Saturday, June 28, 2008

Earning the (re) cap: Preparing for a memorable final



Photo: David Silva scores for Spain in their 3-0 win over Russia Thursday [Photo from Virgin Media].

Breaking down Day XVIII of the European Championships...

Spain 3, Russia 0
Well, Spain did a lot to dispel their reputation as chokers, but they still have the most difficult task of all remaining. The first half was reasonably even, but Spain poured on the jets in the second while the Russians came out flat, and they were soon rewarded with a beautiful Xavi Hernandez goal. To their credit, the Spanish continued to attack, and added insurance goals from Daniel Guiza and David Silva later on to clinch the win.

Russia, on the other hand, looked much more ordinary than in their stunning victory over the Netherlands. Still, they held the Spanish attack in check for an entire half and created chances of their own as well, no mean feat. The best team won, but the Russians' accomplishments here shouldn't be minimized. I think they'll probably knock off Turkey in today's third-place game, which should be quite entertaining.

Prediction: Russia 2, Turkey 0

Now, on to the match everyone really cares about: Germany v. Spain. Interestingly, it's not as much of a stereotypical battle of Teutonic defence and Latin attack as you might think. Germany has shown throughout this tournament that it has numerous attacking options of the utmost class, including Philipp Lahm, Miroslav Klose, Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and they've demonstrated that they can win high-scoring battles (see the 3-2 victories over Portugal and Russia).

The real question for both sides is their defence, and both have looked shaky at the back to this point. I give a slight edge to Germany on the back four, but Spain recoups that with the goalkeeping advantage of Iker Casillas over Jens Lehmann. It's going to be a bloody close match, and it should hopefully provide a feast of football as well. In the end, I'll stick with my pre-tournament pick of the Germans. As Gary Lineker famously said (and even Spanish coach Luis Aragones has picked up on this one), "Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win."

Prediction: Germany 3, Spain 2
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Friday, June 27, 2008

Sonics: Signs seen at the protest


"Signs, signs, everywhere a sign/Blocking out the scenery, breaking my mind/Do this, don't do that, can't you read the sign?" - "Signs," The Five-Man Electrical Band [Andrew Bucholtz photo]

Signs seen at the aforementioned Sonics' rally...

"The NBA: Where deception happens."

"Hey Clay, I'm a fan possessed!"

"Burn In Hell, Bennett!"

"Hey Aubrey, white-out doesn't work on e-mails!"

"Not aBout fAns."

"Clay: Owners come and go, but e-mail is forever."

"NOklahoma."

"Hey David: Donaghy called: He can't fix this one!"

"E-mail, lieS, decePtion, collusioN"

"The NBA: Where team-stealing happens."

"Hey Clay, I'm a man about to be repossessed."

"soNics Belong in seAttle"

"Don't steal our 41 years."

"No Bennetts Allowed."

"Stuck Fern"

"The NBA: Where douchebags run the league."

"We're fans possessed: keep the team in Seattle!"

"Boo hoo, Clay, no team for you."

"Once in a lease, you're on a leash: no buyout!"

"The NBA: Where fixing the 2002 Western Conference Finals happens."

"God, Save our SuperSonics."


To close, an excerpt from Gary Payton's speech:
"This team should not move, I don't think they are going to move, and I want to see them turn it around here in Seattle."

Give Jemele Hill some credit....


Photo: Jemele Hill [Photo from Michael David Smith's excellent interview with her at FanHouse]

Jemele Hill deserves a fair bit of credit for her lengthy public mea culpa [Page 2] after comparing cheering for the Boston Celtics to "saying Hitler was a victim". It's always difficult to own up to mistakes, especially when you're someone who's in the public eye as frequently as she is. Unlike many other internet, print, radio or TV personalities who have erred (see Pratt, David; Imus, Don [Minneapolis Star-Tribune and Hartford Courant], and many others), Hill offered a detailed and seemingly-sincere apology short on rationalizations and excuses and long on promises to improve. Here's an excerpt:

"The beginning is easy: I'm sorry.
I'm sorry for being thoughtless and insensitive.
I'm sorry for making a casual reference to something that should never be construed as casual.
Real apologies don't mix with rationalizations, so I won't insult your intelligence by offering you any.
This isn't about my editors because even if the word "Hitler" never appeared in the posted column last Saturday, that doesn't change the fact that I wrote it and, at the time, found humor in making a moronic comparison between a man who was responsible for killing millions to Detroiters who root for the Boston Celtics.
This is about my living up to a standard I expect of everyone else -- respect, awareness, honesty and accountability.
Rob King, the editor-in-chief of ESPN.com, once said something I've never forgotten. I'm paraphrasing, but if we truly want to see racial progress, you have to be willing to be the dumbest person in the room, a person who can admit to being in need of education.
I wish I'd raised my hand before writing that column last week."


In this apology, Hill seems to acknowledge the hurt her words caused or may have caused. There are still many people for whom the events of World War II and the Holocaust are deeply personal, and there's many more who are affected by those actions and comparisons to them despite not being around at the time. Believe me, as someone proudly of German descent, I've heard most of the insults you can think of: everything from outright Nazi references to subtler uses of goosestepping and salutes. Plenty of those still hurt me, and that's despite my grandfather fighting in the Canadian army against the Germans in World War Two: I can't imagine what it must be like for those whose relatives were on the wrong side. I don't have any quibble with most humour based around the war (see Rat Race and Fawlty Towers for excellent examples], but comparing rooting for a sports team to claiming Hitler was a victim goes way over the line. Fortunately, Hill recognizes this and admits she made a serious mistake.

Also to Hill's credit, she didn't try to place the blame at the feet of her editor for letting that through, however momentarily. Her editors certainly had a role to play in this situation and made their own mistakes, but ultimately writers have to take responsibility for the content they produce.

Hill isn't the only one to make a mess of this situation. In an interview with FanHouse's Michael David Smith, she said a Boston radio station gave out her home address and phone number over the air, which she described as "completely out of line" and said she was scared by it. I agree: that's downright low to give out that kind of information over the air, and I bet that station would be in serious legal trouble right now if some crazed Celtics fan had done something stupid with it. Can't journalists realize that we're all on the same side in the end? There's certainly room for disagreement and criticism, but effectively promoting crank calls and possibly worse against another member of the media because she wrote something offensive about your team is so far below the belt as to give any boxer a dramatically decreased chance of producing progeny.

In any case, it will certainly be harder for Hill to maintain her critical, often edgy take on the issues of the day after this, as many are likely to paint her future columns with the brush of intolerance she briefly displayed here. Here's hoping she doesn't let that bother her, though, and continues to provide her unique and provocative takes on the world of sport.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sonics: Rallying to save a franchise


Photo: Sonics fans rally outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Seattle on June 16. (Andrew Bucholtz photo)


The most fascinating aspect of my June 16 trip to Seattle to watch the opening day of the city's lawsuit against Clay Bennett and the Sonics' ownership (the Professional Basketball Club, or PBC) turned out to be outside the courtroom. The legal arguments and back-and-forth testimony were quite interesting, but they couldn't compare with what happened when court closed for the day.

Over 2,000 Sonics fans gathered on the courthouse steps around 4:00, and many of them didn't budge for an hour, even though more were filing in all the time. They came in a variety of Sonics jerseys, creating a sea of green and gold that washed over the yard, around the fountain and right up the courthouse steps. They came in full voice, as well, chanting "Save Our Sonics" at the top of their lungs. They came to provide the proof that the city still cares about NBA basketball, contrary to what Bennett and the PBC were trying to show inside the courthouse. They came with signs as well, many of them brilliantly innovative and creative (a full listing to come later).

Some of the fans undoubtedly showed up for the star power of the day, former Sonic players Gary Payton and Xavier McDaniel, who made their promised appearance and gave great speeches. More of them, though, were there on the idea that it might somehow help. Walking out with a franchise in the dead of night is one thing, but it's more difficult to leave when you're involved in a messy court trial and arguing that the city's fans have deserted you, only to see them show up en masse to prove you wrong.

Sadly, though, the NBA isn't about the fans any more. If it was, you'd think they'd be taking these latest Donaghy allegations very seriously, as that cuts to the heart of the game, instead of issuing perfunctory denials. You'd think they'd be loathe to abandon one of the largest markets in the league, which had faithfully supported its team for 41 good and (more often) bad years, to relocate to Oklahoma City. You'd think the commissioner wouldn't describe his ideal Finals matchup as "Lakers v. Lakers". Hell, you'd think they might even give an expansion team more than six seasons to grow its fanbase before shipping it off.

