Wednesday, June 30, 2010

LeBron, LeBron, where should LeBron go?

LeBron James has a lot going for him.

He is a mega-superstar, playing for his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers, who have been actual title contenders since he came to them seven years ago. He has a multi-million endorsement deal with Nike, making commercials such as this one.

And since the Cleveland Cavaliers' exit from the NBA playoffs, he has been persona numero uno in the eyes of the sporting world. And on Thursday, he officially becomes the top prize in what could be the greatest free agent in NBA history.

The courters of King James have come out, with all sorts of enticements to sign their way, including rallies in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, the New York-centric backings of and, and websites galore from fans.

So where does he sign? To date, there are six teams in serious contention for his services: the Knicks, the Nets, the Heat, the Clippers, the Bulls and of course his current team, the Cavaliers. But how much chance do each of these teams have in signing him, and should he go to any of them? Let's count the ways:

The New York Knicks
Pros: It's freaking New York, which means oodles of exposure in the media capital of the universe and sure to follow, oodles of cash. New York offers what it does in terms of a world class city, and a chance to play for one of the NBA's storied franchises.
Cons: We are talking about the Knicks, who while being of those storied franchises, are also been among the worst. Ever since the reign of Isaiah Thomas as general manager and coach, the Knickerbockers have not finished above .500 since the 2000-01 season, and have qualified for the playoffs only once since then (2003-04). Plus, thanks to Thomas, there is no way they're going to improve anytime soon.
Chances of signing: Unless LeBron is purely in it for the money, I don't like his chances of signing here.

The New Jersey Nets
Pros: It's close to freaking New York, which means oodles of exposure in the media capital of the universe and sure to follow, oodles of cash. In 2012, they are scheduled to move into a new arena in Brooklyn. Plus, their ownership includes friend and rapper Jay-Z and new majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov has promised to pump millions into his new team to make them contenders again.
Cons: They're still in New Jersey, even if they have left the Meadowlands to play in Newark for the next two years. Plus, this team stinks. They contended for the worst record in NBA history before finishing 12-70. Since last qualifying for the playoffs in 2006-07, they have been in a freefall. Even with the Mad Russian and Jay-Z, LeBron would be hard pressed to sign here.

The Miami Heat
Pros: It's Miami, one of the great and happening cities in the world. The Heat have Dwyane Wade, a free agent but much more likely to resign if LeBron comes on board. Plus, the Heat have actually been competitive, finishing 47-35 last year before bowing out of the playoffs in the first round. If LeBron signed here, the Heat might actually be title contenders
Cons: While Miami is a happening town, it also is one of the worst sports towns in the U.S. Watch any Heat game, and you're bound to see oodles of open seats, even when they're playing a noteworthy opponent. LeBron likely would not change that.

The Los Angeles Clippers
Pros: It is Los Angeles, a city that if you're looking for exposure to the media world, it's a good place to be, even if you are playing for the Clippers. The Clippers have some talent in Eric Gordon and Blake Griffin, and if the rumors are true, record mogul David Geffen wants to buy a majority share and bring in King James.
Cons: We're talking about the Clippers here, one of the most cursed franchises in sports. This is a team that Bill Simmons at continually asks each draft which top pick will get injured before his rookie season is out. Plus, they are second fiddle in their own area, playing in the purple-and-gold laden Staples Center with the Lakers, who just won their second straight title. But the big problem is the current owner, Donald Sterling, who is known for trading away talent when they actually get good and making life miserable for anybody around him, including coaches and apparently, minorities.

The Chicago Bulls
Pros: It's a world class city that is only about five hours from Akron, Ohio. It's also big enough where if you want to be a media superstar, you can. It's a chance to play where his idol Michael Jordan played, and to play on a team that would be immediate title contenders with talent like Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. Plus, they have the money after trading Kirk Hinrich and his $9 million salary to Washington last week.
Cons: Not really any cons, except there are no guarantees in life or sports.

The Cleveland Cavaliers
Pros: It's a chance to stay home, where he is the big dog and has been since high school. The Cavs also have some decent talent around him that has the potential to go far in the playoffs, even if one of them is an aging and declining Shaquille O'Neal. Plus, Cleveland is a nice town that is on the rise.
Cons: The leadership is a mess, with the firing of coach Mike Brown and the resignation of general manager Danny Ferry in recent weeks. Tom Izzo of Michigan State flirted with the idea of coming to Cleveland before wisely deciding to stay in East Lansing. Plus, while there is talent on this roster, it should have produced already. Instead, it has faltered, including losing in the conference semifinals despite having the league's best record at 61-21.

The verdict: I would say Chicago and Cleveland have the edge, especially with one report saying LeBron and Chris Bosh to the Bulls is a "done deal."

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Proud to be an American

This weekend, we as Americans will celebrate the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a moment that officially put this country on the map and began the dream that is America.

Over the year, sports have become part of that American landscape and over the years, they have played a major role in bringing this country together, no matter your political, religious or whatever leanings.

So here in chronological order, more or less, are some of those moments.

-- 1936: Adolf Hitler is on the march in Germany and the rest of Europe, and back in the U.S., racism still rears its ugly head. Jesse Owens goes to Berlin for the 1936 Olympics, which Hitler had intended to be a showcase for the "superior" white race. Instead, Owens kills that notion, winning the gold medal in the long jump, 200 meters and the 4x100-meter relay and the 100 meters:

-- April 25, 1976: This country is in a tailspin. The Vietnam War had just ended. The economy is on its way down, and the dissension among the ranks is high. During the Cubs' game against the Dodgers at Dodger Stadium, two guys rush on the field, pull out an American flag and begin fumbling with a lighter. Cubs outfield Rick Monday, however, saves the day, by swiping the flag before flame hit cloth, drawing cheers from the crowd.

