Magic, Serena are in and Cavs are way out

The Magic is in, and the Cavs are way out. Serena is in, meaning her usual controversy as well as the fourth round of the French Open. And Venus is out. Interesting enough weekend for you?

The Lakers had to love it. Without Phil Jackson voicing a single complaint, they now have the home-court advantage for the NBA finals.

ABC-TV has to rue it. Kobe vs. LeBron is simply another failed dream.

Tennis has to appreciate it. Serena Williams is what America finds irresistible, an unending drama, the true reality show.

LeBron James is a great basketball player. If he weren’t, the Cavaliers would have been swept by the Orlando Magic, instead of losing the Eastern Conference finals in six games.

What Nike’s going to do now with that commercial of Muppet-like characters representing a dueling LeBron and Kobe is anyone’s guess. What Cleveland’s going to do now that its team, which had the best record of the regular season, laid a dinosaur-sized egg is everyone’s guess.

LeBron leaves for the Knicks when his contract is up in another year. You want to hang around a team that isn’t a team, but just one magnificent player who virtually by himself could win two games in the playoffs but found it impossible to win four?

Venus Williams played, well, about as poorly as the Cavs, losing on Friday to someone you’ve never heard of, Agnes Szavay, 6-0, 6-4. Yes the multiple Grand Slam winner, the No. 3 seed, got bageled, which is what some of the tennis folk call a shutout. Only the 14th time in 662 matches Venus was blanked in a set.

But Serena wasn’t to put up with that nonsense. She not only rumbled back from her usual slow start on Saturday, over there on the clay in Paris, to beat Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4 (don’t they have a limit of three names in tennis?), Serena accused Martinez Sanchez of cheating.

Now, there’s a lady you have to like. Enough of this etiquette stuff.

In the first set, Serena smashed a ball at Sanchez, and most people, including Williams but not her opponent, thought the ball never touched Sanchez’s racket but instead banged off her right arm and dropped on Williams side of the net.

Sanchez won the point, even though the rules dictate that if the ball hit her body, the point belonged to Serena.

Serena first apologized for driving the ball at Sanchez, the normal procedure, but then added about the apparent cheating, “I’m going to get you in the locker room for that. You don’t know me.’’

The rest of us do. Serena has the toughness needed to be a champion, the toughness the Cavaliers only wish they had.

The Orlando Magic aren’t a lot of frauds, not with people such as Dwight Howard or Rashard Lewis. But neither are they supposed to be facing the Lakers.

The script was LeBron against Kobe, this year’s MVP against last year’s MVP. Nice try.

Some of the people out there, the reasonable thinkers, had the smarts to point out that teams with one superstar never win championships, that Michael had Scottie, that Kobe had Shaq. LeBron’s cast didn’t provide that balance.

Amazing didn’t happen in Cleveland. Orlando happened in Cleveland. And to Cleveland. Orlando, in truth, was relentless. If it wasn’t for LeBron’s ridiculous shot with no time on the clock in game two, the Magic would have taken four straight games.

The Lakers will not take four straight from Orlando, but they will win another title. After its inability to show anything resembling Serena Williams’ gutsy style in the first few games against the Nuggets, L.A. came through with a vengeance to take the conference title.

You have to believe that the Lakers finally have figured out what is required. And, even with their sometimes listless play against Houston and then Denver, the Lakers did end up winners, which is all that matters.

Kobe seems particularly focused. He’s the man now. Considerable help from Pau Gasol and Trevor Ariza, but Kobe Bryant controls the game. He doesn’t need to share the basketball and for certain he won’t have to share attention.

No LeBron. But a very enticing NBA final. And should Serena continue another few matches, the final of the French Open could be just as enticing.

RealClearSports: Ignore 'Who's Better' Debates and Enjoy NBA Playoffs

By Art Spander

Another one of those unwinnable arguments. Another incessant and illogical need to compare. Another question that can’t be answered but has some people lined up determined to try.

Is LeBron better than Kobe?

Then again, is Kobe better than Michael? Or Michael better than Magic or Larry? Or, even though he played a different game in a different era, is Bill Russell, on the strength of his championships, better than anyone?

I’m going to appreciate every one of them. They were special, they are special. And just because ESPN or some other publication asks for a vote on who’s No. 1, we don’t have to be lulled into the trap and provide a response.

Now, if you ask if LeBron James was fantastic Thursday night, that’s different. Or if Kobe has been fantastic game after game. Or if Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony have shown they are among the elite, well, there’s no argument.

