Cavaliers Come Back | R.I.P. Muhammad Ali | Djokovic Completes Slam | Penguins Win | Russians Banned From Rio Olympics | Russian Fanatics
By Ted Lerner
King James Crowned Again
The Cleveland Cavaliers winning their first ever NBA championship will surely go down as one of the best feel good stories in many years in the world of sport. Unless you are a die hard Golden State Warriors fan, it would be difficult not to be genuinely impressed by the way the Cavs clawed back from what seemed to be certain defeat earlier in the series, and their incredible victory in a terrific game 7 of the finals.
Trailing 3-1 in the best of seven games series, the Cavs found the mettle to do what no other team had done in NBA basketball Finals history; come back to win the championship.
The Cavs were surely the underdogs in game 7 as the defending champion Warriors were playing on their home floor. But the amazing Lebron James, an Ohio native, did it again. James scored 27 points, grabbed 11 rebounds and made 11 assists to lead the Cavs to their first ever NBA title, and the city of Cleveland its first professional sports title in 52-years!
I know there will be a few doubters out there but, for me, Lebron is the greatest basketball player ever. He is a beast in every facet of the game, a true leader and a thoroughly dominant individual.
I was genuinely saddened by the death of Muhammad Ali in early June. Of course it would be easy to brush it off by telling myself that people get old and people die. Ali had been sick with the ravages of Parkinson’s for several decades. Those of us who follow boxing knew it was just a matter of time before the legendary boxer would make his exit from this blue earth.
Still, I couldn’t help but well up a bit when I heard the news and started reading the outpouring of accolades that began pouring in for the Champ. With Ali’s nemesis, the legendary Joe Frazier, having passed on just a few years ago, this now felt like the true end of an era.
News presenters who had never before seen a single round of boxing were crowing to the world that Ali was “The Greatest.” Was Ali indeed the greatest boxer of all time? It’s a subject that makes for great bar room banter and certainly more than a few will say he was indeed on top of that storied list.
My good friend, Hall of Fame boxing writer Nigel Collins rightly pointed out that, first and foremost, Ali was “The Greatest” because the precocious fighter from Louisville claimed he was “The Greatest.” How can anyone old enough to remember forget the days when then Cassius Clay would brag in loud and boastful tones “I am the greatest of all time!”
Athletes in 1960’s didn’t act like that, period. Sportsmen were expected to be humble, soft spoken. Yes, they were also expected to be warriors and gladiators who left a piece of themselves in the ring, or on the field. But they didn’t open their mouths and boast of their greatness and belittle their opponents.
Let’s not forget that when the brash Clay demeaned and forced the “invincible” Sonny Liston to quit in 1964, blacks in the American south were living under the jack boot of oppressive Jim Crow laws, second class citizens who were expected to know their place in society. Not everyone was laughing along with Clay in those days, and many came to hate him for being so ballsy and loud.
Clay turned to Islam and changed his name to Ali in 1964 and, of course, this made him an even more polarizing figure. When he dodged the Vietnam war draft a few years later and was barred from the ring for three years, many hated him even more.
But Ali benefitted from being caught up in a wave of anti-war sentiments that had swept over America at the time, so suddenly he didn’t seem so bad, and, in fact, he found himself on the side of righteousness. He also proved to be quite charming, funny, clever, and smart. In his three years off from boxing he managed to endear himself to millions around the world.
Of course it’s Ali’s ring exploits that grabbed our attention; his shocking KO of the invincible George Foreman in exotic Zaire, Africa in 1974; his incredible trilogy with Frazier, including the now legendary Thrilla in Manila in 1975, where the two warriors, both a bit past their primes, left it all in the ring in a war for the ages; his unexpected and thrilling trilogy with Ken Norton.
Just typing out these words is giving me the chills. There is no debate folks; this was the golden era of boxing, and especially the heavyweight division. If you take a moment to think about the figurative and literal giants who fought in that era, it is truly spine tingling. Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Norton, Ernie Shavers, Joe Bugner, Jimmy Young, Ron Lyle, Larry Holmes. These were towering athletes and warriors who all fought each other at the highest levels of sport.
Perhaps this is why I was so saddened by Ali’s death. The heavyweight division in boxing has been dead for nearly two decades. With the rise of mixed martial arts, which I consider a poor cousin to the beauty and artistry of the Sweet Science, it feels like the heavyweights will never, ever again reclaim the glory that they once had. And that’s truly sad.
Ali finally called it quits in 1981, after fighting way too long and taking way too many punches. But he was a worldwide phenomenon at this point, a man who could go where even heads of states couldn’t. As the years went on, his humor, his message of peace and fraternity, would only enhance his legend, even as Parkinson’s stole his vitality. It’s almost as if the vitality of the sport of boxing went with him.
We all know the grim reaper spares nobody. But when death came for Ali, it reminded me of this truly wonderful era in sport when the heavyweights were king, when giants ruled the sporting landscape.
