The Jocks of L.A.
Los Angeles loves its sports as much as any city does; there's no shortage of folks who will begin seething at a misspoken word about a favorite team or player. Say hi to the jocks of Los Angeles, who inspire that fervent brand of rage and rapture that can only come from a glance at the scoreboard.
5. Matt Barkley: The Quarterback
Nov. 26 was a watershed moment for USC Football, as the team put the finishing touches on a 50-0 rout of rival UCLA. The Trojans were back after being harshly sanctioned, and quarterback Matt Barkley, who had dreamed of being a Trojan since his Newport Beach boyhood, had been central to the turnaround. The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum crowd screamed "One more year!" at Barkley.
A junior, Barkley was thought to be on the verge of leaving to earn millions in the NFL. In fact, during the previous two-year sanction period, many had speculated that Barkley would bolt to a scandal-free school. Instead, the square-jawed, handsome QB stuck around to help rebuild his troubled team.
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As he emerged as the face of the program, he showed the kind of guts that would make him a perfect fit for the quarterback-driven NFL. Barkley surprised everyone in late December by deciding that he would stay in school another year to attempt to win a National Championship for USC.
"I grew up in Southern California, and I love everything about this place," he says. "The last half of 2011 really proved that this team was something special, which was to bring USC football back where it needs to be."
Thanks to a scandal he had no part in, before his sophomore season the All-American was thrust into the sports-as-politics spotlight. "I was forced to step up and be a vocal leader, which naturally I'm not," he says. But that twist of fate was OK, he explains: "You can only grow as a person when you're uncomfortable."
While it would have been easy to let the attention go to his head, the 21-year-old Barkley is as humble as a walk-on. He's also surprisingly laid-back.
He does blow off steam, though, in occasionally quirky ways. He gave a TV interview in a spot-on Irish accent. He has 50,000-plus followers on Twitter. He relaxes by playing acoustic guitar, and he follows needtobreathe ("I'm a big fan of what those guys do") and Adele ("She's killing it right now!").
On the December day he revealed his choice to stay in college, Barkley nearly sent his notoriously high-strung coach, Lane Kiffin, to the ER. Kiffin had been asked over to Barkley's house, and the quarterback drew out the tension by showing the anxious coach a cherished family Christmas ornament rather than immediately addressing his decision. Then the coach read the inscription: "One more year. To the memories next year."
It's safe to predict that, unlike some Trojan players of recent past, you won't read about this one on the TMZ website, partying with celebrities, and you won't see his name in the police blotter, accused of disorderly conduct. Barkley, whose family is deeply religious, is more likely to participate in Bible study than a bar crawl.
His reluctance to cash in early may land him in the pantheon of Trojan greats. But whatever happens next, Barkley says, he "wouldn't give back this experience for anything." Besides, he adds, "I wasn't ready to pay taxes yet."
4. Sue Falsone: The Trailblazer
Sue Falsone is still getting used to being first. The interview requests have been coming in ever since October, when Falsone was named head athletic trainer for the Los Angeles Dodgers -- the first woman to hold that title in any professional sports league.
So have the questions about seeing the Dodgers in the buff. For the record, Falsone, 38, says that doesn't happen.
"I stay out of the clubhouse locker room. I spend my time in the training and weight rooms," she says, relaxing in a golf cart outside the entrance to the spring training clubhouse in Glendale, Ariz. "It's about mutual respect."
This was an easy day for Falsone -- just 12 hours. The day before was a split-squad game with players at two locations. She was up at 5 a.m. and left the Glendale complex at midnight, then came back at 6 a.m. for the noon start of the game against the Cubs.
Falsone was shocked to learn she was breaking a glass ceiling. But she also understands why it took so long. "A lot of it is tradition," she says. "It's always been that way."
Dodger manager Don Mattingly says the new generation of players put out a welcome mat for Falsone because female trainers were a given in their school sports programs.
"They grew up with it. They're used to it," Mattingly says. "It wouldn't have happened in my day."
An engaging, blue-eyed blonde with zero body fat, Falsone never thought of L.A. as her goal, nor did she aim to become a major league trainer. She grew up in Buffalo cheering the NFL Bills and NHL Sabres and spent much of her career working with football and hockey players at Phoenix-based Athletes' Performance. When the Dodgers named Athletes' Performance's Stan Conte as head trainer, Falsone was snagged to be his second-in-command. When the Dodgers promoted Conte, they wanted Falsone to take over as head trainer.
