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Sunday, March 30, 2008

The 7 Ballsiest Sports Cheats Ever


You might think that sportsmanship is dead, what with the steroids and signal-stealing cameras in the headlines. And you'd be right.

But what you may not realize is that sportsmanship died long, long ago. In fact, these modern performance enhancers can't hold a candle to some of the ballsiest and outright insane cheats throughout sporting history.

The Spanish Rig the Paralympics

One thing people would never sully with deception is the Paralympics (which is like the Special Olympics, where people with disabilities compete). Right? Who would stoop as low as that?

The short answer: the Spanish. In an act of desperation so pathetic it inspires pity, some of the players on the Spaniards' gold medal-winning Paralympic basketball team turned out not be disabled at all. Yes, that South Park episode and that Johnny Knoxville movie both turned out to be based on a true story.

Undercover journalist, Carlos Ribagorda, blew the lid off the scandal. You may assume that only one or two of the overall squad was ineligible, but that would be underestimating the desperation of the Spanish. A whopping 10 of the 12 members of the basketball squad had no mental difficulty. They were just athletes that sucked enough to not make it into the Olympic team.


Based on actual events

Did it work?
The Spaniards were disqualified from the basketball competition and stripped of their title. There was no evidence of any wrongdoing in other Paralympic events, and we're going to accept that the rest of them were disabled. The alternative, which is that most of their athletes were normal and yet only finished third overall, is too sad to contemplate.

Liston Burns the Gloves

According to Sun Tzu, war is not won by superior might, but by subversion, deceit and trickery. In 1964, when heavyweight champ Sonny Liston went to war with Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) so many of those tactics were used that somewhere in the afterlife, Sun Tzu must be sporting a raging erection.

Sonny Liston was the Tyson of his day (In that he spent most of his time in prison or punching peoples faces off) and the experienced fighter was the massive favorite ahead of the 22-year-old Ali, who was coming off a pair of bad fights against mediocre fighters.

However, after three rounds, Ali wasn't just winning, he was dancing around and making the champ look like a drunk playing Whack-A-Mole. At the end of the third round, Liston allegedly told his corner to "burn the gloves", which meant smear them with the ointment they use to close cuts (you don't want to get that goop in your eyes).

The next round comes and, after a few blows to the face, Ali goes back to the corner and tells them he's been blinded.

Did it work?
Ali supposedly told his corner he didn't want to continue, but they shoved him out and he stumbled around, blind, while Liston hammered him. Ali survived the round and won the fight in the seventh, partly because he had engaged in some shenanigans of his own.

From the moment the contract was signed several months before the bout, Ali began his campaign to destroy Liston's sanity. Ali started showing up to sparring sessions to taunt Liston. He followed Liston to a casino and mocked him for losing, an act that nearly resulted in a fight on the casino floor. He was waiting at a Miami airport, to ambush Liston with rhyming annoyance.

Ali showed up at Liston's training headquarters with a bus full of girls. He even turned up at Liston's house in the middle of the night, taking the harassment into stalker territory. When it came time for the actual fight, an unbalanced Liston fell behind early and, despite the poison glove trick, never recovered.

Sun Tzu would have been proud.

Jockey Turns On the Fog Cheat Code

In 1990, jockey Sylvester 'Sly' Carmouche lived up to his name and showed how a gentleman woos mother nature. On a bitterly cold day in December, Sly was the shock winner at Delta Downs in Louisiana (the odds against him were 23-1). How'd he pull it off?

Taking advantage of the fog, Sly waited for the race to begin, then let the rest of the pack to run off into the fog. He stopped, then just waited for the other racers to come around the track behind him. At that point he sped up and and left the other racers in his dust.

Did it work?
As with most cheats, it was Sly's greed that brought him down. People were willing to accept this outside bet winning--anything can happen. However the margin of his victory began to raise a few eyebrows. Even in the tricky conditions, Sly managed to win by an immense 24 lengths (about 200 feet) and only missed the record set on that course by 1.2 seconds.

Soon Jockeys began coming forward saying that they'd never actually seen Sly go past them, something that most people would probably have been slightly suspicious of much earlier, since that pretty much narrows the possibilities to a flying horse or teleportation.

Eventually Sly got a 10-year ban but was reinstated after 8, probably because he found a way to cheat time somehow.

Boris and His Magical Blade

In 1976, the Soviets and the west were in a race to see who could perfect cheating technology first. During the 1976 Olympic games pentathlon, it became clear who had the edge.

After the first event the Soviets found themselves in fourth place, right behind the British. During the next event, fencing, Boris Onishchenko made quick work of his first British opponent. Boris was considered the best fencer in the competition, so that wouldn't have raised all that many British eyebrows.

What did raise suspicions was when, during his match, the British captain Jim Fox leaned all the way back and saw Boris' sword come up a foot short, and yet the buzzer still sounded and the point was awarded. This is basically the equivalent of Shaq stepping up for a free throw, tossing up an air ball and still getting the point.

At this point the British squad called shenanigans and the sword was confiscated. In those events, there is an electronic sensor in the sword that determines when a point had been struck.

It turned out Boris had tampered with the circuit system, allowing him to award himself points at will.

Did it work?
After he was caught, the entire pentathlon team was disqualified and the British won the gold.

As if being caught performing a fairly obvious attempt at cheating, the story still manages to get more embarrassing as, after the confiscation of the sword, the bout continued and Boris ran away as a convincing winner. So the Soviets were from the New England Patriots school of cheating, which says that even if you're vastly superior to your opponent, you cheat anyway. Just for the pure hell of it.

Dude(?) Looks Like a Lady

Here at Cracked, we're are all about equality and accurate representation of the facts, so far be it from us to make any unverified accusations. However, if the Press "sisters" weren't men, then they did a damn good job of acting like they had penises. Are we saying that there are some things that men are just naturally better at? The answer is yes, if we're talking about having to throw a heavy metal ball really far.

