Sunday, April 30, 2006

The ACC's Dirty Dozen

Saturday afternoon, the Atlantic Coast Conference made history by having 12 of its players among the 32 first round selections in the NFL draft. Interestingly, none of the 12 were from Virginia Tech, the league’s only top 10 team last season. However, four ACC players shook hands with commissioner Paul Tagliabue before Matt Leinart or anyone from the SEC did so. While Ohio State claimed top honors for one program with five first rounders, the ACC averaged one first round pick for each of its members. Below are some notes on the chosen 12.

1. Houston Texans: Mario Williams, DE, North Carolina State. Williams has been billed by many as the next version of Julius Peppers. Texans fans preferred this version of Vince Young. Nationally, Williams is known as “Not Reggie Bush.”

4. New York Jets: D’Brickashaw Ferguson, OT, Virginia. His name was based on that of the priest played by Richard Chamberlain in The Thorn Birds. So while Charlie Ward greatly impacted ACC football, so did Rachel Ward.

6. San Francisco 49ers: Vernon Davis, TE, Maryland. Fellow tight end Kellen Winslow was also the sixth overall selection two years ago. 49ers officials will zap Davis with a stun gun if he gets within 30 yards of a motorcycle.

9. Detroit Lions: Ernie Sims, OLB, Florida State. Afterward, Lions president Matt Millen sheepishly admitted that he thought Sims played wide receiver.

13. Cleveland Browns: Kamerion Wimbley, DE, Florida State. Coach Romeo Crennel’s defense will continue to improve. However, the offense couldn’t score on Paris Hilton.

14. Philadelphia Eagles: Brodrick Bunkley, DT, Florida State. Three of the top 14 picks were Seminoles, but FSU was only 8-5 last season. Fortunately, Bunkley’s new teammates don’t want to hear anything about 2005.

15. St. Louis Rams: Tye Hill, CB, Clemson. Hill won the ACC championship in the 60 meter (indoor) and 100 meter (outdoors) sprints. Unfortunately for the Rams, he only runs fast in metric.

19. San Diego Chargers: Antonio Cromartie, CB, Florida State. Due to a knee injury, Cromartie didn’t even play last year. However, San Diego got caught up in the FSU trend and had to have a Seminole of their own.

22. San Francisco 49ers: Manny Lawson, OLB, North Carolina State. Still hoping to keep Lawson on campus, NCSU athletic director Lee Fowler has offered him the basketball coaching job.

26. Buffalo Bills: John McCargo, DT, North Carolina State. For those keeping score on the first round: NC State 3, Texas & USC 2 apiece.

31. Seattle Seahawks: Kelly Jennings, CB, Miami. The Seahawks wanted to take someone else, but it’s now a league rule that a Cane must be chosen in the first round.

32. New York Giants: Mathias Kiwanuka, DE, Boston College. Mathias is proud to be the grandson of the late Benedicto Kiwanuka, a Ugandan prime minister and human rights advocate who hated to see people suffer. Except for quarterbacks.

Surely ACC commissioner John Swofford is swelling with pride over his league’s representation. In contrast, no ACC men’s basketball team advanced to the Elite Eight last month. Reportedly, Swofford shrugged off that disappointment, noting, “What do you expect? We’re a football conference!”

Friday, April 28, 2006

Sports Before and After

Faithful readers will be interested to know that I shot an amusing T-Mobile commercial this week. I’m one of two dads who are research subjects in a science lab, watching our daughters chatter endlessly in isolation booths. As the “T-Mobile Dad,” I stay calm and cheerful throughout the process, while the “Competition Dad” goes bonkers as his daughter exceeds their allotted minutes. Look for the spot in a few weeks!

Today’s entry relates to another one of my on-camera experiences: Jeopardy! An entertaining category that appears on the show from time to time is “Before and After.” For each clue, the answer combines two different subjects, with the end of the first being the beginning of the second. For example, if asked for the Florida basketball coach who quarterbacks the Philadelphia Eagles, you would answer “Billy Donovan McNabb.” Now that you’re prepared, go ahead and try your luck at the latest installment of “Sports Before and After.” Answers are listed at the end, and there’s no need to phrase your responses in the form of a question.

