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Lance, Taurasi and Pistons win big at ESPYs  

By Eric Neel

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- They taped the 2004 ESPY Awards at the Kodak Theater on Wednesday night. It was a big night for Diana Taurasi, a double winner for Best Female College Athlete and Best Female Athlete, who called her awards "a dream come true," and for Lance Armstrong, the Best Male Athlete winner, who video-taped his thanks from "the middle of France."

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  • The Pistons won big, too: Best Coach for Larry Brown and Best Team for the squad that stunned the Lakers in five games in the NBA Finals. (Click here for the full list of winners.)

    The NBA champs walked the red carpet as a group, and seemed, like they seemed just a few weeks ago in Auburn Hills, like a team of guys who like each other and like playing together. Hugs all around.

    It was good to see.

    The night was full of nice moments. The ESPY Awards always are.

    As awards shows go, this one works. It's tight (two hours), full of goofiness, and it brings together cool cats like Samuel L. Jackson, in his Kangol, and LeBron James in a powder blue suit.

    The athletes and the actors dig this event. The crowd is young and dressed out. (You should have seen Emeka Okafor looking like he stepped off the set of "Guys and Dolls.") Kids are having fun. The scene isn't stale. All over the Kodak Theater, superstar friends are happy for the chance to catch up, shaking hands and telling stories. And fans, some famous themselves, some just regular folks, all excited for the chance to meet or catch a glimpse of someone they admire, are hopping.

    It's a good room, from the red carpet to backstage.

    And it's good TV, too, because highlights, no matter how many times you see them, are pure adrenaline; a shot straight to the heart.

    Pat Tillman flashes on the screen and you experience the loss all over again.

    Diana Taurasi
    Diana Taurasi was a multiple ESPY winner Wednesday night.
    Derek Fisher's .04 shot goes in during the big-screen montage and the rush, of either pain or joy, comes over you just as hard and fast as if it were happening for the first time.

    Justin rips off Janet's "wardrobe" and you feel ... well, you get the point.

    Throw Jamie Foxx doing his best James Brown in the mix and you've got a show.

    Well, throw Jamie plus the well-dressed weirdness of Christina Applegate giving the New England Patriots an award for Best Game in the mix, and you've got a show.

    I mean, it's fun to see the athlete and actors schmoozing and all, but part of the charm of this thing is seeing the freaky award-show marriages like Christina and the Patriots linebacking corps, you know what I'm saying?

    I know that you do. And I know that you love it.

    So, because it might just be too much to wait for the broadcast Sunday night, here are the highlights:

  • If you watch only one portion of the show Sunday night, watch the memorial to Pat Tillman and the tribute to Liberian soccer player George Weah, winner of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.

    Tom Cruise, looking genuinely moved in the moment, said simply of Tillman, "Think of what he did." Indeed.

    Denzel came out and embraced Cruise (Sidebar: Is there a bigger hug in the world of pop culture than a Denzel-Tom Cruise hug? Did the ESPY Awards make history with that hug?), and then introduced us to Weah and his single-handed efforts to lift the spirits of his war-torn home country by funding the national soccer team, and bringing the game to kids in villages all over the country.

    "I want to unify them," Weah said simply. "To bring about peace within ourselves."

    In the sequence, from Cruise's admonition ("think of what he did"), to Weah's faith in his game, sports were simultaneously irrelevant and capable of changing the world.

  • Faith Ford presented the award for Best Moment to Brett Favre's wife and mother. It was weird, because there wasn't an athlete on the stage, but it was great, too.

    Poignant, because his wife Deanna spoke from the heart about Brett's dad and the night Brett played after he'd died, which was truly one of the great moments of the year.

    Tom Brady
    Tom Brady accepts the award for Best Game at the ESPYs.
    And even more poignant when his mother Bonita talked about how father handed courage and determination down to son.

  • The comic highlight of the night: The Jamie-does-James thing was blown out of the water by his Tendy-Pendergrass-inspired serenade of Serena Williams, "I Wanna Be Your Ball," featuring a lounged-out pink tennis ball couch and a discussion of Jamie's, er, "racket."

    You're going to see some of this on TV on Sunday night, but there are moments destined for the cutting room floor, too, including a, shall we say, amorous, rhythmic little dance Jamie did in Serena's lap.

    LeBron, KG, and Tom Cruise were busting up. It was like Showtime at the Apollo ... only with Tom Cruise.

  • This was not, however, the musical highlight of the night. Give that nod to Outkast, who did a horns-and-dancers bit as accompaniment for the end-of-year highlight reel. There was some rump-shakin' and some confetti falling from the ceiling. Felt like New Year's Rockin' Eve ... only with soul.

  • Andy Roddick presented an award for record-breakers to Eric Gagne, which was nice, but he did it while standing up between two women nobody seemed to recognize or know the names of, which was just mysterious. It was like Roddick was Lance slipping on the yellow jersey on the podium. I expected kisses and flowers.

    Gagne, meanwhile, cleaned up the beard for the event, and it should be said that without his shades and scruff, he comes off more like a member of the Barenaked Ladies than a dominant closer striking fear in the hearts of batters. I'm not saying he can't work another streak, I'm just saying some of the mystique is rubbing off on a night like Wednesday night.

  • The big upset (read big mistake) of the night: The Saints' multi-lateral TD play takes down D-Fish's .04 shot? Uh, no. Don't think so. Runner-up in the upset category? "Miracle" outruns "Seabiscuit" for best sports movie of the year. And in a stroke of luck, the entire 1980 US Olympic Hockey team was here to accept the hardware. Nice when these things work out.

  • Gary Payton showed up, which was bold.

    But not as bold as Jamie, reprising his high-shorted coach routine saying, "Get off the stage, GP. 'Glove.' ... You had a whole in that sumbitch, this year, didn't you?!"

    Can I write that? Will it run on TV Sunday night? Doubtful.

    But if it does, know that it ran in place of some other stuff that was even further out.

  • The Pistons players, as I said, were in the house here in L.A., which is only good and right, since they own the Lakers right now (and, reasonably enough, are looking to dump them now that the Big Fella's headed for South Beach). Larry Brown looked good; rested and tan. It was kind of sad to hear him have to keep talking about the Lakers all up and down the red carpet, though.

    And by the way, I think Larry teared up when he said how much he "loves the guys" on his team.

    It was nice, but it wasn't the best LB moment, which came when LeBron went all Olympics on him and said, "We're gonna get it done, Coach. We're gonna get it done."

    The kid has an uncanny nack for saying the right thing, doesn't he?

    And for finding the right man on the break, too.

  • There were montages to announce a lot of the winners this year.

    They were quick. Ten winners in 30 seconds.

    I'm pretty sure Diana Taurasi won Best College Athlete and Kevin Garnett won Best NBA Player. Though I might have that backward.

  • Tina Bosworth won Best Outdoor Sports Athlete. Damn. My money was on Carson Bosworth.

  • And the Manning brothers made the scene, and I'm pretty sure I saw them thumb wrestling during one of the commercial breaks ... but that might have been Eli and a seat-filler.

    At the end of the night, people were talking about Serena's dress (she designed it herself, and she was very economical with the fabric), Jamie's skits (would Payton come looking for him at the after-party?), the good-time Pistons (who were walking around afterward with their ESPY trophies the way first-time winners clutch their Oscars at Sardi's), and how exactly Gail Devers runs so fast with those funky long nails on her fingers.

    I was talking about all that, too, and telling everyone who would listen to me that I met Dr. J and Coach Ken Reeves on the same night.

    Like I said, it's a good room.

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