Wednesday, June 23, 2010

NBA Awards

One of the many dumb things sports leagues do is give out awards that have no bearing on the postseason. The NBA, NFL and MLB all give out their MVP, coach of the year etc., before the playoffs end, or have the voting before the playoffs begin. The most important time of the year, all the leagues say, have no bearing on who wins awards.

The NBA season just ended and I’m here to fix these problems. However, I’m not going to give out the irrelevant awards like 6th man (the league’s best bench player, really?) or most improved player. And I’m not giving out MVP or coach of the year or anything like that (all the major ones should stay the same). Instead, I’m giving out my own awards for this season. But first, an aside on the NBA Finals.

The series as a collective entity was compelling: the back and forth nature, the rise of Ron Artest (he gets his own post later), the fall of Jesus Shuttlesworth, Rajon Rondo vacillating between the best point guard in the league and Jamaal Tinsley, Kobe trying so hard to be Michael Jordan that he nearly shot his team out of games and the finals (more on this later), KG’s momentary resurrections followed by immense brain farts, Shrek and Donkey, Derek Fisher becoming an ageless and clutch wonder, Phil and Doc, and that’s just off the top of the dome.

The games in an individual nature? Intense but poorly played and at times, unwatchable basketball. Game 7 was only interesting and compelling to the outside observer because of the stakes (the rivalry, the legacies on the line, the fact that it was game 7), but as a watchable basketball game, it was on par with a Knicks-Heat rugby match from the 90s. Game 3 is probably the game that has the most rewatchableness (made-up word alert), but even that’s a stretch. Nothing from this series compares with some of the classic Finals games of my lifetime like Detroit-San Antonio Game 5 in 2005, Sixers-Lakers Game 1 2001, or the pantheon of games in my lifetime, Bulls-Jazz Game 6 in 1998 (the legendary lay-up, steal, game-winning jumper 49 seconds by Jordan remains the greatest sequence in basketball history).

The Lakers flat out deserved to win. There was no officiating controversy like there usually is with LA (the refs were very good in games 5, 6 and 7, once they got over the whole “the game is about us and our whistles” thing), they overcame a 13-point deficit at home and the Celtics really gave them everything that they had until their last gasp. I am glad that I correctly picked the Lakers before the series and the season started (I have taken the liberty to ignore my midseason pick and pre-playoff Cavs pick). Enough about the Lakers, let’s get to some awards.

Nas Award
Awarded in honor of a conversation I had with Solomon Parker where we discussed whether or not Nas is an overrated rapper. We didn’t necessarily say he was overrated, but at the very least, it was time to have the discussion considering the fact that his last few albums haven’t been that great. We all know Illmatic is and will remain in the hip-hop pantheon. But as Solomon Parker and I discussed his beats are always subpar and we both thought two of his last three albums (Street’s Disciple, Untitled) left a little to be desired. Again, we aren’t saying he isn’t one of the best of all-time, just that it was worth discussion (however, let the record show that I do love Nas and still feel that he is one of the top ever: God’s Son was great and I really liked Hip Hop is Dead)

Winner: LeBron James

Again, I’m not saying that LeBron is overrated. But it’s time to have that discussion. His no-show in game 5 versus the Celtics where he (and the Cavs) quit harder than Iverson in Detroit…or Iverson in Memphis…or Iverson in Philly (damn you Iverson), was completely unacceptable. He’s still the best, most talented player in the league (for the Kobe camp who will insist that Kobe is currently the best player in the world: against the same Celtics defense in a clinching-game, Kobe went 6-24, netting 23 points and 15 rebounds including the worse half of basketball he’s ever played with Artest, Pau Gasol and Derek Fisher making ALL the plays down the stretch, while LeBron, while playing a fairly average game for him threw up a triple double with the other four Cavs on the court staring at him. So that’s that). However, we now, have a few more questions than we had before.

Last year against Orlando, LeBron was great from start to finish. He carried a team about as far as a single man could legitimately do against a very good team like last year’s Magic. This year, he never felt fully engaged in the playoffs going back to the Chicago series. It looked like he didn’t care about winning or losing. Everyone was well within their right to question his killer instinct. Everyone was well within their right to question whether or not LBJ was truly as great as we made him out to be.

