Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Lance In Trouble?

It's over. The remarkable racing career of Lance Armstrong officially came to end on Sunday, January 23rd. He competed in his final international event, The Tour Down Under. No rider in the history of the sport won the Tour de France as many times. No rider in the the history of the sport made more money. And no rider in the history of the sport was more of a lightning rod.

Now what for Lance? He has talked about entering the Ironman in Hawaii this fall. He'll continue to head his Livestrong Foundation. He may even go into politics. But there is something else that will have to be dealt with in the immediate future.

The Feds are after Lance Armstrong. Bulldog investigator Jeff Novitzky is out to prove that Armstrong doped his way to his seven Tour titles.

The case the government is building is said to dwarf the BALCO investigation in terms of size and amount of work. Sports Illustrated, long a champion of Armstrong's, ran a feature story this week called "The Case Against Lance Armstrong." The French have been after him for years, and are assisting in the investigation.

But what do the Feds really have, and is Lance really guilty?

As of right now, it looks like there is no smoking gun. No positive tests that can be proven to be Armstrong's, no DNA on a needle, no video of him doping, no confession from the man himself. The case Novitzky is building is centered around testimony--multiple sources saying they saw Lance dope, they heard him talking about doping, or they doped with him. But the Armstrong camp dismisses most of these accounts as being from people who are jealous (Greg LeMond), who have no credibility (Floyd Landis), or who are obsessed with bringing him down (Betsy Andreu--and LeMond again).

There is no doubt that Lance has pissed off and pissed on a lot of people over the course of his 20 year career. He was known as a mafia-type boss of his teams. If you crossed Lance, you paid for it. He knows how to hold a grudge.

You can explain away the individual accusations: LeMond never had time to bask in the afterglow of his wonderful career--the year he retired, Armstrong rode as the World Champion and already America had it's next LeMond. There were also the stories of LeMond feeling as though Lance never paid him enough respect--and of course the fact that Lance went on to break most of Greg's records. Landis has no credibility--he lied about doping, swindled half a million dollars out of innocent people for his defense, then, when he had nowhere else to go and was broke, admitted he took drugs and tried to take Lance down with him. Betsy Andreu says she heard Lance in the cancer ward admit to doctors that he had taken every performance enhancing drug imaginable. The doctors present deny that, and Lance claims Andreu is obsessed with him (she apparently blogs about Lance non-stop).

But what about the argument that where there is so much smoke, there must be fire? Everyone who finished on the podium with Lance during his 7 year Tour-winning run has tested positive for doping. How could Lance beat all of those doped-up guys if he was clean? And what about the suspicious lab tests from the '99 Tour, or the early 90's USA cycling teams? (For the record, Lance's camp claims the samples are too old, or not his, or call into question the chain of custody--all valid) And it's more than just LeMond, Landis and Andreu who have stories about Lance. Could so many people be lying?

Lance, of course, has his backers. For every one person who says Lance doped, there are ten former teammates or coaches or friends who say they never saw any sign of it. That's where the Feds need a smoking gun to get a conviction. As a friend of mine who is closer to the situation than I am pointed out, the Feds will not go after Lance for doping--they'll go after him for perjury. They will hope to get Lance to testify under oath that either A) he doped, or B) he didn't--but then hope to have enough testimony from others that he did. Or hope to have a smoking gun that catches him in a lie. Or, at the very least, hope Lance takes the fifth, thus creating Mark McGuire-like speculation that he's hiding something.

Do I think Lance doped? I think there is a very good chance that he doped before his cancer diagnosis. The 90's were a filthy time for the sport. Everyone did it. Unnatural performances occurred. There was no test for EPO. The sport changed. After cancer? I would like to think he didn't--could someone who cheated death really pump themselves full of dangerous chemicals? Could someone who is an inspiration to millions of cancer survivors really risk his reputation and risk flushing his Foundation's work down the toilet? Could the most tested athlete in the history of the world really be that good at dodging positive results when everyone around him gets busted? It all seems far fetched--but possible.

