Saturday, March 3, 2018
The common thread through this journey, aside from The Goddess Sylvia Hatchell and some of the other mainstays on the coaching staff, has been Jamie Cherry, the only player thus far whose entire Carolina career we've watched unfold from the bleachers. These four years have been so incredibly special, and a lot of that has to do with the joy of watching #10 perform miracles.
Did we need a huge shot in a critical moment, something to swing the momentum of a half or beat a buzzer? Watch Jamie coming up the court. Maybe she runs a dribble hand off and gets the ball back in the corner after a few passes tilt the defense. Maybe she barrels into the lane, an undersized dynamo cutting through the teeth of much bigger defenders, twisting and darting impossibly to the rim for the And-1. Or maybe she just stops at the top of the key and drains a casually vicious three right in some poor defender's mug. She was absolutely fearless, always. No moment was too big. Jamie Cherry, more often than not, was going to get the bucket we needed. Then she'd streak back down the court on defense, making the "three" sign with both hands. In those moments (and there were many; so, so many), she was a compact ball of exuberance, defiance, and joy. She'd be screaming. She'd be laughing.
We also watched her grow into a superb floor general. Her freshman year, she was backing up the brilliant Latifah Coleman (now the team's video coordinator), and would sometimes push the envelope with some ill-advised passes and poor decisions. When Sylvia handed her the keys to the offense before her sophomore season, Jamie took them with aplomb. Witnessing her court vision evolve in real time and in person was a pure delight. She started seeing everything at half-speed, using her speed and athleticism the way Tar Heel point guards have since time immemorial. Suddenly, she was whipping entry passes in transition that connected where they had been picked off before. In the half court, she was probing defenses for a sliver of daylight and then swinging to an open shooter or slotting a pass into the post with killer accuracy. And always moving, cutting, working to adjust and calibrate the offense and find the little things off-ball to maximize every possession's efficacy.
Defensively, she was always a little better than you'd think if you hadn't watched nearly every minute of her career. She picked plenty of pockets with her gunslinger-quick hands and jumped passing lanes with brilliant anticipation. When a switch occurred on a pcik'n'roll and she wound up guarding an opposing player with a foot of height and 50 pounds on her, she just bodied up and got in their grill. Good luck getting Jamie Cherry to give an inch to anyone, ever.
This above all: Jamie never stopped running. I mean that almost literally, y'all. Her tenure at Carolina coincided with an absolutely brutal, multi-season rash of injuries crippling the team's depth. Compounding the issue were a handful of transfers precipitated by the guillotine of NCAA sanctions (the blade of which never actually fell) stemming from the academic scandal. The Heels' bench was paper thin, with virtually no one else capable of being a successful primary ball handler. So Jamie played and played and ran and ran. Through twisted ankles and torqued knees and aches and sprains and a busted nose that required a Rip-Hamilton-esque face mask for a stretch, she simply did not quit. She hit the deck for every loose ball, she pinballed off waves of bigger defenders in the paint, she slid into position to contest and drew charges. She took a preposterous amount of abuse and just kept on playing her ass off. Take out her freshman season as a bench player, and she averaged a staggering 36.4 minutes a game over the remainder of her career. No rest, no breaks, all motor and fury and passion all the time always. Jamie Cherry is a Terminator. If you dropped an ACME safe on her like she was Wile E. Coyote or ran over her with a semi truck, she'd just shrug it off and call for the ball. Then she'd dribble up court, set the offense, and more likely than not, make the perfect pass or hit the shot.
Jamie's Senior Night ended in a loss to Syracuse. It wasn't what anyone wanted, and certainly not the Carmichael farewell she deserved, but basketball is like that sometimes. As she left that court for the last time, we watched her hunched over, head down, sobbing as sophomore Olivia Smith wrapped her in a hug. But then, the last instant before they hit the tunnel, Jaime's head lifted, and she raised a fist into the air. It was both a goodbye and a statement off accomplishment. Everything she'd worked for, all the sweat and grind and drills and sprints and shots and passes. Not just at Carolina, but her whole life. A million bounces of a ball, a million jumpers, a million hours of training and film sessions. Jamie gave so much of her young life to hoops, and we were fortunate enough to watch her incredible run at UNC. She's not done with anything, obviously. That last Senior Night moment, hand raised and head high, was just as much a beginning as an ending. Basketball is probably behind her, at least as a player. (Though who knows, maybe she'll wind up coaching or scouting somewhere down the line.) In the swath of history and the wider world, Jamie Cherry's life is just beginning. Whatever awaits her, she will doubtless meet it with the same ferocity and brilliance and joy she brought to every game.
Saturday, February 10, 2018
It started opening night, when Gordon Hayward went down with a truly gruesome injury 5 minutes into what looked like a very promising Celtics season. To be fair, the Celtics have been incredible anyway. Kyrie Irving has been out of his damn mind, my beloved Alfred Joel Horford has brought his usual understated brilliance, and Boston has mostly shredded their competition. Still, it felt cruel to witness the full-power C's for such a short blip of time.
Then there's the mess in Philly with Markelle Fultz. Trusting The Process has given basketball fans the unmitigated glee of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid working their magic ... but. It's one thing for a #1 overall draft pick do be a bust; highly-touted players falling short of expectations is something we've seen plenty of times. This is different. Fultz, apparently, cannot shoot a basketball. He has a mysterious injury that has received conflicting diagnoses from multiple sources, and right now no one seems to know if he'll ever play even a minute in the NBA. It is an exceedingly strange development that has disappeared into a season where "strange" has become the new status quo.
Speaking of bizarre injuries, what the actual hell is going on with Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs? The franchise that has arguably been the model for excellence, consistency, and adaptability in all of professional sports for the past 15 years has an actual problem on its hands. When will Kawhi see the floor again? Unclear. Is he, or someone in his camp, disgruntled with how San Antonio is managing the situation or vice versa? Unclear. Is there a rift between the organization and its anointed franchise player despite said organization absolutely never having rifts of any kind? Also, still, unclear. The Spurs still boast a 35-21 record, right on pace for a home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but things in San Antonio seem, for once, disjointed. When the cohesion of this team looks to be slipping, even if only in outward appearance, you know you're through the NBA looking glass.
