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Time to check on what our pro sports folks are up to

Sporting life does not utterly suspend during the fortnight (and change) of the quadrennial Winter Olympics, nor plunge into a deep freeze. It just seems so.

But the NBA will press on with its essentially meaningless regular season. More’s the pity because it’s easily the dreariest in all of professional sport.

The college kiddies will go on and on mindlessly rah-rahing their way through another semester of Big Sport, with the endless tournament season lurking. It will be the customary lights out at the library on at least a hundred of the republic’s more illustrious academic groves almost until Easter beckons. Only in America!  

In what for many is the ultimate annual seminal moment, the long, long truck has rolled out of Kenmore Square loaded with bats, balls, and baby carriages with pitchers, catchers, and the knights of the keyboard and the klieg lights about to report to camp. It’s time to rhapsodize again about spring training, something those who get to partake of it on company-money love to do.

But the voracity of your enterprising Red Sox (among others) in having found ways to squeeze every last dime of profit from every small gesture of the gig – even the bloody truck trip – reduces the once timeless spring training experience to but a shadow of its former charm. You can happily tour crown capitals of Europe for what it costs to grace Fort Myers in the winter. Were he still around, P.T Barnum would be chuckling.

Then there is football, seemingly about to slumber while shaking off another Soupy mega hangover. Don’t be so easily deceived; there’s no rest in this game. The wheels are grinding, having kicked into high gear when the last tavern closed the morning after, right around the time the last commuter train pulled out of Jersey.

The biggest decisions of another multi-billion dollar season concerning the draft, the free agent sweepstakes, and all the usual personnel upheaval now evolve behind heavily locked doors. In football you get none of that flea market circus that baseball so garishly features in driving prices through the roof. In the NFL – the most secretive of the sporting cartels – the moguls know how to keep it quiet. It’s so much better for business.

Nowhere might business be more brisk than in Foxborough where  the fabled Belichick dynasty has reached a big bend along its glory road and Clan Kraft encounters its greatest uncertainty since that memorable off-season when they greased Pete Carroll and successfully schemed to steal Boss Belichick from the Jets to replace him. They were leaner and meaner then.  Do they still have the “right stuff?” We’re about to find out. The urgency is high. It’s officially a team on the slide.

Look at it this way: If the Seahawks are as superior to the Broncos that the walloping they delivered in Soupy suggests, then how much behind the championship curve are the Patriots, who got smacked very nearly as bad by those same Broncos? With Tom Brady on borrowed time, the true test of the much-touted Belichick genius has arrived. Watching it play out will be fascinating.

In graver doubt, however, is where the Celtics are at. As the Olympics intrude, our winter sporting flag-bearers are marching in sharply opposite directions. It’s a distraction the Celtics ought to welcome, but one the Bruins might yet regret.

All those who understand the Celts’ rebuilding game plan or believe it’s on the right track are invited to a skull session inside the Park Square phone booth. There should be enough room. The rest of us will continue to wait and wonder. Maybe if GM Danny Ainge nails a few more second-rounders for Rajan Rondo, the picture will get clearer.

“Tanking” an entire season in order to free-fall your way to a top draft-choice is a very old trick in the NBA. It’s also the very best way to quickly improve in the only team game that can be truly dominated by one guy. The problem is you must fall, connive, scheme, luck, and lose your way all the way to the very top of the draft. In most years there are no more than two chaps coming out who might remotely, let alone instantly, alter the fate of your franchise. As for second round picks – of which Ainge has lately accumulated a bundle – they haven’t had great value since the ‘60s, although every blue moon or so a team catches lightning in a bottle. Might that be their strategy – to catch that lightning, or hit the lottery?

Given their illustrious history and inviolable myth, the Celtics are the last team you’d suspect of “tanking.” But the temptation must be strong. In the course of their recent hideous skid as they were losing an appalling 19 out of 22, I asked a chap I consider high among their shrewdest scholars if he thought Ainge was losing any sleep. “I don’t think so,” the fellow replied with a bit of a snicker.  But he quickly and vigorously emphasized he couldn’t imagine Danny being tempted to tank. Alas they’ve lately won a couple more games, thus imperiling the grand design, whatever it might be.  

If the draft were held as of this writing, the Celtics would pick seventh, a terrible price for such an impressively awful season. But they’re only a game out of fourth-slot and, most encouragingly, just three out of second. There’s no way they can get lousy enough to catch Milwaukee, which has number one locked up. But things are certainly looking up.

As for the Bruins, their wild charge to the Olympic break was brilliant.  They’ve shaken off a brief winter lapse, which was brought about mainly by the near devastating loss of tough-as-nails defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. In their last 11 games, they lost only one outright, garnering 18 of a possible 22 points while widening to a healthy margin their lead over the rest of the Atlantic Division pack led by Tampa and Montreal. The last week they featured without a blink five defensemen who weren’t in the league a year ago. That’s rare in this league.

This is a team that keeps on growing led by a coach in Claude Julien who only gets better and better. They are at last reasonably healthy after being battered much of the season. Deservedly they are ranked in a gaggle of a half-dozen – Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis, Anaheim, San Jose being the others – as the most formidable Stanley Cup aspirants.  It doesn’t get much cheekier at this point of your basic, long, grueling, and bloody thankless NHL regular season. So why in the name of Eddie Shore would you want to take an 18-day break to play a chippy tourney of exhibition blood-matches on the banks of the Black Sea in the shadow of the Caucasus?

The answer is you wouldn’t, given a choice. But they don’t have one. And hockey players, being far and away the most tribal, patriotic, theater-sensitive and tradition-minded of all the professional athletes, would never turn down a gig like this even if they dang well knew they’d be carried off on their shield at the end. And some might be. It would come as no surprise. The Bruins only hope it’s not the fate of any of their five delegates to this extraordinary ice conclave: Brothers Chara, Bergeron, Rask, Krejci, and Ericksson.

With 140 of its best and brightest participating in the Sochi Games, the NHL is paying a tremendous price. But then it has done so remarkably and with no complaint for five Olympiads. No other pro sports league under the sun would fold its tent for three weeks, endangering its labor force and forgoing all profits at its season’s very peak. Can you imagine the NFL donating three weeks in October, or Baseball surrendering most of July? Surely, you jest.

Wish them well and hope dearly that they all come back in one piece, having had a memorable time at Mr. Putin’s merry festival while showing the world how well this great game can be played. Tip your hat to them, too!