Sunday, February 28, 2010

Stephen King on film: floating children and killer clowns

Today the oddly spelled SyFy channel played a couple of miniseries based on classic Stephen King books. First up was The Tommyknockers, followed by The Stand. The TV series are entertaining marathons, but the books were classics, two of my favorites by King. Pretty much all of King's work - especially his earlier books - were turned from manuscripts into screenplays and adapted to the big screen or small. Some people are surprised at a few of the movies that actually emerged from King's mind. Running Man, for instance, was a King story, though he wrote it as Richard Bachman and probably didn't imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger mumbling in the title role. The best movie to be made from a King story is Shawshank Redemption, which is actually based on King's novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption. Stories like that - and The Green Mile - show King's range. But he remains best-known for his horror tales, and those are the ones that have made his work so attractive to Hollywood.

Two TV adaptations were probably the most frightening: Salem's Lot and It.

I've previously written about how Salem's Lot and The Shining scarred me as a kid, wounds that are probably still pummeling my subconscious. Here, again, the most infamous clip from the original Salem's Lot miniseries. Damn you, Danny Glick.

Raging and sensitive vampires are all the rage now, but they no longer interest me. Thankfully, they also no longer terrify me. Salem's Lot gets the majority of the blame, as does a thin, hardcover book in the Janesville Public Library I read countless times while growing up, which was a dumbed-down version of Bram Stoker's original. The Lost Boys also freaked me out. At carnivals I often found myself looking toward the sky, searching for a marauding gang of high-flying, hungry, ill-tempered and poorly behaved teenage vampires in desperate need for parental authority. Another frightening one: The Night Stalker, a 1972 TV movie that I caught late one weekend night.

It starred Darren McGavin, who's probably best remembered as being the dad who loves the leg lamp in A Christmas Story.

But look at that scene above, watch how part of the confrontation takes place on long steps. When we moved into our new house, the bedrooms were at the top of the steps. I'd hear creeks and picture a vampire creeping up the carpeted steps. That's what I imagined while sitting in my bedroom at night, or when we'd visit my grandpa on the farm in the old house that might have been haunted, at least according to family relatives who should no better but apparently enjoy terrorizing young people. My bedroom was the closest to the steps, meaning the demon of the night would take me before moving on to my sister and my snoring parents.

When a light came on and I could analyze the situation logically, I was able to tell myself, why would a vampire be coming up the steps, when it could simply fly through the window, or scratch the window and use his mastery of the dark powers to lure me outside? That thought process helped alleviate all my childish childhood fears, until the night my sister's boyfriend fired rocks at my window with the power of a Nolan Ryan fastball, not realizing he was attacking my room instead of alerting Lisa that it was safe to sneak out of the house for the night. So there I was, trying to sleep, as a loud thud kept hitting the window. Pitch-black outside, even darker inside. And all I hear is an overwhelming rattle at the window. I saw the undead floating outside, at least in my mind. Instead it was a teenage boy trying to corrupt Lisa.

At a certain point I came up with what I thought was the perfect plan to avoid the vampires that would one day rule the country with an iron, and frozen, fist. I vowed to become rich enough to buy a Concorde. Then, I'd use the jet to constantly fly to countries where it happened to be daylight. So if I was in Minnesota and the vampires came out at 9 p.m. on a warm summer night, I'd hop onto the Concorde, fly to California and be safe, since it'd only be 6 at night there with plenty of sunlight. If I happened to be caught in New York at 2 a.m. and the vampires were closing in, I'd call up my pilot Dominic, a former Blue Angels pilot - in the fantasy I didn't have my pilot's license, though that would have simplified the process. Dominic jetted us to London, where it'd be 8 a.m. and we'd have twelve hours of freedom and safety. I really couldn't find a single flaw with the plan, since I didn't have much respect for the flying ability of vampires.

All of that paranoia started with Salem's Lot. Blame Danny Glick's floating corpse and my own immaturity. Stephen King's imagination did that to me. Eventually I outgrew the fear, or maybe my own imagination simply dulled, to the point where I no longer visualized a world where people rose from the grave to haunt small-town children. Still, the original Salem's Lot - and not the Rob Lowe remake from 2004 - remains one of the best movie versions of King's work.

Some other notables:

It: The book is a thousand-page masterpiece, while the 1990 movie was a two-parter remembered primarily for the terrifying performance by Tim Curry as the killer clown Pennywise. It's a solid adaptation, only slightly harmed by some odd casting choices. Richard Thomas, aka John-Boy on The Waltons, played Bill Denbrough while John Ritter portrayed Ben Hanscom. Call them victims of typecasting, but neither guy could escape the past while playing the adult leaders of the Losers Club. But the movie did have Pennywise. I imagine 7-year-old kids who watched It were terrified into their teens, the same way Salem's Lot damaged me. Actually, the scary clown probably frightened just as many adults.

* Pet Sematary. Again, not as good as the book - standard disclaimer when discussing 98 percent of all movies converted from books - but still enjoyable, primarily because of another creepy, evil, cute child. Dad puts the little bastard down at the end, but dear ol' Mom makes a final visit.

* Misery. Outstanding book, superb movie, highlighted by Kathy Bates' stalker and James Caan as the writer trapped in her rural home. The most memorable scene is certainly the hobbling, which is ruined every time the movie is played on network TV or TNT or TBS, as they invariably cut away before Paul Sheldon's feet bend in a way usually seen on a football field while an announcer tells the audience to look away.

Oddly, that's not the scene I remember best. I saw the movie in the theater with a group of friends in 1990. Early in the movie, Caan drives down a mountain through a snowstorm. His car's headlights appear on the big screen. At that moment, a member of our group, Martin, who acted as our chauffeur because he got his license before anyone else and had a Suburban that could fit the whole gang, bolted up out of his seat and proclaimed, "I left my lights on!" It was a very strange association but ultimately saved his vehicle's battery, as he scrambled out of his seat and the theater to turn off his truck's headlights.

* Creepshow. One of the more underrated movies, it contained five short stories. One of the most memorable starred Ted Danson and Leslie Nielsen, before Danson became a star on Cheers and Nielsen earned fame in the Naked Gun movies. In the movie, Danson's sleeping with Nielsen's wife, so Nielsen had Ted and the gal drowned on the beach and sadistically tapes it so he can enjoy it later in the comfort of his own home. The movie's an early plug for the effectiveness of VCR's. Ted and the gal return - as if they were buried in Pet Sematary and not the beach - and give Nielsen the same treatment.

The most disgusting story in Creepshow involves a man who's more terrified of cockroaches than I was of vampires. Eventually they get the best of him, crawling out of his mouth, ears and every other place. This scene was easier to watch before I moved to New York City, the cockroach center of the world. Blech.

* Cujo. Not one of King's most memorable books and the movie's also fairly forgettable. An evil St. Bernard sick with rabies is still sort of lovable, even when slobbering on a dead body. King himself has said he barely remembers writing the book as he was drinking heavily at the time. To me, the book's memorable because after reading it, my mom swore off Stephen King books. She stopped reading him for nearly a decade. This was actually an official announcement; shortly after, I started reading him. The reason she quit? The little boy dies at the end of the book. Little kids aren't supposed to die, of course, unless they're evil and have popped out of a Pet Sematary. The kid lives in the movie. My mom was aware that it was a fiction book, but she gave up on the horror master for several years, though she eventually returned. But I think she still held a grudge.

Today most of King's books or stories become TV series, instead of big-screen films. I don't think he's any less popular with Hollywood, it's just that his more recent books aren't as easily adaptable. But in 10 or 15 years, TNT or FX or USA will remake Salem's Lot or It and another generation of children will be scarred. And I'll look into the feasibility of bringing the Concorde out of retirement.

The week in basketball: From the NBA to community colleges

Friday night Jason Kidd - whose name is often preceded by the words savvy veteran - pulled off a bizarre trick that helped the Mavericks rally from a large deficit to defeat the Hawks. Trailing by 2 in the final two minutes, Kidd drove up the left side of the court, where Atlanta coach Mike Woodson was standing on the court barking out instructions. Inexplicably Woodson had wandered inside the sideline, apparently oblivious to the geography of the court. By the time Kidd neared him, Woodson seemed to have gotten back behind the line, but Kidd reached out for him and ended up drawing a technical on the Hawks coach. Kidd's play was as smart as Woodson's actions were stupid. For a brief time it appeared Woodson wanted to challenge Kidd to a fight, which would have been a sadder sight than Woodson scrambling off the court. Regardless, Dallas eventually forced overtime, where it won its sixth straight game.

* This is more about writing than basketball, but he's a huge hoops fan so it qualifies. Greg Downs plays basketball on Wednesday nights with me. He runs nonstop like Havlicek, bangs down low, is a smart player and possesses a nice little jumper from the free throw line. But he's also one of the more accomplished short story writers anywhere. His 2006 collection, Spit Baths, won the prestigious Flannery O'Connor Award. The stories are set in the South. The collection's been called "masterful" by the Philadelphia Inquirer, and "one of the most entertaining books of short stories in a long time" by the Lexington Herald-Leader. You can buy the book here. Greg is also one of the world's biggest Kentucky basketball fans, so he might be in a bit of mourning today after Tennessee knocked off the country's No. 2 team.

