The NBA — “NO BETTING ADVICE”

Sorry, but I just don’t know anymore.  I’m disoriented from an aggressive travel schedule  across multiple time zones with too little sleep, and it’s totally thrown me off my game with respect to the world of sports. Maybe I can work that into an excuse to wash away the run of poor predictions I currently find myself in the midst of?

I woke up in London this morning with an idea for a blog post that would discuss the two NBA Conference Finals, each knotted two games apiece, with one final attempt at rescuing myself from my dismal record on recent prognostications.  I even went so far as to remind myself to write it up quickly and get it out there before the Boston-Cleveland matchup tipped off. Then I checked my phone to see what the start time would be in over here only to find out that the Cavs-Celtics Game 5 had just ended, with the Celts maintaining their strong home-court advantage yet again. So much for that idea.

A quick glance further down the screen of my Yahoo Sports app also informed me that the Washington Capitals (who I’ve left for dead multiple times this postseason in previous posts — yes, you’re still welcome Caps fans) have now advanced to the finals against the Golden Knights of Las Vegas (interesting since in my slightly delirious head I also had that game taking place tonight).  Since I’m not a hockey enthusiast, I had actually rooted for Tampa Bay to advance, not just to send home the Caps and their playoff-victory-starved fans once again, but also to make the Stanley Cup Finals even less compelling from my personal vantage point.

I say “personal vantage point” only because I do recognize that what Vegas is doing in advancing to the finals in their inaugural season is nothing short of remarkable (however, it seems to me that also needs to serve as something as an indictment of hockey’s inefficient playoffs,  doesn’t it?). So pitting the Golden Knights against one of the more uninspiring sports cities out there would dampen the enthusiasm for the Cup (sorry Tampa Bay, but you really are a pretty poor sports town).   Never mind, as I’m really not qualified to opine on the NHL beyond what I’ve already done and the Lightning are now sitting home and the Caps are still skating.  Figures.

Okay, but I can’t help it — don’t you think that Vegas has to have at least a hint of “happy to be here” going on now as the Stanley Cup Finals begins?  That has to be a huge plus for the Caps, methinks.  Of course, the way my prognostications have been going of late, that thought alone could put the whammy on the Caps’ season once and for all.  Stay tuned to see the true power of going the opposite way with your wagers when I’ve come out strong predicting an outcome.  Caps in 5. No doubt about it.

Back to the NBA and the curse of Swaggy P.

Yeah, I’m switching course yet again and now running with the Rockets.  I had them to reach the finals at the beginning of the playoffs, thinking that their home court advantage, coupled with this recurring feeling that the injuries and drop-off in character on the Dubs side would have a lasting effect, would be enough to send a new Western Conference representative to the final round this year.  Then I (like everyone else) witnessed the Warriors Game 1 dissection of the Rockets and their overly simplistic offensive system and decided the Dubs were simply too much for any team out there and went with Warriors in 5. Not so fast.

I returned once more to my imaginary bookmaking window (can you say “never throw good money after bad?”), this time choosing to revert back to my original line of thinking.  So I’m going with Rockets in 7, but feeling justified in my latest waffle since I am already on record pointing out that if things were to go bad for Golden State the inevitable organizational autopsy should begin with Nick “Swaggy P” Young.

I just don’t like the guy. I don’t like his game and especially his nickname (which somehow I am convinced is his own concoction, not unlike when George Costanza tried to anoint himself “T-Bone” on that classic Seinfeld episode. Only “Swaggy P” is certainly nowhere near as lovable as George was).

So give me Houston (once again) and here’s hoping for an epic Game 7, which I’ll likely need to find airing at three in the morning somewhere in Belgium to enjoy.

I’m also going to root for another Game 7 showdown in the East, only in this one I’m sticking to my (recent) guns. I won’t rehash my Celtics/LeBron mutual hate dilemma in this post, but the angst of this matchup does remain quite real for me. And I’m also not simply riding the “Celtics can’t lose at home in these playoffs” bandwagon” either, although based on what I read about last night’s (this morning’s?) game, it sure is starting to seem that way.

I’m actually more excited about the possibility of an Eastern Conference Game 7 than one out west, as the idea of a desperate (and likely running on fumes) LeBron heading into Boston Garden and trying to carry that ragtag supporting cast of his into the finals should be an awesome viewing experience. That’s assuming they make it to a Game 7, but it is with an enormous amount of confidence I say that Cleveland is a lock in Game 6 at home.

Based on what we’ve seen from the Celts in this series on the road, they will be content to wait it out for some home cooking and then try to lock it up back in Boston.  If you are a Celtics fan, that mentality should scare the hell out of you. And that makes me happy, too. In the end, though, team basketball prevails in the East and the Celts move on.

There it is — rooting hard for dual Game 7’s in the respective conference finals. And I’m  predicting that the home floor advantage is the slight differentiator in both series, setting up a rematch of the 1986 finals (with hopefully a more competitive series coming our way) won by Boston in 6 mostly uninteresting games (although the Rockets Twin Towers of Sampson and Olajuwon at the time was pretty cool).

And when it’s over, let’s start the over/under discussion as to how many days it takes Bob Myers to jettison Swaggy P out of Oakland and on to some perennial also-ran where he can hoist up bad shots at will, score 20+ a game, annoy teammates on a nightly basis, all on the way to a 25-57 record (just please keep him out of New York, as when I reread that description it sounded eerily similar to Knickerbocker-land!).

Take a bow, Nick Young. You are doing what all the collective finest basketball minds in the NBA have been unable to do to date — figure out a way to take down the Golden State Warriors.  It’s all about chemistry, people, chemistry.

Who’s Heading to the Hall

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Earlier this month Ichiro Suzuki announced his retirement from baseball as a member of  the Seattle Mariners, the team he broke in with.  Ichiro should be a first ballot Hall of Famer.  In the traditional sense.  Staggering stats, an iconic player, and if you factor in his time in Japan you simply shake your head at the numbers he amassed. All-Time Great. Period. There was a time when “First Ballot” meant something, when that rarified air was reserved for the Ichiro’s of the game, and I hope we get back to those days soon.

As a baseball traditionalist, there’s a lot of issues I struggle with.  The DH is pushing 50 years old, and I still don’t like it.  Make the pitchers hit.  I’ll save all the arguments around that one for another time, but you get the idea.  At least they ditched that astro-turf idea years ago and gave us back real grass. I like a pitchers duel, and the hit and run, and long for the days when you had to be a “no doubt about it” all-time great to earn entrance into the MLB Hall of Fame (and All-World to get in on the first ballot).

Ichiro’s retirement got me thinking about who’s going to follow him into The Hall over the next decade-plus. It seems to me that we are at an odd point in the National Pastime’s history, with very few current stars assured of Hall of Fame entry (at least under my rigid standards, more on that in a second). As in any era, there are dozens of young stars who today appear Hall of Fame bound, but the key variable here is sustainability of that excellence over an entire career. That’s the differentiator for so many, so with that in mind I decided to take a look at the current baseball landscape.  I sorted  this discussion by category:  the Locks, the Debatables and the More Wood To Chop’s:

The Locks

I see three of them.  Albert Pujols leads the way, with his 3000+ hits and 600+ HR’s being simply staggering stats, even in today’s homer happy era. Back in the day he also had a mean glove, and he was a winner (at least when he was a Cardinal). To me he’s an example of a First Ballot, no-doubt-abouter. Drop the mic.

Adrian Beltre is also a lock, although in my world of tougher grading, he isn’t a first-ballot candidate.  Tremendous defensive player who also amassed 3000 hits and had well above average power.  Beltre’s eccentric “don’t touch my head” thing makes for fun baseball lore, too, which baseball desperately needs more of these days.

My third lock is Miguel Cabrera.  I believe if he retired today he’d get in. Barely.  Over 2600 hits and nearing 500 dingers, with a couple of MVP’s thrown in along the way.  I’m biased here, because he happens to be one of my favorite major leaguers, having witnessed up close how engaging and genuinely warm he is with the fans when visiting Oakland, and from afar his highly publicized battle with alcohol, which he overcame with dignity (here’s hoping he keeps that one at bay). He’s likely to get to 3000 hits in a year or two, and it would be fun to see a contender in need of a big bat and stabilizing clubhouse leader rescue him from the toilet that is the Tigers current tank season.

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The Debatables

This whole Robinson Cano suspension thing fascinates me as it pertains to the Hall of Fame.  I had Cano approaching “lock” status despite my bias against his Yankees years (just because), his penchant for not hustling, and his shameless pursuit of a dimmer spotlight (and bigger check, but we can’t really blame him for that, right?) that triggered his move to Seattle. But hey, the guy played seemingly every day and had absurd stats for a second baseman (and yeah, he won, too…). Now what?

The voters seem to be softening on the steroid cheats, which obviously helps him (by the way, props to Mark Texeirra for calling out his former teammate after the steroid news hit, pointing out that Cano’s best friends on the Yanks — A-Rod and Melky Cabrera — both got popped for PED’s, and candidly stating he wasn’t surprised Cano went down also).  We must assume he’s got a few more strong stat years in him once he returns from his suspension, even if they do take place in the relative anonymity of the Pacific Northwest, and that should firm up his stats for the voters.  Will there be a PED hangover? Right now, on my ballot (man I wish I got to vote on this one), he’s on the outside looking in.

Will a starting pitcher ever gain entry again?  If I am correct in my belief that the 300-game winner has gone the way of the dinosaur, then the voters will need to redefine HOF entrance criteria for starting pitchers in our new world of “quality” starts, pitch count ceilings and innings restrictions.  All that being said, how about C.C. Sabathia? Statistically he’s the closest.  Literally a bigger than life character (again, at a time MLB needs more of this), Sabathia’s won big as a power pitcher and now seems to be successfully reinventing himself as a crafty lefty. To me, he’s right on the doorstep.

Even accounting for my distaste for all things Yankees, and my tendency to tarnish anyone associated with the Evil Empire, C.C. gets a pass here. His Indians tenure was often spectacular without the same dominant supporting cast he’s had in the Bronx, plus his publicized admission of the need to skip a playoff series to address his alcohol issues sent a message on life and priorities that didn’t garner nearly the attention it deserved at the time.

He’s sitting on 239 wins right now.  If he extends his career through next year and gets to around 260 he gets my vote.  He’ll (unfortunately) have likely added another World Series ring by then also, and his history of always wanting the baseball, often on short rest, cements his case for me.

One issue for Sabathia’s supporters to consider:  if you are in agreement with my assessment on the “Hefty Lefty” and The Hall, then how do you approach Bartolo Colon? As of this writing Big Sexy has 242 wins (most in the bigs), and despite a “fast”ball that seems destined to dip below 80 MPH any minute now, seems to keep finding ways to grind out wins.  Yes, he had the PED suspension years back, too, but he’s Big Sexy for gosh sakes!  Everybody loves Big Sexy.  To me he belongs in that Hall of Very Good purgatory where the long-career accumulators hang out (and by the way, that’s the Hall where Andre Dawson, Jim Rice and Tim Raines would be hanging in right now, if not for the “everybody gets a trophy” mentality of too many of today’s HOF voters).

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More Wood to Chop

This category is always the longest when the future HOF conversation comes up.  Every generation is loaded with awesome talents who appear on a collision course with The Hall.  But funny things happen on the way to 20-year careers of sustained greatness. Don Mattingly, Thurman Munson and Kirby Puckett are old-time examples of those who at a frozen moment in time appeared locks on their way to Hall of Fame induction, only to have injury or tragedy derail them.  Look at Joe Mauer for a present day example.

