The US women are dominating like it aint no thing ...
While the USA men's basketball has been making headlines with its blowout win over Nigeria and the relentless stream of questions about whether this team could beat the 1992 Dream Team, there's been a steady storm of wins accumulating on the women's side that very few people have talked about.
On Tuesday, the women put up nearly twice as many points as their opponent, Team Canada. Team USA slaughtered Canada so effectively that only two players—Chelsea Aubry and Kim Smith, both D1 talents during their college days in America—scored in double figures.
Aside from demolishing Canada, Team USA has now won 39 straight Olympic games. The last time the women's basketball team lost was in 1992, when that storied men's Dream Team was unveiled to the world.
Since '92, however, the men's game has teetered back and forth between nonchalant dominance and embarrassingly lackadaisical effort, resulting in a disappointing bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics in Athens. While the men's team recommitted after those Athens games, the women's team never needed to; they never stopped winning. They haven't lost a game in the preliminary rounds of the Olympics since 1976—the very first time women's basketball was even a sport in the Olympics.
Team USA faces a tough challenge on Thursday, going up against an Australian team that made waves of its own in the publicity field, and has played some mean games of basketball, to boot. The Opals will challenge the Americans inside with strong post play, but might have trouble with the way Team USA likes to get out and run on the break.
More importantly, the mainstream press is doing its quadrennial look at women's basketball: seemingly impressed, ESPN even featured a story about how the US women are the real Dream Team. That being said, it's troubling, as with so many other professions and occupations, what kind of disparity the women will come back home to, regardless of whether they medal or not, gold or otherwise.
While the league minimum in the NBA—where every player on the men's team has a job after the Olympics are done—is at least $473,604 dollars, depending on whether it's a rookie contract, women in the WNBA cannot earn more than a $103,500. Anthony Davis has trademarked his unibrow, just in case he needs to supplement his income. Meanwhile, female greats like Candace Parker, Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi barely have name recognition.
It'd be wonderful if the Olympics rewarded the best play with the most money or the most fame, or whatever it is that society decides is the way to reward these people who dedicate their lives to excellence. Unfortunately, it seems the thing we value most is a good story.
Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian in history.
Despite the idea that the Olympics serve as something of a goodwill games for the world and the insistence on amateur status to compete—with some healthy exceptions, of course—there has been a lot of chatter about these particular games since they began in London on Friday.
Currently trending on Twitter is the idea of #NBCFail. Bloggers, Internet-savvy people around the world, and generally anyone who's living in the connected digital village of the 21st century have noticed that the American broadcast—tape-delayed for practical reasons—has been particularly egregious this time around. It should be noted, of course, that people have long complained about NBC's coverage of the Olympics.
With so many positive stories emanating from these Olympics, not just for America, it's frankly shocking that so much of the coverage is focused on the negative aspects. Just for recap's sake:
Beyond the English-speaking countries, Ye Shiwen of China swam a faster split than Ryan Lochte, which should have been an amazing feat, but was immediately clouded by doubts about doping. Ruta Meilutyte won the first gold medal for Lithuiana in the sport of swimming at the tender age of 15. Daniel Gyurta set a world record in the 200 meter breaststroke, winning gold for Hungary.
It's easy to look at the overall medal count and be disappointed, as an American, with the United States not topping that list. But the games stand for a bit more than just medal counts and avoiding spoilers. They stand for more than corporate sponsorships and post-competition careers as broadcasters. After all, let's not forget the last time the games were held in London: The Austerity Games of 1948 followed closely on the heels of a time truly worth complaining about.
The stench of crime has been associated with PSU ever since the Jerry Sandusky accusations were upheld in court (and for many, long before that). The association of Joe Paterno, legendary coach and inspirational figure, has been one that many people have struggled with. The university tried on Sunday to take pro-active steps to dissociate themselves from a man who may or may not have aided in covering up these heinous crimes. But the NCAA announced on Monday that this wasn’t enough. Not even close.
