Archive for June, 2009

It’s Shaqtastic!

June 25, 2009

We all knew the Cleveland Cavaliers needed an engine overhaul in the wake of their loss to the Orlando Magic in a six-game Eastern Conference final series.
So, they went out and added a Diesel.
By trading spare parts and the change hidden beneath owner Dan Gilbert’s couch cushions for Shaquille O’Neal, the Cavaliers significantly improved their chances of competing evenly with the Magic and everyone else in the NBA.
I like the trade, but don’t love it. I’d date it, but I wouldn’t marry it. At least, not yet.
Sure, O’Neal could turn out a forlorn figure, sulking on the sidelines, either hurt of ineffective, just another aging superstar playing out the final year of his Hall of Fame career in a goofy-colored uniform.
We’ve seen that with Joe Namath as a Ram, O.J. Simpson as a 49er, Michael Jordan as a Wizard, Willie Mays as a Met and on and on and on.
But while the the acquisition of Shaq and his $21-milion contract is a gamble, it’s a safer bet than buying a lotto ticket.
The odds are long at all that O’Neal will arrive in Cleveland motivated. A fifth championship ring one-ups Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant, and it would make the Daddy the unquestioned Kingmaker of the NBA, giving Kobe, Dwyane Wade and now LeBron James their first world titles.
Also, now that he’s in the East, O’Neal gets the chance to go head-to-head with Orlando’s Dwight Howard, who Shaq thinks is an imposter in a Superman cape. Remember, the original Superman…it was Shaq.
And, O’Neal’s dislike of Orlando coach Stan Van Gundy is well-documented, from him calling SVG, “a master of panic,” dating to their days together on the Miami Heat. Rest assured, The Big Fundamental won’t forget Van Grumpy calling him a flopper this year when Shaq tried to draw a charge from Howard.
Then there’s the one motivating factor that stokes the fire of every veteran professional athlete. This, my friend, is O’Neal’s contract year. He wants another two-year deal, either in Cleveland or from someone else. What better way to get that than to deliver numbers like he did last season — 17.8 ppg., 8.4 reb. and a career-best .609 field goal percentage in 75 games — or play even better?
The Cavs added O’Neal without touching their core, ridding themselves only of Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic, not of Delonte West or young prospects like J.J. Hickson or Darnell Jackson.
Jackson and Hickson could each play up to 20 minutes per-game next year to spell O’Neal and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and keep them fresh for the playoffs.
It’s a certainty Cleveland isn’t done tweaking its roster, still needing a big wing who can stretch defenses with the jumper. That dude is going to get an amazing number of open looks next season with teams trying to double O’Neal in the post and LeBron on the perimeter at the same time.
The standard for whether this was a great move by the Cavaliers isn’t solely how the team fares in the upcoming season. If Cleveland doesn’t get to the NBA finals, many will see this deal as a failure.
But if adding O’Neal’s expiring contract to the books for 2010, plus the $11.5 million that will come off the books with Big Z’s deal running out at the same time, the Cavs will be perfectly positioned to go out and buy another Robin to LeBron’s Batman.
OK, so maybe now I’m ready to start looking for an engagement ring.

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The lesson of Donte Stallworth