We have to talk about the injuries, too. Boogie Cousins was finally on his way. After taking a metric ton of critical shit (some deserved, most not) for never reaching the playoffs despite being one of the league's elite talents, his Pelicans squad were looking like they might not just make the postseason, but give any potential opponents real fits. Boogie, the Brow, and Jrue Holiday (whose game I have always adored, sometimes irrationally) were a triumvirate that ran somewhat counter to the NBA's current ethos. They were stretching and spacing but also bludgeoning and hammering. The perfect miasma of a good-to-great combo guard and two bigs who played stretch-4 and -5 while retaining enough old-school Twin Towers elements to flummox any defense. Now Cousins is out for the year and change with an injury that has a history of limiting and/or destroying careers, specifically those of NBA big men.
Then there's Kristaps Porzingis, who came down on The Greek Freak's foot and will not be returning to the court any time soon. No fan base, especially one as ride-or-die as New York's, should have to go through what Knicks fans have suffered in the Dolan era. Decades of incompetence punctuated by the myriad "almosts" of the Ewing era; Stat punching the fire extinguisher; Phil Jackson's calamitous return. It's been an abject disaster for a long, long time in NYC. And they finally had a glimmer of hope in a transcendent young talent. And that hope was decimated in the space of a few seconds and one fluke play.
It's so fucking cruel and so fucking horrible. For the Knicks and the Pelicans and every basketball fan on earth. Fucking cruel and fucking horrible. All of it.
And then the trade deadline happened.
January-February Cavs panic has been a tradition ever since LeBron came back to Cleveland. It's just a thing we do and then laugh at ourselves later when 'Bron drags another squad back to the Finals. Every year, James and his running mates slog through a malaise and then turn on the jets and decimate everything in their path. This year was the craziest tightrope they've ever walked, and I'm not sure they found their balance again this time. The avalanche of moves Cleveland made did help. It made the team younger and better, and they kept the Brooklyn pick. But damn, it feels like King James might have finally met a situation he can't overcome with his unique and incredible brilliance.
Hanging over all of this is the disappointment Adam Silver has been this season. Silver was hailed as a visionary almost from jump when he took over from David Stern; a man who understood basketball's place in both American and global culture. He was going to shepherd the NBA into the new reality of streaming rights, accessibility, and social activism. He seemed to be analogous to the current Pope Francis in a way, open to dialogue and intent on growing the game while respecting and nurturing the needs and aims of the men who play it. And yet, in a league that has been both historically and recently progressive in its public-facing values, Silver has pulled in the reins at some truly odd inflection points. He issued a statement against kneeling for the National Anthem, despite knowing full well why it was being done in the NFL and also that his league's players and fans would likely have supported what that kneeling represents. On a far, far more trivial note, he also failed to comprehend that the maximum delight fans could mine from the school-yard pick 'em format of this year's All Star Game could only be delivered by a live, televised broadcast of the team selections. The legalized gambling initiative is nice and all, but Silver has still floundered at some key spots.
I have faith that both Silver and the league will get there. I truly do. And this season has not been wholly devoid of things to love and revere and adore and have a good laugh over. Sure, the Warriors still look like an indestructible juggernaut, but Good Gawd: Portland and Denver and Minnesota and Miami and Detroit (especially post-Griffin-trade) and Washington (post-John-Wall-yet-another-cruel-injury-but-they're-fun-anyway) and new-look-Big-3 OKC the Oladipo-powered Pacers and in particular Houston have all been incredibly fun to watch this year. I am delighted to have been wrong about how CP3's game would integrate into the Rockets' offense. Watching that team is pure joy.
This world is so fucked up right now. This country, especially. And the game I hold dearest, even with some of its most prominent voices addressing that fucked-up-ness and advocating for change, still seems to be mirroring both the country and the larger world in which it is played.
It is still, it is always, NBA basketball, and there is not a sports thing on this earth that makes me happier. But it's been a janky, confusing, and somewhat depressing season, and even with the joy and the highlights and everything else to love about this game, it's been strange and disquieting this year. And I can't help but hope. I hope things will be less cruel, less disjointed, less strange in the future. I hope things will maybe get a little better for everyone.
Saturday, January 6, 2018
My father to this day still carries some Gophers and Badgers pride, but he also fell in love with the whole ethos of College Football Down South. (I'll say right now that it does not "just mean more" and every eye roll tossed in the direction of Southerners who get puffy in the chest about this is not entirely undeserved. But there is something unique and sacred about fall Saturdays where I'm from. It's something to do with religion and regional sensibilities and no small amount of bullshit, but it is most definitely a very real and powerful thing that hangs in the air and grabs you by the throat and fills an impressionable youth up with reverence and joy.) So dad got into Georgia Tech since they were based in Atlanta, but also Ole Miss and South Carolina in addition to his Big 10 roots.
I had to find the Dawgs on my own.
Born two years after their last National Championship and barely cognizant of the larger world when Vince Dooley left the head coaching seat at UGA, my earliest memories of Georgia football are a hazy mix of pretty-good-to-somewhat-indifferent seasons. But I loved everything about the Bulldogs immediately. The red and black, the hedges at Sanford Stadium, the fact that they were the namesake university of my home state. Maybe more resonant than anything was the legend of Herschel Walker. Herschel is still the God-King of all UGA alums, but my Midwestern family also adored him for the years he spent wrecking shop running the ball for the Minnesota Vikings, so the connection was doubly deepened. Somehow, the history and deep love of those early 80s teams sank in bone-deep, enough to sustain it through years of Joe Cox, etc. In a world filled with team after team of abject mediocrity (Braves, Falcons) and too-close heartbreak (the transcendent 'Nique-era Hawks), the Dawgs were the one sports thing I didn't share with anyone else in my family. They were my own little world; a love of my birthplace that I could feel and share with other Georgians, but not my own kith and kin. It wasn't a treasured secret exactly, but it was a touchstone to something deep and personal that came out of the red Georgia clay and got inside my soul.
Far From Home, Remembering Larry Munson.