The things that Sandusky has been found guilty of are undeniably horrible. No one disputes that. The University and its figureheads, according to Louis Freeh's report, did not do enough to stop these crimes. And now, the NCAA is taking unprecedented—and, some say, illegal—action to punish both the athletic program as well as the university as a whole.
So now the question becomes: Is the NCAA in the right here? Jerry Sandusky has been found guilty in a court of law, and Penn State has been found guilty in the court of popular opinion. But where is the overlap between the two and what does the NCAA have to do with either of those two things? The NCAA bills itself as "founded ... to protect young people from ... dangerous and exploitive athletics practices." The young men who were taken advantage of at Penn State were clearly in danger and were clearly exploited. Of this, there can be no doubt.
The rumors before the fines and sanctions were officially announced put the monetary figure in excess of $30 million. Now, we see that the reality is twice that amount, plus an unprecedented number of wins that are being vacated—dropping Joe Pa from first all time in coaching wins to twelfth. Yet, despite universal recognition that there were terrible occurrences at Penn State, there has been an almost-instantaneous claim that, perhaps, the NCAA has ovverreached.
The money the NCAA is fining Penn State will go to an external program—or more than one program—that focuses on sexual abuse or assisting victims of sexual abuse. The total is said to have been determined by one year's revenue from the football program, which will be handicapped for the next four years, including loss of scholarships and bowl ineligibility. The athletic department, finally, will be on probation for five years.
All of these consequences seem to send a clear message from the NCAA—that it believes there was wrongdoing at Penn State. And there is little doubt in most peoples' minds that there was. But by taking this unprecedented step—and here we are not specifically addressing the money, the wins or the handicapping, but rather the new jurisdiction that the NCAA believes itself entitled to—we are entering into a new era, one where the governing body of athletics and academics might have tremendous power in not only those two fields, but also over colleges and universities as a whole.
Winning used to be a pretty common experience for Roger Federer. He and Rafael Nadal would go back and forth, tossing the victories in world tennis competitions between themselves. It seemed like it would last forever. Then, Novak Djokovic came from out of nowhere, changed his diet and started to look unbeatable. It was a poor time to be Nadal, but it was probably harder on Federer, since he thought that he had seen the threat coming, in the form of Nadal, and had neutralized him.
On Friday, however, Federer took the first step toward getting back to his top spot. He will play in the Wimbledon Final against Andy Murray. This Grand Slam final will mark the 30th in a row that includes one of the trio of Federer, Nadal or Djokovic, a remarkable record that stretches all the way back to 2005. To say these three are in complete control of the sport of tennis is an understatment. This is what pure domination looks like.
The semifinal match-up was, amazingly, the first time that Djokovic and Federer have faced each other on grass, and Federer endeavored to capitalize on this advantage. The match, however, was an incredible back and forth display of power on both players' parts. In triumphing 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 Federer showcased the old grit that has consistently made him one of the most difficult opponents to close out. Djokovic committed uncharacteristic mistakes that cost him the match, moving Federer to a record of 15-12 all time against the Serb.
The men's Wimbledon Final will be played on Sunday, and Federer will face tremendous pressure to clinch the deal, now that he's conquered Djokovic. However, Andy Murray is no token opponent and promises to be ready for the match. His defeat of Jo-Wilifried Tsonga 6-3, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 later on Friday sent him to his first Wimbledon final, where he will be itching to play the role of the spoiler.
Up 3-1, the Miami Heat have a commanding lead on the Oklahoma City Thunder. And the Heat are on the cusp of victory with game five kicking off tonight at 7 p.m. in Miami. In the history of the NBA, no team that has gone down 1-3 in a Finals series has ever come back to win that series.
So, with history on their side, it's time to start assuming that the Heat have won the championship, right? Well, not quite so fast. The Thunder are a more than capable team, and they won the first game in the series in a manner that most pundits termed convincing at bare minimum.
