Iverson not ready to age gracefully

allen iversonGetting old isn’t easy. Things that didn’t hurt now hurt for no logical reason. Moving around in the morning is difficult, again, for no logical reason. Worse, the ol’ recovery and bounce back time is impossible to pinpoint.

Basically, your body gets a mind of its own. The worst part about this is your body has bleep for brains.

Oh, there are a few folks out there who have aged gracefully. Just look at Dara Torres, or Jamie Moyer. Torres is 42 and set an American record in the 50-meter freestyle at the Beijing Olympics when she was 41. Moyer, as we know, has kept one step ahead of the clock for at least a decade. Over the last three seasons, the soon-to-be 47-year-old lefty has won more games than any other Phillies pitcher.

Better yet, Moyer still has the fire to compete. He didn’t have the best season in ’09, but he fought like hell even when he was bumped from the rotation. Out of the bullpen, Moyer gave up four runs in five appearances and helped solidify an inconsistent corps of pitchers.

A couple of years ago Moyer told me that he can still do the same things he always did, only slower and with more breaks.

Perhaps the secret to Moyer’s ability to avoid the pitfalls of age is the page stolen from Satchel Paige. You know, “Don’t look back because someone might be gaining on you.”

“I always felt that I had a burning desire to play,” Moyer said last summer. “In those years I always thought that you’re going to have to strip the uniform off my back. I’ve been released a couple of times, but all that did was fuel the fire for me a little more.”

Then there is Bernard Hopkins, who will fight Enrique Ornelas next month just a few weeks shy of his 45th birthday. And, of course, there’s always the ageless wonder himself, Don Wildman.

Wildman and his Malibu Mafia make everyone look old.

The truth is there is no correlation between age and athletic performance. The difference in why the older athletes struggle so much is desire, changing priorities, wear-and-tear and lack of fitness.

Maybe that’s where Allen Iverson fits in.

Iverson is not old by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he’s just 34, which is younger than Steve Nash, Ray Allen, Anthony Parker, Ben Wallace, Derek Fisher, Grant Hill, Jason Kidd and Shaquille O’Neal. The difference between Iverson and those players is that they all made adjustments in their game and training regimens, while coming to terms with their age, while Iverson has not.

Iverson, apparently, hasn’t learned that he is 34. He hasn’t figured out that 14 years into the league he needs to hone different skills and can’t just go running into a brick wall every time down the court.

Oh yes indeed, we’re still talkin’ ‘bout practice.

To say Iverson is at a crossroads doesn’t begin to explain it. In fact, Iverson is about to be wiped off the map so completely that he’ll need a GPS to find his way. In his first season playing for the Memphis Grizzlies—his third team since being traded from the Sixers in 2006—Iverson has left the team after playing in just three games.

The reason? He doesn’t want to come off the bench. Worse, he doesn’t want to be a wise, mentoring veteran on a team with seven players in their first or second years in the NBA, and 10 players with no more than three years of experience. It’s kind of ironic that the oldest guy on the team is also the biggest baby.

When one of his younger teammates apparently didn’t see that Iverson was wide open during an overtime loss to the Sacramento Kings, Iverson lashed out at the inability to get him the ball and his reduced role on the team.

“I’m not a reserve basketball player,” Iverson said. “I’ve never been a reserve all my life and I’m not going to start looking at myself as a reserve.”

Nope, Iverson wants to get his. Otherwise he’ll just go home.

That quote from Moyer in which adversity and professional slights only served to make him work harder, make smarter moves and change his tactics is completely lost on Iverson. The only thing fueling the fire within Iverson is his massive ego.

And so he’s gone home.

Worse, he sounds like a cranky old man. In an interview with Yahoo! Sports, Iverson complained that no team aside from Memphis wanted him during his summer of free agency. In fact, he’s so disillusioned that no one wanted him and the only team that made a bid last summer sees him as a reserve, that retirement seems like a real possibility.

That’s too bad. It’s too bad because Iverson is a tremendous talent and was one of the few players in the NBA that was worth the high-price of a ticket. But in the NBA, there just aren’t too many players who can do at 34 what they did at 29 or 30. Oh sure, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar continued to be an effective ballplayer through his mid-30s, but Michael Jordan retired for the second time when he was 34. Even Wilt Chamberlain was primarily a role player when he turned 34.