Amanda Mull recently wrote a BEAUTIFUL PIECE about finding a Georgia bar in New York City. A lot of it deals with finding "home" in a place where you can't imagine anything close existing. I went to college at a tiny school in Minnesota (Shouts to Carleton, go Knights!) and spent the three years after graduation living in Minneapolis. There wasn't a Georgia bar there, but I briefly converted one table of one bar into a facsimile on November 20, 2011. Liquor Lyles sits on Hennepin Avenue in the Uptown Triangle. It was not a place we frequented much, since there were plenty of bars in Uptown and a lot of them were a lot closer to where we all lived, but me and a few Carleton alums had decided to pub crawl that night, so we were there when I saw the news. It was my turn to get the next round of beers, and I was at the bar when it flashed across the ESPN ticker on the TV: Larry Munson had passed away. I immediately tacked a round of Jack Daniels onto the order, and brought everything back to our table. I then tried to explain, with tears in my eyes, what had happened and why it mattered so much. In many ways, Larry was Georgia football. Dawgs fans refer to a number of significant moments in the program's history by Munson's radio calls. "My God, a freshman!" ... "Run, Lindsay, Run" ... "The Hobnail Boot Game". We remember things through his lens, his words, his eccentric and perfect sense of the moment. I completely failed to articulate any of that to my friends, but somehow they understood anyway. Bless them, they got it, even if the particulars eluded them. A million miles from home, with my friends who couldn't have given a damn about college football, we raised our glasses and slammed shots down for a legend. I've thought about Larry Munson a lot watching this Georgia season. I don't know what his calls would have been for the Tennessee game or the SEC Championship or Sony Michel's OT touchdown in the Rose Bowl, but I know they would have been perfect. It's a damn shame he's not here to see it.
Mama Called. Twice.
I'll raise my hand and admit it: I was not overly keen on the Kirby Smart hire. When Georgia fired Mark Richt, I understood the move, but the justifications didn't make me any less sad to see him cut loose. Directly after his termination, our long-time coach went back to his alma mater, where he just finished up an extremely Richt season by leading a kick-ass, fun as hell Miami team to a less than brilliant finish. Georgia brought in alum (and then-Alabama Defensive Coordinator) Kirby Smart to take the reins. Ever since Nick Saban got the Tide rolling again to an absurdly consistent level of joyless dominance, programs in the SEC have hired what Spencer Hall refers to as "Nick Saban's Large Adult Sons", a crop of former 'Bama assistants whom they hoped would bring some of the winning magic in Tuscaloosa to their schools. It hasn't gone well. At all. Yet somehow, Georgia managed to get the only one of that group who was worth anything. (Though, in grudging fairness, Will Muschamp appears to have turned his second shot at an HC gig into something decent and moving in a positive direction at South Carolina.)
Kirby Smart has turned Georgia into 'Bama East in a remarkably short amount of time. You can look at the insane recruiting classes he's already pulling in, or the cultural shift in the whole operation, or this magical season in particular, but by any measure the Dawgs are ahead of schedule. Like Dante in "Clerks", we're not even supposed to be here today. But we are.
Lightning In A Mason Jar.
You could back a dump truck of sports writing cliches up to this Georgia season and just pour the whole thing out. The seniors, at no small risk to their future pro careers, came back for unfinished business. The plucky freshman QB who wasn't even supposed to be starting came into his own. The bespectacled folk hero kicker knocked 'em home when we most needed it. The two hackneyed phrases that keep sticking in my mind are these:
"You can't make this stuff up."
"This is like something from a movie."
Both are true this year. You can make this stuff up and it is out of a movie. But it's a particular type of movie. Not just a movie, not even just a sports movie, but specifically a sports movie whose target demographic is between five and twelve years of age.
Think of a kid drawing a spaceship for a second. Is that child drawing just a few lasers on the thing? No, they're drawing a spaceship with ALL OF THE LASERS. It looks absurd there on the paper, but much of the beauty of children's stock-and-trade, which is wonder and imagination, lies in the hyperbole. That's why when they make sports movies marketed to kids, it can't ever be just "oh a good, fun team had a good, fun season." The protagonists have to beat the most dominant, most evil team in the finale. They have to have the craziest, most improbable season and last game. They have to break records and make history. It has to be the first of something ever. It has to be the best ever. That's what makes it special and great and magical. And that's been Georgia football in 2017.
It wasn't just that we played in the hallowed shadow of Notre Dame, it's that we'd never played there before. And then we invaded South Bend and beat the Irish on their turf. It's not that we went out and beat all our traditional rivals, it's that we completely decimated them. (We emptied an entire closet full of Hobnail Boots on Tennessee's head in Knoxville, y'all.) All those heroic movie teams have to have their moment of adversity, and that was the first Auburn game. The Tigers flat-out smoked us. It was brutal to watch. But then came the poetic hitch: plenty of one-loss teams have won National Titles, but how many got to avenge that solitary L head-to-head in the same season and on a tremendously important stage? Georgia did that. They did it with that true freshman QB and those running backs who came back even though they easily could have gone pro and the God of Thunder named Roquan Smith stacking fools up and wrecking the best laid plans of all comers' offenses and Hot Rod booting the hell out of the ball. And they did it with Kirby Smart, the one apple who somehow fell close enough to the Saban coaching tree to be ruthless and brilliant, but far enough away to maintain some joy and personality and reckless glee as he does his job. (More about this from Will Leitch HERE.)
Let's take one more moment to think about the Rose Bowl, the most perfect exemplar of this kids movie out-sized narrative imaginable. In any other circumstance, neither Georgia or Oklahoma would even have been in Pasadena. Because of conference affiliations, non-B1G and Pac 12 schools literally have to make the Playoff in a year where the Rose Bowl has fallen into a Playoff spot in the New Years Six rotation, then get seeded into that particular game to play in College Football's most historically prestigious event. But we got there. Both schools had only played in the event once before. Even more unbelievably, despite being about as Blue-Blood as you can get in college football, they had somehow never played each other even once. This despite Georgia launching a football program in 1892 and Oklahoma in 1895.
