Monday, November 30, 2009

If the world's ending, I want Nicolas Cage to take me through it

We attended back-to-back movies on Thanksgiving, forgoing turkey and choosing to fight the post-parade crowds that streamed through 42nd Street in Times Square. First movie, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Nicolas Cage plays a cop on the edge...yeah, already sounds like a movie to avoid. As always, though, I was entertained by a Cage film, a streak that's been intact since about 1995. Through The Rock, Ghost Rider, National Treasure, The Wicker Man, and even The Weather Man, I'm always up for a Cage fest. The preening. The shouting. The wide eyes. The hair.

His performances keep getting more and more bizarre, even though it seems like the roles don't always call for it. Bad Lieutenant does require it. From tripping out and seeing iguanas where there aren't any, to publicly banging a party girl while her stupefied boyfriend watches nearby, Cage manhandles every scene. He portrays a druggie detective who revels when he gets to play "bad cop," apparently believing subtlety is a sign of weakness in an actor.

Then we saw 2012, the apocalyptic movie extraordinarily loosely based on the extraordinarily ridiculous Mayan predictions about the end of the world (note: if the world does indeed end in a fiery mess on December 21, 2012, please feel free to leave a taunting comment on this post before you and your computer immolate and/or get crushed by shifting Earth crust or an asteroid). The movie fulfills its requirements of destroying notable cities and structures in impressive fashion, from D.C. to the Vatican.

John Cusack plays the down-on-his luck writer who fights for survival, his kids and the woman he loves. Or something. Mostly it's all about Cusack and his son and daughter avoiding falling LA buildings, collapsing runways (twice, in fact) and volcanic eruptions. And that's just in one day.

Cusack does his typical good work in the movie, although I'll forever claim that his career role came in one of his first movies, when he played Lane Myer in Better off Dead (Say Anything? If I was female, I might agree that was his best role). But as tolerable as Cusack is in 2012, it felt like the movie was missing something. And that something was...Nicolas Cage.

This was a role that should have been written for Cage, the somewhat-troubled middle-aged guy searching for hope in a world without a future. Actually, he recently played this role in Knowing and Next so perhaps he's done with the genre and would never have considered it. Still, while Cusack plays a good everyman, a movie about killer tsunamis, present-day arks, government conspiracies and exploding national parks (get to Yellowstone before 2012, if you're inclined to believe the Mayans) screams out for Cage's bulging eyes, weary expressions and half-crazed cackles. Cusack's acting past and well-known mannerisms make me think he'll greet the latest disaster with an aw-shucks grin and shrug. Cage would have defied the Mayans and Mother Nature, challenging each disaster with nothing more than his mane and machismo.

The movie's a two-hour hoot, even if I think the inspiration behind the plot is a bunch of nonsense. The packed house at the Thanksgiving Day showing erupted in cheers at the end of the movie (so I don't spoil the ending, I won't tell you if they were applauding the Earth's destruction, or its salvation).

I've written before about my skepticism of apocalyptic visions and predictions. They seem shakier than the sweaty, overexcited, overweight gamblers who used to hijack late-night TV and tout their predictions for that week's NFL games. I don't doubt that the world is someday going to end. It'll go out in a way that's probably quite uncomfortable for the poor souls here to witness it. Bill Bryson's superb book A Short History of Nearly Everything documents the countless ways Earth could heartlessly rid itself of humans and every other creature.

But I don't put much stock in apocalyptic religious texts written long ago by common men hoping for a destructive end at the hands of an unknowable but highly agitated god.

And I don't think an ancient civilization predicted the year or exact date it will happen. It seems like many of the people who are inclined to believe the Mayan 2012 call are the same people who are proud skeptics in every other facet of their life. They don't trust the government. They think The Man's out to get them. They refuse to listen to five-day forecasts because "you can't trust weathermen to get anything right." Yet they'll put faith in end-of-world predictions delivered by a group of people who lived thousands of years ago.

I think the Earth still has a decent future. And as long as Nicolas Cage keeps churning out movies, the world will be a better, crazier place. Get him in the 2012 sequel.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

NBA League Pass: The land of homers

One of my more extravagant purchases each year is the NBA League pass from Time-Warner, which doubles as a Christmas present and lets me watch every Lakers game. Granted, the Lakers are on roughly 25 times on national TV anyway, but this gives me the opportunity to view the other 60-plus games. But as an NBA junkie, I get the league pass so I can also watch every other game that's on every night. To me, it's one of the greatest innovations in television history, ahead of HDTV, TiVo, and maybe even the remote. So when I need to watch a Bucks-Kings game in mid-January, a game that probably only a few dozen people in Milwaukee and Sacramento even care about, I can.

It's also exposed me to every announcing crew in the league, requiring me to listen to the over-the-top calls and plaintive cries of homers in every NBA city. Some are obviously more blatant than others.

The King of homers - the Babe Ruth of homers, the Beatles of homers, the Mozart of homers, the fill-in-the-blank with your own analogy of homers - is Boston's Tommy Heinsohn. A member of the Celtics family since being drafted by the team in the late 1950s, Heinsohn seems convinced that the reason the franchise has won only 17 titles and not 52 is that the referees are involved in a Donaghy-like conspiracy every game. The next foul committed by a Celtic in Tommy's eyes will be the first. Heinsohn doesn't talk. He bellows. When the Celtics were Pittsburgh Pirates-like in their ineptitude a few years ago, Heinsohn was tolerable. Now that they've again ascended to the top of the league, Heinsohn's difficult to take, despite the fact he's paired with Mike Gorman, one of the best - and most impartial - play-by-play guys in any sport.

As for the above video: Tommy, he got him with the body. The most remarkable thing about Heinsohn's career is that he was the national color guy for CBS in the 1980s, at the height of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry. It was like having Rush Limbaugh handle commentary on the Democratic National Convention, but with more bias.

Most teams have homers for announcers, but not all. For instance, Marv Albert and Mike Fratello handle the calls for the Nets, who are on their way to becoming one of the worst teams in NBA history (so bad, they're the only team the Timberwolves beat). Albert remains the best play-by-play game in basketball. He still calls games for TNT. Fratello was NBC's lead analyst for years and also works for TNT. Having these guys call Nets games would be like having Spielberg and Scorsese team up to direct a junior high play.

This year League Pass occasionally offers viewers the chance to choose between both teams' announcing crews, providing even better examples of the different ways broadcasters see the same game. Watch one channel and hear the analyst bemoan "an obvious blocking call." Turn the channel and hear another analyst say "that was an obvious charge. Easy call for the ref." They need a third network of unbiased announcers to render the final verdict.

A quick tour of some of the other crews.
Minnesota: Tom Hanneman and Jim Petersen. Poor Tom and Jim. How do you make the current version of the Timberwolves sound good?

"Jefferson, on the blocks, turns, got it! Wolves cut the deficit to 27."

Petersen's a solid analyst while Hanneman is the most optimistic person this side of my mom. If the Timberwolves do ever win a title, it will be strange listening to Hanneman because he won't sound anymore excited than he is when the team only loses by eight points to a team that's four games above .500.

Knicks: Mike Breen and Walt Frazier. Breen handles Knicks calls when he's not working for ABC or ESPN. For years Marv Albert was the play-by-play man for New York - he was actually synonymous with the Knicks - but was eventually let go, with many people suspecting the Knicks got rid of him because he wasn't enough of a homer. Breen and Frazier are critical of the Knicks when needed, which is about 73 games a season. Frazier's known for his rhymes and riffs - "Kobe Bryant dishing and swishing," - which sound like lines he wrote in the hotel the night before the game. "Ok, what rhymes with post? Roast? No, toast! Shaquille posts and toasts Eddy Curry."

It's not often the most in-depth commentary but when you're Clyde Frazier and you're in New York and you were part of the 1970 team that Knicks fans still drool over, you somehow pull it off without sounding ridiculous. Just like he pulled off this look.

Lakers: Joel Meyers and Stu Lantz. Meyers is a solid play-by-play guy. For the Lakers, though, solid doesn't satisfy the fans, especially when Meyers has followed the incomparable Chick Hearn. Pete Myers had more success following Michael Jordan than Joel's had following Chick. Lantz - who worked with Chick for years - has no problem criticizing the Lakers. In fact, he'll get upset when a 20-point lead gets knocked down to 15, imploring the Lakers to "build the lead," apparently not realizing that's a tough chore whenever Sasha Vujacic and Adam Morrison are on the floor together. Lantz might be best known for the mock conversations he offers, which are usually as annoying as they are strange.

"So Pau Gasol gets the ball in the post and looks around. He says, 'Oh, there's Kobe Bryant cutting to the basket. I like Kobe, I think he'll score. So let me pass it.' And Kobe gets the pass and says, 'Thanks, Pau, nice to have you with us. Let me just go up, do a reverse, spin it off the glass and lay it in for two points.' Phil Jackson sees that and says, 'I like this team.' Lakers lead it, 78-67."

