National Sports Headlines from NBC Sports

Ellis, Mavs top Spurs 113-111, force Game 7

DALLAS (AP) Monta Ellis scored 12 of his 29 points to lead a fourth-quarter comeback, Dirk Nowitzki added 22 and the Dallas Mavericks forced a Game 7 in their first-round series with top-seeded San Antonio, beating the Spurs 113-111 on Friday night.

The eighth-seeded Mavericks bounced back from consecutive losses by handing the Spurs their first road defeat when leading after three quarters this season.

Tony Parker scored 22 to lead the heavily favored Spurs, who are stuck in a tossup series after they won all four games against Dallas during the regular season. San Antonio took a nine-game winning streak against the Texas rival into the sixth postseason meeting between the teams.

The second Game 7 between these teams is Sunday in San Antonio. The Mavericks won the other one there in 2006.

Brassard lifts Rangers by Penguins 3-2 in overtime

PITTSBURGH (AP) Derick Brassard scored 3:06 into overtime to give the New York Rangers a 3-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals Friday night.

Play continued after Brassard's goal, with Benoit Pouliot pumping a shot past Marc-Andre Fleury seconds after Brassard's shot. A review showed Brassard's flip from in front beat Fleury cleanly.

Game 2 is Sunday.

Pouliot and Brad Richards gave the Rangers an early 2-0 lead. Henrik Lundqvist stopped 34 shots and stuffed a late Pittsburgh breakaway in the final seconds of regulation.

Lee Stempniak and James Neal scored for the Penguins. Fleury made 24 saves but was helpless on the winner.

Pittsburgh star Sidney Crosby was held without a goal for the 12th straight playoff game.

The Penguins have never lost a playoff series against the Rangers, rolling to victory in each of the four postseason meetings, including a 4-1 win in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2008.

They split their four games during the regular season, all of them coming before the Olympic break. The Penguins have looked sluggish in the ensuing three months while the Rangers played their best hockey down the stretch before needing seven games to dispatch Philadelphia in the opening round.

For a team that was supposed to be gassed playing for the third time in four days, the Rangers wasted little time jumping on the sloppy and surprisingly lifeless Penguins.

Pouliot gave New York the lead 5:04 into first period, capitalizing on a Pittsburgh turnover then splitting Penguins defenseman Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen before firing a wrist shot that caromed off Fleury's right arm and into the net.

Richards doubled the lead late in the period with his third and easiest goal of the postseason. Carl Hagelin beat Maatta to a puck in the corner and fed it to Richards, who had enough time in front to go from his backhand to his forehand and flip the puck by an overmatched Fleury.

Whatever sluggishness the Penguins felt after a three-day layoff vanished in the second.

Stempniak cut the lead in half by taking a nice drop pass from Beau Bennett then streaking down the middle and beating Lundqvist with a backhand 7:15 into the period.

Neal tied it just over 6 minutes later thanks to a rare mistake by Lundqvist, who deflected Neal's into the air then had it glance off his back and into the net. Lundqvist pleaded with officials that Penguins forward Evgeni Malkin had interfered with him while trying to make the save, but replays showed Malkin's high-stick swat didn't come close to touching the puck.

NOTES: New York went 0 for 4 on the power play and is 0 for its last 25 with the man advantage. ... The Rangers held out F Chris Kreider once again. Kreider wore a non-contact jersey during Friday morning's skate and his return from a hand injury remains uncertain. ... Penguins D Brooks Orpik missed his third straight game with an undisclosed injury.

Nets beat Raptors 97-83 to force Game 7

NEW YORK (AP) Deron Williams scored 23 points, shaking off a second-half injury, and the Brooklyn Nets forced a seventh game in their first-round series by beating the Toronto Raptors 97-83 on Friday night.

Despite appearing to hurt his left foot or ankle early in the third quarter, Williams dominated his matchup with Kyle Lowry and helped the Nets put it away with a 3-pointer with 1:13 left that made it 92-79.

Game 7 is Sunday in Toronto, with the winner advancing to face the defending champion Miami Heat.

It became the fourth first-round series ticketed for a do-or-die game in these playoffs.

DeMar DeRozan scored 28 for the Raptors, who will have to go the distance if they are to win a seven-game series for the first time in franchise history. They haven't won any postseason series since 2001.

Clippers coach meets with angry employees

LOS ANGELES (AP) Clippers coach Doc Rivers said employees on the team's business side considered not working for the franchise after owner Donald Sterling's racist comments were exposed a week ago.

Rivers met with team employees who were still upset and angry Friday morning, several days after Sterling was banned for life from the NBA.

"What I witnessed today, you realize this thing has touched a lot of people," Rivers said hours later at the Clippers' training complex in Playa Vista. "The people that didn't do anything are being harmed by this, and I wish we could find the right solution, and I don't have it."

Rivers made the trip downtown at the request of other top executives with the Clippers, who will play the Golden State Warriors in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series Saturday night.

Instead of preparing for the biggest game of the season, Rivers spent the morning at the Clippers' team offices, listening to employees in ticket sales, marketing and other departments who took the brunt of public backlash against the Clippers in phone calls and other contact with the public.

