Monday, July 30, 2012

The Summer Olympics: A Viewer’s Guide

Posted By on Mon, Jul 30, 2012 at 9:16 AM

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The older I get, the more cynical I become when it comes to the Olympic Games. Too much flag-waving. Over-enhanced drama. And money, money, money. (I’d like a dollar for every Coca-Cola commercial you see over the next two weeks.) But then the Opening Ceremonies are televised, a parade of athletes — most of them anonymous — enters a single stadium, and I’m hooked once more.

With memories of seven Summer Games dancing in my head, the least I can do is provide some tips on how best to enjoy the London Olympics. And how to properly measure Olympic achievement.

• Forget the medal count. Standings at the Olympics are meaningless. Google a ranking of countries by population and you’ll see a reasonable forecast for the final medal count, topped by the United States, China, and Russia (in some order). The Cold War is over, friends. Watching your favorite swimmer beat a chemically enhanced East German . . . that was 1984. And Russians these days share a common enemy with the U.S.: a knocked-to-its-knees economy. Cheer your favorite athletes, but allow yourself to be surprised by rooting for that incomparable Chinese gymnast, or the Italian cyclist with a name that rolls off your tongue.

• There are two kinds of Olympic heroes, and only two. The first we’ll call the Scripted One. These are typically a runner or swimmer we all know will win multiple medals (most of them gold) before the Olympic torch is lit. Carl Lewis in ’84, Michael Phelps four years ago. This year’s U.S. team is surprisingly low on Scripted Ones (though Phelps is back, four medals shy of 20 for his career). Gymnastics is the summer version of figure skating, and surely one of the young ladies flipping, leaping, and bouncing her way to gold will be selling a major soft drink by September. (Best bets: Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas.)

The other kind of hero is the Sweet Surprise. Think Mary Lou Retton in ’84 (yes, a gymnast) or wrestler Rulon Gardner in 2000 (for my money, the greatest Olympic upset since the 1980 U.S. hockey team). If it’s not the gymnastics team that provides this personality, look for an undersized boxer or a distance runner who comes from behind on the final lap. They’ll be the athletes making cross-country tours this fall.

• Tolerate judges. I happen to prefer sports where you can keep score at home. I like a point total, or a clock. I love Olympic weightlifting, believe it or not. A lifter can either clean-and-jerk that barbell — twice his own weight — or he cannot. Weightlifting is dramatic, quick, and excruciating to watch. (And any sport with “clean-and-jerk” and “snatch” a part of its lingo deserves more attention.)

Olympic gymnastics is immensely popular. So is diving. Watch these sports for the personality sagas, but I defy you to measure the difference between a gold-medalist on the balance beam and the silver-medalist. As for jumping from a platform 10 meters above a pool and entering the water without a splash ... every diver deserves a medal for not being dragged out of the pool with a hook.

• “Major sports” are secondary at the Olympics. Tennis has Wimbledon. (This year, Olympic tennis will actually be played on the hallowed grounds.) Soccer has the World Cup. Basketball has the Miami Heat. Truth be told, when Kobe Bryant receives his gold medal in London, it will likely be packed with his socks for the trip home. Hats off to Kobe for joining the NBA p.r. tour, but he measures himself by the games he plays in June, not August.

With the number of events available over this fortnight, you can comfortably ignore these “majors” and find yourself with memories that may, in fact, stand out four years from now. I’ll be checking for coverage of water polo (requiring the athleticism of basketball, with the possibility of drowning). And I love old-fashioned, indoor volleyball. As Yogi Berra might say, it’s the best spectator sport that nobody watches.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Two Takes on the Ole Miss/Memphis Rivalry

Posted By on Mon, Jul 23, 2012 at 9:21 AM

New University of Memphis athletic director Tom Bowen thinks the Tigers should play Ole Miss in football. Memphis basketball coach Josh Pastner thinks playing Ole Miss on the hardwood is a bad idea.

I disagree with both of them.

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The longtime Tiger-Rebel football series will be renewed (after four dormant years) in 2014. As part of its second season in the Big East Conference — and presumably the third under coach Justin Fuente — Memphis will travel to Oxford in search of its 11th win in 60 games against Ole Miss. The following year, of course, the Tigers should draw a crowd of at least 40,000 to the Liberty Bowl to see a rematch — as many of them pulling for the visitors as for the home team.

Why this madness? Why this decades-long pursuit of some degree of validity for the Memphis football program, with a less than 20 percent chance of beating one of the SEC’s weak sisters? (Think it’s ugly when Ole Miss is on the schedule? Memphis is 2-25 against all SEC competition since beating Peyton Manning and Tennessee in 1996, a game that was supposed to change everything for the Tiger program.) All for a boost in ticket sales? For a nod to “regional rivalry?” The Tigers have lost nine of their last 11 games against the Rebels. This is to rivalry as a hammer is to a nail.

