This weekend the PGA Tour returned to Torrey Pines, where we last saw a hobbled Tiger Woods outlast Rocco Mediate on the 91st hole of the U.S. Open. It was golf at its finest last June as the gallery cheers echoed from glen to glen and down the mountainside.
This time Woods is still hurt and Mediate took the tourney off. Here’s guessing you didn’t watch too much of the action.
Major League Baseball had a heck of a week: A report broke that Alex Rodriguez flunked a drug test, the Barry Bonds case held a pretrial hearing and it’s believed a grand jury spent time discussing Roger Clemens and perjury.
The hot-stove talk wasn’t about the excitement of fresh signings but the fact no one can afford Manny Ramirez, et al. There were far too many statements from Scott Boras.
The headlines out of Daytona weren’t about Jimmie Johnson going for a fourth Sprint Cup but the shaky financial ground of NASCAR’s entire operation. College basketball had Pat Summitt and a lot of parity on the men’s side, but not the star power (Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose) of years past to draw in the general fan.
There isn’t a big Ultimate Fighting Championship card or boxing match all month. On national signing day, some kid flipped a coin to pick his school while untold others had their new SUVs delivered from school boosters.
As if this wasn’t headed to the most ho-hum, if not depressing, week of sports in years, Michael Phelps got pictured with his mouth on a bong.
Enter Kobe and LeBron to the rescue.
In a shot to the arm for sports and a reminder that excellence can exist without chemicals, that competition can lift performance, that individual genius can work within the confines of a winning team, the two electrified not just the NBA but a nation looking for something, anything to cheer.
Kobe Bryant started with a record 61 points at Madison Square Garden on Monday. LeBron James answered with a 52-point triple-double (that eventually turned out not to be) two nights later in the same building.
Kobe and his Lakers returned Thursday with a thrilling overtime victory in Boston that delivered the biggest TNT audience since a Michael Jordan-Magic Johnson game in 1996.
Then they came together Sunday afternoon in Cleveland, finishing a week like almost no other, staring each other down across the court.
Bryant struggled with the flu, James struggled with his shot but the so-so individual performances didn’t stop the Lakers from making a championship statement. Los Angeles rode great defense and strong supporting-cast play for a 101-91 victory to finish their trip 6-0.
The game likely drew big TV numbers and delivered a playoff atmosphere in the dead of February. It had many dreaming of June.
The grown men of winter had given us a reason to remember why we follow this stuff in the first place.
“The real question is what they did [in] the league office to have those games in succession?” Bryant asked.
What David Stern’s operation did was seize the post-Super Bowl void and bank on their biggest stars shining bright.
The NBA is often a punching bag of criticism, its athletes dealing with negative stereotypes like no other group, its product derided for reasons that often aren’t true. Some of it may not be fair, but there’s no doubting there have been stretches when the league has struggled to attract much more than its core audience.
The most oft-cited criticism is that it doesn’t feature the purest form of the game, that it’s a no-defense, one-on-one league. Yet, when fundamentally sound teams such as the San Antonio Spurs and Detroit Pistons were winning the championship, ratings and buzz were at their lowest.
Now on the heels of the Celtics-Lakers Finals a year ago comes this Cleveland-Los Angeles stare-down. No, tickets to the Finals aren’t punched for either team; the playoff roads will be long and tough. There's no denying, however, the excitement such a matchup could produce.
Here’s Bryant and James, clearly the two best players on the planet, both in their primes, both fresh off a summer as Olympic teammates, both with enough talent around them. Like Bird and Magic or Wilt and Russell, a Finals clash seems inevitable and proper, if only for history’s sake.
Both have elevated their teams not just with outrageous offensive numbers, but leadership and defense. Bryant has long been one of the better defenders in the game and this year LeBron has joined him. LeBron has always been a supportive teammate and, of late, Kobe’s made strides in that direction.
These aren’t just two guys trying to score big points or dominate the "SportsCenter" highlights. They lead two of the three best teams in the NBA. Their commitment to winning can’t be doubted.
Star players for top teams, no performance-enhancing drugs, no injuries waiting to heal, no carefully crafted statements from agents and handlers.
It was Kobe and LeBron to the rescue in a week when sports needed it most.
- Rocco Mediate
- Tiger Woods