Sunday, March 11, 2012

2012 NCAA Tournament field set; Kentucky, Syracuse, Michigan State, North Carolina named Number One seeds

By Ray Bennett
Sunday March 11th, 2012

After a week of thrilling conference tournaments, the road to New Orleans has been paved. For the next three weeks, 68 teams will fight for a chance to win the Division I National Championship.

The NCAA announced the field of 68 teams for the 74th Division I Men's Basketball tournament on Sunday. Beginning on Tuesday with the First Four games in Dayton, Ohio, those teams will try to win six or seven consecutive games for a chance to be crowned Division I National Champions.

For the second consecutive year, the 68 teams are separated into 16 team regions: The East, West, Midwest and South. The winners of those regions will then play in the Final Four, which will take place at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The number one overall seed in this year's tournament is the Kentucky Wildcats out of the Southeastern Conference. The Wildcats, coached by John Calipari, had an overall season record of 32-2 this season, winning the regular season SEC title. Kentucky was ranked number one in the Associated Press media and USA Today coaches polls nine times out of seventeen weeks, being in the top spot for the last seven.

Kentucky will play out of the South Region,  playing the winner of Mississippi Valley State/Western Kentucky for their 2nd Round game. The winner of that game will play the winner of a game between South Region number eight Iowa State out of the Big XII and last year's National Champion UConn Huskies, seeded at number nine.

The South Region also includes ACC power Duke as a number two seed. They'll play Patriot League Champion Lehigh in the 2nd round. The winner will play either Notre Dame (7) or Xavier (10).

Other matchups in the South also feature Mountain West Tournament Champions New Mexico (6) playing Pac-12 Tournament winner Colorado (11), Big XII Tournament runner-up Baylor (3) against Tournament newcomer South Dakota State (14) out of the Summit League, Missouri Valley At-Large Wichita State (5) versus Colonial champion and 2011 Final Four participant VCU (12) and Big Ten school Indiana (4), who is in the Tournament for the first time since 2008, playing Western Athletic Conference winner New Mexico State (13).

Big Ten regular season and tournament champions Michigan State will be the top seed out of the West Region. The Spartans, with an overall record of 27-7, are the only team out of the four top seeds to win their conference tournament.

Michigan State will play their 2nd round game against Northeast Conference Champion Long Island. Big XII Tournament champion Missouri is the number two seed out of the West. They will face Norfolk State, making their first tournament appearance out of the Mideastern Athletic Conference.

Other matchups in the West include Memphis (8), champions out of Conference-USA playing Atlantic-10 school Saint Louis (9), Big East At-Large Marquette (3) playing either Brigham Young or Iona as the fourteen seed, SEC regular season runner-up Florida (7) squaring Virginia (10) out of the ACC, Ohio Valley champion Murray State (6) facing Mountain West team Colorado State (11) and Mountain West Tournament victor New Mexico (5) versus Long Beach State (12) out of the Big West.

The 32-2 Syracuse Orange, the Big East regular season champions, was named the East Region's number one seed. Syracuse will face off against UNC Asheville out of the Big South Conference in their 2nd Round opener. Big Ten Tournament runner-up Ohio State was named the number two seed in the East. They will play Loyola (MD), making their first tournament appearance since 1994, out of the Mid-Atlantic Athletic Conference.

The East Region also features Big XII At-Large Kansas State (8) facing C-USA At-Large Southern Miss (9), perennial tournament contender Gonzaga (7) playing Big East school West Virgina (10), ACC tournament winners Florida State (3) against A-10 tournament champion St. Bonaventure (14), Big East Tournament runner-up Cincinnati (6) doing battle with Big XII school Texas (11), Big Ten power Wisconsin (4) playing Montana (13) out of the Big Sky Conference and Vanderbilt (5), who defeated Kentucky in the SEC title game on Sunday, going up against Ivy League champion Harvard (12), who are playing in their first tournament since 1946.

The North Carolina Tar Heels, the regular season champions out of the ACC, will head the Midwest Region as their top seed. North Carolina will start their tournament run against either Southland champion Lamar or America East champion Vermont. Big XII regular season winner Kansas is the two seed out of the Midwest. The Jayhawks draw Detroit out of the Horizon League for their 2nd Round matchup.

