Wow. Normally this week would have been bananas for basketball alone with Rivalry Week and the NBA All-Star Break. But other storylines are even more unbelievable, uplifting, crushing, and creepy (like spiders?). Oh what a tangled, amazing web sports weave…
Finally a Pole You WANT for Your Daughter!
Danica Patrick’s qualifying for pole position (first place start) for next Sunday’s Daytona 500, the “Super Bowl” of racing, is today’s headline on many national front pages, not just the sports sections. Reaching 196 mph, Patrick edged out veteran Jeff Gordon to become the first woman ever to earn a NASCAR Sprint Cup pole—and in its biggest race, no less. But Patrick is not the first woman to challenge the chaps; others have cracked the speed ceiling, most famously Janet Guthrie, who started ninth in two 1977 races.
Patrick was also excited to steer headlines away from her romance with teammate Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. (he finished 12th) to Stewart-Haas Racing, her car, and, after a long day, “finally getting a sandwich.”
Top Women’s Teams Tip Off Tonight
There’s no shame in admitting you don’t follow women’s college basketball. It’s a game where finesse makes up for the physical prowess and agility of the men…oh wait, unless you’re watching #1 Baylor’s 6-8 “Most Outstanding Everything” Brittney Griner, who leads the NCAA in women’s dunks—yes dunks—and career blocked shots. And not just regular blocks, but hyperspace-windmill slapdowns that, well, let’s just say if Iran saw the footage, ain’t no space monkeys getting shot into Texas any time soon.
Iran can watch her take on loved and loathed Connecticut coach Geno Auriemma and his #3 Huskies tonight at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN2 in the showdown of the season thus far.
B-T-Dubs, on tap for Wednesday: the best rivalry in the NBA, the Boston Celtics (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce) at the struggling L.A. Lakers (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash), 10:30 p.m. on ESPN.
Olympic Hero’s Murder Charge Stuns World
Oscar Pistorius did not medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, but the beloved South African double-amputee kept pace with able-bodied sprinters and even anchored the 4×400 relay team, earning the nickname “Blade Runner.”
But after a bewildering Valentine’s Day shooting at his Pretoria mansion, the 26-year-old has been charged with the murder of his popular model girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, 30. Claiming he thought there was an intruder, it’s unclear what happened between the known gun owner (South Africa is noted for high crime rates) and Steenkamp, who was reportedly shot four times through a bathroom door. Pistorius is currently being held without bail.
The event is another PR hit for Nike, who sponsored Pistorius most recently in sadly ironic ads reading, “I am the bullet in the chamber.” Previous sponsorships with Lance Armstrong, Tiger Woods, and Michael Vick also soured or were severed altogether. But on the brighter side…
Michael Jordan Turns 50
Nike’s long-running partnership with MJ stands strong (at an estimated $1 billion in sales per year) as the greatest basketball player of all time reached one of life’s biggest milestones Sunday, the big 5-0. I used to work for AARP, so I’m not even going to make the old “time for his membership card” joke. In fact, the avid golfer and former minor league baseball player is nowhere near retirement, currently serving as majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats and endorsing Nike, Hanes, and others.
(Just remember, parents, when your son wants those Air Jordans, they start at around $200, with some styles selling for well over $5000. Maybe best to go with the underwear.)
“Rivalry Week” Does Not Disappoint (Except Kentucky. And Sort of Duke.)
With the gaping void left after the Super Bowl, sportscasters geek out for “Rivalry Week,” when longtime college basketball enmities play out, the biggest ones on ESPN:
• #3 Miami continued its surprise surge past Florida State, and later Clemson, to a 12-0 ACC record.
• #2 Duke regrouped in the second half to beat nemesis North Carolina on coach Mike Krzyzewski’s 66th birthday, only to fall to Maryland 83-81 on Saturday.
• #17 Oklahoma State topped Oklahoma 84-79 in overtime.
• #25 Kentucky lost to Florida and lost their star player, freshman center Nerlens Noel, to a season-ending ACL tear.
Of course, many rivalries don’t make it to mainstream TV, but are just as important to, say, Memphis fans like me, whose blood Louisville has made boil since the 70s. And crowds for my Division-III alma mater Centre College’s battle with Transylvania University give the fire marshal his biggest night of the year.
