Sunday, July 4, 2021

Cradle This Moment

 

On May 13 2015, Alfred Joel Horford flew into the frame on my television to put back a blocked layup and give the Hawks a 3-2 series lead over the Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It had been an incredible year already. 

 

The Hawks had ripped off a 60-win regular season playing beautiful, collective basketball. The following game, Paul Pierce's last second three to tie the game was waved off. I still remember the sick feeling in my gut while that play was under review. I lived in Boston for five years a while back and, being way too broke to afford League Pass, watched a LOT of Celtics games as a way to get my hoops fix. I knew what Paul Pierce was about. I turned to my wife during the timeout before the in-bounds and said something like "do you know how many times I've watched The Truth curl of a screen on a play like this and drain a three?" Which he did. But, mercifully, it was a not-buzzer-beater this time. The clock hit zeros before the ball left Pierce's hand. The Hawks went to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in my life. They got obliterated by LeBron and the Cavs in a four-game sweep, but that season was a hell of a ride.

From then to now, the running joke of Atlanta sports heartbreak has been going strong. The Falcons had 28-3. Angel McCoughtry got hurt mere days before the playoffs in the midst of a truly magical season for the Dream. (We win a title that year if it doesn't happen and you can't tell me otherwise.) The Braves (change the name and stop the chop, please) blew a 3-1 lead to LA in the NLCS. The Dawgs went through 4th and 26 and the next year's SEC Championship Game, both of them heart breakers. If the Five Stripes hadn't brought home that MLS Cup, we'd really have broken the curve on the misery index.

I was born in Atlanta in 1982. My formative sports memories are a horrendous Braves team (minus Dale and Phil, who were awesome), a listless, disheveled Falcons, and the Hawks. The 'Nique, Spud, Doc Hawks who put basketball in my soul probably before I could form a coherent sentence or use the bathroom by myself. Those years were full of awe and splendor. A packed-out OMNI going bonkers when 'Nique threw down a filthy dunk right on some hapless defender's dome. Of course, the apex was still heart break, the first real one I have a memory of; the famous/imfamous Bird-'Nique duel in game seven of the Eastern Conference Semis in '88.

Ever since, outside of the '95 Braves and the aforementioned ATL United run, the litany of "almosts" and "what ifs" is long and gory. Soul-crushing loss after soul-crushing loss. Lather, rinse, repeat. This Hawks season ended in similar fashion, but it felt vastly different.

I keep thinking about the 1991 Braves, and the parade Atlanta threw them after that worst-to-first season that ended in a seven-game loss to the Twins in the World Series. Even in defeat, they had raised the city to heights of ecstatic jubilation that hadn't really been felt before. Even more than the 2015 squad, that was this year's Hawks.

Look at what happened after Nate McMillan took over this team. They were looking at the draft lottery again until that coaching change. Then a supernova bloomed in the heart of the city. Trae Young showed the whole country what Hawks fans have known since the draft night swap: he's THAT GUY. Like 'Nique. Like Dale. Like Julio. It's not just his brilliance on the court, it's the infinite swag. The bow in MSG, the pre-3 shimmy in Milwaukee, that dude is COLD in a way that feels so perfectly aligned with ATL. And the front office put a team around him that just freaking works. Red Velvet (TM @SheBeKoolin), JC, AKA John The Baptist (#PayDaMan TM @femaleatlhawk), De'Andre Hunter, who was having a magnificent season before his injury. Cam Reddish, who, even in a loss, had a damn COMING OUT party last night. Clint, Bogi, Solo, and on down the line. This team is an ideal mixture of youth and experience, insanely talented, and exquisitely calibrated. They will be giving the league hell for years to come, and the last few weeks have been a transcendent proof of concept.

The Hawks came to Atlanta from Saint Louis in 1968. Until this season, they had been to the Eastern Conference Finals once (the Cavs series I mentioned up top.) Until now, they hadn't won a game in the ECF. But this year and this team were special. They stormed out of the NBA's basement after the coaching change and played two epic, seven-game series to take out the Knicks and Sixers. They rolled into Milwaukee and took game one with Trae officially showing anyone who hadn't figured it out yet precisely what a badass he is. Then they took a game in ATL without him after a fluke, stupid injury. That's two more ECF wins than any other Hawks team ever had. He tried last night, the whole team did, but there just wasn't enough gas in the tank, even with the Bucks missing Giannis. 

Listen, NONE of that matters right now. NONE. OF. IT. All the joy, the miracles, and the pure, giddy, delirious hope we just experienced are enough today. And it should be. No sane hoops person would have told you in February this is where the Hawks' season would end. They're a mile ahead of schedule with a full off season to get healthy and nothing but possibility and promise stretching as far as the eye can see.  Whether or not a banner ever goes up (I think it will), we need to keep this joy close. I've already seen plenty of haters on the TL today talking shit. Fuck those people. Let this team and this season reverberate in your hearts and drown them out. What we feel right now, the hope and delight and boundless optimism, it's rare. Especially in for ATL sports fans. Cradle this moment with your entire souls. It's worth celebrating, even if the rest of the world won't.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

WEEEEELLLLCOME ... And Goodbye.

