Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I have writer's block

Not really. But like its owner, the blog is on vacation until 2011, when it will return with more tales about New York, Janesville, book publishing, newspapers and Lakers games from 26 years ago that no one cares about. Happy New Year to all. Even Celtics fans.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The continuing adventures of InDesign's spellcheck

A few weeks ago at work, we had an updated version of InDesign installed on our computers. I briefly worried that the most fascinating aspect of our InDesign - the crazed, angry, prophetic, cruel, sympathetic, sophomoric, harsh, unforgiving, all-knowing spellcheck - would have been altered in the new version. Would it still offer up Satan as a correction for Ashton? Would psychobiology still be a suggested change for Scooby-Doo? Or would InDesign go legit and normalize, blending in with all the other boring spellchecks in the world?

No worries. Some more examples of InDesign spellcheck's peculiar outlook on the world:

Salma (as in Hayek): Slimy, salami
Katy (as in Perry): Kooky, kitty
Volkswagen: Folksinger - Surely many unkempt hippie folksingers drove Volkswagens back in the day. But how does InDesign know this?

Lorenzo (as in Lamas): Low-rent, reruns - A bit harsh. Then again, if I turned on Lifetime at 3 in the morning some time and discovered an old episode of Falcon Crest, those would probably be two of the first words out of my mouth.

Mischa: Mescal, miscue
Ziering: Swearing, syringe
Cibrian: Aspiring, Siberian
Danielle: Dunghill, dingle
Beyonce: Bouncy, bones - When the singing superstar invariably becomes scary-skinny at some point in her career, those two words will appear in a review of her concerts.

Lautner: Latent, Latino - I think this was one of the primary concerns of the controversial Arizona immigration law from a few months ago. Undocumented workers, anchor babies, illegal aliens, latent Latinos.

Disick: Disco, dashiki.
Fallon: Fallen, felon - Only if the late-night gig really goes bad.

Speaking of the late-night television wars, InDesign suggests horny, auburn, uterine, ovarian, and ob-gyn for O'Brien. InDesign is not shy when it comes to mattes of the human anatomy.

Baskett: Back-seat, basked, bisect - Not sure why InDesign hyphenates backseat, but it is the perfect way to describe Hank Baskett's spot in his marriage to former Playboy playmate and current disgruntled Minnesota resident Kendra Wilkinson.

InDesign expert David Blatner noted that he couldn't get his settings to duplicate our results. I'm a bit disappointed in that, since everyone should get to enjoy InDesign spellcheck's perversions and sly sense of humor. But I also like that we possess an apparently unique spellcheck, one that has seemingly gone rogue and no longer cares what writers and editors think. It will continue offering nonsensical suggestions for common words and proper nouns. Yes, our computers got an upgrade but InDesign spellcheck stayed the same.

Thank God.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Music that makes you want to tackle someone

As a kid thinking about a career as an adult, I figured I'd either start at quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys - this was when Danny White proved inferior when following in Roger Staubach's footsteps - or play shooting guard for the Lakers. If either of those goals failed, I planned on a career at NFL Films. When we first got ESPN, it seemed half of the network's programming consisted of shows courtesy of NFL Films, whether it was Steve Sabol relaxing in a chair and introducing a Super Bowl film about the battle between the Niners and Dolphins, or a Follies program that was complete with the voice of Elmer Fudd (the NFL took itself a lot less seriously back then).

Every so often you saw into the NFL Films building, where row after row of canisters filled the rooms. Imagine watching NFL highlights all day long. That's the existence I dreamed about.

The music of NFL Films was a major reason the shows appealed to me and millions of other football fans. Composer Sam Spence put together many of the famous NFL Films songs and the sounds became synonymous with the images, from the Steel Curtain's dominance to Lombardi's fury. Even today, hearing an old-school NF Films song - you usually only hear them today when they're used ironically in commercials that are selling fashionable pants or comfortable shoes - makes me want to run out on the street with a Nerf football and play two-on-two passing games against friends.

A YouTube poster who probably also grew up dreaming about serving as Steve Sabol's assistant compiled dozens of famous NFL Films song. They're all here. Some classics, starting with "The Classic Battle." I picture the Cowboys digging in at the goal-line in Lambeau, moments before Bart Starr's game-winning sneak.

For lovers of the trombone and video of John Riggins gaining 5 yards a pop behind the Redkins' hogs, here's "Roundup."

"Salute to Courage." Perhaps you think it'd be a song composed for a feature on World War II veterans, or the embassy hostages in Iran. Instead it's something to use while watching shots of Terry Bradshaw throw bombs to Lynn Swann.

"The Final Quest." Break this one out before showing the Super Bowl teams slowly running out for pregame introductions, perhaps the Cowboys before the 1993 Super Bowl or the Giants before their destruction of the Broncos in 1987. If used by NFL Films, it has to be used while showing the winning team. Because music this inspirational is not built for losers. Sorry, Bills.

"West Side Rumble." With a name like that and a song like this, it had to be used during a film about rivals, a game between two teams that hated each other. Maybe during the Steelers-Raiders game that ended with Franco's Immaculate Reception. Or a good Redskins-Cowboys game during the George Allen era in Washington.

The names are as entertaining as the song. Here's "The Pony Soldiers," and it sounds like something that Eastwood would have used in one of his Westerns. I think this would best be used with a Joe Montana film, perhaps during the drive that ended with The Catch. I picture him dissecting a defense as the music begins, before it ends with a flourish and a fist pump.

The Raiders were so tough, and notorious, in the '60s and '70s that NFL Films gave them their own song, "Autumn Wind." Spence wrote the song, while Sabol himself wrote a poem about the franchise. Vikings fans can listen to this while picturing Old Man Willie racing down the sidelines with an interception return in the Super Bowl.

"Up She Rises." Another one where I don't know whether to avenge the sinking of the Maine or sit back and watch Bob Griese lead the Dolphins to an unbeaten season. All of these are famous NFL Films songs, but the part in this one that kicks in at around 40 seconds is among the most well-known sections.

I no longer think I'll grow up to quarterback the Cowboys and I don't think I'll make it as shooting guard for the Lakers. I also don't want to work for NFL Films, as I'm sure the technology would only confuse me, and I'm much more comfortable with words than pictures. Still, I could listen to their songs all day.The only thing missing from these? A little John Facenda:

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The worst - and, possibly, most depressing - bank robbery in history

Janesville makes the news!

This is one of those stories that I might usually say can only happen in a small town. But that's not exactly true. Desperation is a universal thing.

On Wednesday, my dad came upon the most excitement in Janesville since the Hay Daze parade in June. Sirens everywhere. Cops all around. TV crews on hand. It turned out to be the end of a bank robbery in nearby Elysian. The perps supposedly robbed the bank in Elysian and made the short drive to Janesville, where authorities quickly apprehended them. What made it strange initially was the pairing: an "older woman" and a young guy. What was their relationship? Harold and Maude? Grandma and grandson? Who was the leader, who was the lackey?

KEYC offered video but not many explanations. An expert in news ethics might take issue with Channel 12's initial report: A bank might have been robbed, though no one's really saying, two people were arrested shortly after, though who knows if they're suspects in the bank robbery. Something happened. That we do know.

Well, it turned out the young guy was innocent, an unwitting, befuddled pawn in an elderly woman's desperate attempt to pay her rent. The woman, 70-year-old Sandra Bathke, is a tenant in the building owned by the young man's mom. Bathke told the man, Luke Weimert, that she could get the money for her late rent - she had received an eviction notice - if he could just drive her to the bank. Who passes up a chance to be nice to an elderly person in the middle of a brutal winter? So Weimert drove her to the Elysian bank in a Jaguar and waited in the car. Bathke allegedly went inside, told a teller she had a gun - she didn't, but did have a hammer, authorities said - walked back to the car and rode off with Weimert. They made small talk on the drive. The ice- and snow-filled roads are bad outside of Janesville so they took it slow, perhaps the first evidence that Weimert didn't know what he'd been dragged into. A getaway driver usually possesses a heavier foot.

When they arrived back in Janesville, authorities swarmed the car, much to Weimert's shock. Bathke's comment when the police appeared?

"Oh, no."

Such a grandmotherly thing to say. Police determined that the 26-year-old Weimert didn't know anything about the robbery. He was just doing a good deed, it being the holiday season and all. Bathke will face charges. Weimert's mom says she wishes she could sell the building. Bad tenants who make too much noise or don't pay the rent on time are one thing. Tenants who snare your son in a felony that catches the attention of the FBI are another.

It's a pretty sad tale. Bathke didn't have any previous bank robberies on her resume. She was a woman with no money, and, she apparently thought, nothing to lose. It wasn't a well-thought out plan. No weapon, no disguise. The thought probably came to her in an instant. All she needed was a driver. Who hasn't thought at some point, huh, I wonder if I could rob a bank, like the guys in Heat? Bathke followed through. Picture your grandma in dire financial straits. You'd want to help in some way, whether giving her the money or taking her to the bank where she can retrieve some cash. Maybe you'll get some homemade chocolate-chip cookies and hot cocoa as a reward. That's all poor Weimert did, yet he still ended up in handcuffs on TV. It didn't end well for anyone, though Weimert will have plenty of stories to tell his own grandkids someday.

Only in Janesville. Or any other place where a desperate person performs a desperate act.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The evil sports teams that ruled '80s teen movies

This past weekend I rented Better Off Dead, one of my Top 10 favorite movies and a classic teen film from the 1980s.

