King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Wallace smacks Shaq. Will it inspire a huge Pistons comeback? Plus: Clemens returns. The nerve! And: Sabres-'Canes Game 7, Lance Armstrong "exonerated."


Salon Staff
June 1, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

I'd figured there was a pretty good chance the Detroit Pistons, down 3-1 in the Eastern Conference finals, would put a whupping on the Miami Heat at home in Game 5, even though they'd looked so bad in Games 3 and 4.

That's what happened, and it's not exactly analysis you can't get anywhere else for me to say that it's up to the Heat now to close the Pistons out in Game 6 at home Friday, because NBA teams almost never win a Game 7 on the road.

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And if a team's going to win a Game 7 on the road, it's not a great bet that it'll do so in Detroit against the two-time conference champs, the regular-season win leader, a team coming off two straight backs-to-the-wall wins.

If Detroit does sweep the last three games, it'll be a comeback for the ages, and the signature moment will be Ben Wallace's block of a Shaquille O'Neal dunk attempt Wednesday. O'Neal was rising up for the slam, but Wallace somehow got his hand on the ball and pushed down, sending Shaq sprawling.

Incredibly, but properly, Wallace wasn't called for a foul, and he beat O'Neal on the ensuing jump ball. The play sent the Palace crowd, already excited, into a frenzy.

If the Pistons win twice more, Wallace's block will be remembered as pivotal, the moment at which the Pistons turned things around. It wasn't.

The Pistons were leading by four with about eight and a half minutes to play in the third quarter when Wallace made the play, and the Heat stayed within six, and mostly closer than that, until there were three and a half minutes to go in the game, when Detroit, in control all night but unable to pull away, went on a 9-0 run to end the game.

But what a play. In the same way some people know what the first line of their obituary will say when they're still in their 30s, we can rest assured that Wallace's block on O'Neal will play on an endless loop on the highlight shows the day Wallace retires.

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You just don't see that play, Shaquille O'Neal stuffed legally, sprawling miserably on the hardwood. The Pistons will draw inspiration from it from here on out. Inspiration can take you places in the NBA, especially when you're a team like Detroit, which relies so heavily on its defense. That's an emotional thing, relying so heavily on effort.

We'll find out Friday if it can take the Pistons past Shaq and Dwyane Wade in front of a frenzied crowd in Miami. Inspiration and emotion are powerful things in basketball. Hitting your shots helps too.

The Rocket returns: How dare he! [PERMALINK]

Roger Clemens has long been one of my least favorite baseball players, mostly for fun, childish reasons involving the teams he's played for but also for his occasional displays of smallness at huge moments.

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But even I have to say: What is the deal with people coming down on the Rocket for signing with the Houston Astros Wednesday?

You'd think he'd just signed to pitch for the Al-Qaida All-Stars, the way he's being hammered.

At Yahoo Sports, Jeff Passan wrote that Clemens saying his comeback was "all about winning" was "either a big, fat lie or a true barometer of Clemens' disconnect," while Dan Wetzel ripped the pitcher for choosing an easy commute over the thrills and historic resonance of a return to the Boston Red Sox and a pennant race.

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Tom Halliburton, a columnist for the nearby Port Arthur News, called Clemens a "compulsive me-first egomaniac" and wrote that Clemens misled Astros fans when he said he retired because of his mother's death and that his back was hurting him last year.

Stephen A. Smith of the Philadelphia Inquirer called Clemens "duplicitous," I guess because he negotiated with the Red Sox, New York Yankees and Texas Rangers, then signed with the Astros.

"Never did Clemens just come out and say, 'If I come back, it will be to play for the Houston Astros,'" Smith writes, evidently in the belief that Clemens saying such a thing would be something other than thoroughly bizarre.

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Smith doesn't like it that Clemens waited till June to sign, and that now he's going to have the nerve to go to the minors and make a few starts to get ready. He calls it "playing with the integrity of the game."

Why shouldn't a player be able to say, "I think I can be effective for about half a season, so how about the second half instead of the first?" Why shouldn't he be able to sign for his hometown team, the one he has spent the last two years with, for whatever reason he wants, including an easy commute? And for however much money he can get?

If some team is willing to make that deal, how does it hurt the integrity of the game? The Astros don't appear to be unhappy.

