Average Lasagna? Not in this house. Add some awesome to your family’s lasagna with the creamy melt of Kraft Mozzarella with a Touch of Philadelphia. © 2018 Kraft Foods LINEUP THERE’S NOTHING LIKE A DAME Thanks to timely outbursts from Lillard, the Blazers are in the playoffs for the fifth year in a row. A PRIL 9, 2018 VOLUME 128 | NO. 8 DEPARTMENTS SI TV P. 4 LEADING OFF P. 6 INBOX P. 1 2 SCORECARD P. 1 5 FACES IN THE CROWD P. 2 8 POINT AFTER P. 8 0 men’s Final Four 30 MICHIGAN VS. VILLANOVA After all the memorable upsets (and nuns), the tournament came down to a pair of powerhouses women’s inal four 40 NOTRE DAME VS. MISSISSIPPI STATE By ben baskin With a spectacular shot, Arike Ogunbowale helped the Irish win their first title in 17 years nba playof preview 46 DAMIAN LILLARD By lee jenkins The explosive Portland point guard (and social director) has the Blazers looking dangerous Golf 58 TIGER WOODS By michael rosenberg Anyone who doubts he is ready to claim a fifth green jacket has forgotten who the golfer is nhl playof preview 62 ZDENO CHARA By alex prewitt The 41-year-old Bruins captain remains obsessed with his pursuit of outsized excellence 69 VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS By charles p. pierce The most successful expansion team in NHL history has helped humanize—and heal—Sin City mlb 72 Photograph by Greg Nelson TOMMY PHAM By jack dickey The Cardinals outfielder should have had his breakout season sooner. Just ask him APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 3 NOW ON From the sideline . . . . . . to the fallout . . . . . . to the training ﬁeld . . . . . . to the contract signing . . . Malcolm in the Middle 4 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 . . . to the champagne toast. HOW TO WATCH Classic sports movies and TV shows, plus dozens of hours of compelling original programming: Watch SI TV on Amazon Channels. S T E V EN SEN N E /A P/SH U T T ERS T O C K (WI T H REP O R T ERS) WOULD THE PATRIOTS have won Super Bowl LII had Malcolm Butler started that game? “Probably. Maybe. I’m not sure. . . .” says the Pro Bowl cornerback. “I seen a couple plays out there I could have made.” We all know what happened instead: Butler stood on the sideline, appearing for just one special teams play, eyes welling with tears, as the Eagles ultimately edged his Pats, largely by carving up an outmanned secondary. Butler addresses that disappointing evening on SI TV in an episode of Under the Cover, which you can access through Amazon Prime starting this week. He also takes our video crew along as he plots his next move. “I wanted to go out like Kobe Bryant,” says Butler, as it becomes clear he won’t be a Patriot again in 2018. “I may not be Kobe Bryant, but I wanted to finish my career with one team. . . . But no one wants to be somewhere they’re not wanted.” Good thing for Butler, and for viewing audiences: At least 10 teams lined up for the free agent’s signature, and we take you behind the scenes as he sifts through the market, weighing long- and short-term deals against the advice of his brother, who prefers . . . the Lions? We’re there for the decision, the signature, the champagne toast and the moment Butler asks his mother, after signing for the Titans, “Hey, Mom, are you ready to go to Nashville?!” LEADING OFF OPENING SCENES FTER AN agonizingly slow and uneventful offseason, the major league season began on March 29. For the first time in 50 years, Opening Day was the circle-the-date occasion it is meant to be: Every team was scheduled to start the season on the same date—that is, before rain spoiled the festivities in Cincinnati and Detroit. Still, fans in 13 cities were treated to masterful pitching performances and awesome displays of power, exciting debuts and veterans reminding us what makes them special (and what we’ve missed over the winter). In short, baseball was back. Finally. A GLOBE LIFE PARK IN ARLINGTON The Astros began their title defense by picking up where they left off in October: George Springer took Cole Hamels of the Rangers deep on the third pitch of the season as Houston won 4–1. PHO T OGR A PH BY GREG NEL SON LEADING OFF FOLLOW @SPORTSILLUSTRATED CITI FIELD A young Mets fan did his best Thor impression before Noah Syndergaard’s 10-strikeout outing in New York’s 9–4 win over the Cardinals. The form looks good, but work on the hair, son! PHO T OGR A PH BY ROB T RING A L I OA K LA ND COLISEUM No one is happier to see extra innings than vendors. Hot dog peddlers had 11 innings to sling their franks before the A’s sent the fans home happy with a 6–5 walk-off win over the Angels. PHO T OGR A PH BY JORDA N N A HOLO WA‘A MURPH DODGER STADIUM Clayton Kershaw was in midseason form—one earned run allowed over six innings—but San Francisco’s Ty Blach was just a bit better in the Giants 1–0 win. PHO T OGR A PH BY ROBER T BECK LEADING OFF FOLLOW @SPORTSILLUSTRATED OAKLAND COLISEUM Making his 18th Opening Day start, 38-year-old Albert Pujols showed he’s still got plenty of pop left, smacking two hits—including his 615th career home run. PHO T OGR A PH BY JORDA N N A HOLO WA‘A MURPH brief mention in this issue. Sure, LoyolaChicago (below) has a great story, too, but have we become so obsessed with what’s next that we can’t look back and appreciate a great sports moment? Paul Hoff Valatie, N.Y. INBOX FOR MARCH 26–APRIL 2, 2018 Gary Dietz Philadelphia CALL ME BY MY NAME It was noted in the POINT A FTER column For ad rates, an editorial calendar or a media kit email SI at SIPUBQUERIES@TIMEINC.COM 12 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 that Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has claimed that he didn’t have oversight of the team’s business side. It’s good that he found someone new to handle those responsibilities, hiring CEO Cynthia Marshall in February. But I could have suggested another candidate: the writer of the column, Melissa Weishaupt (left). Rich Foley Fayette, Ohio Instead of evolving, mankind is actually beginning to regress. LIFTOFF Let me get this straight: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Pete Rose, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Ken Griﬀey Jr., Albert Pujols and . . . Josh Donaldson? If a career .277 hitter Roy Graham Copley, Ohio WHY. WE. WATCH. I couldn’t believe that No. 16 UMBC’s win over No. 1 Virginia, the biggest upset in the history of men’s college basketball, got only a Letters should include the writer’s full name, address and telephone number and may be edited for clarity and space. Email: LETTERS@SI.TIMEINC.COM WHAT’S THE RUSH? A few years ago I had an epiphany while watching Duke play Wisconsin in the NCAA title game. I’m a lifelong Blue Devils fan, but I found myself feeling happy for the Badgers’ seniors and conversely disgusted watching Duke’s talented freshmen essentially audition for the NBA. I’m sick of the one-anddones in Durham and everywhere else. Lisa Mickey New Smyrna Beach, Fla. To purchase reprints of SI covers, go to SICOVERS.COM MIK E C A RL S O N /A P/SH U T T ERS T O C K (WO O DS); G RE G N EL S O N (W EISH AU P T ); J EF F ERY A . S A LT ER (COV ER) SEEING RED AGAIN Should we all forget the abhorrent behavior of Tiger Woods (above) just because he is playing good golf again? What happened to the trail of damage (particularly to his children) he left in his path? As for his “ability to never acknowledge the crowd,” that wasn’t determination but a sheer indiﬀerence to the people who cheered for him. I’ll watch the Masters, but I will be cheering against Woods, not for him. (with one season above .300) is the next evolution of MLB hitting, then maybe the rock band Devo was right in choosing its name: THE NEW OUTDOOR COLLECTION STAY IN YOUR ELEMENT EVERYDAY VERSATILITY. OUTDOOR CREDIBILITY. OR STREAM IT ON HBO NOW® is only accessible through participating partners in the U.S. and certain U.S. territories. Certain restrictions apply. ® & © 2018 Home Box Ofﬁce, Inc. All Rights Reserved. A LIFE REMEMBERED P. 1 8 NEWSMAKERS P. 1 9 VAULT P. 2 0 GAME PLAN P. 2 2 EDGE P. 2 4 EATS P. 2 6 FACES P. 2 8 SCORECARD A GATHERING STORM A S A NE W SE A S ON BE GINS , P L AY E RS FACE THE HARSH REALIT Y OF B A S E B A L L’ S N E W W O R L D O R D E R BY JACK DICK E Y PHO T OGR A PH BY A P/SHU T T ERS T OCK HOUGH OPENING DAY has finally graced us with its arrival, banishing to the past the silliness of yet another spring training, the 2017–18 baseball offseason will not recede easily into memory. The past winter showcased the calamities facing Major League Baseball and signaled to labor and management how much work it will take to safeguard the game’s future. For two years now, baseball has closed its season with an extraordinary World Series then opened its offseason by awarding a T APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORTS ILLUSTRATED 15 SCORECARD ESSAY RICK PITINO WILL NOT ATTEND THE KENTUCKY OAKS AT CHURCHILL DOWNS—DESPITE HAVING A HORSE IN THE RACE NAMED COACH ROCKS—BECAUSE HE VOWED HE WOULDN’T SET FOOT IN THE STATE AFTER BEING FIRED BY LOUISVILLE. THEY SAID IT SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE Frazier’s agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, compensation also compel teams to went so far as to accuse owners of keep players in Triple A too long and collusion and to saber-rattle about players to accept contracts that could a strike. Players grumbled about all dramatically undervalue their skills. the teams’ opting out of contention. Before ever playing a big league game, But just as relevant as the owners’ Phillies prospect Scott Kingery agreed tightfistedness is the union’s to a six-year, $24 million deal with shortsightedness. three club-option Instead of responding years. Kingery’s deal to teams’ growing leaves him set for favor for young players life if he gets hurt by insisting on a new or ﬂames out, but it approach to service positions the Phillies time, the union, led for a bargain if he’s as by Tony Clark, spent good as advertised. the labor negotiations If there’s one in 2016 agitating lesson, it’s that for perks, such as players and teams clubhouse chefs. alike desire a system Sure, the old that works better. model continues to In this negotiation, work well for some both sides could CHIEF CONCERNS players. It took a while actually meet in the Union leader Clark faces for Eric Hosmer to middle: perhaps with numerous challenges as sign a contract that a service time clock the players’ share of the pie gloriously overpaid that starts when gets smaller. him, but in due course a player is in the he did. It will likely work, also, for minors but runs to a seventh year stars Bryce Harper, Manny Machado before free agency; or an additional and (if he opts out) Clayton Kershaw year of arbitration eligibility but also in this coming offseason. But these are a league-wide salary ﬂoor; or simply rare examples. What about 2015 AL with firmer instructions from the MVP Josh Donaldson? Teams may be league that tanking, which harms the scared away by his diminishing range game’s long-term health in middling and age (32). What about Charlie markets, is verboten. Any approach Blackmon, in a similar situation and would require compromise. Without only six months Donaldson’s junior? corrective action the issues raised this The shortcomings of MLB’s past offseason will make every sunny approach to service time and spring day just a little cloudier. ± “IT’S NOT A BIG DEAL. IT’S JUST DEAD. TORONTO MANAGER JOHN GIBBONS, on third baseman Josh Donaldson’s right arm. After struggling to throw to ﬁrst base on Opening Day, Donaldson was relegated to DH duties, citing a “dead arm.” C A RLOS OS O RI O/A P/SHU T T ERS TO C K (C L A RK); C A RS O N D ENNIS / E C L IPSE SP O R T S WIRE / G E T T Y IM AG E S (COAC H R O C K S); TO M S ZC ZERB OWSKI /G E T T Y IM AG E S (D O N A L DS O N) trophy to executives who oversaw a remorseless tanking effort. Tanking limits competitiveness within the season and outside of it: the A’s, Tigers, Reds, Rays, Pirates and Braves more or less sat out free agency, and the Marlins did all of them one better. The usually free-spending Yankees and Dodgers also skipped free agency to avoid paying the luxury tax. Softer demand in the free agent market makes life harder for all players. Unlike the other American professional leagues, baseball has no salary cap or ﬂoor, which means players are not guaranteed any particular share of league revenue. To achieve financial equilibrium, they rely on free agency. The union signs off on three minimum-salary years and three arbitration years for every player; in exchange, when all that’s through, a player hits an open market with essentially limitless earning power. Teams underpay for the front ends of careers and overpay for the back ends. Well, they used to, anyway. As with so many free agents themselves, MLB’s compensation model is past its prime. Just ask Lance Lynn, Mike Moustakas or Todd Frazier how their plans to cash in on free agency turned out. Each one—and they’ve all been All-Stars—will make less in 2018 than he did in 2017. Team spending on player salaries will decrease for the first time since 2004, according to ESPN. In a public statement in February, GO FIGURE MIXED RESULTS ONE-AND-DONERS BE WARE: MAKING THE LE AP AF TER YOUR FRESHMAN Y E A R DOE SN ’ T A LWAY S T R A NSL AT E T O NB A SUC C E S S 20 J.J. REDICK, who AVERAGE NBA CAREER WIN SHARES J O H N W. M C D O N O U G H (C U RRY ); MI C H A EL G O N Z A L E S / N BA E /G E T T Y IM AG E S (RED I C K) played four years at Duke, is one of three seniors with a career NBA win share over 50.0. 15 10 STEPH CURRY, drafted out of Davidson in 2009, leads all juniors with 93.4 career win shares. 5 14.8 FRESHMEN 19.9 SOPHOMORES 16.4 JUNIORS 12.7 SENIORS 12.6 INTERNATIONALS * 100 AT HL E T E S *78 AT HL E T E S * 6 4 AT HL E T E S * 6 1 AT HL E T E S * 57 AT HL E T E S THE NETS have been cut down; the champions crowned. Now it’s time for the annual parade of freshmen straight to the NBA draft. This year’s class, which includes Deandre Ayton (Arizona) and Marvin Bagley (Duke), is stocked. But how have one-and-doners fared in the NBA historically? In a word, meh. Since 2006, 100 freshmen have been selected in the first round—significantly more than any other class—but on average, sophomores and juniors have had more success as pros, with higher career win shares (averaging 19.9 for sophomores; 16.4 for juniors) than the one-and-done set (14.8). NUMBER OF ATHLETES TAKEN IN THE FIRST ROUND: = 1 athlete APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED * SINCE 2006 17 SCORECARD A LIFE REMEMBERED RUSTY STAUB 1944–2018 O BELOVED and benevolent was Daniel Joseph Staub that he claimed three hometowns and three nicknames to go along with one gloriously large heart. That heart, and the Runyanesque life in full it begat, was stilled on March 29, three days before his 74th birthday, in a West Palm Beach, Fla., hospital after a lengthy illness. He was Rusty from the time he was born in New Orleans in 1944—as soon as one nurse saw the red fuzz on his head—and acquired one of the all-time great sports sobriquets when Montreal Gazette sportswriter Ted Blackman christened him Le Grand Orange after Staub helped snap a 20-game losing streak with the expansion 1969 Expos, and to those closest to him he was affectionately “Orange.” S Two cities especially adopted him as their own: Montreal, where he played for four years, and New York, where he played nine for the Mets before becoming a club ambassador. The joke was that his title was simply Rusty, because the name itself was an honorific. Such a sweet hitter was Staub that Ted Williams, upon trying to coax him into signing with the Red Sox, inscribed in his high school yearbook, “To a future major leaguer if I ever saw one.” Twenty-three seasons, 2,716 hits, six All-Star Games and five franchises— all of them better for having Staub grace them with his spirit. His ability to play baseball paled in magnitude compared with his empathy. In 1985, Staub established the New York Police and Fire Widows’ and Children’s Benefit Fund to raise money for the families of fallen first responders. After 9/11, his fund distributed more than $117 million. Staub later established the Rusty Staub Foundation, which provides food pantries and meals to New Yorkers in need. Over the past 14 years, while partnering with Catholic Charities, his foundation has delivered more than 12 million meals. He epitomized how sports at their best are not an end but a platform for the better. The blaze of hair atop his head made him recognizable, the perpetual smile upon his face made him convivial, but the unselfishness in his heart made him unforgettable. —Tom Verducci F O C US O N SP O R T/G E T T Y IM AG E S 18 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 NBA TONY PARKER THE SPURS’ DIRECTOR IS NOW A PRODUCER IN T ER V IE W BY ROH A N N A DK A RNI PURS GUARD Tony Parker is excited to bring you a basketball movie, even if he won’t be dunking over aliens. Instead, Parker is a producer on the film Amateur, out April 6 on Netﬂix, which tells the story of a 14-year-old navigating the shady world of NCAA recruiting. SI caught up with Parker to discuss the movie, the Spurs’ being in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 21 seasons and more. S G RE G N EL S O N (PA RK ER); JAY N E K A MIN - O N C E A /G E T T Y IM AG E S (IB R A HIM OV I C) ∂ SI: What made you want to be involved with Amateur? TP: I always thought the NCAA system was not fair with all those millions and millions of dollars, and the athletes getting nothing. I don’t know why they wouldn’t get paid. Coming from Europe, I started my professional career when I was 16, and I was making money. In tennis, gymnastics, snowboarding, all those sports, you start very young and you make money. I thought maybe the movie could help improve the system. ∂ SI: It’s easy to take the Spurs’ success for granted. What’s this season been like? TP: This year is a great example, with all the injuries we’ve been having, that it’s not easy to make the playoffs that often. Right now we’re fighting. It’s been different. ∂ SI: Is this almost more exciting in a way? TP: No, not really. [Laughs.] ∂ SI: So you hit one of the best shots of all time in the Finals that no one talks about anymore— the stepback over LeBron in Game 6 in 2013. What do you remember about that play? TP: I thought we were going to win the championship. LeBron switched on me, I hit the stepback three. And then right after that I get a steal off LeBron. He tried to make a pass, I get the steal, and I go up, and I score again. We’re up five with 28 seconds. It was a tough one. It could have been the biggest shot of my career if we win. [The Spurs went on to lose the series in seven games.] ∂ SI: How has your relationship with coach Gregg Popovich evolved over the years? He was famously very tough on you early in your career. TP: Now it’s like we don’t have to say that much. He just gives me a look, and I know what he wants. It’s more about helping our young guys. Because Manu [Ginóbili] and I are not going to play forever. Welcome to L.A.! RECENCY BIAS is a real thing. Too often in sports we want to call someone or something the greatest ever, and 99.999% of the time we’re wrong. But then there is that 0.001%. Let me just say it: Zlatan Ibrahimovi ć’s debut for the Galaxy on March 31—in which he entered in the 71st minute, scored once from 40 yards and again in stoppage, helping L.A. win 4–3 over LAFC—is the most indelible moment in MLS history. Ibrahimović had just landed in California two nights earlier. There were questions about the effects of a knee injury that had sidelined him with Manchester United for much of the last year. But what happened when he came into a 3–1 game is the stuff of legend. After Chris Pontius scored for L.A. in the 73rd, Ibrahimović beat LAFC’s keeper with a sidewinder swipe of his right leg, the kind of shot that few in the world would even take, much less finish. In the 91st, Ibrahimovi ć (right) headed in the winner. Shortly after signing, the 36-year-old forward took out a full-page newspaper ad that read, dear los angeles, you’re welcome. Somehow, he undersold it. —Grant Wahl SCORECARD VAULT AHEAD OF THEIR TIME T W E N T Y- F I V E Y E A R S L AT E R , MICHIGAN’S