Sports: Playoffs, Hard Hits, Soccer Kicks

Host Scott Simon talks to ESPN's Howard Bryant about the NBA playoffs, Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper's collision with a wall, and David Beckham's retirement from soccer.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And finally, we get to sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC)

SIMON: The Memphis Grizzlies make their first ever trip to the NBA Conference Finals after eking out a victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder, while LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest lead the Miami Heat to the Eastern Conference matchups. Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals slams into a wall and it's a draw. But could his truly breathtaking style shorten his career? And David Beckham, hanging up his cleats - err - boots, as they're called in Britain.

Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN, the Magazine joins us from the studios of New England Public Radio. Morning, Howard.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Scott. That's a full plate. We have a lot to talk about.

SIMON: Well, let's begin with Memphis. They deserve it. They're the Cinderella team this year, aren't they? Their first Western Conference Final ever. How'd they do it?

BRYANT: Well, they are the Cinderella, but then again, I don't think they are simply because they're a good team. They're a really good team and they've been a good team for a couple of years now. And let's not forget, they crushed the Spurs a couple of years ago in the playoffs, and I have been saying over and over again that I don't see - and we've been talking about this since late October when the season started - that I don't see anybody beating Miami four times.

I think they're going to win the championship. I think they're going to win it fairly easily. However, if there is one team that I do think matches up with them to give them real problems, it would be Memphis. I think that's the matchup that I'm looking for. I like San Antonio. I think San Antonio's a great team, heart - champions. Tim Duncan, hall of famer, Ginobili, Parker hall of famers, but Memphis/Miami, I think, would be the best finals matchup.

SIMON: Bryce Harper might be the most exciting young player in baseball. I was in Omaha a few weeks ago and I saw kids in Omaha wearing Bryce Harper jerseys, but did you see him run into the outfield wall, shake his head, get up and think of other great players in the past who...

BRYANT: Yeah, get those 11 stitches and made him look like he was in a horror movie? I mean, yeah. It looked like a slasher movie. He's one of those guys who will - what was the old think they used to say about Pete Rose? He'd run through hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball. He's one of those guys and doesn't quite know how to slow it down.

Larry Bird was the same way. Remember back in the mid-1970s, the Red Sox put padding out there in Fenway Park because Fred Lynn kept running into walls, and he was too valuable. This is the balance that he's going to have to learn because the league wants him to be the face of baseball. The Nationals want him to be their superstar for years to come. That's not going to happen if you keep running head first into concrete structures. It's just not going to work.

But I think it's one of those things that you learn as you become more of a veteran player, to kind of get that hand out there when you see the ball, when you're starting to get really close to the end of the real estate. But if you take that away from him, then you're asking him to be a different player and I think that's the one thing that the Nationals and baseball fans don't want. You want a guy - we all talk about wanting athletes to give everything they've got. Well, Bryce Harper certainly does that.

SIMON: The most famous athlete in the world announces retirement this week and I will wager most Americans wouldn't recognize him with his clothes on, which is to say, the famous underwear model, David Beckham. So after ManU, Real Madrid, Team England and the L.A. Galaxy, what's he meant to sports - and more than sports?

BRYANT: Well, I think it's been great. You don't have to be the best player to be the most important player. And David Beckham was probably never the best, in fact, definitely never the best soccer player in the world. However, if you're going to be an icon, if you're going to get people interested in the sport, which is really what it's all about, you've got to have that crossover charisma.

He was the guy. He would appear in fashion magazines and in billboards in his underwear, but also he was a very, very good player. And I think that you have to have that combination. Like we say, it's not - you know, the movie is "Bend It Like Beckham." It's not bend it like Wayne Rooney.

And it's because of his cultural - his cache. He crossed over, he made people interested in him because of his good looks and because of his talent, and he's going to be missed. He's a great, great ambassador for the game.

SIMON: Yeah. Thirty seconds we have left; four of the NHL's original six teams are still in the playoffs. This is a big deal, isn't it?

BRYANT: It is. And you've got Sidney Crosby. The NHL has exactly what they want right now. You've got Sidney Crosby. You've three of the last defending champs going because the Kings are still alive and you've got original six teams - Bruins, Rangers, Blackhawks, Red Wings. It's terrific. And I would like to see a Blackhawks/Bruins Stanley Cup.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. We can't be friends through that, though. At least at the end of it. After the second game...

BRYANT: And then Red Sox/Cubs, right?

SIMON: Oh, well, let's dream. Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN, the Magazine. Thanks so much, Howard.

BRYANT: My pleasure.

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