J.V. Club is Drew Toal’s roundup of recent games, controversies, triumphs, mishaps, and other amusements in the world of sports.
I’m reminded of the old Fess Parker Davy Crockett miniseries, in which Davy attempts to “grin down a bear.” Rather than simply shoot the snarling beast, Crockett tries to sort of hypnotize the animal through the irresistible power of a winning backwoods smile. I think maybe that’s what Indiana Pacers gadfly Lance Stephenson had in mind when he gently blew in LeBron James’ ear during game five of the Eastern Conference finals. Since LeBron couldn’t be deterred by the usual Stephensonian mind games, the Indiana guard resorted to alternative methods of psychological subjugation. But Stephenson soon learned an important lesson: Sometimes you eat the bear, and sometimes the bear is a much better basketball player than you are.
Unfortunately for Stephenson, the incident instantly and forevermore became the most memorable part of the 2014 Eastern Conference championship, which the Miami Heat won in six games. Lance’s gentle breeze spawned a series of memes that depict him drinking a malted milkshake with the cast of Friends, blowing into an NES cartridge, and giving the Leaning Tower Of Pisa its distinctive tilt.
The best meme of the bunch, though, might be Stephenson casting a gentle, garlic-scented cross breeze on 50 Cent as the rapper-entrepreneur threw out the first pitch at the Mets game on May 25. It’s the only logical explanation for 50’s southpaw delivery defying all known laws of physics and going sideways out of his hand.
The ceremonial toss was instantly and forevermore deemed the worst first pitch ever thrown in the history of baseball, which is certainly saying something. Legally blind Diamondbacks fan Max Ashton, for instance, threw a perfect strike when he took the mound. Failure To Launch star Matthew McConaughey did not fail to launch; he pumped a fastball over the plate. The surprisingly effective life coach 50 Cent, on the other hand, was closer to hitting first base than he was home plate.
On Sunday, the L.A. Kings ended Chicago’s bid to be the first NHL team since the 1997-1998 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as Stanley Cup champions when they put away the Blackhawks 5-4 in an overtime thriller. Chicago squandered a 2-0 lead and eventually lost when Alec Martinez’s shot awkwardly deflected past Corey Crawford in the extra period.
The Kings might not be so lucky when they face goalie Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers in the Finals. Lundqvist is sporting a .928 save percentage since the beginning of the playoffs and has become no less discernibly handsome over that same stretch. The Rangers are hungry, too, if the overlarge Mark Messier-jersey wearers on my Facebook timeline are any indication. Will New York’s Martin St. Louis become the most celebrated native French speaker in the city since the Marquis De Lafayette? Probably not.
Although L.A. had to finish out three separate game sevens to reach the finals, they’re still clearly the favorites here, even exhausted. Unless New York can tap some of that 1993-1994 magic, the Kings will be taking home their second Cup in the last three years. But any opportunity to trot out the “Beat L.A.!” chant is an opportunity worth taking.
Fresh allegations of bribery surrounding Qatar’s winning bid for the 2022 World Cup surfaced this week, confirming popular suspicions that the “beautiful game” is beautifully corrupt. Britain’s Sunday Times linked Qatari official Mohamed Bin Hammam to $5 million in bribes and illicit gifts given to highly placed FIFA officials. The New York Times, meanwhile, reported on a worldwide “match-rigging syndicate” of referees who fix games for multinational gambling concerns.
You have to appreciate the brazenness with which these guys operate. The World Cup begins June 12. In a sport where angry fans stoned and decapitated a referee—who himself fatally stabbed a player for not leaving the field in a timely manner—officials purposely altering the outcomes of the world’s most popular sporting event are probably living on borrowed time. If I know Rio, which I’m pretty sure I do from my time drinking beers and playing Max Payne 3, then we haven’t heard the end of this. Is this the year someone is beaten to death with a vuvuzela?
But graft comes in many shapes and sizes, and some forms of illegal betting are less straightforward. Case in point: Professional golfer Phil “Lefty” Mickelson was recently implicated in an insider trading case where he allegedly bought a bunch of Clorox stock right before professional rich guy Carl Icahn initiated a hostile takeover of the company, driving up the price. Now, this could all just be a happy coincidence. Maybe Lefty just saw the awesome stain-fighting power of Clorox and thought to himself, “Hell, this is a damn good product that I, Phil Mickelson, can get behind, financially speaking.” Or maybe he really was tipped off.
Either way, Mickelson is probably in no danger of going to jail. I’m no lawyer, but as I understand American jurisprudence, white-collar crime—especially when committed by the kind rich white men traditionally associated with it—is difficult to prosecute. Does anyone really want to throw this popular and well-respected athlete in jail, merely for doing the very same thing Wall Street types do every day? Certainly not the rich white men in charge of our court system. Case dismissed.
The NBA Lottery is the league’s flawed solution to the problem of “tanking”—i.e., lousy teams phoning in games with the aim of getting a better draft position. With the lottery, the worst teams don’t automatically get the best draft picks the following season—they merely have the best statistical chance to get the top pick, and so on down the line of mediocrity. Probability is fickle, and the lottery results sometimes defy the odds, which is exactly what they are designed to do. Still, every year there are new conspiracy theories about how (now-former) NBA commissioner David Stern employs his sleight-of-hand to favor certain teams over others.
Last month, the Cleveland Cavaliers—the ninth-worst team by win-loss record in the 2013-14 season—came up with the winning ping-pong ball for the third time in the last four years. meaning that once again they will have the first pick in the next NBA draft. This despite the fact that they had only a 1.7 chance at earning the top pick. It’s still small recompense for losing LeBron James to free agency, but apparently new commissioner Adam Silver has inherited David Stern’s evil powers of meddling. And the Cavs really could use a do-over after wasting the first overall pick last year on Anthony Bennett, the 6-foot-8, 259-pound forward whose 4.2 points and 3 rebounds per game helped lead the team to a 33-49 record. Most analysts believe that this year, Cleveland will choose from the Kansas Jayhawks duo Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Let’s hope they choose wisely. Kyrie Irving desperately needs a new buddy, and you can only fire Mike Brown twice.
Tennis star Roger Federer endorses a new brand of plain yogurt, and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist reunites with his estranged father, the Dos Equis Guy.