"They really haven't had a lot of people talking to them," Rivers said of the team employees. "It was really hard to see them. I didn't realize. Ticket people, marketing people, and they're sitting there crying, and I felt so bad for them. I was thinking, `My God, we've been in this thing as players and as the coaches.' You forget that these are the people that are on the front line, and they work for the organization, too."

When asked why he made the trip at such a crucial time for his basketball team, Rivers said: "There was a need."

"I can't share everything, but it was important that I did it today, let's put it that way," the coach added. "They're just like our players. I'll say this much: Our players thought about not working. So did our employees, and they still felt that way. They needed somebody to ask them to continue to work and support us. So we're still trying to put this thing together."

Rivers has been on the Clippers' bench for less than a year, but the veteran NBA coach and player has emerged as the public face of the franchise during Sterling's ouster. Rivers also is the Clippers' senior vice president for basketball operations, giving him a voice in personnel decisions.

Sterling acquired the coach from the Boston Celtics last June in a trade for a first-round pick in the 2015 draft, signing him to a contract paying him a reported $7 million per year.

Rivers won an NBA title in 2008 and reached two NBA finals during nine seasons as the Celtics' coach. He coached just over four seasons with the Orlando Magic before taking over in Boston.

He also had a 13-season playing career for four franchises, even playing one season for Sterling with the Clippers in 1991-92.

Rivers refused to meet with Sterling shortly after the comments were made public, openly acknowledging his personal conflict about continuing with the club. He has been praised for his frankness and leadership during the crisis, but Rivers is reluctant to take credit.

"I don't know if I'm doing a good job," he said. "I'm just doing my job. We didn't know this was coming. Last time I met (with team employees) was before the season, and we talked about our goals as a group, being a championship team and a championship organization. They just felt like now, we've been knocked back down and we have to start all over again, and I told them, `Yeah, you're right, you do.' There's no quick solution to this. ... We've got to redo it, and I told them that.

"I told them I want to be there for them as much as I can, but it's hard."

Vick chooses to wear No. 1 with Jets

NEW YORK (AP) Michael Vick is the new No. 1 for the New York Jets.

The veteran quarterback initially chose earlier this week to wear No. 8 with his new team, but announced on Twitter on Friday that he was going with jersey No. 1.

"After trying on the (No.) 8 I decided that it's not the right fit for me," Vick wrote. "I'll be going with the (No.) 1 officially. Thank You."

Vick had worn the No. 7 through high school, college at Virginia Tech and throughout his NFL career with Atlanta and Philadelphia, but that jersey number belongs to current Jets quarterback Geno Smith. After signing with New York in March, Vick said he had no intentions of asking Smith for the number.

"I'm changing my number," he said then.

Vick asked fans on Twitter for their opinions whether he should pick No. 3 or No. 8. After Vick announced on his Instagram page on Monday that he chose No. 8, the Jets confirmed the decision on their website Thursday. Vick called an audible Friday and picked the number currently worn by punter Ryan Quigley.

There was no immediate word on the negotiations between Vick and Quigley for the number. Shortly after signing with the Jets, wide receiver Eric Decker worked out a deal with tight end Jeff Cumberland to get the No. 87 he wore for four seasons in Denver. Recently signed running back Chris Johnson has yet to choose a new number with the Jets. The No. 28 he wore for six years in Tennessee is retired by the Jets in honor of Hall of Fame running back Curtis Martin.

Vick would become the seventh player to wear No. 1 for the Jets, and the first quarterback, joining running back Mike Adamle, punters Quigley and Matt Turk, and kickers Dave Jacobs, Brett Conway and Mike Nugent.

Randolph suspended for Game 7 for punching Adams

NEW YORK (AP) Memphis forward Zach Randolph has been suspended for Game 7 of the Grizzlies' playoff series against Oklahoma City for punching Thunder center Steven Adams in the jaw.

The ruling Friday by the NBA leaves the Grizzlies without their leading scorer for the deciding game in Oklahoma City on Saturday night.

The play came with 6:42 left in the Thunder's 104-84 victory Thursday night. Randolph first elbowed Adams in the midsection with his left elbow, then struck Adams with his right hand.

Randolph is averaging a team-best 18.2 points in the series.

Pacers to have George for Game 7 against Hawks

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Paul George spent much of Friday worried about whether he'd be suspended for Game 7 against Atlanta.

Not a chance.

Less than an hour after wrapping up practice, an NBA spokesman confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that league officials reviewed the tapes from Thursday night's altercation and determined none of the players who stepped onto the court would be punished for the decisive game of this first-round series.

It was no surprise to the Pacers.

"We're planning for him to be here until we're told he's not going to be in there," coach Frank Vogel said shortly before the decision was made public. "I think he stayed in the vicinity of the bench."

Players who leave the "vicinity" of the bench during a fracas can be suspended under league rules.

Few, including Stu Jackson, the league's former disciplinarian, expected that to happen with George, who took two slow, short steps onto the court before he was pushed back by assistant coach Popeye Jones. Jackson wrote on Twitter that he didn't expect the league to suspend George, Indiana's best player and an All-Star starter.

Losing George would have been a major blow to the Pacers' comeback hopes.

