Sports » Sports Feature

Jock Heaven

So many sports, so little time.



Notice to sports bar owners: If business wasn't good last weekend, you have a really serious problem.

Notice to sports fans: I hope you cherished it while it lasted. This past weekend was as close as you'll get to heaven.

There it was guys and ladies: a two-day exemption from all useful, meaningful, and responsible engagements. A chance to fill your head with enough memories and hops and barley to last all year, never having to leave the La-Z-Boy, except for refills and drainage. Utopia!

It was the first weekend of the National Basketball Association season, made more compelling than usual by the dawning of Memphis' first real professional franchise and the return of His Airness, Michael Jordan.

Friday night, Memphis got its first chance to see the newly revamped basketball Tigers. The team did not disappoint, dismantling the Georgia All-Stars by 40 points, 107-67. Dajuan Wagner scored 26 points in every way manageable, including long-range 3-pointers and dribble-drive moves that left defenders searching for their jocks. Wagner showed that he will make a huge difference to this year's squad.

On Saturday major college football offered several games of note, including Michigan versus Michigan State in Lansing. That game was won on a last-second T.J. Duckett reception. Fans of the SEC also got a real treat. First, Tennessee knocked off the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in front of Touchdown Jesus. Then, later that night, perhaps the most exciting college football game ever took place in Oxford, as the Rebels and Razorbacks duked it out for a record seven overtimes. SEVEN! In the end, Arkansas outlasted the Rebels, 58 to 56. (The only downside: If you were watching on TV you had to endure four hours of the inane ramblings of journeyman coach-for-hire Bill Curry. Aaagggghhhh!)

On Sunday the PGA Tour wound up its year with the Tour Championship, won by Mike Weir in a four-way playoff. Also on Sunday, of course, was the usual slate of National Football League games. The Titans finally got a decent win, holding off a late Jacksonville Jaguar rally. The Packers got revenge on the "talk first, play later" Tampa Bay Bucs. And the new "Monsters of the Midway" -- the Chicago Bears -- staged one of the most unbelievable comebacks in NFL history, scoring two touchdowns and forcing overtime in the final 28 seconds of regulation. Sound unbelievable? It was that kind of weekend.

Oh, yeah -- there was also a little thing called the World Series, which featured a seventh-game showdown between probable AL and NL Cy Young Award winners Kurt Schilling and Roger Clemens. The Diamondbacks gave the Yankees a taste of their own medicine by rallying two runs in the bottom of the ninth to capture the world championship, 3-2.

Oh, and the National Hockey League season got into full swing and NASCAR ran at Rockingham. I know, I'm reaching.

Hope you enjoyed it, sports fans; it'll be a while.

Lead, Follow, Or ...

Who will take the reins for Coach Cal's club?

By Frank Murtaugh

The Memphis Tigers basketball team is loaded. From freshman phenom Dajuan Wagner to senior All-America candidate Kelly Wise, the U of M is ready to make a run at the Top Ten if not the Final Four. But surely it can't be that easy. There must be a question or two to be answered, right?

If there's a concern in Tiger Nation as year two of the John Calipari era dawns, it would almost certainly involve leadership. First, who will run the point and, second, who will be the team's spiritual leader?

With both of last year's playmakers gone -- Shyrone Chatman to graduation, Courtney Trask a transfer -- the position most critical to Calipari's system of aggressive, disciplined offense is up for grabs. The most likely candidate to run the point is sophomore Antonio Burks, a player who may already be the defensive equal of Chatman or Trask, if still a bit unpolished at the offensive end. With Wagner and Scooter McFadgon sharing backcourt time, the last thing that will be demanded of Burks is scoring. He can find the bucket, though, as evidenced by his 14.2 points-per-game average in junior college and his 19-a-game average at Booker T. Washington High School. What jumps out from his stat chart, however, is the 3.9 steals he averaged as a freshman at Hiwassee College in Madisonville, Tennessee. While Wagner and another freshman, Anthony Rice, will see some time at the point, Burks should get around 25 minutes a game, according to his coach.

