Michael Wilbon: Let the reader beware!
Kobe or Michael? Manning or Elway? Read on. (And yes, the Cubs really are cursed!)
I've been screaming opinions at you every afternoon for the past nine years, so a formal introduction might not be all that necessary. But 90 seconds of back-and-forth interrupted by a bell isn't quite the same as a full-fledged discussion examining 360 degrees of an issue and all its complexities. So if you're not entirely sick of my chatter by 6 p.m. ET, you can find, starting today, even more of me in column-form on ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. Long before "PTI," the sports section of The Washington Post was where I stated my case. But since we've already agreed an introduction isn't needed, perhaps a warning label of some sort is in order, just so you know why you're getting what you're getting.
• I hate the BCS. If playoffs are good enough for every other sport in Division I, Division II and Division III, and if March Madness can stage perhaps the most beloved sporting competition in America, then how can college football be so arrogant as to turn up its nose at a playoff? At the very least, some bowl game should have moved heaven and earth to match Boise State with Ohio State. It could have been called the Orville Redenbacher E. Gordon Gee Bowl, and tell me who, exactly, wouldn't have watched it?
• After initial cynicism, I've come to not only accept but believe in the intent of the NFL's new obsession over reducing head injuries and the new rules that have been put in place. I knew Darryl Stingley; the league is determined to never see a player suffer that kind of injury on the field again. Launching into another player with your head? Get rid of it. But fining defensive players every time helmets collide? That's absurd as if players moving at those speeds with their bodies being pushed and pulled can calibrate exactly where their heads are going to hit. Players are on the money when they say there should be a panel full of ex-players who help decide the rules and the penalties. If you want to avoid injuries in sport, play golf. I'm dead serious. Nobody makes anyone play football. I'm going to make sure my son, who's now 2½, doesn't play organized football of any consequence. Football is designed to be and intended to be a violent game. It's nice that the caretakers, after ignoring head injuries for decades, now want to tell you they need to protect the players while aggressively negotiating an 18-game season that will cause even greater attrition.
• I like to take shots at Michigan football and Notre Dame football though not as much lately because both have become so irrelevant. How much dislike can you work up for programs whose primary December activity is deciding whether to hire a new coach? Of course, I'd send my son to either school proudly, but there's no way you could have attended Northwestern before the mid-1990s and not at least smile at arrogance getting some comeuppance.
• The Cubs are cursed by the weight of expectations. They'll win at some point when it's least expected, the way the Red Sox did down 3-0 in the ALCS to the Yankees, which is to say the point where there are absolutely no expectations. It's so silly when the new manager and new players say the past 100 years of losing don't matter because they weren't around and don't feel responsible for the collapses and ineptitude over the decades. They're made aware of it the first time they go to the dry cleaners or to a parent-teacher night or simply dinner and a movie. You can't live in or around Chicago, be a Cubs player, and not know by May 1 of your first year with the team how much it would mean to the metropolis for the Cubs to win. It hangs over everything, all the time. They're in the shadow of failure, constantly. As a Cubs fan, I want guys who are going to say, "Yes, this franchise is cursed. I get it." To act like a century of failure doesn't affect them is, well, dumb and counterproductive. When does avoidance ever work?
• I'm a proud son of the Midwest. Grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s. Yes, South Sider and Cubs fan. But I don't hate the White Sox; never did and never will. My dad was somehow friendly with Bill Veeck. I grew up in Chicago when it was extremely segregated and black players from both teams lived predominantly on the South Side although I have great Super 8 home movies of Bill Melton and Walt Williams leading our Little League parade in the spring of 1970. So I love the Cubs, and quietly wish the White Sox well. Sorry, this notion that I have to hate one or the other ignores too much. Tony Kornheiser asked me during the 2005 World Series if I was going to root for the Houston Astros, and I said to him very seriously, "You want me to root for a team with 'Houston' across its jersey to beat a team with 'Chicago' across its jersey?" Not only that, but I love Kenny Williams and find Ozzie irresistibly entertaining.
• I'm a product of Jesuit education, St. Ignatius College Prep, but not Catholic. My Last Supper would be ribs from Leon's on 83rd and Cottage Grove, except since I had a heart attack 2½ years ago and have been told to stay away from ribs, it literally could be my last supper. I like my pizza thin, not deep dish. There's no place, none, better than Chicago in the summer and people are sick of hearing me say that in metropolitan Washington, D.C., where I've lived for 30 years. I've got Midwestern sensibilities, and anybody who has lived in the East that long knows for sure Midwestern sensibilities do exist. ESPN's eastern-tilted decision makers might not realize that millions of folks in the Midwest care more about Cardinals-Cubs than Yankees-Red Sox, and more about Bears-Packers than Jets-Patriots, but I do.
