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Friday, November 13, 2009
Running on sports-hate empty

By Bill Simmons
ESPN.com

My list of sports-hate guys is dwindling. Hell, it's been decimated. I am at a loss. I am grasping at straws.

If you're not familiar with the term, "sports hate" is an underrated part of fandom. Everyone has guys they don't like, and more importantly, guys they enjoy not liking. The reasons are unique to us. There doesn't have to be anything rational about it. Sports hate can be triggered by one incident, one slight, one game gone wrong, anything.

If you read my basketball book, you might remember me making roughly 500 jokes about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was my least favorite athlete of all time. I loved rooting against him. Everything he did bothered me: every expression, his goggles, the way officials constantly bailed him out, even the monotony of his skyhook -- and his Lakers uniform made me sports-hate him even more. When he announced his battle with leukemia this week, you know what happened? I felt terrible for him and hoped he would recover soon. I may have disliked him as a player, but still, my life as a sports fan was always more interesting with Kareem in it. Again, there's a difference between real hate and sports hate.

As fans, fundamentally, we need to root against certain players. Need to be bugged by them. Need to have our least favorite guys fail in the clutch just so we can say, "See, I told you, he sucks when it matters!" Need to taunt our friends who root for their teams. Need to see the pouty look on their faces when things go wrong. Need to say things like, "He'll never get it, he's a loser" and "He's selfish and that's that." Need to be definitive about people we don't like. And why. And for as long as we can possibly keep it going.

So when our sports-hate guys render that sports hate obsolete, it's a little disorienting. Look at me, for instance. Just in the past five months, my two least favorite teams -- really, the two teams I sports-hate more than everyone else combined -- won the NBA Finals and World Series. And if that wasn't enough, the following three realities have become undeniable:

1. Peyton Manning is clutch. He's a champion. He's the heart of the Colts, and for all we know he's coaching them, too. You cannot wager against him, especially in night games. He's the most important player in football. Take Manning off the Colts and they disintegrate into dust. If that's not enough, he has proved to be a likable, engaging guy with a sense of humor. Damn it all.

2. Alex Rodriguez carried the Yankees to the 2009 title. He was their biggest bat, he had the most clutch moments and he finished with one of the better statistical postseasons in a while. If that's not enough, he dumped the Crossover Superstar quest and just concentrated on playing baseball, hanging out with his girlfriend and that's it. Even his teammates seem to like him this year. Damn it all.

3. Kobe Bryant won a title his way -- by establishing a Kobe and the Kobettes dynamic that actually worked -- becoming one of the ten best NBA players ever and proving he could prevail without Shaq. If that wasn't jarring enough, Shaq's exit from Phoenix marked the fourth time he left a team on bad terms, making everyone re-evaluate the whole "Was Kobe really the bad guy in the Shaqobe Divorce?" saga that had been buried years ago. Maybe Kobe wasn't as much to blame as we thought. Maybe Shaq was the problem. Maybe the hotel clerk lied about him. Maybe he took a ton of flak for no reason. Maybe he's … (gulp) … a good guy and a family man who works his butt off and never seems satisfied and kills himself to get better every summer and maybe … (gulp) … was greater than we thought. Damn it all.

Read those previous three paragraphs again. (Actually, read them for me. I am covered in smoke because my flesh is on fire. I can't see my laptop.) Imagine you're me. You have a sports column. You're a passionate guy. You care a little too much about sports. You're all about the Boston teams. You love getting riled up about players who you feel are either selfish, overrated, attention hogs, bad teammates, transparent or whatever. You always believed that Manning would choke when it mattered, that A-Rod was a fraud, that Kobe's selfishness would trump his talents. These realities are no longer true.

Do I feel empty inside? Yeah, a little. My sports-hate tank is on empty. I can still root against the Yankees and Lakers, obviously. I still have the YouTube clips of Parish beating up Laimbeer and Bird's steal from Isiah. I still have the 2004 ALCS and 2008 NBA Finals. I still have Kobe folding in Game 6 of the 2008 Finals, A-Rod's sissy slap of Bronson Arroyo in 2004 and Manning putting up a 3-spot in 2004 at Foxborough. But it's morphing into ESPN Classic Sports Hate. You can't root as vehemently against players that you respect totally and completely, and to be honest, the Kobe/Manning/A-Rod troika won my respect.

