Thursday, April 29, 2010

Battle of the ages: Lucas vs. May, short shorts vs. shorter shorts

Some people advocate spicing up the NBA All-Star weekend by adding a one-on-one competition. It sounds great in theory. Kobe vs. LeBron, Durant against Dirk, Williams vs. Paul, Cardinal vs. Scalabrine.

But there's a decent chance such an event would be sort of a disaster, something even worse than watching Nate Robinson miss dunks for a half hour. The games could feature sparkling personalities, but dull play. No matter the age group or talent level, one-on-one games often devolve into contests between a guy who constantly backs down and someone who tosses up 3-pointers on every possession. It's even worse if one of the players has a height advantage. He spends the whole game re-creating the final 10 years of Mark Jackson's career, when all he seemingly did was pound the ball while posting up, starting from 20 feet out.

Maybe I'm cynical because of my own struggles in one-on-one games. I've never been great in them, in camps or the playground. Not enough quickness, not enough endurance. By the time I've played a fifth game up to 12, I'm as exhausted as a triathlete completing the running portion. For several years my nemesis was my newspaper colleague, Mike Nowatzki. Mike's a very good player. Very competitive games. We played countless games, indoor and out. Inevitably, he'd win three of four or four out of seven.

I always broke out the same excuses. He was in better shape. I always faded late, but often dominated the first game, which was the best game to judge the superior player. He's a few inches shorter so I felt bad and shot from outside most of the time. If I really wanted to win, I'd take him inside every point. As a sportsman, I couldn't do that. Finally I'd say one-on-one games are not a true indicator of basketball greatness. It's a team sport. Someone who's better in one-on-one won't necessarily be better in a real game of five-on-five. Most of the excuses were ridiculous, but that last one had merit, I think. Allen Iverson in his prime would have probably defeated Larry Bird in his prime one-on-one. But would anyone take Iverson if the games really counted? And then I'd tell Mike I'd be drafted ahead of him in a mock YMCA basketball draft. I had no evidence to support such a claim, but I was desperate to save face.

So I'm not the biggest fan of one-on-one.

And after watching the video below, it's easier to see why I don't think a one-on-one tournament would be the savior of All-Star Weekend. It didn't really work 40 years ago, and probably wouldn't work today.

It's 1972 and it's a one-on-one NBA tourney, played in empty arenas, taped beforehand and occasionally broadcast at halftime of real games. In this battle, it's Don May against Jerry Lucas. I didn't research it, but I'm guessing May's shorts in this game rendered him sterile. Keith Jackson and Bill Russell provide commentary.

Rules: Game is to 20, by twos, and you have to win by four points.

The game starts with a fairly obvious traveling by May, though NBA ref Darrell Garretson swallows the whistle (why should one on one games be any different than the real ones?). Lucas, who has a four-inch height advantage, drills a great hook a minute into the game. I don't want to say players back then didn't have the same physical conditioning as current players, but with the score 10-8, each guy bends over to grab his shorts, the easiest sign of fatigue. I recognize that move because I also did it about 10 minutes into a one on one game. But these guys are playing for 15 grand, according to Jackson. They should be in a bit better shape.

Garretson finally calls traveling on May at a key juncture, with Lucas up 16-14. May was apparently an old-school Lamar Odom, a lefty who was unable to go right (and, no, players back then weren't these incredibly fundamentally sound players, as evidenced by the shaky ballhandling skills from both guys). This inability to go right gets him in trouble as the taller Lucas just stands there while May flails about. Lucas transforms into my dad late in the game and drains another hook to go up 18-14. The hook has always been impossible to stop, whether used by Kareem, Jerry Lucas or baby boomers in southern Minnesota.

Lucas finally wins it 20-16 with a little jump hook over the shorter May. He advanced, though it seems unlikely Lucas lasted much longer in the tournament. 

The video ends with a ceremony honoring Elgin Baylor at the 1972 All-Star game in LA. Baylor retired early that year, a season that ended with the Lakers winning a then-record 69 games. The Hall of Famer never won a ring, but the Lakers won the title a few months after this ceremony. It was unfortunate that Baylor's body gave out before he could finally win the title that eluded him all those years. 

Baylor retired because of chronic knee injuries that took away his quickness and leaping ability. By the time he left the game, he was a shell of the player who dominated the game in the 1960s. Still, even in 1972, on a pair of bad knees, I'd have taken Elgin in a game of one on one against Lucas and May.

Actually, I think I could have taken Don May. As long as we only played one game. 

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The saddest book of the year

In March 1996, writer David Lipsky spent five days with author David Foster Wallace, for a piece in Rolling Stone. He stayed overnight in Wallace's house, rode in the car with him, played chess against him and traveled to book readings. In September 2008, Wallace committed suicide in his California home. He was 46. A year and a half later, Lipsky wrote a book called Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. The book is basically a transcription of the days Lipsky spent with Wallace fourteen years ago. Reading their discussions sheds light on the type of demons that drove Wallace to take his life. They talk about depression and suicide and the future of reading and a thousand other topics, all recorded by Lipsky's ever-present tape recorder. But the book also highlights the mundane: Lipsky and Wallace play with the author's dogs. They eat gigantic meals at Denny's.

All of it gives an insight into who Wallace was at that moment. At the start of his afterword, Lipsky writes, "Suicide is such a powerful end, it reaches back and scrambles the beginning. It has an event gravity: Eventually, every memory and impression gets tugged in its direction." Later, he adds, "That's the other thing this book would like to be: a record of what David was like, when he was thirty-four and all his cards had turned over good, every one of his ships had sailed back into harbor."

He succeeds.

By the end, I wished I had been in the backseat of the car, just listening to the two writers banter and debate. The book ends with Lipsky leaving Illinois while Wallace heads to a church dance. It's a heartbreaking book because you know how the story ultimately ends, even if that ending came 12 years later.

Wallace's most famous work is Infinite Jest, the thousand-page novel published in 1996 that made him a writing superstar. I never completed the book; it's a tough read, though several of my friends who have finished it loved it. So I'll give it another shot. Lipsky followed Wallace around as he went on tour for Infinite Jest and dealt with the newfound fame (one of the more amusing episodes centers around a nice - but passive-aggressive - reading escort who accompanies Wallace to his event in Minneapolis).

Wallace might have been best known for his fiction, but his nonfiction works are also classics. His essays and features on John McCain, Roger Federer, cruise ships, state fairs, and David Lynch remain the definitive pieces on those subjects. His nonfiction is more accessible to readers, so anyone intimidated by the size and scope of Infinite Jest might want to start with his essays.

The story Lipsky researched for Rolling Stone back in 1996 never ran; he got called away for another story. But the tapes of his days with Wallace remained, just waiting to be published. And reading those conversations now, fourteen years later and nearly two years after Wallace died, brings the writer to life. And that makes it even harder to accept how he died.

Some links:

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Janesville Hay Daze: Zipper, carnies and the world's smallest pony

Here's the world's smallest horse. Maybe. The pinto stallion - named, for some reason, Einstein, perhaps because it's the same size as the scientist's oversize brain - is 14 inches tall. He weighed six pounds at birth. Guinness will check out the horse tale to determine if it breaks the record currently held by Thumbelina, a 17-pound horse.

He's cute. And creepy, like something that randomly appears in a nightmare. But I question whether he's the smallest in the land, no matter what the gatekeepers at Guinness eventually rule. Because about 18 years ago, in Janesville, I saw the world's smallest pony at the annual Hay Daze celebration. That's what the hand-written sign declared:


If true, it'd be a coup for Janesville. A worldwide attraction! Maybe the little guy would find a permanent home on Main Street, earning a spot in town lore along with the doll in the window. The sign caught the attention of my cousin Matt, as we patrolled Main Street on Hay Daze Friday.

In reality, the world's smallest pony was an average-size dog. The not-so-great beast stood in its tiny pen, sadly looking out at passersby. His hair had been styled to look something like a pony's 'do, but this was no foal. He appeared severely depressed or sedated. We laughed, but the joke was on us, since we had paid a couple of bucks to see the stunning exhibit. I'm assuming someone eventually called PETA.

Just another night at Hay Daze. It's Janesville's week-long celebration, which always takes place in June and always ends with three days of fun on the midway, as the carnival rolls into town with its poorly maintained rides, rigged games, and occasional freak show - like the world's smallest pony.

As a kid, I counted down the days until Hay Daze. It was a holiday. Anticipation rose as school ended and mid-June approached. It's the kind of festival you find all over small towns in Minnesota. Last year there was actually a mini...I don't know, controversy is too strong a word - conflict, over the dates of Hay Daze. Neighboring Waterville - a rival in high school sports - had their Bullhead Days at the same time as Hay Daze, as Janesville shifted its celebration to accommodate the visiting carnival that earned rave reviews the year before. It's the type of thing that can spark civil war.

