Saturday, January 30, 2016

Conflicted: Rooting For Carolina In The Superbowl.

Everyone always talks about Cleveland as Exhibit A in tortured sports history.  Earnest Byner, The Drive, 10-Cent Beer Night, The Decision, etc.  It's a long list and it's all very sad and I sometimes have to fight the urge to give a consoling hug to any stranger I see wearing a Cleveland team's regalia out in public.  Growing up an Atlanta sports fan hasn't been quite that bad, but it's been damned close. 

Yes, yes, I know.  Because of the Braves in 1995, we can't profess to have that same totality of anguish.  Also, I am grateful to have been born somewhere that doesn't have that peculiar Midwestern Rust Belt thing where you take a perverse sort of pride in all that suffering and futility.  We deal with the misery, we don't celebrate it.  We do occasionally wish Cleveland would quit bitching about it, though, because we have a different and more insidious sports problem that we don't talk about much.  Let's call it The Curse of the Divisional Younger Sibling.  To wit:

The Braves came to Atlanta in 1966, and have only that aforementioned '95 World Series.  The Marlins entered the NL East in 1993 and have since won two championships. 

The Hawks migrated south from St. Louis in 1968.  They made their first ever Eastern Conference Finals last season, and promptly got swept by the Cavs in disastrous fashion.  The Miami Heat came into the Southeast Division in 1988 and have three banners in the rafters of the Triple-A. 

This is the life of Atlanta sports fans: watching expansion franchises with a fraction of our history and heritage outstrip our teams' greatest accomplishments in exceedingly short order.  And even within that staggeringly dreary context, the Falcons have somehow distinguished themselves as our most wretched team. 

They played their first NFL season in 1966, the same season as the first Super Bowl.  It took them 33 tortured, dog-ass years to finally make it to one of their own.  Two notable occurrences in the interim:

1. The Bird-'Nique duel in game seven of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals.  This is one of my clearest childhood memories, watching two absolute gods trade buckets on the hardwood, with my guy and my team coming up just short.

2. Here's how starved for any measure of success Atlanta sports fans were and mostly still are: The worst-to-first Braves lost a heartbreaking pitcher's duel because Bobby Cox stupidly wouldn't trust John Smoltz for one more inning in the final game of the 1991 World Series.  When they came home, we threw them a parade.  That's how grateful Atlanta was for any brief flash of hope; we feted the losing team like kings just for getting that far. 

(You could make a plausible argument that Bird/Nique was the greatest NBA game ever played and that the '91 World Series was the best of all time.  This is another hallmark of Atlanta sports: coming out on the wrong end of historically transcendent moments.) 

Back to the Falcons and their lone Super Bowl appearance.  We started the season 9-0 and finished 14-2, birthing the Dirty Bird and its accompanying ethos along the way.  'Nique, Deion and (later) Mike Vick notwithstanding, swagger is not something Atlanta is accustomed to with its sports teams, but the 1998 Falcons had it in spades.  The whole city was turnt to a preposterous degree.  When Morton Anderson put one through the uprights in overtime to win the NFC Championship game, it was difficult not to feel that our perpetually beleaguered football team was destined to bring the whole thing off.

You know what happened next.  First there was the ill omen of Pro Bowl free safety Eugene Robinson getting popped for solicitation by an undercover vice cop on the eve of the game.  Everything that followed was of a piece with that ignominious beginning, and was pretty much what you'd expect if your team has Chris Chandler under center and the opposition has John Elway.  Denver obliterated us wholesale.  By the way, in the most Atlanta-sports-y moment ever, a power outage caused a swath of residents north of town to miss the halftime show and opening minutes of the third quarter.  When this happened, the group of friends I was watching with pulled out our boxy late-90s cell phones and started calling until we found someone whose lights were still on.  Then we piled into cars and hauled ass over there well in excess of the speed limit.  In retrospect, we'd have been better off just sitting in the dark. 

