Saturday, January 28, 2017

Blueprint: The 2011 Mavs, The 2017 Falcons, And The Lessons I Hope We Learned

We're a week from the Super Bowl , and I can't stop thinking about the 2011 Dallas Mavericks.  The Mavs had an extremely quirky, deeply enjoyable roster that season.  There were the geezers (The Matrix, Jet, J-Kidd), the good players slotting into perfect roles (Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea), some odd castoffs (DeShawn Stevenson, Brendan Haywood, Ian Mahinmi, Brain Cardinal), and a delightful mix of little-used spare parts (Peja, Sasha Pavlovic, Tuff Juice, Corey Brewer, Alexis Ajinca, Steve Novak, Roddy Beaubois, Dominique Jones). And of course, Dirk Freakin' Nowitzki.  Dallas racked up 57 wins, wound up a 3-seed going into the playoffs, and nobody really gave them much of a shot.  Not with the juggernaut Spurs and the Kobe/Phil Lakers and the young core in OKC in the mix. 

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

Farewell To The Dome.

Two years ago to the day, I moved in with my then girlfriend, now fiance.  (PS - I am the luckiest human and have no idea why she puts up with me.) As the boxes were being unpacked, we had the same conversation that people moving in together have had since time immemorial: "What the hell are we gonna do with all this stuff?" Two people who have been living independently and are now suddenly not means you're going to have, at a minimum, two of just about everything. Did we need three stock pots? No, we did not need three stock pots. Two complete sets of dishes?  Like, eight ladles and spatulas? Nope, nope, nope. Over the next several weeks, the local PTA thrift store hit the mother load of things we had to discard.  A full compliment of cooking necessities, dishes, and flatware. Boxes upon boxes of duplicate books. And lamps. So, so, so many fucking lamps.  

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

Aaron Rodgers At Hogwarts.

If you chucked the four remaining quarterbacks in this year's NFL playoffs into the Hogwarts Great Hall on Sorting Night, the Sorting Hat would have a pretty easy time with three of them.  Matty Ice? Gryffindor, easy. Brady and Big Ben are decidedly both Slytherins. But then Aaron Rodgers trudges up to the stool at the front of the room.  He's already had an interesting week. Ollivander himself was flummoxed, finally digging a special wand out of the back room after the stock product on his shelves proved insufficient.  He sits down, and Dumbledore places the Sorting Hat on his head. There is silence in the room. Rodgers closes his eyes.

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--"

Rodgers: "Nope."

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."

*Leaves room.*

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."

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Championship Rematch We Deserve.

Last night, James Harden racked up 53 points, 16 rebounds, and 17 assists.  This not only tied him with Wilt Chamberlain for the most points ever scored in a triple-double performance, it made Harden the only player in NBA history to toss up a 50-15-15 or better.  Also last night, the Carolina Hurricanes put a team equipment manager on the ice as a goalie. Yesterday afternoon, an unranked Virginia Tech squad handed #5 Duke a delightful and utterly disrespectful ass-kicking.  Yesterday morning, LSU kicked off against Louisville and Lamar Jackson who, you know, singlehandedly accounted for 51 TDs this year en route to winning the Heisman. The Tigers held that same electric demigod to 153 passing yards, 33 rushing yards, no TDs, and a 6.9 QBR. 

I mention all of this to give you some context; yesterday contained a fairly respectable crop of "WAIT, THAT HAPPENED?!?!" sports moments.  It's important to me that you know what I'm stacking everything up against before I say this: the absolute most stupefying, jaw-dropping-ly absurd occurrence yesterday was what Clemson did to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl.  This game should have been a compelling, deeply enjoyable matchup between two very different teams, almost diametrically opposed, even. Clemson was one of the most experienced teams across the board this season, and hyper-dynamic on both sides of the ball. By contrast, OSU (J.T. Barrett aside) were one of the nation's youngest squads and made the playoff by doing typical B1G things: crushing you slowly and with great precision on defense and mostly chewing you up 3 yards at a time on offense.  The 2016 Buckeyes averaged 39.5 points a game and only gave up 12.75.  Sure, some of that was padded-out totals against inferior competition, but OSU also triumphed over a really good Wisconsin squad and beat the brakes off of both Oklahoma and Nebraska.  Their only loss was an exceedingly fluky game against eventual B1G champs Penn State who are headed to what should be a really fun Rose Bowl against USC. Oh yeah, and they won The Game thanks to The Spot. (Michigan fans are STILL Zapruder-ing that thing, btw.)  

