January 23, 2006
Kobe Bryant:
His 81 doesn't have the cachet of Wilt's 100, but it's hard to argue that the guard's effort wasn't even more impressive than the big man's.
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:

Only a week ago, the Super Bowl was all set to live up to its "XL" label. Now, it's the "Super Bore."

Across the sports-geography spectrum (unless you're a fan of either Seattle or Pittsburgh), there hasn't been a Super Bowl with less national fan interest in a long time.

Meaning? This XL-sized Super Bowl will truly test the idea that the game is that much bigger than the teams involved.

At first glance, the game's matchup might be even, but its buzz is a shutout.

(Look no further than the most recent poll results on ESPN.com's front page: Kobe scoring 81 is 50 percent more popular a story than the Steelers and Seahawks advancing to the Super Bowl.)

NFL fans have become spoiled by the Pats dynasty; even this season, our expectations were that we'd see the most improbable Pats title of all -- or at least the breakthrough of Peyton Manning and the Colts.

There's simply not the drama of years past. Can't Shaun Alexander go a little "T.O." on us, just to spice things up?

Even a Freddie Mitchell imitation from Matt Hasselbeck would make things more interesting at this point.

But, really, a "blah" reaction from fans is beyond the NFL -- it's a nasty little virus going around the pro sports world over the last year:

Look at last year's NBA Finals: Fans yawned at the prospects of the Pistons and Spurs (even though it turned out to be a dramatic series on the court). They had been spoiled by the dramatics of Kobe and Shaq.

Look at the World Series: Fans were underwhelmed by the White Sox and Astros (despite Chicago's epic title drought). They had been spoiled by the Rise of the Red Sox.

It doesn't matter that the Spurs or the White Sox were worthy champs. Excellence has taken a backseat to our jones for outsize drama.

Make no mistake: This is unfair to both the Seahawks, a Super Bowl first-timer, and the Steelers, who would claim the superlative novelty of becoming the lowest-seeded playoff team to win a championship.

I'm just extending last week's sense of ho-hum from fans for the conference championship matchups and expanding it to sports' biggest stage:

The Whoop-de-do-per Bowl.

XL Storylines
All that said, it's still the Super Bowl and the game's winner will be crowned NFL champ.

But the media would be wise not to exhaust their coverage today; it's going to be a long two weeks until game day.

So let's start with the key story lines that will dominate the next two weeks.

Guaranteed to be a cliché by game day or your money back:

1) Seahawks: First title ever
2) Steelers: Return to glory
3) Bettis: Detroit homecoming
4) Hasselbeck: The new Favre?
5) Cowher: Time to choke yet?

Ben Roethlisberger: 26-4 record best-ever through 30 starts
Ozzie Guillen: Becomes U.S. citizen. What a great 12 months!
LeBron James: Career-high 51 makes him youngest to 5,000
Jake Plummer: Ahh! THERE'S the Snake we all know and love
Andy Roddick: Loses at Aussie Open (Sharapova bummed?)
LeBron James' mom: Charged with DUI and more. Yikes.
Kobe Scores 81
Oh. My. Goodness. 26 points at the half. 27 points in the 3rd quarter alone. 28 in the 4th. That's 55 in the 2nd half and an instantly legendary 81 for the game, the 2nd-highest total in NBA history.

When Kobe scored 62 in December, everyone was bummed because he didn't play the 4th quarter. It's as if he came out on Sunday trying to give fans the complete picture of his scoring ability.

Here's how amazing Kobe's 81 is: With that double-nickel in just one half, he actually justifies an argument that he could score 100.

Speaking of scoring, the Sonics and Suns combined to score the most points in an NBA game in 11 years: 301 points. Ray Allen hit a buzzer-beating 3 at the end of the 2nd OT to lead the Sonics to a 152-149 thriller Sunday. Best sports day in Seattle fan history?

College Hoops Shake up
Really, it's who's NOT No. 1: I was in Gainesville on Saturday, and after the Duke and Pitt losses, it almost seemed like a foregone conclusion the Gators would lose at Tennessee, too.

Result? My Scrabble Theory: Throw every team in the Top 40 in a bag and pull them out randomly, and it would make as much sense as the official polls; the latest experts' poll guess will be released today.

