National Sports Headlines from NBC Sports

Argentina could prove foil for World Cup host Brazil

South America has hosted four World Cups and South American nations have won every time.

The 2014 World Cup kicks off this week with host nation Brazil listed as a 3/1 favorite to win its sixth title.

It has been 12 years since Brazil last captured a World Cup championship, but playing on home turf gives the squad an edge.

Despite their strong position entering the tournament, there is no shortage of national sides capable of spoiling the party for Brazil, which opens Thursday as a huge favorite against Croatia.

Argentina follows Brazil on the list of favorites with World Cup 2014 odds of 4/1. A favorable draw likely means that Argentina will have little difficulty advancing to a round of 16 matchup, possibly with either France or Switzerland.

The Argentines won the World Cup as hosts 1978 and Uruguay did the same in 1930. Brazil won in 1962 when Chile hosted the event and Uruguay won in Brazil in 1950. Colombia and Chile also boast long-shot potential to come through with home-continent advantage.

Argentina will also enjoy the benefit of partisan crowds at their matches, at least in the early going of the tournament.

At 11/2, Germany is the European squad with the best odds to win the 2014 World Cup. Their list of likely opponents in the round of 16 includes Belgium and Russia, squads that Die Mannschaft have dominated historically.

But first, Germany must compete in a tough Group G alongside Portugal, the United States and Ghana. While 5/9 to win their group, some of the toughest competition Germany will face at the 2014 World Cup will be in group stage matches.

They are the top betting choice to be the top European team in the tournament.

The 2010 World Cup champions and reigning two-time European champions are also in the mix of favorites in World Cup futures wagering. Spain, the No. 1 nation in the world according to FIFA’s rankings, sits at an intriguing 6/1 to repeat as World Cup champs.

Their credentials would normally result in shorter odds, but 6/1 Spain faces a difficult road to the World Cup final. They must first get past rival Netherlands, whom they defeated in 2010, as well as Chile, a dangerous squad on South American turf, to advance to the knockout stage.

The United States’ odds have also been impacted by a difficult draw. It will be considered a major upset if the Americans, 100/1 in World Cup futures betting, are able to advance out of Group G, since it would mean an early exit for either Germany or Portugal.

Odds are currently 2/7 that America’s World Cup dream ends in the group stage. But they did enjoy a victory on the weekend over Nigeria, with Jozy Altidore breaking a slump with two goals.

Mexico has also received no benefit from their group stage draw. Joining Brazil in Group A, Mexico will likely battle Croatia for second place and a spot in the round of 16. Mexico currently is 125/1 in World Cup futures betting and a 9/1 longshot to win Group A.

World Cup 2014 Odds (updated June 8 at Odds Shark)

Brazil 3/1

Argentina 4/1

Germany 11/2

Spain 6/1

Belgium 18/1

England 22/1

Italy 22/1

France 25/1

Netherlands 25/1

Portugal 25/1

Uruguay 25/1

Colombia 33/1

Chile 40/1

Russia 100/1

USA 100/1

Ivory Coast 125/1

Mexico 125/1

Switzerland 125/1

Bosnia-Herzegovina 150/1

Croatia 150/1

Ecuador 150/1

Japan 150/1

Ghana 200/1

Greece 200/1

Nigeria 250/1

South Korea 300/1

Australia 500/1

Cameroon 500/1

Algeria 1000/1

Costa Rica 1000/1

Honduras 1500/1

Iran 1500/1

 

Brazil has best odds to advance from Group A

The 2014 World Cup opens on Thursday with host nation Brazil pegged as 3/1 favorites to win a record sixth World Cup title and heavy 1/5 favorites to finish atop Group A.

Brazil are followed in Group A betting by Croatia at 8/1, Mexico at 9/1 and Cameroon at 25/1. Croatia and Mexico are neck-and-neck in props betting on which squads will advance to the round of 16. Croatia are an EVEN money bet to advance, while Mexico are 5/4.

Defending champions Spain are a 2/3 favorite to finish on top in Group B, but must first face a pair of tough opponents including the Netherlands, the squad that Spain defeated to win the 2010 title.

The Netherlands have odds of 3/1 in Group B betting, followed by Chile at 15/4 and longshot Australia at 66/1.

Leading the way in Group C with 20/21 odds is Colombia, who slipped three positions this month to No. 8 in FIFA’s world rankings. They are followed at 3/1 by Ivory Coast, who are also favored to be the top African squad at the World Cup.

Japan has odds of 4/1, while Greece, No. 12 in FIFA’s World Ranking, sit at a disappointing 7/1.

Group D is possibly the toughest group to pick and the odds reflect this parity. Italy are an 8/5 favorite, followed by Uruguay at 9/5.  England, seeking their first World Cup title since 1966, have odds of 9/4, while Costa Rica trails the pack at 50/1.

Top spot is also up for grabs in Group E, where France are a 4/5 favorite. The French are seeking to make up for a terrible performance in 2010, but face a real threat from Switzerland, who sport 5/2 odds. Ecuador is not far off at 4/1, while Honduras are the Group E underdogs at 28/1.

Argentina is a heavy 1/5 favorite to finish first in Group F. The next best bet are World Cup debutantes Bosnia and Herzegovina at 6/1, followed by Nigeria at 10/1 and tournament longshot Iran, who trail at 40/1.

Considered to be this World Cup’s group of death, Group G features three-time champion Germany, 2/3 favorites to finish atop Group G, followed by perennial underachiever Portugal at 5/2. Ghana and the USA both trail at 9/1.

Belgium, whose youth movement has been paying immediate dividends, is a heavy 4/7 favorite to lead Group H. Russia sits at 12/5, followed by South Korea at 7/1. Algeria, who will be hard pressed to record any points in group stage action, sit at 22/1.

Odds to Win 2014 World Cup Groups as of June 8 (aggregated by Odds Shark):

Group A Winner Odds
Brazil -500
Croatia +800
Mexico +900
Cameroon +2500

Group B Winner Odds
Spain -150
Netherlands +300
Chile +375
Australia +6600

Group C Winner Odds
Colombia -105
Ivory Coast +300
Japan +400
Greece +700

Group D Winner Odds
Italy +160
Uruguay +180
England +225
Costa Rica +5000

Group E Winner Odds
France -125
Switzerland +250
Ecuador +400
Honduras +2800

Group F Winner Odds
Argentina -500
Bosnia-Herzegovina +600
Nigeria +1000
Iran +4000

Group G Winner Odds
Germany -150
Portugal +250
Ghana +900
USA +900

Group H Winner Odds
Belgium -175
Russia +240
South Korea +700
Algeria +2200

Slumping Rays turn to Seminole medicine man

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (AP) The slumping Tampa Bay Rays have turned to a Seminole medicine man to change their fortunes.