Point is, even in what was supposed to be a too-young-too-soon-kinda-rebuilding year, Urban Meyer's team was really damn good. Sooooooo, about yesterday: Clemson 31, OSU 0. Zero. Donut hole. Nada. They ain't score one damn point, y'all.  This was the most vicious hammering Urban Meyer has ever taken as a head coach, the first shutout of his career, and one of the worst beatings of Ohio State's entire 126-year existence as a football program. 

And Clemson did that while playing ... eh, they played pretty well offensively, but they weren't perfect. Deshaun Watson threw 2 picks and only averaged 7.2 YPA. No individual Tigers runner or receiver cracked 100 yards on the day, and outside of some nice Andy Teasdall punts, the special teams didn't get much of anything cooking, either.  Which tells you exactly how brutal and fast and mean and suffocating Clemson's defense was yesterday, because the team-stat disparities are hilarious:

Clemson: 24 1st downs, 470 total yards, 35:51 time of possession.

OSU: 9 1st downs, 215 total yards, 24:09 time of possession.

That's a wholesale demolition against the second-best college coach of his generation. Problem for Clemson is, now they have to face the best.

It looked like Washington might make things interesting for about half a quarter in the Georgia Dome yesterday, but then Bama and The Process shut that mess down with their usual mundane finality.  Watching the Saban-era Tide, and particularly this year's iteration, is watching a riding mower cut through weeds. It's doing the thing it was built for, and it will leave a perfectly manicured yard in its wake, but it's not a particularly compelling viewing experience. The problem with a Tide that just keeps Rolling, facelessly sweeping through valley after valley, is that nothing seems to really slow it down or cause it to change course.

Last year, Clemson came as close as any team to doing something about it.

The 2016 National Championship game was one of the most incredible things I've watched in a lifetime of college football. The Tigers gave Bama all it wanted and then some. Watson was electric, the defense was ferocious, and perhaps most incredibly, Clemson forced the implacable, unwavering Saban machine to play the game THEIR way.  Alabama had to run a decent chunk of their offense doing the spread-tempo stuff Nick Saban abhors just to keep up.  Hell, they even pulled out an onside kick, which is the sort of trickery usually reserved for lesser, mortal teams who are not coached by diminutive sociopaths and whose two-deep is not stocked like a damn bomb shelter of four- and five-star talent.  The fourth quarter was basically one extended montage of jaw-dropping excellence from both teams.  It ended 45-40 Bama, but it was obvious they were happy to get off the field and away from the jet-engine turbine Dabo Swinney hath wrought in Death Valley.

Next Monday, we get Round 2.  Clemson is a year older and more experienced and probably about as angry and excited for this rematch as it is possible for a team to be.  They won't have a chip on their shoulder so much as a Costco-sized crate of Doritos. Bama is, well, Bama. 

The Tigers brought a B-to-B+ game into University of Phoenix Stadium and absolutely wiped the floor with the Buckeyes.  They'll need an A-game performance in Tampa, but if they show up with it, we're going to get a game every bit as amazing as last year's.   Take us out, Bart Scott:

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

10 College Football Games To Watch in Week 1.

The heat won't break properly for a while yet, at least not down south.  Summer will carry itself into mid-September, taunting us with the occasional cool evening only to ramp the heat and humidity back up.  The sticky, horrid monsoon cake God is baking in our geographical oven is not quite done.  But fall will be here Friday, forecast be damned.  And the reason I can say that with certainty and a song in my heart is this: college football is back.  The tinkering with depth charts and playbook install schedules, tailgate menus and marching band halftime routines is wrapping up.  Soon, delightfully soon, we can spend our Saturdays (and hell, our Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights) reveling in the inanity and beauty of this stupid, fantastic game.  In anticipation of our long, football-less offseason's imminent demise, here are my 10 picks for games you should watch on opening weekend. (All times EST.)