None of those ideas really matter any more, though, as the game, like every other professional sport, is now big business. One of the key points of the Sonics trial so far is how KeyArena went from a venue that David Stern praised glowingly, saying "It's intimate, the sightlines are great, the decorations are terrific," to a building that he described as "not an adequate arena going forward" in less than 13 years. It's not due to the attendance or the accommodations for regular fans: as came out in Virginia Anderson's testimony and cross-examination, the bigger issue is that it wasn't the only premium venue in town after Safeco Field and Qwest Field opened, meaning that many companies decided to transfer their investments in suites and club seating to those locations. Stern doesn't hate KeyArena because it only seats 17,000: he hates it because it doesn't have as many opportunities to pull in massive corporate revenue, and he also hates it because he saw the city buy the Mariners and the Seahawks expensive new arenas while his league didn't get one.

In any case, the rally was an incredible sight to see. The fans and the city really do still care about their team.http://www.blogger.com/img/gl.link.gif We'll find out soon if they still have a team to care about...

Related:
- Eric Neel's excellent ESPN piece on the rally [Page 2]
- More of my musings on the trial and its broader implications [Queen's Journal]
- Dan Raley's coverage of the rally [The Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
- Jim Caple has a good piece on the trial as a whole and how ridiculous it is [Page 2]

Earning the (re)cap: Deutschland marches on



Photo: Wingback Philipp Lahm seals the Germans' place in the finals with a stoppage-time goal. [Photo from The Daily Telegraph]

Breaking down Day XVII of the European Championships...

Germany 3, Turkey 2


What a game that was. Unlike their snooze-fest against the Croatians, the Turks went for the throat right from the start and created chances by the bushel. The Germans, meanwhile, seemed to be caught flat-footed, and could only defend for the first little while as Turkey racked up 10 shots to their two in the first 20 minutes: amazing, considering the short bench Turkey was left with due to suspensions and injuries.

The offensive pressure soon paid off for the Turks, as Ugur Boral drilled a rebound off the crossbar through the legs of Jens Lehmann in the 22nd minute. However, Germany quickly equalized four minutes later against the run of play on a great combination from Lukas Podolski and Bastian Schweinsteiger, and it was 1-1 going into the half.

In the second half, watching began to get frustrating. The on-pitch product was superb, but it was rarely available, as a lightning strike [The Associated Press via The Globe and Mail] overloaded the satellite transmission and blacked out the broadcast for most of the world three separate times for over 25 minutes in total. Unfortunately, one of these times just happened to coincide with Miroslav Klose's brilliant header off a Philipp Lahm cross in the 79th minute to drill the ball past Turkish keeper Recber Rustu, which we didn't find out about until later. The feed came back just in time to see Semih Senturk work his magic again, snatching a desperate late equalizer for the Turks by sliding in to knock what looked like an easy ball for Lehmann to collect past him into the back of the net.

The Germans weren't finished yet, though. In stoppage time, Lahm made a great run forward from his wingback position, put a brilliant move on Colin Kazim-Richards and played a beautiful give-and-go with Thomas Hitzlsperger to break into the box. Rustu came out and cut down his angle, but Lahm made no mistake on the finish from 12 yards out, slotting it into the top left corner. Unfortunately for the Turks, they'd already used up not only their supplies of last-minute miracles, but probably those of the entire footballing world. Unfortunately for the viewers, another power outage meant we didn't get to see their last-ditch attempt.

It was a remarkably even game overall. The Germans only recorded nine shots to Turkey's 22, and only five of those were on target, but they made the most of their limited opportunities while Turkey wasted many of theirs. The first half was all Turkey, but the Germans showed their class in the second, and the end result was probably fair. An amazing stat is that Turkey made it through five matches and ten hours of play during this tournament, but only led for 14 minutes. They gave a great account of themselves, and we'll hopefully see more from them in the future. In the end, it truly was a feast of football... just with portions slightly charred by the power surges.

Related:
- Stephen Brunt's great column, focusing on Lahm's contributions (and so what if he can't spell Low or Hitzlsperger?). [The Globe and Mail]
- Ben Knight has an excellent piece comparing Turkey's run this time around with Greece's tournament four years ago. [On Soccer]
- Duane has a good recap of the game (complete with an awesome picture). [Out of Left Field]
- Brunt has a hilarious story about his train trip to Austria. [On Soccer]

On deck today: Spain vs. Russia (Kick-off: 2:45 P.M. ET)
Should be a great match. Russia will give Spain a run for their money, but like I predicted yesterday, I think the Spanish will advance in the end. Either way, we'll have a fantastic matchup for Sunday's final.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Earning the (re) cap: Euro 2008 quarterfinals

Breaking down the Euro 2008 quarter-finals...

Germany 3, Portugal 2

This game came with the billing of a clash of ancient titans, and it didn't disappoint. Both sides turned in fantastic displays of attacking football, but Germany's team effort proved superior to Portugal's Ronaldo-centric strategy in the end. Bastian Schweinsteiger returned to the German lineup in fine form after a suspension, scoring the side's first goal and setting up the other two with excellent set pieces. The Germans' strength in the air proved vital, as did their skillful attacks down the left flank from Philipp Lahm and Lukas Podolski. They certainly look to have regained their form after a loss to Croatia and a close win over Austria in the group stage.

Related: Stephen Brunt's excellent column on the match [The Globe and Mail]


Turkey 1, Croatia 1 (3-1 Turkey on penalties)

118 minutes of mostly boredom topped off by two of the most exciting minutes in the tournament so far is the best way to summarize this one. There really wasn't much going on for much of this game, but everything changed late in overtime. The story of the game was Turkish backup goalkeeper Rustu Recber, who was only in the match due to the suspension of number-one choice Volkan Demirel. Recber almost lost the match for his side with a ill-advised tackle attempt on Croatia's Luca Modric in the 119th minute, as Modric simply knocked the ball to Ivan Klasnic, who made no mistake when confronted with an empty net. It would have all been over, and the Croats certainly thought it was, if Recber hadn't immediately atoned for his mistake. He demonstrated leg power that would make NFL kickers green with envy, booting a free kick the length of the field where it fell to Semih Semturk after a few ricochets. Semturk drilled the ball into the back of the net, crushing Croatian spirits and sending the match to penalties, where Recber made a crucial save off of Mladen Petric and Modric and Ivan Rakitic both missed, giving Turkey the improbable win and setting up a great semifinal against the Germans.

Related:
- Duane Rollins' post on the game [Out of Left Field]
- John Doyle's column [The Globe and Mail]

The Netherlands 1, Russia 3 (in extra time)

This is an even bigger upset than Turkey's win, in my mind. Croatia was a good team, but only on the edge of real contention, whereas the Dutch had been the most impressive side in the tournament to this point, recording dominating wins over France, Italy and Romania. Turkey also had a prior record of success in major competitions, placing third in the 2002 World Cup and advancing to the Euro 2000 quarter-finals, while Russia had never advanced out of the group stage in either the World Cup or European Championships before this tournament. Guus Hiddink, that master of great results with improbable teams, pulled another one out of his hat, though, and the great thing is he did it in a beautiful-to-watch attacking style, with a little help from one Andrei Arshavin. Arshavin, who few had even heard of before this tournament (except those who follow Zenit St. Petersburg), is now being labeled as "potentially another Pele" by knowledgeable writers like Robert Millward of The Associated Press. He scored two impressive goals and set up another to lead the Russian Bear to victory. Stephen Brunt summarized his performance pretty nicely in this column, entitled "Russian star is born" [The Globe and Mail]:

And so a star is born.
On a steamy night at St Jakob-Park, a tournament that has already taken many a brilliant twist and turn since it opened in this same space two weeks ago has added a new name to the football firmament.
Remember it: Andrei Arshavin, diminutive, short-legged, ruddy-cheeked, looking like he might be fifteen years old. Right now, he belongs to UEFA Cup champions Zenit St Petersburg (and they have no plans to surrender him) but soon enough he's going to belong to the world.
Arshavin, and the brilliant coaching mind of Guus Hiddink, were the catalyst behind the biggest upset of the tournament so far, a 3-1 extra time victory for Russia over Holland, propelling the Russians to the semi-finals, and the Dutch to a soul-crushing defeat.

