By DERON SNYDER
Of all the pro sports, basketball has the best draft. The NBA process is short, sweet and stocked with guys we’ve heard of and seen play.
Major League Baseball has to outfit dozens of obscure minor-league teams in its draft, which drones on for 40 rounds. A total of 1,216 players were selected last month, nearly 40 percent from high school or junior college. They’re complete strangers to most of us, just like the majority of the 766 draftees who attended four-year colleges.
The NFL inexplicably has stretched its draft to a somnolent three days, kicking off the marathon with a first round that absorbs an entire night of primetime for just 32 picks. That’s followed by two rounds on Friday and the last four on Saturday, for a total of 224 players including a bevy of anonymous interior linemen.
Hockey? Let’s leave it at this: The NHL takes two days to draft 211 players and roughly 75 percent are from outside the United States. Canadians, Swedes and Russians have a much better chance of knowing who’s who.
To be fair, the familiarity factor in basketball has fallen over the last 20 years, too. It began in 1995, when Kevin Garnett sparked a flurry of prep-to-pro selections. The NBA instituted a one-and-done rule for the 2006 draft and that helped, the only reason fans saw plenty of games featuring LSU’s Ben Simmons and Duke’s Brandon Ingram, the projected top picks Thursday night.
But the influx of players from overseas has risen to the point where more than 20 percent of the league hails from elsewhere. Kristaps Porzingis, last year’s international sensation, was taken at No. 4 and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. The hot foreign flavor this year is Dragan Bender, a Croatian power forward who played professionally in Israel and is a projected Top-5 pick.
A dozen or more international players could be selected Thursday, including Thon Maker, a 7-foot-1 Australian by way of South Sudan. We also might hear the names of a few little-known freshmen who didn’t play at the likes of Duke and Kentucky and thus didn’t make weekly appearances on national TV.
Nonetheless, the NBA draft is way better than its counterparts, if for no reason other than length.
By DERON SNYDER
I was among the presumed majority of NBA fans rooting for Golden State to defend its title. The Warriors were a breathtaking treat all season, a delight to behold, and I wanted them to cap their historic 73 wins with a championship.
It didn’t matter that LeBron James’ legacy would’ve been collateral damage, dropping him to 2-5 in NBA Finals and giving his haters more ammunition to blast his standing as an all-time great.
Fortunately for James and northeast Ohio, he didn’t let that happen. Instead, he turned in an unprecedented performance, becoming the only player in Finals history to lead both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
He had a triple-double Sunday in the Game 7 clincher (27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists), to cap his 41-point outings in the other win-or-go-home scenarios. Only the heartless weren’t touched when he fell to his knees and cried after delivering the city’s first championship since 1964.
Despite my rooting interest, I’m happy for James and happy for Cleveland, even though Cavs fans and despicable team owner Dan Gilbert don’t deserve him. Their response was deplorable when James exercised his right to leave via free agency. His willingness to return says a lot more about him than their willingness to re-embrace him says about them.
“That don’t matter,” James said after Game 7, asked about those who burned his jerseys and trashed his name when he took his talents to South Beach. “That’s yesterday’s newspaper. I don’t think anybody’s reading yesterday’s newspaper. They’ll be reading tomorrow and that I’m coming home. I’m coming home with what I said I was going to do.”
He didn’t anoint himself “The Chosen One,” but he’s not shy in proclaiming himself the world’s best player. No one can argue after his utter destruction of Golden State and its baby-faced sharpshooter Steph Curry, who fired blanks when the Warriors needed him most.
The notion that Curry has surpassed James as the league’s top talent? James squashed that thought as derisively as the two swats on Curry and as emphatically as the chase-down block on Andre Iguodala.
By DERON SNYDER
LeBron James isn’t an Alpha, a Kappa, an Omega or a Sigma. But his tale of rising and falling and rising yet again, reads like a classic Greek drama that fraternity brothers might study in college.
The plot twists have been numerous and surprising. As a work of fiction they would strain our suspension of disbelief. In real life his story stretches the limits of credulity. It’s as unbelievable as Cleveland winning the city’s first championship since 1964.
That was 20 years before “The Chosen One” was born in Akron, Ohio, about 40 minutes away. No one knew he was predestined to lead his hometown Cavaliers to their first NBA championship, but we’re all witnesses after Sunday’s thrilling Game 7 victory against the Golden State Warriors.
James had to cement his legacy over three consecutive games to pull the Cavaliers from a 3-1 deficit. He quick-dried it, too, polishing off the defending champs with a triple-double in the clincher (27 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists), to complement a pair of 41-point efforts in the prior win-or-go-home games.
In the process, Cleveland became the first team to rally from 3-1 in the NBA Finals. James led both teams in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, another unprecedented feat. He won his third Finals MVP trophy and caused everyone to slow down on thinking that Golden State’s Stephon Curry has replaced him as the league’s best player.
