Friday, January 31, 2020

Welcome to Earth-2

Kobe Bryant wearing a Lakers "throwback" jersey, 2005...
Or is it the regular uniform of the Minneapolis Lakers on Earth-2?

In DC Comics, "The Golden Age of Superheroes" was from the 1938 debut of Superman until the 1950s. When a new version of The Flash debuted in 1956, that began "The Silver Age."

In September 1961 (the date on the cover, although it was printed and released perhaps 2 months earlier), Flash #123 was published with the story "The Flash of Two Worlds." The recently-introduced version of The Flash, a police forensic scientist named Barry Allen, who gained super-speed when a lightning bolt struck a shelf full of chemicals which then doused him, was shown meeting the Golden Age Flash, Jay Garrick, a college student who inhaled "heavy water vapors" and gained super-speed as a result.

The story was written by Gardner Fox, who created the original Flash, Garrick, in 1940. Robert Kanigher created Allen in 1956, but had no role in this particular story, which explained that the Flashes lived in parallel worlds. Eventually, DC would name them "Earth-1" (or "Earth-One"), on which Allen lived; and "Earth-2" (or "Earth-Two"), on which Garrick lived.

The story was so successful, DC brought back the other Golden Age heroes, and put them on Earth-2, showing them as older, since they had debuted in the 1930s or '40s. But there were some differences, some bigger than others:

* Superman: On Earth-1, Clark Kent was born Kal-El on Krypton, and he was still trying to prevent his Daily Planet teammate, Lois Lane, from finding out his secret identity. On Earth-2, he was born Kal-L, and Lois knew, and they were married.

* Batman: On Earth-1, Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, Catwoman, had a flirtatious relationship, as Catwoman played both sides, sometimes an anti-hero, sometimes a villain. (On the 1966-68 Batman TV series, she was only a villain, and yet, she and Batman had the never-resolved hots for each other.) On Earth-2, Bruce and Selina were married, and their daughter Helena Wayne became a superhero, the Huntress. She would marry Earth-2's Robin, Dick Grayson, who never became Nightwing (but did, on occasion, wear the Batman costume), while there were no other Robins (Jason Todd, Tim Drake, etc.).

* The Flash: The power in question was the same, but they didn't even live in the same city. On Earth-1, Barry Allen lived in Central City. On Earth-2, Jay Garrick lived in Keystone City. And neither man's city even existed on the other man's Earth.

* Green Lantern: On Earth-1, Hal Jordan was a test pilot who followed an alien ship's crash. The alien was a member of the Green Lantern Corps, and, as he died, handed Jordan his "power ring," telling him, "It tells me you are worthy," and Jordan becomes the Green Lantern assigned to protect the sector that includes Earth, and meets the other members of the Corps, frequently teaming up with them. His costume is green with black trim.

On Earth-2, there is only one Green Lantern, Alan Scott, a railroad engineer who finds a lantern whose backstory doesn't matter here, and he fashions a ring out of it, and his costume is multicolored. Also, Jordan wears his ring on his right hand, while Scott wears his on his left.

* The Atom: This was a huge difference, and an early 1980s story revealed that a man calling himself "the keeper of the cosmic balance" did just that by briefly switching the two men's powers. Both Atoms are, as you might guess (this was very common with both DC and Marvel heroes-to-be), scientists. The Atom of Earth-1 was Ray Palmer, a science professor who discovered a way to change his size, allowing him to shrink to subatomic size. Usually, he limited his shrinking to 6 inches, yet he could punch someone with the full force of his usual 180-pound body.

The Atom of Earth-2 was Al Pratt, a college student who was called "The Atom" because he was only 5 feet tall. As an unexpected result of an experiment, he gained super-strength, but that was the extent of his powers.

The Earth-2 heroes had already had their own team, the Justice Society of America (JSA). The Earth-1 heroes developed a team, the Justice League of America (JLA). Occasionally, there would be crossover team-ups.

The JSA included some heroes who only existed on Earth-2, such as Dr. Fate, Dr. Mid-Nite, Hourman, Starman, and the Star-Spangled Kid. In contrast, there weren't many heroes from Earth-1 that weren't also on Earth-2. J'onn J'onzz, the Martian Manhunter, was one of the exceptions.

Eventually, other worlds were created. There was an Earth-3, in which the classic heroes we know were all villains: Superman was Ultraman, Batman was Owlman, his sidekick Robin was Talon, Wonder Woman was Superwoman (and her real name was Lois Lane, suggesting a relationship with Superman), Green Lantern was Power Ring, The Flash was Johnny Quick, and so on. And the villains were heroes.

DC bought Fawcett Comics, including Captain Marvel -- or, as his stories had to be titled, since Marvel won a court case over the right to that name, "Shazam!" -- and his stories were placed on "Earth-S," S for Shazam. DC bought Charlton Comics, including The Question, and those stories were put on Earth-4.

In 1979, to celebrate Batman's 40th Anniversary, a story was written in which the Phantom Stranger tells Batman and Robin that there is a parallel world where the murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne, Bruce's parents, is about to happen, and gives Batman, for once, a chance to prevent it, even sending Robin with him.

Robin discovers that there are not only no superheroes on this world, but no fictional heroes at all. No Sherlock Holmes, no Tarzan, no Zorro -- and in most versions of Batman's origin story, the movie the Waynes went to see right before it happened was a version of Zorro, a character Batman would come to resemble. Batman and Robin stop the murder -- and inspire little Bruce to become this world's first superhero. This world was later named Earth-5.

There were many others, until, in the early 1980s, DC executives realized how confusing it all was, so they decided to consolidate everything onto one world. Marv Wolfman wrote the story, and in 1985, the 12-part Crisis On Infinite Earths was released.

In Issue #7, Superman's cousin Supergirl sacrificed her life to stop the Anti-Monitor, the villain who wanted to destroy all the Earths. In Issue #8, Barry Allen, the Earth-1 Flash, sacrificed his life. Each of these was just a temporary reprieve. Finally, in Issue #12, the heroes of all the Earths triumphed, with the Superman of Earth-2, the first superhero, appropriately delivering the deathblow.

When it was over, there was one Earth. A retroactive continuity (or "retcon") revealed that the Earth-2 heroes, the JSA, were active in the 1940s, retired in the 1950s because the House Un-American Activities Committee suspected them of Communist ties since they wouldn't reveal their secret identities, and had been exposed to something that reduced their aging, so that they could still be alive and fighting crime into their 70s, their 80s, and beyond. (Most of them would now be around 100 years old.)

Most of the Earth-2 cities also appeared on the single Earth. One big difference between DC and Marvel is that Marvel put most of its heroes in New York, while DC had fictional cities, which resemble real cities that also exist on their world:

* Metropolis: The joke is that Superman's hometown is Manhattan north of 14th Street on a sunny Spring afternoon, while...

* Gotham City: Batman's hometown is Manhattan south of 14th Street, a few minutes after midnight, on a rainy night in November. A map showed them on opposite sides of Delaware Bay: Metropolis in Delaware, and Gotham in South Jersey. This makes sense, since Gotham is said to be built on marshlands, and this also gives it proximity to the gambling city of Atlantic City, thus aiding the city's reputation for organized crime.

In real life, a bridge to replace the Cape May-Lewes Ferry has been discussed, but never really planned. In DC Comics, there is sometimes said to be a bridge crossing the Bay between Metropolis and Gotham.

* Central City The Flash's hometown is much like Chicago. As for the original Flash's hometown...

* Keystone City: The name suggests Philadelphia, which is in Pennsylvania, the Keystone State.

* Coast City: Green Lantern's hometown is based on Los Angeles, without Hollywood. Or maybe it's San Diego, due to the military connection.

* Star City: Green Arrow's hometown is a little vague. There are some similarities to San Francisco. But because of the green factor, I've often associated it with Seattle.

* Ivy Town: The Atom's hometown might be an analogue to Boston, or perhaps adjoining Cambridge.

In 2007, after the events of their 52 series, DC decided to bring back the Multiverse, and made it seem like there really were infinite Earths. Every dopey "imaginary story" from their 1950s, '60s and '70s comics got their own world.

So did their spectacularly popular 1986 graphic novel Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and its ridiculous sequels.

So did their 1996 graphic novel Kingdom Come, with older, more jaded superheroes, resulting in Superman (who had lost Lois and his Daily Planet friends) and Wonder Woman marrying and having a child.

So did their 2003 graphic novel Superman: Red Son, which asked and answered the question, "What if baby Kal-El's rocket landed in the Soviet Union instead of America?"

*

TV network The CW, which produces the series Arrow, Supergirl, Batwoman and Legends of Tomorrow (and, coming soon, Stargirl), recently adapted Crisis On Infinite Earths for a 5-part television series. Spoiler alert: It actually went farther: While the comics' Anti-Monitor destroyed every Earth but one, the TV version destroyed all of them, and only 7 "Paragons" were saved, put in "a place beyond space and time," and managed to restart the multiverse, but with a few changes that only they noticed.

It looked at various moments like Supergirl and Barry Allen might have to sacrifice themselves to do it, but that didn't happen. Instead, it was this continuity's first costumed crimefighter to debut, Green Arrow, who became The Spectre, and sacrificed his life to do it. His death makes him the founding hero of this new Earth's Justice League.