Bet that kind of press will boost Arshavin's transfer value this summer...

Spain 0, Italy 0 (4-2 Spain on penalties)

Another classic matchup, but the potential of a great game evaporated due to the Italians' stifling defence. It still was a good match, but nowhere near what it could have been if both sides had decided to go for it instead of sitting back and hoping for a break. It's not too surprising that Spain won in the end, though: they've been excellent throughout the tournament so far, while Italy barely squeaked out of their group. It will be most interesting to see what transpires tomorrow between Spain and Russia.

Related: John Doyle's column [The Globe and Mail]

Semifinal previews:

Today: Germany vs. Turkey (Kick-off: 2:45 p.m. ET)

This should be a great match. Turkey will be in tough, though, as they only have 13 players available: five have been lost to injury and two more to suspension. The question is which Germany will show up: the dominant side that bested Poland and Portugal, or the vulnerable one that lost to Croatia and barely edged out Austria? My bet is on the former.

Prediction: Germany 3, Turkey 1

Tomorrow: Russia vs. Spain (Kick-off: 2:45 p.m. ET)
Another good clash. Russia's shown a willingness to attack higher-ranked opposition so far, and if they keep that up against the stylish Spanish, we should be in for a great match. Can Guus Hiddink pull off yet another upset? Possible, but I'm thinking this will be where the Spanish finally come through in a big game.

Prediction: Russia 2, Spain 3

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sonics: Day I Recap

Courtside Entrance


Not here... [Mike C. Peck photo, via Wikimedia]



But here... [Andrew Bucholtz photo, taken via cell phone so poor-quality]

Well, the first week of the city of Seattle's lawsuit against the Sonics ownership (Professional Basketball Club, or PBC)* has wrapped up with plenty of interesting material to write about. However, there's now a break until Thursday, when the final witnesses, wrap-up testimony and closing arguments take place. To keep the trial fresh, I'll be presenting a recap of each day of testimony so far with my evaluations of each witness, the lawyers and the overall winners from each day. This post will cover Day I (Monday, June 16), where I had real court-side seats with the rest of the media covering the trial. I'll have Day II up later tonight, Day III and IV Wednesday and Day V Thursday morning. I was only able to attend the trial in person on Day I due to other work commitments, so this first one will probably be the most detailed, but I've been following the rest of the case pretty closely with the help of excellent coverage from Percy Allen and Jim Brunner of The Seattle Times, Art Thiel and Greg Johns of the The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seth Kolloen of Sports Northwest Magazine and Enjoy the Enjoyment, among others. In the end, it will all come down to whether Judge Marsha Pechman decides to enforce the "specific performance" clause of the lease, forcing PBC to play out the next two years in KeyArena, or if she allows them to buy out the city and move the team. Anyway, without further ado, here's the first recap, from last Monday.

*It may be significant that Clay Bennett's group has such a generic name. Howard Schultz's group was called the Basketball Club of Seattle, and most other NBA franchises' groups have either the city or the team name in the ownership group name: perhaps Bennett didn't want to be too tied to either the city of Seattle or the Sonics' name?

Here's a recap of what's transpired to date. At the end of each section, I'll put my opinion on which side benefited the most from that portion of the trial.

Monday (complete transcript available here via The Seattle Times): Between the opening statements from both sides, the testimony from Mayor Greg Nickels, former Seattle Center director Virginia Anderson and former KeyArena manager Jyo Singh, there was a lot to talk about.

Opening statements:

Attorney Paul Lawrence gave the city's opening statement, and did a very impressive job in my mind. He kept it short and concise, but drew powerful parallels to the situation in 1993 when the team said that their facilities in the Seattle Coliseum were inadequate, which resulted in the city's involvement to the tune of $84 million dollars in the construction of KeyArena. Lawrence also referenced the benefits the Sonics bring to the community, and said the city will have experts testify about both the tangible economic benefits of having an NBA franchise as well as the less quantifiable benefits of increased civic unity and pride. He made a good point about how Bennett and the Sonics are dismissing the economic benefits an NBA franchise provides to Seattle, but used the same arguments to convince Oklahoma politicians to provide massive public funding for the arena upgrades there. Additionally, Lawrence talked about how they plan to show that the Sonics' ownership knew the team's facility and lease situation when they purchased the team in 2006, demonstrating that they were fully aware of the issues when they took over the lease and thus shouldn't be able to get out early.

"They, in short, understood that risk, and the NBA warned them of that risk," he said. "They can afford the losses that they knew were coming."

Perhaps Lawrence's most powerful point (and one that will certainly be one of the more interesting parts of the trial) referred to Bennett's long trail of incriminating e-mails, which the city's hoping to use to show that Bennett was never serious about trying to keep the team in Seattle. In fact, Lawrence said that Bennett applied for relocation to the NBA and secured a deal with Oklahoma City right after his infamous "man possessed" e-mail (which he maintains referred to keeping the team in Seattle). Lawrence also talked about how Bennett rejected any talk of a partially publicly-funded renovation KeyArena out of hand, and refused to meet with the mayor to discuss the project, instead offering a $500 million arena in suburban Renton, to which the ownership group contribution would be "nominal" and "negligible" (in Bennett's own words). In summary, he outlined a very strong case for the city.

Unfortunately for Sonics fans, Bennett has quite the legal team on his side as well. His head lawyer, Brad Keller, also gave a very good opening statement, and he only improved as the day went on. Keller argued that the concept of economic viability was built into the original lease, and that KeyArena was no longer viable due to the changed economic situation, namely the spread of luxury arenas across the NBA and the opening of two new stadiums in Seattle (the Seahawks' Qwest Field and the Mariners' Safeco Field). Keller skillfully avoided blaming the city for the lease agreement, telling the court, "You'll see that it's not anyone's fault. The world in which this lease operated changed." He argued that the Renton arena proposal was a genuine effort, despite the lack of contributions from PBC, and claimed that they spent over $2 million on the proposal. He also took a shot at the state legislature, arguing that their lack of support for the project indicates the true importance placed on basketball in Seattle. "Olympia [the state capital]'s unwillingness to act may say something about the perceived role of NBA basketball in Seattle," he said.

Keller also promised to introduce evidence that Seattle city officials were scheming with the Steve Ballmer/Matt Griffin group of proposed local owners to try and force PBC to sell the Sonics. He went on to detail the shortcomings of KeyArena, claiming that it's well below NBA standards and prevents the franchise from being successful. "The city has known that these guidelines hamstring its NBA tenant and prevent it from being profitable," he said. There was plenty of conflicting testimony on the arena throughout the trial thus far: the city agrees that it's no longer ideal but believes it could work with significant renovations, while the Sonics tried to paint it as the ninth circle of hell.

Opening Statement Verdict: Seattle by a nose.

Plaintiff's first witness: Mayor Greg Nickels

The city began its case by calling Mayor Nickels to the stand. Unfortunately, his testimony was long (over two hours), but not particularly impressive. City lawyer Jeffrey Johnson stumbled over his words a couple of times, and seemed to be presenting a relatively leading line of questioning, rare in direct testimony. Nickels spoke about his long involvement in the city's public service, his proposals to revitalize and renovate KeyArena (which began in the Schultz years) and his desire to keep pro basketball as the facility's anchor tenant. He offered three different options to Schultz for the arena's future, all involving partial city funding of extensive renovations and a renegotiated lease more favourable to the team.

Nickels said he was unhappy when he learned that Schultz had elected to sell the franchise to an out-of-town group (PBC) instead of pursuing renovation options.

"My reaction was one of disappointment in large part because we thought with these three options we’d come up with something that would work for the ownership and the city," he said.

During his direct testimony, Nickels also discussed the contacts he had with Bennett, which were of a surprisingly limited nature. They talked on the phone within a week of the sale and met for lunch later that week, but little progress was made, as Nickels favoured a dramatic renovation of the existing facility, which Bennett seemed unwilling to consider.

Nickels got absolutely roasted on cross-examination, though, as Keller seemed to channel Perry Mason to pick his story apart. The worst part for the Sonics' fans watching was that he appeared unprepared and unable to tell a consistent story. Keller asked if he had been working to try and create a sale to the local ownership group led by Ballmer and Griffin, and Nickels responded that he supported the sale, but hadn't been working towards it. Keller then played a clip from Nickels' video desposition where he asked an almost identical question and Nickels responded, "Yes." The same embarrasing situation occured again when Nickels refused to characterize the Sonics-Seattle relationship as "economically dysfunctional" and was then revealed to have done exactly that in his desposition. I'd be more understanding if these were long-ago comments of his dredged up from an obscure interview, but these were directly contradictory responses to almost the same questions posed on the court record by the same lawyer only weeks ago. In a trial where one of the city's key arguments is that Bennett and McClendon have been lying and changing stories all along, it severely damages their own credibility when the mayor directly contradicts himself several times in the span of a couple weeks. He also made it tough to believe that he's really in this because he cares about the team as opposed to seizing a political opportunity when he revealed that he hadn't been to a Sonics' game in six or seven years. Granted, the team wasn't very good for much of that span, but given the propensity of politicians to be drawn to large crowds and the NBA's seating style, where celebrities get great airtime from their courtside seats, you'd think he would have bothered to show up at least once in that period if he had any regard for the Sonics.

Keller also forced Nickels to reveal that senior officials in the mayor's office, including deputy mayor Tim Ceis, had been working closely with former Sonics president Wally Walker ever since July 2007, who had strong ties to the proposed local ownership and was trying to help them acquire the Sonics. A key part of this evidence was Exhibit 599, an July 24 e-mail from Walker to wireless magnate John Stanton, part of the local ownership group. The incriminating passage reads "I met with the city today and felt better about my message of fighting Clay’s attempts to leave. Make it too expensive and litigious for him. I get the impression they were in total agreement and that they (administration) understand the value of buying more time." As Keller pointed out, this was long before the team made an official request for an arbitrated solution to allow them to exit their lease (which happened in the third week of September) and before the city filed its lawsuit in response, which involved Nickels stating that the city was "lawyering up" (where they set aside a million dollars to retain Slade Gorton and his firm to fight to enforce the lease). Nickels maintained that he didn't know the specific dates or topics discussed in the meetings with Walker, and that the city subsequently following Walker's strategy of "making it too expensive and litigious" wasn't related to any dealings with Walker, but that's somewhat difficult to believe, to be honest.

Again, the problem here is more the optics than the specific actions taken. It's hard to paint Bennett and the rest of his gang as evil villains hell-bent on whatever nefarious activities would get them out of Seattle when the city was fighting almost as dirty to try and keep them. As Jerry Brewer of The Seattle Times wrote Friday, "There are no victims in this trial. There are only villains, villains on both sides, villains who made shameful and dishonest choices along this road to hostility. Everybody's exposed. Everybody's dirty. The Raiders may have started it, but that shouldn't excuse the city from playing in the mud. This trial is the Oklahoma Raiders against the City Swindlers."

Jeffrey Johnson established some key points during his redirect examination of Nickels, including that Bennett never asked to renegotiate the KeyArena lease and never offered to contribute to a renovation, pro basketball revenues account for "a significant portion" of the KeyArena revenues and that the city never actively lobbied against Bennett's proposal for a Renton arena, even though a suburban arena would compete with KeyArena for concerts and other events. Nickels said he felt having the Sonics remain in the region was more important in the long run.
"In the larger scheme of things, we’re part of a region and having the Sonics continue to be part of the region is good for the greater community," he said. He also made it clear that the lease made no reference to other NBA arenas: thus, it shouldn't matter that what was "state of the art" at the time isn't any more. Still, despite the ground regained on redirect, Nickels proved a poor witness for the city's case due to his concessions on cross-examination. Never a good sign when your first witness helps the other side more.

Mayor Nickels Verdict
: A big step forward for PBC, which is unfortunate as he was a key city witness.


Plaintiff's second witness: Virginia Anderson, former Seattle Center director


Anderson, who was the director of Seattle Center from 1980-2006 and thus a key participant in the Sonics drama over the years, turned out to be a very strong witness for the city. City attorney Greg Narver, who handled her examination, wasn't nearly as strong, though: he made his points and his line of questioning was solid, but he sometimes stumbled over his words and he had to be reminded to slow down a couple times by Judge Pechman.

For those not from the Seattle area, the center is primarily an arts and culture facility with various theatres and galleries. It included the Sonics' original home, the Seattle Coliseum, where the team played for 20 years. The center is 75 per cent privately funded and 25 per cent publicly funded, and Anderson described it as "the nation’s best gathering place." She said its goal is to "inspire the human spirit and bring a diverse community together," qualities the city has tried to ascribe to the Sonics throughout the trial. Her testimony was made more compelling by her admission that she doesn't particularly like basketball, but still thought it was "absolutely" worth it to keep the Sonics in town. She also talked about how the combination of an arts center and a sporting facility draws fans to both who probably wouldn't go otherwise: "There are a lot of people who find their way of coming together around arts, many others who find it around sports, and others who find it around the international fountain." That all speaks to the city's key point that the Sonics provide an intangible, unquantifiable benefit to Seattle that can't be replaced with dollars. Fans already know this, but they'll have to convince Judge Pechman.

Anderson also spoke about her involvement with the construction of KeyArena. Originally, team owner Barry Ackerly had planned to build an entirely privately-funded arena on a different site, but the city offered to help with the construction of a new "state of the art" arena on the grounds and core of the old Coliseum. Only a couple of supports from the old arena remained: the rest of the facility was rebuilt from the ground up. Interestingly, the partnership allowed the Sonics to define "state of the art", which means that they certainly liked it at the time.

At any rate, Anderson's testimony established plenty of other facts that won't help Bennett and his Raiders (of the Seattle SuperSonics instead of the Lost Ark). The city provided a substantial amount of funding for KeyArena, including paying part of the cost ($10 million) up front, which was to be recouped over time via the lease's revenue-sharing provisions. They also borrowed the necessary remainder of the money on their own credit rating and at their own lower rate, thus assuming much of the risk involved and also diminishing their borrowing capacity to deal with other civic projects. A memo of understanding (Exhibit 41) drafted in early 1993 between the city and the team that Anderson said provided the "framework for the lease" included provisions that the Sonics would help out in the community, buttressing the city's case that they are a valuable addition to the area. Anderson signed the lease for the city, illustrating her deep knowledge of it, and she also spoke of how the 15-year term was a compromise between the 10 years the team wanted and the 20 years the city preferred. Her direct testimony demonstrated that the Sonics were originally quite happy with both the building and the lease, thus showing that it clearly wasn't always the "worst in the league" as Stern described it [The Associated Press via ESPN.com].

Anderson's most impressive performance was under cross-examination from defence attorney Paul Taylor, though. Where Nickels collapsed under tough questioning, she sat ramrod-straight and refused to budge an inch. Under cross-examination, it came out that the arena was on track for its budget projections right until the construction of the Mariners' new home at Safeco Field was completed in 1999, taking a substantial part of the luxury suite market, a significant revenue source for the Sonics and the city (which was then further diluted when the Seahawks' and Sounders' Qwest Field opened in 2002 and an events centre opened in Everett shortly thereafter). She talked about how important on-court success is to the team's financial health, as one year up to 40 per cent of their revenue came from the playoffs, making a strong case that a franchise successful on the court could still make a profit in KeyArena. If the team went all the way to the Finals and won a championship, she estimated that they would double their season revenue from that playoff run.

Anderson's best testimony came when Taylor tried to get her to portray the lease as a lose-lose situation, though.
“Both sides are losing money," she said. "I wouldn’t characterize it as both sides have lost.”
She pointed out that both the slumping economy and the other new buildings would still have negatively impacted the Sonics if they had built their own arena, and they would have suffered the full losses in that scenario instead of splitting them with the city. She also wittily refuted Taylor's assertion that the fans' interest in the team had declined, saying, “Well, there’s a lot of buzz around them and a lot of excitement around this trial.” She discussed the cyclical nature of sports, saying that every franchise has heights and troughs. "They’re in the trough right now," she said. "There will be a time when it comes back up. People buy their season tickets because they know it would bottom out and come back up.”

