When we call the New York Times the “paper of record,” we’re usually referring to its coverage of elections and international affairs, or ambitious Pulitzer bait like the “How Race Is Lived in America” series. In recent years, however, the Times "Sports" section has also marked its territory as a go-to publication for reporting on shattered hoop dreams, especially “Where is he now?” stories about gifted amateur players whose NBA futures have gone kaput thanks to bad luck and catastrophic decision-making. The photographs that accompanied these articles — Victor Page in his eye patch, Jonathan Hargett in prison blues — felt like they tapped into the vein of basketball heartbreak, and no image affected me quite like the one that ran with Harvey Araton’s 2012 profile of Lenny Cooke.
Unlike Page, Cooke hadn’t been shot, and unlike Hargett, he wasn’t incarcerated, so in very plain terms, things could have worked out worse for Cooke. But the sight of Cooke, 6-foot-6 and 300 pounds, sitting with his elbows on his knees and rolls of flesh spilling out of his black tank top, shook me in a way the others didn’t. His plaintive gaze was searching for something — maybe his past, maybe his future — and coming up empty. It wasn’t just that Cooke, who went from being the no. 1–ranked high school player in the country to being passed over in both rounds of the 2002 NBA draft, had lost the muscle tone in a physique that had once allowed him to dominate high school competition as a man among boys. Also missing from Cooke was that New York– and Brooklyn-bred look of stubborn, unrelenting confidence, that sense that the world was his to take, that he didn’t even know how to feel fear. Instead, his expression looked heavy and forlorn, like he was one setback away from losing all hope.
Jay Caspian Kang: It’s only early March and the big fights of the fall haven’t been lined up yet, but should we go ahead and proclaim Saturday’s brutal 12-round welterweight battle the Fight of the Year? For those rightfully rolling their eyes right now, let me clarify the question. Given the ongoing feud between Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank, the age of some of the top fighters in the sport (Sergio Martinez, Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, and Juan Manuel Marquez are all at least 34 years old), and the general putridity we’ve seen so far in 2013, are there any potential matchups that could possibly match the skill, power, and heart we saw on display Saturday night in Carson, California? Great fights often come out of nowhere, with Bradley vs. Provodnikov being the most recent example of that truth. But given the protection of some of the top young contenders via their promoters’ matchmaking, will we really see a fight where a top-flight fighter like Bradley gets seriously tested by a guy who has absolutely nothing to lose? What would that fight even be?
The smart money lies with Canelo Alvarez’s upcoming bout against Austin Trout in San Antonio. I suppose there’s a chance that Trout’s speed and the sheer volume of his punches slows down the unstoppable Canelo machine, but count me as maybe the only boxing writer out there who doesn’t really buy all the talk that has circulated about Canelo taking the fight against the wishes of his handlers and Golden Boy Promotions. Someone sees a real weakness in Trout that the rest of us who watched him beat Miguel Cotto do not. If Trout’s as dangerous as he seems, there’s no way Golden Boy would risk their big golden Canelo baby at the tender age of 22.
When David Stern’s magnanimous grin flashed across an LED jumbotron in metro Manila Monday afternoon to announce that “the NBA will play its first preseason game in the Philippines this October,” a pulse of enthusiasm shot through Filipino communities from Mandaluyong City to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, to Daly City, California. Basketball has been the most popular team sport in the Philippines for generations, and it’s one of a handful of nations, alongside Lithuania and a few others, where the game is part of the bedrock of local culture. Yet even though the Philippines is a place where commuters regularly ride in multicabs and jeepneys decorated with NBA team logos and Jerry West’s iconic silhouette, the league has never brought its product there. For many Filipinos, the news that the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers will play a preseason game October 10 at Metro Manila’s Mall of Asia Arena was a proud moment. Finally, the NBA — the league that served as a model for the Philippines’ 38-year-old PBA — will recognize Filipinos’ love for the game. For the first time since eight players from the 1979 Washington Bullets visited Manila to play a PBA all-star selection (and Dave Corzine almost got into a fistfight with a local legend, 6-foot-1 shooting guard Atoy “the Fortune Cookie” Co), real NBA teams would be playing on Philippine soil.
Gennady Golovkin, the middleweight champion boxer from Kazakhstan, has entered a strange stage in his career. He is still largely unknown to the American audience, but he has been so wildly hyped within the boxing community that one almost expects him to punch a hole clear through his opponent’s head whenever he fights. Anything less is a letdown.
By the end of Golovkin’s seven-round TKO victory Saturday night at Madison Square Garden, he had won every round. He’d made his opponent, Gabriel Rosado, look like he’d just starred in a reenactment of the blood shower scene from Carrie. Golovkin’s punches had opened a deep gash above Rosado’s left eye and had more or less exploded whatever soft tissue had been inside Rosado’s nose. His blows had spattered blood onto the ropes, onto the lenses of HBO’s ringside TV cameras, and onto the side of Rosado’s trainer’s face. Golovkin had handed out so much punishment that moments before the end of the fight, Rosado’s trainer turned to the fighter’s father and said, “I gotta stop it. Your son’s gonna die, man!”