Then the actual game happened. This was overkill, even going by the "kids sports movie" narrative. It couldn't just be these two improbable teams meeting for the first time in the most prestigious and beautiful stadium in the game. It had to be the highest scoring, longest field goal, biggest comeback, first ever overtime game in the history of the Rose Bowl. Every conceivable record was broken under that perfect sunset and in the shadow of those picturesque mountains. And when Sony Michel took that direct snap out of the Wild Dawg formation and Jake Fromm sprung him with that block ... I lost my mind. I think everyone watching did, even those with no loyalties at stake. By any measure, this was one of the greatest college football games ever played. It doesn't matter if you're a Dawg or a Sooner or a nondenominational viewer. Years from now, people will be talking about what we watched on New Years Day, 2018.
Love And Basketball.
I moved to Chapel Hill for my fiancee. Aggie hails form a family of die-hard North Carolina fans, and she couldn't bear to leave this place that I've now grown to love deeply and fiercely. Honestly, though I've only been a handful of times for games, it's a lot like Athens here, y'all. We made a deal when I moved in: I embrace UNC hoops, she embraces UGA football. (The first year of this arrangement, Carolina went 11-1 and came within a botched onside kick officiating call of knocking off Clemson in the ACC Title Game. Georgia had an underwhelming season and fired Mark Richt. So, you know, that went well.) Anyway, I've run the full gamut of emotions with the Tar Heels in a very short time. I watched Villanova's Kris Jenkins bury the dagger jumper against the Heels in the NCAA Championship game in 2016, just after Marcus Paige rose up through traffic and hit one of the most insane shots I've ever seen. I cried. I felt desolate. I kept thinking of Aggie's father who, like me, married into UNC fandom. After Carolina took a crushing loss to Marquette in the 1977 Title Game, Eli reportedly turned to her mother Susan and asked: "Does it always hurt this much?" Susan's reply: "No, honey, sometimes it hurts much worse than this." Incidentally, that game took place in Atlanta. A year later, I watched Joel Berry and company cut the nets down, as absolutely overjoyed as a person can be. This was special. In between 2016's misery and 2017's ecstacy, I watched the Falcons blow the 28-3 lead in the Super Bowl, another crushing defeat in a long sad history of Georgia sports heartbreak. (Also incidentally, both the 2016 Carolina loss and that Super Bowl were in NRG Stadium, which is cursed and should be destroyed.)
I mention all this to bring up the superstitions Aggie and her family have built up around Tar Heel basketball, and how resonant they've been watching Georgia this year. Before Carolina won the Title last year, they played Indiana in a regular season game. We'd been out running errands and stopped to pick up take out on our way home. When we turned the game on, the Heels were up big. Then things started going wrong. By the end, they had utterly imploded. Aggie didn't watch the next three games, because if your team fails when you start watching, you have to look away until they can win again.
We're getting married on the beach in April, so this past fall we took a trip down there to meet with vendors and so on. We got back late Saturday night and turned on the Georgia/Mississippi State game. The Dawgs were up 14-0 when we flipped on the TV. The first play we watched, Jake Fromm threw a dart over the middle to D'Andre Swift, who promptly fumbled the ball back to Mississippi State. Aggie's head snapped around, the superstition kicking in: "Turn it off right now. You know I'm right." We did. And the Dawgs whooped Clanga's ass for the remainder of the game.
Another superstition: ironing during games is good luck. Eli and Aggie have both saved some ironing for particularly important Saturdays this season, and it has obviously helped. (PS - Eli's family contains plenty of Dawg fans, so the whole cross-pollination of fandom thing is working out well.)
Parades I Hope We Don't Need.
We have one more game to play, and it's as loaded with those same kids sports movie narratives as all the rest of the season. Alabama, college football's evil empire of soulless dominance, is waiting. Here come more first time ever's, and more gotta-beat-the-best-most-evil-team-to-win moments. Stop me if you've heard this before, but no former Nick Saban assistant has ever beaten beaten him head-to-head as a head coach. Furthermore, we have the weight of the 2012 SEC Championship on us, when we lost to 'Bama by coming up 5 yards short in one of the most dramatic games I've ever seen. That game was played in the Falcons' stadium in Atlanta. This one will be too. On top of all that is something that just hit me the other day: The Crimson Tide began the year by knocking FSU's heralded starting quarterback out for the year in the season's opening game. Georgia also lost their QB in game 1. FSU cratered. The Dawgs transcended to this improbable date with destiny. All season long, Dawg fans have referred to it as the Revenge Tour. Every major rival, be it Florida or Tennessee or Georgia Tech or (eventually in Round 2) Auburn, we've smoked the teams that have historically stood in our way. Now we get 'Bama. Not only did they obliterate us on our home field in 2015, but that 2012 game was an existential and program-defining loss. It got Mark Richt fired. It broke our hearts. Five. Friggin'. Yards. Short. And it wasn't losing the game itself; not really. It was knowing that Notre Dame was waiting, and knowing that had we somehow managed to win, we would have destroyed the Irish almost as thoroughly as Alabama did. And we would have won the National Championship.
But it didn't happen, and so here we are now. And I have one ask; for myself and all the other Dawg fans out there. Whatever happens, remember this season. Remember this moment, with the Rose Bowl just behind us and the possibility of Monday still ahead and undecided. SETH EMERSON and WILL LEITCH have both made cases about this already. They rightly implore us to remember that in sports, we're always one bad bounce or fluke play away from misery. So we should treasure what we have right here and now.
A few weeks ago, the WAITIN' SINCE LAST SATURDAY PODCAST compared this Georgia football season to the 1991 Braves. While Georgia didn't suddenly climb out of the basement like that team did, they have done something truly remarkable and special this season. I've been thinking about that comparison a lot, not just for the aptness of it (and hopefully it won't have the same ending), but for what happened afterwards. The Braves lost the '91 World Series, one of the best sporting events I've ever seen, in a heartbreaking game seven. When they flew home, we threw them a parade. Mom pulled me and some friends out of school to attend. We lost, but that team had given us so much joy and hope and Atlanta's teams had collectively been so awful that the whole city turned out just to thank them for being special and magical and getting so close.