However there are several current studs beginning to separate themselves from the pack.  I would argue that Justin Verlander (apologies to Max Scherzer fans) and Clayton Kershaw are the best righty and lefty starting pitchers in the game today, who have also provided sustained excellence over the past several years.  And both of them would find themselves on the outside of The Hall looking in if an injury forced them into retirement today.

Verlander is closest, with 193 wins to his credit, plus the “team on my back” World Series win with the Astros last year.  But he needs a few more years to even get into the debatable category, and a couple of more middling, end of career 10-win seasons after that to seal it statistically.  Kershaw “only” has 145 wins right now and a cranky back, plus the looming overhang of his poor postseason track record. If I had to bet today, I’d say he doesn’t get there, despite these last seven years of other-worldly performance.

From the batter’s box point of view it would appear Joey Votto is on his way to strong Hall of Fame consideration.  He boasts an MVP in 2010, 1600+ hits and a lifetime .313 batting average (and his on base percentage is .427, the same as Tris Speaker’s, for crying out loud).  Despite toiling in relative anonymity in Cincinnati (albeit a big-time launching pad ballpark), Votto should put himself in the HOF conversation with another five good years.  Of course a lot can happen in half a decade, but let’s hope he stays healthy and keeps this statistical trajectory, because he is on the verge of mind-blowing career numbers if he maintains his current pace.

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A Few to Watch

The “projection” part of my Hall of Fame evaluation has to start and stop with Mike Trout.  The “best player in the game today” sure seems well on his way.  Video game stats plus unreal defense in centerfield?  It seems only injury can stop him, and the entire world of baseball holds it’s collective breath that doesn’t happen. Let’s also hope this current Angels upswing continues, as it would be a lot of fun to witness Trout in the postseason while Pujols is still hanging around and Ohtani is filling the seats both as a pitcher and a hitter. Fun times in Anaheim!

Others I’d put in the category of Hall-worthy trajectory:  Buster Posey, Aroldis Chapman, Paul Goldschmidt/Freddie Freeman (I put them together, because they seem mirror images of one another — check this out:  Goldschmidt hits righty and has 1000+ hits for his career with 180 HR’s and a .294 career average.  Freeman hits lefty and has 1100+ career hits with 174 HR’s and a .291 career average), Manny Machado and Charlie Blackmon (try playing out those Coors Field numbers over a 20-year career!).  But it is a long road from here to there.  The cool part is how much fun it will be to see these paths play out in seasons to come.

Speaking of the Hall of Very Good

I know the dangers of comparing players across eras, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like to do it anyway. When Tim Raines got in The Hall on the basis of great speed and strong (but not All-Time Great) stats I had to go back and compare.  Take a look at the following:

Raines:  .294 BA, 2605 hits (accumulator figures though, as eight of his last nine years in the league he was a part-timer), 808 stolen bases and five monster years with the Expos early in his career.

Maury Wills:  .281 BA, 2134 hits (not an accumulator — from his second year in 1960 to his second to last year in 1971 the guy played every day at one of the most demanding positions on the diamond) with 586 career stolen bases.  He had 7-8 monster years and was a key cog on those great Dodger ball clubs of the early-1960’s.  He didn’t pad his stats by hanging around in a utility role for an extra five years, which dimmed his HOF credentials.

Wills was one of the best shortstops of his era and an outstanding player. And he is a solid member of the Hall of Very Good.  Raines should be there, too, not in the Hall of Fame.

A couple more:

Jim Rice:  .298 BA, 2452 hits, 382 HR’s, 1451 RBI’s, 8 hellacious statistical years for the Sawx. Average defensive outfielder.

Andre Dawson: .279 BA, 2774 hits, 438 HR’s, 1591 RBI’s, 8 superstar years between his time with the Expos and Cubs.  Cannon of an arm in right field in his youth. His stats were accumulated in 600 more games played than Rice (roughly 3 1/2 season’s worth).

So what about:

Dave Parker:  .290 BA, 2712 hits, 339 HR’s, 1493 RBI’s, 7 incredible years mostly with the Pirates (and the We Are Family championship season of ’79).  Tremendous defensive right fielder with an arm at least as good as Dawson’s. Played in 200 fewer games than The Hawk, as well.

Dick Allen:  .292 BA, 1848 hits, 351 HR’s, 1119 RBI’s, 8 massive statistical years and  a couple of others that were simply really strong (even though his lifetime stats are below the other three in this comparison due to a shorter career, I just had to find a way to include Dick Allen in this conversation — the guy was so cool, with the glasses and always wearing that batting helmet).

Do Parker, who was a central figure in the cocaine scandal in the mid-’80’s, or Allen, who was a well known clubhouse malcontent for multiple franchises, belong in the Hall of Fame?  I don’t put either in, but I’d rank Parker ahead of both Rice and Dawson.  Hall of Very Good staples to me, not Hall of Famers.

Today’s voters are making it too easy, and thus the standards are dropping. And now we are running the risk of letting the steroid cheats who desecrated the statistical history and integrity of the game into Cooperstown?  Where’s Goose Gossage when you need him? Somebody do something, please!

 

 

 

 

Sweet Sounds for the Sports Fan

This was almost a washout sports night for me.  Yanks and Mets off.  No NBA playoff game. The A’s winning big up in Toronto and the Giants at home hosting the Rockies later on (not a bad matchup, actually). I’ve been relegated to seeing if I can work up an interest in Caps-Ligntning, knotted at 2 after 2 (no, not really).

The evening was saved when I decided to check out Bleacher Report’s Game of Zones.  I don’t know how I’ve managed to sleep on this jewel, but I caught the preview clip last night on the TNT NBA Postgame Show (any one else find that Shaq, Kenny, Chuck and Ernie are the best thing the NBA has going for it?) and it was hysterical.  I just watched the full episode on YouTube and it was laugh-out-loud funny.  I now have a new binge-watch option going forward, as I only watched the most recent show, where cartoon-Clyde tells cartoon-Kristaps a bedtime story.  Must see viewing for any NBA fan or anyone familiar with the horrors of the last 20 years of the New York Knickerbockers history.  And “He Who Shall Not Be Named” (yeah, James Dolan) even makes a cameo (along with Steve Mills, playing a lute, no less) at the end.  Thanks, Bleacher Report — I needed that.

I suppose the sound of my own laughter over the pain that is my favorite NBA franchise qualifies as a sweet sound, but that wasn’t exactly what I was thinking about when the idea for tonight’s post came to me.  But the idea was basketball-related.  In my backyard I have a basketball hoop (like gazillions of other humans).  Every once in a blue moon I heave up a few jumpers, and a couple of years back I made one of my better decisions when I went out and bought a chainlink net for the hoop.

I hit a free throw in between multiple bricks while killing time a little earlier, and it occurred to me that the sound of a basketball swishing through a chainlink net is one of the sweetest sounds in sport.  It transports me.  To schoolyards and parks and the cracked pavement court outside my old college dorm.  And it got me to thinking what other sounds in the world of sports can have that magical effect of instantly making me smile and travel in my head to a happy time.  I came up with a few.

The first-cousin of the chainlink net, of course, comes in an oh so close second in the sweet sounds of hoop-dom.  The nylon swish has it’s own special sound deep in the folds of my rapidly aging brain, and that sound makes me instantly want to find a way to replay it.  Throw up another jumper.  Or turnaround.  Corner-J. From the age of five, when I would throw my too-light, toy, plastic basketball at the hoop at the end of our deadend cul-de-sac (which all too often got stuck in the bottom of the net because the toy ball didn’t weigh enough, forcing me to dislodge it with a rock or a stick…), that sound mesmerized me. Soon I started tossing up shots from all angles (always pretending to be the great Walt “Clyde” Frazier, even penning a blue 10 on a bunch of white t-shirts that never looked the way the Knicks home white unis did that I was trying so hard to replicate), always doing my best to ignore my mom calling me in for dinner because I didn’t want the fun to stop, plus, you know, you have to make the last shot before going in.

Another hoop sound is the organ. Oh, how I harken for the days where 19,812 of us bonded in unison at the MSG organ’s musical urging of DEE-FENSE, DEE-FENSE.  I grew up with that organ, and that chant.  Watching on TV, the camera would actually shake when that chant started late in a close game. The organ and DEE-FENSE regained it’s relevance in the Ewing-Riley days, but it’s been way too long. Fizdale is saying all the right things about old fashioned, New York defense right now.  Here’s hoping it isn’t just talk.

Speaking of the classic organ, it’s a different memory stream, but the same musical instrument, and the baseball organ to me is a staple of a good ballgame experience.  Major points scored off any stadium that doesn’t at least offer recorded organ music. At the AT&T Park “Businessman’s Special” I recently attended, I arrived about an hour before first pitch and the air was filled with organ music.  “Festive and celebratory” are the words I come up with that best describe the feeling of “nowhere to be but the ballpark and loving  it” (and while on the subject of organs, how about a quick shout out to John Paul Jones?  When he would pipe in on the organ on old Led Zeppelin bootleg tracks, it was time to party).  Yeah, the organ.

Sticking with the baseball thread, the sound of that horsehide sphere smacking into a leather mitt is certainly Top 10 Sound material.  Anyone else recall and revel in the subtle differences between the smack of a first baseman’s glove (I had a George Scott autograph model when I played first base in my Little League years), and the pop of the catcher’s mitt when it receives the heater?  The first time I saw a catcher’s mitt I immediately knew I had to have one (little did I know it’s not so easy breaking one of those bad boys in, and once you do, those foul tips really sting — so it was back to the first baseman’s glove for me). Gloves, mitts, Rawlings, Wilson, that nasty oil you had to let soak over night?  Good stuff and good days.

And it’s not just the gloves, right?  The sound of ball on bat when you walk into a stadium is priceless. You’ve arrived.  And that unique “thwack” that signals a ball particularly well struck takes this sound to an even deeper sensory level (except when you hear it while you are in line waiting for the Men’s Room, which begs the question, can someone please explain to me how the Mets could spend all those hundreds of millions of dollars on a new stadium and yet it still takes an inning and a half to take a leak?).

Not to be outdone, the “ping” of aluminum bat on ball signals the National Pastime’s next generation hard at work (talking about Little League again here, not college ball where they shouldn’t be allowed to use aluminum bats — just sayin’).  Something about the innocence and optimism of a bunch of kids playing baseball like I did, and my dad did, and my grandpa before that, can change the trajectory of a not so good day.

Even the sport that elicited more groans (and four letter words) of frustration than any other has it’s place in this discussion.  Once on the green (typically lying 7 or 8), the knowledge that the best sound in golf awaited me often kept me from giving up and “picking up.”  Figure out a way of bottling the soothing sound of golf ball settling into the cup and I’m buying. Putt it out. Great sound.

I would add the bell in boxing, but that wasn’t necessarily a joyous sound. However, for a couple of decades there was little that could get a party started in our old, crowded living room more boisterously than Michael Buffer booming “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble!!” It didn’t matter who you were rooting for in the fight, when Mike grabbed the mic, the room filled with palpable elation and enthusiastic anticipation.

Throw a dollar in the hat and pick a slip of paper that said “Tyson 4” and hope that was the round Iron Mike would dispose of his latest victim (the night he fought Buster Douglas in Tokyo we were all so convinced he would destroy the no-name challenger that all we threw in the hat on the Douglas side of the ledger was one lone slip of paper with the words “Douglas Anytime” printed on it.  I still remember us all laughing derisively at my friend Mark when he pulled that one out of the hat, as well as his full-on celebration and victory dance when Douglas knocked Tyson out of the discussion of all-time great heavyweights).

