Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Notes On A Half Decade Of Found Objects and Strange Treasure.

I didn't realize it until I got home late last night, but Hardwood Paroxysm turned 5 years old yesterday.  Basketball, and particularly its NBA iteration, produces the highest across-the-board quality writing of any sport (this is technically a subjective opinion but also true), and f I were to list all the excellent basketball blogs available for your perusal on the internet, we'd be here a very, very long time.  That said, if you asked just about any hoops head to make such a list, I'd bet you all the money Antoine Walker no longer has that HP would be among the first sites mentioned.  So why am I about to dedicate a large swath of celebratory text to this anniversary, you ask?  What exactly is Hardwood Paroxysm?

In a literal sense, it's a basketball blog that was created five years and a day ago by Matt Moore and which has been home to a large number of extremely talented writers over that period, but HP's ethos has never been overly concerned with "literal."  Here you find a rare and unique confluence of detailed analysis and abstract thought.  There is wry humor if you want it, and heavy questions about life, and poetry, and nonsensical yet utterly engaging ramblings.  Here, statistics can have a quiet drink with alchemy, and the conversation will inevitably find its way to reasons why Kyle Lowry is criminally underrated.  Constructs are erected and torn down.  These people are not afraid of oblique angles.  They embrace them, in fact. 

Basketball, of course, is the nominal reason HP exists, but that seems reductive.  In the artisan hands of the writers, this game that we love so dearly becomes a prism, a means of refracting and reflecting our world and ourselves in new and interesting ways.  When I click on my bookmark to get here, I get excited in a way that I really don't about any other space on the internet.  OK, whaddaya have for me today?  I might learn about which Grizzlies lineups grab the most and least defensive rebounds, or how an undrafted backup point guard had a killer game at Summer League.  I might read about how watching a team got someone through a tough breakup.  I might stumble onto a rumination on Jarrett Jack's Twitter attacks of Ray Allen and Dwight Howard and how they remind someone of Andy Warhol's early work.  (This post hasn't actually been written, but it probably could be, and that's the beauty of the whole thing.) 

HP works in part because the people involved are scientists in that they want to figure out how and why things in basketball and life function the way they do; there is a true spirit of inquiry.  But far more importantly, it works because they aren't just colleagues, they're friends, with each other and with us, after a fashion.  They teach us, everyday, more about hoops, but in intensely personal ways.  We trade quips and observations with them on Daily Dime Live.  We come to know them through their work because it's never just about the game.  It's about us, and them, and shared adventures.  It's about joy and love and how we communicate those things to each other. 

HP has been a perpetual source of wonder and happiness for me since its inception.  It has been a sanctuary and a beacon, and just downright ineffably special.  And so I want to thank Matt Moore for this creation he birthed and the inspiration and beauty it's given us.  I want to thank everyone who has written on the site for their wit, opinions, and heart.  And I want to wish Jared and Amin the best of luck in continuing the work.  (Spoiler alert: they're going to do a phenomenal job.) 

Happy 5th birthday, Hardwood Paroxysm.   Many happy returns. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Taking My Mind Off Of Other Sports: Ten Teams To Enjoy This NBA Season.

I'll write the Chipper piece later.  Let me get some distance, chronological, emotional and otherwise, from Friday night's sad and ugly final punctuation mark on his career.  I'm depressed about the loss, pissed about that infield fly call, and embarrassed as hell by the fans.  Or rather, the portion of the fans who briefly lost their collective minds at Turner Field and started behaving like a bunch of depraved assholes.  We take a lot of guff, Atlanta fans do, for supposedly not being as passionate about our teams as other cities.  If that was a display of "passion", well f*** it, then.  I'd rather deal with a lifetime of insults from the neanderthals in Philly, New York, and Boston than be associated with the kind of hive-mind psychosis that leads to throwing batteries at players or games being literally called on account of riot.  (Cleveland Indians, 1974.  Look it up.)  I spent the entirety of that 20-minute bottle-chucking lapse of sanity standing in the stadium concourse with my best friend; both of us Atlanta sports diehards since birth.  In between long stretches of appalled silence, the one thing we kept repeating by way of conversation was some variant of: "I can't effing believe this is happening.  Atlanta fans never do this kind of stuff.  What the holy hell is going on?"  We were as outraged by that (egregious, awful, horrible) travesty of a call as anybody, but sweet jeebus, people, there is a line between normal anger and outright stupidity, and a chunk of the crowd crossed over the damn thing like it didn't exist or they didn't care or both.  Southern hospitality, my ass.

