Saturday, October 31, 2009

Cavs coach welcomes all-purpose West back

Coach Mike Brown still had to wonder how his Cavs might look when all the pieces were in place. Brown, as with almost everybody else, knew he had been blessed with a good collection of splendid talent, but how to blend that talent had been his struggle.

It didn't help Brown, a defense-minded coach, that he was forced to play without Delonte West, his hustling, all-purpose guard who had to sit out the first three games of the season with psychological problems.

His mind right now, West returned to a standing ovation Saturday night, no small matter to Brown. He was as pleased to have West in the lineup as the fans were, because West can open Brown's offense in ways not possible without him.

No other Cavaliers player, including LeBron James, is as versatile as West.

"Delonte can play," Brown said. "He really affects the game in a lot of different ways. He's a guy who can score but also run the team and distribute the ball at the right time."

Doubt his words if you'd like. Surely, Brown wouldn't be the first coach to inflate the contribution of a player. In this case, he was speaking the unvarnished truth.

The evidence was in West's performance, and in the comparison to how the Cavs played in their first three games as opposed how they played in their last game, West proved the difference in this 90-79 dismantling of the Bobcats. He played a bigger part in the win than any of the 20-562 fans in The Q could have expected.

"It wasn't a surprise," LeBron said.

West scored 13 points and handed out a couple of assists, statistical totals that didn't match the nightly outputs of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade or Brandon Roy. Brown doesn't need those kinds of statistics from West, not when he can count on LeBron for them.

What Brown does need from West is what he got: a productive performance from the floor, strong defense and selfless play. His first game back wasn't markedly different from games he had in the past. If West had any first-game-back rust, he didn't show it. He looked good.

So did the Cavaliers.

"Missing piece," Mo Williams said of West. "It felt good to have the whole team back."

Williams called West's performance "terrific," perhaps an overstatement. Such hyperbole isn't uncommon when one teammate talks about another teammate. In this case, Williams meant it, because West's return gave him someone to share the point guard's.

Brown counted on that, too. He was, however, more circumspect in his analysis of West's return. He didn't necessarily expect West to be in midseason form. What player is four games into the season?

The fact that West is back will allow Brown to reconfigure his substitution patterns and build an offense and a defense that are cohesive. Compared to the first two games of the season, he did a better job of rotating players in and out in the victory Friday night in Minneapolis, and his rotation had few exposed seams against the Bobcats, no NBA powerhouse.

West was the glue that Brown's Cavs had been missing. With him back, they should get better and better the more they work together.

"I think we're taking steps in the right direction," Brown said. "We still have a long way to go. I think guys understand that, and in time, we will be a very good basketball team. We're pretty good right now, but we have the chance to be great."

(Photo of Cavs coach MIke Brown from NBA.com)

LeBron & Co. welcomes the troubled West back

It's still early in the NBA season, a point LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal keep stressing. So a loss here or there won’t turn what should be a promising season for the Cavaliers into a shipwreck.

The Cavs have foundered, though.

Their play has been spotty, their defense leaky -- a reflection of a team in transition, a talented team trying to figure out what it can do. The Cavs have also been a team absent one of its important pieces: Delonte West.

Absent, until now.

They activated West for their game tonight against the Bobcats. He's back, and he's ready to play, coach Mike Brown said.

"If he's activated, he will play," said Brown, his words offering some solace to Cavaliers fans who had fretted about West and the team's slow start.

The fans knew what Brown knew: One player can make a difference.

Doubt it?

Then watch a TV replay of the Lakers-Mavericks game Friday night. Ask almost any of the NBA analysts, and most of them will tell you the Lakers are the cream of the National Basketball League.

Nobody is prepared yet to hand the Lakers, the defending champs, another NBA title, not a week into the season. On paper, they can make a case for being the team to beat if all their pieces are in place.

Playing the Mavs at the Staple Center, the Lakers looked like anything but a championship team. They found the racehorse brand of basketball the Mavs played overwhelming. Dissect the L.A. loss, and you come away critical of almost every aspect of the team’s play.

You also realize the Lakers were at a gigantic disadvantage: Pau Gasol didn’t play.