1. Pet Benatar’s 1983 hit about the 1997 PGA Championship winner

2. Classic 1950s sitcom about Penn State’s home field

3. Steven Spielberg film in which soldiers try to find a San Diego quarterback bust

4. Herman Melville classic about a screaming college basketball announcer

5. Beloved Christmas tune about a legendary 1960 gold medal sprinter

6. Denver Nuggets star who acted in Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club

7. Annual presidential speech about the Buckeyes

8. Asia’s smash hit about Dwyane Wade’s team

9. Classic 1968 zombie movie about a fiery Texas Tech coach

10. Fast food franchise used to defend a basketball opponent with a dominant scorer

11. Annual Williamsport sporting event focused on a mouse voiced by Michael J. Fox

12. Foul shot that’s a comedy starring Billy Crystal and Danny Devito

13. Vanilla Ice’s hit song about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team’s upset of the Soviets

14. Fighting Irish actress who won an Oscar for Shakespeare in Love

15. Van Morrison ditty about a loved one who resembles a legendary Cleveland running back

16. Mel Brooks comedy about a star Texas quarterback

17. 1971 AL Cy Young and MVP winner who’s a popular Las Vegas act

18. Roald Dahl children’s book about a Cleveland Cavaliers superstar

19. Wayans Brothers comedy in which the 2003 Heisman Trophy winner goes undercover

20. Tony Toni Tone’s hit song about the Arizona basketball coach

21. Legendary Alabama coach who said, “Only you can prevent forest fires”

22. Cedric the Entertainer movie about a star Bengals receiver

23. James Joyce novel about the Demon Deacons’ school

24. NBC series in which Jill Hennessy stars as a UCLA point guard

25. Animated Disney classic about a Gold Glove first baseman and his short companions


1. Davis Love Is a Battlefield

2. Leave It To Beaver Stadium

3. Saving Private Ryan Leaf

4. Moby Dick Vitale

5. Wilma Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer

6. Carmelo Anthony Michael Hall

7. Ohio State of the Union Address

8. Miami Heat of the Moment

9. Bobby Knight of the Living Dead

10. Jack in the Box and One

11. Stuart Little League World Series

12. Free Throw Momma From the Train

13. Miracle on Ice Ice Baby

14. Notre Dame Judi Dench

15. Jim Brown-Eyed Girl

16. Vince Young Frankenstein

17. Vida Blue Man Group

18. LeBron James and the Giant Peach

19. Jason White Chicks

20. If I Had No Lute Olson

21. Smokey the Bear Bryant

22. Chad Johnson Family Vacation

23. Finnegans Wake Forest

24. Crossing Jordan Farmar

25. J.T. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

NBA Pre-empts Weekend Playoff Games To Show Its Players Watching NFL Draft

The National Football League has long been entrenched as the 800-pound gorilla on the American sports landscape. 4 ½ months before the 2006 season kicks off, this pre-eminence is readily apparent this week. Surveys have shown that sports fans are far more interested in this weekend’s NFL draft than in the baseball regular season and NBA and NHL playoffs. Always aware of the marketplace, NBA commissioner David Stern does not want to be left behind. Therefore, afternoon NBA playoff games will not be played as scheduled this Saturday and Sunday. Instead, TNT and ABC will televise players from the involved NBA teams as they watch the NFL draft.

Stern explained why the move was a no-brainer. “In the first round of the NFL draft, every fifteen minutes something actually happens. And in between, a bunch of guys who will probably be proven dead wrong in a couple years get to talk incessantly about the process, as they’ve been doing on SportsCenter for months. Shaquille O’Neal throwing down a Dwyane Wade alley-oop pass just can’t match that excitement.” Instead, Wade and O’Neal will be shown debating whether Matt Leinart should be chosen before Vince Young.

For the affected afternoon games, the winners will be decided based on their draft prognostication skills. The Phoenix Suns-Los Angeles Lakers matchup on Sunday will be particularly interesting. Ballots for NBA MVP have already been submitted, but the forecasting battle between Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant could serve as a referendum on who should collect the award. Nash has a reputation for making his teammates better at analyzing the draft, but Kobe is eager to disprove the charges that he is selfish in predicting the selections.

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is highly critical of the commissioner’s decision. Cuban pointed out that the two best players in the Mavericks-Grizzlies series – Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol – both hail from Europe, where “football” refers to the upcoming World Cup. Therefore, he feels that forcing the players to analyze the NFL draft on Saturday is unfair. Stern responded, “Yes, Dirk and Pau are great basketball players. But they need to be more like Mel Kiper, Jr.”

The Chicago Bulls, already down 2-0 in their series with Miami, could be swept if their picks are off base on Sunday. The Bulls’ inexperience is a potentially huge obstacle, so they have enlisted the aid of a long-time NFL draft observer. This advisor has imparted the following tips to the Baby Bulls as ABC asks them for their thoughts on NFL prospects: “When in doubt, say the word ‘upside’ as much as possible. And if they ask a follow-up question, proclaim, ‘This guy can really make plays.’” As a result, Chicago should be able to survive.

The Indiana Pacers and New Jersey Nets will be at Radio City Music Hall in person for the festivities. With the commissioner’s edict changing plans for Saturday’s scheduled game 4 in Indianapolis, the teams will head east early before game 5 in East Rutherford. The players will be happy about the extra time away from the court, since having days off between first round NBA playoff games is extremely rare. The additional break will also cut down on injuries. That is, as long as the Nets and Pacers sit far away from ESPN commentator Michael Irvin, whose screaming analysis could cause permanent deafness.

