Jan 3, 2020

Axios Sports

By Kendall Baker
Kendall Baker

👋 Good morning! First of all, Happy Thanksgiving everybody (h/t Dan Snyder).

Today's word count: 1,694 words (6 minutes)

1 big thing: 🏀 RIP, David Stern

Photo: Mike Young/Getty Images

David Stern, who served as the NBA's commissioner from 1984 through 2014, died on Wednesday following a three-week hospitalization after suffering a brain hemorrhage on Dec. 12. He was 77.

Why he mattered: The son of a Manhattan deli owner, Stern helped turn a modest regional sport into a global behemoth, launched the WNBA, understood where the sports world was headed long before it got there and was a good man.

  • He also let Donald Sterling get away with far too much, showed little remorse when businessmen stole the SuperSonics from Seattle, mishandled the fallout from the Malice in the Palace (the infamous dress code stands out) and could be a bully at times.
  • It's a complicated legacy (the same can be said for most commissioners), but it's one that makes Stern perhaps the most influential non-athlete in the history of American sports.

What they're saying: Most obituaries read like longwinded Wikipedia entries. But with Stern, the vast majority have been more profound — pulling back the curtain on who he really was; how he treated people; what he believed.

  • It's a sign of respect, if you ask me, as writers seek to encapsulate the intricacies of a human being who walked this Earth — flaws and all! — rather than memorialize a historical figure in banal, repeated words.

TrueHoop's Henry Abbott wrote the best of the bunch — a remarkable tribute filled with memorable anecdotes and honest analysis. Here's how it starts:

  • "[David Stern] was an absolute wizard. Other biographies will note he was from New Jersey. To me, he was from behind a curtain in Oz. David Blaine and David Copperfield (so many Davids!) can kiss Stern's ass.
  • "The magic trick of the century was that a socially odd, five-nine lawyer from Teaneck rearranged every goddamned star in the basketball universe so that only Michael Jordan could rival Stern as the defining character of National Basketball Association history.
  • "How in the hell did he do that? With brilliance, hard work, vision, and, crucially: ruthlessness."

Keep reading.

2. 🏈 AFC Wild Card preview (Saturday)

Josh Allen, Deshaun Watson, Derrick Henry, Tom Brady. Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Bills at Texans
  • Kickoff: 4:35pm ET (ESPN, ABC)
  • Spread: HOU -3
  • Money: HOU -150 (bet $150, win $100) | BUF +130 (bet $100, win $130)
  • Over/Under: 43.5

Storylines:

  • The time is now, Texans: With big names like Deshaun Watson, DeAndre Hopkins and J.J. Watt (who is back after missing eight games), Houston has Super Bowl-level talent. But they have yet to put everything together, failing to win more than two straight games all year.
  • 24-year drought: The Bills have lost five straight playoff games since a 37-22 win over the Dolphins in 1995 — the same year "Gangsta's Paradise" by Coolio topped the billboard charts. Long time ago!
  • Fully rested: QB Josh Allen, RB Devin Singletary and WR John Brown were among the Bills starters held out of their season finale, while Houston sat Watson, Hopkins and others. Fresh legs all around.
Titans at Patriots
  • Kickoff: 8:15pm ET (CBS)
  • Spread: NE -5
  • Money: NE -235 | TEN +195
  • Over/Under: 44.5

Storylines:

  • Unfamiliar territory: The Patriots are playing on wild-card weekend for the first time since 2009, and Bill Belichick is just 14-13 against former pupils. Add it all up and New England feels less invincible than ever.
  • Ridiculous stat: Tom Brady has won 30 playoff games, while the other 11 playoff QBs have won a combined 26 (and Ryan Tannehill has never even played in one).
  • Titans need TDs: Thanks to Derrick "Freight Train" Henry, Tennessee led the NFL in scoring TDs in the red zone (75.5% clip). They'll need that to continue, as Greg Joseph — their fourth kicker this year — has yet to attempt a field goal.
3. 🏈 NFC Wild Card preview (Sunday)

Dalvin Cook, Michael Thomas, Russell Wilson, Carson Wentz. Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Vikings at Saints
  • Kickoff: 1:05pm ET (FOX)
  • Spread: NO -7.5
  • Money: NO -420 (bet $420, win $100) | MIN +340 (bet $100, win $340)
  • Over/Under: 49.5

Storylines:

  • Dalvin and Alvin: All eyes will be on Drew Brees and Michael Thomas, as they look to build on a historic campaign, but Dalvin Cook (who the Vikings need to function properly on offense) and Alvin Kamara (who finally looks healthy) look primed to play pivotal roles.
  • Pregame reading: Over the last 14 years, Brees and Sean Payton have defined football in New Orleans and rewritten the NFL record books. What's the secret sauce behind their relationship? The Ringer's Robert Mays explains.
  • Brutal draw: The Vikings are arguably better than three of the favored teams this weekend, but a brutal draw pits them against the only team that is clearly superior. FiveThirtyEight gives them a 23% chance.
Seahawks at Eagles
  • Kickoff: 4:40pm ET (NBC)
  • Spread: SEA -1.5
  • Money: SEA -130 | PHI +110
  • Over/Under: 45.5

Storylines:

  • Carries to be had: Despite employing MVP-caliber QBs, few teams embraced the run this season like the Seahawks (third in rushing attempts) and Eagles (fifth). But injuries have led to a changing cast of characters, so it will be interesting to see who emerges.
  • Don't sleep on Philly: The NFC East was historically bad, but that doesn't mean the Eagles won't show out in the playoffs. In fact, since 2002, when the NFL went to its current alignment, division champs that were 9-7 or worse have gone 9-5 in the postseason.
  • Sack bros: Injuries have had a limiting effect on the careers of Jadeveon Clowney and Ezekiel Ansah, but the freakish pass-rushing duo looked scary last week and could feast against the Eagles' banged-up offensive line.
4. 📸 Yesterday in photos
Photo: David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

JACKSONVILLE, FLA. — Indiana was up 22-9 late the fourth quarter of the Gator Bowl and had a 97.7% chance of winning their first bowl since 1991 (longest drought by a Power 5 school), but Tennessee scored twice in the final five minutes to pull off the miracle, 23-22.

