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Nothing lax about lacrosse community's response to Boston Marathon attack

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 23, 2013 03:26 PM

I wrote in Tuesday's Globe about the emotional and financial contributions of Boston-area professional sports teams and athletes to the city in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon terror attacks. But it's not just professional sports figures who have been compelled to pitch in through athletic endeavors.

Tyrone Croom was at Abe & Louie's restaurant on Boylston Street on Marathon Monday. He was sitting on the patio, enjoying a gorgeous day and watching runners head for the finish line.

Croom got up and went inside to use the restroom. That's when the first bomb went off. The second, which was planted outside the nearby Forum restaurant, exploded 12 seconds later. Croom was hustled out a back entrance of Abe & Louie's along with other patrons.

He knew he was lucky, especially when he saw a girl with pellets lodged in her leg and a blank expression on her face sitting on the ground, frozen in pain and fear. He knew he wanted to help those who had not been as fortunate as he had been.

So, Croom, the president of CroArt lacrosse, an organization that promotes the sport and provides playing opportunities through tournaments, camps, clinics and club teams, resolved to turn a preseason scrimmage the CroArt All-Stars had scheduled with the Boston Cannons professional lacrosse team into a benefit game for those affected by the Marathon bombing.

"Afterwards, I was like, 'Should I have gone back in, should I have gone back to help?' It was just eating away at me," said the 39-year-old Croom, who grew up in Sudbury and now resides in Falmouth. "On Tuesday, I called the Cannons and said, 'We have this scrimmage coming up. Let's make this scrimmage more special than it is.' They said let's get on it and make it whatever you need."

The two sides played the benefit game at Harvard Stadium on Saturday night.

"It was a special day to see the players and fans all enjoy each a fun evening at Harvard for one common goal, raising funds for those affected on Marathon Monday," said Croom. 

Croom and the Cannons deserve a stick salute of their own.

There have been bigger sporting events in Boston that have saluted the indomitable spirt of the city and honored both the victims of the attack and the heroes who emerged from its aftermath, but there hasn't been one featuring a local professional sports team where all the proceeds went to charity.

The lacrosse scrimmages are usually free, but spectators at the game were encouraged to contribute a $10 donation, with the funds going to The One Fund Boston, the charity announced by Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Tom Menino to aid the victims of the Marathon bombing. Players from both teams also made a $20 donation each to the fund.

Croom said unofficially the parties have raised approximately $15,000 so far. The fundraising is not over.

The Cannons are still selling "Boston Strong" T-shirts on their website until Thursday, with 100% of those proceeds going to The One Fund Boston, and there is a donation page on GivingSomeThing.com.

"Nothing is too small, nothing is too big," said Croom. "This is our way of contributing. We're reaching out to the lacrosse community and to everybody. Even if you're not a lacrosse fan, and it's your first foray into the game."

If lacrosse is good enough for Jim Brown and Bill Belichick, it's good enough for the rest of us.

The Cannons, Boston's entry in Major League Lacrosse, and the CroArt All-Stars usually scrimmage a few times in the preseason to help the Cannons prepare for their regular-season games.

The Cannons open their regular season on Sunday against the New York Lizards in Hempstead, N.Y.

Several players on the Cannons have also played in the CroArt men's post-collegiate league, which features players who have played college lacrosse at the Division 1, 2 or 3 levels.

Cannons midfielder and Wellesley native Mike Stone, who has played with CroArt, pledged $10 for every goal scored in the game. His pledge was matched by the Cannons and CroArt.

Stone is the co-founder of GivingSomeThing.com, a website that matches non-profits with donors. He set up the online donation page on the site, with the money being funneled to The One Fund Boston.

Stone has a friend who had both of his legs amputated from injuries suffered serving in Afghanistan. That same friend crossed the finish line of the 117th Boston Marathon on his handcycle.

"It took him two years of recovery to get there and it was an incredible achievement," said Stone in a statement. "Back at the finish line hours later, I knew immediately that many others would soon be embarking on similar journeys. Let's support these victims by contributing to The One Fund through this special initiative by the lacrosse community. This is what makes our game special."

Duquette benefiting from inheritance in Baltimore

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 14, 2012 10:48 AM

With the Red Sox playing the Orioles in Baltimore get ready for a round of paeans about the renaissance of former Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette and his resurrection of the previously awful O's, possessors of the second wild card and poised for their first winning season since 1997.

These stories may mention what has become popular and pervasive revisionist history -- that former Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein won the 2004 World Series largely with and because of what Duquette left behind. They may also mention that Duquette built the Zakim Bridge, spurred development in the South Boston Seaport and solved the MBTA's budge crunch.

Not only is crediting Duquette for '04 ignoring the fact Epstein was responsible for the acquisitions of David Ortiz, Keith Foulke, Curt Schilling, Bill Mueller and Kevin Millar and made the most significant trade in franchise history this side of Babe Ruth to New York to set the stage for Red Sox Nation's deliverance. It also stands in direction contradiction to the idea that Duquette deserves plaudits for rebooting baseball in Baltimore right now.

If Epstein, who became Sox GM in 2003, won with Duquette's players in '04 then Duquette is definitely benefiting from a hefty inheritance now.

I've always found this winning with somebody's else's players argument to be a selective and insidious debate. Why should a GM be penalized for talent that is already on the roster? Rarely do people mention that Patriots coach Bill Belichick inherited Willie McGinest, Tedy Bruschi, Ty Law and Troy Brown, but Epstein is supposed to share co-billing with Duquette for the two World Series wins on his watch?

The Duke devotees can't have it both ways. You can't say Epstein only won because he was bequeathed Pedro Martinez, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek and Derek Lowe from Duquette, and then turn around and say Duquette is the best thing to happen to baseball in Baltimore since Camden Yards.

Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, Chris Davis, Jim Johnson, even wunderkind Manny Machado all belong to previous Orioles regimes.

Duquette has made some significant moves to bolster the Baltimore pitching staff, trading Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado for Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom, importing Taiwanese lefthander Wei-Yin Chen, who has emerged as the Orioles' ace, from the Japanese Central League, and in classic Duke fashion picking righthander Miguel Gonzalez off the minor-league scrap heap. (Gonzalez was in the Red Sox organization last year and went a combined 0-7 with a 5.40 ERA.)

I always thought this was Duquette's greatest strength -- taking baseball's lost souls and turning them into talent found. Duquette was into sustainability long before it became a corporate buzz word. He would recycle players discarded or discounted by other teams. Nobody could spot a baseball bargain like the Duke, who put the defibrillator paddles to the career of Tim Wakefield and unearthed finds like Troy O'Leary, Brian Daubach and Rich Garces during his Red Sox days.

Duquette was also the original stolid, laconic, unsentimental organizational leader around here. He was stonewalling the media long before a certain hooded football coach made it a managerial meme. Whether it was to placate then-manager Jimy Williams or not, it was Duquette who ordered Johnny Pesky out of the Sox dugout in 1997.

It is possible for a general manager to come into an organization and effect change by overhauling the culture and not necessarily the roster. Duquette has done that with the Orioles, although manager Buck Showalter began the attitude transplant by challenging and in some cases insulting the big boys of the American League East.

Duquette deserves consideration for Executive of the Year for what he's done with a previously feckless franchise, but he might not even be the best executive in the Beltway, never mind all of baseball. Washington Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has turned the Nats from a national laughingstock into the team with the best record in baseball.

He might not even be the most deserving Amherst College alumnus of the award. Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington, an Amherst graduate like Duquette, has the Pirates holding down the second wild card slot in the National League and on the verge of their first winning season since 1992, an act of personnel prestidigitation so miraculous it should draw the interest of the Vatican.

Don't forget the guy who was the original choice to succeed Duquette in Boston, Billy Beane.

Beane has the Moneyball mojo working again. The A's, baseball's perpetual paupers, are nipping at the heels of the Orioles for the second wild card slot, despite dealing their top two starters, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, and All-Star closer, Andrew Bailey, in the off-season in cost-cutting moves; not getting a single inning from established starters Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden; and seeing Opening Day starter Brandon McCarthy miss a month and a half with shoulder soreness.

Duquette's best argument for Executive of the Year is that he's upgraded the Orioles starting staff. Still, Baltimore ranks 24th in the majors in starters' ERA. The Nationals lead the majors at 3.22. The A's are seventh at 3.84 and the Pirates are 14th at 4.08.

Duquette didn't deserve to be exiled from baseball after guiding the Red Sox into the modern era and three playoff berths during his nine-year tenure. He's too shrewd an evaluator. Like so many of the reclamation projects he plucked, Duquette never gave up on his dream of returning to the big leagues. Bravo.

His perseverance has paid off for the Orioles, and he has done an excellent job with the O's. But hailing him as the architect of the baseball revival in Baltimore while lavishing him with retroactive primary credit for the Red Sox' World Series wins is hypocritical.

Like Duquette's infamous "More days in first place" line, it simply doesn't compute.

NCAA throws the book out to throw the book at Penn State

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 23, 2012 04:30 PM

For once the NCAA didn’t hide behind its rule book or some obscure bureaucratic bylaw. It applied the rule of common sense and did the right thing.

If someone in a position of power at Penn State had done that a lot more than a football program would have been spared.

You know the conduct at Penn State was completely indefensible when the NCAA, as compassionless and stultifying an organization as exists in sports, can pitch its tent on the moral high ground.

What happened at Penn State, where former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was allowed to use the pull of football to systematically sexually abuse boys, wasn’t about a violation of some picayune NCAA rule. It was about a violation of basic human decency.

That’s what the NCAA held Penn State accountable for on Monday.

The governing body of college athletics dutifully and righteously dropped the hammer on the football program in Happy Valley.

The NCAA fined Penn State $60 million, the equivalent of one year of gross revenue generated by the football program, with the money going towards an endowment for programs aimed at preventing child sex abuse; It imposed a four-year postseason ban on the Nittany Lions, which includes the Big Ten conference championship game; stripped the school of 20 scholarships per year over a four-year period (2014-2018) and limited their incoming recruiting classes to 15 scholarships, instead of 25 for four the next four years; put the Nittany Lions on probation for five years and forced Penn State to vacate all victories from 1998 through 2011.

That last sanction means that not only has Penn State removed the statue of Joe Paterno from outside Beaver Stadium, but Paterno has posthumously lost his stature as major college football’s all-time winningest coach, his victory total culled from 409 to 298.

Penn State didn't get the death penalty, but as a football power it's now on life support thanks to these sanctions.

Scholarships players are the life blood of college football. They are the oxygen that a program breathes, and Penn State is going to be gasping for air the next few years.

Not only are they going to have fewer scholarships available, but the players currently on the team are free to transfer to other Football Bowl Subdivision schools without sitting out a year.

When calculating the stigma on the program, the competitive shackles that have been put on it and the inability to play for any championship, what 17- or 18-year-old kid in his right mind is going to commit to putting on one of those famed white helmets, which now seem so sullied?

Saying you coached Tom Brady is only going to go so far for Penn State coach Bill O'Brien on the recruiting trail.

Good luck to the former Patriots offensive coordinator who stepped into this morass by taking the Penn State job in January. He has to compete with Urban Meyer at Ohio State and Brady Hoke at Michigan with a program that has been stripped of its scholarships and its tradition.

But O’Brien is not a victim. We already know who the victims were in this case -- those who were violated by Sandusky while Paterno and Penn State administrators stood idly by.

That's why the fine is not nearly steep enough. In addition to the $60 million, the NCAA should have mandated that Penn State pay a percentage (10 percent, say) of its football revenue into the endowment for the next 20 years.

If the Penn State community gets to keep benefiting from having major college football, so should the types of people it failed to protect.

The reality is that no matter what the NCAA imposed on Penn State it wasn’t going to please anyone.

Anything short of demolishing Beaver Stadium, abolishing the football program and deflating every football in a 100-mile radius of State College, Pa., was going to be too lenient for those who feel there is not a punishment on earth suitable enough for Penn State.

Those who feel the NCAA is overstepping its bounds by disciplining a school for criminal violations will feel a dangerous and unnecessary precedent has been set.

The former group doesn’t understand the NCAA is in the business of semi-pro athletics, not higher education.

The latter group doesn’t understand that moral dereliction of duty and lack of institutional integrity need to be punishable by an enforcement manual that features a four-letter word more important than NCAA -- Life.

"We cannot look to NCAA history to determine how to handle circumstances so disturbing, shocking and disappointing," said NCAA president Mark Emmert in a statement. "As the individuals charged with governing college sports, we have a responsibility to act. These events should serve as a call to every single school and athletics department to take an honest look at its campus environment and eradicate the 'sports are king' mindset that can so dramatically cloud the judgment of educators."

The NCAA was never going to impose the “death penalty” on Penn State.

It’s doubtful the NCAA will ever use it again. The results were so disastrous at Southern Methodist University, the only school to receive the sanction. A recidivist rule violator, SMU had the guillotine drop on its program for the 1987 season and decided to sit out the entire 1988 season as well because the NCAA restricted them to seven games that year.

A perennial top-20 program in the early and mid-80s, SMU has never been the same.
Although the program has turned the corner in the last three seasons under head coach June Jones, the repercussions of that ruling reverberate 25 years later.

Putting Penn State in the (death) penalty box for a year was a Pandora's box the NCAA didn't want to open.

The NCAA wasn’t going to risk alienating its constituents, who would have to re-do their schedules, or its television partners, who would have lost content, just to claim higher moral high ground. We’re still talking about the NCAA here, after all.

Not as jarring as the death penalty, the sanctions are still onerous.

The NCAA has done what Penn State would not -- stand up and do the right thing.

Sharing a half-dozen hoop thoughts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 3, 2012 04:25 PM

It's seems fitting that as we're on the cusp of a holiday that celebrates freedom we talk about the NBA, which is in the midst of its free agency period, a perilous time that's tries men's souls and their knowledge of the Byzantine collective bargaining agreement. No luxury taxation without mid-level exceptions and Bird rights representation is not quite as catchy as the original rallying cry.

Here are a half-dozen hoops thoughts:

1. The decision to bring Ray Allen back to the Celtics is going to be dictated by role, not remuneration.

It's questionable whether Allen would be content taking a backseat in the backcourt, especially with the Celtics bringing in Jason Terry on a mid-level exception deal.

Allen is the consummate professional. Publically, he handled losing his starting spot to Avery Bradley in a dignified matter, but there was enough chatter from folks around the team about his displeasure with becoming a reserve that it raises questions about him accepting a diminished role moving forward. One of the single most important developments of last season was the unexpected development of Bradley. Making any move that blocks the growth of Bradley, who is coming off shoulder surgery, is counterproductive.

The NBA's all-time leading 3-point marksmen is committed to exploring other options; he's scheduled to take visits to both the Miami Heat and the Los Angeles Clippers this week, neither of which can offer as much green as the Green. The Celtics have a two-year, $12 million deal on the table. But the Clippers, who can pay up to $5 million a year, could offer Allen a starting role. Miami, which can squeeze Allen in with the tax-payer mid-level exception of $3 million per season, can't do that. It can provide an opportunity to knock down wide open jumpers and win another NBA title without having to fight Terry and Bradley for crunch-time minutes.

2. The famed Three-Year Plan is really the only one the Celtics have. While the extension of the championship window has a lot to do with the Celtics remarkable renaissance last season, it's also a reminder of the reality of Boston as an NBA destination. Big-name, in-their-prime NBA free agents or free-agents-to-be aren't walking through that door, even if it is to play for the most storied team in the game, to play under coach Doc Rivers and to play with Rajon Rondo.

The Celtics simply don't have the lure of Los Angeles, Miami, New York/Brooklyn, Dallas, or even Chicago. That's a reflection on the climate of the city (meteorologically and socially) and the misplaced priorities of certain members of this generation of NBA players. It's also why the Celtics are so eager to bring the band back together -- because there is little alternative.

3. Celtics first-round pick Jared Sullinger's something-to-prove attitude should fit right in on a team that has a trademark on defying conventional wisdom.

Sullinger was introduced to media for the first time Monday, and it was obvious he was irked by his precipitous drop in the draft and the characterization of him as an unathletic power forward with a bad back.

Remember that there were questions about Rob Gronkowski's balky back when the Patriots drafted him in 2010. Some teams took Gronk, who sat out the entire 2009 college football season after surgery for a bulging disc, off their board, the primary reason he was available to the Patriots in the second round. If Sullinger can have half the impact on the Celtics that Gronkowski has had on the Patriots then the Celtics have another first-round draft steal.

4. After watching the NBA Finals, I had to revise my point guard rankings and put Rondo ahead of Russell Westbrook.

Both had huge games against the Miami Heat in defeat -- Rondo scored 44 in an overtime loss and Westbrook had 43. However, the Heat had a harder time containing Rondo, who averaged 20.9 points and 11.9 assists while shooting nearly 49 percent from the floor in the conference finals, than it did Westbrook (27 points, 6.6 assists, 43.3 field goal percentage) because when Rondo got into the lane Miami didn't know if he was going to score or distribute.

That dual-threat created a quandary for the Heat that created offense for other Celtics.

Whereas Rondo got his teammates involved and got them easy baskets and open looks, Westbrook, a fearless scorer, failed to find a way to get teammate James Harden more involved in the Finals. Harden scored in single digits in three of the five games of the series and it would have been four if he hadn't tallied 11 points in garbage time of Game 5. The majority of that responsibility belongs to Harden, but part of a point guard's job is creating for others and piloting the team.

5. Kendrick Perkins's role as guardian of the rim has been overstated since his departure.

Another leftover Finals thought, Miami's victory once and for all dispelled the misguided notion that if Perkins had still been on the Celtics when they faced the Heat in the 2011 playoffs he would have prevented LeBron James and Dwyane Wade from getting to the rim.

Miami averaged 45.2 points per game in the paint in the Finals and 44.3 percent of their points came in the paint. Against the Celtics in the 2011 Eastern Conference semifinals, Miami scored 39.4 percent of its points in the paint and averaged 37.6 points per game in the paint. Perk blocked three blocks in the NBA Finals, or half as many as Wade.

When the games were on the line Perkins was most often on the pine, not clogging the lane. He didn't play at all in the fourth in three of the five Finals games and was on the court for 12 seconds in another (Game 2). Perk logged a total of 6 minutes and 11 seconds in the fourth quarter and scored two fourth-quarter points while pulling down one fourth-quarter rebound.

6. The NBA is a great league with a great product, but its offseason and free agency period has to be among the most convoluted and stultifying for fans to follow.

Deciphering federal tax code is easier reading than comprehending the esoteric CBA, a confusing maze of loopholes, exceptions and codicils. You practically need to be an expert in jurisprudence to know what your team can and can't do.

Few pro sports CBAs are simple documents, and they're all full of provisions and qualifiers. But the NBA's is the worst. Most fans of the NFL, NHL and major league baseball can quickly acquire at least a basic understanding of what their teams will and won't be able to do to augment their rosters via trades or free agency. What other sport needs a "trade machine" to tell you whether a deal can be made or not?
With last year's lockout, the league and the players missed a great opportunity to simplify and streamline the CBA to make player procurement easier for fans to follow. Perhaps, the NBA is just following the American way because one concept this great country embraces nearly as much as freedom is bureaucracy.

Bonds's case for the Hall of Fame got Rocket-fuel

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 22, 2012 12:20 PM

It hit me this week like a Louisville Slugger upside the head that the biggest winner of Roger Clemens's federal perjury trial besides the Rocket and his homespun, unctuous attorney Rusty Hardin was none other than Barry Lamar Bonds.

Clemens's acquittal Monday on all six charges of perjury, obstruction of Congress and making false statements was a yet another home run for baseball's ersatz all-time home run king, 762*, a number that has as much significance now as the count of calories in a bag of Cheetos.

You see Clemens and Bonds are now a package item when it comes to admission to the Hall of Fame. They comprise a two-for-one (Faustian) bargain of presumed performance-enhancing drug users. To permit one to enter the sacred halls of Cooperstown without the other would be the height of hypocrisy by Hall voters.

Just as Clemens and Bonds can't be separated from the era they played in, symbols of its dishonor, their Hall of Fame candidacies can't be separated from each other.

Bonds always had a more boorish and off-putting act than Clemens, who still has a lot of friends in this town, but they're both megalomaniacal, mendacious, and among the best to ever play the game. The differences are that one was a pitcher and one was a hitter, and that one is white and one is black. That's it.

In the wake of Clemens's exculpation, the sentiment has been that although few believe Clemens is telling the truth about not using PEDs there is now a path for him to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It won't be next year, when Clemens and Bonds are both on the ballot for the first time, and it might not be for a few years with names like Frank Thomas (2014), Pedro Martinez (2015), Randy Johnson (2015) and Ken Griffey Jr. (2016) coming on the ballot.

But unless voters decide to apply a universal just-say-no stance to any ostensible steroid or human growth hormone users the Hall call will happen for Clemens. And so it should for Bonds as well.

Bonds was also the focus of a federal trial. It was for his implication in the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. The San Francisco Giants slugger admitted to using BALCO substances called the "cream" and the "clear" but maintained he didn't know they were steroids.

He testified before a grand jury in 2003 that he thought the substances were a pain-relieving cream and flax seed oil -- a fib bigger than Bonds's humongous head. Bonds was convicted on a charge of obstruction of justice last year and sentenced to a whopping 30 days of home confinement.

Making the case that there is a difference between Clemens and Bonds when it comes to the Hall of Fame because one is a convicted felon and the other isn't is the splitting of intellectual hairs. It's voters passing off their responsibility to federal jurors.

Being a better liar, having a better lawyer or facing a less credible accuser doesn't make you a more deserving Hall of Famer.

I would put both Clemens and Bonds in the Hall of Fame. They're in a different class than Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa. Those players would be Hall of Famers solely because of their admitted or test-revealed PED use.

McGwire had one Hall of Fame skill, power, and it was enhanced, perhaps created, by steroids. The old Big Mac would floss his teeth with the post-career version of McGwire.

PED peddler-turned-whistle-blower Jose Canseco played his first full season in Texas in 1993, a teammate of Palmeiro's. From that point, Palmeiro, who tested positive for steroids in 2005, averaged 36 homers per season and ended his career with more home runs than Ted Williams, Willie McCovey, Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson.

Sosa, who tested positive for a performance-enhancer in 2003, juiced himself and his bats to reach the sacred 600-home run plateau, ending up with more 60-homer seasons than anyone in baseball history, three. Before 1998 there had been two 60-homer seasons in the history of baseball.

Clemens didn't accumulate a record seven Cy Young awards or 354 wins or 4,672 strikeouts purely on Texas work ethic. Bonds, who had never hit 50 homers in a season, before he slugged a record 73 in 2001, is an arriviste heir to Henry Aaron's home run throne.

But both players have a timeline of greatness that predated PED accusations.

Clemens won 192 games, three Cy Young Awards, four earned run average titles, and an MVP award during his 13 seasons with the Red Sox. He finished second in the American League Cy Young in 1990, when he lead the majors with a 1.93 ERA. He led the American League and/or the majors in shutouts five times between 1987 and 1992.

Even if Dan Duquette was right and Clemens was in the twilight of his career in 1996, when he left Yawkey Way, a few more 10-win seasons and Clemens was Cooperstown-bound.

According to the book "Game of Shadows", it wasn't until after the 1998 home run fraud perpetrated by McGwire and Sosa that an envious Bonds began using steroids. At that point, he was already a three-time MVP, an eight-time Gold Glove winner and the only member of the 400-400 club (411 homers and 445 stolen bases).

I believe Clemens and Bonds cheated, but they cheated history more than their contemporaries, many of whom were also 'roiding up during a disgraceful era of baseball.

Before and after any chemical enhancement, Bonds and Clemens were among the greatest players of their generation. They've left voters with the unenviable task of parsing how much of their accomplishments were based on God-given ability and how much resulted from modern chemistry.

Drawing that distinction is a worthy pursuit, but separating Bonds and Clemens is not.

What if the Celtics had Kevin Durant?

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 15, 2012 01:10 PM


Life is full of what-ifs, and sports is no different.

It's hard to watch Kevin Durant in the NBA Finals and not wonder what if? What if instead of burying jumpers and opponents' hopes and unfurling his arms for finger rolls like a human measuring tape in Oklahoma City, Durant had taken his talents to Causeway Street?

It's the ultimate hoops hypothetical, one that is interesting to contemplate with Durant's Thunder facing the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals and the Celtics at an organizational crossroads. Would Boston have been better off with a decade-plus of Durant's singular talent or five (and counting) glorious, memorable, enjoyable years with the Big Three, whose basketball biological clocks have been ticking from the moment they were assembled.

Imagine wiping away the last five years of Boston basketball, all of it -- no Big Three, no Banner No. 17, no Ubuntu, no Kevin Garnett pounding his chest and the boards, no Ray Allen raining 3-pointers, no resurgent runs to the 2010 NBA Finals and 2012 Eastern Conference finals.

In exchange for forfeiting all of that you get the joy of watching Durant, already a three-time NBA scoring champion at the tender age of 23, author unadulterated greatness and evoke the zeal and zeitgeist of the Bird Era.

Durant and the Big Three are inexorably linked. It was losing out on the possibility of picking Durant (or Greg Oden) that gave rise to the Big Three in the summer of 2007.

The Celtics were an ignominious outfit during the 2006-2007 season, dropping a franchise-record 18 straight games. Pierce was unhappy and hurt, withering on the vine with the Celtics mired in a combination of immaturity and futility.

These Celtics were green in every sense of the word. If you've blocked out these dark days I have four words for you: Sebastian Telfair, point guard.

The one saving grace for the Celtics was that they finished with the second-worst record in the league and the second-best chance at landing the No. 1 overall pick.

Five years later, the choice is a no-brainer, and it's easy to lampoon Portland for picking Oden No. 1. But back then it was hotly-debated. (Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge has always been a bit nebulous on whether he would have selected Durant or Oden. I have it on good authority that it would have been Durant.)

No one knew that Oden was the Benjamin Button of NBA centers and a direct descendant of Sam Bowie. Durant was a frail, lithe, scoring machine from the University of Texas who couldn't bench 185 pounds.

The disappointment was palpable in the city the night of May 22, 2007 when deliverance became disappointment. The Celtics, who had a 19.9 percent chance of getting the No. 1 pick, instead ended up with the fifth pick. Portland, Seattle (now OKC) and Atlanta had the ping-pong balls bounce its way.

Ainge then went to Plan B, as in Big Three, acquiring Allen from Seattle (now OKC) and Garnett from Minnesota.

Some Celtics fans were incensed the team had parted with power forward Al Jefferson, a cross between Moses Malone and Kevin McHale in their minds, to acquire Garnett.

There are likely fans who feel the same way about swapping the Big Three era for a Durant epoch -- that it's hoops heresy.

Admittedly, it's difficult to take a sure-fire championship off the board, but Durant has a chance to win multiple titles.

He is as unguardable a player as there is in the league, a nearly 7-foot shooting guard/small forward who shoots over the top of smaller players with unlimited range and glides past those of equal height with ease. Not even LeBron James can stop him without fouling.