Tamara Press, the eldest of the two sisters, was a leading figure in the shot put and discus from 1958 until she left the sport. Irina Press was a track and field expert. During their reign of dominance, the Press sisters won five Olympic gold medals, a single silver and several more medals in other competitions. They also set 26 world records.

Sure, that kind of record from just two appearances in Olympic games could raise eyebrows, but hey, would you say Ben Johnson was a cheat based solely on his setting an unthinkable world record? Well, maybe that's not the best example.

People were already questioning the Press sisters, specifically whether or not they were really the Press brothers (yes, people actually started derisively calling them that). Theories ranged from the pair being hermaphrodites (though the rarity of that condition means the odds against both sisters having it are astronomical) to accusations they were injecting male hormones.

This suspicion escalated further when it was announced that gender testing would be implemented for the games ... at which point both Press sisters abruptly retired.

Did it work?
The sisters were never formally accused and lived the rest of their lives as heroes in Russia. Many people who support the Press sisters insist that their leaving the sport right when proof was demanded was just unfortunate timing. We'll let you be the judge.

Hitching a Ride at the Tour de France

While simply catching a ride from a car is an undeniably effective way to win a bicycle race, its lack of deniability and general dumb shit blatancy severely detract from this being a usable method of cheating. Or so you'd think.

In 1904, during only the second ever Tour de France, Hippolyte Acouturier thought he had found a foolproof way to sidestep those meddlesome rules that were impeding his chances of winning with little or no effort.


This is Hippolyte. Seriously.

You can't blame him, back then the Tour de France was mostly shenanigans, with some bike racing in between (for instance, Acouturier had lost the first Tour de France when someone spiked his water bottle).

In fact, accounts of the first races say competitors used everything from nails and broken glass on the road, to itching powder in the opposing riders' shorts to get an edge. At one point an angry mob randomly attacked some riders and had to be driven away with gunfire. Yes, bicycle racing was about a thousand times more awesome back then.

Being a man of at least some moral fiber, Hippo decided against crippling the performance of his opponents and instead came up with an awe-inspiring method of cheating that would leave other, lesser geniuses, scratching their head in wonder.

He didn't simply grab hold of the bumper of some car and hold on for dear life, as a lesser man would have. No, he attached a wire to the bumper of the car, and on the other end of the wire was a hunk of cork that he would hold onto.

With his teeth.

While this plan has its merits, we can't help but think that a slip knot tied to his handlebars would have worked just as well. Only, you know, without the probable need for radical reconstructive dental surgery.

Did it work?
Hippolyte won four of the six stages, but lost the race to another guy who, as it turns out, was also cheating using some other method out of the Wile E. Coyote playbook. Organizers actually wound up disqualifying the top four finishers and awarded the race to fifth-place finisher Henri Cornet, who apparently was the only one who found a way to cheat that wasn't obvious from a half-mile away.

Harding Goes For the Knees

We couldn't leave this one off the list, being the most famous, and least subtle, example of cheating in sports history.

What gets forgotten in the story that dominated headlines in the mid-'90s, is that Tonya Harding was, at one time, really freaking good. She was the first American woman to complete a triple-axel jump, or at least the first to do it while somebody was watching. In 1991 she placed second in the World Figure Skating Championships.

But then, around 1993, things started to get weird. She sat out a competition after somebody called in a bomb threat against her ... and some claim that Harding called it in herself. She had wandered off from the medal ceremony at a US Championship, which was a problem because she was one of the people getting a medal.

Then, at the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships, Harding took drastic action (and by drastic we mean "OH MY GOD SOMEBODY CALL AN AMBULANCE").

After a practice session Shane Stant, hired in part by Hardings ex-husband, decided to show mobsters everywhere how it's done by kneecapping favorite Nancy Kerrigan using a metal baton.

Did it work?
Harding did go on to win the event after Kerrigan was forced to pull out. But after the inevitable arrest of Stant (kind of hard to get away with assaulting someone in front of reporters) the other conspirators were also arrested and Harding was prosecuted. Harding only avoided jail time after pleading guilty, and was sentenced to 500 hours of community service and a $160,000 fine.

This was also backed up by stripping Harding of her title and banning her from all future sanctioned events. In probably the biggest understatement in recorded history, attempting to cripple an opponent was referred to as showing "a clear disregard for fairness, good sportsmanship and ethical behavior."

Things managed to get more embarrassing for Harding as during the winter Olympics just a month after the attack (several months before Harding's ban started) Kerrigan went on to finish an impressive second. Six places ahead of Harding.

Though perhaps Harding got the last laugh, as she went on to have a successful career in amateur porn and female boxing.

OK, maybe not.

Original here

Bush booed loudly while throwing out first pitch in Nationals home opener.»

President Bush delivered the first pitch tonight at the new Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. to a resounding chorus of boos. After being announced, Bush was showered by boos as he strode to the mound. Even after Bush delivered the pitch, the jeering did not let up until the President disappeared from the field. Watch it:

In 2006, Vice President Cheney was also loudly booed when he threw out the first pitch for the Nationals. In a rare move for a president, Bush missed the team’s home openers in both 2006 and 2007.

Washington Nationals manager Manny Acta caught Bush’s pitch. Acta was chosen after Paul Lo Duca, the Nationals’ catcher was by-passed due to his involvement with performance-enhancing drugs.

Original here

Oxford power to Boat Race victory

Oxford crew celebrates
The Oxford crew celebrates after completing their six-length win

Oxford and their cox Nick Brodie gained revenge for last year's defeat on the Thames by beating Cambridge in the 154th Boat Race by six lengths.

Brodie's crew got off to a flier but, against the odds, were pulled back.

Cambridge actually pulled ahead under Hammersmith Bridge, but it was a brief foray at the front as Oxford hit back.

