Wednesday, September 30, 2009

An ode to the NBA

For those people who think the NBA season is a neverending death march that's three months too long, and complain every year when the calendar turns to June and the Finals haven't even started yet, the following bit of news is probably as unsurprising as it is upsetting: NBA training camps started this week.

Just three months after the Lakers defeated Orlando in the NBA Finals, the league's teams have returned to camp, even if the referees haven't.

In the final days of September, the NBA ranks behind the NFL, baseball, and college football in the nation's sports hierarchy, and even the NHL - hockey! - will probably get more attention at this stage. I too avidly follow all of those. (Not the NHL. Yes, I'm a native Minnesotan. But southern Minnesotan; we didn't do hockey).

However, for an NBA junkie, this week is a time to celebrate. Out of all my friends and family, I think I'm the only one who still ranks the NBA as the most enjoyable league to watch and follow. It's like being a fan of a cult TV show that's managed to stay on the air year after year. The NFL rules for most. There are those who, come April, show more interest in the third-round draft machinations of the Vikings than the beginning of the NBA playoffs. For others, Major League Baseball reigns and October is the holiest of all months. Even those who rank basketball as their favorite sport usually place the NBA behind college hoops or high school basketball.

But the NBA remains my favorite. The main reason is simply because it is basketball ("no-defense, one-on-one, diva-filled, boring basketball" yell the critics). As a little kid, football was my favorite sport, maybe until the age of 9 or 10. As the Tiger Woods of football-playing toddlers, I could catch passes thrown across the living room even before my second birthday. A future as an NFL receiver - probably a possession-type guy who moves the chains and is inevitably called my QB's "go-to guy" on third downs - seemed assured.

Soon basketball replaced football as my favorite, and the love affair has never died. I still play when possible, and I'll watch any game on TV and attend any level of live action, whether it's a Knicks game, an eighth-grade tournament at the YMCA, high school tripleheaders or college doubleheaders. Sitting in a gym or an arena as tipoff nears feels like home.

Naismith created the perfect game.

Strangely, though, the highest level of play is often the most-criticized. The NBA season's too long. That's one of the big complaints, a lament often muttered by baseball fans, who roll their eyes at the length of an NBA season but revel in a baseball campaign that stretches from February through October and includes 162 regular season games and three rounds of postseason play. And certainly there's little romance or mysticism in the NBA. You'll never hear anyone say, "Only 34 days until centers and guards report!"

"Who wants to watch a terrible game between Sacramento and Milwaukee in the middle of January?" an NFL fan might wonder. In the NFL, we're told, every game counts, every Sunday is another life-or-death battle in a five-month war. Stakes are high. There are certainly bad games throughout the season in the NBA and many that are ultimately meaningless. But because there are so few games in the NFL season, atrocities like the Raiders-Chiefs game from two weeks ago are an even bigger stain on the league. Each team only has 16 games, and that's the type of action fans see in many of them?

Many people stopped following or enjoying the NBA shortly after Magic and Bird shuffled off the stage, and if they stayed past that they left when Jordan said goodbye the first time, or when he said farewell the second time (no one really cared when he left for a third time).

I understand that reasoning. The NBA in the 1980s remains my favorite era of any sports league. But while I still break out my videotapes from those years and remember the plays from games played 25 years ago, I've never stopped following the league. I savor it as much now as I did then. Teams don't fastbreak like they used to, and there's nothing quite like the Magic-Bird rivalry. And, yes, in today's NBA too many power-hungry coaches control every aspect of the offense, insisting on calling each play, limiting the flow of action as the guards walk the ball up the court while staring at the sideline for direction.

No matter. The talent and level of play is as good as ever, maybe even better. Catch an old game from the 1970s on ESPN Classic or online sometime. See the lack of intensity on defense. Watch how many players struggle to dribble with their off-hand. Today many 6-11 players can handle the ball in ways that six-foot point guards from the past couldn't have dreamed of doing.

Some people still cling to the idea that no one plays defense in the NBA, an out-of-touch belief that probably started with grizzled high school coaches in the 1960s who didn't want their crewcut-wearing players picking up bad habits from the big boys. Few teams fastbreak anymore - which I again blame on coaches who are afraid to let their players actually play the game - but the speed, power and quickness of today's players continue to evolve at a startling pace.

Some of the greatest players in the game's history have ruled the NBA the last 10 years, from Tim Duncan, to Shaq, to Kobe, three of the best ever at their positions. Then there's LeBron, Chris Paul, Kevin Garnett, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce, Dirk Nowitzki and on and on and on.

The influx of high school players and one-and-done college stars has led to cries about a lack of fundamentals - aside from things like, oh, ball-handling - but the infusion of talent from Europe and South America provides the league with a pool of talent that was completely unavailable in the 1980s.

Another complaint? The NBA is home to too many unsavory types, a sentiment often said by NFL fans who have had their sense of irony dulled by too much beer and Bradshaw.

College basketball and football produce unmatched rivalries. The atmosphere at most college games is superior. And March Madness continues to somehow live up to the hype every year.

But give me the paid pros. The product on the court is superior to the college game, the sheer individual superiority and skill on display in an average NBA game is way above any collegiate battle, even between the top teams in the nation. Passing, defense, shooting, strategy. It can be jolting watching the difference between pro and college basketball, no matter how loudly Dick Vitale screams about the greatness of the amateurs.

While the do-or-die format of the NCAA tournament heightens the tension, the NBA playoffs are a drama played out in multiple parts, with series shifting each night, coaches bickering, and players bragging. By the time the series ends you can be almost certain the team left standing is truly the best. There are no flukes in the NBA, with the possible exception of Mark Madsen's career.

Numerous problems hurt the NBA, from shaky refereeing to financial difficulties facing many franchises. Games could be more uptempo. But every pro league and college sport has just as many issues, if not more. Unlike the NBA, though, those leagues aren't fighting with 25-year-old ghosts.

Duncan's bank shot, Kobe's midrange jumper, LeBron's drives, Chris Paul's crossovers, Garnett's defense, Shaq's dunks, Ray Allen's 3-pointers, Steve Nash's handles, Phil Jackson's smirk, Gasol's left-handed jump hooks, Nowitzki's fadeaway. They're the best players and coaches in the world performing at the highest level in the top league. In a little more than a month all of those sights will again be on display.

I just wish the season wasn't so short.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Speech competition gone bad

In his column on Detroit's surprising 19-14 victory over Washington on Sunday, Yahoo writer Doug Farrar references the beloved children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

I couldn't make it past Farrar's first paragraph. Just seeing that book title brings me back 20 years, to a Saturday afternoon, to a day of humiliation and a subpar speaking performance. In seventh grade, our speech class teacher - who doubled as the speech team coach - convinced me to join the club, luring me in with promises of travel and fame and the idea that all my friends were doing it.

I'm not sure what he originally saw - or heard - that made him think I'd be a standout member of the speech team. Maybe it was readings in church. Whenever our class had to conduct various parts of the Mass on a Sunday morning, I invariably ended up doing the readings. Partly it was because many of the kids simply couldn't string four sentences together while reading silently, much less publicly. Partly it was because I came from a long line of church readers, as both of my parents often trotted up to the microphone to read aloud Paul's various letters to the Corinthians or a message in Philippians. Being a kid reader during these Sundays was a position of repute. Let others bear the gifts. Give me the microphone.

I acquitted myself well during those outings. And I had no fear of public speaking at that age. The innocence of youth.

By the time I got to seventh grade, I wasn't quite as confident in my public speaking. There was no traumatic incident and no embarrassing voice-cracking in front of hundreds of bored Catholics. But I was now more aware of the fact I was speaking out loud. I was more aware of the fact people were judging, silently (this could perhaps be called paranoia, not sure).

Still, I eagerly agreed to join the speech team. My category involved reading a story aloud. I didn't have to give an original speech, simply had to interpret another writer's work. No problem.

The book I chose: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst. My coach told me it was a great option, as the book provided lots of humor.

In an ideal world - a world of elite speech team members - I would have memorized the entire text. Unfortunately, I did have to rely on notes, although I committed most of the story to memory.

At my first competition, I vomited. It was in Blooming Prairie, Minnesota, a small town best known for being home to the least-intimidating nickname in the history of organized sports: The Awesome Blossoms. Yes, they're Blossoms, the school admitted, but they're also awesome.

The projectile vomiting had little to do with my performance or the pressure. At least that's what I told myself at the time, attributing the sickness to too many candy bars. In truth, I was already starting to succumb to the pressure. At the competition, each person gave their little speech in front of the other participants and the judge, who was usually a coach from another school. An obvious conflict of interest, which appeased me whenever they gave me scores and notes that might as well have been summed up as, "Well, you tried hard."

I tried. Damn it, I tried. I emoted. I wanted my audience to feel the pain of Alexander's terrible day. Alexander wakes up with gum in his hair, I wanted my peers to picture the poor kid's pain and disgust. He wants to move to Australia, I wanted my audience to convince their parents to move them Down Under. They chuckled politely. The judge noted that I did have some potential, whatever that meant.