"I want my two dollars!"
"Two brothers. One speaks no English, the other learned English from watching The Wide World of Sports. So you tell me, which is better: speaking no English at all, or speaking Howard Cosell?"

"I know it's bacon. What have you done to it?"
"You said you didn't like all the grease from fried bacon, so I boiled it."

And on and on and on. The movie didn't find much success at the box office when it came out in 1985, but it developed a cult following shortly after. I can remember watching it on cable in the late '80s and then spending an entire summer quoting the lines with my friend Brandon. The movie is beloved by pretty much everyone, except, it seems, the star, John Cusack. According to director Steve Holland, Cusack hated the movie when it came out and accused Holland of ruining his career. Far from it.

But there is one scene that bothers me. It's set in the school cafeteria, as Lane deals with a heartbreaking breakup from his girlfriend, Beth, who dumped him for the evil ski captain, the perfectly named Roy Stalin. To get over Beth, Lane attempts to pick up another hot girl from school. He fails miserably and in the process, gets beaten up by the basketball team. What bothers me? The basketball players are wearing their uniforms in the cafeteria, during school hours!

Here's the clip with the basketball team. The cagers make their cafeteria appearance about halfway through the clip. They actually carry basketballs with them to lunch, which I don't think even Pistol Pete did when he was a kid. The ogres don't speak, instead choosing to communicate through a series of grunts and groans that are apparently understood by all. If the guys can't talk to each other at the lunch table, how are they going to call out screens on the court? I bet they were weak on the defensive end.

The object of Lane's affections, Chris, dates "the whole basketball team." Not just one guy, but the whole team. And who knows if dates should also be in air quotes when referring to her relationship with the starting five.

I played high school basketball. Not once did I run around school in our blue or gray uniform and I certainly didn't sit down for a lunch while wearing high tops and shorts.

There are also several people skating around the cafeteria, including Chris the cheerleader. Anyone ever roller-skate through a school cafeteria while carrying a tray filled with pizza burgers and butter sandwiches. Has anyone ever seen this? I certainly didn't. Then again, I did go home for lunch each day starting in the sixth grade, so there's a chance I missed the skating-and-basketball-jersey-wearing underworld at Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton.

Like the no-name team in Better Off Dead, we wore the short shorts, although most of us had the smarts to sport bicycle pants underneath the uniform. The school didn't keep the short shorts much longer. The standard longer bottoms came to JWP in 1996 and the team made the first state tournament appearance in school history that season. Coincidence?

Better off Dead wasn't the only teen classic from the '80s that portrayed high school athletes as evil warriors hell-bent on destroying any nerd in sight. In Can't Buy Me Love, it's the baseball team. And, once again, we see the team at its most evil during lunch. Not only are they dressed and ready for a game of pepper, but someone on the team actually brought a bat with them, which Ronald uses in a fit of range when he defends his buddy against the star pitcher. So the school district was not only okay with the baseball team ruining the jerseys by wearing them for eight hours, but also had no issue with students carrying wooden weapons around class all day.

Again, I played baseball. Not once did I run around the school in spikes and stirrups. What possible reason would the baseball team - or basketball team in Better off Dead - have for wearing their unis during school hours? Did the school not have adequate locker rooms? Were the players shy and dressed at home? What did the student-athletes do during phy ed class, change into phy ed clothes and then back into the baseball or basketball uniform? Did the baseball coach also wear his uni during the day? Did he teach math while adjusting himself and giving signs? Did the baseball guys wear cups? And why the baseball and basketball teams? Sure, there are some jerks who play those sports and some bullies, but are there that many tough guys who intimidate other students? To fulfill the stereotype, shouldn't it have been the football team or wrestling team running roughshod through the cafeterias? They could have sacked a geek or slammed a dweeb, all while wearing shoulder pads or singlets.

Which uniform is more impractical? Which ones look more ridiculous? I think it's the basketball outfit for both. Walking around with the basketball shorts, there's a chance that someone could come along and depants a player, although if the team rules the school with an iron fist - like it does in Better off Dead - certainly no one would dare take that chance. Even today, when players would actually be wearing shorts that completely cover their genitals, they'd have to be self-conscious while wandering around the halls in their basketball uniform.

At most schools, players or their girlfriends will often wear their football jerseys around school, usually on gameday. But they don't have football pants on and, unless it's for some type of dangerous medical condition, no one's sitting in science class while wearing a helmet and facemask.

No one is scared of basketball players. And they're even less intimidated by baseball players. Then again, the main bad guy in Better off Dead is a skiing star so, compared to him, maybe the basketball players are tough guys.

In fact, guys dressed up in baseball uniforms are always weaklings, even when they're gang members. In The Warriors, the main gang gets chased by a group of thugs called the Baseball Furies. Awesome name (wonder if they have a T-shirt?). Better uniforms.

But what happens? The Furies get their asses kicked, disgracing the family name. The lesson? Baseball teams - whether wearing face paint and running through New York City or when when crammed into ill-fitting uniforms while seated at lunch tables - don't exactly instill fear when cast as the villain. But at least they're not wearing short-shorts.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Minnesota in December - Lovely

It's always exciting when Minnesota makes the national news for a snowstorm. This weekend's blizzard caught the attention of the major networks even before the Metrodome collapsed, which worked out perfectly for all involved, since it not only gave new stadium proponents an argument, but also created the best metaphor for a franchise's season in the history of the NFL.

New York City really hasn't seen any snow at all yet, aside from a flurry, but it will certainly arrive soon enough, most likely the day I'm flying back to Minnesota in a few weeks. I certainly don't miss Minnesota winters. It's not just the snow and it's not just the cold - it's when the snow and the cold combine forces to create misery and hermits. As an indoorsman who never went ice fishing, skiing or snowmobile riding - winter is basketball season, for watching, if not playing outdoors - I never enjoyed the activities that keep many Minnesotans sane from November through April.

In New York, snowstorms don't affect me because I never drive in them. That was always the worst part of storms in Minnesota, knowing that life and the games do go on (unless there's a roof collapse). In a regular storm you still have to drive. And, occasionally, even when no travel is recommended, you find yourself on the road, squinting and gripping, cursing and praying.

A few memorable storm moments:
* When I worked in Worthington, my friend John learned of a prime position outside of town for sledding. We planned a late-night excursion, fueled primarily by a love of sledding, but perhaps by some liquids. John drove us in his red jeep. The sledding was fine. Unfortunately, John's jeep didn't make the trip back to Worthington, at least not with him behind the wheel.

Somehow, after parking on the side of the road, he moved the wrong direction and got stuck, then compounded the problem by attempting to power out of the snow, causing even more damage to the beloved red vehicle. We were now stranded on a cold winter night. Fortunately, we had thought ahead and brought a cell phone from the newspaper office and called a co-worker t0 retrieve us. I'm not sure what we would have done without the phone. Cannibalism? By hour three that might have been the best option and then it would have been one-on-one combat, winner take all. John's a great cook. If he would have prevailed, he probably could have prepared a delightful meal out of my frozen limbs. But I was more athletic, so might have had an edge in the actual fight. Thankfully it didn't come to that, although the winner might have had a hell of a book deal out of the situation.

* My friend Mike didn't have a car at St. John's, which was fine. He didn't really need one. But one night in 1996, he visited his girlfriend on the St. Ben's campus, a few miles from Collegeville. A bad snowstorm hit the area that night. Also that evening, my roommate hosted a small party in our tiny dorm room.

Late in the night, Mike called and asked me to fetch him. The school had shut down the buses between campuses. His girlfriend served as an RA and was not allowed to have boys stay overnight. Mike now had to flee, in the same conditions Miss Beadle sent the children home in during the tragic Little House episode. He called me, asking - again - for my chauffeur services. Anxious to leave the dreadful party, I climbed into my faithful Beretta and made the short drive to St. Ben's. The snow-covered roads proved challenging, yet my dedication to friends knew no limits. I collected Mike and we slowly headed out of town. As I told Mike about the festivities in my dorm, I approached a stop sign. Unfortunately, despite my best intentions, I didn't stop. I blame Chevy's engineers. The Beretta slowly - slowly meaning about 2 miles per hour - slid past the stop sign and into the intersection. We hit another car in a collision that proved more pathetic than dangerous.

After the collision, I told Mike I had a beer or two back in the dorm room. Thinking quickly - almost as if he'd done this before, or at least seen it on an episode of Law & Order - Mike volunteered to say that he was driving. What a guy! What a friend! But I couldn't let a friend take the fall, even if it was his fault that he didn't have a car and even if it was his fault that he missed the last bus. I didn't think the beer would be an issue for whatever law enforcement member happened upon the sad little scene. The driver of the other car had a bad night. As a tow truck approached, he told us that the same truck had just pulled them out of a ditch. Which made me think: Okay, I'm at fault, I slid through the sign. But this guy just went into the ditch and now couldn't avoid a car going two miles an hour. Where are his winter driving skills?

Making the evening even stranger, his girlfriend - a passenger in the car - emerged, looked at Mike and told him she danced with him at a "barn dance" freshman year. She seemed like a lovely gal, but Mike gave the impression that she wasn't the type of girl you'd want to remember dancing with. They chatted, I spoke with the boyfriend, the police came, took their report, didn't even care about the condition of either driver and we went back to campus, where I spent the night listening to my roommate vomit while I contemplated how to tell my parents about the accident. God damn snowstorm. The story has a happy ending. The accident didn't cause my insurance to go up. And, perhaps of a bit more significance, Mike married that girl - Jodi, the one he visited that night at St. Ben's, not the girl in the other car - and they now have four kids. Mike also has his own car.

