Thursday, May 31, 2007

Who Said Road To Finals Would/Should Be Easy?

It may not be 20 years ago to the day, but it's 20 years ago to the moment.

Eastern Conference Finals. Knotted at two games apiece. Game 5 slated for the hostile home of the more experienced (read: older), favored team whose appearances in the NBA's Final Four are commonplace. And that experienced team is poised to lock horns with a familiar foe in the NBA's Final Two.

Sound familiar? It should, because that was the scenario in 1987 when the Pistons met the Celtics in the creaky old Boston Garden for Game 5 of their East final. The Celtics had held service in Games 1 and 2, and the Pistons did the same in Games 3 and 4. Just like this year's tussle with the Cavaliers. Game 5 in Boston was -- since it cannot possibly be written otherwise -- pivotal.

The Pistons stayed with the Celtics the entire game. So much so, that they found themselves with a one-point lead -- and the ball -- with under ten seconds to play.

Anyone want to tell me what happened next? Anyone?

Yeah -- THIS.

Then the Pistons, despite that slug in the gut, recovered to win Game 6 at the Silverdome, and gave the Celtics all they could handle again in Game 7. It was a tight affair in the Garden. Then Adrian Dantley and Vinnie Johnson butted heads, knocking both players out of the game, and that pretty much snuffed out the Pistons' hopes.

Such ghoulish history might not be pleasant reading today, for the comparisons between today's Cavs and Pistons and 1987's Pistons and Celtics might be a little too eery for comfort.

Drew Sharp, in today's Freep, has an opinion piece titled, "There's No Excuse For Losing to Cavaliers." Mitch Albom, in the Chicago series, prattled on about how the Pistons were wasting energy against an inferior opponent. Sharp, too, acts as if the Pistons are playing chopped liver in this Cleveland series. Mike Stone, yesterday on the radio, whined that the Pistons of 2004 would never have let Cavs rookie Daniel Gibson score 21 points, as he did in Game 4. Yet it was the '04 Pistons who let benchwarmers Brian Scalabrine (Nets) and Luke Walton (Lakers) go off in crucial playoff games.

Then, in the next sentence, the very same Chicken Littles will opine that nobody expects perfection, when all they seem to be doing is strongly hinting as such.

Here are the facts: the Pistons are 10-4 in the postseason, and are in a best-of-three with the Cavs, with two games in Detroit. No time for slitting throats or jumping off bridges -- or bandwagons. The fact that they dared not to sweep every series can be overlooked, can't it?

Having said all that, the Pistons will be probably lose in the NBA Finals against the Spurs. I felt the same way about the Lakers in '04, but had I known then what I ended up knowing -- that the Lakers were an unraveling, aging bunch, I might have picked the Pistons. The Spurs are neither unraveling nor aging -- at least not to the point of creating a serious erosion of their skills. Remember Gary Payton and Karl Malone wheezing against the Pistons in the 2004 Finals?

So this is probably it for the Pistons -- Eastern Conference champions. It's as far as I thought they'd go. They will be significant underdogs against the Spurs -- as should any team in the modern era, if they could return to the court during their prime and take on Tim Duncan and Company. The Spurs are the class of the league. Losing to them will not be dishonorable at all.

But as much as losing to the Cavs would be an upset, it wouldn't be inexcusable, as Sharp suggests. The '87 Pistons were a steal and a head butt away from facing the Lakers in the Finals. It can be said that the Cavaliers aren't all that far separated from the Pistons, either. They aren't anyone's dregs.

The 1989 Pistons went 15-2 in the postseason. The '90 version went 15-5. The 2004 champions were 16-7. The '89 team was an anomaly; most champs lose a few along the way. The Pistons shouldn't listen to the hand-wringers who would have them go 12-0 in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Not that they do. Thank goodness.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Add Gibson To List Of Unlikely Playoff Villains

The names are sure to draw shivers and cold sweat from die-hard Pistons fans.

Bernard King. Larry Bird and Dennis Johnson. Brian Scalabrine. Luke Walton.

And now, a new playoff villain: Daniel Gibson.

Maybe the above group should be categorized. For certainly King, who beat the Pistons by himself in a first round best-of-five series in 1984, and Bird and Johnson (The Steal in 1987) were genuine NBA stars who ate plenty of people's lunch in their illustrious careers. Perhaps it's unfair to them to place them in the same, unfiltered company as Scalabrine and Walton and Gibson.

Scalabrine, surely you recall, went berserk in Game 5 of the East semifinals at the Palace in 2004. He hit triples from all over the court, and it's not an overstatement to say that he alone willed the Nets to victory that night, in overtime.

Walton had his 15 minutes of fame in Game 2 of the '04 NBA Finals, when he was all over the court, offensively and defensively, making a nuisance of himself -- and helping to spur the Lakers to the "W."

The Scalabrine/Walton nightmares are only tolerable because the Pistons ended up on top in both of those series. It should also be noted that there hasn't been any proof that either player has had nearly as good of a game since, and we're talking three years ago. Each of them walked out of anonymity and into the black hat and twirling mustache of playoff bad guy. But both of their moments were fleeting, thank goodness.

Gibson, the Cleveland Cavaliers whirling dervish rookie point guard, terrorized the Pistons last night, and was a huge reason why the Eastern Finals are now knotted, 2-2. He hit three-pointers. He knocked balls out of Piston hands. He drew charges. He distributed the ball nicely. He was deadeye accurate on free throws. And he did it all with a grin curling his lips and an occasional chest-pump. He played with an annoyingly high level of confidence that belies his youth and inexperience.

Oh, there was Drew Gooden, too. And Zadrunas Ilgauskas. And, of course, LeBron James. The four of them -- these three plus Gibson -- basically outplayed the Pistons' top four guys, and made the crucial plays down the stretch. They deserved the win, no question.

Watching Gibson do his thing, I determined that he would NOT go off like that in Detroit in Game 5. Further, I submit that the Pistons will spank these unruly Cavs and send them to bed without dinner, to the tune of a 10-to-15-point margin of victory.

Enough of these Cavs already. Enough of the inability of the Pistons to get their big men and their guards all playing well on the same night. Enough.

Ahh, but it will be enough, at least for the next game. The Cavaliers have been awful in Detroit and I see no reason why that trend needs to change now. It's a whole lot easier to have fun and smile and chest pump when the arena's denizens are all behind you.

The Pistons are still in good shape; how can you NOT be when the series is a best-of-three with two in your building?

But, come on, Chauncey. Loosen up. Chris Webber, get involved. Antonio McDyess, please come back. Make Daniel Gibson have something else in common with Brian Scalabrine and Luke Walton: they each sucked after their 15 minutes were up.

THEN we'll see if Gibson grins.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Tuesday's Feature Returns: The Straightaway

(Siddy Hall, NASCAR contributor to "Out of Bounds", recently moved to Brazil. Here is his first offering since calling Sao Paulo home)

The Straightaway

by Siddy Hall


Greetings from São Paulo, Brazil, my new home of 12 days. Sao Paulo is a big city, among the five largest in the world. It’s approaching winter here, but the weather is still comfortable although cool at night. Traffic in a metropolitan area of over 15,000,000 is often a major grind. It’s like trying to run 43 cars at the Hickory bullring.

Although the top-selling car in Brazil is Volkswagen, Chevy and Ford are well-represented, also. Please forget your truck or SUV while here. It’s all small to mid-size sedans. Peugeot, Mercedes and Fiats are also common in Sao Paulo.

This is F1 country. The Land of Senna. The road leading to the largest airport is named after the late, great Ayrton Senna. He has a tunnel named for him, too. The winner of 41 races and 65 poles in 162 Formula 1 starts is a racing legend. He was a two-time winner of the Sao Paulo Grand Prix.

You know you're big when they name tunnels after you: Ayrton Senna

In NASCAR’s quest to Rule the Racing World it has identified six countries, or markets that it likes most: Canada, Mexico, Japan, Germany, the U.K., and Brazil. These countries each have large markets with a racing heritage and an affinity for the U.S.

So where is NASCAR in Brazil? And how about Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya? While navigating Sao Paulo and speaking with friends I tried to discover whether NASCAR had penetrated the minds of Brazilians.

First, I checked out the magazine racks at newsstands in downtown Sao Paulo. Things look a lot like in the U.S. Numerous magazines are available for the “wrencher.” People who like to re-build cars or build street-legal hot rods have many magazine choices. As for auto racing, it’s pretty much all Formula 1.

Not surprisingly, Brazilians know who Montoya (right) is far more than Earnhardt, Jr.

A couple of magazines give about four pages to NASCAR, placing it on equal footing with other styles of local racing. NASCAR has developed some local racing series such as Stock V-8. They look like Nextel cars except they’ve been shrunken. Overall, from magazines to posters to T-shirts, NASCAR was tough to find.

I decided to ask my future father-in-law, a major sports fan, if he knew who Dale Earnhardt, Jr is. I was met with a blank stare. After I explained that some people think of Dale as the American Racing God, version 2.0, he replied, “I don’t know the pilots. Besides they just drive in circles. It’s not emotional.” He added, “They need Brazilian drivers for the people of Brazil to care.”

I then asked if he knew Juan Pablo Montoya. Without hesitating he said, “Yes, I know him.” After a smirk he added, “He had his moment a while ago.”

Want to know how to cool off a boisterous conversation among a group of Brazilian woman? Ask them if they know Junior. A woman named Fazio silently considered my question and responded, “Is he supposed to be a famous actor or something?” I figured, well, she’s a woman who wouldn’t know this stuff. Just a long-shot question. But then I followed up with Montoya. “Yes, I know who he is. He races cars.”

OK. 2-0, Juan over Junior in the early going.

Finally, it’s me and the boys, drinking cervejas at an outdoor bar. Time to get some answers. Among our group is Andre, a guy who knows a thing or two about the NBA. Does he know who Junior is? I’m met with silence, bafflement. After my explanation he states, “I don’t know the pilots.” But he knows Montoya, 3-0.

NASCAR in miniature? No, it's a Brazilian stock car

Another gentleman describes how he visited New York and suddenly all of these colorful, noisy stock cars drove slowly through the shutdown streets. It was amazing. NASCAR.

Another guy, Gabes, wearing a Boston Celtic sweatshirt, joins us. I gotta ask about Junior. He stares at me for a while then very slowly says, “Doesn’t he… drive… a car… for something?” Hey, we’re getting somewhere, Brian France. I explain that Earnhardt is the most famous driver in NASCAR. Gabes replies, “Yeah, the most famous driver after Tom Cruise in ‘Days of Thunder.’” Everybody laughed.

