Thursday, April 28, 2016

Stanley Cup Second Round Starts

So...the NHL threw a bit of a wrench into things by having Game 1 of Islanders-Lightning before Game 7 of Ducks-Predators.  We're used to seeing this in the NBA, but the NHL never overlaps rounds.  In fact, this is the first time they did it since 1983.

This year's playoffs have already broken form from recent seasons.  The Kings won't win the Cup.  Neither will the Blackhawks.  They've alternated championships over the past four years, with Chicago winning in the odds and LA the evens.  But neither one even reached the second round this season.  We also saw the Giants-Patriots Super Bowl cycle snapped, so, sorry San Francisco Giants fans, it looks like your team won't be getting its even-year World Series win.

We also won't have our traditional Rangers-Capitals playoff series.  After playing 17 straight postseason games against the Rangers over the last three years, the Penguins finally beat them in a playoff series and have moved on to the marquee second-round matchup against the Capitals.  Those were the two best teams in the NHL at the end of the season, and they were the two best teams in the first round.  I think the winner of that series will win the Cup.

Pittsburgh-Washington also exposes the flaws of the current playoff system.  The Penguins had the second-most points in the Eastern Conference during the regular season, yet they played the Rangers, the fourth-best team in the East, in the first round, guaranteeing that one of them had to be eliminated.  Now they'll play the Capitals, who had the best record in the NHL.  So, there's no chance that the two best teams can play in the conference finals.  Instead, they'll play in the conference semis, while the winner of the No. 5 New York Islanders vs. No. 6 Tampa Bay will get the other spot.

My solution to this problem is incredibly simple.  You go back to the old way.  The playoff system that they used prior to the realignment and the wild cards.  The division winners get the top two seeds, but the other six teams are seeded based on their point totals, not their finish in the division.  (That would've made the matchups: Washington-Detroit, Florida-Philadelphia, Pittsburgh-Tampa Bay, Rangers-Islanders, Dallas-Minnesota, Anaheim-Nashville, St. Louis-San Jose and Chicago-Los Angeles.)  That way, Pittsburgh wouldn't have been effectively penalized for finishing second in the strong Met Division (which had five playoff teams) behind the best team in the league.  (When the NBA did this I was somewhat critical, but it actually does make a lot of sense.)

Capitals-Penguins: Since I've been talking about Pittsburgh-Washington, it makes sense to start there.  Other than Washington's little hiccup after they went up 3-0, these two had relatively easy, dominant wins over the Flyers and Rangers.  Things will probably be a little more competitive in round two.  These have been the two best teams in the league for about two months now, and they're incredibly evenly-matched.  Except there is the one thing that gives Washington the slight edge, and it's the same thing I always point to as an X-factor: goaltending.  The Capitals have the likely Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, who tied Martin Brodeur's NHL record for wins this season.  Pittsburgh went through two different backup goalies during the Rangers series.  Against a beaten-up, overmatched Rangers team, they were able to get away with that.  Against Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and all their friends, they won't.  Washington has been on a mission ever since blowing that 3-1 lead against the Rangers last season.  They won't let that happen again.  That home-ice advantage is going to end up paying huge dividends.  Because I see this going seven.  Capitals in seven.

Lightning-Islanders: It's a good time to be my brother-in-law.  He likes both of those orange & blue Long Island teams.  The Mets made the World Series, and now the Islanders have won a playoff series for the first time in 23 years.  And, I do need to say it, John Tavares is an absolute freakin stud!  The back-to-back double overtime games didn't seem to slow the Islanders down at all in Game 1, and the win in Game 6 especially had to leave them feeling good heading into this series.  I think Tampa Bay is better than Florida, and the Lightning are the defending Eastern Conference champions.  But the Islanders probably don't care.  They positioned themselves well and could easily pull off the Florida sweep en route to the Eastern Conference Finals.  (As I said prior to the first round, both the Rangers and Islanders preferred the Panther matchup to the Penguin matchup.  And most of my friends who are Islanders fans agree that the results would've been the same if the New York teams had swapped opponents.  The Rangers would've beaten the Panthers, and the Penguins still would've dominated against the Islanders.)  With the way the bracket's set up, I don't blame them for trying to flip divisions for the postseason.  It worked against the Panthers, and it could easily work against the Lightning.  The way the Islanders are playing, I'm not going to go against them.  Islanders in six.