The other hero to sacrifice himself was the Flash of Earth-90, the Barry Allen played by John Wesley Shipp on the 1990-91 CBS series The Flash, telling Grant Gustin's Barry, "The prophecy said the Flash had to die. It didn't say which Flash." Shipp also plays Jay Garrick and Barry's father, Henry Allen.

If you ever need a reason to decide which is better, DC or Marvel, know this:

* In their movies, the Marvel heroes had to restore half the life in the universe, and did.

* In their TV shows, the DC heroes had to restore all the life in all the universes, and had to do it without any Supermen, Batmen or Wonder Women (albeit with a Supergirl and a Batwoman), and did.

DC > Marvel. All day. Every day.

Anyway, in "The Arrowverse," Earth-2 was one of the worlds brought back, with the Justice Society and their descendants fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.

*

If there really were an Earth-2, what would it be like? Hopefully, better:

* Maybe the world of The West Wing is Earth-2, with Richard Nixon properly punished, the Bartlet Administration having prevented that world's version of the 9/11 attacks (a plot to blow up the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, not just because of the physical and economic upheavals that would have resulted, but because it's anchored on a U.S. military base, the Presidio), better Presidents, better Supreme Court Justices, better policies.

* The Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants get new ballparks. Los Angeles and San Francisco get expansion teams. Sandy Koufax becomes a great pitcher for his home-Borough Dodgers, not out in L.A. There's still a "miracle" World Series for New York in 1969, but it's the Giants who win the National League Eastern Division over the Chicago Cubs, beat the Atlanta Braves (or maybe the San Francisco team that takes the Mets' 1962 expansion place) in the NL Championship Series, and then the Baltimore Orioles in the most orange World Series ever.

* Likewise, the Montreal Expos get a new ballpark, so they never move, and it's the Florida Marlins who become the Washington Nationals.

* The Raiders never leave Oakland, the Colts never leave Baltimore, the Rams never leave Los Angeles, there is no hiatus for the Browns in Cleveland, the Chargers never leave San Diego, the North Stars never leave Minnesota, and the Nordiques never leave Quebec City.

* Minneapolis also never loses the Lakers, so L.A. gets some other team that doesn't win as much.

(The Houston Oilers' move to Tennessee to become the Titans, and their replacement by the Houston Texans, worked out pretty well for both cities, so I'm leaving it.)

* Wilt Chamberlain stays with the Philadelphia 76ers, and their disastrous run between their 1967 title and their 1977-83 run with Julius Erving never happens. With the L.A. team not such a great option, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar goes to his hometown, and, with Bernard King filling the Magic Johnson role, the Knicks win 5 NBA Championships in the 1980s.

* Patrick Ewing goes to the weak Chicago Bulls, and he and Michael Jordan win Championships together in the 1990s.

* Magic leads the Minneapolis Lakers to titles, and Kobe Bryant learns the value of giving Winter coats to the destitute. Also, he goes to the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester, Minnesota, not that hospital in Colorado, and what happened there on our world doesn't happen, removing the black mark on his life.

* Jose Canseco has a bad reaction to his first steroid shot, never takes another, and doesn't introduce it to Mark McGwire. Baseball's Steroid Era never happens. Roger Maris at 61 and Hank Aaron at 755 are still the records. Barry Bonds still makes it to 600 home runs, and makes the Hall of Fame. Roger Clemens also makes the Hall. McGwire retires due to injury in 1996. Sammy Sosa and David Ortiz finish their careers with about 350 home runs each, and neither ever wins a Pennant.

* Without the culture of cheating, the Red Sox still haven't won the World Series since 1918. The Yankees win the World Series in 2004 and 2006, in addition to the 27 titles we know. The Cleveland Indians end their World Series drought in 2007. The Detroit Tigers win the 2013 World Series. The Red Sox don't hire Alex Cora in 2018, so the Washington Nationals end the Houston Astros' bid for 3 straight World Series wins in 2019.

* The Astros' cheating scandal is thus so shocking that MLB does strip them of their titles, leaving them vacant.

* There was no NHL lockout in the 2004-05 season. The Buffalo Sabres defeated the Minnesota North Stars for the Stanley Cup. This was a rematch of the 1999 Finals, when the Stars won the Cup for Minnesota by beating the Sabres.

* Mo Lewis misses his tackle, and Drew Bledsoe remains the New England Patriots' quarterback through the 2006 season.

* Super Bowls are won by the following: XVIII, the Oakland Raiders over the Washington Redskins; XXXIV, the Los Angeles Rams over the Tennessee Titans; XXXVI, the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Rams; XXXVIII, the Baltimore Colts (led by Peyton Manning) over the Carolina Panthers; XXXIX, the Philadelphia Eagles over the New York Jets, as Terrell Owens blazes past Ray Mickens' shockingly bad coverage in the final minute.

XLI, the Baltimore Colts over the Chicago Bears; XLII, the New York Giants over the San Diego Chargers; XLIV, the New Orleans Saints over the Baltimore Colts; XLVI, the Giants over the Cleveland Browns; XLVII, the Browns over the San Francisco 49ers; XLIX, the Seattle Seahawks making it back-to-back titles by beating the Baltimore Colts; LI, the Steelers are the beneficiaries of the tremendous choke by the Atlanta Falcons; LII, the Eagles beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, but still let Nick Foles go, just not to the Jags; and LIII, the Kansas City Chiefs over the Rams.

* Because George W. Bush and Donald Trump were never President, there is proper prosecution of police brutality cases, and no National Anthem protests. Therefore, Super Bowl LIV will still have the Chiefs facing the 49ers, but the 49ers will be quarterbacked by Colin Kaepernick.

Earth-2 sounds like a better place, doesn't it?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

How Long It's Been: The San Francisco 49ers Won a Super Bowl

I did one of these for the Kansas City Chiefs, for whom it's now been 50 years, half a century. Now, it's time to do it for their opponents in Super Bowl LIV, the San Francisco 49ers, for whom it's been half as long, 25 years, a quarter of a century.

This will be the Niners' 7th appearance in a Super Bowl, and their 3rd at the current home of the Miami Dolphins. It was named Joe Robbie Stadium, for the Dolphins' founding owner, from its opening on August 16, 1987 until August 25, 1996. This period included the Niners' wins in Super Bowls XXIII , over the Cincinnati Bengals); and XXIX, over the team then known as the San Diego Chargers. It also included the founding of MLB's Florida Marlins, who began play there in 1993.

It was then known as Pro Player Park until September 9, 1996, then tweaked slightly to Pro Player Stadium until January 9, 2005. Pro Player was the sports division of clothing company Fruit of the Loom. This period included the Marlins' wins in the 1997 and 2003 World Series.

It was just Dolphins Stadium from January 10, 2005 to April 7, 2006, then the S was dropped and it was Dolphin Stadium until May 7, 2009. Then the Dolphins and the stadium were bought by a group led by Stephen Ross, which also included Florida-based singer Jimmy Buffett, and, to help market a beer Jimmy was selling, it was renamed Land Shark Stadium until January 5, 2010.

After 2 weeks as just "Dolphin Stadium" again, naming rights then went to an insurance company, and it was Sun Life Stadium until January 31, 2016, a period that included the Marlins' 2012 move to Marlins Park, on the site of the previous Dolphins stadium, the Orange Bowl, and their change of name to the Miami Marlins. The current Dolphins stadium was New Miami Stadium until August 16, 2016, and it's been Hard Rock Stadium, for the Hard Rock Cafe chain of restaurants, since then.

That's 10 different names in 33 years of operation. That's even worse than the new arena of the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers.

As for the 49ers' other Super Bowls: They won XVI over the Bengals at the since-demolished Pontiac Silverdome in the Detroit suburbs, they won XIX over the Dolphins at the since-rebuilt Stanford Stadium in Palo Alto in their own suburbs, they won XXIV over the Denver Broncos at the Superdome in New Orleans, and they lost XLVII to the Baltimore Ravens at the Superdome.

The 49ers were so successful, for so long, that it's hard to believe there was a time when they were a joke franchise. They were 2-14 in back-to-back seasons in 1978 and '79. Then a new regime came in, and turned them around, making them perhaps the most talent-laden NFL team ever.

Quaterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young, receivers Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens, defensive linemen Fred Dean, Charles Haley, Rickey Jackson and Chris Doleman, and defensive backs Ronnie Lott and Deion Sanders are all in the Hall of Fame. So are head coach Bill Walsh and team owner Eddie DeBartolo.

Players from this period of 49er history who are not in Canton, but probably should be, include receiver Dwight Clark, running back Roger Craig, center Randy Cross, guard Guy McIntyre, linebacker Ken Norton Jr., and George Seifert, who replaced Walsh as head coach in 1989.

From 1981 to 2002, in 22 seasons, they made the Playoffs 18 times, won the NFC Western Division 14 times, won at least 1 Playoff game 13 times, reached the NFC Championship Game 10 times, reached the Super Bowl 5 times, and won all 5, including 4 in the 9 seasons from 1981 to 1989.