One recurring theme about Juan Pablo Montoya: He’s not loved. Perhaps because he’s Columbian and a former rival to Brazilians in Formula 1, praise was short for Juan. Knowledge of his move to NASCAR generates only mild interest.

Great News for NASCAR, however. It’s easier to see a NASCAR truck race on TV than an NBA playoff game. Brazil has its own SPEED channel outlet and they show the stuff. This channel is not in every home, but it’s available as part of a subscription package. Strangely, to these American eyes, the promos don’t focus on Jeff Gordon or Junior at all. Only one guy is being pushed. Yup, Juan Pablo Montoya, Mr. 23rd in points.

The NBA playoffs? It’s shown only if they run out of soccer games. There’s four channels of futbol, non-stop.

Do you suppose Jeff & Tony & Jimmy & Dale could lace up the sneakers for a game of soccer? It could be Hendricks & Gibbs & Ginn against Fenway Roush & Michael Waltrip Racing & Team Red Bull & Haas. Or better yet, how about a version of soccer/demolition derby being played on a soccer field. The cars could trade paint while trying to boot an oversized soccer ball with the nose of their cars. Michael Waltrip’s car could be a goalie and just sit there and block shots. Brazil might watch that.

(you can e-mail Siddy Hall: cityhall172000 at

Monday, May 28, 2007

Slow-To-Be-Interested Pistons Get Bumped In Game 3

On this Memorial Day, and with the Pistons tinkering along in the NBA's Final Four, a.k.a. the Eastern Conference Finals, it's appropriate to take time to honor those who have given their basketball lives for the franchise.

Ahh, screw that. Actually, I'm thinking of two guys who proved memorable, but in a far less honorable way. But they're relevant to my opinion.

When Marvin "Bad News" Barnes toiled for the Pistons (1976-77), there would be some occasional concern as to whether he would make it to practice, or downtown to Cobo Arena in time for the game that evening. Then there was some debate whether, once he got into the ballgame, he would be effective or sleepwalk on the court.

William Bedford (a Piston from '87 to '92), seven feet of babysitting fun, had his own issues, too. Some of those issues ended up snorted into his nose. Anyhow, because of his quirky ways -- and when I say quirky I mean self-destructive -- he earned a clever nickname from Isiah Thomas, a play on Bedford's name. "Willy B," Isiah called him. As in, "Willy B here? Willy B late? Willy B good?"

Sometimes coach Herb Brown, urged by the chants from the Cobo crowd, would insert Barnes into the game and he'd turn the place on, canning jumpers and grabbing rebounds, starting a Kevin Porter-led fast break. Fun times.

Bedford, when the spirit moved him, would occasionally be effective, too. He'd block a shot, make a post move for a dunk, and in a flash he would show why GM Jack McCloskey was so fascinated by his tall frame and high ceiling. Fun times, as well -- but oh, so fleeting.

I'm reminded of Barnes and Bedford -- two coach-killer B's -- when I see today's Pistons wrestle with themselves in these NBA playoffs.

For reasons that they will perhaps take to their graves, these Pistons don't always seem too interested when the introductions are over with and the fire has been shot off by the cannons behind the backboards and the referee blows his whistle and tosses the ball into the air at center court. They treat the first quarter, and indeed sometimes the second and even, from time-to-time, most of the third, as a grade school child treats school mornings.

It happened yet again last night, as the Cleveland Cavaliers, no doubt pumped by their home crowd and the prospects of an 0-3 deficit, raced out of the gate in the opening minutes while the Pistons wiped their eyes and asked for five more minutes under the covers.

It was 16-9 before the Pistons, as Red Wings analyst Mickey Redmond would say, "Got 'er goin.'" They would recover to take a 24-22 lead, and the game was nip-and-tuck from that point on.

The Pistons talk with their chests puffed out about how they "know how to win" in the closing minutes of games, and that they've "been through all this before." But doesn't knowing how to win also include knowing how to take games just as seriously in the opening minutes -- heck, the opening 24 minutes, for gosh sakes -- as you take them in what everyone likes to call "crunch time"?

You've heard all the quotes before -- the ones about the other team coming out with more energy, and with more of a sense of urgency, after the opening tip. Pistons coach Flip Saunders called the end of Game 2 "Groundhog Day," for its similarities to the end of Game 1. But if there's a continued repeat about the Pistons, a la the Bill Murray movie about a man who relives the same day over and over, it's the beginning of games, not the ends of them.

It's been said derisively about the NBA that you only really have to watch the last two minutes of an NBA game to find out what happened. I have said the same thing -- about movies on Lifetime. Anyhow, it seems as if the Pistons themselves subscribe to this "last two minutes" theory, but with a twist. They act as if they only have to bear down for those final 120 seconds.

If they're not careful, the Pistons will still be hitting the snooze button while the Cavs are preparing for San Antonio or Utah.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Popup That Never Came Down

As a baseball player, I peaked at age 14 and was washed up by age 15. A has-been before I was even a high school sophomore.

But I had my moment, which is all anyone can ever really ask for, I suppose.

It dawned on me that it was 30 years ago this summer when I put a team on my back, carried it for awhile, then caught the biggest popup of my life.

I look at the photo now, taken by my father in my backyard, and the first thing that I notice is how much of a beanpole I was. The uniform was pinstriped in blue, and it made me look even skinnier than I was. The pose was a batting stance, surely copied from some Topps baseball card of the day. But after 30 years the photo remains, a wallet-sized pic in a small frame which sits on an old cabinet in the basement.

The team was Bra-Con Industries, and no, that first part isn’t short for brassiere. Long “a” please. Though I have no idea who the heck Bra-Con Industries was, or is. All I know is that they sponsored our ballteam, as evidenced by the block “BRA-CON” splayed across our chests. It was the first time I got to wear a real baseball uniform – double-knit top and pants, with stirrup socks, too. I wore #11 – Bill Freehan’s number with the Tigers. But I was a second baseman. And a pitcher. And, for the most part, a poor hitter. Until I was sprinkled with magic pixie dust for a few weeks in the summer of ’77.

We played in a league in Livonia. Our nemesis was a team sponsored by Don Massey Cadillac. Oh, how I hated those guys. They had nicer uniforms, they had equipment bags for each player, and they traveled in one big van, like some sort of commune. But they could play some mean baseball. Each time we played them, they spanked us good – the scores progressively worse every time we locked horns with them.

So first place was out of the question, but that didn’t mean we had no playoff hopes. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Our manager was a roly-poly guy who kind of reminded me of Don Zimmer as I think back on it. But with far, far less baseball acumen. Sadly, I’ve forgotten his name, but I remember his kid was on the team. The old man’s big thing was getting the equipment put away on time. Seriously. He had a fetish for gathering the bats and helmets and depositing them into their respective bags – while the game was going on. It didn’t help team morale to see the skipper putting away the gear while you’re trying to mount a last-inning rally. But as sure as I’m sitting here, that’s what he would do.

His assistant, though – that man’s name I remember. It was Mr. Nadratowski. His kid was on the team, too – John, our catcher.I think Mr. Nadratowski was going thru a divorce or something distressing at home. That, and I think he drank a little bit.

But he was a great guy, and he knew far more baseball than Mr. Equipment Manager.

The big turnaround came when Equipment Manager left the team suddenly. I can’t remember if it was a planned vacation, a resignation, or what, but all I know is the team was left under the control of Mr. Nadratowski. Thank goodness. He made some lineup changes immediately. Then I got hot.

I had been scuffling along, playing a solid second base and taking my turn every few games on the mound. But hitting at a mediocre clip, as usual. Then, for a few glorious weeks, my bat turned to gold.

I still don’t really know what happened, except to say that I was simply torrid. It got so that the parents would get extra excited whenever I came to the plate. I smacked the ball pretty good for about five or six games, lifting my batting average well over .300. Heck, it may have been over .400.

The biggest hit was a triple I drilled off a kid named Greg Everson. But Everson wasn’t just any kid pitcher. He was so good, in fact, that he became a minor leaguer – reaching AAA at one point. I looked him up on Google, and found that the Tigers, who had owned his rights, traded him for big league pitcher Jerry Don Gleaton of the Kansas City Royals, on April 2, 1990. confirmed this.

So this wasn’t chopped liver I was batting against. Yet I took him deep to left center, and legged out a three bagger. It was the peak of my hotness. Then, moments later, the next batter lined out to the third baseman, who promptly tagged the bag, doubling me off. Sixty to zero in 3.2 seconds.

I cooled off a bit, but we were still a solid second place team, trailing Don Massey Cadillac of course. The second place finish meant we would qualify for some sort of city playoff. Kind of like a runners-up championship.

The game was played at Livonia’s Ford Field (it’s still there), on Farmington Road and Lyndon.

It was a nip-and-tuck affair. Then I came to the plate in the late innings, a man on third with one out. I managed a sacrifice fly, driving in the go-ahead run.

Still clinging to that slim lead in the last inning, our opponents put a man on base with two outs. Can’t remember what base, however. Doesn’t matter. Playing second base, my eyes got as wide as saucers as the next batter popped up, high into shallow right field. It was my ball. MY ball. I waved everyone off. It felt like it would never come down. But it did, finally, and I squeezed it as tight as I could. Ballgame over. City championship won.

I was mobbed by my teammates. It was the only time any team I had played for had won anything of any significance.

We each got trophies (it’s still in the basement, too) with our names on it. But the best part was at the postseason banquet, when we received our trophies. It was held at a local pizzeria. Mr. Nadratowski, still battling his personal demons at home, got up in front of everyone and said some words. I remember him thanking us, the kid players, and then starting to sob. I think we had brightened his life somehow.

Funny, but I’m starting to tear up a little bit now, 30 years later.

Wish I had kept the damn ball.

Friday, May 25, 2007

"Groundhog Day"? Naah -- Just An Alternate Ending

Pistons coach Flip Saunders called it "Groundhog Day," referring to the movie where Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again. Saunders thought the comparison apt as he described the eery similarities of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which his team won, 79-76 -- and Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals, which his team won, 79-76.

Nice try, Flip -- but I prefer to think of the two games as being similar to a movie's DVD that has special features, including an alternate ending.

You didn't like the ending of Game 1, when Cleveland's LeBron James passed the ball to Donyell Marshall for a potential game-winning three-pointer? Well, check out last night's alternate ending -- the one where James keeps the ball (Marshall was still lurking in the corner, a la Game 1) instead of kicking it out.

Happily for the Pistons, both endings resulted in them riding off into the sunset.