FAB FIVE STILL LOOK LIKE PIONEERS BY A L E X A NDER WOL FF 20 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 FROM THE PAGES OF SI APRIL 12, 1993 “Monday night’s defeat of Michigan seemed at first blush to be the work not of any sentient hand, but of déjà voodoo. Then again, maybe it wasn’t; maybe North Carolina caused Webber’s gaffe. Early in the second half, in what seemed to be a meaningless incident, Phelps and Lynch sandwiched Jalen Rose, denying him a simple inbounds pass from teammate Juwan Howard. To avoid a five-second violation, Howard had to burn a timeout—the one Webber will forever wish had been there to call at the end.” S US A N R AG A N /A P/SH U T T ERS T O C K WENTY-FIVE YEARS after I wrote about Chris Webber calling a timeout his Michigan team didn’t have, in the dying seconds of the 1993 NCAA TITLE GAME against North Carolina, let us hail the Fab Five, college basketball’s original and eternal It Boys.And the sport’s Id Boys: In the Big Ten, a league identified with the commandand-control excesses of Indiana coach Bob Knight, and at Michigan, which had just come out from under the autocratic rule of Bo Schembechler, they dared to scowl at the sport’s superegos. With limbs jangling beneath all that uniform fabric, they stage-whispered T their secret while acting it out—pssst, we are college hoop. The short shorts favored by today’s Final Four Michigan team? They play off the tastemaking stake its forebears planted a quarter-century ago. (Whereas the Fab Five tugged at their shorts so they’d hang lower, the 2018 Wolverines roll up waistbands to bring their hemlines higher.) And the free-agent convergence in Miami of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in 2010? That was a pale NBA answer to the gesture of empowerment that Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson made by forming their own superteam in Ann Arbor in 1991. Between the on-the-block bursts of Webber, the janky dribble-drives of Rose, the ﬂexed-elbow Bogarting of Howard, the perimeter daggers of King, the white-on-rice defense of Jackson and the giddy, unabashed brotherhood with which they blended it all, the Fab Five supplied so much entertainment that, if they weren’t getting paid, lordy, they should have been. It turned out some of them indeed had a paymaster, a booster named Ed Martin, another brick in college sports’ wall of So It Has Been and So It Ever Shall Be. Thus the NCAA doesn’t officially recognize their two Final Four appearances. We can nonetheless trace most of the chants directed at college basketball these days—“end the hypocrisy” and “let them play”— back to the early ’90s and the guys in maizeand-blue and black socks and shoes. With all five still around the game, two as broadcasters, we’ve been able to follow their journeys, none more fascinating than that of Rose from undomesticated goofball to media wise man. Webber’s calling that phantom timeout may have been a brief bridge too far in the ongoing battle between college basketball’s players on the one hand, and everyone who draws undeserved paychecks on the other. But that single rogue moment, and the national title it may have cost Michigan, remains the exception that proves the rule that basketball’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith, once declared. It could double as the Fab Five’s epitaph: “You don’t coach basketball; you just play it.” ± SCORECARD GAME PLAN: THE SMART FAN’S GUIDE TO RIGHT NOW REEL SCANDAL T HE T W O W EEKS T H AT SHOOK A C A MPUS, A STORIED FOOTBALL PROGRAM AND A LEGEND READ THE PERFORMANCE CORTEX By Zach Schonbrun, released April 17 A must-read for the cerebral sports fan, this research-driven study of neuroscience and sports is like Moneyball, except nerdier. Much nerdier. Schonbrun explores everything from decisionmaking to motor skills and explains why Steph Curry is legit a genius. WATCH WATCH SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 STREAM BREWERS VS. CARDINALS April 11 at 1:15 p.m., on Facebook The social media giant signed a deal for exclusive broadcast rights to 25 weekday afternoon games, including this NL Central showdown. Finally, baseball and photos of your great aunt Shirley’s cats, all in one convenient location. CO U R T E S Y O F H B O ; M A R T I N L A K SM A N (I CO N S) PATERNO April 7 at 8 p.m. ET, on HBO Seven years after the investigation into Jerry Sandusky’s sexual abuse of young boys engulfed Penn State, a new movie, directed by Barry Levinson (The Natural, Rain Main) and starring Al Pacino as the titular coach, revisits the dizzying two weeks that followed Sandusky’s 2011 indictment. Of the ﬁlm’s resonance now, in the current #MeToo climate, Levinson says, “One of the points of the movie is, Look what happens when a voice is not heard. When the ﬁrst victim stepped forward, if the authorities would have done the necessary investigation, then nothing else would have happened beyond it. But it was ignored. The reason things are happening now is that so many people have been ignored for so long that it explodes.” —Jack Dickey NCAA FROZEN FOUR April 5 at 6 p.m., on ESPN2 (semis); April 7 at 8:30 p.m., on ESPN (final) Sending teams to both the men’s Final Four (basketball) and the Frozen Four (hockey)— just the sixth time that’s ever happened—Michigan gets another shot at a national title. WE TOWN THE GREATEST STARTING 5 IN HIGH SCHOOL BASKETBALL HISTORY? A NEW DOCUMENTARY AVAILABLE ONLY ON SI.COM/TV ©2018 Meredith Corporation SPORTS ILLUSTRATED is a trademark of Meredith Corporation, registered in the U.S. and other countries. SITV is a trademark of Meredith Corporation. SCORECARD FASHIONABLE FIR EDGE: GEAR. TECH. FITNESS. LIGHT STUFF F A R I N F R A R E D R A D I AT I O N T H E R A P Y— W E ’ L L E X P L A I N — I S T HE NE W ES T CR A ZE IN AT HL E T E RECO V ERY INFRARED LIGHT SAUNA TRADITIONAL HEAT SAUNA inside an infrared sauna, additionally, reaches a much more tolerable 125°. Hospitals have long used similar heating techniques for newborns, and it’s not an unnatural occurrence. “For most of the history of mankind, folks have gathered around fires at night, absorbing FIR while socializing,” says Michael Hamblin, associate professor of dermatology at Harvard Medical School. “It is only in recent times with the advent of central heating that nobody is regularly exposed to FIR anymore.” to athlete recovery. It’s also believed, though it has not been not definitively proved, that the energy can perturb the structure of proteins to the point at which physiological changes on a cellular level could take place. The academic research on FIR’s application for athletes and in sports performance is still very limited. But a 2015 study from the Journal of Athletic Enhancement, which sought to test the effectiveness of far infrared therapy with a group of 10 male athletes from track and field, gymnastics and baseball, found that the use of FIR heat for 40 minutes improves muscle recovery after intense training as compared to passive recovery methods. —Jamie Lisanti BEAT THE HEAT THE SCIENCE SAYS . . . To understand how FIR works, let’s go back to middle-school science class: Only a small part of the electromagnetic spectrum SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 I S T O C K P H O T O/G E T T Y I M AG E S (BAC KG R O U N D); CO U R T E S Y O F U N D ER A RM O U R (2); IL LUS T R AT I O N S BY M A R T IN L A K SM A N While a traditional dry sauna simply heats the surrounding air to around 190° (right), far infrared saunas use infrared lamps to release electromagnetic radiation, which can be absorbed by the body as much as 11⁄2 inches under the skin (below). The air temperature is made up of visible light; the rest goes unseen to the naked eye. On the spectrum, between visible light and microwaves, infrared radiation has many well-known applications, from night vision to heating. Without going into advanced cellular biochemistry, it can be explained like this: FIR (closer to microwaves than to visible light) will increase the vibration of water molecules inside cells, in effect raising the temperature in microscopic regions not by heat but by electromagnetic energy. One proven effect is increased blood flow in deep tissue, which is the main benefit OR ATHLETES, recovering from workouts has become nearly as important as training itself. Warm baths and cold tubs are old staples, but far infrared radiation (FIR) saunas are trending among pros and weekend warriors alike. F Far infrared technology isn’t confined to saunas and lamps. The science may be coming to your closet. You may have heard about FIR from one Tom Brady, hawking $200 pajama sets by Under Armour (below). They are made of what is called bio-ceramic fabric—a textile that has heat-absorbing ceramic materials woven into it. There are also bedsheets made of similar fabric on the market. The idea is that the fabric will absorb the body heat and re-emit the energy as far infrared radiation back into your skin, creating a kind of mirror effect of energy. For true benefits, a bio-ceramic garment should fit snugly to the skin and be worn for hours at a time. E H T S I N I E T O R P ! S S E R G O R P F O FUEL PROGERCETSIOSN TM ® © 2 0 1 8 W H I T E WAV E S E R V I C E S , I N C . IS PERF SCORECARD EATS: FOOD. DRINK. CULTURE. SPORTS. FEAST MODE THE NEWEST CULINARY MONSTROSITIES HIT TING S TA DIUMS T HIS SUMMER baked beans, topped with molé sauce Take pulled pork (quintessentially American), add maple syrup and cheese curds (Canadian, French Canadian) and then top it all with molé (Mexican), and what do you get? A tribute to NAFTA even Donald Trump could get behind. BY JON TAY L ER SUNTRUST PARK (BRAVES) BALLPARK CHEFS are trying to kill you. What else could you take away from the unveiling of the latest piles of fried dough, smoked meat and sugar that are going to lodge uncomfortably in your stomach the next time you go to a major league game? The new options for 2018 are bigger, fatter, greasier—so which stand out the most? Grab some bicarb; here are the ﬁve most gluttonous concoctions clogging an artery near you. COORS FIELD (ROCKIES) ROGERS CENTRE (BLUE JAYS) LOG CABIN WAFFLE SANDWICH (top) Rosemary-scented wafﬂes stuffed with pulled pork, cheese curds and maple 26 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 GLOBE LIFE PARK IN ARLINGTON (RANGERS) HAM FRIES Deep-fried ham There are other options on Texas’s menu that are more eye-popping, such as the Triple B, a sandwich made of brisket, PNC PARK (PIRATES) PULLED PORK PIEROGI HOAGIE Pulled pork, potato and cheese pierogi topped with crispy onions on a hoagie bun It’s like, how much more Pittsburgh could it get? The answer is none— none more, Yinzer. At least, it’s hard to imagine anything being more representative of the Steel City than a pierogi and pork sandwich. Unless maybe you add fries to it. ± CO U R T E S Y O F A R A M A RK (LO G C A B IN WA F F L E SA N DWI C H , P U L L ED P O RK H OAG IE , R O C K Y M O U N TA I N P O ’ B OY ); CO U R T E S Y O F D EL AWA R E N O R T H (SP E C-TAT ER , H A M F RI E S) rocky mountain po’ boy Rocky Mountain oysters topped with garlic slaw, guacamole, green chili ranch, pico de gallo and cotija cheese on a po’ boy roll Let’s get this out of the way now: Rocky Mountain oysters are bull testicles. If you can get past that bit of regional culinary weirdness, you’ll find what sounds like a pretty good time. SPEC-TATER Jumbo potato stuffed with jalapeño cheddar sausage, wrapped in bacon, smoked, and topped with cheese, cream, scallions and jalapeños Ballpark food nowadays is an exercise in excess, in which chefs go to great lengths to put as many starches and meats into a dish as humanly possible. The Spec-Tater represents man’s zenith in this regard, and maybe also his nadir. There is nothing creative about potatoes and sausage and bacon smashed together into what looks like a deepfried croissant, but you also have to respect the sheer will that brought us here. Take it or leave it, America. bacon and bologna (tagline: singlehandedly raising health insurance premiums across the country) or the Dilly Dog (the curious marriage of a pickle and a corn dog, creating the Turducken of hypertension). But there’s something about ham fries— as a concept, as a name, as a thing a person would willingly eat—that resonates deeply in a nation in which food has become a competition. Imagine a boardroom full of people tasked with imagining lunatic food in a landscape already cluttered with three-foot-long hot dogs and burgers that weigh as much as a bear cub, and finally, after hours of trying to make brisket a drink, an exhausted ad executive just blurts out, “What if ham, but fries?” I’m not saying that’s how we got here, but it makes the most sense, doesn’t it? Ham, but fries: The Rangers invite you to consume the logical conclusion of ballpark food. IF IT’S IN THE MAIL, IT’S IN YOUR EMAIL. TM Sign up for Informed Delivery® from USPS and you’ll know what important packages and letters are coming to your mailbox before they arrive. So you won’t just get your mail, you’ll get peace of mind. Sign up for free at informeddelivery.com* © 2018 United States Postal Service. All Rights Reserved. The Eagle Logo is among the many trademarks of the U.S. Postal Service®. Please recycle packaging materials whenever possible. *Email notiﬁcations and the Informed Delivery® dashboard and mobile app include exterior images of letter-sized mail and color images from participating mailers. Package tracking information on Priority Mail Express®, Priority Mail® and other trackable parcels is also included. Apple and the Apple logo are trademarks of Apple, Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries. APP STORE is a service mark of Apple, Inc. Google Play is a service mark of Google, Inc. SCORECARD NOMINATE NOW To submit a candidate for Faces in the Crowd, email email@example.com For more on outstanding amateur athletes, follow @SI_Faces on Twitter. FACES IN THE CROWD Edited by JEREMY FUCHS KENDALL GRETSCH Nordic Skiing Downers Grove, Ill. TYE FAGAN Basketball Thomaston, Ga. SOPHIE MCGOVERN Hockey Hermantown, Minn. Megan, a senior righthander at Cathedral Catholic in San Diego, pitched two perfect games and a one-hitter in four starts at the Cougar Classic in Escondido. She struck out 81 in 33 innings and hit two home runs. The nation’s No. 1 recruit, Megan will play for UCLA next year. Gretsch, 26, won two gold medals at the Paralympics in PyeongChang. She took the sitting biathlon 6K sprint in 21:52.0, then the women’s 12K crosscountry in 38:15.9. Born with spina biﬁda, Gretsch is also an elite paratriathlete, winning three straight world titles from 2014 to ’16. Tye, a 6' 3" senior shooting guard at Upson-Lee High, had 21 points, 10 rebounds and four assists to lead the Knights to a 70–54 victory over St. Pius in the Class AAAA state ﬁnal. It was their second straight title and 63rd win in a row. The school’s all-time leading scorer, Tye averaged 26.0 points. McGovern, a sophomore forward at Norwich (Vt.) University, scored the game-winning goal with 1:33 left in the third period to give the Cadets a 2–1 win over Elmira (N.Y.) for the Division III title. Named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, she ﬁnished the season with 16 goals. UPDATE Grappling with Greatness Arizona State sophomore Zahid Valencia, who appeared in Faces in the Crowd in December 2014 after winning his fourth straight title at the Walsh Ironman wrestling tournament, became the 11th national champion in Sun Devils history on March 17. Defeating Penn State’s Mark Hall (Faces, September 2016) for the 174-pound NCAA crown, the Pico Rivera, Calif., native avenged his 2017 semifinal loss (to Hall) with an 8–2 win at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The victory capped a perfect 32–0 season, which also included his second conference title. Valencia, a finalist for wrestler of the year, describes the national title as the apex of years of diligence and effort. “I believe I’ve done all the right things,” he says. “All the sacrifices I’ve made, all the hard work I’ve put in, my dedication, it was for something. To be able to reach my goal is really satisfying.” —J.F. 28 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 VICTORIA VANRIELE Track and Field Berkeley Heights, N.J. Victoria, a sophomore at Governor Livingston High, ran a 2:10.27 in the 800 meters at the Group 2 sectional, breaking Olympian Ajeé Wilson’s meet record, set in 2009. A week later Victoria lowered her PR to 2:08.81 at the Meet of Champions, taking her second straight title. M AT T FA R A IM O (FA R A IM O); CO U R T E S Y O F T E A M US A (G RE T S C H); PRE S T I G E P O R T R A I T S (FAGA N); M A RK CO L L IER (M CG OV ERN); J O H N H A D DA D (VA N RIEL E); JAY L A PRE T E / N C A A PH OTOS/G E T T Y IM AG E S (U PDAT E) MEGAN FARAIMO Softball Vista, Calif. CONSIDER YOUR MOUTH #BLESSED Orbit White Gum Helps Keep Teeth White* RESERVE CLAWS With his teammates struggling early, DiVincenzo came off the bench, lit up the Wolverines and made a little history: He’s the first to score at least 30 in an NCAA final in 21 years. AGAIN, WITH ATTITUD Two years ago Villanova shocked the world (and maybe itself) the W IL D C AT S ’ band of versatile, selfless, confident and field. After a finals blowout of Michigan, it’s worth asking: Is N C A A MARCH MADNESS 2018 M E EN BY ’S FINA LS Dan Greene PHOTOGRAPH BY by winning it all. Not this time— deadly shooters destroyed the NCAA this college hoops’ perfect program? JOHN W. MCDONOUGH FEELING OFFENSIVE DiVincenzo (below) and Bridges (right) scored 31 and 19 points, respectively, as Villanova secured its sixthstraight double-digit victory of the tournament. THIS WAS SUPPOSED to be a college basketball season with no truly great team, an odd year defined by top-ofthe-polls tumult that would leave the NCAA tournament open for the taking. Yet on the first Monday in April there was Villanova, laying waste to both that tired narrative and to Michigan on an elevated court in San Antonio’s Alamodome, with a majestic brand of ball at once modern in its approach and old-school in its mind-set. There was the national player of the year palming the ball in his left hand and shouting in celebration after the final buzzer, then sobbing—joyfully—minutes later. who emerged as this season’s final hero, scoring 18 of Villanova’s first 32 points and converting what began as a struggle into a romp. “He picked us up big time,” said junior wing Mikal Bridges, who scored 19 points on 7 of 12 shooting from the field. “And I love him for it.” After a pair of second-half threes pushed the Wildcats’ lead to 18, a straight-faced DiVincenzo absorbed a series of his teammates’ chest bumps on his way into the huddle for a timeout, raising a finger to the scoreboard. Explained junior forward Eric Paschall, “He was saying, Seven minutes to finish this.” At that point it was only a matter of time. J O H N W. M C D O N O U G H (RI G H T ); G RE G N EL S O N 32 APRIL 9, 2018 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED There was a bench player nicknamed the Big Ragu and the Michael Jordan of Delaware scoring a career-high 31 points and winking at a former teammate in the stands. There was a sixth, and final, win by double figures to seal the program’s second national title in three seasons. There, finally, was greatness. The Wildcats’ 79–62 win coronated both this year’s champion and the sport’s newest royalty. Since the end of UCLA’s dynasty in the mid-1970s only three other schools have won two national championships in as short a span, the last being Florida’s backto-back titles in 2006 and ’07. Just one star ter remained from t he 2016 team: junior point guard Jalen Brunson, now the seventh Naismith recipient to win that same year’s NCAA tournament. But as Brunson struggled to find his shot and then fell into foul trouble, it was 6' 5" sophomore guard Donte DiVincenzo, who spent the previous championship run redshirting and excelling as a scout-teamer, MEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP HE WILDCATS had touched down in San Antonio in an unfamiliar position: even-money Vegas favorites, the greater of two Goliaths in the heavyweight portion of the Final Four’s twin bill. They took the Alamodome ﬂoor each day in as familiar a way as