Mind Games
Spelling bees and memory contests are taking on the trappings of
big-time sports

Almost needless to say, America has divided into two camps since
Edward Eggleston wrote his 1871 novel The Hoosier Schoolmaster, a
celebration of tenacious spelling competitions in Indiana. Those
who followed Eggleston's spirit created the National Spelling Bee
77 years ago. The other faction is best personified by Mark
Twain, who, four years after Eggleston's book, crashed a local
bee in Hartford and announced, "I don't see the point of spelling
a word correctly, and I never did."

Apparently Twain didn't get ESPN. Otherwise he, like thousands
these days, might have been eagerly anticipating the network's
annual word-by-word coverage of the Scripps Howard National
Spelling Bee live from Washington, D.C., on May 29 and 30.

If you think the Bee is just a G-rated Revenge of the Nerds,
you're in denial. Spelling has arrived, and the competition is
riveting. "The kids train incredibly hard," says Paige Kimble,
president of the Bee. "They're committed to learning origins and
definitions; it's exhausting, and they must have poise. The Bee
has the drama of a sporting event."

Oh, baby, does it. Miss a letter and you're gone. Last year's Bee
closed with an unbearably tense showdown between eighth-graders
Kristin Karin Hawkins from Sterling, Va., and Sean Conley of
Anoka, Minn. When Hawkins missed on resipiscence, Conley spelled
succedaneum to win the $10,000 first prize. You think Gretzky
scoring eight goals a game at age six was prodigious? Conley
could spell Albuquerque at two.

"Kristin was intimidating," says Michael Hessenauer, 13, who
muffed cancelli and finished third. "She just went up there and
spelled. She didn't ask for roots or origins or anything. That
kind of confidence can get into your head."

Hessenauer, who's back in the final this year, is a goalkeeper in
a junior Olympic soccer program in Ohio and one of the Bee
culture's numerous two-sport stars. "This will be the second year
I've missed my soccer championships to spell," he says. "That's
O.K. Spelling's the hardest thing I do. The pressure's pretty
insane."

The Bee, which will have a record 250 finalists this year, is at
the center of a raging brain-game fever. In March the 25th annual
crossword puzzle championships drew competitors aged 17 to 81.
Last month a chemical engineer from North Carolina, Scott
Hagwood, won his second straight USA Memory Championships, an
unforgettable event in which competitors memorized the order of a
deck of playing cards in less than five minutes. "He's a mental
athlete," says Tony Dottino, the contest's founder. "The brain is
a muscle, and you have to keep it in shape."

Hagwood is off to London for the World Memory Championships this
August. "I'm in training," he says. "I eat Fiber One, I go to the
gym two hours a day, and I memorize things. I have a method I
can't explain. Say I want to remember the seven of spades--I
picture Dudley Moore playing the piano."

The spelling bee, though, remains the cruelest event, mixing
memory and desire. So much is at stake: the money, the prestige,
the guest shot on Letterman. Last month Carl and Ellen Herling of
Massachusetts ripped the officials at a regional bee, calling the
contest "a sham" after a pronouncer's definition led their son,
Ryan, to mix up principal and principle. Yes, we now have
aggressive, vocal spelling parents. And you thought this wasn't a
sport. --K.K.

Hard Times in the Big Easy
Why did the Saints suddenly fire their highly regarded general
manager?

When former Saints coach Mike Ditka urged the team to trade nine
draft choices in 1999 so it could move up and select Heisman
winner Ricky Williams, Ditka said the deal had to get done
because the team needed a marquee name. Led by Williams, the
Saints won all of three games in '99. After the season owner Tom
Benson fired Ditka and his staff and hired low-key Seahawks
executive Randy Mueller. Preferring substance over name value,
Mueller rebuilt the Saints' roster with a slew of talented but
less recognizable players. New Orleans won the NFC West in 2000
and then won the first playoff game in team history.