Now as for Cavaliers' coach Mike Brown blowing out an aorta after the no-call on James during his final move to the basket: chill -- there was no foul. I'm serious. I tried to find one, believe me. But the contact that occurred was nothing more than the usual incidental stuff that happens in an NBA playoff game in the paint. Now having said that, it might have been a foul in Cleveland -- but it would have been the wrong call. Brown's real outrage should be at Larry Hughes, who found a gift laid at his feet when Rasheed Wallace couldn't corral the rebound of James's shot, leaving Hughes with a wide-open 12-footer. His shot wasn't even close to going in.

Now a word about Wallace. It was so cathartic to hear what he said about Cleveland's Anderson Varejao's flopping. The most egregious of these unwarranted collapses onto the floor came late, when Wallace grabbed a pass and made a rather wild, turnaround jumper that put the Pistons up, 77-76. As Wallace took the pass, Varejao flew to the floor as if he'd stepped on a land mine.

After the game, Wallace bristled when it was suggested that he was having "battles" with Varejao up and down the court.

"That kid is too young to be having battles," Sheed said. "That flopping isn't playing defense. The league should make that flopping a technical foul next season. They've done a lot to give me technical fouls. I'm just glad we had veteran officials who could [recognize the flopping.]"

Hear, hear!

Of course, Brown had a hissy fit over that Wallace play/shot, and it happened right in front of him. So if he got that one wrong -- which he did -- then no wonder he was wrong about the LeBron no-call, which was some 70 feet away from him.

There has been the usual hand-wringing about the Pistons after these first two games against Cleveland. But unlike so many other occasions, this time the hand-wringing might be warranted. You could even say the Pistons hold a 2-0 lead yet trail the series.

"First one to 80 is going to win, it looks like," Saunders said.

Let's hope the Pistons don't find another alternate ending on that DVD. Time to rent another movie.

May I suggest "Waiting to Exhale"?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

When The Wings Needed Me, I Was AWOL

Shame on me, in the end.

I didn't watch much of the third period of last night's Game 6 of the NHL's Western Conference Finals. In fact, I watched about two seconds -- long enough for me to flip on the TV and see that the Red Wings were trailing, 4-2, with 4:45 left. Then I turned it off again.

I had watched just about all of the first period, and most of the second. After Anaheim took the 2-0 lead, our daughter bounded into the room and asked me, "Are you watching this?"

I thought for a moment and said, "No, honey, you can watch whatever you want." (She actually wanted the TV to play a video game).

And that was it for me, until I tuned in with that 4-2 score on the screen.

Why, I wonder.

Well, I don't take these playoff runs quite so seriously and personally as I used to. Back in the 1990s, especially pre-Stanley Cups, I was inconsolable if the Red Wings were losing a playoff game. If they had lost a game like Sunday's Game 5 I would have been chewing through wood. If they lost a SERIES? Pleeeease. Especially when, back then, the Wings were usually the better team getting upset. Remember Toronto in 1993? San-freaking Jose in 1994?

But now? It's more of a shrug. Maybe it's because this year, the Wings met my hopes -- the conference finals. Maybe three Cups since 1997 have satiated me. Maybe I'm just getting less passionate as I move steadily deeper into my 40s. Don't get me wrong -- I wanted the Wings to win. Badly. And I predicted that they would. But you know what? It's OK. I don't know why, but I'm OK with this. Now, maybe after tuning in to the Cup Finals, I might feel a little differently. But for the moment, I'm cool. Maybe even a tad relieved. Not sure.

The reason I say shame on me is because I purported to believing in these guys, yet I turned my back on them when they fell behind. It wasn't malicious or done out of spite, but I turned the game off. Actually, I think I was trying that old sports fan technique of turning off a game that's not going your team's way, in the hopes that when you flip it back on, things have gotten better. You all have done this -- admit it.

It was a two-goal deficit when I turned it off, and a two-goal deficit when I checked back in late in the third period. So needless to say, I missed the final, frantic minutes, when the Wings got within one goal and threw everything at the Ducks. I'm not sure if I should feel guilty about missing that, regretful, or fine. I know I definitely didn't want to see the Anaheim celebration or the post-series handshake. I only watch that if the Red Wings win. But in doing so, I missed out on the team's last-gasp effort. Still not sure how I feel about that, since I supposedly believed in them -- thinking that their destiny was NOT to lose this series.

Guess I'll have all summer to muse about it.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

James's Pass To Marshall The Right Move

Afterward, he said he'd do it again. In fact, his words suggested that anyone who thought his decision was wrong ought to take a refresher course on basketball.

And you know what? He's absolutely right.

Today the scuttlebutt is about LeBron James's decision to give the ball up and not take the potential game-tying shot in the closing seconds of last night's Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Instead, double-teamed, James kicked the ball out to Donyell Marshall, who missed a wide-open three-pointer. The Pistons won, 79-76.

"When you are double teamed and you have an open teammate, you pass the ball. Simple as that," James said.

Especially when the person you're passing it to is far from chopped liver. Yes, Marshall was quiet in Game 1 (he only made one field goal), but the guy is a proven outside shooter who knocked down plenty of triples in the New Jersey series, and did the same to the Pistons last year in Round Two. He was all by his lonesome when James found him in the corner. Marshall won't miss too many of those, when he's that uncontested.

But somehow he did, and that was pretty much the ballgame. A make there would have put the Cavs up by one point with less than 10 seconds remaining. Certainly not a guarantee for victory, but a lot better than being down three with less than three seconds left and no timeouts remaining, as the Cavs were after Chauncey Billups split two free throws.

Speaking of which, these Pistons have to squeeze every drop of drama out of the game's rag, don't they? Billups, nearly a 90% FT shooter, couldn't have just made both tosses and rendered the last seconds irrelevant. Noooo, he has to split them, giving the Cavs a speck of hope. You see weird things happen when a player chucks a ball 3/4 court toward the basket. Remember Rasheed Wallace against Denver in March?

But I digress. James's decision was proper. The guy was going for the win, on the road, and found a pretty darn good triple shooter all alone. And he says he'd do it again, and good for him. Being a great player isn't always about "taking the big shot" at the end of games. It's about putting your team in the best position to win. And if that means finding a wide open Donyell Marshall for a potential game-winning shot, then so be it.

I'm not just saying that because the Pistons won, either. This isn't the gloating of a person whose team was on the winning side because James passed the ball and his teammate missed a shot. Sooner or later others on the Cavaliers are going to have to come up big, so why not now? Marshall, I'm telling you, let the Pistons off the hook. He makes that shot most of the time.

The real head scratcher is James only taking three shots in the fourth quarter. I mean, let's not take this unselfish thing TOO far.

But as for the finish, the right decision was made. James hadn't attempted a FT all game. He almost certainly would have been fouled had he not passed the ball. Who's to say he could have drained both foul shots after playing 47 minutes without attempting a single one?

End of discussion. Let's talk about Game 2.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Despite The Captain's Assertion, Blown PP Chances Killed Wings In Game 5

Back in the good old days (last Wednesday morning, to be exact), with the Red Wings leading the Western Conference Finals, 2 games to 1, it was pointed out by the never-miss-a-trick writers that Anaheim Ducks forward Teemu Selanne had yet to get on the scoresheet.

What's wrong with Selanne, they wondered.

So here was Selanne, sitting in front of the media, trying to conceal the happy grin that comes with scoring an overtime game-winning goal -- the goal that put the Ducks up, 3-2 in the series. Selanne scored in Game 4, too -- perhaps awakened by the forces that say whenever a player is called out by the writers, he'll no doubt score in the next game.

"I was surprised to get the puck that open," Selanne said, describing his good fortune when Wings defenseman Andreas Lilja -- whose first playoff goal had given the Wings a 1-0 lead -- coughed up the puck deep in his own zone, leaving goalie Dominik Hasek helpless at the hands of an experienced scorer such as Selanne. Hasek went down, trying to deny Selanne as much net as possible, but the forward lifted a backhand over the sprawling netminder.

I asked him if it was a goal scorer's touch that enabled him to exhibit the patience that was needed to wait for Hasek to commit first.

"Everything happened so quickly," Selanne said. "You don't really have time to plan anything. But obviously over the years I have practiced that move so many times that it just came into my mind. I knew I had to get (the puck) upstairs because he (Hasek) goes down all the time and he covers all the bottom (of the net).

"It was great to see that go in."

Says him.

Earlier, Hasek had given me his version of the game-winner.

"I was waiting, waiting, for the shot or something, and he made a nice move. I think my glove was there but he put it up high over me. He's a skilled player, and he made a good move and a great backhand shot."

I had a sinking feeling that the Red Wings' inability to build on their 1-0 lead when they had power play after power play in the second period (and a couple more in the third) was going to haunt them. And I was right, although it took a fluke shot by Scott Niedermayer -- the puck went off Nick Lidstrom's stick and fluttered over Hasek's shoulder -- with just 48 seconds remaining in regulation to validate my fears.

Speaking of Lidstrom, the captain disagreed with me when I suggested that it was the second period -- post-Lilja goal -- with all of its PP time for Detroit but no goals, that may have been a key to the game's final outcome.

"No, we were still up 1-0. We were still leading the game," he said. "Even though you didn't score on the power play, you just have to take that momentum with you and continue to play strong. I thought we did that, too, even though we didn't score. We had some good chances on the five-on-five after."

Well, that may be so, but the Wings played six of the next ten minutes after Lilja's goal on the power play, including 36 seconds of a 5-on-3. They came up empty. And the way the Wings dominated, at least in terms of shots on goal, a 2-0 lead might have been insurmountable.

So what's it all about, Alfie? The Red Wings may have deserved a better fate in Game 5, but I thought the Ducks kinda did after Game 1. So those two games cancel each other out. The Red Wings dominated Game 3, and played well in Game 4. But so what? They are looking at a 3-2 series deficit, and all that matters is Game 6.

You'll hear it often -- the drum beat of "remember 2002". That's when the Colorado Avalanche won an OT game at the Joe in Game 5 of the conference finals, only to see Hasek stone them the rest of the way as Detroit won the series in seven. It's a typical case of holding on to history when it's to your benefit. Selective memory, let's call it. For the Wings lost Game 5s at home in 2004 and 2006, and went out in six games on both occasions.

But here's some not-so-selective memory: the Wings, as I wrote here last week, once again dropped a playoff OT game at home. For whatever reason, the Red Wings are awful in this department, and I have no explanation why. But the facts don't lie. This loss makes them unofficially something like 4-15 in their last 19 home OT playoff games. Unreal.

