Sports Briefs Sept. 21

Posted Sept. 21, 2011, at 8:44 p.m.

Report: Armstrong paid banned doc’s front company

ROME — Lance Armstrong made payments to an Italian physician banned for doping through a front company in Switzerland, an Italian newspaper reported Wednesday.

The mainstream, Milan-based daily Corriere della Sera said the seven-time Tour de France winner directed funds to a company in the Neuchatel region called Health and Performance.

Citing work by Swiss and Italian investigators, Corriere said that Michele Ferrari, a banned Italian physician who was once Armstrong’s training adviser, was behind the “anonymous company now in liquidation.”

Ferrari was cleared on appeal in 2006 of criminal charges accusing him of distributing doping products to athletes, but he remains barred for life by the Italian Cycling Federation under a 2002 ruling.

Armstrong has long denied doping and has never tested positive. The American has acknowledged meeting Ferrari nonprofessionally since publicly severing their working relationship in 2004. A spokesman for Armstrong did return a message seeking comment.

Armstrong, who won the Tour every year from 1999-2005, is being investigated by a federal grand jury in Los Angeles that has been meeting for more than a year to examine illegal drug use in professional cycling.

The Corriere report details an alleged doping ring coordinated by Ferrari that also involved cyclists Denis Menchov and Michele Scarponi.

A register of Swiss companies lists Health and Performance as being created in Neuchatel on Feb. 26, 1996, as a sports medical and training consultancy. It was listed as having working capital of 100,000 Swiss francs ($112,000) before being liquidated last Nov. 23, after a decision by the company’s general assembly.

The newspaper did not say when the alleged payments from Armstrong to Ferrari’s company were made.

Italian authorities said earlier this year they suspect Ferrari of continuing to work with 20 to 30 top-level cyclists despite his ban, including Armstrong, and are actively pursuing that line of investigation.

Corriere reported that Ferrari’s son also was involved in the doping ring, and that Armstrong called the son before last year’s Tour, referring to the son as “No. 1.”

Without naming its sources, Corriere reported that a total of 30 people are under investigation in a widespread doping ring coordinated by Ferrari, including former Giro d’Italia and Spanish Vuelta winner Menchov and Giro runner-up Scarponi.

Scarponi was banned for 18 months in 2007 for involvement in the Spanish doping scandal called Operation Puerto.

Menchov has been linked to a doping inquiry involving the Humanplasma lab in Vienna, although he has never been suspended.

Other cyclists reportedly under investigation include former Russian time trial champion Vladimir Gusev and another Russian, Vladimir Karpets.

Physicians, lawyers, and a bank worker at a BSI branch in Locarno, Switzerland, also are mentioned by Corriere as being under investigation.

The inquiry is reportedly looking into alleged money laundering, fraud and doping, with more than 10 million euros ($13.64 million) in funds seized by authorities during the operation.

Menchov himself reportedly had 2.4 million euros ($3.27 million) seized from his accounts.

The alleged doping ring reportedly involves illegal movement of money between Italy, Monaco and Switzerland.

Corriere claims that Ferrari used a series of foreign cell phones and meetings in unusual places for doping purposes. The report said he used a mobile “camper” as a medical office, moving from one mountain to another — driving from the Italian Apennines to St. Moritz in Switzerland to the Euganei hills near Padua.

Ferrari lives in Ferrara, in central Italy.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because the investigation is still not complete, an Italian law enforcement official told The Associated Press that the Corriere report is “all true, and you can relay it across the ocean.”

Calls to Padua prosecutor Benedetto Roberti, who is leading the inquiry into Ferrari, went unanswered.

A woman who answered the phone at Ferrari’s house said the physician was not at home, and Ferrari’s lawyer would not comment.

East Carolina applies to join Big East

GREENVILLE, N.C. — East Carolina has sent a letter of application to join the Big East.

In a joint statement Wednesday, chancellor Steve Ballard and athletic director Terry Holland said the school will “maintain a proactive approach” in dealing with uncertainty about conference realignment. The school sent its application Tuesday and it arrived at the Big East offices Wednesday, athletic department spokesman Tom McClellan said.

“While we have formalized our interest in Big East Conference membership as a viable option, ECU will remain focused on competing at the highest level through the efforts of Conference USA,” Ballard and Holland said in the statement.

East Carolina’s interest in the Big East has simmered in the background in recent years, though the announced departures of Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East to the Atlantic Coast Conference might finally open the door for such a move. The Pirates would bring a football program with five straight bowl appearances and a strong fan base, while giving the Big East a presence in medi a markets in both Carolinas and Virginia.

