Monday, October 29, 2012

Heat vs. Lakers in the NBA Finals? Boring.

Posted By on Mon, Oct 29, 2012 at 9:29 AM

“Miami Heat hosts Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of 2013 NBA Finals”

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Predictability stinks. Predictability is like the common cold of sports. It happens far too frequently, and there’s no known cure.

Predictability is why fans of 29 major-league baseball teams root so hard against the New York Yankees, a given variable in the sport’s playoff structure for almost 20 years, a team with 16 more championships than the second-most successful franchise.

Predictability is why college football fans not wearing crimson have come to revile Nick Saban’s Alabama juggernaut. The Tide will win the 2012 national championship. Due respect to the Ducks of Oregon and the Wildcats of Kansas State (Kansas State?!). You’re playing for second.

The NBA, sadly, is growing too predictable for its own good. In 2007, after 21 years without a title, the Boston Celtics (basketball’s Yankees) added All-Stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to a roster desperately in need of a talent infusion. In June 2008, the Celtics won their 17th NBA championship.

The Miami Heat followed the Celtics’ example and stretched the standard for super-team construction in 2010 by adding Chris Bosh and the greatest player on the planet, LeBron James, to a club already featuring Dwyane Wade. In 2012, the Heat manhandled the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Finals to win the Larry O’Brien Trophy.

[You like unpredictable? Hang on to memories of the 2010-11 NBA season. Derrick Rose — merely 22 years old — interrupted James’s stranglehold on the MVP trophy, the Memphis Grizzlies knocked off the mighty San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the playoffs, and the perennial bridesmaid Dallas Mavericks beat Miami — that very super team — in the Finals.]

Now we have the 2012-13 season, which opens Tuesday night with three games, featuring (predictably) the Celtics, Heat, and Lakers. In answer to the Heat’s roster inflation, the Los Angeles Lakers (basketball’s Crimson Tide) added a pair of All-NBA veterans in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Howard and Nash — the faces, respectively, of the Orlando and Phoenix franchises — merely supplement a team still centered around five-time champion Kobe Bryant. Here we go, formula firmly in place.

Now, don’t confuse predictable with familiar. Television ratings soar when Tiger Woods is in contention on the weekend. He’s the face of golf, the most important brand the sport can claim this side of Amen Corner at Augusta. But golf fans now recognize Woods can be held off on Sunday. They watch with rooting interest (for or against Woods), but with genuine doubt about the outcome.

When the Grizzlies open their 12th Memphis season Wednesday night in Los Angeles (against the Clippers), they’ll do so with one of the most familiar starting fives in the NBA. This will be the fourth season the Griz backbone is comprised of the same foursome: Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay, and Mike Conley. Compare this with those champion Mavericks of two seasons ago: only two starters remain in Dallas.

Can the familiar Grizzlies help prevent the oh-so-predictable NBA season I fear from unfolding? You get the sense this is the season for that Familiar Foursome to do what it’s destined to do. If that’s to be a good-not-great team, win another playoff series, and bow out with shoulders up, so be it. Maybe this group of Grizzlies is destined to disappoint. After the exhilarating tease of 2011 — one game shy of the Western Conference finals — they’ll be unable to take that fabled “next step.”

My sense is that the 2012-13 Grizzlies are precisely what the NBA needs, at least that segment of an enormous following not so devoted to super teams. The Lakers — on paper, predictably — stand atop the West at the season’s dawn. The defending West champs took a step back by trading James Harden to Houston. Dallas is on the way down and the Spurs . . . surely Tim Duncan will start feeling his age. Right?

Back to that common cold analogy. If the NBA induces the sniffles — maybe a scratch in the throat — while the Heat and Lakers march toward June, consider our Memphis Grizzlies the chicken soup. Tonic for the malaise of predictability.

“Miami Heat Hosts Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of 2013 NBA Finals”

Monday, October 22, 2012

National Baseball Day

Posted By on Mon, Oct 22, 2012 at 8:43 AM

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The first thought I had after the St. Louis Cardinals’ impossible-to-comprehend victory in Game 5 of their Division Series with the Washington Nationals on October 12th was how grateful I was that my 10-year-old daughter was able to enjoy the epic comeback with me. My second thought was, “It is way past your bedtime, Elena!” (She was sound asleep, I should add, when David Freese and friends performed their last impossible-to-comprehend act, in Game 6 of last year’s World Series. Her frame of reference is half that of adult Cardinal fans.)

