by Lang Whitaker

I want to begin today by saying congratulations to Michael Vick, who is now back in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles. My favorite team in the NFL is the Atlanta Falcons, but thinking about it last night, Michael Vick is my favorite football player. Mainly because of things like this:

When he was playing for my Atlanta Falcons, Michael Vick may not have been the best quarterback in the NFL, but he was by far the most electrifying and exciting QB in the league, and it was thrilling to watch him play each week.

Obviously he made some horrific choices, and then he lied about those choices to everyone who asked. I gave him the benefit of the doubt then, and now that he’s confessed to his crimes and served his penalty, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt one more time. I’ll be cheering for the Falcons this season, but I’ll also be rooting for Mike Vick. Here’s hoping he people of Philadelphia give him a second chance. (He’s apparently off to a rocky start.)

Although, Donovan McNabb has said he’ll mentor him, which I guess means he will take him under his wing and teach Vick how to puke on the field during key moments.

And super Eagles fan Khalid gives his take here, if you haven’t read it already.

• To the NBA…the Orlando Sentinel got a jump-start on their NBA preview by asking a collective of NBA “experts” to predict how the Eastern Conference is going to shake out. I used the quotes around “experts” because somehow I got included in this survey with ten other esteemed NBA brains. The Sentinel averaged together our votes and came up with this ranking for the East.

I haven’t started working on the SLAM NBA Preview yet, and I haven’t really sat down and looked at numbers and rosters and all that, so my rankings were mostly done on feeling and instant analysis. But for the sake of transparency, here’s how I ranked the teams in the Eastern Conference. I’m assuming there are more moves to be made, and I’m sure I’ll change my mind a dozen times between now and the time we drop our NBA preview. Whatever. Here we go…

1. Cleveland — The Cavs with LeBron have always been a better regular season team than Playoff team, and I think that will continue this season. I don’t think adding Shaq will make them that much better in the regular season, but I’m banking on LeBron continuing to improve his game, like he’s done between every season since SLAM took notice of him, back when he was a sophomore in high school.

2. Orlando — The Sentinel asked for a paragraph on the Magic, so here’s what I wrote: “I think losing Hedo Turkoglu is going to hurt the Magic more than they suspected. Vince Carter is a nice replacement, a guy who can create shots at the end of games and is arguably better defensively than Turkoglu, but I think there’s something to be said for the element of surprise the Magic had last season. Now teams are going to be gunning for them every night. Plus, Stan Van Gundy is going to have manage a lot more egos and playing time issues than he did last season.” What I didn’t write: And Stan Van Gundy is not exactly renowned for handling egos and playing time issues with grace.

3. Boston — This is assuming KG is back and healthy, which I guess is still something of a question mark. If he is, him, Rondo, Pierce and Ray Allen will still make Boston the best team in the Northeast Division, by far.

4. Atlanta — What I wrote for the Sentinel: “The Southeast Division is shaping up to be the most competitive division in the Eastern Conference. Washington has depth and a proven coach, and Wade showed he could carry the Heat last season. Atlanta is intriguing because they kept their entire core from last season, plus added a guy who averaged 20 ppg (Jamal Crawford) and finally got a back-up PG (Jeff Teague). More importantly, they’ve finally got stability, something they haven’t had in years.”

5. Washington — I’m not quite sure what to make of the Wizards. Considering they’ve got a lot of really good players and a coach who is at the least capable and will just be beginning his grace period, I think the Wiz could be a nice team in the East. A lot is riding on the health of Gilbert Arenas, as well.

6. Toronto — I’m conflicted about Toronto. I like their roster, like their relative youth. Their coach, not so much, and if things start poorly, will the prospect of Chris Bosh immigrating to the US in the summer of 2010 ruin their season? I think this ranking is best-case scenario. Hey, at least I was feeling optimistic when I sent in these rankings.

7. Chicago — Did they learn anything from their run in the postseason? They’ll miss Ben Gordon, but when you’re able to get the ball into the hands of Derrick Rose more than you were before, that’s probably a good thing.

8. Detroit — I stuck the Pistons in the middle because I’m not sold on this renovation project they’re running. They cleared out all that cap money and brought in two undersized players who were able to inflate their stats playing on teams where they logged a lot of playing time, and I’m not totally convinced the Pistons have enough firepower and depth to hang in the East. I’m also curious about new coach John Kuester, who was referred to as the offensive genius behind the Cavs, though the Cavs just seemed to run clear out after clear out when things mattered.

9. Miami — As presently constructed, with Dwyane Wade and…well, nobody else, really, I think Wade could carry them to a .500 season. But the Southeast Division is going to be tough, and Miami has to add some more players if they want to not only contend in their Division, but also make Wade stick around through 2010.

10. New York — I have no idea what the Knicks are doing, pretending that they’re going to be able to sign LeBron next summer, but in the meantime maybe they’ll eff around and outscore everyone all season. Or not.

11. Philadelphia — They know they don’t have a point guard, right?

12. Milwaukee — I like Milwaukee’s roster, and I think Brandon Jennings is going to be a really good NBA player, but this team has so much youth that it’s going to take a while for them to be competitive.

