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Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010

Curl Up and Enjoy a Sport for the Masses

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World dominance is ours! Or so said much of last week’s coverage of the Winter Olympics. Team USA led in medals entering the final days, but with no Dreaded Red Empire to vanquish, so what? Our NHL guys beating Canada’s NHL guys is nice, but hardly a "Miracle on Ice." We’re a big country with lots of pro athletes, so we ought to do well. Still, the Observers aren’t tuning out.

Frank: Are you as underwhelmed by the Games as you expected?

Artie: Nope. I’m hooked! I guess I forgot how exciting these events are: skiers flying down a mountain and winning by hundredths of a second; cross-country skiers collapsing across the finish line; total crazies zooming through an ice chute on sleds that make "Rosebud" look like a tank. I can’t get enough!

Frank: I’m less engaged than I expected. I’m sure not glued to NBC’s marathon of commercials, interrupted occasionally by the sports.

Artie: That’s why God invented the VCR or DVR or whatever letters we’re using at the moment.

Frank: You betcha. And that way I can skip the sappy buildups for the big stars. It ain’t no surprise that they’ve worked hard and fought through setbacks and love their parents and see a gold medal as a dream come true.

Artie: It’s all too perfect, the soap-opera things they throw in to get the female viewers who make or break the ratings.

Frank: Another reason I’m not into the big stars is that just about all of them—Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Shani Davis, Apolo Ohno, that "Flying Tomato" guy, Shaun White—were millionaires and "brands" already.

Artie: They have sponsorships, endorsement deals, whatever they need to train year-round. What they do is great, but it’s their job, for cripes’ sakes. If they win they just get richer.

Frank: But it’s very different for at least one group of competitors, the ones I am totally into.

Artie: You don’t mean...

Frank: That’s right, I’m talking about the people’s sport, curling. There were laughs when it went Olympic in 1998—"bocce ball or lawn bowling, just add ice"—but more and more people recognize that it involves terrific hand-eye coordination and complex strategy.

Artie: So it’s chess on ice.

Frank: But with no set places for the pieces, or "rocks." And if your moves are off by an inch or two, it can mean disaster.

Artie: So it’s also like putting or free-throw shooting on ice.

Frank: That kind of pressure, sure, but again it’s more complicated. But the best thing about curlers is that almost all of them do not make their living at it. They’re regular people with regular jobs—and also some special skills.

Artie: The thinking man’s sport and the working man’s sport. Joe and Josephine Six-Pack can say, "Hey, I could do that, if I got off my keister long enough."

Frank: The players are mic’d up for games, and when you hear them talk strategy and react to the shots, you sense they’re nice, friendly folks who try hard but won’t go nuts if they lose. Which is a good thing for our American curlers.

Artie: On thin ice, are they?

Frank:The U.S. men finished 2-7 and the women's teamentered this week at 2-5. The women, with three players from Wisconsin, started 0-3, won two but got routed twice Sunday.Thecaptain, or skip, Deb McCormick, was in a shooting slump—but not as bad asmen's skip John Shuster during his team's agonizing 0-4 start.

Artie: So he turned into a skipper like Alan Hale Jr. was on "Gilligan’s Island," ain’a?

Frank: Over three games, Shuster had four chances for game-winning shots and missed ’em all—too hard or off-line by a hair. Shuster helped the U.S. take bronze in 2006, but this time he was benched for the fifth game—which the U.S. won.

Artie: We can relate—all of us who struck out with the bases loaded in Little League or botched an easy spare in the finals of the company bowling league.

Frank: Shuster took his demotion with class and returned to the ice—in a lesser role—for a second victory. McCormick also moved to a lesser spot to help her team.

Artie: John Shuster, you’re our Olympic hero. You too, Deb.

Only the Tee Shot

Frank: So Tiger Woods finally emerged to say he’s sorry for betraying his wife, friends and sponsors.

Artie: I was thinking he might postpone it and fly to Vancouver to chase Lindsey Vonn.

Frank: You’re joking, I think, but Woods has entered the stage of celebrity that Bill Clinton knows well—life as a running national joke, no matter what he achieves. Three months ago it was the “Story of the Century,” but last week my reaction was, "This is already Yesterday’s News."

Artie: He conveniently picked a Friday, and during the Olympics, so his little show would be quickly overshadowed.

Frank: Of course this is only the first "shot" in his effort to keep his family and return to golf. He said the right things, but there’s a lot more work to do.

Artie: Looks like he won’t play the Masters in April, but I’ll bet he’s back for the U.S. and British Opens, on courses where he’s won before.

Frank: I noticed he said he’ll be "more respectful of the game." That was a reply to Tom Watson, who recently said Woods’ behavior on the course needs work.

Artie: All the glares at photo-snappers, the cursing and club-slamming after bad shots. Yeah, he’s never been a ray of sunshine.

Frank: I hope Woods has taught us that it’s foolish to equate a top athlete’s talent with character. There’s no automatic connection. With character, as Woods’ wife told him, the proof is in the behavior.

The King of Queens

Artie: The Marquette hoopsters picked a bad time to lay an egg at home against Pittsburgh. It sure didn’t help their NCAA tournament chances. Wisconsin flopped the same night at Minnesota, but the Badgers are No. 17 in this week’s AP poll.

Frank: Both teams bounced back Sunday, and UW has Jon Leuer back from his broken wrist. As for the Golden Eagles, they’re over .500 in the Big East, with a win over Georgetown and paper-thin losses to Villanova (twice) and West Virginia.

Artie: All of them ranked in the Top 11 by the AP. Plus MU beat Michigan and UConn when both were ranked.

Frank: Our deadline came before this week’s game at St. John’s—a game with special meaning for me.

Artie: Must be a Noo Yawk thing, ain’a?

Frank: Instead of playing at Madison Square Garden, the teams were meeting at the St. John’s field house in Queens for the first time in 42 years.

Artie: Hmm, I wonder who was on hand that night in ’68.

Frank: A St. John’s Prep senior who had just decided to attend Marquette in the fall. I rooted for the Redmen as they lost, 57-56. Blanton Simmons hit two jumpers in the final minute and Queens native Al McGuire provided some classic fireworks.

Artie: What a surprise.

Frank: With about 5 seconds left and MU leading, a St. John’s guy got trapped and asked for a timeout. McGuire said the timekeeper stopped the clock immediately, before the ref signaled the TO. McGuire charged the scorer’s table and wound up yelling nose-to-nose with the St. John’s athletic director, Walter McLaughlin.

Artie: But Al had the last word.

Frank: Right. St. John’s missed at the end and the Warriors won although George Thompson fouled out with only 13 points. After the game I schlepped coats at an MU alumni party and McGuire predicted big things the next season when another New Yorker, Dean Meminger, joined the varsity.

Artie: How right he was!

Frank: For me, Dean the Dream has to be in MU’s all-time starting five.

Artie: Thompson too. And we all know who the all-time MU coach is.

Frank: It ain’t Tom Crean.