MEMORIES OF LOST WORLDS (Occasional Sports Moment #23)

Here’s to the stoics:

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First, a fun fact, from an appreciation of Sandy Koufax that is worth reading in full:

A commenter at Joe Posnanski’s site who calls himself Moeball wrote that he had looked up famous pitchers’ best half decades, and none ever won half of his games in which his team had provided him with two runs or less…

Except for Sandy Koufax. From 1962–1966 he went 27–24 when given 2 runs or less of support. He’s the only regular starting pitcher in history to be able to do this. He’s the only one who even comes close to being .500. He did a better job of “pitching to the score” in a low scoring game than any other pitcher in major league history. And it’s not even close.

Of course, that raises the question of why the Dodgers played so poorly behind Koufax.

One reason is that the Dodgers weren’t terribly good batters in general. Their only .300 hitter in 1965 was Drysdale, whose seven homers put him close to the team leaders in that category, who hit merely twelve.

But another reason Koufax won so many 2–0, 2–1, and 1–0 games was that the Dodgers would go out drinking the night before he pitched.

If the starter the next day would be merely Drysdale, Osteen, Johnny Podres, or Don Sutton, they’d get their sleep.

But if Sandy were going to pitch tomorrow, well, you were a Los Angeles Dodger, it was the 1960s, and the night was young.

Reading the whole article, I realized that Koufax walked away from baseball at 30, after going 24-7 and winning the seventh game of the World Series on two days rest, for basically the same reason that Steffi Graf walked away from tennis at 30, two months after winning the French Open.

It was this: The only part of the game they liked was the game.

I write as someone who never had the good fortune to see Koufax pitch and failed to sufficiently appreciate Graf when she played (too damn good to root for…I’m trying not to make that mistake with Serena Williams, who enjoys and embraces the limelight Graf and Koufax disdained, and who will, at 34, attempt to match Graf’s Open-era record of 22 major titles this weekend).

But I still find it worth commending those for whom the fortune was nice–but no more than that. And for whom the fame meant nothing at all.

It was just something they had to endure to ply their trade and secure the life they really wanted. Not for them, I suspect, an Age where walk-off victories in major league baseball games played in June are celebrated like last inning heroics in the World Series and mid-round victories in tennis majors routinely end with players prostrate on the court, convulsed in sobs.

I don’t know either of them personally. But I like to think I know how they feel about this, the Age of Celebration. You know–of, by and for Celebrities Celebrating Themselves.

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COACH (PAT HEAD SUMMITT, R.I.P.)

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One of the few modern developments worth applauding has been the mainstreaming of women’s sports. After Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, no one was more important to that process than Pat Head Summitt, who just passed away, at 64, from complications of early onset Alzheimer’s.

She was hired as the University of Tennessee’s basketball coach in the fall of 1974. She was 22, fresh off an All-American senior season at UT-Martin. In the early years, she drove the team van, sometimes to places where they slept on the floor of the opponent’s gym because they couldn’t afford a motel.

These days, no major college women’s team sleeps on anybody’s floor. Thank her for that.

She won in her first season and, thirty-eight years later, she won in her last. In between she won in every single other season. There were eight national championships, an Olympic Gold Medal (back when American dominance of international women’s basketball was far from assured–thank her for making that an ongoing reality, too) and a record number of wins overall. Along the way she graduated one hundred percent of her players.

And all of that paled next to the endless, incalculable inspiration, typified by Kate Fagan’s fine tribute at ESPN’s website, which I recommend in the strongest terms.

patsummitt2Near the end of her career, cut short a few years ago by the diagnosis of the disease that took her today, The Sporting News ranked the top fifty coaches across the history of all sports. Exactly one woman made the list, at #11. If you followed sports even a little in the last half-century, and somebody told you there was only one, you would not have needed to be told who.

