Wednesday, December 16, 2015


I remember watching Jordan retire the first time, walking away after a sixth NBA title in a finals where he had played brilliantly.  I remember Joe Montana.  Gretzky, Barry Sanders, Cal Ripken.  When a transcendent presence leaves a sport for the last time, it reverberates in a palpable way.  There are, at least for me, two defining elements to all such moments.

The first is gratitude.  Thank you for showing us this game, for elevating it, for giving us new eyes through the prism of your own vision of what it can be.  Thank you for indelible moments.  Thank you for your brilliance and your joy and all the toil and struggle and heartbreak you endured to reach a place where you could give them to yourself and your teammates and, by extension, to us.  Thank you, thank you, thank you. 

The second is the concept of change in two distinct senses: the change the athlete has wrought upon their chosen game, and the change their absence will impart to it.  If the circumstances and public conception of an entire sport were different before you arrived and will be different after you leave, that's a rare and beautiful thing.

Abby Wambach just walked off a professional soccer field for the last time.  It is probably impossible to overstate what she has done for the game in America, and definitely impossible to overstate her impact on a great many things that were both about soccer and beyond it.  There will be far better retrospectives written by far more knowledgeable people than me, and I think it's probably best to leave the long-arc career narratives, her impact both on and off the pitch, to those better acquainted with a living legend.

What I really want to say is: Abby Wambach is the reason I love soccer.  No one played better, cooler, more gleefully, more captivatingly, just MORE, than she did.  Ever.  She loved the game, loved her teammates, loved her life, just loved everything about soccer and existence so fiercely that if you were watching, you loved her because she made you love it all, too.  She transubstantiated the sport. 

And lots of other things, too.

She married her partner with no attendant press or trappings because fuck you why is this a thing?  She continues to fight for an equal gender pay scale in sports and in general because it should be obvious to any person with a functioning cerebral cortex that this is right.  She is both the greatest athlete of her sport and the least self-conscious athlete of her generation.  Abby Wambach is a freaking miracle. 

And she will probably hate all of the sappy and effusive retrospectives written about her career and life, including this one, so I'll get back to the top, to the two things every genius, sport-altering player makes us feel, and I'll say those things to Abby Wambach now:

Thank you.  The game won't be the same without you.  Thank you.  For Everything.    

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Notes From Carmichael 1.4

Photo by Agatha Donkar @brandnewkindof
This game was like looking at the aftermath of a horrific train wreck and realizing that whatever the box cars were carrying is seeping into the water table and will probably do all sorts of terrible things to the local flora and fauna.  Glancing at the box score, you might think it was a physical, defense-heavy affair.  You might think both teams were magnificently active on the boards, that they spent the afternoon grinding and boxing out and rotating crisply and contesting shots well.  You might think those things.  But oh, you would be mistaken.  Because this thing was composed of 1 part competent basketball and 87 parts garbage from all parties involved. 

Garbage defense.  Garbage transition game.  Garbage officiating.  And absolutely G A R B A G E shooting.  All those rebounds were simply a byproduct of the coterie of clangs and airballs that plagued Carolina (and Appalachian State, too) all game long.  I mean, the Heels' shot chart is just oceans of nothingness perforated by tiny pinpricks of Destinee Walker treys and one small bright cluster in the paint.  If they hadn't been able to finish at the rim and hadn't gone to the stripe a whopping 32 times, they would have put up maybe 40 points on the day.  Maybe. 

There were flashes of hope amid the disaster.  Hillary Summers showed off some nifty offense we hadn't seen before, and Stephanie Watts looked excellent handling the ball when Sylvia put a bigger lineup on the floor.  Both came up huge defensively with a combined eighteen boards and seven blocks.  Xylina McDaniel added three rejections of her own to go along with 5 points, 4 dimes, and 2 steals, further proof that she's getting her game back.  Jamie Cherry poured in twenty points, though she still looks a little off since the broken nose.  Des put up a 17-4-3 line with 4 steals to boot.  It all looks very nice on paper.

In real time, it was a disjointed effort full of baffling mistakes and shots that refused to fall.  The whole thing was ugly and sluggish and physical in all the wrong ways.  A 23-14 turnover-to-assist ratio is all you need to know about how things played out.  It was not good or joyful or pleasant to watch in any way.  I'm glad it's over and we can move on.

Carolina won, by the way.  Go Heels.  

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

End Of An Era

It was probably time.  News came down on Sunday that whatever bowl game Georgia winds up in to close out the season will be Mark Richt's last as head coach of the Bulldogs.  After leading the team between the hedges since 2001, the man who helmed my chosen team for virtually the entirety of my adult life has been fired. 

What he will leave behind in Athens is a conflicted legacy; a heap of goodwill and a pile of shattered expectations. 

You know the good stuff.  How Richt took a program that had been largely moribund and listless in the post-Vince Dooley years and turned it into a perennial SEC contender.  How humble and gracious he was with fans and media.  How he recruited better than damn near anyone else in the country, and how he loved every one of his players, five-stars and walk-ons alike, like family.  Also, how he brooked no shenanigans from them at any point.  Any UGA football player who put a toe out of line, broke a team rule, or got crosswise with the law, Richt's own moral compass, or both, was disciplined swiftly and (mostly) appropriately.  He was never draconian about those moments; he simply believed that he had a greater responsibility to the players as people than just coaching up the best football team he could manage, and sometimes a good kick in the ass was the best way to get his point across.  And the players didn't grouse or roll their eyes about it, even after they were long gone from Athens.  The man was and is universally beloved by pretty much anyone who ever put on the red and black.  Oh, and despite what recent "bout dang time" sentiments about his firing from a lot of Georgia fans would suggest, he won a very large number of football games, too.

