timbersfan's WunderBlog

Euro 2012 Quarterfinals Preview

By: timbersfan, 12:06 AM GMT on June 30, 2012

Czech Republic vs. Portugal

How They Got Here: Portugal pulled off the unlikely feat — or what seemed an unlikely feat before the tournament — of making it out of Group B, the Group of Death. After a fairly close loss to Germany, 1-0, Paulo Bento's side got a game-winning goal against Denmark from little-known Silvestre Varela and a world-beating performance from Cristiano Ronaldo in a 2-1 win against the Dutch.

The Czechs got their pants pulled down by Russia in one of the most one-sided losses of the tournament so far (4-1, on the opening day of Euro 2012). Since then, they've taken their chances very well (basically the key to winning tournament games). Their opening goal against Greece was like watching CCTV footage of a mugging.


This should be a fun one, with both teams playing better and better as the match days have gone by.

What to Watch For: Keep your peepers peeled to top and bottom of your screens, because the action is going to be on the wings. On the right, the Czechs run a lethal combo of fullback Theodor Selassie and midfielder Petr Jirá ek (who is on fire right now, scoring against Greece and Poland). On the opposite flank there's Ronaldo, who, while we were all spending our free time LOL'ing at his miss against Denmark and wondering if he would ever truly come through on a big stage, messed around and delivered huge against the Dutch with two goals and the kind of footballing Silver Surfer performance we all secretly want to see from him (even if we hate him).
Prediction: Portugal.

Greece vs. Germany

How They Got Here: Greece, despite all their history (the last couple of tournaments, not the battle of Sparta and Athens), have been pretty entertaining throughout Euro 2012. Or at least they've been involved in entertaining matches. They are an example of what happens if you just keep playing (Russia might want to write this down). After drawing with Poland and losing to the Czech Republic, they looked down. But in their third and final match, a goal from 35-year-old captain Giorgos Karagounis put them up on Russia, and saw the Greeks through to the quarters.

Germany has been the most consistently impressive team in the tournament, treating their Group of Death competition like it was the Group of Whatevs and advancing, high on confidence. They look like world-beaters all over the pitch. Even their onetime shaky center of defense looks great with Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber locking it down.

What to Watch For: Greece showing more patience than any of the more attack-minded opponents Germany has faced thus far. Denmark, Holland, and Portugal all, to varying degrees, attacked Germany at some point (OK, Portugal not so much). Greece has no social plans. They have nowhere to be. They can wait all day. Germany's nifty midfield of Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mesut Ozil can stroke it around the center of the park as much as they like. The Greeks brought their books, so they'll just sit there and wait, thanks very much. The key here is going to be the continued hot streak of German striker Mario Gomez. The quicker Germany can get him the ball, the less settled Greece will be, and the better a chance Germany will have to get something in the back of the net and make this interesting.
Prediction: Germany.

Spain vs. France

How They Got Here: Spain made it through their group like someone cleaning his house on Ambien. It got done, but nobody is going to remember anything about it. Fernando Torres broke his scoring drought against Ireland, but looked to be regressing to the face-palming mean against a tougher Croatia. They are still Spain, they still move the ball like a bunch of tapas-crushing wizards, and they are still probably the favorites to win the whole thing … BUT!

Hey, you have to go out on a limb at some point, and I have the strangest Spidey sense that France is going to snatch this one right from under the defending champions' noses. For brief little flashes — Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery (who looked good against Ukraine) crashing in from the wings, Yohan Cabaye bossing in the midfield and making runs toward the goal, or Jeremy Menez and Karim Benzema preying upon sleepy defenders up front — they have looked great. And here's the thing about those guys: They're a bunch of pricks.


And what do we know about pricks? You can't predict their behavior and they often surprise you. This French team really seems like the kind of team that plays down to lesser talent and raises its game to a superior one. They aren't going to find a more superior batch of talent than Spain. (H/T to 101GreatGoals for pointing out that video.)

What to Watch For: Will my Kickstarter to get Fernando Llorente off the bench for Spain be successful? Probably not, but a boy can dream. Until now, Spain manager Vicente del Bosque has utilized Cesc Fabregas as a "False 9" (where a midfield-style player starts up top but drops deep and facilitates as other players break past him, in this case David Silva and Andres Iniesta) or Torres on his own, up front. He hasn't played his wild card: Llorente. The Athletic Bilbao striker is an absolute beast — they call him the Lion King, for Pete's sake. Here's a video of him scoring goals, scored by my favorite song off The Lion King soundtrack, Run-DMC's "It's Tricky."


If things aren't clicking for Spain later on, if the score is tied or Spain is down, it would be great to see Llorente let out of his rusty cage on the bench.
Prediction: France. (I SAID IT.)

Italy vs. England

How They Got Here: A tale of two managers. Despite winning plaudits for their atypically attacking style, the new, beautiful Italy still only won one game (against Ireland, which, just as it wasn't an accurate depiction of Fernando Torres's striking talents, wasn't a great barometer for Italy's quality). Cesare Prandelli, with his occasional 3-5-2 formation (wingbacks!) and 13-mile hikes (eccentricity) is the Slaven Bilic (Croatia manager with whom everyone was in love back in Euro 2008) of this tournament — the breakout managerial star. And in a way, simply changing the way Italy plays seems to have been a huge achievement for the former Fiorentina boss.

His opposite, Roy Hodgson, is no slouch either, and tournament football seems to suit his steady hand. We forget, because of the sadly iconic images of him rubbing his face like a nocturnal animal on the touchline at Liverpool …


… that this guy is actually the same cool customer who led Fulham to the 2010 UEFA Cup Final, a cup run that included a 4-1 victory over Juventus (one of the most unexpected and joyous games I've ever seen).


Deuce! During Euro 2012 Hodgson has been at his best, keeping his team calm and organized, even when they haven't been playing their best. That's the thing; you won't have your best game every game, but if you hang around the law firm of Crazy, Stupid and Lucky can show up and win your case for you.

Another note: Hodgson is especially adept at substitutions (see: Theo Walcott against Sweden). Furthermore, his decision to turn over the keys to Steven Gerrard and make the Liverpool midfielder England's chief creative player has been just that — decisive. It's the kind of call an England manager has needed to make for almost a decade.

What to Watch For: That Giorgio Chiellini–shaped hole in the center of the Italy defense. The Juventus defender is quick, carved out of Italian marble, and good with the ball at his feet. He will be missed. The question then becomes, How does Hodgson exploit Italy's weakness? Speed (Danny Welbeck) or strength (Andy Carroll, who played his best game in an England shirt against Sweden).

Also, mind your temper, boys. Italy has a habit of getting under their opponents' skin (Ireland's Keith Andrews felt like he was provoked into his matching pair of yellow cards during his nation's clash with the Italians) and England's Lil' Wayne Rooney, while a much cooler customer than he was during "Stompgate" back in the 2006 World Cup, still can have a hot head. Even more so now that he has all that hair up there. Let it breathe, Wazza!

Prediction: England.

Permalink

Euro 2012 Quarterfinals Preview

By: timbersfan, 12:06 AM GMT on June 30, 2012

Czech Republic vs. Portugal

How They Got Here: Portugal pulled off the unlikely feat — or what seemed an unlikely feat before the tournament — of making it out of Group B, the Group of Death. After a fairly close loss to Germany, 1-0, Paulo Bento's side got a game-winning goal against Denmark from little-known Silvestre Varela and a world-beating performance from Cristiano Ronaldo in a 2-1 win against the Dutch.

The Czechs got their pants pulled down by Russia in one of the most one-sided losses of the tournament so far (4-1, on the opening day of Euro 2012). Since then, they've taken their chances very well (basically the key to winning tournament games). Their opening goal against Greece was like watching CCTV footage of a mugging.


This should be a fun one, with both teams playing better and better as the match days have gone by.

What to Watch For: Keep your peepers peeled to top and bottom of your screens, because the action is going to be on the wings. On the right, the Czechs run a lethal combo of fullback Theodor Selassie and midfielder Petr Jirá ek (who is on fire right now, scoring against Greece and Poland). On the opposite flank there's Ronaldo, who, while we were all spending our free time LOL'ing at his miss against Denmark and wondering if he would ever truly come through on a big stage, messed around and delivered huge against the Dutch with two goals and the kind of footballing Silver Surfer performance we all secretly want to see from him (even if we hate him).
Prediction: Portugal.

Greece vs. Germany

How They Got Here: Greece, despite all their history (the last couple of tournaments, not the battle of Sparta and Athens), have been pretty entertaining throughout Euro 2012. Or at least they've been involved in entertaining matches. They are an example of what happens if you just keep playing (Russia might want to write this down). After drawing with Poland and losing to the Czech Republic, they looked down. But in their third and final match, a goal from 35-year-old captain Giorgos Karagounis put them up on Russia, and saw the Greeks through to the quarters.

Germany has been the most consistently impressive team in the tournament, treating their Group of Death competition like it was the Group of Whatevs and advancing, high on confidence. They look like world-beaters all over the pitch. Even their onetime shaky center of defense looks great with Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber locking it down.

What to Watch For: Greece showing more patience than any of the more attack-minded opponents Germany has faced thus far. Denmark, Holland, and Portugal all, to varying degrees, attacked Germany at some point (OK, Portugal not so much). Greece has no social plans. They have nowhere to be. They can wait all day. Germany's nifty midfield of Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mesut Ozil can stroke it around the center of the park as much as they like. The Greeks brought their books, so they'll just sit there and wait, thanks very much. The key here is going to be the continued hot streak of German striker Mario Gomez. The quicker Germany can get him the ball, the less settled Greece will be, and the better a chance Germany will have to get something in the back of the net and make this interesting.
Prediction: Germany.

Spain vs. France

How They Got Here: Spain made it through their group like someone cleaning his house on Ambien. It got done, but nobody is going to remember anything about it. Fernando Torres broke his scoring drought against Ireland, but looked to be regressing to the face-palming mean against a tougher Croatia. They are still Spain, they still move the ball like a bunch of tapas-crushing wizards, and they are still probably the favorites to win the whole thing … BUT!

Hey, you have to go out on a limb at some point, and I have the strangest Spidey sense that France is going to snatch this one right from under the defending champions' noses. For brief little flashes — Samir Nasri and Franck Ribery (who looked good against Ukraine) crashing in from the wings, Yohan Cabaye bossing in the midfield and making runs toward the goal, or Jeremy Menez and Karim Benzema preying upon sleepy defenders up front — they have looked great. And here's the thing about those guys: They're a bunch of pricks.


And what do we know about pricks? You can't predict their behavior and they often surprise you. This French team really seems like the kind of team that plays down to lesser talent and raises its game to a superior one. They aren't going to find a more superior batch of talent than Spain. (H/T to 101GreatGoals for pointing out that video.)

What to Watch For: Will my Kickstarter to get Fernando Llorente off the bench for Spain be successful? Probably not, but a boy can dream. Until now, Spain manager Vicente del Bosque has utilized Cesc Fabregas as a "False 9" (where a midfield-style player starts up top but drops deep and facilitates as other players break past him, in this case David Silva and Andres Iniesta) or Torres on his own, up front. He hasn't played his wild card: Llorente. The Athletic Bilbao striker is an absolute beast — they call him the Lion King, for Pete's sake. Here's a video of him scoring goals, scored by my favorite song off The Lion King soundtrack, Run-DMC's "It's Tricky."


If things aren't clicking for Spain later on, if the score is tied or Spain is down, it would be great to see Llorente let out of his rusty cage on the bench.
Prediction: France. (I SAID IT.)

Italy vs. England

How They Got Here: A tale of two managers. Despite winning plaudits for their atypically attacking style, the new, beautiful Italy still only won one game (against Ireland, which, just as it wasn't an accurate depiction of Fernando Torres's striking talents, wasn't a great barometer for Italy's quality). Cesare Prandelli, with his occasional 3-5-2 formation (wingbacks!) and 13-mile hikes (eccentricity) is the Slaven Bilic (Croatia manager with whom everyone was in love back in Euro 2008) of this tournament — the breakout managerial star. And in a way, simply changing the way Italy plays seems to have been a huge achievement for the former Fiorentina boss.

His opposite, Roy Hodgson, is no slouch either, and tournament football seems to suit his steady hand. We forget, because of the sadly iconic images of him rubbing his face like a nocturnal animal on the touchline at Liverpool …


… that this guy is actually the same cool customer who led Fulham to the 2010 UEFA Cup Final, a cup run that included a 4-1 victory over Juventus (one of the most unexpected and joyous games I've ever seen).


Deuce! During Euro 2012 Hodgson has been at his best, keeping his team calm and organized, even when they haven't been playing their best. That's the thing; you won't have your best game every game, but if you hang around the law firm of Crazy, Stupid and Lucky can show up and win your case for you.

Another note: Hodgson is especially adept at substitutions (see: Theo Walcott against Sweden). Furthermore, his decision to turn over the keys to Steven Gerrard and make the Liverpool midfielder England's chief creative player has been just that — decisive. It's the kind of call an England manager has needed to make for almost a decade.

What to Watch For: That Giorgio Chiellini–shaped hole in the center of the Italy defense. The Juventus defender is quick, carved out of Italian marble, and good with the ball at his feet. He will be missed. The question then becomes, How does Hodgson exploit Italy's weakness? Speed (Danny Welbeck) or strength (Andy Carroll, who played his best game in an England shirt against Sweden).

Also, mind your temper, boys. Italy has a habit of getting under their opponents' skin (Ireland's Keith Andrews felt like he was provoked into his matching pair of yellow cards during his nation's clash with the Italians) and England's Lil' Wayne Rooney, while a much cooler customer than he was during "Stompgate" back in the 2006 World Cup, still can have a hot head. Even more so now that he has all that hair up there. Let it breathe, Wazza!

Prediction: England.

Permalink

Euro 2012 Semifinals Preview

By: timbersfan, 12:04 AM GMT on June 30, 2012

Last time around, I did a preview of the quarterfinals. I picked Germany, Portugal, France, and Italy. If my success rate at crossing the street was as good as my success rate at picking knockout soccer matches, I would be dead. So let's take a look at the semifinals!

Germany vs. Italy

How They Got Here: Germany put in the most likable performance of the quarterfinals, snuffing out Greece, 4-2. That might seem like a bit of an odd compliment. But after four quarterfinals matches, two of which were, frankly, really difficult to enjoy on a surface level, it really makes you appreciate just how charming and fun the German team is. There's just something effervescent about them. For a side that has been touted — in one iteration or another — since the World Cup in 2006, I'm only really now enjoying them.

In a tournament that has seen 20 headers go in, watching Sami Khedira and Marco Reus crush volleys in from short-range against Greece had me singing "Seven Nation Army" to myself. And then feeling really bad about it, because come on, man, give that song some room to breathe.

Italy arrived to the final four of Euro 2012 after playing an emotionally draining, physically consuming, and no doubt psychologically punishing battle against England. I would rather review how the Dewey Decimal System works than re-watch England-Italy, but don't blame the Azzurri for that. They took 20 shots on goal. They went for it. Now, just days after that match finished, 4-2 on penalties, Italy will suit up again against a well-rested German side.

What to Watch For: Which begs the question — which German side? In the quarterfinals Germany manager Joachim Low dropped Lukas Podolski, Mario Gomez, and Thomas Muller in favor of Reus, Miroslav Klose, and Andre Schürrle; two young, wide midfielders flanking one of the best international goal-scorers of his generation. Will Low go back to refreshed Podolski, Gomez, and Muller? Will he stick with the trio that served him so well in the quarters? Some combo of the two? The other major question is whether German midfield dynamo Bastian Schweinsteiger will start and/or play for Germany. Low judged him as "poor" in the match against Greece, pointing to a bum ankle as the source of his problems.

Speaking of bum ankles, bum legs, sciatic nerves, and "a general state of fatigue in the squad," Italy is a little banged up! Which is understandable. They did all the running on Sunday against England. The Azzurri are waiting on the fitness of midfield lion Daniele De Rossi, central defender Giorgio Chiellini, and fullback Ignazio Abate. The latter might be the most important injury question. One of Germany's most lethal areas of attack comes from the left side, where you'll find team captain Philipp Lahm bombing forward. He's pretty good, by the way. Ask Angela Merkel.


Abate, along with, one would guess, Claudio Marchisio (Italy play rather narrowly, so a central midfielder would likely help mark Lahm), would be responsible for handling the Lahm threat.

One more thing, tactically speaking, that you should keep in mind. It was suggested that one of the reasons Andrea Pirlo looked like he was recording a solo album against England was that Wayne Rooney, who had been charged with man-marking the Juventus midfielder, was neglecting his duties. Low has said that no one German player will be responsible for covering Pirlo. "That would make no sense," Low said. Have some of that, Roy Hodgson!

Prediction: Germany

Spain vs. Portugal

How They Got Here: Spain got here by letting us all down. By disappointing us. By not dazzling us enough. By not scoring enough headers. By not kicking it long enough. They've had too much possession. They haven't had enough. Xavi needs to run more. And Ramos shouldn't have cut his hair. And Iniesta — don't like the look that guy is giving me. They didn't rip a hole in the space-time continuum. They let us all down. Boring, boring Spain.

Winners of Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010, Spain are now winners of the We're Tired of You Winning Trophy. This happens to all dynasties. Everything ends, I suppose. (At least that's what I learned from the Matrix trilogy.) And there is something to how Spain has been choking the life out of opposing teams, holding on to the ball for seemingly endless periods of time, in this tournament. It has lacked a certain magic. It's not entirely unlike the sensation lots of people felt watching the Spurs. "I know it's good for me, but I still don't like it."

If Spain has lost a lot of neutral public support — and that's an assertion I'm basing on anecdotal evidence, at best — then Portugal has picked up a lot of their spill-off. Usually pegged as winking, diving, dirty bastards (sorry, Portugal! You do have Pepe, after all!), they have looked like a very athletic, very fun, and very together team during this tournament. Ever since beating Denmark, 3-2, they've had a little star dust sprinkled on them. (That's what's glistening in Ronaldo's Exxon Valdez hairdo, by the way.)

What to Watch For: Control. Both in terms of possession, of which Spain will likely have a lot, and temperament, with which Portugal has occasionally had some problems. This match is going to feel, in some ways, like a Real Madrid intramural, with Pepe, Fabio Coentrao, and Cristiano Ronaldo lining up against Alvaro Arbeloa, Sergio Ramos, and Xabi Alonso. If asked to bet on the proceedings being chippy or cordial, I'd go with the former. At least that's what I'm hoping. Teams have been very respectful of Spain, maybe too respectful. Portugal doesn't seem like the kind of side that will have that problem. Look for Portugal to prompt the referee to make some decisions early and chop the game up into smaller pieces rather than the languid stretches Spain would prefer.

Also be aware of the Great Iberian Striker Drought of 2012. Starting Portugal striker Helder Postiga is out with injury, leaving old warhorse Hugo Almeida (who probably should have been taken to the warhorse glue factory by now) to fill in. For Spain, we will either see Cesc Fabregas as a "False 9" or Fernando Torres as "a guy making runs after balls he can't catch up to." If there's going to be goals, odds are it will come from the midfield — from David Silva and Andres Iniesta of Spain and Ronaldo and Nani of Portugal.

Prediction: Portugal

Permalink

Welcome to Draft Diary XVI

By: timbersfan, 12:02 AM GMT on June 30, 2012

Welcome to Draft Diary XVI! Can you believe we're four away from Draft Diary XX? Either this became a Roman numeral-fueled tradition on par with the Olympics, the Super Bowl and WrestleMania, or I'm freaking old. I can't decide. By the time you read this column, you'll have watched the clip of Andy Katz accidentally saying Jared Sullinger had "bulging dicks" during last night's NBA draft preview show over 10,564,294 times on YouTube. Even if that became the highlight of the night, did that stop me from grinding out another draft diary with help from peanut gallery members Jacoby and House? Of course not! Tradition is tradition — not even bulging dicks could hold me down.

There was another monkey wrench, of course: My beloved Celtics were picking no. 21 and no. 22 last night. Would they trade up to take Doc Rivers's son even though father-son pairings never work past Little League? Would they take The Guy Who's Afraid to Fly or The Guy Who Would Have Been a Top-10 Pick If Not For His Bulging Dicks? Er, Disks? Would they get two rotation guys who were better than Marquis Daniels and Ryan Hollins? (Please?) Would they figure out how to add to their team when they didn't know yet if half their team was coming back? And could I pull off a coherent diary as I was stressing out about all of these things? Here's what transpired …

7:30 p.m. EST — You might remember last year's draft telecast on ESPN revolved around Adele's "Rolling in the Deep." This year's telecast revolves around ladders. You heard me. Ladders. Personally, I would have geared the entire draft around the night's real star: the one and only David Stern, who only recently regained his mojo after the debilitating lockout and embarrassing Vetogate. Why not own it? What about an open featuring Stern lip-synching the words to Jay-Z's "On to the Next One" or Vince McMahon's "No Chance in Hell"?

(Wait, you're saying that would have been less ridiculous than lottery picks climbing ladders???)

7:32 — Hey, it's David Ste— Boooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!! Come on, I'm trying to typ— Boooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!! Enough, you made your poi— Boooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!

Not exactly a warm welcome for the Commish. Of course, he eats it up by mentioning the "world-champion Miami Heat," then cupping his hand to his ear, soaking in the boos and doing everything short of saying, "In case you're scoring at home, we have more marketable stars than every other league combined, we have a 10-billionaire waiting list to buy our teams, we're coming off a 12 rating for the Finals even though Oklahoma City was involved, and our signature guy finally put everything together and seems poised for a Jordan-like run the rest of this decade. (Goes into Dr. Evil mode.) Mwaaaaaaaaaaaaahaaaaaaa! Mwahhhhhhhhhhhhhhaaaaaaaaaa! Mwhaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhha!!!!!" It's fun to have the Notorious D.J.S. back. I can't lie.

7:37 — New Orleans takes "The Brow," immediately becoming a title contender from 2015 through 2028. The Brow hugs exactly five people before walking onstage and having this exchange with David Stern …

Stern: "Congratulations. Don't ever tell anyone how you really became a Hornet."

Davis: "I won't, sir."

Stern: "I'm not kidding — nobody can ever know. I'm not proud of everything I did. People make mistakes."

Davis: "Got it, you don't have to worry about me."1

7:39 — Working the draft with ESPN's Chris Broussard, Rece Davis and Jeff Van Gundy, Jay Bilas drops a triple "wingspan" during a Davis-inspired gush session, then acknowledges the infamous Bilas/wingspan draft drinking game by saying, "Tip it back, America." Jacoby quickly takes three big swigs from a Bud Light. We're off to a rollicking start.

Speaking of rollicking, we spiced up tonight's draft by creating a "Jan Vesely's Girlfriend Memorial Hottest Girlfriend" pool — four rounds, snake fashion, winner takes all. Jacoby went first and took Bradley Beal, explaining, "He's a good-looking guy who seems clean, and he's going to be rich." Oh. Beal was followed by Austin Rivers (BS), Dion Waiters (JH), Damian Lillard (JH), Tyler Zeller (BS), Thomas Robinson (DJ), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (DJ), Harrison Barnes (BS), Perry Jones (JH), Evan Fournier (JH), Anthony Davis (BS) and Kendall Marshall (DJ). Also, we actually argued about whether Davis went too high or too low, culminating in House screaming, "I don't care if he has a unibrow, he's gonna be rich!" You gotta love the NBA draft.

7:40 — Speaking of Davis, Heather Cox just asked his parents about his "journey" and all the usual "Can you believe this?" stuff … let's be honest, wouldn't you have rather had a two-minute grilling about the unibrow? Did he always have the brow? Did he have it as a baby? Which side of the family did it come from? Did they ever think of waxing it? At what point did they just accept it? Is there anything else you want to know from Davis's parents except for unibrow-related material? Why are we fighting this?

7:43 — The Bobcats take … Michael Kidd-Gilchrist? WOW! They did the right thing?!?!?!? We're stunned! I can't stop using exclamation points! Probably not a good sign for the MJ era when it's shocking that the team picking second took the second-best player. Great pick. I couldn't be a bigger MKG fan, as explained here. As Bilas gushes, "You can't teach relentless." He's going to be a killer pro. Think Scottie Pippen crossed with Gerald Wallace, only if they had a hyphen and played every game like it was Game 7 of the Finals.2

7:47 — Washington quickly snaps up Florida scorer Bradley Beal at no. 3. Bilas calls him a "high-character guy" and a "complete basketball player," and the chairman of the Committee for Cross-Racial Comparisons rules that, yes, you're allowed to compare Beal's jumper to Mike Miller's jumper. What a relief.

"Right player, right spot," says House, a longtime Washington fan. "It was a very un-Wizard-like pick. We needed a guy who could shoot at the basket and not at his teammates." Hey now.

7:53 — In Wednesday's back-and-forth mock draft, Chad Ford predicted that Cleveland would draft Harrison Barnes fourth partly because he was "good friends" with Kyrie Irving. I thought this was ridiculous; apparently, so did the Cavs. They just tabbed explosive Syracuse guard Dion Waiters,3 setting themselves up for an easy "Anytime you can take the Big East's 'Sixth Man of the Year' with the fourth pick in an NBA draft, you have to do it" joke. Didn't we already go through this with Marvin Williams? Now we're running it back?

(Note that's too important for a footnote: I thought the Cavs should have taken Thomas Robinson, but they obviously passed after spending last year's no. 4 overall pick on Tristan Thompson — same position as Robinson, not as good — so instead of stashing potential stud Jonas Valanciunas abroad in 2011 and picking Robinson this year, they spent two top-five picks on the poor man's Robinson and Syracuse's sixth man. The lesson, as always: God hates Cleveland.)

7:59 — The Kings happily snap up Robinson, more of a rich man's Carl Landry than Carl Landry 2.0, but somebody who could definitely bang the boards with DeMarcus Cousins. Mark Jones easily makes Robinson cry in their interview, then throws it to Heather Cox by saying, "Some things are bigger than basketball, Heather Cox." That made all three of us laugh. I don't know why. Heather's interview with Robinson's little sister peaks with Cox pushing Sacramento by saying, "Do you know it's close to Disneyland?" Actually, it's 411.2 miles away. Did she just inadvertently tip off Sacramento's move to Anaheim? What just happened there?

8:04 — Picking sixth: the Blazers, thanks to their fleecing of New Jersey in the atrocious-even-as-it-was-happening Gerald Wallace trade. You can only assume this exchange just happened in Brooklyn's war room.

Mikhail Prokhorov: "We're on the clock; who are we taking sixth?"

Billy King: "Actually, I traded that pick in March for Gerald Wallace."

Prokhorov: "I thought Gerald Wallace just opted out of his contract?"

King [after a pause]: "He did."

Prokhorov [in Russian to his bodyguards]: "KILL HIM!!!!"

8:05 — Questions asked in my living room after Portland's pick: "What conference is Damian Lillard from again?" … "Has any top-10 pick ever had more highlights that happened against white people?" … "Is it WEE-ber or Weh-ber?" … "Has anyone ever picked a backup point guard this high?" … "Did they just pick Jerryd Bayless again or am I crazy?" … "Are these highlights from Division I games?"

(Answers: Big Sky … no … "Weh-ber" "Wee-ber" … yes, Jonny Flynn in 2009 … it's unclear … yes.)

8:09 — Tom Penn just threw a slew of advanced points-per-possession stats at us, trying to make the case that it wasn't completely ludicrous for a two-time Big Sky MVP to go sixth in the entire NBA draft. It's almost like the ESPN producers said, "What segment could we create that appeals to 125 hard-core basketball bloggers and goes over the heads of literally everyone else watching this telecast?" Here were the points-per-possession stats (I made two of them up) …

Own Pick-and-Roll Offense 1.14 (91st percentile in Division I)
Passes Out of Pick-and-Roll: 1.04 (72nd percentile in Division I)
Against White Dudes Who Walked Onto Their Teams: 4.32 (100th percentile in Division I)
Spot-up Shooting: 1.39 (96th percentile in Division I)
Against Guys Who Walk With a Slight Limp: 3.23 (100th percentile in Division I)

8:10 — Broussard makes a good point: Portland's point guards last year (Felton and Crawford) couldn't shoot, so it made sense for them to find someone who COULD shoot to stretch the floor for LaMarcus Aldridge. And Lillard can shoot. I might talk myself into this pick by midnight. I need at least two more drinks.

8:10 — Big smile from Harrison Barnes — he's headed to the Warriors at no. 7 and can't hide his toothy "Thank god it wasn't Sacramento" smile. Why do I kinda like that pick? He'll definitely disappoint compared to what we expected two years ago, but those days are long gone and he is what he is … and if you need a small forward, and you're taking him seventh hoping he's a quality starter (and nothing more), how could he end up disappointing you? Worst-case scenario, they get to relive the Joe Barry Carroll era with a shorter version of Joe Barry, right? Even Joe Barry put up numbers for a few years.

"Nobody under 40 will get that reference," House says.

"Harrison Barnes is 6-foot-8 but five inches of that is forehead," Jacoby offers.

"Go with that joke," House says.

"I think [Barnes] has a chance to be a better pro than a college player," Bilas says.

"That joke was better than the other two," House says. He's not a Barnes fan. We will see.

8:14 — Jacoby and I both notice that Golden State's starting five (Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Barnes, David Lee and Andrew Bogut) looks sneaky-good on paper … right until House says, "You left out the part that Curry and Bogut will get hurt, they're paying $25 million per year to Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins, and their coach was just involved in a sex/extortion scandal with a stripper." Yeah, but still.

8:15 — Right as we're in the middle of a heated "Why would you text naked pictures of yourself to a stripper?" conversation, my mom shows up with meatballs, sausages and homemade pasta. I'm sure there's a good joke here — I just don't want to know what it is. Vegas sets an early under of 8.5 combined meatballs and sausages for House. Take the over.

8:16 — I just did a 180 on Andre Drummond, the much-maligned 19-year-old center from UConn who's been getting savagely picked apart by draft critics. ESPN came out of commercial with the camera right on him — he looked at the camera, gathered himself, smiled, looked away, realized the camera was still on him, then awkwardly tried to look cool while really saying, "I know, I know … you're probably making fun of me now, just know that I'm not a bad guy, I swear, I'm just a kid." Sweet moment. I'm rooting for him now. I'm not even kidding. You could just tell he's overwhelmed by the night. He's only 12 years older than my daughter. I don't know.

(You're right, I'm a sap. I'll go back to being a snarky, unforgiving a-hole again. My bad.)

8:17 — I really liked Terrence Ross heading into this draft, if only because it's hard to dislike anyone described as "Nick Young if he played defense." I just didn't like him as the eighth pick. Too early. "Not a bad pick," Broussard says tepidly. The 2013 Raptors … feel the excitement! The good news: We all like Ross's snazzy blue checkered shirt and green bow tie. Somewhere, Wesley Morris is nodding proudly.

8:23 — Detroit snaps up a relieved Drummond at no. 9. "He's giving me everything I want," Jacoby says. "At first, he was super-sad and emotional and vulnerable, and then he seemed happier than anyone when he shook hands with Stern. I'm in on him."

8:24 — Bilas mentions that Drummond shot 29 percent on free throws last year. "What?????" Jacoby yelps with a mouthful of meatballs. "I'm out on Drummond." That was fast. You could say Drummond is a combination of Shaquille O'Neal (free throws), Dikembe Mutombo (low-post moves), Andrew Bynum (effort) and Bubba Watson (emotional stability). Still, the Pistons have to be delighted — instead of talking themselves into a 216-pound center (John Henson), they ended up with a 280-pound center (Drummond). That's 64 more pounds of center! Big win!

8:25 — An increasingly heated "Will Drummond make it?" argument ends like this …

House: "He can't play! We both watched that Draft Express video!"

Me: "Yeah, but you have to admit, he's got a nice face."

House: "HE CAN'T PLAY!!!"

8:28 — New Orleans grabs Austin Rivers at no. 10; Stern decides against overruling it. Nice pick. (I'm in the "Rivers will be good" camp — he's too confident to be a bust.) You have to like the Gordon/Rivers/Brow foundation, right? More important, we're in the middle of a major "sister or girlfriend?" controversy … who was the pretty girl that Austin hugged? (Frantic Googling.) Dammit! That was his sister! (Thinking.) Wait, were we just attracted to Doc Rivers's daughter? Let's move on. Quickly.

8:31 — Biggest loser of the draft so far: Austin's goatee. He connected on 37 percent of his 3s and 3 percent of his whiskers. House calls for a "MUST IMPROVE: PUBERTY" graphic.4

8:32 — Van Gundy on Austin Rivers: "I love his demeanor. People say it's cocky, [but] if you're not strong-willed and [you don't] believe in yourself in this league, they will eat your lunch." Totally agree. I'd rather have a 20-year-old Rivers than a 22-year-old Lillard. Quick question: Are Danny Crawford, Marc Davis and Bill Kennedy now obligated to screw over Austin on every call over the next 15 years? Is it like a legacy thing? Does Doc pass this Crawford/Kennedy/Davis curse down to Austin? Is there a ceremony? How does it work?

8:34 — Like everyone else, I get nervous every time Portland spends a first-round pick on a center. It's like hearing that Larry King got married again. Poor Meyers Leonard. Jacoby thinks Portland drafted a white center to boost Damian Lillard's confidence during practices. House thinks Leonard should get the "highest insurance policy he can possibly get." I didn't mind the pick — at some point, Portland is going to draft a center who stays healthy for more than five years. I can feel it.

8:41 — After failing to package his excess of first-rounders for Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Rudy Gay, Rick Nash, Roberto Luongo, Felix Hernandez, Justin Upton, Joe Mauer and every other All-Star who's available right now, depressed Houston GM Daryl Morey takes UConn scorer Jeremy Lamb at no. 12, then immediately sticks Kevin Martin's expiring contract on Craigslist. "Why did Lamb drop?" House asks. "Did he steal something?" Who knew the UConn/stealing jokes had a shelf life of six years?

8:48 — Your Steve Nash replacement in Phoenix … Kendall Marshall! I've officially shifted into "Every pick that isn't Royce White or Jared Sullinger pushes White and Sullinger one pick closer to the Celtics" mode. (My affection for White has been well documented — he's Antoine Walker with some Anthony Mason and B.A. Baracus thrown in.) "Royce White isn't gonna be there at 21," Jacoby hisses. "You need to deal with this." He's right. I'm in total denial.

8:52 — Milwaukee's John Henson pick spawns two separate narratives: We finally have a starting center for the NBA's all-time Babyface team (along with Carmelo Anthony, BJ Armstrong, Ricky Rubio and Eric Gordon), and we have a new nominee for the "this year's platoon starters who should be merged into one fantasy basketball player" spot (combining Henson and Sam Dalembert into a shot-blocking stud named Jam Dalenson).

8:53 — Bilas follows through with Wednesday's B.S. Report promise and mentions Henson's "Freddie Krueger-like" wingspan, then says, "That was for Bill Simmons." I feel like we just broke the fourth wall. This is weird. Meanwhile, we're only halfway through the draft but somehow approaching the "Most teams that have taken a guy in the right spot AND filled a need" record. Let's see, New Orleans (twice), Charlotte, Washington, Sacramento, Golden State, Detroit, Portland, Houston, Milwaukee … that's 10 of 14 picks you could describe as "totally logical." Is the NBA getting smarter? Is the draft getting easier? And what's fun about "smarter" and "easier?" COULD SOMEONE DO SOMETHING DUMB, PLEASE??????

8:57 — Philly takes Maurice "Don't Call Me Mo Anymore" Harkless, the St. John's forward who keeps getting compared to Trevor Ariza (as if it's a compliment to be the next version of someone who's been on six teams already). Speaking of comparisons, we crossed an invisible line this year — except for Anthony Davis, every player was described as either a 2.0 version or a rich man's version of someone. So, "Would you rather have a 2.0 version of yourself, or a rich man's version of yourself?" We vote unanimously for the 2.0 version for the following two reasons:

A. The "rich man's version" implies the new version is superior in every way, and that the other version was fairly forgettable.

B. The "2.0 version" gives the older version more credit, inferring that it created the prototype and laid the groundwork for everything after.

In other words, Mo Harkness can be the rich man's Trevor Ariza. He can't be Trevor Ariza 2.0, because that would imply that Trevor Ariza 1.0 was memorable. But Bradley Beal could be Ray Allen 2.0 because Ray Allen 1.0 was undeniably memorable. Got it? Got it. And as we're hashing out these details …

9:05 — Houston takes Royce White.

9:05 — Stomach punch. That was my guy.

9:05 — Still keeled over.

9:06 — Muttering things to myself like "We won in 2008," "He IS afraid to fly" and "It could be worse, I could be a Cleveland fan." Not totally working.

9:09 — Best players remaining: Perry Jones, Tyler Zeller, Jared Sullinger, Andrew Nicholson, Terrence Jones. The Celtics are four picks away. Brutal. If we can get Jones and Sullinger, I won't sulk for the entire weekend. Anything else? Sulking.

9:10 — The Mavericks take Tyler Zeller at no. 17 … if he's on their team in November, I'll give you $500. That leads to ESPN flashing a picture of Tyler and his brothers, Cody and Luke, that only needed a sailboat, croquet sticks, a yoga mat and/or someone holding the Friends Blu-ray boxed set to realize its potential as the whitest picture of all time.

9:12 — We're stupefied that there hasn't been one hot girlfriend sighting tonight. Were girlfriends banned this year? Were they collectively psyched out by Jan Vesely's lady and stayed away? Our Hot Girlfriend Pool fell apart faster than James Harden's max contract.

9:17 — Nice night for the Rockets: Jeremy Lamb, Royce White and Terrence Jones (who fell about five spots too far to no. 18).5 Meanwhile, we have our first trade: Dallas traded Zeller to Cleveland for picks 24, 32 and 33. That means the Cavs just parlayed four top-33 picks (including the no. 4 overall) into a sixth man and a backup center, winning this year's Baxter Burgundy Award for the team that pooped in the fridge and ate a whole wheel of cheese, only you can't be mad at them because it was kind of amazing.

9:22 — "With the 19th pick, Orlando takes a Canadian physics major who went to St. Bonaventure." Somehow I liked that pick. Even ESPN flashing a "Highest Canadian-Born NBA Players Drafted" graphic that featured Tristan Thompson (4), Bill Wennington (16), Leo Rautins (17), Jamal Magliore (19), Andrew Nicholson (19), Rick Fox (24) and Stewart Granger (24) couldn't deter me. That Nicholson is a little Antawn Jamison-y.

9:27 — Unhappy with the current Rudy Fernandez, Denver takes "The French Rudy Fernandez" (Evan Fournier) at no. 20. They now have five foreign-born players: Fournier, Fernandez (Spain), Timofey Mosgov (Russia), Danilo Gallinari (Italy) and JaVale McGee (Mars). "He's handsome," Jacoby says, then adds, "I mean, I'm just saying, he's a handsome guy" before self-consciously swigging a beer. That might have been the highlight of the draft so far.

9:29 — The Celtics are on the clock. We're in Sullinger Range. As I detailed in Wednesday's mock draft, I'm totally fine with it. Totally.

"What are you thinking?" Jacoby asks. "Sullinger?"

"He's the best scoring forward in the draft," I said. "Besides, can you really go wrong with a guy named Sully in Boston?

"How's the back doctor in Boston?" House asks without a trace of irony.

(In 10 years, that exchange will either be amusing or eerily, poop-in-your-pants prophetic. I'm hoping for the former.)

9:32 — Bilas on the best available fit for Boston's roster: "Sullinger because he knows how to play, but he's 6-foot-9 — even though he's long-armed, he's not a great athlete that elevates over people and he's not a great defender, and he's not a great runner, but he's a 6-foot-9 guy that knows how to play, he knows how to play … " He just obliterated the backhanded compliment record. I don't know if I feel better or worse about the Sully Era.

(Thinking.)

Isn't this destiny? A top-seven lottery pick falls to Boston at no. 21, his name is Sully, he can play that Big Baby role and score on the block against anyone, he has "bulging dicks" in his back that can easily be fixed with a few months of Pilates … why am I fighting this? This is the right pick. Sully knows how to play. He knows how to play.

9:34 — "With the 21st pick, the Celtics take … Sully!" Good. Now what? Perry Jones? Do we roll the dice twice? If you're basing everything on the question, "What do we need to beat Miami?," then they need to take someone else who's taller than, say, 6-foot-8. The Celtics need size. Fellow Celtics fan Jacoby wants Jones, explaining, "Even if we go one for two, that means we turned 21 and 22 into a lottery talent." House thinks Jones should be the pick because "Who else is left at this point, Fab Melo?" For once, I don't have an opinion … as long as it's not Fab Melo. I just watched Miami and Oklahoma City basically say, "The league is getting faster, you don't need centers anymore, you need athletes." Where does Fab Melo fit into that last sentence? And why do I have the sinking feeling we're taking him, anyway?

9:41 — Yup … Fab Melo. His averages for Syracuse last year: 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds. "He's still coming on as a player," Bilas says in the understatement of the last five centuries. Unbelievable.

9:42 — My dad texts me, "Hey, at least we know Fab will be better than Ryan Hollins." Time to start drinking.

9:43 — I wish I was making this up … ESPN just cut to a commercial, but not before running one of their ladder promos with Sullinger, who lifted the ladder on his back, walked away from the camera, put the ladder down, then grimaced slightly and hobbled off-camera. Is there a pill to take to help me forget that I ever saw that? Should I roofie myself?

10:00 — The next three picks: Vandy shooter John Jenkins to Atlanta (liked it); combo guard Jared Cunningham to Dallas (blah); Tony Wroten Jr. to Memphis (sleeper). In the old days, we'd be watching a catatonic Perry Jones sitting by himself in the green room wondering what just happened. In 2012, they're smart enough not to invite potential free-fallers, so you can only keep refreshing their Twitter accounts hoping they'll tweet something depressing. Perry Jones hasn't tweeted for seven solid hours. Here were his last two tweets:

Tweet 1: "If you in Jersey and you need a ticket to the draft my cousin has 8 of them.. tweet @killakole if u want them"

Tweet 2: "They for sale. Not free"

Well, I couldn't resist checking out the @killakole account — her tagline reads, "My s***'s straight like 9:15, nahmean?"

(Hmmmmm … it's all starting to make sense … )

10:03 — There's Perry Jones! He's in the stands. Who else wants to see if @killakole is really as straight as 9:15? Can we get a wide shot, ESPN? Perry has one of those "If I canceled my post-draft party right now, would I get my deposit back?" looks on his face. I keep waiting for Bilas to say, "You can't teach relentmore." Nahmean?

10:04 — Instead of taking Miles Plumlee at no. 26, Indiana should have just walked over to Perry Jones and dumped a bucket of manure on him. That's tonight's first pick that elicited outright laughter from everyone in my living room. It's almost like they knew Larry Bird was leaving and wanted to take one last white guy in his honor, only all the white guys got taken and they still stubbornly stuck to the plan. Nope, we promised we'd do it for Larry … just take Plumlee, it will be fine …

10:09 — The Notorious D.J.S. gleefully milks the boos for an extra few seconds before announcing that Miami selects Mississippi State rebounder Arnett Moultrie.6 I'm still reeling from the dawning of the Fab Melo era. When should I waste an hour figuring out if there's ever been a decent NBA center who averaged fewer than six rebounds a game in his final college season? Now or later? A much more compelling subplot: After putting down two big bowls of pasta and meatballs, House inexplicably moved on to salad, prompting this exchange …

Jacoby: "Whoa, going with a salad! That was as unexpected as the Fab Melo pick!"

House: "Only not as disappointing."

Me: "Too soon."

Important note: Because I'm a full-fledged homersexual, by mid-July, you can count on me talking myself into tonight's Celtics draft and convincing myself that we dodged a bullet by not getting Royce White. But tonight? I'm bummed. I can't lie.7 Of course, I couldn't have been as bummed as Perry Jones — Oklahoma City finally ended his misery at no. 28, inadvertently qualifying him for "Nobody believed in me!" status. What was better for Jones — going ninth (redeeming him for not reaching his potential at Baylor) or going 28th (the kick in the ass he desperately needed)? The latter, right?

Jones hopped out of his stands for a Stern handshake and chewed gum through an impromptu interview with Mark Jones. It was everything you ever wanted from the NBA draft — disappointment, hope, unpredictability, quirkiness, potential, you name it. Before the last pick of the first round (Golden State's Festus Ezeli, who followed Chicago's Marquis Teague), the New Jersey fans seized one last opportunity to lustily jeer at Stern. The Commish milked the moment as always, telling everyone, "I really want to thank all of you for your wonderful enthusiasm." You could say they were acting like bulging dicks. Can you think of a better way to end another entertaining draft? Me neither. Until XVII.

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‘That Boy Competed’

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on June 23, 2012

One of my favorite things about the NBA Finals: After each game finishes and the majority of fans trickle away, there's a 45-minute window before the arena closes to accommodate postgame shows, media members, NBA employees, arena employees and the various entourages for each team. Friends and family of the visitors usually congregate behind their bench, rehashing the night and waiting for players to emerge from the stands. You can always tell what happened by their collective mood … and last night, the mood of Oklahoma City's contingent ranged somewhere between "sullen" and "crestfallen." Their boys didn't just blow the championship; they wasted the best game Russell Westbrook ever played.

Westbrook knew it, too. He surfaced wearing one of his goofy "Look at me!" podium outfits, despondent over what happened in the final 15 seconds. Trailing by three, a confused Westbrook intentionally fouled Mario Chalmers after Miami recovered a jumpball, not realizing the 24-second clock hadn't reset and Chalmers had less than three seconds to launch an off-balance shot from the corner. As it was unfolding, every Oklahoma City fan probably screamed "Nooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!" in slow motion like Cuba Gooding right before Ricky Baker got shot. Could you argue that Oklahoma City had already blown the game? Probably. They needed a rebound and a miracle 3 just for overtime. But Westbrook's brain fart erased that slim chance.

Now, his inner circle attempted to console him. Repeat: attempted. He hugged a couple of people, went through the charade of hearing them, then slowly limped under the stadium again while wiping his eyes. Not how you want to look after playing the game of your life. If you're scoring at home, there are four types of transcendent Finals performances …

Level 4: A great player comes through with absolutely everything on the line. (Think MJ in Game 6 of the '98 Finals.)

Level 3: A great player asserts his dominance and either clinches the series or leaves no doubt where it's headed. (Think MJ in Game 1 of the 1992 Finals, or Bird in Game 6 of the '86 Finals.)

Level 2: A great player throws his fastball for a big game and hushes a few critics along the way. (Think LeBron in Game 2, or Magic in Game 4 of the '87 Finals.)

Level 1: A very good player plays like a great one … and if he hushes a few critics along the way, even better.

Westbrook played a Level 1 game last night. After being picked apart like a presidential candidate during Oklahoma City's first two Finals losses, Westbrook responded with one of the most electric efforts in recent Finals history, sinking 20 of 32 shots, attacking the rim over and over again, and doing everything short of waving both middle fingers at his critics after every made basket. At some point during the next 50 years, I hope somebody explains why Westbrook only attempted three (?!?!?!?!?) free throws last night, or why so many 50/50 calls swung against Oklahoma City these last three games. Just don't blame Westbrook for last night's crushing defeat. As Charles Barkley gushed after the game, "that boy competed tonight."

He's been the most polarizing player of the 2012 Finals, no small feat considering the second-most polarizing basketball player of all time happens to play for the other team.1 Westbrook's detractors don't ever expect him to find the right balance between "competitive" and "reckless." They believe he's a shooting guard masquerading as a point guard (like a better version of Stevie Francis or Tyreke Evans); that he takes too many shots away from the more efficient Kevin Durant; that Oklahoma City can't win the title until they swap him out for a true point guard (say, Rajon Rondo). Westbrook's defenders accept his faults because they're a small part of the greater good: He brings so many unique things to the table, fills the stat sheet in so many different ways, competes so freaking hard every game and remains such a good-natured teammate, they're fine with any collateral damage. The 2012 Zombie Sonics made the Finals because they're relentlessly young and relentlessly athletic. That's Westbrook in a nutshell.

In Game 3, a semi-neutered Westbrook carefully tiptoed through the first two and a half quarters, ratcheted things up after Durant's fourth foul,2 played poorly and earned a conspicuous "rest" from Scott Brooks. That was a dangerous moment for Oklahoma City — not just for this series, but long-term — something that ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy caught while announcing the game. When Van Gundy coached in Houston, he came to regret how he handled Francis, a similarly explosive guard who struggled with his competitive/reckless calibration. Instead of embracing the electric qualities that made Francis special, he steered Francis toward being more of a pure point guard, inadvertently compromising his game.3 You didn't need a translator to figure out why Van Gundy brought this up during Game 3 of the 2012 Finals.

