Archive | December, 2016

Black Girl Magic, LeBron James, Deaths of Sports Icons Defined 2016 Sports Year

30 Dec
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Simon Biles won gold medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

The Last Hurrah for Ryan Howard and Bernard Hopkins, LeBron James-Male Athlete of the Year 

By Chris Murray                                                                                                                 

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

If there’s one thing that everyone can agree on about 2016, it was a year where the one constant was death.

While the pop culture world got hit the hardest with the losses of such icons as Prince and David Bowie, the Sporting World got knocked around a bit as well. We lost boxing icon

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Muhammad Ali Shook up the world with his stunning upset of Sonny Liston in 1964. His death in 2016 highlighted was the most visible in  year when a number icons in sports and entertainment passed away.

Muhammad Ali this year. The General of Arnie’s Army, golf legend Arnold Palmer, also left us. So did basketball coach extraordinaire Pat Summit and former Philadelphia Eagles coach Buddy Ryan.

Even sports media felt the sting with the losses of John Saunders, host of ESPN’s “The Sports Reporters” and Craig Sager, easily the most colorful man in the NBA.

Although we’re still in mourning over the loss of these shining stars, and cherishing the memories of their brilliance, the Sporting World gave us more than a few reasons to cheer in 2016. It was an up year for some and a down year for others, but one thing it wasn’t was boring.

Here’s a look at 2016 in Sports…

One Last Hurrah for the Big Piece: Ryan Howard

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Ryan Howard played his last season in a Phillies uniform in 2016. Photo by Webster Riddick.

This year, we said goodbye to a man who played a big part in breaking Philadelphia’s longtime championship drought, Phillies first baseman Ryan Howard.

Because 2016 marked the end of his contract, Howard will be a free agent and will most likely leave the team that he led with his bat from 2005 to 2016.

During his tenure with the Phillies, Howard’s ability to hit towering home runs and drive in runs helped lead the team to the 2008 World Series title, two National League pennants, and five consecutive National League East titles.  Howard was the Most Valuable Player of the 2009 National League Championship Series and was also winner of the National League Rookie of the Year, and National League MVP awards.

Unfortunately, a combination of age, injuries and a team in rebuilding mode mandated that Howard and the Phillies part ways. Howard will most likely play for someone else and while it’s a shame that he won’t be allowed to retire here, Phillies fans will always appreciate the Glory Days he brought to the franchise.

The Year of Black Girl Magic

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Claire Smith is the first woman to receive the Baseball Hall of Fame’s A.G. Spink Award and will be honored during in Hall of Fame weekend in July. Photo courtesy ESPN.com

In December, former Philadelphia Inquirer baseball columnist Claire Smith became the first woman to win the prestigious J.G. Taylor Spink Award from Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. She was honored for her pioneering work, which included paving the way for women to enter MLB locker rooms to do interviews, just like their male counterparts.

That Smith received the award this year makes perfect sense because 2016 was the year that the Sporting World was hit with all kinds of Black Girl Magic.

Black female athletes from Africa and the African Diaspora (which includes the United States and the Caribbean), served notice to the world that they were a force to be reckoned with, most prominently during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.

There, Black women excelled in everything. And I do mean everything.

Gymnast Simone Biles was named the Associated Press’s Female Athlete of the Year.

If you watched one minute of her gymnastic performances during the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, the reason she won this award became obvious.

The diminutive Texan was the darling of the games, leading the Final Five—Biles, Laurie Hernandez, Madison Kocian, Aly Reisman, and 2012 Individual all-around Gold Medalist Gabby Douglas—to a team Gold Medal and also winning three individual gold medals including the individual all-around. Biles stunning performances in the floor exercise dazzled audiences around the world and her grace and athleticism were definitely a joy to watch.

But while she responsible for a nice chunk of the Black Girl Magic on display in Rio, Biles was only the beginning. Black women also showed that they could excel in places they’re not normally associated with like the swimming pool and fencing ring.

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Simone Manuel became the first Black American woman to win a gold medal in swimming at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro,

Stanford University’s Simone Manuel became the first Black woman to win a gold medal in swimming when she tied with Canada’s Penny Oleksiak to win the 100-meter freestyle, setting Olympic and American records in the process. She also helped the 4X100 meter medley relay team take home a gold medal and won silver medals in the 50-meter freestyle and the 4X100 meter freestyle relay.

