Kevin Cody

All Ball Sports: The thrill is gone

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by Paul Teetor

After a hard-fought 102-96 win in game 4 Tuesday night, the Lakers lead the NBA Finals 3-1 and are poised to win their first title in more than a decade.

They should wrap it up Friday night in game 5 against the out-manned Miami Heat.

Yahoo?

Nope.  Yawn.

So why does it feel so flat? Why are tv ratings the lowest in 20 years, both nationally and here in LA. 

Start with the Covid-19 pandemic and all its unintended consequences for sports and for society itself. The Finals are being played 3,000 miles away in a spectator-less bubble in Orlando, Florida. Half the fun of watching the Lakers win titles in the past was being surrounded by friends and family who had tickets to Staples Center to watch Kobe and Shaq or Kobe and Pau try to win a title. The live, in-person attendance – vicarious or not — was thrilling and an essential part of the LA experience for any local sports fan.

That’s all gone now. Now you quarantine with family members to watch the games on TV and try to re-create that feeling of being swept up in yet another Lakers championship quest, like in the old days.

But it just isn’t the same. Where are all the cars and SUVs flying Lakers flags and pennants? When the Lakers overcame the hated Boston Celtics in a 7-game thriller in the 2010 Finals the Beach Cities’ roads from PCH to the 405 were crawling with purple-and-gold flag-waving vehicles. Now? Not a single one was seen in a random, totally unscientific survey conducted Sunday before the Lakers sleep-walked their way through an embarrassing game 3 loss 116-104.

Embarrassing because the Heat had lost their two best players – spring-loaded, defensively dominant Center Bam Adebayo and clever point guard Goran Dragic – in the first half of game 1 and were subsequently totally out-classed by the Lakers in games 1 and 2.

But just when the word sweep – as in 4 straight Lakers wins – became the cliche of the day on ESPN and every other sports talk show, the Lakers relaxed and let them back in the series.

The other, more subtle reason there’s such a lack of grass-roots excitement and enthusiasm? Because this championship feels like a frozen box of steaks and chops ordered from Amazon instead of a home-made stew cooked up in Mama Jeannie Buss’s kitchen.

There’s no sense of the organic growth gained from watching Kobe and Shaq fuss and feud and struggle to win for 4 years before finally breaking through in the 1999-2000 playoffs. The forever highlight was that amazing, unforgettable game 7 comeback from a 15-point fourth quarter deficit against the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals. The one that was punctuated by the alley-oop lob from Kobe to Shaq that clinched the win and looked like it would heal the hatred between Kobe and Shaq – but ultimately did not.

Any true Lakers fan can still picture it in their mind’s eye:  Shaq pointing skyward and Kobe driving and looking like he was going to shoot until he changed his mind at the last second and threw it up for Shaq. It was a magic moment that promised years of titles and domination to come.

Instead of that kind of cathartic breakthrough, the genesis for this year’s imminent title occurred in the summer of 2018 when Magic Johnson convinced LeBron James to bring his talents to LA. Of course, it didn’t take much convincing since LeBron and his management team had already decided they wanted to move here to expand their already blossoming Hollywood mini-empire. His family’s understandable enthusiasm for leaving Cleveland – aka the Mistake by the Lake – for LaLa Land just clinched the decision.

The second pillar in building this championship team came in the summer of 2019, when LeBron demanded that Lakers management give up whatever it had to – including all the high draft picks it had been developing like Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart etc. – plus every draft pick it had through the middle of this decade, to pry Anthony Davis away from New Orleans.

And presto chango. With those two bully-ball moves, the Lakers now had two of the five best players in the NBA and were ready to compete for a title.

Trouble is, it feels like a Big Mac and fries: tasty but not filling.      

PAC-12 gets back in the game

Mark the date: December 12, 2020. That’s when the annual USC-UCLA backyard football brawl will take place at the Rose Bowl. It looked like it wasn’t going to happen this year, but the PAC-12 saw all the faux excitement surrounding Big-10 and SEC football and began to think, why can’t we do that too?

The pandemic that postponed the season? Ah, that’s just a minor annoyance that will keep fans away but not the all-important TV cameras and the gusher of network and sponsor money that comes with them

Each team will play a six-game regular season starting November 7, against conference opponents only. The Pac-12 championship games – North and South Divisions — will be played Dec. 18 and 19. 

Player to watch: Strong-armed USC quarterback Kedon Slovis had a sensational freshman season and will be a legit Heisman Trophy candidate – if he can stay healthy. Sleeper candidate: UCLA QB Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a great runner and decent passer who could break out this year under the tutelage of bust-so-far head coach Chip Kelly.

 Tyrod Taylor to Wally Pipp: Move Over

True sports fans, no matter what their age, know the oft-told story of Wally Pipp, the journeyman New York Yankees first baseman who came to work with a headache one day early in the 1925 season. Manager Miller Huggins sat him down and inserted a rookie college kid from Columbia University named Lou Gehrig. Gehrig quickly proved himself Butch Cassidy to Babe Ruth’s Sundance Kid, and the two sluggers formed the heart of the Yankees’ Murderer’s Row lineup for the next decade. Gehrig went on to play in the next 2,130 straight games, which stood as the MLB record until Cal Ripken broke it with 2,632. Pipp? He was dumped off on Cincinnati and never heard from again.

And that appears to be the fate awaiting Tyrod Taylor, the career back-up given the Chargers starting QB job while prize rookie draft pick Justin Herbert was supposed to watch and learn for a year. But moments before the second game of the season Taylor was injured in an unprecedented freak accident – a team doctor injecting a pain killer for separated ribs accidentally punctured his left lung and he had to be rushed to the hospital.

Herbert was given 10 seconds notice that he would be the starter against the Super Bowl Champion Chiefs and still threw for more than 300 yards before losing 23-20 in overtime. Then he threw for more than 300 yards in the next game before another Chargers loss. And this week he did it again, connecting on 25 of 30 passes for two touchdowns and zero interceptions in an achingly close 38-31 loss to 43-year-old Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While the numbers have been mighty impressive for a rookie QB making his first three starts in the Big Boy league, he has passed the eye test with even higher grades. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound Herbert, who starred at Oregon for four years before being the third QB picked in last spring’s draft, has it all: a rocket arm, quick, happy feet and an elite feel for the game. Even though the Chargers record is now 1-3, Herbert is on track to be an all-time great for the Chargers, barring serious injury. Tyrod Taylor? He’s headed out of town — if he ever gets off the injured list.

Meanwhile the Rams posted an unimpressive 17-9 win over the worst team in the league – the 0-4 New York Giants. Coach Sean McVay still runs the most sophisticated offense in the NFL, with mis-direction and razzle-dazzle deception built into almost every play he calls. The problem is his quarterback, the grossly overpaid and overrated Jared Goff, doesn’t have the mobility and arm strength required to maximize McVay’s offensive game plans. Imagine Herbert playing in McVay’s system. The Rams would be Super Bowl contenders every year. Perhaps the co-tenants of So-Fi Stadium can work out a QB swap so at least one of them can go far enough in the playoffs to help pay off the $5.5 billion price tag for the world’s most impressive state-of-the-art stadium.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER

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