Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Curtailing The Danny Ferry Optimism Barrage

In the past 48 hours, I've heard the word "optimism" (or its adjective and adverb variations) roughly 7,354 times.  "We're filled with optimism!"  "This is a reason to be very optimistic about the future!"  And so on.   It has been a litany of happily banal peppiness.  Optimism is a pleasant and frankly a necessary emotion to have at times; unfounded optimism doubly so.  But only a fool grins blithely in the face of impending disaster.  Or, if nothing quite that dire, at least in the face of something that should decidedly not foster anything akin to hopefulness. 

Which is why I am beyond perplexed by the optimism offensive currently being waged by Atlanta's sports talk radio on Danny Ferry's behalf.  The news broke yesterday that the Hawks have signed the former Spurs executive and Cavs GM to a six-year contract, over which time he will serve as GM and President of Basketball Operations of a franchise in desperate need of a concrete identity.  We're happy about this why?

For starters, people seem to be treating this as a definitive upgrade over Rick Sund.  Certainly, more harm than good has been done to the organization's personnel and fiscal situation on Sund's watch, but it's a thornier question  as to exactly how much control he was allowed to exercise in the decision-making process that led to those problems.  When you are issued directives that range from somewhat counterintuitive to downright insane by your team's ownership, you can bite your tongue and execute them or you can lose your gainful employment.  Given the constraints and strictures he was working under, I think Sund has done a decent job.  Presuming that the new GM will somehow rectify, or at least not repeat Sund's (possibly-not-his-fault) "errors" is doing Sund a disservice and giving Ferry unearned credit.

Next stop on the Myth-Debunking Train: I've heard an awful lot of people saying "look what Danny Ferry did in Cleveland!  Multiple trips to the finals!  He'll be great!"  What he "did" in Cleveland is eloquently laid out at Hoopinion by Bret LaGree, but to summarize: he walked into a situation with LeBron F****** James, Andy Varejao, and Big Z, and couldn't muster enough supporting pieces on the roster to get the Cavs a ring.  Which, you know, led to The Decision and all the subsequent occurrences that eventually got LeBron a ring in Miami.  We all know Dan Gilbert is a pathetic, egomaniacal jackass with a penchant for whining about things in comic sans font, and it's entirely possible that he gave just as many ill-fated marching orders to Ferry in Cleveland as Sund was issued in the ATL, but ... BUT.  Danny Ferry had the greatest player of his generation and two very nice buttresses to that talent in place when he arrived, and failed to assemble a team with the depth and versatility necessary to win a championship around them.  Epic fail, Danny.

And finally, can we stop the giddiness resultant from having a former member of the Spurs organization involved with the Hawks simply because we have a member of the Spurs organization?  The key word there is "organization."  That means the entirety of people involved in making a team functional, from ownership to ball boys and interns.  The ethos and attitudes that govern franchises come from the top down.  Assuming that Danny Ferry's long association with a winning entity will ameliorate the Hawks' problems proceeds from the false premise that his arrival will automatically correct Atlanta's collective organizational thinking on every rung of the ladder.*  

Consider the Spurs' NFL equivalent: the New England Patriots.  No franchise in football has been run with more consistent excellence over the past 12 years; yet nearly every disciple of "Belichick U" has fallen on his ass the moment he left, because other teams do not have ownership as smartly hands-off and organizational philosophies as universally bought-into as the Pats.  Just because Danny Ferry comes from a team where excellence is the province every single employee does not mean he can wave a magic wand and turn the Hawks into Spurs East.

*For those who will counter this argument by pointing out how well GM Sam Presti, another Spurs alum, has done in Oklahoma City, let me remind you of a few things.  A. Drafting Kevin Durant only after Portland disastrously took Greg Oden 1st can make anyone look good in hindsight.  And B. Presti has been able to build around Durant with Westbrook, Harden, and co. largely because everyone except KD is either still on rookie contracts or wasn't that expensive to sign.  The real test will be how he handles things when it's time for people to get paid.   

One last thought on the on-court talent.  Atlanta's current situation does not involve anyone close to the caliber of the finest players of Ferry's previous tenures.  As good as Smoove, Horford, and Teague are, they are a class or three below LeBron and the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili trio that Ferry had the benefit of working with in the past.  Because of Joe Johnson's contract and Atlanta's lack of well-positioned draft picks, he's probably not going to be able to acquire top-tier talent anytime soon.  Also, the Hawks just re-upped Larry Drew, whose coaching efforts have been passable at best.  The combination of being severely limited in roster and cap flexibility and a coach who has thus far proved unable to maximize the current roster's efficacy does not bode well for improving the Hawks' fortunes.

None of this is to say that Danny Ferry will necessarily do a bad job in his new role.  Given the constraints of his situation, I certainly would not consider the next few years mirroring the last few (choppy regular seasons culminating in first- or second-round playoff exits) to be a failure.  I merely wanted to point out that all this unbridled optimism is way off the mark, that Ferry's history has not been stellar when viewed within the proper context, and that it matters little who sits behind the Hawks' GM desk as long as the ASG insists on forcing poor decisions and Joe Johnson's contract is on the books.  Be hopeful.  Be optimistic.  But be reasonable about it.  Miles to go before we sleep, people.  Miles to go. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Not Far Enough: College Playoffs Redux

So we finally got what we wanted.  We pissed and moaned, kicked and screamed, cried foul from the rooftops and raised hell from the grassroots up.  The BCS is dead; long live the ... oh, wait.  This ain't a eulogy.  This here is rapture.  College football (almost) has a playoff system.  Hallelujah!!!

And yet, the bastards still got it all wrong somehow.