Durant has scored 36 and 32 points in the first two games of the Finals, and shot 57 percent from the field.

"KD is an unbelievable talent," said James. "I think we all know that, we all see that. He can make every shot on the floor."

I respect, admire and applaud the Big Three. They deserve all the parquet panegyrics they received this postseason for their resolve, resilience and unbreakable esprit de corps. But ... a 10-year title window is better than a three-turned-five-year one.

There was a mercenary quality to the Big Three. Pierce was always ours, but strangely wasn't embraced like prior great Celtics until Garnett and Allen arrived.

Garnett and Allen became true Celtics, but they belonged to someone else first. They were Hessians who raised the franchise from the depths and a banner to the rafters. We borrowed their greatness, forged elsewhere. KG belongs more to Minnesota than to us, and Allen's best years were spent in Milwaukee and Seattle.

The Celtics got a fast-food championship. There's nothing wrong with that, but it's not the same fan experience as what's happening in Oklahoma City.

Or what could have happened in Boston. The Celtics would have started out with a starting five of Durant, Jefferson, Rajon Rondo, Pierce and Perkins. That's three young stars in their primes, the best pure scorer in franchise history, and a rugged center/enforcer.

Instead of playing with a trigger-happy point guard in Russell Westbrook, Durant would have Rondo, the best table-setter this side of Martha Stewart. Instead of playing with a Pierce facsimile in James Harden, he would have the real thing. Instead of having no post presence, he would have had Jefferson.

The thought of Durant spotting up on the wing where Allen does now or taking alley-oop passes from Rondo or running the pick-and-roll with Jefferson is enough to elicit saliva.

Maybe Pierce would have asked out, not wanting to be part of another rebuilding effort. But one look at Durant's talent and he would have thought twice.

That's what the possibility of having Durant in green makes you do.

Playing four-on-four

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 20, 2012 01:13 PM

Four is an integer of interest these days on the Boston sports scene.

The Bruins are tied, 2-2, after four games of their playoff series with the Washington Capitals, thanks to a 44-save performance Thursday night by Washington goalie Braden Holtby, playing in just his fourth NHL playoff game. Four is the number of wins the Red Sox have in their first 12 games under manager Bobby Valentine headed into Friday's Fenway Park centennial celebration. The Celtics are set up as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, which will take place next week.

So, here are four sports musings for Friday:

1. The Bruins are being beaten at their own game -- No one from Washington has blocked this many attempts at passage since last year's polarizing debt-ceiling budget debate. The Bruins, who tied for second in the NHL in goals during the regular season, have scored just seven in four games in a series that is tighter than a pair of skinny jeans. The Capitals have found hockey religion in the form of defensive-minded play, and a stingy netminder in Holtby.

Before the series, the feeling was a low-scoring, tight-checking, goal-starved series would benefit the Bruins with Tim Thomas in net and coach Claude Julien's dedication to defensively responsible hockey. But that grinding style of play, coupled with the Bruins usual playoff power-play ineptitude (0-12), has allowed a team with lesser overall talent and depth than the Bruins to turn a first-round formality into a hard-fought series.

The only way for the Bruins to shake off the Capitals is to get some of their big guns to stop shooting blanks. None of the Bruins' top five goal-scorers during the regular season -- Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron -- has found the back of the net yet. The quiet quintet has one measly point in the playoffs, an assist belonging to Bergeron. That's an express ticket to an unwanted and unexpected tee time.

2. Ray Allen's ankle situation is concerning -- Allen didn't make the trip to Atlanta, and Friday night will miss his seventh straight game and 13th out of the last 18 due to a balky right ankle. The Celtics' resurgence has been a feel-good story, and with Dwight Howard hors de hoops for the season thanks to a back injury, Boston's path to another NBA Finals got even clearer.

But Allen's condition is worrisome. Either the ankle is not coming around and has reached a stage where it's a chronic ailment that could affect him in the playoffs, or Allen, a free agent after this season, is making a business decision to protect himself and his marketability this summer by not playing hurt. Neither Allen injury scenario bodes well for Banner No. 18.

The former is the dreaded and anticipated breakdown of one of the Celtics' vaunted Big Three. The latter is Allen being miffed about nearly being traded by the Celtics to Memphis at the trade deadline and confirming the rumblings that he's not in love with his new role as a sixth man. In the last two days both the Globe and Herald have had stories implying that Allen feels slighted by the organization and hinting that he could be playing elsewhere once he hits free-agency.

3. The Red Sox' unsettled bullpen is contributing to the hysteria surrounding the team -- The most disconcerting thing about the Red Sox -- besides the fact they would play "Sweet Caroline" in the eighth inning even if Fenway were engulfed in flames -- is the bullpen, a unit that is a conflagration in the making.

Here are the relievers with corresponding ERAs that the Yankees used on Thursday night in a 7-6 win over the Minnesota Twins after starter Phil Hughes was tagged for six runs in 5 1/3 innings: Boone Logan (1.23), Rafael Soriano (1.80), David Robertson (0.00) and Mariano Rivera (4.15). There is a better chance of Terry Francona returning as Red Sox manager this season than Rivera finishing the season with an ERA above 4.00.

The Sox' farraginous bullpen simply can't compete with the arms the Yankees have. It's a complete mismatch and the lack of proven, reliable options undermines Valentine far more than any careless words he utters to the media.

It may be unfair to Daniel Bard, but to give Valentine and this team a reasonable chance to succeed the Sox will have to consider moving him back to the bullpen at some point.

4. Likes and dislikes of the 2012 NFL schedule -- What any Patriots fan has to like about the schedule is the paucity of high-end quarterbacks on the team's slate. Three of the Patriots' four losses last season came at the hands of Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Their porous pass defense struggled against elite QBs. The two best quarterbacks on the schedule this year are Peyton Manning (Denver) and Joe Flacco (Baltimore). Houston's Matt Schaub would also be on the list, but he's recovering from a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, an injury that can have long-term effects.

What I don't like about the schedule is the placement of the two Jets games. Everyone is talking about how easy the Patriots schedule appears, but the difficulty of their slate will be determined in large part by whether the Jets resemble the dysfunctional, bickering bunch from last season that missed the playoffs or the team that advanced to two straight AFC title games.

The first Jets game comes on Oct. 21 at Gillette Stadium. The week before the Jets have a nice cushy 1 p.m. home game against the rebuilding Colts. The Patriots meanwhile have to fly to Seattle and play the Seahawks in a 4:15 game, ensuring jet lag and a wee-hours of the morning arrival home, which could mean losing a half-day or more of preparation time. The second clash with the Jets comes on Thanksgiving and is on the road, which means already limited time to prepare, truncated even more by a travel day. Granted, both teams are playing the prior Sunday at 1 p.m., and the Jets are on the road (Rams) while the Patriots are home (Colts). But such a pivotal divisional game shouldn't have its game-planning compromised.

My biggest issue with the NFL schedule overall is the expansion of the Thursday night television package. It seems hypocritical for commissioner Roger Goodell to go on a player safety crusade and then have the league increase the number of games that are played on Thursday nights without building in byes.

How is this for player safety? The Ravens will host the Patriots on Sunday night football on Sept. 23, and then turn around and host the Cleveland Browns the following Thursday. Inexplicably, not a single one of the 14 Thursday night games this season features a team coming off a bye week. That could do more damage than Gregg Williams and his bounties.

Goodell laid down the law for Saints and NFL

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 22, 2012 12:54 PM

The severe punishment NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued to the New Orleans Saints for running a bounty program from 2009 through 2011 was as much about liability as it was culpability. It was as much about class action as it was the reprehensible actions of the Saints coaches and management.

In suspending Saints coach Sean Payton for a season without pay, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, as well as docking the Saints $500,000 and two draft picks, Goodell is sending a message, not only to teams and players, but to prospective jurors and judges in pending lawsuits against the league.

The wolves are clawing at the NFL's door, and Goodell knows it. More than 300 former players or their spouses are suing the NFL, claiming that it knew about the dangerous and deleterious effects of concussions and repeated blows to the head, but like Payton willfully turned a blind eye to the endangerment of players.

The family of former Chicago Bears safety Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in February of 2011, is also suing the league. Researchers at Boston University's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy studied Duerson's brain and determined that he suffered from CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy), a brain disorder caused by repeated head trauma that can result in loss of cognitive ability, depression and impulsive behavior.

Just last month, a lawsuit against the league was filed in New Orleans federal court by 11 ex-players who reside in Louisiana, accusing the league of ignoring the safety risks associated with concussions.

There is irony and hypocrisy in the NFL coming down as hard as it did on the Saints for attempting to gain from others' pain. For years the NFL has profited on the tacit glorification of violence. For most of its existence, the NFL has been a corporate bounty program.

Football is not a contact sport. It's a head-on collision sport and often the collateral damage of those collisions ends up being the bones, ligaments and, sadly now, brains of those who participate in the game.

In a way we are all culpable because to watch NFL football, which is a $9 billion business (and growing), is to suspend the boundaries of what is acceptable human behavior for entertainment purposes.

The changes the league has made to the rules and Goodell's crusade for player safety are as much about preserving the long-term health of the business of pro football as the long-term health of the players. As the cigarette industry learned, lawsuits and health warnings aren't good for business.

It's in this context that the Draconian discipline meted out to the sinful Saints by Goodell has to be weighed. Payton and the Saints were made examples of for the greater good of the league by the Judge Dredd of the NFL (I can picture Goodell in his office yelling, "I am the law!" with Stallone-like conviction.)

The thinking in these parts has gone that since the Saints' punishment was much, much greater than the Patriots', so was their crime. From a humane standpoint there is no comparison. "Bountygate" is infinitely worse than taping opposing teams' signals.

Offering monetary rewards for injuring people is morally reprehensible, totally unethical and a legal landmine.

But from a standpoint of potentially compromising the competitive integrity of the game, Spygate was the greater threat. Players in the NFL get injured all the time, whether it's intentional or not.

Bernard Pollard's hit on Tom Brady in the 2008 season-opener was not the result of a bounty as far as we know, yet it was far more damaging than any blow a team with a bounty program registered in three seasons of dishonorable and disgusting behavior.

When Goodell issued the penalties for Spygate -- the Patriots were fined $250,000 and docked a first-round pick, and coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 -- he referenced why he didn't suspend Belichick.

"I specifically considered whether to impose a suspension on Coach Belichick," Goodell wrote in September of 2007. "I have determined not to do so, largely because I believe that the discipline I am imposing of a maximum fine and forfeiture of a first-round draft choice...is in fact more significant and long-lasting, and therefore more effective, than a suspension."

Tell that to Payton and the Saints.

Part of the problem with comparing the bounty situation in New Orleans to Spygate is that you're guessing what you're comparing intentionally trying to injure players to. The league never explained exactly what the Patriots were using the tapes for, and it destroyed them.

That has left more questions than answers and exposed the Patriots to all manner of speculation and conjecture. In what investigation do you destroy evidence that could exonerate the accused?

In his 2010 book, Payton revealed that before his team played the Patriots in 2009, he impersonated Belichick for them. Well, he did a pretty fair Belichick impression with the bounty scandal too.

In his statement explaining the Saints punishment Goodell referenced "integrity of the game," "willful disrespect of the rules" and a violation that "involves a competitive rule." Those were all in play for Spygate, except in that case Belichick wasn't just Payton. He was Payton, Loomis and Williams in one.

In 2010 after the Denver Broncos, then coached by Josh McDaniels, were fined by the league for taping parts of the San Francisco 49ers walkthrough in London, NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash said the Broncos case was "obviously different from what we saw in New England where the head coach was actively supervising the activity."

In the end, the Saints' sentence wasn't based on integrity of the game or fair play or even their blatant dishonesty with Goodell. It was about Goodell trying to protect the NFL and its owners from absorbing the hardest, most painful late hit of all -- one to their wallets.

Video: Q&A on Bountygate, Harvard NCAA, and the Celtics

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 7, 2012 03:44 PM
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This week's video Q&A features my responses to the following:

1. What will the Celtics do at the NBA trade deadline?
2. Is Harvard a threat in the Big Dance?
3. Should bounty punishments mirror Spygate?

NBA owners are on a power play

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 18, 2011 11:12 AM
The NBA labor dispute isn't about profitability or parity. Those are just code words. The laborious negotiations between the NBA and the NBA players association are about money and power.

NBA owners feel the players have attained too much of both, and they want to take them back, even if it requires shuttering the league for a year.

The NBA has always been a players' league, but now it is the players' league. Star players like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, and Carmelo Anthony basically held their teams -- and to a degree the entire NBA -- hostage before dictating where they played and with whom, all while cashing in with new lucrative, long-term deals.

For egotistical, imperious, successful entrepreneurs, a description that fits almost all NBA owners, it's difficult to accept an industry in which the employees dictate the terms.

Call this the revenge of Dan Gilbert. The choleric Cavaliers owner was essentially powerless as his franchise player, James, took his talents to Miami in a self-aggrandizing television special. Gilbert's team was humiliated on national television and instantly devalued. The Cavs went from contenders to a league laughingstock, posting an NBA-record 26-game losing streak with LeBron's Leftovers.

Now, like a jilted lover, Gilbert is part of a group of hardline owners who want to bring the players to their knees and the pendulum of power swinging back in their direction.

NBA owners don't just want a victory in the labor game -- they have that already with the players agreeing to decrease their percentage of basketball-related income from 57 percent to as low as 50 percent -- they want a 40-point rout replete with scrubs (Cleveland, Indiana, Sacramento) throwing down dunks and mugging for the cameras in the final seconds.

No wonder the NBA is headed for a different kind of court, with the players association decertifying after rejecting the owners' final offer.

The owners' take-it-or-leave-it proposal would lower minimum salaries by 12 percent; trim the maximum length of contracts from six years to five; cut the annual salary increases for a player that re-signs with his team from 10.5 percent to 6.5 percent (players like James and Bosh who were sign-and-trade free agents would only be eligible for four-year deals with a 3.5 percent jump per year); prohibit teams from offering a contract extension to a player they acquire via trade for six months (the 'Melo Mandate); bar teams that exceed the luxury tax from making sign-and-trade deals, starting in 2013 and replace the dollar-for-dollar tariff for exceeding the luxury tax with a more onerous tiered system that penalizes teams up to $3.25 per dollar depending on how far they go over the cap.

There is also what we'll call the LeBron Rule, a stipulation that all but ends the early termination option (ETO) in contracts that LeBron, Wade and Bosh all used to become free agents last summer, and that Dwight Howard and Chris Paul could utilize to hit the market this summer.

Now, a player (and a team) could only have an option year if the first-year salary is less than the NBA average player salary, which will never happen for an NBA star, or if the option years are non-guaranteed.

The next proposal from NBA owners will probably ask to bring back the old baseball reserve clause.

In his memo to NBA players imploring them to make a deal, commissioner David Stern asked players to focus on the compromises owners have made. Then he mentioned backing down on a hard salary cap, roll-backs of existing contracts -- you know, the ones owners negotiated -- and the abolition of guaranteed contracts.

How can you concede something you never had? It's logic more twisted than a bread tie.

NBA stars like LeBron, Kobe, D-Wade, Kevin Durant and Derrick Rose aren't just employees. They're the product, and that's the irony here. The NBA is trying to slay a monster it created.

The NBA's success has been built on the idea of peddling personalities and building individual brands. It's how the NBA rose to prominence. It wasn't Celtics vs. Lakers. It was Bird vs. Magic, or Magic vs. Michael, or Jordan vs. Barkley. No league has emphasized individual accomplishment and personality like the NBA over the past 25-30 years. The league empowered its star players by putting them above its teams.

It's no wonder that they ended up with some self-serving, entitled, egomaniacal players like LeBron. But what the NBA is trying to do is jam the tooth-paste back in the tube, one messy, desperate dip at a time.

The idea of star players steering what team they play for didn't start with James. Back in 1975 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar let the Milwaukee Bucks know that they could either trade him to a more desirable NBA locale or watch him walkaway to the ABA. Abdul-Jabbar forced his way to the Los Angeles Lakers.

In 1996, 14 years before LeBron's Decision, a young, telegenic, charismatic franchise player for a small-market franchise used free agency to abscond for sunnier climes. Shaquille O'Neal, the Big Mercenary, left Orlando and landed with the Lakers.

As for NBA owners complaining about marginal players being overpaid, no one put a gun to their head and forced them to sign Bobby Simmons to a five-year, $47 million deal.

Most of these NBA owners got their teams by knowing how to expertly manage money. It's not the players' fault that they display the monetary munificence of teenage girls at the mall in pursuit of players or that certain NBA markets lack sufficient fan bases to turn a profit.

In the real business world if a company had a branch in New Orleans or Charlotte that wasn't sustainable they would just close it or relocate it. Why should the NBA be any different?

Don't be fooled. This isn't about the NBA getting more favorable conditions for conducting business or more competitive balance. It's about putting the players back in their place, and it's basketball fans who are powerless in this power play.

Reavie comes up short thanks to long shot

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 6, 2011 01:10 PM

NORTON - The long-shot was sunk by a long shot.

Trust me, Chez Reavie, if anybody understands stumbling at the finish line, it’s the Boston-area sports fan. Being jilted at the altar of victory is par for the course in these parts. Welcome to the club.

Simply put, Reavie had this tournament won, and then . . . we’ve seen this movie before around here. After a scintillating final-round 66, Reavie deserved better than to channel the demons of Boston sports collapses past at the Deutsche Bank Championship. But that’s what happened.

All the affable Arizona State product, who had a one-shot lead at 16 under headed to No. 18, needed to do to go home with the hardware was par the final hole, which produced the fewest bogeys (23) of any hole over the four-day tournament.

Even eventual winner Webb Simpson, who birdied the 18th to get in the clubhouse at 15 under with a final-round 65, was ready to concede.

“One in 100,’’ Simpson said when asked what he thought the odds of the tournament going to a playoff were when he saw Reavie whipping out a wedge for his third shot on the par-5 18th.

It wasn’t just that Reavie didn’t make par on No. 18, or that it was his only bogey all day. It was how it happened - the calamitous third shot, the one he’ll be replaying in his brain. Just 119 yards from the flag, Reavie played a 54-degree wedge. Blame the wind, blame adrenaline, blame some nerves, but Reavie achieved liftoff worthy of NASA and airmailed his shot to the left of green into the rough by the grandstand.

The Labor Day longball was a fateful blow. Reavie managed to give himself a tough 11-footer for par and the tournament title, and it flirted with the cup but wouldn’t fall. Tournament over.

Sure, there was the matter of the first playoff in the history of the Deutsche Bank Championship, but that was a mere formality. The Golf Gods had spoken.

Simpson, who made a tough birdie putt on the first playoff hole - the 18th - after his own wayward approach shot to extend the playoff, won the tournament with a birdie on the second extra hole, the 17th.

Who didn’t see that ending coming for Reavie at a course named the TPC Boston?

Reavie, who was seeking his second career PGA Tour win, tried to put a good face on his second-place finish, but it was a forlorn look after he missed the tournament-clinching par putt on the 18th hole - a glum grimace - that said more than the composed words he offered afterward.

“You know, it’s definitely difficult to think about it,’’ said Reavie. “It’s not hard to make a 5. I mean I’m going to make a 5 there nine times out of 10. Unfortunately, the only bogey I had all day and the wind kind of got me there, and I just pulled it a touch. But I’m going to look at the positives out of the day. I played great all day. I gave myself a chance to win. I made a birdie on the first playoff hole. I was right there. Webb just made two birdies and I only made one.’’

Too bad the 29-year-old Reavie couldn’t have pulled out the win. It would have made for a great golf tale with William Chesney Reavie as protagonist. He played in 15 tournaments last year and missed the cut nine times because of a balky right knee. Then he ended up with a slice of a different kind when doctors operated on the knee to repair a torn meniscus.

Reavie started the year on tour on a major-medical exemption and played his way into the Deutsche Bank.

His loss here was like Cinderella going to the ball, dancing with the prince, and then tripping, breaking a heel and tearing an ankle ligament.

The ruinous regulation ending for Reavie was so memorable that it’s easy to forget how well he played to get the lead. He started the day a shot off the lead at 10 under, shot 2 under on the front nine and then blistered the back nine with four birdies between holes 11 and 16 to take command, outshining bigger names such as Luke Donald, Jim Furyk, and Phil Mickelson.

Reavie made birdie on the par-4 15th to go 15 under and take sole possession of the lead. Then on the 16th he drained a putt practically from the nearby Comcast Center that pushed him to 16 under and a two-shot lead with two to play.

It was that putt - not the wayward wedge on the 18th - that was going to be Reavie’s defining shot of the tournament. Like the 1979 Bruins, the 1986 Red Sox, and the 2007 Patriots, Reavie thought he was going to win after the 32-foot birdie on 16. “Absolutely, I did.’’

Obviously, he didn’t know where he was.

“After I made birdie there I would have bet I was going to birdie the last two holes as well,’’ Reavie said. “I heard Webb make a birdie when I was on the 17th green. I saw it posted, so I knew I had a one-shot lead, and that’s why I chose my game plan, and unfortunately I just didn’t execute the way I wanted to.’’

The only solace for Reavie is that the first runner-up finish of his career catapulted him into the next round of the FedEx Cup playoffs, where the top 70 players will vie for the BMW Championship near Chicago. He was 87th arriving in Norton. Now, he is ninth in the FedEx standings.

If it’s any consolation, Chez, you have not only the sympathy of these golf fans, but their empathy as well.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper

Watney's round got stuck in neutral

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 5, 2011 01:00 AM

NORTON - Fame is a funny concept. It’s relative, and in the case of Nick Watney and our local PGA Tour stop, it is completely relative - as in defined by whom he is related to.

Most places Watney goes he is recognized for being one of the best American golfers in the game. He is second on the PGA Tour’s money list with nearly $4.6 million in earnings, has nine top-10 finishes in 18 tournaments, and has won twice this year, tying him with four other players for the most on tour. But when Watney walks the greens at TPC Boston for the Deutsche Bank Championship, he isn’t famous for his accomplishments with his clubs.

Nope, he is famous because of the club his cousin covers. He’s not Nick Watney, golf star. He’s Cousin of Heidi [Watney], the intrepid Red Sox reporter for NESN. He swings for a living. Heidi covers swings for a living. On Heidi’s Twitter page, she trumpets the fact that she is Nick’s cousin. Here it is the other way around.

That’s why TPC Boston must feel like an alternate dimension to 30-year-old Watney, a San Francisco Giants fan, according to his PGA bio. He’s a professional athlete. His pulchritudinous cousin merely covers professional athletes, yet the later makes Heidi more notable in New England.

If Watney wasn’t aware of his cousin’s star status, he was made aware of it yesterday when he eagled the par-5 second hole to move to 11 under and sole possession of the lead. Afterward, a wise guy from the gallery shouted, “Where’s Heidi?’’

“She is definitely close to a celebrity here,’’ said Watney, who had a roller-coaster round of 71 that left him right where he started yesterday, 8 under. “I think we’ve been here six days now, so I’m kind of getting used to it, for sure. I’m glad she is doing so well. She came out [Saturday] and caused a stir.’’

Would a win here change the local Q ratings for the Watneys? Probably not, but it’s not out of reach for Watney, even after a bewildering up-and-down round yesterday. Watney’s 71 left him within striking distance for today, tied for 12th, three shots in back of leader Bubba Watson.

Early on it looked like it was Watney, paired with Zac Efron doppelganger Rickie Fowler, he of the Crayola box golf couture, that would tee off on top of the leaderboard on Labor Day.

He went out on the front nine in 3-under 33. A birdie on the seventh negated a short par putt he missed on No. 5 and gave him a share of the lead at 11 under. But the back nine was not kind to Watney, as the wind picked up and he encountered the bogey-man to shoot 3-over 38.

“Definitely a disappointing back nine,’’ he said. “I didn’t make it too easy on myself. The golf course isn’t playing as easy as the first two days. The wind is up a little bit. But I made it a little tougher than it should be.

“It made it a bit trickier picking clubs out of here with gusts. I didn’t help myself a lot. The conditions got tougher, but I made it tougher than it should have been, so I guess we’ll see what happens.’’

Watney carded bogeys on 11 and 12, and made it three out of four holes on the wrong side of par when he bogeyed 14 to slip to 8 under. He nearly got a stroke back on a 30-foot birdie try on the par-3 16th - the hole that yielded a pair of aces on Saturday - but the ball hung on the lip of the cup, stubbornly refusing to budge like a disobedient dog who doesn’t want to be put outside on a chilly winter morning.

“You never really expect to make a 30-footer,’’ said Watney. “But at that point I really needed it, so it would have been nice.’’

That bit of bad luck loomed large when Watney, who had carded 67s in the first two rounds, bogeyed the 17th to drop to 7 under.

Heidi tweeted yesterday that she was trying to multitask and watch the Deutsche Bank action on her iPad at the Red Sox game - better than watching the game itself with the Sox getting bludgeoned, 11-4, by the Rangers - but she complained the PGA’s website wasn’t showing enough highlights of Nick.

Hopefully, Heidi was watching when Nick played the 18th. It was a save worthy of Jonathan Papelbon. The only thing missing was “Dirty Water’’ as Watney walked off the 18th hole.

It looked as if Watney was headed for a day as disappointing as the Red Sox had at Fenway when his tee shot on 18 missed the mark like Andrew Miller had thrown it, and landed in the fairway bunker. But Watney blasted out of the sand and then hit a well-placed wedge shot that landed a little more than a foot from the pin.

He drained the birdie putt to end a topsy-turvy round on even ground.

“That was nice,’’ said Watney. “I feel like I needed it. I did a lot of bad things, so to finally do something good was encouraging heading into tomorrow.’’

No word on whether Watney’s famous kin, Heidi, will be here for the final round today. The Sox are scheduled to be in Toronto to kick off a series with the Blue Jays.

Perhaps for Nick Watney it’s just as well if Heidi doesn’t attend. The gallery should be glued to his every move because today, he’s the Watney worth watching around here.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/sports/columnists/gasper Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

The numbers game doesn't always add up

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 25, 2011 01:36 PM

Sports discourse has become strictly a numbers game. The only acceptable way to make a point in a sports discussion these days it seems is with a decimal point.

Whatever happened to the good, old-fashioned eye test or context? Formulating an opinion has been replaced by formulas when it comes to dissecting and discussing the games we love. Statistics have overrun sports the same way weeds spread through a deserted parking lot.

If the 1950s-'60s-era debate about who was a better player Mickey Mantle or Willie Mays was happening today, fans would simply look at who had the higher OPS-plus (On base percentage-plus-slugging percentage adjusted for ballpark conditions). It was Mantle. Or they would calculate who possessed the higher average WAR (wins above replacement value). It was Mays.

Where’s the romance in that?

Sports have become a dictatorship of digits, the province of percentages, averages, probabilities and esoteric statistics. Fans and media (yours truly included) worship at the altar of the integer. If an observation or thesis doesn’t have a numerical value then it lacks value.

It’s reached a point where no one trusts their instincts anymore . What should be self-evident is disputed by numbers.