And the Dark Blues made the most of their weight advantage on the choppy waters to win by 22 seconds in the slowest winning time since 1947.

It was a gruelling race in poor conditions, with pre-race favourites Oxford crossing the line in 20 minutes, 52 seconds.

Cambridge - hampered by the 11th-hour loss of stroke Shane O'Mara on medical grounds - came home in 21:14 for a comprehensive defeat, their fifth in seven years.

Cambridge lead the series 79-74, with one dead heat in 1877.

Brodie admitted Oxford were below their best as Cambridge overcame a deficit of almost a length with a mile gone to take their own a lead of almost a length.

606: COMMENT
BBC Sport's Martin Gough

"There were definitely some tense moments in the race where we weren't rowing very well," he said.

"We were slightly concerned - we weren't expecting them to be quite that fast for quite so long.

"But we managed to stick to what we were doing; we put in a good push along the island [just past halfway] and moved through them fast."

Cambridge won the toss and chose the Surrey station - on the inside of the biggest bend of the course.

With 23-year-old Ryan Monaghan replacing O'Mara, they put their all into the first half of the race but could not stay with Oxford once the race turned into a strong headwind at Hammersmith.

Nick Brodie
Brodie enjoys the tradition of being flung in the river after the win

Rebecca Dowbiggin was denied the chance to become the first female to cox Cambridge to back-to-back wins but she refused to blame the last-minute substitution.

"We actually made good progress in the last few days with Ryan at stroke," she said.

"He's been thrown into a role of huge responsibility. He's coped with it really well and there are no excuses. We lost our stroke man but that's not why we lost the race.

"We're quite a young crew and perhaps our lack of experience might have told a bit.

"We threw everything we had at them in the first half of the course because we knew we had to do that on the Surrey station and unfortunately it didn't pay off this year.

"We put in some big moves, and every time we put in a move it worked, but it took a lot out of us every time we did it.

"In the second half of the course I was still calling moves and it made no difference because we had nothing left."

There was reason to celebrate for Oxford's Mike Wherley - at 35 four years older than any previous Boat Race oarsman.

This is a great race and I loved taking part in it and it's fabulous with the win
Oxford's Mike Wherley

The American, who won three World Championships in the 1990s, came out of retirement after three years for the race.

"This is a great race and I loved taking part in it and it's fabulous with the win," he said. "It was something I've always wanted to do and I had no idea it would be so much fun rowing for Oxford.

"We put some pressure on them early but we knew they would come back and when they did we just had to stay patient.

"We knew there would be a point in the race when we would have a chance to open it up and when we did we just had to step on them."

Original here

How Did He Shoot That?

rtr1ylrp.jpg

Alain Bernard of France is seen from underwater as he enters the water to set a new world record of 47.60 seconds during the 100m freestyle in the men’s semi-finals at the European Swimming Championships in Eindhoven March 21, 2008 (Photograph by: Wolfgang Rattay).

It is of course not possible for a photographer to be in the pool during a swimming competition, but that doesn’t stop a determined photographer getting the picture!

I have worked on this problem over a number of years, and got it down to a fine art. It is necessary to pre-position an underwater housing containing a regular Canon EOS 1D Mark 2N with (usually) a 15mm fish-eye lens. When the swimmers hit the water or swim over my camera, I release the shutter via a waterproof cable. The data is transferred from the camera to another housing containing a Canon transmitter that transfers the images from the camera to my laptop.

one.jpg

Above: Setting up my equipment at Eindhoven

Within seconds of the end of the race I am in a position to transmit the photographs to our desk operation in Singapore. The desk then immediately moves them globally.

two.jpg

Above: Setting up my equipment at Eindhoven

The underwater pictures of Alain Bernard were out on the wire four minutes after the Frenchman set a new world record over the 100m freestyle. In my mind this is a world record too, because I appear to be the only photographer - using a remote controlled underwater camera like this - who has worked out how to achieve consistent results with this notoriously unreliable set-up. Therefore I don’t need to wait for a couple of hours for the competition to end before jumping into the pool to retrieve my CF card, as do the other photographers

In the competitive world of sport photography, just like the swimming competition, seconds count. An hour is a life-time.

te-end-bathtub.jpg

Above: At the end of the day, washing off the chlorine in my bathtub.

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Woods: Shutter snap at No. 9 halted momentum

Tiger Woods Explains His Actions at Doral

Tiger Woods is growing more frustrated with photographers snapping pictures of him during his swing.

In an interview on "ESPN First Take" on Wednesday, Woods addressed an incident at last week's WGC-CA Championship at Doral, Fla., when he reacted to the click of a camera in his backswing with an obscenity-laced threat.

Woods' intense competitive streak is well-known, and he's also been known to curse when his results don't meet his high expectations. But on Sunday, in a threat punctuated with profanity, he threatened bodily harm to the next photographer who snaps during his swing.

"It's been frustrating because that's what been happening lately," Woods told "ESPN First Take." "It's one of the things that comes with playing in the last group, one of the distractions we have to deal with."

What's more, Woods said, the distractions have affected his play.

"Each time it's happened, well three out of four times, I made bogey," Woods said. "At the time I needed to make birdie, I flinched on it. [The photographer] got me in transition on my downswing.

"You have no idea what's been said on the golf course all the time, in any sport really," Woods added. "It was the heat of the moment. That one shot took the momentum that I had built on No. 8."

Original here

Girl Owned In Slam Dunk Contest


Kobe's ridiculous pass


NBA rejects Cuban's ban on bloggers

David Stern gets it, if Mark Cuban doesn't. The NBA commissioner has told the Dallas Mavericks owner that he cannot ban bloggers from his team's home locker room.

Sometimes the grownups have to take control. Good for the NBA.

