THREE FOR THE ROAD
John Elway's graceful retirement puts him in heroic company
Now they're getting it. They're leaving on top, with minimal
fanfare and no looking back. First Jordan, then Gretzky, now
Elway. Off into the night--or onto the golf course. Gone, just
like that, in a span of four months, gone before any owner could
demean our memory of them with a stupid or desperate trade,
before last-act whispers (is he washed up?) could build into a
This is textbook stuff, writ larger in the case of this trio.
Get out before you have to but not before you want to. Though it
makes perfect sense, hardly anybody does it. Most athletes err
on the side of embarrassment--which with all those incentive
clauses and guaranteed contracts pays better. But these three
were so self-assured and so accomplished, not to mention so
rich, that they could afford to place their confidence in
history, which will treat them better than their futures in
uniform would have.
You have to dredge through a lot of years to find a similar
string of departures by stars of such magnitude. How about 1928,
when Ty Cobb and Gene Tunney lit out for the links? Or '51, when
Joe DiMaggio and Joe Louis left the building? Most memorable of
all until this year, perhaps, was '66, when Jim Brown and Sandy
Koufax went out on top only four months apart.
May 2, 1999
If the graceful exit were easy, it would have been executed more
often by great athletes. But Muhammad Ali couldn't leave, and
neither could Willie Mays. Think of the mystery that might
surround Joe Namath if he hadn't limped through those final
seasons. Imagine further that Ali, Mays and Namath had gone out
in their prime. We wouldn't wince when thinking of the way they
hobbled into history.
Jordan, Gretzky and Elway--they left right. They left pretty.
Anybody who watched them in their last games (which in two of
three cases were championships) saw them close enough to their
peaks to fully appreciate them. To the end these guys displayed
the same talent and force of personality that elevated their
games from the get-go. Jordan's swagger, Gretzky's grace and
Elway's determination weren't dulled by age or eroded by
The athlete's final act is one by which we measure him forever.
Did he quit too soon, choosing a storybook ending instead of a
grittier, more sustained sort of achievement, or did he stay too
long, trading tomorrow's legacy for today's cheers?
Or, far less likely, did he balance his own rightful
selfishness--an essential characteristic of any high-octane
athlete--with the needs of his game and produce, in his
perfectly timed retirement, one final masterpiece? --Richard
WNBA Labor Fight
The WNBA must have studied recent history and decided that the
way to be taken seriously as a pro league is to get into an
old-fashioned, my-lawyers-can-whip-your-lawyers labor dispute.
How else to explain last week's collective bargaining tap dance?
The WNBA and its players' union had reached a tentative
agreement when the whole thing fell apart with each side blaming
the other. By Monday a deal seemed inches away again.
Reprising the NBA's recent labor strife made little sense for
either side, but it was a particularly dangerous path for the
players, who were sure to find it easier to dunk from the foul
line than to beat the NBA machine at the bargaining table. Make
no mistake--it's the NBA, which owns and operates the WNBA, that
the women have been battling. The negotiating team that knocked
out the men's union threw the same combinations at the women:
tantalizing them with a near deal before backing off, and hinting
that the league can withstand a work stoppage much longer than
WNBA president Val Ackerman's comments last week could have been
lifted from transcripts of NBA commissioner David Stern's
calculated hand-wringing during the lockout. "Unless this is
done very quickly, the season is threatened," Ackerman said. "It
will be all or nothing." Anyone who remembers the "framework of
a deal" that Stern spoke of during the lockout--the framework
that didn't work--experienced deja vu when a deal was initially
announced only to fall through, forcing postponement of the
WNBA's April 27 draft of college and former ABL players.
Apportioning blame for delaying an agreement only leads to a
game of "she said, she said." The sides had agreed to increase
minimum salaries from $15,000 last season to $30,000 for
veterans and $25,000 for rookies, while adding such benefits as
a pension fund, life insurance and paid maternity leave. But
according to Ackerman, the union tried to renegotiate parts of
the deal. Union leader Pamela Wheeler says it was the league
that demanded new terms, including a wage freeze for the next
four rookie classes.