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon invited tribal elder Bobby Henry to Tropicana Field on Monday in an attempt to help his team, which has the worst record in the majors.

"We just turned him loose on the Trop," Maddon said.

The Rays had lost 12 of 13 entering Monday's game against Seattle.

Henry walked around the ballpark and said the Rays are ready "to go get it."

Maddon has tried a variety of things over the years to liven up his team. He's brought a python, penguins and a magician into the clubhouse in the past.

California Chrome owner apologizes for rants after Belmont

NEW YORK -- California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn apologized Monday for his bitter remarks after his horse failed to win the Triple Crown.

Coburn said on ABC's "Good Morning America" he was "very ashamed of myself. Very ashamed. I need to apologize to a lot of people, including my wife, Carolyn."

She tried to intervene as Saturday's interview got out of control, explaining that her husband was "very emotional and I was trying to calm him down."

MORE: Triple Crown unfair, impossible -- but that's why we watch

Coburn also apologized to the connections of winning horse Tonalist, saying: "I did not mean to take anything away from them."

On Saturday, he had said that Tonalist took "the coward's way out" by skipping the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Sunday, he doubled down by pointing out that "it wouldn't be fair if I played basketball with a child in a wheelchair because I got an unfair advantage."

By Monday though, he tried to make amends. Coburn's lower lip quivered at times during the interview in which he apologized to co-owner Perry Martin and trainer Art Sherman, among others.

WATCH: Tonalist upsets California Chrome in Belmont

"I need to apologize to the world and America, our fans that have written us, given us so much support. I apologize, I sincerely apologize," Coburn said. "This is America's horse. I wanted this so much, for this horse to win the Triple Crown for the people of America."

If the Belmont had only been open to horses than ran in the Derby and Preakness, there would have been just three horses in Saturday's race, making it unlikely the third-largest crowd of 102,199 would have shown up or that a record $19,105,877 would have been wagered on-track.

California Chrome, General a Rod and Ride On Curlin were the only horses to run in all three. General a Rod finished seventh in the Belmont and Ride On Curlin did not finish.

MORE: Espinoza again handed Triple Crown disappointment

California Chrome beat them both, but finished tied for fourth, possibly as a result of a cut foot that he apparently sustained after bumping another horse leaving the starting gate.

"He'll be able to race again," Coburn said.

A 9-second stretch looms large, Spurs lose 98-96

SAN ANTONIO (AP) A couple missed free throws cost the San Antonio Spurs last season's NBA title.

A few more misses - by their two best players - probably cost them a chance for a 2-0 lead in this year's finals as well.

Tony Parker scored 21 points and Tim Duncan added 18, but they went 0 for 4 from the foul line in a critical nine-second stretch of the fourth quarter, and those points loomed very large at night's end.

Final score: Miami 98, San Antonio 96.

"We can't miss four free throws in a row," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich lamented when it was over.

The Spurs finished 12 for 20 from the foul line, their third-worst showing from the stripe in 53 home games this season. That, and a whole lot of LeBron James, was simply too much to overcome.

James scored 35 points, Chris Bosh added 18 and the Heat would be flying back to South Florida with what they wanted - a split. Now home-court edge is theirs, meaning if they win three home games, a third straight NBA title will belong to Miami.

"It was a tough one," the Spurs' Manu Ginobili, who scored 19 points, said of the 0-for-4 stretch from the line. "I think we were up two. We've got a stop ... the opportunity to score four points when we get to the line and we missed all four. Yeah, that hurts. We were pretty poor from the line, 12 for 20. And in a game that is so close, that always helps."

Game 3 is Tuesday.

There were many factors why Miami won, like a video-game-level third quarter from James, a pivotal late 3-pointer from Bosh, a 14-point effort from Rashard Lewis and some outstanding interior defense down the stretch by Chris Andersen.

And for the 13th straight time, the Heat immediately followed a postseason loss with a victory.

"You have to play through doubt, which is a powerful thing," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "You have to play through when it's going your way and you have to keep an even keel while somehow keeping a ferocity to your play. But the mental toughness starts two days ago of having to go through the film and trying to own what we could do better."

The Spurs seemed like they were threatening to run away from the Heat early. James and Dwyane Wade were both slow to get going offensively, San Antonio had an 11-point first-half lead and the AT&T Center was roaring.

But the Heat clawed back into a 43-all tie by halftime, and the second half was back-and-forth - with the last swing going Miami's way.

The Spurs had some costly foul-line misses by Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard in Game 6 against Miami last season, part of a wild Heat comeback from five points down in the final 28.2 seconds to force overtime and a deciding seventh game.

This stretch wasn't as dramatic, but just as costly.

Even though games are often remembered by one play - Ray Allen's 3-pointer that tied Game 6 of last year's finals with 5.2 seconds left in regulation being a prime example - coaches routinely say that winning or losing hardly ever comes down to a singular moment.

But when the Spurs look back on Game 2, it'll be that nine-second stretch that they regret most.

Miami guard Mario Chalmers was driving with 6:43 left when he elbowed Parker in the midsection, getting called for a Flagrant-1 foul. But Parker missed both free throws, and after Duncan was fouled nine seconds later he missed another pair from the line.

"It definitely affected me," Parker said of the pain from the Chalmers elbow, which left him writhing on the court for a few moments. "But I'm a little bit frustrated. Should have made them."

Nine seconds, four free throws, two Spurs leaders, zero points.

"It was a toughie," Ginobili said.

It wound up getting tougher a few seconds later.

On the ensuing Miami possession, James made a 3-pointer from the left wing, and the Heat had an 88-87 lead. Back and forth the teams went, but in the end, just like last season, the Heat simply found a way.

Just like that, San Antonio's run of eight straight home playoff wins - all by 15 or more points - was over.

And so was the Spurs' chances of boarding a plane on Monday halfway to a fifth NBA title.

"We will try to do better," Parker said.

Silver: NBA's fight with Sterling almost over

SAN ANTONIO -- Donald Sterling hasn't quite given up the fight, but Adam Silver thinks the time is coming.

"While I understand his frustration, I think it's over," Silver said Sunday.

The NBA commissioner said Sterling still hasn't signed off on the sale of the Los Angeles Clippers, or agreed to drop his lawsuit against Silver or the NBA. But Silver believes he ultimately will, because Shelly Sterling's agreement with the league covers the NBA's legal responsibilities in case of a suit.