Like I always say: When there’s only one of something, there are reasons. In this case, chalk it up to the fire within. Not just the ability to coach a sport, however considerable that was, or even the most extraordinary capacity to lead, but to imagine that every single person who plays for you really and truly matters. You do that, and there will be a reason why every single person who played for you across four decades cries when you die, something that probably could not be said of any of the other forty-nine coaches on that list because, frankly, coaching at that level isn’t really supposed to be like that.

Thank her for proving that idea wrong, too.

Sounds like dedication time, so here’s from the Maryville in me to the Clarksville in her:

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CHAMPIONSHIP TENNIS, THEN AND NOW (Segue of the Day: 6/5/16)

No sport has undergone bigger changes than tennis in the last forty years. A sport that was once dominated by net-rushing ballet dancers playing with wooden rackets that had a sweet spot slightly bigger than the the ball, is now, essentially, dominated by cloggers toting sledgehammers that allow the top players to drive winners past their opponents when they’re eight feet behind the baseline, falling backwards, and catch part of the frame. It’s a bigger problem on the men’s side (and not a problem at all for those who prefer track and field aesthetics to tennis ones), but the women (whom the changes were almost certainly designed to diminish and even physically damage) are hardly immune.

And yet…some core elements really do never change…So saith Ms. Muguruza (this past weekend) and Ms. Lenglen (ninety years gone):

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(Hat tip to Todd Spiker at WTA Backspin for making the connection. Follow the link for a nice appreciation of Lenglen’s groundbreaking career…alas, her habit of sipping brandy between sets did not catch on!)

Congratulations also to Novak Djokovic, who became the eighteenth player (10 women, 8 men) to complete the career Grand Slam. Unfortunately I had to hear about it later as his Sunday match once again put me soundly to sleep. I admire him, I just can’t watch him.

GAME CHANGERS….OR, ANOTHER WORD OR TWO ON GREATNESS (Occasional Sports Moment #22)

Dec 8, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) is guarded by Indiana Pacers forward Paul George (13) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Golden State defeats Indiana 131-123. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s not often that we get to see a major American sport essentially redefined by one man. That’s what the Golden State Warriors’ Steph Curry, a seven-year NBA veteran who, remarkably, was only the seventh pick in the draft coming out of college (i.e., he was projected as a fine player, but literally no one saw this coming), has been doing for the last several years, culminating this week in leading his team to a staggering (and record-setting) 73-9 regular season record, basically by shooting three-pointers at such a rate that he’s literally expanded the area of a basketball court that needs to be defended by a couple of hundred cubic feet and more or less brought his teammates along with him.

The ways in which this changes the game both physically and psychologically are too numerous and subtle for me to go into in depth. All you really need to know is the last phrase of that first paragraph: A couple of hundred extra cubic feet now need to be defended by the same five men who have guarded the traditional area since basketball went full court many decades ago (and which did not fundamentally change when the three point shot was implemented in the seventies). Granted those men have gotten considerably bigger and faster, so much so that the game is almost unrecognizable from what it was fifty years ago.

But no player has ever changed the dimensions of the sport so radically in such a short time. For some perspective, Curry’s fabulous season just past allowed him to join the NBA’s 50-40-90 club (fifty percent from the field, 40 percent from the three-point line, 90 percent from the free throw line).

He’s the seventh to have done it (Larry Bird (2) and Steve Nash (4) did it multiple times). But that doesn’t come close to measuring the dimension of Curry’s achievement. He’s the first guard to do it while averaging twenty points (Nash averaged nineteen in his best year). He’s the first player period, to do it while averaging thirty points (Bird fell half a point shy in his best attempt). In other words, he averaged thirty, while doing something no player at his position had ever done while averaging twenty.

That’s changing the game dramatically.

And that’s just for starters.

Bird, the first man to achieve the feat, attempted 225 three point shots (1986-87). In the thirty years since, the most three point shots attempted by any player who achieved the feat was by Nash, who shot 381 in 2007-08. That’s a substantial, but perfectly reasonable increase, fully explained by coaches and players gradually reassessing the risk/reward of the three point shot attempt in a perfectly feasible and foreseeable fashion.