I asked some other local sports pals about their favorite hoops rivalries. Redskins Pro-Bowler Lorenzo Alexander tweeted that he likes Duke/Maryland and “Cal vs. Stanford, of course,” (he’s a former Golden Bear). CBS Radio, 106.7 The Fan host and George Mason University play-by-play man Bill Rohland recommends Virginia Commonwealth and Old Dominion as a historic “mid-major” matchup.
You’ll hear “mid-major” a lot more come tourney time next month; it means teams not part of the six major conferences like the SEC or Pac-10. Gonzaga, for example, plays in the West Coast Conference, but is currently ranked #3.
Why is this important? Because believe it or not, people are already talking tourney brackets—here’s your chance to get a jump on Fred in Ad Sales. Hopefully these traditional rivalries will withstand recent whiplash-inducing college conference realignments (Like, Tulsa may be joining the Big East. Tulsa. Oklahoma. “East.” Huh?).
If you missed the games, no worries—many of the teams will meet again during their conference championships in two weeks.
Olympic Wrestling Grapples with Future
One of civilization’s oldest sports, wrestling, is on the chopping block for the 2020 Olympic Games. Last week, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) moved to remove wrestling—a sport dating back to the ancient Olympics, Homer’s Iliad, and the Bible—from the lineup, opening the door for sport climbing, roller sports, and wakeboarding. Yes, wakeboarding.
To put it in clearer terms, this is akin to a school system saying, “Meh, why teach reading anymore? They’ll figure it out.”
The IOC board will meet again in May to firm up the 2020 roster. Wrestling will remain in the 2016 Games, but the bizarre combination of the U.S., Iran, and Russia will continue to lobby for it long beyond.
Fun with Fruit
To much excitement (especially for Washington National fans who camejustthisclose to a shot at the pennant last year), baseball spring training has officially begun in Florida and Arizona. The “Grapefruit” and “Cactus” Leagues are chances for players tune up playing each other, college teams, and other National and American League MLB teams. The games are inexpensive and played in small venues, giving fans great views and easy chances for autographs. If you’re still thinking over spring break, I recommend a trip.
The Itsy, Bitsy Spider…Ruins a Golf Round
Swedish golfer Daniela Holmqvist claimed she was bitten by a black widow spider on her ankle as she played an LPGA qualifying round in Canberra, Australia (just where does this woman store her socks?). She swatted the spider away after feeling a sharp pain, then used a tee to carve open her ankle to release the venom. She continued to play, although she did not advance.
The good news for Holmqvist is that she did not make her situation worse—medical authorities advise against slicing open venom wounds “Lone Ranger” style as this can cause blood loss, panic, and infection–and doesn’t help anyway. Also, black widows do not live in Australia; it was likely a “redback” a non-deadly cousin, but still one that packs a wallop. Either way, a tip of my visor to a determined athlete. (And for the record, any animal that eats its men and cleans its house every single day also has my respect.)
In Other Ankle News…
Ottawa Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson, the NHLs 2012 defensive player of the year, is out for the season after his left Achilles was sliced by a skate Wednesday vs. Pittsburgh. Officials determined the tangle and resulting injury from Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke was an accident.
NBA All-Star Week
Taking a hiatus from their regular schedules, NBA teams had a little fun this week in Houston with their annual “break” activities like the dunk contest (won by Toronto Raptors guard Terrance Ross) and the All-Star Game. L.A. Clippers’ guard Chris Paul led the West to a 143-138 victory over the East Sunday night. Although the game is really meant to showcase players’ abilities to fans without pressure, the outcome only fueled discussions about potential MVP candidates, including Paul, Miami’s Lebron James (whose recent stats are too staggering even to get into), and Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant.
P.S. Durant starred as himself last year in “Thunderstuck,” a fun family film about an uncoordinated kid who magically exchanges basketball powers with the OKC star.
Goodbye to Buss
Tempering the All-Star celebrations was the death Monday of longtime Lakers’ Hall of Fame owner Jerry Buss, who succumbed to cancer at age 80. Buss was widely adored and presided over 10 of L.A.’s 16 titles. He revolutionized basketball, upping the element of entertainment behind the talents of greats like Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal.