THE MJ OF ESSAYS
While the NBA nervously ponders a future without Michael Jordan,
I worry about the larger implications of His Airness's possible
departure at the end of this season. To wit: Who will replace
Jordan as the journalist's go-to guy, the shorthand metaphor for
things great and wonderful? A perusal of newspapers and
magazines reveals the extent to which the phrase "the Michael
Jordan of..." has entered the lexicon. Type the phrase "the
Michael Jordan of ..." into your LEXIS-NEXIS data base and watch
that baby start smokin'.
To the American journalist, virtually everyone in a brightly
colored snowsuit is the Michael Jordan of something. During the
Winter Olympics, Austria's Hermann Maier was the Michael Jordan
of downhill skiing, Canada's Jean-Luc Brassard the Michael
Jordan of freestyle skiing, Norway's Bjorn Daehlie the Michael
Jordan of cross-country skiing, Germany's Georg Hackl the
Michael Jordan of luge, Switzerland's Gustav Weder the Michael
Jordan of bobsled.
Jan-Ove Waldner of Sweden is the Michael Jordan of table tennis,
unless you're talking about women, in which case Deng Yaping of
China is the Michael Jordan of table tennis. Walter Ray Williams
Jr. is the Michael Jordan of bowling and the Michael Jordan of
horseshoe pitching, putting him at least a leaner up on Lisa
Wagner, who is only the Michael Jordan of women's bowling. The
Michael Jordan of women's soccer is either Mia Hamm or Michelle
Akers, while the Michael Jordan of men's soccer is, variously,
Pele, Diego Maradona, Doctor Khumalo, Ronaldo or (sort of) Jorge
Campos, the Michael Jordan of soccer to Mexicans. I think the
Michael Jordan of soccer is Pele, though he would probably
consider Michael Jordan the Pele of basketball.
This isn't just a sports thing. Gatorade is the Michael Jordan
of sports drinks, possibly because the Michael Jordan of
celebrity endorsers flogs it. Elizabeth Gabler is the Michael
Jordan of film-production executives, Daniel Boulud the Michael
Jordan of chefs, James Watson the Michael Jordan of genetic
research. The last, I read, is also a man known simply as
Watson, which raises the question, If he really were the Michael
Jordan of genetic research, wouldn't he be known as simply
James? I wanna be like James, and with cloning, maybe someday I
will. The CEO of Westinghouse and CBS has never been described
as the Michael Jordan of corporate CEOs, even though his actual
name is Michael Jordan.
Some mainstream jocks (e.g., Tiger Woods) have been referred to
as the Michael Jordan of their sports, but Grant Hill and Kobe
Bryant are only auditioning to become "the next Michael Jordan."
As for Jordan himself, he is sometimes described as the Babe
Ruth of basketball. That's how big the Babe was. --J.M.
CAN'T KEEP 'EM DOWN
In addition to crowning the best Division I wrestlers in the
country, last weekend's NCAA championships doubled as a revival
meeting for a beleaguered sport. Almost 12,000 fans converged on
the Cleveland State University Convocation Center, as much to
testify to wrestling's virtues as to watch the action. "I
thought it was important that I showed my support," said Dick
Kuzminsky, a high school teacher from Mosinee, Wis., who made a
12-hour pilgrimage through sleet and snow. "We still have the
best sport, but wrestling has gone through some tough times
He was referring to the three college wrestlers who died this
season while attempting to cut weight, something that has
haunted the sport (SI, Jan. 26). Acting with uncharacteristic
swiftness, the NCAA within weeks implemented rule changes
designed to prevent a recurrence, including banning the use of
rubber suits and saunas to facilitate rapid weight loss, and
requiring that weigh-ins take place two hours before a meet
(rather than 24). Additional mandates, including a skin-fold
test to help establish a minimum percentage of body fat for each
wrestler, are likely to follow when the NCAA's wrestling and
safeguards committees reconvene next month. "What happened was a
huge tragedy, but it would have been a bigger tragedy if we
didn't learn from it," says Iowa's Mark Ironside, who repeated
as 134-pound champion. "Now if you want to lose weight, you have
to work hard and not take dangerous shortcuts."
The sport has also been dogged by the elimination of programs.