I actually ran into Van Gundy outside a Miami hotel on Monday night, one day before the biggest game of Westbrook's young life. I brought up his Francis comparison and threw one of my hairbrained theories at him: the "10 Percent Theory." Even the best NBA players have holes; in a best-case scenario, they're tapping into about 90 percent of their total potential, with the holes representing the other 10 percent. We can either dwell on the 90 percent or the 10 percent … and some holes are less glaring than others. For instance, Larry Bird's biggest hole was his inability to defend quicker forwards without help. (Same for Dirk Nowitzki.) You could hide that specific hole on the right team, with the right coaches, the right teammates and even the right matchups. But something like Rajon Rondo's shaky jumpshot, or the Botox Face that afflicted Karl Malone in crunch time? There's a case of the 10 percent flashing like a neon sign. Again, some holes are more glaring than others. But EVERYONE has holes.

On Oklahoma City, it's tougher to see Kevin Durant's 10 percent (he's not strong enough yet to prevent defenders like Shane Battier from hounding him 25 feet from the basket and denying him the ball, and he's not a consistently good enough defender yet) than Westbrook's 10 percent (his recklessness, which permeates everything he does, good and bad). You notice when Westbrook shoots 27 times, you notice when he bricks an ill-fated 3 in a huge spot, and you notice when he's bowling someone over for a charge because he thought he could dunk over three guys.

Still, as I mentioned to Van Gundy, Westbrook does so many positive things that those 10 percent plays are something of a tax for the overall Westbrook package, right? Van Gundy agreed wholeheartedly. He believed Oklahoma City needed to win or lose this series on their own terms, not some idealistic, media-driven belief about how they SHOULD be playing. Westbrook will never be John Stockton. It ain't happening. We both wanted to see Westbrook be Westbrook again, one of the league's most fearless competitors, someone who brings a ton of things to the table and takes a few things off, too.

And that's exactly what happened in Game 4. You could see something special brewing right before tip-off, as the starters milled around in front of the scorer's table during a commercial break. Westbrook grabbed the game ball and defiantly dribbled it between his legs toward Miami's basket, staring down the sea of white with a surly, combative frown. The implication was clear: I'm coming tonight. I'm coming for all of you. His first basket came on a violent drive to the basket. His next touch: A pull-up jumper, one of those "don't think for a second that I'm not shooting this" moments. He kept coming and coming, playing with real defiance, helping Oklahoma City build its early double-digit lead. The Heat fought back and eventually assumed control for two reasons over everything else.

1. Oklahoma City was determined to let Miami's point guards beat them … and Norrio Colemers somehow finished with a combined 33 points. Whoops.

2. For three quarters, LeBron James played at the single highest level I have ever seen from him. (Yes, I went to Game 6 of last round's Boston series.) This was the greatest Bird impression ever attempted (and executed), something that could only be called "power point guard." He did whatever he wanted on the low post, crashed the boards, got his teammates involved, made the right play time and time again … it was like watching Bird 2.0, only if Bird was also one of the three best defenders in the league. To repeat: LeBron was playing like a rich man's version of the fifth-best basketball player of all time. I don't care how much you hated "The Decision" — if you can't appreciate what LeBron James is doing right now, you need to start following another sport. It's one of the greatest night-to-night athletic feats we have ever witnessed.

And just when it seemed like LeBron had broken Oklahoma City (and especially James Harden, who was getting tortured in the low post again and again as people wondered things like, I wonder why Oklahoma City won't switch to zone and Hey, do you think Scott Brooks knows that zone defenses are legal in the NBA?), Westbrook unleashed another defiant run, scoring 13 straight even as his team crumbled around him. Looking back, the Zombies blew three straight winnable games because of the proverbial "little things." Oh, and because they couldn't buy a call if their life depended on it. But especially because of the little things.

Remember Harden blowing that fast-break layup that he should have dunked? Remember Fisher taking that stupefyingly dumb jumper even though Westbrook had NBA Jam flames shooting out of his ass? Remember those times (multiple) when Durant fought for the ball 35 feet from the basket, got manhandled by Battier, waited for a foul that never came, then simply gave up and allowed someone else to shoot? Remember Thabo Sefolosha getting a wide-open 3 and barely hitting the backboard? Remember Harden missing multiple open 3s, then passing up a wide-open 17-footer before begrudgingly bricking it? Remember Serge Ibaka sealing off Chalmers's drive on Miami's biggest possession of the game (up three, 44 seconds remaining), then somehow allowing Chalmers to snake by him for an off-balance layup? All of those plays happened in the fourth quarter. Again, Oklahoma City blew Game 4 before Westbrook fouled Chalmers.

Once upon a time, the Heat were seasoned by the 2011 Mavericks and the 2012 Celtics, both savvy contenders with a ton of pride, experienced teams that forced you to beat them. The Heat beat themselves in the 2011 Finals, learned from it, then finally exorcised those choking demons two weeks ago. Now they're pulling a similar trick on the young kids from Oklahoma City. This is the law of the NBA. You learn from the team that keeps beating you, and eventually, you do it to someone else. Welcome to the 2012 Finals.

Just don't blame Westbrook for what happened. When you're judging the best players (not just now, but all-time), Barkley's four-word assessment matters more than anything else. Nobody had more "that boy competed tonight" games than Jordan. That's why we revered him. It's the same reason Bird picked Kobe as the current NBA player who would have been his favorite teammate. It's the same reason so many of us were disappointed in LeBron's curious lack of urgency during 2010's Boston series or last year's Finals, or why we kept wondering if he would ever "get there." LeBron didn't fully figure out the magic formula until Game 4 of the Indiana series, when he started playing every game like his life depended on it. He's been playing 45 minutes a night and cresting at a nearly inconceivable level ever since.

Last night, he even pushed himself a little too far, with his legs cramping in the final minutes of another "that boy competed tonight" game. Turns out LeBron isn't an indestructible cyborg sent from the future. No matter. He somehow managed to eliminate that 10 percent; for about five weeks now, he's played basketball without any visible holes. It's been relatively astounding to watch — just like it was astounding when Wilt put it together for one unforgettable season in 1967, or when Jordan finally figured everything out in 1991. There comes a moment when you say, "Oh, shit, we're all in trouble now," and then you hold on for the ride. LeBron officially hit that point in Boston during Game 6. Only his body can stop him now.

As for Russell Westbrook, he's never shedding that 10 percent. It's always going to pulsate. We're always going to notice it. That's what makes him Russell Westbrook. Just know that boy competed last night. You are who you are.

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Why You Should Root for LeBron

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on June 23, 2012

The world will be a better place when LeBron James can be universally accepted as 'great.'

For the past two years, the sportosphere has been focused on the fallacy of deconstructing greatness. Although daily arguments over behavior in late-game situations and historical placement are part of the natural sports discourse, the NBA fan has been stuck in an unhealthy, argumentative state. We are more interested in analyzing individual body language than in deconstructing a team's pick-and-roll defense. Now that the Miami Heat have seized control of the NBA Finals, we are mentally preparing for a world where LeBron has officially earned his place in the discussion of greatness. All of our arguments are about to become irrelevant, exposing the flawed template we used to construct our anti-LeBron values.

The moments after LeBron wins a championship will probably be the only time in his career when we are able to see an unplanned, unfiltered version of the real LeBron James. Hopefully Mike Breen isn't mysteriously replaced with Jim Gray at the trophy presentation.

It's time for us to rise above the norms of our hater-enabling society. Rooting for the Heat means rooting for a healthier NBA experience, sort of like how Obama was a symbol of '#hope' for a better America. We will no longer use words to deconstruct our villain, but instead allow him to begin a new era of appreciation. LeBron James hoisting the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy will end the chapter on the awkward transitional phase where he couldn't seize his league. It wasn't really even our dedicated arguments that prevented him from winning a title, it was probably the elevated and extended functionality of veterans like Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Kidd making it more difficult for him to seize a title.

Professional athletes have learned to say that the forces of media-crafted public perception do not penetrate their psyche. However, it would be impossible to ignore the snowballing post-'Decision' effect on LeBron James and the Miami Heat as they have transitioned into being the NBA's universally accepted villains. We tune in to root against them, hoping to catch the most blatant choke because it will provide the negative reinforcement we need that prevents us from visualizing them as champions. Even I'll admit that watching LeBron James dominate the 2012 NBA playoffs started out as pretty annoying, but that's because I have only really been watching with the intent to discredit his contribution to his team's performance and his historical legacy.

LeBron is no longer just a basketball player or even a 'larger-than-life personal brand that was created to sell shoes to international markets' that some players were fortunate enough to be in the late 1990s. He's turned into a grudge that is so old we have forgotten why we are so passionate about perpetuating the hatred. Whether it is a regular-season game against the Bobcats or a Game 7 against the Celtics, we are programmed to tune in as if we are gathering evidence for a case against 'greatness.' What are we even protecting by not wanting LeBron to be considered 'great'? Probably just a defense mechanism for the NBA memories of our youth. I wonder if anyone wishes they could go back in time and root against Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, and Gary Payton.

For the first time in his career, I feel empathetic while watching LeBron James because he is playing with the vulnerability of someone who has been excessively cyberbullied. I usually hate watching the Heat, but LeBron has finally shown us that he is tired, drained, and on the brink of a complete physical breakdown. Despite all that, he is playing with the urgency of someone who understands the cost of leaving another Finals without a championship.

It's weird to be rooting for the Heat, because they are actually one of the most annoying basketball teams to watch, especially after the alleged purity of the Spurs-Thunder series. The Heat have a way of making basketball seem 'less basketball-y.' In Wade and James, they have two unstoppable forces who charge down the lane and shift the focus to the officials' whistles. The Heat are not a team associated with great ball movement and finding the open man, creating a new iteration of the 'beautiful game' that can be celebrated by disciples of James Naismith. They are most likely to inspire conspiracy theories. It's a surprise when one of their role players scores more than 10 points.

It doesn't feel like we're watching greatness, but rather that we're seeing two of the most difficult players to officiate playing on the same team, wearing down the Thunder defense. Every time the Thunder angrily look at the officials for a missed call, you can just feel Pat Riley smiling from his seat. He found a legal way to put pressure on the current iteration of the NBA rulebook.

When LeBron first signed with the Heat, we were threatened by how NBA teams would be assembled in the future. We thought that 'superstars' would begin to team up and 'ruin' the competitive balance of the league. Now we're in a Finals that consists of two teams with similar makeups: two legitimate workhorses and a group of inconsistent role players. As the series has played out, it feels like the same old NBA because we're still watching a team that has 'been there before' make 'championship hustle plays' and another one fail to find their game on the biggest stage. Or maybe we should give the Heat credit for 'championship-level defense.'

The outcome so far feels a little bit obvious, even though we are supposed to be watching the highest level of basketball we've seen played all year. But the Finals are just a basketball showcase for casual fans. With so many off days between games, the pace of the series can leave the focus on everything but basketball. It's not about the game, it's about milking every last moment of our theatrical analysis system before the season terminates. To the hyperfan, LeBron James is the face of those people who are only casually interested in basketball.

Unless you have a rooting interest in a team, the analysis between games wears at your soul, and ultimately just gives you a chance to reflect on some of the more annoying elements of sports that are catering to the people who haven't been there all season long. It has become too easy to get sucked into deconstructing 'unearned greatness' since it is the most snackable angle for the casual fan. Obsessing over media coverage strategies is pointless since the people who are hyper-aware enough to complain about them probably aren't in the target market of the coverage that they are watching.

Sure, even if LeBron wins, new angles will emerge. But we'll never see alleged greatness incubated in this way again. He was the first high-schooler we watched on TV. One of the last high school stars drafted. Hopefully the last guy with an inner circle that would enable a 'Decision'-like event. A member of the last generation of superstars who thought they had to decide between 'small' and 'big' market opportunities.

Rooting for the Heat means rooting for a tonal change in sports media. I feel like maybe we've already learned how to be more mature in these Finals. We've already cut Russell Westbrook some slack instead of hyper-critiquing his NBA existence. He's probably fortunate to have come along in the new era of individual forgiveness, where we learn to take a step back and take a look at the big picture before we are lost in the sensationalist hatred and fallacy.

After rooting for epic failure for so long, it's refreshing to remember that the human spirit feels the most fulfilled when celebrating a redemption story. Or maybe we're just about to watch the most fulfilling choke in sports history.

Permalink

LeBron Makes LeLeap

By: timbersfan, 12:08 AM GMT on June 23, 2012

You know what saddens me? The funniest clip on YouTube is no longer funny. Yep, you can finally rest in peace, "The Heat Welcome Party" video. Thanks for giving us two sterling years atop the Internet comedy rankings. We're replacing you with a bullpen by committee of old reliables like "I Like Turtles," "Charlie Bit Me," the "It's Still Real to Me, Dammit" guy, Journey's immortal "Separate Ways" video and even the "I Like Turtles" techno remix. You will be buried officially during Monday's championship parade in Miami. We will bury you not once, not twice, not three times … just kidding, we're only burying you once.

Let's hope you don't resurface as something else — something scarier, something more ominous, something on the level of Namath guaranteeing Super Bowl III or Ali promising to defeat Liston. See, the ceiling of "The Heat Welcome Party" slowly changed during the last two games of the 2012 Finals. It's no longer about hubris or a suffocating lack of self-awareness. It might be more of an omen, a warning, a little like the Game of Thrones characters seeing a red comet streak across the sky and saying, Uh-oh, dragons are coming. I mention this only because, like every other non-Miami fan who attended the last two home games, I left that arena muttering to myself, "Shit … he finally figured it out."

Suddenly "Not one, not two, not three … " doesn't sound so far-fetched. Unless his body betrays him, it's hard to imagine LeBron not using the 2012 playoffs as a launching pad for the next stage of his career … you know, when he starts collecting trophies and climbing up that imaginary historical ladder. We remember NBA stars three different ways: by the entirety of their career, their career's highest peak, and the duration of that peak. Something like 25 players had genuinely great careers, but only seven played at the all-around level that LeBron achieved these past few weeks. Jordan, Russell, Kareem, Magic and Bird kept their peaks going. Wilt got bored. Walton got injured. Now we're here again.

LeBron spent the last nine years juggling various identities — a little Jordan, a little Magic, a little ABA Doc, a little Pippen — never revealing that HE knew what he wanted to be. Even his position was amorphous. Was he a power forward? A small forward? An oversize point guard? What the hell was he? By the end of the 2012 Finals, we had our answer: He's LeBron James. First of a kind. A power point guard who can create his own shot from the perimeter and the low post, a devastating passer who can't be double-teamed, a superior athlete who attacks the rim whenever he wants, an unfathomably durable workhorse on both ends, someone who can defend all five positions (yes, five) at an elite level.

Over everything else, he fully married his physical gifts with his basketball I.Q. and morphed into something of a basketball monster. Remember all those times when we wondered, Why doesn't LeBron just take it to the rack — it seems like he could score whenever he wants? Yup, pretty much. A good example of LeBron's physical dominance this spring: Late in Game 4, when LeBron started limping and finally toppled to the floor, everyone in the arena had the same reaction. Wait, LeBron can get hurt? LeBron feels pain? It was like seeing Michael Myers keel over. When he was carried off, the crowd audibly gasped in disbelief. They're carrying him off? They're carrying LeBron off? I assumed that he belatedly realized he'd blown out his knee because, you know, he's a fucking cyborg. As it turned out, he only had cramps. Even that seemed kind of amazing. LeBron James gets cramps? LeBron James needs to drink water?

So yeah, everything starts with that remarkable body. If you were creating a basketball player in a science lab, you would create the guy we just watched these past five weeks. When was the last time an NBA player made you say, "Come on, that's not fair"? Maybe Shaq during those three Finals when he kept overpowering the Pacers, Sixers and Nets? That's how LeBron made Celtics fans feel during Game 6's cold-blooded scoring barrage, and that's how he made Oklahoma City fans feel during those last two Finals games. LeBron mastered their defense the same way Tom Brady would solve a nickel zone. Everything slowed down for him, and even better, you could see it slowing down for him. The court turned into his personal chess board. Throw in his superhuman athletic gifts and it almost didn't seem fair.

In Game 4, Miami planted him on the low post and LeBron went Larry Bird 2.0 on us. (For the record, there was never supposed to be a Larry Bird 2.0. We discontinued that model in 1992 and assumed it would never be seen again, much less in an even more devastating form. So … yeah.) In Game 5, he mixed that same low-post game with Dirk Nowitzki's high-post isolation game that worked so well in the 2011 playoffs, going Dirk 2.0 by adding a slash-and-kick component. Of his 13 Game 5 assists, eight resulted in 3s. Throw in his 26 points and LeBron was directly responsible for 60 points last night.

You know what was really scary? I didn't even think he played that well. Game 6 against Boston? A-plus. The first three quarters of Game 4 against Oklahoma City? A-plus-plus. Last night? B-plus … even though he finished with a 26-11-13 in a blowout victory. Something that wasn't totally reflected in the box score other than Miami's made 3s (14 in all): LeBron's brilliance lifted everyone else along with him. It wasn't a coincidence that Miami's supporting guys starting swishing 3s like pop-a-shot free throws. We just watched the same thing happen with the Los Angeles Kings — once Jonathan Quick established himself as the proverbial "hot goalie," his teammates started flying around with an inordinate amount of confidence. They could smell it. Same for Miami those last few games. And all because of LeBron.

In the postgame presser, he mentioned being happy it played out the way it did, that he needed to "hit rock-bottom" before he could become the player he needed to be. I don't believe this for two reasons. First, his jaw-dropping performance in the 2009 playoffs (35.3 PPG, 7.3 APG, 9.1 RPG, .510 FG) strongly hinted that this 2012 bloodbath (30.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 5.6 APG, the first player ever to average a 30-9-5 twice in the postseason) was coming. His evolution was always headed this way; we just got delayed (and nearly derailed) by 2010's meltdown in the Boston series, then "The Decision," then everything from last year. Second, I can't imagine LeBron would ever repeat the last 23 months. There had to be better ways to get there. During last night's interviews, we kept hearing the same wistful refrain from LeBron, his teammates and even his coach. The last two years weren't fun. Wearing that big bull's-eye and the black cowboy hat wasn't fun. Being booed wasn't fun, being picked apart wasn't fun, being maligned wasn't fun. They spent last season battling the collective vitriol, figuring out how to use it to their advantage … and ultimately failing.

As LeBron admitted last night, it just wasn't him. He wasn't meant to be someone who dunked on opponents and stared defiantly into the stands like a wrestling heel. He lost himself in the process, spent the summer remembering why he liked basketball, rededicated himself, found that same joy … and the rest was history. Even if that sounds like a sweet plot for a sports movie, I'm not buying that LeBron needed that specific sequence to achieve his manifest destiny. Sports would have taken care of that for him. You keep losing the title, you keep going back to the drawing board, you keep trying to get better. Wilt wanted to get past the Celtics. Bird wanted to get past the Sixers. Magic wanted to get past the Celtics. Jordan wanted to get past the Pistons. That's basketball. Eventually, LeBron would realize that losing sucked and spend the summer accordingly. Decision or no Decision.

So what actually changed? For one thing, Dwyane Wade injured his knee and became 70 Percent Of Dwyane Wade, inadvertently solving the "dueling banjos" dilemma. The Heat tried to thwart six decades of NBA history by teaming two alpha dogs together, making them equals and assuming their overwhelming talent would overcome any resulting bumpiness. They were wrong. Basketball doesn't work that way, for the same reason you don't need two transcendent lead guitarists for a rock band. Someone had to learn bass. It ended up being Wade, and only because fate intervened. We'll remember Game 6 of the Boston series for a variety of reasons, but mainly because LeBron looked around and said, I'm going down on my own terms. I'm playing all 48 minutes and scoring 50 points. If we lose, we lose. At least nobody will say that I rolled over. It ended up being the most important two hours of his career. He went out and assassinated the Celtics.

From that moment forward, Dwyane Wade became a glorified sidekick. Everything Miami did offensively went through LeBron. Wade quickly figured out how to coexist, grabbing stray shots and doing anything else the team needed: protecting the rim, crashing the boards, bolting toward the rim for backdoor passes anytime Oklahoma City forgot about him. You couldn't even call him more valuable than Chris Bosh, who reestablished himself in those last seven playoff games as a quality defender, screen-and-roller and inside/outside threat who didn't need the ball to thrive. Was Wade happy about how it played out? Absolutely … because they won. Tellingly, of course, he made a point of mentioning how "difficult" that adjustment was.

And that's only scratching the surface. Imagine you're Wade. Imagine you talk Bosh and LeBron into joining YOUR team and living in YOUR city. Imagine that first year going to hell. Imagine coming to the begrudging realization that you're only going as far as LeBron takes you, that — even though it's your city, and you're the one who gets introduced last at every home game — you're going to have to wear the Robin costume. By Game 2 of the Finals, everyone is wondering whether you're the same guy you used to be; meanwhile, you've never had to take a backseat on a basketball court before, and that's what is screwing you up more than anything. By Game 5, you're listening to your fans serenade LeBron with "M-V-P!" chants as he holds two trophies like a hunter holding a couple of deer heads. You're standing on the side, just like Shaq six years ago. Maybe that's what he meant by "difficult."

Just know the situation was resolved organically, much like it was during the 2008 Olympics, when Spain was closing in and Kobe said I got this, followed by everyone else letting him have it. That's just how basketball works. You can't have two guys saying "I got this." Miami figured that out a year late. And if Wade hadn't tweaked his knee, maybe they never would have.

The other twist of fate: Derrick Rose wrecked his knee in Round 1, propelling the Celtics into the Conference Finals … you know, LeBron's nemesis, the bullies who beat him in 2008 and 2010, the grizzled veterans who were convinced that LeBron would always cave when it mattered most. Garnett and Pierce loved pushing his buttons more than anyone. During their final regular-season road trip to Miami, which turned out to be a surprisingly easy win for the Celtics, they spent the last two minutes busting Wade's balls about LeBron. You picked the wrong guy. You'll never win with that guy. LeBron could hear everything. They didn't care. In Game 5 of their playoff series, Garnett and Pierce pushed things a little further, believing that LeBron was ready to cave again. Down the stretch, Garnett muttered derisive obscenities under his breath anytime LeBron was in earshot, then stuffed him at the rim on a pivotal drive. A little bit later, Pierce nailed a back-breaking 3 right in LeBron's mug, then yelled, "I have the balls to take that!" as he trotted back down the floor.

In retrospect, they pushed him too far. The Celtics regarded LeBron with a surprising amount of disdain — that's why Rondo angrily yelped, "Let's go!" before defending LeBron's final drive of regulation in Game 2. LeBron ended up settling for a 21-footer against someone seven inches shorter than him, followed by Rondo strutting back to the huddle and probably telling his teammates, "I knew he didn't have the balls to come at me." They spent that whole series challenging his manhood; by the end of Game 5, they thought they had broken him. Was that what turned him into a serial killer in Game 6? Not entirely … but it definitely helped. I just don't think LeBron makes LeLeap without the bullies from Boston.1

So what happens next? Lurking underneath LeBron's postseason was a scary realization: Miami finally knows what it is. The Heat settled the LeBron/Wade thing, settled the "Is Spoelstra the right coach?" question, figured out their eight-man rotation (only Mike Miller's spot is in danger2) and realized they're better off playing Bosh and LeBron as their bigs (a trick that unleashes them offensively and defensively). Oh, and they have the guy playing at the highest level in two decades on their team. Life is good. Even their much-maligned home crowd stepped up with a series of spirited playoff efforts, buoyed by their "us against them" complex (which started with "The Decision" and deepened over time thanks to the national media) and a genuine affection for this team (not just their three stars, but veterans like Miller, Battier and even Juwan Howard). Everything seems to be lined up for an extended run along the lines of Shaq's Lakers, Michael's Bulls, Magic's Lakers or Bird's Celtics (combined titles: 17). Before the Finals, I wrote that it would be a historical fluke if LeBron James lost his first three Finals; he was just too good of a player for this to happen. Same goes for LeBron winning multiple titles now that he's reached that aforementioned Jordan/Russell/Kareem/Bird/Magic/Wilt/Walton zone. History says that, after he finally broke through, it will only get easier from here.

Only one thing can stop him. I happened to be sitting four rows behind the baseline last night, close enough to Oklahoma City's bench that I could have whipped a coke at Cole Aldrich and maybe even left a mark. Kevin Durant thought the Zombies were winning last night. He strutted through the pregame warm-ups like it was a preseason game. He talked so much good-natured trash with LeBron's buddy and business partner, Maverick Carter, that security got confused and intervened at one point. When Oklahoma City fell behind in the second quarter, Durant made a basket, ran back upcourt, noticed his teammates sitting placidly, then skipped over to them while clapping his hands, as if he were saying, "Come on! I need you!" Right before the second half started, he went after Maverick again, finally scowling, "fourth quarter's my time" before walking away.

You can't believe how many people on that bench assumed Durant would bring them back. They kept waiting for him to catch fire. Even when Miami opened up a 25-point lead and Oklahoma City called timeout — the textbook "This game is O-V-E-R" sequence that so often happens in Finals clinchers — Durant caught his mother's eye and heard her scream, "Kevin, let's go!" followed by Durant calmly nodding, as if he actually had a chance of saving them. Not this year. With less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and Oklahoma City trailing by 23, Scott Brooks finally yanked his starters during an emotional timeout, but not before pulling everyone into a close circle and saying God knows what. When the huddle broke, you could see Durant and Serge Ibaka sobbing into towels. Multiple teammates came over to console Durant, with Westbrook finally yelling at him (not as a dick, as a friend) to gather himself before TV cameras found him. Which he did.

Brooks pulled Harden a few seconds later. He wandered over to the corner to stand with Westbrook, with Durant eventually joining them. They stood there with their arms wrapped around each other, watching their season tick away, soaking in every image for those days in July and August when you're tired of shooting jumpers in an empty gym and need a trigger to keep pushing yourself. It was my favorite moment of the series. Down the line on the other bench, LeBron was hugging teammates and smiling broadly for the first time since … god, when was the last time we even saw LeBron smile? The final buzzer sounded, confetti started falling, and Durant and LeBron quickly found each other for a prolonged hug. You have to believe the rest of the decade is headed that way: summer workout buddies, Olympic teammates, natural rivals. They will see each other again.

And really, that's the key for LeBron James going forward. Bird and Magic had each other. Russell and Chamberlain had each other. Kareem had a steady slew of rivals to keep him busy: Wilt, Willis, Cowens, Walton and Moses, to name five. Jordan didn't have anyone; that's one of the reasons he played baseball for 18 months. You need someone to keep pushing you after you finally break through. When I think of Game 5, I will remember LeBron's brilliance first, then Mike Miller having that crazy sports-movie montage of 3s … and then I'll think of the Oklahoma City kids huddled in the corner at the end, waiting their turn, knowing that's how the NBA works. We'll see if LeBron ever lets them on the ride.

Permalink

LeBron Makes LeLeap

By: timbersfan, 12:08 AM GMT on June 23, 2012

You know what saddens me? The funniest clip on YouTube is no longer funny. Yep, you can finally rest in peace, "The Heat Welcome Party" video. Thanks for giving us two sterling years atop the Internet comedy rankings. We're replacing you with a bullpen by committee of old reliables like "I Like Turtles," "Charlie Bit Me," the "It's Still Real to Me, Dammit" guy, Journey's immortal "Separate Ways" video and even the "I Like Turtles" techno remix. You will be buried officially during Monday's championship parade in Miami. We will bury you not once, not twice, not three times … just kidding, we're only burying you once.

Let's hope you don't resurface as something else — something scarier, something more ominous, something on the level of Namath guaranteeing Super Bowl III or Ali promising to defeat Liston. See, the ceiling of "The Heat Welcome Party" slowly changed during the last two games of the 2012 Finals. It's no longer about hubris or a suffocating lack of self-awareness. It might be more of an omen, a warning, a little like the Game of Thrones characters seeing a red comet streak across the sky and saying, Uh-oh, dragons are coming. I mention this only because, like every other non-Miami fan who attended the last two home games, I left that arena muttering to myself, "Shit … he finally figured it out."

Suddenly "Not one, not two, not three … " doesn't sound so far-fetched. Unless his body betrays him, it's hard to imagine LeBron not using the 2012 playoffs as a launching pad for the next stage of his career … you know, when he starts collecting trophies and climbing up that imaginary historical ladder. We remember NBA stars three different ways: by the entirety of their career, their career's highest peak, and the duration of that peak. Something like 25 players had genuinely great careers, but only seven played at the all-around level that LeBron achieved these past few weeks. Jordan, Russell, Kareem, Magic and Bird kept their peaks going. Wilt got bored. Walton got injured. Now we're here again.

LeBron spent the last nine years juggling various identities — a little Jordan, a little Magic, a little ABA Doc, a little Pippen — never revealing that HE knew what he wanted to be. Even his position was amorphous. Was he a power forward? A small forward? An oversize point guard? What the hell was he? By the end of the 2012 Finals, we had our answer: He's LeBron James. First of a kind. A power point guard who can create his own shot from the perimeter and the low post, a devastating passer who can't be double-teamed, a superior athlete who attacks the rim whenever he wants, an unfathomably durable workhorse on both ends, someone who can defend all five positions (yes, five) at an elite level.

Over everything else, he fully married his physical gifts with his basketball I.Q. and morphed into something of a basketball monster. Remember all those times when we wondered, Why doesn't LeBron just take it to the rack — it seems like he could score whenever he wants? Yup, pretty much. A good example of LeBron's physical dominance this spring: Late in Game 4, when LeBron started limping and finally toppled to the floor, everyone in the arena had the same reaction. Wait, LeBron can get hurt? LeBron feels pain? It was like seeing Michael Myers keel over. When he was carried off, the crowd audibly gasped in disbelief. They're carrying him off? They're carrying LeBron off? I assumed that he belatedly realized he'd blown out his knee because, you know, he's a fucking cyborg. As it turned out, he only had cramps. Even that seemed kind of amazing. LeBron James gets cramps? LeBron James needs to drink water?

So yeah, everything starts with that remarkable body. If you were creating a basketball player in a science lab, you would create the guy we just watched these past five weeks. When was the last time an NBA player made you say, "Come on, that's not fair"? Maybe Shaq during those three Finals when he kept overpowering the Pacers, Sixers and Nets? That's how LeBron made Celtics fans feel during Game 6's cold-blooded scoring barrage, and that's how he made Oklahoma City fans feel during those last two Finals games. LeBron mastered their defense the same way Tom Brady would solve a nickel zone. Everything slowed down for him, and even better, you could see it slowing down for him. The court turned into his personal chess board. Throw in his superhuman athletic gifts and it almost didn't seem fair.

In Game 4, Miami planted him on the low post and LeBron went Larry Bird 2.0 on us. (For the record, there was never supposed to be a Larry Bird 2.0. We discontinued that model in 1992 and assumed it would never be seen again, much less in an even more devastating form. So … yeah.) In Game 5, he mixed that same low-post game with Dirk Nowitzki's high-post isolation game that worked so well in the 2011 playoffs, going Dirk 2.0 by adding a slash-and-kick component. Of his 13 Game 5 assists, eight resulted in 3s. Throw in his 26 points and LeBron was directly responsible for 60 points last night.

You know what was really scary? I didn't even think he played that well. Game 6 against Boston? A-plus. The first three quarters of Game 4 against Oklahoma City? A-plus-plus. Last night? B-plus … even though he finished with a 26-11-13 in a blowout victory. Something that wasn't totally reflected in the box score other than Miami's made 3s (14 in all): LeBron's brilliance lifted everyone else along with him. It wasn't a coincidence that Miami's supporting guys starting swishing 3s like pop-a-shot free throws. We just watched the same thing happen with the Los Angeles Kings — once Jonathan Quick established himself as the proverbial "hot goalie," his teammates started flying around with an inordinate amount of confidence. They could smell it. Same for Miami those last few games. And all because of LeBron.

In the postgame presser, he mentioned being happy it played out the way it did, that he needed to "hit rock-bottom" before he could become the player he needed to be. I don't believe this for two reasons. First, his jaw-dropping performance in the 2009 playoffs (35.3 PPG, 7.3 APG, 9.1 RPG, .510 FG) strongly hinted that this 2012 bloodbath (30.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 5.6 APG, the first player ever to average a 30-9-5 twice in the postseason) was coming. His evolution was always headed this way; we just got delayed (and nearly derailed) by 2010's meltdown in the Boston series, then "The Decision," then everything from last year. Second, I can't imagine LeBron would ever repeat the last 23 months. There had to be better ways to get there. During last night's interviews, we kept hearing the same wistful refrain from LeBron, his teammates and even his coach. The last two years weren't fun. Wearing that big bull's-eye and the black cowboy hat wasn't fun. Being booed wasn't fun, being picked apart wasn't fun, being maligned wasn't fun. They spent last season battling the collective vitriol, figuring out how to use it to their advantage … and ultimately failing.

As LeBron admitted last night, it just wasn't him. He wasn't meant to be someone who dunked on opponents and stared defiantly into the stands like a wrestling heel. He lost himself in the process, spent the summer remembering why he liked basketball, rededicated himself, found that same joy … and the rest was history. Even if that sounds like a sweet plot for a sports movie, I'm not buying that LeBron needed that specific sequence to achieve his manifest destiny. Sports would have taken care of that for him. You keep losing the title, you keep going back to the drawing board, you keep trying to get better. Wilt wanted to get past the Celtics. Bird wanted to get past the Sixers. Magic wanted to get past the Celtics. Jordan wanted to get past the Pistons. That's basketball. Eventually, LeBron would realize that losing sucked and spend the summer accordingly. Decision or no Decision.

So what actually changed? For one thing, Dwyane Wade injured his knee and became 70 Percent Of Dwyane Wade, inadvertently solving the "dueling banjos" dilemma. The Heat tried to thwart six decades of NBA history by teaming two alpha dogs together, making them equals and assuming their overwhelming talent would overcome any resulting bumpiness. They were wrong. Basketball doesn't work that way, for the same reason you don't need two transcendent lead guitarists for a rock band. Someone had to learn bass. It ended up being Wade, and only because fate intervened. We'll remember Game 6 of the Boston series for a variety of reasons, but mainly because LeBron looked around and said, I'm going down on my own terms. I'm playing all 48 minutes and scoring 50 points. If we lose, we lose. At least nobody will say that I rolled over. It ended up being the most important two hours of his career. He went out and assassinated the Celtics.

From that moment forward, Dwyane Wade became a glorified sidekick. Everything Miami did offensively went through LeBron. Wade quickly figured out how to coexist, grabbing stray shots and doing anything else the team needed: protecting the rim, crashing the boards, bolting toward the rim for backdoor passes anytime Oklahoma City forgot about him. You couldn't even call him more valuable than Chris Bosh, who reestablished himself in those last seven playoff games as a quality defender, screen-and-roller and inside/outside threat who didn't need the ball to thrive. Was Wade happy about how it played out? Absolutely … because they won. Tellingly, of course, he made a point of mentioning how "difficult" that adjustment was.

And that's only scratching the surface. Imagine you're Wade. Imagine you talk Bosh and LeBron into joining YOUR team and living in YOUR city. Imagine that first year going to hell. Imagine coming to the begrudging realization that you're only going as far as LeBron takes you, that — even though it's your city, and you're the one who gets introduced last at every home game — you're going to have to wear the Robin costume. By Game 2 of the Finals, everyone is wondering whether you're the same guy you used to be; meanwhile, you've never had to take a backseat on a basketball court before, and that's what is screwing you up more than anything. By Game 5, you're listening to your fans serenade LeBron with "M-V-P!" chants as he holds two trophies like a hunter holding a couple of deer heads. You're standing on the side, just like Shaq six years ago. Maybe that's what he meant by "difficult."

Just know the situation was resolved organically, much like it was during the 2008 Olympics, when Spain was closing in and Kobe said I got this, followed by everyone else letting him have it. That's just how basketball works. You can't have two guys saying "I got this." Miami figured that out a year late. And if Wade hadn't tweaked his knee, maybe they never would have.

The other twist of fate: Derrick Rose wrecked his knee in Round 1, propelling the Celtics into the Conference Finals … you know, LeBron's nemesis, the bullies who beat him in 2008 and 2010, the grizzled veterans who were convinced that LeBron would always cave when it mattered most. Garnett and Pierce loved pushing his buttons more than anyone. During their final regular-season road trip to Miami, which turned out to be a surprisingly easy win for the Celtics, they spent the last two minutes busting Wade's balls about LeBron. You picked the wrong guy. You'll never win with that guy. LeBron could hear everything. They didn't care. In Game 5 of their playoff series, Garnett and Pierce pushed things a little further, believing that LeBron was ready to cave again. Down the stretch, Garnett muttered derisive obscenities under his breath anytime LeBron was in earshot, then stuffed him at the rim on a pivotal drive. A little bit later, Pierce nailed a back-breaking 3 right in LeBron's mug, then yelled, "I have the balls to take that!" as he trotted back down the floor.

In retrospect, they pushed him too far. The Celtics regarded LeBron with a surprising amount of disdain — that's why Rondo angrily yelped, "Let's go!" before defending LeBron's final drive of regulation in Game 2. LeBron ended up settling for a 21-footer against someone seven inches shorter than him, followed by Rondo strutting back to the huddle and probably telling his teammates, "I knew he didn't have the balls to come at me." They spent that whole series challenging his manhood; by the end of Game 5, they thought they had broken him. Was that what turned him into a serial killer in Game 6? Not entirely … but it definitely helped. I just don't think LeBron makes LeLeap without the bullies from Boston.1

So what happens next? Lurking underneath LeBron's postseason was a scary realization: Miami finally knows what it is. The Heat settled the LeBron/Wade thing, settled the "Is Spoelstra the right coach?" question, figured out their eight-man rotation (only Mike Miller's spot is in danger2) and realized they're better off playing Bosh and LeBron as their bigs (a trick that unleashes them offensively and defensively). Oh, and they have the guy playing at the highest level in two decades on their team. Life is good. Even their much-maligned home crowd stepped up with a series of spirited playoff efforts, buoyed by their "us against them" complex (which started with "The Decision" and deepened over time thanks to the national media) and a genuine affection for this team (not just their three stars, but veterans like Miller, Battier and even Juwan Howard). Everything seems to be lined up for an extended run along the lines of Shaq's Lakers, Michael's Bulls, Magic's Lakers or Bird's Celtics (combined titles: 17). Before the Finals, I wrote that it would be a historical fluke if LeBron James lost his first three Finals; he was just too good of a player for this to happen. Same goes for LeBron winning multiple titles now that he's reached that aforementioned Jordan/Russell/Kareem/Bird/Magic/Wilt/Walton zone. History says that, after he finally broke through, it will only get easier from here.

Only one thing can stop him. I happened to be sitting four rows behind the baseline last night, close enough to Oklahoma City's bench that I could have whipped a coke at Cole Aldrich and maybe even left a mark. Kevin Durant thought the Zombies were winning last night. He strutted through the pregame warm-ups like it was a preseason game. He talked so much good-natured trash with LeBron's buddy and business partner, Maverick Carter, that security got confused and intervened at one point. When Oklahoma City fell behind in the second quarter, Durant made a basket, ran back upcourt, noticed his teammates sitting placidly, then skipped over to them while clapping his hands, as if he were saying, "Come on! I need you!" Right before the second half started, he went after Maverick again, finally scowling, "fourth quarter's my time" before walking away.

You can't believe how many people on that bench assumed Durant would bring them back. They kept waiting for him to catch fire. Even when Miami opened up a 25-point lead and Oklahoma City called timeout — the textbook "This game is O-V-E-R" sequence that so often happens in Finals clinchers — Durant caught his mother's eye and heard her scream, "Kevin, let's go!" followed by Durant calmly nodding, as if he actually had a chance of saving them. Not this year. With less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and Oklahoma City trailing by 23, Scott Brooks finally yanked his starters during an emotional timeout, but not before pulling everyone into a close circle and saying God knows what. When the huddle broke, you could see Durant and Serge Ibaka sobbing into towels. Multiple teammates came over to console Durant, with Westbrook finally yelling at him (not as a dick, as a friend) to gather himself before TV cameras found him. Which he did.

Brooks pulled Harden a few seconds later. He wandered over to the corner to stand with Westbrook, with Durant eventually joining them. They stood there with their arms wrapped around each other, watching their season tick away, soaking in every image for those days in July and August when you're tired of shooting jumpers in an empty gym and need a trigger to keep pushing yourself. It was my favorite moment of the series. Down the line on the other bench, LeBron was hugging teammates and smiling broadly for the first time since … god, when was the last time we even saw LeBron smile? The final buzzer sounded, confetti started falling, and Durant and LeBron quickly found each other for a prolonged hug. You have to believe the rest of the decade is headed that way: summer workout buddies, Olympic teammates, natural rivals. They will see each other again.

And really, that's the key for LeBron James going forward. Bird and Magic had each other. Russell and Chamberlain had each other. Kareem had a steady slew of rivals to keep him busy: Wilt, Willis, Cowens, Walton and Moses, to name five. Jordan didn't have anyone; that's one of the reasons he played baseball for 18 months. You need someone to keep pushing you after you finally break through. When I think of Game 5, I will remember LeBron's brilliance first, then Mike Miller having that crazy sports-movie montage of 3s … and then I'll think of the Oklahoma City kids huddled in the corner at the end, waiting their turn, knowing that's how the NBA works. We'll see if LeBron ever lets them on the ride.

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Nerd School: Robert’s Rebellion

By: timbersfan, 12:21 AM GMT on June 09, 2012

To pinpoint the cause of a war is never simple. We are taught in school that WWI was cause because the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but anyone who has done a little research could tell you that the reasons are far more complex.

In “The Song of Ice and Fire” series the story chronicles the after effects of “Robert’s Rebellion”. However, the casual fan of the TV series has no idea about what exactly the Rebellion was about. So we are going to deconstruct the causes of the war, the major players, and the battles which had a major effect on the series we love.

Prelude to War

The actual rebellion was the culmination of several escalating events, mostly related to the mad King Aerys II. Already mentally unstable from years of inbreeding amongst the Targaryens, the events of the Defiance at Duskendale pushed him over the edge

At Duskendale, Lord Denys Darklyn asked King Aerys II for certain rights for his citizens and a new town charter for Duskendale. Aerys refused, and so the Darklyns refused to pay more taxes. Aerys decided to deal with the problem himself. Normally this would be the job of his Hand, Tywin Lannister, but Tywin and King Aerys had been growing steadily apart due to the King’s mental state. Aerys went to Duskendale with several members of the Kingsguard and a small force of men, to arrest and execute Lord Denys. Instead he was imprisoned by him. The Defiance ended when Ser Barristan Selmy sneaked into the Dun Fort, the seat of House Darklyn, and rescued the King.

Aerys’ imprisonment gave way to delusions that everyone around him was conspiring against the crown. This isn’t in and of itself a terrible issue, but it became dangerous when added to the recklessness of his son, Rhaegar.

Rhargar, heir to the throne, had been married to Elia Martell, the sister of Doran Martell, ruler of Dorne. However, at the tourney of Harrenhal he revealed an infatuation with Lyanna Stark when he passed over Elia to make her the queen of love and beauty, a title granted by the winner of the tourney.

Lyanna was to be used to bring House Stark and House Baratheon together, as she was engaged to the eldest Baratheon son, Robert. Along with Brandon Stark, Lyanna’s older brother marrying Catelyn Tully,daughter of Hoster Tully, ruler of the Riverlands, The Starks were poised to have some very powerful family connections.

Shortly after the tournament at Harrenhal, Lyanna disappeared with Rhaegar. Though it is the popular opinion that Lyanna was kidnapped by Rhaegar, the real details are not known. Brandon Stark rode to King’s Landing, and demanded Rhaegar fight him. King Aerys had Brandon and his companions arrested. Shortly after, his father, Rickard Stark, was summoned to the city to answer for the crimes of his son. He was immediately arrested himself and brutally killed with his son. Rickard Stark demanded a trial by combat and Aerys had him roasted in his armor. Brandon Stark was put in a strangulation device and was forced to watch his father die, strangling himself in the process. After they were killed, Aerys demanded the heads of Robert Baratheon and Eddard Stark from their guardian, Jon Arryn who was fostering them at the Eyrie. Instead of turning them in, Jon chose to raise his banner in rebellion.

Aerys now faced three kingdoms in rebellion, The North, The Vale, and The Stormlands, and it wouldn’t be long before The Riverlands, home to House Tully joined. Eventually Robert was chosen as the figurehead of the rebellion because of his better claim to the throne through his grandmother, who was Aerys’ aunt. The pieces were in place, the movement had a figurehead, now the rebellion could begin.

Robert’s Rebellion was not a simple matter of everyone taking sides in the fight. The family alliances built up over the years, and blind loyalty to the king drew battle lines amongst the great houses of Westeros. On the side of Robert and the rebellion was the Baratheons (of course), the Starks, and the Arryns. Through the marriages of Lyssa and Catelyn, the Tullys of the Riverland were eventually brought to the rebellion. Though many of the bannermen of the Tullys and the Arryn’s sided with the king, this placed four massive armies against the Loyalist forces.

Still loyal to the Targaryens were House Martell, who were loyal due to Doran Martell’s sister Elia being married to Rhaegar. Also still loyal to the crown were the Tyrells of Highgarden. Aside from those two houses, and all of the crown lands, several smaller houses traditionally swearing fealty to The Arryns, Starks, Tullys, and Baratheons stayed loyal out of overall fealty to the king or perhaps seeking elevation when the fighting was over.

Mysteriously absent from the fighting on both sides were the Lannisters. Lord Tywin had been the hand of the king during the defiance of Duskendale, but tensions had arisen between him and the king leading to Tywin quitting his position as hand, and retreating to Casterly Rock. The Greyjoys also remained neutral. One other notable absentee from the fighting were the Freys. Controlling the Twins made them a strategic house in the fighting, but, as noted “The Late Lord Frey” decided to wait until he could determine the tide of the war and come out on the winning side.



After Aerys called for the heads of Robert and Eddard, the two managed to escape to their respective kingdoms. Eddard had a fisherman try to sneak him from the Vale to White Harbour, so he could raise his forces in the North, but due to storms the fisherman died and his daughter was only able to get him to Sweetsister. Lord Borrell of the sisters later snuck him into White Harbour, where he preceded to raise his bannermen.





Robert managed to return to the Storm’s End and called his bannermen, in rebellion against the King. Three of Robert’s bannermen, Fell, Cafferson, and Grandison, decided to remain loyal to the king and were going to join forces at Summerhall, march on Storm’s End, and end the rebellion quickly. Summerhall was a significant location as a fire that broke out in the castle in 259 which resulted in the death of King Aegon V. Robert, being made aware of the advance by the three lords, moved the forces loyal to him to intercept each of the lords forces before they could consolidate. His victories were impressive as he managed to kill or capture each of the three lords. Through his victory Robert consolidated his power in the Stormlands, winning the support of the rest of the lords, which allowed him to march without having an enemy in his rear.

Robert’s next move was to secure his western flank against the Tyrells, who posed the greatest military threat to Robert. It is unclear whether Robert chose the location or was forced there by his opponents, but the battle took place at Ashford, a castle loyal to the Tyrells. The battle occurred when the vanguard of the Tyrell army under command of Lord Randyll Tarly (Samwell’s father) ran into Robert’s forces. Tarly’s vanguard overran Robert’s army, and Robert was forced to withdraw from the field before the main force of the Tyrell host had joined the battle. Though technically a defeat, Westerosi historians see Robert’s actions as a tactical retreat. Robert’s forces were left mostly intact, and he was still a threat to the kingdom.



The result of he battle had two significant consequences. The first was that Robert had to link up with his allies in the north, which left the Stormlands empty. This left Storm’s End, which was under the command of Stannis, subject to a siege by Mace Tyrell and Randyll Tarly.

Seeing the weakness in his strategy, after Ashford, Robert moved to unite his army in the south with his allies in the north. During his move north, Robert was wounded in an unknown skirmish. He was recovering/hiding at Stoney Sept when the town was occupied by loyalist forces led by the then Hand of the King, Jon Connington. Connington ordered every house in the town to be searched to find Robert. Luckily Robert was able evade capture long enough for the Stark/Tully army to reach the town and engage Connington’s forces. With the armies engaged, Robert emerged and led his forces in a counter attack causing Connington to retreat. Though Connington’s forces remained relatively intact because of his actual withdrawal, King Aerys was not impressed and had Connington exiled. History called this engagement “The Battle of the Bells” due to the bells of the sept warning the townspeople to stay inside their houses.

This battle showed Robert’s threat to the realm was greater than imagined, and set the scene for the final showdown at the Trident.

In warfare, battles occur where the losses are so great that it sounds the death knell of whole empires. Like Waterloo or Hastings, battles can change the course of history.

After Stony Sept, a battle like this occurred, and it changed the course of the seven kingdoms.

The Mad King Aerys had finally realized that Robert and his Rebellion were a major threat. With his forces combined at Stony Sept, Robert had at his hand the united host of the Stormlands, The Vale, The Riverlands, and the North. Now assembled they were within striking distance of King’s Landing. A total of 35,000 battle hardened veterans took south to cross the trident at the Green Fork.


