Saturday, June 28, 2008

"Smokin' Joe" Frazier Fires Off One Liners in Guest Appearance on Friday Night Fights

Joe Frazier, the World Heavyweight Boxing Champion from 1968-73, compiled a 32-4-1 career record, with 27 knockouts; his only losses were to Muhammad Ali and George Foreman (twice each), while his lone draw came in his last bout at the age of 37. Frazier will always be remembered for his trilogy of fights with Ali, winning the first battle--dubbed "The Fight of the Century"--on March 8, 1971 to retain his Heavyweight crown and then losing epic rematches in 1974 and in 1975, the famous "Thrilla in Manila."

Ali taunted Frazier relentlessly, calling him a "gorilla" and saying that he was too ugly to be the champion. While fans may have found the banter entertaining, Frazier took Ali's words to heart and the wounds are still fresh even decades later. After Ali lit the torch at the 1996 Olympics, Frazier--the 1964 Olympic gold medalist--said, "I should have been picked. I wish Ali had fallen into (the flame). If I had the chance, I'd have pushed him in." Frazier told Ali biographer Thomas Hauser, "I don't like him but I got to say, in the ring he was a man...He shook me in Manila; he won. But I sent him home worse than he came. Look at him now. He's damaged goods. I know it; you know it. Everyone knows it...He was always making fun of me. I'm the dummy; I'm the one getting hit in the head. Tell me now, him or me; which one talks worse now?"

Another source of bitterness for Frazier is that Philadelphia, the city where he lives and where he trained many fighters, erected a statue to honor the fictional Rocky Balboa but has yet to put one up in his honor.

A car accident in 2002 injured Frazier's spine and made him wheelchair bound for a time but now he walks with a cane. His fighting style consisted of going forward relentlessly, always attacking, and it is that indomitable spirit that keeps him going despite his injuries and the deaths of two of his brothers earlier this month.

Frazier was this week's guest analyst on ESPN2's "Friday Night Fights" as part of "Hall of Fame Month" and he fired off some pithy, entertaining commentary. The show kicked off with host Brian Kenny introducing Frazier as the owner of the greatest left hook in the sport's history and Frazier responding with a bit of Ali-like rhyming, telling host Brian Kenny, "Hey B, sharp as a razor...I'm 'Smokin' Joe' Frazier!"

After Chris Avalos knocked out Christian Cruz in the first round, Frazier explained why Cruz lost so quickly: "You're not going to (be able to) hit coming from the back (foot) to the front. Instead, you should be there, be ready to BAM, BAM, BAM!" Frazier punched into the air for emphasis. Throughout the telecast he made the point that a lot of today's fighters are not being taught and trained as well as fighters used to be.

The early conclusion of that fight left plenty of time to show some highlights from some of Frazier's bouts, including his March 3, 1968 knockout of Buster Mathis. Frazier recalled telling Mathis, "You got your lunch? You're going to need it." Frazier replaced an injured Mathis on the 1964 Olympic team, so this was a grudge match of sorts. That victory enabled Frazier to claim the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship awarded by the New York State Athletic Commission. Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his crown because he refused to be inducted into the army; in 1970, Frazier beat Jimmy Ellis to capture the WBA and WBC championships, belts that he retained by beating Ali in 1971. Kenny and Frazier also talked about some of Frazier's 1968 title defenses, including a unanimous decision against Oscar Bonavena, who Frazier called a "tough guy...the more I hit him, the tougher he got."

In the next FNF bout, Antwone Smith knocked out Juan Novoa in the fourth round. Frazier commented, "Both guys were wild, throwing shots from left field, right field, with no protection at all...Their legs were too wide to get off combination shots. There are a lot of little things that need to be straightened out with guys in boxing."

On the other hand, Frazier liked what he saw in some classic FNF footage of the "Nigerian Nightmare," Sam Page, who went 5-0 with 5 knockouts in his FNF appearances. "He came out throwing the punches the right way," Frazier said. "Once you get a guy in trouble, get him hurt, continue throwing punches at him. Don't stop and let the referee stop it."

