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Issue: "Reagan: Providential president," Feb. 7, 2004

All quiet on the Eastern front

If what New Jersey Nets coach Byron Scott said to official Luis Grillo was bad enough to warrant an immediate ejection late in the third quarter of the Nets win on Jan. 25, just imagine what he was saying the next day when he learned Nets president Rod Thorn had decided to fire him. Never mind the Nets top spot in the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference, or their Sunday win over rival Boston to end a lengthy losing streak; Mr. Thorn had concluded the time was right to dispatch the coach who took New Jersey to the NBA finals last season. Such a midseason change from a top team translates to bad news for the Eastern Conference-and bad news for the league.

The NBA needs a flourishing Nets squad to help keep some dignity in the Eastern Conference. Considering the East's winning percentage against the West (just 37 percent at the time of Mr. Scott's firing), the NBA needs more than just the Nets. Right now, the West has it all: a near monopoly on league talent, a top-to-bottom team advantage, and higher-scoring teams. Not only are Western Conference teams seemingly made for TV with glitzy scorers and fast-paced offenses, the Eastern Conference seems to have adopted a stodgy half-court game more likely to put viewers to sleep than to excite fans.

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It's no help that the teams in the East's biggest media markets have struggled even to make the playoffs in the past few years. The six Atlantic Division teams trailing New Jersey will make 23 appearances on Network TV from February until the end of the season, including 10 by Philadelphia and only two by New York. Fast-paced Sacramento and the star-laden Lakers will combine for 28 appearances by themselves, proving that TV executives view much of the Eastern Conference as a snooze-and-lose proposition for its viewers.

Black hole

Norv Turner can think of his new job as a blessing. Or a curse. Or even a promise of a future Super Bowl ring. Such are the peculiar circumstances that go along with the position of head coach of the Oakland Raiders, whose owner used to call the team's plays and whose five-year veteran cornerback thinks he runs the team.

But Mr. Turner faces ever more unique challenges. The club's previous coach left the team disgraced by a players' uprising against him. Cornerback Charles Woodson, who led the rebellion against the previous regime, still harbored disrespect for authority during an ESPN interview. And the Raiders, who went from the Super Bowl to the cellar, aren't getting any younger. If Mr. Turner is to turn the Raiders into a playoff team next year, he'll have to do it with aged offensive stars Rich Gannon, Tim Brown, and Jerry Rice-or with smoke and mirrors. If he fails, Mr. Turner can look to the example of Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan, who won Super Bowls after leaving the Raiders.

Around the horn

New York Yankees fans who were forced into loving Aaron Boone after his heroic ALCS home run may now return to disliking the pinstriped third-baseman. Mr. Boone tore knee ligaments while playing a pickup basketball game and could be out for the 2004 season. That's bad news for the Yankees who were counting on him to be their everyday third baseman, but even worse news for the player. Such pickup games violate his contract and he could forfeit part or all of his $5.75 million '04 paycheck.

The good news for Louisville coach Rick Pitino is that doctors have ruled out prostate cancer as the cause of the pain that finally forced him to take a medical leave of absence late in January.

Media day at the Super Bowl makes for all sorts of prodigious stories. What would one expect with hordes of sports scribes all scouring the same grounds for a different story? Among the fish tales are the famous questions from the 1988 Super Bowl in which a reporter supposedly asked Doug Williams how long he'd been a black quarterback. Although that story has been disproved, no one has disputed one reporter's question to Broncos defensive end Walt Bowyer: "If you could be a tree, what kind of tree would you be," and Mr. Bowyer's response, "A cheese tree."

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