A non-sports fan turns a critic's eye on Salt Lake and finds
that NBC is doing all right
I'm the kind of occasional sports fan who watches three
televised events a year: 1) the Super Bowl, 2) the World Series
and 3) other. I hadn't counted on having the Winter Olympics be
my third option, having been scared off by the prospect of too
much tele-baggage. The memory of the Sydney Games' sob-sister
background stories and Capraesque little-guy triumphs had scared
me away. Besides, I've seen a lot of good stories come out of
Park City, Utah, courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival--and
didn't think anything about the luge or the freestyle moguls
could rival those.
So when NBC's hosts broke out the turtlenecks, I made plans to
spend two weeks doing something--anything!--else. Then I
happened to glimpse some of the figure skating competition. It
looked pretty good, and the instant replays and inspirational
biographical data had been held at bay. Along came a French
judge stranger than anything a fiction writer could have
invented, and I was hooked. The fact is that nothing beats an
exciting true story as it unfolds in real time, right down to
the inevitable tear-jerking ending.
It turns out that this year's coverage has been reassuringly
straightforward, with only the occasional glimpse of the
athletes' baby pictures and favorite pets. I have learned that
snowboarder Chris Klug had a liver transplant and that the
husband of Canadian skater Catriona LeMay Doan wrestles steers
and drives a Zamboni in Calgary, but that's not bad. Far more
disturbing is the fact that there's still no Olympic regulation
that prevents commentators from saying "their goal--Olympic
gold," or "he understands now that he's arrived at the moment."
Nor was there any way on Feb. 14 to prevent Bob Costas from
watching U.S. skier Caroline Lalive lose 17 seconds on the
slopes in the Alpine combined and then announce, "Heartbreak on
Valentine's Day!" Or to ban gruesome, butt-emphasizing superhero
suits on skiers and skaters. Worst of all, there is nothing to
keep a reporter from approaching an athlete who's just blown his
chances and remark, "I know you wanted medals coming in here,"
as if that were a question. Thus confronted after he'd slammed
into a gate, one Super G competitor gave the only honest answer:
"It sucks to be, like, walking away."
However, for every story like Apolo Ohno's, which outshines what
Hollywood makes up, there's the grunt work of the Games, the long
and not-so-exciting competitions (at least for those of us who
are casual sports viewers) that really aren't ready for prime
time. NBC's two toughest jobs have been guessing what will make
the best broadcast and, more important, knowing when to leave
well enough alone. So far the network is succeeding at both.
Yes, it is now possible to jump-cut snowboarding for added
excitement and to juxtapose athletes who didn't actually compete
simultaneously. It's also possible to put John Wayne into a
hockey game. But now that cows can talk in commercials and every
third ad looks like an Olympic takeoff anyway, a very special
contest takes shape. It's the Olympic match between truth and
manipulation. This year NBC rates a medal for letting truth win.
NFL COACHING CAROUSEL
THE BUCS STOPPED HERE
In the end the Raiders had little choice but to cut loose one of
the best young coaches in the NFL. That's because as last
weekend dragged on it became clear that Oakland faced two
choices: Make a deal that would let Jon Gruden, 38, leave for
the Buccaneers right now in return for a handful of draft picks
or sit back, watch him depart at the end of next season and get
On Monday, Gruden agreed to a five-year contract worth at least
$17.5 million to be Tampa Bay's new coach. According to a source
close to the deal, Raiders owner Al Davis decided late on Sunday
night to let Gruden leave after considering these facts. First,
the Bucs agreed to add another second-round draft choice to
their original compensation offer of two first-round picks and
one second-rounder over the next three years. Second, Oakland
had known that Gruden would be a lame duck next season ever
since he turned down a three-year, $9.5 million contract
extension late in 2001. Finally, Davis realized that if Niners
coach Steve Mariucci agreed to be Tampa Bay's new coach and
general manager--a deal that was in the works last weekend--that
there was a reasonable chance that San Francisco would come
calling for Gruden at the end of next season. Imagine the
embarrassment if Gruden drove across the Bay Bridge next
February, a year after the Niners got four high choices for
So who wins here? We say the Bucs. Yes, they paid a king's
ransom for a coach, but Gruden is one of the best in the
business. Besides, football coaches--who oversee highly complex
game plans and large rosters--are more valuable than managers
and coaches in other sports. Patriots owner Bob Kraft traded a
first-round pick to the Jets for Bill Belichick two years ago.
On the night of New England's Super Bowl victory, he called the
move "the best deal I ever made, in business or sports."
Consider that Tampa Bay's last two first-round picks were tackle
Kenyatta Walker and defensive tackle Booger McFarland, and their
last two second-rounders were guard Cosey Coleman and
quarterback Shaun King. If you wouldn't deal Walker, McFarland,
Coleman and King for one of the top coaches in the game, you're
watching the wrong sport.