It seems weird writing it. Hearing it is even odder.

Portland: Mike Barrett and Mike Rice. Occasional challengers to Heinsohn's homer throne, Mike and Mike haven't seen a correct foul call on the Blazers since Buck Williams played power forward for the team. Barrett, in particular, utilizes a dismissive, often sarcastic tone. It's almost possible to see him shaking his head as he laments the latest travesty to befall the Blazers. Barrett and Rice are must-listens to me when the Blazers are losing, as it's enjoyable to hear the whining and near-teary commentary.

Most teams employ former players as the analyst, a role that doesn't always play to their strengths. They could play the game. Talking about it? Not as graceful. But they are enthusiastic, which is probably the station's top requirement for their broadcasters. Clyde Drexler in Houston is one of those guys, as is Tommy Heinsohn, of course. But as mentioned, Heinsohn gets his own wing in the Homer Hall of Fame.

One of the better crews broadcasts for Sacramento, Grant Napear and Jerry Reynolds, a longtime Kings employee and former coach. Fair to both teams while still pulling for the Kings, Napear and Reynolds support Sacramento without being completely over-the-top. They praise the opposition when necessary and aren't afraid to criticize the Kings.

As I flick through the channels, I'll unfortunately never find who I'm really looking for: Chick Hearn. The most legendary basketball announcer there ever was, Hearn was as much a Laker as Magic or West. But what made him a great announcer and not just an LA legend was that he was never afraid to criticize the Lakers, even the Showtime teams of the 1980s. In the video below, Hearn takes Mychal Thompson to task for a series of bricks. Fifty percent of guys broadcasting games today would see the same shots and praise Thompson's use of the backboard.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Alumni night at WCC

The Friday after Thanksgiving is a day to fast, in a futile effort to spur intestinal recovery. It's a day of college football. And for the insane, a day to shop. In the past it was also always the night of the Alumni Basketball Game at Worthington Community College, now awkwardly named Minnesota West Community and Technical College or, simply, Minnesota West.

I played in the alumni game twice as a player for WCC, and then three or four times as an alum. We always held the game the day after Thanksgiving. Traditionally it was sort of the tipoff to the season. Today, by the Friday after Turkey Day, both the men's and women's teams have played five or six games. And the school dropped the alumni game several seasons ago, a few years after the ultimate nightmare happened: a former player, now out of shape but still overly competitive, barreled into one of the real players, hurting the kid's leg and costing him several games. And I suppose you can only watch out-of-shape and over-the-hill players compete for so long before it gets to be a bit much.

Still, it was always a fun game to play in, whether as a current player or former one. If the alumni team somehow managed to defeat the current incarnation, it was always a sign that the season would be a struggle. Because if the team couldn't knock off a bunch of former players, how were they going to do against current college players? Many of the alumni who returned were still young guys who just recently left the program, but the highlight was when some of the older players reappeared, guys who made their mark a decade earlier. Though occasionally bulkier and always slower, the best players from the past rarely lost much when they returned, retaining their deadly shooting eyes or low-post moves.

As a kid, one of the more memorable alumni games occurred in 1984. It had nothing to do with the games themselves. But that night, Doug Flutie completed one of the most famous passes in college football history, connecting on a Hail Mary on the final play of the game to lift Boston College over Miami, 47-45. We didn't believe it. And, listening to this, neither did Brent Musburger.

I watched it at my grandpa's farm, then rode to Worthington for the alumni game with my uncle Jerry. The alumni games were always a special night in our family and not simply because of my two-year stint with the Jays. My uncle Mike Fury has coached the women's team for 29 years. He just won his 350th game. So we went to the games when I grew up to watch uncle Mike's teams play. In addition, seemingly every member on my dad's side of the family went to the school, including my grandpa, making the school more than a two-and-done place for us. My cousins Gretchen and Sara Jo both played there as well.

Following the games, the former players gathered with family, friends and coaches for a night of drinking and reminiscing, though there was probably more of the former than the latter.

Players returned for the memories, not the basketball. The game gave them a chance to reconnect with old teammates and coaches. The numbers on the scoreboard didn't matter, only the number of people who came back to their old school.

Community college basketball has always been way below the radar of the college hoops world. Division I, Division II and Division III basketball receives the most attention, from fans and the media. But community college ball often offers high-caliber play. Depending on the school and the level of play, fans can also get the chance to see guys who one day will be the ones starring at those higher levels.

For the record, we won the alumni game the two years I was a player at WCC. Might have won one game as an alum (and the team did struggle that year). I couldn't have asked for a more enjoyable two years of basketball. It gave me a chance to extend my career a couple of more seasons, I had a great group of teammates, and a great coach in a guy named Mike Augustine, a Denver guy who favors the Pittsburgh Steelers but found a home on the Minnesota prairie. My sophomore season, we set a school record for most points per game, averaging just under 90 a game, a mark that still stands. We set the school record for points with either 124 or 125. In another game, we scored 120. Our team had firepower throughout the lineup, fully capable of scoring inside and outside.

Defense? Yeah, we sometimes struggled defensively, perhaps believing that the best defense was a great offense. And often it was. We lost one game on a halfcourt shot by a man named Fritz. Late in the season, needing just one win to qualify for the state tournament, we lost on the road to a team we'd crushed twice earlier in the year. A game later, we lost to a team we'd previously defeated by 20.

But in the end, as disappointing as it was to not make the state tournament, the memories from those two seasons and that final year in particular stand out.

Some of those memories are classic "juco basketball" memories. Such as the game that was interrupted by a chair thrown onto the court. An opposing player tossed it in his best Bobby Knight impression. Disgruntled with his head coach, the head case of a player took out his frustrations on his padded seat.

This would seem like an obvious technical foul, because even if the player wasn't upset with the reffing, the fact remained: HE THREW A CHAIR ONTO THE COURT. No technical. As way of explanation, the ref wandered over and told Augie, "I'm not calling a technical, because I think his coach will punish him enough." We lost the game in the final minute, one of those two late losses that cost us a trip to state. All because a ref relied on a coach to discipline a chair-thrower. Like I said, it was one of those classic community college basketball moments.

Another game that year, the bus broke down outside a Hardee's on our way to Minneapolis. The women's basketball team from Macalester picked us up in their bus as we hitchhiked to the Twin Cities. Unfortunately, I forgot my bag on the broken-down van, requiring me to borrow the basketball shoes of our assistant coach. A noble and generous gesture, but the guy's feet were two sizes smaller than mine. It's a wonder I didn't develop the feet of Bill Walton following that game.

All of those games remain vivid in my mind. There are no more alumni games at WCC - or Minnesota West. No more chances to test the hamstrings against the newest group of Bluejays. No chance to test the kidneys following the game. No alumni game on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but plenty of memories.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Mountain life on Little House on the Prairie

The New Yorker might be the best magazine in the country, but it also requires devotion. Many people bemoan how their New Yorkers begin to stack up in a corner, unread, like the unopened bills of a person struggling with debt who's too afraid to look at the mail. I usually read each new issue the week it arrives, but there are times when a small pile forms on a bedside table, requiring me to work through them in a single night. Over the weekend I finally got to the August 10 issue. One of the more fascinating articles is a look at the career of Laura Ingalls Wilder, whose literary career is well-known, even if the face people picture when hearing her name is that of Melissa Gilbert.

She's the author of the Little House stories, the books that eventually were adapted into a 70s TV show and a staple of '80s reruns. Wilder published her first book at the age of 65. Charles and Caroline were her parents, just like on the show. She had sisters named Mary, Carrie and Grace. She married a man named Almanzo. What I didn't realize until reading the New Yorker story is that Wilder's daughter, Rose, is thought by some scholars to be the true artist behind the works. A writer herself, Rose contributed her skills to the series, though there's debate about exactly how much she added. The story's worth a read.

But as famous as the books are, it's the TV show that fascinated me as a kid, for a couple of reasons. First, they had good stories. Also, they were set in southern Minnesota, where I lived. Hey, the Ingalls clan is traveling to Mankato in a covered wagon to get some supplies. We live 15 miles from there! Sleepy Eye, Walnut Grove, all familiar towns.

Not that everything made sense on the show.

For instance, in a famous episode, Laura runs away from home because she blames herself for the death of her baby brother. It's an emotional episode. Heartwarming. Ernest Borgnine plays an old mountain man - possibly homeless, definitely disheveled - who helps Laura find her way through the darkness. Oh, yeah, and he's God. Or simply an angel sent down to Earth, following in the footsteps of Clarence from It's a Wonderful Life. But that's not even the biggest stretch on the episode. Laura runs the mountains! In southern Minnesota. Minnesota's famous for many things, foremost among them its lakes. There's great fishing, perfect farmland. Some hills, woods, forests, plains. Prairies, if you will. But no mountains. Having Laura scale a mountain in southern Minnesota makes as much sense as having a character on Gossip Girl run away to a mountain in Midtown Manhattan.