Taylor tried to get in a last shot by referring to an assessment from the KeyArena task force that suggested even if the Sonics sold out every seat, they’d still be $6 million below the NBA average in ticket revenues. However, Anderson held her ground, reiterating that that didn't include playoff revenues or other revenue streams like concessions and advertising and didn't mean the team would lose money. "That does not say they’re not breaking even, it says they’re below the NBA average," she said. "It’s not a fair statement to say that they’d be losing money.”

On redirect, Narver got Anderson to establish that the Sonics' declining attendance and revenues, as well as their poor play and dismal future prospects, had received considerable coverage in the press long before Bennett bought the team in 2006. She also showed that the loss of suite revenue from the competition with Qwest and Safeco had been well-publicized, the city had saved the team considerable money on KeyArena's construction by retaining the land and part of the structure of the old Coliseum (the team saved an estimated $15 million from the structural savings alone), and that Howard Schultz had frequently spoken publicly about the losses he incurred while running the team.

Virginia Anderson verdict
: A big win for the city.

Plaintiff's third witness: Jyo Singh, director of communications, events and facilities for the Seattle Centre and a former KeyArena manager.

On direct examination from Greg Narver, Singh testified that he'd been in his current job for three years and had served as the KeyArena manager for eleven years before that. He worked closely with the Sonics in both capacities. He told the court that he had daily interactions with Sonics staff and there were regular biweekly meetings between his city staff and the Sonics staff. He said there had been a good working relationship between the two groups over all of his fourteen years despite the changes in ownership and the acrimony that developed between the city and PBC, as both staffs don't let outside influences impact their professional dealings with each other. As such, it was a pretty neat rebuttal of PBC's claim that forcing the Sonics to play at KeyArena for two more years (which is what the case is essentially all about) would strain a dysfunctional relationship and make staging the games impossible. "I don’t see any reason why the relationship should become acrimonious or difficult because they’re our major clients," Singh said. He also offered the example of the Thunderbirds, Seattle's Western Hockey League junior team who played at KeyArena for many years including this past one, but will be moving to a new arena in suburban Kent for next season. Singh said there was no change in that relationship when it was learned the team was moving.

Singh also testified about the many improvements the city has made to the arena over the years at the request of the Sonics, frequently at its own expense. He said the city had spent $5.5 million in capital improvements since the arena opened, many of which were for the Sonics' primary benefit. These included installing a ring of video advertising boards ($1.3 million), upgrading the suite level ($1 million), installing new sound and lighting systems four years ago to bring the arena up to new NBA standards in those areas, enhancing the scoreboard and building a lounge for players' families to watch games. The city often turned areas they were renting to other tenants into facilities the Sonics could use to generate revenue, such as the FSN Lounge (built out of a storage/catering space) and the Lexus Lounge (built out of four or five suites). Singh also stated that the city spent an extra $150,000 annually on KeyArena maintenance. He then discussed the initial reaction of the Sonics, the NBA and the public to the facility, which he described as "superlative".

David Stern thought it was a great arena as well at the time, as this video shows (a Mitch Levy interview with him on the pay-per-view broadcast of the first Sonics game there on November 4, 1995). The city tried to introduce this video during Singh's testimony, but it was ruled inadmissible on a hearsay objection by the defense. The city also tried to call Levy to testify, but they apparently were too late adding him to the witness list [Jim Brunner, The Seattle Times]. They also tried to call David Stern, but U.S. District Judge Loretta Preska in New York decided that he wouldn't be ordered to testify. I'm not a lawyer, but it seems odd to ban what could be crucial evidence on a hearsay charge when you've already shot down the conventional ways to use it. Most of the Sonics' arguments rest on the idea that KeyArena is a decrepit pit unsuitable for an NBA team, something Stern has been eager to support recently. The opinion of the NBA commissioner is pretty important as well, so it would have been a victory for the city to be able to demonstrate how quickly that opinion's changed. Still, this is a judge trial, not a jury one, so that might have less credence.

Here's a transcript of the best part of the Stern interview:

Levy: "How does our KeyArena stack up, and how do you like it so far?"

Stern: "It's very special to me. I know what a struggle it was for the Sonics and the Ackerly family. They very much wanted to have this team playing in a beautiful building. It's intimate, the sightlines are great, the decorations are terrific. I think the city of Seattle should be very much proud of what's going on here tonight."

Compare that to his comments to The Associated Press on March 26 of this year [via The Seattle Times]:

"While taking questions about an NBA relocation subcommittee's recommendation to move the Sonics to Oklahoma City, Stern said, 'The reason that this journey began was because KeyArena was not an adequate arena going forward and there were a lot of recommendations made for another arena ... but the tax revenues and the various contributions weren't forthcoming.

Quite the contrast, no?

In any case, Singh offered some more interesting information. He talked about how he'd visited 14 or 15 NBA arenas as part of his job as arena manager, and most of them were of comparable quality to KeyArena. He said that having NBA basketball provides a boost to the facility in quantity and quality of concert bookings, due to the supposed prestige and arena standard involved. That should go a ways to show that the Sonics do bring other benefits to the city, a key part of their case. He also said that bringing Seattle University basketball to KeyArena, which there have been discussions about, couldn't replace the Sonics' impact due to the smaller audience, the fewer dates and the lower quality of play.

Taylor began his cross-examination of Singh by attempting to get him to comment on a report created by HOK consultant Russ Simmons, which PBC retained him to produce to analyze KeyArena. The city objected on hearsay grounds, and also on the grounds of trying to introduce expert testimony without having the expert present for questioning. Taylor admitted the hearsay, but referenced a couple of complicated legal exceptions to try and allow the report's introduction. Narver said they didn't apply, as they were designed to introduce regular business records, while this was a specially-generated report. As it was almost time to adjourn, Judge Pechman decided to consider the arguments of both sides and reserve judgement until the next day, thus ending Day I of the trial.

Day I verdict: PBC comes out slightly on top here due to the excellent performances by their lawyers. Brad Keller, in particular, had Mayor Nickels on the ropes all day during cross-examination, which is extremely worrying for the city given how important his testimony was to their case.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Euro 2008 picks: Germany vs. Portugal

Apologies for the lack of blogging here lately: I've been swamped between work at the Journal and my new gig at the Langley Times. Things should get back to a more normal volume shortly. Anyways, here's the quick pick for today's Euro 2008 quarterfinal between Germany and Portugal, which should be quite the match. Can Michael Ballack, Miroslav Klose and the team-first Germans best the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese? My money says they can.

Prediction: Germany 2, Portugal 1

Monday, June 16, 2008

Off to Seattle

A quick note that blog activity will be light around here today: I'm back in Vancouver, and heading down to Seattle to cover the first day of the court case between the Sonics and the city. I've got a preview of the case up at Out of Left Field (yes, I decided I wasn't busy enough with the Journal and two blogs, so I jumped at Neate's offer to join the team there) and will have more both there and in this space once I get back tonight. I'll also have a Euro recap of both yesterday and today's action up late tonight.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Reductio ad Hitlerum: Taking Fandom Too Far


Photo: ESPN columnist Jemele Hill (Photo from Women's E-news).

Let me start by saying that I generally admire ESPN's Jemele Hill as a writer. I usually enjoy her style and her willingness to discuss tough issues and take controversial stands (these columns on LeBron James' Vogue cover and Karl Malone's lack of support for his kids are excellent examples). It's also nice to see a prominent national columnist talking about Detroit sports teams, which certainly don't get too much attention from many of those based in Boston, L.A. or New York. She has more than just strong opinions: she has the talent to effectively and convincly communicate those opinions, and to do so in a way to keep me interested and reading even when I absolutely disagree, which is a rare gift. She also had a great take on the Stern-Donaghy scandal this week.

With all that said, she went too far this time. As Deadspin's Matt Sussman reports, her recent column initially compared cheering for the Celtics to justifying Hitler's actions or rooting for the Soviets in the Cold War.

Here's the offending quote:

"Rooting for the Celtics is like saying Hitler was a victim. It's like hoping Gorbachev would get to the blinking red button before Reagan."


Unbelievable. Look, rivalries are great and all that, but there is absolutely no way that cheering for any sports team comes close to defending Hitler (except perhaps if the team was called the Aryan Supermen, and that would even be only part of the way there). This isn't even a true reductio ad hitlerum, as she doesn't even offer any evidence comparing the two or suggesting the Celtics have Nazi connotations (questionable, as they weren't even formed until 1946). I don't think she was trying to be serious here, but if that's a joke, it's in incredibly poor taste, and if that's hyperbole, it goes well beyond the pale. Maybe she was suggesting the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson duels was equivalent to Luz Long/Jesse Owens, but that's a considerable stretch, and in any case, it doesn't have much to do with the current teams.