In case you happen to care, I'm still picking the Red Wings to win this series. There's just something about this group that makes me think losing this series isn't their destiny. But if they do lose, there'll be plenty of talk about the ineffectiveness of Robert Lang and Kyle Calder, the health of Todd Bertuzzi (and even Henrik Zetterberg), and the loss of Mathieu Schneider.

But I just think all that talk will be put on hold. Or rather, the talk will be there, but just not in the context of trying to explain away a Detroit playoff exit.

I think I may have found something that even Lidstrom would agree with me on.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Deetroit -- Sports City!

The “City of Champions”, they called us. It was an earned moniker – not something invented in a fit of boosterism or concocted by a marketing firm.

Pro football – conquered by the Detroit Lions, in a time when they played in silver-painted leather helmets. Hockey – ours, the Red Wings skating in much the same attire that they wear today. Baseball – on top of the world, the Tigers famously in the same creamy whites and Old English D as the modern ballplayer.

In the middle of a Great Depression, Detroit had three sports champions in her midst. It was circa 1935-36. The Lions, Red Wings, and Tigers all walked (and skated) away with the whole enchilada in their respective sports. And the boxer Joe Louis – Detroit’s own – wore a title belt in those days, too. City of Champions, indeed.

It’s not a fit of boosterism, or the concoction of a slick marketing genius, to suggest that we may now be returning to those glory days of some seven decades ago.

Today, there are again three teams cooking in town, all at once, just as there was when the heroes were Dutch Clark and Glenn Presnell, Charlie Gehringer and Hank Greenberg, and Syd Howe and Normie Smith.

Dutch Clark (top) wearing his retired #7; Syd Howe once scored six goals in one game for the Red Wings

The Pistons, Red Wings, and Tigers are making this city go daft. The Tigers are reigning American League champions. The Pistons and Red Wings currently toil in their conference finals – the Final Four of their sports. And all three are strong, serious contenders to go all the way.

I wonder sometimes if we truly appreciate and understand what it is that we’re experiencing right now. New York doesn’t have three teams with such high expectations. Chicago doesn’t. Los Angeles doesn’t. Nor does Houston. Or Denver. Or Atlanta.

But Detroit is awash with first place squads and deep playoff runs and painted faces and team slogans and jersey-wearing fans. It’s a city that heaves and exhales with every ebb and flow that playoff competition produces. It’s a time when Saturday can mean the Red Wings and Tigers in the afternoon, and the Pistons in the evening. Or vice-versa. The bloggers can’t type fast enough; the callers to sports talk radio are at the peak of their schizophrenia.

A couple weeks ago, driving home from a Red Wings playoff game, I heard a cranky, pessimistic fan of the Pistons on one of the radio’s blabbermouth shows. He was unhappy about coach Flip Saunders’s rotation, his coaching decisions, the team’s play. He couldn’t be consoled by the exasperated host. And this not more than an hour after the Pistons completed a sweep of the Orlando Magic. I can’t imagine that poor fan after the Pistons lost a couple to the Bulls last week.

The peaks and valleys that go with all this hysteria are quite fascinating. The Red Wings, if you choose to recall, were 33 seconds away from trailing the San Jose Sharks, 3-1, in their conference semifinals series. But then Robert Lang, a frequent target of the hand-wringers, snapped a shot thru Sharks goalie Evgeni Nabokov’s pads, and the Red Wings went on to win in overtime. Just like that, the series was tied. A couple games later, the series was over.

There are people who watch sports with a decidedly objective eye. They are the ones who take the big block of facts and statistics and with their sharp chisel, break it down into bite-sized nuggets. They use formulas and precedent and tell us what we can all expect, according to their unbiased views. The fact that they are often about as right as a broken clock matters not, for they are the experts.

These experts are already saying, with about 25% of the baseball season played, that the Detroit Tigers, once they return to good health, will be a likely representative of the American League in the 2007 World Series. The non-biased experts of hockey peg the Red Wings as likely Stanley Cup champions. And in basketball, the Pistons are starting to convert some who would anoint any Western Conference team the champion over any team in the East.

City of Champions, if you add it all up.

I did a little research. After those high-stepping days of 1935-36, there hasn’t been a time when three of Detroit’s teams could call themselves legitimate championship material. The closest, I suppose, was in 1987, when the Red Wings and Pistons each made the conference finals, and the Tigers won their division. But the Red Wings were an overachieving team that finished below .500 in the regular season. The unbiased folks didn’t figure them as Cup contenders.

This is a grand time to be a Detroit sports fan. Two teams making a late-spring assault to be crowned champions in June. A third gearing up for what should be another fun summer, the spoils of the fall awaiting them – if the unbiased ones have gotten it right. But do we truly appreciate it?

I think it’s something that you look back on and remember fondly, more than you reflect on it while it’s happening. There’s no time to stop and smell the roses now. We’re in such a hurry and
things are so frenetic right now, we’re likely to get jabbed by the thorns, anyway.

If you’re an old-timer like me, you remember the vast wasteland of the 1970s that was Detroit sports. You remember when the Red Wings were called the Dead Things, and existed under Darkness With Harkness. You remember when the Pistons lost 66 games in 1979-80 thanks to the ruins left by Hurricane Vitale. You remember when the Tigers lost 19 in a row in 1975. Back then, the notion of those three teams contending for anything other than court jester was a mere fantasy. We’d have given them a parade down Woodward Avenue for finishing .500, for goodness sakes.

Speaking of parades, they say everyone loves one.

So just think how crazy they’ll go for three.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Rod Marinelli: A Coach Who Can't Contain Himself

With the Pistons moving on and the Red Wings in a 2-2 standoff with the Anaheim Ducks, I thought this might be a good time to interrupt your regularly scheduled playoff posts and present to you, as a form of light entertainment fare, those wacky Detroit Lions.

Well, maybe not so wacky, if you listen to coach Rod Marinelli.

"I just have great expectations," the Rock Pounder mused yesterday to reporters as the team wrapped up their three-day minicamp. The superlatives rolled off his tongue like an opponent pass rusher off a Lions offensive lineman.

"I just believe in this team -- a lot... This is going to be a very good team...It's what I see. I'm out here, I look, I see it, and I believe it....I've got great expectations for this team. I like the way they're working. You're seeing what I'm seeing. It's fast and explosive."

So when do playoff tickets go on sale?

Now, the fruit salad that Marinelli is excreting doesn't annoy me so much because I get the feeling that if things weren't going so well, we'd hear about that, too. The coach has never struck me as much of a snake oil salesman, like so many of his predecessors. So it's nice, I suppose, to hear about the love-in going on in Allen Park. Heck, there was even a photo the other day of defensive tackle Shaun Rogers SMILING -- laughing, actually -- with Marinelli. And Rogers spoke a bit, too -- quite positively, I might add.

A couple months ago I spoke to QB Jon Kitna over the telephone for a brief Q&A for my former gig, and I asked him to complete this sentence: In 2007, I promise the Detroit Lions fans _______.

He didn't hesitate for long before he filled in the blank.

"In 2007, I promise the Detroit Lions fans that we'll win at least 10 games," Kitna said. I reminded him that this was one of those Q&A's that actually finds its way into print, in front of real, live eyeballs attached to real, live Lions fans.

"That doesn't scare me one bit," Kitna said.

Kitna was one of those who Marinelli praised this week. Must be for his positive outlook, if nothing else.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Note To Red Wings: Save OT For The Road

It started, as far back as I can remember, with a goal by a defenseman with a broken ankle. And it continues today, with a goal by a brother Niedermayer.

If the Red Wings hope to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals, then win the darn thing, then they'd better do it without having to rely on winning an overtime game at home -- because they stink at that.

Overtime games on the road? Not so bad. But when it comes to playoff OT's as the home team, the Red Wings have been miserable, for whatever reason.

There was the goal, way back in 1964, by Toronto defenseman Bobby Baun (later a Red Wing), which broke Red Wings' fans hearts, but not before Baun broke his ankle. It came in Game 6 of the Finals, the Wings leading the series 3-2 and poised to win their first Cup since 1955.

Baun, a stay-at-home defenseman who had suffered an ankle injury so serious that it was later determined to have been broken, wristed a shot from the point that somehow slipped past Terry Sawchuck in overtime, giving the Leafs a 4-3 win and enabling them to send the series back to Toronto. The Leafs won Game 7, denying the Wings the Cup.

Two years later, in the '66 Finals, Montreal's Henri Richard and Detroit's Gary Bergman -- and the puck -- all slid ominously toward Red Wings goalie Roger Crozier in overtime of Game 6 at Olympia. The two players crashed into Crozier, and the puck dribbled into the net with them. Game, series, and Cup to the Canadiens. Till the day he died, Bergman insisted Richard illegally guided the puck into the net.

I can recall a lot more.

There were two OT losses to St. Louis at JLA in 1984 (one of which I attended). There was Eddie Olczyk keeping the underdog Leafs alive with a game-winner in 1988 (the Wings won Game 6 in Toronto). There was a Jari Kurri dagger for the Oilers in '88. The Leafs struck again in Game 7 in 1993 -- Nikolai Boreschevski. The Avalanche grabbed Game 1 of the '96 Western Finals -- Mike Keane.

Want me to go on?

Bobby Baun -- the man who started it all.

Even in 2002, when the Wings won the Cup, there were a couple more OT losses at home. The Avs got them in Game 5 of the Western Finals, and the Hurricanes stole Game 1 of the Finals on an early Ron Francis game-winner.

This year, of course, there was Scott Niedermayer's winner in Game 2 on Sunday.

My unofficial tally is something like four wins against 14 losses in playoff overtimes at home, beginning with Baun's stunner in 1964. The wins? There was a Slava Kozlov goal to oust the Blackhawks in 1995's conference final. Steve Yzerman's now classic slapper to win Game 7 of the 1996 conference semis. Kris Draper's goal to cap a thrilling comeback in Game 2 of the 1998 Cup Finals. And last year, when the Wings won Game 1 against Edmonton (I forgot who scored).

It's a miserable record, and one that I've been aware of ever since the early-1990s. There may be more losses than I can remember, but I know there aren't any more wins. That's why I'm always more confident when the Red Wings play an OT game on the road. Their record in such contests ain't too bad.

I remember Sergei Fedorov keeping the Wings alive with a winner in Game 6 against the (then) Minnesota North Stars in 1992. Vladimir Konstantinov floated one past Ed Belfour to beat the Blackhawks in Chicago in 1995. Brendan Shanahan winning a game in Anaheim in '97, and in St. Louis in '98. Fredrick Olausson beating Patty Roy to win Game 3 of the conference finals in 2002. And others, probably -- plus this year's OT triumphs in Calgary (Johan Franzen) and in San Jose (Mathieu Schneider).

