Yes, indeed, we’re talking about practice

Big BrownWorkouts are important indicators of potential performance. If a man or an animal put in quality workouts time in and time out, chances are they are going to do well when it comes time for the big day.

Plus, you can really tell a lot about a man (or an animal) based on how much he enjoys practice and his craft. Word is Seabiscuit whinnied and whined every time he saw horses circling the track. Sometimes it took all the might of the stable hands just to hold back the legendary horse from busting through the rails to take off after another horse breezing through a few furlongs.

The same was said about Michael Jordan, too. Legend has it that for as competitive and nasty as he was during a playoff game, he took the battles to another level during every day workouts. It was what made Jordan great, some said.

Allen Iverson? Practice? Not so much.

practice?As a workout fiend known for leaving some of his best performances on the back roads instead of in the big races, I have a special fondness for workout logs and results. That’s especially true this time of year when the Triple Crown stakes races approach. That’s why I spent a little while this afternoon combing through the charts and times for the workouts of the 20 horses set to race in this Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. Yeah, I’m sure some of the times are withheld and other workouts are ignored, but I continue to use the workouts as the top criterion for picking a winner in a horse race.

After that, it’s hard to ignore past performances.

Bloodlines? Yeah, that’s important, but not as much as one would think.

So without much more waxing on, here are the three horses I like in Saturday’s big race:

  • Eight Belles – the No. 5 horse is a field pick at 20-1, which means he’s not much of a contender. However, the Kentucky-bred filly has won four straight races this year as well a workout where he breezed through five furlongs in 58.2 this week. Last week Eight Belles did four furlongs in 46.6 and seems to be getting stronger.
  • Colonel John – OK, I like the name, and at 4-1 the No. 10 is the second favorite in the Derby. But the numbers are big – two five-furlongs sessions in 57.8 and 59.4 during the last two weeks coupled with six lifetime races in which the Kentucky-bred colt has four wins and two second-place finishes. Call this horse the smart money.
  • Big Brown – Despite coming out of the 20th hole, the lightly-raced Kentucky native is the favorite at 3-1. However, even with a few somewhat pedestrian workouts, Big Brown is a big monster when the bell rings. All three of Big Brown’s wins were by big margins, including a five-length romp in last month’s Florida Derby. Word around the backstretch is that Big Brown is a big “freak” and very well might roll over the big field for the first jewel of the Triple Crown.

Could Big Brown be the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978? We’ll find out on Saturday. In the meantime, arrange the 5, 10 and 20 in a trifecta and send me a big kudos if this works out for you.

Practice, not a game

Allen IversonEd. note: The following was slated to run on the special CSN 10th Anniversary Web site, but was spiked because the content, I was told, was a sore spot with certain folks. I’m not sure who those folks are (actually, I am, but I’m not going to tell you), but I was also told to save the essay for my blog. I never felt like it fit until now because Allen Iverson will play in Philadelphia for the first time since his trade to Denver.

When Comcast SportsNet hit the cable airwaves in these parts on Oct. 1, 1997 it literally changed how diehard sports fans watch their games. Actually, it changed nothing about how we sit around and watch a routine ballgame on any given Tuesday night on the calendar. No, Comcast SportsNet changed how we watch the games.

Emphasis, as stated, on watch.

What changed wasn’t a person’s rudimentary knowledge of the sport or the rules or whatever. It’s a little more nuanced than that. Instead, what Comcast SportsNet did was take the pre- and post-game media scrums and turned on a camera. Sounds simple, huh? Well, sometimes the smartest move is the most obvious one. Yet by making that simple, smart move, CSN gave the viewers at home essentially the same vantage point as most of the reporters covering the games – only without the player interaction and clubhouse towel-snapping and whatnot.

And trust me, that is no great perk.

Nevertheless, by turning on the cameras for the press conferences and locker room action, Comcast SportsNet gave the intuitive fan something a little more breathable than the five-second sound byte on the evening news mixed in with 90-seconds of highlights. It also made the quotes in the newspaper a little more tangible. Instead of reading between the lines of a quote for the deeper meaning, or relying on the analysis of desk jockeys breaking down the game on the post-game show, fans were given the chance to deconstruct a player’s words. Body language, facial expressions and inflection of voice were all there to be translated in any manner a fan chose.

Sure, it is still true that the best quotes and the best stories are still the dominion of the print media. This little caveat of the sports media is unlikely to change and there are many reasons why. One, of course, is that a conversation between one player and one scribe is typically more revealing than the one between a player, an interviewer, a cameraman and the thousands of folks watching at home. Players are human and humans prefer the intimate nature of a quiet conversation between small groups of people. When those camera lights go on sometimes even the most seasoned player sweat, shake and quiver with nervousness. Being on TV, even in this age of media over-saturation, is still a big deal. Until everyone is wired (wireless) with a microphone for their own web site(s), the dichotomy between TV and newspapers covering sports is not going to change. But as for the everyday press conference with the players and the coaches, Comcast SportsNet changed the game.