In 2011, '12 and '13, they went 36-11-1, made it to the NFC Championship Game all 3 times, and reached Super Bowl XLVII, although they lost it. This was when Colin Kaepernick was an All-Pro quarterback, before he became a symbol of civil rights protest. Now, they are back.

True, there were some bad seasons mixed in there, including 2-14 in 2004 and 2016, and 4-12 in 2005 and 2018. But they are back.

They had previously been good in the 1950s, including 1957 when they tied the Detroit Lions for the NFL Western Division title, but lost a Playoff; and in the early 1970s, when they won the 1st 3 NFC West titles and got to back-to-back NFC Championship Games, losing both to the Dallas Cowboys, a Playoff rivalry that would be renewed in the 1990s: From 1992 to 1997, either the 49ers or the Cowboys would be in the NFC Championship Game every year; and they played each other in it the 1992, '93 and '94 seasons.

But while they have had some success since, the San Francisco 49ers haven't won a World Championship since Super Bowl XXIX, on January 29, 1995, 25 years ago today. How long has that been?

*

The 1994-95 season was the NFL's 75th, and there were a lot of celebrations, including the occasional wearing of "throwback uniforms." The 49ers chose to go with their 1950s version, as seen in the photo of Steve Young above, with "drop shadow numerals."

Since then, the 49ers have moved from Candlestick Park, at the southeastern corner of San Francisco (6 miles from downtown), to Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, closer to downtown San Jose (7 miles) than to downtown San Francisco (45 miles).

To put it another way: Whereas once they were about as close to downtown SF as the Meadowlands is to Times Square, they are now that close to downtown SJ, and further from the downtown of the city in their name than any other team currently in North America's Big Five leagues.

In addition to the 49ers, every NFL team has since moved to a new stadium at least once, with 5 exceptions: The Dolphins still play at Hard Rock Stadium, the Chiefs still play at Arrowhead Stadium, the Green Bay Packers still play at Lambeau Field, the New Orleans Saints still play at the Superdome, and the Buffalo Bills still play at what was then named Ralph Wilson Stadium (now New Era Field).

With the Raiders having since moved back to Oakland and now back out, to Las Vegas, the Oakland Athletics are the only San Francisco Bay Area team still playing in the same stadium where they had played in 1994(-95). And except for the Knicks and Rangers at Madison Square Garden, every one of the New York Tri-State Area teams has moved (counting NYCFC, which didn't exist yet, which is also true of the Red Bulls, but they've moved once as well).

So have the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, Cleveland Browns (restored) and Houston Oilers. The NBA's Toronto Raptors, Vancouver Grizzlies and Charlotte Bobcats began play, but the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, and the Bobcats replaced the Charlotte Hornets, who moved to New Orleans. The Seattle SuperSonics moved to become the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the New Jersey Nets have just become the Brooklyn Nets. In the NHL, the Quebec Nordiques became the Colorado Avalanche, the old Winnipeg Jets became the Phoenix Coyotes, and the Hartford Whalers became the Carolina Hurricanes. The Nashville Predators, Atlanta Thrashers, Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets began play, but the Thrashers became the new Winnipeg Jets. MLS, the WNBA and the NWSL have all since been founded.

The defending World Champions were the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL, the Houston Rockets in the NBA, the Rangers in the NHL (ugh, but the Devils were about to change that), and, in MLB, well, officially, the Toronto Blue Jays, but technically nobody, since there was no 1994 World Series. George Foreman was in his improbable 2nd reign as Heavyweight Champion of the World.

The Broncos, the New England Patriots, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the New Orleans Saints and the Seattle Seahawks have each since won their 1st NFL Championship. The Philadelphia Eagles have won their 1st since it began to be called the Super Bowl.

The Atlanta Braves, the Florida Marlins, the Arizona Diamondbacks, the team currently known as the Los Angeles Angels, the Houston Astros and the Washington Nationals have since won their 1st World Series. The Giants have won their 1st since moving to San Francisco. The Boston Red Sox have since broken a drought of 86 years, the Chicago White Sox 88 years, and the Chicago Cubs 108 years.

The San Antonio Spurs, the Miami Heat, the Dallas Mavericks, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Toronto Raptors have won their 1st NBA Championship. The New Jersey Devils, the Colorado Avalanche, the Dallas Stars, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Carolina Hurricanes, the Anaheim Ducks, the Los Angeles Kings, the Washington Capitals and the St. Louis Blues have won their 1st Stanley Cup.

Football legends Don Hutson, Sammy Baugh, Jay Berwanger, Sid Luckman, Otto Graham, Elroy Hirsch, Don Blanchard, Glenn Davis, Chuck Bednarik and Doak Walker were still alive.

Ray Lewis and Peyton Manning were in college. Tom Brady and Drew Brees were in high school. Eli Manning, Troy Polamalu and Ben Roethlisberger were in junior high. Aaron Rodgers was 11 years old. Matt Ryan was 9; Clay Matthews and Ndamukong Suh were 8; Colin Kaepernick was 7; Richard Sherman, Russell Wilson and Nick Foles were 6; Cam Newton and Rob Gronkowski were 5; Odell Beckham Jr. was 4; Dak Prescott and Jimmy Garoppolo were 3; Michael Thomas was almost 2; and Baker Mayfield, Joey Bosa, Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, Sam Darnold, Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa weren't born yet.

Current Chiefs coach Andy Reid was an assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers. Current 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan was in high school in the suburbs of Denver, where his father Mike was head coach of the Broncos.

Barry Trotz of the Islanders was the head coach of the Portland Pirates, a minor-league hockey team in Maine. Mike Miller of the Knicks was the head coach at Texas State University. David Quinn of the Rangers was an assistant coach at Northeastern University in Boston.

Aaron Boone of the Yankees was playing in the Cincinnati Reds' farm system. Alain Nasreddine of the Devils was playing for the minor-league Chicoutimi Saguenéens. Chris Armas of the Red Bulls was playing for the minor-league Long Island Rough Riders. Ronny Deila of NYCFC was playing for Odds Ballklubb in Skien, Norway. Kenny Atkinson of the Nets was playing in Spain's basketball league. Luis Rojas of the Mets and Adam Gase of the Jets were in high school. Joe Judge of the Giants was in junior high school. And Walt Hopkins of the Liberty was 9 years old.

The Olympic Games have since been held in America (twice), Japan, Australia, Greece, Italy, China, Canada, Britain, Russia, Brazil and Korea -- and had never previously been held in South America. The World Cup has been held in France, Japan, Korea, Germany, South Africa, Brazil and Russia -- and had never previously been held in Asia and Africa, or in a joint venture (2002 in Japan and Korea).

The idea that people of the same gender could marry each other, and have all the legal rights of married couples, was considered absurd. But so was the idea that corporations were "people," and entitled to all the rights thereof. Clarence Thomas, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were the only Justices then on the U.S. Supreme Court who are still on it now.

Bill Clinton was in his 1st term as President. George W. Bush had just been inaugurated as Governor of Texas. George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and their wives, and Lady Bird Johnson were all still alive. (Reagan, Mrs. Johnson, and Mr. and Mrs. Ford have since died.) Barack Obama was teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago. Joe Biden was the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Donald Trump was with his 2nd wife, and the idea of him entering politics was ridiculous.

The Governor of California was Pete Wilson, a hard-line conservative Republican who loved the death penalty and hated immigrants. The idea that California would rebel against him and became one of the most reliably Democratic States was considered a pipe dream. But it happened. He had hoped to ride his re-election in 1994 to the Presidency in 1996, as former Governor Ronald Reagan had done, but he dropped out before 1995 was over. The Mayor of San Francisco was Frank Jordan. Wilson and Jordan are both still alive, in their 80s.

Current Governor Gavin Newsom was a real estate developer, specializing in restaurants and hotels. Current Mayor London Breed (that's her real name) was at the University of California at Davis, outside Sacramento -- putting her, at least in terms of physical distance, closer to the Governor of her State than to the Mayor of her City.

The Governor of New York was George Pataki. Current Governor Andrew Cuomo was Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The Mayor of New York City was Rudy Giuliani. Current Mayor Bill de Blasio was an aide to Congressman Charlie Rangel. The Governor of New Jersey was Christine Todd Whitman. Current Governor Phil Murphy was running the European office of Goldman Sachs in Frankfurt, Germany.

The holders of the Nobel Peace Prize were Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat -- and now we know how that worked out. The Pope was John Paul II. The current Pope, Francis, then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was Archbishop of Oca, Spain.

There were still surviving veterans of World War I, the Easter Rising, the Bolshevik Revolution and the Mexican Revolution. There were still living survivors of the Johnstown Flood of 1889, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, the General Slocum disaster of 1904, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, the sinkings of the Titanic and the Lusitania, and the workers on the Panama Canal.

The Prime Minister of Canada was Jean Chretien, and of Britain John Major. The monarch was Queen Elizabeth II -- that hasn't changed. Manchester United were the holders of both the Premier League and the FA Cup, but were about to cede the former to Blackburn Rovers of Lancashire and the latter to Everton of Liverpool. There have since been 4 Presidents of the United States, 5 Prime Ministers of Britain and 3 Popes.