I'm not saying there should be a parade in Athens if we lose Monday Night. The whole point of firing Richt and hiring Kirby was to avoid that stuff. But in the same way we loved and revered that team, let's never forget what this meant. If 'Bama wins, if Kirby's tenure never turns into the thing we hope it will, we have to remember the magic of this year. We have to treasure it, because it's been an incredible journey and it may never happen again.
Likewise, if the Dawgs can do this thing, if we pull it out, we have to remember this too. How perfect and improbable and great it all was. We want to beat 'Bama, but let's never BECOME 'Bama. Let us not turn into the monsters we abhor. In 2001, every sports fan in the world was awed by the underdog Patriots beating The Greatest Show On Turf. In 2004, we were all absolutely thrilled for the Red Sox. Now, think of how insufferable Boston fans have become. (To be fair, I lived in Boston for five years and have many dear friends who love those teams, but most of their fans are still assholes.) Alabama is the same thing. Even though we brought Kirby to Athens with the expressed purpose of replicating that success, let's never become the entitled, hateful fans it brings. Let us remember the lean years and retain some humility. Let us never become that which we despise. Let us never poison trees or talk needless shit to other fans. If this is the beginning of a dynasty at Georgia, let us be grateful and sing Glory Glory, but never forget how hard it was to get here or how easily we can slide back.
As I write this, the Falcons are playing in the Wild Card game, trying to replicate the beauty of last year. A beauty that ended in heartbreak. That's how thin the margin is. So win or lose, let us keep watching this Georgia team and all the teams that will come after it in the same way Annie Savoy described her team in Bull Durham and the same way Kirby coaches: "With joy and verve and poetry." Let us never, ever forget what this feels like.
Monday, May 29, 2017
One of the most enticing elements of sports is the limitless potential for argument and debate it affords us. Who ya got? Brady or Montana? Wilt or Russell? Bryant or Saban? Maddux, Kershaw, Larsen, Koufax, Catfish, Nolan Ryan, The Big Unit, King Felix? We can argue about this stuff all day and well into the night and never actually hit on a definitive answer. The fun is embedded in the discourse. It depends on the perspective and age of the participants, and is a reliably gratifying way to pass the time when we want to hop down a rabbit hole for a while. In my recollection, there are only two legacies we collectively, as a sports-fan culture, never imagined being in doubt (or my generation didn't, anyway): Gretzky and Jordan. I still don't think anyone has or ever will touch The Great One, but the people who grew up watching Bobby Orr probably said the same thing. And that's why the whole mechanism of sports and generational shift and counting stats vs. advanced metrics and all the rest of it is so great. I can, and have, had the Orr/Gretzky debate with an octogenarian Bruins fan in a bar, and we both came away agreeing to disagree but respecting the other's side of the argument.
But then there's the Jordan thing, which that's been kicking up again recently, as the Cavs chase their second title in as many years and they prepare to square off against possibly the greatest collection of talent in basketball history: Is LeBron better than Michael?
I believe the question has already been answered. Twice, in fact. I believe, and the answer will never change, no matter what happens in this year's NBA Finals or the rest of King James' career, that this is the truth: LeBron James is the single best basketball player I've ever seen, but Michael Jordan is the greatest basketball player of all time. And I believe that both of those things can be true and exist simultaneously.
Let's get into this, and I'm not using numbers or metrics here, because looking at either of their career stats (not to mention LeBron's career is far from over) is like drops of water in the ocean or angels dancing on a pinhead. Everything is going to boggle your mind either way. King James just surpassed Jordan on the playoff all-time scoring list. Where do we go with that? What, if anything, does it signify about them as players? (And I am an avowed stats nerd, but I do think at a certain point when you get to this level of genius the numbers are so outlandish that comparisons, especially when adjusted for era and pace of play etc. don't yield all that much from a raw statistical standpoint.) In other words, this breakdown means nothing, it is not honest journalism or coherent in any way. As I said, this is a thought that's just been kicking around my brain, and I am writing from my gut, and if I were better or smarter or less drunk I'd go to Basketball Reference and back it all up with numbers, but I'm not because: turning brain off. So: The LeBron/Jordan Debate in my entirely subjective mind:
This goes to Jordan, and it's not close. They were equally destructive and dominant driving into the lane, dunking all over fools and crushing everything in their path. But the hitch for 'Bron lies in the jump shot. LeBron's jumper has gone through several iterations, but every few years it inexplicably goes into a backslide where that horrendous and not-very-effective fall-away comes back and he just doesn't look right out there. I'd like to think he's fixed it for good this year, but his shooting goes through such random hot-cold streaks that I can't be certain. Jordan, by contrast, came into the league with a textbook jump shot, the kind of thing you'd teach on an instructional video. He spent his career adding little pre-shot tricks and gimmicks to make it unguardable. The feints and leans and jab steps, the turn-arounds and step-backs; MJ built his game to confuse and destroy defenders, and later to ward off the ravages of time. And to continue decimating anyone in his path. Like an offensive coordinator in football, he disguised his intent by calling the same play out of different formations time and time again. He could keep on using the same pristine weapon as long as he initially masked it well enough, and he kept on wrecking shop even when his body had betrayed him and he couldn't elevate as high or hang in the air as long.
I want to get this up front: Michael Jordan was a superb passer; it is possibly the most underrated part of his game, historically speaking. But Jordan did not have the court vision or the passing facility LeBron does. LBJ sees the court in a way very few ever have, and his mental supercomputer operates on a level we mortals can't really comprehend. The geometry of the floor, the spacing and timing, it's all one giant erector set to LeBron. He's just putting the pieces together the way he wants, mining efficacy and elegance out of the building blocks more deftly than Jordan ever could. Look, Jordan was an absolute GOD in every way; he was always playing the chess game three steps ahead of everyone else. Even writing this last LBJ-y paragraph has felt a little like heresy. But also this: where MJ was three steps ahead, LeBron has already tipped your king over on the board and called "checkmate." He can run point, pass out of the post, whip it across the floor in transition, dump pocket passes no one else can see ... he knows exactly where every teammate needs to catch the ball to get their best, quickest shot off, and he gets it to them in that precise location. Every time. He finds the gradient of any defense and shades and probes against it until something advantageous opens up and then he either does the damage himself or executes the most perfect pass imaginable. As a passer, Jordan was very, very good, but LeBron is transcendent.