Stars-Blues: Congratulations to the St. Louis Blues.  They finally got that massive monkey off their back and finally won a playoff series.  In seven.  Against the Blackhawks.  Especially after letting Chicago back in the series after going up 3-1, I thought the Blues would give us one of their trademarked first-round collapses.  But they pulled out the Game 7 win, which was a major hurdle for them to overcome.  Now they get a ridiculously good Dallas Stars team.  I didn't see them much during the regular season so I didn't realize it, but the Stars are ubertalented.  They were just as impressive as anybody in holding off the Wild.  This is the hardest series to call.  I can really see it going either way.  Neither team has really been in this position before, which further complicates matters.  Getting off to a good start is going to be key.  If St. Louis grabs one of those first two games in Dallas, I really like the Blues.  If the Stars hold serve at home, that puts the pressure on St. Louis in Game 3.  I said to a friend of mine earlier today, "Watch the West Finals be St. Louis-San Jose.  That way one of them will have to find a way NOT to piss away a playoff series...then probably end up like the Canucks and lose in Game 7 of the Cup Final."  Anyway, in order to be in that position, St. Louis needs to beat Dallas first.  I see lots of one-goal games and lots of overtimes, but I also see the Blues prevailing.  They were separated by only two points for a reason.  (For all the complaining I did about Capitals-Penguins in the second round, it's the same thing out West, where these two had the two best records.)  Blues in six.

Sharks-Predators: Just like the Islanders are spending some quality time with the State of Florida this postseason, the Predators must have a similar affinity for California.  Nashville-Anaheim was a very strange series.  The Predators won the first two on the road, then lost the next three, only to win Games 6 and 7 (on the road).  Three of Nashville's four wins in the series came in Anaheim, so those late start times clearly didn't have much of an effect.  And they'll stay out there before Game 1, which means the travel should have no bearing on the first two games.  As for the Sharks, they're in such a similar position as the Blues.  San Jose's playoff history consists mainly of lost opportunities and disappointment.  So, yes, it was big for them to finally beat the Kings.  Will this finally be the year the Sharks put it all together in the playoffs?  It's really starting to look like that.  Except the Predators will have something to say about that.  As they said before Game 7 against Anaheim, people HAVE to watch them now.  Well, what they saw was another team that's on the verge of something big.  If there's a team that can spoil the Sharks' party, it's the Predators.  The Sharks will need to be on their game to knock off a hungry Nashville team that has already won the first Game 7 in franchise history.  But maybe being viewed as the underdog will be a good thing for them.  No expectations=less disappointment.  The Predators' second Game 7 could come two weeks after their first.  Except I don't see them winning both.  The Sharks in the conference finals?  Say it ain't so!  Sharks in seven.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

100 Days Til Rio

Oh man, the Olympics are getting close!  The torch has been lit and is on its way to Brazil.  Nike has unveiled lots of national team uniforms.  Athletes and teams have started qualifying.  NBC has announced its Opening Ceremony coverage team.  But there's still a lot that will happen between now and the cauldron being lit in the Maracana on August 5.  And there still a lot of questions.

In honor of the 100-day countdown, here are some of those questions, as well as some of the things I'm most looking forward to in Rio (I won't go all the way to 100, instead I'll do a quarter of that):

