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Monday, Feb. 17, 2014

Winter Olympics: Rocks Around The Clock

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Add snow and ice to athletic competition and there's sure to be a spectacle of speed. Racers flash down mountains or frozen chutes at 80 miles an hour; skaters go aerodynamic and see their fates determined by hundredths or even thousandths of a second.

For one of the Observers, though, the most compelling Winter Olympics drama occurs at a deceptively tranquil pace...

 

Frank: I can't get enough of curling! I've been watching live games before dawn and tape-delays into early evening.

Artie: Mighty nice for a retiree with nothing but time.

F: Well, yes, but that makes it great for multi-tasking. You can do crosswords or read magazines between the shots. But it's also ideal for DVR-ing! The screen icons show how many of the eight “rocks” are left in an “end,” so you can zip to the last few if you want.

A: That's for me. Nobody scores until the end ends, ain'a?

F: But the strategy changes with every rock. Do you set up “guards” to keep the opponents from getting near the center of the rings? Do you try carom shots, even off your own rocks, to knock the others out? Should this shot be thrown hard or soft? And a huge factor is who owns “the hammer,” or last licks of that end.

A: So how have our Americans done?

F: Alas, no medals. The U.S. men finished 2-7 and the women were 1-8.

A: So we're the Kansas City A's of curling?

F: Actually, a U.S. men's team won bronze in 2006 and U.S. women took fourth in '02. But four years ago both teams went 2-7.

A: Are we using lighter rocks than everyone else?

F: Well, curling in America is less professionalized than in some other countries. Our players have real-life jobs too.

A: Olympians we can relate to.

F: And they are good enough to have reached Sochi. But it always comes down to shot-making, and this is the premier game of inches, even millimeters. Over the weekend our men lost to Russia and Canada when John Shuster, the captain, barely missed on tying shots that would have forced an extra end. The U.S. women lost to Sweden when a compass-like measuring device showed that Erika Brown's potential tying shot stopped a hair farther out than a Swedish rock. Then Brown's team took undefeated Canada to overtime but lost by a point again.

A: So we've simply been out-shot.

F: On Sunday a microphone picked up Shuster saying they'd been "on the wrong side of every millimeter." Just like Marquette's ice-cold hoopsters against Ohio State in November or UW's against Northwestern last month.

A: But there ain't no hands in a curler's face.

F: Still, there's plenty of defense with guard rocks and knockout shots. Just like in pool you have to think one or two shots ahead and see all the angles. But I've also begun to think of curling in terms of free-throw shooting...

A: But that's the part of basketball that doesn't involve defense.

F: But also the least exertion. It's all about practice and muscle memory. But what if every time a player went to the foul line the hoop was a foot higher up, or to one side, or farther away? And what if there were barriers that forced you to shoot a very high arc or aim to brush one side of the rim?

A: While shooting from basically the same place.

F: Exactly! A curler faces all sorts of variables on every shot, including the condition of the ice.

A: So if we didn't do well, who has been?

F: Both Canadian teams easily reached the medal round, as did the Swedes. And as we speak the colorful Norwegian men are in the hunt.

A: The guys with the wild outfits?

F: Yeah, lots of gaudy pants with designs of red, white and blue. And the other day they played a game in knickers and Irish caps, like Payne Stewart used to on the PGA Tour. But my favorite non-American team is the United Kingdom women. They're from Scotland, and when they're game-planning I enjoy trying to decipher their accents.

A: Kind of like navigating a field of guard rocks.

F: Now you're talkin'! Actually, it's easy to know what a shooter is yelling as a rock slides toward the rings. No matter what language, the message is either “Hard!” for heavy sweeping or “Whoa!”

A: I wish my vacuum cleaner ran that way. Then I could stay on the couch and watch more curling.

F: I also love the Scottish lasses because they tried one of the boldest plays of the tournament. Against Canada they were down two points in the final end and had a clear shot for a tie and overtime. But the captain, Eve Muirhead, went for the win!

