What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

From NBA to Belmont Stakes, expect a weekend of champions

The Stanley Cup, the NBA playoffs, the women's World Cup and the Belmont Stakes: It's a busy week in the world of sports. William Brangham explores all of the upcoming contests with Kevin Blackistone of ESPN and Mike Pesca of Slate's "The Gist" podcast.

Read the Full Transcript

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Next, we take a look at a big sports weekend coming up, with several championship playoffs and a high-stakes horse race in the offing.

    And, as William Brangham tells us, in some places, it’s already begun.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Professional hockey’s Stanley Cup contenders took to the ice last night, with the Chicago Blackhawks besting the Tampa Bay Lightning 2-1.

    Tonight, the NBA playoffs get under way, pitting the perennial underdog Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James against Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. And Saturday will bring the running of the Belmont Stakes, with all eyes on American Pharoah in his bid to become the first Triple Crown winner in nearly four decades. Also Saturday, a bit further north, in Canada, the women’s World Cup will kicks off a month of matches, with the U.S. women’s national team seeking a return to glory.

    For a closer look at this smorgasbord of contests, I am joined by two longtime sports writers. Kevin Blackistone is a professor of sports journalism at the University of Maryland, as well as a panelist on ESPN. And Mike Pesca is host of Slate’s daily podcast “The Gist” and a contributor to NPR.

    Gentlemen, welcome. Welcome. Join us.

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE, University of Maryland:

    Thank you.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Kevin, let’s talk about the NBA first. These are two long-suffering teams, two long-suffering towns. LeBron James’ greatness, it’s a given.

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE:

    Right.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    But can he carry his team past Golden State?

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE:

    Well, if he does, he certainly will have etched his name in the pantheon of NBA greats, because this is the most likely — most — the least likely team that he’s been with that he could take to a championship.

    He was brought there or went back there, and he was celebrated by the city. The team imported Kevin Love, another superstar player, to play alongside him. He’s hurt. The other superstar player in Cleveland, Kyrie Irving, has been injured for quite some time and is going to be a little bit labored in this series.

    And so if he can deliver a championship to Cleveland, he will literally have done so carrying this franchise on his back.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Mike Pesca, what do you think about that? Is this an issue of one man having to beat 12 men?

  • MIKE PESCA, National Public Radio:

    Well, I would say — and I bet Kevin agrees — that LeBron is already a pantheon etcher.

    But it’s just such a big task, because we haven’t even mentioned any of the Golden State Warriors. And Steph Curry is the reigning MVP, a deserved MVP. I’m not going to say that LeBron is not the best player in the NBA, but Steph had a great year, scoring 29 points a game in the playoffs.

    And it’s every player after him on the Golden State roster that is better than their equal number on the Cleveland roster. So, I really do think Golden State not only has a tremendous edge, plays great defense, and is a big favorite in Las Vegas, and the guys who do the advanced stats say they’re an even bigger favorite than the bettors would have you believe. It’s a huge task for LeBron. That’s why we watch.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That’s right.

    All right, let’s talk about the Belmont Stakes. American Pharoah, this is a huge potential accomplishment for this horse.

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE:

    Sure.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    It’s been 40 years since a horse has won the Triple Crown. Why is this such a tough thing to crack?

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE:

    Well, because it’s a hard race. You have to win two races to get there, and then, in this final weekend, you have to run, the horse does, a mile-and-a-half. And it’s a grueling mile-and-a-half.

    And I just think it’s the weight of history. I have been to these things several times, from Smarty Jones and, was it Funny Cide, and the anticipation is great. Everybody in the world is watching. And it’s almost like Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football. You know, we get suckered into this thing, and then once again it just doesn’t happen.

    But it’s a great anticipatory sporting event, and that’s why people tune in. That’s why usually about 2.5 times more people tune in to watch a Triple Crown possibility than would watch the Belmont Stakes if nothing was going on.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Mike Pesca.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    I would also add that it might be — well, I was going to say, it might be a little bit more about Snoopy, because these are animals, right?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MIKE PESCA:

    And they’re just bred differently than they were 125 years ago, where horses were more robust. It’s not a knock against the modern horse. The modern horse is like a Ferrari. It’s like a high-speed car, but the recovery time is such that it is quite unlikely that any horse will ever win the Triple Crown again, I think.