If you blinked, you missed the next FNF contest, a middleweight match between Julio "Baby Face" Garcia and Jose Medina. Garcia ducked a Medina punch and knocked Medina out with a left hook after just 13 seconds. It was not Tone Loc's "Funky Cold Medina" but rather "knocked out cold Medina." Kenny asked Frazier, "What did you think of that fight?" Frazier chuckled and replied, "What fight? That guy got paid to come in and take a bow. That wasn't a fight. He came up to get paid. That means one guy worked harder than the other guy because he knows he has to fight." Frazier quipped that Medina spent more time on his tattoos (of which there were several) than his training.

Speaking of training, Kenny and Frazier then reminisced about the glory days of Frazier's gym in Philadelphia. Kenny noted that Dwight Muhammad Qawi, a previous FNF guest analyst who won world titles in the Light Heavyweight and Cruiserweight divisions, had said that training in Frazier's gym was like "going to school" because there were so many people there from whom one could really learn the ins and outs of the fight game.

Frazier said, "Philadelphia guys take more pride in their job. They come to the gym daily and make sure that they get the right, proper timing inside the gym. The majority of the guys who work in the gym in Philadelphia have been in that ring before and they know that what they are telling their guy is right. All they (the fighters) have to do is follow the instructions."

FNF concluded with a 10 round split decision victory for Breidis Prescott over Richard Abril in a battle between two previously unbeaten lightweights. The fight was pretty even and not particularly exciting, the only real drama being that one judge scored it 95-94 for Prescott, one judge had it 95-94 for Abril but the third judge inexplicably came up with a 97-92 verdict in favor of Prescott. Since Prescott was penalized one point for a low blow, that meant that the third judge thought Prescott had won the fight eight rounds to two, which ESPN2 commentator Teddy Atlas said was "ridiculous." Atlas had Abril as a one point winner; Atlas added that a close decision in favor of Prescott was reasonable but a five point margin made him wonder what the judge was watching and what kind of training he had received.

That fight certainly did not impress Frazier, who told Kenny, "Call it a draw and come back when you are ready to fight. From what I saw, I'd call it a no-contest. Neither one of those guys threw a punch to hurt the other guy. The referee (kept) breaking(ing) it up all night long, so how could it be a good fight?" Kenny replied, "I have no argument with you, sir."

While Prescott-Abril was a dud, Frazier at his best certainly was not, as this video shows:

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Old School Video: Hagler-Hearns, "The War"

Marvelous Marvin Hagler (he legally changed his name so that everyone has to call him "Marvelous") held the World Middleweight Boxing Championship from 1980-87, successfully defending the crown 12 times, 11 by knockout. On April 6, 1987, he lost a controversial split decision to Sugar Ray Leonard. Hagler's supporters contend that he landed the more punishing blows, that he controlled the fight and that Leonard "stole" some rounds by throwing flashy but ineffective combinations in the waning seconds; Leonard's advocates argue that he successfully followed his game plan of avoiding a big "bomb" by Hagler and that he "out-fought and out-thought" the defending champion.

Leonard retired after the Hagler fight but--like many boxers--he came out of retirement several times; he won his first three fights after beating Hagler but then he lost a 12 round unanimous decision to Terry Norris in 1991 and he was knocked out in five rounds by Hector "Macho" Camacho in 1997 before hanging up his gloves for good.

Hagler took a much different path than Leonard--and most other boxers. He asked Leonard's camp for a rematch but Leonard refused so Hagler, who was never knocked out and whose only losses came by decision, announced his retirement--and he never came back. He has spent the last two decades working as an actor and a boxing commentator and devoting time to charitable work, most notably with the Laureus World Sports Academy.

Hagler retired with a record of 62 wins (52 by knockout), 3 losses and two draws.

Check out these four videos of "The War," when Hagler defended his World Middleweight title against Tommy "Hitman" Hearns on April 15, 1985.

First, Al Michaels and the late, great Curt Gowdy set the stage by explaining who these two great champions faced prior to their epic showdown:

Here is the first round, still considered to be the greatest in boxing history:

The second round starts off slowly but ends with a bang:

Michaels summed up round three perfectly: "It's Hagler, full of blood...It didn't go very far but it was a beauty!"

