Monday, April 30, 2007

Where in the World is Dirk Nowitzki?

S.O.L.'s best friends
Here's what I noticed about last night's game four meltdown by Dallas in the NBA Western Conference playoffs: somewhere in the middle of the third quarter, star and possibly soon-to-be-named league MVP Dirk Nowitzki stopped calling for the rock.

This is a complete reversal from last year's playoffs when Dirk took over some games and was seen front and center in the Mavs inspired run to the NBA Finals. Sure he missed some shots through the game, sure he looked slow compared to the swarming, flying, racing bodies that were the Golden State Warriors, but there's just no excuse for hiding behind a defender and putting his hands in his pocket.

I'm conflicted about this series. I picked Dallas to win in five or six, knowing how well the Warriors had been playing down the stretch and how perfectly they match up against the Mavericks. I thought that the Mavs, despite last year's public humiliation at the hands of Dwayne Wade and Miami, would rebound this year. I thought they'd show they belonged in the 'best team in the league" conversation. I thought 67 wins was not a fluke. I thought the Little General would make sure there was no letdown.

Well, folks. It's possible S.O.L. was wrong. Dallas has looked alternately lost and clueless in this series. They look slow and old and unprepared for a less-talented but clearly more motivated Golden State.

And now, Dallas is about to play for its very playoff life. One more loss and it's off to the driving range. The sign of hope I saw was Nowitzki hitting those two threes at the end of the game. Maybe that will help his confidence going into Game 5. S.O.L. still thinks Dallas has one last-gasp run in them, at least enough to send the serious back to the appropriately named Oracle Arena for a Game 6, but as thoroughly as the Warriors have beaten down the Mavs this series, it would not be surprise me if it's over on Tuesday night.

Will Dirk be waving for the ball or waving good-bye to Dallas fans for the season?

Endless Draft Day

The annual NFL draft took place on Saturday and Sunday. This used to be pretty much a snooze-fest, only interesting to die-hard fans. But in the last couple of years, it’s turned into a big, televised event, the lead up to which is just as annoyingly over the top as the actual event. Not surprisingly, this year’s draft was the longest in the history of the draft. Nine freaking hours of what I can only guess was brutal tedium. I can only guess because I don’t have nine hours to sit and watch a parade of millionaires to be who may or may not even get into a pro game next season.

The big speculation coming into the draft was whether Oakland would use their first-round pick on quarterback JaMarcus Russell of LSU, wide receiver Calvin Johnson of Georgia Tech, QB Brady Quinn of Notre Dame or trade down for immediate help.

By all accounts, this was one of the weakest drafts in memory in terms of top-of-the-line talent. Russell was heralded for his size (6-6) and ability to throw accurate passes, as well as a freakishly strong arm (he is said to have thrown a pass 60 yards from his knees). Quinn is a successful QB from a big-time program and Johnson was widely considered to be the best overall player in the draft, not to mention a solid character guy. In this version of the NFL, this has suddenly become important.

The Raiders are coming off a 2-win season, which is a good indication that they have many needs at many positions and there was a fairly heated debate raging over whether the Raiders should pick a quarterback or go with the best player available in Johnson. In the end, Oakland surprised everyone by picking Russell, the player they were expected to pick. (Johnson went second to the awful Detroit Lions and Quinn, in the surprise of the day, tumbled all the way down to no.22 where he was picked by the Cleveland Browns, the team that was expected to pick him at the third spot but took a highly-touted offensive lineman instead. Later, when Quinn was still available, the Browns actually traded to move up to get him.)

Back to good old JaMarcus going to Oakland. It seemed like a good pick for the Raiders even though it's widely known that picking QB's early in the draft is at best, a crap shoot (see: Ryan Leaf for one example). Still, Oakland has, after all, a top-line receiver in Randy Moss, a big, sure, down-field threat for Russell to make use of that freak-a-zoid arm of his.

Hold on there on minute, pardner. Because on day two of the draft, Oakland gone and traded the enigmatic, sometime pain-in-the-ass Moss to the recently perennial title contenders New England Patriots.

As little as Randy has done in a Raiders uniform since he came over after an ugly divorce with Minnesota, the team that drafted him, I think this was just one more stupid move in a long list of stupid moves made by Oakland and it’s idiot owner Al Davis.

