Thursday, March 5, 2009

Days of Reckoning


This has not been a good week to be a me-first, overpaid, team-dividing professional athlete. First, Allen Iverson’s “back” flared up, forcing him to the sidelines for at least two weeks, and probably the rest of the year. Then, Dallas Cowboys owner False Face decided it was time to get rid of the NFL’s biggest distraction, Me-O. Fans of drama were overwrought, but those of us who despise sports’ culture of selfishness rejoiced like the producers of Slumdog Millionaire on Oscar night.

Owens’ dismissal and Iverson’s “injury” hardly stemmed the tide of egocentricity. After all, Stephon Marbury has found work with the Celtics, Manny Ramirez just signed with the Dodgers (more on that later) and Chad Johnson remains unfulfilled. As long as there are non-stop highlights on the big screen and a parade of sycophantic “journalists” glorifying the minute accomplishments of top athletes – “LeBron dribbled through his legs!! – there will be self-centered athletes. The Pistons’ and Cowboys’ moves show us that everybody has their limit.

The Iverson case is less notable than L’affair Owens, since his transfer to Antoine Cadillac’s town was affected solely because of his expiring contract. GM Joe Dumars traded Chauncey Billups and his three-year deal to Denver for Iverson’s $21 million albatross, simply to clear room for future activity. As part of the trade, deliriously grateful Nuggets coach George Karl promised to wash and wax Dumars’ car every Saturday this summer. Still, there were some deluded souls who believed Iverson could help the Pistons win. Let’s hope those folks are not allowed to operate heavy machinery. A singular talent who could have led his team to a championship had he played to win, rather than to self-aggrandize, Iverson is all about himself. Always has been. The popular line among wags during Iverson’s time in Philadelphia was, “There’s no ‘I’ in team and no ‘team’ in Iverson.” Perhaps former Georgetown coach John Thompson put it best when asked during a mid-1990s Big East basketball media day about Iverson’s ability to become a point guard. In that unmistakable baritone, Thompson said, “You can’t change a zebra’s stripes.” Even he knew what the guy was about.

After a couple months of the charade, the Pistons found out what it was like to play without Iverson, and they liked it. Now that his “injury” has gotten worse, Detroit can make a charge at the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference hierarchy. The Pistons are 3-0 without Iverson and are back to playing the winning ball they did before he arrived. Danger lurks, of course, because there is always the chance Iverson will heal and demand 40 minutes and 25 shots again. If that happens, abandon all hope. The next chapter of this story should be interesting, since the market for aging, six-foot, ball-hogging two guards might not be so robust during the off-season, especially since half the league will be looking for a government bailout in a few months.

While Iverson braces for an off-season storm, the best part of the Me-O saga is yet to come. He has already provided some insight into his shattered emotions through his mouthpiece, Stephen Naismith. According to Naismith, Me-O feels “betrayed.” Thinks False Face lied to him. And this is just the beginning. There have been no teary-eyed press conferences or carefully-scripted “sit-downs” between Me-O and his apologists. You know the ones. There’s more softballs tossed than at an old King and His Court exhibition. And there’s always a moment when (insert aggrieved athlete’s name here) sits motionless with a single tear running down his cheek, a la the crestfallen Native American from the 1970s “Keep America Beautiful” commercial. One can only imagine the fusillade of emotional artillery Me-O will unload on the general public, in a bid to reinforce his assertion that he is the victim.

Close on the heels of that performance will come the reports from Valley Ranch about the two factions of Cowboy players, those who side with Me-O and those who are celebrating his release as if the government just announced that overpriced cars, jewelry and homes were tax-deductible. As that tempest swirls, False Face will give his side, complete with analysis of just how hard the whole process was and how the team has to “move on.” Chances are, he’ll throw a couple players under the bus, and he might even impugn his own son, team GM Stephen, who most likely was the impetus behind the move. The resulting stew will be so spicy that Rachael Ray would mud-wrestle Martha Stewart on pay-per-view for the rights to the recipe. El Hombre has said it before, and he’ll say it again: False Face may want to win, but he also loves attention and doesn’t care whether it’s of a positive or negative nature.

