Posted on: June 16, 2012 11:37 am
 

NBA's All-Time Best, Plus Teo

With the word “legacy” being tossed about in these NBA Finals like it’s the only reason for living, I got to thinking of those players who set the legacy-bar in the pro game.

Those memorables who’ve became the standard by which every aspiring superstar will eventually come to be measured.

Aspirants in these Finals would be the reigning MVP LeBron James, ring-holder Dwyane Wade and their up-start opponent, NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant.

And then there’s Russ Westbrook. An asset when he plays Scottie Pippen, second fiddle to OKC’s version of Michael Jordan, Mr. Durant. And if Russ hits the right notes at the right times, like Scottie, he just might get his ticket punched to Springfield, too (HOF).

Why just five all-time greatest hoopsters? Ever since Letterman made the top-ten list a national pastime it’s been run into the ground (ESPN).  And those top-100 lists were tiresome & tacky from the start (NFLN). Besides, picking the top five is a slam-dunk. After that, it gets a bit dicey.

5) Michael Jordan

Everyone’s #1 in the 40 & under group. I won’t get on that bandwagon. Mike comes in at #5. Cons: he never faced greatness in the Finals. Competition matters, a lot. Bulls beat a past-prime LA (‘91), Blazers (‘92), Suns (‘93), Sonics (‘96) and Jazz (1997-98). Then there’s Phil. Mike was more than a tweak away before Jackson arrived. The NPR coach is a basketball genius and deserves a share of the credit, winning in NY, Chicago and LA.

Pros: Two, back-to-back-to-back championship runs, an armful of MVPs and an unquenchable thirst for winning once he got a taste for it, all put him in this select group.

4) Larry Bird

Being half of the second greatest match-up in history gives you cachet. Three NBA titles (‘87 got away) and three MVPs gives you substance. Some would say his being the best white player of the past 35 years worked a bias, but Bird was no ‘great white (hype) hope.’ He had the shooting touch of Oscar Robertson, passing skills of Bob Cousy and rebounded like Dennis Rodman. And all these results with a chronic bad back, in the most competitive decade in NBA history, the 1980s. Before that back went out and Phil arrived in Chicago, head-to-head, Bird & Boston always had Jordan’s number, even when he put up 60 points.

3) Wilt Chamberlain

If the prize for ‘greatest player ever’ were awarded solely on talent, Chamberlain would get the nod easy. But as it stands today, titles have become the litmus test for greatness. He claimed the prize twice, first as a 76er, besting Boston along the way (’67), then in LA (’72). Coaching was the crux early on but when it finally coalesced in Philly, change came again. Though his shipment to LA formed a super trifecta (Baylor / West), all were winding down. Wilt’s best remembered for his individual feats, persona and battles with Bill.  He may've been his own worst enemy, albeit in a time of great culture clash.  Had his earlier career benefited from the team-stability enjoyed by the other four greats, Wilt the Stilt may’ve had a ring for every finger.

2) Bill Russell

Still #1 for fans-over-fifty, Bill’s the safe choice, given his ring-laden hands (11). Makes you wonder how Jordan can get the votes (6). Bill’s one of the great ‘might have beens’ (for St. Louis): drafted by Hawks (’56). Wilt-supporters (fans) always point to Bill’s team-talent as the winning-edge. With the likes of Sam Jones, Bob Cousy and Hondo Havlicek, it’s a fair point. But in their day, key battles were waged & won down low, in the paint, giants fighting for dominance. And no player (coach ‘66-69), then or since, has dripped more determination onto the hardwood than Mr. Russell.

1) Earvin “Magic” Johnson

Change is good, at least that‘s what we‘re told. I’m not a big fan, no one really is, but in this case, it’s apropos. It’s time Earvin was moved into the top spot. If Bill was Mr. determination, Magic was, well, magical. Nobody seemed to love the game…the GAME of basketball more than Earvin Johnson. America first saw that big smile when he ran the court as a Spartan and for the next 10 years it would light-up the NBA, receding only when he faced nemesis Bird and finally with his shocking AIDS announcement (’91).

Bill doubles-up Magic on titles and MVPs but the gold-standard (rings) is weighted by its karat-count: competition. Russell v Chamberlain was the battle-royal for posterity, but Magic and Lakers faced a more formidable field than did the 60s Celtics. The 80s had four great teams: Lakers, Celtics, 76ers and Pistons, with Bulls, Rockets & Bucks close behind. It’s why the introduction of professionalism into the Olympics (Dream Team) has been nothing more than a marketing money-grab and a farce.

Taking the O’Brien Trophy in his first NBA season (’79-80), subbing for Kareem in ‘87 (hook-shot heard ‘round the world) and even getting his weary Lakers back to the Finals one last time in ’91, all put Mr. Johnson on the highest pedestal. Congrats, Earvin.

Plus Teofilo 

As oddly loud as the sport pages have been recently with whining on the Bradley v Pacquiao decision (even Manny’s judge had it close @ 115-113), they’ve been as oddly quiet on the recent passing of another ‘greatest’ in sport. On June 11th it was announced Cuban boxer Teofilo Stevenson had died of a heart condition at the age of 60.

The undefeated, classy fighter settled for ‘greatest amateur,’ choosing to never turn pro after winning three Olympic heavyweight gold medallions, his first coming at Munich in 1972. By remaining loyal to Fidel Castro and Cuba, Teofilo created another big ‘might have been’: the Stevenson v Ali super-fight. And it would’ve been tremendous. The bad rap on TS: an unproven record. But those critics never saw him fight and then, in his era, the Olympics were the proving ground for prominence, catapulting names like Clay (Ali), Frazier, Foreman and Leonard. Fans of boxing history will remember Teofilo Stevenson.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 13, 2012 12:14 pm
 

College Football's Powdered Wigs

They are the overlords of college football, the people who package the game and put it on the shelves for millions to consume every autumn.