And what's with all the condemning of Clemens for skipping out on a pennant race with the Sox, Yanks or Rangers to sign with the no-hope Astros? The Astros are at .500, and they're precisely three and a half games behind in the wild-card race with 108 games to go.

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On this same morning last year, the Astros were 19-32, in last place in the Central Division, 10 and a half games from the nearest playoff spot. And it looked legit, too. They looked like a bad team going nowhere, and that's just where they went, if you consider the World Series "nowhere."

Jeez, folks. He signed a free-agent contract with a team that's glad to have him. Settle down. It's not like he just threw a bat at a guy in a World Series game and then hid behind his catcher and the umpire.

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Sabres-Hurricane Game 7 [PERMALINK]

The Carolina Hurricanes host the Buffalo Sabres in Game 7 of the NHL Eastern Conference finals Thursday night, and I urge you not to miss it. There is nothing like an NHL Game 7.

Hockey fans -- they exist, really! -- have been writing me in the past few weeks, complaining that I've been spending too much time on the NBA postseason and not enough on the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Sorry. It's just tough luck for the NHL that it's been conducting this very entertaining comeback postseason at the same time the NBA has been conducting its own best postseason in years, or maybe ever. And it's been doing it in front of television audiences that would have to multiply like bunnies to qualify as tiny.

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I think it's a fair question to ask why this regional sport gets so much more coverage in the national media than, say, arena football. I like hockey a lot more than I like arena football, and I grew up with hockey as one of the "big four," so I'm still inclined to think of it that way in the face of evidence to the contrary.

That's my excuse, anyway. I still don't write about hockey as much as I'd like to, but I write about it more than you want me to, judging from the page views when I do -- see the above comment about the size of television audiences.

I've also been getting a few complaints from soccer fans over my lack of coverage of the World Cup, which, not to put too fine a point on it, hasn't started yet. It's not easy to be a one-man sports department. All the complaints come to me. And they're about me!

Andrew O'Hehir will most likely be offering his more expert commentary, as he did in 2002, but I'll pledge to write more about the World Cup this time around than I did last time, which I think was not at all.

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You can file that under Be Careful What You Wish For, soccer fans, but on the other hand I have found myself more interested in and entertained by soccer in the past few years, so I'll also pledge to keep an open mind about the whole thing and not just whine about the lack of scoring.

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Lance Armstrong "exonerated" [PERMALINK]

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A report commissioned by the International Cycling Union has found that tests conducted last year on frozen urine samples from the 1999 Tour de France that reportedly showed Lance Armstrong had used performance-enhancing drugs were conducted improperly.

The tests, which according to an August report in the French sports daily L'Equipe found that Armstrong had used EPO, an endurance-boosting hormone, when he won his first Tour that year, fell far short of scientific standards, the Associated Press reported the investigation concluding.

Dutch lawyer Emile Vrijman, who conducted the probe, said the report "exonerates Lance Armstrong completely."

Armstrong issued a statement saying the report confirmed what he's been saying throughout what he called "this witch hunt": that he's innocent, and that officials from the Tour, the French Ministry of Sport, L'Equipe, the World Anti-Doping Agency and others have been out to discredit him for years.

Dick Pound, the head of WADA, criticized the report.

"It's clearly everything we feared," he said. "There was no interest in determining whether the samples Armstrong provided were positive or not."

Well, yeah, Dick. The 132-page report, according to the AP, found that the French lab that handled the samples and your own agency didn't keep proper records of the samples, didn't maintain a "chain of evidence" to guarantee their integrity, and had no way of knowing whether the samples had been spiked with drugs anywhere along the line.

The report specifically says there's no way these samples could "constitute evidence of anything." There was no interest in determining whether the samples Armstrong provided were positive or not because the actions of WADA and the lab it hired made that determination impossible.

But that makes Vrijman's statement that the report "exonerates Lance Armstrong completely" sound a little strange, doesn't it? If the samples don't "constitute evidence of anything," how can they constitute evidence of Armstrong's innocence?

Shoddy police work doesn't "exonerate" anybody. It just gets them off the hook. Armstrong may or may not have been guilty of doping. And it's a terrible shame that if he wasn't guilty, he'll probably never be able to prove it.

I wish the latest news from France really did exonerate Armstrong. But it doesn't.

Previous column: Raja Bell's flops

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