If King James indeed had lost the crown during the regular season, he wrested it back with an overwhelming performance against the baby-faced sharpshooter who fired blanks when the Warriors could ill afford them. LeBron asserted his dominance over Curry, over Golden State and over the entire league in emphatic fashion. He swatted shots, knocked down jumpers, bulled to the basket, snatched rebounds, passed to open teammates and served as a general menace on both ends of the court.
“He’s such a force physically, so powerful,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after Game 7. “I thought he brought more force to the last three games than he did in the first four. But he’s one of the greatest players of all time and obviously was the key to the turnaround and had a great series.”
So here’s James, back on top, this time bringing his forlorn city with him.
By DERON SNYDER
The Detroit Lions, Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, New York Giants, Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Browns are among the NFL’s oldest franchises.
They also were among the seven NFL teams that don’t field cheerleading squads … until Detroit removed itself from that number Tuesday.
So Lions fans will have an alternative form of entertainment this season when the main attraction (inevitably) disappoints.
“One of the things clearly that we have to do is create a great in-game environment,” team president Rod Wood told reporters Tuesday. “And having cheerleaders added to that along with many other things we’re considering, including working on our Wi-Fi.”
Ogle and Google. Sounds like a winning combination.
You can’t go wrong with having cheerleaders. Unless you think scantily clad women jiggling on the sidelines sends a conflicting message about sexism and objectification as sports/society grapples with the entrenched issues of sexual assault and domestic violence. It’s harder to imagine cheerleaders as brain surgeons when our focus is on their bodies.
As the father of a “Foxxy Dancer” with the Morgan State University Marching Band, I have a different view of dancers and cheerleaders. However, I remember my old view and realize it’s still predominant among many other red-blooded men.
But we’re all responsible for own thoughts – no matter how provocative a routine might be – and even more accountable for our actions.
I’m fine with NFL teams employing cheerleaders to enhance the games’ atmosphere and aesthetics. The lovely ladies certainly don’t detract from the proceedings. But teams that subject cheerleaders to sub-minimum wages, psychological abuse, leering male sponsors and hours of unpaid work should be kicked right between the uprights.
By DERON SNYDER
Two hours into ESPN’s five-part documentary on O.J. Simpson and I’m already wishing it was longer.
That’s what happens when, as a Los Angeles Times critic puts it, you view “a masterwork of scholarship, journalism and cinematic art.”
“O.J.: Made in America” resumes Tuesday night after introducing us to 18-year-old Nicole Brown at the conclusion of Part 1. We all know what happens in the end – someone (possibly/probably Simpson) kills Brown and an acquaintance, leading to the trial of the century.
But judging by Sunday night’s installment, our advance knowledge won’t spoil what we learn along the way.
The lessons are plentiful and multi-layered, providing rich, contextual soil that’s impossible to till in today’s popular microwave analyses. This isn’t a simple black-and-white case of race, celebrity, passion and criminal justice. It’s all of that and more, tracing its roots to the politics of identity, the clash of cultures and the history of psychological warfare.
I had just turned 11 in 1973, when Simpson became the first NFL player to rush for 2,000 yards in a single season. He was a ubiquitous figure afterward, his name becoming synonymous with the NFL. His fame grew through commercials for Hertz and later, in retirement, through movies and broadcasting.
But I didn’t know the backstory, how Simpson arduously scrubbed himself of blackness in an attempt to be viewed as non-other. How white America eagerly embraced him in the late 1960s to assuage itself during the fight for civil rights. How he played into the hands of those who point at outliers such as him and other “success stories” to dispute evidence of overall oppression and injustice.
“None of the people that we associated with looked at him as a black man,” former Hertz CEO Frank Olson said in the documentary. “O.J. was colorless.”
That was great … for O.J.
By DERON SNYDER
They are the most powerful individuals on the court. Theirs is the final word. Whatever they say goes; if they say it’s you, then you have to go.
No one loves them aside from their family. Even that can vary based on which calls are made and which team Uncle John and Aunt Jane bet on.
If game officials are a tad defensive when the public slams their work, that’s understandable.
But I don’t think the National Basketball Referees Association is being thin-skinned in calling for an end to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Reports. The organization made several valid points in a news release Tuesday.
The “transparency” the league seeks in releasing officiating critiques “does nothing to change the outcome of the game” and “encourages anger and hostility toward NBA officials,” the NBRA said. “… While the goal of transparency was to promote understanding and credibility, there is no evidence that progress against these goals is being made.”
The league insists that L2M reports are a good thing, but no one can explain how. In the annual pre-NBA Finals news conference last week, commissioner Adam Silver said the public wants to see consistency and “understand if we call something a foul, why we called it a foul, and we often give explanations for why we believe something was a foul, whether it was correctly called or incorrectly called.”