George has topped 20 points in all six games, has double-doubles in five of them and has been the one Pacers' defender able to slow down quick, shifty Hawks guard Jeff Teague. And it was George and David West who saved the Pacers season with a late Thursday night in Atlanta, too.

All the league's best regular season home team must do now to reach the second round and avoid the distinction of becoming the sixth No. 1 seed in league history to be eliminated in the first round is protect its home court. Lately, that's been a problem.

"My thing is that three of the last four times we've played these guys (in Indy), they built 20-point leads and beat us pretty good," Vogel said. "So I don't think anyone from this team can think we're going to be OK just because we're back home."

The eighth-seeded Hawks understand.

They had a chance to wrap up the best-of-seven series at home and rallied from a nine-point deficit in the third quarter to take a five-point lead late in the fourth. Yet they still lost.

"We've responded well all year when we've been in difficult situations," coach Mike Budenholzer said Friday. "Part of our response is going to have to be better execution. I think we have a lot of positive reference points from all year. Our group has been very good and very resilient. I have a lot of confidence in our group."

But this is going to be different.

The Pacers, who spent all season chasing the Eastern Conference's top seed, expect a raucous crowd for the first Game 7 to be played at home in the franchise's NBA history. Plus, they appeared to find a defensive solution to Atlanta's spread offense by going small in Game 6.

The Hawks, meanwhile, have only a day to adjust to Vogel's new rotations and are on their own historic quest.

A win Saturday would give Atlanta the distinction of having the fewest regular-season wins (38) of any second-round team since Detroit's 36-win team beat Milwaukee in the first round of the 1976 playoffs, according to STATS.

"We've won on that floor before, so we know we can do it," Teague said. "We just have to go out there and do what we do and play our style of basketball, and it will take care of itself."

George has plenty of motivation after a stressful week that included ceding home-court advantage for the second time in the series, losing his 2014 All-Star ring in a burglary that took place while he was playing Game 5, two elimination games and speculation that his 24th birthday celebration might be marred by the announcement of a one-game suspension.

There's only one thing that really would help him relax - getting a second straight win and setting up a second-round date with Washington.

"Now It's about getting it done," George said. "We should be ready for this moment."

Untapable wins 140th running of Kentucky Oaks

Louisville, KY -- Untapable lived up to her billing in Friday’s $1 million Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs, drawing away in the stretch drive to a 4 ½-length decision. An overwhelming even-money favorite following convincing wins in two prior starts this year, Untapable continued to impress while providing Rosie Napravnik with her second victory in the premiere test for 3-year-old fillies.

“She was really great today,” said Napravnik, who became the first female rider to win the Kentucky Oaks when guiding Believe You Can in 2012. “She is magnificent.”

The start of the Oaks was delayed by Empress of Midway, who flipped over in the starting gate and had to be scratched after being successfully extricated. That allowed Untapable, who drew the far outside among 13 rivals, to move one spot closer to the rail and the bay filly broke favorably from post 12, establishing early positioning just behind front-runners Sugar Shock and My Miss Sophia.

“We ended up in a great position from the outside post,” Napravnik explained. “She runs her best when she can get in a great stride. She relaxes so nice. She’s growing up and is maturing.”

Untapable was kept in the clear on the outside down the backstretch, stalking in a perfect pouncing position about a length back of the lead, and was her given cue midway on the far turn. She advanced to overtake My Miss Sophia entering the stretch, powering past her rival in decisive fashion, and won for fun in the latter stages.

My Miss Sophia proved no match for the heroine but easily held second in a strong performance, finishing six lengths clear of third-placer Unbridled Forever.

Rosalind came next in fourth and was followed under the finish line by Thank You Marylou, Ria Antonia, Got Lucky, Sugar Shock, Aurelia’s Belle, Please Explain, Fashion Plate and Kiss Moon.

Untapable, who rewarded trainer Steve Asmussen with his second career win in the Kentucky Oaks, covered the 1 1/8-mile distance in 1:48 3/5 and returned a paltry win payout of $4.

Now a four-time stakes winner, Untapable registered her first black-type score in the Pocahontas last September and opened 2014 with romping wins in the Feb. 22 Rachel Alexandra and March 29 Fair Grounds Oaks.

A daughter of leading sire Tapit, Untapable was bred in Kentucky by owner Winchell Thoroughbreds LLC. The top-class filly earned $576,600 on Friday, increasing her bankroll to $1,124,725 from a 7-5-0-1 record.

“It is just a great feeling,” Napravnik added. “I am so thankful for Steve (Asmussen) and for the Winchells having me on the filly. They have done such a great job.”

49ers exercise LB Aldon Smith's 2015 option

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) The San Francisco 49ers know Aldon Smith still has plenty of work to do in order to repair his tarnished image and stay on track away from the football field.

They want to be an integral part of his self-improvement project, exercising their 2015 fifth-year contract option for the star linebacker on Friday. The team made the decision despite Smith's long list of legal trouble that included an arrest at Los Angeles International Airport just more than two weeks ago.

San Francisco faced a Saturday deadline to decide on Smith's immediate future, and general manager Trent Baalke suggested last week the team would keep the fearsome pass-rusher around for the near future at least - for 2015, "and `16, and `17 and `18." The 49ers will provide Smith with the support he needs to deal with his rash of off-the-field issues.