"So in essence, Donald is suing himself and he knows that," Silver said.

Silver also said before Game 2 of the NBA Finals that there is "absolutely no possibility" of rescinding the lifetime ban or $2.5 million fine he handed down to Sterling following his racist remarks.

Silver said he spoke with Sterling shortly after delivering his punishments and found him to be "distraught" but "not remorseful at that time."

Sterling's attorneys had eventually indicated to the league that he would drop his fight and work with his estranged wife to finish off the record $2 billion sale to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Sterling may be changing his mind now, but Silver doesn't seem concerned.

"I think it's just a matter of time now, and then we will move on to better topics and back to the finals," Silver said.

The dominant topic at the finals thus far has been the air conditioning failure in Game 1. Temperatures in the arena rose to about 90 degrees in the second half, and Heat star LeBron James left the game with about 4 minutes left after battling cramps.

Silver said he is satisfied the problem has been fixed and that the situation was handled as best as possible after the circuit breaker failed just before the game, leaving no time for repair.

""In hindsight it wasn't handled perfectly, but they'd never been confronted with that issue before," said Silver, who was at the game and communicating with league and arena officials.

"I would say that it's certainly not one of my prouder moments in my short tenure as commissioner so far, but it's the nature of this game. There always are going to be human and mechanical errors and it's unfortunate."

With the Sterling situation, and the rocky first finals game of his tenure, Silver has had some difficult moments during his first four months on the job. He replaced David Stern on Feb. 1, and both men have said they proud of the way the transition was handled.

Silver was designated as Stern's successor in October 2012, when Stern announced his plans to retire as commissioner. But Silver had already been taking on more responsibilities by then, serving as the league's lead negotiator during the lockout in 2011, and Stern repeatedly said he was confident Silver was the man to take the NBA to new heights.

But Silver probably couldn't have imagined some of the things he would face so soon.

"It's the early days. I've done the best I could," Silver said.

He has been widely praised for his response to Sterling's remarks, though said Sunday in hindsight he wishes perhaps the NBA could have done more sooner after previous allegations of racist behavior by Sterling.

However, something is being done now.

"I take very seriously the fact that he has a pending lawsuit against the league. So I want to make sure that's resolved before we say this is behind us, but I have absolute confidence it will be," Silver said.

Twins sign free-agent 1B-DH Kendrys Morales

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) After three consecutive years of 90-plus losses, Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan is hoping a rare in-season, free-agent signing will keep his team in contention the rest of the summer.

Minnesota signed first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales to a one-year, prorated, $12 million contract on Sunday. The Cuban-born slugger, who hit .277 with 23 homers and 80 RBIs in 156 games with the Seattle Mariners last season, has been in Miami working out while waiting to sign.

"Why not the Twins?" Ryan asked during a press conference announcing the signing. "I read there were probably a handful of clubs that were chasing Kendrys. We were ahead of many of those clubs in the standings."

The Twins have lost 291 games the last three seasons, but are 29-31 this year, five games back in the AL Central and 2 1/2 back in the wild card standings.

Morales, who turns 31 on June 20, had been unsigned because teams were hesitant to surrender a compensatory first-round pick to sign him. Since the Twins signed him after the MLB draft, they do not have to give up a coveted pick.

The prorated portion of Morales' contract will total slightly more than $7.4 million.

"It just made sense," said Ryan, who is back in the GM chair after stepping away during spring training to battle skin cancer.

For Morales, the deal gives him an opportunity to provide some power to an inconsistent Twins offense in desperate need of a full-time designated hitter.

"It wasn't easy for a baseball player to watch baseball games when he knows he can play," Morales said through an interpreter. "But you have to be mentally tough and be prepared so when this opportunity does come around, you're ready to do what you gotta do."

In 620 career games, Morales has 102 home runs and 345 RBIs. He also missed 1 1/2 years after breaking his leg celebrating a game-ending home run on May 29, 2010, when he was with the Los Angeles Angels.

Since Morales is out of options and not injured, the Twins can't send him to the minors to shake off the rust from missing the season's first 60 games. He'll work out with the team and take the field when he's ready.

"It's a day to day thing, I'll be working out and talking to (manager Ron Gardenhire) and the coaching staff," Morales said. "When I'm ready, I'll be in there. We just want to do it the right way."

Morales greeted his new teammates in the clubhouse before Sunday's game against the Houston Astros and spent some time with Tony Oliva, Minnesota's most famous Cuban-born player.

Since the Twins aren't known for making splashy moves, especially during the season, players viewed the signing as a signal from management that they're serious about contending.

"It's a good signing. A lot of us are real excited right now," Joe Mauer said. "It tells you how close this division is and us adding is definitely a great thing."

To make room on the 25-man roster, Minnesota released Jason Kubel, who appeared in 798 games over parts of eight seasons with the Twins. He was hitting .224 this year, but just .158 since April.

Nadal wins 9th French Open, tops Djokovic in final

PARIS (AP) Rafael Nadal won the French Open title for the ninth time, and the fifth time in a row, by beating Novak Djokovic 3-6, 7-5, 6-2, 6-4 Sunday in the final.

Nadal improved his record at Roland Garros to 66-1, and stretched his winning streak at the clay-court major to 35 straight.

But it didn't look too good at the start for the top-seeded Spaniard. Djokovic won the first set and looked to be in control of nearly every point. The combination of Nadal finding his range and the heat, however, started to take its toll on the second-seeded Serb.

Both players used ice-filled towels to cool themselves during changeovers, but Djokovic also looked like he vomited a bit as he was heading for the first changeover in the fourth set.

Rangers head home trailing 2-0 in finals

LOS ANGELES (AP) For the second time in the Stanley Cup finals, the New York Rangers jumped out to a two-goal lead and were unable to shake the Los Angeles Kings.

Now the Eastern Conference champions face the unenviable task of overcoming a 2-0 deficit in the series with the scene shifting to Madison Square Garden. The Rangers lost 5-4 on Saturday night on Dustin Brown's tip-in goal at 10:26 of the second overtime.

"When you play five periods, the difference is not very big between winning and losing," goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "We came up short, and now we have to go back to New York and turn this thing around.

"You don't have a choice. You have to move on."

New York took a 4-2 lead into the third period before the Kings pulled even with goals by Dwight King and former Rangers forward Marian Gaborik.

The Kings got within one with a favorable non-call that the Rangers felt should have been called goalie interference. New York wasn't looking for a penalty, but believes King's goal shouldn't have counted.

