Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Bambino Cursed in 21st Century

After a seemingly endless chase, Barry Bonds hit his 715th home run on Sunday to pass Babe Ruth for second place on the all-time list. The 20th century was a glorious time for the Bambino, but things have not been so rosy for the Yankee legend since the new century began on January 1, 2001. Indeed, the 21st century has been very unkind to the ghost of Babe Ruth.

There was no hint of the Babe’s upcoming misfortune as the 20th century ended, as his impact still loomed over the game in numerous ways. In 1998, The Sporting News named Ruth as #1 on its list of baseball’s 100 all-time greatest players. His New York Yankees won the last three World Series of the century, and thanks to his curse, the Boston Red Sox were still 82 years removed from their last title. Even his birthplace was celebrated as Oriole Park at Camden Yards, built a block from his boyhood home, drew rave reviews after opening in 1992. Ruth’s ghost often watched the action at the new ballpark, and according to legend, he caused Brady Anderson’s monster 1996 season by wagering the ghost of Ty Cobb that “I can get any chump to hit 50 taters.” Ruth added, “Mmmm… taters.”

As the turn of the century neared, even those named Babe or Ruth experienced success. In 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg became the second woman to serve on the United States Supreme Court. The 1995 film Babe captured hearts and was a Best Picture Academy Award nominee. Fortunately for the title pig, his namesake slugger was not alive, or he might have celebrated by roasting the swine on a barbecue spit.

2001 brought a downturn in the Bambino’s fortunes. Bonds served notice that he would someday pass the Babe by smacking a record 73 home runs. Also, the Yankees fell short in their bid for a fourth straight title, dropping a classic World Series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Bronx Bombers have not won the Fall Classic since then, losing to the Florida Marlins in the 2003 edition. In the meantime, his old neighborhood has seen lousy baseball, with the Orioles finishing every season this century with a losing record. One would expect the Babe to distract himself with alcohol, but Camden Yards has a strict policy against selling beer to ghosts.

Most painful, of course, were the 2004 playoffs. The Red Sox finally broke the Curse of the Bambino, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. Earlier, Boston had rallied from three games down to embarrass New York in the ALCS. Yankee Stadium, where the Red Sox won games 6 and 7, was once known as “The House That Ruth Built.” Now it is called “The House that Papi Owns.” Ruth’s resulting drop in the curse hierarchy was quite embarrassing. He could deal with getting passed by Hank Aaron in 1974. However, being surpassed by a billy goat was just humiliating.

Additionally, the names Babe and Ruth have taken a hit over the past few years. Mythical lumberjack Paul Bunyan recently announced that his blue ox has made a long overdue change in his name. Formerly known as Babe, he now goes by Hank. Also, Maxim had planned a “Babes Named Ruth” edition in honor of the slugger’s legendary skirt-chasing. However, the magazine scrapped the issue, as not enough hot girls named Ruth could be found.

As the Barry Bonds home run circus subsides, Babe Ruth must come to grips with the weakening of his aura. If the hardships continue, the Bambino will face the same consequence of all Yankees who struggle. George Steinbrenner will call him out in the media.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

How Athletes Relate To Enron

In this week’s top business story, former Enron heads Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling were convicted of numerous counts of securities and wire fraud. The disgraced energy company’s most prominent connection to the sports world was the Houston Astros’ Enron Field, now known as Minute Maid Park. Athletes still relate to Enron in other ways, as shown by the following list.

Lance Armstrong: Cocky, cold-blooded Texan

BCS: Discloses complicated information no one really understands

Barry Bonds: Most high-profile offender from a scandal-ridden era

Eric Crouch: Never emerged again after bottom fell out in late 2001

Dale Earnhardt, Jr.: “Little E” (like “The Crooked E”)

Ozzie Guillen: Brought heartbreak to the city of Houston

Rickey Henderson: Best of all-time at stealing

Sandy Koufax: Caused power shortages in California

Jim Larranaga: Ended things for Rashad Anderson (as Enron did for Arthur Andersen)

Ryan Leaf: Fell unbelievably far from blue-chip status

Warren Moon: Could not stop notorious Houston collapse (Oilers’ playoff loss to Bills)

Alex Rodriguez: Has impressive-looking numbers with no real substance

Steve Spurrier: Antagonizes the SEC

Isiah Thomas: Famous #11 – like Enron’s Chapter

Ben Wallace: A leader in energy

Sentencing for Lay and Skilling is scheduled for September 11. After that, their new home will be familiar territory for another famous athlete: Mike Tyson.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Spurs Win 2007 NBA Draft Lottery

The 2006 NBA draft lottery was conducted on Tuesday, with the Toronto Raptors emerging with the #1 overall pick. With no clear-cut choice for the top selection, it is unknown whom Toronto will choose - if they even decide to keep the pick. What is certain is that the Raptors will not be able to duplicate Orlando’s 1992 and 1993 feat of winning consecutive lotteries. The NBA made certain of that by announcing that the San Antonio Spurs have won the 2007 NBA draft lottery.

