I'm sitting third row at the Hawks-Cavs game, flanked by two large, handsome Midwesterners. To my right is the 6-foot-5 pastor of the Third Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, who has a full head of gray hair and is wearing a tracksuit and glasses. The woman to my left is tall, too, with transfixing eyes and a habit of touching your knee when she's talking to you. None of us has been this close to an NBA game before. This is surprising, considering that the man and woman — Kevin and Laine Korver — have a son on the court who's been in the NBA for 10 years and has made a 3-pointer in 89 straight games.
Chris Ryan: December is not April, as Everton manager Roberto Martinez and Newcastle boss Alan Pardew made sure to mention over the weekend. Big results against Arsenal and Manchester United saw the Everton and Newcastle managers answering questions about their respective clubs' Champions League qualification chances.
December is not April. But it's not October, either.
"It's great for the league," Toronto coach Dwane Casey told reporters before last night's Raptors-Lakers game. "It sucks for us tonight."
"Yeah, I think the expectations are too high," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said beforehand. "But he'll probably meet ’em."
Because Mamba Mentality is immune to pressure. And injuries. And age. And all the other excuses other mortals fall back on.
If you see Kobe in a fight with a bear, pray for the bear. If you see Kobe in a fight with the Toronto Raptors, expect a religious awakening, with Kobe rising from the ashes in front of 20,000 Lakers fans who never doubted him.
That's obviously not what happened at Staples Center on Sunday, but first and foremost I'll remember Kobe's comeback game for how high everyone's expectations were. There's no better testament to Kobe than how excited everyone was to watch a guy who by any reasonable measure should not have been playing basketball eight months after rupturing his Achilles. We should've known this would be depressing, but somehow Kobe convinces everyone to abandon logic. This is his greatest superpower.
A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.
Another Black Eye
The weekend included plenty of important games and individual highlights. But those won’t be the focus today, because as seems to be the case a few times every season, the hockey world is instead left reflecting on yet another scary incident of needless violence.
This time it came in Saturday's game between the Penguins and Bruins. The teams have a long history with each other, and their recent matchups have featured plenty of bad blood. But Saturday’s game went well beyond that, and it left both teams facing down injuries and suspensions.
We've seen more hot stove action to this point than in any other season in recent memory. Still, plenty of questions remain as baseball's annual winter meetings begin today. Short-handed teams will look to fill their roster holes before the pool of quality players dries and test the trade market as the free-agent crop dwindles; contenders will aim to shore up their squads; and the handful of remaining impact free agents will try to snag big deals before the money train grinds to a halt.
Here are five story lines to watch as baseball's executives gather in Orlando.
1. Are the Dodgers Going to Trade Matt Kemp?
My hunch: Yes. It just makes too much sense to not happen. For starters, the Dodgers have a positional logjam. Kemp is one of four outfielders on the major league roster who should be starting, and it's not as though the Dodgers can DH Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier, or Yasiel Puig. There's also the health factor, as Kemp's injuries have transformed him from an MVP-caliber star in 2011 to a replacement-level player just two years later. There are concerns over Kemp's ability to play a passable center field even if he can stay in the lineup. There are rumors of a rift between Kemp and upper management. And then there's the fact that the Dodgers' goal from the get-go was to make a splash early on, then settle into a saner business model in which scouting and player development matter, the roster includes both high-priced stars and young up-and-comers, and there's at least a shred of fiscal prudence, even if the payroll remains high.
The Raptors canvassed damn near the entire league in their quest to become the second team in two seasons to dump Rudy Gay well in advance of the trade deadline, according to sources across the NBA. They went to every team that made at least some theoretical sense: Detroit, with expiring contracts and at least some need on the wing; Milwaukee, with fading postseason ambitions and a massive hole at small forward the Greek Freak isn’t quite ready to fill; Cleveland, with a playoff mandate, a GM on shaky ground, and perhaps the worst group of starting wing players in the league; and many others.
Everyone said no, and they did so abruptly. This is how far Gay’s value has declined league-wide over the last 18 months. I know GMs who say they wouldn’t touch him now in free agency for the midlevel exception. Only one team was left: the Kings, with a new ownership group determined to make a splash and a new GM, Pete D’Alessandro, who worked with Toronto GM Masai Ujiri in Denver. The Kings’ wing rotation is a disaster, even after the recent acquisition of Derrick Williams, who has never resembled an NBA-caliber small forward. The Williams swap and DeMarcus Cousins max-level extension left Sacramento without meaningful projected cap room this summer, putting the Kings in a position where they could plausibly look at Gay’s $19 million player option for 2014-15 and say, “No harm, no foul.” The Raptors were betting Gay would pick up that option given his poor play this season, and dealing Gay allows them to plan with more certainty.
LeSean McCoy: Weather was a theme all over the league yesterday, but what happened in Philadelphia was something entirely different. I can’t remember a game in which diving for the ball meant players temporarily disappearing.
When McCoy did this to Glover Quin in his (ridiculous) second half, part of me was worried it would end with Quin buried deep enough that he’d never be found.
This was the McCoy game that has seemed so close all year but has never quite happened. His 184-yard debut came on 31 carries, but since Nick Foles took over, there have been plenty of underwhelming outings. Apparently it took a blizzard to finally bring McCoy’s open-field advantage to an unfair place. McCoy has led the league the past two seasons in broken tackles, according to Football Outsiders, and I’m guessing he will again this year. His 1,305 rushing yards now lead the league, and if he somehow managed to string together a couple more big games and got to 1,600 for the year, I don’t know who would be surprised.
It was 34 degrees in New York City yesterday, but my son Sam and I decided to spend 45 minutes in the cold walking home up 9th Avenue instead of sitting in Madison Square Garden watching the second half of the Knicks/Celtics game.
