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Priorities on Ice

One has to wonder if the NHL knows how to deal with prosperity.

After an outstanding 1993-94 season and postseason, during which pro sports' "other" league at last seemed to gain mainstream appeal, the hockey poohbahs sat down to negotiate a network TV contract, settling last week on a five-year, $155 million deal with Fox. The big question is why the NHL spent so much of the off-season talking to TV people and so little time talking to its own players.

The collective bargaining agreement between the NHL and its players' union ended in September 1993 (the 1993-94 season was played without one), and the two sides have had little communication. The league has talked about both a "redistribution of revenue" and a "rookie salary structure," both of which amount to a salary cap, and the players want nothing to do with that. It's a given that the owners are planning to lock out the players right before the season begins on Oct. 1.

So, what the NHL has right now is a nice new network contract...and maybe no games to show.

Still the One

Last Friday night the Birmingham Barons' best-known outfielder took a final curtain call on his old stage before the house comes down. Michael Jordan played basketball in public for the first time since walking away from the Chicago Bulls last fall, joining a group of NBA guards and forwards in the Scottie Pippen Ameritech All-Star Classic, a charity game at doomed Chicago Stadium. Had the man who batted .202 in spikes and stirrups forgotten how to play in shorts and Air Jordans? Does a shark forget how to eat? "I think I showed you guys that if I want to play, I can play," Jordan said.

That was after he had scored a game-high 52 points, run hard and dribbled well, made long jumpers and soft bank shots and gone at the man guarding him, Pippen—perhaps the best man-on-man defensive player in the NBA—with smiling ferocity. Astoundingly yet predictably, the 32-year-old Jordan was the best player on the floor by a wide margin. The youngsters in the game—Anfernee Hardaway, Jason Kidd, Isaiah Rider—got to see firsthand what everyone had been talking about for years.

Jordan came back to pay his respects to the stadium before the 65-year-old Big Barn on Madison Street is plowed under to provide parking for the Bulls' new arena, the United Center, across the street. He did not come back, he insisted, to feed rumors that he'll soon return to the NBA instead of heading, as scheduled, to the Arizona Instructional League. He will play basketball anytime he wants, just not on anyone else's clock, just not for money, just not because he is still the best in the world. "That's a rare freedom," he said.

The freedom he showed in midair—his first dunk was a sudden and vicious display of living grace that had the sellout crowd of 18,671 laughing with joy—made his continued absence from the NBA almost painful to contemplate. Is there anyone else on the planet who is the best there is at something wonderful and will not perform that something? What if Yo Yo Ma decided to play the cello only behind closed doors or Pavarotti to sing only in the shower? When Jordan walked to center court as the game was ending and knelt and kissed the raging hardwood bull goodbye, those who love basketball could only hope it was just a good-night peck, not a final adieu.

Free Time, Free Fall

With all the new rights and freedoms pro athletes are demanding these days, it is surprising that one restrictive aspect of their contracts has gone unchallenged. Included in every football, basketball, baseball and hockey player's work papers is a section limiting his free-time activities. Some of the no-nos mentioned in the NBA contract, for example, are riding a moped, skydiving, hang gliding, professional wrestling and—believe it or not—tossing around a baseball or a football. That list is preceded by the clause "including but not limited to." an obvious attempt at a legal catchall.

Still, Philadelphia 76er center Shawn Bradley and rookie forward Sharone Wright recently found a way to get a thrill at Atlantic City's Steel Pier, where they plummeted 250 feet toward the ground in a bungee-like contraption called a Skycoaster. Had Bradley (who made out his will on hotel stationery before the ride) or Wright been hurt or even killed, the battle over whether their contracts should be honored would have been interesting. While the daredevil duo could claim that they were not, after all, doing something as perilous as, say, running pass patterns, we assume that the 76ers would deem Skycoastering an "included but not limited to" activity.

What is more fascinating is the list of seven pastimes expressly permitted in the NBA contract: golf, tennis, handball, swimming, hiking, softball and volleyball. You call these innocuous activities? Tennis brings the likelihood of tennis elbow, handball a guarantee of jammed fingers. People drown when they swim and get eaten by bears when they hike. Softball and volleyball (the beach kind, anyway) are played under the specter of skin cancer. As for golf, well, everyone knows that that activity can lead to mental illness.

Unforced Error

Last week the Women's Tennis Council announced that it will install new age limits for participation on the women's pro tour, beginning on Jan. 1. The limits, which will further restrict tour participation by teenage girls, come in the wake of evidence that the current schedule—girls as young as 14 may play as many as 12 tour events and the year-ending Virginia Slims championships—can, in the words of the council's Age Eligibility Commission, lead to "serious medical, psychological and developmental problems."

Under the new rules 14-year-old girls will be barred from tour events, but starting at 15, they will be permitted to enter an increasing number of tournaments each year until they can play an unlimited schedule at 18. Along the way they and their parents and coaches will be required to take part in counseling.

Sounds great, right? But consider that 14-year-old girls will still be allowed to retain agents and to play four satellite events and one exhibition. Worse, in a kind of granddaughter clause, any player turning 14 this year, like Martina Hingis of Switzerland and the U.S.'s Venus Williams, can be exempted from the new rules if they enter a tour event in 1994.