My instinct to tuck Elena in had me wondering about how many kids — especially kids in Cardinal Country — had long been tucked in by the time Pete Kozma delivered the game-winning hit, shortly after 11 p.m. Central time. How many 10-year-olds will be asking for Kozma jerseys for Christmas? How many were woken up by the cheers and crashing furniture of parents unable to contain themselves with midnight looming?

The last time natural shadows could have been seen during the World Series was Game 6 between the St. Louis Cardinals and Minnesota Twins in 1987, a contest that started at 4 p.m., but under the roof of the abominable Metrodome. That cruel coincidence gave birth to an era of baseball’s signature event being decided long after the boys and girls who make it popular are put to bed. The solution is National Baseball Day.

Americans love sports. And we love holidays. How is it that no holiday — one where schools and government offices close — has been created to honor recreation, the nurturing of our bodies that today especially should be among our highest priorities? Furthermore, how is it that American workers haven’t found an excuse to break from the office between Labor Day and Thanksgiving? National Baseball Day is the answer.

The new holiday would fall on a Wednesday, coinciding with Game 1 of the World Series. Government offices closed, schools closed. The New York Stock Exchange, especially, could use another day off. The baseball game would begin at 3:00 Eastern, allowing every child from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, to watch every last pitch before bedtime if he or she so chooses.

And choice is an important part of National Baseball Day. There are Americans who’d rather schedule a colonoscopy than endure nine innings of baseball. For this holiday, instead of a doctor’s appointment, schedule a picnic at a nearby park with your family, or a visit to a museum (if open) that you’ve been meaning to make. Go see a movie you otherwise wouldn’t, or start a book — that thick one — you’ve been meaning to read. However you choose to invest the leisure time, just remember it was baseball that got you there.

Television decision-makers will do all they can to prevent the holiday from happening. The networks (understandably) worship at the altar of prime-time ad revenue. But the allegiance can be blind. Consider the expanded demographic a national telecast — on a holiday, remember — would reach. Think there might not be a few advertisers who would reconsider a World Series spot if they knew entire families would be watching? (Have you seen any Super Bowl commercials?) The game would be talked about at least the next two days at work, and those sponsored messages would be part of the discussion.

I’ve already written Congress on this matter. Do the same, if the concept strikes your fancy. The aim is a good one: to see the final out of a World Series game live with my children. Before they’re old enough to drive to the nearest watch party.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Color This Column Pink

Posted By on Mon, Oct 15, 2012 at 9:24 AM

Color This Column Pink

Today — October 15th — is my mom’s birthday. We’re interrupting your regularly scheduled sports column for a dose of perspective. Melinda Murtaugh’s birthday has never been more poignant, as it falls precisely in the middle of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. And Mom was diagnosed last December with breast cancer.

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If NFL players can wear pink shoes and gloves this month, the least I can do is bring some metaphorical pink to “My Seat.” When the NFL turned to breast cancer so visibly a few years ago, the mass gesture tore down some walls of perception that had somehow insulated “a man’s world” from a disease that kills in a variety of ways, but victimizes mostly women. The fact is, every last player to don an NFL helmet was, has been, and will be influenced by the women in his life. (Count the number of “Hi Dad!” gestures you see from a touchdown-scoring tailback.) Pink became manly when Chicago Bears and Pittsburgh Steelers were suddenly sacking quarterbacks while wearing the color.

In terms of competing, no sport compares with the battle to defeat breast cancer. This goes for the collective efforts of millions around the world. And it especially goes for the individual fights being waged — often quite privately — by women (and yes, men) who would consider a blind-side hit from Brian Urlacher a welcome alternative to a sixth or seventh chemotherapy treatment. Sports come with a scoreboard or a stopwatch. Games are clean, with an obvious start and a clear finish. Breast cancer invades without warning, in multiple forms, with a different kind of “game” required for every patient, depending on age, body type, allergies, and any number of variables no studio analyst could fully grasp, let alone describe.

My mom is not an athlete. She never was. A native of east Tennessee, she cheered heartily for the Volunteers on fall Saturdays. And she fell in love with a die-hard St. Louis Cardinal fan. But Mom was in the brainpower line when athletic genes were being distributed. Her experience with competition has a foundation of spelling bees, not golf tees.