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Why Steroid Users Should Be Banned for Life

Although there are some economists who foolishly question the effectiveness of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDS), sound medical research shows that PEDs do indeed enhance performance. It is important to emphasize the word "sound," because some of the initial research into PEDs in the 1970s was sabotaged by Tony Fitton, who has since been dubbed "The Godfather of Steroids" by Sports Illustrated. As Charles Yesalis, a leading expert about steroids, told SI, "Denying that these drugs worked is still to some extent damaging (the medical community's) credibility today."

Not only do steroids enhance performance, but research recently conducted by the Department of Integrative Medical Biology at Sweden's Umea University provides evidence that steroids improve athletes' performances even after those athletes discontinue their steroid usage. A Wall Street Journal article about the study begins with the provocative question, "Should athletes who take steroids be banned for life?" I think that the answer to that question should be "Yes," for two reasons:

1) Taking illegal--and otherwise harmful--substances to gain a competitive advantage puts other athletes in a no-win situation of either having to risk breaking the law while endangering their long term health or forgoing the opportunity to have a fair chance to be the very best at their sport. This is a serious offense and therefore an athletic "death penalty" in the form of a lifetime ban is quite appropriate.

2) If it is true that taking steroids confers an advantage that lasts even after usage is discontinued then there is no way to level the playing field between reformed steroids users and those who have never taken steroids.

Athletes have already proven that they will disregard the likelihood that steroid usage will cause them longterm health problems but if they knew that being caught just once would end their careers forever that would serve as a much more effective deterrent than the slap on the wrist penalties that most sports leagues, federations and governing bodies currently employ.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Tiger's High Stakes Gamble Pays Off--For Now

Tiger Woods' high stakes gamble paid off but it may be years until we know the ultimate cost. As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Tiger Woods will not play golf for the rest of 2008 due to a torn ACL in his left knee and a double stress fracture in his left tibia (lower leg)--injuries that he overcame to win the U.S. Open after 91 agonizing, brutal holes. That moved Woods one major win closer to tying Jack Nicklaus' all-time record but knee surgery and the ensuing recuperation process will force Woods to miss at least two majors. Basically, Woods took the bird in hand--a major that he felt confident that he could win on one leg--over the two in the bush. It is only fair to wonder, though, if Woods' grit, stubbornness and determination may end up costing him many birds in the bush.

While announcing that he will need reconstructive knee surgery, Woods revealed that he tore his ACL 10 months ago. Since that time he won 10 of the 13 events that he played in--never finishing lower than fifth--and he added two majors to his trophy case. The delay in getting his ACL repaired resulted in cartilage damage and that was the reason for his April 15 knee surgery, a stopgap procedure that Woods hoped would help him make it through this year. That plan fell apart when it was later discovered that he had stress fractures in his left leg. If Woods had gotten his ACL repaired immediately then he probably would not have sustained the cartilage damage and the stress fractures. He truly made a Faustian bargain with the older version of himself, betting that the young, hobbled version of himself has a better chance to win majors than an older, not hobbled version would.

Perhaps he was right; as noted above, he won two majors despite not being 100% healthy. However, if Woods develops nagging knee or leg problems that shorten his career or curtail his dominance he may one day look back on his memories of winning while limping and wonder if he would not have been better off listening to his doctors, who told him he should be on crutches instead of playing golf.

An athlete's body is like a finely tuned machine and when one part is not functioning at 100% that places tremendous pressure on the other parts. Woods generates tremendous torque with his powerful drives and he literally has ripped his left leg apart in multiple places. Modern surgical procedures can most likely repair the damage for now but a rebuilt body part is never as sound or functional as it originally was. Also, whatever it is about his swing that caused this damage will inevitably place pressure on his knee and lower leg once he resumes playing. If Woods is not able to change his swing without reducing its effectiveness then he will most likely have a recurrence of this problem in a few years.

