• I like to count future Hall of Famers each year, and there really aren’t many locks (yet) on the Pittsburgh or Green Bay rosters. If Ben Roethlisberger becomes the fifth quarterback to win three Super Bowls, he’ll move closer to enshrinement consideration. If Steeler safety Troy Polamalu somehow stays healthy another four or five years (big if, there) he’ll get one of the more unique-looking busts in Canton. With 954 career receptions, Pittsburgh’s Hines Ward is eighth all-time, but the stat has become so inflated that even 1,000 catches doesn’t guarantee Hall induction (see Cris Carter).
As for the Packers, cornerback Charles Woodson (seven Pro Bowls and the 2009 Defensive Player of the Year) is on the margin. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers is playing like a Hall of Famer, but is too young to project. Likewise linebacker Clay Matthews. The beauty of this classic match-up is that the teams aren’t superstar-driven. They’re just very, very sound teams.
• On the subject of the Hall of Fame, the 2011 class will be announced this Saturday in Dallas. Among the 17 finalists, there are two locks on the ballot for the first time: Deion Sanders and Marshall Faulk. If I were given three other votes, I’d select Richard Dent, Shannon Sharpe, and Carter. The 1985 Chicago Bears defense was one of the finest units ever assembled, and two of its members — Mike Singletary and Dan Hampton — are already enshrined in Canton. With 137.5 career sacks (and eight seasons with at least 10), Dent should be the third. This will be Dent’s seventh year as a finalist. Sharpe is second only to Tony Gonzalez on the list of receptions by a tight end and played for three Super Bowl champs. And while Carter never played in a Super Bowl, his 1,101 receptions, eight consecutive seasons with 1,000 yards, and 130 career touchdowns are Hall of Fame stuff.
• The NFC has remarkably sent 10 different teams to the Super Bowl over the last 10 seasons. (Perhaps this narrows down next year’s potential champ to Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, San Francisco, or Washington. I’ll go with the Falcons.) Meanwhile, the AFC has been heavy with the triumvirate of Pittsburgh, New England, and Indianapolis, teams that collectively have played in nine of the last 10 Super Bowls.
• This will be the 32nd Super Bowl I will watch start-to-finish. A short countdown of the 10 most memorable:
10) 1988 season (49ers 20, Bengals 16) — Cincinnati’s Tim Krumrie’s injury is the most graphic in SB history. Then, of course, there was Joe Montana’s game-winning drive.
9) 1990 (Giants 20, Bills 19) — With apologies to the 2007 Patriots, this Buffalo team is the best to lose a SB.
8) 1987 (Redskins 42, Broncos 10) — This was supposed to be a blowout for Denver. Then Washington scored 35 points ... in the second quarter.
7) 1999 (Rams 23, Titans 16) — A team from Tennessee facing a team from St. Louis. For a third-generation Cardinal fan born in Knoxville, this was all the angle I needed.
6) 1985 (Bears 46, Patriots 10) — Complete. Utter. Domination. And a touchdown by the Fridge.
5) 2001 (Patriots 20, Rams 17) — Five months after September 11, 2001, it just seemed right for a team called the Patriots to win.
4) 2006 (Colts 29, Bears 17) — Again, I was born in Knoxville. Peyton Manning.
3) 2007 (Giants 17, Patriots 14) — Ridiculous catch; ridiculous upset.
2) 2009 (Saints 31, Colts 17) — New Orleans was the best team in the NFL. Say that again.
1) 1992 (Cowboys 52, Bills 17) — A long wait ended for a fan introduced to the sport by Roger Staubach, Tony Dorsett, and the Doomsday Defense.
• The Packers are aiming to become the fourth franchise (after Pittsburgh, Dallas, and San Francisco) to win four Super Bowls. The Steelers, of course, have the most titles with six. Each franchise has only lost one Super Bowl, the Steelers to Dallas after the 1995 season and the Packers to Denver after the 1997 campaign.
• THE PICK: Green Bay won’t be able to run against the Steeler front seven. And I’m convinced Pittsburgh’s secondary — Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, Ryan Clark, and friends — will disrupt things for Aaron Rodgers. Yep, defense wins championships. Steelers 24, Packers 13.
I don't like Derrick Rose.
This isn't a view I enjoy, and not one I relish sharing. But it's a stance I've come to accept after more than two years of conflicted thoughts, an angel (wearing number 23) whispering on one of my shoulders, a devil (in number 1) screaming on the other. My dad used to advise me against such negative vibes, something about wasted energy in a realm (sports) that should be an emotional booster. But the logic didn't take. Roger Staubach was Captain America to me, so Terry Bradshaw's black helmet fit his villainous role in my life like Darth Vader's cape. Ozzie Smith was my guy when baseball season arrived, and to this day I harbor no fond memories of Ryne Sandberg, the anti-Ozzie then and forever. To this rogues gallery I'm now adding Derrick Rose's name. But it's much more complicated than a Steeler quarterback or Cub infielder.