King fell on Lundqvist in the crease while he was being checked by Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh.

"I'm extremely disappointed on that call - or non-call," Lundqvist said. "They've got to be consistent with that rule. We get called for that penalty in the second period, and the puck isn't even there.

"They score a goal and I can't even move. It's extremely frustrating, for them to get life like that. After that, it's a different game. But that's hockey."

Lundqvist, who had 39 saves, didn't accept referee Dan O'Halloran's explanation that the puck was past him when King made contact.

"I don't expect a penalty on the play, but they need to blow the whistle," he said. "A goalie can't move when you've got a guy like that on top of you. It's such an important play of the game.

"That's a wrist shot that I'm just going to reach out for, and I can't move."

King scored at 1:58 into the third, redirecting a long wrist shot by defenseman Matt Greene after Justin Williams shook off a check from Martin St. Louis and got the puck to Greene.

"So far they've been taking advantage of a couple of mistakes in the first two games that we just have to minimize. But their forecheck brings that out because they put a lot of pressure on us," Lundqvist said.

The Rangers' penalty-killing unit, which had allowed only three goals in 49 short-handed situations over the previous 15 games, gave up Willie Mitchell's first goal of the postseason at 14:39 of the second period while Mats Zuccarello was off for tripping Brown.

Mitchell beat Lundqvist with a screened slap shot from just inside the blue line with Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman checking King in front.

"I think we can do a better job of blocking shots," Stralman said. "They got too many point shots through. Maybe if we box out a little better in front, Henrik can see the puck a little better. But we worked hard and came really close. It just stinks right now."

The Rangers scored just 11 seconds after Mitchell's goal, taking advantage of a turnover. Jonathan Quick went behind the net to play the puck and left it for Mitchell, who fumbled it away to Zuccarello before Derick Brassard converted his quick pass to him at the left of the crease.

"I thought we were in control then," Brassard said. "Every time they scored a goal, we answered them. So that's something positive about this game.

"But they kept finding ways to score goals, and it's really frustrating right now. Now we have to go back to New York and try to steal the next one."

California Chrome's Triple try ends in defeat

NEW YORK (AP) California Chrome failed in his bid to win the first Triple Crown in 36 years on Saturday, losing the Belmont Stakes to long shot Tonalist and leaving his owner to complain others took "the coward's way out" by skipping the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Before tens of thousands hoping to see history, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner finished in a dead-heat for fourth with Wicked Strong. California Chrome's loss extended the longest drought without a Triple Crown champion.

California Chrome co-owner Steve Coburn was bitter about horses skipping the first two legs and then stealing the Belmont. Six of the last eight Belmont winners did just that.

"That's the coward's way out," he said. "It's not fair to these horses that have been in the game since day one. If you don't make enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby, you can't run in the other two races. It's all or nothing."

Coburn thought the other 10 horses ganged up on California Chrome, who was second early, dropped to fourth and then fifth before dead-heating for fourth. Photos after the race showed Chrome also had a bloody gash on his right front foot, a minor injury that may have hurt his chances.

Coburn voiced a similar complaint after the Preakness, saying only the 20 horses that run in the Kentucky Derby should be eligible to compete in the other two legs. He also believed that horses skipping the Preakness should not be allowed to return in the Belmont.

Coburn had been in a festive mood earlier in the day, waving his cream-colored cowboy hat to fans and signing items they tossed to him in his box seat.

But the mood turned ugly after the race.

Three tough races in five weeks proved too demanding for California Chrome, who was sent off as the heavy 4-5 favorite. Affirmed remains the most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978.

The raucous crowd of 102,199 - the third-largest in Belmont history - was silenced when it became obvious that California Chrome lacked his usual punch in the stretch.

Jockey Victor Espinoza realized long before then that his chestnut colt wasn't up to the grueling 1 1/2-mile trip around the track's sweeping turns.

"As soon as he came out of the gate, he wasn't the same," Espinoza said.

Alan Sherman, the son and assistant to trainer Art Sherman, agreed.

"When Victor started to squeeze on him, he didn't respond," he said. "He was wore out, I think."

Once the official result was posted, fans sat in stunned silence before heading to the exits.

Penny Chenery, the 92-year-old owner of 1973 Triple Crown champion Secretariat, had been ready to welcome a new member to the exclusive club. She and others with ties to previous Triple Crown winners came to watch what they hoped would be California Chrome's big day.

"I'm very disappointed that we didn't have a Triple Crown winner, but I'm happy for the winners," she said.

Tonalist, the fifth wagering choice at 9-1 odds, was a fresh and rested horse making his debut on the Triple Crown trail. He last ran and won the Peter Pan Stakes over the same Belmont dirt on May 10.

Tonalist beat Commissioner, another newcomer to the Triple Crown, by a head. Those two horses finished in the same order in the Peter Pan. Tonalist ran the distance in 2:28.52 and paid $20.40, $9.60 and $7.

Commissioner returned $23.20 and $13.20, while Medal Count was another length back in third and paid $13.20 to show.

Samraat was sixth, followed by General a Rod, Matterhorn, Commanding Curve, Matuszak and Ride On Curlin.

California Chrome broke quickly but was pressed immediately by Commissioner and General a Rod. Espinoza eased California Chrome back into third along the rail.

Approaching the final turn, California Chrome was maneuvered to the outside. He angled four-wide turning for home, just to the outside of Tonalist, who was close to the pace the entire race. Espinoza started whipping left-handed in the lane but California Chrome had no response.

"I thought he was gaining ground, but he didn't have it in him, apparently," Coburn said.

Tonalist joined the growing list of Triple Crown spoilers, making California Chrome the 12th horse since Affirmed to lose his Triple try in the Belmont, the longest race in the series. In 2012, I'll Have Another won the first two legs, but was scratched the day before the Belmont with a career-ending tendon injury.

"The Triple Crown itself, obviously it's tough," winning trainer Christophe Clement said. "If it would be easier to do it, then it would mean nothing."

Tonalist was making just his fifth career start.

"We actually thought he finished second, but we got lucky, he won," Clement said. "It was great."

California Chrome's rise from a humble pedigree and his working-stiff owners resonated with sports fans who rarely take an interest in horse racing.

His owners spent $8,000 on a mare they bred to a stallion for $2,500, and were called "dumb asses" by a trainer for buying a mare who gave no indication that she could produce a standout offspring who could run fast.

Conditions seemed aligned for the Triple Crown drought to end. California Chrome thrived during his three-week stay at Belmont Park. His chestnut coat gleamed and he gained weight after the Preakness on May 17. His owners, trainer and jockey oozed confidence.

