NCAA, KEEP OUT!

It’s one of those stories that transcends beyond sport. It’s one of those stories you just don’t want to believe. It’s one of those stories that you just want to end yet it rolls on. Penn State’s NCAA punishment was announced last week. Levied with a $60 million sanction, a four-year football postseason ban on the school and reduced scholarships, the schools football program has been left in tatters.

Is this a fair punishment? No.

If Sandusky was a biology professor and had violated regular surgical students, would the American College of Surgeons fine the school, take away scholarships of the students and revoke all licenses awarded since 1998? No.

The acts that have taken place are despicable criminal charges, they are not acts that the NCAA should get too involved with. The people in question have and will continue to face the necessary criminal punishment that the law deems fit. On June 22, Sandusky was convicted of 45 of the 48 counts that were brought against him. He will spend his remaining years locked behind bars.

Yes, take away Paterno’s records, but why do the NCAA continue to over use its power to take away the opportunities for students that could potential hinder their development in life?

by Laurence Benson

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

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The Miami Heat Win The NBA Title, Lead By Lebron James

You know what saddens me? The funniest clip on YouTube is no longer funny. Yep, you can finally rest in peace, “The Heat Welcome Party” video. Thanks for giving us two sterling years atop the Internet comedy rankings. We’re replacing you with a bullpen by committee of old reliables like “I Like Turtles,” “Charlie Bit Me,” the “It’s Still Real to Me, Dammit” guy, Journey’s immortal “Separate Ways” video and even the “I Like Turtles” techno remix. You will be buried officially during Monday’s championship parade in Miami. We will bury you not once, not twice, not three times … just kidding, we’re only burying you once.

Let’s hope you don’t resurface as something else — something scarier, something more ominous, something on the level of Namath guaranteeing Super Bowl III or Ali promising to defeat Liston. See, the ceiling of “The Heat Welcome Party” slowly changed during the last two games of the 2012 Finals. It’s no longer about hubris or a suffocating lack of self-awareness. It might be more of an omen, a warning, a little like the Game of Thrones characters seeing a red comet streak across the sky and saying, Uh-oh, dragons are coming. I mention this only because, like every other non-Miami fan who attended the last two home games, I left that arena muttering to myself, “Shit … he finally figured it out.”

Suddenly “Not one, not two, not three … ” doesn’t sound so far-fetched. Unless his body betrays him, it’s hard to imagine LeBron not using the 2012 playoffs as a launching pad for the next stage of his career … you know, when he starts collecting trophies and climbing up that imaginary historical ladder. We remember NBA stars three different ways: by the entirety of their career, their career’s highest peak, and the duration of that peak. Something like 25 players had genuinely great careers, but only seven played at the all-around level that LeBron achieved these past few weeks. Jordan, Russell, Kareem, Magic and Bird kept their peaks going. Wilt got bored. Walton got injured. Now we’re here again.

LeBron spent the last nine years juggling various identities — a little Jordan, a little Magic, a little ABA Doc, a little Pippen — never revealing that HE knew what he wanted to be. Even his position was amorphous. Was he a power forward? A small forward? An oversize point guard? What the hell was he? By the end of the 2012 Finals, we had our answer: He’s LeBron James. First of a kind. A power point guard who can create his own shot from the perimeter and the low post, a devastating passer who can’t be double-teamed, a superior athlete who attacks the rim whenever he wants, an unfathomably durable workhorse on both ends, someone who can defend all five positions (yes, five) at an elite level.

Over everything else, he fully married his physical gifts with his basketball I.Q. and morphed into something of a basketball monster. Remember all those times when we wondered, Why doesn’t LeBron just take it to the rack — it seems like he could score whenever he wants? Yup, pretty much. A good example of LeBron’s physical dominance this spring: Late in Game 4, when LeBron started limping and finally toppled to the floor, everyone in the arena had the same reaction. Wait, LeBron can get hurt? LeBron feels pain? It was like seeing Michael Myers keel over. When he was carried off, the crowd audibly gasped in disbelief. They’re carrying him off? They’re carrying LeBron off? I assumed that he belatedly realized he’d blown out his knee because, you know, he’s a fucking cyborg. As it turned out, he only had cramps. Even that seemed kind of amazing. LeBron James gets cramps? LeBron James needs to drink water?

So yeah, everything starts with that remarkable body. If you were creating a basketball player in a science lab, you would create the guy we just watched these past five weeks. When was the last time an NBA player made you say, “Come on, that’s not fair”? Maybe Shaq during those three Finals when he kept overpowering the Pacers, Sixers and Nets? That’s how LeBron made Celtics fans feel during Game 6’s cold-blooded scoring barrage, and that’s how he made Oklahoma City fans feel during those last two Finals games. LeBron mastered their defense the same way Tom Brady would solve a nickel zone. Everything slowed down for him, and even better, you could see it slowing down for him. The court turned into his personal chess board. Throw in his superhuman athletic gifts and it almost didn’t seem fair.

In Game 4, Miami planted him on the low post and LeBron went Larry Bird 2.0 on us. (For the record, there was never supposed to be a Larry Bird 2.0. We discontinued that model in 1992 and assumed it would never be seen again, much less in an even more devastating form. So … yeah.) In Game 5, he mixed that same low-post game with Dirk Nowitzki’s high-post isolation game that worked so well in the 2011 playoffs, going Dirk 2.0 by adding a slash-and-kick component. Of his 13 Game 5 assists, eight resulted in 3s. Throw in his 26 points and LeBron was directly responsible for 60 points last night.

You know what was really scary? I didn’t even think he played that well. Game 6 against Boston? A-plus. The first three quarters of Game 4 against Oklahoma City? A-plus-plus. Last night? B-plus … even though he finished with a 26-11-13 in a blowout victory. Something that wasn’t totally reflected in the box score other than Miami’s made 3s (14 in all): LeBron’s brilliance lifted everyone else along with him. It wasn’t a coincidence that Miami’s supporting guys starting swishing 3s like pop-a-shot free throws. We just watched the same thing happen with the Los Angeles Kings — once Jonathan Quick established himself as the proverbial “hot goalie,” his teammates started flying around with an inordinate amount of confidence. They could smell it. Same for Miami those last few games. And all because of LeBron.