Yet Baalke has made it clear there must be positive change, and soon.

San Francisco realizes Smith still could face a suspension from the NFL for his DUI last September, and is expected to look for depth at linebacker during next week's NFL draft.

"Well, that remains to be seen. You prepare for the worst and hope for the best," Baalke said of a potential suspension for Smith. "There are still a lot of things that are going to factor into that decision at the league level and the club level. We're working very diligently in the background trying to make sure the right decisions are made long term, not only for Aldon but for this club."

In his latest run-in with the law, Smith was arrested April 13 at Los Angeles International Airport. Police say the 24-year-old NFL star was randomly selected for a secondary screening and became uncooperative with the process, telling a TSA agent that he had a bomb. The district attorney has referred the case for misdemeanor consideration.

That followed Smith's five-game absence last season to undergo treatment for substance abuse after a September DUI arrest. In November, he pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of illegal possession of an assault weapon, stemming from a June 2012 party at his home. Investigators say several shots were fired, two partygoers were injured and Smith was stabbed. In the subsequent investigation, prosecutors say detectives found five unregistered, illegal weapons in Smith's house, including two Bushmaster rifles and an Armalite AR-10T.

Yet, what Smith brings on the field makes him one of the NFL's best at chasing down and pressuring quarterbacks.

Smith emerged as one of the league's most-feared pass rushers in 2012. He had a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks that year, but failed to record a sack in his final six games including the team's postseason Super Bowl run.

Smith finished with 8 1/2 sacks and 34 tackles in 11 games last season, making eight starts. His 42 sacks are second-most in the NFL since he entered the league.

He and former teammate Delanie Walker were named in a lawsuit last September filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court by a Northern California man who said he was shot at a party at Smith's house on June 29, 2012. The players charged a $10 admission and $5 per drink, the lawsuit said. Smith and now-Tennessee Titans tight end Walker were allegedly intoxicated on Smith's balcony when they fired gunshots in the air while trying to end the party, the lawsuit said.

Smith, selected seventh overall in the 2011 draft out of Missouri, had previously been arrested on suspicion of DUI in January 2012 in Miami shortly after the 49ers lost in the NFC championship game.

Baalke and the rest of the 49ers hope Smith will learn a lesson at last, and become a better person because of it. Smith said during a January interview with The Associated Press he was encouraged by his strides and confident he had made positive changes in his life.

"I'm a firm believer in the humanistic approach to everything. You continue to work just like you would with any family member," Baalke said. "We're a family. You don't just open the door and toss people out of it. You continue to work until they leave you no choice. That's what we're going to do. We're going to continue to work with him, we're going continue to find ways to support, not defend, we cannot defend the actions of others, all we can do is support."

Bruins distance team from racist tweets at Subban

BOSTON (AP) The Boston Bruins and Mayor Marty Walsh condemned racist slurs about P.K. Subban that hit social media after the Montreal defenseman scored in the second overtime of their playoff game Thursday night.

Bruins President Cam Neely issued a statement Friday calling the tweets "racist" and "classless." He said they came from an "ignorant group of individuals" who do not reflect the organization.

Walsh said in a statement that the tweets were "a disgrace. These racist comments are not reflective of Boston, and are not reflective of Bruins fans. I've said before that the best hockey in the world happens when the Bruins and Canadiens play each other, and there is no room for this kind of ignorance here."

Subban, who is black, scored twice and the Canadiens won 4-3 to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals.

Boston coach Claude Julien and several Bruins also condemned the tweets.

"It's just poor judgment, poor taste, and we don't associate ourselves with people like that," Julien said Friday, "and people who think that way are not what we call our fans. They may think they are, but we certainly don't support that at all. It's a shame that this is still going around in this day and age."

He noted that one of the Bruins players is Jarome Iginla, who is black.

Subban's brother, Malcolm, is a goalie with the Bruins' minor league affiliate in Providence, Rhode Island.

"Let's be realistic here about this," Julien said about the tweets. "It's something we don't support."

Left wing Milan Lucic, who plays on the same line as Iginla, said, "he's been treated with nothing but respect in Boston since he's been here."

Iginla joined the Bruins as a free agent after last season and shared the team lead with Patrice Bergeron with 30 goals.

Begeron also criticized the tweets, saying, "there is no room for this in 2014."

Subban's play has hurt Boston over the years and he has long been unpopular there. He was booed virtually every time he touched the puck Thursday night.

Only at the Derby: California Chrome came from humble start

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In a way, the crazy story of California Chrome, the early favorite of this year’s Kentucky Derby, is also the crazy story of the Kentucky Derby itself. Listen: This will be the 140th time they’ve run the Kentucky Derby. Almost nothing in American pop culture has been around that long.

The first time around, a little thoroughbred named Aristides raced to the early lead (he was put into the race just to set a fast pace; even his owners didn’t think he could actually win). Then he just stayed in the lead and stayed in the lead, and finally the trainer just waved him on to the finish.

