Saturday, February 11, 2017

Notes From The Sports Desk, February 2017

It's that peculiar time of the year, post-Super Bowl, pre-baseball and March Madness, when those of us that are into the second-tier sports enjoy the most. My most passionate sports affiliation is following the Rangers, and they are actually worth following (again) this year, for a number of reasons. I'm not a huge NBA fan, but I do like watching train wrecks, and both New York teams are that this year, for different reasons. My Premier League soccer interest is unfathomable to most Americans, but I have found a few kindred souls, and that season, too, is proving to be somewhat interesting, even if the race for the actual title is more or less settled already. Lastly, the golf world is proving to be perhaps the place where Trumpkins Twitter's farcial obsession with "fake news" has some merit.
1) The Rangers currently sit in fourth place in their own division--which, the way the NHL playoff system is set up, is preferable to sitting in third or second in their own division. Why? Because the top four teams in the Metro Division are possibly the four best teams in the league, and certainly four of the top six (Minnesota and Chicago are the only other teams in the mix). If the Rangers stay in fourth, they will likely play the Atlantic Division winner, almost certainly Montreal, in the first round--and Montreal is eminently beatable. It looks like Washington is going to pull away from Pittsburgh and Columbus ahead of them, which also means good news; the Rangers have more trouble with either of the latter two than with Washington. It's a strange system, but one that works in their favor right now.
And the team is fascinating--flawed, but fascinating. They can score; this team is never out of a game (a few weeks ago, they were trailing 6-0 with nineteen minutes left in the game, and yet still made Columbus shit their pants before the game was over). But they are also burdened with at least two defensemen that are not NHL caliber, and yet both play major minutes. The team is loaded with young talent that gets buried on the bench for mistakes that veterans get instantly forgiven for. The King has been less royal this year, to the point where "Is Lundqvist washed up?" has been a legitimate topic of conversation. And yet--the wins continue to come, Lundqvist has looked like vintage King Henrik the last two weeks, and the hockey gods have providentially helped the team by rotating minor injuries among the questionable defensemen so that one of the less-than-stellars are usually out of the lineup. I honestly have no idea of what to expect come springtime; they could exit in five games, and they could be playing in June. It will be interesting, and possibly fun, to watch.
2) The Knicks just get more and more bizarre, with Phil Jackson, the supposed Zen master and coach for the ages, taking shots at his franchise player every other day. I'm not a Carmelo Anthony fan and never have been--but I have to say that he is proving to be a better man, as opposed to player, than I dreamed he could be, by not responding to the media assault. Anthony wasn't good enough to build a champion around when he was in his prime five years ago, and he isn't now--but needlessly antagonizing your marquee player is something one doesn't see often, because it's not conducive to winning games. I'm pretty surprised that Jackson is doing this, and he is flushing his hard-earned reputation down the toilet with this media war against Anthony. And then, to further add to the nutty atmosphere, ex-Knick Charles Oakley was ejected from the Garden and arrested, allegedly at the orders of the team's owner, the other night. I'm sure I have never seen that before. Simply bizarre. I can't wait for what happens next.
As far as the Nets go...when they traded every draft pick they had a few years ago to bring up aging veterans in an ill-advised grab for a title they had no shot of winning, it was entirely predictable that they would eventually fall to the bottom of the league. And this is the year of hitting that bottom. They have won nine games, and they will be lucky to beat the franchise low of eleven wins in a season. They are, charitably, terrible. I haven't seen a team this poor since--well, since that 11-win Nets team a decade ago. And they still are short draft picks from that misguided spree years ago. The moral of the story is that it is a hell of a lot easier to drop to the bottom of the league than it is to rise to the top. All sports leagues are pyramids; there's a lot more company at the bottom than near the top.
3) My interest in the English Premier League has turned out to be an interesting window into my own psyche. For many years, I have been drawn to rooting interests in all the major sports in this country that are always good and yet rarely win actual championships. The Red Sox, the Rangers, the Vikings and Bills, Syracuse in men's basketball--it was a consistent pattern. One reason that I don't have a passionate NBA rooting interest is that the team I kind of liked as a kid won--the Celtics--reasonably often, and I definitely stopped caring as much. I have found my interest in baseball isn't as strong as it was, and while changes in the game have something to do with it, it is also because the Red Sox have climbed the mountain three times in the last twelve years. It hasn't quite gotten old, but it's not the stuff of obsession anymore, either.
So when I got turned onto Premier League soccer a few years ago, I could more or less pick any team in the league to root for, teams I knew nothing or little about of their histories. And quickly, for reasons I can't even articulate, I found myself drawn to the Everton (one of the two Liverpool teams) Toffees. And guess what? Everton fits the pattern. They are fixtures in the top league, always a middling to good team, but haven't won championships in nearly 30 years now. And this year's team is no exception. They sit in seventh place, a spot out of European competition (it's too complicated to get into, but every club in this league is aiming for a top-six finish). They are the Rangers of the EPL, this year at least; they can score, but have periods where they can't keep it out of their own net. They have overused veterans, and some young guys that can play can't get on the field. They are still in the mix for Europe, but it's not helping that the team directly ahead of them, Manchester United, hasn't lost in three months. The team with the most precarious perch in the top six right now is their crosstown rival Liverpool, and they have a match remaining. The rivalry has been a bit lopsided in recent years, and it would be the ultimate measuring stick of how good Everton really is if they beat the Reds. The match is in a few weeks.
4) As far as golf...I know it doesn't reflect well on me as a person. But the continuing inability of Tiger Woods to regain form not only doesn't bother me, I am actually kind of enjoying it. Not that he has physical maladies; I don't wish that on anyone. But to see him, the ultimate "winner" with the ultimate asshole/arrogant attitude toward the world, struggling to make cuts is a bit of cosmic comeuppance that has had few rivals in my lifetime.
But it has been years since Woods really mattered. And you would never know it by the media coverage. I'm not the biggest fan of golf of the world--but I have noticed that there has been a major changing of the guard underway for a couple of years. The commercials have it right; these guys are good. It's actually fun to watch. But the media are still following someone that stopped being relevant ten years ago, and that will never ever regain his perch anywhere near the top again. I fail to see why Woods is still news. And if I were a PGA player, I would be rather testy about the attention he still gets.

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