Best of Everything
Experience some of the shiniest undiscovered gems in sports
This story appears in the June 27, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
BEST SPORTS MEDICINE INNOVATION
Sometimes the best new things are old. Like, thousands of years old. "More and more pro athletes are incorporating yoga into their training," says Gwen Lawrence, who owns Power Yoga for Sports and works with athletes from all four major sports leagues. Many pro teams, including the New York Giants, have offered yoga classes to help players boost strength, flexibility and conditioning. "You keep doing it and improving," says Bears defensive end Israel Idonije. "Hopefully it can add years to your career." Or at least keep your head in the game. Says Dr. Brian Donley, director of the Center of Foot and Ankle Surgery at the Cleveland Clinic: "Yoga can increase mental focus, and these athletes are looking for every edge they can get." Well, maybe not every edge. "Gwen's trying to get me to do headstands," says Giants guard Chris Snee. "But I'm not there yet."
BEST WAY TO SPEND 50 BUCKS
You could shell out thousands of dollars on tickets to a three-hour Super Bowl, or you could fork over $50 and spend three days watching the world's best athletes compete at the Reebok CrossFit Games in Carson, Calif. (July 29-31). "It's like the World's Strongest Man competition, except the winners look more like James Bond than Magnus Ver Magnusson," says Eric Vassilatos of the ticket brokerage Vivid Seats. More than 25,000 athletes take part in preliminary competitions around the world, and the top 50 men and women head to Carson for a shot at the title of Fittest on Earth and $1 million in prize money. Last year, one of the nine segments required participants to run 2,400 meters, perform 126 kettlebell swings, do 72 pull-ups and complete a maximum overhead lift in 22 minutes. Luckily, fans don't have it as tough. Says 26-year-old Graham Holmberg, last year's men's champ: "You aren't restricted to your seats, so you can get right up close to whoever you're rooting for. Plus, there's free gear and food samples. If I wasn't in the Games, I'd be there watching."
BEST PLACE TO GET YOUR WEEKEND WARRIOR ON
School of Jocks
Where can you go to improve your athletic ability, learn how to become a sports agent and dine with a former Olympian? SPIRE Institute, in Geneva, Ohio, of course. Created by former high school athlete Ron Clutter, the nonprofit facility is one million square feet of sports bliss. Weekend training programs in soccer, track and field, basketball and softball begin this fall, as do weeklong camps devoted to nutrition, fitness and sports psychology. The center has already attracted more than 250,000 athletes, including the U.S. men's volleyball team and jocks from UNC, Wisconsin and Auburn. Later this year, Michael Johnson, world record holder in the 400-meter sprint, will open the second of his performance centers (there's one just outside Dallas) at the Geneva facility. "When you look at training centers, SPIRE is second to none," Johnson says. Mr. Golden Shoes would know.
BEST SPORTS MUSEUM YOU'VE NEVER HEARD OF
The Baseball Reliquary isn't so much a museum as a traveling freak show of the most unusual collectibles of all time. Says curator Terry Cannon, "The Reliquary represents the entire spectrum of the baseball experience, from the silly to the serious." Since 1996, he has amassed more than 50 items, including a partially eaten hot dog purportedly from Babe Ruth, a humanitarian award given to Ty Cobb and an alleged piece of Abner Doubleday's skin. The relics are on display at libraries throughout Southern California, and a documentary about the collection will be released this fall.
BEST "FINALLY!" MOMENT
Sports is filled with tales of female athletes struggling for opportunities, but for years ski jumping redefined the inequality equation. Finally, in April, the IOC added women's jumping to the 2014 Games, in Sochi, Russia; jumping had been one of the last men's-only disciplines in the Olympics. (Nordic combined, which marries ski jumping and cross country, remains male.) The IOC's excuse for the delay -- and they're sticking to it -- is that the level of competition has only now become strong enough to stage a viable Olympic event. The best hope for the U.S. is 26-year-old Lindsey Van, the 2009 world champ and former record holder -- for men and women -- on the normal hill at Whistler, site of the Vancouver Olympics. "Inclusion in the Games is what our sport needs to take the next step," says Van, who sued the Vancouver organizing committee in 2008. "This feels like a big success."
