We're only days away from Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, and their legions of supporters descending on London for the all-German Champions League final. And to help contextualize the occasion, the Men in Blazers welcome everybody's favorite German, Dirk Nowitzki for a special, extended interview. Dirk offers Michael and Roger his thoughts on the Mavericks' footballing equivalent, what Mark Cuban can learn from Dortmund, Jurgen Klinsmann's Teutonic streak, and ultimately weighs in on LeBron James's questionable claims to the beautiful game.
One would expect the rest of the pod to be devoted to the final weekend of the English Premier League. But one would be wrong. Though the pod was a timeless classic, due to some technical difficulties, it's gone on to podcast heaven. May it rest it peace.
In case you were out welcoming summer by busting out the old double Dutch (and failing, because double-Dutching is really hard, guys, stop laughing) here's what you missed in sports last weekend:
The New York Knicks were eliminated in six games by the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. The defeat proves their season, in which they won their first division championship since 1994 and 50 games for the first time since 2000, was an utter and abysmal failure. Their capitulation to a comparably good team that was able to steal an early game at Madison Square Garden and then hold serve at its home arena, which was among the hardest places to get a win in the NBA all season, further proves that the team needs to be torn down, because the guys on the Knicks just don't care enough. Sure, they were a magnificent block from one of the few true centers left in the game away from forcing a Game 7 at home, but I think it's clear, based on this series, that the New York Chokes (clever nickname, eh?) are the lousiest bunch of basketball players the NBA has ever seen, and they should return their salaries to team owner James Dolan before turning themselves into the NYPD for crimes against the state.
Oxbow upset Kentucky Derby winner Orb to win the Preakness Stakes after going out as a 15-1 longshot. The win was a boon for the small population of semi-literate foodies, who misread the horse's name and have little understanding of how horse racing works, as they placed large amounts of money banking on the resurgent popularity of the ingredient oxtail to carry the day. In somewhat related news, someone in Florida just won $600 million playing Powerball.
About a year ago, Bayern Munich played Chelsea in the Champions League final, losing on penalty kicks. It was a heartbreaker; Bayern were, overall, probably a better team, and they were playing in front of their home crowd at Allianz Arena. What did Bayern's dynamic central midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger want to do when, after having his penalty kick saved by Petr Cech, Chelsea's Didier Drogba won the trophy for the West London club? He, like any true baller, wanted to run it back.
Above is a video, via TrueHoop's Henry Abbott (and BekoBBL), of an interview with Schweinsteiger conducted at the German League basketball playoffs. Schweinsteiger, attending a Bayern vs. ALBA Berlin clash, talks a bit about the idea of introducing a basketball-style playoff system to football. At the end of this month, Bayern will play fellow Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League final. Bayern will have appeared in three out of the last four finals, losing to Inter Milan in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012. After going through the whole Champions League gauntlet, surviving the occasionally arduous group stages, and making it through several rounds of two-leg knockout rounds, teams meet in the final and it's death or glory. Since Bayern has lost the last two finals they've competed in, it's not a shock to hear Schweinsteiger entertaining the idea of a best-of-whatever series to decide the final.
"You can get revenge back for a defeat. We lost in the final of the Champions League last year, and we certainly wouldn't have minded a second or a third game," says Schweinsteiger (or his translator, to be specific), much to the delight of the lady interviewing him. "It's fairer that way. I think the system in basketball is good because whoever ends up as a winner has deservedly won. It's not just because of one fortunate victory."
In case you were busy stirring up debate, here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
LeBron James was a near unanimous choice for the NBA's Most Valuable Player award, securing 120 of the 121 available votes. About Last Night is all about starting debate, not shying away from controversy, and being real with the audience, so we salute the brave soul who decided that Carmelo Anthony had a better season than LeBron James. Unfortunately, that voter, who remains anonymous as of press time, didn't go far enough, placing James second on his ballot. That's no way to start a real debate about value in the NBA! For those interested in engaging in the debate, the official ALN MVP ballot (which was submitted to the NBA in the hopes that they would include it, though ALN is, despite much public pressure, still denied a vote) will be revealed at the end of this column.
The Chicago Bulls, again playing without Luol Deng, who was suffering the aftereffects of a spinal-tap procedure gone awry, still managed to close out the Brooklyn Nets, 99-93, to set up a second-round matchup with the Miami Heat. Now I know a lot of people in Chicago are up in arms about whether Deng and Derrick Rose should be playing at less than 100 percent. Here's my thing: I don't think any Chicago Bulls should be playing. Carlos Boozer's steadfast refusal to sit out games is an affront to sports, and he should not be allowed to continue any longer.
