Sports

OUT IN A CLOSE PLAY

Now running in London, Richard Greenberg's Take Me Out is a crowd-pleasing comedy about a New York ballplayer who comes out of the closet. Mike Piazza needn't fret, however, when it opens at the Public Theater on September 5—the queer star of the world-champion Empires is half-black, half-white "matinee idol" Darren Lemming (a center fielder, libel lawyers), who naively thinks his outing won't change a thing. But where's the fun in that? So his fellow players freak out in a group shower scene (full-frontal nudity! actual water falling onstage!), while his manager, a cross between Joe Torre and Tony Soprano, resents his supposed sapping of team morale. Only shortstop Kippy, a crossword-loving Stanford grad (not a Yankee pitcher, mind you), remains Darren's faithful friend. The real trouble starts when the Empires bring up closer Shane Mungitt—hair of Randy Johnson, tongue of John Rocker—from Double-A (say what?). Suspended for racist and homophobic remarks, Mungitt returns to bean a player on the forehead (he wears No. 22, after all), killing him.

The piece is a smash hit, though some jokes clearly escape a British audience. (A ranting Christian teammate warns Darren, "God got Clemente! God got Thurman Munson!") While striving for tragedy—like "that year the Yankees won the Series for the third time, only their fathers kept dying"—Take Me Out convinces most when it rhapsodizes baseball fandom, as personified by nebbishy gay accountant Mason Marzac. Previously disdainful, he becomes obsessed with the sport, marveling, "So much to learn, so much to memorize . . . " If devotees quibble with the show's inaccuracies (the scoreboard numbers don't jibe with the action), they'll still recognize Mason's ecstasy at attending his first game: "And maybe I've had a ridiculous life, but this was one of its best nights." —J. Yeh


COMING TO LIBERTY'S DEFENSE

True to form, the Liberty are heating up down the stretch. After dropping to fourth place in the Eastern Conference two weeks ago—and giving up games to such bottom-rungers as Detroit and Sacramento—New York (15-10) heads into its last seven games of the season just half a game out of first and with decisive victories over top squads L.A. and Washington. On Sunday, before a season-high crowd of 17,368 at the Garden, the Liberty put away four-time champ Houston, 62-56, in what coach Richie Adubato called "as critical a game as we've had." Power forward Tamika Whitmore contributed 15 points and a season-high 9 rebounds, drawing yet more speculation that she'd be named this year's most-improved player. Whitmore's new quickness under the basket has been the main theme of Liberty coverage all summer. Repeatedly, stories tell how she shed a couple dozen pounds since the start of the 2001 season. "Everybody is concerned with how she looks," scoffs point guard Teresa Weatherspoon. "What's important is her endurance, stamina, ability—and that she has the heart of a lion." Indeed, at 6-2 and 180, Whitmore is smaller than many of her rivals in the paint, yet she's averaging 1.4 blocks per game. So why is she the only Liberty starter whose name and number can't be found among the T-shirts and tchotchkes on sale at the Garden? Five members of the retail staff have attested over the last two weeks that they've had to turn away countless fans who are asking for Whitmore tees. The 25-year-old Mississippi native is, no surprise, creating her own opening. She's got a line of shirts in the works, though it's not likely that MSG will proffer them among official league merchandise. Whitmore chose a Maryland company for the job. "I do care about sweatshops and I don't like child labor—though I was probably an example of it myself growing up," she says. "But I try not to get into all that. I'm not out to be a politician." —Alisa Solomon


SELLING THEIR SOLES

When Reebok needed to hire a knight to take up its never-ending quest to sell expensive footwear to inner-city kids, it turned to Allen Iverson, signing him to a lifetime contract worth nearly $85 million. The idea was to use Iverson's street cred as a badass to sell sneakers, but they probably didn't expect their spokesman to be staring down felony charges for allegedly threatening people with a gun during a search for his wife. Reebok was hoping to slide Iverson into the star vacuum left by Nike's Michael Jordan, but Reebok wanted to hitch its product to a more edgy superstar.

"They were certainly looking for someone for the young, hip, urban type of youth," says Jack Trout, founder of Trout & Partners, a marketing consultancy firm in Connecticut. "They were probably taken with Iverson. He's quite a bit different than Jordan, and a lot less corporate-y." Is targeting inner cities the best way to sell shoes? "Jordan sold a lot of Air Jordans to that crowd," observes Trout. "They buy a lot of sneakers." Some marketing gurus say the spate of coverage will actually help the company's brand, especially if Iverson beats the rap. "We firmly believe that Allen will be vindicated, and Reebok, along with his millions of fans, will still be standing by him when he is," the company said in a statement, adding that Iverson's "celebrity status, not the facts," was behind the arrest. They don't take calls on the topic. The company is going ahead with plans to launch a new line of Iverson-endorsed shoes this November.

Meanwhile, in the Philly suburb of Gladwyne, mothers bring their children to stand outside Iverson's mansion, waving signs of encouragement and hoping for a wave from the window. And every time a "Free Iverson" sign is raised, somewhere a sneaker executive smiles. —Joe Pappalardo

 
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