This Sporting Life: I got no strings

Updated: June 8, 2009, 3:20 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | Page 2

Another great week for sports. Powerful, lively, colorful, historical. From Istanbul to Paris to Los Angeles, it was a great week by any metric.

But it wasn't quite what you expected, was it?

No matter what you were pulling for. Or whom.

It is both the brilliance and the curse of sports to honor its promises sideways; to deliver about half of what you thought you wanted, and about half of what you expected about half of the time.

[+] EnlargeKobe Bryant, LeBron James
AP Photo/Tony DejakKobe Bryant going up against LeBron James in the NBA Finals was a fait accompli … until it wasn't.

So we got Kobe in the Finals -- but without LeBron; Federer in the finals -- but without Nadal; and the wrong Bird entirely at the end of the Belmont.

So whatever your hopes and dreams may have been for athletes, teams and outcomes, someone somewhere with equal hopes and opposite dreams was let down. Hard. For example, those muffled sobs you heard last week coming from the Nike marketing department: I picture a conference room full of good-looking, well-dressed adults with their heads in their hands, drying the river of their tears with their own furry hand puppets. Kind of heartbreaking, really. Like a death on Sesame Street.

If they'd shod Mine That Bird, too, you'd have heard their wailing outright. You'd think they'd have learned something about predictions and expectations and the selling of shoes from Dan and Dave all those years ago. (Younger readers might try Googling "decathlon" and/or "debacle" for more. And there's another "puppet" punch line in there, too, for those mean enough to find it.) Smart money never bets on a sporting outcome.

Which is perhaps why sports betting is an estimated $100 billion-a-year business.

The fact is, Fate alone may never be sufficient to bring Kobe and LeBron together on the court, except at All-Star weekend. Sports history is littered with Great Things That Never Happened, so waiting for Destiny to make their match may not be the soundest strategy for retailing shoes.

Let's face it, the marquee matchup all season was supposed to be LeBron and Kobe. That's what folks want/wanted. That's what Mr. Stern was lighting nightly candles for. Not the Lakers against the Cavs. LeBron against Kobe.

(Just as an aside, isn't it interesting that we measure the golden ages of this team sport, basketball, by naming individuals? The Age of MJ; of Bird and Magic; of Wilt vs. Russell vs. Kareem. Most other sports eras or dynasties we define entirely by team names. Yankees; Canadiens; Packers, etc.)

Anyway, all due respect to Orlando, but folks outside the blast radius of the Happiest Place on Earth aren't going to take up the cause of the Magic versus the Lakers with very much enthusiasm.

The solution to all of which is pretty simple. LeBron and Kobe, one-on-one. Pay per view.

How hard can it be to rent a gymnasium and a couple of cameras?

There's a long precedent for this kind of thing, as well. It's very much in the barnstorming tradition of athletes and teams from two generations ago, back before we'd institutionalized everything and cemented all the fun shut with money.

Whatever. There's a quick $150 million laying around if anyone wants to scramble to pick it up. I'll take the finder's fee.

[+] EnlargeBrett Favre
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesNot everything in the sports world is unpredictable.

As to the tennis jugheads who think that Roger Federer's 14th Grand Slam win is somehow less meaningful because he didn't beat Rafael Nadal to get there, the less said the better. That Usain Bolt won all that gold in Beijing without having to beat Tyson Gay seems not to have diminished Mr. Bolt's enjoyment of the achievement in the least.

As Buddha and Carol Brady have tried to teach us all, life is about what happens, not about what you think/hope/dread is going to happen.

So the official position of this column remains as it ever was and always will be: Predictions are for suckers.

Because sports -- like politics, religion and California -- will remain an outpost of Technicolor mysticism in a gray scientific world; the last crackpot gasp of half-assed guesswork, crossed fingers and fact-free voodoo in a digital age. So, beyond the boundaries of cause and effect, let a thousand uninformed opinions bloom! Because even a blind pig (or squirrel, your preference) roots out the infrequent nut.

This because even reality sometimes conforms to the odds, and pays out some very short money on the kind of witless forecast that even your local squirrel sports anchor can't get wrong, i.e.:

Tiger Wins Memorial.

But then a healthy Eldrick is an international institution, an implacable golf machine that long since earned the benefit of our doubt. Picking Woods to win anything -- while profoundly dull, and a network time-killer of almost no intellectual or emotional interest to anyone anywhere -- is now only slightly riskier than betting the sunrise or the changing of the tides.

Then finally, like a metronome, and as if to emphasize the crazy-making point that even randomness occasionally coughs up certainty, sports delivers other "news" with all the tick-tock predictability of an atomic clock.

Like this.

To which we say, Oy.

And oy again.

Still -- excepting Tiger Woods, and Zombie Favre: Quarterback King of the Forever Undead -- nothing much in this world is absolute. Nothing much is forever. And nothing at all is exactly as we imagine it to be.

This Sporting Life comes to us with very few strings attached. And that's good news.

Unless you're a puppet.

Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for and ESPN The Magazine. Don't forget to submit your answers to his question: "What Are Sports For?" You can e-mail him at