Mark Starr: Last Thoughts on 2006 Sports

Have you noticed, of late, that vacation has become a euphemism for working at home? Good thing too, because I was running out of time on 2006. Sport is a vast empire and I still have a lot to say and very little time to say it in. So here are some final short takes.

If the NBA really wants to punish New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas for a role in provoking that ugly brawl at the Garden, Thomas should be forced to coach the Knicks for another season.

The Chargers may be the consensus favorite for the Super Bowl. But a lot of teams felt a whole lot better about their chances after watching Philip Rivers stink up the joint—and lose his composure to boot—against Kansas City Sunday night. Still, any plan that revolves around stopping LaDainian Tomlinson and letting Rivers try to beat you runs into a problem: it may be impossible to stop Tomlinson.

Only Don Shula and Tom Landry have taken more teams to the playoffs than Marty Schottenheimer. One Super Bowl victory and that disdainful “Martyball” label disappears forever, leaving behind a Hall of Fame coach.

One of the most overlooked stories of 2006—unfortunately—was the German government’s settlement with those elite athletes victimized by East Germany’s state doping program. The experimental program transformed the former communist state into a sports juggernaut. The recent $2 million settlement to 167 “recognized victims” is but a token gesture. But the legacy of cancers and other plagues, as well as birth defects in the athletes’ children, is a testament to the horror that was perpetuated. Next time I hear that we ought to allow steroids and other forms of sports doping because it is a victimless crime, I think I will scream.

How will hockey superstars like Alex Ovechkin and Sydney Crosby ever be appreciated—like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux were—when the average fan never sees them play? I’m telling you to check out these sensational kids when the NHL season starts. (Oops, my editor informs me that, apparently, it has already started.)

Letting former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch leave New England for Seattle has hurt the Pats’ passing attack far more than it has helped the Seahawks’.

Allen Iverson’s legacy will ultimately be determined not by his decade-plus in Philadelphia, but by his stint with the Denver Nuggets. Iverson has never played in the NBA with a talent the magnitude of Carmelo Anthony’s. With some team success to go along with his personal milestones, Iverson could earn a perch—alongside Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan—at the highest levels of the NBA pantheon.

New NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell may have felt hamstrung by the lack of a smoking gun on the Terrell Owens spitting incident. But fining stars of that magnitude is pointless. T.O., like the petulant child he is, should have been given a t.o. You can be sure David Stern would have gotten it right.

I don’t believe in the existence of football gods. But if they do exist, then Jeff Garcia will make my Christmas by leading the Eagles over the Cowboys Sunday night. It’s supposed to be chilly in Dallas and revenge is, after all, a dish best served cold.

T.O. is only part of the reason, but Dallas is no longer America’s team. That distinction belongs to the New Orleans Saints.

So you think the Giants, with their depleted receiving corps, might be wondering, as they host the Saints this weekend, why they didn’t notice that kid at nearby Hofstra. The rookie wide receiver, Marcus Colston, has, arguably, had more impact on the Saints than his slightly more famous rookie teammate, Reggie Bush.

In 1994 the salary cap supposedly ushered the NFL into an era of parity. But parity past was a piker compared with this year, when 24 teams still have playoff prospects with two games remaining in the regular season. Critics of the system lament the absence of any more great teams. Actually I’m not sure there are even any really good teams left.

Dallas Cowboys coach Bill Parcells got plenty of plaudits for switching to untested quarterback Tony Romo. But dumping Drew Bledsoe had already been a proven winner in New England five years before. Denver Broncos coach Mike Shanahan made a far gutsier move when he switched to rookie quarterback Jay Cutler, despite the fact that the Broncos were 7-4 and had gone to the AFC Championship with Jake Plummer just last year. Cutler looked shaky in losing his first two starts. But Denver will still reach the playoffs, and Cutler’s strong arm makes the Broncos a legitimate Super Bowl contender. Of course, only if Javon Walker rebounds from his shoulder injury.

The Broncos could meet the Patriots in the first round of the playoffs, and Shanahan has been to Bill Belichick as Belichick has been to virtually every other coach in the league. He appears to have Belichick’s number.

If one had to wager—and I never do any more—one could do far worse than put something down on the Baltimore Ravens to go all the way. They have a Super Bowl-caliber defense, reminiscent of the team that won Super Bowl XXXV with a hapless Trent Dilfer at quarterback. And Steve McNair is a far steadier hand at the helm than Dilfer ever was.

The best thing about the addition of Thursday Night Football is Chris Collingsworth in the booth.

Barry Bonds just signed a $16 million contract, and the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who exposed him as a fraud and a cheat are being threatened with jail time. What is wrong with that picture, America?

Next year if, as I believe they will, the FIFA brass reverse their historic decision and pull soccer’s 2010 World Cup out of South Africa, they will cite infrastructure problems. But the far bigger concern is security and the escalating crime rate in major cities. The United States should be readying a proposal, since it is one of the few countries with the wherewithal to host on three years’ notice. Hosting the 1994 World Cup gave soccer a jump-start in this country; a dozen years later the sport here could really use the boost that a World Cup would bring.

