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Sports Illustrated USA - April 09, 2018

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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
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you’ll get peace of mind.
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SCORECARD
NOMINATE NOW
To submit a candidate for Faces in the
Crowd, email faces@simail.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
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“[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
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©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
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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).
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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
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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
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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
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
´
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TOMMY PHAM
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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
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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.
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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
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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
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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 [2015] 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.
NS: Everybody dies. ±
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