By Asa Schuster
It was 10 years ago this week that the Portland Trail Blazers began to clear out some of the troublemakers that made up the infamous ‘Jail Blazers’ regime.
The Blazers were a formidable powerhouse in the West at the start of the last decade, with a core of players remaining from the last Portland squad to reach the Conference Finals and legitimately challenge for the title.
That team was also one of the most notorious teams in NBA history for their disobedience, misbehaviour and off-court antics.
On December 3, 2003, the wheel began to turn when the streaky, yet pestilent shooting guard Bonzi Wells was dealt to the Memphis Grizzlies.
Later that day, the Blazers hosted and defeated the East-leading Indiana Pacers, who were out to a 15-3 start to the season and went on to finish with the best record in the league at 61-21 (later swatted out of the East Finals by Tayshaun Prince).
Reportedly, on the day of the trade, Wells and Rasheed Wallace were leaving morning shoot-around when Wallace threw a ball the length of the court into teammate Ruben Boumtje-Boumtje’s head.
Boumtje-Boumtje fell to the floor in pain, while Wells and Wallace famously ‘giggled like schoolchildren and ran away’.
And from there, as they later shed Sheed in February and waived Qyntel (‘Here’s my basketball card’) Woods the following season, they morphed from a team of talented troublemakers and gave way to the unfortunate injury-riddled era of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden.
From the seemingly never-ending supply of knee-braces in Portland, somehow LaMarcus Aldridge safely emerged with both legs intact to guide the next generation of Blazers.
Portland now boasts an exciting lineup that can once again threaten for a run in June, but this time they are reloaded and refreshed with some of those front office and coach friendly ‘high-character’ type players.
10 years since the week Wells was traded, the Blazers once again hosted the East-leading Pacers, who were out to a league-leading 16-1 start.
On the back of 28 points and ten rebounds from Aldridge and Damian Lillard pumping in 14 of his 26 points in the fourth-quarter, the Blazers (15-3) joined the Spurs atop the West and handed the Pacers just their second loss of the season.
Taking time to reflect back at their forefathers, it’s clear that the current crop of Aldridge, Lillard, Nicolas Batum, Wes Matthews and Thomas Robinson are a long-awaited breath of fresh air in the City of Roses.
We won’t mention Mo Williams, there’s always one.
By Asa Schuster
Canada is a little weird; it’s a tad British, a wee bit French and partly Americanized.
But Canada is weird in a good way, the people talk a little funny and some of the cities and towns have fantastic names.
For instance, this week’s Grey Cup is being played in Regina, a city that is pronounced with an unexpected lewdness and is thus referred to as ’The City that Rhymes with Fun’ and ‘The City that Smells like it Sounds’.
The Grey Cup is the Super Bowl of the Canadian Football League (CFL), an eight-team gridiron competition, which is rarely watched or followed south of Windsor, Ontario.
Even within Canada the CFL’s popularity is fractured and only commands moderate interest while the ponds are defrosted and the rinks are dry.
The Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger-Cats contest the 101st Grey Cup on Sunday on a gigantic playing surface of 110x65 yards, featuring two 50-yard lines and massive 20-yard deep end-zones.
There’s 12 players on each side of the ball to help fill up the massive field and the teams have three downs to achieve each ten-yard gain.
The Roughriders are fortunate to be playing on their home field at Mosaic Stadium, as the Grey Cup location is predetermined before the start of the season.
The Riders are the pride of the quaint prairie province of Saskatchewan in the second-smallest professional sports market in North America behind only the Packers in Green Bay.
Canadians enjoy rough-riding so much, there were two teams in the CFL named after rough-riding for 48 years until the Ottawa Rough Riders folded in 1996.
In fact, one of the pre-game performers at the Grey Cup is a Canadian signer named Serena Ryder, and she’ll be joined by Saskatchewan’s own The Sheepdogs.
The Roughriders have been around for 103 years and have won the Grey Cup three times previously, most recently in 2007.
The Tiger-Cats are an underdog team from the gritty steel town of Hamilton (The Hammer), which lurks in the southern shadows of Toronto.
They exacted some revenge on their arch-rivals the Toronto Argonauts in the Eastern Final last week, overcoming a seven-point halftime deficit with a 19-0 second-half as Toronto’s crack-smoking mayor Rob Ford looked on.
The Ti-Cats have been playing away from Hamilton all season after their home field of 62 years, Ivor Wynne Stadium was demolished to make way for a new stadium for next season.
In the interim, The Ti-Cats played their home games in nearby Guelph (The G-Spot) at their University field this season, which seemed to bring good luck as they reached the Grey Cup for the first time since 1999.
