February 10, 2006
Oswald the Lucky Rabbit:
The new Olympic mascot? Nah, it's the pre-Mickey cartoon character invented by Walt Disney that NBC threw into the trade for Al Michaels.
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:

Who will be the next Sarah Hughes? I'm not sure there will be another Sarah Hughes -- she wasn't on any of the pre-Olympic hype lists that tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. Maybe that's what made her such a great story: No one saw her coming.

On the other hand, the start of the 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Torino seems to have a never-ending supply of pre-approved candidates to be America's Olympic hero.

For Athens, I created the "Wheaties Watch" -- a framework for tracking Olympic stars; their success was defined by their chances of being the next great athlete to appear on a box of Wheaties (still among the most significant cultural accomplishments for a sports star).

So, heading into tonight's Opening Ceremony -- and the first weekend of action -- how do I rank the top contenders for 2006?

1. Michelle Kwan: She already has the endorsements. If only getting the gold was as easy. If she wins it, then she's a lock. But her winning is NO lock.

2. Shaun White: Dude, the kids love the snowboarding! He's got the look (flaming red hair) and the X Games street cred.

3. Bode Miller: His maverick story is to Olympic hype what Bettis' homecoming was to the Super Bowl. After all the talk, he better win big.

4. Chad Hedrick: Nothing speaks for itself like a neck draped in gold. Speed skater could win up to 5. It's the "Heiden maneuver!"

5. The Curling Girls: Don't laugh. Medals are nice, but these women might comprise the hottest team in U.S. Winter OLY history.

(Also receiving votes: Speed skaters Apolo Anton Ohno and Shani Davis, snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, freestyle skiers Jeremy Bloom and Hannah Kearney, bobsledder Vonetta Flowers, skater Sasha Cohen.)

Check back on Monday for the first update to the "Wheaties Watch," and follow along all Olympics long!

Olympic Scandal?
When you're not being spun by feel-good Olympic story angles about athletes on the verge of stardom, it's important to keep in mind some of the more newsworthy story lines, in no particular order:

*Drug scandals!
*Gambling scandals!
*Judging scandals!
*Security scandals!
*Anti-globalization scandals!

And the ol' Olympic standby:
"Does anyone really care about these sports?"

(For the best roundup of Torino story lines, check out Eric Adelson's preview.)

Gretzky's Hot Seat
Caught on tape! Those might be the three most damning words in scandal-watching.

However, short of Gretzky caught saying, "Put a dime on the Wings for me," there's no evidence to contradict his claim: "I did nothing wrong."

The only thing the tape reportedly confirms is that Gretzky will be tainted by guilt by association: To alleged ringleader Rick Tocchet and to alleged participant Janet Jones, his wife.

But tainted to what extent? Unless there's evidence he gambled on hockey, I'd argue Gretzky is Teflon; the NHL's equivalent of Michael Jordan.

Pitt: Using banging defense, hang 1st Big East loss on WVA
Luke Donald: Matches course record (62) at Spyglass Hill
Art Shell: Ex-Raiders coach new front-runner for the job?
Kevin Pittsnogle: West VA star held scoreless at Pitt
Anaheim: Loses court battle with Angels: "L.A." is OK!
Coyotes: Team preoccupied? Check the scoreboard: Lose 5-1
The rest of the people involved? Their reps are going to hell in a hand basket. They have no counterweight of goodwill to apply.

But despite sensationalism and outrage, do fans even care about athletes gambling on sports (presumably, not their own)? In an ESPN.com poll, only 5 percent said it was their biggest concern in sports.

Throwing games? Absolutely. Drugs? Sure, that's cheating. Bad officiating? Why not? That has an outcome on the games, too. But even if Gretzky did bet on sports, I'm not sure fans will hold it against him. And presuming he didn't, with no evidence to the contrary, he'll eventually glide past the scandal.

Mavs Rout Heat
Old-fashioned Texas beat-down is how Shaq described it, but the Mavs' 112-76 win over the Heat last night might prove to be the red-letter moment establishing the Mavs as legit.

Dallas has won 13 straight, but they've won plenty of games in recent years. It's how they're winning: -- with defense. Holding the Heat to 76 points (forcing 19 turnovers) was the best effort yet in a 13-game win streak, in which they have held opponents to under 100 points.

Correlation between defense and winning? For the Mavs, who focused so myopically on offense in recent years, that's a breakthrough insight.

To summarize the season: The best team in the East (Detroit) injected offense to go with existing D; the best team in the West (Dallas) injected defense to go with existing O. Unsurprisingly, balance is a key to being elite.