That game took place fourteen years ago, and still stands as the historical apex of Falcons football.  In the meanwhile, expansion and divisional realignment have created the NFC South, and the fates of the four teams therein include Super Bowl wins for the Bucs (2002) and Saints (2009) and two Super Bowl appearances for the Panthers (2003 and, obviously, about a week from now.)  The Falcons are the oldest extant team in the division; the Panthers are by far the youngest.  Yet, having played football since only 1995, Carolina already has one more Super Bowl appearance than us.  If they win next weekend, not only will they be another wee-baby expansion team throwing egg on Atlanta's face, they'll make the Falcons, who hold seniority by varying degrees over their brethren, the only ring-less team in the division.  So, you know, I should be rooting with every fiber of my being for the Panthers to face plant on February 7th.  I should be rooting for Peyton Manning to hang up his cleats after another championship, because he's been spectacular his entire career and probably should retire with more than one ring in a just world.  I should want those things.  And yet.

Cam Newton in 2015 is the most fun I've had watching NFL football in forever.  There has never been a quarterback like him at this level, and what he's done this season has been breathtaking to witness.  He's Steve Young on four cans of Red Bull with Michael Jackson-caliber entertainment value.  The man literally broke his back a year ago and has hardly lost a game since.  That's some Batman-level shit right there.  He's slotting throws into microscopic windows when his receivers are even marginally open and running over everything in his path if they're covered.  Denver's front seven is terrifying, and I still think he's going to render them mostly irrelevant next weekend.  Watching how that plays out is going to be tremendous. 

Also this: I want Cam to shut every "play the game the right way" rhetoric-spewing pundit right the hell up.  I want every idiot who somehow finds his exuberance to be morally objectionable silenced by something like four TDs and 305 yards through the air with an ungodly completion percentage and 80 rushing yards and another score thrown in just because he can.  There are a small handful of truly reprehensible humans playing professional football, and every other sport at every other level, and many more who are not playing sports at all, everywhere.  Cam Newton is not one of those people.  By all accounts, he's a really good dude who cares deeply about his community and the fans and also just so happens to very much enjoy what he does for a living and likes to let us know about it with some dabbing or a cheesy sideline team picture a few times a game.  God bless him for it. 

What I'm saying is I despise stuck-up haters infinitely more than I loathe the division-rival Panthers.  If we were talking about the Saints, this would be a very different post.  I love watching greatness reach its pinnacle more than I cherish whatever shred of the Falcons' dignity might be salvaged by a Carolina loss.  And let's be real: there's not much left there to save.

Lastly, selfishly, stupidly, absurdly, totally nonsensically, a Carolina victory would be a sort of bleak, hazy validation for the Falcons and all their tortured history.  Not only would it flip that painful script from January 31, 1999, the first time an old-man legendary Broncos QB rode of into the sunset after beating an NFC South team, but as the only ones who beat the Panthers this year, it would  also transitively hand us a share of the Lombardi Trophy, sorta-kinda-not-really-but-still ... right?  Atlanta sports: where the smallest, most elaborately fabricated moral victories are all you have to cling to sometimes.  

Happy Super Bowl week, y'all.  Go Panthers. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Happy 10th Anniversary, TBJ/Starters. Or: Thanks For Teaching Me How To Internet.

The impact of improbabilities can be slight.  You pull the last ace in the deck to somehow get that twenty bucks back from your buddy on the final hand of Friday night poker.  You wander into the right bar on the right evening and wind up with a memorable story or two.  That same impact can also be life-altering.  Some kids in England discover a deep affinity for music from half a world away, befriend each other at art school, and wind up becoming the Rolling Stones.  A real life meet-cute turns into a truly wonderful love story. 

A passel of Canadians, a Chicago native, and an Australian all somehow collide in Toronto and create one of the most beloved entities in the NBA internet universe.

The Starters, nee The Basketball Jones, celebrate their 10-year anniversary this week.  AAAAYYOOOO!!!