That was 1875. There was no National League then. It would be 20 years before they would play the first U.S. Open golf tournament, 36 before the first Indianapolis 500. James Naismith would not invent basketball for another decade and a half; football was being played with 20 people on each side. The very first game of indoor ice hockey was played just two months before the first Derby. There were nine players on each team.

The Kentucky Derby was dreamed up by a guy named Meriweather Lewis Clark Jr. -– he was the grandson of William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. Best anyone can tell he was sort of a spoiled man living the life of luxury, and so of course he went to England to see The Derby, pronounced “DAR-by” a race of 3-year-olds in Epsom (it’s now often called the Epsom Derby). A bit of trivia for you: The Derby got its name from Edward Smith-Stanley who was the 12th Earl of Derby. For 200 or so years now, races featuring 3-year-old thoroughbreds are often called Derby, even if the pronunciation is different.

MORE: Derby All-Access | California Chrome headlines talented Derby field

In any case, Clark so loved The Derby and the Grand Prix de Paris that he decided that his home state of Kentucky needed a world-class racetrack. Clark’s cousins John and Henry Churchill provided the land. Clark himself provided the energy and momentum; it seems that bringing racing to America was the first thing he had ever really cared about. The race track opened, and 10,000 people showed up to the first Kentucky Derby –- the women, according to John L. O’Connor’s “History of the Kentucky Derby” (written in 1921), had a portion of the grandstand dedicated to them and “the ladies in various costumes looked like so many parti-colored butterflies.”

So, basically, it was the Kentucky Derby as we know it right from the start.

There have been a few subtle changes. The famous twin spires were built in 1895. The race was shortened from 1 1/2 miles to it current 1 1/4 mile the next year. The red rose was made the official race flower in 1904. They started playing “My Old Kentucky Home” before the race around 1930.

But for the most part, the Kentucky Derby is the same race in the same place at the same time of year -- and it is as popular as ever, maybe even MORE popular than ever. More than 150,000 people will attend. More than 15 million people will watch on television -- more than half of them women.

How can the Derby still capture America’s attention?

The answer might have more to do with California Chrome than you would think.

* * *

So it goes like this: Two guys who have real jobs and no money to burn and almost nothing in common decided to buy a losing race horse together because, well, they just felt like it.

One guy, Steve Coburn, is a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy who wears a cowboy hat wherever he goes and says he was born with spurs on. Perry Martin is an old Chicago guy who owns Martin Testing Laboratories near Sacramento, Calif. They met because they both loved horse racing and because they each had bought 5 percent of a rather unfortunate racing filly named Love the Chase. Together they watched that filly lose. And lose. And lose.

In time, all their partners grew tired of the losing and decided it was just about time to sell off Love the Chase and make at least a little bit of their investment back. Thing is, Coburn and Martin had kind of fallen in love with the filly. They scrounged up $8,000 and bought her outright. They did this even after they heard a groom pronounce that anyone who would actually pay money to buy Love The Chase was a dumb ass.

They promptly decided to call their partnership DAP – Dumb-Ass Partners.

How much better can it get? Much better. After they watched her predictably lose a couple more races, DAP bred her with an equally lackluster horse called Lucky Pulpit, who had been anything but lucky. The stud fee for Lucky Pulpit was $2,500. It is telling that, according to various sources -- including a brochure I picked up from Claiborne Farm -- stud fees tend to “start at $2,500.”

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One day after California Chrome was born, Steve Coburn saw him and said the horse looked exactly like he did in a dream he’d had a few weeks earlier. “This little guy is going to do big things,” he said to himself.

Everything about this sounds like a sitcom, right? Two older guys, nothing in common, buy a broken-down horse, breed her with the cheapest horse they can find, and then believe they have a Kentucky Derby winner. Then, to add to the comedic possibilities, they send California Chrome to a kindly 77-year-old trainer named Art Sherman who last went to the Kentucky Derby in 1955, when he was a stable boy and slept on the train next to a horse name Swaps.

As it turns out, Swaps won that Derby with Willie Shoemaker riding. Sherman smiles when he says that he was not exactly important enough to be in the winning photograph.

If you were trying to NOT develop a Kentucky Derby horse, this is more or less how you would do it: Buy a losing horse, breed her with another, send her to a trainer who has never trained a Kentucky Derby horse.

But, at last, now we are getting to the point. For a good while as a 2-year-old, California Chrome showed some promise but nothing too earth-shattering. He won a couple of early races, but in September and again November he finished a distant sixth. The Chrome people decided to switch jockeys to Victor Espinoza, who had won the Kentucky Derby on War Emblem more than a decade ago.

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In Espinoza’s first ride at Hollywood Park, in a race called King Glorious, California Chrome put on a charge that sent chills through every member of DAP. It’s the feeling horse racing lifers will spend millions and millions of dollars to feel … and usually never do. California Chrome was fourth at the final turn, when he suddenly turned on. He breezed by the other horses like it was easy, then he began pulling away, leaving the other jockeys looking at Espinoza’s purple silks with a jackass logo on the back. California Chrome won by six lengths.

“Victor said he was just cruising,” Sherman said in wonder after the race. “He said, ‘Please put me on more of those.’”