"Shyrone Chatman played exactly the way we needed him to play last year," explains Calipari. "We hope Antonio can do the same, with more speed and quickness. He's as quick as they come. He needs to play fast but not be in a hurry. He needs to play in balance."

Having transferred to the U of M prior to last season, Burks was forced to sit out a year and wasn't allowed to practice with his new teammates until this past summer. He spent the time adding weight and watching from the sidelines as Calipari's program took shape. From his demeanor in preseason practice, Burks doesn't seem to lack for confidence, a key ingredient for any successful point guard.

Whether it's Burks or Wagner at the point, the most difficult element to replace may well be Chatman's leadership. With his play on the court and his voice on the bench, Chatman was essentially an extension of Calipari last season. Which Tiger will become that all-important quarterback this year? Might it be Burks or the precocious Wagner? Or might the typically quiet Wise emerge as team leader? One of only two seniors on the roster, Wise has to be emboldened by his preseason selection as a first-team All-Conference USA forward. For three years Wise has been far and away the most gifted player in a Memphis uniform. He has not, however, been the most emotive. During the Tigers' undefeated January last season, he pumped his fist and even shouted an exclamation or two. In late-season losses to Louisville and Cincinnati, however, he seemed to return to a more comfortable zone as the team's most talented stoic.

Early indications are that Wise has become a more vocal leader. He even seems to relish the arrival of Wagner. With Earl Barron and Chris Massie, Wise will form the most intimidating frontcourt in recent Tiger history. What a bonus it will be for Calipari -- not to mention Tiger fans -- if Wise also seizes the reins of leadership.

The Kids Are All Right

Patience and hard work will pay off -- someday.

By Chris Przybyszewski

Ten minutes after the Grizzlies lost to the Dallas Mavericks last Sunday, head coach Sidney Lowe was making excuses for point guard Jason Williams and I was getting a clear picture of the team's future: In three years, maybe four, Memphis will be in the playoffs.

Go ahead. Laugh. The statement stands. Why? Because ten minutes after that game, while his teammates showered and talked to the media, Shane Battier, still in his jersey and shorts, lifted weights. He'd scored 11 points and collected four steals on the night, keeping his place as the league's second-leading rookie scorer, but he wasn't happy.

"I just wanted to get some work in," Battier said. "It wasn't a case of me taking my aggression out on the weights." But he sure looked pissed, grimacing at the mirror and smarting from another home loss and yet another fumbled chance to take the season's first win.

There's more to this tale. Center Lorenzen Wright scored 33 points and pulled down 26 rebounds. The points were probably a fluke; the rebounds were most assuredly not. Wright currently leads the NBA in rebounding and has single-handedly addressed one of the team's major problems from last year. He is hitting the prime of his career, building off of his success in Atlanta and working every game like he is already in the playoffs.

There's even hope in what appears on the surface to be a major problem: Jason Williams' poor judgment. With two minutes left in the game and his team trailing by five, Williams eschewed such banalities as a good pass to an open man in favor of a dramatic behind-the-back-no-looker which bounced off Wright's leg and into the hands of Dallas' Tim Hardaway, who promptly passed it to Michael Finley, who jammed it home, putting the Mavericks up by seven.

The Grizzlies called a timeout and back-up point guard Brevin Knight pulled Williams aside and talked to him. "I just told him that he was hot," Knight said. "I told him to take his time, to make a good play."

It's good to know Knight is around to step in if Williams continues to show a lack of smarts at crunch time. In three games Knight has registered only one turnover. And for a team that lost the ball 20 times on Sunday -- resulting in 17 Dallas points -- that's important.

And that's the thing: If Battier, Wright, and Knight continue to do what they've been doing, things will get better. They'll likely take their lumps this year and the next. But with a nucleus of players still well under 30, Memphis could be ready for a run sooner than you think, especially against a Western Conference that by then will be minus aging All-Stars such as David Robinson, Gary Payton, John Stockton, Karl Malone, and half of the Portland Trailblazers. It's not time to break out the conference champs T-shirts yet, but keep a light burning for this team.

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