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Monday, June 21, 2010

The Agony of the Feet, the Pluck of the Irish

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Sometimes the allure of sports lies not in flawless execution but the excruciating difficulty of performing the basics under pressure. The times when the analysts say, "Well, it wasn't pretty, but…"

Take last week. Soccer's World Cup showed that in "the beautiful game," high excitement comes with low scoring. The NBA championship was decided in a Game 7 that the Los Angeles Lakers didn't so much win as survive. And the U.S. Open was claimed by an unknown Irishman as three of golf's superstars blundered.

The Observers, no strangers to struggling at the lowest levels of sports, were fascinated.

Frank: Last week you said of the World Cup, "If these are the best players, why can't they put the ball in the net?" Change it to "hole" and you've got Sunday at the Open. Every year they stagger through the final day until somebody misses one fewer gut-wrenching putt and gets the trophy.

Artie: At least they have scores in the 70s, not the vast range from "nil" to one. And in the Open, the authorities make tough courses even tougher. Soccer doesn't have a winding field with high grass and sand pits.

Frank: The U.S. Golf Association didn't catch hell over Pebble Beach this year, but sometimes it seems really eager to humble the players.

Artie: The idea is that par is everything, and to break it by even one stroke should require a masterful four days.

Frank: Mission accomplished. Graeme McDowell won at dead even and Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson will relive missed chances in their nightmares. And the USGA, like FIFA in soccer, can say, "We showed ’em who's boss."

Artie: Those FIFA guys must be super-arrogant. "Replays? We don't need to look at no stinkin' replays!" Seems like every goal has a debate over whether a guy was offside or smacked the ball with his arm.

Frank: Not quite every one, but Sunday replays showed a couple were tainted. To say nothing of a couple of crucial "dives," including one where an Ivory Coast player was nudged in the chest by a Brazilian and flopped down clutching his face. The ref was conned and the Brazilian was ejected. Totally bogus!

Artie: What about the screwing the U.S. team got on what should have been the winning goal against Slovenia? Cripes, our guys are getting tackled but this ref saw a foul on us?

Frank: And FIFA, as always, refused to make the ref explain himself.

Artie: I think he saw the ball in the net and said, "That isn't supposed to happen! There must be a violation."

Frank: Well, that 2-2 score was the only one in the first 31 games in which both teams tallied more than one. Ten of the first 31 ended 0-0 or 1-0, and only five teams got above 2. It took the 30th game, Portugal's 7-0 rout of North Korea, to get the average of total goals per game over 2.

Artie: Speaking of deuces, where were they in that Lakers-Celtics Game 7? In fact, over the last two games the Lakers averaged 86 points and Boston 73. I thought, "Did Dr. Naismith appear and put peach baskets up instead of the normal hoops?" The finale was like a high-school game from 1965.

Frank: I ignored the NBA Finals until the second half of Game 7. But I was riveted by the intensity of the defense on both sides. They played their guts out, and it was beautiful in its own way.

Artie: Yeah, but strange. Boston got away from its big strength, Rajon Rondo pushing things upcourt. It looked like those slug-it-out series between the Knicks and Miami in the ’90s.

Frank: Jeff Van Gundy was doing the TV; maybe he flashed on Alonzo Mourning and had to be restrained from wrapping himself around someone's ankles. But those NBA guys have nothing on the World Cup when it comes to mugging. Our own Clint Dempsey, talking about the disallowed goal, admitted he was wrestling on virtually every "set piece"—just not that one.

Artie: I wondered whether Vince McMahon was in charge of FIFA, too. I half-expected to see a guy get slammed by a folding chair when the ref's back was turned. Hey, how's my championship pick, Cameroon, doing?

Frank: Lost to Japan and Denmark and can't reach the second round.

Artie: Once again, I'm "The Cooler." I cooled the Celtics by hating them a bit less than I hate the Lakers.

Frank: I'm sick of Kobe and Phil, too. But in the ’60s I rooted desperately for the Lakers of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor to finally beat the insufferable Red Auerbach and Co.

Artie: West won a title but never beat Boston. And Baylor retired just before the Lakers' won in ’72.

Frank: Speaking of rooting, I never heard of Mr. McDowell before Sunday but I sure was pulling for him on the final hole.

Artie: Of course. He's an Irishman, ain'a?

Frank: Well, from the Brit part of the island. But he has that typical Irish friendliness. Walking the 18th fairway NBC rushed a camera up to him and he smilingly said, "It's fun, right?"

Artie: Then he took those final two putts quick and smooth. Other guys would stand over ’em and give themselves the yips.

Big, Bigger and…

Frank: Armageddon didn't arrive for the Big 12 and Big East conferences after all. The Big 12 lost Nebraska to the Big Ten and Colorado to the Pacific 10, but survived by telling Texas, "You'll still be top dog in conference TV payouts and if you want to start your own network, go ahead."

Artie: Which kept Oklahoma and Texas A&M from bolting with the Longhorns to either the Pac-10 or the Southeastern Conference. They'll get bigger shares of TV money, and the other seven members—they're happy to still have a home.

Frank: Meanwhile, the Big Ten seems happy enough to get to 12 members, which means two divisions and a football championship game that will draw big dough from ESPN/ABC.

Artie: To go with the big dough—like $22 million per school—that comes from the Big Ten Network already. Of course if Notre Dame had been willing to join up, all hell might still have broken loose.

Frank: The Pac-10 also added Utah to get to 12 teams. And Boise State, expecting the Big 12 to die, jumped from the WAC to the Mountain West—then saw Utah's exit reduce the Mountain West's cachet again.

Artie: So a year from now the Big 12 will have 10 teams and the Big Ten will have 12.

Frank: The only numbers that matter are the households in the TV markets your conference can grab. Why was Rutgers on the Big Ten's radar? It's just down the road from New York.

Artie: For now, the Big East stays intact for non-football schools like Marquette and DePaul. By the way, did you notice that no one in any of these switches said a stinkin' word about basketball?

Frank: The Journal Sentinel ran a front-page story a few weeks ago that said Big Ten expansion "likely will hinge on location and academics."

Artie: Academics? Do they think "The GE College Bowl" is back on TV? Gimme a break.

Frank: Besides, how much of the $22 million in TV money goes to academics? Precious little, I'll bet. These athletic departments are self-sustaining corporations that happen be affiliated to universities.

Artie: Getting that extra $22 million sure didn't keep UW from raising tuition for next year another 5.5%.

Frank: So we don't have the four 16-team mega-conferences some expected. But in a year or two the pieces will get shuffled again.

Artie: Fine by me. The games will be on TV and I'll watch them—as long as it doesn't cost me a premium fee on my cable bill.