This map contains conjecture as to troop movements in both forces. The movement of Robert's troops account for Robert moving north to Riverrun after winning Stoney Sept, to cross the Red Fork, then moving to Fairmarket to Cross the Blue Fork. The Author figures this was a gamble to make it to the Kingsroad inside rebel territory without crossing into Loyalist Lands.
It was here that the battle for the crown of Westeros would take place. Meeting the rebel forces at the Trident would be a loyalist host of 40,000 troops led by the Crown Prince Rhaegar. Rhaegar had recently reappeared after his abduction of Lyanna at the start of the war. His army was represented by not only his troops from the Crownlands but the remaining troops of Connington’s failed assault at Stony Sept whom Ser Barristan Selmy and Ser Jonothon Darry rallied. Also representing a quarter of the force was 10,000 Dornish levies under the command of Lewyn Martel of the Kingsguard. After the loss of the Crown, it became a common thought that Dorne was only loyal because of the princess Elia being held hostage by the crown, however it is worth noting that the crown had an arrangement with Dorne regarding the queen ship of the Martels.

Absent from the fighting were the forces of the Reach under Mace Tyrell. Those forces were laying siege to Storm’s End at the time.

During the battle the Donishmen moved against the left flank of Robert’s army. Ser Lyn Corbray of The Vale, led a countercharge. Using his wounded father’s sword Corbray defeated Prince Lewyn in single combat, slaying him and effectively breaking the Dornish flank. It is worth noting that Lewyn was already wounded in prior fighting.

Though the fighting was intense on both sides, what destroyed the loyalist moral and won the day for the rebels was when Robert met Rhaegar in single combat. Though there is not much factual detail of the two’s actual combat, several things are true. Much in the fashion of his prior battles, Robert wielded his two-handed warhammer. Rhaegar wore his armor encrusted with rubies. Though it is unknown if they were mounted or on foot, Robert wielded his hammer and smashed Rhaegar’s armor with such force that it shattered his armor scattering the rubies across the Green Fork. Later the battle site would be known as The Ruby Ford. Unknown if it was that blow or another, but Rhaegar was killed by Robert during their combat. With Rhaegar dead, the Loyalist army broke and scattered. The Targaryen reign over Westeros was finished.

With Rhaegar’s host scattered the road to King’s Landing was unobstructed. However King Aerys prepared for this eventuality by lining the capitol city with wildfire caches ready to explode and burn the city to ground at his command. Luckily two things prevented this. The first was the ultimate appearance of Tywin Lannister and the Lannister forces who approached the city in the name of friendship. Varys, Aerys master of spies, warned against letting in the formerly neutral force, but Aerys opened the gates on advice from Grand Maester Pycelle. The 12,000 man army sacked the city. During the sack of the city Aerys ordered his new Hand, The Pyromancer Rossart to ignite the wildfire. Luckily before he could give the order, Rossart was killed by Jaime Lannister who in his role as kingsguard was stationed in King’s Landing. Jaime the turned his blade on Aerys earning him the title “Kingslayer”.

As the city was assaulted, Gregor Clegane and Amory Lorch scaled Maegor’s Holdfast and murdered the rest of the royal family. Princess Elia herself was raped and murdered by Clegane. By the time Ned Stark arrived from the Trident, he discovered Jaime Lannister seated on the Iron Throne. Robert was presented with the murdered bodies of the Targaryens wrapped in red cloaks as a sign of fealty to the new king. This drew a rift between Ned and Robert, as Ned saw the slaughter as unnecessarily brutal. He left by himself to lift the siege at Storm’s End and find Lyanna. The city had been secured, and Robert sat on the Iron Throne.

Though the Iron Throne had been secured by Robert, The war was not completely over. Loyalist strongholds at Dragonstone remained, along with Stannis still being under siege at Storm’s End.

Mace Tyrell and Randyl Tarly sat outside Storm’s End with the army of the Reach, and Lord Paxter Redwyne blockaded Shipbreaker Bay to all trade. The siege continued for a year, with the besieged having to eat their horses, their dogs and cats, and were pushed to eat their own dead. Luckily for Stannis, Davos Seaworth, a smuggler, slipped through the blockade. he managed to enter Storm’s End with a ship loaded with onions and salt fish for the starving garrison. Davos’ cargo allowed the garrison to survive long enough for Ned Stark to arrive and lift the siege. There was no battle as soon as Stark arrived, Tyrell surrendered.

Freed from the siege, Stannis was able to take command of the fleet and take Dragonstone, the last Targaryen stronghold. The majority of the Reach’s lords and knights were later pardoned by Robert for their part in the , and the Redwine fleet set sail for Dragonstone. There was to be no battle there since the entire fleet of Targaryen ships anchored there had been destroyed by a massive storm. Queen Rhaella, who was pregnant, and Prince Viserys had been sent to the island with Ser Willem Darry. Rhaella died giving birth to her last child Daenerys, named Stormborn.

Sensing the oncoming host, Ser Willem and a handful of men smuggled Viserys, Daenerys, and her wet nurse from the nursery and sailed for Braavos, evading the wrath of Robert Baratheon.

Meanwhile after freeing Storm’s End, Ned Stark went to the Tower of Joy, the place where his sister lay dying. Located in the Prince’s Path in the mountains of Dorne, it was a hideout of Prince Rhaegar. At the end of the War, Eddard Stark found his sister there, dying. He and six of his companions (Howland Reed, Lord Willam Dustin, Ethan Glover, Martyn Cassel, Theo Wull, and Ser Mark Ryswell) approached the tower, and found it guarded by three members of the Kingsguard: Ser Arthur Dayne, Ser Oswell Whent, and Lord Commander Gerold Hightower. The battle was epic as the three Kingsguard protected Lyanna from the seven.

In the end only Ned and Howland Reed survived. Lyanna had died, and Eddard pulled stones from the tower to make cairns for the dead. He took his sister’s body back North with him so she could be buried with her brother Brandon and her father Rickard whose death started the Rebellion. It was Lyanna’s death which reunited Ned and Robert over their shared grief. Robert was quickly married to Cersei Lannister to secure their support in his new regime.

Now Westeros was whole again united under the banner of the crowned stag of Baratheon. Most of the loyalist houses were pardoned, and few of them were diminished or outright exterminated. Westeros had not changed nearly as much as such a change would have suggested. However there were still clear and present dangers to the new crown including many secret loyalists, other houses vying for power, and of course two remaining Targaryens in Braavos.

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Nerd School: The Greyjoy Rebellion

By: timbersfan, 12:18 AM GMT on June 09, 2012

“So why was Theon with the Starks anyway?” “Was he kidnapped?” amongst my friends I tend to be the Game of Thrones expert, and I usually have to field questions like this. Since our friend Theon is now getting his own storyline (complete with incest) I’m going to take it upon myself to tell you the tale of the Greyjoy Rebellion.


ewwwww
Six years after Robert seized the Iron Throne during his own rebellion, Theon’s father Balon Greyjoy decided that since he swore fealty to the Targaryens, he wasn’t subject to the new king. Proclaiming himself king of the Iron Islands, he effectively separated his kingdom from the rest of Westeros and rebelled against the Iron Throne.



Balon believed that King Robert’s rule was still insecure, that he lacked support from those who still called him usurper, and he wouldn’t be able to muster an offensive against him. This didn’t prevent Balon from mustering the powerful fleet of The Iron Islands in defense.


The Iron Fleet was based off of the Viking Long Ship which favored speed and maneuverability against the heavier trading ships of Westeros and Europe
Robert was actually able to muster a large warhost, galvanizing many of the nobles that were former enemies. Balon struck first including the burning of the Lannister fleet at anchor, in a surprise attack on Lannisport.

His brother Victarion, Lord Captain of the Iron Fleet, led the attack, and his brother Euron planned the attack. This first victory gave the Ironborn almost absolute freedom to launch attacks on the west coast of Westeros. His son, Rodrik, was later slain in such an attack on Seagaurd by Lord Jason Mallister in one of the Greyjoy’s first defeats.



Robert had superior numbers and resources and used them to crush the rebellion. His brother Stannis, who had already proven himself a capable sea commander during Robert’s rebellion, and Paxter Redwyne were able to catch and smash the Iron Fleet, off the coast of Fair Isle. Victarion’s loss at such a significant battle signaled the death knell of the Greyjoy Rebellion. Robert’s forces were finally able to cross to the Iron Islands.

While Stannis subdued the island of Great Wyk and Ser Barristan Selmy led the attack on Old Wyk, The main battle was occurring on Pyke. Robert’s forces assaulted the southern wall with siege engines, breaking the main watch-tower and bringing parts of the surrounding wall down. Maron Greyjoy, Balon’s second son, was killed in the breach. Jorah Mormont, Jamie Lannister, and Jory Cassel were all part of the final assault. In the end, Balon Greyjoy was forced to swear fealty once more to the Iron Throne and his surviving son, the nine year old Theon, was given to Eddard Stark to ward/act as a hostage to ensure Balon’s good behaviour.

Robert’s victory allowed him to cement his rule over the Seven Kingdoms, all while Balon lost his two eldest sons and had his last surviving son Theon taken from him. All Balon was left with was his three surviving brothers, Victarion, Aeron, and Euron, and his daughter Yara (Asha in the books).

This leads to Theon’s dilemma in Season 2. Theon believes that his family will help Rob secure The North’s freedom, because of their mutual hatred of the throne. However Theon has been gone so long that he has forgotten the nature of the Ironborn. So, Does Theon choose the side of his captors, who he has known longer than his own father, or does he side with his family and seek to once again carve out a kingdom of The Iron Islands

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Nerd School: Religions of Westeros

By: timbersfan, 12:17 AM GMT on June 09, 2012

Part of the realism of “A Song of Ice and Fire” is that the world is not simply a “planet of hats”. That is to say that the world is not defined by one primary characteristic, as what happened quite often in the classic Star Trek. The Lands of Westeros and Essos feature multitudes of diverse cultures with different customs, and importantly, religions. Warning: there are spoilers in this article.

Religion in fantasy and science fiction literature is a tricky subject. It can either be extremely important to the plot, as in Dune or Stranger in a Strange Land, or it could be ignored all together. Rarely is religion used to flesh out a people, without being a central defining characteristic of a story. By this I mean, religion in ASoIaF acts and is treated like religion in the real world. There are believers and nonbelievers, and different religions. It is politically and character motivating, but it’s not all dominating. So let’s look into the religions of “Game of Thrones”, and see a bit of what they are about, who worships them, and if there might be something to them.

The Faith of the Seven

The Faith worships the Seven, a single deity with seven aspects. Similar to the Holy Trinity of Christianity, those who worship the Seven pray to a specific aspect depending on what their need is.

The Seven aspects are:



The Father represents judgment. He is depicted as a bearded man who carries scales and is prayed to for justice.
The Mother represents motherhood, she is prayed to for fertility or compassion, she is depicted as a smiling woman.
The Warrior represents strength in battle, he is prayed to for courage and victory. He is depicted as a man carrying a sword.
The Maiden represents innocence and chastity, she is prayed to for protection a maiden’s virtue.
The Smith represents the tradesman, he is prayed to when work needs to be done. He is shown carrying a hammer.
The Crone represents wisdom, she carries a lantern and is prayed to for guidance.
The Stranger represents death and the unknown.
The Faith, as it is called in Westeros, was brought to Westeros by the Andals from Essos during their invasion. It then gradually replaced the local worship of the Old Gods once the Andals conquered most of the southern kingdoms. After Aegon the Conquerors’ invasion of Westeros, he adopted the Seven and gained support of the High Septon, and added legitimacy to his claim. (This is very much in parallel to Constantine in our universe.)

The Faith of the Seven is the official religion of Westeros. Many of the laws of the kingdom can be traced to taboos of the faith like incest, kinslaying, and oathbreaking. One of the methods of judgement is trial by combat. During trials by combat, the Seven are expected to intervene on the side of the just combatant. In order to become a knight, a squire must spend a nightlong vigil in a sept and become anointed in the name of the Seven.

The number seven is considered holy to the Faith (hence the name sept/septon). It holds that there are seven hells as well as seven faces. Seven constellations in the sky are considered as sacred, and even grace is taught to have seven aspects. The number seven is used to invest rituals or objects with a holy significance. Adherents of the Faith use seven-pointed stars, crystal prisms, and rainbows as icons of the religion. Rites of worship heavily involve the use of light and crystals to represent the seven-in-one god.

The places of worship of the Seven are called “septs”, and every sept houses representational art portraying each of the seven aspects. In rural septs, they may merely be carved masks or simple charcoal drawings on a wall, while in wealthy septs, they may be statutes inlaid with precious metals and stones. Worshipers light candles before the altars symbolizing each of the seven aspects. Ceremonies are led by the highest ranking male member of the clergy, and hymns are often sung. In the naming of a child, seven oils are used to anoint the infant. Weddings are conducted standing between the altars of the Father and the Mother. Rites of worship held in rich areas and during special occasions can feature embellishments such as choirs of seventy-seven septas.

Later in the series, with the struggles in Westeros due to the War of the Five Kings, several militant orders arise to give the faith more power, much like the Templars in our universe. These include the “Warrior’s Sons”, knights who have renounced their worldly possessions to fight for the faith. There are also the Poor Fellows, who are lightly-armed footmen, who carry whatever weapons they can make or find. Also the faith gains more power forcing “sinners” to repent in public.

The Old Gods

The Old Gods were originally worshiped by the Children of the Forest in all of Westeros before the arrival of men in Westeros. The First Men initially warred against the children, and cut down the weirwoods where they found them. In time, the First Men made peace with children of the forest and adopted the Children of the Forest’s gods.

The Children had their spiritual leaders, greenseers who were said to be able to talk with the animals, and to see through the eyes of their carved weirwoods. The children of the forest believe that the weirwood trees were the god and when they died they become part of the godhood. Weirwood trees would sometimes have faces carved into them. These were called heart trees, and are considered sacred. Prayer, oaths, and marriages are often performed in the presence of a heart tree.

Worship of the Old Gods remained strong across Westeros until the Andal Invasion. The Andals gradually conquered the south of Westeros, cutting down the weirwoods and supplanting the worship of the Old Gods with their own. However, the First Men prevented the Andals from crossing the Neck, and worship of the Old Gods remained strong only in the North.

There are no priests, no holy texts, no songs of worship, and few, if any, rites that go with the worship of the old gods. The only ritual is prayer before the heart tree in a godswood, holy groves contained within castles throughout the Seven Kingdoms, and often the only places where living weirwoods still remain until one goes north of the Wall. It’s said that the sigh of the wind and the rustle of leaves are the old gods speaking back to worshippers. Before the Andal invasion and supplantation of the Old Gods by the seven, every ruling family had a godswood with a heart tree, but since then most have been destroyed.

R’hllor

The worship of R’hllor is a religious tradition on the continent of Essos, but is not widely worshipped in Westeros. The religion is based on a dualistic, manichean view of the world, R’hllor, the god of light, heat, and life; and its antithesis the God whose name should not be spoken, the god of ice and death.



They are locked in an eternal struggle over the fate of the world, a struggle that according the ancient prophecy from the books of Asshai, will only end when Azor Ahai, the messianic figure, will return wielding a flaming sword called Lightbringer, the Red Sword of Heroes, and raise dragons of stone. Unlike the other Religions in Westeros, the worshippers of R’hllor show use of magic including divination, pyromancy, and necromancy.

R’hllor is becoming increasingly more important in Westeros. Stannis Baratheon has increasingly relied on R’hllor and his servant Mellisandre in his bid to win the Iron Throne. With several important conversions made amongst the Lords and Knights pledged to Stannis, His power is growing stronger as his profits warn about the coming long night.

The Drowned God

The Drowned God is a sea deity worshiped solely by the Ironborn in Westeros. The religion of the Drowned God is old, dating back to before the Andal Invasion. What is interesting is that the Andal invaders of the Iron Islands converted to the local religion rather than supplant it with the Seven as they did in the south of Westeros. Like the faith in the Seven, and the worship of R’hllor, The faith of the Drowned God is finding a resurgence.

The Drowned God himself is believed to have brought flame from the sea and sailed the world with fire and sword, its eternal enemy called the Storm God, who resides in a hall within the clouds and ravens are his creatures. It is said the two deities have been in conflict for millennia and the sea roils in anger when they engage in battle. When an Ironman drowns, it’s said that the Drowned God needed a strong oarsman, and the refrain “What is dead may never die” is used. It is believed he will be feasted in the Drowned God’s watery halls, his every want satisfied by mermaids.

The priests practice a form of baptism anointing the heads of the faithful with saltwater. The priests themselves drown themselves in the sea, only to be resuscitated with a form of CPR. Thus they are reborn from death fulfilling their credo.

The Many-Faced God

The Many-Faced God is a deity worshipped by the Faceless Men, a guild of assassins established in the Free City of Braavos. Their central belief is that all the diverse slave population of Valyria prayed for deliverance to the same god of death, just in different incarnations.

The worshippers of the Many-Faced God believe that death is merciful and it is an end to suffering. The Guild will grant ‘the gift’ of death to anyone in the world, considering the assassination a sacrament to their god. In the Guild’s temple, those who seek an end to suffering may drink from a black cup which grants a painless death. As the Faceless Men forsake their identities for the service of the Many-Faced God, they only assassinate targets they have been hired to kill and may not choose who is worthy of ‘the gift’ by themselves.

There are many other religions in Westeros as well including The great Stallion of the Dothraki, and the fertility gods of the Summer Islanders. However the true gods of Westeros and Essos seem to be coming back, and bringing magic with them.

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Finally, the World Cup is on the line

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on June 09, 2012

TAMPA -- And so it begins. After 10 months and a dozen matches -- all of them friendlies -- under coach Jurgen Klinsmann, the U.S. national team is finally about to play a game that counts under its forward-thinking, often-unorthodox German manager.

The Yanks already have had their share of ups and downs during the Klinsmann era, stumbling to a 1-1-4 record, as they adapted to a high-octane, possession-based system before winning five in a row, including a memorable victory against Italy in Genoa in February.

The roller-coaster ride continued during the 13 days leading into Friday's World Cup qualifying opener here against Antigua and Barbuda. There was a thrilling 5-1 win against Scotland, a frustrating 4-1 loss to Brazil and Sunday's drab scoreless draw on the road against fellow CONCACAF foe Canada.

But if the goal is to begin the trek to Brazil 2014 on the right foot, the Americans could not have asked for a better matchup.

Not only do the Yanks start the qualifying campaign on home soil, they do so against the weakest opponent, by far, in a group that also includes Guatemala and Jamaica.

The Benna Boys are ranked 105th in the world. They hail from a country with a population of 88,000, just 23,000 more than the capacity at Raymond James Stadium, which is expected to be about a third full for the match. Antigua and Barbuda will become the smallest nation the U.S. has played in the program's 96-year history, and anything other than a convincing win would be a shock -- not that the Yanks are taking this visitors for granted.

"It's a team that's athletic, a team that can catch you on the break," U.S. star Clint Dempsey told reporters Thursday night.

"We can't push too many numbers forward and leave ourselves exposed at the back with one-on-ones because they're strong and fast," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. "We need to impose ourselves on them right from the start. That's the biggest thing."

"
We can't get sucked in because we're dominating them so much that a ball goes over the top and a guy who's big, physical and fast shakes off a tackle, and they get one chance and score.

"
-- U.S. goalie Tim Howard
Tim Howard, the U.S. keeper, believes getting an early goal is the key. Because the longer the game remains scoreless, even if the Americans seem fully in control, the more dangerous the Benna Boys become.

"A lot of times against these smaller nations, the one thing you have to guard against isn't complacency going in, but complacency in the game," Howard said.

"We can't get sucked in because we're dominating them so much that a ball goes over the top and a guy who's big, physical and fast shakes off a tackle, and they get one chance and score."

It could happen. The Americans were the better team in Canada, but were lucky not to lose when the hosts missed a sitter in stoppage time.

The Antiguans have a few legitimate weapons, too. Combined, Reading midfielder Mikele Leigertwood and Nottingham Forest striker Dexter Blackstock have made over 400 appearances in England's lower leagues. Most of the rest of the squad plays together with the USL's Antigua Barracudas, which competes in U.S. soccer's third-tier, making them familiar with the American style of play.

And it wont help either that the Yanks are short-handed.

Klinsmann ruled out starting left back Fabian Johnson and his understudy, Edgar Castillo, due to leg injuries. That means either central defender Bocanegra slides over a spot, or a right-footed defender, such as Geoff Cameron or Michael Parkhurst, plays the off side. Klinsmann also suggested that forward Jozy Altidore isn't fit enough to play 90 minutes after missing most of the U.S. training camp due to club commitments.

As such, what's supposed to be an easy game might not be easy after all.

"They'll make it as difficult as possible for us," Klinsmann said. "Hopefully we create, right away, some opportunities and put one in the net. If we don't do that, it's going to be a tough ride."

It always is in World Cup qualifying, where more ups and downs await.

Notebook
• Tampa was battered with heavy storms much of Thursday, forcing the U.S. to cancel its scheduled training session at Raymond James Stadium and practice at the University of South Florida instead. More rain is expected Friday, which Bocanegra said could benefit the Americans. "If the field is wet, we can move the ball quickly," he said. "I think we'd actually prefer it a little bit wet."

• After that sluggish performance in Toronto, the U.S. players enjoyed an off day Tuesday, their first since camp began on May 15. "We got to regenerate and clear our minds a bit," said Bocanegra, adding that the training sessions on Wednesday and Thursday were especially sharp. "I think everybody's feeling a lot better."

• Johnson didn't work out with teammates Thursday -- he ran laps around the training field by himself -- but Klinsmann indicated that the Bundesliga star could recover in time to play in Guatemala City next week. The status of Castillo, who pulled a hamstring Thursday, wasn't immediately clear.

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Is it finally farewell for Big Three?

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on June 09, 2012

BOSTON -- The stands had begun to empty, the game was lost and TD Garden was maybe half-full (or half-empty, depending on whether or not you are an Eeyore) when the chant began: "Let's go, Celtics!"

The chanters kept it up right until the final horn of Game 6. They were clearly trying to start the ball rolling for Saturday night's Game 7 in Miami, or so it seemed. But here's what else they might have been doing: saying goodbye.

That was my thought, anyway, as I watched them cheer on a team that had been embarrassed on its own floor, blowing a chance to advance to the NBA Finals. Yes, there is another chance in Game 7 -- and that was the Celtics' mantra following Game 6 -- but we all have to realize and recognize that we may have seen the last of Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett wearing the green and white in Boston. The two are in the final year of their respective contracts and the economics of the time make it highly unlikely both will be back.

Neither player wanted to go there after Thursday night's loss and both went out of their way to salute the fans who remained to the bitter end. There is still another game and, given the way this series has gone, can you rule out anything Saturday night? You can get whiplash trying to figure out this one.

[+] Enlarge
AP Photo/Elise Amendola
Kevin Garnett will be a free agent this offseason.
Writing the obit for the Second Big Three has been almost a cottage industry over the past three years. They were supposedly on their last run in 2010, but then a completely unexpected playoff burst made it feasible to bring Allen back. They looked to be done after last season's playoff loss to Miami, partly due to the strong sentiment at the time that there wouldn't be an NBA season in 2011-12.

When there was a season, one that began on Christmas Day, Garnett was out of shape. Allen battled ankle injuries and was supposedly all but traded to Memphis. There was another report that Paul Pierce was offered to New Jersey. But when the dust cleared on March 16, they were still all here.

As was the case in 2010, the Celtics embarked on yet another implausible playoff run. They looked in good shape for another berth in the NBA Finals (the third in five years for this crew) before getting crushed Thursday.

Now the Celtics have to win in Miami -- again -- if they want to keep it going. Could it happen? Sure it could. According to the stats folks at the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that lost Game 6 at home with 3-2 series leads are 11-18 in Game 7. That's a lot better than I would have thought.

Just this year, the Los Angeles Clippers, leading 3-2, lost Game 6 at home in their first-round series against Memphis. They recovered to win Game 7 on the road. LeBron James himself might remember that his 2006 Cavaliers led the Pistons 3-2 before dropping Game 6 at home and then getting drubbed in Game 7, scoring only 61 points. (He got revenge the next year in big way.)

So it can happen. The 1974 Celtics are one of those 11 teams that dropped Game 6 at home and won Game 7 on the road. This came in the NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, a weird series in which the road team won five times, including the final four games.

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"We lost Game 6 on a great play by a great player," said Tom Heinsohn, the coach of the 1974 Celtics, referring to a sky hook from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that enabled the Bucks to win 102-101 in double-overtime.

"Just like this guy," he said, referring to James.

There was doom and gloom everywhere in Boston following the heart-breaker. Fans had circled the court and were preparing to storm the parquet when Abdul-Jabbar drove a dagger through their collective hearts.

"We didn't get upset. We didn't get down," Heinsohn said. "We sat around the next day and decided we were going to do something we hadn't done all series, or anytime we played them. We were going to double-team Kareem and make Cornell Warner beat us. I wasn't all that crazy about it, but it caught them by surprise and it worked. We got up big early and we coasted."

Final score, Boston 102, Milwaukee 87.

Abdul-Jabbar averaged 33.7 points over the first six games. He finished with 26 in Game 7. It marked the last time the Bucks advanced to the NBA Finals.

Does Doc Rivers have any kind of surprise in store for the redoubtable James? He could switch the traps he has been using on Dwyane Wade and make James give up the ball. But that might actually be counter-productive because James is a terrific passer and, well, Wade and the improving Chris Bosh aren't exactly Cornell Warner.

Rivers, on a conference call Friday, said he was open to changing defensive schemes if James erupted again, but quickly added, "We have to do it our way, first, and better. There's a better defense we can play -- the one we always play. But if we have to do something else, we'll do it."

The Celtics will stay on message. They will try to be more forceful and more focused. They've played well enough to win three times in this series. But they need one more to keep the Big Three going for yet another playoff series and to send James packing for the third time in the last five years.

If it doesn't happen, the lasting memory for the players who will not be back next season might not be the 19-point drubbing they absorbed, an opportunity lost. No, it might well be the bellowing from the well-wishers in the stands.

Yes, they want to keep it going, too.

But they also wanted to say something else: Thanks for five great years. It was one special ride.

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Why You Should Root for Denmark in Euro 2012

By: timbersfan, 12:03 AM GMT on June 09, 2012

International football tournaments follow a fairly predictable script. The two most predictable scenes, after England failing to live up to the hype and the Dutch being eliminated on penalties, are the precocious young player who impresses and the small country that captures the hearts and minds of casual fans. When Euro 2012 kicks off this weekend in Poland and Ukraine, those looking for an underdog to support and a young player to discover need not look any further than Denmark and their young star Christian Eriksen. There are many reasons to support both.

The Backstory

The Danes have lost more finals matches in the Euros than any other team, but in 1992 they became the unlikeliest of European champions when, after replacing Yugoslavia, they went from not qualifying for the tournament to winning it. They defeated the Netherlands, reigning European champions at the time, in a semifinals penalty shootout and notched an unexpected 2-0 win against the then-reigning world champions, Germany, in the final.

Fast-forward 20 years and the tiny Scandinavian nation finds itself once again drawn against Germany and the Netherlands, along with Portugal, in Group B, dubbed the tournament’s "Group of Death." The Germans and the Dutch are two of the favorites, and in Cristiano Ronaldo Portugal has the best player in the tournament. Denmark is fully expected to be the whipping boy, and each match will be an uphill battle. If there is a silver lining for Denmark it’s this: They finished above Portugal in the same qualifying group. If they can beat Portugal (more on this later) and somehow find a way to get two points from their matches against Germany and the Netherlands, they will be marching on to the quarterfinals.

Christian Eriksen



If Denmark is to survive the group of death, they will need Eriksen to make the jump to the next level this summer. In Eriksen, Denmark boasts one of the finest young prospects in Europe. He is the kind of technically gifted two-footed player you enjoy watching because he has the confidence to try things most players won’t.


Whether it’s dribbling past three defenders in tight spaces, a back heel pass inside the box, or a shot from 30 yards while running at full speed, he can do it all. Unlike many young players who move to the bigger leagues before they are ready, Eriksen has remained in the Dutch Eredivisie league and his game has improved annually. Last year he was named Danish footballer of the year and Dutch Football Talent of the Year in the 2010-11 season. Eriksen will face the toughest competition of any player in his age group — Bastian Schweinsteiger (Germany), Mark van Bommel (Netherlands), and the mercurial duo of Ronaldo and Nani (Portugal) — and because of it we will all leave the tournament with a good idea of just how good he is and can be.

Denmark Plays Pretty Football

In years past the Netherlands was the team most neutrals supported. After switching to a more defensive style in the last World Cup they stopped being lovable losers. Denmark will probably be the small country that comes closest to emulating the Dutch style with their open, attacking, entertaining football. When minnows play against the big nations, they either defend for 90 minutes and hope to steal a goal or attack, get torn apart, and walk away knowing they entertained the crowd. Denmark will be somewhere in between. They won’t be naïve enough to attack for 90 minutes, but don't expect them to be timid.

Denmark’s attack is a combination of quick passes out to the wings, the ball moving briskly from defense to attack, with striker Nicklas Bendtner serving as the focal point. Look for Dennis Rommedahl, Michael Krohn-Dehli, and Eriksen to be prominently involved, too, with Daniel Agger joining the attack from defense. Denmark has the players and will line up in the kind of formation that lends itself to an entertaining match. The only question is whether they will leave themselves too vulnerable against the firepower of the other teams in their group who each have one of the top three goal scorers from the qualifying campaign.

You Want Messi to Win the Ballon d’Or

You might ask yourself what Leo Messi, an Argentine Barcelona maestro, has to do with your interest in Denmark. Bear with me. The constant comparison between Messi and Ronaldo is tedious but at the same time unavoidable. Their zero-sum game means that any loss for Ronaldo in this tournament is a gain for Messi. That’s just the way it is. Messi scored 73 goals this season (in all competitions for his club) on his way to capturing three trophies with Barcelona, but neither of those included the two most important ones, La Liga and the Champions League. Ronaldo inspired Madrid to the La Liga crown. Both Barcelona and Real Madrid were eliminated in the semifinals of the Champions League. If Ronaldo takes Portugal on a run to the finals this summer, there is a good chance he will regain FIFA’s Ballon d’Or, given to the world’s best player. Messi fans should jump on the Denmark bandwagon, because if Denmark can defeat Portugal it will almost certainly ensure that Ronaldo doesn’t make it out of the group stage and Messi will retain the honor for a fourth consecutive year. Messi fans should all be lining up for seats on the Denmark bandwagon this summer.

Liking Denmark Will Make You Seem Cool

You don’t have to watch much soccer to know Ronaldo or Rooney, but when you tell someone you are cheering for Denmark they will automatically assume you know something they don’t. It’s like my friend who doesn’t watch any soccer, doesn’t know a free kick from a free sandwich — but put him within earshot of a soccer conversation and he will drop his signature line that he heard once on the BBC: “The problem with Arsenal is that they try to walk it into the net.” If you want to get your soccer weight up, here are a few lines. If you find yourself in a bar with a group of soccer snobs and Denmark is playing, tell them, “I really like the way Denmark switches from 4-5-1 to 4-3-3 when they have the ball.” If Eriksen pulls off a sublime move, simply chime in, “You know, he really reminds me of Laudrup,” pause for effect, then continue, “Michael, not Brian.” During the national anthem the camera usually pans across the players in uniform. When it settles on Bendtner, just blurt out, “Look at Bendtner. His ego is bigger than his talent.” If things start to go south for the Danes, pound your fist and yell, “This wouldn’t happen if they still had Stig Tofting in the midfield!” But if you are against faking it, grab a cold pint of Carlsberg and sit back and enjoy the show.

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The Consequences of Caring

By: timbersfan, 12:01 AM GMT on June 09, 2012

My daughter was crying. We were waiting for a green light on Olympic Boulevard, returning home from a Stanley Cup celebration that never happened. A depressed Kings fan pulled up to our right, glanced over and mouthed the word, "Awwwww." He alerted his passenger, another depressed Kings fan, who leaned over to catch a glimpse. They only stared for a second or two, probably remembering the days when sports made them cry. And then the light turned green and they drove away.

This happened on Wednesday night. Sports only brought my daughter to tears one other time: On a Saturday at Staples, after the Bruins had defeated her Kings while I wore a Bruins sweatshirt, donned a Boston cap and respectfully cheered for the champs. I say "respectfully" because we bought Kings tickets this season and I liked everyone sitting around us. Nothing sucks more than a visiting fan crashing your section and cheering obnoxiously for his team. That's what every Clippers game is like. I didn't want to be That Guy. I hate That Guy. We all hate That Guy.

So I downshifted a few notches. And even though I prepared her before that Bruins game — Look, this is Daddy's team, just like the Kings are your team, and if I ever teach you anything in life other than "stay off the pole," "don't date a Lakers fan" and "don't text naked pictures of yourself under any circumstances ever," it's that you only have one team for every sport — she couldn't handle it when it happened. She felt betrayed. When the Kings nearly tied the game in the final seconds, ultimately falling short, I pumped my fist and caught her glaring with one of those "You will pay" death stares.

And just like that, she started crying. I remained sympathetic while being secretly delighted, like she had passed some sort of "Fledgling Sports Fan" hurdle or something. On the way home, I discreetly snapped an iPhone picture of her post-cry for a keepsake — you know, "Here's the first time sports ever made my daughter cry" — only she caught me taking it, flipped out like a Real World roommate and scratched my right arm so hard that it bled. She didn't talk to me for two hours. And that's when I knew my daughter liked sports.

I always assumed my kids would care … but you never know with this stuff. My son's favorite celebrity right now? Michael Jackson. He loves Michael and werewolves, in that order, so you can only imagine how he feels about Thriller. I never, ever could have predicted this. That's parenthood. You roll with the whims of your kids. At the same time, there had to be some trick for hooking my daughter on sports beyond the old standby of "taking her to games and seeing if she likes it." After she turned 5, I asked a few friends with older children for tips. The same suggestion kept popping up: You can't necessarily make them follow your team, but you can steer them away from your least favorite teams. Good advice. Even if it's difficult to sway a Los Angeles native toward Boston teams playing 3,000 miles away — don't rule me out, by the way — I could brainwash her to despise the Lakers (as covered in 2010's "The Color Purple" column), any team with the words "New York" in its name, and the Lakers a second time just to be safe. After that? Her call. This seemed like a fair compromise. Really, I just wanted her to care. Of the 75 greatest moments of my life, sports were involved in at least 20 of them.

(Fine, I'm totally lying. It's probably 30. Maybe even 40.)

Hopefully, she would care. Hopefully.

Starting last October, the Kings became my daughter's first favorite team. Hockey moves at a different, more frenetic pace than other live sports — it's tailor-made for the ADD Generation, and that's before you include fans yelling things like "HEY SMITH, YOU SUCK!" or sarcastically singing a goalie's last name. It's also a more personable crowd: more lifers and diehards, fewer front-runners, less corporate, just friendlier and more engaged. You always hear that hockey players are the best interviews, but you rarely hear anyone say hockey fans are the best live event fans. They are. Of the four major sports, only hockey is significantly better in person.

I always thought my daughter would be a basketball fan — she loves playing hoops and even likes going to Clippers games. (She won't attend Lakers games because "the Lakers fans are there." Let's just say the brainwashing worked.) Imagine my surprise when she fell for the Kings within minutes of her first game, even asking the lady next to us, "Who's the best player?" The answer was playmaker Anze Kopitar, but only because Jonathan Quick hadn't morphed into an octopus Jedi yet. She watched Kopi skate around for a few shifts, ultimately deciding, "I want to get his jersey!" because, as you know, little kids are the biggest front-runners on the planet. We showed up for the next period with my daughter proudly showing off her black no. 11 jersey. She was hooked. There was no going back.

We spent the next six months attending Kings games. She learned about hockey on the fly, grasping "power plays" and "icing" pretty quickly but being stymied by the vagaries of the "offsides" rule. (I'm still not sure she understands it.) She loved the concept of overtime, and the fact that the word "death" is involved. She really loved shootouts. She noticed things that I haven't noticed for years — you know, like how linesmen use the boards to hop up before a puck hits their skates, or how goalies spray water in their faces OCD-style during every single break. She hated how the fans treated Dustin Penner, their slumping left wing who couldn't buy a break, frequently yelling out, "COME ON PENNER!" right after someone razzed him. A hierarchy developed for her: Kopitar first, then Drew Doughty (their handsome star defenseman), then Penner, then Quick. Those became her four guys.

As April approached, I started prepping her for the playoffs. So there's this thing called the Stanley Cup. It's a big trophy that looks like a mammoth cup. You can drink out of it and hold it over your head. Everyone wants to hold it, so everyone tries harder in the playoffs. You have to beat the same team four times before they beat you four times. Then, you have to do it again. Then, you have to do it again. And if you do it a fourth time, you get the Cup. And what happens is, they hand the Cup to the captain, and he skates around and kisses it, and he hands it to a teammate, and that guy skates around, and it's fucking awesome. Excuse me, freaking awesome.

She didn't get it. There were more than a few dumb questions like, "So if they beat the first team four times, THAT'S when they win the Cup?" Eventually, she figured it out. You know the rest. The no. 8-seeded Kings stole the first two games in Vancouver, morphed into a juggernaut and never looked back. My daughter attended all but one of their home playoff games. More than once she wondered, "Why didn't they always try this hard?," like she was auditioning for her own "Because It's the Cup" commercial. The short answer: That's hockey. Teams catch fire. It happens every year.

They made the finals when she was sound asleep, thanks to an overtime goal from Penner in Phoenix. After two wins in Jersey, she did the math and realized that Wednesday night could double as Cup Night … you know, assuming they won Game 3. Which they did. The Kings scored four times, Quick notched another spectacular shutout, my daughter broke her unofficial record for "Most attempts to start a 'Let's Go Kings!' chant," and she even unearthed a semi-creative heckle for future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur ("Hey Marty, you're older than my grandpa!!!"). When Kopi scored their second goal on a spectacular bang-bang play that my friend Lewis (my only Kings friend) described as "some 1980s Russian Olympic hockey shit," she totally flipped out, jumping up and down with her arms raised, high-fiving everyone in our section and even running down to pound the glass like a maniac. I can honestly say that I've never seen her that happy — not ever.

So Wednesday's game … man.

I tried to warn her. I tried to prepare her: "Look, this is sports, you never know, you can't just assume they're going to win." She wouldn't hear it. She kept saying, "Dad, stop it, just stop. They're going to win." She had the whole night planned in her head, inadvertently jinxing it with questions like, "Who gets to hold the Cup first again?" and "How long will they pass it around?" She insisted on arriving 40 minutes early for warm-ups. On the way there, she leaned out her window and waved to anyone wearing a Kings jersey. We made it downtown and realized it had morphed into a sea of Kings jerseys — more than we had ever seen. She was delighted.

"Look at all the jerseys!!!!" she gushed. "Did the Lakers ever have this many?"

And I just watched the whole thing happen, unable to stop it, knowing the entire time, "Oh God, tonight's probably the night … her first stomach-punch loss."

I felt that way about all their fans, actually. The Kings have been kicking around for 44 seasons, with those years ranging mostly from "unhappy" to "forgettable." They had exactly two "eras" that anyone remembers (Marcel Dionne/Rogie Vachon and Gretzky), one miracle (a 5-0 comeback to save the series against the '82 Oilers), one Stanley Cup finalist (the '93 Kings) and one genuinely heartbreaking moment (the McSorley game). Kings fans weren't tortured like Canucks fans or insanely bitter like Leafs fans. They weren't really anything. What were they? Even they didn't know. Suddenly their boys started winning games, and they kept winning, and the Lakers and Clippers disappeared, and Kings flags started popping up on cars, and locals started wearing Kings jerseys, and Quick was getting Kobe-like "M-V-P" chants, and wait a second … what the hell was happening?

By Game 4, they were immersed in one of those improbable Vegas movie montages where the chips are piling up, the blackjacks keep coming and everyone is laughing in delight. Before the game, longtime season-ticket holders posed for pictures with the rink behind them, almost like they were preparing for a wedding or something. Even Julia (the patient soul who sits next to us and spent the season fielding my daughter's annoying questions) was shockingly optimistic for a grizzled hockey veteran. When I obeyed all jinxing rules by saying, "Man, it seems like everyone thinks you're going to win tonight — that would make me nervous," Julia answered quickly, "Oh, we're winning tonight."

Uh-oh.

They never saw it coming. After New Jersey scored a stunning go-ahead goal with under five minutes to play, the crowd reacted like Don Draper and the fellas during last weekend's office surprise on Mad Men. Nobody handled it worse than my daughter. She almost started crying right then. I vainly attempted the whole "There's still time, you have to think good thoughts" parental routine. The clock kept ticking. The Kings took a dumb penalty. Tears started forming. I talked her off the ledge, rubbed her shoulders, did whatever I could to prevent a meltdown. With 50 seconds remaining, the Kings pulled Quick and almost immediately yielded an empty-netter. Time to get her out of there. Fast. We zoomed up the aisle as she buried her face in one of those annoying white towels that everyone waves now. She kept it together until we reached our car. And then, waterworks.

Remember that scene when Forrest Gump finds out about his son, digests the news, then worries that the boy is just as stupid as he is? For two terrible seconds, he's thinking to himself, Oh, no, I hope I didn't ruin this kid. That's how I felt when I watched my daughter sobbing. Why did I do this to her? Why would I pull her into this fan vortex where you're probably going to end up unhappy more than happy?

Then I remembered something. Sports is a metaphor for life. Everything is black and white on the surface. You win, you lose, you laugh, you cry, you cheer, you boo, and most of all, you care. Lurking underneath that surface, that's where all the good stuff is — the memories, the connections, the love, the fans, the layers that make sports what they are. It's not about watching your team win the Cup as much as that moment when you wake up thinking, In 12 hours, I might watch my team win the Cup. It's about sitting in the same chair for Game 5 because that chair worked for you in Game 3 and Game 4, and somehow, this has to mean something. It's about using a urinal between periods, realizing that you're peeing on a Devils card, then eventually realizing that some evil genius placed Devils cards in every single urinal. It's about leaning out of a window to yell at people wearing the same jersey as you, and it's about noticing an airport security guy staring at your Celtics jersey and knowing he'll say, "You think they win tonight?" before he does. It's about being an NBA fan but avoiding this year's Western Conference finals because you still can't believe they ripped your team away, and it's about crying after that same series because you can't believe your little unassuming city might win the title. It's about posing for pictures before a Stanley Cup clincher, then regretting after the fact that you did. It's about two strangers watching you cry at a stoplight. It's black and white, but it's not.

Only 12 hours later, I flew cross-country to watch the Celtics play Miami in Boston. My wife couldn't believe it. We were committed to a party in Los Angeles the following night. Who flies cross-country and back in 24 hours?

"I don't understand," she said. "Why can't you just watch it from home?"

Because it's my favorite Celtics team in 25 years. Because there was real history at stake — the LeBron/Wade era hanging in the balance, the Big Three possibly playing their final home game, the distinct possibility of either LeBron's greatest game or LeBrondown III (with no in-between). Because I wanted to be there with my dad. Because I wanted to stroll down Causeway Street, see that familiar sea of green, feel like I never left. Because I wanted to savor those "Let's Go Celtics" chants, hear the accents, enjoy that only-works-in-person moment before tip-off when a wired Garnett bumps fists with every opposing player, stomps over to the foul line near Boston's bench and yells at his fans. Because we spent five years watching Rondo, Pierce, Allen, Garnett and Doc fighting to maintain something that mattered to them — and to us — even as teammates kept changing, bad breaks kept happening, trade rumors kept swirling and there were multiple reasons for any one of them to pack it in.

Their improbable turnaround wasn't about money, numbers, accolades, headlines, commercials, brands or contract runs. These four guys loved playing together, loved their coach and loved their fans. It's really that simple. When the trade deadline was looming last March, right as the season appeared to be splintering, something interesting happened: They fought to stay together. Their coach called the Big Four (that's what they are now) into his office and asked if they believed they could win the 2012 title. They said yes. Over the span of four days, they nearly swept the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors all on the road, showing astonishing resolve. At the same time, nobody was bowling over Danny Ainge with killer offers. He decided to keep them together for one last run. You never know.

THE 1987 FINALS REVISITED

It has been 25 years since the Celtics showdown with the Lakers in the 1987 NBA Finals, here is an excerpt from The Book of Basketball breaking down the final seconds of Game 4.

• "That Was Supposed To Go In"
Three months later, Derrick Rose was rehabbing his knee, Miami was imploding and the creaky Celtics needed one more victory for the most improbable Finals trip in franchise history. They were so banged up, even their coach was battling a herniated disk. An injured coach??? As casualties kept piling up and the boys kept chugging along, undaunted, they started resonating with Boston fans like the '87 Celtics, '76 Celtics and '69 Celtics once upon a time. This was totally different than 2008's whirlwind of a fantasy season. We knew these guys now. The best teams are like dogs — even if it's most fun when they're puppies, the most meaningful moments come later, after they've lost a step or two, when you know them about as well as you know anything. It's not about Rondo throwing an ESP alley-oop to Garnett, or Allen sneaking off a double screen to nail a 3, or Pierce gritting his way through a 6-for-19 and somehow making the game's biggest shot. It's about the familiarity of those moments more than anything, and how they intersect with the franchise's history as a whole. This isn't a great team, it's a great Celtics team — one that Red would have loved — and over everything else, that's why we will always remember the 2012 Celtics.

And that's why I flew back. Unlike Wednesday night's Kings game, any signs of overconfidence were tempered by Miami having the best player on the floor (and, probably, the world). Boston fans hoped the Heat would splinter and Celtics pride would prevail, but deep down, we knew LeBron had one of those petrifying 45-point monsters lurking in him. That's another reason I flew back. Either …

A. The Celtics were making the Finals.
B. LeBron was playing one of his greatest games.
C. A and B.

And there was no "D."

You know what happened by now. LeBron strolled out with a creepy look on his face, a relaxed, detached expression that said … well … we didn't know. Was he pissed off? Had he checked out? Had he finally turned on his teammates? He was barely interacting with them, lost in his own little world, like he was wearing headphones we couldn't see. He was definitely playing hard, but you couldn't interpret what the overall vibe meant. Was this like a Dwight Howard thing? Like, "I'm here to do my job, and I'm going to try hard, just know that I'm here because I have to be?" Had the pressure finally broken him? Was he feuding with Wade? What was his agenda?

And then … the shots started going in. Swish. Swish. Swish. It's like Miami realized, "Oh yeah, the Celtics don't have anyone who can guard LeBron James," and more important, LeBron realized it. He stopped worrying about sharing the ball, getting teammates involved, swinging it to the open man, being liked. Maybe LeBron said to himself, "Fuck it, I'm playing all 48 minutes, I'm scoring at least 50 points, and if we still blow this game, nobody can blame me." Maybe he said, "Wade already has a ring, it's time to get mine." Maybe someone (Wade?) said to him, "Enough with this me-then-you-then-me crap, it's your team, hog the ball, do your thing and take us home." Maybe Game 5's embarrassing defeat, as well as the humiliating "Good Job, Good Effort" kid and 36 hours of "Should they break up the Heat?" stories pissed him off. Maybe Worldwide Wes gave him an awesome pregame speech along the lines of the chef from Vision Quest.

I don't know what happened. I just know the shots wouldn't stop going in. After about the fifth dagger in a row (he made 10 straight), the crowd started groaning on every make — shades of Philly's Andrew Toney ripping our hearts out 30 years ago. If you've ever been in the building for one of those games, you know there isn't a deadlier sound. He single-handedly murdered one of the giddiest Celtics crowds I can remember. Thirty points in the first half. Thirty! All with that blank look on his face. It was like watching surveillance video of a serial killer coldly dismembering a body and sticking the parts in the fridge. Only we were right there.

You can't imagine what this was like to witness in person. I know Michael Jordan had similarly astonishing games, and others, too, but not with stakes like that. This wasn't just an elimination game. This was LeBron James's entire career being put on trial … and it only took an hour for him to tell the jury, "Go home. I'm one of the best players ever. Stop picking me apart. Stop talking about the things I can't do. Stop holding me to standards that have never been applied to any other NBA player. Stop blaming me for an admittedly dumb decision I never should have made. Stop saying I'm weak. Stop saying that I don't want to win. Stop. Just … stop."

As a Celtics fan, I was devastated. As a basketball fan, I appreciated the performance for what it was. One of the greatest players ever was playing one of his greatest games ever. He swallowed up every other relevant story line. Needless to say, the Celtics couldn't match him — especially Pierce, who's worn down from four weeks of battling Andre Iguodala, Shane Battier and LeBron on one leg and appears to be running on fumes of his fumes' fumes at this point. The fans were so shell-shocked that many (including me and my father) filed out with three minutes remaining, not because we were lousy fans, not to beat the traffic, but because we didn't want to be there anymore. We wanted to get away from LeBron. He ruined what should have been a magical night. We never really had a chance to cheer, swing the game, rally our guys, anything. He pointed a remote control at us and pressed "MUTE." It was like being in a car accident. LeBron James ran over 18,000 people.

Leaving the arena, I noticed that same relentlessly eerie silence from the previous night in Los Angeles. Two different sports, two different coasts, same sound. My father and I strolled slowly back to his Beacon Hill house, moving like zombies with hundreds of other fans. You could hear horns beeping, bottles getting kicked, that's about it. If I were 9 years old, I would have been crying just as hard as I did after the '78 Sox-Yankees playoff game. I stopped crying about sports a long time ago. I never stopped caring. This one hurt.