This season, Curry reached the same club while making 402 threes, or twenty-one more than Nash attempted. Put another way: He made more threes this season than Nash, who previously had the two highest marks for made threes by members of this particular club, made in his two highest seasons combined. Not one or two more: 73 more. For more perspective: The year Bird established the club, he made a total of 90.

Again, this is not incrementalism. It’s a complete re-imagining of what is possible in your sport.

Even more remarkably, Curry generated all this massive offense while playing the point guard position, which is designed for ball-distribution to his teammates, at an elite level. That is, even while leading the league in scoring and expanding the entire sport’s comfort-shooting range by 3-5 feet (the sport has to deal with it, even if he’s the only player at present who can really take advantage of this expansion–they dealt with it this season by holding the Warriors to 73 wins), he’s still one of the two or three best pure point guards in the league.

Oh, by the way, he also led the league in steals, a stat that complements his expansion of the floor’s scoring space by speeding up the game and leaves Curry running free in the middle of the court where, unlike any player in history, he can literally pull up at any point past the mid-court line or, if a game clock is running out, any point beyond it and make shots previously regarded as “prayers” way more often than real prayers have been answered since Moses got shut out of the Promised Land.

I mention all this because the emphasis from the basketball press all season (and the sporting press at large) has been on silly things like whether this Warriors team (assuming it wins the championship) could beat the Chicago Bulls team that held the previous wins record (hint: we’ll never know), or whether Curry could get to 400 made threes (hint: they played the entire 82 game season, just like always, and, in a season where he absolutely either would or would not, he did). Easy narratives prevailed, as usual.

But the real story is that, in theory, any great shooter who has had the benefit of the three point line could have done what Steph Curry did, and, more significantly, any number of players could have at least built a bridge across the yawning gap that now divides Curry from the history of the game.

None did.

None did, because that’s the way a sport usually works and the way human nature usually works. The unthinkable is always impossible….until it isn’t.

And sporting breakthroughs are just like breakthroughs in art, science or general human enlightenment: First, somebody has to dream it.

The only act of pure sporting imagination I can compare Curry’s last two seasons to are Babe Ruth’s home run barrage in the early twenties. Baseball answered the impending challenge to their business model’s competitive balance by introducing a “lively” ball. We’ll see what, if anything, basketball does to bring the rest of the sport up to Curry’s startling new standard, or, more likely, bring him back to the existing standard.

Let’s hope it’s not with the reintroduction of clotheslining.**

tycobb3Speaking of a return to the primitive, and players who define their sport for an era, I am definitely looking forward to getting hold of this author’s book. Among other things, it gives the catcher’s side of this famous photograph, taken roughly a century ago, of a player who defined his own sport for an era, while, in legend at least, remaining too crude, on and off the field, to be a role model for history….

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I’ve always suspected that Ty Cobb’s “virulent” racism, etc–which, along with the absence of compelling video footage, has rather overshadowed his own imaginative sporting genius (the best account we’ll ever have is from this man)–has lost nothing in the telling. That there might be a kernel of truth there is still likely, and I’m also wary of easy revisionism. Counter-myths can distort as easily as any other kind.

But if the quotes in the link are indicative, it certainly looks as though the story might have another side. Look for an assessment of that developing narrative in some upcoming monthly book report.

Meanwhile we can all amuse ourselves wondering what legends the famously mild-mannered Steph Curry will inspire a hundred years from now…if his team keeps wining championships.

**If you need a definition of “clotheslining,” the action around 0.35 to 0.38 should suffice. For the record, the NBA used to encourage this kind of thing.

A WORD ON GREATNESS (Occasional Sports Moment #21)

Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart blocks a shot attempt by South Florida’s Ariadna Pujol, left, during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in the American Athletic Conference tournament finals at Mohegan Sun Arena, Monday, March 7, 2016, in Uncasville, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

Of course, I was rooting for the other Huskies at the women’s Final Four (for reasons I explained here). But since they were eliminated in the semi-finals, I decided to go ahead and root for history in the finals.