So now you know -- in case you haven't been keeping track. If it seems like the Red Wings are always coming out on the losing end of OT playoff games at home, it's because they are -- about 85% of the time.

You think the league would allow the teams to switch jersey colors the next time JLA sees an OT playoff game?

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Someday We'll Laugh ... Or Cry

You ever do something dumb, or experience something embarrassing, and think aloud, "Well, we'll laugh about this someday"?

I hope what the Pistons are currently doing will fall into that category, when they dispose of the suddenly pesky Chicago Bulls in this Eastern Conference semifinal, which they now lead, 3-2, thanks to two straight losses.

Maybe when they're bouncing basketballs at a morning shootaround during the NBA Finals, or squinting thru the confetti on a sunny June day on Woodward Avenue, the Pistons will look back on this strange series with the Bulls and laugh about it. Or at least grin sardonically. But that's then. This is now.

The Bulls blew the Pistons to kingdome come in Game 5 at the Palace, shooting a percentage that Pistons coach Flip Saunders called "demoralizing." Chicago was still around 70% in made shots in the third quarter. That's usually not a basketball shooting percentage, that's how much gas prices have risen in the past 18 months.

But seriously, folks... This is a series, and while the Pistons, Bulls, and anyone else who has cared a hill of beans for this matchup don't believe Chicago's basketball team can shoot anywhere near this proficiently in Game 6, it nonetheless gives some (and they would be Pistons fans) ghoulish thoughts that all start with "What if..."

What if the Pistons lose Game 6? Wouldn't they have lost all control?

What if the Bulls DO shoot that well again?

What if, gulp, the Pistons become the first team in NBA history to blow a 3-0 lead in a series?

OK, so maybe that last one is pretty much the ONLY "What if" that truly matters. It still seems unfathomable that the Pistons could lose four straight, but isn't that what fans of the 1942 Red Wings said about the Maple Leafs, and what fans of the 1975 Penguins said about the New York Islanders? Or, hey -- how about the 2004 Yankees and the Red Sox?

Over in the NHL Eastern Conference Finals, Sabres coach Lindy Ruff said this about about his team's situation, down 0-3 to the Ottawa Senators: "These things (coming back from 0-3) have happened in our league about every 33 years. And we're about at that 33-year mark."

Interesting take on it. But Ruff wasn't talking about the Pistons-Bulls series.

I mean, he wasn't, was he?

FUN FACT: While checking facts for this post, I decided to find out by what scores the 1975 Islanders, who were just in their third year of existence, dismantled the Penguins to win that series after falling behind 0-3. Then I learned something interesting: the Islanders did the very same thing in the next round, too -- but couldn't quite get over the hump.

They fell behind 0-3 to the eventual Cup champion Philadelphia Flyers, then won Game 4. And Game 5. And Game 6. But they finally bowed in Game 7 after giving the Flyers a scare. The Islanders came one win from appearing in the Finals in Year Three for them.

Those '75 Finals, by the way, featuring the Flyers and Buffalo Sabres, were the first ones to feature two post-expansion teams. It was also the Finals that boasted the famous "Fog Game" in Buffalo. I remember the players being told to skate aorund the ice as much as possible to try to rid the Auditorium of a fog brought on by warm conditions outside and high humidity inside.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Mitch Albom: Yet Another Reason Why He's Annoying

The Pistons had won their first seven playoff games, including a monumental comeback in Game 3 of their conference semifinals series against the Bulls on Thursday night. They were exhibiting the sort of skill and moxie that you need to scale Mt. NBA and win a ring. They were "locked in", that now overused term. They had "focus," another tired word.

But then, according to Mitch Albom in today's Free Press, the Pistons dared to lose a game. And Mitch had a fit, wailing about the Pistons in a column awash with Chicken Little and gnashing of teeth.

This is one of the easiest posts for me to write, because I don't have to write it. I'll just use the magic of cut-and-paste to show you how horrifically Albom is taking the Pistons' 102-87 Game 4 loss to the Bulls, nibbling their lead in the series to 3-1.

"They are on borrowed time now, these Pistons; they are borrowing it from themselves. Every quarter they extend this series is a quarter they should be saving for the next one. Every minute they play these Bulls is a minute they should be resting up for someone else."

Wow. Has anyone told Mitch that even the greatest NBA teams don't go 16-0 in winning a championship?

"But the Pistons left it there. Then they gave it back. They gave it back with loose passes, weak rebounding, foul trouble, average defense, bad shot selection, several missing-in-action players, and a light-on-the-gas-pedal effort that is uncharacteristic of how they've played all postseason."

Yeah, they had a bad game -- their first, really, in eight playoff games. And the 67-15 Dallas Mavericks are watching the proceedings at home. Have been for a week or so.

"In the locker room afterward, Rasheed (Wallace) kept coming back to an iPod speaker and blasting the volume, making it impossible to hear or talk. When a staff member turned it down, he re-appeared and turned it up again, picking songs that suited him. If he'd shown that much attention to detail on the court, the Pistons might be sleeping in this morning."

Well. Blaming the loss on Sheed, huh? What about the previously highlighted paragraph, where Albom seemed to insinuate there was enough blame to go around? So he sees Wallace do something he probably does in the locker room after wins, also, and tries to make a correlation between that -- which has nothing to do with basketball -- and the symptoms of the Pistons' first loss of the playoffs?

"The Bulls had a white flag. But the Pistons had one, too."

Hmmmm. The Pistons were down by 23 points in the third quarter and sliced it to seven points late in the fourth quarter. Yeah -- they sure waved a white flag!

"Every game against the Bulls is now a game the Pistons didn't need to play. Every minute is a minute extended. Every muscle strain or injury is one that didn't have to happen."

Hey, didn't he already say this, earlier in the column? Need to make word count, Mitch?

"No one expected perfection. "

Could have fooled me, Mitch.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Chelios, Hasek Keep Sipping From That Fountain Of Youth

Maybe they keep it in the training room, out of sight from the interlopers and ink-stained wretches. Maybe its elixir is blended in with the Gatorade and water bottles, to be surreptitiously consumed without causing a stir.

All I know is, I couldn’t find any sort of fountain of youth inside the Red Wings dressing room Friday night after their 2-1, Game 1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals. Nor could I find it in the second round against San Jose, or in the first round against Calgary.

But surely something must be being sipped from somewhere, for the Red Wings are now off on a deep playoff run that is being led by a 45-year-old defenseman and a 42-year-old goaltender. The two of them were the best players on the ice for Detroit against the Ducks, and now that I think about it, you can pretty much say that for just about every one of the 13 playoff games the Red Wings have played this spring.

Dominik Hasek, the 42-year-old goalie, has been described with such unflattering words as “strange” and “weird.” The most friendly has been “quirky.” And I’d like to use those words, too – as in, Don’t you find it strange and weird that a goaltender of his age can be playing as if he’s trying to get the Vezina Trophy renamed after himself?

Chris Chelios, the 45-year-old defenseman, has been described with such unflattering words as “grouchy” and “abrasive.” And that’s by his own teammates. So how about this? The Red Wings’ opponents have been made grouchy by Chelios’ abrasive play this postseason.

Will these 2002 scenes be repeated this June?

Friday night against the Ducks, it was Hasek stonewalling the Anaheim shooters, and Chelios thwacking the puck away, sacrificing his sauna-rejuvenated body for the good of the team.

You want numbers instead of prose? Hasek gave up a goal in Game 1, early in the third period. It was the only puck he’s let by in his last 175 minutes of work. I’ll save you the calculations. That’s a goals-against average that looks more like a carpenter’s measurement: 0.34. That puts Georges Vezina, after whom the NHL’s best goalie award is named, to shame.

You want examples instead of words? Chelios got crunched at the blue line in a vicious collision with a Duck player. For a moment he was still, on the ice. Then he was up, readjusting his helmet, and was ready to stay out there, except it was time for a line change. On another occasion, there was a rough scrum in front of the Detroit net. Bodies spilled and piled on top of each other like a bag of toy soldiers being dumped onto the floor. It took several moments to break everything up. The man on the bottom of the pile? Chelios. He readjusted his helmet and stayed out there. No line change this time.

“He looks real fresh out there,” captain Nick Lidstrom, a mere child at age 36, said when I asked him if this playoff performance was some of the best hockey he’s seen Chris Chelios play in recent memory. “He doesn’t look tired at all. He’s playing a lot more minutes than he did during the regular season. And he’s playing well.

“He’s a warrior. I think everyone feeds off him, the [way he plays on the ice].”

I used to say that the job that should have been performed with a mask and a gun was that of running backs coach when Barry Sanders played for the Lions. I’d like to update that. The Red Wings actually have a goaltenders coach. But I saw no mask and gun in sight when I tracked down Jim Bedard and asked him, basically, “How do you coach this Dom Hasek guy?”

“You know, I get that question about three times per day,” Bedard told me, and for his sake I hope it’s never his bosses who are asking him that. “You really don’t coach these guys at this level. My job is to keep them game-ready and to keep them comfortable, so that I know what kind of workload he (Hasek) wants at certain times of the season.”

Bedard was the goalie coach in 2002, when Hasek led the Wings to the Stanley Cup. Is he as locked in now as he was then?

“I think Dom is just really enjoying the game,” Bedard said. “He enjoys this team, he enjoys this room. And you have guys like [Chelios] who’s 45 and who’s just battling his rear end off day after day. I think Dom is just having fun.

“When he gets scored on, he takes it personally.”

With one goal allowed in almost three games’ worth of minutes, then I suppose Hasek hasn’t felt offended much lately.

The Ducks’ game plan appears to be to be physical, particularly in creating traffic in front of the net and occasionally taking liberties with Hasek.

“I think they were a little dirty sometimes. Twice I get an elbow. But I didn’t pay attention to it. All I was focused on was the puck and stopping the puck and that’s what I did pretty good today.”

Right now, hearing Dominik Hasek saying he’s playing “pretty good” is like having Albert Einstein tell you he was “pretty clever” when he came up with that theory of relativity thing.

And there’s a reason there aren’t any quotes from Chelios here. He likes to take saunas after every game, and was awash in steam long after the locker room had cleared out. Jerry Green of the Detroit News and I waited for him. And waited. Finally I spotted Chelios walking from the weight room to the training room.

“Chelly! When are you coming out?,” I called.


What was that about grouchy and abrasive?