A: Like Vince Lombardi passing up a tying field goal in the “Ice Bowl” when he had only one play left.

F: Right. Muirhead didn't succeed but Vince would have approved.

A: Not to mention his illustrious predecessor, "Curler" Lambeau.

F: Um, sure.

 

TRUE TO HIMSELF

F: I know we both applaud former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam for his courage in announcing that he is gay, which means he likely will become the first openly gay player in the NFL.

A: Absolutely. He should be accepted for who he is.

F: It's significant that Sam's Missouri teammates knew this during this past season, apparently with no problems arising.

A: Well, the main thing is that he's apparently a heck of a player. He was the co-SEC defensive player of the year and the Tigers went 12-2.

F: And how he plays should be the main thing as far as the NFL is concerned. As Mike McCarthy said, “Any player who can come here, be a good teammate, follow the rules of our program... and produce on the football field, we have room for that guy.”

A: But there are some teams where that might not be the case. If I were Sam I'd be worried about getting drafted by the Dolphins, for one.

F: Not long after Sam's announcement we learned that an NFL-mandated report concluded that Richie Incognito and two other Miami offensive linemen engaged in a “pattern of harassment” of Jonathan Martin and another, unnamed player. Much of the harassment seems to have involved racial taunts, but I'd have to think there was some homophobic stuff too.

A: I believe I read articles saying that.

F: It's pretty likely that kind of thing would come up anytime an NFL player is being accused of being “weak.” But I'd say this investigation and report are pretty good indications that the NFL will be watching closely to see how Sam is treated throughout the league.

A: Assuming he IS a good teammate, as it appears from his Mizzou days, by the time training camp is over and the season begins I think there won't be much controversy. For one things, something else will come along, another player getting in trouble with the law, whatever.

F: I was surprised to hear that Sam was being projected as a third- or fourth-round pick, even with his SEC credentials. But then I read that his size—listed as 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds—make him something of a “tweener” in terms of NFL positions. Maybe not big enough to play as a D-lineman but maybe with some quickness issues as an outside linebacker.

A: THAT'S where some controversy might kick up, when we find out exactly when he's drafted. If he's perceived to have “dropped” from the projections people might say he's being blackballed, whereas it might just be a simple evaluation of his talents.

F: Wherever he's drafted, you've got to think some NFL team will find an SEC star worth keeping.

A: Especially with the way every team goes through so many injuries over the course of a season.

F: Sam's situation is a lot different from that of Jason Collins, the former NBA player who came out as gay during the last off-season. He was at the end of his career and no longer very productive as a player.

A: More reason to praise Sam, because he could easily have concluded he had too much to risk financially by coming out.

F: The generally supportive reaction to Sam's news is another indication of how rapidly the U.S. population is coming to accept gay people and their rights.

A: Except that NFL locker rooms don't necessarily reflect society in general.

F: But still, I've got to think Sam wouldn't have found as much support in the league even 10 years ago. But as we know from our own lives and families, just about everyone has someone gay as a friend or relative. And when you put a real face on an issue, it's not so easy to dismiss it.

A: Here's what would be really great: Richie Incognito, who's a free agent, signs with a team and then that team drafts Sam. And they line up across the line from each other.

F: With the NFL and nation watching.

 

NASCAR DOES SOME TINKERING

F: You're the gearhead in this partnership. With the Daytona 500 coming up Sunday, I see that NASCAR has revamped the format for its Chase for the Sprint Cup, but I m relying on you to explain it

A: Sorry, I misplaced my slide rule. I read the story and even printed out the details from the NASCAR site, but it was fruitless. Halfway through I got totally lost.

F: And you're someone who cares about racing!

A: I did kind of grasp that whatever they did is supposed to give more value to winning races instead of just surviving with decent finishes.

F: I guess there'll be more teams who qualify for the Chase, 16 instead of 12, but as the 10-race series goes on the contenders will be whittled down until there are only four who can win the Cup in the season finale.