Major novels of 1995 included The Horse Whisperer by Nicholas Evans, Independence Day by Richard Ford, The Rainmaker by John Grisham, High Fidelity by Nick Hornby and Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt. Timothy Findley published a novel titled The Piano Man's Daughter. It was not about Alexa Ray Joel.

None of the Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones, Bridget Jones, Twilight or
Hunger Games novels had yet been published. And no one had yet heard of Robert Langdon, Lisbeth Salander or Bella Swan.

Major films of early 1995 included Higher Learning, Murder in the First, Before Sunrise, Miami Rhapsody, Boys on the Side, Billy Madison, and the Western The Quick and the Dead. Pierce Brosnan's 1st outing as James Bond, Goldeneye, would premiere the following November. Dean Cain was playing Superman on TV, but Val Kilmer's turn as Batman on film would be a pathetic mess. And Sylvester McCoy was still the last man to play The Doctor.

Television shows that had aired, or were about to air, their final first-run episodes were Empty NestBlossomFull HouseMatlock and Northern Exposure. Newly-debuted were NewsRadio,
Sliders and the entire WB and UPN networks (eventually to merge), including Star Trek: Voyager. Soon to debut were Ned & Stacey (the 1st series to star Debra Messing), Caroline in the CityJAGMADtvThe Drew Carey Show, and a show only slightly more cartoonish than that one, Pinky and the Brain. And yet, it was the Yankees who ended up taking over the world.

No one had yet heard of Ash Ketchum, Carrie Bradshaw, Tony Soprano, Jed Bartlet, Master Chief, Jack Bauer, Omar Little, Rick Grimes, Wynonna Earp, Leroy Jethro Gibbs, Michael Bluth, Michael Scott, Don Draper, Walter White, Jax Teller, Richard Castle, Leslie Knope, Sarah Manning, Jane "Eleven" Hopper or Maggie Bell.

The Number 1 song in America was "Creep" by TLC. The surviving members of the Beatles were finishing The Beatles Anthology. Michael Jackson released HIStory. Tupac Shakur got married in prison.

Kourtney Kardashian and Pink were 16. Michelle Williams (both of them), Ben Savage, Kim Kardahsian, Christina Aguilera, Alicia Keys, Kelly Rowland, Hayden Christensen and Jessica Alba were 14. Natalie Portman, Beyonce Knowles, Britney Spears, Sienna Miller and Kirsten Dunst were 13. Prince William, Matt Smith and Anne Hathaway were 12. Prince Harry and Khloe Kardashian were 10.

Lady Gaga was 9, Rob Kardashian Jr. 8, Kevin Jonas and Rihanna 7, 7, Joe Jonas 5, Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson 4. So was Sarah Hyland, and the rest of the Modern Family kids had not yet been born. Nor had Kendall and Kylie Jenner. Louis Tomlinson was 3. Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Nick Jonas, Miley Cyrus and Zayn Malik were 2. The other One Direction singers, Liam Payne, Nial Horan and Harry Styles, had yet to reach a 2nd birthday. Justin Bieber was about to have his 1st, so he wasn't a "Boyfriend," he was a "Baby."

Inflation has been such that what $1.00 bought then, $1.71 would buy now. A U.S. postage stamp was 32 cents. A New York Subway token was $1.25. The average price of a gallon of gas was $1.20, a cup of coffee $1.74, a McDonald's meal $5.29, a movie ticket $4.35, a new car $17,900, and a new house $158,900. The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed the preceding Friday at 3,857.99.

The tallest building in the world was the Sears Tower in Chicago. The Internet was still new to most of us. Most of us had never heard of Microsoft or Netscape or America Online. There was no Facebook, no YouTube, no Twitter, no Instagram and no Pinterest. VHS videotapes were still the dominant way of recording and playing back movies and TV shows. Mobile phones were still roughly the size of the communicators on Star Trek. The birth control pill was long-established, but there was, as yet, no Viagra.

In the Winter of 1995, the World Trade Organization was established. Valeri Polyakov became the 1st person to complete and entire year in space, about Russia's Mir space station. An earthquake killed over 5,000 people in China. President Clinton extended a bailout to Mexico to keep its economy from collapsing.

Rose Kennedy, and Peter Cook, and former Middleweight Champion Carlos Monzón died. Megan Thee Stallion, and Leonard Fournette, and Arsenal players Calum Chambers and Héctor Bellerín
were born.

January 29, 1995. The San Francisco 49ers won the Super Bowl. It was their 5th win. There has not yet been a 6th.

They will have the chance for that 6th Super Bowl win this Sunday, playing the Kansas City Chiefs -- one team trying to break a drought of 25 years, the other a drought of 50 years.

Monday, January 27, 2020

NFL Championship Game Appearances, 1932-2020

This list also includes AAFC and AFL Championship Games. Ties are broken by wins, then by more recent.

And would you look at that? A New York team is Number 1. Although they're 8-11 in those games.

1. New York Giants, 19: NFL Championship 1933, 1934, 1935, 1938, 1939, 1941, 1944, 1946, 1956, 1958, 1959, 1961, 1962 and 1963; Super Bowls XXI, XXV, XXXV, XLII and XLVI.

2. Green Bay Packers, 13: NFL Championship 1936, 1938, 1939, 1944, 1960, 1961, 1962 and 1965; Super Bowls I, II, XXXI, XXXII and XLV.

3. Chicago Bears, 13: NFL Championship 1932, 1933, 1934, 1937, 1940, 1941, 1942, 1943, 1946, 1956 and 1963; Super Bowls XX and XLI.

4. Cleveland Browns, 13: AAFC Championship 1946, 1947, 1948 and 1949; NFL Championship 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1954, 1955, 1957, 1964 and 1965.

5. New England Patriots, 12: AFL Championship 1963; Super Bowls XX, XXXI, XXXVI, XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLII, XLVI, XLIX, LI, LII and LIII.

6. Washington Redskins, 11: NFL Championship 1936, 1937, 1940, 1942, 1943 and 1945; Super Bowls VII, XVII, XVIII, XXII and XXVI.

--. Cleveland/St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams combined, 9: NFL Championship 1945, 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1955; Super Bowls XIV, XXXIV, XXXVI and LIII.

7. Pittsburgh Steelers, 8: Super Bowls IX, X, XIII, XIV, XXX, XL, XLIII and XLV.

8. Dallas Cowboys, 8: Super Bowls V, VI, X, XII, XIII, XXVII, XXVIII and XXX.

9. Denver Broncos, 8: Super Bowls XII, XXI, XXII, XXIV, XXXII, XXXIII, XLVIII and 50.

10. San Francisco 49ers, 7: Super Bowls XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV, XXIX, XLVII and LIV.

11. Philadelphia Eagles, 7: NFL Championship 1947, 1948, 1949 and 1960; Super Bowls XV, XXXIX and LII.

--. Baltimore/Indianapolis Colts combined, 7: NFL Championship 1958, 1959 and 1964; Super Bowls III, V, XLI and XLIV.

12. Buffalo Bills, 7: AFL Championship 1964, 1965 and 1966; Super Bowls XXV, XXVI, XXVII and XXVIII.

13. Detroit Lions, 6: NFL Championship 1932, 1935, 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1957.

14. Los Angeles Rams, 6: NFL Championship 1949, 1950, 1951 and 1955; Super Bowls XIV and LIII.

--. San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers combined, 6: AFL Championship, 1960, 1961, 1963, 1964 and 1965; Super Bowl XXIX.

--. Oakland/Los Angeles/Las Vegas Raiders combined, 5: Super Bowls II, XI, XV, XVIII and XXXVII.

15 Miami Dolphins, 5: Super Bowls VI, VII, VIII, XVII and XIX.

16. Kansas City Chiefs, 4: AFL Championship 1962 Super Bowls I, IV and LIV.

--. Houston Oilers/Tennessee Titans combined, 4: AFL Championship 1960, 1961 and 1962; Super Bowl XXXIV.

17. Minnesota Vikings, 4: Super Bowls IV, VIII, IX and XI.

18. Seattle Seahawks, 3: Super Bowls XL, XLVIII and 50.

--. Chicago/St. Louis/Arizona Cardinals combined, 3: NFL Championship 1947 and 1948; Super Bowl XLIII.

19. Baltimore Ravens, 2: Super Bowls XXXV and XLVII.

20. Indianapolis Colts, 2: Super Bowls XLI and XLIV.

21. Atlanta Falcons, 2: Super Bowls XXXIII and LI.

22. Carolina Panthers, 2: Super Bowls XXXVIII and 50.

23. Cincinnati Bengals, 2: Super Bowls XVI and XXIII.

24. New Orleans Saints, 1: Super Bowl XLIV.

25. Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1: Super Bowl XXXVII.

26. New York Jets, 1: Super Bowl III.

27. Arizona Cardinals, 1: Super Bowl XLIII.

28. Tennessee Titans, 1: Super Bowl XXXIV.

29. Los Angeles Chargers, 1: AFL Championship 1960.

30. Las Vegas Raiders, none.

31. Houston Texans, none.

32. Jacksonville Jaguars, none.

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Philadelphia Phillies for Trading Ryne Sandberg

January 27, 1982: The Chicago Cubs trade shortstop Ivan de Jesus to the Philadelphia Phillies for shortstop Larry Bowa and 3rd base prospect Ryne Sandberg.