10. Hawaii vs. University of California - Friday August 26th, ANZ Satdium: Sydney, Australia.  10:00PM Many, many people think these Week 1 global neutral site games are a joke and a shameless money grab and to those people I say: You are correct, and I don't care.  Gimme a game in Dubai or Luxembourg or wherever, I'm here for it.  Sure, even a newly Jared Goff-less Cal will beat the brakes off the Rainbow Warriors, but y'all ... THIS IS THE OPENING GAME OF THE SEASON!!!!!!  For the simple benevolent act of being the first guest to arrive at the party, we can forgive this game showing up early and under-dressed with nothing but a bag of Lays and a shitty $4.00 bottle of wine it purchased at a convenience store on the way over.

9.  Appalachian State @ #9 Tennessee - Thursday September 1st, Neyland Stadium: Knoxville, TN 7:30PM You're looking at this and wondering why the presumptive SEC East favorites playing a Sun Belt team rates a slot on the list, aren't you?  Let me explain.  For untold eons, Vols fans have spent every summer convincing themselves that "This is gonna be the year!" only to wallow in disappointment once they drop a few big games.  Good news for them: this may actually be that year.  The talent and experience on the roster, the coaching staff (hi, Bob Shoop!), and the whole operation may finally be commensurate with the preseason hype.  That being said, App State are feisty and physical and they will absolutely wreck your shit if you're not careful.  Even a win, if it's ugly and not utterly dominant, would set Tennessee's rabid fan base on edge and prompt another round of torches and pitchforks aimed at Butch Jones.  The potential schadenfreude is simply too enticing to pass up.

8. Georgia Tech vs. Boston College - Saturday September 3rd, Aviva Stadium: Dublin, Ireland 7:30AM Let me be very clear: This game will be trash, and there is nothing of football nutritional value to be had here.  The triple option is nifty and great, and Paul Johnson's Jackets teams have run it as beautifully as anyone ever has.  This won't matter one bit, because Steve Addazio and BC's defense can and will take the most well-calibrated and efficiently executed offenses on earth and drag them into the muck.  Of course, BC can't score any points either, so.  I put it here for one reason and one reason only: it's the Cibola game.  This is the moment in "The Stand" when Trashcan Man, having traversed half of America on foot, finally arrives in Vegas and sees a public fountain.  Parched and sun-scarred and incoherent, he plunges in and drinks and drinks and drinks the water.  Then he pukes it all back up.  That 7:30AM kickoff is there so we can replicate that moment.  We've been so deprived of college football that mainlining the stuff, even of a dubious quality, sounds just perfect. This game will maximize your opening Saturday viewing time up to a robust eighteen consecutive hours or so, if you can stay awake through the end of Northern Arizona @ Arizona State.  Glorious. 

7. #5 LSU vs. Wisconsin - Saturday September 3rd, Lambeau Field: Green Bay, WI 3:30PM Whether or not Leonard Fournette will be completely healthy by the time this one kicks off makes it iffy in this slot, but there's a lot to enjoy here nonetheless.  LSU poached the Badgers' excellent D.C. Dave Aranda this offseason which, give that man some SEC-caliber defensive talent to work with and good lord!  Also, Wisconsin has made a living as a pretty good team the past several seasons, but we all saw what happened when they opened last year against 'Bama.  The carnage will be similar although probably more entertaining simply because games that involve Les Miles are by default more entertaining than other games that do not.  Especially if Fournette isn't 100%, I'll be interested to see if the Tigers have finally put together an offense capable of matching their defensive ferocity.  Also, Lambeau Field is a pretty cool and storied place to play and/or watch football, so there's that.