The remaining matchups in the Midwest Region include MVC tournament winner Creighton (8) playing Alabama (9) out of the SEC, West Coast Conference champion Saint Mary's of California (7) facing Big Ten At-Large Purdue (10), Big East power Georgetown (3) drawing Belmont (14) out of the Atlantic Sun Conference, MWC runner-up San Diego State (6) up against North Carolina State (11), Big Ten regular season co-champion Michigan (4) facing Ohio out of the Mid-American Conference and A-10 regular season champions Temple (5) playing either California or South Florida as a twelve seed.

The Tournament officially begins on Tuesday with the first two games of the First Four at the University of Dayton Arena in Dayton, Ohio. The first half of 2nd Round games start on Thursday at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, The Pit in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the KFC Yum! Center Louisville, Kentucky. 3rd Round games will be played at those locations on Saturday

The other half of 2nd Round games start on Friday and are located at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Nebraska, Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee and the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, North Carolina. Those locations will finish out the 3rd Round on Sunday March 18th.

The Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight will be held on March 22-25. The TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts and US Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona will hold the East and West Region's part March 22nd and 24th. The Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri and Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia will hold the Midwest and South Region's portion of the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight March 23rd and 25th.

The Final Four in New Orleans will begin with the National Semifinal games on March 31st. The National Championship game will be held two days later on April 2nd pitting the winner of the East/West matchup against the winner of the Midwest/South game.

CBS will once again team with Turner Broadcasting for television coverage of the NCAA Tournament. Tru TV will air the First Four games. CBS, TBS, TNT and Tru TV will broadcast the 2nd and 3rd round games, with the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight airing the following week on CBS and TBS. The Final Four and National Championship game will air for the 31st consecutive year on CBS.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Doleman, Martin head 2012 Class of Pro Football Hall of Fame

By Ray Bennett
Saturday February 4, 2012

Every year on the day before the Super Bowl, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, located in Canton, Ohio, select a group of retired veteran players, coaches and owners that left their mark on the game. This year, the committee picked six players that best represent that benchmark.

The 2012 Class of the Pro Football Hall of Fame was announced on Saturday in Indianapolis, Indiana, the location of this year's Super Bowl. The Class of 2012 will be represented by former Patriots and Jets running back Curtis Martin, former Vikings, Falcons and 49ers defensive end Chris Doleman, former Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy, former Saints and Chiefs offensive tackle Willie Roaf and two former Steelers: center Dermontti Dawson and cornerback Jack Butler.

The class was narrowed down from fifteen modern-era semi-finalists to a group of ten finalists. The final ten is then reduced to an eligible list of five. Those final five players need at least an eighty percent yes vote among the committee to get in.

The other two semi-finalists are former players that played in the NFL before the Super Bowl and AFL-NFL merger-eras. The senior committee can only pick one of those two players.

The biggest name on this list is eleven-year veteran running back Curtis Martin. Martin, in his second year of eligibility, started his career with the New England Patriots in 1995 after getting drafted in the 3rd round out of Pittsburgh. In his rookie season, he ran for 1487 yards and 14 touchdowns on his way to the offensive rookie of the year award. He scored 14 TD's again in his second season, even though his rushing yardage from his rookie year dropped to 1152 yards.

That year, the Patriots made it to Super Bowl XXXI, only to lose to the Green Bay Packers. Martin had 42 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards and a TD in what would be his only Super Bowl appearance.

After rushing for 1160 yards and 4 TD's in 1997, Martin signed with the New York Jets as a restricted free agent for the 1998 season and beyond. From '98 to 2005, Martin was one of the most dominant running backs in the league. In his tenure with the Jets, Martin ran for 10,302 yards, an all-time Jets record, and scored 58 of his 90 career rushing TD's. Injuries forced Martin to an early retirement at the age of 33 after missing the entire 2006 season.

In ten of his eleven seasons, Martin ran for over 1000 yards, the second player in NFL history to do this, next to Barry Sanders. Martin finished his career with 14,101 rushing yards, 4th all-time in NFL history behind Jim Brown, Walter Payton and Emmett Smith. He also was selected to five Pro Bowls ('95, '96, '98, '01, '04). He's also the oldest player to lead the league in rushing yards in a single season in 2004 at the age of 31.

