Since we went away

You steal away for a fortnight or so in the middle of what used to be the lazy, hazy end of June and beginning of July and it's as if you've taken a snooze worthy of Rip Van Winkle. The contemporary sporting agenda rolls over us in ever mightier waves, unfolding not in cycles but revolutions.

Consider just some of what's happened since last we gathered around this figurative water cooler:

The Lakers finished taking their bows while the Celtics scattered to the winds. The Celtics lost Doc Rivers, and then got him back. Three more teams were honored by the President at the White House. Boxing returned to Yankee Stadium. At 47, the remarkable Manute Bol died. A Dinka tribesman from the hellish Sudan, Manute brought dignity to the NBA that was almost as towering as his presence.

The NHL had their draft of kids who have just graduated from high school. The NBA had their draft of kids who will never graduate from college. Tyler Seguin, a stylish center who looks too good to be true, became the latest "can't miss", "franchise-player" drafted by the Bruins since the last one who actually was one, Raymond Bourque who was drafted 30 years ago.

Four more NFL performers got arrested for assorted acts of malice. Michael Vick drifted through the scene of yet another crime claiming to be blameless with the event in question being, of course, his birthday party. What else? Demarcus Russell crashed on drugs. Three other NFL foot soldiers got suspended for drug abuse. The athletic director at the University of Georgia got nailed for DUI. Chris Simms, QB of the Titans and son of legendary Giants QB Phil Simms, got charged with doing marijuana while driving.

Heavyweights named Brock Lesnar and Shane Carwin fought in Vegas for a title in an event termed "the Ultimate Fighting Championship". Cages were used and whips were spotted and, if ratings are to be believed, amazing numbers of people took it seriously. On the other hand, the highest rated X-Game event of the period was the Coney Island hot dog devouring obscenities that ESPN, in its relentless pursuit of the lowest common denominator, cheerfully televised as a celebration of Independence Day. What all of this says about American cultural values is a question that would have silenced Thomas Jefferson.

The Big 10 tried to expand to 12 teams. The Pac 10 swelled briefly to 14. The Big 12 downsized to 10. This led some to wonder if these guys can't even count, why should we pay any attention to them? Out in La La land USC, having finally been bagged by the NCAA for gross violations of college football recruitment practice, apologized. But Coach Pete Carroll, who was in charge when it happened, didn't. The University of Kentucky set to work putting together a nice new contract for Coach Calipari, even though the contract he's got has many years and millions of bucks to go. Down at U-Conn, Coach Calhoun was celebrating his new 13 million dollar five-year deal even as the NCAA gendarmes were descending on Storrs.

In golf, the riddle of Tiger Woods deepened as he skirted missing the cut at an obscure tourney in Newton Square, Pa. At Wimbledon, one tennis match between two little known but impeccably behaved hackers bore on for three days with the last set lasting 138 games as half the civilized world, including the Queen, cheered. The NHL's free agency season began with a dozen decent defensemen promptly playing musicals chairs. The NBA's free agent season crested with a bizarre burlesque in Miami that set a new standard for vulgarity in sport. Roger Federer lost a match at Wimbledon and it wasn't even in the Finals.

Forbes Magazine posted its annual poll of "the 10 most disliked people in sports". Vick remains in first-place (and that was even before his birthday party) but closing fast on the inside rail was the once sainted Woods. Another newcomer comfortably in third place was Ben Roethlisberger, the lecherous quarterback of the Steelers. Best bet to finish high in the rankings of the notorious next year is LeBron James, the delusional and self-appointed mega-star of the Heat. Sharing in James' shame should be his cheerleaders from ESPN who cleverly frittered away what little was left of their credibility in his dubious behalf.

Seven more Red Sox -- Messrs Pedroia, Martinez, Varitek, Hermida, Delcarmen, Buchholz and Lowell -- went down for the count with six of them landing on the vastly overcrowded disabled list. Meanwhile, Jacoby Ellsbury was getting re-injured at least twice more. The Yankees added five games to their lead. The Rays awakened. So did the Mets. The White Sox resurrected. Eight Yankees made the all-star team. So did six Bo-Soxers. Injury or the fear of it sidelined a dozen all-stars. The swelling of the disabled list perplexes Baseball. The Phillies lost three mainstays -- Messrs Durbin, Polanco and Utley -- in a 24 hour span.

The Mariners insulted the Yankees as few teams would have dared in the age of Steinbrenner, then traded Cliff Lee who is known to be seeking the second highest pitching contract in all of baseball history to a Texas Rangers' team that's about to officially become bankrupt and placed on the auction block. The Commissioner did not object. Dallas Braden and A-Rod smooched and made up. Carlos Zambrano went ballistic in the Cubs dugout. BJ Upton went ballistic in the Rays dugout. In a Rangers' uniform, the amiable Vladimir Guerrero returned to Anaheim, which had dumped him, and hit three homers against his old Angel mates as Angel fans cheered wildly.

The Bruins tried but couldn't trade Marc Savard and Tim Thomas for an annual saving of about $10 million on the salary cap which might have been enough to rent Ilya Kovalchuk. They did, however, rid themselves of Dennis Wideman who escapes a slap shot ahead of a Garden lynch mob that regards him as the second coming of Don McKenney. The Patriots made absolutely no news, concluding easily the quietest off-season of the Belechick era. With the dispensing of a couple of more rich contracts the Celtics anchored themselves to the Pierce-Garnett-Allen triumvirate for at least two more years, at which point the average age of the three amigos will be pushing 38. Mrs. Tom Brady, done with maternity leave, went back to work. The city of Cleveland melted down.

In what may prove to be their best off-season move, the Bruins re-signed defenseman Dennis Seidenberg whose loss to injury late in the season cemented their playoff fate and deprived them of the honor of being the Blackhawks' foil in the finals. In a deed notable because he had two more years on his contract and could have hung around doing little and collecting much, the charming Rasheed Wallace opted for retirement. The Celtics replace him with the once formidable Jermaine O'Neal, who is almost as old but probably not as good. Bob Sheppard, the gentle man with the godlike voice who served as the Yankees' elegantly patrician public address announcer for six decades, died at the age of 99.

The point, hopefully, is made. A lot goes down as the sporting world spins even if it's only for a couple or three weeks at the slow time of the year in the midst of high summer's heavy torpor. But at least we had the soccer contrasting brilliantly with the mundanities of the daily scene. Even for those of us who won't watch another match for four years it was glorious.

Too many Americans in a typical display of provincial petulance tuned out when the home team got deservedly booted. But the rest of the world remained intensely wired and even if the final -- matching the dogged Dutch and the frightfully efficient Spaniards -- lacked sheer beauty the magnificence of the show still prevailed. The World Cup remains the grandest stage of the sporting universe. The Futbal transcends all the games.

The South Africans pulled it off and that's terrific. But the triumph of the 2010 tourney belongs to all of Africa for which we can all stand up and cheer.

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