You also know the bad stuff.  How all that recruiting and "do things the right way" team ethos never quite translated in the biggest moments.  For much of his time at Georgia, you could set your watch to one or two stupid, inexplicable losses per season.  Richt's teams virtually always started the year ranked highly, and often finished that way too.  But somewhere between Point A and Point B, there would be a few Hieronymus Bosch hellscape games.  Florida was always a problem, as was South Carolina after Steve Spurrier arrived at the latter.  And Tennessee, even if the Dawgs came out with a win, somehow injuring a staggering amount of Georgia players every single flippin' time they went to Knoxville.  All those little blips cost the Dawgs a fair number of chances at winning national titles or at least being there at the end with a fighting chance.  A glance at Richt's record against top-15 opponents shows a precipitous decline of late.  For all his accomplishments, Richt has never been able to put it all together for the one immaculate, season-long campaign that a team has to have in order to win on the sport's biggest stage.  At an elite program in the heart of SEC country, that sort of underperformance will eventually lead to being shown the door.  Which is why Sunday happened.

 Look, ultimately Mark Richt's successes have done far, far more good for Georgia football than his failings did the program harm.  As of this writing, Kirby Smart is slated to succeed him, but the fact that any prospective candidate would have been a complete fool not to answer a phone call from AD Greg McGarity before that decision was made is largely Richt's doing.  The bar he set (and then repeatedly cleared, although never quite highly enough) restored UGA to prominence in the national spotlight.  This too: the fact that he did it all without any of the morally shaded compromises that pervade so many top-flight programs should be commended.  (BTW - anyone who thought that overt morality somehow reflected a lack of obsessive competitiveness should remember that it was Richt who instigated that marvelous excessive celebration penalty on the opening TD aginst Florida in 2007.) 

It is probably true that, despite the sustained run of good-to-great seasons, Richt's tenure in Athens had run its course and scaled all the heights it ever was going to.  More and more over the past few years, it seemed those 10-win campaigns were never going to elevate into something bigger, and a change of scene was probably best at this juncture for both parties.  Whether UGA is headed for a Nebraska-esque disaster or a national title under Kirby Smart is anyone's guess, but Mark Richt is leaving things in a significantly better state than when he arrived, and he coached a lot of fun teams and great players, and we should be grateful for that even if he never quite met our most outsized expectations.  It's the most devout praise a Georgia fan can offer, and I'm offering it here on behalf of everyone because no matter how you felt about him at the end it's a fact:

Mark Richt was a Damn Good Dawg.  

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Notes From Carmichael 1.2 and 1.3

Photo by Agatha Donkar
The Tar Heels hosted and played in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame Women's Challenge this weekend.  It's one of those round robin mim-tourneys that break up the season, and this iteration featured Carolina, Fairleigh Dickinson, Iona, and Yale.  Due to work, I missed Friday night's tilt with Fairleigh Dickinson (as well as last Wednesday's complete and total demolition of Florida A&M.)  Looking at the box score and hearing Ags' recounting of events, Friday was not a great game save for Hillary Summers' 20 points and 13 boards, but we still dispatched the Knights without too much difficulty.  The rest of the weekend was a tougher row to hoe. 

1.2: Iona Man, Iona has some ballers on their roster.  Most notably, junior do-everything guard Marina Lizarazu.  She's got deft handles, excellent court vision, an incredibly versatile offensive game, and a tenacious defensive presence.  She plays with the kind of constant, searching propulsion that can occasionally get players into trouble but is more often an asset.  As you may know, they grow some damned fine basketball players in Spain (she hails from Madrid), and Lizarazu was deeply impressive all afternoon.  The other Gaels standout was forward Joy Adams, who drifted into open space or darted off screens and put in buckets before the Heels could get out to contest.  Perimeter defense continues to be something of a concern for the Heels against teams who move the ball well or play decent slash'n'kick, and Iona does both.  So a game that should have been something of a walk given the overall talent disparity turned into a slog in the second half.

Luckily for us, N'Dea Bryant and Stephanie Watts played excellent games, and Destinee Walker continued her freshman coming out party, pouring in 25 points on 10-of-13 shooting including going 5/6 from deep.  After we failed to put the game away in the third quarter like we should have, Iona surged back down the stretch.  The defense got sloppy, the offense got careless, and the Gaels got a lot of ground back in a hurry.  Thankfully, Des shot the lights out of the flippin' building to maintain the lead, and the Heels firmed up when they had to on both ends of the floor.  This was not an elegant win, but the job got done.

1.3: Yale  Another one Carolina should have had in the bag well before the final buzzer.  Yale plays fast and they've got size on the Heels, and they have no quit in them.  They played hard and fought like hell and didn't back down an inch.  We had them in a double-digit hole at halftime, and things looked to be well in hand.  Then the Bulldogs came out and bisected that deficit within two minutes in the third quarter. This forced Sylvia Hatchell to call one of her angry timeouts.  You know, the ones that mean "I will make you run suicides for twelve straight hours tomorrow if you don't get it together!!!"  So the Heels pushed their collective tachometer into the red.  N'Dea Bryant went into the paint and just skyed over ever living body for crucial rebounds.  My lord, she was transcendent.  Xylina McDaniel is playing herself back into game shape, and she flashed some low post brilliance today that will only become more potent.  When she gets all the way back, she's going to be a straight-up force.  And Jamie killed it down the stretch.  Yale kept pounding away, and we kept responding.  This was a win that required focus and heart and intuition, and Carolina had just enough of all three to get the job done.

Other Observations.

1. Jamie hasn't shaken all of the ill-advised bravado out of her game quite yet.  There were a few saucy/difficult passes this weekend that shouldn't have been attempted, and the outcomes were not good.  But she is worlds ahead of the erratic talent she was last season, and clearly capable of leading this team.  That kind of fearlessness can be problematic at times, but she counterbalances it with so much excellence that it's not really an issue. 

2. Damn our kiddos are going to be special.  The freshmen are showing up and showing out already and they are fully prepared to light some things on fire like West Virginia football fans.  This is going to be fabulous.

3.  I will stand on this soapbox until the Dove bar within is ground to a fine powder.  Sylvia has got to expand the bench.  If she keeps running this six-or-seven deep rotation all season, the whole thing will be shot by February.

That's all.  After a lackluster start, we're on a winning streak and rolling into the heart of the season.  Go Heels. 