Let's take a look at what we learned (aside from "fear the rise of Germany") from four matches in which we certainly learned to fear the rise of Germany.
Life After Gotze
Borussia Dortmund midfielder (and soon to be Bayern Munich player) Mario Gotze was subbed off after less than 20 minutes of their second-leg match at the Bernabeu with a suspected hamstring tear. His removal had a rather negative effect. Kevin Grosskreutz, who by the standards of German midfielders is an elderly 24, came on for Gotze. Marco Reus, who started the match in a roving left winger role, shifted into a more central position, more advanced than where Gotze had been playing. Grosskreutz tucked in on the left.
While his positioning and tracking were acceptable, Grosskreutz's touch and decision-making were not. Too frequently play broke down as balls were funneled in his direction. Grosskreutz is a very good player to have as your first choice off the bench in the Bundesliga; he is not up to the standards of starting in the midfield for a Champions League finalist.
Gotze is a unique talent, but he will have to be replaced with someone capable of creating alongside Reus. Problem is, Dortmund already lost that player. His name is Shinji Kagawa and he plays for Manchester United now.
Jurgen Klopp's Borussia Dortmund side has had an eventful week. On the eve of their Champions League semifinal first leg against Real Madrid, it was announced that midfielder Mario Gotze would transfer to Bundesliga rival Bayern Munich after this season. Dortmund took the news in stride, beating Madrid, 4-1; the scoreline somehow both flattered the Real's effort, and all but assured Dortmund's passage into the Champions League final, pending today's result. Then over the weekend, in Bundesliga action, Dortmund's prodigal son Nuri Sahin drilled what may be the Bundesliga goal of the season in Dortmund's 2-1 win over Fortuna Dusseldorf.
In Joe Posnanski's recent profile of San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, there's a quote from Bob Spear, Pop's old coach from his playing days at Air Force: "A team could do anything as long as the players just kept moving." The theory is the same in football: create and exploit space through motion, disrupt another team through pressing. Can Borussia Dortmund move enough so as to level themselves with comparably trained sides who also have effectively unlimited bank rolls? Is there room for a working-class Champions League winner in modern football? Or will Real Madrid's well-funded talent prove to be too much in the Champions League semifinal?
On Wednesday, Bayern Munich and Málaga joined six other clubs in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. Watching the games made me wonder how the United States national team would do if it were dropped into the group stage of the tournament. Would the Americans be able to finish in the top two of a four-team group featuring the Continent’s strongest sides?
I asked Earnie Stewart, former American midfielder and current technical director of Jozy Altidore's AZ club. Quite fairly, he more or less told me it was a ridiculous query. "They are not a club team. It's so very hard to compare international teams to club teams," he said. "It's totally different. The way you play. The responsibilities are different. Plus, there's the fact that it's something that's never going to happen. We're never going to have a national team in a club tournament."
Fair enough. Stewart — who has an actual, important job in soccer — has better things to do with his time than speculate about hypothetical tournaments. You know, like run a team. I, however, do not. So I set out to find an answer with the help of a couple of soccer journalist friends. (See: That thing about not having real jobs.)
The initial response was that the Stars and Stripes would struggle. "If you dropped the U.S. in and they hadn't trained together, they would get destroyed," says Zac Lee Rigg. "I think most national teams would. The World Cup is not as good quality as the Champions League is."
The UEFA Champions League is home to the highest caliber of football in the world. This is not about that. Welcome to the worst blunders of the round in the UEFA Champions League. Presented to you with animated GIFs.
4. The Card
Let's start with the most controversial decision of the round, referee Cuneyt Cakir's red card to Manchester United winger Nani for his high boot to the side of Real Madrid's Alvaro Arbeloa. Most believe Nani was too harshly penalized for what looked like unintentional contact. Others have said it was an obvious red card because of the height of the contact, and that Nani shouldn't have given Cakir the chance to book him at such a pivotal moment in the match.
In case you just saw the trailer for Upside Down and found yourself suddenly back to square-one on your big screenplay idea, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
Wide receiver Wes Welker has left the New England Patriots, signing a two-year contract with the Denver Broncos. "I always hated Welker," said Northeastern sophomore and Patriots superfan Aaron Sullivan. "Just like I always hated Clemens, Vinatieri, Damon, Beckett, Ray Ray, Manny B, and Tom Brady." When asked why he hated Tom Brady, who never has left a Boston-based team to play for a rival, Sullivan responded, "Oh, guy thinks he's so great because he never left the Pats. Real Pats leave. Period."