"I'm sorry you flew back for that one," my father finally said.

"I'm not sorry," I said. "That was an amazing performance. I'm glad I was there."

I don't know if I totally meant it. We started talking, rehashed the game, tried to figure out what happened. We both agreed that LeBron couldn't possibly play that well again, and that Pierce couldn't possibly play that poorly. We talked about missed chances in the second and third quarters, all the different times Boston could have swung the momentum with one basket. We remembered that this particular Celtics team never plays two lousy games in a row, and that Miami hasn't exactly been a house of horrors for them. By the end of the walk, we had rallied. The Celtics were still alive. One game, winner take all. You never know.

That departure went a little better than Wednesday's exit from Staples Center. After coming apart at that stoplight, my daughter only cried for another minute, finally redirecting her anger toward me. You know, because that's what daughters do.

"You don't even care about the Kings," she hissed. "You only care about your stupid Boston teams."

"That's not true," I said. "I care because they're your team."

"But you don't REALLY care, you're not a Kings fan."

"That's true."

"Then you don't understand," she decided. "You don't understand what it's like. You have NO idea."

But that's the thing about sports … I do.

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What Will Zlatan Do?

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on June 08, 2012

What does a man like Zlatan Ibrahimovic see in a tournament like Euro 2012? Looking at the bookies, it’s clear that his native Sweden is a rank outsider to win, but that won’t unduly bother Zlatan. For all the disappointments that Sweden suffers in international soccer, it offers the brilliant forward the one thing he seems to crave above all else: the biggest stage the sport can possibly offer. It’s one upon which he has shone before -- witness this astonishing backheel flick against Italy at Euro 2004 -- and we should expect him to do so again this summer.

But there's an incongruence with Ibrahimovic. At first sight, Zlatan and soccer don’t seem to belong together. Indeed, there are times when you might even wonder what he’s doing in this century, or this side of reality; I can easily imagine him in a battle scene in Game of Thrones, a marauding warrior from the House of Targaryen, howling through the streets of some unlucky medieval town. Or I picture a soldier in ancient Greece, sitting and glowering in the dark shadows of that wooden horse, ready to unleash himself upon Troy.

No: Zlatan doesn’t look like a soccer player. Far from it. He’s 6-foot-5, weighing comfortably clear of 200 pounds. Those are almost NBA dimensions, and given that most of his chosen sport’s protagonists are currently about a foot shorter, his presence in the game seems wholly anomalous. Yet present in the game he is, and thriving at its very peak.

Though still only 30, the Swedish striker, born in Malmo to a Bosnian father and Croatian mother, has starred for many of the world’s leading clubs -- Ajax, Juventus, Internazionale, FC Barcelona and now AC Milan. Most remarkably, from 2004 to 2011 he won eight consecutive league titles with these teams, a streak during which he was a decisive element every time.

If asked to describe Zlatan’s winning formula in four words, the answer would be: “half brawn, half ballet.” Ibra is unique among footballers in that he can vacillate in a heartbeat between raw aggression and rare finesse: to wit, a breathtaking goal for Ajax Amsterdam, one of many, a perfect example of his giddy swagger.

This season he has continued his spectacular play in Serie A (as if, indeed, he knew any other way). Perhaps the pick of his goals was a goal that he fashioned against Siena, an elegant pivot on the ball in front of his marker before releasing a powerful left-footed strike. Most forwards would be happy with such a strike in their entire careers; Zlatan does it almost weekly.

Of course, such party pieces are nothing if they do not bear fruit, and Zlatan has the medals to prove it. What’s more, he’s got plenty of goals to boast about, too. In Serie A, a league notorious for tight defending, he has scored over a hundred goals at more than one every two games. In Italy he also excels as a playmaking trequartista and has assisted over sixty goals with his inventive and incisive passing, a position he's recently assumed for Sweden to great effect.

Zlatan scores, makes assists and routinely performs magic with the ball, so much so that his adoring supporters have nicknamed him “Ibracadabra.” He’s even the captain of his national side. What’s not to like?


After tension at Barcelona, Ibrahimovic has thrived with Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng in Milan.© Claudio Villa/Getty Images
Well, there are a couple of things. For one, when the battle is at its most critical, Zlatan is a warrior without a battlefield: that is, he fails to score in the biggest games. Due to his relatively poor scoring record in European competition whilst at Juventus and Internazionale – where he scored only nine times in 41 matches – this accusation has followed him persistently, but in recent years he’s managed to shift the paradigm.

For example, in November 2009, he scored the only goal in Barcelona’s 1-0 victory over Real Madrid in El Clasico; in 2012, in the second round of the UEFA Champions League, he scored once and notched two assists in AC Milan’s 4-0 dismissal of Arsenal.

Moreover, Zlatan’s numbers continued to rise this past season. According to OPTA, Ibrahimovic scored the opening goal in nine Serie A matches in 2011-12 -- the second-highest total, behind Udinese’s Antonio Di Natale, who had 10. Moreover, he scored the winning goal in 10 Serie A matches, three ahead of di Natale in second place, proving that he’s becoming a big game barbarian.

But then there’s the other thing about Zlatan: his ego. In November 2011, Zlatan published a very frank autobiography – "I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic" (Jag ar Zlatan Ibrahimovic) – in which he invited the world to peer about within the vast hilltop mansion of his psyche, only what they found in there wasn’t pretty.

Reading his prose reveals a man still bitter about the one year of his career that was considered a failure -- the 2010-11 season at Barcelona, signed as he was by Pep Guardiola to be a young and powerful presence at the apex of the Blaugrana’s forward line.

Angered by what he felt were the excessive physical demands of Guardiola’s regime, he (or his ghostwriter) set these vengeances to paper. "I haven't got the physique of someone who can work back and then sprint up front again throughout a match!" he wrote. "If this is what you want, then you've got a Ferrari and you are using it like a Fiat! I'd rather be on the bench than play." As if anyone doubted Zlatan's non-conformist streak, he confirmed it by stating: "I am a guy who likes those who drive through red lights."

Unsurprisingly, given Guardiola’s fierce commitment to a collective ethos -- Barcelona devised as a utopian team above the individual -- Zlatan was quickly shown the door and thus returned to Italy where Massimiliano Allegri, despite being far from a soft touch, has been more indulgent of the Swede’s mercurial nature. To his credit Zlatan has repaid that faith, winning a Serie A title in his first season and scoring 28 goals the next year, good for the league’s top scorer as AC Milan finished second to Juventus in the Scudetto.

The good news for Sweden as it enters Euro 2012 is that Zlatan is in excellent form; more importantly, he is someone who has consistently proven that he can take the responsibility that comes with being given center stage. His nation’s hopes rightly rest in him as he continues to build a legacy like those warriors of old that he so closely resembles: a man loved and loathed, feared and revered in equal measure.

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The Luka Modric mystique

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on June 08, 2012

Luka Modric is an unusual footballer. The Croatian midfielder, who plays his club football in the Premier League for Tottenham Hotspur, is the strangest of players: a star who doesn’t seem to shine. For the first few minutes that you watch Modric in action, it’s difficult to work out exactly what he does. He gets the ball and gives it to someone else who promptly runs off and does something much more exciting with it. Then he runs -- but not very fast. And look -- now look at him. He’s standing still. And he’s raising his arms in triumph.

This description is common for Luka Modric almost every time his team scores. You see, he’s very rarely the player who tallies. He is also very rarely the player who provides the assist. But if you count one pass further back -- if you look at the person that supplies that provider -- then you’ll find him almost every time. This position, the deep-lying playmaker -- or what the Italians call the regista -- is vital in the modern game now that defenses are far more conniving and sophisticated; teams must build attacks from withdrawn positions and use more variety than the old days of "Route One" long balls, making players like Modric an essential component.

On its day, Tottenham’s attack -- led by Emmanuel Adebayor up front and Gareth Bale from the flank -- is as fearsome as they come, most notably in the 4-0 league victory over Liverpool last season. And Modric? He’s just watching quietly in the background, having drawn up the attack coordinates. What’s more is every now and then -- as he did in that Liverpool romp -- he produces a spectacular goal.

If Tottenham Hotspur is a thrilling live band, then Modric -- like, for example, Barcelona’s Xavi Hernandez and Manchester United’s Paul Scholes -- is its drummer. Arguably the most important skill in soccer is the ability to dictate the rhythm of the match. With this, a team can open up space within the ranks of the opposition. The world first saw this side of Modric when he directed Croatia’s 2-0 Euro 2008 qualifier victory over England in Zagreb. He didn’t score -- and was barely mentioned in the match reports -- but was the source of all that was lethal to England.

Two years later, millions more were aware of the danger that he posed and watched as little Luka guided his country to a 2-1 win over Germany at that tournament in the group stages. Germany, which made it to the final before succumbing to Spain, was overwhelmed by his swift, precise and perceptive passing. The great Dutch coach Rinus Michels would have called this a perfect example of “circulation football” -- the art of keeping the ball moving fluidly across the pitch as if it were a red blood cell flowing through an artery.

It is this art that will be of great value to Croatia in a difficult Euro 2012 group against Italy, the Republic of Ireland and reigning European champion Spain. With its star drummer on top form, the Azzurri struggling to find its tempo and the Irish lacking in flair, the Croats could reasonably hope to emerge in second place behind the title-holders.

Yet given the indirect nature of his influence, Modric will likely elude simple statistical analysis. There are many footballers (Robin van Persie, Lionel Messi, etc.) whose numbers immediately bear witness to their vast influence; well, the Croat isn’t one of them. Were you to assess him merely by Moneyball-style metrics, you’d come away feeling decidedly underwhelmed. For example, in the 2011-12 EPL season, he trailed Manchester City’s David Silva by some distance in chances created from open play (by 86 to 67, according to Duncan Alexander of Opta Sports). He scored only three goals and gave only four assists.

This, though, would be an unfairly simplistic appraisal of events. Admirers of Luka Modric would ask you to look at his passing. In 36 league starts this past year, he completed the highest number of passes in the division (2215), ahead of the buccaneering Yaya Touré of Manchester City (2189). What’s more, he was caught in possession many more times than the Ivorian. This last statistic is an important (and ambiguous) one. On the one hand, it suggests that Modric is less careful in possession than Touré; on the other, it suggests that he is more readily targeted because he is perceived as the greater threat. I would argue that the latter holds most of the truth.


Despite his diminutive frame, Modric has adapted well to the physicality of the Premier League.© Scott Heavey/Getty Images
If the worth of Modric cannot conclusively be expressed in mere numbers, it is hinted at by the caliber of those clubs that most covet him. Last summer, Chelsea and Manchester United, seeking someone to marshal their midfields through the tricky later stages of the Champions League, both aggressively pursued Modric’s signature. Sir Alex Ferguson identified Modric, and not Gareth Bale, as his player of the 2010-11 season, while then-CFC boss Andre Villas-Boas called him “one of the greatest talents in the world, a player who will have tremendous success.” Both were repelled only by the rare resilience of Tottenham’s chairman, Daniel Levy, a feat all the more remarkable for the fact that Chelsea was reportedly offering Modric three times what he is currently earning at White Hart Lane.

Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to Modric’s talents comes from a man of very few words, but who for many years has practiced a similar brand of witchcraft at the heart of his team. When asked whether Manchester United should look to buy Modric, Samir Nasri (then at Arsenal), or Internazionale’s Wesley Sneijder, Paul Scholes was unequivocal. “Of the three, Modric, when we've played against him, has been the one I have been most impressed with,” he told the Manchester Evening News in July, 2011. “Whenever we played Tottenham, he was the one who stood out.”

The best evidence of this was the 2009 Carling Cup Final. Modric was up against Paul Scholes in midfield that day, and although Tottenham would eventually lose on penalties, the game saw the Croat at his most majestic. Time and again, he would turn away from Scholes, intercepting a pass from him here, twisting past him there, leaving the United veteran in rare discomfort. Scholes is, after all, the man whom Barcelona’s Xavi has described as “the best central midfielder I've seen in the last 15, 20 years” and whom Zinedine Zidane has called “undoubtedly the greatest midfielder of his generation.” Yet against Modric, he looked totally nonplussed; as confused, in fact, as someone who’d been asked to express just how good Modric was by using nothing but stats.

The future for Modric is thoroughly exciting given that he is one of a select group of footballers who could materially improve the world’s best teams; furthermore, Tottenham's failure to qualify for the Champions League may very well prompt him to move on this summer. His next destination is anyone’s guess; Chelsea may well rekindle their interest, as may Manchester United. Meanwhile, there is a strong argument that, had Manchester City replaced the often pedestrian passing of Gareth Barry with that of Luka Modric, it would have won the Premier League far sooner than it did. Croatia is fortunate to have him; so, too, will be the club who can afford his rare and understated brilliance.

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What To Watch At Euro 2012

By: timbersfan, 12:08 AM GMT on June 08, 2012

Most soccer fans believe that the World Cup is The Greatest Show On Earth, and if you judge solely by the all-important category of "Smoking Hot Brazilian Supporters In Bikinis," there's no contest. But on almost every other level -- quality of play, penchant for drama, intensity of blood feuds and preponderance of hair gel -- the European Championship is the superior tournament.

For one thing, it’s harder to win than the World Cup. In the 13 tournaments since its inception in 1956, nine different teams have hoisted the Euro trophy with Germany having managed the trick a Teutonic three times. France and Spain are the only two other multiple winners and when Les Bleus captured the title in 2000, they had to go through Denmark, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy to win. (Five of those teams were former European champions, by the way.) On the other hand, England has managed to win the trophy as many times as the U.S.

While the World Cup has a field of 32, only 16 do battle in the Euros (although this is the last time we will see this undiluted of a field as it's regrettably expanding to 24 sides in 2016). In this year's showcase, unlike the World Cup, there’s no Zaire, Saudi Arabia or any CONCACAF team south of Mexico to curl up in a fetal position and beg not to be beaten by double digits (for the record, in the 1974 World Cup, Yugoslavia beat Zaire only 9-0 and in 1982 El Salvador nicked a goal to barely drop a 10-1 squeaker to Hungary).

Meanwhile, 10 of FIFA's top 15 teams will play in "Polkraine," which might mean something until you realize that the unimpeachable FIFA list puts England at No. 6.

Beyond that, the World Cup is achingly predictable in its winner (a host nation, Italy, Germany, Brazil or another South American outfit has won every WC except the most recent) while the Euro can throw off a ridiculous shocker. It happened in 1992 when Denmark, which hadn't even qualified for the tournament and was only there because war had broken out in Yugoslavia, confounded the experts by beating heavily favored, Jurgen Klinsmann-led Germany in the final.

But that was nothing compared to the seismic upset that occurred in 2004 when Greece, a rank 100-1 outsider, rode its luck (and what was essentially a 9-0-1 formation) to the title, defeating the home side Portugal in both the opening and closing matches. Greece, for Zach Galifianakis' sake! (Seriously, name two of the players on the championship side -- without Googling -- and win a lifetime supply of ouzo.)


If Greece can win it, surely England has a shot? (Just kidding.)© AP Photo/Armando Franca
That aberration notwithstanding, there's also a much better chance that you'll get a final worthy of the grand occasion. Take away Zizou's head-butt in 2006 and how many memorable World Cup-deciding games have we witnessed since 1986? The Euros can lay claim to a glittering array over the past four decades: Antonin Panenka's penalty chip for the Czechs against West Germany in 1976, the genius of Michel Platini in 1984, the majesty of Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit in '88, Brian Laudrup guiding the Danes in '92, France versus Italy in 2000. Even Fernando Torres' classy finish in 2008 quickened the pulse.

Finally (and most importantly), the Euros are Sepp Blatter-free. FIFA's ineptitude, brilliantly manifested in president Blatter's spectacular lack of self-awareness, often detracts from the soccer on display at the World Cup. At the Euros, the great Platini is Le Grand Fromage and his less megalomaniacal style means we can focus on the games rather than a Swiss septuagenarian blathering on about the merits of golden goals, penalty shootouts, goal-line technology and skimpier shorts for women.

So if you're a fan of world-class soccer or just someone who likes a good old-fashioned tribal feud, you'd be well advised to inform your boss that you have a medical emergency that can only be cured by spending the next three weeks in a pub drinking beer and watching the Euros.

Three not-for-the-fainthearted matchups

European soccer is filled with more intolerance and aggression than a "Jersey Shore" marathon. And while every nation in the tournament has some sort of communal angst to work out on the field, these three group stage showdowns bring jingoism to its proper hysterical pitch.

England vs. France (June 11, 12 p.m. ET) -- These two can’t even agree upon a common currency, so you know their soccer rivalry has been anything but a lovefest. England won 3-1 at the 1982 World Cup though Les Bleus exacted a measure of revenge in Euro 2004, when a delicious pass from Steven Gerrard set up Thierry Henry for the winning goal -- arguably Stevie G's last assist in an England shirt. What fills us with a nasty combination of hope and dread is that each side was so spectacularly awful and mutinous in South Africa that they bring years of pent-up frustration to this first group match. Let the soggy pies and pretentious berets fly.

Germany vs. Netherlands (June 13, 2:45 p.m. ET) -- No matter how much swagger and skill the Dutch have brought to the game over the years, they have long played second clog to the Germans, who stunned a heavily-favored Johan Cruyff side in the 1974 World Cup final. So when the Oranje eliminated the hosts in the semifinals of Euro 88, Ronald Koeman made sure Germany understood the depth of animus between the teams. When the game was over, the Dutch defender pretended to wipe his butt with Olaf Thon’s jersey right in front of the German fans. Two years later during Italia 90, Holland’s Frank Rijkaard further escalated the hostilities by famously moisturizing German striker Rudi Voller’s perm with a huge gob of phlegm for which he was suspended for three games.

While no spit takes are expected this time around, the prospect of another Germany-Holland showdown -- and one that will likely decide Group B -- has the soccer world salivating.


At the 2006 World Cup, Portugal and the Netherlands were more brutal than beautiful. What will happen on June 17?© Alexander Heimann/Getty Images
Netherlands vs. Portugal (June 17, 2:45 p.m. ET) -- While their respective levels of excessive nationalism are fairly low (Dutch enmity toward the Germans notwithstanding), the soccer grudge-o-meter is tastily high after the 2006 Battle of Nuremberg during which the two sides crunched and thugged to a World Cup-record four red cards and 16 yellows in a single 90-minute game. Though the whistle-happy ref, Valentin Ivanov, bears a large part of the blame, the likelihood of both sides fighting for second place means we could see similar mayhem as each scrambles to book a quarterfinal spot. Look for Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong to make a sandwich of Ronaldo's spleen and eat it raw.

EURO MAD MEN

How well do you know the lovable "characters" of the tournament? Match these acts of temporary insanity to the player. (Hint: none of them is John Terry, who’s in a sanitarium by himself.)

A. Photographed stumbling out of a bar with his pants around his ankles and claimed he had been "drugged." Arrested for damaging parked cars after a night out; wrote public apology because he "allowed himself to get involved in things that are interpreted in such dramatic fashion." Famously scored a 10 on a self-esteem test -- the results were measured from one to nine.

B. Swore at a female reporter ("What the f--- are you looking at?") and flicked his headband at her during pitchside interview. Wrote in his autobiography that Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola “has no balls" and "s--- himself in front of Mourinho."

C. Vowed to walk off the field if racially abused and threatened to kill anyone who throws a banana at him.

D. Punched teammate in the eye after argument over who should take a free kick spilled over into the locker room at halftime.

E. Stepped on Lionel Messi's hand during a game. Kicked another opponent twice -- shin and lower back -- after conceding a penalty before kicking another in the face, earning a 10-game ban. Doesn't understand his reputation: "The Press portrays me as some kind of murderer."

F. Went to a BBQ and disappeared for two months; when he returned to his club, he tried to explain his absence saying he'd broken his leg (he hadn't). Was sent to serve in the army. Has a Joey Barton-esque reputation on Twitter.

1. Franck Ribery

2. Pepe

3. Mario Balotelli

4. Roman Shirokov

5. Nicklas Bendtner

6. Zlatan Ibrahimovic

(Answer key at bottom)

IS THAT A VUVUZELA IN YOUR POCKET OR ARE YOU JUST GLAD TO BE IN EASTERN EUROPE?

Neither, it's a Zozulica, a 7,000-year-old Slavic cousin of the South African torture device that sounded like Kenny G (no relation to Stevie G) was being shot out of a cannon while blowing a giant trumpet made of saxophones. The Eastern European version is slightly less annoying -- its cuckoo-like chirping is more Renaissance Fair than jazz combo from hell -- but, trust us, after listening to it for three weeks, you’ll definitely want to shove a hot poker through your aural canal. Fortunately, just like Zozulicas, hot pokers are also cheap and plentiful in Poland and Ukraine.

THERE'S A TEAM FOR EVERYONE

If you’re looking to choose a country to get behind and are unburdened by any ethnic loyalties, there’s a simple way to do it: select one that’s like a team you root for in another sport.

Follow our Adopt-a-Team-o-Matic and before you know it, you’ll be chanting “Hup, Holland, Hup.”

If you love the New York Knicks: ENGLAND. Living exclusively off faded memories of past glory, can't accept the fact the world has passed it by, hampered by profound lack of creativity, riddled with injuries, will not win again in our lifetime.


The Italians have question marks on defense and in attack, but if any nation can galvanize under pressure, it's the Azzurri.© Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images
If you love the New Orleans Saints: ITALY. Superstar squad brought to its knees by scandal, although its hometown cooking is delicious.

If you love the Miami Heat: THE NETHERLANDS. Young, athletic and sexy as hell, the Dutch have game-changers throughout the squad. Brash and cocky, they are capable of blowing out opponents -- except when it counts and they fall fabulously short.

If you love the New York Jets: FRANCE. Desperate to change their image after recent public humiliations, Les Bleus are now managed by a charismatic leader who vows to keep the reins on his hotheaded stars this time around. Bonne chance with that.

If you love the Cleveland Browns: GREECE. They're hard-working, nose-to-the-grindstone, blue-collar ragamuffins from an economically depressed homeland. They seemingly never have a chance to win, yet lightning has struck for each (Browns in 1964, Greece in 2004). Don't count on it striking twice.

If you love the Los Angeles Dodgers: GERMANY. They used to be boring, but now they're a thrill-a-minute. They used to be predictable, but now they're full of surprises. They used to win; now they win with style.

If you love the New York Mets: PORTUGAL. They've got one of the best players in the world on their side, but he always seems to choke in big spots. Constantly playing second fiddle to their richer, more successful neighbors. Run by a dysfunctional organization on the brink of financial ruin.

If you love the New England Patriots: SPAIN. Classy and cool they'll pass you to death, win the title and then go home to their ultra-hot girlfriends and wives.

AND NOW FOR SOME PREDICTIONS ...

Group A

Greece: Cured insomniacs around the globe in 2004 and won the tournament. Will repeat its version of soccer Xanax but will, mercifully, go home early.

Russia: Traded one Dutch coach (Guus Hiddink to Dick Advocaat) for another and by allowing only four goals in qualifying showed a decent defensive spine. There's always the chance that Andrei Arshavin will torture Arsenal fans and be brilliant again but, like the whining diva himself, it's a small one.

Czech Republic: Will live and die by Petr Cech's gloves and the midfield scheming of Tomas Rosicky, who will continue his run of not being on a trophy-winning side.

Poland: Home soil, soft group and blessed with a young Dortmund core (Jakub Blaszczykowski, Robert Lewandowski and Lukasz Piszczek) plus Wojciech Szczesny, ace goalkeeper for some Champions League North London club. Expect the Poles to feast on their home cooking and drive journalists batty with all those annoying consonants.

MOVING ON: Poland, Czech Republic

Group B

Netherlands: Boasts the leading scorers in the EPL and Bundesliga respectively (Robin van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar) but it's still Arjen Robben who everyone fears -- unless he's taking an important penalty. While the Dutch are as famous for infighting as the English are for brave losses, Team Netherlands still has enough weapons to get to the Final Four.

Germany: Loaded with young attacking talent (Marco Reus, Mario Gotze, Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos) and led by the Bayern duo of Philipp Lahm and Bastian Schweinsteiger, the Germans are everyone's favorite to usurp Spain. Still, any defense that even thinks about rolling out Per Mertesacker is a self-destruct button waiting to happen.


The Germans never fail to look stylish these days, and will surely show plenty of flair at Euro 2012.© Daniel Roland/AFP/Getty Images
Denmark: Future star in Christian Eriksen yet surrounded by a fading firmament (Nicklas Bendtner, Dennis Rommedahl). Euro 1992 has never seemed further away.

Portugal: The extraordinarily gifted but preeningly obnoxious Cristiano Ronaldo teamed with 10 others who are nowhere nearly as talented but are almost as unlikeable. Barely qualified and has looked abject in recent exhibitions, but with CRon you can't count Portugal out. At least until it plays Germany and Netherlands. A lock for most unsympathetic team in the tourney.

MOVING ON: Germany, Netherlands

Group C

Spain: Is it good enough to win three major tournaments in a row and enter the pantheon of legendary teams? Si. Will it? Depends on whether the fatigue of La Liga and Champions League catches up to it, and whether the Barcelona versus Real Madrid club schism finally fractures team unity.

Italy: It is always tempting to write off the Azzurri due to outside distractions (this time it's yet another match-fixing scandal) but then you remember the 2006 World Cup. Difference is, they had a much more gifted and deeper team six years ago, yet if Mario Balotelli The Good turns up, they could claw their way into quarters.

Ireland: Has overcome the trauma of Thierry Henry's handball to make its first appearance in a major tournament in a decade. Still has to overcome the presence of Robbie Keane in the team but will fight to the death. And if anyone knows how to beat Italy, it's idiosyncratic coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

Croatia: Luka Modric will dazzle in midfield as he entertains offers to play for a Champions League team, while players such as Nikica Jelavic and Ivan Rakitic hope to reproduce their impressive club form this past season. But there's little chance that Slaven Bilic's band will rock the Euros like they did in 2008.

MOVING ON: Spain, Italy

Group D

England: Why even bother? Fleet Street will kick the hype into stratospheric levels as Roy Hodgson figures out entirely new ways to deploy four holding midfielders. Next to Greece and Ireland, the Three Lions will play the least eye-catching soccer and, with any luck, will be bounced out on PKs in the quarters.

France: As talented and mercurial a team as exists in Europe, one that has recently rediscovered its mojo under Laurent Blanc. Certainly a dark horse to reach the semis, and the likely group winner.

Ukraine: Bye-bye and thanks for co-hosting.

Sweden: Almost always plays an attractive brand of soccer and has been known to give England fits over the years. But it is overly reliant on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, a man who is in turn overly reliant on great clubs to service him and tolerate his greasy mullet.

MOVING ON: France, England (with one goal in three matches combined)

Quarterfinals

Netherlands over Poland, Spain over England, Germany over Czech Republic, France over Italy

Semifinals

Spain over Holland, Germany over France

Final

Germany over Spain to usher in new Euro soccer hegemony

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Euro 2012 Tournament Preview

By: timbersfan, 12:05 AM GMT on June 08, 2012

There really is no argument at this point: The European Championship is the most competitive high-level soccer tournament in the world, even more so than the World Cup. When Euro 2012 starts on Friday with Poland-Greece (ESPN, noon ET) and Russia-Czech Republic (ESPN, 2:45 p.m. ET), every team will bring something to the table. The tournament has only 16 national teams (at least until it moves to 24 in four years), and so it's possible to have a first-round group of Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal and Denmark, four teams in the top 10 of the FIFA world rankings.
In other words, none of the North Koreas, Hondurases and Saudi Arabias that have populated recent World Cups will provide filler at the Euro. What's more, if the electrifying Euro 2008 is an indicator, then the play over the next three weeks will be more entertaining than the World Cup, with open games and fantastic finishes. That's part of the reason ESPN platforms started showing every Euro game live in 2008, even though the U.S. isn't involved. ESPN's decision has been a godsend for soccer fans in the U.S., and the sport has grown here because of it.
The storylines at Euro 2012 are compelling, too. Can Spain become the first team to win two straight Euros and three straight titles that include the Euro and World Cup? Can Germany and the Netherlands, probably the next best two teams in the world, end Spain's stranglehold? Can the co-hosts, Poland and Ukraine, exceed expectations and make a deep run before their nervous fans? Can Italy change the talk from match-fixing scandals and the volatility of forwards Mario Balotelli and Antonio Cassano to tales of Azzurri perseverance? And might we see a stunning title run from an underdog like Denmark in 1992 or Greece in 2004?
I'll be arriving in Poland on Sunday (due to a family wedding this week) and reporting for SI, SI.com and the Fox Soccer Channel. So hop on board and enjoy the ride. Here's my list of good Euro 2012 media to follow. You don't need to be a hardcore soccer fan to enjoy the Euro, but you may end up becoming one as a result! Here are my quick takes on the four groups.
GROUP A: Poland, Greece, Russia, Czech Republic. Easily the least sexy of the four groups, Group A should still be a remarkably tight, competitive race in which every team can see itself not just advancing, but potentially winning the group. I know that Greece under Fernando Santos is a bit more offensive-minded than Greece under Otto Rehhagel, but I don't expect a lot of goals from the '04 champs. Russia (a surprise '08 semifinalist) and the Czechs are clearly on the down slope, and the big wild card is how Poland (the lowest-ranked team in the competition) will perform under pressure at home. The Poles lucked out with this draw, and I see striker Robert Lewandowski becoming a national hero.
The Picks: Poland, Greece.
GROUP B: Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, Portugal. Why is the Euro such a great tournament? Only here would you ever get a group with four of the top 10-ranked teams in the world. (Of course, that will change when Euro 2016 switches from a 16- to a 24-team tournament.) This young, dynamic German outfit (with the terrific string-puller Mesut Özil) is my pick to win the tournament and, along with Spain and the Netherlands, is far and away one of the three best teams. Most people seem to think that if there's a spoiler in this group it would be Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo, Europe's top player, but I think it's Denmark, which has beaten the Portuguese in recent competitions. I still don't think the Danes will advance, though. Too bad: They could have won Group A.
The Picks: Germany, Netherlands.
GROUP C: Spain, Italy, Ireland, Croatia. SI soccer podcast czar Richard Deitsch will laugh at this one, because I changed my pick for second place in this group from Italy to Croatia after we recorded our Euro podcast on Wednesday. (Sorry, Deitsch: I had too much chalk!) Anyway, Spain has too much talent to struggle here, while Italy (which has defensive issues, of all things, and a front line that includes the red-card-waiting-to-happen Balotelli) has the misfortune of playing Spain first. Whoever wins the opener between Croatia and Ireland will be in a solid position, and I think it'll be Croatia, with Everton's Nikica Jelavic doing a star turn up front in place of the injured Ivica Olic.
The Picks: Spain, Croatia.
GROUP D: Ukraine, Sweden, France, England. Poor Ukraine: the co-host wasn't nearly as lucky as Poland and drew a tough group, in which the chalk outline of Andriy Shevchenko may not be enough to escape last place. England has to deal with Wayne Rooney's two-game suspension and injuries to Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill, but I actually have slightly higher expectations for Roy Hodgson's team than most of the English media. But if I have a sleeper pick to win the tournament, it's France, which has gone 21 straight games without a loss under Laurent Blanc and is in position to ease its stigma with the French public from the 2010 World Cup fiasco. Forward Karim Benzema and midfielder Franck Ribéry have their mojo back, and I have Les Bleus winning the group.
The Picks: France, England.
Quarterfinals: Netherlands over Poland, Germany over Greece, Spain over England, France over Croatia.
Semifinals: Spain over Netherlands, Germany over France.
Final: Germany over Spain.
Enjoy the games!


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/06/07/euro.2012.preview/index.html#ixzz1x9h yHPE2

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U.S. set to embark on long, trying qualifying road to World Cup 2014

By: timbersfan, 12:04 AM GMT on June 08, 2012

The long qualifying road to World Cup 2014 starts on Friday in Tampa for the U.S. men's national team, and while the first semifinal-round opponent (tiny Antigua and Barbuda) shouldn't provide much resistance, there's always a danger in taking World Cup qualifying for granted. The U.S. is one of only seven nations to reach the last six World Cups -- along with Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea and Spain -- and at least 16 qualifying games over the next 17 months stand between the Yanks and Brazil 2014. As always, there are no guarantees.
In the 21st century, the World Cup is a big-time event in the U.S., a mainstream attraction that draws TV audiences comparable to those for the World Series and the NBA Finals. But the World Cup isn't just a 32-nation tournament that takes place over the span of a month every four years. In fact, most countries call that event the World Cup finals to distinguish it from the marathon global qualifying campaign that lasts 29 months and involves more national teams than there are members of the United Nations. FIFA has 208 national associations, and 204 entered the Hydra-tentacled bracket for World Cup 2014. The first match was played on June 15, 2011 (Belize 5, Montserrat 2), and the tournament will end at the World Cup final on July 13, 2014, at the Maracanã stadium in Rio de Janeiro.
Only Brazil, as the host, receives an automatic World Cup finals berth. The other 203 nations will play what will eventually be 824 qualifying games on the Road to Rio, far and away the planet's most expansive and competitive sporting saga. Already 79 countries comprising 56 percent of the world's population have been eliminated from World Cup 2014, including India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and recent World Cup finals participants China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Trinidad and Tobago.
As of Wednesday, 128 nations were still competing for 31 spots in Brazil, including the United States. First-year coach Jurgen Klinsmann has the mandate to transform U.S. Soccer at every level, from the youth ranks to the senior national team, as I detail in a feature in this week's SI magazine. But while Klinsmann owns loads of experience, having played in three World Cups (winning one in 1990) and having coached Germany to the '06 semifinals, he has yet to endure a World Cup qualifier in the hothouse conditions of Central America.
What can Klinsmann expect when the U.S. travels to upset-minded Guatemala next Tuesday for game two? "When we get off the plane there will be riot gear and armed guards on our bus," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. "We'll be flanked by probably two police buses with guys hanging out the windows with machine guns and things like that. It's definitely an interesting experience when you go to Central America for qualifying." While Guatemala has plenty of friendly folks and the world's best rum -- Zacapá, if you're wondering -- the country has also grown more dangerous in recent years (due to shifting drug-trade patterns), and the home fans won't be especially welcoming to the U.S. in Guatemala City.
Indeed, many of the challenges in CONCACAF qualifying have little to do with the skill of opposing teams. Late-night fire alarms, patchy and bumpy fields, long-seated anti-U.S. sentiments, projectiles from the stands: Road trips in the region are fraught with perils you'd rarely see in, say, European World Cup qualifying. Nor should we discount the improvement of CONCACAF teams like Panama, which could very well qualify for its first World Cup finals this time around.
For the U.S., this year's six-game regional semifinal round -- involving home-and-away matches against Guatemala, Jamaica and Antigua and Barbuda -- provides little margin for error. (It's like a five-game NBA playoff series in that way.) The Yanks must finish in the top two to advance to the final six-team, 10-game round next year, aka the Hexagonal, in which the top three will advance to the World Cup and the fourth-place team will enter a playoff against the winner from Oceania (likely New Zealand).
Bottom line: There's a decent chance that four CONCACAF teams (instead of the usual three) will earn berths in Brazil 2014. Mexico and the U.S. will be overwhelming favorites to qualify, but also in the mix should be Costa Rica, Honduras, Panama and a surprise team or two.

Sitting in his Washington D.C. hotel room, an aerie with a window overlooking the White House, U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati ponders the question: Is this what you were hoping for so far from Klinsmann? Gulati, a Columbia economics lecturer, pursued Klinsmann on and off for five years before finally signing him to a three-year, $7.5 million contract last July. He has seen Klinsmann's team start off slowly, results-wise, before a recent run that included wins at Italy and Slovenia and a 5-1 pasting of Scotland. (The U.S. would come back to earth with a 4-1 loss to Brazil and 0-0 tie against Canada in the past week, after my interview with Gulati.)
"Scotland was pretty good," Gulati said. "Genoa in February was pretty darn good. But we all understand the real test here is getting to the World Cup and what you do there. So in general we're pleased. But it would be impossible for anyone in my position or in Jurgen's position to say 'Mission Accomplished.'" Gulati nodded over to the White House, well aware of what can happen when any president makes such a declaration.
In other words, Klinsmann's tenure won't be measured by what happens in World Cup qualifying, as long as the U.S. reaches Brazil. It will be measured by how the Yanks perform at the World Cup, which means Klinsmann has to be focused on not just raw results now but also improving his team so that it can compete against the world's best in two summers. I explain how he's trying to do that in this week's magazine article, including several unconventional methods of preparation off the field.
Klinsmann had a reputation for asking for a lot from the German federation during his tenure before 2006, but Gulati says he doesn't think Klinsmann has been overly difficult so far in his new gig. "He's been demanding, but sensibly demanding," Gulati said. "People thought he'd come in and say, 'Here's a list of 50 things, and we're doing them no matter what.' But that's not the way the relationship is. He says these are things I want to do, and we talk about them. We talk about some of the things we've done, whether this might be an easier way or an economically better way. And he's been very sensible."
"He pushes where it's important and understands when we can't do everything," Gulati continued. "Clearly we've given him more support in a number of areas than previous coaches have requested, because we have resources that we haven't had in the past, whether that's medical, nutritional, or social things that are important parts of developing players as people, which is very important to him. It's part of his strategy and game plan. We've been happy to do that."
Klinsmann has plenty on his plate these days. He's trying to change the way the U.S. plays, asking his team to become more attack-minded, less reactive. He's trying to get as much as he can out of an aging back line while introducing some younger players in different parts of the field. A big part of that process has been finding dual-national players who have to choose which country to represent. In recent years the U.S. has lost Giuseppe Rossi (to Italy) and Neven Subotic (to Serbia), and German-American fullback Timmy Chandler recently decided not to accept an invite to the U.S. camp after playing in several friendlies.
At the same time, Klinsmann points out, the U.S. won the cap-tied allegiance of Mexican-Americans José Torres and Edgar Castillo and German-Americans Fabian Johnson and Jermaine Jones, with other dual nationals like Joe Corona, Danny Williams and Terrence Boyd on track to be tied to the U.S. as well.
"Whatever dual-citizen player you bring in, there will always be a risk unless he's not locked in yet with a World Cup qualifier or a Gold Cup game," said Klinsmann. "It will always remain the player's choice. You will always have this topic kind of floating around. I don't think it helps to give an ultimatum to a Timmy Chandler now because he had a long season and he's maybe not decided yet and he's a little bit insecure about what is best for him. Maybe he thinks of [playing for] Germany. It is the way it is. Why should I close the door? He's gotta figure it out. It's his career. Down the road there's a World Cup to play. Germany right now has no interest in him at all. At all. So sooner or later he has to make a call."
"We got Fabian Johnson, who won the under-21 European championship with Germany, and he's already locked in," Klinsmann went on. "Now it happens that we have the best left back of the last four months in the German Bundesliga. Danny Williams is the next one. He's 1,000 percent committed to us. When Jermaine [Jones] was called in for Germany, Jogi [Löw, the Germany coach] was not convinced in his way and the way he wanted to build the team, which at that time was his picture. It was the right picture, probably. Now you look at that team, and every team kind of evolves differently. If I go to that European Championship right now and look at my very young [German] team, I would have loved to have a Jermaine Jones in there. And he might think too. But now he's committed to us."
Klinsmann also promises to help Jones cut down on his yellow cards. "[Jones] is a player who has some controversial stuff, he's always on the edge, all that," the coach said. "But I say I have another two years to work on that topic, and I'll work on that topic. He's actually getting better and better."
It's all of a piece with Klinsmann's objectives of improving his team while getting the results the U.S. needs from World Cup qualifying. If history is any guide, it won't always be easy. But the new coach remains optimistic.
"What is success?" he asked. "Well, success certainly is measured by results. But success is also the feedback of players to say, 'I get a sense of getting better in what I'm doing.' In the case of World Cup qualifying, it's certainly related more to the points than to what a player would express of, 'I was there eight months ago and now I'm here today and have improved maybe five to 10 percent.' That's a nice-to-have compliment which is down the road important for you to continue that work, but it doesn't give you the World Cup qualification."
Klinsmann laughed, the kind of giggly laugh that pops up whenever he speaks. "So go with the results. That's totally cool."
Those results start coming on Friday.


Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/gran t_wahl/06/06/world.cup.2014.qualifying/index.html# ixzz1x9hle6wh

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Did Kevin Durant Make the Leap?

By: timbersfan, 11:56 PM GMT on June 07, 2012

Before the start of the Spurs-Thunder series, Kevin Durant was the second-best player in the league. After scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter of Game 4 and single-handedly holding off a Spurs surge — the same Spurs surge that had stolen Game 1 — there seemed to be a growing consensus that Durant had passed some sort of benchmark in his career. Last night, in Game 6, Durant led the Thunder back from a 15-point halftime deficit with a barrage of 3-point shots. Nobody else in the league — arguably, no one in the history of the league — can hit some of the shots that Durant hit last night. When he catches the ball at the top of the 3-point arc and rises to shoot, the other nine players look suspended in animation, watching as the greatest offensive talent in the world flicks the ball through the net. It was the sort of inimitable display that cements NBA legacies — Dirk Nowitzki did something similar last year on his way to a championship. Late in the fourth quarter, Reggie Miller noted that what we were witnessing was the growth and ascendance of a great player. Durant, according to Reggie, had leaped the leap.

Greatness in the NBA tends to be episodic rather than accumulative. Unlike baseball, which has strict, numeric thresholds that guarantee entry into the only important Hall of Fame, a basketball player's legacy is speculative and subject to much more volatility. A role player who hits a key 3-pointer at the end of a particularly memorable playoff game takes up more space in the public memory than an All-Star who ground out a productive career. I'm pretty sure John Paxson is more of a household name than Shareef Abdur-Rahim. This sort of instant-capture greatness happens in other sports — Bucky Dent and Dwight Clark both come to mind — but the randomness of baseball and football makes those moments feel more like accidents of fate. In basketball, a player verging on greatness is expected to have great moments in the postseason. The difference between Karl Malone and, say, Hakeem Olajuwon has nothing to do with total career points or playoff appearances, regular-season wins, or even the total number of championships they won. Instead, we differentiate between Karl Malone and Hakeem Olajuwon based almost entirely on whether or not they fulfilled our expectations.

Consider Chris Paul. By every statistical measure, Paul had a disappointing playoff run this season. The Clippers beat the Grizzlies in the first round and then bowed out, predictably, to the Spurs. Despite all the adulation that was justifiably poured upon Paul during the regular season and the expectations placed on the Clippers at the beginning of the year, the backlash against Paul and his teammates never came. Nobody questioned whether Chris Paul, who has never gotten out of the second round of the playoffs, possessed "what it took to be a champion." Yet on three separate occasions down the stretch of close playoff games against the Grizzlies and the Spurs, Paul went full Kobe and dominated the ball, yielding disastrous results for his team.

And yet, nobody said anything, and if you asked any basketball fan to play word association with Chris Paul, the word "winner" would come up almost immediately. I am not saying that Chris Paul is a winner or a loser, or even a loser who has what it takes to become a winner. Or whatever. But I think the reason why people don't ask questions about Chris Paul is because we expect less out of him than we expect out of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and now, Kevin Durant. Most hoops fans instinctively know that Chris Paul has reached his ceiling — he is the most skilled point guard in the league and plays with a visible, charismatic determination that makes him a joy to watch, especially in person. But nobody is asking him to carry the Clippers to victory in a playoff series against teams like the Thunder or the Spurs. And as long as he's not breaking through, it doesn't really matter if he played well or played poorly. He sits squarely within our expectations. If Chris Paul fails again next year to make it out of the second round, the blame will fall on Vinny Del Negro or on Donald Sterling, or even on Blake Griffin. Chris Paul is beyond reproach, not because he's the perfect basketball player, but because he's almost always playing exactly to expectation.

It's almost impossible to pull for something that feels preordained, especially if the face of the movement seems a bit too entitled, a bit too young, and a bit too threatening. LeBron's haters root against him for the same reason Facebook haters root against Facebook stock.
The importance placed on "leap games" or "iconic moments" reflects a desire for change in what can sometimes feel a bit repetitive. Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, LeBron, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker have been a part of the NBA discussion for a combined century. Each one has had several "leaps" and regressions in his career. Each one has played the hero and played the heel. Only LeBron really has something at stake, and, strangely enough, nobody's career exemplifies both the consistency of being great and the volatility of heavy expectations. LeBron's first "leap" moment came almost five years ago, when he scored 29 of the Cavs' last 30 points in a double-overtime playoff victory against the Detroit Pistons. If you judge a leap by the profile of the player, the impossibility of the task at hand, the stakes and the jaw-dropping skill and guts necessary to pull a team to victory, I don't know if we'll ever see another game like that. Like the young Mike Vick beating the Packers at Lambeau Field, it felt like the topography of a sport had permanently shifted. After 29 of the last 30, it seemed perfectly reasonable that LeBron would win eight championships. Now, we think of LeBron much differently. The Decision had its impact, sure, but I'm convinced that even if LeBron had gone back to Cleveland, he still would have been the NBA's supervillain. Not because he's a bit of a jerk or because of whatever reports came out about Maverick Carter and LeBron's behavior on Team USA. LeBron became the league's villain when we realized that he was "leap"-ed out and that not every great basketball player seized the "moment" like Michael Jordan. LeBron's excellence, because it wasn't volatile, bored us. It's almost impossible to pull for something that feels preordained, especially if the face of the movement seems a bit too entitled, a bit too young, and a bit too threatening. LeBron's haters root against him for the same reason Facebook haters root against Facebook stock.

Durant and his Thunder teammates are something different, not only because they play a dynamic style of basketball (although this does have a lot to do with it), but also because they still have a lot left to redeem. When all our hopes and projections clunk into place and cough up something like Durant's performance in this year's Western Conference finals, the joy almost feels proprietary — we feel like we've witnessed an important moment and want to load it up with heavy significance. I recall watching a young Paul Pierce score 32 points in the second half of a 2003 playoff game against the Pacers. I remember thinking back then that I had just witnessed the birth of a superstar. Nine years later, in Tuesday's Game 5, I watched Pierce hit a 3 in LeBron's face to seal an emotional and improbable playoff victory. Both these moments demanded a packaged narrative — inclusion into the canon of "Paul Pierce moments." It wasn't enough to simply think, Here is a great player who has probably been great since middle school doing something great.

I don't really know why we need to see a player's career in this quasi-religious way. Wasn't this exactly what we expected out of Durant? Weren't these expectations placed on him as early as his freshman year at Texas? Why must every iconic game come with its very own epiphany? Why does every game-winning shot (or miss) say something about a player's character? It's become somewhat chic to write all these moments off with some tweet or missive about "placing a narrative over a random series of events," and I suppose there's some truth to this very modern, mathematical dismissal — interpreting a basketball player through his greatest or worst moments will inevitably distort the body of his work. But this rational, stats-based outlook is relatively new to the discussion of basketball — one day in the very near future, someone will publish a paper that mathematically proves Karl Malone was better than Hakeem Olajuwon and everyone over the age of 35 will descend on that nerd's house with pitchforks and Dream pendants.

The language of "moments" and "leaps," of course, is zero-sum. Does anyone really believe that Kevin Durant thinks any differently of himself because he did what he's done on several occasions this season? Miami cried last year when they "finally got past the Celtics." Where are they now? But because most basketball fans are romantics, the narrative of the game keeps getting spun out along the same revelatory story lines. I suppose it's just nicer to say that Michael Jordan's greatness lay not in his statistical body of work, but more in what he did to Craig Ehlo, Bryon Russell, and the human influenza virus.

Sometime very soon, maybe only two weeks from today, Kevin Durant will leap the leap of the leap. All this, of course, is illusory movement — the creation of writers, bloggers, and fans who feel the need to fabricate new expectations and cast Durant into the NBA's ongoing Oedipal narrative. His play throughout the Thunder's postseason surge has been so consistently great that it has started to seem preordained. As such, to stave off boredom — and not heavy, lonely boredom, but rather the anxious, light boredom that makes us want to pin meaning onto patterns — we have laid down new obstacles for Durant to hurdle. But is there any better way to describe greatness in the NBA than that?

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The Reducer: The Big Stories at Euro 2012

By: timbersfan, 11:55 PM GMT on June 07, 2012

Ronaldo has something to prove, and Spain has something to finish
By Chris Ryan on June 7, 2012
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Euro 2012 kicks off Friday at National Stadium in Warsaw. The producers of the Turin Olympics opening ceremony are in charge of the festivities in Poland, and it has been reported that the tournament will be inaugurated, musically, with a performance of Frédéric Chopin's Etude in A Minor.

Etudes, he said, slowly making piano virtuoso finger exercises in the air, are short pieces, but they're incredibly hard to play. So while LMFAO may have been a more inspirational choice to light this tournament's candle, the piece of music that Hungarian pianist Adam Gyorgy is performing is actually quite fitting.

