We’re still in America, right?

All-star diamond in the Emerald City

Still from Russia with love

Anna forever

MIAMI — I went to the Heat-Cavs game Thursday night with my old intern, Jamie, who now works for “Rome is Burning” and came down to Miami for the week of shows here. Back when I started my old Web site in the summer of ’97, Jamie was one of my first readers — a sarcastic 15-year-old kid who landed in every mailbag mostly because I barely had enough readers to make up a mailbag. This was the same summer that a smoking-hot tennis star named Anna Kournikova started wreaking havoc, and since the Internet was just starting to round into shape, she was only resonating through some magazine photos and giddy conversations that guys had with their friends.

There hasn’t been anything quite like her before or since: a blonde, bosomy Russian with killer legs and a perpetual pout. She was prettier than most supermodels. She was sexier than most Hollywood stars. When she played Amanda Coetzer in the Australian Open that year, it was probably the greatest 20-second highlight in SportsCenter history, replete with reverential silence from the anchors. They could have released that highlight on DVD by itself and people would have bought it.

Unfortunately (and this is an especially big “unfortunately”), Anna may have looked 25, but she didn’t turn 16 until June 7. That meant everyone in the mainstream media was terrified to mention her appeal for obvious reasons, although a few sports radio hosts around America crossed the line during the ’96 U.S. Open (and took heat for it). When she made it to the third round of the ’97 French Open, I remember watching her lose to Martina Hingis (who had her own thing going since she was attractive and a little kooky, which gave her a dangerous edge, kind of like Glenn Close in the first 20 minutes of “Fatal Attraction”) and thinking that, even though I was broke at the time, I would have emptied my checking account if they suddenly moved the match to pay-per-view. On the week Anna turned 16, I gleefully made a “two years until she’s legal!” joke in a column and received more e-mails than I’d ever received before. She was America’s underground sweetheart.

And then something magical happened: Wimbledon rolled around and Anna played the best tennis of her life, somehow making it all the way to the semifinals. Meanwhile, I was bartending and working on my new Web site — translation: I was waking up at 11 every morning and farting around until I had to go to work — which made me eminently available to watch HBO’s around-the-clock coverage. This was an unparalleled middle-of-the-day TV experience; it made the OJ Trial seem pedestrian by comparison. Could Anna keep winning? Could she shock the world and steal Wimbledon? Remember, we were coming off a stretch in women’s tennis that was dominated by Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario, Monica Seles and Martina Navratilova that swayed everyone into thinking that Martina Hingis was much cuter than she really was. We weren’t remotely ready for anyone like Anna. She was like a surreal cross between the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, LeBron’s rookie season and the greatest-looking Bond girl of all-time.

Anna Kournikova

Even though Hingis crushed her in the semis, that didn’t stop everyone from spending the summer daydreaming about a not-so-distant future when the world’s most beautiful female was (A) legal, (B) Russian (nothing like some residue Cold War tensions to spice everything up) and (C) the best women’s tennis player alive. It seemed too good to be true. Unfathomable, even. Could we really spend the next 10-12 years watching Anna covered in her own sweat, bouncing around in tight tennis outfits and demolishing everyone in her path? Were we headed for a world where somebody who looked like this would win major after major, become the Tiger of tennis, appear on television 50-60 times per year and transform every red-blooded male into a diehard tennis fan? Could this actually HAPPEN?

Nope. Didn’t happen.

As it turned out, Anna Kournikova just wasn’t that good. When tennis experts started questioning her talents after the post-Wimbledon wave of “Here comes Anna!” stories, we all hoped it was just sour grapes. (I mean, of course Mary Carillo and Billie Jean King were going to be threatened by Anna’s ascendance. She had taken women’s tennis into a completely different direction, one where the game didn’t matter as much as outfits and sex appeal. Why would the old guard think this was a good thing?) Anna cracked the top 20 in 1998, pulled off a few upsets, graced more than a few magazine covers, landed more than a few commercials, and caused an out-and-out riot on the Internet (nobody had more photos out there, and nobody had more people looking for them). She won the 1999 Australian Open doubles title with Hingis, lost the legendary “Headlights Match” in that same tournament to Mary Pierce (there hadn’t been that much jiggling on TV since the heyday of “Charlie’s Angels”) and made it to the fourth round in that year’s Australian and French Opens.