Silver hopes the reports and use of instant replay are “building trust and integrity in the league. People are going to recognize that we are going to make mistakes, the officials are going to make mistakes,” he said last week. “Human error is going to be part of this game, just as it is with the players. … I’d say largely what these Last Two Minute Reports are showing is that the referees get it right about 90 percent of the time.”
Except the other 10 percent is what everyone harps on, always to no avail and often with no clear answer.
By DERON SNYDER
We tend to put more weight on blowouts than nail-biters, even though both look the same in the win column. In best-of-seven series, the only thing that matters is the first team with four Ws, not the margin of victory in given contests.
Consider how wrong everyone was after Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals, when San Antonio routed Oklahoma City, 124-92. The Spurs were presumably too much for OKC, but the Thunder won four of the next five games to advance.
The hazards of over-emphasizing lopsided results were even clearer in the Western Conference finals. Golden State whipped the Thunder by 27 points in Game 2 but was stomped in the next two games, by 28 and 24 points respectively. OKC was deemed the superior team based on those thrashings, but was sent home after three consecutive close losses.
Golden State has easily outclassed Cleveland through two games of the NBA Finals, winning by 15 points in the opener and 33 points on Sunday. The Warriors have done so without big splashes from Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, leaning instead on reserves such as Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa.
Those results have led some to conclude that the series is over as it heads to Cleveland for the next couple of games. The only question appears to be whether Game 5 will be necessary, but the Warriors know better than to ask.
“It’s a trap to think that we’ve figured things out and that we have the perfect formula to beat Cleveland and they have no chance in the series,” Curry said after the 110-77 beatdown on Sunday. “That’s probably going to be the chatter the next 48 hours, but we have to stay in our own little bubble and worry about what we’re doing and how we’re going to go out and win Game 3.
“We’ve been on the other side where people may have thought we didn’t have a chance to come back in the series, and now we have a good handle on it. So we know how quickly it can go away if you don’t come out and play the way you’re supposed to and keep the focus and the edge that we’ve played with these first two games. So Game 3 will be fun.”
Not so much if Cleveland holds serve to defend its home court. The Cavaliers have to win at least once in Oracle Arena, but a victory in the first two attempts wasn’t mandatory. LeBron James has been in this position before with the Cavaliers.
By DERON SNYDER
Thank goodness Golden State rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Western Conference finals against Oklahoma City.
Nothing against the Thunder and their A-list stars, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. But a rematch of last year’s NBA Finals was the desire here. The Thunder would’ve spoiled the party and ruined an historic run by the 73-win Warriors.
Worst of all, we’d be deprived of the unbridled joy and fascination in watching the Splash Brothers do their remarkable thing.
Steph Curry is the unanimous MVP and scored a game-high 36 points Monday in Game 7, but the Warriors’ season would’ve ended two days earlier if not for Klay Thompson. As a giddy OKC crowd envisioned confetti falling later that night, Thompson put the Warriors on his back and went off for 41 points, including a playoff-record 11 3-pointers.
The Thunder scored 18 points in the fourth quarter; Thompson had 19 by himself. His outburst clearly inspired a struggling Curry, who used the lift to score 22 of his 31 points in the second half.
That’s what brothers are for, picking up one another and protecting each other’s back. With Curry and Thompson swishing 3-pointers all over the court, the Warriors have the most formidable tandem of backcourt marksmen in memory. Or maybe period.
“Klay and Steph are probably the two greatest shooters that we’ve probably ever seen,” Cleveland’s LeBron James told reporters Tuesday. “Obviously in today’s game they are. Some of the shots, there’s nothing that you can do about it. Better offense beats great defense any day.
“It’s hard to contain them,” he said. “We all know that, the whole league knows that, our team knows that. But we have a game plan and we have to follow it and be true to it.”
By DERON SNYDER
I’ve been blessed to cover a variety of major sporting events in 25-plus years as a journalist, including Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA tournaments, BCS bowl games and Kentucky Derbies, among others.
One event that constitutes an undesirable gap on my resume is the Olympics, an omission I’d love to address at some point. However, if given an opportunity to cover the Games of the XXXI Olympiad this summer, in Rio de Janeiro I wouldn’t think twice about declining.
As much as I’d like to check off that experience from my bucket list, it’s not worth potentially kicking the bucket due to Zika virus.
OK, that’s a bit of hyperbole. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “people usually don’t get sick enough to go to the hospital, and they very rarely die of Zika.”
However, more than 180 scientists and health experts have signed an open letter released on Friday, demanding that the 2016 Summer Olympics be moved or postponed. It cites the World Health Organization labeling Zika a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern,” and claims that going through with plans to hold the Olympics in Rio would be “unethical.”