Last season, David Garrard (108.3) had a higher fourth-quarter quarterback rating than Tom Brady (106.7). Now, quarterback rating is a particularly nebulous and notorious statistic. But is there any coach or general manager in the NFL that wouldn’t take Brady over Garrard with the game on the line in a nanosecond?

Stats are great at dispelling myths, but they’re also great at creating them.

For example, when the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron before the 2010 season and shifted Jacoby Ellsbury to left field, an oft-cited reason was Ellsbury’s low UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) in center field.

Baseball has long been a stat-obsessed sport and the final frontier of sabermetrics, the mathematical and statistical study of baseball, is reliable metrics that measure defensive performance.

In 2009, Ellsbury’s UZR – the number of runs he saved versus an average center fielder -- was minus-9.7, one of the worst ratings among regular center fielders. Cameron’s was 11.4.

This was used as justification by some fans and media for the then-37-year-old Cameron supplanting the younger, faster Ellsbury in center.

It should be pointed out that the Red Sox do not use UZR. They have their own advanced statistical measure of defense that has some shared principles, but is not the same.

However, it’s worth noting that in the MVP-caliber season Ellsbury is having, restored in center field, he is suddenly among the game’s best defensive center fielders, according to the same statistical measure that once condemned him.

Ellsbury has an 11.2 UZR this season, second-best among regular center fielders.

Odds are that speaks less to Ellsbury spending his offseason addressing some sort of defensive deficiency and more to the capricious nature of the stat.

Another problem with numbers is that they’re only as good as their application. There is a baseball statistic called batting average on balls in play that applies to pitchers. Sabermetricians regard this stat as a measure of luck, positing that once a ball is put in play the outcome of the play is largely out of the pitcher’s control.

Based on that theory it’s simply good old-fashioned good fortune that Tigers ace and Cy Young-in-waiting Justin Verlander has a .234 BABIP and Red Sox righthander John Lackey, who earlier this season was getting hit harder than a piñata, sports a.335 BABIP.

Is there a stat to account for putting common sense in play?

This is not to pick on sabermetricians, who are far more intelligent than me. Bill James, a Red Sox senior adviser and the father of sabermetrics, is a pioneer who has changed the game forever and for the better. Statistics like WAR, OPS and runs created are enriching and enlightening, taking us beyond baseball card stats to explain the game in greater detail.

Football sites like Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders provide a valuable way to evaluate player performance on a play-to-play basis.

ESPN’s John Hollinger is the Bill James of hoops. His PER (player efficiency rating) statistic is a reliable tool for comparing the impact of the game’s best players, and true shooting percentage accounts for the obvious difference in making a 3-point shot versus a 2-point field goal.

Former Globie Chris Snow, now director of video and statistical analysis for the Calgary Flames, is on the vanguard of advanced metrics in hockey.

On Boston.com, we have an excellent blog, Stats Driven, which delves neck deep into the numbers.

Statistics will always have a place in the hierarchy of sports. It’s just cold, hard numbers can’t rule with an intractable iron fist. They’re part of the solution, not the solution itself.

A guy who knew a little bit about math, Albert Einstein, once said: “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

The problem with relying solely on numbers as the only distiller for sports discussion is that numbers can’t provide context.

They can’t tell you that Patriots wide receiver Chad Ochocinco is struggling adjusting to a different system of route calling with the Patriots, so he might not put up “Madden ‘12’” numbers right away.

Or that Brady was a bit off his game in 2009 because he had to spend time maintaining his surgically-repaired knee and was also dealing with cracked ribs and a broken finger among other maladies.

Or that Rajon Rondo’s shooting percentage declined because he was embarrassed by an off-hand remark President Barack Obama made.

Integers will never be able to measure the intangibles – ambiguous factors that make some athletes able to perform better than others and some teams able to execute better than others.

What makes sports compelling is that it often defies order, predictability and symmetry. That puts it directly at odds with statistics, a discipline based on those tenets.

So, if the only way to have a sports argument in the 21st century is to rattle off a bunch of numbers as evidence, then count me out.

Throwing out 10 throwaway thoughts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 24, 2011 09:43 AM

Every once in a while you have to clear away some of the clutter in your basement or up in your attic, the accumulation of objects, articles, and artifacts that are stacked on top of each other like Jenga pieces, just taking up space. Many of us possess that stockpile of stuff that is overflowing, overwhelming, and needs to be tossed out.

That’s how my sports-observing conscious feels. So, I’m uncluttering my mind by throwing out 10 thoughts. Then it can be empty as usual. Beat you to the punchline, didn’t I?

1. Let me get this straight, Adalius Thomas and Shawn Springs are unforgivable scofflaws because they dare suggested Patriots coach Bill Belichick wasn’t infallible. But Albert Haynesworth, who since May has dealt with a road rage assault case that was dismissed after he reached “accord and satisfaction” with the accuser and groped a waitress, is a good guy who deserves a clean slate here, no questions asked? This just proves my theory that there are certain aspects of life -- sports, politics, and parenting -- where people override logic and fairness based on unwavering fealty.

By the way, the no contest plea Haynesworth entered to a charge of simple assault to make the sexual abuse case disappear was essentially offered to him back in May. He rejected it. I guess he applied innocence the same way he did effort in D.C. -- conveniently.

2. It raises a red flag that the Red Sox feel the need to bat Carl Crawford seventh consistently -- behind the likes of rookie Ryan Larvanway -- with David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis out of the lineup. Big Papi is supposed to come back tonight, but Youkilis is still out. The aim may be to protect Crawford's fragile confidence, but it prompts deeper examination of it. What is Crawford supposed to think knowing that even decimated by injuries the team doesn’t think batting him higher than seventh gives it the best chance to win? Crawford’s numbers against lefties are abysmal this season (.180 batting average, .281 slugging) and batting him behind Lavarnway Monday night made perfect sense because Crawford entered the game with a .111 career average against Rangers starter C.J. Wilson. But hitting him seventh against righties, like he did last night and Saturday night, is disconcerting. Crawford needs more at-bats to get untracked, not fewer.

3. If Sir Isaac Newton had been a baseball fan he might have named the law of gravity after Josh Reddick. Reddick’s batting average has plummeted like the Dow Jones since the start of the second half, from .393 at the All-Star break to .291. He is 5 for his last 40 after his walk-off hit against the Yankees on Aug. 7. Reddick is a nice player -- although his defensive prowess has not come as advertised -- but J.D. Drew still has a role on this team.

4. Remember way back at the beginning of the season when the Sox intentionally aligned the rotation so Josh Beckett didn’t have to pitch against the Rangers? Now, he is reason to believe the Sox can win two straight at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, which is a baseball Bermuda grass triangle for the boys from Boston. Beckett has regained his ace card this season. Only Justin Verlander (5.97) is allowing fewer hits per nine innings than Beckett (6.42), and Beckett is fifth in fewest baserunners allowed per nine (9.11). With more run support (3.73) he'd be in the Cy Young discussion.

5. Should the Sox have any non-buyer’s remorse on Oakland A’s righty Rich Harden? They struck a deal to obtain Harden and then reneged after reviewing the pitcher’s medicals, which were voluminous and ominous. The team didn't think Harden's arm, held together by duct-tape, paper clips and Juicy Fruit, would last until October, and didn't want to part with Lars Anderson and a better prospect for damaged goods. Instead, they made a deal with Seattle for Erik Bedard, who was coming off a knee injury.

In his last start, Harden mowed down the Blue Jays, striking out a career-high-tying 11 in seven scoreless innings. He has gone seven innings in two of his last three starts, while Bedard has not gone more than six in any of his four outings. Boston's medical evaluations have been off the mark before. The Sox will be watching with interest -- and possibly regret -- when Harden faces the Yankees Thursday in the Bronx.

6. Inimitable colleague Bob Ryan once famously asked Sox general manager Theo Epstein what the fascination was with J.D. Drew. I’d like to know what the fascination with Andrew Miller is. The Sox have contorted themselves like Nadia Comaneci to keep Miller on the roster until Sept. 1 roster expansion. He is too unreliable to relieve and too unsteady to start. Is there a third kind of pitching I'm not aware of? Mothballed as a starter since July 31 before he took the bump against the Royals last Friday, Miller is going to start again tomorrow in Texas. He has a 5-1 record, but hasn’t beaten an opponent with a winning record. The lithe lefty has big-time upside, but it's possible that might be all he has.

7. Don’t blame Scott Boras if Jacoby Ellsbury walks away from Yawkey Way after the 2013 season. It’s supposed to be baseball gospel that Boras always takes his clients to free agency. Well, Boras client Jered Weaver, who would have hit free agency after next season, signed a five-year, $85 million deal to stay with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim of Orange County of Southern California. At the end of the day, Boras still works for his client, not the other way around. We saw that here with Jason Varitek. If Ellsbury really wants to remain with the Red Sox, he will. If following Rib-Gate last year, his feelings are as bruised as his back or he wants top dollar he will hit the market, with Boras as eager auctioneer.

8. The best save Jonathan Papelbon has made this year is that of his free agent value. Pap has been on the money all season, and now he’s going to get some of it in the offseason. Papelbon has converted 24 consecutive save chances and tossed 14 straight scoreless innings. With his next save, the quirky closer will become the first fireman in baseball history to record 30 saves or more in each of his first six seasons. He is making $12 million this season. Yankees closer Mariano Rivera is making $15 million. Papelbon’s asking price should split the difference.

9. All you have to do is look at the Indianapolis Colts quarterback quandary, sans a healthy Peyton Manning, to understand the idea of trading Patriots backup QB Brian Hoyer and turning the reins over to rookie Ryan Mallett makes little sense now. The Patriots have invested too much in this season. While Hoyer playing means the season has detoured in a dyspepsia-inducing direction, he is the type of backup the Patriots could survive with for three or four games if Tom Brady got hurt. That could be the difference between making the playoffs or watching them on TV.

10. This could be a tough season in Kansas City for old friend Scott Pioli. His No. 1 pick, wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin, allegedly got served a knuckle sandwich by veteran Chiefs running back Thomas Jones. Then his abrasive, thin-skinned coach, Todd Haley, had a hissy fit about the Ravens scoring too much on the Chiefs in a preseason game.

Plus, Charlie Weis, largely responsible for the development of Matt Cassel, fled to the University of Florida in the offseason. Coming off a 10-6 season, a division title and a home playoff game, expectations are high in KC. But so is the tension. That’s a recipe for Humble Pie.

Here's the deal: The NFLPA got a good one

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 22, 2011 03:33 PM

When is a done deal not a done deal? When it's an uneasy alliance between the NFL and its players, who can't reach a final accord without some last-minute discord. They agree to disagree on whether they have reached an agreement.

If you ask the NFL owners, who approved a new collective bargaining agreement Thursday during their meeting in Atlanta, then labor peace has been reached in our time and thru the 2020 season. Training camps will open next Wednesday, and it's game on.

Not so fast. The erstwhile NFL Players Association, which decertified as part of the labor sparring, says the owners have an agreement all right -- among themselves. And that's it. The NFLPA has yet to vote on and ratify the proposal. They didn't do it Thursday, and were not expected to do it today, so the lockout, the scourge of football fans across America, lives on.

"Player leadership is discussing the most recent written proposal with the NFL, which includes a settlement agreement, deal terms and the right process for addressing recertification," said NFLPA president Kevin Mawae in a statement today. "There will not be any further NFLPA statements today out of respect for the Kraft family while they mourn the loss of Myra Kraft."

The whole situation is like a "Saturday Night Live" skit, except it's not funny for millions of football-adoring fans who simply want a resolution to the long-running labor dispute, which has reached Day 133. Here is the deal: The NFL's New Deal is a good deal for the players, and they should make like Tom Brady and pass.

They'll never be confused with the omnipotent Major League Baseball Players Association, and they still have the least guaranteed contracts and the most dangerous jobs among the Big Four professional sports, but the NFLPA served its members well in this dispute.

The players might not like that the owners backed them into a CBA corner, and they certainly should check the fine print for any last-minute landmines. But by Monday morning the Great Lockout of 2011, which has become the debt ceiling debate of professional sports, should be over.

The longer they stall on ratification the more it raises the ire of the football public, which doesn't really care which side "won" the labor dispute because fans lost -- a normal NFL off-season and patience with both sides.

A lot of people thought the players were going to get routed like a 2007 Patriots' opponent in this labor dispute, but executive director DeMaurice Smith got his constituents some landmark health and safety gains while surrendering less money to the owners than initially expected.

The owners entered these negotiations shaking their tin cups for an extra $1 billion and asking for an 18-game season. They got neither.

According to estimates, the players surrendered about $200 million of revenue per year to the owners, a fifth of the original asking price, and the players got fail-safes that ensure their percentage of "all revenue" can't dip below 47 percent during the deal. An 18-game season can't be enacted until 2013, and it can't happen without the players' consent.

Meanwhile, the players got some significant workplace changes. Two-a-day practices in training camp are going the way of leather helmets and the single-bar facemask. There will be a reduction in off-season team activities (OTAs) from 14 to 10, and in a move that is sure to rankle Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a limit on the number of padded practices coaches can have during the regular season. His Hoodiness can only put his team in pads once a week, and during the final five weeks of the season he can only put them in pads in three of those weeks.

Somewhere Ted Johnson is smiling.

In addition, players now have the option of NFL health care coverage for life and up to $1.5 million of post-injury salary guarantees. They gave in on a sensible rookie salary structure, which the NBA and NHL already have. But got a raise in the minimum salary and the condition that the NFL must cash spend to 99 percent of the salary cap this year and next and 95 percent after that.

There are still outstanding issues with league discipline (Iron Roger Goodell has rankled players with his heavy-handed dispensing of discipline), drug testing, the anti-trust suit that counts Patriots players Brady and Logan Mankins among its 10 plaintiffs, workman's compensation and whether future labor disputes between the sides will be subject to the judicial system or before an arbitrator.

That last one is big because the NFL has a record like the 2008 Detroit Lions in court.

But the court of public opinion says this deal should be done. For much of this CBA negotiation, the owners have been portrayed as the antagonists. It's hard to bemoan the state of your business when Forbes lists the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world and all 32 of your teams are on the list.

Now, the players are feeling the wrath of the public. Their own pre-lockout slogan is coming back to haunt them -- "Let us play." The owners may have initiated the lockout, but it's the players who are keeping the doors from reopening right now.

Fans don't won't to hear about last-minute snags and legal posturing for future disputes. They don't want to hear Mawae say that they're not on the same timeline as the owners.

Actually, they are because they're on the same money line as the owners, and if a part of the $800-million preseason is lost then the deal could get blown up and real games along with it. If that happens, the players are not going to get a better deal than this one.

It's time to put the labor unrest to rest. Here's hoping the plume of white smoke goes up from NFLPA headquarters, so we can all get on with our lives.

Four for thought

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 5, 2011 03:53 PM

Now that the hamburger, hot dog and fireworks-induced haze of the holiday long weekend has lifted here are four post-Fourth of July declarations while wondering what happened to the plague that was surely going to befall Adrian Gonzalez in right field.

1. John Lackey is pitching for his season on Saturday: Lackey has an earned run average that only Boeing could love (7.47). He has allowed five or more earned runs in four of 13 starts this season and 16 of 46 since joining the Red Sox while compiling a 19-19 mark and 5.17 ERA. It's enough to make one long for Matt Clement.

The only reason the struggling righthander is even in the rotation at this point is because of Clay Buchholz's balky back. But if Lackey blows up again against Baltimore the Sox have to remove him from the rotation. Alfredo Aceves and Pawtucket pitchers Kyle Weiland, Felix Doubront, and Kevin Millwood are options to fill the spot. It's not fair to Lackey or to the team to keep sending him out there.

You feel for Lackey because his wife, Krista, was diagnosed with breast cancer during the offseason and he has endured a horrendous season on the field that included an elbow strain that has generated speculation about eventual Tommy John surgery. His frustration with his current lot in life is palpable, and it boiled over following a water-logged whipping by the Padres on June 22. His next start, against the Phillies, offered a flicker of resurgence that was doused yesterday, when he was lit up by Toronto.

If Lackey falters against the Orioles, the best thing is to put him on some sort of sabbatical before his Red Sox career spins irrevocably and irretrievably out of control. This season might be a lost cause, but he's on the books for three more.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury equals Carl Crawford: After being tagged with the pusillanimous label last season because fractured ribs reduced him to 18 games, Ellsbury is making a lot of people eat their words . He has been exactly what the Sox thought they were getting with Carl Crawford at a fraction of the cost. The first-time All-Star has been the Sox' best offensive player after Gonzalez and David Ortiz.

After being restored to the leadoff spot April 22, Ellsbury has the third-most hits in baseball with 93, trailing only Gonzalez (100) and Jose Reyes (97). He has batted .336 during that time with a .391 on-base percentage and been on base as many times as Reyes (119). With a career-high-tying nine home runs and an American League-leading 27 stolen bases, he has been the most dynamic leadoff hitter in baseball this side of media darling Reyes. Joke about Ellsbury missing a game over the weekend with the flu, but he has played in 83 of the Sox' 84 games this season.

There was a school of thought that Ellsbury was a bit overrated because baseball observation has devalued batting average and the stolen base to convince you of the "value" of Jack Cust. He can't steal first base, they said of Ellsbury. But Ellsbury's .370 OBP this season would be higher than any Crawford has ever posted in a season.

3. The Bruins are spending the offseason shining their Stanley Cup: Am I the only one underwhelmed by the Bruins' offseason? Benoit Pouliot is the big signing. Would it have been too much to ask for Simon Gagne, who went to the Kings for Michael Ryder money? I understand the Bruins have to re-sign Brad Marchand and plan for next season when David Krejci is a restricted free agent and Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Gregory Campbell are all unrestricted. But the Bruins came into the offseason with approximately $12 million to play with and NHL teams pawn off unwanted salaries on other clubs all the time (see: Chicago and Brian Campbell).

The Bruins run to the Stanley Cup was magical and memorable, but it's a mistake to assume you're going to be able to duplicate it without improvements, especially when you were one goal away from a first-round exit and you won it all in a year that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were hors de hockey.

The Bruins need a top-four defensemen because outside of the Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg pairing and Andrew Ference they were bailed out by an unconscious Tim Thomas a lot this postseason. Blueliners are a pricey commodity, and Steven Kampfer is cheap labor. Perhaps, Tomas Kaberle returns at a discount (gritting teeth, now). Kaberle cashed in with the 'Canes.

Carolina then traded defenseman Joe Corvo ($2.25 million cap hit) to the Bruins. Truthfully, I don't know Joe Corvo from Jose Cuervo, but this seems like a shrewd, if unspectacular, move for a cost-effective puck-mover. But now is not the time for the Bruins to pocket their winnings and push back from the table.

4. The All-Star game should not be like a cruise -- all-inclusive: It's ridiculous that Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates and CC Sabathia of the Yankees didn't make the All-Star game. It's even more absurd that baseball is still sticking to the edict that every team must have an All-Star representative, or as I call it the Scott Cooper Rule.

As colleague Nick Cafardo pointed out it's antithetical to say that the All-Star game is meaningful because it determines home field in the World Series, but then not let the American and National Leagues take their best players regardless of team. This time it counts...as long as the Royals have Aaron Crow in Arizona.

Are Nationals fans going to make the game appointment viewing because Tyler Clippard might take the mound for an inning? No. It's been 10 years since the Midsummer Classic scored a double-digit rating. The 2001 game in Seattle pulled an 11.0. That was the first All-Star game for Ichiro and the last for Cal Ripken Jr., who retired at the end of the season. Last year's game scored a 7.5 rating, the lowest ever.

My brother, Stephen, had a great idea. Change the rules so only the team hosting the All-Star game must have a representative. Outside of that, it's strictly the best of the best and not some Little League-esque enterprise.

Feeling the Drafts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 24, 2011 12:01 PM

Full disclosure, I'm a draft-a-holic.

Sports drafts always draw me in, whether it be NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, Major League Soccer. The first round of the NHL Entry Draft tonight is appointment viewing, as the NBA Draft was must-see TV last night.

There is something about the novelty of new talent that is always exciting. It's fascinating watching teams trying to project or predict the future, knowing their own hangs in the balance.

For the most part the players that are already on a team's roster are finished products. Their flaws and abilities have been documented and dissected. Draft picks are the solve-for-X of the team-building equation. They are unknowns that (theoretically) can be anything you want -- a franchise savior, an underrated role player or a project that pans out. Drafting is part inexact science and part public relations campaign.

Both hope and hype spring eternal at a draft, sports' perpetual exercise in optimism. Every plan makes sense. Every pick is the guy a team coveted. Such was the case last night with the Celtics in an NBA Draft that was weaker than a day old cup of decaf.

The Celtics had the 25th pick and parlayed it into Purdue power forward JaJuan Johnson and a 2014 second-round pick, making a pre-arranged deal with the New Jersey Nets, who actually selected Johnson at No. 27.

"We didn't think he'd be there, and he was," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

"This year we went in with an idea that if a good opportunity came to move out of the draft, depending on who was available in the draft," said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. "But when JaJuan was there we really wanted to stay. He was a guy that we had rated pretty high, and had targeted from the beginning."

Johnson, who led the Big Ten in scoring last season (20.5 points per game) and was the Big Ten Player of the Year and a first-team All-American, is that rarest of species in the hierarchy of wannabee hoopsters -- a four-year college player. He also stands in stark contrast to the first pick in last night's NBA Draft, Duke's Kyrie Irving, who played all of 11 college games before being taken No. 1 by LeBron's Leftovers, otherwise known as the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"Even though he is a four-year player we still like his upside," said Rivers, dropping a ubiquitous draft catchphrase.

Solid pick for the Celts, but it's safe to say the balance of power in the East has not undergone a tectonic shift. The Miami Heat are not quaking in their Nikes at the prospect of his addition. As much as the Celtics talked up Johnson they acknowledged that if the draft is the only avenue they use to augment their roster then Banner No. 18 will stay on the drawing board.

"The draft is always a futures thing," said Ainge, who tabbed Johnson's Purdue teammate, E'Twaun Moore, in the second round. "There are not very many rookies that come in and contribute to championship-caliber teams. We know that going in. ...We're going to have to add some more veterans to our roster. We'll have at least three young guys on the roster next year, and maybe one or maybe two contribute. Time will tell."

Such is the nature of the draft. The Cavaliers took Justin Harper with the first pick of the second round and the first reaction of draftniks is, "What a steal." Five years from now Justin Harper probably has as much chance of being in the NBA as Justin Timberlake. Harper was traded to Orlando for 2013 and 2014 second-round picks.

Only on draft night could Washington Wizards pick Jan Vesely, who went sixth overall, be called the Czech Blake Griffin with a straight face.

The NBA Draft had a subdued feel this year. There were plenty of awkward interviews and uncomfortable silences from the ESPN broadcast team. But the sartorial selections were mostly banal and there weren't any Green Room soap operas with crestfallen prospects. The most touching moment of the night came when Kansas star Marcus Morris cried after his twin brother, Markieff, got drafted by the Phoenix Suns, the realization sinking in that they would not be playing on the same team.

There was the Jimmer Fredette intrigue. The college hoops cult hero from Ainge's alma mater, Brigham Young, was taken with the 10th overall pick and is on his way to the Sacramento Kings.

The Celtics pick came in right around 10 p.m. They selected MarShon Brooks from Providence College at No. 25. Even though Brooks played his ball down I-95 from the Celtics, his bio said that his favorite player is Kobe Bryant and his favorite team is the Los Angeles Lakers. That made it fitting that the Celtics shipped him to Nets for Johnson in the pre-arranged deal.

The Bruins, who will make their first-round pick this evening, have a much better chance of nabbing an impact contributor through the draft than their TD Garden roommates. The Stanley Cup champions have the No. 9 selection in the first round of tonight's NHL Entry Draft, courtesy of the Phil Kessel deal.

Copious draft research has me wanting them to select pint-sized puck-moving defenseman Ryan Murphy of the Kitchener Rangers. Murphy has the perfect Boston name and his skill-set is just what the Bruins need. The 18-year-old Murphy finished first in the Ontario Hockey League in points among blue-liners with 26 goals and 53 assists, and he is billed as a power-play quarterback.

Of course, I was once equally excited about the Black and Gold drafting defenseman Johnathan Aiken in 1996 (8th overall) and Lars Jonsson (7th overall) in 2000.

The best part of the NHL Entry Draft is each team journeying to the podium and saying they're "proud" to select Player X and then rattling off every affiliation he has had since day care. Has a team ever been not proud to select a player?

I'm proud to announce I will be watching. It's a draft after all.

Shaq and LeBron legacies linked

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 3, 2011 03:37 PM


Shaquille O'Neal and LeBron James have more in common than people think. (Yoon S. Byun, Globe file / Mike Ehrmann, Getty Images)

Shaquille O'Neal announced his retirement via Twitter and the social media tool Tout on Wednesday, but he formally -- or more accurately, traditionally -- announced it today in a meeting with the media at his Orlando-area home. The Big Sobriquet's sign-off has prompted discussion of Shaq's place in the history of the league and in the pantheon of all-time great centers.

The list is fungible, but Shaq is among my top five centers of all-time. The Big Three of NBA big men are non-negotiable -- Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- after that it's in the eye of the beholder among Moses Malone, Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson to round out the starting five.

The one historical knock on Shaq is that for a man his size he was not as utterly dominant a rebounder as you would have expected, failing to ever win a rebounding crown. He also had a penchant for defensive disinterest at times.

All this consideration of Shaq's place in hoops history also got me thinking about how many parallels there are between O'Neal and LeBron James, who with brute strength and dazzling athleticism is really the Shaq of shooting guards/small forwards. It is O'Neal, not Michael Jordan, that is a more relevant and apt comparison for King James.

Both O'Neal and James are physically freaks of nature whose sheer stature defined their games. Watching James bull past and bowl over opponents on the way to the rim doesn't remind you of Jordan. It brings to mind Shaq riding to the rim with hapless and helpless defenders draped all over him. Covering Shaq was a bruising task, and checking LeBron is a black-and-blue assignment as well; just ask Paul Pierce.

Both O'Neal and James were/are impossible to defend at times simply because of the way they're built. The sui generis physical prowess they're endowed with is their greatest gift, but it also works against them, as their ability to physically dominate opponents comes with outsized expectations and little sympathy.

Both left their original teams via free agency -- devastating the franchises they left behind -- to head to more glamorous destinations. In Shaq's case it was leaving Orlando for the Los Angeles Lakers. In LeBron's it was abandoning Cleveland to take his talents to South Beach.

Both changed their numbers when they made their career moves. Shaq couldn't wear 32 in Los Angeles because of Magic Johnson, donning No. 34 for the purple and gold. James, on record as saying Michael Jordan's No. 23 should be retired across the league, wore MJ's famous digits in Cleveland, but switched to No. 6 with the Heat.

Both made the NBA Finals early in their careers and were swept away. Shaq led the Orlando Magic to the Finals in 1995, his third season, and was broomed by the Houston Rockets. LeBron led the Cavaliers to the Finals in 2007, his fourth season, and was swept by the San Antonio Spurs.