While the announcement stunned many observers, commissioner David Stern insisted that it was only a formality. Stern noted that San Antonio won the lottery in both 1987 and 1997, so it’s a foregone conclusion that the same scenario would unfold in 2007. Also, the Spurs know to win the lottery when a future Hall of Fame big man is the prize – David Robinson in 1987 and Tim Duncan in 1997. Next year’s projected top selection – incoming Ohio State freshman Greg Oden – is just as coveted by NBA franchises. On the other hand, 1989 was the Spurs’ only other lottery appearance. With Pervis Ellison winding up as the top pick, San Antonio did not bother winning on that occasion.

The decision brightened an otherwise gloomy week for the Spurs, who were eliminated in a classic seven-game series by the Dallas Mavericks on Monday. Some observers charge that Stern was attempting to upstage his frequent critic – Dallas owner Mark Cuban – with the timing of the announcement. Cuban has not been reached for comment, but officials from the Atlanta Hawks have already blistered the commissioner. Since no one cares about the Atlanta Hawks, reporters are waiting on Cuban’s press conference this afternoon in Dallas. The Mavericks owner will reportedly unload bags of money onto a table, representing payment for the fine he will get for his subsequent remarks.

Stern’s critics charge that you cannot place a team in the following year’s lottery - before the season has even been played. The commissioner responded that the NBA has done this for years with the Los Angeles Clippers. “You can’t have an NBA draft lottery without the Clippers, so we always reserve a spot for them in advance.” Told that the Clippers were not part of Tuesday’s lottery, Stern replied, “Dude, stop pulling my leg.” The reporter insisted that the Clippers had indeed made the playoffs and won a first round series. The commissioner answered in a patronizing voice, “Of course they did – in Crazyland.”

Before officially receiving the top selection, San Antonio still has the obligation of missing next year’s playoffs. That outcome may appear unlikely for a team that won 63 games in the regular season and captured three championships in the past seven years. However, two of the team’s stars have vowed to do their part. Guard Tony Parker will only be a part-time player, spending much of his time as girlfriend Eva Longoria’s new gardener on Desperate Housewives. Duncan plans to sit out the NBA season and play minor league baseball in the Chicago White Sox organization.

Since the lottery was instituted in 1985, Robinson and Duncan are the only #1 overall selections to win an NBA title with the team that drafted them. The Spurs expect Oden to follow suit. The resulting victory parades will bring jubilation to the franchise. And so will the 2017 draft lottery.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Why The Pistons Beat The Cavaliers

The Cleveland Cavaliers shocked most basketball fans by taking a 3-2 lead in their second-round series with the Detroit Pistons. The top-seeded Pistons eventually restored order, winning a tight game 6 and steamrolling the Cavaliers by a 79-61 score in game 7. LeBron James will eventually bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the title-starved city of Cleveland, but that moment of glory will have to wait. The following reasons show why the Pistons advanced to the eastern conference finals against Miami.

Matt Millen has nothing to do with the Pistons. Or any other Detroit team that’s doing well.

Edmonton does not have an NBA franchise. The Pistons sought to avenge the city’s honor after the Oilers eliminated the Red Wings from the NHL playoffs. With no opponent from Edmonton available, Cleveland had to feel the wrath.

The ABC Sitcom Factor. Taking place in Cleveland, The Drew Carey Show was a hit series. However, Home Improvement, set in the Detroit area, was even more popular. Emulating Tim Allen, Pistons head coach Flip Saunders receives coaching advice from a partially unseen neighbor.

Detroit has a Big Ben. In February, the team with the Big Ben (Roethlisberger) won a postseason showdown in Detroit. Today Ben Wallace and the Pistons followed suit, thankful that the Cavaliers did not have a Bus.