Each competition was the same as the last. Toward the end I was just counting down the events, waiting for the season to be over. Then I could return to my shell and I'd only have to worry about public speaking whenever my religious ed classmates drafted me to do an annual reading.

The final event was at Mankato East High School. This was a big school, a huge regional competition, where we'd give several readings of our work. A chance to shine.

What better place to humiliate myself?

Coming from a small school I could navigate with my eyes closed, I wasn't prepared for the largeness of East's facility. I was a wide-eyed tourist staring up at the skyscrapers, struggling to find my bearings, and my designated classroom. I went from floor to floor, occasionally asking other dumfounded or unhelpful students if they knew where my room was. Panicked, I was now in the middle of my own terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, but I was too young, too scared and too rattled to appreciate the irony.

Finally I found my room. I burst in, sweating.

And walked in on a young girl with glasses giving her speech. She stopped. All of the eyes in the room went from her to me, and there was anger in those eyes. I sheepishly apologized and found my seat. When I glanced back at the judge, the woman continued to stare at me and shook her head side to side, as if she'd just been exposed to a heretofore unknown insect, which repulsed and fascinated her. I wasn't exactly sure what I'd done wrong, but I knew it must have been something bad.

Should I not have just barged in like that? Was that wrong? It was my first year of speech competition, I wasn't aware of all the Byzantine protocols that governed the competition.

When my turn came, I delivered the same performance I gave every other time. Was it Pacino-in-Godfather II quality? No. But I expected the same laughter, condescending or otherwise.

But the audience's reaction was different. No polite chuckles. No flirty smiles from any of the girls. No laughs from the judge. It was like I was reading the upcoming lunch menu for Mankato East High School. A seasoned standup comedian could have turned this to his advantage, by perhaps insulting the audience and storming off, maintaining some semblance of dignity while simultaneously losing it.

I, a frightened 12-year-old, simply shuffled back to my desk.

Once everyone had completed their speech, we collected our results from the judge.


It looked like a ransom note, only filled with more anger.

She provided the needed number scores, but there were no other words. No encouraging messages that I should stick with this speech thing. No admitting that she chuckled at the way I empathized with Alexander's troubles. Just those three sentences, written in type that was larger than the top letter of an eye doctor's chart.

Had I been wrong in walking in? Yes. Did I deserve such a castigation? Perhaps. In my defense, I couldn't hear a thing through the door, so I had no idea of knowing if anyone was speaking, and the glass on the door was that milky glass that's impossible to see through. Was I supposed to discern movement behind that and then pop in? Excuses? I had excuses. But obviously I was in the wrong.

However, her condemnation broke something in me. I felt like vomiting again, this time because of the written whipping I'd just received. Back home, my parents wanted to see the judges' notes. I showed them a couple of them, ones I'd given in different classrooms before my fateful encounter. Those ones had the same scores and polite notes as always They didn't see that bad one. No one did. On the ride back to Janesvlle I crumpled it up, then tore it into a dozen pieces.

It was my final speech competition of the season. It was my final speech competition ever. At least I went out in a blaze of failure.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Sunday nights were always a miserable time

I hated 60 Minutes as a kid.

It had nothing to do with Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley or even Andy Rooney's eyebrows.

Hearing the famous tick, tick, ticking served as a televised reminder that the weekend was nearly over, and that in 14 hours, I'd be walking to school. Homework I neglected for two nights needed to be completed.

It was a time to reflect. Saturday had been such a good time, so had Friday night and Sunday afternoon. We watched some college football or college hoops. Maybe we traveled to grandma or grandpa's for the weekend. Maybe I'd gone to a youth basketball tournament. Maybe we'd gone to the big city of Rochester to watch my uncle's basketball team play. Whatever I'd done, it had been fun. But now, it was 6 p.m., and all that was gone. Replaced by algebra and confusion. Sunday nights were a time to complete an essay for English class, one the teacher assigned two weeks earlier and expected one day later.

60 Minutes haunted and taunted me. Time was running out, for corrupt used car salesmen about to be exposed by Mike Wallace in front of a national audience, and for me.

Football season was especially torturous. If the late NFL game on CBS slid past 6 p.m., it set the entire night's schedule back, meaning the start of 60 Minutes brought me even closer to the end of the weekend. Pat Summerall patiently reminded viewers that 60 Minutes was coming up immediately after the game, except for on the West Coast, which existed in an alternate reality and would be treated to Quincy reruns.

60 Minutes wasn't alone. ABC often chose Sunday night to show old James Bond movies. Moonraker, Goldfinger, The Man With the Golden Gun, From Russia With Love. All classics. They are movies I've watched a half dozen times each and even today if I come across any James Bond flick on TV - even a Timothy Dalton one - I'll put down the remote for at least a half hour. But when ABC showed those movies on Sunday nights in the 1980s, I loathed 007. His arrogance, his womanizing. Because if Bond was on my TV, it meant I'd be in school the next day. I took out my frustration on her Majesty's finest man. I all but cheered for Goldfinger's laser.

ABC's chief programmers installed a Pavlovian response in me. When I heard the theme song or saw Sean Connery's face or Roger Moore's mug, I started to panic, knowing my homework wasn't done and that, barring a snowstorm, school was just a few short hours away.

I wasn't alone with this. My dad often got Sunday night headaches, as the nerves in his head apparently hated the first night of the week as much as I did. My dad knew the same thing I did: Nothing's worse than Monday mornings, but Sunday nights aren't much better.

Things have changed in the past 20 years. Slightly. Now I can appreciate 60 Minutes for its journalistic excellence, and no longer view the program as an enemy of my personal freedom. But when I watch my Sunday night shows now - whether it's Cold Case or 22 consecutive hours of Law & Order: Criminal Intent on cable - I still do realize that the end is again near. Monday awaits. A long work night awaits. The occasional Sunday night headache strikes, another trait I inherited from my dad.

The major difference is that while I used to be up at 7:30 for school, there's now only one Monday a month when I wake up early. And by early I mean before 11 a.m.

It's one of the lessons I've learned as an adult: Sunday nights aren't so bad if you rarely see Monday mornings.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

College football in upper Manhattan

With perfect weather in New York today, I went to Columbia University's first home football game of the season.

Although this isn't a picture of the stadium from today's game against Central Connecticut State, the crowd was pretty similar.

Actually there were 3,000 people in attendance and the stadium, nestled in northern Manhattan in a picturesque setting near the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, is a great place to watch a game. It's Lawrence Wien Stadium, but the field itself is named after Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots and a Columbia grad who only had to give up $5 million for the naming rights. Technically, the entire complex is called Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium at the Baker Field Athletics Complex. With any luck - or a donation from another NFL owner - another "at" could be added along with a fourth name, perhaps a new parking lot or a men's bathroom could be named in honor of the donor.

We live a block from the stadium, which has been home to Columbia football since 1984. Before that the team played near its campus at 116th Street, where a decent future baseball player named Lou Gehrig was a standout fullback for the Columbia football team. But since winning the Ivy League title in 1961, Columbia's had just three winning seasons, although it still managed to become a nationally known program. Between 1983 and 1988, Columbia got sand kicked in its face on a regular basis by fellow Ivy League nerds and lost 44 straight games, a Division I-AA record at the time.

I blame the baby-blue uniforms, which fail to intimidate the opposition and sedate the Columbia players.

A game at Columbia doesn't exactly rival a contest in the Swamp in Florida as far as intensity and atmosphere. Then again, while Columbia hasn't produced anyone like Emmitt Smith or Tim Tebow on the field, Florida hasn't produced four U.S. Presidents, nine Supreme Court justices, 96 Pulitzer winners and 78 Nobel Prize winners. But who's counting?

I went to the game with my friend Chris, a Dutchman who only started watching football the past couple of years. He's already as passionate about the Giants as any born-and-bred New Yorker with a stereotypical accent who paints his face on Sundays and was raised on tales of Y.A. Tittle and Lawrence Taylor. He's become a true football fanatic. This was his first time attending a college game.

We enjoyed $4 hot dogs and $4 cups of soda and found a seat near the 30-yard line, surrounded by no one. The three hours of action that followed were a great representation of five decades of Columbia football. The Lions led 13-0 late in the second half and had dominated to that point. In the first quarter, they stopped Central Connecticut four times from the 1-yard line. Connecticut helped out by calling the same play four straight times - a run up the middle, in an apparent nod to play-calling from the 1950s.

But after going up 13-0, Columbia had its extra-point blocked and returned for a safety. That for some reason turned the momentum and it didn't take long before the awkward-looking 2 on the scoreboard was replaced by a 9 thanks to a late first-half touchdown. Central Connecticut dominated the second half to win going away, 22-13.

In addition to the troubles on the field, the game represented a career low point for whoever the poor soul was operating the scoreboard. On at least a dozen occasions, the exasperated referee announced "Please reset the game clock," as the itchy trigger finger in the booth kept running the clock when he shouldn't and stopped it when it should have kept running. It added a junior high element to a high-level college game but somehow seemed fitting for the poor Lions. Columbia's now 1-1.