(By the way, if you're ever interested in finding out more about Long and Owens, there's an excellent piece written by Owens in the collection "The Hard Way: Writing By The Rebels Who Changed Sports." It turns out the two of them got along fabulously, and the political overtones (especially on the German side) were all manufactured. In fact, Owens said he wouldn't have even qualified for the finals of the long jump without a tip Long gave him. That part of the story's related in Long's Wikipedia entry.)

What's especially disturbing is that Hill is not the only one to throw out those kind of comparisons. While researching a column on racism for the Journal last year, I came across another disturbing incident from the world of soccer. In Germany before the 2006 World Cup, some supporters from Chemnitzer FC (Chemnitz, Saxony) displayed some Nazi tendencies [Der Spiegel]. They attacked Turkish-owned shops in Hamburg before an away match against FC St. Pauli, waving Nazi flags and chanting "Sieg Heil". Some of the "fans" shouted, "We’re going to build a subway from St Pauli to Auschwitz." More recently, police detained 157 people, mostly German fans, after the Germany-Poland clash at Euro 2008 on charges of chanting Nazi slogans in the city centre[Shanghai Daily].

It's not just Germans, either. There's a long history of English supporters involved in Nazi incidents as well: two painted their bodies with Nazi insignia before the 2006 World Cup game against Paraguay [BBC News], plenty of English fans went around goose-stepping and throwing Nazi salutes during the 2006 World Cup [The Guardian], and a large group of Chelsea supporters chanted "Sieg Heil" and threw Nazi salutes in Moscow before this year's Champions League final (which has to be one of the most offensive places imaginable to make Nazi references) [Times Online]. Even Prince Harry thought it was somehow acceptable to wear a Nazi uniform (swastikas and all!) to a party [CBC.ca]!

The English and the Germans are not the only groups of fans to take things too far: consider the Polish tabloids demanding severed heads [World Cup Blog], the Polish Prime Minister saying he wanted to kill referee Howard Webb [ESPN Soccernet] or the Polish fans phoning the wrong Howard Webb with death threats [FanIQ] for just one example of another country that takes things too far. Sadly, that seems to be more the exception than the rule these days, and that leads people like Leah McLaren to worry about the rise of soccer hooliganism in Toronto [Out of Left Field], something that's highly unlikely, but perhaps a less bizzare assumption than you'd think (presuming she doesn't know much about the differences between European and North American soccer, it's not that farfetched to conclude that soccer can cause violence, given the epidemic of violent incidents and hooliganism around the world).

I can understand hating a team: that's what rivalries are all about, after all. Is it really necessary to hate on their fans, though? To this point, that's what's made North American sports less hooligan-dominated on the whole than many European or South American soccer leagues: most people here have the ability to differentiate between a team and its fans, or even the ability to insult other fans in ways that are funny and acceptable, not with violent attacks or inappropriate comments. It's a sad day for sports in this part of the world if we're going to sink to that level. I don't want to see the day where we have to put caged-off sections for visiting fans into the Auburn Hills Palace, the Staples Center or the TD BankNorth Garden.

Anyway, back to Hill. What's amazing is not only that she made that mistake, but that her editor didn't find it objectionable before posting it on the site. They quickly scrubbed it later though, and hoped no one would notice. As Sussman writes:

"Oh, don't bother Command+F looking for it in her article, the editors have, you could say, taken it out of commission like Archduke Ferdinand. Even the Google cache of Hill's article has already been Norby'd, so there's no chance of seeing where in the story it was mentioned, or what other dark moments in history are like cheering for the Celtics."


That's also unacceptable, and evokes memories of the New York Daily News's Sean Avery scrub [Sporting Madness: see Regret The Error or James Mirtle for more on that one]. It's not good journalism to just erase an error and hope that no one notices, even though the Web gives you that capability. ESPN's a reputable source for news and commentary, and to retain that reputation, they need to adhere to journalistic standards: recognize the mistake, apologize for it and take action to ensure it won't be repeated.

I'm not calling for Hill's head here: as previously mentioned, I enjoy her work and I hope she keeps writing for ESPN. I would like to see her apologize, however. Comparing cheering for a team to supporting the Nazis just isn't acceptable, and this kind of callous reference is tremendously painful for a lot of people, including Jews, Russians and those of German descent like myself. As Godwin's Law states, these kind of dumb comparisons are almost inevitable in massive Internet discussions, but I feel we have a right to expect better from a talented columnist working at a major media outlet. Hopefully Hill can learn from this mistake, apologize and move on, but sadly, my respect for her will probably still be less than it was.

Earning the (re)cap: Greece's Achilles heel


Photo: Russian midfielder Konstantin Zyryanov celebrates his goal against Greece, the only tally of the match (Photo from Shanghai Daily).

Breaking down Day Eight of the European Championships...


Match XV: Spain 2, Sweden 1

Spain got it done with an injury-time strike from David Villa, taking a 2-1 win over the Swedes. However, they weren't terribly impressive over much of the match, and some potential trouble spots materialized, especially when they were on the defensive side of the ball. As John Doyle writes at On Soccer, "Spain came out for the second half looking more lively and focused but still manged to play with terrible laidback style. Atrocious defending all over the place. They won it thanks to a very late goal from Villa, easily their best player. Now Spain is through to the quarter-finals, but I'm not liking their chances against a tough, physical team. Brunt and all the others are correct - Spain tease and disappear." I agree: Spain are likely to play impressive attacking football until the end, but their defensive shortcomings may cause them to win the "Spain Award" for underachieving yet again.

Match XVI: Russia 1, Greece 0

Well, the Greeks crashed out of the tournament yesterday with a 1-0 loss to Russia, meaning that a new European champion will be crowned this year. Greece played bravely but defensively, as usual, and it proved to not be enough now that the other teams have caught on. An unfortunate way for them to celebrate the 180th anniversary of establishing diplomatic relations with Russia. Ben Knight had a funny take [On Soccer] on one of the commentators mentioning that Greece had players suffering from Achilles problems. Unfortunately for the Greeks, their real Achilles heel proved to be an over-reliance on one strategy: no one's going to be fooled twice in a row by a large wooden horse.

Related
: Knight has another good take on Greece's elimination [On Soccer].

On tap today
:

Match XVII: Switzerland vs. Portugal (Kick-off: 2:45 ET)

This one doesn't mean a lot in terms of results for either side. Portugal are already through, and they should have top spot in the group locked up as well, as the first tie-breaker is head-to-head results and they've beaten both the Czechs and Turks. Switzerland's already out, but they'll be playing for pride in front of their home fans. Thus, I have to think that they'll at least get something out of it.

Prediction: Portugal 1, Switzerland 1

Match XVIII: Czech Republic vs. Turkey
(Kick-off: 2:45 ET)

This is a crucial match. Whoever wins goes through, but things get messy in the case of a draw. Using Duane's handy chart, the first five criteria don't apply (both sides have scored twice so far and allowed three goals). Thus, this would go to penalties to see who advances. It will be interesting to see if either side plays for a draw and places their hopes in a shootout, a rather likely outcome if you ask me.

Prediction: 1-1 in regular time, Czechs win on penalties due to Petr Cech's goalkeeping.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Earning the (re) cap: A Dutch treat



Photo: Dutch players celebrate a goal against France. (Photo from Unprofessional Foul).

Highlights and lowlights from Day Seven of the European Championships...

Match XIII: Italy 1, Romania 1


Not a particularly inspiring performance from the Italians. I thought they'd bounce back harder after getting thumped by the Netherlands, but they didn't look fired up at all, even after the massive lineup changes manager Roberto Donadoni brought in at the start of the match. Full credit to Romania again: they played excellent defence, and could have taken all three points if Gianluigi Buffon hadn't made a brilliant save off of Adrian Mutu's penalty. Still, the tie was probably a fair result, as Italian striker Luca Toni had a goal called back due to an offside.

Romania is now in prime position to qualify from the Group of Death, a result few (including myself) envisioned at the start. If they win their final match against the Netherlands (who will probably be resting their stars), they're automatically through. If they draw or lose, they still have a good shot at advancing depending on what happens between France and Italy.