-- February 22, 1980: We're still in that tailspin, and this time, the odds are stacked even higher. The U.S. considers stopping the games in lieu of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in November 1979, and eventually leads to the U.S. boycotting the Summer Olympics in Moscow. But the Winter Games at Lake Placid, N.Y., went on, and the U.S. men's hockey team, essentially a bunch of college kids, went up in the semifinal against the mighty Soviet machine, who seemed to never lose. But they pulled off what has become known as the "Miracle on Ice," and brought this country together as hadn't been done in recent years.

-- January 21, 1991: The U.S. and other nations had just gone to war against Iraq, and patriotism is on the rise as Americans come out to support the troops. Sports leagues debate whether to cancel events, including the NHL with the All-Star Game at the Chicago Stadium. They decide to go through with the game, and it's a good thing, as Wayne Messmer and the fans produce one of the most spine-tingling, hair on the arm-raising moments I personally have experienced.

-- January 27, 1991: The NFL had had the same discussions as the NHL in debating whether to play Super Bowl XXV in Tampa. They ultimately decided to do it, and good thing, because it not only produced one of the better Super Bowls in history (The Giants beat the Bills 20-19 after Buffalo's Scott Norwood misses a game-winning kick as time expired), but it had this singing of the national anthem by Whitney Houston:

-- 1992: Ever since the U.S. men's basketball team got robbed at the 1972 Olympics in Munich in their gold medal game against the Soviet Union, we had floundered in subsequent Olympics. In 1992, we decided to finally allow our pros to play, much like other countries had been able to do. We send guys like Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley to Barcelona, and destroy everyone in our path, including poor Angola:

-- September 2001: On September 11, 2001, 19 terrorists commandeered four planes, crashing them into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and a field in Pennsylvania (some believe that plane was headed for the Capitol or White House in Washington). Sports stopped, with the NFL and college football postponing their games, and Major League Baseball stopping for a few days as well. When they did come back, there were tributes galore at every park, including this poem by Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck:

-- October 30, 2001: The Yankees have made it to the World Series, and President George W. Bush is called upon to throw the first pitch at Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. He throws a perfect strike from the mound, to the cheers of the crowd:

Monday, June 28, 2010

And they're done...

The anticipation had mounted. The backing had reached a fever pitch. And a country that had seen some serious divisiveness had almost come together.

But alas, the U.S. National Soccer Team's run in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa came to an end Saturday in Rustenburg, South Africa, with a 2-1 loss to Ghana. It ended in much the same way the American team's run had gone, with the U.S. falling behind early and having to scratch back. Ghana scored first at the five-minute mark, but Landon Donovan tied it up at 61' after the referee finally called a penalty kick (more on that in a minute). But after going into extra time, Ghana's Aasamoah Gyan scored the game winner in the first minute, and the U.S. couldn't come back in the remaining 29 minutes.

So what happened? Why did the U.S. get eliminated by Ghana for the second straight World Cup?

First, you must give a tip of the hat to Ghana, who showed they may actually belong among the big squads of the world. Gyan got the game winner, and Kevin-Prince Boateng got the first goal just four minutes into the first half. Plus, Andrew Ayew was a speedy terror the entire game, including setting up Gyan's game winner along the left wing as goalkeeper Richard Kingson kept pretty much everything out the entire game. They should give Uruguay a good fight in the quarterfinal on Friday.

Was it the officiating?

It seemed like the entire game, it seemed referee Viktor Kassai was hesitant to call anything on Ghana, while handing out yellow cards to Americans Steve Cherundolo, Carlos Bocanegra and Ricardo Clark (In his defense, Ayew and Jonathan Mensah also were carded). It seemed there was this anti-American attitude the entire tournament, with major officiating blundered against the U.S. in both the Slovenia and Algeria with goals disallowed and phantom yellow cards (Robbie Findley, for example, got a yellow against Slovenia for an intentional handball even though the ball went off his face first).

However, it just may be the officiating was dung for everybody, as evidenced Sunday's matches. England had a goal disallowed at the 38th minute in their match against Germany, a goal that was about a foot and a half in the net and would have knotted the game at 2-2. England ended losing 4-1 and being eliminated. In Sunday's other game, Argentina's Carlos Tevez got his squad's first goal against Mexico despite being clearly offsides. FIFA has refused to discuss any of the officiating blunders, which has helped make the calls for instant replay that much louder.

Maybe it was just blunders by the U.S. squad itself.

In every game they played except for the Algeria game, they fell behind early, and had to scramble to catch up (In fact, they advanced to the knockout stage despite only leading for three minutes the entire tournament). They almost pulled it off against Ghana, but they just couldn't make the comeback again.

Either way, if they had pulled off yet another miracle comeback, while it would have been the stuff of legends, a team like Uruguay likely would have snuffed them out eventually.

The good news, though, is this tournament again shows the U.S. team is on the rise, and could pose an even bigger threat in 2014 in Brazil.

Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley likely will be back, as should Charlie Davies, who missed this World Cup after being seriously injured in a car accident in October 2009. Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey may or may not be back, though goalkeeper Tim Howard likely may retire by then. Plus, the future of coach Bob Bradley is not certain, as nobody has discussed a contract extension just yet.

Either way, it should be interesting, and definitely should help the growth of soccer in this country.

Friday, June 25, 2010

The good, the bad and the ugly

A lot to cover, so it's time for the good, bad and the ugly:

The good: Landon Donovan saves the day for the U.S. National Soccer Team at the World Cup Wednesday, kicking in the game winner against Algeria in stoppage time and helping the U.S. win Group C. They will face Ghana in the round of 16 on Saturday. To celebrate, here is the Spanish-language version call of the goal from Univision:

Also, in keeping up with the debate on the vuvuzelas at this year's World Cup, we get a preview of an upcoming World Cup in a site not previously mentioned:

Also among the good are the Good Guys in Black, the White Sox, who won their ninth straight win Thursday with a two-hit, 2-0 shutout of the Braves. I don't know what woke these guys up, but all of a sudden, they're 2.5 games behind leaders Minnesota going into this weekend's series with the Cubs at U.S. Cellular Field. Things are definitely looking up for the Southsiders.