The sparse crowd began filing out with about 2 minutes left in the game and the outcome decided. We stayed until the end. It's not big-time college football, but it is live college football and on a day with perfect weather, it didn't make sense to leave early.

I'll go to their other home games this season.

Columbia will fight another day. And on that day they'll probably lose. But there are worse ways to spend a perfect Saturday afternoon in northern Manhattan.

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Something: An unauthorized history of the thing that altered the fate of the misunderstood people of the Western World

As I search for ideas for a second book, I keep coming across a particular genre of books that simultaneously baffle and intrigue. I've read several of them. Some are really good, others aren't.

Louise is convinced my second book should fit into this classification.

I don't think there's an official name for these types of books. Basically, they are detailed histories of a particular subject - whether it's an animal, a product, a plant, a disease - that also offer in-depth looks at how the subject fits into the current world. They can be serious, quirky, strange, funny, tragic, and dramatic, and some of them possess all of those qualities. They also often have over-the-top titles that seem to inflate the importance of the book's subject. But once you read the book, you actually think, "God, he's right, the tuna has played a critical part in our world's history."

And they're not about subjects that anyone would realize make good subjects for such a book. A history of the Roman Empire? Sure, makes sense. Same for a detailed history of the auto industry.

From 2002. Perhaps the best known of these books. It could even take credit for kickstarting the trend, as many of the other entries were published in the past few years, presumably in part because of the success of Salt.

I haven't seen any books devoted exclusively to the history of pepper, but there is:

Spice: The history of a Temptation
From 2004. Temptation isn't the first word that comes to mind when thinking of spices, but this book "demonstrates that, even in ancient times, spices from distant India and Indonesia made their way west and fueled the European imagination." They also improved sex lives.

Mark Kuriansky wrote Salt. He also penned Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.

Fish lovers have lots to choose from. If cod's not your thing - or you're skeptical that it changed the world - how about Tuna: A Love Story, from 2008. I love tuna. In sandwich form, especially. The book's not about forbidden love or Bill Parcells, but is a call to action, as the author, Richard Ellis, shows how the tuna might be doomed in the ocean.

The tuna is sort of beloved. How about an animal that's hated? For that, there's 2007's Rat: How the World's Most Notorious Rodent Clawed its Way to the Top.

If I lived anywhere other than New York, I'd read that book. But I have no desire to know just how cunning and indestructible the rat really is. Not when I see at least one a week on the streets, acting like it owns the city. Which they do.

So crawling rodents. How about Flying Rats?

I don't know, is it really the most revered bird? Give me the eagle. And reviled? In New York, certainly. But in the world?

For foodies, there's Bananas: An American History.

If that book seems too American-centric, how about the dramatic Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World

Most people don't think of the banana in such terms. Most people are just too short-sighted.

And while the banana changed the world, did it save the Western World? No. What did?

Need a burst of energy?

The dark history of coffee. Which is different than Skin: A Natural History

Speaking of stimulants, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography
Although short and simple, that might be my favorite title of these, as it leaves open the possibility that somewhere out there is an authorized biography of cocaine. One that enjoyed the full cooperation of coke and its friends, heroin and crack.


Lots of interesting details in that one, though I'm not sure how many people are surprised by its impact. If milk was once used as fuel for cars, then it might be a surprising story.

Sick of friends and family who criticize you for your love of mini-donuts and french fries?

Reading these books can be frustrating for potential authors. A two-hour brainstorming session sparks a dozen ideas for new books. A quick check of Amazon crushes them in a few minutes. Everything's been written about, seemingly.

And, finally, a book that received a lot of publicity and even more snickers last year. But it's a book that's actually quite fascinating.

Again, it seems like there's nothing left to explore here. Once you've written the book on human waste, where else is there to go?

Perhaps my only remaining opportunities (copyright pending):

The Semicolon: An Unauthorized Biography of the World's Most Confusing Punctuation

Or Appendix: A History of the Body's Most Worthless Organ.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

One tennis rally: 643 shots, 29 minutes long

Think of the unbreakable records in sports. Cy Young's career victories mark. The Celtics - the hated Celtics - winning eight straight titles. UCLA's 88-game winning streak (and 10 titles in 12 seasons). Wilt averaging 50 a game. Wilt averaging (insert own joke here) after the games. Gretzky's record for points. 

There's an overlooked one, which I never even knew about until today. Longest point in professional tennis history. You're thinking maybe 60 shots. One hundred, tops.

The answer: 643. The point lasted 29 minutes. And this was a real match, not some David Blaine-esque stunt. Twenty-five years ago today, Vicky Nelson and Jean Hepner engaged in the...epic, ridiculous, disgraceful point. The New York Times revisited the match in a cool little story today. The match, which only went two sets, took six hours and 31 minutes to complete. The tiebreaker in the second set took an hour and 47 minutes. These numbers are more unfathomable than Cy Young's 511 victories.

A documentary needs to be made about this match.

Here's the Times story

Staying in Montauk, thinking of grandma

We've spent the last two days and two nights in Montauk, just a 9-iron away from the Atlantic Ocean. It's a trip we take a couple of times a year, once the summer has ended and prices for small motel rooms no longer look like typos. We don't do much during our time here, other than sit in the room with the door open and listen to the waves crash in. We read and write and relax.

The last time we were here, in May, we got off the bus and headed to a little restaurant for lunch. As a pizza arrived, Louise checked her cell phone and saw that my parents had called during our drive up. I checked the messages and heard my dad's voice, telling me my grandma had suffered a stroke earlier in the morning and it didn't look good. A few minutes later I called and talked to my mom, who was in the room with her siblings as they shared the final heartbreaking moments of their mother's life. Mom said it was only a matter of time. Like always, she was thinking of someone else, a trait she got from her own mom. She told me to have a good time while we were in Montauk and that she'd keep me updated.

An hour later she called again. Grandma had died. She was 91. She led a great life. She slowed down physically over the years but no more than any other 90-year-old. Parkinson's affected her. So did a bum knee. But mentally she was as sharp as ever. I'd seen her in April on a visit home and we spent two hours talking about sports, life in Fulda, and old family pictures. The Minnesota Twins were her favorite team. She watched every game, knew every player, knew every weakness the team had. She made the best French Toast in North America. She was a great listener.

We spent at least one weekend a month at grandma's during my childhood. After college I lived with her for more than a month. It was just the two of us, sharing every meal, watching TV together, enjoying each other's conversation, just like always.

She was full of life, and I got word of her death while standing on the beach. A picture-perfect setting pierced by the worst possible news. We stayed one night and flew back home the next day.

It's been four months now and of course still seems like yesterday. I haven't been home since so it still doesn't seem completely real. The next time we're home it will. There won't be anymore trips to see her, and knowing that will bring the day of her death back again. In the days following that call, I talked with Louise about how I'd probably always associate Montauk with grandma's death. It'd be impossible to sit in that sandwich shop and not remember the call from my parents. It'd be impossible to stand on the beach and not remember hearing my mom's tears as she said grandma was dead. Selfishly, I wondered if Montauk would be a tarnished place now. Would I only associate it with bad memories of May 19?

September now. And I went to the same place for lunch. Stood on the same beach. We even have the same room we had during that May stay. And I have thought a lot about grandma during the past two days. But nothing's been tarnished. It's terribly sad, knowing she's no longer here, knowing I can't stop in and complain about the Twins' lack of offense on my next trip home, knowing my mom and her brothers and sisters have now lost both of their parents.

But how could this place, this town, this motel be tarnished? Whenever we're here, I know I will think about grandma. I'll think about her extraordinary life. I'll think about her old house and her chocolate chip cookies and her sly sense of humor and easygoing nature. Being here will bring back all of those memories.

And, yes, it will bring back thoughts of the day she died. Montauk was where I heard about her death. But now, it's the place where I'll forever think about her life.

It'll spark memories that remind me of how important she was to me. Tarnished? No. It's just another reason to savor my time here. I'll come here to read, and to write, and to relax. But now, on every trip, the days here will remind me of grandma. And instead of fearing thoughts about her death, I will cherish the memories of her life. Grandma never set foot in Montauk. But for me, she'll always be here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Yes, that's a frozen frog in your frozen veggies

When I talked with my parents a few days ago, my dad excitedly said that they still wanted to get some sweet corn from the local Birds Eye factory, which is 10 miles from Janesville. This is a big deal - the sweet corn months are like a fifth season in southern Minnesota.

Birds Eye sweet corn really is in a class by itself. If I took a blind taste test, I'd pick out the Birds Eye corn every time, and then ask for some butter and salt.

But I also can't ever eat any Birds Eye product - from the sweet corn to the frozen veggies - without thinking back to three summers. In 1991, 1992 and 1993, I spent my summer months clocking in at the Birds Eye in Waseca, working a variety of jobs in the factory. I put in time on the dreaded cob select and packaged Cool Whip containers. I worked on pea select. I stood on a loading dock and shoveled frozen corn cobs for 12 backbreaking hours. I did all of this while angry middle-aged women in hardhats and hairnets glared and lectured. It's tough work. Often miserable. Occasionally dangerous. Anyone who can do it full-time and not just in between school sessions has a better work ethic than I do and deserves thanks and decent pay.