What's left for me? Well, I still have Sasha Vujacic. As I wrote a few weeks ago, my sports hate for Sasha runs so deep that I wouldn't run him over if he walked along a crosswalk in front of me, but I'd definitely consider it and glance around to see how many people were looking. (In a best-case scenario, I'd "accidentally" side-swipe him at a slow speed just to see if he flopped.) I also have WNBA commercials and John Cougar Mellencamp ads. I have Vince Carter, and even better, every Vince Carter game in Toronto. I have Terrell Owens. I have Jorge Posada and the chance that every Sox-Yankees pitch might be the one that gets foul-tipped into his groin. I have any NFL studio show that has more than four guys. I have every professional poker player except Phil Ivey. I have Jay Cutler, and I have Jay Cutler a second time, because man, is it fun to sports-hate Jay Cutler.

Best of all, I have Mike Dunleavy, someone who is so bad at his job that on Wednesday night -- after I walked out of a game in which he waited 47 minutes and 22 seconds to insert Steve Novak (his only decent outside shooter with Eric Gordon sidelined) in the game to "spread the floor," which would have been fine if Novak wasn't ice-cold, although that's what made it so fantastically abysmal, the fact that Dunleavy probably broke the career record for "Most Times Putting An Ice-Cold Guy into the Biggest Possession of a Close Game" -- I said to two of my Section 102 friends (Jesse and Lenny) as we were leaving, "I'm actually going to miss games like that when they finally fire Dunleavy. I feel like we're watching a level of incompetence on a daily basis that transcends sports and might be something I tell my grandkids about someday." Thank God I have Mike Dunleavy.

But look at that master list again. No big names. Nobody that matters. Nobody polarizing. Nobody that anyone else would bother to defend. Even if I did pancake Vujacic and his hair net, I doubt that a jury of Lakers fans would convict me. I think they'd deliberate for five hours, then ultimately come to the conclusion that "Yes, Vujacic probably had that coming. Did he flop?"

The whole thing makes me sad. In the old days, I could have written about this Sunday's Patriots-Colts battle on autopilot. Manning is Wilt, Brady is Russell. Manning will choke. Even if Manning doesn't choke, it doesn't matter, because he'll choke in January. Brady and Belichick rule all. Do not bet against them. You know I'm right.

Now? I don't know who to pick.

Love the way the Pats are playing right now. Love that Indy's secondary is banged up. Love Indy's rushing issues. Love that one unproven Indy receiver (Garcon or Collie) will have to make a huge play in this game. Love the coaching matchup, especially since it's Week 10 and I haven't seen Jim Caldwell blink yet. But Manning looms over everything. He owns those televised night games. He has alligator blood. He will steal any game in the last five minutes if you let him. He is remarkable to watch on a weekly basis. I have no sports hate left for him. None. He's one of the greatest quarterbacks I have ever seen. He also knows exactly how much this game means, because this Patriots team is threatening to go on one of those patented Brady/Belichick streaks unless somebody stops them soon. I bet anything that Manning knows this.

So I cannot wait for Sunday. I think the Patriots can win, but my guard is up. When Peyton Manning is on the other side, it has to be. Welcome to my sports world in 2009: a place where Manning is feared, Kobe is a champ, A-Rod is clutch, the Yankees have good chemistry, and I have no idea whether the Patriots are tough enough to beat the Colts. Forget about lighting myself on fire. Too easy. I'm leaning toward giving myself a colonic with a leaf blower.

And on that note, let's get to the Week 10 picks …

(Home teams in caps)

NINERS (-3) over Bears
I picked this one yesterday. (Every Thursday, check Sports Guy's World for my Thursday night pick.) Did I enjoy Jay Cutler's five picks? Of course! Did I enjoy it when he was hollering at teammates after interceptions? Yes! Yes, I did! Did I stick around for the postgame show just to watch the five-pick montage with Rich Eisen narrating? You betcha! He may not have the chops of Kobe or A-Rod, but still, sports-hating Jay Cutler is better than nothing.

Falcons (-1.5) over PANTHERS
My top six looks like this right now: New Orleans, Indy, New England, Pittsburgh, Minnesota and Dallas. The Falcons are 5-3. Their three losses? No. 1, No. 3 and No. 6 on the list … all on the road. In other words, they might be better than we think. It's conceivable. Meanwhile, the Panthers are 3-5, they don't have a No. 1 pick next year, they're one defeat away from their fan base freaking out about this and their best player (Steve Smith) blessed his quarterback two weeks ago by saying, "I just work here. If Jake's the guy, Jake's the guy. It's not my call." I think I'll take the Falcons.