Then again maybe Iverson gets it. Maybe we can save the psycho-babble and simply chalk up Iverson to being a grouchy old man who sees a bunch of kids running past him? But rather than thinking up new ways to keep up, he’d prefer to snatch the ball when it gets kicked into his yard with the loud, sad bellow:

“Get off my lawn!”

As for aging gracefully, well, that doesn’t seem too likely with Iverson. Plus, if he returns to the Grizzlies, coach Lionel Hollins (an ex-Sixers guard like Iverson) says there are some lines that must be toed.

The Answer must abide.

“Allen has his own interpretation of things. I know the truth. He knows the truth,” Hollins told the AP. “What I would like to do is let Allen handle his (personal) issues, make a decision on whether he’s coming back or not and concentrate on what we have to do as a team, both if he’s not here and if he is here.”

Yes, it’s a hard thing getting old. Especially when it takes much more practice.

Armstrong gets back in the saddle

As always, Lance Armstrong was thorough in planning, researching and chronicling his return to professional cycling. Nothing, it seems, was left to chance. In figuring out his chances to win an unprecedented eighth Tour de France next year, Armstrong weighed his options, talked things over with his inner circle, gauged the reactions and tore through it all as if he were searching for a needle in a haystack with a fine-toothed comb.

Everything regarding the public announcement and the return was orchestrated. According to author Douglas Brinkley, the hand-picked scribe to compose the story for Vanity Fair, Armstrong hired a film crew to document the entire process. From the initial announcement, through the training in Colorado and California, to the buildup races in the U.S. and Europe, all the way to the starting line in Monte Carlo on July 4 to the finish at the Champs-Élysées, movie makers will record it all.

Certainly there is nothing like watching a solitary bike rider pedal up an abandoned mountain road. Talk about riveting…

Facetiousness aside, what is fascinating is the nod toward history and perhaps even the self-indulgence Armstrong has about his place in the lexicon of the world in and out of sports. That’s not to dismiss the man – that would be dumb. Armstrong is a force of nature and a celebrity amongst celebrities. Not only is Armstrong the most decorated cyclist ever, but also he is the greatest benefactor of cancer research in the world.

As such, Armstrong tabbed Brinkley, the prolific presidential historian and executor of the literary estate of Hunter S. Thompson, to write the first version of this new history. Clearly a mere sportswriter was not big enough for this type of work.

Nevertheless, Armstrong says the comeback is personal. It’s about cancer as well as the lingering doubts that he won his first seven Tour de France titles unscrupulously. It’s also about a 37-year-old man being inspired by other athletes in his demographic, like Dara Torres, and their ability to perform at elite levels regardless of age. To prove himself (and his sincerity) this time around, Armstrong says he will entertain all questions from all outposts of the mass media and, just for good measure, will undergo a vigorous drug-testing program. The results, he says, will be posted publically on the web for all to see.

Openness seems to be the theme for Armstrong. Though clearly calculated – and not as if he didn’t submit to hundreds of drug tests as well as personal public consumption in the past – Armstrong is letting it all hang out. Seemingly there will be no filter.

And seemingly, there could be another motive. Armstrong’s first book was called, “It’s Not About The Bike.” That’s a pretty catchy title to sum up a guy who has an inner drive that exceeds his freakishly off-the-charts VO2 reading, who also, by the way, survived advanced cancer at the age of 25 when he was given less than a 40 percent chance to survive.

But maybe this time it is about the bike just a little bit. Maybe in that sense Armstrong is a little like Michael Jordan or Brett Favre in that the sport is actually embedded deep into his core being. Maybe the guy just loves to train and compete and live that “monastatic” lifestyle that he once described that made him “super fit.”

Maybe he just likes to ride his bike and win races. Maybe he just likes to do that better than anyone else in the world.

When asked if he could reveal something about Armstrong that no one else would know, ex-teammate and star-crossed winner of the 2006 Tour de France, Floyd Landis, told me:

“I don’t think I know anything that anyone else knows,” Landis told me. “People have perceptions of him that might not be very accurate, but I don’t know any details that they wouldn’t know. The guy is obsessed. With whatever he does he is obsessed, and whatever he does he wants to be the best at it. 

