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Original Issue


Zeke and Lamb

The news that Isiah Thomas punched teammate and alleged best buddy Bill Laimbeer at a Detroit Piston practice on Nov. 16 brought to mind a moment from the 1985-86 season. As the Pistons waited out a fog delay at Sacramento Metro Airport, there were Thomas and Laimbeer jammed into a phone booth, laughing and gesturing and passing the telephone back and forth as they chatted with a mutual friend.

What brought Thomas, the finesse-oriented black kid out of the Chicago ghetto, and Laimbeer, the monied white kid from the suburbs, together? And what kept them together through the championship years of the Pistons in 1989 and '90?

The answer is this: a compulsive desire to win. Yes, they enjoyed each other's company—the locker room jokes, the insults, the sweat and the hard knocks—and that certainly qualified them as friends. But more than affection, what Thomas and Laimbeer shared was a mutual power base. All the Pistons, to one degree or another, answered to both of them. Working together, Thomas and Laimbeer cultivated an aura of arrogance and intimidation that even Michael Jordan and the Bulls could not overcome until 1991.

It was not surprising, then, that their relationship began to wane as the Pistons began to wane. When Laimbeer was demoted to second team last season, it was Thomas who became the recipient of his hard screens and flying elbows during scrimmages. And it was a few too many blows (Laimbeer broke one of Thomas's ribs with an elbow in practice last month) that prompted Thomas to sucker-punch Laimbeer in the head two weeks ago and, in the process, break his own hand.

Those close to the team expect a tired and discouraged Laimbeer to retire when Thomas returns from his injury in about six weeks; Laimbeer would have already done so, says one source, but believes that it would look bad to leave with Thomas on the shelf. And Thomas will almost certainly hang it up at the end of this season. Both players are understandably frustrated with the decline of the Pistons, for both realize that history will probably not give them their due. If and when they get together in their dotage, though, they can remember the time when nobody on the NBA's baddest team dared cross them.

Straw Poll

It all seemed so perfect last year when, in its rookie season, the college football bowl coalition did just what it was designed to do—facilitate a matchup of Nos. 1 and 2 on New Year's Day. Alabama upset Miami in the Sugar Bowl, and the college football world felt a sense of closure. The bowl coalition could luck into a dream matchup again this season, but that doesn't change the fact that there are almost as many flaws in the system as there are bowl reps with bad sport coats.

One of the biggest flaws is the coalition's own poll. That's because Auburn, which is on probation and cannot go to a bowl this season, is inexplicably included in the poll. The coalition rankings are determined by combining the point totals of the AP and the USA Today/CNN polls. The latter (the coaches' poll) does not include teams on probation, but the coalition decided it would rank probation teams by doubling their AP points. In this week's coalition poll Auburn is ranked fourth.

"It was an innocent enough move [to include Auburn and other teams on probation] that could come back to haunt us," says a coalition official. "If Auburn got to be Number 2, it would be a disaster."

It would, in fact, effectively negate for this season a matchup of Nos. 1 and 2. If the top two teams cannot meet, for whatever reason, the bowl that would have hosted that "national championship" game can then scramble to arrange whatever matchup it finds most desirable.

So what if No. 3 West Virginia loses to Boston College on Friday and No. 2 Florida State loses to Florida on Saturday? Auburn, which finished its season 11-0, could move up to No. 2. The coalition claims to enjoy the controversy, but its face must still be a little auburn.

Witness Box

For possibly the first time in the history of jurisprudence, a defendant was legally empowered to beat up the star witness against him. It happened last Friday night in Atlantic City, where defendant Ray Mercer won a split decision over witness Jesse Ferguson in their 10-round heavyweight rematch.

Perhaps you remember the first Ferguson-Mercer bout, last Feb. 6, which was notable not for boxing prowess (there was none) but for an alleged conversation that took place between the ropes (SCORECARD, July 12). Ferguson, a huge underdog, won handily, knocking a fat and poorly conditioned Mercer out of a title fight against then champion Riddick Bowe, a bout that would have brought Mercer a $1.5 million payday. A short time later Mercer was indicted in New York City for allegedly having offered Ferguson—during the fight—a $100,000 bribe to take a dive. Mercer's lawyer has refused to allow his client to discuss the charges with reporters, but immediately after the first fight, when the first stories hit print, Mercer claimed he had said no such thing.