Rest in Peace champ. You, and the gladiators of your era, will never be forgotten.
Novak Djokovic won’t be forgotten anytime soon either, or in the decades to come. The World number one tennis player cemented his legacy as the greatest player of this current era when he came from a set down to defeat England’s Andy Murray and win his very first French Open title in June.
Just how good is the 29 year old Serbian? Well, you can’t argue with the facts. With his first French Open win, Djokovic becomes the first man since 1969 to hold all of tennis’ four Grand Slam titles concurrently. He is just the eighth player in history to complete the career grand slam. Djokovic has now won 12 grand slams, just two behind Rafael Nadal and Pete Sampras and five behind Roger Federer's record of 17. He has won 66 titles overall, and just became the first tennis player to ever pass the $100 million mark in prize winnings.
And clearly, there is more greatness to come. Djokovic’s incredible fitness is one of his greatest advantages, allowing him to stay patient, while dictating play with his significant power game. He possesses a mental toughness that surely intimidates opponents into thinking that he is invincible, which he backs by, well, being invincible.
If Djokovic can stay injury free, expect the friendly Serbian to surpass Federer in the coming years. He’s already a tennis legend. He could very well become the greatest tennis player of all time.
Stanley Cup Champs
When the Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the San Jose Sharks 3-1 in Game 6 of the final series to win hockey’s Stanley Cup, and capture the franchise's fourth NHL championship, it reminded me of that old cliche in sports; never give up.
This is a phrase that applies as much to fans as it does to players and coaches. The Penguins weren’t even in contention for the playoffs back in December. Their fans were all over the internet and radio shows lambasting their team as being losers and slackers.
But as anyone who follows sport knows, it’s not how you begin a season or series, it’s how you finish. The Penguins changed course midway through their season, bringing in a new head coach, who shook up the lineups and got the players to buy into his system and philosophy.
Revitalized, the Penguins then spent the second half of the season tearing up the NHL and the playoffs. The result was the Penguins fourth time to lift Hockey’s famous Cup.
So the next time your home team or favorite player is struggling and seemingly going nowhere, remember that many times in sport, as in life, great things can come out of adversity. When one door closes, another one opens. Failure often leads to success.
Yes these are well worn clichés. But they are also true. Except, of course, if you are a fan of baseball’s Chicago Cubs. But that’s another story entirely.
The International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) decided not to lift the suspension of the entire Russian athletics team for the upcoming Olympics in Rio, imposed after accusations of state-sponsored doping.
Predictably, Russian president Vladimir Putin cried foul over the ban remaining in place, saying that clean athletes shouldn’t have to suffer because of the actions of the ones found to be cheating.
This is a laudable sentiment, Vlad, but the problem is that Russia’s entire sporting program seems to be riddled with cheats, from the top down. We are talking about state sponsored cheating. And in a nation where what Vlad says goes, that means that Russian sporting officials are doing exactly what you are telling them to do; make sure your athletes win at all costs.
There is evidence now coming from many sources of just how deep and pervasive the Russian cheating machine goes. The cheating by Russian authorities that is known to have gone on for just the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014 reads like a Frederick Forsyth spy thriller.
Yes, I’ll miss seeing those long legged Russian ladies flying down the track in Rio. But Russia needs to clean up its act first. Don’t hold your breath, however, that anyone inside Russia will take any responsibility.
The Russian mafia state was on full display at the Euro 2016 matchup between England and Russia when over 150 Russian Ultras(Russian hooligans) attacked English fans inside the stadium after their 1-1 draw in the group stages in Marseilles. The Russian Ultras then staged coordinated attacks on English fans outside the stadium. Get this; Russian Ultras disguised themselves by wearing England football jerseys. They even left calling cards on lampposts around the Old Port area of Marseilles, seemingly to guide the Ultras as to where to congregate before pouncing on hapless English supporters.
Some of you may be laughing at my calling English football supporters “hapless.” Aren’t these the same English football hooligans who drink to excess and beat up anyone in their path?
Hard core English fans aren’t quite the hooligans they once were in the 70’s and 80’s. Yes English fans these days drink to excess and embarrass themselves with their boorish and silly behavior. But the Russian hooligans are of a way different breed. They are said to not even drink, and are organized like military units, having trained back in Russia for the very purpose of beating up unsuspecting rival fans with the sole purpose of inflicting harm, and to prove Russian machismo and greatness.
And whereas any sane government condemns these kinds of actions by its citizens, Russia outwardly cheers them on. Russian MP Igor Lebedev tweeted: "nothing wrong with fighting. Keep it up boys!" He said the hooligans were defending the honour of their country.
A top police official, Vladimir Markin, added his tweet: "The Europeans are surprised when they see a real man looking like a man should. They're only used to seeing 'men' at gay parades."
Don’t’ forget, Russia will be hosting the 2018 World Cup! But then again, Putin will no doubt reign in these thugs on their home turf. Even in a mafia state, hospitality to visitors is considered paramount.