Coach's Corner

My God, can you believe this heat?" These words are spoken, not by a sponged-out Texan but by two Colorado natives leaving a tennis court. The temperature is 82 degrees. It's noon. These strangers didn't seem to appreciate this observation: "If you put together the 10 most perfect days of the year where I'm from," I generously volunteered, "you'd have every day of the summer up here. You people have got to be kidding me." Coloradans are accustomed to loud-mouthed Texans and their unsolicited, if well-meaning, opinions. Still, the elderly couple left the court rather quickly, offering no comment in return.

One person feeling serious heat wears No. 88 for the Dallas Cowboys. I can only imagine the reaction back in Texas to the outcome of the Michael Irvin trial. I'm sure that "I can't believe they let him off," sums up the feelings of many. Did he get off easily? To view this rationally, let's separate personal feelings about lurid details; feelings on his flagrant infidelities; and, most of all, anger about self-important athletes.

Irvin was charged with possession of cocaine. Yes, it's a felony but let's be honest about this: How many of you might be charged with the same thing, tonight, if your luck is bad, or if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time? How many of you have not been guilty? Irvin wasn't selling crack to adolescents at a school yard. He was charged with having a nice stash of recreational drugs. He's a first-time offender. People who want to see the man go to prison are nuts. If you're one, I suggest you examine whatever underlying agenda you have. His sentence was a garden-variety plea bargain on a very minor drug charge. Something done every day, in hundreds of courtrooms across the country. The sentence is fair and reasonable. He didn't get away with anything. He wasn't given any special treatment. He did get "what he deserved."

His true punishment is totally self-inflicted, the frightful damage to his already battered reputation. Irvin, who seems to personify much of the worst in the modern-day athlete, played a stupid game of ultra-high stakes chicken with the legal system. In his unimaginable arrogance, he thought the legal system was just another easily intimidated rookie cornerback. Next, he tried to really intimidate other people involved. When it was crystal-clear that the courtroom in Dallas was most assuredly not a quaking, awed rookie, he cut his losses -- which are enormous -- and went back to the locker room.

Irvin lost, and he lost big time. Had he simply pleaded guilty in the first place, instead of thinking he was Michael Irvin, most would have forgotten this thing. Irvin would be in training camp with yet another blemish -- yawn, yawn -- on his reputation. We wouldn't be privy to the ugly details of his social life, threats to kill witnesses, his drugs of choice, or his taste in strippers. All this maggoty trash came to light, beamed around the world, because of Irvin's supreme haughtiness. No amount of spin control will ever clean up the devastation to the public Michael Irvin. Not a conversion to Christianity, not a trek to the Dali Lama, not daily visits to the local orphanage. Nothing will be the same for Michael Irvin. A belief in his omnipotence, not cocaine, has destroyed Michael Irvin.

Parting Shots: In a related matter of shabbiness, professional sports reached yet another unthinkable low in the midst of the obscene bazaar accompanying the opening of the NBA free agent hunting season. A young player who has accomplished nothing worthwhile in his sport has become wealthy beyond the wildest fantasies of the greediest of potentates. In the process, he's destroyed the well-laid plans of his old team, simultaneously breaking the hearts of the city which idolized and nurtured him and thereby reversing the normal process of a player having a long, distinguished career then moving on to coffee commercials. The player gave nothing back to the city or the game other than a foul stench.

I speak of Shaquille O'Neal. The Magic were considered a dynasty in the making. Sure, they were smoked by the Rockets and the Bulls. This was considered part of the learning process. Their time, surely, would come. With O'Neal's departure to L.A., the Magic have been castrated.

O'Neal left not because he was unappreciated. Not because he was underpaid. Not due to lack of commitment by management to win. No, he left for the most grotesque reason imaginable for a professional athlete. He wanted a lifestyle change. He wants to be closer to the hip-hop scene. He's supposed to be a pro basketball player. Someone whipped and driven relentlessly to win. Someone with a nasty competitive streak, who knows it is championship rings -- like the lines written in his Pepsi commercials -- that define the man.

In a world turned upside down, O'Neal proves himself the antithesis of a professional athlete, a spoiled man-child who wants more toys and, yeah, winning would be nice. A player who will never be a champion. A player worthy not of idolization but of contempt. And the Lakers are now a team I ardently hope falls flat on its face. n

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