I'm just calling this a wash. LeBron has significantly more from a numbers perspective, but he's never played with someone like Dennis Rodman who gobbled up the boards at such an obscene clip that Jordan never had to carry that same responsibility. Look, if you told either LeBron or MJ they needed to grab all the rebounds humanly possible to win a game, they'd both do it. LeBron might have a slight edge on sheer size, but again: he's never played with anyone close to The Worm. Draw.
I feel the need to keep emphasizing this: My aim here is not to denigrate Jordan in any way. MJ was one of the most murderous, absolutely perfect and intractable isolation lock-down defenders I've ever seen. You told him to shut someone down, he went out and did it ... within reason. But there's a difference in pure genetics and biology and understanding of the game that can't be ignored here. Jordan could guard just about anybody one-on-one, but LeBron is built like a linebacker with the speed and physicality to match and he can shut literally anyone down in a way Jordan's frame never aloud him to inside. The quickest most compact and powerful perimeter guys have as little a chance as the the burliest big men against LeBron. And there's something else too: Jordan was never the best help defender. There are unquestionably some aspects in which the game has shifted from a tactical perspective from 1998 to now, but the same omniscient court sense that makes LeBron a better passer than Jordan informs his defensive instincts as well. (Again: maybe this isn't totally fair to Jordan. He had Scottie Pippen, maybe the most versatile and tenacious defensive basketball player ever, on his team. MJ was never asked to guard 1-thtough-5 or defensivley rotate around the floor several times on a single possession as James routinely does, both because the game didn't work that way and because he already had the guy that could do it for him.) But overall, in terms of size and bulk and speed and instincts, LeBron is just better.
This is another category that maybe isn't completely fair to Jordan but even adjusting for that still tilts in LeBron's favor. There is no way in hell Jordan could have slid to the four in those small-ball Heat lineups with Bosh at center and played sustained minutes there. LeBron is the only human, alive or dead, who could play four (or five) positions if necessary at both ends and make it work, let alone excel as he has. Jordan is the most perfect 2 Guard who ever lived, and he could paly other positions when needed, but LBJ is on a different level in this regard. This is not a Once-In-A-Generation talent we're watching. It's a Once-In-Several-Lifetimes-If-Ever-Again thing.
THE ERA DISCUSSION
I can't recall for certain, but I think this argument (which is not wrong) started popping up around 2009 or 2010, when Kobe really started submitting his post-Shaq Alpha Dog resume and D-Wade was at the absolute peak oh his powers. It only intensified once the league fully embraced a wide-open game and maximizing the efficacy of shot selection and 3-and-D guys and so on. It goes like this: "If you unleashed MJ in the pace-and-space era with the changes in hand-check rules, he would absolutely murder the league." And that's probably right. We're talking unfathomably catastrophic numbers. 50 a game? 60? Jordan would have looked at Steph Curry draining 35-footers, calmly said "shit, I can do that too", then gone into a gym in the summer and made it so. Of course he would have. Here's the thing: no one talks about the other side of that coin. Put LeBron James in the Bully Ball Era in your mind. Picture LeBron, after taking a couple of hard fouls from the Bad Boy Pistons, just pissed-off and furious and turnt as hell screaming down the lane with a full head of rivet-busting steam. Is there anyone from that late-80s/early 90s era that has a remote prayer of stopping him? Naw, we put 'Bron in that time in NAB history, and we're still paying archeologists to dig pieces of Bill Laimbeer's skull out of the court. And if he couldn't get into the lane, he'd start spraying passes around, or settle on the low block and just roast-n-toast anyone trying to guard him. He would have WRECKED. SHOP. ON. EVERYONE.
LeBron James is the single best basketball I have ever seen in my lifetime. The most versatile, most perfect, most complete, most jaw-dropping athlete I have ever watched do anything. To reiterate a little more forcefully, LEBRON IS THE BEST BASKETBALL PLAYER THIS PLANET HAS EVER SEEN. Again , and I have to keep saying AGAIN, and again and again and again, I am not disrespecting Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Because:
As I mentioned up top, there is a line of demarcation we need to draw here. There is all-caps "BEST" and there is all-caps "GREATEST" and they are related but distinctly different taxonomies and we can ascribe different attributes to them without tarnishing or diminishing the legacy or either. We've made this mistake where either LBJ overtakes MJ or he doesn't, and this determination is fueled by some semi-randomized amalgamation of career stats and titles and moments. I think the categories are different and we can celebrate both and "LeBron Vs. Jordan" actually has two different answers. LeBron is, as I have said (and please fell free to disagree), the best basketball player I have ever seen. He is not, and will never be, The Greatest.
It is literally impossible to overstate Michael Jeffrey Jordan as a both cultural entity at large and an international and universal envoy of basketball in particular. Bird and Magic saved/resurrected the league when it was at a precipice and threatening to fall into oblivion. Jordan catapulted it into the forefront of American and, shortly thereafter, global consciousness. The sheer totemic awesomeness of Jordan at the peek of his powers will never be duplicated. He was an entity that defied context, denied a box of historical context or import. Grab anyone from my generation (or the one immediately preceding it) at a bar and start singing "Sometimes I dream that he is me ... " and they'll finish the lyric. The absolute earth-shaking totality of Jordan eclipsed and obliterated everything else. Nobody could do what he did, the way that he did it. Where Jordan really tops 'Bron, and everyone else for that matter, is the raw cradle of intensity within his chest, aided and abetted by his sheer athletic virtuosity. He was a badass and swaggering and arrogant as all hell, and he gave zero fucks how good you thought you were or had been, he was going to destroy you. Look at this:
I think maybe part of MJ's overwhelming presence and adoration was tied to a lack of access. We couldn't know his flaws and foibles and all the other mundane things that make everyone human at the end of the day because there wasn't an outlet delivering those elements to us. All the less-than-pleasant MJ stuff that cane out in "The Jordan Rules" did not have the combustibility of the internet behind it, so we kind of collectively ignored it. We can parse LeBron on far finer terms, with far greater scrutiny. But even so, there was something about watching Jordan rip through the league with his unprecedented amalgamation of charisma and swagger and absolute brilliance that transcends everything LeBron has ever done or will ever do. You can count all the stats and all the Ringzzzz (though if Ringzzz are your primary metric then Bill Russell settled this whole thing before Jordan was even born) but ultimately I think Jordan was The Greatest. And it's because he transcended everything else and gave us the truest, most visceral iteration of basketball as both game and emblematic cultural touchstone we're ever going to see. LeBron is the best I've ever seen. Jordan is still the GOAT.