Last week, just 14 months after winning the NFL Executive of the
Year award, and five months after New Orleans completed a 7-9
season, Mueller was fired by Benson. The mercurial owner, best
known for his wacky sideline dances after Saints victories, said
Mueller was not communicating with him well and said he wanted a
"different management style." However, Mueller says that Benson's
lawyers had recently told him the owner wanted to discuss a
contract extension. So why was Mueller suddenly cut loose? The
going rate for general managers meant that Mueller was in line
for at least a $1 million a year raise from his $650,000 salary,
and with season-ticket sales down significantly from last year,
booting Mueller made sense--at least to Benson. On Monday the
Saints' owner named his salary cap manager, Mickey Loomis, as the
team's new general manager. Loomis, a career business-side
administrator with little background in personnel evaluation,
will most likely rely heavily on advisers--including boss
Benson--in making decisions.

What the perpetually impatient Benson is overlooking is that a
good G.M. can be as much an MVP as a star player. Mueller was a
shrewd evaluator of talent who in his short tenure traded a
third-round pick for potential franchise quarterback Aaron
Brooks, signed a virtually unknown linebacker (Charlie Clemons)
who's become a pass-rushing force and nabbed Victor Riley, the
best tackle on the free-agent market.

Benson, meanwhile, proved his football acumen last week when he
said, "We're going to have a better organization now. Instead of
one person making the decisions, we're going to have maybe 25 or
100 people help make those decisions." As New Orleans fans used
to say during the team's dark days, God help the Saints.--Peter
King

GO FIGURE

$133 Price of Triumph International Japan's limited-edition
lingerie set, which commemorates the World Cup with bra cups
covered in faux goal netting and panties with an image of hands
catching a ball.

7 Points scored by 49ers receiver Terrell Owens in his pro
basketball debut as a guard with the Adirondack Wildcats of the
U.S. Basketball League; Owens played 7:39 in the Wildcats' win.

261 Wins removed from the record of legendary basketball coach
Everett Case, who was once thought to be Indiana's winningest
high school coach with 726 victories; a recently discovered
procedural error dropped Case, who died in 1966, to 30th in state
history.

$50 Amount that the WNBA's Washington Mystics will pay a player
each time she says the team's ticket sales phone number during a
press interview and the number is repeated on TV or in print.

1 Home run, out of 42 the Red Sox have hit this season, that has
come against a lefthander.

BURNING QUESTION
DOES HUMIDITY AFFECT THE FLIGHT OF A BASEBALL?

The Rockies sure think so. Denver is both high and dry, and in
Colorado's ongoing effort to keep home runs down at Coors Field,
the team has been storing game balls in a humidor this season.
Lo, the average runs per game has dropped from last year's
whopping 15.1 to a manageable 9.8. "The low humidity in Colorado
certainly contributes to a livelier ball," says J.J. Crisco of
the National Institute for Sports Science and Safety at Brown.

That is in direct contradiction to conventional baseball wisdom,
which says that balls travel farther on humid days. But two years
ago the Silicon Valley-based Lansmont Corp. tested the impact of
humidity by bouncing baseballs off a wall in varying conditions.
"The higher the humidity, the less the ball rebounded," says
Kevin Gilman, the engineer behind the study. The specific reasons
involve scary terms like coefficient of restitution, but in
short, says Gilman, "a moister ball rebounds with less force."

Some pitchers also think damper balls are easier to grip, another
possible reason for the decrease in offense at Coors. "If you
can't grip the ball well, you really don't have a chance," says
former major league reliever Jerry DiPoto, who had a 4.21 ERA in
four seasons with the Rockies. The current staff is less
convinced. "Maybe the pitchers are just better," suggests
reliever Rick White.

Several clubs have complained about the Rockies' ball moistening
tactics, but the league, happy that scoring in Colorado has
dipped to levels more consistent with other parks, isn't
concerned. Says MLB spokesman Pat Courtney, "That's probably the
way that balls should have been stored there all along." --Adam
White

Cap Day
Jocks are in demand as commencement speakers

Ah, May: When a college senior's thoughts turn to graduation,
summer internships...and a sick dinner roll with a twist. At
least that's what students at Berkeley must have been thinking
when they selected Olympic moguls skier Jonny Moseley to speak
at their May 17 commencement. "This class wanted to hear about
living a life of commitment to your goals," explains Jason
Simon, a facilitator for the student-led group that selected
Moseley. "A gold medalist represents the values of working hard
and striving to be the best at what you do."

