Sunday, August 30, 2009

Wait, what is this? A classic event?

ESPN Classic lived up to its name today. Instead of broadcasting 12 hours of car auctions (I've met one person who watches those, and it's my father), bull-riding and bowl games from 2008, the seemingly ironically named channel showed old matches from the U.S. Open. It culminated tonight with perhaps the most famous tennis match of the 1990s: Jimmy Connors's five-set victory over Aaron Krickstein on Labor Day in 1991.

The match was a classic, in every sense. It had the perfect venue - a raucous New York City crowd egging Connors on. It had the perfect combatants: the over-the-hill, grouchy Connors against the polite, younger, mulleted Krickstein, a perfect foil in the Connors Show. It went five sets, including a tiebreaker in the final set. Connors even had a classic meltdown, calling the chair umpire "an abortion" at one point in the fifth set, an insult that was more confusing than vulgar. A most memorable match.

Which leads, again, to the question: what in the hell was this match doing on ESPN Classic? ESPN Classic has to be the most disappointing channel on television. Imagine if the Lifetime Movie Network only played Stallone and Norris movies. That'd even make more sense than ESPN Classic's current setup. It's always underwhelming and has never fulfilled its vast potential. It's the Ryan Leaf of TV, minus the arrests.

The network could fill every hour of every day with great games from the past. The summer could be filled with classic baseball games from regular seasons of yesterday, or memorable final golf rounds (how about the final round of the 1986 Masters). The winter could be filled with great Super Bowls or classic NBA games. They could play old NFL Films highlights with narrations from John Facenda. They could replay old Roy Firestone interviews where he makes people cry. They could replay the old Home Run Derbies ("Wow, look at Harmon Killebrew. He really got a hold of that one, didn't he Willie?" "He sure did."). They could play old Wimbledons, old French Opens. They could replay classic boxing matches, whether it's Frazier vs. Ali or Hearns vs Hagler.

They could show anything. People would watch. They'd enjoy the games. As long as it was an event, and as long as it even came close to being an actual classic. Instead the channel is littered with AWA wrestling - "and in this corner, Baron Von Raschke!" - and poker. And more poker.

They'll show a mundane Friday Night Fights event from 1997 that wasn't even memorable to the participants, much less to sports fans in 2009. They'll show 10 straight hours of American Gladiators, and the only way you're enjoying 10 hours of American Gladiators is if your parents named you after a Greek god or you're related to Larry Csonka. It's almost as if the channel was created just to frustrate, not to entertain.

People used to criticize MTV for being a music television channel that never played music. But we've come to accept that videos don't play the role they used to in the music business. We accept that MTV now broadcasts reality TV and not much else. But ESPN Classic should be different. And if it's not, the network should at least take ownership of its programming and rename itself ESPN Poker or the Russo & Steele Car Auction Network.

Now I've gotta get back to my TV. Powerball is about to begin on Gladiators. Classic indeed.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

To be a writer in the good old days

I haven't become a fanatic of the show Mad Men yet, even though I have countless friends who provide breathless recaps each week and count down the hours until the next episode.

Mad Men's beloved for many reasons, and for some it leaves them feeling nostalgic for that era. Maybe they want to be allowed to smoke in the office or drink during lunch or admire women who weigh more than 98 pounds. Advertising people - men, anyway - in particular must feel an affection for the bygone era.

I had the same feelings of nostalgia when reading a pair of books that focus on two of the most influential magazines of the 1960s. "The Franchise" by Michael MacCambridge is the history of Sports Illustrated, while Carol Polsgrove's "It wasn't pretty, folks, but didn't we have fun?" tells Esquire magazine's tale. Today both magazines struggle like every other print publication, searching for ways to make money in an online world, where even Don Draper would struggle to sell magazine ads. Both still produce amazing journalism, whether it's S.L. Price's recent piece in SI on Marc Buoniconti or Tom Junod's 2007 Esquire story on a pathological liar who was somehow in charge of security at a nuclear power plant. These stories - and countless more just like them - rival anything produced by the two magazines during their heydays of the 1960s and '70s. Legends like Gay Talese, Dan Jenkins, Michael Herr, and Frank Deford penned magazine pieces that are still some of the best-known pieces of writing in publishing history. But writers like Price, Gary Smith, Junod, Chris Jones and Charlie Pierce produce stories that are as equally as powerful, if not as famous.

So the superb writing remains. What's changed is publishing. What's changed is the world of magazines, the entire world, not just those two publications. And that's what comes through in the pages of Polsgrove and MacCambridge's books. MacCambridge writes, "By 1966, when SI writers went on assignment, especially in college towns across the Midwest, it was big news Writers would arrive at hotels and find their names up on the marquee." Writers as superstars, bigger even than the games and people they covered.

Jenkins is quoted as saying, of late editor Andre Laguerre, "Laguerre told me three things when I started out. One, I couldn't receive too much hate mail to suit him. Two, I couldn't spend too much money on the road. Three, if any editor jacked with my copy, he would have him killed or fired, my choice."

In a world where the only competition in the written world was newspapers, both magazines could be the definitive sources on whatever subject they covered, whether it was the Super Bowl, Ali or Frank Sinatra. Today hundreds of thousands of words will be written on a game before Sports Illustrated delivers its take. And even if the story has a unique angle, a fresh insight or superior writing - which they usually do - it's easy for it to get lost in the online ocean. Not so back then.

The magazines printed money as efficiently as they did stories. Even as late as 1987, SI's ad revenues increased 23 percent. Today, many publications would be happy if ad revenues fell only 23 percent.

Yeah, it's easy to feel nostalgic for the way the publishing world was back then. For the profits and editorial freedom. But it's important not to get lost in the past, even while appreciating it. Writers today seem to have dwindling opportunities to show their work, but great work will always find a home, no matter the media landscape.

There's a post on the site that should be required reading for any writer, for any writer struggling or successful. Hell, it should be required reading for everyone.

It's the fourth from the bottom post and was written by a top nonfiction writer. It's about his first trip to Paris, when he was 50 years old.

"As it is for many of us, Paris was almost entirely a creation of my own imagination, a fantasy capital for the writers I most admired and the poets and artists of every generation."

After later visiting a room where an old friend once lived and wrote, the writer continues:

"I was overwhelmed by a wave of heartbreaking regret. I looked out the same window my friend had looked out of nearly half a century before and was reminded that I would never be a young novelist working and starving in a soft-focus, technicolor Paris. I had missed it. ... When we came home, I told my friend as much. To my surprise, he told me he'd spent his year there feeling much the same way. That whenever he turned a corner, or took a sidewalk table at the Deux Magots, he was overcome by a sick regret at having missed the Paris of Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Stein. The Paris of nearly a half century before, of 1920, of the Lost Generation ... 'You can never have the Paris you imagined for yourself,' he said to me. 'You can only mourn it. You have to learn to love the Paris under your feet.'

