Monday, April 29, 2013

Profile in courage: NBA's Jason Collins says: "I'm gay"

The word "courage" is thrown around often in sports.

A hockey player who competes when injured is displaying courage.

A point guard who speaks out to demand excellence from his teammates is showing courage.

A wide receiver who blocks a defensive lineman is being courageous.

A batter who "takes one for the team" is showing courage.

Why, there are some who actually call golfers "courageous" for attempting difficult shots.

You want courageous? Jason Collins is courageous.

Collins, a 34-year-old, 12-year NBA veteran who was a backup center for the Wizards and Celtics last season, became the first male athlete in one of the four major North American sports to come out of the closet.

He told Sports Illustrated: "I'm glad I'm coming out in 2013 rather than 2003. The climate has shifted; public opinion has shifted. And yet we still have so much farther to go."

I have said for years that one of the last bastions of permissible discrimination takes place in the locker rooms of major sports teams. There is so much homophobic behavior, so much ignorance and intolerance on this issue, it would take tremendous courage to tell the world you no longer want to pretend to be something you're not.

Congratulations to Jason Collins.

He is a free agent and wants to keep playing. He's never been the most talented offensive player but he used to be considered a tough defender who was at his best against stars such as Dwight Howard and Shaquille O'Neal. He was good enough last season to start nine games.

It will be interesting to see if an NBA owner has the courage to sign him.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Bulls: LeBron & Company's worst nightmare

The last team the Miami Heat want to see in the second round of the playoffs:

The Chicago Bulls.

LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet since Michael Jordan was in his prime, is as good as any two Bulls not named Derrick Rose. Maybe any three. Throw in Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and a nice supporting cast that includes Ray Allen and Shane Battier, and the series shouldn't even be close.

But if the Bulls get past the Nets - and it certainly seems they will after Saturday's incredible triple-OT win - they will battle the Heat to their last breaths. The Bulls will not concede. They will grab and fight and claw and frustrate and demand that you hustle as much as they do or else.

The Heat would roll over the Nets. Is it possible to win a best-of-7 series in 2? That's how lopsided that series would be. But the Bulls?

Even if the Heat were to find a way to sweep the Bulls (and I sincerely doubt they would), LeBron & Co. will have known they were in a basketball war.

It will be the kind of basketball war that could make the Heat more beatable later in the playoffs.

The Heat needs the Bulls like I need a bigger nose.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

I won't be feeling a draft

Once upon a time, it was the worst day in sports.

Then it became the worst two days in sports.

And now it's the worst three days in sports.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the NFL draft.

Of course, maybe it's your thing. Maybe you like endless speculation about offensive guards, long discussions about the merits of the Wonderlic test and Mel Kiper Jr. screaming that the defensive back some team took in the second round was "a reach."

If so, enjoy!

I'll be doing something less painful, like jabbing an ice pick into my eyes.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

No close loss this time for SOPs

The Sons of Pitches were peppier, the beer was quenchier and the wings were zingier.

Ah, victory.

Yes, softball is fun. The camaraderie, the physical activity, the competition, the challenge. All of it is fun, win or lose.

But as long as they keep score, "win" is always the better alternative. Even for old farts like us, winning still matters.

After losing our first two games of the season, each by one run in our opponents' final at-bat, the SOPs emerged victorious last night. We fell behind 10-3, rallied to make it a seesaw affair, led by one run going into the last inning and then made sure we wouldn't suffer another close loss. We scored seven times to blow open the game and finally give ourselves some breathing room. The big cushion seemed to relax us, as we held our opponents scoreless in their final at-bat to win 25-17.

It was fitting that our sensational shortstop Tom, who took a bad-hop grounder to the face a week earlier, finished this one by turning his second double play of the night.