The night-time NBA matchups will be played as scheduled. However, ESPN and TNT reserve the right to interrupt coverage of those games to show highlights of basketball players’ reactions to the selections. Also, NBA sideline reporters will solicit draft insight from coaches as they leave the court at halftime. For example, during the Pistons-Bucks contest Saturday night, Detroit coach Flip Saunders will discuss the latest wide receiver to be chosen in the first round by the Lions. The reporter may go slightly off-topic with Milwaukee coach Terry Stotts, seeking his thoughts on whether Brett Favre will retire.

Due to Stern’s decision, NBA coaches have an even bigger workload than their typical playoff grind. Not only will they break down game film on their opponents, but now they must do so for all the top football prospects. In the NBA postseason, the Atlanta Hawks are no longer a concern. But A.J. Hawk certainly is.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

National League Pitchers Lobby For "Pujols On Pujols" Series

On Friday night, St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols belted his 11th home run of the year in a 9-3 victory over the Chicago Cubs. Coming off an MVP season, Pujols has been on fire in the early stages of 2006. Any attempts by the opposition to cool him off have been futile. However, National League pitchers are desperately hoping that one thing can slow down Pujols: his own reality show.

ESPN is currently running Bonds On Bonds, a 10-part reality series focused on controversial San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds. Each year from his record-setting 2001 campaign through 2004, Bonds was the National League MVP. Barry was like Biff from Back To the Future, striking fear in all the George McFlys on the mound. After an injury-shortened 2005, Bonds looked to resume his bullying on the diamond this April. However, Bonds On Bonds may represent the same turning point for pitchers that the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance was for George. Through his first 13 games of the season, Bonds is batting just .200, with no home runs and 1 RBI.

Finding a similar show for Pujols may be the only hope for National League pitchers. Albert leads the majors with his 11 round-trippers, and he is hitting .358 with 24 RBIs. The numbers are gaudy even by his own standards set since 2001, his National League Rookie of the Year campaign. Since then he has charted a path to Cooperstown, becoming the first major leaguer since Ted Williams to drive in at least 100 runs in each of his first five seasons. Unfortunately for pitchers, they cannot have Pujols frozen like the Red Sox legend. They may try to brush him off the plate, but freezing players like Han Solo in The Empire Strikes Back is blatantly against the unwritten rules of the game.

Unfortunately for opposing pitchers, ESPN may not be interested in Pujols On Pujols. Bonds was considered a fascinating subject not only for his stellar play, but also for the steroid cloud surrounding him and his contentious relationship with the media. Pujols does not seem to have such an air of controversy around him. However, Houston Astros closer Brad Lidge disagrees. “Everyone in St. Louis knows that Albert is a notorious jaywalker,” charged Lidge. “ESPN should follow him and expose these heinous misdeeds.” As punishment, Lidge urged commissioner Bud Selig to suspend Pujols from the ninth inning of all future games.

Ultimately, pitchers would love an image of Pujols that viewers saw on the first episode of Bonds On Bonds: a superstar slugger in tears. Bonds got emotional while telling reporters, “You can’t hurt me any more than you’ve hurt me already.” As of now, Pujols could only say part of that sentence to pitchers: “You can’t hurt me.” So far, the opposing hurlers have been the ones bawling, contradicting the claim of Tom Hanks that there’s no crying in baseball. St. Louis sports reporters already know that weeping takes place in the sports world, since Dick Vermeil coached in their city.

While Pujols continues to dazzle the National League, pitchers will hold out hope that a reality show can help their cause. Until that happens, tomorrow may represent the best chance to slow down the Cardinals superstar. The resurgent Greg Maddux, leading the National League in ERA, will take the mound for the Cubs. Albert’s hometown of Santo Domingo is Spanish for “Holy Sunday.” As Pujols steps to the plate on this Sunday, Maddux will surely be praying.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Detroit Hopes To Overcome NBA, NHL Collusion In Dual Title Quest

The NBA concluded its regular season on Wednesday – one night after the NHL had done likewise. The Motor City reigned supreme in both leagues, with the Red Wings capturing the Presidents’ Trophy and the Pistons finishing with an NBA-best 64-18 record. Detroit residents are eagerly anticipating two championship parades in June. However, a huge obstacle stands in the way: a long-standing agreement between the NBA and NHL that no city can win both titles in the same year.

Largely unknown to the public, the agreement dates back to 1946. Maurice Podoloff was named president of the newly-formed Basketball Association of America – rechristened the National Basketball Association three years later. Also in 1946, Clarence Campbell started a 31-year reign as the NHL president. Both men noticed how World War II victory celebrations had lifted the spirits of numerous cities the previous year. Interested in spreading the wealth, they agreed that victory parades should not be limited to one location each spring. With the chilling memory of Adolf Hitler still fresh, Podoloff and Campbell were fearful of having too much power concentrated in one place.