* Saturday afternoon I watched the lowly New Jersey Nets defeat the Celtics, in Boston, before a Beantown crowd that looked like it'd seen the ghosts of Todd Day and Dino Radja running around on the parquet. It was beautiful. Watching Garnett, Allen, Rondo and the rest stumble and fumble around warms my heart. It's beginning to feel similar to the end of the Big Three era in the early 1990s, when Bird, McHale, Parish and DJ fossilized as the Bad Boys and Jordan took over the East. They still have their 17 banners and their vast reserves of arrogance, but with any luck, the franchise might be at the start of another decade of darkness. If only Red was around to see them stumble.

* Saturday night my uncle's Minnesota West women's basketball team lost in the state tournament semifinals, 69-64, to Minneapolis. It was a hard-fought game that saw the Lady Jays hold a six-point lead late in the game before foul trouble doomed their hopes for a trip to the state finals. Minnesota West basketball has always been a huge affair for the Fury clan, as numerous family members played there and we've all followed along for nearly 30 years as my uncle, Mike Fury, has coached the Worthington women. I remember going to WCC games even before he became coach, when my aunt played there. And when we'd go to Mike's games when I was a kid, I couldn't wait for the end of the men's game so I could run out onto the court to shoot baskets. My parents and aunts and uncles and cousins and grandpa attended nearly every home game and many of the road games. I was lucky enough to play on the men's team for two years and I remain a devoted follower of the program.

Community college hoops doesn't attract the attention of its four-year counterparts, but countless Division I, II and III teams sport rosters with players who transferred from those two-year schools. To many people, community college hoops is way off their basketball radar. For us it's always been near the center of our athletic universe. And the victories are just as satisfying and the defeats just as devastating as they are at any school that draws 20,000 fans. Tonight my cousin, who, of course, played at Worthington, texted me with updates in the second half. She sent one that said the Lady Jays were ahead by six with five minutes left in the game. It was another 25 minutes or so before another one arrived, and I knew that gap meant something bad had probably happened in the game. Confirmation arrived a few minutes later.

Mike's teams won state titles in 1984 and 1992. This year's team had a good shot of becoming his third state champion. Instead it goes down as another tough loss, like the one in the 1985 state semifinals and one in the 1997 finals. Coach Fury is nearing 60 years of age and 30 years in college coaching. I don't know how much longer he'll be on the sideline. But for however long it is, the Lady Jays will have one of the best coaches anywhere leading them, regardless of whether it's a two-year school or a four-year university.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Worst cars of all time...and the Zephyr

Peter Cheney is an auto writer in Canada with the Globe & Mail. He put together his list of the 12 worst cars ever built.

People obsessed with cars will have far more insight into each of these vehicles than I would. Cheney wrote, "A bad car can be the product of inadequate engineering, questionable taste, or poor manufacturing quality."

The complete story - with pictures of the offending vehicles - is here.

His list: The AMC Gremlin, AMC Pacer, Bond Bug Three-Wheeler, Bricklin SV1, Chevrolet Chevette, Chevrolet Corvair, Ford Edsel, Ford Explorer, Ford Pinto (just that name makes it sound like a horrendous car, although that might simply be because it's so similar to the name Punto, meaning the car's probably scrappy but ultimately horrible), Pontiac Aztek, Subaru SVX, and the Trabant, an East German car that apparently proved the country could mass produce strong female swimmers but not a decent vehicle.

Readers provided their own top 10 list, which is here:
Lada, Chevrolet Vega, Chrysler K-Car, Ford Mustang II, Rolls-Royce Camargue, Volkswagen Beetle, Hyundai Pony, Cadillac Cimarron, MGB Mark IV and the Hummer.

They're both impressive lists, though I believe there's one glaring omission: the Mercury Zephyr. I'm not sure what year my Zephyr was - early '80s - but it came into my life in 1991, just after I passed my driver's test with a superb display of parallel parking. My parents gave it to me as a gift, and I think it set them back about 500 bucks. The old girl was blue and anyone who drove it or rode in it felt that way.

Still, it was my first car, a momentous occasion for any American youth. We parked it on the curb outside our house on the first day it came into the family. Our neighbor - a classmate - wandered over, looked the car up and down and pronounced, "Nice wheels." The compliment was not a sarcastic one coming from him, as compared to the three- and four-wheeled vehicles that often died and decomposed in his family's yard, the Zephyr could be classified as nice wheels, primarily because it had four working ones.

The car had its strengths. Like, I don't know, in two years I never died in it. Other than that, the car struggled in its second decade of existence. You couldn't go above 50 miles per hour without causing violent shaking from the car, the same thing the space shuttle goes through when it re-enters the Earth's atmosphere. The gas gauge didn't work. In two years I never had any idea how much gas was flowing through the Zeph. I'd put about 8 bucks in it and ride that as long as possible. The idiotic plan failed once, when it rolled to a quiet stop outside a house about 10 blocks from our house. I trudged home, retrieved a gas can, walked down to the local Budget Mart, filled her up and made the humiliating walk back to the car. Thankfully, no girls saw this shameful procession.

Like its owner, the Zephyr wasn't good with numbers. Fifty, as in miles per hour. And seventy. It had a tendency to not run if the temperature rose above 70 degrees. Like many cars it struggled in the Minnesota cold - although anything below 25 degrees was trouble for the Zeph - but even in ideal conditions it had a temperamental spirit, like a young stallion that refuses to be broken, minus that horsepower. One summer night the Zephyr died outside a Baskin-Robbins in nearby Mankato. I knew it had enough gasoline, there wasn't a cloud in the sky and it hadn't been acting strangely. So what happened?

I knocked at the door of a nearby house, ready to play my role in a recreation of every bad horror movie that includes a scene of a stranded motorist being killed and possibly served for dinner by deranged homeowners with a grudge against teens. An older couple lived in the house, which might have been labeled a garbage house if anyone from the county had ever been welcomed inside. Tens of thousands of baseball cards littered the floor. They probably could have bought a summer home by selling the collection. The man of the house sat on the floor pawing them, apparently searching for that one card he misplaced sometime in the early '70s. Nice people. They let me use their phone and served me some water. I called my dad and he made the 20-minute drive to pick me up.

We called our local, trusty mechanic, who eventually diagnosed the problem, vaguely declaring that it would apparently always have difficulties in warmer weather, which he defined as anything over 70. This made no sense, but damn if it wasn't pretty accurate.

The Zephyr didn't just damage psyches, it vandalized school property. I drove to a football game senior year and left the Zephyr in a parking lot next to the school, which was one of our biggest rivals. After watching JWP receive a thorough thrashing on the field, we walked back to the blue bomber. Little did I know that the school had just planted the patch of land where we parked. As we tried driving out on the rainy night, the Zephyr refused to budge. Again, temperamental. After a momentous struggle, I finally fired free from the land, tearing it up in the process as we hauled ass out of town, at a comfortable 48 miles per hour. I kept waiting to read a story in the paper about the damage.


But the Zephyr escaped. For my defense, I would have simply pointed at it and said, "Sir, look at this car. Do you think this car could do that damage?"

I almost lost the Zephyr the first summer I had it. Birdseye called me in for work. Pouting, I took a back road to Waseca. I lost control, swerved, hit the gravel and went into the ditch. Thankfully the car didn't roll and simply bounced into the ditch before stopping. A fellow Birdseye employee drove by and pulled the car out, helpfully telling me I'd still be able to make my shift in time.

Unfortunately, the accident caused one of the Zephyr's headlights to shoot light about 80 feet up into the air. To me, this was just another humiliation heaped onto me by the Zephyr, though certainly I was more to blame for this one than the car's engineers. Still, whatever chance there was to get a girl inside the car died about the same time the psychotic headlight came to life. My cousin Matt delighted in the development, as in his mind it simply added to the Zephyr's lore. He wanted to make a cutout of a bat signal and put it against the light, meaning, in theory, this bat signal could be broadcast over greater Waseca County, perhaps warning the sheriff that I needed to meet with him on a rooftop. I vetoed his plan, refusing to let the Zephyr's legacy be tarnished anymore than it already was by simply existing. The Zephyr wasn't there to be used as a reliable vehicle, but it sure as hell wasn't going to be a prop.

I ditched the Zeph after high school graduation, trading up for a Beretta. We sold the Zephyr to a construction worker for about 100 dollars. Over the next few years, we spotted it occasionally at various worksites, marveling at the car's durability. The car stayed alive, defying all expectations.