The reason Moss hasn’t done a thing in Oakland is because Oakland hasn’t had a decent quarterback since 40-year-old Rich Gannon retired back in 2004, one year BEFORE Moss was traded to them.

S.O.L. predicts that Moss will thrive in the “no I in team” system in New England and will not self-destruct as some critics expect. For once, the Patriots have a real leader at quarterback who will not tolerate distractions. For another, Moss is a star who hates the spotlight and in New England, he will be able to fade into the background, just another cog in the wheel that is the New England Patriots.

Hell Freezes Over

S.O.L. woke up today to discover that one New York baseball team is in first place and the other in last. This is usually not a big surprise since everybody news the Mets are perennial losers and the Yankees are, well, the fucking Yankees.

Only, ain’t it a shame that S.O.L.’s beloved Mets are the team in first place and the Bronx Bombers are, well, bombing? The Yankees, in large part due to injuries to 4/5 of their starting rotation and the shocking mediocrity of their once lights-out closer, have struggled to win ballgames in the first month of the season and find themselves in last place in the AL East.

I wouldn’t put too much faith in this turning out to be a losing season in the Bronx. Last year, you might recall, the Yankees were 8-17 before they turned their season around, finishing up with a five-game sweep of the Red Sox in Fenway to crush their rivals and go on to win yet another division title.

I’m not making any predictions either. I expect they’ll be in the race to the end, even as they’ve gone a mere 1-5 against Boston so far this season. It’s early. Boston is, well, Boston and a collapse would be par for the course and I won’t judge them until they’re healthy again.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Can't Stand the Heat

Remains of the Day, Healdsburg, April 2007
After an unintended absence, I'm back, one week into the NBA playoffs and one month into the basketball season. Lots to talk about and I won't get to it all today but get ready for a series of posts in S.O.L.'s frenzied attempt to make up for the last couple of weeks of silence.

As I write this, the most interesting NBA playoff series is probably reaching halftime of game three. Since I'm Tivo-ing that game (Dallas vs. Golden State), I will write about the results tomorrow. I picked Dallas before the series, however, and I still think they'll pull it out. But more on that Monday.

D-Wade, Shaq and the Heat have left the building in rather inglorious fashion. I hate to blame stuff on injury but Wade did not look like his old self and I suspect his injuries (shoulder and knee) are bothering him more than he admits. The guy almost always plays with a smile on his face, not the grimace that was planted there throughout the series. He's a warrior and for my money, the best clutch guy in the league and an early exit might be the best thing for him. At least he'll get to rest.

I told anyone who would listen that I liked the Bulls to make a run this year -- and that was before the season started, back when they signed Ben Wallace. I'm not sure they have enough defensive ability (outside of Big Ben) and they can go for long stretches without scoring, but it will be interesting to watch them after they swept the suddenly old-looking Heat out of the playoffs. One thing is Shaq looked mad at the end of the game. That has to be a good thing. I hope Grant Hill doesn't retire and ends up signing with the Heat. I think Shaq, Riley and Company have one more run in them and Hill would make it interesting.

Back to the Bulls who now must play the resurgent Pistons. Big Ben going against his old pals and the team he believes snubbed him by not offering a big enough contract in the off-season. This is sort of a youth vs. experience series though Deetroit ain't that old. I think it's anybody's series but if you hold a gun to my head, I'll say Pistons in six.

So far, though, that's the only second-round series already set. New Jersey and Phoenix both have 3-1 leads in their series and Cleveland is up over the decimated Wizards three games to none.

San Antonio is up 2-1 in an entertaining pick-up series against Denver, another young coast-to-coast team. The Nuggets are proving that two shooting stars can co-exist in the same line-up though the Spurs are showing that old school has its advantages. San Antonio has a huge advantage on the sidelines, though. Greg Poppovich has a much bigger brain than George Karl, another NBA re-tread that for some reason has half the league convinced he can actually coach.

And then there's Kobe and the Lakers. The Suns rushed off to a 2-0 lead by pretty much crushing the Lakers at home in Phoenix but the Lakers came back to win a tough game three at home. Suddenly the basketball world was calling it a series. Well, not after today. Steve Nash led the Suns from the start and even though the game was close at the half, it felt like a Suns pace which is deadly to the slow-footed Lakers. When Kobe started chucking up shots in the middle of the second quarter S.O.L. knew the Lakers had no chance.