The Cubs had just hired Dallas Green as their general manager. For the past 2 years, he had been the Phillies' field manager, and had taken them to the 1980 World Championship. Prior to that, he had been the Phils' farm system director.

This is widely seen as a fleecing of the Phils by their former manager. Sandberg was moved to 2nd base, and became their best player of the last 50 years (1970 to 2020), making 10 All-Star teams, winning 9 Gold Gloves, batting .300 or better 5 times, receiving the 1984 NL Most Valuable Player award, helping them win the National League Eastern Division title in 1984 and 1989. (They are now in the NL Central Division.)

Meanwhile, the Phillies went through several 2nd baseman, none of them as good as Sandberg, the best of them being Juan Samuel. As a result, the Phillies didn't win another World Series until 2008, 11 years after Sandberg retired, and 5 years after they got Chase Utley to play 2nd base.

This was a terrible trade for the Phillies, right?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame the Philadelphia Phillies for Trading Ryne Sandberg

5. No Place for Him. Sandberg was a natural shortstop. The Phillies had Bowa, although he ended up being traded with Sandberg. (Green wanted Bowa as an "extra coach on the field," and it worked.) They couldn't move Sandberg to 2nd base, because they had Manny Trillo. (But the 1982 season turned out to be his last with the Phils.) And they couldn't move Sandberg to 3rd base, because they had Mike Schmidt, often called the greatest player ever at that position. (He stayed through 1989.)

At the time of the trade, he had played just 13 games for the Phillies, mostly as a defensive replacement, getting 1 hit in 6 at-bats. He'd had very good seasons at Double-A Reading and Triple-A Oklahoma City, but, at age 22, did not yet look like a star in the making. Given what the Phillies had in the 1981-82 off-season, Ryne Sandberg did not look like an obvious keeper.

4. The Philly Boo-Birds. As John Facenda, the voice of NFL Films at the time, once said, "In Philadelphia, a fan learns to boo before he can walk." As Schmidt himself said, "Philadelphia fans would boo Santa Claus, an Easter egg hunt, a parade of armless war vets, and the Liberty Bell."

Schmidt knew this from personal experience: He was voted the team's greatest player ever in a Centennial poll in 1983, but he still got booed. A lot. And, yes, in an infamous incident during the halftime show of a 1968 Eagles game at Franklin Field, they did boo a man in a Santa Claus suit.

Sandberg was never booed at Wrigley Field. How would he have been treated at Veterans Stadium? If they would boo Schmidt and Santa, they would boo anybody. Would Sandberg's performance have suffered as a result? We'll never know. But, based on Schmidt's occasional slumps, we can guess.

3. The Ballparks. In spite of the heroics of Schmidt and Greg Luzinski, the Phillies' Veterans Stadium did not favor hitters much. The Cubs' Wrigley Field has wind that blows in half the time, making it a great pitcher's park. But it also blows out half the time, making it a great hitter's park. 

Sandberg batted .285 for his career, collecting 2,386 hits, including 282 home runs, topping off at 40 in 1990. He would not have hit that well playing all his home games at The Vet.

2. The Phillies Were Better Off. With de Jesus at 2nd base, they won the NL Pennant in 1983. With Mickey Morandini at 2nd base, they won another Pennant in 1993. True, they didn't win the World Series either time. But the Cubs didn't win a Pennant between 1945 and 2016. Over the course of Sandberg's career, the Pennant count was Phillies 2, Cubs 0.

1. Sandberg Might Not Have Mattered. In 1983, he batted .261 with 8 homers and 48 RBIs. Those aren't great totals, although he did steal 37 bases. He was not yet a star. The Phillies won the Pennant, but lost the World Series to the Baltimore Orioles in 5 games. 

Would having Sandberg instead of de Jesus have helped? Maybe: de Jesus batted just .125 in the Series. But maybe not: The Phillies batted just .195 as a team, and the O's held them to 9 runs.

In 1993, when Sandberg was a 34-year-old superstar, the Phillies lost the World Series to the Toronto Blue Jays in 6 games, including the rainy, epic 15-14 loss in Game 4 and the 8-6 loss in the Joe Carter Game in Game 6. 

Would having Sandberg instead of Morandini have helped? Maybe: Morandini batted just .200 in the Series. But Sandberg would have had to make 2 games' worth of difference, in a Series where the Jays had home-field advantage.

In what other season might Sandberg have made a difference? In 1982, they were 3 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL East, but that was his rookie year, and he might not have made 3 games' worth of difference. 

They won the Pennant in 1983 and 1993, but, in between, never got closer than 15 games out in 1987. They won the Pennant in 1993, but had losing seasons for the rest of his career.

In other words, the Sandberg trade had a far greater effect on the Cubs than it had on the Phillies. The Cubs gained a great deal: That 1984 season, broadcast nationwide on "superstation" WGN, brought them lots of new fans from coast to coast, and may have saved Wrigley Field for at least 2 more generations. The Phillies may have lost at least a Division title in 1982 and the 1993 World Series, but that's hardly conclusive.

VERDICT: Not Guilty. Even if the Cubs had won 5 World Series with Sandberg, the Phillies needed more than him, on top of what they already had, to win even 1 more World Series, and considerably more to win even 1 more Pennant than they did.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Kobe Bryant, 1978-2020

It is 2020. Among the legends of the Los Angeles Lakers, Elgin Baylor is alive at age 85; Jerry West, despite having had some health issues, is alive at 81; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, despite having battled leukemia in his 60s, is alive at 72; and Magic Johnson, who told us he was HIV-positive when he was 32, is alive at 60.

And Kobe Bryant is dead at 41.

He was born on August 23, 1978 in Philadelphia. His father, Joe Bryant, played for his hometown Philadelphia 76ers, including in the 1977 NBA Finals, which they lost to the Portland Trail Blazers. Joe also played and coached in Italy, which led to his son being fluent in Italian.

Joe also coached in Japan, but, years earlier, it was his international outlook leading to him trying all kinds of things from around the world that led him to going to a Japanese restaurant, and seeing "Kobe beef," named for a Japanese city, on the menu. He liked it as a name, and gave it to his son. Joe also coached in China and Thailand.

Joe is still alive, at age 65. His nickname was Jellybean, so he incorporated that into his son's name as well: "Kobe Bean Bryant."

Joe was able to put Kobe into the prestigious Lower Merion Academy in Bala Cynwyd, Montgomery County, just outside the city limits. (The school has since closed.) But Philadelphia, a very insular city as far as basketball is concerned, never took to him. It wasn't just the suburban upbringing. It wasn't just the private school: Philadelphia has a Catholic League for high school sports, and Villanova, St. Joseph's and La Salle are all private, expensive Catholic universities.

It was that Kobe himself seemed to resist connection with his hometown. Even though his father had played for the 76ers and other teams, he took the Lakers as his favorite team. The Lakers had won the NBA title when he was 1, 3, 6, 8 and 9 years old.

In the 1995 NBA Draft, Kevin Garnett, the National Player of the Year in high school ball, was drafted without having gone to college. Kobe had considered nearby Villanova, and also Duke, North Carolina and Michigan. But now, he was determined to make the jump directly to the NBA. After leading Lower Merion to the 1996 State Championship, and being named National Player of the Year -- and taking singer Brandy Norwood to his senior prom -- he declared for the Draft, having made no campus visits at all.

The Charlotte Hornets were the only team besides the Lakers who were interested in him, and the Lakers also wanted to trade for Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic. So the Lakers traded Vlade Divac to the Hornets, thus freeing up a position for Shaq and salary cap space for both Shaq and Kobe, who became the 1st guard ever drafted right out of high school.

Kobe was just 18 when he debuted in the NBA, the youngest player ever, and it took time to adjust. Never before had he played even half of the 82-game schedule that the NBA has. Even with him and Shaq, the Lakers did not get close to the NBA Championship in 1997, '98 or '99. And, while he won the Slam Dunk Contest as a rookie, only in '98 did Kobe made the All-Star Game.

It all turned around in the 1999-2000 season. The Lakers moved from the Forum in suburban Inglewood to the new Staples Center in downtown L.A. (It isn't "The House That Kobe Built." If any one player's success made its building possible, it was Magic.) Phil Jackson, who had played on the Knicks' 1973 NBA Champions (he missed the entire 1970 title season due to injury), and had coached the Chicago Bulls to 6 titles in 8 years, was hired to carry the Lakers over the top.

He did. They went 67-15, and ground out a tough win over the Sacramento Kings in the 1st round -- some said with referees' assistance. They beat the Phoenix Suns, and then went 7 games with the Portland Trail Blazers before winning, to get into the Finals. In what turned out to be Reggie Miller's only Finals appearance, the Lakers beat the Indiana Pacers in 6 games. Kobe and Shaq each got their ring.