I can’t think of one NBA team that can afford to lose a player like Gasol or West. Take either of them out of a team’s lineup, and you’ll see a great team downgraded to very good. And very good isn’t good enough to win an NBA championship.

The Mavs proves that true. They are very good, close to an elite team; they aren’t, however, a team people put into the great category.

People have put the Cavs, who play the Bobcats tonight, in that category – or at least they did before West had his psychological meltdown.

The emotionally-fragile West is returning to the floor, as will Gasol will shortly. Their return should quiet worries of hoops fans in Cleveland and L.A. who expect perfection in the early stages of a long season.

Fast starts are a thing of beauty, and LeBron and Shaq would tell anybody within earshot they would have preferred to open the season 2-1 and not 1-2.

“Honestly, it's gonna take some games before we figure out with Shaq -- and everybody else,” LeBron said before the game with the Bobcats.

In short, he was calling the Cavs a work in progress, and he’s right. The team might not find its form until West finds his, which no one can be certain when that'll be..

While Shaq has been an intriguing addition, he can’t fill the unique role West, the most versatile player on the team, plays for the Cavs.

Some players are irreplaceable when a championship is the team’s objective. LeBron is, for sure. Shaq is, too. And West – and Gasol and Kobe Bryant for the Lakers – fit that description.

Fans will see West play tonight. They can't wait to see what the Cavs can do with all their pieces ini place.

Neither can LeBron and Shaq.

UM alums: Please stop your blame game

The lunatics have been unloosed across Michigan, which is a wonderful place for them to squat. They fit in nicely among the self-righteous, pretentious men and women who call themselves UM alumni.
Yet even these loonies and alums have reached a nadir when they label solid journalism as muckraking and partisan. They seem to be searching for any excuse they can grasp to deflect attention from an athletic program that has its troubles.

Now, I would be among the last people to call Michigan a "renegade" program. While I have little affinity for the Wolverines – how could I? I’m an Ohio State alumnus – I won’t chuck stones just to chuck 'em. I will say, however, Michigan might have issues today that undermine its holier-than-thou reputation. The journalistic evidence points in that direction.

A lot of the recent evidence comes from the reporting of Jim Schaefer, a man who I befriended while picking up my master’s at Ohio State two decades ago. Like me, Jim bleeds Scarlet and Gray. Unlike me, a sportswriter, Jim has his journalistic principles intact.

In Jim’s world, right trumps partisanship, a comforting thought to hear. He would no more let his affinity for the Buckeyes guide his journalism than I would bungee jump or go deep-sea diving.

Just call me chicken, ‘cause I’m no risk-taker.

Yet here Jim is, having his journalism questioned. No matter that the man has a Pulitzer Prize displayed on his mantel. Forgot about the fact that Jim’s reportial skills took down a corrupt mayor and has sent drug dealers, rapists and stone-cold killers to prison during his two decades in the Detroit media.

None of that meant anything – not to the Michigan loonies, those mindless acolytes who would disgrace their lineage and lie before doing or saying anything that would sully the football program’s reputation, a friend of mine who follows Michigan told me.

He pointed out that the pro-Michigan lobby accused Jim Schaefer and The Free Press of going “above and beyond” to publish negative stories about coach Rich Rodriguez and Michigan football.

Filling the blogosphere with foolishness, the pro-Michigan lobby has alleged that even Lloyd Carr, the former UM coach who was booted on his behind in favor of Rodriguez, has put his Michigan bona fides at risk to help undo the program.

But the Michigan lobby’s most outlandish allegation – if rumors of Carr’s contribution to the stories about Rodriguez’s alleged wrongdoings aren’t outrageous enough – is that Schaefer is investigating Michigan to keep the program from returning to its past glory.

Keep in mind that the journalists behind the initial stories on Rodriguez and the football program were Michigan alums, and what role Schaefer and anybody else at The Free Press have played is to complement what has developed into an intriguing piece of probing journalism.

It would be na├»ve for people to believe the problems at Michigan are unique to Michigan. I doubt any of the football powerhouses have athletic programs that couldn’t use a steamy bath in Clorex to cleanse things.

But it’s Michigan, not Ohio State or Oklahoma or Florida, that’s under NCAA scrutiny, and the sooner the Wolverine faithful set their program straight the sooner the stories will be about what happens inside the Big House on Saturdays and not on what happens off the football field the rest of the week.