* Freshman year at Worthington Community College. The men's basketball team hosts powerful Minneapolis Community College in a key January game. A blizzard shuts everything down, the town and the interstate. Minneapolis ends up stranded in town for days. But the game goes on. We played in front of, perhaps, 10 fans. We won the game on a miracle shot at the buzzer, as our blonde, gangly 6-9 center hit a 15-foot jumper on the baseline while falling out of bounds. This is one of three sporting events of mine that my parents missed between 1982 and 1995. Still haven't forgiven them.

* A year later, I worked part-time at the Worthington Daily Globe. During the high school basketball playoffs, I traveled to Windom, about 30 minutes away, to cover a game. I drove over with my college coach, Mike Augustine. Terrible storm again. The games probably should have been canceled. On the way home, we stopped at a Hardee's for some drive-through ham 'n' cheese sandwiches. Again in my trusty Beretta, I pulled out onto Highway 60, which was four lanes for a few miles outside of Windom. I couldn't see anything but snow, while Augie consumed his meal next to me, completely oblivious to the road conditions. I wasn't completely sure I was on the right side of the road. Christ, could I have been going the wrong way on the four-lane? Thankfully, they put up big signs - like this one - that say WRONG WAY! I saw it and, after making sure there were no other cars coming - there weren't, since there were very few people dumb enough to be on the road that night - I turned around and had us in the correct lane.

* Three years ago we visited my parents in winter. February, I believe. One weekend, I decided to ride along with my dad from Janesville to Marshall, to watch my nephew's basketball game. Bad storms that day. Of course. Louise begged us not to go. She thought like a normal, rational person: There's a snowstorm, why would you drive two hours to watch a basketball game? We thought like Minnesotans: Why would we let a few flakes and a bit of wind keep us from watching a basketball game? Only a South African raised in the sun would consider these conditions dangerous. We headed out and discovered that the roads were worse than anticipated. Phone calls to my sister in Marshall proved unhelpful. Weather's great, she'd say. Roads are fine. Meanwhile, we couldn't see the road or any cars in front of us. Yet we plowed forward, thinking, maybe, just maybe, the South African knew what she was talking about. Eventually, after driving for a few hours at about 30 miles per hour, in conditions not fit for humans or vehicles, we turned around. This was a bad one. With my dad driving, I had to roll down the window to look out so I could tell him how close we were to the ditch. But we made it. We pulled into the garage and walked back into the house. My mom sat at the dining room table, happy to see us. Louise? She had taken to bed, convinced she was now a widow. She was overjoyed to see us, yet unhappy that we ignored her advice. But again, what's a South African know about driving in the snow?

* At the end of 1993, my cousin Matt had tickets to a Timberwolves game. I had to come from Worthington and would meet him and a couple of other friends in Janesville. From there, we'd drive to the Cities, first stopping Burnsville to pick up a girl Matt had been courting for months. The plan went into disarray when I went into the ditch with the Beretta just outside of Mountain Lake, more than an hour from Janesville. No cell phone then, of course. I managed to make a call from the office of the tow truck folks. My car was fine but I arrived in Janesville about two hours later than scheduled, putting a dent in Matt's love life and our plans to watch the whole Timberwolves game. Matt cursed me out the entire ride up to Minneapolis. I cursed him out as we drove aimlessly around Burnsville, searching for the house where the girl of his dreams lived.

"How can you not have directions to her house?"
"How could you go into the ditch?"
"Even if I hadn't gone in the ditch, we'd still be driving around looking for her house."

We finally found it and her. Impressing her even more, we made her drive into Minneapolis, since none of us had much experience driving in the big city. Certainly a low point for our collected masculinity. She proved a good sport and drove us to the Target Center, where we arrived late in the second quarter of the Timberwolves-Rockets game. I'd like to say this story had a happy ending, too. But the Timberwolves lost the game. And, eventually, though I'm sure it had nothing to do with our late arrival or our demand that she taxi us around the Twin Cities, the girl told Matt it might be better if they would just be friends.

He probably still blames my driving. I blame the snow.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The aging athlete

Larry Bird turned 54 on Tuesday. Magic Johnson is 51. Michael Jordan? Forty-seven. Like Bird, Joe Montana is 54. Kent Hrbek turned 50 last May. I always remember Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's age because it's the same as my dad: 63.

It doesn't bother me that the sports heroes and villains of my youth are growing older and simply getting old. They're allowed to age, gracefully or otherwise. They can lose their hair, gain a gut, become a recluse or shill nonstop on late-night infomercials. Seeing them pass through middle-age and eventually into Social Security doesn't make me feel old.

No, I only feel old when I compare my current age to where those sports stars were at a similar spot in life. In other words, Larry at 54 doesn't make me contemplate my own gray hairs or leave me yearning for youth. But when I remember that Larry Bird at 35 was in the final season of his career and was plodding along upcourt with bad legs and a worse back, averaging 20 points a game, well, that's when I feel slightly over the hill. By the time Magic was 35, he'd been retired for three years, had made one comeback - which failed - and served a disastrous stint as head coach, yet he was still a year away from a second on-court comeback.

At 35 Michael Jordan was on his last legs in the final days of the Chicago dynasty, willing the Bulls past Indiana in the Eastern Conference semifinals and then draining the famous shot in Game 6 of the Finals. He'd lost his leaping ability but remained the best player in the game, despite losing some of the athleticism that allowed him to dominate earlier in his career. He developed an old man's game by that time.

Kent Hrbek retired at 34. Troy Aikman was also done at 34. By the time both guys reached 35, one was permanently lodged in an ice fishing house and the other in a broadcasting booth.

When I was a kid, 35 in sports was old. And since sports was my life, 35 was old in real life, too. Thirty-five meant your best days were behind you. It meant you'd lost a step, maybe even two. Or maybe you'd completely lost it and had the common sense to retire. Or maybe you didn't have that sense and your team released you, sending you away with a two-paragraph press release that thanked you for your time and effort with the club.

Now I'm 35. And although I'm not a pro athlete, I still follow them and mark the passage of time through their seasons. And I still play some basketball, trying the best I can to maintain a decent 3-point shot from outside and a turnaround jumper inside. At times on Wednesday nights, as I run up a short court with guys who are, for the most part, older than me, I think, "Yeah, I'm still young. I still have it. I could average 35 a game if I played high school ball now. Thirty if the coach wanted to take it easy on the opposition." But the reality is I've lost a step, probably two, maybe even three. I never had a lot of quickness but when I drive to the basket now, it seems to take an eternity and I can feel myself getting impatient even as I slowly make my way to the hoop. Hurry up! Come on, get those legs moving. I never had great endurance, but now it only takes about five minutes for me to feel the type of lung-burning that normally only happens to people if they're being accompanied by a sherpa.

The day after games, I often develop a cough that makes a pack-a-day smoker say, "Buddy, you gotta cut back on the cigs." Blisters that are about five inches long form on the bottom of both feet, my shins ache and my head throbs. And even though I've never even had a sprained ankle in all my days playing basketball, I now find myself occasionally wondering, "Is this the night when the Achilles' snaps?" Because, you know, that's what happens to 35-year-old men.

Yes, as a kid, 35 seemed old for an athlete, any athlete. Why? Because it is.

No, I don't have any problem with sports legends aging. Just wish I could still play like a 25-year-old.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The problem with marrying a foreign gal

At 10:40 this morning, Louise's flight took off for South Africa. Check-in went smoothly. So did the security line. And the pat-down was, as always, thorough. For Louise, too. Onboard she'll eat surprisingly decent food while crammed into a small seat at the rear of the aircraft. With any luck, this flight won't include a vomit-spewing neighbor, like her last trip across the ocean. And if it does, perhaps the flight crew will at least clean it before the smell overwhelms every man, woman and child within 25 feet.

I can track the flight online and watch a crudely rendered plane as it goes over a blue screen for hours and hours and hours. She'll arrive tomorrow, after nearly 24 hours of travel. She'll remain there for several weeks, basking in the African sun while I eat frozen pizzas and bowls of beef stew she made before her departure, meals she prepared with the discipline of a survivalist stocking up on canned goods in the underground shelter.

Getting married to a foreigner has had its benefits. For instance, Louise always brings back exotic spices that liven up every meal, especially dishes involving potatoes. Then there's the accent. And thanks to her I've enjoyed some world travels, twice venturing to Cape Town, one of the most beautiful cities in the word in one of the most fascinating countries in the world. Without her, I'd still consider a 1999 trip to Tijuana to be the highlight of my international travel experience. Being around her opens my eyes to other cultures and lands. I get to see America through someone else's eyes, someone who came to this country with no money but a lot of courage. I get to teach her about American history, the good and the bad, while she teaches me about South African history - the bad and the good. Marrying a foreigner: I recommend it to everyone, and not just those involved in green card scams.