Four teams.  Four lousy F&$% teams.  That's it?  That's the grand solution?  Four teams isn't a playoff system, it's a dysfunctional oligarchy that is only fractions better than the BCS itself.  Let's say for instance that next year Alabama, LSU, and USC are unequivocally the three top teams in some order.  (Likelihood: 87.3%)  Vying for the fourth spot, say we have undefeated conference champions Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, and Boise State, a one-fluky-midseason-loss-but-Big-Ten-Champs Wisconsin, and a South Carolina team that steamrolled their schedule and whose only loss was in the SEC Championship game to 'Bama.  Some of those squads probably would not deserve to make it, based on whatever semi-legitimate criteria governed the decision.  Nonetheless, someone(s) with a just and righteous case for inclusion would likely get hosed in the above scenario.  And no, it won't be that crowded at the top most years.  That doesn't mean the "teams getting utterly screwed" angle won't be in play.  So why create a system in which the same old recriminations we've been bandying about for years would still be possible?  In many instances, the argument of the fifth team out will be no less valid simply because now four teams instead of two have the right to vie for the crystal football.  Having only four teams will almost certainly still exclude someone worthy of at least a chance at settling things on the field every year.  We couldn't do better than this while we were "fixing" the problem?

Oh, and we're going to have a committee that ranks and selects these four programs in a supposedly appropriate fashion, you say?  Exactly how will this paragon of objectivity be comprised?  Of people with a deep and intimate knowledge of college football, I'd hope.  But allow me a few suggestions:

1. Absolutely no former Division I coaches.  It seems like every year, there's at least one rumor that percolates about someone making a shady move with the Coaches Poll in order to help their own cause or slight a rival.  You think that loyalty and bad blood just evaporates when these guys retire?  Say they get Bobby Bowden to sit on this committee, for instance.  There is no way in hell that man is ever going to let Florida into a playoff if he can help it.  (Not that Florida is any real title threat for the foreseeable future, but you take my meaning.)  Or suppose Bob Stoops is retired in ten years and they ask him to serve a turn.  You're telling me he's not advocating for the Sooners and torpedoing the Longhorns and Cowboys every chance he gets?  Please.

2. This committee needs fairly substantial, if not complete, rollover every few years.  Otherwise animosities, alliances, fractious arguments, choosing sides, and all the other crap that goes along with any organizing or governing body are going to emerge.  You let people sit in positions of power for too long, they will develop not only delusions of grandeur but biases detrimental to the fairness of the process.  I say two years, tops, for any sitting member.  After that, they must wait six years before sitting another term.

3.  The ranking/seeding/selection probably should not resemble the autocratic juggernaut that is David Stern's control of the NBA Draft Lottery. You are doing a new thing here, so do it correctly: televise the damned process, like they do on C-SPAN.  All the minutiae, the debates and arguments and especially the people making them, ought to be public domain.  Accountability and transparency are the only way to stop the cycle of suspicion and anger and calling bull$%^& that has plagued the sport since time immemorial.

Now, back to the four teams debacle.  Howsabout we make it eight, or better yet sixteen?  (Yes, I am aware that there is a provision in the current proposal that allows for revisiting expansion in a few years, but why wait?)  I wrote a post last year about college football playoffs that was, in retrospect, more than a little overambitious.  By which I mean it was a soapbox rant of impossible logistics and staggering proportions of delusion, for which I am now compelled to apologize.  But buried within the morass of madness are a few concepts that I feel still hold some water.  

Chief among these is the idea that we don't need to divorce ourselves from the bowls entirely, at least not those with the greatest traditional import.  Say we have 16 teams as chosen by the Starbucks Official  NCAA Football Playoff Selection Committee.  We auction off naming rights to the first round, so hypothetically the 1 and 16 seeds could meet in the TicketCity Bowl, 2 and 15 in the Champs Sports Bowl, etc.  For the Elite 8 round, the Outback, Gator, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls rotate between highest-seed ownership each year.  The Rose and Orange Bowls are the Final Four venues, and the Championship Game is the Championship Game.  That's going to keep Bowl sponsorship revenue coming in, and the bidding for naming rights should at least offset to a degree the "loss" of the other twenty-odd worthless, podunk bowls.  Also, we keep the neutral field intact.  Is there a realistic reason this can't work?  We're already deferring the implementation of this system for another few years, assuming it passes tomorrow.  We can't figure this out in two years' time?

Four teams is a nice start, but it's not a solution.  If we're going to have playoffs, let's make them sensible.  I know it sounds insane to ask sensibility of the NCAA, but this is, after all, the dawning of a new era.  Why not do something radical?   

Friday, June 22, 2012

Letter To A Friend

Dear Jordan,

How's it going, buddy?  I know we haven't talked in a while, but I wanted to check in and make sure you hadn't gone entirely catatonic after last night.  Ever since we met, we've been bound inextricably by two shared loves: music and basketball.  We've gone through things, you and I.  Members of three (four if you count senior recitals) bands together.  Geeking out over things like phase cancellation and built-from-scratch synth patches.   Having generally ridiculous nights.  We once crammed a four-piece band WITH GEAR into a single, regular-sized cab to make a radio appearance on time.  We've played the dingiest, crappiest dives imaginable and some pretty great venues as well.   We've sweated out half our body weight in that claustrophobic, non-air-conditioned practice space that smelt like a combination of day-old Subway, garbage, and PBR.  We've made wonderful records, even when we had to re-track most of one because the initial engineer was a complete moron.  And we've talked hoops.  A lot.  You are the only other obsessive basketball fan I know, which is why we spent so much time discussing, arguing, and joking about the NBA.  I mean, I'm a Hawks fan and you're a Cavs fan, so the alternative to all that constant discourse would probably have been to just break down in tears, right?   