possible, slapping their hands on the white tape adhered above the inside frame of their locker room door, on which the word attitude was Sharpied in black. Senior manager Matt O’Neill had stuck it there hours before Villanova’s first practice on March 29, just as he had done in the team’s meeting and meal rooms in the Hyatt Regency downtown, just as he had done on all road trips this season. Wherever the Wildcats go, they go with attitude. This Villanova squad reﬂexively dodged comparisons to its 2016 iteration, insisting it was a new team, the returning figures cast in fresh roles. But even discounting a scout-team cameo from 2016 hero Kris Jenkins at that initial practice, these Wildcats invite connection to their recent past. They play similarly, spacing the ﬂoor and bombing away from deep. They speak similarly, dog- T “ “ Y OU T HINK I T ’ S T HEIR T HR EEP OIN T SHOO T ING . BU T B Y FA R T HEIR IDEN T I T Y IS T HEIR T OUGHNE S S .” —Texas Tech coach Chris Beard 34 APRIL 9, 2018 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED its first Final Four in 24 years, but after that achievement the program lost some of its edge. Wright has said that he got “sloppy” in his recruiting during this time, overemphasizing talent and stature and not fully considering how players might fit in the Wildcats’ culture. Two years after that Final Four—where the Wildcats lost in the semifinals to eventual champion North Carolina—Villanova started 16–1 before collapsing, losing its final six games. The following season it finished 13–19. “Those were good players, and they weren’t bad people,” says Philadelphia 76ers assistant Billy Lange, who served on Wright’s staff from ’01 to ’04 and ’11 to ’13. “They just weren’t coming to Villanova for the same reasons Jay wants people to.” Around the same time he was returning to his original priorities, Wright made another important tweak. As the Wildcats were continually burned by opponents’ three-point shooting, he commissioned Lange to figure out why. He spent the summer of 2013 chronicling every three-pointer Villanova had surrendered in G RE G N EL S O N matically citing the same tenets of “Villanova basketball” and, yes, attitude. They even prepare Spellman (14) and Booth and conduct themselves the same kept Wolverines star way, just as coach Jay Wright’s Moritz Wagner from doing any real damage in the teams always have. Two years title game. ago Brett Gunning, an assistant under Wright for 14 years at Hofstra and Villanova who now coaches for the Houston Rockets, sat in on one of Villanova’s pre–Final Four practices. “It might as well have been Day One at Hofstra,” Gunning says now. Villanova has become a model not just of a program but of programming, a humming machine Wright has been honing since his hiring in 2001. Attitude is both its foundational and oldest component, traced to Wright’s debut season at Hofstra in 1994–95, a 10–18 campaign that opened with 74 people in the stands and went downhill from there. Wright would drive around Long Island that winter in his GMC Jimmy listening to Louis Armstrong croon “It’s a Wonderful World” on cassette in an effort to stem off emotional slumps. “Don’t walk around like a loser,” Wright told his players. “Walk around with a great attitude. That’s what we can control.” The mind-set was still there in 2009, when Villanova reached CONTAINMENT STRATEGY ATHER ROB HAGAN was not this Final Four’s most extolled chaplain—that distinction went to Sister Jean DoloresSchmidt, the 98-year-old nun from Loyola-Chicago who became such a sensation that the NCAA granted her an official press conference before more than 100 rapt reporters. But Hagan, an associate AD at Villanova who has counseled the school’s basketball team since 2004, was the one navigating Monday’s confetti-strewn court and likely the only one to have preached to his charges during the tournament about the lessons that can be gleaned from the behavior of Hereford cattle. When a storm rolls in, Hagan told the Wildcats, the cows band together and turn toward it. Only through their collective resolve is the tempest weathered. A month earlier Hagan had shared with the team a more traditional parable, that of the barren fig tree from the gospel of Luke. In it a vineyard owner orders a tree cut down after three fruitless seasons. “But a fig tree doesn’t bear fruit every year,” Hagan says, the lesson being that with time and attention, the desired outcome may yet arrive. Around the Villanova locker room Hagan could cite examples, from freshman forward Omari Spellman, academically ineligible and overweight a year ago but now a slimmed-down starter and burgeoning poet, to DiVincenzo, who missed most of his own first collegiate season with a broken right foot, accepted a reserve role this year and wound up the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. But it was in the journeys of the team’s two stars, born one day and 49 miles apart, that the Reverend could summon two excellent testimonials for such patience. Brunson arrived at Villanova ready to make his mark. Famously and painstakingly trained by his father, Rick, who scrapped his way to a nine-year NBA career by way of Australia’s NBL and the now-defunct CBA, the younger Brunson was a McDonald’s All-American and Illinois Mr. Basketball who won MVP honors at the FIBA U19 world championships the summer after he graduated from Stevenson High in Lincolnshire. “I’ve never recruited as complete a player,” Wright said the week of the Final Four. “I never saw anybody that mature, that refined at everything.” The spring of Brunson’s senior year, then Wildcats assistant Baker Dunleavy visited Brunson at his home and recognized Brunson’s shooting routine during a workout: It was the exact one Villanova uses, copied down by Rick during a visit to the school. “At times F its previous 27 games against high-level opponents and filed a 37-page report complete with pie charts and color-coded tables. “He probably read about two pages,” Lange says now, but it was enough to grasp the report’s primary conclusion: The best way Villanova could limit opponents’ three-point damage was by emphasizing communication and reworking their ball-screen defense. It was the volume of opponents’ threes, not their percentage of makes, that needed to be addressed. Another of the Wildcats’ many creeds is that defense leads to offense, and in this case the effect was literal. The same logic suggested that Villanova’s offense would benefit from shooting more triples, and so Wright, already a deep-ball proponent and member of the small-ball avant-garde, built his rosters and game plans accordingly. In 2013–14, the first season after the study, the Wildcats’ share of field goal attempts from beyond the arc leaped from 35.3% (112th in the country) to 44.8% (seventh). It has not dipped below 42.7% since. MEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP Thus the DNA of two Villanova title teams was encoded. This year’s Wildcats might have challenged the NCAA tournament’s informal record for handclaps and high fives, but more officially they set two other marks: for the most three-pointers by any team in a single season (464), and for the greatest reliance on treys (47.5% of their shots from the ﬂoor) by an NCAA champion. The latter mark had been set in 2016 by, yes, the Wildcats, who ended that tournament with the most famous three in the event’s history. As the entire Villanova bench rushed the court within seconds of Jenkins’s splash that night in Houston, it was the pair of freshmen who sprinted out first who would carry the program back to Texas for another celebration, on another Monday night in April. TOP 10 FOR 2018–19 BY Molly Geary 1. KANSAS A top five recruiting class arrives in Lawrence and will be joined by brothers Dedric and K.J. Lawson, transfers from Memphis. 2. DUKE The Blue Devils will reload, and then some, with an unprecedented four top 10 recruits, including 6' 7" wings R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish. enrolled at Villanova in 2014, not yet 18 and weighing just 175 pounds. When the spindly newbie nicknamed Noodles began wearing down against older teammates in practice, Villanova’s coaches approached Bridges with an idea: Sit out the season as a redshirt to beef up. W hat followed was standard at hletic pound-packing—a progression of weightlifting routines, a succession of 500-calorie protein shakes to wash down ample servings of grass-fed beef. Yet in their regular phone calls Rivers could tell the all-work, no-play experience was wearing on her son. “Those hard days,” she says, “I would tell him, ‘Mikal, remember my story.’ ” Hers was anything but standard: pregnant at 19, raising Mikal alone and working full-time while taking classes to complete a degree in business administration from Cabrini University, sometimes toting her son to lectures or group-project sessions. On the afternoon of Saturday’s semifinal, 3. VILLANOVA Jalen Brunson will most likely turn pro, but five-star 6' 1" point guard Jahvon Quinerly from Hudson Catholic High in Jersey City is on the way in. 4. MICHIGAN If Moritz Wagner comes back, the Wolverines will have four starters returning to help a top 20 recruiting class get up to speed. J O H N W. M C D O N O U G H (L EF T ); G R E G N EL S O N you would be like, Rick, don’t worry,” says Dunleavy, now Quinnipiac’s head coach. “He’ll get it when he gets here.” Still, prepared and developed as Brunson was, the roster he joined in the fall of 2015 already featured an entrenched point guard in four-year captain Ryan Arcidiacono. Brunson grew close to his mentor and started all but one game alongside him, but his was still a smaller role than he was used to playing, one adjustment among many he had to make that first year. During struggles in Big East play Jalen would phone Rick late ALL THE FEELS at night, his confidence cracking. The normally unflappable Am I good enough? Did I make a Brunson was overcome mistake? The low point came when with emotion when Wright took him out for Brunson played just nine minutes the final time. in a conference championship loss to Seton Hall, after which even Rick grew restless. “Damn right I called [Wright],” says Rick, now an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves. “What the hell are you benching my son for?” But he eventually settled his mind with the same refrain he told his son: Jay knows what he is doing. What Wright was doing was developing what he now calls “the easiest player I’ve ever coached,” a headstrong national player of the year who averaged 18.9 points and 4.6 assists as a junior while coming to embody the program’s steely, unﬂappable efficiency. “You peel his face off,” then Xavier coach Chris Mack said of Brunson in February, “he’d probably have wires coming out of it.” If, as Rick says, part of his son’s growth has come from having been spent time as both “Batman and Robin” at Villanova, then the development of Brunson’s top running mate stems from how unlikely that sidekick was to don a cape at all. While Brunson was long groomed for stardom, Bridges was an initially ignored prospect from a high school (Great Valley High in Malvern, Pa.) that rarely produces a Division I player. So enamored was Bridges with the local basketball power that when he first heard the Wildcats were interested in recruiting him, he “came home busting through the door,” recalls his mother, Tyneeha Rivers, “like, Mom, I think I’m gonna go to Villanova!” He would not suit up for the Wildcats so quickly. The 6' 7" Bridges 5. KENTUCKY More Wildcats than usual are likely to stay in school, and UK gains two stellar backcourt players in 6' 5" SG Tyler Herro and 6' 3" PG Immanuel Quickley. S• I Y SATURDAY night patience had little to do with what the Wildcats did to Kansas: Seven minutes in, Villanova led 22–4, having made six of 10 three-pointers while its opponent—a No. 1 seed and the Big 12’s regular-season and tournament champion—had attempted B 6. UNC Signees include the MVP of the McDonald’s AllAmerican game (6' 6" SF Nassir Little) and North Carolina Mr. Basketball (6' 5" PG Coby White). 7. VIRGINIA The Cavaliers should have three starters back and will get a big boost if 6' 7" freshman guard De’Andre Hunter (9.2 ppg) also returns. 8. GONZAGA The Zags will have five of their top 10 scorers back and add 6' 10" PF Filip Petrusev, who led Monteverde (Fla.) Academy to a national title. 9. AUBURN Expect the Tigers to contend for the SEC title again with Bryce Brown (15.9), Jared Harper (13.2) and Desean Murray (10.1) all expected to return. 10. TENNESSEE The surprising Vols should stay near the top of the polls with the SEC player of the year, Grant Williams (15.2 ppg), returning to Knoxville. MEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP Rivers sat on an orange couch in the lobbylevel restaurant of Villanova’s team hotel, the San Antonio River winding beyond the massive glass wall behind her. These days she is the global VP of human resources for Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the 76ers, and her son—now a 205-pound, 43.5% three-point shooter who can defend all five positions—is assuredly NBA-bound as well. It’s a course she is still processing. “I cry all the time,” she said. “Just to see him go from high school, this skinny kid, to where he’s at today. . . .” She trailed off, a smile breaking through as she dabbed the corners of her eyes. only six shots altogether. By halftime seven Wildcats had made at least one three-pointer, and their 13 first-half makes from deep tied the 31-year-old Final Four record for a game. “They were superior, obviously handled us today,” Jayhawks coach Bill Self said afterward. “And they’d be hard for anybody to deal with if they shoot the ball like that.” Wright spent much of this season trying to persuade his players that their fates were tied to more than their shooting. Taking after Brunson and Bridges, two of the country’s 15 most efficient offensive players, Villanova’s offense was close to being historically good: Its 1.28 adjusted points per possession were the second highest of the 17-season analytics era, behind only 2014–15 national runner-up Wisconsin. Scoring binges masked defensive lapses, however, as recently as a Feb. 24 overtime loss at Creighton, the team’s third defeat in six games. While not the Wildcats’ most disastrous defensive performance of the season (in a Dec. 30 loss at Butler, they allowed an eye-popping 1.40 points per possession, 12% worse than what was averaged by the country’s last-ranked defense), it was after the loss to the Bluejays that Wright’s message—that the team could not merely shoot its way to glory—finally took hold. Though not quite a storm, a cold front did ground Villanova in Omaha that night. The team’s charter froze over on the tarmac, forcing the Wildcats to deplane and return by bus to a downtown Hilton. There Wright gathered his players in two rows of chairs in a conference room and took a seat opposite them. For some 45 minutes he implored his charges to take the night’s loss as a wake-up call, to start defending the way they would need to in order to reach their potential. “You need to be stewards of the culture,” Wright told them. By midnight the players retreated to their rooms, some propping open the doors and visiting one another for impromptu confabs, searching for answers. Before their first practice back on campus, the Wildcats’ trio of captains—Brunson, Bridges and junior guard Phil Booth— addressed their teammates. It starts right now, they said. Two days THE NEXT WAVE Several Wildcats, including DiVincenzo (below), watched the 2016 title run from the sideline—and immediately began dreaming of the day they’d be the ones leading the trophy charge. “ Y OU PEEL [BRUNSON’S] FA CE OF F, HE ’D PROB A BLY H AV E W IR E S C OMING OU T OF I T.” —Former Xavier coach Chris Mack progress since that frigid night in Omaha, that still wowed Wright. “I thought we just might not be able to do it with this team,” he said. “They really taught me, no matter what the team’s like, just never give in on that. They can dig down and defend.” Nearly two hours after the final game had ended, Wright stood some 50 yards away in the same hallway, his hair and blue dress shirt still damp from the celebratory Dasani shower his players had given him in the locker room. In the afterglow of a championship, he indulged a request to compare the 2016 experience to this one. “The first one was just overwhelming,” he said. “The confetti came down this time. I was like, all right, I knew it was coming. You just get to enjoy everything.” Nine years ago, when he led his team to a Final Four for the first time, Wright figured that feat would be the highlight of his career. Now he was asked for his thoughts on joining Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and North Carolina’s Roy Williams as the only active D-I coaches with multiple titles. “Wow,” Wright said, eyebrows arching. “Not something I like to think about, honestly.” There are still parts that will take some getting used to in this new, wonderful world. ± G RE G N EL S O N ( T O P); J O H N W. M C D O N O U G H 38 APRIL 9, 2018 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED later, at Seton Hall, they endured their worst offensive performance of the season and still ground out a one-point win, holding the Pirates to 38.5% shooting. “That,” a delighted Wright told his team afterward, “was a Villanova street fight.” After that, practices grew more urgent, more physical. Up went the frequency of deﬂections, charges, collisions. Down went the swishes. At long last the Wildcats’ defense showed signs of dimming an offense that was lighting up nearly everyone else. “It was kind of ugly,” says DiVincenzo. “But that was the beauty: Nobody was making shots and everybody was still happy and excited.” Villanova bombed its way through the tournament’s first three rounds, then met Texas Tech and its accosting, intrusive defense (to that point ranked third nationally) in the Elite Eight. The Wildcats made only four of 24 three-point tries that afternoon in Boston, but stiﬂed the Red Raiders in kind, holding them to just 33.3% shooting from the ﬂoor and haranguing them so relentlessly that they made just six of 23 layups. In the aftermath some observers spoke of the three-happy Wildcats defying their makeup. Those inside the program and those who have faced it knew better. “You think it’s their three-point shooting, their small-ball, their athleticism,” said Texas Tech coach Chris Beard, a Bob Knight protégé. “But by far, their identity is their toughness.” Six days later Wright stood in a hushed hallway of the Alamodome, speaking with a small group of reporters in the hour after his team’s 95–79 win over Kansas, a rolled stat sheet gripped in his left hand. His team’s deadeye offensive display aside, it was the defense, and its NCAA is a trademark of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. ARIKE MOME N C A A MARCH MADNESS 2018 LS OM W NT BY BEN EN’S FIN A BASKIN PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO With a pair of spectacular, game-winning, long-distance shots, NO TRE DA ME guard Arike Ogunbowale knocked off unbeaten Connecticut and favored Mississippi State, capping a pair of furious comebacks and helping a battered, depleted team win the Irish’s first title in 17 years ON SUNDAY NIGHT in Columbus, Ohio, with 3.0 seconds left in the NCAA women’s national championship game and the score tied at 58, Arike Ogunbowale was not supposed to get the chance to be a hero. Her name wasn’t supposed to trend online, her face not supposed to ﬂash on televisions across the country. Kobe Bryant wasn’t supposed to tweet at her. Not again, that is. The frontcourt out-of-bounds play that Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw drew up was designed for Jessica Shepard. The 6' 4" junior forward had been the Irish’s most efficient scorer all game, and the Mississippi State player most likely to stop her, 6' 7" center Teaira McCowan, had just fouled out. It was the play that made the most sense. But sometimes things don’t have to make sense. The Irish had withstood a 26–7 first-half run, had looked scared and shaken, then had steadily fought their way back. Resilience: It’s a word McGraw had used to describe