The NBA hasn't won any fans by battling the women over sums that
amount to tip money for its male stars. Still, the league had
almost all the leverage from the tip-off. WNBA players can't
help worrying about their livelihoods and the future of women's
pro basketball, but if they thought the NBA cared about anything
more lofty than the bottom line, they know better now. --Phil
GOING ROUND AND ROUND
After the last of Saturday's three title fights at the MCI
Center in Washington, D.C., Don King lauded the open-scoring
system used in the bouts. Boxing people "love having a
difference of opinion," said King, "but progress demands we come
into the 21st century."
During Mark Johnson's decision over Ratanachai Vorapin for the
IBF junior bantamweight belt and Keith Holmes's seventh-round
knockout of Hassine Cherifi for the WBC middleweight title,
judges' scores were announced every four rounds. In Sharmba
Mitchell's decision over Reggie Green for the WBA super
lightweight belt, scores were announced after each round.
One criticism of open scoring is that it can encourage the guy
who's ahead to play it safe, and that's what Johnson did on
Saturday. After hearing he was up after eight rounds, says
Johnson, "I thought, Why should I go out there and fight 9, 10,
11 and 12?"
King gave the experiment his blessing. "There was no one ready
to jump up and hit someone over the head," said the frizzy
philosopher. In boxing, that's progress.
Sneaky Danny Ainge
Mavericks coach Don Nelson is steamed about Danny Ainge's
pregame practice of giving scoring officials the lineup card he
had used in the previous game and withholding the one he plans
to use in the upcoming contest. "The home team is supposed to
submit its lineup first, and it's dishonest to do it the way
he's been doing it," Nelson says of the Suns' coach. "It's an
unwritten code that all coaches go by, but evidently he doesn't
believe in it."
During one pregame handshake Nelson told Ainge, "I'll never tell
you my starting lineup again." Ainge shot back, "I'd be
embarrassed to admit that somebody else's starting lineup
Ainge's approach dates to his stint as a TV analyst, when he
noticed that Phil Jackson and Pat Riley withheld their lineup
cards until moments before game time. "I don't tell opposing
coaches who's starting the second quarter," he says. "Why tell
them who's starting the first quarter until right before the
game?" Looks as if Riley, who's notorious for asking the stats
clerk to show him an opponent's lineup before offering his--and
who often leaves one spot blank even then--has a rival for the
title of NBA Machiavelli.
Garnett's Running Mate
It isn't easy upstaging Kevin Garnett (page 38) on the hardwood,
but Ronnie Fields used to do it all the time. Fields, a 6'3"
guard with a 40-inch vertical leap to go with the shaved head
and number 23 of another high flier, electrified crowds while
playing beside Garnett for Chicago's Farragut Academy. Michael
Jordan called Fields "a monster talent."
Fields averaged 33 points and 12 rebounds as a Farragut senior
and ranked among the top recruits in the nation. He committed to
DePaul in '96. But that February, two days before Fields's 19th
birthday--driving a car he'd borrowed from a Farragut assistant
coach--he crashed and broke his neck. He recovered, but then,
only two days after DePaul rejected him because his high school
grades and SAT scores were too low, he sexually abused a woman
in the apartment of the same Farragut assistant (who was out of
town). Fields pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and served 15 days
on work detail and two years probation.
Like Garnett, Fields never played college ball. Unlike Garnett,
Fields has spent the past three years in the CBA and the
International Basketball Association, a minor league still
further down the pro hoops food chain. "Yeah, I have regrets,"
he says, preempting the obvious question. "I regret getting into
trouble. But it's just a matter of time for me to get there."
There is the NBA. For all his ups and downs, the 22-year-old
Fields is just three years removed from being crowned Illinois's
high school Mr. Basketball. He averaged 14 points for the CBA's
Rockford Lightning this season. He recently worked out for the
Nets and hopes to play in one of the NBA's summer leagues.
"I would have loved to see Kobe Bryant and Ronnie Fields in the
McDonald's Classic," says Garnett. Asked if he has stayed in
touch with his old teammate, the Timberwolves' $126 million man
shakes his head. "We're in different worlds," Garnett says. "But
he's still my friend."
Fields, looking back on his wrong turns, says, "I've learned to
stay focused on my goal--to play ball and have fun at it."