The reality is that for a great, supremely confident athlete like Woods no other choice was possible: the same self-assuredness that convinced him that he could not only tolerate the pain but play well enough to win the U.S. Open also is why Woods undoubtedly believes that next year he will come back fully healthy and better than ever. I sure hope that he is right. I don't know the ins and outs of golf strategy the way that I do about basketball, football and other sports, but I love watching Tiger Woods play because I recognize in him the same focus, will power and skill set mastery that only a select few--guys like Michael Jordan and Jerry Rice--possess. It would be a shame to see Woods cut down in his prime.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Tiger Woods Marches--and Limps--Toward Golf Immortality

Tiger Woods certainly looked mortal at times during his marathon 91 hole U.S. Open victory, particularly when his balky knee made him wince as he shuffled around Torrey Pines with a gait more like Fred Sanford's than that of one of the greatest athletes in the world. Woods joked that during his 18 hole playoff with Rocco Mediate he played "military" golf because his shots veered "left, right" but Woods made no excuses, refusing to discuss in detail how much he was hurting or how much his pain/limited mobility affected his game. However, you don't have to be a golf expert to realize that Woods was experiencing a serious problem and that impression is confirmed by Woods' statement that he is going to rest his knee for an indeterminate period.

Hall of Fame forward Kevin McHale played with a broken foot in the 1987 NBA playoffs as he tried to help the Boston Celtics win back to back championships. The Celtics fell short and he was never again the same player. Woods' gritty effort this weekend brought him his third U.S. Open title and moved him to within four Grand Slams of tying Jack Nicklaus' career record but it will be interesting to see in the coming weeks, months and years if Woods pays a long term price for his stubbornness and toughness; his doctors advised him not to play and it is very possible that Woods caused further damage to his knee by disregarding their recommendations.

For now, though, all we can do is marvel at what Woods accomplished and how he added to his already rich legacy. Focus and preparation are the two keys to success for elite athletes. Pain and injury sap most people's ability to focus but Woods overcame that obstacle well enough to best a strong field of players at a very tough golf course. Just as impressive is the fact that Woods did this with very little preparation due to his physical limitations in the wake of his April 15th knee surgery. Woods' swing coach Hank Haney says, "He bent over to read a putt for the first time on Thursday"--in other words, during the first round of the U.S. Open. It is amazing to be able to win a major championship with such little preparation.

Nicklaus set the standard for golf excellence but Woods is well on his way to surpassing Nicklaus' records. Woods won his 14th Grand Slam in his 46th appearance in a major as a professional, while Nicklaus won 11 Grand Slam titles in his first 46 majors as a pro. Nicklaus scored 26 over par in those 46 majors, while Woods has posted a mind boggling 126 below par score. Nicklaus had more second place finishes (10-5) and more top three finishes (26-22) in those events but, frankly, I don't think Woods is very interested in those marks. Woods' only goal is victory and what is remarkable about him is that when he is on form--or even close to being on form--he has an extraordinarily high winning percentage; that is why the fact that he has never lost in a Grand Slam after having a lead at the 54 hole mark is much more significant than the fact that he has never won a major after trailing at that point. Woods has an 11-1 career record in PGA Tour playoffs, the best winning percentage in the past 50 years for players who have participated in at least four playoffs. Nicklaus (13-10) and Arnold Palmer (12-8) are the only players in the past half century to win more PGA Tour playoffs than Woods but their winning percentages are far worse than his. When Woods is playing well enough to be in contention to win a tournament he almost always wins the tournament.

Woods has now joined Nicklaus as the only players to ever win each of the Grand Slams at least three times. This was also Woods' 65th PGA Tour win, moving him past Ben Hogan into third place on the all-time list behind Sam Sneed (82) and Nicklaus (73). Woods has won a major in four straight years for the second time (1999-2002, 2005-2008), something that only three other players (Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Walter Hagen) accomplished even once.

Woods birdied the 18th hole on Sunday to tie Mediate and force a playoff and Woods again birdied at 18 on Monday to force a sudden death playoff match, which Woods won on the first hole by scoring a par at number seven while Mediate bogeyed. This will most likely turn out to be the best--and last--chance for the 45 year old Mediate to win his first Grand Slam title. Mediate said, "It was just a pleasure--an honor--being out there. I'm sure I scared him. I did good today...I almost--I just about got him." Those are nice sentiments and Mediate certainly won over many fans with the engaging personality that he displayed throughout the weekend but I can say with 100% certainty that never in Woods' life has he gone out on the golf course satisfied to "scare" his opponent. After a runner up finish in the Indy 500, Mario Andretti once said, "Second place is first loser." That may sound harsh and unremitting to the average person--but that is why average people don't win Indy 500s or Grand Slam golf tournaments. One characteristic of people and teams that score big upsets--Joe Namath's Jets, Buster Douglas, Evander Holyfield, the 2007 New York Giants--is that they have no fear of their opponents. If Woods ever loses in a major after having a 54 hole lead it will be to a player whose goal is to defeat Woods, not cause him momentary anxiety.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Sports Are Part of What Makes Us Uniquely Human