As a friend said the other night, and is a phrase my mom repeated over the years, it's the type of work that leads you to say, "I need to go to college so I never have to do this again."

My first Birds Eye shift came a few weeks after the end of my sophomore year of high school. I'd applied for a gig there and was told I'd be "on call," meaning I was at the company's mercy. If they called, you reported for duty. Immediately. At about 9 p.m., as I played tennis with my cousin, my mom rolled up in the family car. That's odd, we thought.

"Birds Eye called!" she yelled as if announcing we'd just won the lottery. "You need to get there right away!"

I should have faked an illness. Or a rotator cuff injury. Matt looked at me in shock. He was losing so part of him was probably happy. But I felt like a death-row inmate who's just been told the governor turned down his final request for clemency. Over the years, the phrase "you might have to get a summer job at Birds Eye" had been used as a threat. Now it was reality.

About an hour later, I stood in a meeting room as the Birds Eye secretary assigned me the basic tools: a hairnet, a blue hardhat, a pair of gloves and some Abdul-Jabbar goggles. They felt like shackles, only more demeaning. My first shift ran for 12 hours and was on the cob select. There's no hidden meaning in those words. The job entails standing the entire shift, watching thousands of pieces of corn roll past on a conveyor belt. Your job? Pick out - select, if you will - the bad ones.

There goes one! Grab it! Jesus, you missed it! Get that one! For every bad one I did find, I'm sure three got by. Hopefully my eagle-eyed co-workers caught those. About eight hours into the shift, I stepped back from the conveyor belt. The entire machine was moving in the opposite direction. Strange. But wait, it's changed again. Why is the conveyor belt now motionless while I'm floating sideways? It was simply a side effect from standing at a conveyor belt for that long.

That first summer I rotated between cob select, pea select and Cool Whip packaging. I developed a system with my cousin, where he would hang up after one ring, then call right back. That way I knew it was him, and not the Birds Eye receptionist, waiting to condemn me for another night. But usually my need for money overwhelmed everything else and I'd take her calls, hear the assignment and trudge to the plant.

Why me, I'd whine to myself on the 10-minute drive. I never should have given up that paper route in the seventh grade.

One night I lost control of my car and drove into the ditch. After saying thanks to the car gods that I didn't flip or drift over into the other lane, I sort of secretly hoped that the accident might get me out of work that night. There were no cell phones so I just had to wait for a car to drive by. A few minutes later a friendly man in a truck stopped.

After asking if I was all right, his next words were, "You headed to the plant?" The plant? Birds Eye? Jesus, how did he know? Did I already smell of processed corn?

"Yeah, Birds Eye."

"So am I! I can pull your car out and give you a lift into town." Ah, what luck.

So much for my plans. The good Samaritan pulled the car out, made sure I retrieved the hairnet and hat and gave me a lift. I was only late by a few minutes. My parents collected the car from the side of the road and I collected corn cobs for the next 12 hours. If I wanted to get out of work, I was going to have to do better than a minor car accident.

The next two years I worked full-time during the summer. Five days a week, no longer on call. No phone chicanery could save me. Shortly after my arrival each day, I checked the giant sign posted inside and outside the factory. The sign trumpeted how many accident-free days the plant had enjoyed. Inside, they also listed the record for most consecutive days without an accident, which was Ripken-like in its length and I'm sure has yet to be surpassed (don't ask me to remember the exact number; exposure to cob fumes over the years affected longterm memory). Whenever I'd see "Zero Days since the last accident," my stomach dropped a little. Was it a minor incident or something severe? Did someone get cut? Or did they lose a finger? And what job were they on and would I be on it that night?

The factory produced more bullies than an elementary school playground. Many supervisors were thoughtful, concerned bosses who kept the machines running but managed to do it while maintaining a semblance of humanity. Others were power-hungry jerks who took out their life frustrations on the screwups assigned to work under them each summer. In the same position, I might have taken a similar attitude.

Junior year I packaged Cool Whip, although the Waseca plant no longer produces the delicious product. After my senior year of high school, I worked the overnight shift in the mixed vegetables area, packaging the frozen goodies. Initially, I was assigned the machine that wrapped the boxes before they went out the door. My complete lack of mechanical ability led to countless debacles that first night, as I fell behind, meaning the entire team fell behind, meaning schedules were screwed up, meaning frowning managers in ties were called to the scene, meaning heads were going to roll along with the veggies, meaning something had to be done, and now.

Instead of letting me go, they moved me to a different part of the rotation and stuck another high school kid on the machine, a guy who hadn't nearly failed Industrial Arts class. The company basically rewarded my incompetence, something countless workers identify with every day as they cover up for hapless co-workers. Sixteen years later, my apologies, Mark.

On that job, we rotated each night to a different part of the area, so you wouldn't stand in one place for 12 hours like on cob select. It increased conversations and cut down on hallucinations. One of the rotations sent you to a separate room, where the frozen veggies dropped onto a conveyor belt before being fed into the bags consumers buy at the grocery store. Armed with just a spatula, the worker sifted through the tonnage to find things that didn't belong. One night I discovered a frozen frog. Perfectly preserved. Fossilized. Sort of sad. But fascinating. But certainly out of place among the peas and corn. I grabbed it and threw it away, while wondering...what's getting by that we aren't catching?

A quality assurance worker - a real, trained worker, not one of the summer hires - inspected many bags throughout the night. In theory, she would find things such as frozen amphibians. But did she catch all of them? I don't know. But I do know my mother-in-law doesn't eat frozen vegetables anymore after hearing that story. Oh yeah, they do sometimes get through: Woman finds frog.

The nine total months spent at Birds Eye helped pay for college, which helped keep me from ever having return to the factory, (hard)hat in hand.

My dad worked at Birds Eye when he was a young husband and father. One night my grandpa called and asked him what the hell he was doing working there and not going to college? My dad needed to support his family. But just like my mom, grandpa knew you went to college to avoid having to work there. You didn't quit school to go work there. Dad eventually returned to his studies and got his degree. His kid returned to the factory two decades later. Nothing much had changed at the plant in the years since. As summer jobs go, it wasn't the worst thing ever. Although, if I had quit school to go work there, my dad would have given me the same lecture his dad gave him.

I still love their product. But I'm grateful I never again have to worry about producing it. So enjoy the final days of sweet corn season. And look out for the frogs.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Metrodome: the best worst stadium in sports

Following a three-game series against Detroit over the weekend, the Twins only have three games left in the Metrodome, barring a postseason appearance. Being that they're now three back, it seems likely that those final games in October against Kansas City will bring an end to the Twins's reign in the beloved-by-none structure.

Any tears that players or fans shed will be as artificial as the turf.

The Vikings remain in the Dome, as do state high school football championships and a few conventions. Some monster truck events still call it home. But it's the end of Major League Baseball.

Most people are overjoyed to see the Twins leaving the Metrodome. Opponents long ago tired of losing fly balls in the roof and falling victim to the stadium's other quirks. Minnesota fans want to enjoy their three months of warm weather. They'll bask in outdoor baseball in June, July, and August. The rest of the time? Well, they'll pack that quilt grandma made them for Christmas and those April series against the Royals played in 35-degree weather will be baseball at its finest. And most miserable.

Sports Illustrated a few weeks ago had a poll of 380 players who were asked to name their favorite stadium. Every park got at least one vote - even Tampa Bay's disgrace of a home. Well, every park but one: the Dome. Not even a pity vote?

That poll is just one more example - maybe the final example we'll get without a postseason appearance - that the Metrodome was the best homefield advantage in baseball. An argument could be made that it was the best homefield advantage in any professional sport. Football fields are all 100 yards long whether the stadium's indoors or out and most good teams are just as capable of winning on the road. In the NBA, recent champs like the Spurs, Celtics and Lakers were nearly as dominant on the road as at home. And as historically important as Fenway and the old Yankee Stadium were, do the Sox and Yanks have great home records because of the stadiums or because they simply have dominant teams?

On Baseball Tonight on Sunday, Peter Gammons noted that the Twins, Yankees, Red Sox and Angels have the best home records over the past five years. But during that time, only the Twins have been below .500 on the road. And they're well-below .500. The others all have winning records away from home. Three of those teams have been among the best teams in baseball since 2004. The Twins, on the other hand, have been a pretty good team, with two postseason appearances in that span. Yet their home record is as good as the big boys'. How much credit goes to a good pitching staff and Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, and how much credit goes to the Teflon-roofed stadium with bad seating, worse turf and a giant garbage bag in right field?

Watching a game at the Dome really was an average-at-best experience. The hot dogs - unoriginally called Dome Dogs - were decent. But the highlight for fans attending games there - especially during the the disastrous 1990s, aka the Rich Becker Era - was having the powerful air bursts built up by the pressure inside whooooooosh them out the doors. It was three hours of tedium followed by three seconds of bliss and wide-eyed wonder. Could Wrigley offer that experience?