In the postgame presser, he mentioned being happy it played out the way it did, that he needed to “hit rock-bottom” before he could become the player he needed to be. I don’t believe this for two reasons. First, his jaw-dropping performance in the 2009 playoffs (35.3 PPG, 7.3 APG, 9.1 RPG, .510 FG) strongly hinted that this 2012 bloodbath (30.3 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 5.6 APG, the first player ever to average a 30-9-5 twice in the postseason) was coming. His evolution was always headed this way; we just got delayed (and nearly derailed) by 2010’s meltdown in the Boston series, then “The Decision,” then everything from last year. Second, I can’t imagine LeBron would ever repeat the last 23 months. There had to be better ways to get there. During last night’s interviews, we kept hearing the same wistful refrain from LeBron, his teammates and even his coach. The last two years weren’t fun. Wearing that big bull’s-eye and the black cowboy hat wasn’t fun. Being booed wasn’t fun, being picked apart wasn’t fun, being maligned wasn’t fun. They spent last season battling the collective vitriol, figuring out how to use it to their advantage … and ultimately failing.

As LeBron admitted last night, it just wasn’t him. He wasn’t meant to be someone who dunked on opponents and stared defiantly into the stands like a wrestling heel. He lost himself in the process, spent the summer remembering why he liked basketball, rededicated himself, found that same joy … and the rest was history. Even if that sounds like a sweet plot for a sports movie, I’m not buying that LeBron needed that specific sequence to achieve his manifest destiny. Sports would have taken care of that for him. You keep losing the title, you keep going back to the drawing board, you keep trying to get better. Wilt wanted to get past the Celtics. Bird wanted to get past the Sixers. Magic wanted to get past the Celtics. Jordan wanted to get past the Pistons. That’s basketball. Eventually, LeBron would realize that losing sucked and spend the summer accordingly. Decision or no Decision.

So what actually changed? For one thing, Dwyane Wade injured his knee and became 70 Percent Of Dwyane Wade, inadvertently solving the “dueling banjos” dilemma. The Heat tried to thwart six decades of NBA history by teaming two alpha dogs together, making them equals and assuming their overwhelming talent would overcome any resulting bumpiness. They were wrong. Basketball doesn’t work that way, for the same reason you don’t need two transcendent lead guitarists for a rock band. Someone had to learn bass. It ended up being Wade, and only because fate intervened. We’ll remember Game 6 of the Boston series for a variety of reasons, but mainly because LeBron looked around and said, I’m going down on my own terms. I’m playing all 48 minutes and scoring 50 points. If we lose, we lose. At least nobody will say that I rolled over. It ended up being the most important two hours of his career. He went out and assassinated the Celtics.

From that moment forward, Dwyane Wade became a glorified sidekick. Everything Miami did offensively went through LeBron. Wade quickly figured out how to coexist, grabbing stray shots and doing anything else the team needed: protecting the rim, crashing the boards, bolting toward the rim for backdoor passes anytime Oklahoma City forgot about him. You couldn’t even call him more valuable than Chris Bosh, who reestablished himself in those last seven playoff games as a quality defender, screen-and-roller and inside/outside threat who didn’t need the ball to thrive. Was Wade happy about how it played out? Absolutely … because they won. Tellingly, of course, he made a point of mentioning how “difficult” that adjustment was.

And that’s only scratching the surface. Imagine you’re Wade. Imagine you talk Bosh and LeBron into joining YOUR team and living in YOUR city. Imagine that first year going to hell. Imagine coming to the begrudging realization that you’re only going as far as LeBron takes you, that — even though it’s your city, and you’re the one who gets introduced last at every home game — you’re going to have to wear the Robin costume. By Game 2 of the Finals, everyone is wondering whether you’re the same guy you used to be; meanwhile, you’ve never had to take a backseat on a basketball court before, and that’s what is screwing you up more than anything. By Game 5, you’re listening to your fans serenade LeBron with “M-V-P!” chants as he holds two trophies like a hunter holding a couple of deer heads. You’re standing on the side, just like Shaq six years ago. Maybe that’s what he meant by “difficult.”

Just know the situation was resolved organically, much like it was during the 2008 Olympics, when Spain was closing in and Kobe said I got this, followed by everyone else letting him have it. That’s just how basketball works. You can’t have two guys saying “I got this.” Miami figured that out a year late. And if Wade hadn’t tweaked his knee, maybe they never would have.

The other twist of fate: Derrick Rose wrecked his knee in Round 1, propelling the Celtics into the Conference Finals … you know, LeBron’s nemesis, the bullies who beat him in 2008 and 2010, the grizzled veterans who were convinced that LeBron would always cave when it mattered most. Garnett and Pierce loved pushing his buttons more than anyone. During their final regular-season road trip to Miami, which turned out to be a surprisingly easy win for the Celtics, they spent the last two minutes busting Wade’s balls about LeBron. You picked the wrong guy. You’ll never win with that guy. LeBron could hear everything. They didn’t care. In Game 5 of their playoff series, Garnett and Pierce pushed things a little further, believing that LeBron was ready to cave again. Down the stretch, Garnett muttered derisive obscenities under his breath anytime LeBron was in earshot, then stuffed him at the rim on a pivotal drive. A little bit later, Pierce nailed a back-breaking 3 right in LeBron’s mug, then yelled, “I have the balls to take that!” as he trotted back down the floor.

In retrospect, they pushed him too far. The Celtics regarded LeBron with a surprising amount of disdain — that’s why Rondo angrily yelped, “Let’s go!” before defending LeBron’s final drive of regulation in Game 2. LeBron ended up settling for a 21-footer against someone seven inches shorter than him, followed by Rondo strutting back to the huddle and probably telling his teammates, “I knew he didn’t have the balls to come at me.” They spent that whole series challenging his manhood; by the end of Game 5, they thought they had broken him. Was that what turned him into a serial killer in Game 6? Not entirely … but it definitely helped. I just don’t think LeBron makes LeLeap without the bullies from Boston.