Sadly, that was only the start of of one long, slumping weekend for Georgia sports teams.  The Yellow Jackets put up a fight but were ultimately outplayed in all phases by a feisty Clemson squad in a loss that cost Tech's D-Coordinator Al Groh his job.  The Dawgs ... I don't want to talk about what happened in Columbia.  That wasn't a football game, it was a slow parade of visceral humiliation.  Or, to put it less poetically and far more accurately: Carolina kicked Georgia's asses up and down the field for four quarters.  End of story.

Two things salvaged the weekend: A phenomenal show by Grace Potter at The Tabernacle Saturday night (seriously, go see her live if you get a chance!!!), and the Falcons playing a sloppy first three quarters but ultimately pulling it together for a win over Washington to remain undefeated. 

Oh, and one other thing.  That bright burst of light flashing across the sky like a beacon of hope or the Bat Signal or some other damned explosion of heart and grace and purpose.  That's right, folks: Basketball!!!  Preseason is underway, and things tip off in earnest the day before Halloween.  For an outstanding season preview from the reigning HEAVY-WEIGHT CHAMMPPPEEEN OF THE WOOOOOOOORLLDDDDDD!!!! of basketball writers, skip on over to Grantland and soak up Zach Lowe's breakdown of all 30 teams.  I was contemplating a full-on NBA 2012-2013 preview, but frankly, Lowe dropped the mic and walked off stage with that piece (as if we expected anything less) and there's just no need for an inferior reproduction from me.  Instead, here's a list (in no particualr order) of the 10 teams I'm most excited about watching this year:

1. Miami.  For reasons that should be obvious.  A. Watching LeBron is always worthwhile.  B.  Will Wade stay on the court this season, or is his career going to be truncated by injuries?  C.  How will they function now that they've scaled Championship Mountain?  Can they maintain the drive towards sustained excellence of MJ's Bulls and Kobe's Lakers, or will the satisfaction of what they've achieved dull the gut-check propulsion necessary to repeat not one, not two, not three, not four...?
We'll see.

2.  OKC.  Did you spend a decent portion of the off-season wondering how the NBA Finals would have turned out if Eric Maynor had been healthy?   Me too.  Are you intrigued to see what kind of impact new draftee Percy Jones III has on an already exciting team?  Me too.  Are you ready to watch Russ to explosive, enigmatic Russ things?  To see if the Durantula continues to develop his game while assaulting another scoring title?  Me too!!!  Do you wonder if The Beard might, maybe, be less than the awesome force we all think he is?  Me too.  Gosh, we have a lot in common. 

3.  The Lakers.  Yeah, yeah, I hate them, you hate them, we all hate them.  And yes, I wrote a whole piece about how their acquisition of Dwight Howard made me much, much less inclined to watch them.  You know what?  Screw it.  They're running out four future Hall of Famers, including arguably the most devastating offensive backcourt of the past 15 years.  There frontcourt is downright terrifying.  Not even Mike Brown can screw this up.  As long as Father Time doesn't wrap his icy fingers around Nash's back or Kobe's knees, their floor is an almost certain trip the Western Conference Finals, with a ceiling that extends all the way to hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy.   

4.  Indiana.  The Pacers put the fear of God into Miami in last year's playoffs before LeBron went into full transcendental virtuoso mode, and they smartly retained the core responsible for that.  There's just something charming about this Indy squad.  They're a fun group of guys with complimentary styles of play and, when the key cogs are all in high gear simultaneously, capable of giving any team in the league a good battle. 

5.  My very own Atlanta Hawks.  If you think that's a shameless homer pick, hang on a second.  I'll put Horford and Smoove up against any starting frontcourt in the land, Devin Harris may be the best backup PG in the NBA (which is always a nice luxury) and, alternately, pairing him (at the two) with Jeff Teague will play havoc on opposing defenses.  We have a truckload of perimeter snipers (I see you, Lou Williams and Kyle Korver), Zaza, Anthony Tolliver (great acquisition), and everybody's favorite bench big Ivan Johnson should be sound rotation contributers.  Oh, and we're going to use this small, speedy assortment of cats to run like hell.  We're Nuggets East at this point.  Title contenders?  Not a chance, but I'm calling this team early (continuing the Denver analogy) for League Pass Darlings of the season.