But there's a downside. I'm forever grateful that Louise is now my family. But I'll always regret that our two families - the Fury clan of Minnesota and the Farias of Cape Town - are strangers to each other. My folks met Louise's mom at our wedding but none of the other family members on either side have ever mingled. Her brothers have never met my sister, her father-in-law has never met my dad. Louise gets to see my family once or twice a year, but I only get to see hers once every two years. If either of us disliked our in-laws, this might not be a bad thing. Unfortunately - er, fortunately - we do like our in-laws. We love them. If I had a brother, I couldn't imagine having any more fun with him than I do with Louise's brothers, Anthony and Daniel. In many ways they're complete opposites, but when it came to welcoming me into their family, they were exactly alike. They taught me about cricket, and rugby and showed me that I'm incapable of keeping up with them on the golf course or in a pub. Yet it's been a year since I visited them and will be another 15 months before I see them again. My liver is grateful, but I'm not.

My nephews and niece love when Louise visits with her magical nanny bag and she loves visiting Minnesota, even though she doesn't really function too well if the temperature there isn't between 66 and 68 degrees. She can sit for hours at the dining room table, talking with my mom about anything and everything. Yet it's been seven months since she was in Minnesota and might be six more before she returns.

We're our own family now. Shawn and Louise. But it's still tough knowing our respective families only know each other through old pictures and new anecdotes. Marrying a foreigner means that, for several weeks each year, I have to return to the life of a bachelor while the person I cherish more than any other in the world spends time with the family that misses her more than words can describe. Marrying a foreigner means spending the holidays apart, as she celebrates Christmas half a world away and welcomes the new year six hours earlier. I'm happy she gets to spend this time with her mom, stepdad, siblings, nieces, grandma and aunts and uncles. And I'm happy that I'll get to spend Christmas with my parents, sister, niece, nephews and aunts and uncles. But it's always difficult when being with our families means being apart from each other.

Marrying a foreigner has its benefits. It's just a bit more difficult to appreciate them when she's in her native land and I'm in mine.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Browsing the bookstore

Fought the crowds today and wandered through our favorite Barnes & Noble in the city, the one on the Upper West Side that's shutting down in just a few weeks, to be replaced by a clothing store. Because there's a distinct lack of quality clothing stores in New York City.

Some observations.

* One book in particular caught my eye in the new releases section. Fury: A Memoir, by Koren Zailckas. The book, from the author of Smashed, has earned rave reviews. But apparently no one is concerned that the book ruins any chance I'd ever have of using my name in a future memoir. Salman Rushdie used Fury for the name of a novel and Faulkner had it as part of one of his most famous works. Those classic works are different, those are fiction. This is a memoir. I think the word Fury should have been saved for someone with that name who was penning their autobiography, or, at the least, it should have been reserved for someone writing a biography of a person named Fury. Now what can I name my memoir that could possibly sound as cool as Fury? Zailckas: A Memoir by Shawn Fury doesn't quite have the same ring.

* It's not a new book but is one I hadn't seen before. Washed Up: The Curious Journeys of Flotsam and Jetsam. Another entry in the seemingly never-ending list of books that are a detailed history of something you'd never think needed a detailed history. Like books on salt, cod, toilets and menstrual cycles, this one looks fairly fascinating, as author Skye Moody attempts to figure out where everything that washes up on shores comes from. We're only a few years away from the story of Floss, and how it changed the world.

* The Best American writing books are always popular gifts. Each year I buy the sports one and usually pick up the crime, science and essay titles as well, along with the non-required reading entry. They're great anthologies and for writers, something to strive for. The sports one this year was, as usual, superb. Buy the book for all the stories, but I'll give a link to one of the best. It's Mike Sager's profile of Todd Marinovich, which ran in Esquire in April 2009. For the longest time Marinovich was the poster boy for everything that could go wrong for a kid under the direction of a sports-crazed parent. I can remember watching a special on Marinovich when he was maybe a junior in high school. Even then the stories of his father, Marv, were legendary. Todd was raised from birth to be a quarterback and, in many ways, his dad's plan worked. Todd played at USC and in the NFL. Of course, it ultimately didn't work out, unless Marv's plan also involved turning his son into an often-jailed addict who squandered his physical talents because of the emotional problems caused, in large part, by his upbringing. Sager's story catches up with both Marinovich men. The only problem is, instead of seeing it as a warning about what not to do, many parents might read the story and regard it as a how-to guide. "Sure, the kid did some heroin, but he got a Division I scholarship!"

* Speaking of dads who might not have done the best job of preparing their prodigies for life in the real world, I saw this book: His Father's Son. Earl and Tiger Woods. It's by Tom Callahan, who knew the late Earl Woods very well. He details Tiger's upbringing and also writes about Earl's, um, issues with women. The issue being he liked them a lot, especially ones who weren't his wife. This, as you may have read, also became an issue in Tiger's life.

* Today Michael Lewis is probably best known for his books Moneyball and The Blind Side. But before he became one of the top nonfiction writers in the country, he worked for Salomon Brothers. He had a brief career there but it led to his first book, Liar's Poker, which I finally bought today. Lewis made a lot of money with Salomon and he's made a lot of money as a writer, thanks to his best-selling books and magazine work. How valued were Lewis's contributions? When the short-lived Portfolio magazine started, a rumor circulated that Lewis made $12 a word for his 4,000-word-plus features. This in a business where a dollar a word is considered to be a pretty good deal. Many people dismissed the rumor and Lewis eventually left for Vanity Fair, where's probably pulling in less than $12 a word but quite a bit more than a buck a word.

Still, I'm sure he'll be grateful for the $2 I added to his next royalty statement.

Friday, December 3, 2010

The time I almost played on the same court as Magic

For the next issue of the Saint John's alumni magazine - which is undoubtedly the best alumni magazine for any school called Saint John's, no matter what the New York City propagandists would have you believe - I have a story on some Johnnie grads who work in pro sports. One of the people profiled is Bryant Pfeiffer, who is the VP of Club Services for Major League Soccer and a 1994 SJU grad.

When Pfeiffer was still in school, he helped organize the first Johnnie-Tommie 3-on-3 basketball tournament, an event that continues to this day. Saint John's and the school's hated, despised, loathed, pitied rival, St. Thomas, each hold a 3-on-3 basketball tournament in the spring. The winning team from the Johnnies' tournament later faces off against the victor from the Tommies' tournament on the Target Center floor, following a Timberwolves games. It's a very cool event, as regular folks get to play on the same court where, just moments earlier, the Timberwolves squandered a late lead.

In 1996, I played in the tourney with teammates from my championship-winning intramural squad. We had a solid lineup, which included a guard who could hit with ease from 25 feet, a tenacious point guard, a small forward who was a star high jumper in high school and possessed a wicked baseline jumper, and a dominating center who moonlighted as an All-American defensive end on the Saint John's football team. We made it all the way to the finals. Along the way we defeated some Johnnie grads - the tournament wasn't limited to current students - and some other quality teams. One victory from Target Center. Our run ended there. We lost in the finals and if I remember correctly, I think I blamed some shoddy reffing for the defeat.

Still, we had tickets to the Timberwolves game a few weeks later and they happened to be playing the Lakers. I've mentioned this game before, as it was one of only two times I saw Magic Johnson play live - the other was during an exhibition game in 1984 - and it was one of his last good games. Magic had 11 assists in the game. He'd only play one more game where he had more - a playoff game against Houston, in a game the Lakers lost, in a series that ended his career, this time for good. Two days after this Lakers victory over the Wolves, Magic bumped a ref, perhaps the most startling move of his career that didn't involve his talk show. So I saw him dish out 11 assists. All of those assists he piled up in his career and I was able to see the one of the final games where he showed why he was the best point guard ever.

After the game, all of the people from Saint John's and St. Thomas sat courtside as the Johnnie champion faced the Tommie champion in a 3-on-3 showdown. I don't remember who won that contest, and my bitterness over our loss in the finals kept me from fully supporting the SJU representative. That doesn't mean I cheered for the Tommies' squad. No, I probably just sat there passively, like a celebrity at the front row of a Lakers game attending his first basketball game. I was surely the biggest Magic fan there that night (if someone else was there who can say they cried the night the Lakers lost the 1983 title, my apologies for my hyperbole). It should have been me out on the court, taking up space on the same court where, moments earlier, Magic put on a show. I would have thrown some no-look passes, taken some set-shots and added a junior, junior hook. Alas.

Finally someone put some video from that game on YouTube. The Wolves-Lakers game, not the 3-on-3 one.

This was quite a Timberwolves squad. Garnett was a rookie, all arms and legs but already playing with the intensity he trademarked before losing his sanity when he joined the Celtics and became a caricature. Gugliotta, JR Rider and Spud Webb joined The Kid.

The best Magic passes come at 3:40, 4:05, 8:20, and 11:05 (even though Eddie Jones blows the layup). Still, this certainly wasn't the same Magic I grew up watching. His weight was up, his quickness down. Yet he still controlled the game, though this time from the post instead of on the break.

That's the only year I played in the Johnnie-Tommie tournament. Maybe we can get our old squad back together someday. I'm fairly certain we could handle many of the teams we'd face. None of us really had any quickness to lose, so age shouldn't affect that. Our big guy can control the middle, our leaper probably can't even touch the net now but should still be able to hit a baseline shot and I can keep casting away on 3s while playing token defense. Still, it wouldn't be the same. In 1996, I would have played on the same court as Magic. In 2010? I'd share a court with Darko.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Don McLean invades my dreams

This weekend, New York's Q104.3 marked its 10th anniversary by breaking out its list of the top 1,043 classic rock songs of all time, a staple of all classic rock stations - with the actual number depending on the station's frequency. No big surprises with the Top 5:
5. "Let it Be"
4. "Layla"
3. "Born to Run"
2. "Hey Jude"
1. "Stairway to Heaven"

Fairly standard, though other stations toss in "Satisfaction" somewhere.

