On Track Betting
Competitively, the U.S. remains the most powerful track and field nation in the world. Yet when it comes to the interest of the American public, the sport is limping like a sprinter with two torn hamstrings. Attendance at meets is down, long-standing events have been canceled, and media coverage is dwindling. In an effort to turn things around, USA Track & Field (USATF), the sport's national governing body, secured sponsorship from Mobil, Nike and Visa for a series of five indoor meets to be held on consecutive weekends this winter and televised by NBC. Having thus taken a stride toward increasing the sport's exposure, USATF promptly long-jumped into the absurd, announcing just before the second event in the series, last Friday's Reno Air Games, that it had persuaded the Eldorado Race and Sports Book in Reno to take action on the meet.
"We had to introduce new elements to make track more entertaining to the casual fan," said meet director John Mansoor. After consulting with sports-gambling experts in Las Vegas, the folks at the Eldorado set a line on eight of the meet's 16 events. "To protect the meet's integrity," said Mansoor, the USATF required all athletes to sign a statement saying they would not place any bets, even on themselves.
Despite all the hoopla, gambling on the meet was light, though spectators got a couple of payoffs nonetheless. Michael Johnson, a 1-to-5 favorite, set a world indoor record of 44.97 seconds in the 400 meters, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who went off at even money, ran 6.67 to break the U.S. indoor mark for the 50-meter hurdles. Those are the sorts of numbers American track should be betting on.
How bad are things going for the Philadelphia 76ers this season? Well, as of Monday the Sixers had lost 18 of their last 22 games—scoring an average of just under 97 points during that stretch—and appeared headed for their worst offensive season since 1955-56. Given such anemic numbers, perhaps it's fitting that after a recent Philly loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the headline in The New York Times read HAWKS 107, 75ERS 92.
Far be it from us to second-guess Bora Milutinovic, the coach who last summer guided the U.S. out of the first round of the World Cup. Even farther be it from us to suggest that anyone could have tended goal for the U.S. team better than Tony Meola, whose sangfroid was essential to the team's advancing. But it's curious how the careers of Meola and Brad Friedel, his understudy, have stalled—while those of two goalkeepers that Milutinovic overlooked, Kasey Keller and Juergen Sommer, have prospered.
Friedel signed with Newcastle United of England's Premier League but was denied a work permit in the U.K. and is now back home in Ohio, waiting for his agent to sort things out. Meola spent much of his first post-Cup winter with the Buffalo Blizzard of the indoor National Professional Soccer League—which is like going from Carnegie Hall to a grade-school recital—and had mixed success in 11 games. He has since signed to play this summer with the Long Island Rough Riders of the outdoor, but no less small-time, United States Independent Soccer League. Earlier this month he left the Blizzard to begin a five-week run in the off-Broadway show Tony N' Tina's Wedding, where, in a stretch, he's playing Tony, a role pioneered by another Italian-American has-been athlete, Lee Mazzilli.
Meanwhile, even as Keller and Sommer remain two names that fans in the U.S. have probably never heard of, each is an established player in England's First Division. Keller recently had three straight clean sheets, or shutouts, for Millwall, which is now in the round of 16 of the FA Cup, the English equivalent of the NFL playoffs. As for Sommer, he led Luton Town into last season's FA Cup semis. Given their success, one has to wonder if Meola shouldn't be climbing onto a different stage.
The NBA would have been delighted to announce at its All-Star Game in Phoenix last week (page 48) that the league had reached a new collective bargaining agreement with its players. Instead, while one league official expressed hopes of completing negotiations "by the end of the season," the best that commissioner David Stern could do was assert, much as he did last fall, that his sport's historical labor peace—which distinguishes it from baseball, football and hockey—augurs well for a strike-free contract settlement. "When the owners tell the players, 'You're entitled to more than half the revenues,' and the players tell the owners, 'You're entitled to a return on your investment,' you've got the parameters of a deal," says Stern.