There’s one person I know grateful to have an SEC-free schedule for Memphis (a first since 1948): Justin Fuente. When I recently asked him about the conspicuous absence, he said the following: “This program isn’t ready to play [the SEC] yet. I don’t mind playing them, but right now ... we’re building this program.” If you’re looking for reasons to support the rookie coach, cut and paste that line on your desktop. Some perspective is required, especially for fans (and U of M officials) that have known Memphis-Ole Miss so long they’ve grown numb to the damage serial losing does to a program. To recruiting. To morale. Perhaps by 2014, Memphis will be “ready” to face SEC opposition. But I think I’ve seen this movie before.

Then there’s basketball, and Pastner’s aversion to playing Tennessee or Ole Miss. (Bowen announced last week the Tigers and Rebels will renew their hoops series as well.) The Tiger coach — approaching his fourth season — apparently feels these SEC programs gain a recruiting advantage by playing Memphis. Not when they lose to Memphis, Coach. (Memphis is 27-12 against Ole Miss.) The Tiger basketball program is as different from the football program as a poached egg is from barbecue ribs. The Tiger basketball brand is as powerful and as wide reaching as any in the SEC, save mighty Kentucky. (And please, please, Mr. Bowen: Schedule the Wildcats for a visit to FedExForum.) To reject games against the likes of Ole Miss (or Tennessee) is to make a concession the Memphis program need not make. Only one of these teams will suit up three McDonald’s All-Americans this winter.

The basketball schedule will get more complicated, of course, when Memphis enters the Big East (for the 2013-14 campaign). Nonconference foes won’t require the same pedigree (for RPI purposes) as they did when the Tigers were running roughshod over Conference USA. And the argument could be made that facing a Big Ten team or ACC team would be as good for the U of M as inviting an SEC foe to town. But I would urge the Tigers’ rising star of a coach not to publicly shun such battles. If the goal is truly a national championship, are we to consider the recruiting efforts of Ole Miss and Tennessee a major barrier? If they want to play, beat them. Easy math.

Meanwhile, I’ll toss a prayer to the basketball gods for that Kentucky invitation. John Calipari isn’t getting any younger.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Olympic "Dream Team" Debate

Posted By on Mon, Jul 16, 2012 at 9:25 AM

"Whenever they get 11 Hall-of-Famers, you call and ask me who had the better Dream Team.” — Michael Jordan (July 12, 2012)

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I love the cross-country verbal feud that surfaced last week between a pair of basketball legends. When current star (and 2012 Olympian) Kobe Bryant suggested this year’s “Dream Team” could handle the original version of 20 years ago, a retired legend — and to many, the greatest player ever to don sneakers — argued quite publicly to the contrary. Always wondered what Kobe vs. MJ might look like? This may be the closest we’ll ever get.

This kind of debate is manna from a sports historian’s heaven. It goes beyond scores, stats, or standings. It goes beyond a number of championship rings (Jordan has six and Kobe five, in case you insist on keeping score). It goes beyond jersey sales and contract figures, endorsements and special appearances. (Kobe has never starred alongside Bugs Bunny.) This kind of cross-generational feud is about that most basic sports ingredient ... competition. Rivalry. Bryant stands by his current cohorts in red, white, and blue. Jordan stands up for his bunch (Magic, Larry, Charles, etc.) from another era, perhaps, but as alive today for most basketball fans as they were in embarrassing international competition in Barcelona.

If modern sports fans have a shared weakness, it’s living too much in the moment. Worse, they tend to live for what’s to come at the expense of what has been achieved. Let’s check NBA jersey sales next December. I’m willing to bet David Robinson’s gold medal (he played for the 1992 Dream Team) that Hornet rookie Anthony Davis will sell more jerseys than living legend Tim Duncan. A 15-year veteran with four championships and two MVP trophies, Duncan signed a three-year contract extension with his Spurs last week and got less national attention for doing so than various players being “amnestied” (waived) by clubs in cost-saving decisions. Many call Davis the next Tim Duncan ... while we still have the actual Duncan to watch, admire, and emulate.

How would the 1973 Memphis State Tigers fare against Keith Lee’s 1985 crew? (If UCLA couldn’t bottle up Larry Finch, I can’t see Andre Turner or Baskerville Holmes pulling the trick.) Could the Whiteyball Cardinals of 1982 handle Tony LaRussa’s Wild Cards of 2011? If only we could see Nick Saban’s 2011 Alabama squad confront Bear Bryant’s fabled 1965 champs. Pull up a seat and we’ll debate who’d win these contests, and, while we’re at it, try and concoct a time machine that would allow such a treat.

