Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

LeBron: Worth Twice the Price

By the time you read this, game 3 of the Eastern Conference championships will probably have been played. It might even be over. The Lakers might be the NBA champions. But this playoff season for the NBA will be known for one shot: The 3-pointer LeBron James hit in game 2 in Cleveland against the Magic.

One second on the clock, down by two, the Cavs get the ball at half court after a timeout. You know, I know, heck, everybody knows that LeBron will get the ball. Hedo Turkolu is guarding him, and not doing a bad job. LeBron gets the ball outside of the arc at the top of the key, and with one motion, lands on two feet, jumps and fires a three pointer that rattles in after the buzzer goes off.

That’s the stuff that legends are made of.

LeBron says it’s his best shot “ever.” In fact, he had a pretty good week shooting the ball. Underhanded from half court, from behind the basket, from a sitting position from the mid-court stripe from all over the place. Maybe we’re supposed to expect him to make this kind of stuff. It’s been called “Jordan-esque” but it was even better than that.

There was no push off, no controversy, nothing but solid basketball and a great play on top of it. You can say they didn’t deny LeBron the ball well enough. That the guy guarding the inbounds pass didn’t adjust. But it wouldn’t have mattered. Great players find a way to be where the ball is, regardless.

Shooting it was a natural act, making it might have involved a little luck, but it’s more like a supernatural skill level. How many guys in the NBA make that shot? Maybe a handful. How many get open to receive the pass? Maybe a handful. And how many can have the athletic ability to get to the ball and get the shot off. Fewer than that. So if you do the math, there are only two or three guys in the league, and these are the best players in the world, who can get open, get the shot off and make it. LeBron is obviously one of them, but this had a more surreal feel to it. Like it was predestined.

As I’ve said many times LeBron is one of the two things (people, whatever) that have exceeded the hype. The other is Tiger Woods.

I knew LeBron would be good coming out of High School. He was of course a man-child at that stage and I thought “once he gets with real men in the game he’ll have to really step it up. Maybe he did, or maybe he just was always that good but he is everything he was advertised to be and more. I’ve made the trip to Orlando a couple of dozen times in the last few years to see different players, including Dwight Howard. Howard is worth the price of admission himself but James is on a whole other level. He’s worth twice the price. I mean he really is otherworldly.

If you get a chance to see him in person, it’s pretty amazing. Not just as a player, but just standing there. He looks like he should be carved on the front of some pharaoh’s tomb. Anyway, legendary doesn’t begin to describe how big that shot was the other night. Like Charles Barkley said on Friday, I can’t wait for the rest of the series.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Players, Stenson & A Little Tiger

Just about anybody in the top 15 who shot 66 in the final round of The Players was going to walk away with the trophy and the $1.7 million that goes with the title. Alex Cejka seemed a likely candidate to not get the job done based on his past. Tiger Woods usually scares off the competition just by appearing in the final group wearing a red shirt.

Cejka lived up to his reputation as a good player but not a strong finisher.

In about 42 minutes his five-shot lead had evaporated, a double-bogey on the fourth hole sealing his fate as a non-winner. Tiger never got anything going, not even making birdie on the second hole to serve notice on the field. So with the tournament wide open, about a half-dozen players looked to be eventual winners: Retief Goosen, a two-time major champion, Ben Crane, John Mallinger, Ian Poulter and Henrick Stenson.

Of those, Crane’s notoriety came from his deliberate play, Goosen as icy-cold in tough conditions. Mallinger as an unknown, Poulter for his finish last year at The Open and his clothes, and Stenson for taking his clothes off at Doral earlier this year to hit a shot out of the water. Nobody seemed to notice that Stenson also happens to be the fifth ranked player in the world and at 33-years old has won 10 times around the world. He might not be a star in the US but as a true international player, he’s in the thick of things.

I had a chance to talk to Stenson after the round and asked if he was watching scoreboards to determine how he played. “Once I made the putt on 11 I felt like I could take control of the tournament. The putt on 13 gave me a lead and when Ian birdied 15 I topped that and figured if I kept walking I should win.”

He made it sound so simple but it was anything but. Stenson played a nearly flawless round, missing one fairway (14 and still made par) and posting six birdies enroute to a 66, the best round of the day.

“We know he has the talent,” Tiger said afterwards. “But in these conditions, impressive. Pretty incredible.”

And that’s from the best player in the world.

Talk all you want about Tiger’s lack of smiling, his big arms, his knee, whatever, but when he’s impressed by what somebody did on a golf course he just walked off of, you take notice.