During that time, she also shattered Mariah Carey’s record for “most girls that have ever hated another girl for no real reason.” If you brought up her name in a mixed group, the claws would come flying out. Every other female loathed her, instinctively, habitually. And if you asked them why, the reasons were always petty and unsubstantiated. Stuff like, “She just doesn’t seem like a nice person to me,” or “She’s more concerned with how she looks than how she plays” or even “I just don’t like the look on her face.” The only thing that came close to watching Kournikova play tennis was watching other women openly seethe about her success. To them, she was like one of those evil movie characters in a John Hughes movie who runs the whole high school, flirts with everyone else’s boyfriend and makes those cutting backhanded compliments to other girls like “I’m glad you finally did something about your hair.” And frankly, this made the Kournikova Era even more magical than it already was.

Everything crested in June of ’99, when three things happened:

1. Anna turned 18. This meant that the mainstream media could now discuss her looks without calling her a “tennis Lolita” and making everyone feel icky. Much better.

2. She entered Wimbledon with a ton of hype and enraged the old guard to no end. You could feel the venom from Carillo, King and Navratilova throughout the HBO coverage. It was palpable and fantastic. Every time Anna nailed a winner down the baseline, you kept expecting one of them to snap and scream, “WHORE! WHORE!” I wish ESPN Classic would create a weekly show called “Classic Kournikova” just so we could relive the announcing from those matches — it’s never been approached before or since. Actually, I wish ESPN Classic would create a weekly show called “Classic Kournikova” just so there would be a show called “Classic Kournikova.” Like you wouldn’t watch this?

3. After winning her first three Wimbledon matches, Anna battled a heavily favored Venus Williams in the fourth round and took the first set. An upset was brewing. The crowd was buzzing. The HBO announcers were doing everything to jinx her short of screaming “Noonan!” during her second serve and dousing her photos with chicken blood. Anna was prancing around, taking that extra split-second to bend over for balls and eating it up. She was going to rule the world. You could feel it.

Only later did we realize the significance of the moment … because that’s exactly when the Kournikova Era peaked.

Seriously, that was it. Up a set to Venus, she was then decimated in the next two sets, prompting a free fall in which Anna flopped at the U.S. Open and ended up going 6-8 over the second half of 1999 (including the Venus loss). Off the court, it became obvious that she was relishing a sexpot image, showing up at various red-carpet events, refusing to confirm or deny reports that she was engaged to Pavel Bure and then Sergei Fedorov, coyly wearing a wedding ring just to screw with everyone, making an appearance in “Me, Myself and Irene” and being profiled in a leering Sports Illustrated feature by Frank Deford that practically shattered the Unintentional Comedy Scale (although the pictures made it all worth it). She was also raking in huge sums of money — upward of $10 million a year just from endorsements — and since she wasn’t winning anything and didn’t seem to care that she wasn’t winning anything, that made her an easy target for grizzled writers looking for a good high-horse column.

She finished an underwhelming 47-29 in 2001 and struggled to a 16-12 record in 2002 because of back problems (or so she said), making news only because she fell for singer Enrique Iglesias after they filmed a music video together. Not only had her tennis prime passed, but she was in her 20s and the Lolita/tennis prodigy thing had vanished. She didn’t seem any more or less beautiful than anyone else, and her ongoing tennis failures robbed her of that bitchy, glowering “not only am I prettier than you, I’m going to kick your ass in this match” aura that made her so great in the first place. When she effectively retired after the 2003 season, the prevailing reaction seemed to be, “She was still playing?” For the last four years, she’s spent her time traveling around the world with Iglesias, playing charity tournaments and doing whatever wealthy smoking-hot former tennis players do, making news only because she lost a jaw-dropping amount of weight.

