THEY THINK, THEREFORE I AM
I am made dizzy by this Mel Kiper Jr. character again. He's a
rabbi interpreting the Torah, a fundamentalist preacher
explaining the loaves and the fishes, a Shakespearian scholar
discussing Lear. He knows this damned pro football draft. "I
think... ," Mel Jr. says, his ESPN head as big as a cash
register on my 32-inch screen. Yes? I listen for inflections in
his inflectionless voice. I ponder the spray-can majesty of his
foot-high hair. My jaw drops, leaving my mouth in a perfect,
vacuous O. Yes? I await the opinion of the expert. I want to
know if the Indianapolis Colts have done the right thing by
taking Peyton Manning with the first pick of the first round.
I might have my own little thought--I would have taken Ryan
Leaf--but my thought means nothing. I'm not an expert. I haven't
locked myself in some electronic cave with computer readouts and
video clips and six phones ringing at once with the latest
updates. I haven't logged on to www.melkiper.com, a Web site
brought to you by Mel Kiper Enterprises. My mock draft is a
mockery of a mock draft. What do I know? Mel is the man. Mel.
I rely on him the way I rely on all of sports' springtime
savants. This is the time for experts to deliver their
expertise, as baseball begins and hockey and basketball hit the
playoffs, as the golfers swing through Augusta, as the cars roll
at Indy, as the 3-year-olds arrive in Kentucky, as the drafters
draft in assorted sports. This is the time of the pundit, the
I let Digger Phelps and Dick Vitale and Clark Kellogg and Dean
Smith and Billy Packer think me through the NCAA tournament. A
different thinker thought out every shot at the Masters. ("And
now to Peter Oosterhuis on 17....") Tim McCarver and Peter
Gammons and every thinker everywhere thinks the Florida Marlins
have committed baseball suicide. Dr. Jerry Punch, I think, is
thinking right now in the pits. Charlsie Canty is thinking
somewhere around the paddock. Charlsie?
On sports radio, thinkers are thinking around the clock,
professional thinkers thinking back and forth with amateur
thinkers on their car phones. In print, in newspapers, in this
very magazine, thought is everywhere. Dr. Z thinks one thing
about the draft. Peter King thinks another.
It sometimes seems there are so many opinions, such a river of
expertise these days, that the actual events are mere filler,
talking points inserted between the predictions and the
second-guesses. Who won? Who lost? Who cares? What do you think?
Words, simply by their proliferation, have overwhelmed deeds.
I think I wonder what Mel Jr. thinks about all this.
Bad Back Stops White
THE SOUL OF THE PACK
A week before the Super Bowl, Green Bay defensive end Reggie
White said he was going to play two more years. "I think my back
will hold out that long," said the 36-year-old White, "and by
that time, I'll want to be around my kids full time." Two years
turned into one game. A feeble one-tackle, no-sack, no-impact
performance in the Packers' 31-24 loss to the Denver Broncos,
coupled with persistent pain from a bulging disk in his lower
back, caused one of the best players of this era to hang it up
last week. And no, his racially, ethnically and sexually
insensitive remarks to the Wisconsin state assembly a month ago,
which slightly tarnished his legend, had nothing to do with his
White, who had 176 1/2 sacks in 200 regular-season games, wasn't
the best pass rusher of all time, an honor that belongs to
Lawrence Taylor or Deacon Jones. But he should be remembered as
the game's most versatile defensive end. Buddy Ryan, who coached
White on the Philadelphia Eagles from 1986 to '90, often used
him head-up against guards and centers to bull-rush quarterbacks
or occupy two offensive linemen on running plays, a practice the
Packers borrowed occasionally.
The 6'5", 300-pound White was, during his prime, a clutch
player. In Super Bowl XXXI the New England Patriots, trailing
35-21, were trying to get something going late in the third
quarter. On second down from the Pats' 30, White sent 305-pound
tackle Max Lane sprawling five feet backward with a forearm and
sacked Drew Bledsoe for an eight-yard loss. On the next play he
deked Lane inside and sprinted around him to sack Bledsoe again.