June 17, 2009

I don’t really know what I want from Donte Stallworth, but I want more than I feel I’m getting.
Maybe the Cleveland Browns’ wide receiver really is, like many people say, taking responsibility for his actions by paying off the family of the 59-year-old crane operator he hit and killed while driving drunk at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning in Miami.
If the wife, children and relatives of Mario Reyes are satisfied, why am I not satisfied with Stallworth getting 24 days in jail, two years of house arrest, 1,000 hours of community service and eight years probation?
I don’t know why I’m not satisfied, I just know the whole thing smells wrong.
Stallworth may, indeed, be truly remorseful. This may be a life-changing moment for him, and perhaps the money he’s paid to the Reyes family will lift them out of poverty and do for them what their father/husband was trying to do for them that morning — provide a financial means to survive.
There’s just a part of me that can’t get past the contrast between a many dying needlessly and an NFL player with the means to write a check and make it all go away, writing a check and making it all go away.
So Donte Stallworth now sits in a cell for the next 3 1/2 weeks, then he’ll be free to pursue his NFL career.
Florida law says anyone with a DUI manslaughter conviction must serve two years of the 15 years in prison Stallworth faced had he gone to trial and been found guilty.
But Stallworth’s guilty plea to vehicular manslaughter is not considered a conviction by Florida law, so he will serve only 24 days.
Yes, I know, a guilty plea is not considered a conviction. All together now…”Huh?”
Attorneys on both sides say Stallworth faced up to his actions, that he waited for police to arrive after killing Reyes, and admitted to hitting him with his car.
That, they say, makes this a just result for a guy who owned up to what he did.
So, we’ve officially reached the point where an athlete who does what they’re supposed to do earns bonus points and the brand, “This is a stand-up guy.”
Really, I’m not surprised. Sickened, yes, but not surprised.
We long ago made clear to Donte Stallworth and other elite athletes that if they could run fast enough, jump high enough or do whatever to help our teams win, the rules would be different for them.
In high school, they got grades they didn’t deserve or other preferential treatment.
It continued in college, and it’s ramped up even more in their professional sport.
Not every pro athlete taps into this entitlement, of course, but it’s always there for them.
It was there for Donte Stallworth the day after he cashed a $4.5-million roster bonus for remaining a Cleveland Brown. Maybe that’s what he was celebrating when he got drunk — 50% over the legal limit — and decided to drive his $179,000 Bentley across the causeway between Miami Beach and Miami.
He was driving 50 miles-per-hour, 10 over the posted speed limit, when he saw Mario Reyes running to catch a bus after finishing his shift as a crane operator.
Reyes wasn’t in the crosswalk. Stallworth flashed his lights.
The rest you know.
What we don’t know is whether Stallworth will be cleared by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to play this season.
Goodell also has similar decisions to make on Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress.
Vick is under house arrest, fulfilling the final portion of a sentence that included nearly two years in prison for financing and participating in a dog-fighting operation.
Burress faces a mandatory minimum 3 1/2-year sentence for discharging a gun at a New York nightclub and accidentally shooting himself in the leg.
His case has been continued until September, and with skillful lawyering will most certainly be postponed long enough so Burress can play this season.
Not surprisingly, Burress’ attorney thinks Stallworth’s sentence sets an appropriate precedent for his client: “They gave him 30 days and someone ended up dying,” Benjamin Brafman said on Sirius NFL Radio. “In our case there is no victim. So I think I have a powerful argument as to why there should be a lenient sentence here.”
Of course, he does, because, after all, his client, like Donte Stallworth, can write a check big enough to make it all go away.

