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Monday, January 26, 2009

The X Games

By Kate Pickert

A biker competing in the X-Games
A biker competing in the X-Games

It's no secret that professional sport is a commercial enterprise. Sure, there's the love of the game, but no one would ever get to see that love in action without TV commercials and endorsements and sponsorships. In some cases, of course — the World Series, say, or the Olympics — one could argue that television networks and corporate sponsors are merely covering, inflating and capitalizing on an event that was going on regardless.

But the X Games, a collection of extreme sports competitions whose winter event takes place January 22-25, did not exist until ESPN (and its hipper offshoot, ESPN2) realized in the early 1990s that there was a huge, demographically desirable slice of America that wasn't watching SportsCenter. ESPN executives, aware they were missing out on ad dollars that could be coaxed from finicky flannel-wearing Gen Xers, launched the X Games in 1995. (See TIME's Top 10 Fringe World Titles)

That first year, the event was packaged as the "Extreme Games" and included skateboarding, bungee jumping, roller blading, mountain biking, sky surfing, and even street luging. As with the Olympics, winners were awarded gold, silver and bronze medals. Not everyone took the event very seriously. One especially snarky USA Today columnist called the X Games the "Look Ma, No Hands Olympics," adding, "Apparently — and it's possible I'm misinterpreting a cultural trend here — if you strap your best friend to the hood of a '72 Ford Falcon, drive it over a cliff, juggle three babies and a chain saw on the way down and land safely while performing a handstand, they'll tape it, show it and call it a new sport."

Well, yes, actually, he did misinterpret the Games' cultural significance — namely, that they came at a moment when a good chunk of young people were getting a little bored with football and baseball, while even more were on skateboards practicing their Ollies in mall parking lots across the country. ESPN spent a reported $10 million on the 1995 X Games, drawing some 200,000 spectators to the competition held in Rhode Island. Hailed (by ESPN) as a huge success, the Games, originally planned to be biennial, were quickly rescheduled to be held every year. In 1996, marketers promoted the remonickered X Games as "sheer unadulterated athletic lunacy." (See pictures of the World Bog Snorkelling Championships.)

By 1997, the franchise had become successful enough that ESPN launched the Winter X Games, featuring skiers and snowboarders. The winter event eventually got substantially more "extreme" with the inclusion of sports like snowmobile freestyle and ice climbing — a strenuously athletic yet visually uninspiring sport that didn't prove popular enough to stay on the docket. But in one respect, USA Today wasn't far off: the X Games, both winter and summer, have become a proving ground of sorts, with organizers unafraid to experiment with burgeoning sports, some of which have stuck around and some which have fallen by the wayside after just a single season.

While the X Games have helped legitimize now mainstream sports like skateboarding and snowboarding, the annual competition also feeds an audience hunger for life-threatening daredevilry. There are no lions, but at times, it's been easy to see the parallels between those who watch "Big Air" skateboarding and motocross and the bloodthirsty crowds at the Coliseum of Ancient Rome. At the 2003 summer games, one motocross rider left the competition in a wheelchair after crashing; another rider attempting a trick called the "Sterilizer" had an accident that sent him into convulsions in front of the crowd. In 2007, a skateboarder attempting a massive jump fell five stories to a wooden ramp and ended up in the hospital with a bleeding liver, bruised lung and bad case of whiplash.

Many of the tricks and stunts at the X Games are clearly dangerous, but those that don't result in injuries can make a competitor's career. Case in point: Freestyle motocross rider Travis Pastrana's mid-air double back flip in 2006, one of the X Games historical highlights. Risky? No doubt. Totally badass? You be the judge:

Original here

Pat Summitt Makes Tennessee a Cradle of Coaches

Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

Pat Summitt has coached for 35 seasons at Tennessee.


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — It happens to every Lady Volunteers basketball player who has gone into coaching. She’ll be railing about a lazy pass in practice. Glaring at a player who failed to box out an opponent. Lecturing how leadership is about being respected, not liked.

Then it hits her. She has grown up to be just like her coach at Tennessee, Pat Summitt.

“That happens quite often, and it’s quite scary,” said Carla McGhee, who is on the coaching staff at South Carolina. “As a player, I couldn’t see why Pat would get so upset about a lack of effort, why she would say it was disrespecting the game. Now when I see a lack of effort, something about it just grates my nerves, and before I know it, I blow my top, and then, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m Pat.’ ”

Mimicking her is one thing. Matching her success will be a tall order. In 35 seasons at Tennessee, Summitt’s winning percentage is .844. She has guided her current team, which starts four freshmen and has one upperclassman, to a 15-3 record and No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll.

The Lady Volunteers, the two-time defending N.C.A.A. champions, will play Sunday at unbeaten and sixth-ranked Auburn, intent on securing career victory No. 999 for Summitt. No coach, man or woman, is within 30 victories of her total.

“People talk about 1,000 wins,” Summitt, 56, said last week in her office. “I remind them that I’ve never scored a basket for the University of Tennessee.”