Anyway, I saw your facebook status last night and the vitriol and sarcasm were practically seeping through the screen: "Hooray Lebron. You and your super team won, with the help of Stern and the refs. Just like you were supposed to."  I knew you were probably headed towards the darkness.  You know, like the night after your breakup when it was you, me, Hannah, and a super-sized bottle of Jack Daniels.  (To your credit, I've never seen anyone play bass that well after getting blackout trashed and falling down the stairs.)  So please don't be too mad when I say this: LeBron has a ring now, and he deserves it.  It was time, and there's a lot of silver lining here if you want to see it.       

Ever since the finals matchup was set, we knew someone was getting kicked in the teeth.  Either Cleveland or Seattle was going to wind up feeling collectively more embittered, depressed, and outraged than they already did, which seems quasi-impossible but is true nonetheless.   Unfortunately, Cleveland drew the short straw, for which you have my deepest sympathies.  But HOLY CRAP DID YOU WATCH THOSE GAMES?!?!?!  You realize what we're looking at, right?  We have seen the future, and if the gods are kind, it is going to be every bit as beautiful and intense as Celtics/Lakers in the '80s.  The Thunder and Heat are poised to dominate the NBA for the next decade, clashing time and time again for the championship and creating the sort of long-form narrative drama that makes basketball so damned fun.  Sure, our teams will probably be languishing in mediocrity while those guys hog all the glory, but I am always in favor of profoundly gorgeous basketball being played.  Always.  And we are about to watch boatloads of precisely that for a long time to come.

(Also, you have Kyrie Irving, so chin up, right?)

I know that you, like many Clevelanders, will always despise LeBron.  The Decision was an incorrigible and vomit-inducing bit of lunacy, and I completely understand that there's simply no room for forgiveness and atonement when you've been sucker-punched in the crassest manner imaginable on national television.  Not for a city whose sports history has been as nightmarish as Cleveland's.  LeBron left Ohio to fester as an unmitigated sports wasteland, to which Colt McCoy added the coup de grace of more-or-less sucking as an NFL QB while the Indians were and are themselves.  Again.   So LBJ has earned your everlasting scorn, the native son and last hope jilting you at the altar.  Fair enough.  But as a basketball fan, what are you gonna do in a situation like this?

LeBron played at a patently ridiculous level all playoffs.  He stomped on the gas midway through the Pacers series and never looked back, with game 6 in Boston and last night's virtuoso 26-11-13-1-steal-2-block masterpiece serving as indelible capstones to a breathtaking season.  It is your inalienable right (and maybe even your mandate) as a Cavs fan to hate him for eternity with the wrathful passion of a thousand firey suns, but you can't possibly belittle or demean the brilliance he has exhibited over the last two months.  And it wasn't just him.  The Heat, collectively, learned how to operate perfectly within their insular context, alloting LeBron the bulk of the heavy lifting while simultaneously asserting themselves at crucial junctures.

When Kevin Durant came out of halftime and buried that 26-foot bomb, it looked like we had the makings of a comeback for all of about 2 minutes before Miami slammed the door again with brutal finality.  Which is what they've been doing since April to anyone in their path.  It was so much more than D-Wade recalibrating his game to accomadate his injuries and LeBron's dominance, or Chris Bosh quietly dismantling Oklahoma City in the paint.  I mean, everyone expected Shane Battier to give the Thunder fits with his hyperintelligent brand of old-dude-gritty defense.  Randomly turning into Ray Allen from behind the arc?  Not so much.  (61% 3FG for the finals, Shane?  F**KIN' SERIOUSLY?!?!?!)  What about Mario Chalmers exploding for 25 in game 4?  Or Norris Cole demonstrating a phenomenal amount of poise for a rookie on the game's grandest stage?  And you know who really clinched the title for Miami last night?  Mike Freaking Miller.  The guy was literally hobbling around for the entirety of the playoffs, and his one useful NBA skill was nowhere in evidence.  Dude left the clip for his sniper rifle at home ... until last night when he went 7-8 from deep en route to 23 completely unexpected points.  Like the Mavs last year, like most NBA champions in fact, the Heat repeatedly got serious help when they needed it from the unlikeliest of quarters.   Also, Juwan Howard has a ring now, which kind of makes me happy.

And let's not forget that OKC beat themselves to a degree, too.  James Harden evaporated so badly my grandpa wouldn't have feared the beard in a game of one-on-one.  Russ Westbrook was exactly what we expected: a mercurial alchemy of unadulterated genius and head-scratching flaws.  Trouble was, the flaws were unfortunately on prominent display at too many of the wrong times.  Scott Brooks either didn't recognize that Nick Collison needed much more burn this series (and Kendrick Perkins needed much less) or he was simply too reluctant to tamper with the rotations that had gotten the Thunder this far.  And Kevin Durant, for all his offensive wizardry, is simply not physically strong enough, mentally eff-you enough, and defensively skilled enough to handle LeBron on both ends of the floor for extended stretches of time.  Not yet.  But he'll get there.  His ceiling is still miles away, and watching him reach it while going toe-to-toe with LeBron James for the next ten years is going to be a phenomenal experience.

I know you're hurt and angry and more than a little depressed that you had to watch the guy who sold out your city win a title, but try to look on the bright side.  We get to watch a league full of young, transcendent talent blossom for the foreseeable future, bookended by two incredibly entertaining teams who couldn't have set up a better collection of story arcs and interchangeable hero/villain personae (depending on where you stand.)  As basketball fans, what more can we really ask?

Take care, and I'll try to visit Boston sometime soon.

Your pal,

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Art Of Not Caring

The Miami Heat are clearly not students of the game.  Of course they watch plenty of film, understand their offensive sets and defensive rotations and, being professionals, generally make smart basketball decisions on the court.  But in the other meaning of that plaudit, the "we understand our places within the context of the game's history and our roles in a prescribed narrative" sense, they are thumbing their collective noses at the "students" facet of SOTG.  Instead, they prefer a tabula so incredibly rasa that it ignores all preconceptions.  The Heat have no shared knowledge or experiences with the rest of the league.  They are operating in the shadows of possibility; shimmering through the cracks and slinking into a new kind of history in a new NBA.

