Thursday, January 11, 2007

Lost opportunity

As the news has become official that David Beckham will leave Real Madrid to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy in the MLS, and take what could potentially become one of the largest contracts in sports history once endorsements are factored in, one cannot help but feel that this is the beginning of Beckham's slide into football obscurity.

While the U.S. sports media will be interested for a few weeks in watching Beckham play the beautiful game, largely to grab a few quotes and see if he can't score a trademark free kick on debut for the cameras, he could well be known best for competing with Paris Hilton, Britney Spears and Angelina Jolie for gossip column inches rather than for contesting titles as a leading midfielder in world football.

Did the English Premier League's failed bid to bring Becks home represent the last chance to see him playing his best football in a place where it will be duly appreciated? Having signed a five-year deal in LA, Beckham will likely never be seen in the Premier League, the UEFA Champions League, or even in English colours again.

The glitz of his arrival in Los Angeles will be little more than his christening as a fully-fledged off-field circus act, with Posh & Becks becoming the latest talk of Tinsel Town, as photographers and beat writers wonder where they’ll live, who they’ll be seen with, what parties they’ll attend. This is of course dependant on whether there isn't a more interesting story coming out of Hollywood or out of one of America's more established pro sports. Witness the fact that ESPN feels it necessary to poll its online readers about whether or not they will even watch MLS play with Beckham in town.

At least in England, the tabloid coverage of Beckham was occasionally for the sports pages. Opinion about his place in the game’s history or in rankings of the best players might be somewhat divided, but at least his talent and status as one of the finest exponents of the free kick, corners and crosses are recognised. Had Becks been dealt to West Ham, Newcastle, Arsenal or whichever team was willing to build around him for a few seasons, he could have possibly returned to stardom or led a team into title contention, and retired with dignity in a few years time having been given one last opportunity to compete at the highest level in his sport. And the Royal Family wouldn’t have complained if he happened to draw a few of the press away from Kate Middleton in the process.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Florida makes some history

With their resounding win over Ohio State in Monday's BCS National Championship, the Florida Gators became the first U.S. college in history to hold the titles in men's basketball and football at the same time, an incredible feat by any measure.

There is no more fabled story in sports, except maybe that of the triumphant underdog, than the seemingly unbeatable individual or team. Roger Federer cannot even claim to have done what Rod Laver did (twice) in winning the tennis Grand Slam; Steffi Graf topped that with four majors and the Olympics in 1988. Tiger Woods hasn't matched Bobby Jones' 1930 golf Grand Slam. It has been nearly 30 years since a horse won the U.S. Triple Crown; the Treble is a rare feat at the top tier of club soccer; no team has ever won more than two consecutive Super Bowls. But has the result by Florida - for one team or individual to hold two major championships in different sports, without crossover of champions like Carl Lewis as a sprinter and jumper - ever truly been achieved before?

The U.S. college sports system is unique in that it is the world's most elite amateur competition for young athletes, attracting stars across a plethora of sports and receiving intense media coverage which sees the college game often overshadow its professional equivalents. This is no more the case than in men's football and basketball, where games are routinely broadcast to millions of fans and are picked apart as much as NFL and NBA playoff matches. With hundreds of different universities and colleges competing at the Division 1-A level, and the ever present powerhouses like Duke, North Carolina, UCLA and UConn in hoops, winning a championship requires not just skill but also luck and timing, particularly as the best players from each team are inevitably tempted by the riches of the professional ranks.

Besides, the college system works to ensure that a school must produce a nearly flawless season to win it all; one loss is the difference between the trophy and also-ran status. In basketball, a team must win every game it plays in March Madness to survive the knock out format designed to cut down pretenders and unearth true winners. In football, you needn't bother thinking about your place in history unless you come very close to the unbeaten regular season demanded so that you can just enter the debate about who will earn a place in the National Championship battle. Becoming the best team in the country is a rare honour, and many of the greatest coaches in college may win just two or three titles in their careers. For one school to hold both these crowns simultaneously is an astonishing thing, as shown by the fact that this is the first time in history it has been done.