But this fairy tale didn't have a happy ending.

Espinoza lost his second chance at a Triple Crown. He was aboard War Emblem in 2002, when that colt stumbled at the start of the Belmont and lost all chance.

"The horse tried, that's all I can ask for. He took me on the ride of my life, I'll always have that in my heart for that horse," trainer Art Sherman said.

Coburn, who with Perry Martin formed Dumb Ass Partners to race their one-horse stable, had vowed that California Chrome "would go down in history."

It just wasn't the kind they wanted to make.

---

Associated Press Writer Frank Eltman contributed to this report.

Sharapova wins French Open for 2nd time

PARIS (AP) Maria Sharapova won her second French Open title in three years, overcoming some shaky serving Saturday to beat fourth-seeded Simona Halep 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-4 in the final.

Sharapova has struggled with her serve this week and had 12 double-faults in the final on Court Philippe Chatrier. But she was able to hold off Halep, and hold her serve in the final game, with steady groundstrokes that kept the Romanian on the run.

Sharapova also won the title at Roland Garros in 2012, completing a career Grand Slam. She lost in last year's final to Serena Williams.

Halep, who was ranked only 57th heading into last year's French Open, was playing in her first major final.

Jazz hire Hawks assistant Snyder as new head coach

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) The Utah Jazz announced Friday that they have hired Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Quin Snyder to replace Tyrone Corbin, who was let go earlier this year after three-plus seasons as the head coach in Salt Lake City.

Snyder most recently completed his first season as an assistant with Atlanta. He has also been an assistant with the Los Angeles Lakers, Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Clippers.

He was the head coach at Missouri for seven seasons, from 1999 to 2006, leading the Tigers to four NCAA tournaments. That included an Elite Eight appearance in 2002.

"He has an impressive basketball pedigree, including more than a decade of head coaching experience that positions him well to succeed in the Jazz organization," Jazz CEO Greg Miller said in a statement. "We look forward to Quin's contributions both on the court and in the community."

Snyder succeeds Corbin, who was not offered a new contract. Corbin went 112-146 in Salt Lake City after taking over on Feb. 10, 2011, following the resignation of Jerry Sloan, for whom he played three seasons and served as a longtime assistant.

Corbin reached the playoffs in the strike-shortened 2011-12 season, but his team was swept by San Antonio in the first round of the playoffs. The Jazz went 43-39 the next season and dumped a number of veterans. This season, they went 25-57, the worst record for the Jazz since 1979-80, when Utah was 24-58 following the franchise's relocation from New Orleans.

Other candidates for the job included Clippers assistant Alvin Gentry and Bulls assistant Adrian Griffin.

"The opportunity to join the Utah Jazz and to be part of such a highly respected franchise with an incredibly bright future is a great honor," Snyder said in a statement. "I approach this opportunity with gratitude and humility and am committed to doing everything I can to help the Jazz become a championship-caliber team."

Former Jazz forward Paul Millsap, who went to Atlanta last season, posted to Twitter: "Congratulations to Quin Snyder for being named head coach of the (at)utahjazz!!! The Jazz are getting a great coach and person."

Snyder is the eighth head coach in Jazz history. The team planned a news conference on Saturday.

Santana's comeback cut short by Achilles tear

BALTIMORE (AP) Johan Santana's comeback bid with the Baltimore Orioles ended Friday when the two-time Cy Young Award winner tore his Achilles tendon.

The injury occurred in Florida while Santana was pitching in extended spring training. He was struck by a line drive before stumbling in pursuit of the ball.

An MRI revealed a torn tendon.

"The tendon is severed, and it will in effect end his season," Orioles vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said. "I know the rehab is significant for these tendon injuries. We'll have to get with him and speak to him. But he won't be able to pitch for the Orioles this season."

The 35-year-old Santana has not pitched in the majors since 2012 with the New York Mets. The left-hander missed last season after undergoing his second major shoulder surgery, then signed a minor league contract with Baltimore in March.

Santana's return appeared on course when the Orioles purchased his contract from Triple-A Norfolk on Monday and placed him on the major league disabled list.

"He was pitching well," Duquette said. "The last time out he had his velocity and he was able to back-door his slider. I think he had eight strikeouts and no walks, so he was right on schedule. After (Friday), he was going to come up and join the major league team, and we were going to continue the rehab in (Double-A) Bowie."

Now, however, Santana's future is up in the air.

"The skills are there," Duquette said. "He's been able to rehab his arm, but now he's got another challenge."

Santana broke into the majors with Minnesota in 2000. He won both his Cy Young Awards with the Twins, going 20-6 in 2004 and 19-6 in 2006.

He was traded to New York before the 2008 season and signed a $137.5 million, six-year contract. But injuries limited him to less than four full seasons on the mound with the Mets, and his record got progressively worse - 16-7, 13-9, 11-9, 6-9.

It was uncertain if Santana could return after his second shoulder surgery, but Duquette thought it was worth taking a chance. Now he and the Orioles are left looking for a Plan B.

"It's unfortunate," Duquette said. "We were looking for Johan's leadership and also his pedigree from being a winning pitcher. Now we'll have to look for that capability somewhere else.

"I was looking at it like a midseason acquisition or trade. We invested in the rehab and we invested in the salary, and of course we wouldn't have had to trade a player. Unfortunately it didn't work. Sometimes you can plan and do things right, and they just don't work out."

Orioles manager Buck Showalter knows how hard Santana worked to return, and that was what bothered him most about the way things turned out.

"It wasn't a given that he was going to pitch well and come up here and help us, but we were certainly looking forward to the opportunity to see if he could," Showalter said. "Right now I feel worse for him than I do for us. He worked so hard to get back from a surgery that not many people get back (from). I feel sadness for him more than anything else right now. The heck with us."

Kings' Doughty is a presence in Stanley Cup finals

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) When Drew Doughty joined the Los Angeles Kings, he could walk around town unnoticed. Almost nobody at the supermarket or on Manhattan Beach realized this slightly pudgy teenager was the No. 2 overall pick in the NHL draft, bound for hockey stardom.

After six dynamite seasons with the Kings, including a Stanley Cup title and two Olympic gold medals, the perk of anonymity is all but gone for the defenseman who has led the Kings toward another championship this spring.

"It's changed drastically," Doughty said wistfully. "I don't know if I like it better or not. For sure, I don't like it better, actually.

"Back in the day, we could roll in anywhere, and there's no way anyone would know who you were, no possible way. Now, it seems like everywhere we do go, we are getting recognized."