A: Um, if you say so.

F: I suppose you could say that winning is always most valued, but in a sport where machines are zooming and veering and crashing, or breaking down mechanically, and there are 43 of these machines that start every race, the potential for any car to run into trouble is mighty high.

A: Bad motor, bad driver, bad luck—any or all of 'em.

F: By the way, why does NASCAR mandate 43 cars every race?

A: You got me stumped again.

F: I know it was Richard Petty's car number but I doubt that's the reason. Anyway, if they want to add value to winning and put a premium on great driving, why not give drivers a little less traffic to navigate through? For that matter, why not limit the field in Chase races to only the top 16 or 20 or 24 teams? I'd hate to think that part of the 43-car thing is to make sure there's good potential for mayhem.

A: One thing I do know: Whatever they do to the Chase has TV ratings behind it. I think the numbers have been going down in recent years, and NASCAR is like any other sports operation. TV money rules!

F: It all sounds a little desperate. Well, I'm sure you'll keep me apprised of the standings as we get to the new and improved Chase. Especially if Wisconsin's own Matt Kenseth is in the running.

A: It was Matt's title in 2003, with only one race win, that started all this Chase stuff. But no matter what they do it seems like Jimmie Johnson winds up with the title!

F: Six of the last eight, including last year. I guess no matter how popular a guy is, it can get boring if he wins too much.

A: I think I read somewhere that if this year's format had been in effect last year, Kenseth would have won the Cup.

F: Hmm, I thought I heard someone on ESPN say it would have been Dale Earnhardt Jr.

A: Hell, maybe someone thought it would have been A.J. Foyt.

 

DRIVER TO DRIVER

F: While we're on NASCAR, what did you think about the exchange of comments between Mr. Petty and Danica Patrick? I was going to call it a brouhaha, but that's not really what it was.

A: No, I wouldn't call it that either.

F: Petty said the only way Patrick would win a Sprint Cup Series race was “if everybody else stayed home.” She replied that everyone's entitled to an opinion, and Petty denied that he's a sexist and said he's glad for the fan interest she brings to the sport.

A: I don't think “The King” was saying he thinks women can't drive. He was giving his honest opinion of a driver.

F: Which is exactly what Patrick wants to be treated as, simply one of the NASCAR drivers. And in fact she hasn't been very successful so far at that level. She was eighth in last year's Daytona 500 but that was by far her best finish, and she was way back in the season standings.

A: Way back, like a lot of other drivers.

F: I've been impressed when I've seen her in interviews because she always says she's got a lot to learn and plans to work as hard as she can. And I don't recall anything from last season to indicate that a lot of people think she's a menace out there.

A: Everyone gets involved in some wrecks.

F: Including Kenseth, who triggered a big pileup Saturday night at the Sprint Unlimited at Daytona. He later said he never saw a car on his inside.

A: I see a new sponsorship for Matt. Coming soon: The Stein Optical No. 20 car!

 

BACK ON COURSE

F: Things are looking a lot better for Marquette and Wisconsin hoops. After beating Xavier on Saturday the Golden Eagles went into this week on a three-game winning streak, and the Badgers' convincing win at Michigan made it four straight for them.

A: UW's defense was very impressive again. It makes me wonder why it disappeared during that dismal “matador” stretch a couple of weeks ago. Plus the Badgers had only two turnovers against the Wolverines.

F: That's a big change from even a week earlier, when they had something like eight TOs in the first 10 minutes against Michigan State.

A: Winning in Ann Arbor is big. Now let's see if the Badgers can do it again this Saturday at in Iowa City.

F: Marquette, meanwhile, is making up for that clinker against St. John's. Their winning streak includes some revenge against Butler and Xavier, whom they'd lost to on the road.

A: They've got a couple more challenges on the road against Villanova and Providence, but it looks like they might meet Buzz Williams' goal of finishing 11-7 in the Big East.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek always throws a guard rock.

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