Related: Stephen Brunt's column on the match [The Globe and Mail].

Match XIV: The Netherlands 4, France 1

A very impressive showing from the Dutch. They continued their brilliant offensive play and handily clobbered the French in a game that was beautiful to watch. As John Doyle points out in his column [The Globe and Mail], this Dutch team has taken the old "Total Football" style where players fluidly shift between positions and adapted it for the skills of their own players, never an easy thing to do. Remember that "Total Football" isn't foolproof, though, and it's never won a World Cup or European Championship: the 1974 and 1978 Dutch teams that used it came up short in the final, and the only Dutch victory to date came in the 1988 European Championships, where they played great attacking football, but not really the "Total Football" style.

Take nothing away from the Netherlands, though. As Mike Cardillo writes over at That's On Point, their performance to date has been nothing short of spectacular.

"Brilliant Oranje? Clockwork Oranje? Total Voetbal? Say whatever hyperbole you want, the Dutch have just chumpatized the last two World Cup finalists by an aggregate 7-1. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better back-to-back performances in an international tournament group play in a long time."

Indeed, but it remains to be seen how those group play performances translate into the knockout stage.

Coming up next:

Match XV: Sweden vs. Spain (Kick-off: 12:00 ET)

This should be an interesting fight for control of Group D. Spain destroyed a good Russian side in their opener, while Sweden just edged out the underwhelming Greeks. Spain's attacking flourishes should be enough to see them triumph, but Sweden can hit the net too with the likes of Henrik Larsson and Zlatan Ibrahimovic up front. Expect plenty of goals.

Prediction: Spain 3, Sweden 1


Match XVI: Greece vs. Russia (Kick-off: 2:45 ET)
And here we have the polar opposite, two defensive teams clashing. Both are coming off a loss, though, which might give them more motivation to go for the win than normal. I thought Greece would be better than they've shown so far, but they didn't give me anything to get excited about in their first match, so I'm taking the Russians here.

Prediction: Russia 1, Greece 0.

Related tournament pieces:
- Fox Soccer Channel analyst Bobby McMahon has the usual greatness on his blog.
- The usual quality stuff from the Globe cast [On Soccer].
- Duane's recap [Out of Left Field].

Friday, June 13, 2008

NBA: Celtics are in the House, but Donaghy's shadow still lurks


Photo: Eddie House celebrates after the Celtics' win Thursday. [Photo from TrueHoop]

That was one of the craziest games I've ever seen last night. It looked to be all over at the end of the first quarter after the Lakers jumped out to a crazy 35-14 lead without Kobe Bryant even making a field goal, and things only got worse for the Celtics. This is possibly the only game I've ever seen where the announcers start predicting the win midway through the first. The Lakers justified their praise for a while, though, as it was 45-21 partway through the second, and 58-40 at the half.

Strangely enough, what probably turned the tide for the Celtics was an injury to one of their players. After Rajon Rondo proved utterly ineffective, Kendrick Perkins hurt his shoulder, which caused Doc Rivers to go to the smaller pairing of James Posey and Eddie House to replace them. House and Posey are both effective outside shooters, something that can rarely be said for either Perkins or Rondo. The substitution forced Bryant to choose between guarding House and helping the other Lakers. At first, Bryant doubled off House the way he had off of Rondo. House missed his first couple of open looks, but then started dropping them in. As a result, Bryant shifted back to guarding him, and Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett started making their shots. On the defensive end, Pierce switched to Bryant and absolutely shut him down.

Boston still had a long way to go, but they were pouring it on and the Lakers were starting to crack under the pressure. L.A. fought back down the stretch, but they couldn't handle the Celtics with all five guys on the floor draining shots. In the end, Boston prevailed 97-91, completing the biggest comeback since at least 1971 and perhaps the biggest ever [Matthew Sekeres, The Globe and Mail]. It was a huge team effort: Pierce had 20 points, seven assists and four boards, Garnett contributed 16 points and 11 rebounds, Ray Allen rediscovered his jump shot and knocked down 19 points while grabbing nine rebounds, Posey kicked in 18 points from the bench and House added 11 points and four rebounds while putting up a game-high +20 rating.

That was definitely one of the greatest NBA games I've seen, and the impressive thing was how it improved as it went on. The first quarter seemed so predictable, so one-sided: Boston would again lose on the road, the series would be even, and we'd probably be set for a long Finals.

I guess it's proof that the NBA can't always be predictable: in fact, the refs, probably on orders from on high to show neutrality in the wake of the new Donaghy revelations, did just that. The foul shots awarded wound up 29-28 Lakers, vastly different than the 38-10 Boston stat in Game Two, the 34-22 Lakers balance in Game Three or the 35-28 Boston discrepancy in Game One.

Now, certainly, plenty of people have taken that as an an excuse to discredit Donaghy's claims. To them, I have a couple of points to make. First, do you really think the NBA would try anything fishy right after a press conference decrying that they ever do anything of the like? Every journalist, blogger and fan in the world was watching this game under a microscope. In fact, if anything, the league probably used the Stern button [credit to Matt McHale, as always] to make sure the totals were lining up precisely.

Secondly, there's always non-interference by interference. Remember Newton's Third Law? "For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction." Anyone who's ever taken physics knows that a body that isn't accelerating either has no force acting on it or two equally balanced forces. Think two equally strong guys pushing a rock from opposite sides: they're both interfering with it, but their interference cancels out, so it's like there's no outside force on the rock at all.

Bringing this back to basketball: it's highly unusual that team foul totals wind up within one. However, perhaps it isn't as odd when you consider the referees involved. Look at this pre-game post by FanHouse's Brett Edwards, breaking down the game not by player matchups, or coaching matchups, but by the officiating assignments! Where else but the NBA?

Anyway, Edwards referenced an interesting website that tracks officials' records "against the spread" in favour of the home team. Two of the officials picked for Game 4, Joe DeRosa and Tom Washington, were the first and fourth-biggest "homers" respectively by this site [covers.com]'s calculations, while the third, crew chief Steve Javie, was one of the biggest "anti-homers", or someone whose road teams consistently outperform their expectations. Add that up, and Edwards comes to the conclusion that it's pretty even. Hmmm... an even refereeing matchup producing almost a perfectly even distribution of fouls, just when the league's in the spotlight for foul discrepancies? Move along, nothing to see here.

Now, see, this is the crux of the NBA problem. I know that sounds perhaps convoluted, but you can't rule it out. It could just be that the officials acted normally, there were no problems and the game was won on the court. Think about the people involved, though, in particular David Stern. Stern strikes me as a bit of a control freak with a ridiculous amount of power. When his league comes under fire for this kind of incident, to the degree that he feels it's necessary to hold a pre-game press conference dealing specifically with the Donaghy allegations, do you think he's just going to trust that his referees will call everything fairly under such an intense microscope, or do you think he'll make sure they get the message to call the game in such a way that no one can question the officiating? I know where my money would go.

Anyways, consider the differentials from this series. +7 in Game One, +28 in Game Two, +12 in Game Three, all for the home team. The Lakers wound up losing by six: if they get even the marginal foul difference awarded to the home team in Game One, they have a chance to win this one. If they get the wider differentials awarded in Game Two or Game Three and hit them at the 75% rate they made during the match, they win.

This is the real tragedy of the Donaghy scandal: it doesn't permit you to sit there and just enjoy a great comeback or a quality win. You sit there wondering if the game's real or if it's fixed, and you really can't know for sure either way. I'd love to believe that the Celtics won due to great contributions from bench guys like House and Posey, excellent defence and solid production from their stars, and this probably is what actually happened. However, I can't dismiss the possibility that they merely played the Lakers to a draw, and their win was due to the sudden absence of the home-court advantage that's been so prevalent in these playoffs. The Donaghy scandal, and the latest accusations to come out of it, are like finding a worm in one apple in a bushel: all the other ones may be perfectly good, but you're awfully hesitant to take a bite.

Related:
- Mike has a good take on the game [The view from the Woods].
- Neate's thoughts over at Out of Left Field.
- A great piece on the Donaghy scandal at Sports on My Mind: I'll have more on that one later.
- Matt McHale, excellent as always, weighs in at Basketbawful and Deadspin.
- Henry Abbott has a great take on House's contributions [TrueHoop].
- Michael Grange of The Globe and Mail weighs in [From Deep].
- Bill Simmons has a marvellous running diary [ESPN].
- Will Leitch has a hilarious take on Kobe Bryant's post-game comments [Deadspin].