Kids look forward to Hay Daze, teens eventually mock it, people who have recently moved away roll their eyes while remembering some of the rides, and folks who have been away from the town for several years miss the event and want to eventually return. Or at least I do.

The carnival always arrived early in the week. In the days before the Friday opening, I'd check the weather report religiously, like Eisenhower monitoring the forecasts before D-Day.

The carnies immediately began setting up the rides. We anticipated what they'd bring along, knowing that staples like the merry-go-round and Ferris Wheel always made an appearance. But would they have the bumper cars? How about the Hurricane? And, please God, is the Zipper in the arsenal? The carnival hired local kids to help with the construction, another reason to question the safety record of each ride. So the kid who stole a car when he was 15 is now in charge of putting the screws into the roundabout?

I was about 8 years old the first time I operated a bumper car. Unfortunately, my driving skills resembled those of an 80-year-old woman from New York who never learned how to drive but decides to go for her license after losing her husband. The controls confused me and the steering wheel overpowered me. Eventually the worker wandered through the carnage to my stranded vehicle. With a look of disdain on his face and tobacco jammed in his mouth, he guided me to safety while standing along the side and leaning down to steer.

We lived a block from Main Street, a block from the carnival. I always walked the same route, past the kids' rides on a side street and emerging on Main Street at the merry-go-round. The zipper stood at one end of the street, the Ferris Wheel on the other. The rides didn't extend all the way down Main Street, as Highway 14 went through town. So passing cars gawked at the local yokels as we enjoyed our cotton candy and lost dollar after dollar on the basketball game that a state gaming commissioner should have shut down.

I hated that basketball game, with its small hoop and large ball. Pistol Pete couldn't have hit three in a row on that basket. Yet every year I threw down my dollar bills in a desperate attempt to win a pen, which I could convert into an oversize crayon, which I could then convert - about 50 dollars and a hundred shots later - into a 10-foot tall stuffed animal that would be forgotten about and eventually land in the basement. The only other game with more questionable logistics was the ball toss game, where you had to throw a baseball into a tilted wooden container. The world's leading physicists couldn't have figured out the proper angle and velocity needed to land the ball in the bucket, but everyone kept trying. It's a great way to impress girls. That, and getting into drunken fights, another Hay Daze tradition.

The main big-ticket rides were the Zipper, the tilt-a-whirl, the scrambler and sometimes the Hurricane, a large ride with small cars that made gigantic WHOOSHING sounds as it went up and down, sounds we could hear from our house throughout the night. I always expected one of those cars - put together under the careful eye of Merriam's finest mechanics - to go flying off, landing on the neighboring bowling alley. Hasn't happened. Yet.

The carnies, of course, reigned over all of this. To a snot-nosed kid, carnies are the object of mockery and occasionally admiration. "Wow, what a fun life, getting to be around the bumper cars all of the time!" The more idiotic youth enjoy baiting the workers with verbal taunts, which the carnival folk return. You don't think about how tough of a life most of the people in the carnival probably had before signing up. No one's dreaming of being a carny. But every year they show up and put on a good show, which always proved safe, no matter how unsafe the whole operation always seemed. When I was 10, I somehow got involved in a little tiff with some workers while shooting baskets at the local park, where a host of them gathered. They said they'd beat me up. I believed them. I mean, they wore black shirts. One guy sported brass knuckles. My aunt and uncle were visiting so for the next few days I walked down to the park accompanied by my uncle, an intimidating figure who stands about 6-6. The carnies eyed me but didn't make a move. Looking back, I'm sure they weren't going to do anything, but that didn't stop my imagination from running wild. I saw the headlines: CARNIES PUMMEL LOCAL BOY, STUFF HIS FACE WITH YEAR-OLD MINIDONUTS

Janesville always had a beer garden. And a dunk tank. Lots of food options, including foot long hot dogs, and the firemen made the best burgers and onion rings in the county. They always tasted even better on the way up after a stint on the tilt-a-whirl. There's a "fun run" and there's occasionally a softball tournament.

But there's always a parade. Sunday afternoon. This might be the main event of any small town celebration. The quality varies from town to town. In my parents' hometown of Fulda, the locals pride themselves on putting on a standout parade, which always features numerous local marching bands. Janesville always has a better carnival, but Fulda gets the edge in parades (again, this is for bragging rights in small towns). The Janesville parade always went past our house. We sat on the porch or near the street as the bands and tractors rolled by. People put their blankets out early on our yard, like tourists getting ready hours ahead of time for a space shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral.

And thanks to youtube, the whole world can now enjoy the parade. This is from 2008, but it could have been from 1978. And this will probably be what it looks like in 2028.

The video starts with some large farm equipment. Then the normal floats supporting local businesses. People throw candy, which kids fight to the death over. At the 3:25 mark, one of the main attractions every year: the Shriners. Usually they ride in motorcycles, an overweight, ground version of the Blue Angels. They perform impressive driving feats that delight the crowd. I always wondered how long they had to practice their stunts, and how many Shriners never made it through training. Was it like the Navy SEALS? In this particular parade, they rode in their mini-cars instead of the cycles, which were never quite as visually stunning.

There aren't any marching bands on this video. As I wrote, the Hay Daze parade didn't attract as many groups as other towns. Making things worse, for years the JWP high school band didn't march. Instead, they'd ride on the back of a large flatbed truck, tooting their songs as the crowd grumbled. They complained because many of them - including my mom - were old marching band performers themselves. They felt...offended. To them it was ridiculous that a high school band sat and played, instead of sweating in large costumes and marching up and down the city streets. People applauded, but never as loudly as they did for the marchers.

The parade always ended mid-afternoon on Sunday. People took their kids uptown for another hour or two on the rides. The beer garden hosted one more band.

The carnival leaves town late Sunday and early Monday, sneaking away in the dead of night like the Colts out of Baltimore. From my bedroom I could hear them taking everything down. It was always sad. Another Hay Daze gone. By the next morning, they were all gone and Main Street was again unoccupied, although a stray ride occasionally lingered, stationed near the city park.

I've probably been to one Hay Daze weekend in the last 10 years. But the memories remain. After all, how can anyone forget seeing the world's smallest pony?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Writers as rock stars and a kid with a clarinet

I had to work until 8 on Friday night, so I was unable to attend a concert by the Rock Bottom Remainders. The group has never topped any chart, at least on Billboard. But the band members have ruled the best-seller lists for decades. The band consists of some of the most famous writers in the country, stars of fiction and nonfiction. Stephen King, Mitch Albom, Dave Barry, Roy Blount Jr. Greg Iles, Matt Groening, Amy Tan, Ridley Pearson, Scott Turow, James McBride and Kathi Kamen Goldmark.

Every once in awhile, the members step away from the computer and pretend to be rock stars, performing for charity. Barry says Blount Jr. has coined their genre "hard-listening music," but the group's performed with Springsteen, Warren Zevon and at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sure, they've gotten their gigs primarily because of their day jobs and not the music, but they aren't terrible.

Louise scored a free ticket on her way to buy one and stood in the first row. After the show she mingled with some of the band members. I've read nearly every book by most of the authors in the band. Their books spill off our shelves. Louise, meanwhile, knows who they are and has read a few of their works. But she was the one standing front and center Friday night at the theater in Times Square. Life's not fair.

Unfortunately, even if I someday sell 10 million books with my series of novels about a hard-scrabbled copy editor who tracks down killers and corrects their punctuation in the taunting letters sent to the police and press, I'll never be allowed to join the Rock Bottom Remainders. I'm assuming possessing a shred of music ability is a prerequisite. I don't have any, whether it means singing or playing an instrument. My voice sounds great on the radio, provided I'm bantering with the host about a boys basketball game. I can't sing. I have a worse voice than the guy in church who belts out every hymn, oblivious to the fact the children are weeping because of the damage he's inflicting on their ears. In junior high choir, I provided backup humming. Anything else, like singing real lyrics, was a stretch.

I'm even worse with instruments. In fourth grade we all learned how to play the recorder, that staple of elementary schools throughout the land.

Each kid had to perform a solo at some point. When my turn arrived, the damn thing barely made a sound, as my hands were shaking and I was unable to properly operate the most rudimentary of instruments. The teacher eventually passed me by as I looked at the instrument and shook my head, conveying the idea to my classmates, "Hey, why did I get the defective recorder? Anyone want to switch with me, because this one doesn't work." I hated pulling the white instrument out of its cloth covering. Even at 10 years old, I wondered, what's the point?

In fifth grade we picked real band instruments. Except I missed school the day everyone else chose their instrument. So of course the boys picked the cool things like the saxophone or drums while the girls followed gender stereotypes and grabbed their flutes and clarinets. By the time I returned to school, all the good boy instruments had been swiped. The band director remembered that my sister had previously played the clarinet.

"Why don't you just use hers and you can play the clarinet." Should I also follow in her footsteps and become a Brownie?