Seems to me this is true of our careers as well, that we can never have things as we imagine them to have been for those who came before us. We can only ever have our own work in our own moment, however flawed and hard and colorless that present moment seems to be. To regret too much an age long gone, to miss simpler times that never were, to pine for the days of Rice or Heinz or Liebling, of Sherrod and Laguerre, of the Saturday Evening Post or the New York Herald-Tribune, is to disregard the Paris beneath our feet."

Learn to love the Paris under your feet. They're words to live by, for writers, and everyone else The're words to live by, even when books like The Franchise and shows like Mad Men leave you longing for a different time, and a different place.

Friday, August 28, 2009

I'm sorry the back of my chair hit your foot, sir

I saw Inglourious Basterds a few days ago. Alone.

I enjoyed the movie and was perfectly comfortable flying solo at the Upper West Side theater. I know some people who have never gone to a movie alone and find the entire concept a bit bizarre. I've seen dozens of movies by myself. It's usually by choice, but not always.

The only slightly depressing time was when I went to Titanic, about five months after it'd been released (this was before movies came out on DVD about six weeks after their theatrical release). Not only was I dateless, but I was the only person in the entire theater.

As Leo and Kate fell in love and the big old boat drilled an iceberg and went to its watery grave, I shared the moment with no one. I slurped on my soda, chewed my popcorn and wondered what it would take to find a date. There were no tears - at the film or my own lack of lady luck - and I silently shuffled out of the theater as the usher held the door open.

But there was one good thing about being the only person in the theater: no one sat behind me. I have some type of internal magnet that attracts people to sit in the seats behind me. And more often than not it's people who like talking nearly as much as they like putting their feet on the seat in front of them. Again at Inglourious Basterds, I had settled into my seat, cut off from the other patrons. Empty seats in the front. Empty seats in the back. No one next to me. Until five minutes before the movie started, when a man and woman cozied into the seats directly behind me.

Why? There were dozens of empty seats throughout the venue.

"Where do you want to sit, honey?"

"Maybe in the middle there where no one's around."

"No, why don't we go down to the front. Let's sit behind that tall guy. Maybe we'll have a slightly obstructed view."

A few minutes later, the gentleman's leg kicked the back of my chair as he made himself comfortable. His wife or girlfriend or blind date chattered as the final preview concluded. And his wife or girlfriend or blind date chattered as the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds appeared. He did nothing to silence her, but encouraged her through a mouthful of popcorn as she talked about a problem at work. She eventually quieted down, except for about every 15 minutes when she'd ask a question or deliver a cunning observation. Every few minutes the man adjusted in his seat and his sneakers delivered another blow to the back of my chair.

So why didn't I change seats? It's because of some internal deficiency, which prevents me from moving in such situations or from turning around and lecturing the pair about their movie etiquette. I don't know if it's because I don't want to offend them or I don't want to draw attention to the fact I'm moving because of them or what. Would they care? Of course not. But still I sit there, taking the kicks, listening to the inane conversation that covers up the movie dialogue. Silently I seethe. It's Minnesota Nice gone horribly awry.

Fortunately these types of situations happen less today, now that I'm married. Louise has no problem moving us to a new area of the theater. And if there aren't any empty seats, she'll turn around and chew out the offending parties, reminding them that her next step is to find an employee who will remove the patrons. And she's very persuasive, perhaps because of the accent. This is the same woman who cajoled/bullied Delta into giving her a free upgrade to first-class for a 20-hour flight from Cape Town to New York, much to the chagrin of the friends she'd made in the terminal, who had to trudge to their substandard quarters in back of the plane while Louise reclined and sipped her champagne.

Whenever she does confront a movie moron, I worry for a few moments that the person will put some used gum into my hair, or dump an overpriced, flat 72-ounce soda on my head. But they never do. They sit there silently, watching the movie like everyone else.

Next time. Next time I'm alone and someone kicks my chair I'm going to move. Or ask them to stop it.

Well, I can dream anyway.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Greatest

I recently finished two outstanding books, though their titles seem to indicate that one of the publishing houses is lying. Mark Bowden's The Best Game Ever: Giants vs. Colts, 1958 and the Birth of the Modern NFL is the story of, well, just what it says. The two teams played the first overtime game in NFL history in the 1958 championship game and the contest has long been fawned over for helping the NFL become the fawned-over league it is today.

The other book is Richard Bradley's The Greatest Game: The Day that Bucky, Yaz, Reggie, Pudge, and Company Played the Most Memorable Game in Baseball's Most Intense Rivalry. Again, the subtitle provides ample evidence of what the book is about: the 1978 playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees.

But if that's the greatest game, then how could the Colts-Giants game be the greatest...

It's a great book for baseball fans, even those who - like me - perhaps want to blame that particular game for being a primary reason every Red Sox-Yankees game played since 2000 has been broadcast on national TV, often against the will of the citizens in 48 states. Boston and New York love the rivalry, and TV execs will do everything in their power to make sure you love it too. So the next time those two teams are involved in another five-hour game on Sunday Night Baseball, put a bit of blame on that 1978 classic. But don't take it out on Bradley's book, which superbly tells the story of the game while recapping the countless subplots and backstories of that day.

There's actually a...great supply of sports books about greatest games. For example, there's Jim Reisler's The Best Game Ever: Pirates vs. Yankees, October 13, 1960. The most shocking thing about that book - spoiler alert: The Pirates win it on a home run by Bill Mazeroski - is that the famous Game 7 that year took place on October 13. With the way baseball's postseason schedule has gone lately, there will someday be a book titled "The Most Incredible Game Ever: Pirates, Twins, December 9, 2014."

Also in baseball, is Jerry Izenberg's The Greatest Game Ever Played, which isn't about Game 7 in 1960 or the playoff game in 1978, but instead it chronicles the classic between the Mets and Astros in Game 6 of the 1986 NLCS.

There aren't as many greatest books in basketball, which has less to do with there not being enough candidates and more to do with publishers loving baseball books much more than basketball tomes. One of the candidates is Adam Lucas's The Best Game Ever: How Frank McGuire's '57 Tar Heels Beat Wilt and Revolutionized College Basketball

Most people are familiar with the games in the other greatest books, but Lucas's documents one that's not quite as well-known, though perhaps it should be (I shared a publisher and editor with Lucas and have exchanged some emails with him, but I'm not getting any share of his royalties for plugging his book).

So there are plenty of choices for books about great games and a neverending supply of games that might one day fit earn such a title. But I wonder, what's the worst game ever?

My first instinct is to say every NFL preseason game played, ever. But since preseason games don't count - although the hundreds of dollars on your credit card racked up while attending one do - and are utterly meaningless except when a star player gets hurt, I suppose they can't be considered.

