All Ball Sports: Sandy gets a statue

Former Palos Verdes High runner, Rebecca Mehra, one of the top distance runners in the U.S., will be honored in recognition of the Title IX’s 50th anniversary at the Village Runner Independence Day 5K on Sunday, July 3rd in Riviera Village. Mehra set seven school records at PV High, and was a three-time All American at Stanford. Newly graduated Mira Costa runner Dalia Frias, who set her school’s 800 meter record last year, andLaura Cattivera, who set Mira Costa’s 800 meter record in 1984, will also be honored. Photo courtesy of Village Runner 

By Paul Teetor  

There are plenty of retired sports stars walking around Los Angeles. Right here in the Beach Cities we have big-name guys like former USC quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart, former Boston Red Sox shortstop and World Series hero Nomar Garciaparra, and former Phoenix Suns point guard Steve Nash, a two-time NBA MVP who is now coaching the Brooklyn Nets.

But there’s only a few no-dispute living legends, first-ballot Hall of Famers who are still around, commanding respect, and even awe by their very presence alone. To be in the same room and even talking with them is a memorable experience to be recounted for the rest of your days.

That short list would include Lakers superstars Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson, former Rams running back Eric Dickerson, and former Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. Guys who are worthy of having a statue erected in front of the venues where they sparkled like a diamond in the SoCal sun.     

But there is one man who stands above all of them on the Mount Rushmore of LA sports stars, and that man made a rare public appearance Saturday.

At age 86, the greatest Dodgers pitcher of them all, Sandy Koufax, was honored Saturday morning by the unveiling of a bronze statue of him hurling his left-handed heat. Appropriately, his statue is located next to the other most important player in Dodgers history, barrier breaker Jackie Robinson, who actually was a teammate in Koufax’s rookie season of 1955, and again in 1956, which was Robinson’s last season in blue.

It was a long overdue honor for a pitcher who had the greatest five year stretch in Dodgers history – no, make that in all of baseball history – from 1962-66. He posted the lowest earned run average in the majors in every one of those five seasons. He won three Cy Young Awards, two World Series championships and a Most Valuable Player award.

In the 1965 World Series he shut out the Minnesota Twins twice in four days – an astounding feat even back then. Today, in the age of analytics and pitch counts and relief pitching by committee, it would be impossible simply because no manager would allow it. Just ask current Dodgers manager Dave Roberts, who’s famous for pulling pitchers in the middle of a no-hitter when their pitch count is still south of 100.

Koufax retired after 12 seasons, but he is one of the rare still-living Dodgers who played in both Brooklyn and Los Angeles and thus carved out a seminal place in Dodgers history.

He arrived in Brooklyn in 1955 as a 19-year-old kid with a blazing fastball but little control and not much of a curveball. He retired from LA in 1966 with a blazing fastball, a deadly curveball and the best control in the business.

Arm pain forced him to retire early at age 30, and for many years the reclusive Koufax wasn’t seen much around the Dodgers as they changed owners several times.

In 2012, when Guggenheim Baseball Management and Stan Kasten took over as the new owners, one of their first moves was to reach out to Koufax and urge him to come back and be a part of what they were trying to build.

Saturday’s ceremony and statue unveiling was the culmination of that reconciliation. The normally withdrawn Koufax spoke for 10 minutes, an eternity for him. 

He thanked 46 people – coaches, managers, trainers and teammates. He even thanked his four different roommates – Doug Camilli, Carl Furillo, Norm Sherry and Dick Tracewski – for putting up with him.

“Most of all I thank my teammates, all of them,” he said. “I think my only regret today is that so many are no longer with us and I’m unable to let them know how much I thank them and appreciated them.”

He ended with a rhetorical fastball that split the plate for a called strike.

“I love you one and all,” he said. “I’m done.”

He was done, but it was left to Clayton Kershaw – the second greatest pitcher in Dodger history – to put the day in perspective.

