Monthly Archives: September 2009

Donnie Walsh will repay faith of Knicks fans

274 days and counting. That’s how long until July 1 2010, the day when, if team president Donnie Walsh is to be believed, the New York Knicks will be reborn. The day when Lebron James comes to the Big Apple to breathe life into an organisation mired in hubris and humiliation for the last seven years. Assuming, of course, that LBJ not only decides to leave Cleveland but settles on Manhattan as his destination of choice.

The jury’s still out on what happens next July but the moves Walsh has made since taking over at Madison Square Garden now leave the Knicks with more salary cap flexibility than any other NBA team as the league gears up for the 2010 A-list free agent sweepstakes. In a world of knee-jerk reactions and win-now clamour, Walsh’s patience and willingness to play the long game is refreshing. The less he does, the more I trust him.

Cynics may point out that, from the abject state the Knicks were in after five years of Isiah “Doubt Him” Thomas, Walsh had no choice but to take the long view. That’s a fair point but the subtlety of Walsh’s moves and his refusal to be swayed by the fractious New York media give me reason to be optimistic that, come next summer, crowds at MSG will be in thrall to a re-tooled squad boasting two marquee names.
Think about it, Walsh brings in Mike D’Antoni, a coach 75% of NBA players are on record saying they want to play for. Add to that the pull of the world’s most famous arena and the planet’s most intense media market, and you’ve got a legitimate destination attractive to some, if not all, big name free agents.

Then there’s the resolution of the salary cap issues. Thanks to Isiah, the Knicks roster was chock full of has-beens and chemistry killers considered immovable. Oh really? With little or no fuss, Walsh moved on Zach “Black Hole” Randolph, Jamal Crawford and, unbelievably, Jerome “Big Snax” James each time taking back players whose contracts expire at the end of the 2009 season and freeing up more precious 2010 cap space. Walsh knows, like we all know, that Larry Hughes is terrible – but he can live with it because Hughes will be gone by the summer of 2010.

With the blunt realism of a retired New York cop, Walsh has continually admitted that it will take time for the Knicks to improve. Asking fans to accept two seasons of mediocrity before things improve is a real stretch but Walsh seems to have pulled this off to some degree. While I’m far from convinced native New Yorkers are as willing to accept this as I am, I still prefer Walsh’s pragmatic honesty to the smoke and mirrors of his predecessor. Remember when Isiah and Larry Brown referred to Steve Francis and Stephon Marbury as a backcourt pairing akin to Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe in a desperate attempt to paper over the cracks of their ineptitude? Well, I found that far more offensive than being told it would take a year or two for things to get better under Walsh and D’Antoni.

The recent re-signing of David Lee and Nate Robinson offers a window into Walsh’s motivational powers. I’ll admit the league’s current financial climate played a part in helping the Knicks keep their two most popular players but take a closer look at the deals and consider this. Both players were offered terms in excess of their qualifying offers, a show of respect to D-Lee and Nate that might help persuade them re-sign again next summer. Both players were also offered $1m bonuses if the Knicks reach the play-offs. Here Walsh is incentivising his stars to become leaders in the locker room, pushing them to develop closer ties with the team.

I’m not going to pretend that Walsh has been 100% with all the decisions he has made. You could point to the Stephon Marbury buy-out saga last year and point out that Walsh could have diffused the situation by giving Steph all his money and sending him home. Walsh’s initial plan to showcase Marbury in the hope of generating a trade was sound before D’Antoni complicated things by benching the star. Even so, allowing the saga to drag on and on divided fans and humiliated Marbury. Just think how much more Vaseline he could have eaten online if Walsh had bought him out prior to the start of the 2008/09 season.

The challenges for Donnie Walsh will continue into the new season. Somehow he needs to find a way of getting rid of Eddy Curry and Jared ‘Mr Fumbles’ Jeffries to maximise cap space for next season. He must also find a way of getting this Knicks team to 40 wins as it’s hard to envisage the likes of D-Wade, LBJ and Amare lining up for the honour of playing for a bottom-feeding 30-win team.

Walsh must surely be aware that all the work he’s done since arriving at the Garden stands or falls on who he signs next summer. If the pay-off for two seasons of suffering is Lebron, he’ll be a hero. If the big names stay put and the cap room is used to sign ball-hogs or has-beens, he’ll feel the sting from fans and media alike. But, based on what he’s done so far, there’s something about Walsh that makes me think he has the situation under control and that the good times at the Garden are just 274 short days days away.