1. Will the Russian track & field team be there? This goes beyond whether or not people think the Russians deserve to be there.  Their presence (or lack thereof) affects the medal chances for a lot of countries.
2. Who will light the cauldron? The clubhouse favorite is Pele, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Oscar Schmidt or Joaquim Cruz get the honor.
3. Will all the venues be ready? For all the doomsday scenarios we've heard about construction delays, I'm willing to bet everything's ready in time and the Games go on without a hitch.
4. What about Zika? Obviously, Zika is a big concern, and it's probably going to keep a lot of people away.  Their concerns are valid, but I think everything's going to be fine.  August is the Brazilian winter, remember.
5. How will the golf tournament go? Golf's return should be a glorious event.  Instead, all we're hearing about is PGA players who are dropping out because of scheduling concerns.  Hopefully, enough of the top pros decide to play and make it a great event.
6. Will Usain Bolt get a third triple? If he does, he'll take Carl Lewis' place as the greatest track & field Olympian in history.
7. Can Kerri Walsh win her third straight gold? She needs to qualify first.  Even if she does, I think it'll be difficult.  Women's beach volleyball is one of the golds Brazil wants the most.
8. Will Brazil get that elusive men's soccer gold medal? They're pulling out all the stops to win gold on home soil in the national sport.  Neymar will play in the Olympics instead of Copa America.  You can tell which event is Brazil's priority.
9. How many medals will Michael Phelps add to his collection?  When he "retired" after London, the count was at 22.  I bet it easily gets to 25.
10. Who will be the swimming star of these Games? Katie Ledecky seems like a good candidate, but Michael Phelps is Michael Phelps.
11. What about the refugee Olympians? Nice gesture by the IOC to identify potential Olympians from war-torn countries and give them the opportunity to compete in Rio.  Will any of them be good enough to end up on the medals stand?
12. What countries will make their Olympic debuts in Rio? Along with the Refugee team, Kosovo and South Sudan have finally gained full IOC recognition, bringing the number of nations marching into the stadium at the Opening Ceremony to a record 207 countries (pending what happens with Kuwait).
13. Will NBC set a ratings record? Almost certainly.  They set a record in London, which is five hours ahead of New York.  Rio's only one hour ahead of the East Coast, making this the most-live television event in history.
14. How many medals will Brazil win? London was their best-ever showing, 17 medals.  With the home field advantage, they look poised to top that.
15. Is rugby sevens here to stay? I'd have to think so.  Rugby sevens is awesome, and fans are going to love it.  It's only guaranteed for Rio and Tokyo, but this seems like a permanent addition.
16. Will they catch the doping cheats early enough? Doping is at the forefront in the lead-up to these Olympics.  From the Russian track & field team to Meldonium to whatever else they come up with between now and then, let's hope they catch the cheaters before having to rewrite the record books and reallocate medals years later.
17. How many medals will the U.S. team win? The U.S. has topped the medal table at four of the last five Olympics and only hasn't hit the 100-mark twice since 1984 (Seoul and Sydney).  Should the U.S. reach 101, that'll bring the all-time medal total to 2,500.  Also, who will win the 1,000th American gold (which will be the 24th won in Rio)?
18. Can the American gymnasts continue their dominance? They've won the last two Olympic golds and three straight World Championships.  There really isn't another country in the same league at the moment, so it would be a shock if they don't win that third consecutive Olympic title.
19. Will anyone come close to challenging the American basketball teams? I doubt it.  The women haven't lost since the 1992 semifinals, and the men have rolled to the last two gold medals after that disappointing bronze in Athens.  If I had to say one was more of a lock than the other, I'd say it's the women.
20. How about the American women's soccer team? Winning the Olympic gold medal is kind of their thing.  This will be the sixth Olympic women's soccer tournament, and they've won four of the previous five, including the last three.  Interestingly, though, their only Olympic loss came in 2000, which is the only other time they entered the tournament as World Cup champions.
21. Will Allyson Felix pull off the double? They changed the schedule so that she can attempt to win gold in both the 200 and 400.  She'd be the first person in 20 years to pull off the feat (Michael Johnson and Marie-Jose Perec actually both did it in Atlanta).
22. Will Fabiana Murer win the women's pole vault? She's probably Brazil's best chance for gold in track & field.  A Murer win would have the same impact as Cathy Freeman's 400-meter gold in Sydney or Great Britain's three-gold night in London.
23. What will be the best venue? In London, the best venue was Horse Guards Parade for beach volleyball.  in Rio, there are three candidates: rowing underneath the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, beach volleyball on the world-famous Copacabana Beach, and soccer at the historic Maracana.
24. Is this actually the last Olympics for two all-time greats? Michael Phelps has already un-retired once.  Now he's back for a fourth Olympic run.  Usain Bolt has indicated this will be his final Olympics, too.  But can they be believed?  Will either (or both) show up in Tokyo?
25. Who will be the U.S. flag bearer at the Opening Ceremony? It's still way too early to make that call, especially with a team of 500-plus athletes headed to Rio.