Both endured heaps of criticism for not winning a championship. Shaq is famous for uttering the line: "I've won at every level, except college and pro." But the criticism of not winning a title stung him, as it does LeBron, who couldn't win in Cleveland last season with Shaq as part of his supporting cast. Remember Shaq pronouncing he had come to Ohio to get a "ring for the King" finally?

Shaq finally silenced his critics by winning a title in his eighth season. LeBron, currently playing in the NBA Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, is in his ... eighth season.

Both are so famous that only one-name suffices like Madonna, Cher or Magic. They are Shaq and LeBron, surnames optional.

Shaq was an even better showman than he was a basketball player during his 19 seasons, which is saying something considering the esteemed company his name is now being mentioned in. He pulled down endorsements, movie roles and rap album contracts like he yanked down baskets and backboards. His comic book hero persona and oversized build, which went with an equally outsized personality, made him the Big Kid until the very end.

James, who has been quoted in the past discussing building a global brand and has a playful nature, is equally adept as a pitchman. Unlike a lot of NBA players his best acting does not come on the court. James is the best pro athlete actor this side of Peyton Manning. Love those State Farm Insurance commercials, 'Bron.

Perhaps that's why when asked about Shaq's retirement James mentioned Shaq's marketability as well as his basketball ability, according to an account from the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

"His 19 years in this league goes unprecedented, what he was able to do for this league, not only on the court, but off the court," said James. "I think he's probably one of the only big men to ever play this game to be able to market and to be able to be marketable off the court."

James has a true appreciation for that skill.

Shaq's brief and career-ending stint in a Celtics uniform will be merely a footnote in a fabulous career. Even a greatly diminished O'Neal was a force while healthy for the Celtics, even if his legacy here will be public appearances (Harvard Square and conducting the Boston Pops) and the Kendrick Perkins trade.

LeBron's legacy is still undecided, but it was bolstered by Miami eliminating the Celtics this spring. James -- along with an acutely bad Achilles' tendon injury -- turned Shaq into the Big Retiree.

Somehow it seems fitting that Shaq's final games would come against LeBron, maybe the closest thing to a basketball torchbearer that Shaq has.

NFLPA should pick fans over draft boycott

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 18, 2011 03:26 PM

Nothing about this NFL offseason is normal, nothing except the NFL Draft.

The labor dispute between the NFL and the NFL Players Association has deteriorated into a mind-numbing maze of disputed financial numbers/models, public relations pleas, backbiting he-said, he-said, and litigation strategies. For legions of NFL fans the draft, to be held April 28, 29 and 30, loomed as the one unaffected football oasis to look forward to this offseason, a brief return to normalcy.

Mel Kiper's steel-reinforced hair, the Patriots trading down, the eternal optimism of the word "upside," it all never sounded so good, at least until earlier this week, when reports surfaced that the NFL Players Association was advising the top prospects to boycott the draft and instead show up at an NFLPA-produced draft celebration.

Astute NFLPA assistant executive director for external affairs George Atallah quickly repositioned the potential protest, saying it wasn't a boycott, just a "different" draft experience. Like much of what we hear from both sides in the labor dispute that's semantics. If the top prospects don't show up at Radio City Music Hall when they otherwise would in any other year then it's a boycott, plain and simple.

It's a boycott that beats the fans over the head with the CBA unrest, and uses the NFL's newest players as pawns.

Comments about the boycott being a "suggestion" are bogus. If the NFLPA takes a stance that draftees shouldn't be at the league's draft there is very little that is voluntary about it. This is a league where veteran players get indignant when a rookie refuses to carry their shoulder pads and helmet off the field. What kind of hazing would a rookie who ignores the NFLPA's edict be subjected to when football finally resumes, and he has to answer to his veteran teammates?

How about this quote from Peter King's recent SI.com column from a prominent NFL agent: "There are a few quarterbacks who could get picked high in this draft and the NFL will invite to New York. All those quarterbacks would do by attending the draft for the NFL is giving DeMarcus Ware more incentive to knock their blocks off the first time they line up across the line of scrimmage from him.''

That doesn't sound voluntary to me. It is reminiscent of the hypocritical voluntary (but really completely mandatory) minicamps that NFL teams and coaches have lorded over the players unfairly for years.

Ironically, one major issue that the league and the NFLPA agree on is a rookie salary cap that reduces the inflated and potentially cap-crippling salaries and mega-signing bonuses for high-level first-round picks, precisely the type of players the NFLPA is asking to sacrifice their moment in the sun to join them in solidarity.

For months the NFLPA knew the draft was coming in April, and never raised this issue. They also knew that under the terms of the prior CBA both sides agreed that in the event of its expiration the draft would proceed as normal.

Locked in a rancorous dispute, it's understandable why the NFL Players Association is trying to politicize one of the NFL's marquee events, especially with the league pushing the first round of the draft, which was in primetime for the first time last year, further into prime time (from 7:30 p.m. to 8 p.m.) to reap its ratings potential on the NFL Network and ESPN.

Hit the owners, who have agitated the players with their condescension, where it hurts the most -- television content -- and take advantage of a captive football audience to advance the NFLPA's position.

Plus, why should the players shake hands and smile for photos with commissioner Roger Goodell when his league is locking them out. All sound arguments from the players' perspective.

But from a fan's perspective it seems selfish and self-serving. During the failed mediation process, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said the players association digs the fans. If that's true they'll understand why the fans wouldn't dig a draft boycott.

For the NFLPA, the risk of alienating a largely supportive public by depriving them of the one CBA-free zone they could count on this offseason is not worth any potential gain made by thumbing their noses at the owners and the league.

One of the greatest victories the NFLPA won came not when Judge David Doty ruled against the owners in the lockout war chest case in Minneapolis federal district court, but in the court of public opinion via that same ruling. It painted a clear picture that the NFL had been planning to stop the game for its CBA gains for years.

Most people out there more easily identify with being an employee than being a billionaire businessman. Public sentiment has mostly been on the players side.

Now, that support is not going to mean much if anything in the courts or at the bargaining table, the places where the NFLPA can score a victory in this labor dispute. But neither is having the top prospects skip the draft. Both are for show.

The potential boycott doesn't strengthen the NFLPA's anti-trust lawsuit, which already has draft prospect Von Miller as a party, and it doesn't give them any leverage over the league. All it can do is anger fans and turn the draft into more collateral damage from the CBA dispute.

The draft should go on as normal, leaving the CBA issue in the background. Give the fans a break for three days.

Simply put, the NFLPA is picking the wrong event to make its point.

Starting five for the NCAA Tournament

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 15, 2011 08:00 AM
Bubbles have burst, brackets are being brandished (for recreational purposes only of course) and Virginia Tech is NIT-bound, so that must mean it's NCAA Tournament time.

College basketball's siren song sounds today, providing us with Cinderella teams, unexpected upsets and heart-stopping buzzer beaters on the way to the Final Four in Houston. Here are a few March Madness musings:

1. Expansion slot -- This is the first season of the new 68-team format, with eight teams having to play for the final four slots. This replaces the dreadful 64 vs. 65 play-in game, which featured Division 1 detritus battling for the right to be trampled by a No. 1 seed days later. What a reward.

The new format is more egalitarian as now power-conference schools like Clemson and USC, who face-off against Alabama-Birmingham and Virginia Commonwealth, respectively, are subjected to the Dayton, Ohio preliminary proceedings, euphemistically re-labeled the First Four, along with the usual hyphenated suspects like Texas-San Antonio and North Carolina-Asheville.

Sixty-eight is enough. No more tournament expansion, please. Forget a move to 96 teams. The primary purpose of the tournament is to crown a champion, not to serve as endless television content or a participation trophy. None of the teams playing in Dayton today or Wednesday are going to win the NCAA's men's Division 1 basketball championship. None. Neither were snubbed teams like Colorado, Virginia Tech and Alabama. Additional expansion is simply going to dilute the field, which this year is the weakest in recent memory (five teams with 14 losses), while increasing missed class time for student-athletes.

2. Power outrage -- There was an uproar when Virginia Tech, Colorado and Alabama were left out of the field in favor of UAB and VCU. Virginia Tech has a legitimate gripe, and UAB has no business in the dance. However, both Colorado and Alabama simply suffered too many bad losses to complain.

Colorado beat Kansas State thrice and upset Texas, but they also lost four in a row in the Big 12 in January, three to teams that weren't even serious bubble-dwellers. Their non-conference schedule featured such titans as Idaho State, Alcorn State, Longwood and the University of Texas-Pan American. They lost games to New Mexico, San Francisco and Harvard.

Alabama lost to Seton Hall, Iowa and Providence out of conference, as well as St. Peter's, which made the tournament. The Crimson Tide beat Kentucky, but its best road win came at Tennessee in the final game of Volunteers' coach Bruce Pearl's eight-game suspension. A Virginia Tech team that had some bad losses as well (Virginia, twice) but beat Duke is more deserving than both Alabama teams. That brings me to ...

3. The Big Least -- The two least tournament-worthy teams are UAB and Penn State. Penn State was 16-13 during the regular-season before its run to the Big Ten tournament final gave it a 19-14 record. The Nittany Lions lost to Maine ... at home, by 10. Virginia Tech beat them by 10. The Nittany Lions seemed to get extra credit for twice defeating fellow-14-loss Michigan State, which wouldn't be dancing if not for its Final Four pedigree, and a pair of ugly wins over Wisconsin. The selection committee, headed by Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, gave far too much credence to the mediocre middle of the Big Ten, taking seven teams.

Count Saint Mary's as a victim of power conference prejudice. The Gaels, who went 25-8 and tied Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference crown, were one spot behind Michigan State in the RPI. Like Michigan State, Saint Mary's played a tough non-conference schedule and didn't fare well. Saint Mary's fell to BYU (74-73) and San Diego State, as well as Utah State and Vanderbilt. They scored an early win over St. John's.

That's the lesson for the little guys. The selection committee tells you to schedule up, but if you lose the games it will be held against you. If one of the BCS conference members does it, it's spun into a resume-booster.

4. Ranking the regions -- The East is the toughest region. The committee didn't do Ohio State any favors. They could run into George Mason or Villanova in their second game, and also potentially contend with Kentucky, Syracuse, Washington or North Carolina. A close second is the West, where the No. 11 and No. 12 seeds are Missouri and Memphis.

The top-seeded Duke Blue Devils should reach the Anaheim regional, but to survive and advance to Houston the defending national champions could play Texas or Arizona and then run into Connecticut. Next, is the Southwest. Kansas is clearly the most-talented team there, and it's going to be tough to match its size up front with the Morris twins, Marcus and Markeiff. Not a good draw for Boston University. Purdue or Louisville could give the Jayhawks a run.

The weakest region is the Southeast. It's a winnable draw for Brandon Davies-free Brigham Young, the No. 3 seed, behind Florida and top-seeded Pittsburgh. That could mean lots of Jimmer Fredette fawning and stories on BYU's honor code.

5. Best opening matchup -- There are some good ones, but the most intriguing is Kentucky vs. Princeton. Talk about opposite ends of the NCAA spectrum -- on and off the court.

Current Kentucky and former UMass coach John Calipari is merely running an NBA internship program. Calipari called Kentucky having five players picked in the first-round of 2011 NBA Draft "the greatest night in the history of Kentucky basketball," and went on to say it was like winning a national championship. This year the Wildcats tried to get Enes Kanter, who had played professionally in Turkey, declared eligible. That pretty much tells you Kentucky's priorities. Any actual educational experience is an unintended byproduct of NBA apprenticeship.

Princeton on the other hand has real student-athletes, with the emphasis on student. The SEC team it's familiar with is the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Tigers have a storied basketball tradition, but more of their players end up with an MBA than in the NBA. Basketball is merely part of their college experience, not the sole reason for having a college experience. It's a fascinating contrast of styles all around.

LeBron, Heat playing the trying game

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 7, 2011 01:37 PM

It's official -- the Heat has been remade in the image of LeBron James. His decision has become their burden, and it's taking down an entire team.

It started on a Sunday in Boston three weeks ago and boiled over yesterday in a nationally televised 87-86 loss to the Chicago Bulls, the team's fourth straight loss and fifth in six games. It was yet another game in which the hated Heat couldn't hold a double-digit lead, and this time they couldn't hold back their tears either. You almost feel bad for James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Their coronation has become a pity party.

"Inside our locker room, we stick together, we're like brothers," said Wade. "We win together, we lose together. Outside, the Miami Heat are exactly what everyone wanted, losing games. The world is better now since the Heat is losing."

The Big Three in Miami is not LeBron, Wade and Bosh. It's anguish, frustration and doubt. Failure, which wasn't supposed to be an option, is now a harsh reality.

The Heat's shortcomings against the NBA's elite (1-9 against the five teams in the league with better records than their own) have resulted in a Miami meltdown, replete with sobbing on South Beach.

Now more than ever the Heat really has become LeBron's team. Like LeBron they are enormously talented, mentally fragile, overly concerned with public perception and opinion and pressing too hard to live up to hype they created.

People have LeBron and the Heat all wrong. They're not entitled, presumptuous or oblivious. They don't expect anything to be handed to them. Quite the opposite, they're all too eager to please, to earn your affection and approval, to prove they're worthy. They may be the jeunesse dorée of the NBA, but they want respect paid the old fashioned way -- they want to earn it.

But like an unfortunate soul stuck in quicksand, the harder they try the deeper they sink.

It's a sports epiphany that was reached about LeBron the last time the Heat played the Celtics, an 85-82 Boston victory at the Garden Feb. 13.

The teams entered that game with near identical records. Miami was 39-14 and the Celtics 38-14. It was the Heat's chance to silence its detractors and stake their claim as the new "it" team of the East. James went to the free throw line, his team down 83-81, with 12 seconds left. He missed the first free throw and an opportunity to tie the game.

At that moment it was clear that James is the new Alex Rodriguez, or at least the pre-2009 postseason A-Rod. He wants so badly to be right that he's all wrong. He missed a free throw he could have made in his sleep because he simply wanted it too bad.

That's the problem for the entire Heat team and why it can't close out good teams down the stretch, why every last-second shot or buzzer beater goes awry.

James is the Miami Vice that is squeezing the life out of the Heat. His desire to win a title is so great, his need to prove his worth so profound that it is actually having the opposite effect on both his own fortune and his team's. That's why Miami has a disappointing 14-18 against teams with winning records.

The Nike commercial he filmed firing back at his critics and mocking his own move to Miami was a window into his fragile psyche. Why even respond to the criticism? Players like Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce are fueled by others' disdain. James wants to turn it into accolades. He is the very definition of "tries too hard" at this point in his career.

Since that confidence-shaking lost opportunity against the Celtics, Miami and Boston have gone in opposite directions. The Celtics have won seven of eight since, despite shipping off Kendrick Perkins, remixing their chemistry and enduring more hobbled hoopsters. Miami has gone 4-5 and here are the teams the Heat has beaten: Indiana, Toronto, Sacramento and Washington, not a winning record in the bunch.

Here are the teams it has lost to: Chicago (twice), New York, Orlando and San Antonio.

In professional sports the margin between winning and losing is so slim that it's very hard to deliver when every game is a referendum on your career path, when every last-second shot is a defining moment in the making, when every win or loss affects your legacy (in your mind).

With a stronger head coach in place than Erik Spoelstra this might not be a problem, but Spoelstra has never been through this before either. He does not have the domineering personality of a Phil Jackson or a Doc Rivers. He erred in revealing that crying took place in the Miami locker room after yesterday's defeat, opening his team and its unholy trinity up to more derision and criticism when all he was trying to do was humanize them to the haters.

After the game Spoelstra said it was not a matter of effort with his team. Actually it is, coach. They're trying too hard, just like their best player.

The most dominant personality on the Heat is James and the team is taking on his traits. Instead of blending in with Wade and Bosh and forming a new team, James has brought his championship baggage with him to South Beach.

This is great for the Celtics because in trading Perkins they sacrificed perhaps their biggest advantage over Miami -- chemistry. While Rivers integrates new players and experiments with new lineups, Miami at this point in the season should be a well-oiled machine. But the Heat is far from it.

They're a fragile bunch of front-runners desperately trying to find acceptance among the NBA's championship contenders. They want a seat at the cool kid's table.

Enjoy this while you can because eventually James and the Heat will figure out that the only thing worse than not trying at all is trying too hard.

Owners need a new play

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 4, 2011 12:59 PM

Remember all the talk prior to the 2010 NFL season about how hard it was for teams to do long-term deals with the impending labor uncertainty in the league? How it was imprudent to hogtie your team with a long-term contract if there was no collective bargaining agreement on the horizon?

Yesterday, mere hours before expected armageddon, with uncertainty the only certainty in the NFL, teams like the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints were signing players to long-term deals. The Saints signed running back Pierre Thomas to a four-year, $12 million extension. The Texans inked tight end Owen Daniels to a four-year, $22 million contract. Those extensions are just as meaningful as the 24-hour extension of CBA negotiations that the NFL and the NFL Players Association have entered into under the guidance of federal mediator George Cohen.

If deals like the ones given Thomas and Daniels are getting done in this environment then so can the mother of all NFL contracts -- a new CBA. It just requires the owners to drop the crying poor pretense and play let's make a deal.

The owners have been harboring plans for a lockout almost from the moment they exercised the early opt-out clause in the CBA in 2008. These guys didn't become billionaires by doing bad business deals, but that's exactly what they felt they did in 2006, when they were cajoled into providing a parting gift of labor peace for outgoing NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue -- and, for the most recent NFL season, 59.6 percent of total revenue to the players.

Anyone who covers the league has heard the terms "lockout fund" and "war chest" for at least two years now. The DirecTV deal that was part of the $4 billion in lockout-proof television funds recently shot down by US District Judge David Doty, the MVP of the CBA negotiations so far, was advertised as lucre for the lockout at the 2009 NFL owners' meetings in Dana Point, Calif.

But luckily for football fans it seems the owners have gotten cold feet about going ahead with their Cold War. There has been a noticeable shift in tone in the characterization of negotiations in Washington. The players are already willing to commit to a longer extension of seven to 10 days.

If the owners have really had a change of heart -- or at least of strategy -- and want to abandon the long-planned lockout then they will follow suit. Otherwise, we're headed for lawsuits, including a messy anti-trust one where Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and offensive lineman Logan Mankins, along with former Patriots linebacker Mike Vrabel are all plaintiffs.

That could be uncomfortable for the folks in Foxborough, and you have to believe that Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who has been more optimistic and outspoken than most about the need to get a deal done, is pushing for an agreement to avoid that ugliness and Doty's unfriendly gavel.

While the more hawkish owners are going to want to proceed with the plan to lock the doors, enact a stalemate and bring the union to its knees to wring every possible concession out of their employees, that strategy is now as outdated as the Single Wing offense.

Really, at this point the negotiations boil down to risk, which has always been at the center of this dispute. For the owners it has been the risk that comes with stadium/construction debt on their balance sheets. For the players, it has been the risk of being betrayed by a body that was beaten and battered in the name of the NFL shield.

Now, there is additional risk for the owners and that's alienating their customers by proceeding with such a transparent lockout plan when there is the opportunity to get some, but not all, of the concessions they've demanded from the players -- rookie wage scale, an 18-game season, an additional $1 billion taken off the top of the Total Revenue pie.

Doty flagging the NFL for illegal procedure by ruling it knowingly and purposely negotiated favorable lockout payment conditions in the television contracts at the expense of increased rights fees, was not just a landmark victory for the players in US District Court. It was a huge win for the NFLPA in the court of public opinion.

It very plainly undressed ownership's long-standing plans for a lockout and for the casual fan gave them a very clear antagonist in a complicated process, where no one is without sin. Who negotiates a deal, as the league did with DirecTV, where you actually get more money if the games aren't played unless you're planning on not playing them all along?

That strategy was based on the union rank and file turning on executive director DeMaurice Smith, a man the owners have vastly underestimated, while the owners counted their TV money and paid their bills. Doty's ruling has stripped the owners of their financial hammer. Smith, who as a US attorney was once the recipient of death threats, has not been intimidated by NFL owners or commissioner Roger Goodell and has galvanized the players.

Like the Patriots in their playoff loss to the Jets, the owners' original game plan is not working.

Some of the league's most high-profile teams, including the Patriots, have high debt/value ratios, according to Forbes. If Doty's ruling is upheld and the television money is held up then not doing a deal becomes arguably a bigger risk than doing an imperfect one.

The owners can proceed with their scorched earth policy of a lockout and hope to emerge totally victorious from the ashes, or they can keep negotiating. It's a pressure-packed situation, not unlike what their employees deal with on the field all the time, when a play breaks down or a split-second judgment call needs to be made.

It's time to see if the owners are capable of making those famous in-game adjustments.

If they don't or won't, we all lose.

Five thoughts from the Fort

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 16, 2011 01:19 PM

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After a few days down in Florida embedded in baseball territory, here are some thoughts, observations and impressions of what is happening here and elsewhere on the Boston sports scene:

1. Zoning in -- What a difference a year makes in terms of spring training talking points for the Red Sox. Last year, all discussion centered on "run prevention" and ultimate zone rating (UZR). Those two terms haven't been uttered at all down here.

Run production was not a problem for the 2010 Red Sox, but run prevention was. The Sox finished second in all of baseball last year in runs scored with 818 runs but allowed the eighth-most runs (744). Defensively, the Sox have a chance to be better this year in the outfield with the addition of Carl Crawford in left field and the return of Jacoby Ellsbury, who arrived in camp today, to center field.

Last year, the Red Sox cumulative outfield defense posted a negative-23.4 UZR, 28th out of the 30 major league teams, according to Fangraphs.com. Boston ranked 23d in left field UZR with a minus-8.6. The Yankees, with speedy Brett Gardner in left field, led the majors at 19.9, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays, who had Crawford patrolling left, at 19.1. Center field was even worse for the Sox. They ranked 27th with a negative-17.9 UZR, down from negative-11.4 with Ellsbury in center in 2009.

"There are not too many balls that are going to find green grass out there," said pitcher Jon Lester. "Those guys are going to run them down."

2. Speaking in tags -- It's interesting that the language the Patriots used in their release announcing they had placed the franchise tag on guard Logan Mankins was nearly identical to the verbiage they used last year in tagging nose tackle Vince Wilfork.

"....Vince is a tremendous player for our team and remains a significant part of our future plans. It is because of Vince's importance to this organization that we have assigned the franchise designation as we continue to work toward a long-term agreement. We are hopeful that Vince will remain a Patriot for many years to come.”

“Logan Mankins is a tremendous player...and he remains an important part of our future plans. Unfortunately, we have not been able to reach a long-term agreement, despite many attempts and proposals by both sides. That remains our objective in utilizing the franchise designation and we are hopeful that Logan will be a Patriot for many years to come."

Let's hope the result of the tags is the same: a long-term agreement.

There has been talk that Mankins would be unwise to stage another sit-out with an estimated $10.1 million pay day. But withholding his services is the only leverage Mankins has, and even the guaranteed $10.1 million is about 40 percent of the easily earnable money he'd set himself up for in the first three years of a new long-term deal, using Saints guard Jahri Evans (seven-year, $56.7 million deal) as a comparison. Evans got a $12 million signing bonus in the first year of his deal and is slated to earn $25.7 million in the first three years of the contract. I wouldn't expect Mankins to show up for training camp on time (if camp starts on time with the NFL labor situation) without a new, long-term deal. If he doesn't, the Patriots could rent Bobby Jenks from the Sox.

3. Trade wins? -- Far brighter hockey minds can tell you exactly what type of player the Bruins are getting in Ottawa center Chris Kelly. What they're not getting is a player who inspires planning of the rolling rally route. There are still 12 days until the NHL trading deadline for Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli to augment his team. Hopefully, Chiarelli can pry puck-moving defenseman Tomas Kaberle from the Maple Leafs. The good news is that Leafs hockey honcho Brian Burke doesn't appear to want Toronto's 2011 first-round pick -- part of the Kessel trade cache -- back. However, Chiarelli might want to consider flipping that possible top-five pick to pick up another major piece because draft analysts like Gare Joyce of ESPN have pegged this as a bit of a down draft.

4. Rooting interest -- Hopefully there is a spot on the 2011 Red Sox for amiable outfielder Darnell McDonald. McDonald, who has been with seven organizations since he was a first-round pick of the Orioles in 1997, was one of the few bright spots of the injury-plagued 2010 season. He played in 117 games and hit .270 with nine home runs. His Sox debut, which came against the Texas Rangers on April 20, was one of the most enjoyable moments of the season. The persevering journeyman hit a two-run, pinch-hit homer in the eighth to the tie the game and then won it with a Wall-ball, walk-off single in the ninth.

McDonald has a better locker (next to Marco Scutaro) this year and a better chance to stick at the start of the season as a fifth outfielder. But as usual there are no guarantees for him. With an all lefthanded starting outfield and 38-year-old Mike Cameron coming off surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle, there would appear to be a need for a player like McDonald, who hit .294 against lefties last season.

"Yeah, I hope so," said McDonald. "The key is just being here. Everything else will take care of itself. I don't really know as far as the role, but my role, my job is just to be prepared every day and see what happens."

5. Manny being Manny -- McDonald said he spent most of his offseason in Arizona shuttling his oldest daughter to and from school and dance practice. He reported to camp in fantastic shape, and said that among his workout partners this winter were Matt Kemp of the Dodgers and one Manuel Aristides Ramirez. "Manny is good. His swing looks good," said McDonald. "He's motivated. We'll see what happens."

Super Bowl is over, labor pains begin

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 7, 2011 03:14 PM

Hope you enjoyed the Super Bowl because following the NFL is about to get tedious, unless you're in a fantasy labor lawyer league. The confetti from Super Bowl XLV had barely rained down from the rafters upon the Green Bay Packers before the realization hit that the next NFL game is TBA due to the pending expiration of the CBA.

The real Big Game is the labor negotiations between the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Both sides lose if there is not a new collective bargaining agreement by the time the current one expires March 4. The odds of that happening are about the same as Ben Roethlisberger contributing to "The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry," despite the spin and rosy rhetoric suddenly emanating from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and ownership.

The overwhelming question is why? The answer is because dollars and cents are overriding common sense among a segment of the owners, who accepted an unsatisfactory deal in 2006 to provide outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue with a parting gift.

The NFL has never been more popular or more profitable, and it defies logic that the players and the owners can't find common ground on how to split up billions of dollars. This is not the time for bickering or brinkmanship on how to carve up the proverbial gilded bird. It's the rich deciding who deserves to be richer.

Baseball might be quaintly referred to as "America's pastime" but the NFL is America's passion. All you have to do is check the great arbiter of popularity in our society: television ratings. In our fractured, fragmented, short-attention-span, instant-gratification culture, NFL football remains one of the few touchstones.

"We are concluding one of the greatest seasons in the history of the NFL," said Goodell. "It will always go down, at least until next year, as the most watched season in the history of the NFL. We thank our fans and all of the people who supported us in this great season."