The bad: We knew it was coming, because professionals sports is a business, whether we like it or not. On Thursday, it was announced that the Blackhawks had traded wingers Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Eager and defenseman Brent Sopel and prospect Akim Aliu to Atlanta for the 24th and 54th overall picks in Friday's NHL entry draft, center Marty Reasoner, prospect Jeremy Morin and minor leaguer Joey Crabb.

The culprit: the ole salary cap. The trade shaves about $4 million off of the books for the Hawks as they try to adjust to next season's cap of $59.4 million.

As much as it hurts to lose Byfuglien, who had 11 goals during the playoffs, the Blackhawks do get a noted player like Reasoner and a look to the future with Morin.

And finally,

The ugly: The Cubs are 8-12 in June after Thursday's 3-2 win over the Mariners in 13 innings, leaving them eight games below .500 for the season (32-40) and eight games behind first-place St. Louis.

While the pitching generally has been good (save for the 12 runs given up against the Angels at Wrigley Field last Saturday), the hitting has continued to stink, especially this last series in Seattle. They were shut out 2-0 on Tuesday, only scrounged one run on nine hits Wednesday in an 8-1 Seattle win, and only six hits in 13 innings but won 3-2 thanks to strong pitching performances from guys like Ted Lilly.

The Cubs aren't completely dead, but if they don't turn things around like the White Sox (who were looking at some changes as recently as three weeks ago) have in recent weeks, Jim Hendry will have to do some serious house cleaning that could possibly mean his job, too.

And the jury is still out: The Bulls are playing the waiting game, trading guard Kirk Hinrich, French prospect Kevin Seraphin and cash to the Wizards for maybe a second-round pick in next year's draft. That will have to be sorted on July 8, when the trade can become official by NBA rules.

Why do it? It's all about making room under the salary cap for luring LeBron James and another top free agent (Toronto's Chris Bosh? Miami's Dwyane Wade? Atlanta's Joe Johnson?) to the United Center. Washington will absorb Hinrich's $9 million salary for someone who likely will babysit for top draft choice John Wall until the Kentucky star is ready, while the Bulls will have loads of money to bring top talent to Chicago.

We'll see after July 1.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Bulls of the future...

The Lakers are NBA champions, and it's time for the other teams to rebuild through the NBA draft.

That includes the Bulls, who have the 17th pick in this year's draft (thanks to the trade that John Salmons to Milwaukee), which is set for tonight. They could move up to 15th if the Bucks take that option as part of that trade, but let's assume they stay at 17.

Who do they pick? Much of that will depend on how seriously they want to pursue LeBron James and any other big band free agent out there. Chris Bosh of Toronto, Dwyane Wade of Miami and Joe Johnson of Atlanta are some of the other prizes out there.

The Bulls' big needs could be at forward or a shooting guard to best compliment point guard Derrick Rose. And the decision will have to be made without the benefit of knowing whether they have landed King James, who doesn't officially go on the free agent market until July 1.

Some of the mock drafts have some intriguing directions for the Bulls.

-- The Sports Network's John McMullen thinks the Bulls will go best player available and take Texas' small forward Damion James. James is one of the few seniors in the draft, but brings some good rebounding and defense, always good attributes for a Chicago team that has had trouble in those areas at times.

-- HoopsHype has another Longhorn, this time freshman shooting guard Avery Bradley, going to Chicago. Bradley is a good defender despite being only 6-3, and has improved his three-point shooting. However, he is only a freshman, and very raw. (Yes, I know Derrick Rose was only a freshman when he came out, but he was also a number one pick and a rare talent, not falling to 17.)

-- Bleacher Report has the Bulls going with Lithuanian 7-foot power forward Donatas Motiejunas. Big men are always a good thing, and Motiejunas has good range for such a tall guy. A scorer is good, but can he rebound?

-- also has a big man coming to Chicago in Marshall freshman center Hassan Whiteside. He's a big defender, averaging 4.4 blocks a game his only year in college. The scary part is the same predictor compares him to Tyson Chandler, which did not work out so well for the Bulls.

Who should the Bulls go with? I like Damion James because of his size and defense, but Motiejunas could be a good project if LeBron James does indeed come to Chicago.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Bad ref, bad!

It's official.

Officials, whether we call them referees or umpires, are starting to become more a part of the game than they should be.

There was Tim Donaghy, an NBA referee who in 2007 lost his career when he pleaded guilty to two counts of making calls during games to affect their point spread. More recently, there was Jim Joyce, an umpire who blew a call at first base, costing Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game against the Indians on June 2. On Friday in South Africa, there was Malian referee Koman Coulibaly, who disallowed the likely game-winning goal by the United States against Slovenia in the World Cup, leaving the game in its eventual 2-2 tie.

What is about the officials who are becoming as much a part of games as the players and coaches? Aren't they supposed to be in the background, nobly calling a game and making sure the players' skills shine through and be the only ones to affect the outcome?

Well, officials' mistakes aren't a new thing. There was umpire Don Denkinger, who called the Royals' Jorge Orta safe in Game 6 of the 1985 World Series, eventually leading to the Royals beating the Cardinals and eventually winning the series. During the World Cup qualifying in November 2009, the ref missed France's Thierry Henry's obvious handball against Ireland, leading to the winning goal that allowed the French to advance to the World Cup and knocking a strong Irish side out. In 1998 NFL referee Phil Luckett blew the coin flip call at the start of overtime of the Thanksgiving Day game pitting Pittsburgh and Detroit, saying the Steelers' Jerome Bettis called heads even though Bettis clearly said, "Tails," leading to the Lions' victory.