In reality, there's probably only one decent candidate. Most of the books that focus on a greatest game do so because of the historical implications involved, not just because there may have been a fantastic finish sponsored by Alcoa. For example, there have been hundreds of football games that were better played than the 1958 title game, but it earned its admittedly subjective moniker because of what the NFL became in the ensuing years.

So the Worst Game Played has to be the 1950 tussle between the Minneapolis Lakers and the Fort Wayne Pistons, a game that set basketball back to a time before Naismith was even born. This was the infamous game Fort Wayne won 19-18 by using stall tactics, winning by a score that's unappealing to anyone who's ever played or watched basketball, with the possible exception of Dean Smith or Jeff Van Gundy. George Mikan led the Lakers with 15 points (and you thought Wilt dominated his team's offense the night he scored 100), but Fort Wayne - which stormed back from a 13-11 halftime deficit - hit a late shot to prevail.

The game helped lead to the creation of the shot clock, though it's a myth that the device was immediately created.

The shot clock didn't come until 1954, but author and NBA historian Stew Thornley wrote, "Nevertheless, it was reported that a “gentleman’s agreement” was reached between the teams to not resort to such tactics in the future." Thornley has an outstanding recap of the night here.

So if someone would write a book about that game, it'd have to borrow from its greatest cousins and have a subtitle that draws people in and completely describes everything that happened, perhaps something like, "The Worst Game Ever Played: Mikan, Pollard, Mikkelson, Kundla, a cold winter's night and a dynasty denied. How the November 22, 1950 game between Minneapolis and Fort Wayne nearly ruined the NBA but also helped save it."

Monday, August 24, 2009

The night Kurt Rambis was unstoppable

New Timberwolves coach Kurt Rambis is best known for two things: wearing glasses while playing, and being the victim of Kevin McHale's borderline criminal clothesline in Game 4 of the 1984 Finals.

He had a brief run as head coach of the Lakers in 1999, a season ultimately ruined by the appearance of Dennis Rodman. After the Lakers fired him and replaced him with Phil Jackson, Rambis loyally remained with the franchise and served as Jackson's top assistant for several years. He was rumored to be a leading candidate for the head coaching jobs in places like Sacramento, before ultimately landing with the Timberwolves this season. Well, at least he avoided the Clippers.

Maybe he'll help turn the Timerwolves around or maybe he'll make Randy Wittman look like a modern day Red Auerbach.

But Kurt will always have this night in 1988.

Inexplicably, in a first-round playoff game against the Spurs, Rambis - who averaged 5.2 more points per game in the NBA than I did - erupted for a playoff career high 19 points. Fifteen of the points came during a third quarter when Rambis displayed the post moves of Olajuwon, the dribble-drive locomotive force of LeBron, the leaping skills of Vince Carter, and the cutting skills of a young Havlicek. He made seven straight field goals during his 12 minutes of bizarre dominance. He capped it off with an amusing post-game interview, prominently featuring his mustache and self-deprecating humor.

The video proves two things: Rambis actually had more skill than you'd think considering his stats and specs, and an office chair could have averaged 8 points a game playing with Magic Johnson.

Timberwolves fans: Your new coach.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Flashing back with Captain Trivia and Delilah

The only time I drive anymore is when I'm back in Minnesota visiting family. I love driving, but don't miss it too much. When I moved to New York, my car got towed on my first night in the big city - unpaid parking tickets from a previous visit - and the only time I ever drove was to move it directly across the street every two or three days. I don't have to worry about car payments or paying for gas.

But there are times when we desperately miss having a vehicle, usually when we just want to escape the city for a few hours but don't feel like being sardined into a train. We can't just hop in a car and take a cruise through the countryside.

There's another thing I miss about driving: oldies radio shows. Today I heard an ad for Dick Bartley's Sunday Night Countdown on WCBS here in New York. Dick Bartley. Mike Harvey's American Gold. Flashback with Bill St. James. Ron Foster.

Those four hosts - along with the queen of contemporary and tragic requests, Delilah - provided hundreds of hours of entertainment during countless miles on the road. And even today, when I think of each one, vivid memories come, well, flashing back. Not of particular songs or shows, but of life moments.

Dick Bartley and Mike Harvey had similar shows and voices, occasionally making it hard to distinguish them. But when I hear their voices today I'm instantly taken back to my parents's car when I was a kid. Every two or three weeks we'd visit my grandparents, my mother's mom and my father's dad, who lived about 15 minutes apart. We'd often spend most of the day at grandma's house and then make the drive to my grandpa's farm. My dad would always have the radio on oldies and Bartley or Harvey's show was always on syndication. The car filled with "Sugar Sugar" by the Archies, "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" by The Shirelles, "Leader of the Pack" by the Shangri-Las ("Look out! Look out! Look out! Look out!") and other classic songs of the era, many involving fatal car crashes.

I liked the music and still do, but the songs also acted as a spark to my dad's memory. Hearing a particular song - say, "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" - could inexplicably bring about a story centered around a kegger in 1964 he attended with a bunch of friends. He'd turn it up as scenes of hot cars and beer cups filled his head, saying only, "Good tune," as my mom would glance over with a bemused look.

If I turned on Dick Bartley's show tonight and heard a song from that era, it wouldn't just take me back to my childhood: it'd take me back to my dad's youth.

Flashback with Bill St. James was the show of my college years. If I'd visit my parents on a weekend, it was a two-and-a-half, three-hour drive back to school on Sunday nights. Flashback focuses on a particular year and St. James fills the show with music, news and trivia from that era. Whenever I hear Bill St. James's distinctive voice today, I'm back in my red Chevy Beretta, and often with my friend Mike, who was also from Janesville and also attended St. John's. Mike rode back with me and we filled the three hours with talk about sports, Nintendo, bad professors, pickup basketball and the trouble with girls.

Flashback provided the soundtrack to these discussions. It was also on these drives that we became obsessed with the long version of Crimson and Clover, the short version of American Pie, and the lyrics of Sloop John B - Mike analyzed the words "The poor cook he caught the fits. And threw away all my grits. And then he took and he ate up all of my corn" with the intensity of a born-again Christian reading the Book of Revelations.

The timing of our trip usually had us pulling into campus as Flashback was finishing. I haven't heard an entire Flashback show since 1997, but whenever I hear snippets of it today, I'm instantly back in a crumbling, overworked Beretta, listening to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and arguing with Mike about the effectiveness of Brad Radke.