At 34, I can now understand that it's absurd to look down on a kid who picks any musical instrument. It's ridiculous, and sexist, to label something a girl instrument or a boy instrument. But in the mid 1980s, in small town America, fifth-grade boys did not play the clarinet, unless they had a burning desire to be verbally mocked or physically beaten. I meekly agreed to the suggestion, perhaps because I knew it'd be a short-term problem. Back home I grabbed the case out of my sister's closet and put it together, loathing the taste of the wooden reed. I didn't have any more skill with the clarinet than I did with a recorder, although I did stop shaking while playing. This was no longer about nerves, it was all about competence. Look, in fifth grade I could do things that most of classmates couldn't do, like hit 20 free throws in a row or make diving stops on a baseball field. People possess different physical skills. Hand-eye coordination helped me dominate at ping-pong but proved worthless when fumbling around with a recorder. So why force someone with below-average musical dexterity into an activity he doesn't enjoy and isn't any good at? This is why I always felt bad for kids who got picked on in phy ed class. I knew quite well what it was like to be the prey, to be an overmatched, frightened performer at the mercy of teachers and classmates. Of course, I didn't have to worry about being hit in the head during dodgeball.

Kids snickered whenever I left class for a clarinet lesson. Christ.

I lasted two weeks. I'm all for not giving up and toughing things out. Except when it comes to forcing a 10-year-old boy to play clarinet. My parents agreed with the decision - they'd heard me play. Music teaches students many wonderful things. And I wholeheartedly support efforts to keep music programs alive in schools. For many kids, they're a way to college, and a path to a better life. For others, it's a great way to expose them to art. Wasn't for me. And while the clarinet ensured my stay in band only lasted a fortnight, the end result wouldn't have been any different with the sax, drums or trumpet.

Still, when I sell my 10 millionth book and the Remainders are looking for a fill-in on a Saturday night in New York City, maybe I'll offer up my services. Don't all bands have a spot for a guy with shaky hands who plays the recorder?

Friday, April 23, 2010

Baseball in NYC

Last week I attended the Yankees home opener. The fans packed Yankee Stadium to watch the defending World Series champions receive their rings. After that ceremony, they dispatched the Angels. On Thursday night, I went to Queens to watch the Mets defeat the Cubs. The announced attendance was 28,535, though it seems they reached that number by counting some people twice. Despite this difference in atmosphere, the Mets game was as enjoyable as the Yankees one, even if the commute was twice as long.

It's not necessarily about the majesty of outdoor baseball. I was probably one of the few people who didn't mind watching baseball in the Metrodome. Or at least I was one of the few people who didn't despise it. And it's really not about tradition anymore, now that the ruins of the old Yankee Stadium sit across the street from the newest palace while Shea Stadium bears a striking resemblance to a well-paved parking lot.

It's everything: Riding the subway to the game in cars filled with old guys in throwback jerseys and young kids with with tiny Yankees helmets. It's gladly handing over 10 bucks for bad beer and eight dollars for "chicken tenders" that are neither fowl nor tender. It's watching the subway go by while sitting in the upper deck at Yankee Stadium and watching the planes fly overhead at Citi Field. It's about reveling in the East Coast bias that wants people to believe any game that is played in New York City has to be the most important sporting event of the day and should be the top story on ESPN. Twins? Indians? Cardinals? Padres? Dodgers? Who? Going to games in New York isn't better than games in other parks. But it's a unique experience, even if the play on the field is the same as in every other city.

On Thursday I went with my friend John Rosengren, a Minnesota author (and fellow Johnnie) who is in town for a conference. As we stood in line 10 minutes before first pitch, a guy who looked to be about 40 approached us and said, "Looking for a deal? Follow me." He looked like he had a terrible secret, maybe the location of a dead body he wanted to show us. But we had to listen to the deal. A few years ago, when I went to a Yankees game with John, a similar offer led to a pair of free tickets down the first base line. Our guy in Queens offered his "company's" suite for 50 bucks each. All the food and drinking would be on the house. We turned it down; neither of us is an alcoholic and on a nice spring night, we wanted to sit out in the stands instead of mingling with the high-rollers.

The seats we bought, from a reputable ticket agent with a goofy hat and a green uniform, were in left field. A group of Cubs fans sat four rows in front of us. They exchanged insults with the Mets fans in the section. Their girlfriends looked on in disgust, except when their boyfriends landed a really good zinger. Then they looked like they wanted to return to the hotel room right then and there to reward their hero for the clever retort.

Alcohol fueled the debates, which was helpful, because logic certainly didn't. I'm always leery of sitting next to fans from the road team. At my first Yankee Stadium game in 2004, a member of Red Sox Nation who possessed below-average intelligence and worse looks sat behind us, screaming at every one he saw in pinstripes. In his own beer-addled mind, he owned the comedic chops of a young Eddie Murphy. Eventually, sometime in the seventh inning, another patron fired a beer at the man's large head. It connected with the back of his skull. But I suffered collateral damage as the splash went all over my shirt. I couldn't really blame the thrower. Red Sox Fan with his ridiculous haircut scuffled with some fans. Security tossed all of them. I wanted to hit the guy with something, too. Not because he was a Red Sox fan, but because he was so unoriginal. Modern English has been around since the 16th century. Lots of words to choose from. The Yankees and Red Sox have played for more than a hundred years. Yet the best insult he could come up with was "Yankees suck."

Thankfully on Thursday there were no projectile liquids. Johan Santana picked up the win for the Mets. I'd never seen Santana pitch in person; by the time he became a dominant pitcher with the Twins, I was already in New York, and this was my first time seeing him as a Met. One thing that seemingly has never changed for Santana is that he struggled to find run support. He didn't get any in his last start - which came during the 20-inning marathon last Saturday - and it took some time Thursday for the feeble Mets to strike. But they did, Santana pitched out of trouble like he always does and the Mets fans among the "28,000" in attendance went home happy.

A note for Minnesota Twins fans. The newest Met is youngster Ike Davis. He's a hot prospect with a cool name who might be overhyped simply because he now plays in New York but might also be a really good ballplayer. Yesterday I learned his dad is Ron Davis, the former Yankee pitcher who became infamous as a closer for the Twins during the 1980s. This was before the World Series team in 1987. It was in the mid-80s, when the Twins and their core of future champions - Puckett, Hrbek, Viola, Gaetti - had respectable records but were not true contenders. And every time it appeared the Twins might be on the verge of making a big step, the bespectacled and befuddled Ron Davis appeared in the final innings to blow a lead. Twins fans hated poor RD. Minnesotans hated him more than Drew Pearson. My friend's brother from next door did a superb Ron Davis impression when we were 10 years old, which involved him miming a pitch and then violently turning his head to watch another ball fly out of the park. Very entertaining stuff for youngsters. By all accounts Davis was an outstanding man but it was his role as an ineffective closer that Twins fans remember. And that's unfortunate.

According to this article, Davis thrived as a setup man with the Yankees before coming to the Twins. He might have been the only player in baseball history who handled pressure well in New York but wilted in Minnesota. The story notes that during the 1981 players strike, Davis took a job as a waiter at a Kansas City hotel. Wait...he took a job as a waiter at a hotel in Kansas City. Yes, times have changed. While working, Davis helped with rescue efforts after a collapse at the hotel killed more than 100 people. Again, great guy. Feel bad for loathing him as a child. In my defense, many adults shared those feelings. In reality, Davis wasn't as bad as Twins fans remember, it's just that the games he did blow were particularly scarring. In particular, a home run by Jamie Quirk continues to haunt the state.

The Twins come to New York to play the Mets in June. I don't know if it'd be irony or justice if Ike Davis ends up winning one of those games for the Mets with a big home run in the bottom of the ninth.

For 15 years, the anti-RD has ruled in the Bronx. I've now been to six Yankee games in New York. The Yankees are 6-0. And in every one of those games, Mariano Rivera has earned the save. Rivera's entrance into a game is one of the coolest moments in sports, as the unemotional closer jogs in from the outfield while Metallica blares and the crowd rises. He fires his one pitch and always gets his man, at least when I'm in attendance. Last week it seemed like Rivera wouldn't be needed, as the Yankees led 7-1 in the ninth. A grand slam later, Joe Girardi wandered out to call in Rivera. As Rivera arrived on the mound, the crowd continued to cheer. Louise - not a baseball fan - asked, "Why are they so excited? Is it because they think the game is over with him in the game?"

Yes, a perfect way to describe the reaction.

A highlight of my trip to the new Yankee Stadium occurred during a long wait in a concessions line. Two women behind me complained the entire 10-minute wait, whining about poorly trained staff. They kept watching one of the workers fill beer cups and grew enraged with her technique. Every cup she filled was half-filled with foam.

"Look at that! How can she not know how to pour a beer? How do they not train them?"

