Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Shaq attack!

For two years now, the NBA has been looking for a star. Somebody they can hang their hat on, somebody, anybody who will fill some of the void left by Michael Jordan’s departure. Look no further. Shaq has arrived.

It has been hard for Shaquille O’Neal to find his footing in the league. From heralded rookie, to villainous traitor to budding star in a star town, O’Neal has gone about life just about how most other guys in their 20’s do: Grabbing everything and seeing what fits.

Coming out of LSU two years early, O’Neal was considered raw. Not polished enough for the NBA game. Turns out Shaq the athlete just needed to catch up with Shaq the basketball player. A player of enormous size isn’t supposed to have a soft touch, or quick feet, or good speed. O’Neal had it all, it just wasn’t in a package as a basketball player yet. In Orlando, they found out he could dominate games, and with a decent supporting cast, took the Magic to the NBA finals. He was young, the team was young and they were blasted out. Quickly.

Perhaps that exposure to the bright lights in the NBA finals gave O’Neal a taste of what he could be. Not only as a basketball player, but as a star. As a rapper, Shaq made a name for himself in the music world. As an actor, he showed a showmanship that spilled over onto the court. Hollywood was at his doorstep, and the Lakers were only too happy to oblige. Remember, at the time, Shaq was considered another good, big center. Somebody with amazing potential, but without much to show for it. Jerry West knew he’d be a good fit with the bright lights of LA and the Lakers shelled out the money to get him. The move cast O’Neal as a villain in most places besides Orlando. He just went for the money, they said. He’d be a good player if he’d leave that other stupid stuff alone and concentrate on the game, they added. Shaq doesn’t like the villain role. He likes being the good guy. The guy in the white hat. He didn’t like the things being said about him, and it affected his game.

Over the last two years, a new Shaq has emerged. Continually playful, self-effacing and immensely proud, O’Neal needed guidance on how to become a champion. Phil Jackson provided the vehicle to take the next step. He still wrapped his head in a towel like a turban for post-game interviews and had that goofy smile, but worked intensely on his game. Shaq still comes up with silly nicknames for himself, but Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon claims he shagged free-throws for O’Neal for two straight hours one day in a high school gym. What other big star pro athlete calls up a TV reporter in Orlando and says “Come on over, let’s go water skiing?” Do any other guys at that level say their name as a wrestler would be “Big Foot Tornado?”

I’ve talked with Shaq a few times, and unlike a lot of other pro athletes, he’s cordial, polite and funny. I asked him after a Magic game one night if he wanted to do an interview right then or after he showered. O’Neal stood up, patted me on the chest and said, “I’ll be right back.” His hand covered me from shoulder to shoulder and he was and is the largest person I’ve ever seen. He returned, and answered questions until everybody was done.

The NBA need look no further for their national superstar. Shaquille O’Neal isn’t going to get in any trouble. He’s not going to choke a coach, or turn up as the father of 7 children by 6 different mothers. He’s got an engaging personality, a self-effacing manner and a strong enough sense of self to make fun of himself in those “Baby Bob” commercials. Go ahead and give him the national endorsement contracts. Let him make all the “I love this game” commercials. The league needs a star. He’s currently shining in Los Angeles.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Go To A Game!

Isn’t it funny how sports fans can conjure up images in their minds of just about everything they’ve ever seen? From the mob scene at the plate after Bobby Thompson’s home run, to Joe Montana’s arms thrust into the air after the game winning TD pass against Cincinnati, to Michael Jordan’s final shot against Utah, it’s easy. Think of it, and it is there. For me the images in my mind gathered from television have a definite blur compared to the ones I’ve experienced in person. I can visualize all of the great shots and home runs and plays I’ve seen on television, but I can more clearly recall all of those great experiences I’ve witnessed in a much different way. The television confines the experience. It’s visual, and that’s it. Despite many people watching sporting events in bars or with friends, the majority of watching is done alone, in two dimensions. To be there in person is something very different.