Maybe it’s me, but inviting half a million visitors from more than 200 countries to a hotbed of public health concerns seems imprudent at the very least. Especially for pregnant women, whose babies can suffer severe fetal brain defects. The CDC recommends that workers “consider delaying travel to areas with active Zika virus transmission.” Brazil fits that description all too well.
“I’m thinking about (whether to go), Chicago Bulls star Pau Gasol told reporters in Madrid Monday. “Just like every athlete, or any other persons considering going to Rio, should be thinking about it.”
Gasol, the Spanish basketball team’s most accomplished player, said he wouldn’t be surprised if some athletes opt out of the Games to putting their health and their family’s health at risk. I’ll be surprised if we don’t see a mass exodus.
The World Health Organization is doing its best to avoid that scenario.
“Based on the current assessment of Zika virus circulating in almost 60 countries globally and 39 countries in the Americas, there is no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the Games,” WHO said in a statement Saturday, responding to the open letter. “WHO will continue to monitor the situation and update our advice as necessary.”
Far be it from me to question WHO’s objectivity and allegiance in this matter. Besides, that’s unnecessary, because the 180-plus scientists don’t mind.
“We are concerned that WHO is rejecting these alternatives (relocation or postponement) because of a conflict of interest,” the open letter read. “Specifically, WHO entered into an official partnership with the International Olympic Committee, in a Memorandum of Understanding that remains secret. There is no good reason for WHO not to disclose this Memorandum of Understanding, as is standard practice for conflicts of interest. Not doing so casts doubts on WHO’s neutrality.”
Quite a bit of money is at stake. Brazil budgeted around $13 billion to host the Games and expects a lasting economic impact though increased tourism (event though the extended boost didn’t materialize after 2014 World Cup). Years of planning and resources devoted to the Olympiad make any alteration an abhorrent thought for organizers.
Athletes, some of whom have spent most of their lives training for the event, can feel the same way. “Let’s see what happens,” tennis star Novak Djokovic told reporters Sunday, adding that he needs more information but plans to participate for now. “To even think to cancel the Olympic Games is unthinkable, honestly. I mean, many athletes and people already planned in advance and so many people already planned their trips and accommodation in Rio.”
Flights, room reservations and anticipated revenue shouldn’t be considerations at all. A change of venue would be terrible for Brazil but it wouldn’t be the first an international athletic competition was affected by public health concerns.
Three Olympiads have been cancelled due to war (1916, 1940 and 1944) and the 2003 Women’s World Cup was moved from China to the U.S. due to a SARS outbreak.
In its recent statement, WHO said cancelling or changing the location of the Games “will not significantly alter the international spread of Zika virus.” The organization has lots of room for improvement if the goal is to reassure athletes, media and fans wondering if they should make the trip.
The scientists, in a response to WHO’s response, were undeterred. “Rio’s official data show that the rate of mosquito-transmitted disease is three times higher in early 2016 than early 2015, including a surprising increase in the precise neigbourhood of the Olympic Park, they said in a statement Monday. “… clearly mosquito control and Zika control are not working as they must.”
Considering that evidence – and WHO’s possible conflict-of-interest – the 2016 Olympics are an “experience of a lifetime” that should be eschewed if they remain in Brazil as scheduled.
By DERON SNYDER
No one saw this coming, but Oklahoma City has stolen Golden State’s thunder.
The 73-win defending champions, darlings of the regular season, are dazed and confused, just like everyone else watching the Western Conference finals. The Warriors aren’t simply losing the series. They’re being trampled, stomped as if they don’t belong in the same league, let alone on the same floor.
Not surprisingly, the proceedings have raised questions from observers who never were completely sold on Golden State. They have found their voice after a season of murmuring.
Is Steph Curry really the NBA’s best player? Did they win last year simply because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were injured? Is the Warriors’ carefree brand of ball an evolution or short-term solution?
Golden State was so dominant during the regular season, never losing back-to-back games. Now it has been routed in consecutive contests by 28 and 24 points. The confidence and swagger has disappeared. The crisp passing and player movement are nonexistent. Just as shocking, the swarming defense has been shredded, with OKC posting a 72-point first half in Game 3 and again in Game 4.
Curry has looked like a mere mortal – even feeble – after playing Superman all year. The injured knee and ankle that cost him six games this postseason seem to be factors, though he and coach Steve Kerr downplay the notion.
“He’s coming back from the knee, but he’s not injured” Kerr said after Tuesday’s blowout. “He just had a lousy night (6-of-20 from the field with six turnovers). It happens, even to the best players in the world.”
Asked about the possibility of being hampered, Curry declined to make his health an issue: “No, I’m fine,” he said.
That’s more than we can say about the Warriors’ current condition.