“Ultimately, he doesn’t have a lot of close friends because of it and he winds up not being the nicest guy. But that doesn’t make him a doper. That doesn’t make him a cheater. It might make him someone you don’t want to be around, but that doesn’t mean he took advantage of anyone else or that he deserves the harassment some people are giving him.”

Anyone who has ever trained for a marathon, bike race or any other type of sporting/endurance event understands how it can turn folks in possessed creatures. The training gets into your blood and becomes an obsession like a drug or a disease. In the midst of all the training, with its loneliness, suffering, pain, sacrifice and forced asceticism, the athlete can’t wait for race to arrive. He just wants to be done with it and take a break – you know, maybe have a beer or a slice of pizza or something.

But go to the finish line of a race and people can see some athletes stumbling around not in the stupor of physical exertion, but instead the lost feeling of not knowing what to do next.

When the training and the race ends, then what? Where do we go from here?

For Lance it is back on the saddle again, which is where he always wanted to be.

More: “Lance Armstrong Rides Again” – Douglas Brinkley for Vanity Fair

A swan song for Billy Wagner?

Good or bad, Billy Wagner always got people to react. Whether it was by defying Pat Burrell’s wishes by actually talking to the local press, or only throwing his fastball 99 m.p.h., Billy made people talk.

There are no areas of grey when it comes to sentiment about the ex-Phillies closer. Folks either love him or hate him – sometimes both at the same time. It was the same deal for teammates and the press as well as the fans.

But the bottom line is that Wagner always got it. Sure, sometimes he was a pain in the rear, but he never forgot that baseball is fun. When broken down to its core, Wagner’s knew his job was to entertain the fans. Knowing this, Wagner engaged everyone no matter the setting. If someone yelled something at him when he was in the bullpen, he yelled back. If someone wanted an autograph, he signed it. And if someone asked him a question, he answered it.

It’s kind of hard not to respect that.

Sadly, it will be a long time before we get to react to Wagner again. Yesterday the news came out that the hard-throwing veteran was headed for reconstructive elbow surgery. As a result it appears as if the earliest Wagner will be able to return to the mound is the 2010 season… if at all.

By the time he will be able to pitch in a big league game again, Wagner will be pushing 39-years old. Certainly that isn’t ancient and athletes from all types of different sports have proved that age truly is just a number. As Wagner goes on the shelf, another 36-year-old athlete is coming out of retirement (more on this in another post) in part because he was inspired by the likes of 41-year-old Olympian Dara Torres, amongst others.

Yet because he is a power pitcher who still relies on an above-average fastball and elbow-numbing slider, Wagner will probably have to reinvent himself of he makes it back. Sure, he will probably be able to throw just as hard as he did in the past, but nearly every pitcher who has undergone reconstructive surgery says the fine touch of their control doesn’t always come back so quickly.

In addition to making his living off the high strikeout totals, Wagner also was known for his control, so it will be interesting to watch his approach to pitching if he makes it back.

“There is nobody who will tell me that I will be the same as I was,” he said. “But there is nobody who will tell me that I can’t go out there and compete and be successful.”

And as to be expected, Wagner is positive he will return to baseball.

“There’s no other way to face this but as a challenge. I have to go out there and challenge to get back. And it will be a challenge to go out there and compete.” Wagner said. “This whole thing. My age, everything’s a challenge.

“What else do I do? My kids want me to play. My wife wants me to play. I want to play.”

Talking about his 10-year-old son, Will, is when Wagner broke down during a press conference on Tuesday. It wasn’t so much the idea that he wouldn’t play anymore that got to him – it was the mere idea that his kids are just as devoted to his career.

That was enough to set off the waterworks.

It won’t be easy. Then again, nothing really came easy for Wagner. Think about it — how many other 5-foot-9 lefties from Division III colleges have made it to the big leagues? Yeah, not many.

At the same time, Wagner’s former teammates with the Phillies are hoping for the best.

“You never want to see anyone get hurt,” Ryan Howard said. “You hope he can come back healthy.”