As much as I don’t pay close attention to the NHL any longer, I feel a responsibility to  include in this conversation the sound of two combatants, skating at high speed and crashing into the boards simultaneously. Hold onto that beer tight if you happen to be in the front row.  That thunderous crashing sound has drenched many a fan.  And not one of them was pissed, either (I guess I should say “angry” there, as many, in fact, were the UK definition of “pissed”).

I’ll end it with the cracking of pads.  Back in high school you knew summer was coming to a close and school was soon back in session when you heard those late-summer, gridiron collisions begin.  The unmistakeable sound of hard, plastic shoulder pad crashing into helmets and more shoulder pads just felt right.  Soon the leaves would be falling, the weather would get cold, Thanksgiving football would be on the horizon and Sunday appointment viewing was on deck.

Lots of great sounds to ponder on a slow sports night.  I’m sure I missed a few, but the real key to me is the “snap/drift” effect that takes place in my head when I hear one of these sacred sounds.  At this stage in my life there aren’t that many triggers that take me to a happier time, but leave it to the world of sports to offer a remedy for that, too.

 

NBA Stuff

A few quick thoughts as we steamroll toward a finals matchup between Golden State and Boston (if there are any Warrior or Celtic fans reading this, you are forgiven for cringing, as my recent predictions have cast a pox on those I select to win). I don’t know about you, but I am having a really hard time reconciling my feelings on this matchup in the East.

The Boston Celtics are the franchise I’ve most hated through their every reincarnation since the early-’70’s.  I don’t like anything about them, especially those awful green uniforms and that ridiculous parquet floor. Couldn’t stand Red Auerbach (cigar puffing blowhard). Havlicek?  Overrated. Don’t get me started on the ’80’s Celts.  Kevin (Herman Munster) McHale? A thug, plain and simple. Suffice it say that other than the brief interlude where I couldn’t help but enjoy myself watching Bird and Walton on the court together, I hated that ’80’s version, too.  The Showtime Lakers were the superior ball club of that decade. End of story.  And as much as I like Doc Rivers (everyone likes Doc it seems), to me there couldn’t have been a threesome more easy to dislike than KG, Pierce and Ray Allen.  Again, the Lakers (who I had stopped rooting for by then due to my intense disdain for Kobe) were the better squad.

Which is why I find it odd that I’m rooting for the boys in Kelly Green in this series.  Part of it is the LeBron factor.  Rooting for LeBron is like rooting for the four Number 1 seeds to meet up in the Final Four during March Madness.  You just don’t do it.  So yes, I’m enjoying LeBron’s beatdown right now, even if it is to the hated Celtics.  But if things play out the way it seems they will, I have another larger dilemma taking shape on the horizon, as I also struggle to root for the Warriors.  Don’t get me wrong, as I won’t root against them.  Steph Curry, Steve Kerr and the gang are just too positive and talented to overtly root against, but they will be such tremendously prohibitive favorites that I will have a hard time jumping on their overcrowded bandwagon.  But I will not and cannot root for Boston past this round.

This rooting dilemma got me thinking. Is it even a possibility that the pre-ordained Warriors-Celtics finals matchup we all expect at the moment could somehow be derailed?  Maybe, but I’m now certain the surprise won’t be coming out of the Western Conference.

On the way into my San Francisco office this morning a colleague gleefully reminded me how I had predicted that this wasn’t the Warriors year and that the Rockets wouldn’t win this series.  He was practically jumping up and down like a kid on his way to the circus, having been completely overcome by his delight over the Warriors domination last night.  And give him his props.  The Dubs did look that good. Yes, they are a remarkably strong offensive team, but it was their suffocating defense that got my attention.  When they are focused, switching effectively and locked in on the defensive side of the ball, I just don’t see them getting beat. So I’ll eat my crow on that Rockets call.

What about the Celts?  Could they cough up their 2-0 lead after looking so impressive at home these first two games?  Yes, I think they are the vulnerable one in this equation. A couple of historical data points (yes, there is a glory-days Knicks reference coming) for you to consider that support this hypothesis:

During the Knickerbockers last championship season of 1972-73, they finished second in the division (with a 57-25 record) to what appeared at the time to be an unstoppable Celtics squad (68-14 for gosh sakes). So they had to travel up to Boston for Game 1, where the Celtics looked absolutely unbeatable in winning Game 1, 134-108. “Series over,” thought the Boston faithful.  “Not so fast,” thought the Knicks fans (actually, no we didn’t think that, as we appeared totally overmatched in the Game 1 blowout).

In those days teams rotated each game between cities (a huge break back then for the Knicks) and Game 2 saw a total reversal of fortunes back at Madison Square Garden, with the Knicks coming out on top in an equally lopsided domination, 129-96.  The Knicks won the series in 7 (yeah, I know all about how Havlicek got hurt, but it didn’t matter, really it didn’t…), with the clincher taking place on the storied parquet floor of Boston Garden.

Fast forward to the 1985 NBA Finals.  At home, the Celtics destroy the Lakers in Game 1, 148-114.  “Call the series over!”  “Perhaps the greatest Celts team ever?” The Lakers didn’t even need to show up for Game 2, as they had no chance, thought that same collection of Boston hoops fans.  Except the Lakers did show up, and they won Game 2, 109-102. In Boston.  On the way to winning the series in 6 games (with the Game 6 win also taking place on the parquet floor to close it out). Small sample size, but hey, I’m calling it a pattern.

Does that mean the Cavs come back after looking lifeless for the first two games of this series?  No, of course not.  But it does mean that all that’s really happened so far is that Boston has held serve.  LeBron goes home, mercilessly berates his teammates at the shoot around before Game 3, and who knows?  What I do know, is that if somehow this series goes to a Game 7 back in Boston, I’m not counting out Cleveland, simply because of LeBron.  And if LeBron finds a way to lead this ragtag supporting cast to the Finals, my rooting interests become clear, as I find it easy (easier anyway) to root for the Warriors when LeBron is on the opposing team’s bench.

So who to root for in the East in Game 3?  I think Cleveland, simply to create a little drama and see how the Celtics respond to adversity.  I really am curious to see how the Celts will take a punch if things get tight.  Everyone is so busy anointing Brad Stevens the next Greg Popovich (and I’m on board with the fact that Stevens is a terrific coach, but let’s not send ole Brad to the HOF just yet, okay?) and raving about the incredible depth the Celts boast (made even the more impressive by the fact that their two best players are out for the year), but I need to see two more wins. And I simply don’t see Boston pulling this off without getting challenged at some point.  So hear’s hoping it gets interesting.

A few other random NBA thoughts:

*Somehow I think before it’s all over Nick “Swaggy P” Young finds a way to tarnish the Warriors legacy, or at least makes it impossible for Kerr to keep him in the rotation.  Yes, he hit a few threes in Game 1, but the guy is a pretender with a horribly selfish, “scorer on a bad team” reputation that is well earned.  Frankly he doesn’t deserve to be on this squad, and I was stunned when the Dubs signed him and now question the thinking as to why he is getting meaningful minutes.  Look for Swaggy P (okay, I admit, it’s the nickname that for some reason really chafes me) to pull at least one ESPN-worthy, bonehead move before we head into the offseason.

*I still can’t tell if Terry Rozier is for real.  Is he a cornerstone player for a team (Celtics or otherwise) in the future, or has he just caught lightning in a bottle this postseason and will revert back to a “decent to above-average point guard off the bench”-level player once the 2018-19 season begins? How the Celts and Danny Ainge approach their offseason roster maneuvers will tell a lot.  Ainge has made few personnel mistakes in recent memory.  He has to move someone. If Rozier is the chess piece that gets sent out of town (a la Isaiah Thomas last year) it will speak volumes about whether or not we’ve just witnessed Rozier’s ceiling. Stay tuned.

*And if the Celts do keep Rozier (meaning Ainge has decided he is this generation’s JoJo White), would they dare move Kyrie?  I actually think Kyrie could be the one on the move.  He’s shown so many injury red flags as long as he’s been in the public eye (how many games did he actually play in his one and done year at Duke?), and think of the haul Ainge could pull in from some overeager trade partner. It could rival the fleecing he gave the Brooklyn Nets when he moved the Over The Hill Gang (Pierce, Garnett and Jason Terry for crying out loud) in exchange for every draft pick the Nets owned for the remainder of this decade (century?).  When he’s right, Kyrie can change a franchise’s trajectory, so I’m tempted to lobby to see him in Knicks blue and orange, but there is a lot of downside here.  Bottom line is if you are an NBA exec and Danny Ainge comes calling with an “opportunity” involving Kyrie, you run away.  Will be interesting.

*Finally, my revised NBA predictions — the Rockets win one game and go down in 5 to the Warriors.  The Cavs do get off the canvas to make things interesting n the East, but lose in 7 (finale at Boston — so much for my pattern), sending the Celtics to the NBA Finals.

And then the Dubs sweep the Leprechauns for their third title in four years (all together now — “would be a four-peat if the NBA didn’t steal one from Golden State two years ago and gift wrap it for the city of Cleveland”).  I’ve gotten quite a few wrong lately (Penguins over Caps, Matt Harvey to get bombed in his first start as a Red, to name a couple), so let’s see if these revised calls can right my prognostication ship.

 

The Heavyweights

Being in Vegas the last couple of days got me thinking about boxing.  I miss it.  The Sweet Science was such an important part of my sports upbringing, and today it is rapidly approaching total irrelevance. The last fight I even marginally paid attention to was Mayweather-McGregor, which was really more of a sideshow than a boxing match.  The last fight I purchased on Pay Per View was Mayweather-Pacquiao, which was a complete and total waste of $95.00.  The last fight I attended was in Vegas on Cinco de Mayo back in 2012.  Mayweather danced his way to a 12-round decision over Miguel Cotto (by the way, for context on what is to follow, Floyd is my least favorite fighter of all time).  The last good heavyweight matchup I was excited about was… was… was…

That’s the problem.  Heavyweights drive the sport, at least for middle-age guys like me who grew up in the golden age of 1970’s heavyweights. No heavyweights mean no boxing excitement. I know all of the reasons given for this — today’s best heavyweights are playing tight end or outside linebacker in the NFL, the popularity of MMA and UFC (I have to admit I don’t even know the difference between MMA and UFC, if there is one) with younger fans has eaten away at the population of trained, qualified fighters, etc. etc.

Whatever. I just wish for the next 10 years or so we could see a rebirth of competitive, charismatic heavyweights fighting for the Heavyweight Championship of the World.  Any alphabet-organization’s combination of initials indicating a championship title will do — just give me a couple of coordinated big men going at each other with boxing gloves on in the ring.

With that longing in mind, I decided to go back into the memory bank and revisit my ten favorite heavyweights of all-time (a reminder that “favorite” doesn’t always equate to “best”).  The fact that the last time any of these guys laced up the gloves was over 10 years ago speaks volumes, by the way.  Here goes:

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10.  Ken Norton — There was something about this perennial bridesmaid that I liked back in the day.  It started the day he broke Ali’s jaw as a (relatively) unheralded, ex-marine (I know, no one’s ever an ex-marine) and he grew in my estimation when he lost (robbed?) a 15-round decision to Ali at Yankee Stadium in 1976 (one of many decisions Ali managed to steal at the end of his storied career based on reputation and his skill at mesmerizing judges by closing out a round well). Norton fought an absolutely great fight against Larry Holmes (but lost) for the vacated title shortly after that, and never really could get over that “good to great” hump.