her squad all week, repeating it like a mantra. This was a team that had lost four key players, two of them starters, to ACL tears, and used just a six-woman rotation throughout the tournament. A team that suffered one of the worst losses in program history, a 33-point home thrashing by Louisville, three months earlier, Notre Dame wasn’t supposed to be a No. 1 seed, wasn’t supposed to beat UConn in the Final Four, wasn’t supposed to win this game. O, MY GOSH McGraw’s play called for sophomore Overcoming a guard Jackie Young to inbound just in horrible start in the front of the Irish bench. Shepard, on the final, Ogunbowale (24) celebrated a right block, would fake as if she were fantastic finish. going to set a screen and quickly pivot GUN ’N’ STUN to receive the ball. Mississippi State Ad-libbing on an guard Blair Schaefer had been ininbounds play, structed to sag off Young and ﬂoat Ogunbowale toppled down to front Shepard, doubling the Bulldogs on an the entry pass; wings Victoria Vivoff-balance 22-footer. ians and Roshunda Johnson were to deny the 5' 8" Ogunbowale, to not let her even get a touch. But Young had a feeling it might be difficult to pass into the post, and after the huddle broke, she approached Ogunbowale. “If I can’t get it into Jess,” she said, “come get the ball.” As the play began, Young saw her suspicion confirmed: She couldn’t inbound safely to Shepard down low. She snapped her gaze toward Ogunbowale, but Vivians was in the way. Meanwhile, the referee’s right hand was pacing off the five-second count—and she was already at four fingers. Charging from the top of the key, Ogunbowale swam her right arm around Vivians’s left shoulder, like a defensive end blowing past a left tackle. She gathered in Young’s short pass and took one dribble toward the right corner. Then another. Vivians gave chase, raising a hand as Ogunbowale planted her feet and lifted. With her momentum carrying toward the baseline, she was off-balance, falling back and to her right. It was not the shot she wanted. Dare Ogunbowale watched from the stands as his younger sister let ﬂy—and he was skeptical. He’d seen Arike hit game-winners her whole life; he’d seen it just 48 hours earlier, on the opposite end of the same court, when she pulled up from 20 feet with one second left in overtime to end UConn’s undefeated season. On that play Ogunbowale demanded the ball, prying it from junior guard Marina Mabrey’s hands near midcourt. Then she dribbled into the corner, crossed over a helpless defender and fired. Game over. Bryant—a noted Huskies fan—was in the stands that day, yet after the game he lauded the Irish’s leading scorer on Twitter: “Love seeing great players make great plays.” Bryant didn’t know that earlier this season Ogunbowale had bought a golden doodle puppy and named him Kobi. “My life is complete,” she responded, to which Kobe answered, “it’s complete by finishing the job on Sunday.” So clearly Dare knew what his sister could do. But this shot, at this moment, on this stage? This didn’t seem possible. “She’s special,” he said on the court after the game, blue and gold confetti at his feet. “And special things happen to special people.” T 42 APRIL 9, 2018 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED E V ER T N EL S O N / N C A A PH O T OS /G E T T Y IM AG E S HERE’S AN old photo that Arike Ogunbowale’s parents like to talk about: It’s of the youngest of their three children standing in the backyard of their Milwaukee home, wearing only a diaper. They had all been outside, for reasons since forgotten, and two-year-old Arike had wandered off. When they finally found her, she was standing in the grass, a regulationsize basketball in her hands, gazing up at a 10-foot-high hoop. When Arike turned three, her parents bought her a blue-andorange Fisher-Price basket for her room. She would toss mini basketballs at the rim all day, and as she put up shot after shot, her mother, Yolanda, would whisper a single word in her ear: concentrate. Arike would breathe, say the word back and let ﬂy. It wasn’t long before she was consistently connecting. Yolanda placed Arike on a fifth-grade basketball team when she was in first grade; three years later an AAU coach recruited her. When she was 10, she played on the team for 13-yearolds . . . and the team for 12-year-olds . . . and the team for 11-year-olds. In bigger gyms, with multiple courts, she would sometimes switch teams at halftime, depending on which one needed her most. The first recruitment letter arrived when she was a seventh-grader. When Ogunbowale (oh-goon-boh-WAH-lay) entered Divine Savior Holy Angels High, she was already hailed as the best offensive player in Wisconsin history. She was so good, so much better than everyone else, that she was often complacent in practice, not hustling on defense and rarely moving without the ball. So her coach, Scott Witt, devised drills to simulate competitive situations. In scrimmages he stacked four starters on one side and Arike with the backups on the other; the losing team had to run. Now Ogunbowale would play. Floaters, turnaround jumpers, 30-foot pull-ups—now she would hit them all. “It had to be something WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP competitive,” Witt says. “She would make every single play when the game was on the line. But when Ogunbowale got to South Bend, she averaged only 19.3 minutes as a freshman. She was frustrated. It was new, not being the best player on her team, coming off the bench. Regular phone calls with her parents became venting sessions. She didn’t want to transfer, but she thought about it. “You can leave and go someplace else and be the big fish right away,” her parents told her. “Or you can stay at Notre Dame and work and become the big fish here.” FEW HOURS before the start of the NCAA final, the Irish sat around three circular tables in a conference room at the Marriott Columbus. They had just finished their last session of film study when Niele Ivey pulled out her old number 33, blue-and-gold throwback jersey and held it up for the team to see. Ivey, now the team’s associate head coach, had worn it on the very same date, April 1, 17 years earlier when she was the starting point guard on the first, and only, team in program history to win a national title. “Something made me pack this jersey,” she A told her players. “I felt like you guys could do something special.” Ivey told them to visualize celebrating a championship. So the Irish sat silently at their tables for 10 seconds, their eyes closed, and thought about the confetti, the fireworks, the nets being cut. Then Ivey reminded them all that the 91–89 upset of top-seeded UConn two days earlier “wasn’t the championship. Tonight is.” From 2011 through ’15, the Irish appeared in all five Final Fours and lost in the title game four times. They had teams with multiple All-Americas and went through seasons when everything seemed to click. Which is why, on the day before the final, McGraw said that this team’s run had been the most rewarding of her 36-year career. There had been so many setbacks, so much adversity. First, All-America forward Brianna Turner, the team’s most decorated returning player, tore her ACL in last year’s NCAA tournament and had to miss the entire season. Then Mychal Johnson, the likely starting point guard, tore hers in October. Mikayla Vaughn, Turner’s replacement, went down the next month, followed by guard Lili Thompson, the team’s leader in assists and steals, in January. The Irish brought in a specialist who focused on preventative stretches. They cut practices short by half an hour and turned Monday into a second off day—allowing only film study and massages. McGraw began playing mostly zone defense, concerned about foul trouble with her short bench. But after the initial shock passed, the coaches realized that even though they had lost a lot of talent, there was still much at their disposal. They were inspired, confident even. They figured they could still make a run. Then Louisville happened. The 100–67 score barely does the WOMEN’S CHAMPIONSHIP drubbing justice. McGraw told her HUSKER DO Nebraska transfer players that it was embarrassing Shepard delivered a but that nobody felt sorry for them double double to deal so they shouldn’t feel sorry for UConn its first loss. themselves. “You can either turn the season around,” she said, “or it’s going to get worse.” So it was only fitting that on the final night of the season, the Irish would face yet another, seemingly insurmountable trial. They scored just three points in the second quarter—the fewest in any regulation period in Final Four history. Young had picked up two early fouls, forcing Ogunbowale to bring the ball up and taking her out of her comfort zone. She was frigid from the field, making one of 10 shots in the first half. With McCowan and Vivians—both All-Americas—combining for 23 points. Notre Dame went into halftime trailing 30–17. “A lot of us were shook,” senior forward Kathryn Westbeld says. “Our minds were kind of going everywhere.” A 44 APRIL 9, 2018 SPORTS ILLUSTRATED step and had a clean look at the basket. But her two-footer clanged the side of the rim. The next possession ended in chaos; a steal by McCowan on one end, followed quickly with a steal by Young at midcourt—a controversial play that had Bulldogs fans clamoring for a foul call. Instead, the Irish got one last chance: an inbounds pass from the sideline with three ticks left. FTER OGUNBOWALE hit the shot, after she shed the teammates off of her back, the ones who were jumping and screaming and ﬂinging themselves on top of her, she ran across the court to the Notre Dame fan section. Then she looked up into the stands, tapped at her right forearm with her left index finger and yelled, “Ice!” “She’s got ice in her veins,” Ivey says. “She was born for these moments.” Soon the fireworks went off, the confetti fell and the nets came down. Bryant tweeted at Ogunbowale: #lifecomplete. Players hugged and thanked Arike’s parents. That name, so rare—and now so ubiquitous. It was the name bestowed upon Yolanda by her mother-in-law the first time they met in Greg’s native Nigeria. Yolanda told herself then that if she ever had a daughter, that’s what she’d name her. Arike. Translation: something you see and cherish. The world saw Arike Ogunbowale on Friday night. On Sunday night, she made sure it would cherish her too. ± A DAV ID E . K LU T H O WEEK AFTER that Louisville loss, the Irish were trailing Tennessee by 23 points at home. The ensuing comeback for an 84–70 victory was the largest in program history, a turning point, a glimmer of what could be possible. The players thought about that game during halftime on Sunday night. And they thought about their last two NCAA games, when they had trailed Oregon by nine and UConn by 13. They did not panic. “The third quarter is ours,” says Mabrey. “And will always be ours.” Recognizing that McCowan was getting the ball too deep into the paint, McGraw decided to send a double every time she touched the ball—the center had a negative assist-to-turnover ratio, so they dared her to try to kick it out to teammates. They also tried to exploit McCowan at the other end, using Shepard to stretch the ﬂoor with her shot and to attack off the dribble. A two-time All–Big Ten selection at Nebraska, Shepard announced her decision to transfer to South Bend in June. McGraw assumed that she would have to sit out one season, so she hadn’t thought too much about installing Shepard into the offense heading into the season. Then at 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 1, the day of the opener, the coaches got word that the NCAA had approved Shepard’s hardship waiver; she would be eligible to play immediately. “That’s the season, right there,” Ivey says. “That changed everything. In the second half, the Irish pushed the tempo. Ogunbowale began to will her way to the basket, careening all the way down the court and into the lane. She would score 16 of her 18 points in the second half, while Shepard provided ballast in the half-court, finishing with 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Notre Dame ended the third quarter on a 16–1 run to tie it at 41, setting up a heated fourth-quarter exchange of buckets and blows. After a three by Johnson gave Mississippi State a five-point lead with just under two minutes to go, Mabrey immediately responded with a triple of her own, Notre Dame’s first. With 40 seconds left and the game tied at 58, the Bulldogs drew up a play to feed their center down low. McCowan received the entry pass, took one drop 3OD\IRU WRGD\ 3ODQIRU WRPRUURZ What’s your game plan? To get help with yours, visit mutualofamerica.com or call 1-866-954-4321. Mutual of America® and Mutual of America Your Retirement Company® are registered service marks of Mutual of America Life Insurance Company, a registered Broker/Dealer. 320 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10022-6839. “[THE BLAZERS] THOUGHT THEY WERE GOING TO—WHAT DO YOU CALL IT? REBUILD?” SAYS FORMER CENTER CHRIS KAMAN. “THAT DIDN’T WORK FOR DAME. HE WASN’T HAVING IT.” they didn’t realize he had. “That,” recalls former Rebel P.J. Taylor, “was the beginning of Dame Time.” Most of what followed is predictable, a ﬂurry of driving layins and pull-up jumpers, confounding the defense and melting the deficit. I’m actually doing this, Lillard thought. I’m taking over the game. Down by three points in the final minute, the Rebels fed Lillard in the corner. His bloodless three tied the score with one second left. Overcome, he stripped off his white jersey, detached no more. “Put your jersey back on!” Rebels assistant coach Damon Jones hollered, striding onto the ﬂoor. The referee heard Jones and turned toward Lillard, still shirtless in the corner. The ref called a technical foul, the Magic sank a free throw, and the Rebels fell to the loser’s bracket. On the way out of the gym, Young pulled his point guard aside again. “You can’t take your jersey off,” the coach started, “but you showed me something today.” For the next two seasons at Oakland High, plus four at Weber State and five in Portland, Dame Time became a trademark. As early as the first quarter but typically the fourth, Lillard bobs his shoulders like a lathered heavyweight, and friends beam at the sight of a hustler’s tell. “He’s about to go on one,” Taylor says, which could mean 10 points or 20, a bundle of layups or a few 30-footers. “I have the ability to make my mind go to a difference place,” Lillard explains. “I have stretches in games where things need to happen and I can make those things happen.” Afterward, he doesn’t dare ﬂash anything more than a mean mug, pointing at an imaginary watch on his wrist. A ll the A-list point guards possess a defining superpower: Steph Curry’s range and Kyrie Irving’s handle, John Wall’s speed and Russell Westbrook’s burst. Lillard’s timely binges earned him the All-Star appearances, the signature shoes, the max contract worth $139 million that binds him to the Trail Blazers until 2021. In the summer of ’15, when power forward LaMarcus Aldridge bolted Portland for San Antonio, the team cast off veterans Nic Batum and Wesley Matthews as well. The Blazers lined up behind Lillard, surrounding their clutch closer with a sack of spare parts and a promise of lottery balls. “They thought they were going to—what do you call it? Rebuild?” says former center Chris Kaman. “That didn’t work for Dame. He wasn’t having it.” He channeled Gilbert AreROCKET nas with the Wizards and SteSCIENCE phon Marbury with the Suns, Lillard & Co. took convincing himself he could two of three from piggyback Portland to the playGolden State, but offs on those rising shoulders. they’ve struggled He studied the college version of against the Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, singeing West’s top nets as Chris Jackson at LSU, seed, going 0–3 against Houston. and Tim Hardaway, when the G RE G N EL S O N (L IL L A RD); J O H N W. M C D O N O U G H (C U RRY ): TAY LO R BA L L A N T Y E (N A D K A RNI & D O L L IN G ER) ´ as seen on SITV ? VS. With the playoffs nearing, we posed a handful of questions to ROHAN NADKARNI (far left) and MATT DOLLINGER. They can be seen every week hosting The Crossover on SI TV. Tune in on Amazon Channels to watch. IF YOU’RE GOLDEN STATE, HOW KNEE, WHICH WILL KEEP HIM I’m actually decently nervous if I’m the Warriors. Draymond Green has been a step slow for large parts of the season, and the team is just a lot easier to defend when Steph Curry isn’t pulling defenders 40 feet from the basket. Which team Golden State draws in the ﬁrst round will be crucial. The T-Wolves with a healthy Jimmy Butler could be interesting. R OH A N W NERVOUS ARE YOU ABOUT STEPH CURRY’S OUT OF (AT LEAST) THE FIRST ROUND? Minimally. The Warriors become mortal when Curry is sidelined (14–11 this year without him), but they’re still godly compared to the bottom half of the West’s playoff field. An MVP and two other All-Stars should be enough to dispose of teams that are just happy to be in the postseason. Maybe they lose a game, but not the series. MAT T killer crossover was the UTEP Two-step. “He felt a lot of responsibility,” recalls Blazers center Meyers Leonard, “to get us buckets.” Lillard’s shots per game climbed from 16.6 to 19.7, his points from 21.0 to 25.1. Besides backcourt mate CJ McCollum, no one on the roster hoisted half as many shots or scored half as many points. “Sometimes he was MacGyver,” says assistant coach David Vanterpool. “A lot of times he was The Greatest American Hero.” In crunch time Lillard scanned the eyes of starting small forward Al-Farouq Aminu, who was signed off the Mavericks' bench. “I’m not going to put this pressure on Chief,” he’d tell himself. “I’ll take the pressure. If I miss and they say I should have made the pass, I’ll live with that.” The secret to sinking the dagger, Lillard believes, is being O.K. with clanking it. He’ll get blocked by Rudy Gobert at the buzzer one night, then splash the Lakers with 0.7 of a second left the next. Portland reached the Western Conference semifinals in 2016 on the strength APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED 49 NBA PL AYOFF PREVIEW F ? with Aldridge. How did those guys get so close to the basket? he wondered. Lillard and Aldridge formed a successful partnership, one that started and ended with the pocket pass. They did not clash, but they also did not mesh. “When he left, people acted like we’d had a problem, and we didn’t,” Lillard says. “But we didn’t have the kind of relationship where we talked or went to dinner, and maybe he would have stayed if we did.” Lillard emerged convinced that teammates need to be friends, as they were in high school and college, rather than associates. He yearns to know families, hometowns, offcourt interests. When general manager Neil Olshey reimagined Portland’s roster in the summer of 2015, he targeted players in the same age bracket as Lillard, who might relate to an unheralded recruit out of Weber State. The Blazers already employed STILL FIRING McCollum, another midLillard has the four major hero, from Lehigh. best single-season They gave a four-year conthree-pointer totals tract to Aminu, averaging in Blazers history, and 5.6 points for the Maverhe needs just 20 (as icks, and a three-year deal of April 1) to break his own franchise record. to Ed Davis, on his fourth THE ROCKETS HAVE WON 31 OF THEIR LAST 33, AND THE TWO LOSSES WERE BY A TOTAL OF FIVE POINTS. IS IT POSSIBLE THEY’RE PEAKING TOO SOON? If the 73-win Warriors can peak too early, anyone can. But while it’s tough to erase the memories of James Harden (left) and Chris Paul choking in playoﬀs past, this team has handled adversity beautifully, playing well with Harden and CP3 out of the lineup. With an army of dangerous role players, the most versatile, potent oﬀense in the NBA and a sneaky-good defense, this is Houston’s year. MAT T I agree, no chance. The playoﬀs come down to top-end talent and matchups. If anything, the Rockets’ regular-season success is merely a precursor to what they can do when they tighten their rotation and play even more of the Harden-Paul duo, which is smoking opponents of all caliber every night. If Houston loses, it will be because of the opponent, not regular-season