Yours truly snapped out of a mini-slump with a single and two walks, but I was a footnote in this one. My teammates spent the night bashing the ball all over the park, proving true the adage:

Even SOPs have trouble losing when they score 25 runs!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Today's High 5: Masters Edition

1. ADAM SCOTT ... After his come-from-ahead loss at last year's British Open, I'm glad he won the Masters. I rarely feel sorry for professional athletes, and I didn't for Scott last year. Still, I don't think anybody should have to go through life mumbling forever about what might have been. So I guess what I'm saying is this: It's your turn next, Jean van de Velde!

2. ANGEL CABRERA ... He's kind of modern golf's Robert Horry, ordinary in regular tournaments but clutch in the majors, especially the Masters. He also looks like he must be a great drinking buddy. Hard not to root for Angel.

3. JASON DAY ... I didn't mention him in my previous post about Best Never to Have Won a Major, but I probably should have because this Aussie has been dancing near the top of the major leaderboards for a few years now. He's only 25, he's immensely talented and it's only a matter of time before he wins one of these things, right? Of course, I was saying the same about Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter in the not-too-distant past.

4 (tie). MARC LEISHMAN ... The third of the three Aussies in the tournament's top 4, and the biggest hitter of them all. I had never heard of him before the Masters started. The question now is if we'll ever hear from him again.

4 (tie). TIGER WOODS ... I spent much of Sunday afternoon talking to my TV, as the announcers kept speculating about what Tiger needed to do "on the back 9" or "on the last 7 holes" or "on 13, 14 and 15" or "over the last three holes" or "at 17 and 18" to have a chance to win. I kept saying, "Stop it! He's not winning!" But they didn't stop it. It was as if they were Eldrick addicts and couldn't help themselves.

Look, I get it. Tiger is golf's meal ticket. Any tournament, especially any major, is more interesting when he's legitimately in contention. This was more than that, though. The announcers practically were begging him to make birdies and eagles. "Pretty, pretty please!" Enough!!

Tiger was victimized over the weekend by one horrible break and then by his own breaking of the rules. Mostly, however, he was victimized by poor shotmaking on the Sunday of a major -- a familiar theme during what is now an almost five-year stretch of zero victories in golf's biggest events. Since July 2008, you've won as many majors as Tiger has.

While it's true that lots of other golfers also haven't won any of golf's last 19 majors, Tiger Woods isn't supposed to be "lots of other golfers." And lots of other golfers don't measure their success by major victories and only major victories.

I'll believe Tiger is back as soon as he does on the Sunday of a major what he used to do with regularity on the Sunday of a major.

Friday, April 12, 2013

This time, Tiger finds that luck rhymes with ...

Between the many Western Opens I saw and the majors I had the privilege of covering, I've probably witnessed 100 rounds by Tiger Woods in person. Add the hundreds more I've seen him play on TV, and I'll make this observation  about one of the three most dominant athletes I've ever covered:

He has been probably the luckiest athlete I've ever seen, too.

He and another golfer could hit the same shot on the same hole; Tiger's would hit a couple of rocks and bounce to within birdie range while the other guy's would go the other way and end up in the drink.

Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying. Tiger obviously has been incredible at his chosen pursuit. Of those I've covered, only Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky were as dominant in their fields. Nevertheless, the man also has been incredibly lucky.

In an interview just recently, Tiger was asked to name the one thing that has helped him more than any other throughout his career. "Luck," he said, matter-of-factly. And he wasn't being falsely modest.

So maybe it's fitting that the golf gods stole one back Friday at the Masters.

Tiger was cruising along pretty well, tied for the lead through 32 holes. He had 87 yards to the pin on No. 15 and struck his third shot perfectly. Too perfectly. The ball hit the bottom of the stick and ricocheted into the water. It was an amazingly bad break.

Had his ball missed the stick by an inch or two, it likely would have left him an easy birdie putt. Instead, he had to reload. Tiger being Tiger, he followed with a fantastic shot and saved bogey, but he lost his mojo and had to scramble the rest of the way. He bogeyed 18, also, three-putting the finishing hole at Augusta for the first time ever. He ended Round 2 at 3-under for the championship, three strokes behind Jason Day.

Asked afterward what he was feeling when he saw his ball deflect off the pin, Tiger said: "I was pissed."