The hockey world is getting another up-close look at Doughty as Los Angeles chases its second title in three years, and Doughty is proving he can handle any scrutiny. He has been at the top of his limitless game during the Kings' drive through the postseason heading to Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals against the New York Rangers on Saturday.

Doughty is a favorite for the Conn Smythe Trophy as the NHL's playoff MVP, leading all defensemen with 17 points in 22 postseason games while playing nearly 28 minutes per night. He is the Kings' fifth-leading scorer and their defensive backbone, playing on both ends of the rink with a furious energy that isn't always present during the regular-season grind.

Doughty played a major role on both ends of the scoreboard in the finals opener. His overaggressive mistake led to a first-period goal for the Rangers, but he answered with a spectacular individual play for the tying goal in the second period, toe-dragging around Derek Dorsett and beating Henrik Lundqvist with an expertly placed shot.

"He's a great player, and he made a great play on that," Dorsett said. "We know what he's capable of doing."

Although Doughty was a dominant defenseman by his second NHL season, earning a Norris Trophy nomination and a gold medal at 20, his development hasn't been smooth.

His mental approach to hockey has always been precocious, and he still plays largely on instinct. He still needed a few years of experience - and the help of coach Darryl Sutter - to turn into the game-dominating defenseman currently positioned to keep the Kings in contention for another decade.

His teammates are no longer surprised by Doughty's abilities, which he developed on the rinks of London, Ontario. Doughty started out as a two-way center, but switched to defense early on when one of his hockey camps ran short on defensemen.

"I've never been on a team where I'm at the top of any one single attribute, except my mind," Doughty said. "I think the game well. I study the game well. I'm always watching other people to see how I can get better."

That studious approach is easy to miss when Doughty is playing with the fire that he demonstrated in the Cup finals opener. Doughty lost his temper after the officials missed a New York stick hitting him in the face, and he got even angrier when he was whistled for his own penalty moments later.

"Maybe instead of just yelling at them, I can just talk to them, or just completely ignore it," Doughty said. "But when I'm mad, I'm playing better hockey myself. I like being fired up."

Doughty is increasingly ranked among the game's best defensemen in recent years, but his versatility leads to multiple comparisons. Sutter sees elements of Chris Chelios' game in Doughty, while others cite Scott Niedermayer and Nicklas Lidstrom.

"Not many guys in the league can do what he does," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "He has an impact on everybody on the ice when he's playing at his best. The other team has to watch him all the time when he takes charge like that. It's good to have him on your side."

Doughty has five years left on his contract with the Kings, and he sees no reason why they won't be a Stanley Cup contender every season and beyond. After years of patiently assembling young talent around Doughty and Anze Kopitar, the Kings are loaded.

At the ripe old age of 24, Doughty has been around long enough to know success beats anonymity every time.

"A lot of us that are on this team right now were on the L.A. Kings when they weren't a very good team, and it was a frustrating time," Doughty said. "To finally turn that around and now come to the rink happy knowing you have a chance to win every night, confident you're going to win every night, it's a great feeling."

Williams denies McCants' UNC academic allegations

North Carolina coach Roy Williams and players from the 2005 national championship team deny they were involved with academic wrongdoing alleged by former teammate Rashad McCants.

In an interview with ESPN's "Outside the Lines," McCants - the team's second-leading scorer - said tutors wrote papers for him. He also said he believes Williams knew "100 percent" about players taking no-show classes popular with athletes in a department later linked to fraud in a long-running scandal.

"We had to run sprints for missing classes if we got caught, so you know, they were very aware of what was going on," McCants said, comparing it to movies in which athletes would "just show up and play."

In a statement Friday, Williams said he "strongly" disagreed with McCants' comments.

"In no way did I know about or do anything close to what he says and I think the players whom I have coached over the years will agree with me," Williams said. "I have spent 63 years on this earth trying to do things the right way and the picture he portrays is not fair to the University or me."

After flunking two classes in fall 2004, McCants said he met with Williams, who told him he could swap a failing grade from one class with a passing one from another to stay eligible.

McCants said Williams told him to "buckle down on your academics" and things would work out. The next semester, McCants said, he had As in four courses from the formerly named Department of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAM) and made the Dean's List despite not attending classes.

He then entered the NBA draft as a junior. His sister, Rashanda, later played basketball for UNC and graduated in 2009.

In all, 18 of McCants' 28 college courses were in his AFAM major, with McCants earning As or Bs in 16 of those classes, according to ESPN.

McCants also said tutors provided him with test answers in some AFAM classes, and that teammates sometimes car-pooled to pick up already-written papers from tutors.

"For some of the premier players, we didn't write our papers," McCants said.

In a joint statement Friday, sixteen players from the 2005 team - including NBA players Raymond Felton and Marvin Williams, and Final Four Most Outstanding Player Sean May - defended their Hall of Fame coach.

"With conviction, each one of us is proud to say that we attended class and did our own academic work," the players said.

"In light of the comments made by Rashad on ESPN Outside the Lines, we want to state that our personal academic experiences are not consistent with Rashad's claims," they said. "We know that Coach Williams did not have any knowledge of any academic impropriety, and further that Coach Williams would not have tried to manipulate a player's schedule. Rashad will always be our teammate and we wish him well on all of his future endeavors."

McCants' allegations are the latest levied against UNC in an academic fraud scandal that began as an offshoot of an NCAA investigation into the football program in 2010. The findings included the lecture classes featuring significant athlete enrollments that did not meet and were instead treated as independent study courses requiring a research paper at semester's end, as well as unauthorized grade changes and possibly forged signatures on grade rolls.

Former UNC learning specialist Mary Willingham, who has questioned the literacy of Tar Heel athletes, has said "paper classes" helped keep athletes eligible despite many reading at below-grade levels. A university review reported in July 2012 that academic advisers referred athletes to those classes for enrollment, a charge McCants echoed.

A 2012 investigation led by former Gov. Jim Martin found fraud in the AFAM department dating to at least the late 1990s. While Martin found no evidence of athletic department involvement, another probe led by former U.S. Justice Department official Kenneth Wainstein is underway.

Previous investigations have directed blame at retired chairman Julius Nyang'oro, now facing a criminal charge in the case, and former administrator Deborah Crowder.

Neither cooperated with previous investigations, but Wainstein interviewed Crowder in March and Nyang'oro attorney Bill Thomas said in an email Friday night that his client is now cooperating, too. Thomas said Nyang'oro has met with Wainstein, though he did not say when.

In a statement Friday, Wainstein said McCants' comments are "directly relevant to our investigation."