Those two plays were crucial as Green Bay won its first Super
Bowl in 29 years.
Indeed, White had as much to do with the revival of the Packers
as did quarterback Brett Favre, coach Mike Holmgren or general
manager Ron Wolf. When White stunningly signed a free-agent
contract in 1993, Green Bay was a relative wasteland with a
19-29 record in the '90s. "All of a sudden," Wolf says, "we
weren't the end of the earth." The deafening ovation that washed
over White during the post-Super Bowl victory celebration was
louder than the one for Favre or MVP Desmond Howard. The fans
knew how White, athletically and symbolically, had lifted their
Pack back to greatness. --Peter King
THE ROAD LESS TAKEN
Across the country, schools with stars in their eyes are making
the move to Division I-A football. Consider: At the University
of Central Florida, in Orlando, once known as UFO, there have
been fewer flying-saucer jokes since the Golden Knights started
playing big-time ball in 1996. Idaho will liven up its cold
autumns by moving to Division I-A this season. Florida Atlantic,
in Boca Raton, plans to field its first I-AA team in 2001 and
has already hired Howard Schnellenberger as director of football
operations. Buffalo hopes to begin a I-A schedule in 1999, and
I-AA Connecticut is talking about movin' on up.
At another institution of higher learning, however, an
influential alumni group is sending a different message: Move on
down. At Rutgers, whose football team went 0-11 last season and
has gone 71-110-5 since it stopped playing Ivy League teams
after the 1980 season, an alumni group called the Rutgers 1000
is bucking the wishes of the president, the athletic director
and the coach and calling for the Scarlet Knights to drop out of
the Big East and become a I-AA team. The group took out a
full-page ad in the student newspaper on Monday to bring
attention to its cause. One spokesman for the group is
85-year-old Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, Rutgers '32.
In the ad, Friedman, the celebrated economist, says,
"Universities exist to transmit knowledge and understanding of
intellectual ideas and values to students and to add to the body
of intellectual knowledge, not to provide entertainment for
spectators or employment for athletes." In a telephone interview
Friedman, now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at
Stanford, said, "Athletes should receive no preferential
treatment as candidates for admission."
Professor, the change that you and your colleagues advocate is
right-minded, but it just isn't going to happen. Four years ago
Rutgers opened a 42,000-capacity on-campus football stadium.
Recently it welcomed a new high-powered athletic director, Bob
Mulcahy, who has made no secret of his plans to keep Rutgers
big-time. "The university made a decision to be an active
participant in the Big East," Mulcahy told The Bergen Record,
"and my appointment is specifically designed to increase that
program and develop it."
U.S. Soccer Shakeup
SAMPSON MAKES THE HARD CALL
National soccer team coach Steve Sampson speaks fluent Spanish,
so he understands just what kind of cojones it took last week to
cut John Harkes from the U.S. World Cup team. After all, Harkes,
31, owns America's most distinguished soccer resume, which
includes two years as national captain, six years in the English
Premier League and key roles on both the 1990 and '94 World Cup
squads. A phone message left by an 11-year-old at U.S. Soccer
headquarters in Chicago last week expressed his displeasure with
the move in song: "Hi, ho, Sampson must go. Hi, ho, the derry-o,
Sampson must go."
But though Sampson should give a more complete explanation of
what he called the "leadership issues" that led to Harkes's
dismissal, his decision was a good one. He said last week that
generally, such issues include "making proper decisions at the
proper time, maintaining discipline both in yourself and in
others and serving as a conduit so that there is a clear
understanding between the coaching staff and the players." He
appeared to be saying that Harkes was failing in some or all of
Harkes's play for the national team had declined dramatically
over the last year. More important, his leadership had slipped
to the point that one team member said Harkes was a "polarizing
influence." Harkes has his supporters among his former
teammates, but team sources say the anti-Harkes camp is larger.
