Lakers: Plenty of talent, very little heart

Here are the conceivable excuses available for the Los Angeles Lakers, reputedly a basketball team of championship caliber, if not championship character.

* The game in Houston started at 9 p.m., past the Lakers’ bedtime.

* But 9 p.m. in Houston is only 7 p.m. in Los Angeles, so maybe the Lakers hadn’t awakened from their afternoon naps.

* The Lakers lost concentration because Yao Ming, unable to play, was a spectator, and rarely had been watched by anyone taller than an even 7 feet.

* The Lakers were so amused by the Nike commercial with Kobe and LeBron as Muppets characters, they couldn’t stop laughing until the Rockets were ahead 17-1.

* The Manny Ramirez situation has everyone in the L.A. area so distracted, nobody can think about anything else, Lakers included.

    Yes, the Lakers will win Sunday and will take the series and move on to face Denver. But they shouldn’t. Not the way they stood around in Game 6 for the first six minutes.

    You can’t call the Lakers gutless. They did rally to get within two points in the third quarter on Thursday night before losing, 95-80.

    But you can call them heartless. No team with that much talent, with that much momentum, the Lakers having beaten Houston by 40 points on Tuesday night, should play that badly.

    And you can call them clueless.

    They were baffled by the Rockets’ Louis Scola, who scored 24 points, many of them on baskets about four inches from the rim. Scola’s from Argentina, so maybe the Lakers were looking for a guy with chaps and a Gaucho hat singing about Eva Peron.

    The Lakers and Boston Celtics both have Game Sevens at home. The Celtics, the anti-Lakers, a team that scraps and hustles, earned that seventh game, showing more than enough fight in the loss at Orlando. No Kevin Garnett. Guys in foul trouble, but the Celts kept trying.

    The Lakers earned a sneer. The Rockets were not only without Yao but also Tracy McGrady. And they had lost, 118-78, two evenings earlier. They had the right to, as Sinatra sang, roll up into a big ball and die. Instead it was the Lakers who were in a funk.

    Phil Jackson, the Lakers coach, has nine NBA titles (six with Michael Jordan), so seemingly he understands not just the technical side of basketball but the psyches of the men who play it. Yet as Houston kept making points and L.A. kept making mistakes, Jackson was no more adept at making corrections than Madonna.

    After the game, Jackson said that the Lakers play on the road “concerns me, but what are we going to do about it now? We can’t stew on it.’’

    Others can. There’s the issue of pride. Champions – and hasn’t everyone all but conceded the finals will be between the Lakers and Cavaliers? – play like champions. That doesn’t mean necessarily that they’ll win. It does mean necessarily that they don’t embarrass themselves.

    Or pro basketball.

    You win by 40 points and 48 hours later lose by 15? Just because Jack Nicholson isn’t sitting courtside? Something is wrong.

    “You know what, you’ve just got to grind these things out, man,’’ Kobe Bryant told the media after the game. “The key now is to win by any means necessary.’’

    Not to question Kobe, who got his 32 points (if on 11 for 27 shooting), but isn’

    t that the idea every time a team takes the floor or the field or the ice, to win?

    To show up and show some courage. You’ve heard more times than needed that defense is simply hard work. Maybe the shots don’t fall, but there’s no reason you can’t do everything possible to keep the opponent’s from falling. The Lakers early on did nothing of the sort.

    Scola was scoring. Aaron Brooks, 26 points, was scoring. Who would you rather have, Kobe and Pau Gasol or Louis Scola and Aaron Brooks?

    Houston, the town, had given up. “Pulse faint for Crutch City Rockets,’’ was the headline in Thursday’s Houston Chronicle, a reference to McGrady and Yao. Houston the team had not given up.

    Los Angeles the team? We can debate that.

    Phil Jackson said he was “looking forward to Sunday’s game.’’

    Coaches always talk like that. What happened in the past, even the very recent past, is never discussed openly (although you can bet there were some aggressive conversations in private.)