  • Wild stat: Prior to last night, FBS teams were 0-471 this season when trailing by 13 or more points with five minutes remaining. Kudos to the Vols, but man, those poor Hoosiers.
Photo: Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

DALLAS — Amid a chorus of "MVP!" chants, Luka Dončić put up 31 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists to lead the Mavericks past the Nets, 123-111, and pull Dallas within a game of Houston for fourth place in the West.

  • What to watch: Dončić leads all players in All-Star voting with 1,073,957 votes — 599 more than second-place Giannis Antetokounmpo and 53,106 more than third-place LeBron James.
Photo: Harry How/Getty Images

KAPALUA, HAWAII — The 2020 PGA Tour season officially kicked off yesterday at the Sentry Tournament of Champions, where Chile's Joaquín Niemann (above) holds a one stroke lead over Justin Thomas.

5. 🏒 Jack vs. Connor, Round 9
Photo: Bill Wippert/NHLI via Getty Images

Buffalo's Jack Eichel and Edmonton's Connor McDavid — forever linked after being selected first (McDavid) and second (Eichel) in the 2015 draft — went head-to-head for the ninth time last night.

  • Quick recap: Eichel drew a penalty on McDavid late in overtime and scored on the ensuing penalty shot to secure a 3-2 win.
  • By the numbers: McDavid is having a phenomenal season, leading the NHL in points (64) and assists (42), and Eichel isn't far behind, ranking eighth in points (54) and third in goals (26).
  • The big picture: Unfortunately, the Sabres and Oilers have struggled to build around their stars early in their careers, and it's on full display again this season, as both teams have regressed to the middle of the pack after hot starts.

Go deeper: NHL All-Star Game rosters revealed (they both made it, of course)

6. 📊 By the numbers
Courtesy: Premier Lacrosse League

🥍 7th team

Not a single NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL team has a dog as its primary logo. Kind of weird considering how prominent dogs are in society, right? Enter the Premier Lacrosse League, whose first expansion team, and seventh team overall, will be known as Waterdogs Lacrosse Club.

💵 40 states

28 college football coaches and 12 college basketball coaches are the highest-paid public employees in their respective states. That's 40 out of 50 states where a college sports coach is the top-earning public official. See for yourself.

🏀 2 undefeated teams

No. 8 Auburn (12-0) and No. 13 San Diego State (13-0) are the only two undefeated teams left in men's D-I college hoops. The Tigers begin SEC play against Mississippi State tomorrow, while the Aztecs face a dangerous Utah State team that began the year ranked No. 17.

7. Jan. 3, 1920: ⚾️ Babe Ruth joins the Yankees
Babe Ruth signing his contract with Red Sox owner Harry Frazee (standing) and Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert. Credit: Baseball Hall of Fame

100 years ago today, the Yankees purchased Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for $100,000.

  • Why it mattered: The sale changed the course of history, as Ruth became the face of baseball over the next decade, helped save the sport's popularity in the wake of the Black Sox Scandal and finished his career as the G.O.A.T.
  • By the numbers: In his first season in New York, Ruth hit 54 HR, which was more than any other team except the Phillies, who hit 64. And in 1923, he led the Yankees to their first of 27 World Series titles.
  • Meanwhile, in Boston: The Red Sox were cursed by his departure for nearly a century before finally breaking through in 2004 and winning their first World Series in 86 years.

Fun fact: Exactly 53 years after the Babe's historic signing, George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees from CBS, making Jan. 3 the most significant date in franchise history.

  • P.S. ... Speaking of legendary Yankees, Don Larsen — who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history — died on Wednesday at age 90.
8. The Ocho: 🧠 Inside Magnus Carlsen's brain

Photo: Claus Bech/AFP via Getty Images

Magnus Carlsen is the best chess player on the planet — and he just so happens to be one of the best fantasy soccer players, too.

  • Driving the news: Since October, Carlsen's fantasy team has been in the top 100 out of 7.2+ million in the Premier League's official fantasy game, per WSJ (subscription), and he held the No. 1 spot last month.
  • The intrigue: Chess and fantasy sports aren't all that similar, which is why it's so fascinating to consider why Carlsen might excel at both. Does he see numbers and patterns that you and I can't? Is his brain simply wired differently? Or is it more his effort and approach that make him who he is? An intense desire to be the best at everything he does that separates him?

The bottom line: The Magnus Carlsen of fantasy soccer is... Magnus Carlsen.

Go deeper: Magnus Carlsen explains how his mind works (YouTube)

9. 🏈 NFL trivia

Now that Jason Garrett has been fired, all six active head coaches who began their NFL head coaching careers in 2010 or earlier have won Super Bowls.

  • Question: Can you name all six?
  • Hint: One is no longer coaching the team he won the Super Bowl with. The other five are.

Answer at the bottom.

10. 🇦🇹 Meanwhile, in Austria...
Photo: Daniel Karmann/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Skiers, man.

Kendall Baker

Enjoy the weekend,

Kendall "Come work with me" Baker

Trivia answer: Bill Belichick, Sean Payton, Mike Tomlin, John Harbaugh, Pete Carroll, Jon Gruden