The gentlemen’s agreement between the two presidents has been honored by their successors. To this day, no city has won the Stanley Cup and NBA championship in the same year. The most recent close call came in 2003, when the New Jersey Devils captured the Stanley Cup. However, the Nets inevitably fell to San Antonio in the NBA finals. The Spurs’ victory prevented a preposterous phrase from entering the sports lexicon: “East Rutherford: City of Champions.”

The Montreal Canadiens have been a huge factor in maintaining order. The team has been by far the most successful NHL franchise since the agreement went into effect, capturing 18 Stanley Cup titles in that time. With no NBA franchise in Montreal, the Canadiens often made the threat of dual championships a non-issue. On the other hand, Boston has been home to a record 16 NBA champions and does have a longtime NHL member. However, in the midst of the Celtics dynasty, the NHL did not allow the Bruins to advance to the finals during the 1960s. After Bill Russell retired in 1969, a drop was inevitable for the Celtics. As a result, the NHL loosened its restrictions on the Bruins, who won the Stanley Cup the following season. As Bobby Orr skated around with the Cup, he surely wanted to pass it to Russell in gratitude.

The most severe threat to the agreement came in 1994, when the New York Rangers won their first Stanley Cup title in 54 years. The Knicks also advanced to the finals, even taking a 3-2 lead over the Houston Rockets. Under normal conditions, the NBA would not have allowed New York to get so close to the title. However, like millions of Americans, league officials had been captivated by the O.J. Simpson Ford Bronco chase and forgot that the finals were taking place. They regained their bearings during game 6, arranging for the potential John Starks game-winner to be blocked by Hakeem Olajuwon. Prior to game 7, a group of men reportedly visited Starks’s hotel room and told him, “If Houston doesn’t get a victory parade, David Stern will make your life REALLY unpleasant.” Starks went on to shoot 2-for-18 in a 90-84 Rockets victory.

As this year’s playoffs begin, the Pistons and Red Wings remain defiant in their quests for championships. Both teams have recent championship experience and must be considered the favorites this spring. While not as flashy as Kobe Bryant or LeBron James, Chauncey Billups and Richard Hamilton have had sterling seasons for the Pistons. The Motor City hoopsters are also emboldened by the old adage, “The team with the most Wallaces wins.”

Similarly, no one on the Red Wings gets the same headlines as Alexander Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby. However, defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom will likely collect his fourth Norris Trophy, and other veteran stars like Brendan Shanahan have meshed well with young stalwarts such as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick feels that this combination will trump any 60-year-old agreement. “These players are focused on a title – not something from 1946,” commented the mayor. “None of these guys were playing back then. Well, except for Chelios. And maybe Yzerman.”

Earlier in 2006, the Pittsburgh Steelers won a title in Detroit. Even though history is against them, the Pistons and Red Wings plan to do the same. They’re even looking to the Steelers for an extra edge. As a good luck charm, both teams will add native son Jerome Bettis to the playoff roster.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Phillies Hire Hypnotist For Myers: Every Start Is "In Coors Field"

On Sunday, the Philadelphia Phillies completed a 4-2 road trip with a 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rockies. Brett Myers went 7 2/3 innings to even his record at 1-1. His impressive performance inspired the front office and manager Charlie Manuel to decide on an unorthodox course of action before each of the pitcher’s starts. Prior to every outing, the Phillies will engage a hypnotist to convince Myers that he is pitching in Coors Field.

The decision was made due to the great success experienced by Myers at the Colorado ballpark. The Phillies right-hander is 4-0 lifetime at Coors Field with a 2.63 ERA. Aside from John Elway, no one has been more powerful in Denver since Blake Carrington in the heyday of Dynasty. It remains to be seen whether Myers will inspire any cat-fights between Joan Collins and Linda Evans.

The performance of Myers is particularly remarkable given the park’s well-earned reputation as a hitter’s paradise. The first two games of the series were more indicative of fans’ expectations, with final scores of 10-6 and 10-8. The ballpark has been a boon not only to downtown Denver, but to local therapists who enjoy regular business from Rockies pitchers. Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, successful starters elsewhere, fell to pieces on the Coors Field mound. When recently asked about the ballpark, Neagle curled up in the fetal position and echoed Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, whispering “The horror, the horror.”

Sunday’s game was just the second 1-0 outcome in the history of Coors Field, which opened in 1995. Afterward, many atheists in the ballpark converted to Christianity, having been convinced that a miracle actually could take place on Easter Sunday. Colorado’s Aaron Cook was the hard-luck loser, yielding the only run on Ryan Howard’s seventh-inning homer. Not only eggs were hidden on this Easter – so was the offense.

Prior to Sunday, Myers had only lasted five innings in each of his first two starts of the season. However, Coors Field had a revitalizing effect for him, just as the Silver Bullet Train energizes all whom it passes in the Coors Light commercials. Surely “Love Train” was playing as Myers and his teammates arrived at the ballpark yesterday. As is usually the case in life, troubles were solved by looking to beer commercials for inspiration.