    In a way, the Rockets are also looking forward to Sunday’s game. They never figured to get that far. Not with the Lakers having beaten them four straight in the regular season. Not with the Lakers holding the home-court advantage. Not with Houston losing star players.

    “We play differently on our home court,’’ Kobe Bryant insisted.

    Is that an explanation? Or an excuse?

    RealClearSports: Ryan Zimmerman Brings Thoughts of Joltin’ Joe

    By Art Spander

    The best part is we may understand how good Ryan Zimmerman is going to be. The second-best part is we may again understand how good Joe DiMaggio was.

    Zimmerman, the kid from the Washington Nationals, caught our attention there for a month. He hit in 30 consecutive games.

    The streak ended Wednesday against the Giants. The streak ended with a standing ovation. From fans of the visiting team.

    The streak ended with greater appreciation for Joe DiMaggio.

    We don’t know much very about Joltin’ Joe these days. He came before ESPN and CNN and Twitter. He retired 58 years ago. But Ryan Zimmerman, age 24, knows all he needs to know about DiMaggio.

    “Thirty games,” said Zimmerman, “makes you realize how much better 56 is than 30. What he did is pretty remarkable.”

    What Zimmerman did, in his fourth season in the majors, also was remarkable. Not Joe DiMaggio remarkable, however. Not 56-game hitting streak remarkable. Not May to July remarkable. Not never-to-be-equaled remarkable.

    “I don’t think that will ever be touched,” said Rich Aurilia. He is 37, a long-time member of the Giants, with 13 plus years of service. Been there, seen that.

    “Too many different pitchers in a game these days,” said Aurilia. “You’ll face four different guys.”

    The Giants, on Wednesday, indeed used four pitchers. Zimmerman faced only two. Starter Barry Zito got Zimmerman on ground balls twice and walked him twice, the second time, in what was thought to be Zimmerman’s last plate appearance, intentionally.

    Then, because the Nats -- finally about to beat the Giants, 6-4, after nine straight defeats, two this season -- scored three times in the seventh, Zimmerman had one final chance, against Pat Misch in the top of the ninth.

    But he grounded to shortstop Edgar Renteria for a fielder’s choice, and what had started April 8 was now finished, more to the distress of the 30,120 fans at AT&T Park than Zimmerman himself.

    As he headed to the dugout, the spectators stood and applauded and cheered. For a visiting team’s player. For the game of baseball. The gesture was not unappreciated.

    “They’ve got knowledgeable fans here,” Zimmerman said of the crowd’s response. “They know baseball. They love baseball, and it was special. Anytime you get people on the road telling you good luck and cheering for you, it means something. It was pretty cool.”

    Pete Rose had a 44-game hitting streak in 1978, and there was one of 41 games by George Sisler in 1922. Paul Molitor of Milwaukee made it to 39 in 1987 and only a few years back, in the end of 2005 and start of 2006, Jimmy Rollins had 38 in a row.

    So Zimmerman had a fine run. He made us recognize both his consistency and potential. “He helped put us on the map,” said Manny Acta, manager of the forlorn Nationals. Zimmerman also made us comprehend what DiMaggio accomplished. And he did it in San Francisco, DiMaggio’s hometown.

    Watching from the press box Wednesday was 85-year-old Charlie Silveria, who grew up here, who as a 10-year-old watched DiMaggio, then with the San Francisco Seals, hit in a Pacific Coast League record 61 straight games in 1933.

    Silveria joined Joe on the Yankees in the late 1940s and was Yogi Berra’s backup catcher. They talked about the old days. They didn’t talk much about streaks. “He was private,” reminded Silveria.

    We never learned what DiMaggio thought of hitting in 56 straight major league games. We did learn what Ryan Zimmerman thought of hitting in 30.