It's becoming ever clearer that within those parameters, there's likely to be some sort of rookie salary cap. Among veterans, sentiment for a two-tiered wage system is strong. Some of that feeling stems from an I've-got-mine self-interest. But there is also a growing awareness among players, ranging from stars such as Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz to such lesser lights as the Chicago Bulls' Steve Kerr, that there's a finite pie, and deals like rookie Glenn Robinson's 10-year, $68 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks may leave veterans with mere crumbs for years to come. "Something's got to go to the established player," says Kerr.
A cap might limit the value of a rookie's contract for his first two or three years, with the payoff coming thereafter, when he would be granted unrestricted free agency. "That would be a great thing, free agency after three years," says Boston Celtic rookie Eric Montross. "You could market yourself to anybody you want to. Now you have to go through two steps before you can do that."
Another salutary by-product of a rookie cap might be the bringing to heel of the league's whining young players (SI, Jan. 30), whose misbehavior is a problem Stern acknowledged last week and vowed that the NBA would address. "If a young player blows off practice, he knows the worst that can happen is that the club will fine him," says former Phoenix Sun coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. "But what if he makes so much, he doesn't care? We need to make young players feel an obligation to the game, to pay some dues."
A rookie cap may be just the device with which to do that.
Goodbye to the Bull
When Holy Bull suffered a career-ending leg injury during last Saturday's $300,000 Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park, thoroughbred racing lost more than just another good horse. With the sport battling for survival among the growing sprawl of casinos, lotteries and other forms of legalized gambling, Holy Bull, one of those rare horses who, like Secretariat, stir the public's imagination, was the hero that racing needed.
Why was there such acclaim and affection for a horse who finished 12th in last year's Kentucky Derby and didn't even compete in the other two Triple Crown races or the Breeders' Cup? To begin with, the Bull was good. Last year, as a 3-year-old, he won eight of his 10 starts, twice beating the country's best older horses, which was enough to earn him Horse of the Year honors. Beyond that, fans loved his catchy name, his gray color and his front-running style. Whenever the Bull was running, everyone knew the script: Catch him if you can.
Something bad caught Holy Bull in the Donn. Dueling with eventual winner Cigar for the lead at the‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àöœÄ pole, Holy Bull seemed to be running easily. But at that point a tendon in his left foreleg gave way. Said Jerry Bailey, who was riding Cigar a length ahead, "I heard a pop, and then I heard [the Bull's jockey] Mike Smith yell, 'Oh, no.' Then I lost him as he pulled up his horse." Holy Bull came to a halt near the half-mile pole, where Smith dismounted and soothed him until the equine ambulance arrived.
For the racing world, sadness over the injury was tempered by the knowledge that Holy Bull is expected to recover enough to stand stud at Jonabell Farm in Lexington. Despite the Bull's lackluster pedigree, Jim Bell of Jonabell reports that there has already been keen interest in him as a stallion. Still, whatever his success at stud, the Bull is unlikely to sire a horse with his panache.
At first glance Houston Rocket center Hakeem Olajuwon's signing of a new sneaker deal may not seem like big news. But in a significant break from the established practice of superstar athletes, Olajuwon's shoe contract isn't with Nike, Reebok or any of the other "top-end" manufacturers that produce the $100-and-up, bells-and-whistles models that young people hanker for. The NBA's reigning MVP has instead agreed to a deal with Spalding under which he will endorse a line of shoes retailing for no more than $60 a pair and available in discount stores like Wal-Mart, Pay-less and Target, where Americans buy close to half of the 400 million pairs of athletic shoes sold in the U.S. each year.
Olajuwon, who for the Rockets' seven games leading up to the All-Star break wore the prototype of a model scheduled to reach the stores in the fall, signed the contract in part because he's alarmed at the values he sometimes sees youngsters espouse. "A lot of kids just go with the name brand," he says. "They bother their parents for $150 shoes." A cheaper shoe needn't impair performance, he believes—and he demonstrated that in those seven games, shooting 56.8% while shod in his Spaldings, compared with his season average of 49.7%. Of course, Hakeem would still be the Dream even in Birkenstocks. It's nonetheless refreshing when a star athlete has the ability to see the big picture.