Their new stadium Tim Hortons Field is named after Canada’s favorite coffee and donut chain, a ubiquitous eatery across the entire Great White North imperative to spiking the caffeine and sugar levels of the nation and named after an iconic hockey player from The Hammer.
You just can’t make this stuff up, this incredibly awesome Canadian stuff.
Enjoy watching the 101st Grey Cup if you can, or just check out the highlights later on CFL.ca, or don’t worry about it and just follow all the Week 12 action of the NFL as you were going to do.
By Asa Schuster
Houston Rockets big man Ömer Aşık has proven his physical durability throughout his NBA career.
He once left a playoff game against the Miami Heat bleeding profusely from the neck, he returned and played the next game.
In fact, up until Thursday he was the NBA leader in consecutive games played with a streak of 239, having never missed a game in over three seasons.
He was benched in the second half of the Rockets game against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday and reportedly requested a trade for the second time since Dwight Howard joined Houston in the offseason.
Aşık had started the first eight games of the season, but saw his playing time dwindle as his front count combination with Howard came under increasing scrutiny.
It’s been up to Rockets coach Kevin McHale to formulate a system to allow the two low-post forces of Howard and Aşık to coexist.
The 6’10” McHale, should have some idea as he shared the low-post with 7’0” Robert Parish with the Boston Celtics for the entirety of his playing career.
Against the New York Knicks on Thursday, Aşık did not play at all, and McHale said that Aşık ‘wasn’t feeling good’ before the game.
Aşık was physically able and eligible to play, but saw his consecutive games played streak snapped due to what appears to be a ‘psychological’ injury.
This is particularly interesting, as it seems McHale and the Rockets management have little sympathy or tolerance for mental health issues.
Last season, the Rockets had drafted Royce White 16th overall, with the knowledge that he was diagnosed with a general anxiety disorder, that included among other things a fear of flying.
Once it became clear that White really didn’t ‘feel good’ about flying and some other social situations, the Rockets were unable to incorporate him into the roster and he never set foot on the court for Houston, he is yet to play in a regular season NBA game.
In the offseason, the Rockets signed Howard, while they traded White’s rights to the 76ers, who cut him from the team before the season started.
McHale is an old school guy, molded from the tough-guy era of the NBA in the 80s when far less was made out about mental health sensitivities.
In today’s NBA, players miss games when their bodies are banged up, but they can completely disappear once they’ve been flagged with mental health concerns.
With Aşık currently pegged as being psychologically injured, his days in Houston seem numbered, but perhaps a change of scenery is just what he needs to start ‘feeling better’ and being able to play again.
By Asa Schuster
9-0 ain’t bad.
It ain’t bad at all, but it won’t mean much once Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs resume their season following this week’s bye.
The Chiefs are surprisingly sitting atop the AFC with the best record in football and the last undefeated team left in the NFL.
So far, they’ve handled a relatively friendly schedule, including a pair of sneaky 17-16 wins against the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys.
They sit above the highly touted Denver Broncos, who they face twice in the next three weeks; effectively a miniature in-season playoff series that will undoubtedly determine the dynamic of the AFC West.
The Chiefs defense has allowed the second fewest points so far at 111, while the Broncos high-octane offense has easily accumulated the most points at 343 (over 40 points per game), thanks to their quarterback Peyton Manning’s All-World Start to the season.
The Chiefs have come up with the most defensive touchdowns with four interceptions and two fumble recoveries turned into scores.
Smith hasn’t lost a game as a starter going back to October last year and is 11-0-1 in his last 12 starts, including the 24-24 draw against St. Louis last season in which he was knocked out of the game in the first half with a concussion.
Despite being medically cleared to play the following week, Smith had lost the starting job to the electrifying Colin Kaepernick as an awkward quarterback situation unravelled in San Francisco.
And just like the iconic 49er Joe Montana before him, Smith dusted himself off and took his talents to Kansas City.
This season, Smith doesn’t have to worry about a hot-shot backup taking his place, although he wasn’t concerned last season until he was suddenly supplanted by one.
The Chiefs don’t have the luxury of hotshot backup, they’ve placed their faith in Smith and coach Andy Reid.
At 9-0, the playoffs may seem just around the corner, but the Chiefs must first endure a double shot against the Broncos, sandwiched between a date with the San Diego Chargers and followed by a matchup with the Washington Redskins.
After that, they have a would-be ‘trap game’ against the Oakland Raiders and a would-be blockbuster against the giant-killing Indianapolis Colts in Week 16.
