LOS ANGELES — Late Spring is arguably the best time for sports. With the unpredictability of the NBA and NHL Playoffs, interleague baseball, the randomness of big boxing matches, tennis and golf Grand Slam tournaments, and even horse racing; if the sports planets all align there’s the chance for something special. So when the Devils beat the Kings last Wednesday to avoid a sweep in the Stanley Cup Finals, and then the Heat beat the Celtics to avoid elimination in the NBA Playoffs the next day, the intergalactic sports Gods set up a potentially epic day like Saturday, June 9.
As it turned out, there wasn’t just two or three of the previously mentioned events planned, but all six. I mean, why wouldn’t there be. It isn’t often you get a horse going for the Triple Crown, a tennis great trying to complete the career Grand Slam, your favorite baseball team playing against the best young player since Junior Griffey, a potential Stanley Cup deciding game, an NBA Playoffs Game 7 and a big-time prize fight featuring who many consider the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. All in one day!!?! A sports guy’s dream.
However, when I’ll Have Another’s trainer Doug O’Neill pulled the horse, who already had a pair of stunning come-from-behind wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, on Friday morning after noticing signs of arthritis/tendinitis in its leg, the Gods proved they had other plans. We now know those were nightmarish ones, especially for those with northeast rooting interests, like myself.
We’ll start with the Red Sox, who are on the precipice of a disaster .500 season (seriously, Adrian Gonzalez, you suck). They got things going in the southern directional with a 4-2 loss to the hotshots from Washington (who would later sweep Boston after Sunday’s win). While I failed to watch a single inning of this contest, I didn’t have high hopes after Stephen Strasburg (6 innings, 2 runs, 13 Ks) and Bryce Harper (3-for-5, 3 RBIs and a HR) dominated the squad the day before. You know it’s a bad sign when I just expect a disastrous performance before a pitch is ever thrown; 2004 and 2007 seem soooo long ago.
Shortly there after Boston’s “L,” the rest of the field that would’ve been an asterisk to I’ll Have Another’s historic Triple Crown (he was going off at 4-5 odds as late as last Thursday) took to the track at Belmont Park before a less-than optimally hyped crowd of over 85,000 (who bet over $15M). There was a group of us watching at The Daily Pint in Santa Monica for our friend Joe’s birthday or perhaps I would’ve skipped the race entirely. Back in the day, I wouldn’t have missed a big race. There was a harness racing track near my house in Maine and my buddies and I would roll over and lay some action down; always made it more interesting. Alas, I had zero interest, but the historic mile-and-a-half jaunt ended up being a dramatic race despite the favorite’s absence. Union Rags came from behind to claim the victory but will be a distant memory to what might have been. Legendary trainer Bob Baffert once again had his horse Place, as Paynter came up just short.
Now, I’m not a hockey fan, but the hometown Kings being a game away from clinching the first Stanley Cup in the franchise’s history, and with the puck dropping on Game 5 a half hour before Heat/Celtics Game 7, was enough to garner at least 30 minutes of my viewing time. Our now 5-man crew shifted over to Busby’s where we’d be able to watch both events and then possibly the Bradley/Pacquiao fight later on. The move proved to be a smart one as we posted up right in front of a TV with the basketball game on, with the hockey on directly behind us for easy viewing. I turned my head every now and again to check the score; we were updated on what was happening by the groans/cheers from the other patrons. There were mostly groans as the Devils extended the series with a 2-1 win.
Of course, my focus was solely on the Celtics, who were seeking their 3rd NBA Finals appearance in the five years of the Big Three Era and a revenge victory over Miami, which took out Boston in 5 games in last year’s Eastern Conference semis. It was a torridly-close affair but the Celtics managed to have a not-so comfortable 7-point lead at halftime, however, with just 12 minutes left to play it was dead even. The way Miami came back didn’t leave a good feeling in my gut, and as the time on the game clock dwindled it became apparent that the new golden era in Boston was coming to an unceremonious end. The Heat finished off the 101-88 win to advance to the NBA Finals against the youthfully athletic Oklahoma City Thunder and their dynamic and questionably fashionable duo Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. What made the loss even more obnoxious, was that suddenly we were surrounded by Heat fans, fans who were noticeably silent for the previous 36 game minutes. All that was left for me to do was lick my wounds, and devour my turkey burger, and prepare for the pugilistic showdown.