More than half of all college wrestling teams have been axed
since the enactment of Title IX in 1972; most were dropped to
comply with gender-equity guidelines. Thus, wrestling has become
increasingly regionalized. Eight of this year's 10 champs hailed
from the Big Ten or the Big 12, while there was virtually no
representation from New England, the South or Texas.
Still, this gritty sport isn't ready to be pinned. "We still
have great fans who really care about the sport," says Bruce
Baumgartner, an Olympic and world champion who's the athletic
director at Edinboro (Pa.) University, "and the caliber of the
athletes has never been higher."
That was borne out during Saturday night's finals, as Iowa
fended off an unexpected surge from Minnesota to win its fourth
straight team title. For the first time in 21 seasons, the
Hawkeyes were without legendary coach Dan Gable, who is on leave
of absence and is expected to announce his retirement shortly.
Long after his interim (and likely permanent) replacement, Jim
Zalesky, hoisted the championship trophy, the capacity crowd
continued its cheering, less an ovation for the Hawkeyes than an
affirmation of the whole sport. --L. Jon Wertheim
Calming an Irish Storm
BOWL ALLIANCE'S BID BUSINESS
Because of the uproar that emanated from the Western Athletic
Conference when fifth-ranked Brigham Young failed to receive a
major bowl bid after finishing the 1996 season 13-1, college
football's Bowl Alliance approved a new plan: Beginning with the
1998 season, a team from the WAC ranked in the top six would
automatically qualify for one of two at-large berths in the
bowls that, theoretically at least, determine the national
champion. The same guarantee was extended to Conference USA,
which had also been complaining about being excluded.
The Alliance then had to deal with Notre Dame, which was worried
that the new arrangement would scuttle the tacit agreement under
which the Fighting Irish got one of the two at-large berths if
it met specific criteria. So the Alliance came up with another
plan, which seems likely to pass next month: If the WAC or C-USA
earns a bid, the Irish are guaranteed the other if they finish
9-2 or in the Top 10.
But what happens if all three should happen to meet the
qualifying criteria in the same season? At this point the
Alliance admits it hasn't addressed the issue. But it did
achieve what seemed to be its most important goal--placating the
fears of one marquee team.
Rugby and Sex
TOURNAMENT SCORING'S UP
A highly charged atmosphere surrounds the Five Nations rugby
tournament, an annual series of matches among teams from
England, France, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. National pride is
at stake, and passion runs high. And in Ireland, at least, it's
not just sporting passion.
The Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) recently completed
a study showing that sexual activity on the Emerald Isle reaches
a peak on the nights of Five Nations matches. The IFPA
determined this by analyzing the demand for the morning-after
contraceptive pill, which reached record levels on the mornings
after games. "The whole town will get wrapped up in the game,"
says IFPA chief executive Tony O'Brien. "Drink runs freely, and
even married couples get carried away." O'Brien also says that
through a game-by-game comparison of contraceptive sales, the
association was able to determine which opponent most raised
Irish, er, enthusiasm. The answer, perhaps not surprisingly:
The Mess at Fresno State
A PRESIDENTIAL ABDICATION
In the three years that Jerry Tarkanian has coached basketball
at Fresno State, the school's president, John Welty, has been
for the most part the model of accommodation for Tark's
(SI, Feb. 9). As Tarkanian peopled his roster with criminals and
drug abusers, Welty stood behind him and on March 9 even
extended his $95,000-a-year contract through next season with
options to renew through 2000-01. After a March 15 segment on 60
Minutes about the Bulldogs' basketball program that was mostly
negative--Welty appeared briefly on the program and spoke about
his being a member of the Society for Values in Higher
Education--Welty joined Tark in criticizing the report.
After another ugly incident on March 17--Bulldogs starter
Avondre Jones, a senior center, and transfer Kenny Brunner, a
freshman guard, were arrested after allegedly robbing an
acquaintance and assaulting him with a gun and two samurai
swords--Welty suddenly developed a sense of outrage. (As of
Monday the players had not been charged.) "With each shameful
incident, the institutional damage is compounded," he said. "My
patience and the patience of others throughout this university
are at an end." Still, Welty wasn't that outraged. He accepted
the Tark-imposed penalties: Tarkanian dismissed Jones, whose
eligibility will be up this week anyway, but only "indefinitely
suspended" Brunner, who has 2 1/2 years of eligibility
remaining. And he did not pull Fresno State from the NIT, in
which it was scheduled to play Minnesota in the semifinals on
Tuesday night. That would've been a real statement.