Now I can relate to a degree. I was a umpire for Little League games for a summer when I was in high school. I know I blew calls, and the parents and coaches let me hear it (though the kids were great). Officiating a game when others are depending on you making the right call and doing it fairly in the shadows in a rough deal.

Now I'm not comparing my experience with that of officials in higher-profile games, but I am talking about the officials' and the players' responses to the blown calls. Compare and contrast the aftermaths of the cases I brought up previously:

-- Tim Donaghy spent 15 months in federal prison for his part. Since his release, he has written a book telling his side of the story and has been a pain in the NBA's side.

-- The Cardinals, who were the favorites going into the 1985 World Series against the in-state Royals, could've come back against Kansas City and won Game 7, simply delaying the championship. Instead, they choked it away, getting blown out 11-0 and allowing George Brett and company to become heroes.

-- Phil Luckett was indirectly involved with another controversial on December 6, 1998, with officials on his crew allowing the Jets' Vinny Testaverde to score the winning touchdown against the Seahawks despite Testaverde clearly being stopped. That led to the NFL instituting instant replay in all games.

-- Swedish referee Martin Hansson let Thierry Henry's handball goal stand against Ireland, but regretted his mistake when he realized what had happened. An Irish sports officials offered his condolences, and Hansson was picked to be among the elite referees for the World Cup in South Africa. However, he has remained on the sidelines as an alternate fourth official, while the other European officials have called games.

-- The disallowed goal by Maurice Edu of the United States was not the only bad call Koman Coulibaly made in that game. He earlier gave American Robbie Findley a yellow card for an intentional handball, even though replays clearly showed the ball had gone off Findley's face and into his hands (and leading ESPN announcer Ian Darke to call it "the stupidest decision" he had seen in some time). FIFA referees said mistakes do happen, but they did not address the call in a media setting on Monday. Coulibaly, however, will not officiate any more games, at least during the first knockout stage.

The best response, however, was by Jim Joyce and Armando Galarraga. After the game, Joyce went straight to the umpires' room and watched the replay. He knew right away he had blown the call, and went looking for Galarraga. When he found him, he apologized immediately. Galarraga accepted the apology with no reservations and the next day, when Joyce worked behind the plate, the Tigers' pitcher brought out the lineup card.

Needless to say, that was the way to handle the situation. Clint Dempsey of the U.S. complained about Coulibaly allowing rough play to continue even though World Cup refs have said they would call games pretty closely. However, as a coach once told me, you don't put yourself in a position when a bad call could cost you the game. The U.S. could've played better in the first half and not stunk it up, allowing Slovenia to go 2-0 at the half and forcing them to have to come back.

You accept the human error and play the way you're supposed to play. If you play poorly and set yourself for failure, then you should accept whatever comes your way, good or bad.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Blow, baby blow!

One of the big stories out of this World Cup has been the vuvuzelas, the plastic horns that South African fans have taken to blowing at full volume for the entire game, every game.

With the sound of a swarm of bees, many soccer fans, especially on this side of the pond, have come out and called them annoying, saying they are ruining the experience and wanting them banned. Players (like the French) have said they are unable to concentrate on the game.

I'll say this: The vuvuzelas are part of the experience of South Africa soccer. They're no more annoying than Thunderstix, the Macarena at Yankee Stadium or any place, or the fans doing the tomahawk chop in any environment. If you can't concentrate during the game because of noise, go play tennis or golf where people are expected to shut up.

So in short, leave the horns alone.

British comedian Dave Benson came up with this great song on the vuvuzelas, based on Rihanna's "Umbrella."

Friday, June 18, 2010

U.S. Game Two and World Cup advertising

The United States play their second game of the 2010 World Cup today, this time against Slovenia, who is currently leading Group C with three points after beating Algeria on Sunday, 1-0 (The U.S. and England are tied for second place with one point due to their 1-1 draw on Saturday).

The good news is American goalie Tim Howard should be back in the net after suffering bruised ribs against the English. He'll be needed to ward off a surprising Slovenian attack, but the U.S. are the favorites against the small Eastern European nation.

I won't go so far as to call this a must-win for the Americans, but Slovenia is winning in the group with their win and England likely will take out Algeria. Three points, needless to say, would be good here.

Game time is at 9 a.m. CDT from Ellis Park in Johannesburg on ESPN. England and Algeria follow at 1:30 p.m. CDT on ESPN2.

But it's Friday, and what better way to kick off the weekend than with some great World Cup-related commercials.

Here's a fun one from BP airing in South Africa:

A boy works on getting another player to play the beautiful game with in this spot from Stratos, a candy company in Norway.

Pepsi has this spot featuring Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba, Brazil's Kaka, and Argentina's Lionel Messi:

World Cup Blog had labeled this Pepsi spot as positively the worst World Cup-related commercial to come out of the 2006 tournament in Germany. It features England's David Beckham and Brazil's Ronaldinho back when they were relevant to the game rather than just as celebrities.

And finally a spot on thinking positively from First National Bank of South Africa:

Happy Friday!

Thursday, June 17, 2010

How do the Bulls get to the Finals?

Tonight, the Celtics and Lakers will play it out in Game 7 of the NBA finals. The Celtics had been looking commanding after Game 5 in Boston when they claimed a 3-2 series lead, but the Lakers stormed back into the series with a 89-67 thumping of Boston at Staples Center Tuesday night to force the seventh and deciding game.

But the question for Bulls fans is this: Can the Bulls get back to this point, when they haven't been since 1998 and the glory days of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and if so, when?

A big part of that, I believe, will ride on whether they can entice LeBron James to come to Chicago. I'll wax on a little more soon enough on the reasons why King James should become a Bull, but if he did decide to leave Cleveland for the big city, he would be paired with a growing and great guard in Derrick Rose, and a up and coming forward in Joakim Noah. It would almost be like he could be Jordan to Rose's Pippen and Noah's Horace Grant.