To begin with, I admire Rose's tremendous talents on the basketball court. Over my decade covering the University of Memphis program, Rose is the only player who has made me stare. He's the fastest player dribbling a basketball I've ever seen. He even seems to elevate faster when jumping, something I'm not sure is physically possible. The fact that he's in the discussion for NBA Most Valuable Player during a season that would be his senior year of college says much about how brilliant Rose already is, and suggests no ceiling for where he'll go over the next 10 to 12 years as a pro. There are some great young point guards in the NBA: Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook. If I were building a team, I'd take Rose over all three.
My distaste for Rose isn't personal by any means. Most would describe him with that most generic (if condescending) salute: "a sweet kid." Soft-spoken and (to this day) media shy, Rose would look a reporter in the eye when answering a question as a freshman Tiger. You could count his words with your fingers, but he aimed to play the role he knew came with athletic stardom. In this sense, he was more mature than some four-year players at the U of M.
Rose has apparently shunned the kind of entourage many stars of his age require, his older brothers the only "handlers" in his circle. Again, an admirable trait, even if his brothers may have been protective to a fault in preparing their future breadwinner for a necessary winter of college basketball. Only Derrick Rose could tell you if he knew of that now-infamous SAT plot, but he'll be buried before he does.
Which brings us back to my uncomfortable view of a perennial (to be) NBA All-Star. Had things unfolded a little differently in Rose's preparation for college, he'd carry a banner for Memphis sports fans the rest of his career. So he played only one season here. Penny Hardaway played but two, and he's an institution, even (perhaps especially) with an NBA career that fell short of expectations. Rose trumped Penny's college achievements by taking the Tigers to the Final Four. Had the only free throw Rose missed against Kansas in the 2008 championship game fallen through the net, the Tigers would have been national champions. Temporarily.
And that's where Rose will stand in Memphis sports history: a temporary fix like no other narcotic this hoops-mad town has ever seen. I've lived in Memphis 20 years now, and I've never witnessed community-wide euphoria like I saw in the late winter and early spring of 2008. Schools, budgets, Mayor Herenton, even race was all pushed back to allow more cheering of the top-ranked college team in the country on its way to the sport's biggest stage.
Look up to the rafters today, of course, and there is no 2008 Final Four banner. Pick up an NCAA record book and there is no 38-win season by the Memphis Tigers. (You'll notice that no banner has been raised for the 2010 NIT team. I'd have trouble putting such a tribute two slots away from the "vacated" Final Four flag.) And there's no other way to put this: when I see those "vacancies," I see (and remember) Derrick Rose. And when I see Rose play for the Chicago Bulls now -- when he's racking up his first career triple-double against our own Grizzlies -- I see those vacancies. It's a bit of a curse, as Rose is going to be prominently visible long after the ache of a stripped season should subside.
Derrick Rose was not the first, nor the last one-and-done hoops mercenary to lace up sneakers for the Memphis Tigers. And I don't think there was any malice in his approach to an NBA-forced season of college basketball. But just as Rose led the Memphis community to heights it hadn't seen in years, he personifies the blemish on that amazing season, one that will never be forgotten for dramatically conflicted reasons. Makes it hard to cheer for him.
Over the last 10 days, I'e found myself yearning for distraction, eager to find a game to draw my attention away from the dreadful event of January 8th, when congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was attacked by a gun-wielding lunatic and six of Giffords' supporters died before they should have. Giffords' slow and brave recovery from a bullet wound to her head is an inspiring reminder that decency and hope will prevail, but also a reminder of the depths man can reach, even on a sunny Saturday morning in Arizona.
So I find distractions. The Memphis Tigers' confounding season is doing a little more than distracting many local basketball fans, a team expected to win a game or two in the NCAA tournament now on the fast track for another NIT appearance. The Grizzlies, likewise, show promise one week by whipping the world champions, then go through the motions in a loss to the lowly Charlotte Bobcats. Inconsistency will make a sports fan nuts, but it serves as a decent distraction, no?
The NFL playoffs have been fun, if confounding in their own right. A team with a losing record gets to host the reigning Super Bowl champions (a team with four more wins, representing one-fourth of an entire season) ... and beats them? This is good, right? And how about this for an astounding fact: Despite a rivalry that dates back almost 90 years, this Sunday will be the first time the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers have played for an NFL or NFC championship. And the possibility exists for each conference's lowest seed facing each other in the Super Bowl.