Ron Foster is another syndicated host, and another host I haven't heard in probably 10 years. But at my first newspaper job in southwestern Minnesota, it was often his voice on Good Time Rock n Roll I'd listen to as a I drove to a basketball game, or an interview with a giggling gymnast, or a seven-hour track and field meet. Foster's nickname was Captain Trivia, which as famous Captains go, isn't quite up there with Captain America but is ahead of Captain Jack Sparrow. His show, and shtick, were more entertaining than you'd think. It was presented as being sort of wacky, but behind the canned giggling in the background and planned stuttering, Foster actually had a fairly entertaining take on current events, which he'd deliver while playing 40-year-old songs.

And then there's Delilah, the woman whose line "Love someone tonight" often sounds more like a command than friendly advice. Unlike the others, Delilah doesn't deal in oldies. There's no trivia questions about events and music from 1966. There's nothing wacky, aside perhaps from something an employee's cat did on Memorial Day. Delilah is queen of the heartbreaking dedication. The caller doesn't necessarily know what he needs to hear at this tragic moment in his life, but he knows Delilah will have the answer. She has a vast library at her disposal, ready on a moment's notice when someone needs a song that sums up their existence. Whether it's a wife waiting for her husband to return from war, a prodigal son who hasn't spoken with his parents in 15 years, or a prisoner pining for a glimpse of the sky and a pretty girl, Delilah will have just the song for the moment.

A former co-worker of mine - a male in the sports department, for what it's worth - received Delilah's loyal listener newsletter and occsasionally forwarded it to me with items that, like her show, were often eminently mockable. What song would she come up next for the divorced 19-year-old mother-of-three who's working five jobs and just fell in love with one of her bosses, a 30-year-old father of six?

But the mocking ended, temporarily anyway, during a summer's drive in 2003. I was driving back to Fargo from New York with Louise. We weren't married and our dating had mostly been long-distance, minus long-distance dedications. We didn't call into Delilah. But somewhere outside of Chicago, we got into a minor argument and sat for several miles in silence. She probably wondered why she'd ever gotten in the car in New York.

And then, as I scanned the radio, the caring, smooth, soothing voice of Delilah - which could be used to put Death Row inmates at ease in the moments before their execution - came on. She dedicated "You're the Inspiration" by Chicago, the type of sappy song I'm sure I often ridiculed with friends growing up. But Delilah sees through such mockery, such disdain. She's oblivious to it. She fights through it and still finds that song that somehow sums up your life, or the song whose lyrics say everything you can't.

Like it not, you will love someone, damn it. And as "You're the Inspiration finished", I looked over at Louise, we smiled, laughed, and made up. The fight was over. The rest of the drive was event-free. Six years later, we're married and living in New York.

Delilah doesn't deserve credit for that. But she did provide a soundtrack to some memories. Just like Bartley, Harvey, St. James and Captain Trivia himself.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A taxing situation

A few days ago, my wife met a friend for lunch at Grand Central Terminal. Unfortunately, she didn't return with our 2004 tax returns.

Even after five years in New York, I've only been to Grand Central about a half dozen times. We just don't go to the East Side much. But in April 2005, we traveled there to find the offices of our new accountant, who had space in a large building across the street from the historic terminal. His name was Sam, and I'd use his last name but it was probably fictitious anyway. A friend recommended him, said Sam always handled his taxes in an efficient - and inexpensive - way.

Our appointment was for 7:30, but when we got there his receptionist said he was running about an hour behind, and by an hour she meant three. We went around the block for a walk, admired the view and came back at 9. The small waiting room was filled with anxious-looking people fondling manila folders and plastic bags filled with receipts. A man who appeared to be in his 70s wandered around the office area and walkways with some type of spray. He'd periodically use it on the carpet and in the corners. We figured it was for roaches or some other bug that had taken refuge amongst the hundreds of files that lined the main hallway and Sam's office, which was visible from the waiting area. Everyone else in the office simply ignored the elderly gentleman wielding industrial poison. Maybe he was an old accountant who cracked under the pressure one April 14 and was now given odd jobs around the office. By filling the bottle with harmless water and telling him he was doing a vital job, they helped him cope.

As I sat there with Louise, we joked that the entire office seemed like a scam. The certificates on the wall likely came from an online diploma mill, or Sam's personal printer. On April 16, the office was probably cleaned out, the only thing left behind for IRS agents to find would be hundreds of dead cockroaches.

Sam finally saw us at 10:15 p.m., though by all appearances he'd mentally checked out at about 5 p.m., about the same time he likely started drinking. Short and in his 50s, his hair jutted out at all angles. He looked like a man waiting to be served with a subpoena.

Thousands of pieces of paper weighed his desk down; he could have hidden under the structure and been just fine during an F5 tornado. A glass of liquor and an ashtray occupied the space next to his keyboard. Before we began telling him about our tax situation, Sam launched into a rant involving a morality play where he was the hero. He'd just won a lawsuit against a musician, he explained. And the next day, Sam was going to have the man's car repossessed. He insisted on showing us a manuscript he'd written, another story where he was the hero, this time it was a tale of his days as a music promoter. Judging by the file he showed us, the book likely ran about 2,500 pages. 

After taking a few moments to look over our W-2s and other files, Sam began to nod off, owing more to the alcohol than our boring returns. Finally he turned to his computer and fired it up. It froze, a fact he realized after a minute. He filled the silence with more stories of his victory over the hated musician. Sam eventually rebooted and soon faced the log-in screen.

"What's my name?" he asked. "What is my name?"

I nervously laughed while Louise asked Sam, "What are you talking about?"

Sam still did know he went by Sam, and while he certainly appeared to be going through an existential crisis, this was simply a matter of forgetting his log-in name. I'd have felt more comfortable if he had forgotten his real name.

Sam's partner - a sane, well-dressed man who obviously locked the doors at night and handled the bills and payroll for the office - wandered in and used his log-in to get Sam into the system. Something had beaten Sam down. Whether it was the IRS, whiskey, the music business or the effects of inhaling insect repellent, the Sam who sat in front of us was not a man you'd want handling your most important financial documents.

As he started typing, he exclaimed, "These taxes are so easy! You don't even need me! You don't need me!" He kept repeating the mantra, belittling his own self-worth much more effectively than even we could have. On at least three occasions, Sam entered my previous address as being North Carolina, when in fact it was North Dakota, a pair of states that share half a name but not much else.

"No, North Dakota," I'd remind him.

"Yeah, yeah."

He quickly finished the returns, becoming the first accountant to take longer on a log-in name than a federal return. He broke out a victory cigarette, kindly offered both of us one and assured us everything was now taken care of. All he needed was 75 bucks. He'd handle the mailing.

As we exited, half a dozen people still waited in the lobby, now aware they were in hell, but unaware of just how crazy the devil was.

We returned home, shared a lot of laughs about Sam and went about our lives. We waited for our refunds to roll in. And waited. Finally, in early June I called the IRS to find out when they might be coming.