I didn’t forget the quotation marks in my reference to the ’92 Dream Team. The only mistake that squad (and its coach, Chuck Daly) made was not copyrighting — once and forever — the catchy name it adopted in making basketball history. When the Olympic team (including Memphian Penny Hardaway) four years later was called “Dream Team III,” the moniker was ruined. (The team that competed in the 1994 world championship, believe it or not, was called “Dream Team II.”) Now 20 years later, anointing the latest band of NBA All-Stars a “Dream Team” is patently offensive. There was, is, and will always be only one Dream Team, whether or not they’d win a game against another band of ballers.

When I look at the roster of the 2012 U.S. Olympic basketball team, I count four players who, if they stay healthy and perform at their current level at least 10 years (one already has) are certain Hall of Famers: Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul. Three others are possibilities, though with much still to accomplish for Hall status: Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love, and Deron Williams. As for the other five (Tyson Chandler, Russell Westbrook, Andre Iguodala, James Harden, and Anthony Davis himself), you tell me. A great team, but hardly dreamy.

When pondering how Jordan and company might handle today’s Olympians, you’d do well to remember the apocryphal tale of Ty Cobb at the middle of the twentieth century. A man who competed against Cobb decades earlier was asked how the great Tiger hitter would do against modern pitchers. According to legend, the man replied, “I think Cobb would hit about .330. Of course, he’s 64 years old.”

Monday, July 9, 2012

A Memphis Redbirds All-Star Team

Posted By on Mon, Jul 9, 2012 at 9:53 AM

An All-Star Team for the RedBirds

The baseball season reaches its symbolic midpoint Tuesday night when Kansas City hosts the national pastime’s 83rd All-Star Game. Kauffman Stadium will be home to no fewer than 70(!) of the game’s finest players. (So fine that Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, and Ichiro Suzuki will be home watching like you and me.)

What if we were to name an All-Star team (based on this year’s body of work) comprised of only former Memphis Redbirds? As you’ll see, we’d get mixed results. (All stats are through Sunday’s action.)

CATCHER — Yadier Molina (St. Louis Cardinals) For some time now, Molina has been the finest defensive catcher in the game. But the four-time Gold Glover has developed into a middle-of-the-order run producer for rookie manager Mike Matheny. He’s already on the cusp of surpassing his career high of 14 home runs (13 through Sunday) and has driven in 45 while hitting a cool .304.

FIRST BASE — Albert Pujols (Los Angeles Angels) Following the worst start to any of his 12 seasons (not a single long ball in April), Pujols will miss his second straight Midsummer Classic. But he’s started to swing the bat like the Machine Cardinal fans knew and loved. His current batting average (.268) and OPS (.795) would be, far and away, the worst of his career. But still good enough to make this team.

SECOND BASE — Daniel Descalso (St. Louis Cardinals) He’s a better hitter than his .223 average would suggest. And he’s the best fielder among the three second-sackers Matheny has utilized this season (the others are Skip Schumaker and Tyler Greene). There was a time not long ago when the Phillies’ Placido Polanco would have this spot locked down, but Polanco is now exclusively a third baseman.

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THIRD BASE — David Freese (St. Louis Cardinals) The hero of last year’s postseason has managed to stay healthy and productive through the first half of 2012. Freese enters the break hitting .294 with 13 homers and 51 RBIs. He’s one of three players on this list (along with the two pitchers) actually playing in Tuesday night’s event, having been voted in as the final National League selection by fans.

SHORTSTOP — Brendan Ryan (Seattle Mariners) For whatever reason, the Cardinals/Redbirds have been unable to develop big-league talent at the infield’s most challenging position. Track the list of shortstops at AutoZone Park and you’ll see names like Jason Bowers, John Nelson, and yes, Tyler Greene. Ryan is a slick fielder and will make plays most men don’t. His glove is the only reason Ryan stays in the Seattle lineup with an average well south of the Mendoza Line (.187).

LEFTFIELD — Allen Craig (St. Louis Cardinals) Since a national audience last saw Craig catching the final out of the 2011 World Series at this position, we’ll place him here for now. He’s been limited to 46 games due to a pair of injuries, but he’s nonetheless hit 13 home runs and driven in 44. Calls to mind the 2010 season, when he drove in 81 runs for Memphis in 83 games.

CENTERFIELD — Colby Rasmus (Toronto Blue Jays) The petulant phenom has apparently found a comfort zone north of the border. Playing in baseball’s toughest division, Rasmus has hit .259 with 17 home runs and 53 RBIs. A five-tool specimen as a Cardinal prospect, Rasmus could yet make the trade that sent him to Toronto a painful memory for Cardinal fans. (Though St. Louis doesn’t reach the 2011 playoffs without Edwin Jackson, the pitching rental Rasmus brought the Cards.)