So what happens next? Lurking underneath LeBron’s postseason was a scary realization: Miami finally knows what it is. The Heat settled the LeBron/Wade thing, settled the “Is Spoelstra the right coach?” question, figured out their eight-man rotation (only Mike Miller’s spot is in danger2) and realized they’re better off playing Bosh and LeBron as their bigs (a trick that unleashes them offensively and defensively). Oh, and they have the guy playing at the highest level in two decades on their team. Life is good. Even their much-maligned home crowd stepped up with a series of spirited playoff efforts, buoyed by their “us against them” complex (which started with “The Decision” and deepened over time thanks to the national media) and a genuine affection for this team (not just their three stars, but veterans like Miller, Battier and even Juwan Howard). Everything seems to be lined up for an extended run along the lines of Shaq’s Lakers, Michael’s Bulls, Magic’s Lakers or Bird’s Celtics (combined titles: 17). Before the Finals, I wrote that it would be a historical fluke if LeBron James lost his first three Finals; he was just too good of a player for this to happen. Same goes for LeBron winning multiple titles now that he’s reached that aforementioned Jordan/Russell/Kareem/Bird/Magic/Wilt/Walton zone. History says that, after he finally broke through, it will only get easier from here.

Only one thing can stop him. I happened to be sitting four rows behind the baseline last night, close enough to Oklahoma City’s bench that I could have whipped a coke at Cole Aldrich and maybe even left a mark. Kevin Durant thought the Zombies were winning last night. He strutted through the pregame warm-ups like it was a preseason game. He talked so much good-natured trash with LeBron’s buddy and business partner, Maverick Carter, that security got confused and intervened at one point. When Oklahoma City fell behind in the second quarter, Durant made a basket, ran back upcourt, noticed his teammates sitting placidly, then skipped over to them while clapping his hands, as if he were saying, “Come on! I need you!” Right before the second half started, he went after Maverick again, finally scowling, “fourth quarter’s my time” before walking away.

You can’t believe how many people on that bench assumed Durant would bring them back. They kept waiting for him to catch fire. Even when Miami opened up a 25-point lead and Oklahoma City called timeout — the textbook “This game is O-V-E-R” sequence that so often happens in Finals clinchers — Durant caught his mother’s eye and heard her scream, “Kevin, let’s go!” followed by Durant calmly nodding, as if he actually had a chance of saving them. Not this year. With less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and Oklahoma City trailing by 23, Scott Brooks finally yanked his starters during an emotional timeout, but not before pulling everyone into a close circle and saying God knows what. When the huddle broke, you could see Durant and Serge Ibaka sobbing into towels. Multiple teammates came over to console Durant, with Westbrook finally yelling at him (not as a dick, as a friend) to gather himself before TV cameras found him. Which he did.

Brooks pulled Harden a few seconds later. He wandered over to the corner to stand with Westbrook, with Durant eventually joining them. They stood there with their arms wrapped around each other, watching their season tick away, soaking in every image for those days in July and August when you’re tired of shooting jumpers in an empty gym and need a trigger to keep pushing yourself. It was my favorite moment of the series. Down the line on the other bench, LeBron was hugging teammates and smiling broadly for the first time since … god, when was the last time we even saw LeBron smile? The final buzzer sounded, confetti started falling, and Durant and LeBron quickly found each other for a prolonged hug. You have to believe the rest of the decade is headed that way: summer workout buddies, Olympic teammates, natural rivals. They will see each other again.

And really, that’s the key for LeBron James going forward. Bird and Magic had each other. Russell and Chamberlain had each other. Kareem had a steady slew of rivals to keep him busy: Wilt, Willis, Cowens, Walton and Moses, to name five. Jordan didn’t have anyone; that’s one of the reasons he played baseball for 18 months. You need someone to keep pushing you after you finally break through. When I think of Game 5, I will remember LeBron’s brilliance first, then Mike Miller having that crazy sports-movie montage of 3s … and then I’ll think of the Oklahoma City kids huddled in the corner at the end, waiting their turn, knowing that’s how the NBA works. We’ll see if LeBron ever lets them on the ride.

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

Simpson Wins U.S. Open

Webb Simpson refused to think of himself as a U.S. Open champion until he sat with his nervous wife in a quiet corner of the locker room Sunday, staring in disbelief at a television as Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell tried to catch him.

He was up against a pair of major champions. He was at The Olympic Club, where the wrong guy always wins a U.S. Open.

Simpson should have known now how this would end.

He did his part with four birdies in a five-hole stretch around the turn, and a tough par from the collar of the 18th green for a 2-under 68. It was enough to capture his first major when Furyk bogeyed two of his last three holes, and McDowell couldn’t recover from a bad start and too many tee shots in the rough.

"Oh, wow," Simpson said when McDowell’s 25-foot birdie putt to force a playoff stayed left of the cup

Simpson emerged from a fog-filled final round as a U.S. Open champion, and he put two more names into the graveyard of champions.

"I never really wrapped my mind around winning," said Simpson, who finished at 1-over 281 to win in only his fifth time at a major. "This place is so demanding, and so all I was really concerned about was keeping the ball in front of me and making pars."

Olympic is known as the “graveyard of champions” because proven major winners who were poised to win the U.S. Open — Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Payne Stewart — all lost out to the underdog.

Perhaps it was only fitting that the 25-year-old Simpson went to Wake Forest on an Arnold Palmer scholarship.

"Arnold has been so good to me," Simpson said. "Just the other day, I read that story and thought about it. He’s meant so much to me and Wake Forest. Hopefully, I can get a little back for him and make him smile."

No one was beaming like Simpson, who followed a breakthrough year on the PGA Tour with his first major.

No one was more disgusted than Furyk, in control for so much of the final round until he snap-hooked his tee shot on the par-5 16th hole to fall out of the lead for the first time all day, and was unable to get it back. Needing a birdie on the final hole, he hit into the bunker. He crouched and clamped his teeth onto the shaft of his wedge. Furyk made bogey on the final hole and closed with a 74, a final round without a single birdie.

McDowell, who made four bogeys on the front nine, at least gave himself a chance with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 17th and a shot into the 18th that had him sprinting up the hill to see what kind of chance he had. The putt stayed left of the hole the entire way, and he had to settle for a 73.

McDowell shared second place with Michael Thompson, who closed with a 67 and waited two hours to see if it would be good enough.

Tiger Woods, starting five shots behind, played the first six holes in 6-over par and was never a factor. He shot 73 and finished six strokes back.