My theory: he looked at his team after he went “We aren’t losing this game” mode after game 3 in Boston and realized that things were no different. Unless he’s carrying them with obscene feats of basketball ability that haven’t been seen ever, he realizes that they cannot beat any of the great teams. It also didn’t help that Mike Brown was completely oblivious to the Cavs athletic advantage up front when JJ Hickson was in the game, instead insisting that they play Shaq and Big Z, which played right into the style the Celtics wanted to play. So he takes it down a notch, plays good but not great except for game 5 when he was awful, and watches his team whither as the Celtics dare anyone not named James to make plays offensively. He was gearing himself for free agency and his eventual move to the Nets, unless the Cavs can swing a move for a legit #2 guy. Sad but probably true.

Now is LeBron overrated at this moment: I don’t think so. He doesn’t have the caliber of help superstars need to have to win right now. But that excuse can only go so far on 60 win teams. Eventually, you have to get it done at the highest level. If we are having the same discussion two years from now, he most certainly will be an evolutionary version of Iverson, Malone, Barkley, Ewing: guys who were great, but not great enough.

Billy King Award
Awarded in honor of former Sixers general manager Billy King, who during his tenure with the team had one of the greatest athletes of his generation during his best years, Allen Iverson, but felt that it was best to surround him with Matt Harpring, over-the-hill Toni Kukoc, drafting Larry Hughes over Dirk Nowitzki and Paul Pierce, one-legged Chris Webber, small dog Glenn Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo and Keith Van Horn to be the second star. He signed Samuel Dalembert and Kyle Korver to ludicrous extensions and traded for Todd MacCulloch’s terrible contract. He thought drafting 5’10” Speedy Claxton to pair with Iverson was a good idea. He was entirely clueless as to what amounted to talent and what didn’t. King’s picture should serve as a constant reminder that most NBA GMs have absolutely no idea what they are doing.

Winner: Danny Ferry

Ferry came from the right organization (San Antonio) and seemed like the right guy to build a team around a superdupstar, considering he watched RC Buford build a four-time champion around the greatest power forward who ever walked the face of the earth, copyright Timothy Duncan. You need a little luck, some savvy veterans, excellent drafting and finding the complementary star to your superstar.

Ferry, never got any of that. He always seemed to be a step behind of what to do. Ferry never added a guy in his prime who could legitimately function as a second guy (Mo is in his prime, but he’s a number 3 guy because of his inconsistencies. Think about what the Lakers get from Odom or Bynum), never drafted an impact guy who played a major role (the Spurs drafted Parker and Ginobili and consistently draft well despite picking at the backend of the draft) and got extremely unlucky at times, especially with Jamison (at the surface, he appeared to be the right addition: a stretch four who could create his own shot off the dribble, in the post, spot up from distance and help create offense for others so LeBron wouldn’t have to carry the burden on every play. Alas, his defensive ineptitudes, lack of aggressiveness and inability to make any contributions down the stretched proved to be too much to overcome).

From the start, Ferry seemed to be building backwards. He was always trying so hard to get a team that could win today to better his chances at keeping LeBron that he lost sight of building a team. The goal should have been getting LeBron some young guys that could grow with him, take their playoff lumps together until they were finally ready to win a championship. Instead, he kept trying to hit homeruns, from the Ben Wallace/Delonte West/Wally Szcerbiak trade, to the Shaq trade and Jamison move. The best way to go about developing a young superstars team is to do what Sam Presti is doing with Kevin Durant: young talented guys that can take their lumps together and enter their primes all at the same time (Kevin Pritchard was also doing this is Portland, but Oden got hurt and now he’s apparently about to get fired, which means Ed Stefanski should also be preparing his walking papers so Pritchard can immediately step in as Sixers GM. Assuming I don’t get the job first).

Was he as terrible as Billy King? Not really but kind of. While he didn’t have the disasters that King had, he always got guys out of their prime or flat out not good enough to play with LeBron and that lands you in the same place as Billy King: the unemployment line.