Another former University of Pittsburgh player, DE/LB Chris Doleman, will join Martin in this year's Hall of Fame Class. A former fourth-overall draft pick, Doleman, who played the NFL for fifteen years for three different teams, was a feared defensive stalwart throughout his career. In 1989, Doleman set a Minnesota Vikings team record for sacks in a season with 21, the fourth highest in league history. That team record stood for twenty-two years until Jared Allen broke the record with 22 sacks this past season.

Doleman played for the Vikings from 1985 to 1993. He also had stints with the Atlanta Falcons from 1994-1995 and the San Francisco 49ers from 1996-1998. After spending one more year with the Vikings in 1999, Doleman retired with 150.5 career sacks and 8 Pro Bowl appearances ('87-'90, '92, '93, '95, '97). Doleman is also a member of the NFL's 1990's All-Decade Team.

Throughout his entire eleven-season career, Cortez Kennedy was the anchor of the Seattle Seahawks defensive line. A highly touted first round draft pick out of Miami (FL), Kennedy's career got off to a slow start in his rookie year after holding out until two days before the start of the 1990 season. The next year he turned things around, earning himself his first of six consecutive Pro Bowl selections. In 1992, despite his team only going 2-14, Kennedy won the league's Defensive Player of the Year award after leading the NFL with 14 sacks.

After retiring from the NFL, Kennedy compiled 668 tackles and 58 sacks in his eleven seasons. He was also selected 8 Pro Bowls ('91-'96, '98, '99) and is also a member of the NFL's 1990's All-Decade Team.

Dermontti Dawson is considered one of the best centers to ever play in the modern-era of the NFL. In a career that spanned thirteen seasons from 1988-2000, Dawson filled the shoes of Hall of Fame center Mike Webster, after he retired before his second year in the league. He started in 181 of his 184 career games, being selected to seven straight Pro Bowls from 1992-1998 and was awarded the 1996 Offensive Lineman of the Year by the NFL Alumni Association.

Offensive Tackle Willie Roaf was a dependable blocker throughout his entire thirteen-season career. Drafted eighth overall by the New Orleans Saints in 1993, Roaf went on to seven straight Pro Bowls from 1994-2000. After spending nine years with the Saints, Roaf signed with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2002, where he would go to four more Pro Bowls by the time he retired before the 2006 season. Roaf started in all of his 189 career games and is a member of both the NFL's 1990's and 2000's All-Decade Teams.

Former Steelers Defensive Back Jack Butler was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Senior committee, beating out former Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins offensive lineman Dick Stanfel, who played in the NFL from 1952 to 1958. An undrafted rookie out of St. Bonaventure University, Butler spent his entire nine-year career with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1951-1959. In his playing days, Butler was considered one of the best defensive backs in the league.

In his rookie season, Butler had five interceptions. In 1953, he had a then career best nine interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Four seasons later in 1957, he led the NFL with ten interceptions, four of them coming in one game against the Redskins. Butler was named to four straight Pro Bowls in his final four seasons from 1956-1959. Butler finished his career with 52 interceptions and is a member of the NFL's 1950's All Decade Team.

These six players beat out a list of eleven other eligible former players, coaches and owners. The other eleven semi-finalists include former RB Jerome Bettis, wide receivers Tim Brown, Cris Carter and Andre Reed, OL Will Shields, DE/LB's Charles Haley and Kevin Greene, DB Aeneas Williams, head coach Bill Parcells and former 49ers owner Edward DeBartolo, Jr.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame also announced that it's facilities will undergo major renovations. It will be the biggest of it's kind in the Hall of Fame's 50 year history. The enshrinement ceremony will take place on August 4th.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Tigers DH Martinez might miss 2012 season after ACL tear

By Raymond Bennett
Tuesday January 17, 2012

In 2011, Victor Martinez was an important piece to a Detroit Tigers team that won the AL Central and went all the way to the American League Championship Series. However, a serious injury may have impacted the Tigers chances of repeating as division champions.