So many more questions that will come up and be answered in the next three months.  August 5 can't come close enough.  The Rio Olympics are only 100 days away!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Brady Re-Suspended

Deflategate just refuses to die.  The stupidest, most drawn-out, biggest waste-of-time "scandal" in NFL history was ratcheted back up this afternoon when the appeals court overturned a previous ruling and reissued Tom Brady's four-game suspension.  And Brady, of course, doesn't want to accept the ruling and is "reviewing his legal options," which pretty much ensures we won't move on past Deflategate anytime soon.

Brady, who is growing ever more desperate in his attempts to preserve his previously squeaky clean image, can really only do one of two things.  He can go back to the same appellate court that just reinstated his suspension and request a hearing in front of the full panel.  Or, the even more absurd and, thus, probably more likely option, he can bring the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court (which I think is still down a judge because, in another high-profile pissing match, Congress refuses to do its job and confirm Justice Alito's replacement).  Just imagine this being on the docket for the highest court in the land and how ridiculous that'd be!

There are two other options, neither of which seems likely.  The NFLPA, acting on Brady's behalf, and the NFL could come to some sort of settlement.  But, after this has gone on this far and both sides have dug in their heels so deeply, that ain't happening.  Especially since they both think they're right.  Even less likely, Brady could just admit defeat and let the rest of us move on with our lives.  Seeing as this is Tom Brady and the Patriots we're talking about, though, that seems even less likely.  And, knowing Brady, he'll probably seek a temporary injunction that will allow him to play during his appeal.

Mr. Squeaky Clean continues to try and play the persecuted victim who's being unfairly targeted by The Man.  Of course, there isn't a single person who doesn't speak with a Boston accent that thinks Brady is innocent, but that doesn't even seem to be relevant anymore.

I'm not even sure people remember what this is even about anymore, either.  This stopped being about deflated footballs a long time ago.  Everyone is in agreement that the amount of air in the balls had no impact on the outcome of the game.  The Patriots crushed the Colts that day.  That wouldn't have changed if the balls were straight out of the box or if they were filled with helium.

What this has turned into is essentially a one-on-one battle between Tom Brady and Roger Baddell.  Did Baddell go overboard in issuing a four-game suspension?  Probably.  Most people agree on this point.  He should've been suspended, but the consensus is an area around two games, which would've been appropriate.  But Brady definitely deserved some sort of punishment, if not for deliberately being involved in the deflating, then at the very least for hindering the investigation and destroying evidence.

Keep the NFL's state of mind last summer in mind, too.  Baddell had just badly screwed up the Ray Rice situation and they were getting crushed in the media about player safety and the concussion lawsuit.  Baddell was in a bad place.  Now he had to deal with this Brady nonsense.  And this was the second time the Patriots thought the rules didn't apply to them.  He'd gone light on them after Spygate.  Now, here they were doing it again.  Did that come into his mindset?  Most likely.

But look past all that.  None of that is at the heart of the matter anymore.  Both appeals, Brady's original one and the NFL's counter, were about the process.  And, like it or not, the established process is pretty clear.  It's in the CBA.  That's why today's decision was a predictable one.

The appeals court wasn't in a position to rule on whether or not they agreed with Baddell's findings or the duration of Brady's suspension.  All they were trying to determine was if Baddell acted within his rights or if he overstepped his bounds, as Judge Richard Berman previously did.  In their eyes, he didn't.  Why?  Because Baddell acted within the authority that the NFLPA gave him in the CBA.  And it's long been legal precedent that the courts don't reconsider rulings made by an arbitrator or second-guess a collective bargaining process.

Basically, the three judges told the NFLPA that if they don't like the process, they should do something about it the next time they negotiate the CBA.  And what they told Tom Brady is that nobody's buying his act.  This is getting more and more embarrassing for him, and he'll almost certainly have to sit out the first four games of the 2016 season.