The Colts have already beaten a string of sexy title-favorite powerhouses so far in the 49ers, Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.
Montana had already conquered the NFL with four championships by the time he became a Chief, Smith is simply trying to reach his third playoff game.
10 years ago, when Trent Green was their guy, Priest Holmes was the highest-scoring rusher and Tony Gonzalez was in his prime, it was the 4-5 Cincinnati Bengals that spoiled the Chiefs 9-0 start on November 16.
They finished 13-3 for the third time in franchise history and the Colts eliminated them in the opening round of the playoffs.
Their date with Manning and the Broncos this year is November 17.
The Chiefs may have carved out a perfect 9-0 start, but it’s all been preparation for when their season really starts next week.
By Asa Schuster
David Ortiz truly was Big Papi in 2013, Big Papi to the Red Sox, Big Papi of Cardinals pitchers and Big Papi to the city of Boston.
Back on April 20, just 16 games into the season, Ortiz stood on the Fenway infield before a game against the Kansas City Royals and addressed the crowd in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.
”This is our fucking city and no body is going to dictate our freedom,” is how Ortiz ended his short message of solidarity.
It was the Red Sox first home game since the bombings and the people of Boston were still trying to bounce back from the shock and horror of the previous five days.
Boston won 4-3 and improved to 12-4 on the young season.
Exactly a year earlier, they had lost to the Yankees 6-2 to fall to a 4-9 record on the way to finishing last in the American League East at 69-93.
Two years ago, the Red Sox slid out of the playoff race in the final stretch that culminated in a wild last day of the season where they were shockingly eliminated.
The stench of empty beer cans and fried chicken packaging lingered as the Red Sox cleared out their lockers in 2011.
Boston’s Game 6 starter John Lackey was a proponent of the old beer and fried chicken regime that had temporarily plagued the franchise.
They improved their in-game diet, but things got worse last year under new manager Bobby Valentine, as his mismanagement and injuries drove the Sox to despair.
Lackey missed the 2012 season due to Tommy John surgery and reinvented his body with rejuvenated commitment as the Sox sent Valentine packing and cleaned up their act in 2013.
In his new body, Lackey was able to pitch deep into the playoffs and deep into the sixth game of the World Series.
The Red Sox got to this point partly on the back of Ortiz’s bat, he was their rock long-before proclaiming ‘this is our fucking city’ and in the first five games of the World Series he cranked it up to a new unbelievable level.
Shane Victorino’s bases clearing swing in the third was all Boston needed to win their first World Series at Fenway since Babe Ruth wore red socks.
When they won In 1918, the Fenway clubhouse undoubtedly smelled of hotdogs and Cuban cigars.
After reeking of beer and fried chicken two years ago, the Red Sox sanctum is now draped in protective plastic, drenched in champagne and the sweet smell of victory surrounds the entire city of Boston.
By Asa Schuster
While Jon Lester’s opening game performance may have been overlooked by hefty run support and a hefty clump of rosin in his glove, he duplicated the performance in Game 5 with suspicious eyes bearing down on him.
His glove appeared clean, only showing signs of some rosin residue as he once again worked for seven and two-thirds innings, this time for just four hits and one run to notch his third World Series win.
He’s now tied with Babe Ruth as the only left-handed Red Sox pitchers with three World Series wins, while the guy who wears Ruth’s would-be Red Sox jersey number, knocked in the winning run.
Ruth wore No. 3 for the Yankees and Boston Braves, but played for the Red Sox before they had uniform numbers.
The Red Sox gray-bearded catcher David Ross wears No. 3 these days, he’s no Ruth, but his RBI double that squeezed inside the left field foul line was all Boston needed from his bat in Game 5.
Boston are now 3-0 in the World Series with Ross behind the plate, while 0-2 with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who’s last taste of game action ended with his errant throw to third in Game 3.
David Ortiz is swinging the hottest bat in the series, three more hits and an RBI in Game 5, has him 11-for-15 with six RBI overall.
He returns to the role of designated hitter, making way for Mike Napoli at first base in the lineup, as the Sox have an opportunity to win their first World Series at Fenway Park since Ruth’s 1918 team.
The Cards have been known to produce their finest work with their season on the line in a World Series Game 6, and they hand the ball to their rookie sensation Michael Wacha to help force an additional game.
Allen Craig and Carlos Beltrán are still banged up, and if David Freese has been waiting for this moment to heat up, he needs to start defrosting immediately.
By Asa Schuster
Carlos Beltrán stood at the plate with a 1-1 count, two out and one on, and the chance to extend the 4-2 game in the bottom of ninth, if not tie it up with one swing.