Next time out, in Santa Anita, California Chrome won by 5 1/2 lengths. At the San Felipe Stakes, California Chrome had become a bit of a phenomenon -- people loved the story. He went off as the favorite and had his best race. Chrome led wire-to-wire, pulled away for a seven-length victory. “Unbelievable,” Sherman said.

“People keep saying he’s only a California bred,” Coburn said of the doubters. “The horse doesn’t know that.”

Finally, there was the Santa Anita Derby, and now, horse racing fans everywhere watched closely. One more time, California Chrome blew away the field and won by five lengths. Chrome is the first thoroughbred in more than 100 years -- and perhaps ever -- to enter the Derby after winning four straight races by five-plus lengths.

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Now, California Chrome is the favorite at the Kentucky Derby. Coburn and Martin say they have been approached to sell controlling interest in California Chrome for $6 million. They said no. For one thing, they said it would break Art Sherman’s heart. But, for another, they find themselves in the middle of a sports miracle. And, really, how often does THAT happen?

* * *

So, that gets us closer to the point: There are stories that can only happen at the Kentucky Derby. Yes, the Derby has many shades. There’s the gambling, the drinking, the decadence, the depravity, the Hunter S. Thompson stuff. And then there is the underbelly of thoroughbred racing, which was recently exposed in an undercover investigation by PETA (and published in the New York Times). The investigation centered on successful trainer Steve Asmussen, whose horse Untapable will run in the Derby.

Then, though, there are the stories and they just keep coming and coming. There is Canonero II, a horse that had been losing in Venezuela. Nobody thought Canonero even belonged at the 1971 Derby -- he didn’t even merit his own odds, he was just thrown into the mutual field. Canonero won anyway. To follow Steve Coburn’s line, the horse doesn’t know the odds.

There was Mine That Bird, a 50-to-1 shot who was purchased for $9,500 and driven more than 1,000 miles to the Derby in a horse trailer attached to his trainer’s pickup truck. He stumbled out of the gate and was several lengths behind the entire field for much of the race. Then, ridden by the great Calvin Borel, he went to the rail and ran by everybody and won going away.

On a beautiful day in 1913, in front of the biggest crowd in Derby history to that point (it was free to watch the Derby then) a horse named Donerail went off as a 91-1 long shot and then won.

Well, every year for 140 years there has been SOME sort of long shot story, some horse that nobody believed in, some trainer who had spent a lifetime waking up before dawn to teach horses how to run, some jockey who has come back from the abyss, some heart-warming twist that brings tears to the eyes, some owner who fell in love with the sport and has just kind of blundered around until finally getting here. 

Truth is, every year there are a BUNCH of these stories. This year, Wicked Strong is named to honor the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing last year and a part of his earnings go back to benefit the victims. Uncle Sigh -- named for Uncle Si Robertson of Duck Dynasty -- raises money for Wounded Warriors, an organization that helps veterans injured in conflict. Rosie Napravnik on Vicar’s In Trouble tries to become the first woman jockey to win the Kentucky Derby and Gary Stevens on Candy Boy tries to become the first 50-year-old in almost 20 years.

And there’s a horse named Danza. After Tony Danza.

Most of all, there’s California Chrome. Being the early favorite in the Kentucky Derby doesn’t mean all that much. These are 3-year-old thoroughbreds and the only thing that can be said with any certainly about 3-year-old horses is that you have no idea how they will run.

And that, too, is part of the Kentucky Derby wonder. It’s all so much to pack into two minutes, and I think that’s why the Derby keeps mattering. Sure, there are all the traditions, but we will move on from tradition. There is all the history, but we don’t always honor history. There is the betting and the fashion and all that.

But mostly, there’s the story. How can you hear the story of California Chrome, his unlikely owners, his old-time trainer, his beautiful running style ... and not care? Everyone will stop to at least see how he does, right? If he wins, there will be movie rights to think about. If he loses, well, there will be another great story next year. That’s the magic of the Derby. The stories never run out.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski

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John McCain would 'probably' change Redskins name

Arizona Senator John McCain weighed in on the Redskins name controversy, saying Native American’s need to be consulted about the issue while on The Dan Patrick Show on Friday.

Dan Snyder, the owner of the Washington Redskins, has been embroiled in controversy over refusing to change the team’s name.

“If I were [Snyder], I’d call the Native American leaders together and I’d sit down with them,” said McClain. “I’d say ‘O.K., what is it that you want, how do you want me to do it?’”

The senator said he knows Snyder has specific rights as the owner, but the United States has a long history with Native Americans that needs to be considered. McCain mentioned Wounded Knee and the Trail of Tears, saying they were a bad chapter in American history.

He said if Native Americans were offended by the Redskins’ name, it needed to be changed.

McCain reiterated he would like to see Snyder meet with Native American leaders and see if they couldn’t work it out.

The former presidential candidate concluded, “If they think it is that offensive and terrible …  frankly, I would probably change the name.”

While steadfastly refusing to even consider changing the team’s name, Snyder started the Washington Redskins Original Americans Foundation, stating on the team’s website that he wants to help the Native American Community.

“The more I heard, the more I’ve learned, and the more I saw, the more resolved I became about helping to address the challenges that plague the Native American community,” Snyder posted on Redskins.com.