At the end of the episode, she breathlessly tells Pa about the man who helped her, Jonathan. Except Jonathan's now disappeared. We can only assume he's ascended back up to heaven for a bath and shave. Or perhaps he's running away from the law, finally aware that he wasn't supposed to be within 100 yards of children.

Still, during the final minutes, when Charles finds Laura - with the help of the bearded and ever-present Mr. Edwards - I feel a lump in my throat.

By the way, here's the real Charles Ingalls.

I'm sure it was a tough call, but producers made the right choice by not having Michael Landon look like the real Charles, who had a John-Brown-after-the-slave-revolt look that wouldn't have translated to television.

Charles - on the show - is one of my favorite characters ever on TV. Combining Ali-like fighting skills, the bravery of William Wallace and the moral sense of Ghandi with the parenting skills of Dr. Spock, he was a superman disguised as an everyman.

Even in this episode, Charles cared for his opponent following the fight, an aging boxer taken advantage of by his sleazy promoter.

The guy battled bullies, such as the new male teacher in town who enjoyed slapping kids with a ruler. Charles ended that practice. The guy even confronted Frank and Jesse James, in one of the coolest if ridiculous episodes. The James boys take over a house and hold Mary hostage. The ludicrousness comes from the fact one of the characters on the show is a kid named Ford who, you guessed it, just happens to be the guy who shoots Jesse James years later. At least they didn't hide out in the mountains.

While Charles and Laura often carried the show, Little House also featured superb supporting characters. Some good, some evil.

Nels Oleson was an enigma. A caring, sensitive man who doubled as a valued town leader, the lean, angular merchant has to be docked for marrying the conniving, gossiping Harriet, a nightmare of a woman. During their courting days Harriet must have displayed similar signs, yet Nels forged ahead with the wedding. Together they produced Nellie and Willie, one of the more evil girls anyone's ever seen and a bratty, unattractive, undersized boy who struggled with school and basic logic, as if Harriet dropped him on his head on the mercantile's floor. To top it off, they adopted a little girl named Nancy, a blond brat who filled the evil girl role after Nellie grew up and matured into a nice woman. It seemed to prove that it was nurture, not nature, that screwed up the Oleson children, leading me to believe Nels spent too much time in the store and not enough time with the kids.

Nellie. What a perfect character. Whether taunting a stuttering girl or faking paralysis for sympathy, Nellie proved the perfect foil to Laura. If Nellie existed on TV today she'd be the one ridiculing the 115-pound girl and calling her fat, leading to the gal developing a dangerous eating disorder.

Willie Oleson displayed moments of humanity, despite having the characteristics of the bumbling, dim-witted henchmen on the old Batman shows. In one episode, the kindly, caring teacher, Miss Beadle, sends the children home early on Christmas Eve. Unfortunately, a snowstorm blows through the prairie - and over the mountains, I guess - trapping many of the kids. The school turns into a triage center. Children die. A devastated Miss Beadle weeps, blaming herself, as do some townsfolk. The normally delinquent Willie consoles the teacher and strokes her hair.

Little House dealt head-on with numerous tragedies, whether it was that epic snowstorm, the Ingalls' baby boy dying, or Albert's descent into morphine addiction and subsequent sickness (he didn't actually die on the show but it's implied he's well on his way). One of the sadder storylines involved oldest sister Mary's blindness. Who can forget when she told Charles and the doctor (she went to the eye doctor in Mankato - so did I! Another connection), "I can see," when really she couldn't? She gets sent to a school for the blind, where she eventually thrives and has a son. But following through on the apparent anti-baby theme that permeated Little House, the baby boy dies in a horrific fire at the school, set by Albert and a buddy who were smoking. Alice Garvey - wife of football-star-turned-burly-actor Merlin Olsen - dies with the kid, despite smashing windows while clutching the child. These types of scenes resonate with an 8-year-old latch key kid when he watches them at 4 in the afternoon.

One of my favorite episodes involved the first "human forward pass." Albert's football team battles a squad sporting a big, dumb doofus who dominates the field. An unpopular, struggling blind boy plays for Albert's team. In the final scene, Albert steps on the kid's hand as he propels Albert over the angry ogre - Walter Payton-like - for the winning touchdown. Even in the 1800s the play was probably illegal, but it showed a genius and creativity not seen again on a field until Bill Walsh took over in San Francisco.

The show ended in explosive fashion. It's sort of a convoluted storyline, but the bottom line is a greedy tycoon owns the land Walnut Grove sits on and is going to take it over, by force or otherwise. The townsfolk - who have battled everything from Jesse James to typhus - refuse to go away quietly. That Minnesota spirit - and knowledge of illegal explosives - shines through. So everyone places dynamite in each building, blowing everything up as the land grabber looks on in horror.

Little House probably held on a few years too long. People moved to Mankato, the Olesons worked in a casino, Laura became a teacher, various adoptees came and went. But it was a good show. And one of the few shows or movies that was better than the books. Just wish they hadn't put Laura on that mountain.

Monday, November 23, 2009

And I've worked on Arbor Day

For the past four years I've only had to work a couple of the major holidays, usually Memorial Day and Labor Day. Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, all free.

For the first eight or nine years of my working life, I rarely had any holiday off. I'd be in the office as the late Thanksgiving football game started. I've watched the Times Square Ball drop while seated at my desk in the Fargo newspaper office. I participated in a competitive Easter Egg hunt in a newsroom.

Come Thursday, I'll again be free of work obligations, but I'll feel sympathy for all of those stuck at a desk or on an assembly line or behind a fast-food counter.

Here, then, some notes about working the various holidays.
* Thanksgiving. Eating a TV dinner is never an entirely pleasing experience, no matter how crisp the brownie or well-buttered the corn. Physically it's fine. It's quick, easy, tasty. But the meal is laced with mystery and a crushing sense of loneliness or incompetency accompanies every kernel and bite of ostensibly mashed potato. Either a significant other isn't there to prepare a meal or a complete lack of cooking skills has led to the point where meat generously defined by Swanson's as chicken is now a viable option.

That's for every other day of the year. But eating a TV dinner on Thanksgiving brings someone to a new level of personal debasement and introspection. I did it four or five times, sticking with the chicken despite occasional flirtations with the salisbury steak. While images of family members downing turkey and stuffing danced in my head, I sat on my stained couch and picked around the skin of the chicken, searching for the white meat trumpeted on the packaging. A volunteer shift at a soup kitchen would have ended the personal pity party, but the preservatives sapped me of my strength and ambition. At work, a co-worker often brought in leftovers, a much-appreciated gesture even if it almost felt more like taunting than goodwill.

"Here you go, here are the 12 pieces of turkey my hoggish family didn't stuff into their overfed faces. Make yourself a sandwich. Sorry, uncle Lester ate all the pie, otherwise I would have brought some in. God, was it a feast. What'd you have to eat?"

A few years I was able to eat the normal meal with the family before going into work around 4 p.m., just when the Cowboys were kicking off. That did mean shelving the much-needed 5 p.m. nap.

* Easter. Best thing about not being able to go home or be with family on this day? No church! No guilt about having no church.

Sorry, I mean, it's upsetting not being able to wake at 8 to mark that day's most famous rising. Easter in a newspaper office is a fairly normal day. Unlike the other holidays when many leagues shut down with the exception of a game or two, there can be, depending on when Easter falls, a full schedule of basketball, baseball or hockey games. Sometimes the Masters finishes that day.

Easter's primarily a morning holiday it seems, so working in the afternoon never bothered me. Didn't feel like I was missing anything.

* Christmas. If I missed a Christmas, I always called back home at some point in the day to get the report on gifts and to speak with relatives I might not get to see for another year. Nothing takes place in the sports world, with the exception of the ABC-sponsored Kobe vs. Shaq/LeBron/Celtics game, so work's a breeze. Wait for the NBA game to finish, slap some 25-inch bowl game previews into the inside sections and format a little agate. If I did work Christmas I usually worked Christmas Eve as well, a dual shift made possible by the fact we'd be celebrating Christmas as a family a few days later, whenever I returned home. That makes Christmas unique, the ability to extend it a week or hold it days earlier, depending on everyone's schedule. No one holds their Thanksgiving meal in early December.

* New Year's Eve. There was never much to do at the paper as the world counts down to midnight. Often the paper implemented early deadlines, meaning we finished an hour or so earlier. But being done at midnight doesn't do much good when everyone else has been drunk since 6. They're already done with the fun stage and are instead reflecting on that awkward pass on the neighbor earlier in the evening. We'd drive to a party after our shift, arriving in time to see someone vomiting or drunkenly vowing to change their ways in the new year, the same resolution the guy's made the previous seven years. Warmed the heart. We snacked on leftover munchies that guests had pawed through, sipped a drink and went home. Happy New Year.