• Peyton Manning, God bless him, isn't the best QB in the history of the NFL; John Elway is. (Remind me again how many Pro Bowl teammates Elway had on the first three AFC championship teams he dragged to the Super Bowl by himself?) And if not Elway, then Otto Graham. And if not Graham, then John Unitas. And if not Unitas, then Joe Montana. I'm an enormous fan of Manning's, professionally and personally. He could be, for all the right reasons, the most popular player in the NFL today. But he's not the best QB playing today. Tom Brady is. I don't know how you vote Manning ahead of Brady, the way that NFL Network survey turned out. Doesn't Brady have three Super Bowl championships and doesn't Manning have one? I presume most people can count to three.
• Kobe Bryant is one of the 10 best players to play the game of basketball. But he will never be as great as Michael Jordan. Don't dare read this as Kobe-hating. I'm rooting for Kobe to be in the Finals this spring again. But nobody has ever been as good as Jordan, not LeBron James, either; and he never will be, and people in my business need to stop suggesting it. There's not an all-court player in the game today who does anything as well as Jordan did. Just consider this one stat: If you take out his final full season (1997-98), the lowest shooting percentage in Jordan's career with the Bulls is higher than the highest shooting percentage of Kobe's career. I'm sure we'll revisit this a bunch of times in the spring, when Kobe is approaching his sixth title, which would tie him with Jordan.
• We don't talk much about soccer on "PTI," but my first assignment as a cub reporter for The Post was covering professional soccer (Washington Diplomats of the long-defunct North American Soccer League). I like soccer and its popularity is growing, but you're not ever going to read in this space that soccer is taking over the world, or going to pass American football, basketball or baseball in popularity in this country. It's not going to happen. Just like Europeans and Asians largely prefer the NBA to their own basketball leagues, Americans who follow soccer with any world context know MLS isn't anywhere close (yet) to the English Premier League, Germany's Bundesliga, Spain's La Liga, Italy's Serie A or even France's Ligue 1. So, no, I'm really, really, really unlikely to write about a soccer game in America instead of, say, a big American sporting event.
• Never presume I don't know anything about hockey. A great many black kids in the Midwest (particularly Detroit, Minneapolis and Chicago) grow up playing hockey. I'm one of them.
• I defend LeBron James' right to go anywhere he wanted as a free agent, but completely side with Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson who say they wouldn't under any condition have hooked up with their primary rivals. Sports, in my old-school way of thinking, are about beating your rivals, not joining them. The Miami Heat phenomenon is great for pro basketball, even better for column writing. But when Pat Riley approached Michael Jordan about joining forces after the 1996 season, Jordan said, "No thanks."
• I don't like teams that play half the time, no matter how much talent they have, like the San Diego Chargers.
• The NBA and the players' union should agree on a rule that keeps kids out of the league for two years following their high school graduation. Whether they go to college, the D-League or overseas is their business. But the NBA should make them serve an apprenticeship somewhere. Any industry has the right to determine terms of work. The NFL says three years and makes it stick because it's been collectively bargained. The NBA and the college game and, most importantly, the kids in question would be better off staying two years in college. For every Kobe, KG, T-Mac and Dwight Howard, I'll point out a Kwame Brown and Korleone Young and Eddy Curry. Tell me Kwame wouldn't be a better player and have made boatloads more money had he gone to the University of Florida. I don't have patience for people who tell me, especially in the case of African-American kids, that education is an impediment to success. It's not an inalienable right to play professional basketball. Two years.
• Yes, I can talk right through the bell, figuratively, and it's quite easy to do with no Kornheiser with whom to share the time. I love barroom arguments, like whether you'd take Andrew Luck or Cam Newton if you had the first pick in the NFL draft (right now I'd take Luck, but it's fluid). But even more, I love to discuss the difficult issues, the ones that make people examine their values and what they believe in, and to challenge what they think they believe. I know just about everybody on the ESPN Commentary team; and those I don't know, I know their work. I'm excited to be included in this expanded role for ESPN. There's no more split duty. As of right now, I'm all-in, and this is thanks in advance for your indulgence.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN, and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon recently concluded three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.
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