DOLPHINS (-10) over Bucs
The Dolphins have rushed for 1,207 yards and given up 756. The Bucs have rushed for 767 yards and given up 1,307. Sometimes it's that easy.

One other thought: Every one of Pat White's Wildcat cameos is the exact opposite of Michael Vick's cameos in Philly. With White, anything is possible. With Vick, it's just depressing. This might be the single worst comeback that didn't involve a porn star, wrestler, musician or Magic Johnson. Can we all agree that (A) he lost his legs; (B) pre-2007 Vick is gone and not coming back; and (C) it doesn't matter where he plays next year, since he won't be good, anyway? You know how you can block people on Twitter? I wish I could block all "Where is Michael Vick going in 2010?" stories from my eyes and ears. Doesn't matter. We don't care.

VIKINGS (-16.5) over Lions
What a run for the Vikes: the emotional win at Lambeau, a bye week, then three straight home games against Detroit, Seattle and Chicago. Enjoy your month off, fellas! We're headed for a Saints/Vikings 1-2 seed (in some order) in January, barring a Brett Favre injury and a Tarvaris Jackson cameo, which means the following things …

A. Two NFC dome games in Round 2; fascinating because every other possible NFC playoff team (Philly, Arizona, Dallas, the Giants, Atlanta) is more comfortable playing indoors in January.

B. Probably, an NFC title game in a dome -- great for the Saints and Vikes, but especially the Vikes, who don't want Favre playing in cold weather for the same reason you'll be shoveling snow for your dad this Christmas. Dad, stay inside. I don't want you to get hurt. I'll do it.

C. If A and B happen, then by the law of "It Would Be Too Freaking Weird If Both Conference Title Games Were Played In a Dome," the AFC title game HAS to be played outdoors, which rules out Indy and points us towards New England, Pittsburgh or Cincy as the home team. Hmmmmmm.

D. A Saints-Vikes NFC title game would be the single coolest matchup I can remember since … since … I mean … can you top that one? The Saints have NEVER played in a Super Bowl. The Vikings have never WON a Super Bowl. Throw in everything else (Brees, Favre, Peterson, Jared Allen, Brad Childress' beard, a potential shootout, two tortured fan bases, etc.) and I have no idea how that one ends. I just know that I'm giddy about it.

(Fast-forward to late January: "Warner! McNabb! It's the NFC Championship Game on Fox!" These things never work out in our favor. Ever. Crap.)

Jaguars (+7) over JETS
The Jets passed the Injury Point of No Return two weeks ago. My Underdog Lock of the Week: Jags 27, Jets 13. Speaking of column gimmicks with capital letters, it's time for my Pet Peeve of the Week. I am 40 and cranky and I want to have a Pet Peeve of the Week.

Our first one: I wrote a chunk of this column at a local Starbucks. One seat over from me, some dude in his 40s was listening to music on his headphones, playing online Scrabble and occasionally talking loud calls on his cell phone. How much do you have to hate your own apartment, house, wife or girlfriend that you say, "I can't stand it here anymore, I'm going to Starbucks to play online Scrabble?" Last week, someone brought work to the same Starbucks, then proceeded to sing and hum to the songs they were playing despite everyone else glaring at her. Of course, that didn't top what happened to me nearly two years ago, when some crazy dude grabbed a New York Times from the newspaper rack, brought it into the unisex bathroom, proceeded to drop anchor for the next 15 minutes, then emerged from the bathroom holding the newspaper like Dad coming out of the john on a Saturday morning.

Now, in a perfect world, people would only go to a coffeehouse to eat, drink, write, read, study or converse. You can't turn it into your personal office. You can't act like it's your house. You can't make loud phone calls and sing along to music. You can't sit in a comfy chair not drinking, not eating and not doing anything other than staring at everyone else. But since people can't seem to get the hang of this, here's my suggestion: Every coffee place should designate one employee (a barista, waitress, pastry chef or whomever) as a de facto bouncer. It becomes their job to jettison loiterers, loud talkers, losers, weirdos and everyone else. Maybe they could even wear different uniforms. We could call them "coolers." This would work. Until then, I will remain peeved.