NBA All-Star Reserves
Final Pistons count? 4: Rip, Billups, Sheed and Big Ben. Excessive? Undoubtedly. It's an insult to the concept of "All-Star Game."

As I argued Thursday, the ASG is about individual brilliance, not the team. If you want team, go watch the NBA Finals. I want my Gilbert Arenas! (The other East reserves: Pierce, Carter and first-timer Bosh. No arguments: Stars, all.)

The West includes no-brainers KG, Dirk, Brand and Marion, plus Gasol, Parker and Allen. It's a shame that the surprising Hornets and their breakthrough rookie PG Chris Paul weren't rewarded with his selection. (More snubs: Division-leading Nuggets shut out? Neither Camby nor Melo?)

(It's not too late for the NBA to make it right about Arenas: Injured Jermaine O'Neal will likely have to be replaced, and Arenas should get the call. If anyone jokingly says, "Tayshaun Prince," there's a beat-down coming.)

NFL Pro Bowl
No one, on the other hand, is ever going to argue about Pro Bowl snubs. Too many players opt out, leaving room for anyone even remotely worthy to head to Hawaii for a week of trying not to suffer a career-ending injury.

As usual, the player to watch is QB Peyton Manning, who usually manages to inspire at least one "Well, where was that three weeks ago?" comment. (Sunday, 6 p.m. ET, ESPN)

From the Novelty File
National Hairy League? The Canadiens announced yesterday that goalie Jose Theodore had previously tested positive for a banned substance: Hair-growth treatment. In a sport rife with who-knows-what, Propecia is banned? Theodore had already gotten an exemption to use it.

If you're weary of the NHL: Lambeau Field will be converted into a hockey stadium for Saturday's Frozen Tundra Classic between Wisconsin and Ohio State, part of the cool new trend to host outdoor hockey. Bundle up: Temps supposed to be in the 20s.

Sneaker Watch: Kobe
If there's a pop culture qualifier to a sports star's mainstream appeal, it's having a signature shoe deal. Obviously, Jordan is the ultimate. AI has carried Reebok. It was a significant sign of Dwyane Wade's star status that he launched a Converse shoe last fall.

But the launch of Kobe Bryant's new Nike shoe on Saturday is a unique situation, worth watching closely: Here's a player whose marketing appeal all but eroded two years ago, but -- certainly thanks to his January -- has resuscitated himself as the No. 1 must-see player in the NBA, the idol of every rec-league gunner (cough!) who never met a shot me he didn't like.

So here's the money question: Does his renewed appeal translate into shoe sales? "Be like Kobe" used to be a punch line; now kids are lacing his shoes up to chuck up 46 shots and try to top 81 points. There's buzz about the shoes on sneaker-fan Web sites, and his new TV ad launched last night (the basic premise: "He Hate Me.") But keep your eye on the sidewalk over the next week to see whether they catch on quickly.

Oakland Raiders:
NFL's leper colony? Spurned by Steelers assistant Ken Whisenhunt (staying with PIT) and Louisville coach Bobby Petrino (staying at UL). Just say no, baby.
Today on ESPN.com
Quickie: Live!
Forde on WVU
Page 2 Index
Which Olympic sports would fans most like to try? (via SN)
Bobsled (42 pct)
Seems fun, doesn't it?
Luge (17.6)
Like sledding at 80 mph
Ski jumping (15.3)
You've got to be insane
Curling (14.5)
Now THAT is a shocker
Skeleton (9.9)
Luge without the help?

Texans fans hoping that the team drafts Vince Young will be disappointed: Houston exercised an $8 mil option to keep David Carr through '08.

Olympic scandal begins: 8 cross-country skiers given "health suspensions" for 5 days for failing blood tests. Skiers will still make most events.

College football will implement a formal instant-replay policy across the sport next season. Best innovation: An NFL-style "coach's challenge."

Women's CBB rules I: LSU handed Tennessee the Lady Vols' first loss in a league game since Georgia in 1996. The Lady Tigers became the first SEC team to win at Tennessee in nearly 10 years. P.O.Y. Seimone Augustus had 35.

Women's CBB rules II: The last unbeaten team in Division 1 (men or women) lost when top-ranked UNC was shocked at home by Maryland. Parity!

CBB Game of the Weekend: Duke at Maryland. JJ Redick's final trip to College Park. If you're watching with kids, one word of advice: "Earmuffs!"

Sponsored Links