SWIFTER, STRONGER, HIGHER
In Sydney these days it seems everyone is pushing the Olympic
spirit, including the pushers. Fifty-four tabs of LSD
confiscated recently by authorities Down Under bore the logo of
the 2000 Games.
MORE BULL FROM BILLY
Billy Packer opened his mouth last week for a reason other than
to describe a basketball play, a sure sign that nonsense would
follow. He didn't disappoint. As Edward R. Murrow took another
full spin in the grave, Packer, CBS's lead college basketball
commentator, called time out from his relentless praising of
college coaches to criticize his own network's 60 Minutes for
the aforementioned report on Fresno State. Packer told the Los
Angeles Times that 60 Minutes was "a cancer in our
organization." The next day Packer followed up by telling The
Washington Post that the Fresno segment was "sleazy,
short-sighted, lazy journalism. If you want to call it
Well, let's see. During his 25-year career in journalism--if you
want to call it journalism--college basketball's head
cheerleader has admitted to being "a walking conflict of
interest" based on his involvement in numerous business deals
with the coaches and sports executives he covers. In response to
a series of stories in the Lexington Herald-Leader that won a
Pulitzer Prize for uncovering myriad abuses in the Kentucky
basketball program during the 1980s, Packer called for
Kentuckians to boycott the paper and said that it had done "a
major disservice to the university, the kids who play for him,
and [then coach] Eddie Sutton."
On another front, Packer, who goes out of his way to bash
women's sports, a few years ago suggested that each college have
just one team per sport. "That's true gender equity," Packer
told Basketball Weekly. "Go out for the team. If you make the
team, you play."
We'll say this for Packer: He's a guy who knows sleazy and
THREE COLOR ILLUSTRATIONS: FRED HARPER [Drawing of Mia Hamm wearing number 23 jersey; drawing of Walter Ray Williams Jr. wearing number 23 jersey; drawing of Hermann Maier wearing number 23 jersey]
COLOR PHOTO: GEORGE TIEDEMANN HEADSTRONG Like his sport, Ironside stays up even when he's upended, as here against Dustin Denunzio of Harvard. [Dustin Denunzio and Mark Ironside wrestling]
COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND/ALLSPORT [Football referees conferring]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: GLYNIS SWEENY [Drawing of Clyde Drexler as basketball coach]
--That the kidney donated by Linda Simmons to hubby Oklahoma
State football coach Bob Simmons bring the couple even closer
than they already obviously are.
--That Boris Becker, who withdrew from his fifth Lipton
Championship in six years, can't find any sugar for his iced tea.
--That CBS commentator Al (Boogie Down) McGuire leave his
dancin' shoes at home for the Final Four.
Horses used by the Masked Rider, Texas Tech's mascot, who have
died in freak collisions in the last four years, the latest
having run chestfirst into a fence.
Shirts in latest order placed by Michael Jordan with his
personal shirtmaker, Randolph Williamson, who is also a forklift
driver in Nashville.
Record, over 53 years of coaching high school boys' basketball,
of Ralph Tasker, 78, who retired after leading Hobbs (N.Mex.)
High to a third-place finish in the state tournament.
Major league teams (out of 30) whose games are carried on cable
stations controlled by new Dodgers owner Rupert Murdoch.
Handle, in dollars, that Las Vegas bookmakers expect on the NCAA
tournament, more, for the first time, than was bet on the Super
Letters in surname of Indian cricket star K.N. Ananthapadmanabhan.
"Heads under the rim," Pat Rileyspeak for Heat players in
rebounding position, that the Miami coach likes to see in the
course of a game.
IS INSTANT REPLAY RIGHT FOR THE NFL?
Replay's fate after six years in exile has probably been decided
as you read this. The fact is, as long as giant replay screens
dot every stadium, networks cover games with replays from at
least three angles, the size-and-speed gap between players and
officials continues to widen, and teams (like the 1997 Jets)
miss the playoffs because of blown calls, the NFL must make use
of instant replay. --Peter King
Achieving perfection has never been the goal of sports; striving
for perfection is what counts, for athletes and officials. Blown
calls, like fumbles, are part of the delicious unpredictability
of sports, fodder for barroom debate. Replays undermine the
authority of the officials, and more important, the spectator
doesn't pay money and the viewer doesn't tune in to watch
zebras hold a tea party. --J.M.