Had Brady just accepted his suspension when it was first issued, this whole ordeal would've been over a long time ago.  Hopefully now it finally is.  Although, seeing as it's already gone on this long, I highly doubt that.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to see Brady serve his suspension at the start of the 2017 season.  Because it sure looks like that's the way this is going.

This is just the latest chapter in Deflategate, the NFL's never-ending story.  Stay tuned.  There's bound to be more.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Olympic Golf Needs Golfers

On the day the Rio Olympic flame was lit in Olympia, Louis Oosthuizen became the second major champion in as many days to announce he won't participate in the first Olympic golf tournament in 112 years.  Adam Scott, who's long been opposed to the whole idea of Olympic golf, will apparently be "too busy" to represent his country, while Vijay Singh, who was presumably going to be Fiji's flag bearer, won't participate in the Olympics, either.  I'm sure there will be others.  Which is incredibly sad.  Because these guys simply don't get it.

One of the reasons golf was voted back into the Olympics seven years ago is because of its worldwide appeal.  Every week on the PGA Tour, you see the flags of different nations all over the leaderboard.  Golf is played everywhere, and not just in the traditional Olympic powers (the current Olympic qualifying list includes players from Malaysia, Thailand, Paraguay, Singapore and India--to name just a few).

That's what made it really a no-brainer to be added.  Well, that, and the star power.  Pro golfers are some of the most marketable athletes on the planet.  Many of them are household names in their home countries, and usually beyond.  Sure, you'll have your Usain Bolts and Michael Phelpses, and your NBA stars on the U.S. basketball team, but, for the most part, the most well-known athletes in Rio are going to be the golfers and tennis players.

I'm sure we're going to see a lot of tennis players opt out of the Olympics, too.  Unlike four years ago, when the Olympic tournament was at Wimbledon and everybody wanted to play, there's really nothing appealing about playing in Rio two weeks before the start of the US Open.  John Isner, the top American man, has already announced that he won't be playing in the Olympics, citing the travel as one of his reasons (although Rio is only one hour ahead of the East Coast and doesn't require flying across an ocean, so the travel actually wouldn't be that bad).

However, we also know that some of the biggest names in tennis WILL play in Rio.  Neither Novak Djokovic nor Roger Federer has ever won the Olympic singles gold medal.  They both want the one thing they're missing (Federer was even talking about playing mixed doubles with Martina Hingis).  And Russian officials are still optimistic Maria Sharapova will be able to play, despite the fact that she's currently suspended for failing a drug test (she's probably not one of the ones who'll get a free pass from WADA for using meldonium, since she admitted taking it after it was banned).

The tennis players know that they don't have to play in the Olympics.  They don't get any prize money and they get minimal rankings points.  It would be easy to skip and get ready for the US Open.  But they don't.  Whatever the reason, be it national pride or the prestige or the ability to call yourself an Olympic gold medalist, the tennis players show up anyway.  And the IOC is incredibly grateful for that.  Because they draw in the eyeballs.  Without the big-name pros, no one would watch or care about the Olympic tennis tournament.

Just like the IOC needs the ATP and WTA stars to make the tennis tournaments worthwhile, the same holds true for the stars of the PGA and LPGA.  There's one big difference, though.  Tennis has established its place on the Olympic program.  It's not going anywhere.  You can't say the same about golf.  While I think it's likely the additions of golf and rugby will be made permanent, they aren't yet.  So far, it's just for 2016 and 2020 that they know they're on the Olympic program.

For the sport to ensure its long-term Olympic success, the best golfers in the world need to be there.  I don't understand why guys like Adam Scott aren't jumping at the opportunity to be the first Olympic golf champion since 1904.  In their eyes, the Olympics will never be as important as winning a Major.  It's just another tournament in a year that already features the Ryder Cup.  While that may be true (it's also true in tennis, by the way), that doesn't change the fact that golf in the Olympics is a big deal that should be embraced.

How important is the Olympic tournament?  It's so important that the PGA Championship, one of the Majors!, was moved up a month (to just two weeks after the British Open) so that the dates wouldn't conflict with the Olympics.  So, yes, the PGA thinks the Olympics are significant.  They want and need the top players there and did what they had to do to make sure it can happen.

