Indiana Pacers try to stay optimistic with No. 1 seed

April 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

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The Pacers are the top seed for the Eastern Conference playoffs and will have home-court advantage for the first three rounds of the 2014 NBA playoffs. That was their stated goal at the start of the season, in the middle of the season and at the end of the season, even as they stumbled to the finish line.

For all their late-season problems — most notably on the defensive end — they still won at least 55 games. When asked to diagnose Indiana’s issues, Miami Heat star LeBron James declined to bite.

“Very, very good team,” James said after Miami’s recent 98-86 win against the Pacers. “Just as tough as they were to us we were tough on them as well. It’s two very good teams, and they have their record for a reason. You don’t just coast or play bad basketball and win 50-plus games in a season. They’re going to be there.”

Not everyone is so sure. The Pacers are 11-13 since March 1, and while the Pacers had the league’s most efficient defense this season, in the past six weeks, they are allowing 103.2 points per 100 possessions compared to 96.8 for the season. The offensive efficiency has dipped, too, compounding the problem.

Can the Pacers beat the Hawks in the first round? Will they make it out of the second round? Can they beat Miami even with home-court advantage?

Despite the struggle, the Pacers’ locker room didn’t implode. They bickered publicly and privately. Center Roy Hibbert called some teammates selfish, and a few times, players huddled in the locker room after losses for intense discussions.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel said it’s normal — and healthy — for players to argue and air grievances. Husbands and wives argue. Siblings argue. So do teammates.

“When you have high-character people, which (Pacers President) Larry Bird built this team on, you overcome all that and stay together,” Vogel said. “It’s talking and listening. Listening is just as important. Hearing what someone else is saying is important.”

NHL first-round playoff schedule released

April 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

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The schedule for the first round of the playoffs opens on Wednesday (all times p.m. ET, x-if necessary).

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Anaheim Ducks vs. Dallas Stars

Stars won season series 2-1

April 16: at Anaheim, 10, NBC Sports Network

April 18: at Anaheim, 10, NBC Sports Network

April 21: at Dallas, 9:30, NBC Sports Network

April 23: at Dallas, 8, CNBC

x-April 25: at Anaheim, 10:30, NBC Sports Network

x-April 27: at Dallas, TBD

x-April 29: at Anaheim, TBD

Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild

Avalanche won season series 4-0-1

April 17: at Colorado, 9:30, CNBC

April 19: at Colorado, 9:30, NBC Sports Network

April 21: at Minnesota, 7, NHL Network

April 24: at Minnesota, 9:30, CNBC

x-April 26: at Colorado, TBD

x-April 28: at Minnesota, TBD

x-April 30: at Colorado, TBD

San Jose Sharks vs. Los Angeles Kings

Kings won season series 3-1-1

April 17: at San Jose, 10:30, NBC Sports Network

April 20: at San Jose, 10, NBC Sports Network

April 22: at Los Angeles, 10, NBC Sports Network

April 24: at Los Angeles, 10:30, NBC Sports Network

x-April 26: at San Jose, TBD

x-April 28: at Los Angeles, TBD

x-April 30: at San Jose, TBD

St. Louis Blues vs. Chicago Blackhawks

Blues won season series 3-2

April 17: at St. Louis, 8, NBC Sports Network

April 19: at St. Louis, 3, NBC

April 21: at Chicago, 8:30, CNBC

April 23: at Chicago, 9:30, NBC Sports Network

x-April 25: at St. Louis, 8, NBC Sports Network

x-April 27: at Chicago, 3, NBC

x-April 29: at St. Louis, TBD

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Boston Bruins vs. Detroit Red Wings