I suppose we should have taken this has a sign of weird things to come, but the fight’s start was delayed by nearly an hour as 1) Manny Pacquaio, apparently a huge Celtics fan (finally, something to like about him) refused to get ready until the basketball game was over, and 2) Pacquiao, after getting ready, had to walk on the treadmill for a lengthy period of time to loosen up his calves, which he’s had problems with tightness in throughout his training camp. Meanwhile, the HBO announcing team was running out of things to talk about as everyone waited. It was beyond bizarre. Meanwhile, Bradley was gloved up and ready to go, pacing around backstage while Pacquaio went on with his shenanigans. The whole scene was bizarre, to say the least.
Finally, just after 9pm pacific time — only an hour or so after it was supposed to get underway — the boxers made their way to the ring, Michael Buffer did this overpriced thing (did you know he gets close to $5 million to be a boxing announcer for big fights?) and the dance began. It was clear from the get-go that Pacquiao was there to fight and quell the thoughts his 12-round triumph over Juan Manuel Marquez some months back wasn’t earned. The WBO champ was aggressive and closed rounds strongly, while Bradley tried to fight off Pacquiao’s his flurries. The challenger didn’t do a good job of it. Midway through the fight I tweeted out that a knockout was looming in the coming rounds. It never came.
Bradley, who we later found out broke his foot in the fourth round, fought admirably to close the bout, but by then most assumed it was a forgone conclusion he was the big loser. When it was finally over and Bradley’s cornermen lifted him up, Jim Lampley commented on the irony, since it appeared he was soundly defeated. It was even reported Bradley told promoter Bob Arum that he gave all he could but even then couldn’t defeat Pacquiao. It wasn’t until Buffer read the first score of 115-113 that I knew something was up. And even though the round went to Pacquiao, that someone could even think the fight was that close was ludicrous was not a good sign if he hoped to continue his 7-year unbeaten streak.
Then Buffer said the second judges scores; “115-113 for Bradley” and you knew right then Bradley was going to win. The final judge’s score of 115-113 for Bradley didn’t even need to be read but when it was there was a good 15-20 seconds of silence inside Busby’s while we all soaked in what we just heard and what that meant for Pacquiao, a sitting-in-jail Floyd Mayweather and the sport of boxing. What it meant for Bradley was a rematch (one that was already predetermined, ironically) and a bigger payday and a still unblemished record. Twitter was aghast with notions of a fix and it was tough to argue. Inside Busby’s, some clown in a LeBron James jersey was running around yelling his outrage to any one would listen. Many did not. On my drive home, I wondered what Mayweather’s reaction must have been when learning of the outcome. Surely a smirk was involved.
In the end, only Maria Sharapova was able to come through to win the French Open and complete her career Grand Slam. Still, she’s getting married to former Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic so a complete victory is not awarded in my book. On top of all the sports brokenheartedness, it was the first weekend in nearly three months without “Game of Thrones,” and it was the last for probably a year with a Mad Men episode.
So much hope, so much promise when the sun rose that day all for not. Sometimes stars shine bright but their alignment is a little off. Maybe next time.
SACO, Maine — Playoff games, by definition, mean more than regular season contests. First, in the sense that there are less of them (duh), which adds to the anxiety in the building; two, there’s a sense of urgency, at least among the fans, because the end could come at any moment; and finally, if those involved fail to win, they lose their jobs.
The playoffs are a BFD*.
It’s also important to remember all sporting events mean more to “us” than it does to “them.” “Them,” of course, being the athletes (see Beckett, Josh). Coaches probably care as much as we do, at least it appears so, but since I am neither a professional athlete or coach, it was just straight up pretty cool to attend NBA playoff games in both Los Angeles and Boston in the span of a week, recently.
The Celtics and Clippers. The complete opposite of the basketball spectrum. Seventeen championship banners hang in the Boston Garden; Los Angeles’s second basketball team has eight playoff appearances in 42-year history in three different cities. On the drive back to Maine after the 76ers’ 82-81 win I thought about the differences between the two venues, the crowds, the styles of the games themselves and, of course, the teams involved.
I had a parter in crime for each game and how we came to attend both started the same way: a simple IM/text which more or less read “game tonight?” For the Clippers, my buddy Eric and I decided to go at 10 a.m. the day of. It didn’t take much convincing on my part to get him on board. Once we got to downtown Los Angeles, we were full-fledged members of Clippers Nation.