* Fourth of July. In Minnesota most of the big holidays take place in months when snow covers the ground and people actually, unironically say, "Gosh, sure got warm today, didn't it?" when the temperature reaches 30 degrees. While working those days means missing out on family, food, gifts, alcohol and alcoholic relatives, they are all spent indoors. Working the Fourth means missing out on a nice summer day. Pickup basketball in the park, or softball at the local diamond. A day at the beach. No fireworks, illegal or otherwise, at night. That's why I was always sort of secretly happy when bad weather intruded on the Fourth. If I had to be stuck inside reading the AP wire or penning a parasailing feature, others should suffer too. Perhaps the sentiment's vaguely unpatriotic. But at the same I was doing my part for the First Amendment.

The above paragraph also applies to Memorial Day.

Labor Day? Winter holiday in Minnesota.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Jim Marshall of pickup basketball

This is New York Knicks guard Nate Robinson draining a 3-pointer against the Nets on Saturday. Unfortunately, he shot it at the wrong basket. Fortunately, the shot came just after the buzzer sounded and didn't count.

That didn't stop Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni from berating the occasionally confused and confusing Robinson, who acted defensively, as if it's perfectly normal for a player to turn and fire a shot into his opponent's hoop, and why in the hell is the coach so upset? Now, Robinson did it while goofing off, thinking - correctly, it turned out - that the shot came after the buzzer. But he cut it close, nearly giving the horrid Nets three points.

During one of our pickup games this past Wednesday, one of the guys didn't get so lucky. At the start of the game, the other team had possession. They passed it around a few times. Someone missed a shot. One of their players - who had already touched the ball on that possession so obviously knew which basket was his - snared the offensive board. Instead of going up for a shot, he took off on a full sprint to the other end of the court, looking like Magic Johnson in his prime. Everyone else watched in stunned silence. Where's he going? Head down with a hip-high dribble, he drove the length of the court and finished the play off with his best-looking layup of the night.

Into the wrong basket. For the wrong team.

Only when he began running up the court did he realize what had happened. One of his teammates said he thought about blocking his shot but was too surprised to act. Everyone else just laughed, perhaps more confused than the poor shooter. I've seen guys shoot into the wrong basket. But that's usually when they're on the defensive boards and go up with a shot after grabbing the ball. I've never seen - nor has anyone since Naismith started his old game - a player grab an offensive rebound, sprint to the other end, and lay it in for two points for the opposition.

It's like he had a bet on the game and wanted to assure a quick start for our club, only this would be the most obvious point-shaving in the history of gambling scandals. A debate ensued. Did we get the points? Or, should we retroactively call over-and-back, since technically he did commit a violation by crossing center court. Our league commissioner ruled: the basket counted, for us.

Perhaps because we were still processing what had happened, we never got into the flow of the game. We lost 7-3, although we only accounted for two of those points.

The most soul-crushing time I saw such a play happen came in high school. During a B-squad game, on Parents Night, a kid who rarely got to play entered late in the game. With his proud folks looking on, Mike grabbed a defensive board, getting his name into the scorebook. Instead of looking for an outlet pass, though, he immediately went up for the shot. And scored his only two points of the night with a nice use of the backboard. Might have been his only two points of the season. The crowd laughed, half mocking him, half pitying him. His dad probably ridiculed Mike later that night, and his mom probably congratulated him on "hitting a hoop." Moms can always see the positive in any situation. Except, perhaps, for a full-length drive to the wrong basket.

Friday, November 20, 2009

For his next project: Eight articles about tissue paper

Coming up with original freelance story ideas can be difficult. Sometimes writers answer calls for work, farming out their stories to those in need of their literary talent.

Then there's this ad.
"I am looking for someone to write content for me on an ongoing basis. I need someone with great English skills that can provide quality work on time. I need 5 400+ word articles on Napkins, they must be well-researched and factual."

Starving artists and writers have been known to do just about anything for a paycheck. They'll have two part-time jobs as a waiter. They'll work at Starbucks. They'll dress up as a dog in Union Square and sell tickets to a pet convention. They'll donate blood, plasma, and other fluids. They'll steal from friends.

But napkins?

Is there an undiscovered world out there clamoring for 2,000 total words on napkins? Are sidebars about the rivalry between napkins and paper towels allowed? And if you research one 400-word article on napkins, are you going to have much left over for four more stories? Maybe you leave out absorption theories in the first two articles and save them for the third.

Here's Wikipedia on napkins. Wikipedia, which can produce 25,000 words on nearly any object, has little to say.
"A napkin (also in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia: serviette) is a rectangle of cloth or paper used at the table for wiping the mouth while eating."

So maybe for the fourth story you examine why the Canadians, Brits and Aussies call it a serviette. Should be able to crank out 400 words on that history.

The ad continues, the poster requesting the final product within 4 days. Timeliness is always key in journalism, more so today than ever before. Yet it seems that an article on napkins can be submitted tomorrow, or in six years and the end result won't be much different. Four days. Why the rush?

"It is recommended that you search for the particular keyword phrase listed above at each of the top search engines (Google, Bing and Yahoo) and then look through the top 10 links on the first page of search engine results. This will give you an idea of what's ranking well and can help you in writing your own articles."

I assume there's some advertising pitch intertwined in this whole posting, something that helps some unknown company make money and as a non-advertising person I'm simply too dense to understand that. There's probably an inside joke here I'm just too slow to catch. I get that. But I still don't get what a search of napkin is supposed to unearth. There are some interesting stories I've heard of pseudo contracts being written on napkins, or someone sketches out a brilliant idea on a napkin while at a restaurant and later turns it into a hit movie. But how do you tell those stories in 400 words? And will the napkin be the centerpiece of the story, or is it more about the people involved and their ideas? The napkin would seem like a bit player. So then we're back to talking about how well it cleans your face after a bite of pizza.

A search uncovers tips on folding arrangements. Discount party supplies. Linen services. It's all there, the excitement of the napkin universe. Even as someone who could write 1,000 words in 45 minutes on the career of Chuck Nevitt, I don't know if I'd be able to come up with five stories of 400 words each on napkins.

"I DO check every article I receive for plagiarism and refuse to pay for plagiarized content."

And now we know the only thing more depressing than having to write about napkins to earn a check: Plagiarizing a story about napkins.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On this day in history, something happened. And the Lakers played

"I'm convinced the only reason my dad doesn't remember his own birth is that no significant game was played that day in any of the major sports."

I wrote that a year ago in a column about Minnesota memories.

Along with my dad, I share a savant-like ability to relate life moments with sporting events, a trait that, for me anyway, seems to be getting more pronounced with age. It'd be the world's worst party trick. Sign of arrested development? Probably. But at this point I don't even have any power over the way these connections come together.

Mention a game from the past and I'll remember what I was doing that day. Bring up a memorable moment in my life and I'll remember a game I watched that day or read about.

My wedding day was the best day of my life, an intimate ceremony with a few friends and family in Central Park. But as great as that day was, it doesn't erase the foul memories I have of sneaking peeks at the TV as the Pistons throttled the Lakers in Game 4 of the 2004 NBA Finals, claiming a 3-1 lead in a series they won two days later. A new period of my life began that day as the Lakers drew a game closer to the end of the Shaq-Kobe era. Priorities, I know. But you can't help what your mind remembers.

For my dad's 50th birthday party in 1997, which was held a few days after the actual date, I drove two-and-a-half hours back home to celebrate with everyone at a restaurant. On the drive down, I listened to a sports talk radio show centered around the second-round dominance of Tiger Woods at The Masters. One caller expressed disappointment at the hype the young golfer was receiving, wondering what he'd done to deserve such attention. So, yes, talk radio callers have long been lacking in reasoning skills.

We watched the highlights on a TV while enjoying our drinks and wondering how dad had gotten to be 50 and if that counted as being old (as a 34-year-old, I now say it doesn't). Two days later, Tiger captured his first Grand Slam title.

In the 1988 NBA Finals, the Pistons led the Lakers 3-2 and held a three-point lead with a minute left in Game 6. They played on a Sunday afternoon, back when sports leagues weren't pathologically allergic to starting playoff games before sundown. That weekend, Janesville hosted the town's annual Hay Daze celebration, a three-day event filled with carnies, bumper cars, onion rings, the Zipper (except the years when a mechanical problem shut it down, which happened enough times to make you question the safety record), beer gardens, dunk tanks, impossible games and fistfights.

On Hay Daze Sunday, the celebration was wrapping up, as was the Lakers' dream of a title repeat. My sister, eight months pregnant, slept peacefully on our couch as I watched Isiah Thomas score 25 points in the third quarter and lead Detroit to that late three-point lead. Immature and enraged, I picked up an obscenely oversized inflatable pink crayon I had won at a rigged game earlier that weekend. The crayon probably cost a quarter to produce, but I likely spent 10 bucks trying to shoot a too-large basketball into a too-small hoop to win it.

With the Lakers trailing, I picked up the crayon, which seemed to be mocking me at this point. Cocking my arm, I announced to my parents, "If the Lakers lose, I'm throwing this at Lisa." I'd like to think it was an empty threat, but who knows what a 13-year-old is capable of in a moment of great disappointment. Fortunately, the Lakers rallied and won on a pair of Kareem free throws, saving the season and my sister. Don't worry, she really was fine; she had her baby and he's now a college senior, with no psychological scarring from the crayon missile that nearly slammed into his mom.

