This week’s Sports Illustrated: Prepare for a Patriots-Giants rematch; Muhammad Ali turns 70; the emergence of Ricky Rubio; the “art” of overpaying NHL goalies; why perhaps the best player in women’s CBB plays for DelawarePosted: January 18, 2012
Following their triumphs in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs, the Giants and 49ers appear on regional covers of this week’s Jan. 23, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands today. Below is the last time each team appeared on the cover and how many appearances it has overall.
- Giants: Aug. 4, 2008 (David Tyree); 22nd appearance
- 49ers: Oct. 26, 1998 (Kevin Gogan); 34th appearance
AFC AND NFC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME FORECASTS – TIM LAYDEN (@SITimLayden)
Patriots 27, Ravens 17: “Neither [Ray] Rice’s rushing nor the Ravens’ D will relieve QB Joe Flacco of the pressure to make as many big plays as [Tom] Brady does. And that won’t happen.”
Giants 31, 49ers 21: “San Francisco’s seasonlong ascent was built on the NFC’s best defense, but Drew Brees picked it apart last Saturday for 462 yards. Expect the red-hot [Eli] Manning to be nearly as effective—and counterpart Alex Smith much less so against a better pass rush than new Orleans’s, with higher stakes.”
On the Tablets: Senior writer Peter King’s guest on his weekly podcast is Joe Horrigan from the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Plus, King’s “Last Word on the NFL” leading up to the AFC and NFC title games.
NEW YORK GIANTS: ELI, AS IN ELITE – DAMON HACK (@si_damonhack)
Giants co-owner John Mara tells senior writer Damon Hack that he wouldn’t trade Eli Manning for anyone in football. After Manning outgunned the Packers’ Aaron Rodgers to lead the Giants to their second NFC title game appearance in five seasons, it’s a mindset more fans are sure to share. As Hack found out, those closest to the team have had a similar confidence in the quarterback for some time (page 38):
- Coach Tom Coughlin: “Nobody sees what he does behind the scenes. He is looking for every little advantage. He loves playing against the best competition, but it is all about doing the best for his team.”
- John Mara: “He has such a quiet confidence. And he just makes big play after big play. It gives the entire franchise confidence.”
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: ALEX SMITH. REALLY? REALLY – JIM TROTTER (@SI_JimTrotter)
Alex Smith had all but made up his mind after the 2010 season that he would be leaving the 49ers after enduring six trying years as San Francisco’s quarterback. That changed when Jim Harbaugh was hired in early 2011, after which he reassured Smith’s family that Alex was in the right place. Recalling that conversation, Harbaugh tells senior writer Jim Trotter (page 34): “I told his dad, ‘I really want Alex here. This could be his fresh start.’ That was met with crickets. You could hear the chirping on the other end of the phone…. I felt for them, I really did. I totally understood that this would maybe be the last place they would want their son. It’s spectacular how things have transpired.”
On the Tablets: A slideshow of the 49ers’ and Saints’ topsy-turvy fourth quarter, during which there were four lead changes in the final four minutes.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: A TIGHT END ONE-TWO PUNCH – PETER KING (@SI_PeterKing)
New England’s tight end tag team of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez isn’t just the Patriots’ most dangerous weapon, it’s also now their most versatile one. The 6′ 6″, 265-pound Gronkowski blocks as well as he catches, while Hernandez lined up at the following positions on the first five plays of New England’s opening series against the Broncos on Saturday: fullback, receiver tight to the formation, slot back, running back, and flanker. In fact, Hernandez led the Pats with 61 yards rushing on the night. Coach Bill Belichick told senior writer Peter King afterward (page 40): “We didn’t have any backs in the game in that personnel grouping—we just had the three receivers and the two tight ends. That’s not something we’ve done a lot of. You see all those receivers on the field, and you’re not really thinking too much about the running game defensively. So we tried to pop a couple of runs in there just to keep them honest.”
BALTIMORE RAVENS: THE HOUR GROWS LATE – BEN REITER (@SI_BenReiter)
The Ravens made just enough plays on Sunday to get by the Texans, 20–13. But in order to defeat the Patriots in the AFC title game, the younger players on the defense have to make more of an impact in order to send the old standbys to the Super Bowl. Three of the Ravens’ defensive veterans spoke with staff writer Ben Reiter after the game (page 42):
- Outside linebacker Terrell Suggs: “The window’s closing. That need to get it done is greater than ever.”
- Safety Ed Reed: “I’m getting old. I understand it. One day it won’t be me up here. It’ll be another safety in Baltimore.”
- Middle linebacker Ray Lewis: “I can’t stop working until whenever is whenever, and I don’t know when that’s going to be.”