Tracy McGrady Award
Awarded in honor of Tracy McGrady, who has stolen the pain of defeat from the jaws of victory more than any player in the 2000s. Whether it was when he proclaimed making it to the second round against the Pistons in 2003 after going up 3-1 before soundly losing the next three or his 10-26 stinker in game 7 versus Dallas as they got blown out, McGrady has made the simplest of tasks, making it to the second round, an exhibition in perfect choking technique.

Winner: Vince Carter

The easiest award to give out ever, narrowly surpassing Space Jam as the greatest movie ever made. Vince Carter took the Magic’s chances of going back to the Finals and setting up a rematch with the Lakers and assaulted them with a brutal fury, taking the Magic further from a championship then one of his fadeaways in the lane to avoid even the slightest of contact.

It was a mistake from the beginning to think that Vince Carter would be able to replace what Hedo Turkoglu did for the 2009 runner-up (my thoughts from last summer, ignoring the terrible sentence structure: “Where they really lose in getting Carter and losing Turkoglu is the playmaking ability that Turkoglu brought. In today’s NBA, you cannot have enough guys who can make plays for themselves and others. Carter is not a guy who can create offense for other guys. He mostly creates offense for himself, which is not a problem if they kept Turkoglu, but they didn’t. That leaves them with only one playmaker (Nelson) which isn’t a formula for championships.”). Those problems manifested themselves in the conference finals this year, where Orlando was as confused in crunch time as any team has been in recent memory.

Carter, choked as bad as anyone I can think of. He no showed 30 minutes at a time, was out played by J.J. Redick and not only did he not bring the playmaking ability of Turkoglu, but he also failed to create quality shots for himself. Point blank, when you looked in Vince carter’s eyes, all you saw was fear like a white girl suddenly falling in a horror film right in front of the villian: fear of contact, fear of missing, fear of the game. He feared the game like ABC fears black people.

So next time Vince Carter is the answer to the championship problem, you might want to rethink the question.

Man Crush Award
Awarded to the player who has stolen the heart of yours truly with a magnificent display of grace, attitude and talent. It takes a rare performance for me to truly love you (except if you Matt Forte, who before last year’s fantasy season was my bonafide pick at running back, I guy a loved unconditionally, only to be betrayed like I was Andre Rison and he was Lisa ‘Left Eye’ Lopes. Thank goodness Aaron Rodgers came through or I was vulnerable to commit double homicide. Eff you Matt Forte). Past Winners include: Al Jefferson, Kevin Martin and Danny Granger.

Winner: (Unanimous) Kevin Durant

OK, maybe this was the easiest award selection ever. The unique correlation between each of the past winners is that I always picked them in my fantasy league the year they broke out as fantastic NBA players, further asserting my NBA fantasy dominance.

But on to Durant, a guy who could end up a top-20 player before his career is over. He has no holes in his game offensively. He can shoot from anywhere in the gym, city or state, post up, get to the rim, get to the free throw line (a skill not bestowed upon all NBA ‘superstars’ just ask Joe Johnson), and find his open teammates. He can defend and he also has the clutch gene (watch him close out Portland in Portland by abusing Nicholas Batum before the AS break, rain threes in Utah from 35-feet as he brings OKC back from 12 down with 3 minutes to play before he was robbed by an awful no-call in overtime or simply the fourth quarter of game 3 versus the Lakers). I agreed with Kenny Smith’s assessment that he will be the best player in the three to four years.

Think about it: Kobe will be at the Tim Duncan circa 2010 stage or worse, LeBron will start to lose that physical dominance and have to rely on the skill that haven’t shown many signs of development, D-Wade will be in this 30s probably at Kobe circa 2009 stage, leaving this slight little opening for Durant, who if he continues on this pace that he’s growing, could be averaging 37 ppg, 7-9 rebounds 3-5 assists, 50% shooting, 40% 3pg, 90% ft, which would have to make him the greatest player in the league.

The only thing he hasn’t done yet is learn to win. He was unable to make the necessary adjustments against Ron Artest, not playing to Artest’s weaknesses of moving laterally and always letting Artest get set on him and defend straight up. He can sometimes get to passive in crunch time, passing up opportunities to go at his guy to stay within the flow of the offense, which is fine in the second quarter but with four minutes left in playoff game, the ‘offense’ gets thrown out the window and your two best guys just make the plays.