They weren’t playing Scrabble. Even before considering bonuses such as Double Word Scores, Zydrunas Ilgauskas would be worth 35 points in Scrabble. In basketball on Sunday, he only provided eight points for Cleveland.

Michigan needed to pay back Ohio. This was the biggest sports matchup between the states since November’s Ohio State-Michigan game, won 25-21 by the Buckeyes. To be on the safe side, arena security kept OSU quarterback Troy Smith out of the arena.

Equaling a Yankee slugger is not so impressive on the court. Saturday, Barry Bonds tied Babe Ruth with his 714th career home run. Sunday, the Cavaliers matched Roger Maris by tallying 61. Sadly, there will be no asterisk for Cleveland.

The music scene. Yes, Cleveland is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the Hall would not exist without Motown. The Four Tops symbolize the Pistons’ quest for a fourth championship.

The Anti-NC State conspiracy. Pistons assistant Sidney Lowe has been hired as the new head coach for North Carolina State. However, he will not be working full-time for the Wolfpack until Detroit is eliminated. Suspiciously, UNC alumnus Rasheed Wallace helped to delay Lowe’s move to Raleigh.

City nicknames. Cleveland is “The Forest City,” so it’s not as ready to run the court as The Motor City.

The loss prevented World Series nightmares in Cleveland. If the Cavaliers had won, they would have played the Miami Heat in the conference finals. A Cleveland-Miami postseason matchup would evoke memories of the 1997 World Series, when the Indians blew a 9th inning game 7 lead against the Marlins. Dwyane Wade would have been joined in the backcourt by Edgar Renteria.

Final Four Most Outstanding Players. The Pistons have two – Richard Hamilton and Tony Delk. Just imagine what they could have done with Anderson Hunt.

The Pistons’ win sets up an Out of Sight series. Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight took place in both Miami and Detroit. At halftime of Game 1, fans will be treated to George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, getting it on at halfcourt.

The royalty issue. LeBron is called “King James,” but that’s just a nickname. On the other hand, Prince is Tayshaun’s real surname. And he plays in a Palace, so he’s clearly part of a royal family.

John Elway. I know, he had nothing to do with this series. But Cleveland sports fans are used to blaming him for postseason misery.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Will Clark & Mark Grace To Conclude Long-Running Sitcom

Two years after Friends and Frasier left its schedule, NBC must say goodbye to another longtime sitcom. Just like Jennifer Aniston and Kelsey Grammer in 2004, Will Clark and Mark Grace must now face the next chapter in their lives. Thursday evening, the former baseball stars wave goodbye to their viewers in the finale of Will & Grace.

Many observers were skeptical when the show went on the air in September 1998. Smashing a ball out of Wrigley Field is one thing, but hitting a home run in the Nielsen ratings is an entirely different matter. However, NBC executives, remembering Keith Hernandez’s guest appearances on Seinfeld, realized that first basemen were a great source of comedy. Indeed, CBS had hit the jackpot a decade earlier by basing a series on Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Murphy Brown.

The first sign that Will and Grace would excel in the spotlight together came in the 1989 National League Championship Series. Grace hit .647 and drove in eight runs for the Chicago Cubs. However, Will earned the series MVP award, batting .650 with two home runs as the San Francisco Giants triumphed, four games to one. Will set the tone with a Game 1 grand slam off of Chicago pitcher Greg Maddux, who was never heard from again.

Grace won four Gold Gloves and Will earned one, so both players displayed range on the diamond. However, their range on the soundstage was far greater. In real life, Will was a cocky native of the Deep South, but he was always convincing on the screen as a gay New York attorney. Even more impressive was Grace in portraying a neurotic Jewish woman. No one would have guessed how attractive he would look in a red wig.

As strong as Will and Grace were, they benefited greatly from the contributions of the other main performers – Jack and Karen. Jack was a flamboyant actor who often obsessed over his one-man show. Although his persona was more typical of figure skaters, Jack was partially modeled after Will’s former teammate Barry Bonds. Barry’s teammates have often commented that he thought he was in a one-man show. Karen was Grace’s sharp-tongued secretary, notable for her excessive drinking. She picked up this habit over the years while watching Grace’s Cubs.

Will & Grace was considered groundbreaking by many viewers in portraying homosexual characters on mainstream television. Many skeptics felt that such topics would be off-limits in relation to the high-testosterone world of professional athletes. Star catcher Mike Piazza even called a press conference to deny that he had seen any episodes of Will & Grace. Ultimately, the show achieved what many thought was not possible. A sport featuring locker room bonding and crotch grabbing managed to co-exist with the gay culture.