As for Cuban, he continues to demonstrate an almost laughable cluelessness about modern media, in general, and blogging, in particular -- this despite the fact that he has a deep background as a technology entrepreneur and writes a popular blog.

Here's what Cuban told the Dallas Morning News about the NBA's reversal of his foolish and short-lived ban:

Cuban indicated he believes bloggers should be treated equally, regardless of affiliation.

"Which means we will encourage all bloggers to apply, whether they be someone on blogspot who has been posting for a couple weeks, kids blogging for their middle school Web site or those that work for big companies. We won't discriminate at all."

Sounds reasonable enough, but ...

He then cautioned that locker room time, which translates to access to players, may be divided.

Physical and time constraints are real ... and the players, generally speaking, would rather go to the dentist than talk to reporters. No problem there, either.

But Cuban couldn't leave well enough alone.

Cuban indicated he believes bloggers should be treated equally, regardless of affiliation.

"Which means we will encourage all bloggers to apply, whether they be someone on blogspot who has been posting for a couple weeks, kids blogging for their middle school Web site or those that work for big companies. We won't discriminate at all."

"We will try to work it out so that all bloggers come in as a group after credentialed media. This will help us manage the crowds should there be quite a few bloggers."

Wrong. He continues to insist on treating blogging like some sort of communicable disease instead of merely another way to communicate. What's remarkable is that he can't seem to understand why that is wrong.

Of course, sports teams need to discriminate in order to determine who gets access and who does not; you can't have a thousand people in even the Dallas Mavericks cavernous locker room. The basis of that discrimination, however, should have nothing to do with the means by which a writer (or broadcaster, podcaster, whatever) communicates to his or her audience. It's the audience that should be the basis of the discrimination: Does the writer have one? Is it large or tiny? Is it one the team believes needs to be served with access to the locker room.

"Fairness" for the sake of fairness really ought not be part of the equation, because it's irrelevant to the conduct of the business, and, ultimately, to service of the audience as a whole. Fairness will take care of itself if the Mark Cubans of the world will simply stop trying to micromanage delivery mechanisms.

Original here

NBA tells Dallas Mavericks to allow locker room access to bloggers

The NBA has instructed the Mavericks to re-open the team's home locker room to properly credentialed full-time bloggers who were banned earlier this month.

Bloggers, including The Dallas Morning News' Tim MacMahon, again will be allowed locker room access when the team returns to American Airlines Center for Wednesday's game against the Golden State Warriors.

MacMahon, who primarily blogs for The News' Web site dallasnews.com, was barred earlier this month. Bloggers from ESPN.com's TrueHoop and the Los Angeles Times also have been turned away. The visitors' locker room at AAC has remained open to all credentialed media.

"It's a new media age, and there are more ways for people to get information than ever before," said Brian McIntyre, the NBA's senior vice president for basketball communications. "That creates a lot of challenges for all of us who deal with the media, but we will deal with it."

Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, who contended the team's locker room was not large enough to accommodate all bloggers, accepted the league's edict but added a caveat. Via e-mail, Cuban said the Mavericks will open their locker room to all credentialed bloggers, regardless of affiliation. Mavericks credentials are issued by the team.

Cuban indicated he believes bloggers should be treated equally, regardless of affiliation.

"Which means we will encourage all bloggers to apply, whether they be someone on blogspot who has been posting for a couple weeks, kids blogging for their middle school Web site or those that work for big companies," wrote Cuban, a blogger himself. "We won't discriminate at all."

He then cautioned that locker room time, which translates to access to players, may be divided.

"We will try to work it out so that all bloggers come in as a group after credentialed media," Cuban wrote. "This will help us manage the crowds should there be quite a few bloggers."

Cuban's position was challenged by Mike Fannin, president of the Associated Press Sports Editors.

"With all due respect for the potential journalism talent in the middle school ranks, this rebuttal smacks with the tartness of sour grapes," Fannin, managing editor for sports and features at the Kansas City Star wrote in an e-mail. "Is this really the standard the NBA wants to set for blogging?

"We're not asking the Mavericks or Mark Cuban to discriminate," added Fannin, who earlier in his career worked at The News. "We're simply seeking a common-sense distinction between someone who blogs professionally as part of an accredited media's beat coverage and someone who buys a ticket to the game."

The Mavericks instituted their no-bloggers policy earlier this month, several days after Cuban asked MacMahon to leave the locker room when the team hosted the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 29. The policy stated that the team does "not have enough room in the locker room, nor enough media passes to fairly accommodate everyone."

Bob Yates, deputy managing editor/sports of The News, immediately protested, saying the policy violated the language on the team-issued media passes and was "a veiled attempt at retribution" against MacMahon for an item critical of Mavericks coach Avery Johnson.

Cuban denied the accusation, saying he did not read MacMahon's work.

Robert W. Mong Jr., editor of The News, also via e-mail, wrote that Mavericks fans are the winners thanks to the NBA's decision.

"Tim is back where he belongs (and should have been all along) – covering the Mavs and blogging for our readers," Mong wrote.

Gilbert Bailon, president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, also applauded the NBA's decision.

"They made the right call, said Bailon, editorial page editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a former executive editor of The News and publisher of Al Dia, the Spanish-language sister newspaper to The News. "But this issue will come up again and again at all kinds of sporting events."