The history was made.

I don’t actually watch more women’s sports than men’s but for a number of years I’ve tended to watch them with greater interest. Women haven’t reached their limits yet. And, for me, watching minds expand and expectations of exceeding limits defied and redefined is the best reason to watch a sport. Any sport.

The University of Connecticut just finished an unprecedented run: four straight championships. In the last three of those years, they lost one game. They won each of the other 122 they played by double-digits. Of course, this has led to the latest twist on Martina Navratilova’s old formula for the difference in perception regarding men’s and women’s sports: When men dominate, it’s about how great they are. When women dominate, it’s about how weak their competition is.

I’ve been following women’s basketball pretty regularly since the early eighties. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds in that time. Believe me, UConn isn’t dominating weak competition. They are dominating for the same reason any player or team dominates: They’re better than everybody else. They’ve set incredibly high expectations  for incredible talent and sweat blood to meet them. That formula never changes. And in any sport, that’s bound to breed resentment, even hostility.

But it’s only when women do it that it invites condescension. Heck, I root against UConn most of the time myself, and for the same reason I rooted against the UCLA men when I was growing up, which is the same reason people have always rooted for any David against any Goliath. It doesn’t have to be rational. To tell the truth, UCLA played the game I wanted to see played. And UConn plays that same game, just as well. I don’t care much for their coach, Geno Auriemma. From the outside, he seems like a typical autocrat, by turns nasty or obsequious as the moment requires.

But boy do his teams play beautiful basketball. And boy can he coach. He plans every game around choking off your strength and exploiting your weaknesses, Kind of like John Wooden used to do back in the old days…at UCLA.

It’s true he can recruit like nobody’s business. Nobody wins without players, and Breanna Stewart (pictured above), who just finished her college career by winning the Finals MVP for an other-worldly fourth time, is the most complete player I’ve ever seen of either gender. I generally hate comparing women to men (a sports commentary device that is always designed to deliver a reminder that men are better–see the Navratilova formula above–and is used by female reporters, who should know better, even more than men). But regarding Stewart, the best descriptions I can think of are these: Imagine if Lebron could shoot. Or if Bill Russell and Larry Bird had been the same guy. Imagine that the next really transcendent male player we see, really should be compared to her. If he can’t dominate the paint at both ends, throw every pass in the book, rebound like a demon, run the floor like a greyhound and shoot threes, we should keep looking.

I won’t hold my breath on any of that coming to pass. But I’d sure like to see that guy, whoever they compare him to.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the burning question on ESPN chat shows for the last month has been whether UConn’s dominance is “bad for women’s basketball.”

That’s where we’ve come to and I talk about it more than occasionally around here: The relentless drive for mediocrity and acceptance of same. Greatness is just an illusion, after all–or else a cheat.  It must be, because nobody’s ever really better than everybody else at anything, ever.

Having failed the fairness test everywhere it counts, in economics, politics, culture, we’ve decided to impose artificial “fairness” on whatever’s left and to question the validity of anyone who defies the formula. Everywhere but “fringe” sports, the endless celebration of conformity and coloring within the lines is universal.

UConn just lost three All-Americans. Their run of good old fashioned excellence-beyond-measure will, like all such runs, end soon enough.

It’s fine to keep rooting for David.

But we should never forget to celebrate true greatness while we can.

THE CURRENT LOVE OF MY LIFE (Occasional Sports Moment #20)

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Last night I managed to watch most of the NCAA Elite Eight men’s game between Kansas and Villanova. It wasn’t easy. The men’s game has been hobbled for more than a decade by the usual signs of the times: early departure of the top talent to the NBA; massive overdoses of ego and self-celebration (and I don’t just mean the players); drill sergeant coaching and training tactics that leave the players on the floor a bundle of overstuffed muscles and over-hyped nerves.

The result, in big game after big game?