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9. Riddick Bowe —  You just gotta love “Big Daddy!” I’m tremendously biased here, as his  above-pictured bout against Jorge Luis Gonzalez was the first heavyweight title fight I ever attended, way back in 1995. What I remember most about that fight was how much fun the big man seemed to be having in the ring, both before and after the fight.  In my estimation Bowe is one of the more underrated and unfairly forgotten fighters of the ’90’s.  He could box and punch. His fights against Evander Holyfield were some of the most exciting I’ve ever witnessed, and at the time his rivalry against Andrew (“I’m hitting you low because that’s what I do”) Golota was riveting.

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8. Sonny Liston — Unfortunately he was before my time, but man I wished I could have caught a few of his fights in person.  As it is, his legendary scowl and the grainy old black and white tapes of his fights are enough for him to make this list. Did Ali hit him in the “Phantom Punch” fight?  I’ve watched it at least a dozen times, and his head moves back on impact, but all the historical evidence we have at our disposal today certainly makes it seem as though the fix was in. It’s stories like that one that make boxing history one of the most fascinating for sports fans.

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7. Ray Mercer — Loved this guy.  This one’s admittedly a bit of a homer call, as “Merciless” Ray Mercer was part of the New Jersey-promoted Triple Threat Promotion (anyone remember Ray’s two running mates Al “Ice” Cole and Charles “The Natural” Murray? The three of them all held belts at one time), that for a heartbeat in the early-’90’s looked like it could own the sport. Mercer’s story was a cool one, having discovered boxing later than most (age 23), while serving a stint in the Army. He won Olympic Gold in 1988, but what I’ll always remember was one of the most brutal destructions of all time, when poor Tommy Morrison, already out on his feet, somehow got his arm tangled up in the ropes. He couldn’t quite fall all the way to the canvas, thus prolonging Mercer’s relentless pummeling by several seconds until the ref finally was able to pull him away (photo above).  YouTube that one if you like that sort of thing. I still remember the sound of Mercer’s punches landing on Tommy’s face.  They had a “squish” sound that today feels kind of disturbing in the pit of my stomach as I reflect. Mercer-Morrison back in 1991.

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6. Teofilo Stevenson — Why couldn’t we get this guy in the ring somehow, some way, with Big George Foreman back during their respective primes?  He was a staple of Wide World of Sports growing up in the ’70’s, and is the first fighter that truly felt unbeatable to me, as I watched him dispose of all international competition that came his way. He remains to this day one of only three fighters to ever win gold at three different Olympic Games (1972, 1976, 1980) and there is no doubt in my mind he would have added to that total had Cuba not boycotted the 1984 and 1988 games. He was huge, could box and had enormous knockout power. He remains the face of those tremendous Cuban boxing teams I grew up rooting against.

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5. Earnie Shavers — Best remembered for absolutely rocking Ali with multiple thunderous right-hands while losing a decision to The Champ in 1977. Ali didn’t steal this one, although Shavers landed the more memorable blows, as he proved once again that it was really his chin that made him “The Greatest,” withstanding an outright pounding from Earnie.  The most memorable part of that fight had nothing to do with the action.  For some strange reason the network posted the judges scores following each round, sucking all suspense out of a great fight as Ali built up his lead on the scorecards.  Earnie’s only chance was with a KO and he came oh so close, but that Ali Chin… This ranking also is biased in a positive way, as I had the good fortune to meet Earnie at a charity event in the early-2000’s. What was most remarkable at the time was the fact that he appeared to be in the kind of incredible shape he’d been in twenty years before when he contended for the title (in stark contrast to Aaron Pryor and Ken Norton, both robbed of their senses from too many wars back in their heyday). He was also disarmingly friendly, with a  willingness to engage with starstruck boxing fans (like me), and in possession of a humble, dry sense of humor.  I had given him my card at the time, and a week later an envelope with an autographed picture, personal note and his business card showed up at my office.  Earnie Shavers, class act.

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4. Ron Lyle — This selection may surprise a few.  My ranking is based on one fight, but to me it remains the best heavyweight I’ve ever seen.  Ron Lyle-George Foreman on Wide World of Sports back one afternoon in 1976. If you are to take only one recommendation — ever — from the Sports Attic Blog, please take this one — you must YouTube this fight.  If you only like boxing a little bit, this will be the best half hour you invest.  Lyle packed a huge punch (as you are probably guessing right about now) and also possessed a mean streak.  As a 10-year-old kid, that combination alone made for his inclusion in my nascent “greatest fighters ever” imagination, and when you added in the fact that he was also an ex-con, well that made him even more immortal in my impressionable eyes.  He also threw a huge scare into Ali back in the ’70’s (didn’t it seem every heavyweight did that to Ali back in the ’70’s? Another testament to his greatness), but that fight against Foreman…please watch it.

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3. Joe Frazier — One half of what made the statement “styles make fights” so true.  His first fight with Ali was my first time experiencing a larger than life sporting event, in all it’s glorious hype.  One of my prize possessions to this day is the Life Magazine issue following the fight where Frazier (in what to me were the absolute coolest, satin green trunks, pictured above) is throwing that club of a left cross that floored Ali and won him the fight. The “Thrilla In Manila” was a war also, and makes it into my All-time Top 5 of fights (upcoming post, for sure), but the first fight is the one I’ll always remember.  That and the memorable brawl on stage prior to the “Thrilla”  (also airing on Wide World of Sports, or course) when he nearly decapitated Howard Cosell trying to get at Ali as The Champ did his humiliating “Gorilla” routine with the rubber toy gorilla he beat on repeatedly in an effort to both hype the fight and get in Joe’s head.  Mission accomplished on both counts.

Another quick personal aside on Joe was the time I met him and his son Marvis (an absolutely wonderful guy, by the way) at an HBO party I somehow lucked into attending in the early-2000’s.  Joe was nowhere near the nice guy his son was, and still scary and intimidating even now into his early-60’s. I made the poor decision to cut through the dance floor with a couple of drinks in my hand on the way back to our group’s table (truth be told I may have been a bit unsteady on my feet).  Smoking’ Joe was busy gyrating up a storm with a young lady (who clearly must have been a friend of the family) when our legs became tangled and both of us ended up in a heap on the floor. He was none too happy, but ever since that night my mind snaps back to that hazy moment in Atlantic City each time I hear the Howard Cosell tape of his infamous, nasal bellowing of “Down goes Frazier, down goes Frazier.”

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2. Muhammad Ali — C’mon, it’s too obvious to go with Ali as number one on every boxing list.  So we’ll put him in the 2-slot here. And besides, this is “favorite” not “best,” remember? Yes, he was the greatest, most influential (how many of this Top 10 has he already been referenced in?), iconic —  and the additional adjectives could go on for pages.  In the interest of time, I’ll focus on two things.

First, was his Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. Mostly remembered for the extreme temperatures, the “Ali Bomaye” chant and the “rope a dope” strategy he rolled out that tired out Big George to perfection, what I remember was Ali’s size.  Because Muhammad Ali was such a skilled boxer, dancer and jabber, it’s easy to forget just how big a man he was.  If you haven’t already done so, one day check out the documentary “When They Were Kings” about this fight (one of the best fight docs I’ve ever seen) and pay attention to how Ali is looking Foreman right in the eye while they square off in the ring. This is meaningful to me because George always seemed such a larger than life giant.  But Ali was a big man, too.  And graceful, with an iron chin and a knockout punch.  The Greatest?  Yes, probably.

The second attribute I would remind folks about was how active a fighter The Champ was.  This guy fought everyone. And I mean fought. He ducked no one, and traded blows in the middle of the ring every time if that was what was needed, or called for, in the flow of the fight.  Check this out — from the date of the “Phantom Punch” fight against Liston in May of 1965 through March 22 of 1967 (less than two years of time!) when he knocked out Zora Folley in the seventh round, Ali fought NINE times. An absolutely remarkable string of boxing activity. Here they are:

5/25/65 — KO Liston 1

11/22/65 — TKO of Floyd Patterson in the 12th

3/29/66 — Decision over George Chuvalo in the 15th

5/21/66 — TKO over Henry Cooper (who had nearly knocked Ali’s head off back in ’63) in 6

8/6/66 — KO Brian London in the 3rd

9/10/66 — TKO over Karl Mildenberger in 12

11/14/66 — TKO over Cleveland Williams in the 3rd

2/6/67 — Decision over Ernie Terrell in 15 (his first fight after having his title stripped for refusal to be drafted into the army)

3/22/67 — KO Folley 7

To put that activity in proper perspective, compare that to today’s consensus pound-for-pound champ Floyd Mayweather.  In the five years of 2007 to 2011, Floyd fought five times (and rarely got hit).  Five times in five years dancing away from trouble versus Ali fighting big-time heavyweights nine times in two years during his prime.  Yes, he was The Greatest.

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1. Evander Holyfield — Yup, my favorite all-time.  The picture above sums it up for me. Respect early on and respect right until the end. I  first started paying attention to Holyfield during the ’84 Los Angeles Olympics.  He took bronze while all his more celebrated teammates were bringing home gold medals.  He won bronze because of a disqualification for hitting his overmatched opponent after the bell.  Knocked the guy out cold, but it came a split second late.  The ref waved the fight off and Evander’s chance at gold vanished.  His opponent raised Holyfield’s arm during the announcement of the decision in an impressive showing of sportsmanship, but to this day what I remain most amazed by was the class Holyfield showed in defeat.  There was no complaining, no hysterics, no jumping around the ring in agony.  He accepted defeat respectfully and moved on.  It was cool.

And then he went pro in that wasteland known as the Cruiserweight weight class.  He really wasn’t a heavyweight (neither was Joe Frazier for that matter, as we learned when he got lifted off the ground by a George Foreman right hand — “Down Goes Frazier!”), but he had Super Heavyweight courage and determination.  I’ve already mentioned his trilogy versus Riddick Bowe, which to me were the highlights of boxing in the 1990’s, but he also put on an unbelievable show in beating the 2.0 version of George Foreman during his comeback tour. However what earns him the Number 1 slot in my personal ranking system are the two wins over Mike Tyson.  Nobody likes a bully, and Tyson was the ultimate bully back then, who appeared well on his way to reclaiming his title of “Baddest Man on the Planet” when he signed to fight Holyfield the first time in what appeared to me to be a mismatch of epic proportion.  But Holyfield doesn’t have a fear gene, which we would soon learn was the only way one stood a chance against Iron Mike, and when he destroyed Tyson that night in 1996 I was both overjoyed and in awe.  It may have been the most perfectly executed fight plan I’ve ever witnessed.  And yes, he went on the whip the bully Tyson again in the rematch (the “Ear” fight), but to me his legacy was already sealed.  Number One for this fight fan always.

So there it is.  I’m interested in how others handicap their list — either in terms of “best” or “favorite.” Yes, I’ve omitted Tyson, Big George, Larry Holmes and Lennox Lewis (for reasons personal to me and my personal boxing perspective), and also the Klitschko brothers (sorry but I could never keep the two of them straight, resulting in them both being kept off the list, not that they would have been included anyway), and I’m sure there are a few others that you might question me on.

I’ve also excluded the old-timers I’ve only read about (other than Liston, who I’ve always been fascinated by).  Many lists would probably have to at least mention Marciano, Louis and Jack Johnson (who I’m also fascinated by, but am still learning more about), not to mention Jack Dempsey.

Boxing is a sport with such amazing history.  It truly saddens me that I don’t pay attention to it anymore.  Find me a heavyweight I can get interested in and that could all  change.  There are some great fighters in the lower weight classes today, but I need the big boys to get me to renew my Ring Magazine subscription (does Ring still exist?) and resume coughing up regular Pay Per View fees.