Furyk was fuming, mostly at himself, for blowing a chance at his second U.S. Open title. He also was surprised that the USGA moved the tee up 100 yards on the 16th hole to play 569 yards. It was reachable in two shots for some players, though the shape of the hole featured a sharp turn to the left.

"There’s no way when we play our practice rounds you’re going to hit a shot from a tee 100 yards up unless someone tells you," Furyk said. "But the rest of the field had that same shot to hit today, and I’m pretty sure no one hit as (bad) a shot as I did. I have no one to blame but myself.

"I was tied for the lead, sitting on the 16th tee. I’ve got wedges in my hand, or reachable par 5s, on the way in and one birdie wins the golf tournament. I’m definitely frustrated."

But he gave Simpson his due.

Of the last 18 players to tee off in the final round, Simpson was the only one to break par. That didn’t seem likely when Simpson was six shots behind as he headed to the sixth hole, the toughest at Olympic. That’s where he started his big run.

His 7-iron landed in the rough and rolled 5 feet away for birdie. He made birdie on the next two holes, including a 15-footer on the par-3 eighth. And his wedge into the 10th settled 3 feet away, putting him in the mix for the rest of the day.

"It was a cool day," Simpson said. "I had a peace all day. I knew it was a tough golf course. I probably prayed more the last three holes than I ever did in my life."

Simpson’s shot from the rough on the 18th hole went just right of the green and disappeared into a hole, a circle of dirt about the size of a sprinkler cap. With a clump of grass behind the ball, he had a bold stroke for such a nervy shot and it came out perfectly, rolling 3 feet by the hole for his much-needed par.

Then, it was time to wait.

It was the third time in the last seven years that no one broke par in the U.S. Open. On all three occasions, the winner was in the locker room when the tournament ended.

While Furyk will be haunted by his finish, McDowell can look back at his start — four bogeys on the front nine — and his inability to find fairways. Even on the last hole, his tee shot tumbled into the first cut of rough and kept him from being able to spin the ball closer.

"There’s a mixture of emotions inside me right now — disappointment, deflation, pride," he said. "But mostly just frustration, just because I hit three fairways today. That’s the U.S. Open. You’re not supposed to do that. You’re supposed to hit it in some fairways. And that was the key today for me."

Beau Hossler, the 17-year-old who started only four shots behind, disappeared quickly and closed with a 76. A double bogey on the last hole meant Jordan Spieth (70) was low amateur.

For Lee Westwood, the sting was sharper — and quicker. His tee shot on the fifth hole struck a towering cypress tree and never came down. Westwood gazed at the top of the 40-foot tree, even using binoculars to try to find it. But it was back to the tee for his third shot, a double-bogey that made him part of Olympic lore on the fifth hole, only with a far different outcome.

It was the same hole — but not the same tree — where Lee Janzen’s ball dropped from the branches as his back was turned while walking back to the tee. Janzen converted that break into another U.S. Open title in 1998. Westwood never threatened again in trying to win his first major.

Furyk and McDowell were slugging it out over the opening six holes, and no one seriously challenged them for the first few hours of the final round.

It changed quickly, and it was tight the rest of the way with as many as eight players believing they could win this championship.

Thompson, whose 66 in the opening round was the best score of the week, played bogey-free on the back nine and picked up a birdie on the par-5 16th with a wedge that settled near the flag. Despite missing an easy birdie chance on the 17th, he was in the clubhouse at 2-over 282.

Els drove the par-4 seventh green and holed an 8-foot eagle putt that brought him within two shots of the lead. He lost hope, however, when he slightly pulled his wedge into the 16th. It went into a collection area, and his putt up the slope came back at his feet. He had to scramble for a bogey.

"I’ll go to bed tonight thinking of the 16th, the third shot," he said. "That basically cost me the tournament."

Padraig Harrington came out of nowhere with five birdies in 11 holes to reach 2 over, but from the 18th fairway, he buried his approach in a bunker and made bogey.

Even so, this was a major that looked as if it would belong to McDowell or Furyk. One of them lost it early, the other one lost it late.

Simpson joined them as a U.S. Open champion, a win that moved him to No. 5 in the world.

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

Nadal Wins Roland Garros for 7th Time

Rafael Nadal admitted he had been affected by nerves during the French Open final and was delighted to finally come through and clinch a record-breaking seventh Roland Garros crown against Novak Djokovic.

The Spaniard’s 6-4 6-3 2-6 7-5 victory, which was completed on Monday after being rained off last night, took him past Bjorn Borg as the first man to win seven French Open titles.

Nadal’s win also meant Djokovic was denied a historic fourth slam title in a row after wins over his rival in London, New York and Australia, leaving Don Budge and Rod Laver as the only men to have accomplished the feat.

"For me it’s a really emotional day to win another time here," Nadal said afterwards.

"Sure the seventh is important because I am the player who has more today, but that’s after, the most important thing is to win Roland Garros, whether it’s the first, second, third or seventh.

"That’s what makes me very happy. I’m very happy with the way I played today, I was much more aggressive."

Nadal was visibly furious that play had continued as rain fell on Sunday evening and he admitted coming back today had been a difficult experience.

"It was very hard for me since yesterday," he continued. "I’ve been playing this match since Friday afternoon, it’s a long time preparing, and then yesterday with all the stops.

"I really felt nervous. My feeling was I wasn’t ready for the match until three minutes before. That was the first moment since we stopped yesterday that I really felt that I am here to play. I was more nervous than usual because of the situation.

"It was clearly a good thing for me to stop the match yesterday because of the conditions. The last couple of games, the conditions of the court was not the right ones to play the final of a grand slam. We had to stop.

"The ball was heavier than ever. In my opinion the conditions were much more favourable for Novak than for me. And I’m playing against the best player in the world."

For his part, Djokovic insisted he was more than satisfied with his efforts at the tournament despite falling short in his own bid for history.

Having been taken to five sets by both Andreas Seppi and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, the Serbian world number one claimed he would take the positives from a first Roland Garros final appearance.

"This has been a strange final with delays and conditions and two days’ length of match," declared Djokovic. "I’m just happy to be in this position, to be playing the final at Roland Garros.

"I could easily have lost the match in fourth round or even more against Tsonga, but I managed to come to the finals for the first time in my career. I should be happy about that, of course.