"You don't have any returns on file, sir."

Excuse me?

"We never received any returns from you."

Instantly it all made sense. I knew where our returns were: buried under 100 pounds of paper on Sam's desk, probably filed under C for Carolina. Or they'd been shredded when Sam panicked during a pre-dawn raid by the FBI. Wherever they were, they weren't with the IRS. The lady on the phone assured me there wouldn't be a penalty; since we were getting refunds, they didn't care when they received the returns.

We called Sam. We e-mailed him. He never returned the calls, never wrote back. Instead we took all of our information to another accountant, a sober one uninvolved in civil suits against musicians. Our money from the government soon arrived, though we never again heard from Sam.

The next time we saw the friend who recommended Sam, we asked him how in the hell he could send us to a man who appeared to be on the fringes of the accounting world, not to mention society.

"Why, what happened?" he wondered.

"Sam didn't mail our return. And then he disappeared."

"Oh, Jesus, I forgot to tell you. Don't ever let him mail your stuff, it'll get lost. You have to grab it from him and mail it yourself."


Shaq channels his inner Homer Simpson

Poor Steve Nash. The two-time MVP was on one of the best teams in the NBA for four straight years and never even had a Finals appearance to show for it. He's universally lauded around the league for being an ideal teammate, the near-perfect representation of a point guard who makes other players a better, a guy who runs an offense with the deft touch of a seasoned Lincoln Center conductor. Injuries doomed the Suns's title chances in 2005 and 2006, and the NBA's draconian suspensions for leaving the bench during a fight finished them in 2007.

Then, in 2008, the high-flying Suns - who were the most exciting team in the league under coach Mike D'Antoni, a Bill Walsh-like offensive innovator on the basketball court - led the Western Conference through the first three months of the season. But that wasn't enough for new GM Steve Kerr, who felt the team needed a force in the middle. Kerr traded for Shaquille O'Neal and dealt Shawn Marion, a moody player who was perfect in Phoenix's running system. Shaq brought his presence, low-post game and tired quips to the desert. Success didn't follow him.

The Suns were eliminated in the first round in 2008. They didn't even make the playoffs in 2009. And during that time D'Antoni was fired and Phoenix, for the most part, became just another team, walking the ball up, forcing it down low to an aging center eight years past his prime. Nash lost his coach, his system, and his best shots at a title.

And then Shaq took his reality show.

A story in the Arizona Republic details how Nash told Shaq about a reality show idea he had last year, which would involve Nash going against other athletes in different sports. Shaq thought it was such a good idea, he took it for himself, and Shaq vs. can now be seen on ABC, the same network that will soon be bringing Tom DeLay back in front of a voting public, this time on Dancing With the Stars. The first show was actually fairly entertaining, as Shaq went against Ben Roethlisberger in...well, it was some type of touch football game.

Phoenix traded Shaq to Cleveland in the offseason and it was rumored that Nash heartily endorsed the move. Nash, like many of Shaq's teammates at other stops, had grown tired of the big fella's comedy acts, the one off the court and at the free-throw line.

Nash does have an executive producer credit on Shaq vs. He must be thrilled.

"That could be me swimming against Michael Phelps," he probably thinks. "That could be me making awkward double fault jokes with Serena Williams."

So Steve Nash, the ideal point guard, the perfect teammate, a hard worker off the court, has had his basketball career and real life turned upside down by the rampaging O'Neal, who, like man giants before him, probably isn't even aware of the damage left behind.

Then it hit me. Shaquille O'Neal is Homer Simpson. And Steve Nash is Frank Grimes, the perfect employee doomed by Homer's, well, Homerism. And while Steve Nash will battle this season just to make the playoffs, he'll look to the East and see Shaq getting to play with LeBron, the third future Hall of Fame perimeter player Shaq's been paired with. He'll see Shaq making everyone laugh. And he'll see Shaq playing beach volleyball against Kerri Walsh and Misty May-Treanor.

It's enough to drive a man crazy.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

One stoplight, one subway station, lots of problems

One of the major subway stations in our area of Manhattan is the 181st Street stop on the 1 train. On Sunday night, part of the ceiling collapsed, raining debris down on the platform and the track and causing major damage. Service has not returned to the station, meaning commuters in northern Manhattan have had to triple the amount of time they spend complaining about public transportation in this part of the city, bringing it up to 12 hours a day. While the MTA attempts to at least put in a temporary fix, subway riders now find themselves being detoured to cramped shuttle buses that move down the street at about 10 miles an hour. It could still be several days until the aging structure - which is a historical landmark - is repaired.

Here's a picture of part of the damage. Fortunately, no people were injured at the time of the collapse. Unfortunately, neither were any rats.

The collapse has brought about the usual concerns about infrastructure safety, with Mayor Bloomberg chastising the MTA for failing to keep up on repairs. It's disrupting tens of thousands of lives, and everyone's left to wonder if their next trip to an underground subway station will leave them dodging stone and panhandlers.

Fifteen hundred miles away, my hometown is dealing with its own traumatic transportation debacle. Janesville's losing its stoplight.

Technically, I suppose, the town has four stoplights, one in each direction at the Main Street intersection. But it's basically a one-stoplight town that will soon become a no-stoplight town because the current sign is nearing the end of its life and it's too expensive to replace. It would apparently cost $100,000 to repair, which seems like a lot for a single small town, but if it lasts as long as the current one, seems like a pretty good deal.

People are not happy with the decision.

To anyone from a town with more than, oh, 2,100 people, it doesn't seem like a big deal to go from one stoplight to none. But there's something jolting about it. You can be a one-horse town but at least you've got that horse. You can sort of look down on those towns where cars speed through, impeded only by their fear of a lurking highway patrolman Now? Well, the Dairy Queen's still standing. And so is the school. And the Doll.

It almost feels like when the stoplights move out, the tumbleweed moves in. Growing up, weekend nights in Janesville meant you'd cruise Main Street, going through those stoplights two dozen times a night, driving slowly down the street, listening to hair bands and saying hello to cars filled with other bored teenagers listening to hair bands. You'd make a U-turn and be back at the stoplight.

Hey, it's what you do in a one-stoplight town.

Like in New York City, the main concern for residents is safety. The county will install stop signs as replacements, and there probably won't be much noticeable difference. In ten, twenty years, few people will probably remember the stoplights were even there, just like in ten, twenty years few people will probably remember that the 181st Street subway stop was out of commission for a week. That all changes, of course, if anyone's ever hurt in either place, whether because of poor construction in New York or faulty planning in Minnesota.

In the meantime, I might have to make a special trip home, for one more cruise through the stoplights and down Main Street.

The best player ever from Vermont is...

Well, whoever it is, he never made it to the NBA.