    “It was fun,” Zimmerman insisted. “I enjoyed it. I learned a lot going through the experience. To get a hit every single game for a month, there’s got to be a little bit of luck involved. But not wasting at bats, not swinging at bad pitches is hard to do. Every game, to put four good at bats together is not easy, especially against the talent you’re facing on the mound.”

    Streaks sneak up on us and the individuals involved. A team wins three or four in a row, and it doesn’t mean much. But all of a sudden it’s 15 in a row, and everywhere you look a clubhouse is filled with cameras and reporters.

    “I wasn’t really conscious until the media started following, about 20,” said Zimmerman. “I tried to keep it a secret as long as I could. I would have liked to keep going. I guess it will be nice to get back into the routine and not have to worry about it every day. But it was a lot of fun.”

    For himself and everybody else.
    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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    The City That Knows How, and knows baseball

    SAN FRANCISCO -- They call it The City That Knows How. Ryan Zimmerman wouldn’t disagree. It’s also the city that, despite the digs about fans on cell phones or wandering about the park looking at the bay, knows baseball. And knows Ryan Zimmerman.

    The streak, Zimmerman’s streak, came to an end Wednesday. It was halted at AT&T Park by several Giants pitchers, most notably Barry Zito.

    In 30 straight games, Ryan Zimmerman, at age 24 one of the great young ones, had at least one base hit. Until Wednesday.

    Zimmerman’s Washington Nationals finally beat the Giants, after nine consecutive defeats, two this season, whipped them, 6-3. And that softened some of the disappointment. After all the basis of sport is to win. But next to that, there always are numbers.

    The Giants fans, and attendance was announced as 30,120, wanted a win. That didn’t happen. They also wanted Ryan Zimmerman, of the Washington Nats, to go on hitting. That didn’t happen either.

    So, when Zimmerman in the top of the ninth hit a grounder, which San Francisco shortstop Edgar Renteria turned into a force play, when the hard reality had hit that Zimmerman would end the game without getting a hit, the crowd rose and applauded.

    A standing ovation for a visiting player. A standing ovation for a rare achievement.

    “They’ve got very knowledgeable fans out here,’’ Zimmerman said later in the clubhouse. “They know baseball. They love baseball, and it was special. Anytime you get people on the road telling you good luck and are cheering for you, it means something. It was pretty cool.’’

    For more than a month, starting April 8, Zimmerman hadn’t played a game without getting at least one hit. Until he went 0-for-3 with a couple of walks. One of those walks, in the seventh inning with Nats on second and third, was intentional, but neither Zimmerman nor his manager, Manny Acta, was bitter about the tactic.

    “I understand completely,’’ said Acta. “I would have done the same thing.’’

    Ryan was the 26th player to hit in 30 consecutive games or more. Pete Rose got to 44 in 1978, which sounds like a lot until compared to the iconic mark of 56 straight by Joe DiMaggio in 1941.

    DiMaggio was a San Franciscan, of course. Grew up here, as did his younger brother Dom, who died only the other day. A lot of these young athletes are unable to reference the legends of their sport, but Zimmerman knows full well who and what about his game, about our game.

    “I almost snuck one through there in the ninth,’’ he said in reflection. “They made good pitches on me today. It’s tough to get hits. Thirty games makes you realize how much better 56 is than 30. But this was fun. I enjoyed it. I learned a lot going through the experience.

    “You don’t usually have people on the road saying they hope you get a hit. It’s cool. I think that’s one of the best parts of sports. Fans actually appreciate the game whether you’re on their team or not.’’

    They appreciate the game in the Bay Area. The garlic fries and the big glove in left and across the bay the world championship pennants flying at the Oakland Coliseum may be worthy of conversation. But the ones who show up in the stands are not merely spectators, they’re fans in every sense of the word.

    They’ll cheer a well-placed sacrifice bunt as much as they will a double to left. They love hanging the letter “K’’ on the wall after every strikeout by a home pitcher. And they understood what Ryan Zimmerman was doing. His uniform didn’t matter. It was his play, his hitting, that counted.