He’s got to take his postseason lumps. Feel the despair of losing, get knocked down and out before he truly understands how to win. Dr. J and Moses Malone had to go through the Celtics and Lakers before they finally broke through in ’83. Jordan had to go through the Pistons and Celtics before he finally got it. Shaq & Kobe had to go through Utah then San Antonio before they could do it. Give Durantula four years and a serviceable center and he’ll bring Oklahoma City a championship. Having said this, somebody will run up on him Paul Pierce style and he’ll never be the same.

Resident Evil Award
Awarded in honor of the player or team that most resembles the kinda-crappy Resident Evil video games. They look like zombies, you kill them, you kill them again, you kill them again, you kill them again, and you finally think you have them beat. Until they bring another annoying, unsuspected wave that catches you just enough by surprise that they defeat you. The classic ‘never count out the heart of a veteran-laden team of champions.’

Winner: The 2009-2010 Boston Celtics

They were six minutes away from invalidating the 2009 NBA Finals, permantely damaging Kobe’s legacy as the closest Jordan imitator, making Kevin Garnett one of the greatest power forwards ever, opening a case for Paul Pierce as a top 5 player of his generation, vaulting Ray Allen to the greatest shooter in NBA history (past Reggie Miller), making Doc Rivers the greatest coach not named Jackson or Popovich in the last 15 years, Rajon Rondo the best point guard in the league, making the Ron Artest move look like a failure and me extremely happy, all while doing this after so many predicted them to lose to the lowly Heat.

Then they ran out of gas. That’s the only way you could describe it. The ferocious champion who rose from the regular season ashes (making its results utterly worthless, more on this later) didn’t have enough left in the tank to close it out. Allen didn’t have the legs to get jumpers to the rim. Rondo couldn’t get into the paint. Pierce had nothing left. Down the stretch offensively, the Celtics had nothing but a few miracle threes.

Their defense, in succession, successfully stifiled D-Wade, LBJ, the Orlando three-pointers and Kobe (and before the Kobe fans come out of the wood work, Kobe shot 40% from the field, 29% in fourth quarters and averaged 4 turnovers). Each of the elderly Big 3 had their big playoff moments: KG vs. Cleveland, Pierce against Orlando and the home games against LA, Ray Allen game 2 of the finals. Rondo took that team as far as he could. He was clearly hampered by some sort of injury from the Orlando series onward, as he never looked as explosive as he did in the Cleveland series.

But look, we need to give credit where credit is due. And the Celtics have earned their credit. They kept saying that they would be there when it counted and they were. They abused the Cavs (which caught me completely by surprise), owned the Magic and pushed the Lakers, who I thought would have a much easier time dispatching the old fellas, to seven games. There are two lessons to be learned from the Celtics.

First, chemistry matters and the way we measure chemistry should be completely different from now on. Chemistry like the Magic and Cavs had is all good during the regular season when there isn’t any adversity, the big time teams aren’t getting up for games like the playoffs and you get to face the New Jersey Nets four times a year. It’s much easier to do stupid handshakes and wacky pregame introductions when nothing goes wrong. The Celtics during the season seemed to clash, there were divisions based on Rondo’s standing on the team and everybody was looking at Rasheed like the 500 pound elephant in the room (though to be fair to ‘Sheed he was only 400 pounds). The Cavs and Magic joked around, made it seemed like they liked each other, and it looked like they had great chemistry: they didn’t. It doesn’t matter if it looks like you like each other or not, but whether or not you trust each other. LeBron may like Big Z, Shaq, Jamison, Mo and all the rest of the guys, but he certainly doesn’t trust them to make a big play in the big moment. When Pierce looks at Rondo, Shuttlesworth, KG and ‘Sheed, he may not have liked them, but he trusted them to handle their business. From now on, goofy handshakes don’t mean chemistry. The willingness to let your teammate make a play at the end of a playoff game and know that he is going to make it is.