Original here

Livan Hernandez Kicks Baseball for the Out at First - Amazing Video

If you can’t throw out the runner at first… kick the ball. That’s what pitcher did… and I am frankly amazed that the ESPN only named this the 3rd best highlight of the day. Really?! I’ve never seen this happen before and the fact that he kicked a moving baseball with accuracy to the 1st baseman - for an OUT! - is pretty remarkable:


How the West might be won

All right, I can't take it any more: I think I'm the last guy on ESPN.com who hasn't written a "How crazy is this Western Conference?" column yet. With the playoffs approaching and as many as nine Western teams headed for 50-plus wins, let's break down those teams and make a few predictions heading into the stretch run. Please keep your seat belts on and your seats in the upright position:

9. DENVER (43-28)

Scouting report: The prototypical 20/20/20 team, which means the Nuggets can beat anyone by 20, lose to anyone by 20 and make their coach look like he's aged 20 years in one season. ... They've lost 16 games by double-digits and six by 20 or more, which might be the craziest stat of the year considering they're 15 games over .500 and stayed healthy all season. ... It's unclear whether George Karl detests these guys, loathes them, hates them or just mildly despises them, but you have to give him credit for not sipping from a flask during games.

Allen Iverson

AP Photo/Eric Gay

There's no denying the brilliance of Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony, but do the Nuggets have the right chemistry?

Biggest strength: The Iverson/Melo combo is good for 50-55 points a night, guaranteed. In particular, Melo has learned to punish any undersized defender down low -- you can't guard him with the Bruce Bowen/Raja Bell types anymore, it has to be someone like James Posey or Ime Udoka or he's going to destroy you.

Biggest weakness: Peter Gammons always called the '78 Red Sox a "25 cabs for 25 players" team; in other words, the games ended and they never saw each other until the next game. To update that dig for modern times, I think this is a "12 PlayStation 3's for 12 players on every road trip" team. Weird vibe with these guys. They always look like they just met right before the game.

Biggest X factor: J.R. Smith, an explosive streak scorer (and just plain explosive) who could end up becoming his generation's Isaiah Rider before everything's said and done. We'll see if this ends up being a compliment or an insult.

Biggest Mistake: Dumping Reggie Evans (a valuable bench player) before the season to save less than $2 million in luxury tax money when they were already $13-14 million over the tax threshold. That's like Flava Flav switching to condoms after siring his 17th illegitimate kid.

Unsung Hero: Do you realize that Marcus Camby has an outside chance to become the first big man to average 13 rebounds and four blocks a game in the same season since Kareem did it in '76? And to think, he's been traded not once but twice.

Best-case scenario opponents: San Antonio (although the Nuggets wouldn't win).

Worst-case opponents: Pretty much everyone else.

Prediction: The eighth seed and a first-round loss to New Orleans, followed by Karl flying to the furthest possible tropical location and disappearing for the next six weeks.

Eventual 2007-08 legacy: Shattering the "Most Tattoos on One Team" record.

8. GOLDEN STATE (43-27)

Scouting report: A 50-win season would happen for two reasons: Baron Davis playing 82 games for the first time in six years (you're not gonna believe this, but it's a contract year); and Monta Ellis' improbable transformation into Dwyane Wade 2.0. ... We've also seen Davis evolve into one of the NBA's true end-of-the-game killers, the real reason the Warriors have to be taken seriously in any playoff series. ... If you had to pick one guy to take the final shot in a down-one-with-fifteen-seconds-to-play scenario, Kobe would be first, LeBron would be second and Davis and Manu Ginobili would be tied for third. ... Most important, Kelenna Azubuike might have the single most fun sports name for Marv Albert to say since "John 'The Beast' Mugabi."

Biggest strength: The corruptive power of Nellieball. Eventually, nearly every opponent bends and decides to go small against the Warriors; it's like they just can't help themselves. (See: Johnson, Avery.)

Biggest weakness: When Lamar Odom comes within one point of back-to-back 20-20 games against you within a 24-hour span, it's safe to say you have some rebounding problems. Could somebody tell Andris Biedrins that the All-Star break ended five weeks ago? You're in a contract year, Andris!

Biggest X factor: Their home crowds haven't been as good this season. Maybe the Warriors fans are saving themselves for the playoffs (glass half-full theory) or maybe there's too many pseudo-fans on the bandwagon and some of their loyal fans have been priced out (glass half-empty theory). I'm leaning towards the latter. Come on, Warriors fans -- don't let those pseudo-fans ruin your "Best NBA Crowd In The League" gimmick. Throw a glass of chardonnay at them and tell them to leave.

Biggest mistake: Not using their $10 million exception from the Richardson trade to acquire one more reliable veteran for their rotation. They're one rebounder short unless Brandan Wright can make The Leap.

Unsung hero: How 'bout Captain Jack ... that's right, Mr. Stephen Jackson! Do you realize he's averaging a 21-4-4 for the season? Even better, "Captain Jack" is now a name that makes you think of Billy Joel, a bottle of whiskey or Stephen Jackson. Three of the greats. If I ever buy a boat, I'm naming it Captain Jack.

Best-case opponents: Phoenix or San Antonio.

Worst-case opponent: Utah.

Prediction: The seventh seed and a life-altering series against the Lakers in round one. If their seven-game series ends up being anything like the back-to-backer we just witnessed on Sunday and Monday night, I might need to take sedatives for the last two weeks of April.

Eventual 2007-08 legacy: They take their rightful place among the most entertaining/lovable/charismatic nonchamps of the past 25 years, right up there with the '93 Suns, the '84 Knicks, the TMC teams in G-State, the early Kemp-GP teams in Seattle, the Dominique-Spud teams in Atlanta, the C-Webb/White Chocolate era in Sacramento and the early Nash-Nowitzki teams in Dallas.

7. DALLAS (45-26)

Scouting report: The Mavericks didn't shake things up after one of the biggest collapses in modern sports history, played half the season before realizing that they needed more leadership and toughness (wow, really?), then mortgaged everything for Jason Kidd, which would have been fine except he's not really a leader and peaked about five years ago. ... They're not a great halfcourt team, they're not a great running team, they're not a great defensive team. ... And on top of that, it seems like they hate their coach. ... And now Dirk Nowitzki might be out for the season and they have eight tough games left (including road games at Denver, L.A., Phoenix, Golden State and Portland).