In 2001, they put together the greatest NBA Playoff run ever. The 1983 76ers went 12-1, narrowly missing Moses Malone's prediction of "Fo', fo', fo'": Three sweeps of four straight. The 2001 Lakers swept the Blazers in 3, then the Kings in 4, then the San Antonio Spurs in 4. In the Finals, they played, perhaps appropriately, the Sixers -- their only Finals appearance since 1983, and the only one that Allen Iverson would ever make. The Sixers pulled the upset in Game 1 at the Staples Center, but the Lakers took the next 4 to win the title, going 15-1.

In 2002, they swept the Blazers in the 1st round again. Then it took them 5 games to eliminate the Spurs. Then came a nasty Western Conference Finals with the Kings, and pretty much anybody who isn't a Laker true believer suspected that the referees fixed Game 6 for the Lakers, earning this group the nickname "Fakers." The Lakers won Game 7 in overtime, and then swept the New Jersey Nets, in their Finals appearance since 1976 in the ABA, for the threepeat.

The Lakers fell short in 2003, knocked out by the Spurs in the Conference Semifinals. So they decided to go for it, to build a "superteam." In addition to already having Shaq, Kobe, Robert Horry, Derek Fisher and Rick Fox, they drafted Luke Walton (Bill's son), and signed future Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton. And they brought Horace Grant, who had been on their 2000 and '01 title teams, out of retirement.

Shaq Diesel, the Black Mamba, the Mailman, and the Glove. Not to mention Big Shot Bob, Derek, Rick and Horace. Damn, this could have been the greatest team in NBA history, all in the big market of L.A., on the most glamorous (if not the most historically successful) franchise in the league. The 2003-04 Lakers were set up to be something special.

*

But first, Kobe needed to have knee surgery, so he would be in better shape for the coming season. He went to The Lodge and Spa at Cordillera, in Edwards, Colorado, 117 miles west of Denver. He checked in on June 30, and was to have surgery in nearby Vail 2 days later.

On July 1, a 19-year-old female hotel employee entered Bryant's suite. The next day, she went to the police, and said that he had raped her. She was medically examined, and proof of a sexual encounter was found. The Eagle County Sheriff's Department sent officers to Bryant, and he denied that anything happened. When shown the evidence, including photographs of bruises, he admitted that something had happened, but that it was consensual.

The bruised areas included her neck. Blood was found on Kobe's shirt, and testing revealed it to be the victim's.

He was arrested on July 4, and it was publicly announced on July 6. He was formally charged on July 18, and held a press conference. By his side was his wife, Vanessa Laine, a former dancer he'd married 2 years earlier. They already had a daughter. Kobe admitted that he had cheated on Vanessa, but still insisted that what had happened was consensual.

Fellow employees at the hotel told conflicting stories: Some that she seemed upset, some that she didn't. It was revealed that she had been prescribed drugs to treat schizophrenia -- which called her account into question, but also suggested that Kobe had taken advantage of someone who might not have been in a position to consent to sex. Doubt, reasonable and otherwise, began to develop.

On September 1, the accuser told the prosecutors that she was no longer willing to testify. The charges were dropped. She filed suit in civil court, and Kobe settled with her, announcing that no money had changed hands (probably a lie), and that he was sorry for what he'd done (probably also a lie, as most people who do things like that are only sorry that they got caught).

Kobe's endorsement contracts with McDonald's and Nutella were scrapped. Sales of his Number 8 jersey dropped. When the season began, his knee may have been ready to play, but whether his mind was, only he knew for sure. He was cheered wildly in L.A., but booed hard everywhere else.

Still, there were supporters. Within days of the charges being dropped, I saw a man and his son walking down the street, and both were wearing Laker Number 8 jerseys. You would think that a man would have told his son, "What Kobe did is something you should never do. We can never wear these jerseys again."

The season was played, with the Kobe story hanging over it like a cloud. The Lakers went 56-26, not nearly as well as had been expected. They beat the Houston Rockets in 5 games in the 1st round of the Playoffs, then the Spurs in 6 games, then the Minnesota Timberwolves in 6 to reach the Finals. (This is the furthest the T-Wolves have ever gotten, led by Kobe's former business model, Kevin Garnett.)

The Lakers were expected to beat the Eastern Conference Champion Detroit Pistons. But the Pistons won Game 1 at the Staples Center, 87-75. The Lakers needed overtime to win Game 2 at home. And then, in the 3 games at The Palace of Auburn Hills, the Pistons won 88-68, 88-80 and 100-87. It wasn't the biggest upset in NBA Finals history -- 1975, Golden State sweeping Washington, is usually given that distinction -- but it was shocking that the Pistons had not only won, but comparatively easily.

It shouldn't have been a shock. Joe Dumars, now general manager after helping the Pistons split the 1988 and '89 NBA Finals with the Lakers, and beat Portland to win the '90 title, was the general manager, and he built a team with Ben Wallace, Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Lindsey Hunter, Richard "Rip" Hamilton, Mehmet Okur and Corliss "Big Nasty" Williamson.

The Lakers had the more talented group of players, but the Pistons had the better team. Larry Brown, who got the 76ers into the '01 Finals against the Lakers, and had won the 1988 National Championship with the University of Kansas, thus became the only man ever to coach an NCAA Champion and an NBA Champion.

Things went from bad to worse for the Lakers. Dr. Jerry Buss, the team's owner, and Mitch Kupchak, the GM, who had been a player on the Lakers' 1980s Champions, broke them up. They had little choice. Malone and Grant were retiring, Payton wasn't happy, and Shaq and Kobe could no longer live with each other. Shaq was constantly reminding Kobe that he was The Man, and Kobe was complaining that he had to be The Man.

Phil Jackson had coached great players with issues before. Michael Jordan was an egomaniac. Scottie Pippen had always complained about being underappreciated. Dennis Rodman was, to put it politely, a unique individual. All needed the guide of a very careful hand. But Jackson called Kobe something he had never called one of his players before: "Uncoachable."

So Phil quit. And Shaq was traded to the Miami Heat. And he helped them win the title in 2006, his 4th ring, and his 1st without Kobe. Meanwhile, the Lakers were now, unquestionably, Kobe's team. He was The Man there. And they went 34-48 in 2004-05, missing the Playoffs.

Kobe switched uniform numbers from 8 to 24, which he had worn in high school, before switching to 33. (Neither 33 nor 24 was available with the Lakers.) It didn't work much: In 2005-06, despite an 81-point Kobe performance against the Toronto Raptors, a total topped in NBA history only by Wilt Chamberlain (who got 100 in a 1962 game, long before there was a 3-point shot), they lost in the 1st round. In 2006-07, they lost in the 1st round again. He had led the NBA in scoring both times, but it was all for naught.

In 2007-08, Kobe seemed like a man on a mission. He wanted to win. He and Jackson swallowed their differences, and Jackson returned. For the only time in his career, Kobe was named NBA Most Valuable Player. (He would be named MVP in 4 of the 18 All-Star Games he played in.) The Lakers went 57-25, and got the 1st seed in the Western Conference. In the Playoffs, they swept the Denver Nuggets in 4 straight, beat the Utah Jazz in 6, and beat the Spurs in 5.

But the Boston Celtics had decided to ignore the Lakers' 2004 project, and build a "superteam" of their own. They already had Paul Pierce, and brought in Garnett and Payton. The Celtics won the 1st 2 Finals games in Boston. NBA fans say a Playoff series is never over until a home team loses a game, and the Lakers won Game 3 at the Staples Center. But the Celtics won Game 4. The Lakers staved off elimination, but when it went back to Boston for Game 6, the Celtics won.

It had now been 4 years of Kobe as The Man in L.A., 4 years of Kobe without Shaq on the Lakers, and 4 failures. Shaq, who had tried to start a rapping career early in his playing days, went to a club, and was caught on video, saying, over and over again, "Kobe, tell me how my ass taste!" In other words, not, "Kobe, you can kiss my ass," but, "Kobe, you have already kissed my ass."

Kobe was a joke. And people still remembered what happened in Colorado. If he had died right after this, he would have been remembered as basketball's Icarus: Ignoring all the warnings, he flew too close to the Sun, and his wings melted, and he fell to his doom.

*

After that, everything changed. It's almost as if Shaq were trying to save him by dissing him. As Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs (Mark Harmon, himself a former Los Angeles athlete, a UCLA quarterback) would say, "A slap to the face is a humiliation. To the back of the head is a wakeup call."

Kobe woke up. From this point onward, it was as if he understood what being The Man really meant. He became one of the most charitable people in Southern California, following the example of Laker legend Magic Johnson. He became more conscious of the role of black men, especially fathers, in America, and of black people's historic roles in America, and aiding in the perception of both, following the example of Laker legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He even got smarter in advising the team in which players to bring in, following the example of Laker legends Jerry West and (yes, he counts as one, especially after his own GM role) Mitch Kupchak.

His personal life was still a bit shaky. Late in 2011, Vanessa Bryant filed for divorce, but a little over a year later, they called it off, and stayed married. They eventually grew closer, and had 4 daughters: Natalia Diamante in 2001, Gianna Maria-Onore in 2006, Bianka Bella in 2016, and Capri Kobe in 2019 -- all Italian names. ("Diamante" is Italian, and also Spanish, for "Diamond.")
Halloween 2019. Kobe plays the Wizard of Oz -- who famously said,
"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."