I’ll close with a shout out to the one and only Peter McNeeley.  If you don’t remember Peter, it’s understandable.  He was the “tomato can” (by the way, isn’t “tomato can” one of the many simply outstanding boxing expressions the sport has bestowed upon us?) hand selected to be Mike Tyson’s first opponent after Iron Mike got out of jail in 1995 following his rape conviction.  The fight ended as we all expected, but McNeeley left us with what to this day remains my favorite fight-hype expression. He “won the press conferences” in spectacular fashion by announcing to the world that he intended to wrap Iron Mike Tyson in a “cocoon of horror.” Bring back the heavyweights, folks.  I miss them.

The Sports Book

I’m in Vegas on a Friday night.  Something normally I’d try to avoid like the plague, but I’m speaking at a conference in the morning so there was nothing I could do about it. Fortunately for me and those taking the “over” on my life expectancy table, I’m not a fan of Las Vegas.  Sort of falls in the “been there, done that” category, and I haven’t made a bet or seen a show here in years (anyone else craving for a legit Heavyweight Title Bout one day? Please? That would totally change my tune on Vegas!).

While I come here several times a year on business, I usually stay off the gambling strip and am in town most often early in the week for some unexplained reason (although I must say, nothing defines “desperation” more than the silence of a Vegas casino on a Monday morning — there’s an actual smell to it, and it’s not a good one).  I got in around 6:00 tonight after a couple of days in Los Angeles, hit the gym and went to my favorite (albeit somewhat off the beaten path) steakhouse, Charlie Parker’s at the Four Seasons (if you haven’t been, it’s worth a trip next time you are here). It was too soon to settle in for a binge session on Netflix, so I had what at this stage of my life qualifies as an awesome idea of what to do on a Friday night in Las Vegas. I went to the Sports Book.

I’m trying desperately to come up with the right series of analogies to describe a Sports Book properly for those that may have never been to one.  For a sports fan, it’s kind of a combination of Disney Land and the Race Track (actual horse races taking place much of the time on closed circuit TV’s, by the way), with a hint of the coolest sports-themed basement you’ve ever hung out in, or beyond that any imaginatively-conceived man cave you’ve only dreamed about, rolled into one. All the while offering the ability to bet on just about any sporting event — in real time or well into the future.  Oh yeah, there’s a bar and they’ll even bring you food (nasty Vegas casino food, but no one seems to mind once in the Sports Book, and based on what I saw tonight the selection of choice apparently is French fries, which really can’t be messed up too badly). ATM’s are literally positioned steps away in every direction.  When in the Sports Book you will also have the ability to take bathroom breaks without having to walk for miles, enjoy some blackjack or roulette on your way back from your bio break, and if you managed to lose some money while away, there will undoubtedly be multiple ways to try and make it back immediately upon your return. Yeah, it’s pretty darn cool.

Tonight the big screen featured the Washington-Tampa Bay Stanley Cup semifinal (and oh by the way — a hearty “you’re welcome” to all the Caps fans out there who I personally sent into this round of the playoffs by steadfastly predicting there was no chance they’d beat the Penguins in my post of a week or so ago), and there were several of the early, east-coast baseball games playing simultaneously on various smaller (but still big!) televisions spread out around the “theatre” area. In the heart of this theatre-like, multiple  TV viewing area sit what’s best described as a more comfortable and adult version of the old, wooden, grade-school desk/chairs that many of us awkwardly balanced the papers of annual standardized tests upon back in our youth (“please take out a sharpened number two pencil and be sure to completely shade in the circle corresponding to your answer”), and each of these little seat/desks in the Sports Book comes equipped with it’s own pencil! We make a lot of notes on trends while studying the games, us sports fans do, ya know.

I grabbed one of these seats in the front row (there were only about five of us in this section that could seat about 50 at capacity), squarely in front of all the NBA Finals betting lines lit up in neon green/red numbering on the Sports Book “brain — the odds board. On the outskirts of the theatre area were a bunch (10 or so I think) of more intimate “tables for two,” all of which stood empty except for one lone Capitals fan watching a game his boys led 4-0 in the 2nd period.  How did I know he was a Caps fan?  By his official Washington Capitals jersey he was wearing, of course.  Which begs for a digression here, as it did for me when I spotted him at the Sports Book.

Did this guy come to Vegas just for this game?  If so, it would explain his having a jersey handy as he took in the game, but that seemed a bit extreme to me, even for an avid fan.  Did he come to Vegas for something else, realize his favorite team was playing in the Stanley Cup semis and go buy a Caps jersey so he could wear it to the Sports Book just for this occasion? More plausible, perhaps, but still seems a bit out there.  Or is he a transplanted Washingtonian living in Vegas who decided to put on his jersey and head over to the Mandalay Bay Sports Book for Game 1 of the series?  I’m going with this one.  It would more likely explain why he was solo (all of his hockey fan buddies out here would be on the Golden Knight bandwagon and probably not want to watch this game with him), plus the local watering holes in his suburban neighborhood would probably not show the game, hence the travel downtown for private viewing.  Additionally, given the Caps storied history of cruelly crushing the hopes of their fans this time of year, he also probably sought both privacy and anonymity for the game.

Anyway, I decided to make a few bets, based on what caught my eye on the board, along with my annual “Mets to win the World Series” donation I make to a Vegas casino annually.  Here’s the rundown, going from high to low in wagered dollar amount (and presumably my conviction for the likelihood of the outcome):

*Dodgers to beat the Reds tonight.  This is simply a Matt Harvey bet.  He’s been so God-awful bad this year that I couldn’t help but think this was money in the bank.  Obviously the casinos agreed with me, as this was a -200 bet, meaning if I am correct and the Dodgers win, I will receive half of my wager back in addition to my initial investment (for example a $1 dollar bet would pay me back $1.50 with a Dodgers win).  Dodgers are  playing at home, and even with Kenta Maeda soft-tossing away, this seemed safe, plus a way of giving me something to care about in the sports world while I type away at tonight’s post (as of 8:32 pacific, though, Harvey is throwing a one-hitter at the Dodgers and the Reds are up 3-0 early  — shit).

*Tiger Woods to win the 2018 U.S. Open.  I don’t follow golf closely these days, but the odds got me here.  He’s 20-1, which seems inordinately high given how everyone had him winning the Masters only a few weeks ago.  I see this as an overreaction betting line, driven too high by his poor showing at Augusta, plus like the “Harvey” bet it will cause me to pay a little more attention to The Open next month.  As an added bonus, it’s being played at Shinnecock Hills, out in my old Long Island stomping grounds, so hoping Tiger responds to the rabid fans who will be urging him on. It is a gorgeous track.

*Mets to win the 2018 World Series.  This one I’m still angry about.  All I could get was 8-1 here, which seems totally and ridiculously low! Hasn’t anyone associated with the Mandalay Bay seen how my Mets have been playing lately? I was thinking I’d get at least 15-1, and the weak betting odds forced me to wager more than I would have otherwise.  Oh well, shortly after making this bet I was overjoyed to see that there was a role reversal in New York baseball fortunes tonight.  The Mets actually using the long ball to rally for a victory in their final at bat, while the Bombers got pounded by an extremely average Oakland A’s squad.  A perfect baseball night, and I don’t even mind that Jon Matz gave up 10 baserunners in his 5 innings of work, because when we come back and beat the Phils on the road he will be Jon Matlack in my mind tonight!

*Nationals to win the 2018 World Series.  This one is simply a hedge. I’m feeling like I may have awakened the reverse-karma Gods with my anti-Washington Sports rant the other day. I’m uncomfortably sensing a bit of a changing of vibes, first with the Caps erasing the demons of seasons past with their ouster of the Penguins, and now it could be the Nats turn.  They certainly have the talent (plus two stud starting pitchers in Scherzer and Strasberg that will be murder in a playoff series if they ever get the bullpen together to support them), so if I have somehow turned the tables on the deeply ingrained franchise misfortune of the Expos/Nats why not put myself in a position to profit from it?  I got 10-1, again underscoring the total travesty of having the Mets at 8-1.  Doesn’t anyone check this stuff for quality control for God’s sake??

*New York Giants NFC Champions in 2018-2019 season.  I think Saquon Barkley paired with a healthy OBJ makes Big Blue a totally different (and scary) team going into the season.  Yeah, it seems super early to be wagering on football, but I got 10-1 on this one, too.  I don’t see anyone dominant in the NFC, so why not.  Who had the Eagles winning it all a year ago?  As an aside, perhaps the worst betting opportunity I saw on the entire board tonight — any sport or event —  was the 49ers at 5-1 to win the NFC.  Yes, they played out the string on a huge roll last year with Jimmy Garoppolo doing his best John Brodie imitation (Brodie never won anything either folks), but 5-1? That tells me my friends and neighbors in the Bay Area are taking all that hard-earned technology money and foolishly running down those odds off of the exuberance of winning a few meaningless games last December.  Too soon, Niners fans, too soon.

*New York Giants Super Bowl Winners 2019.  Really the same rationale as the wager above.  If I have some degree of confidence that the Gints can get to the Super Bowl, why not go with them to win it all?  Plus I got 22-1 on this one.  This is my sleeper pick.  As I strolled out of the Sports Book tonight, convinced I was a genius about to rake in huge stacks of cash on my incredible prognostication skills, this one had me totally pleased, patting myself on the back (please don’t let Barkley snap an achilles tendon in mini camp, please…).

*New York Jets Super Bowl Winners 2019. Yup.  Had to.  Sam I Am! In Sam we trust! J-E-T-S, JETS, JETS, JETS.  There’s an old saying in the financial world that if you say something long enough, eventually you are bound to be right.  So this is the year of the Green Airplanes! In keeping with a theme of tonight’s Sports Book, though, and reinforcing a completely unfair betting pattern against all of the Sports Bro’s favorite teams, this one only got me 30-1.  Once again, seems way low, but this (like my annual Mets wager) is another of my sentimental throw-aways. And who knows, right? Another old saying in the world of finance — you gotta be in it to win it.

And here’s a couple more I thought long and hard about but didn’t pull the trigger on:

*Taking the over on Game 1 of both the East and West NBA Conference Finals.  Cavs-Celts was 203.5 and Rockets-Warriors was 224.5. I feel like all four teams are going to come out smoking in Game 1, shot out of the proverbial cannon, pumped up off a few days of rest and tons of hype from Shaq, Sir Charles and the gang. I may have to take a walk back down to Mandalay Bay before I go on tomorrow. The overs seem like a lock the more I think about it.

*And a new one on me — first team to score 15 points in both of the NBA Conference Final  Game 1’s.  First to 15?  Why 15?  Why not 10? Or 20?  Don’t know — I tried posing this question to the lady patiently explaining things to me and taking my bets at the Sports Book window, but she was unhelpful (and truth be told seemed a bit tired of me and the entire Sports Book scene). The Rockets were listed as a -125, which means they were the heavy favorite to get to 15 first.  Despite not being clear on why this was even an option to wager on, I kind of agreed with the odds here, yet decided against betting anything.  Seemed too random, kind of like betting on the Super Bowl coin flip or over/under on duration of the Star Spangled Banner performance.

So there it is.  Feel free to take the above and go the other way.  Based on my failed predictions of the other day, it could prove to be a sound strategy.

(Harvey out after four shutout innings of one-hit ball.  Are you effin’ kidding me? Reds up 5-1 in the 5th. Good grief.  Congrats D.C. fans, I may have just set a bunch of you free.)

A Couple of Things I Hate to Admit

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It’s time.  I’ve been putting it off in my head for a few years now, but after yesterday’s coast to coast, fadeaway off glass, game winner to send Toronto home a loser yet again, I have to admit it.  LeBron James is at least the equal of Michael Jordan, and maybe even better.