Biggest strength: In the third quarter of 20-point blowouts against terrible teams, they look like the Showtime Lakers reincarnated. So, um, they have that going for them.

Biggest weakness: Against good teams in tight games, it's amazing how many bad shots they get and how many good shots they give up. On the bright side, they can throw out a lineup of Jamaal Magloire, Jerry Stackhouse, Juwan Howard, Jason Kidd and Eddie Jones. Ladies and gentleman, your 1999 Eastern Conference All-Stars!

Biggest mistake: Not trading Dirk for Kobe before the season. Getting the best player in basketball would have been a good move. I'm almost positive.

Biggest X factor: Josh Howard is in danger of becoming the next Ben Wallace -- someone who was underrated for a while, received too much credit for bring underrated, then eventually became overrated even as everyone continued to maintain that he was underrated. We're 97 percent there.

Unsung hero: The guy in Dallas' organization who insisted that the 2008 No. 1 pick in the Kidd trade was lottery-protected. Hey, at least one good thing happened this season.

Best-case opponent: Houston.

Worst-case opponent: Everyone else.

Prediction: The ninth seed, no playoffs, a summer of "Should they fire Avery?" stories ... followed by everyone coming back and Avery getting fired in January. I wish there was a way to wager on this.

Eventual 2007-08 legacy: Their own chapter in Charley Rosen's upcoming book, "My 20 Favorite Panic Trades of the Last 60 Years."

6. PHOENIX (47-23)

Scouting report: The Shaq trade did more than salvage the Suns' chemistry problems, loosen everyone up, invigorate their frustrated fan base and finally give them someone to defend Tim Duncan -- it totally unleashed Amare Stoudemire, who's suddenly the most explosive big man in the league again (do you realize he's averaging a 29-9 since the All-Star break?). ... This has turned into the "Team I Don't Want The Celtics To Play if We Make the Finals," which warrants mentioning. ... If there's a concern other than the fact that Leandro Barbosa took a step back this season (although he's still four steps away from the five steps backward that Boris Diaw made over the past two seasons), it's that they have waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay too much riding on Grant Hill now. ... He's been doing a fairly reasonable Marion impression, but can he hold up for a 100-game season? ... By the way, every Orlando Magic fan just punched something.

shaq

AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

After a bumpy start, the Shaq era in Phoenix is looking good, to the chagrin of the rest of the West.

Biggest strength: Flexibility. It's one of those Dirk Diggler teams that can go big or small, play fast or slow and, because of Nash, always get a good shot at the end of games. On top of that, now that they're starting to figure out how to use Shaq, very few teams even have the bodies to handle him and Amare at the same time. (Note: Even Detroit had trouble with them this week.) These guys are scary now; it's amazing that they were able to reinvent themselves on the fly in five weeks.

Biggest weakness: Other than the obvious defensive deficiencies with Nash (and to a lesser extent, Barbosa and Amare), you know what's weird about this team? They never, ever, EVER seem to get calls in big moments. You'd think with good guys like Nash, Shaq and Hill that the refs would be falling all over themselves to favor Phoenix, but it's actually the opposite -- for instance, in that Detroit game this week, the Suns lost in overtime because of three indefensibly horrible calls in a row. We might see Mike D'Antoni pistol whip a referee before everything's said and done this season.

(Follow-up tangent: It's incredible to me that Shaq, one of the 12 greatest players of all-time, doesn't get any respect from the refs at this stage of his career. Remember the way Kareem was treated from 1985 to 1989? You couldn't breathe on him without getting a foul, which made no sense because nobody liked Kareem! Meanwhile, everyone loves Shaq and he gets called like he's Jamaal Magloire. It's legitimately bizarre. Even Reggie Miller was getting every call at the end of his career, and he wasn't one-fourth of the player that Shaq was. I don't get it.)

Biggest X factor: Other than Grant Hill staying healthy, you'd have to go with Barbosa, who's turned into a hit-or-miss scorer off the bench and not much else. The 2008 playoffs are going to be an all-out war for 10 weeks; I'm not sure I'd want to be in a foxhole with him or Diaw. That's a problem.

Unsung hero: Did we ever figure out what's going on with the Phoenix medical staff? Shaq spent most of the season plodding around like a mummy, spent two weeks in Phoenix and became more invigorated than the entire cast of "Cocoon." In four years, that Suns medical staff has saved Steve Nash's back, Grant Hill's ankle's and Shaq's entire body. What the hell? Did BALCO move its headquarters to Phoenix and nobody told us? Let's hope this doesn't led to Armen Keteyian and the "Real Sports" crew infiltrating the Suns' medical room with hidden cameras.

Prediction: The fifth seed and a gut-wrenching defeat in the Western Finals to Kobe and the Lakers.

Eventual 2007-08 legacy: Steve Kerr shaking up the No Balls Association with the most controversial trade in eons. Good times!

5. SAN ANTONIO (48-23)

Scouting report: Same old Spurs -- they looked disinterested for a few months, only they knew and we knew that they'd be there in the end. ... The bad news is that their swing guys got old (Bowen and Finley especially), and their perimeter defense is definitely weaker. ... The good news is that Damon Stoudamire and Kurt Thomas give them as much depth as they've ever had. ... More importantly, Ginobili jumped a level and became a top-four crunch-time guy (see above). ... And if that's not enough, Gregg Popovich went a long way toward erasing the bias against coaches who don't wear ties during games and look a little sloppy. ... Every time he's yelling at a referee, he looks like some drunk guy at a Martha's Vineyard wedding who's furious that the open bar just closed and eventually has to be restrained by two in-laws.

Biggest strength: Experience, Duncan, Ginobili and Popovich in some order.

Biggest weakness: Other than a (predictable) lack of urgency from time to time, they don't have anyone on the current roster who can defend Chris Paul or Deron Williams. Of course, nearly every contender could say that.