Saturday, January 28, 2017
It seems ludicrous now, but at the time, Nowitzki and the Mavs had a something of a playoff monkey on their backs. "He's too soft." "They can't ever win the games that matter," etc, etc. After years as one of the best players in the game working with a top-echelon head coach in Rick Carlisle and usually a decent supporting cast, popular opinion had preemptively put Dirk in the Barkley/Ewing drawer of the NBA history file cabinet: all-time great player, never crossed that last Rubicon to get a 'Chip.
Then the playoffs started, and everything fell into place. The Mavs easily dispatched an undermanned Blazers team in Round 1. (Though we did get The Brandon Roy Game, one of my favorite moments of all time as a basketball fan.) They obliterated the Lakers in a sweep, and headed to the Western Conference Finals to face the Thunder.
And hey, let's take a second to contemplate the favors Memphis did for the Mavs in those playoffs: First, they pulled off an incredible upset of the Spurs in Round 1 so Dallas wouldn't have to face them later. I will never forget Z-Bo standing on the court after it was over, soaking in the love of an arena and a city that had finally given him an NBA home. Then, Grit'N'Grind spent seven games bludgeoning the Thunder within an inch of their lives, giving Dallas an exhausted, beaten-down opponent to go against for a shot at the finals. I mean, damn did the Griz do Dirk and co. a few solids there.
The Mavs were on a genuine lightning-in-a-bottle run, the kind that comes around for a team rarely if ever. Before the Dallas-OKC series tipped, it felt like something was creeping into their collective ethos; an all-consuming realization and resolve: "We'd better finish this. We'd better get this shit done now." Because when were they getting a shot like this ever again? Would the the match-ups break this fortuitously next time? Would this core of players even be around next year? (Spoiler alert: no, and NEVER EVER ask a Mavs fan how they feel about the way their front office handled things after that season if you value your eardrums.) Maybe most importantly, would they ever again have the benefit of J.J. Barea playing outside his damn mind for an entire postseason? (Again: no.)
Anyway, Dallas took care of the Thunder in five games and headed to the NBA Finals to face the first edition of The Heatles. It was almost too perfect. Miami had beaten the Mavs in their only other Finals appearance, which you may better remember as The Great Officiating Debacle Of 2006. The talent disparity was comical. Dirk is a transcendent player and he had some outstanding running mates, but the Heat should have overwhelmed them with sheer versatility and speed. Instead, Dallas finished their magical run with a 4-2 series victory, culminating in an exodus of Heat fans leaving the arena before Game Six was done, a delirious and joyful Dirk hoisting the trophy, and a very drunk Mark Cuban appearing on TV shortly thereafter to declare of Mavs supporters flooding the Triple A: "Our fans punked the shit outta their fans!"
This Falcons season kind of has that feel to it. Here they are headed to their second championship shot ever, just like the 2011 Mavs. Like that team, they lost their first one. (Though, there was no shady officiating in that game, just the fact that we had Chris Chandler at quarterback and Denver had John F****** Elway.) Like Dallas and Dirk, Atlanta and Matt Ryan also have that "can't win when it counts" label hanging around their necks. They've had a similar spate of luck, too. After going 15-1 the preceding season, Carolina was a trash fire this year, opening the door to the NFC South. The Birds caught a Seattle team with no Earl Thomas and whose offensive line was basically pasteboard and duct tape in the divisional round of the playoffs. They drew a banged-up Packers team in the NFC Championship Game and torched them like the Mavs torched OKC. And now they have to go toe-to-toe with the Pats.
Atlanta's offense has been unstoppable this season; a history-making death machine destroying everything in their path. By the numbers, they're nearly identical to the "Greatest Show On Turf" Rams. But do you remember who the Brady/Belichick Patriots beat to win their first Super Bowl? Yeah, that Rams team. Bill Belichick is an asshole, but he's also the greatest tactician in NFL history, and if anyone can find a way to undermine the Falcons' offensive dynamism, it's him. On the other side of the ball, Atlanta's defense has come a long way this year, but asking them to stop Tom Brady (even without Gronk) is a damned tall order. But we have to. The offense has to hum and growl like a muscle car with an open throttle, as it has all year. The defense has to be the fast, chaotic entity it has become. No one can slip up, no one can falter. Because the Patriots have proven over and over that they will absolutely murder you for even your tiniest mistake. Because look:
Will we be this healthy again next playoffs? Will we be this lucky? Will whoever comes in as OC after Kyle Shanahan takes the 49s gig sequence plays and utilize personnel as brilliantly? "Probably not" to the first two questions and "not a chance in hell" to the third.
So this is the shot. This is moment. Dallas showed us all how this works in 2011. Jesus, I hope Dan Quinn's an NBA fan.
Sunday, January 22, 2017
By mutual agreement, only one thing escaped the great purge: Our respective collections of commemorative stadium drink cups. For Ags, this means truckloads from every athletic venue on UNC's campus and a bunch of Orioles swag. For me, it's mostly Braves cups from the 1991 worst-to-first team all the way up through 1998, and a handful from some other baseball stadiums I've visited. There's also one from the old Omni that a: has the home schedules for both the Hawks and my (beloved and dearly departed) IHL Atlanta Knights and b: you can't even drink out of anymore because there is a huge crack in the bottom but I'm keeping it anyway. And there's the one pictured above, from the Georgia Dome's first season in 1992.
