It's the Fourth of July, and to celebrate, I'm thinking about Karl Malone's free agency.

I know. Get a life.

Actually, I'm thinking about freedom, too. The freedom to think about basketball because I want to. Freedom to do and say whatever I wish, even if it is stupid, ignorant or just plain weird (all of which I have been called).

America, what a country. A place where pro athletes can talk earnestly about earning a living and caring for their families, even as they're making millions. In this country, a football coach is free to make 10 times what the university president or governor makes. Where else could a basketball coach be the highest-paid public employee in a state?

This is a place where an NBA free agent commands many times the news coverage of a congressman.

Legislators meet to decide laws that will affect lives for decades, yet virtually nobody's watching. Someone plays a football game and 100,000 fans show up. America, where athletes have even greater clout than politicians.

Brett Favre or Tom Daschle, you make the call.

America, where Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, is a multimillionaire and schoolteachers get second jobs.

OK, it's not perfect. Nevertheless, there are many great things about America. This is Land of the Free, Home of Yogi Berra. If there were no America, there would never have been Charles Barkley, either, who is funny enough to have said, "I get paid to score and rebound. I'll need another $1 million to play defense."

This is a great country. A place where BYU quarterback John Walsh can hear some yahoo on TV saying he's a sure first-round NFL draft pick, drop out of school and end up disappearing without ever having played in the NFL. That's OK, because you're free to believe whatever and whoever you want in the USA.

America is one of the few places in the world where an athlete can call a $10 million-a-year offer an insult. A place where journalists get to cover sports as though covering war — minus the safety risks. Only real chance of a sportswriter being injured is by choking on a chicken wing in the buffet line.

America, where sports are a big part of popular culture. Without America, we would never have enjoyed seeing Mark "The Bird" Fydrich smoothing the dirt on the mound, Tex Cobb rambling nonsense on late night TV or Deion Sanders strutting in the end zone. Nor would we have been able to laugh as Rick Majerus wistfully described the day Ashley Judd gave him a hug.

This is a place where we get to talk about unimportant things and worry about small things, like whether Annika Sorenstam should play in the Colonial. We don't worry about food, bathing water or sanitation here, we worry about whether the Clippers will exercise their rights of first refusal on Andre Miller.

We worry about whether the Cubs will finally win the World Series.

In America we don't even really worry about terrorism in our neighborhoods. We agonize about our putting game. We don't wonder about finding fresh produce at the grocery store, we wonder about whether the Jazz should retire Adrian Dantley's number.

We spend time thinking about whether Pete Rose should be banned from baseball. We fuss over Sammy Sosa's corked bat and the impending breakup of the Big East.

In this country, we get upset when the network switches abruptly to another game during March Madness.

We get outraged when someone says he doesn't want to play and live in our town.

We entertain ourselves with stories about Jeff Gordon's messy divorce and wonder whether the Mailman will get a ring. We stew over the perceived indifference the NBA has toward small-market teams. We get our blood pressure up over the officiating of games and the rising price of tickets.

We demand an explanation if the parking situation is bad at a football game.

It's a great place to live, really, if you can get here. A great place to find little things to worry about.

That, then, is the great blessing of living in America.

It's a place so safe we can afford to worry about things that really don't matter.


E-MAIL: rock@desnews.com