"We have interviewed or attempted to interview a number of current and former UNC student-athletes and we have received valuable insights and information from those who have agreed to speak with us," said Wainstein, a partner in the Washington, D.C., law office of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP. "We would welcome the opportunity to speak to Mr. McCants or anybody else who can shed light on the issues we are investigating."

In an email Friday, NCAA spokeswoman Stacey Osburn did not comment specifically about the UNC case. She pointed out that the Division I Leadership Council in April clarified that schools are responsible for monitoring academic misconduct and reporting it to the NCAA.

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AP Sports Writer Michael Marot in Indianapolis contributed to this report.

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Follow Aaron Beard on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/aaronbeardap

Top pick Clowney signs with Texans

HOUSTON (AP) Jadeveon Clowney has his rookie contract with the Houston Texans. Now he needs to learn a new position.

The top overall choice in last month's draft, Clowney signed a four-year contract with the Texans on Friday. Houston has an option for a fifth year, as in all NFL contracts with first-round picks under the current collective bargaining agreement.

A star defensive end since entering South Carolina in 2011, Clowney will become an outside linebacker with the Texans. Rest assured he will have plenty of pass rushing duties, but Houston plans to use him in a stand-up position.

The Texans are moving to a 3-4 alignment and have 2012 Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt as one of their ends.

"For any rookie it's very difficult to make the jump from college to pro. It doesn't really matter if they were drafted No. 1 or undrafted, they're all trying to learn and keep pace with the veterans," new head coach Bill O'Brien said during a recent team workout. "I think he's doing a decent job of and he's working hard at it."

Clowney had 130 tackles, including 47 for losses, and 24 sacks in three seasons at South Carolina. He also set a school record by forcing nine fumbles in his career.

After both his freshman and sophomore years with the Gamecocks, Clowney was considered a surefire high pick in the draft had he been eligible. He was an All-American in 2012, but his performance dipped last season, and there were questions whether Houston would select him first overall.

Clowney's work ethic had been questioned, and critics wondered if he played things safe as a junior to avoid injury.

But his sheer talent, size (6-foot-5, 266 pounds) and potential were too good for the Texans to ignore.

"I'm here to learn the playbook and get the ball rolling with the Houston Texans and show what I've got on the field," he said following a practice session last month.

Clowney is the third top overall pick in team history. Houston selected quarterback David Carr in 2002 and defensive end Mario Williams in 2006.

Houston has signed nine of its 10 draft picks, with only UCLA guard Xavier Su'a-Filo, the first choice in the second round, still unsigned.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

Spurs ready for James and any conditions in finals

SAN ANTONIO (AP) When the air conditioning went out in San Antonio, many of the Spurs felt right at home - their native homelands.

They are a roster loaded with foreign players, accustomed to playing in places where air conditioning not only isn't optional, it's not even available.

"It gets crazy sometimes," forward Boris Diaw from France said Friday. "It goes to 95, 96."

It wasn't quite that bad inside the AT&T Center during Game 1 of the NBA Finals, where the temperature hovered around 90 degrees and the thermometer got as much attention as the scoreboard in the Spurs' 110-95 victory.

The Spurs weren't immune to the steamy arena, they just handled it better.

They have nine players born outside of the United States, representing an NBA-record seven countries, and even Danny Green, one of their few Americans, played internationally earlier in his career when he couldn't stick in the NBA. And while Diaw said it was the hottest NBA game he could remember, all the Spurs said they had faced worse.

They probably won't have to endure it again, at least not in this series.

The teams were already scheduled to work out Friday and Saturday at the Spurs' training facility, and Spurs officials announced just before practice began that the air conditioning system was "fully operational."

Commissioner Adam Silver said a breaker about the size of a car battery failed and workers couldn't replace it because they didn't know what effect that would have on the rest of the power to arena. Silver said workers from the facility and league, along with an outside expert, checked it out and are confident everything is repaired and will be fine for Game 2 on Sunday night.

And even if it isn't, the Spurs would probably handle it.

They have developed a mental toughness, the kind it will take to bounce back from last year's gut-wrenching NBA Finals loss to the Heat and get it done this year.

"Being a champion is not easy," Green said. "It's not going to come easy."

So no, the Spurs won't be rattled by something like the conditions. The two-time defending champion Heat will have to do that themselves.

"Anybody can be rattled, but this team is more difficult to rattle than others," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "They have great poise, they're always a step ahead a little bit."

They were way ahead down the stretch, particularly after the demoralized Heat realized LeBron James - sidelined with cramps - had been lost for good with about 4 minutes remaining. And, as is often the case for the Spurs, this game was won just as much with their minds.

"I feel part of our downfall in that game was mental and physical fatigue down the stretch. You know, rotations and things that we normally do wasn't done last night," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "It wasn't from not having the will or the want to do it."

The Spurs never lose that. Even after their unforgettable Game 6 defeat last season, when they blew a five-point lead in the final half-minute of regulation with a chance to win the title, they came back two nights later and pushed the Heat into the finals minutes of Game 7.

And rather than change things up after that loss, even with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili both on the wrong side of 35, the Spurs brought back all five starters and 12 players overall, rather than try to make fixes some thought might be needed to stay atop the Western Conference.

Coach Gregg Popovich doesn't know what causes his players to have their mental fortitude, but it's clear they do.

"It's difficult to judge or paint things with too big a brush," he said. "I think individual players have their own individual qualities and traits. I think some players are softer than others, some are tougher than others. But that doesn't change, it's just who they are."

The Heat have it as well. Five times they have lost Game 1 of a series since 2011, including last year to the Spurs, and each time bounced back to win Game 2 and eventually the series. They were disappointed by the finish to Thursday's game but not shaken, especially since James said he expects to be 100 percent by Sunday night.

"We have to do some things better, more committed, five-man (defense) against a very good passing team. They're well-schooled," Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Some things that we need to adjust on.

"That's what we'll figure out in the next couple of days."

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Follow Brian Mahoney on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney

Hamlin wins pole at Pocono Raceway

LONG POND, Pa. (AP) Denny Hamlin won the pole the first time he ever raced at Pocono Raceway. Eight years later, Hamlin still had the speed in the No. 11 Toyota to take the top spot at the triangle track.

Hamlin turned a track record-lap of 181.415 mph Friday to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup pole, a throwback to the times he dominated qualifying at one of his best tracks.

Hamlin is a four-time winner at Pocono, matching his Martinsville mark for most career wins at a track. He swept two Pocono races on its former rugged surface from the pole in 2006. He also won races on the 2 1/2-mile track in 2009 and 2010.