LeBron would provide the spark that would make the Bulls instant contenders, and with maybe one other piece (another good guard to compliment Rose would be good) could put them over the top. The Bulls have already solved the coaching question with the hiring of Tom Thibodeau, who will be well seasoned after having helped guide the Celtics to the Finals for the second time in three years.

This might also play a role in whether general manager John Paxson will get to hang around. Paxson has spent the better part of his basketball life with the Bulls, first as a player during the glory days of the 1990s and now in the front office. Thibodeau could prove to be a good hire after the whole mess with Vinny Del Negro, but Paxson is on thin ice.

Simply put, if he signs LeBron, figure him to be as good as safe. Miss out on him and draft poorly, wish him well on his next NBA assignment.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Hail to Don Texas!

The Big 12 will not die, and it is all thanks to the University of Texas.

The Texas athletic department announced on Monday it would turn down an invitation to join the Pac-10 and remain in the Big 12, the conference it has been a member of since the Big Eight and four schools of the defunct Southwest Conference merged in 1996. With its decision, it also encouraged Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech to also turn down overtures from the Pac-10, and likely encouraged Texas A&M to also turn down a likely invite from the Southeastern Conference.

The Big 12 Texas and those other schools will remain in will be a paired down, 10-team version of its former self following Colorado's defection to the Pac-10 last Thursday and Nebraska's jump to the Big Ten on Friday, starting with the 2011-12 athletic year.

By staying, Texas and the others likely have saved the collective bacon of Kansas, Kansas State, Iowa State, Baylor and Missouri, who all faced going down to a lesser conference like the Mountain West or Conference USA if the Big 12 dissolved.

But at what cost was this imperfect union saved?

Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe worked until the 11th hour to save the conference, convincing Texas and the other schools that he could work a better television deal than what is currently in place. Most reports have had the dollar amounts ranging from $20 to $25 million for Texas and $14 to $17 million, according to the Orlando Sentinel. This is a significant jump up from the current $10 million and $7 million Texas and other schools like Iowa State are respectively pulling out of the deals with ESPN/ABC and Fox Sports Net. Also, Texas will be allowed to create its own network, something it would not have been allowed to do in the Pac-10, which planned to create its own conference-wide network similar to what the Big Ten and the SEC have in place.

That in itself is not so bad in itself. Texas gets to keep something the better deal it currently has in place because of its stature. And not to mention, this is better than the death of the conference.

The soul-selling piece of this and what likely will help keep schools like Iowa State and Baylor at the bottom of the food chain of the newly-revised conference is ISU, Kansas, Kansas State, Baylor and Missouri will give up to Texas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M their share of the conference revenue that will be withheld from Nebraska and Colorado for leaving the conference early. According to the Des Moines Register:

"Beebe didn’t provide an estimate of how much money that could be, but said that the conference intends to withhold 80 percent of the distributions scheduled to be paid to Nebraska and Colorado over the next two years under the conference bylaws.

Big 12 schools receive from $8 million to $12 million in revenue from the conference, meaning that the total amount of money offered by the five schools to the other three would range from a estimated high of $9.5 million to an estimated low of $6 million combined."

That is money that could have provided a temporary boost for a program like Iowa State, and now it will go the richer schools again.

But enough of the money aspects. What about what will actually take place on the fields and courts?

For starters, since the new Big 12 will have only 10 teams and not the 12 required by the NCAA for a conference title game in football, the deal that placed the title game at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, through 2013 is history, much to the detriment of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.

Another is that since there are now only nine teams for a school to play, each team will play each other once every year. That means that instead of having some years where it didn't face Big 12 South opponents like Texas and Oklahoma, Iowa State will get them every year, alternating between home and away every other year. With the wide gap in recruiting, money and talent, ISU, Baylor, Kansas, and Kansas State will face remaining at the bottom of the conference barring a breakout year.

The good news for those same schools is that in men's basketball, the Big 12 or whatever it may be called is going to be awesome, quite possibly the best in the nation. Each school will play 18 conference games, a home and away with each of the other nine schools. And with the talent level in this conference, it's going to be good. Texas itself is good, of course, but Kansas won the national title as recently as two years ago. Baylor, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Texas A&M are all up-and-comers. Missouri, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State usually are competitive, and even though Iowa State has been down the last couple of years, they have been a good team and have the potential to climb up again under new coach Fred Hoiberg.

How will this turn out? Will it remain this way, or will the Big 12 either face death again if Texas decides to look at other offers? Will they invite two more schools (Utah, BYU, TCU and Houston are possibilities) to make it 12 again?

It remains to be seen.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A day off...

Taking the day off. However, I will leave one impression of the U.S. National Soccer Team's 1-1 draw with England Saturday with you.

Have a good day.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Another lost season on the diamond?

Lost in the euphoria that is the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup last week has been the apparently lost seasons of the Cubs and White Sox.

Both are languishing in third place after last night's wrap-up game of the annual Crosstown series at Wrigley Field, both the Cubs and Sox 7.5 games behind leaders Cincinnati and Minnesota, respectively. Both have had chances to improve things, but life on either side of town just kept getting stranger.

For the Cubs' Carlos Zambrano, getting rocked for six runs in 1 1/3 innings in Atlanta on Opening Day and subsequent poor performances led to the $91 million man getting demoted to the bullpen by manager Lou Pinella, where he continued to stink things up as closer Carlos Marmol's setup man, and returned to the starting rotation on June 4, allowing three runs on six hits over 4 1/3 innings against Houston.

The starting rotation for the northsiders has been good to excellent, starting with Carlos Silva. Acquired in the offseason from Seattle, he was thought to be enough value to the Cubs in that they managed in the process to get rid of outfielder and all-around good guy (in his eyes) Milton Bradley after his disastrous 2009 season. But so far, he is 8-1 with a 2.89 ERA, losing his first game of the year on Saturday to the White Sox. Ted Lilly and Ryan Dempster also have been fairly solid, with Lilly posting a relatively small 2.90 ERA after this weekend.