It wasn't supposed to be this way.  No yet, anyway.  When the playoffs started, we thought we had a reasonable picture of the league's topography.  In retrospect, we were watching an accelerated form of continental drift.  The inevitable aging process overtook the Celtics and Lakers suddenly and violently.  Cataclysmic injuries decimated the Bulls and Magic.  The perfectly calibrated machine of the San Antonio Spurs inexplicably threw several gears.  It's not surprising that the Thunder and Heat wound up in the finals, but the finality of their arrivals felt a good deal more declarative than it ought to have done given the competition they faced on the way. 

And now Miami is setting about the task of dismantling our perceptions.  They couldn't care less that the Thunder are a younger, deeper, and more talented team.  They couldn't care less that their roster construction is flimsy and their rotation beyond short.  They really, really couldn't care less that the manner of their coming together and their initial, phenomenal arrogance were and are anathema to an awful lot of basketball fans.  They are discarding it all like so much dime-store magazine blather.

To reiterate: They.  Do.  Not.  Care.

Dwyane Wade doesn't care that he's old and hobbled.  Shane Battier doesn't care that he's Nosferatu ancient.  Erik Spoelstra doesn't care that he is supposedly the inferior coach in this series.  Mario Chalmers doesn't care that he's supposed to be irrelevant.  Chris Bosh doesn't care what we think of him or how many "Big Two-And-A-Half" quips we make.  And LeBron?  LeBron is playing transcendent basketball and doesn't care about anything anymore.  He's gone beyond the realm of caring or even the concept of emotion, becoming a hoops automaton of sheer destructive force. 

This was supposed to be an epic, a six- or seven-game display of pyrotechnic excellence, histrionics, and heroics.  The Heat have chucked that narrative, electing instead to hold an eff-you referendum on "clutch" and basketball ethics and how things work in the NBA in general.  They have pushed the Thunder to the brink of a gentleman's sweep, and stand themselves on the precipice of a banner-raising victory.  Despite all the talent and force of will Oklahoma City have brought to bear and the staggeringly beautiful basketball they have played much of the time, they are Charge of the Light Brigade-ing their way through this finals, and Miami is sure-God the valley of Death. 

When the smoke clears on Thursday night, we could very well see the Heat accepting the Larry O'Brien trophy.  They certainly look ready for it.  Damn our petty storylines, full speed ahead.  This is the new NBA, and the Heat are the messengers.  They are redefining what is important and how to win: the context doesn't matter; history is immaterial; all legacies save the final score of game five are moot.  Inexorable, implacable, and uncaring.  That's the alternate narrative.  That's the new Big Three.  

Monday, June 18, 2012

Andrelton Simmons In June: A Timeline

Well, this ain't good.

The Atlanta Braves are in something of a freefall.  They have lost six of their last seven games, stranded an unholy quantity of base runners, and failed to score any runs in twenty consecutive innings.  They're sitting 4 games back of the Nationals in the NL East, barely clinging to a wild card slot.  The starting lineup is banged up, and Brandon Beachy's just-announced move to the DL is the latest in a series of unfortunate developments for the pitching staff.  At times like this, reflecting on the big picture is a sure path to the blues.  Scratch that; the Blues.  With a capital B.  I'm talking whiskey-drenched, cigarette-smoked, slide-guitar-moanin' in the juke joint, life sure is awful here.

So instead of walkin' on down that lonesome road, let's focus on one of the precious few bright spots on this Braves roster: the glorious wonder that is Andrelton Simmons.

June 1: Listening to AM 680 in the car, traffic at a glacial crawl along 400 North.  Buck Belue, of Run Lindsay Run!!! fame, informs me and the rest of Atlanta's sports talk-listening public that the Braves have sent Tyler Pastornicky back down to the minors and called up Andrelton Simmons to be the new everyday shortstop.  The book on our boy is that he's a bona fide  defensive whiz kid but not too dab a hand with the lumber.  Buck is of the opinion that just about anything will be an improvement over Pastornicky, who has been woefully mediocre thus far.  I couldn't agree more.   

A little backstory here: Simmons nearly won the starting job in spring training, but Atlanta had already earmarked essentially preordained Pastornicky as the club's Opening Day starter, and the battle was, by all accounts, a stilted one for Simmons, who nonetheless almost pulled it off.  Instead, he took the additional time in the minors gaining confidence, refining his swing, and biding his time.

June 2: Simmons makes his first Major League start on the road against the Nats.  He goes oh-fer at the plate, but looks every inch the sublime defensive player we've been hearing about.  He's doing the little things right, moving around the infield dirt with the self-assured fluidity great fielders always seem to have.  He looks like he was born to gobble up funny hops and rifle them to first.  Every instinct is perfectly attenuated, every movement purposeful and smooth.  He reminds me a little, blasphemous at this is to write, of a young Ozzie Smith.  Without the back flips, obviously, but with a similar grace and intelligence.

June 5: The Braves play their first game in the 21st-century-marketing-funhouse-cum-architectural-atrocity that is the Miami Marlins' new stadium.  Simmons has a three-hit, three-RBI game, scores a run, and demonstrates audacious foot speed when he legs out a triple.  Kid can fly.  Braves win 11-0.

June 9: A breezy day at Turner Field.  Clouds and Atlanta smog make for soft-focus lighting conditions in the late afternoon as the Braves square off with the Blue Jays.  In the bottom of the 7th inning, Simmons sends his first career dinger over the wall in left-center.  The ball just barely gets out of the yard, carrying 391 feet, but no one ever accused the guy of being a power hitter, right?  He even home run trots classily.  If any occasion would give a little leeway for celebratory histrionics, you'd think a first homer in The Show would be it, but Simmons rounds the bases at a good clip; he acts like he's been there before.  When the game ends, he's batting .280, third-best on the roster.  The kid who wasn't supposed to be much of a hitter is anchoring the bottom of the order.  Well, then.