MUHAMMAD ALI TURNS 70: HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHAMP – RICHARD O’BRIEN
Muhammad Ali was first mentioned in Sports Illustrated in the April 18, 1960, issue. That week’s For the Record section listed the 178-pounder from Louisville—then known as Cassius Clay—as one of the “20 diligent-punching young men” who had qualified for the U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials. Since then, Ali has appeared on the SI cover 38 times—second most all time—and continues to inspire people around the world (page 28).
In honor of Ali’s 70th birthday, this week’s Sports Illustrated contains a special feature package on the Champ. Much of it is told from the perspective of photographer Neil Leifer, whose photo of Ali glowering over Sonny Liston during their 1965 heavyweight title fight remains one of the most memorable images in sports. Leifer first shot Ali in 1963 and has photographed him countless times since then, including a session for this week’s issue at Ali’s home in Paradise Valley, Ariz. Leifer says the session “was like the old days” and recalls the great photographic moments Ali has provided him with over the years: “He was every photographer’s and every writer’s favorite subject, whether you liked him or not, because he always made you look good.”
Leifer speaks at greater length about his time with Ali in a video interview available on SI.com and the tablet edition of this week’s issue. Among the topics Leifer addresses are:
- His famous photo of Ali standing over Liston: “When Liston went down right in the spot, best spot in the ring for me to be shooting in. I remember thinking to myself, please Sonny, don’t get up because I knew I had a good picture.”
- Shooting Ali at the start of both of their careers: “When I first start working with Muhammad, I was 19 years old and quite honestly what he did was make a hero out of everyone who got to work with him. I’d come back to Sports Illustrated with the pictures and they would think geez Neil is good, he’s genius. Well you couldn’t miss, the guy never said no.”
Senior editor Richard O’Brien marvels at Ali’s journey from denounced rebel to beloved icon, writing: “It’s almost impossible to see just how original and transformative a figure he was—and how divisive and even reviled he remained through much of his career. If changing times have brought him acceptance and affection, let’s recall Ali’s singular role in bringing about much of the change. Just as he did in those terrible wars with Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Ken Norton, Ali on the world stage played for the highest stakes, at a level of risk unthinkable in today’s sports culture.”
For more of Leifer’s interview on photographing Muhammad Ali, click here.
On the Tablets: Video footage of Ali winning the Golden Gloves and his defeat of Sonny Liston in 1965.
RICKY RUBIO: ¡OLÉ! – LEE JENKINS (@SI_LeeJenkins)
While the Minnesota Timberwolves were in the process of losing 132 games over the past two seasons (more than any team in the NBA), sometimes the players would turn to viral videos of point guard Ricky Rubio—the team’s top overall draft pick in 2009—for a sense of hope. Simultaneously, Rubio was enduring his own struggles. First he was part of a contentious buyout from his former club in Spain, Joventut Badalona. Then he endured two subpar years with FC Barcelona, averaging 6.7 points on 38.7% shooting and seeing his assists totals drop. Speaking with senior writer Lee Jenkins, Rubio recalls (page 58): “When you’re 15 and have a bad game, everybody tells you that it’s normal. When you’re 20, there is more pressure, so you think more about your mistakes. That’s how you play nervous. Then everything gets bigger, bigger, bigger, and you are in fear.”
After a trying end to his career in Spain, Rubio is the rare European who won’t find more stress in the NBA but rather relief. The freewheeling style of play that had the basketball cognoscenti labeling him as the Spanish Pete Maravich is back to go along with a jump shot much improved from earlier in his career. Critics once labeled Rubio as a flop before he even started his NBA career; now he is a phenomenon. He says: “I learned that if you miss, you miss. You don’t always need to go over what happened before. When you’re young, you don’t think about nothing. You just play because you enjoy it. That’s what I’m going to do here. I’m going to enjoy it.”
On the Tablets: The best of Ricky Rubio from his time in the Spanish League and his star turn at the 2008 Olympics.
NHL GOALTENDING: THE PUCK STOPS WHERE? – MICHAEL FARBER
Long-term contracts for goalies rarely seem to pay off. Yet that didn’t stop Nashville Predators general manager David Poile from signing Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rine to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension in November—the richest long-term deal for a goalie on an annual value basis in the salary cap era. Poile explains his rationale to senior writer Michael Farber (page 52): “Every time you sign a player, there’s a risk. Say you have a great hitter, a terrific third baseman who might lead the league in home runs. But if you don’t have pitching, where are you? Goaltending is pitching.”
Future indicators of good goaltending are maddeningly hard to find. The St. Louis Blues signed Jaroslav Halak to a four-year, $15 million contract after his star turn with the Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs, yet this season he’s been supplanted by Brian Elliott, who’s making $600,000 this year. Says Blues G.M. Doug Armstrong: “There’s no question goal’s the toughest position to get a handle on. It starts with the draft. With a defenseman or forward, if he doesn’t ultimately meet 80 percent of expectations, he can still do others things on the team. If a goalie doesn’t meet expectations, he goes from the ice to the bench. You’re either right or wrong.”