If you listened to Monday's epic aural history podcast, then you know precisely how crazy and specific the circumstances were that brought this cast of characters together.  In short: there were all the hallmarks of the artistic triumph and/or Joseph Campbell narrative.  They faltered, they doubted themselves and their enterprise; they fought and laughed and questioned and quested and discovered their collective identity.  They flung their best, zaniest vision out into the wind and caught an updraft.  They risked their relationships and literal livelihoods over and over again.  Most importantly, they kept fucking going no matter what.  That they're still out here a decade later giving us their unique brand of passionate and humorous NBA meta-commentary is a minor miracle for which basketball heads everywhere should be deeply grateful.

SOMETIME IN LATE 2006 OR EARLY 2007: I am a life-long NBA junkie a few years out of college and living in Minneapolis.  I am also a semi-luddite woefully behind on major technological developments of the past 10 years or so.  (Computer camp one summer as a kid: failed miserably at everything; sorta didn't mess with tech much after that beyond the minimum academic necessities of projects and paper writing.)  I didn't get an email account or a cell phone until after I graduated, didn't really understand the internet, and didn't particularly care to.  One day I'm hanging out at a coffee shop having an inane conversation about who-knows-what? and I analogize something in the discussion to a random NBA player.  I don't remember the specifics, but I do know a buddy of mine said "Oh, you copped that from The Basketball Jones."

Pause.  "The what?"

"The Basketball Jones.  You don't know about these guys?  You'd love 'em!"

So back inside I went, fired up my laptop, and Googled that noise.  What hit me was unlike anything I'd ever heard.  I used the internet to keep up with sports, and specifically the NBA, but it was all run-of-the-mill, Sports Illustrated, etc.  You know, typically serious sports writing stuff.  I didn't know you were allowed to have a sense of humor about it all.  I didn't know you could be wry and smart and ridiculous and deeply in love with a game in a public forum.  Not like that.  They were incredibly entertaining and wonderfully eccentric and ultimately they probably directly contributed as much as anything else I've absorbed to me writing this here blog.

I listened and then watched every day once they went to video.  I discovered Ball Don't Lie, Hardwood Paroxysm, and a billion other hoops websites because they let me know these things were out there.  For lack of a better phraseology, The Jones taught me how to internet. 

By the time they got to Grantland, they were an integral part of my day-to-day basketball life, maybe THE integral part outside of the league itself.  The recurring segments and runners came and went, evolving over time, but always, the soul of the show remained the brilliant, off-kilter jubilee it always has been. 

I remember standing in a Sports Authority store off Northpoint Parkway in Alpharetta, looking for a replacement for a worn-through Braves T-shirt and listening to the last Jones podcast, when they promised a new iteration was coming but couldn't reveal exactly what or where.  I had no idea what it all meant, I just knew I didn't want them to be done.  When the popped up on NBATV some months later, I was so very happy.  Not just because it meant they were still around, but because all those years and all that work and all the joy they'd put out into the world had brought them to the source, and no one deserved that success and gratification more.

Throughout that retrospective podcast on Monday, they were reading and paraphrasing emails and tweets from fans.  One  such missive talked about walking into bars, seeing The Starters on one of the TVs, and feeling a tremendous sense of pride.  This could not possibly be more true.  Those dudes have been grinding it out for years, and now they're on in every freaking sports bar in America.  That's pretty spectacular.  

A very personal final note: My girlfriend and I live together in Chapel Hill, and we're both longtime devotees of the Jones/Starters.  We've been with them for a long time now, and we know two things.

One: they are the very best at what they do and we will keep watching and listening and deeply enjoying everything about this glorious, ragtag contingent of genius NBA lovers and satirists until they decide to call it quits.

And two: We're pretty sure we could flat-out smoke them in a round of Pun Gun.  Us verses you, gentlemen, whenever you want to throw down. 

Thanks for being you, you random amalgamation of glorious inanity.  You perfect improbability.  Happy 10th Anniversary, and here's to many more years.  Good morning, sweet world. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Notes From Carmichael 1.6

Photo by Agatha Donkar @brandnewkindof
Hold on ... *several deep breaths* ... *loooong sip of beer* ... *more deep breaths* ... 

OK, we can talk about that one now.

