It's been a while since I've updated the site and I'm feeling like a man who needs to catch up a bit. I want to do a quick run through of some of the exciting stuff that happened in the month of May, some of it leading to what should be even more exciting stuff in 2008's newborn month of June.
For starters, as a resident of Louisville I feel downright ashamed that it took me until the first week in June to talk about the Kentucky Derby and the dominant Big Brown. In somewhat of a last minute coup, I was able to attend this year's Derby thanks to a friend's extra ticket and was seated at the first turn in a borrowed suit, drinking many a Mint Julip and betting (badly) on the ponies. My guest and I arrived a bit late, and while I have been to Churchill Downs on previous occasions, including the Kentucky Oaks, (which is held the day before Derby for you out of towners) I was still absolutely blown away by the sheer number of people at the race. Walking through the grounds to get to our seats took nearly a half hour alone and the mass of people drinking away the day in the track's infield only added to the packed house who were able to secure seats.
As I said, I was on the first turn of the track, probably the least exciting portion of the oval to be seated on, but nevertheless it was a treat to be at one of the sporting world's premiere events. I watched the remainder of the race on the big screen near the infield and was thoroughly impressed by Big Brown's run down the last turn to the homestretch. He simply took over the race with little to no effort and his performance in the Preakness was a period on the dominant sentence he started on that Saturday in Louisville. He has more than a puncher's chance at the Triple Crown with a win this Saturday at the Belmont Stakes, and his bum hoof withstanding, I can't see another horse getting in his way. It would be great to witness a Triple Crown winner this year, and even more exciting to know that I got to watch him run at the Derby.
Of course, in a sad note from the Derby, Eight Bells had to be put down after breaking both front legs during the race. The news came over the loud speaker, but either cheers or my Mint Julips drowned it out. I later heard from a couple of guys in our box what had happened and it put a damper on what was otherwise a great day. Moments like that make the sport feel a bit cruel, and with Barbaro's death still fresh in so many people's minds, it was a true shame that yet another high-profile horse ran itself to an early demise.
The month of May also saw the Major League Baseball season begin in earnest, with surprises abound on the diamond. The biggest of shocks comes in the form of the newly renamed Tampa Bay Rays, (who just had to get the Devil out of their name for some reason) who have risen to an unlikely perch at the top of the American League East standings. With a city that doesn't really care about them (they have to schedule county fair level musical performances after weekend games to boost ticket sales for cripes sake) and a payroll that dwarfs in comparison to the league's big-market teams, the Rays have relied on youth on the mound and at the plate to make an impressive early season run. I don't know if they have the pitching to maintain for the full breadth of the season, and youth in most cases does not lead to championships in baseball, but I still love the underdog story, especially since their division includes the game's most visible franchises in the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox.
Being that this is my blog, and I'm a huge Detroit fan, I also have to continue to complain about the sub-par play of my Tigers. Man oh man. I can't get over what has happened to the team that looked poised to win a World Series title just two short years ago. I'm not going to jump the proverbial shark and say that the skies are already black in Motown, but a 24-32 record at this point in the season was not what I had in mind when the already stacked Tig's picked up Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera in the off-season. Skipper and Perrysburg native Jim Leyland hasn't started calling out his boys in the press by name, but despite his restraint something must be done to change the losing mentality that is in that clubhouse right now. The pitching simply has to turn around, with the aging Kenny Rogers struggling alongside what were thought to be young arms on the way up in Justin Verlander and Jeremy Bonderman. In direct contrast to the upstart Rays, the Tigers have a loyal and once again rabid fan base and a payroll that would make kids in the third world wonder what the fuck is wrong with how Americans spend money. Something's got to happen in Detroit or I'm going to make a personal trip there on my next visit to Toledo and grab some Tigers players by the throat. Well, not really, but a floundering Detroit squad will make for a bummer of a summer, no rhyme intended.