There's nothing like the compression and difficulty of the Euros. Sixteen teams, four groups — the best two teams move on to the knockout stages and the whole dance is over in three weeks (compared to the monthlong World Cup). The competition to get into the tournament is tough, and to win it all is even tougher. With matches happening twice a day for the next two weeks, here are some of the major story lines to consider as the tournament begins.

1. The Ronaldo Renaissance

I can't get this out of my head.


Ronaldo against Barcelona in April. The "calm down" goal in El Clasico. The one that put Real Madrid over the top, the one that slayed Barca and brought an end to their La Liga run. For years, Ronaldo has sat in the shadow of Lionel Messi. Watching as the tiny Argentine dynamo racked up three Ballon d'Or trophies in a row, despite the Portuguese winger's gobsmacking numbers during the same period of time.1

The big difference between them: trophies. Messi won and Ronaldo didn't. While engravers started stenciling "Barcelona" on pretty much any trophy the Catalan team competed for, Ronaldo sat alone, with only his supermodel girlfriend and six best friends2 to console him.

Until this year. A Cristiano Ronaldo–powered Real Madrid won La Liga this season, finally wresting the crown back from Barcelona. And now Ronaldo enters Euro 2012 with a new collectible in his trophy cabinet and perhaps a little less weight on his shoulders. Despite playing in the Group of Death, along with Holland and Germany, Portugal has a lot of happy campers. Raul Meireles won the Champions League (though he was banned for the final) while Fábio Coentrão and Pepe joined Ronaldo in Real's La Liga championship. After the heartbreak of losing Euro 2004 at home to Greece and the disappointment of losing an electric quarterfinals match to Germany in 2008, perhaps Portugal, with all eyes on their stiff group competition, can finally fulfill some of their promise. Perhaps, just like he did with his club side, Ronaldo can lead them there.

2. The Dutch Redemption

No team in this tournament has as much to play for as the Netherlands. The Dutch aren't just competing for a trophy (which they have a good chance of winning, by the way), they're on a quest to restore their football reputation.

Holland lost the 2010 World Cup in spectacular, thundering mantis style. The lasting image many remember from that tournament, more even than Spain lifting the World Cup, was Dutch midfielder Nigel De Jong kicking his Spanish counterpart in the chest.


It wasn't just a stupid foul by De Jong, it was a repudiation of the Dutch footballing philosophy. This was the home of Cruyff and Van Basten and Bergkamp. Of Total Football and Ajax. Of Holland '88.


When Holland, despite all their attacking talent, chose to quite literally attack Spain, they were saying, "We can't play these guys straight up." Spain beat them at their own game, showing the Dutch masters how beautiful football can really look. Losing a final is tough. Losing it like that is a national embarrassment. Henk Spaan, editor of the Dutch magazine Hard Gras, wrote, "They destroyed a 40-year tradition, dragged it through the shit."

Well, never let it be said there are no second chances in football.3 The Dutch return, largely intact, perhaps even better. And they've made, at least verbally, a new commitment to their footballing roots. Bert Van Marwijk, somewhat surprisingly, has kept his job. I say surprisingly because Holland is not synonymous with managerial stability — or intra-team harmony, for that matter.

After scoring 37 goals in 10 qualifying matches, the Dutch are probably the most on-form national side in the tournament. And if you were playing a fantasy Euro game, you could do worse than to draft the attacking quintet of Robin Van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and Rafael Van der Vaart. Here's the problem, though: You know who any one of those guys would take in a fantasy draft? Himself. In club football, each of those players revels in having his entire team revolve around him (less so with Van der Vaart at Tottenham). The real job for Van Marwijk isn't restoring the Dutch way of doing things; it's deciding who gets to do it.

3. The Battle for the Channel

England enter Euro 2012 with health levels approaching those of the old guys from Space Cowboys and the internal stability of a three-day party at Jesse Pinkman's house.


Follow me to the emotional-trauma tent: First Fabio Capello sensationally resigned his post after clashing with the English FA over whether John Terry would remain as captain. The reason the FA were a little squeamish about Terry? He allegedly racially abused Queens Park Rangers defender Anton Ferdinand, a charge for which he will stand trial next month. Anton's brother is Rio Ferdinand. There was a lot of speculation that, understandably, Rio and John might not be remaking Lethal Weapon anytime soon. New England manager Roy Hodgson was forced to choose between the two and went with Terry, for "football reasons." Despite losing players like Gary Cahill and Gareth Barry to injury in the weeks leading up to the tournament, Hodgson has still refused to call up Ferdinand, causing a furor in the typically sedate British media.

Compound that with England's best player, Wayne Rooney, being suspended for the first two games of the tournament, the team still not knowing their best starting XI, and the press calling Poland and Ukraine — two different countries — POLKRAINE. Good one.

You'd expect England to fail spectacularly were it not for the fact that (a) maybe having low expectations will finally produce some better results, and (b) their first game is against a team whose onetime captain just pretended to wipe his ass with a national team jersey while sitting on the bench. France! The French also lost to one of their best midfielders, Yann M'Vila, to injury. Also? Their best central defender is trying out an ill-advised cornrows look.

I seriously cannot wait for England vs. France on Monday, June 11. I'm pretty sure it'll start a naval war.

4. The Next Andrei Arshavin

I don't mean the next diminutive Russian, anti-woman-driving crusader and fashion designer. For that we have … Andrei Arshavin. No, I mean the breakout star of the tournament.

In 2008, Arshavin was, for the most part, a secret. At least to many Western soccer fans. Here was this little meerkat-looking son of gun, almost single-handedly tearing Holland to pieces and drawing attention away from most of Europe's biggest clubs' sides.


These tournaments can mint players. They can go from YouTube highlight reels and the frenzied praise of Twitter scouts to playing behind the striker at Chelsea, Real, Barca, or Bayern.

There are a few players who make this "leap" during Euro 2012. Poland striker Robert Lewandowski scored 30 goals in 34 games for Borussia Dortmund this season and reminds some of a more rugged Robin Van Persie. Spain striker Fernando Llorente thrilled anyone who bothered to watch Athletic Bilbao's highly entertaining run in the Europa League this season. And Italy's Riccardo Montolivo has been a jewel of a midfielder for Fiorentina in Serie A.

But if you want a player to watch who could turn the tournament on its head, look out for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The reason behind Hodgson's inclusion of the 18-year-old Arsenal winger stems largely from his performance against A.C. Milan in the Champions League.4


5. The Dynasty


On June 22, 2008, Cesc Fábregas smashed a penalty kick past Gianluigi Buffon to send Spain past Italy and into the semifinals of Euro 2008. Spain would go on to win the tournament, as well as World Cup 2010. When Fábregas beat Buffon, low and to the right, many in football were just happy they finally got over the hump. For all the talent Spain produced, their major tournament history was littered with heartbreaking group stage and quarterfinals losses.5 The general consensus was, "Good for them. They got a chance to do some ghostbusting."

Now they get a chance to be immortal.

The 1970 Brazil team is widely considered the greatest national side ever assembled.


But if Spain manage to win their third consecutive major trophy — following wins in Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup — you'd have to say they're the greatest footballing generation ever.

The core of the team that won in Austria — Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xavi, and Iniesta — is still intact. And while they may miss out on the lethal finishing and positional flexibility of David Villa (who was very capable of playing out on the left and cutting in) and the mojo of yips-sufferer Fernando Torres (who scored the winning goal against Germany in the final of Euro 2008 and seemingly hasn't scored since), they will have able-bodied replacements in Athletic Bilbao's Fernando Llorente and Sevilla's Álvaro Negredo.

The major challenge facing Spain is exhaustion. Take Xavi, for instance. He's played 202 games for Barcelona and Spain since lifting the Euro 2008 trophy, acting as the midfield metronome for club and country for nearly four straight years. Iniesta, Ramos, Sergio Busquets, and Xabi Alonso have all put in similarly Herculean shifts. Even someone like David Silva, often peripheral to the national team setup but increasingly relied upon to create goals by manager Vicente del Bosque, played in 62 games in 2011-12. These guys just might not have the gas in the tank to make it one more lap.

I, however, am very much pulling for them. Major tournaments happen every two years. We might have to wait a lifetime to see something like this Spain team again.

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Saenko symbolizes harsh realities

By: timbersfan, 12:14 AM GMT on June 07, 2012

International football tournaments come around with such regularity that one often seems to just glide seamlessly into another. For some, during this extended countdown to Euro 2012, Euro 2008 can feel like yesterday.

But a lot can happen in four years in the life of a footballer, even those seemingly at the top of their profession. Sometimes personal tragedy can strike. Four years ago, Ruben de la Red was part of the Spain squad that won the last Euros in Austria and Switzerland. Now, aged 26, the midfielder had to give up on a promising playing career and settled for one in coaching at Real Madrid's Juvenil A side after being diagnosed with a heart condition.

At other times, the desire to perform, or to deal with the pressures of living in the public gaze, can wane. Swiss midfielder Johan Vonlanthen, another appearance-maker at Euro 2008 and a prodigious talent who remains the youngest-ever scorer at a European Championships, retired this week after spending the past six months without a club. Vonlanthen, 26, became a Seventh-day Adventist last summer, gave up playing football on Saturdays for his faith and, since an unsuccessful spell at Colombian club Itagui, has been unable to find employment.

But for an even more precipitous fall from stardom -- one that seems barely explicable -- few can beat former Russia international forward Ivan Saenko.

Saenko played a major part in Russia's run to the semifinals of Euro 2008, a campaign that made national heroes of coach Guus Hiddink and his squad. After stepping off the bench in two of Russia's group stage games against Greece and Sweden, Saenko was thrust into the starting lineup by Hiddink for the quarterfinal against Holland -- a 3-1 extra-time victory that has gone down in Russian footballing folklore -- and the subsequent 3-0 semifinal defeat to Spain.

“I don't play for any football club at the moment. I feel totally fine. In my career I was able to play a fair bit and I'm very happy with that. Actually I've had enough”
Ivan Saenko
These days, however, the 28-year-old Saenko prefers to shun the limelight. He has retired from football, moved back to the town of Voronezh where he grew up and by his own admission now "makes an honest living" outside the game -- though he doesn't elaborate further. Few in Russia, and still fewer beyond her borders, even remember his role in the country's greatest result of the past 20 years. "He's alive!" a commenter on a recent article in Russia about Saenko joked. "I'd actually forgotten he even existed," one Russian football journalist told me when his name came up on conversation.

Saenko's swift fall from grace is mirrored to a degree by his rapid rise to international honors. For a man who was so trusted by Hiddink -- the Dutchman dropped Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, at the time one of Russia's top players, to make room for him against Holland -- Saenko's career had been rather modest up to 2008.

His father coached a successful women's football team based in Voronezh and, as a youngster, Saenko would join in training sessions. At 16, on an overseas trip with the squad to Germany, Saenko was snapped up by Karlsruhe.

Unusually for a Russian player of his generation -- consider the fates of Yury Zhirkov at Chelsea or Roman Pavlyuchenko at Tottenham -- Saenko settled well abroad. He scored 22 goals in 90 appearances over three seasons at Karlsruhe before moving up a division and joining Nuremburg in 2005. He blossomed as Nuremburg had its most successful season in nearly two decades in 2006-07, and that same year he was called up by Guus Hiddink for the first time that year.

The player didn't appear to let it go to his head.

"Let's be realistic," he said after hearing of his inaugural squad selection in August 2006. "Hiddink has to see me first in training and then he'll decide if he needs me or not.

"For me that's nothing to get upset about."

But looking back those words ring hollow, for beneath the promise there were signs that not all was well.

"After he was called up to the national team he behaved badly," Hans Meyer, Saenko's manager at Nuremburg, recalled. "He decided that he didn't need to train any more, as he had played two minutes for the Russian national team."

There was also talk that, despite his apparently hardworking style of play, Saenko was often prone to laziness.

"You always had to keep an eye on him in training," Lorenz-Gunther Koestner, who oversaw Saenko's development at Karlsruhe, added.

During the 2007-08 season, as Nuremburg slid down the Bundesliga table, Saenko let it be known that he wasn't happy. He scored just three times that year as Nuremburg was relegated and when Spartak Moscow came calling, he needed no second invitation.

"Everyone understands that after more than 80 Bundesliga matches, victory in the Russian Cup, a UEFA Cup run and, finally, third place at Euro 2008, playing in the German second division is of no interest," Saenko said after signing a four-year deal at Spartak in August 2008. "I would even say it's impossible."

That confidence quickly evaporated, however, once he donned a Spartak shirt. The club was on a downward slide (it finished eighth out of 16 in the Russian Premier League the year Saenko joined), and as the club's most expensive signing that season he felt the brunt of the fans' anger. Thrust out on the right wing he was largely anonymous, scoring just one league goal in his first year in Moscow. By the autumn of 2008 he had been dropped by Guus Hiddink, too.

But the real hit to Saenko's confidence came the next spring, sparked by a seemingly innocuous incident in which Saenko swapped shirts with an opponent after a 3-0 Russian Cup defeat to Dinamo Moscow. The following game saw a banner unfurled by Spartak fans aimed at Saenko, which read: "You swapped your shirt -- now change club."

He was jeered by sections of the crowd at Spartak's Luzhniki for much of the rest of the season before a knee injury sidelined him until the following spring. There was to be no reprieve, and by the end of 2010 he had been released by the club, with whispers of ill discipline and drinking following him out the door.

"The news is full of headlines about a disagreement between Spartak and Saenko, so we won't pour oil on the fire by spreading these rumors," Saenko's lawyer, Aleksandr Zhbankov, said at the time. "We will just confirm that personal aspects of the relationship between the sportsman and, to put it legally, his employer's representatives, are the reason for this conflict."

Zhbankov then added with a flourish: "Let's finish by saying that Ivan Saenko is a free agent. Somebody is going to get very lucky!"

Unfortunately for Saenko that wasn't to be the case. Months passed by with Saenko still unemployed, and as the time passed most in Russia began to forget that a 26-year-old, 13-times-capped Russian international was still without a club. Eventually, he disappeared from view completely and the Russian media began asking what had happened to him.

"I saw him three months ago in a shopping centre," his former Spartak teammate Ibson told Sport Express in July 2011. "He doesn't want to play football any more."

He eventually turned up four months later in his hometown of Voronezh.

"Everything's fine," he told Championat.com. "I don't play for any football club at the moment. I feel totally fine. In my career I was able to play a fair bit and I'm very happy with that. Actually I've had enough."

After 244 senior appearances and 46 goals, Saenko had given up on a career in football and turned his back on the world, failing to respond to several telephone calls and text messages. “We've tried to get information about Saenko, but there is none,” former Spartak teammate Roman Shishkin said last year.

Now, as Russia prepares for another European Championships, one wonders what Saenko must be thinking -- not least because, had he stayed on the straight and narrow, he would have had a decent shot at Dick Advocaat's squad. Striker Aleksandr Kokorin, one of Advocaat's chosen 23 for Euro 2012, has just 12 career goals despite having played more than 100 games for Dinamo Moscow. Saenko could quite conceivably have gone to Poland and Ukraine in Kokorin's place. At the end of the summer will Russia be left to rue what could have been if he had?

It's a cautionary tale. Of the 368 players who will travel to Poland and Ukraine this summer, plenty will make a name for themselves. Others, however, may find that an appearance at Euro 2012 is as bright as their star ever shines, before rapidly fading into obscurity -- and perhaps the odd ESPN column.

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Sorry, Three Lions

By: timbersfan, 12:06 AM GMT on June 07, 2012

If a tournament doesn’t include the U.S., Arsenal or my daughter’s old U-9 juggernaut The Mighty Macarenas, England has always been my team. But as much as I’ll be rooting for the Three Lions, they have as much chance of lifting the Cup as I do being named Tottenham Hotspur's Man of the Year.

Almost everyone on the planet Earth knows this. The problem is, the tiny handful of people who don’t know it are the English players and their fans. How else to explain that a team revolving around Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and the ghost of Wayne Rooney has been given more favorable odds (12-1) by one London bookie than France, Italy and Portugal. Have they learned nothing from the past 46 years of pain in international tournaments?

Of course, this is nothing new. Consider the back-page headline on the always reliable Sun the day after the groups for the 2010 World Cup were announced. It read:

England

Algeria

Slovenia

Yanks

Anyone remember the staggering ease with which mighty England swept aside this first-round roadkill on its way to being embarrassed by Germany in the knockout stage? The good news is that England can hardly fare any worse in the Ukraine and Poland than it did two years ago in South Africa, where its spectacular tabloid-friendly flameout was second only to the fiasco in the France camp. (In the end, the Patrice Evra-led training boycott narrowly eclipsed John Terry's failed locker room mutiny as the most risible moment of the tournament. And somehow Evra and Terry are still both respected internationals instead of disgraced fodder for county fair dunk tanks.)

How fitting then that the same two teams are paired in this year's Euro Group of Dysfunction and play each other in the opening game. The French, however, seem to have rediscovered their attacking brio while England enters the tournament in such a disheveled state that only its most blinkered fans are capable of latching onto that tidal wave of delusional optimism that has carried them since 1966. There's a reason for this lowering of expectations. Actually, there are 10 of them.

1. History isn’t on its side...

In the half-dozen tournaments for which it has qualified since 1980, England has won six matches out of 21 in open play. In only two, 1996 and 2004, has it gone beyond the group stage. 12-1, my Arsenal.

2. …And neither are Gareth Barry, Frank Lampard and Gary Cahill

It has become an English tradition to lose key players just before big tournaments (Beckham in 2010, Rooney in 2006, etc.) but never before have three potential starters been ruled out in the space of one week.

Cahill was the latest victim of the injury epidemic after suffering a double fracture of his jaw following a collision with Joe Hart during Saturday’s “friendly” with Belgium. The Chelsea defender will be replaced by Liverpool reserve right back Martin Kelly, who earned his first cap only last week with a late cameo against Norway. Given the loss of so many experienced players, it’s only natural to wonder why newly minted England boss Roy Hodgson didn’t call on old warhorse Rio Ferdinand to fill the centerback void.

Two words: John Terry. It seems that the Chelsea captain’s comfort level supersedes all tactical concerns and it’s no secret that Terry wouldn't have been overjoyed at the prospect of being reunited with Anton Ferdinand's older brother in the center of the defense. Something about an upcoming trial that Terry would rather forget during the tournament.

That said, all these injuries do have an upside for Hodgson: They provide him with a neat excuse when England finally crashes out. You know, “if Lampard had been fit, he would have buried the 88th minute penalty that Stewart Downing inexplicably missed and we would have beaten Spain in the final instead of losing in extra time."

3. Bad form (which follows dysfunction)

Besides a surprising 1-0 win over World/Euro champions Spain last November, when was the last time the Three Lions dominated a country that wasn't the setting for a Sacha Baron Cohen movie? Aside from two romps over Bulgaria in Euro qualifying, England's results since the 2010 World Cup read well enough -- 10 wins, four draws, two defeats -- but the caliber of opponents (just two games against teams in FIFA's Top 15) and abject nature of many performances (1-0 vs. Wales, 0-0 vs. Montenegro, 1-1 vs. Ghana, 1-0 vs. Sweden) make it look every bit like a mid-table EPL side. And speaking of which…

4. England's core is made up of players from the Prem's eighth place team

Spare a thought for Jamie Carragher, Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey, the three Englishmen at Liverpool who didn’t bag a free trip to Polkraine. With the addition of Kelly, the squad now boasts a half dozen Reds: Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing, Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson. (To put that sextet in context, there are more Reds representing England than Bundesliga champion Borussia Dortmund players on the German squad or La Liga winner Real Madrid heroes suiting up for Spain this summer.)

Did Hodgson feel as if he'd been cheated out of working with many of these overpriced recruits during his unhappy tenure at Anfield? Or was he impressed by how well they responded to King Kenny as Liverpool stumbled to their worst league finish since Jonjo Shelvey was two years old?

5. The Tao of Uncle Roy

By all accounts, Hodgson is an intelligent, affable chap. He speaks five languages (five more than the media’s presumptive choice for his job, Harry Redknapp), is well-read (John Updike, Martin Amis, Richard Ford, Eric Cantona) and looks great in a cardigan. So presumably Hodgson had his eyes open when he accepted the poisoned chalice that is the England position. But then again, the former West Brom manager is prone to the odd face palm so maybe he didn’t clearly see the shocking paucity of striking talent, smooth-passing midfielders and cool-headed defenders available to him. Hey, it’s just like being back at the Hawthorns!


Hodgson lacks the combustibility of Fabio Capello. Some say he lacks all personality, too. But is his dour, functional style just what England needs?© Michael Regan/Getty Images
To be fair, the chaotic preparations of the past month didn’t allow him to create a style of play like, say, the Germans, Dutch or Spanish have -- for starters, that requires players who can string three passes together -- and so Hodgson’s approach is as mind-numbingly pragmatic as it gets: focus on structure and organization and cobble together a team that is difficult to break down just as he did at Albion and Fulham, his last two stops on the managerial carousel.

Judging by England’s lackluster victories over Norway and Belgium in last week’s Euro tuneups, the team has bought into Hodgson’s philosophy, which is a lot closer on the flair-o-meter to Greece of 2004 than to Brazil of 1970. Accept the fact that the Three Lions will play tedious soccer with the goal of grinding out scrappy, well-defended 1-0 results and you’ll be in less psychological pain when you watch them.

6. England is not Chelsea.

Repeat after me: If Chelsea can win the Champions League, then anything is possible.

True, but it’s doubtful that you can reprise fairytale endings twice within a month and in capturing the CL, Chelsea exhausted a lifetime's worth of magic dust from the soccer gods. But desperate times call for desperate measures and clearly Hodgson didn't make Gary Neville an assistant coach because of the former United defender's popularity among Scousers (or anyone else who doesn’t like ferret-faced weasels). If you listened to Neville’s commentary of the CL final, you know he’s a big believer in things like fate and destiny. Who can forget his endless yelping about how Chelsea's victory over Bayern was "in the stars?" Maybe he can infuse that same astrological spirit in the England squad.

So what are the chances of an English team beating a German team in a penalty shootout this time around? Nicht gut because in order to even play Die Mannschaft, the Three Lions have to first get out of their group and that isn't a gimme because...

7. No Wayne, Yes Pain

Despite all the brave talk about how they have enough attacking resources to cope without Wayne Rooney against France and Sweden, the Three Lions will desperately miss not just Wazza’s cold-blooded finishing but the fear factor his presence in an England shirt represents.

Instead, the focal point of their attack will be a player who had about 180 decent minutes in the last month of the season but was a stumbling object of derision for the rest of the campaign. In choosing to anoint Andy "Hit It To The Big Man" Carroll as his go-to goal guy, Hodgson seems to be espousing a more throwback style than England played under Fabio Capello, who at least made a pretense of things like ball possession and passing movements. As Roy would say, you can’t go wrong if you hoof it long. Welcome to England, 2012.

8. England's central midfield has as much creativity as a Lana Del Rey album

It doesn't take a forensic scientist -- or even Egil Olsen -- to tell us that the Three Lions lack a creative linchpin between attack and defense but the Norway manager obliged nonetheless after his team lost a meaningless 1-0 exhibition to England last week. "You need creative players who can do the spectacular extra things," offered Olsen, "and I didn't see too much of that against us."

Olsen is too much of a diplomat to come out and say that England's midfield is as prosaic and boring as it’s been since Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, but I'm not. In James Milner, Scott Parker and Jordan Henderson, Hodgson has selected a trio of reductive players who do the opposite of create -- stifle, destroy, block shots and try their best not to get sent off. Parker, at least, has a distinctive talent, having mastered the art of the 180-degree pirouette that looks Zidane-like until you realize he's just doing it to pass the ball back to a defender. To Hodgson's credit, he tried (and failed) to lure the ageless maestro Paul Scholes out of international retirement and then refused to bow to Michael “I either start or go on vacation” Carrick's diva ultimatum.

That leaves Gerrard to dictate the tempo in midfield. I’ve got nothing against Stevie G. Or at least the explosive and inspirational Stevie G who dragged Liverpool to victory in the Miracle of Istanbul. But that was six years ago and Gerrard’s once defense-shredding long-range diagonal passes now seem more hopeful than incisive, his fierce challenges have gotten increasingly reckless and his powerful drives often trouble fans in Row Z more than the opposing goalkeeper. Hodgson gave Gerrard the cursed England armband in the hope that he would impose his once commanding authority on the field. More likely, he will exert his influence on the music playlist in the dressing room, ensuring the Three Lions a month of listening to Phil Collins. That in itself should cause people to question Hodgson’s judgment.

9. England is no longer the leader in WAG-age

There was a time -- and it seems like only one obscene Victoria Beckham shopping spree ago -- when England's wives and girlfriends were the undisputed tournament-distracting champions of the world. Now, they're not even in the Euro top shelf.

With their spiritual talisman Posh Spice reduced to swanning about L.A.'s tony nightlife scene and Hodgson choosing to leave Peter Crouch at home (the Stoke striker always had a good touch for a big man, as evidenced by his wife/lingerie model Abbey Clancy cavorting in SI's swimsuit issue in nothing but body paint), England's Queen Wag is Colleen Rooney who is overmatched in the paparazzi sweepstakes by the likes of Holland's Sylvie van der Vaart, France's Charlene "Mrs. Gael Clichy" Suric or Spain's Sara Carbonero, the sultry TV reporter who planted a big wet kiss on her then-boyfriend, now-husband, Iker Casillas after Spain won the 2010 World Cup.

With Ms. Rooney’s hubby banned for the first two games, the burning question among England WAGologists is who will Colleen pass the Louboutins to? The early money is on Kaya Hall, the girlfriend of defender Phil Jones, who has the advantage of having recently gone on vacation with the Rooneys. And so far has managed to fend off the advances of …

10. This guy

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Made in Amsterdam

By: timbersfan, 12:04 AM GMT on June 07, 2012

On the chilly Johannesburg evening of July 11, 2010, we of Soccernomics genuinely thought we might be within five minutes of deciding the World Cup final. In extra time at Soccer City, Holland and Spain were still tied 0-0. Simon, sitting in the media stand, was barely watching the game anymore. Instead, he was on his laptop, rereading the .pdf file that we had sent the Dutch camp that morning. The file’s author was Ignacio Palacios-Huerta, professor at the London School of Economics.

Ignacio, working day and night, had given Holland an analysis of the Spanish penalty-takers. (True, Ignacio has a Spanish passport, but as a Basque he was perfectly happy to see Spain lose.) With a penalty shootout looming in Johannesburg, the .pdf suddenly made compelling reading. For instance, Ignacio had predicted that Xavi and Andres Iniesta, right-footed players who didn’t usually take penalties, would probably hit their kicks to the right of Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg, while Fernando Torres almost always kicked low. Against him, Stekelenburg would need to go to the ground fast. “It’s a report we can use perfectly,” the Dutch goalkeeping coach Ruud Hesp had emailed us that morning. Now it looked as if we might be about to help the Dutch win the World Cup. Alternatively, if our advice was wrong, we might be about to help them lose it.

Just then, down on the field, Cesc Fabregas found Iniesta unmarked as if in some childhood training session on the sunny fields of Barcelona’s academy, the Masia. Iniesta fired home. Simon closed the .pdf and began writing his match report.

For all our best efforts, Spain’s win was about as inevitable as victories in World Cups get. A country once derided as an eternal loser had not merely become world champion; it was also the best team in the world. (Many world champions are not.) In fact, Spain had probably been best in the world for nearly a decade prior to 2010. More than that: This Spain was arguably the best national team ever.

Crucially, the country owed its triumph in large part to its location in interconnected western Europe. The rise of Spain is the perfect example of our network theory: why the countries of western Europe still rule soccer.

-----

You can trace the roots of Spain’s success to the day in 1973 when the great Dutchman Johan Cruijff arrived in Barcelona. These were the dying years of the Franco dictatorship in Spain. A country that had been closed to the world for decades was slowly opening and Cruijff was one of the first fruits of the new openness. The Dutchman wasn’t just a great player. He was a great thinker on soccer. At Ajax Amsterdam, he and coach Rinus Michels had developed the attacking, passing style that came to be known as “total football.” With Cruijff's arrival, Spain finally joined the European knowledge networks. First as a player in the 1970s, and later as Barcelona’s coach from 1988 to 1996, Cruijff introduced the Dutch style in Spain.


The key for Spain's development was the arrival of Johan Cruijff, Total Football practitioner.© David Ramos/Getty Images
In short, once Spain’s isolation had been lifted in the last years of Franco, Barcelona began building a style based on knowledge transfer from Amsterdam. Eventually Spain adopted this made-in-Amsterdam game. At Euro 2008 and again at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the Spaniards played like the heirs to Cruijff. In fact, in the World Cup final, they were more Cruijffian than their Dutch opponents. The Spaniards passed the ball up and down like little men filling in a crossword puzzle at top speed. Whenever they went up 1-0, they simply made sure the opponent never got the ball again. The World Cup final was the 44th straight game in which Spain had won after scoring first. Everyone knew exactly how the men in red played, yet it was impossible to beat them because they had become Cruijffian masters of the pass.

Spain became a great soccer nation because it joined European knowledge networks. This might sound like too neat a theory -- the sort of thing you get when you let academics loose on something as mysterious and intuitive as soccer. Luckily, though, the facts seem to match our theory. Let’s look at Spain’s results, decade by decade:

THE RISE OF SPAIN
Decade Played Won Tied Lost Win pct Win pct (counting a tie as half a win)
1920s 32 23 4 5 0.72 0.78
1930s 25 13 5 7 0.52 0.62
1940s 19 8 6 5 0.42 0.58
1950s 44 20 13 11 0.45 0.60
1960s 60 28 13 19 0.47 0.58
1970s 59 29 18 12 0.49 0.64
1980s 103 49 28 26 0.48 0.61
1990s 98 57 26 15 0.58 0.71
2000s 128 91 25 12 0.71 0.81
We’ll take the 1920s as an illustration of what this table shows. Spain won 23 of its 32 matches in the decade, or 72 per cent. It also tied four games. If we count a tie as worth half a win, then Spain’s total winning percentage for the decade was 78 percent. That figure in the last column for each decade is the most telling one as it provides the best measure of Spain’s success decade by decade.

The table also demonstrates how closely Spain’s soccer success tracks the country’s integration with Europe. Before the civil war of the 1930s, Spain performed very well. But then isolation descended under Franco: From the 1930s through the 1980s, Spain’s winning percentage hovered around a disappointing 60 per cent. The team was winning about half its games and drawing another quarter. Its triumph in the European Championship of 1964 was an anomaly as the broader story was that a poor, shut-off Spain was struggling to access the world’s best soccer knowhow. In these sorry decades Alfredo di Stefano, the Argentinian-turned-Colombian-turned-Spanish international, summed up Spain’s soccer history in a phrase: “We played like never before, and lost like always.”

But in 1986, Spain joined the European Union – a sort of formal entry into European networks. Soon after, the Spanish national team improved sharply. We have seen that a country’s success at soccer correlates with its wealth. And Spain from the 1980s was growing richer fast. In the 1960s and 1970s its income per capita had been stuck at about 60 per cent of the average of the core 15 member nations of the EU, but in the 1980s and 1990s, Spain began to catch up. The Barcelona Olympics of 1992 nicely captured the rise: The Games showcased a “new Spain,” and a young Spanish soccer team guided by 21-year-old Pep Guardiola won gold.


Prior to the Euro 2008 victory, Euro 1984 -- and Luis Arconada's goalkeeping error -- was as close as Spain came to glory in the 1980s and '90s.© AFP/Getty Images
Yet during this period the Spaniards continued to be mocked in international soccer as “notorious underperformers.” Like England, Spain just couldn’t match the big nations in big tournaments. However, this criticism was wrong. It was clichéd and misguided to label Spain as “perennial underachievers” in these “bad” decades. In fact, given the country’s modest resources of people and wealth, it was overachieving even then, simply not big or rich or connected enough to expect to match the leading nations in soccer.

Let’s take the period from 1980 to 2001. For Spain, this was a fallow era: failure in a World Cup hosted at home, and no performance of note save an appearance in the final of Euro 1984, which is remembered chiefly for goalkeeper Luis Arconada’s fumbling of Michel Platini’s free kick.

In absolute terms, Spain’s winning percentage (counting ties as half a win) of about 66 per cent in that period ranked it somewhere near the bottom of the global top 10, around the same level as England, but we want to measure Spain’s relative performance: how it achieved relative to its resources.

First, let’s look at experience. By 2001, Spain had played 461 internationals in its history. That itself is a marker of isolation. Sweden by 2001 was the most experienced country in international soccer, with 802 internationals. England, Argentina, Hungary, Brazil and Germany (including West but not East Germany) had all played over 700 each. Spain – cut off for so many years – lagged.

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When it comes to our second variable, wealth, Spain still fell short of most of its rivals. In the 1980s and 1990s it was significantly poorer than Germany, France, England and even Italy.

And Spain was small. When people complain that the country underperforms, they usually mean it does worse than the giants of international soccer. Well, no wonder, given that Spain is much smaller than they are. Not only does Brazil dwarf Spain’s population of 46 million people, but so do Germany, France, Italy and even that other “notorious underachiever” England.

We calculated that Spain, given its population, income and experience in the 1980-2001 period, “should” have scored on average 0.3 goals per game more than its opponents. But Spain did much better than that: it averaged nearly 0.6 goals more than expected. Of the teams that played at least 100 games in this period, Spain was the eighth-best overperformer in the world. The country was an overachiever long before it began winning prizes. Until very recently, it just wasn’t quite big or rich or experienced or lucky enough to win anything.

In short: Spain’s bad times were not bad at all. It always was overachieving. But in the last 20 years or so, Spain’s resources have improved. Since joining the EU, the country’s average income has risen to about three-quarters of the core EU’s average. Spain has also become fully networked in Europe. Its best soccer players now experience the Champions League every season. A richer, more experienced and more networked Spain became first a serious contender, and finally (thanks to its continued overachievement) the best team on earth.

Permalink

Who'll survive the Group of Death?

By: timbersfan, 12:03 AM GMT on June 07, 2012

Every tournament has a group of death. At Euro 2012, Group B is most certainly it. All four teams, led by Germany, sit in the top 10 in the FIFA rankings. Three of the four have won the title, while the other, Portugal, has been a finalist. Here’s a closer look at each team heading into the event.

GERMANY

Vital stats

FIFA ranking: 2
Best finish: Winner 1972, 1980, 1996
Star man: Bastian Schweinsteiger
German steel, German resilience or German mental toughness. Call it what you want, but when it comes to major tournaments, Germany usually finds a way to land in the latter stages.

Third at the 2006 World Cup on home soil, runner-up at Euro 2008 and third again at the World Cup two years ago, Germany is hoping to go all the way in Poland and Ukraine.

The talent is there, and in abundance. Manager Joachim Low has plenty of choices, particularly in midfield, which is led by Bayern Munich’s Bastian Schweinsteiger. Schweinsteiger, who runs the show in the middle of the park, endured an injury-hit domestic campaign but put in a commanding performance in the Champions League final against Chelsea (apart from failing to convert in the penalty shootout). Mesut Ozil, Thomas Muller and Lukas Podolski could be the attacking three behind a lone striker. Ozil, a league winner with Real Madrid alongside holding midfielder Sami Khedira, led qualifying in assists. Then there are Toni Kroos and the exciting Mario Goetze.


Mario Gomez has struggled under the limelight, but could be a real weapon coming off the bench for Germany.© Robert Michael/AFP/Getty Images
The evergreen Miroslav Klose, five goals shy of Gerd Mueller’s national team record of 68, will probably be the first-choice striker ahead of Mario Gomez. Unlike Schweinsteiger, Gomez didn’t excel against Chelsea, missing a flurry of chances. He had a tough time, too, at Euro 2008. Still, given his record in the Bundesliga last season, he’s not a bad sub, is he?

No team is perfect, and questions surface at the back for Germany, particularly in the center. Dutch legend Marco van Basten was quick to point that out. Mainstay Per Mertesacker is short of matches, out of action since February, and his lack of mobility was exposed in the Premier League. A 5-3 loss to Switzerland – with Schweinsteiger absent due to a thigh injury – in a friendly last month raised eyebrows.

Captain Philipp Lahm, normally flawless, is expected to feature at left back, switching from the right back spot he occupies at Bayern.

And if Germany needs penalties to advance, it won’t mind. No country is more intimidating from the spot.

NETHERLANDS

Vital stats

FIFA ranking: 4
Best finish: Winner 1988
Star man: Robin van Persie
Big things are perennially expected from the Dutch, and they almost delivered in 2010. A game away from bagging a maiden World Cup title, they were beaten 1-0 by Spain in extra time. While most everyone will remember Andres Iniesta’s winner, a fair few will also recall Arjen Robben not capitalizing when one-on-one with keeper Iker Casillas.

A great save, or could Robben have done better? More of the latter, as Robben seemed to telegraph his effort.

Robben had another difficult evening on a grand stage, unable to beat Petr Cech on a penalty in extra time and shooting wide more often than not in open play for Bayern in the Champions League final this past May.

But another left-footer, Robin van Persie, begins the European Championship in much better spirits. Van Persie finally played a full season for Arsenal, and the result was leading the Premier League in scoring. Already coveted by a number of big clubs, a continuation of his form would further boost his value.

Unless manager Bert van Marwijk tinkers with his formation, van Persie and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar – who scored the most goals in qualifying – won’t play together. In a lone striker formation, van Persie will be preferred. He started and scored twice in the Netherlands’ final pre-Euro friendly Saturday, a morale boosting 6-0 rout of Northern Ireland.

The support behind van Persie is impressive: Wesley Sneijder, Robben and workhorse Dirk Kuyt, among others. Sneijder proclaimed in April he was back to his best after a thigh injury, and Robben, despite the misses, remains one of the world’s most feared wingers. The grit (assaults?) in midfield comes from veteran Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, although rising star Kevin Strootman is pushing for de Jong’s spot.

The Netherlands, though, is without starting left back Erik Pieters because of a foot injury, and keeper Maarten Stekelenburg’s lingering shoulder injury is a worry. He was a standout performer in South Africa.

PORTUGAL

Vital stats

FIFA ranking: 5
Best finish: Runner-up
Star man: Cristiano Ronaldo
If Portugal triumphs at the European Championships and Cristiano Ronaldo plays a significant role, the suave Ronaldo would be doubly delighted. Portugal, habitually pleasing to the eye, has never won Europe’s top international competition. Agonizingly for its supporters, Portugal lost the final at home in 2004.

Further, Ronaldo would stand a good chance of ending Lionel Messi’s three-year reign as world player of the year.

But advancing past the group stage, no less ending the drought, will be difficult for Portugal. If not for the rescue act instigated by no-nonsense manager Paulo Bento, who cleaned up former head coach Carlos Queiroz’s mess, Portugal wouldn’t have qualified for the tournament at all.

As it developed, Portugal needed the playoffs to secure a spot after losing a crunch clash on the final day of qualifying against, er, Denmark.

For a side that often evokes memories of skill and flair (think Eusebio and Luis Figo), Portugal hasn’t manufactured a top striker in years, placing more pressure on wingers Ronaldo and Nani. Ronaldo’s fitness levels are worth keeping an eye on, given his grueling season with Real Madrid. And in a blow to Bento, a third attacking midfielder, Danny, didn’t make the squad because of a serious knee injury.

So thin is Portugal at striker that Nuno Gomes, who turns 36 in July, was considered an option. Ultimately, he wasn’t selected. Helder Postiga scored a respectable five times in qualifying, yet most of his goals in a Portugal shirt have come in Portugal.

Public enemy No. 1 for many, Pepe, starts in the center of defense, but Portugal won’t benefit from the experience of his club teammate, Ricardo Carvalho, and Champions League winner Jose Bosingwa, a threat at full back going forward. Both were dropped by Bento for off-field reasons.

Bento is high on tactics, and he’ll need to organize the team properly if Portugal is to reach the quarterfinals. Current form – Portugal’s 3-1 loss at home to Turkey on Saturday made it one win in six – isn’t good.

DENMARK

Vital stats

FIFA ranking: 10
Best finish: Winner 1992
Star man: Nicklas Bendtner
Even as the lowest-ranked nation in the group, Denmark shouldn’t be discounted.

For starters, Denmark topped Portugal in qualifying, giving the Danes a psychological advantage when they meet. Denmark is solid and compact under venerable coach Morten Olsen. At the 2010 World Cup, Denmark hung on in the first half against the Netherlands, coming unstuck only following an own goal early in the second half. After South Africa, the Danes faced Germany, a match that ended 2-2. Germany didn’t field a full-strength squad, but Denmark will only choose to remember the final result.

Whether it can survive this group is a tall order, but Denmark has the talent. In 20-year-old Christian Eriksen, it possesses one of the most prized young midfielders in the world. And in Nicklas Bendtner, Denmark has one of the most (shall we say) confident strikers in the world. There’s a sizable disparity between how good he is and how good he thinks he is, but Bendtner has successfully led the line up front for Denmark in recent years. To end 2011, he scored five goals in five games. Without him, Denmark lacks firepower.


Nicklas Bendtner doesn't lack for confidence, but he's successfully led the line for Denmark in recent years. © Stuart Franklin/Getty Images
Dennis Rommedahl, 33, remains a useful – if not frustrating, at times – presence on the counterattack, with Christian Poulsen (he of the stints in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France) and William Kvist protecting the back four.

Besides being the leader in defense, Daniel Agger owns a sweet left foot capable of sending rockets into the top corner.

Not a bad squad, but is it enough? When Denmark defied the odds to win Euro ‘92 in Sweden, a goalkeeper, Peter Schmeichel, was the hero. If Denmark lands in the quarterfinals in June, you’d suspect that keeper Stephan Andersen, who’ll likely be the No. 1 in Thomas Sorensen’s place, will have done his share.

Permalink

Euro's most infamous rogues

By: timbersfan, 12:02 AM GMT on June 07, 2012

Football is a spectacle as much as a sport. A human drama incorporating triumph and failure, glory and pain, heroes and villains. Every act of creative brilliance from Euros past can be matched by a moment of unfathomable stupidity and violence. Both become forged in spectator’s memories and cause the adrenalin to flow, creating players we love and others we love to hate.

French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote about the critical role rule-breaking heels play within professional wrestling (in his essay, “The World of Wrestling”): “For a fan nothing is finer than the revengeful fury of a betrayed fighter who throws himself not on a successful opponent but on the smarting image of foul play.” In soccer as in wrestling, it is not just the unpredictability of the violence that thrills the viewer, it is the emotional hook his act creates, keeping the audience glued to the game, desperate for the evil doer to be defeated. Not just to lose, but be made to pay.


As sure as there will be goals at Euro 2012, there will be flailing elbows, two-footed tackles, "reducers” and red cards. If there is a memorable moment of madness in Poland and Ukraine, odds are one of these five rogues will provide it. After being sent off, players habitually tell the press they are “not that kind of player.” All five below are exactly that kind of player.



Sergio Busquets seems to be well-versed in football's dark arts.© David Ramos/Getty Images
SERGIO BUSQUETS (SPAIN)

Barcelona’s gangly instigator is a flopper and purveyor of feigned injuries extraordinaire. His practice of the dark arts is all the more shocking because few players in the game have been blessed with a cannier positional sense with which to break up the opposition’s play -- a role that requires a certain toughness, which the Catalan undermines by grabbing his face and collapsing to the turf. Watching Busquets play, it appears he either suffers from unbelievably sensitive facial molecules or an overreliance on gamesmanship.

The midfielder’s commitment to this aspect of the game would be admirable if it were not so detestable. He most infamously caused Inter’s Thiago Motta to be red-carded in the semifinals of the Champions League by tumbling to the turf and clutching his face in agony, whilst peering through his fingers to check if the referee was buying his con.

Credit where credit is due though: Busquets is also an accomplished break dancer.

MARK VAN BOMMEL (NETHERLANDS)

Mark Van Bommel cried as he announced his departure from AC Milan after the end of this season.

Don’t let the tears fool you. The Dutch captain is a punishing enforcer who can do it all. And by “all” we mean send an opponent’s playmaker back to the locker room on a stretcher with either a cold-blooded, knee-high tackle or with a relentless array of niggling tactics.

The majesty of Van Bommel is less his barely contained brutality – he is a player of whom it has been said would kick his own grandmother if she came near him with the ball – and more his technical mastery of the art of fouling. Few players maintain such a serious commitment to violence yet are rarely punished for it. At the 2010 World Cup, Van Bommel was the ultimate pest, fouling opponents at will while engaging in grating, game-long arguments with match officials. Somehow he was not yellow-carded until the semifinal.

JOHN TERRY (ENGLAND)

No other human in history has matched the Chelsea icon’s achievement of being stripped of the England captaincy twice. Terry’s self-cultivated, on-the-field reputation as his team’s “Captain, Leader, Legend” (as the banner at Stamford Bridge reads) has long been tarnished by perpetual loutish behavior off the field – be it his drunken mocking of stranded Americans at a Heathrow airport bar on the day after Sept. 11 or a propensity to romance teammates’ loved ones.

Despite Chelsea’s Champions League victory, Terry has experienced a challenging season. A knee delivered straight to the back of Barcelona’s unsuspecting Alexis Sanchez earned the defender a red card in the semifinal, forcing his team to play a man down and preventing him from playing in the final. Former Liverpool enforcer turned pundit, Graeme Souness, analyzed the seemingly unnecessary act with a practiced eye, suggesting Terry’s intention was “to give him a dead leg, as he was posing too much of a threat."

But it is the charges of racially abusing opponents that have dogged Terry’s career. First floated in 2006 after an incident with Tottenham’s Ledley King, Terry now awaits trial upon his return after a similar controversy with QPR’s Anton Ferdinand. England manager Roy Hodgson admitted “[The trial] is obviously very unfortunate for him ... but he is innocent until proven guilty. I realized when I selected him there would be people who would raise their eyebrows.”

Terry elicits more than raised eyebrows. The classic heel is a magnet for abuse from opposing fans, a hatred powerful enough to launch internet memes.


Mario Balotelli has been known to lose the plot.© Claudio Villa/Getty Images
MARIO BALOTELLI (ITALY)

Technically brilliant yet temperamental, few players are more capable of scoring a breathtaking goal one minute, then being sent off the next. Controversy stalks the young Italian’s career whether at Milan, where he wore an AC Milan jersey around town while playing for Inter, or at Manchester, where he dealt with the boredom of training by electing to chuck darts at a youth player.

Dogged by demons, Balotelli is easily ruffled and sees slights everywhere -- fighting battles against opponents, teammates and, infamously, his training bib.

Short of world-class strikers, Italian manager Cesare Prandelli has little choice but to include Balotelli on his squad, but he is well aware of the risk Balotelli is, using the media to remind his petulant striker the tournament represents "an extraordinary chance'' for him “to make people talk about what he does on the pitch.''

NICKLAS BENDTNER (Denmark)

The only man to make this list for his words rather than his on-field actions, Bendtner is neither an overly dirty player nor a particularly talented one. Reviled by Arsenal fans for his clumsy first touch, the Dane has become an object of scorn because of an apparent inability to filter his thoughts and comments. Few players have combined such precipitous levels of arrogance and stupidity to such detrimental effect.

Bendtner has spent much of the past season making public apologies. He alienated many at his loan club, Sunderland, after he was accused of going on a rampage of violence against parked cars (the charges were later dropped by the prosecution). He then tested the affections of loyal Danish fans, first by ditching his baroness fiancée seven weeks after she gave birth to their baby, then reportedly demanding free late-night pizzas at a Copenhagen Pizza Hut (“Don’t you know who I am?” he was reported to have exclaimed. “I can buy the whole pizzeria.”)

Bendtner’s problems are mental. Quite literally. The Arsenal team was once tested by sports psychologists, who applied a battery of psychometric tests to determine whether their intelligence matched their football ability. The administering psychologist confessed to Swedish magazine Offside: “One of the categories is called ‘self-perceived competence,’ i.e., how good the player himself thinks he is. On a scale up to 9, Bendtner got 10. When Bendtner misses a chance, he is always genuinely convinced that it wasn’t his fault. You might say that’s a problem, and to a certain degree it can be.”

Permalink

TOP 40 PLAYERS OF EURO 2012 1-6

By: timbersfan, 11:59 PM GMT on June 06, 2012

#1: Cristiano Ronaldo, POR




Comments 135


Considering his sustained brilliance for Real Madrid -- 84 goals and 22 assists in 67 games over the past two seasons -- it's a wonder that the world isn't running out of adjectives to describe the Portuguese forward's play. Whether deployed on the flanks or through the middle, exhibiting his lethal skills and swagger from set pieces or close range, Ronaldo is the best there is in the European game today. (And the richest, too; $17.06 million in reported salary, as of 2010.)


Though his club side has plenty of world-class talent to surround and support him, Ronaldo's record with Portugal is far less clear, and makes him an intriguing case heading into Euro 2012. Largely expected to single-handedly lift and lead A Seleccao, CRon did manage five goals in qualifying but watched his side struggle, losing to Denmark and Norway but scraping through to a playoff with a superior goal difference. From there, a Ronaldo brace anchored a 6-2 playoff win over Bosnia & Herzegovina, giving the mercurial forward a chance to impress in Poland and the Ukraine.