The 2008-09 season was Kobe's masterstroke. In a way, he had become like Derek Jeter: The elder statesman of a great team. Just as Derek, now 34, was leading the Yankees from the old Yankee Stadium (the closing ceremony consisted of him giving a speech to the fans and then leading the team in what soccer fans would call a "lap of honour") to the new one (leading the team to win the World Series in their 1st season in it), Kobe, now 30, accepted his higher level of responsibility.

Fisher (34) was the only player on the team older than Kobe (30). Walton was still there, and now so were Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Adam Morrison, and Andrew Bynum, who had broken Kobe's record for the youngest man ever to play in the NBA. The Lakers went 65-17, beat the Jazz in 5 games, beat the Rockets in a tough 7-game series, beat the Nuggets in 6, and then beat the Orlando Magic in 5 to take the title.

It was Kobe's 4th. It was his 1st without Shaq. And Kobe was named Finals MVP. If Shaq said anything about this, it was not memorable. In fact, after his "Kobe Diss Track," Shaq played 3 more seasons, and didn't come close to another title.

The Lakers won the Championship again in 2010, this time beating the Celtics in the Finals. Kobe was named Finals MVP again.

The Celtics have won 17 NBA Championships, the Lakers 16 -- although the 1st 5 came in Minneapolis. They've played each other in 12 NBA Finals, more than any other pairing in the "Big Four" sports: The Celtics have won 9 (1959 while the Lakers were still in Minneapolis, 1962, 1963, 1965, 1966, 1968, 1969, 1984 and 2008, the Lakers 3 (1985, 1987 and 2010).

(For comparison's sake: In baseball, the Yankees and the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers have played 11 World Series against each other, the Yankees winning 8; the most common NFL Championship Game matchup, Super Bowl or otherwise, is the New York Giants and the Chicago Bears, 6 times, with the Bears winning 4; and the most common Stanley Cup Finals matchup is the Montreal Canadiens vs. the Boston Bruins, 7 times, the Canadiens winning all of them.)

The ring count was now Kobe 5, Shaq 4; Kobe without Shaq 2, Shaq without Kobe 1. But that no longer seemed to matter. Both men had matured to the point where they could bury the hatchet. They were probably better friends as ex-teammates than they ever were before.

The Lakers won the Pacific Division again in 2011 and '12, but they haven't gotten close to a title since. In Kobe's last 4 seasons, they lost 37, 55, 61 and 65 games. He retired after the 2015-16 season, having made 11 All-NBA First Teams, 9 NBA All-Defensive First Teams, and, of course, winning the 5 titles. He also won Olympic Gold Medals with the U.S. team in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012.

He became the 1st athlete in any sport to have 2 uniform numbers retired by the same team, as the Lakers sent both 8 and 24 to the rafters. He was not yet eligible for the Basketball Hall of Fame: Where once it took 3 years after a player's retirement, it now takes 5. He would have been eligible for it next year, and would have gone in with Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan.

Next year will also mark the NBA's 75th Anniversary. In 1996, on the 50th Anniversary, Kobe had yet to make his NBA debut, but Shaq was, controversially given his relatively recent arrival, named to the 50 Greatest Players. If a 75 Greatest Players is chosen next year, Shaq and Kobe might both be among the 1st 10 players chosen.

His daughter Gianna, a.k.a. Gigi Bryant, had become a basketball player with some prospects. Kobe had become a big supporter of women's sports, including basketball and soccer, standing behind the U.S. national team's bid to be paid the same as their male counterparts.

What happened in Colorado in 2003, people had chosen to forget. They now viewed him as one of the great men of sports, and even a champion of women's causes. But, whatever happened in that hotel room, it still happened. It should not simply be forgotten. He became a better man eventually, but that didn't happen immediately.

In that regard, Kobe may have been lucky. Lucky that he was not already a retired athlete, with a chance to get on the field of play, as well as on the field of human advocacy, and improve his image, unlike O.J. Simpson. Lucky that what he did wasn't caught on video, unlike Ray Rice. Lucky that #MeToo wasn't around in 2003. And, yes, lucky that former opponents, and even angry former teammates, recognized that he was reaching out, and were willing to let bygones be bygones.

This morning, January 26, 2020, Kobe and Gianna boarded a helicopter he owned at John Wayne Airport in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Ana. They were on their way to a basketball camp at which Gianna was scheduled to play. But fog set in. At 9:47 Pacific Time (12:47 Eastern), the helicopter crashed in Calabasas, on the other side of Los Angeles. All 9 people on board were killed. Kobe was 41, Gianna 13.

At first, reports flew around as erratically as the chopper did. One said that all 4 daughters were on board with him and died. Another said that actor and former Laker teammate Rick Fox was on board and killed. And when Fox, a regular Twitter user, hadn't tweeted for hours, people began to presume that this report was true. But both Fox' daughter and his lawyer have confirmed that he is alive and well. (UPDATE: Not long after I posted this, Fox tweeted his condolences.)

Reaction has come in from all over the world, from Presidents Trump and Obama to Franco Baresi, who knew the Bryants from Joe's time playing basketball in Italy, making Kobe a fan of the soccer team Baresi long served as player and captain, A.C. Milan.

Shaquille O'Neal, whose relationship with Kobe had been such a rollercoaster ride, became the father of his youngest daughter Me'Arah on the same day that Gianna was born, which may have helped bring the families closer together, to where he thought of Kobe's daughters as his "nieces."

He may have said it best: "There's no words to express the pain I'm going through with this tragedy of losing my niece Gigi and my brother Kobe Bryant. I love you and you will be missed. My condolences go out to the Bryant family and the families of the other passengers on board. I'm sick right now."

Shaq and Kobe will be forever linked. And maybe, in spite of his huge size (and bigger personality), he's the right mirror for the public: His feelings for Kobe rose, fell, and rose again, as ours did.

The French author Voltaire wrote, "To the living, we owe respect; but to the dead, we owe only the truth."

Well, Voltaire had his issues, like anyone would. So did Kobe. That's a truth that cannot be ignored.

Whether Kobe made up for his issues is for each of us to decide. The reaction to his death suggests that most of us have decided in his favor.

That doesn't mean that we should forget. It does mean that it is still possible to decide that the good he did outweighs the harm.

He figured it out: "The man behind the curtain" shouldn't be a con man, like in the movie. He needs to be a good man and a good Wizard -- or a good Laker, as the case may be.

Friday, January 24, 2020

Top 10 Players Who Just Looked Wrong In Those Uniforms

"This was a bad idea. I guarantee it."

Eli Manning retired today. At his press conference, he quoted former New York Giants owner Wellington Mara: "Once a Giant, always a Giant," and added, for himself, "Only a Giant."

He looked done this season. Even if he's not, even if he has 1 good season left, it's still good that he retired. It's better to retire a year too early than a year too late.

There's the risk of injury. Then there's the risk of looking like some guys who really shouldn't have hung on as long as they did, and switched teams to do it.

Top 10 Players Who Just Looked Wrong In Those Uniforms

Honorable Mention to Hank Aaron with the Atlanta Braves, 1972 to 1974. True, he was still a legitimate All-Star at the time. But that uniform! Ye gods! It's a shame that he hit Number 715 in it. For being a black man threatening, and finally breaking the record, he got death threats, but whoever designed the uniform got away scot-free.
He spent his last 2 seasons, 1975 and 1976, back in his previous city, with the Milwaukee Brewers. He didn't play as well, but he had a better uniform, even if it was powder blue on the road.
At the 1976 All-Star Game in Philadelphia.
The black armband on Mays' sleeve is for Casey Stengel.
The cap is in honor of the National League's 100th Anniversary.

Honorable Mention to Steve Garvey with the San Diego Padres, 1983 to 1987. He definitely hung on for 1 year too long, but until then, he was still hitting fairly well for the Padres.

But a Padre fan I know from online reminded me of the real reason he should be on this list: His classic description of his uniform change from Los Angeles to San Diego: "When I was a Dodger, I looked at myself in the mirror, and I looked like an American flag. Here, I look like a taco."
Ex-Yankee Graig Nettles and ex-Cardinal Garry Templeton
don't look thrilled by these togs, either.

Honorable Mention to several soccer players who went to the old North American Soccer League in the 1970s, for one big payday at the end of their career, but weren't seen by as many people due to the comparative lack of coverage.

Among them were Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer with the New York Cosmos; George Best and Johan Cruyff with the Los Angeles Aztecs; Best, Gordon Banks and Gerd Müller with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers; Cruyff with the Washington Diplomats; Bobby Moore with the San Antonio Thunder and the original Seattle Sounders; Charlie George with the Minnesota Kicks; and Eusébio with the Boston Minutemen, the Toronto Metros, the Las Vegas Quicksilvers, the New Jersey Americans and the Buffalo Stallions.

10. Patrick Ewing with the Seattle SuperSonics, 2000-01, and the Orlando Magic, 2001-02. This stings less because he didn't win a title with the Knicks, and he wasn't that bad. Still, it was weird.
To be fair, this uniform looked weird no matter who wore it.

