Sunday, June 26, 2011

Christmas in July

"To say that the race is a metaphor for life is to miss the point. The race is everything. It obliterates whatever isn't racing. Life is the metaphor for the race."

Donald Antrim

The sport of bicycle racing has been my passion since I was 12. I would pedal up to the bike shop and read the European racing magazines. The pictures blew me away--pictures of men who looked like they were suffering in the worst way, riding shoulder to shoulder with the snow-capped Alps as the backdrop. It was a world that few in this country (and nobody at school) knew about, yet in the photos the crowds along the roadside were huge.

The Tour de France, I would learn, was (and is) the world’s largest annual sporting event, with over 20 million spectating in person each year and another one billion watching on television around the globe. It’s a magical, three-week odyssey, circling France--clockwise one year, counterclockwise the next--with a history chock full of incredible stories. Since the mid 90’s, however, we’ve come to learn that many of the riders who authored those incredible stories have had some serious pharmaceutical help.

Pro cycling is, without question, the hardest sport in the world. The Tour is the hardest single event in the world. Many events can rival a single Tour stage in difficulty, but no event demands that you compete at such a high level for three weeks straight. The five-time French Tour champion Jaques Anquetil once said “how can you expect to win the Tour on bread and water alone?” In his day (the 50’s and 60's) amphetamines or liquor helped the riders get over the Pyrenees. Today, it’s EPO or testosterone. Cycling’s governing body has done a better job than any other sport in the world of trying to police the cheats--first-time offenders are banned for two years--but the demands (and rewards) of the sport have the cheats always trying to come up with the next great drug or next great masking agent.

As one of the biggest bicycle racing fans alive, even I have a tough time getting past the sport's dirty recent history. How many Tours since 1991 have been won by clean riders? I’m afraid the answer may be less than five, and possibly less than one. I hate that drug use has sullied such a beautiful sport. But, like a lot of sports fans, I’m able to compartmentalize--like the baseball fan who cheers a bulked-up slugger or the football fan who roots for an impossibly big and fast linebacker, I’m able to watch a bike racer fly up a mountain and still get a thrill from it.

It will be hard to watch Alberto Contador in this year’s Tour, but I’ll still watch. The sport is still a spectacle. The HD helicopter shots of the French countryside are still breathtaking. The bikes are still cool. The voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are still quite comforting. And, the drama of a battle up l’Alpe d’Huez or a close time trial is hard to beat. Yes, the sport has it’s problems, but which sport doesn’t? And, I’m not alone in feeling this way--20 million will again line the roadside in France, and one billion will again watch around the world.

The Tour is Christmas in July for me. Each day’s stage is a present waiting to be unwrapped. It’s also a trip down memory lane--each summer as I watch the race, my mind's 'refresh' button gets clicked. All of the great moments from Tours past which motivated me through countless miles of my own training and racing are recalled. Merckx or Hinault destroying the field. LeMond vs Fignon. Roche getting oxygen at the top of La Plagne after saving his yellow jersey. Bridesmaid Zoetemelk winning, at last.

I appreciate the fact that I now get to watch televised coverage of the Tour live, every day. When I was first discovering the sport in the late 70’s, I had to wait three months to find out who had won the race--the results were never printed in the sports page and there was no Internet, so I had to wait for the October issue of “Bicycling” magazine to learn who had come out on top. In 1981, NBC did a few minutes on the Tour when Jock Boyer became the first American to ride it (that was also the first time I had ever seen moving pictures of the race), and CBS did weekend coverage of the event in the mid 80’s when LeMond burst onto the scene. Today, we are spoiled.

So what kind of race do we get this summer? Who will win it? How many will test positive? My picks:

1. Alberto Contador. Yes, it's hard to believe the tainted meat story. But it's also hard to deny that Contador is the best bike racer in the world. If everyone is doping, Contador wins. If everyone is clean, Contador wins. He’s one of the best ever. He’s won the Tour, Giro and Vuelta--only Merckx, Gimondi, Hinault and Anquetil have done the career sweep of the three big races. He can’t be dropped on the climbs, and he will time trial better than he did last year (he recently finished 3rd in the Spanish TT Championship). He may be a little tired from winning the Giro in May, and victory in the Tour will not be as easy as it was in Italy, but he’s still the favorite. We’ll have to wait for his August hearing to find out if all these wins count.

2. Andy Schleck. If he doesn’t drop his chain on Stage 15 last year, he probably wins the race. At 26, he’s in his prime--the problem is that Contador is 28 and in his prime, too. Schelck has not been impressive this season, getting dropped on the climbs in California and Switzerland. But we said the same thing before last year’s Tour. He has a way of peaking for this race. He’ll benefit from the team time trial, but most likely lose time to Contador in the individual time trials--and since there is more time to be won and lost in the individual TT’s than in the team TT, the advantage swings to Contador. (By the way, are we all sure the Schleck brothers are clean? If Contador is doping, then how can Andy and Frank match him pedal stroke for pedal stroke? This is the sad thing: nobody in the sport seems beyond suspicion.)