Super Bowl XLV was the most-watched television program in US history, garnering 106.5 million viewers. It was a record wrap-up to a record-setting season on TV. The 2010 regular season drew 207.7 million unique viewers, according to Nielsen, making it the most-viewed in history. NFL game broadcasts were up an average of 1.3 million viewers per game. Nineteen of the 20 most-watched shows of the fall were NFL games. The Patriots set a regular-season record for household ratings in the Boston market.

Part of the focus of the CBA negotiations is the deployment of an 18-game season, which would take two exhibition games and turn them into regular-season contests (and line the coffers with more cash). However, NFL fans don't seem totally averse to watching exhibition games. The Pro Bowl, the ultimate in glorified gridiron scrimmages, garnered its highest ratings in 14 years this year. You couldn't pay me to watch the Pro Bowl on TV, but 13.4 million people tuned in of their own free will.

There are about $9 billion reasons that NFL owners shouldn't lock out players on March 4, but it's been obvious for quite some time that they've been bracing for a lockout. They plan to wait the players out with the piles of cash they have put into the lockout fund (trust me, there is such a thing) over the last couple of years. If there is a lockout it's not hard to envision players not getting serious about striking a deal until the end of the summer, when they know they won't have to slog through training camp and can still get their regular-season game checks.

The worst-case scenario is that there is a protracted stalemate and that games or an entire season is lost. In 1982, a work stoppage cost the league seven games of the regular season. The backlash from stripping the fans of football could be more considerable this time.

"That is something that they have to take into account, and they have to measure," said NFLPA president Kevin Mawae. "Are they willing to lose the fan base? Are they willing to lose that to get more already when the players are not asking for one other thing. That is what they need to answer."

Make no mistake the players would be more than happy to keep the status quo, which provides them with about 59 percent of the total football revenue. That is a signal that there should probably be some rollback that goes towards the owners.

But the owners want to remake the league in their portfolio. They don't want to split the pie more evenly. They want to take the fork away from the players. The owners, brilliant businessmen, talk about risk, but they're talking about the considerable capital investments they've made to build gleaming stadiums all across the country.

The risk for the players is not something you can quantify on a balance sheet, unless that sheet includes hospital bills.

Buckle up. This is going to be a polarizing and politicized process, evidenced by the NFLPA website heralding that Packers "union representative" Aaron Rodgers was named most valuable player of Super Bowl XLV. Nothing like politicizing the greatest triumph of Rodgers's career.

The posturing and politicking for public support on both sides is already annoying, but it is hypocritical of Goodell to chide the players' request for owners to open the books as a negotiating ploy. This is a man who said publicly that if there was not an agreement by March 4 he would lower his salary to $1.

And on and on it goes. It's hard to know who is right, when both sides are so wrong.

Ultimately, I think cooler heads will prevail and no regular season games will be missed, but not before some of the polish is taken off the NFL shield.

The Super Bowl was the league's one shining moment. Darker days are here.

Patriots game paved way for Pack

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 4, 2011 03:45 PM

The last team to beat the Green Bay Packers this season? Your New England Patriots. And it's going to stay that way.

The Packers will honor the legacy of Vince Lombardi, make Green Bay "Titletown" once more and protect the Patriots' place in pro football lore by defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday in North Dakota, er, North Texas. I picked the Packers to advance to the Super Bowl in the preseason, but I wasn't fully on board the Green Bay bandwagon until they came to Foxborough on Dec. 19 and, minus Aaron Rodgers, took the Patriots to the wire.

The old aphorism goes that there is no such thing as a moral victory, but the Packers got so much more out of their trip to Foxborough. Much like the Giants gained the confidence and the resolve to become Super Bowl champions by hanging tough with the Patriots in the 2007 season finale, Green Bay found its championship chops on a cold and cloudy night December night in New England.

Remember at the time the Patriots were coming off back-to-back thumpings of the Jets (45-3) and the Bears (36-7). Both of those contests, if you can call such lopsided affairs as much, were over faster than you could say Belichick. The Patriots enjoyed a 24-3 lead on the Jets and a 33-0 halftime advantage over Chicago. Dating back to the second half of the Thanksgiving Day game against the Lions, the Patriots had outscored their opponents by almost 100 points (116-17) in the last 10 quarters leading up to the Packers tilt.

The presumption in most precincts was that poor NBC was stuck with a dud of a Sunday Night game because Rodgers, injured the week before in a loss to the Lions, was out, and the Packers didn't have a frozen tundra's chance in Hades of beating the potent Patriots with backup QB Matt Flynn. The Packers were merely more fodder for Bill Belichick's wood-chipper of a team.

Then a funny thing happened. The Packers went out without their franchise quarterback and second-leading sack specialist, defensive end in Cullen Jenkins, and outplayed the Patriots for four quarters. They may have even won if coach Mike McCarthy or Flynn grasped the concept of time management.

Long before the Patriots' infamous fourth-quarter drive against the Jets in the playoffs, the Packers authored a drive to nowhere, burning off the final 4:22. The Patriots won the game, 31-27, thanks in part to the Packers bumbling final drive, a Flynn interception that was returned for a touchdown and Dan Connolly's memorable 71-yard kickoff return just before halftime, which set up a score.

"We expected to win in this locker room, a lot of people didn't give us a chance," said Green Bay safety Charlie Peprah afterward. "We felt we matched up real well with them. We expected to win this game. We had it, and we let it slip away. It hurts."

The Packers left Gillette with hurt feelings and with their playoff hopes on life-support, but also convinced they were the better team and a better team than their 8-6 record.

That was not a Lambeau Leap of logic. The Packers had more first downs (26 to 14), more yards (369 to 249), almost twice as many plays (80 to 43) and an outrageous time of possession edge (40:48 to 19:12) against the undisputed best team in football at the time.

Stats may be for losers, but in this case they'll also be for Lombardi Trophy winners because Green Bay's performance that night was a precursor to their Super Bowl run. Since that game the Packers have reeled off five straight wins in five straight must-win situations.

If you're looking for a team to root for in this Super Bowl pull for the Packers. Green Bay plays a style reminiscent of the vintage Patriots teams of 2003 and 2004. Those were teams that could beat you playing their style or yours or any in between.

The Packers, who have the No. 2 scoring defense in the league and the No. 9 scoring offense (based solely on offensive points scored), are a similarly adaptable bunch.

One week they beat the Jets, 9-0. The next they come back and blow out the Cowboys, 45-7. After losing to the Patriots, they exploded for 45 points against the Giants and the next week won a tense defensive struggle, 10-3, against the Bears to punch their ticket to the postseason.

In the playoffs, the defense saved the day against the Eagles with Tramon Williams's interception. Then Rodgers dismantled the Falcons' defense, powering the Packers to 48 points and 442 yards of offense. Last week in the NFC title game, the winning points came from B.J. Raji's interception return for a score.

The Packers ability and versatility is epitomized by the fact that Williams leads the NFL in postseason picks with three. On the other side of the ball wide receiver Greg Jennings leads all receivers with 17 catches and 239 yards.

Among all the crazy stats that get thrown out during Super Bowl week this one stands out -- the Packers have not trailed by more than seven points in any game this season.

That is with a roster that have been ravaged by injuries and lost a league-high 15 players to injured reserve. That is another trait these Packers share with their Patriot predecessors. The Patriots were renowned for their ability to build a deep roster and plug in players at will to overcome injuries. It became the Patriot Way.

It's Green Bay's way too. The Pack lost Pro Bowl-caliber performers like running back Ryan Grant, who was coming of back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons, linebacker Nick Barnett, dynamic tight end Jermichael Finley and starting right tackle Mark Tauscher for the season.

The Packers have the Patriots to thank for their Super Bowl trip. They couldn't have made it without them.

It's just a shame the Patriots weren't there to meet them.

Playing a little five-on-five

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 31, 2011 03:52 PM

As we brace for yet another winter storm (personal foul for piling on, Mother Nature) there are a flurry of sports-related thoughts running through my head.

Here are five thoughts/observations while waiting for the latest snow emergency:

1. Shaq Attack -- Big win for the Celtics in Los Angeles. However, there was one ominous sign from Southern California: Shaq's temper tantrum directed at Glen Davis after the Big Fella didn't get the basketball. O'Neal didn't talk to reporters after the game, and his behavior bears watching with Kendrick Perkins back. Yesterday, was the first time that O'Neal was not on his best behavior and put his personal agenda (sticking it to Kobe Bryant) ahead of the team's goals and game plan. Hopefully, it's the last time.

But there's a reason that the last couple of coaches Shaq has had in Phoenix and Cleveland were not sorry to see him exit. O'Neal has been a Bill Walton-esque boon to the Celtics' championship chase, but his personality, accomplishments and ego might ultimately prove too large to play the role of role player.

2. Logan's run -- Here is what you have to understand about Patriots guard Logan Mankins: He is more about principle than principal. If that weren't the case then Mankins simply would have signed his restricted free agent tender back in June for more than $3.2 million before it got slashed to $1.54 million, and he wouldn't have forfeited a substantial sum of that by sitting out the first eight weeks of the season. So, when he tells the Boston Herald he would not be happy to be franchised by the Patriots, he means it.

Mankins is from a tiny, bucolic California community called Catheys Valley, near Yosemite National Park. He grew up in the ranching world, where a man's word is just as meaningful to doing business as any check amount.

Back in October, when Mankins was still a holdout, friends of his from back home said Mankins was the type of guy who would walk away from football for a season rather than sign an unfair deal. "He's the type of guy who is perfectly happy on a ranch riding and doing those things that make him happy," said Trace DeSandres, a friend of Mankins and his former basketball coach. Mankins has already chastised the team once for not honoring its word. Don't be surprised if the franchise tag results in another protracted standoff between Mankins and the team.

3. Choosing sides -- My opinion on the NHL All-Star Game's new schoolyard pick'em format has not changed after the game. It's a vacuous gimmick that will soon grow tiresome. If you're not a hardcore hockey fan you have to keep checking to see who is on what team, and in truth I'm sure even some devoted puck heads had to go back and double-check the rosters once or twice to recall who was skating for Team Staal or Team Lidstrom.

The NHL has a great game with the greatest players in the world, and the bright minds in the league office have come up with some innovative ideas to showcase their sport, most notably the Winter Classic. This isn't one of them. I nominate it for worst sports idea of the year, along with the Big Ten naming its two divisions Legends and Leaders. Most All-Star games by definition are needless exhibitions (hello, Pro Bowl), but this adds a sideshow to a needless exhibition. On the plus side, I'm sure the NHL reeled in "Twilight" fans who loved the concept of Team Edward against Team Jacob.

4. Welcome back -- What a week for Bruins fans to skate down Black and Gold memory lane. Both former Calder Trophy-winning netminder Andrew Raycroft and erstwhile franchise forward Joe Thornton are back in town this week. The Razor, who is the No. 2 netminder for Dallas, and the Stars are here Thursday and Joe Cool and the Sharks take the ice on Saturday. Wonder if there will be any "Thank you, Raycroft" chants emanating from the Spoked-Believers? In a heist, the Bruins sent Raycroft to the Maple Leafs in a draft-day deal to obtain Tuukka Rask.

Tim Thomas's stellar play has relegated Rask to a reserve role, but he's still the goalie of the future. With the season Thomas is having, the fact he turns 37 in April and his $5 million-per-year price tag over the next two seasons, it might make sense for the Bruins to peddle Thomas in the off-season. But only because they have Rask in waiting.

5. Call to action -- Speaking of those infamous "Thank you, Kessel" calls, they seem to have quieted down, as has the play of the man (if it's fair to refer to a 19-year-old as such) who inspired them, Tyler Seguin. So far Seguin's rookie campaign has been closer to Kessel's than the 46-point production of Steven Stamkos. Seguin has 16 points (7 goals and 9 assists) in 48 games. He has three goals since Dec. 1. That pace of production projected over the final 32 games of the season would put him at 12 goals and 16 assists. The player to whom Seguin was compared in this past draft, Taylor Hall, has 16 goals and 15 assists right now.

If there is any silver lining to the unfortunate concussion-caused hiatus of Marc Savard it's that it could provide an opportunity for Seguin to show signs of being the franchise forward the Bruins desperately need him to be. Seguin is as close to a sure thing as you can get in a draft, but a little reassurance would be nice considering the Bruins' record with plucking franchise forwards out of the top 10 in the last 13 years.

Thornton was No. 1 in 1997 and Sergei Samsonov was No. 8 the same year. The two won just one playoff series skating in the Spoked-B. At least Samsonov netted the draft pick that became Milan Lucic. Kessel (No. 5 in 2006) is in Toronto and Zach Hamill (No. 8 in 2007) is in the AHL. Seguin needs to break the cycle.

Steelers, Packers is a Super matchup

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 24, 2011 01:26 PM

This is one Super Bowl where the commercials won't be the most eagerly anticipated viewing. Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV is a football feast with all the trimmings.

It's a game that belongs on the History Channel and not Fox.

By both modern and historical precedent, the North Texas showdown features the two winningest franchises in NFL history. The Packers have won a combined 12 NFL titles and won the first two Super Bowls ever contested. The trophy that the Super Bowl winner hoists is named after legendary Packers coach Vince Lombardi.

The Steelers, seeking their third Super Bowl title in six seasons, have won more Super Bowls (six) than any franchise in league history and are making a record eighth appearance in the Big Game. Pittsburgh is tied with Dallas for the most postseason victories in NFL history with 33 and Green Bay is next with 28.

We'll be reading stories about the storied pasts of the Packers and Steelers for two weeks and rightfully so. But even if you stripped both teams' lore of names like Starr and Bradshaw, Lombardi and Noll, Rooney and Lambeau and subtracted the Terrible Towel and the Styrofoam cheesehead, you would still have an intriguing matchup.

You have two of the game's best improvisational quarterbacks (Ben Roethlisberger and Aaron Rodgers), two of its keenest defensive minds (Pittsburgh's Dick LeBeau and Green Bay's Dom Capers) and two of its most passionate fanbases.

The quarterbacks, among two of the best not named Brady or Manning, are going to get the hype and the headlines, but this game is going to be about defense. The Packers and Steelers are proof that defense is not a dying art in the NFL.

Both teams have top five defenses. The Steelers were second in total defense and the Packers were fifth. They were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in points allowed. Pittsburgh led the league at 14.5 points per game. The Packers were just behind at 15. They're also No. 1 and No. 2 in sacks. Are you listening, Patriots? Pass-rush is important. The Steelers led the league with 48 sacks, and the Packers were in a three-way tie for second place with the Chargers and the Raiders at 47 each.

These teams like to harass opposing offenses with all manner of exotic blitz schemes. There will be blitzers coming out of the stands of Cowboys Stadium, or possibly that bogus attendance-padding plaza outside it to chase Roethlisberger and Rodgers.

Can someone explain again why Capers, who took a 20th-ranked defense in Green Bay and has put it in the top two each of the last two seasons, was allowed to leave Foxborough after just one season as a do-nothing coach with the title of special assistant-secondary? Seems like Capers could have aided the young Patriots defense in some way, no?

By the way, it was Capers's brilliant zone-blitz call that led to the game-winning touchdown for the Pack in the NFC title game, an interception return for a score by nose tackle/Boston College alum B.J. Raji.

You're also looking at the top two rushing defenses in these playoffs. Pittsburgh, which hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher all season and has gone 16 straight postseason games without allowing one, is first at 52.5 yards per game. Green Bay is next at 69.7 yards per game.

Due to the somewhat provincial bent of this region's sporting sentiment the obvious question is who should Patriots loyalists be backing in Super Bowl XLV? The answer is as apparent as the difference in difficulty of spelling Rodgers and Roethlisberger.

Pull for the Packers, Patriots fans. Familiarize yourselves with the words "Go, Pack, Go!" Forget about that little matter of Desmond Howard's 99-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XXXI because Green Bay is all that stands between Black and Gold preeminence. If you thought Jets fans were insufferable in their gloating after their playoff victory in Foxborough, wait until Steelers fans have more hardware to hold over your head.

If Big Ben and the men from the Steel City win their third Super Bowl in six seasons then the Patriots can no longer proclaim to be the league's gold standard for excellence. They'll be the Microsoft to Pittsburgh's Google. It will be a double playoff stomach-punch. Not only did the Patriots lose to the despised Jets and squander a 14-2 season and home-field throughout the AFC playoffs, but they opened the door to be usurped by Pittsburgh, a team they own, as the league's model franchise.

The Team of the Decade title was wrapped up by the Patriots. No one can take that from Bill Belichick or Tom Brady, but if the Steelers lug the Lombardi Trophy back to the former Fort Duquesne for the second time in three seasons it would be three titles for them since the last time the Patriots won one and two Super Bowls since New England last won...a playoff game. Those facts hurt worse than a James Harrison headshot.

Adding further insult would be that Roethlisberger, for all of his off-field faults and questionable conduct, would tie Brady in Super Bowl wins at three apiece, joining the exclusive club of three-time winners that includes four-time champions Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana and Troy Aikman, who also netted three titles with the Cowboys.

Roethlisberger resembles a young Brady in that other quarterbacks rack up bigger stats and more fawning media attention, but all he does is make plays and win when it matters most. See Super Bowl XLIII.

Vegas has already installed the Packers as favorites. Patriots fans better hope the wiseguys are more accurate than Jay Cutler was yesterday.

Start the hype and cue the hyperbole. The Super Bowl is set and it's a super matchup.

The two weeks between the AFC and NFC championship games and the Super Bowl usually constitute an interminable football-free period (Pro Bowl? Please), but this time it should be worth the wait.

Handing out some Boston sports gifts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 24, 2010 11:18 AM

'Tis the season for giving again, so it's time to hand out some Christmas gifts to our local sports teams. We've made our list and we've checked it twice; we know who has been naughty (What's next, Brandon Spikes?) and who has been nice (You've done it again, Bill Belichick).

Where else would you start then with a team named the Red Sox?

1. Red Sox -- Christmas came early for Sox fans this month when in a span of four days Theo Epstein traded for San Diego slugger Adrian Gonzalez and then got must-have toy, outfielder Carl Crawford. Making it even better was that lefthander Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees, who ended up with a lump coal from the Hot Stove. So, what do you get for the team that seemingly has everything? How about another loss for the Yankees?

The best gift the Sox could get would be Andy Pettitte packing up his pinstripes for good and retiring. Pettitte, who was the Yankees No. 2 starter, is an important piece for the Pinstripes. So important that club president Randy Levine doesn't have dreams of sugarplums dancing through his head, he has Pettitte back in a Yankees uniform occupying his dreams.

The estimable lefty made the All-Star team last season at age 38 and went 11-3 with a 3.28 earned run average. He had an ERA under 3.00 when he went on the disabled list in July with a strained groin, an injury that forced him too miss two months of the season. With Lee in Philadelphia and Zack Greinke in Milwaukee, the Yankees are running out of options to ramp up their rotation.

Stocking Stuffer: A healthy Jacoby Ellsbury.

2. Celtics -- The Celtics are the only Boston sports team playing on Christmas Day, as they bring their 14-game win streak to Orlando to face the extreme-makeover Magic. Celtics coach Doc Rivers gets the gift of being with his family on Christmas Day. But strictly basketball speaking the perfect present for the Celtics would be a healthy center. Hopefully, that is in Shaq-a-claus's sack this season.

The Celtics haven't had any missed games due to injury from the Big Three. But they've already lost an entire season due to injuries -- 82 man games missed. Right now they're making due without Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, and Delonte West.

But it's in the middle where they've been hurt the most -- literally. Center Jermaine O'Neal (sore left knee/flu) has missed 20 of 27 games. Shaq, who has missed a third of the season, is touch and go with a calf strain. The surprising Semih Erden, soldiering on despite a bad shoulder, is the healthiest center the Celtics have.

Stocking Stuffer: Continued good behavior from Glen Davis and Nate Robinson.

3. Patriots -- It has already been a season of joy for the Patriots. They are the scrooges of the NFL. They never give the ball up and they're always taking it away. Their nine turnovers this season and 29 turnovers forced are an integral part of their success. The only two games the Patriots have lost this year came when they lost the turnover tussle.

There are the obvious presents for the Pats -- a new hoodie for Belichick, a pair of scissors for Tom Brady, a GPS for maligned safety Brandon Meriweather. But what this team really needs for the playoff season is an improved pass rush.

Colleague Greg Bedard had an amazing stat, courtesy of Football Outsiders, last Sunday: just three of the Patriots' sacks have come on third down. The team had five sacks last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, but none on third down.

That explains why the Patriots have the worst third-down defense (49.2 percent conversion rate for opponents) in the league.

Stocking Stuffer: A couple of losses for the Raiders to bump up that 2011 first-round pick.

4. Bruins -- The spoked-Bs certainly showed some holiday spirit last night against the Atlanta Thrashers in a raucous and rough 4-1 win. Before that the appropriate gift would have been a pulse. But the Bruins showed some pluck in Thrashing Atlanta. So, the ideal gift now for the Bruins would be a return to form for center Marc Savard, who has three points in 10 games this season.

Savvy hasn't been the same since he suffered a concussion at the hands of Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke last March. He's dealt with post-concussion syndrome and depression, which delayed the start of his season. When he's right, Savard is one of the best playmaking pivots in the game and his presence makes the Bruins a deep and dangerous team. My hunch is Savard finding his game will allow Nathan Horton to reappear.

Stocking stuffer: One of these days the Bruins are going to get that premium puck-moving defenseman we hear so much about.

5. Revolution -- I know some of you don't consider soccer a major sport, but 'tis the season to be charitable. The Revolution, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001, actually got their gift back in October, when Robert and Jonathan Kraft agreed to open up the coffers. They instructed soccer operations to pursue a designated player, which allows teams to go over the salary cap to bring in star players like David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy and French star Thierry Henry with the New York Red Bulls.

It's doubtful the Revolution will end up with a name that recognizable, but they should be able to procure an international talent or two -- MLS teams can sign two DPs and can trade/pay to get a third -- who can propel them back into contention. Previously, the Revolution had shied away from the DP, saying they were saving it for a player who would create scoring opportunities for the franchise off the pitch as well, i.e. Beckham.

Stocking Stuffer: The Revolution really need a soccer-specific home of their own.

Merry Christmas.

A modest proposal for the NFL playoffs

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 17, 2010 12:27 PM

Forget Major League Baseball expanding its playoffs, it is the NFL that needs to super-size the road to the Super Bowl.

The league is fixated on expanding to an 18-game regular season, but it needs to fix a loophole in the current playoff format as well.

Why the outcry for reform? Look West. With three games to go in the season there is the real possibility that the "winner" of the NFC West is going to finish with an 8-8 or 7-9 record. The co-leaders of the division, which should be re-named the NFC Worst, are 6-7 St. Louis and 6-7 Seattle. Both would have to win out to finish with winning records. That's not possible since they play each other in the regular-season finale in Seattle.

This situation has already sparked talk of tweaking the playoff format. Atlanta Falcons president Rich McKay, the co-chairman of the NFL's Competition Committee, which recommends and oversees rules changes, said on Wednesday he is in favor of seeding the playoffs by record instead of automatically making the four division winners in each conference the top four seeds, with two wild card teams automatically slotted into the fifth and sixth seeds -- and first-round road games.

This is the equivalent of rearranging the furniture in a room with a hole in the wall. NFL decision-makers should expand the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 (from six berths per conference to seven).

Seeding is an easy fix, just like NFL overtime, simply change the rule so that a division champion must finish with a winning record to be a top-four seed. But the larger issue is rewarding mediocrity by geography.

The current four-division setup, which the league went to in 2002, has watered down being a division champion and has created a mechanism to possibly penalize more teams simply because they're in the wrong geographical grouping in a given year.

We know this firsthand here in New England. In 2008, the Patriots went 11-5 and watched the playoffs on their flat screens, while the 8-8 AFC West champion San Diego Chargers were postseason participants. This year it could be an NFC team like the Green Bay Packers, the Patriots' opponents this week, that gets left out.

This is what Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein would term a "fatal flaw."

The NFL has had a 12-team playoff set up since 1990, when a third wild card team in each conference was created. At the time, the league had three divisions per conference (East, Central and West), so there were three division champions and three wild cards. However, a wild card berth was sacrificed with the realignment to a four-division format -- so was playoff format fairness.

The league should restore the third wild card and keep the four division winners. It's a win-win. It would create more content for the NFL owners to profit from by virtue of an additional playoff game per conference (how about a playoff game on NFL Network?) and allow more teams to have a chance at lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

How would a 14-team playoff work?

The major change would be that instead of two first-round byes per conference there would just one, which could help the league with another problem -- the tanking of regular season games by teams that have locked up byes. Fewer teams would be able to routinely shut it down in the final two or three weeks -- I'm looking at you, Indianapolis Colts -- because they clinched a first-round bye.

Reducing tanking would result in what the NFL is billing an 18-game slate as -- an "enhanced season" -- because more would be at stake later in the year and having the best record in the AFC or the NFC would be a truly significant feat worth fighting for.

The primary concern with a 14-team postseason format is that the teams in each conference who earned the bye would have too much of an advantage.

However, playing on Wild Card Weekend is far from a Super Bowl death sentence. Since 2000, four Super Bowl winners and six Super Bowl participants have played in the first round, including a stretch of three straight seasons (2005, 2006 and 2007) where the Super Bowl champion didn't have the benefit of a bye.

The 2005 Steelers, 2006 Indianapolis Colts and the, ugh, 2007 New York Giants all won it all without any idle time.

The most recent team to play on Wild Card Weekend and end up playing on Super Bowl Sunday was the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, who were 35 seconds -- and Santonio Holmes's tippy-toes -- away from being Super Bowl champions.

In a league that prides itself on parity and already has bye weeks worked into the regular season, having only one bye per conference shouldn't be enough of an argument against playoff expansion.

There is also the matter of historical precedent. The last time the league expanded the regular season, going from 14 games to 16 games in 1978, they added an additional wild-card berth in each conference.

The NFL has actually entertained a 14-team playoff. Patriots owner Robert Kraft co-sponsored a rules proposal with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2003 that would have expanded the playoffs to 14 teams. But the proposal was never voted on by the teams and was withdrawn due to lack of support.

It takes a yea vote from 24 of the NFL's 32 teams for a rules proposal to be passed.

But the league should take another shot. With a new collective bargaining agreement on the horizon it's the perfect time to expand the NFL's playoff horizons.

MLB's combined regular and postseason are already bloated with too many games, but the NFL still has room for improvement.

Hits will keep on coming for NFL

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 19, 2010 07:59 PM
(Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
James Harrison of the Steelers was fined $75,000 for his hits.
The NFL has always been a Pat Benatar business -- hit me with your best shot. It is ingrained in the testosterone-fueled culture of the league. There are no amount of rules changes, fines or suspensions that are going to change that overnight.

The NFL made examples out of Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather ($50,000 fine), Steelers linebacker James Harrison ($75,000) and Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson ($50,000 fine) yesterday for their head shots on Sunday. League vice president of football operations Ray Anderson also sounded a clarion call that future headhunters would face not only fines but suspensions for egregious and dangerous hits.