It might not have been the worst car ever built, but it at least deserves to be in the conversation.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010


New York is supposed to get hit by something called a snow hurricane, which sounds less like a weather pattern and more like something a maniacal Nicolas Cage confronts in a movie about the end of the world. Before moving to New York, I checked the weather report several times a day. You have to when you drive. Now, I hear about snowstorms a few hours before they hit, as if I'm living back in Walnut Grove with the Ingalls clan without access to modern meteorology. No matter what happens, the subways will run, though they might be delayed. No worries about shoveling snow or scraping ice. No worries about horrible roads and worse drivers. It's a benefit of living in the big city.

* Then there's the downside to life in New York. Since our return from Cape Town, we wake up every weekday at 8 a.m. to the sound of a gigantic jackhammer pummeling rock in a parking lot right next to our building. The project apparently began when we were in South Africa. And will continue for...well, no one really knows. Could be a month, maybe two. A year? No one knows. A giant wooden barrier stands in front of the construction site, making it impossible to peer inside. The hammering begins at 8 and ends at 4, with only a lunch hour in between providing silence. People who work from home have likely seen their productivity drop 75 percent and homicidal fantasies rise 10 percent. I escape it at 9:30, but the effects of this madness hits me much earlier. I now wake up at 7 or 7:30, popping up to stare at the alarm clock. How many more minutes until the drilling starts? Do I have a half hour of sleep left or 5 minutes? Adding to the mystery, no one knows what will be put in the spot, which was a parking lot. Someone said a business. Another person said a 24-hour parking lot, accompanied by those lifts that raise the cars. Should be nice and quiet. Small towns usually don't have these problems. 

* I'm making my return to our Wednesday night basketball after a five-week absence. It's not exactly Jimmy walking into the town meeting to tell the folks of Hickory he thinks it's time for him to start playing ball. But I'm looking forward to it, even if my lungs aren't. 

* This story by Chris Jones on Roger Ebert in Esquire has received a lot of praise the last few weeks, all of it justified. As a sidebar, Ebert's journal is also a must-read. He hasn't spoken in four years, but his writing is as prodigious and enjoyable as ever. And here's an interview with Jones, where he discusses the process of researching and writing the story. Interesting to everyone, but writers will find it especially insightful. 

* Do "youngsters" still listen to announcers when they tell them to pay attention to something that just happened in a game? It seems to happen in basketball more than other sports; apparently, young offensive linemen at home don't need to watch Flozell Adams' technique and instead should concentrate on becoming obese or investing in HGH. Brent Musburger does it all the time, especially when he's teamed on ESPN with Bobby Knight. Growing up, I liked receiving the tips from the broadcasting crew. "Now for you youngsters out there watching from home, remember to never dribble into the corner or you'll get trapped." They're usually simple things, but good tips. Block out. Don't back away from the line when releasing a free throw. To make it more realistic, Knight should scream the instructions to youngsters, perhaps while kicking Musburger in the shins.

* Children of the '80s and others raised on The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, Sixteen Candles and many more of his movies will enjoy this Vanity Fair story on the late John Hughes. It talks about why he basically dropped out of Hollywood in the 1990s , never to return. He didn't pull a Howard Hughes. Instead he devoted himself to his family and personal writing - stories, journals and scripts that were never meant to be turned into movies.

Today's Stuck in the Past moment from the Showtime Lakers. The first quarter of Game 1 of the 1987 Finals. According to this SI story, the Lakers ran 35 fastbreaks in the first two quarters and only 10 set plays. The ancient Celtics have no chance of keeping pace. 

The most remarkable thing about those fastbreaks is how many came after the Celtics scored, something that you almost never see today. 

That's a highlight of Magic's career - he won MVP of the series, his third Finals MVP.

Here's one of the lowlights. Or at least one of the more awkward moments. The Lakers retired his number in February 1992, three months after he left the game. It was a moving ceremony that concluded with Magic's speech. At 1:30, he mentions former teammate Norm Nixon and says, "Norm taught me all my bad habits." The crowd reacts with nervous murmurs. Guys like Kareem and Jerry West laugh knowingly. Considering Magic retired, based in part on his, um, bad habit of having unprotected sex with thousands of women, it's a strange time to thank the guy who helped show him how life as an NBA superstar works ("Now Magic, when a groupie approaches you...). The rest of the speech is pretty cool. Bird's there. McHale. Chick Hearn. Jack Nicholson. It would have been an emotional day regardless, but at this time, many people thought Magic would be dead within a few years. Today he's stronger than ever, even if he is carrying a few too many pounds.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A depressing walk through Timberwolves history

In their 20-year history, the Timberwolves have won two playoff series.

I thought of that tidbit last week while watching another Timberwolves loss, though it's not exactly a hidden piece of trivia.

Both victories came in 2004, one against Denver and a 7-game classic against the Kings. This is the team's 21st season. At 13-44, we can eliminate them from playoff contention, even if the league's mathematicians haven't given the official verdict. So this will be the 20th season in franchise history that ends without a playoff victory. It's almost improbable, the level of ineptness and despondence that afflicts the franchise and has hovered over the team since that first season in the poorly lit but spacious Metrodome.

Twins fans suffered from 1993 through 2000, as the Rich Becker and Marty Cordova Era replaced the Puckett and Hrbek clan, ruining the game for millions of baseball fans in the state. That was an eight-year span, bookended by a pair of World Series victories and a nine-year run that's seen the Twins become one of the most consistent franchises in baseball, even if each season end with a beating at the hands of the bullying Yankees. It's not just that the Wolves have been bad. What's been so depressing for an ever-shrinking fan base is that in many years, there hasn't even been any hope. The fans look to the future and see nothing but missed jumpers, blown defensive assignments and a siren call to howl during opponents' free throws. The fans are as beaten down as a wrongly convicted person looking at life in prison with no chance for parole. There's seemingly only darkness in the years ahead.

And the past is even worse.

But what was the most depressing year in Timberwolves history? Not necessarily the worst year in the record books - which is the 15-67 mark in 1992 - but the most disheartening season, the season that was repellent on the court with no hope for a better tomorrow. There is no shortage of candidates.

* 1989-90. 22-60. A horrid record, but actually an uplifting season. As an expansion team, the Timberwolves had no expectations. They were expected to fail and look bad doing it. But led by coach Bill Musselman, the Wolves developed a reputation as a tough defensive team, one that could keep the game close with a plodding offense led by Laker refugee Tony Campbell, who averaged 23 points a game. Many familiar names of Timberwolves lore played this year - Randy Breuer, Brad Lohaus, Sidney Lowe, Scott Roth, Tod with one d Murphy. No one expected that lineup to make a run at 50 wins the following year, but there was a sense that the organization had a clue and some type of plan. Another highlight that year: an NBA attendance record, as the Wolves attracted more than a million fans to the cavernous Metrodome, a stadium that was so big, sometimes the only players fans could see with the naked eye were the ones who were taller than 7-feet. Mark Eaton. He was visible.

* 2007-2009. Gonna combine these two seasons, since all 164 games sort of blur together, one loss indistinguishable from another. These were depressing seasons. They traded Garnett and won a total of 46 games, as the team's head coach did everything but legally change his name to the Beleaguered Randy Wittman. Al Jefferson and Kevin Love provided a few highlights here and there but overall there was little to excite a fanbase that now half-filled the Target Center. A long ways from the days in the Metrodome.

* 2002-03. They won 51 games. Made the playoffs. But still depressing. Eliminated by the Lakers, this was the seventh straight season the Wolves lost in the first round. By this point, it seemed that Garnett would not only never win a title with the team, but he wouldn't even get a single series victory. It seemed like the Wolves would be winning 50 games and losing in the first round until about, oh, 2011, when Garnett's knees would begin to give out. Instead, Sprewell and Cassell joined the team and 2004 was the best season in team history. And, of course, the only season with a playoff victory.

* 1991-1992. The 15-win season. On the recap of the season, the headline is "A Rough Winter." Coincidentally, 1992 was a long winter in Janesville as well. I don't remember the details from that season in JWP girls basketball history, but I know it was a long one. I know this because the following year - 1993, my senior year - the gals again struggled. At the end of the year the head coach put a lot of work into a booklet for the girls, a collection of newspaper clips recapping the campaign. He also headlined it. And the headline? "Another long winter." Yes, yes it was. He saw no point in glossing over that fact with any propaganda that would talk about how hard the team played or how close the games were. Every game was a struggle, for the coach, the players and the fans. So might as well call it what it was. And if it was "another" long winter, it must mean that 1992 was a long one as well.

Anyway, for the Wolves the long winter included losing streaks of 10 and 16 games. Certainly a disheartening season - any season that includes the Twin Tower tandem of Luc Longley and Felton Spencer can not be considered a success - but still not the most depressing year.

* 1993-1994. My vote for the most depressing season in team history. Others will disagree and I could definitely be persuaded, such is the history of the franchise. They went 20-62, the second-worst mark for the team. The season started with five straight losses, eliminating any hope for the remaining 77 games. The season ended with 10 straight defeats, reminding everyone of just how horrid the year had been. Sidney Lowe coached the team. Lowe had been a short, bad player for the team its first season, and became a short, bad coach after retirement. Christian Laettner and Isaiah Rider led the team in scoring, a pair of joyless, good-but-not-even-close-to-great players who flummoxed fans from numerous franchises during their long careers. By this time, it'd become obvious that Laettner, while a dependable player, was not going to duplicate his college success. It was obvious that he would not be another Larry Bird, though he was at least a better player than Eddie Bird.

