Two- And Four-Legged Athletes In The Sports Spotlight

NPR's Scott Simon and sports correspondent Tom Goldman discuss the prospects for a Triple Crown win at the Belmont Stake and look back at an NBA game played with no air conditioning.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Finally, time for sports.

Ah, oh, leg cramp - got to limp out of the studio - just a little LeBron James joke. We'll get to the NBA Finals, but first, the sports story of the weekend is that superb athlete on four legs named California Chrome - try to become the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years at Belmont Park later today. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us. Thanks for being with us, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Yeah, take a salt pill and get back in the studio, Simon.

SIMON: Well, we'll get to that question about LeBron in the NBA finals but first, the Belmont. The longest leg - end of a five-week spell of racing. Has anyone ever thought about spreading out the time between the Triple Crown races to give more horses a chance - maybe give the sport a jolt of popularity?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, in fact, Tom Chuckas, the president of the Maryland Jockey Club, has floated the idea recently of having the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May, as it is now, then the Preakness the first Saturday in June and the Belmont on the first Saturday in July - maybe a July fourth extravaganza. The advantage is, in theory, better races because more good horses would compete since there'd be ample time to recover after each one. Only three horses, Scott, that ran in the Kentucky Derby, including California Chrome, ran in the Preakness. And yeah, more time between races could keep horseracing in the public eye longer, and potentially it would be better for the horses' health.

SIMON: Yeah, but it may not be the Triple Crown - but - at least anymore. But let me get to the NBA playoffs, okay?

GOLDMAN: OK.

SIMON: A sweaty game on Thursday. The Heat, who wilted a bit at the San Antonio Spurs - the air-conditioning broke in the amphitheater. LeBron James came up lame. Is he getting a lot of - look, best basketball player in the world at the moment - is he getting unfair carping from people who think that he should have played?

GOLDMAN: You think? You know, there's lots of LeBron bashing, which still seems to be a favorite pastime for many sports fans, unfortunately.

SIMON: Yeah. Cleveland can do it, but what about the rest of the world?

GOLDMAN: Right, yeah, yeah. You know, one of the more ironic, negative tweets while James was suffering on the Heat bench came from pro football player Jonathan Martin. You'll remember he was ridiculed in some quarters for leaving the Miami Dolphins last season because he said he was bullied. And he tweeted about LeBron - come on, drink a Gatorade and get out there. Well, you know, LeBron couldn't have gotten out there. It wasn't like Michael Jordan playing with the flu and the high fever in that famous game. Jordan was weakened but his legs could still work.

SIMON: Well, you know, and - a handy note from Michael Jordan. Let me ask about those fabulous San Antonio Spurs 'cause a guy could make the argument that since MJ retired, the Spurs - not the LA Lakers, not the Miami Heat - at least so far, have been the preeminent franchise in big-time basketball.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, definitely. And how have they done that? You know, the short answer - popping Timmy - head coach, Gregg Popovich, all-star power forward, Tim Duncan. Just as Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, Scott, have been the foundation of the New England Patriots' dynasty in the NFL, Duncan has been such an exceptional anchor for the team. And the Spurs have surrounded him with exceptional players who buy into a system of basketball that Popovich has perfected over the years. Since those two have been together - and they teamed up in 1997 - the Spurs have won at least 50 games each regular season. They've gotten to the playoffs each year. They've won four titles and now are three wins away from a fifth. That's just remarkable consistency.

SIMON: Tom, World Cup will begin soon. Team USA has got to play Ghana, Portugal and Germany - three tough teams. How does the US look?

GOLDMAN: So, so right now. The US has played two pre-World Cup friendlys, as they're called. They've won both games, but not exactly inspired play on their part. Today, they have a final warm-up game against Nigeria, one of the 32 teams heading to Brazil for the World Cup. So, it'll be a tougher test. And it's an important game for US forward Jozi Altidore. He's been playing well but he is in a whopper of a goal-scoring slump. He hasn't scored in competition since late last year. It would be great for him to break out tonight before Brazil to give him a shot of confidence because if the US has any chance of success in Brazil is going to be important for Altidore to put the ball in the net.

SIMON: NPR's Tom Goldman, thanks so much.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

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