"Stan and I had a number of conversations about it, but we always ended up laughing," Falsone says. Finally, she says, "it was an idea that grew legs and ran. It's not a matter of whether I did or didn't get the job because I'm a woman. It's shocking that it's 2012 and we finally see a woman in this position."
Now she's getting used to Los Angeles. She recently found a place to live in Pasadena "because it's close to work." She says, "I don't understand that about L.A. Why don't people live closer to where they work?"
While the traffic is mind-boggling, Falsone said she finds L.A. fascinating because "the city is made up of a bunch of little towns and neighborhoods with all these different feels and cultures."
For the weekend warrior, Falsone has some tips: Don't overdo it. Just because you were an athlete in high school doesn't mean you can run up Kenter Canyon without building up to it. "You have to put the work in," she says. "There are no shortcuts."
Especially not from Buffalo to home plate in L.A.
3. Mark 'Fightshark' Miller and Shelby Jones: The Fighter and His Cornerwoman
Kickboxer Mark "Fightshark" Miller is not one of those chest-pounding types. Well, he doesn't pound his own chest, that's for sure. Finely tuned athletes in the world of dudes-fighting-dudes may give off an air of braggadocio -- they brawl for a living, after all, and a double helping of bro-style swagger can win fights.
But Miller has nothing left to prove.
"We're sitting in Moscow, 10 minutes before the fight, and this guy's out in the hallway, screaming war chants," says Miller's cornerwoman (and friend) Shelby Jones. "Mark was asleep. We literally had to wake him up to fight the biggest fight of his life."
The term fight of his life could refer to any number of events in Miller's past. But the match in question, in 2011, saw him obliterate his first opponent in five years in little more than 20 seconds.
Some of the other fights of his life were not televised. In the five-year stretch before the Moscow match, the L.A.-based kickboxer lost his mother, his father, his brother and his best friend. He also saw his martial arts career curtailed by a car accident and open-heart surgery.
Any of those things might be enough to put an aging pugilist permanently to rest. But Miller put it all back together for that rapid knockout -- becoming, in the process, the only fighter ever to return to the ring after open-heart surgery.
At 39, the Pittsburgh native continues to fight, guided by Jones on matters of strength and conditioning. (On March 23, he took on a Russian nearly 10 years his junior, although he lost that match.) A native of Newbury Park, Jones, who declines to give her age, also monitors Miller's nutrition.
Initially trained in dance and opera, Jones performed as a burlesque diva and model before hitting the nutrition books and learning fight conditioning. The two friends met after a botched date a few years ago -- one Jones was "not on" with one of Miller's friends -- and formed a quick bond. Beyond their chiseled, tattooed frames and mutual love of the fight, both are hard-nosed and witty: haute-cultured bookish types who also can kick your ass.
The duo is so likable that Anthony Bourdain's new imprint is publishing Miller's story next year -- with Jones as co-author. "They wanted to get some ghostwriter in here, and I stopped them and said, 'No, Shelby's going to do this. She's telling the story,' " Miller says.
Not every ringside right hand can write, but Jones is ready: "I'm literally going to talk to everyone he has ever known, to tell this story the way it should be told."
2. Michelle Miller: It's Miller's Time
At the Pasadena Poly Panthers' final home game of the regular season, against the Webb Gauls, three posters plastered the gym's wall, bidding farewell to the graduating Panther seniors. "Don't sweat Tessa my swag" referred to No. 12 Tessa Loera, a forward; another gave a shout-out to Loera's fellow forward, "Princess" Rafaela Bustamante, No. 44. And then there was the poster for the team's shooting guard: "Michelle Miller #32. 'Nuff said."
Indeed. Miller scored within 10 seconds of the game's start, slicing through three defenders for a layup. That was just the beginning.
To call Miller an outstanding student athlete would be an understatement. In February she finished her high school basketball career with 3,331 points -- 435 more than those accumulated by former Los Angeles Sparks superstar Lisa Leslie during her years at Morningside High. Miller now ranks as the second-highest scorer in her division of all time, behind the legendary Cheryl Miller (no relation), and the fifth highest all-time career scorer in girls high school basketball in the state.