The Thunder's core of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have traded off between dominating performances, but the third member of their triumvirate, James Harden, has been lackluster—to say the least—for the duration of the Finals. His defense has been relentless, which perhaps explains the anemic performance on offense, but that doesn’t justify much, at least in the eyes of Oklahoma City fans.
Winning in Miami has not been an easy task for the Thunder, which had a significant lead in game three—nine points, on two separate occasions, but lost a wire-to-wire outing in game four. They'll have to muster the strength to not only hold a lead, but to do so at the end of the game in Miami at least once, in order to squeeze out a return home for the possibility of game six—much less force a game seven.
The statistical possibility of the Thunder mounting a comeback aside, there are serious repercussions to the idea of LeBron James winning his first championship. The laughable which critics love to throw in his face upon his yearly exit from the playoffs will stop being evidence of his supposed crimes and will start to look like eerie prescience from a phenomenal talent. The collection of superstars in South Beach will no longer look like greedy millionaires, but rather basketball players mature enough to put ego aside and play together. Most importantly, LeBron James will no longer have the strike of, "He doesn't have a ring." Most all-time greats in the NBA have championship rings, and it’s bizarre to think of the most talented player of our generation as not having one, not being capable of getting one.
That time period is almost through. Maybe the Thunder have a last gasp in them. Maybe they pull together. Maybe James Harden comes out and plays the game of his life. But even given the best possible outcome for a Thunder fan in game five, the odds and the historical record both say that the Heat will win the NBA Finals. Get ready for the reign of King James.
The NBA Finals have begun in an emphatic manner. After the Oklahoma City Thunder roller over the San Antonio Spurs, who were looking as near-invincible as any team can, they awaited their Eastern Conference opponent. And while it took seven games, the Miami Heat eventually triumphed over the Boston Celtics. This presents, of course, a sort of dream match-up for basketball fans. Commissioner David Stern has got to be giddy over the ratings prospects of the Heat in the Finals for a second year in a row, especially against some of the NBA’s youngest, most marketable stars. Old school purists must find something delectable about the way the Thunder have taken on characteristics of the Spurs after dispatching them, passing the ball in that crisp manner, and always deflecting individual praise in deference of the team concept. Finally, the drama-seeker in all of us craves LeBron James in almost every situation. Win or lose, love him or hate him, he presents compelling viewing.
Game 1 showed the tenacity of the youngsters in Oklahoma. The Heat poured on the points in the first half, but the Thunder hung on, and changed the game in a significant manner in the second half. Eventually winning by 11, it seemed as though the Thunder had heavy momentum heading into Game 2, at home.
On Thursday night, however, the Thunder came out flat. They came out uninspired. They came out looking like a team that thought, perhaps, the road to the trophy would be a bit easier than it turned out to be. They fell into an 18-2 hole, with just over seven minutes elapsed in the first quarter, and the game almost seemed out of reach by halftime, when the Thunder trailed 43-55.
However, after tying the second quarter, the Thunder proceeded to win both the third and the fourth quarters, eventually pulling within two points in the final minute.
The aforementioned hole, however, ultimately proved to be too much. In conjunction with the five fouls that Kevin Durant was playing with—having picked up that dreaded fifth foul only a minute and a half into the fourth quarter—the Thunder simply could not get the job done. They now face the daunting task of going into Miami and playing three straight games in South Beach.
The pressure now shifts from Miami to the young Thunder. Coming into the series, they were seen as slight favorites. Of course, it'll be very difficult for Miami to win all three in a row at home, but the Thunder have got to consider their backs to be up against the wall. Coming back home for the final two games of the series, and needing to win both, is a terrible place to be. On the other hand, there are worse options, such as Miami sweeping these middle three games, and closing the series out in Florida. The Oklahoma City Thunder have responded thus far in the Playoffs every time they've needed to, and the truth is, they need to now more than ever.