I only tuned in at about No. 20, so I'm not sure which songs came in at the bottom of the list. Was "Red Rubber Ball" No. 1,043 with a bullet?" Did "Revolution 9" snare the 1,033rd slot?

The songs came on as I settled in for a Sunday nap. I need silence at night to fall asleep, but for a nap it doesn't matter what's playing in the background, whether it's Seinfeld reruns or never-ending classic rock countdowns. Just as long as it's not car alarms or jackhammers out on Broadway. But there are side effects to having the TV or radio playing: the lyrics or characters enter my dreams.

Today I fell asleep just as "American Pie" started, and because it wasn't the shorter version, I had drifted off by the time the children screamed and the poets dreamed. Yet the song infected my sleeping thoughts. At one point I dreamed that I was falling out of a hot air balloon piloted by Ritchie Valens. Psychological meaning? Because I have lucid dreams, I told myself to wake up before I hit the ground, but that also meant I didn't get the chance to ask Ritchie why he was up in the air in a balloon, if, as everyone who's seen La Bamba knows, he was afraid of flying? And did he win another coin flip? Was the Big Bopper aboard?

This almost always happens if there's background entertainment when I fall asleep. A phone rings on the TV and it rings in my head. Dan Dierdorf offers nonsensical commentary on TV and he's doing the same thing in my dream, only instead of wondering about Eli Manning's ability to handle the blitz he's saying things like, "Boy, you wanna talk about some type of shot. Take a look at this shot by Shawn Fury with the shot clock winding down."

Also today, Billy Joel sang "Piano Man" - number... something on the list - and in my dream I was in a dark bar watching a sad middle-aged man at the piano. I have to believe this is fairly common, correct?

Still, always a bit strange.

The last time I wrote about dreams, I mentioned how I wished I could pull off the lucid dream more often during good dreams. Perhaps because I wrote that and it crept into my subconscious - or maybe because I saw Inception twice - I've been able to occasionally pull that off, but it remains frustrating. In the past few months there have been times when I've told myself in the dream, "This is a dream, and it's going well. Don't wake up." This gives me a few more seconds, but because I'm now thinking about this in the dream, it still leads to me inevitably waking up.

Fortunately, I've pulled off a new trick. Even if I wake up, if I can go back to sleep within, say, 30 seconds, I'll sometimes be able to pick up the dream where it left off.

As I get older I feel like I'm gaining more control of my dreams, though maybe that's impossible and I'm simply, well, imagining things. I still have nightmares nearly every night, but they're not as scary when you can tell yourself the monsters aren't real, even before you wake up with a pounding heart.

Most nights I don't know what causes the nightmares. Today, I blame Don McLean for tossing me out of that hot-air balloon. Him and his worries about widowed brides. So the key to avoiding nightmares during naps? Don't have any songs about death playing in the background. No "Tell Laura I Love Her," no "Leader of the Pack," no "Dead Man's Curve."

Basically, avoid any song from the 1950s and '60s that focused on teenagers and their tendency to love too much and drive too fast. They're still classic songs, but all they'll give you is restless nights.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Defending Larry Bird

Sports message boards are usually not the best place to engage in rational debates. They're like political message boards, except the posters are even more passionate, though thankfully less obsessed with immigration. Old folks go on there and often believe there haven't been any good basketball players since 1972 while young people don't believe anyone who was born before 1980 could compete in today's game. Still, there are some interesting arguments and what fun would sports be if you couldn't debate about the best players in history?

So a few days ago, on a Lakers board, a debate broke out over Larry Bird's place in history. It's too much to expect completely unbiased opinions on a Lakers board. When people talk about the five best players in history, many people will write that it's Magic and Kareem, Kobe, West and Wilt. With Elgin Baylor as the sixth-best of all-time and maybe Jamaal Wilkes as the 10th best. Still, many people supported Bird and said he was a top 5 player. Others said top 10, at least. But others ridiculed his accomplishments and his game, with some even saying Scottie Pippen might have been better. Somewhere, an overweight Irishman sporting a ketchup-and-beer-stained No. 33 Celtics throwback jersey wept. It's absurd.

But obviously it's impossible to say for certain where any player ranks. There are no right or wrong answers, although if you say Pippen over Bird, you should lose the right to debate. I understand where the sentiment comes from. Growing up, Bird was a boogeyman in my house, like Reagan but with worse hair and a better jumper. Magic and Bird might have become friendlier when they filmed their famous Converse commercial, but nothing softened my feelings about the Hick from French Lick. Mostly it was about fear, with a dose of appreciation. Fear at how he could dismantle a team with his shooting or his passing. Fear about watching Bird operate with the Celtics tied or trailing by 1 in the closing seconds. But I always appreciated just how dominant he was on the court, even as I argued that Magic was better.

Now, 18 years after Bird's retirement, 24 years after his last MVP, it's simply about appreciation.

Some links and tidbits on a guy who was better than Scottie Pippen:
* This guy put together a list of Bird's 10-best games. Seems like a thorough list, though I'm sure other Bird groupies might have different games in different slots. I wasn't very familiar with No. 10. Against the Jazz in 1985, Bird had 30 points, 12 boards, 10 assists and nine steals -- through three quarters. He didn't play the fourth quarter of the blowout and didn't want to go in to get the steal that would have completed the quadruple-double.

* Sports Illustrated wrote several classic pieces on Bird. Here's a Frank Deford story from 1988. Jack McCallum wrote a great one in 1986. The stories speculate about whether Bird was the best player in NBA history. Yes, before Jordan claimed the mythical crown, Bird wore it for a few short years. By the end of his career, though, many people - including Bird superfan Bill Simmons - had put even Magic ahead of Bird on all-time lists, owing mostly to the fact injuries tormented the legend in his final years. Still...better than Pippen.

* Here's a seven-minute video of great Bird passes. The title calls him the greatest passer in the history of the game, which isn't true (ahem, Magic) but he was spectacular.

* People occasionally use Bird's teammates against him, saying that he excelled partly because he played with Kevin McHale and Robert Parish on the frontcourt, and had another Hall of Famer, Dennis Johnson, in the backcourt for much of his career. Occasionally, in the past, perhaps after a night of drinking or maybe after an evening spent with a Boston native, I might have made those same points. 1979 the Celtics won 29 games. The next year, Bird's rookie season, the Celtics won 61 games. The roster was basically unchanged, with the exception of Bird. McHale and Parish didn't arrive for another season. Yet Bird improved the Celtics by an astounding 32 games. Bird made everyone around him better, not just Hall of Famers.

* A few of Larry's more memorable game-winning shots:

* Thanks to his efforts in the 3-point contest, not to mention all the ones he made in real games, Bird is regarded as one of the all-time greats from behind the line. Yet the early part of his career shows how the game changed as the '80s progressed and how different it is today. Bird made 58 his rookie season, but after that made 20, 11, 22, 18 and 56 each season. But he then drilled 82 in 1986, 90 in 1987 and 98 the following season. In 2006, Ray Allen made 269 3-pointers. When the Celtics won the title in 2008, they had three guys make more than 88. Here's his famous performance in the 1988 3-point contest, when he came on strong at the end, fired the final ball, raised his finger before it went through, then walked away in triumph.

I don't know where Bird ranks all-time. Top 5? Probably. No matter where he falls on anyone's list in this completely subjective argument, he remains one of the most important players in league history and one of the most memorable. Even a Lakers fan should be able to acknowledge that.

And now, as penance, I'll watch Game 4 of the 1987 Finals.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Tales from the Universal Building, Part II

Part I of the award-winning series:

Someone discovered my blog by searching for Universal Building Fargo apartment.

I don't know who searched for this, whether it's a he or a she, a teen or a retiree. I don't know if they're looking for a place to live or a place to drop out of society. Maybe it's for a child, maybe for themselves. The Universal Building doesn't make the news much. I haven't been to Fargo in five years. I don't know if it's even an apartment building anymore, or even any kind of building at all. When it does make the news, it's for stories like "Biggest recent fires in Fargo," which ran in The Forum last month after a massive apartment fire, which recalled the horrific fire and murder in the UB in 1999.

I moved in about a week before Thanksgiving in 2000. It took several months before I moved out of the bedroom and took up permanent night-time residence on the already-furnished couch. The reason? My neighbor, Pappy. That wasn't his real name, I don't think. Probably a nickname from the second World War or something his fellow cell-block mates called him in the winter of '71. One morning someone pounded on my door for five minutes before I finally opened it. The elderly man standing there with his hat in his hands said he was looking for "Pappy." The blank look on my face didn't give him the answer he needed but as he started to ask again, the door to the apartment next to mine flew open and another elderly gentleman stuck his head out.

"Pappy, you son of a bitch!" the knocker yelled, before walking down and hugging his Platoon mate? Partner in crime? Pappy. So that was the man who moved in a week earlier.