Honorable Mention to Walt Frazier with the Cleveland Cavaliers, 1977-80. Seriously? Clyde with the Cavalosers? Only the last season was bad, though.

9. Bob Cousy with the Cincinnati Royals, 1970. Having last played in 1963 with the Boston Celtics, Cooz went into coaching, first at Boston College, and then with the Royals. In the 1969-70 season, the team was losing, and tickets were not selling. He was 41 years old and hadn't played in nearly 7 years, but he thought he could help.

Did he? At the box office, yes: Ticket sales jumped by 77 percent. On the court, no: He played 34 minutes over 7 games, scoring 5 points. "The Houdini of the Hardwood" proved that his heart was in the right place, but his legs were nowhere to be found. The team moved to become the Kansas City Kings in 1972, and he resigned as head coach in 1973, never to coach again.
Lucky for him, there was no ESPN to cover his sad efforts, or else we might have had a situation like in the movie Mr. 3000, with Bernie Mac as a 47-year-old baseball player thinking a comeback might get him the 3,000th career hit he thought he had, and into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Cooz was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971, after his 2nd retirement.

I had considered including another Celtic legend on this list: Dave Cowens, with the Milwaukee Bucks in 1982-83, under his former Celtic teammate Don Nelson, 2 years after his 1st retirement.

But he actually did all right for the Bucks, averaging 8.1 points per game at age 44, and helping them win 51 games. But he got hurt in the last regular-season game, and never played again. Ironically, with him unavailable to either team, the Bucks beat the Celtics in the 1st round of the Playoffs.

8. Duke Snider with the San Francisco Giants, 1964. The Duke, his former Brooklyn Dodger teammate Gil Hodges, Warren Spahn, Richie Ashburn, and even Yogi Berra, coming off the coaching staff to play 4 more games in 1965, all played with the Mets at or near the ends of their careers. (Spahn also closed it out with the Giants.)

The Duke playing in Los Angeles with the Dodgers wasn't that big a deal, since it was his hometown. But the Duke playing for the Giants? In San Francisco? That was so wrong, it should be said with a "hard G": "That's just wrong-guh."
This photograph, and this card, are totally rea
They shouldn't have been.

He played in 91 games, batted just .210, hit 4 home runs and had only 17 RBIs. He was 38 and not injury-prone, so he should have had something left. But if he did, Candlestick Park was not the place to show it.

7. Michael Jordan with the Washington Wizards, 2001-03. When he made his 1st comeback in 1995, he was 32, and no one was worried that he was making a mistake. Besides, it was still with the Chicago Bulls. But when he made his 2nd comeback, he was 38, he'd taken 2 1/2 years off, and was signing with... the Washington Wizards? A team that hadn't mattered in 20 years, since they were the Washington Bullets?

Yes, he announced he was donating his entire salary to 9/11 relief efforts (he announced his comeback 2 weeks after the attacks), so that was going to help. But the question was asked: "Will this comeback destroy Michael Jordan's legacy?"

In 2001-02, he battled injuries, especially to his knee, and was limited to 60 games, although he did lead the Wiz in scoring with 22.9 points per game. That should have been it. It wasn't. He played in all 82 games in 2002-03, and averaged 20.0 points, including 3 games of at least 40 points. Every Wizards home game was sold out.

But he publicly criticized his teammates, and he was not in the best of positions to do so. This was not the Jordan of 1996, or even of 1998. And fans saw him on ESPN's SportsCenter every night, looking like less than His Airness.

When Epic Rap Battles of History brought on the comedy team of Keegan-Michael Key to play Jordan, and Jordan Peele to play Muhammad Ali, Ali said to Jordan, "Your whole basketball career turned wack, when you came back a Wizard, like Gandalf the Black!" No, it wasn't a Mr. 3000 situation, and it didn't "destroy his legacy." But it did tarnish the legacy.
6. Steven Gerrard with the L.A. Galaxy, 2015-16. Due to the growth of telecasts of soccer, no player, not even 1970s-'80s great Kenny Dalglish, has become as identified with Liverpool Football Club as Stevie G. But for all he achieved with the Mersey Reds, he never won the Premier League.

So, at the age of 35, after 17 seasons with his hometown team, he went to Carson, California, to the Gals, who had 3 of the last 4 MLS Cups and 5 of the last 13. Surely, there, he could win a league. Result: They were eliminated in the 1st round in 2015 and the Conference Semifinals in 2016. And he retired. Oh well.
Dishonorable Mention to 2 other European legends, who played in MLS in the 2018 and '19 seasons: Zlatan Ibrahimović with the Galaxy, who at least scored a few goals; and Wayne Rooney with D.C. United.

5. Willie Mays with the New York Mets, 1972-73. He hit a home run in his 1st home game as a Met, the 649th of his career, and he should have retired right there. Instead, he kept going. The Mets won the Pennant in 1973, but he had very little to do with it. The entire country saw him stumbling in the subsequent World Series, both at the plate and in the field.

What he said in his retirement ceremony the previous month at Shea Stadium was something he should have said after that return homer: "Willie, say goodbye to America."

4. Joe Namath with the Los Angeles Rams, 1977. I understand going to Hollywood, but with those knees, Joe should've retired a couple of years earlier. And those garish blue and yellow (not "gold") uniforms were so wrong for him. He played in 4 games, completed 46.7 percent of his passes, threw 3 of them for touchdowns, and 5 for interceptions.

I once saw a Mad magazine which showed "Joe Nomyth" (as in, "no myth") interviewing a judge who turned out to be corrupt. He asked the judge, "What kind of cases do you enjoy most?" The judge said, "Pornography cases! I have to view all the films to see if they're obscene! Isn't this great?" And Joe said, "It sure beats looking at old football films. Except for the last few games of my career, which really were obscene!" They say all great humor is rooted in truth. It certainly was on that occasion.

I had considered including Brett Favre, who played for the Jets in 2008 and the Minnesota Vikings in 2009 and '10. But, as weird as he looked in those teams' uniforms, rather than those of the Green Bay Packers -- and, keep in mind, the Vikings are 2nd to the Chicago Bears as the Packers' rivals -- he actually made the Pro Bowl in 2008 and '09. In 2009, turning 40 during the season, he had the highest completion percentage of his career, a League-leading 68.4 percent, and threw 33 touchdown passes and only 7 interceptions.

Even in his last season, with an awful ratio of 11 touchdown passes and 19 interceptions, he still completed 60.6 percent of his passes. He may have hung on 1 year too long, but he still had something left when he got to Minneapolis, never mind the Meadowlands.

3. Johnny Unitas with the San Diego Chargers, 1973. In Baltimore Colts blue and white, he looked more like a quarterback than anyone ever has. In Charger blue and yellow (again, not "gold"), he looked like an old man in a Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts going for the early bird special in Florida.
He appeared in 5 games, completed 44.7 percent of his passes, threw 3 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions. And while he had a bad back, it wasn't as bad as Broadway Joe's knees. Plus, given that he was better than Namath, it was more of a comedown for him. About the only thing Johnny U got out of his San Diego experience was good weather.

I also considered O.J. Simpson with the San Francisco 49ers in 1978 and '79 (he gained 1,000 yards in 2 seasons, and it was his hometown team, although he was only 32 at the end), Thurman Thomas with the Miami Dolphins in 2000 (an injury-riddled last season with an AFC East rival of the Buffalo Bills), and Jerry Rice with the Seattle Seahawks in 2004 (the greatest career, statistically speaking, in NFL history finally ran out).

2. Bobby Orr with the Chicago Blackhawks, 1976-78. In 1976, the Boston Bruins offered Orr's agent, Alan Eagleson, a contract that would have sold him 18 percent ownership in the franchise in 1980. Eagleson turned the offer down -- without even telling him, Orr said. This was inexcusable. It's one reason why Eagleson was a crook, and is the only man who has ever had to resign membership in his sport's Hall of Fame: Because he defrauded the players he was working for, including Orr and other Hall-of-Famers.

Eagleson was a friend of Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz, who offered Orr a contract. He played a grand total of 26 games for Chicago, limited by injury, and retired at age 30. This is how I remember Bobby Orr: Not as the greatest player of his generation, not as the biggest reason the Bruins won 2 Stanley Cups (1970 and '72, the only ones they won between 1941 and 2011), but as a broken-down Blackhawk. I knew that was a shame even before I knew how Eagleson had arranged it.
1. Babe Ruth with the Boston Braves, 1935. The ultimate example. The greatest player in the history of the greatest sport, and he ended up a fat, injured DH on a 115-loss team in a league that didn't have the DH (and still doesn't). 
I don't blame him for wanting to go back to his first major league city. And I don't blame him for believing the promise of also being assistant manager, and manager-in-waiting. Lots of people would have been fooled by that. And, to be fair, he was injured (elbow), but that game where he hit 3 home runs (at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh, a pitcher's park) showed what he could still do when he felt good.

A few days later, he tripped and fell while chasing a fly ball. There was no designated hitter at the time. The Bambino was done, and he knew it, and retired within days. He was lucky there was no ESPN to show the entire country just how done he was.