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Notes From Carmichael 0.1 and 1.1

Photo by Agatha Donkar

0.1  We reached an agreement when I moved to Chapel Hill.  It was a simple diplomatic accord designed to keep household strife to a minimum, and it went like this: I would root for Tar Heel basketball with all my heart if Aggie would root for Georgia football with all of hers.  (Let's not discuss how the football side of that plan has worked out so far this season.  Seriously, I don't want to talk about it.)  Ags is a 3rd-generation Carolina alum, and they take that bit about "Tar Heel born and Tar Heel bred and when I die I'm a Tar Heel dead" very seriously here, so I figured it was either get on board with that or sleep on the couch for the rest of eternity.  Her father came to his Tar Heel fandom in a similar fashion when he married her mother, and there's an oft-recounted story of him looking to her after experiencing Carolina's first March Madness loss (the '77 Final against Marquette) and asking "does it always hurt this much?"  To which she replied "oh no, honey, sometimes it hurts much worse than this."  So I was going to love and then have my heartbroken.  Well, being from Atlanta, I'm pretty comfortable relating to sports that way.

What I didn't anticipate was falling absolutely head-over-Heels in love with the Carolina women's team.  When I was visiting Chapel Hill last year, we went to watch the ladies play blow the doors off Appalachian State, and I was just instantly smitten.  They were incredibly fun to watch, and played Carolina basketball to the bone, which is to say they ran their asses off, shot well, played ferocious defense, and dove for every loose ball.  That team was all verve and speed and joyful fury.  I remember head coach Sylvia Hatchell, a living legend after whom one of our kittens is named, alternately screaming at her girls when a possession faltered and then playing a sly little smile on her face when the offense hummed and and the ball zinged and yet another poor App State defender got her ankles flat broke.  I remember the spring-coiled grace of senior point guard Latifah Coleman, burning up the floor and whipping passes or blowing straight by everyone for a beautiful finish at the rim.  I remember Allisha Gray being a freaking offensive wizard who could do whatever she wanted with the ball in her hands.  I remember Jessica Washington draining a few shots with that funny but effective little leg-kick jumper of hers, playing pitbull defense, and one especially vivid image of her hurtling across the floor after a loose ball even though the game was well in hand by then and she maybe didn't need to.  I remember Megan Buckland's fantastic defensive footwork on the perimeter.  I remember Stephanie Mavunga absolutely destroying people in the paint on both ends of the floor, showing off a post game to be feared and a smothering defensive presence.  

Mostly, I remember the instant connection I felt to that team.  I turned to Aggie as we were walking out of Carmichael Arena and said "we have to get season tickets!"  I was moving up in January, and my God did I want to watch the Heels again, as many times as possible.

We went through the rest of the season loving and learning that team, their ticks and quirks and all the minutiae that makes following a team closely so much fun.  Everyone got a nickname, or at least we referred to them as if we were on a first-name basis.  ("Good shot, 'Lisha!"  "Nice pass, Danielle!")  By the end of the year, we could look at an opposing team during shoot around and know instantly which lineups Sylvia would favor in the game, what sets they were going to run, how the defensive rotations would probably shake out.  We watched them grow, the freshmen and sophomores deciphering things game by game, the juniors and seniors keeping them moving forward, a word of encouragement or a stern lecture always offered when it was needed.  And Sylvia presiding like the matriarchal goddess she is over the whole operation.

I utterly and completely adored that 2014-15 team.  That tournament loss to South Carolina broke my heart in a way that said "you're on this train for keeps, now, son."  And I am. 

This summer, Aggie and I spotted Sylvia Hatchell in the garden section of a Home Depot.  After working up our courage, we went over to tell her how much we enjoyed watching that team, how much the season had meant to us.  "Well thank you," she said.  "I hope you come back!"  Of course we were coming back, and we told her so, but looking at it now and remembering her demeanor as she said it, I think she probably knew what was going to happen later. 

The team I have just described to you no longer exists.  Some of that is natural; kids graduated and went on to whatever futures await them after donning that iconic white/blue argyle for the last time.  (Miss you, 'Tifah , Danielle, Megs, and Brit!)  Some of it is not natural and is very, very sad.  The academic scandal that rocked the Carolina athletic department probably did more damage to the women's basketball team than anyone else.  Stephanie Mavunga, Allisha Gray, and Jessica Washington, three absolutely critical players, departed during the offseason.  While they didn't all say so explicitly, it seems reasonable to assume that they did this to avoid the NCAA sanctions that are likely forthcoming.  Also gone is assistant coach and legendary former Carolina player Ivory Latta, though she may simply have wanted to focus more fully on her playing career, as she said in her farewell.

Of the players who made me fall in love with the Tar Heel women's team, only a handful are here for the new season.  Jamie Cherry, ready to start at point guard now.  The Hillarys (Summers and Fuller), who should assume more prominent roles this year.  Reserve forward Erika Johnson, and Xylina McDaniel, and incredible talent whose career has been (and is still, as of this writing) hampered by injuries. Everyone else is a new face, an unknown quantity.  I wanted so badly to watch the ladies who left play another season, but I'm also excited to see this new team, to learn them and love them the way I did last year.  This is Carolina women's basketball 2015, and that's all I need to get hyped for this season. 

*We have season tickets, but won't make it to every game this season because of various other obligations; mostly the fact that we have to work.  However, every game I make it to and all the away games I can watch on TV will get a "Notes From Carmichael" column, because I decided last year I wanted to make chronicling this team a permanent and essential part of my sports writing.  Much of the reason I've been shaking off the rust and writing more again recently, aside from just plain missing it, was to prepare to do this job the best I could for the Heels.  Welcome to the inaugural edition.  I hope you keep reading.  I hope you have as much fun as I will this season.  Let's get to it. 

1.1  The first thing Aggie said when I got home Friday night was: "Well, the good news is, Jamie stopped throwing that pass."  Jamie Cherry is our tremendously talented, pocket-sized sophomore point guard, and she had a habit last season on accelerating on the break, sprinting to the right at the top of the key, and whipping an ill-advised one-handed entry pass to a cutting big in heavy traffic.  These forays rarely ended well, and they were something she was going to have to sort out before becoming a starter this year.  Apparently, she has.  The bad news, apparently, was that we have a team full of freshman and walk-ons and transfers filling out the roster around Jamie, N'Dea, and The Hillarys, and they're still finding their identity in real time.