Until that happens, Schaefer, Mike Rosenberg and other journalists will be pouring their investigative energies into stories that might make life a little uncomfortable in Maize and Blue country. They do what they do not because they dislike Michigan; they do it because it is their job: They right wrongs.

Friday, October 30, 2009

If McGwire is back, why isn't Rose too?

I was in Las Vegas early last month when a friend told me and some of our buddies that Pete Rose was signing autographs at a memorabilia shop inside Caesars Palace. My friend suggested we walk over there with him and get a glimpse of Rose.

I declined. I didn't want to see Rose like this, prostituting his signature on any piece of junk a baseball fans slips in front of him.

But that's the plight of a baseball pariah. Banned for life for betting on baseball, Rose finds himself in the nether regions: on the fringes of the sport yet connected with its army of baseball faithful.

I had long ago pleaded for Commissioner Bud Selig to lift Rose's ban. To me, Rose has served his sentence in purgatory. He also has confessed his mortal sins, so it is time the commissioner set him free. Selig has said nothing about Rose's case, which makes me think Rose will continue to make a living glad-handing at Caesars.

Rose has too much value to the game to be left standing on its margins, and I see no purpose in keeping him there when Selig and the rest of baseball can extend their arms to welcome Mark McGwire into the game's fold.

I have no misgivings about this at all," Selig said in an article on ESPN.com. "Mark McGwire is a very, very fine man, and the Cardinals are to be applauded."

Applauded? For what?

I can't defend what Rose did. His actions did besmirch the game in ways that border on unforgivable. Yet what Rose did palls in comparison to what McGwire, who the Cardinals hired as their hitting coach, and all the other ballplayers from the Steroids '90s did to baseball. Their deeds threatened all that's sacred about sport.

None of these wrongdoers hurt the game as much as McGwire. He was a larger-than-life hero, almost Bunyanesque, some might say: the baseball strongman who hit homers so far that some of them might still be orbiting the earth. He crushed the most hallowed record in baseball when, during the 1998 season, he broke Roger Maris' total of 61 homers in a season.

More than a few baseball fans have argued that McGwire's race to 61, a contest he waged throughout the summer with Sammy Sosa, helped Major League Baseball, still trying to mend the ill-will that grew out of the '94 strike, restore its standing in the public's eye.

McGwire's assault on the home-run record transformed him into an icon. He was the toast of the sport, the megastar of stars in the home-run era.

This is not to say his image was not celestial before the '98 season, because that would be inaccurate. McGwire had built a reputation for himself with the Athletics, teaming with 'roids-abuser Jose Canseco in the late 1980s to give the A's two of the most powerful sluggers in the game.

Yet McGwire never had a season like '98, when his bat powered the Cardinals into the playoffs. He would never have another season quite like this one either. He wouldn't need to, though; McGwire had already elite numbers as a power hitter.

A few years later, he was out of baseball. He fled the game with rumors trailing him out the ballpark. He became the human billboard for what sullied the game. His bulging biceps and power hitting were, people were saying, the result of chemical enhancements and not of night after night in the weight room.

McGwire never answered those rumors. He didn't answer them in front of Congress when he was called to Washington, D.C., in 2005 to testify. He gave the politicians vague responses about his past, saying it is the future that counted now.

After his testimony ended, he became a recluse, disappearing into the California countryside. He severed his connection to the game, and unlike Rose, McGwire didn't seem to want one -- until now.

Somehow, he persuaded Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa to hire him as hitting coach.

Why LaRussa did isn't a question I've heard answered. He's been as unclear about the reason as McGwire has been silent about his past. Not even LaRussa can claim McGwire is the best candidate for the job, because as a "pure" hitter, he wasn't much.

I do believe in giving a man a second chance. I also know men make mistakes -- every man does. What man living can throw stones at glasshouses and not have stones thrown at his?

To get that second chance, I expect a man to repent first, including McGwire. I would like to hear him own up to his mistakes; I want him to set the record straight, which he refused to do in front of Congress. I implore Bud Selig to demand McGwire does so in front of baseball.

For if that's what he demanded of Pete Rose, Selig should accept no less from McGwire.