Each beer brought a new complaint. Finally I ordered my food and stood off to the side to wait for it. One of the women behind me gave her order. She then reached across the counter to grab a beer cup out of the worker's hand.

"If you tilt it like this, you won't get as much foam. Come on, like this!"

Everyone just watched the crazy woman give a beer lesson to an underpaid, frightened worker, who looked like she wanted to take flight instead of fight.

"I am not paying 10 dollars for foam," the customer screamed.

I walked away with my soda and tenders as the beer-pouring lesson continued. I'm assuming the foamy, overpriced beer ended up drenching someone's head - the employee's or a fan's. That's a part of baseball in New York. But just a small part.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The NBA playoffs: My favorite six months of the year

The playoffs started Saturday and will end sometime in mid-June. In between now and then, dozens of people will complain about how long it takes the NBA to crown a champion. This has never bothered me, though having three days - or more - between early-round games can be annoying. Old-timers will whine about how it was back in the day. No, the Finals don't end on April 25 anymore, like they did in 1965. Then again, there are now more than six teams in the playoffs.

There's basketball on in the middle of June. To me that's not a problem. Watching the Finals won't keep me from enjoying the outdoors and it's not some type of intrusion. It's more basketball, played by the best players in the league in long battles that invariably include buzzer-beaters, cheap elbows, posturing about the referees and flameouts. I'll continue to whine about four-hour baseball games. But the length of the NBA playoffs? I just wish they were longer.

A handful of tidbits as I count down to Game 2 of the Lakers-Thunder series (played two days after the opener, which should satisfy the grumps of the world).

* LeBron James continues to amaze and dominate. The Cavs certainly appear to be the favorite to win the title. But before LeBron's sculptured body is permanently put into statue form in the middle of Cleveland, it's worth noting he's beaten one 50-win team in the playoffs in his career. He's put up incredible numbers in the playoffs, but it's often against the NBA equivalent of a 14 seed. Here's the teams Cleveland has beaten in the playoffs with LeBron:
- Washington in 2006. Won 42 games.
- Washington in 2007. Won 41 games.
- New Jersey in 2007. Won 41 games.
- Detroit in 2007. Won 53 games.
- Washington in 2008. Won 43 games.
- Detroit in 2009. Won 39 games.
- Atlanta in 2009. Won 47 games.

Yeah. Forget beating 50-win teams. Cleveland's only twice beaten a team that won at least 47. They're a D1 top 25 football team pounding a Division II school 72-0 in the first week of August. And their opponent in the first round this year? The powerful Chicago Bulls, winners of 41 games.

* Remember when the worst thing for Timberwolves fans was that their favorite team could not make it out of the first round of the playoffs? The 67 remaining fans in the state would probably sacrifice Crunch at center court in a three-hour ritual if it meant they at least got to watch the team be swept in the first round. Still, if they do sign LeBron in the offseason, he could form a nice trio with Al Jefferson and Kevin Love.

* For years, the NBA did a below-average job with its videos. The 1982 title video that sometimes pops up on ESPN is among the worst. Instead of highlights, they present countless shots of the crowd, and not just of the stars who occupied the seats at The Forum. It's Joe Customer, grimacing as we hear about what happened, instead of seeing it. They showed very little on-court action. Nearly 30 years later, it's maddening to watch these productions, especially when compared with the work done by NFL Films, which deserves a lot of credit for helping grow the NFL's popularity back in the 1970s and '80s. But in 1985, the NBA finally delivered, as did the Lakers. The league put out a video called Return to Glory, a recap of the playoffs, focusing on the six-game series between the Lakers and Celtics. It's now available as part of a package the NBA brought out a few years ago. They released all six games on DVD, and include Return to Glory (for some reason, the first half to the Memorial Day Massacre is not on the Game 1 DVD. Some technician with ties to the Lakers must have urinated on the tape).

The best thing about Return to Glory is the writing, which added an operatic tone to the pitch-perfect music and the scintiliating game action. I can still recall many of the lines from the video, like a scholar reciting Shakespeare in front of a classroom. Don't ridicule. This was art, from the passing of the Lakers, to the script that Dick Stockton read on the video. I want to meet the person who wrote these lines, and thank them for contributing to Lakers lore, and literature. I'm assuming this is the last time the word incantation was used in an NBA highlights video.

"The leprechaun charm of the Boston Garden now seemed as thin as the Celtics hands were heavy."

"Overhead, the championship banners of Russell, Cousy and Havlicek recited a silent incantation, reminding the Lakers that no one takes away the title when it's played on the parquet. But with the championship in reach, the Lakers turned a deaf ear to the Celtics' haunting refrain."

"It was the greatest of the Lakers nine NBA championships. For Wilt, Elgin, Jerry and everyone who wore a purple and gold uniform, this was the fulfillment of a promise, and a return to glory."

* Trivia question. How many NBA franchises have won a title since 1980? Eight. Parity certainly does not reign, but dynasties do. It makes sense that fewer teams would control the NBA compared to the NFL and MLB. Get an all-time player on an NBA team and you're almost guaranteed to at least contend for 10 years. Get a couple of them on the team and you'll probably win a couple of titles in 10 years. Or, if you're Detroit in 1989, have a top-5 player on the opposition injure an hamstring and you're guaranteed a crown.

* One of the most surprising NBA records is the player with the most field goals in one half in the playoffs. It has to be Wilt, right? Or Jordan. Maybe a young Kareem, when he was still Alcindor. Or Rick Barry during one of his hot streaks. Kobe?

Dave Bing. Former point guard and current mayor of Detroit. Bing made 16 field goals in one quarter in 1968 against the Celtics.

* Shaq holds the record for most free throw attempts in a playoff game, an absurd 39 against the Pacers in the 2000 Finals. Yes, it was Hack-a-Shaq, thanks to Indiana coach Larry Bird, who was obviously still haunted by that 1985 loss and wanted to make his inevitable defeat 15 years later as ugly as possible. But even more ridiculous than those 39 attempts is Shaq's record for free throw attempts in a quarter. Earlier in those 2000 playoffs, he took 25 in the fourth quarter against Portland.

This is my favorite time of the sports year, even ahead of March Madness, Opening Day and the Meineke Car Care Bowl the day after Christmas. I bought a new pack of dusty VHS tapes from the bottom shelf in the bad part of the local Rite Aid. I'm firing up the VCR. Have to record the games. Before you know it, the playoffs will be over. Well, they'll be over at some point. Theoretically. In the sort-of-distant future.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Reading beats watching TV and listening to music. At least in one home

The new Rolling Stone lists "40 Reasons to Get Excited About Music." The last reason? "Because you really like music." It's a poll of Rolling Stone readers, highlighting their tastes in music. One of the questions was: Imagine you had to give up all of the following forms of entertainment for a week, except one. Which would you keep?
64.7 percent said listening to music
17.1 percent said watching TV
13.8 percent said reading
3.2 percent said playing video games
1.2 percent said going to the movies

I'm a 13.8 percenter. I'd even forfeit TV before reading, which is surprising considering our leather couch has a mold of my 6-3 frame. On Saturday I walked down to our small local library, which is usually populated by loud teens, quiet, lonely old men reading the paper and a 34-year-old guy from the neighborhood who generalizes too much. The library doesn't possess the greatest selection. Yet I still always walk out with at least three books, leading to a race against the three-week checkout period. Can I finish all of them in time? The mystery thrillers, sure, but what about that 600-page biography on Sinatra? Might have to skip the early years of Frank's life. It's not like we can't afford the dollar - or more - fine that comes with late returns. It's about pride.

Trips to the bookstore end the same way, except the offerings aren't free. Borders and Barnes & Noble have struggled in recent years, but we're doing our best to keep both in business, five paperbacks and two hardcovers at a time. We visit The Strand regularly, and a used bookstore on Broadway on the Upper West Side offers treasures every time we're there. Add it all up and it sometimes seems like we're drowning in books. Every few months we donate a box or two, yet our inventory keeps increasing. Fortunately, my parents still have a basement, which is home to eight or nine boxes of my books that never made the long trip east. When they leave that house and the books leave their longtime home and join us, there could be a reckoning. It's just not going to be feasible to have that many books sharing space with our furniture and entertainment center and tables and bed. In other words, the furniture's gotta go. The books stay.

In my defense, I'll use the four words therapists hear more than any others: I blame my mother. She's always been an avid reader. She instilled a love for books in me at an early age. My sister suffers the same affliction. She reads two or three novels in a week, shocking and sometimes horrifying her children. Growing up, we lived a block from the Janesville library, which had a similar collection to our NYC branch, but more carpeting. At elementary school, every few months we ordered from a bookmobile. I usually bought second-rate sports books, but it was still thrilling when they finally arrived.