The Lakers went on to win Game 7 . We played a Little League game that night, which stretched on and on as our opponent's pitching staff collectively suffered from Steve Blass disease and walked practically every hitter in our lineup. By the time I got home, the first quarter had finished. But I was there for the end.

Game 7 of the 1987 World Series took place on the same night I had to complete a ridiculous drawing for the next day's Industrial Arts class. Ridiculous because my complete lack of mechanical ability made it a certainty I was looking at a C grade, if not lower, unless I my mom completed the sketch. Even the joy I got from Jeff Reardon finishing off the Cardinals couldn't take away the panic I felt about completing the project. Twins won, I got the C(minus).

In May 1985, we visited my great-aunt Florence, who lived in a small town nursing home. Before the drive and in the car, we followed the ongoing Memorial Day Massacre, Game 1 of the NBA Finals when the Celtics crushed the Lakers 148-114. That day is nearly the only memory I have of Florence, and I remember it whenever I think of that series. Her room smelled like oranges. I felt uncomfortable being there, the way so many kids do when they're around an elderly person they don't know real well. Later that day, we went back to grandpa Fury's farm, where I shot on the family's favorite outdoor hoop, which was attached to a barn. I tried telling my dad and uncles that the Lakers still had a chance. My dad ridiculed the idea. My uncles, Lakers fans, didn't give them a chance. Grandpa believed. Grandpa was right, as the Lakers won in six. But the game I remember most vividly is that first one, Game 1, the day we visited Florence.

Pick an event, any event. The weekend I moved out to New York City for the first time in 2002, with friends Matt and Brandon? Listened to the NBA All-Star game that Sunday. When that trip failed and I moved back a few weeks later? I remember listening to the Lakers again, this time in a rented Taurus, as they played the Knicks and I contemplated where my life would lead next.

Sports have always been a major part of my life. Probably too much at times. But it's often because they help link so many important moments, and keep those important memories alive.

My maternal grandfather died 25 years ago in October. The night of the wake, I walked the few blocks from the funeral home to grandma and grandpa's house, where I watched the Padres and Tigers in the World Series. I didn't have a rooting interest in either team, but I remember watching the game and enjoying a few hours of baseball talk with my Michigan-native uncle, as I tried to deal with the fact grandpa was gone forever. This past May, grandma died. At her wake, it all came back: grandpa's death, grandpa's wake...the Padres and Tigers in the World Series. I don't have a lot of memories of grandpa. But whenever I see a highlight or a story about that series or those champion Tigers, I do think about that night in 1984 and I think about grandpa. And now, I'll think about grandma, too.

I'm hoping this trait helps ward off the effects of old age. When I'm 90 and sitting in a home - my own or otherwise - and my grandson asks, "Grandpa, do you remember your fifth wedding anniversary?" I'll respond, "Of course. We went to Felidia's restaurant, sat at night in Columbus Circle, and I gave your grandma a diamond ring. And a day later, the Lakers won the 2009 NBA title. How could I ever forget?"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Up close with the George Washington Bridge Bus Station

Every workday I ride the A train four stops to 175th Street, where I transfer to a New Jersey Transit bus located in the George Washington Bridge Bus Station. As New York City commutes go, it's about as painless as it gets. While thousands - millions - of angry, perturbed, tired, confused, beaten-down worker bees spend an hour or much more on the subways or buses, transferring several times, I ride the subway for less than 10 minutes. From the bus station, the good old 186 New Jersey bus takes about 10 minutes to get to work. Still, I give myself 45 minutes to an hour for the trip, as traffic and a late subway or bus can crush any well-intended schedule. By car, the trip takes about 20 minutes if traffic cooperates, though that knowledge only frustrates me when my commute home via public transportation does last an hour.

So I actually spend little time on the subway during the week. Instead, the majority of my commuting time is spent in the confines of the GWB Bridge Bus Station, a terminal located in Washington Heights between 178th and 179th Streets.

And what a terminal.

The higher you are, the easier it is to appreciate the terminal, sort of like a Pink Floyd album or 2001: A Space Odyssey. In this case, it's about elevation, as from above the terminal's unique design captures the eye. From this angle the building looks sleek, almost futuristic.

Pier Luigi Nervi, a famed Italian engineer who also created Rome's 1960 Olympic Stadium, designed the terminal, which opened in 1963. That same year, the building received the Concrete Industry Board's Award, though I didn't see any mention of other contenders for the plainly named honor. Here's an extensive story about the history of the terminal.

That's the history and the architecture. Inside...inside life's a little different, starting with the 175th Street subway stop. Seemingly burrowed even deeper underground than other subway stops, the platform areas attract a decent number of unhinged people.

One night after work, I walked down the steps with a friend. Behind us a lady ranted nonsensically, stringing together unrelated words and thoughts that were impossible to follow. It's a standard sight. But her mannerisms perfectly communicated the idea that she was a person to avoid. As we waited for the train, we heard a gasp and louder yelling. Finally two girls in their early 20s walked past and up the steps, with one of the women holding her cheek, attempting to cover up a growing red spot. The screamer had stopped yelling long enough to slug the poor woman. After hitting her victim, the lady continued walking and talking, as everyone else avoided eye contact. Livened up the commute home.

To get to the waiting area for the buses, you walk up a lengthy tunnel, where performers of varying skill and panhandlers greet you. It's a fairly regular cast of characters, from the kindly guy who simply tells everyone who walks by how good-looking they are - "Hello, there, My Princess... Hello there my good-looking brother" - to the middle-aged man who rests against a wall and softly, politely asks, "Excuse me, sir. Can you help me?" Performers include a saxophone player who sounds like he could play with nearly any band in the country, and an elderly, tough-looking crooner who sings but one song day after day, and sings it poorly. Of the many people at work who have heard him, no one knows the song. The only words anyone understands are, "It's all riiiight. Oh yeaaaah," which he repeats on an endless loop. The saxophonist deserves money and applause. But I've seen the warbler bring in just as much money, perhaps misguided attempts to bribe him quitting for a new career.

Inside the main waiting area, a pair of newsstands share space with a handful of other businesses, including an optometrist's office, donut and coffee shops, and a barber. The biggest crowd each day gathers in the off-track betting parlor. No matter when I walk by, it sounds like someone just hit a Pick 6. The 70,000 people at the 1973 Belmont who stood and wildly cheered as Secretariat blew away the field and completed the Triple Crown didn't show the type of excitement displayed daily at the off-track site at the GWB Bus Station. I don't know if any fortunes are won and lost, but bragging rights surely are.

Waiting passengers fill the metal chairs, watching on black-and-white video screens for their bus to roll in. At their feet, dozens of pigeons wander around, searching for scraps of food and taking off in flight on a moment's notice, often directly at someone's head. Kids love the pigeons. Fools feed them. Everyone else just avoids the crap and carnage.

A cop from an in-house station lightly nudges anyone who nods off in a chair, like a parent jolting a sleeping kid awake during a church sermon. Sometimes the person's homeless. The cop ushers them out. Other times it's simply someone who had to wake up at 5 a.m. and is waiting for a 6:30 bus. At the GWB Bus station, fatigue, apparently, isn't allowed. A week ago, as I sat reading the paper a few minutes before noon, I looked up just in time to see a young guy fall to his face, inches from my feet, the ever-present cop hovering nearby. He fell all on his own, but didn't leave under his own willpower. The cop escorted the intoxicated man out of the terminal and onto the street. No one raised an eyebrow.

The floor is home to more than a half-dozen pay phones, relics that fit in perfectly in 1963, but always seem weirdly out of place in modern-day New York. But as a person who remains cell phone-less, I can say I have actually used the pay phones, braving germs, outdated technology and the looks of cell phone snobs.

Have to use the bathroom? Hold it. I don't care if the bus won't arrive for another 20 minutes and your destination's 45 minutes away. Don't use these bathrooms. All of your senses, and inner belief in the basic goodness of humanity, will thank you later.

I've become a regular at one of the delis, so well-known and predictable with my order that the owner and other workers now pull out a white-frosted donut if they spot me from 10 feet away. Even if I wanted to order something different now - and there have been times I've desired just that - I don't know if they'd allow it.

That type of service almost makes me feel at home in the terminal. Of course, the station is not the type of place you want to get too comfortable in. The station leads to the George Washington Bridge, one of the wonders of the city. But in this case, the beauty really is on the outside, not on the inside.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Do schools still show Mulligan Stew?

Last night, for about the 198th time, I watched part of Can't Buy Me Love.

Best-known as the movie that kicked off the career of Patrick Dempsey, henceforth known as McDreamy, the film also starred Amanda Peterson as the hot girl geeky Ronald seduces - buys - with one thousand dollars. Peterson shines in the movie, bringing the right blend of snobbiness, empathy and '80s hair. She seemed destined for stardom, or at least a career in late-night Cinemax movies. Instead, she stopped making movies in 1995 and she's so unknown in Hollywood these days that her Wikipedia page doesn't even have a picture.