In the May 24, 2008 issue of New Scientist, there is an article that discusses which characteristics truly distinguish human beings from other members of the animal kingdom: So You Think Humans Are Unique? (subscription required but you can get more information about this subject here). Culture, "mind-reading" (the ability to outwit/deceive someone else), emotions, tool use, morality and personality are all traits that were once thought to be uniquely human but have now been discovered to exist in varying degrees in members of other species. The article concludes by asking plaintively, "What's left to us?" The answer to that question is art, cooking, religion, humor--and sport: "All social animals play, but sport is a unique kind of play often entailing special equipment, complex rules, referees and dedicated spectators. Far from being trivial, sport is underpinned by many of our most advanced cognitive abilities."

So the next time someone asks you why you spend so much time playing, watching, writing and/or thinking about sports, there is your answer!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

"The Kid" is "The Man": Griffey Blasts His 600th Home Run--Naturally

Ken Griffey Jr. joined the elite 600 Home Run Club with a 413-foot first inning shot against Florida left hander Mark Hendrickson on Monday, a two-run blast that provided the first scores for the Cincinnati Reds in a 9-4 victory. Griffey was voted to the All-Century Team in 1999 and selected as the Player of the Decade in the 1990s but after several injury plagued seasons he has become an almost forgotten man, so in a way it is fitting that he hit this milestone home run run in front of just 16,003 fans in Dolphin Stadium.

Here is Griffey's historic blast:

An old Inside Sports article about Jim Rice once described the Boston slugger's swing as "short, compact, POW." That is also a fitting way to characterize Griffey's swing, a work of athletic artistry worthy of being displayed in the Louvre. Has anyone ever had a prettier, smoother and more effortless hitting stroke? Griffey has been called "The Natural," which is of course a reference to Bernard Malamud's novel of the same name--but that term carries another, very special meaning now, because Griffey has joined the home run immortals without even the whiff of a cheating scandal, unlike Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa, 600 Home Run Club members whose numbers are more suspect than Enron's.

It seems like only yesterday that Ken "The Kid" Griffey, Jr. burst on to the national scene. His father played on two World Series championship teams, made the All-Star Team three times and won the 1980 All-Star Game MVP award but it quickly became apparent that Junior Griffey would leave even bigger footprints in the game's record book. The elder Griffey stuck around long enough--or the younger Griffey was prodigious enough, depending on how you want to look at it--to be his son's teammate in Seattle for two seasons. In 1990, they accomplished something together that had never been done before and is unlikely to ever be done again, hitting back to back home runs against the Angels' Kirk McCaskill. What makes that even more remarkable is that the elder Griffey was 40 years old at the time, hit only four home runs that season and compiled just 152 home runs in his 19 season major league career.

Griffey Jr. was the youngest player to reach 300, 350, 400 and 450 home runs and he seemed to be well on course to breaking Hank Aaron's career record of 755 home runs. After Seattle traded him to Cincinnati--where his father played for most of his career--he had 40 home runs and 118 RBI in 2000, his first season with the Reds. Griffey Jr. missed more than 400 games due to various injuries in the next four seasons but he has had at least 428 at bats each of the past three years, launching 35, 27 and 30 home runs in 2005-2007. It is unlikely that he will catch Babe Ruth (714) for the number three spot all-time but Sosa (609) is definitely within reach and if he plays two more years with reasonable health he has a shot at passing Willie Mays (660). That would be a truly amazing accomplishment for someone who has overcome so many injuries: as Hall of Fame baseball writer Hal McCoy detailed in Tuesday's edition of the Dayton Daily News, "Three screws in his tailbone keeps his hamstring attached to the bone, six screws hold his shoulders in place and (Griffey adds), 'I used to have five screws in my elbow.'"

Cincinnati Manager Dusty Baker, who hit 242 home runs during his 19 year career, was a teammate of Aaron's and managed Barry Bonds in San Francisco, said, "He must really love the game, because he doesn't need the money. He has gone through a lot of pain and suffering. I have to damn near drag him out of the lineup."