CHALLENGING THE GENERAL
Late last Saturday afternoon trainer Bob Baffert watched his
leading Kentucky Derby contender, General Challenge, stride in
slow circles around the crowded paddock ring at Churchill Downs.
The giant gelding had just begun his final week of schooling, a
series of daily training sessions in which he would get
accustomed to the paddock where Baffert will saddle him for
An easy winner of the April 3 Santa Anita Derby, General
Challenge is expected to go off as one of the favorites in a
field of as many as 20 horses, the Derby maximum. The General is
a fractious, high-strung sort, and Baffert's job this week will
be to keep him mentally straight as well as physically fit.
"I'll school him in the paddock every day," Baffert said. "By
Derby day he'll be used to the place and the crowds."
The 125th running of the Derby will be wide open, with as many
as 10 horses having a shot to win, including the General's
stablemate, Prime Timber, who finished second in the Santa Anita
Derby; Florida Derby winner Vicar; Adonis, hero of the Wood
Memorial; Adonis's stakes-winning stablemate Stephen Got Even;
the Blue Grass winner, Menifee; the always threatening Cat
Thief; and Dubai-trained mystery horse Worldly Manner.
This Kentucky Derby is so rich in mystery that it defies
rational analysis. Still, the bet here is that General Challenge
holds off Vicar and Cat Thief down the lane to win it. --William
A TEAMMATE AND A FRIEND
Late last week Columbine High senior Rachael Danford was
carrying around three photos of Lauren Townsend, her best friend
and fellow co-captain of the Columbine volleyball team, who was
among 15 people killed in the shooting rampage in Littleton,
Colo. In one picture, a bit more dog-eared than the others,
Lauren looks at Rachael and laughs while Rachael looks downward,
as if struggling to stay composed. "She could always make people
laugh," Rachael says.
The 5'10", 125-pound Lauren led the Rebels in blocks and aces
last season. "Any coach would have loved to have five or 10
Laurens," says Kay Danielson, the coach at rival Chatfield High.
The one and only Lauren had a full academic scholarship waiting
for her at Colorado State, where she planned to study wildlife
biology. A straight-A student who was Columbine's
valedictorian-to-be, Lauren spent her daily free fourth period
in the school library and often lingered there with friends into
lunchtime. She was in the library last Tuesday when classmates
Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked in and started shooting.
Rachael, who was with her teammate shortly before Lauren entered
the library that day, is having trouble making sense of her
friend's death. "I don't think anyone could say they didn't like
Lauren--she was so sweet," she says, looking downward,
struggling to stay composed.
--That the next hockey player who uses his stick as a weapon gets
a long stretch in the state penalty box.
--That if he hits 71 homers, Jose Canseco gets an asterisk for
being a DH.
--That Cal Ripken Jr. is within earshot when Elway, Gretzky and
Jordan go looking for a fourth.
Knoxville's new area code, a combination that spells VOL on
telephone touch pads.
Cost of renting Dodger Stadium for a wedding, company picnic or
Female high school wrestlers in the U.S., up from 112 in 1990.
Diamonds set in blue sapphires in each of the '98 Padres' $1,100
World Series rings.
Errors through Sunday by Indians shortstop Omar Vizquel, who had
five all of last season.
Jury award won by Linda Postlethwaite, a fan who was hit by a
Mitch Williams warmup pitch in 1993 and claims to have lingering
World ranking of tennis star Yevgeny Kafelnikov, who through
Monday was 0-5 in matches since February.
World ranking Kafelnikov is assured of reaching next week.
11, 4, 1
Golf handicaps of Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan and John Elway,
Insults flew like fists in the NHL last week as Penguin Matthew
Barnaby and Devil Lyle Odelein engaged in verbal sparring worthy
of the WWF, if not Firing Line. Barnaby set the tone on Friday,
the day after Game 1 of the Pittsburgh-New Jersey first-round
playoff series, taunting Odelein by calling him Cornelius, a
reference to Roddy McDowall's character in Planet of the Apes.
Odelein parried by telling the New York Post that Barnaby's wife
is "gawd-awful to look at." Barnaby fired back, "Guys on my team
think she's kind of cute." Then he added, "My wife's Italian.
You might not want to be messing with the wrong people." He also
promised to continue the debate on Odelein's supposed simian
similarities. "That's going to keep coming," Barnaby said after
Game 2. "He has to know that he really looks like an ape."