Would the Twins have won two World Series if they had played in an nice, retro outdoor stadium in 1987 and 1991? Impossible to say for sure, but the circumstantial evidence is pretty overwhelming. Undefeated in eight games in the Dome, winless in seven road games.

Record-loud crowds spurred on the Twins - they were louder than a jet taking off, as the TV folks reminded us time and time again. The insulated environment led opposing players and managers to act as if they'd been institutionalized. And in the last 10 years, the Dome has again caused normally stable people to rant and rave about its roof, field quality and noise. Nothing warms the heart of a Minnesotan more than a camera shot of an opposing manager looking baffled or outraged seconds after his team has been victimized by a lost fly ball or a series of infield hits that were possible only because the ball bounced 25 feet in the air after hitting the turf a foot in front of home plate. We enjoy those shots as much as a good hot dish.

In high school we had the chance to play a pair of games in the Dome. Sophomore year, our coach put me in at second base as a late-inning defensive replacement - this was still during my good glove, no bat phase. No more than 100 fans sat in the crowd. Yet I was completely unable to hear our excitable coach screaming instructions at me from the dugout. All I could do was put my arms up, asking, "what?" We won that year, partially thanks to a dome homer: one of our guys hit a routine ball that the outfielder lost like hundreds of major leaguers before him, resulting in an inside-the-park homer.

As a senior, we lost and I went hitless in front of, again, no more than 100 people, all of whom had a relative somewhere on the field. The lowlight of that game was our coach putting my cousin at first base. As one of our main pitchers and a huge Twins fan, his dream was to pitch a game at the Dome, but the start went to our junior hurler. To top off his emasculation, Matt had a DH hit for him. There hadn't been anyone that upset in the Dome since Kirk Gibson lost his mind in the dugout during the 1987 ALCS. Mention the game to Matt today and a 2,000-word email rant will arrive shortly after.

CBS Sports columnist Scott Miller wrote a massive piece on the Metrodome several weeks ago that superbly covers every famous game and episode in the stadium's history. Reading it makes it clear why 29 other teams hated coming to the Dome.

The new Twins stadium will no doubt be architecturally impressive. The sights will dazzle. The hot dogs will sport a new name, and maybe even a new taste. It will feel like a real baseball game, the way it was - cue up the poets - meant to be played. Fans and opponents will love it. In a few years it might even get a vote in a Sports Illustrated poll about the favorite stadiums in Major League Baseball. In other words, it will feel much like every other new park. The new stadiums built during the last decade-and-a-half sometimes feel as cookie-cutter as the old places like Three Rivers and Veterans, and the old domes like the Kingdome and Astrodome. They offer great experiences for the fans, but not much in the way of homefield advantage.

For better or worse - usually worse - the Metrodome was unique. When most people think of it, they'll probably remember the bad roof, the hefty bag in right and the ridiculous turf. Minnesota fans will remember Kirby's Game 6 homer and Hrbek's grand slam in 1987. They'll remember Whitey Herzog's whines and Ozzie Guillen's complaints. They'll remember two World Series titles. Two titles that wouldn't have been possible without the worst stadium in baseball.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

And the Oscar goes to, Keeping the Faith!

Not to ruin the ending for anyone who hasn't read it, but in Keeping the Faith, Trinity Bible College goes winless for the 2004 season. One of the main characters gets hurt the night before the final game in a freakish accident, and the head coach loses his job.

That's the real-life, book version. But in the upcoming movie adaptation*, one of the main characters makes a dramatic, Willis Reed-like return to the sidelines in the final seconds of the final game and Trinity scores on a Hail Mary (the school's not Catholic, adding to the irony - it's explained in the movie). The Lions - for some reason now named the Tigers in the movie - dramatically defeat the same team that embarrassed them 105-0 the season before while also snapping a three-year losing streak and sending everyone home happy and even more full of faith. Leonard Maltin lazily but enthusiastically calls the movie a "touchdown," while Ebert writes "the race is over. Give the Oscar to Paul Giamatti."

*There's no upcoming movie version

It could happen. Today I saw The Informant!, a highly entertaining, funny film starring Matt Damon that's directed by Steven Soderbergh. The movie is based on the best-selling book of the same name - minus the cheeky exclamation point - by Kurt Eichenwald. The book details, in 600 pages, how a bizarre man named Mark Whitacre helped bring down Archer Daniels Midland, but turned out to be a massive embezzler himself, who was completely unable to tell the truth. Damon, sporting extra weight around his midsection and on his head in the form of a bad toupee, portrays Whitacre. The movie sticks to the basic plot points, but plays up the absurd aspects of the story, of which there are plenty. Some criticized Soderbergh for taking too light of an approach, saying he missed on a chance to really take on corporate corruption. It's another "based on a true story" movie that borrows heavily from its source material while also tweaking it for Hollywood purposes.

One of the books I break out at least once a month is called "Based on a True Story*. Fact and Fantasy in 100 Favorite Movies." Authors Jonathan Vankin and John Whalen write about dozens of movies taken from real-life stories, many from books or magazine articles (Did you know the movie "Pushing Tin," starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton as cowboy air traffic controllers - there are such guys, apparently - was taken from a New York Times Magazine article?). They dismantle the falsehoods in the movies and praise those that pay heed to the reality.

For example, Donnie Brasco, based on a book by former undercover FBI agent Joseph Pistone, is an entertaining drama starring Johnny Depp and a sad-sack Al Pacino, who portrays a mob guy about 45 levels below Michael Corleone. In the movie Pacino the mobster and Depp the G-Man have a paternal relationship, with Al offering sage advice to an up-and-coming fake hoodlum. Not so much in real life. And while Pacino's character is set up to be killed at the end of the movie, in real life he died of old age.

In Remember the Titans, the inspiring team wins many games in the closing seconds under the wise tutelage of Denzel Washington, including the state championship. In real life they outscored their opponents 357-45 and won the title game 27-0. They dominated. As Vankin and Whalen point out, those details wouldn't make for a very exciting final act, especially not with Disney involved.

Some writers get upset when their stories are changed like that, others don't mind.

For a few fantastic weeks in the fall of 2005, I thought I'd at least get the chance to find out if I'd care if filmmakers made dramatic alterations to Keeping the Faith. Shortly after the book came out, the wife of famed producer Lawrence Gordon emailed us, inquiring about film rights to the book. At the time we didn't realize his title actually was "famed producer Lawrence Gordon." But a quick search later, and we had visions of the big screen flashing in front of us. Gordon produced Die Hard, Predator, 48 Hours, The Warriors and Field of Dreams. She said their production company was searching for new sports ideas and that my book sounded like an intriguing possibility.

I immediately started casting. Giamatti quickly signed on in the fantasy to play the head coach. I pictured the first sitdown meeting with the screenwriter - probably at a hip cafe downtown; he'd pay - who'd want to dig for more information as he translated the book to a screenplay. Would they fly us to the set? Do they fly the authors to the set? Probably not. Could we drive to the set? Would we even be allowed on the set? Could we retire after selling the rights, or would it be only enough money to buy a new house? Could I object to dramatic changes in the real story? Does artistic integrity mean anything to anyone anymore? Would there be a cliched love story inserted into the movie, one that didn't exist in the book? Would the team mascot be a cute puppy, rescued by a player with a heart of gold? So many questions.

Never did get any answers. A month or two later, after some more back and forth, the Gordons declined to pursue the rights. Today the person in charge of dealing with film and TV rights for the book's publisher still occasionally emails, saying there's some interest, but it's never gone beyond those tantalizing emails.

Maybe someday I'll be sitting in a theater and the words "based on a true story" will appear right before a sweeping overhead shot of the fields surrounding Ellendale, North Dakota comes into focus. And if in the movie version Trinity wins a game or the star player falls for a rival team's sexy yet thoughtful cheerleader and a subplot emerges centered on a 45-year-old former rock star who found God and returns to play quarterback...if all that happened on the big screen, I'd squirm a bit in my seat. "This didn't happen in the book," I'd whisper helpfully to the people surrounding us. But I'm thinking I'd eventually enjoy the show, no matter how based in reality the based-on-a-true-story movie really is.

Just remember, the book's always better than the movie.

Friday, September 18, 2009

So a community college student walks into a bar...

Last night I unfortunately missed the premiere of NBC's "Community." The sitcom focuses on a lawyer who returns to community college because his degree wasn't real. Hijinks ensue. Critics give it decent reviews, and the show also marks the return of Chevy Chase to the land of the living (if he can be in this, is it too much to ask for him to get the lead role in the long-rumored remake of "Fletch?").

Community college advocates expressed concern that the show would portray two-year schools in an unflattering light. In the same way PETA writes letters of protest whenever a celebrity dons a fur coat or a cow is milked against its will, I pictured community college leaders penning notes of disappointment and outrage to NBC. Only they'd be misspelled...because they're from community colleges! (Could be a decent joke for the new show, NBC.)