Maybe he just wanted some more time in the fountain, er, sauna of youth.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Pronger's Duress In '98 Still Burns In My Memory

It happened about nine years ago, and it scared the bejeebers out of me.

Chris Pronger -- tall, young, brick wall of a defenseman, was down on the ice, his eyes rolled back into his head, having collapsed after doing a grotesque little pirouette, his birch tree trunk-like legs suddenly turned to cooked spaghetti.

The affliction was a shot puck, and it had struck Pronger, then 23, square in the chest. Normally not a terrible thing, but this puck caught Pronger just the right (wrong?) way, temporarily jarring his heart, they said. He stayed on his feet for a few seconds, then did the pirouette before crumbling.

It was during the Western Conference semifinals at Joe Louis Arena, when Pronger's Blues battled the Red Wings in 1998. I forget which game it was, but I think it was one of the first two played in Detroit. Pronger had gotten his big chest in the way of the puck, and you wouldn't have thought it could have caused such a horrific physical reaction, but it did.

Pronger gave us a scare in 1998

The JLA crowd went hushed. We'd been used to this sort of thing before in Detroit, but always on the football field. Chuck Hughes. Mike Utley. Reggie Brown. The usual feelings of dread and the sight of players from both teams joining hands in prayer. The sounds of pins dropping.

But this was the first time, that I knew of, it ever happened on the ice. Medical staff tended to Pronger while those of us at home were subjected to one television replay after another as the announcers tried to determine how such a relatively routine instance could cause such duress.

The scariest part, to me, was when I caught, on the replays, Pronger's eyes rolling back. I'd never seen an athlete go like that before, and I hope I never do again. It was impossible not to think of the worst. Then it dawned on me that you read about these things from time to time -- but usually it's a little leaguer, his small chest struck by a pitched or batted baseball. Sometimes the worst happened there, too.

Turned out Pronger was fine, though I can't remember if he returned later in the series or not (the Wings won, 4 games to 2). But not before he gave us all a scare.

Today Pronger is 32 and is rightfully one of the finalists for the Norris Trophy, along with his teammate, Scott Niedermayer. He's still big, still like a brick wall, but now with experience and a few more scars. And he'll be more than a handful for the Red Wings forwards in the conference finals, which get underway tonight at JLA.

I've never been able to watch Pronger play without thinking back to that scary afternoon at the Joe nine springs ago. Thankfully he recovered and showed no ill-effects from the puck to the chest. No Jiri Fischer, he. Good for him. Good for hockey.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Bulls' Time Is Near, But Not Here Yet

Perhaps their day will come -- next year, the year after that. Perhaps they'll be the new beasts of the East, and perhaps they'll start hanging banners from the United Center rafters once more -- and ones that can be hoisted with no thanks to the most famous alumnus from the University of North Carolina.


But not this year. Now way, no how. These Chicago Baby Bulls aren't there yet -- and I'd say that even if the Pistons had squeaked by with close victories in Games 1 and 2 of their conference semifinal series, instead of two blowouts totalling 47 points in margin. Heck, I'd say it even if the Bulls had managed a split in Detroit.

The Bulls are a fine team -- let's get that straight right now. I'm putting them, right now, somewhere between the 1989 team that stretched the Pistons to six games in the conference finals, and the 1990 squad that forced a game seven in Auburn Hills (thanks to Scotty Pippen, otherwise known as the Migraine Heard 'Round the World).

So does this mean Pistons in six-and-a-half games?

No, but in terms of their maturity as contenders and their pugnaciousness, that's where I feel the 2007 Bulls are. Hence the feeling that 2008 could be their year. Or 2009.

But one thing is for certain, and this is something that is not the bi-product of the 20/20 vision that is hindsight: the Bulls were certainly not a Ben Wallace away from winning the whole kit-and-kaboodle, when they signed the center to a fat contract last July. I never believed it then, and I don't believe it now. Nor will I ever believe it. The Bulls are finding out what the Pistons discovered last spring: that there has to be some low post scoring to counter the defensive prowess from your center man.

Wallace needs help if Bulls are going to take the next step

But the Bulls are also finding something else out: the ascent from first-round KO to the land of milk and honey is rarely made in one fell swoop. And when you add in the little factoid that the Bulls are in the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 1998, then that ascension is even more difficult to make in just 12 months.

Last season the Bulls couldn't get out of the first round. No great crime in that, especially considering that the team that drummed them out went on to win the championship. But it's a bit much to think they can now springboard to a berth in the conference finals, when they're only just beginning to hone their playoff skills. Especially against a team as experienced, deep, and focused as the Pistons.

I have no idea what the Bulls are going to do with Wallace for the duration of his contract. He needs some help down low. On too many nights Big Ben proves the adage: Any team that employs Ben Wallace as its starting center will have to learn to play four-on-five, offensively. And that isn't always neutralized by the occasional feeling that you're playing six-on-five, defensively, when Wallace patrols the paint.

Pistons coach Flip Saunders recently called Wallace the best weak side, help-out defender in NBA history. That can give you that 6-on-5 effect.

But Ben wasn't the missing piece, and that shouldn't surprise anyone. If it does so to the folks in the offices at the United Center, then shame on them.

Meanwhile, the Bulls will continue to get a playoff lesson in this series -- one that they just might use to vanquish their professors in the near future. This year. The year after.

Wouldn't be all that surprising. If they get some more help -- and if the Wallace contract leaves them with any money to do so.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Update: The Straightaway

Tuesday's feature, "The Straightaway," featuring NASCAR commentary from Siddy Hall, will return next Tuesday.

TWO Parades? Why Not?

It's never happened, in case you were wondering, at least not in the modern era.

Never has a city's NHL and NBA teams celebrated world championships in the same year. Part of this phenomenon is because of dynasties. In the NBA, when the Celtics were dominant in the 1960s and semi-dominant in the 1980s, the NHL's Bruins were either lousy (1960s) or not quite good enough (1980s). The Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders, and Edmonton Oilers, between them, won all but one Stanley Cup in the years from 1976 to 1990. No NBA teams in Montreal or Edmonton, and no Knicks championships in that time.

I may have just put the kiss of death on things, but I think it's worth chattering about now, with the Red Wings halfway to their 11th Cup and the Pistons halfway to being halfway to their fourth NBA title.

What if, indeed?

Detroit parties in 1935, after the Tigers' World Series triumph

The Stanley Cup figures to be awarded sometime in the first week of June. The Larry O'Brien Trophy, about a week or two later. (Of course, the way the NBA drags out its playoffs, we might see the Larry sharing air time with MLB's All-Star Game. Did you notice the Nets and Cavaliers played Game 2 last night and don't play Game 3 until Saturday? Jeezalou!). So wouldn't it be something if Woodward Avenue got quite a going over next month?

I've been trying not to think of such possibilities, but with each playoff round Dominik Hasek wins (he's 6-0 as a Red Wing in playoff series) and with each convincing victory the Pistons rack up in their 6-0 postseason, it's becoming harder to shove those thoughts aside. And I would wager that the same folks who are lambasting me now for putting the jinx on our teams are the same ones who are just too chicken to throw it out there for public consumption.

So let's talk about it.

Why not harbor such ideas? Is it so unlikely that the Wings and the Pistons could both walk away as champions? Would it be so terribly shocking -- especially with the 67-win Mavericks out of the way?

You know you've thought about it -- admit it. And not just in a passing, idle moment. You've wondered how this city would react if the unprecedented were to happen.

Could we handle it?

I mean, would it be too much? Sensory overload? Confetti contamination? Open car syndrome?

Yeah, yeah -- neither team ain't won nothing yet. I get it.

But you're thinking about it -- I know you are.

How can you not?

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Samuelsson Awakens? I'll Take The Credit, Thank You

You can give me the credit for the Red Wings' 2-0 dismissal of the San Jose Sharks last night. Actually, you can give me credit for just Mikael Samuelsson's breakout if you wish, but doing so is tantamount to giving me credit for most of the game.

I was sitting in the press box Saturday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena, watching the Game 5 struggle, when I saw Samuelsson on the point on yet another power play. And it occurred to me that #37 hadn't done much, in my non-qualified mind, to earn so much PP time.

"Why does (coach Mike) Babcock keep putting Samuelsson on the point?," I asked to myself. "He hasn't DONE anything."

A few minutes later, Samuelsson proved why I'm in the press box writing about those who make the decisions on the ice, instead of being one of the actual decision makers.

Samuelsson scored on a one-timer snapshot on a -- ahem -- power play, and the Wings had a 3-1 lead 3:46 into the third period. It gave the Wings, finally, that elusive two-goal lead they had never experienced to that point.

And you know what Sammy did last night -- scoring both goals a few minutes apart late in the first period, lifting Detroit to the series victory.

Sammy came through -- with an assist from me

I'm convinced none of this would have happened had I not asked that question to myself.

"Why does Babcock have Samuelsson out there?"

Maybe I should start asking why the coach has Kyle Calder out there. But that's another post.

By the way, if it looks like goalie Dominik Hasek is playing like a man possessed, or on a mission, or both, it's because it's true -- at least the mission part.

Before the playoffs even began, I asked Hasek why he decided to come back after one year of retirement (in 2003), and what a Stanley Cup would mean to him at this stage of his career. Remember, this is a man who quit the game in 2002 because there was supposedly no more dragons to slay -- he being a Cup winner and an Olympic gold medalist.

"I wanted to see if I could do it again," he said about the comeback from retirement. "You don't know when you're going to get another chance to win the Stanley Cup. You have (Chris) Chelios 45, me 42 ... I was just glad to have the opportunity to win it again, and now here I am."

As for what it would mean to him to hoist another Cup, Hasek just paused, grinned, and shook his head.

"The Stanley Cup," he said, "is the ultimate trophy in hockey."

He didn't elaborate. He didn't have to.

Monday, May 07, 2007

How To Succeed In The Playoffs Without Really Trying

If you were to create a recipe for leading a playoff hockey series 3-2 after five games, it's doubtful that you would include these ingredients:

*Fall behind 2-0 in three of the games
*Rarely play with the lead in the first four games
*Score first in just one of the five games
*Be trailing by a goal with under a minute to go in Game 4 when you're already trailing the series, 2-1

"I don't know what's going on with that," the Red Wings' Tomas Homstrom said when I suggested the team was working with a strange battle plan for success, following Detroit's 4-1 win Saturday over San Jose in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. "That's not how we want to play."

"Well, we've gotten some breaks," captain Nick Lidstrom said. "But we've been sticking to our game plan, even though we've been down in games. We haven't changed our plan, or tried to make too much out of it ... and it's been working for us."