RUNNIN' OF THE GREEN
When they train, the runners of St. Malachy's high school in
Belfast, Northern Ireland, don't wear their Irish green
uniforms. Somebody might shoot them. The school is in a section
of Belfast long known as the Murder Triangle, where Catholic
boys run the streets at their peril. Still, St. Malachy's boys
have won 21 all-Ireland titles in coach John Morrin's 25 years
at the school. They also won the Penn Relays distance medley,
perhaps the world's most important high school race, in '97 and
'98. Last Friday they faced 11 American teams, including
powerhouse Shenendehowa (N.Y.) High, and a team from Jamaica on
a cold, stormy day in Philadelphia. "We joked that God's an
Irishman because he brought us the weather we left at home,"
said Morrin on Sunday. His team of Joe McAlister, Joe Hendry,
Francis McCaffrey and anchor speedster Conor Sweeney had just
finished 13.6 seconds Belfaster than second-place Shenendehowa's
10:13.45 and 1.06 seconds ahead of the event's old record, which
had stood since '83.
"It couldn't have been scripted better," says Morrin. "We broke
10 [minutes] and got the three-peat as well. Conor said the
crowd just picked him up on the anchor leg. He was running on
adrenaline, and that secured the record."
Dummies vs. Idiots
Who'da thunk Cincinnati's Big Red Machine was really a printing
press? Hot on the heels of last year's Baseball for Dummies, by
Joe Morgan, comes Johnny Bench's The Complete Idiot's Guide to
Baseball. What's next, Tony Perez's Beisbol para los Imbeciles?
Here's a look at how the Bench and Morgan books stack up.
DUMMIES (MORGAN) IDIOTS (BENCH)
Foreword by Sparky Anderson Tom Seaver
First New York Knickerbockers, New York
baseball team 1842 Knickerbockers, 1845
A bonehead "A mental error" "A stupid mental
play is... error"
Second thoughts "Second base is a "The second baseman
paradox" is Baryshnikov"
Unbreakable DiMaggio's 56-game DiMaggio's 56-game
one-season hitting streak hitting streak
Unbreakable Cy Young's 512 wins Cy Young's 511 wins
career record (Bench is right)
Best ever Mays Mantle
Back-scratching Morgan calls Bench one of Bench puts Morgan at
the 10 best fielders ever 2B in his alltime
Fashion "[Wear] a white fox cape "This sleeker style statement and the umpires won't [of pants] doesn't
permit you on the field" exactly flatter...
like ... David Wells"
Jocktalk "Male ballplayers should "I found that if I
never take the field wore a tighter jock
without wearing a jock over the one with the
strap (athletic supporter) cup holder, it held
and protective cup. You everything in place"
don't really need to ask
why, do you?"
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
The Richard Petty Driving Experience in Orlando now offers stock
car weddings, in which couples say their marriage vows while
whizzing around Walt Disney World Speedway at 145 mph.
THE PREP races leading up to this Saturday's 125th Kentucky Derby
have produced a paddock full of good 3-year-olds but no clear-cut
favorite. That makes picking the winner tougher than usual.
Whether you're a veteran handicapper or a novice, you can bet
these three sites will help narrow your choices before post time
on Derby Day.
The race's official site (above) combines in-depth race history,
daily reports and workout times from Churchill Downs, and vital
stats of the entrants. To put some kick into your Derby party,
check out the recipes for Dead Heat Kentucky Burgoo and Kentucky
Hard-core handicappers can download each Derby horse's past
performance data ($3 gets you the figures for Saturday's entire
Churchill Downs card) or swap tips with fellow on-line railbirds
in the Daily Racing Form's chat room. Beginners can surf the
extensive glossary to learn the lingo.
Review all the prep-race analysis on this site's news page, then
trace each Derby horse's pedigree and read up on the jockeys,
trainers and owners who have an entry in this year's Run for the
sites we'd like to see
Bios, photos and interviews of the undercover officers who
arrested well-known athletes on charges of solicitation.
Hourly updates from labs on results of drug tests taken by
famous athletes in denial.
They Said It
On Prince Naseem Hamed's performance in a victory over Paul
Ingle: "He did something stupid, and that's what he does best."