We can't stop listening. We've burned through most of the "Disaster" episodes and the live shows and played the last pod at least three times. We've cried at almost everything at some point this past week. The people who made Shutdown Fullcast would not want any sappiness or sentimentality, so I'll try not to get too extra with this.

But: I'm fairly certain my wife and I were more excited driving to the Charlotte live show than we were on our wedding day.

The Shutdown Fullcast cannot be explained, defined, or articulated in any meaningful way. It's just a way to think and feel about college football in podcast form that resembles nothing else connected to the sport. The chaos and irreverence that Spencer Hall, Ryan Nanni, Jason Kirk, Holly Anderson, and their various guests brought to our earbuds for the past several years was absolutely perfect. (It was a perfection of dubious audio quality and deranged musings, but perfection nonetheless.)

What they did was dig into the vast stupidity and sprawling brilliance of the game with eccentric credulity. My wife's best friend lived with us for a bit a few years ago, and she asked me once why I listened to a podcast about college football that clearly thought college football was insane and dumb. (Note: It is. We love it because humans are wired to be sentimental idiots.) I didn't have a response. You get the Fullcast or you don't. Plenty of college football diehards would fall into the latter category. Pity them.

We were sitting in a bar in Ketchikan, Alaska in 2019 on our honeymoon. The bar had good, free wifi. Our first thought was not to connect and catch up on news of the world, but to download the Ann Arbor live episode that had just dropped. We saw so much incredible beauty on that trip; it was a perfect week, but one of our favorite memories is laying in bed very drunk on a cruise ship listening to Ryan explain how Michigan birthed every other college football program and Jason explain how they conquered the entire B1G.

Or we were driving to Charlotte bumping previous 40-For-40 and/or Disaster episodes on the way to the live show. That night, we laughed our asses off for two hours and met the people who actually made this incredible thing and they were so kind and wonderful. We also had a genuinely great time with/made a new friend who happens to work for the South Carolina athletic department and rocks hard with Dawn Staley, which is dope because we are also women's hoops junkies. (S'up Don. You are the gaht-dang coolest and it was truly wonderful to hang with you. Ags and I are gonna get to a hoops game in Columbia and buy you dinner if this shit ends and we still have a functioning country.)

Or we were sitting on the porch talking about things that have nothing whatsoever to do with college football but doing it in our specific language which is at least 30% Fullcast jokes/references. (Oh no! OHHHHH NOOOOO!!!!!)

Look, it's a silly podcast about a silly sport. It's also bigger and more important and funnier and smarter than that. It's the thing I'd save until I left work so I could listen to it on drives home from bad days. It's the thing Ags and I have listened to collectively more than anything else. These brilliant lunatics have given us something beyond words, beyond coherent thought. It just is. It just was.

I have faith it will be back in some form, but if it's not: Y'all are a lovely bunch of genius misfits that taught us a new vocabulary for this game and gave immeasurable joy to innumerable people.

Listening to all these episodes feels like some sort of weird requiem. We're paying respects to something that is gone. But that ain't right. The Fullcast needs to be memorialized in song.

Just take those old records off the shelf.

Casio Dog, play "Neck."



Saturday, September 22, 2018

Looking Forward, Looking Back

The broadcast cut away to something else. I don't even remember what it was; just that it wasn't the post-game celebration, interviews, trophy presentations, and pageantry the Seattle Storm deserved. Not after clinching the championship of what was quite possibly the greatest season in WNBA history with a Finals sweep of the Washington Mystics. Maybe it was the dynastic rivalry aspect of Lynx/Sparks, but they didn't cut out early in 2016, when Candace Parker gave us one of the most poignant, beautiful, and instant waterworks-inducing moments I've ever seen in a lifetime of watching sports:


But this year, after a playoffs riddled with late starts on alternate networks and overt disrespect for the game, ESPN/ABC/NBATV all decided the final moments of the 2018 WNBA season weren't worth celebrating. This was a final slap in the face, a last evidential stamp on where the W stood in relation to its broadcast partners and, by extension, the viewing public, doubters, haters, and general misogynistic vitriol that has plagued the league since its inception.

There was a palpable enthusiasm and purpose coming into this year. After all, we'd just seen maybe the greatest NCAA Women's Final Four of all time, and there was a concerted push to carry the interest generated by that spectacle forward into the WNBA. Websites were either expanding or springing up out of whole cloth and hiring extremely talented writers to boost coverage. My podcast feed went from having two women's hoops pods to eight at warp speed. Everywhere from established platforms like ESPN's "Around the Rim" to upstart blogs to the truly beautiful and life-giving community that is #WNBATwitter, one mandate emerged: Grow The Game.

Certainly, there are elements of that growth process we can't control. Fans and media won't be in the room for the next round of CBA negotiations. Decisions on revenue sharing and travel policy, the two most critical issues that need significant overhauls for the good of the league, are not things anyone outside the W's power structure can have a direct hand in. But those conversations and the leverage the players hold in them will be predicated on viewership and attendance numbers, which tie directly to advertising revenue, which could increase those numbers even more, and so on. We have reached a critical inflection point for the game, and we all want that graph to curve upward. I have an idea about how to achieve that, or at least to help. It's a small one, and possibly misguided and/or ineffectual, but I've been thinking about it for a while now, so please bear with me.

