Russell Westbrook Could Be the Leading Man in the NBA Finals
Andrew McCutchen Discovers That Being the Natural Is Not Enough
Manny Pacquaio’s Controversial Loss in Las Vegas Dealt Boxing a Crippling Blow
Sharapova’s and Nadal’s French Open Victories were Achieved by Desire and Tenacity
The Extraordinary Adventures of the 1956 Hungarian Olympic Team
(NEW YORK – June 6, 2012) – A new era in the NBA has arrived and it has taken two men to deliver it. LeBron James, 27, and Kevin Durant, 23, are the key players of this post-Kobe era, and each is seeking his first title at the other’s expense. The last Finals to launch a new generation with so much anticipation and promise was the showdown between the Lakers and the Celtics in 1984, when Magic Johnson’s Lakers lost to Larry Bird’s Celtics over seven memorable games. A look inside the much anticipated match-up of the two best players in the league during this year’s NBA Finals is the cover story for the June 18, 2012, issue of Sports Illustrated, on newsstands now.
Unlike Johnson (a point guard) and Bird (a small forward), who rarely guarded each other, James and Durant will match up for a majority of their minutes, making for must-watch TV. The two players forged a friendship this past off-season. Durant spent four days in Akron working out with James, where they consoled each other about their shared troubles with the veteran Mavs, who had KO’d the Thunder last spring before upsetting the Heat in the Finals.
LeBron James said, “We pushed each other each and every day. I envisioned us getting to this point.”
LEADING MAN—CHRIS MANNIX (@ChrisMannixSI)
Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook may not be the biggest name in the Finals, but how well he runs the Thunder’s offense will determine which team goes home with a championship. Consider Westbrook’s job description: Don’t just score, create, and do it while keeping the turnovers down, the shooting percentage up and, oh, yeah, making sure the NBA’s scoring champ, Kevin Durant, is getting enough shots. Not since Allen Iverson has an elite point guard been asked to play such a multifaceted role.
Westbrook’s relationship with Durant has been dissected at a Kardashian level. Critics have wondered whether two alpha males can coexist, bringing up examples of discord (a well-publicized blowup on the bench in Memphis last December) and statistics (Westbrook’s hoisting up nearly as many shots as Durant in a bumpy 2011 playoffs) as proof that they can’t. What’s rarely cited is how Westbrook and Durant were inseparable during All-Star weekend or how the two routinely text each other about anything, from basketball to video games, late at night. Nor is it often noted that the duo scored more points per game (51.6) than any other tandem this season, or that when the game is tight, Westbrook defers: With a minute to play and the score within three points, Durant has attempted 37 shots, Westbrook eight.
Says Westbrook:“People keep trying to break me and Kevin up. But we just keep getting closer.”
BEING THE NATURAL ISN’T ENOUGH – JOSEPH LEMIRE (@SI_JoeLemire)
Pittsburgh Pirates All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen was a naturally gifted high school ballplayer who was chosen 11th overall in a draft that has been hailed as one of the best in major league history. McCutchen cruised through his first two years in the minors, dominating Rookie and Class A ball, but the moment he understood what it was to be a professional occurred when he faced adversity for the first time. Struggling in Double A he recognized that for even the bluest of baseball’s blue chip prospects, his natural talent was not enough. After being presented with a list of flaws and recommended fixes, McCutchen looked his coach in the eye and said, “Let’s go do it.”
“Adversity is a great teacher,” says Pirates assistant G.M. Kyle Stark, who oversees player development. “Our philosophy here is that we’re trying to maximize what guys do naturally, so we want to see that before we change things.”
McCutchen is gunning to become part of an exclusive club: active players who have helped the Pirates finish .500. Pittsburgh is mired in a 19-year streak of losing seasons, but McCutchen sees reason to hope for the future of the organization. “Once that streak is beaten, you’re going to want something else,” McCutchen says. “Why not reach the playoffs and win the World Series? Why not do it all? Let’s open some eyes, man.”
WHAT WAS LOST IN LAS VEGAS—CHRIS MANNIX (@ChrisMannixSI)
After Manny Pacquiao lost his WBO welterweight title to Timothy Bradley, the boxing world was in turmoil. Last Saturday night, millions of boxing fans watched Pacquiao cruise to what appeared to be a comfortable 16th straight victory. Instead, the judges awarded a split-decision victory to Bradley, one of the worst calls in the history of boxing. Even boxing promoter Bob Arum said, “I’m ashamed for the sport.”
Lost in the controversy was an even bigger question: What’s next for Manny Pacquiao? The 33-year-old Filipino’s skills have diminished over time and fighting Floyd Mayweather Jr. no longer has the allure it once did. The money will always be there but what boxing lost last Saturday may haunt it forever.