But then came her cancer diagnosis. And my sister and I — who thought we knew her well — came face to face with a monster-killer. As Liz and I choked up during phone conversations or researched “lobular invasive” with tears in our eyes, our mom did the equivalent of selecting battle armor. A wig. A few caps (stylish, mind you). A bucket that would fit near her bed in case nausea landed a punch or two. Bill Belichick prepares for the Jets. Cancer patients prepare for cold sweats.

The best part about today — and the best birthday gift my mom could expect — is that she now carries the title of Cancer Survivor. (The tag deserves caps. I intend to stick with them for good.) After a successful lumpectomy, four months of chemotherapy and a month of radiation, Mom now schedules check-ups with her oncologist to verify that the disease remains vanquished. There’s no off-season in the fight against cancer. No Hot Stove League to discuss the minutiae of the challenge. Once a part of you (and your family), it’s in the room for life.

And this is what makes my mom such a great sports story. She’s a champion of sorts, but one every other woman (or yes, man) who has confronted breast cancer can cheer. Her team colors make up a spectrum well beyond any rainbow. She’s a new kind of hero to her entire family. (The picture you see here was taken last December, during a visit with two of her four grandchildren in Seattle.) She’s identified her opponent, sized it up, and executed her game plan with every drop of energy — physical and mental — her body will allow. No scoreboard needed.

This year in the U.S. alone, 200,000 people will be diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,000 people will die of the disease. Please consider supporting one “game” we all want to win together. And remember, the Memphis-MidSouth Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure will be held (for the 20th year) on Saturday, October 27th at Saddle Creek in Germantown.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Memphis Tiger Basketball is Back

Posted By on Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 9:48 AM

It’s one thing to evaluate a basketball team’s roster on paper. And quite another to walk among the players, size them up (literally), and measure their collective worth. Last Wednesday, the 2012-13 Memphis Tigers were introduced to local media at the Finch Center. There were some light moments in front of the camera (freshman Damien Wilson’s beard was a popular topic) and some more serious back-and-forth between players and reporters (junior transfer Geron Johnson offered a single word when asked how he’s cleaned up his life: “Prayer”).

I got the sense that Josh Pastner may have a college basketball coach’s best problem: too many pieces. Counting the returning stars (Tarik Black, Joe Jackson, Chris Crawford, Adonis Thomas), the veteran supporting players (Antonio Barton, Ferrakohn Hall, D.J. Stephens), and the three newcomers (Wilson, Johnson, and McDonald’s All-American Shaq Goodwin), the U of M should suit up ten rotation-worthy players. Can Pastner keep all ten happy with only 200 player minutes per game to distribute? It’s a fun problem to face, to say the least.

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Even with all the numbers, I got the impression this could well be Thomas’s team. The sophomore from Melrose would likely have been a first-round pick in last June’s NBA draft had he entered, even after a compromised freshman season (due to an ankle injury) that saw the former McDonald’s All-American miss virtually the entire conference schedule. He chose to return to school, though, largely to show his hometown fans — and yes, NBA scouts — just what they missed last winter.

“I feel like they didn’t get a chance to see me,” said Thomas. “Last year, Coach Pastner had me playing a lot of the [power forward] position, and that’s not the position I’ll play in the NBA. This year, you’ll see me more on the wing, and how versatile I am. My natural position.”

Thomas recognizes the same thing every reporter did last Wednesday: strength in numbers. “The talent level is unbelievable,” he said. “I’ve seen Shaq on the circuit my whole life, played against some of these guys on the AAU level. And now we’re on the same team, coming together as one.”

Named second-team all-conference by C-USA coaches, Thomas is prepared to lead his band of stars, even with only 19 games (eight starts) under his belt. “At some point in time, I’m going to be called upon to be a leader,” he said. “I’m ready for that. Hopefully, games don’t come down to last-second shots, but if they do, I’m sure my team will be looking for me to contribute.”

• Justin Timberlake, Penny Hardaway, and Peyton Manning have all thrown their hat into the Memphis Grizzlies’ ownership ring. (These celebrities aim to join longtime Griz investors like Pitt Hyde, Staley Cates, and Elliot Perry.) If the NBA approves Robert Pera’s purchasing agreement, this city’s one big-league franchise will gain star power that registers well beyond the Mid-South. (How would a Zach Randolph jersey look on Timberlake during his next appearance on Saturday Night Live?)