The Big Ten got plenty of attention this football season. But beyond its big two teams, the conference may be at an all-time low. I wouldn’t be surprised if Ohio State is the only Big Ten team to win a bowl game.

The BCS absolutely made the right choice with Florida, rather than Michigan, facing Ohio State in its title game. The match-up of two storied football conferences and two great football powers that have never met on the gridiron is far more interesting than a rematch of conference rivals that play every season. That’s not to say that Florida will give Ohio State a better game. But the game lasts just one evening while the hype goes on for weeks. And Florida unquestionably makes for better hype.

Speaking of Ohio State, Buckeye basketball center Greg Oden looks to be the real deal (not to mention much older than 18). The Ohio State freshman would have been the first choice in the NBA draft last year, had David Stern not changed the eligibility rules. The NBA lottery winner next year won’t regret having waited.

I am dedicated to my job, but I confess I took a pass on the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl. TCU-Northern Illinois was certainly an alluring attraction, but I’m saving myself for the New Orleans Bowl and Rice vs. Troy on Friday night.

As a Pac 10 alum, I am looking forward to the Rose Bowl and, thanks to UCLA’s upset of USC, a classic Pac 10-Big Ten match-up: USC vs. Michigan. When I was a young man, I made a lot of money betting the Pac 10 against overrated Big Ten teams in the Rose Bowl.

I hate the word “genius” in reference to coaches. But at the very least, I am beginning to suspect that Phil Jackson knows his way around a basketball court. Somehow he has rebuilt the Lakers into a winner with Kwame Brown at center.

We fans would prefer to like the men and women athletes who break the most important records in sports. Sadly, that will not be the case next year with Barry Bonds. Nor will it be the case as Bobby Knight passes Dean Smith for most wins as a coach in college basketball. Still, there is no denying this man can flat-out coach. His Indiana teams of the mid-70s were the best-coached college teams I’ve ever seen. (And I saw all the best UCLA teams.)

Daisuke Matsuzaka will prove to be worth every penny in Boston. But the Red Sox’s archrival Yankees may have made the best pitching signing of the off-season, bringing Andy Pettitte back to the Bronx. The Yankees’ failure on the mound in recent seasons appears to have been a case of heart failure, and Pettitte has as much heart as any pitcher of recent vintage. Maybe enough to spare a chamber for A-Rod.

We have been schooled in recent years to understand that women athletes are every bit as competitive as men. And one assumes that the fans of women’s teams are every bit as rabid as their gender counterparts. So I’m honestly curious how fans of the WNBA’s L.A. Sparks feel when they hear that the team’s superstar center, Lisa Leslie, will miss the entire season because she is pregnant? Do they have any thoughts that are less generous than “congratulations”?

The NBA’s Atlantic division may be the single worst aggregate of teams in the history of pro sports.

Every year, there’s one NBA rookie. You begin to hear the whispers right after the draft. He was a steal in the bottom of the first round. Everyone will regret passing on him. Then the season starts and he’s just another third-string point guard. This year I give you Boston’s Rajon Rondo.

It got very little notice. But Kristine Lilly, the one member of U.S. women’s soccer’s old guard who didn’t retire after the 2004 Olympics, appeared in her 300th international game this year. By year-end the 35-year-old midfielder numbered 319 caps, a record that will never be approached by any player, man or woman. In 2006, she was still the American team’s second-leading scorer with 13 goals and 7 assists in 20 games.

Tiger Woods is clearly in a class by himself. But how classy is it to win your own golf tournament? Byron Nelson never did that and neither did Bob Hope.

“We Are Marshall” will be the holiday season’s No. 1 tear-jerker. Marshall alum Randy Moss should at least be able to relate to the second half of that.

Then again, if one NFL player is emblematic of the finest aspects of the game, it is another Marshall alum, Troy Brown.

I am delighted to see that Sasha Cohen is finding success as an actress. She was a beautiful skater and has shown the potential to be an even better actress. I was always impressed by how she managed to look so surprised when she fell on her tush, given that she fell on her tush all the time.

Less than 20 months until the Beijing Olympics and that brief window when we care about sports like track, swimming, gymnastics and Greco-Roman wrestling. Be warned: American Olympic supremacy is likely to fall by the wayside. The Chinese are gearing up to kick butt. Witness the triumph of both the Chinese men’s and women’s teams at the recent world gymnastics championships.

Finally, on a very personal note, the Tribune Company has led the baseball’s free-spending off-season in what will inevitably be a futile effort to upgrade the Chicago Cubs. At the same time, it has presided over the ruination of some of the best newspapers in the nation, stripping them of core staff who, all combined, earned a fraction of what was anteed up for Alfonso Soriano. I once worked for the Chicago Tribune. And when the company bought the Cubs, I was assigned—though I was neither a business nor sports reporter—to write the story. I like to believe I was chosen because that task required a reporter who was not viewed as a company man. So let me add a non-company-man postscript to my Tribune career: the company should be ashamed. And its baseball team should be cursed.

Next Week: Starr ranks the biggest sports stories of 2006.