3. Ivan Basso. His entire season has been focused on one last good shot at the Tour. At age 33, he probably won’t be able to climb with Contador and Schelck, but a podium spot is not out of reach.

4. Sammy Sanchez. Underrated rider. Can climb and time trial. Will be a factor.

5. Robert Gesink. 6th last year. Great climber, not much in the time trials. Will win a mountain stage.

I have a feeling that this Tour might be too much for elder statesmen like Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, the evil Alexander Vinokourov, and the high-talking Cadel Evans. Oh, and Mark Cavendish will win most of the sprints--he’s got 15 career Tour stage wins, and getting to Merckx’s record of 34 is not out of the question considering Cav is just 26 years old.

I'm glad the team time trial is back--it's poetry in motion. I'm looking forward to the Stage 8 finish at Super Besse. Stage 12 over the Tourmalet and then up to Luz Ardiden is a classic Tour route. And Stage 18, finishing on the mighty Galibier, could be epic.

There you have it. Hope you enjoy the 98th edition of “La Grande Boucle.” I know I will. So will the 12 year old inside me--and he won’t have to wait three months to find out who wins.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Dirk's Place in History

Let’s face it: it’s all about the ring. People like to pretend it’s not, but if you are a quarterback or an NBA superstar, leading your team to a title is the most important thing.

Baseball players have limited chances to affect the outcome of a game. They may get four at-bats or a few chances in the field. A starting pitcher goes every four or five days. In football, a QB gets 20-50 (or more) opportunities to directly impact the contest. He touches the ball on every snap, as well. Titles matter when judging QB’s--not so much for LB’s or WR’s or anyone else on a football team. In the NBA, everything is centered around your star--they have a chance to impact the game in more ways than any other sports stars, and it's always up to them when the game is on the line. That’s why championships in baseball and for non-QB’s in football are way down the list that determines who gets into the Pantheon of Greats in their sports.

When judging a player, the ring matters to me--a great deal. I look at Dirk differently now. I looked a Garnett and Pierce and Allen differently after they won it all. I looked at Billups differently after his Finals MVP. The playoffs are the ultimate proving ground in a sport where one player can make a monumental difference.

Dirk entered basketball’s Pantheon with his stirring performance in this postseason, which culminated with a title. Following the ’07 season, I had serious doubts as to whether Dirk would ever lead a team to a championship. I’ve been more bullish on Dirk the past three seasons (see previous blog entry), yet still I had a hard time imagining that he would go postal on anyone who got in his way this postseason like he did. The biggest Dirk homers would have to admit that even they didn’t think 57% FG, 73% 3PT, 94% FT and a sweep against the Lakers was a possibility.

Dirk gave us a performance for the ages. Had the Mavs fallen short of a title, the performance wouldn’t have carried anywhere near the weight it does. Dirk’s postseason is one of the four best post-Jordan runs we’ve seen (Shaq ’00, Duncan ’03, Kobe ’09). He was epic, and better late than never. In six weeks, Dirk went from “one of the best to have never won a title” and a top 40 guy, to "member of the exclusive championship club" and a top ?? guy.

So how high does the title push Dirk on the all-time list? Cuban and Carlisle have both recently said that Dirk is a top-10 all-time guy. Many think Dirk is equal to Larry Bird.

Here are my top 20 NBA players of all-time. I'll explain my thoughts and criteria as we move down the list.

1. Michael Jordan. Really, this is one of the easiest decisions in sports. Jordan is the best ever, and the more I consider his regular season and postseason numbers, his epic close-out performances in The Finals and his unmatched desire to win, I don’t understand how anyone could not have him ranked 1st. The Wilt fans are either 1) delusional 2) one of the 20,000 women he slept with or 3) the many who were so put off by Jordan’s HOF acceptance speech that they will never give him any credit at all.

2. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This is the first spot where it gets tough. It’s between Kareem, Wilt and Russell here. I give Kareem the edge. He won more titles (6) Finals MVP’s (2) and regular season MVP’s (6) than Wilt (2-1-4), and he was better all-around than Russell (who was much more limited on the offensive end than Kareem). Kareem is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, and was as much or more of a game-changer in college and the pros as Russell and Wilt were.

3. Wilt Chamberlain. The most physically dominant player ever (as much so as Shaq, but more skilled). Crazy individual numbers, but the knock against him was his sheer will to win, or lack thereof. Still, he won two titles, and to get into my top 10 you better have multiple championships. Averaging 50 ppg for a season is pretty good, too.

4. Bill Russell. 11 rings (plus two more titles in college). The greatest winner ever. Not a great offensive player, but maybe the best-ever on the defensive end. And a tremendous desire to win.

5. Magic Johnson. Another pure winner. Whatever it took. Five-time NBA champ. When he filled in for Kareem and played center in Game 6 of the Finals his rookie season, he scored 42, grabbed 15 boards and had 7 assists. That performance alone is enough to get into the top 5.

