Wed, Jan 01, 2014 - Page 19 News List

Sports rings out year with some odd bounces


The story had all the elements of a Cold War thriller: a wealthy US businessman, Russian leadership at the highest levels, diplomatic intrigue and purloined jewels.

Regrettably, there was no romantic subplot, but if the movie rights on this are ever sold, that will be an easy addition to the script.

The mystery of Robert Kraft’s wayward Super Bowl ring was one of many odd places sports wandered into last year: A suspect in Vancouver’s 2011 Stanley Cup riots was identified as a former Miss Congeniality beauty pageant winner; a top high-school girls’ basketball team in Iowa featured four sets of sisters; ski star Lindsey Vonn was called off a New York red carpet at a Lincoln Center fashion gathering for a random drug test.

The Detroit Tigers’ Torii Hunter missed a game because of an Achilles tendon injury caused by wearing dress shoes that were too tight; New York Jets coach Rex Ryan ran with the bulls in Pamplona, his team unable to run with the Bears, Broncos and Bengals; and the world’s oldest marathoner, Indian-born Fauju Singh, decided enough was enough and stopped running at 101.

“I will miss it,” he said.

Kraft’s saga begins in June in one of New York’s finest hotels. The owner of the New England Patriots is speaking at a gala where he is being honored. He regales the guests by telling them how one of his Super Bowl rings wound up on display at the Kremlin.

Kraft says he was visiting St Petersburg with a business delegation in 2005, when he was introduced to Russian President Vladimir Putin and showed him the diamond-encrusted ring.

“I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket,” Kraft said, as quoted by the New York Post. “And three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”

At the time, Kraft said it was a gift, but would later say he wanted the ring back. The White House, he suggests, thought it best for him to say this was indeed a gift and not stir political relations.

Days later, the story shifts across the Atlantic. Putin is in London and his spokesman is asked about the Tale of the Ring.

Dmitry Peskov tells The Associated Press he was there when Putin met Kraft.

Peskov dismisses the entire episode as a matter better suited for a “detailed talk with psychoanalysts.”

Or comedians.

Kraft spokesman Stacey James calls this an “anecdotal” story the owner plays for laughs.

Putin soon weighs in dryly on this “complicated international problem.”

He says, in fact, he does not remember Kraft.

However, Putin adds, if this ring is “so valuable,” he is happy to make amends and order him some jewelry.

This was not the only puzzling intersection between sports and politics last year.

Dennis Rodman, of course, landed in the unlikely spot of North Korea. The former NBA star, for whom flamboyance is an understatement, was wined and dined during his mission of basketball diplomacy by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Rodman, who knows about winning titles with the Chicago Bulls, later seemed miffed he did not win the Nobel Peace Prize.

Also miffed was Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. During a Russian league soccer game he became incensed that the captain of Terek Grozny was ejected.

Kadyrov grabbed a microphone and roared to the fans: “The ref’s been bought off. You’re an ass.”

On reflection, he called his response “a cry from the soul.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came in peace to a Knicks game in January last year at Madison Square Garden. A courtside waitress stopped by to take orders. Stephen Jackson of the Spurs crashed into the waitress and left the game with a sprained ankle. Bloomberg shortly after was seen eating popcorn.

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