6. #10 Notre Dame @ Texas - Sunday September 4th, Royal Texas Memorial Stadium: Austin, TX 7:30PM This will be more for answering a few salient questions than about an actual enjoyable football experience. 1. Can Notre Dame keep their QBs healthy and will they have success without Big Bill Fuller to throw it to?  2. Can Texas find a QB at all?  Like, one competent human who is better equipped than Tyrone Swoopes (still reportedly in the mix for a Week 1 start!).  Charlie Strong salvaged his 5-7 2015 season by beating Oklahoma and Baylor, but if they get rolled by the Irish like in last year's 38-3 opening debacle, his hindquarters are gonna start feeling mighty toasty mighty quick.  Tune in to see how it all shakes out.

5. Western Michigan @ Northwestern - Saturday September 3rd, Ryan Field: Evanston, IL 12:00PM I deeply considered Arizona vs. BYU in Glendale for this spot, but WMU playing the 'Cats has just slightly more potential for complete and outright chaos.  (Ags concurs with this decision, so you know it's correct.)  Northwestern won 10 games last year!  Their only two regular-season losses were against Michigan and the UNDEFEATED (never forget) Iowa Hawkeyes.  They were and are a pretty damn good football team, and they are welcoming the Western Michigan Broncos, who are coached by a legitimately and delightfully insane human being in P.J. Fleck. (ROW THE BOAT!!!)  By the way, WMU had the gumption to play Michigan State, GA Southern, and Ohio State last season, and didn't look as over-matched as you'd think, no matter what the final scores say.  They also won by two touchdowns over a decent Middle Tennessee State team in the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl.  I have no idea what will happen in this game, but it's going to be joyfully anarchic and I will enjoy it and you should too.

4. #20 USC vs. #1 Alabama - Saturday September 3rd, AT&T Stadium: Arlington, TX 8:00PM Poor Clay Helton, he didn't ask for this.  USC is still loaded with NFL talent in the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree' Jackson, but a first-time (first-time full-time, anyway) head coach trying to put on a good Week 1 showing against 'Bama will likely result in tragedy.  Nonetheless, this is a marquee brawl between blue-blood programs, and well worth your attention, if only to witness how inexorably Nick Saban can continue reloading and recalibrating the Crimson Tide into the behemoths they always are.

3. #18 Georgia vs. #22 North Carolina - Saturday September 3rd, Georgia Dome: Atlanta, GA 5:30PM Kirby Smart's debut leading the Dawgs is already a little more interesting than we UGA fans might like.  It's unclear whether RBs Nick Chubb or Sony Michel will be fully healthy for this game, and equally uncertain whether Governor Kirby will opt to let true freshman QB Jacob Eason off the chain to start.  On the other side of the ball, Georgia lost a lot of their defensive front this year, which is going to make stopping UNC's stupendous RB Elijah Hood a problem.  Point in UGA's favor: Carolina gave up roughly 1 trillion rushing yards to a depleted Baylor team running an archaic offense in their bowl game last year.  Counterpoint: The Heels were very, very good in 2015, and came within one botched officiating call of a last-minute drive shot at knocking off Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.  I believe this game will ultimately come down to whether UNC's Mitch Trubisky can make good on the promise he showed in garbage time last year at QB.  If so, Carolina will open up the season in a more dignified fashion than last year's loss to South Carolina.  If not, the Dawgs will kick off yet another year with a promising win on the way to a perfectly cromulent 9-3.