6. Larry Bird. Very close between Larry and Magic, but Magic’s 5 (6 including college, although Bird gets some credit for taking a bunch of total spares to the championship game) titles--many against Bird--make the difference. Bird won 3 NBA titles, and, like Jordan, was a natural. I’ve always thought the Bird-Dirk comparisons were ludicrous--and while I’ll still take Bird, it’s at least a good conversation now. The funny thing is, it’s the color of their skin and hair that seem to stir the debate. They don’t even play the same position. We should compare Dirk to Barkley, Duncan, Malone and Garnett. We should compare Bird to Dr. J, Wilkins, Worthy and Baylor. Do me a favor and google "Larry Bird great passes"--a four minute YouTube video that will show you why Bird and Dirk are not comparable (sorry, I still can't figure out how to add a link on blogspot or I would have given you the shortcut--I suck).

7. Tim Duncan. This is the second spot where it gets tough. It’s between Duncan, Kobe, Shaq and Hakeem. Duncan gets the nod because of his all-around game, and because of the fact that he was a finished product when he entered the league, maximizing his impact. Also, won titles without a Kobe or Shaq at his side--Robinson was aging, and Parker and Ginobili are very good, but not great, players. His four titles trump Hakeem’s two, his three Finals MVP’s trump Hakeem’s two, and his two regular season MVP’s trump Hakeem’s one.

8. Kobe Bryant. The closest thing to Jordan the NBA has ever seen. But not Jordan. Still, five titles...and counting.

9. Shaquille O’Neal. Four rings. Only one regular season MVP--probably should have won five or six.

10. Hakeem Olajuwon. Late bloomer (like Dirk). Two titles, and he completely carried those Houston teams. Gives thanks every day that Jordan played baseball for two seasons.

I think the top 10 are easy, although you may debate the order. Starting with number eleven, we get into guys with one ring. It’s a big group, and it starts to merge with great players who never won a ring. I will lean toward to players with titles as a tie-breaker.

11. Moses Malone. Might be the most underrated player ever. His numbers were ridiculous (in ’82 he averaged 31-15). He won three regular season MVP’s, and one Finals MVP (his only ring, in ’83 in Philly).

12. Oscar Robertson. Won one title, but rode young Lew Alcindor’s coattails to get it. But if you average a triple-double for an entire season, you’re a stud.

13. Jerry West. Many experts have West in the top 10, and if not for the Celtic dynasty, he would have ended up with more than one ring. But he didn’t. Great scorer and clutch performer.

14. Julius Erving. My ABA bias may be showing here, but I say Dr. J won three titles, not one (yes, two were ABA). The ABA was very competitive--the numbers put up in that league should be counted in any career scoring ranking. As a rookie in the playoffs, Erving averaged 33 points and 20 rebounds. His athleticism was breathtaking. As a basketball icon, he probably ranks second behind only Jordan. Not a great outside shooter, but an underrated passer and defender. Three time ABA MVP, once NBA MVP.

15. Dirk Nowitzki. He’s not in the top 20 without his newly-won title, but a championship changes everything. Proved himself to be clutch when it matters the most, and proved to be a leader. If 2011 Dirk had played for the 2006 Mavs, they would have two titles. Possibly the best pure shooter ever, and before he’s done will move way up on the scoring list.

16. Elgin Baylor. Old-timers will crucify me for putting Baylor behind Dirk, but Baylor never won a title or an MVP award. Magnificent talent. Not much footage of him in his prime exists, but I understand he was Dr J-like. In his prime he averaged about 35-15. Yikes.

17. Bob Pettit. One title, two MVP’s. Career 26-16 guy--huge numbers, but I tend to slightly discount the numbers of the old-timers who played in a league full of guys who looked like my dad.

18. Charles Barkley. Had Sir Charles won a ring, he would be pushing the top 10. Too bad, because he was a tremendous force. He accomplished things at 6’4-ish that he shouldn’t have been able to. Could shoot outside, or post you up. Could rebound with the best. Could run the floor and pass. Maybe even better as a broadcaster, definitely worse as a golfer.

19. Karl Malone. I remember Karl for finishing on breaks and for his 18 footer. And for not winning a title. There was just something about him that was amiss.

20. John Havlicek. Never thought he was that great, but I have to acknowledge his accomplishments. 8-time champion and once the Finals MVP. Superb defender. Wins the 20th spot ahead of Bob Cousy, Rick Barry, David Robinson and Isiah Thomas. LeBron and Wade will be in the top 20 one day, just not this day.

So there you have it. Dirk is a top 15 guy. When the Mavs drafted a skinny 19 year old German back in 1998, I think everyone would have taken top 15 all-time. Could he ever be a top 10 guy? He'll need at least one more ring to get there. And if this version of Dirk remains valid for a few more seasons, another ring (or two) is a possibility.