But there is an old saying that you can't legislate common sense. You can make it against the law for someone not to wear their seat belt, but you can't prevent them from leaving the house without it fastened.

For all the "We are one" gestures on the opening weekend of the season by the players, it's pretty obvious that they either are unwilling or unable to protect each other. Last Sunday was a headbanger's ball in the league with several notable helmet-to-helmet hits, including Meriweather turning himself into a Patriot missile and trying to blow up Baltimore tight end Todd Heap on an incompletion. That blow was so reckless that even the baleful Harrison, who said it's his job to hurt people, called it a "nasty hit" and used it to defend his own on-field behavior.

No one, not players, coaches, league executives, media or fans can claim the moral high ground on this subject.

The NFL is always going to look a little sanctimonious with its outrage over these hits. The league had to be hit over the head with mounting evidence of the deleterious defects of concussions before they became more proactive with regard to prevention and treatment. For years they marketed and glorified cringe-worthy collisions as one of the more appealing parts of professional football. If NFL Films had been at the Roman Colosseum, the lions would have been the protagonists.

A lot of football fans remember enjoying "NFL's Greatest Hits" videos, a compilation of kill-shots on mostly defenseless players set to adrenaline-inducing music. Back then the rule was to blow those guys up -- at will. Big hits became the NFL's version of the NBA slam-dunk contest.

The NFL and headshot hits is akin to major league baseball and steroids. For years they buried their head in the sand, and once it became a public relations problem that couldn't go away they found religion. But it was relatively easy for major league baseball to eradicate steroids, all they had to do was try. It has proven harder for the NFL to eliminate concussion-causing hits because violence is part of the game's DNA. There is no testing that can weed out wanton disregard for a fellow player's safety or extraordinarily bad judgment.

It's a fine line -- and sometimes a fined line -- for players who know their job security rests on being able to pry the ball free from the opposition by any means necessary. There are franchises like the Raiders and the Steelers that have built their entire organizational ethos on fear, intimidation, and playing on the edge. Players will argue that if they don't find a way to do their job, teams with find someone else to do it for them. They're right.

Meriweather has been roundly criticized around here for not tackling and letting players bounce off him. He tries to be more physical, but goes about it all wrong. But let's be clear, coach Bill Belichick didn't take him off the field because of outrage over an ostensibly dirty play. He took him off because he committed an undisciplined and unnecessary penalty that cost the team yardage.

That's not an uncommon trait for a Patriots' safety.

Last year, Brandon McGowan was a starter for the first 11 games last season. This is a man who described his style of play as "reckless." Rodney Harrison was beloved during his Patriots career despite being regarded by his peers as one of the dirtiest players of his era. Lawyer Milloy enjoyed more successful launches than NASA. Poor Ty Law had the unfortunate fate of being the Ellis Burks to his gridiron Mike Greenwell.

For most of the NFL's existence, hits like the one Meriweather delivered were part of a safety's job. How many times have you heard an announcer say player X dropped the ball because he heard footsteps? It was not the pitter-patter of cleats that caused the drop, but the idea of being eviscerated. Intimidation is a 12th defender.

That's why the hits are going to keep on coming until the burden for them is shared not only by players, but by coaches and organizations. Fine coaches and owners for their players' conduct and then you might see a real change.

Steelers teammates and coach Mike Tomlin actually lauded James Harrison for his hits on Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi of the Browns. The remorseless Harrison displayed uncommon ignorance about concussions, especially playing for an organization that once employed Merril Hoge, who has become a concussion crusader.

"I thought Cribbs was asleep," Harrison said in an Associated Press story. "A hit like that geeks you up, especially when you find out the guy is not really hurt, he's just sleeping. He's knocked out but he's going to be OK."

Tell that to Ted Johnson or Kevin Turner or John Mackey. If the NFL thought players like Cribbs were going to be okay, they wouldn't have instituted tougher guidelines for players to return from concussions last December or donated $1 million dollars earlier this year to the Boston University School of Medicine's Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Headshots are creating a headache for the NFL. The league is taking steps in the right direction, but in a game as violent and competitive as football, the idea of player safety will always be precarious at best and an oxymoron at worst.

That's something NFL players won't forget no matter how many concussions they suffer.

Pulling coaching rank

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 30, 2010 02:33 PM


Coaches are overanalyzed and underappreciated. Having your decisions dissected and your calls questioned is as much a part of their jobs as answering emails is for the rest of us.

Given the day-to-day scrutiny of our local sports teams and their leaders, we may not be fully appreciative of the current collection of coaches we have in this town. To wit, there are 13 US cities that field teams in all four major sports -- sorry, Major League Soccer, but most mainstream sports fans still have you in the waiting room -- Boston is the only one that has three coaches/managers who have won a championship with their current team.

If you don't know who those coaches are, you've wandered away from "Love Letters" and we're happy to have you. Patriots coach Bill Belichick (three Super Bowl titles, last championship after the 2004 season), Red Sox manager Terry Francona (two World Series crowns, last title in 2007) and Celtics coach Doc Rivers (one NBA championship in 2008) are all Lords of the Championship Ring. In defense of Bruins coach Claude Julien, no Bruins coach has won a championship since Tom Johnson lifted Lord Stanley's hallowed hardware in 1972.

The only other Big Four cities that even have two coaches who have won championships with their current teams are New York (Yankees manager Joe Girardi and New York Giants coach Tom Coughlin) and Chicago (White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and Chicago Blackhawks bench boss Joel Quenneville.) But in the Big Four sports, New York has seven teams, not including the New Jersey Devils or the New Jersey Nets. Chicago benefits from an extra baseball team.

So, Boston clearly ranks No. 1 in coaching cachet, but how would you rank the Boston coaches today? Forget résumé and reputation. Right now, from one to four, who are the most masterful sports superiors in the Hub? Here's my list:

1. Doc Rivers -- The only reason the Celtics are still a championship contender this season is the return of Rivers, who somehow managed to coax an aging, disengaged, fourth-seeded team to within six minutes of an NBA title last season. Paul Pierce said that Rivers's decision to return was the key to bringing the Big Three back intact and adding Shaq. Rivers's ability to manage people and egos allows the Celtics to gamble on high-maintenance role players -- players like Shaq, Stephon Marbury, Nate Robinson, and Rasheed Wallace -- and walk an emotional high-wire with headstrong stars like Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo. Outside of Phil Jackson, there is not another coach in the league who could foster chemistry with this volatile bunch.

"I think Doc is the perfect coach for these guys," said Celtics general manager Danny Ainge. "These guys, a lot of them, the older group, the veterans, the Hall of Famers, the All-Stars, however you want to refer to them, they have strong personalities, but I think they want to be coached. I think they know they can't do it on their own. They have to do it in the team concept, and I think they'll have a great deal of respect for Doc."

2. Terry Francona -- There is not a more thankless job in sports than Red Sox manager. Like Rivers, Francona is a master of melding personalities and managing people. You try having an unhappy Mike Lowell on the bench most of the season. He's done perhaps his best managerial job this season, keeping the Red Sox in playoff contention until late September with the assorted McDonalds, Navas, Pattersons, and Navarros the team has been forced to trot due to season-ending injuries to starters Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia.

Tito has gotten a lot of use out of his Ben Franklin bifocals as he's come up with 139 different batting orders this season. He had his projected starting lineup play in a grand total of four games this season, according to baseball-reference.com. His alleged ace, Josh Beckett, went 6-6, his erstwhile All-Star closer, Jonathan Papelbon, has an earned run average above 4.00 and his short-armed bullpen has posted a worse ERA than the Seattle Mariners. Yet, the Red Sox could still win 90 games this season in the toughest division in baseball.

3. Bill Belichick -- It is odd to find Belichick in the third spot, but remember this is based on right now and not career accomplishments. If I had to win one game with equal talent, there still isn't another coach in football I'd take over our resident gridiron Einstein, who has won 70.7 percent of his games as Patriots coach, including the playoffs. However, there has been some slippage recently in Foxborough. Last year's 10-6 campaign was marked by some odd coaching/personnel decisions and locker room unrest.

This year, the Patriots lost to the archrival Jets on the road and got shut out in the second half. Three games into the season, Belichick, a defensive mastermind, can't figure out his defensive personnel, unseating three starters. The defense is young and still in its formative stage, but it's stocked with Belichick's hand-picked draft picks. If he can't coach these guys up, he has no one to blame.

4. Claude Julien -- Tough crowd for Claude. Julien has guided the Bruins to back-to-back appearances in the Eastern Conference semifinals after the franchise went a decade between winning playoff series. He was the 2009 NHL Coach of the Year, and has a .612 winning percentage behind the bench for the Black and Gold. Yet, the Bruins were a listless bunch for most of last season, during which Julien was criticized for being too slow to change up his lines and sticking with underperforming players too long (see: Ryder, Michael).

Plus, he presided over the Bruins' epic collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers, as the spooked-B's blew a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 lead in Game 7. Worse, Simon Gagne's power-play game-winner was the result of a game-management miscue -- too-many-men-on-the-ice. That in-limbo line change wasn't Julien's fault, but championship teams don't wilt under pressure.

Playing some five-on-five

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 23, 2010 03:19 PM

New York is the city that never sleeps, but Boston is the city where the sports analysis, talk, and speculation never cease. There is rarely a shortage of topics to discuss. Here are five that have been on my mind of late.

1.There are two offensive players who have defined the essence and ethos of the Bill Belichick Patriots. One was Troy Brown, and the other is Kevin Faulk, now out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The laconic Louisiana native is as stand-up a guy as you'll find in an NFL locker room. During the 2007 season, with Spygate swirling, Faulk, a team captain that season, was one of the few players who consistently stood at his locker and faced the barrage of questions. When asked why he did it, he simply relayed he felt it was his job as a captain.

Faulk is one of those players for whom statistics simply don't do justice. An example, he scored just one touchdown during the point-a-palooza 2007 season. It was the game-winner in the Patriots' epic comeback against the Colts, as Faulk willed his way over the goal line for the winning points, squeezing between Colts defenders. It was quintessential Faulk. When Faulk retires there is a place in the Hall at Patriot Place with his name on it.

2. Just curious what all those David Ortiz detractors are saying now. At the start of play on May 9, the last day the Yankees came to the Fens, Ortiz was batting .178 and the discussion was about how long before the Sox gave Big Papi his walking papers. ESPN's estimable Buster Olney wrote: "I'd be stunned if Ortiz finishes the month on the Boston roster."

Now, here we are on Sept. 23, and Ortiz is tied for fifth in the American League in home runs (31), is on pace to drive in 100 runs and has a higher batting average, slugging percentage and OPS than the Yankees Mark Teixeira. To me it's a no-brainer for the Sox to pick up Ortiz's $12.5 million option, especially with Mike Lowell coming off the books. This team is already devoid of power and 30-homer sluggers don't grown on trees, at least not anymore. Ortiz is too proud to take a paycut to stay here. Ortiz is awful against lefties -- .205 and just two homers -- but do the Sox have a better option at DH? Compare Papi's numbers to Nationals slugger, Adam Dunn, long a Fenway front-office favorite. The on-base percentages (.362) are identical, so are the RBI totals (96). Dunn has hit .199 against lefties this year.

3. There has been considerable buzz building lately for Jayson Werth coming to Boston this winter. The hard-hitting and hirsute outfielder would fill the Sox' desperate need for a right-handed-hitting outfielder with pop. This year Werth ranks No. 16 in all of baseball in OPS-plus, which adjusts for a player's ballpark. He is ahead of Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, and Evan Longoria. By comparison, Matt Holliday, last year's hot free-agent outfielder, is eighth in OPS-plus.

The question is whether Werth is worth the cost? Werth has hired Scott Boras as his agent, and SI.com's Jon Heyman, who frequently quotes Boras, guessed that it will take five years and $90 million to sign Werth via free agency. Do you want to give that long a contract to a player who turns 32 in May, when you're only willing to go two years on Victor Martinez, who turns 32 in December?

Anyone who read the recent Sports Illustrated piece on Werth has to wonder how he'd fare in Boston. It's one thing to go from bench player to cult hero in Philly. It's another to arrive in baseball-obsessed Boston as a big-ticket acquisition. The Red Sox haven't exactly hit a lot of home runs in free agency during the Theo Epstein regime. Plus, Werth's home-road splits this season are a little alarming, although he posted a higher on-base percentage away from home in 2009 and boasted more home runs and a better slugging percentage on the road in 2008.

If you have to spend that type of money on an outfielder then the safer investment in my mind would have been Holliday, who turns 31 in January and has a longer track record of success.

4. I'm not sure what to make of the Marc Savard saga, except it just seems like a headache for the Bruins. To me there are three possible scenarios and none of them are really good for the B's, considering that Savard's seven-year, $28-million extension kicks in this season. One, is that the team and Savard are telling the truth and at some point during the summer his post-concussion syndrome symptoms unexpectedly returned. Two, is the grassy-noll theory that Savard is ticked off about his name being bandied about in trade rumors all summer long and is going on a wildcat strike. Three, that the Bruins knew Savard was damaged goods and were trying to peddle him off before it became obvious he wasn't going to be ready for the start of camp. Here's hoping Savard returns healthy and happy.

5. Got to love the Celtics' logic when it comes to losing to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Doc Rivers has said that his team has never been beaten in a playoff series with the entire starting five at the Green's disposal, a point Paul Pierce agreed with. Kevin Garnett was hors de hoops in the 2009 playoffs, and Kendrick Perkins torn ACL in Game 6 of this year's Finals let the Lakers play volleyball on the boards in Game 7. The problem is that when the Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008, LA was playing without center Andrew Bynum, who missed the entire playoffs that year with a dislocated left kneecap, a convenient fact that gets omitted over on Causeway Street. Here's hoping for a full-strength Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals rubber rematch this year.

Rainy-day ruminations

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff August 26, 2010 01:58 PM

Rainy days are great for two things -- sleeping and thinking. With the only thing missing around here the last few days being an ark, there was a lot of time to flood the mind with thoughts. So, with the return of that strange, yellow orb in the sky, it's a good time to unleash a few rainy day ruminations about Boston sports.

1. My guess is that the contract standoff between the Patriots and Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins has to come to some sort of conclusion by Oct. 19, the NFL trade deadline. Mankins, who has stayed away from the team and declined to sign his restricted free agent tender, which has been slashed to $1.54 million, could show up and sign the tender by Nov. 16 and still get credited with a year of service toward free agency.

However, I don't see Patriots coach Bill Belichick letting a disgruntled player show up 10 games into the season. It's too much of a distraction. Instead of engaging in a dispute with the NFL Players Association over Mankins showing up at a time when the team might not want him anywhere near Foxborough, the Patriots are better off simply parting ways with him by the trade deadline.

2. If the Red Sox go to St. Petersburg, Fla., and take two out of three from the Rays, general manager Theo Epstein owes it to his persevering players to grab a veteran outfielder before the Aug. 31 trade deadline. The Sox already tried to make Johnny Damon redux a reality, but Damon spurned his former club. How about making a play for Damon's Red Sox replacement, Coco Crisp? Crisp has heated up this month for the A's. He's batting .341, with three of his six home runs and has a .383 on-base percentage. Crisp is batting .350 versus lefthanded pitching this year and would provide a speed element (22 stolen bases in 24 attempts). We already know what he can do defensively.

If not Crisp, the Angels put outfielder Juan Rivera on waivers this week. Rivera is having a down year, and has $5.25 million due in 2011, but he has some pop.

3. Speaking of the Sox, does anybody else think the timing of Daisuke Matsuzaka's back injury is a little curious? I'm not doubting the injury. Matsuzaka probably does have a stiff back, but it's pretty obvious the Sox wanted to line up their pitching for the all-important Tampa series. Now, they're throwing Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey, whose numbers against the Rays (2-1, 5.94 ERA) are deceivingly bad because he gave up eight earned runs over 3 1/3 innings against them in April. The real injury here might be Matsuzaka's wounded pride.

4. Generally speaking I'm what is considered a Manny Ramirez guy. He was an incredible, if extremely temperamental, talent when he was here. But was anyone really buying this idea that Manny had found religion in Chavez Ravine with the Dodgers? Manny wasn't misunderstood here. He was understood all too clearly, and now L.A. sports fans understand him as well. It turns out Manny was the biggest faker of all in a town full of fakers. Now, the Dodgers have put him on waivers and "bitter" Red Sox fans are saying, "I told you so." Wonder if they still have that billboard of Manny on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood?

5. Say what you will for the job that Epstein has done this year and the lack of major in-season additions, but you have to give the Sox some credit for unearthing players like Daniel Nava, Darnell McDonald and Bill Hall. There is no way the Sox would still be in the playoff chase if Epstein and the boys in baseball operations hadn't done their due diligence in helping to build organization depth. Hall has 17 home runs, three more than Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson, in just 267 at-bats and has played every position except catcher and first base for the Sox, even pitching a scoreless inning. He cost the Sox Casey Kotchman and a player to be named later, plus the Mariners are eating $7.15 million of his $8.4 million salary. McDonald was a journeyman anyone could have had, and Nava was signed in 2008 out of independent ball. People often say the Sox and Yankees win because they have more money than other clubs, but you can't put a price on good scouting.

6. Can't wait for Nov. 5 and Nov. 7. Those are the days in back-to-back games the Celtics are scheduled to play the Chicago Bulls (at home) and the Oklahoma City Thunder (road), respectively. I have a feeling that Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo is going to have something to prove to Bulls guard Derrick Rose and Thunder guard Russell Westbrook, ballers who beat him out for a roster spot on USA Basketball's World Championship entry. Chauncey Billups, Stephen Curry and Eric Gordon were all going to make the team because they provide perimeter shooting, so it came down to the somewhat redundant skills of Rondo and Westbrook and to a lesser degree Rose. Rondo lost out, and he doesn't take losing well.

7. Congratulations to Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski, who has agreed to a four-year extension with the team that runs through 2014. The deal has an average annual value between $3.4 and $3.5 million. What Gostkowski has done in succeeding Adam Vinatieri doesn't get enough attention. Vinatieri is arguably the greatest kicker in NFL history. That's a lot of pressure to follow up at a position that is already full of pressure, and Gostkowski has handled it with grace, production and professionalism.

8. What ever happened to all that talk about Tom Brady getting a new contract before playing a preseason game? Brady is preparing to play tonight against the Rams in the Patriots' third preseason game, always the one in which the starters play the most, and he still doesn't have a new deal.

Leaving you with five staycation thoughts...

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 12, 2010 02:04 PM

It's time for a little summer vacation, but before I depart (figuratively but not literally) for my staycation, I thought I'd leave you with a few thoughts from what was an interesting and eventful last five days in the sports world.

1. Has there ever been a worse sports break-up than LeBron James and Cleveland? The phrase, "I'm taking my talents to..." is now part of our pop-culture lexicon. How LeBron announced his decision Thursday night was disgraceful, disingenuous, and downright crass. It was the equivalent of dumping a fiancé or fiancée on national television while simultaneously making out with your new amour. Talk about a jilted lover, Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert lambasted the King and accused him of quitting. Mr. Gilbert: Check the box score from Game 6. LeBron took a game-high 21 shots, 12 in the first half. He had a triple-double (27 points, 19 rebounds, 10 assists) and nine turnovers. You're just as self-serving and self-centered as Gone Baby 'Bron. You two deserved each other.

For all the LeBron enablers in the NBA talking about how we should praise his decision because it was all about winning, read this excellent piece by Brian Windhorst of the Cleveland Plain Dealer in which it is quite clear that the Heat's willingness to accommodate LeBron's Boys and conversely Chicago's unwillingness played a role in the outcome.

In a weird way, the Hub is to blame for this hoops spectacle. Don't forget that the final time King James donned a Cavaliers uniform was on May 13 at TD Garden, as the Celtics ushered in the Summer of LeBron and ushered the Cavs out of the playoffs with a 94-85 victory. After losing twice to the Celtics in the playoffs in the last three seasons, LeBron felt the only way to beat the Big Three (plus Rondo) was to form a hoops holy trinity of his own with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

2. The Celtics' offseason plan doesn't look as good now as it did five days ago: So much for luck of the Irish. The carefully cultivated and meticulously executed offseason stratagem of the Celtics unraveled in four days. It was all aboard for Banner 18 last Wednesday after Danny Ainge lured Ray Allen back into the fold, and then things started to veer off track. On Thursday, the Celtics reached an agreement with/exhumed the remains of backup big man Jermaine O'Neal. Hours later, LeBron announced he was going to Miami. Then yesterday, reserve shooting guard Tony Allen moved to the Memphis beat.

Other than the Cavaliers and New York Knicks, the Celtics are the biggest losers in the LeBron Sweepstakes. If the Chosen One had chosen to go back to Cleveland or even signed with the Bulls, the Celtics still would have been regarded as the favorites in the East this year, and possibly next. Now, Miami has formed a triumvirate of its own that on paper trumps Boston's. The Celtics Big Three are in decline, Miami's is in its prime. Simple as that.

The caveat about the Heat is what kind of bench are they going to have? But you can ask the same question about the Celtics now that Tony Allen has defected and that O'Neal has been signed to replace the presumably retiring Rasheed Wallace. With very limited cap space, Ainge is going to have to get creative to replace TA. The Celtics signing Jermaine O'Neal is better than signing Shaquille O'Neal. That's about the only positive spin I can put on the move.

3. Jacoby Ellsbury is not getting a fair shake: Look, Ellsbury did himself no favors with his copious notes and detailed dissertation of the disconnect between himself and the Sox when it comes to the five broken ribs he ostensibly suffered in a collision with Adrian Beltre on April 11 in Kansas City. It helps no one to get into a he said-he said, but Ellsbury clearly felt he had to defend himself against the character assassination that has gone on since he got injured. It's tough to blame him.

While it's difficult to condone Ellsbury disappearing to Athletes' Performance Institute in Arizona for a month, he has a right under the collective bargaining agreement to seek outside medical care, and the Sox signed off on it. Who among us hasn't sought a second opinion when they felt they were not being listened to by a doctor?

Last Saturday marked 36 days since fellow Sox outfielder Jeremy Hermida suffered five fractured ribs in a collision with Beltre in Baltimore on June 4. At that same mark after his injury, Ellbury was making a rehab start in Pawtucket. No one seemed to mention that while throwing a parade for Hermida last week when he took full batting practice. This is not to diminish Hermida but to point out the two players seem to be on similar recovery paths.

After suffering his injury, Hermida actually played in a game, appearing against Cleveland five days later. He hasn't played since. That would indicate both the seriousness and the difficulty in recovery with this injury. Don't forget, Ellsbury, who said that in addition to the ribs he has a lattisimus dorsi strain and inflamed nerves, came back and played in minor-league rehab games and three major league games before the, according to him, previously undiagnosed broken back rib shut him down.

If Hermida returns to action and is able to play regularly, then the Ellsbury bashers have a point. Until then the jury is out.

4. Apologies to Nick Swisher and Tony Mazz: Before the season, I said that one of the reasons I wasn't as bullish on the Bronx Bombers as Mazz and others was that I thought the Yankees would miss Johnny Damon and Hideki Matsui and that Swisher would not be able to duplicate his 2009 performance (29 home runs, 82 runs batted in, .371 on-base percentage). Swisher's pinstripe premiere year was a fluke.

I was wrong. Swisher has been better than last year and earned an All-Star nod by beating out fellow "Moneyball" protagonist Kevin Youklis in the MLB All-Star final vote. Swisher is a deserving All-Star (although not more deserving than Youkilis). He is batting .298 with 15 home runs, 49 RBI and a .377 OBP at the break. His .901 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is higher than both Alex Rodriguez and Mark Texeira and tied with Tampa Bay's Carl Crawford.

5. Welcome reign for Spain: In a lot of ways Spain was kind of like the pre-2004 Red Sox of international soccer. They had a rich history, a ton of talented players, but they just couldn't win the Big One. That changed yesterday with the Spaniards' 1-0 win over the Netherlands in the World Cup final. Andres Iniesta's game-winner in the 116th minute was a magnificent strike following a great first touch to settle the bouncing ball. Think of a one-handed catch by Randy Moss. It was the type of magical technical skill the reigning European champions showcased all tournament long, and why La Roja deserved to return to Madrid as world champions. It also sent an important lesson to the rest of the world, including the US, that ball possession, pinpoint passing and pushing forward, not defensive shells and physical fouls, are rewarded.

The ball is in King James's court

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 8, 2010 12:14 PM

As a high school junior LeBron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated billed as the Chosen One. Tonight, it's his turn to choose one.

In a mere matter of hours we will have a long-awaited resolution -- mercifully -- to the much-anticipated free agent flirtation of LeBron James, the swan song to the Summer of LeBron.

The repercussions will reverberate throughout the NBA like a Vuvuzela blown through a megaphone. Tonight's ESPN-televised infomercial is not just a moment of reckoning for LeBron and his legacy it is for the entire NBA, including your reunited Boston Celtics.

The celebration over coaxing Doc Rivers to coach another season, Paul Pierce to re-up at a below-market rate and Ray Allen to return will be short lived if James elects to form a Big Three of his own in Miami with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh ("CSI: Miami" would have to investigate, the idea is so criminal). Boston's Big Three is in decline, Miami's would be in their prime. Suddenly, the Celtics reopened championship window would go from wide open to merely ajar.

Such is the power of LeBron. The King is the kingmaker for a number of NBA outfits, especially those that have been plotting, planning, promising and paring payroll for this day since 'Bron-'Bron signed a three-year extension with the Cavaliers four years ago this month.

With a simple nod of acceptance LeBron can reinvigorate moribund Madison Square Garden, chose to continue the quixotic quest to bring Cleveland its first major sports championship since the days of the original LBJ, be the heir to the throne of his Airness in Chicago, or provide the master stroke of the blueprint for the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets.

Or he can take the surest path to a championship and alter the NBA as we know it by joining forces with Wade and Chris Bosh to form a superstar trio that may be unrivaled in the history of professional hoops.

The last option, which James is reportedly leaning toward and ready to celebrate, would confirm what some already suspected about James -- that he lacks the insatiable competitive drive and killer instinct of Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. That as great and unique as his individual talents are the two-time defending league MVP has neither the mental makeup nor the ability to carry a franchise on his shoulders to the promise land. That his unselfish play is both a reflection of trying to share the wealth and lessen the burden. That he's been plotting his escape from Cleveland for brighter lights and better teammates for years.

Can you imagine Jordan, thwarted by Bird and Isiah Thomas in the 1980s, suddenly deciding to joining forces with one of them or heading to Los Angeles to play with Magic Johnson? Never would have happened.

In fairness to James, the Cavaliers have tried and failed repeatedly and woefully to give James his Scottie Pippen, and even without a suitable sidekick he still carried Cleveland to the NBA Finals in 2007. There was a point in time, pre-Pau Gasol, when Kobe made it quite clear publicly that he thought the Lakers were a no-win situation and wanted out. His Kobeness tried to force a trade to the Bulls. Now, his legacy as a Laker has been cemented by back-to-back titles.