Second, the regular season is worthless. Sure it’s cool to watch guys like Steph Curry light it up for a bad team, a worse coach and even worse management, wondering how wonderful it would be if he could truly fulfill his destiny and be playing for Mike D’antoni but other than that, its worthless. Regular season performance has zero bearing on playoff performance. The Lakers do it seemingly every year (the best example was 2002 when they lulled through the regular season, everyone wondered if this was the year C-Webb and the Kings would break through before they ripped their hearts out in game 7, in Arco Arena, game 6 game-fixing notwithstanding), where everyone gets into a tizzy about a slow stretch in February and March, before they roll through the playoffs. Now we have more evidence. With the Spurs, who annually decide to start playing basketball after the All-Star break, and now the Celtics there should be another rule added to the rules of picking the playoffs: If the team is well-coached and has been there before, no matter their age, regular season record or anything else except injury, that team can and probably will make a serious run at the trophy.

Jamie Foxx Award
Awarded in honor of Jamie Foxx’s career, which looked to be destined toward mediocre movies (Booty Call), bad television (The Jamie Foxx Show) and average stand-up, before he caught a huge break with Any Given Sunday, went back into mediocrity, then caught the biggest break ever with Ray. Now he’s got a Grammy and an Oscar. Foxx went from poor man’s D.L. Hughley to upper middle-class Will Smith in the span of 5-7 years.

Winner: Pau Gasol

Does anyone remember when Pau Gasol was a super-soft big man for the Grizzlies who couldn’t win a playoff game, was talented but couldn’t quite get it? I do, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone else who does.

In the span of four years, Gasol went from perennial loser who had that foreign enigma stuck to him (soft, not clutch, can’t build a champion around him, started with the epic busts of draft picks like Nikoloz Tskitishvili and Darko, wrapped and topped with a bow by Dirk’s constant playoff failures, highlighted by Dirk’s epic choke from game 3 onward in the 2006 NBA Finals) to the best big man in the world?

Say what?

Yes, it’s true. Gasol is the most skilled offensive big man in the league and underrated defensively. He rebounds, runs the floor, passes, shoots the midrange J, has the best collection of post moves, rotates on D. There’s nothing on the floor that he can’t do.

But it wasn’t always like that. He used to play in Memphis. And he used to choke and be soft. He got traded to the Lakers. He was the perfect fit offensively (he works beautifully in the triangle) and role wise (as the number two guy). He was a terrible fit everywhere else. KG, PJ Brown, Leon Powe all took turns making Gasol their personal Jenna Jamison. People questioned whether or not the Lakers would be able to win with Gasol.

Then he went home, put on some weight, started yelling and making turkey faces, made himself the most efficient offensive player in the league and started playing tough defense. He played very good defense against Dwight Howard in the 2009 Finals without losing anything on offense. But he hadn’t quite conquered those Celtics demons.

He has now. He came up with big plays in each of the Lakers victory. He grabbed the clutch offensive rebound late in game seven that virtually sealed it (it was over Rondo but still). Point blank, he made plays.

And that’s how you get to where we are with Gasol. You have to look at 2008, after back-to-back great years, as him still trying to rid himself of the Memphis losing stink and getting over his super-soft persona.

You have to give it up to him. He remade himself. He put in the work. But don’t blame it on the alcohol.

O.J. Simpson Award
Awarded in honor of his not guilty verdict in his double murder trial. After watching his 30 for 30 documentary (all which have been great), I am convinced he did it. No one drives around Los Angeles with a gun to their head threatening suicide if they haven’t killed their wife and wife’s friend. Johnnie Cochran has to be the greatest lawyer to ever live. Unfortunately, O.J. isn’t that bright and will be in jail for the foreseeable future because of an unrelated crime. Idiot.

Winner: Kobe Bryant

Game 7 was Kobe’s O.J. trial. He was singlehandedly trying to blow the game. He took shots in the first half that 2004 Finals uber-selfish Kobe would have passed up. He was doing everything he could to lose that game. Losing would be blamed on him. And then he was let off the hook by Cochran impersonators Ron Artest, Paul Gasol and Derek Fisher.

I cannot think of recent example where a great player played so poorly in the biggest game of his career and ended up winning. The same way I can’t think of a black guy who got off for a headline-making crime that he clearly did.