THE PLOT THICKENS (AGAIN)—L. JON WERTHEIM (@Jon_Wertheim)
Maria Sharapova has regained the top ranking and Rafael Nadal finally took down his chief rival, setting the stage for Wimbledon and the Olympics. The 2012 French Open represented seven rounds of gladiatorial Hunger Games. Yes, the champions—Rafael Nadal and Maria Sharapova—succeeded because they were able to pound a ball over a net with the greatest force and accuracy. In the end, though, they survived because they were driven by superior motivation, desire and tenacity.
Nadal rebounded to defeat his rival Novak Djokovic, who had defeated him seven straight times. The last time the two met, Nadal suffered a heart-wrenching six-hour marathon match at the Australian Open, a defeat that even his closest friends thought may deflate his spirit. The following evening Nadal calmly told them, “I lost last night, but now I know I can beat him again.”
Reaching the final brought Sharapova the No. 1 WTA ranking, and winning gave her the career Grand Slam—singles trophies from each of the four majors—a feat that many other champions (Monica Seles, Venus Williams, Justine Henin, Martina Hingis) never achieved. An hour after the final Sharapova was still digesting her accomplishment. “No matter how many how punches I took, I’ve always gotten back up,” she said.
REVOLUTION GAMES – ALEXANDER_WOLFF (@Alexander_Wolff)
Charred automobiles and rotting corpses lined the streets as members of the 1956 Hungarian Olympic team made their way to the Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. The team had more than just performance pressures on their shoulders as they traveled to the Olympics. Their home and their families were under attack as the Soviets invaded their homeland.
“The Olympics, the whole thing has lost its importance, its beauty, because of what’s happening back at home,” said a water polo player named Istvan Hevesi.
The Hungarian athletes’ greatest feat was beating the Soviets 4-0 in the water polo semifinals. Despite the team’s overall success, many of the athletes’ experiences were less than ideal. “All you’re thinking about is a decision you’ll be making that will affect the rest of your life,” said Hungarian diver Frank Siak.
That decision was whether to defect or return to a country under Soviet occupation. Those who decided to defect did so with the help of a young, struggling sports magazine, Sports Illustrated.
SCORECARD: DIFFERENT STROKES – LYNN SHERR
Every fourth summer, the pageantry and drama of the Olympics set our hearts soaring and ignites our imagination. “Wow! Look at those swimmers,” we say to ourselves, buoyed by their splashy, churning performances and bobbing, smiling postrace pool play. “Did you see Michael Phelps dolphin-kick his way to the finish? It just looked so . . . easy!” Careful. The next sentence is the tricky one. It so often goes like this: “I could do that.” Actually, you couldn’t.
Guest contributor Lynn Sherr writes, “Elite swimmers are different from the tips of their oversized hands to their flippersized feet, all of which scoop up oceans of water. They even walk differently.”
POINT AFTER: CASEY MARTIN’S VICTORY LAP– PHIL TAYLOR (@SI_PhilTaylor)
The U.S. Open will feature a familiar name this weekend, Casey Martin. The golfer who earneda spot in the Open by winning a sectional qualifier last week is the same Casey Martin who was competitive enough to earn five top 50 tournament finishes in 2000 despite needing a golf cart to play. He waged a four-year legal fight to keep playing even though many fellow golfers opposed his right to ride. (The Supreme Court ruled 7–2 in his favor on Jan. 17, 2001.) But he’s also a different Casey Martin—no longer a member of the Tour, he’s now the Oregon golf coach, and at 40 far more intense about his Ducks’ performances than his own.
Casey Martin says, “The thing is, I don’t really play golf. At least, I don’t play rounds of golf very often. I’ll go out and beat some balls with my guys at practice, maybe get out there half an hour early and hit some shots, but I’ve probably only played 12, 15 rounds in the past year.”
INSIDE THE WEEK IN SPORTS
- MLB (page 30): Adapt or Die– Six weeks ago, the Angels were headed to oblivion. Angels manager Mike Scioscia, one of the most successful in the league, has turned things around. (@SI_BenReiter)
- Horse Racing (page 36): Rags to Riches – In Belmont without I’ll Have Another, Union Rags delivered a victory that saved the day for racing. (@SITimLayden)
- Olympics (page 32): Running For No. 1 – Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake’s strong performance at the Adidas Grand Prix sets up an intriguing battle with his famous countryman Usain Bolt at the Olympics in London. (@SIDavidEpstein)
On the Tablet: Truth and Rumors
THIS WEEK’S FACES IN THE CROWD (page 24)
- Bill Stanley (South Park, Pa./South Park High) – Track and Field
- Kimmons Wilson (Winter Park, Fla./Winter Park Crew) – Rowing
- Chris Brown (North Chelmsford, Mass./Brandeis University) – Track and Field
- Shantana Kanhoye (Queens, N.Y./John Adams High)- Flag Football
- K.C. Wilson (Winter Springs, Fla./The Masters Academy) – Waterskiing
- Alli Cash (Overland Park, Kans./Shawnee Mission West) –Track and Field