He didn’t see another pitch as Boston escaped Game 4 on a pick-off at first, and for the second straight night at Busch Stadium the game ended on a stunning play on the base paths.
Red Sox closer Koji Uehara picked off rookie pinch runner Kolten Wong as he was caught off guard with his inertia favoring second base.
Wong was brought in specifically to replace the banged up Allen Craig because he is a ‘base running specialist’.
Beltrán could only stand at the plate helpless in disbelief, his bat well and truly taken out of his hands.
One of the great authors of postseason brilliance, was unable to put pen to paper on what could have one of his finest passages of play.
Beltrán’s first World Series has so far been stagnated by circumstance, as he was forced to exit early from Game 1 after his run-in with the Fenway wall.
The reason for the Cards’ two-run deficit was courtesy of Jonny Gomes’ three-run blast off rookie relief pitcher Seth Maness in the top of the sixth.
Maness was brought in specifically to face Gomes once starter Lance Lynn conceded a two-out single to Dustin Pedroia and walked David Ortiz.
Maness was also specifically brought in to induce a double-play as he is renowned as a ‘double-play specialist’.
Gomes was in the lineup in place of Shane Victorino, who was game-day scratching with an injured back.
Gomes, who possibly has some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, idiosyncratically adjusted his helmet, adjusted his helmet, adjusted his helmet, and turned a sinker that failed to sink into a long-ball that resembled the Gateway Arch over the left field wall.
Beltrán had an opportunity to counter in the bottom of the seventh, digging in as the tying run with two out and Matt Carpenter on first base from an RBI single.
Beltrán had already knocked in Carpenter in the third inning to plate the first run of the game, he now faced Craig Breslow in relief, the player formerly known as the ‘smartest player in the Major League Baseball’.
In Game 2, Beltrán rolled the scoreboard over to 4-2 in favor of the Cards by guiding an RBI single to right field off Breslow.
This time he cautiosly pitched around Beltrán in four deliveries to walk him, and was promptly replaced by Junichi Tazawa, who retired Matt Holliday to end the inning.
On a night where the Cards’ rookie specialists both fell short of the mark, the Red Sox rode another crucial game-deciding home-run off the bat of one of their veterans as they’ve been able to do throughout the entire playoffs.
It’s now down to a three-game series in which the Cards’ decorated core must rise to the occasion and take matters into their own hands to ensure no more games are decided on the base paths.
By Asa Schuster
Allen Craig found a way to win.
Inserted for a pinch-hit with the scores locked at 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth with one on and one out, he roped a double to put himself and Yadier Molina in position to score.
He’s now 3-for-3 as a pinch-hitter in Fall Classic games as his he continues to update his post-season curriculum vitae.
The next at-bat, Jon Jay tapped a grounder to Dustin Pedroia at second-base, Molina was caught out at home, and Craig was almost thrown out at third when catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia went for two.
Craig slid safely into third and as the ball escaped down the line, he was tripped up by Will Middlebrooks as he attempted to dash home.
He never reached home plate, but was deemed the winning run as Game 3 featured one of the most bizarre endings in World Series history.
The opening game at Busch Stadium reeked of National League baseball.
Boston’s bench was down to two position players, including Mike Napoli by the seventh dig as the threat of extra innings loomed at 2-2.
David Ortiz was in the field with his first basemen’s mitt in the bottom of the seventh when a wayward throw from Xander Bogaerts created a difficult play for the defensively challenged slugger.
It was a difficult play for an elite gloveman at first, but perhaps Napoli, a former catcher and defensive upgrade makes the play?
The situation perfectly exemplified the cliche ‘game of inches’ phrase, and that notion was reiterated when the next batter, Carlos Beltrán had his hefty elbow guard grazed by mere millimeters to reach base.
The Cards could have easily been none on and two out.
Instead, it was two on and none out, and Matt Holliday cashed both runners by driving the ball down the third base line, inches under Middlebrooks’ extended glove, with Beltrán hustling from first to beat the play home.
If only Middlebrooks could have obstructed the ball from reaching the outfield, his team wouldn’t have been trailing 2-4 heading into the eight inning.
The Red Sox rallied back in the next frame through Jacoby Ellsbury’s single and Shane Victorino’s hit-by-pitch setting the table for Daniel Nava’s RBI fielder’s choice to second and Bogaerts’ high bouncing RBI single up the middle to once again level the scores.
The Cards’ NL trademark double-shift that moved their closer Trevor Rosenthal’s position in the lineup to sixth, made way for Craig’s timely inclusion in the bottom of the ninth with a chance to win the game, obstructed or not.