June 11-13: After having lost the final game in the Toronto series, the Braves are swept at home by the Yankees, catalyzing their current tailspin.  Nonetheless, Simmons bats .364 against some formidable New York pitching, including a 2-4 day against ace CC Sabathia.

June 15: Simmons goes 3-4, and hits his second career home run in almost the exact same spot as his first, 390 feet to left-center.  The blast puts the Braves on top 3-2; they will go on to win the game.

Today: In a few hours, Simmons will take the field at Yankee Stadium for the first time.  His resume as of now: a stellar  .333/.396/.542 slash line, an ever-growing collection of Web Gem-worthy highlights in the field, and an all-around savvy that is just plain scarce among rookies with a mere 14 games of experience at the game's highest level.

If the Braves don't start putting together some wins, this season could take a sour turn much sooner than last year's September collapse, but at least we have the privilege of watching a great young career unfold in our back yard.  Andrelton Simmons may not be the answer, but he's a nice diversion from the unpleasant questions Braves fans have been contemplating of late.  Sometimes, that's all you can ask.  

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Ashes of Romance: One Weekend Kills America's Sports Nostalgia, Only Not Really Because It Was Already Dead.

Apologies for another protracted absence.  Life has kept me from writing nearly as much as I'd like recently, but it flat-out could not be helped.  Oh well, take the opportunity when you can get it, I guess.  A few words on last weekend, the shimmering of dead eras, and the sweetness of bygone days.

(Disclaimer: at thirty years of age, it's entirely possible that I don't know what I'm talking about.)

It seems like every year when the Kentucky Derby rolls around, the winner acquires a certain cachet founded upon a brief flash of fame and a slightly-longer flare of potential.  "If only this horse can win the Triple Crown", the (insane) thinking of the industry goes, "the tremendous nature of that feat will resurrect America's love of horse racing."  This hopelessly self-deluding notion is amplified if that horse also manages to prevail in The Preakness.  In such an instance, as happened this year with I'll Have Another, anticipation builds feverishly towards the Belmont because Watching History In The Making is always worthwhile.  The hard truth, though, is that there is no bringing the sport of kings back to its formerly prestigious and central role in the cultural landscape.  I'll Have Another's scratch from the Triple Crown's final leg was lamented as the death knell of racing's last, best hope, but that moment, if it ever happened, passed us by a good while ago.  Horse racing is, in its own parlance, fading down the back stretch.

I watched a few episodes of "Luck" before it was cancelled, and I think the show sums up neatly the reasons for racing's slow descent into irrelevancy.  Here we see a world of mobsters and gamblers, horse people and those whose lives depend on them and the animals they train and race.  The romantic seediness of horse racing, the booze and bets and attendant trappings, are on full display.  The show paints a picture of the glorious, grimy intimacy within which the sport exists.  But even in a modern context, the lexicon of the railbirds, trainers, and crooks feels antiquated, like it belongs to halcyon days that are long gone.  The problem is that America doesn't really operate that way anymore.  We don't care to deal in up-close like we used to, and up-close is what horse racing is really selling.  Consider: the Kentucky Derby is a days-long event and spectacle, but on television it takes all of ten or fifteen minutes to get from "My Old Kentucky Home" to the after-race roses and interviews.  TV simply fails to convey the heart of the thing.  The experience.  The slow, all-day julep-fueled build of anticipation; the clank of betting windows closing and, moments later, the whoosh of the gates opening; the churning of hooves in the dirt and the throaty press of the crowd; the feel of a ticket, maybe a winner, clenched in a sweating, white-knuckled hand; the unadulterated beauty and power of one horse shooting the inside rail on the final turn, thundering out ahead under the brassy-blue incandescent Southern sky ... none of that comes close to making it through the TV screen.   What we see are a bunch of pretty horsies with funny names hauling ass around the track, and the results, and some ceremony, and that's it. 

In other words, horse racing's grandeur and essence is diminished by modern media's distancing effect in a way that no other sport is.  Where watching football on a 56-inch hi-def TV may not be the same as being in the stadium, it carries some consequential benefits, like enjoying the event without the hassle of parking and not paying $9.00 for a beer.  Conversely, watching a race in the same way misses the point almost completely.  Stripped of atmosphere and context, it's something of a dull (not to mention fleetingly brief) business to take in, which is why so few still do with any regularity.  Sure, the gamblers will tune in to see whether or not they hit the exacta, but there's nothing substantial or engaging for the average person who can flip the channel at any time to another game or reality show or whatever.  TV, for all its beautiful usefulness within the sporting world, is violently reductive to horse racing, and is slowly but inexorably performing a coup de grace on the industry.

Once upon a time, racing was one third of the primary triptych of American sports.  Along with boxing (receding into meaninglessness) baseball (holding on for grim life), it dominated not just gamblers' myopic attentions, but the fascination of the country.  People huddled around transistor radios on front stoops and in barber shops, breathlessly hanging on the ballgame, the race, or the boxing match.  It is a sort of morbid thought exercise deciphering whether that America turning into this one killed (or is in the process of killing) those sports, or if their deaths were/are among the agents that accelerated the transformation.  Or perhaps those esteemed modern philosophers The Buggles had it right all along, and video did indeed kill the radio star.  