Many Native American leaders do not seem impressed by Snyder’s initiative, while some are actively distancing themselves from the foundation.

For his part, McCain goes on to say, “Myself, I’m not offended, [Dan], you’re not offended, but there are a lot of Native Americans that are.”

Whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has the powers to make Snyder change the name, is another matter.

Native American leaders have used the Donald Sterling’s lifetime ban from the NBA as a rallying cry to motivate the NFL to act on the Redskins name change.

While saying he wasn’t sure the two issues were related, McCain did react to the Sterling fiasco.

McCain says what Sterling said was “unacceptable” and “racist.”

Senator McCain had very kind words to say about Kevin Johnson, an integral part of resolving the Sterling incident, saying he is “one of the really great guys I’ve ever known.”

McCain expects to see Donald Sterling challenge the NBA’s ruling in court before this is all decided.

“[It’s] unacceptable,” said McCain. “I’m glad they [banned him]. End of story.”

Bill Leopold is an associate producer for NBCSports.com.

Gifted field set for 140th Kentucky Derby

The greatest two minutes in sports. The build-up for the Kentucky Derby is finally over, and the horses will line up in the Churchill Downs’ starting gate at 6:24 p.m. ET on Saturday.

The Kentucky Derby represents an extreme test for 3-year-olds, with participants asked to negotiate 1 1/4 miles for the first time in a bulky 19-horse field, and distance and/or traffic woes can undermine even the most logical win contenders.

Coverage begins on NBCSN at noon ET before shifting to NBC from 4-7 p.m. Following the race, NBCSN will continue coverage until 7:30 p.m. All coverage will be streaming on Live Extra.

For California Chrome, the 5-2 favorite on the morning line, post position was critical. He needed to avoid getting stuck in one of the inside posts (Nos. 1-3) and came away nicely from the draw in Gate 5.

His detractors will point to distance and trip, questioning his effectiveness over 10 furlongs and ability to settle into a comfortable spot given the other speed in the field, but I’m looking past any possible concerns.

California Chrome is my pick to win Kentucky Derby 140.

Analysis

California Chrome will look to establish favorable positioning on or close to the early lead. After dropping four of his first six starts, the chestnut colt started to blossom over the winter for trainer Art Sherman, reeling off four straight wins in convincing fashion, and California Chrome easily brings the best form into the Derby.

He made his last start in the strongest prep race, recording an impressive victory in the Santa Anita Derby, and he earned a field-best 106 BRIS Speed rating for the 5 1/4-length decision. I loved his instant acceleration that afternoon, with jockey Victor Espinoza waiting until the top of the stretch to ask for run.

Santa Anita Derby runner-up Hoppertunity was one of his most dangerous foes when the field was drawn Wednesday, and that colt’s withdrawal Thursday morning improved California Chrome’s chances. In fact, three legitimate win contenders have been scratched in recent weeks, with Constitution and Cairo Prince bowing out as well, and other serious prospects like Top Billing, Honor Code and Shared Belief fell by the wayside earlier in the year.

Smarty Jones brought similar form in the 2004 Derby, displaying the best form by far of any 3-year-old in his prep races, but bettors questioned whether he could carry speed over 1 1/4 miles, sending him off as a lukewarm 4-1 favorite. He overwhelmed the competition with this talent and California Chrome can do the same.

In regard to the pace, there is some speed around California Chrome in the starting gate but a lot of the early types would prefer to sit up close –- I’m not expecting a 0:45 1/5-second opening half-mile liked we’ve witnessed the past two years. The pace should be contested but not overly fast.

The projected pace scenario favors California Chrome, who can wait to offer his best stride entering the stretch run.

Others in order of preference

Medal Count shows tremendous progress over the past five weeks, turning around his form in April with a pair of sharp performances on Keeneland’s Polytrack. A maiden winner on dirt, the Dynaformer colt has trained forwardly over the main track at Churchill Downs and I love his ability to corner: He boldly closed on the far turn of his last two starts and can rally into a threatening position at this critical stage of the race. The Dale Romans charge rates the best chance at an upset.

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Samraat isn’t drawing much love in the buildup to the race,but I consider him to be a legitimate contender. He sustained his first loss last time, recording a respectable second in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, and that setback could benefit the game colt. He may not be an ideal candidate for 10 furlongs with his pedigree. A stalker, he puts himself in position to challenge every time and remains eligible to outrun any distance concerns.

Intense Holiday recorded non-threatening efforts in his first four stakes starts but has come on at the right time for Todd Pletcher. A rallying winner of the Risen Star two back, he exits a troubled second in the Louisiana Derby and has signaled his readiness in recent weeks, training forwardly at Churchill Downs. A late runner, he could continue to show more Saturday.

Danza is not easily dismissed following his resounding upset in the Arkansas Derby. The lightly raced colt can be viewed as a candidate for regression following the career-best effort, but he appears to be holding his form for Pletcher, impressing in morning preparations at Churchill Downs. The stalker has the numbers to offer a serious challenge, netting a 104 BRIS Speed rating last time, and is eligible to make at least a minor impact if he negotiates a favorable trip.

