It's in the Can

When a major bargain becomes available, it doesn't take long for the sharpies to gather like vultures around carrion. Case in point: Now that disgruntled stockholders of the Ascent Entertainment Group have rejected a piddling $400 million offer for the Colorado Avalanche, the Denver Nuggets and the Can, their brand-new playpen on Auraria Parkway, anyone with half a billion or so in loose change is invited to get in on a new round of bidding.

The smart guys can't wait. With a chance to buy the mind and body of Nuggets center Raef LaFrentz, they're all salivating. Besides, if you wave your auction paddle at the right moment, the good folks at Ascent might just throw in a pair of hockey skates, a case of Diet Pepsi and Charlie Lyons's severed head.

Through no small effort, which included rifling through Rupert Murdoch's trash and grilling Marge Schott's Saint Bernard for some straight answers in the wee hours, we've obtained a heretofore secret list of highly motivated bidders for Ascent's properties. If Bill and Nancy Laurie, the cheapskate Wal-Martians whose lousy 400 mil was thrown back in their faces last week, hope to stay in the running, here are the forces they'll have to deal with:

1. Bill Gates. The Microsoft chairman, said to be the wealthiest human being on the planet, acknowledged last week that his entire acquaintance with sports consists of the time an 89-pound college gymnast broke his nose after she caught him trying to steal a pocket calculator out of her purse. Still, Gates sees upside potential in ownership of the Avs, Nuggs and Pepsi Center. "As anybody who saw that movie last week on TNT can tell you," he says, "I'm a ruthless computer geek without a soul, and I throw a ball like a three-year-old. But if I sit up in my luxury owner's suite during the game, the security guards will keep all those people who hate me from throwing whipped-cream pies in my face. The cost? No object. Instead of remodeling the bathrooms in my house this year, I may as well pick up a couple of sports teams. By the way, does Denver have a good sushi bar?"

2. The International Olympic Committee. With plenty of ill-gotten loot on hand, IOC members see the Ascent sale as a prime opportunity to expand into pro sports. "500 million?" scoffs IOC chairman Juan Antonio Samaranch. "The jewelry we scored from the boosters in Nagano is worth a lot more than that. If we sell off half the cars the Norwegians gave us in Lillehammer, we can easily make this nut and have plenty left over for a banquet at Morton's and some no-holds-barred visits to the local brothel. Aside from that, we in the Olympic Movement absolutely love basketball and hockey. Remember the finish to that U.S.-U.S.S.R. hoops final? The one where we put time back on the clock so the Russkies could win it? That's what I'm talking about. If the Lakers won't fold their tents when they play the Nuggets, we'll bribe 'em. If Tim Duncan won't shave points, we'll give him his own country and a Gulfstream to get there. By the way, how does Salt Lake City Avalanche sound?"

3. John Elway. Surely the Ascent shareholders understand the esteem in which the retired Broncos quarterback is held in Colorado--and the added drawing power he would mean for an NBA team that can't beat Bowling Green. In view of the rumors about Elway fleeing our fair state to run a new NFL franchise in Los Angeles, doesn't it make sense to do the right thing and offer this local hero a deal right now that will pay off in the future? Let's see--$199.95 including air, the sport-handling package and multi-disc CD player sounds about right. The way we hear it, Elway already has a couple of new wrinkles in mind. Imagine Bill Romanowski in a goalie's mask and Shannon Sharpe at point guard and you start to get the picture.

4. George Steinbrenner. At this point in his storied career, the New York Yankees owner avers, winning the World Series year after year is not enough. "My real skill lies elsewhere," Steinbrenner says. "I'm best when I'm kicking ass. And humiliating people. For me, a good day at the office consists of firing a coach, publicly castigating a star player who has the gall to sprain his ankle in the heat of battle and terrorizing three or four girls down in the typing pool. I don't feel really fulfilled unless I can smash a couple of desk lamps and have my people follow a dissident TV commentator home and beat the crap out of him in his garage." Owning the Nuggets and the Avalanche ("Damn the price! It's worth it!" he enthuses) would clearly afford Steinbrenner the kind of new opportunities he's looking for. "That Claude Lemieux thinks he's a tough guy, huh?" Steinbrenner chortles. "Wait'll I lash him to a chair up in my office with the spotlights turned all the way up and water dripping on his forehead. We'll see who's boss then."