On the Tablets: Farber discusses his story in a podcast interview with media writer Richard Deitsch (@richarddeitsch).
ELENA DELLE DONNE: DRIVING FOR HOME – L. JON WERTHEIM (@jon_wertheim)
Senior writer L. Jon Wertheim compares Elena Delle Donne playing for Delaware to “Adele singing in the church choir, Oprah on public access [and] Serena Williams in the ladies’ scrambler at the country club.” After all, Delle Donne was the country’s top-rated high school senior from 2008 and was set to join the dynastic UConn program before leaving Storrs after only two days on campus (page 46).
Following a year away from basketball—during which she played for Delaware’s volleyball team—Delle Donne set the Blue Hens’ career scoring in just 63 games. She has also stayed close to her 27-year-old sister Lizzie, who was born deaf, blind and with cerebral palsy—and who is the primary reason Delle Donne, a native of Wilmington, came back home. Elena explains to Wertheim: “[Lizzie’s] severely handicapped, functioning at the level of an infant—and she’s incredible. The battles she fights to get through a day put everything in perspective. She can [distinguish] my hugs and kisses. I can’t even describe how close we are…. Remember, if I don’t have physical contact with her, I don’t have any contact with her. It’s not like I can Skype with her or e-mail or text her.”
On the Tablets: From the Sports Illustrated archives, a look back at Delle Donne’s write-up in the “Where Will They Be?” section of the July 7, 2006, “Where Are They Now?” issue.
POINT AFTER: THE BOOK OF TIM – PHIL TAYLOR (@SI_PhilTaylor)
Talk of Tim Tebow was such a dominant topic of conversation over the past weeks that those who didn’t want to talk about him could only talk about how tired they were of him. Senior writer Phil Taylor points out that Tebow also became a centerpiece of a debate that had more to do with faith than football (page 64): “Tebow’s journey did also reveal a second truth to those who studied it: that there is an unspoken belief in the separation of church and sport. For although the sports lexicon runneth over with spiritual references—rookie saviors and Hail Mary passes and basketball players tossing up prayers—there is a certain unease with displaying religious beliefs as outwardly as doth Tebow.”
SCORECARD: A SMART WAY TO SHARE – ALEXANDER WOLFF
Virginia Commonwealth men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart has a solution for the growing income inequality in college sports: have colleges tithe a portion of their revenue to the destitute communities from which so many of their leading performers come. He explains his proposal to senior writer Alexander Wolff thusly (page 13): “There’s a major opportunity gap in this country for kids, and it starts so early. Let’s take some of the money and at least shrink that gap…. I don’t pretend to have an exact system, because I don’t know how the money works now—only that CBS pays billions and coaches make millions. I’d love for someone to organize, to come to the coaches and say, ‘Here’s a plan.’ ”
Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, who studies the finances of college sports, suggests government involvement in curbing spending in college sports before embarking on a proposal similar to Smart’s: “The first obligation is to restore fiscal sanity by using [the savings in salary] to plug that hole. Then start giving to poor kids. Otherwise you’re giving away money you don’t really have…. Ethically, [Smart’s] proposal is lovely. The problem is how you figure out the surplus.”
THIS WEEK ON THE TABLETS
- SI Digital Bonus: Greats on the Greatest – As Muhammad Ali celebrates his 70th birthday, photographer Neil Leifer and journalist Bert Sugar discuss the champ.
INSIDE THE WEEK IN SPORTS
- College Basketball (page 22): Small Problems – Missouri’s four-guard lineup might be the shortest in the Big 12, but it’s wreaking havoc in the conference. (Dan Greene)
- NHL (page 24): Pleased to Meet You – The remade Panthers are still getting to know each other, but that hasn’t slowed their rise into the ranks of playoff contenders. (Brian Cazeneuve)
- NBA (page 25): Dirk in Progress – The Mavericks allowed free agents to depart with an eye toward reshaping their roster to give their franchise player another title run. Whom might they pursue? (Chris Mannix, @ChrisMannixSI)
- Olympics/Marathon (page 26): Running Mates – The trials in Houston produced the U.S.’s deepest team in decades—and one that will be ready for anything at the Games. (David Epstein, @SIDavidEpstein)
- Olympics/Soccer (page 27): Shift to the Center – As the U.S. women look to London, Lauren Cheney takes on the playmaker’s role. (Grant Wahl, @GrantWahl)
THIS WEEK’S FACES IN THE CROWD (page 19)
- Jameis Winston (Hueyton, Ala./Hueytown High) – Football
- Victoria Vivians (Forest, Miss./Scott Central High) – Basketball
- Ryan Murphy (Jacksonville/The Bolles School) – Swimming
- Chiara Del Piccolo (Basalt, Colo./Williams) – Track and Field
- Aquille Carr (Baltimore/Patterson High) – Basketball
- Lauren Eichstadt (Greenville, Pa./University of Findlay, College of Pharmacy) – Equestrian