All sports fans have certain mental snapshots in their collective memory. Bill Buckner letting the ball go between his legs in the ’86 series for example. Just say it, and everybody who follows sports can picture it. Say, “The Masters” to somebody, and they have images of Tiger Woods upper cutting on the eighteenth green, or Jacks Nicklaus following his putt on 17 on his way to a 6th green jacket. When somebody says “The Masters” to me, two experiences come to mind. I’ve always loved to stand behind the 11th tee during a practice round and watch for about an hour. Television could never portray the silence on the tee. The long chute between tee and fairway, lined by experienced trees always in play. The isolation and the intimacy on the tee are different from every other spot on the golf course. The smell of spring air, the players reaching into the coolers on the tee for a drink, the whispered conversation between caddies, the glances to the top of the pines, checking the wind. For years I also made it a point to stand behind Fred Couples on the 18th tee during his round at least twice during the tournament. Before length was de rigueur on tour, Couples was long. “Boom Boom” was his nickname. Three-wood is usually the club of choice for professionals at 18, but to stand there a couple days in a row and watch Freddie pull out the driver (wooden at the time) and hear the ripple go through the crowd was always fun. I can feel the wind on my left cheek, and easily watch the grass Couples just threw into the air go to the side of the tee. I can hear him murmur “I’m going to aim it at the right corner of the bunker and cut it up the fairway.” And I can remember the explosion of the swing, the crash against the ball, and the polite applause, punctured by the occasional “Go Freddie,” rich with colors, smells and ambient sounds. There’s nothing like being at a game. Any kind of game. From Little League to the Super Bowl, the soccer field on a Saturday afternoon to the state Final Four volleyball championships. It fills your senses. The more you learn, the more you know, and the more you know, the more you learn. Sitting at Camden Yards, my friend’s wife complained about how she was a bit bored with the game. My head was swimming at the time thinking about how the people in the game fit everything in, in between pitches. The sign from the bench. The catcher’s signals. The count on the batter. The fielder’s positioning, the silent instructions from the shortstop to the other infielders. The strategy of the next pitch. Put somebody on base, and things get even more involved. What do you think about when somebody says “baseball?” Mark McGwire hitting a home run? Pedro Martinez striking somebody out? For me it’s the expanse of the outfield at any major league park. The sound of a fastball sizziling toward the plate. Every ground ball looking routine.

Watching a football game on television can be frustrating. If you have a passing interest, no big deal. Check on the score, see what the stars are doing, give it passive attention. If you really want to know what is happening, you have to be there. Are they setting up the cornerback? Who’s dominating the line of scrimmage? Is the wind actually a factor? None of that can be seen on the iso of the quarterback, center, two guards and running backs.

There’s no way we can all attend the games we want to. Our memories will always be of certain television images. But that’s what binds us together as fans. We’ve all seen Joe Namath running of the field at the Orange Bowl with his finger in the air after Super Bowl III. We all can talk about it, based on what we all saw on television. The same images, seen by everybody. More and more games are tailoring their contests for television, and that’s fine. But there’s nothing like being at a game. Any game. Go see a game.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Golden Age

Maybe it’s over. Or maybe it’s just starting. Either way, you can feel the shift in sports. One age is ending and perhaps it will be considered a golden age of sport.

The retirements of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Dan Marino, John Elway in the last two years mark a clear end to a dominant time in sports. A time dominated by players possessed with talent, and incredible will. An argument can be made that Jordan, Gretzky, Marino and Elway are the best of all time in their sports.

Looking back over the history of professional sports, there is an ebb and flow of interest, but a continuous growth of leagues, money and exposure.

Baseball has fought players’ strikes and scandal throughout its history, yet has survived intact. The game is so intertwined with the American story, President Roosevelt advised Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the Commissioner of the game, to continue playing through World War II despite most of the players being called off to duty. Despite setbacks, the game has grown. Even the Black Sox scandal and cancellation of the 1994 World Series couldn’t keep the game from plowing forward. As baseball fans followed the game from radio, to television, to cable and to satellite, more information flowed into homes about the players’ on, and off-field exploits. The game has always had a collection of “eccentrics” but never were they all exposed at the same time. There was some mystery to it.

Overall, the quality of baseball has gotten better. Weight training, fitness, off-season workouts, coaching have elevated the talent to levels never reached before. They’ve all gotten better. Pitchers, hitters, fielders alike. But the game lacks a national promotional vehicle. Only Ken Griffey, Jr. is a recognized ‘national’ star, doing commercials and promoting the game. Fans are a bit disconnected because they’re better informed. They know the lack of revenue sharing has upset the balance of competition.

Basketball flourished when the focus of the game was on the stars. Wilt, and Russell, then Dr. J, followed by Magic, Bird and Michael all continued to push the game deeper into the minds of sports fans. The game still has stars, but all seem hollow imitations of something more real. Despite David Stern’s assurance that the game is better than ever, the game is in real trouble. Television ratings are off by a half, not because Michael retired, but because people are fed up with the macho, chest-thumping.

Football’s unprecedented growth in the last 30-years is directly in line with its ties to television. Yet the exposure of the game has reached a saturation point, and the league knows it. When players are oblivious of their role in society as a whole, it’s the league’s responsibility to make that part of the package. The NFL is taking steps to enlighten players about their part in the future of the game.

I think we’ll see a split soon. A serious chasm between what we now call the hard-core and the casual fan. More casual fans will be put off by the games, the players and the message both send. Those same games, players and messages will be the thing the hard-care fan is attracted to. Hard-core fans are looking for production and championships. Casual fans are looking for heroes, and most think they won’t find them in the sports pages anymore.