This weekend, the National Basketball Association begins its Conference Finals. The NBA Playoffs started off with a whimper—as player after player fell with injuries—and things seemed almost to be doomed. However, now that we're down to the final four, the NBA has got to be excited with its prospects for matchups.
In the Western Conference, the Spurs, persistently rumored to be too old to get the job done—yet consistently making deep playoff runs—have mowed over every opponent they've faced. They blanked both the Utah Jazz as well as the L.A. Clippers. Going 8-0, though, the Spurs would have you believe, means nothing. They are a focused group, led by the coach and player examples of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, both of whom have been around the block more than a few times. The Jazz and the Clips both had a couple opportunities where they could have stolen a game or two, but they were ultimately pushed by the mettle of the veteran Spurs.
In stark contrast to that aged wisdom stand the Oklahoma City Thunder. Despite being one of the youngest teams in the league, no one can make the claim that this group is not experienced. They have made the playoffs for the last three years, and have progressed farther for the last two. This year, they are expected to challenge the Spurs for the Western Conference title, regardless of how good San Antonio looks. The expectation in Oklahoma City is to win an NBA Championship, or the season will be considered a loss. This speaks highly to the atmosphere in the newest NBA market, and shows how committed the coach and players—not to mention ownership—are to the overall goal. The Thunder are led by a three-headed monster of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and super-sub—and Sixth Man of the Year award-winner—James Harden. Their youth and speed will be tested by the Spurs in one of the most highly anticipated series, kicking off tonight at 6:30 p.m.
In the Eastern Conference, proceedings have been understandably marred by Derrick Rose's absence. If Chicago had been around, most people agree that things might have gone differently. But Rose is out for up to a year with an ACL injury, and the Miami Heat capitalized on that opportunity to roll to the Conference Finals for a second year in a row. After their loss in the NBA Finals last year, the Heat have congealed in the last few weeks of the Playoffs to look as good as any other team. Their being tested physically by the Indiana Pacers was probably a great thing for team unity and proof to guys on the team not named LeBron James or Dwyane Wade that they deserve to be in this spot. Like the young Thunder in the West, the Heat will not be satisfied with making these Conference Finals, though. Their goal, remember, is not one, not two championships, but a dynasty.
Standing in the way of that dynasty, fittingly enough, once again, are the Boston Celtics. Last year when LeBron and company finally beat the Celtics, the moment overwhelmed him. It was cathartic. The same pressure is not there for James or the rest of the Heat, but it definitely is on the Celtics. Dismissed all year as too old, as having only this run left in them, the Celtics have relied heavily on ace point guard Rajon Rondo, who notched a triple double in closing out the Philadelphia 76ers yesterday. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have wavered back and forth from their old, reliable selves to unsure players. The other rock in Boston has been Kevin Garnett who still appears hungry long after pundits predicted he'd be making an impact.
It'd be easy—and wrong—to summarize both of these series as the young, upstart teams versus the grizzled vets, trying to make one last stand. But there's no denying that there is a sea change afoot in the NBA. This year's Conference Finals may see some of those prognostications, that merely one or two years ago sounded absurd, spring to life.
News broke on Wednesday that football legendJunior Seau had been found dead. He was shot to death, according to the preliminary reports, but word started leaking pretty quickly that it looked like a case of suicide. This can still be termed a shooting death, sure, but there's a lot more impact to the word suicide.
In the days before this awful event occurred, the NFL had been aflutter with news of the Saints bounty program. Sports Illustrated was even linking to this article with the header "The Final Shoe Drops." It's incredible to think that a sport that is literally predicated upon players hitting one another could find itself so aghast at the existence of this bounty program.
The connecting factor between these two stories, of course, is the commissioner of the National Football League: Roger Goodell. Charged with protecting the sport that Americans cherish, and preserving its place at the top of the nation's sporting pyramid, Goodell has done more than a passable job. Football is constantly surpassing its old records: more money made, more games shown, bigger audience for the Super Bowl; the list goes on.