As those of us very-un-Tiger-like -- and very unlucky -- weekend warriors will attest, the golf gods have a very wicked sense of humor.

It's not often they get to laugh at Tiger's expense.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Can Sergio, Westwood or Kuchar finally win the big one?

Lee Westwood ... Sergio Garcia ... Steve Stricker ... Luke Donald ... Matt Kuchar ... Adam Scott ... Justin Rose ... Ian Poulter.

There. That about covers it.

Colin Montgomerie is gone, but the least-coveted title in golf -- Best Never to Have Won a Major -- didn't retire with him.

Given their bodies of work, those eight players strike me as the top contenders for that title. Now, which of them -- if any -- will make a legitimate run at the title they really want: Masters champion?

Based on what happened in Round 1 on Thursday, it certainly appears Garcia will be a serious challenger. He was wonderful in the first 10 holes, doing whatever he wanted in starting -5. Though Sergio had to do some serious scrambling the rest of the way, he still finished a bogey-free -6 and was tied for the lead with Marc Leishman, who never will be accused of being the Best Never to Have Won a Major.

Kuchar is right there as well, at -4. Scott is another shot back, followed a shot later by a large group that includes Westwood and Rose (as well as some dude named Eldrick). Donald is still within reach at -1.

Two guys at opposite ends of last year's Ryder Cup drama -- Stricker (+1) and Poulter (+4) -- are probably toast.

While others are paying attention to Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and the ageless Fred Couples, I can't help but focus on the BNHWM contenders ... and think one of them will be masterful enough to remove his name from the list forever.

So, which one?

Well, I have been picking Westwood to break through forever, so I'm done with that. Sergio rarely contends at the Masters and seems to find ways to lose when he has had chances to win other majors. Nothing in the resumes of either Donald or Scott suggests this will be either's time to come through in the clutch. Rose was huge in the Ryder Cup but never makes me feel he's about to win on the biggest stage.

I'm going with Kuchar, the ultra-consistent guy with the cherubic cheeks and the permanent smile. He's great, he's in his prime, and he always seems to be relaxed and enjoying himself.

I'm saying he has the lead at the turn Sunday and then holds off Tiger and another golfer or two to win his first major championship ... and shed the title nobody wants.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Perfect end to spectacular college hoops season

How fitting.

An incredibly entertaining title game capped a fantastic Final Four which capped a sensational NCAA tournament which capped a ridiculously competitive, enormously fun season.

Yes, I'd have been happier if Marquette was the team cutting down the nets at the end, but otherwise, I can't imagine enjoying a season more than I enjoyed this one.

From that five-week stretch in December and January in which five consecutive No. 1 teams were defeated to the monumental upsets in the first couple of tournament rounds to the emotionally draining championship game, really, who could have asked for anything more?

How about that first-half stretch Monday night in which Spike Albrecht -- an unknown Michigan freshman who came in averaging 1.8 points -- scored 17 in about 17 seconds (OK, I'm exaggerating) to give the Wolverines a 12-point lead ... only to be upstaged by Luke Hancock, who came off of Louisville's bench to score 14 straight points and totally swing momentum to his team?

"Amazing" is one of the most overused words in the English language these days, but that truly was amazing.

Were I building a college roster, I'd steal Rick Pitino's blueprint and build one just like Louisville's. A shot-blocking center who worked hard to become a fine all-around big man. Two cheetah-quick guards who can get into the lane at will and produce in the clutch. A tough, talented power forward. Several nice role players, including Hancock, who can get into the kind of 3-point zone that can carry a team.

A lot was made of the gruesome injury suffered by Kevin Ware serving as a rallying cry for Louisville. Maybe, but I say to heck with that. If I'm Pitino, I'd have much rather had Ware's services as the first guard off the bench. And yet the Cardinals overcame the absence of a very important player to prevail in two knock-down, drag-out Final Four games. Kudos to them for a championship well-deserved.