All that record-breaking work was done while juggling other sports (volleyball, swimming), her 5.0 GPA (that's not a typo) and college applications (she's headed to the Ivy League to be a Princeton Tiger).
Like many kids of Japanese descent in Southern California, Miller spent her elementary school days playing in local Japanese-American basketball leagues, which for generations have been integral in preserving the community's bond. By high school, she was a force to be reckoned with.
"Sometimes they triple-team me, or try a triangle-and-2 or box-and-1, which don't work, because it's not like my teammates aren't really good," Miller says. She ticks off her team's strengths like a seasoned coach: Loera "sets up really good screens," while Kiki Yang is "fast, really quick with the ball.
"I just want to help," she shrugs. "I'd rather not score anything but still help my team win than score a lot of points and see my team lose."
That honest humility, combined with what Miller's head coach, Kim Weber, calls her "levelheaded, quiet" personality, might explain why Miller never crumbled under the weight of the record books. The only time she was conscious of statistics, in fact, was when she broke Leslie's record. "Because it's Lisa Leslie, you know?" Miller says.
During the Poly-Webb game, Miller moved into sixth place on the all-time scoring list, setting the stage for the following postseason game, when she leapt into fifth place. Opposite Webb, she truly was onstage: owning the perimeter, driving the lanes, stopping short for a beautiful, fadeaway jumper. A few stellar plays later, she snatched a rebound, flying down the court at a fierce dribble and passing the ball to another Panther for the assist.
Miller sat out the last part of the final quarter, having logged most of her 32 points in the first three.
The final score: Webb, 14. Poly 75. 'Nuff said.
1. Matt Kemp: Fan Favorite
By late afternoon, most of the players have already left the Dodgers' spring training campus at Camelback Ranch in Arizona, but Matt Kemp is still standing. After signing autographs for fans, he smiles and holds the door to let staff pass through. He's been training since dawn, and when nobody's paying attention, he rubs his eyes and stretches his neck. He's tired.
But he's not complaining. Instead, he's giving everyone in the building everything they want from him -- with, yes, a smile.
Last year things were about as bleak as could be for the Dodgers. The team finished third in its division and, off the field, the McCourt drama weighed heavily on fans and players alike. Amidst the chaos, though, Matt Kemp got better. Much better. Not that he was a slouch before -- but in 2011, the 6-foot-3-inch center fielder became one of the most dominant players in the game. He knocked in 39 home runs and 126 RBIs, batted third in the All-Star Game's starting lineup and finished second in the National League's MVP voting.
Kemp is the clear favorite for this year's MVP Award, and fortunately for L.A., he'll be playing as a Dodger. In November, the 27-year-old signed a $160 million, eight-year contract extension, a franchise record.
"It's definitely a blessing," he says. "You dream about getting to take care of your family for the rest of their lives, not letting your mom work."
He was briefly a tabloid fixture while dating pop star Rihanna, but in person Kemp comes off as soft-spoken, maybe even a bit shy. He also seems like a genuinely good guy. Celebrities frequently visit hospitals, but Kemp continues to offer encouragement to patients and their families long after the cameras are gone.
Donating to food banks isn't enough; sometimes Kemp shows up to assist with deliveries, too. "I've been put in a position to help bless others, and I think it's kinda my job to go out there, and if somebody needs help in any type of situation, I'm there to help," he says.
Still, it's his small-town Oklahoma niceness, his spirited opinions on music, fashion and Chick-fil-A, and those personal replies on Twitter that people really connect with. He's happy to be approached by fans: "They help get you to where you are and where you want to be," he says.
With L.A. royalty Magic Johnson as the face of the team's new ownership, fans are again filling the stands. "We had some tough times the past two years," Kemp admits. "The Dodger fans have definitely stood behind us. This year we'll have to give them something to really cheer about."
Kemp came up through the team's farm system, and now it looks like he'll be in L.A. through at least 2020. So how does he feel about being a Dodger for life? "It would be pretty dope," Kemp says. "I've been to New York, I've been to Miami, I've been to all those big cities. Not just because I play in L.A. -- L.A. is my favorite city. I love livin' in L.A."
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