"If it was just an issue of on-the-field concerns, he would
probably still be on the team," Sampson said last week. "But
John lost sight of what it meant to be the captain."
Harkes would not comment for fear of jeopardizing the chance
that Sampson will change his mind. Don't expect that to happen.
Three weeks ago Harkes phoned Sampson and said he was willing to
change his attitude. The appeal didn't work, and unless there is
a rash of injuries, it's likely that the U.S. national team has
seen the last of its onetime leader.
GRITTY LORDS OF THE RING
Shot in five weeks on a shoestring budget, TwentyfourSeven stars
Bob Hoskins as Alan Darcy, an enigmatically saintlike tramp who
reopens an old boxing club in an unnamed town in England's
blighted industrial Midlands. Darcy hopes the club will bring
meaning and dignity to the lives of the area's angry, aimless
youth. The "lads," as Darcy calls these lost young men, are
played mostly by nonactors who are friends of the film's
writer-director, Shane Meadows. A self-described former petty
thief, Meadows, 25, grew up on the mean streets of Nottingham,
where the film was shot. A boxer for a while--until his club was
closed--he knows the ropes.
"Pride is a big thing in young men," says Meadows. "And when
everything positive is taken away, it becomes pride in
destruction. What Darcy offers the lads is a way to control that
aggression." The control is tenuous. At one point Darcy's most
promising charge, frustrated by his opponent's tactics, abandons
the Queensberry rules and delivers a vicious
soccer-hooligan-style stomping in the ring. Even Darcy, in the
end, must confront the very rage he has sought to tame.
Such moments give the film its drama, but TwentyfourSeven is at
its best depicting gritty everyday life in the gym. Meadows shot
the film in the Bingham Boxing Club, and his understated
black-and-white camera work captures the awkward, often painful
attempts of the lads as they learn to handle themselves in the
ring. There's no glamour here, no choreographed combinations.
Late in the film, before the team's first match against another
club (the real Bingham boxers), Meadows pans his camera along
the silent, staring faces of his fighters as they wait in the
dressing room. The fear--and the hope--is unmistakable.
BEES IN THEIR BONNETS
The Salt Lake City Triple A affiliate of the Minnesota Twins is
called the Buzz, is owned by Joe Buzas, is based in the Beehive
State and--in keeping with the apiarian theme--has a
blue-and-gold bee mascot named Buzzy. Georgia Tech, whose teams
are known as the Yellow Jackets, also has a blue-and-gold bee
for its mascot, one that goes by the handle Buzz.
Last month Buzas filed suit against Tech, asking a judge in Salt
Lake City to rule that Buzas's club isn't infringing on
trademarks that the university obtained in 1987 and '88 for the
Buzz word. Tech countersued on April 3, accusing the Buzz of
infringement. That charge has Buzas, well, mad as a hornet.
"We're known all over the country as the Buzz," he says. Joe,
here's the buzz outside Utah: We've never heard of you.
That more baseball players adopt the retro, high-sock knickers
look--and that golfer Payne Stewart give it up.
That the men's teams they were beating don't get complacent
while the Silver Bullets women's pro baseball team takes a year
off to look for a new sponsor.
That Finnish curler Markku Uusipaavalniemi add enough umlauts
to match Utah basketball player Hanno Mottola.
Downham sisters who pitched perfect games in a doubleheader for
Carroll High of Flora, Ind.: Senior Jennifer won the lidlifter
20-0 and freshman Stephanie the nightcap 28-0.
Points per game averaged this season by Shaquille O'Neal, second
in the NBA behind Michael Jordan's 28.7.
Points per game O'Neal would have averaged had he shot .737 from
the free throw line (the NBA average) instead of his .527.
Members of Unser family who have taken the mandatory rookie test
for the Indy 500 now that Robby, 30, son of three-time winner
Bobby and nephew of four-time winner Al, did so.