I attended Worthington Community College in southwestern Minnesota for two years. Nearly everyone on my father's side of the family attended WCC, which now carries the longer and geographically vague name Minnesota West Community and Technical College. Louise took classes at a community college while pursuing her nursing degree. Over the years, I've heard pretty much every joke possible about two-year schools. I've made some of my own.

When people ask where I went to school, I say "St. John's. The Minnesota one," and will only occasionally mention that my college life started at a JUCO. Community colleges often still remain more punchline than destination.

And my time at WCC included many bizarre moments that might only be possible at two-year institutions. A chronically confused professor of mine once asked a question that a student answered, "I think it was Teddy Roosevelt." To which she replied, "No, no, it was Theodore Roosevelt." I engaged in passionate debates in history class with a 45-year-old woman who had three kids and thought she knew everything. She might have been right.

Housing choices were limited. No dorms. Sophomore year I lived with four other guys in a house that had four bedrooms. I discovered that only after agreeing to move in. For nine months I slept in the dining room. I had my bed, a side table, and a poorly constructed curtain that provided less privacy than a hospital gown. My roommates stayed up until three, four in the morning, ending their nights by watching comedies or action movies, meaning I went to sleep with the sounds of belly laughter or explosions ringing in my head.

However, in the 16 years since I first started school in Worthington, I've come to a realization: I'd love for my (for now theoretical) child to go to community college. The price is the most obvious reason. At a time when private schools and state universities continue to raise tuition to the point where parents have to offer to sell their second-born to allow their firstborn to go to college, the low, low costs of community colleges welcome you with open arms.

It's easy to transfer to a four-year school. Kids do miss out on freshman hazing. They have to make a new group of friends when they transfer. They have to attend orientation as a 20-year-old surrounded by wide-eyed 18-year-olds. They have to listen to clich├ęd jokes about community colleges. There are worse things in the world, like being the poster child for documentaries about college students weighed down and destroyed by debt. So why not take advantage of the financial breaks?

But community colleges don't have to just be treated like a cheap prison sentence ("I'm doing a two-year stint up at Bronx Community College. I hope to get paroled in a year.") Students actually...learn quite a lot at community colleges. Smart, passionate professors teach there. The best journalism teacher I had taught at Worthington, a former newspaper editor who had superb insight into the business and was extremely encouraging with my writing from the first class I had with him. True, the rest of the class was filled with kids who would hold a newspaper upside down if told to read it - "the words don't make sense" - but as I learned at St. John's, every class in every school has swell students who make their peers go, huh? Another English professor inspired me with his life story, and his writing.

And you can make friends for life at community colleges, just as easily as you can at a fraternity or sorority and there isn't even any paddling. The four guys I lived with in the four-bedroom-and-one-dining-room home were all great guys. One became a longtime friend.

Attending WCC gave me the chance to play college basketball for two years. My old coach, Mike Augustine, remains a valued friend. He's also an example of what community colleges can do for people. At the same time he was coaching us, he was a fellow student, a middle-aged guy who returned to school to get his teaching degree. He earned his associate's, and went on to a four-year school, followed by a successful career as a teacher. Augie was a nontraditional student who experienced a traditional benefit of two-year schools: his life improved.

A few months into my freshman year at WCC, I wanted to transfer to St. John's. My parents explained that it wasn't financially viable at the time. For a few weeks I was upset. But as I settled in and became comfortable, I grew to love my time at WCC. Sixteen years later, I'm even more grateful I spent my first two years there. My student loans were half of what they would have been. The lessons I learned in my classes remain with me. I extended my basketball career. I made friends for life.

Community college advocates shouldn't fear "Community," unless Chevy Chase's performance mirrors his effort on his talk show. Any publicity helps, and community colleges are havens for odd people and strange situations - a sitcom really should have been set in one long ago. They just happen to also be the perfect schools for hundreds of thousands of students, of all ages.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

And people thought the Herschel Walker trade was bad

Six or seven years ago during a late night at The Forum, while waiting for either a Dodgers-Giants game to finish before 1 a.m., or a Fargo girls volleyball coach to call in with the details of how his scrappy club fell in three games ("Laura Smith had 67 digs." "Is that possible in three games?" "Yes."), I cracked open a Timberwolves media guide and stumbled upon the page that lists every trade in franchise history.

It's the kind of information an organization with the track record of the Wolves should suppress. Year-by-year, transaction-by-transaction, the entire page features a blueprint for failure, all presented in tiny type. It was like discovering the minutes to the meeting when execs decided that New Coke was what the soda-buying public really needed.

While catching up on some stories about the Ricky Rubio....insert own word: debacle, fiasco, unfortunate incident, I went searching for the list contained in that old media guide. And here it is.

Every trade in Minnesota Timberwolves history

People everywhere ridiculed Kevin McHale's front-office reign, but the team's history of odd decisions, laughable draft picks and outrageous trades dates back to when Hibbing's finest was still wearing short green shorts and collecting paychecks from the Celtics. Maybe the poor guy never had a chance. Call it the Curse of Brad Sellers. Or the Curse of Gary Leonard. Some highlights:

Jan. 4, 1990: Traded forward Brad Lohaus to Milwaukee for center Randy Breuer and a conditional one-time exchange of second-round draft picks in 1991 or 1992.

One of those rare deals where no one wins. Rare for most teams, though strikingly frequent for the Wolves. "Well, we have a tall, below-average white guy who can do nothing but shoot threes but was born in this state, and we have a need for a really tall, below-average white guy who is also a homestate guy. How don't we make this trade?"

Feb. 22, 1990: Traded center Steve Johnson and a conditional 1991 second-round draft pick to Seattle for forward Brad Sellers.

The winter of 1990. Lohaus for Breuer, followed by Johnson for Sellers. In the history of the NBA, has there ever been a seven-week span when one team took part in a pair of trades that were so inconsequential? Johnson, a center, led the NBA in fouls in 1982 and again in 1987. Sellers had decent athletic ability, but his claim to fame was being the guy Michael Jordan didn't want the Bulls to draft in 1986 (he wanted Johnny Dawkins). When that tidbit is featured prominently in the second paragraph of a Wikipedia entry, the guy's career likely didn't live up to expectations. In 14 games with the Wolves that season, Sellers averaged 3.4 points per game. He returned to Minnesota in 1993, a shell of his former self, as his average plummeted to 2.5 points per game.

June 2, 1990: Traded a 1990 second-round draft pick to Philadelphia for guard Scott Brooks.
Nov. 10, 1990: Traded a 1991 second-round draft pick to Philadelphia for forward/center Bob Thornton.

These two teams apparently had a suicide pact. The Wolves fleeced you there, Philadelphia. Brooks is one thing. But then they stole Bob Thornton from you as well, only five months later? Good thing the Wolves didn't have another second-round draft pick to offer, or they would have traded for Mike Gminski to top it all off. Thornton played 12 games that year, scoring 16 points and committing 18 fouls, a Steve Johnsonesque pace fouling pace, a not-quite-Wilt-like scoring pace.

Nov. 15, 1992: Traded guard/forward Gerald Glass and forward Mark Randall to Detroit for guard Lance Blanks, forward Brad Sellers and a future second-round draft pick.

Sellers returns! Not quite as successful as Fran Tarkenton's second stint with the Vikings.

June 30, 1993: Traded center Felton Spencer to Utah for forward/center Mike Brown.

A big stiff for the Big Brown Bear. The Wolves of the early 1990s had more overmatched centers than any franchise since the Lakers of the 1960s sent victim after victim out to be dismantled by Bill Russell. And, oddly, they kept trading them for other centers of equal or even worse value. Speaking of which...

Feb. 23, 1994: Traded center Luc Longley to Chicago for center Stacey King.

Stacey King was a dominant, scoring machine in college for the Oklahoma Sooners. He was not such a player for the Timberwolves.

June 29, 1994: Traded a 1996 second-round draft pick to Seattle for the rights to center Zeljko Rebraca.

Nearly a year to the day that the Wolves acquired Brown, they picked up the second part of the Twin Towers. Unfortunately, Rebraca never played for the Wolves. But would it surprise you to learn he played two seasons with the Clippers? And has any team made more bad trades using second-round draft picks than the Wolves?

Nov. 1, 1994: Traded a conditional 1996, 1997 or 1998 first-round draft pick to Dallas for center Sean Rooks (restructured the conditions on June 29, 1996: acquired center Cherokee Parks from Dallas, who received Minnesota's 1997 first-round pick.)

So the Wolves acquire Rooks, then a few years later the after effects of that deal lead to them grabbing Cherokee Parks. No, the Wolves didn't win the title the following season.

When McHale took over in 1995, the trades actually improved, meaning the team acquired players who actually functioned on the court and helped them win games, from Marbury to Gugliotta. Drafts remained...sketchy, but the trades improved.

For the most part.

June 25, 1997: Traded center Stojko Vrankovic to the Los Angeles Clippers for center Stanley Roberts.

Former LSU coach Dale Brown wrote in his memoir that he used to motivate Stanley Roberts by telling him he was better than his teammate, Shaquille O'Neal. It didn't work.