And honestly? I can’t remember the last time I thought about her or heard her name mentioned. You could even make the case that she’s irrelevant, except for one thing: She had an enormous and underrated impact on the sports world from 1997 to 2002, only it’s never been properly understood or appreciated. I realized this at the Heat-Cavs game. Some of the Heat employees were nice enough to show us around before the game, even allowing us to hang out in Shelley’s Lounge, which was unlike any other suite we’ve ever seen. You can’t see the court because it’s located near the locker rooms, but it’s three times the size of a normal suite and loaded with plasmas, video games, foosball, an open bar, free food and everything else you can imagine. There’s one on each side of the court, and they both spill into a much bigger bar that’s open only to courtside ticket holders, celebrities and VIP guests. You couldn’t have something like this in Sacramento or Boston, but you could definitely have it in Miami.

Anna Kournikova

So we’re hanging out in Shelley’s Lounge and who walks in? Anna Kournikova and Enrique Iglesias. In case you haven’t seen her, she’s disgustingly thin now — still pretty, but more like a supermodel, and you would never know that she once played a professional sport. But still, it’s Anna Kournikova, for God’s sake! And here’s where Jamie becomes relevant to this story. First of all, in the Pantheon of Faces, Jamie’s “I’m standing three feet away from Anna Kournikova” Face will never, ever, EVER be topped. I am not a good enough writer to describe it. Joyce or Tolstoy couldn’t have described it. And second, as Jamie explained to us later, not only did he play high school tennis in Massachusetts during the same year that Frank Deford wrote the feature that influenced so many high school and college students across America, the team actually brought that issue on the van for every one of their its matches. Why? you ask. Partly as a good-luck charm, partly as reliably good reading fodder for any trip. The team never knew when it would get bored on the van and want to start poring through Kournikova pictures again.

For whatever reason, I never properly appreciated the Kournikova Era until she walked into Shelley’s Lounge, saw Jamie’s reaction and heard the story about his tennis team. Maybe she was overrated as a tennis player, but has an athlete ever had a bigger impact over a short span that couldn’t be calibrated in any way, shape or form other than the look on somebody’s face when they enter the room? I say no.

Eventually, we headed up to our seats and took in some of the Cavs-Heat game, which was interesting for five reasons. First, Miami’s crowd was much livelier than I expected, although it was admittedly one of the marquee games of the year; if your fans can’t get up for LeBron, Shaq and Wade on TNT, you shouldn’t have a basketball team. Second, they have the coolest scoreboard I’ve ever seen — it looks like something out of the movie “Alien.” Third, the difference between Wade (killing himself and ramming his way to the rim over and over again like a running back) and LeBron (on cruise control and seeming disinterested most of the time — and yes, I know he’s hurt, but I’ve watched him mail it in too many times this season and we’re nearing the point where Barkley needs to call him out on TNT) was absolutely startling. One guy just wants it more than the other guy. It’s that simple. Fourth, Scot Pollard shaved his head into a blond Mohawk and kept his goatee with the weird knobs on it and STILL was outdone by the perplexing patch of hair on the back of Drew Gooden’s neck. And fifth, it always feels like a bigger game when Shaq is playing — even if he’s not the same kind of force anymore — and I will miss him when he retires to chase down criminals in some random town in Florida.

All in all, a good, lively game. As halftime was approaching, I glanced over at Jamie and saw his wheels turning. More Kournikova. More Kournikova. So I threw him a bone and said, “Hey, wanna go back to the lounge at halftime?” followed by Jamie answering “yes” even as I was still finishing the word “halftime.”

We headed back there, walked underneath the stadium and passed through a bar to get to the lounge .. and suddenly, there were Enrique and Anna again. She was standing with her back to the wall, Enrique was in front of her, and she had her arms wrapped around him, only she was watching us walk by her and relishing the attention because he couldn’t see where she was looking. At this point, Jamie was moving at the speed of the people in “War of the Worlds” coming out of their houses to stare at the giant UFO — it’s amazing he didn’t walk into a chair or a table. I played it a little differently, glancing at her quickly, waiting for her to make eye contact, then glancing away like I wasn’t impressed, hoping it would piss her off (like she would give a crap). We headed into the lounge to throw some water on Jamie, and not even a minute later, they were standing right behind us again and she was defiantly making eye contact — almost like a Fembot, like she was thinking, “I’m Anna Kournikova, if you don’t look impressed within the next three seconds, I’m going to shoot you with my jublees.”