Kobe’s career legacy was saved by his teammates, the guy who never fully trusted his teammates at any point of his career (how’s that for irony). And now that his legacy has been saved, it has major implications for his standing in history.

First: he is now undoubtedly the greatest player since MJ retired the second time. He is now clearly ahead of Tim Duncan (I had Duncan ahead of him before game 7, because after all, he’s the greatest power forward to ever walk the face of the earth) and now way past Shaq (though he was already ahead of him after last season).

Second, he is the second best shooting guard of all-time, passing Jerry West and Oscar Robertson.

Third, in terms of all-time rankings, he’s now 6th all-time, behind in order, Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar, Magic, Bird and Russell, now ahead of Wilt, Duncan and all the rest. His longevity, consistency, work ethic alone make him worthy to be in this discussion.

However, we can now end all discussion between him and MJ. Forever and ever, to the square root of infinity. I don’t care if he gets seven rings. I don’t care if he gets 12. I don’t think we can consider him as good or even close to as good as MJ when you consider his horrid play in games 3-5 against Detroit in the 2004 finals, his petulance in ousting Shaq and Phil afterwards which cost him a chance at 1-2 more rings, the selfishness he showed from 2005-2007, his no-show in game 6 of the 2008 NBA Finals, and he near choke job in game 7. I think that should be enough to end the discussion. But that is just me.

Every other spot is up for grabs. Give Kobe 2 more years at the level he’s at now, one or two more championships and he could wind up being the second best player in NBA history, which can lead to only one response:

I hate Kobe Bryant.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Soccer Revolution: World Cup 2010

The World Cup is finally here (and actually it started a few hours ago). I’ve been captivated by soccer since about 2005. ESPN 2 started showing the UEFA Champions League around then, and it was on right when I came home from high school. I’d walk in, cook up some buffalo wings and watch the game from start to finish. It would go by quickly (rarely will a soccer game go longer than two hours), fed me right into Law & Order and PTI, which got me to dinnertime, which is the most important time of the day. (And for the nerds wondering when I did homework, the answer is I didn’t. Only rarely did I spend substantive amounts of time doing homework at home, and that was for like research papers, which were 3 times a year. Everything was done in school. Wait, my parents could be reading this. Scratch those last thoughts: I only did homework in high school)

I always enjoyed those afternoons, even though I never really understood the game at the time. I just knew I loved the passing and chemistry of the European clubs (Barcelona especially) and how the great ones always knew the play five seconds before it happens. I loved the fact that there were no commercials that stopped the action. I loved the fanatical crowds (Eagles game times 1000, Cavs crowd times infinity). I loved the pageantry and respect each of the players had, even though you could clearly see they did not like each other. The only thing worth hating was the incessant flopping and fake injuries (try to merge Vlade Divac flopping ability and Vince Carter’s embellishing of the most minor injuries in the Celtics series, then sprinkle in Cuba Gooding Jr. and his fake crying and you have every overreaction to the smallest amount of contact ever). But all of this was just a surface level understanding. I didn’t know many of the players, teams, histories etc.

Then the World Cup in 2006 happened and blew my mind. I was captivated and enticed like A-Rod when he’s at the lip-gloss store. I consumed as many soccer matches as I could. I was disappointed by the USAs effort, especially after how well they played against eventual champion Italy. I enjoyed Ghana’s captivating run before they were slaughtered by the mighty Brazilians. I watched the Maxi Rodriguez goal live and erupted. I relished in the elder-statesman Zinedine Zidane and how he controlled every match France played, just by his presence (unnecessary head butt notwithstanding. Though to be fair, I probably would have done a lot worse if he insulted my mother). I loved the drama of a shootout to determine the champion. I couldn’t wait until the next World Cup.

Since then, I’ve done my best to consume everything I possibly could about soccer. I’ve adopted an international country to follow in addition to the United States (Ivory Coast, solely because of Didier Drogba), a favorite player (the exciting Brazilian Robinho who plays for Barcelona. I call him Quaker Oates because he’s instant offense), and a favorite league (Spanish La Liga). I don’t have a favorite club yet, even though I love the aforementioned Barcelona and AC Milan. I just don’t want to be one of those guys who jumps on an elite team (like all those Lakers fans that have magically appeared in Williamstown, New Jersey since the 2009 playoffs). Soccer is easily the third best sport behind football and basketball and well ahead of baseball (just completely unwatchable in the regular season) and hockey (which has made a late surge: thank you USA-Canada Olympic hockey matches and the improbable Flyers 2010 playoff run).