“In the years and generations to come, I hope a kid sees this statue and asks his mom or dad about Sandy Koufax, and I hope they tell him he was a great pitcher, but more than that he was a great man who represented the Dodgers with humility, kindness and passion and class,” Kershaw said. 

Someday not too far in the future there will be a similar ceremony and statue for Kershaw, who has always represented the Dodgers with humility, kindness, passion and class.

But this day belonged to Koufax and his statue.

Welcome home, Sandy.

Lakers Fans: The enemy of my enemy is my friend

At about 6:45 Thursday night, Lakers fans from Manhattan Beach to Malibu and points in between heaved a huge sigh of relief — followed by raucous cheers from every sports bar, man-cave and living room where the NBA finals were being televised.

That was when the Golden State Warriors finished off an amazing, overwhelming, game-changing 21-0 run against the Boston Celtics in game 6 of the NBA Finals. The Celtics had opened the game with a 14-2 lead and were looking like a team determined to send the Finals back to the Bay Area for a decisive Game 7, a winner-take-all game that could go either way. 

But now, suddenly, halfway through the second quarter in front of a stunned-into-silence Boston crowd, the Warriors were assured of winning the game and the finals, four games to two. And more important to Lakers fans, it assured that the Celtics – with 17 NBA titles — would not pass the Lakers – also with 17 — for total NBA titles.

“I hate the Celtics,” Kim Hughes of Manhattan Beach said as he shot baskets at Live Oak Park Friday afternoon. “Been a Lakers guy all my life. I would have punched my TV if the Celtics beat the Warriors. But they didn’t, so it’s all good. As long as we’re tied with them, I can live with that.”

Hughes admitted he doesn’t like the Warriors either – but that he had no choice but to root for them despite his misgivings about some of their star players.

“Draymond Green is an a-hole with all his dirty play and constant yapping at the refs, and Steph Curry annoys me with that habit of taking his mouth-guard out and then putting it back in. He does it a hundred times a game. I wish he would just leave it in or leave it out,” the 27-year-old Hughes said.  “But in this case my hatred of the Celtics made all that go away. No one was rooting harder for the Warriors than me.”

Indeed, from the vantage point of Southern California the entire NBA Finals was living proof of that ancient Arabic wisdom: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

If the Warriors had played any other team in the NBA beside the Celtics, most Lakers fans would have been rooting for that other team simply because of our inter-state, north-south rivalry with the San Francisco Bay Area. But given the intense emotions, even the out-right hatred that has percolated between the NBA’s two flagship franchises ever since they first started meeting in NBA Finals in the 1960s, this kind of situational alliance is totally predictable.

Indeed, it’s not hard to imagine Lakers owner Jeannie Buss and her management team of Rob Pelinka and Kurt and Linda Rambis were also rooting hard for the Warriors. But if Buss is truly interested in finding out why her team has been so terrible for the last decade ever since she took over from her late, great father Jerry Buss – except for the one discounted bubble title the Lakers won in 2020 — she need only take a closer look at the Celtics team and its two superstars, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

In 2016 the Celtics and the Lakers were both at rock bottom, and it was embarrassing for the NBA to have its two most important franchises among the worst in the league. 

Both teams knew it would be a long road back to the top, but they took very different approaches, starting with the draft that year.

Because of their terrible records, the Lakers had the second overall pick in the 2016 draft and the Celtics had the third pick. The Lakers took 6-foot-10 sharpshooter Brandon Ingram out of Duke, and the Celtics took uber-athletic 6-foot-7 unknown Jaylen Brown out of Cal Berkeley.

Both rookies came into the league with only one year of college experience, and it was instantly clear that both would need time – several years, at least – to develop into the players both teams hoped they would be.

Both teams stunk again the next season, so the Lakers again had the second pick in the 2017 draft and the Celtics again had the third pick. This time the choices would be harder, especially for the Lakers.