A better measure of Summitt’s success — in her eyes, anyway — is this: 45 Lady Volunteers, about a third of the players who have passed through her program, have become coaches — from youth leagues to the pros. In her coaching tree, the first ring was formed this season with the arrival of Glory Johnson, whose high school coach was Shelley Sexton-Collier, whose college coach was Summitt.

“This job is all about the relationships,” Summitt said, “so obviously that’s rewarding.”

It is also a relief. When she was handed the reins of the Tennessee program in 1974, Summitt was a 22-year-old graduate student who was training for the Olympics and teaching classes in badminton, tennis and self-defense.

“I’d never coached a day in my life,” she said. “I had no idea what was going to happen to this program.”

She reasons that she must not have messed up too badly, if so many players are following in her footsteps.

“The ones that choose to go into coaching,” Summitt said, “people usually say, ‘Well, there’s a little Pat.’ ”

The sisterhood of traveling Pats includes Nikki Caldwell, who is in her first year at the helm at U.C.L.A. after serving apprenticeships at Virginia Tech and Tennessee, and Tanya Haave, a former all-American in her second year as the coach at San Francisco.

The Lady Volunteers opened this season against Haave’s Dons. The night before the game, Summitt organized a party at her home along the Tennessee River for Haave. Though known for her stare, which is cold enough to freeze time, Summitt is, away from the court, the perfect Southern hostess.

She invited a few women who played alongside Haave in the early 1980s. Over a few beers and some wine, they reminisced past midnight. The next afternoon, Summitt traded her honey glaze for a steely gaze and served Haave a 68-39 defeat.

Equal parts nurturing and schooling, that is the recipe for Summitt’s success. In a game at Rutgers this month, the Lady Volunteers trailed by 20 points at the break. It was the biggest halftime deficit in the program’s history. Huddling with her players, Summitt berated the sophomore guard Angie Bjorklund for not taking enough shots, then growled, “You do not want to go home with me tonight having played this way.”

Message received. Behind Bjorklund’s 12 second-half points, Tennessee rallied for a 55-51 victory.

To play for Summitt is to feel her glare everywhere. She has certain nonnegotiable rules, like requiring her players to sit in the first three rows at class. When they are broken, she has a way of finding out. Even after her players leave, Summitt keeps an eye on them. When Caldwell’s Bruins lost at home to Oregon, 73-56, Summitt called afterward to offer encouragement.

Some coaches come into their athletes’ lives for a few seasons, but when the wind blows, they fall away like leaves. Caldwell said she hoped to emulate Summitt, who lodges into her players’ lives like a root, providing steady nourishment.

“Pat just has a balance,” Caldwell said. “She makes time for people. She treats her players like family. It’s really admirable.”

Suzanne Barbre Singleton, a guard on Summitt’s first four Tennessee teams, planned to be a nurse until she fell under Summitt’s spell. She switched her major to physical education and has spent several years coaching high school, college and Amateur Athletic Union basketball.

In December, after several weeks of tending to her dying father, Barbre Singleton consented to taking him off a ventilator. Ten minutes later, she was outside her father’s room, gathering her emotions, when her cellphone rang. It was Summitt, whom she had not spoken to in a while.

“I just want you to know I’m thinking about you,” said Summitt, whose team was preparing for a game later in the day. Recalling the conversation, Barbre Singleton said, “You don’t know what that meant to me.”

At the start of every season, she sends a media guide to each of her former players, along with a handwritten note. After Haave was named the coach at San Francisco, she received a letter from Summitt saying how proud she was.

The communication goes both ways. Last Tuesday, Summitt and her 83-year-old mother, Hazel, spent the morning opening piles of holiday mail, including 300 Christmas cards. It was the first opportunity Summitt, who was divorced in April, had had since Thanksgiving to sift through her correspondence.

She hears from former players regularly. Some are looking for a box-out drill to use in practice. Others seek career advice or want to know how to motivate an underachieving player. Trish Roberts, who played in the Montreal Olympics alongside Summitt before playing for her at Tennessee, said, “I could pick up the phone and talk to Pat anytime, and she’ll take the time out.”

A half-hour before the Lady Volunteers were scheduled to take the floor against Stanford in the 2008 N.C.A.A. title game in Tampa, Fla., Roberts sent Summitt a text message wishing her luck. Less than five minutes later, she received a reply.

“People say: ‘You played for Pat. Oh, my God, she looks so mean on TV,’ ” said Roberts, who guided the programs at Maine, Michigan and Stony Brook and also coached in the American Basketball League. “I always have to defend her.”

Even Lady Volunteers who did not always get along with Summitt during their playing days tend to come around. Michelle Marciniak, a guard who was an integral part of Tennessee’s 1996 national championship, said: “I have a great deal of respect for Pat. I didn’t always like her when I was playing for her.”

After stints in the A.B.L. and the W.N.B.A., Marciniak turned to coaching. When she was a South Carolina assistant two years ago, she wrote a letter to Summitt.

“The gist of it was, Thank you for all you’ve done for me,” Marciniak said. “I may not have appreciated it then, but I’m very grateful now.”