Then there is the theory that Lance is his era's Babe Ruth. He is Jordan, Gretzky, Bolt, Phelps, or Tiger. That he was simply that talented and more driven than those he raced against. Do we think that every legend dopes, or are there simply athletes that come along who happen to be superior to everyone else?

Lance seems very confident that his name will be cleared. Many of his fans feel the same way. I don't think there is a smoking gun, and I don't think Lance will shock us with a confession, therefore it's my guess that nothing will stick. He'll move on. His reputation will take a temporary hit, but if he's cleared, his image as Tour winner and cancer fighter will remain, and that will be his ultimate legacy.

Having said that, if he enters the Ironman this fall and wins it by an hour, we'll need to revisit the subject.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

A Sign Of Things To Come?

I am not a gambler. I've been to Vegas once, and I can't imagine losing my hard-earned money on a sporting event. But, I do like to study the trends that gamblers use when they pick games. One trend says that NFL teams tend to cover the spread at a high rate the week after they lose their starting quarterback. The thought is that losing their leader galvanizes the squad. They focus harder. They prepare more diligently. They rally. The remaining healthy players know that they have to raise their play in order to pick up the slack.

When Dirk Nowitzki went down with a knee injury last month, I thought we would see the Mavs play well in his absence. I thought the wounded animal theory would apply. I thought that there was enough talent and chemistry present to overcome the temporary loss of their leader and best player. I was wrong.

As of this writing, the Mavs have gone 2-6 without Dirk, with one of those wins being against the D-League Cavs. Yes, the Caron Butler injury figures into the equation, too. But I heard one analyst say that losing Dirk and Caron is like the Thunder losing Durant and Westbrook. I disagree. OKC is a team that goes eight players deep--that's it. Dallas was considered, at the start of the season, to be one of the three deepest teams in the league. Plus, OKC is top heavy. Jeff Green is a fine player, but after that the Thunder don't have a Hall of Fame point guard, a Sixth Man of the Year who is supposed to be good for 18-20 a night, a four-time All Star Forward, and the two best centers in the history of their franchise. Kidd, Terry, Marion, Chandler and Haywood should be enough to prevent implosion. They have not been. Perhaps these Mavs have been exposed as not having as much beyond the Big German as we thought they might.

In 2005, the Spurs lost Tim Duncan for a 13 game stretch. They went 9-4. They proved (to themselves, most importantly) that they could win without their leader, which boosted the confidence of every player on the squad. Once Duncan returned, they went on to win the NBA title. Those Spurs lost arguably the best player in the game (at that time), yet they kept on winning. They proved that they had the foundation of a championship team. They worked harder. Role players stepped up. They refused to check out and wait for the return of their leader.

In any sport, when a team's leader goes down because of injury, it exposes the ability and character of the rest of the players. On the surface, this season's Mavs looked to be deep and talented and capable of making a run at The Finals. In reality, are we seeing that (behind Dirk) the scorers are, at best, aging and inconsistent? Are we seeing that if the team has to rely on defense to win that they can't? Are we seeing that the two centers are more limited than we care to admit? I'm afraid the answer is yes to every one of those questions.

I thought the most revealing game in this stretch without Dirk was the first game--against Toronto, and before Butler got hurt. The Mavs lost to a bad Raptors team. They had no fight that night. That was their first game without their leader--the game they were most likely to rally and play well. Instead they fell flat. That may have been the night that the true character of the team was revealed.

In the postseason, as usual, most teams will try to take Dirk out of the mix. If Dirk can't respond to that challenge, then the abilities of his teammates will make or break the series. That's why the last few weeks have been a bad sign.

A team's results after losing their leader will very clearly illustrate whether that team has championship mettle or not. Unfortunately for the Mavericks, the last couple of weeks without Dirk may have given us a strong indication that they are not title timber. I'm just glad I didn't bet on that fact, or I might have had to start charging people to read this crappy blog.

(Disclaimer: If Dallas goes to San Antonio Friday without Dirk and beats the Spurs, then ignore this post.)