I returned to bed but not for long. The thin walls refused to mute their conversation, which the men conducted at a decibel level most people use only when yelling at a speeding car that just ran over their left foot. Until that day, Pappy had lived a lonely life for a week, the type of monastic existence I think you were required to live the moment you signed a lease at the Universal Building. Very few couples lived in the building. Mostly single men, many likely hiding out from federal marshals, others plotting crime sprees that would almost certainly violate the conditions of their parole. A couple lived a few doors down for a brief time. Each afternoon when I left for work I heard the woman - a twentysomething gal - screaming at her no-good boyfriend. He was a jerk, a prick, inconsiderate, selfish and thoughtless. At night I'd return and as I exited the elevator it became clear she had forgiven the man's sins as her screams again filled the hall, though the words were - aside from an enthusiastic and possibly faked Yes! - mostly unintelligible.

But for the most part it was middle-aged men with thousand-yard stares and old guys who spent their money on Wonder Bread and lottery tickets. And Pappy. Over the next few months I greeted Pappy in the hall on several occasions and each encounter shortened my life by six months, thanks to the secondhand smoke that wafted from his jacket. At this stage in Pappy's life, his internal organs very likely resembled the inside of a cigarette. If you had cut him, smoke would have billowed out, followed by some leaking tar. It turned out he had a daughter, who visited about once a month and engaged in fights with her father that usually ended with her slamming the door while calling Pappy the same name his friend used the first time I saw him in the hall.

Pappy's domestic problems didn't run me out of my bedroom, though; his snoring and morning bathroom stops did. Remember the scene with Frank Drebin in the bathroom in The Naked Gun, after the press conference? That wasn't over-the-top; it was based on Pappy's morning ritual. That woke me up, after I'd spend each night struggling for sleep as Pappy's snoring threatened to set off car alarms in Grand Forks. It's a sound I'd never heard before, and one I hope to never hear again. If a doctor heard it they would have sent him to an emergency room and notified next of kin, but not before drawing up a three-page outline for an article in a medical journal.

Eventually I surrendered. I started sleeping on the couch, an uncomfortable piece of furniture that didn't contain my 6-3 frame but was at least in the living room, giving me some breathing room away from Pappy's abnormal breathing. The bedroom became a storage space, a cursed place to throw books and basketballs. One night, at the end of a blind date that the referee should have stopped in the first round, I took the couch while the lucky lady - who was stranded by a blizzard - took the bed. I felt bad, knowing she'd be haunted by internal regrets and Pappy's nightmarish sounds.

Still, she got a free dinner out of the deal and she got to flee the next morning. The next night, I'd still be in the Universal Building. And so would Pappy.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Magic Johnson's final high school game

Earvin Johnson became Magic when he was still in high school, thanks to a sportswriter who gave him the moniker after watching the young star dominate. As the story goes, he couldn't go by Dr. J because that had been taken, as had The Big E. So it was Magic Johnson, double-entendres be damned.

By his senior year at Everett High School in Lansing, Michigan, Magic was a legend. He led his team to the Class A state championship game against Birmingham Brother Rice.

The footage lives.

Everett won 62-56 in overtime. Two years later, Magic led Michigan State to the NCAA title, and a year after that he won Finals MVP as the Lakers won the NBA title. Three titles at three different levels in four years.

The title game footage is incredible to watch, even if it does look like it took place in 1957 instead of '77. Magic's game was ahead of the times but his hairstyle was with the times. He sported an Afro, which was long gone by the time he scored 42 points in Game 6 of the 1980 Finals.

A couple of things:
* Several times Magic drains a little turnaround jumper on the baseline. I watched hundreds of his games in the 1980s and have watched a hundred more on YouTube. Rarely did he use this turnaround jumper in the NBA. Where'd it go? It was, in fact, an Elvin Hayes-like turnaround jumper, but seems to have disappeared as his game progressed in so many other areas.

* Check out the pass at the 54-second mark. A classic Magic look, the type you'd see to Rambis or AC Green in the ensuing years. Unlike AC Green, though, his high school teammate made the layup.

* Magic did most of his damage in the post. He possessed a sort-of-unsightly jumper, a shot that he didn't really perfect until the middle to late 1980s. Even then, it was more set shot than jump shot.

* The analyst offers nothing. I'm not sure who it is, probably a former Michigan legend who only broadcast games every March and ran a used car dealership the other 11 months of the year. "Boy it looked awful easy," chuckle, chuckle. "That's Earvin Magic Johnson," chuckle. "I think he's got his rhythm, Mike." "That wasn't a bad shot, Mike. Wasn't a bad shot at all," chuckle.

* At the 2:40 mark, another great Magic pass. At times he simply overpowers the opponent, looking something like the mustached 14-year-old who dominates 8th-grade basketball games thanks to size alone, but the skills that made him a pro legend and not just a schoolboy one are also on display.

* This game has an insane ending. Everett leads by 2 in the closing seconds. Rice brings the ball up and the guard launches from just inside the halfcourt line at the buzzer...and banks it in! You can see Magic preparing to celebrate even as the ball falls through the net. It's like the shot Butler had that would have defeated Duke in the NCAA Finals last year, or the shot that Fritz Skinner used to beat Worthington Community College on a cold night in 1994 (still very bitter about that one, since he shot it right in front of me). Fans actually come onto the court. But it only tied it. If there had been a 3-point line, obviously Rice would have won. Then again, if there had been a 3-point line Jerry West's famous shot against the Knicks would have won the game and the Lakers wouldn't have lost in OT. Rice also falls, despite the miracle.

* Magic takes over in overtime. A perfect bounce pass for a layup. Then, at the 3:55 mark, a behind-the-back dribble leads to an open-court reverse layup. Even today, more than 30 years later, it's not the type of move you see many 6-9 point guards make. Actually, there still hasn't ever been another 6-9 point guard.

* According to the person who posted the video on YouTube - a person who should be put up for sainthood - Magic scored 34 points, though you wouldn't know that from the stumbling post-game interview.

In the interview Magic sounds like a kid, which he was. His interviewing skills improved over the years, as did his jumper. But the passing and intangibles that made him one of the greatest winners in basketball history? Those skills were already fully formed.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

A meandering, disjointed, unfocused ode to New York

Every night after work I sit in the rear of a New Jersey Transit bus and cross the George Washington Bridge. Tonight, like it will be for the next several months, it was dark as the bus barreled over the bridge, and the New York City skyline looked something like it does above. There's really not any view like it in the world; the only rivals might be from other New York City bridges. I'm often grouchy or annoyed on the trip home, depending on how long everyone had to wait for the bus to arrive. Still, I try to look out the window most nights to gaze south. Maybe native New Yorkers get used to such views and maybe transplanted New Yorkers are too cool to appreciate the view, but more often than not, I still find myself looking at it with the same wonder I had the first time I drove over it in February 2002. At least these days I know where I'm going.

I've been in New York City six and a half years now, and I still don't fully appreciate where I live. Maybe I never will. But it's not because of laziness or complacency or indifference. It's simply that a person could live here for a hundred years and venture out every day and they still wouldn't have enough time to soak in all of the history that's a part of the city.

So much has happened here. So much still happens. So much will happen. Remembering how I walked around the city my first few weeks here, my head tilted back, looking up, only needing a fanny pack to complete the caricature of the type of tourist longtime New Yorkers love to complain about, it's hard to believe that it's only taken six years for me to get used to the fact this is now my home.

Last Sunday, about 20 blocks south of our apartment, dozens of people dressed up in strange garb to re-enact an event that happened three centuries ago. November 16 was the 234th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Washington, a key fight in the Revolutionary War that saw the Brits rout the Americans. It was a crushing defeat for the Continental Army, but being that the people in this country can now read about Prince William's upcoming nuptials but don't have to worry about one day being ruled by him, you know that it was not a decisive victory for the Brits.

The Battle of Fort Washington isn't among the most well-known battles in American history, but maybe that's because the wrong side - depending on your accent - won. Still, it's a vital piece of history, a crucial battle that was followed by some of George Washington's greatest victories. And it happened three subway stops from our apartment. Cool.

I can walk five minutes and be on the spot where the Dutch bought Manhattan, an event that changed the fortunes of millions, for better and worse. It practically took place in my backyard - a backyard I, of course, share with tens of thousands of people.

Sometimes it takes a movie to remind me that I live in Manhattan and that I always dreamed of living here but never thought it'd happen, especially after my first attempt failed. We'll be sitting in the theater and New York appears on the screen - perhaps as the setting for a horrible romantic comedy, perhaps while being destroyed by an asteroid or tsunami - and I think, hey, we live there. Millions of people across the world are watching the same thing in different theaters and are thinking about New York's size and chaos and regard it as more of a character than a real city where real people live.

The city can be exhausting, especially on weekends when the subways aren't running on a normal schedule and the lines that are running are improbably crammed even more than usual. The city's not just a museum. People live here and struggle here, fighting traffic, rats, garbage, pollution, neighbors, cockroaches, bed bugs, terrorist threats and ridiculous rents. With all of that, it's easy for a person to forget what drew them here: the lights, the opportunities, the culture, the people, the sites, the sounds and, yes, the history, whether it's the Met or a long-ago battle fought before the United States was even really a country.

I do my best to appreciate the history of any place I visit, so I certainly try and appreciate the history of New York. It's easy to get distracted or caught up in the present. But I want to remember the city's past because that's why I originally dreamed of coming here and is part of the reason I stay here. The myths and the legends helped bring me here.

Right now thousands of people of all ages are dreaming of coming to New York, whether for a week or a lifetime. They want to escape their problems or seize an opportunity. They want to climb the skyscrapers or party underground. They're dreaming of New York. They're dreaming about my home. And that I do appreciate.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Worst baseball battery in history

Richard Pryor and John Candy: comedic geniuses.