What the Gators have managed must rank as one of the best years in sport for an organisation in recent memory. The football team navigated through the SEC, the most competitive conference in the nation, and played against even more established and historically dominant programs with the finest players and coaches (witness Nick Saban leaving the NFL to coach the University of Alabama, a public school, for US$32 million!). In both sports, Florida has beaten Ohio State teams with much greater expectations placed upon them, and in the process has upstaged two bonafide talents - Heisman Trophy winner Trop Smith (about whom I have already waxed poetic) and Greg Oden, consensus selection as #1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft and as a "once in a generation player" - while only having one player (Joakim Noah) among its ranks who is generating any real buzz of his own.

The 2006 run of the University of Florida Gators will not enter the type of sports folklore as Lance Armstrong's Tour de France dominance, the Michael Jordan era in Chicago, or the skills displayed by Pele's Brazilian teams in the 1950s and 1960s. However, it must be recognised as possibly the best ever record compiled by a single team across multiple sports in a single year. And who knows whether this argument will seem any stronger by 2008, as the Gators have legitimate chances to defend their titles in basketball and football over the coming year.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

December's Boris Diaw All Stars

Following up on November's edition of this fantasy break-out list, we have the players who have exploded in the NBA season's second month.

PG - Mo Williams: Mo has begun to enter elite company, and as of this posting sits with Kobe and LeBron in averaging at least 17 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists per game this year. He has 20ppg on 49% shooting this month, and has one triple double while going close on numerous other occasions. Not bad since stepping into the hole left by T.J. Ford heading to Canada in the offseason.

SG - Luther Head: Tracy McGrady was always going to get injured this year, but in the seven games he missed mid-month, Luther scored (games of 21, 22, and 26) and showed his speciality by consistently connecting from deep. He averages 2.5 threes a game.

SF - Rasual Butler: Stepping up for the injury-plagued Hornets, who have been devastated by long-term injuries to their best players (Chris Paul, Peja and David West), Butler has become the go-to guy. His 16 point average for the month, rebounding from a terrible November when he languished on the bench, have been enough to keep this team at least somewhat competitive.

PF - Luke Walton: He'll always be the butt of jokes and the target of ridicule just because of who he is, but Luke has matured greatly into a solid option for the Lakers. With Lamar Odom out, he has seen more attention from defenders, but is still contributing 12 points, 5 boards and 4 assists each night. Add to that his 50% shooting, occasional treys, and solid defense highlighted by his steals totals. Don't look now, but Luke could be the reason for a Laker revival this year.

C - Al Jefferson: Having been highly touted for a long time, this high school lottery pick has exploded since returning from injury and retaining his starter's role. He recorded 8 double-doubles in December - including six in a row - for 15ppg and 10.8 rpg over the month, and has added shot-blocking to his game. The Celtics could be excused for holding onto AJ instead of trading him for AI as had been discussed.

On a finishing note, Happy New Year! The blog will have been running for a month come New Year's Day, and will hopefully grow a readership over the next year. The Diaw All-Stars will return next month to see who made good on their resolution to become a big time fantasy stud.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Legends never die

The heading for this post comes from the movie "The Sandlot Kids" of all places, but appropriately describes how Shane Warne will be remembered in the world of cricket.

This won't be a long dissection of Warne's career, his achievements or whether his personal life somewhat marred his onfield work. Simply put, Warne needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Don Bradman when discussing the greatest cricketer of all time. He has re-defined the leg spin craft, making it a much more popular discipline among young players (myself included, as I have been known to weave the odd leggie and wrong'un). He has won every possible individual accolade and been crucial in the dominance of the Australian cricket team over the last decade.

Warne is one of the best characters in world sport, and as shown by his performance in his retirement conference today, is surprisingly eloquent for a man who has been attacked so much for his persona and public profile. He will stay involved in the game for years after this, likely making large sums from commentating and his various endorsements, but more than anything his intense competitive spirit and creative means of winning a match will be remembered by the masses for a long time to come.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Mile High Hijinx

Reports are swirling today which state that Allen Iverson has (finally) been traded to the Denver Brawlers for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two first-round draft picks in 2007.

This saga has drawn out for two weeks, but hasn't seen enough interest around the NBA to really create a frenzy of high-stakes bidding. However, Denver was forced to act more urgently and perhaps give up a little more in the aftermath of the great New York Rumble (N.B. The fight footage begins at 1:25.) because they have lost the league's leading scorer (AI is second) Carmelo Anthony until January 20 due to his best Ali impersation (the 'hit and run' punch; watch him scamper away) resulting in a suspension. With their next best option J.R. Smith, he of the numerous bad shots per night, also out, the Nuggets have had to secure Iverson in order to stop the watershed of a potentially disasterous next ten games without their stars.