There was an episode of "Around The Rim" a while back where the guest informed them that Smith College actually played the first ever women's basketball game. I had always thought the first game was Stanford vs. Cal at the San Francisco Armory on April 4, 1896, but that was the first intercollegiate game. (There is a $3 Kindle book well worth your time called "The First Women's College Basketball Game" that compiles student and local newspaper articles leading up to, during, and after that momentous event.) But the first time a woman put a ball through the hoop wasn't a sanctioned college game. Of course it wasn't; college basketball didn't exist when it happened. James Naismith rolled the ball out for the first time on December 21, 1891. The first ever basketball game was a scrimmage at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts. It was an entirely new sport. The first women's basketball game would therefore have been a scrimmage too, not an official intercollegiate match up. And so sometime in March 1892, Senda Berenson, then the newly minted "gymnastics" coach at Smith College, replicated Naismith's experiment with what proved to be raucous and enthusiastic results.

In the context of modern women's basketball, this seems like an incidental piece of trivia, but I think it's actually vitally important. December 1891 to March 1892 is a few months, a tiny blip on the timescale. This is essential because in public perception, women playing basketball is a relatively new thing. Most of the invective thrown at women's hoops is flat-out sexist bullshit, but at least some of it stems from a lack of understanding of the roots of the game. The majority of basketball fans seem to  think women's basketball was "invented" by some confluence of Title IX, Pat Summitt, Nancy Lieberman, and the Olympics. This could not be further from the truth. The WNBA itself is new, yes. But a few scant months separate basketball's invention from women embracing it. In the grand scope of history, women have been balling since balling was a thing you could do.

After listening to that "Around The Rim" episode, I read everything I could on the history of women's basketball. There is so much beauty and history. SO MUCH. And we, as fans, have not done right by that history. We can use it, we can reach back to move forward. As part of a larger overall picture, we can use the beauty and courage of past generations and honor them by planting a flag, one of many that we need, but an essential part, of growing this game we love.

The aforementioned "The First Women's College Basketball Game" is essential. But also: read Lydia Reeder's "Dust Bowl Girls" and David McElwain's "The Only Dance In Iowa" and probably most importantly Pamela Grundy and Susan Shackelford's "Shattering The Glass" and there is a deep, rich, and rewarding exegesis of women's hoops going back well over a century.

The fans have been there from the beginning. They walked miles over dirt track roads in the dead cold of Midwestern winters to scream their throats raw for the young women on the court playing highs school ball on Friday nights. The gyms were heated by wood stoves, sometimes set in the middle of the actual playing floor; sometimes placed where they could heat the building while also lurking for unsuspecting opposing players to run into. A true home court advantage if ever there was one. But they came to cheer for women's basketball, for the pride of their home towns, for the game they knew and anointed as the marker of success for their small communities. Because they loved it. Because it was everything; the way local fans have always congregated to their towns and their teams. Reading the accounts of those games, written long before my parents were born, is no different than reading a write-up of any other sports game. High school football in Georgia or Florida or Texas, basketball in Indiana or Kansas. In the days of sawdust floors and tin bleachers, fans were rabid, passionate, dedicated-to-the-point-of-unhinged over women's hoops. The game has always been here. It has always been loved. It has always mattered. 

In the barnstorming era, premier squads packed local civic centers in Philadelphia and Durham and Austin and Dallas. Elite ass-kicking squads of ballin' ladies traveled the country laying waste to everything in their path. It was not uncommon, when a traveling team stopped in a city for a few days' worth of exhibition games against local competition, for the women's team to take on a local men's squad. It was also not uncommon for the ladies to run the men's asses up and down the court and eventually out of the fucking gym.

Throughout all of this incredible and transcendent history, the same bullshit we are still dealing with now was ever present. Organizations rose up to protect the "sanctity" or "modesty" or "propriety" or whatever of women and say that these nice young ladies shouldn't be engaging in the rough and "manly" world of sports. (Gag)

But the game kept on. It has always been a beacon for change. One of the foremost points of pride for most WNBA fans is the league's embrace of activism. But women's basketball has fought those battles literally from jump. The W is fighting for feminism, for the LGBTQIA community, for Black Lives Matter. This is not in any way meant to downplay the significance of those fights, just to say that while tt hasn't always been as soon as it should have, this game has almost always been the first to advocate for important causes for women and POC going way back.

Which brings me to my long-winded point. How can we use this? We are in a fight to protect and grow this game we love, and we have history going back to damn near when the first basketball was tipped and we almost never talk about it. Cant' we make a holistic historical argument here? I understand we have to give professional basketball priority. I understand the W needs our help more because college hoops ain't going anywhere and we have to boost viewership of the W because the league's survival depends on increased revenue to hopefully pay the players what they're worth and get some decent travel channels. I understand that this requires highlighting the current stars of the game. We have a perfect recipe right now. Old vets still kicking ass in DT and Sue, mid-career greats like Maya and Angel ripping it up, and a new generation of Goddesses in Stewie and A'ja et. al. You sell the game on the stars that are there. That's important; it's vital. But I feel like if we showed the world how deep and passionate the history is, how far back it goes, they might sit up and take a little more notice. Why not run ads with faded pictures and info blurbs chronicling important historical moments, all the way back to Senda Berenson in 1892? Why not lobby the broadcast partners for a few E60 segments on Babe Didrikson or Ora Mae Washington (which, on a related note, how the HELL was she only now inducted into the HOF?!?!?!?) If we can show people how great this game has always been, and that there has never been basketball that was not played by women, maybe that would help.