Nash finished one short of tying the all-time playoff record of assists in a game and finished with 23 dimes. His 15 at intermission set a record for a first half.

I think the Suns are far too talented to lose a seven-game series to the Lakers but they have had trouble holding big leads and they've been known to suffer defensive let downs. On Sunday, the Lakers' coach had a good game plan and they were executing well. Kobe's teammates were all contributing and getting their touches which is just what the Suns were afraid of -- a balanced attack. But then Kobe started shooting and forced a couple of shots and the next thing you know, his teammates are standing around again waiting for him to do something.

Later in the third quarter, even when the Black Hole passed the rock, his teammates didn't convert. What did he expect? They'd gotten so cold in between touches, they would have been warm in a meat locker. For the third time in the series, Kobe was a non-factor in the second half. This is the guy touted as the greatest player in the game today? To quote a fellow friend and blogger, Buuullllshiiit!

Now the Suns have a 3-1 lead and head home to Phoenix where they should settle the score.

Tomorrow: Trouble in Big D???

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

All Hail the (True) Home Run King

Sunrise and Sprinklers. Healdsburg, CA 2007
I have few sports heroes. I mean I’m just as awed as the next person when an athlete does something amazing when the game is on the line. I know you’re thinking, it’s not life and death. It’s not what doctors and fireman and cops do, it’s not like a crazy, incredible act of bravery by a special person.

Yeah, it’s not important in the every day life-and-death sort of important, but at the moment it’s happening, it’s big, it’s huge, it’s the most important thing to the players involved and a lot of the people watching. Maybe it’s manufactured pressure, but it’s effect is real and lasting and at the moment it’s all happening, it’s freaking huge. I think people like me love sports because of the purity of the way it tests your character. And your nerve. You do or you don’t. You are or you aren’t. Him vs. you. Win or go home.

So yeah, I respect the great ones. Jordan and Bird and Magic. Schilling and his bloody sock. Mookie’s grounder. Willis Reed limping into the Garden. Kirk Gibson’s one-legged homer. Laettner’s buzzer beater in ’92 . Great moments to talk about and rehash and be awed that in their one moment to shine, these guys stepped up and came through, their characters were revealed, they won.

My years spent as a sportswriter soured me a little on sports heroes, mostly because I got to know many of them and, well, whose idol doesn’t get knocked down a few pegs when discovered that they’re actually human?

Not Hank Aaron.

He was big sports hero when I was a kid. I came of baseball age when he was past his prime but still hitting home runs. I got my baseball batting stance from pictures in a book about Aaron that I read over so many times, the pages fell out. And later, when I met him briefly as an adult (I interviewed him for a story), he was everything I hoped and imagined. True, he was guarded and reserved (as he’s always been with the press and other outsiders) but also a gentleman who was patient with my questions and pointed in his comments (he was speaking out for more African-Americans executives and managers in baseball) and, I’m almost embarrassed to admit, my obvious and somewhat fawning admiration. I may be the only girl who ever told him that she copied his batting stance.

Aaron has always been a quiet man who did not seek or want the public attention that rained on him in the summer of 1973. It was not a record everyone wanted Aaron to break. Besides the bigots who sent hate mail, there was an undercurrent of baseball people who felt Aaron, who never hit the benchmark 50-home run mark, was worthy of breaking the great Babe Ruth’s record.

But without boring y’all with his statistics, Aaron was easily one of the best players in the history of the game, not merely a tremendous hitter. Besides winning three Gold Gloves as an outfielder (during a generation that possibly saw the greatest outfielders in the game), he led the league multiple times in hits (twice), RBI (four times), and homers (four times). He finished his career with the most total bases, RBI and extra-base hits in addition to the hallowed home run record.

That last record – the most career home runs – is about to be broken which ought to be the story in sports this summer but it’s turned into something else. Something dirty and embarrassing and tawdry. This is because Barry Bonds, the man who is about to surpass Aaron on the all-time list, while arguably the greatest hitter of our generation, is also widely considered to have, for some of those home runs, been helped out by a regimen of steroids.