Tonight's game against Syracuse was a careening hootenanny and maybe the most fun I've ever had in Carmichael.  The Orange came in fresh off a 36-point stomping of #12 Duke, and everyone in the arena was terrified that they might stage an encore performance in Chapel Hill.  For most of the first half, those fears appeared to be well founded.  'Cuse raced out to a 10-0 lead in the first two minutes, powered by some excellent offensive movement and a murderous and unrelenting press.  That stifling defense threw Carolina utterly out of sorts.  There was a flurry of turnovers, a rash of bad decisions, and a sense of rhythm so poor it'd make my father blush.  (Hi, Dad.)

The Heels eventually settled and started breaking that press a little more fluidly.  They got some jumpers to fall and started finding each other with smart passes inside for points at the rim.  Stephanie Watts uncorked a barrage of shots and assists that juuust kept UNC from going off the rails.  Slowly, doggedly, they nudged themselves to within hailing distance.  Syracuse lead 24-19 at the end of the first quarter, though it felt like it shouldn't have been that close.  Carolina had too many turnovers and got murdered on the glass; how were they only down five?  In the second quarter, the deficit fluctuated like a stock price based upon two market trends: hilariously disparate shooting percentages, and the efficacy of that press.  It widened to twelve and shrunk back to six at the half, hitting seemingly every numerical point in between.   The Heels were within arm's length, but Syracuse has some very tall, very wiry players, and those are some long damn arms.

The third quarter opened much like the first.  It took Carolina nearly two minutes to score as they were once again beset by the hellish press.  (Syracuse has a preposterously deep bench, which meant they could keep throwing fresh legs out there to maintain the pressure.  This would be rough on any opponent, but particularly so on the Heels' short rotation.)  And yet, Carolina simply refused to go away.  Destinee Walker carried us through the middle of the third with some dazzling forays to the rim and a nice assist on a Steph trey.  Finally, Syracuse ran out of gas and stopped running the press.  With the court opened up, the Heels got some spring back in their collective step and started to look dialed in for the first time all night.  It was 58-52 'Cuse at the end of the quarter.

And good lord, what a barn burner the 4th wound up being; everybody just doin' work, y'all.  Steph sunk a layup to cut the Orange lead to four, and Syracuse missed the potential answering shot.  The dynamics of the game were finally tilting in Carolina's favor, and the crowd's internal dial was moving towards turnt.  As she has been all season, Jamie Cherry was the engine down the stretch.  She snagged a rebound, then drew a foul and canned both freebies.  58-56.  A few traded baskets, then Steph grabbed a board and fed Des for a layup to tie the game at 62.  Carmichael absolutely exploded.  This game had felt so impossible since the opening tip; somehow the ladies had fought back to even and they were all swagger and focus now.  Syracuse pushed their lead back to three; Jamie sank two more at the stripe.  Finally, Des took it to the rack to give the Heels their first lead at 66-65 with four minutes left.  Both teams played some chaotic but inspired basketball for a stretch and wound up tied at 69.  Then, with 1:40 to play, Jamie buried a jumper to give us the lead for good. She dished to Hillary Summers to widen the lead to four, then sank two more free throws to keep it there.  A late jumper from Syracuse's Alexis Peterson cut it back to two, but with too little left on the clock.  Steph iced the thing down with a pair from the line to cement the final: 77-73 Carolina.  This was an insane, nerve-wracking jangle of a game, but absolutely worth it for that beautiful finish.

Other Observations:

1. There's a lady somewhere in our section who screams "GET OFF THE COURT, COACH!!!" or some variation thereon every time an opposing coach dares set foot outside of the blue sideline box in Carmichael.  Every time.  At peak volume.  I am convinced that the only thing this person knows about basketball is that coaches are not allowed to be on the court during play, and it gets very annoying to hear her devout adherence to that rule signified very loudly several times a game.  That said, I was completely on her side tonight.  Look, I'm sure Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman is a perfectly nice human, but dude was on the floor virtually the entire game.  Very visibly and obviously in a way that should've gotten him T'd up or at least a stern warning from the refs.  Like, if you brought him out a Barcalounger and set it on the court, he'd be perfectly content to kick back and bark play calls and rotations at his team and never move even if he were actually disrupting the game play.  Sir, please keep your ass off the court when the ball is live.