It doesn't solve the myriad problems facing the game. Not close. I'm just asking a question. Would displaying the full beauty and struggle and historical import of women's basketball as a complete entity help to grow the game? And if so, how do we make that happen?

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Being Grateful For The Dallas Wings.

A little before noon on January 22, 2017, my wife and I settled into our season ticket seats in Carmichael Arena to watch our beloved Tar Heels take on Muffet McGraw's Notre Dame. The game was a big deal, nationally televised with The Goddesses LaChina Robinson and Beth Mowins on the call for ESPNU. Our seats are across from the visitor's bench, and we could see them prepping and talking during commercials up in the little crow's nest broadcast platform on the opposite wall if the gym. We were giddy before the tip. We knew Carolina were not favored, having gotten off to a rocky 1-5 start in conference play, but 1. never count Coach Hatchell out at home and 2. "let's see if the Irish can back up the hype of this #6 ranking they've got."

Y'all. They did. What followed was four quarters of absolute scorched-earth basketball. The demolition was keyed by the jaw-dropping two-woman game of point guard Lindsay Allen and forward Brianna Turner. They simply took us apart. Pick literally any high-low action you can think of, any set, those two ran 'em all to devastating effect. Everything fueled off Allen and Turner's telepathic connection, the sort that makes great teams so thrilling to watch. By the second quarter, our defense was playing like they had the Sowrd of Damocles hanging over their heads, which, basically, they did. Allen and Turner were a wormhole, a massive cataclysmic force distorting the gravity of the entire court. Once the Heels' D got sucked into that wormhole, the floodgates opened. Allen had an off shooting night (2/7 from the floor) but tossed up 11 dimes and 6 boards to balance out her 5 points scored. Turner ripped off a monster 24 and 12 with 6 blocks. The rest of the Irish finished the job, including 13 points from Marina Mabrey, 10 from Jackie Young, and 11 from Arike Ogunbowale (whom you may have heard of by now). It's brutal to watch this sort of thing happen to your squad, in your gym, but at a certain point you just have to shake your head and laugh. Watching Allen and Turner cook was a mesmerizing, breathtaking experience. Any time you get to see players with that level of on-court chemistry, who know precisely where each other are and what each other will do at all times, it's special.

Enter this season's Dallas Wings, and the sheer delight of watching Skylar Diggins-Smith and Liz Cambage. I tend to adopt at least one other squad besides my team in any sport to kind of follow and root for over a given season, and this year's Wings were a no-brainer. Cambage and SkyDiggs are what would happen if you plugged Allen and Turner into a guitar amp, dimed out all the knobs, and let it rip. (Call it the Allen-Turner Overdrive. *sorry*)

The Wings have had what could politely be described as a tumultuous season. Plagued by truly horrific injury luck and sometimes erratic play on the court, this has been a burdensome and frustrating journey. But through it all, Cambage and Diggins-Smith have been absolute appointment viewing, playing with a collective alchemy of precision, fury, and outright joy that cannot be contained.

Diggins-Smith has averaged 18.2 points and 6.2 assists this season, a deadly combination of scoring threat and floor general. Even when things were at their shakiest (and that's been too often for Dallas this year), she keeps finding ways to push, to keep her team in it, to find the creases in a defense and slot in the pass or slither in to knock down the shot.

Cambage, obviously, has had a year for the ages. 22.7 ppg, 9.7 boards, 2.3 assists, murderous defense, and obliterating plenty of records along the way. (Plus that All Star Game dunk, y'all.) There's no one else like her in the league. Her presence in the paint is like a tank; you can't move her off her spot, and her firepower will put craters in things. Although, no tank ever built could be as agile and, being an inanimate object lacking a voicebox, could not approach her level of banter and smack talk, on-court or off.

The real magic, though, is their complete and beautiful synergy. It's that wormhole-gravity-warping thing. When they're on, your defense is going to be sucked in and then destroyed. And they love doing this to opposing teams. They Love It. They take such pride and enthusiasm in their work; bending a possession to their will and reveling in the wreckage they leave behind afterwards. It's an expression of art and love attenuated to the highest level of talent. And good grief, is it beautiful to watch.

Despite their brilliance, that beauty and artistry hasn't quite translated to wins. Too little depth via injuries, too much onus on the two of them to keep a sometimes struggling team afloat. All of it led to a late-season nine-game losing skid which included the firing of head coach Fred Williams. Dallas looked to be in free fall, their playoff chances thinned down to a sliver of hope. But they had a chance at catharsis and revival on Friday Night against the Aces, who just happened to be standing directly in the Wings' path to the final playoff spot. What happened next was spellbinding.

The short version is 107-102 Wings, securing a playoff spot and wiping away the tumult and struggle of the year in dramatic fashion.  I guess I could write more about the game, but Dorothy J. Gentry already did it so well I'm not even going to try. I'd just embarrass myself. Y'all, just click this link: her piece on that game, this team, and SkyDiggs and Cambage is just gorgeous.