I’ll let @TheGhostMo take it from here:
Walking into the men’s bathroom at Staples Center, minutes before tip-off, I almost collided with three Orthodox Jewish men. These weren’t your Larry David-esque Jewish men. I’m talking real orthodox, complete with long curly side burns, yarmulkes, and formal suits. I would have thought I was on the corner of Beverly and Hauser, except for one thing: all three wore bright red “LAC RISEN” t-shirts over their suits. 4,000 years of religion couldn’t beat out Clipper fever on this night.
These three gentlemen weren’t the only ones wearing the complimentary garb. The entire men’s room bled red to the point that it wouldn’t look out of place on The Game’s album cover. There was only one person who wasn’t wearing the shirt, who instead had it slung over his shoulder, trying to look cool. That person was me.
I’m from Milwaukee. I grew up thinking it was commonplace to tailgate before every baseball game. I remember seeing a woman wear a Green Bay Packers Mark Chmura jersey…to the courtroom for his sexual assault trial. Every stadium in Wisconsin reeks of barley and hops and that’s the way we like it.
Since moving to LA, I’ve seen the Lakers play at home for every round of the playoffs, save the Finals. For the most part I’ve been disappointed. Everyone at Lakers games wishes (or incorrectly thinks) they’re part of the spotlight, that they’re on par with Jack Nicholson. People dress like they’re going to a club and stay hunkered on their cellphones like Obama is sexting them.
That’s why I hadn’t put on my shirt on yet. Because I figured the Clippers’ playoff scene would be more of the same. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
As I exited the bathroom, an almost certainly intoxicated man grabbed my shoulder. “You’re putting the shirt on, right???” At that exact moment, I felt something hit my shoe. I looked down and saw an empty plastic bottle of tequila rolling past. Smiling, I threw the shirt on with glee and gave the stranger a massive high five. I’ve never felt more at home in this city. #LobCityBaby
That the Clippers won in overtime only added to the hysteria. It almost felt like we were back in the 315, head-to-toe in blue and orange; it was that type of crowd, which hasn’t been said for a Clippers game in, I’m guessing, ever. Sadly, there were no more LA games for us. Baby Brother edged the Grizzlies in 7 games only to be swept at the Spurs’ hand in the next round. Oh to what next year will bring, and if Chris Paul and Blake Griffin stay with the team beyond then, there could be many more years of postseason chances for the Lobbers.
A week later, in Boston, on the other hand, I expected 19,000 Sullys, Tommys and extras from “The Town” to be drunk, loud and drunk. I also didn’t expect to get a free T-shirt upon arrival. Matt, whom I called upon to attend the day before (along with my bro-in-law, who I convinced to call out sick from work) and is as just a big of a Celtics fan as me, said we’d get towels. He was correct. We also got placards with a gigantic “3″ on it, presumably to hold up after someone on our team hit a 3-pointer. Fans are such sheep. I grabbed two of each.
It didn’t matter that we were sitting in the upper deck behind the basket, just being part of a legendary Celtics playoff crowd was something to behold. From the “Dee-Fence” chants on big possessions, to “Let’s Go Celtics!” on others, it was beyond loud at times and abrasive at others. A hot start by the home team became a faded memory by the third quarter when the 76ers took the lead. By the time the 4th quarter rolled around there wasn’t a butt in a seat and the roar when Avery Bradley hit a 3 with just over two minutes left to put the Celtics up 1 could be heard all the way in Worcester.
But, in the end, the sea of green couldn’t will the home chaps to victory, as the 76ers eeked out the one-point win — Kevin Garnett drained a meaningless 3 with no time left that surely only the gamblers cared about. I always enjoy the scene after games in Boston; everyone bitching about this and that, and the T-shirt vendors selling rubes at LeBron James, the Heat and my favorite, an homage to Greg Steimsma, the Celtics enthusiastic backup center. They’re cheap, and I’ve bought some in the past after Red Sox games. Matt got a couple and we made our way home.
The 90-minute or so drive back home after game in Boston, especially after a loss, is a lot like driving home from Las Vegas. You and your buddies usually just sit in silence, maybe make a Dunkin stop and it isn’t until you hit the Maine border before someone speaks up. Usually it’s an expletive about the game; kinda like how you curse the tables in Vegas by the time you hit Barstow.
Back in Los Angeles, the games start three hours earlier and those wearing Green are few and far between. With Game 7 vs. Philadelphia set for Saturday, and the Lakers car flags replaced by finger pointing for their early exit, I’ll take solace that we have at least one more game.
I’ll be there in spirit.
* – Big. Fu^king. Deal.