With the retirement of the aforementioned stars, there’s a new generation of athletes taking over the limelight. All born in the late 70’s and early ’80’s, all products of the information age. No mythology left about any of them. Sports mercenaries by trade, not in a negative sense, but by training. That’s all they’ve ever seen, all they’ve ever known. Big money and stardom has been at their fingertips their whole lives. It’s all there, right on television, 24 hours a day. Cable TV and satellite broadcasts enable a viewer in Portland to be an Oriole fan and a fan in Baltimore to follow the TrailBlazers.

It will work it self out. Why? Because the leagues have survived by fixing things to appeal to the fans. Despite their statements to the contrary, every league subtly adjusts their product to stay alive. Some will need more than a tweaking, but they’re not going away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Cal Being Cal

It was a confusing scene I had just witnessed on television. There’s Cal Ripken, one of the most revered baseball players ever coming back to first base in Minnesota after a single for his 3,000 hit. He hugged Eddie Murray, his long-time teammate and friend, a fellow 3,000 hit club member, acknowledged the crowd, and then turned toward the visiting dugout to see his teammates rushing out to congratulate him. Nothing strange about that, except the first guy out of the dugout with open arms and a big smile was Albert Belle. Albert Belle? Here you have Cal and the anti-Cal celebrating together and I didn’t quite know what to make of it. Then Cal shakes Belle’s hand and embraces him! Wait a minute! Isn’t Belle supposed to be a jerk? Isn’t Cal supposed to be one of the best guys to ever play the game? What’s he doing hugging Albert Belle? I can’t stand Albert Belle. Never liked him when his name was Joey, and everything he’s done since then has sent my opinion of him down somewhere between rookie ball and the independent leagues. When the Orioles signed him, they might as well have put pinstripes on their uniforms. How un-Oriole can you get? Who’s next I thought, Dick Allen? Alex Johnson? Who likes Albert Belle anyway? Somehow, Cal Ripken sees something in Albert Belle he likes, and it made me think twice. Just Cal being Cal, choosing to see the best in people, and perhaps bringing out the best in them, which should be good enough for anybody.

“Everybody thinks of me in terms of The Streak,” Ripken has said several times, “but that’s not how I think of myself.” Problem is, Cal has never said how he thinks of himself, and so we’re left with his stats and his actions to put some kind of definition to his career.

Noted writer Thomas Boswell wrote a profile of Ripken last week in The Washington Post, outlining Ripken’s achievements against some of the top players at his position in the game. Boswell covers the Orioles, and has seen Ripken play perhaps more than anyone other than his teammates. Here are some of his points: Of the 7 players with 3,000th hit and 400 home runs, only two played the important defensive positions on the field, “up the middle,” at shortstop, second, catcher or centerfield; Ripken and Willie Mays.

The rap on Cal has always been range, but because of superb positioning, good anticipation, great footwork and a complete knowledge of the competition, his range has actually been phenomenal. The current top three at shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are All-Star players. Ripken’s glove work dwarfs their accomplishments. To back that up, Boswell poses these numbers: Ripken has lead the league in assists seven times, in 1984 he had 583 assists, the American League record. Last season, Jeter Rodriguez and Garciaparra had 391, 382 and 357 assists, respectively. Ripken averaged 497 assists over an 11-year period. That’s an edge of 100 a year over Jeter.

The double play also gauges a shortstop’s ability to play his position, and again, Cal’s numbers loom large over today’s top stars. Ripken averaged 113 double plays for 10 years, Rodriguez had 104 last season, but Garciaparra turned a paltry 72 in ‘99 and Jeter 87. All this at 6’4”, 220, and doing it all day, every day.

Offensively Ripken holds almost all records for a shortstop, and perhaps other shortstops in the future will break those records in this offensively inflated era of baseball. His 3,000 hits and 400 homers stand as a testament to his offensive prowess. Lasts year he hit .340 and slugged .584, pretty good for a guy needing back surgery at 38 year old.

I’ve always liked Cal’s response when asked about his 2,632-concecutive games played. “Because I can, and therefore I should,” he has said in much more eloquent ways. In his autobiography, Ripken explains how a day off here or there wouldn’t have made him any more effective, and how he and his father agreed it would be disrespectful of the game to not play. When you have that talent, desire and ability, you owe it to those gifts to put them on display everyday. Otherwise, you’re cheating.

He single-handedly saved the game from itself in 1994, signing autographs and continuing The Streak. Through his various batting stance adjustments, he showed his willingness to try new things, to be coached. I used to bristle at people’s criticism of his playing everyday, but now I know, it was just Cal being Cal, something we could all learn a little from.