They are the Boards of Regents, trustees, college presidents, NCAA folk, a few coaches, big boosters & alumni and lots of corporate Suits with a finger stuck in the college pie.

I guess not one is a serious pigskin fan, you know, the dedicated type that can sit through ESPN’s College GameDay. Most are MBAs whose real passion is the game of business.

Think of ‘em as…the powdered wigs of college frolic.

Remember those guys? They were the blokes we gave the heave-ho back in 1776, only to return in 1812 when they torched DC (1814) and were finally sent packing by Mr. Jackson at New Orleans (1815). King George III was their poster-boy.

Not really cruel (Spanish Inquisition) or evil (Hitler / Pol Pot), but a portly upper crust (male and female) who looked down their noses at common folk.

They came ‘round to constitutional monarchy (1215) but distrusted popular will, vesting top power in the aristocracy (Lords). They viewed the republican-form with its checks & balances, separation of powers (Hume) and representative democracy as radicalism, its advocates deemed dangerous revolutionaries fit to be hung (Paine / Adams / Jefferson).

Guess we showed them, huh? Though, you gotta’ give the blue-bloods their props. The revolts that followed tended to overrun the bleachers, you might say (French ‘89 / Russian ‘17) and in some cases remain iron-fisted & repressive politically (China ‘49 / Vietnam ‘75).

But the powdered-wig lives on in America. Their handiwork survives in the Electoral College, a tried & true GOP fall-back Mr. Romney (and “bold” Mr. Walker?) will find handy this fall when the popular vote total falls a tad short. Expect a nail-bitter.

And you can feel their spirit in the hallowed hallways of many a college campus.

I used to think college ball held the moral high-ground vs the pros and their money game: greedy owners and greedy players. Not anymore. It’s not even close.

Not that avarice doesn’t inhabit the NFL as well. But at least you know where they stand. The National ain’t no democracy but if Roger Goodell is a king, he’s a philosopher king (Plato) who has one ear turned to the collective voice of the fan.

The college broker? Perched high, up in his ivory tower, he wouldn’t hear a holler.

That college ball still works the student-athlete charade and the amateurism angle ain’t what chaps my hide. Sure, the stars on the gridiron are way underpaid but too many today end-up on police blotters to invest too much concern.

What’s soured me on Saturday football is the fashionable disregard for fans.

Always a cash-cow, the easy-money from big sport venues isn’t enough for these sacred-cow institutions anymore. No sir-ee, Bob. The powdered wigs are grabbing with both hands.

1) Giving-over touchstones like school colors, uniforms and logos to merchandisers who care nothing for team / school tradition & loyalty.

2) The endless conference jumping that kills regional rivalries, ignores travel hardships and makes a musical-chairs mockery of all alignments. The fact it’s making the ship of college sport list heavily to the East Coast (SEC / Big East) has gotta’ be a red-flag. Makes Notre Dame’s & Army’s resolute independence that much more admirable, and sad if they ever flip (Navy).

3) Coaches packing-up for greener pastures is nothing new. Can’t begrudge a guy career advancement. But the brazen practice of schools courting prospective candidates in-season is a tacky new twist (ND, CU & Kelly / '09).

Few are shedding tears for demise of the bowl system. When the flood-gates opened in the 90s and the number of bowls shot-up (35), along with the cachet-killing, corporate-naming idea (TaxSlayer.com (Gator) Bowl), you could hear the bell toll. But then, maybe that was the whole point all along, for playoff-proponents.

Well, they got their way. A championship playoff is in the works. Yippie-yi-ya. Guess I’m suppose to be grateful for this crumb they’ve tossed down? Fiddlesticks.

If you think this playoff is for the fans, you best go back to school…grade school.

As imperfect as it was, at least the BCS Bowl system had a numerical logic to it. I know, LSU had no business playing Alabama twice. Cry me a river. Like any team was gonna’ beat Saban’s 2012 Crimson Tide? Not bloody likely. And I don’t recall anyone whining when the polling system was in play (AP / UPI), especially when two schools celebrated.

Now the same 10 schools will fight it out in a mini-playoff so one of ‘em can hoist (then drop) that god-awful, glass football thing in, what, March?

And the cherry on top: No one knows how to pick the four (?) participants. Good job.

If this money-grab, playoff plan has any element of fan appreciation, the wigs should let the consumers of college football award the golden-tickets.

I can hear it now: ‘Whoaaa, pardner! You can’t give the unwashed rabble such a lofty, complicated task as picking playoff teams, Steve. Only the wigs are qualified to make that call. Only they have the wherewithal to put aside bias & prejudice.’ Balderdash.

As voting for (Electors of) the President of the United States is well within the purview of John and Jane Q. Public, why not the selection of playoff participants? I feel the great minds at our institutions of higher learning can come up with a sound procedure for nationwide fan-voting. Their cuff-linked friends at DTT (Deloitte) can oversee it all.

Better a bias is diluted among 20 million voters than risk its greater influence on a small panel of twenty powdered wigs who are no more qualified to judge, thank you Bobby B. (CBS / “Former FSU" / CP / 6-6), than the mass of devoted college football fans.

But don’t sweat it, playoff proponents. There ain’t gonna’ be no revolution in college football. The wigs will make the call, pick the teams, fans will gripe, millions will watch and the only thing different will be the revolving-door of Nike uniform designs.