Bonds has never explicitly tested positive for steroids as far as the public knows and he has vehemently denied knowingly using them. He has been connected to steroid suppliers and in the 2006 book, "Game of Shadows," the authors accuse Bonds (and others) of juicing and then covering their use with a host of masking agents.

I have been very much on the fence about what is now being referred to as baseball’s ‘steroid era’. Part of my ambiguity rests in the clear and tacit approval given the steroid users by Major League Baseball which until a former player revealed baseball’s worst kept secret, didn’t do a thing to get them out of the game. I have no doubt some baseball officials even wanted players to juice because they wanted more home runs. More home runs, it was hoped, would bring more fans to ballparks and in the aftermath of a contentious strike that had caused the World Series to be canceled and so alienated the fan base that there was a fear baseball would never recover, putting butts in seats was apparently more important than regulating against cheaters.

My thinking then was that if baseball wasn’t banning ‘roids, than Bonds and everyone else who’s been accused of taking them, wasn’t doing anything against the rules. After all, we've had players admitting to stealing signs and throwing spitters and even playing drunk.

So with all this circulating in my head, I’ve been thinking about Bonds and this record all winter, thinking about what I would write, working through my thoughts on the whole subject. I had not as of yet settled on how I felt, that's how much of a battle was raging in my brain. That was before yesterday, when I turned on ESPN and saw the face of my hero staring back at me.

Aaron, who has refused almost any interview on the subject of Bonds breaking his home run record, was quoted this week in he Atlanta-Journal Constitution as saying he would not be on hand when Bonds goes number 756.

"I'd probably fly to West Palm Beach to play golf," Aaron told Journal-Constitution columnist Terence Moore. "Again, it has nothing to do with anybody, other than I had enough of it. I don't want to be around that sort of thing anymore. I just want to be at peace with myself. I don't want to answer questions. It's going to be a no-win situation for me anyway. If I go, people are going to say, 'Well, he went because of this.' If I don't go, they'll say whatever. I'll just let them make their own mind up."

Thanks to Aaron, I’ve made up my mind. I think it speaks volumes that he’s not acknowledging the record, that he seems to be saying that he believes, as do some other legends, that Bonds didn’t get to the record legitimately.

Being up here in Northern California, I’ve heard a lot from Barry Bonds apologists (on the public airwaves and off), how he’s just the poster child for steroids, how he’s not the only one, just the one guy everybody’s focusing on. How prior to his superhuman burst of home run power (he's hit 360 homers, a little less than half his total since the age of 33), his numbers put him among the top hitters in baseball ever. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Whatever Bonds is getting from his critics, he has only himself to blame. Anyone who cries over “poor Barry” ought to remember who started this whole thing in the first place.

I’m reminded of the day I watched Aaron break Ruth’s record, how those two fucking moron fans ran onto the field and tried to circle the bases with him until they were tackled by the cops. I hate those two idiots. I hate that they stole Aaron’s shining moment, ripped it from the nicest, classiest guy ever and every time I watch it again, I want to scream at those assclowns. What right did they have to mar a moment this man spent half his life earning? Fuckers.

Now I think Bonds is doing it to Aaron again. He’s stealing the crown from the king. I hope Bonds doesn’t break the home run record. But if he does, it won’t matter to me. The King will always be the king.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Ringing in the New Season

Mets at Dodgers, Dodger Stadium 2005
Well, so much for the World Champs. The Mets just finished off a nice first series of the season by destroying the St. Louis Cardinals in a three-game sweep and raining on their victory bling parade.
As much as I'm a pimp for the Mets, I have to say they were helped along by the awfulness of the Cardinals who misplayed easy fly balls (three times) and were decidedly impatient at the plate. New York outscored the St. Louis 20-2 and turned eight double plays in the first two games (which hadn't been done in forty years). It's possible they might have had some more in Wednesday night's 10-0 drubbing, but the Cards only got one guy to second and that was in the, um, ninth inning. Ho-hum.

Let's not get too excited. The Mets travel to Atlanta to face the Braves this weekend and so far, the youngins down South have looked very, very sharp. They go into game three against Philly looking for the sweep. Speaking of the Phills, Jimmy Rollins must be feeling a little sheepish
about now as even after a minuscule sampling of games, the Phillies have to be very concerned about their bullpen.