Rooks, Parks, Longley, Spencer, Breuer, Leonard, Paul Grant, Stanley Roberts, Stojko, Andrew Lang, Olowokandi, Ervin (not that one) Johnson. A pattern exists somewhere in that list. A pattern that reveals the clues to success in the NBA and life itself. There has to be a secret message in there. Something. That can't just be a list of centers the Timberwolves have willingly acquired over the years. It's not only a blueprint for failure, it's night reading for a masochist.

It's the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Would you pay $1,000 a year for a ping-pong membership?

By combining the sport of table tennis with an exclusive social club, SPiN New York has created something entirely original. We are introducing the concept of advance table reservations, up to 5 days or 5 minutes in advance. If you have a date, a highly anticipated grudge match, a limited amount of time to play at lunch or if you just want to sneak in a pre-dinner match, making a reservation will fundamentally change your experience of playing table tennis in Manhattan.

That's the motto of SPiN New York , taken from the club's website, not an Onion article. Membership is $1,000, or $100 per month, unless the entire family wants to join. That costs $1,500. Benefits include overnight paddle storage and locker room access, perfect for those marathon matches that end with both warriors drenched in sweat, wondering where they can keep their sacred weapon until the next battle. Or rentals are available. Fifteen bucks for a half-hour of standard tables, $50 per half hour for a stadium court (stadium court?).

Several recent magazine and newspaper stories have mentioned SPiN, many of which focus on table tennis becoming the next big thing. A Star-Tribune article quotes a tournament's organizers who hope to turn ping ping into "the next poker." Presumably that means they want ESPN to eventually devote 68 hours of programming each week to an event that leaves millions wondering: Why in the hell is ESPN broadcasting this again?

But any mocking I do of SPiN is brought on only by jealousy. I never wanted to be a Boy Scout, nor did I have the ability, skills or courage needed to earn merit badges. I never wanted to join a fraternity and they wouldn't have wanted me. I've never really wanted to join a country club. But joining an elite ping-pong club? This is my dream. It's not a lifelong dream, because until I read about SPiN a few weeks ago, I never even knew such a thing existed.

My life of ping pong dominance started when I was 8 and my parents purchased a table for the Fury basement. I don't even know what compelled them to buy one. As best I know there wasn't a long line of family table tennis stars. The only things I remember about the original installation are my father's curse words, as mom and dad haplessly negotiated the awkwardly sized beast down a flight of steps that were narrower than a Hollywood starlet. They live in the same house, and the table sits where it's been for the last 26 years. It has more clean laundry on its surface now, but otherwise looks the same. If they ever do move, they've long said that the table is staying. The only way it will go back up those steps is in multiple pieces.

I took to the sport immediately - like Mozart to the piano - though I could barely see over the top of the table those first days. It didn't take long until I was beating my dad on a consistent basis. Part of him probably felt fatherly pride. The other part - the vocal part - just muttered more curse words. I'd easily beat friends, neighbors, mom, cousins, and uncles, one of whom was so upset he stormed out of my parents' home and drove back to his college dorm. In fourth grade, and again in fifth, I won our county ping pong tournament, beating high school kids and adults. The local paper took my picture. Ping pong was my ticket to fame. Dressed in black one year, I was a miniaturized version of Federer at the U.S. Open, a heartless killer. I tracked down every shot, possessed a Sampras-like serve and put foes away with a dominating forehand.

As childhood gave way to my teen years, I next conquered classmates during gym class. They were easy prey. Too easy, to the point of boredom. Eventually I squared off against our phy ed teacher, a former top college wrestler and a man who became an Olympic-caliber performer in whatever sport our gym class had each week, from dodge ball to badminton. He possessed outrageous athleticism and enjoyed his well-earned status as a sporting god. And ping pong might have been his best sport. Legend had it that he'd never lost to a student. He was the Soviet hockey team, the Dream Team, a young Tyson and the 2007 Patriots rolled into one. Then I beat him in seventh grade. And eighth. And again in ninth. I started to wonder if I should drop out of school and join some camp that catered to ping pong prodigies.

In college, though, I began facing players with similar talents. Maybe I wasn't ready to challenge the Chinese in the Olympics. In Fargo, while working at the newspaper, I re-established my dominance, becoming the premier player employed by The Forum. Though to be fair to my opponents, all of the matches took place at parties and my foes usually had a blood-alcohol level higher than their point total. But they'd yell the same curse words, the same ones previously said by my dad, friends and classmates. It felt good to be back on top.

Today I only play when I'm back home and my dad or my nephews or niece want to play. I've certainly lost a bit from my game. It's hard knowing you peaked at something when you were 13 years old. On a recent trip, the unthinkable happened and I lost a game to two of my nephews, although to undermine their newfound confidence, I hinted at the possibility that I'd thrown part of the game in an attempt to build up their self-esteem. I know, it's confusing to me, too. In reality they were legitimate victories, and I said the same curse words my dad did nearly three decades earlier, though at a louder decibel.

Ping pong is a sport made to be played in basements. Players should have to beware of low ceilings. They should negotiate dangerous corners and track down wayward shots that go behind the furnace. I can't say I understand the need for an elite club on Park Avenue devoted to the sport. But God do I want in.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

More frightening moment: Redrum, redrum or floating child?

One of the more anticipated new TV series this fall is ABC's "V," a remake of the series that tormented children in the 1980s with its story of aliens taking over Earth while using humans for food and sucking the planet's water out for their own use. The original remains one of the best miniseries ever. There's likely no way the new series will match the popularity of the original, nor will it duplicate the surprises.
The most iconic moment in the original V was when Diana, the evil yet charismatic - and fetching - leader of the V, stunned America by devouring a guinea pig whole. Take our water? Ok. Store our bodies in human Tupperware containers so you can feed us to your starving people later? Ok.
Eat our guinea pigs? Now, we KNOW they're evil. Watching the above clip again, it's hard not to be struck by how low-tech the special effects were. It is, in fact, almost laughable the way her head expands as the little piggy plummets downward. No matter. For a generation of kids who watched her eat the poor creature - and enjoy it - Diana's meal was one of the more memorable moments of their TV childhood. But even aside from that scene, the entire series oozed creepiness, with the aliens methodically taking over after saying they came in peace. Eventually the humans fight back, Earth is saved and the compelling miniseries spawned a so-so regular series, which didn't last long.
But the original series remains one of the more frightening television moments of my childhood. The other most haunting programs and movies?
1. Salem's Lot. The miniseries starred Hutch, also known as a brooding David Soul. It's based on Stephen King's classic book, one of the first of his career. The miniseries was nominated for Emmys and received rave reviews. But as a kid, one scene remained with me for years and made me leery whenever I'd go near a window at night.

Unfortunate vampire child Ralphie Glick floats outside his brother Danny's window, commanding him to let him in, all the while scratching the glass while grinning like he possesses a really amusing secret. Watching Diana eat a guinea pig today is more amusing than frightening. Watching this kid hover outside his older sibling's window? I have to pause it several times. And tonight, if I hear scratching outside, I'm turning on the lights and going under the covers. This scene was followed by other ones that remain seared into my mind, among them the gravedigger sitting in his rocking chair, having already been vampireized, and Danny Glick - the boy in the bed in the clip - sitting up in his coffin, just as part 1 of the miniseries ended. Years later I read the book, which was nearly as frightening as the original series. In 2004 TNT remade the series with Rob Lowe. Not haunting.

2. Redrum, Redrum, Redrum, Redrum, Redrum. The Shining. Another Stephen King book turned into a movie, probably best known for Jack Nicholson's over-the-top descent into madness. But as a kid, listening to the little boy chant Redrum, Redrum, in a low, eerie voice, was the most memorable scene, particularly when it's revealed for the spelling challenged that redrum is murder spelled backward. If this kid had chanted this while also floating outside a window, I'd have never turned on the TV again.

3. The Day After. Designed to warn America about the dangers of nuclear war. I guess it worked. Although I'm assuming the people it was meant to stir - adults - held the same opinions after it that they had before, depending on their political affiliation. The people the TV movie really damaged: children. What was our response supposed to be? A Million Kid March on Washington, demanding an end to nuclear testing? A generation earlier, the Cuban Missile Crisis brought the threat of nuclear destruction home to millions of kids. They also learned to dive under their desks in the event of a nuclear attack (you're supposed to flee trailers during a tornado, but during a nuclear war, dive under a tiny school desk. Sure).