Most impressively, the show began when Will and Grace were both active players. Certainly Bo Jackson’s NFL career was a notable pursuit outside of major league baseball. However, Bo did not have to display impeccable comic timing in front of a live studio audience amid producers’ re-writes. Grace had particular demands on his time in 2001, when the Arizona Diamondbacks’ World Series title extended his season into November. Ultimately, however, Randy Johnson’s heroics paid huge dividends. Grace won a ring, and viewers got to enjoy countless Big Unit jokes.

One criticism of Will & Grace is that it was overly reliant on big-name guest stars. The executive producers countered that the show was set in New York, so this activity was standard practice. Still, sitcom purists felt that the constant grab for superstars had an adverse effect on the chemistry of the cast. They cited the casting of Alex Rodriguez on one episode as overkill, when Scott Brosius would have been perfect for the role.

Nevertheless, the series enjoyed a very successful eight-season run. Ratings were strong, and Emmy wins were frequent. Unlike Will and Grace, no current major leaguers appear ready to headline their own sitcoms. Unless, perhaps, a network decides to make Papi Knows Best.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Howard To Visit Emergency Room Before Each Phillies Game

Sunday afternoon, the Philadelphia Phillies completed a three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds with a 2-1 victory in 12 innings. First baseman Ryan Howard was the hero, despite a stomach virus that had sent him to the emergency room and kept him out of the starting lineup. Howard slammed a pinch-hit home run in the eighth inning and won the game in the 12th by going deep again. Based on this success, Howard plans to continue visiting the emergency room before Phillies games.

Howard apparently contracted food poisoning from something he ate in Cincinnati. The stomach virus sent him to the emergency room, from which he returned to the hotel around 3:45 a.m. With Babe Ruth in the news these days, Howard provided an appropriate tribute: a left-handed slugger, on little sleep and almost too sick to stand, taking two pitches out of the park. The only difference is that after the game, Howard left the ballpark with his teammates, not a couple of hookers.

Ballplayers are known for their superstitions, so Howard will continue to get sick as long as Philadelphia keeps winning. Sunday’s victory was the Phillies’ 13th in their last 14 contests, drawing them to within one game of the first-place New York Mets. The club is off tonight before beginning a three-game series with the Brewers on Tuesday. Howard made sure to prepare as he reached the hotel. He learned the location of the most convenient hospital, as well as the best place in Milwaukee to eat spoiled bratwurst.

Howard’s sacrifice appears to be a trend on his team, as the Phillies have discovered that self-abuse can lead to victory. Last Thursday, centerfielder Aaron Rowand made a catch for the ages, snaring a fly ball at top speed before slamming his face into the wall. The crash left his face battered and bloody like Philly’s ultimate sports hero – Rocky Balboa. As Rowand lay on the ground, observers swear they saw the ghost of Burgess Meredith screaming for him to get up. Rowand had to go on the 15-day DL, but his all-out effort saved three runs in a 2-0 triumph over the Mets. Howard has followed his lead, putting the team ahead of his own well-being. Other Phillies may soon follow suit, emulating the albino monk from The Da Vinci Code and whipping themselves in the clubhouse.

Some baseball fans claim that this voluntary sickness is an extreme and unnecessary step for such a talented player. These observers note that Howard was the National League Rookie of the Year last season and is one of the game’s most promising young sluggers. However, he has often struggled against left-handed pitchers when he has not been ill. Sunday’s blasts were against Brandon Claussen and Chris Hammond – both southpaws. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel remarked, “If he’s healthy, he pops out to the second baseman.”

Howard is surely drawing inspiration from the legendary Michael Jordan. In the 1997 NBA finals, the Utah Jazz won games 3 and 4 to tie the series at two games apiece. Always looking for an extra edge, His Airness decided to contract a stomach virus in preparation for game 5 in Salt Lake City. Barely able to stand at times, Jordan scored 38 points in a 90-88 victory. The Bulls went on to win game 6 in Chicago and repeat as champions. One would think that Karl Malone and John Stockton would have learned their lesson for the following season’s rematch. However, both Jazz superstars refused to become ill, making another defeat inevitable.