2. ACC officiating is terrible.  This was the second game in a row, and the fourth this season, where way too many stupid, awful calls have gone against both teams at Carmichael.  Seriously, y'all can do better than this.

3. Whoever was running the P.A. tonight clearly thought it was my junior prom all over again.  Heard over the course of the game: "Tubthumping", "Mambo Number Five", and "Macarena."  The latter was responsible for the funniest thing I saw all evening.  The track played during half time, and there were a few Carolina cheerleaders over by the bleachers gamely trying to suss out the correct order of the choreography of that stupid dance.  Please keep in mind, "Macarena" was released in 1993, meaning the kids attempting those dance moves were maybe not born and definitely not potty trained when it was popular.  Why is this a phenomenon that has insidiously found its way to a younger generation?  We have failed as a species, that's why.

4. Steph was your player of the game.  22 points, 8 assists, 10 rebounds, and a block.  Get it, girl.

Next up: Saturday @ #3 Notre Dame.  Go Heels.   

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Notes From Carmichael 1.5

Photo by Agatha Donkar @brandnewkindof
Sylvia Hatchell's 700th victory as North Carolina's head coach came today with the Heels' ACC season opener: a home tilt against Clemson this afternoon.  Carolina came out smokin' at the tip, racing out to an 18-7 lead by the end of the first quarter on the strength of some excellent defense and a few gorgeous tic-tac-toe passing displays on the other end.  (There was one particular whirling inside-out flurry of touch passes and smart, quick cuts culminating in an open corner jumper that made me wonder why they don't institute more such concepts into their offensive sets.  Carolina is great at tilting defenses with swing passes and dribble handoffs, and they're murder on opponents in transition.  I just think they've got enough smart passing talent to get a few more of those bang-bang sequences into the flow of the offense, is all.)  They also uncorked a stretch of aggressive perimeter trapping on defense that completely baffled the Tigers, something we haven't seen much of this year but that could be a very effective short-burst tactic in the future. 

Clemson firmed up a bit and outscored the Heels by a point in the 2nd quarter, running one of the few backcourt rotations I've seen this year capable of keeping up with Carolina's speed.   Nonetheless, we carried a commanding 32-22 advantage into halftime.

The second half wasn't quite so pretty.  Part of it was just plain bad luck.  The Heels had some bad bounces on the rim that normally fall for our shooters, and there was some terrible officiating that went the wrong way.  Also, though, they've shown an alarming inability to close out games this season; they get sloppy and listless when they're up big, and aren't always as focused as they ought to be.  Despite having led by as many as 20 late in the third quarter, the allowed Clemson to go on a run that cut it to 50-37 at the start of the 4th.

"Turnover" pops up way to often in Carolina's column of the final frame's play-by-play.  Nine times to Clemson's three, to be exact.  (The Heels had 24 on the game to Clemson's 20.)  Clemson deployed a brutally trapping full-court press in an effort to get back in it, and took Carolina completely out of rhythm.  They'd flail and skitter, break the press, and barrel up court totally out of control.  Drag racers with no breaks and shoddy suspension.  Ultimately, though, the talent disparity was too heavily on Carolina's side.  Four of our five starters finished with double-digit point totals, and the bench duo of N'Dea Bryant and Erica Johnson came up with a monstrous 16 boards and 5 blocks.  (N'Dea in particular was absolutely fierce in the paint today!)  Xylina McDaniel just keeps getting stronger every game, as she showed with her 9-7-2 performance today, and I loved how furious and fiery she got over that terrible (and eventually amended) foul call late.  As Ags pointed out: she's usually got a pretty staid equilibrium on the court, so when she goes off about something, there's likely a just cause for it.  Stephanie Watts was probably the player of the game, notching 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 dimes.  Hillary Summers tossed up a 14-10 double-double, and Jamie, despite looking somewhat out of sorts today, still poured in 16.  Even with the team's late-game difficulties, this was still a dominant 72-56 win to open conference play. 