Of course, not everyone at Cal is happy that a college dropout
will take the same podium at which Janet Reno stood last year.
"You want a speaker to challenge your intellect," says senior
Morgan Fitzpatrick. "What is he going to tell us, 'Work hard to
achieve your dreams'? I didn't go through four years here to hear
that at graduation."

Perhaps, but jocks have long been commencement staples. Adding to
the list this year: Lou Holtz (South Carolina), Hank Aaron
(Bradley), Darrell Green (George Washington) and Bob Costas (St.
Louis's Webster University). Some choices are obvious (the
Gamecocks asked their popular football coach to speak) while
others aren't. For instance, Webster selected Costas because the
St. Louis resident is on the school's board.

Colleges want to avoid mistakes like the one Ohio's Central State
made in '89, when they gave Mike Tyson an honorary doctorate. "I
don't know what kind of doctor I am," Tyson told the grads, "but
watching all these beautiful sisters here, I'm debating whether I
should be a gynecologist." Never let it be said that Tyson is one
for pomp and circumstance.

CURSES!
Athletes in every sport have long believed in the vexing power of
hexes

After Stephen King attended the Devil Rays' April 25 home game
against the Twins, Tampa Bay went on a 15-game losing streak.
Players thought the horror writer had cursed the team and to
combat the hex, stuck pins into a photo of him. Last weekend
Tampa Bay won two in a row. O.K., it's not quite the Curse of the
Bambino, but it's in keeping with a tradition of sports curses.

CURSE OF NUMBER 2 Norm Van Lier, a Bulls star in the '70s, was
so upset that the team didn't retire his number he placed a hex
on any player who took it. What came next was a list of
unimpressive number 2 wearers--Brad Sellers, Rory Sparrow,
Dennis Hopson, Mark Bryant, Khalid El-Amin. FOLLOW-UP Van Lier,
a Bulls broadcaster, lifted the hex early in the 2001-02 season;
rookie center Eddy Curry took number 2 and had a solid season.

THE BILLY GOAT CURSE Just before Game 4 of the 1945 World
Series, Chicago tavern owner Billy Sianis brought his goat,
Sonovia, to Wrigley Field. After getting ejected because of
Sonovia's odor, Sianis put a curse on the Cubs, who lost that
game, and the Series, to the Tigers. FOLLOW-UP With the Cubs in
first place on July 4, 1973, Sianis's nephew Sam brought another
goat--draped in a shawl reading ALL IS FORGIVEN--to Wrigley. But
security turned them away. The Cubs finished fifth.

CHICKEN CURSE In 1893 South Carolina governor and Clemson
supporter "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman put a curse on the University
of South Carolina. The Chicken Curse has been blamed for: the
Gamecocks' hoops team's losing an ACC playoff game in 1970;
Navy's football upset of South Carolina in '84; and a steroid
scandal in '88. FOLLOW-UP In '92 South Carolina fans hired a
witch doctor to lift the curse. But when the top-ranked baseball
team lost a 2000 playoff game, the faithful once again blamed
the hex.

THE BLOTTER

ALLEGED Sexual advances and inappropriate comments by boxing
promoter Don King, in a civil lawsuit filed by medical
technician Deborah Klimo. She says King touched her breast and
tried to kiss her as she did a chest X-ray on him at Cleveland
Clinic in January. King denies the charges.

DIED After a battle with cancer, former Devils coach John
Cunniff, 57, in Albany, N.Y. In February, Cunniff completed his
record-tying third stint as an assistant on the U.S. Olympic team.

ANSWERED By the Virgin Mary, prayers of Brazilian soccer star
Ronaldo for good health and a spot on the national team. While
spending 18 months recovering from ligament damage in his right
knee, Ronaldo, 25, repeatedly prayed to Mary to improve his lot.
After he played two solid games and then was named to the
national team, Ronaldo flew by helicopter to a shrine to the
Virgin near Sao Paulo to say thank you.

DISPUTED The designer of the Black Course in Bethpage, N.Y.,
site of next month's U.S. Open. The course, which opened in
1936, has been credited to A.W. Tillinghast, one of golf's top
architects. But Joe Burbeck, 71, has long asserted that his
father, Joseph Burbeck, who was superintendent of the Black
Course from about 1929 to '64, designed it; June's Golf Digest
recognizes Burbeck as the designer, citing, among other sources,
a '59 book on Long Island state park history. David Catalano,
director of Bethpage State Park, maintains Tillinghast was the
architect.