Break up the Pirates - the Bucs swept Houston this week and are 3-0 for the first time in ages and ages. Well you might think that if you looked at their recent record of futility but the last time they were 3-0 was back in '03, a season in which they finished 75-87, four games back of the Central Division champion Cubs.

NBA Down to the Wire

Well, well, well, Lakers fans. What did S.O.L. tell you would happen to Kobe and krew when they started playing teams that belong in the NBA? After tearing up the likes of Portland and Memphis and Sacramento, the Lakers have run into a wall and face the very real possibility of dropping way down the playoff chart as both Denver and the Clippers (and Golden State) are surging at the same time the Lakers are flat-lining.

In the last six games the Lakers have gone 2-4, beating Golden State and Sacramento and losing to Memphis, Houston, Denver and last night, the improving Clippers. All of the losses exposed the Lakers' horrid defense and now only one game in the loss column separates them from losing their hold on the number sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs to Denver or the Clippers. Lucky for the Lakers, the Nuggets have continued to be schizophrenic -- going 5-5 in a series of games where they could have easily gone 8-2 or 9-1, had they not suffered from some last-minute meltdowns and last-second buzzer beaters.

Frankly, after watching Denver play the last couple of weeks, I'm at a loss to predict how they'll do in the playoffs. Being so inconsistent doesn't bode well for playoff success, that's for sure. They are so big and fast and long, you have to think they'd be good on the defense and they've got three legit go-to scorers in Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and to a lessor extent, the improving J.R. Smith. But man, they play like a bunch of idiots sometimes. You wonder if guys like Nene even have any brains in his head. Maybe that's why he only goes by one name. Do not get me wrong. I love the guy. But man, his basketball I.Q. is severely lacking. All you had to do see what I mean about the Nuggets is to watch last night's game against Sacramento, in which they blew a 71-50 halftime lead and ended up playing for their lives in the fourth before pulling it out. This time of year, a playoff-bound team hoping to make any kind of run should not be giving back 21-point leads.

I mean I've never seen a playoff team make so many stupid mistakes. I'm surprised George Karl has any hair left on his head. If these guys could put it together, they could beat anybody. I mean it. Even Dallas and Phoenix.

As for the Lake Show, their game last night against the Clips was a perfect microcosm of their season. After a tight back-and-fourth first quarter, the Clippers outplayed the Lakers on defense and built a double-digit lead by halftime. In the second half, the Lakers tightened up their D and the Clippers just tightened up, and the Lakers got to within one. But the Clippers made the plays and the Lakers did not and that was all she wrote. Kobe finished with 29 points but shot only 13-34 to get them. A few of his shots caromed off the backboard they were so off-line. And this was a game where Lamar Odom and Luke Walton were playing well and yet Kobe still tried to take it all on himself. Two games ago against the Kings, the Lakers won fairly easily by sharing the ball (Kobe had 13 assists and didn't lead the team in scoring) and yet the King of Stubbornness misses the lesson.

The Clippers double-teamed him whenever he got the ball and Black Mamba forced several shots, expecting the refs to bail him out. (Even I thought he got fouled a couple of times only to change my mind on seeing the replay.) The Clippers broadcasters said the game had a real playoff feel and the refs called it like that -- everybody was getting mugged under the basket. But the Clippers played into that and the Lakers didn't. (I mean if there's one thing you learn playing in the NBA is to adjust to the way the refs call the game. They're human. Sometimes they have good games, sometimes they suck. Sometimes, like last night, they're reffing is frustratingly uneven. But there was a time in game where it was clear they were letting everybody play, where they were only calling the most obvious fouls. You have to adjust your game accordingly. )

I'm not sure, having looked at the potential match-ups, how much falling down the playoff seeding chart would hurt the Lakers.

If the season ended today, the Western Conference playoff picture would look like this:

1. Dallas vs. 8. Clippers
2. Phoenix vs. 7. Denver

3. S. Antonio vs. 6. Lakers
4. Utah vs. 5. Houston

The Lakers have had success playing the Spurs in the past (not that S.O.L. thinks they can beat them this year) and there's just no way Kobe and Kompany wants to see Steve Nash or Dirk Nowitzki in round one. The Suns aren't the same team they were last year when the Lakers took them to seven games. There is one big difference. (Say it with me everybody: Amare!)