6.  The Clippers.  Blake Griffin has moved from Must Watch Highlight-Making Slamma Jamma to OK, what else ya got? in near record time.  He can catch oops all day, but his shooting stroke and defense need serious refinement, and it's unclear whether he's willing to put the work in to become a more complete player.  (And he's on the short list for guys whose wallets get dinged the hardest by the NBA's new flopping policy.)  Which direction he chooses will have an immeasurable impact on L.A. not just because he's the ostensible franchise cornerstone, but because it will have a direct effect on how compelled CP3 might feel to stick around.  Also: Grant Hill!  I like Grant Hill. 

7.  The (hang on, I still have to get used to typing this ...) Brooklyn Nets.  The new Jay-Z designed uniforms, the dawning of an era, the potential clash of the Russian mob with the long-established Italian and Irish crime syndicates in New York ... uh ... Brook Lopez, I guess?  OK, there's not a lot of tangible reasons to watch this team, but it's a new team, the first professional sports franchise in Brooklyn since forever, and they have the potential, depending on how the Knicks' season unfolds, to usurp a decent enough portion of the Madison Square Garden crowd's affections to start a legitimate rivalry.  Let's all enjoy the ride. 

8.  Denver.  Even though I hope the Hawks usurp their League Pass Must-Watch crown, how can you not love this team?  Manimal and JaVale fo'eva!!!  'Nuff said.

9.  The Timberwolves.  Obviously, this mostly applies once Rubio returns, but there are a bevy of fine reasons why you should be tuning in from jump.  Kevin Love being Kevin Love.  AK-47 and Derrick Williams.  Free from the Darko Curse!!!  (Oh, Boston, I'm so sorry.)  And the biggest and best incentive of all: the potential redemption of Brandon Roy.  We all remember Roy going off in epic fashion against Dallas in the playoffs two seasons ago, and how we were so glad he could muster one more stellar effort before staggering of into the sunset on his ravaged knees.  If he can mount any sort of comeback, and especially if Rubio can come back at something close to 100% by February, this becomes the most lovable team in basketball.  Here's hoping that happens.

10.  New Orleans.  Fear the brow.  Fear The Brow.  FEAR THE BROW!!!!!!  Ahem, sorry.  But, you know, fear the brow. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Night In A Car Alone: A Brief Rumination On Irrational Fandom.

Being fans is a fascinatingly irrational part of our daily lives.  Whether it's a psychopathic overreaction to Kristen Stewart cheating on Robert Pattinson (and seriously, have we come to this, people?) or going near-catatonic over a humiliating playoff loss (like I did after the Falcons' atrocious showing against the Giants last year), the idea that we would emotionally invest in people and their exploits with virtually zero reciprocity is counterintuitive to the point of foolishness.  We cede certain territories of our souls to the objects of our fandom, and ask that they keep those fiefdoms in good repair.  Sometimes they're kind enough to oblige.  More often, those little geographical soul-areas are left with the weeds choking out all other flora and covering over the dilapidated buildings.  And yet, we keep going back to the well. 

We do this because, especially in this age of internet unilateral consciousness cum digitized isolation, we badly need real-world affirmation.  The nod to the person on the street wearing the same ball cap we're wearing.  The high fives with the random people in the stadium or the sports bar after a big play.  Fandom, even the long-suffering variety, is a balm for the countless bruises we sustain on our hearts and minds because we can share it.  Perhaps especially when it's also the cause of said bruises.  This paragraph is overwrought and a dead-horse-beaten reprisal of a thousand just like it, but it's that way because it is rooted in truth.  Fandom matters because it imparts a fundamental sense of belonging to the fan.    

Of course, there are also the contradictory tendencies that come with devotion.  Most common and identifiable is the "player you hate now but would adore if they were traded to your team."  (Copyright: Bill Simmons.)  I mean, I'm fairly certain Cole Hamels is an irredeemable d-bag, but if I woke up tomorrow and he was miraculously on the Braves' playoff roster, I would go buy his jersey immediately.  (Obviously, there are exceptions for people like John Rocker.)  It really is incredible how the name on the front of the uniform can eradicate any negatives associated with the name on the back.