2. #3 Oklahoma vs. #15 Houston - Saturday September 3rd, NRG Stadium: Houston, TX 12:00PM Remember that WMU/Northwestern game from earlier?  You'll want to put that in a split-screen with this if you don't have access to multiple TVs at noon.  Houston burned everyone's houses down last year as the best Group of Five team by a considerable margin.  They're squaring off against the Sooners in a "neutral site" game that will probably determine the trajectories of both teams this season.  If Oklahoma loses, well, you lost to a Mid-Major, and your repeat playoff chances are already dusted.  If Houston loses, well, you couldn't beat an elite program from a Power Five conference, maybe you're not as great as we thought.  First off, the Cougars lost a lot of skill talent from their vicious 2015 ground game, which would be a problem for any program.  However, I'm not prepared to bet against Tom Herman after the miracles he's already performed.  On the flip side, Oklahoma has Baker Mayfield back at QB, one of the most dynamic and exuberant play makers in the game last year.  They also return Samaje Perine at running back to create a very problematic backfield for opposing defenses.  This is probably the Week 1 game with the most far-reaching and interesting ramifications.  However ...

1. #11 Ole Miss vs. # 4 FSU - Monday, September 5th, Florida Citrus Bowl: Orlando, FL 8:00PM AAAAAAAGGGHHHHHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOO BARN F***** BURNER, Y'ALL.  CHAD KELLY! QUINCY ADEBOYEJO! DAMORE'EA STRINGFELLOW! ... VS. ... DALVIN COOK!  DERWIN JAMES! WHOEVERTHEHELLFSUSTARTSATQUARTERBACK!.  HUGH VS. JIMBO!  This is going to be a hootenanny powered by cheap grain booze and pure psychosis and fans going "WOOHOO Y'ALL WE GOIN' TO DISNEYLAND TO START THE YEAR!"  Over/Under on fights between these two fanbases started in a fast-food or casual-dining establishment in Orlando that weekend: 10.5.  In all seriousness, though, this is going to be a really great game between two excellent yet slightly erratic top-flight teams.  Gawd, I can't wait.   ***

Happy Week 1, Y'all. 

***Honorable Mention:*** #2 Clemson @ Auburn - Saturday, September 3rd, Jordan-Hare Stadium: Auburn, AL 9:00PM.  Just because Clemson is a blast to watch and this is gonna be a tremendous, incalculable ass-whoopin'.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

More Things In Heaven And Earth ...

The NBA offseason always feels like a race to drop the first and most incisive hot takes on every new development.  We get buried in a deluge of trades, free agency signings, and retirements, and we immediately dissect it all on a granular level.  There are endless internet symposiums on cap space and new rotations and team dynamics and legacies.  This summer has been no different.  All the conceivable digital ink in the world has already been spilled on a wide range of subjects and characters.  We've parsed the minutiae of every decision, speculated on the ramifications, and screamed at each other about who got paid too much for too many years.  We've sorted and catalogued and analyzed it all to death on a case-by-case basis.  But step back with me for a second, here.  Zoom way, way out and contemplate everything that's happened from a league-wide vantage point.  Then ask yourself: have you ever seen an NBA landscape as totally alien as what we'll be looking at when the 2016-17 season tips off? 

It's just utterly surreal.  All the tectonic-shift-level, paradigm-shattering occurrences ... man, this isn't even staring back at Earth after accidentally waking up on Mars.  Nah, B.  We just went down a wormhole to a quadrant and temporal pocket of the universe that is recognizable to our tiny, pathetic consciousness only because we've seen stars before and we know we're on a rock somewhere in space.   

Let's start with the absentees.  Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant began their NBA careers before I took the PSATs, and each played for (and to a large extent defined) a single franchise for his entire career.  They are arguably the two most accomplished and important post-Jordan players in NBA history.  (LeBron: pending.)  Amar'e Stoudemire has been around since before I graduated college, and has been a vibrant and important figure in the league for most of his very laudable tenure.  For the first time in ages, none of them will be in uniform next year.  And while I suspect he has one more year in his pathologically competitive tank, Kevin Garnett is on the fence about joining them.  Hell, even if KG sticks around for another season, that's a proportionally insane amount of transcendence that won't be on the court this fall.  It's an actual, honest-to-god end of an era. 

