By DERON SNYDER
Some Nationals fans who are Generation X and millennials might not understand the cultural reference of calling the team’s latest pitching phenom “Cool Hand Luke.”
Nearly 50 years have elapsed since Paul Newman starred in the classic prison drama about a convict who refuses to conform. But Lucas “Luke” Jackson remains one of the most assured and composed characters that Hollywood ever produced.
It’s far too early to make long-term predictions about Lucas Giolito, the Nats’ rookie pitcher who made his major-league debut Tuesday. However, based on everything we’ve seen and heard to this point – including four rain-shortened innings in which he allowed one hit and zero runs against the New York Mets – Giolito is ready-made for the nickname.
“The thing that impressed me most was that I saw him so relaxed,” catcher Wilson Ramos told reporters. “At no moment did I sense that he was feeling pressure in any way. He was locating his pitches very well and attacking the zone. And then I was very surprised to see how relaxed his composure was out on the mound.”
He had plenty of time to relax during a 55-minute rain delay prior to his first pitch. But the wait could’ve worked against him, too, allowing nerves to build and anxiousness to mount. Giolito is widely considered the No. 1 pitching prospect in baseball and he was replacing injured Stephen Strasburg, who captivated MLB and D.C. in his debut six years ago.
By DERON SNYDER
Brandon Jennings rolled the dice and won in 2009 when Milwaukee chose him with the 10th pick of the NBA Draft. Emmanuel Mudiay made a similar gamble and came out on top last year when Denver picked him at No. 7.
Neither player spent a second in college before landing in the lottery, working around the NBA rule designed to prevent prep-to-pro scenarios. Instead of toiling for one season at the Kentuckys and Dukes of the world, Jennings and Mudiay bounced overseas, where they played in Italy and China, respectively.
Last week brought us the curious case of Thon Maker. He took his chances and watched them pay off – though only figuratively in this instance – when Toronto selected him out of Orangeville Prep with the 10th pick.
We haven’t seen a draft pick enter the NBA directly out of high school, with no professional experience in-between, since the class of 2005. But the league doesn’t list Maker’s last stop as “Orangeville Prep;” that would be too jarring.
No, NBA.com lists “Athlete Institute (Canada)” as Maker’s prior “Club/Team.” That makes his experience sound a lot more international, like 18-year-old Dragan Bender, drafted fourth overall out of “Maccabi Fox Tel Aviv (Israel).”
Maker qualified for the draft by exposing a newly dubbed “prep school loophole” that has caused consternation among college hoops aficionados. The 7-1 power forward met the age requirement to be drafted (19) and successfully argued that he’s two years removed from high school but stuck around for an extra season at Orangeville Prep, aka Athlete Institute.
Fifth-year high school seniors aren’t uncommon when players need more time to improve their grades before entering college. But Maker is the first to use a year of prep school in lieu of a year on campus before entering the draft.
By DERON SNYDER
Serena Williams turns 35 in September, which is hard enough to believe by itself. But part of her birthday celebration could include the modern record for major championships if she wins the U.S. Open earlier that month.
Williams can tie Steffi’ Graf’s mark (22 majors) with a victory at Wimbledon, which begins Monday. Last year, when she left the All England Lawn Tennis Club and Croquet Club as champion for the sixth time, she could have pulled even with Graf AND pulled off a calendar Grand Slam at the U.S. Open. It seemed like a fait accompli until a shocking upset knocked her out in the semifinals.
She hasn’t been the same since.
Now there are thoughts that Williams is succumbing to Father Time and Mother Age, the vaunted tag team that’s undefeated against top athletes and everyone else. The 0-for-3 streak in majors – she also lost in the French Open final this month and the Australian Open final in January – has exposed her vincibility and encouraged her competitors. Is her tenure as the world’s No. 1 player coming to an end?
“I think it’s just a matter of time, honestly,” Garbine Muguruza told reporters prior to beating Williams in the French. “There is a lot of players out there fighting for it, and Serena eventually is going to, you know, go a little bit down because she’s like forever there. So we’ll see.”
We haven’t seen Williams win lately, but we’ve seen a lot of her otherwise.
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.