I missed the opening game, a loss against Gardener Webb, because work is a thing that sometimes has to happen while basketball is going on.  Ags went with her best friend, and reported that Friday played out almost identically to the game we went through this afternoon, so you can consider this a meta-recap of the opener as well as an actual recap of today's tilt with Oregon.

What I noticed at shoot around: Jamie can still bomb threes, N'Dea's shot looks more polished and her footwork has more fluidity than it did, and freshman phenom Destinee Walker has that smooth, cat-quick release you see in Steph Curry and some very nice handles, too.

What I failed to notice at shoot around: Oregon's team is HUGE, LONG, and FAST.  When they were just putting up jumpers at the far end of Carmichael, I thought "we're going to be at a size disadvantage here."  As soon as they went into a layup line and I could watch them run and really see that speed and size at work and those looooong arms unfolding, I thought "oh #*$%&^, that's gonna be a problem!!!"

Despite the massive size deficit, we did a (mostly) good job of denying the Ducks a lot of offensive time in the paint.  They didn't get more than a handful of entry passes inside cleanly all game, and when they did, their overwhelming height couldn't totally make up for a general lack of footwork.  Aside from the outstanding Jillian Alleyne, not one of Oregon's massive frontcourt players had much going either back-to-the-basket or with a face-up game.  The two defensive issues I was worried most about before tip, getting hammered in the post and killed on the glass, weren't all that much of a problem for us.  The problem was that Oregon can pass and shoot, and our defensive rotations on the perimeter were kind of garbage.  The Ducks didn't really run in transition (too big and plodding), but they all knew how to work a half-court game to death until someone came open for a shot, and they lit up Carolina with uncontested corner threes all day.  Over and over, they'd ping-pong the ball around the perimeter, loosening things up and getting the defense moving.  Then someone would catch and hold or take a dribble, and the sheer size would draw an extra Tar Heel into either a full-on double team or just a crucial few steps out of position.  Then back went the ball, whipping out and around to a wide open shooter, and man, Oregon was vicious from long range.  (They went 44.8% from deep for the game.)  We were perpetually three steps too slow closing out, or too far out of position to even think about getting back to the shooter.  Oregon didn't win with size by bludgeoning us with it, but it made the help defense collapse on whoever had the ball because they looked too big to guard one-on-one, and that was the Heels' undoing.

The behemoth Ducks proved even more problematic for Carolina's offense.  As Aggie pointed out, we can't run like we did last year because the front court just isn't as fast and talented as it was, not yet anyway.  Oregon was also fast enough in defensive transition that it might not have mattered.  Anyway, we set up in half-court sets most of the afternoon, and it became readily apparent that entry passes to the post were a fool's errand at best.  Those huge defenders weren't going to give up anything inside, even to a talent like Hillary Summers.  So we relied on outside shooting and outhustling the Ducks on the glass.  (The final rebounding total was 35-34 in Oregon's favor, but we were flying into the paint all day when shots went up, athleticism making up for size and leading to putbacks or at least extending possessions.  It was actually pretty incredible to watch us jumping over and around and in front of Oregon's massive front line to continually snag boards.)    

Only three things worked offensively: dribble handoffs at the top of the key that tilted Oregon's D just enough to open up some seems inside; some nice but inconsistent shooting from Jamie (who shot the lights out from deep) Stephanie Watts, N'Dea Bryant, and Destinee Walker; and sending players barreling into the teeth of Oregon's D to draw fouls and get to the line.  (We were 15/21 from the stripe to the Ducks' 6/10.)

Ultimately, it wasn't enough.  As the seconds ticked away in the fourth quarter, Jamie dribbled to the right at the top of the key, upfaked an Oregon defender out of her sneakers, took one step to the right, and buried a trey to pull us within one.  A last-gasp possession saw her very nearly sink another to win it, but the ball was just a hair off line.  It rattled on the rim and then bounced out.  It was a tough loss, our second in a row.  But there's plenty of season ahead, and all the hope in the world for Carolina to come together.  If the flashes we saw today can be refined and made into a consistent identity, this team is going to be fierce.

Other observations:

1. This is Jamie Cherry's team now.  She's running the offense and playing harder than anyone at the other end.  I particularly remember her sliding into the paint as one of Oregon's huge guards drove the lane and drawing a charge as someone a full foot taller than her sent her to the deck.  When the refs whistled the call, Jamie lay on the floor pumping both fists and screaming at the sky, thrilled to have gotten herself layed out in the name of getting us one extra possession, one little extra edge.  She's only a sophomore, but the team is following her example and taking on her identity.  Oh, and she will still fearlessly can a three in anybody's mug.  Jamie Cherry is an ice-cold assassin, and I love her for it.

2. Destinee.  Freaking.  Walker.  Her line today wasn't all that great (14 points on 5-of-15 shooting) but man, she's got the goods.  Just smooth.  I can't properly articulate how amped I am to watch that young lady play basketball for the next four years.

3. Sylvia Hatchell doesn't trust her bench yet this season.  Like, at all.  Erika Johnson was the only reserve who entered the game today.  (14 minutes, 4 points, 5 boards.)  Other than that, the starters played every second.  The same thing happened in Friday's season opener.  The rotation is going to have to expand, and soon.  Your guess is as good as mine who steps up, but you can't survive a season playing this way.

Thanks for reading the first (but definitely not last) "Notes From Carmichael."  I hope you're ready to enjoy this season with me.  Go Heels.  

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Does Anyone Remember Laughter?

I just ... well, damnit.  I don't know what to say here.  Today the Braves traded Andrelton Simmons to the Angels.  They did not get entirely hosed in the exchange, but it was still a tremendously idiotic move.  Not only did they not get equal value, but they divested the team of its last truly compelling player.  (This with all due respect to Freddie Freeman, whose on-field exploits and magical dugout hug rituals are things of beauty.)  What happened today just flat killed my already-tattered baseball soul.