I can still picture the mushroom cloud rising over Kansas, whose landscape was too much like southern Minnesota's. For the next several weeks I couldn't help but picture a big ol' nuke landing near Janesville. If the Soviets felt they needed to take out the nation's farmland, why wouldn't Minnesota be next? Jason Robards portrays one of the main characters, who spends the day after wandering around, dying horribly of radiation poisoning.
The show affected millions. TV stations opened hotlines to counsel the frightened.
"It's okay, that was fiction. Nothing like this will happen, unless the Russians accidentally bomb a Korean jetliner and we have to nuke them to send a message and they retaliate. Then, yes, The Day After could be accurate. In which case, hide under a desk."
Nightline hosted a debate between William Buckley and Carl Sagan. All of those things were good for teens and adults. Meanwhile, 8-year-olds across the country went to bed just waiting for the nukes to fly. Thanks, ABC.
Are there equivalents to these shows today? Are children today haunted by Lost? Or by Survivor's Tribal Council? Was it just a simpler time when poor special effects - a fog machine appears to have gone haywire behind floating vampire boy - and creepy children were all it took to frighten millions? Today's kids do have plenty to worry about, from terrorism to cyber bullying. But at least they don't have to deal with the memory of Ralphie Glick. Little Ralphie, forever floating, forever scratching, forever terrorizing.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

I was going to be in New York for three months...

We just received our lease renewal. With the economy being what it is, we held out vague hope that our rent wouldn't rise much, though I don't think we ever really believed that was possible.

It wasn't. Not a terribly high increase and we'll probably sign for one year instead of two and for the first few months of 2010 we'll grumble and fondly reminisce about those halcyon days of 2009, when rent seemed just so cheap. The same routine premiered in 2005, followed by repeat performances every year since.

Maybe I'll bring up the fact I used to pay $400 for a big two-bedroom apartment in Fargo, which included all utilities. Management basically invited you to run the air-conditioner nonstop for three months. My apologies to the electric company.
We'll whine about the high price of life in New York, especially Manhattan, even though we live in one of the areas that's still considered inexpensive - Inwood at the top of the big island. And the next time I'm stuck on a stranded subway with a mass of humanity made up entirely of sweat and bitterness, I'll think about how nice it'd be to hop in a car and hit the open road. "Maybe we should think about leaving New York," I'll think.

But then...

But then I'll take a walk down Broadway. Not the most famous part of that street, but our part of Broadway up in Inwood. There aren't any stars or bright lights. But there's Liffy's, a neighborhood bar that's dark and a little dirty inside but still a perfect place for a late-night beer. There's our deli, complete with the blood-pressure machine inside, and entire families sitting outside like they're at the beach on the Fourth of July. There's Isham Park bordering Broadway, just blocks from Inwood Hill Park, a pair of large green spaces nestled amongst the concrete.
Then maybe I'll travel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a world-famous facility 25 minutes away, just one of countless treasures so close and accessible that it's almost impossible not to take for granted. I'll take a walk across the George Washington Bridge and be awed by the architecture, the view and the idea that anyone could land a plane in the river far below. There are a thousand tangible things that keep us in the city, but it's the intangibles - the energy, the pride you feel when an old friend says, "Wow, you're living in New York? The city?" - that hold us here as well.

I moved here in 2004 to be with Louise. Talks centered on us staying three months or so. We'd see where we were at in life, decide if we wanted to stay or maybe move somewhere cheaper, quieter, closer to the Midwest. Sixty months we are, staring at another lease renewal.

I love going back to Minnesota, and I miss it tremendously, mostly my family and old friends but also the towns and spaces. The small-town blood still resides in the big-city adult. I love traveling to Cape Town whenever possible with Louise, who's painfully far away from a family that misses her every day and always wonders if there's a chance she'll maybe one day return for good.

Visiting those places means leaving New York, for a week or two or six. Trips outside the city are always welcomed, providing a reprieve from the smells, sounds and crowds. But moving? For good? As the years go by, one bleeding into the other, it becomes harder and harder to envision taking that step. When kids arrive, and more space is a requirement and no longer just a dream, then it'll be time. Until then, we'll keep receiving the leases. The grumbling will continue. And we'll sign in a second.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Jordan > Kobbe. NOT!!!! Beeatles overrrated! HA!!

ESPN Classic fulfilled its once-a-week quota of delivering on its mission statement Thursday with hours of programming devoted to Michael Jordan. Unfortunately, some of the decisions again made me wonder if execs have the most recent version of Merriam-Webster at hand.

Because as exciting as the 1988 dunk contest was back in the day of short shorts - 20 years before the dunk contest became a form of Saturday night torture - there are about 200 actual games involving Jordan that were more exciting than his battle with Dominique Wilkins. That particular dunk contest is remembered for appearing to be more rigged than Chicago's election returns in the 1960 presidential race, as Jordan prevailed in front of the hometown crowd. ESPN followed that by replaying the 1988 All-Star game, another contest that was all but forgotten three seconds after the buzzer sounded.

But the night ended with one of Jordan's most famous moments, his double-clutch shot in Game 5 of the first round of the 1989 playoffs. The buzzer-beating jumper sent the Bulls into the second round, extended Cleveland's sports misery, and turned Craig Ehlo into a blond, pitied punchline. After watching that I ventured to youtube to look up some more Jordan clips.

And that's where I made my mistake: I read some of the comments. In the world of online comments, YouTube ranks somewhere below the sewer that is most newspaper comments and just above...well, actually just above nothing. They're filled with bizarre spelling, sophomoric screeds, personal attacks, and illogical thinking. And those are the good ones. The rest are racist, homophobic or misogynistic, sometimes all at once.

While watching a few Jordan videos, I did begin to wonder, which genre of YouTube videos collects the very worst comments? I think you'd have to make it a nonpolitical division, as it's expected that any video related in anyway to any politician or social issue will be littered with hundreds of thousands of comments that make you fear for the future of civilization, and, more importantly, the future of the English language.

I now think any video with Jordan, Kobe Bryant or LeBron James will rank fairly high up on any list of YouTube's worst. Partly because videos of each star bring out defenders, fans and those who loathe the other players. So any video of Jordan hitting a game-winning shot is required by Internet law to include three dozen - or 3,000 - comments from people saying Bryant and James would never hit such a shot, followed by three dozen other people joining in to say Bryant's hit that shot many more times than Jordan. And exclamation points will not be rationed in those replies.

For example, this is the first video that comes up of Jordan:

A man (or woman) named jejeclown helpfully points out (caps are his/hers): Lebron James and Michael Jordan shouldnt even be mentioned in the same sentence. Even though i just did lol i had to make a point. MJ IS THE GREATEST. NO IFS ANDS OR BUTS ABOUT IT. IF YOU ARGUE WITH THE FACTS THEN YOU SIMPLY DONT KNOW BASKETBALL. THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER. LONG LIVE HIS AIRNESS.

And on the first video of Bryant - - which is of his top 10 plays of 2007, there are more than 9,000 comments, including gems such as this from the1sin: ur stupid i wasnt even replying to u. i was replying to someone else who think kobes the best stupid


A complete thought lurks in there.

And that's pretty much every video of Jordan, Bryant, or James.

So what other nonpolitical videos bring out the same terrible arguments and the same horrific spellings time and time again? Anything involving music is always good. How about the song Amazing Grace, a beloved and legendary song, seemingly harmless. Perhaps there would be some comments wondering about its history, or times it's been sung at famous funerals. So I watched a video of Elvis singing it:

Some of the more recent comments:
Elvis is 1 of a kind and always will be their is no one ells like hem their was only 1 Elvis and any one how don't get hem are eving know wiy people like hem so much must be to young to know reel talent and the heart he had for hes music and hes fans good bless hem and may he never be forgotten.

i really dont see anything AMAZING in elvis. I mean yeh he is good looking guy and a good singer. But there is thousands of pipz like him out there. What is so Amazing with exactly Elvis?

I can see by your name that you are only 17 years old, so I will forgive ignorance !!! Maybe when you are older you will appreciate what talent is, in the meantime..Rather stick to what you think you know !!! Long live good music , and for all that appreciate older music, relax and enjoy each note !!!

Then again, Elvis can bring out folks on the fringe, those still fantasizing about skinny Elvis, and those who only remember rotund Elvis and don't see what the big deal is, other than his size. So here's II Divo singing Amazing Grace.

And one of the more recent of the 1,200 comments:
This is in response to xXWindG0dXx ! You must like crap like acid rock or Marilyn Manson ! If you didn't like this then you are a sicko !!!

The Beatles. Generally regarded as the greatest rock band in history. Sure, there can be fun debates about whether you like them or the Rolling Stones better. Or maybe you want to engage with fellow youtubers on the question of whether McCartney or Lennon was the greater talent. And there are many great forums to do that. YouTube? Not one of them.

The video for I Saw Her Standing There:
And the public speaks:
the beatles are mexicans

LOL your comment is hilarious!!!1

i always thought ringo was the MAIN guy

Somewhere, a guitar angrily weeps, as do literate folks everywhere.

Which genre brings out the worst? The answer is all of them. Whether it's clips of old TV talk shows, or videos of babies crying or highlight packages of championship teams or tributes to deceased grandmothers, nearly every type of video provides a forum for the worst of humanity to announce its presence in the form of delusional thoughts and poorly punctuated half-sentences. It's an English teacher's worst nightmare, a sociologist's dream.

Someday I will read a comment on YouTube that's incisive, witty, funny or charming. It'll make me think in a new way about the video I just watched. And it'll make me appreciate the writer's perspective and argument.