Reports surfaced on Tuesday that Martinez, 33, tore his left anterior cruciate ligament during an offseason conditioning session at the Tigers spring training facility in Lakeland, FL. The injury will require surgery, which may result in Martinez missing a large portion or the entire 2012 MLB season.

Martinez was a contributing factor, along with AL Cy Young and MVP pitcher Justin Verlander and power-hitting first baseman Miguel Cabrera, in bringing the Tigers their first division championship in 24 years last season. In his first year in a Tigers uniform, the nearly full-time designated hitter had a career-high in batting average with .330, 12 home runs and 103 RBI. He also had a league-leading .394 average with runners in scoring position.

The loss of the 11-year veteran, who has also played for the Indians and Red Sox, couldn't come at a worse time for the Tigers as they have had a quiet offseason. So far this offseason, the Tigers have resigned IF Ramon Santiago, signed veteran relief pitcher Octavio Dotel and just agreed to deals with outfielder Delmon Young, and pitchers Rick Porcello and Phil Coke during salary arbitration.

Once news broke of Martinez's possible season-ending injury, rumors of available free agents the Tigers could sign as short-term replacements began to heat up. Among those names that have come up since the story broke include former Brewers 1B Prince Fielder, veteran OF/DH and one-time Tiger Johnny Damon, and former Yankees and A's DH Hideki Matsui among others. The Tigers are also one of six preferred teams of free agent Cuban-defect OF Yoennis Cespedes.

If the Tigers end up signing Cespedes, one of their players on the 25 man roster would have to move to the now vacant DH-slot. The most logical choice would be Young, who hit 8 of his 12 home runs last season after his acquisition from Minnesota late in the 2011 season. Young also has been known to be a below average, error prone outfielder, leading the Majors last year in errors among regular left fielders (7). A switch to DH might solve both problems for Young and the Tigers.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Improved Detroit Lions look to build off last season's late surge in competitive NFC North

By Ray Bennett
Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Last season, after a long decade of futility, failed draft picks and a revolving door of coaches, the Detroit Lions finally proved to the NFL that they will be a viable force for the foreseeable future. Entering the month of December with a record of 2-10, the Lions won four straight games to finish the 2010 season at 6-10.

Building off a strong defense and an offense with many skill options, third year head coach Jim Schwartz looks to take the the Lions to the next level of finishing at or above .500 for the first time since 2000. However, that task will seem far from easy in the NFC North, a division that features the defending Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers, the NFC Championship runner-up Chicago Bears and a Minnesota Vikings team that added veteran Pro Bowl Quarterback Donovan McNabb to their roster.

The biggest strenght the Lions had last season was their defensive line. The front-four was anchored by 2010 Defensive Rookie-of-the-Year Ndamukong Suh, who not only led all rookies but all defensive tackles in sacks with 10 last season. He leads a defensive line that includes veterans Kyle Vanden Bosch, Lawrence Jackson and Cliff Avril. Detroit's 2011 1st-round pick, former Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, will also be used on the Lions defensive line after he comes back from a foot injury suffered during training camp.

The linebacking corps is headed by third-year middle-linebacker DeAndre Levy. In 2010, Levy had 72 tackles, 34 of them which came during Detroit's four-game winning streak at the end of last season. Surrounding Levy in the back three are two key free agent signings. On Levy's left will be Stephen Tulloch, who played his first five seasons in Tennessee, three of which came when Schwartz was the Titans defensive coordinator. The other starting outside-linebacker Justin Durant comes to Detroit after four years in Jacksonville.

The biggest hole on the Lions defense entering this season is in their secondary. Detroit is still looking for a dominant cornerback. Among the CB's the Lions will use this season include veterans Chris Houston, Eric Wright, signed from Cleveland, and Alphonso Smith, who led the Lions in interceptions with five in only ten games last season. At safety, the Lions pair up third year player Louis Delmas with former Atlanta Falcon Erik Coleman.

The success of the Lions offense this season rests on the shoulders of third year quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford was limited to three games last season after suffering two separate injuries to his throwing shoulder. In the preseason, he's shown he's made significant progress after shoulder surgery.

In the three games he played, he threw for 6 touchdowns and only one interception. In case Stafford goes down with another injury, the Lions are loaded with depth at the quarterback position with veterans Shawn Hill and Drew Stanton. Both Hill and Stanton led the Lions to wins last season in Stafford's absence.