Points of Doubt
With 30 seconds remaining in last Saturday's ACC basketball game at Cole Field House in College Park, Md., Florida State coach Pat Kennedy, whose Seminoles trailed Maryland 76-65, ordered his players not to foul. Bless him, for entirely too much time is wasted with endless processions to the free throw line at the end of both college and pro games in which the outcome is no longer in doubt. But suddenly, Terrapin point guard Duane Simpkins split the defense and went in for a layup with five seconds left to make the score 78-65. Then, after a halfhearted Florida State inbounds pass, Maryland forward Keith Booth stole the ball from LaMarr Greer, dunked and signaled the scorer's table to make sure that the meaningless points were put on the board. They were, and Maryland won 80-65.
There is only one word to describe what Booth and Simpkins did—bush. Maryland coach Gary Williams was angry at them after the game, but the damage was done. It's a pity, too, because Booth and Simpkins are hardworking contributors to Maryland's basketball renaissance (page 20) on the court, and they are polite and well-spoken young men off it.
And if they needed another reason not to pull such stunts, they certainly had one last Saturday: The point spread for the game was 14½ in Maryland's favor, meaning that the final four points enabled the Terrapins to cover. No one is suggesting that Booth and Simpkins were even aware of the spread, let alone playing with it in mind, but their grandstanding raised the issue among a cynical American audience. Those last two baskets are just another indication that teaching sportsmanship to young athletes is every bit as important as teaching the drop step and the jump stop.
Down South, when the February college football signing date rolls around, recruiting and rumors go together like grits and gravy. Recently word reached The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Chauncey McGee, a six-foot, 180-pound defensive back at Atlanta's Westlake High, had committed suicide. The paper quickly dispatched a correspondent to check out the report. "Chauncey didn't commit suicide," word came back. "Chauncey committed to Mississippi State."
As a point guard for Duke and the Dallas Mavericks during the late 1970s and early '80s, Jim Spanarkel was known for his cunning and his superb court vision. And while more than a decade has passed since his last NBA game, understand that Spanarkel can still see the floor. During the second quarter of a New Jersey Net-Detroit Piston game on Feb. 6, Net point guard Sleepy Floyd was scouring the Meadowlands Arena floor for a lost contact lens when Spanarkel, who is now a SportsChannel color analyst and was seated more than 50 feet away, told viewers, "It's right behind Sleepy. It's right behind him. I can see it." Sure enough, Floyd turned around and retrieved the lens.
Manhattan College forward Brendan O'Brien might not have Spanarkel's eyesight, but he shares his savvy. When teammate Keaton Hyman had to leave a Feb. 3 game against Canisius after losing one of his contact lenses on the court, O'Brien, who is redshirting this season, promptly plucked out one of his own contacts and gave it to Hyman. Hyman reentered the game and helped the Jaspers to a 72-60 victory. "I told Brendan that he made as big a contribution as anybody," says Manhattan coach Fran Fraschilla. "I also told him what he did might be against the health codes of 31 states."
Mag's Best Friend
At the Golden Gate Kennel Club dog show at San Francisco's Cow Palace earlier this month, a group of Dalmatian fanciers hawked subscriptions to their newsletter. Its title: Spots Illustrated.
Guy, Part III
Last Thursday, 55 days after setting out from the Cape Verde Islands off western Africa, French adventurer Guy Delage (SCORECARD, Nov. 28, 1994, et seq.) hauled himself out of the surf and onto the island of Barbados to become the first person to swim the Atlantic. Though the 42-year-old Delage received a hero's welcome on the beach, some observers remained unimpressed with his feat, complaining that he regularly interrupted his swimming for rest periods and leisurely meals on the 15-foot, radio-and fax-equipped raft he towed behind him and that ocean currents helped carry him much of the way. French Olympic swimmer Stefan Caron went so far as to refer to Delage's swim as "a long, warm bath."
Delage, who endured jellyfish stings and a shark attack during the 2,400-mile crossing, seemed unsettled by his critics. "I'm coming back from a virgin, uncorrupted place," he said. "The return to humanity risks being a bit tough."
This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
A Los Angeles Clipper, bench-warming rookie Eric Piatkowski, has been named South Dakota celebrity of the year.
They Said It
Former Minnesota Twin reliever who had a knack for giving up late-game homers, on the boos he still hears at appearances in the Twin Cities: "When it's 10 years later and they still hate you, that's what you call charisma."