East Carolina won consecutive C-USA football championships under Skip Holtz in 2008 and 2009. The Pirates also traditionally play a nonconference schedule featuring BCS opponents, including South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia Tech this season under Ruffin McNeill.

Last season, East Carolina ranked second nationally for average home attendance (49,665) among non-BCS programs and 44th among all Bowl Subdivision teams. East Carolina led C-USA in attendance by more than 10,000 fans per game last year and was the only league program to rank in the top 50 nationally in average home attendance, according to the school.

East Carolina’s average home attendance for 2010 would have ranked fourth in the Big East behind West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Louisville.

McNeill said Monday that he wasn’t focused on uncertainty about conference realignment heading into this weekend’s home game against UAB.

“We really have all the makings here,” McNeill said. “If Conference USA were to dissolve and somebody picked East Carolina, they’re getting a blessing because we have the total package.”

Hixon tears ACL for second straight year

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — New York Giants receiver Domenik Hixon will miss the rest of the season after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee for the second straight year.

Surgery is planned in the near future.

“It kind of still feels like a dream,” said Hixon, who said he was stunned when told he tore his ACL again. “It’s another long road, but I’ll put the work back in and come back better than before.”

Hixon was hurt Monday night making a juggling catch on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Eli Manning in the Giants 28-16 win over the St. Louis Rams.

“I just thank God I caught it and kind of contributed to the win and just hanging out on the sidelines, just different little things like that,” Hixon said. “It felt good being back. That’ll just be more motivation to come back again.”

Hixon told reporters after the game that he hurt his calf and not his knee, but he admitted on Wednesday that was “wishful thinking.”

Hixon missed all of last season after tearing the ACL during an offseason minicamp workout.

Also a key punt returner, Hixon had four catches for 50 yards in two games this season. He returned three punts for 31 yards.

“It’s a shame, a guy who we missed last year and were happy to have back,” Manning said. “Obviously you saw his contribution already with the touchdown catch. Those are the kinds of plays that he can bring to us. Unfortunate, but we’re going to need some guys to step up.”

With Hixon out and fellow receiver Mario Manningham’s status uncertain because of a concussion suffered on Monday, the Giants might have to rely on recently signed Brandon Stokley, Victor Cruz, Devin Thomas and rookie Jerrel Jernigan to fill the void.

New York tried out a couple of receivers last week before signing Stokley. Among that group were veteran T.J. Houshmandzadeh and former Rutgers standout Tiquan Underwood, who is also a return specialist.

Manningham underwent further examination Wednesday for his concussion.

The Giants have been hit with a slew of injuries. Starting cornerback Terrell Thomas and starting middle linebacker Jonathan Goff have been sidelined for the season with major knee injuries. Rookie defensive tackle Marvin Austin, the second-round draft pick, will miss the season with a pectoral muscle problem.

Thomas is scheduled to have surgery on Friday.

Hixon refused to say there was a black cloud in the locker room.

“God has a specific plan for everybody,” he said. “I’ll pray about it and I will be back. I felt better when I came back this time, so I’ll just have to do it again.”

LeBron James honored by Boys & Girls

WASHINGTON — LeBron James of the Miami Heat has received the “Champion of Youth” award from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

The award was presented to James by actor Denzel Washington, the club’s national spokesman. The award recognizes the relationship that the two-time NBA MVP has had with clubs across the country for the past several years.

In a telephone interview, James said he was “humbled” to both receive the honor and spend time with kids, which has been one of his priorities during the ongoing NBA lockout.

“I know I get a lot of headlines for what I do,” James said. “But being around these kids these last two days and hearing their stories, I can really relate to them. I was one of those underprivileged kids where people thought we were a statistic and didn’t have a way out and would fall into the traps of life and our surroundings. For these kids to have a way out, that’s amazing and I ‘m happy to be a part of it.”

James formally received the award Tuesday night. Wednesday, he remained in Washington for more ceremonies and the launch of a new campaign called “Great Futures Start Here.” That campaign includes a 1-minute, 45-second public service advertisement directed by Ron Howard and including about 20 BGCA alumni like Shaun White, Shaquille O’Neal, Magic Johnson and Sugar Ray Leonard.

James does not appear in that ad — it was filmed in June, around the time Miami was in the NBA finals — but is helping promote the campaign.