I can’t offer Zach Lowe–like analysis of the statistical inequities between the teams. But I can try to bring you inside what it feels like to still care about a team that so obviously doesn’t care about us.
We've never been able to have terribly productive conversations with readers who begin diatribes with "THE MEDIA " due in some part to the fondness those folks have for claiming NARRATIVE MANIPULATION. There are a couple of problems with this: namely, that the level of coordination it would require to execute whatever sinister plot you're convinced we've hatched against your team and only your team borders on the superhuman; also, that we would like to think our personal narrative manipulations occur right out in the open and consist of story lines for which no one would ever think to pay.
Then there are the times when we find ourselves in thrall to story lines already fully formed, to narratives asserting themselves with such force that there's nothing to do but sit back and take notes. We've been hollering for a couple of weeks now about the importance of the conference championship races and what a shame it is that they get glossed over en route to the big-money bowl announcements. About how the most beautiful thing about this game is found in its deeply weird regionalism, but the matchups between the best teams of those regions don't get their due affection. We're not alone.
Week 15’s response to serving as the opening act for Sunday night's BCS selection show — if you can call Week 15 a sentient being, and why not, since we already called it the season's "vestigial tail" — was a full-throated tantrum for attention, featuring all of the following: one would-be BCS buster getting tossed from the Cinderella carriage by a conference rival; one repeat quelling of a desert uprising; one cannibalization of a power conference; one league title for a team named for both a food and a bird; one team that lost all of its conference games in 2012 securing a bid for the national title game; the mere presence of Duke football in a conference championship game; bowl eligibility for a program created in 2009, achieved at the expense of the Sun Belt champ; a Heisman candidate in a wrestling belt; a two-year winning streak snapped less than half a game short of a BCS title bid; and this:
Surrounded by family, Urban Meyer eats postgame pizza very quietly in corridor beneath Lucas Oil Stadium. pic.twitter.com/80FtTVegWQ
We know that no. 1 Florida State and new no. 2 Auburn will play for the national championship on January 6. We'll get to that, but Week 15 sways quietly in the background for no person, no thing, no institution. Here's how it happened, in rough chronological order, and what happens next.
In case you were busy finding a new locker room from which to ban stat sheets, here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
Kobe Bryant returned to action after rehabbing from last year's Achilles tear, but his Lakers suffered a rare home defeat to the Toronto Raptors 106-94. "It's OK that we lost," Bryant said after the game while sitting in the locker room. "Fear can be a very powerful motivator." Suddenly the lights in the locker room went out, and horrifying screams echoed through the facility. The lights flickered on briefly, and a young girl was standing with her back to Lakers guard Nick Young, singing, "Do you want to play with me?" in a sweet tone. Then the lights cut out again before quickly coming back on. The girl had turned around, and instead of a child's face, she had the face of Popeye Jones. "Do you want to play with me?" the little girl with Popeye Jones's face sang in a scratch baritone to a terrified Nick Young. The lights cut out again, before coming back on to reveal everything back to normal. As Nick Young curled into a ball on the locker-room floor, Bryant chuckled to himself by his locker, and said, "Yes, things will be all right. Fear is a very powerful motivator."
The Seattle Mariners have agreed to terms with Robinson Cano on a 10-year, $240 million contract, marking the most dramatic example to date of a franchise taking the $26 million per team per year in new national TV money and actually spending it. It’s a good deal for Cano and a potentially great one for the Mariners.
That new TV deal, announced 14 months ago, granted broadcast rights to Fox and TBS through 2021. Combine that with the league's existing ESPN deal, and teams now stand to earn $12.4 billion over the lifetime of the contracts, more than doubling previous totals. Last winter and so far this winter, we hadn't seen many teams that lack the big media-market power of L.A. or New York or Boston spending top dollar to land marquee players. The closest we'd come was Minnesota signing right-handed starters Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes in rapid succession to contracts worth a combined $73 million. This free-agent class, like last year's, is short on superstars, but it still felt odd that the small- and medium-market clubs that had suddenly received a huge windfall of cash seemed content to stick the money under their mattresses, rather than spending it on good players who could help win games. Credit the Mariners for finally getting it.
Season Total: 0 jermajesties (Is that even possible?)
Yes — that is possible and accurate. After 13 weeks and 20,000+ nonsensical babbling words, my NFL proposition picks have netted you exactly zero jermajesties. (Obligatory weekly explanation: A “jermajesty” represents the fake name given for a dollar amount in this series. It’s also the unfortunate name of one of Jermaine Jackson’s sons.)
As ineffectual as I’ve been, I refuse to take the blame for last week. That Titans first-half screw job was one for the ages. Not to mention, I went a remarkable 0 for 3 in a three-team 10-point teaser. That’s very difficult to do. In fact, I really should receive something for that stellar effort. Maybe malaria?
Are you feeling down about the United States men's national team World Cup group draw? Do you feel like some global conspiracy plopped Jurgen Klinsmann's boys into the Group of Death? Are you already having dark, twisted fantasies about the U.S. squaring off against Klinsmann's home country of Germany, and Klinsmann deciding, right before kickoff, that Landon and Bradley are looking a little peaked and maybe it's time to see if Kyle Beckerman can handle the midfield in the 7-1-2 formation that Klinsmann invented right there on the spot? Do you feel like the Stars and Stripes will be making a sequel to Up in the Air called Up in the Air II: Holy Crap, Brazil Is Huge, traveling nearly 9,000 miles during their group campaign? Is this all making you wonder whether America is really the chosen country Bono said it was on The Joshua Tree? Here's what I say to that …