Second-year running back Jahvid Best returns after a rookie season that slowed his progression after suffering a turf toe injury. Starting in 15 games, Best averaged 3.2 yards per carry off 555 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns. Best also caught 58 passes for 487 yards and 2 recieving touchdowns.

After an Achilles injury in training camp to Illinois rookie Mikel Leshoure sidelined him for the season, the Lions went out and signed former Browns and Eagles RB Jerome Harrison. The Lions also picked up former Redskins power back Keiland Williams after camp. He'll be there in place of veteran Maurice Morris until he comes back from an injury sustained in camp.

Entering 2011, Detroit and Stafford will have big options at wide receiver and tight end. The receiving corps is led by fifth year wide out Calvin Johnson. Last season, Johnson led the Lions in receiving yards (1,120), receptions (77) and receiving touchdowns (12) on his way to his first career Pro Bowl selection. Next to Johnson is ninth year veteran Nate Burleson. Burleson was a huge pick up in 2010, amassing 68 receptions for 1,006 yards and 9 touchdowns as the Lions number two receiver.

Joining Johnson and Burleson at wide receiver are 2011 second-round draft pick Titus Young out of Boise State, former Bears receiver Rashied Davis, return specialist Stefan Logan and former Buccaneer Maurice Stovall.

The Lions are stacked at the tight end position with Tony Scheffler and Brandon Pettigrew. In 2010, Scheffler caught 44 passes for 378 yards and one touchdown, while Pettigrew had 77 catches for 722 yards and 4 touchdowns.

The success of Stafford will be based on how well the offensive line will protect him. The Lions offensive line will consist of veteran left tackle Jeff Backus, who has started in all of the 160 career games he's played since 2001, third year right tackle Gosder Cherilus, veteran center Dominic Raiola and guards Stephen Peterman and Rob Sims.

The Lions record this season will sorely be based on how well they play inside the NFC North against the Packers, Bears and Vikings. With Green Bay coming off a Super Bowl-winning season and the Bears making it all the way to the NFC title game to face the Packers, the Lions will have to fight with Minnesota to get near the top two in the division.

Key games in the Lions 2011 schedule include a Week Five home game against the Bears on Monday Night Football. It will be the Lions first Monday Night game in ten years. The Packers come to Detroit for the Lions annual Thanksgiving Day game in Week Twelve. Other key games in the schedule include matchups against defending AFC West champion Kansas City in the Lions home opener in Week Two, defending NFC South champion Atlanta in Week Seven, a trip to New Orleans to face the Saints in Week Thirteen, and a Christmas Eve home game against the San Diego Chargers in Week Sixteen.

Detroit opens the season in Tampa, FL to face the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium on September 11th at 1:00 PM EDT on Fox.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Now that NFL Lockout is over, what happens next?

By Ray Bennett
Monday July 25, 2011

When NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA Executive DeMaurice Smith took the podium outside of NFLPA headquarters in Washington D.C., both men were smiling at the fact that both sides finally reached a labor agreement that took them over 4 months to complete. The look of happiness and relief was echoed by select player representatives that attended the meeting.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement, first approved by NFL owners last Thursday, solved the core issues that were brought up when discussions began after last season ended. The rookie wage scale, that assures that drafted and undrafted players have to earn the money that veteran players make, a fair 52-48 revenue split in favor of the owners, added retirement benefits and leaving the current 16-game regular season untouched were far from easily solved.

After the finishing touches were ironed out, players, owners and fans of the NFL will not have to worry about labor issues for another decade.

Now that the labor agreement is in place, along with the fact that the preseason begins in just a few weeks, the league has to make up for over four months of lost time. The lockout has forced league general managers to wait to negotiate and sign with free agents, rookies and current players that they want to keep around.

The guidelines that the league handed out after the CBA was agreed upon for off-season transactions will make the next couple weeks for front office members and players the most quick, torrid and raggid time that the NFL has ever seen.