Elsewhere in the water, Ashleigh Johnson, the first Black woman to make the U.S. Water Polo team, helped lead the team to a gold medal. In the gold medal game against Italy, Johnson, the team’s goalie, had eight saves.

Ibtihaj Muhammad made news when she competed with the U.S. Sabre Fencing team while wearing the hijab of her Muslim faith. The team took home a bronze medal and Muhammad’s performance showed that you can be an observant Muslim and an athlete simultaneously.

But while Black women in non-traditional sports took center stage, that didn’t mean that Black women didn’t continue to excel in places where they’ve traditionally ruled, such as in track and field. Led by the United States, the Bahamas, Colombia, Jamaica and the African continent, Black women won gold medals in all but three track and field events at the Olympics.

From Michelle Carter’s gold in the shot put to Brianna Rollins, Kristi Castlin and Philadelphia’s own Nia Ali sweeping the 100-meter hurdles to the exploits of the Jamaican track team, Black women showed, to paraphrase Emmy-award winning actress Viola Davis, that all that’s needed for them to excel is opportunity. They made the most of it…and then some.

All Hail The King (James)

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Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James, center, celebrates with teammates after Game 7 of basketball’s NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., Sunday, June 19, 2016. The Cavaliers won 93-89. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

With the Cleveland Cavaliers went down 3-1 in the NBA Finals to the defending champion Golden State Warriors, LeBron James put his Cleveland Cavaliers on his back and helped them win three-straight elimination games to give the City of Cleveland its first pro sports title since 1964.

James, the Associated Press’s Male Athlete of the Year, became the Finals Most Valuable Player by performing the historical feat of leading in scoring, rebounding, steals, blocked shots, and assists. What makes this feat even more remarkable is that it’s something that neither Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson nor the athlete James compared to most often, Michael Jordan, was able to do.

They’re all Hall of Famers. This year, his achievements put LeBron James in the same rarefied air.

No Joy In Mudville

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Can Ben Simmons lead the 76ers back to glory? He was the Sixers No. 1 draft pick in 2016.

Because the Philadelphia Eagles, the Phillies, the 76ers, and the Philadelphia Flyers are all in some form of rebuilding mode, the closest that Philadelphia sports fans got to the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and the Stanley Cup was the couch in front of their television sets.

While the Eagles, who will miss the NFL playoffs for the third straight year, made some noise when rookie Carson Wentz went undefeated in his first three starts, they came back to earth with a deafening thud after the bye week. Coming into the season finale against the Dallas Cowboys, Wentz has completed 62 percent of his passes for 3, 537 yards with 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions.

The Sixers also gave their fans hope by picking LSU’s Ben Simmons with their first-round lottery pick. The good news is, Simmons can handle and pass the ball like Magic Johnson.

The bad news is, and this should be no surprise to Sixers fans, he’s injured. And as if often is in Sixers World, it’s a foot injury.

But there is some hope for optimism now that Joel Embiid has finally recovered from his foot injury and has emerged as the team’s best big man.

Villanova Wins the National Championship, Penn Wins Ivy League Crown, Penn State Temple Football Bowl Bound Again

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Villanova won its first national championship since 1985 with a buzzer-beater win over North Carolina.

In one of the most exciting games in the history of the NCAA Tournament, the Villanova Wildcats won the men’s basketball national championship on a last-second three-point shot by Kris Jenkins.  It was probably the greatest championship game of all time and they were honored by the city with a parade down Broad Street. Although I know one Philly sports fan who thinks that parade should have gone to an actual Philly team, but the Wildcats do play some of  their games at the Wells Fargo Center and they were embraced by the entire Delaware Valley during their run to the title.

Like, for example the University of Pennsylvania Quakers and the Temple University Owls.

For the second straight season, the Quakers won a share of the Ivy League football title. They became league co-champs with Princeton by defeating Cornell University 42-40. Junior running back Tre Solomon gained 173 yards to lead the 7-3 (6-1 in the Ivy League) Quakers.

The Owls proved that the team’s 2015 football season was no fluke by winning the American Athletic Conference championship with a 34-10 win over Navy and notching it’s second straight 10-win season. The effort was enough to get head coach Matt Rhule noticed by the Big 12’s Baylor University, and he left to try and salvage a program that’s been in the news for all the wrong reasons over the last couple of years. The Owls also lost the Military Bowl to Wake Forest when the comeback they were mounting fell short.