Earlier in the week, one of our teachers came into work and asked me what I thought about the Pacquiao/Bradley fight and the ensuing outcry over the decision.  I was forced to confess that I haven't watched a boxing match since Tyson and Holyfield were the sport's biggest luminaries, and that I follow the sweet science in only the most cursory manner these days.  I hadn't seen a single punch, and was therefore unable to provide an informed opinion, but I gather it was an outright travesty of the highest order.  Like I'll Have Another's failure to run in the Belmont Stakes, the judges' decision on Pacquiao/Bradley has been proclaimed by more than a few people to be the final nail in the sport's coffin.  Those people apparently missed boxing's mainstream obituary.  It was published when Mike Tyson retired, and it read: it's not enough anymore.     

This weekend may have been a confluence of horrible occurrences for horse racing and boxing, but it was akin to the coma patient developing pneumonia; an unfortunate addendum to an already un-salvageable situation.  The fact is that we prefer our entertainment more visceral, more exciting, more more-ish now.  We demand the type of gleaming edifice and perpetual motion those two sports are ill-equipped to provide.  Even at their most dazzling, the pugilist's artistry and the majestic thoroughbred simply don't carry the brutal immediacy and saturation to sustain themselves, and baseball will find itself in a similar boat if it continues to stubbornly resist a very necessary evolution. 

Last Saturday night, we didn't witness the demise of anything at all.  What we saw were the ashes of romance, spilled out of the urn of America's sporting past, blowing aimlessly in an uncaring wind.

Friday, June 8, 2012


"So that's everything, huh?  No weapons, no friends, no hope.  Take all that away and what's left?"


-- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, "Becoming: Part 2."

One of the most appealing facets of basketball is its inherent lack of artifice.  Basketball is elemental; it's a primal thing.  Wood court.  Metal rims.  Glass backboards.  Twine nets.  Rubber ball.  Ten guys essentially wearing clothes that anyone might wear to the gym, albeit with matching colors and logos and higher thread counts.  There are no illusions and no concealment on a basketball court.  The game and its participants are laid bare. 

Perhaps no person on earth would be more qualified to give a symposium on that aspect of the game than LeBron James.  The cumulative effect of everything from his disappearing act in that last game in Cleveland to The Decision to The Laser Show Fog Machine Pep Rally Thingy to last year's NBA Finals to Haslem-Bouncepass-Gate has been an accrued level of pressure unlike anything we've seen an athlete experience before.  Every iota of his being gets dissected and analyzed and turned into a referendum on Global Iconography or What Greatness Means or whatever.  At this point, people would probably label his dental hygiene "unclutch" if he forgot to floss one morning.  The thing about pressure is, you put an element under enough of it for enough years and apply the requisite heat, and eventually you get a diamond.  Which, aside from its monetary value, is a beautiful, purified bit of rock hard enough to cut through damn near anything on earth.  Last night, LeBron James was the world's most expensive and spectacular engagement ring.

The situation was all too familiar.  An elimination game in the Boston Garden, high stakes, backs-against-wall, win or go home.  He's been there ... and failed.  He's been there ... and let Dwyane Wade carry the moment.  And now, he's been there and done that, submitting his latest superhuman (meta-human?  supra-human?) entry in a playoff resume that, despite lacking the all-important rings, is still resplendent with several nights of sheer brilliance.      

We talk about athletes going into "video game mode" whenever they appear particularly unstoppable during a given game.  While he certainly played as such, LeBron also turned that concept on its head, appearing literally as if he were controlling his body from some distant remove, munching chips on a couch as he guided a catatonia-eyed avatar through an impossibly flawless game.      

It wasn't just the numbers either, though certainly they alone are enough to dizzy the mind: 45-15-5.  That's Wilt territory, if you're scoring at home.  Much has been made of the efficiency with which he scored those points, but LeBron had an economy of being last night that I don't believe we have ever witnessed before.  Jordan played with a contained fury and a calculated destructiveness.  Kobe has his trademark bulldog-lipped menace and god help anyone, even his own teammates, in his way.  This was an entirely different thing.  To all appearances, LeBron didn't have any teammates last night.  There were also no opposing players, refs, coaches, crowd, TV cameras, or even a building.  Heck, there might not have been a court.  He was alone without being lonesome, separate without seeing there was anything to be separated from.  LeBron's world last night had borders so tightly-defined that they ended where his fingertips touched the ball.  For all the acknowledgement he gave anything else, his feet may as well have been traversing negative space in a howling void.

LeBron wasn't a blank slate; then we would at least have been looking at the slate with the knowledge that something might be drawn on it at some point.  He didn't have a thousand yard stare, because that would imply that he was in a state where distances have meaning and can be measured.  It wasn't a zen calm, and he wasn't dialed in.  If anything, he was tuned as out as possible.  Forget radio silence, he was simply gone.

We can't know for certain, obviously, but if I could hazard a guess, I'd say that LBJ, out of sheer desperation and need, discovered within himself a completely new way to play basketball.  Faced with the possibility of once again crumbling in the same arena where so many of his past catastrophes have played out, and the full, brutal knowledge of what the fallout from such an occurrence would be like, LeBron James elected to shut down.  He retreated from the weight of the moment by becoming weightless, sliding down an infinite spiral further and further into himself until he struck the middle of emotional and cognitive nowhere, which was his essence as a basketball player.  Away from the glare and clangor of being Chosen, detached from even the most rudimentary of interactions, he was precisely and only himself in all his myriad gifts and instincts, devoid of any context save that which he allowed.  Which was not this game, but The Game of Basketball, actual and pure.  It's been said and written innumerable times that LeBron can sometimes seem as if he's playing a different game than everyone else.  Last night was the first time he transcended "seeming" into the realm of truth.

The question of LeBron replicating such a performance is easily answerable.  Yes, he'll have more games like this one in his career.  No, Game 7 on Saturday night probably won't be one of them.  But if LeBron has figured out some sort of meditation/alchemy/transubstantiation mental trigger by which he becomes a 100% hoops-by-volume distillation of basketball, if he can duplicate that Nowhere Man dream state with even semi-reasonable frequency ... watch out.  LeBron James is the best basketball player in the world, but last night he became something more, different, and rare.  When you strip away everything else and you're left with only him, that's when you see greatness.  After the hammering and thrashing he's received in the court of public opinion, last night LeBron proved that we are all still, and always, witnesses.   