This is such a young team overall.  They're still feeling things out: each other, the game, their own considerable talents and corresponding limits.  I keep wondering if they can put it all together against top-flight competition in time to make some noise in March.  But every game, the proverbial magic 8 ball keeps saying "all signs point to yes."  Next up: an 11-3 Syracuse squad who just decimated 12th-ranked Duke by 36 points.  This should be good.  Go Heels. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Roll Damn Ti ... gers.

Sorry for the lengthy absence.  Holidays and work and being sick destroyed me down the stretch in December.  I'm back, though.  Happy 2016!!!

There's a weightlessness that comes from knowing your college football season is dead early on.  The plummet in the rankings beyond recovery is a path to freedom.  It means your emotional investment can scale back, that you can bask in the panoramic joys of the game without actually giving a damn about results.  Resignation is the only sane response.  But you can't quite let go entirely, right? 

No, you need something to care about.  So you sit back and survey the landscape and then you hitch your wagon to some tertiary oxen just for funzies.  For me this season, that meant Iowa and UNC.  The Hawkeyes were flat-out enjoyable to follow, a good story in the mold of the 2010 Milwaukee Bucks or the recent Mighty Bengals of Cincinnati.  You kind of knew deep down they were a mirage in the desert, but you kept enjoying the view anyway right up until they faded into the heatstroke of the B1G Championship game.  (Still hoping they can notch a Rose Bowl win, though.)  North Carolina was a little different.  I live in Chapel Hill with a 3rd-generation Tar Heel girlfriend who hales from a rabid UNC family.  After they beat Secretly Decent Pitt (shoutout to @SolidVerbal), we realized the ACC Coastal was pretty wide open and that 2015 Heels Football might be sneaky great.  Then an insanely horrific onside kick penalty cost them a last-ditch shot at the playoff in the ACC Title Game, and they got steamrolled by a depleted Baylor in their consolation bowl.  It was an ignominious way to end the best season in UNC football history.  Ags, by the way, is secretly happy and relieved that we no longer have to pretend that Carolina football is a thing, while simultaneously indignant and just plain pissed off that they landed such a crappy bowl bid.  Football feelings at a basketball school are complicated that way, I guess. 

So what's left to root for?  Well look, SEC pride is cute and all, but dammit, the concept of Alabama raising another championship trophy just makes me nauseous.  What they did to Michigan State last night was evil and horrible and not even a tiny bit fun to watch.  'Bama's whole ethos is just so bland and unsavory.  Implacable and faceless, plugging five-star cogs into the endlessly grinding machine.  They go out every game and lower the welding hood and fire up the acetylene torch because that T-joint ain't gonna fit itself together, now, is it?  The Crimson Tide are highly skilled mundanity personified.  Stale and utterly joyless.  Conference loyalty be damned, I can't root for this garbage.

You know what I can get behind?  A team whose coach is basically a slightly more restrained and cordial P.J. Fleck.  Seriously, God bless Dabo and his sweet sweet awkward dance moves and his unfettered jubilation and his brilliant decimation of the entire "Clemsoning" meme.  How can you not love this man?  How can you not love watching this team?  Clemson utilizes their multifarious talents in entertaining and beautiful ways on both sides of the ball.  The entire coaching staff are lovable misfits, and they have the team playing with controlled glee in all phases.  Hell, this is a team that called a (wildly successful and glorious) fake punt in the semis partially because it was tactically brilliant but also just to let the punter know his freelancing in the ACC Championship game is something we can all laugh about now.  Clemson is the Hammond B-3 wailin', two-beat rhythm section stompin' gospel choir to Nick Saban's stoic, silent football Catholicism.  Perhaps most importantly from an X-and-O standpoint, they're a team with a sound but dynamic defense, and they run the type of versatile, chaotic offense that pisses Saban right the hell off because god forbid we have a little fun playing football at the expense of the #process. 

So if you have a soul and like fun things, you should root for the Tigers on January 11th, no matter what your basic fan proclivities might tell you.  If you don't bleed houndstooth, this is your team.  Or at least, because hell I can't tell you what to do it's a free country, it's mine.  Dear Clemson, I love you, at least for the rest of the season.