TITANS (-7) over Bills
A 2-6 team laying a touchdown to a 3-5 team? Sure! Why not? I like how they're playing. Or maybe I'm just excited for Chris Johnson in "Madden" next August. I don't even play "Madden" any more, and that might suck me back in all by itself. Like having Barry Sanders back from the dead.

Bengals (+7) over STEELERS
The Steelers have been playing with one of those "Everyone keeps forgetting we're the champs, and we're starting to get ticked off about it" edges, particularly on defense, and if you think they're willingly passing the AFC North torch in this game, you're crazy. On the other side, nobody totally believes in a rock-solid Bengals team -- as you can see by the line -- which qualifies them for possible "Nobody Believes In Us!" status. But I wasn't positive, so I searched for a quote that would reflect this. Didn't take long. Page 28, USA Today Sports Weekly, safety Chris Crocker:

"We're legit. The tape doesn't lie. That's our whole thing is to earn respect. We don't care if we're underdogs. At the end of the day, our job is to make you or whoever is out there a believer."

(Translation: NOBODY BELIEVES IN US!!!)

Saints (+14) over STEVEN JACKSONS
The Rams have less talent than almost anyone in football. Three of their five receivers weren't on the team in training camp; the other two are below-average at best. It's a car crash of an offense in every respect. And yet here's Jackson on pace for nearly 1,600 rushing yards even though the Rams have lost games by 28, 19, 35, 28 and 36 points. How is this possible? If Jackson keeps the Rams in this specific game -- after all, anyone can run on the Saints, right? -- he has to be considered an MVP candidate. Without him, the 1-7 Rams would be minus-5 and 13 right now.

RAIDERS (-2) over Chiefs
Dear CBS: Why assign Gus Johnson to such a dreadful game?

(On second thought … )

Dear CBS: Thanks for assigning Gus Johnson to such a dreadful game! I might actually flick over to it now.

By the way, I am declaring this game ungamble-able. The Chiefs are the only 2009 team without a rushing TD; Oakland has given up 13. The Chiefs have given up 12 passing plays of 40-plus yards; the Raiders have a QB with a 48.3 rating. The Chiefs have amassed 2,231 yards and given up 3,172; the Raiders have amassed 1,793 yards and given up 3,086. The Chiefs have given up 30 sacks; the Raiders have turned the ball over 25 times. I'd say this was the worst game of the year, but remember, Oakland plays in Cleveland in Week 16. That's the Stupor Bowl. This is more of the Blew-Gray Game.

CARDINALS (-9) over Seahawks
Kurt Warner's projected 2009 stats: 4,350 yards, 32 TDs, 22 interceptions, 88.0 QB rating. That would be the fourth-best season of his career. If you separated his career into quadrants, it's clear Warner is headed for the single weirdest football career of all time.

Ages 22-27: 0-0 record, 39 yards, 0 TDs, 0 INTs, 47.2 QB rating, 0-0 playoffs.

Ages 28-30: 35-8, 12,612 yards, 98 TDs, 53 INTs, 104 QB rating (approx.), 6-2 playoffs

Ages 31-35: 8-23, 7,940 yards, 27 TDs, 30 INTs, 80 QB rating (approx.), 0-0 playoffs

Ages 36-38: 19-16, 10,175 yards, 73 TDs, 42 INTs, 92 QB rating (approx.), 3-1 playoffs

Basically, he's played fewer than six quality seasons … but those seasons were so good, when you throw in three Super Bowl trips, the 1999 MVP, (potentially) four 4,000-yard seasons and whatever might happen in the next two or three years, he's a lock for the Hall of Fame. I have a feeling future generations will be confused, much like I'm confused every time I look at Joe Namath's stats. Has there ever been a more overrated legend? I know his knees went on him early, but he finished with 173 touchdowns, 220 interceptions and a 65.5 QB rating. He played in three playoff games total. His career record was 62-63-4. And he gets lumped in with Montana, Elway and everyone else? Really?

(Uh-oh, I feel another 700-page book coming on, I better stop.)