    It’s happened what, a dozen times since Affirmed won it in ’78.

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE:

    Right.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    And a dozen times, we have been disappointed.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    OK. Let’s move on.

    Saturday, we’re going to see the women’s World Cup. This is obviously a huge deal here in the U.S. But we can’t overlook the fact that there’s this controversy around FIFA. How much do you think the cloud of that is going to tarnish this tournament, or will it have no bearing?

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE:

    You know, I don’t think it will have any bearing. I think American sports fans overlook scandal. If look at the National Football League and Deflategate, I don’t think anybody cared at the end.

    If you look at Major League Baseball and the steroids era, I don’t think anybody cared in the end. The big debate is among sportswriters, in terms of what this will mean, and maybe some people within the industry, but I don’t think anybody is going to conflate what has happened with FIFA’s executive leadership and the corruption and what has happened with the women’s game.

    I don’t think Amy (sic) Wambach is going to have to suffer any of those slings and arrows.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Mike Pesca, the president of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, despite his litany of sexist comments, really did reign over a period of incredible growth in women’s soccer. Is that a silver lining, do you think, to his career, amidst all this controversy?

  • MIKE PESCA:

    Oh, I think, like a lot of the accomplishments of Sepp Blatter, it happened on his watch. Maybe it was a correlation, but not causality.

    I think women’s sports, Title IX in America is what one of the huge reasons that made soccer big. And, you know, he up until a couple of years ago was talking about having the women wear tighter shorts.

    And, you know, they’re playing this World Cup. I totally agree with Kevin. This is not — that nothing should be taken away from the women, and I don’t think it will be, but FIFA is making them play on artificial turf. And this is unfair. Unlike the NFL, where the problem is actually with the league and concussions, the sport of soccer is brilliant. The sport of soccer is pristine.

    It’s just these crooks — I will say it at the top — even as regards the women’s game, that we should have a lot of horrible feelings about. We should be really concerned about that.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Let’s not forget the Stanley Cup is, of course, going on.

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE:

    Right.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Some very enjoyable hockey going on there.

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE:

    And it is. I watched last night’s game. And everything turned in less than two minutes at the end. The Lightning are a fun team to watch, assemble a lot of speed, a lot of up-tempo hockey, if you can actually have that. And the Blackhawks are an old-school type of team. They’re grinders.

    And last night, they ground out an improbable win. But if there is one reason to turn into this NHL Stanley Cup Finals, it’s to watch the skaters with the Tampa Bay Lightning. They are really a lot of fun to watch. We mentioned earlier Steph Curry. Mike did. Well, Tyler Johnson is kind of a Steph Curry in the NHL, undersized, which is why people passed on him in the draft, always doubted him. And he’s turned into a fabulous, exciting scorer in the league.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    Mike Pesca, Chicago, this is — they’re in their third Cup in six years. And this is during the salary cap era in hockey. This is a pretty big accomplishment.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    It is.

    And they have done it — the NHL might never have another dynasty, because the salary cap era makes it so hard to resign stars. They do give teams a little bit of leeway resigning their own stars, but this core of players has been around and contributing. They do have some young players, but if you want to talk about Toews — their goalie, Corey Crawford, he’s — he spans not all the Stanley Cups.

    But it’s an example, if you get to know a team, that team could really win the heart of a city. And I think every so often, Tampa Bay looks and says, hey, we got a hockey team, whereas Chicago lives and dies with these Blackhawks.

  • WILLIAM BRANGHAM:

    That’s right.

    OK. Kevin Blackistone, Mike Pesca, thank you both very much for joining us.

  • KEVIN BLACKISTONE:

    Thank you.

  • MIKE PESCA:

    You’re welcome.

Listen to this Segment

The Latest