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Karpov vs Kasparov and the greatest sporting rivalries

Twenty-five years ago, rival chess grandmasters Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov squared off in Moscow for the world title. It turned into a titanic five-month struggle. For many observers, Karpov represented Soviet order while the Azerbaijan-born Kasparov was cast as a rebellious anti-establishment figure. After 48 games, the champion Karpov led 5-3 when the match was terminated with no clear winner. One year later Kasparov would take Karpov’s title and successfully defend it in 1986.
So why would the Sports Bloke bring this up now? Glad you asked. A quarter of a century on from a clash whose significance went way beyond individual competition, Karpov and Kasparov have reunited, like a rock band looking to revive past glories, for a 12-game duel in Valencia, Spain.
I was nine years old when Karpov and Kasparov first played in 1984. Thanks to my uncle, I liked to play a bit of chess. I can remember reports about the world title match and thinking it strange that this funny little sport could make global news headlines. I didn’t understand it at the time but it seemed there was more than just sporting reputations and a trophy on the line. Karpov and Kasparov’s rivalry had transcended sport and entered, to some degree, mainstream consciousness.
The political significance of Kasparov and Karpov’s clash catapulted it into the pantheon of sporting rivalries but not all such duels become memorable because of politics. Sometimes, as with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, individual animosity can be enough. In Britain, perceptions of social class can make an intense rivalry all the more fierce as middle distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett can attest.
Though it is possibly the unlikeliest sporting duel to capture the mainstream’s imagination, Karpov vs Kasparov doesn’t make my list of the greatest individual (no teams) sporting rivalries of all time. Here, in Miss World-style reverse order, are my top five.
5. Borg vs McEnroe
The spectacular but short-lived duel between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe illuminated world sport for three years. The players could not be more different. Borg: the phlegmatic, ice-cool baseliner. McEnroe: the volatile, brash server and volleyer. Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry was defined by their fourth set tie break in the 1980 Wimbledon final. McEnroe won it 18-16 but lost the match in the final set. A year later, Mac ended Borg’s streak of five successive Wimbledon titles, a pivotal victory which led to Borg’s premature retirement a few months later. Borg’s exit robbed the sporting world of a definitive conclusion to the duel while McEnroe later admitted he struggled to motivate himself to play his best tennis without the opportunity to test himself against his great foe.
4. Leonard vs Duran
Although they fought for the third and final time in 1989, the rivalry between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran burned brightest for the six months in 1980 that spanned their first two fights. In their initial bout, dubbed “The Brawl in Montreal”, Leonard, bristling at his opponent’s pre-fight taunts, abandoned his slick boxing style to stand toe-to-toe with Panamanian known as “Hands of Stone”. His decision backfired as Duran edged a hard-fought victory on points. The inevitable re-match, which took place in the New Orleans Superdome, produced one of the oddest endings in boxing history. Leonard returned to his natural style and toyed with Duran, showboating to the crowd and doing all he could to humiliate him. During the eight round, Duran turned his back on Leonard, uttered the now-infamous words “no mas” and quit. Leonard was WBC Welterweight champion once again.
3. Coe vs Ovett
Like many great rivalries, the mutual antipathy between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett spurred both athletes to a string of record-breaking and medal-winning performances. The contrast between the pair was stark. Ovett, the rebellious, cocky man of the people who blew kisses to the crowd before he crossed the finish line. Coe, the diminutive, privileged University graduate who would go on to be a Conservative MP and peer. What the two athletes shared was an unquenchable hunger to be the best. Fellow athletes would stand in awe watching their training regimes.
Their duel at the 1980 Moscow Olympics gripped a global audience. Coe, favourite for the 800 metres, was beaten in his preferred event by a surging Ovett. Written off by critics, Coe then bounced back to win the 1,500 metres, ending Ovett’s 45-race winning streak over that distance. Four years later in Los Angeles, Coe defied the critics again by becoming the first man to successfully defend an Olympic 1,500 metre title.
2. Bird vs Magic
An individual duel that revitalised a team sport. The basketball careers of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were inexorably linked from the time the pair met in the 1979 NCAA tournament final. Magic’s Michigan Spartans downed Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores to become college basketball’s national championship. Five years later, Bird’s Boston Celtics met Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals and this time the whole world was watching. Their rivalry was irresistible. Bird was all blue-collar hustle and clutch shooting, the epitome of a dogged Boston team. Magic, with his speed, vision and exuberance, was the very essence of Showtime Lakers basketball. As individuals, they couldn’t have been more different. Magic was gregarious and his million dollar smile charmed reporters while Bird’s homespun shyness with the media gave him an air of mystery or, depending on your perspective, truculence. After being blown out in two of the opening games of the series, the Celtics rallied and finally prevailed 4-3. The pair would meet again in the 1985 and 1987 finals with Magic’s Lakers winning both series.
Like many sporting rivalries, Magic and Bird gained respect for each other’s skills in the heat of battle. Unlike many duels, they also became firm friends, bonded by an appreciation of how basketball should be played. When Larry Legend retired from basketball in 1993, Magic travelled to Boston to host his friend’s jersey retirement ceremony.
1. Ali vs Frazier
The seeds of the unbridled animosity between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were sown in the late 1960s during Ali’s exile from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the United States Army. Smokin’ Joe was world heavyweight champion while Ali was struggling to make ends meet. Frazier helped Ali financially and showed genuine concern over the former champion’s plight. Everything changed when Ali was re-instating as a fighter. Knowing his biggest payday would be a title showdown with Frazier, Ali began his usual routine of ridiculing his target. He dubbed Frazier “the gorilla” and accused him of “working for the enemy”, meaning the white establishment. By the time of the fight, your choice of victor said as much about where you stood socially, racially and politically. Frazier won the “fight of the century” on a points decision. He gained an even greater measure of revenge by felling Ali with his trademark left hook.
The rivalry would burn for four more years. Ali scored a points win over Frazier in a world title eliminator to earn a shot at George Foreman. After winning the title back at 32, Ali defended it against Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila”. The fight was so intense that Ali later described it as “like being in the waiting room for death”. At the end of the 14th round, Ali was ready to quit on his stool when Frazier’s cornermen threw in the towel. Thomas Hauser memorably described the Ali Frazier trilogy as “the world championship of each other”, with both men so stubbornly refusing to lose to the other that they were willing to die.