Doug West continued to plug away, averaging 14 points. Everyone loved West's work ethic and attitude but watching him for five years dulled the senses.

Here's the most amazing stat from that season, the number that drives home with the authority of a Gary Leonard dunk just how bad the Timberwolves were in 2004. Dallas defeated the Wolves in five of the six meetings between the teams. Dallas won...13 games that year. 13-69. But in six meetings against Minnesota, they won five times. There were probably calls for the team to be disbanded at the end of the year, and that actually almost happened.

It appeared the team was going to be sold to a group that planned to move the team to New Orleans for the following season. The NBA nixed the deal. Mankato's very own Glen Taylor came to the rescue, buying the team and keeping the franchise in Minnesota. In 1995, they drafted Garnett and things began to turn around, relatively speaking.

But 1994...that was a long winter. The most depressing winter.

There seems to be little hope with the current version of the Timberwolves, who did manage to win their 14th game tonight. But they have some good young players. Rambis seems like a good coach, provided he doesn't suffer a breakdown. In fact, the struggles of 2010 are really nothing when compared to the franchise's travails the past 21 years.

A 14-44 record that doesn't seem that bad in comparison to past seasons.

That's depressing.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Giggling gymnasts and confusing track meets: The life of a reporter

Today I attended the final day of the the Big East Indoor Track & Field Championships. The two-day event took place at the Armory Track and Field Center, which sits in the heart of the Columbia University Medical Center at 168th Street in New York. The facility in the Armory is considered one of the premier indoor track facilities in the country. It's 10 minutes from our place. I thought it was finally time to visit.

Growing up, I greeted track and field competitions with little enthusiasm. As a little kid we watched my uncle sprint and that was fun. But I fell out of love with track - and field - in about the third grade, when my days of dominance in the elementary school's Track-o-Rama ended and my days of slow-speed sprints began. Until that time I was one of the fastest kids in my class, routinely chasing down my slow-footed classmates during gym class. Don't know what happened, but Track-o-Rama exposed my speed deficiency, although I still managed to usually avoid the "I tried" ribbons, shameful decorations teachers handed out to those who tried, sure, but actually failed.

Basketball, baseball, football, tennis, loved them all. But none of them required me to run short distances in explosive fashion, or long distances with confident strides and strong lungs. Because I no longer possessed the physical skills needed for track and field success, my interest in the sport waned. I went to our high school meets to watch friends. Attended the state track and field meet with my parents a few times. But the point of running just to run - with nothing such as a rabid dog chasing me and nothing waiting at the end, whether a basket, touchdown or home plate - seemed mostly meaningless and slightly inhumane.

I still appreciated the athleticism on display at any random track meet. A teacher who coached three sports once told me that the greatest collection of athletes was always at a state track and field meet. I scoffed, but only because I liked to argue with the guy. Many top stars of the fall and winter sports congregated on the track in the spring, whether it was the running backs dominating the 100-meter dash or the volleyball stars winning high-jump titles. But still, the idea of sitting at a meet for five, six, seven...eight hours, did not appeal to me.

Then I started working as a sports reporter. Track and field meets became weekly fixtures during the spring. Covering them always causes some difficulties for any reporter, as there's simply so much going on that it can be difficult finding a good storyline amidst all the action. Is another victory by a favorite in the sprints a better story than an upset in the mile? Is a close finish in the 1,600-meter relay more interesting than a meet record in the high jump? But newspapers pay reporters 20,000-plus dollars to make those difficult decisions. I covered major regular season competitions and state meets.

Covering track and field was not the most exciting part of my job, but it certainly wasn't the worst. Some random thoughts on covering certain sports:

* The most torturous interview I ever did was with a high school gymnast, a girl in the ninth grade who had the emotional maturity of someone in the second grade. But she was an outstanding gymnast, even if she had the social awareness of a feral child. She was a giggling 14-year-old reared on the legend of Mary Lou Retton and Kerri Strug. I interviewed her at her house. She sat on one end of the couch, with me on the other end. Grinning Mom plopped down in the middle. She answered the questions before her daughter could process them. I'd ask, "So how long have you been in gymnastics," and the stage mom replied, "Jessica (not her real name) has loved gymnastics since she was 5." The girl smiled and giggled, which apparently meant this was a true statement and I could note it. The mom answered questions she liked. She brushed off ones she didn't with the efficiency of a White House spokesman disregarding a pushy pool reporter. The ensuing feature was not one of my better efforts. But the mom loved it.

* Football games were always fun, though they could be brutal when the calendar turned over into November. Most high schools have some type of press box, but even if a school did have one, I'd often watch the game on the sidelines. Cold weather played havoc at many games. I dressed in layers, on my body, hands and feet. But no matter how many socks I wore, my feet froze by halftime. And no matter how many pairs of gloves I sported, my hands froze by the end of the first quarter. Feet are one thing; if the worst happened and I lost both to amputation because of frostbite, I could still work, though my days of pickup basketball would likely end. But frozen hands made it nearly impossible to write. I gripped the pen with my entire hand, the way you'd hold a knife before stabbing. Ink proved no match for the conditions, so I'd bring five or six pens along, hoping that at least one would survive until the end of the game. I never had to resort to writing in my own blood, but I came close.

* Baseball games were always relaxing, when they were actually played. In Minnesota, spring sports seem to last about four weeks and are less-intense than fall and winter activities. Same for softball, provided the teams were fairly equal. The first softball game I ever covered had a final score of 50-0, and it really wasn't that close. Fortunately, the losing team, according to the coach, "played hard." The only thing missing were some purple "I tried" ribbons.

* Basketball. Favorite sport to play, favorite sport to watch, favorite sport to write about. One of the strangest games I saw involved a contest that ended with the wrong score. It was a boys game between Worthington and Marshall. Late in the game, Worthington had a three-point lead but the scoreboard showed it as a two-point lead. The confusion had come from a 3-pointer a few moments earlier. The refs huddled and talked about it for several minutes. But not only was the scoreboard wrong, but so was the scorebook. I was sitting in the front row and had noted when the mistake happened, but didn't volunteer my information. Usually in those situations the fans are watching the scoreboard closely and would yell if anything posted incorrectly, but they didn't in this case. Inevitably, Marshall hit a 3-pointer in the final seconds for the victory, when it should have actually only tied the game. Worthington coach Ron Vorwald recently won his 300th game. He probably should have been credited with it one game earlier.

* Strangely, perhaps the two most exciting events I covered were high school wrestling matches. Strange because for the first 18 years of my life I considered wrestlers to be rivals, sometimes even enemies. Wrestlers and basketball players didn't mix back in high school. It wasn't exactly the Greasers vs. the Socs, but we weren't very friendly. Wrestlers wore shirts bragging about how tough their sport was while we ridiculed their sport, though our practices were roughly 50 times easier than theirs. But as a reporter, I covered two matches between a pair of wrestlers named Nate Baker and Bryan Cowdin. They both won multiple state championships. Both were two of the best wrestlers in the nation at the time.

They met in the regular season two straight years. Both times, the area counted down the days to their showdowns, as if a heavyweight boxing match was coming to town. The team competition wasn't even a competition - Baker's team was one of the best in the state, while Cowdin's was...not. But both guys were physically overpowering, dominant, pinning machines who made a mockery of their other foes. The crowd slept for the beginning of the team match, but when those two came running out and the spotlight lit them up in the middle of the mat, it was Vision Quest brought to life. Even an old basketball player and fan like myself couldn't help but get caught up in the moment. Both years, Baker won in the final seconds as the matches lived up to the hype two straight times. Praising wrestling. As a high schooler, never thought I'd type those words.

But it was fun covering every sport, even day-long track and field meets. Anything beat being in the office taking agate. Track and field agate and swimming agate are the bane of any sports desk worker's existence. They dread the phone call that begins with the person on the other end saying, "I've got the results from the 32-team Swimming Invitational held at Central High School today. Boys. And girls." Agh. The next 45 minutes would be spent on the phone, taking the top five or six finishers in all 87 events. Fingers bled, along with ears. Give me a giggling gymnast over swimming agate any day.

Today I watched as a guy in slacks and a nice shirt with a notebook in his hand approached the winner of the men's 1,000-meter race. The interview lasted about 10 minutes. The reporter shook hands with the victorious runner. Then the writer looked around, slightly confused as the chatty public address announcer rattled off the results of the previous race. Looking for an athlete he apparently couldn't find, the reporter wandered around for a few more minutes before walking back to the media room with a slight shake of his head. I sympathized with him. Track and field meets can be confusing things. But at least the guy didn't have to type up the agate.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lent Wednesdays and other altar boy headaches

We live about four blocks from a large Catholic Church. The outside of the Church of Good Shepherd looks stunning, though the inside decorations remain only a rumor to me. Wednesday night I walked past and saw the masses on the street with the familiar ashes on their heads, the instantly recognizable mark Christians carry around on Ash Wednesday.