Rah, rah, for old alma mater. Onward to victory, rah, rah, rah.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 8, 2012 11:39 am
Edited on: June 8, 2012 6:08 pm
 

A Ray of Sharapova

Not a tennis fan, you say? A tad too tame for your taste? Find the strawberries & cream at Wimbledon a bit on the haughty-taughty side?

Maybe you prefer the roar of the raceway where speed is the elixir.

Perhaps it’s the steady cadence of 9 baseball innings, punctuated by the call of the umpire and crack of the bat that floats your boat.

Perchance hockey’s your thing. You thrill at the sound of steel cutting ice, stick, puck & pads crashing and co-mingling in a fast & furious battle of bodies.

If that’s you, you’re in the majority. Like youth soccer, recreational tennis has a huge following in the USA (Atlanta’s wild for it), but TV ratings for the US Open will never come close to the NBA Finals or Selection Sunday on CBS.

No matter. Not everything need be a YouTube virus to warrant a look-see.

And tennis is worth a look-see. Only a few minutes in and even the most skeptical observer will discover just how competitive and engaging the back ‘n forth can be.

With the French Open getting air-time on ESPN this week I did a fly-by Monday of the clay-court cotillion. Excluding MMA, spelling bees, Dancing with the Stars and poker, I’ll watch just about any competition for a time.

Just by chance I caught the Maria Sharapova v Klara Zakopalova 4th-round clash.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t admit to the draw Maria’s good looks has on keeping my eyes fixed to the screen and away from the remote. She’s a looker, alright. But then her Czech opponent in this particular battle was / is very easy on the eyes herself.

Sharapova survived her 44th ranked but determined opponent, 6-4, 6-7, 6-2.

The fact the French is a major tourney works as bait. What reels-me-in, though, has little to do with sex-appeal. If that base-urge was major motive for my viewership I would’ve dumped sport long ago and taken up stamp-collecting. Not a bad idea anyway, the stamp thing. Damn the naysayers, besides a few grumps, USPS does a pretty nifty job.

What’s turned me onto Maria’s game involves more than a beautiful backhand.

For age 25 she’s well-decorated from the tennis wars, having won 3 majors and 26 WTA titles. Garnering a champion’s laurel at Roland-Garros this week would complete the career grand slam, a nice feather in any tennis star‘s cap.

Maybe it’s her humble beginnings that puts me in her court.

While in-utero, her parents (Yuri & Elena) re-located from Belarus (Chernobyl zone / ‘86) to Nyagan, Russia. No silver-spoon for this young lass who probably learned to hold a racket before riding a bicycle. Upon professional advice and a chance at the good life, Dad and 7-year old daughter moved to Florida in ‘94, though red-tape and money prevented Mom from joining them for two years. I get choked-up thinking about it. Seriously.

Looking like one more in a recent long line of terrifically talented Eastern Europe tennis players when she hit the scene in 2001, Maria has separated herself from the pack. And how, pray tell? Just listen to one of her post-match interviews. Either she’s one fine actress or this woman genuinely enjoys playing tennis. Imagine that?

“Play” seems a funny word to use for a job she and many of her peers have been working at for most of their walking-lives and longer than many folks’ careers by age forty.

In contrast, the Williams sisters (Venus & Serena), with more hardware than you can shake a stick at, give the impression that the phrase “be happy in your work (Saito)” ain’t part of the equation. If true, I could understand their malaise, given the long travel, over-zealous fans and endless grind of the game.

Not that Sharapova is a constant ray of sunshine. Like everyone, excepting the always upbeat Tebow, Maria’s sunny days can be intermittent. The Zakopalova match showed as much. With sore wrist and tender temperament, the always expressive Parisian crowd let her know their displeasure with her moody, albeit victorious play.

When you cut your tennis-teeth watching guys like Jimmy Connors, John “Super Brat” McEnroe and Boris Becker, occasional testy displays today are tantamount to a tempest in a teapot. Just don’t ever direct a veiled-threat towards an umpire (Serena). That’s a big bright line you should never cross.

There was a time when some compared young Maria to Anna Kournikova, another Russian prodigy of the mid-90s. Both turned heads with their youth, beauty, high-skill (Anna made 4R of the ‘96 US Open at 15, losing to titlist Steffi Graf) and mental preparedness.

But while AK became template for what some feel you don’t do with a promising tennis career, Maria helped set-the-bar by winning Wimbledon at 17 (v Serena / ‘04).

With her 6-3, 6-3 semifinal win over Petra Kvitova (Czech) on Thursday, Maria’s on the brink of something special in the world of tennis, positioned to win her first French and thereby complete a career grand slam (all four WTA majors). On Saturday, Sharapova (2) faces Italian Sara Errani (21) for the 2012 French Open Women’s Singles Championship. Ms. Errani is looking to breakthrough for her first major title since turning pro one year after her opponent (2002).

Though a handful have done it before, a win would put her in that rarified-air of tennis greats. Many have mastered the game, only a select few have mastered the profession in all its venues.

Champion or runner-up on Saturday, you’ve come a long way from Belarus, Maria.

Steven Keys
Posted on: June 3, 2012 4:54 pm
Edited on: June 6, 2012 12:12 pm
 

LeBron and Great Expectations

Like every NBA rookie, LeBron James had high hopes.

When he joined the Cavaliers right out high school (Akron) after being selected # 1 in the 2003 Draft, he surely thought anything was possible. As far as NBA accolades were concerned, the sky was the limit.