In sixth grade, I even became a Ribbit Reader. As part of the group, each Friday I visited the first-graders and read them a book. It was fun, despite the humiliating title that came with the assignment. Even then, I tried getting the youth to turn off the TV and open a book (I'd let them discover on their own that reading while watching TV is possible, and enjoyable). The only time I regretted being an avid reader was during church, when our class would handle the festivities for a Sunday and I was inevitably drafted to be the reader. All that pressure to enunciate Colossians correctly.

But when it comes to reading books and magazines, I have to read it off of a page, not a screen. E-readers might help save publishers, but I don't yet have any desire to own one. I love the feel and look of a book. And the only thing better than that new book smell is the old book smell.

Louise went to a conference this weekend. She'll return today, likely hauling dozens of free books she picked up during the event. We'll overload our already crowded bookshelves. We'll live in an irony-free apartment, as Louise wonders why I have so many books. We'll find room. I think there's some space in a living room corner. And we can always start stacking even higher. On one bookshelf, there's still a good, oh, three feet of space before we hit the ceiling.

Yeah, I'll give up music and going to the movies for a week, but not reading. I'll even give up TV. Unless the Lakers are playing. Watching them is still more fun than reading about them.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Inwood: We're No. 31!

Nate Silver - whose official name changed to Renowned Statistician Nate Silver sometime after he came close to perfectly predicting the 2008 presidential election - ranked the best neighborhoods in New York City for the newest issue of New York magazine. He used precise criteria for the imprecise exercise, relying on things like housing costs, restaurants, schools, safety, transit and diversity. The top spot went to Park Slope in Brooklyn, followed by the Lower East Side and Sunnyside in Queens. There's no trophy awarded, only bragging rights over other New Yorkers. People definitely get defensive about their neighborhoods, as if someone's telling them they have an ugly child.

Inwood comes in at No. 31, just behind Brighton Beach in Brooklyn and a spot ahead of Corona Park. The most surprising ranking to me was the Upper West Side, our favorite place to hang out and Louise's former stomping grounds. Seinfeld, the TV version and the real guy, is among the celebrities calling the neighborhood home. The sites include Central Park and the Museum of Natural History. Silver ranked it only 36th. Of Inwood, the magazine wrote "In Manhattan, but not of it; on balance, less convenient than many neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens."

In Manhattan but not of it is a perfect way to describe Inwood. We live on Broadway, the Broadway, but far away from the bright lights and skyscrapers. Inwood doesn't feel like the rest of the Manhattan, but that's also one of its strengths, since it offers things that can't be found in the more famous zip codes.

I disagree slightly with the idea it's less convenient than places in Brooklyn and Queens. For us it's a bit different than some people who live west of us in Inwood, since we're only a block from the 1 train and about four blocks from the A train, a pair of subway lines that take us anywhere we need to go in Manhattan. Getting to the east side is never the most enjoyable chore from where we live. But our commute to the Upper West Side, Times Square and downtown seems more convenient than it is for many people in the other boroughs, who often have to switch trains to get to Midtown.

After six years in the neighborhood, I definitely feel like an Inwoodite, or Inwoodian, depending on your preference. Like a mid-major supporter complaining about his team not being able to crack the AP's top 25 men's basketball poll, I wish Inwood had been ranked slightly higher, but it's not like I'm so upset I'm going to write a letter to the editor or sign an online petition demanding a recalibration of the numbers. Silver did the best job possible objectively ranking something that residents will almost always view in a subjective manner.

Right now it's hard for me to picture us living anywhere else, and I don't just mean in another part of the country. Two weeks ago I walked half a block to the Columbia baseball field for an Ivy League doubleheader. Division I baseball two minutes away, and in the fall football. It's an experience unique to Inwood. About a week before the baseball game, I attended an open house held by Columbia, designed to answer questions about upcoming construction projects the university has planned for the upcoming years. Many residents are upset about the plans. Many of those people attended the open house and expressed their concerns. Their anger rose as they spoke to the Columbia representatives, though their voices rarely did. My friend who works for Columbia listened to all of them with empathy and a smile on his face, even when the insults outnumbered the constructive criticism. I strenuously disagree with the people opposed to the projects but appreciate their passion and concern for the neighborhood. For their home. For my home.

I now feel like a member of the community and not just a resident who fled to Inwood because of ludicrous rent in another part of the city. I track construction projects. I play ball in the area park. I followed the discussions between police and neighborhood people after a series of muggings in a nearby park rattled the area. I stand on the sidewalk and watch workers put the finishing touches on a new sushi joint just down the street, a welcome addition to the neighborhood, even though I'll rarely step foot inside and will rarely, if ever, taste anything on the menu. I look online for cool stories about Inwood, like this one, which focuses on what the neighborhood was like during the depression. And where else can you find a picture like this, at a historical intersection? Only in Inwood.

One of the coolest things about Silver's story is that his formula allows people to tweak the rankings, depending on what's more important to them. If schools are more critical than cheap housing, that can change an area's rating. For Inwood, the big thing in its favor is its parks, whether it's Inwood Hill Park or Isham Park. People who first come to the area can't believe how green it is up here. Last weekend an arsonist set five fires in Inwood Hill Park. I felt protective of the park, and not just outraged at the arsonist. That's our park, in our neighborhood. It's not the best neighborhood in the city, certainly not the coolest. Not everyone even knows it's actually in Manhattan. But it's now our favorite. And it's home. And next year? We're cracking the Top 25.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Bizarre NBA videos six people will find interesting

If you don't have 10 or more minutes to waste, you might want to skip these two videos. If you're not a fan of the NBA, you can probably pass on them. If you're specifically not a fan of the NBA on CBS and their top-notch productions from the 1980s, move on. But if you like any of those things, and enjoy awkward silences, one-way conversations, groan-inducing double-entendres and the proclamations of a supposedly impartial Tommy Heinsohn, these gems are for you.

The videos come from the 1986 season. A February clash between the Celtics and Lakers, who always met in LA the Sunday after the All-Star game. The Celtics won the title in '86 and swept the Lakers during the regular season, cruising to victory in this game at The Forum. I can remember watching this game with my dad, who crowed that it proved the Celtics were impossible to beat that season. I knew it was true, too, but didn't want to believe it. I stormed out of the house to shoot hoops at the neighbor's garage, my head protected by a stocking cap and two pairs of gloves on my hands. If Byron Scott couldn't hit a jumper, at least I'd be able to make one.

But the video doesn't have any highlights. Instead it's Dick Stockton and Tommy Heinsohn preparing for the game, before the broadcast came on the air. It's a look behind the curtain, although there's no explanation about how the person who posted it acquired the material. Who saves this on videotape for 24 years, then finally decides to share it with the world? No idea. But I'm eternally grateful. I envy whoever possessed this tape, which was probably rotting away in a box down in the basement, lodged underneath the series finale of M.A.S.H. and some old St. Elsewhere episodes.

Some highlights:
* The teaser was blown off. I'm assuming this refers to the classic intros CBS always ran, narrated by Brent Musburger, which perfectly set the scene for each epic matchup between the teams. A second-rate golf tournament in Florida that Tom Kite won probably ran late before the game, forcing CBS to ditch the stirring introduction.

* At 3 minutes, the lovely - and talented - Laker girls make an appearance, as a cameraman zooms in while Tommy talks to a producer or some other member of the production crew. Tommy proceeds to talk about pumping people up and other oddities that could be interpreted a thousand different ways, none of them good. To top it off, Tommy draws an arrow on the telestrator, pointing at one Laker girl, while also writing what appears to be "OK," next to it.

* Key matchup, according to Tommy, which he wants to talk about at the start of the game: Rambis trying to stop Wedman. Huh? That'd be Kurt Rambis against Scott Wedman. Nice role players - one a banger, the other a gunner. But this featured Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, and Dennis Johnson (Kevin McHale was injured and didn't play). Yet the key thing to watch was...Wedman against Rambis.

* The two engage in some insightful commentary at 4 minutes, as Tommy actually makes some decent points, a shock for anyone who's listened to him on NBA League Pass the last few years. They talk about tempo and how the Celtics can run, just not like the Lakers. And they talk some more about Wedman at 5 minutes. Wedman!

Here's the SI story about the game, which, like my dad, basically crowned the Celtics, four months before they made it official in the NBA Finals. It includes a great line from Kareem, when talking about a hard foul by the immortal Greg Kite, a man known for an unfortunate name and nonexistent post game.

"It didn't surprise me," Kareem said. "They're known as a cheap-shot team." That's the type of quote that made the rivalry so fun.

And the story also shows that maybe Heinsohn was right about Wedman. It wasn't his offense that killed the Lakers - though it damaged them - but his defense. He helped check Worthy late in the game as the Celtics pulled away in the fourth.

* On the second video, Stockton makes jokes at the expense of the floundering Washington Bullets, who were 17.5 games behind Boston in the standings. If they'd heard Stockton talking like this, dozens of Bullets fans would have written to CBS, outraged by the mocking comments. But it's not just a joke, Stockton's actually trying out material for the broadcast. Later he ridicules the equally sad Pacers.