There I said it.  I’m not a LeBron fan.  Not even a little bit.  I don’t care for how he has anointed himself an important social figure in today’s society; how he responds to adversity by blaming coaches and teammates; and don’t like how he’s orchestrated putting himself in position for titles by using the free agency system and the modern day superstar buddy system to surround himself with talent that make titles almost a foregone conclusion.

Full disclosure I didn’t like MJ much either.  But that was different.  As a Knicks fan I had to watch Michael Jordan rip our hearts out on an annual basis.  We went the entire Patrick Ewing era without a title, and it is all because of His Airness (and for one year Hakeem Olajuwon plus a series of misfires from John Starks). So while I didn’t like Mike during his unbelievable run of titles in the ’90’s, it was more out of selfishness —  a bitter Knicks fan hoping for a result that I knew deep down just was’t to be — than anything Michael actually did to earn my dislike (although to this day I believe the “flu game” against Utah in the 1997 finals was a made-for-TV moment orchestrated by MJ and league commissioner/mob boss David Stern).

It’s akin to how I felt about Derek Jeter all of those years as the Yankees piled up world championships and the Mets…well the Mets…didn’t.  As a result I couldn’t stand Jeter (or Mariano, or Bernie, or Andy, or Posada for that matter), but I couldn’t help but respect him.

With Jordan it was different.  Not only did I respect him, I always felt that when he was on the floor he could somehow, on-demand, will his team to victory.  It was that iron will, along with his other worldly skills that made him the Best Player I’ve Ever Seen In NBA History.

Jordan literally did it all.  Scored at will, played shut down defense on the other team’s best (non-big) player, racked up assists and even could rebound (especially during a game’s most crucial moments).  Most importantly, he raised the play of those around him enormously.  Horace Grant?  Paxson and Kerr?  Bill Cartwright? All of them achieved more by being his teammate than they could ever come up with on their own when playing outside Chicago. He had one “superstar” running mate in Scottie Pippen (no, Dennis Rodman doesn’t count), and I would argue that Jordan gifted Pippen his legacy, as without MJ and those great Bulls teams Pippen would have been a good, occasionally great, NBA player, but not an all-timer.

Notice that every one of the skills I just mentioned, skills that elevated Michael Jordan above and beyond the rest of the NBA for so long, are also skills that LeBron possesses.  Plus he’s just so darn big.  For awhile I’ve tried to hold his enormous size and strength against him when I compare the two players, but at some point you have to give the big man his due.  He doesn’t get hurt (MJ did lose one season early on to injury), runs the court, doesn’t sit down in big games and is the de facto point guard at this late stage of his career.  And now he’s taking on that air of invincibility, which was always the difference-maker in my anointing MJ as the GOAT.

Before going too far into the weeds on this discussion, it’s important to put in appropriate context my personal evolution of opinions regarding the greatest NBA player ever.

I’ll start with an irrational claim based on growing up a Knicks fan — my favorite player all-time is Walt Frazier.  Of course, “favorite” doesn’t mean “best,” and many would argue that Clyde isn’t even the Knicks all-time best player (Patrick makes a strong argument, but that lack of a ring…sorry, Patrick — blame MJ).  And given my personal preference for all things Clyde, I feel it necessary to reference the “Willis Reed” game — Game 7 of the 1970 finals — that will live on forever in Knicks lore. Willis limping out of the locker room on one leg just prior to game time, hitting the first two shots of what would become the clincher of the Knicks first-ever championship, is simply an iconic moment.

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Not only is Willis my second-favorite Knick all-time, I get emotional watching that clip to this day.  But he came out of the game immediately following that frozen moment and Clyde took over from there (and far too few people ever bring that point up!).  All Clyde did that night, after being properly motivated by Willis dragging himself onto the court, was torch the Wilt/West/Baylor/Goodrich Lakers for 36 points, 19 assists and 7 boards.  In a Game 7.  For a team that had never won a title.  In New York City.  Okay, enough said, as I digress.

So Clyde is my favorite, but early on this stat-fascinated kid couldn’t get over Wilt Chamberlain’s numbers on the back of his basketball card (50 a game??!!). From an early age I always felt that air of invincibility on the teams anchored by Wilt in the middle (probably had something to do with that 33-game Lakers winning streak) even though the only title they won during my memory as a basketball fan was on that incredible 1971-72 team that authored the winning streak.

After Wilt there was a lull.  Kareem was awesome, but never eclipsed Wilt in my head, as the sky hook was cool, but not best-ever material.  For a year and a half Bill Walton was the best player on the planet, but never approached best-ever status.  Dr. J was out of this world great, but playing his best years in the ABA kept him out of the best-ever conversation. Fast forward to the Bird-Magic years, and for a time I felt Magic was approaching that elite distinction, but Bird (as annoying as his continued level of excellence was to this Knicks fan) too often seemed every bit Magic’s equal.  Great years, but no best-ever.

Then Michael came along, and that was game, set, match for me (sorry Kobe fans, but to me he’s never even been in the equation for best-ever, more of a selfish stats accumulator who had the good fortune to be on a couple of outstanding teams with tremendous supporting casts).

Until now. I’m not ready to declare King James “better” than Michael, because I still struggle with that whole “makes everyone around him better” piece of the puzzle. Then again, I look at that highly mediocre squad he has squarely on his back this postseason and I have to pause.  Let’s see how this one plays out.  If it ends with LeBron earning yet another ring over the monsters out west, it may be time.

As much as the LeBron admission pains me, this next one cuts to my core.

Strike me down as I type this, but we may be witnessing the best Yankees team yet (at least in my lifetime).  They are freaking scary good.  The fact that Yankees fans are concerned about Neil Walker’s performance (arguably their 12th best non-pitcher on the roster) and wonder how long Jordan Montgomery might be out and how that will impact the season (news flash — Jordan Montgomery is 7-12 with 4.98 ERA if he were to put on a Mets uniform) tells us all you need to know about how good this squad is.

Yeah, the starting rotation isn’t best-in-MLB caliber, but they roll out a guy capable of giving you, at minimum, a quality start every night. And there are arms in reserve (20 teams out there would have Chance Adams as their number three starter right now) that will keep them in games until Cashman makes the inevitable trade for a front line starter this July, utilizing his league best farm system to make that happen without coming close to mortgaging their future.

Because in addition to being off the charts good right now, they are so damn young, too. Gleybar Torres (I think he’s 20??) hitting the game-winner this afternoon pretty much put me over the edge.  And lost in the hysteria of their latest young phenom going deep for the win was the fact that today’s starter, Domingo German, pitched six no-hit innings with 9 K’s (and he’s a fill-in starter for crying out loud!).

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As a Mets fan it’s painful to think about Aaron Judge (the new Jeter in my life) ultimately passing Barry Bonds as the All-Time Homer King (although it will be good to get that steroid-infested loser out of the record books), and his outfield-mate Stanton will probably cross 600 dingers without ever breaking a sweat.  And God forbid Greg Bird finally gets healthy and becomes the first modern-day .400 hitter.  It’s going to happen, right?  Yeah, probably. Do we need to include Miguel Andujar in this discussion?  Really?  Pencil him in for 60 doubles a year out the 7-hole in the batting order until oh, about 2030.

Yanks win 110 this year?  It’s not out of the question.  Then a couple of short playoff series with all that power and the fire-breathing bullpen waiting for their first one-run lead?  It is early-May and I’m already waving the white flag, while trying to think of who might have the type of elite starting pitching capable of getting hot and somehow stealing a series from them when the calendar turns to October. The Indians? Sure didn’t look like it this weekend.  The Nats?  They have the starting pitching, but they are in Washington. Next.  The reigning champion Astros?  I’ll pin my hopes on them for now, but that’s more out of hope than confidence. Could be a long year in a string of long years for us Yankee-haters.

Man…tough day swallowing these painful truths.

 

 

A Few of My Favorite Things…

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Is there anything better than a Saturday afternoon with no responsibilities and a full sporting event slate on the tube?  It got me to thinking of a few of my favorite things in the world of sports.

Last second shots. As I write this Marco Belinelli has just hit an off-balance, corner jumper to tie up the Celtics-76ers Game 3 at the buzzer and send it into OT.  Ironic, as Belinelli was already on my board to get a mention in this post for two entirely different reasons.

One, the commentators mentioned what, to me, was a staggering stat about Belinelli — that this was the 55th playoff game of his career. It was amazing to me because it is actually the first playoff game I ever remember seeing him appear in (way to make an impact, Marco).  And two, I couldn’t help but notice how the guy looks totally stoned every time he is captured on camera.  Of course this has nothing to do with last second shots, but just sayin’…

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Unexpected stars. Where did Terry Rozier come from anyway? It’s just cool when a player comes out of nowhere to suddenly become a major story line in a series (or even in general).  And when I get past my jealousy that the Knicks never unearth a guy like Rozier (actually we did, once, when Linsanity took center stage, but Carmelo took it upon himself to suck the fun out of that run, too), it really is pretty amazing to see how the Celts haven’t missed a beat following Kyrie’s injury because this no-name has come off the bench and totally taken charge of the club.  Even if I do continue to accidentally refer to him as Mike (Mike Rozier, the 1983 Heisman winner out of Nebraska), I hope his run continues into what is now appearing to be an inevitable matchup with LeBron and the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals.

As for Mike Rozier, does anyone happen to remember that his first professional team was none other than the Pittsburgh Maulers of the old USFL?  I actually got to see him in person against my hometown New Jersey Generals back in May of 1984 at the Meadowlands.  The Generals (with Doug Flutie at QB) won the game 16-14, but what I remember most is the biggest and ugliest fan brawl in the stands I’ve ever witnessed.  The entire second deck became the setting for a battle royal.  Like most of these fan fights it started with a few drunk guys throwing beer and then punches.  But oh did it escalate. Literally thousands of people ended up joining in the scrum, throwing haymakers as  dozens upon dozens of security officials poured out of the tunnels and into the fray wearing those yellow SECURITY windbreakers.  I never realized just how many security personnel are employed during a football game, and also couldn’t help wondering where the heck they are all hanging out when there isn’t a riot taking place. The fight lasted almost the entire second half of the game.  Never seen anything like it before or since.  Mike Rozier and the Pittsburgh Maulers everybody.

Surprise playoff runs. I’ve previously stated that hockey is the Achilles heel of my sports fandom, and as a result I will rarely opine on the sport, however if I were a bigger fan I think I might have to jump on the Las Vegas Golden Knights playoff bandwagon. I actually am a marginal San Jose Sharks sympathizer, given their proximity to my home, and should they advance to the Cup I may even attempt to get to a game (after all, there really is nothing quite like the intensity of playoff hockey witnessed in person).  But for now, I simply marvel at the run Vegas is on, leading the series 3-2 and possibly on the verge of a Stanley Cup appearance in their first year as a franchise?  Only in the NHL, I suppose, but still cool.

The last time I got this excited about an unexpected NHL playoff run was back in 1988, when the previously downtrodden New Jersey Devils were throwing a major scare into the Boston Bruins. Following a loss in Game 3, irate Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld confronted referee Don Koharski (who may, or may not, have had a bit of a weight problem), leading to an awkward Koharski spill.

When Koharski pointed the finger at Schoenfeld, accusing him of bumping the big ref, Schoenfeld responded with “good ’cause you fell you fat pig. Have another doughnut.” And from that day on the Devils became my team.  Ahh, fond New Jersey reminiscences on a Saturday afternoon. Good stuff.

The optimism that accompanies the hiring of a new coach. Yes I’m a Knicks fan, and yes I grasp at straws looking for the slightest sign of optimism about the future amidst a dark and foreboding present, but I really like the hiring of David Fizdale as our latest head coach.  We’ve done this new hire drill so frequently over the past 15 years that I need to harken all the way back to the Pat Riley hiring in the early-’90’s that brought us the Patrick Ewing/Charles Oakley/Anthony Mason era to remember feeling this good about our new head man.