Biggest X factor: With $100 million-plus in advertising profits at stake if there's a Celtics-Lakers or Celtics-Suns Finals, it will be interesting to see if the Spurs get a single borderline call in May or June. My guess is that somebody on the Suns or Lakers could use a chainsaw and nunchaku to stop Duncan in a Game 7 and the refs wouldn't call it. But I'm cynical that way.

Biggest mistake: Not just giving away Luis Scola, but giving him away to a Texas team! Eight months have passed and I still haven't heard an adequate defense from R.C Buford and Popovich for that stinker trade other than "that's the last time we get drunk and make a trade at 3 in the morning."

Unsung hero: Ime Udoka gives the Spurs someone to defend the Carmelos, Pierces and Bonzis of the NBA universe, as well as someone with his own Bill Brasky-esque fight story and another fun name for Marv to boot. You're damned right that I'm enjoying the Ime Udoka era.

Best-case opponents: Houston or Los Angeles.

Worst-case opponents: New Orleans or Golden State.

Prediction: The third seed and a controversial demise in Round 2 after the Lakers benefit from a 65-10 free throw advantage in Game 7.

Eventual 2007-08 Legacy: See the previous paragraph.

4. UTAH (47-25)

Scouting report: The Jazz are a throwback to the '80s, back when nearly every contender finished 15-20 games better at home than on the road and had at least three awkward-looking white guys on their bench. ... Everything fell into the place for them after the Korver trade, as I've written about ad nauseam. ... Imagine how good they'd be if Andrei Kirilenko was still alive? ... Ironically, they're a Derek Fisher away from being the deepest team in the West. ... Here's what's going to kill them: Even if they win their division, they won't even have homecourt advantage in round one unless they can pass Houston, Phoenix or San Antonio over these next two weeks (and they're two games back).

Andrei Kirilenko

AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac

Believe it or not, this Andrei Kirilenko photo wasn't pulled
from the side of a milk carton.

Biggest strength: Their high screen with Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams has become Malone/Stockton-esque; it's almost like the spirit of those two guys has invaded Boozer's and Williams' bodies because they're playing in the same building. I find it creepy.

Biggest weakness: As good as Korver has been for them, the Jazz still don't have a 2-guard to defend the Kobes, T-Macs and Ginobilis or even make them work a little for their points. Remember in the '04 All-Star Game when the West brought in Kirilenko to guard T-Mac on the deciding play? What the hell happened to that guy? He might earn "Most Frustrating Player of the Decade" honors before everything's said and done. Whoops, I forgot about Vince Carter. Scratch that.

Biggest X factor: Memo Okur -- he looks like Mr. Big and plays like Mr. Small in too many big games.

Biggest mistake: Not moving on a Kirilenko/Shawn Marion trade earlier in the season when Kirilenko's stock was higher. Word on the street was that Utah owner Larry Miller has a longstanding grudge against agent Don Fegan (Marion's agent) dating back to the acrimonious Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson negotiations in 2,400 B.C., so he squashed the trade before it got going because he hates dealing with Fegan so much. Personally, I think that story is too good to be made up. Any owner-agent grudge dating back to Howard Eisley and Shandon Anderson is too far-fetched to be fake, right?

Unsung hero: Paul Millsap, probably the most talented of the ever-growing "Undersized Power Forwards Who Were Drafted 15-20 Picks Too Late" Club right now.

Best-case opponents: Golden State or Houston.

Worst-case opponent: Lakers.

Prediction: Fourth seed and a Round 1 exit courtesy of Phoenix.

Eventual 2007-08 legacy: The team whose fans killed its karma for the season by callously booing Derek Fisher.

3. HOUSTON (48-23)

Scouting report: The Rockets won 22 straight games thanks to great chemistry, great defense, great ball movement, a super-easy schedule, a couple of breaks (like Nowitzki's one-game suspension) and some inspired play from T-Mac and Rafer Alston. ... In the big scheme of things, it's not going to matter because any team with size (like Phoenix) or superior team defense (like San Antonio or Boston) is going to beat them. ... No matter what happens in the playoffs, it's absolutely astonishing how much they don't miss Yao Ming.

Biggest strength: Chemistry and defense. That's how you win 22 straight. And by the way, that was freaking amazing. I still can't get over that streak. No matter how easy its schedule was, for a team without superior talent to get by 22 straight teams without getting derailed by one bad break, one bad call, one white-hot shooting performance, one injury or one off-night is absolutely unfathomable. That was like watching someone catch fire at a craps table for two solid hours without crapping out.

Biggest weaknesses: Lack of size; lack of anyone who can create scoring opportunities other than T-Mac; lack of playoff success for the Rockets' best player; lack of overall talent. Other than that, they're in good shape.

Biggest X factor: Rafer Alston. Just look at his month-by-month splits and throw in the fact that he's been playing fantastic defense. Where did these last two months come from? Frankly, I'm a little frightened. I like things to make sense and this makes absolutely no sense.

Unsung hero: According to John Hollinger's player efficiency ratings, Shane Battier is the 45th best small forward in the league right now. I give up. Uncle. I can't fight the good fight anymore. Somebody else needs to take over.

Best-case opponent: Golden State or Denver.

Worst-case opponent: Everyone else.

Prediction: The sixth seed and a thrashing from San Antonio in Round 1.

Eventual 2007-08 legacy: For the rest of eternity, they'll show that "Longest NBA Winning Streaks" graphic during an NBA game and viewers will say, "'72 Lakers, '08 Rockets, '00 Lakers, '71 Bucks ... wait a second, what????"