Candy Boy can be granted a pass for his non-threatening third in the Santa Anita Derby following a two-month layoff, and he appears to have taken a step forward in his training, making several strong appearances at Churchill Downs. Must overcome the outside draw and a questionable pedigree for the distance, but I like his run style and believe the colt could have much more to offer than he showed last time.

Wicked Strong flew home through the stretch to post as smart win in the Wood but must prove he can transfer his form outside of New York (ran poorly in two Florida starts earlier this year). I didn’t like the outside draw for the one-run closer and taking a slightly negative view, but wouldn’t be surprised to see the promising colt rally into the frame in the latter stages.

Wagering strategy

Predicting final Derby odds is a fruitless pursuit, but I thought California Chrome could drift up to at least 4-1 before the scratch of Hoppertunity. Still don’t think he’s going to be an overwhelming, perhaps in the 3-1 or 7-2 range, and I will play him to win at that price and key him in the following exotics.

From a $100 bankroll:

$45 win 5

$10 exactas 5 over 6,14 ($20)

$5 exactas 5 over 4,16,18 ($15)

1 trifecta 5 over 4,6,14,16,18 over 4,6,14,16,18 ($20)

Warriors outlast Clippers 100-99, force Game 7

OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) Stephen Curry scored 24 points and dished out nine assists, and the Golden State Warriors forced a decisive Game 7 by outlasting the Los Angeles Clippers 100-99 Thursday night.

Andre Iguodala added 15 points and Draymond Green had 14 points and 14 rebounds for the Warriors, handing Los Angeles one more obstacle to overcome in a week full of them after Clippers owner Donald Sterling earned a lifetime ban from the NBA for his racist remarks.

The Warriors limited big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan even after center Jermaine O'Neal left with a sprained right knee in the second quarter. The Clippers simply ran out of time in the closing minute, missing three shots before Matt Barnes made a 3-pointer with 1.1 seconds to play.

Game 7 is Saturday in Los Angeles.

Subban leads Canadians to 4-3 OT win over Bruins

BOSTON (AP) P.K. Subban scored his second goal of the game at 4:17 of the second overtime to give the Montreal Canadiens a 4-3 victory over the Boston Bruins on Thursday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.

The goal came 7 seconds into the Canadiens' second power play of overtime. Fans pelted the ice with cups and giveaway towels as the players filed off of the ice.

Carey Price stopped 48 shots for Montreal.

Tuukka Rask made 29 saves for the Bruins, who finished the regular season with the best record in the NHL but lost home-ice advantage with the defeat.

Thunder force Game 7, beat Grizzlies 104-84

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) Kevin Durant scored 36 points to break out of a slump, and the Oklahoma City Thunder routed the Memphis Grizzlies 104-84 on Thursday night to force a deciding seventh game in the first-round Western Conference series.

Russell Westbrook added 25 points for the Thunder, who haven't been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs since 2010. They took control early with Durant scoring 14 points in the first quarter, led by 15 at halftime and never let Memphis get closer in the second half in the first game in the series ended in regulation since the opener.

Durant also had 10 rebounds and made 14 of 15 free throws. Reggie Jackson had 16 points off the bench for the Thunder.

Game 7 is Saturday night in Oklahoma City.

Marc Gasol had 17 points and Zach Randolph 16 for Memphis. Guard Mike Conley strained his right hamstring, briefly returned and left for good with 8:48 left.

Conley went down in the third quarter near midcourt dribbling when Kendrick Perkins reached in for a steal. The Memphis guard returned briefly, but Conley was limping noticeably. With the Thunder in control, Conley went to the locker room again and didn't return.

Durant had to answer questions after the shootaround Thursday about being called "Mr. Unreliable" in a headline in the Oklahoma City newspaper. Durant said he had no problem with the headline and that he just needed to hit shots and be more aggressive.

Smiling just before tipoff, Durant did just that as he finished 11 of 23 from the floor. He continued to struggle outside the arc where he missed all six of his attempts.

The Grizzlies had a chance to advance to their third semifinal in four years on their own floor. Yet they couldn't shoot well or match the Thunder's intensity with a sloppy performance in front of a sellout crowd that tried to energize the Grizzlies. Oklahoma City outrebounded Memphis 47-36 and easily outshot them 49.3 percent (37 of 75) to 37.3 percent (31 of 83).

Memphis last led 6-4. A team that thrives off defense, the Grizzlies couldn't knock down shots even when they managed to get consecutive stops.

Durant, who led the NBA with 32 points a game during the regular season, opened the game hitting five of his first seven shots and had 18 by halftime. Westbrook also shot better, though he finished 9 of 21.

Memphis got to 42-37 with 3:08 left on a steal and fast-break layup by Conley. Then the Thunder finished the half with a 14-4 run for a 56-41 lead. The Grizzlies missed their first six shots to open the third quarter, finishing any hopes of a comeback.

James Johnson scored 15 points off the bench for Memphis, and Tony Allen added 13.

Notes: This will be the second Game 7 between the teams in four years. Oklahoma City beat Memphis in seven in the 2011 conference semifinals. ... The Grizzlies are 4-1 with a chance to close out a series. ... Steven Adams blocked a career-high five shots off the bench for the Thunder.

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