5. General Shiekh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum. The fellow in the burnoose who has become the most powerful figure in international horse racing admitted by telephone that, deep down, he's just another hockey nut. "Growing up in Dubai, we didn't get a lot of ice time," he says of himself and his three brothers. "But I developed a pretty fair slap shot while vacationing in Gstaad. Hey, Omar. Get me $600 million out of petty cash, willya? Excuse me, where were we? Oh, yeah. Make no mistake. Patrick Roy and Peter Forsberg are gonna love playing here in the Persian Gulf. Soon as I close the deal, we're gonna freeze the pond out back and get down to business. Some people are saying I can't do it. Well, I'm also the defense minister around here and what I say goes. In Gstaad they don't even call high-sticking on me. Two, three seasons, tops, we'll beat Riyadh for the Stanley Cup. What about the Pepsi Center? Who cares? Hold flea markets in there on weekends for all I care."

6. Slobodan Milosevic. Now that he's done slaughtering ethnic Albanians, the Serbian strongman has time on his hands and a nice little surplus in the national coffers. What better moment to go out and land a couple of major-league franchises? "Ratovic said I should be repairing bridges and restoring electrical power to rural hospitals," Milosevic trills. "But what the hell good would that do? What the country really needs right now is a major morale-booster, and watching Antonio McDyess do his thing against, say, Vlade Divac is just what the doctor ordered. Ratovic said I'm out of my mind. He said that even if we did get into the bidding, it would be a hard go against all these really rich guys. Of course, as of dawn yesterday, Ratovic is no longer with us. But I'm here to say this to Steinbrenner: Back off or I'll burn your village. And listen up, Gates! You want your women and children to live out the week, don't offer a penny over 410 mil. As for you, Mister Big Shot Quarterback. You think you felt heat in the pocket during your playing days? You haven't felt anything. Wait'll a couple of my armored guys run you down in a half-track."

Only 18,000 or so motor-racing fans turned out Sunday afternoon for the Radisson 200 at Pikes Peak International Raceway--the smallest crowd for any Indy Racing League event this season.

That does not bode well for the future of the 43,000-seat PPIR, where attendance has declined steadily since the inaugural Indy race two years ago. The big corporate dog in open-wheel racing, Penske International Motorsports, Inc., has plans to build a 120,000-seat super speedway in the Denver area, likely east off I-70. And that could be the death knell for the one-mile oval located eighty miles south of Colorado's major population center.

Meanwhile, the nasty three-year-old feud between the IRL and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) has hurt the box office at both racing series.

Still, race winner Greg Ray and runner-up Sam Schmidt put on a scintillating display Sunday for the precious few. The two drivers swapped the lead seven times in 200 laps around the slick, windswept Pikes Peak track, frequently bringing new race fans to their feet and reminding old hands of the daring beauty of Indy car competition.

"I told Greg, 'Let's go another hundred, winner take all,'" Schmidt said. "But he wouldn't go for it."

The IRL circus returns to Pikes Peak August 29 to contest round nine of the IRL's eleven-race 1999 schedule. "Our crowd will be bigger in August," Leo Mehl, IRL's president, said following Sunday's race--but there was not much conviction in his voice.

For true belief, though, race fans had to look no further than driver Greg Harrington. On June 11 the IRL rookie suffered a fractured right leg in a practice crash at the Texas Motor Speedway; he's been hobbling around on crutches ever since. But Harrington plays hurt. He qualified eighth for Sunday's race and remained doggedly in contention until lap 183, when a brush with the fourth-turn wall dropped him from third to nineteenth place.

Asked about his level of discomfort while roaring around PPIR at 170 miles an hour, the injured young driver shrugged. "The leg was fine," he said. "It was the three broken ribs that bothered me.

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo

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