Summitt was pregnant with her son Tyler when she was recruiting Marciniak in 1990. During her official visit to Marciniak’s home in Pennsylvania, Summitt went into labor. She stayed long enough to deliver her pitch before returning to Tennessee to give birth.

Tyler, who turned 18 in September, is a senior at the Webb School of Knoxville. He takes notes on the Lady Volunteers’ games and leaves them for his mother. After a 1-point loss to Virginia in November, his observations filled two pages.

“Point guards passed to corners too much, and ball got stuck down there,” he wrote, adding: “A lot of time, posts were late on help side. When they did help, there was no one there for the weakside rebound. That gave them at least five rebounds.”

And so sprouts another branch in Summitt’s coaching tree.

“He’s already told me he wants my job,” she said. She laughed. “I told him the list is long.”

Original here

Contradictions in Book Seem to Benefit Clemens


One week before Brian McNamee and Roger Clemens testified before a House committee at a contentious public hearing last February, McNamee sat down for a deposition with committee investigators.

During questioning behind closed doors in a Capitol building office, McNamee said that as part of his job as Clemens’s trainer, he had injected him with steroids and human growth hormone. McNamee gave the deposition under oath. He was asked several times if he had ever informed Kirk Radomski, a steroids dealer, that he was injecting Clemens with drugs. In each instance, McNamee answered no, he had not.

That assertion has been contradicted by a passage in “Bases Loaded,” a new book by Radomski, in which Radomski says that McNamee indeed told him that he was injecting Clemens. That contradiction and others have raised concerns that Radomski has hurt his credibility as a government witness in the perjury investigation against Clemens, and that he might have damaged McNamee’s credibility as well.

These concerns will probably be felt in Washington, where federal prosecutors have convened a grand jury to hear evidence about whether Clemens committed perjury when he insisted to the same House committee that he never used performance-enhancing drugs. McNamee is Clemens’s chief accuser. Radomski, who has already testified before the grand jury, is less important to the prosecutors. But he was seen as having some value because he sold McNamee steroids and human growth hormone during several of the years that McNamee says he was injecting Clemens.

In light of the contradictions Radomski is creating with his book, legal experts said the government would probably think twice about using Radomski as a witness if Clemens were indicted and were to go on trial.

“In a perjury case a prosecutor’s worst nightmare is for a witness to make public statements that contradicts another witness, especially the key witness in the case,” said Mathew Rosengart, a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips in New York and a former federal prosecutor. “Perjury cases are almost always a he-said, she-said dispute, and there usually isn’t a smoking gun, so corroboration of witnesses is essential. The questions about Radomski are a good thing for Clemens’s defense.”

Daniel Richman, a professor of law at Columbia University and, like Rosengart, a former federal prosecutor, echoed Rosengart’s concerns. “Every inaccuracy or inconsistency will provide material for the defense for cross-examination,” Richman said. “And they will use it to create doubt in the jury’s mind about Radomski and — by extension — McNamee.”

In his book, Radomski writes that he was introduced on the telephone to McNamee in 1999 by the player David Segui. At the time, McNamee was the strength and conditioning coach for the Toronto Blue Jays. Sometime after they met in person about a year later, Radomski said, McNamee told him that he had injected Clemens with the steroid Winstrol in 1998.

McNamee told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that he began injecting Clemens in 1998 with steroids that Clemens had obtained on his own. To that extent, his account conforms with Radomski’s. However, according to a transcript of his deposition, he said that he never told Radomski he had done so.

“Did you ever indicate to Mr. Radomski that Roger Clemens was using steroids or H.G.H.?” McNamee was asked by a committee investigator.

“No,” McNamee said.

“Did you ever drop hints to that effect?” McNamee was asked, referring to Radomski.

“No,” McNamee said.

McNamee added: “He would ask me how I was doing. You know, obviously he knew I trained him in the off-season.”

“But you’re saying you never told him that Clemens was using these substances?” McNamee was asked.

“Yes,” McNamee said.

But on page 196 of the book, Radomski writes that “McNamee told me that in 1998 he’d begun injecting Clemens with Winstrol that Clemens had gotten for himself.”

The other key contradictions that have arisen pit Radomski against George J. Mitchell, the former senator who used Radomski as a key source of information in the December 2007 report he produced on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. In the book, Radomski implies that Mitchell fished for information from him in several instances, looking for evidence about high-profile players about whom Mitchell had suspicions.

Mitchell disputed that notion twice in the past week, denying that he talked to Radomski about anyone other than the dozens of players who had been Radomski’s drug customers. “The fact that you have a white knight like George Mitchell pointing out that something a witness said is not accurate — a witness he relied heavily on — the same week he is being appointed to be an envoy to the Middle East is something that the prosecutors will find regrettable,” Rosengart said.

A good deal of Radomski’s book, which will be released in bookstores this week, dwells on his days as a Mets bat boy and clubhouse attendant. Some anecdotes, including Radomski’s account of substituting his urine for Dwight Gooden’s in several drug tests, are designed to generate headlines. But what the book may ultimately do is create headaches.

“Clemens and his team of lawyers must be heartened,” Richman said.

Original here