Not just because he was a phenomenal talent with a ton of hype, but because any team that uses the 1st overall pick on an untested 18-year old has gotta’ mean business, as in, the business of winning an NBA championship.

In retrospect, it seems the business Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert had in mind was less about building a champion and more about milking all he could from publicity generated by the most touted NBA rookie since Patrick Ewing.

Because the younger fan is less demanding in the expectation department and winning that elusive NBA title is quite costly, selling celebrity is the preferred choice of owners, marketers and those who would do their bidding (media).

Just take a gander back at Cleveland rosters from 2003 - 2010. It’s a wonder they ever made it to a Finals at all during James’ tenure in the Forest City (’07 Spurs). Best explanation: Cavs lone appearance in an NBA Finals was a testament to team-play, good coaching, an unexceptional East and LeBron James’ strong back.

While Dan’s goals for his prized player seemed unambitious, the rest of America has had nothing but great expectations of LJ from the get-go, including a title or two.

Great Expectations: It's a famous work by Charles Dickens (1860). I’ve seen the David Lean movie (‘46) but never cracked the book. By the time I’d become a human being, educators were passing on the classics. In short, it’s a tortuous story of an orphaned boy (“Pip”) and his rise to a class of “great expectations” with help from a secret benefactor.

But besides being crowned 'Most Very Popular' player thrice, two forgettable Finals and making lots ‘o loot, LeBron’s been more expectation than great. "Clutch Cargo" he ain’t.

James isn’t alone.

The hype-hero is a frequent player on the public stage.

A select few matched or exceeded their buildup (Gretzky / Jordan / Woods / Magic / Bird / Montana).

Some who sipped champagne early never went back for more (Chipper / Ripken / Dale Jr. / Roddick / Daley), while others proved marketing mirages, either total busts (Leaf / Oden / JaMarcus), not as advertised (Mandrich / Bosworth) or perennial winners who were fantasy favorites but never grabbed the brass-ring (Bonds / Marino).

Then there are Kareem & Wilt. Arguably the two best b-ballers in history, maybe the two best athletes ever. But even with armfuls of MVPs, both fell short of great expectations. Alcindor took but one title in Milwaukee (’71) and when back in LA, it was Ervin’s magic that put Lakers back on top (’80). And while Wilt is still king of the record-book, he must’ve rued the day he ever met Bill Russell and his Boston Celtics.

Tony Romo, Mike Vick, Alex Ovechkin, Dwight Howard, Phil Rivers and Matt Ryan’s stars still burn but are fading, while stories on the newest hype-heroes like Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Bryce Harper, Steve Strasburg and Danica Patrick are still being written.

Even when your best days are behind (Woods), the hype-machine can keep chuggin’ along. Though, in Tiger’s case it’s understandable, given how none of today’s one-win wonders on the PGA seems interested or capable of ascending to his throne.

Just remember this next time your super-hero falls short of expectations: 1) They don’t run the hype-machine or set content at ESPN; and 2) Apart from bowling, bull-riding, golf, etc., team-sport requires a team-effort. “One for all, all for one (Three Musketeers).”

While Gretzky and Jordan exceeded expectations, look at the rosters they occupied: HOF’ers, All-Stars, proven supporting cast and top-notch gurus (Jackson / Sather) filled the bill. Winning a title in the NBA and the like still requires a talented roster, no matter how much your titillated talk-radio meathead would have you think otherwise.

To keep his mythical crown, King James needs a real title-ring.

Heat v Lakers was preferred Finals for NBA brass, but then the tres is risky business, Mr. Brown (OKC / G2). In fact, any of the four possible match-ups is a ratings salivator.

Whomever does get there, it ain‘t gonna’ be easy.

Big-hearted Celtics got moxie to burn but age & depth make ‘em vulnerable, while high-energy OKC’s maturity-level gives ring-laden, re-focused ‘Patriots of San Antonio’ the decided edge.

“The really big shew (Sullivan),” ain’t from Reebok. It’s pro basketball’s biggest stage, the NBA Finals. A place where substance rules while flash, ego and roster holes get exposed right quick. It’s where even old, tattered expectations of greatness can finally be fulfilled and worn with pride, as Dirk “Pip” Nowitzki did in last year’s Finale.

If His Majesty and the Heat can channel an inside game and go easy on the three, Mr. James just might complete that royal ensemble fans & marketing mavens across America have long been expecting.

Steven Keys
Posted on: May 30, 2012 12:13 pm
Edited on: June 1, 2012 11:22 am
 

Did Ali KO Boxing?

If there were a Mt. Rushmore for athletes, Muhammad Ali would be on it.

Chiseled into South Dakota granite, he’d reside alongside that other giant of sporting Americana, Babe Ruth. The years will roll on but the immense stature of these two icons will forever tower over all others.

Filling-out the rest of the foursome is no cake-walk. Rounding-up contenders is easy enough but selecting the chosen few is problematic. Not entirely unlike Jefferson’s conundrum (Bill of Rights), the biggest fear is leaving out an indispensable.

Lightening the load is the fact it’s all in fun, meaning, your choices needn’t pass muster with local tribal-leaders or some kind of Ken Burns, revisionary litmus test.

Simply pick America’s four most influential figures of “tumultuous merriment (Johnson),” whether they come with glowing halo or bad-ass baggage in tow.

After the two titans, Jackie Robinson comes quickly to mind. His courage, contribution to civil rights and Dodgers distinction will never be forgotten. But I’m not so sure even he’d approve of his present-day deification by MLB. Something in the vain of “Stop feeding off me! (Cool Hand Luke)” might echo his sentiments if alive today.