Hardaway and Timberlake are easy faces to connect to a Memphis enterprise. And I, for one, love Peyton Manning (and his wife, Ashley, a native of Germantown) jumping on board. Manning has been a winner his entire life and that kind of association can only be healthy for a still-young franchise.

But this I wonder. There are Memphis sports fans that see red every time they see orange. Anything remotely associated with the University of Tennessee is sinful, ugly, everything Memphis should not be. (For those new to the universe, Manning starred at UT before ever donning the orange of the Denver Broncos.) Can an athlete glorified in Knoxville be celebrated as part of a Bluff City team? I look forward to the first time Manning is introduced to the crowd from a suite at FedExForum.

Monday, October 1, 2012

2012 St. Louis Cardinals: Surprise, Surprise

Posted By on Mon, Oct 1, 2012 at 9:47 AM

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Kyle Lohse

Let’s do some time traveling this week. We won’t go back that far, just 11 months. The setting is the St. Louis Cardinals’ clubhouse at Busch Stadium, only minutes after the 2011 World Series champions have completed their parade down Market Street. The fans are still cheering, the trophy is stilly shiny (if damp from champagne), and the players are smiling ear to ear.

Until we show up with our crystal ball.

Asking every player and coach to take a seat, we show off said ball (also shiny), and announce a few forecasts for the champs’ title defense:

• Not only will you lose Hall of Fame-bound manager Tony LaRussa (the longtime Cardinal skipper looks sheepishly at the floor, but doesn’t protest), but Albert Pujols will be playing in the American League next season.

• Chris Carpenter — the team’s horse throughout the championship drive — will pitch his first game of 2012 on September 21st.

• Lance Berkman — 31 homers and a Series-saving hit in Game 6 — will get a total of 96 plate appearances in 2012. He will drive in seven runs.

• The Cardinals’ starting shortstop in September will be Pete Kozma, a man who won’t even hold down the everyday shortstop job at Triple-A Memphis.

• The Cardinals’ second ace, Adam Wainwright, will lose (at least) 13 games.

Hey ... pass that champagne bottle!

Among the true joys of following baseball — as it’s played daily over six months — is just how unpredictable every season is. Last spring, if you had the Baltimore Orioles and Oakland A’s in the American League playoff picture — ahead of the Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels — you’re riding shotgun on my next Vegas road trip. The game surprises, one year after another.

For the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals, the surprises weren’t all of the doom-and-gloom variety. Let’s consider a few more images from that crystal ball:

• Kyle Lohse — poster boy for a rotation’s third pitcher — will win 16 games and post a 2.86 ERA. (This was Lohse’s contract year, so maybe this was in fact predictable.)

• Lance Lynn — the face of middle relief for the 2011 champs — will step into the rotation and win 18 games himself.

• While Pujols hits .288 and delivers 30 home runs and 104 RBIs (through Sunday) for the Angels, his replacement at first base in St. Louis — Allen Craig — will bat .310 with 22 dingers and 91 RBIs. Craig will have 151 fewer plate appearances. (Two more figures to compare: Pujols was paid $12 million this season, Craig $495,000.)

• Joining Craig in the 20-homer club will be old standbys Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, but also David Freese and Yadier Molina, giving the Cardinals their first team with five such sluggers.

• Jason Motte, the Cardinals’ set-up man as recently as August 2011, will become the fourth Cardinal to save 40 games.

The regular season comes to a close Wednesday, and baseball’s first winner-advances/loser-golfs wildcard game will be played Friday in Atlanta. The Cardinals have a two-game lead on the L.A. Dodgers for the second wild card slot (with three games to play). A Cardinals-Braves tilt would have some carry-over drama from 2011, as the defending champions would face the team whose collapse was essential for them to even qualify for postseason play.

The most compelling angle from the Cardinal side of things will be manager Mike Matheny’s choice for starting pitcher. The rookie manager is armed with two certifiable aces (Wainwright and Carpenter), but must weigh the strengths of Lohse, whose performance over the last six months trumps that of any of his teammates, including the two former World Series heroes. Do Lohse’s numbers this year outweigh his career playoff mark (0-4, 5.54 ERA)? Do Wainwright’s recent struggles cost him the start? Can you possibly send Carpenter to the hill with only two or three starts under his belt?

Those with memories of Carpenter’s epic complete game last year in Philadelphia (to clinch the Division Series) will want to see him on the hill in Atlanta this Friday. And they’ll be thinking with their hearts. Start Lohse ... but with a short leash.

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