One of my favorite web sites is

It's a great way to kill one, two, three, or four...days. Not only does it have the career statistics of everyone who's ever played in the NBA, but it has features like head-to-head competitions (beginning in 1986), where you can compare how two players did in every matchup against each other. So if you need to know who won an epic matchup like the one between Mark Eaton and Bill Laimbeer, the information is right there. Or, of perhaps of more interest, the matchups between Hakeem and Shaq.

Another area I get lost in is the section that shows where every player was born.

Now this is where they were born, not where they played high school or college or pro or pickup games. So when looking at Alabama, you can see that Charles Barkley was surely the best player the state ever produced. Alaska's produced one player: NCAA hero Mario Chalmers.

And Vermont? Well, no one.

But my interest is in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes and nearly as many bench-warming centers. When you think of the great big men in the game's history, Minnesota won't come into the discussion. When you talk about the great foul artists in the game's history, then Minnesota makes an appearance.

Randy Breuer, Tom Copa, Chris Engler, Brad Lohaus, Bob Martin, Mark Olberding, Jim Peterson, Mark Randall, Trevor Winter. For NBA historians, it's more a Who's That than a Who's Who. Nearly every NBA team has seemingly had a twelfth man who at one point in time was a gangly goof from Minnesota who would probably have rather been fishing than boxing out.
To Minnesotans, though, many of the names are very famous, but because of what they did while wearing short shorts at the high school level, not for anything they accomplished while being paid to do it.

Here's the entire list.

So who are the best of the best?

Well, unless you're Sid Hartman and think it's Mark Olberding, the answer is obviously Kevin McHale. The dropoff after that is steep, like the dropoff between McHale's accomplishments on the hardwood compared to the ones in an office.

Is it Randy Breuer, the 7-3 high school legend who had a decent career with the Bucks before eventually ending up with the Timerwolves? Meh.

The aforementioned Olberding put together a decent career, with nine points and five boards a game. Jim Petersen played in the NBA Finals, but his contributions to the Houston Rockets in 1986 weren't quite as substantial as, say, Hakeem Olajuwon's. In the olden days, a Hibbing native named Dick Garmaker averaged 13 points per game, but he's not even the best NBA player out of Hibbing, an honor that goes to McHale, although legend has it Dylan had a decent jump shot too.

Devean George has to earn consideration, as he was a key bench guy on a couple of Lakers titles.
Joel Przybilla, this era's tall guy who fouls a lot, makes nice defensive contributions to the Blazers, but Breuer probably still gets the nod over him. I don't know. In a way, it's like asking who was the best quarterback to ever come out of Pennsylvania, only instead of names like Montana, Unitas, and Marino, you're dealing with names like Nordgaard, Lamp and Humphries.

The irony is that players like Breuer, Humphries, Przybilla and Khalid El-Amin were much more accomplished high school players than McHale, who didn't earn stardom until heading east to Boston.

The shortest career goes to one of the tallest: Slayton native Trevor Winter. Trevor is known as being an extremely nice guy, a dominant high school player who graduated in 1992 and a decent contributor to the Gophers' 1997 Final Four team. He was probably also the only member of that team who did his own homework.

His NBA career, however, was more Moonlight Graham than McHale. Trevor played one game. In 1999. It was against the Lakers. He played five minutes. He grabbed three boards but didn't score. But in the proud tradition of Minnesota big men in the NBA, he did rack up five fouls, nearly fouling out in 300 seconds, something Wilt Chamberlain never did in 1,045 games.

But Trevor's one-game effort isn't even the best bit of trivia involving a tall Minnesotan. Arvid Kramer - a 6-9 center from Fulda, Minnesota, which is to Trevor's Slayton what Boston is to New York - is the only player to ever be selected in two expansion drafts and never play for either team. Kramer was a legend at Fulda High school, where he led his team to a third-place finish in the 1975 state tournament. Some of the stories about him are almost Bunyanesque - "He once blocked 21 shots in a game, but no one kept track of that stat back then!" - but the reality was nearly as impressive as any myths. He went on to a standout career in Division II and was eventually drafted by Utah, before settling with Denver. He played eight games and scored 16 points.

But about those expansion drafts. Dallas selected him in the 1980 expansion draft, but didn't have enough roster spots so Kramer went to Italy. He remained overseas the rest of his career. Then, bizarrely, his name reappeared in the NBA eight years later, a ghost of basketball past.

The Miami Heat selected him with the first choice in the 1988 expansion draft, though they had no intention of building their franchise around a 31-year-old former farm boy. According to a story in the June 24, 1988 New York Times, Dallas, "seeking to insure that the Heat would not select Uwe Blab, Steve Alford or Bill Wennington, who were left unprotected, offered Miami the rights to Kramer and their first choice (No. 20) in the college draft Tuesday."

Today that line almost reads like a farce. But, yes, back in 1988, Dallas was determined to protect Uwe Blab, Steve Alford and Bill Wennington. It should be noted that the Mavericks would go on to win 38 games in 1989, 47 in 1990, 28 in 1991, 22 in 1992, 11 in 1993, and 13 in 1994, a stretch that makes the current Timberwolves look like Russell's Celtics. Maverick fans who were there when their management did everything possible to protect Blab, Alford and Wennington probably could have predicted those records.

Here's another good story on Kramer.

So Kramer's part of the best trivia question involving a Minnesotan in the NBA, but he certainly wasn't the second-best player from the state to make it to the league. So who was?

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Doll in the window that haunts Janesville

I grew up in Janesville, Minnesota, a town of 2,100 people in southern Minnesota. The town's more than a dot on the map, but not by much. It still has the high school, a grocery store, some bars that are often home to amusing fist fights between really skinny guys who drink like 300-pounders, and a Dairy Queen.

It's also home to the Doll in the Window, which is probably a copyrighted phrase by this point so I'll capitalize it. I grew up on the same block as the Doll, across the street and two houses up. It sits in the attic of a home on Highway 14, a major road that used to go straight through town but now bypasses it. For years - decades - motorists would always slow down when passing by the house. They'd gaze up, tell their children to look at the window, and scare them with ghost stories. Or maybe they'd tell the kids they'd end up hanging in a window some day if they didn't shut the hell up and stop hitting their sister.

People speculated about what it all meant. Had a child died in the home? Was a girl not allowed to go to the prom and then killed herself (and that the anguished mother then...put a doll up in a window? A perfect response to such a tragedy, I suppose).

The website had some thoughts:
4.) She was even rumored to be hated by the townsfolk and the other children. Due to the pressure of being alone, she hung herself in the attic. After realizing what they had done to their daughter, the parents put this doll in the upstairs attic window as a reminder to the people of Janesville to be friendly and neighborly.5.) It is also said in a very far fetched story, that a demon disguises itself as the doll in the window and curses anyone who comes to look at him. 6.) A girl was neglected by her family and nobody in the town liked her. She apparently hung herself in her attic and nobody said anything for several days. After the body was removed, it was replaced by the doll and has been there ever since.