Next comes Lombardi, Clemente, Billie Jean King, Cobb, Mantle, Rockne, Gehrig, Page, Bear Bryant, Thorpe, Wooden, Nicklaus, Unitas, Jim Brown, Butkus, Walter Ray, Scully, Montana, Berg, Shoulders, Sugar Ray Robinson, Mack, Foyt, Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Babe Zaharias, Josh Gibson, Graham, Halas, Owens, Petty, Mathewson, Connors and on and on and on.

And the greats of hockey? ‘Made in Canada’ shouldn’t disqualify American favorites like Shore, Hull, Plante, Brodeur, Richard, Bowman, Howe, Orr, Gretzky and Blake. Half their ice-time was clocked on the Southern side of the NHL.

Four spots is a petite pantheon (real Rushmore) with so many greats from which to pick.

Even with the rather pedestrian passel of Presidents, I always thought there should be more mugs on Rushmore. I’ve got no quarrel with those who made the cut, giants, all of ‘em. But if I’d made the call I wouldn’t begin the blasting until Old Hickory was on the roster. No Andy Jackson, hero of the Battle of New Orleans (1815), two-terms, the first People’s President who busted the bank trusts? Tsk-tsk, Mr. Coolidge.

But whether it’s four faces or fourteen, two will always stand above the rest, already chiseled onto the minds of American sport fans, young & old.

George Herman Ruth, “a parade all by himself (Cannon).” Starting as a HOF-caliber moundsman, Ruth’s power with the bat was unprecedented. Though, when asked if he’d not swung so for the stands might he have hit .400, the ever-confident Babe shot back, “Hell, kid, I coulda’ hit .500!” And he could have.

Such talent, wrapped in a lovable brashness was perfectly suited to the roaring times. His insatiable appetite for round-trippers, comfort-food, wine, women & song single-handedly enlivened and rescued a scandalized (Black Sox / ‘20) and micro-managed national pastime.

Best Babe quotes: “(Ty) Cobb is a pr**k, but he sure can hit, God Almighty, that man can hit (Big Sticks / Curran)!” Asked to justify a salary ($100,000) greater than that of the Chief Executive (Hoover), the Babe calmly responded: “I had a better year than he did.”

Babe Ruth, a “natural born world shaker (Dragline).”

It’s funny, you’d think they couldn’t be more different. But the more I read about Ruth, the more I’m reminded of the other sure face on my imaginary monument, Ali.

He was known as Cassius Marcellus Clay when he took the boxing world by storm at the Rome Olympics (’60). By the time he’d taken the title from the a brutish & brooding Sonny Liston (’64), his new religion and name had become the bigger story.

Charming one moment, cruel the next (v Frazier), the outspoken pugilist was a hard sell in Peoria after his conversion and draft refusal (‘66). To the seasoned press corps Ali was an angry draft-dodger. But that grizzled old bunch were becoming passé. The Lip spoke to a new, TV generation. Like The Beatles, he transcended his profession, becoming a bigger than life world figure of both influence and controversy.

And like the Sultan of Swat, Ali seemed tailor-made for his time.

To the new press Ali was a god-send, a quote-machine whose pre-fight poetry was unlike anything they’d ever heard before. “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee” became Muhammad’s defining line. My own favorite Ali-ism: “I’m fast, I’m pretty and can’t POSSIBLY be beat!” Arrogance made interesting. That was a first…and a last.

And he found a kindred spirit in Howard Cosell, frequently feigning discord while taking us all for a ride. And we loved it. In the lawyer’s hands Ali showed a lighter side, more contemplative and surprisingly patient with the blunt, always provocative Howard.

It’s in the aftermath of these two tremendous reigns where the similarity ends.

When Ruth exited the game in 1935 baseball was in its early golden age. Heroes like DiMaggio, Williams, Musial, Berra, Mays, Koufax, Gibson and Aaron carried the banner well into the 70s. Today’s game has taken some serious hits with the NFL’s maturation and the PED plague, but it remains the favored pastime for millions.

Boxing, on the other hand, is fighting to stay relevant, in the throes of its toughest time.

With a few exceptions (Sugar Rays), as the heavyweight class goes, so goes USA boxing. When Ali lost the title to Spinks in ‘78, the division was already looking a bit wobbly.

The 35 years since has seen the top tier turn into a revolving-door of titlists, with names like Holmes, Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis and Klitschko (Vitali & Wladi) claiming authority.

Holmes lacked charisma, Tyson personified evil, Holyfield was a cruiserweight, the 90s Foreman was a pleasant anomaly and the other guys, Lewis (The Commonwealth) and the Klitschkos (Ukraine) are best known in their native lands.

Muhammad Ali set the boxing bar so high he left his sport wanting, yearning for a new savior. But can any fighter, in or out of the ring, ever meet the lofty standard set by the self-proclaimed “greatest?” I wonder.

Today’s boxer is as gifted a pugilist as warriors of old but pales in comparison with an Ali-expectancy.

In reality, Uncle Sam’s sporting tastes had been changing before Mr. Clay arrived on the scene. Rather than “KO“ boxing, Ali may’ve actually pumped new life into the sport.

Prize-fighting was born of harder times (1700s), before middle class, when life tested us at every turn and suffering & boredom were expectations. We’ve got our struggles today but in many respects times are better, less trying and less conducive to after-dinner fights.

The public began to rethink their passion for pugilism when tragedy struck in two nationally-televised fights. Cuban fighter Kid Paret would die within ten days after he was knocked unconscious by Emile Griffith in a 1962 welterweight title bout on ABC. Then in 1982, South Korean lightweight Duk Koo Kim collapsed after a 14 RD TKO loss to Ray Mancini at Caesars Palace (CBS), dying four days later.