It's the Cubs' bats that have been the question mark. Hitting hasn't the Cubs' strength in a while, even during the division winning 2007 and 2008 seasons. But even the quality hitters Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez have stunk up the joint. Ramirez, an All-Star as recently as 2008, has been particularly disappointing, hitting only .168 with five home runs before a thumb injury put him on the 15-day disabled list last week. Only new outfielder Marlon Byrd has been worth getting excited about, hitting .333 this year since coming over from Texas in the offseason.

This has led to a lot of disappointing losses, and the pitching staff struggling to keep the Cubs in games without a lot of run support. On Sunday night, for example, the Cubs still managed to beat the White Sox 1-0 despite only getting three hits, all after the seventh inning. The main reason the Cubs held on at all was because Lilly no-hit the Sox until the ninth inning, when outfielder Juan Pierre singled to end the no-no bid. There was also the real disappointment on Thursday, when the Cubs lost to Milwaukee 5-4 on a throwing error in the 10th inning from first baseman Xavier Nady.

For the White Sox, there's not a lot to write about. They're in the middle of the pack again, their World Series victory five years seemingly light years ago in light of the Blackhawks' recent title, which they celebrated Sunday night at Wrigley Field with both the Cubs Sox. They've showed signs of life recently, knocking out a four-game winning streak before Sunday night.

The main thing of interest here has been manager Ozzie Guillen, who has been speaking out on everything from the Blackhawks (saying the White Sox victory parade in 2005 was better) to apparently almost coming to blows with general manager Ken Williams, according to the Sun-Times over the White Sox drafting Gullien's son Ozney in the 22nd round of the draft last Tuesday (Guillen denies the almost altercation happened).

Either way, something's gotta change on both sides of town or we're just stuck waiting for the Bears or Bulls to do something to excite us again.

Could it be the managers? Sweet Lou Pinella could be counting the days before he decides to hang it up, which could mean any numbers of options for the Cubs, including bringing Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg, who is now managing the AAA Iowa Cubs in his fourth season of managing in the minors. Would the Sox fire Ozzie Guillen? If they're smart, they wouldn't do that.

It should come down to the men who have run and built these teams, GMs Jim Hendry and ken Williams. They're the ones who brought in these guys, and if anyone winds up leaving, it should be them.

Long suffering teased by a championship in another sports deserve as much. There's still plenty of time for either or both teams to turn things around, but something's going to have to give.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

World Cup off to a good start

The World Cup is off a good start, at least depending on who you are.

The host South Africa managed a 1-1 draw against Mexico in the opener Friday in Johannesburg, continuing a string of 14 consecutive openers where the host country doesn't lose. Now, there hasn't been a World Cup where the host doesn't advance past the group stage, but South Africa did themselves a big favor by gaining the point from a usually strong yet underachieving Mexican side.

Then there was the U.S. National Team, who also gained themselves a point with a 1-1 in their opener Saturday against England in Rustenburg, whom some have picked to make it to the final. It looked bad at first as Steven Gerrard (who plays for Liverpool in England) got past the U.S. defense and punched it past goaltender Tim Howard four minutes in to give the English the 1-0 lead. Howard took some pounding later in the half, banging up his elbow and then his head, but toughed it out like the good English Premier Leaguer (he plays for Everton) that he is.

Then there was the goal that England will not forget for a long time.

The U.S. managed to hang onto the ball long enough (England had possession 57 percent of the time) to get into the English zone. Clint Dempsey (who plays for Fulham in the English league) squibbed a kick forward to the English net and goaltender Robert Green (who plays for West Ham Untied in the English league). What happened will go down in history, as Green fumbled the easy kick as it rolled into the net to knot the game at 1-1.

English goaltending has not had a glorious history, but as analyst John Harkes said after the goal, you have to handle that kind of kick, no matter what level you're at.

Either way, it was a gift for the United States, who almost took the lead at the 65th minute with a Jozy Altidore (Hull City in England) run that was swatted away by Green at the last minute to keep the score tied until the end.

A win would've been nice for the U.S., but getting a point out of the English in what is the Americans' toughest game of the group is a good step toward advancing past the group stage for the first time since 2002 in South Korea and Japan. Next up for the U.S. is Slovenia on Friday, June 18 in Johannesburg, a game they should take. Slovenia plays its first game against Algeria later today.

One other note: This was probably my favorite commercial shown during Saturday's game on ABC:

Friday, June 11, 2010

U.S.A. ready for South Africa

Today, the World Cup will begin in Johannesburg, South Africa, when the host South Africa national soccer team takes on Mexico.

For U.S. and England fans, the big opener of course is Saturday when the two play in Rustenburg at 1:30 p.m. (ABC). This game could in a way tell us a lot about both sides' chance of advancing in this tournament, the first to be held in Africa.

The good news is both are in a reasonably easy Group C with Slovenia and Algeria, with the top two teams advancing to the knockout stage. Algeria is considered the weaker of some of the African teams, having managed to get past Egypt during qualifying, while Slovenia typically has not made much noise.

For the U.S., it's going to come down to overcoming injuries. Jozy Altidore hurts his ankle last week during the tune-ups, and while he is expected to play Saturday, the ankle will be tender. Plus, the U.S. also will have to be more consistent than it has been, with highs (a 3-1 win over Australia in the last exhibition last Saturday) and lows (a 4-2 beating on May 26 in East Hartford, Conn., at the hands of the Czech Republic, who didn't even qualify for the tournament this year in a tough European group).

What the U.S. team does after the group stage remains to be seen. It likely will draw someone like Germany or Ghana, against whom it will be the underdog. If it puts up a good showing against England tomorrow, with England expected by some like Sports Illustrated to make it to the final against Spain, the favorites to win it all, then the U.S. could go deep into this tournament like it did in 2002 in South Korea and Japan.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Championship Thursday

Needless to say, if the Chicago area newspapers were smart, the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup was on the front page. Here is a sampling:

Chicago Tribune

The Chicago Sun-Times

The Daily Herald

Red Eye

The Northwest Herald (Crystal Lake, Ill.)