"I will be and I am, but in this moment I am disappointed about this loss because I thought I started to play better in the third set and felt like I could take this match to a fifth set, and then everything could be possible.

"But unfortunately there was a rain delay yesterday when I started to feel really good on the court. But I don’t want to find an excuse in that, because the first rain delay maybe helped me a little bit, the second helped him. So that’s the way it goes, and the better player won today."

Djokovic, meanwhile, insisted the lost opportunity to hold all four titles did not make the disappointment worse.

"The disappointment is there because I lost the match," he continued. "Yes, there was obviously the opportunity to make history as well, but it was not a primary thought in my mind."

Djokovic had been clearly in the ascendancy last night and he would have been happy to try to complete the match then.

"They were really bad, the conditions yesterday," added the 25-year-old. "But I was ready to continue on and play last night.

"I thought around 8pm the rain stopped, but they decided to stop because the weather conditions were not good and the court was not in a good condition. So I was okay with that. I am not putting the blame on anybody."

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

French Opens Final to Resume Tomorrow

The French Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic was suspended in the fourth set because of rain, the first time in 39 years the tournament won’t end on a Sunday.

Nadal led 6-4, 6-3, 2-6, 1-2 after 3 hours of play when the day’s second rain delay sent the players to the locker room. About an hour later, the suspension until Monday was announced, with a start time of 1 p.m. (7 a.m. EDT).

Monday’s forecast predicts intermittent rain.

The French Open hasn’t been pushed past the final Sunday since 1973, when Ilie Nastase beat Nikki Pilic in a match that ended on Tuesday.

Djokovic is trying to become the first man in 43 years to win four consecutive Grand Slam titles. Nadal is seeking a record seventh French Open championship.

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

Timothy Bradley Has Beaten Manny Pacquiao by Split Decision

Timothy Bradley promised to shock, though the biggest shock in his fight with Manny Pacquiao came from the judges’ scorecards.

In a fight Pacquiao seemed to have in hand, two judges decided otherwise, giving Bradley a split decision Saturday night and ending the Filipino fighter’s remarkable seven-year unbeaten run.

Promoter Bob Arum fumed, the crowd at the MGM Grand arena booed, and Pacquiao seemed stunned when the decision was announced. Arum said there would be a November rematch, though he blasted the way the decision went down.

"I’ve never been as ashamed of the sport of boxing as I am tonight," said Arum, who handles both fighters.

Bradley came on strong in the later rounds, winning five of the last six on two scorecards and four on the third. He won 115-113 on the scorecards of judges Duane Ford and C.J. Ross, while losing on Jerry Roth’s scorecard by the same margin. The Associated Press had Pacquiao winning 117-111.

"I did my best," Pacquiao said. "I guess my best wasn’t good enough."

Pacquiao tried to turn the fight into a brawl, using his power to hurt Bradley in the early rounds. But Bradley changed tactics in the middle rounds and used his boxing skills to win enough rounds to take the narrow decision for the welterweight title.

It ended a 15-fight winning streak by Pacquiao dating to 2005 that turned him into a boxing superstar and made him a national hero in the Philippines.

"I thought I won the fight," Bradley said. "I didn’t think he was as good as everyone says he was. I didn’t feel his power."

Ringside punching statistics showed Pacquiao landing 253 punches to 159 for Bradley, who vowed before the fight to take the 147-pound title from Pacquiao. The Compubox statistics showed Pacquiao landing more punches in 10 of the 12 rounds.

Bradley was so confident that he had oversized tickets printed up for a Nov. 10 rematch that now will likely happen.

Bradley seemed hurt in the fourth and fifth rounds, but Pacquiao had trouble landing big punches after that. Still, he seemed in control of the fight everywhere but on the judge’s scorecards.

"Can you believe that? Unbelievable," Arum said. "I went over to Bradley before the decision and he said, `I tried hard but I couldn’t beat the guy.’ "

Bradley said he hurt his ankle in the second round, and that trainer Joel Diaz said he could either quit or try to take the fight to Pacquiao.

"I got my second wind in the sixth round," Bradley said. "I worked the angles, sticking and moving."

Pacquiao said he studied Bradley on tape before the fight and wasn’t surprised by anything he did. He said he thought he was in control of the fight and was shocked when the decision went against him.

"He never hurt me with his punches; most of them landed on my arms," Pacquiao said.

Pacquiao tried to brawl with Bradley and seemed to hurt him in both the fourth and fifth rounds. But Bradley started moving and counter punching, though he never seemed to land any shots that hurt Pacquiao.

Pacquiao had vowed to look impressive against Bradley after struggling in his last outing with Juan Manuel Marquez, a fight many thought he lost. And he did early, landing good long left hands while beating Bradley to the punch on most exchanges.

"He hurt me a couple of times with his left," Bradley said. "He’s a beast."

Trainer Freddie Roach told Pacquiao after the 10th round that he had control of the fight, and urged him to fight hard the final two rounds.

"You have six minutes to go, son," Roach said. "It’s your fight."

But it wasn’t Pacquiao’s fight, with Bradley getting credit for winning some of the close middle and later rounds. After the 11th round, Bradley went back to his corner and trainer Joel Diaz told him he needed to win the final round.

"I listened to my corner," Bradley said. "I got to give him a rematch now."

Arum said there will be one on Nov. 10, though he thought Pacquiao won easily, as did most writers at ringside.

"I’ll make a lot of money off the rematch, but this was outrageous," Arum said.

It was the biggest fight of Bradley’s career and it came with a minimum $5 million payday. The rematch will be even richer, though Pacquiao’s loss could damage any plans for a fight with Floyd Mayweather Jr.

Mayweather did not see the fight because he is serving a sentence on a domestic abuse charge at a jail a few miles from the MGM Grand.

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

UEFA Euro 2012

Most soccer fans believe that the World Cup is The Greatest Show On Earth, and if you judge solely by the all-important category of “Smoking Hot Brazilian Supporters In Bikinis,” there’s no contest. But on almost every other level — quality of play, penchant for drama, intensity of blood feuds and preponderance of hair gel — the European Championship is the superior tournament.