* At the 6-minute mark, Stockton announces he'll "announce anything," including Bar Mitzvahs, and weddings. Seems like a joke, except he delivered it with a straight face. I'd hire him, as long as Heinsohn wasn't part of the package.

But we need some hoops after all that. Not from this game, but Boston's previous one, the performance Stockton mentioned early in the broadcast. Bird lit up Portland for 47 points in an overtime victory. He added 14 boards and 11 assists, the type of performance that had people wondering that year if he was the best to ever play the game. This was before Magic began really dominating during the 1987 season and obviously before Jordan became Jordan. The guy could play. The game included a famous stretch when he started shooting left-handed, just for the hell of it. He hits the winning shot with 3 seconds left. Speaking of announcers, Bill Russell says Bird's shot put a lot of pressure on the Blazers. Indeed. It put Boston up 1 with three seconds left, which is about as much pressure as a team can face. Bill Russell: one of the best players ever...not one of the game's finest analysts.

After watching these videos - in their entirety, twice - it's obvious that I'm way too fascinated with NBA action from the 1980s. And I need hobby.

Monday, April 12, 2010

R.I.P., Fury family iPhone

Well, that didn't last long.

Our visit to the 21st century lasted 11 days. That's how long we owned an iPhone. But what a glorious week and a half. Between March 30 and April 9 we finally understood what all the hype was about. We were part of the cult. We were cool, even though we took advantage of 1 percent of the new phone's capabilities. I checked the Lakers score during Easter dinner and it felt vaguely sinful. We sent a text or two. Louise read her email.

Then, on Friday night, someone stole the phone out of Louise's handbag at a restaurant on the Upper West Side. The joint's manager suspects one of his employees, owing to some overwhelming circumstantial evidence. The restaurant didn't have any cameras, at least according to the manager (seems suspicious in retrospect).

After it happened - and after Louise told me about it while I was on a pay phone outside the restaurant, retreating back to the 20th century - I went back into the place to look around. I stared at each employee, hoping I might guilt someone into breaking down, like the killer at the end of a Perry Mason episode. There'd be tears and pleas for leniency, which I might have granted since I didn't have time to wait around for the police. Instead all of the workers - who, yes, are technically innocent until proven guilty, and I suppose it could have been a customer - glanced back with boredom or disdain. I didn't read anything into those looks because it's the same ones they give every customer.

The iPhone's gone - to be used by the thief as an iPod or a phone or sold for parts or whatever the young thieves do with stolen property these days. Tomorrow we'll venture back to an AT&T store to buy a replacement. Maybe this time we'll get the Mobile Me feature, which would apparently allow us to track the phone and see where it ended up after leaving the restaurant. Not that I have any desire to confront anyone.

The loss devastated Louise. She's been pickpocketed before, about three years ago. That time we didn't realize what had happened for a few hours, giving the thief time to buy a new Metrocard and some groceries.

I've never had anything stolen from me. When I lose something important, it's usually my own fault.

When I went to Ellendale, North Dakota, to research my book, I took a Greyhound to Minnesota, then drove the rest of the way to the small town that's home to Trinity Bible College. It was my first time on a Greyhound. I didn't know the rules. They aren't complicated. Every broke college kid and various societal misfits have understood them for decades. I had a briefcase that I carried on the bus and a large bag filled with everything I'd need during my two-month stay. Clothes, notebooks, pens, books, jackets, shoes. That bag went underneath the bus for the day-long trip. At the Port Authority, the worker asked me for my "destination." The correct answer would have been Mankato, Minnesota. Unfortunately, the simple question threw me and I blurted out Buffalo, since that was the first stop on the ride from hell. The guy told me that since I was just going to Buffalo, I wouldn't need a baggage claim ticket or identification on the bag. Great.

I crammed my 6-3 frame into the tiny seat and settled in. We eventually arrived in Buffalo, after what seemed like 36 hours on the road. The confinement and bumpy road had already beaten me down. Staggering off, I found the vending machine, bought some snacks and a soda and walked back onto the bus, oblivious to the fact workers were dragging each piece of luggage out from underneath the gray beast. I figured it was for the people getting off in Buffalo.

Our bus driver - a cranky, short, muscular woman in her late 40s - announced, "Anyone with a bag underneath the bus must have a proper tag on it. It must have your name and destination on the tag. If it does not have this, your bag will be removed. Your bag will be removed. Does everyone understand this?"

She repeated the announcement two or three more times during our stop. It never clicked that she was talking about someone Someone who had a giant bag underneath the bus that sat there without any identification. No one knew who it belonged to or who had placed it there. She made this announcement at about 6:30 in the morning. I never think properly at that time, much less after a drive through the night.

Hours and hours later, we pulled into Cleveland and changed buses. I trudged off and stood with my fellow lonely, desperate passengers. Everyone grabbed their bag as a worker threw it off. Mine never came out. As I stared into the empty luggage space, the driver's words came back to me. Tag. Destination. Removal. Oh, god.

My next bus was leaving within 20 minutes so I didn't have time to call anyone (damn it, I wish I had a cell phone). I didn't get to a payphone until Chicago. I called Louise and told her what happened. It took her several minutes to figure out I had screwed up at Port Authority, when I gave the wrong destination. So she knew what had happened. Six years later, she's still not sure how it happened.

"Why did you say Buffalo?"

"That's where we were going."

"But that's not where you were going. You were going to Mankato."

Yes, I was. And without my clothes. Louise called the Buffalo station. A bored worker told her they didn't have any bag in the lost and found box. The guy added that if they found a bag that didn't have any identification with it, "We probably called the bomb squad to have it destroyed. They don't take any chances." Ah.

The remainder of the trip, I sat next to an Army veteran, who kept giving me tips on how to travel on a Greyhound, helpful hints that came a day late. He sympathized with my plight, although the whole time he was probably thinking, "This is the type of person I risk my life for? A dummy like this?"

I bought some new clothes before going to Ellendale, enough to last throughout my stay. It was a humbling, expensive mistake. And, according to a bus station employee, probably an explosive mistake.

I felt like I'd been robbed of something, sort of like how Louise must have felt when someone stole her wallet and now her iPhone. Except the only thing I'd been robbed of was my dignity.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

When cagers meshed and thinclads ran wild

Phil Taylor has a column in the new Sports Illustrated about how sports terminology has worked its way into everyday conversations, whether it's politics or the law. Taylor writes, "We live in a world of knockout blows and three-strike laws. We think we're batting 1.000 at the office until the boss moves the goalposts on us by asking us to pinch-hit for a coworker, putting us behind the 8 ball."

There probably is sports overload in all aspects of life. But at least most of the phrases actually make sense today. My friend John worked with me in Worthington. He wasn't in the sports department but proofread our pages. He was a fan of the English language, but not sports. John loathed sports terms. Reading 75 inches of basketball roundups on a Thursday night tortured him. In particular, the word caroms tormented young John. You know, caroms. Rebounds. As in, "Ben Johnson scored 20 points and grabbed 10 caroms to lead Westville High to a 76-63 victory..." John would strike it out or put a question mark next to a carom and I'd ignore it, gently explaining that in the sports department, we use words that sometimes sound ridiculous. We use them because...well, just because we've always used them, dating back to when everyone smoked in the newsroom.

Countless words have fallen out of favor in sports departments over the past few decades but some still remain. I've used some of them and mocked others. Some favorites?

Harriers, cagers, gridders, thinclads, meshed, roundballers, aerial, keglers, stanzas, netters, second sackers. Add your own.

Anyone who's read a sports section - especially anytime before, say, 1980 - recognizes all of those terms. Some are still used today while others only make rare appearances. Thinclads remains a popular way to describe track and field athletes, who are often...thinly clad. That was always an odd one; it'd be like if basketball players had been described as short-shorts. Or calling football players tightpants. Cross country runners are harriers. Long ago, a hurdler could be labeled a timber topper. Most of these words fit in back when men wore suits and hats to baseball games and everything on television was broadcast in black and white.

Football players go by gridders, of course, because they play on the gridiron. Football fields used to look more like checkerboards, the patterns resembling a grid. A running back will "tote" the "pigskin" while his quarterback - or signal caller - directs the aerial attack.

Cagers is for basketball players. The game used to have a bit more violence. Teams played on tiny courts in small gymnasiums. A team in Trenton, N.J., started playing inside a wire cage to separate the action from the unruly crowds. This set up a scene that most people associate with a grudge match between Hulk Hogan and Macho Man Savage, a steel cage battle. This was back in the 1920s, yet the phrase cagers remained popular long after the wiring disappeared, the same way gridiron remained a viable word a century after it no longer accurately described the field. Thankfully David Stern did not bring this back after the brawl in the Palace.