The Southtown Star (Tinley Park, Ill.)

And for a taste from the other side, here is the Philadelphia Daily News:

Lord Stanley now lives in Chicago!

What a year it's been, and what a way for the Blackhawks to clinch their first Stanley Cup since 1961.

A squeaker by Patrick Kane past Philly goalie Michael Leighton 4:10 into sudden death overtime that was at first reviewed was the difference maker.

Game 6 was the battle everyone expected, with the Flyers taking advantage of the home crowd and some of the craziest fans in sports to keep it close. But the Hawks proved to be too much for them.

It was a heck of a time getting to this point.

Just two years, hockey in Chicago was almost nonexistent.

The Hawks were mired in a decade-long slump, 15 years away from its last finals appearance (a 4-0 sweep at the hands of Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992) and having only made the playoffs once (2002) since 1997. Attendance was down, and much of the blame was placed on longtime owner Bill Wirtz, who refused to show home games on television (to preserve the product for the "season reservation" holders, he said) and managed to chase away any talent and respect the Original Six franchise had.

In September 2007, he passed away after a brief bout with cancer, and his son Rocky took over the reins.

Rocky Wirtz immediately began to make changes. He struck a deal with Comcast SportsNet Chicago to begin showing home games, and broadened the deal later to include WGN-TV. He coaxed back Blackhawk legends Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, who had not been on good terms with Bill Wirtz, as "ambassadors" for the team. He also hired away John McDonough from the Cubs to be the team's new president, and brought back popular announcer Pat Foley, who had been fired two years earlier by Bill Wirtz.

The 2008-09 season proved to be the first step back. The Hawks squeaked into the playoffs for the first time since 2002 and weren't expected to go far, but they got by the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks before falling in five games to archrival Detroit.

This year, the Hawks came in as contenders, and they played like it all season, finishing second with 112 points behind the top seed San Jose Sharks. The first playoff round against Nashville at first was tough, but the Hawks got through before taking on Vancouver again. They stayed out west, and took the first two games in San Jose before finishing off the sweep at the United Center.

Then there was the final against Philadelphia, who were this year's Cinderella team. Qualifying for the playoffs as the East's seventh seed on the last day of the season, they knocked off New Jersey and came back from 3-0 down against Boston to crack into the conference finals against the Montreal Candadiens, themselves an eighth seed and playing over their pay grade. They knocked off Les Canadiens, and set up for a battle against the Blackhawks, who were the heavy favorites.

The Hawks proved to be up to the challenge, taking a high-scoring Game 1 6-5 last Saturday in Chicago before taking Game 2, 2-1, to take a 2-0 lead to Philadelphia. The Flyers, however, refused to die, winning Game 3 in overtime and dropping a mistake-filled Game 4 to bring the series at 2-2 back to Chicago Sunday night.

Game 5 proved to be the turnaround, as the Hawks behind Dustin Byfuglien's two goals and two assists and coach Joel Quenneville's line change to neutralize the Flyers' Chris Pronger and win 7-4.

But last night, Game 6, was a potential heart stopper, as the Hawks and Flyers went back and forth. But it was the Hawks and Patrick Kane who proved to have what it took, and the Stanley Cup comes back to Chicago for the first time in 49 years.

The Tribune reports that the victory parade in downtown Chicago will be at 10:30 a.m. Friday, with the rally at 11:30 a.m. at Michigan Avenue and East Wacker Drive. As Quenneville told NBC after the game, "The party's going to be unbelievable."

So true.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Could this be the night?

Tonight the Blackhawks will take on the Flyers in Games 6 of the Stanley Cup Final (Why did the NHL change the name of the final series to this? They do realize there is more than one final game, right?)

One of the big questions the Hawks will face, along with how the Flyers' Chris Pronger will react to the Chicago Tribune's poster that put him in a skirt, is who they will face in the Philly net. Michael Leighton typically has been the starting goalie, but was pulled for Brian Boucher in both Games 1 and 5 after getting lit up in both games, including three goals on 13 shots in the final eight minutes of the first period Sunday night. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette hasn't said as much, but appears to be leaning toward Leighton for Games 6.

The other big question is can the Hawks actually win in Philadelphia. So far this year, they are 0 for 3 at the Wachovia Center, including their lone regular season appearance in March as well as Games 3 and 4. Plus, it promises to be as hostile environment as it ever has, if not more.

The Hawks will have to rely on what got them here, including the offense that was spurred by Joel Quenneville's line change just before Game 5 that led to Dustin Byfuglien's big two goal, two assist performance Sunday night. In addition, Niemi will have to be on "good Antti" in keeping the Flyers. Plus, captain Jonathan Toews will have to step up.

The Stanley Cup will be in the Wachovia Center tonight, tucked away somewhere in the bowels of the arena. Can this be the night the Blackhawks hoist it for the first time since 1961?

We shall see.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Hawks one win away from ending a long drought

Amazing what a change in scenery can do for a team, especially when that scenery is Home Sweet Chicago. 

The Blackhawks pulled themselves out of whatever funk they were in Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia with a solid 7-4 win over the Flyers in Game 5 Sunday night at the United Center. Dustin Byfuglien was the big star, netting two goals and two assists in the big win.

This win leaves the Hawks one win away from their first Stanley Cup since 1961. To put this in perspective, think about what it was like between then and now:

In 1961, John F. Kennedy was President, the first Catholic ever elected to the office. In 2010, Barack Obama is President, the first black man ever elected to the office.

In 1961, the NHL consisted of only six teams, concentrated primarily in the Northeastern and Midwestern United States (Chicago, Detroit, Boston, and New York Rangers). In 2010, there are 30 teams, including only six teams in the motherland of hockey, Canada, and teams in places that might see ice outdoors in a rare ice age (see Phoenix, Los Angeles, Anaheim, (Miami) Florida, and Tampa Bay, not to mention other nontraditional hockey towns like Dallas and (Raleigh, North) Carolina).