After a disappointing April, the Phillies may succeed in winning over their demanding fans. The passionate locals love a guy like Howard, who is playing the way they like it: with fire in the belly.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Summer Movie Guide For Sports Fans

Although summer does not officially arrive until June 21, the summer movie season is already under way. Many of the most prominent titles are particularly relevant to the sports world. The following guide, in order of release date, should get fans up to speed.

Mission: Impossible III: Before kickoff, what reporters called Super Bowl III for the New York Jets

Poseidon: A sinking results in a big budget disaster: The New York Knicks’ season

The Da Vinci Code: Elaborate conspiracy theories are revealed in Paris: The locals are asked about Lance Armstrong

Over the Hedge: Georgia football players’ version of the Lambeau Leap – vaulting over the Sanford Stadium hedges

X-Men: The Last Stand: Up by one point, Xavier’s defense on the final possession preserves a huge basketball victory

The Break-up: Lakers fans recall the separation of Shaq and Kobe

Cars: The key to a successful SEC football recruiting class

Click: What Terrell Owens has never done with his quarterbacks

Superman Returns: Roger Clemens rejoins the Houston Astros

The Devil Wears Prada: New Jersey goaltender Martin Brodeur displays his fashion sense

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest: Pittsburgh catcher Ronny Paulino, a Dominican Republic native, gets flattened on a play at the plate

Lady in the Water: A profile of Olympic gold medal swimmer Amanda Beard

Miami Vice: The marijuana habit of Dolphins running back Ricky Williams

Talladega Nights: An athlete travels at great speeds and crashes into walls: Phillies centerfielder Aaron Rowand

Snakes On a Plane: Jake Plummer takes pilot lessons from Kenny Stabler

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Jed Bartlet To Replace Tagliabue As NFL Commissioner

This Sunday evening on NBC, Josiah “Jed” Bartlet will finish his service as President of the United States. Political observers have speculated about Bartlet’s next move after he exits The West Wing. That question has now been answered. NFL owners have selected President Bartlet to replace the retiring Paul Tagliabue as the league’s commissioner.

Bartlet will take over upon his predecessor’s exit in July. The President will assume the commissioner’s position under very similar circumstances as Tagliabue did in 1989. At that time, it was Tagliabue who replaced a long-time, respected leader (Pete Rozelle). Tagliabue also spent time as a powerful Washington figure – 24 years as an attorney - before taking the job in the NFL’s New York office. Unlike Bartlet, however, Tagliabue was not replaced by Jimmy Smits, who was then practicing law in L.A.

Bartlet’s selection is not surprising, given that the owners are primarily interested in the bottom line. The outgoing President certainly understands economics, having won a Nobel Prize in that area before entering politics. Bartlet’s honor was the reverse of Jimmy Carter, who became a Nobel laureate after his presidency. Like Carter, President Bartlet will strive to maintain peace – in this case, between owners and players.

An NFL insider expects a smooth transition from Tagliabue to Bartlet. The NFL dwarfs the popularity of other sports leagues, so significant changes are unlikely. Out of habit from the past eight years, President Bartlet does plan to deliver a State of the NFL Address every January. However, his comments will mostly focus on “how much we rock,” concluding the address with “Take that, Bud Selig and David Stern!” Hail To The Chief will not be played for Bartlet, as 31 owners would object to any apparent favoritism toward Kansas City. In terms of day-to-day activity within the league office, The NFL source expects the most significant change to be “more staffers walking briskly through the hallways while delivering witty repartee.”

As a Notre Dame alumnus, President Bartlet’s dream sports job would have been to coach the Fighting Irish football team. However, Charlie Weis is firmly entrenched in that position. Observers do expect Bartlet to bring a touch of the Golden Dome to the league office by appointing Regis Philbin as deputy commissioner. Players facing league discipline will get to plead their cases on the couch with Regis and Kelly Ripa.

Some observers feel that President Bartlet’s health issues could present a major concern. However, if anything, those vulnerabilities will only endear him to NFL fans. Bartlet has been battling multiple sclerosis throughout his presidency. He also survived a bullet wound during his first year in office. These obstacles have not kept him from performing his duties. To football fans, nothing is more admirable than a guy who plays through pain.

Bartlet does have one objective that Tagliabue was unable to fulfill: returning professional football to Los Angeles. The City of Angels has been without an NFL franchise since the Rams and Raiders skipped town after the 1994 season. Bartlet should be successful in placing a team in the nation’s #2 media market. He has consistently demonstrated his commitment to the Los Angeles area, spending most of his presidency on a soundstage in Burbank.