For one thing, it’s harder to win than the World Cup. In the 13 tournaments since its inception in 1956, nine different teams have hoisted the Euro trophy with Germany having managed the trick a Teutonic three times. France and Spain are the only two other multiple winners and when Les Bleus captured the title in 2000, they had to go through Denmark, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and Italy to win. (Five of those teams were former European champions, by the way.) On the other hand, England has managed to win the trophy as many times as the U.S.

While the World Cup has a field of 32, only 16 do battle in the Euros (although this is the last time we will see this undiluted of a field as it’s regrettably expanding to 24 sides in 2016). In this year’s showcase, unlike the World Cup, there’s no Zaire, Saudi Arabia or any CONCACAF team south of Mexico to curl up in a fetal position and beg not to be beaten by double digits (for the record, in the 1974 World Cup, Yugoslavia beat Zaire only 9-0 and in 1982 El Salvador nicked a goal to barely drop a 10-1 squeaker to Hungary).

Meanwhile, 10 of FIFA’s top 15 teams will play in “Polkraine,” which might mean something until you realize that the unimpeachable FIFA list puts England at No. 6.

Beyond that, the World Cup is achingly predictable in its winner (a host nation, Italy, Germany, Brazil or another South American outfit has won every WC except the most recent) while the Euro can throw off a ridiculous shocker. It happened in 1992 when Denmark, which hadn’t even qualified for the tournament and was only there because war had broken out in Yugoslavia, confounded the experts by beating heavily favored, Jurgen Klinsmann-led Germany in the final.

But that was nothing compared to the seismic upset that occurred in 2004 when Greece, a rank 100-1 outsider, rode its luck (and what was essentially a 9-0-1 formation) to the title, defeating the home side Portugal in both the opening and closing matches. Greece, for Zach Galifianakis’ sake! (Seriously, name two of the players on the championship side — without Googling — and win a lifetime supply of ouzo.)

That aberration notwithstanding, there’s also a much better chance that you’ll get a final worthy of the grand occasion. Take away Zizou’s head-butt in 2006 and how many memorable World Cup-deciding games have we witnessed since 1986? The Euros can lay claim to a glittering array over the past four decades: Antonin Panenka’s penalty chip for the Czechs against West Germany in 1976, the genius of Michel Platini in 1984, the majesty of Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit in ‘88, Brian Laudrup guiding the Danes in ‘92, France versus Italy in 2000. Even Fernando Torres’ classy finish in 2008 quickened the pulse.

Finally (and most importantly), the Euros are Sepp Blatter-free. FIFA’s ineptitude, brilliantly manifested in president Blatter’s spectacular lack of self-awareness, often detracts from the soccer on display at the World Cup. At the Euros, the great Platini is Le Grand Fromage and his less megalomaniacal style means we can focus on the games rather than a Swiss septuagenarian blathering on about the merits of golden goals, penalty shootouts, goal-line technology and skimpier shorts for women.

So if you’re a fan of world-class soccer or just someone who likes a good old-fashioned tribal feud, you’d be well advised to inform your boss that you have a medical emergency that can only be cured by spending the next three weeks in a pub drinking beer and watching the Euros.

YSL Prediction: Winner - Germany

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

Thunder Keep it Up to Lead the Series 3-2

Look who’s unstoppable now.

Forget that incredible San Antonio streak of 20 straight wins. That’s ancient history, and the way the Oklahoma City Thunder have taken complete command of the Western Conference finals, the Spurs might soon be finished themselves.

Kevin Durant scored 27 points and the Thunder are on the brink of the NBA Finals, beating the Spurs 108-103 in Game 5 on Monday night and going from an 0-2 hole to moving within a victory of a series knockout. Their first chance will be Wednesday night at home, where they haven’t lost all season.

"We never thought we’re supposed to wait our turn," Durant said. "Coach always emphasizes that with every opportunity that you step on the floor. It’s a great opportunity to get better. To get to our dream."

Russell Westbrook added 23 and the Thunder took a 3-2 lead in a wildly entertaining Western Conference finals. Looking invincible while carrying a 20-game winning streak a week ago — the fourth-longest in NBA history — the Spurs have lost three straight and are on the verge of a stunning collapse.

Manu Ginobili scored 34 in a smashing return to the starting lineup, and the switch showed just how much Spurs coach Gregg Popovich knew his team might be in trouble. The only way the Spurs would have considered it a success is had they won, and that chance went clanging off the back of the rim with 4.9 seconds left with Ginobili missed an off-balance 3.

Ginobili then walked to the scorer’s table, made a fist and hammered it down.

"It wasn’t a great shot, but it wasn’t a bad one," Ginobili said. "It just didn’t go in."

It was the Spurs’ first loss at home since April 11.

Popovich said he removed Danny Green from the starting lineup and plugged in Ginobili — who had started only seven previous times this season — to give the Spurs “an energy boost.” But that didn’t solve a third straight uneven game for the Spurs, particularly another languid second quarter that put them in a 14-point deficit.

"If we don’t get that straight," Popovich said, "it’ll be over on Wednesday."

Oklahoma City, meanwhile, is bringing home just what they needed: the must-win on the road if they’re going to pull this series out.

"That was a total team effort," Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. "Everybody did their job. I thought we played as hard as we can play."

Oklahoma City pulled it off behind their stars. James Harden scored 20, joining Durant and Westbrook as the only Thunder players in double figures.

Harden hit the biggest shot, draining a 3-pointer with 28.8 seconds left that pushed Oklahoma City’s lead to five. He admitted afterward that the ball was supposed to go to Durant but had no choice but to let go with the shot clock winding down and Spurs rookie Kawhi Leonard in his face.

"The shot clock was running down and I had to make a play," Harden said. "Leonard was playing great defense on me. I just shot it with confidence. West Conference finals — that’s a big shot."

Tony Parker had 20 points and Tim Duncan had 18 points and 12 rebounds for the Spurs.

After remaining unbeaten for 50 days before arriving in Oklahoma City, San Antonio has lost three games in five days. The Spurs now must win two straight to avoid seeing their last best chance to win in a title in the Duncan era end.

"Championship teams win on the road," Popovich said. "Oklahoma City just did that."

It’s the first time the Spurs have lost three in a row all season.

Durant scored 22 of his points in the second half. He dedicated the win to his uncle, who Durant said was in the hospital.

Westbrook also had 12 assists.