The fact is that while Rose, baseball's all-time hits leader, compromised the game, he didn't do nearly as much harm to its integrity as McGwire. Selig shouldn't give McGwire a free pass for turning baseball into a carnival freak show and then continue to ban Rose.

Can't Selig, the guardian of what remains of the game's integrity, see how unfair that is?

Ali's 'Rumble in the Jungle' turns 35 today

"Beyond the stucco villa, the Congo River flowed swiftly," Dave Anderson wrote in The New York Times. "On the lawn several dozen Africans, men in their slacks and bright shirts and women in their long dresses had come for a glimpse of the famous man now that he was the world heavyweight champion again."

Anderson's words are of no recent vintage, but they remain as vivid and as lucid as the day he crafted them 35 years ago.

His words are remembered today because this is the anniversary of the title fight Anderson wrote about. Now as then, you can hardly forget it, not if you consider yourself a Muhammad Ali fan.

Even if you didn't watch the bout live or weren't born until after that autumn day in 1974, you have seen film of it or have read about Ali's "Rumble in the Jungle."

No fight defined the Ali character more poignantly than his bout with George Foreman, the reigning champ then.

Ali, of course, had had memorable fights before he stepped into the swelter in Kinshasa, Zaire, to meet Foreman. Epic bouts with Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston come to mind, and Ali's "Bum of the Month" club had pitted "the people's champ" against any fighter who merited a title shot.

Politics cost Ali. It punished him for refusing to enter the military.

"I was determined to be one nigger that the white man didn't get," Ali once said.

In a sense, the white man did get him; he stripped Ali of the title. Foreman had gone on to win the belt, dismantling the heavyweight rankings in the process with the kind of power not seen since Rocky Marciano lorded over boxing's glamour division.

Ali-Foreman was the fight that fans had longed for -- one that didn't seem possible, however, in the clashing world of boxing promoters.

Both Foreman and Ali wanted to be paid a king's ransom, and they would get it from Don King. He made the two fighters follow him to Zaire to collect it.

King didn't have the money to promote the bout himself, but he convinced the country's strongman Mobutu Sese Seko, one of the richest men in the world, to guarantee purses of $5 million apiece.

Neither Ali nor Foreman could reject those dollars.

But their fight proved less about the cash and more about the egos.

Ali, 32, never thought he was anything less than a world champion, his losses to Frazier and Ken Norton notwithstanding. He took on Foreman to prove it.

Foreman, 25, didn't need to prove much. He came into this fight in Mai 20 Stadium unbeaten with 37 knockouts in 40 bouts. Foreman had already dismantled Frazier, a fight as one-sided as any championship bout in history.

If people thought Mike Tyson was a fearsome force during his reign of terror, they don't know what "fearsome" means. Tyson was never the hulking menace Foreman proved to be.

Fear was never one of Ali's traveling companions, though. Ali showed no fear of Foreman, never believing the brutish slugger could handle his hand and foot speed. He would dazzle Foreman with both - or so the Ali faithful thought.

They could not have been more wrong.

Because on the early morning of Oct. 30, it wasn't Ali's hand speed or foot speed that did in Foreman. It was Ali's smarts.

The fight proved a test of brawn over brain, and brain got the better of it. Had the plodding Foreman wanted to devise a surefire plan for losing, he succeeded. He ignored the heat and humidity in the jungle rumble, and he came out of his corner in the first round trying for a knockout.

Round after round, Foreman threw wild punches, pinning Ali against the ropes but unable to penetrate his guard. Foreman's aggression won him rounds, but it sapped his strength as well.

By the eighth round, his energy was spent. He had allowed Ali's rope-a-dope to define the night. And once his energy had disappeared into the night, the fight belonged to Ali.

He knocked Foreman down with a hard combination in the center of the ring. Groggy from Ali's blows, sapped by the oppressive heat, Foreman struggled to beat referee Zack Clayton's count; he failed.

Against all logics, against all the doubters and critics -- men and women who had considered Foreman unbeatable -- Ali won, regaining a title the U.S. government stole from him.

It was a night frozen in sports history -- as vivid today to a generation of fight fans as when Anderson and others wrote about it 35 years ago.