Sports This Week: Manny Ramirez, Yao Ming

Host Scott Simon talks with Weekend Edition sports guy Howard Bryant about the return of baseball's Manny Ramirez and the future of NBA star Yao Ming.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Now we go to our sports man, Howard Bryant. Howard, thanks very much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT: My pleasure, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: I'm just fine, thank you. And Manny Ramirez is back. Of course he returned, played for the Los Angeles Dodgers last night after being suspended for 50 games for using banned drugs. He was very popular in the minors, I loved reading those accounts. And what about the reaction in the Big Leagues?

BRYANT: The Big League reaction will be very similar. He's - right before Manny Ramirez got suspended, the Dodgers had a promotion called Mannywood, so he's - it's a testament to how popular he was.

One thing that we do find out over the course of these last 12 or 13 years of the so-called steroid era is that steroids are always the other guy's problem, it's always the other team, it's always the other guy, the opponent. And for the home team it's a problem for about 20 seconds, after the news breaks. We saw it in San Francisco with Barry Bonds when the partisans in San Francisco were very, very pro-Bonds. They never turned on their hero. And the same is true for Manny, because he can help them win. So you always know that the home team is going to back their guy. And let's face it, the Dodgers were a hot team in first place before this, they maintained their lead, they're a very, very good team now, and Manny Ramirez makes them an even better team.

So I don't think you're going to see anything but flowers and kisses and everything else for Manny Ramirez out of left field.

SIMON: As you have heard, the Dodgers, you know, certainly maintained their pace while he was gone. Does his return make them unbeatable?

BRYANT: No one's unbeatable. I still think the Phillies are the best team. They are the champs, after all, and they are the champs until someone beats them. I still think that the Dodgers, I'm not sure they pitch well enough or hit enough in a short series. I think they're very much good enough now to beat a very weak division, even though the Giants are playing better, the Giants are well over .500 right now. But I think that the Dodgers - the Dodgers can be had, because everybody can be had in baseball, but I still think the Phillies are the best team in the National League.

SIMON: I want to ask you about Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets. Apparently that foot injury he suffered during the playoffs is serious to the point it could end his career. What happened? What's the impact of this injury?

BRYANT: Well, it's the peculiar thing about (unintelligible) I remember back in the early '90s when Bo Jackson got hurt and you watched the injury and it didn't seem like it was that big a deal and it pretty much ended his football career. And when he got hurt in the playoffs against the Lakers, the injury went from day to day to quickly that he was out and then surgery, and now out for the season, and now possibly his career is over.

He is one of the biggest marketing engines in the NBA, especially as they try to grow the game internationally. He's the face of basketball in China, he is certainly, in terms of jersey sales and everything else, he is a giant, no pun intended, and he - and it would be also a tragedy as well for a player 29 years old to have to lose his career due to injury.

So it's going to be very interesting to see what happens with him.

SIMON: And while we're on basketball, Phil Jackson said yesterday that he is good to go, his health is fine, he'll return to coach the world champion L.A. Lakers again next year. Of course Coach Jackson with his tenth championship this year, surpassing the mark that Red Auerbach set with the Boston Celtics. This raises one of the great Talmudic questions of basketball, Howard. Is Phil Jackson the greatest pro coach of all time, or is he just the luckiest because he inherited teams with Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Kobe Bryant?

BRYANT: Well, I think he's a little bit of both. And I don't - I'll leave that to the Phil Jackson partisans and the Phil Jackson detractors to make that determination. But you cannot argue the fact that Phil Jackson has had the greatest players of his era, not just one of them, pretty much all of them. He's got Kobe, Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, and Shaq. That's a pretty good hand I'd like to be playing with over there.

SIMON: Steve Kerr too, okay? Steve Kerr, I want to point out.

BRYANT: But you know, as much as people like to say that, there have been a lot of coaches who have had very, very talented players who never won anything, and a lot of coaches who have had very, very talented players who didn't win perhaps as much as they should have. So I give Phil Jackson all the credit that he deserves, because you still have to get those guys to play, especially in the NBA. This is not football, where contracts aren't guaranteed and management still has a bit of power. In the NBA, contracts are 100 percent guaranteed; very, very few coaches have any sort of control over the players. The players run that league.

So for him, for the Zen master to find a way to get players, to motivate them and to get them to play I still think is - it's quite an achievement.

SIMON: Howard Bryant, senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, thanks so much.

BRYANT: My pleasure.

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