That post-game moment, Cambage and Diggins-Smith in each other's arms, letting out all the frustrations of the year and physically embodying their connection, will be one of the first moments that leaps to mind any time we think back on what has been possibly the best WNBA season ever.  It's all there in that photo; the pain and fight, the strength they've drawn from each other all year, the release. This is why we Watch Them Work. Because The Work can culminate in moments like this, and we are better and richer for witnessing them.

And I'm just grateful right now, y'all. Grateful their season isn't over. Grateful this ride isn't done yet. This off season is going to be a true turning point for the W. The issues of pay and travel, which Cambage, along with many others, has so fiercely and eloquently spoken on all year, may cause her to leave the league if serious headway is not made. (Which, to be clear, it's on the league if they lose Cambage and anyone else who decides they've had enough.) Those conversations are coming. But in this moment, grateful is all I can feel. These two women on a basketball court together just torching opponents in the most brutal and creative of all possible ways have been one of the highlights of the summer. For at least a few more games, we get to watch Skylar Diggins-Smith and Liz Cambage perform their special brand of gleefully destructive magic. Happy final day of the regular season. Let's make the most of it. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Hope And Dream(s)

I can't recall the specific context, but a while back on "Podcast Ain't Played Nobody," Bill Connelly and Steven Godfrey were discussing the point at which enough recurring disappointment can curdle a fan base into overt, permanent pessimism. Where, precisely, the threshold of soul-crushing losses is crossed and it would take a literal miracle to ford back across that Rubicon to the banks of hope. Godfrey, a fellow lifelong Atlanta sports fan, quipped that in terms of memories, he'd go ten or eleven deep on instances of misery before even getting to the solitary happy example of the '95 Braves. That team is still the only one to bring a Championship to Georgia. Not just in my lifetime. Ever. 

The heartbreak has come in every conceivable fashion and from every possible vector. I won't bore you with all of it because we'd be here all day, but in this decade alone, Atlanta has been through:

A 60-win Hawks squad finishing with a 1-seed and making their first ever Eastern Conference Finals, only to be swept in humiliating fashion by LeBron and the Cavs. Then they let their best players, including my beloved Alfred Joel Horford, walk for no returns, signed Dwight Howard, and pretty much fell apart. I like the general direction they're heading with the current rebuild, but so help me if Luka Doncic winds up a 10-time All Star and Trae Young winds up just being OK, I'm gonna be mad.

The Braves had The Infield Fly Game, utterly cratered afterwards and then got busted for international scouting violations which resulted in sanctions and a regime turnover. This season's Baby Braves have been a genuine delight, and the franchise is on the upswing, but it'll be another year or two before the young pitching prospects are ready to solidify the whole operation.

The Falcons ... well shit, y'all. 28-3 happened. Then we hired friggin' Sark as OC. Now Julio is holding out for a restructured contract, and speaking of contracts, Matt Ryan better damn well stay healthy and keep playing at a high level after we dumped Fort Knox on his doorstep. Yeesh.  

(I should add that while UGA football is not a universal going concern in the state, we Dawgs fans also had to deal with the 2012 SEC Title Game and last year's 2nd-&-26 absolute life wrecker. PS - Fuck 'Bama. PPS - No, Georgia Tech, your bullshit 1990 Natty you split with Colorado in the pre-BCS era don't mean shit.)

The Atlanta Dream were born in 2008, and I was in love from day one. The WNBA had come into existence just over a decade earlier on the heels of USA Women's Basketball putting on a display for the ages during the 1996 Olympics. I was lucky enough to witness some of those games in person, and I was immediately and totally hooked. I've loved basketball since about the time I could walk, but I'd never seen high-level women ballin' out before because of the chronic underexposure that plagued the game back then and is, frankly, only somewhat better now. (HEY SPORTS MEDIA: COVER THE LEAUGE. COVER THE COLLEGE GAME. WATCH THEM WORK. HEY HOOPS FANS: THIS SHIT IS GREAT. DON'T BE MISOGYNIST FUCKHEADS. WATCH THEM WORK.) Anyway, when my home town got a team, even though I was long gone and living in Boston, I was all in. We've had good seasons and lousy ones, but since their inception, the Dream have followed the familiar template of Atlanta/GA sports misery. They have been to three WNBA finals and lost every time. Back-to-back killers to the 2010 Storm and 2011 Lynx, then to the Lynx again in 2013.  They finished last season 12-22.

But this year? This year might be something special.

As you'd expect under any first-year, first-time head coach, Atlanta started off the season in a somewhat janky fashion with Nicki Collen at the helm. They were a spectacular defensive outfit from jump, and currently sport a league-best 95.9 Defensive Rating (per WNBA.com.). Through most of the season, the Dream have used their intelligence and relentlessness on that end of the floor to prop up a schizophrenic and often listless offense. But then things started to coalesce as the players gained more comfort in Collen's system. A mid-season trade that flipped Layshia Clarendon for the Sun's Alex Bentley cemented the roster into a mean, flexible squad. (Full disclosure: I hated the trade at the time. It made perfect sense for both teams, but I so adored Layshia and hated to see her go so much that I was salty about it, logic and necessity be damned. Nonetheless, we brought our girl Alex home and ever since, things have kicked up a few considerable notches.)