However, there's no denying that while Goodell has shown genuine concern about the concussion issue, that very issue is much larger than we previously understood. Take, for example, the case of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who shot himself to death last year. In his autopsy, it was concluded that Duerson was the victim of a neurodegenerative ailment symptomatic of concussions.
Junior Seau, by all accounts, was a highly successful, positive-thinking role model, celebrated in his community, by his team, and even by a large portion of the country, especially in his playing days. His intensity may have put some people off, sure, but practically everyone who was living in Southern California in the early and mid-90s was rooting for him. He doesn’t seem like a suicide risk at first glance, but the connection between getting your brain addled on a regular basis and coming down with serious depression afterwards seems like it's becoming more and more clear with every incident the sports-loving public suffers through. The saga of Barret Robbins and the litany of lawsuits concerning concussions seem to suggest we as an audience (and participants!) are reaching the breaking point.
It should be abundantly clear that I am not a medical expert, nor has it been confirmed that Seau actually killed himself. And plenty of people suffer through concussions and go on to lead rich, full, successful lives.
Despite the above disclaimers, though, if Roger Goodell's duty is to serve as the vanguard of the National Football League, there have got to be some common sense steps taken before the damning proof has been served. Americans love football and want to continue to, but as concussions and health care of ex-players are increasingly presented in the news, plenty of NIMBY mothers and fathers are going to extend those cares beyond their backyards and onto their children. Everybody wants to raise the next successful quarterback. But what if the risk is too high?
ESPN replayed the Michigan Fab Five documentary a few days ago. On Monday night, as the newest national champions were crowned, it seemed perfectly appropriate. If Michigan and their fabulous freshmen broke barriers insofar as starting lineups, it's been pointed out that Coach John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats have now broken barriers insofar as winning it all.
The Wildcats claimed the biggest prize of them all for men's college basketball on Monday night, vanquishing the Kansas Jayhawks and setting a whole lot of people to doubt the whole college basketball scene. Regardless of that doubt, however, there can be none that Kentucky was the better team. It was a better team all season, and it was a better team on Monday night. Wooden Award-winning freshman Anthony Davis seems to be the best collegiate player in the country and, with this win, seems virtually assured of going first in the upcoming 2012 NBA draft. He scored a mere 6 points in the game, but grabbed 16 rebounds, smashed 6 blocks and secured the Most Outstanding Player trophy. Although he will have spent just a year in college, he emerges more of a finished product than some of his soon-to-be-peers in the NBA.
Kentucky's ascension to the top of college basketball seemed like a foregone conclusion for much of the season. It lost only two times all year—to Indiana and Vanderbilt—and it looked dominant at almost every other opportunity. Near the middle of the NCAA tournament, Charles Barkley even had the gall to make the inevitable, approximately twice-yearly, idiotic statement that the top college program could beat the lowest professional team: this time that Kentucky could and would beat the Charlotte Bobcats, the Washington Wizards or the Toronto Raptors. (Things like this always get tossed around. In football, we occasionally have to endure the pundits engaging the same lines of fallacy. Luckily, not everyone agrees.)
While the first half of the first period Monday was a back-and-forth affair, with Kansas refusing to fold, the simple truth was that Kentucky continued to pull away. The defense of the Wildcats proved to be the bigger determining factor. With Kansas wanting to push the tempo in the beginning minutes, Anthony Davis picked up his first nasty block, and the Wildcats clamped down. On the other end, the Wildcat offense proved capable of overwhelming the Jayhawks' defense, and as the first half wound down, Kentucky put firm distance between itself and the challengers, concluding the half up 41-27.