In a lot of ways I don't envy LeBron. This is not an easy decision because the Cavaliers don't look set up to win any time soon and even the power of LeBron can't lure a high-profile free agent to Cleveland, which is why Bosh is South Florida-bound. But if James leaves he'll be vilified in Cleveland and blamed for the collapse of the franchise. No one wants that burden, especially when making a decision that is so public.

For the latter LeBron has only himself to blame. He's made it that way, right down to deciding to send up the white smoke from Greenwich, Conn., via ESPN, like a high school recruit choosing a college by putting on a hat.

If you felt James was making a cold and calculated basketball decision driven only by winning then maybe it would be easier to embrace whatever decision he makes. But during the courting process King James has acted more like a jester. The whole Summer of LeBron has been a big choreographed joke.

He has talked about conferring with his "team," a group of self-serving sycophants and toadies. He has invited pitches that talk about how he can become a billionaire and an icon. He has eagerly turned us all into Witnesses of his inveterate need for fame, attention and adulation.

It's all been a reminder that the fate of franchises -- and an entire league -- is in the hands of a 25-year-old who has never attended a day of college, never lived outside of his native Ohio, and has been coddled and told he's special nearly all his life. Just another example that the sports world is about as far from the world we live in as Mars.

Everyone wants to know what LeBron is going to decide -- even my barber called me today looking for inside info. Who knows?

But what we do know is that no matter "The Decision" LeBron makes tonight, it will be a choice that will affect not just him but the entire NBA.

I got a feeling...

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 25, 2010 11:35 AM

It's gut-check time.

We would all like to be prescient and take the guesswork out of life's decisions and situations, but absent that ability sometimes you just have to follow your gut. From time to time I'll share what my instincts -- and a little bit of insight -- are telling me about a few sports topics. Here are 10 gut-feelings.

1. The Bruins will come out of the NHL Draft weekend with another defenseman: By now we know the Tyler Seguin era begins tonight. But there is still a need for another defenseman, now and for the future, even after the Bruins re-signed Dennis Seidenberg and re-upped Johnny Boychuk. Zdeno Chara is entering the final year of his monster free-agent deal and will be 34 at season's end. How about a swap of Marc Savard for Edmonton's Sheldon Souray? Or the Bruins braintrust can entice teams with its collection of 2010 and 2011 draft picks to try to acquire another top 10 pick and take one of the ballyhooed baby blueliners -- Erik Gudbranson, Cam Fowler or Brandon Gormley.

2. Jonathan Papelbon won't blow more than three saves the rest of the year: There is a lot of agita right now regarding Papelbon as the Sox' closer. He reached a low point the last two days in the Mile High city, blowing a pair of saves against the Rockies, the first time in his career he'd blown saves on back-to-back days. Papelbon, who now has as many blown saves (three) as all of last season, is not the same automatic ender we're accustomed to seeing. However, he's not Heathcliff Slocumb either, and he's still a top-five closer. You have to factor in the Coors Field effect. Humidor or not, the place remains a hitters' park, just ask Dustin Pedroia.

3. Paul Pierce will opt-out: Yes, $21.5 million is a lot of money to pass up, but this could be Pierce's last chance to gain leverage for a larger, long-term deal. Kobe Bryant got an extension from the Lakers (three years, $90 million) that takes him to age 35. Pierce, who turns 33 in October, probably wants similar security. Opting out also allows him to be part of the Summer of LeBron and see what direction the Celtics are heading in -- rebuilding mode or a keep-the-core-together mindset. If Pierce doesn't opt out and he or the Celtics look over the hill next season then his expiring contract would become a key chip in an overhaul.

4. Ray Allen will return to the Celtics: Allen wants to be here and the Celtics want him. The selection last night of Avery Bradley, who is more shooting guard than point guard, doesn't change that. Ainge said on WEEI-AM Wednesday that he believes Allen still has a lot of basketball left in him. The soon-to-be 35-year-old sharpshooter is smart enough to understand that he's not going to get $19 million a year from any of his suitors and that Boston provides the best medical care for his son Walker, who has diabetes. A two-year $18-$20 million deal should get it done.

5. Mike Cameron will not make it through the entire season: You have to admire Cameron for gutting his way through a lower abdominal strain. Ninety-five percent of players would have opted for surgery. The Sox have done a great job of managing the 37-year-old outfielder, but Cameron is destined for the DL. He has played on three consecutive days just once since coming back and then had to sit out five straight. After hitting 20 or more home runs each of the past four seasons he is homerless so far. That leads me to...

6. David DeJesus will be traded to the Sox: With the uncertainty surrounding Cameron and Jacoby Ellsbury, the Sox need another outfielder, and DeJesus, who can play all three outfield spots, makes perfect sense. Nick Cafardo mentioned the connection the Sox have with assistant to the general manager Allard Baird, who was the Royals GM when Kansas City selected DeJesus in the fourth round of the 2000 draft. DeJesus is batting .325 this year, but is hitting right-handed pitching at a .346 clip. He's making $4.6 million with a $6 million salary next season, but a tidy $500,000 buyout. That makes him an ideal rental.

7. Ellsbury will return and have a strong second half: Ellsbury hasn't played a game in a month and has been questioned and ridiculed for not playing through the pain of fractured ribs, even though he did return and got re-injured. Ellsbury is going to come back, and he's going to bring fresh legs and a .300 bat. The Red Sox have gotten a .276 average, .335 on-base percentage and just three steals out of the leadoff spot. Whether you think he's tough or not, Ellsbury can improve upon that.

8. The US team will still be playing at the World Cup after July 4th: The semifinals of the World Cup are set for July 6 in South Africa, and the US will be in them for the first time since the inaugural cup in 1930. The US side of the draw is quite manageable with a second-round matchup with Ghana and then a potential quarterfinal bout with the Uruguay-South Korea winner.

9. Taylor Price will have a bigger impact than Brandon Tate for the Patriots: There has been a lot of talk about the potential of Tate, a third-round pick in 2009, but I think this year's third-round pick, Price, is going to end up being the breakout wide receiver. The Ohio University wideout reminds me of another receiver from the Mid-American Conference (MAC), Green Bay Packers playmaker Greg Jennings (Western Michigan). In 2006, the Patriots moved up to No. 36 to take Chad Jackson, passing on Jennings, who was taken by the Pack with the pick the Pats swapped. Consider Price redemption.

10. John Isner and Nicolas Mahut, who?: Isner and Mahut's marathon Wimbledon tennis match (three days, 11 hours, 5 minutes), finally won by Isner yesterday, was one for the ages. However, a month from now people will be as likely to recall the names of the participants in the never-ending match as they are the winners of this year's Boston Marathon.

Postseason is the only season in NBA, NHL

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 17, 2010 01:18 PM

The Celtics were right: the regular season doesn't matter.

That was apparent watching the Green upend the Orlando Magic, 92-88 in Game 1 of the NBA's Eastern Conference Finals yesterday afternoon, followed by the eighth-seeded Philadelphia Flyers blanking the seventh-seeded Montreal Canadiens, 6-0, in Game 1 of the NHL's Eastern Conference Finals.

The Celtics made us suffer through their somnambulant regular season and now they look quite capable of capturing their second NBA title in three seasons. In fact, they look like the best team in basketball.

Philadelphia's story started when they had to win a shootout on the final day of the regular season to even make the NHL playoffs. The fortuitous Flyers, who iced hockey season in the Hub in historic fashion by rallying from a 3-0 series deficit, now look like the 2004 Red Sox on skates.

We should all be so lucky as to have jobs where a disappointing day-to-day performance for six months can be rendered irrelevant by a month of distinguished work, to enjoy gainful employment where you can simply save your best for last.

Among the many enviable trappings of being a professionals athlete is the chance to wipe the slate clean come playoff time. Very few, if any other, vocations offer this opportunity.

Can you imagine if investment bankers could merely tell their customers to just wait until the playoffs and their portfolios will perform as advertised? Or if police officers could say don't worry about the crime rate it will decline when the playoffs roll around? How about auto mechanics saying they're going to wait until the playoffs to really fix that knocking noise your car is making?

Wouldn't happen, and that's why the NBA and NHL playoffs are a glaring reminder that those two sports have tedious, meaningless 82-game regular seasons, six months of playoff prologue signifying nothing. It is all an elaborate, revenue-generating ruse, and the fans are the ones getting jobbed.

Now, the regular season is significant in the NFL and major league baseball. In the NFL, every game is one 16th of your season. One loss can keep you from the playoffs. In baseball, the 162-game odyssey has more twists and turns than Storrow Drive, but it weeds out the four contenders in the American League and National League from the pretenders and often goes down to wire.

In the NBA and NHL, more than half of the 30 teams in each league (16) make the playoffs. A team like the Celtics can simply put it in cruise control, sit back and wait for the real games to began. Fourth seed, first seed, what's the difference? We're in.

"A lot of people would say with the talent the Celtics have they've underachieved this year. I don't really see it that way," Celtics general manager Danny Ainge said 10 days ago. "Our objectives were always to be ready for the playoffs."

The Celtics started their playoff run a month ago today with an 85-76 victory over the Miami Heat. They have been a different team than the injured and disinterested one we saw during the regular season, which in fairness was still a 50-win campaign. Doc Rivers' rejuvenated bunch is 9-3 in 12 playoff games.

During the regular season they beat the Cavaliers and the Magic a total of three times in eight tries. They've already beaten the two top-seeded Eastern Conference foes five times in seven games in the playoffs.

Routinely outrebounded during the regular season, during which they finished 29th among 30 clubs in rebounding, the Celtics are no longer bored by the regular season, so they're boarding. Boston has upped its rebounding average in the postseason to 39.6, a full rebound better than the regular season, and more importantly has outrebounded its opponents during the playoffs, 39.6 to 38.6.

The posterchild for the postseason is Rasheed Wallace. Say what you will about 'Sheed's indolent, disinterested regular season act, but ball don't lie and neither does he. Give him credit because at least he was honest all along about the playoffs being all that mattered.

The workmanlike Wallace who dove into the stands in Game 6 against Cleveland and scored 13 points and the savvy veteran who played outstanding defense on Dwight Howard yesterday while scoring 13 points bear little resemblance to the player we saw during the regular season.

Unlike the rest of us, 'Sheed figured out a long time ago when it counts and when it doesn't.

"One thing I'll say about Rasheed and he said it throughout, 'Doesn't matter what I do during the regular season; I will be judged for what I do in the playoffs.' I didn't want him to take that literally throughout the season," said Rivers. "But he's been terrific. He's a knowledgeable big who has a lot of game."

There was no clearer example of how the Celtics have become a different team in the playoffs than yesterday's game.

The last time the Celtics were in Orlando prior to yesterday was Jan. 28. They blew a 16-point second half lead and lost the game as Rashard Lewis blew by Kevin Garnett on the baseline for the game-winning bucket, Lewis's 23d points of the night.

Yesterday, the Celtics built a 20-point lead and withstood a furious Orlando rally. KG actually came racing out from the paint to chase Lewis off a 3-pointer in the corner in the fourth quarter. Garnett held Lewis to just 2 of 10 shooting from the field and 0 of 6 from beyond the arc.

Different time. Different team.

As Mike Brown, coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers (at least for now), said in trying to explain how the Celtics, whose championship reign had been all but eulogized prior to the postseason, buzzsawed his 61-win Cavs in six games: "The regular season is a lot different than the postseason."

Amen to that.

It's tough to buy what Woods is selling

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 6, 2010 03:50 PM
The most believable answer Tiger Woods gave during his predictable Augusta self-flagellation session with the media yesterday was when he was asked about his expectations for the Masters, the first golf tournament he has played in since he was exposed as a serial womanizer whose alleged consort count (15) exceeds the number of major titles he's won (14).

"Nothing's changed, going to go out there and try to win this thing," a goateed Woods said with a smile.

That you can take to the bank. Whether anything else about Woods, who threw himself at the mercy of the court of public opinion, has really changed upon his return to golf is a much more dubious notion, one that can't be answered in 35 minutes in front of a microphone or by four (most likely) rounds of golf at a major tournament.

Woods's answers about the infidelity scandal, about his relationship with alleged performance-enhancing drug provider Dr. Anthony Galea and about how he will live his life moving forward are subject to skepticism because Woods has fooled us before. It's hard to blindly accept at face value the veracity of Tiger 2.0 when the original Tiger turned out to be so deceitful.

If you want to believe that Tiger can change his stripes after 45 days in a Mississippi treatment center, then you will. If you're prone to believe that a man who admitted that he "lied to a lot of people, deceived a lot of people, kept others in the dark, rationalized, and even lied to myself" is simply continuing his inveterate dishonesty to pave a smoother path back to golf, then you will.

The reality is that we don't know Tiger Woods or any other athlete. We only know the two-dimensional image that they allow us to see, the same two-dimensional image, albeit it retooled to be more contrite and less arrogant, that Woods flashed yesterday at Augusta. The third dimension of Woods, the one we've come to know through racy text messages and TMZ exposes, shocked us all. Never saw it coming.

This time, he might really be telling the truth when he says that his treatment with Dr. Galea consisted only of platelet-rich plasma injection therapy, known as "blood spinning" to help heal his surgically-repaired left knee and a previously undisclosed torn Achilles' tendon in his right foot.

"He never gave me HGH or any PEDs," said Woods. "I've never taken that my entire life. I've never taken any illegal drug, ever, for that matter."

This could either be another Tiger Tale from a man who we already know cheated -- on his wife -- or the honest to goodness truth from the game's greatest golfer, who has too much respect to cheat the game he was groomed to dominate from a young age.  

It's easy to believe Woods when he talks about the pain of missing his son's first birthday. It's a little harder to believe him when he claims that winning golf tournaments is irrelevant compared to the damage he caused to his friends and family. That's the right thing to say, but it's hard to fathom coming from Woods, who grew up with Jack Nicklaus's accomplishments tacked up on his bedroom wall.

Not to mention such a statement looks like a complete contradiction when he's playing at the Masters without his wife, Elin, being present, and Woods revealed that two days before his February choreographed mea culpa he had begun practicing again. Then "started getting the itch" to play again. That may have been the same uncontrollable itch Woods got before he dealt with his alleged sex addiction.
Woods bristled at a questioner who dared to ask if playing the fabled tournament while he's trying to reconcile his marriage was a wise move.

"Well, I'm excited to play this week," said Woods.

Perhaps, the most unsavory answer from Woods was when he was asked about the corporate sponsors who abandoned him when the details of his secret life of lechery began to surface.

If Woods was grasping the gravity of his actions like he claimed in the press conference, then the only reference to a sponsor the golfer should have made would be the one he calls to deal with his addiction, which he said his treatment for will be ongoing.

He should have dismissed the sponsor question as irrelevant, like he did the golf tournaments he won while being unfaithful.

Instead, Woods, whose wholesome good guy image turned out to be as manufactured as the products he was hawking, reverted into pitchman mode, making one wonder if that was what he was doing the whole time.

"Hopefully, I can prove to the other companies going forward that I am a worthy investment," said Woods. "That I can help their company, help their company grow and represent them well. I felt like I was representing companies well in the past, but then again I wasn't doing it the right way because of what I was engaged in."

Yup, Tiger Woods Inc., is open for business again folks.

The question is are you buying what he's selling the second time around?

Ten for the Weekend

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 2, 2010 02:01 PM
It's hard sometimes to just limit the discussion to one timely topic, especially when your sports attention span is short and your mind is flipping through thoughts, opinions and postulations like an iPod Touch stuck on shuffle. Why only listen to Drake, when you can throw a little Carolina Liar into the mix?

So, with that in mind and a bountiful sports weekend on tap, here are Ten for the Weekend (that sounds like a cool name for a band). Unlike when you listen to your iPod, feedback is a good thing here, so feel free to chime in with comments.

1. NCAA men's tournament expansion -- Hate the idea of the men's NCAA tournament expanding to 96 teams. The purpose of the tournament is to crown a champion, not deliver television content. There is virtually no chance that any team on the wrong side of the 65-team bubble was robbed of an NCAA title. With the tournament's TV contract having an opt-out clause, this is a straight cash grab by the NCAA.  It's also completely hypocritical to dismiss the idea of a football Final Four with a "plus-one" because it would increase missed class time and then say expanding the tournament and adding an extra level of games won't result in a significant increase in missed class time. The NCAA has run infomercials during the tournament with the slogan, "We put our money where our mission is." Let's not be naive, the mission is to make money.  

2. Cavalier attitude -- Anybody else think the Celtics need to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers at TD Garden on Sunday to set themselves up for a playoff run? The Celtics haven't beaten a fellow Eastern Conference contender since Christmas Day in Orlando, and haven't beaten a legitimate title contender at home all season. There are some encouraging signs from the Green, mainly that Kevin Garnett looks more like Kevin Garnett, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers has done a great job of keeping the faith. However, his team needs to stop talking like champions and start playing like champions. They need the confidence boost and street cred from beating the LeBrons.

3. It's called Bruins -- Saturday's game in Toronto is mission critical for the Bruins. They need to win to keep pace in the playoff chase and to make sure the first-round pick they have from the Maple Leafs, currently second-to-last in the NHL with 71 points, provides them the best chance of winning the NHL Draft Lottery and landing Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin. If the Bruins end up out of the top two in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft (wonder if there is an exit draft) the Phil Kessel trade could come up empty, like the Bruins offense. The Bruins have Toronto's 2011 first-rounder, but the Internet buzz is the 2011 class of NHL prospects could be one of the weakest in recent years.

4. Go BC -- Ruffled some Eagle feathers at The Heights with my last foray into Boston College basketball, but Al Skinner is no longer in place and the search is on for his replacement. The list of candidates that athletic director Gene DeFilippo has put together is intriguing with Steve Donahue of Cornell, Chris Mooney of Richmond and former BC assistants Bill Coen (Northeastern) and Ed Cooley (Fairfield). Another named should be added to the list, Dayton coach Brian Gregory, who led the Flyers to the NIT title last night. DeFilippo told WEEI he wants a coach like Michigan State's Tom Izzo. Gregory was associate head coach at Michigan State under Izzo and is regarded as a good recruiter and game manager.

5. Opening Night -- The Red Sox open their season and the entire major league baseball season against the Yankees at Fenway on Sunday night. Sure, the Sox and Yankees have opened the season before (2005 at Yankee Stadium), but it seems like a waste of the greatest rivalry in North American sports. Opening Day is always special and so are Sox-Yankees games. Why combine the two? Save some of the AL East's internecine struggle for later, when the baseball season has grown tedious with the Torontos and Baltimores.

6. Line 'em up  -- It's quite interesting that Terry Francona came out and said he'll bat J.D. Drew sixth behind David Ortiz in the Red Sox order to start the season. Francona is traditionally not a fan of grouping lefthanders together for matchup reasons, and the decision to bat Drew and his mighty .OPS behind Big Papi speaks to the uncertainty surrounding what the team can expect to get out of Adrian Beltre, he of one extra-base hit in 42 spring at-bats. But spring stats are bogus. Before the 2007 season, during which he set career-highs for runs driven in (120) and batting average (.324) and won the World Series MVP, Mike Lowell batted .170 in 53 spring ABs.

7. Women's equality -- If you haven't been watching the women's NCAA tournament you've missed some great basketball. It doesn't get much better than the buzzer-beating lay-up from Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen to send the Cardinal to the Final Four. The female Final Four, which tips off Sunday, has great story lines. Baylor, which has 6-foot-8-inch dunking machine Brittney Griner, takes on Connecticut, and Oklahoma, which boasts some famous kin on the court in Abi Olajuwon (daughter of Hakeem) and Carlee Roethlisberger (sister of Ben), faces 35-1 Stanford. But the whole tournament has an air of inevitability thanks to UConn, which has won 76 straight games, and won its tournament games by an average of 47 per game. The women's game needs more parity  to match men's March Madness.

8. Tiger Woods tell-all -- Things just keep getting worse for Tiger Woods as he gets caught in the intricate web of lies he spun to fuel his philandering lifestyle. His mistresses should just get together and do a TV tell-all "The Bachelor"-style and have Chris Harrison host. Monday's press conference at Augusta National is Woods's last chance to really set the record straight. He doesn't have to go into the salacious details, but he needs to stop with the cover-up because his former consorts are more than willing to reveal his dirty little secrets. Take the hit, Tiger and move on.

9. Coaching 'em up -- You often hear about a coach having to coach up his young players, but you wonder if Patriots coach Bill Belichick is doing a little bit of that with his staff. Belichick is going to have a greater role in the defense this season, which, now like the offense, doesn't have a coordinator. Locker room unrest, lack of a pass rush, and a banged-up Tom Brady were among the reasons the Patriots went 10-6 last season, but don't underestimate the role that callow coaches had in the team's tough season. Like the players, the coaches around Belichick must progress this year, especially quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien and secondary coach Josh Boyer.  

10. Kelly green -- It's awfully hard to meet, talk with or watch Red Sox uber-prospect Casey Kelly and not come away impressed. The Sox want to tread carefully with Kelly, who won't turn 21 until Oct. 4, but you have to wonder if Junichi Tazawa's Tommy John surgery opens up the possibility that we could see Kelly in the big leagues this season. Even though the Sox rotation looks stacked now, if Tim Wakefield's back acts up or Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to be plagued by nagging injuries the internal options for the Sox are not overwhelming (Boof Bonser? Michael Bowden? Kason Gabbard?). We might see Kelly, who will begin the season at Double A Portland,  sooner than we or the Red Sox had hoped. 

BC out of place replacing Skinner

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 30, 2010 02:09 PM
Mutual or not, Boston College's parting of ways with coach Al Skinner is a classic case of a college that doesn't know or understand its place in the hierarchy of big-time college hoops, an affliction that can also be described as UMass-itis.

The Eagles want someone sexier than Skinner -- on and off the court. Someone who is going to "sell" BC basketball. But what exactly is this new coach proselytizing?

It's not tradition -- Butler and George Mason have been to more Final Fours than BC. It's not fan interest -- Conte Forum will never be confused with Rupp Arena. It's not a superior education to every school in the Atlantic Coast Conference -- Duke is at the head of the class.

BC is not Duke. The Blue Devils are roundball royalty. BC is part of the proletariat. The Eagles program can experience intermittent periods of excellence and national competitiveness when they have the right coach, a few recruiting coups, and the stars align.

That happened in 2005-06, BC's inaugural ACC season, when Skinner led BC to the Sweet 16 and a school-record 28 victories with future NBAers Craig Smith and Jared Dudley. It happened in 1994 under Jim O'Brien, another loyal and successful coach run off by BC, who took the Eagles to the Elite Eight with Howard Eisley and Danya Abrams.

If you're BC and you push out the all-time winningest coach in the history of your program, the man who resurrected your program out of the shambles of the O'Brien admissions imbroglio, a coach who took you to the NCAA tournament seven times last decade and won 60 percent of his games, then you've either identified the next John Wooden or you're completely delusional about the potential of your program.

(A tip of the cap to BC, however, for holding off on the announcement long enough to let Skinner seek the St. John's job with some leverage.)

Look, last season wasn't fun for anyone associated with BC basketball, but a program of this ilk is going to have seasons like that in the ACC. It is inevitable and even acceptable if you understand your place in the cabal known as the NCAA.

A year removed from 22 wins, the Eagles limped to a 15-16 mark. The talent cupboard definitely looked a little bare without 2008-09 All-ACC guard Tyrese Rice, and it's fair to say that Skinner hasn't recruited as well since trusted assistant Bill Coen went across town to take over at Northeastern.

But even basketball bluebloods like North Carolina and iconic coaches like Roy Williams stumble once in a while. A year removed from winning a national title and with Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson now playing in the pros, the Tar Heels tumbled to a 16-16 regular-season mark and a 5-11 ACC record. The Eagles actually finished a game better than UNC, which they beat during the season, in the ACC standings.

UNC got an invitation to the NIT because it's UNC. BC got to watch the NIT on TV because it's BC. (Updated on 3/31: Some comments have stated BC was not eligible for the NIT because they had a sub. 500 record, but an NIT spokeswoman, Christine Fallon, confirmed via email that there is no rule that a team has to be above .500 to be selected to play in the NIT.)

BC's administration and imperious athletic director Gene DeFilippo felt they could do better than Skinner. DeFilippo has put his stamp on BC athletics since taking over as AD in 1997, but one area he hasn't been able to do that is men's basketball. Skinner was hired five months before DeFilippo became the school's athletic director in 1997.

Some of the names reported to be potential successors to Skinner are intriguing. The Eagles have asked for permission to speak with Cornell coach Steve Donahue, who led the Big Red to its third straight Ivy League crown and first ever Sweet 16 appearance this season, and Richmond's Chris Mooney, who played at Princeton and employs the Princeton offense at Richmond, which finished third in the Atlantic 10, a game back of co-champions Temple and Xavier.

But if the message is that what Skinner did in his 13 seasons, which included three regular-season Big East crowns, is not good enough, then BC is a no-win situation.

It's one thing to turn around a program in the Ivy League or the A-10. It's quite another to be expected to lift the one at The Heights to the apex of the ACC, especially when it is at a distinct geographical and talent-base disadvantage.

Unlike Duke, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Maryland, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, BC is not going to be enticing highly rated recruits with tradition and NBA opportunity. The BC administration is never going to allow a coach to recruit one-and-dones like Kentucky's John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. Good for them.  

Even Virginia, Virginia Tech, Clemson, Miami and Florida State have an advantage over BC because they can attempt to draw on fertile basketball talent in their backyards. Basketball may have been invented in Massachusetts, but from a Division 1 talent standpoint the state is an airball.

This lack of homegrown talent can't be underestimated. There are institutions of higher learning like BC that have honest to goodness student-athletes and either are or have been successful -- Duke, Stanford (with former coach Mike Montgomery), Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Villanova -- but all either have a warmer-weather campus, tradition, or tremendous local talent bases, with 'Nova (Philadelphia-New Jersey) and Georgetown (Baltimore-Washington) benefiting from the latter.

BC has none of those.

That's why the BC job has always been and will always remain a steppingstone to something better for the type of charismatic, capable, slick bench boss the Eagles now desire.

One reason that Skinner is BC's all-time winningest coach is that the other esteemed coaches in BC history didn't stay long enough to compile 247 wins.

The late Chuck Daly, Dr. Tom Davis, Gary Williams, all once coached at BC. None stuck around.

Skinner did because, unlike his ex-employer, he recognized his place.

Woods has a Masters plan

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 16, 2010 01:46 PM
"I do plan to return to golf one day. I just don't know when that day will be. I don't rule out that it will be this year" -- Tiger Woods on Feb. 19.

So, now we know when and where the Tiger Woods Redemption Tour tees off, and it's Augusta National on April 8.

Is anyone surprised? Playing the Masters was part of Tiger's master plan all along.

There was no way that Woods, who grew up with a list of Jack Nicklaus's record 18 major victories adorning his bedroom wall, was going to miss the Masters. Whether you believe the sincerity of Woods's televised apology last month or buy into his treatment for sex addiction, you knew that nothing was going to stop Woods's pursuit of Nicklaus.

