Happy new year, dear readers. A few quick hits to start 2011:
• It was nice to see Conference USA’s football champion, after four straight losses, finally beat an SEC squad in the Liberty Bowl. So UCF beat a Georgia team that was merely 8th among SEC clubs, and by four points. A win’s a win. C-USA needed it.
• Wednesday night’s game in Knoxville is huge for the Memphis Tigers. At some point, Josh Pastner’s bunch has to win a big game on the road. The Vols have shown themselves to be vulnerable of late (losses to Charlotte, Southern Cal, and Charleston), and this is the Tigers’ last chance this season to take down a team from a power conference. Lose Wednesday, and even an undefeated run through C-USA would likely mean a seed of no higher than five in the NCAA tournament.
• Over the holidays, I read Roland Lazenby’s terrific biography, Jerry West, (published in 2009 by Ballantine and ESPN Books). I interviewed West in 2002 for a story in Memphis magazine, and the Hall of Famer explained how he had left the NBA — briefly, it turned out — because the stress of losses was too much to overcome the elation of victories. Lazenby makes it clear that this brand of self-torment was part of the way West played (and lived) throughout his 14-year NBA career. Losing six times to the Celtics in the Finals without a win will do that to a guy.
The book (387 pages) barely mentions West’s tenure as president of the Grizzlies. But local fans will enjoy the tale of West talking Nets’ coach/GM John Calipari out of drafting a certain player in 1996, one West was convinced could get his Lakers back to championship contention. Calipari was persuaded by The Logo, allowing Charlotte to draft Kobe Bryant, who was then traded (by pre-arrangement) to the Lakers. Wonder if West and Coach Cal discussed this much during West’s time in Memphis?
• If I had a ballot for this week’s Baseball Hall of Fame election, I’d vote for Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, and Jeff Bagwell. (Bagwell is a first-ballot inductee in my eyes. His big numbers coming during the steroid era, though, won’t help him.) As for the much-debated Bert Blyleven, he’d get my vote, too. Gaylord Perry won 314 games, struck out 3,534 hitters, and pitched 53 shutouts. He was elected to the Hall in his third year of eligibility. Blyleven won 287 games, struck out 3,701 hitters, and pitched 60 shutouts. And he was a member of the starting rotation for two world champions (’79 Pirates and ’87 Twins). Yet he’s now on the ballot for a 14th time. His plaque is overdue.
• The NFL is getting what it deserves with the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks going to the playoffs while the New York Giants and Tampa Bay Buccaneers — both 10-6 — stay home. Four-team divisions are ridiculous. (Why not create 16 two-team divisions and let every “division champion” into the playoffs?) Accidents of geography should not determine playoff berths. Best of all, the Seahawks will HOST the 11-5 New Orleans Saints. By virtue of that division championship, of course.
• I helped put together a cover story on Rudy Gay for the January issue of our sister publication, Memphis magazine. A look at Gay’s fitness regimen, what it takes to stay healthy through the grind of a long NBA season. So what happens before the Grizzlies’ first game of the new year? Gay comes down with a stomach bug. A local version of the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx? Jeesh.
• Keep this date in mind: January 16th. This will be Albert Pujols’s 31st birthday. Nice occasion for a contract extension, no?