Besides, it will be a whole lot more entertaining if he makes it back healthy.

Better with age

WASHINGTON – The opening ceremonies of the Olympics in Beijing are less than a week to away. That means for one more week we will read the standard patter of the potential of doping scandals as well as the political situation and pollution in China, and, of course, the crackdown on foreign journalists’ usage of the Internet.

But once the torch is lit and athletes (at least those that actually choose to go to China for the ceremonies) stroll into the stadium for the parade of nations, the focus will shift from the realities of modern-day China and its problems to the feel-good athlete profiles that have defined NBC’s coverage of the Olympics.

In the years since Jim McKay and ABC’s stately and iconic presiding over the games, NBC, with Bob Costas at the helm, has turned fierce athletic competition into a Hallmark card come to life. Sometimes they will even show a sporting event in real time without interruption, but only in the wee hours when the viewing audience is its smallest or when they can squeeze it in between that day’s saccharine sweet profile in which a pampered jock overcomes something to champion the human spirit.

Or something like that

Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see how NBC piles on to the Dara Torres story, which has already been told deftly by the national writing press, especially The New York Times. In fact, Torres was clearly the media darling during last month’s swimming Olympic Trials in Indianapolis, where she set an American record and qualified for two different U.S. teams in Beijing.

The finer points of Torres’ story have already been told, such as the 41-year-old swimmer first competed in the Olympics at the 1984 games in Los Angeles. She won nine medals in the ’84, 1988, 1992 and 2000 Olympics before deciding to retire after a haul of five medals in Sydney.

But at an age well advanced in comparison to her teammates and competitors, Torres heads into next week’s Olympics in the best shape of her career. Yes, her elaborate and detailed training regimen was documented in The Times story as was her outspokenness and innovative stance against performance-enhancing drugs. Despite the fact that Torres was one of the first athletes to volunteer (yes volunteer!) for the toughest urine and blood doping tests, it didn’t stop skepticism from the idiot fringe of the mainstream sporting press.

“I went to USADA and talked to the CEO there and said, ‘Hey, people are talking about me. They can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m an open book. DNA test me, blood test me, urine test me, do whatever you want. I want to show people I’m clean,'” Torres said on a recent episode of the “Today” show.

Yes, what sportswriters actually know about training, doping and athletics could fill a thimble…

“I just take it as a compliment,” Torres said of the baseless and reckless doping charges.

So with her life already an open book, Torres and fellow swimmer Michael Phelps could be the Wheaties box jocks of 2008 – that is if the Wheaties box still meant something. Bruce Jenner is long gone, folks.

Phelps, of course, could eclipse the Olympic greatness of Mark Spitz during the Beijing games. At 23, the Baltimore native won eight medals in Athens at the 2004 Olympics and will go for nine in China. But Phelps’ talent and achievement is so far out there that it might be impossible for him to capture the imagination of typical American sports’ fans addicted to the mundane routines of stick and ball games.

Torres, on the other hand, is interesting because of her age. Better yet she is a relic from the good-old days of the Olympics back when the U.S.A. was fighting to fight the Cold War in sports with the aim to beat the medal totals of the U.S.S.R. At the same time, Torres has been the catalyst behind a battery of tests, research and analysis regarding age and elite-level athletics.

Based on the returns noted in The Times (amongst others), age really is not a factor in determining ability in sports. Torres, of course, is a prime example. At just a smidge under six-feet tall, Torres competed in the Sydney Olympics at 160 pounds. But at 41 she’s headed for Beijing at a lean and mean 149 pounds of chiseled muscle thanks to workouts that stress flexibility, strength and recovery.

A high level of fitness and an insatiable competitiveness appears to be the key to athletic longevity.

“In some ways, I’m like all the other swimmers (going to the Olympics) because I still feel the passion for what I do,” Torres said. “In some ways I’m like none of them, because I’ve lived their lives twice.”

Torres is just one example. In Beijing French cyclist Jeannie Longo-Ciprelli will compete in her seventh straight Olympics – just two months shy of her 50th birthday.  Kenyan distance runner Paul Tergat recently turned 39 and has a resume that rivals the greatest runners of all time. In 2003 he set the world record in the marathon when he was 35 and ran his fastest 10k on the roads when he was 37.

