Monday, May 5, 2008

FROM MY SEAT: Tolling for Eight Belles

Posted By on Mon, May 5, 2008 at 4:00 AM

• The most sickening sight in sports is that of a thoroughbred racehorse lying injured on the track. The collapse and death of Eight Belles at Churchill Downs -- merely seconds after the filly finished second to Big Brown in Saturday's Kentucky Derby -- will again challenge us to distinguish between what we define as sport and what animal-rights activists consider abuse. With the painful memory of 2006 Derby champion Barbaro -- injured at the 2006 Preakness, euthanized in January 2007 -- still fresh in the minds of those who follow the Sport of Kings, the loss of Eight Belles seems that much harder to accept.

The most reasonable complaint I've read argues that after centuries of breeding these glorious creatures, thoroughbreds have simply grown too large and powerful for the brittle legs that carry them. At what point does the risk of mortal injury deflate -- perhaps negate -- the rush of seeing descendants of Secretariat and Affirmed in full flight?

The memory I'll carry with me from the 2008 Kentucky Derby will be my daughter's utter heartbreak. Not quite 9 years old but already a horse lover of the highest order, Sofia will be mourning for some time now . . . over an animal she got to know for two minutes of her life. The most beautiful sight in sports is that of a thoroughbred racehorse doing what it was born to do, racing to the limits of its very design for a glory that we humans seize the moment it crosses the finish line. I'll keep watching and relishing that beauty. But pardon me as I hold my breath the next time.

Rest in peace, Eight Belles. Heaven's pasture is always green.

• If you measure success in the NBA by games won -- how else? -- the four most successful coaches over the last three years are Avery Johnson (178 wins), Gregg Popovich (177), Flip Saunders (176), and Mike D'Antoni (170). So it's considerably ironic that half of that foursome may soon be unemployed, Johnson having been fired by Dallas last week and D'Antoni apparently on the outs in Phoenix.

Where Johnson and D'Antoni "failed" is in not winning a championship for franchises loaded with future Hall of Famers like Jason Kidd, Dirk Nowitzki, Steve Nash, and Shaquille O'Neal. But consider the job security here in Memphis had Marc Iavaroni won 51 games last season (as the Mavericks did) or 55 (as the Suns did). The relative standards, one NBA franchise to the next, are among the cold, heartless truths to life in "The League." I'd venture to say Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Woodson earned at least another year on the bench merely by winning three games against mighty Boston in the first round (after losing more games than he won in the regular season). There are times, it would seem, an NBA coach's worst enemy is extraordinary success. Minus the ring, that success will merely buy you a plane ticket out of town.

All of which means the return of Iavaroni to coach the Grizzlies a second season was precisely the right decision by owner Michael Heisley. Having never called the shots before the 2007-08 season, Iavaroni was a rookie in the literal sense, without a frame of reference to measure his strengths or weaknesses. All that changes next season. And if Iavaroni can't close the gap between a team with consecutive 22-60 records and the Western Conference's playoff regulars, he won't be able to say he wasn't given the chance.

• Much was made of the extraordinary strength of the Western Conference this season, with -- for the first time in history -- eight 50-win teams entering the playoff fray. So it was somewhat surprising to see only one of the four opening-round series (Utah vs. Houston) go as many as six games.

With the playoffs currently lasting a full two months, it seems a return to the best-of-five opening-round format should be a consideration. Every team that won its opening round series (including the Eastern Conference) would have won had the best-of-five format been in place. Of course, this "less is more" approach would be for NBA fans. And it's all about the mighty dollar when you see that playoff logo on NBA courts. The more games, the more revenue. End of debate.

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