Fortunately, it looks like there are enough golfers who do understand the opportunity before them this year.  Rory McIlroy was torn about whether he should represent Ireland or Great Britain, and the competition to make the U.S, team (where only the top four will qualify) is intense.  I've read some quotes that qualifying for the Olympics is the No. 1 goal of some players for 2016.  So, it looks like the Adam Scotts of the golf world are in the minority here.

Being in the Olympics is a wonderful thing for golf.  Just like having golfers in the Olympics is a wonderful thing for the IOC.  But it's only going to work if the players embrace it.  And right now, it doesn't seem like everybody's completely on board.  Which is a shame.  Because you'll be remembered a lot more for winning an Olympic gold medal in Rio than winning the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill., which is that weekend's PGA Tour event.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Live With Kelly and...

Michael Strahan sure dropped a bomb today when he announced he's leaving Live With Kelly and Michael for a full-time gig at Good Morning America.  They sure hit the jackpot four years ago when they tabbed Strahan to replace Regis Philbin, and now they have to go through the process all over again.

I'm sure they'll have plenty of candidates (and they probably already have some people in mind), but they could do worse than tapping into the sports well again.  With that in mind, here are some suggestions for Kelly's new co-host...

...Jeff: Jeff Gordon has co-hosted with her before and done a great job.  And he's proven to be a natural in the broadcast booth during his brief tenure as a race analyst for FOX.

...Derek: Eventually Derek Jeter's going to do something (besides marry Hannah Davis).  He wants to be an owner, but you know he'd be good at this job if he wanted it.

...Peyton: Peyton needs a job.  While I think he'll make a tremendous coach someday, you know he'll likely end up in broadcasting at some point.  And he did have one of the funniest athlete-hosted episodes of Saturday Night Live.

...Grant: Grant Hill went to Duke, so you know he's a smart guy.  They worked it out so that Michael do both the show and FOX's NFL pregame.  I hope CBS/Turner would do the same so that he can keep working with Jim and Raft at the Final Four.

...Apolo: If you've seen any of Apolo Ohno's feature work for NBC during the Olympics, you can tell he was as born to do this as he was to be a speed skater.  NBC's got a keeper on their hands, and he's done some entertainment coverage, too, so there wouldn't be that much of a transition.

...Andy: Not her buddy Andy Cohen.  Andy Roddick.  He's on the panel for that Fox Sports 1 show nobody watches and has shown some quick wit and humor.

...Kobe: How cool does Live With Kelly and Kobe sound?  Like Peyton Manning, he just retired and needs a job.  Like Peyton Manning, he'd probably be good at this one.  At the very least, he'd be better than the last recently-retired Laker who tried to have his own talk show.  (The Magic Johnson Show sure was horrible, wasn't it?)

...Tara & Johnny: Tara & Johnny don't need Kelly.  They could handle a talk show all on their own, and it would be highly entertaining.  In fact, I'm surprised they don't have one already.

...Ronda: You have the feeling that Ronda Rousey is going to go into TV once her MMA career is over.  She's already guest hosted SportsCenter and killed it, so why would a morning talk show be any different?  This, of course, will never happen, since they'll almost certainly replace Michael with another man.

...Erin: They'll never have two pretty, blonde women co-hosting the show at the same time, so you know Erin Andrews won't actually get the job.  But she wouldn't be a bad one to consider if Kelly ever decided to leave.  She's co-hosted with Michael several times and always does a great job.  Just like she does on Dancing With the Stars or the NFL or whatever else she's covering.

Monday, April 18, 2016

An Era Is Over, and Rio Will Be Weird

The Romanian women's gymnastics team will not win gold in Rio.  They won't win silver or bronze either.  In fact, they won't even be there.  They didn't qualify.  Take a second to let that sink in.  Romania, the nation synonymous with Olympic women's gymnastics, didn't qualify for the Olympics!  That's like the USA not qualifying in basketball or Canada not qualifying in hockey!