Red Wings won season series 3-1

April 18: at Boston, 7:30, NBC Sports Network

April 20, at Boston, 3, NBC

April 22: at Detroit, 7:30, NBC Sports Network

April 24: at Detroit, 8, NBC Sports Network

x-April 26: at Boston, 3, NBC

x-April 28: at Detroit, TBD

x-April 30: at Boston, TBD

Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Columbus Blue Jackets

Penguins won season series 4-0

April 16: at Pittsburgh, 7:30, NBC Sports Network

April 19: at Pittsburgh, 7, NBC Sports Network

April 21: at Columbus, 7, NBC Sports Network

April 23: at Columbus, 7, NBC Sports Network

x-April 26: at Pittsburgh, TBD

x-April 28: at Columbus, TBD

x-April 30 at Pittsburgh, TBD

Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Montreal Canadiens

Lightning won season series 3-0-1

April 16: at Tampa Bay, 7, CNBC

April 18: at Tampa Bay, 7, CNBC

April 20: at Montreal, 7, NBC Sports Network

April 22: at Montreal, 7, NHL Network

x-April 24: at Tampa Bay, 7, CNBC

x-April 27: at Montreal, TBD, NBC Sports Network

x-April 29, at Tampa Bay, TBD

New York Rangers vs. Philadelphia Flyers

Season series was tied 2-2

April 17: at N.Y. Rangers, 7, CNBC

April 20: at N.Y. Rangers, noon, NBC

April 22: at Philadelphia, 8, CNBC

April 25: at Philadelphia, 7, CNBC

x-April 27: at N.Y. Rangers, noon, NBC

x-April 29: at Philadelphia, TBD

x-April 30: at N.Y. Rangers, TBD

Sharper’s high school faces decision on ‘tarnished’ hero

April 16, 2014 § Leave a comment

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An autographed photo of Darren Sharper wearing his former Green Bay Packers uniform sits next to an autographed mini Packers helmet in the trophy case at Hermitage High School.

Down the hall by the gym, Sharper’s name appears on the sacred “Wall of Fame” between his older brother Jamie, a linebacker who went on to play for Virginia and won a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens, and Shawn Barber, a classmate who went to the University of Richmond and played linebacker for four NFL teams.

But school officials have been considering removing anything associated with Darren Sharper, a consequence of the 38-year-old being under investigation for alleged date rapes of nine women across five states: two in California, two in Arizona, two in Louisiana, two in Nevada and one in Florida. He’s suspected of offering the women drug-laced drinks and raping them while they were unconscious.

So far he has been charged in Tempe, Ariz., where a grand jury indicted him, and Los Angeles.

The high school decided last month to hold off removing any items until Sharper’s case proceeds. His lawyers will appear in court in Arizona on Wednesday to argue that Sharper, who has been in jail in California since Feb. 27, should have the opportunity to post bail on the Tempe charges.

Chris Rollison, Hermitage’s director of student activities, said the high school’s Hall of Fame committee will make the final decision about the Sharper display. Darrell Jenkins, Sharper’s high school basketball coach, said he understands what the school will have to do “if this thing moves in a direction that’s not favorable.”

No one who knew Sharper as a youngster could have dreamed a future like this.

“They need to recognize he came from a tremendous background and had one of the best support systems in place with his father and mother,” Jenkins said.

Next to Sharper’s senior yearbook photo from 1993 is a list of accolades: varsity football and basketball, honor roll, student council and foreign language club. He was also a “Hermitage Scholar” and had perfect attendance in ninth, 11th and 12th grades. He went on to the prestigious College of William & Mary.

His father’s philosophy was quite simple,” Jenkins said. “‘You’re going to have to fall back on that education someday when athletics is not available to you.’”

Gus Allen, who was Sharper’s football coach at Hermitage High, cannot make sense of the charges against a man he has known for decades.

“It baffles me totally,” Allen told USA TODAY Sports. “He was just a normal kid. I saw none of that in him as a student growing up.”

Sharper played 14 seasons in the NFL, making the Pro Bowl five times and winning a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints in 2010. Among the mementoes Allen keeps in his home are framed photographs of Sharper in uniform at Hermitage High, with the Packers and with the Minnesota Vikings, plus a letter from Sharper’s parents.

Allen’s wife, Jeri, reads the letter out loud:

“Coach Allen, Darren wanted me to mail these pictures to you. Hope all is well. Darren and Jamie often talk about you and your son. Good ol’ Hermitage days. – Harry and Pauline.”

Those who spoke with USA TODAY Sports agreed to do so because they wanted people to hear about the good times in Sharper’s life before he was arrested in Los Angeles in January.

The Allens are upset by what’s happening but will keep the frame on their wall.

“I don’t plan to take it down because that’s not the Darren we knew,” Jeri said.

Leader in school

This isn’t the Sharper anyone from his hometown in the Richmond suburbs knew, either.

“I’m telling you, there is no way you could have seen it coming because there is not a better family that I have ever been involved with in my 30-plus years of education as far as the support and holding of accountability,” Jenkins said. “These boys didn’t run wild. These boys didn’t go off and do their own thing. Were they perfect? They were teenage kids.