Broncos (-3.5) over REDSKINS
Back on track for the Broncos, back off the tracks for the Redskins. Poor DC never gets enough credit in the Most Depressed Sports Cities discussion. The past 18 years featured exactly one finals trip by a DC team: the Caps in 1998. And they got demolished. You know it's been a lean stretch when DC's single biggest sports highlights this decade were (A) Kornheiser and Wilbon getting their own ESPN show, and (B) male college students in the DC area pounding their headboards after sex in honor of Alex Ovechkin.

CHARGERS (-1.5) over Eagles
Who else is fired up for the Norv/Andy split-screen? If a terrible coaching decision doesn't decide this game, I'll give you a full refund for this column. All right, here's a great e-mail from Jay Modad in Kalamazoo that I received after Andy botched the last five minutes of Sunday's Dallas loss:

"Andy Reid is a great coach for 3 and a half quarters. In baseball, most starting pitchers do their job really well for most of the game, then need a little help to finish it out. I think you see where I'm going with this. The Eagles need a closer. A coach that they can bring in at the end of close games when they're trailing, or winning by a touchdown or less (save situations). As asinine as this sounds, tell me Eagles fans wouldn't strongly consider it."

Consider it? Are you kidding? They just broke their necks nodding violently. It's a fascinating idea and I spent way too much time thinking about it. Every coach has a flaw or two. It's impossible for them to be perfect. In Andy Reid's case, he knows how to handle the media, build a roster, come up with game plans, delegate to assistants, get his players playing hard for him, keep them prepared and keep them motivated. It's a eight-step job and he nailed seven of the steps. But he's helpless with clock management -- as we saw last Sunday in painful detail -- and since he's been doing this since the mid-90s, it sure seems like he will always be helpless. It's his Achilles' heel. So why not fix it? Either have the Clock Management Closer come in and stand next to him, or even better, just have Reid actually leave the sideline and head into the locker room like a baseball pitcher. He could even get a standing O on his way out. I would love this. Who wouldn't love this?

Cowboys (-3) over PACKERS
Green Bay's record since Nov. 2, 2008: 6-11. The six wins? Chicago (twice); Detroit (twice); St. Louis; Cleveland. They aren't good. Sorry. It's true. Look at the bright side, Packers fans -- at least Brett Favre's inevitable injury is coming up soon. You can smell it in the air. It's like logs burning in the fireplace.

Ravens (-10.5) over BROWNS
I was watching "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" at something like 4:30 in the morning recently because my body clock is screwed up and I keep waking up at weird hours like the girl in "Paranormal Activity." Anyway, Half-Asleep Me had this half-awake epiphany that the Browns are Sarah Marshall and Browns fans are Jason Segel's character. In other words, there was a devastating breakup (Sarah/Browns dumping Segel/fans), followed by Segel/fans being in the dumps, followed by an improbable reconciliation (Cleveland getting football again/Sarah wanting to make sweet love to Segel again) … and then, the awkward sex scene in the movie (when Segel can't perform, then realizes he needs to get away from Sarah) has been like the past 10 years of Browns football (when the Browns just sucked and kept sucking). Half-Asleep Me liked this parallel so much that I stumbled out of bed and fumbled for my glasses, then wrote it down on a notepad before falling back asleep.

Whether it made sense or not, I will never watch that movie without thinking of Browns fans again. The return of the NFL to Cleveland has been like one long awkward hotel-room sex scene. And it won't end. Just hire Bill Cowher already. For God's sake.

(One "Paranormal Activity" follow-up. The movie proved something we already knew, but it's worth mentioning again … some guys will put up with almost anything if they are dating a girl with big breasts. Remember the early-in-the-movie scene when she climbs out of bed and watches her boyfriend sleep for two solid hours without moving? And then he watches that on videotape and thinks "Wow, this is weird" but doesn't run for the hills? He should have thrown his laptop and two nights' worth of clothes into a knapsack, told her he needed to get gas, got into his car and never seen her again. Good luck, Crazy Person Who Has a Demon Following Her And Watched Me Sleep for Two Hours Without Moving. Hope everything works out for you. I think I can find another girlfriend. But he didn't. There's a lesson here.)

Patriots (+3) over COLTS
Let's just end this column before I change my mind.

This week: 1-0
Last week: 7-5-1
Season: 76-52-2
Underdog locks: 6-5

Bill Simmons is a columnist for ESPN.com. For every Simmons column, as well as podcasts, videos and more, check out Sports Guy's World. His new book, "The Book of Basketball," is now available.