The trial is set for Dec. 6, with Ferguson scheduled to testify for the prosecution. Neither boxer is commenting on the trial, but, strangely, each professes to have warm feelings for the other. "No matter what, we've always been friends," says Mercer. "We're both fighters trying to make a living at this thing."

Says Ferguson, "It's no big deal. We'll be friends."

Let's see if they're still buddy-buddy after the verdict.

A Rhetorical Question
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson told the New York Daily News last week that he will resume his boxing career when he leaves the Indiana prison where he is serving a six-year sentence for rape. "All I know how to do is fight," said Tyson. "What else am I going to do, man, be a nuclear scientist?"

Himalayan Trash Heap

Much has happened to Mount Everest in the 40 years since Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, first scaled it, almost all of it bad. Climbing the 29,028-foot peak has become commonplace—more than half of the 500 people to reach the top have done it in the last five years—and so, sadly, has littering. Environmentalists estimate that 50 tons of rubbish are scattered across Everest, some of it predictable (tents, oxygen bottles), some of it unpredictable (baseball bats, Frisbees), some of it downright macabre (dozens of corpses, preserved by the cold).

"The problem of too much rubbish and too many people is quite substantial," Hillary told The Washington Post. But Sir Edmund has a plan: "At a minimum, everything should be put in a single pile, rather than spread around carelessly, and the bodies could be buried underneath it."

looking out for him. But then Wayne went out there to La La Land and became friends with Arsenio and Chevy Chase and all those Hollywood types, and they didn't like fighting. So we said, 'Let's get fighting out of the game.' " In the Cherry spirit, we present Gretzky and a few other athletes who proved to be a blight on the sporting landscape.

Jim's Not Dandy

What has gotten into Jim Courier (above)? At last week's ATP Tour World Championship, in Frankfurt, Germany, Courier buried his face in a book (Armistead Maupin's Maybe the Moon; the baseline-based critic gave it a thumbs-up) during changeovers of his match against Andrei Medvedev; turned to his coach, Josè Higueras, in the middle of another match and said, "I was just wondering if they've signed the NAFTA agreement or not"; and, in the second set of his 7-5, 6-4 loss to eventual ATP winner Michael Stich, handed his racket to a ball boy, who then hit a few balls with Stich.

Courier's play, even before his three losses in Germany, had been as bewildering as his behavior. In four of his last five tournaments before Frankfurt, he failed to reach the quarterfinals. Said Courier, who last week slipped behind Pete Sampras and Stich in the world rankings, "I need to get away from all this."

This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us
Up for bid at Leyland's sports auction last week in New York City was a package of 1950s Ted Williams (unauthorized) "Champ" prophylactics.

They Said It

•Bob Hoying, Ohio State quarterback, after a 23-17 victory over Indiana on Nov. 13 clinched a share of the Big Ten championship for the Buckeyes: "I'm really happy for Coach Cooper and the guys who've been around here six or seven years, especially our seniors."


Negative Impact

Irrelevant Detail

Babe Ruth

Encouraged bad dietary habits and nocturnal carousing

Possibly greatest all-around player in history

Willie Mays

Demonstrated poor fielding fundamentals with basket catch

Third on alltime home run list; winner of 12 Gold Gloves

Jack Nicklaus

Showed contempt for par 5s with prodigious drives; spent far too much time hunched over putts

Winner of 70 tournaments, including 20 majors

Muhammad Ali

Brought politics and horrific rhymed couplets to the sweet science

Three-time heavyweight champion; premier showman of all time

Michael Jordan

Set dangerous precedent of tongue-wagging; eschewed the two-hand set shot

Seven-time scoring champ, three-time MVP in nine seasons

Wayne Gretzky

Virtually destroyed hockey as Don Cherry knows it

Eight-time MVP; nicknamed the Great One