The Phillies will not have any other trips to Coors Field this season, but they certainly want Myers to pitch the same way in other ballparks. Therefore, they have employed the hypnotist to work with the right-hander before every start. As he strides to the mound, Myers will repeatedly chant, “This is Coors Field. I will win the game.” The club feels confident that the hypnotist will help Myers become a legitimate ace – something most observers feel the Phillies need in order to defeat the Braves and Mets in the National League East. Team officials assured reporters that there would be no dangerous side effects from the hypnosis, as was the case with Reggie Jackson in The Naked Gun. They guaranteed that Myers would not attempt to shoot the queen of England. Unless she does some really obnoxious heckling.

Myers will try out this new approach in Philadelphia on Saturday versus the Florida Marlins. If he is successful, expect the Philly fans to rally behind the hypnotist. And suggest that he work with David Bell.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Tax Terms For Sports Fans

Monday is the deadline for Americans to file their 2005 tax returns with the IRS. It’s easy to be confused by all the terminology involved with filing. With that in mind, the list below includes numerous tax terms and what they mean to sports fans.

1040: Projected total yardage for Texas in its 2006 opener versus North Texas

1099: What you’d see in Madison Square Garden if the retired jerseys of Walt Frazier and Wayne Gretzky were side by side

CPA: A summary of last year’s World Series: Chicago Pummels the Astros

Capital Gain: What the Washington hockey team experienced after drafting Alexander Ovechkin

Charitable Contribution: What the Twins gave to the Red Sox by letting go of David Ortiz

Deduction: What an ice dancing pair receives after one partner body-slams the other to the ice

Dependent: How so many top recent sluggers were toward steroids

E-File: Bio of NBA Hall of Famer Elvin (“The Big E”) Hayes

Exemption: What Terrell Owens wants from team rules

H&R Block: What H&R will do if you drive the lane against him

IRS: What Alford’s alma mater did in its coaching search: Indiana Rejected Steve

Jackson-Hewitt: The summer basketball camp run by Phil Jackson and Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt

Refund: What Spike Lee should demand for his Knicks season tickets

Schedule A: The list of games for an Oakland baseball player

W-2: Official scorer’s entry when President Bush throws out the first pitch to a catcher

Withholding: The best way to keep Michael Strahan from the quarterback

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Apollo Creed For Losing To Rocky Balboa

ESPN Classic viewers enjoy regular installments of the Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame… series, hosted by Brian Kenny. Each episode focuses on a player or organization that has been widely blamed for a notable sports failure. Examples include Mike Tyson for losing to Buster Douglas, Bill Buckner for the Red Sox’ 1986 World Series defeat, and numerous others. The show examines other factors contributing to the failure and counts down the top five reasons you cannot blame the subject for the unsatisfactory outcome.

Today I will expand this approach to an athlete from the big screen. In the mid-1970s, Apollo Creed towered over the sports world as the undisputed heavyweight boxing champion. Creed knocked out one foe after another while displaying an unparalleled sense of showmanship. This dominance was disrupted in stunning fashion as Creed needed a split decision to escape against an obscure Philadelphia club fighter named Rocky Balboa. An even bigger shock came in the rematch, when Balboa scored a knockout to claim the championship belt. Fans and the sports media derided Creed for losing his title - and his aura of invincibility - against a seemingly inferior opponent.

However, a closer examination reveals numerous other factors contributing to the upset. I may not change your mind about Creed’s role in his defeat, but at least I hope to provide you with something to think about. Before I get to the top five reasons you can’t blame Creed, here are reasons that did not make the list – the “Best of the Rest”:

He Didn’t Want a Rematch: As the final bell sounded during their first bout, Creed told Balboa, “Ain’t gonna be no rematch.” To which Balboa replied, “Don’t want one.” If the rematch indeed had never happened, Rocky never would have won the belt from Apollo.

The Art Museum: Before the first fight, Balboa took solitary runs up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The second time around, Rocky was joined on the run by a mob of children, who jumped up and down with him at the top of the steps. So when Balboa entered the ring, it was as if he had all those kids at his side. There’s no way Creed could pummel all of them at once.

And now, the top five reasons you can’t blame Apollo Creed for losing to Rocky Balboa.

Reason #5: Mickey. It’s common knowledge that a boxer’s ideal trainer is a tough-love curmudgeon with his last chance at being part of something special. Creed did not have the luxury of a crazy old geezer ordering him to chase a chicken while barking, “If you catch this thing, you can catch greased lightning!” Rocky’s relationship with his trainer provided the inspiration for Toni Basil’s smash hit Mickey, whose original lyrics began, “Yo Mickey I’m in need, help me beat Apollo Creed, Yo Mickey (clap-clap-clap-clap), Yo Mickey (clap-clap-clap-clap).”