But this kind of thing is mostly harmless, and also falls into the shared experience category.  It's when you isolate us, when the act of rooting becomes a solitary thing, that the emotions that find release and reflection among our fellow fans turn inwards and can lead to the more illogical extremes of rooting.  When you can't vent with or express you opinions to other people about what's going on in the game, things can take a bizarre turn.  

Last night, I had possibly the most viscerally irrational moment of my sports fan life, and that, folks, is saying something.  

Here I was, alone, in a dark car at night.  After a ten-hour work day, all I wanted was to get home, crack a beer, catch the end of the Braves game, watch the second half of Bears/Cowboys, and go to bed.  Unfortunately, I was stuck in a torrential downpour of the sort that grinds traffic to a crawl because no one can see out of their windshield for the rain, creeping down 400 South at eight miles an hour.  So I was already tense and cranky.  On the radio, Don Sutton and Jim Powell were narrating as the Braves struggled to stage a late-inning rally on the Pirates.  Since the Nationals were losing to Philly, we still had a shot at the division.  We win out, they lose out, presto: NL East title. 

Now, here's where things got strange in my interior fan dialogue.  (Or, you know, sad.)  Instead of getting upset at our anemic bats for failing to get anyone across the plate, I became absolutely furious at the Pirates.  Their season, after all, is over.  These last few games are a formality as they stagger to another sub-.500 finish, when even a month ago their playoff hopes were so vividly alive.  They don't have any dignity to play for.  Sid Bream took it with him when he left the visitors' clubhouse in Three Rivers Stadium in '92, and it hasn't been back since.  There was nothing in this game for Pittsburgh ... so why didn't the bastards have the decency to roll over and lose?  Why did they insist on fucking up our season?  Why?!?!?!  I started muttering snide and petulant asides every time a Pirates batter stepped into the box.  "I bet your OPS is terrible, Josh Harrison.  I've never even heard of you.  And you're probably lousy at Scrabble, too."  I was trying to be funny for the audience in my empty passenger seat, but I swear to Craig Kimbrel, there was real vitriol behind every thought and word.  For whatever reason, I simply could not fathom why the Bucs wouldn't lay down and die, and it incensed me with rage.

Two things about this: First, it is likely better for the Braves that we lost last night.  We can rest Chipper, Mac, Prado, and anyone else who needs a breather.  We can set the postseason rotation.  We can focus on scouting the Cardinals as fully as possible.  We can take a beat, let the kids on the bench get some time without it being critical, and see where they're at.  Tactically, this is a superior position to mad-sprinting and nail-biting our way towards an almost certainly unattainable division title.  And I knew that last night.  I knew losing that game would probably be better for the Braves in terms of the postseason, yet I still desperately wanted us to win that game.     

And second, why on earth should I want or expect the Pirates to just give up?  Truthfully, I'm afflicted by far more saccharine sentimentality than a proper 21st-Century sports writer ought to have.  I confess that to a great extent, I love all the "spirit of competition" and "majesty of sport" and "triumph of human will" jazz that gets spouted in the form of tacky aphorisms by certain ESPN personalities or in the pages of SI.  The thought of striving in the face of long odds or playing out the string for the love of the game fills me with warm fuzzies.  (Yes, I am a sap.)  In any other circumstance, I'm sure I would have thought the Pirates quite noble for playing hard even in the ashes and wreckage of another lousy September, made all the worse because things looked so promising for so long this year.  

But I didn't.  I was just pissed that these clowns were actually trying.  Again: I ascribed zero blame to the Braves' hitters who kept leaving runners stranded on base; it was all on the opposition for actually, well, opposing us.  And it occurred to me that I would never have felt this way if we were playing, say, the Brewers.  Because Milwaukee has been a pretty good ball club these past few seasons.  It was the notion of a lesser team, a weaker team, having the gall to step into our path.  In a brief moment of utter madness, I had become a bourgeois fan.  I felt entitled to my team stomping all over someone else purely because they were supposed to.  God help me, I'd turned into a Yankees fan.

I have no idea what possessed me.  Normally, I'm passionate but not irrational in my fandom, and not prone to these sorts of bile-fueled funks.  For whatever reason, last night set me off.  My neural pathways were shorted out, and temporarily replaced with idiocy.  Being a fan is strange that way, sometimes.