"I hope this track has aged a little bit," he said, "because when it was old and worn out was when I was really good at the track."

With blistering speeds, Hamlin zipped his way to his second track record and pole of the season after topping the field at Bristol. Hamlin has 19 poles in 304 career Cup starts.

Hamlin hasn't had much success with Joe Gibbs Racing at Pocono since 2010, finishing in the top 10 onlt twice and crashing out twice - including a 43rd-place run last August.

"We haven't been that strong here since the repave," he said. "It's just a handful of things that make you off here and there. These tracks are almost like superspeedways now in the sense that you've got to have the fastest car in the right position to win them. Back when I was winning in `06 on the old track, you could make up tons of position. That would never happen today because the cars are running so fast and so equal."

Kurt Busch starts second for a needed lift for his Stewart-Haas Racing team. Busch has otherwise struggled outside of the one win that all but locked him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.

"We came here with a new approach to try to get our front ends to settle into the track a little better," Busch said. "I was really surprised that we had the speed for the pole today in our first attempt to try something a little different. It's great to cash in."

Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Jeff Gordon completed the top five.

Coming off wins in the Coca-Cola 600 and at Dover, Jimmie Johnson will start 20th in his bid for a third straight victory.

"I just got too greedy down in two and lost the nose in the corner exit," Johnson said. "I feel bad for my guys, but this one's on me."

Keselowski continued his run of qualifying success. Last week's pole winner at Dover, Keselowski has started third or better in the No. 2 Ford a whopping 10 times in 13 races this season.

"I'm not sure why, but I'm not going to complain about it either," he said. "It does seem qualifying day has been the highlight of our week, for sure."

Gatorade apologizes over LeBron-related tweets

SAN ANTONIO (AP) Gatorade apologized Friday for comments posted to the company's Twitter feed after Miami Heat star LeBron James cramped up and had to leave Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

James needed intravenous fluids after the game, during which temperatures inside San Antonio's AT&T Center were measured at nearly 90 degrees after the arena's air conditioning system failed. The Spurs won the game 110-95, pulling away in the final 3:59 after James left the game for good with cramps ravaging his left leg.

"Our apologies for our response to fans' tweets during (Thursday) night's Heat vs. Spurs game," Gatorade said in a release. "We got caught up in the heat of the battle. As a longtime partner of the Miami Heat, we support the entire team."

Gatorade has a long business relationship with the NBA. James is an endorser of Powerade, a Gatorade rival.

James was a lightning rod of social media criticism after cramping in Game 1, with even NFL player Jonathan Martin - a central figure in the Miami Dolphins' bullying scandal last year - questioning his toughness in a tweet that was quickly deleted.

"What everybody has to say, you guys should know me by now, I don't care. I really don't," James said. "I really don't care what people say about me."

One of the tweets, in response to someone who directed a message toward the sports drink's feed, read that, "We were waiting on the sidelines, but he prefers to drink something else."

He may be paid by Powerade, but it appeared James was drinking Gatorade at least once during Game 1 of the finals. Video and photos taken of James on the Heat bench during the second half showed him holding what appeared to be a Gatorade bottle with the label removed, as has been the case on many other occasions.

The original tweet posted by Gatorade came late in Game 1, saying, "With a game this hot, we're right at home."

The Spurs said a power outage was to blame for the air conditioning failure, and later NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told The Associated Press that a faulty breaker was identified as the issue. The team announced Friday it had been repaired.

Michael Sam: No issues fitting in with Rams

ST. LOUIS (AP) Michael Sam is confident he'll be judged on performance.

The first openly gay player drafted in the NFL said Friday there have been no issues fitting in with his St. Louis Rams teammates, no awkward moments in the locker room and that he was accepted right away.

"They respect me as a human being," he said. "And as a football player."

Being a bit of a cut-up helps cut the ice, too. Sam skipped all of the media days last season at Missouri while saving his announcement for February, but teammates will tell you he has quite a sense of humor and is not the least bit sensitive about off-color jokes that can fly behind closed doors.

"If anybody had any reservations about who he was to begin with, he wins them over pretty quick," said wide receiver T.J. Moe, who played with Sam at Missouri. "They're laughing so hard, they can't breathe."

Defensive tackle Michael Brockers said Sam was asked to stand up and tell a joke on Friday. The verdict: "Totally funny."

"We don't really focus on the outside stuff," Brockers added. "He's our brother, he's on our D-line and that's where it sits."

Working out with the full squad this week, Sam realizes he must step up his game to carve out a spot on a loaded defensive line. He said he's spending a lot of time poring over the playbook, too.

No doubt the Rams will give Sam every chance to succeed. But like any seventh-round pick, it's an uphill battle.

"It's faster, you've got to learn a lot more plays, you've got to know what you're doing," Sam said after a two-hour session. "You're supposed to perform at a high level and I'm doing pretty good."

Sam got a lot of snaps at left end with the second team defense, moving up on the depth chart because veteran William Hayes is rehabbing from an injury. He's been getting a lot of work on special teams, where the Rams might break him in.

The Rams had one of the top pass rushes in the NFL last year with ends Robert Quinn, second in the NFL in sacks, and Chris Long both former first-round picks. So are tackles Brockers and rookie Aaron Donald, plus Kendall Langford was a major free agent pickup a year ago.

"I'm telling you, they get after it," Sam said. "I thought our D-line at Mizzou was pretty tough. This is a whole new level."

Everyone, Sam said, has been willing to help. Nobody, Long said, gives a hoot about the fact he's gay.

"Only the media cares," Long said. "The players don't care, we just care about what kind of football player you are.

"We got a steal in whatever round we took him in."

Players picked way ahead of him don't seem to mind that Sam's getting more attention.

"He's a cool guy," Donald said. "We get along well and we're trying to get ready for the season together."

The 260-pound Sam was the SEC co-defensive player of the year last season. After the Rams took him with the 249th overall pick late in the seventh round, general manager Les Snead called him a designated pass rusher.

Sam said he's probably going to have to shed some weight to be effective on special teams.

Among the early goals for the Rams (7-9) is getting Greg Robinson, the second overall pick, accustomed to a new position. Robinson was a tackle at Auburn and the Rams have him at guard.

"I can get my hands on them faster, so it's something I think I can grow into," Robinson said. "But I'm a little rusty. It's been a while since I played guard."

Veterans were challenged, too, by new wrinkles in the playbook.

"Just knocking the rust off, I think, is the biggest thing," Brockers said. "Like coach Fisher said, we're not going to win the division in these next few OTAs."

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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