Yes, Jed Bartlet’s time in the Oval Office is about to end. However, the NFL’s new television contract ensures that one thing will not change: Sunday nights, he’ll still have a presence on NBC.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Barbaro & Barbosa: A Comparison

On Saturday, Barbaro remained undefeated to win the Kentucky Derby by 6 ½ lengths. Later, Leandro Barbosa scored a game-high 26 points as the Phoenix Suns routed the Los Angeles Lakers 121-90 in a decisive game 7. Barbaro and Barbosa share more than similar names, as the following comparison demonstrates.

Barbaro: Won a race that was over in two minutes
Barbosa: Won a game 7 that was over in two minutes

Barbaro: Inspired fans to drink mint juleps
Barbosa: Drove Lakers fans to drink heavily

Barbaro: Wants to win the Triple Crown
Barbosa: Survived thanks to Tim Thomas’s triple

Barbaro: Spends lots of time in the stables
Barbosa: Spending lots of time at Staples

Barbaro: Overcame stumble at the opening bell
Barbosa: Overcame suspension of Raja Bell

Barbaro: Triumphed after five weeks off
Barbosa: Triumphed to give Kobe five months off

Barbaro: A very athletic animal
Barbosa: Watches a very athletic animal – the Phoenix Gorilla

Barbaro: Same species as Mr. Ed
Barbosa: Same team as Mr. Eddie House

Barbaro: Became a shining star at Churchill Downs
Barbosa: Frustrated the star of The Shining

Barbaro: Runs like Smarty Jones
Barbosa: Runs with James Jones, who’s smart

Barbaro: Experienced victory in “The Run For the Roses”
Barbosa: Gets interviewed after victories by Jalen Rose

Barbaro: Will someday race in the Breeders Cup
Barbosa: Plays in a league of prolific breeders

Barbaro: Led by a small man riding him
Barbosa: Led by a small man who won MVP

Barbaro: A colt who came through in the clutch
Barbosa: Came through in the clutch, unlike the Colts

Barbaro: Excelled after playing of My Old Kentucky Home
Barbosa: Excelled and sent Phil Jackson home

Indeed, Saturday was a fantastic day for both Barbaro and Barbosa. If Vinnie Barbarino from Welcome Back, Kotter had been in action, he would have dominated, too.

Friday, May 05, 2006

NHL Denies San Jose, Anaheim Requests To Relinquish Home Ice Advantage

Tonight begins the conference semifinal round in the NHL playoffs. Coming off a grueling 7-game series with Calgary, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks will take on the Colorado Avalanche. However, Anaheim and the San Jose Sharks have already been dealt a major defeat by the league office. The NHL has denied both teams’ requests to relinquish their home ice advantage.

The Ducks and Sharks filed their requests based on the results of the first round of playoffs. All western conference teams with home ice advantage lost in the opening round. Even the Detroit Red Wings, after the league’s best regular season, were sent packing by the Edmonton Oilers. Detroit sports fans are absolutely stunned. Not that the Wings were eliminated, but that the Tigers are suddenly good.

The scene is far different back east, where the top four seeds all advanced into the second round. Therefore, the road ice advantage may carry a western team to the finals, but it likely won’t bring the Stanley Cup. However, the Sharks and Ducks are already dreaming of Ottawa and New Jersey – anything to distract them from the unpleasantness of opening a series at home.

Anaheim and San Jose felt that by being the higher seeds, they should have the option of whether to accept the home ice advantage or not. Anaheim began every series on the road in 2003, yet it advanced to the Stanley Cup finals. As the sixth seed, the Mighty Ducks assumed that they would do the same this season, but the Avalanche and Oilers were one step ahead of them. The Sharks planned to take things even further, hoping to play their “home” games in Boston. However, commissioner Gary Bettman has ruled that both western series will open as scheduled in California.

With the appeal denied, Anaheim must try to stop a hot Colorado team tonight at the Arrowhead Pond. Unlike the Mighty Ducks, the Avalanche will be rested after eliminating the Dallas Stars in five games. Therefore, Anaheim is particularly vulnerable if the action goes to overtime. What remains to be seen is how both teams would respond to tonight’s overtime wrinkle, if it arises. According to an NHL rule honoring Cinco de Mayo, any game tied after regulation on May 5 will be decided by a margarita-chugging contest.