PLANNED By Zagat Survey, its first golf guide. The restaurant
guide publisher will rely on responses posted on www.zagat.com
to rate some 1,800 public courses in the U.S., Puerto Rico and
the Virgin Islands. The book is due in November.

PELTED With rubber dildos, the ice at Tullio Arena, home of the
Ontario Hockey League champion Erie (Pa.) Otters. Fans were
honoring the team's top scorer, Cory Pecker, after the Otters
beat the Barrie (Ont.) Colts to win the title.

SPORTS BEAT

The onetime home run king takes a queen: On April 20 Mark
McGwire, 38, married former pharmaceutical sales rep Stephanie
Slemer, 24, in a low-key ceremony at the Mansion at the MGM
Grand, an exclusive high-roller retreat connected to the Las
Vegas hotel. Only 50 friends and relatives (including McGwire's
15-year-old son, Matt) were invited; none of McGwire's
ex-teammates could make it because of the regular-season
schedule. The couple, who've been dating for two years, then
left for a two-week honeymoon in Mexico. It was Slemer's first
marriage; McGwire was wed to Kathy Williamson from 1987 to '91.

--Being the quarterback of a Super Bowl-winning team has its
perks. Just ask Patriots pinup Tom Brady, who now counts
Hollywood starlets among his groupies. Turns out Tara Reid, the
sultry siren of the American Pie movies, got a charge out of
seeing Brady lead New England to its last-second victory in the
big game and asked her agent to set her up on a date with the
quarterback. Reid even sent along a personal note. Brady was
flattered but ultimately not interested. Makes you wonder who
does make his cut.

--Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who usually can't go to the
dentist without making headlines, somehow managed to get engaged
to longtime girlfriend Tiffany Stewart under a cloak of secrecy.
Cuban, 43, a tech billionaire who's never been hitched, met
Stewart, 29, an advertising saleswoman, in 1997; the two were
introduced by Cuban's friend and Mavericks project manager Danny
Bollinger, who dates Stewart's sister Jamie. Cuban proposed to
Tiffany on New Year's Eve, surprising her with the old
ring-inside-a-box-inside-a-box trick. They initially wanted to
keep the engagement under wraps because of what Cuban called
"security concerns" but went public with the news after people
started noticing the doorknob-sized diamond ring on Stewart's
finger. No wedding date has been set, but friends of the couple
predict a September ceremony.

--Sixteen years after winning a Super Bowl, Ron Rivera finally
made it to the White House. Rivera, the Eagles' linebackers
coach, was a member of the NFL champion 1985 Bears, a team whose
ceremonial trip to meet President Reagan at the Rose Garden was
canceled after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in January
1986. Earlier this month Rivera was invited along with eight
other Latino players and coaches to meet President Bush as part
of a Cinco de Mayo celebration. "When I told [former Bears
cornerback] Leslie Frazier about the trip, he got jealous," says
Rivera. "But I took a piece of the team with me--I wore my Super
Bowl championship ring." Rivera became the second player from
the 1985 Chicago team to make it to the White House; quarterback
Jim McMahon made the visit after winning Super Bowl XXXI with
the Packers in 1997. Says Rivera, "Maybe we'll just go there one
player at a time."

THIS WEEK'S SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
An Australian Rules football player, Peter Filandia, was
suspended for 10 games after admitting he bit an opponent's
scrotum during a match.

THE WEEK IN TELEVISION

MAY 17--MAY 23

FRIDAY 5/17 ESPN Classic 8 PM SportsCentury: Mario Lemieux

Super Mario's remarkable journey--from back-to-back Cups to
conquering cancer to his glorious return from retirement--makes
this half-hour bio most uplifting.

SATURDAY 5/18 NBC 5 PM The Preakness Stakes

Can Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem triumph again? Find out more
about him and the other ponies by clicking the Triple Crown link
at CNNSI.com.

SATURDAY 5/18 SHOWTIME 9 PM Kostya Tszyu vs. Ben Tackie

Hailing from Sydney by way of Russia, junior welterweight champ
Tszyu (27-1-1, 24 KOs) goes by The Thunder from Down Under. He'll
need lightning to stop Tackie.