Look, I was a kid in the '80s, when the Braves were a garbage pile of a team.  You could go to Fulton County Stadium with tickets in the cheap seats and wind up six rows deep on one of the baselines by the fourth inning because what did the ushers and security care?  The joint was an empty tomb anyway.  The PA announcer would come on in the seventh to give us the attendance for the game, and the figure would be something like 1,639.  On a good night.  Awful baseball I can live with.  But even in those dark days of my childhood, at least we had Dale Murphy.  Murph gave you a reason to be one of those sorry few at the ballpark on any given night, because there was always the chance he was going to to something spectacular.  The fact that he now has to rely on the Veterans' Committee to hopefully make Cooperstown someday enrages me beyond belief.  Part of this is admittedly biased, nostalgic drivel, but gawd, I loved watching Dale Murphy play baseball.  Simmons was the closest I've come since to having that feeling again.

This is not to say he was a more iconic Brave than the list of spectacular names that dotted those '90s rosters.  (Though if the front office had the basic, fundamental sense to keep him around, he would have been.)  What I mean is that rebuilding is a tough, grueling process.  The writing's been on the wall for quite a few seasons now.  Braves fans are experiencing the inevitable bottoming out which is ultimately fine and in the natural order of sports fandom.  Stuff happens, and after that incredible stretch in the '90s, we can live with it.  But that pain can be considerably lessened by the presence of a singular player whose very existence is reason enough to keep going to the yard game after meaningless game.  Not too long ago, we had a few of those guys.  The reasons we loved them varied wildly, but we adored the ramshackle cast of misfits that made the Braves fun during this nadir.  Then, in the name of whatever bizarre long-term "plan" is unfolding, we traded them.  ALL of them. 

Evan Gattis, El Oso Blanco, not bothering with batting gloves or any other nonsense.  He had one of the great stories in recent sports history, and just hit the bejesus out of the ball.  Gone.   

Alex Wood was a homegrown Dawg, the promising young arm that might have been our redemption for trading away Adam Wainwright, another belvoed UGA alum.  Gone.

Craig Kimbrell, a monster whose bullpen intro sequence was almost as galvanizing as the pure flame-emoji gas he mowed people down with.  Oh, and that weird full-hunch posture he had when looking in for the next sign.  I always worried he was going to screw his back up doing that, but it was unique and I loved him for it along with everything else.  Gone.  

Those guys I loved, who kept me riveted even as the win-loss column skewed ever more precipitously, kept disappearing.  If the front office is after something larger here, it's hard to see it clearly through the haze of anguish.  Sometime late this summer, when both of our teams had become a true chore to watch, Aggie asked me how I felt about the Braves.  My response: "I'll be fine as long as we don't trade Simmons."

And today we did.  Already the best defensive player of his generation, already projecting as maybe the best shortstop who ever lived, and we let him go.  This was more than jettisoning a franchise player for a batch of prospects that might ultimately secure the team's future down the road.  This was trading outright greatness, rare and unattainable by anyone else, for pennies on the dollar.  Simmons did things on the field every night that defied logic and physics and just made you gasp with delight.  There are a small handful of people capable of that sort of brilliance playing sports at any level at any given time, and losing one at any price just isn't worth it.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Thank You, Grantland.

The chalkboard on the outer kitchen wall is the first thing you see when you walk into our house.  We use it for mundane stuff, mostly.  Shopping lists, upcoming concerts, that sort of thing.  And at the top in faded white marker, ever since Aggie put it on the wall back in March:

"Let's assume that no pun is ever intended." - Alex Pappademas

We live here with our two kittens, Cat Summit and Sylvia Catchell, named after our two favorite women's college basketball coaches.  (Sorry Alex, those name puns were fully intended.)  It wasn't always this way, though.  When we started dating again after fourteen very complicated years, it was long distance.  Bridging the gap between Atlanta and Chapel Hill wasn't easy, but we made it work.  If you've ever been in that situation, you know how vital common conversational ground is to sustaining the relationship.  You need something to talk about when you call each other every night beyond "I miss you" and "I love you" and "how was your day?".  

Fortunately, we had a lot of that.  Always have.  But the biggest thing, the thing we spent the most time laughing over and dissecting and just plain adoring during those phone calls, was Grantland.  Or, more accurately, the people who made Grantland what it was and the works they created.

Like most fledgling websites, it took a while for Bill Simmons' vanity project to really get rolling.  The early months suffered from a lack of both content and focus, reflected most sharply in those dumb posts where they republished older long-form pieces with footnotes and editorial commentary.  Voices and personalities came and went as the site struggled to find an overarching ethos.  Honestly, it was kind of a mess.  But then something truly special started to take shape.  Simmons assembled a staff of older, established talents and smart young writers aching for a place where they could flourish without editors constantly leaving what made them unique on the cutting room floor.  Whatever you may think of him, no one was better suited to provide precisely that kind of environment.  Having established that core paradigm, Grantland never looked back, and what followed was a flood of articles and podcasts that were more consistently engaging, intelligent, funny, thoughtful, and just outright great than damn near anything else on the internet.   

Some scattered recollections and things I'll miss:

Gasping at every other paragraph while reading Rembert's incredible piece on Ferguson.

Listening to the Girls In Hoodies "American Horror Story: Coven" episode while driving to Augusta, and loving it so much that I listened to it again on the way home.

Simmons calling out Roger Goodell and the NFL in general for the Ray Rice scandal, getting suspended, then doing it again anyway.

The knowledge that every NBA and NFL draft would be followed by Wesley's elegant and hilarious "Sportstorialist" column.

Alex taking the weird, season-long journey that was "I Suck at Football." 

Juliet's obsession with Handsome Chandler Parsons.

Jacoby's incredulous "WHAT?!?!?!" whenever Juliet said something outrageous.  

Sharp's insistence/borderline religious fanaticism that KD will eventually sign with the Wizards.

Jalen's horrible singing.  Jalen's bat.  "NOT GONNA BE ABLE TA DO IT!"

Barnwell's fantastic article on Chris Borland's retirement.  

Rembert and Emily's "Les Mis" review.  