Number four is my favorite. The townsfolk hated her. Such a Scarlett Letter type concept. What goes unsaid is what the child did to earn such hate. Was she an arsonist who burned down three farmhouses and the town bank? Did she annoy them by constantly pestering them to buy Girl Scout cookies? Was she simply an ugly child? But it fails to tell us if the townsfolk learned their lesson and became more neighborly. And I also like how number five earns the disclaimer "a very far fetched story" when telling about a disguised demon, in comparison to the perfectly plausible tale of a hated child whose parents guilt-trip the townsfolk into remembering what they did to their wretched little girl, which in turn leads to the entire town becoming a more friendly place to raise a family.

The Minnesota State Mankato student newspaper wrote about the Doll, turning it into a way to warn college kids about the evil in the world.

There's even a short film about the doll - sorry, Doll - that's well-done and explores many of the stories around it. Most of the townsfolk interviewed - perhaps some of the same townsfolk who were so mean to that little girl - spoke with tongues planted firmly in their cheeks, but the film is a cool attempt to, as the creator says, spread the myth. Even more exciting, my parents's house is in the background for a few seconds.

The truth is no one knows for sure why the owner, Ward Wendt, put the doll up there. But Ward is an extremely nice man, an elderly man, who is friendly, kind, a huge collector of memorabilia of all kinds, and he surely has a sly sense of humor. My best friend as a kid took numerous trips up to the attic where the Doll resides, and the most amazing thing about the space was not the famous toy, but the grand pianos Ward had placed up there. We couldn't figure out he could have moved those monsters up into the attic.

There was no death, no killing, no demon, no vindictive, child-hating townsfolk with grudges against little girls who don't know their place. The truth will be revealed in 2176 when the city elders open a time capsule in the city park, which supposedly has Ward's explanation in it.

Is the doll a little creepy if you don't live in Janesville and didn't walk past it every day and didn't say hello to the home's owner? Sure. But no more than any other doll, their expressionless faces and vacant eyes staring through your eyes and into your soul, judging, judging, judging.

So if you're ever traveling through southern Minnesota and want to get off the main road for a bit, take the exit into Janesville and go on the old Highway 14. Take a look at the doll. Stop at the Dairy Queen. Say hello to my parents. But don't blame the townsfolk for driving a little girl to her death.

(Epilogue: Check out the post I wrote about Ward for TVFury. Ward died in September 2012 at the age of 84.).

OCT. 15, 2012 UPDATE: As Brittany noted in the comments, the doll is apparently now gone. It's fate...unknown.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Tiger loses, why do I care?

So Tiger Woods fails for the first time to win a major championship when holding the lead after 54 holes. And I was disappointed to watch it happen. Part of me feels like all Minnesotans should apologize to Tiger, for creating a course that had greens that were so difficult for him to read the last two days. It wasn't you Tiger, it was us. It'd be the Minnesota Nice thing to do.

I'm not really sure why I enjoy watching golf a lot more when Tiger wins. An old CBS sports producer once said that golf is the only sport where you cheer for the favorite and root against the underdog. Except I sort of go against that as well.

Even when I don't have any rooting interest in an event, I usually cheer for the favorite. If I think back to the great sports upsets, I was often pulling against the underdog. Villanova-Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Finals. Wanted the Hoyas. Miami vs. Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl, I wanted the powerhouse farmboys to win. Douglas vs. Tyson, I wanted Iron Mike and his sociopathic tendencies. I was not that upset when Tom Watson lost the British Open.

If I'd have been older, I probably would have pulled for the Soviets against the Americans in the 1980 Olympic hockey game and again been cursing Minnesotans for contributing to a historic moment. Fortunately, I never had to choose between pulling for David or Goliath because I'd have probably wanted the big guy to win.

Why is this? I love uplifting, heartwarming underdog stories as much as the next person. When it comes to writing, they're almost always more interesting to write about, and favorites are much more interesting to write about when they lose. For example, the stories about Tiger's loss will be more compelling than the same old ones we read after his victories. And it's not like I pull for the bully in literature or after-school specials.

So why do I usually pull for the favorite? There's probably some psychological reason that has nothing to do with sports, but I have no idea.

With Tiger, especially, I love the dominance. I loved the 14-14 record when leading after three rounds of a major. I love that he'd only lost three times in his entire career from that position. When Tiger's not in a tournament I don't really care much about golf. When he's in it - and in contention - I'll watch every hole and listen to every Jim Nantz pun. So while I appreciate how cool a story Y.E. Yang is, I was disappointed when he drilled the eagle chip today and nailed the approach shot on 18. As I told someone else, if I had been around in 1941, I wouldn't have been pulling for the pitcher in DiMaggio's 57th game, so I don't feel too guilty about pulling against an underdog such as Yang.

I'm sure I'll eventually pull against Tiger. When he's 53, and hasn't won in six years, and no one thinks he can win, and he's about to pull off the greatest upset in golf history by winning the Masters against overwhelming odds, and even those people who hated how much he won in his prime are cheering for him...yeah, I'll probably root against him then.

Until then, I want him winning every event. And crushing all underdogs.

A surprising birthday

Magic Johnson turned 50 on Friday. It's a surprising number, considering people started writing his obituary on November 7, 1991. That was the day Magic announced his retirement, with the oddly phrased line, "Because of the HIV virus that I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers."

Magic Johnson's the only athlete I ever idolized, starting from the time I was five years old. My first memory of watching him is of an old news clip that showed him rehabbing from a knee injury he suffered during the 1980-81 season, his second in the NBA. For the next 10 years, I watched every Lakers game that was on CBS, TBS, TNT, and NBC. I'd plead with my parents to let me stay up for the late West Coast games, blackmail them if needed.

I put up Magic Johnson posters. I read every word in Sports Illustrated, bought countless Basketball Digests, Inside Sports, Sport Magazines, Basketball Registers, and NBA Guides. I patterned my own game after him, as much as a small white kid could pattern his game after him (I threw some no-look passes).

I heard about Magic's retirement from my sister, who called me after school and asked if I'd heard about Magic. Um, no. "He's retiring because he has AIDS."

I figured she was joking, but it turned out she was right, at least about the first part, if technically wrong about the second. I watched the press conference and learned he had HIV, not AIDS, a point that meant nothing at the time but obviously meant everything in retrospect. Magic missed the first few games of that season with what the team kept calling a flu-like illness. In reality, they knew the diagnosis but were taking time to confirm it.