My favorite day of the football season -- college or pro -- is this Sunday. Hall of Fame coach John Madden said there was no game a team wanted to win more desperately -- and no game more painful to lose -- than the conference title game, a ticket to the Super Bowl on the line. Makes for some great football when every last player is desperate. It's easy to be distracted when games are played with passion.
Last Saturday, I covered the Tigers' win over Marshall at FedExForum, went home for some family time, then took my wife and two daughters to FEF to watch the Grizzlies-Mavericks game. In between, I took advantage of the mild temperatures by throwing batting practice to one of my daughters and two of her friends. You could say it was a day of distraction, the dribble of a basketball echoing in my ears and baseball in January giving me hope for an early arrival of my good friend, Spring.
Last Wednesday in Tucson, President Barack Obama had one of his more inspiring days since taking office two years ago. With distractions turned off long enough for the entire country to listen, Obama saluted 9-year-old shooting victim Christina Green in saying what we all feel today: "I want to live up to her expectations. I want our democracy to be as good as Christina imagined it." We can only hope that the horror of a life taken so young might be translated into a rallying cry for a new way of thinking, a spirit that can lead us to a better, happier place. I'll be thinking of Christina Green for a long time, even amid my distractions.
Happy new year, dear readers. A few quick hits to start 2011:
• It was nice to see Conference USA’s football champion, after four straight losses, finally beat an SEC squad in the Liberty Bowl. So UCF beat a Georgia team that was merely 8th among SEC clubs, and by four points. A win’s a win. C-USA needed it.
• Wednesday night’s game in Knoxville is huge for the Memphis Tigers. At some point, Josh Pastner’s bunch has to win a big game on the road. The Vols have shown themselves to be vulnerable of late (losses to Charlotte, Southern Cal, and Charleston), and this is the Tigers’ last chance this season to take down a team from a power conference. Lose Wednesday, and even an undefeated run through C-USA would likely mean a seed of no higher than five in the NCAA tournament.
• Over the holidays, I read Roland Lazenby’s terrific biography, Jerry West, (published in 2009 by Ballantine and ESPN Books). I interviewed West in 2002 for a story in Memphis magazine, and the Hall of Famer explained how he had left the NBA — briefly, it turned out — because the stress of losses was too much to overcome the elation of victories. Lazenby makes it clear that this brand of self-torment was part of the way West played (and lived) throughout his 14-year NBA career. Losing six times to the Celtics in the Finals without a win will do that to a guy.
The book (387 pages) barely mentions West’s tenure as president of the Grizzlies. But local fans will enjoy the tale of West talking Nets’ coach/GM John Calipari out of drafting a certain player in 1996, one West was convinced could get his Lakers back to championship contention. Calipari was persuaded by The Logo, allowing Charlotte to draft Kobe Bryant, who was then traded (by pre-arrangement) to the Lakers. Wonder if West and Coach Cal discussed this much during West’s time in Memphis?
• If I had a ballot for this week’s Baseball Hall of Fame election, I’d vote for Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, and Jeff Bagwell. (Bagwell is a first-ballot inductee in my eyes. His big numbers coming during the steroid era, though, won’t help him.) As for the much-debated Bert Blyleven, he’d get my vote, too. Gaylord Perry won 314 games, struck out 3,534 hitters, and pitched 53 shutouts. He was elected to the Hall in his third year of eligibility. Blyleven won 287 games, struck out 3,701 hitters, and pitched 60 shutouts. And he was a member of the starting rotation for two world champions (’79 Pirates and ’87 Twins). Yet he’s now on the ballot for a 14th time. His plaque is overdue.
• The NFL is getting what it deserves with the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks going to the playoffs while the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers — both 10-6 — stay home. Four-team divisions are ridiculous. (Why not create 16 two-team divisions and let every “division champion” into the playoffs?) Accidents of geography should not determine playoff berths. Best of all, the Seahawks will HOST the 11-5 New Orleans Saints. By virtue of that division championship, of course.
• I helped put together a cover story on Rudy Gay for the January issue of our sister publication, Memphis magazine. A look at Gay’s fitness regimen, what it takes to stay healthy through the grind of a long NBA season. So what happens before the Grizzlies’ first game of the new year? Gay comes down with a stomach bug. A local version of the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx? Jeesh.
• Keep this date in mind: January 16th. This will be Albert Pujols’s 31st birthday. Nice occasion for a contract extension, no?