Remarkably, the first time I saw this movie was in high school. Not in social studies class as a case study in how nerds and jocks can eventually all come together, and not in any art class as an example of 1980s filmwork. No, it was in science class. It served no real educational purpose, other than to entertain. It succeeded and also inspired a love of the movie in me, so in that way it was an extremely effective teaching ploy.

Many school movies left an impression, some for good reasons, others for, well, other reasons.

Mulligan Stew. We watched this in third grade. Sponsored by the 4-H Council, Mulligan Stew featured five kids who were in a band called, appropriately, The Stews. The kids went on adventures and taught people the benefits of a balanced diet and good digestion. These kids must have been big hits at parties.

Mind-altering substances might have played a prominent role in the creation of the show. Whoever directed the episodes seems to have been tripping out during production, or intended for the nutritional information to be absorbed only by those who are high. The song I remember the Fab Five singing was "Goulash, Garbanzo Beans and Guacamole," a catchy tune that subliminally planted the idea in my head that I would forever dislike those foods, probably not what the lyricists were after.

The Wave. A teacher attempts to show his class what it was like to live under the Nazis. He eventually creates a movement called The Wave. Soon enough the students display their inner SS by creating their own salute and roughing up students who don't go along with the program. A few students speak up about the dangers of this new organization, which is creating chaos not seen in a school since members of the Future Farmers of America wore their manure-caked boots to class. Finally, the teacher plays his trump card. He tells his acne-ridden minions that the national Wave leader will speak to them. The Brownshirt-wannabes gather in the auditorium, eager to meet their leader. Eventually the leader appears on the screen...and it's Adolf Hitler. The shocked students finally realize their cute little project had grown completely out of control. And, like in all after-school specials, they learn their lesson, strip off their Wave gear and go back to being unhappy - but less dangerous - teenagers. We watched this in Social Studies class, and of all the movies teachers showed us back in the '80s and 1990s, this is one that I hope is still shown.

I remember the shock when Hitler's image appeared on that screen. A charismatic teacher today could probably replicate this experiment without much trouble, as teens - despite being more advanced in many ways - are still probably as pliable as ever. The movement might need a new name, as today the Wave sparks memories of large groups of bored fans rising as one section by section in stadiums across the country. Not a very intimidating name.

Que Pasa USA. This was a bilingual comedy from the late 1970s that our Spanish teacher played for us in Spanish 3. On the show, the characters spoke Spanish and English, which mimicked our classroom as the teacher often insisted we had to speak Spanish in normal conversation. A sometimes frustrating experience, it forced us to actually learn Spanish, a radical concept. The show carries that '70s, One-Day-At-A-Time/Jeffersons/Good Times look and vibe. Seventeen years later, I remember very little Spanish, a sad fact that reflects on my laziness and not on the lessons of Que Pasa USA, which did the best it could to influence Americans who are hostile to learning any other language.

Cipher in the Snow
. Based on a story written by a teacher, Brigham Young University produced this movie in the 1970s, we watched it in the 1980s and it haunts those who saw it into the first decade of the 21st Century. The cipher in the story is Cliff Evans, a young boy who loves frogs but is disliked by all. Actually, it's even worse. Instead of being disliked, he's unknown. Young Cliff walks off the bus, collapses into the snow and dies. A teacher - Cliff's favorite, even though the teacher barely remembers him - sets out to learn about the boy's life and discovers the kid had a hellacious life that included a horrible stepfather. The teacher finds that no one even knew the youngster, or took the time to get to know him. Basically, the kid died of loneliness. Sad and depressing, the movie pounds viewers over the head with its message that we need to protect the most vulnerable kids, work against bullying, and take an interest in all students, especially those few care about.

Youtube didn't have any clips for the movie, except for this one, which is "the classic LDS film Cipher in the Snow as a murder mystery."

Even in the Internet age, young Cliff gets no love.

EDIT: I forgot one of the classic school movies, perhaps because of trauma. My sister Lisa mentioned Faces of Death, which several Death Ed classes watched at Janesville(Waldorf-Pemberton) High School. Yes, Death Ed, which wasn't a how-to but did let us write the obituaries of friends. In addition, one of the highlights was the screening of Faces of Death. Banned in 40 countries! And that wasn't just a marketing ploy, though that was part of it. The kind of movie you'd carry out of a video store in a brown paper bag, Faces of Death features fake and real death scenes of humans and animals, just the kind of programming 17-year-olds deserve to see. We only watched the original in class. If you believe the critics, that was for the best, as, according to Wikipedia, each sequel "had a lower production quality than the last."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Maybe they should retire Number 45

After the Greater Miami Area Free Throw Competition on Thursday night - also known as a game between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Miami Heat - LeBron James announced his plan to change his number next season. In honor of Michael Jordan, James, who's worn Number 23 since he was a man-child terrorizing Ohio high school kids, said he was changing to Number 6 next season, though he declined to say if that would be in a Knicks uniform or a Cavaliers one.

Switching a number isn't a big deal, except to marketers and retailers everywhere who salivate at the idea of millions of fans forking over money for a new James 23 jersey. Jordan himself famously did it in his first comeback, when he wore 45 at the end of the 1995 season, in honor of his late father. The number looked out of place on his back and he definitely wasn't the Air Jordan of old. That lasted until the second game of the second round of the playoffs, when, in a scene scripted by Hollywood - or Nike's Phil Knight - he dramatically returned to 23, only to see the Bulls eliminated in six games. But he wore 23 for the rest of his career, winning three more titles with one of the most famous numbers in basketball history.

And Kobe Bryant ditched Number 8 for 24 in time for the 2007 season.

So there's precedent. If LeBron wants a new number and thinks it honors Jordan, great.

But then LeBron barreled through logic the same way he runs over point guards trying to take a charge on him. James added, "There would be no LeBron James, no Kobe Bryant, no Dwyane Wade if there wasn't Michael Jordan first. He can't get the logo [that's Jerry West], and if he can't, something has to be done. I feel like no NBA player should wear 23. I'm starting a petition, and I've got to get everyone in the NBA to sign it. Now, if I'm not going to wear No. 23, then nobody else should be able to wear it."

Uh, no.

The idea's not new to professional sports. Major League Baseball retired Jackie Robinson's 42 in 1997 (players who had been wearing it were grandfathered in and allowed to wear it. Mariano Rivera's the last to have the number). Makes sense. Robinson is one of the most important figures in Major League Baseball history, some might argue the most important. Jordan obviously is a transcendent figure in the NBA's history. But they are icons for very different reasons. Jordan might be the best to ever step on a court, though it's not a certainty. No one argues that Robinson's the best baseball player ever. He's more important. Baseball retired his number because of who he was and what he represented, shattering baseball's color barrier, enduring unspeakable hardships and racism in opening up the country's most important sport to black players. It's a legacy that should always be remembered, whenever any game is played, and seeing his number in every stadium honors his contribution.

Jordan did nothing like that. If James is insinuating that Jordan saved the NBA, many would disagree. That honor has long been given to Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and even if that's an oversimplification of what the NBA was like in the 1980s and is a slight exaggeration, it's not exaggerated by much. If any numbers were going to be permanently honored, why not Bird's 33 and Magic's 32? And I think it would be just as ludicrous for the league to retire those numbers, because as great as they were on the court and as important as they were off of it, what they did also doesn't compare to Jackie Robinson.

Jordan won six titles but Bill Russell won 11. Jordan scored a lot of points, but Kareem scored more. Jordan won some slam-dunk competitions, but so did Kenny "Sky" Walker. So why not retire their numbers? There wouldn't be a LeBron James, Kobe or Wade without Jordan? Ignoring the existential questions around such a statement, if you're going to say that then you also have to say there might not have been a Jordan without a Julius Erving. James says he wants to take Number 6 partly out of respect for Dr. J. But if his reason for wanting 23 retired is because Jordan set the stage for the current greats, why's he wearing the number of the guy who set the stage for Jordan? And how does Elgin Baylor play into this?

So confusing.

I can't believe there's much chance of the NBA ever agreeing to this, despite the fact many NBA players would probably gleefully go along with it. Then again, many of them sometimes seem as susceptible to peer pressure as a nerdy 16-year-old hanging out at his first kegger with the cool kids.

"Take a beer, come on. You'll like it."

"Come on, switch to Number 11. It's for MJ. You'll like it."

Example A: Phoenix guard Jason Richardson, who, God help us, tweeted: "Getting lots of tweets about changing my number 4 MJ. Im all 4 it he's the greatest player to ever play. NBA should of retired 23 yrs ago."

He later softened his tweet, which sounds...slightly dirty, saying it was just a thought and that it's up to the NBA.