In 1961, the communist Soviet Union loomed large over American politics, including the Bay of Pigs fiasco in Cuba. In 2010, the U.S.S.R. is no more, having dissolved in 1991 into 15 republics, with Russia a largely democratic country (depending on who you talk to – we won’t argue that point here).

In 1961, the top movie of the year was the musical “West Side Story.” In 2010, the best picture Oscar went to “The Hurt Locker,” which told the story of an Army bomb squad in the Iraq War.

In 1961, Blackhawks goalie Glenn Hall made about $180 a game, working at a fast-food joint during the summer to make ends meet, according to the Edmonton Journal. In 2010, Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning made $10 million this season.

Finally, it had only been 53 years since the Cubs last won the World Series in 1961. By 2010, the streak had extended to 102 years and counting.

Speaking of the Cubs, they currently own the longest title drought in American team sports, with the last title coming in 1908. In the NFL, it is the now Arizona Cardinals, who last won the title as the Chicago Cardinals in 1947. In the NBA, it is the now Sacramento Kings, who last won the title as the Rochester Royals in 1951. And next in line for longest championship drought in the NHL if the Blackhawks manage to clinch the title are the Toronto Maple Leafs, who last won in 1964.

Game six and quite possibly the clincher for the Blackhawks comes on Wednesday night from the Wachovia Center in Philadelphia. The game and hopefully the victory celebration will be on NBC.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The World Cup's coming to a galaxy near you...

Adidas has this great spot leading to the start of the World Cup later this week:

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Bulls get their man

The Bulls have their man.

No, I'm not talking about LeBron James. The Bulls and other teams can start pursuing King James and other free agents after July 1.

I'm talking about their new head coach, Tom Thibodeau, most recently an assistant with the Boston Celtics, apparently has agreed to be the Bulls' new head man.

One knock on this is that after the debacle that was Vinny Del Negro's tenure in Chicago, the Bulls would go after someone with head coaching experience. Thibodeau's only head coaching experience was in 1984 at Division III Salem (Mass.) State University, according to the Chicago Tribune. The rest of the time, after four years as an assistant at Harvard, has been as assistants in the NBA, including stops in Minnesota, San Antonio, Philadelphia, New York and Houston.

However, he does have coaching experience, like 25-plus years worth. This is unlike Del Negro, who came in with zero coaching experience, just some time in the Phoenix Suns' front office after retiring as a player. Plus, according to the Tribune, he comes highly regarded by his players.

He is expected to formally accept the job after the NBA finals are over At this point, the Celtics are down 1-0 to the Lakers, with Game 2 tomorrow night.

Other notes:

-- The Blackhawks sure stunk it up last night in Game 4 in Philadelphia, losing 5-3 to the Flyers to bring the series tied at 2-2 to the United Center tomorrow night. While Patrick Sharp finally scored, Antti Niemi got left out to dry in the first period as the Flyers put in three quick goals for the biggest lead in the series. Hopefully, they can come out out of this two-game tailspin (longest of the playoffs for the Hawks) back home in Chicago.
-- Carlos Zambrano returned to the Cubs' starting rotation in Houston last night, and had pretty much the same result as he did opening day in Atlanta. He got rocked in the first inning as the Cubs lost 3-1. While he did settle down and made it to the fifth inning, he was unable to do anything to lift the Cubs out of their doldrums. But then again, as good of a hitter he is, he can't do all of the hitting, too, leading to rumors the Northsiders could trade guys like Derrek Lee, a rumor he has denied.
-- Trades could be a-coming for the White Sox, too, if they don't start picking things up, manager Ozzie Guillen says. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski and pitchers J.J. Putz and Bobby Jenks have been mentioned as possible trade bait.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Hawks make run to Lord Stanley's Cup

Since the last time this column has been published, we have seen the transformation of the Chicago Blackhawks from also-rans in the NHL to at least championship contenders made almost complete.

The Flyers so far have provided all of the competition the Hawks can handle, fighting to a 6-5 Chicago win in Game 1 last Saturday and a 2-1 Hawks win Monday night before finally claiming a 4-3 win in overtime in Game 3 Wednesday. They have scrapped, beaten and taken advantage of some generous calls by the officials to stay in contention in this series to the highly favored Blackhawks.

So what do the Hawks do for Game 4 in tough Philadelphia and bring it back to the United Center for a possible clincher Sunday night in front of the home fans?

First, goaltender Antti Niemi needs to get his groove back. Niemi was simply awesome during the conference finals against San Jose, allowing no more than two goals in any one game against the top-seeded Sharks as the Blackhawks swept the series. He lost it in Game 1 against the Flyers, but fortunately was backed up by a charging Hawks offense. He got it back in Game 2, only allowing one goal on 33 shots in the Hawks' win, only to lose it at the crucial time on some badly timed goals allowed Wednesday in Philly. He will need to do much better if the Hawks are to lengthen their lead in the series and not suffer the same fate the Bruins did surrendering a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semis against these same Flyers.

Second, the top line of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp will need to step it up. Toews has been pretty quiet during the finals, mainly because of the defense of Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger. Fortunately, guys like Kris Versteeg and Dustin Byfuglien have covered him in getting some key goals at the right times. Toews is due, especially if Pronger does something stupid and either spends too much time in the penalty box or simply gets thrown out of the game.

Finally, the Hawks could get a boost if Andrew Ladd comes back into the lineup. Ladd's been gone since getting hurt in Game 4 of the conference finals.

Either way, Game 4 is a must-win for the Hawks. Lose it, and they're feeling the pressure as the series is tied up going back to Chicago. Win it, and Sunday could be the greatest day for hockey in Chicago in a long time.