Exactly what you got with Kansas and Villanova.

Brick city. And a bunch of glassy-eyed young men who made me want to cover mine.

Every player on either team looked like he was on a search-and-destroy mission in Fallujah instead of playing a game that’s supposed to be fun.

All of which makes the hot story of the women’s tournament that much more refreshing.

The University of Washington’s women’s team just became only the second in tournament history to advance to the Final Four without being ranked at the end of the regular season. The coach is a two-time heart attack survivor who seeks his players’ advice during time outs. The power forward is a leukemia survivor. The silky smooth small forward is coming off two knee surgeries. The sleepy-eyed center, who caught the coach’s eye when he wandered into the wrong gym by mistake a few years back, sits out warm-ups (apparently to preserve energy) and shoots flat-footed threes with deadly accuracy when she’s not dominating the paint. The All-American point guard, Kelsey Plum, pictured above, winks at the camera (or her teammates, or the sidelines, or whoever else is available) in between pressure free throws (which she then proceeds to make with remarkable regularity). There is no chest-thumping, no screaming to the rafters, no bluster, and no attitude of false euphoria when they win games they aren’t supposed to win, including the last three. It’s not so much like they are from another time as from another planet. Apparently hanging around with heart attack and leukemia survivors puts certain things (like basketball) in perspective.

When Plum was asked, in high school, if she was considering attending Connecticut, the sport’s current New York Yankee-style behemoth, she said “I want to beat Connecticut for the national championship.”

She’ll probably get her chance.

If so, her team will have about as much chance as the similarly loose and free-wheeling Roberta Vinci had against the similarly dominant-to-the-point-of-suffocation Serena Williams at last year’s U.S. Open.

Lightning probably won’t strike twice. Dominant teams are harder to beat on a given day than dominant individuals, who are, after all, only human.

But I’ll definitely be watching.

PROGRESS? (Occasional Sports Moment #19)

I offer no opinion except one I’ve noted before…in the sports’ world, and maybe just the world generally, female tennis players are uniquely destabilizing, even when their images are being used to hold the world at arm’s length by defining the distance between being stupid and being lost. And, yes, you can flip these images back and forth and run that equation either direction:

1976…

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2015…

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For the record: In the years before and between, only track star Mary Decker who, in 1983, was given a perfectly conventional cover in line with those accorded male winners, was awarded the honor on her own, i.e. without a male figure to balance the ticket. Mary Decker was clearly not a threat who needed managing.

I don’t cut Evert or Williams much slack on this BTW. They should have known better. Still, as I’ve also said before, you can understand why women go crazy sometimes.

THE OLD, NORMAL AMERICA (Jimmy Evert, R.I.P.)

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When Jimmy Evert’s sixteen-year-old daughter turned up at the U.S. Open in 1971, she was all of five feet tall and maybe weighed a hundred pounds. Whatever her prodigious gifts, her string of stirring, come-from-behind victories there (ended in the semi-finals by Billie Jean King) were so obviously a product of extraordinary training that the “well she’s not a great athlete…but-t-t-t” canard which attached to her immediately, even as she put her supremely athletic sport on the front pages of the nation’s newspapers for the first time, has lasted to this day.

That training was provided by her father who, as a result of her success, became one of the most famous and respected coaches in tennis history. Product of an older world that he was, he kept his day job because, well, he liked it and he was good at it.

His day job was tennis coach.

His famous daughter has always insisted he didn’t train her for fame or fortune but simply because he wanted to pass on his love of the game and the life lessons inherent therein. That’s easy to believe because when she took to the tennis courts some time around 1959 there was no professional women’s tour either in existence or in the works. The result was nonetheless revolutionary.

Some of that result–the revolutionary part, not the tennis part–was serendipitous timing, of course.

It might not have happened had she come along a generation later, by which time women’s tennis would have almost certainly been safely and permanently shuffled into the slot where much of the world’s sporting establishment would prefer it to reside–somewhere next to the LPGA, WNBA and every other women’s sports’ league which has failed to “break out” in the four decades since.