Such is Ronaldo's career; no matter how incendiary and brilliant he is with globally worshiped teams like Manchester United -- he won three consecutive Premier League titles, a Champions League title, a Ballon D'Or and two PFA Player of the Year awards -- and Real Madrid -- a La Liga title, European Golden Shoe and the inaugural FIFA Puskas Award for "most beautiful goal" -- there is still the sense that he has something to prove. With his country drawn in the toughest group alongside Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, all eyes will be watching.



Expert's take: A wonderfully talented footballer whose mesmeric qualities know no bounds. The asterisk against him has more to do with his personality. Ronaldo at times is the personification of arrogance. He carries himself in a manner than suggests he has a fair old conceit of himself. Also like Robben, he has a history of tumbling amid the slightest contact. Yet there are few better sights in modern football than the Portuguese attacker outthinking and outdoing opposing defenders. -- Derek Rae

Stats That Matter:


• Scored 100th La Liga goal in 5-1 victory over Real Sociedad on March 24, 2012. He reached the century mark in 92 league matches, making him the second fastest player in La Liga history to the 100-goal mark (Isidro Lángara, 82)


• Owns second and third highest single-season goal totals in La Liga history with 46 goals in 2011-12 and 40 goals in 2010-11 (Lionel Messi scored 50 goals in 2011-12)


• Has only two international goals in his past three major international competitions (2006 FIFA World Cup, Euro 2008, 2010 FIFA World Cup)


• Has six goals directly from free kicks in league play since the start of the 2010-11 season, most in La Liga


• 86 La Liga goals over the past two seasons, more than any other player. He scored 61 goals with his right foot, 14 with his left foot and 11 with his head


Jun 05
11:00
AM GMT
#2: Andres Iniesta, SPA




Comments 211


There is little more to add on Andres Iniesta that has not already been reeled out on numerous occasions during Barcelona's recent period of dominance. The Spaniard is one of the finest midfield technicians of modern times and his abilities have been showcased at the highest levels of the game for the past five years.


The 27-year-old had been tipped for stardom from an early age, with Barcelona legend and now manager Josep Guardiola famously telling a young Xavi: "You will retire me, but Iniesta will retire us both.” Iniesta may not have retired Xavi yet, but the two of them currently make-up the most feared midfield unit in football for both club and country, terrorizing opponents with their famed 'tiki-taka' style.


It is truly a thing of beauty as they slowly dismantle their opponents’ defensive structures by playing continuous short passes in the midfield until at some point a helpless defender is dragged out of position. Then, with a gap emerging, both Xavi and Iniesta are charged with supplying the defense-splitting pass that will seize upon the fault-line they have opened up with their earlier play. The strategy has led both Barcelona and Spain to unprecedented success.


Alongside future Spain teammate Fernando Torres, Iniesta was part of a successful youth generation who won the European Championship at Under-17 and U-19 level in the space of twelve months. Shortly after, first-team football came calling for the prodigious young midfielder and he has not looked back since, winning every trophy in the game over the last ten years.


It has not always been easy for the Spaniard, who nearly didn’t make it at Barcelona because of his homesickness and has often been shifted out of the center to make room for others for his country, but Iniesta has made up for those struggles with career-defining moments, such as his World Cup-winning goal in 2010.


Whilst Xavi may take the plaudits for his orchestration of the Spanish side, it is Iniesta who for club and country has stepped up with a defining contribution when most needed. En-route to World Cup glory, Iniesta picked up no less than three Man of the Match awards for his performances, including the award for the best player of the World Cup final. All eyes will be on Spain once more this summer, but if the Iberian giants are to retain their European Championship title, much will depend on Iniesta.



Expert's Take: As an attacking midfield player, the best there is. Incredibly skillful & creative. His vision & awareness & ability to combine with other technical players make him a constant threat to all teams & opponents. One of the top 5 players in the world. -- Robbie Mustoe


Stats That Matter:


• 10 career goals for Spain, including game-winning goal in extra time at 2010 World Cup final.


• Barcelona is undefeated in 46 of 48 matches in which Iniesta has played this season.


• Iniesta’s streak of 42 consecutive unbeaten matches with Barcelona was snapped by Chelsea in the Champions League semis.


• Played for Spain’s U-20 side that reached the 2003 FIFA World Youth Championship final in the United Arab Emirates, and was named to the All-Tournament team.


• Ninth in La Liga with 51 successful one-on-one take-ons in 2011-12.


Tags:
SpainEuro 2012ESPN Euro 2012 Top 40BarcelonaAndres Iniesta
Jun 04
08:42
AM GMT
#3: Xavi, SPA




Comments


Though the phrase “the straw that stirs the drink” has been applied to countless mercurial footballing talents over the years, when one looks at the Barcelona and Spain midfielder, it has never seemed more appropriate. Packed into an incandescent club team with the likes of Lionel Messi and Andres Iniesta, it can be easy to overlook the diminutive (Xavi stands, unassuming, at five foot seven) playmaker, but the quality and efficiency of his play always stands out.


His style is cerebral and full of intent; with the ball at his feet, Xavi thinks several moves ahead of the one that starts at his instep, forever looking for space in which to thread a pass and decimate a well-organized defense. (In a 2011 interview, Xavi outlined his thought process: “Think quickly, look for space ... I’m always looking.”) With Iniesta at his side and their on-field telepathy in full effect, the rampant, all-conquering Barcelona side of the late 2000s will never be forgotten.


Making him even more admirable is that in the modern era, a period of hundred-million-dollar transfers and club loyalty for a price, Xavi is a one-club player. Joining Barca’s vaunted La Masia youth academy at age 11, his 15-year professional career (began in 1997) is hard to match: six La Liga titles, three Champions League trophies, two FIFA Club World Cups and a slew of individual honors.


But unlike other luminaries high up this list, Xavi has matched these exploits at the international level. The cool, metronomic midfielder was a vital part of La Furia Roja’s cruise to the 2008 European Championships – even named player of the tournament -- and repeating the feat in 2010 when Spain edged its way through a tightly-contested World Cup en route to the trophy. With no title or accolade left to collect and his age (32) betraying his extraordinary technical skill, the 2012 European Championships will likely be Xavi’s last international tournament. What will he do for his swansong?



Expert's Take: Xavi is the heartbeat of the Spanish side. His skill is in controlling the tempo of the game via his wonderful touch and control, dictating the pace at which both Spain and Barcelona (two of the best teams in the world) play. Now, in the twilight of his career, he's starting to get the credit he deserves. -- Steve McManaman


Stats That Matter:


• 19 titles with Barcelona, most in club history


• Third all-time in appearances with the Spanish national team with 108


• Has scored 11 goals with the national team, including two in Euro qualifying


• Won Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup with Spain, and was voted player of the tournament at Euro 2008


• Xavi led the 2011-12 La Liga in passes completed with 2,716


Tags:
SpainEuro 2012ESPN Euro 2012 Top 40BarcelonaXavi
Jun 03
08:30
AM GMT
#4: Robin van Persie, NED

© David Rogers/Getty Images



Comments


The past 12 months have been dream-like for Robin van Persie. For so long the 28-year-old Dutchman had been regarded as a rather injury-prone talent, but after his recent goalscoring feats with club side Arsenal, RvP has firmly placed himself in the upper echelon of strikers that world football has to offer.


Van Persie has been central to the Dutch side since the Oranje's Euro 2008 campaign, when he supported Ruud van Nistelrooy from the left flank. However, since the former Manchester United forward's international career came to an end, van Persie has graduated to become the first-choice striker in his own right and led the line for the Netherlands at the FIFA World Cup in 2010, when the side reached the final before losing to Spain.


Since the World Cup, van Persie's scoring at club level has soared to nearly a goal-per-game pace. The transformation to become one of the world's most complete center forwards is complete and now, to Arsenal fans’ dismay, van Persie is in the sights of Europe's giants as his club contract nears its end. Technically, the former Feyenoord man has always been capable of the sublime, but now he’s matching those skills with an intelligence and consistency that had not always been visible in previous years.


With van Persie, it’s all about his majestic left foot, which he has shown is capable of finding the back of the net from pretty much anywhere within 30 yards of goal. While some players may be driven onto their weaker foot, van Persie's intelligent movement when dropping deep into midfield means it is nigh-on impossible for defenders to predict when the Dutchman is going to appear in the box. When he does, it is then almost as difficult to prevent him moving the ball onto his prolific left peg.


With four goals against San Marino in qualifying in September 2011, van Persie moved onto 25 goals for Netherlands and into the top 10 on the all-time international goalscorers list for his country. With a brilliant season for his club under his belt, few would bet against the striker adding a few more to his tally this summer.



Expert's take: Both technically gifted and capable of the poetic. If a goal for the ages is scored at Euro 2012, odds are it will be struck by his left foot. -- Roger Bennett

Stats That Matter:


• 48 Premier League goals over the past two seasons, 10 more than any other player


• 132 goals for Arsenal, eighth-most in club history


• Arsenal was 19-3-3 in matches when Van Persie scored last season (all competitions)


• Scored six goals in six Euro 2012 qualifying matches


• Only goal at 2010 FIFA World Cup was against Cameroon in the Netherlands’ final group game


Jun 02
08:31
AM GMT
#5: Mesut Ozil, GER



Comments


As with several of his Germany teammates, Mesut Ozil burst on to the international scene at the 2010 World Cup where his creativity and invention earned the twinkle-toed Werder Bremen midfielder a nomination for the Golden Ball award. Suitably impressed with what they had witnessed, the mighty Real Madrid made its move and Ozil's career has skyrocketed.


At international level, Ozil has continued to inspire his Germany side to outstanding, free-flowing attacking performances. The Madrid star contributed five goals to Germany's Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, but it is his dynamic link-up play with the likes of Thomas Muller and Mario Gotze that really sets the tone for this current Germany side. This is a side of pace, vision and movement in attacking areas and one that many consider capable of emerging from the tournament with the ultimate prize.


For Real Madrid it has been a similar story, with the German going from strength-to-strength in his link-up play as a part of one of football's best attacking units. Some of Ozil's skills this season have been nothing short of exquisite, with a selection of flicks, tricks and exquisite passing to rival any of the world's best in his position. Starting from either flank or a central berth, Ozil is always able to find an avenue to influence the game, wandering freely from his starting position into areas where he can receive the ball and make an impact.


There is a supreme intelligence to Ozil's game, with his movement and vision central to everything he has achieved. Signed to give Real Madrid's attack more of a delicate touch, Ozil goes about his business with a grace and style similar to many of the legendary players that the Santiago Bernabeu has come to worship over the years. For these very reasons, Ozil has quickly become a fan favorite at a club that has come to appreciate true talent.


European football is currently blessed with the type of creative playmakers that were for a long time considered the domain of South America. Alongside the likes of David Silva, Mario Gotze and Eden Hazard, Ozil is leading the charge. For Germany to win this summer Ozil will need to be close to his best for the latter stages of the tournament and if he is, the German side will be a pleasure to watch regardless of where it finishes.



Expert's take: Ozil is a wizard in midfield, with great technique when the ball is at his feet. His passing and vision will split any defense wide open, such is his awareness of where his teammates are on the field at all times. -- Tommy Smyth

Stats That Matter:


• First in 2011-12 La Liga with 103 scoring chances created for Real Madrid


• Seven assists in Euro 2012 qualifying, tied with Sweden’s Kim Kallstrom for first overall


• Scored five goals during qualifying and 14 of his 20 shots were on goal


• Eight goals in 31 appearances for Germany since his debut in 2009 (through May 18)


• Germany’s record with Özil in the lineup is 22-5-4 (through May 18)


Jun 01
08:30
AM GMT
#6: Wayne Rooney, ENG

© Matt Lewis/Getty Images



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Ever controversial off the field, there is only consensus about Rooney’s on-field ability. Although he can be hot-tempered and rash, like the last-minute kickout at a Montenegrin in England’s last qualifier that will cost him the first two games of the Euro, all is inevitably forgiven on account of Rooney’s footballing splendor.


A hybrid of a striker, attacking midfielder and winger, Rooney roams far from his spot as a central forward, thoughtfully connecting with teammates, helping in the buildup of attacks, running at defenders, shooting from distance or getting on the end of balls to score himself. Hard-working and blessed with a body that can act on his inspiration, Rooney could be as good and complete a forward as England has ever produced. In recent years, even his heading has improved.


He bears a mighty burden, though. Since Michael Owen’s precipitous drop-off in form in the mid-2000s, Rooney has easily been England’s outstanding striker, flanked by a revolving door of mediocre men. Thus he has shouldered an outsized share of the crushing hype surrounding every England appearance at a major international tournament. Heading into Euro 2012 at age 26, having appeared in two World Cups too, Rooney has yet to really shine at one of the game’s quadrennial bonanzas. The argument has been made that being out for his team’s first two games could improve Rooney’s odds of making an impact at the business end of the tournament, when he’ll be fresher than his peers. That’s if England makes it that far without him, of course. And that is a big if.



Expert's take: The most dangerous player for England despite that he'll miss the first two games of the Euros. Young, aggressive and very talented. If he plays well, England plays well. If not, England tends to struggle. A real leader. -- Steve McManaman

Stats That Matter:


• Two goals shy of becoming the eighth English player with 30 international goals


• England’s youngest-ever goalscorer, striking at 17 years and 317 days in a Euro 2004 qualifying victory in Macedonia in 2003


• Only teenager ever to score for England at a European Championship, tallying four goals at age 18 in 2004


• Six career Premier League hat tricks, most by any Manchester United player


• Led Manchester United and was sixth in the Premier League with 623 passes completed in the final third of the field in 2011-12

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The Exchange: Gladwell vs. Simmons IV

By: timbersfan, 11:52 PM GMT on June 06, 2012

SIMMONS: You ever read something that makes you mutter to yourself, "Man, I wish I thought of that one?" Last weekend, I read the following paragraph about LeBron James:

He sneezes and it's a trending topic on Twitter. He is a fascinating study because he's really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age, where everything he does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over and he handles everything with an amazing grace and patience that I don't know if other superstars from other areas would have been able to handle.
You know who wrote that one?

GLADWELL: Stephen A … No, wait a minute. If it were him it would be — "He. Sneezes. And. It's. A. Trending." I give up.

SIMMONS: That wasn't a guess. Here's the answer … nobody! It's a quote in some random Newsday story from Shane Battier. Repeat: An off-the-cuff quote! Was Shane sitting in front of his locker thinking, I'm sitting on one of the best points anyone ever made about LeBron; the next reporter that waves a recorder in front of my face gets it? Did Shane say to the reporter, "Give me your e-mail address, I'd much rather type out this point on my iPhone and send it to you, it's that good"? Does Shane have surprisingly insightful points bubbling inside him at all times? Since he can't join the media yet, is there any way TNT can pay him under the table to feed wisdom to poor Shaq? Let's hope Shane has been jotting down notes during his inaugural swim in the LeBron/Wade fishbowl — even if it's half as good as that quote, it would become the best book by an NBA player since Life on the Run.

GLADWELL: He wants your job, Simmons. And by the way, did you notice that a few weeks ago Trevor Pryce (late of the Baltimore Ravens) had an article in the New York Times sports section? At what point did professional athletes decide that playing sports is less fun than writing about it in coffee shops?

SIMMONS: If any of them want to switch bodies with me, I'm here. It could be the plot for the next terrible body-switching movie. Move over Zac Efron, there's a new sheriff in town!

GLADWELL: Nothing beats the genuine two-sport star, by the way — where the two sports have absolutely nothing in common with each other. I was as impressed as anyone that Deion Sanders could play both football and baseball at the pro level. But a lot of what made him great at football was what made him great at baseball. I would have been more impressed if his second sport was chess or, like Pryce, he suddenly started getting published in the New York Times. (Pryce, incidentally, has also sold two screenplays.) I knew a guy like that in college. His name was Paul Kingston. He had a freakish level of athletic ability. Had he wanted to, I swear he could have played soccer in Europe, or baseball at the pro level or made the tour in tennis. You know how there's something about the way elite athletes move that makes you realize that they don't belong to the same species as the rest of us? That was Paul. He was really into Middle East politics. Now he's a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.

SIMMONS: Ugh. I hate when people do that, even if it makes perfect sense to choose a 50-year professional career over an eight-year professional career. Anyone who doesn't take proper advantage of the "world-class athlete" gene should be forced to sell that gene on the open market. Yeah, I'm including you, Vince Carter.

GLADWELL: Here's my point. The sports world "missed" Kingston. He's someone who could have been a world-class athlete but ended up doing something entirely different. Same with Battier. If he hadn't been a basketball player, it sounds like there's a good chance he could have made a brilliant writer. The world of writing — up until now, at least, "missed" Battier …

SIMMONS: Instead, he decided to make a living by taking phony offensive charges from players who were much better than him. (Sorry, I couldn't resist. I'm in major homer mode thanks to this hostile Celts-Heat series. Keep going.)

GLADWELL: So how many Battiers and Paul Kingstons are out there? How many people do elite professions miss? I think we assume that the talent-finding in the top occupations is pretty efficient. But what always strikes me is the amount of evidence in the opposite direction. There are huge numbers of people who clearly could play pro sports, but don't want to. (Kingston.) And an even greater number who could, but can't. America has one of the highest incarceration rates in recorded history, for example. (We have six times more people behind bars, on a per capita basis, than Europe does.) That works out to about 2 million people — the majority of whom are young men, and a disproportionate share of those young men are young black men. Surely there must be hundreds — if not thousands — of potential professional athletes in that number, not to mention scientists or entrepreneurs or poets. I'm sure you saw that great piece by Jonathan Abrams in Grantland this week where he quotes Stephen Jackson on growing up in Port Arthur, Texas: "There's been a million basketball players to come out of there and I'm the second one to make it to the NBA."

SIMMONS: An organic Grantland plug! Nice!

GLADWELL: And then there is my favorite moment in Michael Lewis's The Blind Side, when Michael Oher says that if everyone from his old neighborhood in inner-city Memphis who could play football got the chance to play professional football, they'd need two NFLs. What he was saying is that the efficiency rate of the football talent-search system in Memphis was less than 50 percent. This is the most popular and most lucrative sport in the United States — and Oher is saying that based on his experience we leave half of the available talent on the table. That's unbelievable!

SIMMONS: It's a little different than Canada — where they somehow utilize 147.3 percent of the available hockey talent.

GLADWELL: Exactly right. Not to mention the Kenyans in distance running, and the Dutch in soccer, and the Jamaicans in sprinting. It's the flip side of the same point. In theory, big countries should dominate all sports because they have the biggest talent pool. But they don't, because societies squander their talent. If you are a tiny country you can hold your own against someone 10 times your size just by being slightly more efficient in finding and developing the Battiers and Kingstons of the world. Could Battier have taken our jobs, if he wanted to? It wouldn't surprise me. If our talent spotting in basketball and football is so lousy — and those are two areas about which, arguably, we care more in this country than almost anything else — how lousy must it be in journalism? You and I owe our livelihoods to the fact that this country doesn't have its act together.

SIMMONS: Please don't call me a journalist — you make it seem like I'm credible. Speaking of not identifying talent, couldn't we blame the sports media for failing to identify which athletes have something to say? Are we provoking them with the right questions? Are we making excuses by falling into that "It's not like the old days, we don't have the same kind of access anymore, the leagues and agents and PR people are too savvy now, you can't get anything" trap?

Quick story: You mentioned that pesky Abrams kid — a few months ago, we assigned him an oral history of the Artest melee, which was an absolute bitch to report. A bunch of the principals weren't exactly eager to talk about what happened, including Reggie Miller, who would give an interview to a 15-year-old reporter from the Saskatoon Gazette if he was writing about those Knicks-Pacers wars from the 1990s, but hides under the scorer's table when he hears the words "Artest melee." Anyway, Abrams went to a Bucks game hoping to grab 10 minutes with Stephen Jackson, not knowing if Jackson would definitely speak about what happened. You know what Jackson told him? He had been waiting for someone to ask him about the melee! For years! Here's the most infamous night in recent NBA history, and here's one of the principals — one of the league's best quotes, by the way — and he's been waiting for years for someone to bring it up?????

GLADWELL: There's been a million sportswriters to come out of Boston and you're the second one to make it to ESPN.

SIMMONS: More like the 409th. Anyway, that Jackson story made me wonder if we (by "we," I mean the sports media) need to recalibrate everything we're doing. Do we really need 25 people crammed in baseball locker rooms fighting for the same mundane quotes? What's our game plan for the fact that — thanks to the Internet and 24-hour sports stations — a city like Boston suddenly has four times as many sports media members as it once had? Why are we covering teams the same way we covered them in 1981, just with more people and better equipment? If I could watch any Celtics game and press conference from my house (already possible), and there was a handpicked pool of reporters (maybe three per game, with the people changing every game) responsible for pooling pregame/postgame quotes and mailing them out immediately, could I write the same story (or pretty close)? If we reduced the locker room clutter, would players relax a little more? Would their quotes improve? Would they trust the media more? Why haven't we experimented at all? Any "improvements" in our access have been forgettable. Seriously, what pearls of wisdom are we expecting from NBA coaches during those ridiculous in-game interviews, or from athletes sitting on a podium with dozens of media members firing monotone questions at them? It's like an all-you-can-eat buffet of forgettable quotes, like the $7.99 prime rib extravaganzas at a Vegas casino or something. There's Russell Westbrook at the podium for $7.99! Feast away! We laugh every time Gregg Popovich curmudgeonly swats Craig Sager away with four-word answers, but really, he's performing a public service. He's one of the few people in sports who has the balls to say, "This couldn't be a dumber relationship right now."

I don't blame athletes for retreating into their little sports-cliché cocoons. We've pushed them there, especially because we (and by "we," I mean ESPN and every other media outlet, newspaper or sports blog that blows stuff out of proportion for eyeballs, page views, ratings or whatever) have a tendency to blow provocative quotes out of proportion. For instance, you might remember Larry Bird mentioning on my podcast that he'd rather play with Kobe than LeBron, if only because ESPN ran that answer across our ticker for 24 solid hours. If you listened to the podcast as a whole, his answer wasn't that simple — Bird was saying that, as a player, he gravitated toward other players who were obsessed with winning. That's what he valued most. Kobe seems similarly obsessed, so that's who Bird picked. It wasn't a pick against LeBron — in fact, he believed LeBron was the best current basketball player "by far." But Bird was an overcompetitive weirdo, and so is Kobe, so that's why he picked Kobe.

GLADWELL: Although surely Bird isn't telling the truth here. On the court, he fits much better with LeBron than Kobe. Kobe's ideal teammate is a ball boy. But go on …

SIMMONS: Yeah, Kobe would have stolen one crunch-time shot from Bird, followed by them fighting to the death after the game. And Bird would have won that fight unless Moses Malone and Charles Barkley were holding him from behind. Anyway, was it fair that "BIRD WOULD RATHER PLAY WITH KOBE OVER LEBRON" got thrown into the talking head/sports radio cycle for 24 hours? Obviously not. We screw these guys over time and time again, then we wonder why they won't say anything interesting. You know what else doesn't help? It's a little disconcerting to talk to anyone recording your spoken word. Anytime I've been interviewed, I'm scared of saying something dumb that could come back to haunt me … you know, like every single comment I made in the ESPN book. The best conversations happen without a tape recorder or a notebook, anyway, but especially with sports figures, who always become more candid when they're not worried about getting burned (or burning themselves). I actually think that's how the old days of sports media coverage may have worked — after games, you went out to dinner with these guys, or maybe even got sauced with them, and they spilled insights and trusted you wouldn't hang them.

Here's the story that sums it up: Halberstam released the greatest sports book ever, Breaks of the Game, in 1981. Everyone talked to him. Candidly. Without any fear of repercussions or backlash. They trusted him because he was one of the best reporters of his generation, and also because they didn't have much to lose because the NBA was really struggling back then. Fast-forward to 1998 … Halberstam decided to write a Jordan book that was basically a sequel to Breaks (again, THE GREATEST SPORTS BOOK EVER). Did Jordan cooperate? Of course not! Jordan strung him along for a few months, promised an extended interview after the season ended, then canceled it on him. Good luck with your sequel, Pulitzer Prize winner. I'm sitting this one out. And with that, sports access was never quite the same.

GLADWELL: What did Halberstam think he was going to get from Jordan that Jordan hadn't said a thousand times already? I don't think there is any way to be interesting once you've been asked the same question over and again. The first time your daughter asked you why the stars shine so brightly, I bet you gave some intricate astronomical explanation. The second time, you talked about how they would look even brighter out in the desert, and the third time you said that stars always give 110 percent. It's human nature. How many times do you think Jordan fielded questions about how he "felt" during the flu game? Years ago, I did one of those mass press day interviews with — hold your breath — Alicia Silverstone, where they line up a million writers and give each of them 20 minutes with the "star." I think I was the 15th reporter to talk to her that day. The poor woman looked like she was in hell. There was nothing I could ask her that could possibly have yielded an interesting answer. How many times can one human being talk about kissing Paul Rudd?

SIMMONS: From what I can tell, the best way to learn something fresh about someone as picked-over as Jordan, LeBron or Kobe is to find one of their teammates (even if it's a benchwarmer), a veteran with a knack for putting things into perspective, one of those intelligent athletes who seem to have the perfect quote ready at all times. We need a name for these dudes. Locker room philosophers? Jockosophers? For example, I always thought Keyon Dooling was just another lousy free agent signing by Danny Ainge, and in many ways, he probably was. But Dooling can pressure point guards full-court and make open 3s (sometimes); he always plays hard; he's a superb chemist (a.k.a., the popular bench guy who doles out world-class chest bumps, creates special handshakes and makes everyone laugh); he's always willing to fill reporters' notebooks when nobody else feels like it; and he's one of the better quote machines in recent Boston sports history. Here's Dooling describing Kevin Garnett, The Teammate for Yahoo's Holly MacKenzie:

He's incredible. I guarantee you if you did a poll of everybody who has played with Kevin Garnett, I guarantee you he would probably be 98% of people's favorite teammate. He is that guy. He's the glue. If somebody is not going well, he's the guy to pick him up. If there's a problem, he's the one to address it. If somebody needs to be taken up for, he's the one to do that, if there's a question that needs to be asked and somebody doesn't want to ask it, he does that. He is amazing … I guarantee you if you went around the locker room, everybody who has been around him, ask his former teammates, he is incredible, man. He is an incredible man. He should get awards every year for the man, the mentorship he gives to young guys, the work ethic that he shows them and instills in them. The camaraderie that he gives to the team. You know what I mean? The way he embraces everybody on the staff from the video coordinator to the masseuse. Kevin Garnett should be an ambassador. He is that kind of personality. He is amazing.
That took less than 200 words. ANYTHING IS POSSSSSSSSSSIBLE!!!!!!!! Everyone says Dooling wants to coach someday; since he's already mastered dealing with the media, he only needs to practice successfully holding a clipboard to surpass Vinny Del Negro. For now, he'll have to settle on being one of our foremost jockosophers.

GLADWELL: I can't believe we're discussing jockosophers without mention of Darryl Dawkins, he of the "Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am Jam." This is a man who said he was from planet Lovetron, where he engaged in "interplanetary funkmanship" with his girlfriend. There isn't any interplanetary funkmanship in today's NBA. I think the owners banned it during last year's lockout negotiations. The best we can do is Metta World Peace. If you are going to go to all of the trouble of changing your name to World Peace, can't you come up with a better first name than Metta?

SIMMONS: I wish he had gone with a simple first name, something like Gary World Peace. Would have been more effective. Speaking of effective, here's Dooling breaking down Rajon Rondo's relationship with the media in that same Yahoo piece.

There were a lot of people who didn't necessarily talk before the game. John Stockton was a guy who never talked before the game, never signed autographs or anything like that and he was known as a gentleman and a saint so the spin that Rondo has is definitely a misconception. If you ask the guys in the locker room, I'd tell you that everybody is with him. If I have to go down a dark alley, I want to go down there with him. As a matter of fact, behind him because he's a great leader … We may be looking at the best player in our generation. The media can definitely paint the picture that they want. They can vilify you or they can build you up, but that doesn't mean that's who you are. I think he has pure passion for the game. He loves the game, he's a thinker of the game, he's a student of the game, he's a historian of the game. He wants to be special. He wants to quietly leave his mark on this league and he wants to kind of do it his way … He's a reserved guy. Don't allow people to tell you that this guy is a jerk or an asshole because he's quiet and he doesn't want to talk before games or he doesn't have this superman personality, this Dwight Howard personality.
Whoa! Somehow, Boston's backup point guard easily broke down The Enigma That Is Rajon Rondo — someone who confounded Celtics fans these past six years and rarely talks to the press, someone I have spent more time figuring out (check that, trying to figure out) than just about anyone I ever dated, the single most confusing person I have ever not met, the inspiration for an entire 2011 paragraph in which I explained why following Rondo was like having a cat (and every Celtics fan knew exactly what I meant) — in 233 carefully crafted, off-the-cuff, refreshingly honest words. Have you ever heard a better description of Rondo?

GLADWELL: I haven't. And here's why it's so good: Because it is the simplest possible explanation. He's not locked in some blood feud with Doc Rivers, and he's not in the grip of some complex neurosis. He's just an introvert who takes his basketball seriously. Done. Why is it that in the face of unanswered questions, people always want to gravitate to the most convoluted — and least plausible — explanations?

Bill James does a brilliant riff on this very question in his new book Popular Crime.

James turns out to be not just the most important writer/thinker on baseball of our generation but also — completely unexpectedly — to have read more books in the true crime genre than maybe anyone else alive. In Popular Crime he works his way though every major true crime story of the last 200 years — from Lizzie Borden to JonBenet Ramsey — making (as one would expect) all kinds of brilliant, wildly entertaining and occasionally completely nutty Jamesian observations. Why Popular Crime wasn't a huge bestseller, I have no idea. OK. Maybe I do. It's 496 pages …

SIMMONS: In retrospect, he probably blew it by not creating a Hall of Fame Serial Killer Pyramid. Although I would have been infuriated when he made Ted Bundy a Level 3 instead of a Level 5. I can't get over how much James marginalized Bundy; James didn't even treat Nolan Ryan that badly. How many serial killers could have pulled off a two-part miniseries starring Mark Harmon? Two parts, Malcolm! Two! And he just gets skipped over in the James book? I'm pissed all over again.

GLADWELL: The thing I never understood about Bundy is why all the descriptions of him take pains to mention his very high IQ. I'm surprised we also don't get his SAT scores, and copies of his college letters of recommendation. Only in America do people want to know if someone who killed young women for a living could have gotten into an Ivy League college.

SIMMONS: I heard Bundy got in early-admission to Princeton.

GLADWELL: In any case, one of James's best chapters is on the Kennedy assassination. James begins by systematically blowing away the conspiracy arguments. The idea that Oswald was in cahoots with the Soviets or the Mafia or that he had an accomplice somewhere or there was a second assassin or that he was under the control of some menacing force is just too complicated, James points out: It requires too many coincidences and leaps of logic and extravagant assumptions. And besides — and here is where James really shines — there's a much simpler explanation.

James loves the Kennedy book Mortal Error by Bonar Menninger, which is based on the work of a Baltimore ballistics expert named Howard Donahue. Donahue's focus is on the mysterious third bullet that hit Kennedy — and that ended up killing him. It didn't behave like the first two bullets. It disintegrated inside Kennedy's skull, for instance, which a bullet fired from Oswald's rifle should not have done. And from where Oswald was situated it is hard to see how the bullet could really have traveled in the trajectory that it did. The questions surrounding the third bullet are a big part of the reason so many people believe in a conspiracy. So what was Donahue's explanation? There was a second gunman. But it wasn't an assassin. It was a Secret Service man named George Hickey who heard the first two shots, panicked, and let off a shot that hit the president in the head. It was all a tragic accident. Hickey's AR-15 rifle matches the ballistics and trajectory of the fatal bullet perfectly. And numerous eyewitnesses reported seeing him grab his weapon and wave it about. I could go on. James describes in brilliant detail just how convincing this particular explanation is.

SIMMONS: Look, my response could be 50,000 words or 500. Only three things turn me into an abject lunatic in print: anytime the Celtics get screwed over by officiating; any Super Bowl that the Patriots choke away to the Giants; and anything involving the Kennedy assassination. Nobody loves conspiracies and convoluted theories more than me — I'm the same person who, when YouTube was created, said the words, "This is great, we can finally see if the NBA froze the Knicks' envelope for the 1985 lottery!" Let's just say that I have spent a few nights on YouTube with the grainy Zapruder film on full-screen wondering why the background didn't totally match up frame by frame, or wondering why it took an extra six years to release the Zapruder film to the general public (or why people who saw the original Zapruder film when it happened claim that it was doctored after the fact), or deciding that the George Hickey theory is TOTALLY plausible … especially when you're looking for an answer for the question, "Stuff was proactively covered up here, including the original autopsy photos, so why?" Don't get me started, Malcolm. I'm begging you.

GLADWELL: And that's just what fascinates James. We're all like you — particularly those of us in the media. We all prefer implausible accounts of Kennedy's death that involve, as James puts it, "body-snatching, duplicate Oswalds and duplicate Jack Rubys, reconstructive surgery to disguise the corpse, manufactured photographs and assassins visible in the shadows of grainy Polaroids." And we are puzzlingly uninterested in simple and logical explanations based on something we all know intuitively to be true: When you have lots of trigger-happy people and lots of guns and lots of excitement all situated in the same place at the same time, sometimes stupid and tragic accidents happen. Why? Isn't the world complicated enough? Why do we insist on conjuring up sinister conspiracies and elaborate implausible fantasies about, say, how a nice, slightly dorky kid from Hawaii was actually born in Kenya? So yes. I'm with the jockosopher Keyon Dooling: "The media can definitely paint the picture that they want. They can vilify you or they can build you up, but that doesn't mean that's who you are."

SIMMONS: We need to circle back to fellow jockosopher Battier's quote that LeBron is a "fascinating study because he's really the first and most seminal sports figure in the information age." That's actually true. I have been writing my column since the spring of '97, back when you told people you wrote sports columns on the Internet and they paused for a second before responding, "Do you make money doing that?" It took six more years before the Internet started to resemble today's Internet — by 2003, everyone had e-mail; everyone knew how to navigate the web, forward URLs and anonymously slander people on message boards; people weren't terrified that their credit card would be stolen if they made an online purchase; modem speeds and web designs didn't feel like they were trapped in the 1950s anymore; the blogosphere was slowly rounding into form; and life-altering things like "wireless" and "streaming video" were being perfected (and even better, everyone knew they were coming).

Well, when did Cleveland draft LeBron? June 2003. From that point forward, the following things were created: MySpace (2003); Facebook (2004); Gmail (2004); sports blogs (2004); YouTube (2005); podcasts (2005); Twitter (2006); iPhones (2007). By 2009, all of those mediums and devices had rounded into form with the exception of MySpace — which only survives in To Catch a Predator reruns — and all of LeBron's triumphs, foibles, highlights and failures could be dissected AND watched immediately. The most famous American athletes from the last decade were probably LeBron, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning, Michael Jordan (even after he retired), Shaquille O'Neal, Tom Brady, Brett Favre, Alex Rodriguez, Lance Armstrong and Derek Jeter in some order. But only LeBron showed up right as the "information age" was taking off and blossomed along with it, so Battier's first point is correct … right?

GLADWELL: Agreed. And how bummed are you if you are LeBron? He was born in 1984. In every way, his life would be better if he had been born 10 years earlier. I don't believe that the world was always better in the past. But I do believe that there are moments when the particular mix of available technologies don't actually combine to make your life better — and I think we're in one of those moments now. I can remember when I worked in the New York bureau of the Washington Post, and Jackie Onassis was near death and I was responsible for writing the story if she died. What I really wanted to do was go to dinner. So what did I do? I went to dinner, and she died — and the office had no way to reach me.

Can we pause, for a moment, and recognize how magical that fact was? I actually remember where I had dinner — The Odeon in Tribeca. There I was in the middle of one of the most important cities in the world, having steak frites at a well-known restaurant two blocks from my apartment, and to the editors of one of the most prestigious newspapers in the world I was effectively invisible. And when they finally tracked me down the next day, I simply apologized for being … out of touch. No one has said the phrase out of touch for at least a decade. There is an entire generation of young people out there who don't even know that those three words can be used in combination. This is on par with that long-lost moment in, like, the 17th century when if you said to your teacher, "The dog ate my homework," there was a reasonable chance that the dog actually had eaten your homework. God I miss those days.

SIMMONS: Don't worry, those days are still alive … if you want them to be. I call it "going in the bunker." If I have to get something done, I just pick a coffee place or restaurant, turn off my cell phone, tell my wife and Grantland's Dan Fierman that I'm "going in the bunker" and spend the next few hours pretending it's 1988 (and nobody can reach me). It's the only way sometimes. My wife hates the bunker. In her defense, it probably seems weird when your husband says the words, "I'm going to be out of commission for the next four hours, I'm going into the bunker." Just ask Eliot Spitzer's wife. But there's something about the sanctity of being out of touch. Especially in 2012, when everything centers on being IN touch, right?

GLADWELL: If I had to pick a perfect technological moment, it would be 1998. You had FedEx — and, if you think about it, at least half of what we love about the Internet is actually what we love about FedEx. You had the Internet and e-mail, only they were cool. Your parents weren't on them yet. Cell phones existed, but it was perfectly legitimate not to have one, or to have one and have it turned off. We had the fax machine, which meant you could send information anywhere in the world — instantly. Imagine! If you wanted to watch a TV show, you watched it at the same time as everyone else — which meant that TV had the same sense of cultural immediacy that today only sporting events have. And if you are LeBron, the total number of words written about you at any given moment falls by a factor of 10. If LeBron is born in 1970, he makes just as much money as today, only he gets to live a normal life. How is this not better?

SIMMONS: I love the concept of athletes being born too soon or too late. Steve Garvey was born at the perfect time — in the '70s, first basemen were supposed to look handsome, drive dudes home and scoop errant throws. That's it. Nobody cared about Garvey's on-base percentage; if anything, elite hitters were considered selfish if they worked pitchers for walks over trying to drive home runners in big moments. (See: Boggs, Wade.) Meanwhile, poor Tim Raines played in Montreal before the days of the Extra Innings Package and MLB TV, back when everyone valued batting average over on-base percentage, "OPS" sounded like a computer company and nobody differentiated between "total steals" and "percentage of steals per attempt." If he came along 20 years later, he'd be the darling of the sabermetric community instead of the first mention in any pithy column about great players who stupidly haven't made Cooperstown even though Dave Bancroft and Rick Ferrell are there.

A better example: Michael Jordan peaked during the best possible time for an NBA superstar (the post-salary boom 1990s, well after the NBA became mainstream thanks to Bird and Magic). If you remember, Jordan bristled at the constant scrutiny even though things are more suffocating and mean-spirited today. Remember how MJ reacted to the unflattering stories in The Jordan Rules (a pretty tame book to reread, by the way), or the media's badgering about his Atlantic City trips and six-figure golfing losses to professional hustlers? Remember how bitter he became (rightfully so) when people wondered about the details of his father's murder? He retired in 1993 to play minor league baseball for many reasons, but mainly because he wanted out of that fishbowl. How would Jordan have handled the Internet age? Poorly. And that's an understatement. If we ever create a RESET button for life, I want to move Jordan's career 15 years forward, then sit courtside for Alternate Universe MJ's first playoff game after Alternate Universe Henry Abbott dares to write a "Why MJ Isn't As Clutch As You Think" column for Alternate Universe ESPN.com. Money is no object. I'm in for 50,000 futuristic dollars.

GLADWELL: Let's not forget J. Edgar Hoover. By day he persecuted people for being gay. By night, he went home to his male "companion" and dressed up in women's clothing. I'm guessing that today someone spots him in the changing room at Talbots trying on something in taffeta, and Instagrams that. It's a lot harder to be a hypocrite in 2012 than in 1960 — and that's a good thing.

SIMMONS: You're baiting me into a joke that would infuriate every Republican reader. I'm not biting.

GLADWELL: My problem, though, is that we've moved past exposing hypocrisy to exposing ordinary imperfection. So John Edwards had an affair and didn't want to tell the world about it. Yes, that's pretty lousy behavior. But does that really justify the Justice Department spending years and years going after him? And do we really have to shake our heads in dismay as if someone lying about an affair has never happened before? Same with Roger Clemens. So he allegedly used steroids and then allegedly lied about it. It's not like he was spying for the Soviet Union. He was embarrassed and bullheaded and had a terrible lawyer and got worried about his chances of getting into the Hall of Fame — which makes him as flawed and imperfect as the rest of us. And by the way, who — outside of his mother — even for a moment believed him when he said he'd never used steroids? For crying out loud, he went 18-4, with a 2.98 ERA at the age of 42.

SIMMONS: For the record, I support anything that leads to the words "Roger Clemens trial." But keep going.

GLADWELL: It strikes me that we have to make a decision. One option is to judge behavior harshly. But that requires that we respect privacy. In other words, we can frown on gambling only so long as we permit the Michael Jordans of this world to go to Vegas every now and again and gamble in peace. The second option is to take away all privacy — to tweet every public sighting, to comb through trash and to dissect every utterance on the Internet. But that means we have to be a lot more forgiving about human frailty. If we want to tweet "Jordan is down $500,000 at the Bellagio," we have to agree that if an adult worth hundreds of millions of dollars wants to spend his money foolishly placing bets in Vegas that's no better or worse than an adult with millions of dollars foolishly spending his money on private jets or Ferraris or subprime mortgage bonds. Take your pick. I'm for option two. I'm happy to know that Roger Clemens and John Edwards lied. But having learned that fact, I couldn't care less. The Justice Department has now spent tens of millions of taxpayer dollars pursuing fruitless legal cases against those two guys. Can I please have my money spent on something that actually matters?

SIMMONS: Yeah, we could use those taxpayer dollars to build more state-of-the-art stadiums for billionaire sports owners who don't want to spend their own money. Back to your privacy point — earlier, we mentioned jockosopher Battier's point that LeBron ushered in the information age, and that "everything (LeBron) does is reported and dissected and second-guessed many times over." My first reaction was to say, "Well, you could describe a handful of athletes like that, right?" Even JaVale McGee has been dissected by more people in 2012 than, say, Dave Cowens in 1977. But of our modern superstars, only LeBron and Tiger could say they were "dissected" for their entire professional careers. Tom Brady was a no-name sixth-round pick for 18 months. Kobe averaged 15.5 minutes per game as a rookie and never had to worry about carrying the Lakers until after he drove Shaq out of Los Angeles they traded Shaq to Miami. But Tiger and LeBron became TIGER and LEBRON as teenagers; their experiences with suffocating fame/attention/notoriety had less in common with fellow athletes and more in common with Miley Cyrus, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan and Amanda Bynes. Is that a good thing? If anything, you could argue that LeBron has handled that fishbowl exceedingly well — certainly better than Tiger and Lindsay did — which was Battier's overarching point.

GLADWELL: A quick thought experiment on LeBron. A young, white 22-year-old from a nice, preppy upper-middle class family graduates from Oberlin and goes to work for a small-market investment bank in downtown Cleveland. He quickly establishes himself as a brilliant trader, possessed of a freakish instinct for the markets. He makes his bank hundreds of millions of dollars. But he wants to take his talents to Wall Street, where he can be surrounded by other great traders and have access to global capital markets. When his contract is up in Cleveland, he shops around before agreeing to join the legendary trading desk at Goldman Sachs, at what turns out to be a slight cut in pay. On his first day on the job, he's interviewed on CNBC about his "decision," and he predicts that his skills in combination with the talent already at Goldman will earn billions of dollars for Goldman's clients in the years to come. Is there a single person in the financial world who would raise even an eyebrow about that guy's behavior?

SIMMONS: No way — especially if he went to Duke instead of Oberlin. (By the way, after successfully getting off a Princeton joke and a Duke joke, I'm ready to wrap things up whenever. Just say the word.) But even the most arrogant trader on the planet wouldn't have aspired publicly to become a "global icon," or obsessed over his brand as much as LeBron did these past few years, and really, I wonder if that's the biggest reason he's struggled in a few weighty moments over the years. You can't build yourself as a worldwide brand without constantly evaluating how the outside world is digesting that brand. You have to be painfully self-aware, completely in tune with the public's thoughts about YOU. (That's what made "The Decision" such a horrendous misfire — he wasn't in tune, even though he mistakenly thought he was. That's the recipe for just about every career suicide attempt, by the way. Here's one example.) When you're getting picked apart and you're aware of the criticisms — and even worse, there's truth in some of those criticisms — how can that not affect you? There hasn't been an NBA superstar who cared more about how people regarded him since Wilt Chamberlain. And look how that turned out.

Quick tangent: Two months ago, I recalled a friend's story from Game 5 of the 2011 Finals (a.k.a. LeBrondown II), when my friend was sitting near Miami's bench watching a zoned-out LeBron gnaw his fingernails as his teammates vainly tried to engage him. That anecdote disturbed a Chapel Hill reader named Jared, who e-mailed me wondering if "we killed LeBron." As Jared pointed out, once upon a time, LeBron could casually flick a switch and take command of big games (like Game 5 against the 2007 Pistons). That switch seems to have disappeared, leading Jared to decide, "I truly believe the media onslaught over the last few years has destroyed that switch."

If you're scoring at home, I'm about to debate a total stranger's reaction to a friend's secondhand story. (That's why I get paid the big bucks.) When you include Twitter and Facebook, I'd argue that LeBron wasn't dealing with a "media onslaught" as much as a pure onslaught. Whenever people ask me, "Whatever happened to the guy from that Detroit game?," maybe the answer is, "We happened." Maybe that's the same reason Britney shaved her head, Michael Jackson ruined his face, Whitney Houston destroyed her voice and Tiger risked everything for a steady series of bimbos and hostitutes. Maybe it's the same reason Battier made a point of saying LeBron handles "everything" with "amazing grace and patience." Battier was complimenting him while also pointing out that, "Hey, in case you didn't notice, LeBron James's day-to-day life couldn't be more unnatural and maybe we should cut him a little more slack." That's what makes him one of our premier jockosophers.

GLADWELL: My turn for a quick tangent: I was in the Orlando airport not long ago, waiting in one of those endless security queues, when I looked up and saw that the ticket agent was escorting someone to the head of the line. She takes him past at least a hundred people and inserts him right in front of the conveyer belt. He wasn't in a hurry. In fact, the guy turned out to be on the same flight I was, which didn't leave for another hour. Who was it? Ray Lewis. Two things. One — there is no way she does that for anyone but a sports star. She would have stopped Albert Einstein if his driver's license looked a little fishy. Second — no one said anything. We all just kind of nodded and looked at each other and said, "Cool! Ray Lewis." Here's a man who makes millions of dollars for hitting people really hard and it somehow makes complete sense to the rest of us that he should be able to cut in ahead of teachers, salesmen, nurses, working moms, and hack writers. If you are someone like Ray Lewis and that kind of thing happens to you every single day of the year, how do you stay normal? Standing in line in airports and other everyday rituals of modern life are the kinds of things that civilize us: As annoying as they are, they remind us that we are all equal and they teach us patience, and they grant us a kind of ultimately useful anonymity. Ray Lewis and celebrities of his ilk never have the privilege of those moments. By the way, Lewis was wearing a daring ochre, Caribbean-style pantsuit that, at some future point, deserves its own Grantland exposé. So yes. It's not easy being LeBron.

SIMMONS: To be clear, it's not like LeBron was an unwitting victim here. He pinned himself in a corner with his final Cleveland season — and his exit, obviously — and now there's no escape short of multiple Miami titles or a humbled LeBron having one of those "We have to go back" (to Cleveland) epiphanies like bearded Jack did in Lost. He also suffers from bad timing because, almost on cue, Kevin Durant showed up saying and doing the right things, rising to the occasion in playoff games (like Game 4 on Saturday), remaining loyal to a small market, only caring about basketball (or so we think — it's not like Durant hasn't filmed a few ads, right?), endearingly lighting up the Rucker League, hugging his adorable mom after every game and inadvertently positioning himself as the anti-LeBron (even if that wasn't his actual intention). The dominant story line for a Miami–Oklahoma City Finals (if it happens): "LeBron and the Heat face off against the anti-LeBron and the anti-Heat!" That would be abruptly followed by the backlash to that story line, followed by the backlash to that backlash, and then the backlash to the backlash's backlash (all happening at warp speed, in about 36 hours). None of this is fair. They're both good teammates and wonderful players, only Durant was blessed with a better support system, better life experiences and a better situation (imagine if LeBron had someone as good as Sam Presti in Cleveland those first few years?) to prepare him for superstardom. If anything, it's amazing LeBron handled everything this well over the years, right? That was Battier's best point.