Monday, June 9, 2008

Fantastic Four: Nadal Matches Borg's French Open Streak

With a resounding 6-1, 6-3, 6-0 victory over world #1 Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal won the French Open for the fourth straight time, matching the record streak set by Bjorn Borg from 1978-81. Nadal became the first man to win a Grand Slam without dropping a single set in the entire tournament since Federer swept through the 2007 Australian Open and the first man to win the French Open in this fashion since Borg, who is the only man to go through more than one Grand Slam unscathed--incredibly, Borg accomplished this feat three times (1976 Wimbledon, 1978 and 1980 French Opens).

For quite some time, people have been trying to anoint Federer as the greatest tennis player of all-time but despite his impressive accomplishments it makes no sense to confer that title on him when it is not even certain that he will be considered the best player of the current era: his main rival Nadal owns an 11-6 head to head record against him and has come much closer to beating him on the grass at Wimbledon than Federer has come to defeating him on the clay at the French Open. Considering that Nadal is almost five years younger than Federer it is entirely possible that he will eclipse what Federer has done; after all, five years ago Federer had just won his first Grand Slam, while Nadal already owns four Grand Slam titles, beating Federer along the way each time.

It is difficult to compare different eras in tennis but I still maintain that the most impressive feat of the Open Era is Borg's "triple-double"--winning the French Open and Wimbledon each year from 1978-80. No one else has pulled off such multi-surface mastery even once in the same year, let alone three years running. Not only that, but at one time Borg held the Open Era records for most Wimbledon titles (five) and most French Open titles (six); he still holds the French Open mark, while only Pete Sampras has exceeded his Wimbledon total (seven; Federer won his fifth last year). In light of Nadal's dominant performance against Federer in this year's French Open, it seems less likely than ever that Federer will eventually win that title. Although Federer has won 12 Grand Slam titles--one more than Borg, equal with Roy Emerson and behind only Sampras (14) on the all-time list--his total is padded by three Australian Opens; Borg only played in Australia once, forgoing that tournament during the rest of his career because he felt that there should be a break somewhere in the schedule. There is no doubt that Borg could have won that title a few times; for that matter, he had won four straight French Opens when he retired and he reached the Finals the last time that he played at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, so Borg could easily have finished with 14, 15 or even 16 Grand Slams had he played for a few more years.

Obviously, players can only be judged based on what they actually accomplished but that is a good reason to wait before anointing Federer: until this year many people simply assumed that he would shatter Sampras' career Grand Slam record but there is good reason to wonder about that now. Also, regardless of how many total Grand Slams Federer wins, if he never wins the French Open and finishes with a losing career record against Nadal then how can he be considered the greatest player of all-time? Borg had a 15-8 record against Jimmy Connors, a 7-7 record against John McEnroe and he was uniquely deadly on both grass and clay.

Frankly, a much better case can be made that Nadal is pushing Borg for the title of greatest clay court player ever than can be made for saying that Federer is the greatest player of all-time. Both Borg and Nadal won four French Open titles by age 22; Borg won two more and then retired, so it would seem that if Nadal stays healthy he has a chance to tie or even break Borg's record. Nadal's four year run of dominance at the French Open (2005-08) is very similar to Borg's 1978-81 performance: Borg went 84-5 in sets, 533-204 in games, had 24 love sets and 24 straight set wins, while Nadal went 83-7 in sets, 537-261 in games, had 21 love sets and 24 straight set wins.

Nadal pushed Federer to five sets in last year's Wimbledon Finals, so it would seem that he has a decent chance of winning that event this year and joining Borg as the only Open Era players to win the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year. If Nadal accomplishes this then how could anyone say that Federer is a greater player than Nadal, let alone the greatest player of all-time?