“We’ve had this relationship with LeBron for five years,” said Frank Sanchez, the clubs’ vice president for sports and entertainment. “He believes in the work that we do. He understands the kids and kids’ needs. He understands what it’s like to grow up in a family with one parent. He understands what it means to grow up in a community that might be in duress. LeBron understands that a t his core.”

James has remained hopeful throughout the offseason that the lockout would end in time for the 2011-12 season to go on without interruption, and that thinking hasn’t changed. James said he and many of his Heat teammates are continuing to work toward getting ready for the season, despite the ongoing uncertainty because of the lack of a new collective bargaining agreement.

NBA training camps are scheduled to open early next month.

A’s manager Melvin gets 3-year deal

OAKLAND, Calif. — Bob Melvin is staying put to manage in his native Bay Area and considers it the perfect fit.

The feeling is mutual for the Oakland Athletics, who announced Wednesday they had reached agreement on a three-year contract to keep Melvin as their permanent manager.

“I’ve been taken care of very well here,” Melvin said. “(General manager) Billy (Beane) has treated me beautifully, the front office has, the players have, the support staff … they’ve all made me feel like I’m at home. So I feel like this is a good spot for me.”

The 49-year-old Melvin took over in an interim capacity for the fired Bob Geren in June and has a 42-49 record after Tuesday night’s 7-2 loss to the AL West-leading Texas Rangers at the Coliseum. Geren’s dismissal marked the first time Oakland fired a manager during the season in a quarter century.

Melvin, a Bay Area native who played college baseball at California, previously managed the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks.

His players respect him and were rooting for his return.

“Definitely a player’s manager,” outfielder Ryan Sweeney said. “A positive guy, he wants you to go out there and win every day like everybody does. The communication is there. He tells you the day before whether you’re playing or in the lineup, so that’s always good. As far as how he handles the team, all that he does has been good. … I’ve seen nothing but positive things since he’s been here.”

While Oakland (69-85) is headed for a fifth straight season without a winning record or playoff berth since being swept in the 2006 AL championship series by Detroit, the A’s have appreciated Melvin’s leadership with a constantly changing roster of young players and his vast experience.

Melvin owns a 535-557 career managerial record in eight seasons. The A’s were 27-36 and mired in a nine-game losing streak when Melvin took over.

He led the Diamondbacks to the NL West title in 2007 and also won 93 games in his rookie season with the Mariners in 2003.

Melvin was also on Bob Brenly’s staff as bench coach in 2001 when the Diamondbacks won the World Series and the following year when they won the NL West. Melvin also coached for Milwaukee under Phil Garner, now an A’s adviser. They worked together with the Tigers, too.

Melvin played 10 seasons in the majors as a catcher with Detroit, San Francisco, Baltimore, Kansas City, Boston, the Yankees and White Sox. He batted .233 with 35 homers and 212 RBIs in 1,955 career at-bats.

Melvin was born in Palo Alto, went to high school in Menlo Park, played at Cal and spent time with the Giants in the majors.

When he became interim manager, Melvin called it “a dream come true.”

Mike Modano retires after 21 seasons in NHL

One of the greatest American hockey players is hanging up his skates for good.

Mike Modano announced Wednesday that he is retiring after 21 seasons in the NHL, a career that includes a Stanley Cup championship along with 561 goals and 1,374 points — both of which are records for U.S.-born players.

“It’s just time,” he said in a phone interview from Dallas, taking a break between playing 36 holes of golf. “I didn’t get any calls after July 1 and I figured that was it.”

Only it wasn’t. Modano said Vancouver assistant general manager Lorne Henning offered him a chance last week to continue his career with the Canucks.

“I told him I had to pass because I hadn’t touched a weight or unzipped my bag since we lost in San Jose,” he said.

Modano ended his career as a banged-up player who had lost a step and his shot during his one-season stint with his hometown Detroit Red Wings. A skate sliced a tendon in his right wrist and limited him to 40 games and career lows with four goals and 15 points with the Red Wings.

In Modano’s prime, though, he was among the best hockey players on the planet — shifty, speedy and with a lethal wrist shot, he also played in three Olympics, helping the Americans win silver in 2002.

“His speed was his strength,” former NHL player Chris Chelios said. “He had a great shot — hard and heavy — and he was tough to stop once he made a turn and generated speed.”

The Minnesota North Stars selected the native of Livonia, Mich., No. 1 overall in 1988. Following the franchise’s move to Dallas, he helped the Stars hoist the Stanley Cup in 1999.