One more thought on brand management: Remember when Dwight Howard melted down before the 2012 trade deadline? Howard and his agent, Dan Fegan, had spent months executing their "play hard for Orlando while remaining emotionally detached, making no commitments for the future and passive-aggressively pushing the Magic to trade you to Brooklyn" plan. Right as they neared the home stretch and Howard was (rightfully) getting crushed for being so wishy-washy, he panicked, overruled his agent and signed an absolutely ludicrous one-year extension in a misguided attempt to stay "loyal" to Orlando fans. Which, of course, lasted for about two weeks. What made him panic? A connected friend of mine was convinced that it happened because of Howard's Twitter replies. Remember, these guys check their Twitter constantly … and Howard's followers were annihilating him in the days leading up to that trade deadline. As the theory goes, Howard got spooked. Are we doing the right thing here? What are we doing? Within a few hours, he was panic-signing that extension. This was like watching a buddy spend months carefully planning a breakup, and then, on the night of the breakup dinner, he was too much of a coward to go through with it, so he bought his girlfriend an engagement ring instead. That's what happens when your brand takes a life of its own and starts managing you.

GLADWELL: Yes. The problem is that at the very top of the pyramid athletes make as much — and in many cases much more — from their endorsements as they do from their actual playing. Tiger Woods made just over $2 million from golf in 2011 and $60 million on the outside. LeBron made $14 million on the court, and twice that off the court. People like that are in this strange position in which their virtual selves — their brands — are more valuable than their actual selves. That this happens all the time now with celebrities shouldn't change the fact that it must feel really weird. If my brother doesn't want to be a school principal anymore, he'll just quit. But if there is a separate thing called the Geoffrey Gladwell School Principal Brand that brings in 1,000 times more every year than he makes, then all of a sudden he can't just make a decision based on what is good for him anymore. He has to make a decision on what is good for the brand. And what's the brand? It's this abstract thing managed and created by some guy in New York with whom his "fans" might actually be more familiar than he is. As Mr. World Peace would say, it's all very Metta.

SIMMONS: How do you think these celebrity/brand/fame issues tied into Junior Seau's death? The more we learned, his suicide wasn't as simple as "Oh, it must have been concussions." What if his body (not just his head) was breaking down from 25 years of football? What if painkillers and performance enhancers (if he used them) damaged his body more than concussions did? What if his eatery, Seau's the Restaurant, going under made him feel like a failure? What if he missed being in the limelight? What if his life revolved around football and football only for a quarter century, and once that chapter closed, he just couldn't figure out Plan B? What if he couldn't replace the competitive rush of practices and games, something that fueled him for three solid decades? What if he missed being part of a 53-man team, missed the locker room barbs, missed the trash-talking and practical jokes, missed dispensing sage wisdom to wide-eyed rookies, missed standing in the middle of a circle and belting out motivational speeches like Mel Gibson in Braveheart? What if the entirety of his self-worth was wrapped up in the words "Junior Seau is a great football player," and once "is" became "was," he couldn't handle it?

The day after Junior killed himself, I talked to one of his New England buddies about Junior's last few years there. He's considered as much of a true Patriot as anyone from the Belichick/Brady era — they called him "Buddee" and "June" and genuinely loved him, believing he was larger than life. Of course, part of being "larger than life" is riding the wave that comes with being a famous football player; once that switch flicks to "retired," you just never know. As my friend described it (I'm paraphrasing), "Imagine you turned 40 and suddenly you couldn't write another word. Every time someone discussed you, they discussed you in the past tense. On top of that, you're never making nearly as much money as you already made in the past. You didn't save as much money as you should have saved. Your body is breaking down. Your head hurts all the time. You're just sitting on the deck of some beach house staring at the ocean all day. What would you do? How would you handle it?"

Think how many athletes, actors and musicians struggle after their celebrity peaks. Could that have happened to Seau? And if it did, how much did that affect his final decision? Junior's death spawned two separate story lines and, for whatever reason, it seems like we only discussed one of them. So you tell me, Malcolm — in the media's collective determination to belatedly atone for our ignorance about concussions, are we overcorrecting the problem here?

GLADWELL: Overcorrecting? I'm not buying it. Last year there were roughly 36,000 suicides in the United States. Think about it: In a country of over 300 million people — where hundreds of thousands of people live in poverty, suffer from crippling diseases and addictions, struggle with mental illness, endure unspeakable tragedies, and lose loved ones — .001 percent take their own life every year. You have to be in a really bad place to commit suicide. Junior Seau may have missed the limelight and the adrenaline rush of football and his body may have been breaking down. But he was a rich, young, good-looking man with three kids, a charitable foundation, a clothing line, and a house on the beach who spent his days surfing. People like that do not typically commit suicide. They just don't. Otherwise there would be 1,000 suicides a year involving ex-athletes.

That's why I think it is perfectly legitimate to wonder about CTE first. It's like the Rondo/Kennedy principle. Let's start with the simplest explanation. We know that what Dave Duerson and Andre Waters and Mike Webster and all the others had was a brain disease — and we know that the brain diseases of ex-football players have been increasingly leading to suicide. If Seau's autopsy is clean, then let's try to come up with a more nuanced understanding.

I was recently reading, by the way, about the work of a researcher at Virginia Tech named Stefan Duma who put electronic monitors in the helmets of 7- and 8-year-olds playing Pop Warner football. He found that those kids were routinely getting hits to the head in the 40 to 60 g range, with some even upwards of 80 gs. To put that in perspective, imagine that you put your son in the front seat of your car, told him not to wear a seat belt, and then smashed the car at 25 miles an hour into a brick wall, so that your son's forehead hit the dashboard. That would be 100 g. Then you reverse and do it again, 30 to 40 times over the course of two hours, at speeds between 20 and 25 miles per hour. That's a football game. If you reversed and did it again, 1,000 times, that would be a season. This is massively screwed up, Bill. Your son is 4½ years old. Is there any chance you'd let him play football?

SIMMONS: Tough question, because my little man (a wrecking ball who already has more muscle than me) spends his days diving from sofas, wrestling our golden retriever and sneak-attacking me from behind like a WWE wrestler. As recently as two years ago, any visitor to our house would have watched a little boy doing these things and laughingly said, "When does he start football?"

In 2012? They say with a little more seriousness, "Are you going to let him play football?"

Think about how bonkers that is. When I was growing up, everyone wanted to play football — the best football players received the most attention, dated the best-looking girls and lived by a different set of rules. My buddy Bish won our school's QB job in 10th grade, started a couple of games and (more important) started dating a smoking-hot redhead from the class ahead of us. He couldn't even drive yet! She had to drive him around. We thought this was unbelievable. I couldn't have been more jealous. Had you offered me the deal, "You can switch places with Bish for a month, but you lose three years at the end of your life," I probably would have grabbed it. So it's hard for me to comprehend that this dynamic is shifting as much as we think. In football hotbeds like Texas or Oklahoma, do you really think they spend their days wondering about concussion safety and whether football might be going away? It's going to take years, if not decades, for concussion awareness to fully trickle down. If it ever does.

Here's how I think it plays out: Our short-term casualty of the Concussion Era will end up being youth football, once more and more parents learn about the damaging effects of concussions on children and teenagers. If there were such things as Pop Warner stock and Eighth Grade Football stock, I'd be shorting them right now. The inevitable exodus from youth football will affect high school football for a simple reason (in their formative years, kids will be gravitating toward other sports) and a potentially more complicated reason (scores of kids never learning proper tackling techniques in their formative years), but still, I can't imagine high school football going away. It just means too much to certain parts of the country. Especially when we've already improved so much at recognizing concussions and even using legal means to prevent afflicted players from returning too soon. It's strange that everyone is wondering about youth football and high school football and so few people are asking the natural follow-up question, "What's going to happen to college football?"

GLADWELL: I actually did a debate a few weeks back in New York on whether college football should be banned. Buzz Friday Night Lights Bissinger and I said that it should. And Tim Green, the former All-American, and Jason Whitlock were on the side saying that it shouldn't. (Two quick side points. Tim Green? Another Battier type. Smart, articulate, fundamentally decent. If he ends up as governor of New York one day, I wouldn't be surprised — or unhappy. Second: Bissinger and I collectively weigh well under 300 pounds. Whitlock and Green come in at close to twice that. If this debate had been conducted at any other point in human history before, say, the invention of speech, they would have won in a rout.)

Before the debate, the crowd was overwhelmingly against banning football. Afterward, they were overwhelmingly in favor of it. I was stunned by the result — because I don't think it was because Buzz and I were such brilliant debaters. I think it's because once any of us face up to the truth about the game, it just doesn't sound like such a good idea anymore. You never answered my question: Will you let your son play football?

SIMMONS: Isn't the better question, "Will my son even want to play football?" I don't even think Shane Battier knows the answer to that one.

Permalink

Followup for non-readers: "Valar Morghulis"

By: timbersfan, 12:15 AM GMT on June 06, 2012

IT IS OVER. Well, at least there's "The Legend Korra" still running. I'm gonna lie down and hibernate for 8 months after that one ends.
TL;DR: Stay a non-reader, but learn facts about the events so you're on par with readers! Not interested? UPVOTE FOR WILDFIRE
Welcome to the last followup of this season. Here's the previous one. I'll probably add missing followups for season 1 or so on a weekly basis if I have some spare time. The wait is gonna get this subreddit bonkers.
Shit Hits The Floor
"Just like your mother did at your age... I can see so much of her in you... She was like a sister to me..." - Littlefinger, TOTALLY NOT CREEPY
It was impossible to top "Blackwater". Not this season. After shit hit the fan last week, now it aimed for the floor instead.
Harrenhal is a cursed, ruined castle, but it's not the castle that matters - it's the title. Petyr Baelish has been a lesser lord of small windy peninsula north of Eyrie - it's a tremendous promotion for his social status. His former position was the reason he was never considered a match for Catelyn Tully (as Tullys of Riverrun were much above Baelishes of Fingers).
Following my last post: Tyrells are the largest military force in Westeros. Having them on their side and Baratheons of Storm's End defeated, Lannisters grew to an unstoppable force, having no real challenge on the continent but Robb's rebellion (notice how similar "Robb's rebellion" sounds to "Robert's rebellion" due to Ned naming his firstborn son after his best friend).
All Stannis's men who got caught could redeem themselves by swearing fealty to Joffrey. Those who refused were killed. We missed a significant scene where Joffrey's arm gets cut by the Iron Throne. One of Stannis's bannermen shouts "Even the throne rejects him!". That would've been powerful.
In the books Bronn wasn't the captain of the gold cloaks, so the way to deprive Tyrion of him was... to knight him. Call him "ser Bronn" from now on.
Road Trippin'
"Wait... I (do) know you" - Skyrim reference for those who get it ;)
Riverrun appears in book 2, but we'll see it in season 3. It's home to the Tullys (so far we've met only Lysa Arryn and Catelyn Stark) and the capital of the Riverlands (since Harrenhal was burnt by dragonfire). And of course Brienne is going anywhere but there.
The reverse happened to Brienne&Jamie road trip - it's from ASOS. Looks like it's gonna get prolonged. Good for us.
Brienne's virginity has been a topic for jokes at Renly's camp. The other knights have been treating her like a lady for a while because of a contest to get into her pants.
Camp Fallen Protagonist
"Walder Frey is a dangerous man" - Mrs. Granger, about Argus Filch
With Lannisters controlling Harrenhal, which is near to the only other crossing (Kingsroad one), The Twins are the only way back to Winterfell for Robb.
In the books, the girl Robb marries is Jeyne Westerling. In the show, she might as well be, she looks quite suspicious (book Jeyne was close to inexistent, she just appeared out of nowhere as Robb's wife).
Robb married Jayne after taking her maidenhood, valuing her honor over his own (Stark cause of goddamned honor, fear of having a bastard child like his father did). Westerling is a house sworn to the Lannisters, so he gains an ally, but a lesser one. I'm having trouble naming TV show Robb anything but "stupid".
I'll Be Back
"Where is your god now?" - Stannis, calling one of the most used lines ever
Finally we got it: Melisandre sees things in flames. That's how she saw Matthos's death coming ("death by fire is the purest death"). She's a shadowbinder of Asshai, just like Quaithe (the masked woman advicing Jorah in Qarth), who also happens to have mojo.
Notice how Melisandre doesn't fight Stannnis choking her. She's completely devoted to Stannis just like Davos.
Also notice how the only person other than shadowbinders capable of seeing the future is Bran (dreams before Ned died and Theon attacked). Either connection or opposition, interesting anyway.
Melisandre's preaching involve two gods, actually. One being R'hllor, Lord of Light, red god of fire, the other one being The Great Other, god of ice and death. Ice and death... reminds you of something? Yeah, that's horrible, but Melisandre can be kind of "good guy"...
I mentioned that in ACOK Melisandre wants to burn Edric Storm, Robert's bastard, to awaken dragons at Dragonstone. Having Edric absent I'm really, really afraid the writers might replace him with Stannis's daughter, Shireen. That would suck.
Euro 2012
"WHOEVER KILLS THAT FUCKING HORNBLOWER WILL STAND IN BRONZE ON THE SHORES OF PYKE" - Theon, preparing to welcome the football fans
Fun fact: vuvuzelas are actually forbidden to bring to public events during European Football Championship 2012 in Poland. Thank God. Just watching the games during the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 did some serious damage to my ears. I couldn't imagine those things on my streets.
What happened to Theon was pretty much clear: his people left him for Ramsay Snow, the bastard son of Roose Bolton. Dagmer Cleftjaw proved himself to be a master douchebag by stabbing maester Luwin and went home.
Who burnt Winterfell then? Ramsay Snow, according to ACOK. Why? Well, let's say Joffrey is gonna get some serious competition. ACOK handled this whole sequence quite differently and I'm not sure how much telling how it happened there would spoil season 3 (or 4?). That's all you're supposed to know now.
There Are My Dragons!
"Dracarys" - Daenerys, doing something interesting for the very first time this season
What was changed? Everything. Not a single vision from the book made it to the show.
Unfortunately, I cannot highlight the important ones, because pointing at what visions should be analyzed would spoil some major events. Like MAJOR EVENTS. Some visions involved Dany's family and there was one with wolf.
What have we seen, then? Enough to speculate on. Set aside the Drogo vision, as it was more a romance than actual plot development. What Dany saw was: snow on the Iron Throne and the Wall. Why are those connected to her - find out in the first reply to the post.
Pyat Pree confirmed for watchers what readers already knew: magic grows strogner with dragons.
Crossroads
"Valar morghulis" - Jaqen, finally confirming how to pronounce it
Faceless Men has been mentioned many time throughout season 1. Doreah tells about one of them to Viserys, possibility of using them is considered when small council plots to kill Daenerys.
In the books Tyrion wonders if he could hire one of them to kill Cersei, but he can't afford it. It seems like noone really can.
"Valar morghulis" means not sure which book it gets explained in. There are some crazy conspiracy theories linking Faceless Men to the You wouldn't have guessed because of that catchphrase.
Another crazy tinfoil hat theory is that Jaqen H'gar was Syrio Forel and that's how he got into King's Landing dungeons. I think Jaqen denied being Syrio by saying that Faceless Men are entirely different than "dancing masters" and I'm glad we got some evidence pointing in any direction.
Jaqen is not a master assassin - he's a grandmaster assassin, the way he kills in the books being as close to magic as possible. One of Arya's targets has been killed by his own dog.
Snape Kills Dumbledore
"Was that your whore mother?" - Qhorin Halfhand, making Jon look even more emo than he already does
To set things clear: Qhorin wanted Jon to kill him, as this was the only way to plant him inside Wildling army and otherwise they were both pretty much dead.
Qhorin's last word is "sharp...". In the books, he asks Jon during their travel many times: "Is your sword sharp?".
Ghost is around, in the books he helps Jon and rips Qhorin's calf. Jon's connection to Ghost wins him more respect. The reason we didn't see it is probably that Bran-Summer and Jon-Ghost connection is getting pushed to next season with the Reeds explaining it to the viewers.
Wilding army is said to consist of mammoths and giants. Now let's pray for increased budget for next seasons...
It's Called Iceland For A Reason
"Three blasts. RUN!" - Dolorous Edd, making a note that rule #1 of Zombieland (Cardio) applies to Wights and therefore Sam is pretty much fucked
In the books (I hate having to start with this) this scene happens in the night and the area around the Fist of the First Men is forested. In my opinion it would be much more frightening, but it's Iceland due to north-of-north-of-north-of-north-of reasons.
White Walkers (AKA the Others) are not Wights (blue-eyed "zombies").
We know Wights are vulnerable to fire. We have no evidence that White Walkers are killable by any means. Of course there are many things that haven't been tried yet.
Dany's visions and missing characters from ACOK that will appear in season 3 in the first reply to the post. Feel free to correct me or ask us readers any questions.

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Game of Thrones Season 2, Episode 10: 'Valar Morghulis'

By: timbersfan, 12:11 AM GMT on June 06, 2012

“This war has just begun. It will last for years.” The words emerged from Melisandre like so much secondhand smoke, but they could well be coming from the HBO executive boardroom. As year two of this grand, multivolume experiment in adaptation and decapitation comes to a rousing close, it’s clear that the network would be perfectly happy if peace never came to Westeros at all. Most season finales of cable dramas are, like Jon Snow, stuck playing a double game: attempting closure on the one hand and, on the other, teasing future conflicts. Game of Thrones, by contrast, goes completely Halfhand; after 20 hours of this sprawling story, only one thing is eminently clear: We’re just getting warmed up.

The body-bisecting savagery of last week’s “Blackwater” felt like the sort of big-ticket event this slow-burning season had been building toward; the moment Stannis’s fleet ignited was as satisfying for action-starved audiences as it was for the creepy, cackling Pyromancer. But with the battle ended, it’s now evident that the defense of King’s Landing was merely a footnote, not a turning point. Stannis lives to siege and choke another day, while Tyrion saved the city, but lost much more than his looks in the process. Like Robert Baratheon’s beer gut, the world of Game of Thrones never stops expanding. Those looking for closure should probably stick to In Treatment: The pleasure of this show derives not from large-scale happenings, but rather the slowly dawning anticipation of what is still to come. And so “Valar Morghulis” felt as much like a premiere as a finale, still pushing forward into unknown lands with the cockiness of a n00b on the Night’s Watch. Rich, sweeping, and surprisingly emotional, it managed to be the best episode of the show to date, even though it eschewed nearly every opportunity to deliver a crowd-pleasing crescendo. Game of Thrones, it seems, is equally enjoyable whether it’s clearing its throat or gleefully slicing through those of its characters.

In fact, from its establishing shot of an opening eyelid, “Valar” echoed Lost, another expansive (and expensive!) fantasy show that worked best when it was adding to the craziness, not attempting to rein it all back in for the twin, often contradictory purposes of ratings and resolution. The modern television viewer, like a wine-drunk customer at Chez Littlefinger, demands constant satisfaction. What’s real, what’s not, who’s a hero, and who is hopefully going to end up at the bottom of the Iron Sea with a bag over his head — as Ghost Drogo (who seems to have discovered both a sense of humor and an expert beard braider in the afterlife) wisely puts it, “These are questions for wise men with skinny arms.” In other words, let world-building warlocks David Benioff and D.B. Weiss worry about the heavy lifting. The rest of us should have learned by now to relax and take pleasure in the dreamy digression, if not for eternity, than at least for four or five more seasons. Winter, it seems, will arrive a lot sooner than anything resembling answers.

Yet if there was any overarching theme to extract from the now-completed season, it was the high cost of discovering one’s true nature — and the even greater price paid by those who defy it. There was no better example of the latter than the Ballad of Theon Greyjoy, a poor sap who tried to impress his father only to wind up abandoned by him yet again. Fueled by a lifetime of resentment, Theon constantly tries to grab too much — be it a castle or his sister’s breastplate — and ends up suffering mightily for it. Now trapped in Winterfell by 500 ornery Northerners, every night is a sleepless Rosh Hashanah, the direness of his situation compounded by the bleatings of the world’s most dedicated shofar soloist. “You’re not the man you’re pretending to be, not yet,” counsels sage Maester Luwin, but insomnia seems to have given Theon some perspective. “You may be right,” he replies. “But I’ve gone too far to pretend to be anything else.” Alfie Allen’s strung-out despair was both the best work he’s done on the series and the perfect capper to Theon’s life poorly lived, which made his vague fate all the more confusing. I appreciated his Coach Taylor motivational speech nearly as much as Finchy — who was so inspired he promptly shish-kebabbed poor Luwin — but couldn’t really understand the point or the circumstances of his subsequent smash to the back of the head. Did the Iron Islanders smelt the castle before escaping? Or was Robb’s emissary outside of the gates a bigger bastard than we’d previously thought? Either way, the show seemed to have missed its best opportunity to strike a principal from its increasingly overcrowded game board, even if the move did set in motion the most improbable traveling party since The Incredible Journey. I’d say that two children, one wheelbarrow, a simpleton, and a Wildling sounds like the setup to a bad joke told in a King’s Landing pub, but come on. We all know there’s no laughing in Westeros!

Actually, there’s not much merriment across the sea, either, as Daenerys’s reptilian rescue mission reaches its charred conclusion. Her field trip to the House of the Undying, while brief, was beautifully shot — a Myst-y meander through her spooky subconscious. If the last few weeks have seen the Mother of Dragons at her most childlike, her tender farewell with Dream Drogo matured her considerably. By the time Dean Pelton(s) revealed his plan to turn her into some sort of rechargeable magic battery, there was no question he was in for an epic burn. But this new, determined Dany doesn’t need her dragons to do her dirt for her. Like Tyler Perry, she can do bad all by herself, stealing the double-crossing Ducksauce’s amulet, then locking him and her equally duplicitous handmaiden inside his empty vault. As a fan of the ill-fated Qing of Qarth, I was bummed when Jorah-as-Geraldo discovered the truth about what was on the other side of that heavy door. Unlike his Scottish uncle, my man Ducksauce didn’t have any gold to swim in. He, like his beautifully corrupt city, was nothing but a pretender — and we all know how those tend to fare in the Seven Kingdoms. At least the Dothraki know who they are — looters and raiders — and that knowledge should serve them and their blonde boss lady well as they go ship-shopping in Season 3.

In this same spirit of self-awareness, it actually made sense for Brienne and Jaime Lannister to be sent off on their own side-quest of swordplay and one-sided banter. For all their differences, these two have never for a moment doubted who they truly are, nor can they pretend otherwise — the Kingslayer is as likely to be mistaken for a pig thief as Brienne is to marry Joffrey. When she Varys’d the rapey Stark loyalist it was far from an improvisational visceration — it was a natural outgrowth of her own bedrock morality, forged from years of male mockery. The latter doesn’t make Brienne unique in her world (or, sadly, in ours) but her ability to poke back with something far more damaging than words does. (I only wish she had hitched her fierce wagon to someone better than Lady Catelyn, the Zune of Winterfell.) Her certainty stands in Stark contrast to Robb, who spent the entire season wavering between inspiring and impetuous. The would-be King in the North saw his southerly parts perk up dramatically thanks to the careful ministrations of Talisa, but otherwise he’s been stuck in place for weeks. It’s one thing to send someone else to defend your brothers, but it’s another to delay an entire war just to hold some sort of slam poetry wedding underneath a sycamore tree. (“Father! Warrior! Maiden! Stranger!” Was this a ceremony or the end of Chinatown?) Robb’s mother may be wrong about nearly everything, but I worry one bit of her advice may come back to haunt him: You can’t break a marriage vow without losing a bridge — or burning one.

The Stark children may be the moral backbone of this decidedly amoral world, but their dogged decency still seems like it may be their undoing. “Look around you,” Littlefinger whispers to Sansa, “we’re all liars here. Every one of us is better than you.” She may be a woman now, but Sansa is still a child playing a grown-up’s game. Baelish has pulled off quite the coup — getting Margaery Tyrell to trade a homosexual satyr for an asexual sadist — but just because Sansa is out of Joffrey’s life doesn’t mean she’s escaped his crosshairs. And while I may not yet understand her reasons for staying in King’s Landing, I appreciated the way the royal soap operatics were played out in front of a crowd like some low-tech trashy reality show (Living With the Lannisters?). The wise and majestic Tywin may be heralded as the “savior of the city” but yet another lofty title can’t stop him from tracking more of the same old horseshit into the throne room.

Arya managed to escape from her bad situation, but even she seems more trapped than ever. She passes up a chance to learn Jaquen’s dark, murderous arts by traveling with him to Braavos, a gay and merry place where leathery monsters roam free, and the only advice given to would-be assassins is to make it work. (Suggested slogan: “Braavos: Watch What Happens ... To My Face!”) It’s unclear what she plans to do in the meantime. Wander the plains in hopes of finding her brother? Gin up new ways of tricking Gendry to take his shirt off? With Dany’s dragons years away from maturity, it seems like Arya would have plenty of time to travel to the land of her dance instructor and learn a few deadlier steps. But then again, the biggest threat isn’t coming from the East. It’s brewing beyond the wall, where Kit Harrington is busy getting his MFA in Emo Face. Seriously, dude, get a hat or a Paxil prescription! It doesn’t seem to matter if he’s tied up with rope or tongue-tied around the ridiculously flirty Ygritte; either way his pretty bastard features are scrunched up like he’s got the second side of Clarity on perpetual loop in his mind. Thanks to the Crow’s self-sacrifice, Jon will soon get the chance to discuss Christie Front Drive b-sides with Mance Rayder, but it’s unclear if anything can be done about the real problem: the massive horde of ice zombies currently marching south, like so many half-eaten birds in winter. As impressive — and impressively ooky — as this final image was, it was hard not to think I’d seen this exact thing on a television show before, and fairly recently too. Sam’s cowering behind a rock was one million times more reasonable than anything Rick Grimes has ever thought to do in the face of a swarm of undead, but it did give the impression that we’re building toward a unified theory of Sunday television, a critically adored night reserved exclusively for ambulatory corpses, a neverending cavalcade of terrible mothers and graphic explorations of menstrual blood.

As ever, it was left to the littlest man to make the biggest impression. Cersei didn’t succeed in killing her impish brother, but she has knocked him down a considerable number of pegs. Scarred and scared, Tyrion seems like an entirely different person than the brilliantly inspiring tactician and nimble hamstring chopper who led the defense of the city. But the same fire that burns in Stannis’s blinkered eyes now seems to have sparked in Tyrion’s as well. All season long I’ve wondered why the more sympathetic characters don’t chunk up the deuce on their ill-advised dreams of power and set sail with the sex pirates, literal or otherwise. In a tender exchange, Shae offers her little lord that same vision — a permanent holiday in Pentos where they could “eat, drink, fuck, live.” (Elizabeth Gilbert: Call your travel agent!) But Tyrion remains a player, even despite his reduced circumstance, because he, like Varys, has a very keen sense of what he has — and what he doesn’t. “These bad people are what I’m good at,” he says. “Out-talking them, out-thinking them. It’s what I am. And I like it. I like it more than anything I’ve ever done.” In other words, his life at King’s Landing may be messy, and it may not end well, but it’s purposeful and incredibly fun. After a subtly enrapturing second season, I would argue the same can be said of Game of Thrones as well.

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The Mystery of Manny Pacquiao's Calf Muscles

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on June 06, 2012

It should have been a fairy-tale ending to a classic boxing trilogy. Manny Pacquiao had just won his November 2011 fight against Juan Manuel Marquez. Pacquiao won on the scorecards, but there was no postfight euphoria. Against Marquez, the Filipino boxing icon didn't seem himself. His trademark flurries of punches and tireless work rate in the ring weren't there. Marquez, the Mexican counterpuncher, seemed to have defused Pacquiao's explosiveness, and when the victor was announced, thousands of Mexican boxing fans inside the MGM Grand Garden Arena rained boos on Pacquiao. Later, in the press room, Pacquiao's trainer, Freddie Roach, shook his head and tried to explain what went wrong. Pacquiao's calf muscles have given him troubles over the years, and once again they seemed to hobble the boxer and slow his attack. "We have to do something about them," Roach said. But what exactly was he saying? It felt like he was speaking in some sort of pugilistic secret code.

Those powerful, grapefruit-sized calves are an important part of Pacquiao's success as a boxer, and, by corollary, his political career. Pacquiao is a sitting congressman in the Philippines and he has grand ambitions to someday lead his country. He won't be old enough to run for president until 2018, and he's viewed as a potential candidate for the 2022 election. But Pacquiao's political fate is inevitably linked to the status, fame, and wealth he gains from being one of the world's best boxers. If his calf problems submarine his campaigns in the ring, then his political campaigns will likely follow.

Pacquiao's bulbous calf muscles may be the diminutive boxer's most noticeable physical trait. The knockout power he's used to drop and bloody far bigger men begins in those legs, as does the speed he's employed to dance around the larger men's blows. Those calf muscles are the product of genetics, of course, but they have also been formed over the course of Pacquiao's life, going back to his childhood. Nearly 30 years ago, when Pacquiao was a boy living in General Santos City, he started carrying water up and down a hill for his family. Back then he was just a poor kid in the southern Philippines, running from place to place to save money on jeepney or pedicab fares. In his youth, Pacquiao ran hundreds of miles, and he fought too, dancing on the balls of his feet for countless hours of sparring and boxing bouts. All of that running and boxing created stamina and those thick, bulging calves.

But sometime in the past five years, Pacquiao's calves started to bother him. I covered him closely for years and even wrote a biography of him, but Pacquiao rarely communicates his inner feelings and no one in his camp seems to know when Pacquiao's calves started ailing him. He told associates that they had troubled him in his second fight against Marquez, in March 2008. Later that year, as he prepared to fight David Diaz, he told confidantes (who would later tell me) that it felt like his muscles were being ripped from his shin bone.

Pacquiao proudly insists that he has never visited any specialists to examine his calves. Ryan Capretta, the founder of Proactive Sports Performance, a Los Angeles–area training facility whose clients include Nick Swisher, Dwight Freeney, and Clay Matthews, says modern athletes are usually seeking more, not less, biomechanical information about their bodies to increase their edge and stay injury-free.

Since Pacquiao hasn't had the problem checked out — or officially admitted he has a problem — no one really knows what's causing his calf pain. It could be an electrolyte deficiency, a back issue, or even chronic exertional compartment syndrome, a condition that sometimes occurs in endurance athletes and causes their muscles to stop receiving good blood flow. "It's very easy to work up a diagnosis if he comes in," says USC sports medicine specialist Dr. James E. Tibone. A typical examination would include an MRI of Pacquiao's back, a blood test to check electrolyte and calcium levels, and a muscle-pressure measurement in which microscopic wires are inserted in his calf at rest and while he runs on a treadmill. "What does he have to lose by finding out what's wrong?" Tibone says. "Otherwise, it's just guessing."

Of course, Pacquiao's reluctance to work within the realm of modern medicine is an age-old boxing tradition. Juan Manuel Marquez used to drink his own urine; Archie Moore swore by an "Aboriginal diet" in which he chewed on meat, sucked out the blood, and then spit out the meat; Ray Robinson supposedly drank human blood (an old-timer who was in the Robinson camp swore to me he witnessed it); Evander Holyfield turned to prayer to help a heart condition; Oscar De La Hoya ate deer and kangaroo meat because his trainer told him, "Deer run fast," and because kangaroos' "legs are strong and when you get in the fight you'll be strong like a kangaroo." Why did he follow such reasoning? "I was in his hands," De La Hoya explained. "I just trained."

In 2008, when Pacquiao began preparing to fight bigger opponents, Roach encouraged him to hire fitness trainer Alex Ariza, who instituted exercises to counterbalance Pacquiao's overdeveloped calves. He put forth a program that brought speed and flexibility drills into Pacquiao's training. The fighter was reluctant — his idea of training was old-school, based on thousands of miles of cumulative road work and getting his stomach beat by a bamboo stick — but he slowly adopted some of Ariza's drills. It seemed to work. Pacquiao needed to gain 13 pounds of muscle — and retain his speed — in a nine-month period to compete against a naturally larger fighter like Oscar De La Hoya. Pacquiao was 129 pounds when he fought Marquez. He weighed 134.5 pounds when he overwhelmed David Diaz. And he would weigh 142 before fighting De La Hoya in December 2008. Pacquiao dominated the faded Golden Boy and KO'd Ricky Hatton in spectacular fashion five months later. These were Pacquiao's glory days. He was plowing through elite fighters, earning multimillion-dollar purses, and his calf cramps seemed to disappear.

After Pacquiao-Marquez II, the calf cramps were nonissues for six fights (Diaz, De La Hoya, Hatton, Miguel Cotto, Joshua Clottey, Antonio Margarito). Pacquiao's opponents were well chosen, as they say in boxing. Pacquiao looked brilliant against slower, outmatched men, most of whom were fighting at uncomfortably low weight classes or catchweights. Pacquiao was never in trouble. There was never a peep about his calves.

Then, leading up to his fight against Shane Mosley, I started hearing whispers — at the Wild Card Boxing Club, in the Los Angeles hills where he runs, at Pacquiao's regular dining spot, in his tattoo parlor — that Pacquiao's calf issues were making a comeback. The calves, however, could have been a code word for the standard list of distractions that make every Pacquiao camp a bit dicey. In the weeks before the Mosley fight, Pacquiao was juggling his camp with his congressional duties, practicing with his band, acting in movies, and leading a messy social life. On top of that, his calves may or may not have been acting up again, but of course, when I asked about them Pacquiao told me his legs felt fine.

Was the pain an excuse to delay another of his tough hill runs? (Pacquiao has hinted at retirement for years, and his associates wondered silently if he still loved fighting.) Were his calves hurting because he had the wrong shoes? (He got new ones.) Did he need to stretch more? (A new regime was introduced but Pacquiao didn't seem committed to it.) Were his legs just getting old? He was 32 as he trained for the Mosley fight — and at the time Pacquiao had fought 57 professional bouts. Like many fighters, Pacquiao is extremely superstitious. He has always been reluctant to change his training methods, but as he grows older it seems that he should allow his body more recovery time — and yet he couldn't seem to do it. Several-mile runs straight up a hill followed by sparring later in the day might have been good at age 28, but not in his 30s. Even when he was told not to run, he would sneak out and jog. But if Pacquiao was having an off-day and someone passed him, he would clutch his calves in pain. "Hurt, hurt, tight, tight," he would say, and beg someone to massage them. No one knew if the pain was related to fatigue or a deeper medical problem. And beyond massage, nothing else was done for one of the greatest boxers in the world. There were no checkups, no diagnostic exams. Pacquiao, his pain, and his inner thoughts were left alone. This is the curse of kings, dictators, and Manny Pacquiao.

In May of last year, Pacquiao fought Mosley and knocked down Sugar Shane with a left in Round 3. Mosley, nearing 40, hadn't looked good for several fights and there were rumors that he had sustained an Achilles injury in training but wouldn't drop out because he was guaranteed $5 million for the fight. He was definitely suffering with foot blisters during the fight, and pleaded with his corner to throw in the towel. And yet Pacquiao, considered by many to be the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, couldn't finish off Mosley. Why wasn't he able to cut off the ring, track down Mosley, and end the fight? Word from inside the Pacquiao camp was that his calves slowed him down.

In the run-up to Pacquiao-Marquez III last November, I heard the same rumors about personal distractions, over-training, and calf pain. Pacquiao was expected to stop Marquez, a 6-to-1 underdog, quickly. But without the spring he normally gets from his calves, Pacquiao becomes just another fighter with limited defensive skills. Marquez, whose counterpunching style has always troubled Pacquiao, was able to catch the usually elusive Filipino with a variety of punches. In training camp, Pacquiao, a southpaw, had worked on going to his right to avoid Marquez's tough left hook. To Freddie Roach's horror, once the opening bell rang Pacquiao was suddenly incapable of moving to the right. Midway through the fight, as it became apparent that Pacquiao wasn't on his game and that he might lose, he started complaining about his calves. Was the pain real? Was it an excuse? The cornermen weren't sure, and even though Pacquiao escaped with a win, there was growing concern among his cornermen and his promoter about the state of his legs — and, to some extent, his desire.

Will he be pain-free for his bout with Timothy Bradley on June 9?

"How are my calves? Bigger!" says Pacquiao, laughing. "They feel fine."

One Friday morning not long ago, Pacquiao scrambled up the hill to Griffith Observatory. Pacquiao's usual entourage accompanied him — longtime friend and auxiliary trainer Buboy Fernandez, his voice coach, his watch holder, the man they call the "running monk," and various others. I heard the usual chorus of calf denial: "They are fine." "He has someone to massage them." "He has some sort of exercises for them."

Pacquiao looked better. More relaxed. Less groggy. Since nearly losing to Marquez, he has started spending his free time in Bible study. His training for the Bradley fight had been relatively distraction-free, except for a brief, unfortunate episode in which an Examiner.com blogger misquoted Pacquiao about his attitudes on gay marriage. The story went national, Pacquiao was lambasted on traditional and social media outlets, and emergency meetings were convened in Beaverton, Oregon (Nike), and Cognac, France (Hennessy), because Pacquiao endorses those products. Floyd Mayweather Jr. even took to Twitter to tweak his rival by saying he supports gay marriage. Before long, Pacquiao's remarks were revealed to be far less inflammatory than originally reported. The Nike-targeted petition to drop Pacquiao's line of apparel was stopped and he was more or less forgiven in the press, but the whole episode could still end up costing him millions of dollars in potential sponsorships and thousands of fans.

Less than two weeks away from his fight with Bradley, Pacquiao is back in Griffith Park, shadowboxing by the observatory, looking down on the Los Angeles Basin.

What is the state of Pacquiao's calves? What story do they tell us this time? Team Pacquiao's plan is for him to lay off the endurance work in this camp, do more sprints, more boxing-specific leg exercises, and space out intense workouts between more rest days. Who knows if it will work? It's still unclear if Pacquiao can alter his routine as he grows older, and he proclaims, as usual, that his calves are fine. "I have had no problems with them," he told me recently. "I have been doing plyometrics and isometrics for the first time in many training camps and I think that has been a big help. Other than that I have not done anything special nor have seen any specialists."

After the last fight, Roach told me, not for the first time, that "we have to do something" about his star's calves. It's unclear how much anyone has actually done — Alex Ariza, the man commissioned with nurturing the mystical calves, has been criticized by Freddie Roach for taking an unscheduled hiatus during training camp to work with another boxer — but those magnificent, mysterious muscles have become a symbol for Pacquiao's chaotic life. He is a 3-1 favorite over the 28-year-old Bradley, but if Pacquiao's calves flare up again, his boxing career and his political master plan may be in jeopardy.

But from his perch outside the observatory, the expanse of Los Angeles below him, Pacquiao is in his own world. People surround him. They do not matter. They never really have. Boxing is a sport about an individual — how one person deals with adversity. Pacquiao has come from hard places, and it seems they have helped him survive a hard career in the ring. So there he is, after his long run, dancing with his legs, his calves a blur, performing his beautiful shadowboxing routine, alone, fighting an imaginary opponent, still figuring out how strong his legs are, how far he can push his body, who he is and who he'll be in the future. For now, however, he's Manny Pacquiao — world champion, sitting legislator, and Christian true believer — on top of that hill, bouncing on his tender calves and hitting air.

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Thunder Up!

By: timbersfan, 12:08 AM GMT on June 06, 2012

Oklahoma City has become the NBA's most beloved small market. They have it all: a team of young players who transcend 'big market individual player buzz,' a picturesque TV fanscape, and the strongest overall 'fan brand.' Outsiders don't quite think it is completely 'pathetic' for all of their fans to be wearing matching T-shirts in the stands. It is so cute for them to be experiencing success for the first time, serving as a larger metaphor for an American community coming together behind a team 'doing things the right way.'

I decided to go to Oklahoma City to survey the authenticity of the fandom and get a better feel for a city that I would never otherwise visit. The idea of being a 'road fan' in a theoretically hostile environment at an important game was next on my list of 'fulfilling sporting experiences that I romanticized since I was a kid.' Also, it's great to write for a website, visit a city, then make rash generalizations that are either too positive or negative.

The night before the game, my bro Travis and I went to a regional casino called Riverwind, 20 miles outside of Oklahoma City. That night Michael Bolton was playing, but the staff claimed that the turnout was terrible, resulting in a light Friday-night crowd. I was still surprised so many people were there, mainly playing slots, but I guess I've spent many nights mindlessly staring at a screen hoping for a stroke of luck to change my life, too. Tons of casino attendees were already 'Thundering Up,' wearing their playoff tees and hats to assimilate to the regional trend that is an NBA playoff run. Whether it was a slot-machine addict mindlessly pressing buttons on penny slots or a pseudo high roller throwing down two-figure blackjack bets, everyone was ready for the Thunder to tie up the series.

The Thunder have legitimately taken over the area, and it's the ideal situation when a small-market team becomes imprinted on the identity of a region. There is definitely a feeling of 'small-town chatter' about the state of the team and the game on the horizon. Everyone wanted to be at the game to experience the sense of unity that you can gather from the 'best crowd in the NBA.' There is a fear of missing out on their franchise's first championship-level playoff moment. It's the right mind-set and one that I can identify with — I'll always remember watching Sean Elliott's Memorial Day Miracle on the big screen at my friend's house in 1999.

On Saturday we migrated into Oklahoma City to attend Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. It was time to finally go to Chesapeake Energy Arena, or as it can be referred to by enemy fans, The House That Fracking Built. Oklahoma City feels like just about any other mainly suburban city with a strategic downtown development plan built to accommodate conventions and sporting events. The fans are new and pure, which enables them to exist in a 'this is what sports are all about' context.

The atmosphere of the game met expectations, but any team that has fans with pride probably generates a similar result during a playoff game. Thunder fans give so much energy, but eventually they will turn into nuanced fans, knowing that the veterans they've grown with only need their energy during key stretches. The Thunder fans were loud, but there was a neediness to their loudness, as if they were perpetually asking for reassurance. There was also a sense of respect for San Antonio as a franchise, just because of the similarities in team construction and their shared small-market inferiority complexes. Hopefully there isn't a controversial moment that turns the rivalry hostile and bitter (unless the Spurs come out on top).

Earlier in the day, we spent about two hours at a local 'FedEx Print and Ship Center' making a giant Gregg Popovich head, attempting to escalate our level of fandom with a piece of custom stadium art. No, we didn't endorse the practice of turning all the random things that Gregg Popovich said, like "I Want Some Nasty!," into T-shirts, but the head would serve as a larger metaphor for Pop's cerebral coaching brand. The Popovich head behind the Spurs bench would give the Spurs a sense of transcendent support in a hostile territory to fuel them to victory.


COURTESY OF CARLES
The Thunder dominated the Spurs, and it didn't look like the Spurs really figured anything out between Game 3 and Game 4. The Spurs, for the most part, just looked confused and angry with each other. Only Stephen Jackson and Kawhi Leonard played with a semblance of focus in enemy territory. It's hard to tell if the Spurs have 'run out of gas' or if they have felt another team seize destiny from them, ripping their championship heart straight from their chest. Sure, some elements of the game were flukey, but it's not like the Spurs put out a winning effort.

Kevin Durant owned the fourth quarter and ended the game. My friend and I had hit a new low after experiencing the dark side of investing in the enemy fan experience. It was a dejecting moment, since we had anticipated winning the game just because of our mere presence in the sea of Thunder fans. We had sacrificed time, money, and logistical energy in a random-ass city to be closer to our team. It didn't work out, and the game ended up being decided on the court. Or maybe the Thunder fans just beat us, too. After heckling Shaquille O'Neal for his subpar performance on Inside the NBA, we finally decided to leave the arena.

We stumbled out into the streets of Oklahoma City and saw a well-lit public basketball court within one block of the arena, which is basically only something that could exist in a safely developed downtown area. Two Asian college bros were playing basketball. Travis walked on the court and said, 'We are going to play you. I am shooting for the ball right now.' We operated a solid inside-outside game, playing with the heart and focus that we didn't see from the Spurs in the last two games. We trusted each other, communicated on the defensive end, and made it difficult for them to get the shots that they wanted. It was a clichéd 'anti-professional sports' moment where we both wondered if we actually liked the Spurs or the NBA, or if we just loved the game of basketball. At least Travis and I won two games in Oklahoma City.

Here are a few other random observations about Oklahoma City:

Toby Keith is the most prominent figure in Oklahoma City. I am not sure why this isn't more well-known, but it would probably be bad for the progressive brand of OKC 2.0 as "a place for young professionals to live and feel cool while enjoying the Thunder."
There is no shortage of independent restaurants and retail stores that feature employees who are members of the twentysomething alternative proletariat.
The crowd cheered when Ryan Seacrest was put on the jumbotron. For some reason, you'd have to respect the savvy of large-market fans for knowing that they are supposed to automatically boo when he's on camera.
I still don't 'get' the area referred to as Bricktown. It seemed like it was supposed to be comparable to the River Walk in San Antonio, Sixth Street in Austin, Beale Street in Memphis, or any other insulated small-market nightlife area that might represent the cheesy stereotype of nightlife, but is still a functional-enough place for people to get drunk and stumble back to their hotel. There is also an Outdoor World in Bricktown, which really confused me. Maybe Bricktown is more like one of those huge outdoor malls, except it is in the middle of downtown Oklahoma City.
Oklahoma City has all the right building blocks to become one of those "Best Places to Live in America" cities. People also seem to legitimately like living in Oklahoma City. There isn't a feeling of "I want to get out of here." Maybe it's an awesome place to live, or maybe they just don't want to miss out on the construction of a dynasty, which is the best reason to live anywhere.
Oklahoma City is hoping to ride the Thunder into a new decade of prosperity and development. The city seems destined to be overpopulated with 'trying too hard to look urban' new developments surrounding their downtown, just like in Austin, Texas. The personal culture is a more tolerable version of Dallas. It will be interesting to look at the city when Kevin Durant retires and there's a pretty definitive model on the impact of a Hall of Fame player on the economic development of a 'small market' city.

Unless you're from Seattle, it's hard not to root for the Thunder, especially because they embody the whole 'team' gimmick that mirrors the spirit of America. Thunder fans should hope that one day, they will mature and learn to 'act like they belong,' along with Celtics, Lakers, Bulls, and Spurs fans. Right now, they are still in the honeymoon phase, where everything everyone does is just great. And, given what happened in Games 3 through 5, I suppose they might have a point.

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House Lannister

By: timbersfan, 12:10 AM GMT on June 02, 2012

House Lannister is one of the Great Houses of Westeros, one of its richest and most powerful families and oldest dynasties. The major characters Jaime, Cersei and Tyrion and the recurring characters Tywin, Kevan and Lancel are members of the house. Tywin is the head of House Lannister and Lord of Casterly Rock.
Their lands are in the far west of the continent. Their seat is Casterly Rock, a massive rocky promontory overlooking the Sunset Sea which has had habitations and fortifications built into it over the millennia. They are the Lords Paramount of the Westerlands and Wardens of the West. House Lannister's symbol is a golden lion on a crimson background, and their house motto is "Hear me roar!" Their unofficial motto, which is as well known as the official one, is "A Lannister always pays his debts."

The incestuous relationship of Cersei and Jaime has been concealed in a conspiracy. Their son Joffrey Baratheon has claimed the Iron Throne on the premise that he was actually fathered by the late King Robert Baratheon. Lord Tywin is a key supporter of his reign in the War of the Five Kings.