On Tuesday, a day after the league allowed teams a look into a huge free agency pool, that includes players like former Raiders CB Nnamdi Asomugha and Seahawks QB Matt Hasselbeck, and an extension of team rosters to 90 men, teams can begin discussions with unrestricted free agents, however, they cannot sign them until Friday. Teams can also begin trading players, like disgruntled Eagles backup QB Kevin Kolb, and sign drafted and undrafted rookies, along with players team's would want to keep. On Thursday, teams can free up salary cap space by releasing players that are owed large sums of money that drain a team's payroll.

If the movement of players wasn't enough to get teams discombobulated, current contracted players can enter team facilities and report to camp on Wednesday. The pattern of teams entering training camp will be based on how long until a team's first preseason game. 10 teams on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday will enter training camp 15 days before their first preseason game. The New York Jets and Houston Texans will be the final two teams to start camp on Sunday.

Even though the league and players union have agreed to a new CBA, the NFLPA has until August 4th to recertify as a union. This means that all players must write in and send their union card to union head Smith in order to finish the CBA process. Once everything is settled by the first preseason games on August 11th, the league can return to normal business.

The quick pace and the eventual stress that is involved in squeezing over four months of off-season activity in less than two weeks will indeed be frantic for every member of every rank in the NFL. Although all the movement may seem exciting for fans, every move that is made until August 11th will have a major domino effect on every team and every free agent. For example, if Asomugha signs a huge deal worth over $60-$70 million, it will dictate how much money Antonio Cromartie and Jonathan Joesph will make. Every free agent player will be affected by who signs with what team for how much money they are given.

The next two weeks in the NFL will be the most craziest time the league will ever see in it's 80+ year history. Brace yourself for a lot of player movement in only a few days time.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Reports: Rockets C Yao Ming, 30, to retire due to lingering foot & ankle injuires

By Ray Bennett
Friday July 8, 2011

In his eight seasons in the NBA, Yao Ming extended the league's global reach to Asia and beyond. However, in his past few seasons, lingering injuries have put an end to his short NBA career.

Multiple league sources are reporting that the Houston Rockets 30-year-old Chinese-born center has decided to retire from playing basketball due to recurring foot and ankle injuries. The 7-foot, 6-inch Yao only played in 5 games this past season averaging 10.2 points and 5.4 rebounds. In his short time in the NBA, Yao left a lasting impact on the game and it's global presence.

Yao's playing career began in his early teens for the Shanghai Sharks junior team of the Chinese Basketball Association. With his seven-foot plus height, he managed to work his way up to the main team at the age of 17. In his first season on the Sharks main squad, Yao averaged 10 points and 8 rebounds in 21 games.

After missing his second season with a broken foot, Yao came back to lead the Sharks to to the first of three consecutive appearances in the CBA Finals, losing the first two to the Bayi Rockets. Yao led the Sharks to the CBA title in their third straight appearance, averaging 38 points and 20 rebounds in the playoffs. This was enough for Yao to take his game overseas to America.

Yao was the first ever internationally-born player without any American-college experience to be selected number one overall in the 2002 NBA Draft by the Houston Rockets. After getting off to a slow start in his NBA-rookie season, Yao averaged 13.5 points and 8.2 rebounds in all 82 regular season games and finished second in Rookie of the Year voting. He started every game in his sophomore season, averaging 17.5 points and 9 rebounds per game to lead the Rockets to his first playoff appearance, losing in a five-game series to the Los Angeles Lakers.

The next season, after the Rockets acquired Tracy McGrady from Orlando, Yao led them back to the playoffs only to exit the first round again, this time at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks. He also made the Western Conference All-Star team for the third straight year, breaking the record for all-star votes that was previously held by Michael Jordan with over 2.5 million fan votes.

However, by the 2005-2006 NBA season, Yao's injuries began to mount up. In that season, he ended up missing 21 games after having surgery on his big left toe. When he came back, he averaged 25.7 points and 11.6 rebounds in a 25 game span. He ended the season averaging a double-double for the first time in his NBA career with 22.3 points and 10.2 rebounds in 57 games. With his team out of the playoff picture,  he ended up breaking his left foot near the end of the season that required surgery.

The next season, he was well on his way to the best season of his career averaging nearly 27 points and 10 rebounds per game before breaking his right knee in a game two days before Christmas. He ended up missing 34 games, including what would have been his fifth career All-Star game. When he returned, he helped lead the Rockets back to the playoffs, only to lose in the first round again, this time to the Utah Jazz in seven games.