And for the first time, everything about the Kournikova Era fell into place. She just wanted to be noticed, even if she had to settle for two random dudes in the VIP lounge of a regular-season NBA game. Did she ever care about tennis? Probably not. Did she use tennis as a vehicle to dress in skimpy outfits and wrap every red-blooded male around her finger? Probably.

Anyway, it worked. I melted into a puddle and Jamie stopped breathing and briefly died. They pranced by us as Jamie immediately re-evaluated his life and everything that’s ever happened in it, eventually deciding that this was his greatest moment since the Red Sox won the World Series. Anyone who says Anna Kournikova’s tennis career didn’t matter is just plain lying. She DID have an impact. Only a handful of athletes and former athletes can still stop a room in its tracks. She’s one of them.

“When you were sitting in that tennis van 10 years ago,” I asked him, “did you ever imagine that you’d be drinking three feet away from Kournikova?”

“No,” Jamie said. “No. Never. I never would have believed it.”

These are the things that happen during Super Bowl Week in Miami.

As for the big game, I’m picking the Bears and taking the seven points. Here’s why:

1. As I mentioned Thursday, everyone in Miami seems to be handing the trophy to the Colts already. … Um, didn’t we learn this lesson already from the Saints-Bears game? You never want to be on the same side as the gambling majority. Ever.

2. The Bears are staying near the airport (not near anything), while the Colts are staying closer to the beach (and closer to all the trouble). That makes it about 20 times as likely that an Indianapolis Colt will be this year’s winner of the Stanley Wilson/Eugene Robinson Award and distract his team in the process. I can’t take the chance.

3. It’s been said a kajillion times, but how can anyone be sold on this Colts defense? Against the Chiefs, the Colts stacked the line against LJ and just made Herm Edwards and Trent Green try to beat them. Against the Ravens, they didn’t even have to stack the line because Jamal Lewis is so freaking slow, so they concentrated on forcing Steve McNair to make mistakes (and he obliged). Against the Patriots, they gave up 34 points and it would have been more if Troy Brown didn’t get flagged for that illegal pick and the fourth-quarter interference against Reche Caldwell had been called. Now you have a Bears team that can pound the ball with two running backs AND has the receivers to throw deep. I know the Colts will stack the line and force Grossman to beat them, but teams have been doing that against the Bears all season — they always seem to make two or three big plays.

4. Peyton Manning’s record in big games: Not so good. A little better recently, but still … not so good. I’d like to see him win one title at the college or pro level before I’m laying seven points with him in a Super Bowl game.

5. Remember when the 2003 Yankees outlasted the Red Sox in that seven-game bloodbath and had nothing left for the Marlins series because it was like they had already played their World Series? I’m not saying the same thing will definitely happen here, but it’s worth mentioning the Letdown Potential here. The Colts and their fans just spent the past two weeks breaking out the popsicles and doing the “we finally made it” routine. Meanwhile …

6. The Bears just went 15-3, made the Super Bowl and then had to spend the next two weeks hearing everyone take shots at their QB and give them little to no chance of winning the game. They have all the makings of being one of those teams that pulls off a mild upset in a championship game and spends the next few days telling everyone stuff like “Nobody believed in us!” and “The only people who believed we could do it were the people in this locker room,” followed by everyone getting annoyed that they won’t shut up that nobody believed in them. But it’s kind of true. Nobody believes in the Bears. That’s the best motivating force in sports. It really is.

Well, I believe in the Bears from Chicago. I see this being one of those Super Bowls that’s crappy and disjointed for most of the first half, followed by a point explosion right near halftime and one of those second halves when the teams just trade scores (like the Pats-Panthers Super Bowl). And in those games, either team can win, right? So here are my predictions.

A. Chicago 33, Indianapolis 30.

B. Thomas Jones for MVP.

C. The greatest Manning Face of all-time.

D. A new record for “nobody believed in us” quotes.

E. A dead heat with the Sports Gal (she’s one game ahead of me and picking the Colts) that can only be decided with the one sporting event that best determines whether you have a gambling problem: The 2007 Pro Bowl. I’m already giddy.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His book “Now I Can Die In Peace” is available in paperback.

Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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