Basketball is the ultimate team game, so we dare not forget the other characters in the dramas, Pau Gasol, Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams, people far more than role players.

We’re getting everything we could wish, a postseason that – and yes, I’m breaking my own rule of rejecting comparisons – could be the best ever.

From the Bulls-Celtics series, that had it been the NBA finals and not simply a first-rounder still would have us talking and reflecting, the excitement has come sweeping at us in endless waves. What next?

Take it from someone, me, who has been there, someone who started watching the NBA when Jerry West, “The Logo,’’ was a rookie, 1960, it doesn’t get any better than it has been.

Even Magic-Bird. Even Rick Barry-Elvin Hayes. Even when in 1976 Gar Heard threw in that miracle for the Suns and forced the Celtics to go to triple overtime.

I was down on the NBA for a few years. The play didn’t meet the hype. The game was too programmed, too restricted, great athletes figuratively tethered by coaches who would rather have a wrestling match than a ballet.

But what’s out there now – what we’re witnessing, to expand on the theme of LeBron and the Cavaliers – is compelling theater, must-see theater. The wow factor has taken control. And isn’t that what counts?

If you’re a Lakers fan, a Cavs fan, or a fan of the other two teams still playing as May heads into June, it’s results that matter. For the rest of us, it’s method.

To watch LeBron hit that 3-pointer with time running out in Game 2, to watch the Magic hold off the Cavs with Tiger Woods in the building, to watch Denver attempt the virtually impossible scheme of keeping Kobe Bryant from getting off his jumper, is what sport is all about.

We don’t need Charles Barkley or Kenny Smith to tell us how great these games and players have been. We know. And we’re enthralled. How do the Cavs blow a 22-point lead and still win by 10? How does LeBron keep on running and jumping, shooting and passing?

It’s all worked out perfectly for the two networks, ESPN and TNT, one evening Lakers-Nuggets, the next Cavs-Magic, guaranteed excitement every 24 hours.

It’s all worked out perfectly for us, the sporting public who can’t wait for the next tipoff.

In his famed dictionary of 1755, Samuel Johnson, the Englishman, called sport “tumultuous merriment.’’ A brilliant definition, and surely the last few weeks the NBA playoffs have left us tumultuously merry.

Technical fouls have been called and then rescinded. Mark Cuban, unfortunately, belittled Denver’s Kenyon Martin via e-mail. In L.A., Jack Nicholson, from his $2,500 seat, has cheered the Lakers but given the high sign now and then to their opponents.

The NFL is No. 1 in America, a fact well recognized when this week Sports Illustrated put Tom Brady on its cover. And baseball has history on its side, carrying back to the 19th century. But basketball has found its place, on the tube, in our hearts.

If the play has been a trifle erratic, if it’s hard to figure why the Lakers look so good at home and so bewildering away, that’s only contributed to the excitement. Teams coming unglued. Teams coming back.

We were promised entertainment, and the playoffs have lived up to the promise. Is LeBron better than Kobe? Who cares, as long as they and Carmelo and Dwight are making us gasp and hope these games never end.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009.   

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© RealClearSports 2009

RealClearSports: Serena Williams, A Conundrum of a Champion

By Art Spander

It’s her life. Maybe we should let it go at that. Maybe we should appreciate what Serena Williams has given to sport, to her sport of tennis, appreciate the championships and the panache, acknowledge what is, rather than question what might have been.

Maybe the gentle arrogance and the irritating independence are at the heart of her success, and the success of her sister, Venus. Maybe if she acted like the other players, thought like the other players, she’d be just another player, and not one who earned the titles, if not always earning the proper respect.

Serena won a first-round match at the French Open on Tuesday, won it in agonizing fashion for someone who, depending on either her viewpoint or the WTA rankings, is the best or second best female player on the globe.

She staggered and stumbled and squandered eight match points before finally dispatching somebody named Klara Zakopalova, who is ranked 100th.

But she won. As she has so often, confounding some, enthralling others. Oh, what a gift those sisters were awarded, such athleticism. Oh, what brilliance those sisters displayed. Oh, what doubts those sisters created.

The critics have badgered Venus, older by 15 months, and Serena, practically forever. When they weren’t praising them.

Venus and Serena were different, two African-Americans in a sport once as white as the attire prescribed for Wimbledon. They grew up on the tough streets of Compton, east of Los Angeles, instructed and shepherded by a father who made bold predictions and made others outraged.