Nadal's total dominance of Federer in yesterday's match was nothing short of amazing. After Nadal took a 2-1 first set lead Federer only won two more points in the rest of the set. In one stretch spanning the end of the first set and the early part of the second set, Nadal won 21 of 23 points and at that juncture of the match Federer had already committed 21 unforced errors. Federer finished with 35 unforced errors, while Nadal had only seven. Nadal had break points in 10 of Federer's 11 service games and he converted eight of them. Early in the match, McEnroe--now a commentator for NBC--said of Federer, "His body language is even more negative than in the past." You could tell just by looking at Federer that no matter how brave his words were before the match that once he got on the court with Nadal he realized that he had no chance to win. That is simply not how the greatest player of all-time looks, acts or plays. It is hard to think of a claimant to that title in any endeavor who looked as befuddled and outclassed as Federer did.

After the match, McEnroe interviewed Borg, who returned to Roland Garros for the first time since 1981, when he won the final match that he played there. McEnroe said that Borg and Nadal are the two greatest clay court players he has ever seen--earlier in the telecast he called Nadal the greatest clay court player ever--and he asked Borg how he would have played against Nadal. When Bill Russell was once asked a similar question about a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar he answered, "Young man, you have the question backwards." Borg replied that against Nadal it is important to be patient, to begin the match with the mindset that you are going to be out there for a long time and that you are going to make Nadal hit a lot of winners, as opposed to trying to end points early. It is fascinating that while many observers have recommended that Federer be more aggressive against Nadal on clay Borg advocates a completely different approach; of course, what Borg suggested is right in line with the style and mindset that helped him to be a great champion: Borg relied on patience, mental toughness and physical fitness to break the will of his opponents. Borg looked and acted unfazed if someone hit a great shot against him; his attitude was that his opponent would have to hit many, many such shots to beat him. It would be wonderful to see a match on clay between Borg in his prime and Nadal; don't automatically assume that Nadal would win such an encounter, because Borg was quite capable of executing the anti-Nadal game plan that he described.

McEnroe asked Borg who he thought would win Wimbledon this year and Borg said that Nadal has a great chance, which is what I wrote right after last year's Wimbledon Finals when I suggested that in 2008 Nadal might duplicate Borg's French/Wimbledon double. If Nadal pulls that off he has every right to be included in any discussion of the all-time greats but for now I still consider Borg to be the greatest tennis player of the Open Era because of his unique combination of mental toughness, physical fitness and multi-surface mastery.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Jim McKay, One of the Last of A Disappearing Breed: A Real Journalist

Jim McKay, who passed away on Saturday at the age of 86, was one of the last of a disappearing breed: a journalist who valued his craft too much to succumb to crass commercialism and sensationalist antics, someone who covered his beat with intelligence and sensitivity. All too often nowadays, style is prized over substance: media outlets do not speak about providing accurate and informative coverage but rather trumpet that they report the news first, even if those first reports lack accuracy, depth and context. Some people blame the so-called "blogosphere" for the decline in media standards but while there is certainly much to lament about the style and content of many blogs the real crisis is taking place in the so-called mainstream media--and it has been for quite some time, as the lamentable episodes involving prominent figures such as former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, former CNN News chief Eason Jordan, discredited New York Times writer Jayson Blair and Pulitzer Prize finalist Jack Kelley clearly demonstrate.

McKay is best known for hosting the coverage of 12 different Olympic Games and for hosting ABC's Wide World of Sports, for which he provided the famous opening narration: "Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports...the thrill of victory... and the agony of defeat...the human drama of athletic competition...This is 'ABC's Wide World of Sports!'"

Among the many honors that McKay received during his long, distinguished career, he was the first sportscaster to win an Emmy Award. He won a total of 13 Emmys, including both a news Emmy and a sports Emmy for his unforgettable coverage of the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Arab terrorists massacred 11 Israeli athletes. Once the deaths of the athletes were officially confirmed, McKay delivered the horrible news with just the right words and tone: "When I was a kid my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were eleven hostages; two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They're all gone." McKay is the only person who has won Emmys for both sports and news coverage. His Munich coverage also earned him the George Polk Memorial Award, an honor that recognizes the best news reporting of the year.

As word of McKay's death spread throughout the sports world, tributes poured in from his peers and from the athletes he covered. Bob Costas said, "He brought a reporter's eye, a literate touch, and above all a personal humanity to every assignment. He had a combination of qualities seldom seen in the history of the medium, not just sports." Dick Ebersol, who worked with McKay at the 1968 Olympics as a 19 year old researcher and is now the chairman of NBC Sports, said, "He was truly the most respected and admired sportscaster of his generation and defined how the stories of sports can and should be covered. While we all know what an absolute titan he was in his chosen field, I will always remember him as an extraordinary human being guided by a strong moral compass."