Lent has arrived. Today that means, well, whatever it means to lapsed Catholics everywhere. Growing up, that meant fish on Fridays and double-duty as an altar boy during the week, as the Wednesday shift followed the inevitable Sunday outing. I became an altar boy in the fifth grade. I stayed in the service much too long, into high school, well past the normal expiration date for servers. By the sad end, the white robes barely came to my knees, a comically absurd look that surely damaged the prestige of the position.

During my reign, I often had to handle all the serving duties alone, especially on those Wednesday nights in the winter. Boys who routinely skipped out on school littered the altar boy roster, so what were the odds they'd fulfill their Sunday morning and Wednesday evening obligations? At that time girls weren't allowed to be servers. Wish they'd been around during my years up on the altar. Girls are more responsible at that age. It would have been a new thing, something exciting. My appearances would have been sliced in half.

My parents, meanwhile, carried a Gehrig-like streak of consecutive Sunday appearances at the local church, which was located only a block from our house, eliminating the weather-excused absences so many others relied on. Week after week, I'd walk in and John - our kind, patient, beloved assistant - would ask me if I could serve, since the scheduled ones hadn't arrived. How do you reject a church worker, especially while your parents are standing a foot away?

During Lent Wednesdays, the routine repeated itself. Wednesday Mass flew by, as it never lasted an hour. It usually lasted about 45 minutes, sometimes not even that. Unfortunately, Wednesday nights were open gym night at the Janesville High School, the night over-the-hill has-beens and those who never were ran up and down the basketball court for a few hours. I tagged along with dad, to play or just practice, except during Lent, which landed right in the middle of basketball season. God trumped hoops. Now, more than 20 years later, I'm the middle-aged guy running up and down the court on Wednesday nights. And, god forgive me, now hoops trumps the big fella.

I often flew solo. It was better to have no second server rather than a bad one. A below-average server dragged down the whole proceedings, a teenage version of the incompetent office worker everyone covers for by working twice as hard.

Back then we had less duties than the servers of today, judging by my occasional visits to the Janesville church during trips back home. Now they have to hold up the Bible while the priest reads, something we never did. They now ring a bell while down in front of the altar, another supposedly traditional act that we managed to avoid. Do I thank Vatican II for that? I was self-conscious enough in my ill-fitting robe, never escaping the feeling that everyone was watching as I sat on the altar. I could feel my classmates's eyes on me, or at least the eyes of the ones who weren't napping. Acting like a Salvation Army volunteer would have only made things worse.

The actual Mass was always a breeze. Light the candles before service. Walk up the aisle, take our positions at the rear of the altar, standing guard like Secret Service agents (at least that's what I sometimes pretended. Like, if someone tried bum-rushing the altar, would I be charged with tackling them? Would I conk them on the head with a chalice?). Handle the water, accept the gifts - graciously. Put everything back in its place. Walk down the steps, kneel, rise and repeat during the Eucharistic Prayer. The Eucharistic Prayer. That's sometimes where trouble started.

Stifling temperatures crushed souls before they could be saved during the summer months. The environment weakened everyone, but only two or three people in the church were outfitted in suffocating robes designed to keep heat in. On a couple of occasions I had to walk out into the little sanctuary, just outside the main area of the church, as I'd feel myself growing faint. No one really cared, though surely everyone noticed. A few years after my time in the service had ended, another altar boy did pass out a handful of times, usually while kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer. And it might have been my imagination, but it seemed we often had the longest Eucharistic Prayer - Four, perhaps, though I'm probably just making that up since I know that one's rarely used - on the hottest days, as if the priest wanted the congregation to really feel the heat. The kid simply toppled over, like a mannequin falling over in a store. His dad walked up, scooped up the body and the service continued with barely a disruption.

Communion was the highlight of any Mass, an up close look at the dental work of Janesville's proud Catholics. We took our patens - that's what the gold discs are called - out of their protective coverings and stand by the priest and the other Eucharistic ministers. Mostly the patens collected dust, perhaps an occasional crumb. I have to believe the highlight for any altar boy would be rescuing a host in mid-air. In all my years I never had to do that, an unfortunate circumstance because I'd like to think that with my hands and hand-eye coordination, I could have made a spectacular grab. I see the replay in slow motion. The horrified priest watching with wide eyes. The terrified parishioner with bad hands watching in silence, wondering if dropping a host means a stay in purgatory. Then I stick the paten out while falling down, nabbing the host just inches from the carpet. Murmurs of "great catch" would ripple through the congregation. To drop it was unthinkable. It'd be an offense against god, or at least his son's representation in breaded form.

Occasionally we had to help with the incense - not a favorite - or the water the priest threw on the congregation with unusual force. People always blinked their eyes in anticipation; some cowered, helpless.

It all took about an hour and then it was back to the outside world, until the following Sunday or Wednesday.

They were good years and made me feel like a good Catholic youth, even if there were a few too many shifts and too many years of service.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Small-town blues

Yesterday, a picture of Michael and Jeanette Tristani kept popping up on Yahoo! whenever I'd check my email. The couple looked happy enough, but they told a depressing tale. The story focused on the Tristani family's struggles adapting to life in Hazelton, North Dakota, a town that's about 300 people shy of being classified as a dot on the map.

Hazelton, which had 237 people in the 2000 Census, attracted outsiders to the town with offers of cash and land: free lots and $20,000 for homes, $50,000 for businesses. The Tristanis ventured north from Miami. Hazelton's about as far away from Miami as you can get, and I don't mean geographically. The family appreciated many things about their new life in a new town - low crime and taxes, great cost of living, kids liked school - but struggled with some other aspects of small-town life, including a perceived indifference or downright dislike of outsiders. If you weren't born there and raised there and your grandparents aren't buried in the Lutheran cemetery a mile outside of town, you aren't one of them and never will be. That type of attitude. Or, as Jeanette Tristani said in the story, "People prejudge you without getting to know you."

That's what the Tristanis say they experienced, along with exposure to the type of cold they'd only read about. Other small-town dramas that drive out longtime residents and newcomers include a lack of high-paying jobs and the eternal complaints of anyone over the age of 15 that there's "nothing to do in town." These gripes aren't new. Sinclair Lewis knew all about small-town life. People have expressed similar sentiments since the time people realized there was a world outside of their little village of 1,500 people.

Compared to Hazelton, Janesville is a metropolis, clocking in with about 2,000 people. We had it easier than many places, as the town's only 60 minutes from the Twin Cities and 15 minutes from a decent-sized city in Mankato. And, yes, I write only 60 minutes without quotation marks around only. It really is an easy trip compared to what many towns face.

There's a single stoplight, though it only flashes red now. Budget cuts eliminated green and yellow. But there's a bank and a post office. A Dairy Queen remains popular and a Subway sits near the edge of town. The town's population has remained fairly stable over the years, but there are other struggles. Enrollment is way down, as students open enroll to nearby schools, often to schools in towns that are even smaller than Janesville. The newspaper office closed. Other businesses have faltered. It's a story that's been told in countless small towns everywhere, including Hazelton.

Growing up, most people who moved to Janesville didn't come from outside the state. A family did move from war-torn Cambodia and struggled at times with the small-town mentality that can occasionally convert to outright hostility. They eventually moved to a larger city and one of my best childhood friends was gone for good. But then, that kind of mentality is not unique to towns with population below 3,000. It's just that in those towns it might be harder finding friendly faces.

For newcomers to any small towns, part of fitting in relates to where they've come from. Hostility is not the default setting for small towns. There will be welcoming arms, though it might take some work to find them. A person's experience makes a difference. When I wrote Keeping the Faith, I spent several months in Ellendale, North Dakota, a conservative, deeply religious small town that's 30 miles from the nearest McDonald's. After a few days I felt at home, owing mostly to the generosity and friendliness of people I had just recently met. I might have had an easier time settling in because I came from that environment. I had been living in New York City, but my roots were still in Janesville. Someone without that background might have taken longer to feel accepted, though the reception from the townsfolk would have been exactly the same.

Some of the small town cliches are true. The people are generally more conservative, though that can devolve into caricature as well. Small town liberals like hunting just as much as small town conservatives, and simply knowing how to shoot a deer doesn't make someone unique in those towns, no matter their gender or political aspirations.

Growing up, it does seem like everyone knows what you're doing. Think of a small-town gossip queen and the image of an overweight 55-year-old woman who sports binoculars that see nearly everything in town and has a mind that imagines the rest immediately springs to mind. She talks about the drinking problem of Mr. Johnson. She hints at infidelity in the Olson marriage. And did you hear about young Laura Smith? Seems she'll open her legs for any boy who asks. It's not quite that blatant. Rumors spread in checkout lines and church dinners. A father's reputation can become his son's reputation, no matter how different they might be. There's no place to hide, for better or worse.