Not wanting the series to slip away, Popovich moved Ginobili to the starting lineup in place of Green, who came in shooting a combined 8-of-28 in this series.

Green’s days as a starter began looking numbered after Game 3. He couldn’t save his job before leaving Oklahoma City — Green shot 4 of 12 in both losses combined — and Popovich couldn’t wait any longer with the series tied and the season in the balance.

Out with the undrafted swingman who barely made training camp, and in with the former All-Star. Pulling this big an adjustment this deep in the season likely didn’t come easy for the NBA coach of the year, and the gambit drew mixed results.

It looked like a no-brainer with Ginobili leading all scorers at halftime with 14, but new rotations for the Spurs made for rocky possessions. None more so than in the second quarter, when the Spurs shot 38 percent.

Ginobili finished 11 of 21 and made half of his 10 3-point attempts. But with the game and arguably San Antonio’s season on the line, his last one didn’t connect.

"It’s either win or go home," Ginobili said. "It’s our job. Nobody is going to feel sorry about ourselves."

YSL Prediction: OKC win in 7

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

Celtics Level the Series

Rajon Rondo delivered the trash talk at halftime and the big plays in overtime.

And after one final defensive stand — maybe assisted by a Garden ghost — the Boston Celtics were two wins away from an improbable chance to play for another championship.

Rondo had 15 points and 15 assists, and scored the final three points of the Celtics’ 93-91 overtime victory over the Miami Heat on Sunday night that evened the Eastern Conference finals at two games apiece.

Getting a huge break when LeBron James fouled out for the first time since he joined the Heat, the Celtics recovered after blowing an 18-point lead in regulation and moved two games away from a third trip to the NBA Finals in five years.

Garnett added 17 points and 14 rebounds for the Celtics, while Paul Pierce scored 23 points before fouling out. Ray Allen finished with 16 points.

"Stops," Rondo said when asked what was the difference in the tight game. "I think we executed offensively, came up with some lucky plays and we got stops at the end."

James had 29 points and Dwyane Wade scored 20 after another dismal start for the Heat, who host Game 5 on Tuesday.

"Not stressed the series is tied 2-2," James said. "It’s great basketball, great competition. We wanted to get one up here and we didn’t."

In a game that started as a Celtics blowout and turned into a foul- and tension-filled fourth quarter, followed by the second overtime in this series, the Celtics held on when Wade missed a potential winning 3-pointer on the last possession.

"It was a good look. It was online but didn’t want to go in," Wade said. "Got the shot off I wanted and that is all you can ask for."

Celtics coach Doc Rivers had his own unusual reasoning for Wade’s oh-so-close shot.

"Red wasn’t going to let that go in. Not in the Boston Garden," he said of former coach Red Auerbach.

Mickael Pietrus drew James’ sixth foul and grabbed two huge offensive rebounds that extended consecutive possessions for the Celtics, who lost Game 4 in overtime in a second-round series against the Heat last year with a chance to tie the series.

This time, they overcame their second-half stall on the offensive end by limiting the Heat to just one basket in overtime, by Udonis Haslem, who finished with 12 points and 17 rebounds.

"At the end you have a chance to win after 50-plus minutes and losing the MVP. Hey, you’ll take that," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Rondo’s layup gave the Celtics a 92-91 lead with 2:34 left, and neither team scored again until he made a free throw with 21 seconds to play. Wade, already finding it tough to locate any room with Chris Bosh out and then having to do it James also on the sideline, saw his potential winning attempt bounce off the rim as time expired.

"I don’t ever think I’ve seen that before," Allen said of James and Pierce fouling out. "But Rondo’s on the floor, I’m on the floor, Kevin’s on the floor, Wade’s on the floor. All that has to happen at that point is the game has to be won. We don’t care what it looks like. We had plenty."

In what could have been the final Beantown game for the Celtics’ Big Three, Boston scored 61 points in a sensational first half that concluded with some televised trash talk from Rondo. But the Celtics managed only 12 points in the third quarter, and Wade finally got going after managing just eight points on 2-of-11 shooting in the first half.

"Our execution in the first half was flawless," Rivers said. "It was as good as maybe we’ve had. And then we just got away from it."

With the Celtics down by two, Pierce and Rondo made consecutive layups for an 85-83 edge with 3:08 to go in regulation. But with the Celtics up three, they lost James, who was wide open with plenty of time to set himself for a 3-pointer that evened it at 89 with 37.5 seconds left.

Garnett was called for an offensive foul on the next possession, giving the Heat the ball back with 21 seconds left. But they passed it around too long, leaving them with a long forced attempt from Haslem that was well off before the buzzer.

The videoboard kept encouraging fans to get louder, as if they needed any prompting in what could have been the final time they got to watch the Big Three together.

Fans who left and stayed away for years during the Celtics’ lean years started coming back in the 2007-08 season after Garnett and Allen were traded to Boston to form join an All-Star trio with Pierce, the Garden almost always full as the Celtics won a championship, played in two finals and returned the franchise back to its traditional place atop the East.

But the aging group was nearly broken up when the Celtics sputtered through the first half of the shortened season, and it seems doubtful they’ll be back together after this season.

The fans grew even louder when the Celtics ran out to a 14-4 lead after consecutive 3-pointers by Pierce and Allen. The Celtics went to Garnett for their next two baskets, pushing it to 18-4, and when Pierce’s 3-pointer made it 21-6, it was the third time in four games they had a lead of at least 15 points.

And after leading the Celtics to the highest-scoring half the Heat have surrendered this postseason, Rondo even fired a shot at the visitors, saying in his televised halftime interview with ESPN’s Doris Burke what was working for Boston was the Heat “complaining and crying to the referees in transition.”

The feisty point guard didn’t back down after the game, either.

"What I said was true," Rondo told Burke. "I don’t take back what I said. That’s what it is."

It was so hard for the Heat early that James didn’t even make his first basket — the Celtics accidentally tipped in his miss, and it was credited to him as the closest player. But Miami finally got untracked when Garnett left for a rest, getting a number of easy baskets to get within six before the Celtics regained control and went ahead 34-23 after one.

The Celtics made 16 of their first 25 shots and seemed intent on outhustling the Heat to the ball on the rare times they did miss. And the Heat, who insisted they would be more aggressive, didn’t shoot their first free throw until James was fouled while making a basket with 6:53 remaining in the first half.