Atlanta entered the All-Star Break on a thunderous mic drop. They ripped off 8 straight wins including games over three top-5 opponents in the Sparks, Storm, and Mercury. The offense is finally matching the defense, and the result is a team sitting at 16-9, second in the league behind only Seattle. (Check out Her Hoop Stats' Megan Gauer for a full breakdown.) Gauer points out the uptick in scoring efficiency from Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes, and the increased production on the offensive glass from Angel McCoughtry, Jessica Breland, and Elizabeth Williams. What's really incredible is that the individual play is so seamlessly tethered to the team and the system. The league is loaded with talent, and Atlanta is no exception, but checking player-by-player stats, something jumped out at me: much like that 60-win Hawks team I mentioned up top, by the numbers there ain't nobody on this roster who is a legitimately elite two-way player.  Close, but not quite.

Seriously, I went to both the official WNBA and the wonderful Hashtag Basketball advanced player stats pages and sorted and sorted by stats groupings until my eyes bled and y'all: in metrics grading overall efficiency (and I adjusted the sortable categories all over the place but always kept at least one offensive or defensive stat in play in each instance), the closest any Dream player got to the top was Tiffany Hayes. Tiff clocks at 11th in WNBA.com's PIE metric; 10th if you remove teammate Alexis Prince's four minutes in one game played this season. Sooooo, I guess ATL "technically" has two players in the Top 10? Kinda?* Further proof of the Dream not having any truly First Class Ballers (by the numbers, not in my heart) is the fact that the 2nd best team in The W has one measly damn All Star in Angel this year.** 

*The best result I got on any statistical breakdown, unsurprisingly, came when I used Hashtag Basketball to isolate defensive stats (defensive boards, steals, blocks, turnovers, and fouls). That put Jess Breland #1 and Liz Williams #8 in the league. Breland is also 5th in the league in total boards.)

**We should, at a minimum, have two. Tiff got fuckin' robbed. Don't @ me.

Anyway, the point is, the Dream don't have a singular game-wrecking talent or clear best player. We surely don't have an offensive dynamo like DT to propel this team. What we have is a murderous defense, and something that's pretty cool and interesting on the other end of the floor: a well-calibrated roster capable of multiple effective looks whose individual skill sets perfectly compliment each other. Nicki Collen's system works, and now that they've acclimated to it and to each other, the offensive production is close enough to the defensive dominance to resemble something that looks very much like a serious title contender. No one player is going to pour in buckets night after night or rack up insane assist numbers. But together, in this system, they are making beautiful things happen by moving the ball, working their asses off, and trusting each other.

And they are fun as hell to watch. They clearly love playing together, and they've got that special aura of "fuck-you" invincibility turned all the way up right now. They are joyful and fearless and borderline unhinged in the best possible way. I live in Chapel Hill, NC, so I watch the games mostly through a computer screen, but I swear I can feel McCamish Pavillion humming with electricity through the pixels every time I boot up League Pass. It's phenomenal when a team you love, when YOUR SQUAD gets to cookin' and really levels up and you start thinking "wait, how far can this really go? Can we go all the way this year? Why the hell not?"

And God help me, because I've been through this over and over and over again as a fan, but this feels real. The tumblers are clicking into place, and the Dream have their collective ears pressed against the door of the safe, working with power and precision to dial in those last, crucial digits and unlock this thing. And awwww, damnit. Now I'm starting to hope again. If they can sustain this coming out of All-Star Weekend, I don't see any reason they can't ride this beautiful brand of collective, gorgeous basketball they're playing through the playoffs. History and experience are screaming at me "NO, DON'T DO IT." Atlanta fans get invested and we get crushed. It happens. Other than 1995, it's always happened. You know what? I don't give a fuck. I love this team. They are great and they are special and they can do this. Let's ride. Let's go. Let's watch them work. #OneDream.




 



Saturday, June 23, 2018

Take A Second: An Appreciation Of Diana Taurasi's Ongoing Miracle.

We're just over a month from the 2018 WNBA All-Star Game. It seems crazy how fast the season is hurtling by, how many shifting narratives and brilliant performances we've already witnessed. And once again, as she has since her Rookie Of The Year 2004 season, Diana Taurasi is out here wrecking shop. And you know what? I want to stop and take a second and really, truly appreciate the magnitude of that fact. DT turned 36 on the 11th of this month. She tallied her 8,000th career WNBA point six days earlier. That the excellence behind that jaw-dropping number is still on peak display every night at her age is miraculous. She is, herself, a miracle.

Taurasi has logged a combined 636 professional games in The W and overseas. That stupefying total leaves out her UCONN career and her four runs to Olympic Gold Medals. I tried to screenshot her Wiki page's list of career awards and honors to include here and discovered it actually wouldn't fit in one frame without shrinking it to the point of illegibility. A check of her WNBA bio page showed that Wiki list WASN'T EVEN COMPLETE. She's won everything there is to win. Taken home every award and broken most every record.

 And after all of that sweat and grind and transcendent accomplishment, perhaps the most remarkable thing is that Taurasi is still absolutely killing it every time she steps on the court. She's averaging 31.4 minutes a game this year, which ties her with Chelsea Gary and presumptive ROY A'ja Wilson for 10th highest in the league. Her usage rate of 27.8% is good for 6th. (5th if you remove the statistical anomaly of Imani Wright's 50% in1 minute of 1 game.) She's averaging 20.2 points and 4.5 assists per game while shooting 42% from the floor, 37% from deep, and 97% from the stripe. That amounts to 54.4% EFG and 62.3% TS. Again, she's 36 years old and has played almost year round for her entire professional basketball life. The fact that her legs haven't fallen off is incredible, never mind being this consistently brilliant this far into a career.