Four-time Indianapolis 500 champion A.J. Foyt praised McKay for something that may seem minor but is actually quite meaningful: "He interviewed me many times and he was always a real gentleman. He didn't ask stupid questions."

With all the current nostalgia about the 1980s NBA Finals battles between Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, it was jarring for me to realize that people who are graduating from high school this year were not even born when those games were played. Of course, the heyday of McKay's "Wide World of Sports" telecasts goes back even further than that; I was very, very young back then but I remember watching those shows and looking forward to hearing McKay's opening narration--I still get goosebumps when I hear him say "the human drama of athletic competition." If you are not old enough to remember the 1970s or 1980s it is difficult to really explain the significance of "Wide World of Sports," because now you can watch virtually any sporting event in the world on TV, on your computer or even on your cellphone. Scores and highlights are literally at your fingertips 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That was just a pipe dream back then; if you were a kid living on the East Coast and wanted to know the scores of West Coast games you sometimes had to wait almost a full day because that information would not be in the morning newspaper and may or may not have been mentioned during a local TV sportscast (SportsCenter did not exist until 1979 and did not become a TV staple for several years). In many ways, sports were a much more local phenomenon in that era, but "Wide World" provided a glimpse into the lives of athletes in different countries unlike anything else that you could see at that time.

Here is a very nicely rendered Jim McKay tribute by Jeremy Schaap, whose father Dick Schaap was also an exceptional sports journalist:

McKay Remembered as a Reporter With the Soul of a Poet

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Cowboys Do What Eagles Should Have Done: Pay Terrell Owens

Terrell Owens' critics sniped that he would bring down the Cowboys' franchise but in his two seasons in Dallas he has caught 166 passes for 2535 yards (third best in the NFL) and 28 touchdowns (best in the NFL; he led the NFC in that category each season). Owens has moved into the top ten all-time in receptions (882, ninth), receiving yards (13,070, 10th) and touchdowns (129, third behind only Jerry Rice and Cris Carter, who he will tie with his next TD). Owens is devoted to keeping himself in top condition and shows no signs of slowing down even though he is 34 years old. The Cowboys have rewarded his production and dedication by reworking his contract so that he will receive $34 million for the next four years; his old deal would have expired after paying him $7 million for the upcoming season. The most significant number in any NFL contract is the signing bonus because NFL contracts are not guaranteed (unlike NBA and MLB contracts); Owens will get a $12.9 million signing bonus plus $100,000 of his $830,000 base salary in 2008 has been guaranteed.

People who asserted that Owens would be disruptive no matter what failed to understand what really motivates him. Owens put his career on the line by playing in Super Bowl XXXIX just weeks after he suffered a serious ankle injury--and he caught nine passes for 122 yards, a performance that likely would have earned him Super Bowl MVP honors if his Eagles had beaten the Patriots. As I wrote last November, "People act like Owens brought down the Philadelphia Eagles when the reality is they played their best ball when he was there and they have been on the decline since he left (for a multitude of reasons, but lack of a big play wide receiver is a major one). All Owens wanted in Philadelphia was to to be involved in the offense and to renegotiate his contract so that it reflected his value to the team and recognized that he potentially risked his career by playing with a broken ankle during the Super Bowl. I guess the Eagles sure have taught him a lesson for wanting to be a big play receiver and for wanting to be compensated like one."

It is no secret that Owens is a sensitive person who wants to feel appreciated for how hard he works and how well he plays. The Eagles took exactly the wrong stance with him, as did former Cowboys Coach Bill Parcells, who dehumanized Owens by stubbornly referring to him as "the player" and not calling him by name. Truly great coaches like Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson understand that you treat all players equally but you don't treat them all the same: as the saying goes, some guys need a kick in the rear and some guys need a pat on the back. Owens is a self-motivated person who does not need anyone to tell him to work hard but who needs a pat on the back when he does well. Auerbach put it best when someone asked him about how he handled certain players and he replied that you handle animals but you deal with people. The Cowboys have dealt with Owens fairly and he has responded by being a highly productive player.