You’d think it couldn’t get worse for boxing, then Mike Tyson found a gym.

All boxers have inner rage but Tyson was a truly frightening, unpredictable figure who relied on a sneaky upper-cut to knock opponents out on their feet. He unraveled fast with his first loss (Douglas ’90), the best title-fight since Ali-Frazier I (‘71). Then came the rape verdict (‘92), ear-chomp (‘97) and horrific rants (“eat your children” (’00)), giving the sport a nice, big shiner. Now he’s in boxing’s HOF (Canastota, NY). Just perfect.

Then there’s MMA. With evolution away from boxing it’s hard to figure the niche this oddly barbaric contest has carved out (See; sociologist). My theory: a post-1970 male population, spared major, social upheaval (draft / depression) but faced with a forever shrinking job market, in frustration, peer pressure and boredom, respond to mass-marketed machismo.  A collective chest-thump, as it were, shouting 'We bad too!'

Not exactly sign of the Apocalypse but an activity spawned from a culture moving disturbingly closer to James Caan / Wm Harrison's Rollerball and not half as cool.

Did MMA stagger boxing? Nyet. Their respective fan bases seem to be exclusive and the sports are different at their core. MMA is premised on forcing an opponent into submission, stripping him of all his pride.

Boxing is a mixture of human brutality and style where a winner can howl in victory but still leave his vanquished rival with a modicum of dignity. And that’s just what Herb Marshall left Barb Stanwyck after going a round in Breakfast for Two (‘37).

Floyd Mayweather is the face of today’s US boxing. Sugar Ray Leonard he is not, image-wise. But his skill in the ring has been of the highest caliber and more than well-tested.

As for his post-fight, ring-conduct (Merchant flare-up / ‘11): Even elder statesmen can get too full of themselves. ‘Asked & answered’ was my feeling in watching the senior pepper the winner with post-fight queries. If he hasn’t yet, Larry owes Floyd a phone call.

Then there’s the blood-test. Mayweather’s willingness to give the red stuff gave him the PR upper-hand over his talented, would-be challenger Manny Pacquiao whose meteoric rise came to a screeching halt at his apparent refusal to give the same a year ago.

Boxing will never rise to the heights of popularity it enjoyed for most of the 20th century. Too much has changed. But I hope it someday thrives again. Great fighters, memorable bouts, they’ll always be with us.

Because if Rocky ever goes MMA, I don’t want to see it. Do you?

Steven Keys
Posted on: May 22, 2012 12:25 pm
 

How the Tres Tamed the NBA

They were giants of the sporting world: names like Mikan, Pettit, Russell, Wilt the Stilt, Truck, Moses, The Enforcer, the Big O, the Big E and the Big Redhead.

Basketball’s leviathans in the low post.

Fans thrilled at their combination of size, strength and agility. The battles they fought under the boards defined the NBA and made sport headlines for nearly 40 years.

But change is the constant in a consumer democracy.

The Chuck Taylor high-tops and short-shorts are long gone, replaced with hideous foot-wear and a plethora of prison-yard tattoos. Historic but cramped old arenas gave-way to bigger & brighter venues with better seats, paint-happy hardwood and $12.50 nachos.

And no change has been greater than disappearance of the inside game. In particular, the demise of the dominant center and power-forward.

Different from women’s basketball where the tall pivot player still reigns, the menacing man in the middle has become an endangered species.

Since the days of Kareem Abdul Jabbar you could count on two hands the number of big men who’ve dominated down low: Bob Parish, Bird, McHale, Laimbeer, Shaq, Rodman, Magic, Olajuwon, Duncan and Karl Malone nearly fill out a very short list.

The culprit: NBA’s adoption of the three-point shot.

The National was sitting pretty in the late 70s, having absorbed what remained of a monopolized ABA (1976) and negotiated lucrative TV / merchandise deals. But a dramatic rise in player salaries gave some jughead in a Suit reason to get creative.

In 1979 they reached into their former rival’s bag of tricks (the American employed the dunk and the tres in 1968 “as marketing tool(s) to compete with the NBA (Wikipedia)” and pulled out the three-point gimmick to prime the pump.

Basketball’s never been the same.

There had been a balance, a symmetry, a ying & yang in roundball.

Fans were treated to two theaters of play: one inside, where bruisers like Nate Thurmond, Dantley, Unseld, Reed, Walton, Lanier, Cowens, Gilmore and Dan Issel waged war; the other, out on the key where long-rangers Jerry West, Bing, Frazier, Maravich, Gervin, Winters and Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson could Heat it up in a hurry.

As long as both theaters had direction there was a symbiosis and the game flourished.

But by the mid-80s the physical, combative play which for years had made the sport so colorful…vanished. Centers and power forwards regressed into mere supporting players or disappeared all together. Much of the action moved away from the paint and up to the high-post where guards and guard-wannabes directed the flow and became the stars.

The spotlight swung away from bangers and over to finesse guys like Julius Erving and Mike Jordan as the 3-pointer and un-contested dunk became signature plays of the NBA.

If you see a guy in the low-post today chances are he’s only waiting on an alley-oop or mesmerized as an opponent dunks on his head. Post game both will hug & laugh about it.

As most NBA rookies are today on the 5-year maturation plan, they’ll never develop the wide range of skills that even stylers like Dr. J and Jordan would eventually pick-up.

“You don’t sell the steak, you sell the sizzle” (Seinfeld).