Couple those momentous departures with all the players whose new uniforms will require some viewer processing time before they even begin to look normal.  In terms of on-court impact, KD signing with the Dubs is the obvious "HOLY F***?!?!?!" example, but far from the only out-sized bafflement we'll see.  Flash and Rondo will be coming out of the home tunnel in Chicago next season; about which: 1. how is that team even going to function on either end of the floor? and 2. Wade wearing anything other than a Heat jersey seems completely crazy even if he did "go home."  And speaking of the Bulls, former franchise lifers D-Rose and Jo Noah WON'T be coming out of that same tunnel because they're both on the friggin' Knicks now, yet another team whose basketball identity is going to be a mystery until we see it in real time. 

On a somewhat lesser scale, we'll watch Pau Gasol fulfill what seems like an inevitable destiny in hindsight as he dons a Spurs jersey.  And, please let me indulge some personal heartbreak here: Jeff Teague is on the Pacers and Alfred Joel Horford, my most beloved of all Hawks since 'Nique (no offense intended to Mutombo, Steve Smith, etc.) will be wearing Celtics green, which just ... goddamnit everything is terrible.  Compounding the misery: in Al's place will be Dwight Howard, another big name who changed teams, and whose fit in Atlanta's motion-predicated offense and team culture makes zero sense.   (Though, as a very faint silver lining, the Hawks stunk at rebounding last year, and Howard will probably bolster that shortcoming.) 

Then, there are the salaries being dished out to every other free agent.  We can talk Mozgov's Lakers deal, or Mike Conley now being the highest-paid player in history, but the bottom line is: shit got weird with NBA money this year.  It seems like front offices around the league have lost their minds, but this is actually the most "normal" aspect of the offseason insanity.  Right now, there are the deals which were signed under the prior cap limitations and those signed under the new, TV-revenue-augmented structure.  As the old ones cycle out, this will all rejigger itself back to a world in which the salaries are relatively commensurate with the talent.  You can know that, and understand why it happened and project the long-term recalibrations, but it doesn't make the current situation feel much less ridiculous when you're checking the numbers, right? 

Lastly, there are the teams who look ready, finally, to turn some kind of corner and/or forge new identites.  Hoo boy, are the Wolves and Jazz gonna be entertaining next year!  Raise your hand if you're enthralled by the concept of Buddy Hield and a (hopefully) healthy Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday in New Orleans!  Stand up for a fury-driven Westbrook to lead the new and fascinating OKC roster! 

Everything is different now.  Well, almost everything.  The game is still the beautiful, amorphous symphony it always has been.  The participants will just be coming at it from wildly different vectors than last year, is all.  Good Gawd, this is going to be such a strange, delightful fever dream of a season.  I can't wait for October 25th. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Change It.

Baylor Univeristy head football coach Art Briles was fired on Thursday, amid a scandal whose details are becoming more horrifying than they already were as further information becomes public. The recently-released key findings pdf of the Pepper Hamilton report details an institutional culture that repeatedly ignored, marginalized, and/or directly threatened victims of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence while shielding and covering up for those responsible, many of them football players.  According to reports from a variety of outlets including ESPN, Deadspin, and SBNation, this behavior extended to every conceivable level, from Briles to AD Ian McCaw to Baylor President Kenneth Starr to the Waco Police Department.  (McCaw and Starr have been penalized but not dismissed from the university at the time of this writing.)  All of this, sadly, sounds very familiar in the context of sports, sexual and domestic violence, and misogyny at large. 

Purely talking about college football in recent memory, we have similar cases involving Jameis Winston at FSU and (still-waiting-for-the-other-shoe) Peyton Manning and other athletes at Tennessee.  As for pro athletes, we need look no further than Ben Rothlisberger, Aroldis Chapman, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Kobe Bryant.

A few words on the latter two: We just watched Kobe play a farewell-tour season in which he was showered in accolades and boatloads of florid prose were heaped upon his accomplishments on the court.  Scant mention was ever made during all this of what happened in Eagle, Colorado.  When Hardy was released by the Panthers, pundits speculating on where he might resume his career talked in terms of "bad optics" or "a public relations problem", ignoring entirely the fact that the real problem was a man who more or less skated on his inability to behave like a human being.