Both ends of the NBA Playoff picture came into focus at the end of May, with the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers coming out of the east and west respectively. While it wasn't hard to take the top seed of each conference, I will of course remind you that I picked this as the Finals match-up at the beginning of the playoffs. I still say the Lakers and Kobe Bryant in particular are going to be a little too much for the Celts, though I say that with somewhat of a bias considering my love for the big "24" in purple and gold. The Celtics dismantled the Pistons in what was a bit less of a series than I had anticipated. There were a couple of games that were downright breathtaking all the way to the end, but I really thought the Pistons would at least push the series to 7 games before succumbing. They looked a bit flat the whole series if you ask me. Their energy level has dropped every year since they beat the Lakers in '04 and it didn't surprise me at all that they let Flip Saunders go, because something obviously had to be done. They have a lot of talent and unlike their experienced counterpart in the west, the San Antonio Spurs, the Pistons don't have to do much line-up tweaking to maintain their level of success.
The Spurs are old and even older on their bench and their series loss to the Lakers proved that in spades. Sure, Kobe has become an even more dominant force with an upgraded supporting cast, but the Spurs just looked like a team that couldn't keep up with the fresh legs on the Laker bench. Kobe is surrounded by guys who can both shoot and bring energy to the game, only adding to the ultra-talented front line that Los Angeles boasts in Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom. Have you thought about how scary the Lakers are going to be next year when Andrew Bynum is back and integrated into the rotation? They could easily be contenders for the next three, possibly even four years and Phil Jackson has a shot at putting the record for titles as a head coach out of reach for generations to come.
I think the Lakers' play this year is testament to what a superstar like Kobe can accomplish within the Triangle Offense and with solid players to fill out its complex system of scoring options. I've been doing an increasingly intense study of the Triangle, and once you get into its web of passes and options, you start to realize why so few coaches run it and why the two most dominant players of the past 20 years, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, were so potent for their Phil Jackson-lead squads. Its hard to wrap your head around, but it really is a lethal system when put in the right hands, and Phil has been lucky enough to have Kobe and Michael to score the basketball for him.
I don't want to get too deep into why I think the Lakers are going to beat the Celtics, because much of it is my love for Kobe and just a gut feeling, but I do think it will be a great series and its beautiful to see the Celts and Lakers back in the Finals after so many thrilling showdowns between Magic and Bird. Obviously this year's Finals doesn't have quite the cache that those legendary match-ups did, but there are compelling storylines. Can Kobe win a ring without Shaq? Can three superstars who have never even made the Finals come away with a title as their careers slide downhill? Will David Stern be able to keep a smile off of his face in the stands, knowing that he has the kind of Finals match-up that he and other NBA big-wigs jerk off about? An interesting Finals it should be.
Tonight also saw the end of the hockey season, with the Detroit Red Wings besting the Pittsburgh Penguins to take home the Stanley Cup. I have to admit that I had band rehearsal tonight and missed the final game, but the other night's triple overtime thriller was enough to make me remember why I love playoff hockey so much. That feeling of the game ending at any moment (and in this case, a possible champion being crowned at any moment) keeps you glued to the screen like no other and thinking about how those players muster the energy to play nearly two whole games worth of hockey back to back makes my head swim. That game five was one of the best hockey games I've ever watched and the fact that Petr Sykora (that's how he spells it grammar Nazis, he's Czechoslovakian) called the game winning goal is even more impressive.
He actually knocked on the glass and told NBC's reporter standing between the benches that he was going to score the game winner, and then went out and did it. Half of the assist on the goal went to Sergei Gonchar, who had a busted nose and was banged up for most of the 3rd period and the overtime periods. He was being saved in case the Pens got a power play and proved his worth shortly after he was inserted. Sure Hockeytown got another title, but the gutsy play of Gonchar and Sykora's called shot are likely the things that I'm going to remember from this year's Stanley Cup Finals. It's a shame sometimes that Americans, myself included, forget about hockey as it's surrounded by the NBA and baseball, but its playoffs are some of the most thrilling television that sports has to offer. Congrats to the Wings and now I can completely concentrate on the NBA with a little less guilt.