As amusing as it is to picture LeBron going to each player in the NBA and asking them to sign a petition - as if LeBron's a naive, wide-eyed 12-year-old boy trying to get enough signatures for a petition he can send to the President asking for the destruction of all nuclear weapons - it seems like it would have little chance of ultimately succeeding.

And would the Pistons be excited to raise 23 to the rafters? How about the Blazers, who famously passed on Jordan in 1984 and lived to regret it? Or the Celtics, or the Lakers, or the tormented Jazz. Imagine Jordan's number sharing rental space with John Stockton and Karl Malone's, two guys kept from a title because of Jordan's brilliance. How emasculating would that be to those two greats?

Jordan doesn't need any more honors. To most basketball fans, he holds the mythical title of greatest player in NBA history. He's lauded for his talent, his competitiveness, his skills in the clutch and an unmatched work ethic. That's what he's remembered for, and will always be remembered for, no matter how many franchises he runs into the ground as a general manger.

There never will be another Jackie Robinson. That's just one of the reasons he deserves every honor MLB can give, including retiring his number. As unlikely as it seems today - actually, not all that unlikely since Bryant in many ways is the equivalent of Jordan (HERESY!) - there will be another Jordan. We have the highlights, and we have the memories. Let that be enough, and let today's players and all future ones keep Number 23.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A day without Law & Order is a bad day

It starts with the voice-over, of course. Coolly delivered, serious. If the narrator earns royalties each time it's played, he must be pulling in eight figures.

"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups..."

Then the sound. Two loud knocks, sparking a near Pavlovian response in viewers. Cut to Central Park, or Times Square, or a pizza delivery man entering a house. Random chatter between two people, followed by a gasp. A dead body. Now we see two detectives, perhaps smirking, always world-weary, annoyed with the beat cops and confused by the witness. After a quick joke about the body or the crime or the circumstances surrounding the discovery of the stiff, we're off.

When I first moved to New York, I didn't have a job and the only cable channels we got were TNT and TBS, meaning Ted Turner's empire held me hostage every weekday as I lived to hear the phrase "Up next: A Law & Order marathon." Today we have countless channels and I'm gainfully employed, but those words still spark excitement. Nothing beats hitting the menu on the TV and seeing a four-hour block of Law & Order. Occasionally, often on holidays, TNT breaks out a 12-hour marathon, an orgy of crime and punishment that I only wish lasted 20 hours.

Over the years I've also become a huge fan of Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I'll watch an occasional SVU episode. But it's the mothership, one of the longest-running shows in TV history, that remains my favorite. Nearly every episode is like Game 4 of the 1987 Finals to me: no matter how many times I've seen it, and no matter when I tune in, whether it's 10 minutes into it or five minutes from the ending, I'll stop channel surfing and watch the rest of the way.

So here are some random thoughts and memories from the most persistent and omnipresent show on television, if not the finest.
* First, a complaint to TNT. The show premiered in 1990. It has been running ever since, with 22 to 24 episodes per season. Yet the past few years, nearly every rerun is from the past seven or eight seasons, meaning Chris Noth, Michael Moriarty, Jill Hennessy and even the venerable Steven Hill are almost nowhere to be seen. I like Fred Thompson's acting much more than his politics and I think he did a decent job portraying the Manhattan DA. But the show's glory years were in the 1990s. Go back to the roots, give us the best.

* Nearly every episode has a flaw that practically slaps viewers in the face, but I was somehow not sharp enough to pick up on. Only after my friend Cheri pointed it out did I realize that the following exchange, with just a few different nouns and adjectives being alternated, nearly always takes place in the first half-hour:
Detective: You didn't see anything? Around 2 p.m., at 82nd and Broadway?
Deli owner/hot dog vendor/hipster/homeless person: No, man. I told you.
Detective: A woman. Five-foot-eight, blond, maybe 130 pounds.
Deli owner/hot dog vendor/hipster/homeless person: Oh, wait a minute. There was this blond woman running past with a large gun in her hand.

These interactions nearly ruined the show for Cheri. She could barely stand to watch it for fear of the No-I-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about-oh-wait-yes-I-do conversations.

* Favorite detectives: Lennie Briscoe and Mike Logan. One of the more jolting reruns that occasionally pops up is the episode where Jerry Orbach played a defense attorney. Watching that episode, nothing seems right with the world. He seemed ill-suited to the role and thankfully found a permanent home as Lennie, where he could complain about "scumbag defense attorneys" instead of portraying one. Logan returned to Criminal Intent, but he'd lost his machismo. Blame Sex and the City.

* Detective Curtis, played by Benjamin Bratt, delivered the most overused and emptiest threat. Inevitably, if a hard-scrabbled crook refused to talk, or passed on a plea bargain, Curtis would lean in real close and whisper, "You know what they do to child killers? They strap you down, stick a needle in you arm. Lethal injection, buddy." Curtis must have threatened a dozen criminals with the threat of capital punishment. The only problem is New York State hasn't executed anyone since 1963! In 2004, the New York Court of Appeals declared the death penalty unconstitutional in the state. Even before then, though, no one ever received the ultimate punishment, at least not since three months before the Kennedy assassination. A smart suspect would have called Curtis's bluff. Most, apparently unaware of recent state history, usually folded. He might as well have threatened them with a trip to the stockades.

* Creator Dick Wolf was notorious for having little problem replacing old, sometimes beloved characters. It was always entertaining seeing how he ousted the characters. Would they be killed, or perhaps disbarred for an ethics violation? Would they punch a politician, like Logan did? Did the actors have any say in how they were disposed? Probably not. The strangest exit belonged to Elisabeth Rohm's character, assistant DA Serena Southerlyn. DA Arthur Branch fires Southerlyn, supposedly because she's too sympathetic toward defendants. She asks, "Is this because I'm a lesbian?" "No. Of course not. No," Branch responds.

Fade to black, roll credits.

The moment would have made more sense and carried a greater emotional punch if, oh, her sexuality had been mentioned at any previous point in the series. It hadn't been. Meaning the first time we heard she was a lesbian was when she uttered her character's final word.

At least she didn't end up like her successor, Alexandra Borgia, who is murdered, beaten and discovered in the back of an abandoned car.

* I've seen perhaps two or three references to Inwood on the show, and I've only seen their cameras filming once in the neighborhood. Even scripted TV shows don't really think Inwood is a crucial part of Manhattan.

* Thankfully, little attention is paid to the personal lives of the characters, although that does make it more jarring when morsels of information come out, re: Serena's lesbianism.

We know Jack McCoy enjoys an occasional drink at his desk after a tough case and his "old man" was a Chicago cop, an abusive hard-ass who probably cracked some hippie skulls at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Detective Curtis's wife suffers from MS, although it only seems to come up when he's thinking of cheating on her.

"All right, act conflicted here, Benjamin. Your wife has MS. She's suffering. You're with a beautiful woman, a woman who loves brooding, Catholic cops. Bring out the emotions."

A drug dealer kills Lennie's daughter, another jolting plot twist that sort of came out of nowhere. Detective Green is probably a gambling addict. They provide decent background to the characters, but the show is about the stories and the cases, living little space for personal development.

* The best Assistant DA? My favorite was Jamie Ross, played by Carey Lowell. Angie Harmon's Abbie was a bit too intense and blood-thirsty, a conservative prosecutor who seemed like she'd be more at home in Texas railroading minority criminals into death sentences.

* Numerous actors have appeared in a variety of roles over several seasons, popping up as a defendant or lawyer. One of the best was actor Denis O'Hare. In one episode, he's a schizophrenic who kills several people with a sword. It turns out he's a brilliant man who defends himself in court. He's fine when medicated, an able adversary to McCoy. But after his sister testifies against him, he stops taking his meds and is convicted. His other memorable role is as the member of a small-town militia, who manages to hang the jury - not literally - through the strategic use of anti-government rants in the courtroom. He brilliantly portrays a madman and a guy who's just maddening. Several big-name stars appeared on the show when they were still starving actors, or at least little-known. Grey's Anatomy's Ellen Pompeo creepily played a woman who participated in her own sister's rape and murder. Early in the show's run, Cynthia Nixon portrayed a female Bernie Goetz who takes out some thugs on the subway with her gun.

* The ripped from the headlines theme gets to be a bit much. It's practically gotten to the point where I can read a story in the Post or Daily News - stripper killed by boyfriend, Sunday school teacher kills wife - and accurately predict the week it'll be co-opted as a Law & Order episode. Granted, the show always puts a different twist on the final outcome. But let the writers come up with some completely original themes and plots. That said, some of my favorite episodes are the three-part story centered around a Hollywood director who kills his wife, a plot that was so blatantly an O.J. Simpson ripoff that the only thing missing was a dim-bulb houseguest named Pato. Rip off the headlines. Maybe just not every week, for every episode.

Law & Order episodes will live forever, even if the original series doesn't. After a nuclear war, the only things that will survive will be cockroaches, plastic and Jack McCoy. I'd write more. But I think I just heard a familiar sound:

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Life with Charlotte, the Boxcar kids and Encyclopedia Brown

There are several books out that contain interviews or essays with writers who discuss the stories and books that got them interested in reading.