Contents [show]
HistoryEdit
BackgroundEdit
House Lannister is one of the Great Houses of Westeros. Their lands are in the far west of the continent. Their seat is Casterly Rock, a castle on a rocky promontory overlooking the Sunset Sea. It overlooks the thriving city of Lannisport and sits atop the most productive gold mine in the Westerlands.[1] They are the wealthiest family in the realm.[2]
Fair-haired, tall and handsome, the Lannisters are the blood of Andal adventurers who carved out a mighty kingdom in the western hills and valleys. Through the female line, they boast of descent from Lann the Clever, the legendary trickster of the Age of Heroes who swindled Casterly Rock from its previous rulers. They used to rule the Westerlands as the Kings of the Rock before swearing allegiance to the Targaryen family. The last King of the Rock, Loren Lannister, and the last King of the Reach, Mern Gardener, joined forces and fielded 60,000 men against Aegon the Conqueror. They were defeated by his dragons in a battle that came to be known as the 'Field of Fire' and lost 4,000 men. They have since served the Targaryens and now King Robert Baratheon as the Lords Paramount of the Westerlands and Wardens of the West. The gold of Casterly Rock and the Golden Tooth has made them the wealthiest of the Great Houses.[3][2]

Tywin Lannister is the current head of the family. His father Tytos Lannister presided over a period of decline for the house. He frittered away much of their fortune on poor investments and allowed himself to be mocked at court creating a perception of weakness. Their vassals House Reyne of Castamere rebelled against Lord Tytos. Tywin put down the rebellion personally, extinguishing their house and re-establishing the fearsome reputation of House Lannister. His ruthlessness gave darker meaning to the common phrase "A Lannister always pays his debts" and was immortalized in the song "The Rains of Castamere".[4][5]

Tywin has three children Cersei, Jaime and Tyrion by his wife Joanna Lannister. Joanna died after giving birth to Tyrion. Tyrion is a dwarf and has a troubled relationship with Tywin. Cersei and Jaime are non-identical twins. Cersei is Queen of Westeros since Tywin arranged for her marriage to King Robert Baratheon in exchange for his support in Robert's Rebellion.[2] She has a longstanding incestuous relationship with her brother Jaime. The two conspire to conceal their love and have passed their children (Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen) off as being the product of Cersei's marriage.[6]

Military strengthEdit
House Lannister can raise approximately 60,000 men in a relatively short period of time. As the richest house, the Lannisters' forces are among the best-equipped in the Seven Kingdoms, though House Tyrell commands larger numbers.[7]
The Lannisters also command a modest fleet, berthed at Lannisport. The fleet was largely destroyed at anchor during the Greyjoy Rebellion in a pre-emptive strike led by Balon Greyjoy's brothers.[8]

Season 1Edit
Following the death of the Hand of the King Jon Arryn Queen Cersei Lannister meets with her brother Jaime Lannister in the throne room. They discuss their secret incestuous relationship and speculate that Jon may have known about it. Lysa Arryn writes to her sister Catelyn Stark claiming that Jon Arryn was murdered by House Lannister.[9]
Cersei and Jaime travel north to Winterfell with her husband King Robert Baratheon. Robert plans to make Eddard Stark Hand of the King. They are accompanied by their brother Tyrion Lannister. Their son Joffrey Baratheon is betrothed to Sansa Stark. Cersei and Jaime continue liaise in a disused tower. They are interrupted by Bran Stark and Jaime pushes him out of the window of the tower to prevent him revealing what he saw.[10]

Cersei and Jaime are shocked to learn that Bran survived the fall. Cersei visits Catelyn at Bran's bedside and tells her that she once had a black haired son who died young. Joffrey refuses to pay the Stark family the same courtesy and Tyrion violently rebukes him. The royal party leaves Winterfell and Tyrion splits from the group to go further north to see the Wall. He befriends Jon Snow, a bastard of House Stark and new volunteer to the Night's Watch. On the Kingsroad south Joffrey is attacked by Arya Stark and her direwolf Nymeria. He claims that the attack was unprovoked. When the direwolf cannot be found Cersei demands that its sister wolf Lady be executed. An assassin attempts to kill Bran as he lies comatose at Winterfell but he is protected by his direwolf Summer. Catelyn discovers a blond hair in the disused tower and notes the fine blade the assassin used; she suspects the Lannisters of ordering the assassination.[11]

Cersei counsels her son about the incident and warns him that anyone who is not a member of their House is an enemy. A raven arrives with news of Bran's recovery. Cersei fears that he will expose their secret and Jaime comforts her. Tyrion finds the Night's Watch undermanned and lacking voluntary recruits. He travels south with the recruiter Yoren. Catelyn goes to King's Landing to discuss the attack on Bran with Eddard. She is told by Petyr Baelish that the knife the assassin used belonged to Tyrion.[12]

Tyrion is disturbed by a frosty reception from Robb Stark at Winterfell and notes the absence of Catelyn. He delivers plans for a saddle that will allow the paraplegic Bran to ride a horse but chooses to stay elsewhere because of Robb's rudeness. Much further south Tyrion chances across Catelyn in the Inn at the Crossroads. She calls upon the loyalty of the Tully bannermen present and has him arrested for the assassination attempt.[13]

In King's Landing Eddard begins to investigate the movements of Jon Arryn prior to his death and uncovers a bastard son of Robert. Jaime refuses to deliver a message from Eddard to Robert but does reminisce with Eddard's Captain Jory Cassel about fighting during the Greyjoy Rebellion. Jaime is chagrined at having to guard Robert while he cheats on Cersei. Cersei attends the Tourney of the Hand thrown in Robert's honor but leaves when Robert's coarse behaviour annoys her. She visits Eddard, questions his motivations and warns him that his service to Robert is futile. Lannister sworn sword Gregor Clegane kills Jon Arryn's former squire Hugh of the Vale during the jousts.[14]

Cersei and Robert have a frank discussion about the threat of the alliance between the exiled House Targaryen and the Dothraki, their loveless marriage and Robert's feelings for his dead first love Lyanna Stark. Catelyn takes Tyrion East through the Vale of Arryn and he is imprisoned in the sky cells of the Eyrie. News of his capture reaches King's Landing and Jaime confronts Eddard and kills several of his guards, including Jory before duelling him personally. Eddard is wounded by a Lannister Man-at-Arms and Jaime leaves him alive and rides out of the capital.[15] Lord Tywin Lannister calls his banners and marches on the Riverlands (Catelyn's ancestral home) to punish her for Tyrion's abduction.[16]

Cersei and Robert argue over punishing Eddard for the capture of Tyrion and Robert hits her. Robert goes hunting in the Kingswood leaving Eddard to rule in his absence. Refugees from the Riverlands report being attacked by Ser Gregor Clegane. Eddard dispatches a small force to bring Gregor to justice and calls Tywin to King's Landing to answer for Gregor's crimes. Tyrion wins his freedom in a trial by combat where the sellsword Bronn fights as his champion. Eddard's investigation leads him to realise that Cersei's children are all fathered by Jaime.[17]

Jaime liaises with Tywin's forces at an encampment in the Riverlands. Tywin has gathered an army of sixty thousand men. He tells Jaime that the current conflict will decide the fate of their family. He orders Jaime to take thirty thousand men and besiege Riverrun, Catelyn's childhood home and the seat of House Tully. Jaime ponders why Tywin would risk so much for the ugly, stunted son that he hates, and Tywin explains that a Lannister is a Lannister and any affront must be punished.[18]

Eddard confronts Cersei with his findings and warns her that he intends to tell Robert on his return. Robert's squire Lancel Lannister gives him plenty to drink during the hunt and Robert is gravely wounded by a boar in the Kingswood. He is brought back to King's Landing to die. Eddard holds his tongue and Robert declares him Protector of the Realm from his deathbed. Renly Baratheon appeals to Eddard to help him seize the throne but Eddard refuses because Stannis Baratheon is Robert's oldest brother and rightful heir. Eddard writes to Stannis to inform him of his findings and then recruits Baelish and the City Watch in an attempt to take Cersei and her children into custody. Renly flees the city. Eddard is betrayed by his allies and she instead has him arrested and destroys Robert's final proclamation. Cersei installs Joffrey as King and becomes Queen Regent.[19]

Lannister forces massacre the remaining Stark retainers in King's Landing. Sansa is captured but Arya escapes. Cersei manipulates Sansa into writing to her brother Robb to convince him to swear fealty to Joffrey. Robb sees through the ploy and calls his banners to march south. Cersei dismisses Ser Barristan Selmy as Lord Commander of the Kingsguard and installs Jaime in his place.[20]

Tyrion is captured by the Hill tribes of the Vale but convinces them to join the Lannister cause in exchange for weapons and autonomy from the Lord of the Eyrie. Tyrion and his men link up with Tywin in the Riverlands as he prepares to battle Robb's army.[21]

Robb sends a decoy force to fight Tywin's force and Tywin wins an easy victory against the much smaller force in the Battle of the Green Fork. Jaime is captured by Robb's army in the Battle of the Whispering Wood. Despite Cersei arranging for Eddard to confess in exchange for leniency Joffrey has him executed for treason.[22] Tywin receives word that both Stannis and Renly have declared claims on the throne and are gathering armies. These battles mark the opening exchanges of the War of the Five Kings.[23]

Jaime is questioned by Catelyn and admits to pushing Bran from the tower but does not reveal why. Tywin is frustrated with Cersei's failure to control Joffrey and names Tyrion Acting Hand of the King and sends him to King's Landing. Tywin forbids Tyrion to take his lover Shae with him but Tyrion defies the order. Tywin moves his army to Harrenhal to avoid being pinned between the opposing forces. Cersei sleeps with Lancel for the first time.[24]

RelationshipsEdit
MembersEdit
Lord Tywin Lannister, the current head of the family. Eldest son of Tytos Lannister.
His wife Lady {Joanna Lannister}, who died after giving birth to their second son. Also a first cousin to Tywin.
His daughter, Queen Cersei, widow to the late King Robert Baratheon. Queen Dowager and Queen Regent of the Seven Kingdoms
His eldest grandson, King Joffrey Baratheon.
His granddaughter, Princess Myrcella Baratheon.
His youngest grandson, Prince Tommen Baratheon, heir to the Iron Throne.
His elder son, Ser Jaime Lannister, called "the Kingslayer", a knight of the Kingsguard. Now a prisoner of Robb Stark, the King in the North
His younger son, Tyrion Lannister, called "the Imp" and "Halfman", a dwarf. As Jaime has abdicated all inheritance as a member of the Kingsguard, Tyrion is Tywin's legal heir. Now acting Hand of the King.
Ser Kevan Lannister, Tywin's younger brother.
His wife Dorna Lannister, of House Swyft.
Ser Lancel Lannister, Kevan's eldest son and heir, squire to King Robert Baratheon. Knighted after Robert's death.
Ser {Stafford Lannister}, killed at the Battle of Oxcross.








Tytos Lannister
Deceased


Lady Lannister
Deceased














































Tywin Lannister


Joanna Lannister
Deceased


Kevan Lannister


Dorna Lannister
nee Swyft
















































Jaime Lannister


Cersei Lannister


Robert Baratheon
Deceased


Tyrion Lannister


Lancel Lannister






































Joffrey Baratheon


Myrcella Baratheon


Tommen Baratheon








Cadet branchesEdit
House Lannister is a very old and wealthy family, dating back to the Age of Heroes and the Andal invasion 6,000 years ago. As a result it has produced numerous cadet branches and distant cousins of the main line, who have prospered as members of the minor nobility in the Westerlands for many years. In contrast, while House Stark is even older than House Lannister, due to the harsh conditions of the North (both low economic output and threat of Wildling attacks) by the time of the War of the Five Kings the Starks possess few if any cousins, and only one major cadet branch, House Karstark. Therefore, there are numerous minor members of the extended "House Lannister" which exist in the background of the narrative, but they are so numerous and distantly related that members of the main line wouldn't think to mention them any more than they would their other vassals.
Ser {Alton Lannister} - a cousin to Jaime, Cersei, and Tyrion from a lesser branch of the family. A prisoner of House Stark. Killed by Jaime as part of an escape attempt. He stated that his mother is Cynda Lannister.
House Lannister of Lannisport - a cadet branch of House Lannister, formally organized as a distinct House. They directly rule the city of Lannisport for the main branch, while the main branch rules the gold-mine rich area of Casterly Rock in the nearby mountains above Lannisport.
Reginald Lannister, a bannerman of Lord Tywin fighting for House Lannister in the War of the Five Kings.
Sworn to House LannisterEdit
Vassal HousesEdit
House Clegane of Clegane's Keep.
House Crakehall of Crakehall.
House Lefford of Golden Tooth.
House Lannister of Lannisport - a cadet branch of the main line.
House Lorch
House Marbrand of Ashemark.
House Payne.
House Swyft of Cornfield.
House Westerling of the Crag.
Household and alliesEdit
Ser Gregor Clegane, called 'the Mountain that Rides' and 'the Mountain'. Sworn sword of Lord Tywin.
Ser {Amory Lorch}, sworn sword of Lord Tywin. Poisoned under mysterious circumstances in Harrenhal
Lord Damon Marbrand, bannerman and Lord of Ashemark
Ser Addam Marbrand, his son and heir of Ashemark
Lord Leo Lefford, bannerman and Lord of Golden Tooth.

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House Baratheon

By: timbersfan, 12:09 AM GMT on June 02, 2012

House Baratheon is one of the Great Houses of Westeros, although also one of the youngest. It is the current royal house.
House Baratheon's sigil is a black stag on a gold background and their house motto is "Ours is the Fury". When Robert ascended the Iron Throne, a gold crown was added to the stag, denoting their status as the royal house.

The ancestral Baratheon stronghold is Storm's End, but since becoming the royal house they have also taken possession of the old Targaryen island fortress of Dragonstone, whilst the King rules from the city of King's Landing, the capital of the Seven Kingdoms.

When the War of the Five Kings began following King Robert Baratheon's death, House Baratheon became divided into three distinct factions: one led by Robert's son, Joffrey; one led by his younger brother, Stannis; and one led by his youngest brother, Renly.

Contents [show]
HistoryEdit

A history book with information on the founders of House Baratheon.
House Baratheon was founded by Orys Baratheon, a general in the army of King Aegon I Targaryen, the Conqueror. Orys Baratheon was also rumored to be Aegon's bastard half-brother. He defeated Argilac the Arrogant, the last of the Storm Kings, and captured his castle of Storm's End. He also captured Argalic's daughter, Argalia, and took her to wife. For his accomplishments, Orys was made Lord of Storm's End and founder of House Baratheon.
Two hundred and eighty-one years later, Lord Robert Baratheon rebelled against King Aerys II Targaryen, the Mad King, when the latter's son, Prince Rhaegar, kidnapped Robert's betrothed, Lyanna Stark, and murdered her father and brother. House Baratheon, allied to the Houses Stark, Arryn and Tully, defeated the Targaryen army at the Battle of the Trident, whilst the forces of House Lannister captured King's Landing, where Jaime Lannister slew the Mad King. It was decided that Robert, as the military leader of the rebellion and also the one with the best blood-claim to the Iron Throne, would become King. With Lyanna dead, he married Cersei Lannister to cement the alliance that brought down the Targaryens.

Seventeen years later, Robert Baratheon died of a wound taken on a boar hunt. His eldest son, Joffrey Baratheon, now rules from the Iron Throne, but his rule is contested by those who claim that he was born of incest between the Queen and her twin brother, Jaime, including both of Robert's brothers. As a result, House Baratheon faces the prospect of an internal conflict over the future of the House.

MembersEdit
King Robert Baratheon, the head of the family and the King on the Iron Throne before his death.
His wife, Queen dowager Cersei, of House Lannister.
Their eldest son and Robert's heir, Joffrey Baratheon, now the King on the Iron Throne.
Their daughter, Myrcella Baratheon.
Their youngest son, Tommen Baratheon.
Robert's younger brother, Stannis Baratheon, the Lord of Dragonstone and self-proclaimed King of Westeros.
His wife, Queen Selyse, of House Florent.
Their daughter, Shireen Baratheon.
Robert's youngest brother, Renly Baratheon, the Lord of Storm's End, also self-proclaimed King of Westeros.
His wife, Queen Margaery, of House Tyrell.
Note: Joffrey, Myrcella and Tommen are claimed to be the children of King Robert Baratheon, but in reality are born of incest between Queen Cersei and her twin brother, Jaime Lannister. This information is not publicly known in Westeros and is a secret known to only a few.














Steffon Baratheon
Deceased


Cassana Baratheon
Deceased









































































An unnamed barmaid


Robert Baratheon
Deceased


Cersei Baratheon
nee Lannister


Jaime Lannister


Stannis Baratheon


Selyse Baratheon
nee Florent


Renly Baratheon
Deceased


Margaery Baratheon
nee Tyrell























































































































































Various women
(see Robert Baratheon)



Mhaegen













































































Gendry


Various other bastards
(See Robert Baratheon)


Barra
Deceased


Joffrey Baratheon


Myrcella Baratheon


Tommen Baratheon


Shireen Baratheon




Vassal HousesEdit
House Caron of Nightsong.
House Dondarrion of Blackhaven.
House Selmy of Harvest Hall.
House Swann of Stonehelm.
House Tarth of Evenfall Hall.
House Trant of Gallowsgrey.
In the booksEdit
In the Song of Ice and Fire novels, Orys Baratheon was the bastard half-brother of King Aegon I Targaryen, the conqueror of the Seven Kingdoms. Orys led an army which slew the last of the Storm Kings, Argilac the Arrogant, and captured his castle of Storm's End. For his leal service, Orys was made a lord and allowed to found his own Great House, marrying the daughter of Argilac and taking his sigil and words for his own. At just under 300 years, this makes House Baratheon the youngest by far of the Great Houses.
House Baratheon has ruled over the tempest-wracked south-eastern shores of Westeros, the area known as the Stormlands, ever since. It has produced a number of great and notable warriors, such as Ser Lyonel Baratheon, the Laughing Storm, and married into the royal House Targaryen several generations ago.

When Robert Baratheon's betrothed, Lyanna Stark, was kidnapped by Rhaegar Targaryen, he was enraged and raised his banners in rebellion against King Aerys II, along with Lyanna's brother (and Robert's best friend) Eddard Stark. They were joined by several other houses in a civil war known as Robert's Rebellion. Robert's army smashed the royal host at the Battle of the Trident and put it to rout. The treachery of House Lannister delivered the capital at King's Landing to Robert. With Lyanna killed during the war, Robert agreed to marry Cersei Lannister in gratitude for her father's pledge of fealty.

Robert became King and he made his brother Stannis (one year younger than him) the Lord of Dragonstone, the ancestral island stronghold of the Targaryens, and his youngest brother Renly (fifteen years younger) lord of the familial seat at Storm's End.

In a very minor difference to the books, the TV series spells 'Argilac' as 'Argalic'. It is not clear if this is an error or a deliberate change.

Houses sworn to House Baratheon in the books:

House Cafferen of Fawonton.
House Connington of Griffins Roost.
House Errol of Haystack Hall.
House Estermont of Greenstone.
House Fell of Fellwood.
House Grandison of Grandview.
House Penrose of Parchments.
House Wylde of Rain House.

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TOP 40 PLAYERS OF EURO 2012 7-6

By: timbersfan, 12:05 AM GMT on June 02, 2012

#6: Wayne Rooney, ENG




Comments 20


Ever controversial off the field, there is only consensus about Rooney’s on-field ability. Although he can be hot-tempered and rash, like the last-minute kickout at a Montenegrin in England’s last qualifier that will cost him the first two games of the Euro, all is inevitably forgiven on account of Rooney’s footballing splendor.


A hybrid of a striker, attacking midfielder and winger, Rooney roams far from his spot as a central forward, thoughtfully connecting with teammates, helping in the buildup of attacks, running at defenders, shooting from distance or getting on the end of balls to score himself. Hard-working and blessed with a body that can act on his inspiration, Rooney could be as good and complete a forward as England has ever produced. In recent years, even his heading has improved.


He bears a mighty burden, though. Since Michael Owen’s precipitous drop-off in form in the mid-2000s, Rooney has easily been England’s outstanding striker, flanked by a revolving door of mediocre men. Thus he has shouldered an outsized share of the crushing hype surrounding every England appearance at a major international tournament. Heading into Euro 2012 at age 26, having appeared in two World Cups too, Rooney has yet to really shine at one of the game’s quadrennial bonanzas. The argument has been made that being out for his team’s first two games could improve Rooney’s odds of making an impact at the business end of the tournament, when he’ll be fresher than his peers. That’s if England makes it that far without him, of course. And that is a big if.



Expert's take: The most dangerous player for England despite that he'll miss the first two games of the Euros. Young, aggressive and very talented. If he plays well, England plays well. If not, England tends to struggle. A real leader. -- Steve McManaman

Stats That Matter:


• Two goals shy of becoming the eighth English player with 30 international goals


• England’s youngest-ever goalscorer, striking at 17 years and 317 days in a Euro 2004 qualifying victory in Macedonia in 2003


• Only teenager ever to score for England at a European Championship, tallying four goals at age 18 in 2004


• Six career Premier League hat tricks, most by any Manchester United player


• Led Manchester United and was sixth in the Premier League with 623 passes completed in the final third of the field in 2011-12


May 31
10:30
AM GMT
#7: David Silva, SPA




Comments 4


It’s taken a long time for David Silva, 26, to get his due after coming through at Valencia, where his father was responsible for stadium security. A crafty playmaker or left winger who started for Spain when it won Euro 2008 but receded on to the bench for the 2010 World Cup, has perhaps grown into Spain’s finest dribbler. Highly creative and incredibly hard to dislodge from the ball, Silva’s runs and penetrating passes and through balls have been a scourge to English defenses all year.


In his second year with Manchester City, Silva’s game has continued to mature and he is finally being recognized as one of the world’s premier attacking midfielders, scooping up more than a dozen assists in a small sampling of the evidence of the services he supplies for City’s grateful corps of strikers. And whereas a slew of his club teammates have gotten themselves embroiled in one quagmire or scandal after another, Silva is as much the model citizen as he is the model midfielder.


Silva has long stood in the shadow of fellow Spanish attacking midfield luminaries like Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. But, to Silva’s immense credit, it’s come time to ask if he hasn’t eclipsed the Barcelona men.



Expert's take: "For the first half of the season he was arguably the best player in the Premier League. He's creative and tricky, with the ability to conjure up something out of nothing. When the ball at his feet, you know anything can happen. -- Gabriele Marcotti

Stats That Matter:


• 15 goals with the national team, including four in the past four games


• Played in five games at Euro 2008 and scored a goal against Russia


• Led Premier League with 851 passes completed into final third in 2011-12


• Third on Man City and 12th in 2011-12 Premier League with 1,822 passes completed


• Manchester City bought him from Valencia for $37.3 million in 2010

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U.S. Men's National Team: Baby Steps to the Elevator

By: timbersfan, 12:02 AM GMT on June 02, 2012

Most of the time, when a "promising," "up-and-coming," "dangerous" team is developing into an elite power, its progress resembles the climb of an elevator. The floor and the ceiling rise at the same pace. The team gets better when playing at its best, but it also gets reliably better when playing at its worst. Wins that once seemed crazy to think about (say, the Thunder rolling the Lakers) start to feel routine; losses that once seemed fairly normal (say, Manchester City hacking up a game to Everton) start to feel inexplicable and devastating. That's part of what getting good is: raising expectations at both ends of the spectrum, as well as all the points in between.

That sounds obvious, right? Well, for fans of the U.S. Men's National Soccer Team, maybe not so much. The USMNT has been "up-and-coming" for essentially the entire career span of the current generation of players, but rather than rising like an elevator, we seem to be stuck in a weird elevator-like contraption, one in which the ceiling keeps rising while the floor stays in the same damn place. We1 can knock off Spain (I'll never forget you, 2009 Confederations Cup), we can beat Italy in Genoa (I'll never forget you, day three months ago), but we also have a habit of making Costa Rica look like a world power and squeaking out draws against El Salvador by the last lucky atom of Frankie Hejduk's ear. We can go 14 games against Mexico with only two losses, then lose to Mexico three straight times by a combined score of 296-3.2 There are a million possible explanations for any and all of this, ranging from the giant-killing temperament of a frontier people to the fact that Clint Dempsey is sometimes injured, but the basic point remains. Consistency has exactly not been our game this last decade or thereabouts, however much we've gotten better on the whole. When was the last time you turned on a USMNT match and had any idea what to expect?

In that sense, maybe the strangest thing you can say about the USA's latest World Cup–qualifier tune-up games — we start qualifying proper against Antigua and Barbuda on June 8 — is that they went roughly as you'd have guessed, if you'd been guessing. Against a sleepy and overmatched Scotland team last Saturday, the USMNT, playing in the new "!!!!!!! we have a midfield" style instituted by our new Germano-Californian homeopath-surfer-coach Jürgen Klinsmann, romped to a 5-1 win behind Landon Donovan's hat trick, Fabian Johnson's awesomeness at left back,3 and various permutations of attitudinal swashbucklingness. Against Brazil on Wednesday, the style collapsed into "????? scientists continue to posit the existence of a midfield," the one-touch passing was mostly on the other side, and our boys went down 4-1. Pro analysis: Brazil is better than Scotland, and also — even in the Olympics-warm-up youth incarnation they fielded Wednesday night — quicker, defter, and considerably more cunning than we are.

The Scotland game was a stone blowout. The Brazil game, however, was a little more complicated than the scoreline suggested, and that's where things start to get interesting, ceiling-and-floor-wise. Because apart from a couple of arbitrary pseudo-controversies like the Onyewu handball penalty, most of what made it complicated was Klinsmann's vision of how the United States ought to play the game, which translated into a situation where we probably lost by more goals than we had to, but also looked far more awake and alive than we might have done against a team like Brazil.4 After the Scotland win, Klinsmann was very clear about what he's trying to accomplish with the team:

Step by step, what we are trying to develop is a fast-paced game. There's tempo in it. There's one-touch combinations throughout midfield, as fast as possible, finding forwards up there, having pace, buildup from the back, no long balls. I think we saw some of those elements today. Obviously it's a bit more difficult to play that way against Brazil or Italy, but I think the players, they understand more and more what we're trying to achieve.
It was, indeed, "a bit more difficult" to play that way against Brazil, and maybe the team didn't entirely stick to the "no long balls" pronouncement. But still: Even with the midfield folded back into its own half for long stretches of the game, Michael Bradley was still looking to exploit angles and play in medium space rather than simply launching the ball forward at Warp 9. Fabian Johnson was still trying to navigate the maze of Brazilian pressing — and OK, it's not like the Seleção was all that brilliant defensively, but some of their struggles had to do with the quality of the American attack. The one goal the U.S. managed came not on a random forward heave but on a play when Bradley coolly broke the Brazilian defense with a pass to Johnson, who followed an aggressive run with a poised cross to Hérculez Gómez for the goal. There were several similar near-misses, including one moment when a close-range Clint Dempsey shot made Ian Darke (on TV) and me (at home) scream, "How did that not go in?" simultaneously. Brazil's goalkeeper Rafael, making his first senior start, was busy enough that you could feel the whole non–South American world looking him up on Wikipedia.

This isn't simply another case of "we lost 4-1, but there are lots of reasons to be optimistic!" (Though Preki knows I, like most American fans, have said that often enough.) Under the domed, doomed gaze of Bob Bradley, the USMNT often seemed to be raising its ceiling by small increments while focusing on the parts of the game that are supposed to raise the floor: organization, defensive cohesion, stamina, muscle, heart. Klinsmann seems to have decided — spectacularly if not wisely — that the floor is actually a boring place to be, and that what we really ought to do is focus on technique, creativity, and speed, push the ceiling up into the exosphere, and let the ground take care of itself. Party on the roof!

Against Brazil, Klinsmann easily could have, and Bradley most likely would have, swapped his 4-3-3 for a Roman testudo formation, thrown up ramparts in Brazil's box, and prayed for a fluky goal on the counter. Instead, he switched to a 4-4-2 — arguably a more attacking formation for the U.S. because Dempsey and Donovan both cut inside so much. It didn't work, because it didn't lead to a goal, but it almost worked really well. And it emphasized what's been by far the most fun and exciting part of Klinsmann's reign so far: the discovery that, whoa, between Bradley, Johnson, José Torres, Gomez, Donovan, and Dempsey, we actually kind of do have the players to play this way. Given the evident weaknesses in central defense Wednesday night (when Onyewu looked, at times, literally like a parked bus), we might have become a better flair side than organization side almost without knowing it.

Does Klinsmann's attempt to change the culture of U.S. soccer have any chance of, you know, succeeding? Just to take the objective currently at hand, does it make any sense to approach CONCACAF qualifying with a "one-touch combinations, as fast as possible, and no long balls" philosophy? Maybe not, but then CONCACAF — a corrupt, thrown-together federation of cruise-ship destinations, action movie drug-lord havens, and fading hemispheric hegemons5 — doesn't make a lot of sense as an entity. World Cup qualifying is always both giddy and stressful for American fans. Giddy because, when you've grown up on the fat side of the NBC Olympic Medals Tracker, it's kind of fun to find your team on plausibly equal footing with St. Kitts and Nevis; stressful because, after all, they could lose. (And sometimes do.) By gambling that he can teach the USMNT to walk before it's really gotten world-class at crawling, Klinsmann is taking an already chancy situation and stirring in a fresh vial of crazy. At the same time, it's hard to ignore the totally delightful possibility that we could play like a great team simply by deciding we are one. Isn't that the American dream?

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The Two Lines That Never Cross

By: timbersfan, 12:01 AM GMT on June 02, 2012

So here's a low-grade thought experiment: Try to think of something that is (or was) highly controversial and increasingly popular at the exact same time. It won't be difficult. Here's an abbreviated list: the rise of Howard Stern, the Beastie Boys in 1986, 2 Live Crew in 1989, Herman Cain last October, Basic Instinct, Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, Andrew Dice Clay, salvia, Scientology, Dennis Rodman, Robert Mapplethorpe, Answer Me!, gay marriage, the Sex Pistols, and laying in the middle of the freeway because you got loaded and watched The Program. I'm sure you could come up with 15 more examples before finishing this paragraph. It's a causal relationship we are all familiar with: Whenever something becomes culturally divisive and theoretically dangerous, a certain type of person is drawn to that entity simply because a different kind of person is against it (I'm no exception — in high school, I had absolutely no interest in Dungeons and Dragons until I watched an episode of 20/20 and discovered it might make me want to kill myself). In all of the above cases, controversy and popularity were integrally intertwined. We all understand that this is how the Attention Economy works — if something is shocking and popular, the popularity is fueled by the shock. Those two qualities dovetail. It's always possible that too much controversy can destroy something over time (which is what's happening to Mel Gibson's directing career), and it's just as possible that certain controversies can normalize while success continues onward (which is what happened with Madonna in the '90s). But when these two things are happening simultaneously — when social outrage and commercial power are both occurring in the present tense — they are inevitably linked.

Except, it seems, with football.

I realize the NBA playoffs are happening right now, and so are the Stanley Cup finals and baseball's regular season. Yet none of those things are as awkwardly interesting as the bizarre condition of football within the current American consciousness. Two things are escalating at once, and they (somehow) have no relationship at all. It's a stunning illustration of collective cognitive dissonance that shouldn't be possible. But this is where we're at, and it's also where we're going.

For the first time since the administration of Theodore Roosevelt, there's a serious, sweeping debate over the prospect that football is simply too dangerous to subsist in a civilized society. You can no longer have a sophisticated discussion about the NFL without considering the reality of concussions. The New Orleans Saints "bounty" scandal dominated the news cycle for two weeks and will not go away. After Junior Seau's recent suicide, the first question everyone asked was, "Are they going to check his brain?" I constantly meet parents who (a) love Friday Night Lights but (b) don't want their kid playing any game with a helmet.1 Talking intellectually about football now means talking about whether football should even exist; in my lifetime, the game has never been so contentious.

It's also (obviously) never been more popular.

There is no debate over America's favorite game; in many ways, football feels bigger than all the other sports combined. Over 25 million people watched the first round of the NFL draft, a statistic that grows crazier the longer you dwell upon its magnitude. Over 81,000 people attended the Ohio State spring football scrimmage; I guess fans in Alabama can't match that Buckeye enthusiasm, since the Crimson Tide's spring game drew a paltry 78,000. If Tim Tebow (who isn't even the Jets' starter) tore his ACL on the same day the NBA Finals started, there's absolutely no question what story would (justifiably) lead SportsCenter. Football simply operates on a higher level of cultural engagement, across virtually all demographics and social classes. This is no shocking revelation to anyone. Everyone knows this.

So … football is extremely controversial, and football is mega-popular. And logic (or at least pop history) would suggest that those things should be connected. But they're not (and that's weird). They are like two complicated people standing next to each other at a cocktail party, refusing to make eye contact.

No one's personal obsession with football is growing because they think concussions are sexy and interesting. There are fans who support Jonathan Vilma, but no one's arguing that Vilma didn't go far enough (or that injury bounties are somehow good for football). Nobody listened to the audio of former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and thought, That's why I enjoy the playoffs. The fact that football is suddenly a little scary isn't stimulating the sport's popularity in any way. As a marketing tool, it's beyond neutral. Now, I realize an argument can be made that eroticized violence is inherent to any collision spectator sport, and that people who love football are tacitly endorsing (and unconsciously embracing) a barbaric activity that damages human bodies for entertainment and money. I get that, and I don't think the argument is weak. However, it's still mostly an abstraction. People will freak out when they eventually see someone killed on the football field (which, it seems, is now inevitable). But they won't stop enjoying football. They might feel obligated to criticize it, and maybe they'll temporarily stop watching. But they'll still self-identify as "football fans," because what they consciously like about the game is (almost certainly) not tied to people being hurt. Football is not like boxing; violence is central to the game, but it's not the whole game. You can love it for a multitude of complex, analytical reasons. And that allows this cognitive dissonance to exist in perpetuity (i.e., "I know this is probably bad for society, but I desperately want it to continue").

To me, this is what's so fascinating about the contemporary state of football: It's dominated by two hugely meaningful, totally irrefutable paradigms that refuse to acknowledge the existence of the other. Imagine two vertical, parallel lines accelerating skyward — that's what football is like now. On the one hand, there is no way that a cognizant world can continue adoring a game where the end result is dementia and death; on the other hand, there is no way you can feasibly eliminate a sport that generates so much revenue (for so many people) and is so deeply beloved by everyday citizens who will never have to absorb the punishment. Is it possible that — in the future — the only teenagers playing football will be working-class kids with limited economic resources? Maybe. But that's not exactly a recipe for diminishing athletic returns. Is it possible that — in 10 years — researchers will prove that playing just one season of pro football has the same impact on life expectancy as smoking two packs of cigarettes every day for a decade? Perhaps. But we'll probably learn about that study during the Super Bowl pregame show, communally watched by a worldwide audience of 180 million people. Will the government have to get involved? I suppose that's possible — but what U.S. president is going to come out against football? Only one who thinks Florida and Texas aren't essential to his reelection.

If football's ever-rising popularity was directly tied to its ever-increasing violence, something might collapse upon itself: Either the controversy would fade over time, or it would become a terminal anchor on its expansion. But that's not how it's unfolding. These two worlds will never collide. They'll just continue to intensify, each in its own vacuum. This column can run today, or it can run in 2022. The future is the present is the future.

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Portland Pay Severest Penalty for Boyd Miss

By: timbersfan, 12:32 AM GMT on June 01, 2012

Portland Timbers 0 : 1 Cal FC (aet)

by Michael Orr

Portland Timbers became the eighth MLS team to suffer elimination to a lower league side after a 0-1 home loss to fifth tier CalFC. Former RSL player Artur Aghasyan scored the decisive goal in first half of extra time.

“I don’t remember anything, I just know that I chipped it,” said Aghasyan, beaming as he tried to recount his famous goal for Cal FC.

For the home side, Kris Boyd skied a penalty over the cross bar in the second half of normal time.

The California-based amateur side, coached by Eric Wynalda, are unlikely to ever forget what transpired at Jeld-Wen Field on Wednesday night, May 30, 2012. Though it took 120 minutes and withstanding forty-three Portland Timbers shots, Cal FC emerged with a 1-0 victory and advanced to the fourth round of the US Open Cup next week.

Perhaps the signs were available early as Jesus Gonzalez forced a fingertip save from Troy Perkins in the 6th minute. Yet it was the Timbers who were the aggressors in the early going, clearly trying to create a comfortable space on the shore sheet. Pressing in defense and sending in myriad crosses, Portland certainly hassled Cal FC, but not enough to actually find that ever-elusive goal.

Meanwhile, Cal tried to play its game.

“We love to categorize ourselves as a possession team. Which probably wasn’t the case tonight,” explained Wynalda afterward.

As the young visitors tried to find time and space, the Timbers continued their assault on goalkeeper Darby Carrillo. Kalif Alhassan, Brent Richards (twice) and Jorge Perlaza each missed shots or had them saved in a seven minute stretch after the hour. When Cal did finally break toward goal, in a fantastic interplay between Danny Barrera and Richard Manjivar, the former made one too many passes, seemingly taking Wynalda’s possession style a bit too far.

Portland’s misses got worse as the second half dragged on, each bringing more exasperated groans from the crowd of just over five thousand. Finally, the Timbers got a stroke of luck when Manjivar handled a Richards cross in the box, setting up a Kris Boyd penalty in the 80th minute. Which is precisely when the game turned on its head.

The Scottish Premier League’s all-time leading scorer, skied his spot kick, dropped his head and walked away from the North End amid a cascade of boos. Said Wynalda, “I was already thinking it wasn’t their night. But you don’t see that every day, a player like Kris Boyd missing a penalty kick.” Several late chances went begging for Portland and the two weary sides entered overtime.

Boyd subbed off after an injury and the Timbers shifted players to accommodate the final available change. With cramps setting in, and the team constantly rotating players to keep all eleven players as spry as possible, Cal FC seemed on the verge of simply wearing out before all 120 minutes were done. Then the impossible happened.

In the 95th minute, Aghasyan streaked down the middle of the field, easily beating a lopsided offside trap, collected a well placed through ball and calmly chipped Perkins. As his teammates mobbed him in the northeast corner of the stadium, the crowd fell silent – a rarity in a ground known for its boisterous atmosphere. While the pause was only momentary, the gravity of the goal was clear.

As the first period of overtime ended and the second began, Portland furiously poured players forward in search of an equalizer. Freddie Braun, Jack Jewsbury, Perlaza, Alhassan and Richards all had clear chances to beat Carrillo, yet none could do better than send the ball directly into the goalkeeper’s waiting gloves. Carrillo’s save on Perlaza’s 109th minute header was his best of a night filled with close calls.

With Portland nearing a calamitous result, Cal FC poked the ball clear for several counter attacks late in the second overtime. Paulo Ferreira-Mendez’s header beat Perkins but also – barely – the left post in the 110th. Aghasyan then nearly added a second goal when his shot skimmed the crossbar from an acute angle in the 114th.

After Perlaza put one into the side netting, Darlington Nagbe curled a shot just wide of the right post and Alhassan sent one more soft cross into the box, Cal FC needed just one more stop to escape with the upset. Referee William Niccolls inexplicably allowed a bloody Jewsbury to received treatment and a change of shirt before Portland’s final attempt, a corner in the 120th minute. The amateurs cleared the ball, Niccolls blew his whistle and Cal FC left the field with one of the biggest upsets in US Open Cup history.

“One thing we should be very proud of is that Portland brought their team. That was their guys…Once we saw the line-up, everything settled in for our guys. This is what we wanted,” Wynalda added.

Indeed, the starting XI for the Timbers was the best possible line-up, given several injuries and absences due to international duty.

That will make the loss linger even longer in Portland as the Timbers miss out on a chance to host rivals Seattle Sounders in the fourth round and will have eighteen days without a game to figure out how exactly they lost at home to Cal FC.

Editorial: The internet heats up but just how bad are things in Portland?

Match Report: Sounders 5-1 Atlanta — Not tonight, NASL

POR: GK Perkins, D Jewsbury ©, D Mosquera, D Horst, D Smith (Braun, 46), M Alhassan, M Chara, M Nagbe, M Alexander (Richards, 65), F Perlaza, F Boyd (Kawulok, 90)

Substitutes Not Used: GK Bendik, D Jean-Baptiste, D Taylor, F Rincón

TOTAL SHOTS: 37 (Jewsbury, 8); SHOTS ON GOAL: 15 (Alhassan, Boyd, 3); FOULS: 8 (Mosquera, 4); OFFSIDES: 1; CORNER KICKS: 11; SAVES: 2

CAL: GK Carrillo, D Gonzalez, D Navarro, D Randolph, D Espinosa, M Manjivar, M Arreola (Rivera, 52), M Cruz (Ferreira, Pa., 72), M Barrera, Di. (Caceres, 52), F Barrera, Da., F Aghasyan

Substitutes Not Used: GK King, D Rocha, D Warring, M Ferreira, Pe.

TOTAL SHOTS: 8 (Barrera, Da., Ferrreira, Pa., Manjivar, 2); SHOTS ON GOAL: 3 (Gonzalez, Aghasyan, Barrera, Da., 1); FOULS: 9 (Rivera, 3); OFFSIDES: 4; CORNER KICKS: 3; SAVES: 15

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Spain's universal appeal

By: timbersfan, 12:27 AM GMT on June 01, 2012

Spain’s relationship with Asian football has been mixed over the years. Two textbook ‘how not to win fans and influence people’ tours took place when Real Madrid visited China in 2005 and Barcelona headed to South Korea five years later. Lessons given in Vienna in 2008 and Soweto in 2010 were more meaningful. If Greece was the word for a while in certain parts of the world’s biggest continent following a functional success in 2004 then tika-taka was something that the whole of Asia could understand.

Understanding is one thing, emulating is another and not always a good idea - though you can’t blame Spain for that. In the summer of 2011, Wanda, the new and very wealthy sponsors of the Chinese Football Association (CFA) wanted a Spanish coach. So, just a month before the third round of qualifiers started Gao Hongbo was replaced by Jose Camacho. Despite the presence of the former Real Madrid man, China were eliminated in the penultimate round of qualification for the third time running. Nobody blamed the man who led Spain to the quarter-finals of the 2002 World Cup - he had no time to do anything. Even finding a translator in China who understood football had been difficult enough.

Just minutes after the devastating injury-time loss to Iraq in Doha on November 11, Camacho told a score of Chinese journalists that, just as the Spanish had done after repeated failures in the past, China needed to have patience. It was hard to tell if the words sunk in. As soon as he finished speaking, the chain-smoking press pack, bar one or two members, departed, not bothering to wait around for the second half of the press conference with Iraq coach Zico.

Four days later in Beirut - almost 2,000 kilometres to the north west and many degrees Celsius to the south - Cho Kwang-rae endured his worst day as coach of South Korea. When taking over the team in July 2010, one that had just reached the last 16 at the World Cup, Cho talked of his plan for a Spanish-style possession and passing game, with KFA officials nodding approvingly in the background. To be fair, Cho tried and, for a while, a young side played some good stuff, but that shocking 2-1 defeat in Lebanon sowed the seeds of his dismissal three weeks later.

Japan also tried to go Spanish after the World Cup, or at least Spanish-speaking, and looked at Marcelo Bielsa, Jose Pekerman and Vicente Del Bosque before appointing Alberto Zaccheroni. Zac may be Italian but was seen as able to introduce the kind of sophisticated football and settled systems that Spain had managed so well and that Japan saw as the next step in the Samurai Blue's evolution.

Perhaps it wasn’t a surprise that Japan had to go Italian. Spanish coaches have rarely ventured out east. At one time, Englishmen were the in-demand Europeans (and there are still a few in south-east Asia), but these days Dutch, Germans and French are more common. There is not much player exchange either. Asian players can be found at top clubs in England, Italy and Germany, with only Osasuna’s Iranian duo of Javad Nekounam and Masoud Shojaei settling in Spain.

Camacho has a chance to show his present players the real thing on Sunday in Sevilla as China provide Spain with their final warm-up before the defence of their continental title starts in earnest against Italy a week later.

It will be the second Asian test in the space of four days for La Furia Roja following a comfortable 4-1 win over South Korea in Berne on Wednesday. Like Spain, and unlike China, Korea have their sights set elsewhere and, like Spain, were missing many of their top players for various reasons. New coach Choi Kang-hee is preparing for the start of the final round of qualification for the 2014 World Cup, which starts on June 8 in Qatar.


Vicente del Bosque's Spain take on China on June 3© PA Photos
It was a brave decision by Del Bosque to take on the Taeguk Warriors. The last time Korea met a team that were both European and World Champions just before a major tournament was ten years ago, almost to the day. Then France ended up 3-2 winners but lost Zidane to injury and then limped out of the 2002 World Cup at the end of the first round.

For the Spanish fans in the Wankdorf Stadium, a much better omen for the future was Fernando Torres getting on an international scoresheet for the first time in a year after just 11 minutes. Slowly Korea came back and impressed for the second half of the first half. Just before the break, former West Bromich Albion midfielder Kim Do-heon, temporarily conscripted to the National Police Academy, fired home a rocket of an equaliser. That gave Korean journalists time to calculate that Kim’s meagre government-issued salary is many thousands of times smaller than the one the Chelsea striker takes home. It didn’t matter in the end as Spain upped a gear in the second half, helped by some defensive gifts. China will be hoping to do better in Sevilla.

It is still the case that if Asian teams want to play the world champions, they have to head to Europe to do so. Despite past uncertain club tours, if Spain travelled east they would find that, these days, they have a good number of supporters. Asian fans love a winner and so naturally also have a lot of time for the big two in La Liga. The other clubs get little exposure in comparison, however - although there are times when Asian owners, as has been the case with Malaga, do their best to change that.

The league suffers from kick-off times that are usually inconvenient for fans in Beijing, Bangkok and Busan - though there have been moves to try and rectify this - and a lack of marketing compared to the Premier League. There is something else too, something often overlooked, and that is language. Most of the Asian media gets its European football news from English language sources which are naturally skewed towards the Premier League. Spanish-speaking or reading journalists are rare. Many reporters speak English and many of those that don’t are able to read it reasonably well after years of study at school.

This is not a huge problem for the likes of Barcelona, who do pretty well with from their Qatari sponsorship, and Real, but the rest suffer. Debates can often be heard as to whether a mid-table La Liga team would beat their Premier League equivalent. In terms of eastern exposure, there is no debate. The English teams win hands down.

In Euro 2012, however, there will be plenty of Asian support for the holders. For those countries that don’t qualify for the Asian Cup, the European tournament often receives greater play. The lack of afternoon games in Poland/Ukraine could make a difference, but plenty of websites around Asia are preparing special Euro 2012 packages.

Tiki-taka may not have been successfully exported eastwards, La Liga clubs may not yet have made the impact in Asia they would have liked, but the excitement of seeing the European and world champions get ready for action is universal.

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TOP 40 PLAYERS OF EURO 2012 8-7

By: timbersfan, 12:26 AM GMT on June 01, 2012

#7: David Silva, SPA




Comments 0


It’s taken a long time for David Silva, 26, to get his due after coming through at Valencia, where his father was responsible for stadium security. A crafty playmaker or left winger who started for Spain when it won Euro 2008 but receded on to the bench for the 2010 World Cup, has perhaps grown into Spain’s finest dribbler. Highly creative and incredibly hard to dislodge from the ball, Silva’s runs and penetrating passes and through balls have been a scourge to English defenses all year.


In his second year with Manchester City, Silva’s game has continued to mature and he is finally being recognized as one of the world’s premier attacking midfielders, scooping up more than a dozen assists in a small sampling of the evidence of the services he supplies for City’s grateful corps of strikers. And whereas a slew of his club teammates have gotten themselves embroiled in one quagmire or scandal after another, Silva is as much the model citizen as he is the model midfielder.


Silva has long stood in the shadow of fellow Spanish attacking midfield luminaries like Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas. But, to Silva’s immense credit, it’s come time to ask if he hasn’t eclipsed the Barcelona men.



Expert's take: "For the first half of the season he was arguably the best player in the Premier League. He's creative and tricky, with the ability to conjure up something out of nothing. When the ball at his feet, you know anything can happen. -- Gabriele Marcotti

Stats That Matter:


• 15 goals with the national team, including four in the past four games


• Played in five games at Euro 2008 and scored a goal against Russia


• Led Premier League with 851 passes completed into final third in 2011-12


• Third on Man City and 12th in 2011-12 Premier League with 1,822 passes completed


• Manchester City bought him from Valencia for $37.3 million in 2010


May 31
10:00
AM GMT
#8: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, SWE

© Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images



Comments 9


"I am Zlatan" was the chosen name for the Sweden star's autobiography last year and the title encapsulates the AC Milan striker perfectly. Ibrahimovic is a one-off, a prodigious talent who divides opinion like few other players in the world game. To some he is one of the very best; to others he is an over-hyped egomaniac.


Languid and elegant, at his best Zlatan is one of the finest sights in football. Despite his sizable frame, the Swede is capable of the kind of deft touches that one would expect from a player half his size. This makes Ibrahimovic a fearsome opponent and his career so far suggests there are few better. There are those who believe he does not perform to his usual standard when the pressure is on and that he is not a "big game" player, but the Swede's incredible haul of titles in the past few years would suggest the opposite.


Since 2003-04, Ibrahimovic has amassed an incredible eight consecutive league titles in three countries, with five different clubs. From Ajax to AC Milan, via Juventus, Internazionale and Barcelona, the Swede has left a trail of success in his wake. Indeed, at every stop on his wandering journey, he has quickly become a hero for the fans of his chosen club, with the notable exception of his one season at the Camp Nou where Zlatan never quite seemed a fit for Pep Guardiola's new Barcelona side.


At AC Milan this season, Ibrahimovic has been supreme once again. A three-time Italian Footballer of the Year, he will enter this year's European Championship off the back of his best career goal return to date. The striker sailed to a 30-plus goal haul with ease and also contributed an astonishing number of assists to the Milan effort over the past 12 months, all boding well for a star showing in the colors of Sweden this summer.


With Ibrahimovic though, nothing is a certainty. He is Sweden's best hope of achieving any kind of success this summer and his goal return for his country is strong, but there will still be lingering doubts for many over his ability to shine. The 30-year-old will be on the big stage at international level for what could be the last time and will need to take this opportunity to finally cement his status as one of European football's elite strikers.



Expert's take: Zlatan Ibrahimovic continually proves one of the biggest single-handed game-changers in European football. Still has more doubters than he should, still to prove he can truly affect the big games. -- Shaka Hislop

Stats That Matter:


• 29 goals in 75 appearances for Sweden, tied for seventh all-time with Martin Dahlin


• Led Serie A with 28 goals in the 2011-12 season, four ahead of Inter’s Diego Milito. Ibrahimovic’s previous single-season career high was 25 (2008-09 with Inter)


• Caught offside 22 times in Champions League play, most in the competition and seven more than the next player (Gonzalo Higuain, 15)


• Completed 513 passes in the final third this season, most of any player in Serie A


• Successfully beat defenders in one-on-one situations 71 times in 32 games during Serie A play (2.2 times per game). In Champions League, Ibrahimovic successfully took on defenders five times in eight games (0.6 times per game)

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