They don’t sell the game anymore, they sell celebrity (endorsements), air-time (TV / Twitter / fantasy) and merchandise (cantaloupe-sized driver heads and wicked metal bats in Little League (Outside the Lines; 3/1/11)). If it generates a nice revenue stream, then history, integrity and sometimes safety, it would appear, all get swept under the rug.

When big-shots like Kevin Love (6’10) and Kevin Durant (6’9) spend half their time on the perimeter you know the game’s gone soft. Both should live inside 15 feet. Instead, the past four seasons has seen a steady up-tick in their 3PAs. It's surprising, given the tremendous shooting touch both possess (FG%: .457 / .468) when not launching 3s.

So much for pumping-up the offense.

In comparison, the newly-crowned MVP LeBron James has seen his 3PA% decrease each of the past three seasons: 25% (‘09-10); 19% (‘11); 13% (abridged ‘12). That’s growth.

Prime example of the tamer NBA: With 6 ticks left on the clock and down by only one vs OKC (PS G2 '12), rather than design a drive to the hoop for two, likely draw the foul, and even with a miss and no whistle, ball’s in play for a rebounded score (Gasol / Bynum), Lakers Coach Mike Brown opts for the thrilling, unnecessary, low-percentage 3-pointer that Steve Blake rims out. Blake & Brown are lambasted but what the Lakers did was SOP in today’s b-ball.

There are men who keep the spirit alive with dynamic play in the paint. A few of the standouts: centers Tim Duncan, Howard, Pau Gasol, Bynum and Joakim Noah; forwards Blake Griffin, Garnett, Cousins, Humphries and Atlanta’s Josh Smith.

It’s time to bounce the 3-pointer outta’ the gym. Send it, along with the dunk contest and home run derby over to where they all belong: Saturday morning TV.

Then watch the roundball renaissance begin.

Steven Keys
Posted on: May 16, 2012 8:27 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2012 11:52 pm
 

Hack's 191: MLB's New 61

It wasn’t exactly the information age but then no one was complaining. Business ran on the Bell System and postage, while newspapers, radio and TV kept consumers current.

And though barely a blip on most people’s radar, a certain sports item was making headlines in the Big Apple that spring of 1961: Maris & Mantle and their pursuit of Babe Ruth’s hallowed single-season home run mark of 60.

Everyone loves a good race and as it heated-up it began to play in Peoria. The fact it involved a record held by the much loved Bambino made it all the more captivating. The emotions ran the gamut from petty resentment, to hopeful, to simply, ‘Can he do it!?’

Mickey would succumb to injuries (54), Roger achieved the unthinkable (61) and the debate ensued. As quaint as an asterisk seems today it nonetheless does show just how seriously everyone took the sport back in ‘61.

Even at the time, Roger’s milestone may not have been the greatest single-season feat in the annals of Major League Baseball. Likewise, extended streaks that were subject to official scoring (Joe D's 56) or personal discretion (Ripken) will often, upon close inspection, reveal a weak-link in their chains of greatness.

The game’s long, storied history is chock full of special achievements that can keep baseball aficionados debating for hours and even years.

A short list of some other notables:

· Boston Beaneater Hugh Duffy bats .440 and wins the NL Triple Crown in 1894;
· In the same season Billy Hamilton crosses home plate 196 times;
· Christy Mathewson wins 31, posts 1.27 ERA and throws 3 CG-SOs in 1905 WS;
· Ed Walsh wins 40 in 1908 (1.42 / 464 IN / 42 CG) on a White Sox team that batted just .224;
· Ruth’s 1921: .378 BA, 177 R, 16 3B, .846 SLG, 17 SB, 145 BB, 59 HR, 171 RBI, 457 TB;
· Cleveland Indian Joe Sewell strikes out a mere four times in 608 ABs in 1925;
· Rogers Hornsby wins his 2nd Triple Crown in 1925 batting .403 (.401 in 1922);
· AL Leader in HR, BB, R, SLG and OBP, Ted Williams hits .406 with style in 1941;
· Jackie Robinson joins Brooklyn to break baseball’s color barrier and wins ROY in 1947;
· In ‘62, KC Athletics’ Bill Fischer pitches 84.1 consecutive innings without walking a batter;
· Bob Gibson (22-9 / 1.12 / 13 SHO) & Denny McLain (31-6 / 28 CG) go pitch crazy in ‘68.
· Dodgers’ Orel Hershiser pitches 59 consecutive scoreless innings in 1988 in leading his team to a World Series title over the heavily-favored Athletics in five.

Nevertheless, Roger’s 61 became the crown jewel of baseball exploits. Like Ruth’s 60 it too became the holy grail for every big bopper in the game.

Ever since Yankee GM Ed Barrow snatched the Babe away from Boston in 1919, fans have thrilled at power-ball: goodbye spitters, dead-ball hitters and “Hit ‘em where they ain‘t” (Keeler),..hello lively ball, home run call and “Holy cow, he did it!” (Rizzuto).

If the stars aligned, both marks did invite some serious challenges: Foxx (58 / ‘32); Wilson (56 / ‘30); Greenberg (58 / ’38); Kiner (54 / ‘49); Griffey (56 / ‘97).

But it was that possibility which made the 61 enticing (and easy prey) for PED users. Juicers blew by the iconic record like it didn‘t even exist as fans and media went ga-ga over the Mark & Sammy show. The hypocrites could fill every stadium on the continent.

Baseball’s governors have themselves a real sticky-wicket: what to do about the Elias record book and Mr. Bonds’ tainted tally of 73?

Not generally known as bold-decision makers, Mr. Selig & friends will likely go on with the do-nothing approach. Regardless, Roger’s fabled 61 will never regain its former luster.