It's from playing inside the cage that the word meshed probably made its way into the vocabulary of sportswriters, though it still seems like a strange way to describe scoring. I meshed 20 points at Old Man Basketball on Wednesday night, give or take.

I can say with some pride that I never actually used the word keglers to describe a bowler when I wrote for newspapers (yes, we covered bowling). The only reason I know the term is because we had to take a quiz during the bowling unit of our phy ed classes in high school, and part of it involved being able to define kegler (we also had to accurately score games by adding up a mock card. This was the only math I was any good at after ninth grade). Kegler comes from a German word and has no relation to the amount of alcohol consumed by an average bowler on a Tuesday night at the alleys.

Writers have used stanzas to describe innings and occasionally a quarter in basketball. It was especially useful to break up the monotony of the word inning. The Twins scored a run in the extra stanza on Friday night to defeat the Chicago White Sox, or, as some call them, the Pale Hose. Baseball games used to be tilts, though not so much today.

Break out netters during tennis roundups or a volleyball recap. Basically, anyone playing a sport involving a net, including hoops, can be called a netter. Thankfully I never saw anyone type that a group of netters netted a victory. A cager could rip the nets and mesh 30 points.

An uncle of mine occasionally poked fun at the ways sportswriters had to constantly come up with new ways to describe the same action. How many different ways can you say one team beat another? How many ways can you say someone scored 20 points? It turns out, there are endless ways. You just have to go back to the early 20th century to find some of the terms.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Some dorks hang out with Mos(t) Def

I was talking with a friend about personal celebrity sightings. Mine are mundane, at best. At lunch a few years ago, while sitting at an outdoor cafe, John O'Hurley, J. Peterman on Seinfeld, strolled by our table. A lot of people wouldn't have noticed, but this was at the height of his Dancing With the Stars domination. Still, most people did not look up from their overpriced salad for more than two seconds as the nice-looking celebrity walked past on a sunny day. In the Seinfeld universe, it was more thrilling than seeing the guy who played Babu Bat, but not as exciting as spotting Newman.

I brushed shoulders with Colin Farrell about four blocks from our apartment. As I walked to work, I saw a man who looked a lot like Farrell crossing the street, after he emerged from an Irish bar in the neighborhood. The production trucks nearby let everyone know a movie was filming. It was for a scene in the cop movie Pride and Glory. He exchanged a handshake and hug with a worker on the film while Inwood residents stared and snapped pictures.

There have been others, of course, but nothing real exciting. Saw Fabio in our work cafeteria. He had the same hair, but was wearing a shirt, buttoned to the top.

Last summer, I thought I had a really cool celebrity sighting. Not just a sighting, an encounter. A night of pictures and drinks. The celeb: Mos Def, the famed actor/rapper.

I met some friends on a Friday night at a bar near the Empire State Building. One girl arrived from Connecticut. Her twentysomething brother was in the city with her, visiting New York for the first time. He was a nice Southern kid and planned on meeting us at the bar around 10. At some point during the festivities, he called his sister to let her know he wouldn't be around for awhile. He'd been sidetracked. At that moment, he was walking around the city. His tour guide? Mos Def.

The kid showed up to the bar about two and a half hours later, calling it the best night of his life. Whatever second-place was on that list was a distant runner-up. The sweat rolled off his face but the grin never left it. He had the look of wonder that graced the faces of the girls of Fatima.

He slowly told the story, as the group leaned in. Seasoned journalists, we peppered him with crucial questions here and there but otherwise we all stayed silent. According to his tale, Mos - it took about two minutes for all of us to feel comfortable calling him Mos - ran into the kid down in Chinatown. Mos rescued the wide-eyed youngster, preventing him from buying a fake Rolex. Mos showed him his real Rolex. After a few seconds, the kid asked, "Are you...Mos?"

Mos said yes, but wanted his new friend to keep it quiet, lest the crowds swarm the pair. Mos told him, "I don't want my shit getting blown up."

It's a phrase with a hundred different interpretations, but the point was obvious: shhhhhhhh. You're with a celebrity now. Be cool. Just, be cool. And if you are cool, the night will include drinking and girls, preferably more of the latter than the former. Mos took his protege around the town. They rode in a limo to some hotspots, and walked to others. They hit the clubs. Mos tossed around hundreds of dollars on drinks, buying for everyone in the joint. Hot babes gathered around both of them.

At one point Mos said he wanted to take his new buddy to Atlantic City for the night, in the limo. As much as he wanted to, the kid turned him down. Instead he walked down to our bar to tell us his story.

We were all a bit skeptical. Why would Mos Def kidnap this stranger, show him the sights like some type of bejeweled fairy godfather and then offer to take him to Atlantic City? Were they filming a reality show, something produced by Oprah or another big-hearted celebrity with too much time and money? Celebs rescue small-town rubes from the tedium that is their life for one night of fun, before throwing them back to their one-stoplight village? Two of the people at the table, including his sister, were huge Mos Def fans. They told the rest of us all about his career - his movies, songs, and genius. They wanted to believe. Eventually, we all believed. It's the power of celebrity, even though I had only a vague idea who the celebrity was.

About 30 minutes later, Mos walked into the bar. At least, it was the man identifying himself as Mos. I didn't know what he looked like. Everyone else thought it was him, so I agreed: we were in the presence of a celebrity. Maybe he'd buy us drinks. Maybe he'd cast us in a future movie, perhaps as extras in a saloon scene. He'd set up the single fellas with ladies and offer insightful advice to the married folks. He'd open his celebrity arms to us and by simply being in his presence, we would become greater people. We wouldn't exchange cell phone numbers, but maybe e-mails?

He wore shades (at night, indoors - so Nicholson-like!), a fancy suit and a porkpie hat that looks ridiculous on 97 percent of the population but looked just right on him. Mos gave us all fist bumps and high fives, while telling each of us to, "Keep it low. Don't blow my shit up." Everyone agreed with this. No, we would not blow his shit up. Christ, no.

We talked with him, man-to-man, instead of celebrity-to-civilian. He was easygoing and friendly. Like Bill Clinton, he had the ability to make you feel like you were the only person in the room. Maybe it was the alcohol.

All the while, we kept whispering to each other, "Is it him? Is it really him?" But it wouldn't make any sense for him to be an impostor. The guy wasn't just calling himself Mos Def. He threw around thousands of dollars in a single night, entertaining a young kid from Kentucky. Who would do that? What kind of pathology would be involved, unless he really was Mos Def? He wasn't stealing anything from the kid or asking him to help dispose of a body. There was the Atlantic City thing. That still seemed a bit suspicious.

Eventually Mos announced he had to leave. He posed for pictures with the poise of a seasoned politician and signed napkins for everyone, personalizing each one. After some goodbye fist bumps, he went out the door, holding a woman in each arm. After Mos exited, one of the girls in our group took a closer look at her napkin. She squinted, fighting the poor lighting and the effects of the beer. She finally asked, "Why would Mos Def sign his name Most Def?" And then our eyes were opened to the reality after being blinded by his supposed celebrity. On each one, he'd signed it Most Def, adding an extra T to the name. Seemed like an odd thing to do. How many people, past the age of 6, misspell their own name? How many people who sign hundreds of autographs a year misspell their own name? Especially one with just a single syllable?

One read, "To Shawn, Jill and Andrew. Stay strong, stay sweet & wise. From Most Def."

That did clinch it for us. This wasn't Mos. We went our separate ways, slightly drunk, completely confused.

A member of our group ended up on the subway with Most that night, heading uptown. Def got off the subway at 125th Street, just a normal guy going home after a long night of partying.

Later we discovered the real Mos was on tour that night in Atlanta, at the same time he was supposedly traipsing around New York City. Eight months later the confusion remains. Who was he, and why did he do what he did? What was the end game? A kidnapping in Atlantic City, which ends in removal of a kidney that gets sold on the black market? If it was a con, what was the end game? Was it some type of long con, the type of scheme only Paul Newman's character in The Sting could comprehend? Did he toss around counterfeit money, in addition to a fake persona?

We still don't have any answers. Just beware. Next time you're in the city, if Mos Def asks if you want to go to Atlantic City, demand some identification. Better yet, make him sign an autograph.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Walking into the SI vault

I never need an excuse to look through old issues of Sports Illustrated. My dad has every issue dating back to the early 1970s. Before anyone accuses him of being a hoarder and organizes an intervention or calls a reality TV producer, it should be noted that even if he did ever want to get rid of them, I've made it clear since about, oh, 1984, that he is not allowed to throw them away. I still regret that in 1986 I removed the covers off of dozens of magazines and used them as bedroom wallpaper. As comforting as it was to sit underneath the cover that ran after the Lakers won the 1985 NBA title, I now regret that all of those magazines look like they were vandalized. All of the magazines - the ones with covers and without - sit in their little cardboard magazine holders, waiting for me to page through them once or twice a year. One day we'll move them east, whenever they officially become my magazines.