Sports-themed products were plentiful at Toy Fair, the
industry's annual showcase of upcoming playthings, held in New
York City last week. Some highlights:
--McFarlane action figures (McFarlane Toys, $10) Already a big
hit with their realistic NFL and NHL lines, McFarlane introduces
baseball and NBA figurines. They're so lifelike you need to keep
the Kobe doll away from the Shaq doll.
--Red Sox vs. Yankees chess set (USAopoly, $40) The manager's
the king, the pitcher's the queen, and the infielders are pawns.
Does Nomar know about this?
--NASCAR Pictionary (USAopoly, $35) A stock car version of the
popular drawing game. Find out which of your friends is the best
at sketching a HANS device.
--Rawlings Talking T-ball (Sport Fun, $35) An electronic version
of the classic, the device senses how well a kid makes contact
and then emits phrases like, "What a hit! It's in the upper
deck!" Or if you prefer Spanish--yes, the toy is bilingual--"Que
palazo! Se fue al piso superior!"
--Moto-X Cycle (Mattel, $65) Freestyle cyclist Travis Pastrana
lends his extreme stunts to this remote-controlled bike.
Mini-Travis's spring-loaded hands let him perform tricks like
the Walkin' Wheelie and the Screaming Somersault.
A BROKEN HOME
Jayson Williams's 30,000-square-foot estate in Alexandria
Township, N.J., has the look and feel of a Best Western
convention center. The former Nets star entertains an endless
stream of guests on his 65-acre property, which boasts an indoor
gym and pool, a bowling alley, a movie theater, a skeet shooting
range and lots of space to zoom around on Williams's go-karts.
It's not only a pleasure palace, though--Williams often hosts
charitable events for children there.
On Feb. 14, however, events at the five-year-old mansion turned
tragic. One blast from a 12-gauge shotgun, which according to
law-enforcement sources interviewed by Newark's Star-Ledger, was
accidentally fired by Williams, killed limo driver Costas
Christofi, 55. Earlier that night Christofi had picked up
Williams and about a dozen friends in Bethlehem, Pa., after a
Harlem Globetrotters game, then squired them to a restaurant and
to Williams's home. Williams was reportedly showing off the gun
to his guests, twirling the weapon when it discharged.
Authorities were called at about 3 a.m. to the house, where
Christofi was pronounced dead a half hour later.
Williams's lawyer, Joseph Hayden, told The Star-Ledger, "There
is no basis in fact for any allegation that Mr. Williams was
involved in any horseplay with a gun." Acting Hunterdon County
prosecutor Steven Lember wouldn't comment on who'd fired the
weapon, although he did say evidence suggests the shooting was
unintentional so that, if charges are filed, they wouldn't
There have always been two sides to Williams--the
get-along-with-everybody quote machine and the
can't-stay-out-of-trouble rascal with a dark edge. Included on
his resume are a weapons arrest in 1994 (charges were dismissed
after Williams entered a pretrial program) and an obstruction of
justice charge after he shoved a police officer outside a
Branchburg, N.J., bar in November. (Williams pleaded not guilty;
the case will be heard on Feb. 27.) "Jayson still travels with a
rough crowd," says someone who knows him well.
Williams, 34, is known as a partyer; boxer Larry Holmes has
described the sight of Williams target shooting with one hand
while drinking a beer with the other. Still, almost everybody
who meets Williams likes him, and his telegenic qualities have
become clear as an NBC analyst this season. "He's a big, tough
guy with a heart of gold," says former Sixers president Pat
Croce, one of Williams's studio partners. "He's the first guy to
reach into his own pocket and take care of everybody, the
consummate host." For a while, though, the lord of the manor had
best conduct affairs at his place more temperately.
By security personnel at Snowbasin Ski Area, where the Olympic
Alpine skiing events are being held, two cans of Pepsi from the
lunch pail of a groomer on his way to the top of the hill. The
groomer's partner was carrying two cans of Coke and was allowed
to keep his drinks. Coca-Cola is the official soft drink of the
The breasts on the three bobblehead dolls of U.S. women's
Olympic hockey players issued by USA Hockey. The features were
exaggerated to distinguish the figurines from their male
counterparts. Said defenseman Karyn Bye, one model for the
dolls, "Hey, whatever sells."
Hate and paying for it, callers to Austrian TV station ORF,
which records, at a charge of $1.70 per minute, fans' pet peeves
about the Olympics. The station plans to collect the best
grievances and publish them in an Olympic hater's guide.
By legendary Notre Dame quarterback Paul Hornung, that in order
to remain competitive the Irish would need to lower academic
standards to help recruit black athletes. Hornung, who won the
Heisman in 1956 and works as a radio analyst for Notre Dame
games, said during a charity golf event in Plantation, Fla.,
that "all the black kids are the best athletes. They happen not
to have as good grades, some of them, so they can't get in."