It certainly would not have happened had she come along a generation sooner, for reasons that are all too obvious.

That it did happen, though, was testimony not merely to timing, but to Chris Evert’s unique combination of marketing appeal and genuine greatness at playing her sport. If you think this can be manufactured on demand, you can check the careers of Michelle Wie (markets well, doesn’t win enough) or Danica Patrick (ditto) or Diana Taurasi (wins like crazy, can’t sell her for beans) for a reminder of just how hard it is to actually be “the one” as opposed to being merely anointed.

Jimmy Evert’s daughter was “the one”–the one who mainstreamed women’s sports in the western world–because she was a great tennis champion. And because she was her father’s daughter.

If her extraordinary gifts and unmatchable will were the biggest components, her father’s training, on, and, perhaps even more crucially, off the court, was still a necessary ingredient. For Middle America to receive a non-Olympic female athlete as someone to not only admire and emulate but, finally, accept to such a degree that the acceptance could be transmuted to future generations, she had to achieve and sustain an almost impossible balance between this…

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and this…

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…to have every fierce quality expected of a male athlete while retaining every quality thought of as “feminine,” or anyway suitable in “the girl next door.”

In other words, she had to overcome a degree of unfairness that was specifically designed to be insurmountable.

She made this impossible task look sufficiently like something she was born to carry in her bones that it’s now been sort of conveniently forgotten how rocky and tenuous the the road actually was. That, beyond the usual resentment directed at a champion who dominates too much (and which is always far more intense when it is directed at a woman who dominates too much, meaning any woman who dominates at all), “Chris America” endured plenty of open and painful enmity from both a contemptuous Left who thought she was too representative of “normal” to be a fitting pioneer for their revolution and a deeply suspicious mainstream who wanted so badly for women’s tennis to stay in the shadows they latched onto the “not a great athlete” memo with a grinding discipline that was maintained as impressively as any Politburo Directive. (Just as an aside, my favorite example was the standard Bud Collins’ post-match interview, which, in memory, has been boiled down to something like: “Well, Chrissie, now that you’ve won your fifth U.S. Open, when will you begin venturing to the net more and finally amount to something?”)

Of course, Evert herself absorbed the memo, which she still deploys (“I wasn’t a great athlete….but-t-t-t”). And it’s possible she believes it. It’s possible that she believed it even then.

But I’ve always thought it was also possible she saw it as an advantage, a bit of psychological rope-a-dope learned from her devoutly Catholic dad on the upper-middle-class Lauderdale clay under a baking Florida sun, the shared memories of which gave me, a working class, baseball playing Protestant kid living in a smoke-stack community a hundred and twenty miles up U.S. 1, who never picked up a tennis racket outside of school (junior high and junior college if you’re keeping count), a bond with her I’ve shared with no other athlete.

What she got from dad, then, along with all that peerless technique, was a useful demeanor.

Little Miss Poker Face they called her.

Ice Maiden.

For the media and much of the public it was a means to dehumanize her. But she never cracked open for them. Never gave in. The life lessons held.

Dehumanize me all you want. I’ll talk it out in retirement. Discuss it freely in my memoir. Right now, I’m not giving my opponent an inch.

On that front I’m not speculating. Chris Evert was always open about taking that refusal to give anything away, or let any opponent inside her thinking, from her dad.

It was a big part of why she was able to be the bridge from Tennis Past to any future tennis can presently imagine.

Why she was able, at fifteen, to beat twenty-eight-year-old Margaret Court a month after Court completed the Grand Slam (winning all four tennis majors in a calendar year).

Why she was able, at thirty-four, to beat fifteen-year-old Monica Seles (then nine months short of winning her first major, the first of eight she would win as a teenager in the early nineties before being stabbed by a deranged fan who had developed his own ideas about how to keep women in their place) before she walked off into the sunset.