Richard Pryor and John Candy: not baseball players.

I just finished watching Brewster's Millions, the 1985 movie starring Pryor and Candy as buddies and baseball players. Pryor plays Montgomery Brewster, an over-the-hill pitcher for the Hackensack Bulls who inherits $30 million but has to spend it all in 30 days to inherit the full inheritance of $300 million. His best friend and battery mate - Candy - doesn't understand why Brewster keeps throwing his money away, not realizing that's part of the deal: Brewster can't tell anyone about his situation, or he loses it all. In the end, he succeeds and inherits the full $300 million.

But back to the baseball.

When the movie came out, Candy was 35 and Pryor 44. Candy's age fits the role of a decent semipro ballplayer who's holding on for a few more years in the backwoods of baseball, but his physique certainly doesn't. If David Wells and Greg Luzinski defied science and physics and produced a child together, the unfortunate result might look like John Candy in this uniform. We never see Candy swing a bat, and I have to believe he kept a roster spot because of his leadership with the Bulls' pitching staff. He taunts opposing hitters, throwing them out of their comfort zone, though it appears unlikely he's capable of throwing out any runners.

Then there's Pryor. In the few glimpses we get of Pryor in action, it appears his fastball tops out at about 76 miles per hour. If he was throwing at a dunk tank, he might not have enough velocity to activate the drop switch. Still, he apparently made it as far as Toledo in Triple-A ball and I can only assume that happened in his early 20s. He earns points for creativity: he strikes out a hitter with an always-entertaining Eephus pitch.

Jerry Orbach, or at least his character, manages the Bulls. He does a serviceable job, ably pulling off the cranky, vulgar, seen-it-all manager. At one point he tells one of his hitters he's not a farmer, "You don't have to swing at shit in the dirt." I bet Earl Weaver said that once. The problem, of course, is that Jerry Orbach is Lenny Briscoe, the beloved Law & Order detective. Brewster's Millions came out nearly a decade before Orbach joined the L&O cast, but he's now been retroactively typecast. It's jarring seeing him in other movies or shows, even if those appeared long before Lenny started patrolling New York's streets. While his manager has some good lines, you expect him to quip about a dead body, or threaten someone in an interrogation room, or worry about his drug-addicted daughter. Brewster doesn't help matters later in the film, when he purchases fancy new uniforms for the Bulls. They're blue and tight and when Orbach appears in his, it looks like he's worn a wetsuit to a ballgame.

Orbach's in-game skills as a manager also appear shaky. When the Bulls play a three-inning exhibition against the Yankees - hey, it could happen - Brewster surrenders four runs before Orbach yanks him from the game, telling him he's "gotta" take him out. A bit late, coach. The Yanks had been hitting him hard before he gave up the runs that effectively finished off the Bulls. You have to have the bullpen ready much earlier, though, to be fair, back in those days managers allowed starters to throw more innings, even if in this case a complete game would only be three innings.

The movie's not a comedy classic but it has its entertaining points. At one point Brewster bets on a field hockey game between Loyola and Notre Dame and wins big - much to his chagrin - when Loyola pulls off the stunning upset in a game that was actually previewed in a New York City newspaper. Odd story selection from the editors. He invests in a company featuring an iceberg and other bizarre businesses. The only thing missing is a contribution to the anti-cat-juggling fund that Steve Martin gave to in The Jerk.

Brewster spends and spends and in wasting $30 million in 30 days, he certainly does his best impression of way too many professional athletes. Later in the movie he runs for mayor and in an "unheard of move," spends his own money on his campaign. Unheard of at the time, perhaps. But maybe Bloomberg got an idea from the movie.

Brewster's Millions also forecast some of the populist rage - faux or otherwise - that influenced the recent election. He runs while proclaiming None of the Above, saying that the other candidates are so terrible, people should vote for None of the Above. Surely many people this year wished they had the choice.

I remember watching Brewster's Millions as a kid and being upset at the end that people didn't realize he pulled it off. Everyone thinks he's something of a loser, except for his lovely accountant. I wanted an epilogue as he walked back into the New York night. Did he sponsor another exhibition game, this time against the '86 Mets? Did he run for mayor again, this time on a campaign of All of the The Above? Did he buy the Hackensack Bulls and fire Orbach, or at least purchase better uniforms? And did he finally quit playing ball or did he stay on, firing that weak fastball and nonexistent curve to his overweight friend and catcher?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Missing the first quarter of Lakers games, and other TV atrocities

If TNT broadcast every Lakers game against Western Conference opponents, chances are I would never see the team in the first six minutes of a game. I'd never get to see Kobe Bryant's first mid-range jumper or Derek Fisher's first missed layup and I'd certainly never see the gangly, graceful, bearded Pau Gasol jumping center on the opening tip. That's because anytime the Lakers play the late game on a TNT doubleheader, the early game always, inevitably, runs late. This bothered me when I watched Lakers games at Saint John's in 1997 and it bothers me today. Literally, today.

Tonight the Celtics defeated the Heat - again - in the opening game of TNT's Thursday doubleheader. The Lakers, unless they're on an East Coast road trip or playing in the Midwest, almost always play the second game. It's the overexposure of the Lakers. So be it. Yet tonight, like always, the first game went later than 10:30. And then past the 10:45 mark. Finally, at 11:04, the game mercifully ended and Kevin Harlan sent it to the "voice of the NBA" Marv Albert and to the Lakers game in Denver.

The game finally appeared on the screen with 4:56 left in the first quarter. Damn it. Denver led 13-12 at the time. Who cares, right? Forty-one minutes remain. Nothing happens in the NBA until the fourth quarter anyway. The NBA's boring, etc., etc., etc., etc. I care. Laker fans draped in Bob McAdoo throwback jerseys care. Laker bandwagon fans who think Earvin Johnson was a journeyman center who once played for the Timberwolves care. And TNT executives should care, because it's now been like this for decades and still no one has figured out what seems to be a rather simple solution for these situations: schedule the games for 11 EST. TNT does give a grace period. A 10:30 game usually doesn't start until 10:50 or so. But it often doesn't help, as, like tonight, the early game drags on through a series of LeBron James free throws and timeouts. Meanwhile, Ernie Johnson provides helpful updates about the happenings halfway across the country, but will they give us a split screen? No.

At least tonight's early game was sort of close. The worst is when the early game is a blowout, yet it somehow drags out longer than a Yankees-Red Sox game. As the 20-point contest concludes, they show the score of the late game on the bottom: Lakers 8, Thunder 4. Then it cuts to a commercial before finally popping in on the late game. Show us the game that now matters! Well, that's not actually the worst. There's always overtime.

It doesn't take until 10:30 for me to realize I don't have a chance of seeing the opening of the Lakers game. If halftime of the first game isn't over by 9:40, there's no hope. I'll listen to Charles and Kenny crack their jokes and know that TNT will again lie when they say it's a doubleheader. We're not getting a complete doubleheader. We're being robbed. By 10 p.m., when there are still 8 minutes left in the third quarter, I'll start loudly sighing to myself, a pleasant personal trait. I curse the East Coast, and its basketball teams. I curse the invention of the 20-second timeout.

The same thing happens on ESPN. But at least if they carry a doubleheader, they'll switch it over to one of their other 14 networks, usually ESPN Classic, so instead of seeing the 2002 World Series of Poker, we actually get to watch the first six minutes of a live NBA game.

It's always been like this, of course, and it's not like TNT invented this problem.

As I wrote about before, CBS missed the first four-and-a-half minutes of Game 1 of the 1983 NBA Finals. The Finals! For a golf tournament not named The Masters.

At least during basketball games fans get to see all of the on-court action. Directors don't cut away as Carmelo Anthony rises up for a jump shot to show an overweight, bespectacled man chewing his fingernails in the upper deck, only to return just as the ball's being released from his hands. Yet that's what fans witness on pretty much every baseball telecast, but especially during playoff games. My friends have heard me complain about this a dozen times. I sound like a bitter old man talking about the good ol' days. But still...

The overuse of crowd shots during a game has done more damage to baseball than steroids.*

* I'm sort of in a Skip Bayless-type mood tonight so hyperbole, moralizing and overreaction will fill this post.

Can TV producers and directors please stop showing the crowd and dugout after every single pitch. Stop with the reaction shots. Stop zooming in on the pitcher's face between every pitch, followed by a close-up of the hitter, followed by a shot of a nervous fan in an ill-fitting jersey stained with mustard holding a sign that reads "FOX AND THE RANGERS RULE!" Then a quick shot of the do-nothing manager sitting motionless in the dugout, doing his best impersonation of a human statue in a Times Square subway station. What has a manager ever done on the bench that needed to be shown live? At best we see him touching his cap, at worst we see him picking his nose. Occasionally, though not always, and only when really emotional, he blinks.

By the time the cameras scan back to the center field view, the pitcher's already in motion and they've missed the start of his windup. Stay with the center field camera, I implore you. Stop showing the crowd in the third inning. No one is nervous, no one is that excited. No one is doing something so outrageous that we have to see them. They're sitting, taking their left hand and slamming it into their right in a clapping motion. Show the game. Of course, when a fan actually does do something that is newsworthy - like, say, run on the field nude - the stations refuse to show it. I wish networks would take the same policy to every crowd shot. Show the masses at the end of the game or in the final inning when the home heroes are down to their final shot.