This decade has been unkind to Final Four teams that
have--either by beating the highest seeds they could have faced
or by finishing with the slimmest victory margins--traveled the
most rigorous roads through the first four rounds. Only two such
teams have won the title since 1990. That being the case, don't
count on seeing North Carolina or Stanford snipping down the
nets on Monday.
FACED HIGHEST LOWEST AVG.
YEAR POSSIBLE SEEDS VICTORY MARGIN NATIONAL CHAMP
1998 North Carolina Stanford (9.5) ?
(16, 8, 4, 2)
1997 Kentucky Arizona (4.8) Arizona
(16, 8, 4, 2)
1996 N/A* Mississippi Kentucky
1995 Oklahoma State Arkansas (3.8) UCLA
(13, 5, 1, 2)
1994 Arizona Florida (7.8) Arkansas
(15, 7, 3, 1)
1993 North Carolina Michigan (11.5) North Carolina
(16, 8, 4, 2)
1992 Indiana Michigan (6.5) Duke
(15, 7, 3, 1)
1991 Kansas Kansas (11.8) Duke
(14, 6, 2, 1)
1990 N/A* Georgia Tech (5.5) UNLV
*No Final Four team faced the highest possible seeds.
BIG MEN (BACK) ON CAMPUS
CLYDE DREXLER, one of the NBA's alltime greatest and an alum of
celebrated Phi Slamma Jamma, will return to the University of
Houston as coach after this season. But as the following
examples show, even the best players can't always go home again.
Forrest Gregg SCHOOL DAYS Considered one of the finest players
in SMU history, Gregg played offensive and defensive tackle from
1952 to '55 and was twice named All-SWC
POSTGRAD CAREER Pro football Hall of Famer earned Super Bowl
rings in 1967 and '68 as Packers offensive tackle; coached
Bengals to first Super Bowl in '81
RETURN Named SMU coach in '89 after NCAA violations had shut
down program for three years; won three of 22 games before
becoming athletic director, a post he held until '94
Joe Kapp SCHOOL DAYS Cal quarterback was an All-America in '58
when he passed for 775 yards, ran for 616 and took Golden Bears
to Rose Bowl
POSTGRAD CAREER Still a hero in Minnesota for quarterbacking '69
Vikings to Super Bowl IV
RETURN Under Kapp from '82 to '86, Bears went 20-34-1, twice
hibernating at bottom of Pac-10
Gordon (Red) Berenson SCHOOL DAYS A two-time All-America hockey
center at Michigan, the Red Baron set school record with 43
goals in 1961-62
POSTGRAD CAREER During 17-year NHL playing career he scored 261
goals, including six in one game for St. Louis; NHL coach of the
year with Blues in 1980-81
RETURN Since coming back to Ann Arbor for 1984-85 season,
Berenson has led Wolverines to 365-186-30 record, five Final
Fours and '96 NCAA title
Steve Spurrier SCHOOL DAYS Brash Florida quarterback was Sugar
Bowl MVP and Heisman winner in '66
POSTGRAD CAREER John Brodie's backup in San Francisco for nine
seasons; became expansion Buccaneers' first quarterback in '76
RETURN Has earned five SEC titles and one national championship
since taking control of Gators in '90
Cheryl Miller SCHOOL DAYS A four-time All-America at Southern
Cal from 1983 to '86; won distaff Naismith Award an
unprecedented three times
POSTGRAD CAREER Inducted into Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995;
still considered one of best women's players ever
RETURN Went 44-14 in two seasons as USC coach, in 1993-94 and
'94-95, but didn't get beyond Elite Eight
THIS WEEK'S SIGN THAT THE APOCALYPSE IS UPON US
Thirteen nuns from an order in Edmonton laid a small hockey
stick and a puck at the foot of a statue of Jesus as part of a
prayer ritual to keep the Oilers from leaving town.
THEY SAID IT
Cincinnati Reds radio man, on an erroneous report that
broadcasting partner Joe Nuxhall had expired: "If Joe's dead,
that explains a lot."