Modano was in his prime when the Stars were among the NHL’s elite a decade ago, including a stretch of 34 home playoff games at rowdy Reunion Arena over three seasons from 1998-2000. When the Stars were at their best, Modano was the most popular player on a team full of fan favorites. The success fueled a 238-game sellout streak and a youth hockey boom that led to the Stars building ice rinks all over the heart of football country.

NASCAR tries to break up Talladega 2-car tandems

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — NASCAR has made two rule changes for next month’s race at Talladega Superspeedway that should limit the length of time two cars can draft together.

The restrictor plates used in the Oct. 23 race will be larger. The change should lead to an increase of horsepower that could make the cars 2 to 3 mph faster.

NASCAR also ordered an adjustment on a pressure relief valve that should lower the maximum water temperature in engines. A threat of overheating could prevent cars from staying hooked together for too long.

Drivers discovered over the last year that it’s faster to run in two-car tandems. Fans have been lukewarm about the tandem racing, and drivers have complained it’s impossible to see when they are pushing another car.

Verplank has left wrist rebuilt, out for season

ATLANTA — After nearly two years of not knowing when he would be able to play, Scott Verplank decided to have surgery to rebuild his left wrist and will be off the PGA Tour for about five months.

The surgery last Friday in Cleveland came one month after Verplank was in contention on the back nine of the PGA Championship until his tee shot came up a fraction short on the 17th green and led to a double bogey.

Verplank said that was one of the few weeks — and there weren’t many — when his wrist felt strong enough for golf.

“For three or four weeks, it was OK and I played good,” he said Wednesday from his home in Edmond, Okla. “The rest of the time, it was a massive struggle.”

Out of 15 tournaments, he withdrew three times and missed the cut three times, and there were two tournaments — the Honda Classic and Colonial — when he never made it to the first tee.

He also went down the stretch with Phil Mickelson in the Houston Open and was a runner-up, had all four rounds in the 60s at The Greenbrier Classic and tied for fourth at the PGA Championship. He still earned nearly $1.2 million.

“If my tendon was staying in the groove on its own, I could play,” he said. “If it was moving around, it was tearing the sheath away from the bone. Those are the weeks I couldn’t play. They’ve got it all secured down now. Hopefully, it will heal the way it’s supposed to. Even though I’m in a soft cast, I can already feel a difference.”

Verplank was at No. 75 to start the FedEx Cup playoffs. He missed the cut at The Barclays and withdrew after one round of the Deutsche Bank Championship, ending his season.

“I knew when I went to New York (for The Barclays) that I needed to get something done,” he said. “I spent the last two years going to tournaments not knowing if I could play until I teed it up.”

Verplank, who won the first of his five PGA Tour titles when he was an amateur, hopes to return to competition as early as February. At 47, he believes he has four or five good years left in the big leagues, and “there a lot of room to do some good stuff.”

Vick partakes in walkthrough, may play Sunday

PHILADELPHIA — Eagles quarterback Michael Vick took part in a morning walkthrough on Wednesday, and there is a chance he will play against the Giants (1-1) on Sunday.

Vick suffered a concussion in Philadelphia’s 35-31 loss to the Falcons in Atlanta on Sunday night, and was forced to leave the game in the second half.

Head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder said Vick doesn’t have “a whole lot of concussion symptoms,” and would undergo further testing, including seeing an independent neurologist in the next day or two.

“Just because he doesn’t have symptoms today doesn’t mean he won’t have symptoms tomorrow,” Burkholder said. “You can’t predict.”

Coach Andy Reid wasn’t sure whether Vick would practice in the afternoon.

“It’s hard to give you the future because you have to do things the right way and go through the process,” Reid said.

Vick threw for a pair of touchdowns for the Eagles (1-1), but couldn’t continue after getting spun by a Falcons rusher into one of his teammates, right tackle Todd Herremans. He was replaced by Mike Kafka. Vince Young, who was signed to be the backup, has missed the first two games with a hamstring injury. He’s close to returning.

“We’re pretty fortunate to have three quarterbacks who can play the game,” Reid said. “My message to all three of them was: ‘Get ready accordingly.’

Giants coach Tom Coughlin, in his Tuesday conference call with the media, said he expected Vick to play, and that New York was not putting together a different game plan without Vick in it.

Since the NFL instituted new guidelines, only one Eagles player — wide receiver Jason Avant — has played the next game after suffering a concussion.

However, Avant had two extra days off because a snow storm postponed Philadelphia’s game against Minnesota last December.

“Every situation is different,” Avant said. “I got up right away, immediately knew where I was, who hit me, what the score was.”

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