I get anxious, waiting for the cameras to get back in time. I'm convinced they'll actually miss the pitch, and occasionally they do miss the ball coming out of the guy's hand. If Luis Tiant pitched today, no one who watched him only on television would ever know about his bizarre deliveries, but they would know that Red Sox fans like to wear Wade Boggs jerseys and backward baseball caps.

I know, nothing on a baseball broadcast outside of a 20-minute lecture by Tim McCarver on the beauty of the infield fly rule should bother someone this much.

And I know it will never change, so I should resign myself to this TV reality. Each year brings more crowd shots, more dugout shots, more up-close shots that force viewers to miss the big picture. So what's more maddening: Not being able to see any of the game you want to watch because the network refuses to air it, or not being able to see any of the action you want to watch even when the network is airing it? I suppose most fans would say the latter. But since it's the Lakers, I'll have to say the former.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Things could be worse for the Wolves. Or not

At 10:30 tonight I'll turn on NBA League Pass and watch the Timberwolves play the Lakers in LA. Judging by the respective starts for each team, the game will likely be over by 11:10, though it won't officially end for another two hours. The Lakers enter the game 7-0 and have played only two close games as they aim for a third straight title.

The Timberwolves enter the game 1-6, yet it all seems so much worse than that. In their last five games, the Wolves lost to Memphis by 20, to Miami by 32, to Orlando by 42, to Atlanta by 10 (!), and to previously winless Houston by 26. They've become the professional equivalent of a Division II team that's served up as a sacrifice for a Division I team early in the season. Playing the Wolves has to hurt their opponents' ranking in the BCS standings. The outcomes of their games aren't quite as predetermined as a Generals-Globetrotters game, but at this point Washington might be favored by 5 in a head-to-head matchup at the Target Center.

After tonight's game, Kurt Rambis might just stay back in LA, serving as a volunteer assistant under Phil Jackson, trying to forget his tenure with the Timberwolves while the franchise attempts to forget its time under him. Not that it's Rambis's fault. In his first stint as a head coach, with the Lakers in 1999, he had to deal with a young Kobe Bryant and an old Dennis Rodman and San Antonio easily swept LA in the playoffs, which led to Phil Jackson's hiring, Rambis's retreat from the bench, his return to the bench as an assistant and his ascension to Timberwolves head coach. Now he deals with a mismatched roster that has plenty of point guards, none of whom are Stephen Curry, and plenty of small forwards, none of whom possess a consistent jump shot. The good news? They're well on their way to a high draft pick in 2010, which they can use to take a...small forward or point guard.

It's a tough start to a long season. Even for the franchise of Roth, Brooks, Rider, and Lohaus, this is a low point. Remember when fans grew apathetic with the franchise because they only won 50 games each year and kept getting eliminated in the first round of the playoffs? Those teams now look like Jordan's Bulls in comparison. But has it ever been this bad, this early for the Timberwolves?

Last year the team also started 1-6, which eventually turned into a 1-15 record. But those six losses didn't resemble the six from this season. The Wolves lost by 3 to the Clippers and by 2 to the Celtics, with an 8-point defeat against Phoenix sprinkled in. Nothing like this season's debacle. The Wolves also began the 2009 season 1-6 (as you'll see, it's a pattern). Yet one loss came in double overtime to the powerful Spurs and another came in overtime against Golden State. They also had a three-point defeat against Oklahoma City. Again, nothing like this season.

The Timberwolves of 2008 also lost six of their first seven games, on their way to a 1-10 beginning. Only two of those first six losses were by double-digits.

After that you have to go back to the 1995-96 season, Garnett's rookie year, to find a Wolves team that started 1-6. But that slow start included an overtime loss to Vancouver and a six-point loss to Portland. Toronto beat the Wolves by 18 and Houston by 22, but no one beat them by 30. Or 40.

The 1995 season? There we go.
Denver 130, Wolves 108
Houston 115, Wolves 85
Detroit 126, Wolves 112
Lakers 122, Wolves 99
Bulls 112, Wolves 100
Celtics 114, Wolves 101

The Wolves lost their first six games that year before defeating Golden State by two. They went on to lose their next seven to drop to 1-13, just to prove the first seven games weren't an aberration. Not a single defeat by less than 12 points to start that season. At least this year's squad opened with a 1-point loss to Sacramento. That Wolves team did scrape together 21 victories, a number the current team will struggle to reach. Credit the leadership of top scorer JR Rider for the turnaround.

Even the worst team in franchise history - the 1992 squad, which went 15-67 under the beleaguered Jimmy Rodgers - had a three-point defeat and a pair of five-point losses in their 1-6 start. For those wondering, Tony Campbell led the team in scoring that year, followed by Pooh Richardson and Tyrone Corbin. Randy Breuer, Tod Murphy, Mark Randall, Luc Longley and Felton Spencer all manned the frontcourt that year for Minnesota, and suddenly the Darko Era doesn't seem so bad.

So is this year's start the worst ever for a franchise that's all-too familiar with on-court fiascoes? Possibly. That 1995 season was ugly. At this point it's like comparing and contrasting natural disasters. What's worse, a hurricane or a tornado? An earthquake or a tsunami? Things are bad for the Timberwolves. And tonight in LA, they're going to get worse.

There might be only one way out of the mess: Fire Childress.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Saturday potpourri: The Godfather, SNL, and KEYC

Louise is unable to sit still and do just one thing at a time. If we watch a DVD, she can not simply watch the movie. She folds clothes, or files papers, or edits manuscripts or talks about how she wishes she could be doing something extra. This occasionally perturbs me, especially if there's a great scene she's just missed because she's distracted by a 12-step plan to reorganize her closet.

"I saw it, honey," she'll say. Yes, but did she appreciate it? Did she laugh at an appropriate volume or was she distracted by her address book? She explains it by saying she can't just watch a movie or do just one thing at a time when she knows she could be using the time to do five, six or seven other things. It's a miracle I ever get her to a movie theater, because I'm sure she feels like a prisoner, locked in darkness, surrounded by germs, forced to focus on the big screen for two hours. I normally don't understand this psychosis.

But today I do. I'm currently watching the tape of last night's Lakers game while also working on a story that's due in two weeks for the St. John's alumni magazine. On the computer I've called up the video feed of the St John's-St. Olaf football game, but I've turned down the audio on that so I can listen to the radio broadcast from the Johnnies announcers. I'm also typing away on the blog and occasionally turning off the Lakers game to watch The Godfather II, which is in our DVD player. Louise refers to this as putting a whole day's activity into one hour.

Some Saturday thoughts:
* This is probably, I don't know, the 50th time I've seen Godfather II. One scene always confused me. After the attempt on his life early in the movie, Michael travels to New York to talk with Frank Pentangeli and plot his revenge against Hyman Roth. During a meeting with the Rosato brothers, a would-be and mouthy assassin attacks Pentangeli and attempts to kill him after saying, "Michael Corleone says hello." Frankie escapes and later, thinking Michael betrayed him, agrees to testify against the godfather. Yet Michael didn't have anything to do with the assassination attempt. It was Roth. So why would an assassin give credit to Corleone as he kills Pentangeli? Wouldn't he want his victim to know who really gave the order? Why say "Michael Corleone says hello" when Michael really said no such thing? It worked out for Roth because Pentangeli later does turn against Michael but the assassin couldn't have known things would break that way. This guy dissects this and other issues with one of the best movies ever made.

* Newspapers are dying. That's the accepted wisdom and to protest means you're stuck in the past and unwilling to acknowledge the present or face the future. Okay. But I still read them. The paper versions, the ones that stain your hands with ink and prove unwieldy on any type of public transportation. I buy a couple every day at the newsstands and read them before and after work. I'll almost always have one on the subway. And a few times a week, a fellow passenger peers down or leans over on the subway to read the paper along with me, as if it's a community activity. I'm reading about the Yankees or chaos in the state legislature and I'll sense - and eventually see - my 1 train neighbor gazing over my shoulder, intently poring over the headlines and text. Maybe he giggles at a cartoon or shakes his head at a ludicrous editorial from Charles Krauthammer. I'll always hesitate for a few seconds, as if I'm really concerned that the freeloader has finished the story. Occasionally the other person will actually sigh when I turn the page, annoyed that I've dared to move on to the next page. Can't I see they're still dissecting the movie review of The Expendables? Buddy, it's 50 cents. A bit more if you buy the Times. You obviously enjoy reading newspapers, you appreciate the reporting, the witty tabloid headlines and the writing. So toss a few quarters on the newsstand and support this dying industry. Or at least stop breathing on my cheek.

* Everyone remembers the classic Schwetty - or is it Schweddy? - Balls skit on Saturday Night Live.

I think I found one of the inspirations for the sketch. Here's another classic from KEYC-TV. This appeared on the Noon News, and apparently aired in 1986. That was a year before I started going home for lunch, so I probably missed this thorough examination of sugar, its benefits and dangers. Some people are meant to be on TV. Some people are meant to work in extension offices and help the public with valuable initiatives that teach people how to live healthy lives. Very few people are meant to work in an extension office and appear on TV.

I'd have more but I have to get back to my article and The Godfather. Also, the Lakers game is now in the fourth quarter. And, my uncle Mike's basketball team at Minnesota West just started their second game of the season and the school broadcasts the games online. I'm learning to multitask. And I'm learning from the best.