About two years ago, SI put its entire collection online. It's surely one of the great inventions of the Internet era, although it might give people the idea that it's okay to throw away the actual old issues of the magazine. And that is still not okay.

But it has made it easier to walk through the past. For the last week I've been reading old issues for a baseball project. One of the stories was "written" by longtime Yankees general manager George Weiss, after he left the team following the 1960 season. He recaps his career with the team. He also talks about the future of the game and potential trouble spots for the sport. He laments that "there just aren't the number of 154-game players around that there used to be."

That sounds like the long-heard cries from people who say the game wasn't what it used to be, complaints that have been heard pretty much every decade since 1900. What makes Weiss's comment a bit odder is that he had a reputation for being a racist, an executive who was extremely reluctant to sign black ballplayers. The point being, in 1960 there were hundreds more "154-game players" available than there were in 1945. But you had to look past skin color to find them.

But Weiss had another reason for this supposed talent shortage, and it's one of those lines that drives home just how different the sport was 50 years ago. Weiss wrote, "For one thing, baseball gets a lot of competition from industry for a young man's abilities, and when a kid is offered a business job at a good starting salary, he thinks twice about gambling on taking three or four years to develop himself for a major league baseball career that is apt to be over at 35 anyway. All of this makes it harder for a ball club to line up good young players."

Competition from "industry." All those young ballplayers turning their backs on the Yankees to pursue a life in the coal mine, or a career with an accounting firm. Better salary, more stability, kick-ass benefits. Modern GMs don't realize how lucky they have it, not having to worry about killer competition from the business world.

I could look through old SI's all day, and I have on many occasions. One of the most enjoyable things is seeing how the magazine itself changed, nearly as dramatically as the salary demands of players. Today, and for the last two or three decades, the magazine focuses on the major sports. But in its early years, it had a broad definition of "sports," and actually focused on leisure (maybe old issues of SI influenced the creators of Trivial Pursuit; what else would explain all of those maddening questions on backgammon and cribbage under the sports and leisure category?). The old covers were barren. A single picture often ran with just a handful of words providing decoration. For instance, this cover from March 20, 1961. More leisure? The May 13, 1963 cover. A drawing. A girl, a bikini, a boat, and...dolphins?

But they've always focused on baseball.

Here's the cover for the 1961 baseball preview issue. It's a cool little picture and not quite as dull as many of the covers from that era. A look inside the issue reveals how the magazine's changed. There's a story on the Florida Derby. There's a story on the International Automobile Show in New York. There's a swimming story. And for god's sake, there's a story on bridge. It's actually a delightfully eclectic group of stories, although it's also perfectly understandable why the magazine's focus has shifted in the past decades. In a mainstream magazine in 2010, there might not be room for this type of writing:

"I suppose the reason why so many lawyers are good bridge players is that logic is the basis of their practice and, also, they are in close contact with people and are good judges of what behavior to expect."

Damn lawyers, and their bridge skills.

Finally in that issue there are the team previews, thorough accounts of each squad's strengths and weaknesses, info on management and the stadiums. Minnesota welcomed the Twins, freshly arrived after a move from Washington.

"Minnesota farmers and businessmen await the first home run of Minnesota's Harmon Killebrew. Minnesota housewives and schoolboys are ready to ooh when Minnesota's Jim Lemon strikes out and aah when he hits one over the wall." There was more oohing than aahing that year, unfortunately, as the state's lonely housewives and rambunctious schoolboys saw Lemon hit a mere 14 homers, a year after he awed the Washington fans with 38.

Every baseball preview since the magazine's inception is online, in the vault. And if you're dying to see a hard copy version of those stories, call my folks. Just don't be angry if the issue you're looking for is missing its cover.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

When Paul Westhead ran a boring offense, and Magic Johnson was a bad guy

Boy, how about that offense in the Michigan State-Butler game? And I thought the 19-18 game between Ft. Wayne and Minneapolis was tough to watch in 1950...

Earlier today, ABC aired the latest in ESPN's 30 for 30 series of films. It told the story of basketball coach Paul Westhead's meandering journey, focusing on his time at Loyola Marymount, a school he led to national prominence thanks to his nonstop fastbreaking offense. In 1990, star Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the court in a conference tournament game. His devastated teammates rallied and made it to the Elite 8, before losing to eventual champion UNLV. Along the way they crushed defending champion Michigan by the absurd score of 149-115.

Westhead eventually left Marymount for the NBA and Denver. He has since taken his unique offense to various stops around the world. He won a WNBA title in Phoenix, and is now the women's coach at the University of Oregon. Along the way he always preaches the virtues of his offensive system, which exhausts opponents and scoreboard operators. Even if he hasn't always been a winning coach, he's always been regarded as an innovative one.

But nearly 30 years ago, he lost his job with the most talented team in the NBA because he apparently wasn't creative enough on the offensive end. Westhead led the Lakers to the 1980 title after taking over for Jack McKinney, who was severely injured in a bicycling accident. Houston upset the Lakers in the first round the following year, although the Lakers had struggled a bit throughout the season after Magic Johnson suffered a knee injury. At the start of the 1982 season, Magic grew frustrated with his role in the offense and with Westhead. He eventually spoke out after a game in Utah. Owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead.

In revisiting this story, the bizarre thing is reading how Westhead and Magic were perceived during the winter of discontent in 1981, compared to the reputations carried by each man today. Sports Illustrated's story after the firing was titled, "Don't Blame Me! I just want to have fun." It includes the following line:
"So, for the misdemeanor of making Johnson and his buddy, Laker owner Jerry Buss, unhappy by creating an unimaginative offense - one in which, according to Magic, the team wasn't getting enough shots - Coach Paul Westhead was fired and replaced by his assistant, Pat Riley, with former Laker Coach Jerry West coming on to coach the offense. Certainly there were no sound basketball reasons for the change."

The team wasn't getting enough shots. That was said about a team coached by the man who eventually directed the 1991 Denver Nuggets, a team that averaged 119 points and allowed a staggering 130 per game. 130! Take a look at their game scores. Denver opened the season by scoring 158 points...and losing by four to Golden State. Three games later they scored 153 and lost by eight. They were held below 100 points five times. They certainly weren't a good team, finishing a Timberwolvesesque 20-62. Critics blamed his system for some of the failures, but the guy in charge of acquiring the players deserved more. The top eight scorers: Michael Adams, Orlando Woolridge, Walter Davis, Reggie Williams, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Todd Lichti, Blair Rasmussen and Jim Farmer. What system would have led that team to a better record?

But a decade earlier, Westhead's offense led to his firing - not because it offended defensive purists who go to bed each night dreaming about 2-3 zones and hand-checking, but because his stars felt stifled. He'd made an effort to install more plays for Kareem, which makes sense considering the Captain's body of work. The Lakers still had a great break. Westhead, though, wanted the halfcourt to be more efficient. Magic struggled while the owner seethed. Buss - who was dating twentysomethings in 1981 and still is today - said, "There was a lack of excitement on offense that I missed. I enjoyed Showtime and I want to see it again...I'm speaking as much as a fan as anything else."

Buss, of course, eventually got his wish, as Riley (West didn't last long as...whatever it was he was on the bench, co/assistant coach/offensive coordinator) guided the team to four more titles in the decade while helping make the Lakers the most exciting team in the league. Magic helped just a bit with that, too.

It's bizarre reading quotes criticizing Westhead for lack of excitement in the offense, a charge that surely hasn't been leveled in three decades since his firing. It'd be like reading old quotes ridiculing Bill Walsh for being unimaginative on offense.

But that Sports Illustrated article also has some surprising lines about Magic, who eventually attained NBA sainthood. Today Magic is - correctly - held up as the perfect point guard and ideal teammate, one of the most unselfish players to ever play, a guy who'd do anything for the team. However, it's worth remembering he wasn't always regarded in those terms. When pundits complain about the selfishness of a superstar today or talk about how guys like Magic or Bird or Jordan or Russell would never have done *that* (whatever that might be), remember this line from Sports Illustrated:

"The 20-year-old who had the ability to make everyone smile just by walking into a room, onto a court or into a 7-Up commercial has turned into a greedy, petulant and obnoxious 22-year-old."

The story ends with, "But, alas, the curtain is down on the old Magic. Johnson, who had been criticized from coast to coast, was clearly still a great player. Just as clearly, he's no longer such a great guy."

Magic won the NBA Finals MVP at the end of that tumultuous season, sealing his on-court reputation and ensuring words like greedy, petulant and obnoxious wouldn't appear in future profiles.

Westhead's career took a different, bumpier road than his superstar's. He never won another NBA title. The Shakespeare-quoting coach bounced around different countries and leagues. But those past complaints about his coaching eventually became as outdated as the criticisms leveled at Magic.