“But when (the allegations) first broke, I was just completely shocked. At first you want to say it can’t be true.”

Sharper’s father, who had a brief NFL career with the Kansas City Chiefs, was an administrator in the Henrico County school system for many years before retiring. His mother and sister, Monica, run the Richmond branch of Acti-Kare, an in-home service for senior citizens.

They currently live in a two-story home in a comfortable neighborhood in Glenn Allen, Va., a friendly and quiet area where kids walk safely to and from school, and police officers wave at passing cars.

Nobody answered the door when USA TODAY Sports sought comment.

Some of Sharper’s old friends haven’t seen him in quite some time. Jenkins said it’s probably been eight or 10 years. The Allens haven’t seen him since attending a Packers-Carolina Panthers game in Charlotte early in Sharper’s NFL career.

But Rollison saw him at the school in February, when Sharper came to watch a family friend play in a junior varsity basketball game. He was arraigned later that month.

“He always had a smile on his face and was just a good kid,” said Joe Coulter, who was Jenkins’ assistant coach and is currently a health and physical education teacher at Hermitage.

“He was a leader in football, basketball, school. People looked up to him. Definitely one of the most popular kids in school. Everybody knew him. He was also a jokester. The one who made everybody laugh.”

‘Sad and tragic’

Jenkins recalled that when Darren and Jamie Sharper were in college, they would come back to the school during Christmas break to work out and scrimmage with the team.

“That just says a lot about the kids because they could be off doing all kinds of things,” Jenkins said. “But that was important for them to be around, and those young kids looked up to those boys while they were in high school.”

The Sharpers, once they were in the NFL, also hosted a youth football camp for elementary and middle school kids. Barber helped out, too. A photo of that trio from camp may also be removed from Hermitage’s trophy case.

“It’s sad and tragic. … We’re talking about kids that are role models, kids people look up to,” Jenkins said. “I’m not going to cast stones, but the man is tarnished now, no matter what happens. That hurts.”

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Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez teamed up for a World Cup theme song that will make you miss vuvuzelas

April 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

The official song of the 2014 World Cup was released on YouTube this week, and it sounds like every other Pitbull song you’ve ever heard. Mr. Worldwide, Jennifer Lopez and Brazilian pop star Claudia Leitte teamed up for We Are One (Ole Ola), which unsurprisingly failed to best the greatest World Cup theme of all time, Shakira’s Waka Waka (This Time for Africa).

Waka Waka was not only legitimately one of the most enjoyable songs of 2010, it popularized this amazing dance.

A few of our other favorites: Ricky Martin’s La Copa de la Vida (The Cup of Life) in 1998.

The ultra-patriotic Gloryland from the 1994 World Cup.

1966′s World Cup Willie (Where in this World are We Going).

 

Two former Aaron Hernandez associates indicted on murder charges

April 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

6Two associates of former New England Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez were indicted Friday on murder charges in connection with the shooting death of a man last summer a mile from Hernandez’s home, prosecutors said.

A grand jury in Bristol County returned separate indictments against Carlos Ortiz and Ernest Wallace in connection with the June 2013 killing of semi-professional football player Odin Lloyd, 5District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter said.

Ortiz and Wallace, who are from Bristol, Conn., where Hernandez grew up, had been charged previously with accessory to murder after the fact and had pleaded not guilty. They had been ordered held on $500,000 bail on the older charges.

Hernandez has pleaded not guilty to murder in the June killing of Lloyd, a 27-year-old Boston resident who was dating the sister of Hernandez’s fiancee.

The district attorney’s office said Ortiz and Wallace would be arraigned in Fall River Superior Court at a date yet to be scheduled. The office said it would have no further comment on the indictments until then.

Ortiz’s lawyer, John Connors, said he had not seen the indictment but called it “totally ridiculous.” He said, as he had in the past, that Ortiz was “just along for the ride” with Hernandez, Wallace and Lloyd on the night Lloyd was killed.

Lloyd’s bullet-riddled body was found by a jogger in an industrial park in North Attleborough. Prosecutors have said Hernandez was upset with Lloyd for talking at a nightclub to some people with whom he had problems.

A message was left for Wallace’s attorney, David Meier.