Over the last 24 years, The Dome has been a fixture in Atlanta, that distinctive geodesic roof as essential to the skyline as the Peachtree Plaza. And mostly, it has been a home for misery and mediocrity. In honor of tonight's final game in the building, SportsCenter ran a special Top 10 dedicated to moments in the Georgia Dome. It was ... not pretty, if you're a fan of sports in the Peach State. There were highlights from the Final Fours the Dome has hosted. There was Kerri Strug sticking the one-foot vault landing in the 1996 Olympics. There was a Wrestlemania clip. And then, there were highlights of bad things happening to our teams. There was Neon Deion, beloved former Falcon and Brave, returning in a 49ers jersey and taking one to the house against us. There was the 2012 NFC Championship Game collapse the Falcons suffered (also against San Francisco, who may very well pull off a hat trick of pain if they steal Falcons offensive guru Kyle Shanahan away after the season is over. Damn you, Niners.) There were the Bulldogs, coming up five yards short against 'Bama in the SEC Championship game. (Which, yes, it's a divided state and I know Tech fans delighted in this, but I'm just talking about teams within the geographic confines of our borders.) Watching all of this in rapid succession was awful. Not only were they replaying some of our lowest moments as fans, there wasn't one damn happy memory to balance it out.
Then tonight happened. I spent the game drinking out of that cup in the picture up top. I drank the last of the bourbon out of it. I drank a few beers out of it. I'm drinking very cheap red wine out of it as I write this. It seemed appropriate to celebrate the Dome's last game with a relic from its first. And the Falcons. My lord. I think it's fair to say no one saw that coming. The offense has been historically brilliant all year, just staggering in their excellence and consistency. The defense has evolved, even after losing Desmond Trufant, into something of a respectable unit. And what they just did to a smokin' hot Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers was phenomenal beyond words. The most terrifying QB in the NFL, a superhuman demigod running an offense that had obliterated everything in their path and had Jordy Nelson back, and Atlanta shut that mess down. Just absolutely destroyed the Packers on both sides of the ball. A complete, utter, gleeful ass kicking. Abd it still never felt safe until the clock finally hit zeros.
I won't speak for all Falcons fans, but even after pitching a shutout on defense and blowing the doors off on the other side of the ball, I went into halftime remembering 2012. And everything else this franchise has been through. I have dear friends and some family members who are Packers fans, and I have friends who root for different teams altogether, and all of them were texting me or messaging me about midway through the third quarter that it was over. I didn't buy it. Intrinsic fear and doubt, honed over decades of futility, are tough to shake. But in the end, we DESTROYED the Packers, just completely torched them, whistle to whistle.
The Dome has housed nearly everything over its existence. Concerts, soccer, the Olympics, even the Hawks while they transitioned from the Omni to Philips Arena. But mostly, that distinctive, memorable roof has rested over the Falcons, in all their myriad failures and brief successes. (For all of our historical inepititude, never forget that this building birthed the Dirty Bird '98 season and some legitimately insane Vick performances and the Matty Ice era.)
Tonight was the last of it, at least where sports are concerned. There are a handful of concerts scheduled to take place before the lights go out and the concourses are silent and The Dome ceases to be a place people go to experience memorable events. But damn if we didn't send it out in style. The demolition is scheduled for sometime later this year, but that doesn't matter right now. The Falcons already gave the Georgia Dome its perfect ending: they burned that motherfucker down.
Monday, January 16, 2017
Sorting Hat: "So, you've recently won another playoff game against an extremely talented Cowboys team, on the road and without your favorite safety-valve receiver. Such a daring, thrilling victory bespeaks courage, bravery, and the willingness to battle to achieve your goals. Probably a Gryff--"
Rodgers: "Look, I'm more than just crunch-time guts, OK, guy?"
Sorting Hat: "My mistake, let's see ... what else? AH, played for one team your entire career thus far, constantly making your teammates better, loyal, the engine and soul of your team ... A Hufflepu--"
Rodgers: "You know, I think that doesn't really capture my full, complex nature, either."
Sorting Hat: "You're right, of course. Hmmmm ... a ruthless competitor, cunning, ambitious. How could I have missed it?!?!? You're a Slyth---"
Rodgers: "Oh come on, don't lump me in with those assholes."
Sorting Hat: "OK, OK, fine. What else about you ... WAIT HOLY CRAP YOU JUST DREW THAT JORDAN COOK PLAY THAT SET UP THE WINNING FIELD GOAL UP IN THE DIRT? LIKE, LITERALLY IN THE HUDDLE?!?!?! Such brilliant planning! Such intelligence and creativity! Why didn't I see it before????"
Rodgers: "Look, can we wrap this up? I have to go break down some film for next week."
Sorting Hat: "Ahem, yes. As I was saying, Ravencl--"
Sorting Hat: "Nope? You can't nope out of that, pal. It's the last house left."
Rodgers: "Yeah, but I am everything you've said all at once. I'm courageous and ruthless and loyal and brilliant. I'm all of that. I'm not trying to brag, it's just true."
Sorting Hat: "I see your point. Well, if I can't put you in a house, I'm not really sure what to do here."
Rodgers (taking off his robes, and walking towards the doors): "It's OK. I already used all my quills and parchment for the whole semester diagramming every possible way to dismantle the Falcons, so I couldn't take any notes in class anyway. I should probably just go. Can someone do me a solid and apparate me back to Green Bay? No? Can I borrow the cabinet thingy in the Room of Requirement and at least get back to that creepy shop in Diagon Alley? I can book a flight home from London."
Dumbledore: "So, what exactly just happened there?"
Sorting Hat: "He was too good at everything to put him in a single house. Sorry, I just had no idea what to do with they guy. Which, by the by, maybe we stop making houses so defined by specific traits that would obviously make people of certain dispositions want to choose one over the others? There's gotta be a better way to do this, right?"
Dumbledore: "You may be right, I shall consider it. Still, I hate losing such a promising talent as that boy."
Sorting Hat: "Don't worry about it. Did you see that Hail Mary to end the first half of the Detroit game? That guy is definitely a fucking wizard."