    “We want to thank the Giants fans,’’ said Acta, the Nats skipper. “What they did, the standing ovation, was very classy. You don’t get that everywhere you go.’’

    The Nationals, the former Montreal Expos, have the worst record in the majors. The only time they had been mentioned was in the punch line of jokes, such as the one borrowed about the old Washington Senators built on George Washington: “First in war, first in peace, last in the National League.’’

    Then Ryan Zimmerman started hitting. And until Wednesday didn’t stop.

    “I think we’ve gotten a little of attention because of him,’’ Acta said. “It puts us on the map, what he did.’’

    What he did was stunning, even for Zimmerman.

    “To get a hit every single game, there’s got to be a little bit of luck involved,’’ said Zimmerman, “but not wasting at bats, not swinging at bad pitches is hard to do. Every game, to put four good at bats together is not easy, especially against the talent you’re facing on the mound.’’

    Zimmerman did it for 30 straight games. It was worthy of a standing ovation from The City That Knows How.

    SF Examiner: Let the Warriors' puppet show begin

    By Art Spander
    Special to The Examiner

    OAKLAND — It was pretty much what you expected, this snatching of the keys from the man who no longer mattered and handing them to the guy who already had been opening the locks and obviously the eyes of the team president.

    The Warriors on Tuesday, as promised (or should it be, as threatened?) officially installed Larry Riley as general manager in place of the obviously quite replaceable if still much admired Chris Mullin.

    There were a few promises, a lot of words and a bit of skepticism, from the people with notepads and microphones, not from the two primary subjects, Robert Rowell, the Warriors prez who made the decision to dispose of Mullin and bring in Riley, or Riley, who talked as tough as he thought was required.

    The three people who would have made the session considerably more entertaining — if not necessarily more enlightening — owner Chris Cohan, head coach Don Nelson and the deposed Mullin were not in attendance.

    But you can’t have everything.

    Of all the Bay Area pro sports franchises, a group that aside from the Sharks has been appallingly ineffective, the Warriors always have been the lovable losers. That’s meant figuratively, because for two seasons out of the last 15 they actually had winning records.

    Only once in those 15, however, did they make the playoffs, and yet, a public that would boo the bejabbers out of the 49ers or Raiders — and has done so — meekly accepts the Warriors. So, went the thinking, why would management worry about improvement?

    Because, insisted Rowell in the media session at Oracle Arena, losing is “unacceptable.”

    Well, isn’t that a shocker?

    Whether Riley can make a difference is the question, because his immediate predecessors, Mullin and Garry St. Jean, could not.

    Right off, Rowell addressed the oft-whispered belief that Riley is Nelson’s “puppet,” because he has known and worked with Nellie through the years and once took a Texas-to-California journey in Nellie’s truck while he and Don “smoked cigars, chewed tobacco and listened to George Jones.”

    “I don’t buy it,” Rowell said of the marionette suggestion. “You got to understand, I got a coach who will be 69 on Friday. ... He’s going to be the winningest coach in NBA history with just 24 wins next season. He’s quirky, unconventional, stubborn and hates to lose. I need someone in a position to lead this organization who understands our head coach.”

    Truth be told, it doesn’t matter if Nelson pulls the strings, as long as the strings end up attached to some playing talent.

    “He knows what he’s doing,” the 64-year-old Riley said of Nelson. “I’ll make decisions. I don’t have any problem doing that.”

    Riley was seemingly already making decisions, an eminence grise behind the scenes, while Mullin was slipping off the GM chair.

    Mully still is employed by the Warriors until June 30 when his contract expires, and “has responsibilities,” according to Rowell — whatever that means.

    A wonderful player, a good guy and a so-so GM, Mully lost out in a power struggle in which he had all the struggle and none of the power. Anyone ready for the puppet show?