Reason #4: The Ghost of Marciano. Rocky Marciano was the only heavyweight champion to retire with an unblemished record, finishing his career at 49-0. Whenever someone comes close to matching his record, that fighter loses. Larry Holmes was 48-0 when he suffered an upset loss to Michael Spinks in 1985. Similarly, Apollo Creed entered his rematch with Balboa at 47-0. Marciano may have died in 1969, but his spirit made sure that he would not be surpassed. Somehow Balboa had just enough energy to rise from the canvas while Creed was counted out. Even from beyond the grave, one Rocky was able to help another.

Reason #3: Philly Sports Jinx Not Yet in Effect. The Creed-Balboa rematch hit the big screen in 1979. The Flyers had captured the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975, the Phillies would win their only World Series in 1980, and Moses Malone would lead the Sixers to the promised land in 1983. However, the city’s major professional sports teams have been shut out since then, and no Big 5 program has even reached the Final Four since Villanova’s 1985 national title. So today the Italian Stallion would be pounded into submission shortly after the opening bell. But back then, he enjoyed a home ring advantage at the Spectrum. The crowd was against Creed as if he were wearing a Dallas Cowboys jersey, and in between rounds Apollo’s corner was disrupted by the antics of the Phillie Phanatic.

Reason #2: Adrian’s Coma. Any fighter is destined to triumph when his wife emerges from a coma and tells him to win. Adrian entered the coma after giving premature birth to the couple’s baby boy. Rocky was completely despondent over her condition and lost all interest in the fight. However, when Adrian emerged and told him to win for her, Rocky embraced his training regimen with unprecedented passion. Creed lacked a similar source of inspiration. His wife should have entered a coma so that her husband could experience such a spark when she emerged. Apollo suffered dearly due to Mrs. Creed’s selfish non-coma policy.

Reason #1: Academy Voters. Rocky won the 1976 Best Picture Oscar over such enduring classics as Network and Taxi Driver. The award ensured that film audiences would be treated to another Creed-Balboa matchup. With high box office prospects looming for this fight and others in the future, Rocky’s ascension to the heavyweight throne was inevitable. Afterwards Apollo saw the writing on the wall, realizing that the Italian Stallion’s reign would endure as long as the box office remained strong. So Creed decided to act as an inspiration to his former foe. He helped Balboa regain the “eye of the tiger” and defeat the fearsome Clubber Lang. Later he made the ultimate sacrifice for his country, dying at the hands of Soviet hitting machine Ivan Drago. In honor of his fallen friend, Rocky subsequently defeated Drago and touched the Soviet crowd’s emotions with his “Everybody can change” post-fight speech. Not coincidentally, the Cold War soon ended. For his part, Apollo Creed was remembered not only as the “Master of Disaster,” but as the “Sensation of International Relations.”

Maybe I’ve changed your mind about Apollo Creed’s loss to Rocky Balboa, and maybe I haven’t. But I hope I’ve at least given you some new perspectives to consider.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Next Year's Masters: Match Play Between Tiger & Phil

Yesterday Phil Mickelson won his second green jacket with a two-stoke victory at the Masters. Mickelson replaced Tiger Woods as champion, with Tiger having captured his fourth title at Augusta National last year. Knowing that one or the other will inevitably triumph next year, tournament officials have made a ground-breaking decision. Only Phil and Tiger will be invited to the 2007 Masters, with the title to be decided by match play.

The two players have combined for the past three Masters championships and five of the last six. Tiger and Phil look like shopping buddies, as they take turns putting green jackets on the other. Still, the decision to include only those two is a radical departure from the standard proceedings. Augusta National Golf Club chairman Hootie Johnson responded, “We’re all about change. Nobody’s real big on tradition here.”

The match play showdown will be a one-day affair on Sunday, April 8. Asked why the first three days of competition have been eliminated, Johnson replied, “You’ve watched the past few years. It’s just gonna rain on those days, anyway.” Masters officials also acted in response to an old cliché about the tournament. If you watched much of the CBS coverage this weekend, you heard “They say The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday” enough times to make a drinking game out of it. Tournament officials decided that since so many people say that, it must be true. However, for television purposes Phil and Tiger are still scheduled for 18 holes.

Next year’s format change will allow Augusta National to remain true to one of its hallmarks: exclusivity. The tournament is annually one of the toughest tickets in sports. Also, most people’s chances of joining the club are equivalent to the Best Picture odds on “The Benchwarmers.” By restricting the tournament to two players, Augusta National will take exclusivity to the next level. There is no word yet on whether Vijay Singh and Ernie Els will ask Martha Burk to rally on their behalf.

Johnson did emphasize that other players can still attend next year’s tournament, even if they are not competing. Past champions will receive coveted seats in Butler Cabin for a Texas Hold’em tournament. Rules for appropriate terminology will be in effect, similar to how club members insist on “second cut” instead of “rough” and “patrons” rather than “fans.” Therefore, participants will play for the “financial pool,” not the “pot.” Also, there will be no “flushes” within Butler Cabin. Instead, players will hope to have a “plumbing activity” in their hands.