Most draft experts projected that Washington’s Markelle Fultz, a slick 6-foot-4-point guard, was the best player in the draft, followed by Duke’s Jason Tatum, a 6-foot-9 super skilled forward. UCLA’s homegrown star Lonzo Ball, a great passer but a terrible shooter, was listed several spots behind them in most mock drafts.

Philadelphia, which picked first, chose Fultz as expected. That left Tatum there for the taking for the Lakers. But Magic Johnson, at the time Buss’ top basketball adviser, saw reflections of himself and his past glory in Ball. He convinced Buss to pass on Tatum and take Ball instead.

It was the kind of talent-evaluation blunder that can cripple a franchise for a decade or more. It was also the kind of mis-judgment that a truly qualified NBA executive – someone hired for their proven track record, not for who they know or for their past glory days — would never make.

Tatum showed signs of stardom from his first game onward, leading the Celtics to the Eastern Conference Finals in his rookie year.

And Ball? He was a creative playmaker and a good defender, but his ugly shot got uglier and more unreliable than ever as he lost his confidence. Soon opposing teams were begging him to shoot, leaving him wide open to take any shot he wanted. Sure, he was open – but he was open for a reason.      

But at least Ingram was progressing nicely. Always a good shooter, he was filling out his tooth-pick thin frame and figuring out how to counter the physical defenses thrown at him.

In Ingram’s third year Ball continued to struggle and the Lakers made little progress despite the arrival of LeBron James, who was supposed to lead the Lakers to a title – or at least deep into the playoffs.

LeBron felt the Lakers kiddie korps – Ball, Ingram and Josh Hart – weren’t good enough to make the playoffs. So he demanded that Buss and Pelinka trade the whole lot of them – plus a bunch of first round draft picks — to New Orleans for All-Star Anthony Davis.

And that worked for an empty-calories championship in 2020 while the rest of the basketball world was focused on the emerging pandemic. Only LeBron, through sheer force of will, could carry his team through a two-month bubble stay all the way to a title.

Last summer LeBron went back to the same playbook – telling the team to trade all the rest of the good players for an alleged superstar in Russell Westbrook – and it backfired so badly that the Lakers finished 11th in the Western Division and missed the playoffs entirely.

Meanwhile the Celtics stuck with their plan of continuing to develop their own kiddie korps – Brown, Tatum, gritty guard Marcus Smart and defensive monster Rob Williams – and when they bloomed this year they swept through the playoffs beating, in order: Brooklyn with Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, defending champion Milwaukee with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Miami with two-way forward Jimmy Butler, emerging center Bam Adebayo and fierce point guard Kyle Lowry.

Now the Celtics, who patiently stuck with their kids and their long-range plan, are set up to compete for NBA titles for the next decade. Meanwhile the Lakers, who sold their future for a who-cares? title in 2020, are trapped in a downward spiral for most of the next decade with no first-round draft picks until 2027.

But hey, at least the Lakers are still tied with the Celtics for the most NBA titles.

That alone was worth all the cheering heard throughout LA last Thursday night at 6:45.     

 Super Bowl of Soccer Coming to SoFi Stadium

In the end, it came down to the Rose Bowl versus So-Fi Stadium.

One is more than 100 years old, located all the way out in Pasadena, and it hosted the World Cup Finals in 1994.

The other is two years old, is the best stadium in the world, is located right here on the southern edge of Los Angeles, and has never had a single soccer game played in it – yet.

For the 2026 FIFA World Cup committee, it wasn’t a hard choice: SoFi Stadium will host the World Cup in four years.

But of course it’s not that simple. 

At the same time the FIFA Committee announced that the tournament will also take place in Mexico and Canada.

In other words, North America is the big winner of the world’s most popular sport, also known as the beautiful game.

LAFC Coach Steve Cherundolo cheered the choice of LA.

“I can’t imagine a World Cup in North America without Los Angeles being a host city,” he said. “It’s an absolute sports town. It’s beautiful. It’s interesting. It’s diverse. To me, there’s no better place.”


Follow: @paulteetor


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