Earning the (re) cap: The Croatian surge


Photo: Croatia's Ivica Olic (right) celebrates with teammate Luka Modric after scoring his team's second goal against Germany Thursday. (Photo from The Daily Mail).

Breaking down Day Six of the European Championships...

Match XI: Croatia 2, Germany 1

A reasonably shocking defeat for the Germans, given their marvelous form against Poland and Croatia's struggles against Austria. Still, Croatia is a strong side, and one many thought could cause an upset or two coming in. Fortunately for the Germans, the draw between Austria and Poland means they're still in prime position to advance: they only require a draw against the Austrians to advance. Unfortunately for them, Croatia's already clinched Group B (the first tie-breaker is head-to-head results), so it looks like they're slotted in to face Portugal in the quarter-finals. That will certainly be an interesting match.

Related:
- "Germany does some soul-searching" (The Associated Press, via The Globe and Mail).

Match XII: Poland 1, Austria 1

This turned out to be a pretty decent clash, with both sides going for it. Austria had most of the early chances, but Poland's Brazilian import Roger Guerreiro then scored on a counterattack that may have been offside, and it looked like the hosts would be doomed to play well without a result again. Fortunately for them, things changed in extra time when Poland's Mariusz Lewandowski dragged down Sebastian Proedl in the box and English referee Howard Webb pointed to the spot. 38-year-old Ivica Vastic stepped up and converted the penalty, making him the oldest player ever to score in the European championships. It will likely mean everything and nothing at the same time: yes, Austria will probably bow out against the Germans in their next match, but they proved that they deserve to be on the same pitch as these other teams, something even their fans doubted before the tournament. Their country has much to be proud of, even if their team doesn't advance further.

Related:
- John Doyle's column on the game [The Globe and Mail]
- UEFA supports Webb's decision to award the penalty [Reuters via The Globe and Mail]
- Duane's thoughts on the match [Out of Left Field]

On tap today
:

Match XIII: Italy vs. Romania (Kick-off: 12:00 p.m. ET)

This should be another good one. Italy will be looking to rebound after their 3-0 loss to the Netherlands, while the Romanians will try to shut them down defensively the way they neutralized France. Interestingly, according to Gerry Dobson on the pre-game show, Italy have the oldest team in the tournament (average age: 31 years, 52 days). It could be close, but my prediction is for offence to beat defence.

Prediction: Italy 2, Romania 1


Match XIV: France vs. the Netherlands (Kick-off: 2:45 p.m. ET)
Can the Dutch maintain their winning brand of offensive football against the tough French defence? Does France have more left in the tank than they've shown so far? These, and other burning questions, will be answered on the pitch.

Prediction: The Netherlands 2, France 1

Related tournament pieces
:
- Mike's thoughts on the diving going on [The view from the Woods]
- Amrit's take on the tournament so far. [There Is No Original Name For This Sports Blog]
- A preview of today's matches [Soccer By Ives].
- All the usual greatness over at On Soccer [The Globe and Mail]
- Stephen Brunt [The Globe and Mail], Cathal Kelly [The Toronto Star] and Morris Dalla Costa [SLAM! Sports] weigh in on the Italian press conference yesterday.
- David Hirshey and Roger Bennett with their always-interesting take over at ESPN's Page 2 [Two-Footed Tackle]
- Cathal Kelly's usual hilarious tales over on his blog [Star Sports Blog]
- Vastic's goal for Austria won him a lifetime supply of free beer [ESPN Soccernet]. If you can't win the whole tournament, that's a pretty sweet consolation prize!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Earning the (re) cap: Ronaldo shines again


Photo: Cristiano Ronaldo celebrates with teammate Deco after the two combined for one of Portugal's three goals against the Czech Republic Wednesday (Photo from CristianoRonaldos)

Breaking down Day Five of the European Championships...

Match IX: Portugal 3, Czech Republic 1

So much of the talk about Portugal so far has been about moves taking place beyond the pitch, with the endless transfer speculation about Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid and the just-confirmed appointment of Portugal manager Luis Felipe Scolari to take over Chelsea after the championships conclude [Ben Knight has some good analysis of that move at On Soccer: Stephen Brunt also weighs in]. Their performance Wednesday against a very solid Czech team showed that they deserve lots of credit for their play on the pitch, though: they dominated the entire match, scored three brilliant goals, and ensured their qualification for the next round after Switzerland lost to Turkey in the late game. It wasn't just the Ronaldo show, either: he was great, but so was Deco and the rest of the Portuguese attack, and their defence was also reasonably solid.

As an aside: Ronaldo is showing that he's certainly a good candidate for that "best player in the world" tag, and I doubt many would argue that he's the best player in this tournament. He also seems to be adjusting to the officiating and diving less, which will undoubtedly help his appreciation worldwide. Brunt has a great column on him in today's Globe: here's the highlights.

"But the truth is, this is his moment, this is his tournament and this is his chance to add his name to the short list of players who have single-handedly stolen the show at a World Cup or European soccer championship.
Anyone doubting that possibility needed only to watch yesterday's match against the Czech Republic at the Stade de Geneve, a 3-1 win for Portugal that all but assured it a place in the Euro 2008 quarter-finals, and all but assured Ronaldo's name would again be in lights.
...
Ronaldo, like so many others, will take what he's given and will employ his considerable thespian talents to his team's advantage when it makes sense. They're not handing out acting awards here, though, at least not so far. So after that little tantrum on the sideline, he got up and decided to play.
Running at an opponent, there is no more dangerous player in the world. Nobody can match his footwork and speed – which, watching him live, you understand is combined with considerable strength. He'll run around and past and through just about anyone one-on-one if given the chance. And given like-minded playing partners, he'll set up as many goals as he scores."


Well said. As a diehard Manchester United fan, I certainly hope Ronaldo hangs around Old Trafford for a few more seasons, but if any player could possibly be worth a hundred million Euro transfer fee [FanHouse] and 300,000 pounds a week in salary, he's the one.

Related: Cathal Kelly also has some great lines on Ronaldo in his column [The Toronto Star]. The best one: "Portugal's bluff coach Luiz Felipe Scolari plays on both sides of the spiritual touchline.
The outspoken Brazilian is reportedly in regular contact with a sports psychologist and his parish priest from back home. He receives blessings from both via the phone.
But when he needs miracles, he goes to Cristiano Ronaldo."

Match X: Switzerland 1, Turkey 2

What bad luck for the Swiss. First, they lose a very close match that they dominated to the Czechs, and then they fall in injury time to the Turks, eliminating their chances of moving on from the group stage. There will certainly be a lot of soul-searching in the Alps, but for my money, it isn't all that necessary: with a couple of different bounces, they easily could have moved on already instead of being knocked out. A tough tournament for them, but they should hold their heads high: they put in a great fight, and things just didn't go their way. The Turks played well, but they'll have to beat the Czechs in order to move on, which may prove difficult. The real story of this one, though, was the torrential downpour it was played in, as it's always difficult to adjust to a soaking pitch.

Related: Bradley Klapper's Associated Press game story [The Toronto Star]

On tap today:

Match XI: Germany vs. Croatia (Kick-off: 12:00 ET)

This will be a key test for the Germans: can they keep up the spectacular form they displayed against Poland when they take on a stronger side in Croatia? For the Croatians, the question is if they can rebound from a lackluster performance in their opener where they only edged out Austria on an early penalty and were outplayed for much of the match. My hunch is that Croatia is a better side than they've shown so far, and the experience they've had against Germany's key players will help (a large number of the Croatians play in the German Bundesliga). However, Germany is 5-1-1 against Croatia all time, and I think they've got the talent to keep that streak of form alive.

Prediction: Germany 2, Croatia 0.


Match XII: Austria versus Poland


This one will also be interesting to watch. Austria looked much better than expected against Croatia, while Poland played well, but not particularly impressively against Germany. Both sides will really have to go for the win if they want to keep their hopes of advancing alive: a draw would put them both behind the eight-ball going into the final matches, as Germany and Croatia already both have three points and these sides would only have one apiece. The Austrians will give it a good go, but I think Poland takes this one.

Prediction: Poland 2, Austria 1.