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Five Reasons To Root For A Thunder/Celtics NBA Finals

If your team is still alive in the NBA playoffs, then a) bully for you and b) you're exempted from figuring out precisely which potential Finals match-up is most aesthetically appealing to you.  You want whatever opponent will be most advantageous for your team to face, and while that choice may be debatable from a tactical standpoint, that sentiment governs your wishlist for the last series of the season.  For the rest of us, I suspect what pairing we desire depends on exactly what type of NBA fans we are.  (Note: I am not endorsing or deriding any one of the first three philosophical outlooks presented here.)  In no particular hierarchical order:

Thunder/Heat.  If you love star power and welcome the potential for explosive lunacy running rampant, this is your series.  This is also they way to go for those who hope to witness the young, humble, "built-the-right basketball way-through-the-draft-and-smart-trades" kids from OKC smoke those egomaniacs from South Beach.

Spurs/Heat.  If you enjoy LeBron and D-Wade (and maybe if he's healthy Chirs Bosh) doing their thing in transition, hucking oops and rocking rims, you want this to go down.  San Antonio is still a formidable defensive team, but they're not the lockdown kings of Spurs iterations past.  The Heat would put on a show in the open floor.  Conversely, if the Spurs could knock off Miami via Tony Parker righting his personal ship and by unleashing a deep bench (who really need to start playing better if they want to even make the Finals), there will be a deal of jubilation from those who can't wait to point of how a sound team concept and superior coaching can trump supernova-bright stardom.

Spurs/Celtics: For the nostalgia set.  Veteran squads, last hurrahs, and the two best coaches left in the playoffs.  This would be the ultimate slow-to-a-crawl, defense-first showdown.  And the NBA Marketing Team's worst nightmare incarnate.

Undoubtedly, any of those matchups would provide plenty of compelling basketball, and a few additional story lines to those mentioned above would emerge as they do over a finals series.  But the most compelling possibility by far, in my humble opinion, is Thunder/Celtics.

This would be my preference for a number of reasons which I will now enumerate in depth. 

1. Perk.  When the C's traded Kendrick Perkins at the deadline two seasons ago, they could not possibly have foreseen Jeff Green's heart troubles or how badly they would miss his scowly interior presence, but suffice it to say the Thunder got the better of this trade by an Oklahoma farm-country mile.  The chance to go up against his old cronies, with the potential to wind up with more titles than at least three future Hall-of-Famers, might propel him to even more incredible heights than his 15-point, 9-rebound WCF Game 4.

2.  The Great PG Battle.  Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook are undeniably two of the best young point guards in the league, albeit in entirely different ways.  More than that, though, they are eerily reminiscent of one another in temperament.  In many respects, Westbrook is almost a reverberation of Rondo's past, an echo from four seasons ago being sonically re-imaged into the now, but slightly distorted from its original waveform.  Think about how we describe the Thunder's dynamo PG: Good kid, interesting skill set, but somewhat problematic.  Petulant, erratic, and unpredictable.  Inexplicably lapses into deep funks, but can also carry the team.  Not the best player on the floor, but the linchpin off of which everything else is keyed.  A study in contradictions, given to sullen fits and non-replicable displays of genius.  Isn't that essentially a carbon copy of our perceptions of Rondo a few years back?  This matchup would be utterly fascinating; watching Rondo stare down his own ghost would be a delight, and if that ghost can evolve along similar lines and up the ante, so much the better for the rest of us.  

3.  If the Thunder can advance past San Antonio, much will be made of the torch-passing, old-to-young theme.  If they can beat the Spurs and Celtics, they will have knocked off the winners of every Finals since 1998 save the '04 Pistons and '06 Heat ... in a single postseason run.  It's difficult to envision a more declarative way of announcing the league's New Undisputed Alpha Dogs.  They have to actually pull it off first, but still. 

4.  You want to watch Paul Pierce give Kevin Durant firsthand basketball lessons of slickest, super-craftiest variety, right?  Of course you do.  It'll be like Crash Davis and Nuke LaLoosh, only with the desire to hoist the Larry O'brien Trophy coming between them instead of a Poetry and English Composition professor.  "This is how you draw contact, Kevin.  Jot this down ..."

5.  The oldest franchise in the league against the youngest, and I don't mean the median age of their respective rosters.  I am literally talking about The Celtics, the winningest and most storied team in professional basketball history, playing opposite a team that essentially manifested overnight in a fly-over state because some wealthy people decided they didn't give a damn about the city of Seattle.  (You know, where Ray Allen used to play.)  Oklahoma City is still, collectively, a new-born, wide-eyed, punch-drunk basketball entity, from the ownership  to the players to Scott Brooks to the fans to the folks who work concessions at an arena the likes of which they probably never thought they'd see in their town.  Stepping into the NBA Finals for the first time against Boston, where they've bled hoops for generations compared to OKC's few seasons, will make for an interesting contrast. 

No matter what, we should soak up the basketball we have left before it goes away until November, but if the sports gods are feeling benevolent, I hope they grant this humble request: Thunder/Celtics Finals, seven games (pretty please), and all the drama and pyrotechnics we can stand.  It's not too much to ask, right?  Now, let us pray.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Infinitesimal: Baseball's Self-Protection Cliche Mechanism and the Probability of Every Pitch.