Which brings us to the cusp of the World Cup. I haven’t had anything substantive to root for since the Eagles destroyed my fragile soul back-to-back weeks in January. I had to suffer through the Sixers and their no-playing-defense, disjointed rotations, awkward half-court sets, Elton Brand, Eddie Jordan and contested Andre Iguodala 19-footers with 17 seconds on the shot-clock (and they could still blow the number 2 pick in the draft), its June baseball (and the only thing more irrelevant than June baseball is May and April baseball. Wake me up in September thank you), the Flyers were good, but c’mon. My quarterback was traded (Hail to the Redskins!), my favorite athlete has had at least three different moments in the last year that make you ask “What the hell is he thinking?” (Iverson), and I still haven’t been hired to run the Sixers basketball operations (I’m serious, I sent in a resume, they haven’t called back, which is an outrage). I need this World Cup.

And it should be a good one. Argentina’s Lionel Messi is ready to break out as the world’s greatest player (An aside on Messi: He is so fun to watch. He’s small but he can do everything on the field: facilitate, score, push the ball, slow it down, possess, everything. I think the highest compliment you can give to a soccer player is a guy who can control every game, just with their presence. They aren’t scoring a ton or doing the kind of stuff that gets you on SportsCenter, but in the end, they always seem to come out on top. We saw the effect the best player can have in 2006, where Zidane was the best player in the tournament and nearly willed France, who wasn’t the best team at the time [Brazil was] to a championship)

England and America are playing each other in one of the most anticipated games ever. ESPN/ABC has broken out the NFL-caliber advertising for this one (and the less we see Chris Berman, the better). The hype has reason, as England and the USA have history (the American Revolution, the War of 1812, one of the biggest upsets in WC history, as the USA beat England in 1950), the USA is legitimately good (Landon Donovan has proven to be a world-class player, Tim Howard is one of the goalies in the world and Oguchi Onyewu’s tenacity has made him a fantastic defender), and England is trying to fight that choking, disappointing label with one of the five best players in the world, Wayne Rooney (top five guys, in order: Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rooney, Fernado Torres and Kaka). The USA won’t win barring superhuman efforts by Jozy Altidore, Donovan and Howard, but they could tie. And with a weak Algeria team (65th in the Soccernet Power Index) and mediocre Slovenia squad (35th), anything short of getting out of the group is a bigger embarrassment than Heidi Montag’s singing career, marriage, face, etc.

But they aren’t championship contenders. There are probably 3 top contenders: Brazil, Spain and Argentina. I like two big sleepers: Ivory Coast (biased pick obviously, but they have one of the best goal scorers in the world in Drogba, who is apparently going to play after breaking his arm, and they can get out of the group of death, edging out Portugal and joining Brazil in the knockout round) and Italy (a Spurs-like group of veterans who don’t go away and could, via their defense, find their way in the final eight or further. Then again, with most of their players Betty White’s age, they could completely flop). Then there’s a muddled group of good teams that could do something, but you’re not entire sure: Netherlands, England, Uruguay, etc.

Brazil should win it. They are the most talented top-to-bottom, point, blank, period: they do have the best goaltender, Julio Caesar, two of the best defenders Lucio and Maicon, top forward Luis Fabiano, Quaker Oates Robinho and a deadly counter-attack that’s enchanting to watch develop. And for anyone who saw the Confederation Cup final versus United States knows that when Brazil turns it on, it’s like watching a swarm of tween girls react to seeing Justin Bieber: a never ending wave.

But who wins it is secondary to the event itself. Soccer is truly the beautiful game. It’s an international showcase. It’s sweeping this nation once thought to be to soccer what Ron Artest is to making music. It’s the best tournament in the world, point blank period. The train has arrived at the station. All aboard the soccer express.