But this doesn’t take anything away from an outstanding year for the Owls. If anything, it gives new Temple head coach Geoff Collins something to shoot for.

The much-maligned James Franklin became the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year by leading the Nittany Lions of Penn State to the Big Ten Football Championship. The team scored a come from behind win against Wisconsin thanks to the performance of running back Saquon Barkley and a stout defense. While many thought that Penn State should have gotten into the College  Football Playoff thanks to its victory over Ohio State, the teams two losses mean they’ll be going to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on New Year’s Day against the University of Southern California.

Bernard Hopkins Falls to Father Time

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Bernard Hopkins looked as old as the 51-year-old man he is in his loss to Joe Smith Jr. Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com

After getting literally knocked out of the ring by Joe Smith Jr. in his most recent fight, some say it should be.

From the moment he turned 40, Hopkins has waged a valiant and sometimes successful against Father Time.  But in the end, the 51-year-old Hopkins found out what every athlete eventually does: time is undefeated.

While Hopkins hasn’t said whether or not he’ll retire, the prevailing hope is that he will. To do otherwise will probably do him more harm than good long term.

Like I said, 2016 has been an up and down year. But now that it’s over, it’ll be interesting to see what 2017 will bring to the Sporting World.

No matter what it is, I’ll have it for you.

Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

Father Time Wins Again: Time for Hopkins To Say Goodbye for Good

23 Dec
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Bernard Hopkins looked as old as the 51-year-old man he is in his loss to Joe Smith Jr. Photo courtesy of sportingnews.com

When Bernard Hopkins was literally knocked out of the ring last weekend,  he learned that even his arms are too short to box with the ravages of time. 

By Chris Murray
For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun
About 10 years ago, I did a phone interview with former HBO boxing analyst Larry Merchant as part of my coverage of the International Boxing Organization light heavyweight title fight between Philadelphia boxing legend Bernard Hopkins, who was 40-something at the time, and a younger, faster Antonio Tarver.

At the time, I thought that Father Time would keep Hopkins from winning that fight and asked Merchant what it might finally take to convince Hopkins to finally retire from the ring. In order for him to do that, Merchant said, someone would have to “beat him up”.
It took another 10 years, but last weekend it happened.

After a successful career of standing toe-to-toe against a combination of Father Time and guys half his age, Bernard Hopkins finally got “beat up”. In what is hopefully the final fight of a Hall of Fame career, Hopkins lost to light heavyweight contender Joe Smith Jr. by TKO in the eighth-round.

The outcome of the fight was about as embarrassing as it was sad for the now 51-year-old Hopkins as his much younger opponent literally knocked him out of the ring. With that, Father Time helped add Hopkins to the long list of legendary pugilists who mistakenly believed that greatness is immortal.

With all due respect to the man who once dominated the middleweight division and has won a few titles as a light heavyweight, Hopkins looked exactly like the elderly, 50-something fighter he is as Smith pummeled him all over the ring.

It reminded me of the reasons why I refused the offer of a ticket to a closed circuit screening of the Muhammad Ali/ Larry Holmes fight in 1981. I couldn’t stand to see a great fighter when he wasn’t great anymore. If I had gone to that fight, the guys would have been called me an oversensitive punk because I would have been crying like a baby.

It was the same way with Sugar Ray Leonard when he lost to Terry Norris. I’ve also seen film of guys like Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis fighting when they were well past their prime. It’s often sad and hard to watch because you remember when they were kings and when were so invincible in the conquest of their opposition.

Hopkins needed to go out as a conquering hero the way former Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis did when he led the Ravens to the Super Bowl back in 2012. Instead, Hopkins took to the ring as a shadow of his former self and showed that he just didn’t have it.

On one hand, you have to admire Hopkins for doing something he loves even at his advanced age. He was beating up younger guys when he was in his 40s, which further cemented his legend. He had overcome the rough streets of North Philadelphia, a stint in Graterford Prison and a host of other challenges to become one of the best pound-for-pound boxers in the history of the sport. He was on his way to being a first-ballot Boxing Hall of Famer even without the victories he had as a 40-year-old man.