So despite all of the strange ingredients, the Wings are poised to move on. But does the "game plan" that Lidstrom speaks of change at all, now that Detroit plays with the advantage in games for the first time in this series? Not really, he says.

But ...

"I think them being down, they're going to be coming out with their best effort," Lidstrom said of the Sharks. "Especially playing at home ... they're going to be desperate. I think they're going to throw everything at us.

"And the deeper you get into a series, the tougher the wins get," Lidstrom continued. "That's just something we have to be up for come Monday (for Game 6)."

It was pointed out during the radio postgame show that the momentum of the series shifted when Holmstrom batted a puck out of the air and into the Sharks' net, a power play goal in the final seconds of the second period of Game 4, cutting the Red Wings' deficit to 2-1. I'd say that's pretty spot on. The Wings have outscored the Sharks 6-1 since then. But you could go back even further, to when Holmstrom simply stepped onto the ice for pregame warmups -- his first action in the series since suffering an eyelid injury against Calgary.

"He (Holmstrom) means a lot," Henrik Zetterberg said of #96. "Especially on the power play. He's so good in front of the net and making it tough for (SJ goalie Evgeni) Nabokov, and making plays."

The "Action Line" of Zetterberg, Holmstrom, and Pavel Datsyuk combined for three goals and five assists in Game 5. Each scored a goal.

Oh, and as for that strange recipe? At least one Red Wing would like to scratch out one ingredient.

"I'd like to not make any more mistakes in the first period," goalie Dominik Hasek said, on a day where he gave up a fluke goal for the second straight home game, putting his team behind the eight-ball.

"But," he added, "a win is a win. It doesn't matter how you get it."

And the Wings have gotten three of them in this series, leaving the Sharks going back to the cupboard, er, chalkboard.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

In The Playoffs, The Best Games Are Played In The Head

The opposing hockey team walked into their locker room inside Joe Louis Arena, their first day in town to prepare for a playoff series against the Red Wings. The first thing that greeted them was the smell, followed shortly by the visual.

The smell was of freshly applied paint on the walls of their digs. The visual was the color of the paint.


On another occasion, in another playoff year, the visitors and their coach noticed something amiss about their bench area. Specifically, the bench itself.

It was short, by several inches. Not long enough to accommodate all of their hockey playing fannies.

The artisan of both of these incidents was the noted mental prankster, and former coach of the Red Wings, Scotty Bowman.

He had an opponent’s locker room painted pink, it was presumed, because it would subconsciously make the opponent a little less tough. Prissy hockey players are easier to shove around.

The bench was sawed short because it would make the coziness of the players a little too uncomfortable

Of course, Bowman never admitted to such shenanigans. But he was the master of the head game. In fact, he usually reserved most of his nefarious ways for his own players. It led to a storied line by one of his Montreal alums.

“For 364 days of the year, you can’t stand him,” the player said, “and on the 365th, you hoist the Stanley Cup.”

Few played head games better than Bowman

I thought of Bowman and some of his antics when I read a revelation printed in the Free Press Friday – Drew Sharp’s retrospective of the great Pistons-Bulls rivalry in the late-1980s and early-1990s.

To me, it was a bombshell, but it wasn’t accorded bombshell space.

When the Pistons duked it out with the Bulls and Michael Jordan in some of the nastiest, most brutal, angriest playoff games I’ve ever seen, the matchup was billed as the Detroit team against the Bulls’ superstar and his “Jordannaires.” And how the Pistons planned on containing the superstar Jordan became a sketchy strategy supposedly hashed out in a sweaty locker room on a chalkboard by their well-coiffed coach.

Chuck Daly had a plan. It was foolproof, gathered and formulated sometime between trips to the tailor to pick up his exquisite suits, presumably.

The strategy had a name: The Jordan Rules.

The Pistons leaked it, and the press pounced. The desired effect. The Pistons had a secret plan to contain Michael Jordan! The Jordan Rules!

Apparently nobody noticed the twinkle in Daly’s eye, nor in his players’.

The Jordan Rules, it was revealed by Sharp in his discussions with former Pistons for his piece, were nonexistent. A complete falsehood. Totally made up.

Here’s Bad Boy Rick Mahorn:

“We were just throwing stuff out there for (the media). It was just a joke. Chuck throws it out there that we had some secret plan to stop Jordan, and everybody just jumped on it … Isiah (Thomas) told us that we had gotten in their (the Bulls’) heads, and that’s how we had them beat.”

And longtime trainer Mike Abdenour:

“You talk about the prince of disinformation? Chuck Daly threw a whole lot of nonsense out there that didn’t exist. That should have gone down as one of the greatest fakes of all time.”

"If anyone asks, we have a plan to stop Jordan"

Daly wasn’t interviewed for Sharp’s piece. But judging from the comments of Mahorn and Abdenour, it hardly seems necessary.

The Pistons used the nonexistent Jordan Rules to bump the Bulls out of the playoffs in three consecutive years (1988-90), a time they spent comfortably ensconced in the Bulls’ craniums.

The Pistons’ supremacy over the Bulls was on the heels of their inferiority complex against the Boston Celtics. For a few years the Celtics planted shamrocks inside the Pistons’ cerebellum.

It started with the dingy, old Boston Garden. There were basketball leprechauns that inhabited the creaky arena, according to lore. Supposedly inside the Garden – some imagined and others documented – were dead spots on the floor where the basketball didn’t always bounce so good; rats in the visitor’s locker room; cold water in the showers; and a climate that was controlled to the point where the visitors suffered through temperatures that were always a few degrees higher than what the Celtics existed in.

“When you beat the Celtics, you have to beat more than just a basketball team,” Thomas said back in the day of trying to exorcise the Beantown hardcourt demons. “You have to beat the mentality that they’re not supposed to lose.”

Years later, players like Kevin McHale and Larry Bird, Pistons tormentors par excellence, scoffed at the notion of dead spots on the floor and a “Celtic Mystique.”

“As if we would know where to bounce a basketball, and where to steer our opponents to do so,” one of them said in so many words. That’s logic talking, but logic has no place when you are conducting head games. Daly’s Jordan Rules, once upon a time, seemed logical. And effective. Effectively logical. Or logically effective.

I thought the news of Daly’s hoax, nearly 20 years after the fact, was rich. And it brought up memories of Bowman and his antics.

Today the Red Wings are in a tussle with the San Jose Sharks in the second round of their playoffs. It’s been suggested that the Red Wings have taken up residence in a portion of the Sharks’ skulls, due to the fact that in all three of their victories of the 3-2 series, the Detroiters fell behind, only to come back to win.

“You guys are looking for way too much crap out there other than just saying there’s two very good teams playing a great series,” Sharks coach Ron Wilson said between Games 4 and 5, bristling at the suggestion of head games.

How dare he think so logically at a time like this?

Friday, May 04, 2007

Lunch With A Side Order Of Precociousness

This has nothing to do with sports, per se, but I just have to mention something -- and some nifty kids.

Yesterday I was covering a career focus luncheon in Sterling Heights for one of my freelance gigs, Biz X Magazine. It was at Penna's on Van Dyke. The focus, in this instance, was today's sixth grader. And there were nearly 1,000 of them, seated at over 100 tables. I was at table #73, sitting with nine sixth graders from Oakbrook Elementary school in Sterling Heights.

The pleasure was all mine, believe me.

They were very courteous, and asked me several questions about writing as a career. They appeared fascinated when I told them I could get into games for free and sit in the press box. They wondered if I had any relationships with the players. They asked me what I would be doing if I wasn't a writer. All of their queries were on point and their interest in my answers was sincere.

But best of all, they bore gifts. Their class project was to make up pretend resumes and biographies and business cards, projecting what they would be doing by age 28. And they handed their stuff to me, one by one, as I looked at the proposed vocations.

Pharmacist. Police officer. Air traffic controller. Veterinarian. Accountant. Surgeon.

Quite an array.

They even asked for my autograph, which I found delightfully adorable.

For the record, the kids are: Leonardo Krasnic; Cullen Gray; Lindsey Marie Vernier; Nikki Nowicki; Barick Mansoor; Ryan Wietchy; Jon Barr; Emily Duynslager; and Sarah Young.

I told them of our daughter, Nicole, and how she just turned 14. I'm a doting daddy, and naturally I think Nicole is just fabulous: well-behaved, pretty, smart, funny. But the parents of these children, I hope, think the same of their kids -- because I found them to be terrific. And I promised I would mention them in today's posting.

"I'll never sell your autograph," Leonardo told me.

And I'll never get rid of the resumes and business cards I collected yesterday.

Somehow I think I got the better part of that deal.

Lang Reappears Just In Time

The moments only become signature if the end result is something worth shouting about. In 1997, it actually occurred in the regular season -- a goalie fight of all things, between Colorado's Patrick Roy and the Red Wings' Mike Vernon. THERE -- everyone said after the champagne corks were popped -- THAT'S when the Red Wings came of age.

In 1998, it was a speech reportedly given by captain Steve Yzerman when another underdog was giving the Red Wings fits. The St. Louis Blues had squared their second round series with Detroit at 2-2, and Yzerman, according to Hockeytown lore, stood in front of his teammates and challenged them to prove what we all believed to be true: that the Wings were clearly the better team. The team responded by lasering thru the Blues in the next two games, en route to their second straight Stanley Cup.

In 2002 ...

I had just flipped the game back on after doing some channel surfing. Another west coast playoff series, played out long after the wife and chicklet had gone to bed. The Red Wings were in another first round struggle, this time with the Vancouver Canucks. Detroit lost the first two games at home -- the second one ending among a chorus of JLA boos -- and now were tied, 1-1, in Game 3 at Vancouver. It was the second period, the brooms still waving inside GM Place.

Then moments after I flipped back, I saw it happen. Nicklas Lidstrom carried the puck from his own zone and, just after crossing the center red line, he wound up for a long slapshot -- trying to do nothing more than rifle the puck into the Canucks zone, it appeared.

It did more than that. The puck somehow made it past Canucks goalie Dan Cloutier. The Wings led, 2-1. They would win the game, 3-1. They would win the next. And the next. And the next.

When the Cup was hoisted some seven weeks later, it was easy this time to point to that postseason's turning point: Nick Lidstrom's goal, from center ice, in Game 3.

I thought of Lidstrom and his goal -- and doubtful that I was alone -- when I saw Robert Lang wrist one past San Jose netminder Evgeni Nabokov with 33.1 seconds remaining in the third period of Wednesday's Game 4, sending the game into overtime. The Wings won, 3-2 -- which needed to happen to make Lang's dramatic goal significant, and to make it a Turning Point candidate.