The Golden Era of Ohio State football

June 11, 2009

Tiger Woods awoke Sunday morning and, before going out to shoot a final-round 65 to win his fourth Memorial Tournament, tuned in to watch Roger Federer’s victory at the French Open. That win was Federer’s 14th major championship, tying him with Pete Sampras for the most in tennis history, and, coincidentally, with Tiger.
Woods sits on 14 majors, too, heading to the U.S. Open next weekent at Bethpage Black, where he’s now favored to get one step closer to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 professional golfing majors.
So, with Federer and Woods breathing down the neck of their respective sports’ histories, could this era properly be termed the Golden Era of Sports? After all, besides Federer and Woods, this decade has given us a new home-run king in baseball and the Olympian greatness of swimmer Michael Phelps. Plus, there are now whispers in the aftermath of LeBron James’ first MVP award at age 24 that he will eventually surpass Michael Jordan as the acknowledged greatest basketball player of all-time.
I batted this around with my radio sidekick, Chris Spielman, on 97.1 The Fan and our conversation eventually turned, as it often does, to Ohio State football. Could it be that this is, in fact, the Golden Era of Buckeye football?
Now, to settle that argument, one must first decide what an “era” constitutes. To me, it’s more than a four-year period, because for something to get labeled an era it must extend beyond the duration of one recruiting class’s stay on campus.
Given that one caveat, the issue then becomes which time period surrounding one of Ohio State’s national championships stands above the rest? We can all agree, can’t we, that no era can be the best at a school where the national championship has been won four legitimate times that no era can be deemed the best without including at least one No. 1 finish?
The choice boils down to a pair of possibilities, either starting in 1968 with the 10-0 national championship season of Woody Hayes’ Super Sophomores, or commencing with the 14-0 national championship season of 2002 in Jim Tressel’s second season.
Both titles kicked off wildly successful periods that saw Woody’s teams from 1968-75 go a combined 73-11-1 and Tressel’s teams from 2002-08 go 76-14.
That Woody era included seven Big Ten titles in eight years, with the lone down season a 6-4 mark in 1971.
Tressel’s on-going era numbers five conference crowns and one middling season of 8-4 in 2004.
Each era featured a Heisman Trophy winner (Archie Griffin in 1974-75, Troy Smith in 2006) and brushes with other national championships.
Hayes’ teams in 1969, 1970 and 1975 lost national championships by losing their final game of those respective years, and could have won a title in 1973 if not for a 10-10 tie with Michigan in the final regular season game.
Tressel’s teams, of course, lost in the BCS title game in both 2006 and 2007.
I side with the Hayes era as the best in OSU history because of the sheer dominance of the Super Sophomores and the Griffin-led teams that reached the Rose Bowl a record four consecutive times.
Tressel’s era could yet surpass those achievements depending what transpires in 2009 and beyond, but for now I’ll go old-school and side with the Buckeyes of my youth.

How’s this for a plan?

June 3, 2009

Chad Ochocinco says he can’t wait to get to Bengals’ minicamp on June 18. Yes, that is the former Chad Johnson talking, the guy who never met a minicamp he didn’t greet with all the enthusiasm of a tax audit.
You might wonder what’s prompted the change of heart. Well, with players it’s always one of two things, and sometimes both things — playing time and, of course, money.
At age 31, with three years left on the six-year, $35.5-million contract he signed in April of 2006, Ochocinco would love to get one more contract before he heads off to the (snicker) Pro Football Hall of Fame. (You do remember the sport coat, right)?
Why else would he clearly reverse his field over the petulant stance he’s taken in the recent past regarding his future with the Bengals?
To its detriment, the Bengals have won the stare-down with Chad over his future in Cincinnati. They haven’t given in to his trade demands, so I guess they’ve won something. What they didn’t win was many games with him, which they might have done without him had they accepted Washington’s offer of two No. 1 draft picks for a guy who caught just 53 passes for 540 yards last season.
Chad promises those numbers will skyrocket this year, because he’s working out, he’s in the best shape of his life, blah, blah, blah.
He knows he can’t force way out of Cincinnati without performing and making himself attractive to other teams, and that won’t happen if the Bengals can get the same production from someone else that they can get from a disinterested Ochocinco.
That’s where Chris Henry, perpetual Bengals’ problem child comes in. Everyone from Carson Palmer to Marvin Lewis has raved not just about Henry’s performance at OTAs, not just about his physical condition, but about his new maturity and approach to football.
The Bengals are working Henry at Johnson’s position — the X, or weak-side receiver spot — and believe he’ll be just as effective on short routes and slants as he has been down the field.
So this is what it’s come to for the Bengals: The insurance policy against Chad Johnson going postal is Chris Henry turning over a new leaf.
Talk about building your foundation on sand.
Henry has five arrests on his resume as a Bengal. He was released by the team on April 3, 2008, and it certainly seemed from Lewis’ cool reaction to his resigning on Aug. 19 that the idea was entirely that of Bengals’ owner Mike Brown.
Henry had 19 catches for 220 yards and two touchdowns last season.
The Bengals, through their own stubborn refusal to trade Ochocinco, and their own cheapness at re-sgning Henry instead of a more expensive replacement, are either off their collective rockers or idiot savants.
They’re pitting their chief head case (Ochocinco) against their chief headache (Henry), hoping to get something out of one or the other.
It might just work.
Then again…