Friday night entertainment often consisted of driving up and down Main Street for hours at a time, a never-ending cycle of U-turns, slow cruises and nods of the head to schoolmates making the exact same drive in other cars, a generation after their parents navigated the same short route. For people with kids, the value of small class sizes might not make up for the other lack of opportunities.

It's difficult to adapt to a life in a place where the pros and cons are both often about what's not there, whether it's noise and crime or high-paying jobs and cultural outlets. A lifetime New Yorker would have more trouble adapting to a town of 1,000 than a small town lifer would have adapting to the Big Apple. Obviously a lot of that has to do with what each person is giving up, but it also requires a different mentality.

So what are the other benefits? Space. Big yards for low prices. A tight community, even if some find it suffocating. But there are times when it's good that everyone knows everyone else's business, because townsfolk will help those in need in whatever way possible. A town rallies around a young mother stricken with cancer or a dad injured in a farming accident. It's impossible to get lost in the masses. You'll never be a statistic.

And for young people? I lived a block from a city park I called my own on many days. I lived a block from the library and grocery store. A block from school. All my friends were five minutes away.

When young people "leave" a small town, I think it usually has more to do with economic reasons than a desire to flee the lifestyle. It's not just about jobs in the towns themselves. The jobs have to surround them as well. Often, people live in a small town but commute to a larger city where factories and offices are located. Layoffs 30 miles away can fatally harm a small town. Many people in Janesville used to work at Brown Printing and the manufacturing plant E.F. Johnson, a pair of companies that at one time employed thousands but eliminated countless jobs the past 15 years.

It's difficult to create viable businesses in small towns. The Tristanis opened a bistro and coffee shop. They clashed with the owner of another coffee shop and eventually closed theirs. But should that necessarily be an indictment of small towns and their reluctance to welcome newcomers with open arms and empty stomachs? Thousands of restaurants, bars and shops fail every year, no matter the population. On our Manhattan block, bars and delis have come and gone, many forgotten shortly after they displayed the first dollar spent in the store. It had nothing to do with the neighborhood's hostility or the way they prejudge people and everything to do with economic difficulties that confront anyone gutsy enough to start those businesses. The Tristani family's entrepreneurship is admirable. But does Hazelton have enough people to support a coffee shop, much less two, no matter how cozy the setting and tasty the drinks? People aren't going to drive to Hazelton to visit the business, so it comes down to whether 200 people can keep a business alive that offers something many might see as a luxury, not a necessity.

Again, that seems to have little to do with small town people prejudging others or refusing to accept outsiders. And even in this story, those factors don't seem to have necessarily driven the family from North Dakota, as the main reason they moved back to Florida was to care for Jeanette's elderly parents.

As the Tristanis discovered, small-town life isn't for everyone. And all indicators seem to prove that it's for even fewer people than it was decades ago. I just don't think the struggles are all about a hesitance to welcome newcomers or accept change. There are close-minded people ins mall towns. Just as there are in big cities. The decline of small towns might simply be inevitable, another step in the evolution of economics and demographics. But for those who have been there their whole lives and for those who leave their old homes for a new one, small towns still have benefits that can appeal to everyone.

I love the big city life. I now preach its virtues to anyone who will listen, but I remain a small-town kid. That will never change, even if I’ll probably never again be a small town resident.

Monday, February 15, 2010

McSweeney's Panorama: The future of newspapers, a relic, or just a really cool novelty?

Two months ago, McSweeney's published the San Francisco Panorama, a 300-plus-page newspaper that was designed to "demonstrate the unique possibilities of the American newspaper." It had more than 200 contributors, contained 10 sections, a separate 112-page magazine, a book review section, comics and was printed on a broadsheet. In short, it was meant to be a celebration of the newspaper, something to excite people while others eagerly race to write the latest obituary on the industry.

I finally got one this weekend, buying it at a Barnes & Noble for $16. The papers were located behind the checkout counter, encased in a large plastic bag. In the past this might have meant the contents inside featured pictures of topless women or pantsless men. The store placed it behind the counter because they were apparently afraid people might want to steal the newspaper's content. That'd be a crime, of course, even though Google News refers to that as a solid business plan.

Its sheer size stands out, and not just the 300 pages. It was printed on 15X22 broadsheet, the type of size rarely seen these days. Holding it takes a reader back in time, to the days before tighter budgets led to shrinking newsprint. It's definitely a throwback, like one of those giant cellular phones that pop up in movies from the early 1990s, which were often as large as a character's head. But that size is part of the appeal of the Panorama. McSweeney's argues newspapers should embrace its paper format, since it offers possibilities that simply aren't available online or even in tabloid format. In the same way that people still love going to the movies because there's nothing quite like seeing a film on the big-screen, reading a paper that actually looks and feels and smells like a newspaper can offer an experience unavailable in any other form of media.

Newspapers seem embarrassed by their size these days, like a 6-foot seventh-grader who hunches over because he feels out of place and awkward around his classmates. Papers still make money off the paper product but not nearly as much as they used to, and companies often seem to be simply biding their time until everything's online or simply gone for good. The Panorama offers outstanding design. Superb full-page graphics perfectly utilize the format. Of course, countless newspapers still do this seven days a week, but designers seem to be an even more endangered species than writers and copy editors. When the cuts come they're often the first to be sacrificed. The Panorama shows that it'd be a mistake to forget about the look of a newspaper. If they ever do go all online, newspapers will simply be another site that offers nothing but words. It wouldn't just be an aesthetic loss. Readers would also be losing out on the type of information that can't just be summarized in a 50-word paragraph.

But the Panorama does deliver with its words as well, in countless stories, both long and short. My favorite story was by noted author Nicholson Baker, which carried the headline "Can a paper mill save a forest?" The theme of the story - which explores the plight of paper mills in Jay, Maine - is that the digital age might be more damaging to the environment than the newspaper industry. People love to say that if papers die, "At least a lot fewer trees will be killed." They often say this with a certain amount of glee and unjustified pride, as if they're the first person to ever think of this astoundingly uncreative quip. Baker's story shows that, well, that might be alarmingly untrue.

He quotes a man named Don Carli, who works at the Institue for Sustainable Communication.

Carli told Baker, "If the marketplace for timber, harvested sustainably from Maine's forests, collapses because of the propagation of a myth - which some might say is a fraud - that says that using the newspaper is killing trees, then what happens is the landholder can no longer generate the revenue to pay a master logger for sustainable timber harvesting, and can't pay taxes. Then a developer offers to buy the land at a steep premium over what it was worth as a forest, and the developer clear-cuts the land and turns it into a low-density development."

Basically, Carli's saying that - as most 5-year-olds know but some newspaper critics apparently don't - trees grow back. Trees that are used to make newspapers grow back. Trees eliminated to put in apartments or restaurants...those don't grow back. Carli then throws a shot at the data centers and server farms that are taking over the countryside while paper mills die out faster than the newspapers that ultimately emerge thanks to them. Baker writes, "There is now a roughly comparable carbon footprint between server farms and paper mills, but the rate of growth in server and data-center energy consumption is 'metastasizing,' [Carli] said." Carli finishes by saying, "You can't go to ConEd and get another ten megawatts of power. You can buy the computers, you can buy the servers. You just can't get juice for them, because the grid is tapped out. So when we start thinking about transforming more and more of our communication to digital media, we really do have to be asking, 'where will the electrons come from?"

Some of the other top stories:
* A story by J. Malcolm Garcia on the travesty of elections in Afghanistan.
* An incredibly in-depth report on the Bay Bridge, a project will cost tax-payers more than $12 billion.
* A disturbing analysis by Aidan Gardiner about an increase in familicides, when a family member - usually a male - kills a spouse and at least one of the children. There are numerous theories about why they occur more now - the economy is the main reason - but the sobering fact is they do happen more often. When the Panorama published in December, there had already been 20 familicides. In a normal year, there are four to six.
* A chef walks through the 58 steps needed to take a lamb from slaughter to the plate. Complete with pictures (not for the squeamish or vegetarian-inclined).
* In the book section, an amusing, extensive feature by Joshuah Bearman on the search for the next Mr. Romance, the title given to the long-haired warrior types who are Fabio's literary spawn and appear on the covers of romance books.

You'll have to take my word about these stories or go out and get a paper. None of the stories are on McSweeney's website, which was sort of the point of the whole enterprise. They wanted to show the possibilities of print. But that obviously limits the reach of the stories. Thousands - maybe millions - of people who might have read some of these stories never will, simply because they're in the paper version but nowhere else. The reality is that papers continue to struggle with finding the balance between the paper product and their Internet offerings. What should they offer in the hard copy and what should they put on the web? No one's come up with a definitive answer, meaning no one's come up with a definitive answer that brings in money and doesn't simply give away everything for free. The Panorama doesn't offer any insight into that question. And no matter how much I and others love print, it's naive to think there would ever again be a day where a newspaper could completely ignore the Internet, as the Panorama did.