Boston pushed the lead to 18 when Pierce shook off a foul and tossed in a long, one-legged jumper with 3:12 left in the second quarter, and the Celtics were ahead 61-47 at the break.

The Celtics averaged 89.1 points on 44 percent shooting in an ugly second-round survival against Philadelphia, then managed a measly 79 points in the opener of this series, the old guys looking like their best basketball was well behind them. They seemed to have solved their offensive woes, then managed only 12 points in the third quarter, losing Rondo along the way to his fourth foul.

It was down to 73-68 after three, and the Heat tied it for the first time when James’ layup made it 74-all with 8:54 remaining. Norris Cole’s layup on the next possession gave Miami the lead for the first time and it stayed tight from there.

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

Tiger Wins the Memorial

With a remarkable rally even by his standards, Tiger Woods birdied three of his last four holes to win the Memorial on Sunday and match tournament host Jack Nicklaus with his 73rd title on the PGA Tour.

Woods was one shot behind and looking at probable bogey in deep rough behind the 16th green when he chipped in from 50 feet for birdie to tie for the lead. In the group behind him, Rory Sabbatini made bogey from the bunker on the 16th hole and never caught up.

Woods closed with a 5-under 67, matching the best score of the final round. He won the Memorial for the fifth time. Woods and Nicklaus are tied for second place in career wins on tour, trailing Sam Snead at 82.

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

OKC Thunder Level the Series With a 103-109 Victory

When Lil Wayne turned down Kevin Durant’s invitation to watch the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals, he missed quite a show by the three-time scoring champion.

Durant scored 18 of his 36 points in a scintillating final 7 minutes, Serge Ibaka added a career-high 26 points and the Thunder evened the series at two games apiece by beating the San Antonio Spurs 109-103 Saturday night.

After seeing his team’s 15-point lead dwindle to four, Durant took over midway through the fourth quarter by scoring all 16 of the Thunder’s points during a span of just over 5 minutes to keep the Spurs at bay.

"I didn’t tell myself that I need to go score because what we were doing was working," Durant said.

"We were passing the ball and guys were making shots. … I just wanted to stick with what we were doing, but it started to open up for me and I could see some lanes that gave me some opportunities to make some shots."

With All-Star teammate Russell Westbrook limited to seven points, Durant did almost all of the damage late to send the series back to San Antonio all square for Game 5 on Monday night.

Durant, who finished behind only LeBron James in MVP voting, hit three straight jumpers, the last one coming after he bumped into Tony Parker in the lane to draw a foul and set up a three-point play. Then he attacked the rim for his next three baskets, getting to the line again when he was fouled on a layup off of James Harden’s alley-oop.

Durant hit another jumper after coming off a Westbrook screen for the last basket in his personal run — and the Spurs were still within striking distance. Rookie Kawhi Leonard bracketed a pair of 3-pointers around that Durant jumper, and the Spurs were only down 102-96 with 1:24 left.

The Spurs succeeded in getting the ball out of Durant’s hands on the next possession, only for him to provide the assist on Harden’s 3-pointer from the left wing that bumped the lead to nine.

"When a player that talented gets hot, it’s really hard to contain," San Antonio’s Manu Ginobili said. "We tried different things and they didn’t work.

"He scored a bunch in a short period of time. When we tried to blitz or really help, he kicked it and they made big shots."

Durant hit two free throws in the final minute to help close it out.

"We tried to do a couple of different things but his play was better than anything we did defensively, that’s for sure," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He finished it off in fine fashion."

Before the game, Durant said he still hoped to convince Lil Wayne to come see a game in Oklahoma City after the rapper created a stir before Game 3 by tweeting he was denied access and followed it up by saying he felt “unwanted” at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

With another big closing effort, Durant provided another reason to catch the Thunder in the playoffs.

"I just want to be calm and composed and poised in those situations and make the right basketball play," Durant said. "I just try to calm down and go with my instincts."

Oklahoma City is trying to become the 15th team in NBA history to overcome an 0-2 deficit in a seven-game series, and the eighth to do it since 2004. The Thunder avoided an even trickier task by winning.

Only eight teams have ever overcome a 3-1 hole, and only two had done it while needing two wins on the road — the 1995 Rockets and 1968 Celtics.

"We’ve just got to go down there with the mindset that we’re going to play hard every possession, play together like we’ve played in these last two games and we’ll see what happens," Durant said.

"We’ve just got to keep believing, man, and we’ll be fine."

Tim Duncan had 21 points for San Antonio, which had won 20 in a row before losing Game 3. Leonard added 17 points and nine rebounds.

The Spurs wiped away most of a 15-point deficit with a run that coincided with Popovich turning to DeJuan Blair, who’s had some notoriously big games against the Thunder but had occupied a spot on the bench for most of the playoffs after starting 62 of the 66 regular-season games.

Blair sprung free for a layup early in an 18-5 comeback, and Ginobili’s 3-pointer from the top of the key trimmed Oklahoma City’s lead to 73-71 with 1:16 to go in the third quarter.

The Spurs were within four after Duncan’s left-handed runner with 6:55 left in the game. That’s when Thunder coach Scott Brooks called a timeout, and Durant came out of it firing away. He made seven of his last eight shots and also finished with eight assists and six rebounds.

"It was hard because were on a run, we were feeling good about ourselves and we just couldn’t make a stop," Ginobili said.

Ibaka made all 11 of his shots — and all four of his free throws — to lead a strong performance from Oklahoma City’s frontcourt while Durant’s usual running mates, Westbrook and Harden, both struggled.

Ibaka, starting center Kendrick Perkins and reserve Nick Collison combined to go 22 for 25 from the field for 49 points. Westbrook missed eight of his 10 shots and Harden was limited to eight points.

The Thunder shot 56 percent and outrebounded San Antonio 41-31.

Oklahoma City pulled ahead to stay with a 12-3 run early in the second quarter with Durant and Westbrook both taking a break. Westbrook nailed a 3-pointer from the left side soon after returning to provide the Thunder’s first double-digit lead at 43-33 with 4:44 to go before halftime.

YSL Prediction: OKC win in 7

Twitter: @LaurenceBenson
Facebook: YSL Sport

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