I’m not just a hopeless homer either, as I’ve had visceral reactions to big Knicks moves in the past (and I won’t even mention the Carmelo trade, or the resigning here, oops…).  Most notably, I remember with vivid clarity the day the announcement came across WFAN Radio in New York that the Knicks had traded for Stephon Marbury.  I was driving on the Long Island Expressway and had to get off at the first exit I came to and pull over to compose myself.  Wish I had been wrong on that one, but sometimes the internal instincts are screaming truth.  They sure were right about Starbury being a disaster as a Knick, and hopefully they are equally on target with the good vibes I’m feeling about Fizdale today. Oh, and about that Eddy Curry trade…

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Good announcers. Maybe the most important and under appreciated aspect of the fan experience.  Good announcers can turn an exciting game into a lifetime memory.  This afternoon offers a couple of perfect examples.  I’m watching the Mets getting shut out in the 7th by the Rockies as I sit here typing, and despite the continuing futility of our New York Mets, it is a pleasure hearing the voices of Keith Hernandez, Ron Darling and Gary Cohen in the background calling the game.  To me they are the gold standard of current baseball announcers, both in terms of group chemistry, as well as for outstanding game coverage, knowledge, humor and candor.  They make my investment in the MLB Package worthwhile despite the fact that it has completely sabotaged the Mets 12-2 start.

I also must admit to my growing appreciation and respect for Doris Burke.  This is a tough one for me, for as a traditionalist I was slow to warm up to the idea of female game announcers.  And no, that wasn’t a sexist comment (at least I hope it wasn’t).  The idea of having the token female sideline reporter on every football and basketball telecast seems pandering and obvious, and that annoys me as well, but for different reasons. Put the best person in these roles, please! Which is why I am totally hooking onto Ms. Burke’s growing bandwagon of supporters.

As a dad with two daughters (who both happen to be above-average athletes and solidly knowledgeable sports fans I’m proud to say), I am in favor of seeing these glass ceilings broken through, wherever they may exist. Just please let the “breakers” do it on merit.  Doris Burke has done that.  She’s just damn good — smart, informed down to minute details on back stories as well as strategies, and with a cool sense of humor as well.  She is terrific and it’s great to see her getting the accolades her work has earned her.

When I think about my all-time favorite announcers (a post for another day, for sure), I can’t help but realize I am fortunate to live in an area with terrific local baseball announcers (to fall back on in the event I’m forced to cancel my MLB Package should the Mets drop under .500), as both the Giants (Kruk and Kuip — although I hated Mike Krukow as a player because he owned the Mets) and the A’s (Ray Fosse is in the elite category in my opinion, and he I liked as part of those great A’s squads of the early-’70’s) put out an awesome announcing team for both TV and radio every night.

Others names to smile and ponder on a lazy afternoon (hopefully without stealing too much material from that upcoming all-time announcer post) would certainly include Bob Murphy on radio doing Mets games, Vin Scully (of course — he could read from the phone book and make it entertaining) and the Madden/Somerall tandem on the CBS lead NFC game back in the ’80’s. And reserve a special section in my history for Marv Albert. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only five-year-old kid sneaking a radio to bed at night and falling asleep to him calling Knicks games during their first championship season back in ’69-’70.  “Yes!”

A business man’s special on a sunny afternoon. Gotta love when the first pitch is prior to 1:00 in the afternoon.  Usually a half-full crowd allowing for easier entrance to and exit from the stadium, and the ability to get on with your day while it’s still light out.  I went to see Giants-Padres the other day at AT&T Park (if you haven’t been yet, please figure out a trip to SF and go, it’s absolutely a Top 5 ballpark).  First pitch: 12:45 p.m. Perfect. The afternoon was sunny and 75 degrees and the ball was traveling toward the right field power alley and McCovey Cove.  Multiple dingers, clam chowder out of a bread bowl and through the tunnel on the way back home to the East Bay by 3:30. The Giants won easily (sorry Padres fans, but I still don’t see where all this hope for the future is coming from, you guys are awful), the orange-clad, pennant waving fans were thrilled, and all was right with the world for those three hours.

Futility streaks. I rooted against the Cubs in the 2016 World Series for the simple reason that I wanted the losing streak to continue.  Nothing against the Cubs or the city of Chicago (sort of indifferent to both actually), but I think those kinds of streaks are good for the fabric of the game.  I rooted against the Red Sox for the same reason during the 2004 World Series (despite being overjoyed when they came back from down 3-0 against the Yanks in the ALCS) and I had hoped the Astros would fall short last year and keep their 0-for-existence World Series run intact.  I strangely like the Indians for reasons I can’t even explain to myself, so should they make it to the Fall Classic this year I’m not sure where my rooting interests will lie. But one thing is for sure, and that’s if the Expos/Nationals somehow get there (and I am supremely confident they won’t for reasons about to be revealed), I will root hard against them (unless they play the Yankees, in which case I will root for a 3-3 tie).

I plain don’t like the D.C. teams.  Some of it is life history and rivalries with the NY sports franchises. Some of it is frankly, just because. To that point, as little attention as I pay to the NHL these days, I am totally rooting for the Penguins to beat the Caps (seems like an annual thing, doesn’t it?) in their series that is taking place right now (Penguins look poised to take a 3 games to 2 lead as I type this). I will delight in seeing the Penguins extend the run of futility for the Caps franchise and their tortured fans for yet another year (yes, there is a long backstory behind this dislike that will be discussed at a later date). And I don’t even like Pittsburgh.  Go Pens!

Sam Darnold. I know, Sam is not a thing, he’s a Jet, but I had to figure out a way to include him in this post.  I am that excited. My new favorite player, number 14 on your scorecard and number 1 in our hearts!  Only 20 years old and with a cannon for an arm, this is the guy we will ride to our first Super Bowl victory since Joe Willie trotted off the field in Miami forefinger held aloft.  I liked Darnold in his two seasons starting at USC and can’t believe he will be in Jets green come the fall.  Hope springs eternal, and at least for now I feel hope that one of my personal futility streaks (I should have noted that I don’t like them when one of my teams is involved — 49 years and counting for the  airplanes) may actually come to an end during my lifetime (c’mon Fizdale, 45 years and counting for the Knickerbockers — exercise those demons!).

 

 

 

 

It Must Be The Shoes

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It’s gotta be my new shoes.  The Mets were solidly in first place, sporting a record of 12-2 on April 15th that was as remarkable as it was unexpected.  In my irrational exuberance over the start none of us Mets fans had anticipated (c’mon, none of us…) I made two highly questionable decisions that I believe may be costing us big time right about now.

First, I called up DirecTV and ordered the MLB Package, ensuring that I could watch from my California home every Mets game played this season (and any other baseball game I wanted for that matter), in what was clearly shaping up to be a 120-win, 42-loss kind of campaign (and by the way, this MLB package purchase was no easy feat, as it meant working through those highly-trained people that man DirecTV’s phones at midnight Pacific time on a Sunday night).

Second, following the well-intentioned yet badly misguided advice of a friend and fellow Mets fan, I went on the New Balance website and custom-designed and purchased my “lucky” New York Mets sneakers you see in the photo above (including, for an extra cost, expedited shipping, and yes, the “NYM” monogram you see in orange on the back of each shoe).

I knew at the time I was tempting the fates (in fact I had nearly torpedoed the Knicks season well before KP’s injury finished them off when, at the urging of the same friend, I nearly designed a similar pair of Knicks custom sneaks back in November of last year), but they just looked so darn good (the Mets, not the sneakers, although I must admit to being pretty damn pleased with my design at the time of the order). It was a classic “double-whammy” and I threw caution to the wind and proceeded anyway.

We sports fans are a superstitious lot in general, and when it comes to our favorite squads we need to tread awfully carefully. No one knows this fundamental rule of sports fandom better than me (during Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS against the Astros I refused to turn on any lights in the house as the game shifted from afternoon to evening, move from my seat, or God-forbid remove my rally cap, until the game had ended and the Mets were safely on their way to the World Series — yup all 16 innings and no bathroom break). Which is why I now lament these recent decisions of mine that were so clearly steeped in the emotion of the moment — I’m supposed to know better.

As if on cue, the Mets immediately blew a late 6-1 lead to the Nationals (anyone else still find themselves calling them the Expos by the way, or is that just me?), costing poor Jacob deGrom another win (more on him in a second), but managed to rebound and hover around .500 P.S. (post sneakers) for a week or so.  Now, still only a couple of weeks later, we sit in second place having been humiliated 11-0 this afternoon by the upstart Braves (and swept at home no less), a game and a half behind Atlanta (really??) in the division race. We’ve gone a miserable 5-9 since I hit “send” and placed my order.

So I’m dealing with a couple of thoughts right about now.  The first comes from the logical side of the brain (right side?  I can never remember…), which throws out that tired old chestnut of “if someone told you when spring training began that we’d be in the first week of May and the Mets would be 17-12 and in second place wouldn’t you have been happy?”  Yes, but…

NOT if you told me it would be in the midst of a catastrophic slide brought on solely (no pun intended) by an idiotic sneaker purchase by yours truly.

Anyway, the real thoughts I’m having are simply about how I might redirect this train wreck I’ve personally caused and somehow save the season before it’s too late.  So idea number one revolves around some sort of ritualistic burning of the sneakers in my backyard.  Maybe include an old Jim McAndrew baseball card in the blaze and/or my autographed 8X10 photo of George Theodore (The Stork!).

Idea #2 would be to return to the New Balance site and order customized sneaks of each of our primary rivals contending for  National League supremacy, and rotate wearing a pair whenever the Mets faced off against one of them (thinking Nationals/Expos, Braves, Cubs, Cardinals, D’backs, Rockies, Dodgers, etc.). However I’m afraid the baseball gods would see through that one, plus it’s too expensive and would take more effort than I feel I can expend.

Three, I could try to place the blame at the doorstep of DirecTV and cancel my subscription to that hexed MLB package.  Hahahahaha… I’m sure we can all agree that there is no way they will let me cancel (certainly not with any hopes of recouping my annual fee that was no doubt debited from my account within seconds of me completing my order). Not to mention the apoplexy I’m certain to feel while frantically screaming “REPRESENTATIVE” and “DON’T YOU DARE PUT ME ON HOLD AGAIN” over and over again into my iPhone…I am sweating and feeling shortness of breath just imagining the degree of difficulty involved here.

Sorry my fellow Mets fans, but I suppose we are simply stuck.  I will fall on the sword and take full responsibility going forward every time we see a recurrence of some variation of Jake deGrom hyperextending his elbow (while batting, for chrissakes), or for every headline about Matt Harvey making an ass out of himself (before miraculously finding himself in 2019 while wearing a Yankees uniform and winning 15 games — we know that one is coming, don’t we?), or when we all collectively scratch our heads and wonder how someone with the filthy stuff that Steven Matz possesses in his left arm can possibly stink it up so badly every fifth day — yup, I’m to blame.  The burden is a heavy one, I won’t lie.