It’s all there, unedited and unfiltered.

Now it’s hard to discern whether or not turning the basic press conference into reality television is an act of genius or not. After all, it doesn’t take Stephen Hawking to figure out that sports fans want as much access to their sports heroes as possible. Genius, of course is in the eye of the beholder – one man’s Picasso is another man’s velvet Elvis.

However, one of the greatest moments in the history of television (at least in the last 10 years) was aired live on Comcast SportsNet – unbleeped. That moment was on May 8, 2002 when Allen Iverson delivered his famous “practice” press conference.

OK. I know what you’re thinking. You are questioning the hyperbolic notion that Allen Iverson talking about practice (not a game) was some sort of transcendent TV moment like the last episode of MASH or something like that. I guess in that regard, you are right.

But not by much.

Here’s why the Iverson moment was touchstone event:

It transcended mere sports and became an actual figment of the pop culture. The phrase, “We’re talkin’ ‘bout practice, man,” has entered the popular lexicon and become a significant slab of cultural wallpaper.

Still not buying it? OK, try this:

In July of 2006 I was walking with my family on the Pearl Street pedestrian mall in Boulder, Colo., which is that town’s version of South Street only it’s cleaner, more eclectic and filled with vagabonds begging for change wearing $250 peasants’ shirts and $125 Merrell sandals. About 10 minutes into a walk past falafel stands, smoothie shops and kiosks advertising the gigs for the latest touring jam band, a kid on a skateboard wiped out right at my feet. I gave him a moment to catch his breath (my son chased down his board) and then offered a hand to get the kid back on his feet. Once I realized he was OK and would live to skate (or die!) another day, I said, “Looks like you need a little more practice.”

“Practice,” he said, without hesitation and as he brushed a well-coifed dread from his face. “We’re talkin’ about practice.”

Then he smiled and skated away.

Has anyone ever heard of a skateboard kid quoting Jim Mora’s “Playoffs” screed, another famous post-game rant that was captured on live TV? How about Howard Dean’s demented rebel yell? I sincerely doubt it. But Allen Iverson, thanks to Comcast SportsNet’s foresight, gave that wannabe Neil Blender in Boulder a quipy line to throw back at some smart-alecky, 30-something from Pennsylvania.

And we are all the better for it.

OK, you concede, the Iverson press conference was a cultural phenomenon. But didn’t the Terrell Owens press conferences from his driveway – including the one where he invited everyone over to watch him do sit-ups – supersede Iverson’s, “Practice”?

No, and here’s why:

If you go to the circus and see a man swallow a two-foot sword engorged with flames, it isn’t news. It’s odd and maybe a bit disturbing when one wonders about how that circus performer (is “freak” the proper nomenclature?) discovered he had the innate ability to swallow fiery objects. Just how does he practice? Certainly the swallower has made mistakes while honing his act… what happened as the result of those sessions besides a few new scars and an interest in the stock performance of Bactine?

The point is that the dude swallowing the sword at the circus is simply doing his job. That’s it. He’s punching the clock. When Terrell Owens and his agent were doing their little song and dance in the driveway it was the same exact thing as the guy in the circus – it wasn’t news, it was just a performance-art piece.

But what set Comcast SportsNet apart on May 8, 2002 was that it could tell a story better than anyone else simply by turning on the cameras and getting the heck out of the way. The second coming of Damon Runyan or Red Smith could never do justice to Iverson’s words. Actually, you be the judge. First, here’s is the video from that press conference.

And here is the transcript of the press conference:

“If Coach tells you that I missed practice, then that’s that. I may have missed one practice this year, but if somebody says he missed one practice of all the practices this year, then that’s enough to get a whole lot started. I told Coach Brown that you don’t have to give the people of Philadelphia a reason to think about trading me or anything like that. If you trade somebody, you trade them to make the team better… simple as that. I’m cool with that. I’m all about that. The people in Philadelphia deserve to have a winner. It’s simple as that. It goes further than that… If I can’t practice, I can’t practice. It is as simple as that. It ain’t about that at all. It’s easy to sum it up if you’re just talking about practice. We’re sitting here, and I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we’re talking about practice. I mean listen, we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, not a game, but we’re talking about practice. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last, but we’re talking about practice man. How silly is that? … Now I know that I’m supposed to lead by example, and all that, but I’m not shoving that aside like it don’t mean anything. I know it’s important, I honestly do, but we’re talking about practice. We’re talking about practice man. We’re talking about practice. We’re talking about practice. We’re not talking about the game. We’re talking about practice. When you come to the arena, and you see me play — you’ve seen me play right — you’ve seen me give everything I’ve got, but we’re talking about practice right now. … Hey I hear you; it’s funny to me too. Hey it’s strange to me too, but we’re talking about practice man, we’re not even talking about the game, when it actually matters, we’re talking about practice … How the hell can I make my teammates better by practicing?”