Year after year after year, the NCAA tournament is the one sporting showcase that never, ever disappoints. The Final Four always was one of my favorite things to cover, and this year's edition reminded me why.

At one point near the end of the first half Monday, just after Hancock's flurry had singlehandedly rallied Louisville, Peyton Siva threw an alley-oop pass that Montrezl Harrell slammed home for a one-point Cardinals lead.

The "l" in Montrezl is silent, but I wasn't.

Sitting alone in our family room -- my poor wife has to work in the morning and couldn't stay up to watch a game that didn't end until about midnight -- I leapt out of my La-Z-Boy and hollered, "Wow!"

Think about how many times you've watched a sporting event alone in a room and think about how many times something has happened that actually made you get up and cheer. I've been in that situation thousands of times. And this might have been the third or fourth time I've reacted that way.

That's how good that moment was.

How fitting.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Time again for this old hack to play ball

There was a point between wanting to be a comedian and wanting to be a veterinarian that I actually wanted to be a basketball player when I grew up.

Then, as now, I wasn't very smart. But even I was smart enough to know a not-quite-6-foot Jewish kid with the speed of a plow horse and the leaping ability of a sumo wrestler probably wasn't going to be able to hang with the likes of Bob McAdoo and Jamaal Wilkes.

So I gave up on that dream -- and, soon enough, would give up on the idea of being a veterinarian when I discovered to my horror that I'd actually have to take science and math while going to college for something like eleventy-zillion years -- to become a writer.

No regrets ... but that doesn't mean I'm still not a wannabe jock. And these days, that means doing the few active things I can do and hopefully not get maimed in the process.

That was a long introduction to say this:

It's softball time again!

Yes, for the second straight year, I'm playing in the Charlotte Senior Sports softball league. The season just started but already I've seen my share of excitement. Believe it or not, the Sons of Pitches actually traded for me a couple of weeks before the opener. Hey, if Babe Ruth, Nolan Ryan and Jeff Bagwell weren't too good to be traded, neither was I!

Our manager, Pat, and his first-round draft choice, Tom, were major contributors on my championship team from last year and decided they wanted me as a teammate again.

For comic relief, I assume.

In reality, I'm pretty sure Pat acquired me because he and I had been among the only folks who regularly went out for a beer after games last season. I'm an OK ballplayer who is willing to play anywhere the manager wants, and I'm a team-first chatterbox who makes wise cracks to keep everybody loose, but really, all Pat wanted was his drinking buddy back.

So anyway, we played our first game of the season Tuesday. It was a back-and-forth affair that we lost 19-18 in the final inning. I played catcher and batted 10th, both of which were absolutely fine by me. A lot of people don't like catching, but I think it's fun to handle the ball on every play and maybe be on the receiving end of a huge play that can decide a game. As for where I bat in the lineup, I'd be worried about my team if I was placed too high in the order.

I was fine at the plate, with two singles, a walk and three runs. As one might guess looking at the score, we had several players who did as well or better than I did. We struggled some in the field, though, which will happen in a season opener. The other team didn't exactly flash a bunch of Gold Gloves, either.

Aside from the final result, it was a fun night -- even if I had to disappoint Pat and opt out of postgame libations. I've been battling a cold and I decided that NyQuil, not Stella Artois, should provide my alcohol for the evening.

Hopefully, next week will be a different story, both on the scoreboard and afterward.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Three great days following Marquette (plus, a not-so-great one)

For Roberta and me, being spontaneous usually means deciding at the last minute to go grab wings and a couple of beers somewhere.

Last week, it meant driving to Washington, D.C. to watch our beloved Marquette Golden Warriors play in the NCAA tournament. We've been MU fans our entire adult lives and had never done anything like that.

It was about time.

We made the 7-hour drive from Charlotte and checked into our hotel, the Renaissance downtown. As a Marriott Platinum guest, I usually get upgraded to a better room if one is available. This time, we got upgraded into a suite on the 11th floor with a huge living room, a kitchenette, an incredible bathroom, two large flatscreen HDTVs, plush bathrobes and a veranda overlooking the city.