In the meantime, top golfers can still look forward to the next major tournament – the U.S. Open in June. Last year’s edition, captured by Michael Campbell of New Zealand, was the only major in the last five that was not won by Mickelson or Woods. Like Augusta National, the host Winged Foot Golf Club will also feature an Amen Corner. That’s where golfers will be praying to beat Phil and Tiger.

Friday, April 07, 2006

38 Is Special For Rollins

Today as the Philadelphia Phillies begin a weekend series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, life gets back to normal for shortstop Jimmy Rollins. He is no longer chasing Joe DiMaggio after the St. Louis Cardinals ended his hitting streak yesterday at 38 consecutive games. However, Rollins deserves a tip of the hat for his tremendous accomplishment. In tribute, here is how the number 38 relates to the sports world in other respects.

Points for USC in Rose Bowl loss to Texas. Also how many phone numbers Matt Leinart collects on an average night.

Uniform number for Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano and Mets pitcher Victor Zambrano. Steroid penalties get the headlines, but the same punishment is in place for any Zambranos who do not wear number 38.

Year (1938) in which Temple won the inaugural NIT. Well before South Carolina took permanent ownership of the tournament nobody cares about.

National League-leading home run total for Howard Johnson in 1991. Today it seems hard to believe that 38 home runs could lead the league. What’s even crazier to fathom? Howard Johnson led the league in home runs.

Points scored by Los Angeles Raiders in Super Bowl XVIII rout of Washington. Wait, the NFL had a team in L.A.? Two of them? Are you sure?

Uniform number for 2003 National League Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne and 2004 National League Rookie of the Year Jason Bay. A short-lived National League rule mandated that each year a major award would go to a Canadian guy wearing number 38.

Number among U.S. Presidents of Gerald Ford. A football star at the University of Michigan, Ford labeled Jimmy Carter a “Buckeye sympathizer” during his 1976 campaign.

Year (1938) in which Cincinnati Red Johnny Vander Meer hurled consecutive no-hitters. Batters couldn’t get their hands on good steroids back then.

Points scored by Michael Jordan in Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals despite a stomach virus. Now to get sick, he just watches the Knicks.

Super Bowl in which New England defeated Carolina 32-29. Also the average number of times a TiVo user replayed the Janet Jackson boob shot.

Uniform number for Portland Trail Blazers forward Viktor Khryapa. I know, if I mention a Russian athlete, it should be Maria Sharapova. My bad.

Years since O.J. Simpson won the 1968 Heisman Trophy. And 12 years since he’s committed any double-murders.

Age of Kansas City outfielder Reggie Sanders. Also the number of teams he’s played for.

Draft position of quarterback Boomer Esiason in 1984. Excited Bengals fans yelled, “Cool, we got Phil Simms!”

NHL-leading number of goals for Detroit’s Gordie Howe in 1962-63. I’m glad I didn’t have to clean up all those octopi.

Uniform number for Atlanta Braves pitcher Ken Ray. Prior to being called up yesterday, Ray’s major league experience consisted of 13 games with Kansas City in 1999. He struck out the first batter he faced yesterday. A guy named Bonds. After the game, Ray received a congratulatory phone call from longtime battery mate Crash Davis.

Career touchdown receptions from 1986-89 for Duke football star Clarkston Hines. To answer your question, no I could not keep a straight face while typing “Duke football star.”

American League-leading save total for Detroit’s John Hiller in 1973. Hiller was a closer who had recovered from a 1971 heart attack. Later, Mitch Williams was a closer who caused many heart attacks.

Carries in Super Bowl XVII for MVP John Riggins. Also the number of drinks he had before meeting Sandra Day O’Connor.

Years as a Division 1 head coach for Bear Bryant. To bring things full circle, Jimmy Rollins is linked to the legendary coach by the cheer “J-Roll Tide!”

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Florida Secures Basketball Commitments From Sampras & Agassi Kids

Gator fans are still celebrating after Florida’s 73-57 thumping of UCLA in last night’s national title game. Joakim Noah is literally the big man on campus after earning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors. Coach Billy Donovan certainly appreciates the impact made by the son of a tennis star. Therefore, Donovan has secured commitments from four-year-old Jaden Agassi, three-year-old Christian Sampras, and eight-month-old Ryan Sampras.

Fairly unknown before this season, Joakim Noah is now the object of desire for all NBA general managers. Noah had 16 points, nine rebounds and six blocks in the championship game and totaled a record 29 blocks during the tournament. The performance was on par with that of his father, Yannick Noah, in winning the 1983 French Open. Roland Garros Stadium has been hallowed ground for the family ever since then. In fact, part of Donovan’s recruiting pitch was in convincing Joakim that the Gators played their home games on clay.

Now Joakim has influenced Donovan’s recruiting strategy in another way. Seeing how Noah has led the program to unprecedented heights, the coach decided to continue targeting the offspring of tennis standouts. “We won a championship with Joakim, and his dad won one stinkin’ Grand Slam singles title,” remarked Donovan. “Jaden’s dad is Andre Agassi, and his mom is Steffi Graf. 30 Grand Slam singles titles between them – we’re talkin’ dynasty, baby!”