The second half looked like it was going to be more of the same, but Kansas decided, with about 4 minutes left in the game, that the fight had not gone out of them. For the first time since early in the first, they trimmed the deficit to single digits. Suddenly, with just over a minute left, the Wildcats led by a mere five points, and Kentucky looked shell-shocked. The upset was still possible! Alas, it was not to be. Five made free throws for Kentucky versus a lone made field goal for Kansas provided the final margin at 67-59.
Kentucky's coronation may bring some doubt for those who claim to love the NCAA game for its purity, but there are examples, including the conclusion of that Fab Five story, that shed more than a bit of a shadow on that purity. Regardless of its implications, the simple fact remains that the NCAA men's basketball tournament is the most exciting postseason playoff format of any sport and the title game between Kansas and Kentucky was a great basketball game.
Brittney Griner heads a threatening Baylor team into the Final Four
With an eye on the past, but its gaze overwhelmingly focused on the future, women's college basketball set up a historic Final Four earlier this week.
On Monday, the Baylor Bears dispatched the Tennessee Lady Vols and legendary coach Pat Summitt. Prior to that, the Stanford Cardinal did away with No. 2 seed Duke. On Tuesday, the University of Connecticut got the ball rolling again for the 1 seeds, and Notre Dame finished off the excitement against Maryland. Over the course of four games in two nights —hardly in one fell swoop, but still in a pretty decisive manner—all four No. 1 seeds confirmed their reservations for the women's NCAA Final Four in Denver. This marks only the second time in the history of the women's tournament when this has happened—the other occurring back in 1989.
Stanford got the sweep started, carried by its senior Nnemkadi Ogwumike. Ogwumike's been in this position before, as she's made the Final Four in each of her four years with the Cardinal, having been beat by UConn twice and losing to eventual champ Texas A&M last year. Stanford, in fact, made the Final Four before Ogwumike arrived, which makes this its fifth in a row. Coach Tara VanDerveer has done an amazing job getting this school back up to lofty standards, but they've been posited with the unfortunate problem of playing Baylor on Sunday night.
If there's a standout amongst the four top seeds, it's got to be the Baylor Bears. Brittney Griner may be getting the most publicity for her in-game dunks, but there's no doubt that her defense in the true highlight. In the NCAAs, she's flirted with triple doubles, especially against Tennessee. However, the Bears' ascension means that something has to be left behind, and this year, the Tennessee Lady Vols will not be a part of the Final Four for the fourth year in a row. To put this in perspective, to find the last time Pat Summitt's team didn't make the Final Four two years in a row, we have to stretch back to 1993 and 1994. While Summitt's future is up in the air, it appears as though it's no longer a foregone conclusion that Tennessee and UConn will run women's basketball—and the sport is all the better for it.
Despite the Lady Vols being sidelined, the old guard will be well-represented by the University of Connecticut and its Huskies. Coach Geno Auriemma matches Stanford's accomplishment by making his fifth Final Four in a row, but he won't be satisfied with making just that; UConn has won seven previous national titles—and three in a row at one point—so it'll be geared up to play against Notre Dame. Coach Auriemma has even admitted that after losing Maya Moore last year, he wasn't sure what kind of team this was going to be, or how deep of a run they could make. As usual, though, the Huskies have come through with a dominant regular season and a stifling defense. UConn lost only four times in the regular season. Two of those losses, however, came at the hands of Notre Dame.
The relative newcomer of the group finished things up on Tuesday night by unleashing a beating on Maryland. The Irish, who were national runners-up last year, getting edged in the title game by Texas A&M, have only won the national title once and have only been to the Final Four once besides that. To couch these accomplishments in terms such as "only won the national title once before" shows what a decorated group of teams are about to converge on Denver. The great guard play of Notre Dame starts with Skylar Diggins, but extends to the rest of the team, too, comprising one of the deepest teams in the field.
When the games begin on Sunday in this ridiculously talented women's field, anyone who's watching will see some of the finest basketball that will be played that weekend. And when a new champion is crowned on Tuesday, it will have long-lasting ramifications for the game—no matter which No. 1 it is.