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The greatest cheats in sport

Whether you regard Formula 1 as a thrilling sporting spectacle or a high octane circus dedicating to advertising, glamour and money, it’s hard to deny the Flavio Briatore/Nelson Piquet Jr scandal is one of the most unscrupulous acts of cheating any sport has ever seen.

Briatore quit as principal of Renault F1 after the team released a statement that they would not dispute lurid allegations made by Piquet Jr that he had been ordered to crash his car on purpose at the Singapore Grand Prix, a scheme designed to help his team-mate Fernando Alonso win the race.

The audacity of Briatore’s plan and the almost casual way in which he put his driver in danger heaps disgrace on a sport riddled with controversy and allegations of corruption, more than enough to earn a place in the pantheon of outrageous acts of cheating. Here’s a countdown of 10 of the most scandalous acts of sporting chicanery.

10 – The Spanish Paralympics Basketball Team
At the 2000 Paralympics, Spain’s basketball team were ordered to hand back their gold medals after numerous members of the squad were found to have no disability. The Spanish Paralympic Committee confirmed it had ordered the medals to be returned after an inquiry found 10 of the 12 members of the team suffered no mental handicap.

9 – Rosie Ruiz
Sometimes the simplest methods of cheating can be the most effective. Rosie Ruiz’s nefarious efforts in the 1980 Boston Marathon earned her lifetime infamy. Ruiz won the race in a then-record time of 2:31:56, but it was later revealed she had simply registered for the race, jumped out of the crowd close to the finish and ran to the line to claim victory. A number of anti-cheating techniques, including video surveillance and time-monitoring chips worn by athletes, were introduced in the wake of Ruiz’s confession.

8 – Tonya Harding
It’s no easy task to make figure skating interesting to a global audience but Tonya Harding’s plot to nobble her rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics did just that. Harding conspired with her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly to injure Kerrigan’s knee and remove her from Olympic contention. Harding’s dastardly scheme was revealed before the Olympics and the US team attempted to bar her from the competition. She threatened legal action and was allowed to participate. Some justice was done as Kerrigan recovered from her injuries to claim a silver medal while Harding slumped to and eighth place finish.

7 – Roberto Rojas
Chilean goalie Roberto Rojas was banned from football for life and his country was kicked out of the 1990 World Cup after he tried to get a qualifier against Brazil abandoned because Chile were losing in a game they needed to win. When a firework was thrown into his penalty box he crashed to the ground, took a razor blade from his glove and slashed his head. Television evidence showed the firework landed nowhere near him and, after appeal, his ban was reduced to two years.

6 – 1919 Chicago White Sox
Modern day baseball is no stranger to accusations of cheating. However, America’s pasttime has been blighted by allegations of corruption throughout its history. One of the most infamous episodes came in 1919 when eight Chicago White Sox players conspired to throw the World Series after allegedly being bribed by gamblers. The players involved were later acquitted of criminal charges after evidence was mysteriously lost prior to the start of their trial but were banned from baseball for life.