Adidas unveils official 2014 World Cup ball

April 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

Image Adidas unveiled the official “Brazuca” match ball of the World Cup on Tuesday night at 6 p.m. ET in a blown-out event, complete with light show, in Rio de Janeiro. The Brazuca will be used in every game at this summer’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil. When designing the ball, the company wanted to improve on many of the criticisms they faced during the 2010 World Cup, where their Jabulani ball was widely panned. Dickson Etuhu of Nigeria called the Jabulani “the worst ball ever.” Basically, the Jabulani had very few seams and was really lightweight, so it moved around like a knuckleball. Players didn’t like it. Goalies understandably hated it. So Adidas basically needed to design a super-light ball (because players are demanding and jerks and want a light ball they can shoot really hard) that didn’t fly all over the place. To try and solve the problem, the company shaped the panels much like a series of interconnected boomerangs. This allows them to have only six panels but still have plenty of seams, hopefully ensuring that the ball flies truer. Whether it works remains to be seen. For now though, they have high hopes. The company interviewed 600 players, 1/3 of whom are not contracted by Adidas, about the ball and said the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. Image

As for the color scheme, eh. We know the youths like all these bright colors, but we’re black-and-white guys over here. (We do like the details of the stars, though, a nice homage to the ’94 Questra, AKA the best World Cup ball that ever was.)

 

Vanishing spray to be used at 2014 World Cup

April 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

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After introducing technology to do away with phantom goals at the World Cup, FIFA is ensuring crafty defenders stop creeping in to cut down the distances on free kicks at next year’s tournament in Brazil.

FIFA President Sepp Blatter said Thursday that a vanishing spray currently being used at the Club World Cup to designate distances for free kicks will be used at the world’s biggest soccer event.

“We started using it in all (our) competitions this year and at the World Cup we will definitely keep on the same path,” Blatter said in Marrakech on Thursday. “For the discipline of the game, it’s good. I was skeptical at first but after talking to referees who used this system, they were all happy with it.”

Referees have been spraying the water-based, shaving cream-like foam on fields in Morocco to ensure players lining up a defensive wall against a free kick respect the 9.15 meter distance to the spot of the infraction, where a circle is sprayed to keep attackers from rolling the ball forward.

“The representative of Bayern Munich said that here they can take free kicks with the wall nine meters away, while at home it’s only five,” Blatter said. “It’s a novelty.”

FIFA has also confirmed it will use goal-line technology, which is also on show in Morocco, at the World Cup to rule on disputed goals.

When notified by The Associated Press his spray product would be on show at the World Cup, developer Pablo Silva was overwhelmed over a product that was six years in the making.

“We’ve climbed a long, steep curve to get here,” Silva told the AP. “Economically, this will be very important for us but what makes us most proud is that the product will be recognized at an international level. You can’t put a price on that.”

Silva said Argentina Football Federation president Julio Grondona was instrumental in introducing the spray — termed 9:15 for the distance — into the country’s domestic leagues.

It made its debut in a Sept. 2008 second-division match between Los Andes and Chacarita Jr. before eventually being introduced to each tier.

Use in the Copa Sudamericana, Copa Libertadores, and Major League Soccer followed before the International Football Association Board authorized the spray and it was introduced into the FIFA-organized Under-20 World Cup earlier this year.

The idea, which is an Argentina-Brazil collaboration, came to Silva while playing football.

“We were losing 1-0 and had a free kick and as I stood over it I knew I could make this left-footed shot and even the game. But when I finally took my shot the ball struck the defender in the stomach as he was just 3 meters away,” said Silva, whose frankness accompanies a physical similarity to fictional TV character Tony Soprano.

“I was in a rage and I ran straight to the referee who would eventually show me a red card for protesting. And that’s when it came to me.”

Referees have backed the spray, according to Silva, who constantly holds workshops to educate them on how to apply the lines and spots correctly. It works on all surfaces, and he is currently developing an orange color to use on snow.

“If you hold it too high the line is too thin and disappears quickly, and if you hold it too close it’s too thick so you have to delicately draw with it,” Silva said. “It’s not harmful to the players, the field or the ozone.”

While Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola was happy with the water-based spray which disappears from any surface within minutes, former Italy coach Marcelo Lippi was wary about its influence on referees.

“It’s an intelligent thing, it can be useful only at the point where the referees actually measures the distance between the attackers and the line,” Lippi said. “Twice I saw a 15-meter difference, which is way too much.”

When the spray is first used at the opening game between Brazil and Croatia in Sao Paulo, Silva will have a pin at hand.

“Just to make sure I’m not dreaming,” he said.

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