All of that doesn’t even begin to consider the hours and pages of speculation about the team’s next move and how the Me-O dismissal will affect the team’s performance, not to mention the handicapping of the Me-O sweepstakes, in which executives vie to prove who is more stupid by trying to sign a fading wideout who has poisoned three different franchises. The overwhelming early-line favorite: Al Davis and the Raiders. Duh.

Wow. That sure is a lot to anticipate. Stay tuned for all the action. And if you happen to be a selfish star with a somewhat vulnerable contract position, beware. You could be next, God willing.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: While the Cavs are celebrating their status as the first NBA team to clinch a playoff spot, the Clippers are hosting “Anybody With A Pulse” night at Staples Center. Anyone actually alive who wants to come and see the team play can do so for free. The team will also throw in a beverage, a frankfurter and the number of a psychiatrist…The NHL trading deadline came and went Wednesday, with the only notable trade involving Olli Jokinen. What, wasn’t Ogie Oglethorpe available?...The NC2A basketball tournament approaches, and that means plenty of high comedy at espn, as smug, corporate Billy Packer clone Jay Bilas jousts with Mr. Bracketology, Joe Lunardi. There’s even a new drinking game surrounding their segments. Every time Bilas is condescending, take a sip. Every time Lunardi looks like he wants to remove Bilas’ liver with a penknife, chug a beer. Chances are, you’ll be smashed in three minutes…The boating accident off the Florida Gulf Coast that claimed two NFL players and a former South Florida team member was truly a tragedy. While we celebrate the survival of one member of the boating party, we must remember the unbelievable power of the sea and the need to respect it. A 20-foot boat was not made to survive six-foot swells 50 miles from shore. Let their loss be a lesson for the rest of us about safety on the water.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The gnashing of teeth over the Eagles’ decision to kick Brian Dawkins to the curb proves that the team’s fans have no idea what they really want. On the one hand, they decry any move not designed to win a Super Bowl. On the other, they become irate when the team makes personnel decisions that will provide long-run help for the team. Granted, the decision on Dawkins couldn’t just be about his value as a safety – which is diminishing, thanks to awful coverage ability. He’s a great leader and a true fan favorite. Re-signing him would have been a tremendous P.R. move and would have engendered significant good will. The fans love Dawkins, and for some, it’s impossible to imagine him in an opponent’s uniform. But from a football standpoint, letting him go to Denver made sense. Yes, he made the Pro Bowl, but he’s not someone you can use in passing situations without manipulating the defense to hide him. That’s hardly the best way to get to – or win – the Super Bowl. This is not a congratulatory letter to the Eagles for the move. It would have been nice for them to use some of their abundant cap space to reward Dawkins for meritorious service. But Eagles fans need to be honest with themselves and ask whether they’re looking for a team that wins or a team that does “the right thing,” because good corporate citizenship doesn’t usually produce a trophy.

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AND ANOTHER THING: How about that Scott Boras? Lucifer’s chief negotiator took one on the chops this week when the Dodgers ended their bidding against themselves and convinced Manny Ramirez to accept $45 million over two years. Boras, who had promised his client something on the order of four years and $130 million, didn’t quite get his price. Now, it would have been better had the Dodgers played some real hardball with the traveling-secretary-hitting bully and his cloven-hoofed rep by lowering their offer every week a deal wasn’t consummated, but the contract as written does favor L.A. Since Ramirez can void the deal after a year, in order to chase another giant offer (as if), he’ll have to hustle and behave himself, as he did during his truncated tenure with the Dodgers last year. Since he doesn’t have the security of a long-term deal, Ramirez can’t dog it, treat team employees poorly and basically act like himself. If he does, he’ll either have to take a paltry $20 million next year – some of it deferred – or go back into a market that doesn’t promise to be much more robust, especially for what will be a 37-year old slugger with a history of malingering. Congratulations to the Dodgers for beating Boras and putting Ramirez in a situation where he has to be a professional – at least if he has any long-term goals.


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