Being incredibly excited when Zach Lowe and Holly Anderson came on board.

Jason "The Maester" Concepcion schooling Andy on Westerosi history.  

Mays and Barnwell interviewing Charlie Whitehurst, who drove that podcast to its limit as he can with any vehicle.

Wesley's Cannes diaries. 

Andy's piece on the Parks and Rec finale.

Discovering Men In Blazers and The Solid Verbal, for which I am eternally grateful.  

Christina Kahrl's staggering "What Grantland Got Wrong."

Jonah on Madison Bumgarner in last year's World Series.  

Charlie Pierce, just generally.  

Crying when Molly and Emily brought Tess back on the air for the final Hoodies episode.

Incredulity over Wesley not knowing how great a jam "Seven" is.

Grape Job.  

All of Zach's pieces on the Hawks last season.

The Bakeshop Mailbag.

Alex's immaculate profiles of Todd Rundgren and Dolph Lundgren.

Mays going to Lambeau and being enough of a good sport to write about it with grace.  

Molly's desultory and fabulous Mad Men recaps.

That last one brings me to perhaps the most ineffably special thing about the people above (and so many more Grantlanders that I didn't mention): they are so compelling and so ludicrously good at what they do that I will read or listen to them regardless of the subject.  I've never seen Mad Men.  Ever.  Not one episode.  But I read every single one of those recaps because they were so brilliantly written that enjoying them required no prior knowledge of the source material.  Likewise, I have never once fast-forwarded through a "Hollywood Prospectus" or "Do You Like Prince Movies?" segment even when they were talking about things I hadn't seen or heard or just didn't care about in the first place.  I read Greenwald on TV I don't follow and Wesley on movies I'll probably never see, because it's that much fun just to watch them put words together.  That quality, maybe more than anything else, is why Aggie and I loved this thing so much.  Hell, we listened to every episode of "The Right Reasons" and we don't even watch reality TV.   ("Waitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwaitwait ... what's she look like?')

So we sat in the living room and drank bourbon and mourned all of this last night, as strange as it may sound to mourn a website whose former contributors are all still very much in the business of creating beautiful work which we can continue to enjoy.  We mourned because Grantland was our best and easiest point of reference when we were apart, and talking about this podcast or that article helped us to cope.  More importantly, it brought us joy.  Just heaps and heaps of fun and happiness and laughter that we could share across that distance.  All of that resonated very specifically with us, and that resonance has manifested itself in some wonderful if admittedly strange ways.   

For instance, we have a turntable because of Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald.  I'm not kidding.  The Hollywood Prospectus episode last fall where they were gushing over "1989" compelled us to dig into it, and we both fell in love with that album and Taylor Swift in general.  For Christmas that year, before I'd even moved to Chapel Hill, Aggie bought it for me on vinyl, with the promise that when I got here she was going to get me a turntable for my birthday, which she did.  We now have a burgeoning record collection, thanks mostly to thrift stores and Ags' shameless pilfering of her parents' albums.  Buying each other records as random "I love you" presents is one of our favorite things.  And none of this happens without Chris and Andy raving about Tay-Tay.  They turned us on to one record we adore and it turned into a whole new part of our lives we never saw coming. 

That was Grantland at its weird, beating heart.  These people we'll probably never meet and all of their tremendous creativity and verve, becoming part of our lives and deepening them in the process.

There's another Alex Pappademas quote on that chalkboard, from the final episode of "Do You Like Prince Movies."  Aggie and I didn't talk about that one over the phone, we listened to it together.  This was appropriate since Prince Movies was also the first Grantland thing we ever shared and talked about with each other.  Anyway, that quote is the most apropos thing possible to describe Grantland's closure yesterday.

"This is like a going out of business sale for opinions."

And it is.  But while the doors were open and the lights were on, Grantland's inventory housed some of the most wide ranging and beautifully articulated opinions out there.  So thank you.  Thanks to all of you for sharing them, for sharing yourselves, with us.  We can't wait to see what you do next. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Halloween Fun With Paul Johnson.

Coming into the season, there was a decent and completely earned amount of hype surrounding the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.  They finished last year on a high the program hadn't seen in a while, with only a loss to FSU blemishing a back half of 2014 in which they blew the doors off everyone save Georgia, whom they beat in overtime because of some very stupid special teams mistakes by the Dawgs.  Their final game of the year was a 49-34 Orange Bowl win over a Mississippi State team that had at one point in the not distant past been in the conversation of best team in the country. 

They picked up right where they left off this year, making that preseason #16 AP Poll ranking look extremely justified by absolutely destroying Alcorn State and Tulane by a combined 118 points.  The triple option looked as well-oiled and vicious as it ever had, and there was plenty of reason to think a win over Notre Dame in week three might catapult the Jackets into the top 10.  Then they went into South Bend and got stomped.  That 30-22 final score was thanks to some garbage time scoring; Tech looked utterly outgunned in every phase of the game.  The offense, traditionally their strongest suit in the Paul Johnson era, was a disheveled mess.  But hey, a loss to a top-ten ranked Notre Dame on the road ... not so terrible, right?  Here's what happened next:

  • Lost by 2 touchdowns to Duke.
  • Lost 38-31 to North Carolina.  At home.  
  • Got beat down by Clemson.  
  • Pitt kicker Chris Blewitt beats them with a 59-yard boomer of a field goal.  
Next week, they have to host a #9-ranked FSU team that is finding its feet.  Those feet are Dalvin Cook's, and they are averaging 8.7 yards per carry this year.  He's already racked up 955 yards and 10 TDs on the ground, with 131 receiving yards and another score through the air thrown in for funzies.  (In a related note: Georgia Tech is ranked 97th in run defense so far this season, so next Saturday probably will not go well for them.) 

Look, I have some public safety concerns here.  If they lose to the 'Noles, fine, but the week after that ... hooooooo boy.  They're gonna be on the road at Virginia.  The same Hoos that gave Notre Dame a much better fight than the Jackets did, and that currently lead them in the Coastal Division because Georgia Tech is dead-last and a garbage pile of a team right this minute.  Paul Johnson is a recalcitrant old crank even in the best of times.  These are not the best of times, and if Georgia Tech somehow manages the feats of incompetence necessary to lose to Virginia, this could be a real problem. 