I really can only come up with one other viable solution, and even that is a long shot.  I will make one final attempt at “reversing the curse of the orange and blue shoes” using my own secret powers in a quest for good over evil. Many of you close to me are well aware that my frequent predictions often have the unintended effect of causing the exact opposite result of what I anticipate happening to actually happen. Armed with the acknowledgement of that painful reality, let’s see if the following sure-fire prognostications can move the needle for us in a positive way:

*Yoenis Cespedes never gets his average above .250 this year and ends the year with a Granderson-like HR/RBI line of 19/41 (but gets his handicap back to single-digits, which is a good thing since he will have the entire month of October to spend on the links)

*deGrom’s elbow turns out okay, but he breaks a toe covering first on a slow roller to Jay Bruce (playing out of position at first base and making a poor toss behind Jake causing him to lose his balance before breaking the big digit stumbling over the bag) on  Memorial Day weekend.  He returns but is never the same, ending the year with an ERA over 5

*Amed Rosario never hits, but does lead the league in errors, as well as gaining notoriety for having the lamest beard in the National League

*Tomas Nido and Jose Lobaton join D’Arnaud and Plawecki on the DL as the Mets set a new MLB record with 5 catchers DL’d at one time (who is the fifth you say?  Why none other than J.T.  Realmuto, who gets shelved only one game after we acquire him for Brandon Nimmo and Dominic Smith in a trade initially applauded by the masses)

*Brandon Nimmo becomes the Marlins lone representative at the All Star Game after hitting .380 with a .475 OBP following his trade for Realmuto, quickly joining the ranks of Nolan Ryan, Amos Otis, Jeff Reardon and countless others in the pantheon of “great ones that got traded away”

*Dominic Smith balloons back up to 300 pounds as he dives deep into the wonderful culinary delicacies and nightlife of South Beach, while watching his batting average remain below the Mendoza Line for the Marlins despite amassing over 400 AB’s following the trade for Realmuto (sorry but had to include a cheap shot at Smith, since it’s so easy)

*Jeurys Familia is suspended by the team for punching out Dave Eiland after Eiland questions the big closer’s manhood for refusing to throw inside following his 11th blown save of the year in mid-June.  New closer?  Yup, Matt Harvey

*Jose Reyes ends the year as our starting centerfielder following a collision between Juan Lagares and Michael Conforto that lands both players on the DL, while bringing back memories of other great collisions in Mets history, like Mike Cameron and Carlos Beltran and Don Hahn and George Theodore (The Stork!)

*Todd Frazier sets a new club mark with his 200th strikeout in late-August, and flips off the fans on his way back to the dugout amidst a chorus of boos streaming from thousands of fans all doing the salt and pepper motion, which months before had morphed into a form of ridicule employed by the Mets faithful to show their disgust for Frazier and his .190 average and 11 dingers

Okay, I think that’s enough. Now let’s hope that all that negative karma combines with my penchant for picking the wrong side of the trade and counteracts the shoe curse before the 2018 season totally gets away from us. Additionally, I will begin thinking about positive predictions I can make about the crosstown Yanks to see if I can transfer all of our recent bad luck over to the Bronx.  Stay tuned and fingers crossed.

*Oh and one more for good measure — Mr. Met proclaims to the world we are #1 once again in 2018!

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Just couldn’t resist that one. But then again, hey, if someone told you back in February that we’d by 17-12 and challenging for the division lead on May 3rd…

Hosing in Salt Lake City (and other NBA musings)

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*Okay, so who out there was rooting for Oklahoma City last night? Didn’t think so.  Outside of the great state of Oklahoma, I can’t imagine there were too many not on the bandwagon of the upstart Jazz. Personally, I was thrilled to see the Thunder go down, had rooted for that outcome heading into the game, and other than my small desire simply to see how the Jazz might respond to a Game 7 on the road (not well was my best guess), there was just so little to like about OKC (hello, Carmelo!). So all the Jazz do is lose their point guard seven minutes in (Rubio already had 3 assists at that point), yet still manage to pull away in the third and hold off the Thunder down the stretch, as the veteran OKC squad desperately tried to stay alive and bring things back home for a 7th game. So I should be happy, but…

But man did the Thunder get jobbed on that non-call at the end.  After what seemed like umpteen OKC attempts at a game-tying three had rimmed out in multiple, agonizing caroms, the unspeakable actually happened.  Gobert fouls George in the act of shooting a three, and a desperate Jazz team was now visibly teetering on the brink.  Except no foul was called, and it was awful.

Would George have converted all three from the stripe and tied the game with almost no time left?  No way to know, although my own opinion is that he would have hit all three despite the fact that he’d suffered through a dreadful shooting night up to that point. Even if he just hits two of three, I saw little chance that the Jazz would go down and execute on the offensive end, and the game seemed to be unequivocally slipping from their grasp.

And how about the official’s post-game explanation that Gobert had jumped to the left and George had leaned into him, thus earning the “no-call?” Nope.  C’mon guys, this was on television! We all saw it. Yeah Gobert jumped left, and yeah, George leaned.  And yeah, a foul should have been called. Yup, it was a hosing of the first degree.

So instead of an agonizing choke for the second game in a row, the Jazz move on into what should be a five-game (maybe 6) series loss to the top-seeded Rockets. And let the finger pointing by the Thunder’s “Big Two and a Half” begin in earnest (tonight’s NY Post Sports online headline:  “Carmelo Anthony is done making sacrifices for Thunder”). Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…I’ll give you $28 million reasons Carmelo doesn’t opt out of that ridiculous contract of his (thank you, Phil Jackson).  It will actually make for a fascinating case study to see what Melo actually does (he says the money’s been made and this is about “figuring out what I want out of the rest of my career, what I want in my future, what am I willing to accept, if I’m willing to accept that at all.” Uh huh).

If he surprises us all and decides to put his legacy where his mouth is and opts out it will be telling to see where he signs.  Who wants him?  Does he really think LeBron will let him tag along wherever he goes in hopes of scabbing a cheap, end-of-career ring? LeBron is a lot of things, but dumb isn’t one of them, and he can’t possibly see how Melo can help him win somewhere, can he?  Can he?

Instead, look for Melo to parlay the one-year and $28 mil remaining into a multi-year deal with a second-tier team looking to sell a few tickets while the rebuild takes hold (Atlanta? Memphis?). Maybe three years, $45 million? Plus a free reign to shoot every time down the court with defensive effort optional?  Sign him up.  Legacy my ass.

Some other thoughts:

*Did anyone else find the Bucks-Celtics series incredibly uninteresting?  I know it’s been an uphill climb of a year for the Celtics, whose two most entertaining players are both out for the season (one since the campaign’s first game), and the fact that they are advancing at all is a huge credit to the guys they are putting on the floor, plus the great coach and strong front office.  But man, wake me when they get eliminated (by Philly in 6 in the next round methinks) will ya? I mean we had a Game 7 tonight and there was never even a question as to the outcome.

I blame the Bucks for that, as you could argue they are every bit as talented as the Jazz, were facing a lesser opponent (Celtics are not as good as the Thunder), but throughout this series looked happy to simply show up at home, while barely competing on the road.  And then quietly and dutifully go home for good, satisfied they’d taken the depleted Celts to 7 games.  So don’t blame the Celtics for winning a blah series, but don’t blame me for not caring.  Even a little. Ugh…

*If Steph Curry never gets back to 100% is he a Hall of Famer? Right now he’s got roughly 14,000 points, a career average of 23.2 points per game and 4000+ assists (just under 7 a game) over 9 seasons.  Oh yeah, and two titles (three if the NBA hadn’t shamelessly given the 2016 title to LeBron and the city of Cleveland).  That’s not a Hall of Fame career, at least at this juncture on statistics alone.  And if foot, ankle and knee woes begin to rob him of his quickness, hamper his ability to play defense, and get off that shot with his usual lightning-quick release, what happens to him?  Give him three more years as an above-average starter playing 65 games a year and averaging low-20’s and he starts to get close to 20,000 points, That, along with the titles (another this year? I’m thinking no…), and now he’s on the doorstep of The Hall. But not yet.

Steph’s lower leg injuries scare me, so let’s take my statistical projections one dramatic step forward and give him five more productive, but injury-riddled years, where he becomes a one-dimensional, spot-up shooter playing 20-25 minutes a game in 55 or so games a year? Now he’s finishing up in more of a Ray Allen-at-the-end type of stat line with 12-14 points a game, thus dropping his overall PPG average closer to 20 for his career and leaving him in a vulnerable spot with respect to The Hall.  He just concluded a regular season where he played in 51 games in his age 29 season, averaging 26.4 points and 6.1 assists. He’s going to be 30 soon and he seems to be taking longer and longer to heal when injured. Hmmmm…

For comparison sake, take a look at another awesome scorer who lit it up for awhile before injuries derailed his statistical juggernaut:

Tracy McGrady:  Hall of Famer. His last big statistical year was when he averaged 24.6 in his age 27 year with Houston in 2006-2007.  The following year he averaged 21.6 and appeared in 66 games.  He then played in 35, 30 and 30 games in the following three years, before rebounding with a role-player type of season for Detroit in 2010-11, averaging 8 points in 23 minutes per over 72 games.  He played one more year and retired with a career 19.6 average and just under 19,000 total points.  And never won a title.  But he got into The Hall. The prevailing sentiment being that when he was at his spectacular best, T-Mac was elite, and the fact that it continued uninterrupted (for the most part) over seven consecutive seasons sealed the deal.

How much are Steph’s titles worth to his legacy?  Says here they are pretty darn important (although adding one more this year would sure be a difference maker).  No title this year and a couple more injury-decimated seasons followed by an early-30’s retirement, and he is no lock.

*Will the Pelicans get swept? What if Boogie Cousins never got hurt? Both tough questions, but I’ll go with “no” and “no playoffs.”

I like how the Pelicans match up with Golden State in this series despite the destruction that’s taking place about 20 miles west of me at Oracle Arena tonight. Yes, in front of 20,000 hysterically gleeful Dubs fans, all clad in gold (yellow, really) t-shirts cheering hard for every three right to the final buzzer.

Rondo and Holiday are a tough backcourt for the Dubs to dominate though, and could steal at least one game on their own.  I’ll also give Anthony Davis one game of dominance and that makes it at least a 6-game series.  Don’t see it going further than that, but those Dubs fans better hope they make it out of this one healthy, as they’ll need all hands on deck for the Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, the series we all want to see.

And as for Boogie?  I love the guy.  He’s just so fun to watch, but this is a classic case of the team concept actually being stronger after the elite player goes out with an injury.  The New Orleans system is better with AD having room to roam and let his entire array of freakish skills be on display.  Hard to do that with Boogie needing the ball so much.  I’m afraid the problem is Cousins may actually be one of those guys who’s so much fun to watch but will never take a team all the way (see Wilkins, Dominique; Iverson, Allen; Haywood, Spencer). As much as it would be fun to see him in a Knicks uniform at MSG next year, we can’t.  Simply can’t.  Just can’t.  Please don’t! That is, if we are serious about building a real team that can contend one day.  Sorry Boogie.

*Anyone give the Pacers a chance going into Cleveland for Game 7 tomorrow? Me either. He’s still LeBron. I will bet that Indy gives us a better show than the Bucks did in Boston today, but we haven’t heard the last of The King during this postseason, and my bet is they will also take out the Raptors in Round 2 (and that one won’t go 7). Cleveland beating up on the Raptors will in turn set up my best case scenario in the Eastern Conference Finals, with Philly hosting the Brons (I mean Cavs).  Simmons, Embiid, and company will have to grow up fast in that one, but I feel like we may be witnessing the Ben Simmons Coming Out Party here in May and June of 2018, so look for the year of the Liberty Bell to continue if that one comes off as I expect it to.

In the meantime, look for 44/12/12 from King James tomorrow night, while one of his supporting cast members figures out how to do just enough to push them over the top in a close one (Larry Nance Jr. anyone?).  And oh by the way — short the Pacers next year.  Regression back to the mean for Oladipo and not enough upside going forward for the rest of that roster (except maybe Sabonis).  Fun while it lasted, but good night Indiana.