SUNDAY 5/19 CBS 3 PM PGA Mastercard Colonial Final Round

Last year Sergio Garcia captured his first PGA Tour title here
with a final-round 63. This year he captured Martina Hingis.

MONDAY 5/20 NBC 12:30 AM Late Night with Conan O'Brien

After getting booted from ABC's The Chair, John McEnroe lands on
Conan's couch.

THURSDAY 5/23 HBO 10:30 PM On the Record with Bob Costas

Bobby C goes one-on-one with J-Lo (Jennifer Lopez), Double A
(Andre Agassi) and NASCAR's Tony (I Need a Cool Nickname)
Stewart.

Don't Miss

FRIDAY 5/17 ESPN 7 PM

NHL Playoffs
Four teams, including the favored Red Wings, will be alive but
aching as the conference finals begin. The early line says that
whoever wins the Western Conference will go on to hoist the
Stanley Cup.

UNDER REVIEW

--A Live-wire Act
--Real Cowboys
--Kicks at Nite

--As Peter Parker will tell you, with great power comes great
responsibility. It's a lesson that ESPN grapples with every time
it airs a live press conference. Case in point: Both ESPN and
ESPN News carried Allen Iverson's infamous May 7 press
conference, which featured seven s words, an f bomb and enough
self-revelation to keep Freud busy for eternity. The rant was
fascinating to watch, and afterward ESPN anchor Mike Greenberg
apologized to viewers for the profanity. According to ESPN
spokesman Josh Krulewitz, the network never thought about
breaking away from Iverson or going to tape delay. ESPN deserves
credit for recognizing that the scene, while touchy, was
newsworthy. "We're constantly examining the balance between
delivering live programming versus managing the risk that comes
with it," says Krulewitz.

--One thing's certain--Jerry Jones will find his way in front of
the camera. But only someone wise in the Kremlinology of the
Cowboys could guess who else will get sizable screen time in the
upcoming HBO-NFL Films production of Hard Knocks: Training Camp
with the Dallas Cowboys. The second season of the sports reality
show starts on July 31, and other than Emmitt Smith, the three
veterans and three rookies to be featured will be determined
during filming. Expect top draft pick Roy Williams and vets
Larry Allen and Rocket Ismail to get good airtime.

--Insomniacs and soccer fanatics prepare: The first must-see
game of ESPN's live World Cup coverage airs June 2 on ESPN 2 at
1:25 a.m. EST. Nigeria plays Argentina in the ultracompetitive
Group F, also known as the "Group of Death." --Richard Deitsch

COLOR PHOTO: REUTERS NEWMEDIA INC./CORBIS BEE AND BEE Conley (left) won a tense final in '01; Rebecca Sealfon went word up in '97. COLOR PHOTO: RON EDMONDS/AP [See caption above] COLOR PHOTO: ANDREW J. COHOON/AP THE JIG IS UP Benson (above) dumped the talented Mueller. COLOR PHOTO: BILL HABER/AP (MUELLER) [See caption above] COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY JEFF WONG COLOR PHOTO: PAUL SAKUMA/AP MEDAL MAN Moseley hopes to impart some golden words at Cal. COLOR PHOTO: CHRIS O'MEARA/AP PINNED Tampa Bay players stuck it to King. COLOR PHOTO: LUCA BRUNO/AP Ronaldo COLOR PHOTO: GREG FIGGE/COURTESY MARK AND STEPHANIE MCGWIRE (WEDDING) The McGwires COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH PICTURE THIS Mavericks fan Becky Jones clearly had great expectations while attending her team's May 11 playoff loss to the Kings at the American Airlines Center, but the 29-year-old mother-to-be didn't know she'd be part of the show. Jones was spotted by venue officials and brought down to courtside to lead cheers during a second-half timeout. That's what we call a pregnant pause. COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL (ERSTAD) COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk

"I don't think I ever saw that horse walk. He danced everywhere
he went." -- SEATTLE SLEW, PAGE 26

THEY SAID IT
DARIN ERSTAD
Angels outfielder, upon returning to the lineup after missing
seven days with a concussion: "I felt like I hadn't played in a
week."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)