Basketball Stars On The Holiday Weekend

All NBA fans wanted for Christmas was basketball, and they got it with five nationally-televised games, including one between the game's pre-eminent stars Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. NPR's Tom Goldman joins host Scott Simon to talk hoops and the waning days of a sports decade.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Time for sports.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And a big fat Christmas goose for NBA fans, not a turkey. Five nationally televised games, including one between the game's - the game's pre-eminent stars, Kobe Bryant and Lebron James. All right, their teams played too.

NPR's Tom Goldman joins us now. Tom, morning, thanks for being with us.

TOM GOLDMAN: Hi, Scott. How are you?

SIMON: I'm fine, thank you. Let's talk firstly about the LA Lakers versus the Cleveland Cavaliers, because it must be said, Cleveland rocked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: They certainly did. And, you know, Kobe and Lebron had their moments against each other too. Kobe scored 35, Lebron 26, but what did stand out was how in sync the Cavs were, Scott. You know, they had a rocky start to the season as they try to ingrate new players. Primarily their hulking center, Shaquille O'Neal. But yesterday they seem to have worked out the kinks. Cleveland's big man held LA's big man to a combined 21 points and the Cavs' reserves outscored the Lakers' bench 31-17.

It was real team effort. And an important moment for the Cavaliers. It's only late December, but for these good teams, they like to see - you know, kind of measure how they are doing against the other good teams. Cleveland came out very well.

SIMON: And I'm wondering, because late in the game, I guess some Laker fans - they were at the game, I assume they are Laker fans - began to throw stuff out onto the court. Is that because for I pay for these seasons tickets, you guys should give me a little more than this?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GOLDMAN: Well, technically they were�

SIMON: (Unintelligible)

GOLDMAN: Right, right. They were upset with some technical fouls. But, you know, give the LA fans credit. They never get credit for having a pulse, you know. It's like they show up to the games late, that's the traditional knock on LA fans. But they showed some moxie yesterday in throwing things, although throwing water bottles wasn't really cool. But you know, Philadelphia fans would have been proud, Scott, and of course Philadelphia listeners can address their complaints to you.

SIMON: Yes, and of course Philadelphia fans would hardly throw water bottles, would they?

GOLDMAN: No, of course not.

SIMON: You know, glass stuff. Let me ask you about the Portland Trail Blazers.

GOLDMAN: Please do.

SIMON: Because they showed us something, yeah.

GOLDMAN: Yeah, hate to sound a little parochial, that's where I'm based in Portland. But they showed us how - they are showing us how to do more with less. The Blazers have become a national story with an unprecedented string of major injuries to key players, including both centers on the roster, Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, they're out for the season with knee injuries. It's gotten so bad, Scott, that the NBA granted Portland what's called a hardship exception; that allows the team to sign extra players on a short term basis.

And how have they responded? They've beaten four good teams in the last week: Miami, Dallas, San Antonio and yesterday the division leading Denver Nuggets. You know, coming into this season, Portland was perhaps the deepest team in the NBA and it was a struggle for the coach to figure out how to give everyone playing time, not to bruise egos in the process. And now the team doesn't have the luxury of lots of players and it's almost a better situation. The roles are more clearly defined, the bench players are getting lots of playing time and making the most of it. Whether they can continue, that's the big question.

SIMON: Tom, we have a minute and a half left. Summarize for us the entire decade in sports if you could�

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: �as we are about to begin 2010. I'm starting the clock now, go ahead.

GOLDMAN: Two words: Tiger Woods. He started - Tiger Woods started our decade in dramatic fashion in the year 2000 with a phenomenal year that kind of set the table for the rest of the decade. And then at the end, as we all know, this scandal, it's been off the front pages for a while, but it still is such a precipitous fall. It's the fall of the athlete of the decade. And you know, Scott, it's disrupted our equilibrium as sports fans. The 2000s was partly a decade of sports disappointment brought on largely by performance-enhancing drugs. It made us weary of outstanding performances.

SIMON: Yeah.

GOLDMAN: With Tiger, his game, his unparalleled athletic feats, as far as we know, those are unquestionably real. This is about him as a person. And it's really a watershed moment in the evolution of sports and entertainment. You know, we're reacting to him as a person and this precipitous drop, and you know, we just kind of don't know what to do with this.

SIMON: Sports figures have become such - at least we - well known personalities, at least we think we know their personality. And that may just be their game face.

GOLDMAN: Exactly. And you know, and what we think now is - what do we do? Do we stop admiring these guys, you know, as people - do we just admire them for what they do in the playing field? That's hard to do. If someone does something well and they - you know, we like them. And if they smile and look in the camera and are funny and personable, that's hard to resist. So these are some issues that sport fans are going to have to deal with going forward.

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

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

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