Hockey player Chris Chelios, at 46, has shown no signs of slowing down (or retiring) after 25 years and three Stanley Cups in the NHL to go with four appearances in the Olympics for the U.S.

Chelios’ secret? He’s part of Don Wildman’s “Malibu Mob,” a consortium of athletes and celebrities/fitness freaks who workout together with the aim of pushing each other well beyond their limits.

Closer to home there is Jamie Moyer, the 45-year-old lefty starting pitcher for the Phillies who won his 10th game of the season last Wednesday night in Washington. In doing so, Moyer joined Phil Niekro, Jack Quinn and the immortal Satchel Paige as the only pitchers in baseball history to win at least 10 games at the age of 45.

“I didn’t play against any of them,” Moyer deadpanned after the game before changing the subject and explaining that he is just “here to do my job.”

“You start getting caught up in things like that and you might start losing some focus on things you need to do,” Moyer said about contemplating his place in baseball history. “I think there’s plenty of time for me to look back at the end of the season or at the end of my career and say, ‘You know what? That was cool,’ or ‘I remember that,’ or ‘I remember that game.’ But for me, having the opportunity to have the longevity that I have is the most special thing for me. To continue my career and to play and to contribute with a team, I think that is first and foremost. If you are around long enough, those things are going to start to happen.”

Better yet, Moyer leads the Phillies’ pitchers with his 10 wins and heads into another free-agent winter with the desire to keep playing. Generally, Moyer gives the pat, “as long as I’m still having fun and I’m contributing, I’ll keep playing,” when asked about his retirement plans, but based on a conversation last Tuesday regarding Torres, age and competitiveness, the fire still burns hot for the Phillies’ lefty.

“Look, I feel great and I’m pitching well and I love playing so I have no plans to stop,” he said. “But I could come in here tomorrow and the desire could be completely gone.”

Clearly that’s not the case. Moyer prepares and competes at 45 no differently than he did when he was a green rookie coming up with the Cubs in 1986. However, if there is something behind Moyer’s motivation to continue to pitch (and to pitch well) it seems to be the slights he took from baseball people back when he was struggling in the early 1990s. No, Moyer didn’t cite it as a motivating cause, but then again he didn’t have to.

“Fourteen years ago I was told to retire,” Moyer said with a smirk.

Moyer was unfamiliar with Torres’s story when asked, but quickly became interested in the finer details. Particularly, Moyer agreed with Torres’ idea that consistent workouts, a solid fitness foundation and smart recovery were the key to athletic longevity. Then he pondered the reasons why some players give up the game long before they could.

“Some players get injured and others just lose the desire,” he said. “Then some, for one reason or other, are told to quit because they reach a certain age or time spent in the game. Some just accept it without asking why.”

Moyer, to paraphrase a famous quote, asks “why not?” He expects to turn in his customary 200-innings and double-digits win total somewhere during the 2009 season. Certainly his age will play a factor in whether the Phillies move to re-sign him this winter, but equally important – if not more important – is the fact that Moyer has not missed a start for injury since 2000, has been on the disabled list just once dating back to 1997 and just three times during his professional career, which began in 1984.

Better yet, young pitchers Cole Hamels and Kyle Kendrick go to Moyer as a Jedi would seek out Yoda.

Besides, Yoda had a pretty good record, too.

Taking the act on the road

Hey folks –
Posts around here will be a bit sporadic and/or delayed during the next few days. It’s vacation time for the family and since my wife and two boys got a head start on me earlier this week, I have to batten down the hatches here in The Lanc before heading out.

Nevertheless, I’ll check in tonight/tomorrow with a few items pertaining to the Phillies, fun-time travel tidbits and maybe even a little something on 41-year-old Olympic swimmer, Dara Torres.

After that, everything else will come direct from Estes Park, Colorado where the big plan is run up a mountain (not hike, run). Other than the big run, I plan on sitting around with some coffee, and a book for some decoration so it looks like I’m doing something while I stare out into the middle distance for a week or so.

Check out the picture from the backyard

Anyway, I’ll be sure to write all about the adventures and goofiness I get tangled up in over the next week(s)… stay tuned.