The Sampras children only add to the winning legacy. Pete Sampras captured a men’s record 14 Grand Slam singles titles. His sister is the head coach of the UCLA women’s tennis team, so many expected his children to become Bruins. However, once again Donovan got the best of UCLA. Known as one of the most tireless recruiters in the coaching profession, the Florida leader has raised the standard in pursuing prospects early. No one is better at landing pre-kindergarten blue-chippers.

However, this activity does carry enormous risk. Top-flight programs often have to depend on youthful hoopsters these days. However, players referred to as young are usually 19, not 4. Ryan Sampras cannot even walk yet, so teaching him the principles of man-to-man defense could be problematic. He also will make practices less efficient, as assistant coaches will need to add diaper-changing to their duties. However, if he performs well in free-throw shooting drills, the staff will reward Ryan by allowing him to play with their keys.

Donovan downplays the risk, noting that next year’s team will be an experienced unit. Despite his dominance in the tournament, many observers expect Noah to return. If he and teammates Corey Brewer and Al Horford do put the NBA on hold for another season, the Gators will return their entire starting lineup. Therefore, the Sampras and Agassi children can be free of much pressure as they gradually accumulate more playing time. Ryan Sampras will likely be redshirted, so he will be a seasoned two-year-old when he takes the court in 2007.

One group that will not be skeptical is Donovan’s fellow SEC coaches. This season LSU proved that it could excel in league play with a Big Baby. The Tigers only had one baby and still reached the Final Four. Florida will have three, so the sky is the limit for the Gators. Also, Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl is proof that even if you’re unable to dress yourself, you can still succeed in the SEC.

The Sampras and Agassi children will surely have a unique presence in college basketball. However, you won’t be able to tell them apart from other players when they get whistled for fouls. They’ll cry and throw a tantrum – just like everyone else.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Howland To Team: "We're Playing The Florida Tigers"

All over Gainesville this weekend, fans are shouting “Go Gators!” However, UCLA head coach Ben Howland is calling his NCAA championship game opponent by a different name. Howland is insisting that his players refer to Florida as the Tigers.

The Bruin coach conceived this strategy based on his team’s previous two victories. UCLA defeated the Memphis Tigers 50-45 to advance to the Final Four. Yesterday the Bruins dominated the LSU Tigers 59-45. Therefore, it makes sense for Howland to convince his players that they are taking on another set of Tigers. With his team on board, he believes that UCLA will also hold Florida to 45 points.

The Tiger phenomenon is not a new development for UCLA. The signature win of the program’s last national title run in 1995 was a last-second thriller over the Missouri Tigers, thanks to Tyus Edney’s full-court dash. The school’s previous Final Four appearance in 1980 was earned due to a regional final victory over the Clemson Tigers. And in 1973, John Wooden captured his seventh consecutive national title with a triumph over the Memphis State Tigers. Bill Walton shot an amazing 21 for 22 from the floor in that contest. If he had been facing the Memphis State Bulldogs, he would have been lucky to make half his shots.

However, UCLA’s fortunes versus Tigers took a turn for the worse after the 1995 national title. In 1996 the Princeton Tigers stunned the defending champions 43-41 as Pete Carril outfoxed the UCLA head coach. I did not mention that Bruin leader by name because it seemed ridiculous to include Princeton and Jim Harrick in the same sentence. The Missouri Tigers eliminated UCLA in the 2002 Sweet 16, and the Bruins regularly lost to Stanford, alma mater of Tiger Woods. The school was even denied entrance to the American League Central, depriving it of the opportunity to dominate the Detroit Tigers.

Howland’s hiring in 2003 ensured that things would be different in Westwood. He made two pledges in his initial press conference as the UCLA coach. First, his teams would always be tenacious on defense. Secondly, the Bruins would not lose tournament games to Tigers. Those promises are evident in Howland’s mantra: “Defense wins championships. Tigers don’t.”

Knowing the effectiveness of Howland’s approach, Florida head coach Billy Donovan continues to emphasize that his team is not called the Tigers. Donovan has arranged for groups of Florida supporters to tail the UCLA team, shouting “Go Gators!” Florida stars Joakim Noah and Taurean Green were seen walking around their hotel lobby, holding signs proclaiming, “I’m a Gator – Not a Tiger!” Donovan even enlisted the aid of Steve Irwin, the Crocodile Hunter. Irwin e-mailed his SportsCenter commercial to UCLA guards Jordan Farmar and Aaron Afflalo, noting, “Crikey! That’s not a tiger I’ve got a hold of!”

It remains to be seen if Howland’s strategy will pay off with a championship. Even if his players do not believe that they are facing the Tigers, Howland has a back-up plan. Florida’s previous championship game appearance resulted in a loss to Michigan State in 2000. So tomorrow night, UCLA will be led onto the court by Mateen Cleaves.