He has nothing else to prove, and I hope that if nothing else, Hopkins most recent defeat shows that to him. He doesn’t need to humiliate himself like that again.

In fact, he’s probably making more money watching other guys fight through his work with Golden Boy Promotions.

Given what happened to Ali when he hung around too long, it might be time that Hopkins stops hanging on to his youth and allows himself to live in our memories as one of the greatest boxers of all time.

His family deserves the best years of the rest of his life.

Loss to Redskins Reflective of an Awful 2016 for Eagles

12 Dec
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It’s been a tough year for Carson Wentz and Jordan Matthews. Photo by Webster Riddick

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

With the playoffs obviously out of the picture for the Philadelphia Eagles (5-8), the only thing that diehard Birds fans can hope for is that the team can finish a respectable .500 and not have a second straight losing season.

Considering how this team has struggled, finishing at 8-8 is going to be a struggle for the Eagles because they face three playoff contenders to close out the season starting with Sunday’s road game against the Baltimore Ravens.  The Eagles may not win another game if those games are must-wins for those teams.   The Birds close out the season at Lincoln Financial Field against the New York Giants and the first-place Dallas Cowboys.

The Eagles 27-22 loss to the Washington Redskins was quite simply a microcosm of an entire season has gone wrong. The Birds certainly had their chances to win the game, but couldn’t get out of their own way with turnovers and penalties.

“Yes, those are the things that we talk about during the week,” said head coach Doug Pederson. “Again, I mentioned it to the team at the end in the locker room that if we figure out a way to eliminate those things, great things are going to happen to your team.”

Eventually, just not this year.

Throw in injuries at key spots and that’s your 2016 Eagles season in a nutshell. In this game, the Eagles lost long snapper Jon Dorenbos to a right wrist injury, which meant long-snapping duties were split between tight ends Brent Celek and Trey Burton. Right tackle Allen Barbre left the game with a left hamstring injury and right tackle Brandon Brooks was sidelined with an illness.

One of the most devastating blows to the Eagles was the loss of punt returner Darren Sproles who got hurt fielding a punt on a vicious hit by Washington defensive back Deshazor Everett, who drew unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and several members of the Eagles wanting to kick his ass. Sproles will likely undergo the concussion protocol.

With all the reshuffling on the offensive line, Matt Tobin, who normally plays guard, was moved to right tackle. It was his inability to block Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan that sealed Eagles fate. Kerrigan’s sack and forced fumble of quarterback Carson Wentz deep in Washington territory halted the Eagles comeback.

On offense, the Eagles outgained Washington but gave up two turnovers inside the red zone that might have made a difference.   On their second possession of the game, the Birds, who were leading 3-0,  had the ball at the Washington three-yard line only to have Wentz throw an interception in the end zone.  Wentz ‘s fumble after the sack by Kerrigan put the nail in the coffin.

The Eagles had another chance to put seven points on the board when Darren Sproles ran a punt back 72 yards for an apparent touchdown, but it was called back because Zach Ertz was flagged for an illegal block in the back.  With the other two turnovers, the Eagles blew a potential 21 points that could have tilted the game in their favor.

“Obviously, we’ve had a handful mistakes, little things here and there,” Wentz said after the game.  “And a lot of these losses, we’re just one play away, two plays away. … It’s kind of frustrating, but we have to learn from it.”

If there’s a silver-lining in this latest Eagles loss, the team did play with a lot of effort after they were criticized by Pederson earlier last week.  Just not enough to walk away with a win.

Unfortunately, these are the games you lose when you are a bad team. It’s always shoulda, woulda, I wish I coulda when you find yourself at the end of another loss.

One final note-One of the enduring symbols of the debacle that was the Chip Kelly era returned to bite the Eagles again. Redskins and former Birds wide receiver DeSean Jackson caught three passes for 102 yards including an 80-yard touchdown pass.

Strangely, enough Jackson wasn’t booed or jeered by fans. That’s because there’s a sentiment around Philly that they want D-Jax, who turns 30 next year, back when he becomes a free agent after this season. He’s definitely better than what they have now at the wide receiver position.

Jackson left open the possibility that he could be back.

“I don’t know man, shoot,” Jackson said. “We’ll see what happens. You never know how it’ll play out.”

Stay tuned.