2. NEW ORLEANS (48-21)

Scouting report: Considering they Hornets have beaten Phoenix by 17, San Antonio by 25, the Lakers by 10, Utah by 12, Boston by seven and Houston by 21 in the past four weeks, I think it's time to start taking the Hornets seriously. ... Throw in the fact that their point guard is submitting the single greatest all-around season in the history of the position and it's definitely time to take the Hornets seriously. ... Put it this way: if these guys played in New York, Chris Paul would be the new Derek Jeter. ... I don't subscribe to the "they're not a threat because they don't have any playoff experience" theory because their top three guys (Paul, David West and Tyson Chandler) are three of the most competitive guys in the league. ... With that said, I can't shake the feeling that they're a year away.

Chris Paul

AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis

Seriously, who runs the point better than Chris Paul?

Biggest strength: Paul is ridiculously, overwhelmingly, incomprehensibly good. Look at his numbers since the All-Star break: 25 points, 12 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals, 55 percent shooting, 49 percent on 3-pointers and an astonishing 6-to-1 assist/turnover ratio in 18 games. ... And that doesn't even account for all the passes he makes that lead to foul shots. You can't play point guard any better than that. It's impossible. Other than that, you'd have to go with their foul shooting in close games -- Peja's at 94 percent, Paul and West are in the mid-80s, and every guy in their rotation is 80 percent or better except Tyson Chandler.

Biggest weakness: Take a deep breath, Hornets fans -- your title hopes are riding on Bonzi Wells and his ability to post up smaller guys, defend small forwards and create points so that every Hornets crunch-time possession doesn't rest on the high screen with Paul and West (who's been simply outstanding, by the way). If he comes up big in the playoffs -- and he's done it before -- then the Hornets can win the title. Anything less and they can't.

(Important note: As recently as a month ago, their biggest weakness would have been their appallingly bad home crowds, but that's changed notably since the All-Star break and now they're no better or worse than any other bandwagon crowd.)

Biggest X factor: Jannero Pargo, who's quietly turned into a rich man's Eddie House. You couldn't even call him a streak shooter -- he's more like a Malibu forest fire.

Unsung hero: Chandler has evolved into a lankier, sleeker version of Ben Wallace in his prime, which is interesting because ... well ... you know.

Best-case opponent: Too many to count. They can beat everyone except ...

Worst-case opponent: The Lakers.

Prediction: The No. 1 seed and a loss to Phoenix in Round 2 despite Paul averaging a 30-15 for the series.

Eventual 2007-08 legacy: They laid the groundwork for a substantial run as title contenders, saved basketball in New Orleans and found themselves a superduperstar. Hard to complain about a season like that.

1. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (49-22)

Scouting report: This team has everything you'd ever conceivably want in a playoff contender -- a superstar, two more scoring options, a low-post player who has to be double-teamed, a shotblocker, multiple 3-point shooters, a bench that can effect games, a superior coaching staff and, most importantly, a scorer who's going to get every borderline call in a close game because he's Kobe Bryant. ... If the Lakers are healthy and running on all cylinders, they have the highest ceiling of any playoff team. ... Of course, we don't know if they're healthy yet, so all bets are off. ... They're most vulnerable in Round 1 as they're working back Bynum and Gasol into the rotation, which is what makes a potential Lakers-Warriors series so damned tantalizing.

Biggest strength: Whether they win the title or not, it's been a sincere pleasure as a basketball fan to watch Kobe tap into his talents, trust his teammates, pick his spots, forget about statistics and become the player we always wanted him to be. Whether Kobe or Chris Paul wins the MVP award, we haven't seen two better individual seasons at the same time since Jordan and Barkley in 1993. ... And if you throw in the fact that LeBron is averaging an absurd 31-8-8 right now, you'd have to go back to Bird, Magic and M.J. in '88. Holy schmoley. Should I write the word "amazing" again? Probably not. This season has turned me into "The Bachelor."

Biggest weakness: I know he's been playing out of his mind lately, but I still don't trust Lamar Odom. During regulation of Monday's Warriors game, he went to the line in the final few seconds with a one-point lead, endured a few taunts and standing-in-front-of-him maneuvers from Davis and Jackson ... and eventually, he had this weird smile on his face, almost like the smile a boxer gets right before he's about to get knocked out. Of course, he missed the first free throw. Mark my words -- there's going to be at least one monster moment in April, May or June when Odom has to come through in a humongous spot for the Lakers. And he won't.

(Follow-up to that story: In that same game, the Lakers were up two with four seconds left in overtime when Kobe got fouled. Three interesting things here. First, none of the Warriors came within 10 feet of him as he was preparing to shoot the first free throw. Second, he stared down all the Warriors around him, drained the first free throw and muttered "Game over, game over" to everyone who would listen. Third, he made the second one and that was that. The lesson, as always: It's good to have Kobe Bryant on your team.)

Biggest X factor: Bynum. Can he bounce back from the knee injury? Can he get back in shape in time? Will he be able to effectively defend Shaq or Duncan in Round 2 or Round 3? Every Lakers fan just stopped breathing for a few seconds.

Unsung hero: Sasha Vujacic, quite possibly the league's best bench player of anyone who plays 20 minutes or less. He's a feisty defender, he shoots 40-plus from 3-point range, he can guard anyone and play three positions, he's a legitimate threat to get punched in the face during the playoffs and, if that's not enough, I'm almost positive that he's wearing some sort of hair net. We haven't had a so-much-fun-to-hate-him playoff villain like this guy in eons. He's like Bruce Bowen crossed with one of John Lithgow's henchman in "Cliffhanger."

Best-case opponents: New Orleans, Denver or Utah.

Worst-case opponents: San Antonio or Golden State.

Prediction: A throwback Lakers-Celtics Finals will end up being the single best thing to happen to the NBA in 10 years. And that's an understatement.

Eventual 2007-08 legacy: Put it this way -- I wouldn't bet against the answer to this question being, "The year Kobe won the MVP and the title and earned his rightful place among the greatest players ever." As always, stay tuned.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos, favorite links and more, check out the revamped Sports Guy's World.

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