Why, when her sport was in a phase where it could only be mainstreamed if its most mainstream star was Always There (the nickname I gave her when I was a kid and realized, for the first time, just how far the Sports Media was from being a group of people who could be trusted to take any pride in their work), she was, literally and to a degree no one else approached or likely considered possible, always there.

Why nearly all of the records for mad consistency (my own standard for the highest level of greatness which, these days, she is rarely accorded, Always There having quietly morphed into Never Forgiven, and, if it happens you have other standards, peace be upon you) are hers.

Why there was never anyone else like her and why her place in tennis history, and the history of women’s sports, can’t be replicated or erased by anything as straightforward or simple-minded as the setting of new records.

These days, the material benefits of her once having been, year after year, Always There, surmounting the insurmountable, maintaining the impossible balance, are hardly confined to tennis. A few weeks ago, Forbes published its annual list of the highest paid female athletes. Seven of the ten were tennis players. That’s about average. They can all thank Jimmy Evert’s daughter directly. The others can thank Jimmy Evert’s daughter for there even being a list of highly paid female athletes. Before her, the idea was basically unimaginable.

No, she did not occur in a vacuum.

All hail Billy Jean and the other WTA pioneers who strove and sacrificed mightily to build the foundation…(Though if you think Billy Jean or Martina–or Margaret or Evonne–could have truly mainstreamed women’s tennis, or that Peter Graf or Richard Williams would have been any way interested in directing their daughters toward a sport that wasn’t already raking in the cash, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.)

Yes, Title IX was/is a big deal.

There’s no women’s soccer craze without it.

But Chris Evert was her own Title IX and Title IX is way more than nine times as powerful and effective as it would have been otherwise if her dad had, by chance, been dedicated to ballet or football.

Jimmy Evert lived long enough to see the style of play he taught his daughter become the dominant style–for serving and volleying to become as unimaginable as the foundation of a great tennis champion’s game as double-back-handed base-lining was when his daughter showed up at that first U.S. Open and started doing this…

It’s a game and a style I love….exemplified here, where you can see the “non-athletic” thirty-four year old Evert running with the fastest player in the history of the WTA:

But, these days, when men’s matches, in particular, often resemble thirty-round heavyweight fights in which no one ever gets tired, it’s certainly ripe for change.

The particular revolution in women’s sports and, by extension, society, that couldn’t have happened the same way without Jimmy Evert’s daughter’s ability to maximize every tennis or life lesson he taught her (a revolution which, for all I know, he may have had no interest in whatsoever or even lamented), can almost certainly never be replicated.

The kind of revolution his daughter’s abilities created on the court almost certainly can be.

No doubt that revolution will come, and, with it, who really knows what consequences that reach far beyond the field of play.

It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if it started with some crazy tennis parent’s belief in a daughter who doesn’t want to settle for this New America’s idea of normal.

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…Think I’m gonna go watch the 1985 French Open final.

TOPPING THEMSELVES (Pats-Seahawks Set Highly Improbable New Standard: Occasional Sports Moment #18)

Granted I could do this just about every week the N….F….L has games. But this was special. So, excepting Malcolm Butler (who really did make a brilliant play to win the game) and Chris Collinsworth (who basically called the Seahawks morons for the play selection that gave Butler his chance, a highly uncharacteristic moment of public honesty from somebody that far inside the system), let me be the first to dedicate this to anyone else who was involved in Super Bowl XLIX as player, coach, owner, league official, purchaser of game ticket, or possessor of media credential….

 

…And remind all and sundry that we will win no more wars. Because we’re a Football Nation now! (BTW: I was gonna actually skip this…until the fight broke out. Best laugh I’ve had in a year and a half.)

OVERTURNING THE NARRATIVE (Old School Mercury Rising: Occasional Sports’ Moment #17)

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Haven’t had a sports moment in a while. I even laid off when Tim Duncan and the Spurs wasted the Heat in the NBA finals–getting revenge for last year’s heartbreak and sending King LeBron in search of World Peace, a Higher Purpose and a general approach to life and basketball that looks a lot more like Duncan’s (for all of which I certainly applaud him).