See what I mean. The video was so much better. Watching it again all these years later still makes me laugh because it’s one of the greatest rants ever. But it also makes me remember how Allen Iverson played when he was with the 76ers. Sure, there were other issues with Iverson that will be deciphered and agonized over for decades to come, but no one can deny that Iverson was entertaining. He played hard, he played to win and, yes, even gave us a good show. Yeah, maybe people wanted Steve Nash as the undersized guard leading the title run, but when Iverson was here no one ever complained about being bored.

Better yet, we got to see the whole act, live, on Comcast SportsNet.

Rest up

sheepThere’s a whole bunch of stories that piqued our interest today regarding the Phillies and intriguing topics.

On the Phillies it seems as if Kris Benson is a little dinged up, though that doesn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary. Actually, it just sounds like Benson needs what we marathoners call an “easy day.” After weeks of piling hard days on top of each other, it sounds like Benson’s right arm told his brain that it was shutting it down for a few days.

“I’ve been going a month straight now, throwing every single day, and it’s held up pretty good,” Benson said. “I’ve gotten pretty far along in this process. I think to expect me to go from the first day of camp to the last day of the season without taking a break here and there because it’s going to fatigue out is … not going to happen.”

So Benson needs to go easy, which is how the body builds its self up. Most folks believe that the hard workouts are what makes an athlete strong, but that’s not even the half of it. Muscle regenerates and grows during recovery and rest – it suffers micro-tears and gets beat to bits during work. That’s part of the reason why human growth hormone is so popular – not only does it help create lean muscle mass, but also it allows an athlete to skip some of the recovery process.

Sleep, of course, is an important part of the process, too. In fact, celebrity doctor Mehmet C. Oz writes in the April, 2008 edition of Esquire that people need sleep more than they need food. That makes sense when one considers that it is during deep sleep that the body naturally produces HGH.

Writes Oz:

If you get less than six hours of sleep a night, you’re in trouble. You need sleep more than you need food. When you’re always tired, you actually age faster than you should.

In other words, work hard and then rest up because that’s what it takes.

“If I could take a break now and take advantage of it and use this to build myself up for the 60-pitch area, to bump up to the next area, then I think in the long run it will be a good thing,” Benson said.

Kris BensonOf course who could blame Benson for pushing it a little harder than he should have over the past few weeks? With the backend of the Phillies’ rotation struggling and looking for some help, Benson probably saw a spot or two ripe for the proverbial picking. There are jobs to be had on a potential playoff club at stake and Benson rightfully reasoned that one of those spots could be his.

It still could, but it seems as if some extended spring work in Clearwater, followed by a minor-league rehab stint will be needed in the meantime.

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Working-class hero Chris Coste’s memoir, The 33-Year Old Rookie hit stores today. With a copy en route from the good folks at Ballantine Books, we will be sure to have a full review here ASAP.

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Allen Iverson returns to Philadelphia for the first time with the Denver Nuggets tomor…

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Allen IversonOh, sorry about dozing off in the middle of a sentence like that. It’s just that in Philadelphia, it’s a tired old story that another all-time great is returning to town with another team. There are many issues with this trend, namely, why do all the really good players want to leave town?

How much time do we have?

Nevertheless, it will be a more exciting story when the all-time greats play their entire careers for a Philadelphia.

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Sports and politics are always a bad mix, just like it was a bad idea for the Carter Adminstration to boycott the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. But if there were ever an Olympics to be boycotted, this summer’s games in Beijing are ripe.

Excluding the issues regarding China’s horrendous human-rights record, environmental and pollution atrocities as well as the most recent killings in yet another crackdown against basic freedoms in Tibet make one wonder why the International Olympic Committee would ever consider having its games in China in the first place.

HailePlus, athletes aren’t even allowed to sign autographs for their fans as evidenced by the Chan Ho Park incident in Beijing last week.

Perhaps the best measure of protest against the Chinese is the French Olympic committee’s move to boycott the opening ceremonies in August. Even better is the subtle – but powerful – protest by Haile Gebrselassie to skip the Olympic marathon. This is quite meaningful because Gebrselassie shattered the world record in the marathon last October. Plus, Geb is the most decorated distance runner in history with stirring Olympic victories in the 10,000 meters in 1996 and 2000 in what are regarded as the most dramatic runs in the event’s history.

So when Geb says pollution in Beijing is a concern enough to skip the Olympics, the issues are worth investigating…

Like why would the IOC award Beijing with something like the Olympics in the first place?

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The autopsy for top American marathoner Ryan Shay was finally released today – 4 ½ months after his death in the Olympic Trials in New York City. It appears as if Shay’s heart was too big – no drugs, no foul play. But everyone who knew Shay never suspected any of that in the first place.

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Tomorrow: Lenny Dykstra and the NCAA Tournament