Of course, from a Philadelphia standpoint, this isn't as bad a trade as some (including me in the "I'm Out" post) had feared. Miller has been a solid point guard for a long time, and will hopefully encourage Andre Iguodala to become less timid as a scorer now that Iverson isn't demanding that he be given room to bounce around on drives and make insane lay-ups over 7-foot giants. Joe Smith has never been a risk-free proposition as the Timberwolves well know, but he is essentially a dead weight with a contract in this deal. Also, the two picks give the 76ers three first-round selections in next year's Draft, which is anticipated to be the deepest since 2003 and 1996; this also includes the team's own pick, which is likely to come as they finish as near cellar-dwellers, thus giving them hope at landing Greg Oden.

Denver makes a great move to make them legitimate Finals contenders. Iverson is obviously a scoring phenomenom, and has shown that - despite what his old reputation might have been - he can play as point guard, having averaged 7.3 assist per game this season. He provides an elite 1-2 combo with Carmelo, allows J.R. Smith to develop in the third option role instead of having to carry too much of a burden, and gives the Nuggets a more flexible team as he can play shooting guard with Earl Boykins at point (in the world's smallest lineup) to create a lightning fast and exciting new possibility in the new Small Ball world. The X-factor he brings, too, is that Iverson has just been through two weeks of being an inactive piece of trade meat who, it seems, no one really wants. That gives him something major to prove; consider how Gilbert Arenas has tried to show Team USA wrong for leaving him out of the recent campaigns, and then imagine AI - he of the career 28 points per night average - wanting to demonstrate to the entire league that they just missed acquiring one of the most unique and unstoppable scoring threats in basketball history.

Leaving aside the fact that Kevin Garnett is arguably the biggest loser in this deal, as he continues to stew in a cesspool of mediocrity with an ever-fading glimmer of hope that he will get near an NBA championship, this is a very smart trade for Denver and hopefully can help them recover from the damage that Mardy Collins and Isiah Thomas helped to inflict with their dirty tactics of fueling a brawl in a supposedly professional sporting environment. And the Sixers may have sold the house for chump change, but at least they did it with a enough credible returns that you don't draw blood while scratching your head.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bidding Freddy adieu

The 2006 World Cup was a key moment for the further development of soccer (it's still too strange for an Australian to say "football") into a truly dominant world game, as the success of the Asian nations like South Korea and Turkey in 2002 spread to Australia and other nations previously seen as minnows.

Of course, the final frontier for the sport is to find some penetration in the lucrative American market, where the money from potential sponsors and owners could easily create several new Chelsea All Star-type teams with the revenue available. Although Americans embrace sports such as gridiron (where 60 minutes of game time is spread over four hours of TV) and baseball (where the majority of the pitches result in no swing offered or a fouled off ball), the prospect of watching 90 minutes of continuous play on a soccer pitch does not inspire American sports fans at all.

And now, the best player to have ever graced American pitches (at least, the best one who wasn't on his last legs and trying to cash in on his own legacy. You've been outed, Romario.) has been banished from a major city in Washington to the sports back alley that is Salt Lake City. Freddy Adu was compared to Pele and other legends when he signed to D.C. United as a raw but electrifying 14-year-old soccer prodigy, and his name has been linked to such football meccas as Chelsea and Manchester United in recent years.

Only in America could a soccer player with such promise and such rare ability be treated this poorly. One only hopes that Adu is saved from the quick slide to obscurity in Utah, where he will never receive national media coverage or a big Nike deal which could propel him to stardom in America, and that he is signed to England, Italy or Spain where he can become the type of player which we would love to see. Unfortunately, such a move would likely end any hope of the U.S. becoming a new breeding ground for elite soccer talent as even if he were to live up to his initial hype this would likely be forgotten in the land of the Red, White and Blue.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Getting back on the bike

OK, this title is a cruel pun, but in a brief post I acknowledge the determination of Jay Williams, who has signed up for D-League play in continuing his long road to recovery after falling off a motorbike as a rookie with the Chicago Bulls. He had his jersey retired by Duke, and was drafted #2 in the 2002 draft (ahead of Amare, Caron Butler, Carlos Boozer and others), and certainly had great potential.

All the best Jay, and I take my hat off to you for trying so hard to continue doing what you've always loved in just playing hoops.