Adulterous guilt be darned, Woods, who has 14 major wins at age 34, is too close to let any opportunity to win a major pass. He'll worry about us passing judgment later.

Perhaps the only real surprise is that the world's greatest golfer and most infamous philanderer isn't going to take to the links before the Masters for a tuneup tournament. Woods hasn't played in a competitive tournament since the Australian Masters on Nov. 15, 12 days before his carefully constructed image started to crack.

The fact Woods, a four-time Masters winner, is willing to allow his return tournament to be the grandest stage golf has to offer is a sign that, despite the public relations battering he has taken since the November night he escorted his Escalade into a fire hydrant and a tree, the singular focus and determination that made him one of the most transcendent athletes we've ever seen remains intact.

It is a level of concentration so famous that one of Woods's erstwhile sponsors, Gatorade, named a drink after it called Tiger Focus Red Drive, with Woods's eyes hauntingly staring back from the label at the imbiber.  

You can bet the focus will be fully on Woods at Augusta National, although the tournament's ascetic media setting should help prevent Tiger from facing a fusillade of probing personal questions, the same questions he wouldn't even entertain in his staged apology.

The Masters provides a fitting stage for Woods to try to separate himself from the salacious and tawdry details of his downfall. Playing well at Augusta can do for Woods what no Ari Fleischer spin campaign possibly can -- make us remember why we liked Woods in the first place.

Augusta is where the legend of Tiger Woods as a professional golfer was born.

It was at the 1997 Masters that Woods went from an intriguing golf prodigy to a pop culture icon, after he made history on the game's most hallowed grounds by becoming the tournament's youngest winner ever. A baby-faced 21-year-old, Woods captivated the entire country with his record-setting performance to become the first "Cablasian," the term Woods later used on "Oprah" to describe his diverse ethic background, to wear the green jacket.

Woods won by a record 12 strokes and set a Masters four-round record by shooting an 18-under par 270.

People were both taken and taken aback by Woods and his incomparable talent. Even those who had never swung a club were suddenly interested in golf -- both playing and watching.

Woods was a symbol of hope and can-do. Remember those Nike commercials where children of different ages and ethnicities would say, "I'm Tiger Woods"?

Woods may believe that a similar transcendent performance at Augusta will make us remember the toothy, awkward, endearing golfer we fell in love with and not the surly, self-indulgent, petulant professional athlete who had rubbed some golf fans and observers the wrong way with his boorish behavior even before the cheating scandal broke.

But that's just an ancillary public relations benefit for Woods. This is more about personal peace and his obsessive chase of Nicklaus than restoring his reputation.

Getting back to golf is the best therapy for Woods. It's his sanctuary. The one place on earth where he can be the same person he was before the scandal, where nothing has to change.

There will be no asterisk in the record book if Woods passes Nicklaus because he wasn't faithful to his wife. Greatness is greatness, even if it comes with character flaws, as it often does.

Woods's image has been dragged through the bunker and like a driving range ball is full of dents and scratches, but he can bounce back.

No, winning one golf tournament isn't going to remove the taint from Tiger. He's not going to get a complete mulligan by winning the Masters, but it gets him closer to Nicklaus and farther removed from the scandal.

The hoi polloi have a taste for schadenfreude, but remain ultimately fraudulent when it comes to abandoning their sullied heroes.

Look at Lakers star Kobe Bryant, who was disgraced after he was accused of rape in a Colorado hotel in 2003. (The case was dismissed in 2004). It took Bryant a few years to reboot his image, but after leading the Lakers to back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2008 and 2009 and winning a gold medal at the 2008 Summer Olympics and the NBA title last year the rape allegation is rarely brought up.

Bryant's basketball brilliance has dimmed the memory of his alleged deviant behavior.

Woods's genius as a golfer -- and pursuit of the sport's majors mark -- can eventually do the same. 

Classics like this make familiar title game anything but stale

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 9, 2010 01:51 PM

For one night the Garden went from the Parker House to Yorktown, and boy was it fun to watch.

Boston University bench boss Jack Parker has said the Beanpot would benefit from some fresh blood in the winner’s circle to break the icy ennui. It’s hard to argue with Parker’s preference for a little more puck parity, except when BU and BC play a Beanpot final like last night.

What other matchup would you have wanted in the Beanpot final? If you can’t enjoy the Commonwealth Avenue adversaries and their legendary coaches, Parker and BC’s Jerry York, duking it out as they did on the TD Garden ice, then you don’t have a pulse.

The Terriers were seeking their fifth Beanpot title in six seasons and 30th overall, but BC held on for a 4-3 victory and its second Beanpot title in three years and 15th overall. But the real winners were college hockey fans.

“If there was a classic Beanpot that would be one of them,’’ said York, who won his fourth Beanpot with BC. “I’ve been involved in a lot of really good matchups here, but this particular one was quick, it was fast. Even at 4-1, none of us thought the game was finished yet, and BU put on a terrific surge there at the end with a shorthanded goal and then the six-on-four goal to make it a game that’s in doubt right until the final buzzer.’’

The game was in doubt right up until BC goalie and Beanpot MVP John Muse (a dead-ringer for Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester) snuffed out BU’s Nick Bonino on the doorstep with 19.8 seconds left. Bonino lifts the puck a few inches and we have overtime.

Let’s just say Bonino wasn’t the only one robbed by Muse, who stopped 31 shots. With all due re spect to Parker and the fine schools of Northeastern and Harvard, it’s hard to get enough of the BC-BU rivalry.

Parker had opined that maybe it would be better for the tournament if BU or BC didn’t win it, something that hasn’t happened since 1993, when Harvard captured the title. The Green Line-linked institutions of higher learning and hockey have now won the last 17 Beanpots and every one contested at the FleetCenter/TD Banknorth Garden/TD Garden, which became the tournament’s host in 1996.

After last night’s classic, it seemed like even Parker was ready to concede that BC-BU isn’t so bad for the Beanpot.

“I thought it was a great college hockey game,’’ said Parker. “Typical of the games we’ve played so far with this team - closely contested, real emotional. . . . In general it was a real good effort. It’s a game of mistakes. We made a couple. They made a couple. But we certainly put on a pretty good show for the Garden faithful.’’

BU-BC is like Red Sox-Yankees, Duke-UNC, and Celtics-Lakers put on ice, a timeless rivalry that instantly ups the intensity level no matter the stakes.

Last night was the 250th meeting between the ancient enemies and it was a lot like the other 249 - exciting, emotional, and played with an edge. It didn’t take long for the teams to tangle - literally. BC’s Steven Whitney mixed it up with BU’s Zach Cohen behind the Eagles’ net and was whistled for a penalty you normally only hear about in football. At 7:20 of the first, Whitney got two minutes - and a 15-yard penalty - for grabbing the facemask.

Late in the game, it was 5-foot 8-inch, 165-pound BC forward Brian Gibbons who decked 6-foot-4, 219-pound BU defenseman Eric Gryba. That had Parker apoplectic on the BU bench, and he banned his players from talking about the officiating after the game.

The Eagles scored four unanswered goals to take a 4-1 lead at 15:48 of the third period, but then had to withstand a furious Terriers rally that was reminiscent of their Miracle against Miami last year in the NCAA title game to tie the season series between the teams at 2-2.

BU took a 1-0 lead at 13:37 of the first period when BC defenseman Philip Samuelsson, son of Ulf, tried a backhanded pass from behind his own net. It was picked off by Kevin Shattenkirk, who walked in and snapped a shot past Muse.

However, BC scored three second-period goals, the last of which was an ESPN-worthy tally by Boxford’s Chris Kreider. The freshman forward faked Terriers defenseman Max Nicastro out of his skates, then deftly dipped around BU goalie Kieran Millan to tuck a backhander home.

BC propped its lead up to 4-1 at 4:22 of the third. But the Cardiac Canines wouldn’t let the Beanpot go that easily. David Warsofsky netted a shorthanded tally midway through the third, and Parker then pulled Millan for an extra attacker, allowing Mr. Clutch, Colby Cohen, to cut the lead to one with 2:46 left.

If Parker wants to better the Beanpot, how about doing away with the outdated consolation game? It looked like neither Northeastern nor Harvard wanted to be there last night, and the fans certainly didn’t.

“It’s obviously a little hard to pump yourself up,’’ said Harvard’s Conor Morrison, who had the lone Crimson goal in a 4-1 loss. “Neither of these two teams want to be in that situation. We obviously want to be playing in [the championship game], but it’s a big game for both teams because we play each other next year. It’s a good preview.’’

Very diplomatic, Mr. Morrison, but I’m not buying it. However, Morrison was one future Harvard alum who wasn’t put off by the BU-BC final.

“I think I’ll stick around,’’ he said. “I like watching hockey and it should be a great atmosphere.’’

He was right. It was.

Pro Bowl is anything but super

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 29, 2010 02:20 PM
The NFL's annual apathetic All-Star game, the Pro Bowl, will be played Sunday at Sun Life Stadium, site of Super Bowl XLIV. The game has quickly become the football equivalent of a class field trip that no one wants to make, with those due to participate coming up with doctor's notes to get out of it.

This year the NFL only made it worse by clumping the game with the Super Bowl, which is like pairing a filet mignon from The Capital Grille with a plastic cup full of Kool-Aid.

It's time for the NFL to come to their senses and abolish the Pro Bowl, which has been played since 1951. Most players don't want to play in it. Most fans have no interest in it. And there is no need for it.

The league knows this, so in an attempt to broaden/force interest in the game, the NFL moved the Pro Bowl from its Honolulu home back to the mainland in Miami, putting it a week before the Super Bowl in an attempt to give it (more) relevance.

It's backfired. It was hard enough to get players to play in the game when it was a week after the Super Bowl, but at least there was the lure of a free trip to Hawaii. South Florida isn't exactly South Dakota, but NFL players party there all the time. The novelty is gone from the game, and so are they.

According to the Pro Bowl roster on NFL.com, there are 30 players who are not participating in the game because of injury or playing in the Super Bowl. That does not include 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, who dropped out today, but does include all three AFC quarterbacks who bowed out -- Peyton Manning (something about a Super Bowl), Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. They were replaced by Houston's Matt Schaub, Tennessee's Vince Young, and Keanu Reeves from "The Replacements."

Ok, so Neo is not going. It's actually Jacksonville's David Garrard, but would anyone notice if Reeves did play?

Do you know what all those AFC fill-in QBs have in common? None of them made the playoffs. On the NFC side, the only original Pro Bowl QB participating is Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, as Drew Brees is preparing the Saints for the Super Bowl and Brett Favre is at Sears deciding which TV to not watch the Pro Bowl on.

The NFL is a quarterback league. They are the brightest stars, yet only one of the six originally selected premium passers is participating in the Pro Bowl.

Of the original 86 players selected to the Pro Bowl, more than a third have taken a pass on playing in the game. That includes 14 players from the Colts and Saints, who square off in Super Bowl XLIV. Ravens safety Ed Reed, who was conspicuously absent from the AFC roster on Thursday, but has not been officially ruled out of the game, is more likely to show up at your Super Bowl party than to play in the Pro Bowl.

The reality is that players want the prestige of being named to the Pro Bowl, but no one wants to actually play in it, except for first-timers like Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather, who made the team as an injury replacement. He joins teammates Vince Wilfork and Logan Mankins,  who were voted in.

The players from the winning team at the Pro Bowl get $45,000. The losing team gets $22,500. While we're all aware of the current economic difficulties in this country, that amount of money is hardly incentive enough for NFL players to risk their bodies in a faux football game after a season of pounding and punishment.

The Pro Bowl is by far the most meaningless of the Big Four professional sports All-Star games. Tons of fans remember when Magic Johnson came back and played with HIV in the 1992 NBA All-Star game, winning MVP honors. They recall the 1989 major league baseball All-Star game in Anaheim, when Bo Jackson and Wade Boggs hit back-to-back homers to lead off the game. Or have fond memories of Ray Bourque winning the MVP award of the 1996 NHL All-Star game on his home ice by potting the game-winning goal with 37 seconds left.

All memorable All-Star game moments.

The most memorable recent Pro Bowl moment was late Redskins safety Sean Taylor plowing poor Bills punter Brian Moorman on a fake punt in the 2006 game. The most memorable Pro Bowl moment for most Patriots followers happened in 1999, when Patriots running back Robert Edwards blew out his knee in a beach football game played before the Pro Bowl.

All-Star games are by nature exhibition contests, despite what Fox and MLB -- "This time it counts!" -- would have you believe. The NFL already has an entire summer of meaningless exhibition games that its players want no part of it and that fans have to pay for. It's euphemistically referred to as the preseason. That's enough exhibition football for the NFL.

Realistically, the league probably won't cancel the Pro Bowl anytime soon, but it should recognize piggy-backing on the Super Bowl is not a good idea. Neither is requiring that players from the Colts and Saints voted to the Pro Bowl be in town for the game, arriving in South Florida a day earlier than their respective teams, a decision that irascible Indianapolis team president Bill Polian called "stupid."

He is right.

Fortunately, the Pro Bowl is scheduled to be played back in Hawaii in 2011 and 2012. No date is set for the game, but as part of the agreement with the Hawaii Tourism Board, the league agreed to consider moving the Pro Bowl back to the Sunday after the Super Bowl.

What the league needs to consider is saying, "Aloha" to the game altogether after 2012. You can still vote for the team. Just don't play the game.

Time to rock the All-Star vote

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 21, 2010 12:56 PM

Voting is an unpredictable and precarious process. The will of the people is actually more like the whim of the people. We've learned that here in our very own backyard this week.

Regardless of political affiliation or leanings, you have to give Scott Brown credit for running a great campaign to be elected to the US Senate. He earned every vote he got, which for the purposes of full disclosure did not include my own. You can't say the same about a pair of fast-fading NBA stars, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson, who could be carried into the starting lineups for the league's All-Star game, announced tonight on TNT, by the misguided vox populi.

It would be a complete travesty if either of these players made the All-Star team, and the fact that there is even the possibility that they could start the game based on fan voting is a sign that Celtics guard Ray Allen was right -- fans should not have the sole say in determining All-Star starters.

He is not alone.

In the political arena voting is a right, but in the sports arena it's a privilege. And it's being abused.  

In the last voting update the NBA released on Jan. 7, McGrady, a seven-time All-Star, had the guard spot opposite Kobe Bryant in the West, and Iverson, who has made 10 straight All-Star teams dating back to 2000, was inexplicably paired with Dwyane Wade in the East.

McGrady's own team, the Houston Rockets, won't even play him. He has played in six games and has a total of 19 points. The recalcitrant Iverson was dropped by the Memphis Grizzlies in November and hooked on with his original team, the Philadelphia 76ers, who were desperate to boost attendance and thought Iverson was the answer. The 34-year-old Iverson is averaging 14.4 points per game.

NBA fans must be eating Stephon Marbury's Vasoline if they really think that Iverson is having a better season than Rajon Rondo, who leads the league in steals per game and is third in assists per game. Or that T-Mac is a more worthy All-Star starter than the two best point guards in the game, Chris Paul and Steve Nash.


Closer to home, Celtics forward Kevin Garnett was a starter at forward in the East based on the last vote totals. He shouldn't be. Chris Bosh of the Raptors and Josh Smith of the Hawks are more deserving this season, but they lack the name recognition of KG.

Electing All-Stars for any sport shouldn't devolve into American Idol, a pandering popularity contest. By putting a player like Iverson or McGrady on the team as a starter you're preventing deserving players from making the team at all. Voting shouldn't be based on fond memories or familiar names.

The NBA is not alone when it comes to All-Star fan voting irregularities that would make George W. Bush blush.

Last year, with the NHL All-Star game in Montreal, fans of the Bleu, Blanc et Rouge overran the NHL's electronic voting, electing four Canadiens to the six-player Eastern Conference starting lineup. Goalie Carey Price and defenseman Andrei Markov were legit, but forward Alexi Kovalev and defenseman Mike Komisarek were homer picks for the Habs, taking starting spots away from more deserving players like Alexander Ovechkin, who won his second straight Hart Trophy as league MVP, and Zdeno Chara, who won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman.
More than 50 years ago fan voting gave a new meaning to the idea of a Red State. In 1957, Reds fans stuffed the ballot box for baseball's All-Star game and seven of the eight starting position players for the National League were Reds. The only non-Red was Cardinals first baseman Stan Musial.

That meant that two of the game's greatest players -- ever -- Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were not voted in by the fans. Instead, they had to be appointed by Commissioner Ford Frick, who removed Reds outfielders Gus Bell and Wally Post. Frick also removed the All-Star vote from the hands of the fans. Baseball didn't let fan voting determine its All-Star starters again until 1970, when the game was played in...Cincinnati.

There is enough evidence that fan voting alone doesn't work. It's not just the fans that fail to honor the process.

We've all seen coaches select their own players as All-Stars or players not vote for fellow players they don't like, hence Rodney Harrison's two Pro Bowl appearances in his 15-year career. Like our government, there needs to be a system of checks and balances.

Not surprisingly, the NFL has the best model of any of the professional sports leagues with fan voting, player voting and coaches' voting each counting a third.

Why are the starters less important than the reserves?

In the NBA, the reserves are chosen by a vote of the coaches. In the NHL, the league's hockey operations department chooses the reserves in consultation with the general managers. In major league baseball, where each team has to have an All-Star representative, the "Scott Cooper Rule" around here, eight pitchers and one reserve at each of the other positions is chosen by the vote of players, managers and coaches; managers get to fill out the rest of the roster, except fans vote online for the final players on the 33-man rosters of each league.

The argument for the fan vote is that fans should be allowed to vote for the players they want to see. Fine, if you want to see Iverson or McGrady then go on YouTube or watch SportsCenter. The All-Star game should be a collection of the league's best players in a given season -- the Kevin Durants, Brandon Roys, and Zach Randophs.

It shouldn't be like one of golf's majors, where aging stars get in based on past performance.

It's time to rock the vote and take all the power to choose away from the fans. 

Playing the hating game

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 18, 2010 01:53 PM
The Patriots didn't even play this weekend and they still lost big in the playoffs.

It's bad enough that the Patriots got bounced by Baltimore in the first round, sparking an off-season of soul searching and finger pointing, but now they have to watch their two most-hated rivals, the Indianapolis Colts and the New York Jets, square off this Sunday for the right to go to the Super Bowl.

This turn of events is tougher to swallow than having the milk in your morning cereal replaced with battery acid. Patriots fans H-A-T-E the J-E-T-S and they have nothing but contempt for the Colts as well.

The only thing worse than the Colts, who are now threatening the Patriots' legacy as Team of the Decade, playing in the AFC title game is the despised Jets serving as their opponent. That's the scenario after Rex Ryan and his crew went into San Diego yesterday and pulled off a 17-14 shocker against the San Diego Chargers.

Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding, who missed three field goals, looked like he was stuck in one of those Southwest Airlines "Wanna get away?" commercials after each wayward swing of his leg.

This is a similar type of nightmare scenario in New England because either the Jets or the Colts are going to the Super Bowl. It's unavoidable.

If you're a Patriots fan, who do you root for? Do you just act like the game isn't even being played, which is the tack that many local sports fans took with the 2003 World Series right up until Josh Beckett vanquished the Yankees. Is it possible for a Patriot fan to pull for Peyton Manning and Bill Polian, to root for Rex Ryan and Kerry Rhodes? Can the NFL just cancel this game?

Trying to find a candidate in the AFC championship race is tougher than finding someone to get behind in the special election between Martha Coakley and Scott Brown for the state's open US Senate seat.

Vociferous Rex, who in his infinite arrogance already has handed out a playoff itinerary to his team that includes the Super Bowl victory parade, said it best yesterday.

"A matchup that nobody wanted but too bad, here we come," said Ryan.

It turns out that both the Colts and the Jets have gotten the last laugh over the Patriots this season. The Colts could go to the Super Bowl with a rookie head coach, Jim Caldwell. The Jets could go to the Super Bowl with a rookie quarterback, Mark Sanchez. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady need not apply.

The Colts broke the Patriots' record for consecutive regular-season wins and then didn't even deign to pursue a 16-0 season because Polian, the Colts president, said the Colts didn't feel 16-0 was a historic achievement.

After starting out 14-0, the Colts controversially yanked their starters against the Jets on Dec. 27 while holding a 15-10 lead with 5:36 left in the third quarter. The Colts premeditated capitulation paved the way for a Jets win and an eventual playoff berth. Karma would have deemed that the Colts then would have lost to the same Ravens team that ran over the Patriots. Nope.

Indianapolis, despite not playing for the full 60 minutes since a Dec. 17 win over the Jaguars, scored a resounding 20-3 victory, while holding the Ravens to just 87 yards rushing, on Saturday.

Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins, who is out for the season with a knee injury, said before the first Jets-Patriots game that New York planned to play that game like the Super Bowl. After beating the Patriots, 16-9, in Week 2, New York celebrated like they had won the Super Bowl and then lost six of their next eight.

Now, they have a chance to play in the actual Super Bowl, the franchise's first since Joe Willie Namath's famously guaranteed a Super Bowl victory over...the Colts.

I'll let you insert your own joke about Ryan and smooching Bill Belichick's rings, but it's clear that no matter what you think about the Broadway Braggart he has proven to be more than an empty sweater vest.

For all the talk about how the NFL has evolved into a passing league -- three of the Final Four quarterbacks are Manning, Brett Favre and Drew Brees -- the Jets are winning  with a rookie QB the old fashioned way, suffocating defense and a bruising running attack.

In two playoff games, Sanchez has posted combined totals of 24 of 38 for 282 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. Manning was 30 of 44 for 246 yards with two TDs and an interception against the Ravens alone.

The Jets have run for 340 yards in the playoffs, rushing 41 times for 171 against the Bengals and 39 for 169 against the Chargers.

Don't think for a second that both of these teams aren't secretly gloating that the Patriots will be watching them from home.

The Jets have never passed up any verbal shot at the Patriots. Yesterday on NFL Network, Darrelle Revis called Randy Moss a slouch. Back before the team's first meeting on Sept. 20, Rhodes said they wanted to "embarrass" the Patriots.

But having to see the Jets play in the AFC title game hurts more than any sardonic salvo the Jets could launch.

The Colts have been publicly classy with the Patriots, but Polian lives to beat the Pay-tree-otts.

This is a true no-win scenario for Patriots fans. You want to protect the Patriots' Team of the Decade status then you need the Jets to go to the Super Bowl. You want to see Ryan get his comeuppance then you need to see confetti rain down upon Lucas Oil Stadium and Indianapolis lifting the Lamar Hunt Trophy.

Welcome to the winter of discontent -- and disdain -- for New England football fans.

Telling the truth about PED users

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 12, 2010 12:57 PM
If Mark McGwire were really being honest yesterday in his admission that he took steroids and human growth hormone during his career, including 1998, when he broke Roger Maris's single-season home run record, he would have said, "I took those substances, and I'd do it all all over again."

Of course contrition is a prerequisite for any carefully orchestrated, public relations-driven apology, so neither McGwire nor any other athlete admitting the use of steroids, HGH or any other performance-enhancer is ever going to say that. We don't want to hear that ugly truth -- and neither do they. So, sugar-coated repentance and lapses in judgment are the order of the day.

McGwire seems as sincere as any athlete who has come out and copped to using performance-enhancing drugs and the admission of his cheating is obviously painful for him. But don't think for one second that he'd be coming out to talk about his PED past if he were going to continue his life in seclusion instead of returning to baseball this year as the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. It wasn't a sudden crisis of conscience that compelled McGwire to come forward.

The only thing PED athletes really, truly regret is getting caught after the fact and having to throw themselves upon the mercy of the court of public opinion, a public that doesn't understand and can't comprehend what it's like to be a professional athlete. The rest is window dressing.

The feeling of true remorse means that if put in the same situation again you wouldn't make the same decision again. Can McGwire really, honestly say that?

If his timeline is to be believed, he briefly took steroids between the 1989 and 1990 seasons and started taking them again in 1993. In '93 and the strike-shortened 1994 season, McGwire played in a total of 74 games and hit a combined 18 home runs. Big Mac hit 345 of his career 583 home runs after 1994.

If he hadn't taken PEDs there wouldn't even be a debate today about whether McGwire, whose one skill as a player was clobbering baseballs, belongs in the Hall of Fame. It would be a moot point. The only way he would get into the Hall would be with a ticket.

The pressure to perform in professional sports is immense. It is a pressure that most of us in our society will never know. You don't reach the pinnacle of pro sports without being supremely talented and almost inveterately competitive. Athletes are always searching for an edge. They are also always living on the edge, pushing their bodies to the limit. The window of opportunity in a professional sports career is so brief that it's tempting for athletes to try to keep it ajar as long as they can, however they can.

Morality takes a backseat to immediacy.

There is also an element of insecurity and peer pressure when it comes to PEDs. According to the book "Game of Shadows," that is what happened to disgraced slugger Barry Bonds, who despite an overwhelming preponderance of evidence, has never admitted to using steroids or HGH. The book alleges that Bonds, jealous of the attention that McGwire and Sammy Sosa received during the Great Home Run Farce, er, Race, of '98, started using steroids following that season, a time in which he had already surpassed 400 career home runs and 400 career stolen bases.

It's not about judging the character of Bonds, McGwire, Alex Rodriguez or former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison. It's about realizing that they made a calculated choice to cheat. They found a way at the time to justify their decision to themselves, and now they're going to try to justify it to us.

You'll never meet a more stand-up, accountable, honest athlete than Harrison, but even he succumbed to the siren song of illegal substances.

The rationale that Harrison, who got a free pass in these parts, gave when he was suspended by the NFL for the first four games of the 2007 season for using HGH was that it was to preserve his health.

"My purpose was never to gain a competitive edge," Harrison said in a statement the August night the NFL announced his suspension. "Rather, my use was solely for accelerating the healing process of injuries I sustained while playing football."

Yesterday, McGwire used a similar health defense as Harrison, and said he "wished I had never touched steroids." He called his decision "foolish" and a "mistake," and said he wished he had never played during the steroid era, which MLB commissioner Bud Selig has now inexplicably declared over.

(So, should we call this the HGH era, Bud, or do you really believe the game is completely clean?)

The man McGwire is tied with for eighth place on baseball's all-time home run register, Alex Rodriguez, said back in February, when he came clean about his PED use that he was "young, stupid and naive" when he began using in 2001.

Rodriguez was young, but we would be the stupid and naive ones if we believed that. A-Rod knew exactly what he was doing, and so did McGwire. There was nothing foolish or unintentional about Big Mac's decision to use steroids or HGH. He did it to make himself a better ballplayer and extend his career.

McGwire told Bob Costas of the MLB Network that his ability to hit home runs was a gift from God. That may be true, but his ability to hit 70 homers in '98, was a gift from modern chemistry. That's a truth that McGwire still isn't ready to confess.

We'll never hear the real truth from any of these enhanced athletes. No athlete will ever come out and say, "I took a performance-enhancing drug. It did exactly what I hoped it would do for me. I knew it was wrong, but I did it any way."

That would be a true steroid admission. 

The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news


...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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