I'd say it would qualify. Lang doesn't score, and the Wings are down 3-1 in the series. Daunting? You bet.

Interesting that it was Lang who scored. He's been spotty, at best, but his spots have been picked well. His only other goal in these playoffs came in Calgary in Game 6, tying that game. He's worked his way into coach Mike Babcock's pooch parlor.

But Dominik Hasek started horribly in the 2002 playoffs, yet by the time the Wings finished off the Carolina Hurricanes to win the whole enchilada, you could have made a sharp case for Hasek as the Conn Smythe winner for MVP of the playoffs. He was especially brilliant against the Canes.

Using some very finite wisdom, I wrote in this space last week that Lang, among all the forwards, was one of the few the team could least afford seeing end up on the side of a milk carton against the big, bad Sharks. He "can't be M.I.A.", my headline screamed that day. Yet he had been, until the dramatics in Game 4.

Yes, the Red Wings have their early candidate for Turning Point of the 2007 playoffs. But there can be no TP if there isn't a chalice from which to drink in June.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Pistons, Bulls On The Clock...And Still On....And Still On

So when's Media Day? Where are all the out of town TV shows? Which jerseys are they going to wear? Where are all the good parties? Who's performing at halftime? When does the pregame show start?

I always thought the Super Bowl was played in the first week of February. But the NBA, in its infinite wisdom, is making the Bulls and Pistons wait until Saturday -- a full week off for Detroit, six days off for Chicago -- to get it on in the second round of the NBA Playoffs, otherwise known as War and Peace -- The Movie.

It didn't use to be this way. If two teams wrapped up their series early and were scheduled to play each other in the next round, the league would let them get to it, overlapping the previous round teams that were still duking it out.

Cue John Belushi: But, NOOOOOOOOOOO!!

The league, no doubt steered by money, deems it that the Bulls and Pistons have a Super Bowl-type week's worth of hype, possibly causing Game 1 to be sloppy and ugly, as two teams try to shake off the rust.

Call me crazy, but I think the time off is best kept for later in the postseason, when it's more needed. If a team keeps sweeping thru the playoffs, or wins in five games, then they'll get their time off. But after Round One? Let 'em play on Wednesday! Sheesh!

The worst thing is, the hype was already going to be coming in heavier doses in this series because of the Ben Wallace Factor. In Round One we had the Grant Hill Factor, but that was child's play, a mere warmup for what's to come. For the record, the Pistons swear the Wallace Factor is not a factor at all, and that we should all just leave it alone because it's all about Wallace as just another player to be dissected, nothing more.

And the media folks will take that advice about as seriously as a dental patient does when the doctor says, "You should floss more."

But the Pistons are right. And better the media thinks Wallace's new team taking on his old one is a big deal than the Pistons themselves. They have more important things to worry about. All we do is watch; they gotta play.

So Round Two is still more than 72 hours away. And this after almost 96 hours of waiting already.

Can someone at least have a wordrobe malfunction or something while we're waiting?

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Tuesday's Feature: The Straightaway

(every Tuesday, "Out of Bounds" will feature "The Straightaway," NASCAR commentary from longtime racing observer Siddy Hall)


by Siddy Hall


When viewing NASCAR events there are two types of cars that receive the most attention: the race leaders and the wrecking machines.

But what about the rest of the cars? Where are these guys week in and week out? Many of these cars are merely a rumor. To analyze this, I’ve compiled a list of the 10 least noticeable cars this year.

No quacks allowed!! Each car must have raced at least seven of the nine races. This eliminates most of the Toyotas. So Jeremy Mayfield, Brian Vickers, and A.J. Almindinger are out. Ward Burton, Kevin Lepage, Paul Menard and Kenny Wallace are also among the drivers that are not eligible for this list.

Finally, imagine having to write about a boring race car. That’s not easy. Every driver has a website, so I’m supplying some of the spin that those sites are serving up for their driver.
By the way, many of these cars have one thing in common: some were near the front of that parade line that traveled around Talladega for about twenty laps. Single-file racing at ‘Dega? Now that’s boring, man.

1. KYLE PETTY (T-32nd, 9 starts, 0 Top-10): Amazingly, it’s been ten years since Kyle scored a Top-Five. Equally amazing has been his team’s ability to survive. Just for fun, ask a friend if he/she can name Kyle’s primary sponsor. Just don’t ask me because I don’t know.

Petty promises a young fan a Top-43 finish

Petty’s website spin: “Petty Enterprises showed again that they have a very strong restrictor plate program. The duo of Kyle Petty and Bobby Labonte collected two top 20 finishes, but Petty was one of the strongest cars all afternoon … had a strong car throughout the day. The Billy Wilburn-led crew started the day 25th and waited to the end to show their cards. Petty was in the lead draft all day, but was cautious in case of the ‘big one.’”

2. REED SORENSON (29th, 9 starts, 1 Top-10): Sorenson finished 24th in points during his rookie year in 2006. Over the final 29 races, he was never higher than 20th or lower than 25th in the overall standings. Man, that’s boring. But in a good way. Late at Talladega, when Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt, Jr. broke out of the single-file line to form a new freight train, it was Sorenson who jumped in front of this pack and broke their momentum.

Sorenson prepares for life after racing

Sorenson’s website spin: – “Reed Sorenson drove a cautious race at Talladega Superspeedway, running near the rear of the field for much of the event to hopefully avoid the huge wrecks that are typical for restrictor-plate races.”

3. TONY RAINES (22nd, 9 starts, 0 Top-10): The Dallas Cowboy QB tandem of Troy Aikman and Roger Staubach are part owners of a boring race car. But again, in a good way. No wrecks. They could spice things up by subbing Tony Romo for Tony Raines. This is my favorite website spin from this list. The writer is madder than a wet hen.
Raines’ website spin: – “No Drafting Help Equals 22nd-Place Finish for Raines”. “On Lap 181, Raines was in ninth place. On Lap 182, Raines was in 20th-place. Ladies and Gentlemen, meet “The Draft.” After being in the top-10 for nearly 20 laps, Raines was going backward as his competitors slipstreamed past him.”

4. JOE NEMECHEK (28th, 8 starts, 1 Top-10): Nemechek’s season was defined early on by his ability to make races on his qualifying speed. Front Row Joe went 4-for-5 and did an excellent job of making his team viable. However, now we are entering Race number ten and it’s time to admit that Joe has been rather dull. Nemechek’s website spin: – Joe has his own myspace page. It was last updated on March 10th, so there is no spin. Joe humors readers by actually answering the myspace part about sexual orientation! Joe’s “Straight”, everyone! Wooo-hoooo!!

5. ELLIOTT SADLER (15th, 9 starts, 1 Top-10): How is Sadler only three spots out of the Chase? Wouldn’t it be funny if he won this year’s championship? The guy hasn’t been seen all year and he’s in the hunt.
Sadler’s website spin: – “Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler posted top-15 finishes Sunday in the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega Superspeedway. Both drivers led laps on the 2.66-mile oval and demonstrated on several occasions their Dodge Chargers had the muscle to move to the front with relative ease. A late-race caution extended the race beyond the scheduled 188 laps and probably cost the pair a chance at top-10 finishes.”

Misery loves company: Sadler and Jarrett

6. JOHNNY SAUTER (T-32nd, 8 starts, 1 Top-10): Sauter is not only battling Kyle Petty for 32nd in points, he is also waging a silent war to top this list. However, a recent top-ten at Phoenix plus a wreck at Talladega drops Johnny to sixth. Sauter and teammate Jeff Green have once swapped sponsors on their hoods. Did you notice?

Talladega wreck knocked Johnny Sauter's earwax askew

Sauter’s website spin: – “Johnny Sauter and Team Yellow Racing saw a strong performance go awry when the Aaron's 499 went into "overtime" with a green-white-checkered finish. Sauter was running in the 18th position when the field took the final green flag at lap 190, but never made it back around.”

7. DALE JARRETT (37th, 9 starts, 0 Top-10): This year Dale Jarrett is known for three things. He drives for Toyota. He’s got good TV ads. He’s out of provisionals. So we may not be seeing much more of Dale this year. Oh wait, we haven’t seen him all year. Except during commercials.
Jarrett’s website spin: – “The struggles for Team UPS continued on race day in Talladega as Dale Jarrett reported an engine problem on the first lap of the Aaron's 499. Thirty-eight laps later the day was over for Jarrett and the UPS Team as the result of an engine failure. 'It is a bad end to a bad weekend,' Jarrett said briefly after getting out of the race car. 'It's disappointing, frustrating for me and the team.'"

8. RICKY RUDD (34th, 9 starts, 0 Top-10): I’m certain that Rudd belongs on this list because I love Snickers bars. In fact, my favorite weak-ass line to a girl in a bar is, “You look like a Snickers bar to me. I just wanna tear the wrapper right off you.” It’s mine. It’s a Siddy Hall original. Go ahead and use it.

DO NOT DISTURB: He's in a zone

Rudd’s website spin: – “Late Wreck Spoils Strong Run For Rudd.” “As fate would have it Rudd and his crew would have to put their dreams of victory away for another week.”

9. ROBBY GORDON (27th, 9 starts, 0 Top-10): The biggest upset is including Robby Gordon on this list. Robby’s been pretty quiet. Not wrecking a lot and not shooting his mouth. What’s up with him? Robby, go back to being a trouble-maker. Boring is bad.
Gordon’s website spin: – “Robby Gordon and the No. 7 team traveled to Alabama this weekend for the running of the Aaron’s 499 at the Talladega Superspeedway. After leading final practice on Friday afternoon, the team was eager for another solid finish to continue this season’s momentum. As luck would have it, a blown engine would ruin the No. 7 team’s chances for a solid finish for the season debut of the Menards/Mapei paint scheme and relegate them to a 41st place finish."

Robby taunts Mikey: "I'll race you- my feet against your slow wheels!"

10. J.J. Yeley (21st, 9 starts, 0 Top-10): What saves Yeley is that Interstate Battery paint job. You can’t miss that. One of my favorite moments of the season was listening to an MRN radio broadcast when Yeley came in for a green-flag stop. One of the announcers, I think it was Winston Kelley, yelled, “JAAAY JAAAY YAAAYLEE.” By the time he got his name out Yeley was long gone. I love MRN, they do a great job. Yeley’s website spin: – “At times Yeley would charge to the front, but in typical Talladega fashion, he would get shuffled to the rear of the field on the very next lap.”

Yeley: Money for nothin' and the chicks for free

(you can e-mail Siddy Hall: cityhall172000 at