A theory: If you found someone who had never watched a round of boxing, and you made him watch the recent fights of Andre Ward, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao, Sergio Martinez, Juan Manuel Marquez, Nonito Donaire, Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko, and anyone else you think might deserve consideration as one of the best fighters alive, that person would choose Ward as the finest boxer on the planet. Of course, several factors go into pound-for-pound designations — a fighter's body of work, the strength of his opponents, and his status in the sport, among others. Because of this, it seems unlikely that Oakland's Andre Ward will be recognized as no. 1 before Mayweather retires, but based on the eye test alone, it's hard to imagine anyone looking better than Ward.
Why? Quality. I admit this is strange, but after I watched Ward dominate light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson on Saturday night, I started thinking about the philosopher-mechanic Robert M. Pirsig and his discussion of "Quality" in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Quality, Pirsig says, cannot be defined. "[It] cannot be broken down into subjects and predicates. This is not because Quality is so mysterious but because Quality is so simple, immediate and direct." Basically, you know Quality when you see it, but your attempts to explain it won't quite add up to a full picture of "Quality."
Over the weekend, news broke that the New York Knicks were dragging their feet in matching the Houston Rockets' $25 million contract offer to point guard Jeremy Lin. As the nervous laughter of Knicks fans ("Ha, this is hilarious ... can you imagine? No, but really, guys. Sign him") turned into acts of hair-pulling and fist-shaking and full-blown Twitter meltdowns, our fearless leader, Bill Simmons, posed the question: If the Knicks, following the apparent financial advice of Carmelo Anthony, turn their backs on the most exciting, well-liked player to rock blue and orange since [insert beloved Knicks player Sprewell, Starks, Ewing ... Renaldo Balkman], would New York fans be wise to turn their backs on the team and become fans of the other New York franchise, the Brooklyn Nets? Simmons certainly thought so. We asked several members of the Grantland family, some of whom count themselves as Knicks supporters, for a verdict.
1. Hope Solo: God Forgives, Hope Don't
The USWNT goalkeeper was warned this week by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for testing positive for something called Canrenone, which I may or may have not had at Olive Garden last night, incidentally. She was basically like, "Cool warning." Rem and I talked about this briefly.
Rem: Am I allowed to nominate Hope Solo for beating her charge? Chris: Not guilty, y'all got to feel her. Rem: Teflon Don. Chris: Hope Solo treated those charges like she treated Briana Scurry back in '07.
1. "Make him bleed, Will! Make him bleed! I need com-bah-nay-shuns!"
So crowed Jessica Carbone in the sixth round Saturday evening, while her fiancé Will Rosinsky shuffled right and left in front of former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik. Pavlik had a deep gash over his left eye, but it was pretty clear that Rosinsky, a not-so-heralded super middleweight from Queens, New York, was losing the fight. Rosinsky was bouncing around the ring enough to make it hard for Pavlik to land his powerful right hand, and every now and then Rosinsky managed to sneak inside and land his own looping overhand right. But Pavlik knocked him down in the second round with a short, chopping blow that caught Rosinsky off balance, and Pavlik’s punches were powerful enough to force Rosinsky back even when they were partially blocked.
The fight played out with few surprises — Rosinsky put up a game challenge and Pavlik took another, mostly unspectacular step on his comeback trail after two rehab stints for alcohol abuse. Thankfully, Carbone was there to add some intrigue. Dressed for prom night in a beige mini–cocktail dress and wearing her hair in a brown mane that had been curled and teased and tangled with enough hairspray to burn down the arena, Carbone screeched encouragement in her old–New York feminine growl. "Let’s go, Will! Let’s go! … Only the strong survive! … Gimme the overhand! The overhand right! … He’s dyin’ now, Will! He’s dyin’!" She started in round one and didn’t let up until the final bell. She annoyed some of the fans and media at ringside, but her voice transported me back home. Hearing that accent reminded me of rainbow Italian Ices, Tropical Fantasy soda, and 25-cent bug juice. New York may be a safer, cuddlier place than it was two or three decades ago, but the city still produces some genuine tough guys — and girls.
In their eight years of existence, the Charlotte Bobcats have drafted three players from UNC, one from Duke, and one from Boston College, a school that plays up to seven games a year in the state of North Carolina. They have drafted one player from Texas, a Naismith runner-up from Gonzaga, and two UConn greats. Outside of trading for Alexis Ajinca’s draft rights in 2008, the Bobcats have found nearly every undersized or questionably athletic college star in the country. Some, like Jared Dudley, turn out to be valuable players on other teams. Others, like Sean May, quickly confirm that college post moves sometimes don’t translate to the NBA. The Bobcats haven’t fully developed a player since their inception in 2004. They handcuffed Raymond Felton, they didn’t tell the managers of all Charlotte-area Waffle Houses to stop serving May, they turned Gerald Henderson into the worst version of Kobe Bryant in the history of versions of Kobe Bryant.