Daniel Saracino, the school's assistant provost for enrollment,
said, "Notre Dame is more difficult for athletes to gain
admittance to than most other schools. We don't have anywhere
for athletes to hide."
By his own golf ball, Ocean's Eleven producer Jerry Weintraub,
who was on the links in Indian Wells, Calif., when, says his
publicist, Paul Bloch, "he hit the ball, it hit a rock, and it
came right back and hit him over the eye." The wound required 16
What's hot and what's not in Salt Lake City.
Green Jell-O pin
Collectors shelling out as much as $150 for elusive souvenir.
Salt Lake's official bear, rabbit and coyote have been mercifully
Capacity crowd at Medals Plaza cheered as band jammed and joked
through hourlong set.
Entire bleacher sections at Medals Plaza had emptied long before
her set was over.
Canadian designers made U.S. team's beret, the must-have
Hockey arenas are only places that appear even partly swooshed.
They're affable, helpful and seemingly always there when needed.
Pamphlet-waving Bible thumpers roaming the city are mere
"Can I buy you a drinking-club membership?"
"Have you met my wives?"
Quick-witted, pro-beer Salt Lake City mayor has been gracious and
Denver Post columnist's prejudicial rip of Salt Lake created an
Squads of trash collectors roam city day and night sweeping up
even the smallest bits of refuse.
Pedestrian flags, fences and eagle-eyed security stop walkers
from crossing anywhere but at intersections.
Flash it at stores, and price-gouging merchants will sell to you
at normal prices.
Don't leave home without identification; security people detain
first, ask questions later.
Proud athletes, great concerts and fireworks add up to the
toughest ducats in town.
U.S. women's hockey games
For a total of $135, fans watched them win first three games by a
Everyone carries it.
Even with overflowing crowds, politeness and decorum rule.
Are you ready for Marge: The Motion Picture? Screenwriter
Gabriel Schechter and Emmy-winning producer Gene Corman are
teaming up to make a movie on the life of former Reds owner
Marge Schott (below). Veteran actress Anne Francis, who's
appeared in everything from Funny Girl to The Drew Carey Show,
is slated to play the chain-smoking, dog-loving,
Nazi-memorabilia-collecting Schott, who was banned from baseball
in 1993 for racially insensitive comments. Three years later her
fellow owners forced her to give up daily control of the Reds.
"She deserved to get in trouble for the things she said," says
Schechter, "but the way the other owners treated her says a lot
about them, too. They never let her into the club. The story's
not just about her personality, it's about power and how the
other owners wanted to keep every bit of it." Production is set
to begin in Cincinnati early next year.... Oprah, Rosie and
Martha Stewart can rest easy: Michael Jordan's lifestyle
magazine has been scrapped. Jordan, as the publication was to
have been called, was announced last month as a joint venture
between Nike and Hearst, publishers of Cosmopolitan and Esquire.
Three hundred thousand copies of Jordan, featuring stories about
urban culture, fashion, music and sports, were to have hit
newsstands across the country on Feb. 12. However, those plans
were suspended at the eleventh hour, and executives from Hearst
and Nike refuse to say why. Instead, a cataloglike publication
called Brand Jordan will be released in the spring. A Nike
spokesperson says the name change represents the decision to
make the publication a marketing tool rather than a lifestyle
periodical.... Ben Stiller will co-produce Underdogs, a comedy
about a group of misfits who enter a dodgeball tournament in Las
Vegas in the hopes of saving their local gym.Screenwriter
Rawson Marshall Thurber will direct the film. "Underdogs, God
willing, will be the greatest dodgeball movie in the history of
cinema," says Thurber. "I hope to be drunk with power very soon."
Grandfather among the 211 U.S. Olympic athletes, 42-year-old
John Gordon, a U.S. curler.
Minutes after U.S. snowboarders Ross Powers, Danny Kass and J.J.
Thomas completed their medal sweep in the Feb. 11 Olympic
halfpipe that Powers's and Hass's agent, Dan Gacetta, began
receiving calls from advertisers seeking to make sponsorship
Vote by which the Washington State House of Representatives
passed a bill that would end NFL TV blackouts in Seattle.
Amount above the salary of the highest-paid college football
coach that LSU coach Nick Saban would receive as salary should
the Tigers win the national title.
Amount of Patriots merchandise sold through NFLShop.com the week
after the Super Bowl, a record amount for the online merchant.
This Week's Sign of the Apocalypse
In a new computer game called Hooligans--Storm Over Europe,
players take control of squads of violent soccer fans and set out
to maim and kill opposing fans in an attempt to "become the most
notorious group of hooligans in Europe."
requiring players to wear high stirrup socks: "Instead of one or
two guys looking like idiots, now we'll all look like idiots."