Everything about baseball is big.  Not in the sense of football's visceral immediacy or the larger-than-life swagger of basketball, and certainly not as regards television ratings, but still.  Football and hoops, though entirely different in their respective aesthetics, are predicated on a blaring-trumpets-and-furious-impact brand of excitement.  Baseball lacks such decadent fervor, but in terms of scope, no other American sport comes close.  Stacked up next to its brethren, it is a thing of hulking immenisty.  There's a half-century more of history and tradition, and nearly twice as many games per season, as in any other sport.  Where football airs like a series of 16 mini-dramas, and basketball and hockey seemingly (but not really at all) mark empty time until their lengthy second seasons begin, baseball is a sprawling construct of infinite variability.  This seems counterintuitive in the sense that baseball allows for the least improvisational freedom within its structure of any sport.  However, consider that every pitch represents a series of discreet possibilities which will affect the selection of all future pitches, possibly into the next game or month or season if you factor in injuries and pitch counts.  On the micro level, baseball is staggering in its complexity.  On the macro level, that complexity runs over the course of a 162-game chain reaction.  Baseball is the ultimate "butterfly flaps its wings and causes a rain storm" exemplar.

One of the byproducts of that hugeness is that baseball has evolved an almost limitless stream of folklore and conventional wisdom that, aside from supposedly illuminating the game, mostly help us cope with that complicated and lengthy slog without our brains turning to mush.  You could publish a War And Peace-sized tome containing nothing but baseball cliches, and you still might need a few appendices to cram in every tired phrase and tidbit.  Of that volume, there would probably be a couple of chapters devoted to not sweating a losing streak in May, that the standings don't really start to matter until after the All Star Break, and similar sentiments, of which there are legion.  These ideas exist because if we fully engaged and invested in every single pitch, at-bat, game, series, etc., we would go bonkers.  Not just fans, either.  The players and managers and broadcasters and everyone else have to tell themselves, just as we do, that those early-season losses don't matter.  A pitcher gets shelled?  Shake it off.  No big deal.  A hitter goes 0-for-26?  Take some extra BP, you'll get your swing back.  Don't worry.  Truthfully, thinking this way, in dismissive cliches, is how we prevent the dizzying spiral that would probably result if we allowed ourselves to recognize and comprehend the enormity of every pitch.  But here's the thing: every pitch counts. 

There's been a recent movement in basketball analytics decrying the notion of "clutch."  To thumbnail sketch it: two points is two points, and the bricked jumper in the second quarter is no less significant than the one at the end of the game in terms of contributing to the loss.  We could have a merry little argument about basketball "closers" and who does or does not have the intestinal fortitude to take and make those last-second shots, but from a purely numbers perspective, the no-clutch argument holds up.  Two points is two points.  You could say the exact same thing is true for baseball.  A win is a win.  And since those wins hinge entirely on what transpires from pitch to pitch, all pitches matter.

If you don't believe me, ask any Braves or Red Sox fan what sort of crime they'd be willing to commit to retroactively tack on just one more victory before game 162 last season.  If Tim Hudson walks one less batter that scores on a sac fly in a 5-4 Atlanta loss, the Braves are in the playoffs.  If David Ortiz launches one more dinger over the Green Monster in a close game, we never have to hear about Beer-and-Chicken Gate.  Or not.  Maybe it's a different guy at the plate or on the mound.  Maybe it's a game in mid-August, maybe it's Opening Day.  Baseball is governed by minutiae; it breathes and quakes in the passed balls and bloop singles, the reliever who hung a slider and the pinch hitter who connected with it.    

Better yet, ask a Cardinals fan how grateful they are for every single "W" they eked out along the ride to the World Series last year.  Taking an example at random: on April 5th, 2011, in the bottom of the 7th inning, Albert Pujols singled to left field, scoring Ryan Theriot and Colby Rasmus and giving the Cards a 3-2 lead which they held for the remainder of the game.  Any one of the pitches in any of their respective at-bats were responsible for the events leading to the win.  Also, though, it was Kyle McClellan who held the Pirates to 2 runs over 6 innings.  McClellan, incidentally, was making his first Big League career start in place of an out-for-the-season Adam Wainwright.  While there's no mistake about who the superior pitcher of the two is, it's possible that Wainwright might have gone out and had a bad outing, the Cards might have lost the game, and maybe that loss means they don't make the playoffs and stage their improbable run to the championship.  The preseason pitch that took Wainwright out of the 2011 equation may have been more significant on April 5th than any that actually got thrown in the game, and on and on down the regression analysis rabbit hole we go.  If so inclined, you could engage in this sort of retroactive what-iffing for every team, every game, and every pitch of every season.  That would make you an obsessive-psychotic-masochistic loony, but you could do it.  Baseball is the only game where you can collapse infinity down to gold dust fragments and still not distinguish anything solid.

Here in Atlanta, one of our sports talk radio hosts is a fellow named John Kincade, who is likeable and very good at his job even if he occasionally comes across as a sanctimonious, obnoxious bag of air.  (Related: Kincade is from Philadelphia.)  When the Braves went on their recent skid, callers were flooding the lines in consternation, and Kincade predictably started rattling off those don't-sweat-the-small-stuff cliches from that aforementioned fictitious baseball handbook.   

You people are panicking for no reason.  I'm not going to worry about the standings in early June.  If we can get healthy, we'll be fine.  It's a long season.  One game at a time.  Losing streaks happen.  It's no big deal.

Oh, but it is, John.  See, these losses don't seem like much cause for concern now, but if we're 3 games out of the wild card with five to play in September, they're going to be a big honking deal.  Your cavalier recitations of "accpeted" baseball philosophy are just platitudes that deny the facts.  It may indeed be a long season, but it is comprised, like every other measurable thing, of discreet units.  Road trips/home stands, series, games, innings, at -bats.  Oh yeah, and pitches.  Say what you will, but on the smallest scale, like inches in a mile, you're ultimately adding up a whole bunch of individual pitches to get to game 162.  And every pitch counts.