All of these people, from Baylor to Bryant, have a few salient things in common. 1. They're men.  2. They were accused of sexual assault or domestic violence against women. 3. Their status as notable athletes allowed them, through varying channels and to varying degrees, to circumvent the consequences of their alleged actions. 

Young women were subjected to awful, tragic, life-altering events.  They were then systematically shamed and ignored by the various academic and league institutions and law enforcement agencies ostensibly designed to protect them.  These are the most visceral examples, but far from the only ones.  This is the worst of it, but far from the totality of heinousness that women endure in sports. 

Consider the recent ESPNW PSA in which men read aloud and on camera some of the truly despicable invective hurled at female sports media personalities on Twitter.  Or you could look to Seattle, Washington, where a recent city council vote led to a similar rash of garbage aimed at the councilwomen who voted against the building of a new arena designed to lure an NBA or NHL team to the city.

Look, too, at the US Women's Soccer Team having to boycott matches because they were not afforded safe, decent playing surfaces.  Look at them having to wage a legal battle for an equal pay scale. 

The names and specifics change, but it's always the same dismal cycle, time and time again.  Male athletes do unspeakable things to the women around them and go scot-free because they are staggering revenue generators for their schools, teams, leagues, etc.  Female athletes and female sports journalists are harassed, threatened, demeaned, marginalized and belittled; denied equal respect, remuneration, and acclaim, constantly in a 24/7 churn of institutional prejudice and misogynistic social-media bile.

All of this, the assaults and violence, the harassment and marginalization, stems from a single abomination in our society: the ethos that says "women are less."  Less capable.  Less deserving of our admiration and respect.  Less knowledgeable.  Less than human.  Obviously, this is sickeningly pervasive in all aspects of our lives, but nowhere does this fundamental problem scream more loudly than in sports. 

This is all clearly utter fucking crap, so here are a few things I would like to see happen:

1. If you're a lawyer or government official reading this: I know there's a whole mess of Constitutional and legal wrangling here, but: we need the Laws of the Land amended in such a way that violent crimes committed by men against women can be prosecuted as hate crimes.  Because often, that's exactly what they are.  We also need a legal system that functions as intended and doesn't NOT slap cuffs on someone just because he had 100 rushing yards or tossed up a triple double last week.

2. If you're a male reading this: police your friends.  Derisive comments, jokes, et al aimed at women are symptomatic of the deeper issue here, and we can start changing that mentality only if we speak up.  So please, explain to those around you who say those kinds of things, who think and feel that way, why they're wrong.  Tell them, in no uncertain terms, to knock that shit off.  If they can alter their behavior and perceptions, that's a start.  If they won't listen, they are garbage excuses for human beings and you should punt them into the sun at your earliest convenience.   

3. If you're a parent reading this: parent your sons.  Teach them why damn near everything they are being told to think and feel regarding women by the media and society is, to varying degrees, completely wrong.  Teach them to be not only respectful, but active in supporting and encouraging the girls and women in their lives.  Teach them to value everyone equally, and to never do anything that would lessen that value. 

4. If you're reading this: engage positively with women in sports.  Check out a WNBA or women's college hoops game, and I promise you'll enjoy the experience.  The NCAA Women's College World Series is starting soon, and if your alma mater isn't in the field, there are a bunch of really enjoyable teams out there, so pick a bandwagon and hop on.  Follow the NWSL, or get into women's hockey.  Read female sports columnists and listen to their podcasts and commentary in other outlets.  If you agree with their positions and takes and think they're doing good work, let them know.  There is a wealth of fantastic stuff out there in the sports world revolving around women, and you should seek it out, partly because it's a proactive way to help, but mostly because it's really excellent shit and if you're not getting in on it then you're missing out.  

5. Most of all, just stop.  Stop and think about how awful, how pervasive and persistent all of this is. 

Then, do your best, as much and as often as you can, to change it.