5 – Michael Schumacher
He may have won seven Formula 1 titles but Michael Schumacher’s legacy is more heavily influenced by the methods he chose to employ when faced with championship defeat. In 1994, Schumacher derailed Damon Hill’s title hopes by driving into his rival and forcing him to retire in the season’s final race. The dastardly German tried the same trick with Jacques Villeneuve three years later but only succeeded in crippling his own car. Justice was done when Villeneuve won the championship.

4 – Ben Johnson
Athletics has been riddled with so many drug scandals in recent years that world records and medal-winning performances are now viewed with some degree of scepticism. Twenty-one years ago, when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold medal for taking anabolic steroids, it was one of the most shocking events in sporting history. Rather than looking at Johnson as a walking cautionary tale, many sprinters followed his example and cheated their way to victory. Most were caught out by ever-improving doping tests.

3 – Boris Onischenko
Attempting to cheat in an Olympic sport is bad enough but perverting the outcome in an ancient sport rooted in chivalry is even worse. Soviet modern pentathlete Boris Onischenko left the 1976 Montreal Olympics in disgrace when it was discovered he had equipped his sword with a button that allowed him to trigger Fencing’s electronic scoring system at will. Onischenko’s technical chicanery was eventually uncovered by Britain’s Jim Fox who reported his doubts over the Soviet’s string of victories. Onischenko’s weapon was replaced, and he was eventually disqualified.

2 – Hansie Cronje
South African captain Hansie Cronje sent shockwaves through cricket when he admitted to repeatedly attempting to fix the outcome of matches at the behest of Indian bookmakers. He was exposed as a liar and a hypocrite when it was revealed he was willing to fix matches for a bribe as small as a leather jacket. That he only asked black teammates to help him carry out his plans made it even worse. A tearful confession proved Cronje was nothing more than a petty, greedy corrupt individual hiding behind a veneer of fake Christian beliefs.

1 – Panama Lewis
Shame on you if you thought I’d have Diego Maradona at number one! El Diego gets a pass from this list as he cheated in the heat of the moment. All footballers cheat at every opportunity and Maradona was no different. It was the fault of the referee and his linesmen for not spotting the ‘Hand of God’ at World Cup 1986.
The Sports Bloke cites boxing trainer Panama Lewis as the worst cheat in the history of sport. Lewis earned lifelong infamy in 1983 when his fighter Lewis Resto faced Billy Collins Jr. Lewis removed most of the padding from Resto’s boxing gloves and soaked the tape that went on his fighter’s hands in plaster of Paris. Unsurprisingly, Resto delivered a brutal ten-round beating to Collins who left the ring with blurred vision and severely damaged face. Collins slumped into depression after the fight and lost his life nine months later in a car crash that many believe to be suicide. Lewis spent a year in prison for fixing the fight and was banned from boxing for life.

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Fabio Capello gives England every reason to believe

The dust has settled on England’s excellent performance against a disappointing Croatia at Wembley seven days ago. England’s five-star, five goal effort against a team who, less than two years ago, were considered the Three Lions’ nemesis-in-chief, secured World Cup qualification with two group games remaining.

It’s easy to get caught up in hysteria around the England football team. No sooner had the final whistle blown and journalists, pundits and fans were speculating on just how far Fabio Capello’s squad can go in South Africa in the
summer of 2010.

I don’t think we can draw any firm conclusions from the qualifying campaign. Many teams have dominated their groups in qualification only to flop in the finals. England in the 1988 European Championships immediately springs to mind. But England’s performance last week did provide firm evidence of the squad’s improvement under Fabio Capello and the methods the Italian has employed to get the most from his squad of highly paid superstars.

Capello described England’s performance in the first 30 minutes of the Croatia game as “perfect”. He praised his team’s passing, work-rate, pressing and movement. Contrast this with the nervous ineptitude of the same players under Steve McClaren against the same opposition two years before. Thanks to Capello, England are now a cohesive unit with a team ethos. Each player knows his role, understands his responsibilities and realises that any dip in performance will see him dropped. In short, Capello has made playing for England a privilege that must be earned and the players have responded.

Equally important is Capello’s relationship with his players. Unlike McClaren and Sven-Goran Erikkson, he has no interest in being their friend. He stands apart as their boss and his respect must be earned. After the final whistle against Croatia, skipper John Terry bounded towards Capello looking to put the Italian taskmaster in a celebratory bear hug. Don Fabio’s reaction? A simple, business-like handshake on a job well done. The England team is no longer the cosy club headed by JT, Stevie G and Wazzer or the better-to-be-lucky-than-good Eriksson regime where David Beckham received preferential treatment.