As such, Cub Hack Wilson’s mind-boggling RBI total of 191 (1930) has now become the new standard for single-season prowess, the new benchmark for baseball immortality.

Funny thing is, nobody knows it’s the new standard: not players, not fans, not the press.

Had he painted his masterpiece with the Yanks or John McGraw’s Giants, Gotham City scribes would’ve immortalized the fantastic feat in poetry and prose. As it stands, the media mecca of America will never pay homage to a record set by a Second City sultan.

Another reason Hack‘s mark is anonymous: so few have ever come close to matching it: Gehrig (184 / ‘31); Greenberg (183 / ‘37); Foxx (175 / ‘38). Even with advantages like DH (AL), body armor, night sky, 162 games, cortisone and lower mound, 153 (Davis / ’62) and 165 (Ramirez / ’99) are the closest anyone’s managed to get to the 191 in 50 years.

RBIs need two things: base-runners and a team-mentality.

Ruth ushered in homer-ball in the 1920s but those guys never forgot the real purpose of batting: score runs! Today’s Home Run Derby mindset sneers at on-base %. And then when the table is set, most batters and too many managers are fixated on going yard.

There is one more advantage the current player has over his ancestors that may help him best Hack’s 191: their single-minded, ambition to break records and join milestone clubs.

Given today’s ravenous appetite for home runs, Hacks outrageous RBI mark should remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future. That’s a good thing. Though, if Texas’ Josh Hamilton could ever stay healthy an entire season he might make it interesting.

Wilson’s record is a fitting reminder of a long lost era: before there was walk-off bunny-hop hysteria; before nighttime World Series put fans to sleep and a when the only records players cared about were the ones spinning on the RCA Victrola.

Steven Keys
Posted on: May 15, 2012 1:23 pm
Edited on: May 16, 2012 12:15 pm
 

Best Hot Dog Isn't Chic

Some people like ‘em piled high with pickle relish, onions or chili.

Others will top it off with sauerkraut for some Old World flavor.

Cheddar cheese & bacon are just the ticket for the Midwestern palate.

In the Southwest desert, eateries serve it up with a selection of hot sauces & peppers.

Me, I keep it simple: a bun, the star attraction, ketchup & mustard, yellow, to be exact. That highbrow stuff ain’t bad but it ain’t welcome on this entrée. Oh yeah, and a paper napkin. Mustard stains are murder.

Three, maybe four bites and I’m ready to roll.

It’s the great American hot dog. The nation’s favorite hand-held meal.

It says Uncle Sam like tortillas say Mexico and lutefisk says Norway.

Sorry, McDonalds, you set the standard in fast food but the hot dog still reigns supreme.

Though I’ve gotta’ say, that classic barbecue battle between the hamburger and hot dog may never be settled in the minds of backyard connoisseurs. Sometimes a burger (or burrito) can‘t be beat: a bit of pink in the middle, slice of raw onion, cheese melted on toasted bun, chips on the side (no kettle or home-style, please) and you’re in business.

So why such high praise for the hot dog?

Convenience, for starters. Is there anything easier on which to heap a helping of what you hanker than a frankfurter-on-bun?

Price: For home, an 8-pack of all-beef wieners will run you under five bucks. On the street, the smart vender lets you eat for around $3. And at the stadium, it’s the best buy on the menu where a 10-spot gets you a kiddie Coke and a plain hot dog.

Tradition: Making the scene at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, the dog’s popularity quickly spread. It proved the perfect fit for a burgeoning, on-the-move America and found a home at ball-parks & fairs from coast to coast. Demand grew so fast for the new staple it out-paced an embryonic federal regulatory scheme on mass-produced meat products, a safety gap soon exposed in Upton Sinclair’s watershed work The Jungle (‘06).

Today’s tube steak is a marvel of modern food processing. It easily meets a standard of high quality that makes it worthy of the consumer confidence shown by the millions of wieners devoured daily across the land.

But with fame comes attention, some of it good, some not so good.

Case in point: Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.

That icon of American cuisine could not meet with a more demeaning demise than it does in this promotional sideshow conducted in Brooklyn every 4th of July. Putting aside the worldwide hunger issue that every gorge-contest scorns, washing down bread & meat with streams of water makes a disgusting mockery of the real hot dog eating experience.

Something else you never do with this culinary classic: turn it into a star. A clue is when the traveling food critic covers the subject dog with complimentary-condiments like “famous,” “extraordinary” and “unique“ (A Hot Dog Program / PBS / 3-12).”

The hot dog’s beauty, its essence lies in its succulent simplicity.

Pile it too high, get too creative or too persnickety (some hot dog havens won’t provide ketchup, chips, etcetera) and the dog becomes a status symbol in a culinary clique. Tasty enough, to be sure, but too highfalutin for this fan.

And like they say, location is everything.  Where you eat your red hot can make all the difference.

The baseball grounds is a hot dog lovers’ dreamland. There’s something special about the confluence of sights, spirits, sounds & smells at the ball-park that all combine to work a serious flavor enhancement where every bite becomes a savory delight.

But the best hot dog won’t be had at the game or that famous restaurant you’ve seen on TV. It’s where tubular treats come with all your favorite fixings like bean soup and dill pickles (Milwaukee’s Midgets). That’s right, the best frankfurter is in your own home.

So drive on by the Taco Bell tonight and leave the veggie-burger in the freezer. Reach in the back of the fridge and you’ll find ’em, always there and always good. The great American hot dog.

Bon appetit!

Steven Keys
 
 
 
 
The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of CBS Sports or CBSSports.com