The Sharks are in a similar position, contending with an Edmonton team that knows it can take down anyone. San Jose does have the NHL points leader in Joe Thornton and the league’s top goal scorer in Jonathan Cheechoo (Gesundheit!). However, fans fear that having home ice will cause their team to perform like another Shark in the clutch. San Jose could turn into Greg Norman, shanking their shots while the Oilers morph into Nick Faldo.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy uttered the famous line, “There’s no place like home.” This ignorance about hockey is why Kansas does not have an NHL franchise.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

NC State Offers Basketball Coach Position To Gene Hackman

A month after Herb Sendek departed for Arizona State, North Carolina State is still looking to replace him as the school’s men’s basketball coach. The program has been the frequent butt of jokes during its seemingly futile search for Sendek’s successor. However, athletic director Lee Fowler hopes he has finally found his man. Fowler has offered the position to Academy Award-winning actor Gene Hackman.

The Wolfpack AD cited Hackman’s stellar portrayal of coach Norman Dale in Hoosiers, one of the most beloved sports films of all-time. As Dale, Hackman defied the odds in leading the underdog Hickory High to the Indiana state basketball championship. Athletic department officials feel that he can provide similar inspiration as the leader of the Pack. Reportedly, Nick Nolte was eliminated from consideration due to his rampant recruiting violations in Blue Chips.

“We realize Gene played a fictional coach,” noted Fowler. “But we’ve tried and tried to get a real-life coach, and that just hasn’t worked.” Indeed, Rick Barnes, John Calipari, John Beilein, and Steve Lavin all have rebuffed the Wolfpack. Fowler even contacted Phil Ford – an all-time great player for the hated UNC Tar Heels - apparently in response to a drunken dare. Fordham coach and NC State alum Dereck Whittenburg has also been mentioned as a possible candidate. However, athletic department officials did not believe that Whittenburg could be successful without Lorenzo Charles around to clean up his mistakes.

Wolfpack fans’ gripe with Sendek was that he was usually good, but never great. While he finished his decade-long tenure in Raleigh with five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, he reached just one Sweet 16 and no Elite Eights. For supporters of a program that won national championships in 1974 and 1983, their expectations are higher. In Hackman, they would have someone who has also won the ultimate prize on two occasions – collecting Academy Awards for The French Connection and Unforgiven. NC State fans are starved for such a level of excellence and could ignore the fact that Hackman’s last film was Welcome To Mooseport.

Most importantly for Wolfpack devotees, they need someone who can take on the neighborhood big boys. NCSU has not reached the Final Four since the storied 1983 national title run. Since then, North Carolina and Duke have combined for 17 Final Four appearances and five national championships. Sendek fared miserably against the local powerhouses. However, Hackman has experience in battling superpowers, portraying Lex Luthor in the Superman movies. Although Superman still reigned supreme, he suffered numerous setbacks to Luthor along the way and regarded him as a formidable opponent. Hackman would enjoy an even stronger position off-screen in the event of an NC State victory over the Tar Heels or Blue Devils. Unlike Superman, Roy Williams or Mike Krzyzewski could not circle the earth at superhuman speed to turn back time and reverse an undesirable outcome. Such activity is in violation of NCAA rules.

Hackman’s performance surrounding the championship game in Hoosiers was particularly endearing to NCSU insiders. Hickory faced a seemingly unbeatable opponent in the finals and won by two points. Jim Valvano’s 1983 squad accomplished the same feat against Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma powerhouse. Equally important was a subtle reference to academics. As Norman Dale, Hackman used a tape measure to relax his nervous players, showing that the court in their home gym contained the same dimensions as the much larger field house that hosted the title game. His skill with the tape measure demonstrated that he understands NCSU’s pride in its engineering program.

It remains to be seen whether Hackman will accept the offer. The actor could not be reached for comment. Some observers feel that Hackman is too old at age 76, but he was apparently inspired by Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden – both born before he was – coaching in January’s Orange Bowl. Hackman told Larry King during a 2004 interview that he believes his acting career is finished, so availability does not seem to be an issue. Wolfpack officials have indicated that they would allow Hackman to periodically leave practice to record voice-overs for Lowe’s and Oppenheimer Funds. On those occasions, practices would likely be run by assistant coach Dennis Hopper.

Whether Hackman takes the job or not, Wolfpack fans are eager to see a new man in charge. Herb Sendek took the Princeton offense out to the desert. Perhaps the picket fence will come to Raleigh.