Papers are still working hard to find the solution. The scary thing is that there might not be one.

There is one big benefit to not having the stories on the web: no reader comments. Stories are much more pleasant to read when they don't include racist, poorly spelled rants that blame immigrants and Obama for everything from snowstorms to the lackluster slam dunk contest at the NBA All-Star game.

Many of the pieces are quite ambitious. They are long, spreading out over six, seven, eight pages. They require an investment. Readers have to devote time to the stories. But again, that's something newspapers can provide that other forms of media still can't come close to matching. Everyone can offer 100-word recaps or 500-word analysis. But newspapers can provide the 2,500-word stories that are worth reading, not because they're long, but because they provide information unavailable anywhere else.

There really isn't any breaking news in the Panorama, the area where people still count on newspapers, although the original breaking news then explodes on the web in a million different directions. If print does make a comeback, newspapers will still be charged with providing breaking news, whether it's in crime, politics, or sports. Original reporting providing in-depth looks at news and features will separate newspapers from those who simply pontificate and opine online. Still, papers can't forfeit their position as the provider of breaking news, even if those stories are seemingly on the web eleven seconds after an event happens.

Numerous big-name writers contributed to the issue. They add a buzz to the product, even if I would have preferred to seen those slots taken by some of the thousands of newspaper reporters laid off the past few years. Stephen King wrote a story on the Yankees victory in the World Series. It's entertaining, but King's hardly hurting for work or outlets for his writing, and as someone who's read quite a bit of his baseball writing, I remain a much bigger fan of his horror work.

The paper took nearly a year to put together, from conception to execution. Others have pointed out that a schedule like that hardly qualifies as anything that resembles a newspaper's publishing schedule. And they're right. There's a reason newspaper people still like to call their product the Daily Miracle. A paper like the New York Times publishes a Sunday paper that contains dozens of must-read stories, outstanding graphics, great analysis and unmatched investigations. People take it for granted. Maybe the Panorama will help readers regain an appreciation for what their local paper produces 365 times a year.

Then again, probably not.

In some of my Walter Mitty moments, when I'm not imagining being a shooting guard for the Lakers or a reclusive author who ignores a legion of fawning fans while I collect royalties, I sometimes picture being a media mogul. A mogul. Someone with Bruce Wayne-type money. I acquired the riches in a noble fashion, perhaps by curing a deadly disease, and not through an inheritance or a shady land deal. I buy a struggling paper. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, for example. My first order of business is to pen a Jerry Maguire-like memo that invigorates the troops. Layoffs have ended, I announce. The paper's hiring 500 new staffers, putting bureaus in Washington and LA and Duluth and Rochester. We'll have a dozen reporters covering the state government. Photographers and copy editors and designers are cherished. Sportswriters will again travel to every major event, on this continent and overseas. We'll start a Sunday magazine. And a book review. Travel budget is now unlimited. We'll send reporters to Iraq and Afghanistan and South America. Free health insurance for all employees, and their families. Free cookies on Fridays. Staff members weep when they read the memo, then forward it to everyone they know.

The paper becomes the envy of the business, and of all media, whether online or in print. 60 Minutes profiles us; maybe Lesley Stahl interviews me. Reporters and editors from throughout the country flock to Minneapolis to work for the paper, attracted by the newspaper's dedication to reporting and my benevolent leadership (I let my underlings do their jobs and I rarely visit the office; perhaps on the major holidays, when I bring in champagne and five-figure bonus checks).

My dream paper would actually look a lot like the Panorama, and would have many of the same ambitions for its stories, although there would probably be fewer celebrities writing them. The Panorama's a superb one-issue collector's piece. No, it doesn't offer a new business plan to save the industry. It looks, feels and smells like a newspaper, even if it isn't necessarily published like one. But it entertains. And informs. Read it and you'll learn a few things you didn't know yesterday. Because of those things, the Panorama's a success.

Whether the dozens of newspapers that produce similar results 365 days a year have a viable future remains unknown. In the end, the Panorama's a love letter to the industry. Hopefully, it's not a goodbye letter to a dying one.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The majesty of Tommy Heinsohn's thighs

All-Star Saturday's tonight. So there will be the Slam Dunk Competition and the 3-point shootout. A-list celebs will mingle with B-list ones. But one thing missing is an old-timers game.

Back in 1984, the NBA dusted off an old idea while also dusting off some old players. There had previously been old-timers games - Legends games - in 1957 and 1964. In 1984, guys like Rick Barry, Pete Maravich, Connie Hawkins, Tommy Heinsohn and Johnny "Red" Kerr crammed into impossibly tight uniforms and performed in front of a - according to Dick Stockton, at least - sellout crowd. Paramedics were surely on hand, clutching phone numbers of everyone's next of kin.

They played the game through 1993, when it was replaced by a Rookies game. They finally ended it because of the number of injuries that occurred. There are some surprising names on the all-time rosters. In that final 1993 game, Hot Rod Hundley - who was 59 at the time - played for the West. The league did have to stretch the definition of Legend to fill the rosters. Spencer Haywood? Some real legends, meanwhile, like Kareem, never did play.

There isn't much online video of any of these games, perhaps because NBA Entertainment burned all known tapes. America can only take so many white, pasty thighs.

A brief video of Pistol Pete at that 1984 game is available. By this point, though, it was more like Cap Gun Pete. But he did still score 18 points, according to the note at the end of the video. An old gunner never quits shooting. Maravich died only four years later, at the age of 40.

Oddly, Dick Vitale provided color commentary on this game. He seems sedated when compared to the college-obsessed Vitale most people know, perhaps because there were no Duke grads like Art Heyman playing in the game.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A paradise for fans of the Showtime Lakers

A guy on youtube named nonplayerzealot4 (not his given name) possesses a treasure trove of old Lakers videos. Every few weeks he'll post another new gem, an old game or a clip that brings back great memories from the 1980s, when the players wore obscenely short shorts and the teams routinely scored 120 points. 

His page is here

Lakers fans should visit frequently, as there are videos from the past and present. Any fans of that era should visit frequently. Celtics fans might want to avoid it, although I'm sure there are plenty of youtube videos devoted to the antics of Larry, Chief, M.L. Carr and other hated men in green. 

Some personal favorites, from his collection of more than 100 videos:

If you don't want to watch the entire 10-minute video, fast-forward to about the 9-minute mark. This was a game from 1988, Lakers at Nuggets early in the year. The game goes to two overtimes. These old Nugget teams could be troublesome, with offensive stars like Alex English playing in Doug Moe's fast-paced system. Especially at home - cue announcers droning on about the effects of the higher altitude - Denver thrived. The ending of this game is one of Magic Johnson's most memorable moments, a game-winning 3 at the buzzer under heavy pressure. It's not the type of shot Magic often hit. He became a standout 3-point shooter later in his career, but most were set shots that came off of passes from the post. He didn't have Kobe's ability to simply pull up with ease from 24-feet out. But he drains this one off the dribble.

The Nuggets had taken a one-point lead with three seconds left when Danny Schayes, who normally played like a stiff and a poster child for NBA nepotism, made a superb up-and-under move that would have impressed McHale or Hakeem.

I listened to this game on the radio. As I've written before, Denver, weirdly, played on a radio station that I could pick up in south-Central Minnesota. It made no sense. Sometimes their signal was clearer than WCCO in the Twin Cities, which often crackled as I listened to Twins games. I listened to this one in my bedroom and my parents' bedroom, alternating because I had to switch radios if one lost the signal. It had Denver announcers, which made their crushing disappointment even more enjoyable.

The Lakers win by an absurd 148-146 score.

Game 4, 1989 Western Conference semifinals. The Lakers led 3-0, as they continued their quest for a third straight championship in Kareem's final season. Seattle - led by Dale Ellis and the bald Xavier McDaniel - come out blazing. They led 32-12 after the first quarter. Early in the second quarter, Seattle led 43-14. Twenty-nine points! Many teams facing 3-0 deficits prevail in Game 4, especially if they jump out to an early lead. The team with the series advantage is often content to take the series back home to clinch. But the Lakers ate away at the lead. They finally catch Seattle in the fourth quarter and earn the sweep.

The Lakers swept the first three series that year. After dispatching Seattle, they crushed an up-and-coming Phoenix squad. They advanced to the Finals, to face Detroit for the second straight season. The Lakers were 11-0 in the playoffs while Detroit had a tough six-game battle with the Bulls in the ECF. As a 14-year-old, I had full confidence that a third straight title was at hand.

Then Pat Riley decided the Lakers needed a week of tough practices so they wouldn't get rusty. He apparently didn't trust that five-time champions would be able to prepare themselves with such a layoff. It's a decision that continues to haunt Lakers fans. Byron Scott hurt his hamstring. He missed the whole series. In Game 1, Detroit's guards dominated. But in Game 2, Magic came out aggressive on offense and the Lakers took a double-digit lead. By the third quarter, Detroit had made its way back into the game. As Magic sprinted downcourt, he pulled up lame. The only thing missing was the announcer solemnly saying he acted "like he got shot." There's a famous shot of him pulling away from Lakers trainer Gary Vitti. Magic knows he hurt his hamstring. He knows the team's dreams of a three-peat ended and that Riley deserved as much blame as two bulky hamstrings. Or maybe that's just what I was thinking.