Romania has earned a team medal in women's gymnastics at every Olympics since 1976, when Nadia Comaneci burst onto the scene in Montreal.  That streak will not reach 40 years.  Instead, they'll be sitting on the sidelines when the gymnastics competition gets underway in Rio, which doesn't seem right for so many reasons.

So how did this happen?  Well, it all started at last year's World Championships in Glasgow.  Romania finished fourth at Worlds in 2014, but fell all the way to 13th in 2015 (with a team that included Larisa Iordache, the silver medalist in the all-around in 2014).  The top eight teams qualified for the Olympics.  With that first opportunity out the window, Romania went to the last-chance qualifier this past weekend in Rio needing to finish in the top four to gain one of the four remaining spots.  They finished seventh.

Even though Romania's women's team has slipped in recent years, this is still a shocking development.  The Romanian women were the ones you could always count on seeing if you're a gymnastics fan (and even if you aren't).  They defied the Soviet boycott in 1984 and won their first gold.  They won the team title, then swept the individual medals in Sydney (Andreea Raducan's gold was later taken away due to a controversial failed drug test).  Four years later in Athens, they captured the team gold medal again.

Since then, the fall has been precipitous.  In Rio, Romania will enter one female gymnast, the same number as those gymnastics hotbeds of Argentina, Guatemala, Iceland, India and Jamaica (to name just a few).  There will be more Romanian men (2) competing in Rio than women.  And it's just as bad that the men's team, which isn't quite as accomplished as the women but still has a pretty nice Olympic legacy, didn't qualify.  It's the first time since 1968 that Romania won't participate in either Olympic gymnastic team event.  (Marian Dragulescu, a four-time Olympic medalist, will at least be a medal threat in the men's all-around.)

One of the reasons for Romania's continued success is the system that they've put in place.  Gymnastics, it could be argued, is Romania's national sport.  Representing the national team in the Olympics should be every little Romanian girl's dream.  Where did the system break down?  Is there simply a lack of talent in this generation of athletes or is it something more?  Are the coaches leaving Romania because they can make more money in Russia or the United States or somewhere else?  If that's the case, the Romanian federation needs to step up immediately.

This has to be a national embarrassment for not just the gymnastics team, but the entire Romanian Olympic Committee.  I'm sure they were expecting a handful of gymnastics medals.  Romania won nine medals in London.  Three of them came in gymnastics.  In Beijing, it was two out of eight.  Going back to Athens, when Romanian gymnastics was still at the top of its game, gymnastics accounted for 10 of the country's 19 total medals, including four of the eight golds.

It probably helps the United States more than anybody else that Romania won't be in Rio.  The Americans have won the last two Olympic gold medals and the last three World Championships, so they were going to be big favorites anyway, but a Romanian team, no matter how down, would've had to be considered a major threat.  Now with Romania not in the field, the United States becomes an even bigger favorite.

I'm sure this is just a temporary setback.  The Romanian women's gymnastics team will be back.  Just like when the American men's basketball team lost three times and settled for bronze in Athens, only to completely retool the system, Romania will probably come back even stronger.  In fact, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see them on the podium at the 2017 World Championships in Montreal, which is where it all started.

But Romania's women's gymnastics team won't be in Rio.  It'll take all four months until the Games just to get used to the idea.  And it'll still seem weird as the competition goes on without them.

Maybe this is exactly what it'll take for Romanian gymnastics to get back to its former greatness.  Because Rio's going to be painful for a once proud gymnastics nation.  One that has no shot at Olympic glory in 2016.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Best Goodbyes

My disdain for the NBA is well known.  But I will admit that I watched the end of the Lakers game on Wednesday night, mainly because I wanted to see what Kobe Bryant would do for his final act.  And it was awesome!  60 points!  Are you kidding me?  That has to rank up there among the top farewells any athlete has ever had.

The craziest thing about Kobe's 60-point goodbye is that it was the second ridiculous goodbye for a future Hall of Famer this year.  Just like Kobe, Peyton Manning wasn't even close to the Peyton Manning of old this season.  He wasn't even good in the Super Bowl.  But he was good enough.  The Broncos won and Peyton went out a champion.  Just like his boss, John Elway did 17 years earlier.  Although, Elway's finish trumps Peyton's because Elway was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII.