    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 

    RealClearSports: There’s No Mystery About Tiger

    By Art Spander

    The problem for the moment is not that Tiger Woods isn’t the same. It’s that we are the same. We keep thinking this is the Tiger of a couple years past, maybe even the Tiger who was a miracle worker last summer. But it isn’t.

    It couldn’t be. And it won’t be for a while.

    The surgery Tiger underwent last June a few days after he somehow performed the impossible, winning the U.S. Open on one leg, the reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament of the left knee, necessitates months of recovery.

    In an athlete’s case, years.

    Yet Woods is playing demanding, big-time golf 11 months in, perhaps against own best plans. And because Tiger didn’t win the Masters, and even more significantly, faded in The Players despite being paired with the collapsing leader, we’re dumbfounded.

    In truth, we’re merely dumb.

    Dr. Lanny Johnson, a pioneering orthopedic specialist who created the tools used in Tiger’s surgery, in September advised Woods not to return too quickly.

    “Other forces will try and hurry Tiger back,” Johnson told the Daily Telegraph of London, “but he should take it easy… If you tear your cruciate ligament in football, you can play within a year, and with full confidence within two years. Based on this, and the recovery period of other athletes, I am guessing that Tiger will need two years.”

    But he hasn’t had even one year. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in March, only the third tournament he entered following the eight-month absence. In the five stroke-play events in which he’s competed, starting at Doral in mid-March, there’s no finish worse than ninth.

    We want more, because we’ve known more. He wants more, although he understands why he doesn’t have more.

    “I didn’t have the pop in my body, nor should I,” Woods said after coming in fourth at Quail Hollow, another place where the old Tiger, the pre-surgery Tiger, would have won, but this Tiger could not win.

    “It takes time for anyone who has had reconstruction to come back and get the speed back and the agility and all those different things. Most athletes take over a year to get back. I’ve been able to get back sooner because of the nature of my sport.”

    In which there is no running or leaping or contact. But in which there is considerable stress. Tiger’s not hitting his drives nearly as far. After the Masters, Phil Mickelson, who was with Tiger the final round at Augusta, joked with the Associated Press, “I had to keep waiting for him to hit.”

    Tiger’s never hit his drives that straight. Now, shorter and even more erratic, he’s playing a different game than he played back then. The marvelous recovery shots – under trees, out of bunkers – still are there. The worry is he’s hitting one seemingly on every hole.

    While Woods was gone, as Nike emphasized in its lighthearted commercial of its stable of golfers, others improved. They literally could look down a fairway instead of figuratively over their shoulders.

    The others gained confidence. Surely, Tiger lost some, along with strength.

    That Woods comprehends his own flaws doesn’t mean he is accepting of them. The anger at a poor shot was apparent. And after a round that failed to satisfy his own standards, Tiger cut short media time to rush to the practice ground.

    What Tiger taught us in his greatness, and what should not be forgotten in his struggles, is he never is to be underestimated.

    Tiger missed the cut at the 2006 U.S. Open after a nine-week layoff following his father’s death, the only time as a pro Woods didn’t play all four rounds in a major. While the doubters suggested he might be slipping, Tiger leaped back with victories in the British Open and PGA Championship.

    It is a cliché now, Tiger insisting he wouldn’t enter any tournament unless he believed he would win. That doesn’t separate him from the rest, from Phil Mickelson or Geoff Ogilvy or, considering The Players, Henrik Stenson. These guys think they’ll finish first every time out.

    You don’t modify your thinking, even if you have to modify your swing. The TPC Sawgrass Course, with its mounds and lakes and pines, always has been a challenge to Woods. He won there, won The Players, in 2001. But only then.

    A course always troublesome for Tiger, a knee still far from totally recovered, and Woods, instead of a sub-par final round and a win, has a one-over par final round and eighth place.

    He isn’t the same. But he will be. After all, he’s Tiger Woods.
    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