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With a bench-clearing brawl, superstar feud, tell-all book, Olympic flop, requisite petulant trade demands and even the threat of another lockout down the road cluttering the headlines, the NBA's "Basketball New Year" could hit with the force of a Category 5 holiday hangover next week. The league is working overtime to hype all the offseason player movement, but all everyone wants to know is what Phil Jackson told Dr. Melfi last season on the psychiatrist's couch. The last time there was this type of anxiety preceding a new year, we were all in Y2K Doomsday mode.
But just as we survived the move into 2000, so too will the NBA live on despite its rocky off-season. And don't think Uncle David doesn't love the Kobe-Ray Allen feud (since when have the Sonics been relevant?), the Kobe-Shaq imbroglio, the Kobe-Shaq-Phil ego festival and the Vince Carter Sweepstakes. That may seem like bad pub to some, but after that Olympic debacle, perhaps the best thing the NBA can have is a nation's eyes averted from its dunk-first, beat-Puerto-Rico-later style of play.
Not that they won't be launching fireworks on Opening Night and celebrating like Sawx fans. When it comes to manufacturing excitement, few outdo the NBA. Hell, even the Clippers can produce a few goose bumps, if not a playoff berth. But other teams have hope. And along the way to the final round, there will be some interesting storylines, or so we will be led to believe. Here are a few early headlines:
The Money Pit: Pity the Orlando Magic, and not just because no one can tell whether Grant Hill's ankle is really strong or still as shaky as Ashlee Simpson's live performances. Nope, the team is stuck in a decrepit, 15-year-old arena. So that's the shelf life on $300 million structures these days. Let's end the charade and build these things with nothing but luxury suites. Let the peons watch on TV.
Kobe vs. Shaq vs. Sanity: Kobe is perhaps America's most selfish professional athlete -- quite a distinction. And Shaq is surrounded by kids, 10th men and Christian Laettner. The reality: neither wins a championship. But we can all root for the Big Atkins to smack Mr. Personality around when they meet on Christmas Day.
The coaching carousel: Round and round it goes, and where it stops (Lawrence Frank, Rick Adelman, Nate McMillan) nobody knows. All we know is it will stop, because it's never the players' fault in the NBA.
Boston glove: Celtics GM Danny "Dr. Strangemove" Ainge brought in Gary Payton to give his team toughness. Guess that explains why Paul Pierce is firing loogies at the Cavaliers' bench during exhibition games. Next up, a West Side Story-style dance number.
Me-Mac vs. Yao: East meets West in this classic battle of NBA endorsers. Will Tracy McGrady feed the post, like Jeff Van Gundy demands? Or does Yao Ming go hungry? Meanwhile, in Orlando, "Rockets South" takes flight with Stevie Franchise, Cat Mobley and Kelvin "Green Hornet" Cato working to avoid last year's Magic work stoppage.
The future is ... when?: The good news for Atlanta fans is the Hawks are going to have something like $10 billion dollars to spend on free agents next year. Isn't that what they said last year, or the year before? Maybe new part-owner Dominique Wilkins needs to come out of retirement, if only to referee the nightly battles for the ball between newcomers Antoine "Getmine" Walker and Al Harrington. For the fans, there's always next year. And the year after that. And ...
The envelope, please: Last year, Larry Brown humbled many renowned experts who argued he couldn't win a championship. Now, he's going for a double dose of "Shut your mouth!" Pistons edge the T-Wolves in six for all the marbles. South Beach Slim grabs the MVP, and Emeka Okafor is the top rookie.
Below the belt
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If you think the rhetoric in the presidential campaign is getting nasty, then you should check out the artillery being launched in the aftermath of Broncos tackle George Foster's cut block of Cincinnati DT Tony Williams in Monday night's Bengals victory.
For those of you who weren't watching -- and that seems to be a weekly problem for ABC -- Foster hit Williams below the knees on a second-quarter pass play, dislocating and breaking the Bengal's ankle and putting him out for the season. It was a legal play, since the NFL only penalizes low blocks along the line of scrimmage if the victim is being engaged above the waist at the time. Denver is one of the teams which makes regular use of the tactic, and since the NFL condones such behavior, let's not condemn Foster for the move. He feels bad enough already.
On Wednesday Broncos coach Mike Shanahan had a special film session for media members to defend his strategy. He showed examples of the Steelers and Bengals doing it and argued it was completely within the NFL's rules of engagement. Cincinnati D-line coach Jay Hayes fired back that because Foster didn't put his head in front of Williams, his block landed in the back of the leg, causing significant damage.
"The guys that are proponents of doing that, and we know who they are, they have never had that happen to them," said Hayes, a former collegiate and USFL lineman. "If they did, they would never do that to someone. And I've had it done to me."
This matter won't go away until the NFL competition committee, which has devoted hours to protecting quarterbacks and legislating that receivers may prance unfettered downfield, looks out for the big fellas. All blocks below the waist should be outlawed at all times. Engage high or else. And if you break the rule and employ some "Longest Yard" methods, then you're out for as long as your victim sits. Period.
That way, you won't have Shanahan issuing his "if everybody else is doing it, so can we" defense, and players like Williams won't be injured. It's a logical, rational move the NFL should investigate with the same fervor with which it choreographs its Opening Night concerts. Players are not expendable, no matter how many of them keep rolling into the league. End the barbarism before more players are hurt.
El Hombre sez
In a stunning burst of good sense and decorum, Michigan and Ohio State have decided against selling "naming rights" for their annual meeting for $1.06 million. Bravo. In other sponsorship news, Penn State has announced its offense will be getting a giant dose of Viagra in hopes of gaining some semblance of potency. ... The NCAA reported that graduation rates among the biggest Division I men's basketball schools slipped to 37%, prompting Georgia to consider rehiring Jim Harrick, Jr. as a professor. ... Did anybody else think it was ridiculous to see ESPN interviewing Boston 20-somethings about how much it means to them to have the Sawx finally win the Series? Why couldn't they have found some real old-timers who have waited decades, instead of getting reactions from folks for whom Billy Buck's '86 gaffe is ancient history?