Unlike Craig Perks, who I thought would validate his victory after the 2002 Players, I don’t think Stenson will disappear at all. It should move him to the forefront when it comes to the big tournaments and especially the major championships.

“This will give me confidence when it comes to the majors,” Stenson said afterward. “If I can play like this on this course against this field, I should be able to do it in the majors as well.”

I think he’s right about that.

He strikes me as a very even-tempered player (he is Swedish after all) with tons of game. It really comes down to the putter, like with most players out there, but Stenson will put himself in position to be successful in the future and his name will be heard on leader boards for a while.

Two other stories played out this week. Tiger’s just fine but perhaps still a little rusty. “First time I’ve played back-to-back weeks, something I was wondering about. The knee’s fine. I can practice.” That’s good news for Tiger, his fans and the Tour.

It’ll be interesting to see if that’s what’s going on with his game, just some rust, or if it’s fatherhood, distractions, age, whatever. He’s still incredible and looks like the light-heavyweight champion of the world. I know Johnny Miller said Tiger was too bulked up to play, and although I disagree, Miller should know. When he moved to his farm in the mid ’70s’ he bulked up enough that he stopped winning.

I do agree with Miller that Tiger doesn’t smile anymore. While that doesn’t matter it does appear he’s playing a joyless game. I don’t know if that goes with the territory as one of the most famous athletes in the world or he just is grinding all the time. Hindsight will give us an indication.

The other story is Jeff Klauk. Klauk finished a 3 under and represented himself very well. As the son of the superintendent for 20 years he estimates he played 1000 rounds at the Stadium course and knows it from mowing fairways and raking traps. He had a local contingent of fans giving him support and I’m sure he felt some pressure in his first appearance at The Players.

But he didn’t fold at all and at one point was tied for 7th.

A bad back nine on Friday cost him a shot at the first page of the leaders but he showed everybody, and perhaps most importantly himself, that he belonged out there with the best players in the world.

“My goal is to play in the Tour Championship,” Klauk revealed on Sunday. In order to do that, he’ll have to finish in the top 30 on the money list. Maybe not that far fetched if he keeps this kind of play up.

“If I can replicate what I did on several nines this week over 72 holes, I’ll be just fine.”

More than that Jeff.

You’ll be a winner.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Halfway at The Players

It looks more like a law firm than a PGA Tour leader board: Mallinger, Crane and Johnson sounds like somebody you’d hire rather than go to watch make birdies. But they’re among the players contenting for The Players title in 2009.

Does that mean Tiger, Phil and company are out of the picture? Not necessarily but it does show the depth of the field and the “on any given Sunday” aspect of the Tour.

But is that any good for the Tour? Probably not.

We know that television ratings go up 40% when Tiger is on television on Sunday. And they’re desperate for a Sunday pairing of Phil and Tiger in the final group of a significant tournament to jump-start the “rivalry.” When the two played together on Sunday at the Masters the focus was on that two some instead of the leaders. Because that’s where all the buzz was on the golf course.

Nobody cared about Angel Cabrera and Kenny Perry until after it was apparent that neither Tiger nor Phil was going to win. But we followed their every shot until the final hole before the focus went back to who actually might win the tournament.

Sure, Jody Mudd won here in 1990 and Craig Perks in ’02 proving that anybody can win this thing if they get hot on Sunday. After he made birdie on his final hole of the day (#9) to finish at even par and potentially make the cut, I asked Phil Mickelson if the TPC Stadium course would allow him to get into contention even though he was 11 shots off the lead.

“Absolutely,” Phil said before I could even finish. “I’ve played late in the day on Sunday here and seen guys make birdies and march right up the leader board. If I make the weekend I’m planning on trying to shoot a low number tomorrow and move into the top 10 or so. If you’re there Sunday, you have a chance to win.”

Mickelson said he’s hitting the ball just like he wants to but isn’t making any putts. “I made three birdies today and all three were two putts,” Phil added.

There are two things that constantly go on at Players. First it’s the golf tournament that counts. It’s the best-run tournament and perhaps the best run sporting event in the world. Very positive, very efficient and as a professional tournament, it clearly identifies the best player of the week, all through his bag.

On the other hand, it’s a massive social event with the Tour and many other corporations using it to entertain clients and get their message across. And it’s part of the social fabric of North Florida. I’ll bet half of the people who are at the tournament, as “spectators” don’t see a single shot struck during the week. Well maybe they see Tiger take one swing but other than that it’s a huge outdoor cocktail party rivaling Florida/Georgia.

Which is perfectly fine.

No it’s not the Masters, nor the US or British Opens, but it’s something special all by itself. I hope it keeps up this weekend.