The primary weapon that defines that brilliance is her jumper; a compact, graceful marvel of mechanical perfection. This seems absurd to type, but I think we take it, and her, for granted sometimes. She's been raining buckets on so many collective heads for so long that we're a little immunized to the hypnotic beauty of that perfectly calibrated release. That silky shot has been defying and destroying all comers for 18 years if you go back to her freshman season at UCONN. When she came into the league, she took on her peers and the elder stateswomen of the game and smoked all of them. Then she held the crown against the next generation when they came at her, and then the next NEXT generation. We can debate it, and there are arguments to be made for Swoopes and Catch and Bird and a handful of others, but right now DT is the consensus GOAT. She's still out here ballin' at an elite level and as we all know, ball don't lie.

Maya Moore has a lot of career left and could be coming for that crown. Stewie could be coming for it. A'ja Wilson is already close to a top-10 player in the W and she's 14 games into her career, for crying out loud. But if you had to bet your life on one shot at the end of a game, you'd still want Taurasi taking it.

The Mercury are 6-3 in conference, 10-4 overall, and have the 2nd best record in the league. If they keep rolling like this, there's no reason to think they couldn't be playing in the Finals. And Diana Taurasi, the GOAT/Goddess propelling this team and facing players nearly half her age on a nightly basis, could put a fourth ring on her hand. She may be entering the end stages of her career, but she remains automatic.

Every player in the league is possessed of incredible talent and indefatigable work ethic. Greatness is achieved when someone amplifies that talent and drive by consistency and longevity. That jumper is still money. That jumper will be true and beautiful as long as she wants to keep lacing 'em up.

There are so many wonderful players in this game right now. It's as vibrant and electrifying as it's ever been. But the fact that DT probably won't be around too much longer is sort of wrecking me, and I had to get down in writing how important and special her season feels, obvious as it seems when we're talking about the GOAT. I wrote it up top but I need to say it again: Diana Taurasi is a miracle. Time is still undefeated against all athletes and against all of the rest of us, but she's going to keep draining jumpers right in Time's face until she can't, and that's special and we are lucky to witness it.

Take a second to live this joyful, amazing WNBA year watching this joyful, amazing woman who is still and improbably at the peak of her powers. Miracles don't come around that often, after all.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Watch The WNBA, Y'All.

What we now think of as organized professional sports in North America (baseball excepted) began largely with at least some tenuous collegiate affiliation. *I use "official" in the following because history is a little murky on this stuff but these are consensus college-vs-college first match-ups and do not include prior intramural or informal games, etc.*: All of these are the first "formally recorded" in their respective sports: The first "official" American football game was between Princeton and Rutgers on November 6, 1869. The first "official" hockey game was played between members of the Victoria Skating Club, which included many McGill University students, on March 3, 1875. The first "official" men's basketball game was played between Hamline and the School of Agriculture (affiliated with the University of Minnesota) on February 9, 1895.

And the first "official" women's basketball game was Stanford vs. Cal at The Armory in San Francisco. The date was April 4, 1896.

Which is to say: if someone tells you they don't follow women's basketball because it lacks the historical gravitas and lineage of its male counterpart, you can tell them to fuck right off.

Even if you're the most cursory sports fan, you undoubtedly caught Sports Center highlights from the Final Four of this year's Women's NCAA Basketball Tournament. At the very least, you saw clips of: the all-time behemoth UCONN Huskies going down in overtime to Notre Dame.  Mississippi State blitzing past an incredible Louisville squad, also in overtime. And the absolutely incendiary final minutes of the Championship Game; especially Arike Ogunbowale's insane buzzer beater to clinch the title for Muffet McGraw's Irish squad.

This shit was straight-up electric. It was the hair-raising and gasp-inducing reason we watch sports in the first place. We had apex players going outside their minds even by their own ridiculous standards. We had unlikely saviors perpetrating subtle brilliance. We had ecstasy and heartbreak and the sheer wonder of a beautiful game played at the highest possible level.

In the women's pro game, we've had an equally explosive run over the past few seasons. People talk about how the recent Cavs/Warriors feud in the last three NBA Finals has echoed the Lakers/Celtics rivalry that sustained and grew the league before Jordan came along and turned basketball into a global phenomenon and the NBA into a ratings juggernaut. The epic WNBA Sparks vs. Lynx Finals the past two seasons has been every bit the captivating clash of those NBA battles. Two teams absolutely stacked with legendary talents have waged epic battles and compiled a truckload of incredible moments. From Maya Moore to Sylvia Fowles to Lindsay Whalen to Nneka Oguwumike to Candace Parker to Kristi Tolliver, the WNBA Finals has been chock-full of badasses. It has been some of the most compelling television of any kind I've watched over the past couple of years.

Which is to say: If someone tells you the don't like women's basketball because the storylines and stars aren't compelling enough, you can tell them to fuck right off.