That game is being played on Halloween, by the way.  A night when every TV station airs horror flicks and little kids dress up as all kinds of hideous and terrifying monsters in exchange for candy.  So just picture Paul Johnson, who has never said one civil word to a media member in his life, who is prickly and intolerant with beat writers even after a win, stepping to the podium after losing to a school whose best athletes play baseball and lacrosse.  A reporter, some kid fresh out of J school and covering his first college football season, asks a question.  It is not a good question.  Something like: "Coach, can you talk about your preparation this week, and what you could have done better to try and stop Matt Johns?"

Paul Johnson twitches.  He fixes the reporter with a stare.  That stare is cold, so very cold.  He opens his mouth as if to respond, but what comes out is an inhuman howl of fury and pain.

He then transmogrifies into some sort of scaly dragon-goat being, expectorating fire and locusts and just all manner of horror and killing everyone in the room. 

If you are a reporter covering that game, and the Yellow Jackets lose, I'm asking as a concerned friend that you stay away from the post-game presser.  Seriously, go do your write up somewhere far away from Scott Stadium.  You don't need a pull quote from scaly dragon-goat Paul Johnson.  Suffering for your art is noble and all, but it's not worth it.  You'll have trouble enough with Saban after 'Bama loses to LSU.  Trust me, you don't need this. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Fare Thee Well, Head Ball Coach

There is both too much and not a lot to say here.  As the capper to a weekend of college football that featured more insanity than just about any I can bring to mind, Steve Spurrier announced his intentions to resign, effective immediately, as South Carolina's head coach last night.  He then finalized that with a brief mic drop of a press conference yesterday morning, bringing to an end one of the most singular and remarkable careers in the history of college football.  Spencer Hall did all the heavy lifting on this already, and it was appropriate that a Florida alum would have the best last word on the Head Ball Coach. 

There's a whole mess of conflicting emotions here for me, and I'm going to try and unpack them. 

As a Georgia fan, there has been no single human who approaches Spurrier as an architect of my personal misery.  Lots of coaches have dashed the Dawgs' hopes like so much kindling over the years, but no one else did it so consistently and with such obvious glee.  The list of people and programs Spurrier has deeply enjoyed antagonizing is a long one, but you'd have to put Georgia pretty near the top if you were using him as the test case while creating some sort of "career opponent trolling percentage" metric. 

During his time at Florida, the humiliations and iniquities and just plain whuppins he doled out to Georgia were both plentiful and full of a bile that stemmed from his playing days with the Gators.  It wasn't just that he assassinated us year after year; it's that the losses were always, always accompanied by a snide remark or three in a characteristically brief and pithy post-game presser.  He felt it was his duty to twist the knife, and he did it with relish.  All coaches love winning, but where the Dawgs were concerned, Spurrier luxuriated in it, and the opportunity it afforded him to remind anyone within earshot who won, by how much, and what that implicitly said about the loser's sad and dilapidated former dignity.  And what, in turn, it implied about the winner too. 

God we were happy when he left Florida.  We thought the nightmare was over. 

After a brief and not-great NFL stint which I won't belabor here, he picked up right where he left off, performing the same messianic feats at South Carolina that he had in the Swamp and Duke before that.  Predictably, his time away from the SEC East had not lessened his Georgia-baiting proclivities, and we were back in that demoralizing grind again.  Just drubbing after drubbing and joke after joke at our expense.  And the games, always early in the schedule, torpedoing whatever preseason ranking or momentum the Dawgs might have had going in.  And it was almost always cumulative.  Georgia has a history of tailspins after bad losses, but dropping one to the Head Ball Coach virtually assured a season fraught with ineptitude and stupid losses to teams no one should lose to.  Just torture, man. 

So a part of me is, if not glad, at least relieved that I don't ever again have to endure the vicious beatings and ensuing snark Spurrier routinely gave the Dawgs for the better part of a quarter century.  (Though he was adamant about "resigning", not "retiring", so who knows.)  Even as the signs became more apparent that his fastball was gone or going fast, you never slept soundly the night before that South Carolina game.  There was always the threat that the man was going to take some seemingly rudderless Gamecocks team and work his voodoo and then you were going to be looking at a scoreboard where the other side had a bajillion points and yours had 10 or 7 or zilch and it shouldn't be happening but OH GOD THEY'RE TAKING THAT PUNT ALL THE WAY TO THE HOUSE WHY AM I EVEN WATCHING THIS JESUS SOMEONE FIND A SUNBELT CONFERENCE GAME WE CAN PUT ON I CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE.

But if you follow and love college football, didn't Spurrier make it more fun than pretty much anyone else?  He gave Georgia hell, sure, but that was due to a career spent in our division and a grudge that extended back to 1966.  Clearly, the man was an equal-opportunity hater, and watching him turn that ineffable snark ray wherever the wind was blowing on a given week was just delightful.  The gifts he gave were bountiful; every week, our cups did runneth over with the rare vintage of Spurrier.  There were finely blended notes of disdain, candor, humor, pride, humility, and vitriol, coming together in a finish accented by his own self-awareness that this was all both absurd and the perfect vehicle to exorcise every demon and slight he felt was owed payback.  He was giving us a show, but he also meant every word.  He was contemptuous and spiteful yet congenial as hell about it the whole time.  He was the finest example of lovable curmudgeon-ness that ever stepped onto a sideline.  

And he was great, just so very exceptional, at his job.  He took sad sack programs and turned them into juggernauts time and time again.  The records and winning percentages and titles piled up and then he would go somewhere else and recreate, reinvent, and tinker to his heart's delight.  And unlike the other preeminent coaches of his generation and the following one into which his career lasted, he never seemed to have any identity beyond mowing fools down with a grin.  He wasn't defined by any one system or ethos or coaching philosophy.  He revolutionized SEC football with the Fun'n'Gun, but that wasn't because he had a particularly evangelical attachment to it.  He just did whatever seemed most likely to succeed at a given moment on the field, and he was usually right.

