Sports: Auerbach Passes On, USC Upset

Tony Cox talks with New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden about this week's top sports news: The NBA loses a legend; the USC Trojans lose a football game, and an NFL linebacker lost his position, at least temporarily.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya, and this is NEWS & NOTES.

This week the NBA lost a legend, the USC Trojans lost a football game, and an NFL linebacker lost his position, at least temporarily. Yeah, we're talking sports with NPR's Tony Cox and New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden. They started by talking about the passing of an NBA legend.

TONY COX: Red Auerbach, who was laid to rest this week, I mean he did a lot of stuff, although I don't know of the young people really know his association with bringing African-Americans into the sport in a major way, in terms of Bill Russell as coach and things of that sort. Talk about his legacy.

Mr. WILLIAM C. RHODEN (Columnist, The New York Times): This will a great history lesson. The Celtics were the first team to draft an African-American player - Chuck Tarzan Cooper. You know, Auerbach was the first one to start five black players I mean at a time when it was just unheard of.

COX: And in Boston.

Mr. RHODEN: And in Boston. He would not let business and his desire to win be circumscribed by, you know, by sort of racial mores of the day. And so he had Bill Russell, he had K.C. Jones, you know, Sam Jones. And he said, listen, the five best players are black; I'm going to play them.

And again remember this guy won nine NBA titles with the Celtics as a coach, and he won seven more as a general manager. Nobody is going to do that again.

COX: Yeah, that's true. Let's talk one more second about the NBA before we move on to another topic. The season is underway now. The Chicago Bulls start with a bang, the Lakers kind of start with a little bit of a bang with this new kid who's supposed to replace Shaquille O'Neal. The defending champion Heat get really slapped around on opening night, the night that they got their rings. So who do you like? It's early.

Mr. RHODEN: I like the Knicks.

COX: Oh, come on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: I'm telling the audience right now on November 3rd…

COX: Oh my goodness.

Mr. RHODEN: No, I'm not saying they're gong to win the championship. You said who do I like. I want the Knicks to do well. Because just like when Notre Dame football is doing well, college football is great, when the Knicks and when New York is rocking, I think the NBA is really great.

Because, you know, I mean I'm from Chicago but you associate basketball with New York.

COX: That's true. And they did win in a thrilling triple overtime win…

Mr. RHODEN: That was a great game. But if you look back and you say, well, who do you really think has a legitimate chance of winning the NBA championship. Any team with a healthy Shaquille O'Neal has an opportunity to go all the way. Any team with a healthy Lebron James has a chance to go all the way. And any team with a driven Kobe Bryant, and obviously as long as Tim Duncan is healthy, if Tony Parker is healthy, you know, those are teams that are always going to be in the hunt. And then there's going to always be surprise.

COX: All right. Well, let's move on to college football. You know, I hate to do this to you because I really like and respect you as a sports journalist.

Mr. RHODEN: Here we go.

COX: But you know the said that the USC Trojans were going to play for the national championship and then they go up and get spanked by a 4-3 Oregon team. So now what are you saying about the BCS this week, Mr. Rhoden?

Mr. RHODEN: I don't even remember that conversation. When did we have that conversation? I like Ohio State.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. RHODEN: But no, seriously. You know, USC has been really playing with fire. And you knew that they - ever since they lost to Texas…

COX: Texas, yeah…

Mr. RHODEN: You knew they were not the same kind of dynasty. And to be honest, you know, we talk a lot about USC's dominance, but Ohio State, man, Ohio State. Ever since they beat Texas by 17 points not only have they not lost since then but no opponent has even been closer to them than 21 points.

COX: Are they going to get - is he going to get the Heisman, too? Their quarterback?

Mr. RHODEN: Troy?

COX: Yeah.

Mr. RHODEN: Troy Smith. Listen, man, I mean, you know, everybody talks about Brady Quinn but nobody's playing better in college football than Troy Smith.

COX: Well, listen. Let's keep it at football but let's take it up to the next level of football, the NFL. The Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears still undefeated, but seems it's hard to pick a winner between those two.

Mr. RHODEN: No, Tony, I like the Colts, man. This is a great year for really good teams. Because there's no one dominating team. The one great team, though, is Indianapolis. You look up and down the line, including Chicago, nobody has got a great quarterback except for who? The Colts. Great…

COX: You don't like Tom Brady?

Mr. RHODEN: Tom is a really good quarterback. He's sort of the Bart Starr of this generation. He's a good quarterback with a great system. Peyton Manning is a great quarterback.

COX: But listen, Indianapolis does this every year.

Mr. RHODEN: (Unintelligible)…

COX: They have a great regular season, got the post season and then what happens?

Mr. RHODEN: Yes. But I just think this year that the spirit really is with the Colts. I really do. I think that last year - and, again, on a serious note. I traveled to Indianapolis, I mean I traveled to Florida for Tony Dungy's son's funeral just out of the respect I have for Tony.

And, you know, involvement with death, man, really, it affects you in ways you don't know. I think it affected him; it affected the team. But this year, man, I just think that the spirit's going to be with him.

Now I just think they're going to play for the championship. I don't know if they're going to win it, but I think they're going to be there.

COX: All right. Obviously you were referring to Tony Dungy, the coach of the Indianapolis Colts whose son died tragically last year.

Mr. RHODEN: Right.

COX: Bill, I want to thank you. We ran out of time, though.

Mr. RHODEN: That's it?

COX: That's it.

Mr. RHODEN: Listen, man, you know, what do they say? Good things happen quick. I don't know if that's what they say. All right. Thank you very much, Tony.

COX: See you later.

Mr. RHODEN: Take care.

CHIDEYA: That was NPR's Tony Cox with New York Times sports columnist William C. Rhoden.

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