The Williams sisters, the Williams family, were separate from the rest. They were more powerful than the rest. For a while in the early 2000s, it was Venus against Serena or Serena against Williams in virtually every final of every Grand Slam. A whimpering Amelie Mauresmo, who eventually would go on to win Wimbledon and the Australian, once proclaimed such domination unfair.

Then Venus either lost interest or was constantly injured. Or both. Then Serena got bored and went into movies or was constantly injured. Or both. But when Venus won Wimbledon in ’07 and ’08 and Serena the ’08 U.S. Open and ’09 Australian, a new theory was put forth. The opportunity to escape to other interests is what enabled the Sisters Williams to stay after other winners — Kim Clijsters, Justine Henin — departed because of burnout.

Still, Mary Carillo, the great tennis commentator, was adamant about the Williams’ careers, particularly that of Serena. Not that long ago, Serena and Tiger Woods were at the top of their respective sports. Tiger hasn’t left. Serena was a missing person.

“You can’t waste time when you’re an athlete,” said Carillo. “Careers are short. I thought Serena was going to break every record. She should have.”

But even with 10 Grand Slam victories, she has not.

Two weeks back, when Dinara Safina of Russia replaced her in the No. 1 position in the rankings, Serena huffed, “We all know who is No. 1. Quite frankly I’m the best in the world.”

Did we detect a bit of bitterness? Or was Serena attempting to remind us that when dropshot comes to forehand, she’d be the last one standing? The great thing about individual sports is you go out and beat everyone and you can’t be denied.

We’re never going to get into the psyche of Serena or Venus. We’re never going to learn why they always seem to be hurt when they lose. Or why they don’t always give an opponent credit when they win.

“My goal,” Serena said last year, “always has been to have the best time and to do the best I can.” She’s had the time of her life. Others worry that at age 27, time and tennis have passed her by. That would be hard to believe, especially since Serena has talked of competing in the ’12 Olympics.

The French, at Roland Garros in Paris, is played on red clay. Americans traditionally haven’t done well on the surface, although Serena won the tournament in 2002. This year, Serena had lost her only three matches on clay, one of those to Zakopalova, a Czech.

“I think I just played horrendous,” Serena said of her first-round win, sounding very unlike the young lady who a few days earlier boasted she was “quite frankly the best in the world.”

“I think I was a little nervous because I hadn’t won a match on clay all year, and I was desperate for a win.”

Desperate is a word new to Serena’s vocabulary. She’s never felt the need to use it. Now she understands. She owes us nothing, but she owes herself the chance to play every match as if it will be her last.
As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a living treasure of sports history. A recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- he has earned himself a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And he has recently been honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America for 2009. 

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© RealClearSports 2009 

SF Examiner: Bay Area teams hurt by MLB scheduling

By Art Spander
Special to The Examiner

There was a woman, an entertainer, who in her era was scandalous but today wouldn’t even draw a reprimand from the so-called religious right. Mae West was the lady’s name, and among her axioms was one advising too much of a good thing is wonderful.

For no good reason, the people who create the schedules for major league baseball unfortunately have concurred. Thus the beginning of the week the Giants and A’s both have been playing at home. Not too bad for the Giants, who on Memorial Day drew 40,034 to AT&T Park.

Terrible for the A’s, who on the very same Monday afternoon had only 15,280. That, surprisingly and delightfully, both teams managed a rare combo win begs the issue. If a game is played and virtually nobody watches it — the situation for the A’s — does it count? It’s tough enough in Oakland, with the team crawling along on the bottom of American League West, but to force the A’s to go head-to-head for attendance with the more established Giants at the same time in a different — and less attractive — place, is grossly unfair.

Not that people beyond our fair region give a hoot. The Mets and Yankees have no trouble getting both attention and attendance in a metropolitan area of 18 million. Chicago can handle the Cubs and White Sox playing a few miles apart, and the Dodgers are in Los Angeles and the Angels are in Anaheim — no matter what the name implies — a 30-mile separation.

We’re told scheduling difficulties are caused by interleague play and there aren’t enough dates available to prevent conflicts. So baseball gives the A’s the shaft, and it isn’t being very kind to the Giants because both teams must jockey for space in papers shrinking like, well, I was going to say Travis Ishikawa’s batting average, but then the man hits a home run and goes 4-for-4. 

There was an era when the term June Swoon held great fear for Giants fans, the team usually playing well through May and then collapsing as summer arrived. It won’t be a problem this year for a franchise that is helpless at the plate — or was until Ishikawa’s unforeseen breakout.