I'm still bitter about that series 21 years later. I'm not asking for an asterisk by the Detroit title, as injuries are certainly part of the game. But I would like all Detroit fans to stop whining about the 1988 Finals, which many claim Detroit would have won if Isiah had not sprained his ankle in the second half of Game 6. He was hobbled in Game 7, a Lakers victory.

The Lakers got swept, so it seems hard to claim the Lakers had a superior team. But think about this: in each of the last three games, the Lakers had a lead in the fourth quarter. Game 2 and Game 3 came down to the final five seconds. But instead of Magic at point, the Lakers had...David Rivers at point guard. Instead of Byron Scott, they had an unproven, pre-Timberwolf Tony Campbell. Think Magic might have fared better in the fourth quarter than David Rivers?

Yes, still very bitter.

This is the first meeting between the Lakers and Wolves. They played in the Metrodome, where the Wolves would set NBA attendance marks as the Minnesota masses swarmed the stadium for a glimpse of the left-handed genius of Brad Lohaus. There were probably 10,000 good seats in the joint, and 20,000 bad ones. But they kept bringing the fans in, no matter how few victories the team racked up.

This video has the Lakers broadcasters, which means the legendary Chick Hearn and a muted Stu Lantz. Today Lantz talks nearly nonstop on Lakers broadcasts as he often dominates play-by-play man Joel Meyers. But with Chick, Lantz apparently had the speaking abilities of Boo Radley. This is another game I remember listening to on the radio (with all of the games I remember on the radio, I feel like a child of the '50s). This game wasn't televised in Janesville, why I don't know. So I listened to Kevin Harlan, a then-young announcer who went on to become one of the top announcers in the country. But he was unknown when he took over the job for the initial season of Timberwolves basketball. His screams, exclamations, grunts, and jokes helped Wolves fans survive the first decade of irrelevance. He eventually took over TV duties, but here he manned the radio. While I'd eventually enjoy his hysterics, they annoyed me in this game, as the Wolves came out and blitzed the Lakers early. The Lakers fight their way back, tie it on a late shot by Magic and win in OT.

Tony Campbell, who'd struggled in the 1989 Finals with Magic and Scott out, became a star this first season with Minnesota. If he'd played like this in the '89 Finals, the Lakers might have won a couple of games.

As I said, still bitter.

This is a three-minute compilation from a game against the Sonics. It was late in the 1987 season and features a team many consider the greatest in Lakers history. They won 65 games and the title. Showtime was still in full force, although it had slowed down some from the early 1980s. By the next season they broke out the fastbreak destruction on a more selective basis, as everyone's legs - from Magic to Worthy's - had lost just a bit of speed. But this is Showtime at its finest, a highly enjoyable display of passing and unselfishness. Yes, Magic has numerous incomparable passes. Anyone who wonders what Showtime was all about should watch this video, because it's all there. No-look passes by Magic. Worthy, Green and Cooper filling the lane with the precision coaches dream about when they sketch out fastbreak drills to run in practice. Forty-foot bounce passes by Magic, the ones where he threw the ball hard into the ground, as if he was spiking a football after a 60-yard touchdown run. Kareem - the 40-year-old Kareem - running the court like a begoggled, elderly Usain Bolt. A.C. Green blowing layups. It's all there.

Another from 1987. Here the Lakers face the lowly Suns. It begins with a clip of Kareem hitting his first career 3-pointer a game earlier. Magic sat this one out with a minor injury. An early highlight is Chick's commentary. He rips the Lakers. Disgusted with them, he demands that Pat Riley put some new players on the court, guys who "want to play." Another reason Lakers fans loved Chick. He was never afraid to call out the Lakers, no matter how many titles they'd won. This game turns into a Kareem exhibition. If you watch nothing else, go to the 8-minute mark, where Kareem knocks away a pass, scoops up the ball and dribbles coast-to-coast for a clinching slam dunk. 

Those are just a few of the classics to bide fans over during the All-Star break. There are dozens of others, like battles against Portland in the 1991 playoffs and the infamous game in 1987 against the Kings, when the Laker scored the first 29 points of the game and led 40-4 after one quarter, the type of score you usually only see in a junior-high girls basketball game. 

And so ends this session of Lakers propaganda.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The dominant men of Tic-Tac-Dough

One of the more thrilling moments in sports is when a heavily favored team loses. While everyone pretends to believe in the cliche anything can happen on any given day, it's still always something of a shock when a dominant team tumbles, whether it was the 2007 Patriots or Notre Dame snapping UCLA's 88-game winning streak.

This extends to other games, even ones that don't involve a shred of athleticism.

While feeling nostalgic for 2004 today, I visited Ken Jennings' blog. Jennings, the Terminator of Jeopardy who won 74 consecutive games six years ago, still pops up once in awhile on other game shows or trivia outlets. He remains an inspiration to geeks everywhere and comes off as a good guy when he appears on TV and in his writing.

I'm not a huge game show nut, but I enjoy watching dominant game-show performances. I loved when a single family racked up win after win on Family Feud, dispatching weaker opponents with ruthless efficiency. While some families invariably had a ditzy aunt who ruined everything or an oafish brother who simply came along because the family needed a fifth member, the dominant teams exuded strength from top to bottom. They became arrogant after awhile, strangely confident in their ability to decipher the feelings of 100 randomly selected Americans. (Did the fifth member of the family ever resent their lot in life? Mom or dad usually stood in the first two spots, but occupying that final slot was like being the kid who had to play right field in Little League. Rightly or wrongly, the kid's thought of as a scrub. So's the No. 5 person on the Feud.)

When those families lost, even the victors were occasionally surprised, in the same way Buster Douglas had to have been a little shocked when he battered Mike Tyson.

But Jennings's loss might have been the most memorable defeat in game-show history. Jennings won 74 straight times, but the one he lost stands out above all the rest.

This was one of the few times the cuddly Jennings hadn't clinched the victory before Final Jeopardy. He'd been pushed, but no one expected him to lose. Nancy Zerg beat him. Nancy Zerg, who lost the next day, confirming the flukiness of her victory over Jennings. I wanted Jennings to keep winning. Wish he was still the defending champion. Wish his reign would have outlasted Trebek's reign as host. But still, watching Jennings lose was one of those memorable TV moments we usually only get in sports. A great champion falls!

Trebek immediately thinks something might be up, correctly sensing that Zerg's quick response meant she nailed the answer. Jennings's face betrays nothing, though he knew when Zerg unveiled the correct answer that his wrong answer would finish him. The crowd gasps when Jennings reveals he guessed FedEx. Surely stunned, he eventually offers his congratulations to his surprised conqueror. This was like when Y.E. Yang bested Tiger in the final round of the 2009 PGA Championship.

My love of game show savants dates back to the early 1980s. As a kid, I spent many summer days watching Tic-Tac-Dough. The guy I remember was a player named Kit Salisbury, a strapping man with nice hair and a good smile. I'd watch Kit kick ass and then I'd go shoot baskets at the city park. He defeated 38 opponents in 1984 before finally losing. Impressive, even if Tic-Tac-Dough's questions weren't designed to stump the Marilyn vos Savant's of the world. Salisbury lost when he misspelled the word...misspell (although I shouldn't mock, since I once lost a Spelling Bee on the word archery). It's safe to say that Jennings probably would have reached a hundred consecutive victories if he had played under the all-knowing eyes of Wink Martindale.

The all-time Tic-Tac-Dough king was an old Navy brainiac named Thom McKee, who won 46 straight times. Here's McKee's Waterloo. At least he went down on a somewhat difficult question
and not an elementary spelling error. The crowd doesn't gasp like the Jeopardy crew did when Jennings failed, but there's a little extra pep to the applause when the new champion is crowned. These people probably got herded into the Tic-Tac-Dough studios with the promise of free orange juice and a sugary snack. They came to Hollywood to see the stars and got stuck watching grown men answer questions many children would find laughable. But now they watched history.

McKee's wife bounds through the crowd, providing comfort for her vanquished man. Wink provides a nice wrapup, recapping McKee's accomplishments despite the inner disappointment that must have crushed him as he realized the show's ratings would plummet without McKee's dominance. Bet he wished they had rigged the game.

The quiz show scandals of the 1950s nearly killed game shows - Dwight Eisenhower even commented on how the scandals were a terrible thing for America. Picture Reagan discussing the implications of a Tic-Tac-Dough controversy. But the game show format proved resilient.
Watching people win hundreds of thousands of dollars is great entertainment. Watching people bizarrely blow the chance at hundreds of thousands of dollars is great entertainment (Deal or No Deal). But nothing quite beats watching a great champion go down, whether at the hands of an underdog on the court or a four-eyed nerd on a mission.