Permit me, though, to pause for a quick congratulations to the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, who just completed a season in which they established themselves as the new standard for the greatest women’s team ever.

The playoffs were mostly a walk-through, but there were two moments of possible angst–the end of the third quarter of a deciding Game Three in the Western Conference Finals against the defending champion Minnesota Lynx and the fourth quarter of Game Three of the Finals against the Chicago Sky.

I’ll get to some details shortly, but suffice it to say that, with all the new pieces added since 2009, including Brittney Griner (who, in her second season, developed a fantastic offensive game to go with all those blocks and dunks that have made her famous beyond the usual realm of women’s basketball and turned herself into a real force), when it came to winning time, it was still Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor (pictured above) who delivered the goods.

This was their third WNBA championship together (playing separately they’ve both won numerous times on the international stage, Olympics, FIBA, Euro-Leagues and the like) and the basics still applied: Taylor was the glue, Taurasi the glitter.

You need both to win. It will be a crying shame if Taylor, a superstar talent who has sacrificed her stats for years to do all the “little” things that don’t show up in box scores, doesn’t make the Basketball Hall of Fame just because there’s no stat for “If there are four people in this pile and I’m one of them, I’m coming out with the ball.”

There was a defining moment in their chemistry at the end of that third quarter in the Western Conference decider. The game was tied with about half a minute left–tight as a tick, basket for basket. Taurasi made a jump shot and then a half-court three-point heave to give the Mercury a five point lead and open up the game. They never looked back and those shots made every highlight reel I saw.

Deservedly so. But you had to watch the game to know that Taylor went into a pileup to win a loose ball that set up the first shot. Then she reached in on the defensive end and wrestled the ball away from a jump shooter, forcing a turnover with 0.8 left in the quarter.

As the announcers were chastising Taylor for risking a fifth foul (which would have put her on the bench for most of the fourth quarter in what was then a close game), the Mercury in-bounded the ball to Taurasi who made the “miracle” half-courter that broke the game open.

That basic theme repeated itself over and over in the (again, basket-for-basket) fourth quarter of the championship clincher against the Sky, won (with Griner injured and on the bench the entire game) when Taurasi made the last of a series of acrobatic shots to put the Mercury ahead and Taylor (who was maybe the seventh tallest player on the floor at that point) knifed through a crowd and grabbed the rebound of the Sky’s miss at the other end to seal the deal.

The WNBA has been a punching bag for the Boys Club (especially at talk radio) since its inception. And, truth be told, it hasn’t always been pretty. Too much imitation of the modern, mostly clueless NBA for my taste (the Curse of David Stern reaches everywhere)–though not from these two, who play very Old School.

But the script has definitely flipped.

Right now, at this moment, the hard-core truth is this: The hardest nosed basketball player in the world and the most entertaining basketball player in the world are both women and both pure winners. And they just happen to play on the same team.

Can’t wait for next season!

Here’s Taurasi’s half-court shot, caught by someone in the arena (just missed Taylor’s play, unfortunately, but nice atmosphere!)

And here’s the broadcast version, with the announcers questioning Taylor’s judgment….while the shot is being made…and, believe me, there is absolutely nothing more hilarious than referring to a tussle over the ball that involves Penny Taylor as “fifty-fifty”:

UPDATE: Next season never came. Taurasi sat out the following season when she was offered over a million to play in Russia. The contract was contingent upon being exclusive (hence no WNBA play–the WNBA had max contracts of just over $100,000). With the team thus having little chance to compete for the championship, Taylor chose to sit out the season as well and nurse her sometimes fragile health. They both returned for the current (2016) season, but both are now clearly aging and the magic is gone. As  I write this, they are below .500 and in danger of missing the playoffs. The team I wrote about here will likely be talked about as the standard for a long time. But they’ll never be what they might have been if fate had been kinder.