The rumored trade for Dan Uggla? Or Nick Johnson? Neither deal would hurt. But the name Matt Cain should not be allowed in any discussion. Better to lose, 2-1, which the Giants have done much too often, than 8-7, which is what the A’s did the other night after holding a 5-1 lead going into eighth against Arizona.

After spring training, the suggestion was if you could link the A’s hitting with the Giants’ pitching you might have a winner. The problem has been the A’s weren’t hitting, and while the Giants do have a strong staff, particularly Cain, Tim Lincecum and hard-luck Barry Zito, they also have Brian Wilson, who can blow any lead.

Each club is stuck mostly with what it has. And the beginning of this week each was stuck playing home games against the other. A bad idea indeed.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on and E-mail him at

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Copyright 2009 SF Newspaper Company

A’s make a mess of game in which Giambi makes history

OAKLAND –  History? The Athletics made some Saturday night. At least Jason Giambi did. They also made a mess of a game they should have won, but of course did not win.

Because they are the Athletics.

This one was as bad it gets for a team that’s become very bad.  That’s become terrible. That’s become atrocious. That’s always been agonizing.

A team that has the second worst record in the American League, the third worst in the majors.

A team that carried a 5-1 lead into the eighth inning against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who are almost as awful as the A’s, and then ended up losing to the D-backs, 8-7, in 11 excruciating innings.

Remember that Sinatra song, “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week’’? Not this Saturday night. Not with 21,295 people in the stands at the Coliseum. Maybe a majority came for the post-game fireworks show, not that it matters. Maybe a majority came for the in-game fireworks.

Four home runs by the A’s, including the 400th of his career by Giambi. Another by Jack Cust, who, with practically every living soul in the stadium playing him to pull to right, where he had homered in the first, bunted safely down the third-base line. Another by Adam Kennedy. Another by Nomar Garciaparra.

Four home runs, and a seventh loss in the last nine games. And a 25th loss in 40 games overall.

Four home runs and no pitching. If you don’t count Edgar Gonzalez, up from the minors and making his first start for Oakland, against his last big-league team, Arizona. Went five innings and gave up only a run. You mean the A’s were going to win one? Ha!

Russ Springer, the third of seven – yes, seven – A’s pitchers started the eighth for the A’s and gave up three straight hits. He was replaced by Andrew Bailey, who after an out allowed a single to Eric Byrnes that scored two runs and a double to Chad Tracy that scored two more. And it was 5-5.

Where it stayed until the 11th, when Craig Breslow and Santiago Casilla combined to disprove the label “reliever’’ as Arizona scored three runs. That Oakland got a couple in the bottom of the inning only proved all the more agitating.

Especially for Giambi, who in the 13th year of his career returned to the A’s with the idea he might provide a bit of power, which finally he has done, and some credibility.

“We’ve got to stop giving away games,’’ said Giambi. “Hopefully we can turn it around before we bury ourselves.’’

They’ve already been buried. The season is done. All that’s left is pride. And it’s not even June.

Giambi drew some cheers from a crowd that at game’s close, 3 hours and 44 minutes after the beginning, was given to booing. Understandably.

“It’s an incredible thing,’’ Giambi said of becoming the 44th player to reach the 400-homer mark. “I had lots of ups and downs. The biggest thing is it was here in Oakland . I wish it could have been sooner, but I’m glad they got to see it where I started.’’

What they also saw was an A’s team unable to free itself from failure. Oakland hit those four home runs off the man the A’s traded to Arizona, Dan Haren, the most he ever allowed in a game. But you’ve got to stop the other team, and Oakland could not.

How’s it going to change? In a stretch of four games at Detroit and Tampa Bay a few days ago, the A’s were outscored a combined 47-13. That’s not baseball, that’s a debacle.

Those billboards advertise that the A’s are “100 percent baseball.’’  In truth, they’re 100 percent sad. The A’s play them close, and they lose. The A’s get smacked around, they lose. As if we needed any additional proof, that’s the mark of a team without hope.

Oakland signed Giambi and Matt Holliday, Orlando Cabrera and Nomar Garciaparra. But none is a pitcher. None comes out of the bullpen.

Even the bottom feeders in baseball win 60 to 70 games, but that won’t do around here. For the last year we kept hearing all that wasted talk about the A’s building a ballpark. What they need to build is a team.

Jason Giambi and the batters did what they could. It wasn’t enough. It’s never enough when a game that should be won turns into a game that’s a reflection of a season beyond repair.