13. Charlotte — No comment.

14. Indiana — Same.

15. New Jersey — Where Brooklyn at?

So that’s how I’m seeing things. We’ll take a quick run through the West one day next week.

• In other summer hoops news, Linkstigator Justin Adler made his first trip to Rucker on Wednesday night, and he sent me these notes from his experience…

Furious after our great nation’s loss to Mexico, I hopped on a train uptown to watch my first Entertainer’s Basketball Classic game at Rucker Park. The following are my notes from the night.

– The EBC website is a mess and it’s damn near impossible to figure out the EBC schedule. I would have had no clue when the games were if it were not for Peter Robert Casey’s blog.

– My friend and I got there at 7:00, hoping the “TBA” on the site for the men’s league semi-final meant 7ish. We ended up watching the end of the Under-15 championship, a terribly long awards ceremony and then we waited another hour before the park lights were charged, the refs showed up and everyone was ready to play.

– Just before the game tipped off, it’s announced that Brandon Jennings is in attendance. “Holy sh*t,” I thought to myself. This can’t be happening, surely I misheard them and they said “Brandon Jacobs” or somebody else I don’t care about. There is no way my favorite player just happens to be at Rucker the same day I am.

– I feverishly look around the park and I don’t see Brandon Jennings. Then finally the announcer brought Brandon to the court for a quick interview.

Rucker MC: “Let’s bring out my man Brandon Jennings, if he can stop texting on his phone for one minute. ‘LOL. OMG. I’m at Rucker.’”

Jennings: “I played here a few years ago when I was in high school. It was a lotta fun.”

Rucker MC: “Any chance of you suiting up tonight.”

Jennings: “Nah I ain’t playing tonight, but don’t trip I’ll be play here soon.”

– And then the audience ceased tripping.

– The game finally tipped off at 9:10. Prompt the EBC is not.

– It was the Sean Bell All-Stars against the Chris Brown All-Stars. A violent match-up if there ever was one.

– Let’s just get all the puns out now. There was one player named “The Game Killa.” The MC used the phrase “he got murdered” a lot in a basketball context. The same with the phrase “he just got beat.” And there were more than 50 shots taken in the first half.

– I spoke briefly to Jennings and walked away reminding myself again that he’s 19 years old making millions, I’m 22 and earning 4 dollars and change an hour working a sh*tty restaurant job. But hey, I have my college degree and as they say, you can never take that away from me. I probably should have asked, “Why are you in New York? Who the hell do you keep texting? Did you take the train here like a regular human being? Would you be interested in shamelessly buying drinks and trying to help me get laid tonight?” But I thought of all those questions after the fact.

– Back to live action, as the MC said 200 times. The Rucker MC was much funnier than I thought he would be. He was wearing chef pants and shoes and he wore his white apron the entire time. “I just got done making a white lady a fish sandwich and I ran over here,” he said.

– He recognized one of the referees from high school. “Man, me and you had big dreams in high school, now I’m flipping burgers and your blowing whistles. What happened?” he said. I should note that his delivery on every joke was on point and he did not stop talking once for the entire game.

– The game itself was quite entertaining (hence the league name) and less sloppy than I imagined.

– One of the night’s highlights was a crazy Harlem World denizen (sans his four front teeth) who kept yapping at the MC. The MC owned him many times over, mocking his alcoholism, implying he was a snitch, and declaring that he was going to call his case worker to get him kicked out his apartment. The toothless man responded by taking out his welfare cards and many other government assistance cards I am not familiar with and throwing them on the court.

The MC then started mocking his name, Lawrence Maynard. “Lawrence why are you talking to the police, do I need to remind you that we have the Sean Bell All Stars on the court?”

– Other MC (it wasn’t Duke Tango, I think it might have been Boobie Smooth, but I am not positive) gems:

With 1:23 left in the game: “Ladies. All the ladies in the audience pay close attention. I want you to realize just how long 1:23 is. Maybe then you’ll appreciate me more.” Allows perfect amount of time for laughs. “If your kid is laughing at that joke, then hit him upside the head.”

On it being a 1 point game with 55 seconds remaining: “I’m so nervous right now! I have not been this nervous since I got a white envelope in the mail reading ‘Child Support’ please open immediately.”

On Team Chris Brown being down 4 with 30 seconds left: “Think about Reggie Miller now. Actually don’t think about what Reggie is doing right now.”

– In the end the Sean Bell All Stars won and now have the chance to win back-to-back championships. Even though it was a great guy that went down to the wire, Brandon Jennings did not look up once from his Sidekick.

– The championship game was Thursday according to the website, but the MC said it was Monday night. Ah the greatness of the EBC.

– After the game my friend and I walked on the court. I tried to touch the bottom of the backboard. A huge whiff. “It must be these f*ckin’ jeans,” I said. My friend (also white) tried. Not even close. “It’s these f*ckin’ shoes,” he quipped.

– Then I tried again and got it. I touched the Rucker Park backboard and Sean Bell’s name lives on. USA! USA! USA! USA! USA! USA!

• OK, we got the weekend ahead of us. HUGE series between the Braves and Phillies. Otherwise, take it slow, everyone.

Catch you next week…