success. R OH A N 50 G RE G N EL S O N (2) ROM LILLARD to Irving, Curry to Westbrook, the virtuoso point guards who front the modern NBA wrestle with a common existential crisis. They are wired to score, yet their position demands that they share. When Portland drafted Lillard in 2012, coaches referred to him as “a scoring guard.” Lillard was more sniper than playmaker, but at 6' 3", he had the look—and the personality—of a point. In his first season with the Blazers, he overheard one of the veterans disparaging a rookie at practice. “Haven’t you seen my campaign?” asked Lillard, who had recently launched the antibullying program RESPECT. “You can’t talk about people like that.” Lillard pored over old videos of John Stockton and Karl Malone, hoping to replicate their pick-and-roll harmony LILLARD UNLEASHED HIS INNER SOCIAL CHAIR. “I WAS ALL OVER IT,” HE SAYS. “I WAS SO HANDS-ON ABOUT BEING THE LEADER.” ´ of Lillard’s spectacular jags, but they were impossible to sustain. The Blazers faded last year, first-round chum for the Warriors, and didn’t begin this season any better. “What can we do?” Lillard asked owner Paul Allen in January, when the Blazers were struggling at 23–21. “How can we improve?” Reports of the meeting prompted panic across Portland’s communal tables, understandable given the propensity of NBA headliners to ﬂex boardroom muscles. But Lillard was not demanding a trade. “It was a simple conversation,” he insists. “It wasn’t like I asked questions and he gave answers. You don’t always have answers.” The onus fell back on the 27-year-old to produce his own help; more MacGyver, less American Hero. “I’m about to go on one,” Lillard told Young before the All-Star break, and the coach braced for another blitz. But the new version of Dame Time—or Lillard Time, whatever your preference—has not been a five- or 10- or 15-minute phenomenon. It’s spanned nearly two months. WATCH DAMIAN LILLARD SIT DOWN WITH LEE JENKINS ON SI TV'S THE BIG INTERVIEW. CHECK IT OUT ON AMAZON CHANNELS. OFTEN A TEAM’S FORTUNES WILL RIDE ON THE PERFORMANCE OF ONE PLAYER. WHO IS THE BIGGEST X-FACTOR THIS POSTSEASON? John Wall (right). The Wizards are limping into the playoﬀs (6–8 since March 1), but if his knees are healthy, the East features another potential spoiler. Wall was dominant last postseason (27.2 points, 10.3 assists per game), and he has a deeper supporting cast this year. If he’s healthy, the Wizards, who don’t ﬁgure to ﬁnish better than sixth, are a nightmare ﬁrst-round matchup for a top–three seed. MAT T N ED D I S H M A N / N B A E /G E T T Y I M AG E S Joel Embiid. If he returns from his fractured orbital bone and concussion, the 76ers will be an extremely tough out. This is a team that’s actually built for the playoﬀs. With no back-tobacks, Embiid won’t have to sit out any games and Philly can play its starting ﬁve— one of the best units in the NBA—big minutes. With their 7-footer, the Sixers are Threat Level Midnight. Without him, the danger subsides. R OH A N ? organization in six seasons. They sent a second-round pick to Orlando for Moe Harkless even though he couldn’t crack the Magic rotation. “Great get!” Lillard texted Olshey after the trade, remembering Harkless from draft workouts. Unleashing his inner social chair, Lillard planned a weeklong retreat to San Diego with beach barbecues, Padres games and touch football showdowns, “I was all over it,” Lillard recalls. “I was so hands-on about being the leader.” Vanterpool relayed a Magic Johnson story from Cavaliers assistant Larry Drew, who joined the Lakers in 1989. On one of his first Showtime road trips, Drew heard Johnson shouting in the hotel lobby during check-in: “Lakers going out tonight!” Drew, a 31-year-old vet, preferred to lie low and settled into his room for the evening. Ten minutes later he heard a banging on his door. It was Johnson, dressed and waiting. “I said,” Magic repeated, “Lakers going out tonight.” The Blazers tell similar stories about Lillard: roadtrip dinners with everybody on the team, postgame debriefs with Davis, postpractice pedicures with McCollum. The guards watch their minutes together on an iPad, though presumably not at the salon. When he isn’t hooping or recording rap albums, Dame D.O.L.L.A. seems to mimic the lifestyle of a Lake Oswego soccer mom. He swims at a local fitness center, takes hot yoga with Vanterpool (“After the class you can lay there as long as you want; I lay back and I’m just free,” Lillard says) and hikes Angel’s Rest with trainer Ben Kenyon (“It’s just a positive environment; everyone was like a big team up there.”). He eats vegan in the summer but reintroduces meat when his weight drops. “I’ve been in places with superstars who don’t talk to the 15th guy,” Davis says. “If you walked in our locker room and didn’t know who made what, you wouldn’t be able to tell he makes the most money. Dame carries himself like one of us.” In his first season sans Aldridge, Lillard grew weary of his own voice and feared others felt the same. But most Blazers were new to the organization and hesitant, searching for their place in the league. They followed Lillard to the practice facility and didn’t leave, prompting coach Terry Stotts to impose blackout dates so his assistants could preserve off days. “Still, somebody will call because he wants to shoot,” Vanterpool laughs. “What are you going to do? Tell him you’re busy?” McCollum has morphed from sidekick to costar. Harkless, who shot 17.9% from three-point range his last season in Orlando, is currently at 41.5%. The 6' 9" Aminu, who shot 27.4% from three in his last season in Dallas, is up to 38.2%, while defending Anthony Davis, Chris Paul and everybody in between. Center Jusuf Nurkic, after averaging 7.5 points for the Nuggets, has chipped in 14.5 for the Blazers since he was acquired at last season’s trade deadline. Spare parts have become linchpins. Lillard witnessed the evolution and turbocharged it, recogniz- NBA PL AYOFF PREVIEW ANOTHER DAY, ANOTHER D.O.L .L .A. ing that the most effective way to empower NBA players is with the ball. “Dame’s ability to score is second to none,” Leonard says. “He can always go get us a bucket. But some of our other guys rely on him to get in the ﬂow of the game. The step he’s made is understanding, O.K., I can probably create something pretty good for myself right now, but what if I get downhill, and two defenders come, and I throw behind to Moe or Chief? Players need to touch the ball. They need to feel involved. They’ll play harder and communicate better and be way more likely to get a block on the other end. That’s how you lead, how you win.” Drive-and-kick trumps mani-pedi. Lillard’s line—26.6 points, 6.6 assists, 43.9% shooting (36.4% from deep)—has not deviated much in this, the best season of his career. “But the impact is different,” he clarifies. “First quarter, I might call a play where I’m coming off a ball screen, just LILLARD BRAINSTORMS WAYS TO INVOLVE to see what kind of coverage TEAMMATES. “THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN they start in. Is he showing? Is he going to be back? Are they DAME AND A LOT OF SCORERS IS HE CARES trapping me? Who is helping HOW OTHER GUYS FEEL,” SAYS VANTERPOOL. on the weak side? I’m like, ‘CJ, you go be in the opposite corner, because that’s where they’re sending the help on you. When Nurk is diving, actually cares how the other guys feel,” Vanterpool says. you might have a three, and if you hit a three now they’ll “Watch him. He’ll drive down the slot, so the big has try to get back to you and I can no-look Nurk for a dunk. to come over and help, which means Moe’s man has to Then the bigs are going to be worried about Nurk and the crack down on our big, which means Moe is open. That’s weak side won’t want to help, so I can turn the corner.’ ” creating a shot on purpose for someone you care about.” An uprising in the first quarter, he has discovered, is The Blazers won 13 games in a row from Valentine’s not as meaningful as one in the fourth. When Dame Time Day through March 18, with Lillard netting 40 points comes early, opponents have to send traps and doubles, against the Suns and 39 against the Lakers, 19 in the and Lillard is forced to dump off. But when he establishes fourth both times. “But we had three games where Chief teammates at the outset, they can find a rhythm and has been the one making the big shot,” Lillard recounts. he can soften the defense for later. “There’s also a big “Up by two, 58 seconds left, two people come, Chief open, psychological difference for those role players between I’m making that pass. That’s the way it should be.” At getting the ball because your franchise player chooses Dame Time he hears opposing coaches scream, “Get up! to give it to you,” says a Blazers official, “and getting it Get up!” and feels defenders cheat his way. He is trying because he has to get it out of his hands.” to leverage the fear and the chaos his stroke inspires. After a loss at Philadelphia on Nov. 22, Harkless Lillard searches for the sweet spot between taking told NBC Sports Northwest, “I feel like I’m just out charge and letting go. Every time Shabazz Napier and there . . . running track.” Lillard brainstormed ways he Evan Turner speak up in the Blazers' huddle, or Davis could reincorporate a marginalized teammate. “The halts a film session, or McCollum grabs the iPad, he creeps difference between Dame and a lot of the scorers is he closer. “That’s more effective than our team looking like APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED ´ G RE G N EL S O N Lillard welcomed his first child, Damian Jr., on March 29, hours after dropping 41 points on the Pelicans. 53 NBA PL AYOFF PREVIEW a dictatorship,” he says. “But if I’m not having a great game, then I feel like I’ve got to be more vocal, so people see it’s not about me and how well I’m playing.” Rough patches are rare. Lillard used to be a dubious defender, same as Irving and Curry, expending most of his energy throwing ﬂames. But he resents the notion that effort alone can halt 50 pick-and-rolls a night. “You learn terms and you get ahead of the curve,” he says. “If I hear rub, I know a mid pick-and-roll is coming. If I hear wide, I know a pin-down is coming, and away a drag screen is coming. If I hear 99 or 77, I know it’s a double drag with the bigs up top, and twist is a screen and rescreen.” His defensive rating has improved in the past year, from 108.9 to 103.7, as he’s applied NBA jargon the way he mastered running an offense. During a home game against the Celtics on March 23, scouts were tracking Blazers sets. “Stotts is known as a play-caller, and he has always called about 90% of their stuff,” one said. “This year that has completely switched, to where Dame is calling about 90%.” Trust ´ OUTSIDE OF KEVIN LOVE (WHEN HEALTHY ), LEBRON JAMES’S CLEVELAND TEAMMATES HAVEN’T EXACTLY BEEN GIVING HIM MUCH HELP. WHO IS THE THIRD-MOST-IMPORTANT CAVALIER? Rodney Hood, who gives the Cavs youth on the perimeter that they’ve lacked in recent seasons. With J.R. Smith struggling and George Hill (below) still washing the Sacramento oﬀ him, Hood will be a key piece in the playoﬀs. His success will hinge on how he plays on the defensive end, though. The results haven’t been promising so far. R OH A N “HE SEES THINGS HE DIDN’T SEE BEFORE,” STOTTS SAYS OF LILLARD. “HE’S BECOME A POINT GUARD AND NOT A SCORING GUARD.” It’s Hill. Remember when he was as an All-Starcaliber point guard for the Jazz last season? If the Cavs can coax a similar performance out of the 10-year vet they become a juggernaut again. I think he’s been steady since arriving in February, but when he's assertive and looks for his shot, he becomes one of the best two-way players on the ﬂoor. Otherwise, he’s a respectable, but not dangerous, role player. The Cavs already have that in José Calderón; they need Hill to channel his Utah days. MAT T travels two ways, from coach to star and star to team. “He sees things he didn’t see before,” Stotts says. “He’s become a point guard and not a scoring guard.” OLDEN STATE is a specter that hangs over everybody at playoff time, but no one feels the Warriors omnipresence more acutely than Lillard, who plays in their conference and hails from their town. Lillard grew up a Dubs fan, but whenever he saw Oakland native Gary Payton home from Seattle, he wondered if he should be wearing green instead of blue. The only difference is those Sonics were better than those Warriors, while these Warriors are better than anybody. “You’ll see Golden State T-shirts in my neighborhood,” Lillard says, “and it takes a second for me to let my pride go.” The Blazers have emerged from the gridlock beneath the Rockets and the Warriors, settling into the No. 3 seed, which will make them modest favorites in the first round and monumental underdogs in the second. Portland can match up with Golden State in the backcourt—“If the Warriors traded Steph for Dame, they wouldn’t miss a beat,” says an opposing coach—but not on the wings. Lillard won’t hear it. At Weber State he used to play SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 G RE G N EL S O N G 54 ? ©2018 S-VC, Inc. GATORADE, GATORADE FLOW and the G BOLT design are registered trademarks of S-VC, Inc. NBA PL AYOFF PREVIEW a college basketball video game, but only if he could be the Wildcats. “He always thought he’d take us to the Final Four,” remembers former Weber assistant Phil Beckner, now at Boise State. Lillard threw his arms around Weber State and never let go. He established an alumni game, persuading Adidas to design the uniforms, and works out every summer with Beckner. He likes to train with just the coach, but Beckner often asks a few Broncos to join. “I know you can execute the skill,” Beckner tells Lillard. “But you don’t truly master it until you can teach it to someone else.” When the Blazers drafted Lillard sixth, he assumed fans might revolt because they’d never seen him on national TV with Kentucky or Duke. But the small-market franchise embraced the future Hall of Famers happen to play for PASSING PHASE small-school prospect, who eagerly reciprocated. the same club. Lillard mulls a question he Blazers players and Oregon reminded him of Ogden and, going back doesn’t want to answer, whether he’d be coaches have both further, Oakland. Not long after that first episode able to find peace without the trophy. It’s noticed Lillard’s of Dame Time, the vaunted Oakland Soldiers a question many of his peers will have to increased desire to involve his teammates. recruited him, with the lure of far-ﬂung AAU ponder as well. tournaments and fancy gear. Lillard craved the “I would like to win a championship exposure, but he stuck with the down-home as bad as anybody, but because of who Rebels. “I’m going to get a scholarship,” he told himself, I am, I’d get a lot more satisfaction if I got it the hard “and I’m going to do it with the coaches who have been way,” Lillard says. “If I can’t figure it out here and I picking me up from school and dropping me off at 10 never win one, I can live with the effort I put into it. I p.m. and buying me food and giving me bus money.” can live with it maybe not happening for me. I’m going Of course, he landed that scholarship, and virtually to roll with this team regardless of what everything else a basketball player dreams about. All people may feel about our chances. I’m that remains is a title, ever-so-elusive in an era when four going to live and die with this.” ± ? WITH ALL THAT’S AT STAKE, WHICH TEAM HAS THE MOST TO LOSE? Cleveland. So there’s this guy named LeBron (right). He’ll be a free agent at the end of the season. And he has a history of leaving teams that don’t give him the best chance to make it to the Finals. And he’s kind of complained about the roster already. And the owner. And the coach. He also occasionally sends coded messages on social media that make you think he might want to play elsewhere. I’ve also noticed a handful of billboards suggesting he might be welcomed in the NBA’s 29 other cities. So, yeah. It’s Cleveland. Don’t blow it, guys. No pressure. MAT T 56 S A M F O REN C I C H / N BA E /G E T T Y IM AG E S (L IL L A RD); ERI C K W. R A S CO (JA M E S) The Warriors. No one will have sympathy if Curry’s left-MCL sprain keeps them out of the Finals. Not with that roster. The Internet jokes would be ruthless. Kevin Durant would have to become a full-time podcaster to deﬂect his critics. Golden State has been the prohibitive title favorite since July 4, 2016. There will be an avalanche of Schadenfreude if the Warriors somehow lose. R OH A N 'RQŒWKROGEDFN (QMR\KRQH\KDP WKDWŒVVWDFNHGZLWK JRRGQHVVDQGVZHHWQHVV QDWXUDO GHOLFLRXV JUHGLHQWV 0LQLPDOO\SURFHVVHGQRDUWLŢFLDOLQ k+RUPHO)RRGV//& PDNHWKHQDWXUDOFKRLFHFRP T HE MASTERS ´ WE COULD argue past last call about what would constitute Tiger Woods’s being “back.” Winning a tournament? Winning a major? Returning to No. 1? Those who know him measure it differently. Justin Thomas, who won the PGA Championship last August, plays regularly with Woods at their home club, Medalist, in Jupiter, Fla. In November, with the wind whipping and nobody televising them, Thomas started to think he was not just playing with his friend Tiger but with the Tiger he had grown up watching: “The speed that he had, the shots he was hitting. . . . More so than anything, you could tell the confidence in his voice, how much he was enjoying life and having fun. It was, ‘O.K., he’s got a shot at this.’ ” Sean Foley, who coached Woods from 2010 to ’14 and says he has “mad love” for Woods, watched the Hero World Challenge in December and saw a hero ready to challenge the world. On a par-5 at the Albany Golf Course in the Bahamas, Woods hit a 2-iron shot downwind 265 yards into the green, which merely requires temporary suspension of the laws of physics. “He just threw it straight up in the air,” Foley says. “I was like, Mmm, there we go. He is mechanically sorted.” It was not just the shot that impressed Foley. It was the steep angle and the clubhead speed required to hit it. The 42-year-old Woods is playing with a fused back; he swings with noticeably less torque than he did in his 20s. If he could hit that 2-iron and walk pain-free down the fairway afterward, that was a promising sign. The signs have been all over the Tour this winter, when Woods has played seemingly every round with a member of the Tiger Woods Fan Club. Rookie Sam Burns got paired with him at the Honda Classic and said of his opening tee shot, “I don’t even remember feeling the club in my hands. It was like everything was numb.” Foley says he saw Patrick Reed in a locker room, pumping his fist as Woods sank a 10-footer for par; and up- RED ALERT When Woods ﬁnished 23rd at Torrey Pines in January, it was the ﬁrst time since June 2015 that he had made two straight cuts. BY THERE IS ONLY ONE MICHAEL ROSENBERG Photographs by ROBERT BECK TIGER WOODS YES, HE’S 42 AND HAS A FUSED BACK. NO, HE HASN’T WON A MAJOR IN 10 YEARS. BUT ANYONE WHO DOUBTS HE’S READY TO CLAIM A FIFTH GREEN JACKET HAS FORGOTTEN WHO HE IS and-comer Pan Cheng-tsung jumping when Woods made another putt; and Tommy Fleetwood, the 11th-ranked player in the world, excitedly recalling when Woods . . . said hello to him. This week Woods returns to Augusta National for the first time since 2015, and it will not be a ceremonial visit. Woods is healthy, apparently happy and playing well enough to win. Sometime this winter he stopped worrying about his back and started gunning for his fifth green jacket, and he isn’t shy about it. Last year he said he just hoped to play without pain again. Two months ago he said he was “trying to get my game solid for April.” Woods almost always contended at the Masters, no matter the circumstances. In 2009, with his life and game out of whack, he still finished tied for sixth. He has three top four finishes since then. Winning the Masters is mostly about putting and wisdom. Woods is fourth on the Tour in total putting this season and first in his generation in Augusta wisdom. As he said recently, “Even though the golf course has changed dramatically from when I first started playing till now, I just understand where to miss.” Three years after his last Masters appearance, and 11 months after a DUI led to his seeking treatment for how he uses pain medications, Woods has given golf the gift it always wanted: himself. He hasn’t won an event, but he is sixth on Tour in scoring average and contending almost every week. In his last three events he finished 12th, tied for second and tied for fifth. “People are like, Are you surprised?” Foley says. “I’m like, Are you out of your f------ mind? What’s unbelievable is that you say you don’t believe it.” HERE HAS never been a golfer like Tiger Woods. This is the first and most important fact about him— the one that puts all others into proper context. A quick recap: Nobody else followed three straight U.S. Junior Amateur championships with three straight U.S. Amateur championships. Nobody else in the modern era won four straight majors, or 13 in a 10-year span. Nobody else set the scoring record at the Masters, rebuilt his swing, blew away the fields at the U.S. Open and British Opens, rebuilt his swing again, then kept winning majors. Woods once made the cut in 142 consecutive tournaments. Jordan Spieth, who may be the best young star to come along since Tiger, has missed 11 cuts in the last four years. All this is to say: If you wrote Tiger off in the last few years, you missed the point. If you thought nobody could return after this many back injuries, so what? Tiger is in his own category. Sure, there were moments where even the biggest Tiger fan might have been skeptical. Like in 2015, when T SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 Woods’s steely resolve seemed to crack. He would stand on the edge of the green and . . . wait . . . it can’t be . . . were those the yips? The most famous shot of Woods’s career might be his chip-in on the 16th hole at the 2005 Masters. A decade later his short game came with a warning from the surgeon general: Watching this could be hazardous to a golf fan’s health. In February 2015, his former coach Hank Haney wrote in Golf Digest, “Let’s be serious. Tiger Woods has the yips.” At the time Woods gave one of his supertechnical explanations about his new chipping technique. This year he added that his back hurt the most while bending over to chip or putt. That surely limited his practice time, and it may have affected him in tournament play. Regardless: There has been no sign of the chip yips this winter. If he did have them, then how did he overcome an ailment that is usually terminal? The answer is what the answer always is: There has never been a golfer like Tiger Woods. Give him a year of good health, and he can figure anything out. NE MISCONCEPTION about Tiger is that, when he was at his peak, he was ﬂawless—or close to it. This is part of his mystique: He conquered the unconquerable game. The truth is that, even at the height of his powers, he was as vulnerable to wild mishits and lousy holes as any other top golfer. What made him so mesmerizing was his ability to overcome them. At the 2000 U.S. Open, at Pebble Beach, he had a triple bogey on Saturday. He won by 15 strokes anyway. At the 1997 Masters he shot 40 on his Thursday front nine. He won that tournament by 12. O SAYS FOLEY OF A RECENT TIGER 2-IRON SHOT THAT WENT 265 YARDS, “I WAS LIKE, MMM, THERE WE GO. HE IS MECHANICALLY SORTED.” DAV ID C A N N O N /G E T T Y IM AG E S (RI G H T ) IVE YEARS ago this week, Woods appeared on the cover of this magazine with a one-word billing: back. He had won three of his five starts heading into the Masters. He finished fourth at Augusta, and he might have won if not for a bizarre sequence on Friday when he hit the ﬂagstick at number 15, then took an illegal drop. F When people say Woods has been gone for 10 years, they are guilty of silly-high standards or collective amnesia. Woods has not won a major title since 2008— with 14 majors, he trails only Jack Nicklaus with 18—but he was the PGA Tour’s Player of the Year in 2013. By the end of that season Woods was already having back trouble, which would limit him to just 19 events from 2014 through ’17, including none in ’16. He worked with swing coach Chris Como for three years before deciding to go it alone in December. And now, in some sweet irony, he is probably benefiting from the decisions that earned him so much ﬂak in the past. For years critics have implored Woods to return to his old instructor Butch Harmon, or at least to the swing he honed with Harmon early in his career. The reality is that with a fused back, he could never make a swing with that much rotation now. And while we can debate whether Woods should have changed swings several times over the years, all those changes are surely helping him. He is more prepared to learn a new swing than any golfer in history. Woods has been surprised by how fast he is swinging. In the third round of the Valspar Championship last month he recorded the fastest clubhead speed on the Tour this year: 129.2 mph on the par-5 14th hole. That added fuel to the hype machine—perhaps more than it should. If the PGA’s figure is accurate, why did Woods’s drive travel only 326 yards, including roll? That’s a nice poke, but it doesn’t stand out on the Tour. Woods himself drove it 361 yards at the Honda Classic, and 342 at the Valspar. Woods is 37th on the Tour in driving distance. He will never bomb the ball past the competition the way he did in his 20s. But he is hitting it far enough to still play like Tiger Woods. Foley says, “Will he win a couple times this year? Certainly. Would I be surprised if he was in contention for all four [major championships]? Absolutely not. How can any of us be?” Thomas may have the best perspective: “If he stays healthy and continues to get into contention, there is no reason he can’t win. But there is no reason to hold him to that standard and say, He has to win this many times. It’s important to just let him play. Keep having fun.” ± MASTERS PREVIEW TIGER WOODS In the latter years of his dominance, Woods often missed fairways by a wide margin, especially on the first hole of his round; this tendency informed the title of Haney’s book about Woods, The Big Miss. He was still the best golfer in the world. In 2006, Woods was 139th in driving accuracy. He still won two majors. So when you look at PGA Tour stats and see that Woods is 147th in total driving and 202nd in driving accuracy, just shrug. Or keep watching—he has finished under par in 10 straight rounds. He still has the combination of mental toughness, creativity, intelligence and shotmaking ability that made him so great for so long. All these years later Woods can still make the ball dance. Thomas, 24, who is ranked No. 2 in the world and could rise to No. 1 with a strong Masters, remembers a 95-yard wedge shot that Woods hit when they were paired together in the Bahamas in December: “He is so good at taking spin off the ball, something I have tried to learn from him. He hit a tight-draw pitching wedge. That’s a shot I’ve been trying to learn to hit for a while. He did it right in my face.” If you watch this Woods comeback tour and must compare him with another golfer, we have a guy for you. His name is Tiger Woods. ´ MASTERMIND Woods has wielded a hot putter since his return to the Tour, which makes it likely he'll better the 17th-place finish on his last trip to Augusta (below, in 2015). APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED 61 T H E L E G E N D H N L P L AY O F F P R E V IE W AN AWKWARD, LANKY PROSPECT WHO BADDEST DEFENSE REMAINS OBSESSED ZDENO CHARA Photograph by ERICK W. RASCO BY ALEX PREWITT O F ´ ´ TRANSFORMED HIMSELF INTO HOCKEY’S BIGGEST, MAN, THE 41-YEAR-OLD BRUINS CAPTAIN, IN HIS PURSUIT OF OUTSIZED EXCELLENCE WHENEVER FUTURE generations decide to curate the Zdeno Chara Exhibition, they will find ample relics of a singular hockey life. Archaeologists will track down his 67-inch (rules-exempt) Warrior sticks, painted black and gold. They will unearth the puck he sizzled at an NHL-record 108.8 mph, the sweater he wore when he captained the Bruins to a Stanley Cup in 2011. They will probably dust off the bicycle he rides around Boston, built with a heavy-duty frame to handle the cobblestone streets (not to mention his 6' 9", 250-pound body). And they will discover the presentation folder. It’s an otherwise nondescript piece of office supply— dark blue, two pockets, letter size—but should serve as the collection’s crown jewel. They will peruse the sheets of scrap paper, some already yellowing from age. They will scan the calendars and charts, penciled in a blend 64 “HE DOESN’T NEED A TRAINER YELLING AT HIM TO GET BACK IN SHAPE,” SAYS FERENCE. “HE NEEDS PEOPLE TO TUG ON HIS REINS.” of English, Slovak and inscrutable shorthand that spills into the margins. “But you won’t be understanding what it means,” Chara says. “If you do, then you are a genius.” Here is the gist, decoded and translated: For almost three decades now, the 41-year-old Bruins defenseman has meticulously catalogued every single one of his offseason workouts. Each exercise. Each repetition. Each kilogram. Curious how many pucks he shot on, say, Aug. 31, 2014? How long he spent, oh, mountain biking on July 17, 1996? Those details live within that folder, protected by a plastic sleeve, stashed above his desk in the family’s combo office-playroom. SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 “You can easily figure out patterns of preparation,” he says. “It’s like a big puzzle.” Stapled together the documents create a road map. They explain how an overlooked, underdeveloped defenseman built himself into a six-time Norris Trophy finalist and future Hall of Famer. How the NHL’s secondoldest player (Wild center Matt Cullen is 136 days his senior) is leading a Stanley Cup contender (the Bruins were the top team in the Eastern Conference) in average ice time (22:59). How the tallest NHLer in history has survived amid an increasingly agile hockey world, dominated by aggressive, high-energy challengers like ERI C K W. R A S CO NHL CHARA ´ It’s a stormy March afternoon in the North End neighborhood. The previous night, during a 6–5 home win over the Red Wings, Chara had surpassed 34,000 career regular-season minutes—the equivalent of 23 straight days of skating, he calculated. His wife, Tatiana, and eight-year-old daughter, Elliz, are at gymnastics class, so Chara is facing a two-man forecheck from two-year-old twins Ben and Zack, who are armed with mini hockey sticks and Bruins sippy cups. Peeling open the folder, Chara thumbs through years of data. “So that’s 2017, 2016, ’15, ’14 . . . every day, what I did,” he says. “And I have a whole bunch at home too, in Slovakia.” The record-keeping began there. His father, Zdenek, was an Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler for communist Czechoslovakia who later coached the Slovak national team. He had young Zdeno doing shoulder raises with buckets of water that the son had pumped from a 13-meter-deep well. But more than hard work, Zdenek stressed smart work. And smart workers used journals. To this day, at the outset of each summer, Chara sits down and scripts his training sessions in monthlong segments. “I’m a thinker,” he says. “I like to do the work of preparation. When I start doing things, I like to already have a purpose.” He begins with a basic calendar on the first page, then breaks down each workout into sets, reps and weight on the second. The remaining pages are left blank, to be filled later with a running diary detailing how every exercise makes his body feel. Each ache. Each sore. Each burst of energy, color-coded and organized chronologically. BIG PICTURE The tallest blueliner ever at 6' 9", Chara has always been imposing, and he hasn’t lost a step thanks to his rigorous workouts. S ZACK AND BEN rip around the playroom, Chara slouches onto the carpet. A dozen jerseys hang on the wall, autographed by hockey idols (Lidstrom, Bobby Orr) and other sporting icons (Lance Armstrong, Tom Brady). The bookshelves are stuffed mostly with biographies, plus a coffee table tome diagramming Tour de France routes. The desk lamp is shaped like the Stanley Cup. A picture shows Zdeno and Tatiana hoisting the real thing in 2011. Another captures him at the opening ceremony of the ’14 Sochi Olympics, A P/SH U T T ERS T O C K A NHL CHARA the Western Conference–leading Predators and Golden Knights. How to explain what, as Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller puts it, “doesn’t make sense.” Maybe Father Time took one look and hit the showers out of fear. More likely: Chara’s remarkable longevity— over the last two decades only he and Nicklas Lidstrom have eclipsed 1,500 minutes in a season as 40-year-olds— is fueled by the same intensity that he developed as a lanky teen whom Slovak youth coaches regularly suggested should switch to basketball. On more than one occasion Chara told former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli that he wanted to play until at least 45. Teammates believe he will get there, no problem. “He seems to be getting better,” Bruins center Patrice Bergeron says. “It’s pretty scary.” carrying the Slovak flag and waving. Chara is still bummed that NHL players didn’t attend the Winter Games in PyeongChang—not only did he miss out on making a fourth appearance, but he also views the Olympics as a veritable brain buffet. During downtime at the athletes’ villages in Sochi, Vancouver (’10) and Turin (’06), Chara would often watch fellow Olympians—get this—warm up. He would study how speed skaters imitated push-offs on dry land, take mental notes on the stretches cross-country skiers performed. “For me, that [was] like heaven,” he says. In Chara’s eyes every elite athlete has wisdom to impart. He has sought powerlifting tips from Slovakian weightlifter Martin Tešovi and discussed endurancebased training with professional cyclists, such as countryman Peter Sagan. After meeting Olympic ice dancers Alex and Maia Shibutani at a Bruins game in 2016, Chara asked for help improving his balance and skating stride; the siblings FaceTimed him from the ice that summer and passed along drills. He also used to Greco-Roman wrestle regularly with his father’s national-team charges, believing the stand-up style was good training for puck battles. Unlike another quadragenarian captain based in Boston, Chara doesn’t need a staff of Svengalis to oversee his health. “I don’t think he’s ever had a personal trainer who’s there working with him all summer,” says his agent, Matt Keator. “A lot of this is done on his own. It’s feel-based.” Even so, Chara knows when to seek help. Which explains why he met with Adam Nicholas, a local skating and skills coach, two years ago. Chara quickly announced his intentions: “Listen, I want to play for as long as I possibly can.” Nicholas believed he could help. He had prepared a video presentation outlining several inefficiencies in Chara’s skating mechanics and played it for him. The clips revealed Chara’s tendency to cross over while skating backward, slowing his footwork and hindering his ability to defend oncoming puckhandlers. He explained how Chara could achieve faster pivots by keeping his stick in tight while turning and suggested he lower his stance into a more compact, athletic frame. “I’m a mansion,” Chara told Nicholas, explaining the difAPRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED 65 CHARA IN CHARGE RUSH HOUR Under Chara’s leadership, Boston’s young defense corps has allowed the third fewest goals this season. A new class of young Russian dynamos are about the take the NHL postseason by storm ficulty. “I’ve got to get into a one-bedroom apartment.” Some of the hip mobility drills were especially tough, but he practiced diligently, even mimicking foot patterns at home while rocking his twins to sleep. Gradually his pivots got tighter. His stride grew more powerful. Nicholas continues to send clips dissecting recent games. A recent emphasis: targeting breakout passes toward the middle of the ice, instead of creating 50-50 pucks by chipping them high off the glass into the neutral zone. But this isn’t a typical student-teacher relationship. For one thing, Chara is always texting Nicholas with suggestions for new drills. “[An] interactive approach, is what I’d call it,” Nicholas says. “He won’t stop until he masters everything.” URING THE 2005–06 season, his last in Ottawa before signing with Boston, Chara approached the Senators’ coaching staff with an unprecedented proposal: He wanted to play an entire game. Sixty minutes. No joke. “He was serious about it,” former assistant John Paddock says. “We all agreed that he could’ve done it.” The closest Chara came was 33:34 against Montreal on Dec. 20, 2005, but his ambition alone reﬂects a fixation on superlative feats of physical fitness. Everyone has a story. There was the time he coaxed his traveling companions into grueling staircase sprints at a hotel in Mozambique. Or when Paddock spotted him at Ottawa’s rink before training camp, decked in cycling gear and headed on a 60-mile ride, casual compared with the Tour de France stages that Chara biked for fun each summer. “He’s the reason I couldn’t use my long arms as an excuse in the pull-up competition,” former Bruins forward Shawn Thornton says. “That got old real quick when Zee was rattling off 35 of them at 270 pounds.” “He doesn’t need a trainer or a coach yelling at him to get back in shape,” says retired Boston teammate Andrew Ference. “He needs people to tug on his reins: ‘Zee, you’re playing 28 minutes a night, we’re in the playoffs, you don’t need to go into the gym and have a full workout after the 66 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 J O H N L E Y BA / T H E D EN V ER P OS T/G E T T Y IM AG E S (C H A R A) NHL CHARA D WHILE RUSSO-AMERICAN relations are under intense scrutiny around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue these days, just eight blocks away a sanctioned Russian back channel is open after most Capitals games. In the hallway between dressing rooms at Capital One Arena, the host of these informal summits, Washington captain Alex Ovechkin, engages his visiting countrymen in short chats. They don’t last long— 10 minutes max—but they do serve as refreshing reminders of home. “There’s not so many Russian guys in this league right now,” says Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev. “That’s why we’re so happy to see each other.” They are sticking together—and sticking out. Veterans like Ovechkin and Penguins center Evgeni Malkin remain dangerous as ever. But a new generation of Russian talent is reaching its prime, occupying key roles for Cup contenders throughout the East. In Toronto, the 26-year-old Zaitsev averages 22:23 on coach Mike Babcock’s top pair. Sharpshooting Artemi Panarin, also 26, leads the Blue Jackets with 69 points. Few playmakers operate with the ﬂare of 25-year-old Caps center Evgeny Kuznetsov (25 goals, 53 assists), while 26-year-old teammate Dmitry Orlov has developed into an all-situations workhorse. Add winger Vladimir Tarasenko, 26, of the bubble-sitting Blues, and that quintet wouldn’t make a bad sequel to the Red Wings’ Russian Five. “They were the generation that inspired this one,” professor of Russian history at South Florida Golfo Alexopoulos says of Detroit’s 1990s-era legends Sergei Fedorov, Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Vyacheslav Kozlov. The number of K E V I N S O US A / N H L I /G E T T Y I M AG E S (K U C H ER OV ); R O B C A R R /G E T T Y I M AG E S (OV E C H K I N); M I K E S T O B E / N H L I /G E T T Y I M AG E S (K U Z N E T S OV ) game.’ ” Consider: On the second day of the Bruins’ bye week in early January, Miller received a call from Chara, suggesting that they book ice time to stay fresh. “I don’t like to sit around and do nothing,” he says. Everything is geared toward helping Chara stay relevant amid the NHL’s youth movement. Since reading a book titled Stretch Fit, Chara has incorporated resistance bands into his warmup and recovery. Inspired by a conversation with his business manager Michal Matejovic, he also recently converted to a plant-based diet. He last ate red meat in mid-September and cut out eggs in February. Working smart is paying off this season. His mammoth checks and rangy reach still serve as powerful deterrents, and second-year coach Bruce Cassidy’s zone defense minimizes energy-wasting chases into the corners. But Chara has also accessed a new, nimbler gear in his 40s. “I honestly can tell I got faster,” he says, a hypothesis supported by the spin move that juked defenseman Brandon Manning behind the Flyers’ net in a game in early March and drew an audible roar from the TD Garden crowd. So far the only thing that’s slowed Chara down was an upper-body injury that shelved him for three weeks last month. But rest—especially for the age-defying set—could ultimately prove helpful with the Auston Matthews–led Maple Leafs awaiting Boston in the first round, then a possible matchup with the Lightning and 24-year-old Nikita Kucherov, a Hart Trophy candidate. Not that endurance is an issue. Though the Bruins passed off power-play duties to defensemen half his age, Chara still kills penalties (3:41 per game, second league-wide), protects leads and smothers top lines. “It’s crazy,” blueliner Charlie McAvoy says. “I don’t know how he does it.” Penguins defenseman Jamie Oleksiak can relate. Less than eight minutes into the second period of a game on March 1, Chara hopped over the boards and joined his teammates in the offensive zone. By the time that shift ended (interrupted only by a brief break for Bruins winger David Pastrnak’s hooking penalty) Chara had logged an ultramarathon 3:03 . . . and still had enough leftover juice to fight the 6' 7", 255-pound Oleksiak. When the bout mercifully ended, the heavyweights retreated to their respective sin bins. There, an exhausted Chara noted aloud how long he had been stuck on the ice. “Still beat me up anyways, man,” Oleksiak replied. “I’d hate to see if you were fresh.” ND NOW the pigeon story: Back in Trencin, Slovakia, in the early 1980s, the Charas kept several breeds—along with parrots, ducks, chickens, rabbits and pigs—in their family garden, so Zdeno had always felt comfortable feeding them as a kid. One day last year he wandered outside the Bruins’ practice facility and approached a ﬂock in the parking lot with some old bread. At first, the pigeons NHL CHARA Russian NHLers climbed to 66 by 1999–2000 before declining sharply after the ’04–05 lockout. This season 33 have appeared in at least one game, and plenty more are on the way. Last June teams drafted a record-tying 18 Russian-born players, putting to bed the ridiculous notion of a “Russian problem,” a code phrase for selﬁshness often perpetuated by old xenophobes in ﬂashy suits on TV. What was once the biggest adjustment—the switch from Communism to capitalism—is no longer much of an issue. Orlov and his peers were raised during a time of relative economic prosperity in Russia, which, at the behest of noted puckhead Vladimir Putin, trickled down to youth programs. “The conditions they trained under have gotten signiﬁcantly better,” says Dan Milstein, a Soviet-born agent who represents Lightning winger Nikita Kucherov, Panarin, Zaitsev and future Hall of Famer Pavel Datsyuk. “That’s why perhaps it’s easier for the Russians to adapt now. The talent was always there.” They have also beneﬁtted from the experience of the ﬁrst generation of Russian NHLers, who returned home to become coaches and train a new class of players for the North American game. “They’re all real skilled,” says Washington defenseman Brooks Orpik, a 15-year NHL vet. “But they go to the hard areas, which goes against some of the stereotypes. The [NHL has] evolved too. The game is probably more suited to [their skills].” Even more could break out this postseason. Like Mikhail Sergachev, the Tampa Bay teenager whose 39 points lead all rookie defensemen. Or Flyers blueliner Ivan Provorov, 21, averaging a team-high 24:11. When Provorov was 13, his family made the tough decision to have him move to Wilkes-Barre, Pa., thinking it would ease a transition SMOOTH OPERATORS to the NHL. It was A new generation of lonely at times. Even Russians, led by Kucherov now he is the only (86) and Kuznetsov (92), Russian native on is lining up behind vet Ovechkin (8). Philadelphia’s roster, although he does speak perfect English. At least if he does get homesick, there’s a good chance Provorov will see some fellow Russians at Capital One Arena in the ﬁrst round. He just shouldn’t expect that, come April 11, the friendly back channel will be open. —A.P. APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED 67 A SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 E T H A N MIL L ER /G E T T Y IM AG E S NHL CHARA 68 kept their distance. Then Chara went back. “Then they get closer,” he says. “Then they almost sit in your hand. Then the next time they land on your hand and eat there. It’s amazing when they bridge that gap between being scared and all of a sudden trusting you with their life.” This feeling isn’t just for the birds. Young or old, every new addition to Boston’s locker room gets nervous upon meeting Chara. “Oh, absolutely,” Miller says. “When you walk in and he shakes your hand and wraps your whole hand up. . . .” But as the NHL’s longest tenured captain—not to mention a walking Google Translate with solid command of five languages—Chara runs an inclusive ship. “He doesn’t treat rookies like rookies, McAvoy says. “Everyone gets involved.” Since receiving the c in October 2006, Zee has evolved as a leader too. Says Ference, “I think he went from the Eastern European, pretty-hardass approach, where there’s an expectation that everyone should be as committed as him, to being more understanding.” Indeed, teammates were pleasantly surprised last spring when, upon clinching their playoff berth, Chara arrived at the rink bearing boxes of doughnuts and loaves of banana bread. “So guys can have a sweet tooth, just to loosen up,” he explains. Of course, Chara adds, “I didn’t have any doughnuts.” Seven straight Stanley Cup playoff berths and two Eastern Conference titles from 2007 to ’14 will form the bulk of Chara’s legacy in Boston, but his stewardship might mean more now than ever. The team leads the league with 168 points by rookies, all of whom look up—and up, and up—to Chara. That group includes the 20-year-old McAvoy, who was born 32 days after Chara’s NHL debut and is now his top-pair partner. True to form, Chara is even learning from his millennial colleagues. Once famously private he signed up for Facebook and Instagram last fall. Each post is written and edited in English and Slovak with Matejovic several days in advance, offering lengthy musings from @zeechara33 such as: “When the mind is controlled and our inner voice aligned with the purpose the body is capable of more than we realize. Rule the mind and your body will follow. Your imagination is endless. No human is limited. It’s in our DNA to push the limits.” That is how Chara’s career makes sense. He entered the league as a bottom-pair fighter with the Islanders, willed himself into Norris Trophy contention for a decade. He continues chugging into his 13th postseason, where a healthy Bruins team has as good a chance as any, and he recently signed a one-year extension that’ll take him to 42. What is his purpose? A second Stanley Cup, of course. But more than that, Chara is showing what’s possible by pushing the limits, by maximizing every exercise and kilogram, by playing with those patterns until the whole damn puzzle is solved. ± H N L P L AY O F F P R E V IE W WIN CITY With the most successful expansion season in NHL history, the playoff-bound Golden Knights have helped humanize—and heal—Las Vegas BY CHARLES P. PIERCE You’ve got your desert/Goddammit, give me mine. —Randy Newman, “Happy Ending,” Faust HOW DO you make an American place out of an American dream? Is it even something that you want to do? Don’t you want your American dreams to stay golden and shining? Don’t you want them with pyramids and volcanoes and Statues of Liberty cheek by jowl with Eiffel Towers and pirate ships and fountains that dance to the first side of Revolver? Dreamers built Las Vegas. Granted, many of them were criminal dreamers who came to very bad ends, but they were dreamers nonetheless. They looked at a dusty town along the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, a spot in the desert named after the meadows that sprang from its underground springs, and they dreamed themselves up a gilded repository of American vice and sin. And it worked, too, for a while, anyway, in those years after World War II when America was fat and prosperous. The lights in the desert shone so brightly that most people hardly knew that this was an actual city, with actual people living actual lives. Most of the people who lived there couldn’t afford much of what the tourists came there HIGH ROLLIN’ to enjoy. They dealt blackjack, Defenseman ran drinks to the high rollers and Shea Theodore took bets in the sports books. celebrates a They parked cars and waited tagame-winning bles. They stripped and sang and power-play goal danced onstage, or outside on against Tampa the sidewalks for spare change. Bay on Dec. 19. APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED 69 Gradually, an American city grew around the gleam of the strip. And an American city needs something to cheer for besides millionaires from Singapore on a hot streak at the craps table. On March 26, 2018, the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Colorado Avalanche, 4–1, to clinch a spot in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. They are the first expansion team to do so in their inaugural season in 38 years, and that was when the WHA’s Oilers merged into the NHL, bringing Wayne Gretzky along with them. The Golden Knights did not squeak in, either. To put it in the local mathematical vernacular, the Knights started the season at 500 to 1 to win the Stanley Cup. Those odds have dropped to 6 to 1. Moreover, their season having begun just after an unspeakable crime, the Knights have become a big part of the city’s wounded heart, and a big part of rendering Las Vegas a city like all other cities in the eyes of a country used to seeing it as a movie set with roulette wheels. “Everyone thinks of Las Vegas as the Strip,” says Bill Foley, the West Point grad and financial-services millionaire who ponied up the $500 million expansion fee to create the Knights. “It’s gambling, it’s casinos, it’s shows. And what we did, we converted the perception of Las Vegas. It’s a town. It’s a [community] with 2.2 million people, and they love hockey.” Of course, this isn’t Winnipeg or Edmonton, or even Columbus or Nashville. This is the place that has Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group as intermission entertainment, which certainly beats watching the local peewees skate around on their knees or some drunk fan trying to win at Score-O. And the Knights benefit from the fact that Las Vegas is still a destination spot. One weekend in February, when the Canadiens were in town, the Strip was awash in bleu-blanc-et-rouge for three days. For decades professional sports pretended Las Vegas didn’t exist. Burned by betting scandals and wary of the people running things out in the desert, the leagues preferred to exist in a bubble made up of their relationships with the more respectable precincts of corporate America. (That this required equal amounts of naiveté and cynicism never seemed to bother anyone.) But now, to paraphrase Mr. Joyce, gambling is general, all over America. It takes 20 minutes to buy a banana at a convenience store because the person in front of you 70 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 E T H A N MIL L ER /G E T T Y IM AG E S NHL VEGAS ´ is pondering the lottery display. There are casinos of every kind built on Native American reservations all over the country, a kind of karmic payback for all those broken treaties and all that stolen land. Destination casinos, as they are called, are springing up everywhere, and the Supreme Court is, at this very moment, deliberating the case of Christie v. NCAA, which, if it is decided in favor of the plaintiffs, could legalize sports betting all over America. The primary reason for Las Vegas to exist at all has been diluted in a thousand different places. The tourist dollars over which Sin City once had a monopoly became diffused while the city still needed them to prop up the local economy. So, in the late 1980s, the conversion to a “family friendly” Las Vegas was as much a recognition of those changing circumstances as it was anything else. “I’d say the change started in the 1970s, when [Atlantic City] got gambling,” said Jon Ralston, the veteran Nevada political reporter. “A lot of that money started going to New Jersey.” The arrival of professional sports in Las Vegas is perhaps the final demonstration that the leagues have adapted to the new casino culture in America, and the final act of renovating the city into something more than a theme park. Even the NFL has surrendered; the Oakland Raiders will be playing in a new stadium in Las Vegas very soon. And the Knights have become a genuine phenomenon. “EVERYONE THINKS OF LAS VEGAS AS THE STRIP,” FOLEY SAYS. “IT’S A [COMMUNITY] WITH 2.2 MILLION, AND THEY LOVE HOCKEY.” EVER STRONGER The Golden Knights, who lead the Pacific Division with a 29-10-2 home record, haven’t lost more than three in a row all season. “I grew up in Buffalo,” said R a lston. “I’m just astounded by the enthusiasm of the crowds. There has been this yearning of the people here for professional sports, and it was hockey that got here first. People have embraced it.” “You drop hockey into the desert,” said MarcAndré Fleury, the former Pittsburgh goalie who has been central to the Knights’ success this season, “and you never know what can happen.” HE STAGE is still there, like the ruins of a lost and abandoned city, and it’s directly across the street from a replica of the Sphinx and not far from a pyramid. There’s a wide expanse of asphalt. There was a sign on a chain-link fence that read, if you see something, say something. There also are ﬂowers hung there, withered a bit now, even the plastic ones. This is a kind of memorial now. It is also a killing ground. It will be both of those things, forever. On Oct. 1, 2017, a man named Stephen Paddock went to the windows of the two suites he had rented on the 32nd ﬂoor of the Mandalay Bay resort. In those suites, he had 22 assault-style riﬂes—14 of them AR-15s—a bolt-action riﬂe and a revolver, as well as ammunition for all of them. Across the street, on the stage that stood on the asphalt, singer Jason Aldean was giving a show on the final night of a three-day country music festival. Paddock broke out his windows with a hammer and, at 10:05 p.m., opened fire on the crowd across the street. Fifty-eight people died, and 851 people were wounded. And, in a very real and modern sense, Las Vegas became a place like so many other places. A place like Aurora, or Newtown, or Sutherland Springs in Texas, or Parkland in Florida. It was a place like every other place—wounded and bleeding. Nine days later the 2–0 Vegas Golden Knights were scheduled to play their first home regular-season hockey game as an NHL franchise. T Opening night was turned into an emotional maelstrom. There were tributes from players and teams around the league. There were 58 seconds of silence, one for each of Stephen Paddock’s victims. There was a great enfolding of the team into the community, the real community, the place where real people live and die. Right before the puck dropped, defenseman Deryk Engelland took the microphone. Engelland was born in Edmonton, but he’s lived in Las Vegas for 15 years. “Like all of you, I’m proud to call Las Vegas home,” Engelland said. “I met my wife here. Our kids were born here. I know how special this city is. To all the brave first responders that have worked tirelessly and courageously through this whole tragedy, we thank you. To the families and friends of the victims, we’ll do everything we can to help you and our city heal. We are Vegas Strong.” Then, Engelland went out and scored the team’s second goal, one-timing a blast from the right point. The Golden Knights blew out the Coyotes 5–2. They won five of the next six games, and they haven’t looked back since. “Everything that happened on October 1 shifted things,” says Kim Frank, the team’s vice president for marketing. “We had a fanfest scheduled for October 2. We canceled our fanfest. First thing we did was get right out into the community and made sure the community knew we were there for them. The thing about these guys, they were, like, you know, we’re nobodies. We’re new here too.” Frank had tickets to the country jamboree but, exhausted from the preparation for the Knights’s first season, had turned them back in. “It threw us off,” Foley says. “But in a way, I believe it brought the city of Las Vegas into us. We became part of the city of Las Vegas, and the city of Las Vegas became part of us. Now we’re part of the environment.” That environment still includes a pyramid, a volcano, an Eiffel Tower and a Statue of Liberty, all within a few blocks of each other, and there is still a parking lot with an empty stage to remind everyone that this is a real place where real people live. A place like Parkland, in Florida, where there was another mass shooting to bookend the remarkable first season of the Vegas Golden Knights. On Feb. 15 the Golden Knights held a moment of silence for the 17 people killed by Nikolas Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Several players spoke out; defenseman Jon Merrill’s wife and daughters took part in the Las Vegas March for Our Lives, because that is part of being in the community, too. The Vegas Golden Knights have done their job, which has turned out to be so much more than simply being the surprisingly good hockey team that they are. They have made themselves more than a part of the neon dreamscape that surrounds their arena. They are a part of what makes this place a home, and a part of what makes their home an actual place. ± APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED 71 MLB TOMM Y P H A M I S... BY J A C K DIC K E Y Photograph by JOSH RITCHIE . . . STRONGER, FASTER AND MORE FOCUSED THAN ANYONE ELSE IN THE CARDINALS’ OUTFIELD, AND HIS BREAKOUT 2017 SEASON WOULD HAVE COME YEARS EARLIER HAD HE GOTTEN A FAIR SHAKE. DON’T BELIEVE THAT? JUST ASK HIM THERE ARE WORSE places to pass your 20s than baseball’s minor leagues. You work outdoors; you see America; you don’t have to wear a tie. But the pay is wretched and player autonomy nearnonexistent. And once most of your 20s have indeed passed, you must develop a self-image that contradicts your humble place in the sport: You have to convince yourself you belong in the majors, even though you know you aren’t there. The dissonance will wear anyone down. ¶ Last April, as a 29-year-old centerfielder for the Triple A Memphis Redbirds, Tommy Pham—with 136 big league games and 14 homers to his name and a baseball sporting the words believe in yourself tattooed on his left biceps—called a buddy back home in Las Vegas and said he was done. Baseball was all Pham had ever wanted to do, and he had played on despite a degenerative eye condition and three season-ending injuries in his prime. And he had no backup plan. While he had been an A student in high school, he hadn’t gone to college; his other work experience consisted of a summer as an electrician’s apprentice. No matter. He had had enough. ´ 72 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 TOMMY PHAM 74 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 C H RIS L EE /S T. LO UIS P OS T- D ISPATC H / T N S /G E T T Y IM AG E S (FIEL D IN G) Pham had chafed at being stuck in Memphis before. Early in 2014, after being leapfrogged by betterregarded prospects such as Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty and Oscar Taveras, Pham says he called Gary LaRocque, the Cardinals’ farm director, and demanded his release. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m the best mother------ on this team, and you guys don’t even know it,’” he recalls. “I said those exact words. They told me things happen, I’ll get some at bats. I just had to wear it.” (Indeed, true to his read, Pham, a 16th-round pick in 2006, had the best numbers on the team by season’s end.) W hile he made the Opening Day roster in 2016, he strained an oblique in his first at bat. Once Pham healed, the Cardinals sent him down to the Redbirds. In response, Pham says, he “threw numbers” at St. Louis manager Mike Matheny. “Looking back on it, that’s not something you want to do.” He took the relative high road when loose. Pham’s agents had learned demoted again in spring training that other MLB teams as well as of 2017, telling Matheny, “I’m gonna Japanese clubs were interested. go get better, but just know this: “I’m thinking, [the Cardinals] are There’s not one player in the minor not gonna trade me,” Pham says. leagues with my Triple A résumé “They won’t sell me to Japan. What and my big league résumé, because the f---? They clearly don’t believe they’re all up here starting.” in me. Let a mother------ leave! And Still, Pham hadn’t thought to they wouldn’t even do that.” quit. Then the season started. Pham’s best friend since Little “We’re two weeks in, and I’m rakLeague, Alvino Ramirez, told him HOW’S THE PHAM? ing,” he says. “I’m hitting like .400. to stick it out for a week or two. Well, last year he put up numbers at the The big league team was 3–9, and Edwin Jackson, the veteran pitcher plate to rival Trout’s and Altuve’s while all three outfielders were hitting who himself spent much of 2017 ranking third in total zone runs among NL centerfielders (in just 37 games there). .200. They tried [Matt] Adams out in Triple A and is one of Pham’s there, and he’s a great hitter, but mentors, said the same thing. Tenhe just couldn’t play the outfield. tatively, Pham checked back in. So I’m like, They’re getting the reports every day, they On May 4, Piscotty strained his hamstring, and Pham know I’m raking. What the f---? When are they gonna got called up. He homered in his first game, then hit two call me up? And then we’re three weeks in. The guys more in his third. He was on his way. His average never are still struggling, Grichuk, Dex [Dexter Fowler], Pisdropped below .277 or his OBP below .359. He hit better cotty. And I’m still balling! So finally I said, They’re not after the All-Star break than he did before it. At Pham’s gonna f-----’ call me up, f--- it, and I zoned out in Triple urging, the Cardinals’ coaches put him through extra A. Every day I was just like, F--- this. I’ve made it to the drills to improve his pitch selection, helping him cut big leagues, f--- it.” down on his whiffs and increase his walks. Among qualiHe stopped showing up for early work, daring his fied players in 2017, only Joey Votto and Matt Carpenter manager to bench him, daring St. Louis to cut him swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than Pham. “I PUT UP A 1.4 WAR IN 150 AT BATS. TIMES THAT BY FOUR—IF ANYBODY DID THAT THEIR ROOKIE YEAR, BASEBALL GOES CRAZY OVER THEM. BUT WHEN I DID IT, THEY SAY, OH, HE’S JUST THE BACKUP.” In 128 games he hit 23 homers, stole 25 bases and put up a .306/.411/.520 line while playing first-rate defense. Only 13 other players have been in the 20-20, .300/.400/.500 club since 2000; Pham’s peers last year were Mike Trout and José Altuve. Despite missing 34 games, Pham ranked seventh in the NL in WAR (6.2) and finished 11th in the MVP voting, the top attraction on the worst Cardinals team (83–79) since ’07. After the season ended, Pham predicted only bigger things, aiming for a 30-30 season. And the Cardinals bought in, naming him their number 2 hitter and starting centerfielder, trading away Grichuk and Piscotty. Tommy Pham has made it. But one consequence of making it after being so close to quitting is that his hurt is still fresh. “I should have been doing this s--- sooner,” he says, sitting at a Chipotle in Miami in early February, before the start of camp. He smarts at how long it took Cardinals management to believe in him, apportioning some blame to his injuries (a torn wrist ligament in 2011, and labrums torn in each shoulder, in ’12 and ’13) and some to the December 2011 departure of scouting director Jeff Luhnow, a champion of Pham’s who left to become the Astros’ general manager. “The front office, I can’t entirely say they were on my side,” Pham says. “I wasn’t drafted by these people.” (He cites John Vuch, the team’s director of baseball administration, as his only remaining ally from the old regime.) When leftfielder Matt Holliday got hurt in 2015, Grichuk got that job, and when Peter Bourjos was benched, sliding Grichuk to center, Piscotty took over in left. Pham had to settle for 35 cobbled-together starts. “You can’t bitch about it, because if you bitch about it, you f--- up the team,” Pham says. “But I put up an .824 OPS and a 1.4 WAR in 150 at bats. Times that by four—if anybody did that their rookie year, baseball goes crazy over them. But when I did it, they say, Oh, he’s just the backup. In 2016, I had an .870 OPS before I stopped playing every day. An .870 OPS in the big leagues? That plays. But I never got the recognition. I put up better numbers than these other guys in the minor leagues and the major leagues. And I was a better athlete than these mother-------. I run faster than ’em, I’m stronger than ’em. But when a team TOMMY PHAM J EF F H AY N E S ´ APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED 75 AS VEGAS in recent years has become a reliable supplier of young stars such as Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Joey Gallo. The city and its Sun Belt sprawl make a fitting modern baseball cradle: It’s the sort of place where former minor leaguers can set up businesses and coach their sons, as Bryant’s and Gallo’s fathers did. But that was not Tommy Pham’s Vegas. Thomas James Pham was born on March 8, 1988. His twin sister, Brittney, came two minutes later. Their mother, Tawana, was 17, and their father, Anhtuan, 19, was incarcerated, as he would be for most of his twins’ lives. (He will spend his 50th birthday in federal prison this June; his expected release is in October.) Tommy has no relationship with his father. They’ve met three times, twice when Anhtuan was locked up and once outside of prison. “He used to write me letters. I told him years ago that I was done, and I wouldn’t visit him again,” Tommy says. 76 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 L Anhtuan, who was born in Vietnam during the war to a black American father and a Vietnamese mother, had moved to the U.S. as a youngster with his mother, brother and sister. He was a gifted football player, but he became enmeshed in drugs and street crime: Corrections records show a rap sheet spanning three decades. The pregnancy, Tawana says, crushed her parents at first: She had wound up a single mother of two, and she hadn’t even finished high school. But they offered to raise the twins with her as long as she worked. So she landed in food service, as a buser at first, working her way up to server. She got a second job in a bakery. Tawana needed the money and the help. Tommy wore leg braces from two to 31⁄2; the pediatrician worried he had rickets. She was working so much, she could hardly spend time at home. When the twins were five, she married Fred Polk, an electrician, and soon after they had a daughter, Mercedes. The blended family had many of the trappings of middle-class life, but Tawana was still holding down two jobs, which left Tommy and Brittney to look after themselves. Tawana set rules—no bad grades, no unstructured time—and Tommy went about enforcing them rather than stressing her out or risking her wrath. (Brittney still thinks of Tommy as her dad; he’ll weigh in on her dating life and tsk-tsk her about drinking when they go to nightclubs.) For the Pham kids, organized sports presented their only shot at fun. (Brittney’s sport D IL IP V ISH WA N AT/G E T T Y IM AG E S TOMMY PHAM puts some money in a player, they’re gonna talk ’em up.” If Pham really is this good, he may have lost tens of millions in career earnings by spending his peak years in Memphis. He will be playing for nearly the minimum salary again in 2018 after turning down a two-year extension, and if his season is anything like the one before it, he will be providing the Cardinals a tremendous bargain. “They say one win is worth $8 million. Eight times six, that’s $48 million. I did all that for 500 grand.” Pham was heartened by the five-year, $80 million contract 31-year-old centerfielder Lorenzo Cain signed with Milwaukee in January. Pham plays a power-speed-defense game similar to Cain’s, but he won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2021 season, at which point he will be 33 going on 34. “It sucks a little bit,” he says. “I’ll just have to get my money later.” But the sting from his waylaying has less to do with finances than feeling disrespected. “They said, ‘We believed you could do it all along.’ That’s the thing that’s so mind-boggling. I said, If that’s the f-----’ case, then why was I f-----’ demoted to Triple A? If that’s the case, why the f--- was I batting in the eight hole this year, behind the guy who got f-----’ called up from high A? That s---, that’s that fake s---, man. I’m from a background where my mom kept it so real. My mom would be like, ‘Man, look, I don’t have no money to get you nothing for Christmas, I don’t have no money to get you nothing for your birthday. I’m sorry. I gotta pay the bills.’ I respected her because, s---, she told us from the get-go. All that fake s---, man, I was never raised like that.” was basketball.) During baseball season, Tommy’s coaches ferried him to practices and games. Once he started travel ball, at 10, with tournaments every weekend all over the country, coaches Todd Gamboa and Al Ramirez became surrogate fathers to Tommy. But for Tommy that wasn’t especially close to the real thing: Parents would console their kids when they made errors. The coaches didn’t do that, not even for their star shortstop. And when he was trying to improve after practice, after his coaches had already dropped him back home, Pham had no one to play catch with. He practiced his defense by throwing a baseball against the brick wall behind his house and fielding the rebound; he worked on his hitting by tossing a Wifﬂe ball high into the air, then waiting for it to come down. One year Pham’s team celebrated its season by renting out a sports park, and while his teammates raced go-karts and went on rides, he spent the entire evening in the batting cage. Says Pham’s friend (and his coach’s son), A lv ino Ramirez, “He was a hard-nosed grandmother, whom she had asked to join her, declined to go, saying they’d had enough. Seeing him shackled to the hospital bed, she pitied him. It hit Brittney that she was indeed all he had: “He has messed up, and he keeps messing up. But I think I have to forgive him and treat him with respect because he still did bring me into this world.” In recent letters from prison, her father has struck a new contrite tone and expressed his continued desire to have a relationship with Tommy. She has told him not to expect that. “I do think Tommy would feel better if he forgave him,” she says. “He’s got a lot of anger.” Tommy says, “I don’t talk to him, no. That’s only because he’s a person I don’t know. But am I mad? No. Because it only made me better. RUN AND WALK-OFF Pham, who led the Cards with 25 steals, hit a game-ending homer against the Rays in August (left). “I WAS A BETTER ATHLETE THAN THESE MOTHER-------. I RUN FASTER THAN ’EM, I’M STRONGER THAN ’EM. BUT WHEN A TEAM PUTS SOME MONEY IN A PLAYER, THEY’RE GONNA TALK ’EM UP.” kid back then, and he’s a hard-nosed adult right now. His demeanor hasn’t changed.” Where his twin sister is bubbly and social—she’s a bartender—Tommy can be steely and distant. He berates himself for mistakes and broods after bad games. Since tasting success he’s only gotten harder on himself. Tawana used to be ashamed of the twins’ severe childhoods, she says. After talking it over with Tommy a few years ago, though, she made peace with it. When he was young, she would tell him how easily he could become a statistic—a mixed-race boy born to an incarcerated father and a single, teenage mother. “Some parents care too little; I cared too much,” Tawana says. “I saved Tommy.” In May 2016, Brittney got a call from a number she didn’t recognize. It was a police sergeant informing her that her father was in intensive care. He had been shot nine times by an off-duty cop while allegedly trying to shoplift two bags of crab legs from a Washington, D.C., grocery store. He had supposedly pulled a replica handgun on the officer. Brittney went with her six-year-old son, Clayton, to see him in the hospital; her mother and And it’s funny, you know, a lot of the lessons I learned in life, as far as being a grown man, I learned in baseball.” Curtis Granderson, the All-Star outfielder, took Pham to buy his first suit a few spring trainings ago. “I don’t feel sorry for myself, I really don’t,” Pham says. “I made the most out of my situation—but these things weren’t hardships to me. It was just life.” HAM SPENT this past offseason, like the one before it, training in Miami. He’d like to be back in Vegas, but the city lacks a sports performance facility that meets his specialized requirements. So he rented an apartment in a downtown high-rise with ﬂoor-to-ceiling windows that offer a view of the city and Miami Beach. He keeps the place clean; his whole family is fastidious. On his coffee table sits a book of Spanish grammar. Pham has a brilliant smile, one he uses sparingly, saving it for moments like this. “I ain’t gonna lie to you and be like, ‘I wanna be able to communicate with my Latin teammates.’ I’m learning ’cause I like Spanish women,” he says. Whatever the context, he always puts in extra effort to improve. TOMMY PHAM C H RIS L EE /S T. LO U IS P OS T- D ISPAT C H / T N S /G E T T Y IM AG E S ´ APRIL 9, 2018 | SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED 77 P Over the years Pham has retained no fewer than five hitting coaches. (“They all cost money. Some of ’em way too f-----’ much.”) He spent thousands in 2016 on special contact lenses to improve his degenerative eye condition, keratoconus. They didn’t help, so he ditched them. When the Redbirds’ pitching machine broke, he ordered a new one, the $3,300 Hack Attack, which simulates a pitcher’s actual elevated release point. He reads everything he can on mechanics, nutrition and sabermetrics. “I MADE THE MOST OUT OF MY [FAMILY] SITUATION— BUT THESE THINGS WEREN’T HARDSHIPS TO ME. IT WAS JUST LIFE.” “A lot of guys in this game are complacent,” he says. “They’ll say, I wanna run faster, lemme go run some sprints. I say, I wanna run faster. I’ll look at my mechanics and see I have a bad knee drive. What causes a bad knee drive? I lack ankle mobility. O.K., so if I fix my ankle mobility, I can achieve a dorsiﬂex position which could drive my knee up. O.K., I need to improve my stride frequency. Let me go run 30-degree incline sprints at 18 miles per hour so I can improve my stride frequency. And let me do some overspeed training so I can train my neuromuscular system to run faster than I’m biologically capable of. You know what I mean. Guys don’t do that s---. They don’t break it down like that.” Pham wasn’t always so open to learning; he says no coach could break through his hardheadedness until Jeff Albert, now the Astros’ assistant hitting coach, got to him in his fourth year of pro ball. It was late July and Pham’s average was hovering around .200. His high-A team’s game in Lakeland, Fla., was rained out. Pham says, “I was struggling so bad, I said, f--- it, I’m tired of 78 SPORT S ILLUS TR ATED | APRIL 9, 2018 TIM SPY ERS/ I CO N SP O R T S WIRE /G E T T Y IM AG E S TOMMY PHAM ´ struggling. What do I need to do?” Albert showed him video of his swing compared with proper form. From there, Pham says, he was all but set. Last season Pham followed the same routine every game day. He would hit off a tee, then have a coach ﬂip him balls and strikes. Then came batting practice. When the first group hit, he’d shag ﬂies in the outfield. When the second group came up, he’d work on his batted-ball reads and baserunning. He’d hit in the third group. Then he’d come in, eat, hit off the tee again, hit off the pitching machine, shower and play the game. He says after all that preparation, playing becomes the easiest part of his day. Once the game’s over and he’s home, he might call his sisters back in Vegas to see what his niece and nephew are up to. He’ll put on the TV—some nights MLB Network, some nights HGTV—and stand, bat in hand, by the set and a nearby mirror, practicing his swing mechanics until he’s ready to sleep. He figures his drive gives him his biggest edge. I asked him where it came from; he cited his lean upbringing. He owes everything to it, he says. I pressed, surprised that a man so affronted by his delayed promotion in pro baseball carried so little bitterness about more foundational deprivations—no father, little money. A few days after our interview, Pham sent a text message: “The question was if I wish I had it easier or came up rich, would I have wanted that? The more I thought about it my answer is no. I played with a lot of guys coming up who came from a wealthy upbringing and what I remembered most about them is how soft they were. When things got harder for them, they always crumbled. I think where I came from helped me persevere through all my injuries in everything bcuz I seen a lot of guys fold, the most successful ppl in the world came from the smallest beginnings which makes me think it’s not about where you’re from or how you come up but where are you going!” So just where is Tommy Pham going? Few players have more at stake in 2018. A repeat of his 2017 performance would put him among the best handful of players in the game; a letdown would suggest that last year had been little more than luck. He has staked his baseball credibility—which may very well be his signature asset—on another monster season. And while free agency is years away, he should become arbitrationeligible this winter, meaning his pay will be directly tied to his play. No pressure. He is reminded of something he read a few days ago, a story about a former No. 1 draft pick, born to privilege, who had retired without making the majors. “He said something along the lines of, ‘Yeah, baseball’s not my identity,’ ” Pham says. “A guy who was the No. 1 pick? I dunno if he was all in. For me, baseball’s all I ever wanted to do. I’m all in.” ± POINT AFTER THOR HAS THE FLOOR NOAH SYNDERGA ARD ON HE A LT H , HIGHL IGH T S A ND THE EVILS OF MR. MET IN T ER V IE W BY JON TAY LER PHO T OGR A PH BY ROB T RING A L I ∂ SI: You had a long layoff last year because of a lat injury. Any anxiety this spring? NS: No. I felt like I put my body in a pretty good situation this offseason in terms of mobility and doing the right things for gaining strength and explosiveness. ∂ SI: Is there a fear that as hard as you throw, you’re an injury risk? NS: No, because my 100 [mph] is someone else’s 100 if they usually throw 90 and lefthanded. If someone maxes out at 92, that’s their 100%. My 100% just happens to be 101–102. ∂ SI: Do you have a favorite career moment so far? NS: [Winning] Game 3 of the  World Series was pretty cool. Hitting two home runs in Dodger Stadium and throwing eight innings [in 2016] was awesome. I was on cloud nine that day. ∂ SI: You had a cameo on Game of Thrones last year. Any more acting jobs coming? NS: Nothing lined up, but The Rock gave me some love on Twitter, so maybe I can run into him. ∂ SI: When you posted that GIF of him in his WWE days, were you expecting a response? NS: No, because it wasn’t directed toward him. But then he responded with something epic because he knew about the whole feud with Mr. Met. ∂ SI: Where’s that feud going? It’s been heated. NS: I don’t know if it’ll ever end. Probably not, because my fear of mascots will probably never go away. ∂ SI: If you have one non–Game of Thrones TV show you could get a cameo role in, what would it be? NS: Billions. It’s awesome, and it takes place in New York, too. In Season 1 they went to this underground ancient bathhouse called Aire, and I was like, “I’ve been there before.” ∂ SI: Which pitcher has the one pitch you’d most like to add to your arsenal? NS: Can I say nobody? I like all my stuff more than anyone else’s. I guess Clayton Kershaw’s curveball. ∂ SI: I want your prediction for how Game of Thrones is going to end. 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