Do you like basketball? Do you like good basketball? Do you enjoy players filling the wings on the break and crisp passing and beautifully designed half-court sets and immaculate shooting and crafty handles and defenses rotating on a string? Do you enjoy personality and joy and verve and hustle and pure improvisational artistry? Do you really really love a monstrous dunk thrown down with emphatic sauce and malice? Yeah, women's hoops has you covered and then some.

Which is to say: If someone tells you they don't like women's basketball because they don't think "those girls" can play with the same athleticism, or that they like the men's game better because it's played more "above the rim": you can tell them to fuck right off.

If they insist on arguing, tell them to go talk that shit to Sue Bird or Candace Parker or Diana Taurasi or Chiney Ogumwike or Angel McCoughtry or Brittney Griner. Tell them you'll wait. Then laugh at them when they come back.

 (Brief aside: the NBA playoffs are rolling right now, and they are spectacular and please don't think I'm writing this to denigrate the NBA, I fucking love the NBA so much, but ALSO ALSO ALSO AND THIS IS SO GREAT AND WONDERFUL AND IMPORTANT AND AWESOME: THE WNBA SEASON TIPS ON MAY 18!!!!!!!!!!!!)

In a recent press conference, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver (who by extension also kind of controls the WNBA as they operate under the same auspices) had some thoughts about the problems facing the women's pro game. 

Silver floated the possibility of shifting the WNBA season to coincide with the NBA and collegiate basketball seasons. The incomparable Katie Barnes clapped back in style: 

"Would having the WNBA’s season run during the fall and winter help improve the league’s profitability? That’s a question NBA commissioner Adam Silver says he contemplates, according to an interview Friday on ESPN’s “Get Up.”
“It’s been harder to get people to come to the games,” Silver said. “It may be because the games are in the summer. One of the things we’ve talked about is do we need to shift to the so-called more natural basketball season sort of in the fall and winter?”
It’s not a new thought. Traditionally the idea goes as follows: Summer is for swimming and flip flops; it’s for running outside, not lacing up high tops or sitting in dark arenas. And there’s some truth to that argument.
But the WNBA would need to vastly restructure its compensation agreements with players for this thought to ever gain traction."
Then Silver stated his concerns that not enough young women were watching the league, and thus the next generation were not being inspired to keep balling. 

Former WNBA MVP and multi-year All Star Elena Delle Donne clapped back in style on Twitter:

 

Silver, who I think has by-and-large done well after taking over for David Stern, really fucked up here. This is supposed to be the most progressive, welcoming sports league on earth, but he royally bricked this one. The primary argument is that the NBA wants to grow the popularity of the women's game, but can't invest the advertising revenue without an assured return on investment, but can't get a return without growing the audience and putting eyeballs on the TV and people in the seats in arenas, but can't invest the money because there aren't eyeballs and seats already invested ... 

He's created a sort of misogynistic ouroboros here. The league won't spend money to grow the women's game, and then expresses concern over the lack of growth thereof. It is dumb and ridiculous and disgusting. 

But, if you're reading this, there is a mutually beneficial solution. We don't have to wait for an onslaught of advertising or promotion to prompt us. If you weren't in already, let me tell you: there has never been a better possible moment than right now to get full-tilt invested in the WNBA. You want legends; historical Titans and Goddesses who have traced and defined the history of the league? Cool: Taurasi, Moore, MccCoughtry and Parker are still out here ballin'.  

You want up and coming geniuses who are defining and redefining the game? Let me direct your attention to Alisha Gray, Breanna Stewart, Layshia Clarendon, and a score of others.


You wanna get in on the ground floor of some spectacular and brand-new pro basketball careers? The most insanely stacked draft class possibly in the history of the game just entered the league. Remember that very very recent Final Four I mentioned above?  You wanna see a bunch of those Badass Women Of The Week (TM "Burn It All Down') take a leap to the next level? You can. They're here right now. 

The WNBA is, at this moment, absolutely loaded with mind-boggling talent. No matter who you're inclined to cheer for (and if you don't have a team by geographic affiliation, trust me one will stick out that you fall in love with anyway just from watching enough) there is AT LEAST one player per squad that will make you jump off your damn couch three times a game by doing something beyond the bounds of what us mere humans are capable of. This league is so overflowing with absolute transcendence at this precise moment. We are at the fulcrum of something indescribably beautiful and perfect and it will grab you by the nerve endings and make you a better and more joyous human just for watching if you let it.

And you can experience all of this.

If you live in a city with a team (or close enough), go see a game. Hell, go see ten games. Go get a season ticket package if you have the coin. If not, tune in on TV and online. If we put enough collective eyes on this wonderful league playing this beautiful game at a breathtaking and exhilarating level, the NBA will be forced to put the financial and promotional muscle behind it that is long overdue. WNBA League Pass is cheap (like, under $20) and will give you every game streaming live, up to four simultaneously in split-screen, with stats breakdowns and the whole analytical works on top of the actual broadcast. Even if you don't want to pay for that, there are a handful of TV broadcasts and about 30 games streaming absolutely free on Twitter.  

If you want to watch genius and athleticism and grace and brilliance and power, if you want to watch history and the future running the floor together on the break, if you want to revel in brilliance, there has never been a better time than right damn now. Watch the WNBA, y'all. Hop on this train with us. I promise you, you're gonna love this journey.