So I'll miss having Steve Spurrier around.  College football will be less interesting and far less of a joy to follow without him.  Not the Dawgs having to play him once a year and that usually ending poorly for them, but I'll miss everything else.  May his tee shots be long and straight, may his putter be sure, and may there always be an Arbys within easy distance of the clubhouse.  Take 'er easy, Head Ball Coach.  We'll miss you, dang it. 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Georgia Can Still Do This: Weird Saturdays and Hope

It is an inevitability in college football that one or two Saturdays every season are going to produce a wave of results that tilt the sport completely on its ear.  You'll be watching the late games, innocently checking over the final scores from the day, and a whole bunch of them will just look plain wrong.  They'll make you talk like a little kid just learning to speak in complete  sentences, scrunching up your face because all those words put together that way taste funny.  (I'm honestly not sure "undefeated Iowa knocked off a ranked Wisconsin team in a rock fight" is grammatically correct English.  Seriously, can someone check the AP Style Guide and tell me if I'm even allowed to type that?)  But that happened.  So did a lot of other truly bizarre stuff.  Yesterday was weird.

It felt like it was going to be one of those days well before the noon games kicked off.  The rain that's been battering the eastern seaboard for the past week was going to play havoc with every game on or near the coast, and there was plenty of potential chaos lurking around the rest of the country. You could see it just waiting to burble up from the depths of bad bounces and listless play calling, flattening hapless teams without warning or provocation.  Even the survivors had to be shaking their heads yesterday, wondering what the actual fuck just happened.  Indiana and Purdue played #1 Ohio State and #2 Michigan State to within inches of their respective lives.  Clemson somehow avoided their essential Clemson-ness juuuuuust enough to beat Notre Dame in a hilarious display of soaking wet ineptitude by both teams.  Florida put an absolute whuppin' on what had heretofore looked like a pretty damn good Ole Miss team.  There was also the complete and abject disaster of Vols/Hogs, in which Arkansas technically won but everyone who had anything to do with that game in any capacity, particularly those whose job it was to tackle opposing players, lost.  Badly.  North Carolina beat Georgia Tech in something which was not a basketball game, and Duke squeaked out something which would presumably be classified as a "football-ish event" against BC.  FSU struggled with Wake Flippin' Forest.  And here I thought that UConn/Mizzou atrocity from two weeks ago was going to be the most ridiculous thing I watched all year.  Nope.  It was a strange, strange day yesterday.

And then (... sigh ...) there was what happened in Athens.

Here's the thing about Georgia football: when those Weird Saturdays of the season come calling, it is never, ever a good thing for the Dawgs.  Any UGA fan can tell you that in games where the capriciousness of fate is running rampant, it is inclined to blow up in Mark Richt's face.  And that was one howler of an example yesterday in Sanford Stadium.  Despite Nick Chubb continuing to be a ridiculous human being and putting up 146 yards and a touchdown on 'Bama's stellar front seven, cumulatively, Georgia simply couldn't do jack and/or squat on either side of the ball.  A (previously) very good defense proved utterly ineffectual against the Tide, and this is an Alabama team that still isn't sure who its best quarterback or wideout is.  Offensively, there just wasn't a solution to the fact that Greyson Lambert's gaudy numbers from the past few weeks couldn't be sustained against an actual team that can play actual defense.  Basically, we played like garbage.

I can tell you without bothering to verify it that the phone lines of every sports talk radio station in Georgia are being incinerated right now by people calling for Mark Richt's job.  I mean this in both the metaphorical and literal sense, as one in every three people who call radio stations re: beleaguered teams honestly believe that they themselves should be given the head coaching job in place of the actual head coach.  Ditto for AD Greg Mcgarity's inbox, which is undoubtedly being inundated with more of the same vitriol.  Personally, I think Richt has been a great head coach for this program, but the frustrations are understandable.  Another potential title contender of a team has been laid low because "dang it, Richt don't ever win the big games."

And yet.

If you squint very hard and tilt your head just so, it is possible to discern the faint shimmer of a silver lining buried behind yesterday's debacle. Setting aside the fatalism endemic to all Georgia fans (by which I mean both the university and the state's various professional and collegiate franchises in general), just indulge me in a hypothetical scenario for a moment ...

Let's say the Dawgs run the table for the rest of their schedule.  It looks reasonably doable, right?  A suddenly revitalized Florida team will very likely give us holy hell at the Cocktail Party, and I'm not ready to pencil in Mizzou and the Vols as obvious victories, because this is Georgia after all, but just pretend it happens.  They'd win the SEC East by virtue of that Florida game, and likely square off against 'Bama, LSU, or Ole Miss in the Georgia Dome for the SEC title.  Can they beat the Tide in a rematch in a meteorologically neutral environment?  Can they beat the Tigers or the Rebs?  Yes.  They can.  It's not necessarily likely, but you don't have to strain credulity all that much to envision it, either.  So: SEC Title, theoretically granted.

Which brings us to the next and most important question: would the Playoff Committee leave a one-loss Georgia team out of the postseason?  Maybe.  We could see an SEC-less playoff altogether, given the ouroboros the conference has become.  But if Georgia beats Florida, and you believe in the theory of transitive wins, then Georgia beat the team who beat Ole Miss, who beat Alabama, and here they are victorious despite what happened yesterday.  And if they can get into the four-team melee that determines the national champion, the Dawgs stand as good a chance as anyone of prevailing. 

All of this is, of course, extremely unlikely.  So many intricacies would have to shake out in precisely the right way and at the right time.  The teams who are currently at the apex of the sport would have to stumble, and Georgia would have to play spotless, sublime football for the remainder of the year to even have a chance.  But they could.  This could all still happen.  And in a year where the SEC is finally seeing its overall dominance approaching a shelf life, this may be the last, best, only shot for Georgia to poke its head above the fray and bring home the first national championship since before I was born.

And this is what we need for a start: we need another yesterday.  Not the outcome, but the circumstance.  We need the shakedown that topples monoliths and skews perceptions.  We need another Weird Saturday.  A day of chaos and stupid, stupid football that, just once, goes in Georgia's favor.