The 2007-2008 season saw Yao and the Rockets start a huge winning streak that reached 12 games in mid to late February. However, it was reported that Yao had a stress-fracture in his left foot and would have to miss the rest of the season. After Yao was shut down, the Rockets won ten straight games, stretching their winning streak to 22 games, the second longest in NBA history. His recovery time was long enough for him to play for his native China in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

The following season in 2008-2009 had Yao playing in his first full year since 2004-2005, playing and starting in 77 games, almost averaging a double-double with 19.7 points and 9.9 rebounds. The Rockets made it back to the playoffs and finally got past the first round, beating the Portland Trail Blazers in six games. Houston lost in seven games to the Lakers in the Western Conference Semi-finals, with Yao suffering a hairline fracture in his left foot in Game 3, missing the rest of the series.

The injury forced Yao to undergo another operation on his left foot and resulted him to sit out the entire 2009-2010 season. When he came back the following season, the Rockets tried to limit his playing time to 24 minutes a game and to not play him in consecutive games in order to keep him healthy. However, midway through the month of December, the Rockets announced that Yao suffered a stress fracture in his left ankle, forcing him to end his season and his career in the process.

In his eight NBA seasons, Yao averaged 19 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2 blocks in 486 career games. He was also voted a starting All-Star in all of his eight seasons, only playing in five. In 28 career playoff games, Yao averaged 19.8 points and 9.3 rebounds. He also won three FIBA Asian Championship Gold Medals for China in 2001, 2003 and 2005.

When Yao first broke onto the NBA scene, he opened the door for other Chinese-born players to enter the league. In 2007, a game that featured Yao's Rockets and fellow country-man Yi Jilanlian playing for the Milwaukee Bucks was broadcasted on 19 different networks in China and viewed by over 200 Million people. This made it one of the most viewed regular season games ever in NBA history on an international level. His outreach has helped the NBA grow their influence in Asia and made Yao the most popular athlete in his native country.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Red Wings D Lidstrom, 41, signs one-year deal to return for 20th NHL season

By Ray Bennett
Monday June 20, 2011

The Detroit Red Wings won't have to worry about another veteran defenseman retiring, especially when it's their captain.

On Monday, 41 year old Swedish defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom told the Red Wings front office that he will sign a one-year contract to return for his 20th NHL season. It was reported that Lidstom will make the same $6 Million salary that he had last season.

Lidstrom, who has spent his entire career in Detroit, is coming off one of the best seasons of his career in which he scored 16 goals and notched 46 assists in a full 82-game season. Lidstrom even became the oldest player at the age of 40 to record his first career hat trick early in December against St. Louis.

Throughout his career, Lidstrom has been regarded as the best defenseman and European to play in the NHL in the past quarter-century. In his nineteen seasons, Lidstrom is a twelve-time All-Star, a four-time Stanley Cup winner and a six-time Norris Trophy winner for the league's best defenseman. On Wednesday, Lidstrom will find out if he'll win his seventh Norris Trophy in the NHL's annual awards ceremony.

Lidstrom also won the 2002 Conn Smythe Trophy as the Stanley Cup Playoffs most valuable player. He also has a Gold Medal for his native Sweden, winning it in the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy. He is also a member of the Triple Gold Club by having Gold Medals in both the Olympics and World Hockey Championships and a Stanley Cup Championship.

After Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman retired after the 2005-2006 season, Lidstom became the team's 38th captain in team history after spending nearly a decade as the team's alternate-captain. After winning his fourth career Stanley Cup in 2008, he became the first European-born captain to win the Cup.

The news of Lidstrom's return comes at a time in which the Red Wings need to fill holes on defense. Just a few weeks ago, veteran defenseman Brian Rafalski announced his retirement after 13 NHL seasons. People inside the Red Wings front office, including General Manager Ken Holland, thought that Lidstrom would go the same route as his former teammate.

This past week, Lidstrom told Holland and the Red Wings that he would tell the team of his decision of whether or not he would return for a 20th NHL season in the span of a few days. On Monday during a conference call with Holland, Lidstrom confirmed him he would return.