So you see how come to think of it, the Lakers would be fucked no matter who they play, especially the way they're defending the hoop these days. Maybe they can muster enough team defense to slow down Tim Duncan or Tony Parker or Manu Ginobli but all three? I think you can bet the house on that not happening.

The Lakers have a big week ahead of them. After what should be an automatic win at Seattle, they have four games in six games against Western Conference playoff opponents - a home and home with the Suns, a visit to Denver and at home against the Clippers. After that it's smooth sailing with Seattle and a finish at Sacramento, both lottery teams. The thinking goes they'll make the playoffs if they finish at .500, which means they need just two wins in those final seven games. The question is can they win enough games to keep their hold on the sixth spot, and will it even matter?

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Final Four Tenths

Last night, the University of Florida mens' basketball team did something amazing in this Era of sports that I like to call Parody. They repeated as National Champions by beating Ohio State and it's fabulous freshmen 84-78 in the title game.

I really didn't watch much of this year's tournament. I wasn't that interested and I've been distracted (by my sick dog and then my sick self). Both of my teams sucked out pretty fast. My favorite school I didn't go to (Duke) lost ignominiously in Round One and my favorite school that I attended (GWU) scored 29 points in a frighteningly awful display of offense (or lack thereof). I noticed both my teams lost to schools that begin with the letter 'V'. I do not pretend to understand the mysteries of the universe but it seems to me that is one fact that cannot be ignored. And that comforts me.

Moving on. In a rare whoop and holler, S.O.L. proudly points out that the NCAA bracket I filled out on ESPN correctly picked the 6 of the Elite Eight teams, all of the Final Four and the eventually national champion. I picked the final score of 78-75, which is pretty damn close and I only missed ONE game in the Southwest Bracket (thanks a lot Duke). I finished with a 99.6 percent winning percentage, which means only four-tenths of the rest of the entries were better (the bad news is that translates into 10,408 entrants). Still, we're talking about more than 2 million entries. Not bad, eh?


It has arrived finally. Green grass, glove leather, the crack of ball on bat. Monday was baseball's opening day, a season that S.O.L. has been looking forward to ever since a certain NY outfielder's knees got buckled back in October. I'm a Mets fan. Maybe not the world's biggest but I'm up there. I only say this because you'll be hearing a lot about my Mets obsession during the course of the season. I'll be giving regular updates on the state of the team that many folks expect to be in the World Series this year, having missed going last year by the smallest of margins.

The Mets have one of the best lineups in the majors, certainly in the NL, but they have a lot of questionmarks on the pitching staff. Their first two starters are 40-year-olds and the next three are all kids with not a lot of Major League pitching experience. After one game, the future looks bright. Forty-year-old future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine pitched Sunday night against the World Champs in St. Louis and the Mets won 6-1. Tonight is game two against the Redbirds.

Speaking of baseball, a few friends wrote to me about MLB's inaugral Civil Rights Game, which was played on Saturday, an exhibition game in Memphis, not far from the site of Martin Luther King's assassination.

It doesn't take a cynic to see that the underlying reason for the Civil Rights game is to draw more African-Americans to the game, both as fans and participants. Turns out that the numbers of American black players (not from a Latin country) have dwindled in recent years to a small percentage of major league players. It was 8 percent last season -- in 1975, it was 25 percent (according to Major League Baseball). The reason why is still being debated (MLB is studying the issue and a report is due out next year) but from what I can tell the consensus seems to be several reasons from the obvious (lack of ballparks in big cities) to the fact that it's easier in other sports to get to the professional levels (there's no minor leagues in football) and that it's not the kind of tv-oriented sport that big time college basketball and football is.

You could take the cynical approach and you'd have a point but what struck me most about the coverage and the events surrounding it was the reaction by the ex-black players -- like Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan -- who seemed really into the whole thing. And these guys aren't exactly known for lock-stepping to MLB's hierarchy. Robinson, baseball's first black manager, has long been known as a maverick, for example. My point is that if they think the Civil Rights game is a good thing, who am I to argue?

I did find one thing very curious, however and that is the selection of the teams involved. The game pitted the the St.Louis Cardinals against the Cleveland Indians. That's right, the Indians. Who says irony is dead?