The Miami Heat won their 20th consecutive game, beating the Philadelphia 76ers, 98-94, on the road. "Twenty in a row, that's a perfect game in Magic: The Gathering, am I right?" asked Heat forward Shane Battier after the game. "If only someone on this team would play with me. I have a sweet black/blue deck I want to try out. I tried to teach Chris Andersen how to play, but he kept folding up the cards and throwing them at me while yelling, 'Cacaw!' It was disappointing."
Kobe Bryant suffered an ankle injury while landing awkwardly on a late field goal attempt defended by Dahntay Jones, as the Los Angeles Lakers fell to the Hawks in Atlanta, 96-92. Bryant has been ruled out indefinitely with the injury, saying after the game, "Revenge isn't the sort of thing that has a timetable. Except for a 30-minute head start." When told of Bryant's statement half an hour later, Jones asked, "Wait, when did he say that?" before slipping on a loose piece of linoleum and bruising his knee.
In case you were busy dealing with your body shutting down all systems unrelated to the production of mucus, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Dwight Howard scored 39 points as he led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 106-96 win over the Magic in Orlando, where he played the first eight seasons of his career. Howard was met with a chorus of boos, or as he calls them, "Laughs, right? Cause that's the typical reaction to my hilarious antics. That and guffaws. Kobe's a big guffawer. Let me show you what I mean." Howard then stared at the assembled press and did a throat slash gesture, before adding, "Oh, man, that guy can't get enough of me."
Valparaiso beat Wright State, 62-54, to win the Horizon League championship and qualify for the NCAA tournament. "Bryce Drew isn't walking through that door, so it's time to write your own destiny," said Valparaiso legend and current head coach Bryce Drew after the game, before adding, "Well, he is. He did. I mean, I is — I did. I meant, as a player, you're gonna have to create your own legend. But he will be attending the game. I mean, I will. You don't have to worry about that."
In case you were out walking your dog, really walking him, here's what you missed in sports on Wednesday.
LeBron James netted his first game-winning shot since coming to Miami, and the Heat ran their winning streak to 16, beating the Orlando Magic, 97-96. "He's a bad man," Magic point guard Jameer Nelson said after the game. "That's gotta be the baddest thing a man has done in Florida since well probably not that long."
Miami isn't the only team in pro sports with an impressive winning streak. The Chicago Blackhawks have now reached the midpoint of the shortened NHL season without a loss in regulation, getting a last-minute, game-winning goal from Daniel Carcillo to beat the Colorado Avalanche, 3-2. The streak has gotten so much attention that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman commented on it publicly, saying, "I really shouldn't say this, but for the sake of our sport, I hope they run the table all season. Nothing would bring me more pleasure than recognizing that amazing effort by putting an asterisk next to it in the record book." Bettman then kicked an adorable golden retriever puppy named Scruffles on the way home to his mansion. He then congratulated himself on a day well-spent by pouring a bottle of Opus One Cabernet on a rug before demanding his servants clean it up.
In case you were busy finally figuring out the trick to seeing the hidden image in those Magic Eye posters, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
LeBron James became the first player in NBA history to score 30 points on better than 60 percent shooting from the field in six consecutive games as the Miami Heat beat the Portland Trail Blazers, 117-104, at home. "What's with these newfangled statistics?" asked elderly Miami resident Saul Zinman. "Points? Shooting percentage? When I played, we only had two statistics in netball — bouncy passes and bloody noses, and I led the Staten Island Pantaloons in both. Also, all the teams used to be named for types of pants: The San Francisco Denim Men, the Columbus Corduroys, the Weehawken Torn Trousers. I bet you three nickels there's not a single team left named after a type of pants."
If you're watching soccer on Wednesday, assuming you live outside of Donetsk and North Rhine-Westphalia (and if you are reading from one of those places, Pryvit or Guten Tag), you're going to be watching Real Madrid play Manchester United. I get it. I really do. Ronaldo, van Persie, Rooney, Ferguson, "the Special One." In terms of individual quality, history, and story lines, there's nothing better than a Champions League clash between Madrid and United. But the best match of the day will be played in Donetsk, Ukraine, between reigning German double-winners Borussia Dortmund and reigning Ukrainian double-winners (and your Champions League Underdog of the Week), Shakhtar Donetsk.