There are plenty of football players who won the Super Bowl in their last game.  Hall of Famers Jerome Bettis and Michael Strahan immediately come to mind, as does sure-fire future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis.  For a football player, that really is the ultimate way to say goodbye.  I'm sure Peyton Manning won't be the last player whose last stop on the way to Canton is the Super Bowl.

In hockey, there's one great example of hoisting the Stanley Cup in the final game of a legendary career.  After 21 years in Boston, Ray Bourque was traded to the Avalanche in 2000.  One year later, Colorado won the Cup in seven games, giving Bourque his only title.

David Robinson also went out a champion.  He announced prior to the 2002-03 season that it would be his last.  Then he went on to post a 13-point, 17-rebound double-double in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, as the Spurs beat the Nets for the second (and last) title of the Robinson-Duncan Era.  They were Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen of the Year for 2003.

Pete Sampras had a similar ending.  He won the US Open in 2002, then called it a career.  Sampras didn't officially retire after the US Open, but the final was his last career match.  He officially retired just before the start of the 2003 US Open.

Plenty of Olympians have gone out on top, too.  The most notable that I can think of is Dan Jansen.  Heading into the 1994 Olympics, his career was known mostly for heartbreak.  From his fall in 1988 hours after finding out about his sister's death to his 26th place finish in 1992.  But in Lillehammer, Jansen finally had his Olympic moment.  After finishing eighth in the 500 meters, his best event, he won the gold and set a world record in the 1000, then skated off into the sunset.

Michael Johnson also won gold in his final Olympic race, defending his title in the 400 meters at the 2000 Games in Sydney.  Four years earlier in Atlanta, Johnson won double gold in both the 200 and 400 (a feat Allyson Felix will try to match in Rio).  But the most memorable track & field moment of those Games was Carl Lewis winning his fourth straight gold medal in the long jump.  Lewis didn't officially retire until 1997, but that was his last time he ever competed in a significant meet.

Another recent one is Abby Wambach.  The all-time leading goal scorer in international soccer, she'd won three Olympic gold medals, but there was still something missing.  She'd never won a World Cup.  No longer the star, she played a supporting role last summer, as the U.S. won the World Cup and filled in that missing piece.  Other members of the team (Lauren Holliday, Shannon Boxx) retired after that game, too, but none was as significant as Wambach.  Everyone knew it would be her last World Cup, and they wanted to win it for her.

I didn't forget about baseball.  There are three baseball players who come to mind who wrote the perfect ending.  The first is Derek Jeter.  It's as if his biggest moments were scripted, and his final game at Yankee Stadium is case-in-point.  Why wouldn't David Robertson blow a save for only like the third time all year so that a bottom of the ninth would be required?  Why wouldn't Jeter come up with the winning run on third?  Why wouldn't he hit a walk-off single to the same place he always did with that trademark Jeter swing?

Jeter's fellow Core Four member Andy Pettitte had a pretty spectacular ending, too.  The 2013 season was all about Mariano Rivera's farewell.  Pettitte just kind of sneaked his retirement in there as an "Oh, by the way."  His final start was on the second-to-last day of the season.  In Houston.  His hometown, where he spent the only three years of his career he wasn't a Yankee.  So how did his final game go?  He threw a complete game, his first in seven years, and got the win.

But if you're looking for a finale similar to Kobe's, I give you Ted Williams.  In the final at-bat of his career, on September 28, 1960, he hit the last of his 521 career home runs.  If that wasn't enough, he managed to top it in what was really his last public appearance at the 1999 All-Star Game, when he was the last player introduced as part of MLB's All-Century Team.  Who can forget him riding a golf cart to the pitcher's mound, where he was greeted by both teams, then tipping his cap to the Fenway Faithful, something he had never done as a player.

Kobe's finale was pretty spectacular.  But it's just the latest in a long line of memorable farewells for some of sports' most legendary figures.  It's incredible how often the biggest stars rise to the occasion on the biggest stage.  I guess that's especially true when they know it's the last time.