BEST NEW SPORTS APP
Picture it: Instead of sitting at Wrigley and telling friends, "Watch this double play," you could be saying, "I'm gonna rack up 3,000 points on this double play!" GameSlam, from Game Time Live, lets fans, fantasy geeks and casual gamers wager on what's going down on the diamond through the GameSlam Facebook app. Registered players (who start with 10,000 points) predict whether the next pitch will be a strike, if a team will pull off a triple play or if a player will homer. "Our game is the bridge between the actual game and social applications," says co-founder Kenny Mazursky, who's developing similar apps for football, basketball and hockey. Also on deck are iPhone and Droid versions, all designed, says Mazursky, to "keep you engaged with the event." Unless, of course, you're a Twins fan.
One way to make sure fans never forget you: Adopt a killer nickname. Take Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval, dubbed Kung Fu Panda because of his size and agility, by teammate Barry Zito. Panda's missed playing time, yet he's still a top All-Star vote-getter. "A great nickname becomes bigger than the player's given name," says Terry Pruyne, author of Sports Nicknames: 20,000 Professionals Worldwide. He calls out some of his recent faces:
Athlete: Thunder forward Kevin Durant
Alias: The Durantula
"His moniker combines his name with a tarantula to play on his deadly shooting. It's a great marketing tool."
Athlete: Wakeboarder Dallas Friday
Alias: Houston Thursday
"Action sport athletes are known for doing things a little differently, and hers puts a twist on the name game."
Athlete: Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Alias: The Law Firm
"Fans began calling him that; it does sound like a firm's name."
Athlete: Braves outfielder Jason Heyward
Alias: Jay Hey Kid
"It's an homage to the Say Hey Kid, Willie Mays, and the good ol' days."
BEST FACEBOOK CONNECTION
Friend with Benefits
While you can't necessarily "friend" Pau Gasol, you can "like" him. And the Lakers power forward will like you back, going out of his way to be pals with fans. "Pau really stands out," says Mari Smith, a social media expert and co-author of Facebook Marketing: An Hour a Day. Smith teaches companies to connect with consumers online, which Gasol achieves with his personalized landing tab, link to his Twitter stream and a video chat embed to answer fan questions. Smith also praises the way Gasol switches between English and Spanish on his wall, posts dozens of photos and thanks fans. "His messages are always very you-focused. That's a testament to Pau's kind personality," she says. If you ask Phil Jackson, Pau's maybe a little too kind.
BEST SPORTS GOSSIPER
Any site can give the score, but let's face it: You wanna know who's scoring. That's why terezowens.com has become the one-stop source for the lowbrow lowdown. "Athletes have just as much money as celebs and get in just as much trouble," says one of the site's three operators, who remain anonymous. Up and running for more than two years, Terez Owens landed on the gossip hot list after breaking news of an affair between LeBron's mom and Delonte West. "We do cover some real sports stories," Terez says. "But people like to hear the bad stuff. It's just way more fun."
BEST AUTOGRAPH TO NAB WHILE YOU STILL CAN
Write on Time
You weren't around when Lou Gehrig was signing the old horsehide, but that doesn't mean you can't snag a piece of priceless penmanship. Relics from the past still hold cachet, but autographs from today's athletes might one day be rarer -- and more valuable. Face it, current players bank too much cash to spend time in autograph sessions. "Guys from the '40s, '50s and '60s made more from signing things than they did playing," says Joe Orlando, president of PSA and PSA/DNA Authentication Services. "You're not going to get LeBron James in a gym signing autographs for $50 a pop." Okay, Orlando, who's worth flagging today?
1. Muhammad Ali: "Ali's legend continues to grow as his ability to sign has become limited in recent years. His name, more than anyone's since Babe Ruth, transcends sports."
2. Albert Pujols: "He is one of the true MLB superstars to avoid major controversy on and off the field, and his signature, by modern-era standards, is fairly tough to acquire."
3. Michael Jordan: "His is one of the tougher modern-era autographs to get, though he has signed memorabilia for Upper Deck over the years."
4. Wayne Gretzky: "It's difficult to appreciate how great Gretzky was, and his autograph may be underappreciated."
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ESPN The Magazine: June 27, 2011