Three-game-series batting average of Rice's Bubba Crosby, who
went 13 for 17 as the Owls beat New Mexico 14-10 and 28-7 before
Arby's and Church's fast-food restaurants owned by Hall of Famer
Hank Aaron, who was mistakenly cited as a vegetarian in People
for Ethical Treatment of Animals-sponsored ads for ballpark
HAS MJ PLAYED HIS LAST REGULAR-SEASON GAME?
His favorite coach is going to be reading poetry by a trout
stream. His favorite teammate is going to be playing in some
other NBA city. His favorite rebounder is going to be...well,
who knows? With no Phil Jackson, no Scottie Pippen and no Dennis
Rodman in Chicago, Jordan will make sure there's no Jordan. His
Airness, 35, couldn't abide playing for a team that won't be
contending for a championship, and that description fits next
You retire when you can no longer perform exceptionally, when
competition and adulation no longer excite you or when your body
is racked by injury, none of which applies to Jordan. He thinks
he won't play for anyone but Jackson, but that will change when
he and owner Jerry Reinsdorf sit down for a chat. Jordan will
emerge with another $35 million, and Reinsdorf will emerge with
his luxury boxes full for one more season.
It's hard to be hopeless in the NHL and the NBA, leagues in
which more than half the teams qualify for the playoffs. Hard,
that is, unless you're a member of this year's Clippers,
Grizzlies, Lightning, Mavericks, Nuggets, Raptors or Warriors.
Here's how the biggest losers of the last 10 years--NHL teams
with at least 50 losses and NBA teams with at least 60--have
fared in the follow-ups to their painful seasons. It appears
that the aforementioned teams, all certified train wrecks this
season, are likely to find themselves on the same track in
50-loss Teams 13
Made Playoffs 2
.500 or Better 0
60-loss Teams 34
Made Playoffs 3
.500 or Better 3
THE BUFFER ZONE
Once, Michael Buffer was just another empty tuxedo who
introduced fighters. But the peripatetic Buffer--a self-made
mannequin, er, man--has parlayed his impressive pipes and
trademarked catchphrase "Let's get ready to rummmmmble"
(hereafter LGRTR) into a lucrative franchise. As this legal
scorecard shows, the Buff intends to rebuff all copycats.
Let's get ready to litigate....
Buffer vs. Jackie Chan, 1996
THE BLOW-BY-BLOW Buffer sues New Line Cinema over use of LGRTR
in trailer for action star's Rumble in the Bronx
THE DECISION Pending
Buffer vs. Columbia Pictures, 1997
THE BLOW-BY-BLOW Buffer sues studio for using LGRTR in film
Booty Call, claiming movie aped his voice and delivery
THE DECISION Settled
Buffer vs. Oliver North, 1997
THE BLOW-BY-BLOW Buffer sues crew-cut Iran-Contra heavyweight
over repeated use of LGRTR on North's syndicated radio program,
charging North's use of the phrase had been a detriment to
business and "goodwill"
THE DECISION Pending
Buffer vs. Aureus Records, Warlock Records, Clubhouse Records,
THE BLOW-BY-BLOW Buffer sues labels over sampling of LGRTR
("Now considered the clarion call to the pure integrity of the
competitive spirit," in words of Michael's manager-brother,
Bruce) on album by group Craziewhite Peckawood
THE DECISION Judge, saying Peckawood engaged in "outright
copying," issues restraining order against manufacture and
distribution of the album
Buffer vs. Infinity Broadcasting, 1998
THE BLOW-BY-BLOW Buffer demands Infinity radio station WFAN in
New York stop playing unauthorized tape of an LGRTR; after
Infinity sues to free LGRTR for universal use, Buffer
countersues for trademark infringement
THE DECISION Pending
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
An Auburn horticulture professor is encouraging area farmers to
grow blue potatoes that in combination with orange sweet
potatoes will allow the school to sell "Tiger Fries" at football
games next season.
Kuchar, low amateur at the Masters: "He had the most incredible