Pretty sweet, huh? This incredible room was a sign that it was going to be a very good night!

After a pregame nosh in the club-level lounge, we hiked to the Verizon Center. The following picture was taken about 20 minutes before Thursday's opening tip.

Miami was favored by 5, so I knew my lads would have to play superbly to win. And they delivered  probably their best all-around game of the season. Marquette got up early and never let up. We led by 20-some points until Miami scored a few meaningless garbage-time hoops. Jamil Wilson, Vander Blue, Davante Gardner, Chris Otule, Trent Lockett, Junior Cadougan, coach Buzz Williams ... all of them were too much for Miami to handle.


After the wonderful triumph, we stuck around to watch Syracuse destroy Indiana in the second game of the evening. This result meant that Marquette had gone farther in the tournament than the coach who had abandoned us, Tom Crean, as well as hated archrivals Notre Dame and Wisconsin, each of whom had suffered humiliating first-round losses. We also went deeper into the tournament than anyone else from the new Big East (which is breaking off from the football schools starting this summer).

Then it came time to buy tickets for Saturday's regional final. We hung out near the exit hoping to find an Indiana fan who wanted to unload his tickets. Unfortunately, about a dozen scalpers were out there looking for the same thing. They were pros and were very aggressive. We had just about given up hope of buying the tickets there when an Indiana fan who had bypassed the scalpers heard Roberta say: "Marquette fans looking for two tickets we can use, not resell!" The guy says, "Oh, I like Marquette. I have two." He let us have the upper-deck tickets for $60 apiece, 40 bucks below face value. A great capper for a perfect night!

We spent most of Friday with my nephew Russ and niece Fran in the suburbs, including a lovely walk through Alexandria. Here we are at the waterfront there.

That night, we stayed with my cousin Steve and his wife Peggy in Silver Spring, Maryland. Whenever I go on the road like this, I try to catch up with relatives and friends I don't get to see very often.

The next afternoon, we headed back into Washington by subway, went to the Marquette pregame reception to act totally like goofy fans and then walked about 2 miles to the arena. It was a beautiful afternoon, and we ran into another Marquette couple along the way. They had made an even more last-minute decision than we had, taking the bus that morning from New York.

Then came the game. I won't go into that much here except to say that neither team could make a shot until Syracuse broke open a tight, low-scoring game midway through the second half. Blue started Marquette's scoring with a 3-pointer and Gardner ended the night with another trey. Between those two makes, MU missed 21 of 22 shots from behind the arc. My daughter Katie's high school team used to shoot better. But hey, these things happen. Syracuse totally deserved to win.

We left the arena and were in no mood to go to any of the surrounding bars, which were flooded with Syracuse fans. We had heard of a place frequented by the local Marquette alumni chapter and after almost getting lost, another Marquette couple on their way to the establishment guided us. We enjoyed drinks and a sandwich with our new best friends, Amy and Mitch, talking about our favorite moments from a season that was significantly better than I had expected it would be.

Marquette was picked to finish seventh in the preseason coach's poll. I thought we'd be fortunate to go 9-9 in the conference and sneak into the NCAAs. Instead, Buzz's Boyzz went 14-4 to grab a share of the league title. After a near-miraculous opening victory over vastly underrated Davidson and a great comeback win over Butler to make the Sweet 16, we took care of business against Miami. It was a great ride.

We drove home Sunday, unpacked our things and went to our dogsitter to pick up Simmie, who was thrilled to see her humans again. Then, after much carrying on, our exhausted girl did what she does best: curl up into a tight ball and chill!

So that was our fun, by-the-seat-of-our-pants weekend.

Was it worth it?

Well, we got to see an impressive victory that put Marquette in the Elite Eight for the first time in a decade, got to see Indiana lose, got to see several people we love, got to stay in an awesome hotel suite, got to visit a cool city, got to commune with fellow Marquetters and got to spend lots of quality time together.

Was it worth it? Damn right it was!