And that was the end of Showtime. The Lakers wandered aimlessly through the next few seasons, led by a thirtysomething James Worthy who had the knees of a fiftysomething, the virginal A.C. Green, and the immortal Sedale Threatt, whose greatest claim to fame was that the Bulls got rid of him because his partying was thought to be a bad influence on the young stars of that budding dynasty.

Dynasties always end in basketball. But the superstars who lead them aren't supposed to die as well. And many people figured Magic didn't have much time. When I cried throughout the night he announced his retirement, I'm sure part of it was for an immature reason: the Lakers were no longer going to win titles. But mostly I cried because I figured Magic would be dead within a year or two, five at the most. I didn't know much about HIV and AIDS, but I knew you died if you had either diagnosis.

Now, eighteen years later, Magic is still here, celebrating another birthday. He remains omnipresent, for better or worse. Usually worse. From his foray as a color commentator with NBC in the 1992 Finals, to his short, failed stretch as a Lakers coach in 1994, to his autobiography where he bragged about so many sexual conquests I was convinced Jenna Jameson ghost-wrote it, to his comeback and pushing of a ref in 1996, to his late-night talk show that was so bad it made Chevy Chase look like a combination of Carson and Letterman, to his current stint as a studio analyst for ABC, Magic is everywhere. And he's often ridiculed for his efforts, from media critics and even some out-there Laker fans, who are convinced he's jealous of Kobe Bryant and analyze every statement for signs that he's not worshipful enough of Bryant.

To me none of that matters. I don't care how many ludicrous projects he undertakes or how many times he makes inane points while awkwardly bantering with Stuart Scott and Jon Barry. He could sign up for a reality show with Heidi Montag and Spencer Pratt and it still wouldn't bother me.

None of it matters. What matters is that he's still here. Still on TV. Still involved as an owner with the Lakers. Still a businessman.

Still alive. And on November 7, 1991, I didn't think there was anyway possible Magic Johnson would ever make it to 50.

Here's some of my favorite Sports Illustrated stories on Magic over the years.

With the Big Fella out, Magic was the Man
Magic faces the music
The Last Dance?
True Lies (the classic Gary Smith story on Magic's 1996 comeback, his second comeback if you're keeping score, after one in 1992).

And some classic Magic highlights, from his playing days, not his talk show.

Magic's hook shot against the Celtics in Game 4 of the 1987 Finals was undoubtedly his greatest shot. But this one is my second-favorite, even though it came in a meaningless regular season game against lowly Washington. This is why I always begged my parents to let me stay up late for West Coast games.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Finally, a post

I set up this blog several months ago, relieved to find that was still available. Although it would have been sort of cool to have something simply called or But I'm not an angry enough person to own those domains.

And if I'd been smarter, I'd have set it up four years ago. In 2005, Lyons Press published my book "Keeping the Faith: In the trenches with college football's worst team." It's the true-life story of the Trinity Bible College football team, which is located in Ellendale, N.D., a tiny town nestled in southern North Dakota. I wish I would have created this blog four years ago because this would be a great place to talk about the book, the story, the characters, what people liked about it, didn't like, etc. And I'd love to still do that here.

But now this will also be a place for much more.

I'm still not sure what the blog will be all about, but it will certainly focus on writing, reading, sports, and life in New York City.

A few words on all of those things.

* I'm putting together a possible book proposal that I hope to send out in the next week. Not sure if anything will come of it - the pessimism I inherited from my dad says nothing will - but it's been fun thinking about another book. I'm also pitching a travel story idea on South Africa. I'll be traveling there with my wife in January, and hope to write a magazine article on some aspect of Cape Town, whether it's the beaches, the hellacious 24-hour plane ride there or the 2010 World Cup.

* I hope to use this blog to highlight any great stories I read, whether they're in newspapers, magazines, books or online. Last week I bought the 2000 book "Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker." There's - obviously - many fascinating stories in it, from a feature on Hemingway to one on Roseanne. The longest is a 25,000-word opus from Kenneth Tynan on Johnny Carson, which was published in 1978. I'm not sure when the last time was a mainstream publication ran a 25,000-word story. Perhaps when the New York Times published the Unabomber's Manifesto. But Tynan's story is fascinating. Tynan was pretty fascinating himself. He was a British critic who died two years after his Carson story appeared in the New Yorker. He was just 53. The New Yorker has the Carson profile online. If you have a few hours - or access to your company's printer - give it a read.

* I was a sportswriter at newspapers for a decade, wrote a book about football, and would love to write a dozen more sports books. I follow the NBA the way most Americans follow the NFL, and worship it the way a poet worships baseball. This blog will eventually be home to countless words on the Los Angeles Lakers, the current edition and the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s. If I get really motivated, I'll even write about the Cedric Ceballos Era.

And I still like to stay active, whether it's hoops, or thinking about playing tennis again. A week ago I ventured to our local NYC playground for an afternoon of pickup basketball. At 34, I was the oldest guy there by about 10 years. My lack of gray hair hid this fact from the other players. My lack of conditioning helped give it away. Even though I'm 6-3, I've always played guard. But whenever I play with strangers, they see me as the "big guy," which means they expect you to be a player of below-average skills who will set screens, grab some boards, and guard the other terrible big - which sometimes means fat - guys. It was the same thing last week. I'm fine with the defensive part of that. Chasing small guards was never my strength, so I'll gladly guard the 6-4 slugs in Rec Specs who pass for big guys in most pickup games. On offense, it's a different story. I like to launch threes. I like to dribble. Little guys don't like big guys to do that, so it puts pressure on your first few shots. Make them and they respect you. Miss them and they hate you. And, worse, stop passing the ball. I made a few, missed some, made some nice passes and earned some grudging respect. It was fun to be back out there. Most importantly, my legs, lungs, and heart survived.

* Life in New York, Part 4,567. Our building's deli - it's at the bottom of our apartment complex - has had five or six owners in the five years we've lived here. First there was Ali, a delightful, funny, angry, bitter, charming man who loved us but insulted many of his customers. The man who owns it now is very nice, if not as entertaining. But two months ago a grocery store opened up 50 feet away, surely cutting into his business. So our deli has come up with a new way to make money: For a buck, the owner will take your blood pressure. Is it legal? I don't know. Is it sanitary? I suppose, since there aren't any fluids involved. Is it insane? Undoubtedly. Are the readings accurate? I actually hope not. Because our building superintendent was in there today, getting his pressure checked. If the deli owner starts offering physicals, either the police or health department will surely step in. He took the super's reading and gave him the bad news, that it was quite high. Unfortunately, our superintendent does not have insurance so who knows what he's going to do. Cut down on salt? My wife was concerned that the deli owner was telling all of his customers about the super's high blood pressure. My response? If you agree to get your blood pressure taken in a deli in Manhattan at two in the afternoon, you're giving up your rights to privacy. And I've never heard of deli-patient confidentiality.