Several people mention Charlotte's Web. An old standby. It almost sounds cliche to say that it was a favorite book as a kid, but that's a credit to just how great a book E.B. White wrote. Our teacher read that to us in second grade, introducing us to the famous spider, Wilbur the pig and Templeton the rat.

Charlotte's Web certainly sparked an interest in books in me, although there's a chance that Charlotte's death turned some kids off of reading. Yes, she lived a full life, but did Charlotte really have to die? Could the ending have been Hollywood-upped a bit, Mr. White? And right after Charlotte's Web, we read Old Yeller. So if any kids had the idea that a book could end without the death of the main animal character, Old Yeller corrected them. A few years later, I believe in fourth grade, the class read Where the Red Fern Grows, an underrated entrant in the books-about-dogs-that-die-and-devastate-young-readers category. I'm assuming these books remain staples in many schools. I'm not familiar with newer books that are used in classrooms. I wonder if the newer titles are as eager to shovel death into the faces of young readers. Or is it now frowned upon?

But as great as those three books are, the stories I remember most from growing up are a pair of series: The Boxcar Children, and Encyclopedia Brown. The Janesville library held every title in both series. The Boxcar Children had such a perfect premise: orphaned kids living in a boxcar who are taken in by their rich grandpa. Grandpa's such a nice man - with plenty of space in the backyard - that he lets the kids move their boxcar to his house for use as a playhouse. Boxcars aren't just for hobos, they're for street-wise kids who beat the odds.

I always had visions of us stealing a boxcar and moving it out to my grandpa's farm, where I'd get caught up in various mysteries around town. Put some posters up, get a TV and a fridge in there, and the boxcar turns into a pleasant little home for any kid.

Encyclopedia Brown inspired even more dreams.

After reading about his latest case, I'd walk down the library steps hoping someone would come up to me talking about a petty crime that took place in town. A stolen bike, some pilfered baseball cards, anything. Finally I'd get to see if I had the skills of Encyclopedia. Could I connect clues that seemingly had no relation? Would I remember an obscure piece of information that would expose the wrongdoer - "Wait a minute. You said you were watching Monday Night Football at 7:30 when the bike was stolen. But Monday Night Football doesn't start until 8 p.m.!"

And I wanted my theoretical, 10-year-old girlfriend to have the looks and wits of Sally Kimball. Tough but cute, she'd help me stand up to the school bullies who shared interests with Bugs Meany. Together, we'd tackle the cases the Janesville Police Department struggled to solve.

The books sparked my imagination and inspired unrealistic dreams. Which is what all great fiction does, in adults and kids.

Unfortunately, Encyclopedia struggled as an adult detective:

Idaville Detective 'Encyclopedia' Brown Found Dead in Library Dumpster.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The haunting allure of racetracks and electric football

Sunday. Hours of football, a Lakers game and even a little NASCAR on the television. I'm sure some parents watched the same shows I did today and came up with some great ideas for the holidays.

Know what Junior would love? Racetracks!

Get them socks instead.

Two of the coolest Christmas presents the people formerly known as Santa got me as a kid were an electric football game and a toy racetrack. I begged Santa for the gifts and his human helpers came through as always.

They were also the two most frustrating gifts I ever received. Hours of setup, followed by days of frustration and disappointment. It took a few months, or maybe only a few weeks, before each found a home in a basement closet. Every few months we brought them out of hiding and tried them again, only to be met with more confusion and angst. How could two toys that held such promise, that promised hours of fun, deliver so little?

Start with the racetrack. I've never been a big NASCAR or Indy fan. But like every kid I loved toy cars. Along with army men, they're the two toys every male child craves. A racetrack is the next step. Mine looked like the one above. A standard figure-eight with an underpass.

We first set it up on the basement floor, before realizing that carpet fibers are as dangerous to a racetrack as they are a murderer's alibi on CSI. The operation moved to the ping-pong table. There we lovingly pieced the black parts together, eager to finish so we could watch the tiny cars race around it at incredible speeds. Just like in the commercials!

Problems developed immediately after completion of the construction. As the two cars lined up in their tiny grooves - which were already being attacked by dust particles, disrupting the too-fragile ecosystem - inevitably one of the remotes would malfunction. I pushed the trigger and the yellow car sat there, stalled like my old Mercury Zephyr on the side of the road. As if it was just taunting me before, the car fired down the track the next time I pressed the button.

And they're off!

Each car usually made it about four seconds before flying off the track. At first it's an exciting crash, as we were as bloodthirsty in the basement as any drunk NASCAR fan in the grandstand. But the ridiculously high accident rate quickly breeds boredom and outright anger. Teenagers on their cell phones have fewer accidents than our tiny racers, through no fault of ours. Blame the manufacturer, blame the engineers, blame the very science behind the product. For whatever reason, we found it nearly impossible to complete more than a lap or two without one of the cars careening over a rail like a Hollywood stunt car. Victory wasn't the goal in a two-car race. We simply wanted to finish a race, whether we designated it to last two laps or five. No matter how delicately we maneuvered the cars through the turns or opened them up on the short straightaway, the cards did what they wanted to do, the dreams and requests of their human owners meaning nothing. We treated the cars like they were driving under a caution flag: no passing. No risks, and no rewards.

Eventually the remotes faltered completely. Press it for half a second and the car might shoot out like a bullet, apparently hell-bent on going from zero to six in .5 seconds. A few seconds later you might hold the trigger down for five, six seconds and get no reaction from the temperamental vehicles. Then, without any warning, the racing gods might smile down and everything came together. The two cars raced around unharmed for several laps, creating that unique burning smell. A tight race like that teased kids and parents, luring them in for a few more hours of supposed fun. But like always, it would all start falling apart again.

It's why I was never really jealous whenever one of my friends received one of those monstrous tracks as a gift. They had multiple levels, loops, a hundred pieces and room for several cars. No matter. The end result was always going to be the same.

But at least racetracks provided some enjoyment. Electric football?

What were the meetings like at electric football headquarters? What was the designer's pitch to the bosses?

"All right. I've been working with Benson here on a pretty cool game that could drastically change the, pardon the pun, field of electric toys. No, don't worry, the risk of electrocution is almost zero. We're gonna have a little table that will represent the field. Paint it green, put some numbers on it, add some hashmark. Then we have these plastic men who will be the players. Yeah, plastic. The game will last forever. They'll find these figurines after a nuclear war. Anyway, we'll have each guy standing in a different position, so even the dumbest of kids can figure out who they're supposed to be. So for the quarterback, it will be a guy with his right arm sticking straight out, even though a quarterback hasn't thrown like that or even been pictured in such a position since Sid Luckman in the 1940s. A linebacker will be a guy standing slightly hunched, with his arms extended in front. He'll be frozen in position, like the poor people of Pompeii after Vesuvius.

"Now, on the bottom of each player will be a little controlling feature. You move it one way and the player shuffles forward. Move it another and he'll 'run' a different direction. Here's where it gets good: The field vibrates. Yeah, like one of those beds at those motels Henry's always taking his secretary to. Heh, just kidding, Hank. It will shake violently, as if the field's at the epicenter of a 10.0 quake in San Francisco. Kids will love listening to the sound. They'll think the field's about to explode. And depending on how they've arranged their players and the controls, the vibrations will cause the players to move. It'll be 11 on 11, so for those 22 players, the kids will have to spend about 25 minutes per figure setting their control up for each play. We're looking at a game that will last a minimum of 11 hours. With this, we really think we can cut into the monopoly Monopoly has on games that take an entire day to complete.

"Nothing will really happen after the vibrations. See, the controls at the bottom are actually meaningless, meant to distract the child. The players will spin in a circle. Sometime they'll fall down for no reason, almost as if they're afraid of contact. The linemen will move downfield on a pass play, committing an obvious penalty. The running backs will just vibrate up and down, almost like they're suffering a side effect from some some untested medication. It'll be impossible to actually pass the ball or even conceive how a pass is supposed to be executed or completed.

"We'll have twenty-two plastic figures congregated in a small circle at midfield, vibrating incessantly, confusing everyone who might think it's actually a toy rugby game. But I'm telling you, that vibration is hypnotizing. Parents see it in a store and can't resist. Kids hear it and think something cool is happening, even when nothing's taking place on the field. They'll start giving the game pet names, like Old Sparky, even when they have no idea how it actually functions or what the plastic men are supposed to do on the field.

"In two years we're expecting that 98 percent of all American children will have this game. And about 1 percent of those kids will have succeeded in actually scoring a touchdown in the game. World Cup soccer games will have more scoring. With this game, we can help raise the next generation of defensive coordinators.

"In fact, we're so confident that not a single person will know how to control the plastic men, that we're going to give the first child who provides documented proof of an actual touchdown a free racetrack as a reward.

"Now, if you'll let me show me the prototype for the hot new toy of next season. We call him Super Toe. Kids are going to LOVE this."