The dramatic two-year turnaround in the team’s fortunes has also confirmed one my own pet theories concerning the England team namely that there are just a handful of coaches able to successfully manage an elite group of English players. With wages and egos way out of control, any sign of weakness or ineptitude from an international manager is going to make these players switch off. Put it this way: who do you think has the gravitas and experience to make them listen and work? A man whose greatest achievement was to reach the UEFA Cup final and get thrashed or the man who has won league titles in Spain and Italy and a couple of European trophies to boot?

Aside from Capello, only Mourinho, Ferguson, Wenger, Hiddink and, at a stretch, Guardiola and Lippi, appear to have what it takes to command the respect and attention of a group of England players.

That aside, with qualification in the bag, what can we expect next summer? Anyone who tells you England will win the World Cup is a liar or at the very least a well-meaning optimist. England’s strong qualification puts them in a group of contenders trailing favourites Brazil and Spain. They number one of five or six teams who could win it if things go their way.

But predicting anything more than that is fanciful. And here’s why. Rooney, Gerrard et al are firing on all cylinders now. Next summer, they will have at least 60 more games in their legs. If recent seasons are anything to go by, most of England’s stars will see late season action at the latter stages of the Champions League. Come the World Cup, some will be knackered while other might not even be fit at all.

Secondly, there’s no telling how these players will respond to high-pressure situations. Can England win a game if they are reduced to ten men? How will they react if they fall victim to a chronic refereeing blunder? And what on earth will happen if the dreaded spectre of the penalty shootout appears on the horizon?

Capello’s England have not had the opportunity to answer these questions yet. We’ll only find out in South Africa. Yet, just two years on from McClaren and the most recent nadir of the England national team, Capello has instilled belief, passion, pride, skill and effort back into this side. Right now, expectations are rightfully high. Come next summer, we will be among the contenders. As for winning the World Cup, let’s be quietly confident, leave the WAGs at home and see how far this team can go.

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Why the Sports Bloke could never root for Michael Jordan

Michael Jordan’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend got me thinking about my opinions on the former Chicago Bulls star for the first time since he completed his second “three-peat” (© Pat Riley) of NBA championships some 11 years ago.

See, while the world swooned at the clutch shooting, acrobatic dunks, smothering defence and unmatchable will to win of Number 23 through the nineties, I continually struggled to warm to the man who can quite rightfully claim to be among the greatest basketball player in the history of the game.

Watching Jordan give his acceptance speech in Springfield and take time to throw in a few (justified) barbs at Jerry Krause and jokingly chide the ticket prices for the ceremony, I couldn’t help but think there was a better time and place to settle scores and bitch about money. This was supposed to be a celebration, a career-encapsulating honour, yet Jordan still felt compelled to take petty pot-shots. And it reminded me why I could never root for the man, even at the peak of his playing powers.

From my perspective, Jordan was a typically American icon. A born winner, an alpha male, the ultimate competitor. Mike’s presence in the NBA finals guaranteed record-breaking TV ratings and massive revenue from advertisers. America loves a winner so it tuned in again and again to watch the  Bulls demolish the Lakers, the Blazers, the Sonics and the Jazz from 1991 until 1998.

Jordan and the Bulls became the ultimate team for the glory hunters. The team you could support knowing you’d be satisfied at the end of the season. These days you only have to look at the way Red Sox fans outnumber home fans in baseball’s smaller markets like Kansas City and Oakland to see this trend is alive and well in the States.

But while America loves a winner, Britain loves an underdog. Rather than cheer for the predictable outcome of a Bulls victory, I wanted to see their opponents do the impossible and defeat Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and coach Phil Jackson. Surely Payton and Kemp or Stockton and Malone overcoming Jordan’s brilliance and dominance would linger longer in the mind than watching another Bulls triumph? Was there any real victory in a team led by one of the greatest ever players asserting their superiority over an eminently conquerable foe?

Let me say again, Jordan was a superb player accurately rated as one of the best of all time.

But he was so much better than his rivals that, for me, there was precious little entertainment  in watching him achieve what he did. He was born to win, he trained to win, he was supposed to win, he did win. Six times in eight years. And then he was gone.

So, I said it. And remember, it’s on me. As a Brit, I’ve been bought up to love the underdog and  dream of the unthinkable upset. For this reason, Jordan has to join Michael Schumacher, Roger Federer and Sir Alex Ferguson on my Mount Rushmore of sporting greats whose utter dominance meant I could never truly love them.

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