A few things on my mind this week . . .


SCATTERED THOUGHTS You want to know why an entire community fell in love with Darius Washington over two missed free throws on March 12th? ItÕs the most elementary aspect of a relationship: empathy. Very few among us would have been able to equate with WashingtonÕs achievement had he made all three game-ending foul shots to beat Louisville and earn an NCAA tournament berth for his Memphis Tigers. But every last one of us shared his pain when he crumpled to the FedExForum floor after missing the last two. WeÕve all suffered crushing loss, when the tears and regret overwhelm what strength we have left.

Likewise, anyone in attendance last Wednesday night, when Washington was the first Tiger introduced before the teamÕs NIT opener at the Forum, could share the love that rode sound waves of cheer during the freshmanÕs extended standing ovation. ItÕs the only time IÕve ever experienced a game that was entirely anticlimactic to a pregame introduction. The highlight of the TigersÕ 25-point victory over Northeastern was certainly WashingtonÕs breakaway dunk seven minutes into the game, his first points since SaturdayÕs heartbreak. The crowd of 7,392 sounded twice its size. And life went on in Tiger Nation.

The TigersÕ third-round NIT game Wednesday night at FedExForum will be especially meaningful for Memphis senior Anthony Rice. In playing his 133rd career game, Rice will break a 19-year-old record held by Andre Turner and the late Baskerville Holmes. The achievement is further testament to RiceÕs durability and consistency, a fitting mark to be left by one of the most underrated Tigers in the programÕs history. But hereÕs the sad part. Only three of RiceÕs games were in the NCAA tournament. By comparison, Turner and Holmes played together in 12 games (between 1983 and Ô86) on the sportÕs brightest stage.

Say what you will about John CalipariÕs role in the disappointing 2004-05 season, but the guy is a walking 20-win season. This year marks his fifth straight 20-win campaign in Memphis (only achieved once before in the programÕs history, from 1981-82 through 1988-89) and he won at least 20 his last six seasons at UMass.

There are days when the immeasurable absurdity of professional sports makes me want to turn away from the television and sports page . . . forever. I read a hauntingly insightful excerpt from a book by Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs in the March 14th issue of Time magazine. Sachs explores the means and possibilities for helping the millions upon millions of people worldwide living in extreme poverty (measured as living on less than one dollar a day). Sachs advocates relatively simple, but to this point neglected steps that can be taken, like providing impoverished communities with fertilizer, clean water, even mosquito nets to fight malaria.

Then, last week in Sports Illustrated, I read about a couple of birthday gifts received by Shaquille OÕNeal from his wife: a $16,000 cake and a $100,000 Superman necklace. This is every bit as ugly, in my eyes, as reading of the latest big-league steroid abuse. Shame on Shaq. And shame on all of us fans for affording his ilk this kind of head-shaking, perspective-quaking luxury. Consider this the next time you pay $10 for a basket of popcorn at a Grizzlies game that cost, oh, 25 cents to make. Maybe the National Hockey League is on to something.

Mark McGwireÕs testimony before Congress on steroid abuse in baseball last Thursday was nothing short of pathetic. By now -- particularly with his dodging any and all questions about his own possible use -- itÕs clear the former Home Run King was juiced. (If Big Mac never used a steroid, I never used a pen.) But this is where McGwire -- the man, the human being -- could retain his heroic status. Remember, cheating damages his baseball credibility, his numbers . . . but it doesnÕt have to damage his role as a contributing member of society. This is a guy who has been active -- with his wallet, Shaq -- in helping abused children. He left millions on the table with an unsigned contract in St. Louis when he abruptly retired four years ago. Instead of straightening his broad shoulders before Congress, though, and taking a swing at baseballÕs most recent epidemic, McGwire leaned on the advice of attorneys, refusing to talk about Òthe pastÓ or Ònegatives.Ó The past and ÒnegativesÓ Mark, are the only reasons you were asked to Washington! The national pastimeÕs steroid mess just got messier.

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