Sticking with it

Typically, a distance runner begins his competitive racing career in the shorter distances like the mile and two-mile on the track and 5k in cross country. When the runner gets stronger and more experienced they generally focus on track events like the 5,000 and 10,000-meters until they plateau or the speed starts to wane a bit.

That’s when siren call of the marathon is finally answered. That usually occurs just as the runner is entering their late 20s or early 30s. By then good runners are strong enough to handle the pounding of high-mileage training and longer (yet slower) speed sessions.

If a runner is still at it after the marathon speed has deserted them, that’s when it’s time to give those geeky ultra-marathons a whirl. Those types of races don’t necessarily require a lot of talent, just the ability to run long or the stupidity to not know when to quit.

But Villanova grad Jen Rhines seems to have to evolution of the classic distance runner backwards. A three-time National Champion in the 5,000-meters for the Wildcats, Rhines qualified for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney in the 10,000 meters. For the Athens games in 2004, she made the U.S. Olympic team as a marathoner, which jibed perfectly with the proper ascension. Rhines’ fourth-ever marathon was in the 2004Olympics as a 30-year old. Seemingly her future as a distance runner was as a marathoner. By the time the 2008 Olympic Trials came around, Rhines likely would have had a handful of solid marathon times under her belt.

Only it didn’t happen that way. In 2005 she was 18th in the New York City Marathon with a 2:37:07. That’s hardly a world-class time for a runner of Rhines’ pedigree. In 2006 she was fourth in the Rome Marathon in 2:29:32 and seventh in the Tokyo Marathon in 2:35:37, which is an improvement from 2005, but not a huge breakthrough.

Yet instead of piling up the miles at altitude in her new hometown of Mammouth Lakes, Calif. with the likes of Deena Kastor, Ryan Hall, Meb Keflezighi and a team filled with the best distance runners in America all coached by her husband (and former Villanova running star) Terrence Mahon, Rhines stopped the standard running evolution and went backwards. Actually, make that she went back to the distances that made her a star all those years ago out on the Main Line.

Beginning in 2007, Rhines forgot about the marathon and focused on the shorter distances and ran her best times in the 1,500m, 3,000m and 10,000m and went on to take seventh in the 5,000m at the 2007 World Championships. Instead of the marathon or the 10,000, Rhines focused on making her third U.S. Olympic team as 5,000-meter runner.

Actually, Rhines put all her eggs in one basket. If she did not make the team in the 5k, she didn’t have the 10,000 or marathon to fall back on despite the fact that she had the second-best qualifying time for the marathon trials.

But after finishing in second place in the 5,000-meter finals last night at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., Rhines’ gamble paid off.

“I am really excited to get to run in Beijing,” she said after running 15:02 in the 5,000-meter finals to finish a second behind Kara Goucher. “I’ve always like the shorter distances, but I’ve been getting better and better since I’ve come back down.”

Call it quite a feat: Three Olympic teams in three different running events. That’s a lot of range.

And who knows, by the time the London Olympics in 2012 roll around, maybe Rhines will be ready to give the marathon another try.

Speaking of giving it another try, how about that Dara Torres?

Since 1984 a lot has changed in sports. That’s especially the case in Olympic sports where the games have gone from a showcase for the top amateur athletes to another hyped up professional event.

Hell, entire countries have come and gone since 1984. There’s only one Germany now and no U.S.S.R.

But since 1984 the Olympics have always had one name involved…

Dara Torres.

Torres was 17 when she made her first U.S. Olympic swim team in 1984 for the games in Los Angeles and she was 41 with a 2-year-old kid when she made the team in 2008 on Friday in Omaha.

Now check this out: In winning the 100-meter freestyle at the Olympic Trials, Torres time was faster than her gold-medal winning effort in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and 4.58 seconds faster than her fourth-place finish in the 1984 Olympics.

Look for Phillies stuff tomorrow, including the part where I traded Geoff Jenkins in the no-hitter pool for John Maine pitching a no-hitter against the Phillies.

Yes, I know the Mets have never had a no-hitter in their franchise history, but I figure the odds on Jenkins getting a hit to break up the no-hitter are about the same as Maine actually getting the no-no.