So who's No. 1? Duke? No way. Not after being exposed with a loss to an unranked (if underrated) G'town. Same with Florida (to unranked, underrated Tennessee).

UConn will probably get the nod, winning on the road at No. 15 Louisville, but the best team in the country *right now* could be West Virginia, which won its 12th straight with a victory on the road at No. 16 UCLA.

NFL Job Board
Kubiak to Texans: This hasn't been a fait accompli just since Dom Capers was fired; fans have seen this coming since Gary Kubiak's former coach Dan Reeves was brought in as a consultant late in the season. Here's the upshot: Kubiak had better be creative enough to find a way to get Reggie Bush 15 or more touches a game.

Jauron to Bills: That weeping sound you hear is coming from Buffalo as Bills Nation steels itself for a coaching retread.

Theo Returns
"Theocracy" to "Neo-Theo": I can't wait to hear the explanation this week from Red Sox brass about how it's going to work between the new co-GMs, the *old* GM and his once-bitter rival team prez.

Theo is the out-of-your-league hot girlfriend who dumps you, then agrees to work it out. I don't have the actual stat as to how often this plan ends well, but I'm betting it's not a high percentage.

Sox apologists can attempt to rationalize this as some kind of intended plan, but even before the official announcement of Theo's specific new title, you can already see the shouting matches, hurt feelings, backbiting and ultimate breakup coming.

Cuba in WBC
After all the yapping, the Cubans had better make some noise in the World Baseball Classic (and I'm not just talking about mass defections, although that would be entertaining).

Related: A-Rod hearts U.S. The WBC might as well send the trophy to the engraver to get "Dominican Republic" on there.

A. Davis: Not Sorry
"I was defending my family" means never having to say you're sorry. The circumstances around Antonio Davis' foray into the stands remains murky, but Davis is wrong in his unapologetic defiance. He can acknowledge that his actions were even slightly rash without being a bad husband.

NASCAR Going Green?
Unleaded gas? Japanese cars? What's next for NASCAR: speed limits?

For progressive NASCAR fans, the new developments are welcome -- headlined by Friday's announcement of the switch to unleaded from the gag-the-Earth stuff they use now.

But you can imagine a different reaction from racing purists. Let's imagine a brief conversation between racing purists and one other particular fan:

Purist: I'm choking mad!

Mother Nature: So now you know how I feel.

(As for purists' reactions to NASCAR announcing tomorrow that Japanese car maker Toyota will join the Nextel and Busch series? Won't touch it.)

Steve Smith:
NFL's 2005 breakout star held to 33 receiving yards on a mere 5 catches. Memo to other teams: Double-, triple- and quadruple-teaming him is the way to go!
Today on ESPN.com
Quickie: Live!
Stein on Kobe
Page 2 Index
CBB Power Ranking
Big East sked brutal
Shel-dud Williams?
West Virginia
Best t-e-a-m in CBB
Favorable schedule?
Gets nod over Memphis

Kudos to Seahawks fans: Always fun to see first-time Super Bowl fans; this is an underrated bunch of drought-hards deserving of the spotlight.

Pats promote 29-y.o. O.C.: Based on Belichick Factor (and cachet of youth), Josh McDaniel must already be the hot head coach candidate for '07.

Red Sox trade for Coco Crisp: Fills a need in the OF with a guy with an .800-plus OPS, but wasn't prospect Andy Marte supposed to be the Next Great Thing? He could explode in the middle of that potent Indians lineup.

Bonds hates the idea of batting second. And who could blame him? What kind of foolish manager even suggests that? Where are my SABR folks on this?

Anna Benson Watch: Traded with husband, Kris, to Baltimore. She's close enough to D.C. to become the Queen of the Capitol Hill party scene.

If the NHL ran Ovechkin's did-you-see-that goal as a Super Bowl ad, it would do more for the sport's image than every rule change put together.

Adu Watch: Freddy becomes the youngest player ever to get on the field for the U.S. national soccer team. Get him on the final roster!

Aaaand we're back! Thanks to last week's fill-ins: Brian Murphy, Jeff Merron, Graham Hays, Bomani Jones and Eric Neel.

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