Why? Because the council says it wouldn't be fair to these players to change the ground rules as they are about to embark on their careers. More likely, fear of lawsuits is a factor. Indeed, Anne Person Worcester, managing director of the council, spent nine hours meeting with Venus's father, Richard, at his home in Florida, going over the proposed eligibility guidelines.

As desperate as the tour is for new faces, it makes no sense to let this next set of phenoms repeat the same mistakes just because they might be on the verge of stardom. The phase-in program is the right idea, but there should be no exceptions.

A Rafting Angle

Let the rest of the nation agonize over the issue of Cuban refugees—Florida fishermen see opportunity in the freedom seekers' rickety rafts. It's an angling axiom that small bait fish are attracted to floats because they afford shade from the hot summer sun and protection from predators. And it's also a fact that where there are little fish, there are big fish looking for their next meal. So....

"There's a saying down here that if you see a Cuban raft, the first thing you do is fish the raft," says Steve Hartman, 32, owner of Garden Cove Marina in Key Largo. "That's where you'll find the dolphin and the tuna." Last Saturday, Hartman and his crew encountered a group of Cubans on a raft waiting for help from the Coast Guard. "We pulled up and waited with them," says Hartman, "and while we were waiting, we fished the raft."

And what did the Cubans on the raft do? "They watched us," says Hartman.

Riders in the Storm

Before last Saturday's Nebraska-Texas Tech game in Lubbock, a moment of silence was offered in memory of Double T, the victim of a field goal celebration gone horribly wrong. The black quarter horse had served more than a year as the Red Raiders' mascot only to meet his untimely end in the third quarter of Tech's Sept. 3 opener against New Mexico.

For 40 years a horse and a Masked Rider, a student decked out in a scarlet cape, have celebrated Red Raider scores at Jones Stadium by galloping a lap around the field. By unhappy coincidence, Sept. 3 marked a reunion of Masked Riders, 17 of whom took the field in a pregame ceremony. During a lap after a third-quarter field goal had put Tech up 20-17, Double T's saddle slipped, and rider Amy Smart could not hold on. She was not seriously injured, but Double T was spooked. He dashed toward the Red Raider bench, scattering players, coaches and officials. "The frightened horse then raced down the sideline and out the south end zone before slipping and falling headfirst into a concrete wall just inside the exit tunnel. Death was instantaneous.

The tragedy overshadowed the Red Raiders' 37-31 win and provoked fresh calls for the abolition of the Masked Rider. In 1982 Happy VI, Masked Rider Perry Church up, flattened an SMU cheerleader, and two years ago another Masked Rider collided with a game official. Last week the university's Masked Rider Committee voted unanimously to continue the Masked Rider tradition, but it recommended the formation of an ad hoc committee to review safety issues. One possible outcome: a ban on laps after scores. Horse and rider would simply stand there, in the committee's words, "as a symbol of Texas Tech."

By week's end a decision—unlike poor Double T—had yet to be rendered.

No Hit, Good Man

Journeyman pitcher Hank Aguirre, who died last week of prostate cancer at age 62, achieved his most lasting fame off the field. In 1979, nine years after he had pitched his final major league game, Aguirre (uh-GEAR-ay) mortgaged his home and borrowed $350,000 to establish Mexican Industries, in Detroit, where he had spent 10 seasons of his 16-year career pitching for the Tigers. His company, which manufactures air bags, wheel covers and map holders, now employs 1,000 workers, 87% of them Hispanic, at eight plants.

Aguirre was also known for being one of the worst hitters in history. During home games Detroit fans would sometimes cheer him just for hitting a foul ball. Non-Hammerin' Hank's "batting" average of .08505 (he had 33 hits in 388 at bats), however, is not the alltime low. Pitchers Dean Chance (44 hits in 662 at bats for a .066 average), Bill Hands (37 for 472, .078 average) and Roger Craig (38 for 448, .08482 average) were all worse. And New York Yankee reliever Terry Mulholland will possibly join this esteemed group—his average stands at .079 with 28 hits in 356 at bats.

All in all, though, three-time All-Star Aguirre had reason to be mighty proud. He didn't get paid to hit, and his career record was a respectable 75-72. Best of all, he made a difference. "He was a real part of the Detroit community," says former Tiger radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell. There are fewer and fewer players like that around.







There Will Always Be an England

To judge by this sign, spotted beside a motorway rest stop in Manchester, England, it would seem that the British have the right idea (although we might have included basketball coaches as well). But, alas, things are not as they seem. In Britain a "coach" is what Americans call a bus, and "football" is, of course, soccer. A football coach, then, is a busload of soccer fans.

This Week's Sign That the Apocalypse Is Upon Us

Calling the move "a phenomenon of entertainment and sports," Amateur Athletic Union president Bobby Dodd announced that his organization will relocate its headquarters from Indianapolis to Disney World.

They Said It

Brett Hull
The St. Louis Blue right wing, on his ambivalence about requesting a trade: "I'll be sad to go, and I wouldn't be sad to go. It wouldn't upset me to leave St. Louis, but it would upset me to leave St. Louis. It's hard to explain. You'll find out one of these days, but maybe you never will."