Immediately after the ninth round in Saturday’s welterweight fight between Victor Ortiz and Josesito Lopez, I wrote a question in my notebook: “Who is crazier, Ortiz or Lopez?”
From ringside at Staples Center, I had just watched Lopez and Ortiz spend the last 30 seconds of the round exchanging violent hooks and uppercuts. First, Ortiz drove Lopez against the ropes, and then Lopez fought back with several whipping left hooks that landed square on Ortiz’s jaw. The punches were fast, reckless, and very hard. The fighters looked like two kids settling a beef at recess, windmilling wild blows at each other — only these two kids were prime boxers whose flurries came with a level of skill and lethality unheard of on any playground.
Last August, I watched Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra hoist a giant jug of coconut wine in his uncle's backyard in Los Baños, Philippines, and tell his family that next year, he hoped to bring back an NBA championship trophy. It was the closest Spoelstra, the famously self-effacing and tight-lipped coach, would come to bluster during the week I spent following him through Metro Manila and nearby provinces. Back then, the lockout rules forbid him from even uttering the names LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, but I heard from coaches in the local professional league that Spoelstra spent more time questioning them about their offensive sets and strategies for breaking zone defenses than holding forth on what it was like to coach two of the best five basketball players on the planet. When I got to speak with him, our conversation followed a similar pattern: He asked me about life in the Philippines, how to hail a jeepney in Manila, and how weird it felt to call next in a street corner pickup game when I was a 6-foot-3 white guy. Now, there are hundreds of factors that go into making a championship team and coach — luck being a pretty damn big one — but I think Spoelstra's patience and open mind are important aspects of his success. The man seemed to treat every experience as an opportunity to learn something new and useful, and that seems like as good a recipe for improvement as there is. This year, Spoelstra and the Miami Heat certainly improved on their finish in the 2011 NBA Finals, and though there's really no way to improve on "NBA champions," Spoelstra will keep searching for ways to learn more about his craft and the world, and to make himself and his team even better.
Jesus Navas gets the top spot this week, thanks to a nomination from Triangle editor Chris Ryan. Says Ryan:
Really into this goal by Spain winger Jesus Navas against Croatia in Euro 2012. He goes FULL YOLO. Who cares if it's an open net? He absolutely roofs it. As he should! You don't get that many opportunities to play in front of an audience that big. Especially if you're Jesus Navas, who once suffered from anxiety issues that were so severe they prevented him from traveling extensively with the Spanish national team. It's great to see him so confidently smash the daylights out of the ball in front of an international audience. Also? He kind of looks like the kid from Real Genius.
Sometimes, the basketball gods smile upon you. For Don Nelson, that moment came in Game 7 of the 1969 Finals, when he clinched the title for the Boston Celtics with one of the luckiest bounces to ever come off an NBA rim. For Russell Westbrook, it was that 18-foot, and-1 scoop shot from Game 5 of the Thunder's second-round series with the Lakers this year. For me, it was stumbling into the craziest of Andrei Kirilenko crazy faces.
It happened under the most innocent of circumstances. I was putzing around the website Euroleague Adventures and found an interview with AK47 before last month's Euroleague finals (Kirilenko's team, CSKA Moscow, lost to the Greek club Olympiacos). It's not an especially groundbreaking interview, and out of boredom I dragged my mouse along the YouTube timeline and saw second-by-second thumbnails of Kirilenko's face. Again, nothing spectacular, until I reached the 1:24 mark and found what you see here. The title of the video, "Andrei Kirilenko Says He Is Not a Robot," refers to the way Kirilenko explained how he and his teammates felt nervous heading into the championship game: "We're not robots. We have feelings and we have emotions."
It's Lottery Day! Since this is a particularly special day on the NBA calendar, we thought we'd do a special Lottery Shootaround, looking at all the story lines going into tonight's Anthony Davis Sweepstakes. Also, for even more Lottery talk, be sure to check out Bill Simmons's podcast with Chad Ford.
The Conspiracy Scale
On today’s B.S. Report, Chad Ford and I tried to figure out which 2012 NBA lottery winner would cause the biggest conspiracy ruckus. I spent the next few hours tinkering with our initial list, moving teams around and asking myself questions like “What team would definitely cause ‘THAT WAS FIXED’ to trend on Twitter?,” “Which team is either opening a new stadium or trying to open a new stadium?,” “Which team just got mysteriously sold to a local NFL owner who had repeatedly turned down chances to buy that NBA team for a solid year?” and “If David Stern was still alive, which team would get Anthony Davis?”
Here are the top five suspects, ranked on the Conspiracy Scale from “Definitely a little conspiracy buzz” to “This would cause an Internet riot.”
Cleveland (35 out of 100 on the Conspiracy Scale)
It’s almost too blatant — atoning for “The Decision” (and Dan Gilbert’s whining after “The Decision”) by giving Cleveland the no. 1 overall pick two years in a row? Even Vince McMahon wouldn't do this.