RIGHTFIELD — Rick Ankiel (Washington Nationals) Consider this an honorary selection. Another former phenom (remember his pitching days at Tim McCarver Stadium?), Ankiel turns 33 next week, which means he’s stuck around 12 years after his infamous mound meltdown in the 2000 playoffs for St. Louis. Which should also mean he can join a different club of “might-have-beens” than the one headed by Steve Blass. Through Sunday, he has 269 career strikeouts (as a pitcher) and 233 RBIs.

STARTING PITCHER — Lance Lynn (St. Louis Cardinals) Where might St. Louis be without Lynn this season? Chris Carpenter shelved for the season. Adam Wainwright finding his way back after Tommy John surgery. And Jaime Garcia relegated to the disabled list with shoulder pain. All Lynn has done is pitch 103 innings, win 11 games, and pace the Cardinals with 105 strikeouts. Durability will be the question for Lynn as the dog days approach. Here’s hoping he gets to take the mound in Kansas City.

RELIEF PITCHER — Chris Perez (Cleveland Indians) The worst trade St. Louis has made this century was the deal that sent Dan Haren to Oakland for Mark Mulder. But as this shaggy closer continues to rack up saves for the Indians (36 in 2011, 24 this season), the swap of Perez for Mark DeRosa will enter the debate. DeRosa spent three forgettable months with the Cardinals, wrestling with one injury after another. Perez appears to have a decade of closing games in his future. Starting with Tuesday night’s game in the nation’s spotlight.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The U.S.: One Nation, Under Sports

Posted By on Mon, Jul 2, 2012 at 9:19 AM

If you look at the front page of your paper (or the home page of your favorite news site), it’s easy to come away with the feeling America has never been more divided. We can’t agree on the federal government’s role in managing the economy. We can’t agree on what makes an immigrant legal (and when). We can’t agree on the nature of health care, and whether or not it should be an obligation. Then you have the age-old scream-generators: abortion, gun control, campaign financing.

Ain’t it great to be an American?

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As Independence Day nears, though, I’m reminded of the last and best unifier we Americans enjoy year-round. It’s sports. The games our children play, the teams we cheer (or boo), the activities that keep us (well, some of us) healthy.

There’s irony to the unifying quality of American sports, of course. Seat a Grizzlies fan next to a Clippers fan on a flight from Memphis to L.A. and see how “unified” they feel after three hours. But that’s precisely the magic of sports. Two people from two different parts of the world, likely with entirely different lifestyles and daily priorities, who live and breathe over the same series of basketball games. Sports matter.

I’ve seen cars in the FedExForum parking garage with Obama bumper stickers parked next to cars with Palin stickers. For all I know, there’s a red-clad fan sitting next to a blue-clad fan, bound together for 41 games of die-hard cheering ... until election night. (Which makes me wonder: Does Mitt Romney have a favorite team? If President Obama wears his White Sox jersey to a debate, what does Romney wear?)

College football fans in these parts might question the unifying quality of their sport of choice, especially when morons are poisoning trees in the interest of waving their favorite team’s flag. But these idiots are like plane crashes: they steal headlines from the thousands upon thousands of flights that take off and land without incident.

I attended the 2006 induction ceremony at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Took my seat — on a scalding-hot bleacher — right next to a woman in a Troy Aikman jersey (the former Cowboy quarterback was among the inductees). We exchanged pleasantries and the woman introduced me to her husband — the guy sitting on her other side — wearing a Washington Redskins jersey. I’ve spent the better part of six years trying to do the math on that slice of matrimony, wondering how fall can be endured with an NFL Hatfield and McCoy under the same roof. There’s a bonding metaphor somewhere, and it has as much to do with sports bringing fans together as it does love bringing couples together.

My dad grew up in Memphis, a Cardinal fan, and a supporter of Jimmy Carter. For more than twenty years, he lived next-door to a Red Sox fan in New England, a man with photos of Ronald Reagan and one George Bush or another on his office wall. My dad and his neighbor were devoted golf partners. His neighbor — his dear friend — eulogized my father at his memorial service in 2005. These two had reason to shun each other as misguided political enemies. But that would have further spoiled countless walks from tee to green. Sports matter — and they unify.

If you mix and match the colors of the current champions in the NFL (New York Giants), NBA (Miami Heat), and Major League Baseball (St. Louis Cardinals), you get a nice blend of red, white, and blue. Coincidental for sure. But at a time when so many news items divide us, in a year when we’ll have to choose blue or red come November, it’s nice to consider the role sports play in making America a single, unified nation. The Olympic Games open in London later this month, with enough flag-waving to mist the eyes of the most steely of patriots. It’s a degree of jingoism we should let be. For it’s less about policy-making or borders than racing in a pool or on a track. A kind of conflict we can embrace as one.

Have a safe and happy Fourth.

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